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The Beach Clean




by Esther Evans, 6th January 2021

A feelgood tale to warm the heart 

Esther Evans, from the Welsh Border village of Penley near Wrexham, submitted The Beach Clean to us last October. It's the story of a young boy who makes a surprising discovery that leads to his parents examining their priorities in life. "I've read previous articles in Welsh Border Life and Welsh Coastal Life about recycling and plastic pollution, and there are similar themes," says Esther, who works with early-years children with additional learning needs. "I started writing stories as part of a writing course and now I can't seem to stop," she adds.

Just as well. The Beach Clean is the type of uplifting tale we could all do with right now. Enjoy...

 

THE BEACH CLEAN
by Esther Evans

Louis and I always spend our Saturday mornings on the beach. He loves the routine of it, plodding across the sand in his favourite dinosaur T-shirt. For me, it’s a way of killing time, filling space, until Charlie gets home. God help us if anyone finds out what Charlie does for a living now we’ve moved to this part of the world. 

Every Saturday the beach clean begins the same way.  The leader briefs any new volunteers and reminds us how plastic production is up now that the price of oil has plummeted. 

“Plastic is still one of the cheapest materials on the planet. A third of plastic production ends up in our oceans. The equivalent of a lorry load is dumped in the sea every thirty minutes,” he tells us earnestly.

The timer is set for one hour and we’re handed a bin bag. Louis knows the routine well now. He’s always impatient to get started. He was really excited this week and tugged my arm. 

“Hold on Louis," I said. “Don’t pull on Mum, please."

"Pull on Mum,” he echoed, pulling harder so my shirt slipped down revealing my bra strap. I straightened my clothes, keeping my gaze down. 

“Right Folks!” the lead volunteer said, “Last week we collected ten kilograms so we need to pull our socks up this week. Let’s aim for fifty kilograms today,” he teased.

Louis bent down and pulled both socks up as high as they would go.

A lady with a careworn face smiled sympathetically at me. I smiled back but turned away, pulling Louis in to me. At the end of the hour, all the litter would be weighed in together. Louis was fixated on beating the current record of 32 kg.

 

I’d started coming down to the beach with Louis when we moved to Horizon View. I watched first, from our bay window until I plucked up the courage to join in. I tried to prepare Louis by talking it through first, showing him pictures of a beach clean and breaking it down for him. He was more interested in his dinosaurs. 

The person that collected the highest number of plastic pieces was the winner. Louis was usually too easily distracted to win but maybe today would be our day. He stood anxiously beside me, bin bag at the ready, rocking forwards on his toes. He’d refused to wear sunscreen and I couldn’t face the fight this morning, but he had consented to wear his legionaries hat. His freckled nose smelled of salty sea air and buttered toast when I bent down to it. Be grateful for the small wins, I told myself, smiling at him. 

“Are you all ready? You’ve got exactly one hour. Go!”

The timer was turned over. I pulled Louis away from the lure of the slow, trickling pink sand and we made our way across the real stuff. The volunteers fanned out across the bay. Children and adults all raced towards glimpses of acrylic colour, as though they were hidden jewels.

“Louis, let’s do the rock pools first, shall we?”

“Do the rock pools first,” Louis smiled, exactly intoning my words.

He struggled against the soft sand beneath his feet and twisted himself into strange shapes, swinging on my arm. Here we go again. 

“We’ll be at the wet sand in a minute Louis. Look!” I said.

“Wet sand. Wet sand. Wet sand.”

“Look! There’s one!” 

“There’s one!"

He picked up a plastic bottle and put it in the bin bag. Did he remember? Did he understand or was I being too optimistic again? Charlie would tell me I was.

I let the high sun’s hot rays penetrate my forehead, the hypnotic sound of the waves soothing me. We strolled along, bending together to collect crisp packets, thick blue rope, a rusty beer can and numerous tiny pink plastic nuggets hiding in the salty mounds of twisted, black seaweed. I thought of Charlie, still in work, and deep guilt washed over me.

“You know, we could actually be in with a shot this week Louis - look how heavy our bag is.”

"Mum! Ichthyosaur. Ichthyosaur. Mum!”

The dinosaur obsession again! I tried to bring Louis back to reality. It would do both of us good to have a win this week. 

“C’mon, Louis, quick! Time’s running out! There’s only a bit of pink sand left.”

 

I worried about encouraging his special interest in dinosaurs. Charlie went ahead and encouraged him anyway, teaching him the names, every evening, pointing out the pictures as Louis echoed, lying next to his Daddy. His little warm body snug in his flannel, T-Rex pyjamas. 

“Velociraptor… Spinosaurus… Apatosaurus…Diplodocus,” Charlie taught. “He knows every one, don’t you? Dad’s clever little boy.” 

Who was in denial now? Louis could remember and repeat anything. Numbers to infinity, complicated shape sequences, every traffic sign you could think of. He could repeat every dam nursery rhyme back to you, but he couldn’t answer a question. He couldn’t hold a conversation or dress himself. He couldn’t make a friend. Did he take after me in that respect? Was I to blame? 

 

“Ichthyosaur. Two hundred million,” Louis said. 

I squatted next to him. The light on the ocean danced, sending blinding beams across the bay. I tried to focus on the little rock pool. Louis ran his hand back and forth across a piece of rock, partly buried by the shifting sands. The dark slate rock had a feathery imprint across it.

“Oh! Hang on Louis! I think that’s a fossil you’ve found,” I said.

He looked up at me. Those wide blue innocent eyes! 

“That’s a fossil,” he repeated.

“Let's see if we can dig it out together?”

We set to work, scraping away the wet sand as it sucked back against gravity. The rock was set deep. Louis copied me as we clawed around it, working against the tide, manipulating it back and forth, reclaiming it from the cloying sand that fought us until a larger pattern revealed itself to us. A story from ancient times. What was it trying to tell us? Could we decipher anything?

In the distance, the whistle went. Time! Louis started to run back. 

“Louis, no! Come back. Help mum! C’mon darling, the tides coming in.”

We pulled and pushed together, rocking and scraping until the rock dislodged and a long flat, fossil revealed itself to us. A long fish-shaped creature with a nose similar to a swordfish.

It must have been a metre long. We ran our fingers along the raised outline, mesmerised, transported to an ancient time when the creature swam in these plastic-free waters. A wave washed over our feet and brought us back to cold reality.

“Awwwwwww!” cried Louis, flapping his hands, his socks and canvas pumps wet through.

I shouted across the bay, even louder than my wailing son, for some help to carry the rock.

The beach-clean volunteers were brilliant. They stood in an arc of awe and wonder, congratulating Louis, before helping me carry the rock up the beach.

You should take it up to the visitor centre. They’ve got a collection of fossils up there, but nothing near as good as this one.”

“Ask for Jacob Longman. He’s the curator up there. He might be able to tell you about it.”

“Yes, Jacob’s been there a while. If anyone can tell you about fossils, it’s him. Goodness, what a find! Well done, young lad.”

“What a find. Well done,” Louis said.

We left our precious find with the volunteers while we rushed home to collect a wheelbarrow. With help, I manoeuvred the rock and pushed with all my might up the steep concrete gangway and up the hill to the visitor centre. I had to stop to catch my breath a few times. Louis helped, forgetting about his wet feet.

At the visitor centre, Jacob Longhouse was incredulous. 

“Wow! Oh Wow,” he said slowly, rocking forward on his toes. “Ichthyosaur! Quite possibly two hundred million years old. We’ve never found one around these shores before. It’s quite a small version, but what an incredible discovery. Very rare!” 

He let out a low whistle. 

“Really?”

He looked over his glasses at me. “We should phone the British museum. We should phone the papers. This is one hell of a story isn’t it? Did you find it?” he asked Louis.

“Yes, I did,” Louis stated. 

“Good lad.”

I looked at my son, startled. This time, it was me who felt confusion. 

“I need to talk to my husband first,” I said, gathering myself. “He should be home now. We don’t live far away. I won’t be long.”

Leaving the fossil in the wheelbarrow, Louis and I hurried away.

Charlie’s Audi was in the drive when we got home. I started to explain to him what had happened.

“Ella! Urggh! You’re dripping.”

“I know,” I panted. “Well, it’s so hot and the fossil was really heavy and we had to get it up the hill. We’ve come back to ask you, before the press get involved. You know?Just in case you don’t want the attention…”

“Why shouldn’t I? My son’s found something amazing. Let’s celebrate.”

"I just though, y’know, with us on a beach clean… It might look a bit…”

“It’s usually you telling me I care too much about appearances,” snapped Charlie

“Ok, ok.” 

“Ok, ok,” Louis echoed. I bit my lip. 

 

The local press reported the story, explaining how Louis had noticed the fossil which turned out to be an important historical find.

Seven year old Louis makes startling fossil find!

Two-million-year-old fossil found on busy beach

But when the national press started to report the story, the headlines took an ironic slant.

Plastic factory owners take part in surprising beach clean find

A wave of conscience? No, it’s a dinosaur fossil

The three of us were invited onto The One Show to talk about the rare find and to show off the fossil. There was an introduction first, showing our seafront house and the bay view. Jacob Longman was filmed in the visitor centre, explaining rock strata in our area. Then the questions turned to Charlie.

How did he feel, as the owner of a plastic moulding production plant, when his family were clearing plastic off their local beach every Saturday? Wasn’t that a pretence?

What was he doing to prevent plastic pollution?

Had Charlie considered that in ancient times, the Ichthyosaur would never have had to encounter plastic? 

Charlie’s answers were measured and corporate. They were questions he expected, considering the current climate. He calmly explained the recycling options open to the public. But profit from plastic production was still large.

To Charlie, it was worth a few embarrassing questions. Plastic profits bought us a beachfront house, new cars and private schooling. But I wasn't so sure.

Louis picked up on my tension and began flapping his hands, stimming for all he was worth, live on national TV. I’d let him down. I felt so guilty.

Charlie and I sniped at each other all the way home, in the car. 

“I don’t want to live a plastic life,” I shouted.

 

The fossil was displayed in the British Museum next to a short report and a photograph of Louis and I. Our visitor centre would loan it later in the year, but I didn’t feel I could join in with the beach clean any more. On Saturday morning, I watched the volunteers scatter across the sands from our lofty bay window. Our discovery had increased the numbers taking part and I was grateful for that, at least. Louis was lying on the floor, chubby feet in the air, fixated on a TV documentary about the ocean. It was his new special interest. 

His eyes followed a tropical fish near the ocean floor, swallowing, unawares, mouthfuls of plastic micro-beads. As the fish gulped, I looked down at Louis innocently copying the fish’s mouth, opening and closing. And something inside me snapped.

This was the very plastic that bought me this lifestyle. The currency that allowed me to be a stay-at-home mum with no financial worries. But it was also the plastic that made me feel uneasy and anxious. The plastic that stopped me from making any real friends in this authentic little seaside town, because I was ashamed. I was ashamed of how we made our living. Guilty. There it was again. Guilt. 

But how could I deprive my little boy? How could I take away his security?

 

ONE YEAR LATER

On Saturday, we make our way down to the beach. Louis knows the drill. We listen to the briefing, collect our bin bag and wait for the sand timer to turn.

“Ready… Steady… Clean!”

Then we run across the glistening bay, delving in rock pools, searching the dank caves for litter, turning over flotsam and jetsam with our spades for anything unnatural or manmade. Jacob Longhouse joins us as well now. I think he’s secretly hoping to find another fossil. Louis is his lucky mascot. And my son has made a real friend in Jacob. They walk along together and Jacob tells him all about the rock formations. Louis listens carefully repeating the long names. 

“Andesite… Basalt… Diabase… Granite…”

Sometimes Louis mimics Jacob when he scratches his beard. 

“Well done, good lad,” Jacob says, peering over his glasses.

Charlie gives a shout and waves to us.

“I’ve found something, Ella! Louis! Jacob! Come and look.”

I never thought Charlie was capable of such a change. He’s let the plastics business run down. It’s gone into liquidation. And he’s started a new enterprise making recycled surf boards.

We can barely make the mortgage so I’ve gone back to work, teaching Ecology in the local sixth form. But we’re happy.

And because we’re happy, so is Louis.

THE END

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