Across the wide stretch of shingle, Larry crouches with his fishing net. It is a strange warm sunny winter afternoon, and we are on an out-of-season holiday in Dorset. Larry is wearing just his wellies and a jumper, his trousers having met with a rock pool earlier. He looks like Christopher Robin, all ruddy-cheeked and wholesome.
I sit on a rock, warming my hands on a polystyrene cup of tea. It’s a novelty to observe Larry at a distance. In London, he is constantly under my feet. He trips me up in the kitchen; watches me intently as I sit on the loo; wakes me up by shouting ‘porridge time!’ only milimetres from my ear. When I think of him, it is always in close-up, like my own hand or foot.
Now, right over there on the other side of the beach, he could almost be somebody else’s child. He is content, absorbed. He looks like his own person. I take in a deep breath of salty air and sigh it out again. I feel like my own person, too.
We hadn’t left London in ages. Every time we do I swear to myself that we won’t leave it so long next time, but then once we’re back it all feels like too much effort, and expense, and I forget why I ever felt the need to get away from the concrete and fumes and rubbish and hordes upon hordes of grey shuffling people. I only remember again once we have turned off the M25, leaving the skyscrapers behind on the horizon like a row of cracked teeth, and the sky reveals its true hugeness and I feel a physical sensation of relief, as if I can stretch out to my full height and stop holding my breath.
It seems almost obscene how much space there is in the countryside. On the journey here I watched mile after mile of empty green fields reel by through the car window. There aren’t even any animals in them. It just doesn’t make sense that so many families are stuck in the city, crammed into tiny flats with no outdoor space at all. People make such a fuss about battery chickens. What about battery children?
“I’ve got one!” Larry is waving. He has caught a tiny fish. I go over to look at it for a moment and then we put it back in its rock pool. When the tide comes in, it will be able to swim wherever it wants, the whole sea will be its playground. That’s a nice thought. As we walk back along the beach Larry slips his hand into mine.
“I like the countryside,” he says. “I want to stay here all the time.” Larry always says this when we go on holiday. His face even looks different when we are not in the city; more open, happier. He likes the cottage we are staying in, too, especially the kitchen with a nice big table in it. “It’s so huge you can run around indoors!”
“I know, darling. Well… maybe one day.”
I never thought I would entertain this idea. I am a Londoner born and bred. Could I possibly cope without 24-hour Turkish grocers? Without even the remotest possibility of securing that elusive high-profile, lucrative, family friendly job? Without Mum, without my sister?
Just for a moment, it seems to me that maybe I could.