Thievery: The Beach Hut
On Thursdays, I invite my favourite writers to share the inspirations behind their work. Here’s one from the ever-lovely Cassandra Parkin.
Once, a brother and sister lived with their mother and father. The sister was older than the brother and she had long hair that he loved to twirl his fingers in, and for a long time she was taller than him (and even when he finally overtook her, in his head she was still always in charge).
One day, someone asked the little brother, What do you want to do when you grow up? And he replied, I’m going to live in a little house by the ocean. Just one room for me and my big sister, and we’ll wake up every morning and look out at the beach and just be all by ourselves.
But you have to have a job, the person told him. (It doesn’t matter who the person was. Every story has some people in it who are unimportant. But just so they don’t feel bad, let’s say this person was a lady called Elinor, and she had a big house and servants and seventeen cats, and she always wore a turban in the afternoons and liked to take naps on a beautiful gold brocade chaise-longue.)
I’ll write books, said the little brother.
And what about your big sister?
I’ll make enough money for both of us, said the little brother, and the lady called Elinor with the big house and the servants and the seventeen cats laughed, and went home to put on her turban and take a nap.
But the little brother didn’t mind. He and his sister had talked about their dream many times. They knew it was what they both wanted.
And they loved each other fiercely, even when they drove each other mad.
Then one day, the two children looked up and realised they were lost. Exactly how this happened, it’s impossible to say. Or perhaps it was simply too sad to talk about, so that part was always left out of their story, and after a long time, it was forgotten. Perhaps they took the wrong path on a long journey. Perhaps they were playing in a wood when darkness fell, or perhaps they sailed away in a nutshell and found themselves on a cold shore with no stars to navigate home by. Whatever the explanation, on that terrible dark day, they both looked up from whatever they were doing, and realised they no longer had a home.
And the little brother was frightened. But his big sister took his hand and said, Don’t worry, little brother. I promised I’d always look after you, and I always will. Whatever happens, I’ll always, always take care of you.
After that, the little brother knew there was nothing to be afraid of, because his big sister was holding his hand, and she would never let him go. Whatever happened, he would always be littler than she was, and she would always take care of him.
Some places are so beautiful you forgive them for occasionally trying to kill you. For me, that place is Perranporth Beach in Cornwall. Two miles of tawny sand. A saltwater lido built into the rocks. The kind of surf that even Australians admit is worth a trip. Mysterious caves that bleed into the old mine workings. A cross-current that will have you halfway across the bay in a couple of minutes. Towering black cliffs with the occasional sign saying things like “DO NOT CLIMB THESE CLIFFS”, “NO, REALLY. DO NOT CLIMB THESE CLIFFS” and “IF YOU CLIMB THESE CLIFFS YOU WILL DEFINITELY DIE, YO”. A tide that, with the wind and the full moon behind it, pours up the beach in a great foaming rush, faster than you can run.
My dad’s a Cornishman, and my whole family spent every summer of my childhood with our grandparents in Falmouth. Every day my brother and I were five minutes from the beach and six minutes from the ocean, throwing ourselves in and out of the waves, digging terrifyingly deep holes, going to chapel on Sunday mornings with our grandparents – immersed in these glorious Other Lives we’d somehow been lucky enough to be given. And – because we were kids and contractually obliged to be ungrateful – we spent really quite a lot of time nagging our parents to take us to the North Coast, so we could go to Perranporth and look at the caves and go body-boarding and get lost in the beauty and occasionally almost die.
The sea off Perranporth’s had quite a few things off my family over the years. Once we slightly misjudged the speed that the tide was coming in, and had to run all the way up the beach to escape the surge, and the sea took my best bucket as tribute. (For the record, it was an excellent bucket. Bright yellow with a green handle, in the shape of an actual castle, with windows and a door and crenellations and everything. I hope the mermaids were grateful.) Once it took my bodyboard – just ripped the tie right off my wrist, I’ll have that thank you, and then it rushed off towards the horizon and my board was gone for ever. The biggest thing it ever tried to take was my mother, when she was climbing round the rocks on the headland and a giant wave nearly washed her off the rock. She was saved by my brother, who grabbed her as the water went over her head – so we compromised on her shoe, which the wave slurped off her foot as it retreated. It also stole a decent chunk of my heart, which – along with my bucket, my bodyboard and my mother’s shoe – now lies somewhere in the North Atlantic, just off the Cornish coast.
Experiences like this leave their mark on a person. For quite a long time, my life-plan looked like this:
– Grow up
– Become a writer
– Build a house on Perranporth beach
– Live in house on Perranporth beach for ever
Obviously, houses being expensive, this house wasn’t going to be big. (I wasn’t completely clueless.) But since there was only going to be me living in it, that wouldn’t be a problem. Then one day I saw a beach hut, and thought, Yeah. That looks about right. I’ll live in a beach hut. Excellent.
In the years after the deaths of my grandparents, I felt as if my roots had been cut. Cornwall, and the ocean off Perranporth, became hard to visit. I was just a tourist. I felt bereft. Then my parents retired and moved back home to Falmouth, and suddenly I was connected again. My parents moved in September, by October I writing The Beach Hut and by November I was back on Perranporth beach, going for an out-of-season swim in the North Atlantic.
There are no lifeguards outside of the season and the waves get noticeably bigger and if you’re not acclimatised (which I wasn’t) the shock of the cold water can literally stop your heart; but I’m an idiot, so I didn’t worry about any of that. I just wanted to be in the ocean. And once I got past the first panicky minute of oh-my-God-this-is-it-this-is-how-I-die, it was magical. The water felt warmer than the air. I wanted to hide beneath the surface so the wind wouldn’t blow on me. As long as I stayed in the water, I thought I was invincible. My husband had to force me to come out. For hours afterwards I knew I was cold, but I was so high from the endorphin rush I couldn’t feel it. I could only deduce it by noticing that I was bluey-white all over and I couldn’t move my fingers or toes properly.
Experiencing that urge to do something that could literally be the death of you, because it’s also glorious and you can’t bear not to, was how The Beach Hut began. It’s about a brother and sister, Finn and Ava, who build an illegal beach hut on a Cornish beach in the autumn, and the journey that led them there, and it was inspired by a moment that combined danger with a deep sense of coming home.