Emma must practise this face in the mirror – frosty, suspicious, disapproving – so that when she opens the door, she’s ready for him. He smiles in return, but then he has every reason to. As an added bonus, that berk Alastair isn’t here this time, hanging off the doorframe like an orangutan.
‘So?’ he says.
‘So what?’ As if she doesn’t know.
‘They ready yet?’
She glances back over her shoulder. ‘Hannah’s just packing a few last things. Where is it this time?’
‘Guernsey.’ He says it off-hand, enjoying the way her face elongates in surprise before she gets it back under control.
‘How can you afford to keep doing this?’ she says.
He’s tempted to come straight back with, ‘How can you afford this?’ and hold his arms out to encompass her new-build, three-storey townhouse. But the answer is obvious: Alastair the bleedin’ solicitor, that’s how. He’s above saying anything about it, of course. Kids overhear things. She’s never really understood that.
‘I know it’s not exactly New York,’ he says.
‘They loved New York,’ Emma protests.
‘ ’Course they did. They loved Barcelona and Cork and Liguria too.’
‘This isn’t a competition.’
‘I want the kids to have a good time, that’s all.’
She folds her arms. ‘And you think I don’t?’
He knows when to keep his gob shut, but in the awkward silence that follows he can’t stop the resentments circling like Red Indians on horseback, not attacking, not retreating. For all her money, she still doesn’t look happy. Did the judge not give you a big enough slice of the pie? Boyfriend’s pockets not as deep as you thought?
The cavalry arrives – Caleb is at the doorway, his little wheeled suitcase in tow. He lifts it carefully over the threshold, then throws himself without warning into his dad’s arms.
‘Whoa! Take it easy – you’ll break my ribs!’
Caleb lets go and thrusts a gap-toothed grin up at him. Then he turns back to the house and yells ‘Hannah!’ in his growly voice. He can’t wait to be grown up.
No rush, little man, no rush.
Hannah appears, pouty and slope-shouldered.
‘Nice dress, young lady.’
And there’s the smile. He would have said it no matter what she was wearing. Could it be that her lunkhead father gives her more compliments than Mum does? Imagine that.
He puts their luggage in the boot and settles them in the car.
‘Seatbelts on, you two.’
He starts the engine and pulls away.
‘Wave to Mummy,’ he says, and they do. He joins in – a third, much bigger, kid.
* * *
Okay, so there’s a problem with the hotel room that needs sorting out. Okay, so Hannah spends an hour one morning being meltdown madam before he can lure her out with the promise of a white sand beach. None of it matters. There is rockpooling and kayaking and sunshine, endless sunshine.
They both like Guernsey’s forts, and race to the top of each one. Caleb shoots at him from the parapets; Hannah likes the views out to sea. The German Occupation Museum is a surprising success. He even manages to stop himself comparing it to life under their mother.
The forecast says the weather won’t turn until Monday, once they’re safely back home. Walking the streets of St Peter Port, holding his kids’ hands, it’s hard to believe that such a thing as rain even exists.
They wander through a French market and a man tries to sell him a bottle of Bordeaux.
‘More of a lager man myself,’ he says.
He expects to be mocked, but the man merely nods. Hannah surprises everyone by trying out some French.
‘Il fait beau,’ she says, holding up her hands like a flower opening to the sun.
The Frenchman brightens, as if he’s just sold them a whole case. ‘Oui, oui, mademoiselle. Il fait beau.’
They walk on.
‘Well, get you!’ he says.
She leans into him, giggling. Caleb races ahead, to a place selling ice cream. He can sniff them out, like a dog picking up a scent.
‘Can we?’ No need to say any more.
The wallet’s getting low, so he finds a cash machine while Hannah and Caleb discuss flavours.
He displays his balance on screen and suddenly the sun’s heat is too much. His shirt is sticking to his back; his balance dips unexpectedly, like one of the boats in the harbour.
It’s not fair. If life was about honesty and hard work and a bit of charm, he reckons he could get by. But it’s about numbers. Numbers on a green screen. It’s always numbers that have brought him low.
There’s no escaping it: this is the last time. Beyond this, it can only be camping in a field in the rain, or playing Monopoly at the kitchen table. On Monday he returns to an unheated flat, to the blank-faced woman at the Jobcentre. Why was he even trying to compete with Alastair? You can’t outspend a man like that.
He has to lean against the frame of the cash machine for support, disguising it as an attempt to hide his PIN. He punches buttons and it allows him his card back. A reluctant whir and the banknotes appear, like a paper tongue thrust in his direction. He snatches them out of the slot and stands up straight, shoulders broad.
There is only now. Il fait beau.
He makes sure he is grinning before he turns round.
‘So, who wants ice cream?’
© 2016 Richard Salsbury
Published in the Portsmouth News, 16 Sep 2016