The gull stabbed at the bread with its beak. Kieran threw another slice. Then another.
A second gull landed and nudged its rival aside from the free lunch. The first bird lunged at the usurper and they exploded in a flurry of wings and feathers.
‘Kieran, don’t!’ his mother said.
‘Nothing but vermin, them creatures,’ his stepfather remarked from behind the daily paper.
Kieran turned from the gulls to the bright, shimmering shore. Scores of families had set up camp for the day. Everywhere he looked he saw overweight Mums and Dads, small children building sandcastles, dogs yapping. A nearby group of youths, a mix of lean boys and girls in undersized bikinis, were laughing aloud at some secret joke. There was no one Kieran’s age.
Kieran was eleven, a small dark-haired boy with eyes the colour of emeralds and a habit of squinting. His vision was perfect, but somehow the world seemed better through narrow eyelids.
The gulls ripped the bread to crumbs. They screeched in disappointment and flapped away. Kieran returned his attention to Mum and Archie.
He squinted at his mother. She looked a lot like him, except her locks were lighter and her eyes a dull brown. Archie, now in his third month as Kieran’s official stepfather, was a porky man with shiny bald pate, a greasy moustache and eyes as big as golf balls.
‘Feel free to wonder off, Kieran,’ Archie said, lowering his newspaper.
‘You’re so thoughtful, Archie,’ Mum added. “Kieran doesn’t want to hang around all day with crocks like us.’
Archie’s wide-eyed scowl burned into his stepson as if to say ‘clear off, I want your mother to myself, with no dumb kids in the way.’ Kieran retaliated with a frown, but his resolve melted faster than ice cream in the sun. He had to be careful. Archie’s temper was like a lurking crocodile. Kieran never knew when it would erupt from the depths and strike.
Kieran turned down his lower lip and threw his mother a look. She didn’t notice.
‘Yup, okay,’ he said at last, collecting his bucket and spade and stumbling off.
Kieran walked towards the far end of the beach, where jagged rocks broke through the sand like razors. As he came closer the sound of the holidaymakers faded.
The rocks were deserted.
‘Here there be monsters,’ he remarked in a glum voice.
He stopped at the first slab of basalt and rubbed the back of his hand across his lips. His flesh reeked of sunshine and sweat, summoning up a memory from last year.
Last year with Dad.
The two of them had explored this slanted world, charting rock pools, hunting crabs, inventing stories. Dad liked to pretend each sea-puddle was an uncharted lagoon teeming with bloodthirsty creatures. Everything was fun.
“Here there be monsters”, Dad used to say, over and over, grinning his cheeky grin and pushing back his wispy hair.
But Dad was gone now, Mum had seen to that. Mum and Archie.
Kieran sighed and inched nearer to his favourite rock pool. He knew from his explorations with Dad that this was the largest, the size of a paddling pool. A glassy underworld where fish and crustaceans lurked in seaweed jungles.
‘Here there be monsters,’ Kieran mumbled sadly, kneeling down on the stony rim.
He sat very quietly, as his father had taught him, and watched as the pool revealed its inhabitants. Small fish darted from side to side, searching for an escape back to the Atlantic. Shrimps glided over the sand like submarines. Limpets clung to the rock, hard as stones. Ruby red anemones trailed poisonous fronds in the water.
There! A slender, silvery young crab scuttled into the shadow of the rocks.
Kieran beat his chest in best King Kong fashion.
‘I am the giant of doom. Come to destroy-oh!’
A severed claw popped out.
‘Who’s snacking on you then?’ Kieran remarked to himself.
He waited. The minutes ticked away. Then, as he was about to give up and move on, something stirred. He almost missed it. A ripple in the sand, nothing more.
He hunched over the pool and lowered his head to the surface. A crescent of translucent skin had emerged from its hiding place, then halted. Perhaps it had seen him?
Kieran leaned back and froze every muscle in his body. More moments passed. The creature began slowly drifting out, across the sandy floor.
‘A jellyfish!’ he said. At least he thought it was a jellyfish. It reminded him of all the dead jellyfish scattered along the shoreline. Revolting blubber pancakes. This creature had a similar appearance. A circle of clear flesh, riddled with veins and dark spots.