The Changeling

20161222_070429000_iosExtract from novel:

The seagull was staring at Tegan. Its beady eye followed her around the shop from its vantage point on top of the display shelf. She stopped fingering the fridge magnets, letting her hand fall to her side. Moving slowly down the aisle, she paused by the miniature lighthouses and fishing boats. Picking up a snowstorm globe, she gave it a shake and fake snow fell onto a seaside scene. Weird! She put it back on the shelf, casting a furtive glance back towards the till. The shop keeper, Mr Crouch, was held captive by the cleaning lady from the caravan site.

‘Well Mr C, if this season don’t pick up, I’m not sure I’ll have a job by the end of the summer.’

‘It’s early yet Margaret. Things never really get going until August.’

Mr Crouch scanned her provisions, carefully packing them in her shopping basket. He prided himself on providing for the needs of his regulars, as well as the summer holiday makers. This necessitated his store being so full, that his customers had to squeeze their way around stacks of buckets and spades to get to the convenience foods.

‘Always a cup half full you are, Mr C. How’s your David doing? Will he be back for the summer? Such a lovely lad….’

Tegan could still feel the seagull’s enamelled eye boring into her. She didn’t like seagulls. A couple of years ago her Aunt Yvette had come to spend a few days at the holiday chalet with them:

‘Why don’t you take Yvette down to the secret cove,’ her father had said. ‘Give me a chance to get on with my writing in peace.’

Tegan was pleased to have company. Her father seldom ventured out, and she got tired of wandering around the village on her own. They’d driven down in her aunt’s clapped out old Ford. When Tegan opened the tailgate, Poppy, her aunt’s Labrador, was quivering with excitement.

‘We’d better put her on a lead,’ said Aunt Yvette, reading the sign in the small car park. ‘Other people report you if you let dogs run loose on the beach in the summer months.’

They’d made their way down the 109 steep steps cut into the cliff – Tegan holding Poppy’s lead and her aunt carrying a bag with a blanket and their picnic. Tegan already had her swim suit on under her beach clothes. There were only two other families on the pebbled beach. Tegan led the way further along, towards the big boulders where she liked to explore rock pools once the tide went out. The wind was blustery and Tegan’s hair was blowing in her eyes. Poppy was straining at her leash, her paws slipping on the wet pebbles.

Suddenly a big seagull swooped down towards them. Poppy jumped up on her hind legs yelping at the bird. In seconds the bird was joined by another and the two gulls launched an attack. They swooped repeatedly, their ugly voices mocking and shrill. Tegan froze – she felt vulnerable in her skimpy shorts and t shirt. Up close, the birds were huge – wings flapping and beaks wide.

Tegan felt her aunt pulling at her arm and the two of them stumbled back towards the overhanging cliff, dragging the frightened dog with them. They looked back at the blanket and picnic bag they’d abandoned in their haste. Once sheltered, the gulls seemed to back off a little, but the second they tried to venture out to retrieve the bag, they resumed their attack. Other people on the beach were too far away to notice anything, and the wind would have carried their voices away anyway. Tegan and her aunt watched helplessly as the bullying gulls gorged on their sandwiches. They were completely trapped. After what was probably minutes, but seemed much longer, they decided the only thing they could do was to grope their way back to the steps, keeping within the relative safety of the cliff. The predatory birds continued to caw their victory. The day was ruined and Tegan’s special place was no longer special. That was the last time Tegan had gone to the beach dressed for swimming.

Tegan peered up at the ceramic bird, trying to stare it out. She wondered for a moment if Mr Crouch had a security camera installed in its beady eyes. Casting surreptitious glances towards the till, Tegan could see that Mr Crouch was still occupied – the cleaning lady having engaged him in a discussion about the merits of a particular floor cleaner.

Standing in front of a revolving display of sunglasses, she caught her reflection in the mirror – her eyes only just visible below her long fringe. Pouting her black lips, she looked away again, fingers pulling nervously at the frayed sleeves of her over large sweatshirt.

Moving past the small jewellery display, there was a flash of black from her painted nails as her left hand circled in a swift and practised arc, to pluck a silver trinket from its velvet backing. Barely pausing in her saunter down the aisle, she concealed her prize under her sleeve.

The trick was not to rush… take your time… act casual. Tegan was confident her pale make-up would cover any hint of a flush on her face. Nonchalantly, she made her way past the buckets, spades and small fishing nets, to the magazine display opposite the till. Feigning a brief interest in one of the fashion mags, she flicked through its pages. Then, carefully and deliberately replaced it, she gave the briefest of nods towards the shopkeeper and the cleaning lady, and made her way out of the door, pausing only to give the seagull one last and triumphant glare.

Margaret Butcher looked at Mr Crouch and tutted.

‘No good will come of that one,’ she said.

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