This is what I didn’t tell you.
You are only little, after all. And we were having one of those golden days on the beach, the sort I snap, endlessly, on my phone, so that I can hold onto them forever. Until I realise that by documenting them, I am holding myself apart; that afternoon, my phone stayed on its charger.
You’d ridden the carousel in the morning, you and your sister. I had two more tickets in my purse, ready to surprise you on the way back to the car. It’s a gritty, grumpy walk and I hoped that the promise of one more ride, all the sweeter for being unexpected, might make you happy.
Your father and sister had gone to splash in the sea, so we made sandcastles. I wanted to build. You wanted to destroy.
‘This is my castle,’ I said, revealing a bucketful of newly crenelated sand.
‘I’m a monster!’ you cried, stamping it flat, a small and squashy Godzilla in Spiderman swimming trunks. ‘Raaa!’
‘This is my new castle. I hope no monsters come.’
‘I’ve built a really lovely castle. This one will definitely not be destroyed by–’
I’ve long known how slowly time can pass with a small child, but the afternoon really did seem endless. My attention drifted between you and the horizon. Where were your father and sister? They must have been having a tremendous time, but was it really fair to leave us with all the stuff for quite so long?
Not that long.
‘Can I go on the big wheel?’
‘When Daddy comes back.’
‘Can I have an ice cream?’
‘When Daddy comes back.’
‘Can I go on the big wheel?’
‘I told you, when Daddy comes back.’
‘Where is Daddy?’
Where is Daddy?
A dark stripe across the sand told me that the tide had withdrawn several metres since he and your sister had left.
‘In the sea,’ I said. ‘Any moment now, he’ll be back. I hope there are no monsters here, while we wait.’
On we played as the sun spun a quiet arc above, and the beach was full of dads and daughters and none of them was your father or sister, grinning and gasping and flecking us with brine and saying she got water in her eyes and it was his fault and don’t stand over the shoes while you’re wet and
‘Sorry, what time is it?’ I asked the group lumbering past us for home, their arms full of deckchairs and toddlers and spades.
‘Twenty past five.’
I did not tell you that your father and sister had only ever been in the sea together for maybe fifteen minutes before getting cold and coming out, or that today they had been gone for almost two hours.
‘Shall we go and look at the waves?’ I said, trying and failing to get you to walk a straight line across the sand, snapping at you in my haste, a haste that you could not understand, hoisting you onto my guilty back and neighing like a horse — clip clop clip clop clip clop — as I stood at the water’s edge and looked and looked for the other half of our family and how none of the splashing laughing screaming people were ours. How the shrieks turned ghastly and I rolled my eyes at my stupid melodrama and it did not change the fact that they were not there.
They were not there because they were back with the beach bags, I told myself. But they weren’t there either. They were somewhere, and they were nowhere.
I did not tell you that as we played ice creams (‘Can I have a real ice cream?’ ‘When Daddy comes back.’ ‘Where is Daddy? Where is Daddy?’) I was reminding myself of the shallowness of the water. It was shallow and it was warm and there was a life guard, dammit. They could not both have drowned, not on this hot and crowded day in a calm sea.
Someone I once worked with drowned. To drown is not an impossible thing.
A second time we went to the water’s edge, you on my back, and it was further than I remembered, for the tide was going out, and together we called your father’s name, your sister’s name, over and over, making a competition of it. Who can shout the loudest?
Back to our four towels, spread out and waiting and I did not tell you, as I fumbled through the bag for a snack because we were past your tea time, long past it, as my gaze was arcing the beach, our conversation punctuated by my shouts of your daddy and sister’s names, I could not say that I did not know what to do.
This time, the trip to the water took longer, the sand wet and flat and vast. The lifeguard was there and I stood behind her, childishly shy, wanting to ask — what? Had she seen a man and a little girl? The whole beach was men and little girls. Had she pulled them from the water? Had she watched them vanish into the endless blue? I wanted this woman to be in charge, knew now that she was not.
The beach was emptying and they had to be at the towels, but no, and so we walked in wide sweeps round and round, calling and calling, and I did not tell you that I was trying both to think and not to think about what would come next. You and I would go to the lifeguard station, perhaps, where they would find us two chairs, and I would try to find the French to explain. The pair of us, later, in the house that was not our home; it would grow dark and I would put you to bed, just me, just you; just us. How unthinkable it was, even to begin to think about this, because it wasn’t happening and yet somehow it was.
You were bored and asking for my phone to play with. I thought of all the photos it contained and how I had not taken enough. I should have captured more of our little family, snared us in pixels and light. I should have caught every moment, chained every last breath. Yet the idea of looking at those pictures with you was awful, as awful as the knowledge of those two carousel tickets, unused in my purse.
I did not tell you that, until then, I had never considered the four of us could be divided in this way, that it might, or even could, be only you and me. I zipped you into your fleece, the grey one with blue stars, and I wondered about your life without a father and a sister, and maybe without a mother, too, for this was unbearable, even these few minutes, and then I thought how alone you would be and I clutched you to my chest and
there they were, your sister bent crying over the bags, your father tearing across the beach
‘We came up too far along’
‘We looked everywhere’
‘So then we went up into town’
‘We went back to the carousel’
The castle was still standing, the monster was not real, and if I had just endured the worst hours of my life, nothing, really, had happened.
And I did not tell you.
Instead, I retrieved the two tickets from my wallet; asked which animal you wanted ride.
Maybe I do not need to say it. For you know the music will stop, I tell you every time, and still you laugh and wave as though it is never going to end. There will always be another go, won’t there?
And I laugh with you, and wave back, even as the carousel turns, round and round and round.