10 May 2019

Late May, departure

Frenzied activity.

Calls, shouts, giggles echoing along the corridor, bouncing off the whitewashed walls and finding their way into sunlit room after sunlit room. Plimsolls, muddied socks, semi-damp swimming togs forgotten beneath the beds or abandoned on the stairs beyond the guest bedrooms. Taps running, loos flushing. Doors opening and closing. Feet charging to and fro.

‘Hurry with your washbag, please, Trish! I’m closing up your case. Now.’

‘MUM! Get it together! I gave it to you twenty minutes ago.’

I was in the hallway, one foot poised on the second step, listening, feeling sad about their departure. ‘Sam!’ I called up the stairs to one of my two step-daughters, while noticing that the walls all the way to the first-floor landing had been scuffed by the children’s comings and goings. Toe marks, fingerprints. Traces of their days on the beach. Grains of fallen sand crushed into the wooden steps.

‘Sorry, what did you say, Grace? Just leave that, Trish, please. I’ll pack it last.’

‘You were going to give me your reservation number so we can print out your tickets.’

‘Damn, I forgot. Sorry, Grace, can you give me five more minutes?’

‘Whenever you’re ready. You’ve got bags of time.’ I returned to the kitchen where I was preparing a stack of sandwiches. My fingers were greased with butter and streaks of fat from the salami I’d been slicing. Two rolls of tinfoil, three paper carrier bags, two loaves, pre-sliced by the baker, a Thermos flask of black coffee, a boiling kettle, which I had switched on and forgotten for whatever reason, and several cartons of fruit juice greeted me.

Peter was out on the veranda, or so I had assumed, but when I walked through into the living room to ask him to turn on the printer, I couldn’t find him. ‘Peter, chéri,’ I called softly, not wanting to wake him if he had nodded off in the shade somewhere. I knew he was feeling downhearted at the prospect of the imminent departure of one of his daughters, along with three of his beloved grandchildren. The medley of emotions he must be facing, along with his inability to handle them, frequently sent him to his desk behind a firmly closed door or somewhere else quiet where he could brood without being observed. He might have gone for a walk. It was a beautiful morning, with nothing to disturb the equanimity of the rich blue sky.

Yes, he’d possibly set off for some gentle exercise along the clifftop.

Quotation

I passed through and stepped outside onto the narrow ledge of grass, bright with wildflowers and carpenter bees, that led to the roughly hewn flight of steps that swept zigzag down to the beach

‘Harry! Harry!’ Samantha was calling from one of the  first-floor rooms to the youngest of her three. ‘Grace, have you seen Harry?’

‘No, sorry.’ I yelled up to her again. ‘Last time I spotted him he was coming down the stairs, all dressed, ready to go. It must have been about half an hour ago. Forty-five minutes, maybe. Might he be down at the beach with Jenny and her two?’

‘I hope not. He’ll need another shower if he is. Harry!’

I could hear the tension rising in her voice. None of us wanted her to leave, to return to England, and it was a long journey alone with her three youngsters. The timing was unfortunate, what with her father’s heart surgery looming, but she had her career and a husband in London, patiently awaiting the overdue return of his family. Initially, she had intended to stay just a week.

‘I’ll go and have a look outside,’ I called up the stairs. ‘You’ve hours till the train, Sam. No need to worry.’

‘Why does he always go missing when . . . ?’

‘I’ll have a scout about. He won’t have gone far.’

If Peter had set off on a walk, he might have taken his grandson with him. Neither he nor Harry was on the veranda as I passed through and stepped outside onto the narrow ledge of grass, bright with wildflowers and carpenter bees, that led to the roughly hewn flight of steps that swept zigzag down to the beach. I hung back at the top and waved to Jenny, Sam’s twin sister. She was wading out of the sea, squeezing the water out of her long curly hair. Her two girls were sitting cross-legged on towels, making daisy chains, necklaces and tiaras out of the flowers they had been picking earlier in the morning. I signalled again to Jenny who, glancing upwards, caught sight of me.

‘Have you seen your dad?’ I was cupping my hands to make a megaphone with them. ‘Or Harry? He seems to have wandered off somewhere.’

Jenny shook her head as she bent low for a towel.

Where could the pair of them have got to? It was then I noticed that Phaedra, our boat, was missing. Our little seafaring yacht. In the season, it was always moored in the cove directly in front of the villa, anchored and bobbing just beyond the shoreline, and that was where I had abandoned it two days earlier. Surely Peter and Harry hadn’t taken it out.

Due to Peter’s health problems, the boat had not been used all that frequently this year, except by me, of course, but the family knew nothing of my illicit early-morning trip along the coast. Might I have forgotten to take out the keys? I’d been alone, at a little after dawn in the soft violet light, in an emotionally unstable state, freaked by the threats I was facing, the veiled blackmail. Had I left them in the ignition? I scanned the sparkling sea vista in all directions. There was no sign of the boat on the calm water. Where could it have got to? Had it somehow become untethered and drifted out to sea, unnoticed from the bay, or was it trapped in a rock crevice? Had I, in my distress, been careless in parking it?

The keys must have remained in the boat for the last couple of days and no one the wiser. I was puzzled, trying mentally to retrace my movements, and momentarily forgot that I was supposed to be searching for Harry.

Harry. The youngest of my grandchildren and, yes, the apple of my eye.

And who knew that?

Who knew that if I refused to do his bidding . . .

One other explanation crept into my mind. Might he have stolen the boat? Might he also have cajoled my grandson, charmed or threatened the unsuspecting child into setting off on an expedition with him?

‘Harry!’ I yelled, with fierce force from lungs trained to project. ‘Harry, can you hear me?’ I had to find Peter.

Could I have been so foolish, so scatter-brained, as to have moored the boat within wading distance of the beach and then, the following morning, left the keys in it? I spun on my heels, hurrying back into the house to confirm whether they were in the cupboard or not. As I did so, I stopped short, thinking I’d caught sight of Harry. Out of the corner of my eye, possibly half a kilometre distant, standing inland of the edge of the high cliff face. That summit zone was a national beauty spot. It towered perilously above sea level.

I was puzzled. Was it Harry? Oh, God, yes, yes, it was, and far too close to the rim for safety. Sam had already dressed her six-year-old for travelling. There he was in his neatly pressed shorts and the new dusty-red flexi-trainers he and I had purchased together at the market in La Ciotat a few days earlier. His feet planted firmly on the limestone surface, his back to me, his head was lifted. He appeared to be listening, transfixed. Semi-hidden behind one of the giant boulders, was the silhouette of a man. Him. It was him. No doubt about it. Where had he appeared from?

He must have been waiting for this opportunity. Hanging about, close to our property, spying on us, biding his time . . . Living in our shadow.

‘What the . . . ?’

The man was wearing a Panama hat and dark sunglasses. It was late May. Even so, the Van Morrison lookalike was in his flimsy black raincoat and was engaged in conversation with my grandson. Peter’s grandson. I felt a sharp pain tighten around my chest. Every muscle, every nerve in my body contracted.

 

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