For three weeks each year I escape the trauma of city life, the demands of work and the pressure of church commitments for my holiday by the beach.
On the fridge in my rented house were the words:
RECLAIM A WHOLESOME CONNECTEDNESS WITH SELF.
My last day and I’d achieved none of my goals. What a waste of three weeks.
Each morning I made the short journey to the golden sands. I wished I could afford a place right on the beach, like Robbie’s old home with its wide verandahs and faded floral swing. I’d sit there and relax, I know I would.
Each morning mine were the first feet to make an impression on the damp sand as the tide receded. Mine were the first eyes to pick over the shells that lay in ragged lines, discarded by the small waves.
One day I’d find the perfect shell.
There was always a chip or crack or blemish in the colouration that caused me to replace each one exactly where I’d found it.
How long had I been searching for, and not finding, perfection?
We first came to this beach when I was eleven. On and off I’d been holidaying here for twenty nine years.
‘Hello. Shelly, isn’t it?
Why couldn’t people just leave me alone!
‘Don’t you remember me? Robert, from the farm house? We used to play together when we were kids.’
Robbie? Yes, Cowboys and Indians, Pirates, Mermaids and Monsters, on the beach in front of his house. His mother’s sandwiches with the crusts cut off; exactly the way I liked them. Cold milk from thick tumblers. How silly Robbie had looked, leaving milk on his upper lip; pretending it was a moustache.
‘Sure I remember you, Robbie.’
‘Have breakfast with me?’
Why not? He’d already disturbed my fragile peace. I’d go back home as wound up as I was when I arrived.
The house was exactly as I remembered it, except for the bits and pieces of broken shells. They were everywhere. Packed in odd shaped bottles. Crammed in jam jars. Lined up in uneven rows on the mantelpiece. Piled untidily in baskets.
He slapped bacon and eggs into a pan. Poured orange juice into tumblers. I looked after the toast.
‘I remember how particular you used to be about the thickness of the butter and spreading it right to the edges,’ he said, smiling.
I picked up the photo of Robbie’s Mum and Dad.
‘How are they?’
Orphans. That’s what you became when your parents died; an orphan.
He shook his head.
‘I’ve always been scared of marrying and having kids in case I screwed them up.’ His shoulders drooped as he pushed his hands deep into his jeans’ pockets. ‘I’m a psychiatrist. I meet so many disturbed people. I come here to unwind.’
‘Me to. Unwind that is, though it gets harder each year.’
He carried the breakfast tray out onto the veranda. An untidy circle of broken shells adorned the centre of the round table.
‘Why the broken shells?’
He took one out of his pocket and grinned. ‘They remind me that every day I work with damaged goods; and that’s not just my patients! These shells remind me that I’m broken too.’
I sipped my coffee.
‘Do you still like the crusts cut off your sandwiches? You were such a funny kid, making a fuss if it wasn’t done just right. You used to make me laugh the way you paid me out for my milk moustache. I only did it because it annoyed you!’
He picked a very pretty, but flawed, shell.
‘We’re all damaged goods,’ he said, placing it in my hand. ‘You, me, everyone. Even Jesus felt abandoned by his Father. We’re works in progress. Not perfect. Not yet. But one day we will be.’
The view from the verandah was spectacular. Beside us the swing swayed invitingly.
I didn’t need this.
I handed the shell back to Robbie.
‘Thanks for breakfast. If you don’t mind I’d better go now. I’m heading home today. One more walk along the beach, then I must pack.’
I walked up the beach and back again, searching. Finally I stooped and picked up a shell. Unlike Robbie I didn’t need a houseful of broken shells to remind me what was wrong in my life or who I was.
I clasped the shell in my hand.
One broken shell would do.
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