It’s the beach I’m drawn to, when I think of him back then. He liked to get lost inside his own world, looking out across the water: thoughts threaded between salt, seagulls’ screams, and the warm wind, and flies that landed near the jam butties we’d made.
One Thursday in July, he spent much of the morning collecting shells, stacking them inside two blue buckets, carrying them home himself but not until every drop of light had wandered from the sky. I never told him, but I was always fearful of what secrets the sea held; that, and its quick changes. He was good at staying near me, travelling along the squeaky wooden footpath, buckets clat-clatting all the way to the water, then back to my side, taking the same path again and again. So, despite my fears, I took him often that summer. Sometimes, he’d sit next to me, I’d hold him close, the way his eyes searched mine when he asked a question. ‘Are there sharks in that water, Mummy?’
‘No, no sharks in there, not where you stand, anyway.’
‘Because it’s too wet?’
‘Because it’s not deep enough.’
‘What’s the scariest shark in the world, Mummy?’
‘Well, there is a shark, a very hungry shark that could probably scoff an adult down in one go.’
His green eyes grew big, ‘What’s it called?’
‘The Goblin Shark,’ I squealed, fast-walking my fingers down his back. He giggled and ran towards the water.
He was three-and-a-half the day he went missing. I’d been up most of the night before, my husband’s cough was bad, he worked on a furnace in the local scrap yard, had done for years.
Lying on my towel, sinking into a half-doze; maybe two minutes had gone by, when I bolted up, a terrible feeling of distress flooding through my skin. I looked around, then over to his speck but he wasn’t there, he was gone, disappeared into thin air. The sound my voice made crying out for help was deafening. A woman my age, with twin girls in a buggy folded her arms around me. ‘Don’t worry, we’ll find him,’ she said, ‘what’s he wearing?’
I closed my eyes, tried to remember: my brain seemed to be slipping about in my head, an awful tightening inside my throat, ‘Royal blue shorts, plain white t-shirt, strawberry blonde hair,’ I looked down at his red sandals next to mine, ‘and bare feet.’
Holding on to the handle of the buggy, we ran across the footpath, ‘Here, this is where he collects shells, this is his speck.’ We looked out, the wind was picking up, waves getting edgy. ‘Michael! Michael!’ I screamed, he never went into the water, I’d warned him of the dangers.
I looked left, then right, ‘Which way?’ At least four minutes had gone by; a woman carrying a small baby asked me what my son was wearing?
I told her. Pointing left, she said, ‘You two search that way, I’ll go right.’
‘Thank you. But, behind us, the road?’
Another woman came rushing over, saying she would search the road area with her grandson. ‘I’ve rang the police,’ she said, ‘they won’t be long; someone’s gone to tell the patrolling beach officer. Do you want me to ring anybody?’
Denny would go mental if he found out I’d lost our son. We’d watched the news. He’d never forgive me. I didn’t want him finding out in work, ‘No,’ I said, ‘there’s nobody to phone.’ The rush I felt inside my chest almost knocked me down.
The women hurried away from me, ‘Please, find him,’ I shouted, collapsing into a heap on the sand.
‘I’m Marilyn,’ the woman with the buggy said. ‘What’s your name, love?’
‘Vanessa,’ I said.
‘Look at me Vanessa,’ her voice was hard.
I couldn’t focus.
‘Vanessa! Take your hands from your face and stand up; I said stand up, that’s it; now walk with me. You’ll see him before any of us you know his face, hold onto the pram.’
We pushed through the sand barefoot; standing on tiny shells, their smoothness buried themselves into the soles of my feet. I’d had two miscarriages before he was born, once I saw Michael’s face, all the love I’d lost grew back, with such a vicious hunger that scared me. But in the early days, with his life came this overwhelming sense of responsibility, so great, I found it difficult at times to leave my room.
The memory of his breakfast hugs rose up; he was so excited about today, his squeals, like a wound, weeping from my heart.
The twins were bawling now, Marilyn reached into her bag and pulled out tinfoil, inside were two slices of buttered bread without crusts, the toddlers licked at the butter. Seeing their tongues triggered something in my head. ‘Marilyn, he’s wearing a red cap to match his sandals.’
‘Good,’ she said, ‘we’ll easily spot him now.’
I felt like crying. Everyone was looking for the little boy with strawberry blonde hair. ‘Come on,’ Marilyn said, ‘stay focussed.’ Having her by my side, and thinking of the other women, giving up their time to search for Michael, kept me walking. The further along the beach we got, the more I found it necessary to look straight ahead, or in the direction of the road, because if I let my eyes drift towards the water, I would jinx it and he’d never be found.
‘Does Michael have a favourite song he likes to sing?’ Marilyn asked.
‘From his school: a favourite song?’
‘If You’re Happy and You Know It. He loves the hand-clapping.’
‘He might hear us,’ she said, singing it loud above the waves. I joined in, half screaming the words, half losing them, the thin air inside my body now weak and squashed.
It’s all over, a voice inside my head told me. No, it’s not, there’s still hope, another voice screamed. The last of the morning was disappearing, I’d stopped singing, let my fingers slip from the pram, had a change of heart.
‘I’m walking back to where my stuff is. I need to phone Denny.’
Marilyn held my hand again, clasped it over the bar of the buggy.
‘It’s like something out of a nightmare,’ I said. ‘I took my eyes off him for a moment and…’
‘Don’t,’ she said, ‘don’t give up.’
I looked back, hoped I wasn’t walking away from him, could feel the pull of not knowing what to do swell up in me like water inside the belly of a fish. I’d always known what to do in life. I was the decision-maker; this feeling was the beginning of a new death.
In the distance, I spotted a woman, toddler in tow, she seemed to be shouting at us. I looked at the toddler, a little girl in a striped bathing suit. Then I looked at her other hand, red cap, blue shorts, bare feet!
‘Mummy, Mummy,’ he was sobbing, his face red and swollen. ‘You lost me,’ he said.
‘I know I did, I lost you for a little while, I’ve found you now.’ I kissed all of his face, tasted sweet tears, felt the shape of a wonderful blizzard filled with deep joy rise up. ‘I’ll never let that happen again.’
Marilyn and the other women surrounded me. They were clapping, and cheering, their eyes like mine, wet with relief. I could hear the sound of sirens, hugged Marilyn tight, ‘I can’t thank you enough; I only kept it together because you were with me.’
‘You were so brave, Vanessa, I’m afraid I would have well caved in.’
He’d been found sitting on a sand dune sobbing for his Mummy. Eight minutes he’d been missing, and it felt like eight years. He handed me his buckets full of shells,
‘Here, Mummy, they need washing. Can I have a jam butty, I’m hungry?’
I turned to the people standing around me, ‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘Thank you all.’
The son I ran through sand and shells and broken screams for, I held him now with all my warmth, held him tighter, feeling lost. In the stillness realised, even after he’d left, he would never be free of me, nor I of him.