He thought she was a rock. Smothered in seaweed, motionless, her skin encrusted with salt. But then she moved, and he leapt back so fast that he fell over and landed on the sand, which was not as soft and accommodating as you might think.
She uncurled herself, her hair a tangled web of darkness, twisted with mermaid’s necklace and several pale starfish. Her face was darkened by sun and reddened by wind. She was tiny, a waif of a thing, with kelp wrapped around her body like a second skin, and she reeked of rotting weed. She looked like an urchin, a waif.
She hissed at him, baring tiny white teeth like oyster shells. Behind her, the sea breathed softly and rhythmically, whispering to itself, vast and impenetrable.
Ben drew back, but he didn’t run. He was seven years old, and he was not afraid of anything. (Except the dark, and climbing frames, and flying beetles.) He stared at her, and she watched him with dark eyes, lustrous and deep as the ocean. He glanced around. His mum was a long way down the beach, hand in hand with her boyfriend Darren, following the lacy edge of surf and leaning down to pick up a shell or a piece of crusty pumice. There was nobody else. The sun had nearly dipped below the horizon; the sea was glowing with that strange fiery light that comes when there are stormclouds looming, and the sky was streaked with gold and pink like candyfloss.