It took a little time away and a glimpse into a very different life to adjust Anthea’s perspective…
Anthea settled down in her deckchair and let out a long, contented sigh.
She had made it. She was in Portugal, on a beach, with sand between her toes and sunshine warm as toast on her cheeks. It was beautiful, it was serene and, best of all, she was free to enjoy it alone.
When Anthea’s husband Phil had suggested she take some time away to rest and recuperate after the – he had punctuated the phrase with a polite cough – “recent turmoil”, she had initially refused.
She couldn’t simply swan off and leave him and the kids back in Surrey, could she?
As it turned out, she very much could.
Anthea opened the novel she had been trying and failing to read since Charlie and Maeve were born, sixteen and thirteen years ago respectively, and shuffled down until her bottom was in an optimum position of comfort.
A lazy breeze danced in from across the water and chased a few errant strands of hair across her cheeks. A soft whisper from Mother Nature herself, telling Anthea parent-to-parent that this was her time, that she had earned it, that it was perfectly acceptable to enjoy the moment, the solitude, the peace and quiet…
“Excuse me, love – is it all right if I pitch up just here?”
Anthea jumped, her novel dropping into her lap.
The woman who’d just appeared beside her was sporting an enormous UFO-shaped hat that was blocking out the sun, and Anthea blinked furiously as her eyes readjusted.
“Of course.” She gestured with a hand. “Feel free.”
“Nice spot, this,” the woman said happily, unfolding her own deckchair and heaving a gargantuan striped bag down from her shoulder.
From this she extracted a rolled-up towel, sun lotion, three magazines, a bottle of Coke, bright-pink flip-flops and a small cushion.
“Have to be careful with my back,” she explained, wincing as she lowered herself into the seat. “Never been the same since my Kyle was born. Over ten pounds on the scales, he was – head as big as a watermelon.”
Anthea wrinkled up her nose in a mixture of sympathy and horror. She had thought Charlie big at eight pounds three ounces – ten was unimaginable.
“Golly,” she said, pushing the appalling image of a baby with a melon instead of a head from her mind. “Poor you.”
“You got any kids?” the woman went on, slathering cream across her chest.
She was fair-haired but already deeply tanned, and the oil she was using had an SPF of just four.
Anthea had carefully applied factor fifty to every exposed area of skin, then put on a kaftan over her swimsuit for good measure.
“Two,” Anthea answered, detailing their names and ages.
“Five,” the woman returned. “Four lads and a lass – she’s a right thorn in my side.”
Kath, as she now introduced herself, then continued with a groan, “I was never as angsty as her when I was a nipper. Nowadays it’s all, so and so hasn’t tagged me in her Tik Tok and this, that, the other
hasn’t watched my Insta story. It’s all gobbledegook to me. The boys are far more straightforward.”
Anthea, who had confiscated her son’s mobile phone after “the incident”, merely nodded. A flock of small birds had landed down by the shoreline and she strained to hear the heart-warming sound of their little chirps.
At home it was always so go-go-go; the bang of the porridge pot against the stovetop in the morning, the yelling up the stairs that the kids needed to get a wriggle on, the coffee machine whirring, Radio Four blathering, Skipper the dog barking as the post dropped through the letterbox.
Then there was the slam of her car door, followed by the hum of traffic, the ping of the elevator, the ringing of her office phone, the chatter of colleagues.
If she was lucky, Anthea grabbed a solo half-hour in the tub after dinner, but even then there would be knocks at the door.
“Mum, where’s my blue top?”
“Skipper needs a pee, Mum.”
“Mum, why are you ignoring me – have you drowned? Dad! Daaaaad! Mum’s drowned!”
And so on.
She had hoped this week in the Algarve would be a chance to switch off from all that noise, from life, from the demands of being a working mother and, of course, from the “recent turmoil”.
“You all right there, love?” Kath was peering at her in mild concern.
“Sorry.” Anthea shook her head. “I was miles away,” she added, wishing as she said it that she actually was.
Kath seemed nice enough, but she was chatty. Very chatty. Anthea suppressed a yawn.
“I get it.” Kath held up both hands. “You’re wanting a nice nap and then along I come with my big old gob and disturb you. Say no more.”
“No, honestly, it’s f –” began Anthea.
“Pretend I’m not really here,” Kath stage whispered. “I won’t say another word. Promise.”
Smiling in defeat, Anthea leaned back against her chair and closed her eyes, listening to the gentle roar of the waves.
Faint notes of music were drifting down from the beach bar, and from somewhere in the distance, she could hear the tap, tap of a ball against bats.
The warmth eased its way into her limbs, feeling like the expert hands of a masseuse as it soothed and melted away her stress and tension.
She still could not quite believe he had done it. Not her boy – not her little Charlie.
How had he gone from being cherubic to troubled so quickly? Had she taught him nothing? Had her and Phil’s example been so bad?
“You really shouldn’t do that.”
Anthea opened one eye. “Pardon?”
“You were frowning, in your sleep, like,” Kath said gravely. “Thought it better I wake you than watch you gain a wrinkle.”
“Oh, I wasn’t asleep,” Anthea replied, choosing not to add that “chance would be a fine thing”.
“That book any good, then?” Kath went on, unperturbed.
“Honestly?” Anthea held it up. “I have no idea. I bought it to read when I was on maternity leave and I have yet to start the first chapter.”
Kath laughed at that, sounding so much like a braying donkey that Anthea found herself joining in.
“You have to giggle, don’t you?” spluttered Kath. “It’s either that or cry, and I think if I started, I might never stop.”
Anthea was reminded of herself only a few weeks ago, knocked sideways with disappointment, weeping herself to sleep beside a snoring Phil.
Her husband had laughed when he heard what Charlie had done. Laughed.
“However do you cope with five?” she asked Kath. “You must have to be so very strict to keep them organised.”
“Nah, gave up on all that years ago. My lot are basically feral. The boys refuse to clean their rooms – I found a family of mice in my eldest’s last time I went to pick up his washing – and my Lucy’s no bleedin’ better.
“There’s not a surface of my house that’s not smeared with make-up. And Kyle hides his bogies behind my sofa cushions.”
Anthea pictured crusty curls on her white Habitat couch and shuddered.
“I’d ground them all,” Kath went on, “but then the bleeders would be in the house with me all the time, and that really would drive me mad. I mean, us mums need our alone time, don’t we? A bit of peace and quiet – away from all the demands, like.”
Anthea almost choked on the irony of the situation.
“The worst was when Big Tone – he’s my second-eldest – got arrested for trying to pinch a load of top shelf mags from the newsagent. Being big, you see, he could reach the top shelf by the age of twelve.”
This time Anthea really did choke.
“Yeah.” Kath was nonplussed. “He said his mates dared him, but that’s no excuse, is it? I couldn’t look the woman that runs the joint in the eye for years after that.”
A beach ball bounced towards them at speed, but while Anthea cringed in her seat, Kath simply stretched out a foot and booted it hard in the opposite direction.
“Then again,” she mused. “There’s no real harm in a bit of natural curiosity. Boys will be boys and all that, right?”
Anthea reddened as she recalled, once again, the topless images she had discovered on her son Charlie’s phone.
Seeing them there had felt to Anthea like taking a bullet to the chest at the time.
But was it possible she could have overreacted?
“I mean,” Kath was saying, “I pretended I was cross with him, of course, but behind the scenes, me and the other half were killing ourselves laughing.”
Anthea nodded in an imitation of agreement, before gazing away towards the horizon. She found that if she focused hard enough on that quivering blue line, where the gentle folds of the sea met the smooth cobalt canvas of the sky, she could almost zone out all other noise.
“Will you watch my chair, please?” she said, getting quickly to her feet.
“Course.” Kath tossed a couple of her magazines into the vacated seat.
Anthea thought she heard her call out something else as she hurried away, but she didn’t look back, didn’t stop until she had reached the beach taverna, connected her phone to the Wi-Fi, and pressed the button to make a FaceTime call.
Phil answered on the third ring.
“Hello, love. Oh, you’re at the beach – that’s great. How are you? Feeling better for having escaped?”
“I’ll tell you all about it in a minute,” Anthea promised. “But first, can you put Charlie on? Oh, and get Maeve, too.”
“You want the kids?” Her husband was clearly bemused. “But you only saw them yesterday.”
“I know.” Anthea smiled, tears in her eyes now as she realised how ridiculous she’d been, how reactionary. How much she had made the situation with Charlie about herself, rather than him.
“But I miss them,” she cried. “I miss them so much. I miss you all so much.”
“Well, then, if that’s the case,” Phil said, raising a single eyebrow. “Why don’t I book us a flight so we can come out and join you? I can easily move some stuff around at work. Would you like that?”
Anthea turned and stared out at the golden caster-sugar sand peppered with colourful beach umbrellas, at the deckchair she had set up and the novel she had abandoned, yet again, on the ground beside it.
She’d assumed getting away would make her feel more like her old pre-motherhood self.
All it had done was remind her that her she preferred her new self far more.
“I think,” she said, giving in to a smile as bright as sunlight on water, “I would like that very much.”
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