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The beach wasn’t at all how I’d recalled it as a child. I’d often fantasised about scrunching my toes in the soft, glorious sand, shrieking at the countless blue waves, often intimidating in their size, fiercely crashing into the bay. Now upon my return I saw the beach for what it really was. The sand blurred out in a dismal trance, the shore fading into a grey liquid sludge, bleak and miserable in the dull winter light. The sea, now brown in colour, was motionless, dead. Its rancid salty breath blew tepidly through my hair accompanied by the keen bite on my cheeks of cold winter winds. A small colony of gulls chased after the rest of someone’s discarded lunch blustering across the decaying peer. The repetitive buzz of fair ground music and slot machines only soiled the atmosphere further.
"Ahh, it's lovely." She beamed a great big toothy smile, clearly quite pleased with her surroundings. Perhaps she was seeing something much different to me. I walked over and crouched by her chair. Slumped over she continued to grin, her tired eyes empty and motionless. I’d always loved her smile; it was one that could captivate an entire crowd with just one smirk. Infectious it spread and it spread fast. Now her smile, much less contagious, seemed so distant and misperceived. She gawked at me as if she had never laid eyes on her own flesh and blood, unable to recognise my once so distinguishable features. It seemed I babbled an unearthly language as her responses were few or incomprehensible.
"Lovely," she repeated slurring her words. Shaking, she slowly raised her hand, hoary and decorated with those betraying brown blots you collect on the back of your hand through time. She pointed one gnarled finger to the dreary horizon opening her mouth as if to speak. Silence. Confusion spread across her face and her hand dropped in bitter disappointment. I shuddered. It was almost unbearable to see her like this.
I closed my eyes and returned to my childhood. I pictured us on the beach, mid-August- me, Mum and Grandma Pam. We’d stand paddling in the shallows hand in hand. On her count of three we’d jump over the last ripples of the waves glistening under the sun before they vanished on the sand. Baby steps for them but hurdles for me. When this game finally grew tiresome she’d tell us thrilling stories over ice cream of mermaids and shark attacks. How the seventh wave is always the biggest and if you’re stung by a jelly fish you pee on the sting. I was continually in awe and completely adored her.
The drive to Cleethorpes was agonising. I hadn’t been there for her. It had been almost a year since I’d gone to visit her in that home. A sudden sense of guilt sat heavy on my chest and spread throughout by body. It felt like ice in my guts and no amount of justifying my actions could thaw or move it. The more my subconscious demanded such reparations the guiltier I felt. What even were my excuses? I’d been busy with work, busy with moving into the new flat—just busy with life. Now it all seemed trivial. All this time my Grandma Pam had been sat 72 miles away deteriorating in her chair and only when she’d fallen had I noticed.
"What’s your name, young lady?" She smiled as she turned to me, stumbling over every word that came from her mouth.
"I’m your Granddaughter, Grandma. My name's Sarah."
She took some time to digest this fact. Even in her state of oblivion she still tried so desperately to understand and be involved. Moments passed in silence.
I held her hand. "Yes, it is Grandma."
Her attention turned back to the beach. Once again, she pointed to the horizon as if the past five minutes hadn’t even happened. She had no idea who I was. Disheartened, I began wheeling her back to the hospital.
She looked so frail propped up in her bed. Her nightie revealed the great purple welts of bruising on each of her arms that would only deepen over the next few days. Against her grey paper skin, they were hideous. Spotted dried blood had become enmeshed with the raw pink flesh of her cheek forming the unsightly scab across the entire left side of her face. She’d occasionally go to touch her cheek before pitifully wincing, her hand retreating in pain.
"It was a nasty fall but she’ll be fine," the Nurse had reassured me. "That sea air will have done her the world of good and she should be allowed home by tomorrow."
I sat at her bedside for the rest of the day. For hours, she dozed in and out of sleep, mumbling strange words I’d never heard before. When she finally woke up it was as if she were an entirely new woman—less frail, less miserable, less lost. Her eyes lit up when she saw me. She squeezed my hand and asked for "her Lucy."
"You remember Lucy?"
"Yes!" she chuckled. "You’ve met her, haven’t you?"
"Yes, I have. She’s my..."
"She’s a lovely little girl. She’ll never let go of my hand you know. We walk along the beach every Sunday morning. She splashes and giggles her way through the shallows and we collect shells together." I couldn’t bear to interrupt this precious memory of hers. Perhaps one of the only ones she had left. So I listened attentively and held her hand as she slowly recounted her story.
"I’ll always find a handful of tiny little shells or sand in the pockets of her dresses just before I wash them. She keeps me busy!" She rolled her eyes and tutted. "Where is she then? Is she coming to visit me, Nurse?"
Tears welled up in my eyes blurring my vision. I smiled and blinked away the water, attempting to put on a brave face for her. It only made the tears spill down my cheeks and neck faster. How could I break this to her?
"Grandma Pam, I’m Sarah, not your nurse. And Lucy is my mum."
Grandma Pam chortled. "Not my Lucy. My Lucy is just a little girl."
I shook my head and swallowed hard.
"Your Lucy was born in 1963 Grandma. She had me in 1990. Today’s date is March the 11, 2016."
I reached for my bag and pulled out my purse. In there I kept a picture of me as a little girl posed with my mother and Grandma Pam. I handed her the crumpled photograph.
"See. That’s you sat in the armchair. That’s me sat on your knee. And the lady with her arm around you is my Mum, your Lucy."
Grandma Pam’s eyes widened at the sight of her little girl. She clutched the photo so tight in her grasp and held it closer to her face, studying every detail intensely. There was a long silence.
"Oh that is my Lucy," she choked. A tear rolled down her cheek and she sniffled as she brushed it away her hand trembling. "Can I see her please?" She carefully handed me the photo. "I must see her." There was no holding back the tears now. I held her so tight I thought I might break her.
"Lucy died when I was 14, Grandma. She’s not been here for a long time now."
She stiffened at my words. It was as if every sound that came from my mouth was another cut or bruise to her feeble body. She was learning about her loss for the first time all over again.
"No, this can’t be!" she whispered, running her fingers through her desiccated silver hair. Her grey eyes glazed over under the sheen of water that produced her continuous flow of tears. "Lucy can’t be dead. She can’t be."
In that moment, in seeing her reaction all over again, I understood the amount of pain that had been sitting under my skin, out of sight for all these years. I’d forgotten what it had felt like to grieve for her. Grandma Pam reminded me.
"You were there for her Grandma, don’t worry. You’ve always been there for us." I comforted her like she had done for me, our roles now reversed.
Her bottom lip quivered and she held out her arms like a small child beckoning a hug from its mother. I held her in my arms for quite some time. She didn’t speak a word.
"I’m going to look after you," I reassured her.
She patted my back gently and smiled that sweet smile of hers.
"Of course you are, Nurse. That’s is your job, isn’t it?’