Driving beside the beach again, an oyster curve of sand speckled with sunbathers, I make the same silent promise as last time we passed. We’ll stop at the beach one of these days. Only not today, Thomas’s threatening to throw up in the back and Alexia fusses over him. Emma sits behind Jen, plaiting her hair. We’re half way through the mums’ holiday (as the children call it). Without families to scoop us up for respite, we single mothers go away together.
Jen drinks water from a bottle, the supermarket shopping at her feet. The children start to chatter and she angles her head to tune into a snatch of their conversation. She spits water and laughs.
‘What’s so funny?’
‘Better check with your son.’
‘He’s not been sick?’ I change gears to turn the corner.
‘No, he’s got other things on his mind.’ Jen looks into the back and speaks to Thomas. ‘Can you say that again so that your mum hears?’
I look in the review mirror, Thomas’s white-blonde hair fills the reflection, the booster seat elevating him above the girls. Alexia holds his hand while Emma stares outside, her fringe flapping in the breeze from the window.
‘My willy’s gone all hard,’ he says. Jen and Emma convulse with laughter, Alexia gives a puzzled frown then joins with a machine-gun giggle. Thomas realises that he’s the source of amusement and smiles.
‘It’s all right Tommy. We’ll be back at the caravan soon.’ I give Jen a sideways glance.
‘Good job I didn’t have a boy,’ she says.
Jen’s in-charge of the barbecue, a gas one, says it’s no different from cooking on the hob and sets to work on the meat. I fill a bowl with shredded lettuce and slices of cucumber – this is for the benefit of Jen and Emma – my kids will never eat salad. There’s beetroot on a saucer and a tub of coleslaw. Maybe they’ll be adventurous and try some today. Thomas’s playing bare foot in the dirt, using a stick to poke an ant hole, shorts bunched up at his waist. I love to pinch his gorgeous calves. The girls sit on the steps, sharing a book, pointing at the pictures.
Wiping her brow against her forearm, Jen looks set to drop.
‘Can I help?’
‘No.’ She dismisses me by waving the tongs.
‘God, yes. Crack open the white. It’s gone five o’clock hasn’t it? No need to hold back any longer.’
‘Neither of us need drive tonight and there’s a stash of chocolate in the fridge.’
‘A perfect evening,’ Jen smiles.
I tell the children to wash their hands and they scamper inside. Shrieks emanate from the bathroom and they return in water spotted clothing. I usher them to their seats on the picnic bench and distribute the plates. Loading a dish with meat, Jen offers the children a choice: burger or sausage. There’s no squabbling for a change – they get one of each. I push the bowls around the table, like trains on a track. The beetroot is parked in front of Jen and she takes a helping.
‘My wee’s turned red from eating so much beetroot.’ Jen swigs wine from the beaker.
Emma nudges Alexia and they chuckle. I spear a couple of slices with my fork.
‘You want some too?’ The girls nod, their mouths too full to speak. ‘And you, Tommy?’
‘No,’ he says. ‘Don’t like red.’
‘But you’re wearing a red T-shirt.’
‘No.’ He strokes the fabric. ‘It’s pink.’
‘Tommy’s wearing pink,’ Emma chants.
‘Pink’s for girls.’ Alexia is knowledgeable about such things.
‘Don’t be silly.’ I glare at the faces around the table. Jen reaches a freckled arm to collect the beetroot, distributing the remainder on all five plates.
‘Just leave it on the side Tommy, if you don’t want to try it.’ But it’s too late. The beetroot brushes against the crescent of burger, leaving a stripe on the brown. He’s pointing at the plate, fingers wiggling in annoyance. I scrape the offending food onto my plate, collect a clean dish and slap another burger in front of him. He stares, hanging his head.
‘What’s wrong now Tommy?’
‘He wants it like the other one.’ Alexia interprets. Jen is watching me, I give her a quizzical look, take a bite out of the burger, and plonk the remainder on Thomas’s plate while I chew.
‘All right now, Tommy?’ I ask.
‘No,’ he says. ‘Want ketchup.’
‘But ketchup’s red.’ I squirt a dollop on the side.
‘It’s good red,’ he says.
I take the stacked dishes into the caravan and run the hot tap. Slinging them in the suds, I give them a rudimentary wipe then douse the cutlery. I’m not house-proud here. There’s no need and Jen doesn’t bother with an ounce of tidying or cleaning. It’s me who’s obsessed with sweeping the crumbs. But I can forgive Jen anything. Even leaving the inner tube of the toilet paper in the holder and stacking the new roll on top. There’d have been a sarcastic comment if Gary did the like. Think I’m the toilet roll fairy, do you? I’m glad I’m single again.
Calling the children from their games, Jen lines them up outside the tiny shower, ready for a dunking. There’s an edge of laughter in her voice as she swings them under the water: arms up, turn around, close your eyes. The first to emerge is Thomas, wrapped in a towel that covers him from shoulders to toes. I sit him on my lap for a cuddle, his wet hair sprays me as he turns his head. Emma comes next wearing an oversized turban, smelling of shampoo. Already in her pyjamas, Alexia joins our group. I reach for the paperback, find the page with the corner turned and read the next chapter. They listen while I change voices, taking on the speech of the characters. When I close the cover, the girls argue for more, but Thomas’s eyelids are drooping and he’s sucking his thumb. I carry him to the bunk, and chase the girls under the covers. Alexia curls like an ammonite, while Emma tosses her head and slinks beneath the duvet.
I awake when sunlight scatters diamonds across the emulsion. I hear bodies turning on the other side of the wall. I must be up before the children and I stagger in my night clothes to the kitchen. Tapping my fingers across the counter I find the kettle’s warm but no-one’s about. Jen’s gone for a run, I guess. There’s laughter from the bedroom and Thomas tumbles out, thumb in mouth, blanket trailing.
‘Did you sleep well, Tommy?’ He fixes me with his navy rimmed eyes and nods.
‘Ready for breakfast?’ He climbs onto the bench and sits waiting.
‘Would you like cereal?’ He shakes his head, his tongue working at his thumb.
‘Here, have an apple.’ I offer the fruit – he eyes it suspiciously. ‘Shall I peal it for you?’ He nods. The cutlery in the drawer rattles as I search for a knife. I cut a snake of skin, slice the fruit into quarters and dig-out the core. I offer Thomas a piece. With chubby fingers he examines it then passes the apple back.
‘Want skin on.’ He slithers off the seat and goes to find the girls.
Jen appears with patches of sweat on her T-shirt, loose curls escaping from her pony-tail. She spins a paper bag on the counter, the tail of a croissant pokes out.
‘I bought a couple of pan au chocolat too.’ She puffs, holding her knees to catch her breath.
‘Poo au chocolate?’ Emma’s half-moon face appears at the doorway.
‘Yes,’ says Jen. ‘Come and have breakfast.’
I pack the car with swimming kit, picnic blanket, buckets and spades, a cool-box crammed with drinks and food. Rounding up the children, I check their seatbelts like an air-hostess, Jen joins us when she’s finished brushing her hair.
‘Right,’ I say. ‘All ready for the beach?’
‘Yes!’ Alexia sits up straight giving a crooked smile just like Gary’s.
‘How about some music?’ says Jen. ‘Anyone for Abba?’ The CD’s already in the player, the same one we’ve played most of the holiday. There’s something magical about abandoning nursery rhymes in favour of Dancing Queen. The children are growing up, thank God.
I bump the kerb as I reverse into a space. I’ll get the bloody car in if it kills me. My forehead’s beaded with sweat and clumps of hair hang in damp strands. I instruct the children to get out and they wait on the pavement. There’s a pile at the back that Jen’s unloaded. She tells the girls to collect something to carry and gives Thomas a picnic blanket. I juggle with the back-pack, threading my arms through the straps then reach for the cool-box. Jen slams the boot and I startle but say nothing.
‘Keep your sandals on,’ I warn the girls. ‘You don’t want the sand to burn your feet.’ Alexia’s shoulders slope, her right side weighed down by the bag she carries. I follow as they find a path through families already pitched for the day.
‘Let’s get a bit closer to the sea.’ I encourage them to walk further.
‘Here’ll do.’ Jen decides, throwing down the beach bag. I slump on the sand, the girls have already set to work with their spades, skirts tucked into their knickers. Thomas sits by me and watches. Scattering sand as she lays the blanket, Jen secures the corners by dropping sandals. I move a little closer, conscious to give sufficient space to the neighbouring families. They talk in French and I’m fearful they’re looking down on us and our shambolic camp.
Slipping handfuls of sand through my fingers like an hourglass, I study the sea: flurries of white in the distance and ripples of cobalt and aqua. A breeze flaps hair around my shoulders, and sends tickles across my arms. Already I’m picking up colour, a stripe shows where my watch should be; I’ve put it into my pocket, in case I go swimming. Thomas is ready for the beach, lathered with cream and dressed in his trunks. He watches the gulls circle around the driving platform, a tower poking out of the sea like the mast of a ship.
‘I swim out there.’ He points.
‘No Tommy. It’s too far, you go for a paddle, but stay near the edge.’
He tip-toes over the sand to join the other children, larking and jumping waves. I notice Alexia’s nose turning pink, and I call her over. She sits between my legs while I plaster her with sun cream. I watch Thomas intermittently, his white hair like a beacon amongst the tanned flesh and costumes. This feels like a real holiday, somewhere different and exciting. Spreading the cream over Alexia’s neck I cover the dark moles thickly.
‘All done.’ I release her.
‘Where’s Tommy?’ she asks.
‘He’s playing in the shallows.’
I look up, my finger poised to point in his direction. I study the bathers, all arms and legs like a thicket. In my peripheral vision I notice a boy and turn, but it’s not Thomas. Flicking my head from side to side, my heart pumps. Alexia jumps to her feet and runs around in a circle, waving her arms in panic. Getting to my feet, I shield my eyes from the sun and walk towards the sea. The slap of the waves and the shouting bathers annoy me now. I hurry back to the camp and find Jen laid out, her stomach sucked in, her ribs glistening.
‘You’re in my sun.’ She speaks with her eyes closed and I notice my shadow dissecting her middle.
‘I can’t find Thomas.’
‘Isn’t he with the girls?’
‘No,’ my voice quavers. Jen sits, dusting sand from her palms.
‘Take a walk along to the breaker, see if he’s with the children paddling over there.’
‘Okay. Will you watch Alexia? I don’t want to lose both children.’
‘He’s not lost – he’s just playing.’ She leans back onto her elbows and glances around.
‘Will you watch Alexia?’ I say again.
‘If you want.’ She re-ties the laces of her halter neck, her eyes fixed on the blanket.
I pass the girls, Alexia is hopping like a demented lizard, Emma hangs onto an arm anchoring her.
‘Stay here.’ I tell Alexia. ‘I’m going to find Tommy.’
‘Tommy’s lost!’ she says.
‘It’s all right,’ I say, but I don’t see her, I see just the blur of a jiggling child. ‘Mummy will find him.’
I walk to where the seawater gathers in a lagoon. Big boys paddle to their knees and wield fishing nets. Discarded crisp packet swirl in the water and there’s a smell of debris. I crinkle my nose and squint. School-aged girls kick the waves, splashing each other. There’s no sign of Thomas. I think about calling his name, but there are too many screaming children and squawking gulls to make my voice heard. My mouth’s dry, I press my hand against my forehead.
Gathering pace as I walk back to Jen, I arrive out of breath and crumple onto the blanket. I swallow my anxiety, tears spilling from the corners of my eyes.
‘Don’t worry,’ says Jen. ‘There’s a Tannoy system – see the speakers lined along the path? I’ll find out where lost children are sent.’ She gets to her feet, puts on a T-shirt, and straightens her shorts.
‘Hurry,’ I say. ‘Please.’
‘I’m calling to mind my ‘A’ level French. Glad it’ll finally be useful.’
Jen takes a path around the holidaymakers to reach a wooden shelter. She talks to a man sitting at a table, she nods and points. My pounding heart makes my whole body judder, Alexia’s pleading at my side. I wait. A ping-pong tune from the speakers quiets the beach. Everyone is still, listening to crackle that shows the microphone’s working. When the announcement comes, somehow I understand the French. A little English boy’s lost, three-years-old, blonde, wearing blue trunks, his name’s Thomas. Please alert the office if you see him. A final ping-pong and the holiday makers resume their conversations. From behind me I hear a woman speak: why is it the English who always lose their children? Jen returns, hands in her pockets.
‘Has he shown up yet?’ she asks.
‘No. No sign of him. What do I do now?’
‘No-one’s going to let him drown on a beach this busy.’
‘It’s not drowning I’m worried about,’ I squeal. ‘Maybe he’s been abducted.’
‘Ducted?’ Alexia repeats. I hold her hands, her expression reflects the fear in my eyes and I have to convince her that everything’s going to be all right.
‘I’m going to walk along the beach and find him. You wait here with Jen and Emma. I’ll be back in no time, and then we’ll have ice-cream.’
‘Okay,’ she says.
I walk by the edge of the water, wet sand clings to my toes, there’s an urgency in my limbs but my mind’s foggy. I call Tommy’s name, breath leaves me with a surge. I cough and cry again. Swinging my arms, I walk with long steps covering the distance, my shadow surging forwards. Gary’ll kill me if I can’t find Tommy, he’ll hate me more than ever. I toss my head from side to side, sure that I’ll spot him in the distance. I’m crying and calling, scanning the faces on the beach, all of them realising I’m the incompetent mother. The crowds begin to thin, few bathers in the water here, but the beach stretches on. Like a mirage, fuzzy at the edges, I see my boy jumping the shallows, chasing the waves as they turn in a lacy froth. It’s him, it’s absolutely him: fluffy white hair, sturdy legs, blue patterned trunks. I run to him and collapse in the water.
‘Tommy, Tommy. What are you doing?’
‘Nothing,’ he says. My fingers grip him like pincers and I hug him to me. The water circles us. ‘Row the boat, Mummy,’ he says. ‘Row, row, row the boat.’ He struggles free and finds my hands, tugging my arms like oars. Dropping my head to hide my tears, I join the game. Thomas sings and giggles, I mumble out-of-tune. As soon as the verse is over, I get to my feet and drag Tommy’s arm to make him stand.
‘Come on,’ I say. ‘Alexia’s worried. You’ve been missing for ages.’
‘I been playing.’
‘I know, but let’s get back.’
Thomas raises his arms, wanting to be carried. I lift him, glad of his weight, his legs wrapped around my waist, his head tucked under my chin. I hear him chewing his thumb, his saliva drips onto my collarbone. My knees shake as I walk, my feet sinking into the sand. Anonymous faces watch my progress then a man approaches. He’s shorter than me, and tilts his face so that his eyes meet my gaze.
‘Is this the missing boy?’ His English is good.
‘Yes, thank God I found him.’
‘I saw him in the water and I went to ask him if his name was Thomas but he said no and carried on playing.’
‘Oh,’ I say. ‘Thank you for trying.’ He nods and I struggle on. The child wriggles in my arms, the boy who only knows himself as Tommy.
Gail Aldwin’s short stories and flash fiction have appeared in on-line publications and she has two short stories featuring in print anthologies to be published in 2012. Gail is currently redrafting a manuscript titled Manipulation which is set in Outback Australia and tells the story of a gap year that goes wrong. In What the Dickens? Magazine, Gail has a regular column that answers writers’ questions. Gail lives in Dorset and writes blog posts about all things literary: http://gailaldwin.wordpress.com