The lure of the sea
To warm you up at the start of the long, miserable slog through to spring, here’s a story from last summer. I started writing it at the end of August, like a traditional back-to-school “What I did on my summer holidays” kind of post. Not exactly the kind I would have dared write when I was at school though!
So, against my better judgement, I got talked into going camping. It’s never been something that appealed to me – when I go on holiday I like little home comforts like beds, toilets, floors, that kind of thing. This summer, though, my cousin Marianne convinced me to go and spend a week in a tent with her and her kids. We were never really that close when we were younger, but Marianne split up with her long-term partner around the same time I moved back up to Scotland, so we bonded over our individual personal problems. One evening she came round to my place for tea1 and sympathy, and ended up convincing me to go camping with her. I agreed partly out of sympathy, as otherwise she and the girls wouldn’t have had a holiday this year and I felt they deserved one; and partly out of guilt as it was Marianne’s daughter Eilidh who I nearly killed in the black ice incident before Christmas. And, I suppose, partly out of relief and gratitude that they still trusted me to drive them anywhere.
Oh yes, the drive. Four hours, right across Scotland from the east coast, through the six-lane hell of central Glasgow, to the interminable twisty country roads that took us up around the Firth of Clyde and back down again, eventually ending up right on the west coast, looking out towards the islands of Jura and Islay, on a dangly bit of Scotland that Eilidh’s 12 year old sister Kirsty pointed out “looks like a willy.” She’s not wrong.
It had been an unusually hot summer so far, and although the day was overcast it was still uncomfortably warm, especially with four of us in my little car crammed full of tents and camping equipment, and no air conditioning – I honestly didn’t think we’d need air con in Scotland, but even with the windows down everyone was hot and sweaty and tempers were being stretched. Having only really spent time with Marianne in a relaxed, alcohol-enhanced environment, it was a bit of an eye-opener to see her becoming increasingly irritated with the girls over the course of the journey, who weren’t really misbehaving, just being kids. And as Marianne got more annoyed with them, I became more annoyed with her, until about half an hour away from our destination I parked up in one of the little villages on our route and got out of the car. I said I needed to stretch my legs, which wasn’t untrue, but mainly it was a chance for everyone to get out of the cramped environment and calm down.
The girls got ice creams from the village shop; Marianne and I bought a bottle of water each. What I really wanted to do was pour the water over my head and feel its cold, wet grasp flood through my thin blouse and into the pretty embroidered sleeveless top underneath, forcing the waterlogged material to cling to my overheated body and cool it down. I might have done it, even just a little bit, if I hadn’t been with Marianne and the girls, but for now I had to fight the urge. I took a drink and pressed the cold bottle against my forehead. It didn’t help much. At least I’d had the sense to put shorts on this morning instead of the jeans I was going to wear. I pressed the bottle against my neck, shivering slightly as a droplet of condensation fell down my back.
With tempers and temperatures cooling down, the final leg of the journey was uneventful and we completed the journey without incident, except for my having to slam the brakes on and make a sharp right turn to avoid driving straight past the campsite. We had a lovely chat with the friendly site owner who showed us to our pitch – right on the sea front, looking on to the beach – and left us to put up the tent.
Oh yes, the tent.
Marianne, it turns out, is a camping veteran, having been on numerous camping trips with her ex and the kids, and is therefore well versed in the intricacies of tent erection. I, on the other hand, had never been camping before, a fact which Marianne failed to take into account as she ordered me around, barking out vague instructions and getting increasingly annoyed as I stood staring in confusion at guy ropes, failing to adequately hammer pegs into the ground and just generally having no idea what to do. Tempers began to flare again as she became frustrated at my inexperience and I became even more frustrated at her lack of understanding. Sensing an impending argument, the girls wisely took themselves off to the beach which the campsite overlooked, as Marianne’s instructions became more irritable and my responses likewise. Eventually we had something close to resembling a tent, even if we didn’t have anything much resembling a friendship at that point.
I stood for a while, breathing heavily and attempting to regain my composure. “Cup of tea?” I asked through teeth which I hoped weren’t too clenched.
“Sure,” replied Marianne in an equally testy voice.
Feeling the need to make myself useful after having been singularly unhelpful in putting up the tent, I got the camping stove and gas bottle out of the car, hooked them up, filled the travel kettle with water, lit the gas and set the kettle on the stove to boil, then went to fetch the tea bags from the car.
There were no tea bags in the car. I stiffened, dreading having to ask Marianne the question. “Did you… not bring any tea bags?”
There was an icy silence. “You were supposed to bring the tea bags,” Marianne informed me.
“YES!” Marianne reined herself in again. “Yes. We agreed that since I had the tent and all the equipment, the least you could do was bring tea bags.”
I sighed. To this day I maintain that she had never mentioned this to me before this point. “Coffee, then?” I knew that I had a couple of sachets of instant in my bag for emergencies, and this was getting close to an emergency.
“Is it decaf? I only drink decaf.”
“You could have fooled me,” I muttered. I didn’t know Marianne’s ex-partner very well, but I was beginning to feel some empathy with him.
Between each pitch and the beach, the campsite had helpfully provided everyone with a picnic table. I sat down at the table and watched the girls having fun. At least someone was having fun. Kirsty had rolled up her leggings as far as she could, Eilidh was holding up her dress, and both were playing in the sea, daring each other to go as far as the could into the waves without getting their clothes wet. I found myself thinking back to when my sister Amy and I played the same game on holiday; of course I would always contrive to “accidentally” get a bit wetter than I should.
The now redundant kettle came to the boil, whistling loudly to snap me out of my train of thought. I turned off the stove. The noise had attracted Marianne’s attention too. She walked over to the table and saw, apparently for the first time, the two girls playing in the water. As an attempt at reconciliation, I was about to say something about how much fun the girls seemed to be having, when Marianne exploded. “Kirsty! Eilidh!” she bellowed across the sand. “Get back here right now!”
The girls sloshed their way out of the sea and trudged over the sand back to the pitch, heads bowed slightly. I sensed they knew they were in for a roasting from their mother; I also sensed this kind of thing happened quite regularly. “We were just playing,” Kirsty began, but if it was supposed to deflect Marianne’s ire, it didn’t work.
“Playing? In the water? With your clothes on? Are you out of your minds? Look at you, you’re soaking wet!”
I didn’t want to get involved in the argument or tell Marianne how to raise her kids, but I couldn’t let that go unchallenged. “They’re hardly soaking wet,” I said, as calmly as I could. “They’re a bit damp, at most.” Actually they were quite wet, especially Eilidh who, being the smaller of the two, had managed to get her dress wet almost to her waist, but I suppose my idea of “soaking wet” is a bit more extreme than most people’s.
Anyway, if Marianne had even heard my little protest, it certainly didn’t placate her; she was still ranting. “If you want to go in the water, put your swimsuits on, that’s what they’re for!”
By now I was feeling really sorry for the girls, who looked crestfallen. “We didn’t mean to get wet,” Eilidh said, quietly and apologetically.
“What, you went in the sea and didn’t think you’d get wet?” her mother sneered. “Nobody goes in the sea with their clothes on, nobody. It’s just not done.”
I had no idea why this was such a big deal to Marianne, but I wasn’t having this. “Really? Nobody?” I slipped off my shoes and stood up from the picnic table. “We’re on holiday, Marianne, they’re just having fun. You should try it.” And without waiting for a response, I walked onto the beach and began striding purposefully towards the waves. I didn’t look back to see Marianne’s reaction, I just marched right on into the sea.
The tide was quite far out and it took longer than I would have liked to reach the water, but finally the waves came to meet me, sniffing around my feet like inquisitive dogs. I took a couple of steps into the sea and slowed my pace. The water was chilly, of course, but this wasn’t unexpected. Steadying myself against the push and pull of the waves, I briefly considered turning back, but I still had a point to make. Then a wave broke around me, wetting the bottom of my black denim shorts, and I knew that the lure of the sea was irresistible.
Another couple of steps and I was committed, with my shorts now fully submerged and the waves playing with the bottom of my blouse. I didn’t want to go too far in; I wasn’t intending to go swimming and I certainly didn’t want salt water in my hair, I just wanted to make my point. Turning around, I realised that Marianne was now a bit too far away for me to make meaningful eye contact, but for my own benefit I tried my best to keep staring at her as I slowly bent my knees and lowered myself into the water.
My blouse was unbuttoned and the thin material rested on top of the water as I sank down to my shoulders, completely submerging my pretty white vest top, its elaborate lacing and fancy embroidery quickly defiled by the merciless ocean. The waves pulled and jostled at my blouse as if attempting to wrench it from my arms and claim it as their own. My point made, I slowly stood up again.
With water pouring from my clothes, I began the long walk out of the sea and back to the beach. I had quickly got used to the coldness of the water, but now I was back on dry land the saturated clothes against my body heightened the coolness of the wind. I pulled my sopping wet blouse closed, happy not to have lost it to the waves, and carefully buttoned it up; a pointless exercise, as the already thin material was now like wet tissue paper, offering no resistance to the cold and doing nothing to conceal my little white top underneath. Although made of much thicker material, it too had turned somewhat transparent and my bra was now visible to anyone who dared to look closely enough. I ran my hands down my body to squeeze out some of the excess water. Being made of thick denim, my shorts had soaked up a lot of water which was now trickling down my legs in an unusual, but not unpleasant, manner. Climbing the sand dune to make my way back to the tent, I resumed eye contact with Marianne and took my seat again on the picnic bench. I picked up one of the sachets and made myself a coffee as a puddle quickly formed around my feet.
The girls giggled as Marianne stood staring, mouth slightly agape. There was a deathly silence. “What’s your point?” she said at last.
I took a sip of coffee. “My point is that you’re wrong to say nobody ever goes into the sea with their clothes on. They’re just having fun. We’re on holiday. If we can’t have fun on holiday, what can we do?”
“And this is your idea of fun, is it? Putting yourself at risk of drowning? Ruining your clothes?”
It was beginning to feel like Marianne was my mother too. “How are they ruined? The sea’s made of water.”
“Cold, dirty water.”
I stood up, arms outstretched, in all my drenched glory. “Do you see any stains on me? I’m wet, but that’s all. Anyway, there’s a laundry room over there, a quick run through the washing machine and nobody will ever know. And when was I at risk of drowning? In two feet of water?” She was right about being cold, but I wasn’t going to admit that – not that I needed to while my nipples were trying to force their way through my soaked bra and top. I drank more coffee to counteract the worst of the Scottish summer. “You need to live a little,” I concluded.
“Mum,” Eilidh piped up. “If Auntie Hannah can go swimming in her clothes, does that mean we can?”
We all knew what the answer was going to be, but fair play to Eilidh for asking anyway. “Auntie Hannah’s a grown adult,” snapped Marianne, “and old enough to know better. We need to go to the shop and get tea bags while Auntie Hannah sorts herself out.”
Marianne marched the girls off to find a shop while I grabbed a towel and some dry clothes and headed for the shower block to “sort myself out”2. I don’t know if my little outburst changed Marianne’s attitude in any way, but it wasn’t mentioned again…
Hope you enjoyed this story! This part is true, but it’s inspired me to expand on the story with some fictional additions of what else might have happened during our camping trip! If you’re interested, why not join me over on Patreon for additional content, regular updates on what I’m working on and maybe even some naughtier stories! 😉