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The Good Stuff
Short Story
by Lesley Mace
Length: 1,500 words

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Pete and Ellie teased each other about the conch shell for months, their laughter rippling warmly through the calm waters of their loving relationship.

The huge shell came from the charity shop where Ellie worked as deputy manager. From the state it had been in when she first saw it, she guessed that the previous owner had used it as a flowerpot. Deciding it was unsellable the manager had dropped it onto the forlorn pile of rejects, but later that day Ellie rescued it and brought it home to the flat.

While Pete watched, she attacked it with a bottlebrush and the pearly pink beauty of the shell’s interior emerged - gleaming, from the crust of filth that had covered it. Pete was amazed at the transformation; he told her she was lucky to find it, because conch shells were collectors items and usually very expensive. She placed the shell, carefully, in the middle of the mantelshelf, under the gold-framed mirror and each day her morning face was reflected above it, as she hurriedly made up for work. They got into the habit of tucking their lottery tickets into it for luck.

Pete searched the Web to find out where the shell might have come from and printed out some pages for her. The pictures showed an opulent holiday home in the Bahamas called Conch'd Out, promising views of the ocean, "from every room". The dreaming island of Eleuthera floated, pink-sanded, in the clear sparkling loveliness of Caribbean waters. Ellie laughed at him, and looked at the printout longingly.

They joked about the contrast between Eleuthera and Weston-Super-Mare, which was the actual destination for their annual holiday that year. Secretly, Pete reviewed their finances and knew they would never be able to afford the Bahamas. He bought an extra lottery ticket that week.

Weston-Super-Mare was a holiday to remember. When Ellie looked back on it afterwards, she saw it as a series of memory snap shots. They stayed at a neat, clean and pretty little B&B run by a neat, clean and pretty elderly lady. The views in the Cheddar Gorge were stunning and they walked all around it, looking down on the twisting road from the dizzying heights of menacing crags. Their leg muscles ached with all the exercise.

In the afternoons, they stopped at little teashops that served warm, yeasty, homemade scones that crumbled under piles of strawberry jam and local clotted cream. On rainy days they wandered around the ancient town of Wells with its beautiful cathedral and winding, narrow streets, full of quaintly overhanging buildings.

During that holiday they both enjoyed their trips to the beach the most, even though they wisecracked about it being Weston-Super-Mud. They trawled slowly up and down along the water's edge, heads down, beachcombing. They found odd shaped pieces of driftwood, crystal banded pebbles and sea-tumbled, rainbow coloured glass.

Ellie teased that their conch shell would look a bit out of place on this seashore, probably as out of place as they would look on the sands of Eleuthera. Pete flipped a rope of glittering spray at her with his bare foot. As he raced off, she ran threateningly toward him over the brown, gritty sand and they chased each other, laughing, like children playing tag. Finally they collapsed, puffed out, beside a breakwater, warmed by the August sun.

The breakwater had trapped some shells, a rare find on this beach – most of the shells they had seen were broken or slimy green. One perfect little shell lay on its own, smoothly white and banded with blue. Pete placed it on the palm of Ellie's hand and kissed her lingeringly; she closed her eyes, luxuriating in the kiss, the warmth of the sun and the sound of soft susurration as the waves broke against the shore. She put the shell carefully into her pocket and, holding hands, they walked into town for an ice cream.

When they returned to the flat Ellie found the small shell undamaged in her coat pocket and she placed it beside the larger conch shell, with an amused smile.

It was not many weeks after that holiday, that she opened the flat door to two police officers.

Their words, "Road traffic accident,” and, "Dead on arrival," swam in and out of focus as she struggled to surface back to reality. They couldn't be talking about Pete. Not Pete. He was due back from work any minute – their evening meal was in the oven. It couldn’t be true, she didn’t believe them.

She made the officers leave.

She found it impossible to fit what had happened into any kind of continuing pattern of coherent thought. It overwhelmed her. She sat on the floor of the sitting room with her arms wrapped around her knees and she didn’t move until the smell of burning from the kitchen forced her to her feet.

There followed weeks of being not quite alive herself; dreary weeks of unrelieved cold, of stumbling at every turn over new realisations of being without Pete. She clung by her nails to the wreckage of their happy life.

Ellie’s friend, Maureen, helped her through the grim and interminable practicalities; she was sympathetic and endlessly patient. They were both amazed when, during the clearing away of all the compulsory legal flotsam, they discovered a life insurance document. Ellie hadn't known that Pete had taken out extra life cover; Maureen wondered if it had been a potential retirement fund. They were amazed to discover that the pay out, in the event of his sudden death, was nearly a hundred thousand pounds.

Ellie was disbelieving and stunned; she wanted to discuss it with Pete, she wanted to share the new monetary safe harbour with him. What was the use of money now? The paradox of her material well-being, coupled with her spiritual and loving loss, made her want to scream out loud with frustration and regret.

Frozen with grief, she managed only to maintain the old daily routines: up; dress; make up; hair; work. She refused to deal with anything out of the ordinary, and she ignored her health.

Often, she would see Maureen and her husband Jim in the evenings or during the long lonely stretches of the weekends. Maureen said she was worried about her and encouraged her to visit the doctor but Ellie refused to go. Maureen tentatively suggested to her that Eleuthera might, now, be within reach. But Ellie was angry that her friend would even suggest it, and answered Maureen back sarcastically.

But one evening she picked up the conch shell from the mantelpiece; holding its smooth, knobbly, coolness she remembered joking with Pete about the Bahamas and she unearthed the printout of the pink-sanded beach. Ellie heard the echo of their laughter. And she felt numb suddenly, like a yacht becalmed.

In the morning, it seemed that she had made a decision while she slept. She walked to the Travel Agent in her lunch break and booked the trip. The preparations were a bothersome duty and she did them under sufferance, like a task set for homework, she was not excited, but felt a curious inevitability, a necessity of going.

As the plane took off, Ellie felt a sudden panic, a cutting off, as if she left herself behind.

But when she arrived, the island was magical: a beautiful whisper of peace, light and clarity. Each day, Ellie walked along the translucent pink beach, beside warm aquamarine water, salted with sparkles. She felt separated from her life back home and it gave her space to think. The murmuring tranquillity of the ocean, and the healing calm of Eluethera, began to lull her awake.

Soothed by the island, she gradually started to accept that her life was not over.

During her walks she saw, cushioned in the sand, huge pink-lined conch shells, identical to the one back home. One day, she sat in the mirror-bright water and studied one of the shells.

Sculpted into whorling perfection by the soft creature that had lived, protected within it, this solid exterior of mathematically perfect spirals was left behind, cast up on the beach. The shells were a tangible reminder of the evolutionary ages through which their species had swum, warmly oblivious – and survived.

Ellie listened to the soft sigh of the ocean and cupped her clasped hands, protectively, over her belly. She finally felt ready to know, and to accept, what she had been denying for weeks. For the first time, she allowed awareness of the new life held within her body to penetrate the fog of her anguish.

She was still conscious of the depth of her grief, but the strength of her growing faith in the certainty of natural cycles soothed her. As she felt the tide of anticipation for their child begin to rise within her, Ellie understood that the love and laughter she had shared with Pete would be more lasting than his loss.

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 Conch Shell On The Seven Mile Beach
Conch Shell On The Seven Mile Beach Photographic Print
Oze, George
Buy at AllPosters.com



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