‘How exciting!’ Monica exclaimed. ‘Give it time and you’ll be the next Danielle Steel!’
Mike snorted to himself and I shot him a look. ‘One day, maybe,’ I said, forcing a smile. If my husband were more bloody optimistic about my chances anyway, I wanted to add.
‘Mum, come on,’ Nathan moaned impatiently. ‘It’s going to get dark soon.’
We all peered towards the sun, which was now low in the sky and would soon be dipping beneath the horizon.
‘Right, better go,’ Monica said. ‘Nathan’s insisting on an ice cream. See you at work next week!’ She gave a nervous wave then wandered off, stopping again to talk to someone else as her son clenched his fists in frustration.
Becky jumped off my lap and ran to the beach to join her friend again. I took the chance to close my eyes behind my sunglasses, trying to return to that momentary period of peace I’d felt earlier. But then I felt an elbow poke me. I opened my eyes, irritated by the disturbance, and watched as Julie leaned down to get a muslin that had fallen to the ground, her baby squeezed against her blue-veined breasts.
‘Here, let me,’ I said, bending down to grab the cloth for her. As I handed it back I paused, catching sight of a man standing by the chalk stacks. He was tall, over six foot, long-limbed and deeply tanned, blond hair to his shoulders, a golden beard. On his arm was a thick row of tweed bracelets, his blue shorts ripped at the pocket. He was holding a large rucksack with a sewn-in patch showing one unblinking eye.
The man turned, as though sensing me looking at him. He held my gaze and I felt my breath stutter.
Then a scream pierced the air.
Chapter Two (#ud125500e-d115-5407-8acc-a8a46e136268)
18 July 1991
Mike stopped talking, Greg and Julie too as another scream rang out. Other people started rising from their tables, shading their eyes to look out to sea.
I followed their gazes to see a woman running to the edge of the water, bright pink top blowing about in the breeze as she flapped her sunburnt arms about.
It was Monica.
‘My son!’ she shouted. ‘He’s drowning. Someone help, I can’t swim!’
I looked in the direction she was pointing to see the top of a small head poking up from the waves, before being submerged again.
‘Jesus, he’s in the sea,’ I said.
Greg jumped up, kicking his shoes off. ‘I’m going in.’
Julie grabbed at his hand. ‘Be careful.’
Greg glanced over towards me then back to his wife. ‘I’ll be fine,’ he said before jogging down to the beach. I nudged Mike and he sighed, reluctantly following his friend, the setting sun turning his balding head red.
‘God, how terrifying,’ Julie said as she held her newborn Finn close.
I imagined Becky out there then, her little body engulfed by the waves. The horror of it made me dizzy.
‘Come here, darling,’ I called over to her.
Becky jumped up and ran over to me. ‘What’s happening, Mummy?’ she asked as I pulled her close and kissed her head.
‘Just silly Nathan swimming in the sea when he shouldn’t have,’ I replied.
‘Poor woman,’ Julie said, staring at Monica as she splashed into the water, her hands to her head in horror. ‘Do you know her well?’
‘Just from work.’ I watched Monica as she stepped forward into the waves, tears running down her cheeks, then jumped back, scared. She annoyed the hell out of me. But the way she was trying to fight her apparent fear of the water, the panic on her face …
‘Keep an eye on Becky, will you?’ I said to Julie. I stood, head suddenly swimming from the gin, then weaved my way through the tables and chairs to get to Monica.
‘Oh Selma!’ Monica exclaimed when I got to her, clutching at my hand. ‘What if they can’t get to him?’
‘He’ll be fine, look at all the people going to help him!’
As I said that, I noticed the man I’d seen by the chalk stacks walking towards the sea. He was calmer than the others, but his long strides somehow kept up with them. Just ahead of him, Mike followed Greg into the water, splashing into the waves clumsily, nearly falling as Greg turned to help him. But the man stepped into the sea without trouble, his outline set alight by the dying rays of the sun.
‘Oh God, I can’t see my boy. Can you see him?’ Monica asked, fingers clutching at my arm, face paling. ‘It’s getting so dark!’
I stepped forward, narrowing my eyes to see better. Monica was right, it was hard to see Nathan now. The sun had disappeared beneath the horizon and the sky was an indigo blue. But I could see the man, his hair like silver in the growing darkness. While the other would-be rescuers flapped around in the water, he looked serene.
In fact, it was almost as though he were walking on the waves.
‘Is that man walking on the water?’ a woman nearby said, echoing my thoughts. Others around her laughed nervously but I could tell they were seeing the same thing.
I took a few more steps forward, heart thumping as my eyes stayed on the man, his tanned calves visible, his ankles … and yes, his feet. It really was like the water was ice and he was just walking across it.
‘Jesus,’ I whispered to myself.
A hush fell over the bay, others clearly unsure of what they were seeing too.
‘Must be a trick of the light,’ a man said, breaking the silence. But I could hear the waver of doubt in his voice.
The man stopped, then leaned over and lifted something into his arms.
‘He’s got him!’ someone shouted. A nervous cheer went up among the crowds.
Monica slumped against me, crying in relief as we watched the man walk back to shore, the boy seemingly weightless in his arms. The man was clearly walking in the water now; clearly it had been a trick of light.
People watched him, open-mouthed, as he headed towards us.
‘Mummy!’ Nathan sobbed, reaching for his mum. Monica took him from the man, burying her face in her son’s wet neck as she sunk to the sand.
The man looked at me. Something passed between us, something I couldn’t quite get a grasp on. Then he leaned down, retrieved his rucksack and disappeared into the night, the sound of sirens filling the air.
‘Did you know that man, Mummy?’ Becky asked, peering up at me with those knowing blue eyes of hers.
‘No, darling. He’s a complete stranger.’
Chapter Three (#ulink_86f239d7-d767-51bb-8a1a-e564357afb20)