Those first weeks were happier than I could have hoped for. Takeaways and television, no school, no work, the sun burning a hole through the sea mist large enough for us to explore . We'd pack up some food, kite, football - nothing much and just head out across the marsh, using the old Watch House as our beacon; follow paths, make up our own, explore the open carcasses of boats, wade through the warm pools of water left by the tide, or in the larger ones roll onto our backs and watch the sky.
The ocean was always a shock, set down as the salt marsh was and we never got used to following the rise of a slope and then suddenly vast stretched horizon, the smash and pull of the tide on the shale. He always ran then, slipping through pebbles, and jumping or toppling down banks to the shoreline and then the game of chicken with each encroaching waves – the joy he found in this.
It was our beach – very few came this way, odd couples would make the journey out along the headland, or a dog walker would appear through the haze along the scorched shoreline and would sometimes make it as far as us, pass the time, but always turned and retreated rather than continuing on to the furthest point.
I watched him when other people approached, how he turned away from them – hid his face, sometimes if he was close to me and they came closer to chat he would curl into a ball and pretend to be asleep and wait, wait for the conversation to subside and the crunch of their steps to be far enough away before rising and carrying on as before - as though it was the most natural of things to do this.
After the first week I'd summoned the courage to bring a sketch pad with me on these trips, just the basics – just in case. I'd cobbled together a sort of studio back at the house, not with any plan of beginning to work again, more from the need to have one near at hand, as I'd had in every place I could ever remember having lived. It seemed wrong that there shouldn't be one here – and I suppose a part of me had begun to believe that we could get through this; these happy days had come soon and unexpected and I began to allow the possibility of some sort of future for us out here. What money we had would not last long and it would be a way of providing for us – smaller than before perhaps, but a few local galleries, some reasonably priced work, but nothing too good and everything under a different name.
As yet though I'd come back with blank pages, hadn't even tried to darken the paper with marks. I found Tom flicking through it, looking from page to page, disappointed to find nothing. His face had reddened on that day, the sun hotter than any of the other times we'd come out before and he seemed happy to let me soak him again in the last of the sun cream, even laughing and struggling when I tried to put some on his ears.
'Why don't you draw any more Dad?'
He looked at me through the question for the briefest of moments and then turned and began to build with pebbles on his side. I found it hard to lie to him now and would usually have told some sort of half truth and then changed the subject, but he had caught me by surprise and I was conscious of the amount of time that had passed from him asking the question to the point of my continued silence.
'Because - because of Mum and because of Sarah...it doesn't seem right somehow. I doesn't seem to be the right thing to do anymore...' I trailed off, watched the back of his head remain still, a minute – more probably and then started to pack away the few things we'd brought. I'd thought it was the end of the conversation, any mention of their names before had signalled silence between us, for hours sometimes, so I was startled to hear his voice again so soon.
'He came for your pictures didn't he Dad...he wanted to take your pictures away?'
'Yes Tom, he did.' Somewhere high above a propeller sounded, the tide was turning softly.
'Did he want them for his house, didn't he have any of his own.'
'No, he didn't want to keep them, he didn't like what I'd drawn Tom, he wanted to get rid of them, and he did, he burnt a lot of pictures...he wasn't very well Tom, he didn't think right – not like we do.' He continued to move pebbles, had sorted their shapes, their colours.
'Is that why he shouted so much, why he tried to hurt me – because of the pictures he didn't like?'
I knelt beside him, but before I could even reach out a hand he moved quickly and was stood at the top of the pebble bank looking back across the marsh. I picked up the last few things and made my way to join him, slipping down as I climbed, but jolted suddenly as a jet banked low from out of nowhere, thundered the silence out of the sky directly above our heads. When I finally reached the top, the roared echo still around us, his fingers were jammed into his ears but other than that he showed little concern for what had just happened. He stared still straight out across the marsh.
'We better get back we don't want to get stranded...are you ready then Tom?'
He took his fingers from his ears, but did not move. He seemed puzzled by something and then pointed out towards the house.
'What's that in our garden Dad?'