It’s hot. The sun prickles his tanned back as he surveys the beach. Quiet but busy enough. If they’re there, the whole thing will work perfectly. Nicholas looks out over the turquoise sea. It’s absolutely still, an hour until low tide. Deciding on a swim first, he dumps the large canvas bag below the wall, heaves himself up and walks barefoot out on the slippery breakwater. The surface is slightly coarse and damp under his feet but not uncomfortable. He sits down and glides into the silvery water, catching his own reflection in its surface. His face is tense, he needs to relax. The water is shockingly cold against his hot skin, making him gasp.
He swims rapidly away from the beach. Some way out he stops abruptly, turns and squints, looking back at the beach. Only a handful of people there. It’ll be doable. They’re here. The father, as per usual, is reading a newspaper on the large rock next to the promenade and the girl sits on the pebbles below, playing with an orange toy. A perfectly happy scene.
Nicholas swims back towards the seawall but remains just within their view, treading water, watching. He can feel the warmth of the sun on the back of his wet head, the salty water stinging his burnt lips. They mustn’t see him. When he’s sure they aren’t looking, he heaves himself up and walks slowly back, lowering himself down to his bag on the other side of the breakwater. He is certain now that the father hasn’t spotted him. He sits down on the towel and leans against the wall, the hot stones burying themselves into his back. The beach on his side is empty apart from a young couple at the far end absorbed by one other. Above him, on the rock by the promenade, sits the father with his paper still. He’s lit a cigarette and the smoke floats past in the still air. It's like all time has stopped. All Nicholas has to do now is wait.
About twenty minutes pass and then he sees her on his side of the wall, now hidden from view from the people on the other beach. Like the other day, she has made her way to the end of the seawall and onto his side. The long blonde hair, the yellow swimsuit. She’s radiant. But at such close range so much smaller than he remembers. She’s still playing, absorbed in her own world. Nicholas recognises the bright orange elephant from her room. This has to be quick.
After a last glance at the father, he gets up and without taking his eyes off the girl, reaches into the bag, fumbling for the bottle. Oddly comforted by its coolness he locates the large tissue, unscrews the bottle and soaks it. Taking a deep breath he averts his eyes fleetingly from the girl and scans the almost white horizon.
Nicholas turns slowly. She’s got her back to him still. He is right upon her now. So near he can hear her singing softly to herself. He bends and, as if in slow motion, brings the tissue over her head, cupping her mouth and nose. He presses hard. Startled, the girl lets out a muffled scream and kicks him in the shin with her sandalled foot. Surprised by her strength, he winces at the shooting pain. He curses under his breath. He holds her in a tighter grip, she struggles briefly but then goes limp. The soft toy falls with a wet thud onto the pebbles. The heat from her body against his chest momentarily stuns him and for a split second he resists the urge to hold her. Then his actions are swift. He carefully lays the small body on the stripey towel in the bag.
With a quick movement Nicholas slings the large bag over his shoulder, turns and walks briskly alongside the wall onto the almost deserted promenade. He meets a lady on a bike but she is staring straight ahead, pedalling frantically in an obvious hurry. The light body thuds against his hip as he takes the steps in two up towards the underpass. His calf muscles ache with the effort of the steep climb. At the top he peers over the edge. The father is still reading. The orange elephant below glistens in the sun.
The cool underpass is empty and all Nicholas can hear is his own quick breathing. He walks rapidly, staring into the field at the end of the tunnel. His right hand finds the wall and he lets it trail alongside him against the cool surface. He stops, shuts his eyes and takes a deep breath. No screams. No running feet. Nothing. He resurfaces into the bright sun.
Nicholas squints as he crosses the road to the car. Throwing a quick glance backwards, he places the bag gently inside the boot. Checking around him a last time he swings the door open and gets in. Sweat trickles down his forehead and neck. He winds down both front windows, letting a slight breeze fill the car. He sits for a brief moment staring at himself in the rear view mirror, trying to pace his breathing. The blue eyes that meet him reveal little of the turmoil inside. No going back now. He wipes his forehead with the back of his hand and flicks the mirror back. He puts the key in the ignition, signals and moves off swiftly, taking the quickest road back into town.
11.30am June 16 1957, Church of the Annunciation, Brighton
Nicholas flicks the thick red curtain aside. Just enough so he can watch unnoticed. The young woman is alone. She looks small in the otherwise empty cool church, its tall ceiling engulfing the tiny figure in the pew. She keeps sweeping the back of her hand across her cheeks, and when she turns slightly towards the door, her face is blotchy and red against the blonde hair, her forehead damp with sweat. She isn’t a pretty crier. Some women are beautiful when they cry. But not this one.
A sound behind the closet jolts him. He snaps the curtain back. Has Father Brian returned already? Rigid, he listens. Soft footsteps approach. His long thin finger shoots out to gently move the cloth, allowing him to see through a small slit. A tall, dark haired woman is so close he could reach out to touch her left arm. His eyes dart back to the blonde woman. She’s stopped crying, her face openly relieved.
“Marianne, my dearest. I came as fast as I could.”
The tall woman’s voice is low but strong. She quickly glances around the church and then sweeps down to embrace her friend. A faint floral scent reaches his nostrils. She is plumper, the yellow dress hugs the voluminous figure, showing off a sizable behind.
“Oh, Lillian, thanks so much for coming. Did Arthur suspect?”
“Marianne, lower your voice!”
She signals for Marianne to shove up, pulls a green cardigan out of her bag, wrapping it over her broad shoulders.
“Gosh, it’s so damp in here.....No, I said I was going out for some fresh air.”
Marianne buries her head in her arms and Lillian puts a long tanned arm around the small frame. She reaches into the bag again and hands her a handkerchief with blue, dainty butterflies embroidered on it.
“Marianne, are you absolutely sure? It could just be, you know, these things can happen but then everything turns out just fine. Are you really, really su..
In answer, Marianne slumps back against the pew in front and buries her head in her arms. Nicholas notices a small wet patch, darkening the thin green dress around her slender armpit.
“Yes,” comes a muffled reply. She collapses into convulsive sobs. He watches as Lillian sits upright staring ahead with her left hand slowly caressing her friend’s long, slim back. His eyes lingers on the large wedding ring on the slender hand. His eyes shoot back to her face. Calm and collected, eyes studying the altar, the lit candles making the dark eyes shine.
“Marianne, you mustn’t take it so hard,” she says and turns. “This may also be nothing even if you’re sure. I want you to go and see Doctor Harris....I have seen him about a similar matter.” The last words were hesitant. Was there a hint of regret?
Marianne looks up, her eyes shiny from crying.
“You have? But Lillian.... I thought we tell each other everything, why have you never said?”
“Your father had just died. I wasn’t going to burden you. Besides, it turned out to be all fine.”
Marianne looks confused, her large blue eyes seemingly searching for clues in her friend’s face.
“But you and Arthur met just after the funeral.... but… is that why you married so.…”
“Men aren’t very astute, even at the best of times, dearest.”
Marianne stares at her.
“Are you disappointed in me?”
Lillian meets her eyes. Marianne averts her gaze.
“No, I just never realised. I guess I am surprised but you know me. I am naive, Lillian.”
She laughs briefly but then her face gives way to pain again.
“Marianne, we’re not here to discuss me, darling. It’s you I’m worried about.”
Nicholas watches as Marianne sits back again in the pew. Her blonde hair has loosened from her hat and the thick curls cascade over her shoulders.
“Well, it’s been two years of trying. Jack has been so patient.”
“Does he know?”
“No. I don’t want to say anything before I am absolutely certain. He’s been ever so excited.”
“But are you in pain, Marianne?”
“No, it’s not too bad.”
Marianne shifts in the seat.
“A lot of blood?”
“Enough for me to sit here and talk like this.”
Her voice is louder now and Lillian puts a reassuring arm on her shoulder.
“Come back with me and we call Doctor Harris. Arthur will have gone out now so we won’t be disturbed.”
“But won’t he need to examine me?”
Marianne looks over at her friend, her voice strained.
“Yes maybe, darling. Most probably he’ll just order you to take aspirin, have bed rest and wait it out. You will know in time. A woman knows.”
“I can’t come to yours now. Jack will wonder. He’s home all day. Oh, Lillian, would you call for me? I would have to go to one of those ghastly phone boxes with the riff raff banging at the door.”
The panic has returned in Marianne’s voice, clearly visible across her face. She looks pleadingly at Lillian.
“Very well. Meet me here later. Shall we say 4pm?”
“Yes. Thank you, Lillian. At least there’s something good about being a devoted Catholic, no one would question us coming in here.”
She laughs. It is a warm, infectious laugh. A laugh of someone who uses humour to combat life. Lillian stands up, and, taking Marianne’s hand, they briskly walk towards the door, leaving behind a faint scent of soap.
Nicholas stands still behind the curtain until he hears the creak of the door and the soft sucking thud of it closing behind them. He peaks out, and assured the coast is clear, the church is almost always empty at this time, quickly walks past the altar and through the small door to its right. He runs all the way to the top.
The heat stuns him at first, making him sway sideways after the sepulchral cool of the church interior. He fumbles for the railing and leans over. There they are, like two colourful miniature dolls, standing close together, talking conspiratorially by the gate. Marianne’s blonde hair glistens in the sun as she absentmindedly folds it under her hat. Nicholas grips the railing harder, his knuckles turning white as he stands erect, watching intently when the two women part ways. He follows Marianne’s bobbing red hat as she slowly makes her way up the street, disappearing left up the hill.
A noise makes him freeze. Father Brian is back, no doubt thoroughly plonked, judging by the clatter coming from downstairs. Nicholas remains still, surveying the view, the grey eyes reflecting the sea. A fat seagull sits perched on the silver tower above him and, only when Nicholas moves slightly, does the bird acknowledge the intruder. It lets off a shrill squawk and leapt off its perch, disappearing over the rooftops, screeching menacingly.
There is the slam of the door to the Vestry. Nicholas lets go of the railing and takes the stairs again in two, the rubber of his creepers tapping lightly against the dusty stone steps. When he peers into the chilly church it lays in familiar silence, only a slight linger of stale alcohol and tobacco remains.
Nicholas spreads a blanket onto the pebbles and sits his mother down. She's wobbly on her legs. It pierces his heart when, for a brief moment, he can see a glimpse of the mother he once loved. There is a strong breeze but the hot sun seems to tame the waves into shy rolling tumbles. Inga wants to get in the water, but it feels so cold Nicholas has to help her out almost immediately. A wave washes over the back of her legs and she becomes rather agitated. He’s trying his best, stifling a growing impatience.
The beach is quiet but a nice gentleman comes forward and folds their blanket out again so his mother can sit down. Nicholas is astonished at how his mother manages to remain so beautiful, still slender in a fetching turquoise and white striped swimsuit with ruffle trim, her greying hair slicked back over her head. He wraps her gently in a big beach towel, rubbing her back to keep her warm.
“Mother, you bought this in Copenhagen, remember” he says, patting the colourful towel. Inga doesn’t reply, her eyes focused on the horizon. She’s shaking rather badly and they sit for a while simply warming up in the sun. At one point Nicholas tentatively puts his arm around her and she leans into him. He glances over at her but remains quiet, careful not to spoil the moment.
Inga grows restless after a while. He holds the towel for her while she changes into an elaborate orange and red ensemble.
“Dior? Really, Mother?”
With a hint of a smile she throws her arms out wide.
“Christian said, ‘Inga, you must wear my clothes like an armour against the world. And against its people’.” She turns to him and laughs, her brilliant blue eyes beaming in the afternoon sun. She looks almost happy.
“Isn’t that grand, Nicholas?”
“Only you, Mother, could have such a story.”
Inga tuts and presses a smart hat over her head.
“Mother, let’s go to the beach restaurant here, the one you and Richard used to frequent.”
He knows his mother doesn't like Richard’s name mentioned and she seems at first about to object but then simply shrugs. She puts on a pair of large dark sunglasses. Nicholas takes her by the arm and they walk slowly up the beach.
The place is heaving with people despite the glorious weather, a gentle breeze flows through the open windows. A smart waiter in a crisp white jacket seats them with a view of both the lawns and the sea. Nicholas orders two beers, the waiter snaps his fingers and two chilled tall glasses with the cool golden liquid arrive promptly. The staff know their stars. Nicholas watches as his mother’s spindly arms reach forwards to grab at the glass with trembling hands. She’s still wearing her large dark sunglasses and that petite white hat she bought in Italy that summer now so many years ago.
“Mother, you really look like a film star still, people can’t take their eyes off you.”
Inga looks around and then back at him. He can’t read the look on her face.
“But only I know what’s really hiding behind those glasses”
She ignores him.
“Isn’t this lovely, Nicholas, dear.”
She even smiles at him. A stabler hand reaches over to touch his but he just can’t let her. Nicholas withdraws his but she pretends not to notice, instead turning her attention to the room.
“Look at those young things over there. What I wouldn’t give to be their age again.”
She sighs and looks away. Nicholas downs his pint, calls the waiter over and orders a large scotch on the rocks.
“What a big boy drink, Nicholas, are you sure you can manage that?”
Nicholas sees that she’s smiling, this is not one of her nasty attacks.
Inga looks up from studying her hands. She takes her glasses off and her dark blue eyes look at him questioningly.
“They say that in a family with an addict, every member takes on a role. One is the mascot, the clown, the one who makes light of the situation, tries to entertain. Then it’s the overachieving hero, next the scapegoat blamed for everything…”
He stops and meets her eyes pointedly. She just stares at him blankly so he continues.
“One is the reclusive, lost child, stunted in their emotional growth. Lastly, there's the caretaker, also known as the enabler in denial.”
The double Scotch on the Rocks arrives and Nicholas raises the glass to his mother. He knocks it back in one. He gives the waiter a big smile.
“One more, please, and then I think I can safely say that this has been a splendid outing!”
Then he sees that nasty grin. He knew it hadn't been far from the surface.
“I would have had you down more as the clown, Nicholas.”
“Ha!” he laughs. “I don’t actually know how it works when it’s only me. I can just say that I seem to have spent my entire life in one role or another, Mother.”
“Indeed it does,” he says and grabs the scotch out of the waiter’s hand, and nods at his mother.
“Please bring the famous actress a glass of your finest champagne.”
They sit in silence until the champagne arrives. They clink glasses.
“Maybe one day mother, somewhere deep down you might recognise that I have done my utmost to love and look after you. Even if that sometimes means joining you.”
He nods at her over the brim of his glass and throws his head back, relishing as the cold poison guzzles down his throat.