I decided to buy the beach hut when Marney was eight. Very few of the traditional, brightly painted Victorian huts ever came on the market, so when I spotted one for sale in the Globe, and at a very reasonable price, I phoned the agent immediately. I made an appointment to view it the next day at 2.30. Matt and Marney jumped up and down and cheered when I told them. Our family trips to the beach would be so much easier with a cabin, and hopefully much more frequent, and the children would have a private Wendy house where they could play their imaginary dramas with their dolls and teddies. And we could sit on the sheltered decking when it was windy and cold and drink hot tea and eat sandy sandwiches.
We went to view it with the agent the next day. It was a grey, heavy-skyed afternoon in early June. The sea was flat and greenish grey, rippling unenthusiastically up onto the gravelly sand. The agent walked ahead of us across the dunes, tufted with harsh sea grasses. As we came over the hill we saw a row of not more than a dozen beach huts in the shelter of the dunes, standing on wooden stilts. Some were very well maintained with their primary-coloured paint bright and cheerful, but some were faded and peeling. Ours was the second from the end.
There were a couple of families on the beach, and I caught a glimpse of a small girl in a pink bathing suit disappear behind the huts. I wondered if her mother knew where she was hiding.
We walked up the wooden steps to the decking at the front of the hut and waited while the agent pulled out a big, tarnished key with a wooden fob painted to match the hut. Red and white stripes. She unlocked the front door and, as the door creaked open, I thought I saw something move in the gloom and hoped it wasn’t a rat.
I was surprised to see that the owners had left everything in the cabin as they had last used it. A strong smell of creosote, pine wood and seaweed wafted out, with a faint, sweet undertone of suncream. I heard the voice of the little girl calling ´Mummy!
I was rather annoyed that they hadn’t cleared it out. It seemed a bit odd, but the agent said she imagined that, as they were moving inland, they wouldn´t any longer have any use for their beach equipment. And maybe the children had grown up and gone. ´
There was something rather sad and eerie about the remnants of a family´s happy summer holidays frozen in time, almost like a memorial. Marney came up and took my hand. ´Did you hear the little girl?´ she said in a small voice. ´She sounded frightened.´ I reassured her and we went inside.
It needed a good tidy out and a lick of paint, but it had great potential. There were a couple of deck chairs with matching red and white stripes folded up against the wall, and two children´s plastic chairs. There was a table with a camping stove and picnic plates, cups and cutlery neatly stacked up. Pinned to the wall was a child´s drawing of the beach hut in red and white stripes and a strip of blue sea with a huge yellow sun in the sky. At the bottom of the picture the name Tamsin was written in red crayon. A shelf on the wall at the back held a small fridge and a box of tea bags, a bag of sugar and a half-finished packet of digestive biscuits. Maybe that´s what attracted the rat. I could hear something scuffling behind a pile of bags and boxes.
´Mummy!´ came the frightened voice again. I went outside and down onto the sand and walked round to the back of the huts. There was no one there, and, crouching down, I could see nothing underneath the huts. I walked back to the hut and noticed small, wet footprints on the steps.
The children and the agent were standing on the wooden decking. ´Did you find her, Mummy?` asked Matt. ´No, she´s obviously found her family. Don´t worry.`
I discussed the terms of the sale with the agent, and, after telling her I´d phone her later that afternoon, she left. We walked along the beach to the café at the beginning of the promenade, the children trudging along beside me in silence. We sat at a yellow vinyl topped table and the children sat opposite me with ice cream cones. `Well, what do you think?’ I asked them, sipping my strong hot tea.
Marney looked at me directly. ‘There´s something funny. I don´t like it. It feels sort of scary.’
I laughed and said ‘Are you sure that wasn´t because of the naughty little girl playing games? She was just teasing us!’
Matt, his chin covered in ice cream, shook his head determinedly. ‘No, Mummy. I didn´t like it, either. It was horrible. I don´t want it!’.
Later that evening we went out to get fish and chips from our favourite traditional chippie. The girl wrapped our order in newsapaper, and, as she put my money in the till, an article in the greasy paper caught my eye:
The West Wittering Globe.
July 27. 2020.
A tragic event occurred on the beach at West Wittering yesterday afternoon. Tamsin Cavendish, aged 6, was spending a happy afternoon with her parents, James and Margaret Cavendish, and her brother Sam, who were regular visitors to the beach and owned a beach hut here. Tamsin, who was playing on an inflatable in the sea, was caught by a current and swept out to sea. The coastguards were alerted and an intensive search was undertaken, but she has so far not been found. The search will continue, but there is little hope of her being found alive. This tragic event underlines the necessity of recognising the risks that are always present when leaving a child unattended in the ocean.