My daughter asked me if I’d ever seen a ghost. I shuddered. ‘Cecilia House’ was haunted as hell. I recalled the Matron saying so after I caught a glimpse of the elderly lady in a pale blue dress on the landing.
“Dear,” I sighed, ” I’m a logical old duck, you know that, but yes, I’ve witnessed some strange things in that old house .”
I turned off the TV, (The Antiques Roadshow could wait), and took the handset into the breakfast room. If we were going to ‘talk ghosts’, then I wanted to be in the warmest, cosiest room in my old country home. I wasn’t expecting my daughter’s call, she’s a busy mother herself, and I wondered why she had broached the subject out of the blue, especially as I knew she was travelling that day. Peter, my son, was much better at staying in touch, I could always rely on his daily telephone call.
“Old house?” Georgina asked, “You mean the nursing home you used to work in?”
I nodded, even though she couldn’t see me.
“That’s right, haunted as hell, that old place was.”
“I’d love to know more, do tell, mum.”
“Alright Georgie, I will.”
“Thanks mum, I wish I had called you more often, I love you.”
☆ ☆ ☆
I’ll always remember the basement; cold, dank, and something quite unnatural about it bothered anyone who had been assigned the unpleasant task of making a trip down into the belly of the house. I can tell you now, I’m sceptical when it comes to paranormal phenomena, and working permanent nights, well, for many can cause fatigue, but who’s to say one’s perception couldn’t be altered, but Cecelia House was strange, there was no doubt about it.
Jude, my colleague, saw shadows down in the basement; she ran out screaming one night. She was the one who enlightened me about the history of the house, and exactly what its foundations were built on.
To my horror, the 1920’s American style house was in fact built on the site where a gallows once stood.
It suddenly dawned on me how cold it always was in the residents’ sitting room, no matter how warm the rest of the home became. It was also true, despite the abundance of chairs there was one corner of the room where none of the residents chose to sit, claiming a draft made them feel chilly. If you ask me now, I do wonder if that cold spot was the original site of the gallows, in fact, I think it highly likely.
But what of the lady in the blue dress? Well, I saw her from the corner of my eye in the early hours. It certainly wasn’t any of the residents who were all fast asleep by that time. Matron didn’t have any ideas as to who the lady may be, but to my complete astonishment she was not at all phased by the lady’s presence, claiming it was obviously one of Cecelia’s ghosts.
I might add that the Matron I speak of was a highly regarded woman of paramount intelligence, and was certainly not prone to hysterical claims. I must say, it was a strange and unexpected response, though I came to learn that the atmosphere at Cecelia House was anything but normal, and to always expect the unexpected.
From that night on it was not uncommon for me to spot the occasional crown of a head float past the corridors while I tended to the patients, when no other staff members were known to be walking the halls at the time.
What’s more, I’d frequently hear the sound of fast purposeful footsteps on the top floor corridor, but there was not one patient who wasn’t bedridden at the top of the house. When I first witnessed the sound I rushed up the stairs like there was no tomorrow, only to find that there was no one there. It was terrifying – I’m quite sure that it couldn’t be put down to vibrating water pipes, it was far too loud for that.
I can’t fail to recall the corridor that ran along the ground floor which I found particularly unnerving. We had to use it, for the staff lavatory was located at the end. Other care assistants reported an eerie presence in the corridor, one even claimed to see a man in old fashioned clothing, wearing a tall hat. I never saw him myself, but I felt his eyes upon my back.
Yes Dear, my years at Cecelia House certainly opened my eyes to the possibility of the paranormal, and not least were we terrified by the attic, and how the hatch would slam shut in the dead of the night. I’m open minded to anything.
☆ ☆ ☆
After relating my stories to my daughter, I took a deep breath in as an uneasy feeling slowly crept over me, even recounting the old tales sent shivers down my spine.
The line was quiet.
“Are you there, my love?” I asked.
There was no reply from my daughter. I closed my eyes, tiredness catching up with me. We must have got disconnected. Suddenly, I felt a warm sensation sweep over my torso, as if someone was tucking a blanket around me, and for some reason my hands and cheeks felt flushed. Then the handset began to ring.
“No, it’s Peter, I’ve got some terrible news,” my son sobbed, “it’s Georgina, I need you to sit down,”
I began to feel confused, what could warrant his tears?
“I’ve just been on the phone to her, Peter,”
“What? That’s not possible mum,” he paused, and then continued with a small voice that sounded like it would break, “mum, she’s been killed this morning – her car overturned on the motorway.”
I lay on the reclining chair, feeling numb; a wheat bag strategically positioned on my tummy. The nurse brought me buttery toast and my stomach moaned. I couldn’t believe I’d done it, but God, did I need that toast. I bit into the first slice, sucking up the juicy butter; oh I ached, craving the calories. Despite my undoubted relief, all I could think of was how disappointed my mother would be if she ever found out what I’d done.
“Here you are, love,” the nurse handed me a little paper cup with two pills. I smiled.
“Thanks,” followed by a sigh, “when can I go home?”
Katie’s screams were intolerable, they cut right through me.
“Shut up, just shut up” I said out loud with aggression in my voice. I couldn’t stand the noise, it grated on me something terrible; made my blood boil. Eighteen months of this incessant screaming would surely be enough to tip any one off the edge? I kept asking myself why would anyone ever even consider having a second child?
I paced up and down the landing, the tension rising in my head. It was 2am and I was desperate for sleep, but my relationship with slumber was distant, and to tell you the truth I didn’t like what living without it had turned me into. I heard Ewen mumble from the bedroom.
“Seren, what you doing?” his melodic welsh accent was prominent, I loved it so much.
“It’s Katie,” I whispered back, “Don’t worry, I’ll deal with it, go back to sleep.”
I slumped back down by the door frame to Katie’s room, and felt dizzy as I watched the colourful stars circle around the ceiling. The projector was a gift from my mother in law from when Katie was born. I shuddered when I thought of the woman, she always put me down and never ceased to be critical of my parenting.
I felt terrible, utterly exhausted. I’d only been home from the hospital a few days, and barely had a chance to build up my strength. I closed my eyes and tried not to think of the trauma of it all. At least Katie seemed to have settled now, so I snuck back into my bedroom and climbed into my soft warm bed. Curling up on my side and facing the wall, I hadn’t realised that Ewan was still awake. He shuffled closer and cuddled into me, before his hand made its way to my tummy. He stroked it affectionately and kissed me on the neck.
“Oh Seren, I can’t believe in just six months, we’ll have another one! I just can’t wait.”
Arthur watched the small digital clock on the side of his PC monitor. Each minute dragged as he longed for his shift in the call centre to draw to an end. Just a few hours to go, he thought. What was once a busy bustling environment was now a cold, lonely and isolated space. Arthur wished he could work from home like the rest of his colleagues, but he lived so far out in the sticks where the internet connection was so unreliable that it would be impossible to connect to the work network for any period of time.
He shivered. He was getting too old for this, despite the pandemic, commuting from the sleepy village of Somersby every day into the city of Broadwell was really becoming too much for the nearly sixty year old Arthur. He counted down the days to retirement as well as the hours to the end of his shift. What made it even worse was that nobody was calling – it was deadly quiet. The pandemic had hit every one hard and people just weren’t ordering expensive designer kitchens in the current climate. He handled a couple of calls an hour, if that. He flicked through the pages of his magazine, History Today. Arthur was a bit of a history buff, even if he did say so himself.
Arthur smiled as he recollected the call he had received from a dear old lady earlier on that day, which had cheered him up. Though Gwen wasn’t interested in upgrading her kitchen, in fact she hadn’t even seemed to realise she was calling a kitchen and bathroom firm at all, and they ended up having a good old natter about this and that; she even had a shared interest in history. Arthur really rather liked her. It seemed they also had something else in common – she sounded dreadfully lonely too.
The call centre was situated in the old part of the city, and although the offices had been modernised somewhat, the building was still old fashioned and felt cold at the best of times. Every day Arthur brought in a blanket with him which he draped over his shoulders, he found without the heat of the other bodies in the room he felt a chill, and it seemed to be getting worse as each day went on. Finally his shift was over, his office was on the ground floor so didn’t have far to go before he was out on the street and making his way to his car.
Arthur lived alone. He heated up his beef stroganoff and watched an episode of “Tony Robinson’s, Time Team” before crunching on some peanut M&M’s. He yawned, it was nine o’clock and time for him to retire to the bedroom. Each evening was much of a muchness and the pandemic meant Arthur was lonelier than ever. His only companion had passed away earlier last year, Arthur had been devastated to bury Randolf the cat in his garden at the beginning of lockdown, it was the lowest of times that Arthur had ever faced.
The next day arrived and Arthur was up early making his cheese and pickle sandwiches before setting off to work. Arthur, being a keen historian had already carried out a lot of research about the market town he lived in. To ease his boredom at work, he thought he may do some research on the old city of Broadwell in between calls. He sat himself down, adjusted his headset and logged into the systems, before pressing the button to make himself ready to take a call. To his surprise the phone beeped in his ear immediately.
“Good Morning, thank you for calling Merlin’s Kitchens and Bathrooms, you’re through to Arthur, how can I help?” Arthur was most taken back as it was unusual for a call to come through so early.
“Oh Arthur, I’m so glad that you answered, it’s Gwen, we were talking yesterday.”
Remembering the pleasant, but rather chatty lady he had previously spoken to, he relaxed.
“Ah yes I do indeed Gwen, how can I help you?”
“Oh you are observant to remember me, Arthur, but I’m calling to make a complaint – I had an extremely bad night last night.”
Arthur hesitated. A bad night? He didn’t have a response to that query in his script. He pulled his blanket over him, noting that the chill seemed to be more prevalent first in the morning.
“Oh, dear, I am sorry to hear that Gwen.”
“Well, what are you going to do about it? I didn’t sleep well, there’s too much noise.”
“That’s not good, Gwen, we all need a good night’s sleep, I wish there was something I could do to help.”
“They’re banging, all night long, Arthur, I need you to make it stop.” the urgency in her voice was quite unnerving and Arthur was really confused. What did she mean, make it stop? He began to think it must be a hoax, or that the lady was not of sound mind. He distanced the earpiece away from his head for a moment, Gwen’s voice was coming down the receiver a little too loudly and a little too clearly.
“Arthur, are you still there?!”
“Ahem, yes, Gwen. Have you got a family member that can help Gwen? I’m not sure what exactly I can do.”
“No dear,” she droned, “they’re all dead and gone, been six feet under for donkeys. I’m on my own you see, just like you, Arthur, but they just won’t stop banging and I can’t get any rest, dear.”
The call began to break up. How did she know I’m alone? Arthur asked himself. He must have mentioned it in their previous conversation, he racked his mind to try and remember but his memory was not like it used to be.
“Gwen, are you there?” Arthur asked, but the line was distorted with some kind of static interference. Arthur ended the call and shook his head. I hope the old dear’s alright, he thought.
Arthur willed the day away, and strangely it did seem to go unusually faster than normal. He left at four thirty on the dot, leaving his blanket on the chair behind him by mistake and made his way out of the office. Once home, he warmed up his chicken supreme and watched an episode of Lucy Worsely’s Royal Palace Secrets, and finished the remaining m&m’s. He hadn’t seemed to have time to do any research on Broadwell that day, the day had flown by, not that he was complaining. I’ll try again tomorrow, he supposed.
Arthur woke up bright and early, prepared his corned beef salad, and made his way into the call centre. He set up his computer and checked his empty mailbox, and yet again, he immediately received a call.
“Good Morning, thank you for calling Merlin’s Kitchens and Bathrooms, you’re through to Arthur, how can I help?”
“Arthur! You are here!” It was his team leader, Sara. “I was trying to get through to you all day yesterday but you didn’t answer or respond to any of my emails?”
Arthur looked at his emails again, and this time he saw that he had indeed received numerous emails from his concerned manager throughout the day yesterday, that’s strange, I could have sworn ….
“I also called you and left multiple messages on your mobile phone.”
Arthur examined his phone and sure enough he saw six missed calls and the little envelope icon was displayed to indicate he had an outstanding message. How strange he thought, I didn’t hear any calls come through…
“And, what’s more Arthur, I came down to the office myself, to find you weren’t even there! What on earth is going on Arthur!?”
Flabbergasted, Arthur paused to gather his thoughts. He had been in the office all day, he hadn’t left early as Sara had suggested. He left at four thirty, not a minute earlier. He reached for his blanket behind his chair, suddenly feeling the draft, then realised it was not there.
“My blanket – “
“Arthur! Where were you and why were you not responding to my calls or emails?”
Arthur, in a daze, failed to reply. He spun around on his office chair and caught sight of his blanket strewn over one of the soft seats and to add to his confusion it looked like somebody, or something was underneath it, in fact whatever the blanket was covering looked like the distinct shape of a person.
“ARTHUR!” came the manager’s voice before Arthur ripped the headset off and scuttled over to where his blanket lay, and with one sweeping movement, he grabbed it away to reveal nothing. He scratched his head. His mind was definitely playing tricks on him. He rushed back to his desk, almost falling over his own two feet, and fumbled with the headset.
“Hello? Sara? I’m sorry, I can’t explain…”
“It’s not Sara, darling, it’s Gwen, have you forgotten me already, now listen – why didn’t you stop the banging, dear?”
“What?!” Arthur murmured.
“I did something for you, Arthur. I know how lonely you are here on your own, and how you can’t wait to get home, and just what do I get in return, huh, diddly squat, that’s what!” Gwen pressed on.
Arthur turned white and started to breath rapidly, and at the same time his mobile phone started to ring. Sara’s name came up on the digital display.
“I’ve got to go – ” he said to Gwen.
“Before you do Arthur – it was very kind of you to leave me a blanket but you’ve got to stop the noise.”
With that, Arthur disconnected the call and answered his mobile phone.
“Sara, I’m not feeling well, I need to take the day off.”
Arthur felt unusually dizzy and disoriented, he thought to himself that he must be coming down with a fever, perhaps he had finally succumbed to the virus, he had read somewhere that hallucinations could be a symptom. He concluded he would go home and call the GP, perhaps he was just having a bit of a senior moment, but even so, he wanted to be sure.
That night, Arthur left a message with the Doctor, and then proceeded to heat up his sausage and bean casserole, but he didn’t watch any TV. Instead, he wanted to take his mind off the strange goings on at work so he booted up his ancient desktop computer and spent some time doing what he loved the most, researching history.
Broadwell was not a part of the country he was overly familiar with, although he worked there, he didn’t know a lot about it’s past. He began with the area where he worked, and discovered that the city was rich with history and he relished in making notes as he learned about the part the city played in smuggling and overseas trade.
Interesting, he thought. He pinned down the building where the call centre was located. He had known the building was old, but he hadn’t quite realised it was that old. Over one hundred years, that was impressive. He studied aerial photographs and researched the location with great interest.
Suddenly, he stopped. What? The building was once the site of a psychiatric hospital!? Well now, he had never known that, that was certainly of interest. He continued to read, starting to feel uneasy as he learned about the kind of things that went on when the hospital was operational. It seemed it had been quite a frightening place, and the patients there had been subjected to what could now only be considered as inhumane conditions. This is where I work? Arthur said out loud, very much troubled by the thought. Further to this he came across first hand witness statements about the terrible noises that were frequently heard from within the institution. It was horrifying to think that people were just left, sectioned off in small rooms with nothing to do but shout and frantically bang on the walls.
His mobile phone rang, distracting him from his research.
“Art! It’s Robin, from work,”
“Oh hello Robin, how are you?”
“I’m good mate, just at work, listen, I just had a call from Gwen.” explained Robin, “She came through to the customer service line, hoping to reach you.”
“Oh, yes?” Arthur took in a deep breath, feeling sick with anxiety.
“She says she wants to know when you’re coming back, she’s feeling lonely and frightened. She sounded really worried, mate. She wouldn’t leave a number, but she wants you to come back – she says she’s going mad, all alone, and the noise hasn’t stopped, does this make any sense at all to you Art?”
After a short reflection, Arthur replied.
“Yes, Robbie, yes it does.”
Arthur was stunned, his stomach churned; he didn’t feel well enough to go back to work that week. In fact he never did go back to the office, as if by a miracle Virgin Media updated the broadband cables in his area and he soon was upgraded to super fast cable broadband which enabled him to start working from home.
By the time the pandemic was finally over, a few years later, Arthur was able to hang up his call centre boots for good. He now spent most of his days watching history documentaries and even got himself a new furry companion, a rescue spaniel called Herbert. Life was comfortable and before long Arthur met a lovely lady on an online dating app for the over sixties. In a short time his lady friend, Florence moved in, and they were all set for a peaceful retirement.
Arthur went out every morning with Herbert to collect his daily newspaper from the local newsagents. He whistled happily as he waddled along, looking forward to his eggs on toast that Florence, like clockwork would have cooked for him. He noted Broadwell was in the news, the headline stated that there’d been a spate of break-ins including some of the old offices, he was glad he wasn’t going into the city any more. Herbert bounded through the door, and sure as night follows day there was Florence bent over the stove making him the most perfect and delicious scrambled eggs, and he could even smell bacon wafting through the kitchen too.
He glanced at the table, and noted there were three places laid, instead of the usual two.
“Are we expecting company?” he chuckled, placing the newspaper down on the table and pulling out a chair.
“Oh Arthur – we are!” she beamed. “it’s your old friend, Gwen! She said she’s been trying to track you down for ages,” she paused, “and she mentioned something about unfinished business – she’s just using the bathroom, she’ll be down in a mo,” Arthur turned white and gripped the arms of the chair. Florence gestured to the kettle, “well don’t just sit there, you silly old thing, it’s just boiled, do make your old friend a nice cup of tea!”
The weather was glorious, with not one cloud in the sky, and temperatures were set to soar into the mid-twenties. Sophie and her family were having a ‘beach day’. Sophie watched as her mother smeared sunblock all over her baby brother before adorning him in a wide brimmed sun hat and setting him loose with a bucket and a spade.
She glanced over at dad, he had assembled the sun tent, securing it with pegs, and neatly laid down the beach towels. He seemed rather pleased with himself as he placed the picnic basket in the corner of the tent and tied a little Union Jack flag to the top of the tent.
Looks like we’re settling in for the day, thought Sophie. This would undoubtedly be the worst day of the holidays. Sophie hated the beach.
Suddenly Sophie’s thoughts were disturbed by a spadeful of flying sand which landed all over her. She squinted her eyes and glared at the culprit.
“Archie, you little brat!” She yelled, shaking the sand out of her hair, “that’s it! I’m not sitting around here all day, I’m going for a walk!”
Sophie’s parents sighed with relief, they were ultimate sun worshippers and were looking forward to some peace and quiet. Dad would watch baby Archie while mum lay in the sun, and vice versa, and it would be a lot more relaxing without teenage Sophie moaning for the entire day.
“Have a nice walk, sweetie,” her mother called as Sophie walked away in a strop, she then turned to her husband, “right, Mitchell, rub that lotion in my back won’t you!”
“Yes, right away. “
Sophie stomped off as quickly as she could but the sand was too soft and too hot on her bare feet, making it impossible to walk with any speed or elegance.
‘Urgh, I just hate my little brother! I wish he’d never been born,’ she scorned to herself. Ever since Archie had been born he had been the centre of attention and her parents, although not particularly selfless with either of their children, now paid even less attention to Sophie.
The soft sand continued to make walking quite burdensome, so Sophie made a sharp right turn and headed towards the sea. She carefully nipped in and out of the many colourful tents that were strewn across the beach until she finally arrived at the comfortable and easier to negotiate, flat wet sand.
“That’s better, I really hate the beach, nothing interesting ever happens,” she said to herself. She’d much rather be back at the caravan watching TV or even better, playing on her PlayStation.
‘I hate holidays,’ she cussed, ‘next year I think I’ll just stay at home!’
Sophie winced as the shallow ripples of sea water met her toes; the water was freezing cold despite the warmth of the air. Her parents came to Cornwall every year, it was so boring. Her friend, Keelie had flown off to Greece, Sammy to Florida, and she was stuck in Cornwall, where absolutely nothing exciting was ever bound to happen.
As her feet became accustomed to the chill of the wild Atlantic ocean she sat down, in a position where the waves met only her lower legs. She dug her toes into the sand and gazed out into the ocean. It was only eleven thirty in the morning but the beach was filling up, and the sea was bubbling over with body boarders and screaming children.
She watched a little girl have a full blown tantrum with her dad over a sandcastle that had been washed away by the sea.
‘Don’t build it so near to the waves then, brat,’ thought Sophie. She observed a gaggle of ‘forty odd’ old women in bikinis, Who really shouldn’t be in bikinis, she said under her breath; she took note of a girl, probably about her own age, swimming in and out of the waves, seemingly having a wonderful time, in fact she looked quite confident, and beautiful too, many of the boys were admiring her. Sophie sighed as she laid her eyes among a multitude of other families splashing around having fun, urgh, thought Sophie, I hate the beach.
“Ahhh, that’s nice, we can really relax now that Sophie is out of our hair,” said mum, who was lying on her back with enormous sunglasses covering her eyes.
“Yes, dear, this is the life,” he peered over his newspaper to check on baby Archie, who was still enjoying tossing sand here, there and everywhere.
“Why don’t you take him for a paddle, love, while I get some shut-eye.”
“Yes, dear,” he yawned, “I’ll just just finish this article, apparently there’s been lots of strange items from the tropics washed up in Cornwall, and also an infestation of poisonous jellyfish in Tenerife.”
Mum sighed, “Ah dear, thank goodness we don’t get any of those in Cornwall, you can’t beat a staycation!”
Sophie lay down on her back, now gazing upwards into the sky. She flailed out her arms combing the sand around her.
Her fingers came across something hard and spiky. She jumped! Sitting up in shock she turned to her side to see what it was she had accidently touched. Something sharp was buried in the sand. She carefully dug it out.
She studied the object; she had never seen a shell like it on the beach in Cornwall in all the years she had been dragged down here. It was so large that she couldn’t conceal it in her palm, and it had several large spikes protruding from it, with a smooth lip. It glistened and gleamed, even without the sunshine, and it’s surface sported colourful swirls that seemed to move whenever it was turned. It was so beautiful but didn’t look like it belonged on a beach in Cornwall. Sophie held it up in front of her and flicked the sand off it. What a prize, she thought, as she watched it sparkle in the sunlight.
“You found my shell!”
Out of nowhere a young girl appeared next to Sophie, who had been so engrossed in her find she hadn’t even noticed her approaching.
“Your shell? I don’t think so,” smirked Sophie, who wasn’t prepared to give up her treasure so easily.
“Yes, I’ve been looking for it all morning, it’s very special to me,” the girl said. Sophie studied her.
“You’re the girl I’ve been watching swimming, you’ve not been looking for anything, you’ve been out there in the sea without a care!”
“Just because I’ve been swimming doesn’t mean that’s not my shell.”
The girl looked sorrowful, her green eyes gazed out to the ocean. She swept her long blond hair away from her face.
“So you won’t give it back?”
Sophie shook her head firmly.
“I need to go, be careful with my shell won’t you.”
The girl ran off with speed , Sophie tried to follow which direction she had gone but lost track of her among the many other people on the beach, but she thought she may have seen her re-enter the water.
‘What’s so special enough this stupid shell anyway?”
Sophie’s tummy rumbled. It was true, she hadn’t wanted to be reunited with her baby brother so soon but the thought of her tuna and sweetcorn sandwiches, salt and vinegar crisps and snack bar was just too tempting, so with her hunger getting the better of her she padded back to her family. As she approached their tent things didn’t look right. Instead of her mum sprawled out catching the sun rays, both mum and dad were standing up with their hands in the air as if they were arguing. This was strange, she thought. Mum and dad may be self centred but they never argued. It was then she realised that Archie was missing from the scene and as she was within hearing distance she caught exactly what her mother was saying.
“You flaming idiot! You should have been watching him, not falling asleep you bloody halfwit!”
Her dad looked from left to right, sweat pouring down his face, he tried to speak, but mum was relentless.
“You’ve blinking lost our son, you better get out there and find him, Mitchell, I’ll be right here, find our son!”
Sophie ran over to her parents.
“Mum, Dad, you’ve lost Archie!”
Mum was already laid back down on her front.
“Sophie, love, I’ve got to find Archie, you’ll help me won’t you?”
“I hate that little brat, always stealing the limelight! But, Dad – you fell asleep?!”
“Sophie, he’s your brother, we need to find him, he’s just a baby, this beach is full of danger, how would you feel if you never saw your baby brother again?”
Sophie considered this for a while. She didn’t like Archie one bit, all he did was dribble, and make a mess, oh and cry, all the time. Yet, for a moment she imagined never seeing him again, and drew in a deep breath.
“I would feel dreadful, we need to find him!”
“I’ll go down to the shore, you search the top of the beach, and alert the lifeguard, and Sophie what’s that you’ve got in your hand?”
“This?” she said, holding up the shell, “Oh this, it’s just something I found buried in the sand.”
By now, the news had spread over the beach that a little boy was missing, and a number of members of the public accompanied dad, while Sophie went off to search the top side of the beach as dad had requested.
Still clutching her shell she carried on up the beach.
“Brat!!! Where are you?” she called, scanning the beach as she pushed through the sand, her heels sinking in as she ploughed forward. There were plenty of screaming brats everywhere but as soon as she got close enough to check their faces, she soon realised that none of them were her baby brother. She stopped momentarily and wiped her brow, it was getting unbearably hot, and there was absolutely no sign of Archie, for the first time, she started to feel slightly concerned.
As she moved on, she heard a strange murmur from within the dunes which lined the top of the beach. Surreptitiously, she slipped away from the beach and climbed up into the towans through the long grass, lulled towards the sound of a girl singing.
“It’s you!” Sophie exclaimed as she spotted the same girl she’d spoken to on the beach earlier. She was sitting with her legs buried in the sand, waving a blade of sea grass around nonchalantly. The girl looked up, surprised.
“Oh, my shell!”
“Is that all you can think about? Haven’t you heard? My baby brother’s lost, even though I hate him, he could be in all sorts of trouble, he could have been kidnapped!”
“I’ll tell you what, if you give me my shell back I’ll help you find him.”
Sophie had to think carefully about this, she held the shell up, and tried to weigh up what she wanted more, baby Archie, Mysterious Shiny Shell, baby Archie, Mysterious Shiny Shell, she mused, before tossing the shell to the girl.
“Oh have it, I’ve got no use for your silly shell anyway, and now you’ve got to help me find my little brother!”
The pair ran off into the crowds, scouring the beach for baby Archie, calling his name and asking every one they saw if they had seen a baby boy. After a short time Sophie spun around to realise that the girl was no longer there.
“Oh great, I knew I should have kept that shell!” Sophie spat with anger, “That’s the last time I trust a random stranger!”
Reunited with dad, and a crowd of spectators at the edge of the water, a man with binoculars bellowed out to the crowds.
“I can see him! He’s on a blow up lilo, right out to sea!”
Sure enough, Sophie could just about make out a pink inflatable and a small child clinging on to the sides and she could very faintly make out the sound of her brother crying.
“What can we do? It’s too far to swim,” she heard a man remark.
“Don’t worry, my daughter has alerted the lifeguard,”
Sophie’s heart sank, she had forgotten to raise the alarm – but surely someone else on the beach had done so by now?
“Daddy! Archie’s going to die out there!”
They hugged, and at that moment, mum came running down from her sunbathing spot.
“What’s going on?” she asked and as she was filled in with the details that her baby son was a float in the middle of the ocean on a pink lilo, she turned white.
“I, I think I need to lie down,” and in that moment, Sophie’s mum fell to the ground. Dad fell to his knees.
“Charlena, darling, wake up,” dad slapped her around the face a few times, and she started to stir.
“Is it all a bad dream?” she mumbled.
Sophie ran into the sea, and waded through the small waves, then dived in and fought against the strong incoming tide.
Dad dived in after her. Mum still lay on the beach in a comatosed state.
Concerned onlookers talked among themselves.
“I say, they’re going to get into trouble if they’re not careful…” they muttered.
What happened next was all rather a blur. The local news reporter had arrived and was snapping away with her camera. Others had attempted to follow the pair into the sea. Some had even got in their own inflatables and attempted to paddle out to rescue baby Archie, but baby Archie and the pink inflatable could no longer be seen.
It was a tragedy. Every witness was sobbing. Dad and Sophie, exhausted, had managed to swim back into the beach, but without Archie, their efforts were thwarted, their hearts empty, their feelings, numb.
“What’s that noise?” Sophie gasped. She heard a familiar cry of a baby. She’d know that cry anywhere, there was no mistaking that wingy, unbearable moan of her baby brother. She swung around, her eyes darted around and finally she pinpointed the sound.
“Archie!” she screamed. Her mum, now coming around from the shock bounded up the beach a few hundred metres to where baby Archie sat.
“Oh, Archie, my dear darling boy!” mum wailed as she went to scoop him up, but she noticed something in his hand.
“what’s that he’s got, Mitchell?”
It was the mysterious shiny shell! Sophie’s jaw dropped, she lunged for him.
“That’s mine, brat!”
The story was all over the local news, it even made the nationals, but what was most peculiar was the News Reporter’s videos and images, and what had been captured in them. It really was a mystery, and quite unexplainable, yet unmistakably clear. Out in the ocean, not far from baby Archie floating on the pink inflatable, a beautiful green fluke lobtailed elegantly out of the water.
Sophie changed her mind about Cornwall; she changed her mind about her brother too, and every time she doubted those feelings (even just a tiny bit), she’d raise her beautiful shell (which she’d since learnt was Conch shell) to her ear, to remind herself of her mysterious seaside-friend.
For the shell, like many shells, was packed to the brim with magic, and this unusual specimen, having once belonged to a mermaid, was of particular interest. Sophie had come to realise that through it, she had the power to hear the singing of her strange acquaintance, as she did so serenely that hot summer’s day, when Sophie found her in the dunes with her legs buried in the sand.