The still waters or crashing waves with foamy white tops on a windy day. The empty sand stretching for miles. Sand dunes, their grasses fluttering in a gentle breeze, tides that ebb and flow, changing the landscape from one week to the next. All stimulants to my imagination.
I’m lucky. We live twenty minutes from one of the best beaches in the UK at West Wittering. It’s featured in my latest novel, Otto and Frankie.
Two quotes by Otto and a short piece from the novel.
‘Wind sharper than a surgeon’s scalpel, sand skidding across the ridged mud flats, the indentations half-filled with icy cold seawater, leaving small pools and puddles, much loved by children on a summer’s day.’
‘Our memories of the beach will linger on, long after our footprints in the sand are gone.’
Otto and Frankie are reunited after twenty years apart and go for a walk on the beach.
The sea was calm and cool, the sun warm, not too hot, and the sand clean, wet, but firm to walk on. It was nearly one, and Frankie and I had walked, sloshing our feet through the puddles, for about forty-five minutes, just reaching East Head, where The Solent meets the waters leading to Chichester Harbour, and the walk back to our house crosses mud flats, bordered by marshland and undulating sand dunes. Many breeds of waders paddle in the shallow pools, searching for worms and tiny fish. It had become a magical part of my beach walk, and never ceased to uplift me.
While we ambled along Frankie and I talked without a break, eager to learn and understand parts of each other’s past that our years apart had kept from the other. She wanted to know all about my books, the plots, how I dreamt them up, and my writing routine. I let her tell me whatever she wanted about herself. I didn’t pry.
A large, long-haired dog ran from the sea, shaking what seemed like an ocean of water and a bucket load of sand over us both. Frankie laughed, leaning forward and letting her hair hang lose, her hands raking the sand free. The dog’s owner rushed up and apologised. Frankie told her not to worry, and that it was all a unique experience that she hadn’t encountered before, saying, ‘I live in New York, and don’t get to visit beaches like this.’ They talked a little longer, the dog owner, a fit-looking, elderly woman with a pink floppy hat that almost hid her eyes, was curious about New York and America. They said goodbye, and we started to walk on. A pace or two in silence, and then Frankie stopped, turning in the sand to look up at me and into my eyes, twisting the ring in her lip. ‘Tell me about your work with refugees?’
‘Emm, okay,’ I answered, a little lukewarm in my tone, taken aback at Frankie’s unexpected request. I shrugged, and looked around. ‘But not here, standing on the beach.’ I pointed to the sand dunes. ‘Let’s go sit over there.’
We found a couple of dunes that we could rest our backs against. Frankie sat cross-legged; I stretched my legs out in front of me. The sun slid behind a cloud, a breeze caught Frankie’s hair, it felt a little cold, and she pulled out a top from her small backpack. I waited, then started: ‘I’d been invited by the UNHCR – an organisation I’d always respected and supported – to attend a briefing on the refugee crisis in Syria, just after the start of the Syrian civil war. We were shown appalling images, and told about men being beaten, tortured, and shot in the street in front of their families, their wives raped, their children slaughtered, and just because they didn’t fall in line with the Syrian regime and wanted to express their views. Those that survived and escaped these atrocities had their homes bombed, reduced to rubble. They fled in the clothes they stood up in, nothing more, becoming refugees, displaced people, constantly in search of food, water, and a roof over their heads.’ I looked at Frankie. She was gaping at me, her eyes wide-open, little colour to her face. ‘Six or seven million have been displaced by the Syrian war.’ I covered my face with my hands for a moment, and thought about what to say next. It was a shocking subject, almost too much to absorb in one go; and could be depressing. I shot Frankie a quick glance. She was staring at the sea with a vacant expression, drawing circles in the sand with one of her feet. I decided to take a different, more upbeat approach.
‘I’d just written my last book. I’d been very lucky, and made loads of money from my writing, film deals, and the rest. One day I looked in the mirror and thought I needed to find a way to help these desperate people. I talked to UNHCR who said what they needed most was money, and someone who’d try to meet with the perpetrators of these crimes against humanity and persuade them to alter course. I agreed to put my name to any fundraising activity they suggested.’ I looked at Frankie again. I had her attention.
‘I made contact with the perpetrators, saying I was independent, with no allegiance to any side, just wanting to meet and talk with them. You know, to my surprise, they agreed to meet me, and listened to what I had to say – something to do, I’m told, with me being a well-known name. I can’t say I changed their attitude, but I might have stopped or slowed down another atrocity, allowing people to get away to safety, perhaps.’ I looked down at the ground for a moment. ‘I don’t think I caused any harm.’
Enough, I thought and looked across at Frankie.
She was gazing at me; and wiped a finger under both of her eyes. I guess she’d smeared away a tear or two. She rubbed her hands together, shaking off the sand. ‘Dad.’ She shook her head. ‘I don’t know what to say.’ She touched one of the hoops hanging from her ear. ‘You know, I’m ashamed to say this, but two days ago, I was living and working in Brooklyn, concerned only about me, and really quite ignorant of all you’ve been saying.’ She stood up and hugged my head. ‘Dad, I’m so, so impressed with you’ She sat down next to me, again cross-legged, and looked into my eyes.
‘You and I are very different. You’ve written all those good books, and done all this fantastic humanitarian work, I’m just Frankie, the girl who works behind the bar, and is talked about as an easy lay.’
I shook my head. ‘You’re Frankie, my daughter, and I love you.’
My recent publications
Otto and Frankie, my latest novel, is about a dying man’s fight against injustice, his wife’s unusual affair, and the love from his long-lost daughter.
Otto and his daughter Frankie could not be more different. He’s rich, an acclaimed author, human rights activist, and lives in England. She lives in New York, just about survives from one pay cheque to the next and hasn’t seen or spoken to her father for twenty years. Dutifully reunited by his impending death, she’s amazed to find him a kind and noble man who, while grappling with his wife’s bizarre affair, champions for the world’s forgotten and dispossessed to his last. After Otto’s death, Frankie’s admiration for her father leads her into a dangerous and life changing pursuit.
Life in four stories
Recently I donated a substantial sum to the INTERNATIONAL COMMITTEE OF THE RED CROSS (ICRC) from the proceeds of this little book of shorts. ICRC help the most vulnerable communities fight COVID – 19.
Four shorts: two about life, love, and death; one a poignant and disturbing memory that dangles a question unanswered; and one a wild fantasy – plus the first chapter of my latest book, Otto and Frankie.
By buying this book you are helping fund ICRC in its valuable work.