The boat was only big enough for two, which was fine, because there were only two of them on the journey. The sea which had once been so very rough was now a flat and peaceful landscape for them to push through. She stood at the head of the boat and signalled to him when they had reached the perfect spot to drop anchor. It was past Wedding Cake Island and then a little to the left; not very far, but far enough to be away from other people. He dropped the anchor and they floated there, the two of them sitting cross-legged, side by side, facing the massive expanse of blue and white. Her hand slid slowly, secretly into the pocket of her jacket and she took out the cache of jewels which she had dug up out of their backyard that very morning. She didn’t open the hessian sack to look at them, she simply let it fall from her hand down into the blue water. It made a very slight splashing sound as it landed in the water, and then it was gone. He looked at her for the first time that day, and he said “I think you may have dropped something.” She turned to him and nodded.
After a while they decided to sail back home. He pulled up the anchor and they picked up speed as the wind blew them towards the shore. When they finally walked through the front door, all of the children were lined up in the hallway with serious faces. The eldest boy had what looked like tear-streaks down his cheeks. “Someone stole the jewels again,” he said to them, and the other children nodded and the baby sniffed a couple of times and wiped his nose on his sleeve. “What?” asked their father, “Again?” They all nodded slowly and stood together without moving, in complete silence. “That’s all right,” said their mother, “It wasn’t a stranger who stole from us, don’t worry, I dug the jewels up myself.” They all turned to her, shocked by what she had said, trying to understand what she meant.
Their father suddenly understood. He turned to her with this new knowledge in his eyes, a knowledge of a boat big enough for two and an endless ocean and a cache of jewels floating down, down, down to the sand. “Well, that’s that then,” he said. “Yes,” said their mother, “but it doesn’t mean that we don’t love you any more.” The children didn’t understand what their mother and father meant; they only understood that their mother had taken the jewels and had hidden them somewhere else, somewhere only adults could find. Then, surprisingly, the baby stepped forward and looked at his father’s damp sailing-shoes, and his mother’s wind-blown hair, and he said “Did you take the jewels sailing with you?” His mother nodded, and his father looked down at his hands, and that was that.
I wasn’t there when all of this happened. I only heard about it afterwards; after the house was sold, and the boat was sold, and the dog found itself a new owner in a new home. The mother told me her side of the boat, and the father told me his side of the boat, so that I sailed away with each of them past the island and out into the open sea. But, at the end of the day, I always found myself sitting on a bench at the beach, looking out at the vast expanse of water and wondering to myself which side was true, and which was false.
From then on, every day, after work, I’d wander back down to that beach and find myself on that bench again and again and again. Once, while I was sitting there on my bench, I thought I saw something floating on the water. It was something that looked quite similar to a hessian sack of jewels, and it was being pushed towards the shore by a series of cascading waves, all foamy and full of promise. But I was wrong, for when I stood up from the bench and ran towards the sea, I could see it was merely an empty, plastic shopping bag floating on the water. I reached out to grab it, and suddenly found myself engulfed in the waves, and pulled by the current.
Of course, I managed to save myself from drowning that day. I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this if I hadn’t survived. I am not sure how I found the strength to pull myself out of the power of that ocean, but I did, and I returned to my bench the very next day, and every day that followed, to continue looking out at the horizon.
On one of those days, to my surprise, I found the children sitting there on my bench and staring out at the ocean. They were all there, even the baby, who wasn’t such a little baby any more. When they saw me they moved over to make room for me to sit down on the bench with them. “There are always so many people sitting at the beach and looking out at the water,” said the baby, “Do you think they are all looking for jewels?” I turned and looked at the baby with love. “I remember the day your mother and father called me to tell me you were born,” I said to the baby. “After they told me the news that you had arrived in the world, I decided to go for a walk along the beach. On that day the beach was covered with the most beautiful shells, and I started to collect them. I stuffed them into my pockets and brought them home and put them in a bowl, and the following day, when I went to visit your mother in the hospital, I brought the bowl of shells to her as a present.” The children were all looking at me now, instead of at the ocean, so I continued telling them my story. “You know what sea-shells are? Really? They’re jewels that have been in the ocean for such a long time that the water and the salt changes their shape and colour and texture.” “How long does it take for a lost jewel to turn into a shell and come back to the beach?” asked the eldest child. “I can’t answer that,” I told him.
That all happened a long time ago, and I still can’t answer that question. But I’ve started collecting shells again. Just in case.