“And then there was another Mark,” Dad recalls, sending the table into an encore of laughter.
“Stop it!” Hannah pleads, tears rolling over sun-reddened cheeks. She perches opposite him, one leg hiked on the serrated bistro chair, a rum and coke bubbling in her left hand, the right clutching her stomach. She is 18, the spit of her mother – so she’s told – and will be off to university in two months.
“Yes, God, please stop.” Begs Ryan, who is next to Dad, head in his hands. Muffled by skin, his voice is still so freshly broken that it takes a moment to place the deep timbre. At 15, and without an academic bone in his body, university is of no more concern to him than a misplaced earbud, or an empty crisp packet discarded on his bedroom floor.
You lounge at Hannah’s side, tipsy off white wine, delighting in their mortification at your pre-Dad romances. Mark one, from school. Chris. Dave. Chris, again. Mark two, from an 18-to-25s cruise, the details of which had scandalised Hannah half a glass prior. Mark three.
The aluminium table you chatter around wobbles on uneven ground besides the shabby reception-slash-bar. From here, you and Hannah can see the gift shops beyond the gate, crammed along the hill all the way down to the sea. The water glistens salmon and cornflower blue, a glassy mirror of the sky above.
In the fading summer sun, you send off the last of the holiday. Six days in Corfu, lazing by tepid pools that stretch out from two adjoining rooms. Fantastic views, boasts the website, a luxury experience at a modest price. The white walls hemming in each walnut deck between room and pool frame the hotel courtyard, still in the throes of construction, slate tiles and half-empty gravel sacks nestled under meagre cypress trees.
The last pink sliver melts into the horizon. You sigh. Dad sighs louder, hands steepled over his belly. Hannah takes a picture. Ryan snaps a selfie. The sliver rises again.
It climbs faster and faster, and everything becomes lighter, brighter, too bright, clinical white, nothing.
“And then there was another Mark,” Dad recalls, sending the table into an encore of laughter.
Not far enough. Try again.
The sun scrubs across the sky, west to east.
Four of you arrive in prickly silence, three steering over-packed cases around potholes the size of small dogs. You, sans-luggage, glowering at the rear. Arguments had bookended both airports, now everyone ignores one another. Dad had insisted in taking your bags with his. You’d declined, he’d taken them anyway. You’d snapped, he’d started grumbling. He leads the sour trail, lugging weight he can scarcely bear, refusing anyone’s help.
The sun jumps forward until it becomes the moon and then the sun again, twice over. Day crawls on. The shadows shrink.
Floating on a neon green lilo, at the spot where the wall meets the veranda and shadows cool the air, you flex scarlet-painted toes in the water. Something vaguely blue and sticky-looking clings to the edge of the cracked white sill. A string of ants parade over the fissures. Dad snores from the deck, jet-engine loud. Luckily, the kids don’t have to share a room with him this time.
It’s so far away, what if something happens? Your mother’s words find you in the shade. You’d exhausted yourself on the plane trying to chase them away, hence your especially acetic mood on arrival.
It’s only a four-hour flight. You weren’t going to let her guilt you this time. Besides, this’ll probably be Hannah’s last trip with us. Hidden behind purple-tinged sunnies, you grow drowsy, mouth parting as you slip in and out of sleep.
Gentle splashes from over the wall – Hannah, paddling over to Ryan. “We should get them something, like we used to.”
Ceramic camper van from Devon, lilac and palm-sized. Plastic magnet of Brighton Pier. Wooden turtle from Spain, missing one leg thanks to less-than-careful treatment in the front pocket of a backpack on the way home. Tokens of thanks, from whatever was left of their spending money. Little treasures.
Ryan grunts. “Probably just sit around the house with all the other tat.”
The kids think you and Dad hang on to things. Piles of bills from 2009 crowd the corners of the lounge. Bits of broken God-knows-what litter the shelf in the hallway, moved for dusting, put right back after. On the landing, stacks of old schoolwork; every report card Hannah’s ever had. Within a year, the tat will have doubled.
“True.” Hannah sighs.
The next morning, you convince Dad to join them – your own pool is being cleaned, the little robotic vacuum trundling merrily along the mosaic floor. Heat spikes your soles as you step onto their deck, nearly sending you hopping into the clothes horse by the door. Hannah’s white paisley bikini from yesterday dangles off one tier like an aged cut of meat. Ryan’s black swimming trunks are puddled on the floor. You don’t even notice yourself hanging them back up.
A huddle of thirtysomethings clad in variations of the same striped shirt bounce down the path at the end of the pool as you wade toward the kids. One elbows his friend, laughing heartily, and you catch the end of his teasing.
“- just be normal for once, mate.”
Hannah snaps her head towards Ryan, whose eyes glint in recognition. They’re an even closer shade to yours than Hannah’s.
“Oh, nor-mil.” Ryan croons in a high-pitched voice.
Hannah laughs back, “Oh, very nor-mil!”
“What’s that?” you ask, worried you’ve missed something important.
“Nothing.” Ryan shakes his head, smiling.
Hannah waves you off with a hand. “Doesn’t matter.”
And they bow their chins and snicker.
Being an only child, you doubt you’ll ever understand their bond. You imagine it’s the same camaraderie Dad and Jane might have shared when they were young. Those two haven’t seen each other since they buried their own mother a decade ago. They learn each others’ lives via Facebook messages, tallying birthdays and Christmases and wedding anniversaries. Jane only lives two hours away.
“I’d hate to end up like that,” Hannah had told you once.
But this is the only inside joke they’ve shared all year.
The day passes. You send the sun away, reel it back, yoyo it between now and then and never.
This time, the kids come over to your side – their turn with the vacuum – and claim both wicker sun loungers on the deck. Grey cushions are a considerable oversight, so close to the water, but one that at least feels on-brand for the hotel.
After an hour pruning in the water - the kids eventually grew antsy and followed you in - you excuse yourself; it’s time to ring Nana.
Dad is waiting when you return.
“I’m sure she’ll call the ambulance if she needs,” he says with a reassuring pat on your shoulder when you relay the news. “She can take care of herself for a few more days.”
You were fairly sure Hannah had pieced together by now that he wasn’t particularly favoured by your mother, and that he didn’t overly care for her in return.
You chew your lip. “I don’t know.”
The kids pop up from the water, settling elbow to sunburnt elbow on the deck.
“How is she?” Hannah says, a pleasantry.
“She alright?” Ryan asks, a formality.
They don’t speak with her much, at their age.
She isn’t – alright, that is. Days after you land back in London, Nana will be hospitalised. Stomach cancer, most likely, but she’s too weak to do any investigating, and too far gone for it to make any difference.
“Just some tummy pain,” you say. Deep creases have carved a permanent home between your brows.
You smile across the dinner table that night, a ropy approximation of happy. Several times, you catch Hannah watching you with thinned lips, like she’s trying to figure out when exactly you started pretending.
The sun sets. The sun rises.
On what might be the fourth day, or the second, or the fifth, you seek out Hannah on the deck next door, under the cover of the slatted veranda. She watches you sit down, hand shielding her eyes from the sun, assessing your dark circles, the way your skin hangs looser than it used to.
“You okay?” Hannah asks. She wants you to tell her the truth: you aren’t, you haven’t been for a while. She wants to be able to help.
You nod, smile, lean back and open your book. “Just tired.”
The family has watched you drain for years. By October, you will be empty.
“What you reading?” you ask, nodding to the tablet propped against her legs.
“Sort of a mythological retelling. It’s good.” Hannah says. “What’s yours?”
She’s always been an avid reader, the payoff of night after night spent giving in to her little clasped hands, badgering for just one more story before bed. The social skills, well. You can’t get everything right, says the first voice.
Then the second creeps in. If you’d taken the kids on more proper holidays – the exciting ones, the ones their school friends went on, with theme parks, and watersports, and swanky beach-front resorts – would she be more adventurous, more sure of herself? Family holidays with you had been caravan parks, budget hotels, croissants and satsumas smuggled from breakfast, produced later from Dad’s cargo shorts to save on food. You’d have liked to go bigger. You could’ve afforded it, just about. Dad always talked you down. All those pennies pinched, all those trips untaken, and for what? The spare cash barely even covered Hannah’s packing list.
“We’ll have to go to Ikea when we’re back,” you remind yourself aloud. She still needs towels, bedding, kitchen things.
Hannah nods emphatically, frizzy topknot bouncing against her head. “Yes, definitely.”
In the end, Dad will take her, help her pick out plates, bowls, a trio of varying-sized navy towels, whilst you hover around a hospital bed, too distressed to watch, too distraught to look away.
The veranda’s shadows offer little relief from the heat, and soon Hannah retreats inside to the AC. Sweat stains linger on the sun lounger long after she’s gone. The rest of the day ticks away.
You gather round the table: Hannah, Ryan, Dad, Mum. Mum, Ryan, Dad, Hannah. Ryan, Hannah, Mum, Dad. A hundred times, the order changes. It never matters.
The sun sets, unsets, sets again.
“One more round?” Dad asks. The three of you nod, Ryan stands to accompany him. It’s the final night again, or some version of it.
You scooch your chair close to Hannah’s, and the screech of metal on concrete judders through your bones. When you draw an arm around her, you half expect she’ll shrug it off. Still, in that insufferable second where she tenses, your heart splinters. But then she loosens, leans her head on your shoulder. You hold your daughter for the last time that counts.
“I don’t hug you enough,” you frown into her hair, now shea butter and coconut. The milky newborn halo only seems like last week. “I don’t know why I don’t.”
Nana will go two days before Ryan’s 16th, and you will tell Hannah, hundreds of miles away, over the phone.
“We talked about taking you to Disneyland, once,” you say, through an ache in your chest you can’t imagine being without.
“That would’ve been nice.” Hannah muses, watching the sun dip below the horizon.
You tug the headset off, hold down the button on the side until it turns red. Rise from the bed in the spare room, surrounded by a dead woman’s things, and trudge downstairs.
Dad is waiting in the lounge.
“You alright, dear?” He lunges for a tissue, thrusts it into your hand, eyes the blue of the Ionian sea darting worriedly over your face. He’s greyed since that summer. You aren’t sure if you love him anymore. You can’t remember if you still did then.
“I’m fine.” You sniff, dabbing at your eyes. The tissue comes away damp, flecked with mascara. You both settle on the sofa and wait for the call.
Hannah’s name illuminates the phone screen. You answer on the second ring. Her face appears in miniature, navy towel binding her wet hair. It’s been a trying week – tell you later, she’d texted at lunchtime. Okay x, you’d replied, speak soon. She’s tucked up on her desk chair again, chin resting on her knees. Gold-rimmed glasses throw soft shadows onto her cheeks, flushed pink from the shower.
“Hello,” she says, “Can you hear me?”.