The Shell Girls by Jean Cul­lop

Lexi and I used to have so much fun to­gether. Then, one day, she was gone . . .

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ILEAN out of my bed­room win­dow and lis­ten to the sea hiss­ing on the shin­gle. Lexi and I loved this beach. Peo­ple called us the shell girls. Our house is the last of a steep ter­race lead­ing up from Pen­cary Cove from where I watch fish­ing boats bob­bing in an­tic­i­pa­tion.

To­mor­row they will leave the har­bour in a con­voy of cel­e­bra­tion. Mavis at the Cheeky Chough will pro­vide a seafood lunch, as she does ev­ery year.

The ter­race is mag­i­cal – ev­ery win­dow lit up and dis­play­ing shells, fish­ing nets . . . even mer­maids with shiny tails. To­mor­row is July 25, and peo­ple from all over Corn­wall will come to share in St James Day.

Sum­mer rain re­freshes me and I im­bibe salty air. But Mum shouldn’t be alone tonight so I go down­stairs, my foot­steps hol­low on the un­car­peted treads.

My mother is deck­ing the win­dow for Lexi, even though we have heard noth­ing from my sis­ter since she left home. Mum’s smile is su­per­fi­cial. “Ta­nia, have you come to help me?”

“I see you’re do­ing the shells again.”

“You know the story, Ta­nia. Pen­cary peo­ple des­per­ately needed seafood to salt away for win­ter. It be­ing St James Day, and he be­ing the pa­tron of shell­fish gath­er­ers, they dec­o­rated the vil­lage with shells and ap­pealed to St James and the spirit of the sea. Next day the boats brought in a mighty haul.”

“I know.”

“I hang my shells for Lexi. Any­way, shells are pretty,” she adds de­fen­sively. “This is my favourite.” I take out a blue-tinted cock­leshell and hang it high in our sash win­dow, be­cause it has his­tory.

Mum adds fairy lights and a tin­sel star.

“Tonight this shall be our star of hope,” she says. “I will leave a pasty in the porch. The piskies will bring us luck if they are fed.”

She sounds just like my grand­mother.

Old ways die hard and Mum truly be­lieves that, af­ter three years of si­lence, my sis­ter will come home.

Lexi and I were named the shell girls when we combed the beach un­der the eye of Granny Corn­wall.

Granny lives in Pen­cary, but our other grand­mother, Granny Lon­don, lives in the city. Our par­ents sep­a­rated when we were small. We hardly ever see Dad or Granny Lon­don.

But we loved Granny Corn­wall! Diminu­tive and un­con­ven­tional, with long dark hair and gold hoop ear­rings, her black gim­let eyes dis­guised the kind­est of hearts.

Lexi knew which but­tons to press, but Granny dealt with her gen­tly.

“Lexi, my lover, find me a shell a mer­maid has left be­hind,” she would say, and Lexi would for­get to be naughty and run off seek­ing a mer­maid’s purse.

Lexi was a younger, vi­brant ver­sion of me. My hair was red-brown, but Lexi had auburn tresses. My eyes were hazel, but Lexi’s were green. I am­bled qui­etly through life, but she was a fire­work.

When she hit four­teen we were con­fronted with full-on teenage re­bel­lion.

In­evitably, that and our exam stud­ies, plus new friends, led to us ne­glect­ing our beloved shells.

“The beach has missed us,” Lexi said one day, mood­ily toss­ing a peb­ble into the waves.

“Then let’s find some re­ally spe­cial things.”

I was ex­cited to dis­cover a per­fect am­monite. I had de­vel­oped an in­ter­est in palaeon­tol­ogy. I longed to study it at uni­ver­sity, but I knew it would put a strain on our fi­nances. I’d get my A-lev­els out of the way and then help Mum in her shop sell­ing col­lecta­bles. Sen­si­ble, prac­ti­cal me.

“Just think, Lexi, I’m prob­a­bly the first per­son to hold this am­monite in mil­lions of years!”

She was unim­pressed. “Let’s find more shells, Ta­nia. Mum can use them to make things

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