And this is the place where it all comes together. This beach, this view, this place. My place.
‘Don’t be such a wimp,’ I say aloud, scolding myself as I so often used to as a child. The young Taggie would not have deliberated; she would have leapt straight over and already be at the helm of that boat, on course for an imaginary adventure. I smile as I conjure her up in my mind, that fierce and fearless version of me. How I wish I still had her strength.
Mind made up, I take a deep breath and crouch down on my haunches, the plan being to spring up and over the channel in one graceful leap. I pause, my hands on the wet stone walkway, then fling myself up with as much energy as I can muster, letting out a shriek as I go. There’s a split second of exhilarating movement, followed by a splash, and then awful, total coldness.
‘Wahhhhhh!’ I yell, swallowing a good portion of the lake in the process and spluttering in disgust. I have somehow managed to land face down in the water, and my rapidly soaking clothes are pinning me down. I try to shuffle myself up, but my knee connects with the jagged edge of a stone and my leg buckles again beneath me. Now I’m not just angry, but scared, too, and the realisation causes me to thrash about wildly. I’m going to drown in ten centimetres of water, I think hopelessly, and it will be days until I’m found, washed up on the shore in Como, pecked apart by swans.
I’m just about to try and roll over on to my back when I hear a shout, and a few seconds later strong hands reach down under my arms and I’m hauled out of the water, dripping and coughing and shuddering with cold. Taking an instinctive step away from my rescuer, I bang the back of my head against the high stone wall and swear in earnest, my chattering teeth making the words sound ridiculous.
The man, who I realise guiltily is now almost as wet as me, starts laughing gently.
‘It’s not funny!’ I snarl, rubbing the sore spot as I look at him properly for the first time. He’s very obviously Italian, with jet‑black hair and the remnants of a summer tan, and his eyes are the most extraordinary shade of bright green. He’s wearing a red jumper that’s been turned part‑maroon by the stain of my wet body, and the sleeves are rolled up to reveal thick, muscular forearms.
‘Are you OK?’ he asks, peering at me in amusement. His English is heavily accented, but he speaks it with an ease that makes me suspect he’s fluent.
‘I think so,’ I reply, my cheeks burning with mortification. ‘Thank you for helping me.’
He shrugs. ‘Of course.’
I want to ask him what he’s doing down here, on my special, secret beach, so early in the morning, but I don’t. I simply stand there mutely, wringing out my dripping hair and peeling off my saturated scarf with a grimace.
‘You’re all wet,’ I point out needlessly, and he looks down at himself, again with a wry smile.
‘It will dry.’
‘Aren’t you cold?’ I want to know, but he shakes his head.
‘Not really. I don’t really feel the cold too much.’
‘What are you, a robot?’ I joke weakly, but he frowns in confusion.
‘Just a man.’
He’s certainly that, I can’t help but agree. In fact, this man is the most manly‑looking man that I’ve encountered in a long time. Which makes the whole plucking‑me‑out‑ of‑the‑lake thing all the more humiliating. Why couldn’t an old fisherman have found me?
‘You are shivering,’ he tells me, stepping forwards. ‘Can I help to warm you up?’
‘No!’ I practically yell, stumbling away from his outstretched arms in horror. He’s right, I am shaking with cold, but there’s no way I’m going to let him hug me. Who the hell does he think he is?
The man folds his arms as he considers my rebuff, his eyes narrowed and his mouth set in a line.
‘I do not bite,’ he informs me lightly, but his smirk rankles. I can tell exactly what he’s thinking – he’s looking at me, so small next to him and so apparently helpless, and he’s assumed that I’m just another pathetic female that needs looking after. He’s doing what so many men do when they meet me – he’s making a presumption based on my size and on my sex, and there is literally nothing that annoys me more. OK, so I fell into the lake, but that doesn’t mean I’m weak; it just means I’m unlucky.
‘I’m going home,’ I inform him, giving him as challenging a look as it’s possible to do when you’re a sodden mess, and turning my back on him before he has a chance to reply. My boots, which have filled with water, make an embarrassing squelching sound as I stomp away, but I hold my head up high regardless. By the time I reach the beach and the opening that leads to the path, my hot head has cooled, and a twinge of guilt makes me glance back the way I came.
He’s still standing there, his hands now in the pockets of his jeans and his head on one side. What I should do is mouth a silent apology, or flash him a small smile, hoping it will convey that I’m sorry for overreacting, and that I’m genuinely grateful to him for saving me, but I don’t. The humiliation still feels too acute, and I’ve lost too much face already – so instead I stick my chin defiantly up in the air, and stomp away out of view.
I was nine years old the first time someone cheated on me. His name was Johnny, and he had curly brown hair and permanently pink cheeks. We had been officially boyfriend and girlfriend for two whole weeks, which was a record at our primary school, and I had written his name on the back of my hand in purple felt‑tip pen and drawn a heart around it. I was so proud to have been singled out by Johnny, because he was the most popular boy in our year – if not the whole school – and so he could have taken his pick of the girls. But no, he’d chosen me, Lucy Dunmore, with the train‑track braces and scuffed knees. The girl who wore her older sister’s tatty hand‑me‑downs and still sucked her thumb in her sleep; the quiet one in class who would never raise her hand even if she knew the answer; the non‑descript, non‑beautiful and non‑exciting Lucy. I was as surprised as everyone else.
Every lunchtime, I would make my way to the edge of the fenced‑in pitch where all the boys played football, and watch my beloved tearing up and down the grass after the ball. Occasionally he would glance my way and smile, or blow me a sly kiss behind one of his hands, and I would swell with such pleasure that even my fingertips would tingle.
On this day, however, he was nowhere to be seen.
‘I saw him with Chloe and her lot,’ one of Johnny’s minions informed me, abandoning his position between the goalposts and lacing his dirty fingers through the gaps in the mesh fence.
‘They said they were going to play kiss chase,’ he retorted, failing to keep the glee from leaking into his voice like spilt milk. ‘I heard that Chloe always picks a three.’
The version of kiss chase we all played was based on a simple numbered system: one was a cuddle, two a kiss on the cheek, and three, the most daring of all, a kiss on the lips. The fact that Chloe always picked a ‘three’ if she was caught by the boys was not news to me, but Johnny’s friend’s words still made my throat tighten up and my tummy twist into knots.
I feigned nonchalance, of course, but as soon as I was a safe distance away from the pitch, I started to panic. If Johnny was playing kiss chase, then it was up to me to find him.
He wasn’t up in the makeshift fort or on the swings. There was no sign of him in the cobweb‑ridden alley behind the science block or over near the infants’ sandpit. I ran around the playground twice, my legs burning and my breath coming faster and harder, but still, nothing. The tears were threatening and other children were starting to look at me with ill‑disguised bemusement. I was about to scale the big slide for a better look when I saw him.
And he wasn’t alone.
They were a fair distance away from me, but I could still make out the beam of pride on Chloe’s face as she followed my boyfriend across the playground. He was looking ahead, rather than at her, but one of his hands was stretched behind him, his fingers entwined with hers.
I took a breath, and followed them.
I knew where Johnny was taking her, because it was the same place he’d led me a fortnight ago, on that magical day when he’d whispered in my ear that he liked me, that he thought it was cool how clever I was, how well I could spell, how I was the only person in the class who could hold Snuffles the guinea pig without him wriggling.
He was taking Chloe to the kissing corner.
I went as far as the cloakroom doors before I stopped and leant against the glass, watching with a mixture of shock and inexplicable fascination as Chloe and Johnny went straight for a three, both shutting their eyes as they rubbed their faces together. She was taller than him and had to bend down a bit, and if it had been anybody else, I would have laughed. But it wasn’t – it was my Johnny, my boyfriend – and so instead I turned away and went inside. I washed his name off my hand and glared at myself in the toilet mirror, willing my bottom lip to stop trembling. Nine‑year‑olds aren’t cry‑babies.
In that moment, it was myself I hated, not him. Not even Chloe.
I went back into the cloakroom and sat by my peg, waiting for the bell to ring and signal the end of lunch break. There was a faded sticker of Kermit the Frog on the wooden bench seat, and I picked at it absent‑mindedly, chewing the inside of my cheeks until I could taste blood.
I never told anyone what I’d seen, or how it upset me. But I never forgot it, either.