Robert looked. There, a short distance away on part of the beach still damp with the morning tide, was the sand sculpture, a familiar mound shaped like a beautiful mermaid, Alice standing over it. It was too good for her to have made alone. It always was.
‘Thank God! She’s there!’
Robert added nothing to his wife’s exclamation.
She hurried from him, running across the sand before scooping up her daughter, whose little face shone with the kiss of summer, shining brighter still with the kiss of her mother. Silent, Alice revealed not the slightest sign of distress, while everything about her mother screamed of suffering, misery clutching joy fast.
‘Alice! Alice! Alice! Alice–’ The name kept falling from her mother’s mouth, uncontrolled, until at last the final Alice! was uttered, the tightest squeeze given, the biggest tear rolled.
‘Hello sweetheart,’ Robert said, calmly. ‘What have you been up to?’ He strolled over and with the flat of a palm gently smoothed down Alice’s floss of fine white hair.
She replied with a pointed finger, directed at the mermaid.
Robert felt his wife’s eyes upon him and selected an appropriate expression in response, one neither of relief nor accusation. This small half-smile, so far from being a real smile, said let’s go.
With Alice in the middle, the three began walking back up the beach towards the soft dunes which would take them to the path leading to their campsite. Robert saw Alice look back at the mermaid, a tremendous structure that neither parent admired. Her mother also saw her looking and pulled her close, blocking her gaze.
Beneath the vast blue sky, touched only by the smallest wisp of cloud, the family moved in silence, Robert’s hand resting on Alice’s shoulder, feeling her struggle to make progress while pressed to her mother’s side. With every step inland the sand grew dryer, softer, the going harder; harder still walking in such a tight group. Eventually, the little girl escaped her mother’s grip and threw herself down, giggling. Although she had never spoken in her life, hers was an infectious laugh.
Lying flat on her back with tanned limbs stretched across the sand, Alice began rhythmically sliding her arms and legs, up and down, up and down, up and down. Rapidly, the ground around her levelled and smoothed. She leapt up and grinned broadly at the image of a winged angel and quickly found a place to start again. When she had made five more angels, Robert swept her into his arms and kissed her firmly, before placing her down on her feet, fingertips gently pressing between her shoulders, signalling an end to the game, urging her on.
He noticed his wife smiling, but also that her eyes were again filling with tears. Robert wanted to comfort her, to tell her to put worry and grief aside and enjoy the moment, for life was, after all, only a series of moments, every instant a fleeting thing lost in the great move forwards.
This moment was carrying her back.
Alice soon found a different game. Her little white summer dress billowed as she threw herself from dune after dune, tumbling and rolling when she missed her footing, sometimes falling because falling was fun. Robert followed her, leaping and laughing, feeling young and feeling old, rough marram grass catching between his toes.
His wife followed, watching, making no move to play.
Before long, a compacted grit path appeared beneath the sand and soon they were in the field housing their campsite. Compared to the dunes which had been warmed by the sun despite the early hour, the short grass felt cool. All around, people were rousing, beginning the day in whatever leisurely way they chose. A few were already gathering buckets and spades, while others blearily wandered to the toilet block with towels and small bags clamped beneath their arms. Some were making breakfast.
The smell of frying food and the laugh of gulls filled the air as the family walked to their pitch. A small orange and blue tunnel-shaped tent stood where it did every year, tucked in a corner as far from the dunes as it was possible to be, backed by thick hedging. The flimsy door hung to one side in slim folds, just as it had been left. More concerned with finding their daughter than hiding belongings behind a thin sheet of nylon, neither adult had paused to close it.
They had known where Alice would be, of course, but knowing and seeing were not the same thing.
Set in front of the tent were three folding chairs and a picnic table with a large book. Alice picked it up and, shuffling back in her seat, started browsing pictures of seashore animals.
Soundlessly, her mother lowered herself into the chair closest.
Robert went inside the tent and poured water from a large plastic container into a pan, setting it to boil on a camping stove. He arranged two mugs with one teabag to share, eyes on his family more than the task at hand. His wife stared at the child. The child stared at the book. Robert stared at them both.
This was an impossible existence.
Tea made, he settled beside them and said he would make breakfast after he’d finished his drink. His wife did not reply. The people of the campsite went about their morning with quiet chatter.
‘Thank God! She’s there!’
Robert added nothing to his wife’s exclamation. He watched the scene unfold as he had every morning they’d been there.
‘I tried to stay awake. I tried so hard to stay awake!’ she cried.
Robert said nothing because there was nothing he wanted to say – nothing he could say – that would be right.
‘Why can I never stay awake!’
The thin skin of her face creased with anguish. It was a face very different from before, that time so long ago when Robert first met her. Theirs had not been a coming together charged with wild chemistry; it was no holiday romance, and their gaze had not accidentally met across a crowded party. A chance meeting at work brought them together, and Robert had known instantly that she was the one.
No. He was wrong. Her face had not changed from then. Her face changed following Alice, and so had his.
He watched his wife pull their daughter close and kiss the top of her head. ‘I love you,’ he heard her whisper. ‘I love you.’
In response, Alice smiled and hugged her mother, reaching lithe arms right around a frame that might have been ample yet was not. Robert’s comfort could be found in food, his wife’s in refusing it.
‘Thank God! She’s there!’
Robert again watched the scene unfold. It was not just every morning this week, but all seven days spent here each summer. And this time, somewhere inside him, the first murmurings of unrest had begun searching for a voice. His eyes passed over the sand mermaid, creating a half-thought that was really a half-memory of an old discussion fully thrashed out; a topic gone threadbare through repetition. Why had they ignored this perfect creation? All that time ago. Why?
‘Thank God! She’s there!’
Beneath a familiar sky, Robert stood silently while his wife went through the motions. Today, instead of immediately smothering Alice with love before escorting her back up the beach, she set about stamping on the mermaid, slowly and meticulously obliterating its image.
Oblivious to Alice’s indifferent reaction, Robert set off for the campsite. Moments later, he felt his daughter grab his hand, laughing, pulling. In the moment before running with her, he glanced back to his wife, motionless amongst the ruin.
It would make no difference.
‘Thank God! She’s there!’
The last day.
‘Where have you been, angel?’ Robert asked his daughter, quietly hiding his knowing.
Robert’s eyes passed over the haggard expression of his wife to the mermaid made of sand. He did not want to look. As ever, her exquisitely sculpted face held a flat and lifeless gaze.
He had long since let go of the rage, of the desire to swing back his foot and kick off her head, to do as his wife had done. The mermaid lay as always, belly down, tail curled, arms flat to the sand with elbows bent, chin resting on the backs of long-fingered hands. The curved edges of the scales, covering every part, had started to dry.
Without instruction, Alice began moving up the beach. Her face glowed with happiness as she turned and looked to her parents. Robert knew she wanted him to chase her, to catch her and tickle her and throw her in the air. He dug deep to find some energy and set off, pursuing the squealing bundle of excitement with outstretched arms.
But while his body moved his mind would not. The last day was always hardest and was becoming too hard. He wasn’t sure he would be able to come many more times, all too aware that, once acknowledged, thoughts of this nature often took hold. The idea made him feel sick.
With a playful roar, he grabbed Alice and tucked her under his arm, running to the dunes where he threw her wriggling onto the soft sand. He longed for his wife to call out in the way of other mothers and tell him to be careful, but she did not. This apparently happy moment was lost to her. An image came: his wife was a person walking back through the carriages of a moving train in the hope of returning to the station, trying to deny time its only direction, and each year she failed that little bit more.
Alice started digging. Robert understood that she wanted to make a big hole to sit in. Why was it that children of their own volition could remain in a big sandy hole all day, but never sit still when asked?
Never remain in the tent when asked.
He crouched and began shovelling great handfuls of sand, moving quickly to stay ahead of the dryer sand spilling in. Though not yet deep enough to satisfy Alice, by the time the hole was established, his wife had still not joined them.
Robert turned and looked for her, with shame half-hoping she was gone. She was there, kneeling where she had been standing, like some strange corpse the tide had washed up, stiffly posed at the moment of execution.
It could not go on. Twenty years of the same. Alice. Alice, Alice, Alice. What was once felt to be a gift borne of a nightmare had become no more than a curse.
For a moment, Robert felt blank, gaze losing focus as something inside shifted. Returning to himself, he looked to the child, who replied by grinning evermore broadly. He smiled back, able to fully understand something new. The terrifying idea spawning inside had become fact. He would end this.
Next summer, he and his wife would come here as they always did. But next year, he would not be the dutiful husband ensuring his wife slept solidly all night to keep her safe, driven by his own fear of suffering a second terrible loss. Next year, she would wake in the night and he would let her go. Next year, she could follow Alice.