Feel the sand under your feet, taste the ice cream and revel in the wistful nostalgia of long-lost true love…
“Hello? Can you help us? We just found this in the sand.” Two little faces peered over the still of my ice cream van.
A small, hot hand thrust towards me, brandishing a key with a small silver fish attached. I took it gently and leaned forward to get a better look at my visitors.
The taller of the two, a girl, bore the expression of a long-suffering mother despite being all of nine years old. The smaller child, a boy, was about six and had a bright, cheeky face dusted with freckles and sand.
“I found it!” he grinned. “In the dunes. I saw it in the sand, like real fish. Margo told me we had to hand it in because someone might be looking for it; Margo’s my sister.”
“Freddy wanted to keep it. I explained it wasn’t right to do that,” she informed me, in an endearingly grown-up tone.
“Hmm, let’s see… yes, Freddy, it’s true, this looks like a hotel key and could be extremely important. Imagine if a person is here on the beach, in nothing but swimming trunks and goes to get changed for dinner but he can’t get into his room!” Freddy’s face turned into a cartoon expression of delight at the image.
“He could ask the receptionist to let him in to his room,” ventured Margo, very reasonably. “They do that, you know. I’ve seen it on films.”
“Quite right. Well, I think you’ve both been very sensible in bringing this key to my ice cream van. You both deserve a congratulatory ice cream for your honesty and good citizenship.”
As they sauntered happily back up the beach slurping their rewards, I took a closer look at the key ring.
The silver fish was the length of a finger, pleasantly smooth and rounded. On the back, ‘Seafoam’ had been inscribed, suggesting to me an establishment that had named its rooms rather than attributing numbers. There was nothing else, but I figured that I could do some detective work online to find the right hotel.
The rest of the afternoon passed quickly as the clouds dispersed and the crowds thickened. I’ve known this resort for 40 years and it still pulls at my heartstrings to see the beach in full swing. Families stumble down the path clutching bags, towels and babies, hesitating before they select their prime spot. Teenagers tumble over the dunes, landing in heaps and carelessly throwing down towels.
Occasionally, there are children like Margo and Freddy who have been sent “to get some fresh air” and of course, you have the older couples who set up camps of comfy deckchairs and cool-boxes, then stroll along the shore, hand in hand. Those are the ones who make my heart sigh.
At 56, I envy the slow contentment of older sweethearts far more than the teens with their energy and optimism. I’ve had my fair share of youthful exuberance and some of the best days of my life were spent right on this very beach. Truth be told, it’s why I’m still here, 40 years after my first summer.
Holidays were far simpler back in the 70s. Programmes like Wish You Were Here with Judith Chalmers were new and aspirational, revealing exotic places like Benidorm, but most viewers never dreamed of hopping on a plane for two weeks in foreign sunshine.
Our family would travel to Bournemouth and I’d be squashed between my brother and sister. Dad was a carpet-fitter and, near the end of every August, he’d strip out the can then bolt in the bench seat. We’d sit in a line, overexcited and impatient, competing to catch our first glimpse of the sea. If we were lucky, Dad would put on his eight-track tapes of the Beatles or The Who and Mum would hand out bottles of Panda pop.
I’ll never forget the summer that Celia’s tummy took a dislike to cherry fizz, but that’s story for another time!
The first time we came here, I would have been just 16. Tall for my age, my dad was forever reminding me to stand up straight, especially that summer.
Looking back, I probably looked like most other teenagers but at the time I remember feeling conspicuous and ungainly, hair sprouting where it hadn’t before and an attraction for the opposite sex that made me suddenly shy of getting changed on a beach.
I remember as vividly as if it were yesterday the first time I saw Caterina standing at the shore. Our family had set up base in the usual spot, strategically between the steps, sea and refreshment booth. I’d started walking towards the water when this vision of a young woman in a costume stopped me in my tracks.
I felt my face burn with a mixture of desire, shame and confusion. She was beautiful by anyone’s standards but she simply stood, gazing at the horizon as if unaware of anything or anyone around her. I, on the other hand, felt utterly exposed yet I couldn’t take my eyes off her.
“Ethan! What are you gawping at?”
My sister, Celia, barged into me on her route to the waves, knocking me off balance so that I almost fell. Her laughter prompted the young woman to turn and look at me and in that very moment, when those dark, almond eyes met mine. I knew. It was as if a little voice in my head murmured, of course.
Almost immediately after, my little brother Mikey bashed my knee with his bucket as he ran past, and the spell was broken – but not before I’d gained a slow smile from her.
I’d love to tell you that we spent lazy days and lingering evenings in each other’s arms, and that it was a summer love that eased into a lifetime, but it wasn’t so simple. In fact, that first summer, the only time I spoke to her was the next day at the refreshment booth.
“Oh, sorry, were you here before me?” she asked. I had been, but gestured her to go ahead.
“So, umm,” I muttered, desperate not to let the opportunity go. “You here with your family, too?”
“Um-hmm, we come to my aunt’s every summer. I love this beach.”
“Me, too.” My brain tried to think of something irresistibly seductive but failed. We shuffled forward in the queue. I didn’t have much time. If I’d had more money I could have treated her to something but I only had a pound note.
“My name’s Ethan,” I blurted, and her face broke into a symphony of a smile. Angels might have sung, at that point.
“Well, hello, Ethan, I’m Caterina.” This sounded wonderfully exotic. All the girls in my school were called Sharon, Stephanie or Tracy.
“Oh! Here we go, ice cream time. I love ice cream, don’t you?”
I did, and I still do. I love how ice cream can make us all children again.
I’m an ice cream man today because of her, really; not because of my excellent education and track record managing blue-chip companies. A stress-related heart-attack at 52 stopped me short, and when I was strongly advised to opt for a relaxed lifestyle, my first thought, out of the blue, was selling ice creams on Bournemouth beach.
Of course all my colleagues thought I was joking. Even my former boss asked me gently, with the best intentions, if I was quite sure what I was doing. The truth was, despite various relationships through the years, I’d never completely forgotten my first love, Caterina – and while I’d excelled working in the city, part of me had always remained here, because my adoration of Caterina lasted way beyond that first conversation.
We bumped into each other the following summer, when she surpassed even the dreams I’d conjured of her eyes, smile and figure over the intervening months. Of course, all the elegant phrases I’d composed disappeared from my mind when I saw her, so that we only had a few very ordinary conversations. It wasn’t until the third summer that we finally became close.
What can I tell you that you won’t already know about teenage romance? I was 18 by then, and although I’d had a few girlfriends at school, I was no Casanova. My sentimental nature meant that I’d already placed Caterina on a pedestal; she was a lot to live up to.
Yet, in that summer of 1977, when we finally became boyfriend and girlfriend, Caterina lived up to everything; I was utterly smitten, became the best version of myself when I was with her – and the worst sort of moping puppy when I wasn’t.
“Ethan, for heaven’s sakes, we’ve hardly seen you at all,” Mum complained, plastering Mikey with sun cream. “The reason I persuaded your Dad to come for three weeks this time was to really enjoy our time as a family before you go off to university. Instead, you wolf down your breakfast, grab a sandwich and you’re out all day with this girl!”
“Ethan, I understand that you’ve got feelings for her, I do remember what it’s like, but listen to what I’m saying. We’ve only got five days left. Once we get home, it’s a couple of weeks and you’ll be off.”
I knew what Mum was saying and she was right. Uni was only weeks away, but I was desperate to see Caterina at every available moment. All those pop songs about feeling sick when you’re not with the one you love had made sense this summer. It was dreadful… but the pay off was wonderful.
Of that summer with Caterina I have nothing but wonderful memories. Looking back, Mum was right about that being our last holiday as a family: we sat around the little caravan every evening playing card games and eating shortbread, or cooking bacon and eggs on the gas stove.
They are some of my happiest, most precious memories. Dad passed away a few years ago and only then did I realize how little I’d seen him after I’d left home.
It’s encouraged me to spend more time visiting Mum, occasionally bringing her to stay in the spare room of my seaview apartment. She loves to stroll along the seafront here as well, reminiscing.
As for Celia and Mike, we all catch up now and again but their lives are as busy as mine always was, before I fled to the sea. Celia has written this off as a midlife crisis, and Mike – a marine biologist – celebrates the craziness of his white-collar older brother becoming a sandal-wearing ice-cream vendor.
The kids, Margo and Freddy, returned the following day to ask if the owner of the key had materialized.
“No, but I think the key is from a hotel at the other end of the seafront,” I confided. “I left them a message this morning so maybe we’ll solve this mystery before you guys go home. How long are you here?”
“It’s the end of summer. We leave on Friday,” deflated visibly at the thought.
“It’s not fair. I want to stay on holiday for always,” he pouted, and I rather agreed with him.
After our magical fortnight together, Caterina and I stayed in touch, reuniting for a second glorious holiday then writing letters and calling, but eventually, we drifted apart. We lived too far from each other to maintain the romance and it was tougher back then – pre-internet.
Years later, I tried searching for her online but it never came to anything. The one link I had, her father’s restaurant business, had been bought out and the family had moved on.
I had a couple of long-term relationships but mostly I focused on my career. I have a fantastic apartment and enough investments to ensure that the ice cream van can be purely for pleasure and company.
Yet my sentimental heart had never quite been satisfied.
Of course, you’ve probably already guessed why this story had to be told. That evening when I answered the phone, it took my breath away.
“Hello, I’m sorry I couldn’t do so earlier, but I’m returning your call about the key ring.”
“That’s right, I…”
“Sorry to interrupt, but in your message, did you say Ethan Varney?”
Suddenly I recognized her voice.
Yes, it’s crazy and ludicrous and wonderful. The local paper did a colour feature and some TV people got in touch asking in film at the wedding… it’s unbelievable!
The very next morning when Caterina’s figure approached the ice cream van, my heart lifted, then dipped, then soared. I got out and we just stood there, looking at each other. We’ve both been through decades of living, but in that moment all that mattered was that we were both there again, on our beach.
“Ethan,” she whispered, and put her hand to my face, exactly as I remembered.
“I tried to find you, Caterina, but I couldn’t. Did you… change your name?”
“I never married,” she said, answering the implied question, then blushed. “Caterina is my middle name, from my Italian mother. My first name is Stephanie, that’s why you never found me. For you I wanted to be Caterina, not to be ordinary.”
As if anyone could be more extraordinary.
Over lunch, we discovered we’d both moved back to the same beach within a month of each other – me to my apartment and ice cream van, Caterina to open a boutique hotel. We were obviously meant to be together, but obviously not until now. Having met for the first time at summer’s end, it didn’t surprise me in the least that we would finally be together at the summer’s end of our lives.
“Don’t you feel sad for the time you missed?” asked one interviewer.
“Not at all!” laughed Caterina. “We feel happy for the lives we’ve had, and immensely thankful that we found each other again. Nothing to regret.”
That’s the headline they chose for the newspaper article. Best of all, the paper paid for Freddy and Margot to come back to Bournemouth and presented them with a Good Citizenship Award.
Caterina and I have offered them free ice creams for life and a week’s holiday at the hotel every year, but frankly they seem most pleased about the ice creams for now.
Of course if defines the odds that the key should have been handed to me, of all people, and that we should have found each after so long – but that’s what love does, isn’t it? It defies the odds.
We’re both older, but we’re together and life’s very sunny. This year, as the season ends, it feels as if my summer is only just beginning.
Source: My Weekly
Feel the sand under your feet, taste the ice cream and revel in the wistful nostalgia.....Read Detail
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