Utama Can You See Me?

Can You See Me?

Would you know if someone was watching you?

In the dark days since the sudden death of her surgeon husband, Julia’s main worry has always been Tash. Her student daughter was broken—she worshipped her father. But six months on, Julia thinks the light is returning. She is about to find out that she’s wrong.

When she saves the life of a boy who’s been hanging around her beach cottage, the questions start. All she has to go on is the butterfly tattoo on his wrist, but who is he? What was he doing there? And why was her late husband’s watch in his bag? Julia wants to believe it’s a casual theft, but an ominous arrival in the post confirms her suspicion that there is more to it than meets the eye.

As Tash remembers a string of strange incidents she had previously brushed off, Julia realises they are both being watched. Someone’s been toying with them, trying to frighten them, but why?

Determined to protect her daughter, Julia races to discover the boy’s identity. But what she doesn’t realise is that the truth is right in front of her. Will she see it before it’s too late?

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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Text copyright © 2019 by Lynne Lee

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

Published by Thomas & Mercer, Seattle


Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Thomas & Mercer are trademarks of Amazon.com, Inc., or its affiliates.

ISBN-13: 9781542014939

ISBN-10: 154201493X

Cover design by kid-ethic

For Rex



Creatures of the...

Chapter 1

Lymantria dispar

Chapter 2

Heterogynis penella

Chapter 3

Lobesia botrana

Chapter 4

Geometra papillionaria

Chapter 5

Isochaetes beutenmuelleri

Chapter 6

Biston betularia

Chapter 7

Artona martini

Chapter 8

Hemiceratoides hieroglyphica

Chapter 9

Tineola bisselliella

Chapter 10

Eumorpha pandorus

Chapter 11

Actias luna

Chapter 12

Cochylis atricapitana

Chapter 13

Moth, Fairy Servant to Titania

Chapter 14

Pterophorus pentadactyla

Chapter 15

Thysania agrippina

Chapter 16

Rothschildia zacateca

Chapter 17

Chrysiridia rhipheus

Chapter 18

Calyptra thalictri

Chapter 19

Pyrrharctia isabella

Chapter 20

Acherontia atropos

Chapter 21

Attacus atlas

Chapter 22

Cyclophora punctaria

Chapter 23

Ascalapha odorata

Chapter 24

Ctenucha virginica

Chapter 25

Biston betularia f. carbonaria

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Kallima inachus




I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,

Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,

Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,

With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:

There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,

Lulled in these flowers with dances and delight.; 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream,

William Shakespeare

Creatures of the dark, moths aspire to the light.

Leave a light on and you’ll see:

They will find you.

Chapter 1

Rhossili Bay, Gower, September

The sky has changed. And not for the better. I’ve been head down, paddling out, labouring under a misconception. That the peach dawn which had broken as I entered the foaming water would still be here – bright and brightening – as I sat up on my board. But it’s not. It has faded to grey.

My mood darkens with it. This is a bad day to be surfing, and I’m much too far out. Not waving or drowning, just trying to charm waves that aren’t coming. Trying to chase away demons I can’t even articulate. Trying to prove a point to myself; that I’m not who I am. That I’m someone my dead husband would no longer recognise.

Despite my earlier hubris I also recognise my folly. I shouldn’t have come down to Wales. I definitely shouldn’t have come out here alone. The words come at me like seagulls, wheeling and screeching on the wind. You should never surf alone because it’s dangerous. You know that. Because you could drown – just like that – and who’d see?

Yes, there are other surfers out here, if only specks in the far distance, but I know I should turn around and head back in again. Because what I belatedly recognise as a fog, and a thick one, is now rolling in with malevolent intent. You’re a fool, Julia, it whispers. What were you thinking?

And it’s fast. I can’t even see any other surfers now, I realise. I can no longer see anything, full stop. I lean forward, grip the board, slide my legs up out of the water, slip my arms in, and paddle back to shore.

And I’m right to. Our cottage, to which last night I bolted so impulsively, is no longer distinct on the hill. It’s now a pale smear against the washes of grey blue and rust green. A smudge of ivory above the ochre of the beach. And as I slither up to the shallows and roll off the board, it too becomes lost in the swirl of grey mist. This is sea fog. It can swallow whole hillsides.

I stand up and rip the Velcro to take the leash off my ankle, winding it round the board with cold, fumbling fingers. I feel cross with myself, too, for being so irresponsible. Like I’m a teenager again, bunking off an A-Level revision class. As if irresponsible is the worst thing I can ever be.

Except it isn’t.

I’m fifty metres from the cliff path the first time I see him. Just a glimpse; a flash of colour that shouldn’t be there. An incongruous pixel of hothouse-flower pink, bright against the rear cottage wall. I only see him because the building has been freed temporarily from the fog, which is now drifting almost lazily upwards.

I slow and stop on the wet sand, trying to pick out more detail. The higher Down rises some two hundred metres above sea level, and the cottage, set at the back of a wide grassy plateau, is around thirty metres above where I’m standing. Once I reach the bottom of the steps which will take me back up there I know both will be temporarily lost from view. But, once again, there it is – the same flash of bright pink. There’s someone hanging around at the back of our property. I hitch the board up and hurry on towards the steps.

It’s only once I’m on the pasture above the beach, with the house back in sight, that I see him again. He’s sinewy. Purposeful. Youthful. He’s wearing a grey T-shirt and I realise that the flash of pink I saw is a pair of hibiscus-spattered board shorts. He’s also moving in such a way around the back of the house that it’s obvious he’s up to no good.

I increase my speed across the expanse of grass that separates us. He hasn’t seen me. He’s got his back to me and is peering into the kitchen window, which looks out over the bay. And the fog, now moving sluggishly but more thickly upwards, ensures that even if he does turn around it’s highly unlikely that he will spot me.

I’m right. Temporarily shielded by the jumble of outbuildings in the garden, I’m almost at the low garden wall before he turns around, scanning the horizon, and then finally notices me – a dark shape, growing larger as I jog up the last five or so metres of track towards home.

Our eyes meet. He panics. Then, immediately, he bolts. Runs around the corner of the house wall, out of sight and out of earshot, to emerge seconds later, incongruously higher on the hill. Heading up the Down, where I’d have expected him to run east towards Rhossili.

But no. Straight up the hill. Where there is no route to follow – not even a path made by the sheep. It’s too steep. Why on earth would he do that when there are so many other options? Because he thinks I won’t follow him? Because he thinks I can’t?

Whatever’s prompted him, he now looks like a frightened Gower pony, making astonishingly fast progress, albeit in explosive, skittish bursts, around and among the muddle of bramble and dying ferns. Is it that – that sudden turn of speed – that prompts me to follow? Am I trying to prove something? To him? To myself?

In the moment, however, I don’t think; I just do. I sling the board down by the back gate, run round the side of the house, and hare off up the hill in pursuit.

‘Hey!’ I bellow. ‘Stop!’ And I know he must have heard me. And again, because he has, and has chosen to ignore me, on I go, powering up the steep, dewy Down, my legs impelled more by indignation than proper anger. But he’s too young and quick, and too intent on evading me, and within moments he’s lost to me again, melted into the fog.

The higher Down is pimpled with outcrops of exposed sandstone boulders, and I stop by one, my breath coming in rasps. The fog has swallowed me as well, and for a moment sense prevails. Let it go. Whatever it is. Just let it go, Julia.

And that’s how life sometimes goes. Turns on a fraction of a moment. Because I linger there just long enough to hear him scream.

I rarely surf without boots on, even in summer. I trod on a weever fish once and I’ve never forgotten it. You tend not to when inflicted with that intensity of pain. (Typical. I remember David saying that, chuckling. How many times have I told you? A zillion? A trillion? My late husband and I were still happy then.)

That’s what strikes me immediately after the spike of human noise. That my feet are encased in rubber. I would not have come this far without them. I’m responsible again.

I call out. ‘Where are you?’ But there’s no answering sound. ‘Hello!’ I call again, heading on up.

Another noise then. This time lower pitched; more of pain than terror. And as I jog on up the muddy track, I hear it again.

‘Where are you?’ I yell through the murk as I run. ‘Call again so I can work out where you are!’

As I rise even higher the belt of fog begins to thin. And as I reach the flat path that traces the spine of Rhossili all the way to Hillend, I hear him cry out again. I twist to locate the sound, realising that it’s now travelling up to me. So I swerve off the path to my left into the heather. A stonechat – such nervy birds – clatters upwards in front of me. I’m not sure which of us is more spooked.

I press on to where the rocks mark a sheer, scary drop. Despite the fog, which now hangs in a gauzy haze below me, I can just about work out where I am. ‘Have you fallen?’ I yell down. Another stonechat breaks cover.

A ragged voice floats up to me. ‘Help!’ Then, ‘Down here!’

By early autumn, Rhossili Down is more filigree than tapestry; the rocks on the steeper inclines, liberally mottled with yellow lichen, are now half-buried beneath bracken and greying gorse. Even in my wetsuit I can feel them trying to snare me.

I’ve never once tried to clamber down there. Who would? Though by autumn to fall a long way would be almost impossible – you’d be trapped by the mesh of branches as efficiently as in a drag net, which consoles me as I begin picking my way down the hillside, moving gingerly, trying to find the least precipitous route. The fog eddies around me, displaced by my flailing, but another cry – unintelligible this time – at least makes the boy’s location clearer.

Mine, too, is increasingly precarious. And almost as I think that, my foot slips on a watercourse and I’m falling, desperately grabbing at a bush to stop me tumbling down to join him. But it’s as sharp as it’s strong and, as if to teach me a lesson, a thorn ploughs a furrow through the palm of my left hand.

Cursing, I flail for purchase with my other hand and find one. And there he is, bent and stiff, just below me.

His hands are fluttering in front of him. ‘God,’ he’s saying. ‘Oh, Jesus! God!’

Transfixed, I scramble down to him, all other thoughts now forgotten, bar the blood that is spewing from him, holding all his attention. Bright, urgent, thick arterial blood.

From that to this. In a fragment of a moment.

They say it just kicks in, a medical training. Which is why the standard response to a medical emergency is to start looking around for a doctor. In reality, without drugs and machinery and tech, what you probably most want is a first aider.

It’s been a good fifteen years since I’ve done life-or-death first aid. My speciality is cancer, which is a serious business, but it mostly does its deadly work at a slower pace. So such kicking in as is going on is a kick of profound panic. We are a very long way from the nearest A & E. The boy is bleeding profusely all over the pink board shorts, from which wisps of pungent steam are already rising.

I inch my way down to him, treading carefully across the stream that has already upended me, realising that this might well be what has happened to him too.

‘Oh, god,’ he says, hearing me, then looking up, seeing me. ‘Help me!’ His face is paper white. His hands round his left thigh aren’t actually touching it. They’re just quivering above it, like dying crabs, blood-soaked, stiff and hopeless.

The slope is steep, much too steep, and I’m grateful for the fog now. That and the fact that whatever has stopped him falling shows no sign of relinquishing him now. His legs are both bent, his feet rammed against a boulder. I edge down to him and manage to kneel awkwardly just above him. ‘Don’t move,’ I tell him, as I lean in to see better, my view of whatever is causing so much blood to pump out of him now partly obscured by his T-shirted back.

‘Help me,’ he says again, his voice astonished as much as anything. ‘God, please help me.’

‘I am,’ I say. ‘I will. I’m a doctor.’

It sounds ridiculously pompous, even to my long-attuned ears. But you do it because, usually, it helps. I manoeuvre my right leg down beside him and shimmy myself around so I am at least half beside him. ‘Stay still,’ I command. ‘And try to keep calm,’ I add, though I am by now anything but. ‘Let me see what we’re dealing with here.’

And then I see, and I realise there is no time for reassurance. Only immediate, decisive action. He has a wound in his groin that I know without question could kill him in a matter of minutes.

The femoral arteries are among the body’s blood super-highways. Driving oxygenated blood from the heart to the legs, they are also some of the widest and strongest. Part of a closed, efficient system which is central to life. Or, if severed, the route to complete exsanguination.

Watching the boy bleed out, I grope desperately for fragments of my early training; mnemonics and mantras learned by rote, like times tables. If it’s life or limb, choose life. Use a tourniquet. Otherwise, never. I know if I need to do that then he might survive but lose a leg. But I refuse to believe I need to take that risk. And the wound is probably too close to his groin in any case.

Which means speed is of the essence. Access to medical equipment is, too. But I am in a wetsuit, high on Rhossili Down, lodged between a rock and a hard place. Think, Julia. Think. I have two hands, one bleeding. And that’s all I have. My only tools to apply pressure to the wound.

But ten seconds spent now could give me many minutes later. What I really need is some sort of pad to plug the wound, and it hits me that at least I have my bikini top beneath my wetsuit, so I reach around my back and fumble for my zip tag. I yank on it too hard at first, and the teeth try to resist me, but then it gives and I reach up to free the flap of Velcro, then pull the wetsuit down at the front.

‘Stay calm,’ I tell the boy. He stares sightlessly at me. His brows are thin and pale, but his eyes are big and dark. The school-uniform blue of a newly born baby. Who is he? Where’s he come from? Might Tash know him?

‘Don’t move,’ I tell him. ‘I’m going to make a pad to plug the wound for you, okay?’

My bikini top is an old, sturdy, functional halterneck, which pings open at the back with the lightest of touches. Wrenching it from the wetsuit’s strong embrace, I yank it up over the top of my head, fumbling the wetsuit back up my arms as I do so. I feel a hot swipe of pain as my gashed hand catches the strap, and then I have it and can ball it into a solid scrap of useful fabric. Not sterile, but at least salt rinsed. And precious minutes gained.

Plug the wound with a pad. Smallest surface area possible. Both hands, heel on back. Direct, constant pressure. ‘Right,’ I tell the boy. ‘Lie back. I’m going to try to stop the flow.’

Then, one leg straight, one leg bent, I lean in, gently ushering his trembling hands away. Then yank his shorts down to his thighs – a shock of blonde pubic hair, his genitalia soaked crimson – press the pad into the wound, place my right hand on top of it, press my bleeding left one on that, heel to back, and press down.

And then I begin shouting for help.

I shout so loud, and for so long, and with such dogged persistence that I think I end up scaring the fog back down the hill. Saving lives is not a quiet, decorous business.

But my persistence pays off. I have no idea how much time passes. It could be ten minutes, or twenty. But in a lull between shouts I hear the cough of an engine. And moments later a voice comes floating down to me.

‘I hear you, lovely!’ A man’s voice. ‘What’s happened? I can’t see you!’

‘I need the air ambulance!’ I shout up. ‘Don’t come down. Call the air ambulance! It’s a life-threatening injury!’ I add, to make sure.

‘Okay!’ he calls back, and in a tone that suggests my request is nothing out of the ordinary, which gives me hope. He must be local. A farmer, perhaps. Someone, at any rate, who knows the lie of the land here. Who already knows just how far we are from the nearest road. I hear the engine again then. A quad bike, I decide. They use them on the Down to help them round up errant sheep.

‘It’s okay,’ I tell the boy. Though I know he’s almost certainly unconscious. ‘It’s okay. Someone will be here soon. It’s okay.’

I dare not stop applying pressure, so I don’t know how I’m doing – any more than I know who the boy is or why he’s come here, or who will have their own lives destroyed if I allow his to expire beneath my hands. His own hands are now motionless, palms up, as if nesting in the brambles, and on the inside of his skinny right wrist, smeared with blood, I can just make out the outline of a small butterfly tattoo.

I wonder – is he old enough to have one? He’s so obviously still on the cusp of full manhood; all bum fluff and angles and creamy young skin. The T-shirt looks new. The board shorts are old. A pair of pale battered Converse – no socks that I can see – are on his feet. I wonder how many summers they’ve taken him through now. Where they’ve been. What they’ve seen.

The bracken glistens beneath his hair and I suspect he also has a head injury – perhaps equally life-threatening. Did he crack his skull on the rock just above us when he fell? I want to brush the hair off his face, but I can’t because I dare not move my hands. Any clot that might have formed by now will be too fragile, too tenuous. One move and the flood gate might reopen.

And I have caused this. I look away, to keep the horrible thought at bay, to keep my whole focus on trying to save him. And as I do so I realise the fog has disappeared. As if, having done its work, it has swept away, remorseless. And on the beach, still a dizzying distance below us, I see the beginnings of a gathering, presumably drawn by my shouts for help. Matchstick-men surfers. A man with two dogs. Another waving his arms. A couple in fluorescent jackets. Several are holding up mobile phones, which wink bright hellos. Filming, I realise. Filming us. Filming this. Whatever ‘this’ might turn out to be.

The air ambulance can get to anywhere in Wales in twenty minutes. I already know that because it’s the sort of thing I would know. It has delivered critically ill children to David more than once down the years. And just the once, when I was on call, as a very junior doctor in Cardiff, a haemorrhaging RTA casualty to me. That precious golden hour. We managed to save him.

It’s much less than that, though, before all the faces on the beach are tilted skywards, following the whump of rotor blades as they carve through the air. And there is the helicopter itself now – hanging over us like a big benevolent insect, hovering momentarily before banking away again, towards the top of the Down. I can feel the misplaced air tickling my sweating face.

More precious moments pass before I next hear my farmer. ‘Can you hear me?’ I still can’t see him, but he sounds a little closer. ‘Stay put,’ he shouts. ‘Okay, lovely? They’re going to land. See if they can get down to you. What’s the injury?’

My voice is hoarse as I explain it’s a suspected laceration of a femoral artery. I do it slowly, firing the words up individually to him, twice. ‘He can’t be moved,’ I finish. ‘Not without medical attention. Tell them I’m a doctor. Tell them they are going to need a haemostatic agent.’ This is no time to worry about causing offence by telling professional colleagues to suck eggs.

He shouts the last two words back down to me. ‘Okay,’ he finishes. ‘Got it.’

I wonder if I know him. Wonder if I’ve passed him on the beach, perhaps. There are even more people gathered down on the sand now. More mobile phones trained on us. It can’t even be eight yet. Where have they all come from?

I wait patiently with my patient. Still pressing. Still hoping. Still watching for movement beneath his closed eyelids.

My farmer’s voice again, straining as the helicopter rises a second time. ‘Can you hear me? They’re going to winch down a medic. Stand by.’

‘Please don’t die,’ I tell the boy. My cut hand is completely numb now. ‘They’re coming now, okay? Please don’t die.’

Life-saving modern medicine comes in many forms. It comes now in the shape of a young doctor, lowered slowly down to us on a cable as slim as a little finger, with a stretcher and a sling and a bag of medical miracles, which he manages to wedge alongside the rock by my foot. Far below us, the previously scattered crowd has begun to coalesce. The noise from the hovering helicopter makes the air vibrate.

‘I’m Ollie,’ he says, detaching the cable. ‘And you’re?’


‘So, how are we doing, Julia?’

His voice, which is slow and deep, calms me a little. ‘Not good. I think he also took a bang to his head. And I think he’d already lost a lot of blood before I got to him.’

My voice is thready now. But neither of us need to ponder specifics anyway. The boy’s pallor tells us plenty, the sodden bracken even more.

‘Lucky lad that you did then,’ he says as he unzips his kit bag. He nods towards my hands. My red-and-white determined knuckles. ‘You all right there for a moment more?’

My shoulders are screaming in protest and my bottom hand is numb now. ‘For as long as I need to be,’ I promise him.

He pulls items from the bag and begins to unwrap them. A pair of scissors. A pressure pad. An applicator pack of Celox. Life-saving battlefield essentials. ‘You know your stuff then,’ he says as he lays them out on the bag.

‘To a point. I’m a doctor.’

‘Ah. Got it.’ He picks the scissors up. Makes short work of the sodden shorts. Peels the sticky, sopping fabric away, exposing more flesh – shockingly white – beneath the flaccid penis and tight, youthful testicles. There is absolutely no dignity in such violent near-death. ‘He’s been even luckier then, I’d say. You know what happened to him?’

‘He must have fallen. I didn’t see it. It’s some sort of penetrating injury.’

He chooses the Celox next. A fat tampon-like syringe. ‘How about you?’ he says, gesturing again towards my scratched, bloody hands.

‘It’s nothing,’ I say. ‘Just got snared by a thorn. I have no idea what went into him. If anything even did . . . It was too hard to see. Maybe he fell on a jagged rock or something? I don’t . . . I can’t . . .’

‘Let’s see then, shall we?’ he says, raising the applicator. ‘Ready?’

I take both my hands and the pad away with the greatest of care. The bloody mess begins forming a fresh pool immediately.

He becomes professionally taciturn then, his full attention on the job, while my hands, no longer occupied, begin shaking uncontrollably and continue to do so as I hug my bent knee, anxious to help but unable to be useful in such a small, perilous, complicated space.

I’m not needed anyway. As soon as he pushes the contents of the applicator into the wound, magic happens; glistening soup instantly turns to what looks like a pile of breadcrumbs, which he then covers, before applying pressure, just as I did. Then he tightly wraps it, binding both thigh and lower torso, and, even before I have full feeling back in my tingling arm, the boy is covered up, harnessed up, buckled securely to his saviour, and with a promise to come back for me – to which I manage a stuttering ‘hope so’ – Ollie is spiralling upwards towards the helicopter, holding the boy in his strong embrace as if they are characters in a James Bond film escaping the villain’s lair.

So it’s done. Death defeated. At least for the moment. But with the boy’s fate out of my hands, I’m frightened for myself now as the blast from the rotors threatens to knock me off my giddy perch.

Ollie keeps his promise. He’s soon back with me, harnessing me up with quick, practised movements while my hand drips blood onto the already sticky ferns.

‘Sure you’re all right, Julia?’ he wants to know as he tethers me to him.

The cable jerks us upwards. ‘I’m okay,’ I promise him.

Which is a lie. But not the biggest I’ve ever told.

Lymantria dispar

The Gypsy Moth

I lie too, Julia. About all sorts. I’m rather good at it. I like it. I often lie, amongst other things, about who I am. It’s a survival strategy I had to learn early.

I am, I fact, whatever I need to be, whenever. Pleasing though it is to pick a side, pick a team, pick a tribe, or an identity, I’m actually pretty fickle: now you think you see me, but now, in fact, you can’t.

Which is how it has to be now, because stuff changes, doesn’t it? Case in point. Stuff has changed. Right here. Right now. For you, Julia, but also for me.

What kind of moth might you see me as, Julia? Something fat-bellied? Bellicose? I can definitely do bellicose. Something ethereal? Gnat-like? Insignificant and squishable? Something workaday and ‘common’? (Oh, I can do that, if I must.) Something idiosyncratic, perhaps? Eccentric? Rare and strange?

But you can’t see me, not for long, because insects metamorphose. Know this, though, Julia. I am a moth for all seasons; I travel. I am a gypsy moth. I am Lymantria dispar.

Dispar, from the Latin; ‘to separate’.

Lymantria, also Latin. It means ‘destroyer’.

Chapter 2

I know all about medical emergencies because it goes with the territory. The scant resources, the financial box ticking, the justification for every spent penny. This is even truer when expensive resources like helicopters are involved. So I’m surprised to learn that we are headed not for Swansea, but Cardiff. It turns out that it’s because of the Neurosurgery unit there, which only adds to my fears about the boy. I’m even more surprised when it becomes obvious that no ambulance has been mustered to ferry me to a local surgery for a once over, a clean-up, and a couple of stitches. That they’re going to take me to Cardiff as well.

I couldn’t be more grateful. I don’t doubt it helps that they know I’m a doctor, but mostly I think they understand that there is no question of me leaving the boy willingly.

The onboard paramedic has a clipboard on his knees and, while Doctor Ollie kneels and ministers to his patient, he is busy talking to the pilot and writing things down. Hills rise and fall. The Bristol channel keeps pace. Cars on the M4 blink up at us.

‘So, do we know who he is?’ the paramedic says through his headphones.

I lick dry lips. ‘I’m sorry. I have no idea.’

‘Did he have anything with him?’ He glances towards Oliver.

‘Not that I know of,’ he replies. He looks at me and lifts his brows.

‘No, I don’t think so,’ I say. I hadn’t even thought to check. Couldn’t have in any case, both hands having already been deployed.

‘Nothing on him? Phone or anything? Wallet?’

There is no need to pat the boy down. Ollie shakes his head. ‘Negative.’

‘So, no idea why he was up there?’ That question’s for me again. I feel horribly airsick, sweet saliva in my mouth. I squeeze the boy’s hand. Can he hear us?

‘He wasn’t up there originally. I saw him hanging around my cottage. And when I got to him . . . I don’t know. He just hared off up the hill.’

‘No idea why he was there?’ The paramedic again, busy filling boxes.

‘No.’ I suck air in through my nose and swallow. ‘I have no idea why he ran away from me either. I followed him up there. But the fog . . .’

‘Tell me about it.’ The pilot. ‘Proper pea-souper this morning. A John Doe, then.’ He says nothing more.

I squeeze the boy’s hand again. Who is he? Is he someone Tash knows from uni, come looking for her? Could that be it? I feel sicker still at the thought. God, is he one of her friends? But if so, why on earth would he run away from me?

The last time I was at Cardiff University Hospital – the day my husband died – I entered via the reception, not the helipad. We alight on it now with the grace of a bee settling on a flower, insulated from the chaos we are causing beneath us (the incredible noise, the air turbulence, the arresting nature of our presence) and I note the irony in the fact that this most glamourous of entrances is reserved for a specific ‘chosen few’ – those most at risk of making final departures.

The airsickness gets the better of me and though I try my hardest not to, I throw up as soon as I climb out of the helicopter. Someone duly hurries off to find me a wheelchair and they insist that I use it. So while the boy is rushed down into Major Trauma to be blood-matched and stabilised for surgery, I’m pushed by a nurse into the main part of A & E.

‘We’ve called the police,’ she explains, dipping her head to talk to me. She smells of vanilla, and my stomach churns again. ‘And I think they will want to talk to you. Nothing to worry about,’ she adds, as she wheels me to the A & E reception desk. ‘Just procedure when a patient is particularly poorly and we have no ID. Just so you can tell them what you know. All right, lovely?’

For ‘particularly poorly’ I read ‘critical’. ‘No, of course, that’s fine,’ I say, conscious of eyes once again on me, taking in the blanket, the wetsuit, and the mud- and blood-speckled black rubber boots. Of the startling sight I must seem in this big city hospital, many miles, nautical or otherwise, from the breakers.

Once we reach the desk I shuffle myself forward in the chair and stand up. ‘Really, I don’t think I need this,’ I tell the nurse. ‘I feel better now. It was just the flight.’

For a moment she looks as if she might push me back down. ‘I’m absolutely fine,’ I reassure her, pushing the chair away from me. ‘I’m sure someone else can make better use of this.’

Though I feel my legs start to betray me even as she wheels it away. I have to cling to the counter as the receptionist books me in, and only just make it to the nearest empty seat before they give up completely and deposit me on the floor.

A & E is rammed; the LED scrolls a wait of ninety minutes. And as I close my eyes, trying to shut out the stares I’m attracting, I recall something I was told when I did my own stint on the frontline. That, rather than the Friday or Saturday evenings of most people’s imaginations, it’s Monday mornings that are always the busiest in casualty.

I’m feeling clammy now, and dizzy, and while I suspect it’s as much to do with my newly emptied stomach as the trauma, I also recognise that I might be in shock. I scan my image-bank of memories in search of escape.

Ridiculous, the things that stay with you. The little mind maps in storage. It’s been years since I’ve worked in this hospital, and it was only for six months, yet there are still nooks and crannies I could find my way to blindfolded. Including a hidden staff toilet just behind the triage area.

I’m just about to head there, so I can splash some water over my salt-scoured face, when I hear someone behind me call my name.

‘Julia! Oh, my god. So it is you!’

News clearly travels. I turn around to see a familiar grey-haired woman hurrying towards me, a pile of notes clutched to her chest, pinioning a lanyard and badge, and a pair of purple reading glasses on her head.

Sonia, not so very long back, was David’s clinical secretary. I haven’t seen her since his funeral six months back. And I barely saw her then. So many had turned out for it. Such an astonishing number of people.

But perhaps not so astonishing. He was young and well loved.

She sits down next to me. Every eye in the waiting room is again trained on us. ‘Look at you,’ she says, as if I’ve misinterpreted the dress code for a party. ‘Look at you. For heaven’s sake. Let me see if I can find you some scrubs or something. You want a tea or something too?’

I tell her no. ‘I’m okay. But I really need a phone. Do you have one I could borrow? I need to call Tash to let her know I’m all right.’

‘Gosh, of course.’ She stands up then, so she can pull a mobile from a trouser pocket. ‘Here,’ she says. ‘Passcode is 3625. Hmm. You do need that cuppa. You’re white as a sheet. I’ll go and get you one now. And I’ll have a word.’ She lowers her voice. ‘Get you pushed along a bit.’

Her relentless kindness is beginning to make my eyes prickle. ‘Could you find out if there’s any news yet?’ I ask her. ‘On the boy?’

She pats my shoulder. ‘I’ll find that out too,’ she promises. ‘Pat’s in today, so I’ll nip up and have a word with her. Try not to worry. You know he’s in good hands.’ She squeezes my arm then, her hand pale and liver-spotted against the black neoprene. ‘He’s been in good hands. Just imagine if you hadn’t been there.’

I already have. And the conclusion I’ve reached is as stark as it’s inescapable. If I hadn’t been there, then he wouldn’t be here.

‘So, who is he?’ My daughter’s voice is still thick with sleep as she answers my call. Which at least means the grim footage has yet to reach her.

‘I don’t know. I was hoping you might. He’s about your age. Maybe younger. Curly blonde hair. Big blue eyes. Skinny. And he’s got a tattoo of a speckled butterfly on the inside of his wrist. Does that ring any bells? Could it—’

‘Christ, Mum.’ I hear clicks and rustling. ‘God, that’s you up there? Ellie. Rewind it. No, no. There. That’s it – god, Mum, have you seen this?’

‘Seen what?’

‘It’s on YouTube. God, Mum. You’re on YouTube. What the f— How on earth? Are you okay?’

‘I’m fine,’ I reassure her. I dread to think what the films on YouTube might look like. ‘Just need a couple of steri-strips in my hand. I’m more worried about the boy. Think, sweetie – could he be anyone you know? He’s in such a bad way, and no one knows who he is. So, if you can think of anyone – ask anyone – then let me know ASAP, okay?’

‘God, that bad?’

‘Yes, sweetie, that bad.’

‘But you’re sure you’re okay? You’re not just saying that, are you?’

‘I’m fine,’ I say again. ‘Tell you what, I’ll text you a selfie to prove it, shall I?’ Then immediately regret it, because my hand – because all of me – is such a crusted, bloody mess. ‘Look, and in the meantime, if you can think of anyone? Ask around? It’s important, okay? Because he’s really badly injured. Can you do that?’

‘Yes, of course, but—’

‘And call me back on this number if you can think of anyone?’

‘Yes, course I will. Mum, seriously, you think he might die?’

I can hardly bear to articulate it. ‘Yes, he might.’

‘Julia, what can I say? Good god. What a Monday morning you’ve had, eh?’

My wound pulled together by a brisk, capable A & E nurse, I’ve swapped my wetsuit for the scrubs Sonia’s found for me and drunk the tea, which has made me feel much better. And, still ridiculously clad in my blood-spattered rubber boots, I’ve now found my way, ninja-style, to temporary sanctuary. The office of a consultant paediatric surgeon called Jack, David’s former colleague and, also formerly, our friend.

I haven’t seen Jack since David’s funeral either, and though I wrote to thank him for his card – one of more than two hundred – I haven’t tried to make contact since. It just seemed easier that way. Less need to pretend. A clean, decisive break. Better for everyone. Not least because, a year or so before David’s death, Jack left his wife, Prudence, who is a GP in Barry, and with what was widely considered to be unseemly haste, got divorced and remarried within a year.

I made no such judgements. Judge not, lest you be judged. I just felt stunned that a life that had for so long seemed so stable could be dismantled and reassembled so quickly.

It’s good to see such a kind, familiar face. He finds a seat for me, and a contaminated waste bag for my bloody wetsuit, then sits back on his swivel chair, long surgeon’s fingers meshed together between his knees. I spot his new wedding ring, which is thick and, knowing Jack, almost certainly high carat white gold. A reminder of the life that has carried on in my absence. I wonder how successfully he’s disposed of his old one.

I find I’m twisting my own wedding ring, and wonder how long it will sit there. When – if – I’ll take it off. Tell the truth.

‘How are you anyway?’ he asks. ‘It’s been too long. You still in London? How’s Tash?’

‘Yes I am, and she’s fine,’ I say. ‘Goes back to uni next week.’

‘Swansea, right?’

I nod. ‘I’m helping her move into her new student house. I wasn’t even supposed to be coming down till tomorrow. She’s in Edinburgh at the moment, with an old school friend. She—’

‘You’ve spoken to her, then – told her where you are? Because it’s all over social media. You know that, don’t you?’

‘I do. And, yes, just now. But she didn’t think it sounded like anyone she knows. None of her friends are back yet, and she didn’t recognise anyone from my description.’ I glance up at the wall clock. Is he still in surgery? Still alive?

Jack is determined to drop everything so he can take me back to the cottage. It will be a three-hour round trip for him, and a massive imposition, but he won’t take no for an answer. In the face of my repeated refusals, he even becomes short. ‘Jules, shut up. Let me do this!’

I know it will mean moving a whole mountain range of NHS commitments, so, grateful, and also chastened, I leave him to do so, while I go back down to see the policeman in A & E, where Sonia has buzzed a message to let me know he’s waiting.

I already know there’s little I can tell him that will be of use to him. In fact, he is already several steps ahead of me. The boy is out of theatre now, he tells me, and has been transferred to ITU, where they are going to keep him in an induced coma till he stabilises.

If he stabilises. I know his body could tip over into shock again at any moment. That, if it does so, one by one, all his systems could fail. I try not to think about it. ‘And have you made any progress with finding out who he is yet?’

The officer shakes his head. ‘But we’ve got a photo – if we need to use it – and the butterfly tattoo, of course. And at least we have a phone number—’

‘You have a phone number?’

He gestures towards his hand. ‘Written in marker pen on his palm.’

I hadn’t seen that. But how would I have beneath all that blood? ‘Thank goodness for that at least,’ I say.

‘Well, in theory. No luck so far. But we’ll keep trying. Sure we’ll get there. We’ll be putting an appeal out right away. Try not to worry, Doctor Young. I’m sure someone will come forward soon. Young lad like he is . . . He’s sure to be missed, isn’t he?’

By who? I think. And how soon? Soon enough?

By the time I’ve finished with the policeman and made my way back up to Jack’s office, he’s sorted everything he needs to and has his jacket on.

‘I’ve just been up there,’ he tells me. ‘And it’s still touch and go, but Pat’s promised she’ll keep you in the loop. Well, at least till her shift ends. I’ve given her your mobile number – assuming you haven’t changed it?’ I shake my head. ‘Good. So she’ll be able to speak to you direct then. You all set?’

I’d really like to see the boy for myself, but I know that won’t be happening, so knowing Pat’s there – she’s a senior ITU nurse who worked with David for many years – is both a reassurance and a consolation.

‘That’s really kind of you,’ I say. ‘And, yes. Yes, I’m all done. Though—’

‘Enough! Jules, honestly, you are doing me a favour. Because this huge inconvenience’ – he puts the word ‘inconvenience’ in finger quote marks – ‘means I’m going to have to reschedule my annual appraisal. And if we spin it out long enough, I might even have to miss a Trust meeting as well. Plus, between you and me, a few hours to myself are a commodity in extremely short supply lately.’

Jack is as conscientious and hard-working a doctor as I know, so I don’t buy his ‘bunking off’ spiel for a moment. But I’m grateful that he’s so anxious to peddle it, even so. I am not good with accepting favours, and he knows it. But what he says about time off strikes a chord, given the messy nature of his divorce.

‘So, how are the kids?’ I ask, as we set off for the multistorey. He has two, both teenagers, to whom he is devoted. I wonder how he’s adjusted to all the changes and challenges. Even more than that, I wonder how they have.

‘You probably don’t know, do you? I have another one now – Harry. He’s – let me see now . . . he must be eight, no . . . nine weeks old.’

‘I didn’t. Wow, Jack. You don’t let the grass grow, do you?’

‘He wasn’t exactly intentional. But you know Emma . . . there was no way she wasn’t going to have him, was there?’

I don’t know her, but because the NHS grapevine is a very long one, I do know that his new wife, a former radiographer at this very hospital, is not much over thirty. She was married too, but childless, and, as I recall, keen to crack on. So, no, I’d imagine there wasn’t.

And as we pull out onto the dual carriageway, heading west again, I wonder. Had he not died, might this have been David’s story too? Highly likely, I imagine. As it is, I’ve been spared it.

It takes forty-five minutes to get to the Gower motorway junction, most of which we spend in conversation about the boy; analysing, considering scenarios, weighing odds. For Jack, this is an everyday, business-as-usual business. But for me, it’s beginning to really hit home. I can’t stop thinking that I’m heading back here, having left him back there. That I’ve abandoned him. It feels wrong.

But by the time we’re off the M4, we’ve exhausted all the various possibilities, and, besides, now we’re out on the peninsular proper, Jack’s swept up in memories of a life already lost. The life that matters more to him – that of his friend.

‘I still can’t quite believe it, Jules. What’s it been now? Half a year? There are patients coming in for follow ups that don’t even know, of course, and, it’s so bloody . . . Well, I don’t need to tell you that, do I? Just the shittiest thing to have happened. I’m so sorry I haven’t been in touch more. I really am. It’s just, what with everything . . .’ he sighs. ‘And you and Pru being close . . .’ He tails off then, as if to let the thought arrive at its own conclusions. Then suddenly he thumps the steering wheel, which makes me jump. ‘Sorry. But that’s a load of bollocks, isn’t it? I let you down. I should have done more. I should have called you.’

‘Jack, please don’t apologise. It was complicated.’ So much more than he knows.

‘No excuses, Jules. I should have made more of an effort.’

‘You wrote that note. Which was lovely . . .’

‘Christ, will you just stop letting me off? I’m guilty as charged and we both know it.’

‘Jack, you are guilty of nothing,’ I begin, but I can tell he’s now distracted by the view that fills the windscreen as we round the last bend before Rhossili.

‘Wow,’ he says. ‘Sorry, Jules, but, wow. Why do I always forget just how beautiful it is here?’

It’s the place where everyone says the same – it’s like a punch in the senses. The ‘I can see the sea!’ point, but on hallucinogenic drugs. Where the elements come together in such glorious disarray that it’s as if they mud-wrestled one another for geological supremacy.

‘It is,’ I agree. Though now we’re back here the knot in my stomach tugs itself just a little tighter. How long has the boy been out of surgery now? Two hours?

Jack has no such insistent neurons firing in his brain. ‘And you know what?’ he says, as he slows down to admire it. ‘This is how I’m always going to remember David. Right here, where he was always so happy. So himself.’ He glances across at me. We both know what he means. ‘I can’t imagine how tough it must be for you, Jules. You must miss him like hell.’

I leave that to hang there, because I don’t know how to answer. A simple ‘Yes, I do’ is what I should say, I know. Yet the words just won’t come. Instead I nod. Because what else is there to do?

When we arrive at the cottage, Jack won’t stay. Not even to use the loo, let alone have a coffee.

‘Better not,’ he says. ‘To be honest, I really should get to that Trust meeting.’ His fingers brush my forearm, then he thinks better of it and hugs me. ‘As long as you’re sure you’re okay? Are you?’

‘Yes, I’m fine, Jack. But surely you—’

‘No buts. You get on inside. You look shattered,’ he adds, reaching over into the back seat for my wetsuit. ‘Well, assuming you can get in. Can you?’

I nod. ‘I left the key under the mat.’

And as I watch him drive away, it hits me that our past is all so much debris clinging on to the tideline; just like all the razor shells and dead crabs and seaweed and frayed fishing line, it is all destined, inexorably, to be washed away.

Whereas, in the present, a young boy is clinging on to something much more important.

A lifeline. Is he still hanging on to it?

Heterogynis penella

Ah, yes, the infinite joys of parenting. The mummy moth here (let’s call her Penny. Or, just for the lols, Trudy) has a pretty short, pretty rubbish existence. Mostly because she’s wingless and legless. She emerges from her cocoon, one assumes, full of the simple joys of spring, only to find she’s lost the lepidopteran lottery, and still looks, give or take, like a caterpillar. (A bit like the lot of countless idiot millennials who spend money they didn’t earn on teeth whitening kits.)

It gets worse. She is legless and wingless for good reason. It’s so that once she’s laid her eggs she is obliged not to leave them. She must, of necessity, hang around till they’re caterpillars, as her one job once she’s laid them is to provide them with their first meal.

As in be their first meal: make the ultimate maternal sacrifice. But she’s a moth. She knows the score. It’s her job to be martyred. Which is why she’d deem it rude to take it personally.

Course the key thing here is that she doesn’t know any different. Class Insecta is not big on cognition. You live, you crawl, you grow, you mate, you suffer, you get eaten alive. But I wonder. If she could see she had options, would she act differently? See another moth, say – one with wings, legs, and choices? Bottom line, she might not have a choice – hard to run away without limbs, after all. But it’s the knowing. The awful knowing. It would eat at you, wouldn’t it? As voraciously as any number of hungry offspring.

I had a mother once. Briefly. Now just a shard of painful memory. And then I had a foster mother. I remember her SO well. Because she promised to take care of me forever.

And didn’t. She went and flew. Which is how people like me disappear, see? Because we are starved, more or less. Becoming weak, frail, etiolated, will-o-the-wisp translucent. Less and less and less of the thing we were supposed to be. Till we are no more substantial than a dust mote among millions, bobbing in the breeze from the office aircon. Just another speck of nothing in the system.

Oh, you, though. Oh, you two. You pretty, pretty things, you. You know why? Because you HAD been mothered. You know, that’s THE thing that struck me the most when he died.

He went and DIED, dammit. When I had plans, yeah? Arrangements in place. I was like that Skittles ad: I’d tasted the rainbow.

And when I found out he’d croaked, I went – as had for a while been my habit – to the citadel of smoke and mirrors that is Facebook.

YOUR Facebook. HER Facebook. Your two-for-the-price-of-one virtual smorgasbord of beguiling, pretty-even-in-extremis delights.

And, oh boy, you did NOT disappoint. In bereavement, as in everything, you kindly obliged. The short, thoughtful eulogy. The carefully curated photo montage. The ‘love’ icon clicked, oh so dutifully, on some three hundred posts. Of sympathy, empathy, hugs, healing ‘vibes’ – some of which, okay, yes, may have been genuine, I’ll grant you, but others of which, come on (and, yes, more than you know, Julia), were vapid, follow-my-social-media-leader, emotion-lite shite.

I did good, right? Made you look, right? Way with words, me. I SPEW them.

De nada, Natasha. De nada.

Chapter 3

Our Gower cottage is haunted. Or so everyone has always told us. And not just by the ghosts of a complicated, expiring marriage. By proper spectral beings, with their troubled, restless souls. An Edwardian couple have been sighted several times wafting gracefully through its hefty walls, and there has also been the usual raft of apocryphal tales. Tales of unexpected pools of icy air in its corridors, and whispered voices: Why don’t you turn around and look at me?

I stopped believing in ghosts around the same time as I dispensed with Father Christmas, but for these ghosts, we made an exception. It was such a thing locally that it would have seemed churlish not to. Besides, Tash was always fond of them, even as quite a small child. Never fearful. Just thrilled at the prospect of having ghostly tales to tell at school. So we allowed them to stay. Even spoke to them. Goodnight friendly ghosts!

Though, up to now, they’ve never spoken back to us. Celebrated as they are, our Gower ghosts have kept themselves to themselves. Perhaps they’re just bored by being the only ones in town.

Perhaps they’re waiting for company.

I hope they don’t get it.

The key is not under the mat. There is no mat. When I’m surfing it lives under the pot on the doorstep. The one that holds the dead dwarf conifer that was a long-ago cottage-warming present from David’s older sister Laura – and which we should have accepted gratefully and taken straight back to London. As I found out early on, trees don’t so much grow here as endure.

The key is still there. My surfboard, however, is no longer where I left it. It’s been brought into the garden and propped against the low stone wall that runs around the perimeter. So someone has obviously thought to check all is secure. The man on the quad bike? The police?

Every bit of me is aching now, particularly my arms and shoulders, so once I’ve checked my phone for news, I go straight upstairs to strip the scrubs off and shower. Despite the best efforts of A & E, and my own attempts in the staff toilet, there is still a stubborn residue of coppery red around the base of my fingernails – as if I was fifteen again, picking at them furiously at the back of the school bus, having failed to remove my weekend nail varnish. Only this isn’t nail varnish. This is evidence. Of a near-death or an actual death?

Not that being braced for death is new for me – we’ve been acquaintances for years. I know protracted death. Sudden death. Death by misadventure. Death by fair means and foul. Death outwitted. Death denied. I have encountered death in all kinds of permutations and situations. And every one of them has stayed with me, deathless.

David died peacefully. At least as far as we could tell. Died with me holding one hand and Tash holding the other, seven hours after being felled by a stroke – the same thing that killed his father, though at a much greater age.

And felled dramatically, as is so often the way of catastrophic brain malfunction. No warning, no moment of terrified comprehension. Was just chopped at the knees (or so it was gently explained to me) while in the middle of a busy outpatient clinic. I cling to that thought of such instant oblivion. To what I’m told – that one moment he was explaining an MRI scan to a fascinated teenage patient, and the next, he was folded on the floor at her feet. He never regained consciousness before he left us. They only kept his heart beating (that magnificent brain of his had already died) so we could kiss warm cheeks when we said our goodbyes to him.

And, at the same time, in my case, to say goodbye to so much more. To our scheduled separation, our divorce, our final parting-in-all-but-parenting. To all those rocks in the road, around which I was expecting to have to stumble. All of them gone. At – and via – a stroke.

Even before they switched David’s life support off, the idea of coming clean with Tash, at least eventually, suggested itself to me. I was so stunned and distressed that I could hardly think straight, yet emotions flew at me with the unswerving trajectory of poisoned arrows. Mortification, consternation and disbelief, obviously, and vicious piercings of bitter regret. Had I known he was going to die on me – well, what then? Say some slow, crippling disease. Some cruel terminal cancer. Had we talked about that scenario, and how we’d rearrange our respective futures if it happened? Yes, we’d made our wills. But imagined death? Not really. We were both only in our forties, after all. We were also too focused on our civilised de-coupling, on making the best of a bad business. Where ‘making the best’ meant protecting our daughter from the coming seismic shift by keeping her in the dark till she’d finished her degree. Both trying to be the noble exception to a millennia-long rule of thumb; that ‘friendly divorce’ is almost always an oxymoron.

Even so, on the journey to collect Tash from uni (she’d been plucked from a lecture, her phone dutifully off – ever her mother’s daughter) I collected myself sufficiently to weigh up the ramifications of the new reality I could now visualise all too well. Honesty is almost always the best policy and, after almost two years of reluctantly accepting David’s ‘necessary deception’, the idea of lifting the weight in honesty’s name was extremely seductive.

But having collected her – my hysterical, devastated, screaming, thrashing daughter – all bets were off. To unburden myself was one thing, to burden her quite another. I could hear David’s voice saying don’t you dare. And I listened. Because what shred of comfort could I give her but the fiction we’d agreed upon?

So, reluctantly, I donned a new emotional wardrobe. That of widowhood. A capsule collection that I could mix-and-match at will, but all of whose pieces draped me in the same subtle finery. Loss without blame. Heartbreak without heartache. Of having had something taken, rather than having wilfully abandoned it. Of memories which, though painful, would always be cherished. All that, my apparent solace.

And all of it a lie.

My bedroom is cold and unkempt, just like me. In my haste to catch the early tide, I left the bed unmade, and the duvet is still slung back almost all the way on my side. It’s a stark reminder of the day I’ve been denied.

On Gower days, I normally launch myself out of bed as soon as I’m conscious, a ritual I first began during those early days of widowhood, when the size of the bed still had the power to derail me despite the two years when it had already become a part-time norm. It’s now more than a ritual. It’s a statement of intent.

My mother’s blanket, which I use as a bed runner, has barely shifted even so. I rarely make much of an impression in my half-empty bed. I sleep the sleep of the righteous, as David himself once remarked, and, despite the thrashings of my mind, particularly when I feel anything but righteous, my body sticks doggedly to its own tidy schedule. It feels almost like a failing.

I rearrange the blanket anyway. Mum was a deft weaver of wool. Despite her energy and ambition, and her disdain for domesticity, she nevertheless found peace in creating swathes of soft things. It’s crocheted, but not in squares, like Tash’s many cot and doll blankets – it’s an exuberant, unapologetic, Nordic maelstrom of a blanket. A paean to the Aurora Borealis, she’d called it. (Among the many gifts she gave me in childhood, the greatest was surely words.) She finished it only weeks before she died – a house-warming gift for a second home she’d never see.

Tash had been inconsolable then too, and not just because my mum was the last of her grandparents. It was because grandmothers, as a species, just weren’t supposed to die before their granddaughters grew up. I still nurse a kernel of resentment for exactly the same reason. Fifteen years on, and the waves of anger at her leaving us still throw themselves over me with the ferocity of a spring tide during a storm. I smooth the blanket by way of saying sorry.

The sun is spearing in now, as it sinks towards the horizon, bathing the room in warm, yellowy brightness. Both its blessing – a bespoke, perfect, window-pane-framed sunset – and its curse. The room is sunless for most of the day in the summer, as if providing a suitably gloomy haven for all those ghosts.

I’ve just pulled on some jogging bottoms when there’s a sharp rap on the front door. Imagining a policeman – that fateful knock, bearing the worst news imaginable – I drag a T-shirt over my head and pad fearfully down the stairs.

It’s a man. Not in uniform, but presumably still a policeman. Tall and fortyish. Clean shaven. Shirt, shoes and trousers. Looking business-like, in other words, but only just. In my experience, people who toil at the business end of the public sector don’t tend to think ‘sharp’ in conjunction with ‘suit’. I expect him to slide a hand under his jacket and produce his warrant card, but he doesn’t. He holds a hand out to shake instead.

‘Nick Stone,’ he says as he takes my hand and pumps it up and down. ‘I’m a journalist,’ he adds, as if anticipating my unspoken question. His hair, I belatedly notice, just a shade or two off black, is a little on the long side for the police force.

I pull my arm away instinctively, even though I’m not sure where the instinct comes from. Whatever else I am, I am mightily relieved. ‘I was on the beach this morning,’ he carries on, nodding in the general direction. ‘I watched the whole thing.’ He pauses. ‘I hope it’s not too much of an imposition, Doctor Young, but I’m currently writing a feature on the Welsh Air Ambulance for the Western Mail. And what happened this morning, to put it delicately, is obviously highly pertinent. I’ve already spoken to a few witnesses and I’m rather hoping you’ll speak to me as well.’ He pauses again and raises his brows a fraction. ‘Will you?’

It strikes me then that I only looked out of the landing window two minutes earlier and at that point there had been no one walking or driving down the track. So where has he sprung from?

‘Have you been waiting for me?’ I ask him.

‘Yes, of course,’ he says. He seems unabashed to be admitting it. ‘I’m obviously keen to talk to you, since you’re the one who found him. Not to mention the one who also saved his life.’

I want to correct him. Point out that it hasn’t been saved yet. And that I didn’t ‘find’ him. I chased him. Which was almost certainly why he fell. But I don’t want to talk to him, so I shake my head instead. ‘Sorry, but no,’ I say. Instinct again. ‘At least not right now. It’s – look, I really don’t want to talk to the press at the moment. I’m waiting on a call from the police and I think I’d prefer it if we left it at that for now, at least while everything’s, well, up in the air the way it is, and with the boy’s condition so—’ I form the next words in my brain but can’t say them.

‘I know. And I’m sorry,’ he says, leaning in a little. He doesn’t look particularly sorry, but then he’s a journalist, isn’t he? It’s a professional requirement to be professionally detached. ‘I don’t want to distress you further,’ he assures me. ‘I do appreciate what a day you’ve had. But there’s also the business of the lad still being unidentified, as you’ve just pointed out.’ I haven’t, not exactly, but he’s clearly latched on to it. ‘So time’s of the essence. The sooner something’s out there, the sooner someone is going to see it, aren’t they? And the smallest detail could matter, couldn’t it? And as the hero of the hour—’

That awful word again.

‘I am not,’ I point out. ‘If you’re running away with that line of thinking, please don’t, okay?’

‘Sorry,’ he says a second time. ‘But, look, I’m not running away with anything here, seriously. I’m just here to cover the story, and if there’s anything you can add to the picture – you know, rather than have other people start poking around, weighing in . . .’ He shrugs, faux-apologetically. He knows exactly what he’s implying. ‘It’s already all over social media, as you probably—’

‘Yes, I know.’

He must have read my anxious look, because he now peels himself off from where he’s been half-leaning against my porch, and I realise there’s a string hidden beneath the lapel of his jacket. Which belongs to a small nylon backpack – the kind you’d use for swimming kit – that has been out of sight, behind his back. He slips it down his arm and holds it out. Though not for me to take.

‘I also found this,’ he says. ‘And before you ask, there’s nothing to identify the boy in it. I already checked.’

‘Where did you find it?’ I ask.

He swivels around and points upwards. ‘About a hundred yards or so up there. Up on the track towards the trig point.’

He knows the trig point. So he’s local? Might he have been one of the surfers on the beach? I ask him.

‘God, me?’ A flash of teeth. A glance towards the bay. ‘Surf in that. No fear.’

In other words, too much fear. Fear is always the biggest hurdle. ‘But you’re a local?’

He nods. ‘I live just up on the road towards Middleton. And, look, full disclosure. I already know you. Well, know of you. I knew your late husband. He looked after my son.’

This surprises me. It also silences me while my brain processes what he’s just told me. David was a paediatric neurologist, his young patients sometimes very seriously, and often terminally, ill.

‘In Cardiff,’ the man adds helpfully. ‘Three years ago. And if you can stomach me saying it again, he saved his life.’

As reasons to let a strange man into your house go, it’s a random, if not reckless, one. But since it’s becoming increasingly obvious that the piece is going to be written with or without my input, perhaps speaking to him will help with damage limitation at least. Plus, I can see there’s something in the bag he’s holding. What?

I stand aside to let him in and point towards the kitchen. It’s just big enough, but would benefit from being knocked into the living room. Though that’s out of the question. Ghosts need walls to waft through, after all. There is only just room for the square kitchen table and while I pull out a chair for him he does a full three-sixty appraisal.

‘I always wondered what it was like in here,’ he says. ‘Not to the extent of creeping into the garden so I can peer into the windows, obviously. But lots of people do, don’t they? I’ve seen them. It must drive you mad.’

‘Mad’s a bit strong,’ I say. ‘It’s occasionally an irritation. But it goes with the territory in a place like this. So the odd rambler wandering into the garden . . . well . . . it is what it is.’

‘Speaking of which,’ he says, turning to the bag. ‘Take a look at the booty.’

He places the contents of the backpack on the kitchen table, one by one. A small bottle of water, half full, condensation clinging to the sides, an apple, a tangle of wires and greying earbuds, a khaki pack-a-mac – little more than a handful of thin fabric – then, finally, as if all that came before was just foreplay, he reaches in for the last time and pulls out a watch.

I gasp as I recognise it. ‘Oh, my god,’ I said, reaching for it.

He doesn’t stop me. Just observes me. ‘A Breitling,’ he says. ‘Some watch, eh?’

So the boy had broken in. The thought fills me with mortification. No wonder he bolted. No wonder he dumped the backpack.

‘I know it is,’ I say, turning it over in my hand, and sliding my thumb across the familiar casing. Just as I had when I’d been given it by the bereavement officer back in February. ‘It’s my husband’s.’

‘I did wonder. Did you notice anything else missing? Anything disturbed?’

I shake my head. Though, in truth, I haven’t even looked. It hasn’t even occurred to me to. Perhaps it would have, had I come home to find drawers spewing contents, ornaments broken, chairs and tables upturned. But everything was exactly as I’d left it this morning, including my laptop, which is still sitting on the kitchen table. Shutting the lid was almost the first thing I’d done when I’d come in.

It had also been the last thing on my mind. It still is. Even as I hold the familiar watch in my palm. The boy could have died – could still die – over this?

‘I should check,’ I say, standing up and heading off into the living room, to David’s long-dead mother’s Welsh dresser. It’s moribund itself now, its shelves sagging under the weight of all the books that have migrated here from London over the years. Cookery books, field and walking guides, worthy tomes on local history, plus at least a dozen photo albums which we’d created ourselves; which Tash and I would spend rainy hours (there were often rainy hours) arranging and captioning and augmenting with mementos. Full of ticket stubs, ice cream wrappers and carefully pressed wildflowers, they form a visual encyclopaedia of Tash’s childhood holidays here. I never look at them. I find it too melancholic.

The dresser also houses a lot of David’s personal stuff, which neither Tash nor I can stomach sorting. Out on view, his binoculars, his wind-up torch, a pair of sunglasses, plus various treasures from the sea, amassed over years of beachcombing, each with its own imagined story. A desiccated starfish. A sea urchin shell. An enormous crab claw. A mermaid’s purse. And in the bottom, a load of paperwork, a mess of OS maps and pamphlets. And in the stickier of the two sticky, elderly pine drawers, a collection of smaller bits and bobs.

I know the watch lives there because it was I who put it in here – when I brought it back from the hospital in its regulation bag, along with his fountain pens, keys and wallet. Plus, the superman cufflinks he’d been wearing that day and, bitterly ironic, the plastic hospital-issue badge he wore daily, just as I did; there to indicate if he was exposed to an excess of potentially life-limiting gamma rays.

I pick up one of the cufflinks, feeling a sharp stab of loss. Then stir the contents around with my fingers. Though I don’t really need to. It’s a very small drawer; a Tardis of emotions. Did the boy yank it open, see the watch, grab and go?

The man raises his brows as I return to the kitchen.

‘Nothing else gone,’ I tell him. ‘Not as far as I can see, anyway.’

‘Stolen to order, then? That’s my best guess, especially if there’s nothing else missing.’ He points at my laptop. ‘That, for instance. Another open invitation. And it must be worth, what? A couple of grand?’

‘The Mac?’

‘No, the watch.’

Of course he means the watch. ‘More like six,’ I correct.

He whistles. ‘And you leave your door key under a plant pot?’

‘I left my door key under a plant pot,’ I correct him. ‘On this one occasion. Because I was only expecting to be gone an hour, wasn’t I? I wouldn’t any other time. I’m not that naïve.’

Not naïve, but perhaps too laissez-faire. I might be vigilant about locking up when I leave, carefully checking all the doors and windows, but am I vigilant enough about making sure Tash is? Clearly not, because immediately a memory springs to mind. A creepy one, which sends me into another unexpected spin. I’d come down to stay back at the beginning of the summer, on another last-minute, after-work whim, and having arrived late in the evening expecting the cottage to be dark, I’d found the bathroom window wide open, and the light in there blazing. As a result, the room was plastered with flying insects. It had obviously been left open with the light on for a while, too – perhaps days – because as well as all the still-living (some had still been turning pointless circles round the light fitting) the bulk of my nocturnal visitors were corpses. Moths, midges, June bugs, flying beetles, mosquitos – plus a few alien-looking species I couldn’t even identify. Many, particularly the moths, had died where they’d landed, their bodies pinioned to the tiled walls by some invisible force.

I’d cleared up, somewhat gingerly – insects en masse freak me out – and chided Tash for not checking, of course. She’d denied having done it but as I knew I hadn’t (I’m too well trained in being scrupulously meticulous) I had written it off; she clearly had, and had forgotten, or perhaps one of her friends had and she hadn’t realised. I didn’t make a big deal of it, because it wasn’t a big deal.

Now I think again. Or was it? Might I have had a human visitor too? Might he have been hanging around the cottage before, waiting for his opportunity? Even managed to climb up and get inside? The bathroom faces the beach, after all – not the village – so it would be unlikely that anyone would have seen him, especially if it had been at night.

The knowledge that he might have – that this might not have been his first visit – is deeply unsettling. I say nothing to the man, though. Because it is probably nothing. More to the point, given his sarcastic tone, it’s a point I’m not remotely inclined to let him score off me.

‘How did you know anyway?’ I say instead.

If he’s aware of my growing irritability, he doesn’t show it. ‘Because I watched you let yourself in, didn’t I? Seriously, you really shouldn’t. Not even for an hour. Trust me, I know. I’ve spent years reporting on criminal cases and it never ceases to amaze me how people are always so trusting. How they—’

‘That’s probably because you’ve spent years reporting on criminal cases,’ I fire back. The watch is warming up in my hand now, but my mood is growing frosty. ‘Besides, it was six in the morning. And this is rural Wales, not central London. How could anyone possibly anticipate—’

I shut my mouth. Why the hell am I defending myself to him? I decide I’m not going to offer him a cup of tea, despite the superficial conviviality of our domestic situation. I’m not sure if I have any milk anyway.

‘Sorry,’ he says, raising his hands. ‘That was out of order. The main thing’s that you’ve got your husband’s watch back. Look, I’m not going to keep you. I just want to be sure I have the facts straight, and—’

Something sparks in me. ‘It’s not the main thing at all. Have you any idea how serious the boy’s condition is? How responsible I feel? He could have died! He could still die!’

He is unruffled by my sharp tone. He is obviously used to being snapped at. ‘I appreciate that. Of course I do. I just – look, all I want to do is report the facts, like I said.’

‘Which are that I saw him by the house, and when he saw me he ran away from me, up the Down. And I chased him. Then I lost him. Then he fell. Then I found him. That’s it. Those are all the facts. There’s nothing else to know. Except who he is, and I don’t know that either.’

‘But perhaps that watch . . .’ he nods towards it again. ‘Specially given that it’s the only thing he took. That might—’

‘Don’t say anything about it,’ I say, visualising the watch as his headline. ‘Please don’t mention it at all. Suppose he does die? What then? Seriously, do not mention it. Please. In fact, forget you even saw it. I really don’t want that on my conscience as well. No one needs to know about it unless there’s a reason for them to know about it. Once he’s identified, maybe. But only once we know he’s going to be okay.’

‘That’s very generous of you. But, okay, fair enough. Deal.’ He says it too easily. I don’t really trust him. He looks too much like a man with a new angle.

‘You promise?’

‘Yes, I promise. Though you do need to think about fingerprints. Well, if it comes to it, obviously.’

I place the watch back on the table. He makes no move to take it back. Instead, he pulls a pad from his jacket pocket. A spiral bound reporter’s notebook. Something I realise I haven’t seen in many years. ‘But let’s hope it doesn’t,’ he says. ‘Let’s hope they’ve already found out who he is, eh?’ He digs around in another pocket and finds a pen, then, as well. A lidless Bic Crystal biro. Old school. Don’t reporters work with iPads these days? I trust him even less.

‘Won’t take long,’ he says. ‘I don’t need much. But I do need to get your name correct. Dr Julia Young, right? And you’re a Consultant Oncologist—’ He is writing as he speaks, in what looks like hieroglyphics. And also, I realise, checking through a list of notes already made. ‘MBBS. MRCP. FRCR . . . Based in south London, but you visit the Gower often, to stay at the family holiday home. And you sustained an injury yourself, of course . . . To your hand . . . which needed stitches . . . How many, just for the record?’

I don’t answer. I don’t need to. He has obviously not been idle. He knows everything about me already. Was that what he was doing while he was waiting for me? Googling me? And what was he seeing as he stood on that beach, looking up? The answer is starkly obvious. A story.

‘Forty-seven,’ I say eventually. I have no idea why, but out it pops.

He looks up from his scribbling and studies my grim expression. Then he smiles at it encouragingly, as if challenging it to do better. ‘Tell you what,’ he says, ‘how about I go out and come back in again?’

‘Tell you what,’ I reply, overcome by a furious, defensive rage. ‘I have a better idea. How about you just go.’

He’s not stupid. He clearly knows this is a cause he’s already lost, so, though he apologises, twice, and leaves me his mobile phone number (I don’t reciprocate) he makes no attempt to placate me further. He’s got what he needs, after all. And once he’s gone I thunder up the stairs and into Tash’s bedroom so I can watch him walk back up the track to the village. He has a long, purposeful stride, and talks on his phone as he walks, his giant shadow keeping pace as the sun begins to set. I wonder who he’s talking to; what he’s telling them about me. And it occurs to me that he’s just left me with a six-thousand-pound watch without any evidence that it even belongs to me. He has simply trusted me. Doesn’t that prove the very point I’d made earlier?

I’m tempted to open the window and yell it down to him. Even reach out towards the catch so I can do so. But as I move the curtain aside, a bumble bee wafts out. He’s disorientated and angry, and I’m scared he’s going to sting me. So I set about evicting him as well.

Lobesia botrana

The European Grapevine Moth

We all have our natural patch. I was taught that pretty early.

As Absent Gran (gor’ blimey, love ’er) was fond of saying (and saying and saying . . .), nothing good ever came of not knowing your station. Which tells you all you need to know about my sainted granny.

She’s wrong, of course. Because stations are places to travel from. And to. Not to squat, knowing your place, while perspiring with resentment – boiling with it, like a fat, angry toad.

And yet and yet . . . See, the people with the fabulously well-appointed stations have a powerful vested interest in keeping you out of theirs, and in yours. Which is why when the European grapevine moth went on a jolly to the Napa Valley, it got called a ‘pest’, caused significant distress, and led to the quarantining of some 162 square miles of vines. Till it was obliterated, annihilated (made to know its place and then some) and natural order was once again restored.

But whose natural order? And what right did they have?

And – small point – who owns the rights to define the word ‘pest’?

Baby European grapevine moth to mummy European grapevine moth: ‘You know, Mummy, when I grow up I’m going to fly to America!’

Mummy grapevine moth to baby grapevine moth: ‘I’m not sure you should, dear. They are different there. Not like we are. They might, sad to say, dear, look down on you. Dare I say, dear, they might even swat you.’

‘But I thought you said Mother Nature made all of us equal?’

‘Well, yes, she did, and she’s right, and . . .’

‘So why shouldn’t I go, then?’

‘Because. Enough now. Just because.’

Because what?

Because she’s right, that’s what she is.

But . . . come ON. Is there any contest between ‘fluttering butterflies’ and ‘common moths’? No. The moth is the supreme lepidopteran.

I know more than you might think, you see, and, as a result of that knowing, I have no patience with the facile, overweening vanity of butterflies. All their preening. Their day-dreaming. Their sunny-day scheming. It’s all surface, with butterflies. No feeling.

Selfish bastards, butterflies. So self-absorbed. So lucky. While we toil in the dark, they bask in the light. Yet we do have the moon. The milky, milky moon. Which we cleave to, with straight-line obsession.

We do it to navigate. To steer a course to what we need.

I have navigated hard to get here. I have shape-shifted to fit. I can hold my own in any company. My tongue, when I need to. But though you might not smell it, the stench still travels with me; of the little bit of shit I still have on my shoe, stuck to me for life, from the shit-hole I shouldn’t have gone to, but, to all intents and purposes, I came from.

Chapter 4

Tuesday, another day I should have begun back in London, dawns very differently to Monday. Even with only a slim strip of blue to guide me, I know the view from the bedroom window will be tourist board perfect, the autumn fog driven off by a bright, determined sun and the shifting sea a molten sheet of glass.

There is no such serenity on my side of the blind. I’m stunned to find I’ve ravaged the bed. And as a consequence, my laptop, which I have no memory of having abandoned, is inches from sliding off and clattering to the floor. It’s open just enough to form a clam-like, scowling mouth.

It instantly reminds me; is the boy still alive?

I reach for my phone to check for messages. It’s washed up on the cluttered bedside table and I fish blindly around for it, to find that a text from Tash, sent two hours back, has pinged in unheeded. I must have been even more exhausted than I thought.

How you doing, Mumma bear? the text asks, followed by her usual string of random emojis. Okay, I hope. Setting off soon, so I’ll see you in seven/eight hours or so. I’ll try to call once we get to the first services.

‘Try’ being the operative word, since our signal is extremely patchy. Yesterday evening, we’d managed no more than half a dozen words before 3G became no G and she was lost to me again. I text straight back, telling her not to worry about calling, matching love youuuu with love youuuu, trading kisses for kisses, and conjuring my own string of cryptic emojis. A unicorn, a spanner, a showerhead, a poodle. An expression of love that always makes me smile, but which today makes me anxious and tearful.

Had I not made my impulsive dash to Wales on Sunday evening, I would not be in the mess I am now. I’d still be en route, laden with half of Tash’s term-time belongings (the other half are here) and looking forward to spending a precious couple of days with her. Instead, I’m now carrying a hideous cargo; a young man, lying attached to a ventilator, fighting for his life. Which means I need to get up, get on, and fix my focus on the practical, so I head straight to the shower, then tackle the beds. First my own, and then Tash’s. And though I’m hampered by my throbbing hand as well as my anxiety, I am soon soothed by the sharp snap of freshly washed sheets, the plumping up of pillows, the cool gusts of fragranced air.

I then move on to make up the singles in the spare room, since, there being a big pre-term beach party tonight, Tash’s best friends, Jonathan and Verity, will doubtless want to crash here rather than camp out.

Jonathan is on Tash’s course and they became friends immediately, and Verity, who’s studying photography, is his amicably ex-girlfriend. I’m always happy to see them, for they are also soon to be her housemates. I determinedly count blessings. For the fact that Tash is still in university, astonishingly, despite everything. For two ordinary friendships, seeded in the fertile soil of freshers’ parties, which have blossomed into something even more precious in the aftermath of her loss. That she’s coped so heroically in such desperate circumstances is in no small measure due to those relationships.

I then tackle the other job that’s been nagging at me since I woke. Sending a text of apology to the journalist, Nick Stone, who a night’s sleep has made me realise I’ve treated unfairly. I do my job. He was only doing his.

He texts back. No apology necessary. Any news? And since I have none, I text again to tell him I’ll let him know.

But with the beds made and my conscience (at least in that respect) salved, I still have a whole day to fill. One thing is clear, though. That until I know how the boy is (and, equally pressing, who he is) I will fail to get any work done; the PhD thesis I’m supposed to be marking, which failed to distract me last night, is no way going to distract me today. Thief or not, the possibility of his death is just too appalling a thing to contemplate. So once I’ve made coffee and eaten half a bowl of Shreddies, I return to my phone. It’s now half past eight, after all. The handover will have happened, and my old friend Pat should be back on duty.

She is.

‘He’s still with us,’ she says. ‘Stats not too bad, considering. But they’re going to keep him under till the brain swelling subsides a bit.’

‘Oh, thank god,’ I say. ‘And has anyone managed to identify him?’

‘Not that I’ve been told.’

‘But you’ll let me know if you do?’

‘Course I will, sweetheart.’

‘And if anything changes? Good or bad.’

‘Good or bad. But, Jules, trust me, he’s going to pull through.’

I console myself by believing her, because there’s no point in doing otherwise, and then find the piece of paper on which the policeman back in Cardiff scribbled a number down for me.

The PCSO I’m put through to in Swansea already knows who I am, despite it having been a Cardiff PC that had interviewed me yesterday. Not that I expect him to be able to tell me anything. But, still, I can’t not ask. I have a strong need to stake my personal claim on the situation.

This is even more true since knowing about the attempted theft of David’s watch, which is still a nagging complication. As is the fact of that open bathroom window, and the light being left on, which has taken on a new and worrying significance. Yet nothing in the cottage has been disturbed. I’ve already been back and checked again, delving into places I’ve not looked at in many months, pulling out nothing but painful memories in the process.

‘But we’re still hopeful,’ the officer says. He has a kind voice, doubtless bevelled by long years of calming and consoling. ‘We’ve put an appeal out on our Facebook page now, and on Twitter. And we’ve still got a picture of the lad if we need to use it. Though we’re obviously loathe to – not the sort of photo you’d want popping up on social media, is it? Specially when you’re family.’

He tuts. I agree that it isn’t. ‘What about the phone number?’

‘Drawn a blank there, I’m afraid. Generic pay as you go. No voicemail.’

‘But you’ll keep trying.’

‘Of course. We’ve also been in touch with all the local campsites, though we’ve drawn a blank so far. Early days, though. We’re only just twenty-four hours in, after all. We’ll obviously step things up if no one claims him today. Or if things take a turn for the worse. Not a lot else we can do at the moment, lovely, I’m afraid.’

Though he promises again that he’ll let me know immediately if they hear anything new, I can tell he’s anxious to get me off the phone. But what if it was your son? I want to ask him. To someone who loves him, and might lose him, another twenty-four hours could mean everything.

But who is that someone? And where did he come from? I eye the nylon backpack, which is still sitting on the kitchen table. And with so little. No money. No debit card. No phone.

My head’s too full of questions to even think about the thesis. Perhaps I should try to find some answers for myself.

By the time I’ve thrashed my way up the Down, through the bracken, the noise of my breath as it rasps in my throat is enough to drown out everything else.

I press on up, heading to the place where I left the path yesterday, but have to stop to catch my breath at the same point I always do, high enough to turn the village into chocolate-box whimsy, but not quite far enough to reveal the western end of the beach.

To the east, Rhossili Down slopes gently down to the church and village, then snakes out to become a promontory called the Worm’s Head. The worm isn’t a worm, though. It’s actually a ‘wurme’. Wurme means dragon in Norse, the language of the Vikings, and that’s exactly what it looks like – a Tolkien-esque dragon, slumbering in the sea. When the tide’s out, you can cross a rocky causeway and walk all the way across the body, to the dragon’s head. I have done it just the once, with Tash, to dispatch David’s ashes. But it’s extremely treacherous. I know I won’t do it again.

Far below me now, the beach is striped with footprints and paw prints, all evidence of yesterday’s crowd washed away by the sea. It was right to come up here – it’s already doing me good. I carry on up, the blood pounding in my ears.

I’m breathing even harder by the time I reach the place where I presume the boy fell. I know precisely where I stepped off the path again to try and find him because I’d located it as we’d risen in the helicopter. Now, up on the high ground, the heather crackling beneath my feet, I can even see where I trampled it down.

If he’d had earbuds then he must have had a phone. I’m sure of it. What young person goes anywhere without a phone?

And if that’s the case, which seems feasible, then he obviously dropped it, presumably when he fell. I take a couple of careful steps to the place where I ventured down to try and find him, and in the sunshine it becomes obvious why he probably went the way he had; over to my left there is a faint track snaking away from me.

There are hundreds of tracks criss-crossing the Down, some footpath-wide, some no broader than a hand-span. It depends who created them; rambling humans, Gower ponies, or sheep. The one I join now is an obvious choice; it begins fairly flat and weaves around several rocks. Had his intention been to hide behind one till I went away?

I crunch across the heather to where the rocks form an untidy cluster. In the brightness the terrifying drop behind them is now obvious. But in that fog, how would he know that? Especially if he’d already become disorientated and didn’t know the geography.

I step up onto the lower of two adjacent boulders so I can peer over the other. Even from this distance, the place where he almost met his death is grimly obvious, because the exposed rock face is dark with dried blood. His cut-apart shorts are still there as well – a raggy mound that looks, and no doubt smells, like roadkill.

But why go down there in the first place? Even in the fog, he’d have known how steep it was. It’s all but sheer and I’m sparking electric jolts in my legs just looking down at it.

So why not carry on, or just stay where he was?

Unless he had to. Could it be that he’d already dropped his phone? I’d been slithering about on the wet rocks even wearing my rubber boots. Was it dropping his phone that had made him blindly venture down there? If so, then I might have a decent shot at finding it, mightn’t I?

I do. It takes all of five minutes. It’s no more than ten metres below and to the right of me, sitting flat, as if sunbathing, on a swell of scorched heather.

Locating it hasn’t even required much of a search. With the sun reflecting off it, I spotted it as soon as I edged around the furthest rock. It’s also obvious that he set off down the slope to try and find it. And lost his footing; a trail of flattened heather still marks his passing.

It’s easy to imagine his terror. Because I can now see another drop. A vertical, into space. So perhaps he didn’t so much tumble down the hill as fall off it. That would provide enough force to explain the laceration in his groin.

But the phone is nowhere near there. It obviously pinged off the other way. Possibly off one of the nearby rocks. And, as I can see even before I clamber down, it has suffered a blow of its own. The dew-misted screen is smashed, the glass starred into shards right across it. I don’t press the home button. I know I mustn’t till it’s completely dried out, much less try to charge it. But I know mobiles of old, particularly those abused by teenage daughters. I know their phoenix-like powers of reincarnation.

Slipping the phone carefully in my jacket pocket, I scrabble back up, but by the time I’ve reached the main path again, another thought has occurred to me. Even if it still works, there’s no way I’ll be able to access anything on it without knowing the passcode.

Which means there’s little I can do with it, but because I have no desire to return to the cottage yet, I don’t retrace my steps. Instead I continue on over the top of the Down, along the ridge, where I can see for many miles in all directions. There are ponies nearby, three of them, fat-bellied and shaggy, with two still summer-spindly foals between them. I can almost hear Tash’s squeals of indignant childish protest that they would never let her come close enough to touch.

Then I drop down, past the ruins of the World War Two radar station, to the point where I’m rewarded with a different vista. Toytown caravans in tidy rows. Muddles of multicoloured tents and awnings. Burry Holm, a benign pimple compared to the worm’s aggressive bulk. Broughton Bay, beyond which lies the estuary and Carmarthenshire, the latter blurred behind a swathe of torn tissue-paper cloud.

The land drops steeply now, to join the campsite below. Did the boy come from here? It’s certainly the closest campsite to the cottage. But as I know I’m much more likely to attract unwelcome attention than achieve anything the police haven’t, I opt instead to stop short of the campsite itself, and skirt around the base of the hill, and back towards the cottage, on the path that marks the lower edge of the line of fields. Unlike the ferns, four feet high and rusting by increments, they are green as a bowl of shelled peas.

I’m just climbing over the final stile when I see Tash’s little cappuccino-coloured Fiat coming down the track. And as I raise my hand to wave, I see her headlights flash twice in quick succession.

I jog across the final pasture, scattering sheep in slow motion, and we are reunited in a matter of minutes.

She smells, as she always does, of perfume far beyond her budget. David was always the string to her little finger and would treat her to a bottle pretty much any time he had to fly anywhere, of whatever designer brand was currently in vogue. He’d get endless stick from his sister Laura for such paternal over-indulgences. She’d reached peak apoplexy about the time of the Eighteenth Birthday Fiat. You’re ruining that girl of yours, you realise? Ruining her.

But now it’s history. And I couldn’t be more thankful for every one of those indulgences. For all those shelves in my daughter’s memory banks that, just like his mother’s dresser, now sag and buckle under the weight of them. Remind her beyond doubt just how much her father loved her.

My now adult daughter has a good three inches on me. And what short-to-middling mother wouldn’t want that? So I only just manage to keep my footing as she hugs me, her hair – dark like David’s, and newly washed – a veil of fragrance against my cheek.

‘God, Mum,’ she says, as she whumps hard against me. ‘Are you okay?’

‘I’m fine,’ I tell her. ‘Honestly, sweetheart, I’m absolutely fine.’ I will be so in perpetuity where Tash is concerned. I’ll probably still be telling her I’m fine on my deathbed. I decide, then and there, not to bring up the business with the bathroom window again. Not yet, at least, even though it’s still bugging me.

She pulls away again then, so she can get a better look at me. ‘Oh, Mum,’ she says, taking my bandaged hand in her own. ‘Look at the state of you. You can’t be. Have you watched it?’

‘What, the stuff on YouTube? Only snippets.’

‘Mum, you have no idea, do you? Seriously, you need to take a proper look at it. You could have died.’

She’s wrong. I have every idea. Specially since this morning. ‘I think I’ll pass,’ I say, smiling at her. ‘Right now I’m more concerned that he doesn’t.’

She huffs again as she steers me back towards the cottage. I haven’t seen her in two weeks, and having her back is like a balm because it makes her a temporary absentee on the things-to-worry-about list.

‘So,’ she says, linking arms. ‘Any news on who the boy is yet?’

‘Nothing. No change in his condition. No ID. Though there’s something else. A journalist turned up yesterday, to get the story, and he found the boy’s backpack.’

I explain about the earbuds and how I’ve just found the phone. ‘But there’s something else too. Dad’s watch was in the bag.’

‘God, Mum – you’re kidding! You mean he actually broke in?’

I shake my head. ‘That’s just it. There’s no sign of a break in. Which means he must have used the key. I mean, what are the chances? We’re talking six, seven in the morning. It was hardly even light. And some random young lad in board shorts is just wandering around Rhossili Down on the lookout for something to steal? It doesn’t make sense, does it? Unless he already knew there was something worth stealing and knew where the key was. Which is why I think the journalist is probably right. He thinks he must have watched me put it there. Thinks it might even have been stolen to order for someone else.’

‘Mum, he could just as easily be some opportunist local dopehead. Plenty of those around here. What about the police? What do they think?’

I push open the gate. The over-priced heritage-appropriate paint David applied last summer is already beginning to peel. ‘I haven’t told them yet.’

Tash gapes at me. ‘What? Why on earth not?’

‘Because if he dies, I think that knowledge should die with him. If he doesn’t, then, yes, maybe. But right now, at least till they find out who he is, and I know he’s okay—’

‘Yes, thanks to you. Mum, if you hadn’t been there he would have died, for definite.’

We’ve reached the door. Tash slides her own key into the lock and turns it. She’s stopped short of adding that he’d have had only himself to blame, but I know that’s what she’s thinking.

‘Tash, if I hadn’t been down here, he wouldn’t have gone haring off up there in the first place.’

‘So that makes it your fault?’ Her expression catches me short. ‘You’re not listening, are you? You could have died.’

‘Seriously,’ I say, squeezing her hand and making a mental note to watch the footage after all. ‘So,’ I add brightly. ‘How was Edinburgh? And what’s the plan? What time is the party starting?’

She checks her watch. ‘Is that the time? I still have to pick Jonathan and Verity up from the station. And I seriously need to have a lie down before I fall down. God, I am stiff as a corpse.’

She frowns then and hugs me tightly before jogging off up the stairs.

I don’t know why I’m surprised, because I’m hardly a technophobe, but typing ‘air ambulance rescue Rhossili’ into Google brings up hundreds of hits, and right at the top no less than three different links to YouTube videos. One I recognise as the snippet Jack showed me yesterday morning. I don’t watch it through. A quick fast-forward shows me everything I need to see.

Or want to. And I’m doubly glad I didn’t venture to the campsite office. From the vantage point of the beach, we might equally have been clinging to some high Himalayan rock face, a hair’s breadth from certain death. I feel rebuked. No wonder Tash was so shaken.

‘You need to put that in some rice or something,’ she says, once she’s back down after her nap. She’s brought me shortbread. A whole tin of it. Dinner. ‘You haven’t tried to charge it or anything, have you?’

‘No. I didn’t dare.’

‘Good. Because you’d probably short it.’ She carefully peels off the black silicone case. ‘Have we got any rice knocking about?’

I go and delve in a cupboard, shunting around half-packets of various value brand pastas, evidence of her numerous impromptu overnight visits over the summer, and her attachment to managing her meagre Student Loan. She went from high end to budget in the blink of an eye – a feat I would never have imagined her capable of. I decide that while the hungover partygoers slumber tomorrow morning I shall have a long-overdue clear out; make up a box of groceries for the new student house.

I find an almost full bag of basmati which Tash decants into a cereal bowl. She then completely buries the phone.

‘There,’ she says, twiddling her fingers. ‘Abracadabra.’

‘You really think that will work?’

‘Absolutely,’ she responds. ‘And maybe then we can find out who the mystery felon is. But now I’d better get a shift on and pick up the others. I think we’re meeting everyone at Hillend, so I’ll probably leave the car over there for the night. That’s if you’re sure you’re okay on your own?’

I am lightning quick, always. ‘It’s either that or share the shortbread. I’m absolutely not sharing the shortbread.’

She catches my eye then and throws her arms around me. And I can tell what she’s thinking from the tightness of her grip. She didn’t know him. Hadn’t seen him. Hadn’t chased him. Hadn’t touched him. Hadn’t nearly – and by such an infinitesimally tiny margin – watched him die. But she might have lost me.

Which can’t happen. I’m the only parent she has left.

Geometra papillionaria

The Large Emerald Moth

Before we had science we had to make all kinds of stuff up to try and make sense of all the bad things in the world. Some of this nonsense survives to this day (hi, flat-earthers!) but the rest is collectively known as ‘folklore’.

Today kids still get born with all kinds of things wrong with them – cleft lips, severe autism, cerebral palsy. But because we have science we mostly know what to call it. And because we have medicine we try to fix it.

Back in folklore, which was a dark place, full of trolls and evil-doings, some of these kids had a collective name – ‘changelings’. And once ‘diagnosed’ as such, they didn’t fare well. Some didn’t fare again, ever. Some were shoved into ovens, some smothered, some drowned. Because your changeling child, so said folklore, was not in fact your child. It was a cuckoo in the nest, in the form of a fairy. And this was at a time (this is key) before the big fairy ‘brand’ make-over; when they were shysters and ne’er do wells, tricksters and thieves. Like a teeny Cosa Nostra sect with wings.

Details differ, but their modus operandi rarely varied. Out of envy, or greed, or just sheer wanton malevolence, fairies came into bedrooms and stole human children, substituting them with one of their own kind.

And I wonder. Wouldn’t you wonder? And I never rule stuff out.

I recently stumbled upon all this in a library, by the way. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

For the longest time – eighty-three per cent of my life, give or take the odd percentage point – I knew nothing about anything of my – what word should I choose here? – yes, heritage. And, hey, fact! What you don’t know can’t hurt you! I had one set of memories, mostly shit, grim, and ugly, and one set of hopes, of necessity modest, because shit, grim, and ugly do their work so well. Modest hopes, like ‘on a good day I will score sufficient chemical enhancements that I will not have to trudge quite so desperately sadly through the foul-tasting sludge of my psyche’.

And it was fine. No, no, really. You get on. You get by. What you don’t do is let your mind wander. Here and now. Day by day. No scheming. No dreaming. Carpe that diem and stamp on its ambitions. Keep on butting that light bulb. Keep on going.

And then one day, I got truth. I got a lorry-load of truth. I got it poured, dark and steaming, from the nozzle of a tanker. Just think how that goes, Julia. How that messes with you, floors you. To know you’ve been lied to. To know you have choices. To know you’d have had choices, if only you’d known sooner. But at the same time – here’s the corker, and ain’t life pecoooliar? – to hold the keys, and the map, to the Emerald City.

Chapter 5

When Tash was two, we bought her a Jack Russell puppy. She called him Tigger, and he lived up to his name. He had just the two speed settings, and neither of them was ‘stop’. Even when he was elderly and developed the kidney failure that we knew would end his life, he hung on just long enough for Tash to finish her GCSEs. He was that kind of dog.

I’ve woken early again, and I miss him, because if we still had him, I’d already be out in the fresh air walking him. As it is, I stay in bed for a bit longer, reluctant to start banging around the place so early. I hadn’t heard the kids come crashing in after their party – I still don’t even know how many did – and this isn’t the kind of house that forgives. It creaks, groans and grumbles at even the suggestion of movement. Only its ghosts move around unremarked.

So it’s an hour before I finally pad downstairs. There is a muddle of pumps and flip-flops in the corner of the hall, and, as I’ve done for many years now, I do a head count via a footwear count. It was once such an everyday ritual that the action is automatic. It’s also, though I’m sure I didn’t appreciate it then, a shot of emotional tequila.

I note the story I’m being told this morning. A slick of sheep shit on canvas. A crescent of toe-shaped indentations on pale rubber. A puddle of sand in a heel space. A knotted lace. I smile.

There are flowers in the kitchen. A spray of carnations in a cellophane wrapper, sitting in water, in one of my jugs, on the draining board. They are the colour of sugar mice, and I don’t know where they’ve come from. Are they for me? I leave them be while I run the tap and fill the kettle. Further along the counter, the boy’s phone is still tucked up beneath its basmati duvet, and I wonder if Tash’s confidence in it will prove to be justified. Perhaps it will. Mobile phones are the epitome of a modern paradox, after all. Built-in obsolescence yet a half-life of centuries.

I’m just about to pull it out when I hear the bang of the back door, closely followed by the sound of laughter and shuffling feet.

The little room off the kitchen – the so called ‘b