It is the recipe for a perfect day. The sun beats down from a cloudless blue sky. The air fizzes with heat and salt. The sea glitters and shifts and curls and breaks along the three-mile stretch of pale-gold Devonshire sand—Saunton Sands. It somersaults over mossy rocks and tangled tresses of tide wrack. It sends the beach into a nervous, excited jitter. The seesawing cry of gulls rises to a crescendo with their swoops and nosedives, then quiets as the curved beaks snap at darting fish. Apart from a few surfers riding the breakers, and sporadic clusters of people guiltily enjoying their midweek leisure break, this coastal paradise is deserted. But then it is still early morning.
Like the day itself, the Abingdon family have all the right ingredients to be perfect. It only remains to see what happens when you blend them all together. They are stepping onto the beach now, arms full, trudging determinedly through the unresisting sand. There is the mother, Ruth, tall and willowy in build, and the father, Bill, prematurely balding, a couple of inches shorter than his wife and broad-chested as a weight lifter. And then come the two children, a tousled, fair-haired, leggy boy of eight, Owen, pulling a sturdy little girl who is almost five after him, Sarah. Sarah is protesting, her plaintive whines muffled by her scrap of a comfort blanket, once pink, now greyed, frayed and faded with constant mouthing.
“Tell Sarah to walk properly,” Owen calls after his parents. Neither of them pauses. This expedition to find the right spot, the precise one in this unfamiliar desert terrain, is a serious business. “She’s dragging her feet!” He gives his sister’s tiny hand a shake and pulls his brow down before rounding on her in his frustration. The sun is in his eyes so that he cannot see her face clearly. “I can’t carry you and the bag, now can I?” Sarah, who clearly doesn’t see the logic of her brother’s words, or chooses not to, sits down with a thump on the sand. Sighing with an exaggerated heave then slump of his slight shoulders, the way he has seen his mother do, Owen lets go of her hand.
“Mum, Sarah’s being really naughty!” he cries out, but not very loudly, not nearly as loudly as he can, certainly not loudly enough to summon back his mother.
He pauses to see if his sister, fearing a reprimand, will rise to her feet, then make an effort to keep up. His life would be so much easier if only she would cooperate. But Sarah only grinds her little bottom deeper into the sand and mutinously thrusts a thumb in her mouth. “Do you have to be such a big baby?” Owen sets down his bag and drops to his knees. Hooding his eyes with a bent elbow, he can see that his sister’s, a lighter shade of blue than his own, a radiant blue, and big and round, are wet-lashed, that her bottom lip is quivering. She reaches her needy arms up to him. Instantly he feels the tightness in his chest loosen, the irritation with this sister of his, this annoying millstone, fall away as if it never was. With one hand he strokes her loose curls, so pale they are almost white, so soft they feel like dust.
“Don’t cry, Sarah, don’t cry. It’s all right. We’ll go more slowly, I promise.” He wants to hug her, to draw the stubborn pillow of her body close to his, but he feels a bit awkward out here in the open. At home cuddling her is fine, nice really, but maybe not in public. Leastways, his parents never hug outdoors, or indoors either now he thinks of it, definitely not in front of him anyway. Compromising, he moves to tickle her armpit. She gives a squeak of a giggle and rewards him with her special smile, the one warm enough to melt steel. He takes up his bag and they stand together, clasp hands, and move clumsily onwards, as if their legs are tied together in an obstacle race.
But ahead of him his mother has stopped. She is looking back at them and his father is striding towards him, so perhaps aid is on its way after all.
“Daddy!” exclaims Sarah in delight, and Owen’s father moves straight past him to scoop his daughter right out of his son’s grasp.
His father, Owen observes, as he watches him twirling Sarah about in his arms, is not dressed for the beach. Owen is wearing a white cotton shirt and tan shorts, his mother, a summer halter-neck dress with a pattern of daisies on a turquoise background. Sarah is wearing a green-and-yellow skirt and a cotton blouse with frilly short sleeves. They all have their swimming costumes on underneath their clothes. They changed into them at the guesthouse before they left. But his father is wearing a long-sleeved shirt, a blazer, and trousers, all grey, and his shoes are polished to the gleam of a conker. On his head sits a straw boater. He looks so silly, so absurdly formal that Owen wants to burst out laughing. It is as if he has gone to lots of trouble to dress up for the beach, when most people are dressing down. He shakes his head when Owen asks if he will look after Sarah.
“Can’t be done,” he says, setting Sarah down gently and planting a swift kiss on her head. “On an important mission, son. Off to fetch some rocks to secure the beach mat. Got my orders and have to jump to it. You know the drill, old chap. Your mother’s setting up camp,” he adds with a grin, gesturing in the direction of his wife. His Welsh accent is very faint. But Owen wishes even the trace of it would vanish. To him it sounds silly, vaguely comic, as if his father is a buffoon off a television comedy. Now Owen follows the direction of his stiff military hand and sees that his mother is indeed setting up camp, that she seems to be unpacking so much they might be going to stay here for a week. “Still, not much farther to go now. Sarah, you be good for your big brother. Chin up, Owen. Forward ho, eh?”
And then he is gone, head down, marching determinedly, his arms moving like pistons. Owen sighs. He and his sister are wearing leather sandals. Following his father’s gleaming shoes digging into the sand, the spray flying up behind him, Owen ponders that he would have taken a fair load on board by now, that each step must be uncomfortable. He grazes the corner of his mouth with his upper teeth, grasps Sarah’s pudgy hand once more, and sets off after his mother. By the time he reaches her, he is feeling hot and cross again and rather wishing they had not come on this outing at all. It is supposed to be a treat, but it is beginning to feel more like torture.
He can see that his mother is itching to unpack, to unroll the beach mat and declare ownership of their plot. The breeze keeps freeing wisps from her ponytail, and he can tell by that slight nervous tick in her cheek that she, too, is irritated. She satisfies herself by unrolling the windbreak and with her son’s assistance driving the wooden sticks into the sand. Sarah is sitting down on the bright beach towel their mother has opened out for her and babbling to herself in a musical baby talk that she alone understands. She fills her chubby fists with sand and drops it all very deliberately in the lap of her skirt, marvelling at how the material dips, at how heavy the slippery yellow stuff is.
Ruth looks at her dimpled daughter, plump as a dumpling, blond-haired, blue-eyed, and the sight of her lifts her heavy heart and fills it with light. She scolds her, but her tone is at odds with her words, and her lips twitch upwards. She takes off Sarah’s blouse and skirt and shakes the sand from them. Then she makes an arch of her hands over her brow and scans the beach in search of her returning husband. But there is no sign of him. She clucks impatiently and starts to talk under her breath. Perhaps she thinks that Owen cannot hear her when she speaks like this, but he can. Sometimes he thinks that he is especially sensitive to these mutterings, as if he is tuned into their hissing sound waves, much like a wireless set.
“That’d be right. Just like your father. He can’t pick up any old rocks. Oh no! He has to make a performance of choosing them, selecting them, hefting them over and over in his hands. How heavy are they? How smooth? How suitable for the task? As if anybody cares. As if anyone gives a damn. They’re just rocks for goodness’ sake, rocks to hold down the blessed mat, not the supporting columns of the Acropolis!”
As she speaks, she unrolls a small portion of the mat, sets Sarah upon it, lifts and shakes out the towel, and tucks it away again. She pulls a white sailor’s hat from a bag, tugs it over her daughter’s breeze-rumpled curls, and slips off her sandals. And then she instructs Owen to sit with his sister.
“I’m going to find your father,” she says, swatting back the flying wisps of her own hair with a few slaps of her hand. “You are to stay here with Sarah till I get back.” Owen is only half listening. He is eyeing up the new beach ball they have brought with them. It is the blow-up kind, red and white, and he can just see it peeping out of the largest holdall between the clutter of buckets and spades. “Do pay attention, Owen. You’re to look after Sarah while I’m gone.” Owen gazes skywards. He envies the seagulls, he really does, screeching and flapping about any old how. At least they are free—not always being asked to mind pesky little sisters prone to getting into trouble. Sometimes he wishes that he has a brother in her place, a rough-and-tumble boy who adores him and trails obediently after him, like a puppy, doing everything Owen tells him to—and not a contrary, disobedient girl. Girls are trouble. They are so independent, such a handful. He will never manage to train Sarah.
“Owen, are you listening to me?” his mother says now.
“Yes, I heard,” he replies sulkily. He rolls his eyes. And when his mother gives him that look of hers, the one where she raises her eyebrows, tightens her mouth, and puts her head on one side, he speaks again. “I’ll watch her. I promise.” They are always worrying about Sarah, he thinks dully. Never about him. Always Sarah, Sarah, Sarah! Oh, he doesn’t mind really, it’s only that sometimes he would like them to be interested in him, perhaps even a bit concerned if he grazes a knee or something. I mean, he isn’t a crybaby like Sarah is, but it would be nice if they told him he was brave. Yes, that would be really nice.
His mother nods curtly, hesitates for a moment, then with another of those looks walks off in the direction that his father went. After a minute they can’t even see her, not with the windbreak in the way.
“You’re a brave boy, Owen!” He tries the words out for size and finds they fit very well. “You’re a brave boy, Owen!” he repeats, and the sentence feels as catchy as an advertising slogan. Sarah, by his side, glances up.
“Bwave boy,” she says.
She can’t pronounce her r’s yet, but he supposes it’s quite cute really, and besides, she’ll probably grow out of it eventually. He clambers onto his knees and walks forward on them. Still on the mat, he can just reach the deflated ball. He stretches out a hand and retrieves it. Now for a bit of magic that will really impress his sister. “Watch this, Sarah,” he says, bringing the clear plastic nozzle to his lips. He blows and blows and slowly at first, then more rapidly, the ball swells, its glossy plastic skin growing taut. Sarah is delighted with the trick and claps her hands. “See, see how clever your older brother is.”
“Owen, it’s so lovely,” she gasps.
In one of those sudden impetuous moves of hers, Sarah throws her little arms around him. He took off his shirt while his mother was undressing his sister, and now he feels the ligature of her limbs tightening on his bare skin, her face rubbing against his chest. It is one of those mysterious moments when everything seems much larger. He can feel her hair, like water, and the unbelievable softness of her lips, and even her eyelashes moving. They are like a butterfly’s wings fluttering against him. The wind seems to be getting up a bit now, and although they can’t feel it because of the windbreak, they can see how it is battering the canvas and making the segments billow like sails.
He closes his eyes and concentrates on the squeeze of Sarah, so light he can push her away with one shrug, and yet so strong it brings a blocked-up feeling to his throat. And this feeling, the way he imagines a corked, fizzy drink must feel, wanting to burst out but not being able to, well … it’s gigantic. It’s so gigantic, in fact, that there seems to be nothing more to him, just the squeeze of Sarah and the bursting feeling.
The tide is coming in and the waves seem to be getting bigger, not folding on the shore anymore but smashing against it. Owen decides he will be a surfer one day, that he will ride the rollers in like a cowboy on a water horse. The dark shapes balancing on their boards look like hitherto unknown sea creatures, sweeping towards the shore. And when at last they tumble off and clutch the dripping surfboards in their arms, it’s as if they are pushing giant sharks before them into the shallows, the upright boards, their fins. He bets it’s fun, more fun than driving a car even.
“Do you want to watch me kick the ball?” he asks, glancing down at the white-gold curls and disproportionally large hump of head. “Do you want me to show you how good I am at football?”
He feels Sarah nod rather than hears her. “Right then,” he says, pleased to be doing something. Disentangling himself from her, he springs up clutching the ball. “Watch this.”
The mat lifts a bit when he gets off it, but he can see that Sarah’s weight is still sufficient to partially anchor it down. He starts kicking the ball, just small taps at first, then running a few yards and kicking it back, as though there are two of him and not one. Sarah claps gratifyingly.
“Again,” she cries enraptured. “Again, Owen.”
She isn’t telling him he is brave, but … well, it is near enough. For a while he knees it. Then a sudden gust of wind grabs it and runs with it towards the sea, so that he has to give chase. Behind him he hears Sarah call.
“Owen! Owen! Owen, don’t go!”
“I’m only getting the ball. I won’t be a second,” he throws back over his shoulder.
“Don’t leave me, Owen.”
When he catches up with it, he glances back, just to make sure that Sarah has stayed put. But he need not have worried, she is sitting exactly where he left her, prattling to herself, counting on her fingers and staring around her, wide-eyed. They are not beach dwellers. In fact he can only remember going to the seaside a couple of times before. No, this is definitely a holiday outing, and an unusual one at that. Home is Wantage in Oxfordshire. His parents seem much happier hiring a caravan or camping and sitting in a field of green grass than coming into close proximity with the sea. Perhaps it is something to do with the fact that his father is a gardener, or that his mother doesn’t like the sand. She complains that it gets into everything—clothes, food, even your hair. She’ll start complaining today, he’s sure of it.
Owen hasn’t learnt to swim yet. There has been talk at his school of taking the older classes to a pool and giving them proper lessons. But nothing has come of it so far. His parents are always promising to teach him, but how can they if they are nowhere near the sea? He keeps pleading with his father to take him to the local swimming pool, so that he can learn there. Actually he has thought about this quite a lot. Having all that time alone with his father, with him showing Owen what to do, even touching him, putting his arms and legs into the right positions. He is looking forward to this more than he can say, because his father doesn’t seem to like to touch him very much. He prefers to slap Owen on the back or shake his hand as if they are not related, as if Owen is an adult too. And even this physical contact makes him go all red and embarrassed. He knows what his father thinks, that embracing him is unmanly, that hugging your son is a soppy way to behave. So in those intimate moments he clears his throat or starts talking about a new plant or taking cuttings or something. Though he isn’t at all embarrassed about hugging Sarah, Owen notes. Of course his mother does put her arms around him and give him a peck on the cheek, pretty well every night. But it is sort of automatic, as if she isn’t thinking about it. Whereas with Sarah all his mother’s hugs, his father’s too, really, are kind of whooshes, like the sudden flaring up of a flame.
In any case, his father always seems too busy to go to the swimming pool. They have been once or twice but he just seemed restless and bored, and when Owen didn’t take to the water the way a duckling would, he was impatient to go home again. And that impatience, that sense that his father knew he was going to fail, made it come true. It was like being cursed, him looking at the big clock face on the wall and folding his arms. And the next thing Owen knew was that he was spluttering and choking and feeling a belt of panic tightening about his belly, so that he really believed he might drown, right then and there, with his father watching. They hadn’t got as far as learning the swimming strokes, so there wasn’t very much touching—well, hardly any at all, if Owen is truthful.
It is while he is thinking about this, while he is dribbling the ball and picturing his father holding him up in the water and saying encouraging things like, “Well done, terrific, you’re going to make a racing swimmer one day, my boy,” that he notices his mother. She is a long way off up the beach, running towards him shouting something. But he cannot decipher it because the wind is making a whirring sound in his ears, and besides, she is too far away. Still, there is something about the untidy way she is moving that makes him stiffen and feel a bit empty and sick inside. It is a sort of headlong fall, nearly tripping up in her haste every few steps, and even though she must be out of breath, shouting in sharp bursts, rather like the screeches of the seagulls.
And then a flint arrow lances his beating heart and turns it to ice. He remembers. Sarah. He spins round. The stripy windbreak seems miles away and as small as a postage stamp. How can it be that he has come so far? What was he dreaming about? But then he knows that, doesn’t he? And he can see the beach mat blowing away beyond it, bumping the sand and flapping, like a wounded bird. Surely, surely, oh please let it be true, Sarah is tucked up safe behind that buffeted stamp of canvas. Of course she is; she is sitting behind the windbreak happy as can be, precisely where he left her. Where he left her. The words clang in his head. Where he left her. “Don’t leave me, Owen.” Even though he is only a few years older than his sister, he knows in some kind of dreadful, intuitive, grown-up way that her plea will never leave him. He is as good as branded with it. “Don’t leave me, Owen.” This is the sinister dread that takes hold as he sprints. And because he is lighter and not sinking into the sand, he is much faster than his mother.
He is good at running. He even won the twenty-five-yard sprint at his last school’s sports day. He recalls how proud he felt, his chest heaving with it, as he neared that ribbon. Then breaking through it, and turning round breathlessly to look for his father in the crowd of parents. And the disappointment, like a paperweight sinking in his stomach. His father had wandered off to talk to the school caretaker. He could see him by the trees at the edge of the field leaning over a bush tweaking the leaves. He had missed it. He had missed Owen’s victory.
But this is a different kind of race, a horrible race, one that you aren’t sure whether you want to win or not. He can hear his mother’s shrieks now, big ugly sounds, like the ones he hears in his head when the witches and monsters speak in stories. And he can hear the name too, screamed again and again.
“Sarah! Aargh! Aargh! Sarah! Sarah!”
And then he is rounding the windbreak and screaming her name too. But she isn’t there, only the sailor’s white hat without her in it. There is a small pile of sand, and he thinks he can detect the lines where Sarah has drawn in it with her stubby fingers. And her scrap of pink blanket is peeping out from under it too, that horrid smelly thing that seems to be impregnated with an incredible power, sending his sister into a serene trance each time she rubs it rhythmically over her lips. But though he peers hard at it, she doesn’t appear. He keeps barking her name, as if in all likelihood she will suddenly rise up from under the sand. She will be like the sand creature in a book he has read, Five Children and It. And any moment she will spring up and shimmy the glittering grains off her, giggling at the great game.
Out of the corner of his eye he sees his mother streak past and hurtle down to the sea, and then straight into it with the waves breaking over her, and her behaving as if she cannot feel them. He rushes after her, rushes into the water, as far as he dares to go, knowing he is unable to swim. Then he runs up and down, the way he has seen dogs do sometimes when they are nervous of getting wet. And his mother keeps bobbing up like a seal, gasping out words as though a saw is grinding on her throat.
“Sarah! Sarah! I can’t … can’t find Sarah!” And Owen thinks stupidly, as salt spume strikes his eyes, making him wince, why is she searching for her there in the wide ocean, why is she trying to fish for Sarah? Then under again and up, a gulp of breath, another dive. A long beat and she explodes from the water, fixing Owen for a second, her brown eyes slitting with the salt bite, or is it something else? “You stupid boy! You stupid, stupid boy!” Then down again, and for the longest time, it seems to Owen, the stupid boy, darting to right and left as if blocking a goal. And up to spit out once more, “I told you to watch her. I told you to stay with her. I told you, I told you, I told you, you idiot!” And her face all ghastly and coming apart like a mirror breaking, and her ribbon undone and the wet hair streaming over her eyes and stuffed in her mouth.
Then suddenly his father thundering past him, like the charging rhinoceros he saw on his last birthday at London Zoo, only pausing to kick off those shiny shoes. The two of them now, both seals together, one an arc of grey, one of yellow, white, and turquoise, looping about each other. And his father’s straw hat bobbing on the water, bobbing so gaily on the water that Owen wants to tear it to pieces. And finally his father bursting triumphantly from the waves with something in his arms, something that is Sarah. He dashes out of the breaking surf and Owen sees Sarah’s head lolling over his arm, and the sunlight of her curls ironed straight with their load of water. He sees that her body is so white it is almost silver, that her eyes are sealed shut as though she is sleeping soundly. He sees the bright pink and yellow dots of her swimsuit, and that his father’s comb-over is snarled with grit that glints like pinheads. He sees them arrange Sarah as if she is a display of flowers, sees her splayed out on the sand, sees his mother kneeling beside her, gripping the star of her hand. The shadow of his father slides over them. Then he distances himself from the dismal frieze, his blue eyes bulging with horror, so that Owen can see the red veins against the waterlogged whites.
“Bring her back!” hisses his mother in a voice more dreadful than the ones he imagines in the fairy stories. It lacerates the air and consumes the gulls’ cacophony whole. And the look she casts at her son is blacker than hate and darker than death.
Again his father steps forward reluctantly, bends his clumsy body, kneels slowly, awkwardly, the way Owen has seen him do in church. He takes hold of Sarah’s brittle arms and gives them a jerk, as if urging her to stop this tomfoolery and get up. Nothing. His great hands span her motionless chest and he pats her ineffectually, like a dog. His eyes are swamped with panic, for this little Lazarus will not rise up and be well. All the while his sodden clothes dribble salty tears. And then it strikes Owen with the force of a sledgehammer: his father does not know what to do, he does not know how to bring Sarah back.
The surfer comes racing out of the water, hurling aside his board, barrelling into their grief. He shoves Owen’s father out of the way, wipes the wet tendrils of hair from the blanched face, pulls back Sarah’s head, and hooks a finger in her mouth. Then he pinches her tiny nostrils between a graceful thumb and forefinger, and as Owen looks on aghast, he kisses his sister. He is trying to kiss Sarah alive again, like the prince in Sleeping Beauty. His father hovers in the background, impotent, his drenched clothes drooping over his slumped frame. The kisses are light puffs of air that seem to oil the rusty hinges of Sarah’s chopstick ribs. Owen gives a strangled whoop of joy as they swing. She is coming back after all. But the moment the surfer stops, they stop and are still again. Then he feels her chest, and finds the spot where the buried treasure is hidden. He starts to delve for it, digging with his fingertips. And still no gleam of life, just the jagged pieces tumbling from his mother’s face, making the portrait of it grow more and more indistinct.
People come and crowd about them. Someone shouts that they have called an ambulance. His mother rocks to and fro, and eerie noises emanate from the abyss inside her, making Owen want to block his ears. The surfer keeps trying, he keeps trying to raise Lazarus; right up to the moment the medics arrive with a stretcher, he is trying. Then they try too, and afterwards they put Sarah on the stretcher and hurry off to the ambulance, to try some more, they say.
It is then, as they jog up the beach looking like something out of a Charlie Chaplin film, with his father stumbling behind them reaching for his car keys in the soggy envelopes of his pockets, that his mother collapses. She seems to be eating the sand where Sarah has lain, pasting it over her face and cramming it into her mouth. And the noise that comes from her then is an inhuman roar. It commands a sea of tears to cascade from Owen’s eyes. The wind harvests them and sews them like seed diamonds in the sand. People bend over his mother and help her up as if she is an invalid. Propped between a tall man and a short woman, his rag-doll mother is dragged after his father and the ambulance men, and the stretcher with Sarah lying white as a cuttlefish and very still upon it.
The onlookers start to drift off, muttering in low voices to one another. Owen hears an elderly man say that he thinks they are too late, that the little girl is dead. No one seems to notice him. He stoops to extract Sarah’s comfort blanket from the sand, presses it to his nose, and breathes through it. And there is the scent of his sister, lemony sweet and warm and sleepy. With her filling him up, he stumbles after them.
For Owen the best moment of the day was the very first, the glow of consciousness before he opened his eyes, before the images and sensations assailed him. But the trouble with the glow was that it ended almost before it had begun. And his bedroom was soon so crowded that there was hardly any room in it for him. It was like being on a film set, only not having a named role, just being an extra, a walk-on, a bit part, absorbing the atmosphere, being careful not to upstage the real stars.
Sounds. The neat, brisk tap-tapping of footsteps in the hospital corridor, fast approaching. The pop of air rushing out of his mother when they told her. The grinding of his father’s teeth that came again and again, as if he was trying to file them down into stumps. And the shout of silence from the empty back seat as they drove home in the Hillman Husky, the silence imploring them to go back, reminding them that they had forgotten something, that they had left someone behind.
Smells. The stink of the sea, salt and mineral and washed-up dead things slowly rotting. The bitter, mothball odor of his mother’s breath for weeks afterwards, the air seeping stale and stagnant from the bleakness inside her. The fading scent of Sarah in every room of the house reminding him that she was gone, like a receding echo. The rich, heavy, fertile fragrance unleashed, of crumbling earth teeming with worms and maggots, undoing creation, as the open grave reached for his sister.
Sights. Her blithely ignorant clothes busy preparing themselves for her return, swirling around in the belly of the washing machine, waving merrily at him from the washing line, piled patiently in the ironing basket. His mother’s insistence that they be laundered, pressed, hung in her cupboard, folded neatly in her drawer. For what purpose? That they remain in readiness for Sarah’s second coming? And toys looking all lost and forlorn, as if they were clockwork and their keys were missing. Her drawing of the family taped to the kitchen cupboard, a stick daddy and mummy and Owen and Sarah, all standing in front of a square house, with the sun sending its rays in straight, uncomplicated lines to illuminate all their days. A tiny, white coffin with a brass plaque on the lid that caught the light as they lowered it into the ground, and him imagining that it was Sarah’s golden soul, that they were burying the dazzling hummingbird of Sarah’s spirit, consigning it to eternal darkness. It did not seem much bigger than the shoebox he had buried his hamster in at the beginning of the Christmas holidays, the coffin that held the remains of Sarah.
Touch. The grip of his father’s fingers digging into his shoulders at the funeral, the nails feeling like thumbtacks being driven into his flesh, the pain that made him want to be one never-ending scream. The fineness of the hairs he pulled from her brush and tucked in the pages of his bus-spotting journal, the sensation of rolling them gently between his fingers, and recalling the crowded touch of them against his bare chest that last day on the beach, almost a year ago. And the guilt, the great collar of guilt that he was yoked to, from the second he woke, with its load growing steadily heavier and heavier, until by the evening he felt like an old man who hardly had the strength to straighten up.
But today was different. He could tell straightaway that he had not wet his bed, and surely this was a good sign. Just to make sure, he propped himself up on an elbow and explored under the covers with his free hand. Dry. He was dry. Perhaps today his mother would not suddenly cave in midsentence, imploding, deflating as if she was a punctured balloon, and groaning, that growling groan that he knew carried the cadence of death.
And all told, it was not a bad day, that Saturday, not as bad as some that had gone before it. The groan did not crawl out of his mother’s gaping mouth, not in his earshot anyway. His father took the afternoon off and helped Owen to make his model Airfix Spitfire. They sat at the dining room table with layers of newspaper spread out before them. They did not talk, except to mutter the name of the next piece they would be assembling. The newspaper crackled quietly as they went methodically about their allotted tasks. They did not touch, except once when their fingers met, sliding the tube of glue between them. They focused all their attention on the fighter plane. Owen looked forward to painting it. When it was complete he had already decided to buy another one. He had been saving up his pocket money.
His father came to tuck him in at night now. His mother only put her head round the door and blew him a kiss. She shied away from physical interaction with her son, much as his father did, but for very different reasons, Owen thought. She was scared that she might show her revulsion for the stupid boy who left Sarah alone to drown.
But then all was ruined, for that night the Merfolk came again for him. He woke and saw that his bed had become a raft, rapidly shrinking on a rough sea. He gripped the sheets, his palms damp with sweat, and felt his small craft pitch and toss under him. In his struggle there were times when the deck seemed virtually perpendicular, and he was fighting with all his might not to slide off the wall of it. At first he only glimpsed them, caught a flash of dishwater grey, a sudden splash, the sound of hollow laughter rising like streams of bursting bubbles. He drew up his knees and pushed his face into the mattress. But even in the blackness their lantern eyes found him. When, panting for breath, he reared up and gulped in air, their webbed hands shot out of the water and grabbed at him. He gazed in horror as their spangled bodies humped and wheeled. It was as if a huge serpent was writhing about his boat bed. He peered into the depths and saw their merlocks waving like rubbery weeds in the murky swill. The water’s surface was eaten up with their scissoring fish mouths, the worm stretch of their glistening lips, the precise bite of their piranha teeth.
“Tacka-tacka,” they went, “tacka-tacka.” And they tempted him with their honeyed promises. “Owen, come with us. We will teach you to swim. Ride us like sea horses. Gallop with us through an underwater world of neon blues and greens. We will juggle with sea anemones and starfish. We will dig in the silver sand for huge crabs and trap barnacled lobsters in their lairs. We will net all day for fish and shrimp and tie knots in the tails of slimy eels. We will surf the bow waves of blowing whales. And we will build coral castles and play tag in gardens of kite-tailed kelp. Only, only … come with us.”
And he stuffed his fingers in his ears and hid under the covers, refusing to listen to any more of their lies. They did not fool him. They forgot, he already knew they had stolen his sister, drawn the shining soul out of her limp body and kept it to light the black depths they skulked in. Would they never go? Would they haunt him forever? He turned on his bedside lamp and prayed, soaked in sweat, for the visions to fade. He did not call his father to witness his shameful cowardice. He did not call his mother, because she was no longer there. But he did look at the photograph in the ebony frame that stood on his bedside table.
His father had taken it the Christmas before last. It was a picture of him and his mother and the snowman they had made. His mother had her arms wrapped about him and he was holding a carrot to his nose, in a fair imitation of Pinocchio. Beside them was the most magnificent snowman Owen thought he had ever seen. His chest swelled with pride knowing they had built it together, just the two of them, his mother and him. As he stared at it, his memory fast-forwarded a few days, and he saw himself looking at the same snowman, tears spilling from his eyes. The sun had come out, the barometer in the porch was reading “Fair,” and the snow was melting. Their snowman that they had worked so hard to build was vanishing. Then his mother was beside him, asking him what was the matter. And when he told her, she said an amazing thing to him. Not only did it stop him crying, but it also made him smile. And as he remembered her words, they made him smile again. She told him that locked in the big frozen body was a child, a child made out of water, a child who pined to be free. Only when the snowman melted was the Water Child freed.
Owen’s heart was still banging like a drum and his hands were still trembling. So he closed his eyes and began to paint the melting snowman in his head. He screwed up his face with effort. He concentrated until it ached, and at last he saw him, a cymbal crash of silver light as the snowmelt dripped into the puddle. And that is when he was born, a child cut from shivering silver light, a child his mother had breathed life into, the Water Child. When Owen opened his eyes he could see him clearly, a skipping luminescence on his bedroom walls. The Merfolk, who had risen up from the sludge at the bottom of the world, who came from the heavy mud of nightmares, from the nocturnal realm of monsters too hideous to face, melted away in his presence, just as the snowman had done months ago. And although Owen’s lips remained too stiff to bend into a smile, his heart did slow and his hands became steady enough to build a model plane. And so at last he slept.
Owen didn’t want to learn to swim anymore. He didn’t want his father to teach him. Swimming pools and lakes became lucid blue ogres waiting to ensnare him. As for the sea, it was a mighty pewter giant that feasted on children who wandered too near to its grimacing waves. The doctor gave a name to Owen’s terror. He told his mother that her son was an aquaphobic. “It is probably the result of some childhood trauma, a bad experience with the sea, perhaps? I shouldn’t press him to conquer his fear just now. In time he’s bound to grow out of it. The important thing is that there’s nothing physically wrong with him. In the meantime, I’ll write to his school asking that Owen be excused swimming lessons, for medical reasons.” Glancing up from his notes, he gave Owen his most reassuring smile. “Plenty of opportunity to learn how to swim later, eh lad?”
The Water Children
Owen is haunted by nightmares of the Merfolk. He believes they have stolen his little sister who vanished while he was meant to be watching her on the beach, but he was only a child himself. Is it fair for his mother to have blamed him all these years?
Catherine’s perfect Christmas was ruined when she went skating on a frozen pond with her cousin and the other girl nearly died. Yet it is Catherine who, for the rest of her life, feels trapped under the ice.
Sean grew up on a farm in Ireland, the son of religious and superstitious people. Learning to swim in the River Shannon was his way of escaping the bitter poverty of his childhood, but communing with the river’s “spirits” incurred his father’s wrath. He flees to England to start a new life, but the Shannon’s pull is difficult to escape.
Naomi was orphaned and placed in a children’s home and cruelly abused. Swimming offered her an opportunity to cleanse, to escape, and she reveled in the ocean’s power. But Naomi has another secret, buried deep within her, and during one searing hot summer she will be the catalyst for the coming together—and tearing apart—of the water children.
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
In Anne Berry’s deeply moving novel The Water Children, the childhood secrets of four individuals unfold in a series of evocative scenes and disturbed memories. For Naomi and Sean, water is a hypnotic, sexual, purifying source, whilst for Owen and Catherine it represents death and danger. When the four characters are brought together in London in the summer of 1976, their lives are irrevocably changed and they are forced to face their turbulent pasts. But will the water children reconcile with the ghosts that haunt them or are their memories too powerful to allow them to move on?
About Anne Berry
Anne Berry was born in London in 1956, moving on to Hong Kong at the age of six, where she was educated. She founded a small drama school, writing and directing more than thirty plays in ten years, and now lives in Surrey with her husband and four children. Her first novel, The Hungry Ghosts, was a finalist for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Wh see more