My husband, Barry and I have our two grandsons staying with us. Jamie is thirteen and Luke, eleven. They love to go fossil-hunting on the shore between Lyme Regis and Charmouth.
Undeterred, we visit the Fossil Shop and the boys happily while away an hour picking and choosing how to spend their pocket money. Next comes a competition: who can make a pebble skim furthest over the waves? This is always a favourite game but as the years pass, the boys creep closer to beating Granddad. Today, he manages to hold his own and so the oldies’ honour is maintained.
Afterwards we have an early lunch, picnicking on the beach. The pebbles do not make for a particularly comfortable seat but the boys don’t seem to notice any hardship and eagerly tuck into ham and cheese sandwiches, yoghurts, crisps and a homemade flapjack. Many years ago, I was instructed in my grandmotherly duties by Jamie, who informed me, very seriously, that ‘You can’t have a picnic without cake.’ However, the flapjacks seem to prove a popular substitute. We follow these with an ice-cream – it seems well nigh impossible to over-fill the boys these days. I envy their ability to eat anything and everything and only grow upwards.
Now it’s time to approach the end of the sea-front known as Church Cliffs. Here the land sweeps out into the bay, taking a long, gentle curve round to the next beach. Halfway along this are the remains of a major landslide and it’s amongst these comparatively newly exposed rocks that the best fossils will be unveiled by the falling tide. But as it’s February, the tides are very full and this one is showing few signs of dropping any time soon.
By keeping close to the seawall, we begin to make progress. Every thirty yards or so, a breakwater juts out into the sea and a rough flight of stone steps takes us up and over these old defences against erosion.
‘Right,’ Jamie takes charge. ‘We’re going to have to time this carefully. Watch the waves and when we see a few gentle ones coming, just make a dash for it.’
As we get further out into the sea, the breakwaters become higher and rise a good twelve feet above the level of the dodgy path. I’ve been watching my footing so carefully along the slippery edge that I’ve failed to realise that after the first two, there are no further steps up the next breakwater. Only a wet, knotted rope hangs limply down.
‘I don’t think I can do this,’ I shout above the crashing of the waves.
‘I think this is the only bit with a rope,’ Luke yells back from his vantage point on top of the breakwater. ‘We’ll go ahead and check it out.’
‘Be careful,’ I scream as they disappear from sight. Barry and I wait, huddled together on the last step and pressing ourselves back against the seawall.
‘Watch out J,’ I hear Luke yell, ‘there’s a tsunami coming in from France!’ There’s certainly a large wave approaching. It splashes over our shoes.
‘I hope they’re alright,’ I mumble anxiously.
‘They’re boys,’ Barry says, nonchalantly, ‘they’re thoroughly enjoying it. Stop worrying.’
Sure enough, the boys soon reappear at the top of the breakwater.
‘It’s OK, Nan,’ Jamie tells me. ‘This is the only rope. The next three breakwaters have an iron ladder thing. It’s easy.’
‘You can do this Nan,’ Luke encourages me. I know they’ll be very disappointed if I don’t. I seize the rope.
‘Keep it taut,’ Jamie instructs.
‘Put your hands just above the knots,’ Luke tells me. ‘Now put your right foot in that hole. Good. Very good, Nan.’
‘Left foot there. Now move your hands up the rope. That’s right. Excellent. You’re doing really well.’
I’m very scared. I’m perched halfway up the breakwater with something like an eighteen foot drop onto the rocks below. I realise that I’m caught, quite literally, between my daredevil grandsons and the deep blue sea. But I can only go on, obeying their very clear instructions and enjoying their generous praise until my head comes level with their feet. Then I have another belated realisation. As the rope is firmly anchored to the lip of the breakwater, there is nothing to support me as I try to get onto the top.
‘Just push yourself up on your hands,’ Jamie advises. But I can’t begin to contemplate that. I haven’t got and never have had their upper body strength.
‘OK. Give me your hand then,’ Luke tells me.
‘But I’ll pull you over,’ I protest.
‘I’ve lifted twenty kilos in the gym,’ he says, proudly.
I’m an imperial girl myself but even under these fraught conditions, I calculate that I weigh somewhat more than double that.
‘You’d both better pull me,’ I manage.
I’m gasping for breath. They start pulling. Coming up below me, Barry holds the rope one-handed and with the other, pushes hard at my rear. Finally I flop inelegantly onto the top of the breakwater like a stranded whale. I’ve broken every fingernail, grazed my shins and bruised my knees but I’m elated as I bask in the boys’ fulsome compliments.
Little do I know much worse is in store...
© Gill Dunstan
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