There were children everywhere, and parents of children, and the Cretan sea was filled with bobbing heads and splashing infants. His attention was drawn to the man closest to him, European but not Greek perhaps, lying stomach-down in the gentle Mediterranean surf. He was scooping up sand to make a castle at the water’s edge, while his son smoothed the sides of the growing mound with the back of his little plastic spade. The man wore a frown of concentration and yet one leg waved excitedly in the air, like a happy toddler playing with a favourite toy. He watched the man from the sanctuary of his lounger and parasol and wondered, before he could catch himself, how it might feel to be the father of a child on a beach.
“We could eat here tonight,” Jade suggested to him. “Can’t be much in a taxi. Then at least we can both have a drink.”
He glanced at her, tanned and slimmed down into the slightest of swimsuits, and a sudden terror churned in his stomach. She’d worked so hard at the gym to lose weight, and had run so many miles in the streets around their home. Long, hard runs after long, drawn-out days at work. She asked him to go to the gym with her, and then to jog with her. For a while she begged him. Finally she stopped asking him at all. Instead she made suggestions, popping them into the air where they floated, looking for someone to take notice.
Now she returned his gaze for a moment until he could look no longer, unable to bear the deadness in her eyes. He quickly turned away again, a practiced move now, and sought some detail in the sea on which to focus different thoughts. He saw an anchored oil tanker. He wondered where it would be heading, where it had come from, what it was like to be on board.
“Or we could stay round the village,” she tailed off. “I don’t mind.”
The man helping his son build a sandcastle had swivelled round so he faced the sea. Still lying on his belly, he was collecting seawater in a bucket while his son created a moat around the castle.
“Whatever you want to do,” he heard Jade say finally. The lounger squeaked as she lay back down. He watched her again then, confident he wouldn’t have to look into her eyes. She could have been the girl he’d fallen in love with, the nightclub brunette who winked at him before slowly sliding her lips over the top of her drinking straw. He never knew then, nor even at their wedding, that one day she would blossom and become the most beautiful thing in the world. She made him so happy that he would suddenly burst into tears. “What’s wrong?” she would ask, shocked. “Absolutely nothing,” he would say, the tears becoming laughter, his hand resting on her swollen belly. They laughed and tickled and touched each other.
Now he looked at her on the sun lounger, at his new gym-sized wife. The hollow in her belly rose and fell like the Mediterranean waves, and he imagined his head resting there, his ear to her warm flesh. He closed his eyes and listened. He could hear the sea, a game of bat and ball, children playing.
One child’s voice rose above the others – it was the toddler building the sandcastle with his dad. He opened his eyes again and saw the man had poured seawater into the moat. He was crawling further into the sea to get more water in the bucket. The boy was building a wall around the castle, so the moat would hold more water. The father was waving his legs in the air again, relishing his task. Then he noticed something – he was an amputee. Where his right foot should have been there was a pale-coloured stump, and above it was what looked like shaved bone, as though the end of the ankle bone had been sliced away.
“Or we could stay in,” Jade said to him. “We could call at the supermarket on the way back, pick up a few things. What do you think?”
He couldn’t take his eyes from the amputee. It looked like skin had been grafted onto the stump, or had been stretched over it, because he could see different layers and where there had been stitches. He wondered how it had happened. Perhaps the man had been a soldier. Perhaps he’d stepped on a mine. Iraq? Afghanistan? The Balkan conflict? He could have been fighting for any cause almost anywhere in the world. And his wife and son – assuming that’s who they were – left behind, waiting for a call, dreading the call, and then getting one. And mum relaying the news to their son: Daddy’s coming home. But he’s been hurt. His life will be different from now on. Our lives will be different. But that’s all it is. He’s still Dad. And he still loves you very much.
Up from the water’s edge where the man and his son played were two loungers and a parasol. A woman lay on one, her hands behind her head, fingers knitted together, as she watched the man and his son at play. On the second lounger was a towel, and on the towel was a hollow plastic foot. It was comically simple. Near the top of the ankle it was black, looking for all the world like insulation tape had been wrapped around it. The rest of the foot was flesh-coloured, but so obviously fake. It was hard to imagine wearing such a thing without anyone realising it wasn’t real. Looking at it made him think that something so primitive made a mockery of whatever ordeal this man and his family had been through. And yet there it was, lying on the towel, for all the world to see.
“There’s live Cretan music in that taverna we went to, the one from the first night,” Jade said without moving from her lounger. “But I really don’t mind what we do.”
He had to stop himself from answering sharply. She didn’t mind anything anymore. Whatever you want to do, she said. Whatever you feel like doing. What do you think? What would you like to do? She tiptoed and twittered around him like a little bird, the obedient wife, the housemaid. It maddened him. It maddened him because he knew: he’d destroyed her. Hours spent with doctors and counsellors and her life ebbed away. It leeched into walls papered with help agency posters; there it was consumed by their tragic headlines. “You’re broken. We can put you back together.” But they did as they were told and booked a holiday, and here they were, in a resort called Almyrida on the island of Crete, sunbathing on a beach, surrounded by happy families and splashing, giggling children, with their cheeky smiles, their brightly coloured buckets and their tiny armbands.
“I think I’ve had enough sun for one day,” he told Jade, propelling himself from his lounger. He reached for his T-shirt and saw she was already moving too, brushing the sand from her carefully manicured toes.
“We can have a siesta, like the locals,” she suggested hurriedly. “I’m happy doing that.”
He was quickly folding the towels to put them back in the beach bag when he heard adult giggling. It sounded odd amongst all the younger voices he could hear. He looked. The amputee was lying on his back, the shallow surf foaming around his body. His wife knelt above him and had pinned his arms above his head, while the son straddled a leg. He was tickling the stump. The man giggled and writhed in the sand, so the son tickled all the more, laughing furiously. When he finally stopped squirming, the woman let go of his hands and the boy, sensing victory, hugged the man’s leg. Dad lay there, apparently exhausted. He reached up and cupped the woman’s face in his hands, drew her head to his and kissed her smile.
“Shall we eat in or out?” Jade asked him. “We need to decide before we get to the supermarket.”
They passed beneath the shade of the tamarisk trees and when they reached the dusty promenade he turned to look at the family again. He could no longer see them for all the other people enjoying the beach.
“Let’s find out how much a taxi is,” he suggested. She turned to look at him, only this time he didn’t look away.
On the way back to the hire car they stopped for an ice cream, and under the shade of a straw-filled parasol they talked about where they might eat that evening.
- Copyright Phil Thomas. All rights reserved