Easter Sunday. I’ve been up since 8 am, writing furiously about family brewing in the 17th century. I’m feeling smug. 1000 words added to the novel in a matter of hours and the sky, previously grey and wet, has broken into a radiant blue, banishing all clouds. It is 3pm. I close my laptop. Time for a bowl of All Bran and a walk on the beach. The dogs pant with glee. They’ve wiled away the day eating rawhide chews and scratching themselves, wondering when mummy might get out of her pajamas and off her lazy arse. I twist the office chair away from the table. The dogs break into frantic hyperactivity, panting and picking up any offering within reach in an ecstasy of pure unadulterated joy, and for a moment I feel like the freshly risen Christ.
We don our clothes and leads, stuff our pockets with pooh bags and set off in the trusty old Honda, all four windows down to let the sea breeze lift our unwashed fur.
It is a glorious afternoon. As I crest the top of the hill down to Brancaster Staithe I gasp to myself, as I always do, at the first sight of the sea sprawling before us. The dogs have gone to sleep. They are like babies in the car: lulled at once into unconsciousness by the whirr of the 100,000 mile old engine. I don’t turn on the radio. It will only disappoint. Instead I plug my headphones into my ears and sing to whatever song leaks out of my phone. If you could see my invisible friend now, he would be patting me on the back with a smile on his face that says: Good on you, mate. You’ve added bulk to the book, now go and enjoy the sun!
We park at the beach, get our ticket from the new Pay and Display machine – minimum £2 for 2 hours even if you only want to walk for a quarter of that. It is busy today. Easter Sunday has brought half of Cambridgeshire and London to dig sand castles and breathe in clean air by the bitter North Sea.
I take the dogs out of the car, hide my handbag under my jacket and decide to take the car key off my key ring so that I will have the least amount of clobber to carry. I have put on my work-out suit for this walk: a mild attempt at keeping fit that will, at the very least, cause me to sweat out the equivalent of one of this morning’s 15 cups of tea. It is made of the same material as a wet suit, a fact that pleases me as we cross the wrinkled sand towards the slowly advancing tide.
The beach is speckled with people in warm jackets, wooly jumpers and bare feet. Children, with lizard-like determination, run around half-naked. Dogs bark. Mine stop at the first opportunity to take a mutual shit. I am a good citizen. I pick up the muck in a baby nappy bag, tie it and retrace my teps to the entrance of the beach, looking for the pooh bin that seems to have vanished since my last visit to Brancaster Beach. I walk up to the kiosk, planning to drop the stinking bag into the people bin. But the place is too crowded to get away with such unBritish behaviour so I carry the pooh bag for another twenty meters and leave it propped by the sign warning of the dangers of high tide. I am wearing an expression on my face designed to signal to anyone looking that I have every intention of returning for the offensive doodad.
Ah the North Norfolk Coast….nowhere like it on Earth. Alanis Morisette belts out her latest album in my ears. I head away from people so that I might join her, unheard. “Calling all lady haters, why must you vilify us…” within five minutes I am far enough from the holidaying crowd not only to sing but also to dance. The dogs jump up at me. All is well in my little world.
We continue for a mile or more until there isn’t a living being in sight. I take photos of the blue sky, the wet dogs, my feet, and post them on Facebook or text them to my mum. My invisible friend nudges me. Everything is going to be alright, he whispers.
I let the dogs paddle in the conduit then call them away towards the dunes. My eyes are fixed to the ground, forever seeking treasure. I ask myself again why it is that I have never grown out of the thrill of finding a pretty shell. Shell fill jars around my bath, sit on shelves and feature in poems. This afternoon I stop five times to pick and pocket the best that I can find. On a grassy knoll of sand I sit to rest and cuddle the dogs. I turn the music up. I send a text to my ex, wishing him Happy Easter xx.
Next we veer off over the dunes for a stroll among the tall grasses. The view from here is endless and infinitely peaceful. I could write War and Peace in a month, staring out at this calm.
The dogs are getting tired and thirsty and the sun is starting its sleepy descent, pouring light onto the beach but stealing warmth from the air. The sweat that cakes the inside of my sweat suit in losing heat by the minute. After a while I begin to feel like a bottle in a wine cooler. I hasten my pace.
We are marching now, at the speed that my Exercise App deems aerobic. The dogs are at my heals and I do not let them lose focus. Any dawdling, any swerve towards a stray ball or an inquisitive wet nose is corrected with a sharp snap of the extendable lead. I am seriously cold now and regretting my choice of fat-burning attire.
It takes ten more minutes to reach the car park. As I pass the beach kiosk I chastise my decision to leave my handbag in the car. I could murder a hot drink and a bar of chocolate. We walk past the pooh bag pretending not to see it and head for the Honda.
“Wait!” I tell the dogs, as I take out the shells from my pocket. My hand plunges in again: nothing. I try the other pocket: empty. I pat myself down like a security guard at an airport. I touch bits of myself that don’t even have pockets in the hope that the key will magically materialize under pressure of my frantic fingers.
It is one of those moments that one has already imagined in retrospect and smiled at the sheer stupidity of. I remember thinking an hour ago as I put the solitary key in the left pocket of my sweat top – the pocket with the working zip ¬– how awful it would be if I lost it but how that could never happen since the top is so well-fitting and the zip on that side is still functional.
What I hadn’t anticipated, however, what I had failed to account for, was my undying puerile need for pretty shells.
And now, somewhere on the impossible 3-mile stretch of sand and sea-debris lies a single car key amongst a mess of razor clams.
I do my best not to panic. It is something inexplicable about me: a bizarre quirk of character that enables me to drown in a sea of depressed angst about things that haven’t occurred yet – like cancer, of any part of my body that happens to feel weird on any given day, or plane crashes or house fires or maiming car wrecks – but which gives me, when something real and tangible occurs in my life that I hadn’t planned for, a miraculously and level-headed calm to carry on with.
I don’t shrug my shoulders at this particular disaster but I do take off in a determined stride. I remove my head phones from my ears, as though silence might make my eyes sharper, and head back to the beach. The dogs are exhausted. I have to drag them along. It’ll be fine, we’re bound to find it, says my invisible friend. But his tone is shaky and I am tempted to shove him into the creeping water. Brancaster Beach seems to stretch beyond the horizon now. It has grown in the last 15 minutes not only in length but in breadth, even though the tide is coming in with alarming determination. I walk fast, tugging the lead with irritation. I don’t know where to put my eyes so I let them roam side to side like metal detectors, seeing nothing but still seeking treasure.
I send texts to a couple of friends making light of my dilemma. I tell my mum: It’s a disaster!
We walk for fifteen more minutes before I decide to call the AA.
It’ll cost, says the automated operator. Not only the call but the help, too. I am sold a year’s cover for £173 but the woman on the other end promises me that all will be fine. She is sending a locksmith and he will be with me within 2 hours.
I give up the search and head back to the car. It looks like an orphan in the emptying car park. I pass by the kiosk, asking if anyone has found a car key. No, I am told. So I enquire whether it is possible to pay for a hot drink with a card. No, I am told. I hang around longer than necessary, hoping that they’ll take pity on my and offer tea or coffee on the house.
Half an hour later, as my bones begin to ingest the cold that is trapped inside my wet suit, the local AA man calls.
Best we can do is order a new key from the manufacturers, he says. But that could take five days.
I will have hyperthermia by then, I say. Does the AA cover me for that? I am trying to reign in my voice in so that it won’t reach for the special pitch I possess that bears claws and teeth.
I was told it would all be fine! I whine. I’ve just spent £173 for nothing. Could you not just tow me and my car home then, and I will deal with it from there.
We can but you’re not covered for that. It’ll cost you.
What do you mean I’m not covered for that! The woman who sold me personal cover just an hour ago said that it included a recovery service to a garage or my home or to an address within the same distance! I’m only asking for a lift three miles down the road!
Your cover is for breakdown only, not for loss of keys.
My car can’t move! What difference does it make why?
It’s not part of the policy. We’ll have to charge you for the recovery.
But the car isn’t work the £300 it’s going to cost me! Fine. I’ll just smash a window and get my handbag and abandon the piece of shit to the rising tide.
You’ll be charged by the police for it’s removal. And fixing the window will cost more than the recovery charge. Wait there, he says. I’ll speak to my manager and see what we can do for you. I don’t want to leave you standing there alone.
Best I can do is send a patrol man to break into your car. Save you smashing the window.
Fantastic. Tell him to hurry. I’m seriously frozen.
It takes another hour for the yellow AA van to arrive. I welcome him with a smile and a wave fit for Santa Clause. He offers for me to warm up in his van but I decline. I am too excited at the prospect of getting my handbag and finding a taxi home. He gets out a long metal pole shaped like a staff, jams the passenger open an inch and inserts it. The hook flicks helplessly at the locked handle. I used the central lock on the key. The car is deadlocked. The handle won’t budge. After 40 teeth chattering minutes the AA man manages to hook my house keys out of the car and the vehicle is abandoned with a note on the windscreen: Keys lost on beach. Ring xxx if found. Cannot be moved until new programmed key is sent by Honda so please don’t clamp or fine me. Thank you.
The AA man takes pity on me and the dogs and drives us back to Burnham Market out of his way. I’m too embarrassed to let him take me any further so I ask to be dropped off at the edge of the village, half a mile from my front door. We say our goodbyes and he drives off towards Hunstanton. I walk briskly through the village, the sweat in my wet suit slowly turning to frost. Ten minutes later and just a stone’s throw from home as I cross the road I see the AA van heading towards me. A job in the other direction no doubt. We wave to one another like old friends. Twat, I imagine him saying to himself as he watches me shrink to nothing in his rearview mirror.