To fully appreciate how good we felt that day, you need to know
that we were a generation of kids who loved to visit our local movie
theater every Saturday morning, basking in the opportunity to throw
candy at each other, to stomp our feet to the rhythm of every chase
scene, to watch a cartoon, a serial, and a feature-length movie that
always portrayed kids our age as would-be heroes who got themselves
into, and out of, a tight spot, beating the bad guys and living
to play another day. Well, that par tic u lar afternoon, we walked
away from the Cat Lady's house with a certain swagger, heads held
high and big smiles all around, because for the first time in our lives,
albeit with a quartet of abandoned kittens, and in spite of their uncertain
future, we believed we got to right a wrong, just like our idols
on the big screen.
• • •
Time has a knack for distortion - fogging the images from the past, making everything feel bigger than it really was, messing with the collage of mental snapshots pinned to the corkboard of our memory. So I have to believe the clarity with which I still see what took place on an empty beach pounded by an angry Irish Sea as a refl ection of its enduring infl uence on me.
Like most kids, I was blissfully ignorant of my family's financial and social status. Now I don't want to give the impression we were Angela's Ashes poor or anything, but I never saw a banana until I was twelve and thought that trousers were meant to be worn above the ankles, and vacations were something you did for one day and always within driving distance.
On this par tic u lar day trip our normal family dynamic was upset by the addition of my grandma and more important, and to my dismay, her four-legged escort, the infamous and menacing Marty. Quite why we had to take the poodle with us on a car ride to a sleepy seaside town in northern Wales I will never know. What I do know is the six of us piled into our Morris Minor, Mum and Dad up front, Grandma in the middle between me and my sister, Marty perched on her lap. Nobody wore seat belts back then, so for several hours we were tossed back and forth and side to side on winding country roads, my father impersonating a British Grand Prix driver as we sucked down his secondhand cigarette smoke, wondering who would be first to claim car sickness. All the while Marty kept vigil, staring me down, defending his personal space, offering me the occasional snarl and wrinkle of his upper lip, feigning innocence and doe-eyed stares every time I complained to Grandma. There's a reason why I have always found poodles to be one of the smartest breeds of dog.
When we got there we had a picnic on the beach, adults sipping hot tea from a thermos in plastic cups and commenting on the gritty sandwiches they had prepared, the ominous-looking clouds, and the threat of rain. There was the promise of ice cream later, but first my father had agreed to help Fiona build a sand castle. For some reason I was more interested in beachcombing, so my mum, Grandma, Marty, and I set off on a postprandial walk down to the water's edge.
This was autumn, off-season, chilly, and there were very few people out and about. The overcast sky blended into the ocean. We were wrapped up in sweaters and overcoats and the tide was way off in the distance, forcing us to head out across wet sandy fl ats if we wanted to get near the waves and the possibility of washed-up shells. Marty was off leash, having the time of his life, scampering around, quick and dainty, hopping from one tidal pool to the next. He didn't even mind that I was holding Grandma's hand. At the water's edge it all happened so fast. The tide was still headed out, the surf crashing hard, frothy gray breakers with quite a pull washing over the sand. This was not swimming weather (in this part of Britain it rarely ever was). This was not even paddling weather, the water icy cold to the touch. So you can imagine our concern when one minute Marty was gaily dancing in and out of the lapping foam and the next he was gone, disappearing out to sea, swallowed by a wall of gray water, quickly ten, fifteen yards out and drifting still further away. He didn't bark - he probably couldn't from the cold shock stealing his breath - he just tried to paddle, head up, neck outstretched, looking in my direction.
Excerpted from Ever By My Side by Dr. Nick Trout. Copyright © 2011 by Dr. Nick Trout. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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