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I still don’t know to this day why I did it, but I was only five years old at the time so I was not to know the anguish I caused. Summer had arrived and we had made our yearly family trip down to the Devon coast to stay with my grandparents. My grandparents lived in an imposing Georgian seafront apartment. On arriving there I couldn’t wait to run up the stairs to see them. The entrance hall was always dark and I loved the feel of the ebony handrail winding up the stairs, the musky smell and the sense of mystery, as I never knew who lived in the other apartments.
What I most loved about my grandparents’ apartment were the ornaments. The grotesque, yet fascinating jugs on the shelves lining the stairs, the ornate golden tea trolley with the flowered biscuit barrel, the cut glass vases on the side board, my grandmothers’ silver-backed hair brushes on the dressing table. But what I most liked was the conch. A massive shell, nearly as big as my head that sat on the table in the hall. From what I could remember it had always been there. None of the adults ever looked at it as they walked by, but I was entranced by it. From the outside it looked like a normal shell, bumpy and white, but inside it revealed a silvery grey, pearly interior, the hues of mauve reflecting in the light. Pressed to my ear the whooshing sound was almost deafening, I could hear the seagulls swooping over the white-crested waves. The sound became an escape for me where, oblivious to the adults around me, my dreams started, my dreams of going far away, perhaps on a boat or to become a lighthouse keeper on a rocky crevice out at sea.
One day I was sitting on the plush hall carpet with the conch pressed to my ear. The sound of the waves, hissing and tumbling, suddenly became more high-pitched. With a desperate urge, I knew that somehow I needed to be out of the apartment, down the stairs and gasping the fresh salty sea air. Before I knew it I had opened the apartment door and was in the dark stairwell, gripping the conch in one hand and groping for the balustrade with the other, to carefully descend onto the street below.
“Are you lost?” Suddenly the voice came out of nowhere.
My eyes tried to focus and saw the shadowy outline of a stooped elderly woman in a flowery apron. The same grey curly hair as my grandmother but older and more wrinkled.
“No” I replied hastily, trying to push my way past her down the stairs.
“Have you come for tea then?”
The next thing I knew I was sitting at a kitchen table in an apartment virtually identical to that of my grandparents, but with strangely different furniture and curtains. On the table in front of me was a teapot enshrined in a knitted tea cosy and an array of plates piled high with cakes and biscuits. I had never seen anything like it.
“How do you like your tea?” asked the old lady sitting opposite me. She seemed friendly and quite happy to have me with her, as though it was the most normal thing in the world.
“Can I have some more Battenberg cake please?” I was salivating with hunger and started stuffing a scone into my mouth, the strawberry jam oozing out of the side of my mouth.
“What’s your name then?” asked the old lady, passing me a slice of cake.
“What do you want to be when you’re older?”
“A lighthouse keeper”
“I used to live in a lighthouse, I did. I was married to a lighthouse keeper. Can you believe it? Love of my life he was. He wrote poetry you know. Walked about all the time with no clothes on! Scandalous!”
I sat there, my eyes open wide in awe.
“Lou! Lou! Are you in there? Police! Open up!” a cacophony of voices outside the apartment.
Someone was banging fiercely on the door. The old woman was screaming. I put my hands over my ears trying to dull out all the noise. I rose quickly from the chair, dragging the table cloth with my leg, my face was wet from sobbing. A plate crashed onto the floor. I ran straight to the door, reaching up and fumbling with the handle. My eyes were blurred, but I could just make out my grandparents hovering behind my parents, holding each other, my mother screaming and crying uncontrollably at the same time. whilst my father was trying to restrain her. A tall, dark-haired policeman stood in front of them, swooped me up into his arms. My mother was shrieking hysterically:
“How dare you! How dare you take my daughter! You silly, stupid old woman! You kidnapper!”
“Why did you do it Lou, run away? We were so worried” said my father, taking me from the arms of the policeman. I looked down at the floor. I really didn’t know how to answer him.
“I don’t know” I started to cry silently as he embraced me.
“I think it was the conch”.
The conch! Suddenly I noticed it was missing. No longer was it sitting on the hall table. I started to panic. Had somebody moved it? Or had it been stolen? Suddenly I remembered.
Now that so many years have passed I often wonder about the old lady. What happened to her in the end? Nobody ever spoke of her again and I never dared ask my parents. Nonetheless, I am reassured that I left the conch with her. If I close my eyes I can imagine her pressing it against her ear, rocking backwards and forwards in her armchair, listening to the waves lapping against the shore, smelling the salty air, the putrid stench of seaweed. Listening for her love in the lighthouse.