Belgium based writer Sheila Kinsella’s short stories draw inspiration from her Irish upbringing. An avid watcher of people’s behaviour, and blessed with abundant natural curiosity, Sheila lures the reader into a shrewdly observed world via imagery and comedy. Sheila graduated with an MA in Creative Writing (Distance Learning) from Lancaster University in the United Kingdom in 2017.

Red Flag

By Sheila Kinsella

Long, spikey grass tickles my legs as I roll over and over down the meadow. Strong smells of damp earth and long grass fill my nostrils each time my face skims the ground. Again, and again. Suddenly, I crash into my sister. Ann lies flat on the ground, arms and legs spread out like a starfish, staring at the sky. Her soft body is a welcome cushion. Ann yells and elbows me in the ribs. Winded and giddy, I sit up and admire the carpet of buttercups surrounding us. The vivid yellow flowers sway in the breeze, bursting their hearts to capture sunlight.

Nestled amongst the grass, Ann chews on a flower stem. Soft petals drift down, back and forth, landing on her chest, casting tiny shadows of gold under her chin. A sliver of spit bubbles on her lips as she rotates the stem, round and round with her mouth. A cascade of strawberry blonde curls tumbles over her forehead. Ann is trying to get a tan. She wears her red sundress that Mammy says shows off her mosquito bites.

I lie back and gaze at the sky. Seagulls scatter like confetti across a blue sky, floating on thermals, their calls urgent and screeching. I stick my tongue out to catch a taste of delicious saltiness in the air.

Ann is mooning over her boyfriend. She has that look on her face. She scribbles Ann plus Liam inside hearts all over her schoolbooks and keeps his picture in her pocket. I’ve caught her kissing it when she thinks I’m not looking. Ann is in love, Mammy says. She doesn’t like to play with me anymore. I’m just a baby she says.

Ann’s mobile beeps. She squints her eyes, shading them with a flat hand, to read the text.

‘Come on,’ she says, ‘we’re going swimming.’

‘Keep up!’ Ann yells as I trail behind her, picking buttercups.

At home, we slip into our swimming costumes; pack towels, spare clothes and a beachball.

‘But didn’t Mammy say to watch out for jellyfish?’ I say.

‘Sure.’ Ann replies. ‘You ever saw one?’

‘Well, no, but.’

‘You don’t need to listen to everything Mammy says you know,’ Ann laughs. ‘Come on, Liam’s waiting for me.’

I grab the spade and bucket on my way out of the door. I love sandcastles, especially when the moat starts to fill with water.

On the way to the beach, the seagulls are dropping shells on the tarmac and swooping down to peck out the soft creatures inside. The clatter of their squawking is deafening. My feet make crunching noises as I walk over the smashed shells.

‘Stop it!’ I wave my spade in the air to frighten them away but nearly hit myself in the face with it. ‘Go away!’ The spade clatters to the ground; I pick it up and drag it along behind me.

‘Pick that spade up!’ Ann covers her ears with her hands. ‘You know I can’t stand that noise!’

She’s walking so fast; I can’t keep up. I balance the spade on my shoulder, shovel end at my back.

Liam leans against the stone wall under the green flag, smartphone in hand. A tall man-boy with a shock of dark hair set off by his green t-shirt. Has he no job to go to? Mammy says. He jumps up when he sees us and rushes to greet Ann. Liam aims for a peck on Ann’s cheek, but their heads clash awkwardly as Ann offers her right cheek, and he targets the left.

‘Oops, sorry,’ They both say at the same time, and giggle nervously.

‘Ah, I see that we’ve got your little sister as a chaperone,’ Liam says.

‘Oh, yes, sorry about that, but I’ve to mind her today,’ Ann says to Liam. ‘You’re alright, aren’t you?’ Ann looks at me.

What does she want me to say? ‘I’m not little,’ I mutter.

Hand in hand, they walk towards the sea. I trudge behind, the fifth wheel on my own.

Cool, fine sand creeps into my sandals, tickling my toes and making it difficult to walk. Every other step I have to tip a foot up to let it pour out under my heel.

The lovebirds are running now, off into the distance. Without warning, they stop next to a large grey thing resting on an outcrop of jagged black rocks. I squint my eyes to try and see what it is. When I catch up to Ann and Liam, it’s both horrific and compelling. I don’t want to see it, but I can’t stop staring. A beached dolphin lies lifeless on its side, a wooden stake pokes out of a gaping hole in its belly. Hundreds of maggots wriggle in and out of the rotting flesh like bees building a hive. I gag at the overwhelming stench and step back.

Liam snatches my spade off me and starts to hack at the dead animal. It sounds like the butcher slicing a slab of beef. A chunk of flesh breaks away to land at his feet. Blood spurts out of the corpse. It’s disgusting. I feel sick.

‘Stop it!’ I pull at his arm. ‘Leave it alone!’ he shoves me aside.

Ann stands and stares.

‘Ann!’ I shout, ‘Tell him to stop!’

‘Liam, it is pretty gross.’ Ann says. ‘Come on! I’ll race you to the sea!’ Ann starts to run.

Liam throws the spade down; it hits against a rock, catapulting maggots into the air.

‘Here, take this,’ Ann whips her dress off, shoves it in her bag and pushes everything at me. Bag, bucket, spade, beachball.

Soon Ann and Liam are flecks of colour in the distance splashing in the sea. Ann is tall and pale; like a streak of milk in her red swimsuit.

My dress flaps against me in the breeze, but my hands are too full to pull it straight. When I reach the shoreline, the sea laps over my feet, sending instant shivers through me. Brrr. I place the beachball in a dip in the sand and wiggle the spade in the sea to wash it before setting about building a sandcastle. I have big plans, including turrets and a huge moat with a dug-out path leading to the water.

I start to dig the foundations, fill the bucket up, empty it with a dull pat on its bottom; on repeat until the castle takes shape. Suddenly the wind picks up, almost ripping my hair from my head. When I try and push it from my eyes, small clumps of wet sand stick to my face. Dry sand behind me whisks up into swirls of miniature sandstorms so that I taste the grit in my mouth.

Frenzied seagulls hover in the sky above me, their wings trembling in the wind.

A gust of wind lifts the beachball, up, up, until it crashes into the waves, out of reach. As I watch it bob up and down, I notice Ann and Liam swimming far out to sea. The way their arms carve through the waves reminds me of Mammy’s sewing scissors sliding through cloth.

Finally, I finish digging the channel to allow the sea to fill the moat. I stand back and lean on the spade to savour my satisfaction as the first wave gushes around the castle. The backwash reveals a reddish-brown blob with long lacy tentacles stretching behind it. I drop the spade and step back. I have to warn Ann.

I pull Ann’s red dress from her bag and wave it frantically in the air.

‘Ann, Ann! There’s jellyfish!’ I scream.

The wind picks up, the sea becomes choppier, splashing angrily at my feet.

I’m running along the shoreline now, jumping up and down, hopping over the jellyfish.

‘Ann! Ann! Jellyfish!’

Salt stings my face, sand prickles my legs. A sudden blast of wind blows so strong that I lose my footing and fall, scrabbling on the sand, still shouting ‘Ann, Ann!’

Something red bobs up and down on the horizon, amongst the white horses riding the top of the waves.

‘Ann!’ My heart beats wildly as I blink back the tears. ‘Jellyfish!’

Then I remember the beachball. That’s all it is.

I feel the dampness from the sand creeping through my clothes. I bury my face in Ann’s dress. It smells of forest mixed with soap. When I stand, my clothes cling to me with wet, my skin is covered in goosebumps. I step away from the sea. Soon it will swallow the sandcastle.

‘I’m here! I’m coming!’

I hear Ann’s voice and turn to see her running towards me from the rocks further down the strand.

‘Ann! Ann!’ I sigh with relief and run towards her. Her white skin is blotched with red and purple patches. I scan her thighs for blisters from the jellyfish. But there is something else. A tiny red stream dribbles down her inside leg. A first I think it’s a thread from her swimming costume, but it’s not.

‘Did you get stung?’ I touch her arm; her skin is covered in goose-pimples; like a chicken after plucking.

‘No. I’ve started.’ Ann looks down at her legs. ‘Give me a towel! Quick!’

I rummage in the bag. She snatches it off me, unfolds the towel and wraps it around her stomach. I hold the dress out to her. She pulls it over her head and tugs it down over the towel. Her hair hangs in curly wet dreadlocks that immediately form a wet patch on the back of her dress. Balancing on one leg, she slips on her flip flops, takes the bag off me and starts walking.

‘Hey, Ann!’ Liam’s sprinting towards us now, he stops a few feet away.

‘I’ve got to get little sister back home! See you later!’ Ann waves at him.

‘Oh, so soon?’ Liam asks.

I can see his forehead crinkle from his eyebrows trying to meet.

‘Yes, sorry,’ Ann replies, ‘I’ll text you later, ok?’

‘Er, ok. See you.’ He turns and runs off in the direction of his pile of clothes.

‘Bye,’ Ann shouts.

‘Come on,’ Ann pulls me to her and hugs hard. ‘Yuck! We’re both soaked.’

‘I thought you’d drowned,’ I say. ‘And I lost the beachball.’ I lean into her.

‘It doesn’t matter,’ Ann replies. ‘We can always get another one.’

‘Are you going to have to use those white pads Mammy has in the bathroom cabinet?’

Ann laughs, ‘I hope not, I think I’ll get something a bit more modern.’

‘Is that why you’ve been so mean to me?’ I say.

‘Cheeky! Anyway, how do you know about that stuff?’ Ann replies.

‘Mammy says…’ I don’t get to finish.

‘Ah, Mammy says,’ Ann interrupts. ‘Look, the red flag’s flying now.’ She points to the seawall.