“Dad,” she said, returning from a foray into the other part of the beach, the part that got cut off when the tide came in. “There’s a big box on the beach. It’s like black and big and… a box.”
“I bet it smells of fish,” said Jemima, with thirteen-year old superiority.
“Maybe it’s a coffin,” said Jack, so his sister began to whimper.
“Jack!” said his father. He took his whimpering youngest by the hand, and marched off round the rocks, ready to dispel any demons he found there.
“I’ll come!” yelled Jack, and ran after them.
Jemima trailed behind, feigning disinterest. “Duh-uh,” she said, tossing her blond hair. “It’s bound to be crap.”
When they rounded the corner of the rocks they could see the box, sticking up at an angle out of the sand, its wet black top shining darkly in the sun. It was made of metal, although whether it was painted or just old, was hard to tell.
“’Ere Dad,” said Jack, jumping forward. “Let’s open it.”
“Wait!” shouted Graham, “It might be dangerous.” The box looked like it might have been in the water for some time, and thoughts of unexploded ordinance, or of drug caches dumped overboard, began to fill his mind. “Emily,” he said to his youngest. “You did very well to tell me about this. Now, what do you think is the right thing to do?”
Emily looked up at her father, unable to discern the answer.
“Open it carefully, with a stick?” offered Jack.
“No, Jack,” said his father, sighing.
“Duh-uh!” said Jemima.
“The correct thing to do, everybody, is to report it to the authorities.” And with this, he fished his mobile phone out of the pocket of his beach shorts. He couldn’t help noticing a tinge of disappointment on all his children’s faces, but they had to learn.
Graham led the children back to where Saskia, his wife, was still reading her stupid novel. His wife was useless on holiday. She didn’t want to play beachball or have quality time at all, she just wanted to lie on the sand.
“I’ll be back in a moment, Saskia,” he said, but she just murmured and turned over the page. He climbed the stairs to the promenade, and stood in a doorway. Then he dialled 999. After several attempts, he was put through to the local police station. When he had finished explaining, there was a brief silence.
“I’ll just put you on ‘old,” said the man on the line. There was a faint clumping and knocking noise, and then the same voice said, quite clearly: “You’ll never guess what, Colin. Is that frigging box again.”
“You’re bloody joking,” said a voice in the background. “Turned up again, ‘as it? Where’s it bloody now, then?”
A few more shreds of information were passed across, in a muffled sort of way.
“Tell ‘im it’s being investigated.”
“It’s being investigated, Sir.”
Graham could feel his face flushing. In London – indeed in any half-decent city – they could be sacked for that sort of attitude. “I thought – better safe than sorry. Children on the beach – you know.”
“Absolutely Sir, absolutely,” said the man on the phone, followed by a sound like the unwrapping of tinfoil.
Graham pressed the red button.
Saskia sat up on the sand, and put down her book. She never got a chance to read in peace.
“What was in the box?” she asked.
“Dad wouldn’t let us open it,” said Jack.
“Yes, but what is it?”
The three of them shrugged in unison, like a choir of shruggers.
“Ooh,” she said. “If you want something doing, do it yourself.” She got up, dusting sand off her bottom.
“There’s nothing to see,” said Jemima, throwing herself down on the towel.
As Saskia approached the box, she noticed her family’s footsteps were already obliterated, as if no-one had been there. The sand must be very damp for the tracks to fade so quickly. She looked for signs or markings to suggest that the box might belong to a boat. Finding none, she leant down, lifted up the catch, and raised the lid.
Inside, was a thing of such horror that vomit rose up her throat.
Jemima waited, fidgeting, till her mother returned.
“Mum,” she said, “Do you think that’s Dad’s like, a bit paranoid sometimes?”
“Paranoid?” said her mother, but she seemed a bit dazed, so Jemima dropped it.
“Can I have the car keys?” she said. “I want to get my cardigan.”
Saskia handed over the keys. Jemima stuffed them into her little bag, the one she had bought in the tourist shop two days ago. She went up the lane, past her father on the phone, onto the coast path, and turned right down the steep steps to the beach where the box still lay. She raised the clip, a little gingerly, and looked inside.
The box was full of photographs.
The thing was full right to the lid. They were all kind of photographs: battered and crinkled; shiny and new; weddings and holiday snaps; school photographs; ranks of aeroplanes lined up on tarmac; models in long dresses.
She sifted them at random, and the people and cats and dogs and chalets ran through her fingers. Reluctantly, she looked around again, and put the lid down, although really she wanted to pick up the photos and examine them one by one, the dresses, the big ships, the cats with pink bows on their necks. She wondered what would happen when the police came to take away the box. She hoped they would find who owned the pictures, and not burn them or anything.
When she got back, no-one noticed that she didn’t have her cardigan.
That was easily the most interesting thing that had happened all holiday. If her Dad hadn’t been so paranoid, she would have talked about it, but her Dad would have probably accused her of disturbing a crime scene or something, and she didn’t fancy getting a bollocking on the last day of the holiday.
Jack swam out into the water. He put his feet down, feeling the push and pull of the waves. Gradually, slowly, he swam a bit to the left, then a bit further, then a bit further again.
Sometimes his family were a bit stupid.
When he was out of sight, he climbed back onto the beach, and walked up to the box. He raised the lid.
Inside was a large walrus, wearing a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles.
“Can I help you?” said the walrus.
“Erm,” said Jack. “No, sorry – not really. I just wondered what was inside the box.”
The walrus raised a flipper, and tapped the side of its nose. “Secret mission,” it said. “Very important you don’t tell anyone that you aw me. Sandwich?” it added, offering Jack what appeared to be a sardine buttie.
“No thanks,” said Jack.
“Better close the lid,” said the walrus. “Before anyone notices.”
Jack replaced the lid, carefully, and walked off, down the beach.
That night, as the barbecue cooled, Graham did something despicable. He waited till his wife was in the shower, opened the toolbox in the back of the car, and checked the contents.
“You know,” he said when his wife returned, “I think I left my fleece on the beach.”
“You’ll never see that again,” she said.
“Honestly, Saskia – you’re such a defeatist,” he said.
Graham drove off, forcing a smaller car to retreat up the single-lane road. Over dinner he had become convinced that the box contained something really important. It was obviously full of cocaine – kilos and kilos of the stuff, and when the proper police managed to override those clueless, provincial oiks, he would be credited with the biggest drugs seizure made all year. It would lead to the conviction of a big Mafia Don – a real important guy that the cops had been after for years, and his persistence, his find of the box would be the key. Graham could already see himself, in a witness protection programme, trailed by a security minder, and having to change his name and his job and maybe get a hair transplant and some cosmetic surgery so the Mafia couldn’t find him.
The tide had come further in, but the box was still visible. He balanced the torch on a rock, took a screwdriver from the toolkit, leant forward, inserted it under the clasp, and heaved. The clasp remained stubbornly stuck.
Sighing, he crouched a little closer. He knew he was being irrational – it was possible that the thing would blow up in his face – but he felt that he was being left no choice – no choice – at all.
Nothing moved. The thing was obviously more corroded than it looked. He put down the screwdriver, and gave it one quick, sharp blow with the axe. A dull, ringing sound came from inside. That sound infuriated him. It was like the bloody thing was laughing at him. He dropped the axe onto his foot, and stuck his fingers under the lid, groaning and swearing. The box moved slightly in the sand.
He went back to the car, found a can of oil and the car jack. He oiled the clasp, took a larger screwdriver. He tried the jack. He took the axe again, and hit the box from different angles. He became aware that he was grunting, and that, if discovered, he would find it hard to explain his actions.
A frenzy of frustration came over him. Tears spilled from his eyes. This was his whole life laid out – a life in which all his good efforts, all his intentions were mocked, in which he was nobody, and all his PowerPoint presentations on useful ways to improve the distribution structure of the regional offices were thrown, unceremoniously, in the regional director’s personal waste bin.
He kicked the box, then jumped around, clutching his toes. He seized the axe, and in a frenzy, began beating it. A kind of hollow, clonking noise came from inside. He raised his voice and yelled. In the quietness that followed, he became aware that his foot was bleeding. The fug of humiliation filled his whole body.
Defeated, he limped back up the path.
The next day, they were already 30 miles up the road, when Jemima said,
“Ere, Mum, did you give Emily those pearls?”
“What pearls?” said Saskia, juggling the road atlas on her lap.
“Those pearls. The one’s she’s wearing.”
“Have you got some pearls, dear?” asked Saskia, turning round.
“No,” said Emily, in defiance of the obvious evidence. Saskia could see them wound tight round her little neck.
“Did you give them to her?” Saskia asked her husband.
“What pearls?” he said, and began to overtake a caravan.
“Uh!” said Jack. “She stole them.”
“Jack!” said his father.
“She must have got them with her pocket money,” said Jemima.
“They look like very good fakes,” said Saskia, doubtfully, although what she actually thought was, Christ, they look real. “Where did they come from, dear?”
Silence descended on the car. Everyone, apart from Graham, who was driving, stared at Emily.
“Emily!” he said. “Answer your mother’s question.”
“Yeah – you liar!” said Jack.
Emily began to cry.
“Right – that’s it!” shouted Graham, and seeing a petrol station in the distance, he began to pull over. “Everybody out! Not you – Emily.”
Saskia, Jack, and Jemima went into the services.
“Mum, you look a bit ill,” said Jemima, but her mother was already sprinting for the toilets. She followed her in, but there was only a locked cubicle, and the sound of retching. Jemima retreated, and leant against the sinks.
Emily had obviously got the necklace from underneath the photographs. It must have been down there – maybe there was other jewellery, and she hadn’t dug down, hadn’t looked, hadn’t had the guts – how stupid! She kicked the base of the sink, furious with herself.
Jack looked at the crisps in the shop. It seemed unfair – Emily had got a bloody necklace, and all the walrus had offered him was a lousy fish sandwich! He peeked through the window. In the forecourt, he could see his father shouting at Emily, who was crying in the back seat of the 4x4.
After a while his father stormed into the shop.
“I can’t get a thing out of her,” he fumed. “I think you may be right, Jack – she may have stolen them. The humiliation, I – at least the other members of this family know right from wrong and – “
Something in his son’s face made him know that Jack, too, had opened the box.
“How d’you get in?” he yelled. “How d’you get in?”
Jack recoiled, his face twitching. “I dunno what you’re on about, Dad.”
Graham stormed out into the foyer again, but at that moment, his wife and daughter appeared, looking terrible. “Er, Dad, I think she’s like, not well,” said Jemima. She looked a bit frightened. Saskia’s face was white, and her eyes red from crying.
“I want a divorce,” she said. “I’ve done something terrible.”
Graham stared at his wife like she had just declared herself to be a Martian.
“You’ve all gone mad,” he said. “Mad! Get in the car!” And then he saw his reflection in the glass of the foyer, a middle-aged man, red-faced, puffy, balding and swearing, with his hands clenched into fists, and the desire – the urge – to smash something, overwhelmed him so fast, he let out a moan.
But when they got back to the car, there was no-one there. Emily was gone. The doors were locked, and the keys were in Graham’s pocket, but Emily was just gone.
They searched in the toilets and in the restaurant and half an hour passed. They called the police. Another hour passed, and more policemen arrived, and they searched everywhere, and she was still nowhere – nowhere at all.
Two policeman came and took Jack aside in the café and got out notebooks and wrote down everything he said about how their Dad had been grumpy and their Mum had been ill and everything and at last he said:
“I think it may have been something to do with the box, actually.”
The policeman stopped writing. He pushed his glasses up his nose, peered at Jack, and looked at his colleague.
“Colin,” he said, ”I can’t believe it!”
The other policeman shook his head, sadly. “Sorry son,” he said. “Happens every year, somewhere.”
“We can’t get rid of it.”
“We can’t even find it.”
And with this, they sighed, flipped their notepads shut, and drained the last of their coffee.