Novel-in-progress. A mystery thriller set in the north east.
It was so hot my husband traced a heart in the layer of sweat that had formed on my bare back. I smiled. The waves of the bay lapped just a few metres away. Someone had started a barbecue and the smoke tossed over on a light breeze. Growing up in a council flat in Warrington, it still amazed me how Sundays could be beach days. A dog’s scampering feet threw a shiver of sand onto my calves. Noah’s voice close by, that strident enthusiasm.
‘Like this no like this! This! Zack, man! Whatya doin!’
Strident, but safe.
Matt kissed my shoulder. ‘Couldn’t resist…you look hot.’
I liked the thickness to his voice, the lust it contained. Though lately, it had been a struggle for me, after everything. ‘It is hot.’
‘Mm, not what I meant.’ The press of his hand wakes my own desire. ‘Back to sleep, you. God knows you need a break.’
A scream made me bolt upright. Had I been asleep? First, I saw Matt’s feet. His long legs. Those thighs left over from playing American Football in his 20s. Totally relaxed. Nothing to worry about. He’d propped himself up on his elbows, drinking Sol with a quarter of lime.
He winked, nodded. ‘In my sights.’
But I couldn’t take it on trust. I scanned the water, a bowl of blue, bright with silver pennies. Noah’s lovely candyfloss hair let me pick him out easily. I might not be his mother, but that didn’t stop the love filling every spare space of me. I saw the black and yellow wetsuits of a group of beginner surfers, their yellow boards. Counted. One, two instructors for the raft of twelve kids. The handsome young lifeguards sprawling near Rileys fish shack. So brown they looked Mediterranean. ‘I thought I – ‘
I saw the worry cross Matt’s face. ‘Tynemouth’s one of the safest bays in the north east. Come on.’
I nodded, feeling silly. Rooted for the water we’d put in the cool bag. Drank down half a bottle. Matt offered me his Sol.
‘You’re working too hard. When are you gonna take an actual break from that bloody place?’
I tried not to look irritated. He should know it wasn’t just work. And then I felt guilty. It was June. It was one of the busiest times at the university. Board after board to chair, the upcoming graduation ceremonies, budgets and blah. ‘Like you haven’t been checking your emails,’ I said, taking a sip. It didn’t come out as playfully as I’d intended.
He raised his eyebrows.
‘Sorry. I’ve still got Noah’s tea and lunch to do when we get back – and some minutes to go over.’
‘You need to let people help you. I can don my apron and burn some food. He’s my –’ Matt stops himself and shakes his head. ‘Sorry.’
I take a deep breath. Clamber over to him and snuggle up, draping one knee over those huge thighs. Sweat sticking us together immediately. He smelled of Matt. The sweat I knew from our early years, when we delighted in each other. Drinking wine and having sex, cooking and having sex, TV and… Before Noah came to be with us full-time.
There’s a shock of cold, Matt dabbing cream on my shoulders. His touch still thrilled me as if we’d only just met.
‘Ice cream?’ he said.
‘One ice cream’s not going to hurt.’
You’re in denial, I wanted to say. But now wasn’t the time. I get up.
‘I’ve summink you can lick, like.’
I chucked my sunglasses at him and he caught them. ‘Touchdown.’
I rolled my eyes, but I liked it when the veneer of his accent slipped. The one he felt he needed for work. Revealing that north east rhythm that I found captivating. Mackem, I was told when we first met at my old gallery. Not Geordie. It’d be like calling you a Scouser when anyone with half an ear can tell you’re from Warrington. You’ve looked me up, I’d said. A grin. Guilty.
I fished my purse out of the cool bag. ‘Flake?’
A nod, but he seemed distracted. An eye out for Noah, I assumed. Still, I felt his eyes follow me as I walked away. My own body ached for the water. The way I used to seek comfort in it when I could escape. I found Noah’s dark head amongst the crowd one more time and then focussed on the ice cream van. It was up the steep steps, past the fish shack and into the pretty village, Woodys on the corner advertising ice tea. Tourists were taking selfies before the Abbey. My sandals tutted at me all the way up.
‘Young man you get down from there! If I have to come and get you, you’ll get wrong!’
I cap a hand to my eyes to keep out the sun. See a little boy reconsider his foot on the black and white signposts, pointing deeper into the village.
Later, we’d walk along the prom and maybe down to one of the glass-fronted cafes for coffee. Noah some orange. Maybe chips on our way back to the car before a quiet, tired, happy drive back to Sunderland. While we loved it here, Matt refused to buy property outside of his home-town. Us is working class, pet, he’d say, going out to polish the BMW on our beach-front house. I think he got the irony, but I’m not sure.
‘Oh. Marie. Hey.’ I puffed. Those steps were steep, even though the cycling kept me fit. ‘On another planet. You and …’ Shit. Who? ‘Dave out with the kids?’
‘In-laws are over.’ Marie pulled a face and collected four Maxibons. ‘Did you know it took them forty minutes. Forty whole minutes, when AA route planner said it should only have been twenty seven.’
‘Oh no. Give them a delay and repay leaflet.’
‘Christ. I wouldn’t be surprised if I got an invoice. Certainly not gonna hear the last of it till we’ve packed them off. Dave’s not bothered, course. Just rolls off. Oh that’s mam, he says. Just her way.’ Marie was the only other import at Sunshine Daycare. It was possibly why we got on.
Now, she hesitates and I know what’s coming. ‘So. How you doing? Can’t be easy … what with Noah … I had a miss once. Not as far along but –’
‘Oh yeah.’ I nod. ‘Two 99s please. We’ll try again, course.’
I hate that smile. Marie does something that requires a suit and a stressed-out look every morning at Sunshine. While they’ve not particularly gotten beyond the usual hellos – it would have been hard for anyone not to have noticed.
‘It does get easier, Clare. Better, no. Easier, yes.’
I turn to collect the ice cream. When I turn back, Marie has rushed away, towards the Abbey. Back into the eye of the storm. I watch the seagulls churning in the blue sky overhead.
‘That’s not an ice cream face,’ Matt says.
‘I saw Marie. From Sunshine,’ I added, when he frowns. ‘Everyone’s nice about it.’
We lick our ice creams in silence. I know what he’s thinking. I should have taken time off. But once the academic year starts, there’s no escape. There’s the crank of the machine. Blink and it breaks down. It’s been three months.
I surveyed the families in all their shapes and sizes, their dogs and cameras. After seeking Noah out again, I watch a man hold his hand for a little girl in a bonnet. Her feet sticking the sand as she sploshed clumsily along. The water looks thick somehow. Gelatinous.
‘There’s a fret coming in,’ I say, nodding at the water.
‘Nah. It’s pure sunshine.’
‘Don’t challenge me on this, mate. I’m an artist. Was. Any variation in colour – I’m on it.’
‘Don’t challenge me. I’m the native. I can smell a fret from two weeks away.’ I shove him lightly. ‘Anyway, what’s this was? You still are. Let’s just give Noah another half an hour. He’s having fun. What’s the worst that could happen? We get a little wet?’ Another wink. I try to smooth out my smile, but can’t.
Matt puts a hand on my shoulder and I let myself lean on him briefly. He smells of sun-cream and, underneath that, sweat.
A scream. Noah’s. I shoot to my feet. But that’s it. I can’t move. Can’t even shout. The horror fizzes in my body, but I’m stuck.
Someone shoves me. Matt. In action immediately. Streaking down the beach. There’s a mess of bodies. Parents. Lifeguards running. A siren.
I cannot unstick my feet. My heart’s about to explode. Noah.
‘Billy! Billy! Oh my God! Please please someone help.’
I see a body in the water. Just the head. Just a dot. Too far.
Matt blooms into my immediate vision. Noah at his hip, the boy’s fists screwing at his eyes. Not Noah. Not ours. Relief. Awful as it is.
Noah wants me to read to him and Matt tries not to look put out.
‘You tomorrow night, daddy,’ I wink, going in. Matt taps my backside. I pick Mummy Whale and Baby Whale off the bedside table, which is strewn with tissues, glow-in-the-dark stars and a pack of stickers I don’t recognise. Some new craze. It’s a book Noah loves and knows off by heart.
‘You shouldn’t hit Clare, daddy. She’s not been naughty.’ Noah says.
I bite my lip as Matt pushes back Noah’s hair for a kiss.
‘Daddy you’re my friend, aren’t you?’
‘Are you my best friend?’
‘I think so. Daddy loves you very, very much. Okay? You remember that, chimp.’
‘Is that boy alright, daddy?’
‘Yes. The doctors are looking after him.’
Matt doesn’t look at me as we pass. Seems upset. It had been a rough night. Past Noah’s bedtime by now.
‘So… Mummy whale and baby whale are – what, Noah? I can’t remember. Frowning? Knitting? Synchronised Swimming?’
‘Singing, silly!’ He giggles, thumps the bed and I climb alongside him. I still sometimes feel like I need to be invited because he’s never quite been mine. Silly. We snuggle up.
‘Yes, chimp.’ I sweep his hair back and it shoots right out again when I move my hand.
‘One of the boys said I’d maded the sea black and that – that’s why Billy don’t see in the water.’
‘Who said that?’
‘Who, Noah? I’m not cross.’
I open the book. Turn to see Matt. He grins and vanishes. I can smell Noah’s skin, that lovely butter Matt buys him, his coconut hair. I can hear Matt clunking about in his office. Doing what, so late? By page four, Noah is asleep. I drag myself back to our bedroom.
The room faces out to sea. Through our window I can see the grey night. Dark earlier than it normally would. Matt is finishing some emails off on his phone. At least, I thought he was. On second glance I see it’s my phone he’s looking at. He claps it shut, white light sneaking through the sides.
‘Just checking the calendar for your mum’s visit.’
‘Shit! I haven’t?’
He was talking about mum’s birthday. My ancient mum, travelling up to see me on my birthday, because I couldn’t get the time away. I had to change this. ‘Will you be around? I can’t remember when you’re next in San Francisco, sorry.’
‘Thought we should have an early night,’ he says, winking like a pantomime character.
I grin. It was our ritual. Lazy Sunday night sex. I pull off my jumper. ‘I am sooooo tired.’
‘Now we’re talking,’ he says, lacing his fingers behind his head, enjoying the show.
The jumpy is a ratty old one. Something I’d worn in my studio, when I still had it. I liked the cadmium yellow that dotted the sleeves. They looked, I thought to myself, like impressionistic buttercups on a slate landscape.
I nod. ‘You?’
I push my leggings off.
‘Now I am.’
Half-heartedly, I whirl the jumper around my head to make him laugh. It gets caught in the fan light. ‘Oh. Woops.’
‘Sexy,’ he says and stretches up to unravel the sleeves from the arms of the fan. ‘My dangerous, devil woman. Light fittings beware.’
He looks at me – I’m naked but for bra and kickers – I cross my arms.
‘Hey. Don’t you dare.’
His fingers are soft, unlatching my hands. He’s stood up with me now. I love his height, his broad shoulders. That little softness of his belly. That athletic body slowly relaxing. He calls it his cake layer.
‘Today was just – the kid’s fine. Everything’s fine. We’re fine.’ His thumb massages my shoulder. ‘Aren’t we?’
‘What? Have you taken your tablets?’
‘Aye aye cap’n.’
I twisted around. They were on the bedside, at least.
‘Storm coming,’ he whispers and his breath disturbs my hair, which was frizzy from the beach day.
‘You love a good storm.’
We go to stand by the window and look out. How lucky we were really, to have a house like this, one of only four in this little side road. Where we can step outside the patio door and be on Whitburn beach in seconds, if we were being lazy about it. Where the sun bloomed into our room every morning, reddening closed eyelids. So very lucky to have found each other. Both of us had known enough heartache. We should be grateful. I shouldn’t be looking back. I wouldn’t.
‘I couldn’t move, Matt.’
‘Hey. Come to me.’
I turned to him. The cover on the gazebo was loose. I heard it chatter in the breeze. Matt was right. A good storm always gripped me with passion. The cliché of it not lost on me. But still, it stirred up my emotions. I gripped him, brought his mouth down to mine. Then walked him back to the bed. Tapped his chest.
‘How the mighty fall.’ He laughed.
We were our old selves again. Before it all. Until he felt me tense.
And kissed me, murmuring kind words to relax me, hands soft in my hair, until he fell asleep. The swing in our tiny back garden – who needed garden when you had beach – chimed against its struts.
Had he called me Katya?
That night, the north sea fumed. Restless, as if it knew what lay ahead.
I imagined the water slapping the sides of the faded lighthouse with its red cap. Was struck by the terrible thought that one day, this water could drown us all as we slept. I’m not sure how long I listened.