Kynance beach

I think I loved Emily as a child more than anyone else in my world. She had wanted my love and attention more as a teenager, but I’d moved on, and failed to notice her falling through the ice. I did hear about the parties and the drug taking from Ellen, but didn’t intervene. When she drowned, following a crazy stunt in high heels on the parapet of Lambeth Bridge, the coroner’s verdict was death by misadventure but I’m not sure.
When she was born, I had just been re-elected, and I was hoping to be appointed to the shadow cabinet. I took rooms in Westminster, and attended every late-night vote. I cared more about my career than anything else. Ellen had inherited her parents’ house in Bayswater when her father died, and we lived in the mansion with Emily. It was only a short cab-ride from the Commons, but I was engrossed in Westminster, and I’d lost interest in family life. It was Ellen who looked after the children, brought them up, dealt with their accidents and growing pains.
I was on my way to Penzance one summer, to stay with Ellen and the children for the weekend. They were at the house we rented every year in The Lizard for a month, and I was only making the trip on their third weekend away. Sitting in first class on the Penzance Express, I was staring at the melamine paneled wall, and I was thinking how alone I felt. I was surrounded by people who wanted parts of me, and whom I wanted some of the time, but I didn’t feel connected to any of them. Maria was fun and sexy and she really got what I was about in my work, but she wasn’t interested in my feelings. If I wanted to talk about how upset I was with how I’d been treated, or what someone had written about me, she’d just tell me to ‘get over it.’
Ellen, on the other hand had only ever been interested in the real me, as she put it. She wanted to get past the front man, and she hated it when I used my public speaking voice with her, either cajoling, or when we were arguing.
“Don’t you dare use that tone with me!” she would shout. “I’m not the bloody leader of the opposition.”
Ellen just wanted me to go out and earn a living and come home and love and care for her, like her father had done for her mother. She was interested in our home, and cooking, and being happy. I’d gone down that path with her at the start, but I couldn’t stick it for long. She stopped coming out to functions with me, and hated me inviting Party colleagues for dinner and talking shop all evening. On one level I didn’t blame her really. Westminster was littered with divorced politicians. But on another level, I felt she’d deserted me.
As the train rattled through the Dorset countryside, I stared out of the window and saw my life rushing by. The fields and cows and little cottages were like the flickering stills from a silent movie, and I could see myself through the window, just like that, a life of movie stills, flickering images in which I appeared, but which held no meaning or feeling.
There was a cartoon-style map of England on the wall in front of me, with the train route drawn on it and little symbols for tourist attractions, and umbrellas on yellow beaches. I imagined myself there in it, a cartoon character of a politician, with a cartoon happy family sitting on a golden Cornish beach under an umbrella, and a cartoon secretary in a low-cut blouse, hanging out of the window of the little drawing of the Houses of Parliament. It made me smile, though I wanted to cry.
I arrived into Penzance at ten and Ellen was there to bring me out to The Lizard, where the landlady, Mrs Treganon, had agreed to babysit the girls for an hour. It had been raining and the light from the streetlamps and neon shop signs reflected in still black puddles as we drove towards them, and the wipers scraped noisily on the dry windscreen. I had no urge to talk, but it’d been three weeks.
“How was the journey down? Did you get any sleep?” Ellen looked tired, but tanned.
“No, I had reading to catch up on. You’re looking well, love. Looks like you caught the sun. Sorry I couldn’t make it last weekend, but the PM wanted to talk about the budget.” I would have gone on, but looking across at Ellen, I knew she wouldn’t be remotely interested in his views on pensions.
“Can we stop for one on the way? Maybe The Oak?” I couldn’t face sitting in the kitchen at the house in silence, and maybe the pub would break the tension.
“OK, a quick one, but I said I’d only be an hour.”
While Ellen went to the bar, I found us a table in the corner of the lounge, and the hum of conversation dropped as people recognized me. I could see people whispering my name to one another.
“How was the house? Did Jacko clean the kitchen?” she asked when she sat down. Jacko was our housekeeper who’d also been the girls’ nanny when they were babies. Despite her chain-smoking, and her tendency to swear under her breath in front of Emily, who was very interested in learning swear words, Jacko was a gem. I wondered how much she would talk to Ellen, next time they met, about my comings and goings while Ellen was in Cornwall.
“Yes, it was fine when I left yesterday,” I lied. The house had been untouched all week, and Jacko would have been fully aware I wasn’t living there. “How have the girls been behaving?”
“Emily’s like a cat on a hot tin roof. She’s a law unto herself, and I can’t control her at all. You can see if she’ll listen to you, but chance’d be a fine thing. Rachel’s fine, but she just wants to copy Emily all the time, I’m not sure we can stop her becoming another wild thing.”
Ellen had been at the farmhouse for three weeks, alone with three young girls and no adult company.
“Chloe’s teething again, and she’s not sleeping. Frankly I’m exhausted, trying to do it all myself.” Ellen was talking quietly, as the couple at the next table was clearly listening. “I’m sorry. I’m sure you’ve had a tough week too, but I’m tired, and I just need a bit of time to myself. Can we go?” she said, draining her glass and standing up. We left quickly, and once we were back in the car, she started again.
“It’s fine for you, with your assistants and secretaries. You’ve got nobody to worry about except yourself, and I doubt you’ve cooked a single meal since we left.”
Ellen was talking, but I started thinking about last night with Maria. She was cooking Bolognese, in her dressing gown, and I was standing behind her with a glass of wine in one hand and the other between her legs. She’d pulled a strand of spaghetti from the pan and we’d eaten it together, one from each end, and kissed hungrily, and then we’d fucked on the sofa and ignored the pan as it boiled dry.
“Joe, did you hear me? I asked when you’ve got to be back by.”
“Not till Monday. I thought I might get the early train.”
We got to the farmhouse in a few minutes without speaking. We briefly considered having sex, but after Mrs Treganon had left and Chloe had settled, and I’d lammed into a bottle of red and by the time we got to bed, I was already falling asleep. Ellen wasn’t bothered, or perhaps she’d long since learned the signals.
Saturday was hot; somewhere in the high seventies. All I wanted to do was lie out on Kynance beach all day. Kynance was one of our favourites, with its white sand and breakers, and gentle waves and rock pools, ideal for the children. It was at the bottom of cliffs, about ten minutes’ walk from the car park, down a long flight of stone steps. Without children, this would be a lovely stroll, but with two small ones walking and another in the buggy, and carrying our lunch, the wind-breaker and towels, and the beach rug, it was an interminable sweaty battle. Needless to say, Emily would only carry the towels and her costume, and Rachel couldn’t manage more than her bucket and spade, so that left me with the buggy handles, and the beach rug across my shoulders, and Ellen carrying the windbreaker, lunch basket, and her handbag. Most of the way down, she had to walk backwards while holding onto the footrest of the buggy.
Eventually, we were settled between the cliff and the island, near one of the caves that were accessible only at low tide. Emily was intrigued by the caves, ever since Mrs Treganon had told the girls about the smugglers of Kynance bringing their bounty ashore and storing it in the caves, which supposedly led up to deserted farms in the hills. Emily was apt to disappear, exploring, and have to be fetched back every half hour, and she delighted in the retelling of these stories at night in the dark to Rachel, giving her nightmares.
Half-closing my eyes, as I lay across the beach rug with my head propped on a rolled up beach towel, I could see Emily, balancing barefoot on the top of the breaker, as though she was performing on the horizontal bar in a gymnastics competition. She was in love with Olga Korbut, along with every other seven-year-old girl she knew. She spent much of her time prancing about and flicking her wrists while pointing her toes, in that pose from the end of the Russian’s performance, or trying to master cartwheels and summersaults. Rachel was staring in awe from the beach below her. Emily’s wet hair clung to her long neck, and her lithe arms were outstretched to give her the balance of a trapeze artist’s pole.
Ellen lay beside me in her black and white striped one-piece costume with the frilly waistband, smoking Silk Cut. She had just turned forty, and after Chloe’s birth, she was very conscious of her stretch marks. I couldn’t remember the last time she’d worn a bikini. Now, stretched out in the sun, I was mesmerized by the crash of the surf on the shingle in the distance, and the cries of the gulls, and I was thinking of sex with Maria. The rhythm of the waves was sensuous, and everything seemed to combine to dissipate my stress.
“Look at me, Dad,” Emily shouted, standing on one leg on the top of the breaker, a stack of railway sleepers some five feet high. She seemed completely at ease, as the waves broke on the beach below her.
“Bet you can’t do this, Rach!”
Rachel stood watching, her mouth open in awe. Ellen, looked up from her novel, and shouted “Emily, get down from there at once!”
Just as I turned away to light my cigarette, Rachel screamed, and Emily toppled into the sea. I dropped the cigarette and my lighter, leapt up and covered the thirty yards at a sprint. As I got there, I could see her arms flailing in the water, and there, under the clear shallow wash of surf, was Emily’s face. Her eyes were open and her mouth too. She seemed to be screaming. Her black hair was swirling like kelp around her face. In that instant, I saw her death. I leapt through the rushing water, which only reached my knees, and half fell towards her, stretching out and catching her forearms as the water pulled her away from the shore. She came up, like a marionette lifted by its strings, and as she did so, water gushed from her mouth and she coughed and spluttered. Her long hair clung to her face, covering her eyes. I lifted her into my arms like a baby, though she was already tall, and her arms encircled my neck. She clung to me as I brushed sand from her face. I hugged her tightly and closed my eyes. When I did, I saw her under the water again, but now her mouth and eyes were closed and she was floating still. I opened my eyes in terror at the image.
“It’s OK. Don’t cry. You’re all right. Let me see if you hurt yourself,” and I checked her scratched hand. In the moment she’d begun to fall, I was there. It was real, super-real. The sounds and smells were more vivid, the waxy texture of her wet skin and its chill against my own were imprinted on me. All I wanted was to hold on to her, to hold on to that moment.
“It’s OK, Emm. You’re OK now,” I whispered, as I stood in the cold water and felt the sand pull around my ankles. “Daddy’s here.”
I wanted to carry her to the others on the rug, and hold on to them all. The sudden sense of my self in the moment was overwhelming and I wanted it more than anything I’d every wanted.
But as soon as we got over to the rug, Emily let go of me and fell into Ellen’s lap, who was ready to catch her in a beach towel. She sat on the open towel on Ellen’s knee to be dried, already smiling, while Rachel sat beside them and reached out to touch her.
“I thought you’d drownded,” she said. “Are you OK?”
“Did you see me, Rach? Did you see me dive off?”
“For God’s sake, Emily. You fell, and that’s because you’re forever doing stupid things just to show off.” Ellen sounded angry, which seemed unreasonably hard. “Joe, get off the rug. You’re dragging sand just where I brushed it to put the lunch.”
Within minutes, Emily was kicking Rachel with her sandy feet and sticking out her tongue, and the moment had passed.
I sat down and lit another Rothmans. I was smiling to myself, still held in the moment of saving Emily, and in her closeness, and Ellen started to shake her head. She said nothing, but I knew she was irritated by my pleasure. I looked at her and she smiled at me as she rubbed Emily with the towel, but it wasn’t a generous look, more a derogatory smirk. She pushed Emily off her lap and started unpacking the lunch, and Chloe woke and started to cry.
“Pass the bottle, Joe. And can you open this jar?”
“Give me a minute, can’t you.” I just wanted to sit and watch the girls play, but Ellen was bustling, moving on.
Later, once the girls had gone rock pooling, I couldn’t resist asking. “What was that face for earlier?”
“What face?”
“You know perfectly well what face. When I pulled Emily out of the sea. You’re always going on about me not engaging with the children, and when I do, you look like I’ve stolen something from you or something.”
“Oh for God’s sake. What do you want, a medal? Anyone would think you’d saved her life. It’s weeks since you bothered to spend time with us, and then when you finally do, you’d think you were a bloody knight in shining armour!”
“Don’t be ridiculous. She could’ve drowned, and you didn’t bat an eyelid. I came down to spend a weekend with my family and to enjoy the children, but you can’t resist sticking the knife in at every opportunity.”
“You only came because you ran out of excuses to stay away. You think you can waltz in and out of our lives when it suits you and spend all your time with that slut and leave me with all the shit…” Ellen was puce and staring at me, and people paddling in the sea had turned to watch. Chloe was crying, and Rachel had her hands over her ears, and her eyes tight shut. This was going nowhere, and I’d had enough. I got up and went for a walk up to the caves to calm down.
I was going to catch the early train on Monday, but by Sunday morning, I couldn’t stand it any longer, and I wanted to get back. I phoned Maria from the phone box in the village and then booked a cab to Penzance in time for the afternoon train back.
Our separation was incidental, almost. The flow of Ellen’s life had been permanently dammed by Emily’s death, while mine gushed on. Ellen had stood by me, publicly at least, over the years, but she knew that I wasn’t going to do the same for her now.
I can still feel Emily’s face buried in my shoulder. Her legs clinging to my torso like a baby chimp to its mother, as her warm tears ran onto my shoulder. I can still feel her cold wet arms round my neck, and smell the salt in her hair, as I carried her back to Ellen and the waiting towel. When I wake in the night, seeing her corpse on that slab, I try to feel her in my arms on Kynance beach, in the sun