A little while ago my husband looked closely at my face and said: “Let’s go away for a few days.”
Now I am walking along a coastal path with him, holding Betty, who is pressing her face to mine, imparting sticky, snotty kisses while with both hands clutching at the wind in her hair. A seagull flies low overhead and we look up and she laughs to see its downy belly and yellow feet. I feel her arms around my neck and her feet in little boots kicking my hips while I fold my arms under her bottom. Her tiny white sharp teeth and rosy tongue are those of a little animal. I realise how much I adore her and I feel a sudden terrible pang for Grace.
We have left our older children – Grace and her step-brothers J and D -- with their other parents, our former partners – such a modern family, we – and have run away, mid-week, mid-November, mid-term. We are staying on an island on the Atlantic coast in a tiny, exquisite jewel of a house which belongs to a friend of my husband. It is decorated in shades of mushroom and oyster and duck-egg blue. The brass-framed beds are heaped with ivory quilts and white lace cushions. A row of dearly dented copper pans twinkle in the postage-stamp sized kitchen. On one wall is a limited edition black and white photograph of a very young Brigitte Bardot, all hair and mouth. Betty stands in front of it and points and says: “Grace.”
That night, in the bedroom we are all sharing I listen to Betty chatter in her sleep: alternately sunny and stern and anxious. I get up four times to stroke her cheek and smooth her hair when her murmurings take on a more plaintive tone. When I get up the next morning I drink two mugs of hot bitter coffee so strong that it leaves a dry residue on my teeth. Then I go for a run. I have to do seven miles: marathon training starts for real in two weeks and I have to keep up a basic level of fitness. My eyes look like poached eggs and my gait is shambolic after five minutes. My husband pedals alongside me on a rented bicycle with Betty grinning from the back seat beneath a helmet that makes her look like a mushroom.
It is a glorious morning. The sun is bright and the dark blue sea flutters and glitters to my right as I crunch along the white gravel path. The air is sharp with the tang of seaweed and oyster beds. We pass bushes of grey-green foliage. It is almost not credible that we are six weeks from Christmas. I am sweating in my running top and struggling for air. I force myself to run straighter, more upright. I clench my stomach muscles and move my arms like pistons. At elbow height Betty continues to smile cheerily at me. I push away thoughts of how on earth I will keep this up for 26 miles and try to live in the present.
London – dark, cold, rainy, with the hole in our bedroom window and our condemned boiler and my file spilling out reports on Grace -- seems a lifetime away. We are flat broke, but we broke into our savings and bought budget airline tickets to get here. I feel worried and guilty thinking about the money we have spent, that we can scarce afford, to get away from the lifestyle that we can scarce keep up. I think of the cost of Grace’s birthday party in three weeks’ time. I think of Grace. I have left the coast road and am running past white walled streets and out across long flat vineyards where orange leaves tremble on the breeze. My husband calls out exclamations of enjoyment at the day, at the scenery, at the buildings and landscape. We pass a cluster of old men pointing giant, ancient shotguns into a copse where unfortunate fowl are hiding. A little later, we pass a church where Mass is just ending and the last strains of plainsong enchant us.
There is no television in the house and no phone or internet reception. That evening we listen to music and drink wine and watch candles flicker on the exposed sandstone bricks of the sitting room. I am very happy and very in love and I cannot shake the guilt of being here without Grace instead of being there to pick her up from school and ask questions about her day with a casualness that belies an intense anxiety and a mental check-list of how she did in lessons, in the playground, at lunchtime, now. My husband listens patiently while I stutter to him how I am feeling. Gently he tries to tell me in a nice way that it’s not all about me, actually. That I am doing what I can and that I can only do that and that she is getting on fine and that she’s with her dad and things are progressing and that I should give myself a break.
But still, the guilt insinuates itself into my enjoyment of this enchanting place.
The next day Betty is in a grotty mood when she wakes from her afternoon nap. She plays with her dollies on the sofa, trying to cover them up and tuck them in with a blanket that is far too big. Her movements are jerky with impatience and she is muttering under her breath. I listen in and realise she is saying: “fucksake” in exactly my tones. I am mortified and guilty all over again. Is this what I am? A muttering, cursing grouch? I am red with shame while my husband stifles laughter. Ridiculously, the guilt has become yet another thing to feel worried and resentful -- and guilty -- about. I must find a way to break free of it.
We go for a drive as the sun is setting, our little rental Renault belting along narrow roads the length of the island. Suddenly we leave a cluster of buildings and shoot out into miles and miles of salt flats silently reflecting the damson twilight. The land seems vast and endless; the skies stretch above and around and they are all there is. I feel tiny and insignificant. Finally, I can breathe.