Cowries were the shells. We collected fans, mussels, spirals, sea-smoothed pebbles, chips of oyster, cuttlefish, lambs, interestingly formed driftwood, but we would exchange a whole day’s booty for just one cowrie. It had to be perfect – a chipped cowrie, or worse, a half, was like the unfulfilled promise of ice-cream; disappointing. We loved their heft, the heavy way they lay on our palms, their curved humpbacks, their chiselled parallel channel a river through which we could whistle a pirate air or summon a dolphin. Cowries, like their ancient use, were our beach currency, to be bartered, admired, competed for, battled over. If we spotted a cowrie churning in the shore-break, we would draw blood to be the first to snatch it. The winner would crow over the loser, taunt him or her, but the fight was soon forgotten in taut admiration of the new find. We noted colour, shape, smoothness, perfection of shell, like two ancient farmers discussing the qualities of a dairy cow.
The outright goal of a beach holiday was who collected the most cowries. There were three methods. The first, and most commonly employed, was taking a low-tide walk and examining what the high tide had delivered to the top of the beach. Like everything, this was competitive. We ran to be the first to get to the new dump of shells, and would scour it expertly for the telltale cowrie shape. Distracted by other finds in the mass, one might stay shifting through the layers and be rewarded while the other ran on, impatiently, to the next shell mound. Mocking laughter would drift to the one ahead if he or she left an unspotted cowrie in his or her wake. We would make our way across the beach, overtaking and leaving each other behind, like the crabs that occasionally goosed us, but subjecting the beach to a thorough inspection.
A less scientific but more rewarding method was the thrilling shell-wash, usually at mid-tide. This involved getting into the water and sifting with our toes and swiftly diving fingers in a wash of shells within the waves. A cowrie found tumbling in the water was a huge prize, involving screaming, inhaling sea water and then running up the beach to showcase it to the nearly indifferent adult who was with us. A better class of grown-up would join our excitement, but theirs never lasted as long as ours. Shell-wash cowries could produce thrills days and weeks later, as, back in our bedrooms at home, we’d turn them over and remember the salty triumph of intuition, of knowing that shape in the water.
A third method was taking a walk to a distant beach, where perhaps there were no cowrie-mad children like us and we could have them to ourselves. If we could make it beyond the far rocks, which we achieved perhaps once a holiday since we usually ran home for the loo or something to eat, then we were in foreign territory, a new, uncharted land where we believed mounds of cowries lay waiting for us. Once, accompanied by the uncle who roars at lions, we chanced on a shell-wash beyond the far rocks and found cowries beyond our wildest dreams. Accompanied by the smell of the sugar-cane mill that was drifting burnt sugar downwind, it was a throat-burning thrill, and my brother still has a giant tiger cowrie hauled from the sea that day.
He always won. Younger than me, he was less distracted by things like books, penning letters to friends and watching our parents’ marriage pick apart. He would go out for lonely walks. Our cottage perched on a hill above the beach, and I would watch him, wandering in a pattern that I knew was not random, occasionally lifting one arm in triumph to let me know he’d scored. Sometimes he would disappear round the corner, and I would hold my breath, not fearing for his safety, but worrying how many cowries he was finding unseen. On his return, I’d swallow my envy and admire his haul. Kindly, he allowed me to hold them, to weigh and measure and decide on the afternoon’s best shell. We offered each other our cowrie currency as comfort. It was our new language, an activity apart, one that kept us from the cottage and its atmosphere of loss. As the beach winds whipped our hair and made our skin salty, we were united against now and future pain. We watched for cowries, saw their humpbacks against our retinas at night, felt the heft of them in our dreams, counted our real and dream collections, and left our parents to the sticky business of unravelling our lives.