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The Gin Shack on the Beach
Most days, there was nothing in the world more comforting than swinging open the beach-hut doors, thermos in hand, breathing in the sweet seaweed breeze of Westbrook Bay. This was Olive Turner's sanctuary. Her place of restoration. Of being at one. A place to fart loudly where no one else could hear.
No one was ever here as early as Olive. The other beach-hut owners, people who'd become her friends over the years, were not early birds like her. The only other human being she'd ever spotted here at six in the morning was a lady similar in age to her whom she watched with guarded respect every week as she went for her swim in the sea. There was something about it that was equal parts admirable and crackers. Who did that? Although there weren't many eighty-four-year-olds about who were unable to sleep in their own homes for all the ghosts walking around those familiar rooms. Here, by the beach, watching life go idly by, was her preference.
Which was why today was different. It was why every beach-hut owner in Olive's row was going to break the mould and meet her here at eight-thirty. Because if there was one thing she wasn't going to give up, it was her shabby-chic, duck-egg-blue, sanity-sparing beach hut.
Giving up her house wasn't going to be the hardship she might have imagined. With a home, one should have foundations, a connection to the bricks and mortar that told the story of a lifetime. But whatever roots had been there for them as a family had died many years before. What had happened had been enough to shatter any sense of belonging. It was also enough to shatter the people left behind. And recent events meant she'd had a knock to her confidence. Living alone didn't have the same appeal it once had.
Olive decided to continue her morning routine as usual. Nobody would arrive for at least the next couple of hours. She folded out her garden chair so it faced the rising sun. Even though it was July there was still a nip in the air at this time of the morning, so she grabbed her blanket from the ottoman inside the beach hut. The chink of glass as she hauled it out reminded her she'd need to replace it before anyone arrived. The last thing she needed was her son finding her stash of bespoke gins, giving him an even more valid reason to deprive her of the beach hut. A little alcohol never hurt anyone, although the same couldn't be said for too much.
This wasn't about that, though. This was about keeping some form of independence. She might be older than she once was and there might have been that one incident, but there was nothing wrong with her marbles or her constitution and she wasn't going to let her son boss her about without a fight.
It was why she was glad she would have her friends here in her corner. If there was one thing guaranteed with Richard, it was that he wouldn't like a show. It had been a strange and terrible thing to witness the relationship with her son go so sour over the years. It was as if neither of them had ever adjusted to the changed dimensions, even after all this time. She didn't want to resent him, but it had been hard, watching him become so seemingly unfeeling when it didn't need to be like that.
As she settled down in the chair with her blanket, she poured a cuppa from her thermos. She would forgo an extra slug of something to help shield against the early cold. She needed her head to be as clear as possible. Richard, every inch a lawyer, would put his argument across so eloquently it would be hard to argue with. And there was a huge part of her that was so sad she was being put in a position where she needed to disagree with him.
She understood why. Anyone who'd been through what they had would be altered. He'd used it to his advantage. He'd become successful on the back of the anger he carried. It was no wonder his dotty old mother was a burden when he had a firm up in London to manage. He wasn't the kind of person who could come running when her boiler broke and she wasn't one hundred per cent sure who to contact without being totally ripped off. He wasn't able to pop by when a family of pigeons somehow took up residence in the shed and Olive wasn't agile enough to sort it out. And she'd not wanted to trouble him on the occasions when she should have.
The problem was it was always a number. He'd get hold of a phone number and get someone to sort it. A stranger. Someone she didn't know. She wasn't keen on inviting strangers into her home. Richard had literally gone apeshit when he'd visited to find she was practically keeping the pigeons as pets. Well, it had seemed unnecessarily mean when the pest-control guy had come round. She'd wanted the RSPCA to come and give them a home. Somewhere more suitable. Olive had turned pest-control man away and started buying bird feed instead. It was part of her caring nature. She'd spent her whole life providing for others. Up until her retirement she'd worked as an auxiliary nurse in the local hospice. She knew how cruel the end of life could be and she certainly wasn't going to be responsible for ending anyone's. Not even a pigeon's.
After the last gulp of tea, Olive let out a rip-roaring burp unapologetically. Pigeon-gate was what had started her on this road to the Oakley West Retirement Quarters. A place to live out her golden years in comfort. It was happening because Richard thought she was losing her marbles. That she was just a few steps away from leaving the gas cooker on ... and kaboom, the house would be gone.
It wasn't like that at all. Her marbles were firmly in place. It was just, these days, she didn't give two hoots what anyone thought, her son included. The only person she planned to please these days was Olive Turner. But however much she wanted to deny it, there was this creeping realisation that time was no longer on her side. It had taken one moment for this news to be delivered to her with startling acuity. She'd been making tea at the time. Such a simple everyday task: fill the kettle, flick it on, teabag into the mug, milk, wait for it to boil, pour the hot water in. A series of tasks so familiar they barely needed thought. It had been once she'd sourced the teabag that it started to go wrong. In a heartbeat she no longer recognised the object in her hand. It was alien. A flying saucer in all the wrong colours. She went to taste it. She wanted to put it in her mouth to see if it was the sweet she was thinking of or something else entirely. But then her arm wouldn't move. It didn't wish to cooperate and all at once she knew something was wrong. Something was very badly wrong and she didn't know what to do when her body wasn't moving as it should. When her brain wasn't able to align the dots.
Rather than seek help, she'd sat at the kitchen table, not able to function. It had taken only moments for her to turn from the fiercely independent woman she liked to believe she was, to a shadow unable to perform. And then she was back. The teabag abandoned on the floor. Her arm perfectly able to move as before. It was like that moment of being there while also being missing had vanished.
It had been a TIA. A transient ischemic attack her doctor had called it. A mini stroke. A warning sign.
It was also a wake-up call. So, when Richard had suggested she move into retirement quarters, to her surprise, and his, she'd not even resisted. Of course she hadn't. At her age, she'd lost any desire to cook anything extravagant for herself. And she had a lifetime of washing dishes behind her. If going into Oakley West meant someone else did the cooking and cleaned the dishes, she was all for it. When she found out they'd do her clothes washing as well, she was sold on the idea. It would be a chance to enjoy life more, without the mundanity of running a household. Richard didn't need to know about the other reason. About the time she was lost and it was only luck that had meant it wasn't a more permanent problem. He didn't need to know about the extra tablets she now took to prevent its ever happening again. He was wrapping her up in enough cotton wool already. It would add more fuel to the fire about giving up all aspects of her independence. The fact was, the beach hut was her lifeline to the outside world. These people were her neighbours, not the ones she was leaving behind at the house.
With the sun having risen adequately to burn off the chill, Olive put away the blanket, careful to ensure it concealed the rest of the ottoman's precious gin cargo. Leaving the chair out and the beach-hut doors wide open, she went for her early-morning walk. She liked to feel the sand beneath her toes. The early-morning sun making the grains toasty and inviting. It was the perfect time of day. It was possible to hear the entire village creaking awake. There were kettles being pinged to life, toilets being flushed, showers being run. The early risers were few and far between and it was only on the odd occasion that she would spot a dog-walker grumpily mooching along the promenade. This morning was one of those days when there was no one. Even the seagulls were still resting their weary heads, not ready to give their dawn chorus recital just yet.
Olive took a breath of the crisp sea air and smiled towards the sky. 'Couldn't ask for more perfect conditions,' she said, half expecting the earth to reply. Taking one last glance to check she was alone, she removed her bright kaftan-style top and elasticated trousers. In two easy manoeuvres she was naked. Who needed underwear at the beach? They were unnecessary complications. Leaving her clothes in a pile a safe distance from the lapping tide, she tiptoed towards the sea. She loved that first moment of dipping her toe in the water. It was the closest thing she'd found to making love. That glorious point of entry where you were surprised and delighted all at the same time. Where the body braced itself, but then instantly relaxed into being at one with this new sensation. It was funny how it reminded her how long her husband had been gone, but also made her feel closer to him than anything else in the world.
It was ironic really. When she'd first spotted that woman swimming in the morning months ago, she'd thought she was crackers. Who would want to expose themselves to the elements at that time of day? But when she finally spoke to the lady, she said to her it had become like oxygen. It was what reminded her she was alive.
Olive didn't jump in the moment they had that conversation. It took weeks. She observed the woman, realising it was always a Tuesday morning that she came for a dip, always at the same time, always in a knee-length wetsuit, always prepared with her towels and dry clothes. For weeks, Olive stared at the sea and wondered what it would feel like to be reminded she was alive. She also wondered where on earth she would find a wetsuit for a shorter, portly woman with larger than average breasts.
It was a morning just like this one when she gave in to the urge. The sea lured her in with its promise of being her oxygen. Having never sourced the not-on-the-market wetsuit, she went commando and by golly, it truly was the way to feel alive. The first time, she rushed in and out so quickly it had taken her breath away.
These days she was more relaxed about the whole thing. Today she strode in so she was up to her shoulders, her breasts floating like buoyancy aids, and then swam parallel to the shoreline without a care in the world.
With each dip she'd increased the distance more and more, turning so she was always within a reasonable distance of her beach hut. She was too old to worry about safety. If the ocean wanted to swallow her up and take her, she was too near death to care. The thought was freeing. The fact that her sagging eighty-four-year-old butt might be seen by passers-by had once been a concern, but after the first few cheery Good Mornings, she'd become proud of putting a smile on the faces of even the grumpiest of early-morning dog-walkers. She would only be embarrassed if one of them caught her on the naked stroll back to the beach hut. She tended to wait in the water until the coast was clear (literally), before heading back to the comfort of her beach hut, where she would pop on the gas heater and get herself dry in privacy.
Turning before she was too far away from the hut, she decided she would cut this morning's dip short. She needed to be ready before everyone else arrived and she didn't want to have to rush. It was important that Richard understood ...
... that she hadn't lost her marbles just yet.
Next to Olive's small pile of clothes stood her son in his business suit, looking grumpier than all the grumpy early dog-walkers put together.
'Glorious day for it, don't you think?' She offered a wave, causing her breasts to bob a little more freely than she would have liked. Turned out being spotted on her naked walk back to the beach hut wasn't going to be the most embarrassing thing to result from her early-morning skinny-dipping hobby. Oops. A definite double D oops.CHAPTER 2
'I'm not coming out.' Olive was certain about that.
'Mother. You will catch your death if you stay in there any longer.'
'That would suit you down to the ground. You may as well leave me to it.' Despite the fact Richard had sourced a towel from the beach hut, she was still resolute about not getting out with her son standing there.
'I'm not leaving you to it. This is exactly why you shouldn't be left to it. Don't you realise how dangerous it is, swimming around in the sea without any lifeguards about? There's not a soul about to help you if you were to get into trouble. Haven't you heard of riptides?'
'Oh, Richard. Don't be such a worrywart.'
'Come out right now and I'll kick the habit in the gut straight away. It's just someone – naming no names – keeps giving me very just cause for concern.'
'I'm not coming out. Not unless you get off the beach so I can go and get dressed in privacy.' Olive didn't want to risk her son catching sight of her noo-noo. The fact he'd caught her skinny-dipping was bad enough and she was pretty certain she'd already flashed a nipple by accident. That was enough trauma for the pair of them for the day. She wasn't planning on adding to it.
'Did you not hear what I just said about it being dangerous? I'm not leaving until I know you're out safely.'
'Don't be such a killjoy. Of course it's safe. I'll be walking to the shore. But I won't be all the time you're stood there with that towel.' This was hardly how she'd expected this morning's protest to go. Richard had said he would be here at nine to make sure she handed the keys over. Trust him to be early.
'I'm not leaving until I know you're out safely.'
'You're being ridiculous. You're forty-eight, Richard. No forty-eight-year-old man wants the trauma of seeing his mother naked. Now bugger off and came back when you said you would be here.'
'Oh, I'm being ridiculous. Says the woman bobbing around in the English Channel without a stitch on, before most people are out of bed. Nothing wrong with that.'
Olive couldn't work out if it was a hint of sarcasm in his voice or if this was pigeon-gate all over again and she'd finally sent her son over the edge. 'It really is glorious. You should try it some time.'
It was the wrong thing to say. Olive knew it as soon as Richard chucked the towel on the ground in a rage.
'I am not going to take up skinny-dipping, Mother, and I would really, really appreciate it if you would just get the hell out.'
At that moment, Olive spotted Skylar arriving at the beach huts and thanked her lucky stars. She didn't want to enrage her son any more, but there was no way she was changing her mind about coming out starkers in front of him. Even with his promises of having his eyes closed, there were some things that weren't worth the risk. And as risk assessments went, she was prepared to take the chance of being swallowed up by a riptide over the odds of towel slippage and her son catching a glimpse.
'Skylar ...' Olive beckoned her friend over, knowing that if someone was there to ensure she didn't drown herself, she might convince her son to go sit in his car for a bit and return again when she was respectable.
Skylar waved a response and headed over to see why she was being flagged in that direction. Olive admired her friend as she navigated the sandy beach. She was everything Olive would have liked to have been at her age, although with a few too many body piercings for Olive. Skylar rented the beach hut next to Olive's and it was painted a rich red. Olive always knew when Skylar was there because of the sound of wind chimes and the waft of joss sticks. As she wandered in their direction, Olive wondered if she'd ever get to learn her story. This girl with long skirts and string-vest tops who was simple and complex all at once. She was a walking oxymoron who Olive often wanted to know better, but she was yet to get her to open up.
Jerked back to the here and now, Olive realised the situation needed a bit of explanation. 'Ummm, I'm hoping you won't mind taking over lifeguard duties from Richard. He's arrived a little earlier than expected. We're in a bit of a standoff situation to be honest.'