Two people, a married couple, were asking questions in anxious tones. They stood at the counter of a seaside cafe, talking to its owner and her waitresses. After a short time the couple left the building, still troubled. Samia Basu came back from the Ladies room and returned to her seat. Madonna's voice emerged from a speaker close by, and it was the sound of Samia's childhood.
Drumbeats danced on her memory cells. Samia drank bitter coffee. Hot sun had made her thirsty. It was her first time here so the eateries were unfamiliar. She wouldn't be returning to this one for the chocolate cake had been too dry. Other diners were outlined against bright windows, features obscured the glare. A reproduction of a poster from the 1930s hung close by her. It showed white sea cliffs in bright colours. Outside, two black-headed gulls flew past. The worried couple walked away and he embraced her, clearly attempting reassurance but with little success. Samia glimpsed them through a window and wondered what their trouble was.
Samia went to the bar to pay her bill. Sunshine glinted on drinking glasses and fell on a bar menu. A young woman with fair hair stood behind the bar, but she was intent on her phone and didn't seem to notice her customer. Hackles rising, Samia was about to snap at her when an older woman emerged from the kitchen and took the money.
Whilst leaving Samia thought "Mum taught me to be polite and curtious to guests, even when I was little. I always helped in serving when friends and relatives called; never mind if I missed my favourite T.V. show or ate last." A passer-by stared at her headscarf and unfashionable, loose-fitting trousers but she didn't care. She had grown tired of intense pressure to by physically perfect and covering up reduced it.
That cafe lay on the outskirts of an ex-fishing village, now dependent on tourism. Pleasure craft ruled a harbour that once had reeked of fish. Samia walked out of the settlement, up a steep road and onto cliff top tracks.
Surrounding fields wore a special bloom unique to early summer. Youthful grasses almost glowed from within. Yellow buttercups, white daisies and flecks of purple clover attracted bees. A raven soared overhead, turned upside down in mid-air, then righted himself. Below him, sunshine danced on waves. Narrow beaches lay strewn with pebbles and foam splashed on rocks. Gentle sea breezes prevented the woman from sweating.
Up ahead there was a small cove with steep cliffs of bright chalk. Barbed wire and strong poles prevented people from falling over the edge. Samia looked down and saw two figures at the foot of those cliffs. "They'll have to move soon," she thought "or they'll get cut off by the tide." Her dark eyes scanned vistas that stretched inland, over white cow parsley and yellow oilseed rape. Hawthorn in boundary hedges had lost its May blossom but not yet sprouted berries. Looking down again she asked herself "why don't those two go, before...." Then she looked more carefully and it hit her - they already had been cut off by the tide. They were in danger of drowning, for the sea level continued to rise.
Samia hurried nearer and paced the clifftop looking for a way down. There was no sign of one. Fear gripped her. She got as close to the edge as barbed wire would allow and peered over. Those below were young girls, perhaps twelve years old. Both held mobile phones, but each looked alarmed and frustrated. Samia thought "They can't get a signal! What are they going to do?" Stress hormones invaded her bloodstream.
It occured to Samia that, since she was high above the girls perhaps she could make a call while they couldn't. Gripping smooth plastic she punched in 999. To her great relief an operator answered and she explained the situation. Moments later she was alerting the coastguard. They promised to send help immediately.
Samia's first reaction was relief. Then her body tensed again, to the point where both biceps ached and her fists clenched. She didn't know where the nearest lifeboat or helicopter was, and so not how long before help arrived. Far below, the tide was still coming in. White capped waves slapped rocks on their way in, then embraced them before receding. Those girls weren't out of danger yet. Samia cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted "someone's coming!" The two below retreated to the foot of the cliff. One stumbled but her friend helped her up. They hugged one another tight. Samia doubted if they'd heard her above the noise of waves on pebbles. What must they be feeling? The woman shuddered to think about it. Had their parents missed them? If so then they would be anxious, even if they didn't yet know the full story.
As she couldn't do anything more to help, Samia cast her mind back to what had brought her there. She was working on a biography of a spy who had operated during World War II. This agent's name was Noor Inayat Kahn and she had radioed information to Britain from Occupied France. She evaded capture for longer than most and passed important information on to the British, Then she was betrayed to ruthless Nazis, captured and executed. Now that Samia had reached that point in Noor's story, she was researching grim evidence of how her heroine had been tortured. Samia had every intention of resuming her research, but for now she felt like a break from those grisly details and had come to the seaside to enjoy one.
She stood no chance of relaxing now, up above the cove. Where were those coastguards? When would that lifeboat arrive? Stress rose in Samia like a powerful currant. Was she about to see two people die? She paced the grassy clifftop on another fruitless search for some way down. A red-billed chough soared by on glossy black wings; according to legend it was King Arthur reborn. On the horizon sea and sky appeared to merge. Both were blue as a peacock's neck. Please, let one yield a lifeboat or the other a helicopter. She didn't consider herself devout but now sent up a silent plea. Dry earth crunched under her soles, then grass brushed her ankles. Remembering Noor she felt inadiquate by comparison.
At last, a blob of bright orange appeared further down the coast. It quickly became a lifeboat with a wake of bright foam. Those children waved frantically, hands slicing air. As the boat entered the cove it rose up and dipped down, because strong currants flowed across the entrance creating waves. Behind it, azure crests healed quickly. Samia felt glad that she wasn't on board or she might've lost her dinner. Respect for those who were out there swelled in her breast, like updrafts used by soaring birds.
The lifeboat made shallow water and halted near fissured cliffs. Two helmeted people scrambled out of it, wading thigh deep to get ashore. From high above Samia watched as they each lifted a girl, then carried them back to their craft. As foaming sea got deeper wading became harder, but they deposited both children in the lifeboat before climbing in after them. No words were enough to describe the depths of Samia's relief. Sweat dripped off her nose and long fingers trembled. Only now did she realise her feet felt sore. She had been on coastal walks with her parents, but that was years ago and she was out of practice.
The lifeboat turned and left the cove, an orange wave-cutter. Samia began walking back the way she had come, sounds of breaking waves in her ears. She met another walker and asked for directions to the lifeboat station, which he gave her. That raven glided behind her, and his tail was wedge-shaped; a black diamond in mid-air. Cirrus clouds spread like a giant sky fan. It was a pity that dozy waitress wasn't here or she might've learned what real work was about.
The barrel-roofed lifeboat station sat atop a slipway. How many times had it been a processional way? How often the route of a funeral march? When Samia arrived the sleek fibreglass boat had already landed. Figures in yellow dry suits and scarlet lifejackets attended those two girls, bringing coffee, asking gentle questions. Seeing that the worst was over, the author stepped over spilt ice-cream and approached a group of crewmen. One of their number looked very young under a white helmet. Had she seen him before? She couldn't think where.
"Hello, my name's Samia and it was me who rang the coastguard about these girls. I thought I should check that they're all right now."
One of the crew replied "they're both okay physically, thanks for asking. They're a bit shaken up emotionally but that'll pass. Both sets of parents know they've been rescued, and they're on their way here."
"I'm glad to hear it," said Samia, then she recounted how she had come to be on the clifftop. Engines of cars and cries of gulls accompanied her. A toddler howled, making Samia glad she wasn't a parent.
One of the children approached that young-looking crew member and said "thank you very much for carrying me to your boat."
It was a female voice which replied saying "all part of the service Amy."
Then Samia knew where she'd seen that face before; on the girl in the cafe, she who had been engrossed in her phone.
"You did a great job today," Samia told the young woman. "I take my hat off to you... sorry, what's your name?"
"Freya," said the younger woman whilst removing her headgear.
"Why did you join the lifeboat? Was your Dad on the crew?"
"Mum was," Freya replied. "She was the first woman on our local crew. She's retired but I'm carrying on the family tradition."
A look of recognition crossed Freya's face. "You were in our cafe earlier weren't you," she said. "I'm sorry if I ignored you, but Amy's parents came in asking if anyone had seen her. Of course we hadn't had your call yet, but I thought I should check if I'd missed something on my phone."
As sunshine faded behind a small cloud, the writer recalled that couple who had walked away from the café, evidently fretting over something. She looked at Amy and spotted a resemblance between her and the woman - of course, they were mother and daughter.
In terms of appearence Freya and Samia were as different as marsh and desert, but that didn't matter now. The writer replied - with a smile - "that's all right now, you've done more than enough to make up for it."
Out in the sunny harbour, pleasure craft sat moored in rows. White masts pointed gull-wards.
Last edited by IanG; 05-03-2018 at 03:10 AM..