It was a perfect east coast day and the west facing beach of Snettisham was deserted. As usual a brisk wind blew, lifting the fine sand and flinging it against legs and into eyes, a perfect afternoon for flying a kite.
Having grown up in China, Alex was an expert, and within seconds of letting go, his precious kite was aloft and tugging at its string. The little children were entranced and ran with him as he let it pull him along. The sea was nothing but a shiny silver line on the horizon, but the tide would come in quickly enough, dangerously quickly enough, later. The grownups were able to amble in a leisurely fashion, walking off their lunch, chatting, catching up with family gossip, exchanging news and funny stories. Jo walked with them, although she barely listened to them, but she wasn’t interested in kite flying or entertaining little children, she’d leave that to her brother.
Alex had stopped and the two little cousins danced around him, super-impressed by how easy he made flying a kite look. The grown-ups caught up and they all stood squinting up at the paper and cane construction, gay with brilliant colours Chinese characters, spinning ribbons as it dipped and danced and bobbed. Let Richie have a go with your kite! his mum said, and being a kind boy Alex bent to his young cousin who was over excited and overawed by the almost teenager. Take hold of this, don’t let go, have you got it, have you got it? But Richie was barely listening, imagining himself running along the beach as Alex had done, the kite flying so perfectly, or lifting him up and carrying him away for an adventure like a little boy in a cartoon on TV. Take hold, have you got it? But Richie didn’t have it, and the kite lifted and, free at last, tumbled away from them.
Alex bounded after it, his long legs galloping across the sand, running as fast as he could, chasing and chasing, until the family could only see him as a tiny figure in white shorts and a turquoise shirt. Jo and the little children began to trot after him, but it wasn’t long before his resigned figure could be seen, jogging back along the beach.
It was the worst day of her life, she would never get over it, she would never be happy again, not ever, ever, ever. Her mum had said Never mind, Gem, never mind, we’ll go to the beach and have a nice picnic, and maybe we’ll pick up some chips in Hunstanton later. That wouldn’t make up for it, and she hated the beach and she didn’t want a picnic because she knew the sandwiches would be soggy and the cake squashed and the orange juice warm and she would get sand everywhere and her swimming costume would stick to her and she just hated everything and her life was over.
Gem had heard Uncle Phil say to her mum Never mind, Sash, never mind, just as her mum had said to her. Never mind Sash, you’re better off without him. I never did like him, the oily tyke, you’ll be fine, sis, I’ll always be here for you and Gem, your bro will never let you down. Uncle Phil and mum didn’t know that she was hiding under the cane chair on the verandah where they were sitting. Mum was trying not to cry and Gem was trying not to cry – who wanted to go to Sally Bunnell’s stupid party anyway? Who cared if everyone else was going and there was going to be a magician and Sally Bunnell’s uncle was a famous actor and not someone who painted pictures of the beach. Gem didn’t want stupid chips when Sally Bunnell’s mum had made a chocolate birthday cake with four layers, not three or two and with ice-cream in the middle not jam.
Mum and Uncle Phil were in the hall calling her, thinking she was upstairs and Gem wiggled out from under the cane chair and went to find them. Uncle Phil called her princess and told her they were going to have the best fun on the beach. Mum’s face was very red because she had been crying, but Gem didn’t say anything because her own face was red too and Uncle Phil was pretending not to notice. It wasn’t far to the beach but they got into Uncle Phil’s sports car and he drove them through Hemsby singing silly songs and telling even sillier jokes, to the carpark by the beach. Mum got out and went straight to the public toilets, even though they had only just left home.
I know you and Mummy are upset because daddy has left home, but you’ve got to be a brave soldier-girl and help Mum now. I’ll always be here to help you if you need help, but you’re a tough cookie, sweetheart, and speaking of cookies, I have a big bag of them which we can eat after our picnic. Gem said, thank you Uncle Phil, but her nose was blocked with crying about Sally Bunnell’s party that she wasn’t going to, even though she knew the cookies Uncle Phil had were made by his housekeeper and were the best in the world he said, and he knew lots because he’d been in the army and gone to lots of places.
Mum came back and Gem saw she had powdered her nose so it wasn’t red and shiny now, and they went through the dunes and down the old grey wooden steps to the beach, as usual a brisk wind blew, lifting the fine sand and flinging it against their legs and into their eyes. They found a nice spot, although it looked the same as everywhere else, and Uncle Phil put up the stripy canvas windbreak, and Mum put out the picnic rug and weighed it down with pebbles, Swim first or picnic? Uncle Phil said, and just as Gem decided that a swim first, even though the sea was such a long way out, when something bashed into the windbreak making them all jump.
Good grief, look at this!! Look what the wind has brought us! Uncle Phil shouted with a laugh and Mum and Gem got off the rug and went and saw, and it was the most beautiful kite Gem ever could imagine. She asked whose it was, and they looked around but the beach was deserted, whose could it possibly be? Where had it come from? She was entranced by its brilliant colours, and the magical writing which Uncle Phil said was Chinese. Can we fly it Uncle Phil? Can we? Can we? They certainly could Uncle Phil said.
Look mum, look! Me and Uncle Phil are going to fly the kite and I don’t care if I wasn’t invited to Sally Bunnell’s birthday party!! I bet she hasn’t got a kite like this! And if we find the little boy or little girl whose kite it is, we can give it back and they will be happy and we will be happy because we’ve played with their kite!
Gem sat on the picnic rug looking at the wonderful kite and pretended she didn’t hear what Mum and Uncle Phil were whispering to each other as he wound up the string before they went to fly it. Is Sally Bunnell Beryl Bunnell’s daughter? whispered Uncle Phil. Yes, and that poor child must be having the worst birthday ever, fancy that cow leaving her daughter on her birthday of all days! It made Gem laugh to herself, did Mum think Sally Bunnell’s mum looked like a cow? What did she mean? And where had she left Sally Bunnell? Well it didn’t matter now anyway, because Gem had a kite and she was having a picnic with Mum and Uncle Phil and they would have cookies made by Uncle Phil’s housekeeper which would be a billion times better than Sally Bunnell’s chocolate birthday cake.