‘Can we go on the beach and collect shells?’ they asked.
Rob and I sat on the sea wall and watched them for a while and chatted until out of the corner of my eye I saw them frantically filling a large carrier bag.
‘Oh God’, said Rob, already imagining the arguments about bringing the shells into our already over-stuffed house, finding them all over the place, crushed and crammed down the sides of beds, under sofa cushions, exuding their fishy stink.
I walked on to the beach by which time Jamie and Rose had charmed a volunteer: an elderly lady who was discovering shells as enthusiastically as they were. The carrier bag was so full that the handles would no longer meet at the top and shells were not it’s only contents. Inside was a battered and salt-corroded Blackberry, oozing battery juice, a white, plastic bottle and a rubber glove. Both children came at me, talking quickly and loudly into my face. I knew they knew what I was going to say.
‘I FOUND A BLACKBERRY!’ shouted Jamie, ‘A REAL BLACKBERRY!’
I showed him the back of the phone and the leaking battery and reminded him about the dangers of heavy metals. He reluctantly dropped the phone and with more negotiation the bottle and the rubber glove (‘BUT WE COULD USE IT!’). Neither children would agree to ditch any of the shells at all and so we walked to the sea wall with them and sat down. Mindful of all the rubbish that they pick up every single day and bring home and the endless subterfuge I have to employ to spirit it out of the house I decided upon a different tack.
‘You both know don’t you that you will always have enough; enough food, enough to wear, enough toys and games don’t you.’
‘Yes,’ they both say, a flicker of something passing across their faces.
‘Well I wonder if the reason why you like to collect lots of things and bring them home is because you sometimes worry that there won’t be enough.’
Surprisingly I get a mumbled ‘may be’, which by our standards counts as a bell ringing success.
‘So I wonder if perhaps you could choose may be four each, the really good ones and put the others back on the beach.’
‘Five, five each,’ is their immediate, unconscious response.
And to our utter astonishment, they return to the beach, choose the shells they want to keep, tip out the rest and join us on the sea wall. We admire them together and remark on how well they have chosen.
A year ago I would not have dared to try this approach for worry of whipping up a storm. The shells would have joined the wave of detritus, chaos and helplessness which was breaking over us and threatening to pull us under.
It was a small but significant moment and a marker of real and lasting progress.