Harry handed another case of clothes to the elderly lady in the charity shop, another envelope of memories. Absently chewing his knuckles as he walked, numb again at the thought of strangers touching his family, he headed for the school.
On automatic pilot, he lectured Year 9 on the First World War. A breeze from somewhere unexpectedly brought the scent of the sea, stirring his hair. Then the overriding aroma of board marker and teenage angst returned. He must have faltered in his delivery, because the brighter kids were looking puzzled.
“Right, so who has been paying attention? Simon?”
“You were telling us how the weapons…”
“That’s right,” he recovered, “mustard gas was a horrible weapon developed by…”
When the class had gone, he spent some time gazing out the window. The coast was twenty miles distant but memories of past summers by the sea were pleasantly crowding. It was the end of the day, he could stuff his briefcase with papers to mark while watching TV or go for a sun-downer with the others. As usual he did both.
The emptiness of the Red Lion on a Tuesday night and the repetitive teacher chat bored him.
“Lighten up, Harry, you’ve hardly been here for the past few rounds. What on Earth are you thinking about?” Clare, the red-haired art teacher asked.
“Sorry, miles away. Think I”˜m a bit under the weather.”
She took his hand. “Well, the best way to get rid of a fever is to burn it out. Want some help?”
They’d had a fling when he first arrived in Tapworth. She’d been what he needed but the relationship had fizzled out, the way they do. She remained a good friend.
“I think I’ll just walk back home along the towpath, clear my head with some fresh air.”
“It’ll take you an hour at least and it’s getting dark.” Clare’s lips brushed his right cheek. “Make sure you don’t fall in.”
It was a beautiful summer evening and a barge crewed by a young family chugged past, traditional colours still bright in the dying light. It could be difficult finding a mooring at this point in the season and they looked a little harassed.
He soon left the town behind and could barely hear the distant motorway traffic. Rings were appearing in the dark water as fish rose to a late hatch. He paused to watch an owl glide across a cornfield, but somehow the sight lacked magic.
For an instant, he felt a pressure on the back of his head before a red and white beach-ball bounced into the canal. Momentum lost, the ball lay static in the breezeless night. Kids, he thought, then shivered, realising that the open fields on either side gave nowhere for them to hide.
As he walked on, the evening rapidly cooled.
His cottage was at the top of a set of locks, bought for the view over Shropshire and the general quiet. It took all the insurance money, and a bit more, but a new life after the accident had started to begin.
Inside, Harry put the kettle on for a mug of Bovril, a habit since childhood. There was nothing worth watching on television so he switched on the radio and must have dropped off because it was after midnight when he next looked at the clock.
The house was freezing and he undressed quickly for bed, skipping brushing his teeth in favour of the warm duvet. He wasn’t pleased to find himself laying on damp, gritty sand. He was even less happy at the thought that the practical joker might still be in the house.
Dressing quickly, Harry retrieved a golf club from the bag at the back of the wardrobe. He’d decided the sport wasn’t for him shortly after taking it up.
The upstairs rooms were empty, the lounge and downstairs loo was also clear. He turned the kitchen door handle quietly, counted to three, then charged in. Someone had been there recently. There was the smell of fried onions and ketchup and he also caught the sweet scent of candyfloss.
Sometimes Harry got a little loopy with depression, remembering identifying Helen, Ben, and little Sarah. He’d drink and eat continuously. Watch digital memories and cry until there were no tears left. Maybe he’d tipped over the edge and was imagining all this? A trip to the psychiatrist might be in order again.
He poured a large whisky and downed it, throat burning and eyes watering. He poured another, made a ham roll and took them both into the lounge. He put on a DVD of the family’s trip to Devon a few years back, but there was a problem. The TV screen snowed white and the speakers crackled.
When he bit into the roll, somehow he wasn’t surprised to find the snack gritty with sand. He took it outside to drop in the bin.
The night was exceptionally clear and the stars burned on the still, black waters trapped between the lock gates. He could smell the sea again and clearly hear the ebb and flow of the tide.
The beach-ball returned and rolled to a stop at his feet. Harry bent to retrieve it. Standing, he watched Helen appear, then the children, all materialising like the crew of Star Trek. They were whole, and beautiful, and dressed for the beach. Helen was carrying her old floral cloth bag, bulging with towels, sun-cream, insect repellent and topped by a large romantic novel. Ben’s attention was fixed on a chocolate-and-vanilla ice-cream cone.
Sarah came straight to him. Smiling, she took his hand. “We’ve missed you, Dad.” A tear escaped and he hugged her to him, seeking to warm her cold flesh.
“Time to go on holiday, Harry,” Helen said, clasping his other hand. “You won’t believe how blue the sky is or how golden and empty the beaches.”
“Really cool place, Dad!” Ben added.
They walked to the edge of the lock together.
By day Mark Dalligan is a City banker but he shares his body with a writer who has started to emerge at night. He’s having some success, with work taken by Boston Literary Magazine, LitBits, Apollo’s Lyre, Bewildering Stories, MicroHorror, Static Movement, Clockwise Cat, Ranfurly Review, Twisted Tongue, Delivered and EDF.