The Shell Girls by Jean Cullop
Lexi and I used to have so much fun together. Then, one day, she was gone . . .
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 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