I give the bucket one last tap with the red plastic spade, and lift it, oh so carefully, my two year old son holding his breath. It’s my third attempt but the sandcastle appears, solid, smooth sided, perfect this time and he whoops, clapping his hands and jumping with excitement. I hear a tiny click above the buzz of the beach, a solitary, out of place sound and I turn to place it.
He smiles, lowering his camera, and I suck my stomach in, though there’s no need. My obsession with weight has increased with my husband’s obesity and I glance back now to his deckchair, nervous that he’s noticed. But he’s flat out, sulking, still mourning the near full tin of beer that I’ve just knocked over, accidentally on purpose, trying pitifully to delay his habitual drunkenness on the last day of our holiday.
Now, I pull back my shoulders, emphasising my breasts in the black bikini top, and look back at the photographer, demure, my head slightly tilted, my lips not quite closed.
He’s gorgeous; long tanned legs disappearing into tight, black trunks, and a white singlet top on broad brown shoulders. And eyes to die for. He’s looking straight back, barely twenty feet away, hoping for a reply.
I can’t move, can’t break this moment, can’t do a thing but wait for the time bomb behind me, the short, increasingly fat, deathly white hulk of a belching husband to notice and give me hell for the rest of the day. For the rest of my life. A life sentence of sixteen years until my tiny son is of age, and I can leave with my conscience intact.
‘Again, Mummy! Do it again!’
The spell is broken. My husband stirs from his alcoholic trance, my son waves the spade dangerously close to my face, and, by the time I look back, the vision has turned, climbing the steps away from the beach. I watch his backside for as long as I dare, feeling a rush within me that’s been dormant for a while, before coaxing the spade from Timmy to refill the bucket with fresh, damp sand.
‘What’re you doing?’
The slur, I estimate, is a six beer one, the stage before comatose. I grit my teeth and break my firmest rule. ‘There’s one more beer. I’ve just found it.’ I toss the tin into the sleeping compartment of the tent. ‘I’ve packed everything up and Timmy’s asleep. I’m going for a walk.’
The only answer is the sound of a ring-pull, so I slip on my sandals, brush scent across my wrists and walk down to the beach in the twilight, my heart thudding ridiculously. I’ve never done anything like this before.
He’s there! Or at least someone is there, a lone figure by the old, wrecked boat that dominates one end of the beach. The shape gradually resolves itself into two figures and I stop, devastated. Then one figure moves, while the other becomes a tripod and a camera. I breathe out and step onto the sand, the beat in my chest now painful.
He’s not heard me above the surf. I move closer and say it again, and he jumps and turns and smiles, and I’m lost in his eyes.
‘How can you take photos? It’s pitch black.’
‘There’s always some light.’ He shrugs. ‘But it’s a boring picture.’ He looks at the dull, grey hulk of the boat and then tilts his head to me, asking, but easily.
I walk silently to the water’s edge, pause and then, grasping my dress by the hem, pull it up and over my head in one easy motion. I know I look graceful, I used to be a dancer. I turn slightly, one breast to the camera and stand motionless, thankful that I’ve worn no pants. You can’t glide out of your knickers. The shutter clicks, once, twice, three times, I can hear it somehow above the waves and then he’s behind me, his fingertips on my waist, asking something different.
I turn, put my arms round his neck and part my lips to his. The rest is easy, and wonderful. I sense, early on, that the pace is mine, that he’ll wait for me, that for the first time in many years there’ll be no race to reach those blissful few seconds before the flaccid lump above me groans uncontrollably, breathes beer in my face and falls asleep. This man is muscular, considerate and smells of the sun. And has the greatest butt ever. I grip it as the waves spread through me, dig my nails in as I scream and subside, grateful beyond measure and exhausted. He stops, momentarily, raises himself on his hands above me and smiles. ‘Ok?’
‘Silly question.’ I rouse myself, anxious suddenly to give pleasure and pay attention, for the first time perhaps, to what he likes.
‘Silly question. What’s your name?’
‘How long are you here for?’
‘We leave in the morning. If he’s sober enough to drive.’
‘Why don’t you leave him?’
He nods, his thoughts unfathomable. ‘How long can you stay now?’
‘I can’t. He’s drunk, and Timmy wakes sometimes.’
I can feel that he means it, and that, if I had time, I might scream again. I am mortified; a man with a recovery time of less than a fortnight, and I have to leave him after twenty minutes. Life’s a bitch.