The fast-moving stream tumbles over the weir on its urgent rush to the sea. Male harlequin ducks bounce like large, colourful corks on the turbulent water. Their striking, definitive markings in various blues, greys and browns, contrast with deep black and vivid white, and have always captivated me. The town is still looking after some of them here, far away from their native habitat, in a ramshackle duck house surrounded by shabby fencing.
The burros have long gone, but I can see them in my mind’s eye lined up on the beach, resplendent with blue saddles and yellow halters, waiting to carry their light loads up and down the shore, splashing in the waves, much to the delight of many children.
Other memories of this small town, where I spent my summers as a child, aren’t ones to be treasured.
From an early age, I don’t recall when, I was put on the train by my mother, and travelled here on my own - a place where I knew virtually no-one. I felt as if I was imprisoned for the summer in my grandparents’ large, cold, damp and dismal house which smelled of stale tobacco and sour milk. My bedroom overlooked the park and I’d watch the ducks bobbing for food, tails in the air, and the old men playing bowls, and the luckier children running in spurts around the slide.
My grandfather took me out for the occasional walk to the sea wall where he would peer through the telescope mounted on a stone post and watch the ships. Nothing could be more boring. Once you’ve seen one large freighter moving at a snail’s pace in the distance, you’ve seen them all. I would find more excitement in seaweed being washed up on the colourful pebbles below, or, depending on the tide, the seemingly gaseous spray thrust high into the air as the tumultuous sea thrashed at the rocks. All I could do was look around me. I wasn’t permitted to walk on the beach for fear of ruining my leather shoes. And it was out of the question to go barefoot: the danger being that I might bring sand into that dank and dingy house.
Not until his death did I realize why my grandfather was so interested in the movements of ships: he’d been watching the ferries crossing over from France, carrying his cargo in specially adapted vans.
This cargo was living, or hanging onto life – being smuggled into Britain by a small group of which my grandfather was a part - to be used like commodities. These human beings were sold to other gangs who would use them as forced labour or in the illicit sex-trade.
When my grandfather died, my mother called me into her bedroom and asked me to sit on the edge of the bed with her. She put her small hand on my thigh and looked at me, her dark eyes curiously moist, her black hair uncharacteristically dishevelled and her light brown complexion oddly sallow. As she spoke, I realized how blind I’d been, how unquestioning, how accepting. Her sorrow was her shame at having deceived me; there were no tears for my grandfather.
That man was my father. His purchase of my mother from an organized crime syndicate was the beginning of his involvement in human smuggling.
But he fell in love with her, and she lived as his mistress. But she told me that he behaved as if he owned her until his dying day. She didn’t feel loved. She just felt used.
No wonder my grandmother was cold, unloving and sometimes downright cruel to me. She must have known.
I met with my grandfather’s lawyer this morning. (I cannot refer to him as my father). He left nothing in his will for my grandmother or my mother. His small fortune, including the house has been left to me.
As soon as matters are settled, I’m giving the house to my grandmother. And I’ll give half of the money to my mother so that she can help underprivileged people in her native country. Perhaps we’ll connect with some of our family members. And I’ll make substantial donations to the donkey sanctuary and to the town for improvement to the duck enclosure and the brook.
That still leaves me with lots of dough. A life-changer. I can definitely turn down that assertive offer for a lucrative job which was made by one of grandfather’s connections. I’ll set up my own law practice and specialize in human rights cases: that’s what I studied law to do in the first place.
But I wonder what I would have done if I hadn’t inherited grandfather’s fortune? Would I have been tempted to follow in his footsteps and taken that job?
Vicky Earle Copyright 2018