You were never quite sure whether it was sea or sky on the horizon. Both air and water over the Irish sea preferring to don the same milky, grey hue.
No matter because when you're a child and in a car stuffed tight with your siblings, the important thing was to call it first, sea or not. This was the memory that struck me when on a sunless spring day, I returned to Bettystown for the first time in years. My sister, Ann, was driving. It was just the two of us and as the roadside developed a dusting of sand, I found myself leaning forward in the seat to claim the victory of seeing the sea first.
As Ann turned the car down through Seaview terrace, the coast came into full view. The sea was out, a gunmetal grey, and I could see the waves curl like white ribbons over the strand. The wind was strong enough to shake the car and we sat and took a moment to ready ourselves for the hair-buffeting we were about to happily endure.
"Mornington wall?" my sister asked, pulling the zip of her raincoat high.
I beat my hands together to raise the circulation, peeked out at the waiting clouds then nodded. We got out of the car, grabbing the top of the doors and pushing them closed before the wind caught them. The day was too cold and blowy to attract many beach goers but close by, a man in a wetsuit was heaving a large yellow kite into the back of a VW Transporter. And beyond that, some heroic mother was huddled against the shelter of a wall, a toddler at her feet packing sand into a blue bucket.
Coats sealed to the neck, we set ourselves against the wind and started off. Ahead was a wide playing field of beach. The sea churned away some distance to our right and to our left, the dunes threw up plumes of yellow sand that skirted along the flat expanse of coast in golden waves. Mornington wall, some four and a half kilometres away, sat like a black mirage on the horizon. I could pick out a few lone walkers near the shore, their dogs in pursuit of any seagull that dared touch the ground.
As we pounded on up the strand, another pair of women came into view; their arms and legs beating with such synchronicity, they could have been powering the rotation of the earth. As they got nearer, they nodded in greeting and so began what I call the long hello; a conversation in miniature perfected by all walkers who appreciate the commitment to a brisk pace.
"Hey," one shouted over the wind.
"Hey!" we shouted back.
The women, still a few steps off and pace uninterrupted: "You heading to the wall?"
Author Olivia Kiernan has fond memories of
Bettystown beach in Co Meath during the 1980s
"That wind is something else," they said, passing.
"It's great for the cobwebs," we shouted.
Then from some way behind us: "Enjoy your walk!"
"We will." And on we went.
We walked the strand to Mornington because it was tradition. A compulsion. These were the steps, quietly washed away by the thin cool surf that we'd walked for numerous summers in our childhood. Bettystown in Co Meath was our holiday destination where for one longed-for week we'd rent a cottage or house somewhere along the coast between Bettystown and Laytown. By car, it was less than an hour from where I grew up but it may as well have been the South of France for all we cared. It held the same exotic appeal. We had plastic buckets, bare feet, chips on the beach, whipped ice-cream and for one night of our week-long holiday - the amusement park.
I remember one hardy grey cottage we stayed in, with white sash windows, the bushes at the end of the garden, obeying the path of the wind, grew sideways but the cottage sat stubbornly atop a bank, looking down on the strand, as if in defiance of the elements. Back then, the joy in packing for this week-long trip was caught in the careful folding of T-shirts and shorts, newly bought weeks before, the first wear saved for the occasion of our holiday. And then the surprise when we got there that I had a room to myself, a luxury not given to most in a family of six, not in '80s Ireland anyway. But while I might have been momentarily paralysed by the abundance of storage space - a whole dresser just for my clothes - there wasn't time to pause and take in such privileges because although an entire week stretched before us, a moment could not be spared in getting down to the beach.
Those days were spent fully and lazily, exploring the strips of water between low, ridged sandbanks, collecting shells and poking at stiff jellyfish the size of dinner plates. There seemed to be entire afternoons where I did nothing but explore the dark husk of the Eilean Glas wreckage, which ran aground in 1980 while carrying a cargo of salt from Belfast to Devon. Much of the ship was taken apart but the skeleton was left on the beach once attempts to move it failed. To me, it was both an eerie and romantic reminder of the power of the sea. During my holidays, she sailed in her own sea of shallow pools, deeper around the bow where I jumped into the ocean of imagination over and again.
Back then, in the evenings, we played rounders on the beach ending only when the sun left the sky or, if the mood was right, we'd walk to Mornington sea wall. The wall marks where the river Boyne spills out into the Irish Sea. In the dunes alongside it, stands Maiden Tower. Built in 1582, to me, it was a ghostly presence and I longed to get inside and climb the stone steps to the top, to take in a view that I was told could stretch right the way across the sea, or perhaps I would get to look into the room where the Lady of the Tower once lived, to see if there were remnants of her existence, her spinning wheel, the straw bed she'd made from stiff grasses gathered from the dunes or the driftwood fire long burned down to ashes. In my mind's eye, I could picture her clearly.
My granny often came with us to Bettystown. On day trips, she could pass time happily sitting in the passenger seat of the car, looking out at the sea; her handbag perched on her lap like a pet. And on holidays, while we stacked sandcastles or dug moats, she'd take to the shops for food. She was a homemaker, and nothing made her more content than to fill our bellies. And she did so with cheese sandwiches, tea from steaming teapots, iced buns or if she was feeling extravagant, a Battenburg cake. At the end of our stay, Granny liked to have one final glance at the sea to say goodbye and it became an end-of-holiday ritual where we'd pack the car and park up on the beach to take a final walk.
One year, Granny desiring her moment of reflection, said she wouldn't walk but would wait in the car. She laughed our concern away about leaving her alone with a no-nonsense: "Sure, who's going to run away with me?"
We returned some time later and for almost an hour thought that yes, someone had indeed taken her. Our car was there but Granny was gone. We raced out to the shoreline, searching, then back, then up and down the coast. No sign. The beach was emptying fast and there was only one other car parked up a few hundred yards away.
We were just beginning to panic when we noticed that a family of four had gathered around the other vehicle and appeared to be studying it with some confusion. It was then we saw a familiar silhouette in the passenger seat of their car: a slight older lady, sitting bolt upright, her hands resting neatly on top of her handbag.
She'd walked to the sea's edge to say her goodbye and then got into the wrong car.
Now, my sister and I stood and looked back over the long stretch of beach. The sea was creeping closer and hunger was stirring in our bellies.
In our minds, we waved our goodbye before we began the trek back; the wind keeping our heads bent and our mouths silent.
'If Looks Could Kill' by Olivia Kiernan is published by Riverrun