The following summer Michael and I bought a tent. I had wonderful childhood memories of camping holidays, but the idyllic picture changes with the responsibilities of adulthood.
It rained, of course. Although we had a big tent, it was difficult to keep four little children dry and free of mud. My parents had a caravan in the adjacent caravan park, so we were able to pack the children off to them when we needed to spring clean. Edward was crawling and at the investigation and exploring stage. He was frequently to be found sucking on one of Grandad’s very smelly socks.
I wouldn’t have minded the rain at night-time, except that somebody always needed to go to the toilet. And it wasn’t a situation that a potty would suffice. So we had to find raincoats and boots and trudge across a sodden field to the ablution block, only to find that the child needed nothing more than a good fart.
Then there was the day we lost Nikki on the beach. It was bank holiday and the sun was shining, so Weston-super-mare was packed. Family groups overflowed on to the next cluster, although it was not even eleven o’clock in the morning. The tide was on its way out, leaving a vast expense of beach on which makeshift cricket stumps and volleyball nets were already set up. Budding architects were building elaborate sandcastles in the shallows, where the gentle waves lapped into the moats just seconds before small children ran innocently through the middle of the constructions.
‘That looks like a good spot, over there, between the two red umbrellas,’ said my mother, pointing across the sprawled sunbathers.
‘Let’s go,’ shouted Catherine, as she ran off in the direction Nanna had pointed, spraying sand over everyone in her path, and dropping her ball on the way. Michael caught up with her, and put down the cool box he was carrying.
‘Let’s test the water, girls,’ he said, shedding his shirt and flinging it on the ground. He ran down the beach and into the shallows, followed by Catherine and Abi. I just shook my head as I put Edward down and spread out the towels and rugs. I lay down and closed my eyes. Oh, bliss. Dad tried to build a sandcastle, but as soon as he had emptied one bucket, Nikki knocked it down.
I opened one eye, to see Edward pick up Dad’s sock and put it in his mouth. I grabbed it from the child and stuffed it out of sight, screwing up my nose and wiping my hand before lying back down and closing my eyes. Nikki immediately lost interest in the sandcastle and assisted Edward to hunt down the offending smelly sock. Dad got out the newspaper, and Mum smiled at him over the top of her book.
‘The water’s beautiful, you guys. You should come on in,’ said Michael, dripping water all over us as he tried to pick up a towel. ‘Where’s Nikki?’
Suddenly everyone was sitting up, wide-eyed. Our little girl was nowhere in sight.
‘I thought you were watching her,’ I shouted at poor Dad.
‘She gave up on me and came over to you when you took the sock away,’ he returned.
Mum was on her feet scanning the crowded beach. ‘She can’t be far away,’ she said. ‘Let’s stay calm and all take a different direction. I’ll go this way.’
My eyes were smarting and my throat and chest felt constricted. I could hardly breathe as I started running to and fro in panic. Michael went back towards the receding sea, asking people if they had seen a small blond girl wearing red bikini pants. Everyone had. In all directions were small children in red bathers. Dad stood by our belongings, hands on the back of his hips, looking anxious.
‘There she is,’ I called, rushing off. But as I reached the child, I realised it was not Nikki. ‘What if she has drowned? What if she’s been kidnapped?’
‘Oh, there she is, over there.’ I sighed with relief as I ran over to see yet another small blond child in red bikini pants. But not Nikki. By now the tears were pouring down my cheeks, and several other families were on their feet searching for her. I wrapped my empty arms around myself. I felt sharp pains in both breasts as I thought of my precious toddler, so small and innocent. I walked slowly down towards the sea, scarcely noticing how far the tide had gone out. In my heart I would not consider that Nikki could have drowned. The sea was so far away. ‘She couldn’t have got this far. She’s here somewhere,’ I willed myself to believe.
Up and down, up and down, I half walked, half ran. Little blond heads everywhere, but no Nikki. Why, oh why had I closed my eyes for those few moments? And why had nobody else watched the babies? Couldn’t I even have two minutes off duty? Why hadn’t we spread out and combed the beach methodically straight away? Questions and recriminations pounded through the guilt and pain.
I looked along the beach and realised Michael was back at our spot, beckoning to me. I ran towards him, and saw, to my amazement and relief, that he was pointing to a small bikini-bottomed person trying to open the cooler box. I swooped down and scooped her up, tears of relief replacing the earlier anguish. Mum gave us both a hug, while Catherine and Abigail investigated the contents of the cool box.
‘Pity we don’t have any beer,’ mused Michael. ‘Reckon we could do with something a bit stronger than orange squash.’
As our heart rates slowed back down to normal and we handed out drinks and snacks, Catherine looked around puzzled. ‘Where’s Grandad?’ she asked. Everyone looked up in surprise. We stared as far as we could see, but Grandad was nowhere in sight. He had vanished into the crowd. So we had to search all over again.