The Lost Sister – Tracy Buchanan

It all started when the boy nearly drowned. Queensbay was experiencing one of those summer evenings where strangers smile at each other as they pass on the street, everyone in awe that the temperature could be that warm in grey old Britain. Flip-flops and sandals abounded, the slip-slap of soles on the wooden path and the bark of small dogs a familiar reprise. The seafront café was full to bursting, especially the outside area, with children excited at being out so late on a school night, and parents trying to drink wine and smile with friends in between reprimanding hyper and sunburnt toddlers. On the sandy beach, older couples strolled through the shallow water, shoes dangling from their fingertips as their dogs ran in and out of the caves nearby. And beyond it all, the sun as it set, a fierce orange in the sky, fringing people’s heads with fire. I watched it all through my sunglasses, the gin I’d drunk blurring the edges of my mind, just the way I liked it. The curved sandy bay looked particularly pretty that night, bookended by the café on one side and three towering chalk stacks on the other. People could walk beyond the stacks and there they’d find a secluded bay of caves overlooked by an abandoned hotel … the same hotel I once dreamed of buying. I sighed. Not looking likely now. My daughter Becky chased her friend around the busy tables and I kept half an eye on her, ready to pounce at the sound of breaking glass, a sob, a crash. Next to me, my husband Mike kept a casual hand on my bare knee, smiling as his friend Greg recounted a difficult client he’d had to deal with. Why did people feel the need to discuss something as banal as work on evenings like this? I yawned and stretched, noticing Greg’s eyes slide over my breasts, which strained against the thin material of my floral wrap dress. So predictable.

So wrong too, considering his wife Julie was sitting right next to me trying desperately to feed their newborn, his crumpled little red face squashed against her bare nipple as she fanned her hot, freckled cheeks with a menu. I narrowed my eyes at Greg and he turned away. He was what my mum would call ‘trouble’. I even remember the way my mum said it, sprawled across her sofa, drink in hand as she gossiped with her friend. ‘He was trouble, darling,’ the r stretched out in that deep throaty voice of hers. When I asked what she meant over dinner that evening, she shot me one of her withering looks. ‘What does it matter to you?’ A week later, I got my answer when I met the man who was to become my stepfather. He was the worst of them. The others – three in total since she told my father to sling his hook when I was eight – had their faults too. Luckily I was well gone by the time the third one came along.

No, Greg was nothing like that first horrid stepfather. Well, maybe he looked like him with his slicked-back dark hair and wickedly handsome face. But I couldn’t see him raising a hand to his wife and child like my stepfather had. I shouldn’t be too harsh on Greg. The flirting, the sneaky glances … they were all just a little titillation for him to make the humdrum of life in that godforsaken town more bearable. People came to Queensbay for a slower pace of life. A beautiful stretch of sand on the Kent coast, once a hidden gem favoured by retired couples and families looking to escape the rat race. The problem was, it had got too slow thanks to the country plunging into recession, boards covering the windows of the shops I once loved; For Sale signs up for too long outside usually desirable houses. You could barely see the words on those signs through the layer of seagull mess. Love’s young dream well and truly faded.

It was the same for me and Mike too. It hadn’t been that way when we’d driven through the town on the way to Margate for an old friend’s wedding after we got married ten years prior. I’d been so blown away with the pretty bay, we’d impulsively booked a room in one of its hotels, staying on for a further week after the wedding. When I’d spotted the abandoned hotel sitting in an elevated position above the caves nearby, a tatty For Sale sign outside its front, I’d been in awe. Sure, the white weatherboard that adorned its exterior walls was blackened with moss, the wraparound glass windows at the front grimy with dirt. But it was still beautiful. ‘I’d love to live somewhere like that,’ I remember saying to Mike during that impulsive weekend away. But he’d laughed. ‘You have to be kidding. Look at the state of it!’ That was the problem with Mike.

He’d never had the imagination I did, I should have known the moment he refused to play a drinking game on the first night we met in that university bar. Anyway, back to the evening. That evening. ‘Oh, come on, Finn,’ Julie moaned next to me as she looked down at the baby. I tipped my large sunglasses down to the end of my nose, peering over them at the newborn. ‘Not feeding again?’ I asked. ‘Latching on, I think,’ Julie replied, the dark circles under her eyes pronounced, her red hair flat and frizzy. ‘Good for you, persevering.’ ‘Did you?’ I let out a dramatic sigh. ‘Sadly, these old things couldn’t produce enough milk,’ I said, gesturing towards my own breasts.

I caught Greg’s eye and he held my gaze. ‘Had no choice but to bottle feed,’ I added. Mike shot me a look. Okay, maybe that was a little white lie. Truth was, I’d produced plenty of milk – so much it dribbled out at night, wetting my silk camisole. But I’d hated the a c t of breastfeeding, especially the smell of my own milk. I couldn’t say that out loud though, could I? It would be frowned upon, especially in Queensbay with its penchant for yoga and earth mummies. I yawned again, peering at my gold watch. It was past eight now. ‘Sorry, I’m boring you,’ Julie said, frowning.

I gently touched her arm. Yes, the woman was boring me. But that wasn’t her fault. ‘Not at all!’ I said. ‘I’m just tired from the heat. You’re doing great, really darling.’ ‘Do you think you’ll have another?’ Julie asked. Mike caught my eye. He was desperate for another. But I couldn’t think of anything worse, shuddering as I remembered that sticky, confusing, sick-infested time of Becky’s newborn months.

The emotions. The tears. I adored Becky, my perfect one. It would be like going back to square one if I had another. Plus, there was the slight problem of Mike and I barely touching any more. Maybe that should have worried me, but the truth was, I didn’t want to touch or be touched. On the rare occasions when we did make love, I flinched then felt nothing, going through the motions as I turned my face away. I used to be so passionate, to love to hold and be held. But not any more. I sighed, turning back to Julie.

‘We’ve been told we can’t,’ I whispered so Mike couldn’t overhear. The lie sent a thrill through me. ‘We don’t like to talk about it, especially Mike,’ I added with a grimace. Another touch of the arm. ‘You’re one of the only people I’ve told.’ ‘I’m so sorry,’ Julie whispered back. I could see it mixed in with the empathy in her eyes, how pleased she was to be one of the privileged few to know. ‘But let’s not talk about that,’ I said, fanning my hand about. ‘Tell me about you.’ As Julie launched into the details of her problems with sore nipples, I slid my sunglasses back up to hide the fact I wasn’t really listening, my mind drifting off to the plot of my latest novel.

A harsh winter. A lost girl. A savage man. A world away from here. Oh God, yes please. ‘Selma!’ A voice pierced my thoughts. I looked up, annoyed, as a red-faced woman in a bright pink top wove her way through the tables to get to me, waving her hands erratically, her sullen son following her. It was Monica from work, the office manager who considered everyone her best friend, spilling the intimate details of her life to anyone who’d listen. Her husband’s breakdown. Her sister-in-law’s affair.

The dose of thrush she’d been suffering from the past two years. I did my best to avoid her most days, unable to deal with her perpetually sunny disposition, especially on Monday mornings. But it was hard in such a compact office, just ten of us crammed into the top floor of a small barn conversion as we scribbled out copy for various clients. Thank God I only had to endure it three days a week. ‘Hello, Monica,’ I said with a tight smile. Her son let out a bored sigh and crossed his arms, staring out to sea. He was ten, just a couple of years older than Becky but the same size, which always came a surprise to anyone who knew Monica, who was a tall, wide-hipped, big-breasted woman. I suppose that was one thing she and I did have in common: our curves – a contrast to the stick-thin women that seemed to grace the town. ‘Oh, hasn’t Becky grown!’ Monica exclaimed, gazing across to Becky on the beach. Her forehead was sunburnt, freckles smattering her tiny nose, her golden hair long and tangled in the sand, ice cream smeared on her face.

My heart clenched at the sight of her, my beautiful happy daughter. They tell you about the love you feel for your children and at first, for some, it doesn’t come as quickly in the madness of those early newborn days. But when it does, it has a quality that supersedes all other types of love. Even I, as a writer, find it hard to describe. I beckoned my daughter over, suddenly desperate to cuddle her. She jumped up, weaving around the tables to get to me. She smashed into my arms, putting her cheek against my neck, and I felt utterly overwhelmed with my love for her. ‘She has grown,’ I replied, leaning down to kiss Becky’s head. ‘Seems to every day.’ ‘I wish Nathan would,’ Monica said with a sigh as she looked at her son.

‘Amazing the amount of food he puts away and yet still, look at him!’ ‘Shut up, Mum,’ her son hissed under his breath. Monica’s face flickered with hurt and I couldn’t help it, I felt sorry for the poor woman. Monica had told me – and anyone else who’d listen – of the trouble she’d had with Nathan at school, the fights he’d got into, the back-chatting too. Becky had mentioned it occasionally too. I looked down at my own daughter and stroked her soft hair, thinking how lucky I was to have her. A challenge sometimes, yes, like many children. But she was a good girl really. ‘How are the book sales going?’ Monica asked, face alight with excitement. ‘Fine,’ I replied airily. I took a quick sip of gin, the ice clinking against my teeth.

‘You don’t really get told much about sales.’ ‘Not even two years after it’s published?’ Greg suddenly piped up. I tensed. ‘Nope,’ I replied, taking another urgent sip of gin. ‘So when’s the next one out?’ he asked. All eyes turned to me and I felt my face flush. I usually loved the attention, but not when it came to talk of sales. ‘Winging its way to my publisher very soon,’ I replied in as cheerful a voice as I could muster. Mike frowned. ‘Really?’ ‘Yes, really, darling,’ I said.

‘How exciting!’ Monica exclaimed. ‘Give it time and you’ll be the next Danielle Steel!’ Mike snorted to himself and I shot him a look. ‘One day, maybe,’ I said, forcing a smile. If my husband were more bloody optimistic about my chances anyway, I wanted to add. ‘Mum, come on,’ Nathan moaned impatiently. ‘It’s going to get dark soon.’ We all peered towards the sun, which was now low in the sky and would soon be dipping beneath the horizon. ‘Right, better go,’ Monica said. ‘Nathan’s insisting on an ice cream. See you at work next week!’ She gave a nervous wave then wandered off, stopping again to talk to someone else as her son clenched his fists in frustration.

Becky jumped off my lap and ran to the beach to join her friend again. I took the chance to close my eyes behind my sunglasses, trying to return to that momentary period of peace I’d felt earlier. But then I felt an elbow poke me. I opened my eyes, irritated by the disturbance, and watched as Julie leaned down to get a muslin that had fallen to the ground, her baby squeezed against her blue-veined breasts. ‘Here, let me,’ I said, bending down to grab the cloth for her. As I handed it back I paused, catching sight of a man standing by the chalk stacks. He was tall, over six foot, long-limbed and deeply tanned, blond hair to his shoulders, a golden beard. On his arm was a thick row of tweed bracelets, his blue shorts ripped at the pocket. He was holding a large rucksack with a sewn-in patch showing one unblinking eye. The man turned, as though sensing me looking at him.

He held my gaze and I felt my breath stutter. Then a scream pierced the air. Chapter Two Selma Kent, UK 18 July 1991 Mike stopped talking, Greg and Julie too as another scream rang out. Other people started rising from their tables, shading their eyes to look out to sea. I followed their gazes to see a woman running to the edge of the water, bright pink top blowing about in the breeze as she flapped her sunburnt arms about. It was Monica. ‘My son!’ she shouted. ‘He’s drowning. Someone help, I can’t swim!’ I looked in the direction she was pointing to see the top of a small head poking up from the waves, before being submerged again. ‘Jesus, he’s in the sea,’ I said.

Greg jumped up, kicking his shoes off. ‘I’m going in.’ Julie grabbed at his hand. ‘Be careful.’ Greg glanced over towards me then back to his wife. ‘I’ll be fine,’ he said before jogging down to the beach. I nudged Mike and he sighed, reluctantly following his friend, the setting sun turning his balding head red. ‘God, how terrifying,’ Julie said as she held her newborn Finn close. I imagined Becky out there then, her little body engulfed by the waves. The horror of it made me dizzy.

‘Come here, darling,’ I called over to her. Becky jumped up and ran over to me. ‘What’s happening, Mummy?’ she asked as I pulled her close and kissed her head. ‘Just silly Nathan swimming in the sea when he shouldn’t have,’ I replied. ‘Poor woman,’ Julie said, staring at Monica as she splashed into the water, her hands to her head in horror. ‘Do you know her well?’ ‘Just from work.’ I watched Monica as she stepped forward into the waves, tears running down her cheeks, then jumped back, scared. She annoyed the hell out of me. But the way she was trying to fight her apparent fear of the water, the panic on her face … ‘Keep an eye on Becky, will you?’ I said to Julie. I stood, head suddenly swimming from the gin, then weaved my way through the tables and chairs to get to Monica.

‘Oh Selma!’ Monica exclaimed when I got to her, clutching at my hand. ‘What if they can’t get to him?’ ‘He’ll be fine, look at all the people going to help him!’ As I said that, I noticed the man I’d seen by the chalk stacks walking towards the sea. He was calmer than the others, but his long strides somehow kept up with them. Just ahead of him, Mike followed Greg into the water, splashing into the waves clumsily, nearly falling as Greg turned to help him. But the man stepped into the sea without trouble, his outline set alight by the dying rays of the sun. ‘Oh God, I can’t see my boy. Can you see him?’ Monica asked, fingers clutching at my arm, face paling. ‘It’s getting so dark!’ I stepped forward, narrowing my eyes to see better. Monica was right, it was hard to see Nathan now. The sun had disappeared beneath the horizon and the sky was an indigo blue.

But I could see the man, his hair like silver in the growing darkness. While the other would-be rescuers flapped around in the water, he looked serene. In fact, it was almost as though he were walking on the waves. ‘Is that man walking on the water?’ a woman nearby said, echoing my thoughts. Others around her laughed nervously but I could tell they were seeing the same thing. I took a few more steps forward, heart thumping as my eyes stayed on the man, his tanned calves visible, his ankles … and yes, his feet. It really was like the water was ice and he was just walking across it. ‘Jesus,’ I whispered to myself. A hush fell over the bay, others clearly unsure of what they were seeing too. ‘Must be a trick of the light,’ a man said, breaking the silence.

But I could hear the waver of doubt in his voice. The man stopped, then leaned over and lifted something into his arms. ‘He’s got him!’ someone shouted. A nervous cheer went up among the crowds. Monica slumped against me, crying in relief as we watched the man walk back to shore, the boy seemingly weightless in his arms. The man was clearly walking in the water now; clearly it had been a trick of light. People watched him, open-mouthed, as he headed towards us. ‘Mummy!’ Nathan sobbed, reaching for his mum. Monica took him from the man, burying her face in her son’s wet neck as she sunk to the sand. The man looked at me.

Something passed between us, something I couldn’t quite get a grasp on. Then he leaned down, retrieved his rucksack and disappeared into the night, the sound of sirens filling the air. ‘Did you know that man, Mummy?’ Becky asked, peering up at me with those knowing blue eyes of hers. ‘No, darling. He’s a complete stranger.’

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