Coco Loco beach bar had a summer promotion. Come and swim with the dolphins. Happy hour all day. That’s why I was there with Tanya and her daughter Carrie. Not to swim, but to guzzle jugs of ice-cold beer and watch them from under the shade of the Tamarind tree. It was a day I would always remember.
Charlie, the Thai owner, welcomed us with the barbecue menu and a little dish of monkey nuts. “Good to see you again Mr. Terry,” he said with a smile on his face, although it sounded like a reprimand. He looked at Tanya and Carrie, no doubt surprised I had a family. “Today we have special entertainment for everyone. Enjoy.” He called over Su, his daughter, to bring some cushions and to take care of us.
Tanya looked accusingly at me. “Stephen,” she started to say. Not Steve or Darling or Honey. Immediately, I assumed a defensive posture while she twisted the diamond ring on her finger. “I thought you told me that you’ve only been here once before. That man seems to know you well enough.” As if catching me out with a porky.
Now that we were engaged, life was more commital. Whatever I said would be twisted. I tried to deflect the oncoming storm. “Carrie’s looking a bit red, you packed the sunscreen lotion?”
Tanya gave me a despairing look. “Of course I have. She’s my daughter, remember.” She would have said more about me setting a good example, but Carrie started to pull at her arm. “Mummy, can we go and play with the fishes?”
“Good idea,” I said, jumping in. “Go and show Mummy where they live.” Tanya allowed Carrie to pull her up out of her bamboo seat, while I busied myself by not looking at her. “Take your time,” I said, rearranging my cushion. “We’ve got all afternoon.”
That stopped her. She adjusted the holdall so it fitted more comfortably on her shoulder, and swept back her blond tresses to pierce me with her blue eyes. “Honey,” she said. “Please don’t drink too much.”
“Only one jug,” I promised, with a big grin on my face. They both hugged and kissed me, like I was being a good boy.
I relaxed into my chair and watched them skipping down the beach to where the dolphins were gathering. As for me, well a cold jug of beer would mix well with the barbecue chilli-dog and fries. The benign environment had a soothing effect.
The screams woke me up.
It was late afternoon, the sun casting longer shadows as it shimmered through the branches of the Tamarind tree. I frowned at the noise coming from the beach, stretched and stood up, looking for Tanya and Carrie. Several people started to run down to the beach and I followed them.
I could make out a body being pulled out of the surf. I moved closer and peered between the onlookers. No-one seemed to know what to do. An English voice penetrated my senses. “Is there a doctor here?”
Then Carrie found me amongst the anxious voyeurs. Tears in her eyes. “Mummy’s not well,” she said, pointing to the body. I grabbed her hand we pushed through the throng. At first I was dazed; then alarmed, then devastated. I couldn’t take it all in. My Tanya – it couldn’t be. It only happened to others, but it was her motionless body on the sand, eyes wide open with shock.
How could an eight year old comprehend death? Apparently, Tanya had somehow inflamed a male dolphin, and the animal had drowned her in his excitement. By the time they rescued her, it was too late.
I was full of recriminations, there was so many things I wanted to say to Tania that was now left unsaid. Why hadn’t I been more considerate – why, why?
I hugged Carrie close. She was my tenuous link to her mother, I had to keep us together, whatever. “Mummy is now an Angel,” I explained to Carrie after the cremation service at the Buddhist temple. “She’s looking after you from the sky.”
Carrie couldn’t accept that. “I want her here,” she said. “Mummy always reads me a bedtime story and gives me Teddy to hug.”
That’s the summer when I started to grow up. Carrie was now an orphan with plenty of emotional ups and downs. A miniature Tanya with the same blond curls caressing her angelic face. When she was a baby, her father and his parents had been killed in a car accident, and Tanya’s parents were old and infirm. They couldn’t attend the funeral and sure weren’t able to take care of a boisterous grand-child. They wrote a nice letter though, thanking me.
“Mummy asked me to make sure I look after you instead,” I replied.
“Can I call you Daddy, then?” she asked. Not Steve. Turned her head sideways to show me she was serious.
Well of course she could. “Yes Carrie,” I replied. Big step for me. Now I had responsibilities. A surrogate mother.
“Can I have an ice-cream, Daddy,” she replied, the grin lightening up her face.
Isn’t it typical? Even at eight years, Carrie had developed manipulative skills. I decided that some house rules were needed. Back at the villa, I drew up a plan. The ex-pat community would be supportive, one hurdle overcome. I would teach Carrie how to do housework before and after school – Thai style. In return, I would help her with her school homework and put her to bed. That would give me plenty of space to chill out, watch TV and have a few beers.
Carrie questioned the plan at bedtime. “Daddy, why don’t you work?” she asked.
I had been waiting for that. “Carrie, while you are at school, I write novels.”
“What’s a novel?”
“It’s a story, like your bedtime stories. Daddy finds nice people to put my stories in a book, and they give me money,” I replied. “Enough to buy you a school uniform and ice cream.”
“Why?” she asked. I could see the dollar signs in her eyes.
“Well lots of people like my stories.” Slight exaggeration, but I was ticking along. Who knows, my best seller could be just around the corner.
She shook her head. “I don’t believe you,” she said. “You just don’t like washing and cleaning. Do you daddy?” she shrieked.
Perceptive little sprite. Resort to plan B. “If you do a good job, Daddy will give you pocket money.”
She pouted. “Mummy gave me pocket money for being a good girl.”
“Yeah well, now we both have to work, don’t we?”
“Is Mummy going to come back?” she asked.
I had to think hard. I tried to remember what I had read about children and death. Tell them the truth. “Carrie, Mummy cannot come back. She’s got work to do up in the sky.”
Carrie looked up at her golden-globe light. “Like she sweeps away the clouds so we can have sunshine every day?”
That was an easy one. “Sure. It wouldn’t be summer if she didn’t.”
“Daddy where do clouds come from?” That wasn’t. As if I knew the answer. “I think we’ve had enough questions for one day, little lady. Time for your bath.”
“Can Ducky come with me?” she asked. “She wants a bath too.”
By eight I was exhausted. I was gaining a new perspective. God knows how women manage to work, run a household, and bring up children. Besides the bedroom bit. I missed Tanya every day, but it was too late now.
Carrie and I fell into a routine once the police investigation was completed and all the official documents were put in place. For the time being, I was now her legal guardian up until the time a long lost relative came to claim her back into the family. More and more we’d share our lives, not only doing the chores together, but laughing and crying over our Angel in the sky.
On Fridays, when I met her from school, we would walk along the beach in the summer sunshine and talk about Mummy. We’d paddle along the shore in the ebbing waves looking for shellfish and small crabs, then take our catch home and share them with the Angels. Just like good Buddhists.
“Can Mummy see us?” she had asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Why can’t we see her?”
Good question. “Mummy lives in a world where there are only Angels.”
She frowned. “Like our one outside?” She was referring to the Buddhist statue.
“Well that’s there to show Mummy where we live.” I could see I was going to be backed into an unanswerable corner. I found an escape route. “You can ask your teacher all about Angels. Now let’s tidy up your toys, so Mummy can see that you have been a good girl.”
Being a parent was a full time occupation. Gone were my carefree days cavorting in beach bars. Now replaced by family duties, and school activities like attending Carrie’s progress reports.
“Carrie is an intelligent girl,” said Mrs. Andrews, a new teacher from Australia, while Carrie was helping the class to tidy up outside. “But she struggles at times.”
“Seems like her attention span is short. She doesn’t concentrate and disrupts the other pupils. Asking about Angels. That’s why her grades are lower than we expected.”
Already, I was taking a dislike to Mrs. Andrews. I decided to be blunt. “Maybe you haven’t been told but Carrie’s mother was drowned by a dolphin, while Carrie watched. Can you imagine how she manages to come to terms with that? And be a normal child?”
Mrs. Andrews sniffed. “I’m just giving you feedback, Mr. Terry. We all want the best for Carrie.”
“Yeah well a little understanding wouldn’t go amiss,” I retorted. “Carrie has her tantrums; that’s natural. She pushes me away sometimes and kicks up a fuss. But that’s because she misses her Mummy. I can’t read her any stories about fish without her eyes misting up, and that’s just the tip.”
“There’s no need to take that attitude,” she replied. As if I was a bad parent.
Our discussion wasn’t bearing fruit, and I had to take it right up the line before a compromise was reached. Mrs. Phillips would be Carrie’s teacher. You can see I went all the way for my little angel.
Carrie was pleased with that. “Mrs. Phillips understands. She looks after me just like Mummy,” she said.
That night, alone in my bed, I cried. Tears of joy, frustration, sadness and other feelings welling up from my inner recesses. Must be a hormonal thing.
Carrie taught me a lot that summer, even when she was feeling low. Unconditional love from a child is a precious gift. Carrie gave that to me. And our Angel in the sky helped me find love in return. With all the happiness and suffering love can bring, particularly when the tooth fairy visited, or when she bravely held back the tears while I tended her grazed knee. Or she just wanted me to cuddle her and Teddy, and say goodnight to Mummy.
You see what I mean about the Coco Loco beach bar promotion. My life would have been a lot simpler.
But not as fulfilling.