As soon as the car stops, we tumble out like fish from a net, gasping in the salty air. I shake myself free of tension from missed turns and what do those parking signs say and dread that Mica’s about to be sick in the car again.
The shingle shifts under our feet, wedging small stones between flesh and the flip flops I’ve rescued from the back of the wardrobe. The twins are in lime green jelly shoes – an Asda special.
“Careful” I shout, but it’s too late. Mica and Jonah are squealing down to the water, two short, stout bodies in rainbow tie-dye short sets. I watch Mica’s hair whip in the sea breeze and wish I’d plaited it. It will be a nest of tangles by midday.
Jonah turns his head this way and that, as if to say – where did all the buildings go? As far as I know, it’s the first time they’ve seen the sea. But there’s only so much the adoption files can tell you.
Gillian and I are lounging in the sun, bellies full of fish and chips, debating the best route home when it happens. Amongst the roar of water on stone and screaming seagulls, I hear a thin cry. Scanning the beach, I see a grey-haired woman hobbling towards me with Mica in tow. Mica’s rubbing her eyes, mewing like a cat. Another legacy: neglected children learn quickly not to bother making too much noise.
“She toppled over and wanted her mummy.” The woman has smart hair, the kind that’s cut in a salon, and linen trousers with a neatly pressed crease. It’s a look that takes me back to my mother’s Tuesday Bridge: four sets of cardigans and pearls turning in perfect synchrony to scrutinize me and find me lacking.
Jonah bounces up to me. “She was running in the water and I said don’t do that, be careful like Mummy said, but she wasn’t listening Mummy, even though I told her.”
“I don’t think she’s hurt. Just a shock,” the woman says.
I scan Mica for injuries – she’s soaked through, her knee badly grazed – and embrace her. Mica plops down into my lap, dripping cold water into my sun-warmed legs. Her hair tickles my face as I kiss the top of her head while Gillian cleans Mica’s knee. I’m grateful we’re at the stage where she lets us. For the first three months, she’d scream every time we tried to put on a plaster. Imagine that on a public beach.
“Left Dad at home then? Girls’ day out?” the woman says.
I try to decipher whether she’s making conversation, being nosy, or deliberately stirring. Gillian rubs antiseptic lotion onto Mica’s knee.
Jonah pipes up. “We don’t have a daddy at home.”
I laugh at his puffed-up chest, his earnest face. Off he goes, a train chugging down the track. “We have a Mummy and a Gilly. And before that we were at Susannah’s. But I didn’t have my own bedroom there and now I do. I like firemen. Do you like firemen?”
Once the plaster is on Mica’s leg, Gillian and I stand to fold the blanket and stash our things in the beach bag. Some days you don’t mind being an ambassador; today I don’t feel like explaining a thing.
“Firemen are nice,” continues Jonah. “Really nice. If you come to our car, I can show you my firemen. I like firemen because-”
“Jonah.” I give him the look, the look that says don’t overshare. That we are family, but she is a stranger. She doesn’t need to hear about what happened with his birth family.
“It’s okay,” she says.
I want to say, it’s not okay. These kids need boundaries. They need to learn not to throw themselves at anyone who glances their way. That I hope we are teaching them to feel loved, to be safe, but there are no guarantees with the start they’ve had.
“You’re a stranger,” Mica says.
I feel a surge of pride. An odd thing to take pride in, perhaps, but I am on the verge of tears. It is sinking in. Although my mother used boundaries to keep me out, I’m using mine to keep strangers out.
“Well that’s not a very nice thing to say.” The woman bristles, looking at Mica the way the Bridge gang used to look at me.
“Time to go,” I say briskly. It’s too much to ask, understanding another’s intent. It’s enough to define your own boundaries, corral your own demons. “Now what do we say to nice strangers who help us?”
“Thank you,” the twins say in unison, heads bobbing.
The woman says “You’re welcome” but the smile on her face wavers. We’re an odd-shaped piece in her puzzle.
It doesn’t matter. We know who we are to each other. “Say goodbye.”
“Goodbye,” Mica and Jonah shout, on familiar territory now. They know about departures. They know how to say goodbye.