The boys can’t believe their luck. No school, no nannies, no au pairs. No summer school or tennis camp. No trying to keep quiet while Mummy makes a phone call and pretends to be at work.
Sonny says ‘Let’s play being on holiday.’
So we do.
We head to the arcades with their seedy seaside names: Family Amusements; Slots of Fun. We ignore the more sophisticated games with their promise of cash prizes. Gonks in flammable fabrics with eyes that move from side to side. We go straight to our favourite. The one where tuppenny bits are nudged towards a precipice. Nobody knows what it’s called: Tuppenny Nudger? Penny Pusher? The Two Pence Piece Machine.
We’ve clocked the dwarf-like plastic pirates scattered amidst the coins. Perfect going home presents for Kit’s impending pirate party. We need to win sixteen of them. Seventeen just in case. The boys are brimming with self-importance, purpose. Keen to get to work.
They both get twenty pounds. Two ten pound notes apiece. They take them to the change machine. There’s nothing quite like the thud thud thud of twenty tumbling one pound coins. The clattering crescendo of countless tuppenny bits. We need plastic buckets to hold them. It’s a source of constant wonder: the number of two pence pieces you can get for a twenty-pound note.
I am buying myself time. This is money wisely spent. The boys are lost in concentration. Hypnotised by the sweeping metal precipice; the rattle of falling coins. Time to make a couple of calls. Lester’s phone goes straight to voicemail. Bruno doesn’t pick up.
We break for lunch at twelve. Fish and chips, a bag of sweets and Crazy Golf on the beach. We count our plastic pirates with pride. We’ve won them, earned them, fair and square. It takes determination and endurance to turn a billion tuppenny bits into a bucketful of pirates. And no small degree of skill. We treat ourselves to one ride each. We’re spoilt for choice. Giant swan-shaped peddaloes; the Hiawatha log flume; the dodgems; the ghost train; the merry-go-round. Go-Karts, too, but Kit’s too small. We’ll have to come back next year.
We sit and watch the world go by. The strange parade of misfits on the sea front: a bored-looking busker; bikers in leathers; a man with a dog on a string. An old lady walks purposefully past us. Pushing an old-fashioned pram. There’s a doll peeping out from the covers. The boys struggle to stifle their laughter. An adult who plays with dolls!
I like it in cloud cuckoo land. Self-imposed isolation. I like the way it sounds. Gone to ground; a little grand. But the boys are bored of their own company. They want to see their friends. They want to play with Billy Kirkby. It’s not every day you make a new friend with a football and a field and a whole room for scalextrics. They want to go and call for him. To play football in the field while I hang out with Bruno. It’s tricky to explain why it’s not such a great idea. Why it’s best if we lie low.
We strike a compromise.
I’ll ask if Billy can come to tea.
Linda treats the invite with her customary suspicion. I want to say ‘I don’t want to do this either. It wasn’t my idea.’ It’s not my idea at all. Socialising with the Kirkbys. Transgressing professional boundaries. Another bad decision. As if I haven’t made enough.
There’s no way Linda’s letting Billy come to our house on his own. We’ll meet in neutral territory, then maybe back to ours for tea.
Linda and Billy are waiting at the pier. We climb the West Hill to the café, we brave the Smuggler’s Caves. Stumbling down the passageway that burrows through the cliff. Squinting as our as our eyes become accustomed to the darkness. Dimly lit passages; underground chambers. A subterranean nether world of buccaneers and bayonets and bulging barrels of rum.
It’s important to keep calm. Not to think too hard about the weight of earth above us. To breathe in and out and in again. To focus on the buccaneers, the educational text. Not the narrowness of the passageway; the dampness of the air.
Billy starts to scream. Quietly at first. A low-pitched wail. Tentative, eerily controlled. Then louder, louder, louder still. He is running round in circles, beating at the walls. Kit is staring, mesmerised. Sonny looks confused. Billy isn’t scared of anything. He sneaks out at night and breaks into old buildings. There’s no way he’d be afraid of the dark or the damp or the poorly-painted plastic pirates. It seems he is possessed.
Linda and I hold him back. Drag him screaming, kicking, down the tunnel, through the turnstile, into the light of day.
Kit says ‘It’s not fair. I wasn’t scared. I wanted to stay.’
‘I wasn’t scared.’ Says Billy. ‘I had a stomach ache.’
She’s worried about Billy. That business in the caves. It’s not like him to make a scene. He’s not a melodramatic child. Not like Lisa Bletchley. Forever using her hairbrush as a microphone or wishing she was dead. He hates attention. Suffers from stage fright. He had to skip the Christmas Play and he was only playing a sheep. For Billy to kick off like that he must have really felt it.
Perhaps he’s missing his Dad. In her heart she knows he’s not. Not really. Not so as you’d notice. Not so as he’d throw some sort of palpitations at the sight of a couple of plastic pirates and some bottles of sodding rum.
If she’s honest, she’s noticed it before. Fear of cold dark places. Claustrophobia. Only recently. The past few weeks or so. The way he won’t go in the basement. Shudders at the thought of it. Won’t relax unless the door’s bolted firmly shut and something put in front of it. The way he panicked when they went to see the caves at Cheddar Gorge. She can’t shake off that feeling. That he’s seen something he shouldn’t.
She says ‘What were you so scared of?’
‘I wasn’t scared. I just felt ill.’
He’s lying. Then again, she lies to him incessantly. Not directly, maybe. But implicitly. The way she lets him think that it’s all a bit of a game. That she was bored of the old furniture; just fancied a change. That everything’s just dandy. That Daddy’s coming back.
We’ve given a lot of thought to tea. Linda Kirkby may not have her three-piece suite but you can bet your bottom dollar she still runs a proper household; board games, bed times, crumbles, cakes. Cheese on a cheese board. A butter dish with a lid.
I have made an effort; a proper meal; a feast.
The boys were set a challenge: ‘If you could have anything in the world for tea what do you think you’d choose?’
There is only one answer. It’s macaroni cheese.
I say ‘It’s macaroni cheese for tea. I hope Billy likes it.’
I rustle up a salad. Holiday Salad. With feta cheese and avocado. I’m guessing Linda Kirkby’s not too hot on carbs.
She says ‘I heard you lost your job.’
Perhaps I did. Perhaps I didn’t notice. Perhaps I’ll have to live like this for ever. A storybook existence by the sea-front. I could sell ice cream on the pier. Or candy floss or fish and chips. The boys could eat the crispy bits for tea.
I say ‘I’m just taking an extended break. To spend time with the boys before school starts again.’
She’s lost interest already. She is staring at the piece of paper on the counter. The one with the number for the man to mend the washing machine. And half a shopping list. It’s been on the kitchen counter for too long. There’s all sorts of rubbish scrawled across it. You can just about make out the purple writing underneath.
She says ‘Where did you get that?’
‘It came through the post.’
‘That’s my grandmother’s writing.’
Oh for God’s sake.
‘Are you sure?’
‘I’m absolutely certain.’
She picks it up. ‘It’s her writing. And it’s her pen.’
She holds it to the light. ‘And it’s her paper. Basildon Bond.’
‘Why would she have sent it?’
‘I’ve no idea. It doesn’t make sense.’
I say ‘I guess she really doesn’t want us to mess around with Gala’s grave.’
Linda says ‘Who’s Gala?’
‘Gala? Your pet dog?’
She’s looking even more confused.
‘Your wire-haired fox terrier?’
‘I’ve never had a dog. I can’t stand all the hairs.’
Of course she hasn’t. Housewife of the bloody year. She’d never have a dog.
Sonny says ‘We used to have a guinea pig.’
We’d forgotten the boys were there.
‘Hector’ he says helpfully.
I say ‘Is anyone still hungry?’
The boys have second helpings. I can’t help feeling smug.
Billy says ‘This is the fourth best macaroni cheese I’ve had.’
He thinks again.
‘No actually, the fifth.’
I email Bruno. I don’t have any option. Since he won’t pick up the phone.
‘Have you spoken to Linda Kirkby?’
He writes back straight away. ‘No. Why?’
‘She seems to think I’ve lost my job.’
He writes ‘You know how small towns are.’
I’m pondering my reply when he sends another message.
‘I’m not sure it’s a good idea for you to talk to Linda Kirkby.’
‘I ran into her in town.’
He sends a single exclamation mark. He knows I’m lying. He always does.
I write. ‘You know how small towns are.’
No answer. Come on Bruno. Don’t make this harder than it has to be. Mind you, it’s late. Perhaps he’s gone to sleep.
I play around on my computer. Check my bank balance. I’ve been paid this month at least. I guess I have a job.
Eventually he answers. ‘You know there’s a setting on your emails where you can write them when you want but it won’t send them ‘til the morning. It might help to look as though you’re a bit more on top of things.’
‘Fuck off.’ I write. ‘And by the way, I know who wrote the note.’
My phone rings straight away. I ignore it.
I send another email.
‘And Linda Kirkby never had a dog.’
The phone rings again.
I turn it off and go to bed.