All the Way From Russia

by Mary Reed

It was a rite of summer. Sunny Sundays saw an exodus from the city, as the railway carried load after load of families away to the windy shore of the North Sea. It was time for a trip to the seaside!

Mum made meat-paste sandwiches, bread slices cut thick from yesterday’s loaf. There were apples, green and crisp, which she ate with a spoon, and biscuits and bags of crisps with their individual blue paper twists of salt, and a huge thermos of tea, well-sweetened and milky. Ordinary fare, to be sure, but the food of the gods after the long walk down to
the beach, the smell of the sea already in our nostrils.

And what delights awaited! Seaweed made a slippery carpet on limpet-encrusted rocks around dark pools of water trapped along the shore. Small, dark crabs lurked boulder-like in them, the occasional rippling fronds of a sea-urchin might be seen, raspberry-like sea creatures lurked in sinister clusterings. Were they really the bloodsucking mutant jellyfish with which we scared each other? Taking no chances, we paddled in pools scoured clean of marine life each time the tide turned.

Adults were less squeamish about jellyfish, more coy about clothing. Men rolled up their trouser legs to the daring height of mid-calf, slung their jackets over their arms, and paddled. We children got into scratchy woolen bathing-suits behind towels held up around us by tightly permed and corseted mothers and aunts. Later these female relatives would brave the briny themselves, holding petticoats above their knees, Kiss-Me-Quick hats perched at a jaunty angle on back-combed hair stiff with hairspray. The salty wind giving us all goose-pimples had come “all the way from Roosha”, so the adults said, downing another cup of hot, sweet tea and munching on sand-gritty sandwiches.

The brass band played gamely on, its sound rising and falling over the noise of crashing waves, mewling seagulls, and music from the fairgrounds, blending with hoarse shouts from sideshow men and the screams of teenagers splashing each other with sea-water. And over it all lay that distinctive seaside aroma, a tantalizing mixture of salt air, frying chips, drying seaweed, and an occasional dead fish temporarily overlooked by the swooping seagulls.

If we were lucky, we might be treated to those delights available only at the coast: paper cones of snail-like “whellecks”, winkled out from their shells with a free pin, or maybe candyfloss, sweet on the tongue for a short time and then gone as quickly. And after we’d eaten, we scavenged along the shore-line, booty popped into our little buckets —
a weathered piece of bleached and knotty driftwood, waxy yellow, brown, or white shells, sea-smoothed bits of glass.

And so the afternoon rolled by, as our city-pale skins burnt scarlet. We played until the setting sun’s liquid gold path made a bridge from horizon to shore. Then, because next day was Monday and that meant work and school, it was time to pack up the towels and the thermos, the shells and the driftwood. As stars twinkled and winked over the restless sea and strings of coloured lights popped into life in the fairgrounds, we toiled back up to the railway station, our shoes uncomfortable with sand. On the return journey, half asleep, we children looked out at the backs of houses as we travelled past, clackety-clack, clackety-clack, clackety-clack, all along the shining rails to Newcastle, nodding, dozing, dreaming.

Mary Reed is the co-author of the John the Lord Chamberlain mysteries set in sixth century Byzantium. The current entry is Ten for Dying .

You can also follow Mary on Twitter.

10 Responses to All the Way From Russia

  1. Mary,
    This was a wonderful little story, bringing back so many memories of my own from childhood. I was lucky enough to have grown up in a small seaside town, Marblehead, in MA, where there were several beaches, all very different. Some very sandy and conducive to blanket-lying, and some all rocky outcrops and very conducive to diving off high rocks into the ocean. We lived at the beach in summer. Your descriptions brought me right back, especially the sandy feet in shoes going home… and the peeling sunburn resulting from all day exposure. I can remember after we’d eat lunch we had to wait an hour before going back in the water… it was SO long to wait! We were like fishes and spent the entire day in the sea – such great memories. Thank you!

    • Bex, I have to say that the bottle of calamine lotion got a good workout after such trips to the seaside! But I never tanned, just got red and cross and then reverted to my usual pale self, whereas my two sisters, both dark haired and dark eyed unlike myself, could go out for ten minutes and come back as brown as berries 8-}

  2. As usual Mary, I am struck dumb at the besuty of your writing. What a gift!

    I am Brooklyn born and bred, and Coney Island beach and Brighton beach were part of my young life. You have awakened some memories but I could never describe it as you do. Even the train home and the sunburns that peeled after a couple of days. And the hope of really huge waves.

    Now I am a sitting beside a pool woman. But I am sure that there was a pleasure then I can’t say the pools provide. Partly because those outings were a special treat in a life when we didn’t take treats for granted.

    • Partly because those outings were a special treat in a life when we didn’t take treats for granted. That’s right! Though our other treat was a visit to the library, as so many others have

    • I had a long talk with someone whose very young son (pre-school) had an i-pad and his father was telling me there were millions of books the child could download that he would read to him. I responded that what his son was being deprived of was visits to a library, attending the story-telling hours many libraries offer children, and the company of others who were also there to hear stories and form a community of story lovers. I never thought of this before, however, that despite social media, these i-pads are very isolating. This is, of course, in addition to the tactile experience of holding books and the psychological benefits (a lot has been written about this and I have attended a talk on the subject) of a child being held by a parent while a book was being read to him or her. The hospital at whidh my daughter gave birth to her twins had classes for prospective parents. They were told to hold their child on their laps and read books (not e-books) to them. And to do this right away. Again, my daughter had twins, and a funny episode involved squirming babies on each knee while she was determined to get through MADELINE. But they respect books and respect learning from books and have been academically very successful.

  3. Thanks, Mary, for taking me to the English beach. I didn’t get to experience that wonder over my past four days in Bristol, but it did allow me to sense it must have been just as you described it to be back in the day…and, no, not from the clothes worn at CrimeFest.

    Beautiful post.

    • Only ever been to Bristol once, Jeff, and that was the closest I ever got to Wales. (Please, no
      Welsh jokes…) Good friends lived in Bristol, at one time in a house with a half open window
      that had no room to match it. Talk about sinister…

  4. Mary, this post is beautifully written, like lyric poetry. It reminds me of Dylan Thomas’ “Fern Hill.”

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