A tiny frown tickled his brow. ‘What are your plans now? Once you’ve recovered from the funeral, I mean.’
‘I don’t know.’ We slowed, side by side, watching a small boy struggle to keep control of a kite, leaping up and whooping with joy in a futile attempt to fly with it. How wonderful it would be to fly like that, to soar up and away and leave everything behind. I had a sudden vision of the two of us disappearing into the sky hand-in-hand to start again, to make ourselves a happy ending just like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or Mary Poppins.
The illusion didn’t last. At the end of the walk I’d have to go back home to look after a mother who seemed permanently on the verge of tears, to the empty armchair where Dad used to cheer on Dundee United on Sportscene or Arsenal on Match of the Day. It didn’t matter that by then I’d be engaged, on the road to being Mrs Edward Philipson, hostess of weekend dinner parties at Carlton House and spending the rest of the time in his – our – elegant Edinburgh flat. And children, though not immediately: I had a career to rebuild first, had to set myself back on that ladder I’d been scaling six months before the bolt from the blue had broken everything apart, the ladder I’d jumped off too quickly.
‘Job?’ hazarded Edward, reading my mind the way that soul mates do.
‘Definitely. In Edinburgh perhaps. There are more opportunities there. Though I think they’re a bit thin on the ground even there these days.’
‘I’ll ask around for you. I know a few people. And you’re good; a talented graphic designer will always get something.’
‘I wonder if perhaps I should take some time out.’ Reluctantly, I recalled the practicalities. I’d noticed myself doing that a lot recently, letting stark reality close its fingers too readily round my soul and my aspirations. ‘For Mum, I mean. I can’t just leave her.’
‘You’ll have to leave her some time,’ he pointed out, reasonably enough. ‘You’ve already been out of the job market for six months. You can’t spend the rest of your life propping her up.’
‘She needs support. Just for a couple of weeks.’
‘She used to have so much get-up-and-go.’ He folded his lips the way he did when he was thinking of his own mother, whose early death, he always said, had gone almost unnoticed by anyone except himself. ‘She’ll cope. She’ll bounce back. One day she’ll stop crying and look out of the window and think, “Goodness, what a lovely day, I must cut back that japonica.” Or something.’
I was surprised to hear myself laughing. Laughter, which used to flood our house, was a commodity in short supply these days. So was singing, which was the thing – after my family and Edward, of course – that I loved most in the world and which – unthinkably – I’d almost lost my enthusiasm for in the dark days. Though I’d often made myself sing something cheerful as I cooked, because Dad liked to hear me.
I knew I’d laugh and sing again; it was just a matter of patience. ‘You know her so well. But I think I’d better stay with her for a week or so longer, just to make sure she’s okay.’
‘Why can’t Liv stay with her?’
‘Liv has to go back to Majorca.’
He clicked his tongue, irritated, and set off along the shore again, turning his back on the kite-flying child and the random collection of dogs which had appeared from nowhere to join the black lab in an unruly game of soak-the-passing-stranger. ‘She’s only been back for a few days.’
‘She’s really busy. It’s coming up to peak season. And they’ve just taken over running the hotel by themselves now that Robert’s mum and dad have retired.’
Edward had never been particularly patient with Liv, probably because she’d inspected him as if he were a pedigree puppy before deciding to approve him as a suitable beau for her little sister. ‘She let you do all the work when it was the off season. She could have come over then. Taken a bit of the load.’
He steered me away from the fringes of the sea, up towards the rock pools where Liv and I had played as children. It was along here that my ex-boss Gemma’s husband had proposed to her, walking her along in a treasure hunt until the final clue had led her to an engagement ring, carefully concealed under a pebble with her name on it. Look for a rock among the rocks, the clue had read, and the final note had said, A gem for Gemma. – Gem had framed it and hung it in their downstairs loo. – But Gemma’s Alastair was an original thinker and, whatever you could say about Edward, he wasn’t that. Solid, dependable, reliable – but never original. It would be just like him to borrow someone else’s notion of romance. I’d have to pretend not to see it coming.
‘She came over at Christmas.’ It was important to be fair to Liv, who could never be accused of not working hard, even if she didn’t always put in effort where other people thought she should. She’d been like that at school, focussing her energies on extra-curricular activities and neglecting the academic side. I was different, always trying to maintain a balance and please everybody.
‘Well, I should think so, since it was going to be the last Christmas she’d ever spend with her dad.’
‘You know she has another life now.’ I sighed. Married to a Majorcan hotelier, Liv was so far away and I missed her desperately. I needed someone to talk to about Dad and to share my worries about how Mum would cope with the emptiness which closed around her. You’re a doer, Dad used to say to me, just like your mum. And Mum used to laugh and say, and, Abby, you’re a peacemaker, just like your dad. It was a private joke between them which Liv and I never understood and which we’d never hear again, because she no longer had anyone to share it with.
Liv would know what to do, how to cope. She always did. But she was on her way to the airport to get back into the comforting rhythm of her work and, through that, try and redeem some kind of normality. I’d better not tell Edward that; he wouldn’t understand. ‘She’s married. She has her own home and her own work.’
‘She still has family here. When Mother died Emily gave up everything and came back to look after Father.’
I succumbed to a flurry of uncharitableness. Edward’s sister Emily had gone home because she was instructed to by her father and she was still there, making everything comfortable for him, sitting in her mother’s chair in the kitchen and knitting him jumpers on her mother’s needles. That was why their father hardly noticed that his wife had passed away, because everything around him went on just as if she were still there – the house, the accounts, the dogs walked. The only difference was that the work was undertaken by a different submissive female.
When I marry Edward, that would change. Emily would be able to escape and resume her own life, her own career – even – if she could find anyone to meet her exacting standards – get married. Edward and I would have an equal partnership. We’d entertain my workmates as well as his business contacts, and somewhere among that life, and the children we were bound to have – he wanted dozens, he said but there was room for compromise – I’d start my own business, just as Gemma had done. ‘Yes, but when Liv got married she made a decision to move on.’
‘You mean, to leave the rest of you behind.’
It wasn’t like him to be so querulous. Deep down I was sure he liked Liv, though she patronised and sometimes exasperated him. They made each other laugh. When I’d first presented him – look, Liv, this is Edward, new boyfriend, clean, presentable, well-mannered and rich – for my elder sister’s approval, Liv had cracked a joke, flicked her extravagant eyelashes and flushed his good humour out from the cover of his nerves.
It was probably just those nerves showing through again. But we were past the rock pools now and he hadn’t drawn my attention to any suspicious-looking pebbles, so he must have something else planned. I slid my hand into his for reassurance. He hated rejection, of any kind. Emily – I liked her too, though she was mousy and timid – always said that was why he’d taken so long to bring me home – because he was afraid that I’d take one look at his crusty old father and decide I wanted out. Now I’d learned that it was completely in character and that his outward confidence masked an underlying insecurity. Nothing made him angry: he only ever worried that he might not be good enough.
Well, he was good enough for me, and I’d make damned sure he knew it. I pulled him to a stop, pushed myself up onto my toes and kissed him on his smoothly-shaven cheek. ‘You do know I love you?’
‘Oh, God yes. Absolutely! Absolutely.’ He kissed me back, rather perfunctorily and with a glance over his shoulder as if he was afraid someone might see us; as if it wasn’t entirely proper for us to be seen kissing on a beach a couple of days after a funeral. But there was no-one there to see, or no-one who cared – just the dog walkers and the windblown families and, above us on the links, the rich American golfers who didn’t care about anything except getting their money’s worth from the Old Course, being able to say they’d bagged a birdie at the infamous Road Hole.
We’d almost finished our circuit of the beach. He steered me back towards the car park, his arm fussily around my shoulders rather than shaping itself around the intimacy of my waist. ‘Look, Abbs. I know it isn’t a good time, so soon after the funeral and all that. But there’s something I want to say.’
‘Oh?’ I stopped. Here it came. Will you marry me?
He disengaged himself, stepping back a bit to look me up and down with a thoughtful biting of his lower lip. ‘You’re a pretty girl. You know that?’
‘Am I?’ I could hardly agree, but obviously I’d assumed that he thought so. I had blondish hair and brownish eyes, but I never thought of myself as anything out of the ordinary. In confusion, I ran a hand through my hair and my fingers caught in the tangles wreaked by the sharp breeze. I tugged sharply downwards: the knot gave way with pain and brought tears to my eyes.
‘I love everything about you.’ He touched my face gently. ‘Especially your freckles. You’re the only girl I’ve ever been serious about. But you know what? You let people take advantage of you.’
‘No I don’t!’
‘You do. There’s Liv and your mum…’
‘They aren’t taking advantage. It’s different. It’ll never happen again. I can only help my mum over my dad’s death once!’ Now the tears were real. Auntie Miriam, who was a GP, had warned me about this, the after-effects of bereavement and of grief, the fact that tears would never be far away. ‘Sorry.’
Ever the gentleman, he produced a clean handkerchief and pushed it towards me, embarrassed. That wasn’t like him, either. Habitually clumsy he might be, but he was always quick to make up for it, wiping out the error with an apology and a big hug. And laughter. But maybe he felt that this wasn’t the time to crack a joke. ‘No. My fault. I’m not putting this very well.’
Somehow he never did. I blew my nose loudly and waited.
‘I feel that over the last few months we haven’t seen enough of each other.’
Well, of course not. Terminal illness doesn’t take account of social lives. He should know that. ‘No.’
‘Obviously I appreciate that you had to be there for your mum and dad. I’m not heartless. But all this time you haven’t been there for me.’
‘There’s only one of me. And I had no option.’
‘That’s just it. There’ll be another time when there’s no option. And another. And I love you. I want us to spend time together.’
When we’re married, it’ll be different. When we’re married, you’ll come first. But I didn’t say it, stuffing the thought to the back of my mind just as I stuffed the damp hanky into the depths of my pocket.
‘I’ll have plenty of time on my hands now. We can see a lot more of each other. Go out together, talk, stay home in the evening, all that sort of thing.’ All the things he liked doing – theatres, concerts, early evening drinks in elegant wine bars, lunchtime pints in country pubs.
‘I’m getting this all wrong. That’s what I’m trying to say to you. All through these last six months, I’ve been wanting to see you, wanting to spend time with you. And now… well, now it’s too late.’
‘Too late?’ Astonishment stunned me: my mouth dropped into a perfect circle of surprise. ‘What do you mean? Are you moving away?’
The grey eyes avoided mine, looked over my shoulder. Behind us someone shouted, ‘Fore!’ and someone else laughed. A seagull mewed, buffeted on the bouncing wind. ‘I’ve met someone else.’