The castle, vast and lofty, had been constructed with the inimitable care comparable to the nimble finger-work of the most diligent artist. It had various corkscrew staircases leading to isolated turrets; there was a drawbridge, though hardly deducible by its void of detail; there was even a moat that was fed by a brook in a high monotony called a mountain that sat next to the castle. All that was missing was a flag to sing in the wind and they would have been true royalty within those walls.
‘Catherine’s castle! Catherine’s castle!’ The little girl with an adorable half-inch hole between her teeth had completed her architectural opus at the age of 6 and was in need of expressing her pride.
‘Do you like mine, Catherine?’ appealed the honeyed hum of her younger brother.
The girl turned to face Julian. She scowled at the slapdash hunk of sand and then humphed at him before declaiming: ‘It’s ugly; it’s not as good as mine.’ She turned her back on her fair-haired brother who adopted a quiver to his frown.
The children’s parents, Annie and Hugh, were enervating under the sun on England’s hottest day since 1990, or so they were told by the radio that morning back at the house. Annie hid half in the awning, entirely conscious of the aesthetic risks of sunburn. By and by in the sun she would turn as red as coal and it would last for weeks. She was restless that day but daren’t venture to say so. Hugh was an accountant in the city and Saturday’s were valuable to him, if she offered the slightest whiff of discontent Hugh would delve into upset.
‘Daddy!’ began Catherine, eager to boast of her latest creation, the third of the day, ‘Look Daddy! It’s a castle and I am the Princess. You can be the King and Mummy the Queen. Julian can be the peasant!’
‘Hey! That’s not fair, I want to be a Prince!’ Julian cried with his arms elbow deep in the sand.
‘What do you say?’ Catherine begged her father, ignoring her brother.
Hugh, afar from the humdrum of his daughter’s petty pleadings, was buried in abyssal thought. Idle to the world in front of him, the only noise he was conscious of was the dreadful soughing of the English Channel. God, he thought, even the lapping waves are sombre now.
‘Catherine, dear, leave your father be, he’s tired. I’ll play with you, if you like.’ Annie saw Hugh, pale as anything, as he had been for weeks, and thought it best to let him return to them on his own accord.
‘Oh… no Mummy, you’re not as fun.’ Catherine returned frankly, without the slightest intent to disrespect, as she began again to supply her red bucket with slushy sand from her cupped hand.
Annie was too beat to feel for this unnecessary snub, her thoughts had already moved back to her husband’s condition. She loved him fully; she wore love on her verdant eyes. She felt passive and ineffectual to him and thought only to return him to life by satisfying her role as the enamoured wife, the adorning mother, and the subtle muse. Just in the moment a tear would ordinarily develop, a blaring jingle cut her mind asunder. Julian began to cavort wildly in a circle around the barren wreck he passed for a castle and a crackling, rumbling voice gave essence to his elation: ‘Ice cream!’ the voice barked. The man’s breath could be heard all too clearly. He’s obviously a routine smoker, thought Annie. ‘Wittering’s sensation!’ he continued before catching his breath once more, ‘99p! Get ‘em before they’re gone!’ A sharp clatter rang out as he evidently blitzed the speaker-piece down in a breathless vex.
‘Mummy! Ice cream! Did you hear the man? Only 99p! Oh, go on Mummy, just this once!’ Julian was walking on air, or rather, running. He ran so intently in circles that the uneven surface caught his balance awry and sent him tumbling into the sand. Annie flung up in fear but Julian rolled over giggling up to the blue sky, his eye followed a seagull that swooped and fluttered aloft.
‘Very well, come on Catherine, my dear.’ Annie got up, dug a thin, violet leather purse out of her bag, and then looked worryingly at her husband. ‘Hugh? Do you want an ice cream?’ Annie and the children were all watching his face for a reaction, he had hardly given a word all day.
‘The whipped one… with a chocolate stick in it.’ He said as though in a trance, eyes far out to sea, his lips dry and his nostrils wide.
‘Very well.’ Smiled Annie, combing her fingers through her sea-knotted blonde hair. She dug her fingers under her red round sunglasses and gave her eyes a tiresome rub before setting off with the children.
Ah… peace, thought Hugh as he glanced over his shoulder at his family who jaunted up to the green van. To tell you the truth, it wasn’t that he didn’t like them, of course, he loved them. Rather, the utter misery of brooding on his own actions had led to some truly evil thoughts. See, not three weeks ago, Hugh had made the lamentable error of cheating on his wife. 8 years of devoted marriage without a hair of a thought for another woman and in the space of thirty minutes I’ve obliterated everything, he thought. It’s really no wonder he was so pale, he had hardly slept since it had happened; some days he even convinced himself that it was just some dream – a nightmare. But then he was haunted by the utter reality of this woman’s words on that midsummer night in the city; the smooth arrangement of her facial features; the cinch of her skirt; the way she said her name, ahh, the way those lips whisked her balmy name. Those things were all too real. He shuddered in his deck chair which very nearly lost its balance.
‘Penelope,’ a lacerating shoot bolted through the veins down his neck and into his shoulder, he felt them light up like lightning. ‘Pe-ne-la-pee’, ahh, it’s the way it physically hurts, he thought. Something about the way she said her name, the way it still lingers in the air wherever I go, he looked at his watch, even… 22 days 11 hours and 27 minutes later, his head was swimming with these sensibilities. I should kill myself, he thought. There’s a rope in the house, it’s a bit fat though, and I wouldn’t know how to tie it up in the attic. Out at sea a small liner capered between waves. O, to be at sea vacated and relinquished from burden, he sighed. Hugh fixed a gaze on the clouds in tatters that swathed the horizon.
It happened at a convention for one of his clients, a certain unnamed celebrity under accusations of fraudulence. He was drunk; he was happy; he was young. The cliché, perhaps hurt more than the act itself: married man gives way to stolen kisses from the flippantly captivating secretary.
‘I feel sick,’ he whispered.
‘You look it!’ Annie appeared from behind him, gave him his ice cream, and having fallen, she replaced the unfitting strap of her swimsuit that sat loosely on her shoulders.
Hugh sunk his aquiline nose deep into the whip of his ice cream and fastened his eyes as if anticipating a cry. He knew he wouldn’t cry; he just wanted to feel real.
Catherine, with a mouth full, said: ‘Daddy, did you know that two thirds of all the earth is water, like that?’ She directed a wet finger to the sea and looked in earnest at her father.
Hugh looked perplexed, ‘Two thirds… is that so? Where did you learn that?’ He was rather pleased with himself for having gathered that energy together. Two thirds of the ocean, he thought, I wish I could disappear within it.
‘It was on a poster on the wall in the detention room at school.’
‘Why were you in the detention room?’ Hugh asked absentmindedly.
Catherine blushed as she was exposed of her folly, ‘Mrs Dalton, it was, gave me a detention for calling Timothy Pearce an idiot. It wasn’t my fault though, he started it, and he said I was pretty!’
Hugh had reverted, in this time, to looking out to the ocean, ‘That’s OK, darling. Do you feel bad about what you did?’
Catherine had begun assembling a new wing to her castle and a gardens that resembled the Tuileries, ‘Yes Daddy. Of course I do. We all say things we don’t mean; we all do things we don’t mean to do. But it’s happened now, even I know I can’t change what happened.’ She was patting her palm softly on the sand when Hugh glanced at her. If only you knew, he thought, your wise words help me none. I should really kill myself. I will go up to the attic, there’s an extension lead there, and it will swing sweetly around a wooden beam. There’s a window up there that looks out to here, on the beach. I could die with my eyes on my daughter… on my son. O, that lifeless flesh, no, when they walk in and see me there, stiff, I can’t do it.
Hugh’s eyes had darkened, his lids flickered, and his hair swooned under that blue sky. He looks like a corpse, Annie thought. What is wrong with him? Annie stood after they’d all eaten their ice creams. ‘Come on, Julian, Catherine. Let’s go play in the water.’ Annie, led by the grasp of her children’s hands, rushed off toward the sea. Hugh watched the way their footsteps sunk in the slop distinctly and then disappeared; the way Catherine’s hair, so like her mother’s, darted all over in the wind; the way Julian, always smiling, always happy to be there, followed Catherine lovingly and at her command. Julian tripped as the power of the first wave took him by surprise, face first into the water, it almost made Hugh smile.
When the tide was high and Catherine and Julian were asleep on their towels, a wave rushed up and flooded Catherine’s castle. Annie had already packed up most of their things. Hugh hadn’t moved and watched the castle slip and drift into nothingness the way his marriage would drift into nothingness, the way his sweet memory of Penelope would inevitably drift into nothingness, and the way he wouldn’t, against all desires, drift into nothingness.