I’m in Cornwall. It’s summer and the sun is shining – yes, I know, hard to believe. I’m babysitting my friends’ two young daughters – Emily, aged 10, and Katie, 7 – for three weeks. The day’s destination was Polzeath beach, for a turn on the much talked about trapeze and trampoline amusement ride, ice cream and a swim. ‘Can our friends Polly and Beth come too?’ asked the girls. ‘Sure, why not’, I replied, ‘the more the merrier.’
It wasn’t until I was en route with four, chatty girls in the car that I started to think about the day ahead. We were going to the beach, a beach I didn’t know, a beach with waves and rips and flags and lifeguards, with kids whose lives I was responsible for, with zero experience in parenting. Nice one Dee. Why hadn’t I suggested the park, or at the very least, asked another adult to come along.
I’d been told on numerous occasions that Cornwall was the surfing capital of the UK, but actually putting the words ‘beach’, ‘surf’ and ‘England’ all in the same sentence just didn’t compute in my mind, and what I’d pictured was a relatively deserted beach with uninterrupted views so I could easily keep an eye on the kids. Driving down the main street into Polzeath I was horrified to see that the beach closely resembled Sydney’s Bondi on a quiet day – there were people everywhere, thousands of them!
We found a spot to sit and dump our stuff. During my chaotic morning organising packed lunches, swimmers, changes of clothes, teeth and hair brushing, towels, boogie boards, pickups etc., I’d managed to completely forget about myself and realised I’d left my own swimmers back at the house. The girls, who’d been here many times with their own families, were so confident about where we were that it calmed my nerves and we agreed that they’d all look after each other and I’d be waiting for them when they got out. I stripped down to my shorts and bra (too many people for me to care) and settled in to catch some rays.
My eyes scanned the beach, absorbing all the different scenarios taking place around me. I realised with slight uneasiness that there was something very wrong with the current picture – the girls were out there in the water and I was here on the sand. I noticed there were lots of people standing at the water’s edge keeping an eye on their kids and thought it was probably a good idea if I joined them. Wading out up to my knees I cast my eyes to the water and to my dismay everyone looked exactly the same – blonde hair and black wetsuits. Finding the girls out there was going to be near impossible so I decided to return to our spot on the sand. ‘Where were you Dee?” chorused four wet girls in unison, ‘You said you’d be here. We’re hungry, can we have lunch now?’
Fed, watered, sand speedboats built and washed away by the incoming tide, the girls decided on one more swim. It was agreed that I would take everything back to the car and that the girls would look after each other and return together in fifteen minutes. I felt quietly confident, after all the day had gone swimmingly well so far. I was reorganising the boot when Emily, Polly and Beth returned. ‘Where’s Katie? they asked. ‘What do you mean where’s Katie, she’s supposed to be with you!’ ‘It was too cold for her so she got out almost immediately and came to find you’. That was twenty minutes ago. FUCK.
My initial reaction was to yell. They were supposed to have stayed together, looked after each other, they’d promised! But there was only one person to blame here today and that was me. How could I have been so blasé about the whole situation? So with as much courage as I could muster, I put on my best calm face, left two girls with the car in case she came back and took the eldest, Polly, with me.
We circled the beach several times. We looked in the water. We scanned the car park. We went back to where the ladies were selling hair braids for 75p an inch. We even went back to the trapeze ride where we’d been earlier. We couldn’t find her anywhere. With Polly in tow I made my way to the Lifeguards’ lookout and reported her missing. The lifeguard invited us upstairs to scan the beach with his binoculars. I was now reluctantly in a very surreal scene from Bondi Surf Rescue. Looking through the binoculars out onto the sand only made my situation seem more hopeless, there were so many people out there. The lifeguard radioed Katie’s description to his colleagues on the beach and asked me to conduct another search and report back.
Back at the car I sent the three girls out together, I would search on my own. We agreed to report back in fifteen minutes. As I wandered around looking in all the obvious places she might be panic started to set in. I’d lost my friend’s daughter. She might have drowned. She could be dead. I started to live the inevitable phone call I was going to have to make. My vision began to blur, my breath became shallow, my steps heavy in the sand.
After what seemed like an eternity but in retrospect couldn’t have been more than ten minutes, I returned to the Lifeguards’ station. With a comforting hand on my shoulder he directed my gaze to the four young girls making their way to the car. Yes, four.
After filling out some obligatory paperwork I was free to leave. Oh my God, she’s ok, I thought. Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry. Don’t let the girls see you crying. But of course I did, tears of anger at my stupid, irresponsible self, tears of relief. Standing face to face with Katie I was unable to speak, only cry. She interpreted this as anger, said she was really sorry and asked me to please not get her into trouble with mummy and daddy. I assured her there was definitely no getting into trouble going to happen today.
When the girls found her she’d been happily burying herself in the sand at the water’s edge, oblivious to anything and anyone around her. Hand in hand we made our way to the showers to wash off the sand that seemed to cover her from head to toe, and on our way back to the car decided it was definitely time for ice cream.