I open my bedroom door, steal towards the top of the stairs. Jamie’s guttural breathing comes from along the hall. I don’t want another row and it’s best I’m gone before he wakes.
The car keys and shoes dangle in my hand. I want to check the phone one last time but before I can look the snoring falters. I tiptoe quickly down, don’t stop till the last step. Only then do I click on the screen not sure what I’m hoping for. The page takes an age to load. Nothing’s changed. The BBC is still predicting later today. I’ll need to hurry to get the early train to London, to be there by lunchtime.
I move silently up the hall, almost make it to the front door.
Except. Except there it is like a warning drumbeat, my quickening pulse threatening to swallow me up.
Not now. Please not now.
I reach for the handle but I’m shaking so hard I miss and it’s all I can do to slump against the wall.
And it’s not you, not Jamie who will stop me being there. It’s me, my fear of what will happen when I open that door.
Minutes pass, my heart slows, my breathing steadies. I manage to walk slowly along the hallway, grip the bannister and creep back to my room. I undress, crawl under the duvet.
Jamie is sitting at the kitchen table when I come down much later.
He looks up, holds out his phone to show me. His face tells me I don’t want to see.
“I am sorry mum.”
We both know he’s lying.
Footsteps on the stairs wake me followed by a sharp knock. I open my eyes to the white walls of my bedroom. The blind’s up. Soft grey light tells me it’s early morning. The rush of the sea breaks the silence, rain trails to the bottom of the glass.
“Mum?” My son’s voice from the other side of the door. “How you feeling?”
I don’t know what’s worse, his disapproval or pity. I refrain from asking how the hell does he think I feel. Shocked. Sad. Anxious to know what will happen to you.
“Are you coming down? Maybe grab a coffee before my shift?”
I know damn well he intends to pick up where he left off last night. My head aches and I can’t face another lecture about you.
A few seconds silence then he goes downstairs. In the kitchen directly below a cupboard door opens and I picture him, tall like me and his dad. As he’s only nineteen I guess he’s still got some growing to do. He has Luke’s olive skin, an even tan from living by the sea, my grey eyes. He should be handsome except his mouth thins too easily as though he expects and needs so much more than I or anyone will ever give him.
I don’t get out of bed till I hear his car pull out of the drive and turn up the lane towards Croxted.
The empty wine glass is on the bedside cabinet. The short letter I wrote after Jamie went to bed still on the dressing table. He wouldn’t have reacted well if he’d seen it.
I find an old envelope at the back of the dressing table drawer, address it to your brother even though he doesn’t know I exist.
Matt Turner c/o Justin Turner, Pennington Jewellery, Hatton Garden, London.
I won’t accept we’re over any more than you can.
I’m not ready to face the day. I leave the envelope on the dressing table and climb back into bed, pull the duvet over my head.
When I wake misty rain hangs over the sea and sky so I can’t tell where one ends and the other begins. I wonder how it would be if I didn’t dull my anxiety with pills but embraced its sharp jaggedness. The coward in me won’t risk it and I go into my bathroom, wash down a sedative, a couple of painkillers for my head.
Picking up the letter I walk downstairs. I don’t look towards the front door but hurry into the kitchen, put the envelope on the table and pour my first wine of the day. I fish the phone from my bag. A message is on the screen.
Just heard! Are you okay? Call me Trish x
Can’t believe it. I should have been there. I tried phoning a couple of times but you keep going to voicemail. J x
I finish my wine, pour a second.
Don’t feel bad. His choice, remember. Can’t talk now – in rehearsals. Will call later. Trish x
Any chance you can come down? J x
By the time the glass is empty my head is muzzy, the nerves softened. I leave the phone on the table with the letter. In the back room I unlock the French doors. The rain has stopped but the sun is no more than a watery ghost, the wooden table and chairs darkly drenched.
I step onto the stone patio. Out here there is no threat of heart racing palpitations, no terror of being swallowed up, a sense of dying. Only wonderment and calm. The garden spreads in front of me with its sloping lawn, its high brick wall almost hidden behind overgrown hydrangea bushes, the yew trees, the honeysuckle. I cross the grass, duck beneath the low branches of a gnarled apple tree. At the end of the garden similar trees must have once formed a tiny orchard. A tall wooden gate is set in the crumbling brickwork.
I push it open, think of the hot afternoon you arrived at my Beach House unannounced. Only now do I understand your need to visualise me in the rooms, to see the beach, the cove. To safely fix me in this idyll I call home whenever you think of me and I know you’ll think of me a lot.
Stepping from the garden onto the short verge of grassy dunes I gaze across the sand and sea. A high cliff juts into the water to the left of the beach, an arch carved through it by the waves. From here there’s no hint of the tiny cove on the other side but I picture it white and shimmering.
The view made you gasp. It took my breath away once, still does.
My pulse doesn’t falter. Why would it? For me my garden, the beach, the little cove beyond, even the sea is all an extension of my beloved Beach House, though sanctuary or prison for too many years I’ve sometimes wondered which.
I was eighteen when Luke, my husband, first brought me here. He was over thirty, a grown man but I treated him like any other teenage boy. He treated me like a princess. I pushed open this same gate on an August day and the stunning vista opened up before me like a 1930’s film set. I could almost see faded images of long dead women in full bathing suits and floppy hats, of men in Oxford bags. I spent that summer in a haze of parties on the beach, champagne on Luke’s boat. Being adored and waiting breathlessly for him to unhook the back of my bikini, to slide his fingers between my legs. But the first time he fucked me it was respectfully done with trembling hands between clean white sheets. I hid my disappointment. I shut the gate to block out the memory.
Back in the kitchen I pick up the letter, keep the view from the garden in my head to convince myself if I can look across the beach and the vast sea there is no logical reason I can’t open the front door and cross the gravel drive. But who am I kidding?
Even so, I walk slowly up the long, wide hallway. After every step I stop, lean against the wall, take deep breaths and focus hard on holding each for the count of four before letting the air out slowly.
Within six paces my pulse falters, quickens. But I must do this. Before I can change my mind, I race to the front door, grab the handle, twist and yank it open. A flash of another memory, of ghosts from an ice-cold January morning silhouetted against the white sky like angels in blue. Then they’re gone.
The pale sun is obscenely bright after the gloom of the cool hallway. My vision blurs, pins and needles spread through my arms and legs. The thunder of blood is deafening and my heart races in its bid to burst out and escape me, the wooden floor spins upwards. The door swings wide, the sun warm on my back. There’s a watery taste warning me I’ll vomit, forcing me to keep swallowing desperate for the dizziness to pass. Then, still clutching the letter, I manage to move on all fours up the hallway into the backroom and collapse on the sofa with the envelope crumpled in my hand.
I didn’t even make it through the front door.
I wake to a female voice calling up the hall in halting English.
“Hello?” A pretty, plump young woman in tight jeans and a cropped T-shirt appears smiling nervously. “I close door okay?”
Thursday. The agency is always sending different girls and I’ve not seen this one before. She’s probably no older than Jamie. I hate not knowing her name. I hate anyone seeing me like this.
Sitting up it’s a relief to find the nausea has ebbed away.
I nod, thank her. With an exaggerated yawn pat my chest to explain why I’m slumped on the sofa looking like shit. “Sick. Had to lie down.” She frowns and I wonder how I’d act out the real reason I left the door swinging open, act out my pathetic attempt to post this letter to you.
The girl brings me coffee and I carry it upstairs leaving her cleaning the kitchen. Flopping down on the bed I flick between the television channels, attempt to read a book, check my phone and find a reply from Trish.
Sorry J, can’t see you for a bit. Got the part and filming in Ireland! I’ll come down as soon as I get back or you could fly over? Sending lots of hugs and love.
Congrats! Don’t worry I’ll be okay. Visiting you in Ireland sounds cool but if not see you in a few weeks! J x
I press ‘send’. Who knows how long I’ll have to live under the tyranny of the attacks this time but I’m damn sure they’ll stop me going out alone for a good while yet. The message bounces back. No service. Try again later. Sodding phone.
The room darkens, the rain starts again and I long to swallow a couple of sleeping pills to obliterate the rest of the afternoon. But I’m desperate to get your letter posted and today. And I imagine how the conversation would go if I asked my son.
Please Jamie, I just need to know he’s okay.
But can I face the lecture if he knows I’ve written?
Mum, I get it’s tough but you’ve got to move on. It’s what he wants.
Like my son gives a shit about what you want.
Trust me I’m a woman who never minds a good row. I enjoy the burst of adrenalin driven by anger, shooting my barbed comments bang on target. Except scratch the surface and you’ll find a cowardly avoider and the conversations with Jamie about you are too painful, too grown up.
A woman laughs on the television. I shower, clean my teeth, pull on jeans and a T-shirt anxious to be downstairs before Jamie arrives home. The welcoming mother who’ll hand him a bottle of beer, pour a glass of wine, ask how things are at the bistro and suggest cooking steaks for dinner.
By the way, would you mind popping along the lane, posting this?
Music plays in a room below. I go downstairs and open the door. The cleaner jigs as she irons. She blushes, picks up her phone to switch it off.
“It’s okay.” I hold up my hand, sway along with the music and smile, the universal language of ‘don’t worry, I’m not an unfriendly bitch.’ But the song is silenced. This young woman sees me differently from how I view myself. She sees an attractive, rich and idle woman. Young looking but still an employer to be feared. And how do I see myself? Immature, lazy. A self-centred mess. The same girl who used to wait tables enjoying the thrill of male attention, voted best looker in her sixth form year. The heart breaker from the local comprehensive who forgot to take her pill and married money.
“Coffee? You?” I mime holding a mug and drinking.
Tapping her watch, she does walking fingers and shakes her head. “Leave now. No thank you.”
Closing the door, I smile as the music plays more softly.
How thick am I?
I take the stairs two at a time, race into the bedroom and grab the letter then startle the girl as I rush back into the room. Through the window I see the security gates begin to swing apart. The nose of Jamie’s car inches onto the drive.
“Post this.” I thrust the letter across the ironing board. She frowns, pouts.
His car glides towards the house like an approaching shark.
“You understand?” I jab my finger at the envelope then at her. “Letter – you post.” I perform a bizarre charade of hurrying across the drive, turning into the lane to the letter box, dropping it in.
She’s sensing my desperation and glances out of the window. The security gates crawl shut behind Jamie’s car.
Leaning across the ironing board I force the letter into her hand, put a finger to my lips. “Shhh. Secret.”
Her eyes widen at the sudden intrigue but she shakes her head and pushes it back pointing to where the stamp should be.
Shit. I really am thick. Sprinting out of the room, I run to the kitchen, snatch up my purse and tug out a ten-pound note.
“This is for a stamp, yes?”
The car pulls up in front of the house.
“And the rest, all for you? Okay?” I wave my arms in a circle. “For you? Yes?”
Jamie’s footsteps crunch to the front door. The cleaner nods, takes the money and letter, folds them together and stuffs them in the back of her jeans. She’s business-like and I get the feeling keeping secrets is something she understands.
Jamie raises a softly clenched fist and taps on his mum’s door. There is movement from the other side. She’s out of bed.
Pressing his ear to the door the muffled sounds tell him she’s been crying. Mum needs time he tells himself for what feels like the hundredth time since they sent that man away. He appreciates when he’s not working at the bistro she comes down to cook and eat with him, shares a couple of glasses of wine before taking the bottle upstairs. But it’s been two weeks.
“Mum? I’m home today.”
Jamie pictures her behind the closed door looking years younger than her late thirties, shoulder length hair streaked blonde by the sun and sea. They’re about the same height, share the same grey eyes.
Your mum is fucking fit.
How often had his younger self wished she’d looked and acted more like other mums?
Look Jamie’s blushing ‘cause we fancy his mum.
“The rain’s going to stop. It looks like a hot afternoon.” He listens. Nothing. “We could go to the beach, take down a few beers, wine?
A click of what he guesses is her jewellery box closing and he’s sure she’s been fingering the earrings that man gave her like she constantly plays with the chain round her neck.
At last. “Give me two minutes.”
Jamie runs downstairs, grabs a cold lager from the fridge. Overhead her footsteps cross the floor. Then silence. His shoulders drop imagining she’s lying on the bed again and he wants to run back up, tell her to get a grip, move on.
Through the kitchen window the rain still bounces off the garden furniture, the leaves and branches of the trees bend under the weight of the downpour. Jamie checks his phone. The sunny-faced icons smile back showing the temperature rising. He stares out and before he’s drunk the bottle, the rain’s stopped. White clouds slowly disperse and patches of blue sky break through. Steam rises from the York stone and apart from the dripping leaves and the drenched furniture it’s as though the sun has shone all morning. Overhead the floorboards creak.
He opens the cupboard under the sink, pulls out the cooler bag. From the fridge he gets a bottle of wine and four beers. Time, he tells himself again. It’s all she needs. And he’s pretty sure she’s got plenty of that. Mum might not admit anything’s wrong but she’s not left the house since that day.
Jamie packs the cooler bag, listens for her bedroom door to open with a guilty thought he barely let’s settle. If the attacks have come back is it such a bad thing? She couldn’t make it through the front door for months without clinging to his arm last time. They’re bound to keep her here for at least the summer where he can keep an eye on her, protect her, otherwise who knows what she’d do. Take the train to London, let Trish fill her head with nonsense about that man.
It takes several seconds to realise his phone is vibrating to the tune of Money on your mind. He fishes it from his jean’s pocket. Money on your mind, money on your mind. The name Stephen pulsates with the music. “Hi mate. How you doing?”
It’s what they always say and his friend laughs.
“Good. I’m doing good.” Stephen’s voice is causal though maybe there’s an underlying edginess. “You?”
“Yeah. So, so.” He glances up to footsteps in his mum’s bedroom and her bathroom door opening.
A slight pause from Stephen then. “Look, sorry I’ve not got in touch since we split at the end of term. What’s occurring in your world?”
“No worries, mate. Not much. You?”
“Same old. Bored shitless. Broke.”
“Stuck at home is doing my head in. The old man always on my back about how my fucking course is going. You get how it is mate.”
Jamie often listens to how Stephen’s dad gives him a tough time for dropping out of his last university, how this is his last chance. How Stephen hates the way his mother says nothing, only nods and agrees. In return Jamie has revealed very little about his mum and dad. There’s too much to tell. He never knows where to start.
But before he can commiserate Stephen says, “Here’s the thing….” An intake of breath from the other end. “You said something about me hanging out at your place?”
Come and chill for a few days if you’re bored.
A suggestion Jamie threw out while they sat on the grass outside the student bar drinking lager in the sun. As if inviting Stephen to the Beach House was no big deal.
“Offer’s still there.” Jamie crosses his fingers. “Up to you.”
Stephen blows out a sigh of relief. “Thank fuck for that.”
Jamie never imagined he’d get this call and he’s suddenly excited to show off his home to Stephen. To show off his new friend to Mum.
“I wouldn’t have said it if I hadn’t meant it.”
“Mate I know but…look this is a bit embarrassing. Guess what?”
Of course, there’s a ‘but’. Stephen’s got some girl in tow or Jamie’s misunderstood and he’s only phoned to say, thanks but no thanks. Or he’s called to borrow money.
“I’m on the fucking train!”
“You’re kidding me!”
“I know, mad. The old man blew up this morning and we had a massive row so I threw my stuff in a bag. I should have messaged.”
“Your mum won’t be put out me just turning up?”
Jamie doesn’t want to say she’s not the sort of mother to be put out by anyone and hopes she’ll be a bit brighter when his friend arrives. As much as he wants to show off Stephen, he wants his friend to meet his laid back, ‘let’s open another bottle of wine’ Mum. His quick witted, funny, feisty, ‘don’t give a shit’ Mum.
“She’ll be chilled.” There’s no need to warn his friend she might hardly bother to say hello.
“Christ, mine would want a bloody itinerary.”
They both laugh. Both relieved. In his head, Jamie makes a list of the things he’ll ask her to order so they can cram the freezer with burgers, chicken, sausages, pizza. He’ll ask her to get extra beers, whisky for Stephen, vodka, a bottle of Pimm’s. They can make jugs of the stuff and sit out in the garden with the sun on their backs getting pissed.
And more weed. They’ll need to drop by Barry’s.
“What time’s your train get in?”
“Okay, now I’m dead embarrassed.” A pause. “Put it this way, I can see the sea and we’ve just pulled into a station called Portland Bay?”
“You’re almost here?”
The merest thought. What if he’d been busy with other stuff, if he’d said this sudden visit wasn’t okay? But then why would Stephen imagine he’d say that? He invited him, didn’t he? They’re mates, got each other’s backs.
“Stop with the apologies. It’s all cool. I’ll see you at Croxted station in about twenty minutes. I’ll show you the town, we’ll have a few beers.”
Upstairs his mum’s window opens. Jamie prays she’s going to make an effort now his friend’s coming to stay for a few days. My friend’s coming to stay. He enjoys repeating the phrase in his head.
“I knew you’d be chilled. We’ll have a right laugh.”
He’s never spoken about the Beach House but he can’t wait to see his friend’s face when he sees the place. “We’re stuck out in the sticks but I’ll get Mum to order plenty of booze, we’ll pick up some dope from a bloke I know.”
“Anywhere sounds pretty good right now.” Before ringing off Stephen adds, “You’re a good mate.”
Jamie takes the stairs two at a time and calls through her bedroom door. “I need to pick up someone from Croxted.” He listens. “Mum?”
It opens and she stands in her dressing gown, towel round her head. The blind is up, the sun has moved to the back of the house and shines into the room.
“Don’t mind do you? Me inviting a uni friend?” They’re both ignoring her obvious surprise. “You’ll like him, he’s a good bloke.”
Give his mum her due, she adjusts her expression quickly and doesn’t say – what you? A friend coming to stay? That’s a first. Instead she shakes her head. “Of course not.” She pulls the towel from her hair. “What’s this friend called?”
“And he’s here now?”
“How long’s he staying?”
“A few days.”
She pushes a wet strand from her face. “Bit sudden isn’t it?”
He shrugs. “Not really, just forgot to mention him coming. No problem is it?”
“No problem. But don’t expect too much from me. You’ll just have to get on.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll look after ourselves but if I give you a list could you order some extra food, booze and stuff.” He turns at the top of the stairs. “Or give me the card and I’ll do it.”
He can’t help adding. “You will make an effort won’t you Mum, to make him feel welcome. You’ll come down when he gets here and at least say hello.”
This is me making an effort, waiting for my son and his friend to arrive.
I’m in the garden on the lounger under the apple tree. The smell of damp earth from this morning’s downpour hangs in the air. The sun flashes through the leaves above me. The sky pale blue and clear.
You will make an effort won’t you Mum, to make him feel welcome. You’ll come down when he gets here and at least say hello.
I’ve taken a sedative but put off opening a bottle of wine till I meet this Stephen.
Turning the page of my book my mind wanders. I picture the post box hanging on the wall outside the security gates, wonder if there’s a letter from you among the circulars. It’s two weeks to the day since I gave mine to the girl. I can’t believe you won’t reply but then perhaps it’s too soon and you’re writing back as we speak. Or perhaps she forgot to post it and it’s lying in the bottom of her bag. They sent another cleaner last week. I hope the pretty girl comes today.
I could do with a drink but keep my resolve. I read without registering a single sentence until throwing down my book stare up at the sun glinting like semaphore. Sweat pricks the back of my neck. After a few minutes I can’t stand it any longer, run upstairs to the bedroom, tear off my jeans, pull on a bikini, a T-shirt and shorts and scrape my hair into a ponytail.
Downstairs the front door opens. The cleaner. Grabbing the towel from my bathroom I run back down, relieved to see the girl from two weeks ago is walking up the hallway. I wipe my hand across my forehead. Phew, it’s hot.
Then I mime posting the letter.
“Yes, yes.” Nodding vigorously, she mirrors my actions. A part of me dies. She sent it.
More acting from me but I can’t make her understand I’m asking her to walk to the end of the drive to check the post box. She looks troubled so I shake my head, smile. Don’t worry.
Leaving her, I hurry into the garden, pick up my book from the lounger, duck under the apple trees and head through the gate. Out here the salty air is cooler, the sea glints. I cross the verge, kick off my flip flops and jump down the zig-zag of smooth low rocks onto the sand then run down the beach as though to escape myself. Being this unhappy goes against my nature which is strange given how miserable I’ve been for so many years. With Luke, with his death and now with what’s happening to you. I throw down my sunglasses, book and towel on one of the white plastic sunbeds that sit under a large canvas umbrella yellowed with age. Tugging off my shorts and top I sprint into the freezing water. I gasp but keep running and rise up on tiptoe as it reaches the top of my thighs. When it hits my chest, I dive and swim towards Croxted till my legs and shoulders ache and the beach is almost out of sight. Treading water, I can just make out the harbour, the tall masts of the boats dipping and rising. Only now do I turn back.
Wading into the shallow water, the white foam laps round my ankles. I enjoy the tired pull on the back of my legs as I walk over the sand before collapsing on the sunbed to embrace the physical exhaustion.
The sun is hot. I doze. Images drift in my head, cloud then slip into a dream. The ghost of your wife stands next to you. She smiles, says something. I can tell by the way your head tips slightly back she’s made you laugh. You put your arm round her waist, pull her tight into your side, whisper something and she looks down. Her hand covers her mouth and you kiss the top of her head. Then your wife turns and looks straight at me. Like you she’s laughing and I hate her.
The dream shifts and you’re handing me a picture of Maria on your phone. Mrs. Maria Turner, the love of your life. I’ve seen it before. It’s the one you showed me in the restaurant.
I want you to see her. I really, really like you but it’s too soon, it doesn’t feel right. I’m such a fucking mess. I can’t get involved.
I didn’t want to look that day and, in my dream, I try to hand the phone back so I don’t have to see the way her chestnut hair is cut in a sharp bob, the way it falls forward where she dips her head, the way her hand is halfway to her mouth as though embarrassed the camera caught her laughing. But you squeeze my fingers around the screen and I stare down. The photo morphs as her skin yellows, her face shrinks so her teeth seem too big in a hollowed face. But she’s still beautiful and she keeps laughing even as her features disintegrate before my eyes. You grip my hand with tears streaming down your face, mouthing the words I can’t stand to hear. I can’t get involved, Jo, it’s too soon.
My eyes fly open. It’s just me on this empty beach. The sea sighs back and forth.
More laughter but it’s no longer in my dream. It’s coming from the grass verge. I’ve been sleeping on my stomach. The sun has moved over the sea behind me so the shade of the umbrella falls across my legs, leaving my head, back and shoulders burning in the sun. I push the dream images away but dispelling the sense of shame at such jealousy for a dead woman is never so easy. I welcome the distraction of my son arriving home.
Without looking up I picture Jamie jumping onto the beach with his friend and am mildly curious what this Stephen will be like.
“Mum? We’re back.”
No one but a mother would hear Jamie is two-pints pissed, possibly a little doped up. My first thought is regret realising I could have had a drink after all. I don’t raise my head but wave my arm.
“Mum, this is Stephen.”
I’m glad the sunglasses hide my surprise. They are standing in front of me at the head of the sunbed. Stephen isn’t quite the know-all know-nothing college boy I imagined. He’s a man. It’s hard to tell how old but certainly in his mid-twenties making him a good few years older than Jamie. He needs a shave, has the slight grubby air of someone who’s arrived straight from bumming around some place. I wonder what’s brought him here, what story he has to tell with the languid good looks of an ex-public school boy and too long dark blonde hair. He’s wearing faded cut down jeans, black flip flops, his calves muscular and covered in fine hairs like the young men who hire out wet suits from the surfing shop by the harbour. Like mine his eyes are hidden behind dark glasses.
Bending, he picks up my book, hands it to me, his white toothed smile over confident, too charming.
He really is not what I expected.
“Okay. A bit wordy but, yup, good.” I take the book, turn down the corner of the page.
Jamie squats next to the lounger and I get a strong whiff of beer, fags and dope.
“Mum’s always got some book or other on the go.” His eyes flick from his friend to me. “Stephen’s doing a creative writing degree.”
Jamie’s obviously in thrall to this young man and the bitch in me can’t help but tease. “Not sure what I’m supposed to say to that.” I prop myself onto both elbows to talk to the boys more easily. “Bully for Stephen.” Then I get bitches’ remorse seeing my son wince. I remind myself I’m supposed to be making an effort.
Stephen shrugs his shoulders, laughs easily and Jamie looks relieved. For the next ten minutes I redeem myself, ask polite questions as Jamie tells me how Stephen joined the university last term after travelling round Europe. How his friend dropped out of his first degree: now there’s a surprise. I keep that thought to myself.
Jamie’s eyes dart between us anxious to gauge what we think of each other, then says. “Stephen spent a bit of time in Castellon, didn’t you? I told him about the ‘Aged Travellers’.
He’s referring to my parents and Stephen looks momentarily awkward. I guess he’s not sure if he should find this description of my mum and dad amusing. “They sound interesting.”
Jamie and I both laugh to indicate it’s okay to find them funny, we do – a rare shared joke. “That’s a polite way to describe them,” I say. “Fucking pains is another.”
It’s Stephen’s turn to wince. I guess his mother doesn’t swear in front of her son.
Despite the dark glasses I know Stephen’s gaze keeps moving to the back of my legs. I sense the slide of his eyes up my body, pretty sure they linger on my backside before flicking to my face.
“How long have they been in Spain?”
I look at Jamie but he’s not saying anything as I count back through the years and realise it must be more than five since they sold their run-down cottage in Croxted. These days they send the occasional text, manage late birthday and Christmas cards. The last message was in early April when they announced they’d be driving into the Spanish mountains, warned it would be hard to get a signal but not to worry.
My parents know nothing about you.
But my mum and dad did return once. For my husband’s funeral. I get the sense Jamie would rather I didn’t mention that. “You were almost fourteen when they went so, what, about five years?” Jamie doesn’t correct me confirming he hasn’t told Stephen about his dad. “They’ll come back when the money runs out. They like to think of themselves as free spirits living the simple life but it still costs. As I said, pains in the neck.”
We fall silent and my head rests on the sunbed, my arm dangles over the edge.
It amuses me to think if I got a surprise, what must Stephen make of me? Vanity isn’t a trait I’m proud of but I’ve been with too many men, broken too many hearts for false modesty. I’m pretty sure this young man would have expected a woman in a carefully cut bikini not me in this tiny white one only a teenage girl should wear. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I get a kick out of those eyes roving up and down my body.
My son stretches out on the sand, hands behind his head. Stephen sinks down, sits cross legged. The sun’s hot on the soles of my feet and Jamie’s head soon lolls to one side, his mouth open. Stephen watches grains of sand trickle through his fingers. When he thinks I’m asleep he lets his gaze rest openly on my backside. After a few minutes I shift my body, tummy in, feet pointed, legs stretched as I roll slowly to the side making sure Stephen gets an eyeful of my small, high tits before I reach for the book.
He turns away quickly, stares out to the horizon and I can’t help another tease. “Enjoying the view?” How childish am I?
But instead of blushing he looks straight back at me, grins. “More than you know.”
I’m ashamed to admit I like to think Stephen is probably thinking Jamie’s mum is very fuckable with her tight smooth skin and a better figure than most of the girls he’s ever slept with.
I make a pretence of reading for a few minutes while Stephen makes a show of pulling off his T-shirt to reveal muscular tanned arms and chest. He lies on the sand and now it’s my gaze drifting to the thin line of dark blonde hair running from where his jeans rest across a flat stomach towards his chest. A familiar squirming starts up low in the pit of my stomach and I long for the sheer physicality of you. The taste of your mouth, your hand in the small of my back, your fingers between my legs. I close my eyes and inwardly groan imagining you pulling me up from this sunbed, your soft throaty sigh as you untie my bikini and let it drop to the sand.
The air is still, the sun baking. I cross my legs to squeeze the rhythmic pulse between my thighs but it’s unbearable and I jump up from the sunbed, throw down my sunglass. Without a word or looking round I run towards the sea. The tide is almost in. I dive, turn on my back to let the waves hold me and watch Stephen nudge my son awake. They peel off their jeans sprint across the sand, stomachs in as though they can put off the shock of cold water hitting their balls.