Never Lose Your Place / by Helen O'Connor

A story about talking to strangers, and finding your place in the world.

One summer, my younger sister and I got lost. Mum and Dad and my older sister were leaving the beach to go back to my grandparents’ bach. We wanted five more minutes. Just five more minutes.

I would have been seven, and my sister five or six. I remember feeling small as soon as the others left. Overwhelmed by the never-ending stretch of sand, and the size of the piece of driftwood we sat next to. I remember my sister crying, although to this day she swears it was me.

We were playing on the beach, directly in front of the path. Our path. To get back to Gran and Grandad’s, all we had to do was walk up the sloping sand, dodge the cackling cutty-grass on either side of the path, and walk carefully across the quiet road to my grandparents’ place. A walk we had done hundreds of times before.

We wandered down the beach, away from the mouth of our path. When we were ready to begin our journey home, we saw that the beach had changed. Where had our path gone? Where was our grass, our driftwood, our dune? The beach had spun around. Our world was muddled into a giant sandy blur.

Was that our path? Was that our path?

We held hands, panic rising in our little chests. Some paths looked like our path but they twisted to the left, or stopped halfway up. We turned to face each other, grief plastered across our flushed faces. There was simply no way home.

There was a man. We could see him pipi hunting in the shallows, twisting and turning his feet into the slurping sand. We edged towards him, one of us crying ferociously, the other taking a trembling lead. He was the only other person on the beach. Was he going to be our new dad?

Through gasping tears and ragged breaths, we told him what had happened. That we had a path, our very own path, but it had disappeared. We wanted to find Mum and Dad, we sobbed, but we were stuck on the beach forever.

The kind pipi-hunter asked us our names. He asked us who our Mum and Dad were – who owned the bach we were staying at. We remembered to tell him it was Gran and Grandad’s bach. That Gran wrote books and Grandad had a big red tractor. He listened and nodded and thought for a while. 'That will be Kevin and Joy Watson,' he smiled. 'You’re three paths away from your spot – you see? Your path is right over there.'

He walked with us until we could see the gentle left-right-left of our path, and the grey peak of the bach, poking out above the mountains of grass.

'Just remember, girls – you’re never really lost in Mahia. No matter what, your path will always be right there. In that very same spot. Every single time.'