Whenever he’s involved with another woman, I know it. I try to ignore the nagging sensation that he’s drifting far away, bobbing on currents we cannot control. Just as the breakers pick up strings of seaweed and wash shards of shell onto the sand, so Charlie will bring hints of his latest lover into our relationship: an unfamiliar touch, a strange tune whistled, a disturbing smell on his jacket.
’Silly Lily,’ he murmurs if I question him and I want to be naïve and trusting, like the children he loves and then deserts, minutes after stroking their curls and kissing their sweet foreheads.
’A man’s home is his castle,’ Charlie says, surveying his surrounds as he returns from the eternal business trip. ’You’ve made it such a beautiful base, Lil, so much more than mere bricks and mortar. This time it’ll be different, really.’
Nonetheless, he abandons us, pushing off with energy and purpose, a restless ship on the big blue. Charlie is the sophisticated traveller who is unable to settle, his vision forever scanning the distant coastlines. We remain behind, a grey prison on his mind’s horizon, locked in drab domestic routines. If he cares to look at us properly, he’ll see us: as enduring and strong as a fortress in a walled city of old.
Now the sun is shining and the sea laps to and fro, in and out, soft and sedate and subservient to the shore. Perhaps it whispers promises to Charlie as he sits by the water’s edge in a deckchair on an exotic island somewhere, knee cocked at a jaunty angle, perched on the brink of disaster. Maybe he jerks a foreign newspaper into submission, snapping it flat, the sound hanging in the air, like knuckle joints cracked. He’s probably holding the barrier of words and images aloft, inserting it between his self and our life. But he fails to notice how the power ebbs and flows, and he does not heed the warning signs.
A gull screeches overhead, whipping me into the present. Our little procession stops. The girls put down their mermaid towels, crab buckets and fishing rods. Salt stings my eyes as I swipe away the tears.
’Mummy, are you alright?’
I nod as I stab the metal pole into the dune and we hoist the rainbow-coloured umbrella. Cordelia rubs suntan lotion onto Marina’s freckled shoulders while baby Una watches them from her pram, gurgling.
’Never turn your back on the tide,’ I announce, with the sureness of the captain who is about to embark on yet another familiar voyage. ’Anything can happen. So, who wants to hear the story of Atlantis?’