The dead tree represented everything that Sandy hated about being sent to ‘help’ her grandparents for the entire holiday. The trunk was cast off the steep sided valley that cradled her granddad’s camp-site and straddled the stream that tumbled from the cleft where a stream issued onto the beach. It was stripped clean of leaves, bark, twigs and meaning by excessive exposure to sea winds and salt spray. She dangled head first over the reflective pool that formed beneath the withered canopy and pass the time. It was either that or watch endless programmes about genealogy on day time TV.
A boy came by. He was swarthy, had a dark foreign look and was about Sandy’s age. He gazed at his feet and paid the beach games no heed.
“What’s your name? Where do you come from?” Sandy quizzed with the brevity of one who knew that summer friendships came and went like a sandcastle built on the tide mark.
“Alexie.” The boy lifted his gaze from his feet, “I'm from around here I suppose.”
“How come I’ve never seen you before? I’m sent here every summer” Sandy replied.
“My mum’s on benefits and we were moved into temporary B&B last winter. Now we are stuck here. She has to work in the Landlords souvenir shop, selling tat, otherwise we would have to move again.”
They sat dropping pebbles into the stream to share in the comradeship brought about by idyllic adversity until it was time for Sandy to return to the camp-site to help Grandma welcome the new guests.
“See you tomorrow?” Sandy enquired. “I can show you where to find fossils if you like.”
“Maybe. If I have nothing better to do.” As if he had anything better to do.
She found Grandma in the site reception and told her about Alexie. The telly was on and a presenter burbled about finding birth certificates in the local registry office.
Sandy propped her chin on the counter and asked “What do you see in those programmes Grandma?”
Grandma smiled “It’s good to know about your family. It tells you who you are. I’ll show you.”
They found an old roll of wallpaper and began to map out the Jackson family on the back. Grandma turned out to be a mine of information. Soon the paper was filled out with a web of uncles, cousins and other relations. Each had a story; how they worked the land, went to sea and returned to build again.
Granddad returned from marshalling caravans. He added stories of how his father fired his guns at the beaches on D-Day and reminisced of how great-granddad disembarked at Portsmouth Docks, dressed in his Navy whites, bearing a chest full of medals. She also discovered that she had a great uncle George who went down with his ship at Dunkirk. This reminded Grandma of how she kept watch from the cliffs above Westcoombe, watching for the hospital ship that bore Granddad home from the Falklands War.
Branches of the family grew and sprouted twigs of cousins and second cousins. Other families were grafted in. Sandy's mother also hailed from Dorset. Together they were able to trace the maternal side of the family back two generations. Sandy found out more about her grandparents than ever before. She almost felt like part of the landscape-- just like the rugged cliffs.
The next day Sandy was desperate to share her findings with Alexie. He was not waiting for her as such , just being sure that he happened to be leaning on the upended base of the dead tree when she came down after lunch. Sandy displayed the scroll that recorded her family as far as the Grandparents could recall. She asked if they could do a plan of Alexie's family.
“I haven't got any grandparents” said Alexie.
“What do you mean? Everyone must have grandparents.” Sandy asserted.
“Not me” Alexie climbed up and perched precariously on the uprooted tree. “My mum came from a Children's home. My dad is from East Europe somewhere. Mum don't know exactly. He left to work on a cargo ship when he found out about me and never came back. She called me Alexie because my dad would like that.”
Sandy silently climbed up to sit on the remains of the tree next to Alexie. She gazed not the pool and she saw his sadness reflected back at her. Until it was shattered by the splash of stones.
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