As I sat outside the beautiful holiday cottage, paper and pen in hand, I thought about what this quirky seaside town means to people. I enjoy reading the posts on the Facebook page. Generations of families have holidayed there. People got married there. People spent their honeymoon there. I read with great interest where people are staying, what their favourite view is, what they have been up to. I came up with this short story and, though some themes are sad and difficult, I believe that it shows an understanding of what Whitby means to people - and why.
Pearl’s Ode to the Seaside.
I have always loved the seaside: the sound of the squawking gulls, the sand between my toes, the smell of the hot, fried sugared doughnuts. I first went to Whitby as a small child. My older sister, Vera, had spooked me with sinister tales of blood-sucking vampires. I was quite frightened as the train pulled in; thinking that Count Dracula would pounce and puncture my young neck. I struggled to sleep on that first night. When I awoke the following morning, and saw the beautiful view from the window, I let go of my worries completely. We headed to the beach and splashed excited tiny toes in the North Sea. It was absolutely freezing initially, but it soon warmed up. We buried our youngest sister, Nellie, in the sand. We hunted for fossils and begged for ice cream. We lusted after the gigantic jars of colourful, sticky sweets in the enticing sweet shop window. I had the best of times; giggling with my sisters during the nights. Mother incessantly fretted and told us to be quiet.
“Vera, Pearl, Nellie. Not all the hotel guests want to listen to you, you know.”
It was different as I grew a little older. I still looked forward to our visits to Whitby; even if I was a somewhat cynical teenager. By that point, it was all about flirtatious smiles and eyeing the attractive older boys on the beach. Mother watched me like a hawk, though she needn’t have worried. A smile was just that and nothing more ever happened.
Though, not much longer after that summer holiday, I did meet a boy. Back home in the city where I had been born and still lived. My Frank. Smitten is the word, though it doesn’t remotely do my feelings justice. We had met at a dance at the Community Hall and I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Gosh, he was so handsome and he had the most bewitching blue eyes. His pals were a rowdy bunch, but Frank stood out and he seemed different to them. He was quieter and so considerate. I fell head over heels. It was a whirlwind romance, as they say, and after just shy of six months of courting, we were engaged to be married. A date was set for the following spring. My sisters were to be my bridesmaids.
I wore my mother’s wedding dress and how her eyes leaked rivers the first time that I tried it on. It must have brought back memories of her own wedding day. Happy flashbacks of love and commitment, though now peppered with sprinkles of woe as my dad had died many years ago. My mother had been pregnant with Nellie at the time. I studied my mother as she dabbed her eyes on a handkerchief. Greying hair and lines beginning to appear around her eyes. I felt sorry for her. As awful as this sounds, I hoped never to be her – foolishly believing that I somehow had a choice in the matter; that I could hang on to both my husband and eternal youth, simply because that was what I wanted.
Our wedding day was lovely and we were lucky with the weather. After a truly horrendous downpour the day before, the sun kindly decided to poke its way out of the clouds for us, just in time for the wedding photographer to snap, snap, snap away. We didn’t have a party, we went for a nice meal at the local pub with close family and friends, because we had a train to catch. We were going to Whitby for our honeymoon. Frank had never been before, and he knew how fond I was of the place, so he didn’t take much persuading.
I was both excited and nervous on the journey there. I was overwhelmed with joy of being Mrs Siddall. I was also a little fractious about our wedding night. Vera had said that she’d bled, and that it had hurt her at first. Although, it was nice after that, it was all rather messy. I blushed crimson at the mere notion of it. As we checked into the hotel and were shown to our room, I blushed rather more. A double bed with crisp, white sheets. But, also, a view out to sea – all the way to Sandsend – and my giddy heart galloped at the sight of it. I felt a rush of nostalgia for my childhood holidays. I knew that Whitby would always be my special place.
In the morning, once the deed was done, I felt like a woman for the first time. Did people know? Could they tell? It was surely written all over my face? I definitely noticed a new inner confidence, and perhaps a sense of a quiet authority. We climbed the hundred-and-ninety-nine steps and we walked around the dramatic ruins of the Abbey. I was in love. In love with Frank. With life. With Whitby. I cried when we had to return home and our magical honeymoon was over. Though, I would soon be busy turning our tiny terraced house into our first home.
A year later, I was pregnant and our first child was born. A beautiful baby boy. But, he was still and silent. There was no cry. He had died inside me. We called him William and marvelled at his crop of dark hair, but he was quickly taken away from us and I was left more bereft than I could ever have imagined possible. There is no greater pain. That first year of pining for him was particularly brutal. Frank took me back to Whitby but, looking back. I don’t even remember hearing the noisy gulls. I was locked inside a private bunker of grief and agony. I sobbed, tears mingling with the sea and the never-ending Yorkshire drizzle. At least the weather matched my mood. Sunshine and blue skies would have been some sort of betrayal. We stayed in a small, quaint cottage that time, all alone and nestled away down a secretive little ghaut. I could see the harbour from the window and I would watch the little boats bobbing up and down upon the choppy water. It was about the only thing that could soothe my soul. The violent silence of William’s birth was still ringing in my ears and it became the sickening soundtrack to my childless life.
Back home again, I longed to fill the rooms with noise, the quietness and the nothingness was deafening. I distanced myself from Mother for a while. I had to. Her platitudes, despite being well-meaning, engulfed me with rage. I could not stand to hear that he just wasn’t meant to be. My heart ached out of pure love for my son. And then there were the sentences about time healing all things etc. Well, he wasn’t a thing. He was a beautiful boy. And the questions terrified me. When was I going to try again? Could I risk another pregnancy? Would I lose another baby? Would it be as though I was casually replacing William? It was all too much. So, I withdrew from everything and everyone. I was broken.
I dreamed of Whitby frequently, though it was several years before I visited again. I waited. I waited until I could enjoy all its quirky charm again. I finally found some courage and determination and I conceived another child. I gave birth to the prettiest little girl in all the world: Jennifer. The second she was born, she cried that loud, startling new-born cry and it was so alien to my ears, yet so vastly reassuring that I quite broke down. She looked so much like William and I felt too many emotions all at once.
Once Jennifer could toddle around unaided, we booked our first family holiday. We stayed in a cheery, homely B&B up on the West Cliff. We helped her build sandcastles on the beach and we took her out on a boat trip. She saw a seal and it was all she talked about for days. My seaside days were blissful again and Whitby was, once more, the backdrop to many of my happiest and most treasured memories over the years.
We didn’t really talk about adding to the family. I would never get over losing my boy. And Jennifer was the sweetest and funniest girl. I just don’t think that we had the heart. Anyway, the option was soon taken away. I went through the menopause rather early. I was only in my thirties. I’d had an inkling that something was a bit off and it was while we were away, enjoying another family Whitby holiday, when I started to join the dots together. We’d been walking along the pier, nothing too strenuous, and I felt so odd. I was suddenly much too hot and sweat started to drip down from my forehead and I could feel it pooling at my back. I excused myself and made my way to the public toilets. I looked in the mirror and I was shocked. I looked terrible. I was wearing foundation make-up, but the beads of sweat on my face mingled with the beige cosmetic and I looked like an eerie waxwork of myself. My skin was scarlet. A pitiful moan escaped from my lips. I was quickly getting old before my time. The grey hairs were no longer merely a few sporadic strands that I could tuck behind my ears. I remembered vowing never to be like this: old, ageing; but here it was and there was nothing that I could do about it.
Jennifer blossomed into a beautiful young woman. Yes, I am biased perhaps, but her long, curly auburn hair and those mesmerising blue eyes, that she’d inherited from Frank, meant that she turned heads everywhere we went. It was her turn. It was her time. Mine had ended. I would blur into the background now, largely unnoticed as women of my age largely are. I passed on the baton of womanhood to my daughter and I donned the cloak of invisibility.
Jennifer married Stuart, a local mechanic with a friendly face, kind brown eyes and a polite manner. They, too, honeymooned in Whitby, keeping the seaside tradition alive. Grandchildren arrived, two little boys. Jake and Samuel. I went to Whitby with them a few times and it was always tremendous fun to see the seaside through their young eyes. Donkey rides, crabbing, salty chips in cones accidentally dropped to the ground and the frenzy of the greedy gulls. I watched them eagerly push their collected copper coins into the slot machines in the arcades. But, I was getting older and I could feel it. It took me a long time to reach the top of those hundred-and-ninety-nine steps. The pain in my hip and legs made my eyes water. Though, I always cherished the view from St Mary’s Church. I must have photographed that same view a thousand times, but I never tired of seeing it.
Frank began to slip away. He had developed a horrible cough. I said that the sea air might help, lord knows it helped me sleep. Nothing helped. It got a lot worse. By the time that he’d had enough of my constant nagging and finally made an appointment to see the doctor, there wasn’t much that could be done. It was too late. He was dying. I watched on, terrified, as this once strong man became gaunt and weak. Frank deteriorated quickly. I tried to hang on to the more favourable images in my head. My handsome groom. Frank the father, racing around the garden with a little, giggling Jennifer on his back. I couldn’t always grasp on to them. They would fade too, much like old photographs. Colour drained and we were left in Sepia.
I lost him. My Frank had gone. I was devastated, my head reeling and I couldn’t help but feel angry with him for leaving me all alone, rattling around that house. The weeks were a blur. Black. Mourning. Cards. Flowers. Sentiments. Platitudes. Dishes of homemade casserole. Checking to see if I was alright. I was not alright. Half of me had vanished and I would never see him again. The bed was huge and cold and lonely. Waking up and remembering that he had died was torture. I declined numerous invitations to return to the seaside with Jennifer and her family. I wasn’t ready to see the breath-taking views without him. I thought that I would struggle to make it up the steps without his strong and steady arm.
Some people say that you can die from a broken heart. I thought about this a lot, and I decided that I agreed. It was a slow demise; weeks crawled into the pockets of months and the first-year anniversary of Frank’s death loomed on the horizon. I could feel myself slipping away and I doubted that I would even reach that particularly painful milestone. I was fading. I could feel it. Sepia disappearing into nothingness.
I asked Jennifer to take me back to Whitby. As I hadn’t shown any interest or enthusiasm for anything for months, she was delighted. I felt cold to my bones in that North Yorkshire wind. I wept like a small, frustrated child once I realised that I couldn’t walk up those steps. I instructed Jennifer to go up without me and take a photo of the view for me. I felt wretched.
On the drive back home, I fell in and out of sleep. Snippets of dreams of William and Frank were remembered, other strands were forgotten. I had never felt so weary when I shuffled out of the car and back into my house. Jennifer kissed me on the cheek and said that she would ring me tomorrow. I simply smiled and nodded, but I knew that I would never hear the ringing of the telephone, nor would I hear my beautiful daughter’s voice again. I had given up. I was ready. I was old and it was time. I didn’t feel upset or frightened. I felt a calm and welcoming acceptance.
My darling, Jennifer. If you are reading this, then I have passed and it was my will to do so. I have been so tired and so full of sorrow for all that I have lost. You have been the best daughter that a mother could have wished for. I know that I leave you happy, settled and content with your husband and your children. This is my story. My ode to the seaside. Climb up those steps again for me, dear, and sprinkle my ashes at the edge of the clifftop, right by my favourite bench, to the side of St Mary’s. You know the one. My silly old legs wouldn’t let me go up there yesterday. This way, I will always be in my most favourite spot in the world.
All my love, forever and always,
You can find the Love Whitby group here: Love Whitby
If you enjoyed my writing, my first two novels are set in Whitby, too. They are available on Kindle and as paperbacks. You can find them here: Black Eyed Boy and here: Green Eyed Girl
Thanks for reading.