By Richard Roper
He had to be as patient as the waves themselves
The seagull looked like it was here on business. I think it was because it reminded me of my boss, Ray – beady eyes, head somehow too big for its body, the sense it might poo on me at any moment. It edged along the harbour wall, so I transferred the bag of chips to my other side and flailed an arm at it. The seagull cocked its head, entirely untroubled.
I looked around. Had anyone on the beach seen my wild, ineffective shooing? Had Rufus? Thankfully not. He was playing his favourite game of the holiday – building a sandcastle and standing on top, waiting for the tide to come in, seeing how long he could remain on dry land. Oh, to be three years old and so carefree.
It was the hottest day of the summer. A haze rippled the air along the harbour wall. The beach was packed, a situation not helped by the competitive dads erecting gazebos of such epic proportions it was as if they were cementing defence positions. Was that what being a dad was? If I lacked that alpha streak would Rufus ever respect me? He’d been raised for two years by a six-foot-four Consultant Radiologist who did Ironmans for fun. Now I was on the scene – an IT drone who spent his days helping people put smiley faces in their email signatures, and whose only recent exercise had been running after an ice cream van.
I felt movement behind me.
“You’re slouching,” Tess said, tweaking my ear as she swung her legs over the wall to sit beside me. “You need to engage your core.”
I haven’t engaged my core since the late nineties.
Tess stole the chip that was en route to my mouth and redirected it into her own. Satisfied with his defences, Rufus was standing atop his mound with his hands on his hips, looking out at the waves like a little melancholy sea captain – an illusion that was only briefly broken when he shoved both hands down the back of his shorts and accidentally mooned us.
The family next to us had spent all day building an impressive wall of sand to trap seawater and make their own pool. They were packing up now, as were others. It was definitely feeling like the end of the holiday.
Tess leaned back, tilting her head up to face the sun, and not for the first time that year I wondered if I was actually dreaming. I often found myself so startled by how beautiful she was that I’d be rooted to the spot – milk halfway to the fridge, or socks unpaired mid-air – while she fixed me with a look that said, I don’t know what’s happening in that head of yours, and frankly I’m quite glad that I don’t.
Tess and I met in the most romcom way ever – she was the paramedic who saved my life. She would tell you I was being dramatic, but I’ll let you be the judge. I was crossing the road after work, settling on “freezer surprise” for dinner – would it be a lasagne or chilli in the unlabelled food box? Only nine minutes on high power would tell! – when a van jumped a red light. I closed my eyes and heard tyres screech. Time stopped. This was it. This was the end.
Anyway, it missed me, but five minutes later while trying to avoid a wasp I walked straight into a lamppost and knocked myself out. Tess was on a break, leaning on the side of an ambulance outside the hospital with a cup of tea, and had seen the whole thing.
Apparently, there’s something about drifting in and out of consciousness that emboldens me, because I heard myself asking Tess if she wanted to go for a drink. She laughed it off at first, but after we’d chatted and she’d patched me up – perhaps for longer than was strictly necessary – she said, “That drink sounds like a good idea.”
“Great. How about now?” I asked, looking at my wrist, before realising I hadn’t owned a watch for twelve years.
“Why don’t we wait until you’re not so… concussed?” Tess suggested.
A week later, we were in a pub I had chosen for our first date. What it lacked in ambience it made up for in novelty crisps and a plethora of livid bartenders. I am very bad at choosing pubs, which is annoying because I am very good at drinking wine.
“By the way,” Tess said. “I’ve got a two-year-old… Rufus. Thought I should mention it.” She sipped her drink. “Does that bother you?” she asked, with a forthrightness I was soon to become used to.
“Nope,” I said, as if she’d asked me something as inconsequential as whether I cared for tzatziki.
At the end of the evening, we exchanged a typically awkward first date goodbye – handshakes and hugs and cheek kisses all arriving in an intricate dance before, delightfully, Tess patted me on the side of the face like a continental football manager.
As I took the bus home, already punch-drunk with love, and drunk-drunk on wine, I actually considered the question for the first time. Did I mind that she had a two-year-old child? I didn’t know, was the honest answer.
By the time I’d got home I realised that the only part of me that did mind was the part that worried I’d be rubbish at looking after kids. I thought of the time a friend asked me to feed their cat when they were away. After ten minutes of swearing and sweating as I failed inexplicably to open its food pouch, the cat actually put its paw on my knee, in what was unmistakably a gesture of reassurance, as if to say, Hey! You’re doing great, kiddo.
As I’d feared, things got off to a rocky start with Rufus. I tried several tacks – playing the wacky fool, then earnest and interested, but nothing seemed to win him over.
Do you think I’m trying too hard?
“No,” she said, but only after a pause that told me that I definitely was.
A year passed, and – gloriously – Tess and I were now an item. But though Rufus had begun to trust me a little more, I still wasn’t able to connect with him in the way I’d hoped. This was particularly disappointing, because I’d really started to like the little chap. Maybe he was too young to have trust issues, but was he worried that I was going to leave, like his dad? All I knew was I would stay with Tess until the moment she came to her senses and realised she was far too good for me.
Gallantly, I offered Tess my last chip. “Why thank you, squire,” she said. She looked over at Rufus. “You all right, Ruf?” she called. Rufus did a quick pirouette and waved, before returning to his sea captain pose.
“Has he got sun cream on?” Tess said.
“Yep,” I said, brandishing the factor forty. Suncream was a real battle with Rufus. The only way I could convince him to wear it was by dolloping out a great load in his upturned hand, whereupon he would slather it carelessly over himself like a bored performance artist.
Tess dismissed Ray the seagull with the merest flick of her arm, and moved over next to me so she could rest her head on my shoulder.
“I know you’re still worried about him,” she said. “You needn’t be. He likes you. You just need to be patient, that’s all. Like him,” she added.
Rufus was still waiting for the waves to rush in. It was then that I realised that, in actual fact, the tide was going out.
“Back in a mo,” I said, grabbing a bucket and spade. There was absolutely no way this holiday was going to end in Rufus being disappointed.
“Hi Ruf,” I said. “Waiting for the sea?”
You know, the sea’s quite clever. It likes surprising people.
Without saying anything more, I began to work, digging a trench away from Rufus towards the pool behind him that the other family had made. I dug and dug until my back began to ache. Eventually, I reached the pool, and the water began to flow slowly but surely down the trench, towards Rufus’s castle.
I watched the water hit the sand and spread out around it, and Rufus spun around, squealing with glee. The water was flowing downwards in earnest now, collapsing Rufus’s castle, and he had to go up on tiptoes to keep his feet dry. He was laughing maniacally, which set me off laughing too.
I collapsed on the sand, exhausted, but happy.
The sun was beginning to dip towards the sea. People were packing up, everyone hoping to avoid the scrum out of the carpark.
Rufus was sitting in the remnants of his castle, looking out at the sea. I recognised that end-of-the-holiday look. I got to my feet and went over to him.
“All right bud?”
“Last day, eh?”
“You had fun this week?”
Rufus got to his feet without answering. Oh well.
“Shall we go and find Mummy?”
My feeling of triumph was beginning to give way to sadness. I was sad that the holiday was coming to an end. Sad that I’d not made more progress with Rufus.
That was when I felt him take my hand, something he had never done before. And as we walked together, hand in hand, the sun still warm on our backs, I realised that maybe the tide had turned after all.
Something To Live For by Richard Roper, Orion, PB, £7.99
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