Dad called me over to the window to watch the fireworks, telling me to turn the light off so we’d all be able to see better. He was standing with Mrs Laylor who I had known for years but, for the last couple of weeks, I was always being told to call Mary. Her name still felt odd in my mouth. She lived a few minutes away, in one of the streets that pointed towards the sea. She was standing with her arms crossed over her chest and a hand casually holding a glass of wine. Both of her and dad’s reflections were on the window, staring back at them. When I clicked off the light they vanished.
‘They’re gonna be starting again,’ dad said. ‘Hurry up.’
‘He’s still got a minute,’ Mrs Laylor said.
When my parents divorced dad had moved into our beach house, so it was just mum and me left. At first living in the beach house had just been something temporary, until he could find a better place to live in by himself, but he kept putting it off again and again until he started saying that it really was an alright place to live, considering. The beach house was about an hour away from where we lived, but he said he didn’t mind commuting to work. Usually when school finished for the summer holidays we had all gone to there together.
This time it was just dad and me. Mum had dropped me off on the street with my suitcase. There was sand between the blades of grass on the front lawn. She didn’t want to come inside.
‘See them?’ dad said at the window. ‘Are you missing it?’
‘No,’ I said.
‘You’re missing it.’
I stood beside them and looked out the window. About halfway around the bay there were fireworks exploding in clean circles. We were too far away to hear them properly, just dull thuds a few seconds behind each explosion. At first the sound delay was obvious, then more and more fireworks went off and I lost track of them.
‘It’s really kind of, you know, beautiful,’ dad said, he’d been drinking since the late afternoon, when Mrs. Laylor had come over.
‘It’s beautiful,’ Mrs Laylor said. ‘It is really beautiful.’
She leaned into dad slightly, until their arms were touching. I looked away. Salt stains like clouds sat in the corners of the windows. Dad would get me to wash them, but it really made no difference. They always came back.
Sometimes when we’d watch television together dad would nod at the woman on the screen and say, ‘What do you think?’ and I’d nod along, though I always felt like I was out of my depth. Other times I’d notice him walking from the bathroom, after just having a shower, with a towel wrapped around his waist and his eyes smudged red from crying. These were things that I never mentioned to anyone.
The fireworks stopped. We stood there in the dark for a second, and dad whispered something to Mrs Laylor and she laughed. She was a small woman, alarmingly tanned, blonde haired and in her mid-forties. When she smoked she always let the smoke from her nostrils in a sigh. I had never heard anyone mention even the existence of a Mr Laylor.
The fireworks finished and I turned on the light and went back to the dinner table. Our plates were on the table, with the salt and pepper shakers and a bowl of salad. I hadn’t finished the glass of wine Mrs Laylor had poured me. In the corner of the room, facing away from me, Mrs Laylor and dad sat down on the couch.
‘Wine?’ dad said.
‘Do you need a hand washing up?’ Mrs Laylor said.
‘No, Michael’s got it, don’t you Mike?’
Dad’s turned and was looking at me from over the back of the couch. His face was flushed red. It was a warm night and the breeze that had been blowing up the beach all day had dropped off as soon as night had fallen. I was wearing a t-shirt and board shorts and was barefoot.
‘I don’t mind,’ I said.
Dad winked at me. I instantly wished that he hadn’t.
Later, when I was in bed, lying there awake but pretending to sleep, dad came into my room and punched me lightly on the shoulder to wake me up. I sat up and looked at him.
‘I need you to drive Mary home,’ he said. ‘She said she probably can’t sleep here.’
‘What’s the time?’ I said.
‘Can you just do this for me?’ he said.
‘She lives around the corner, why can’t she walk?’
Dad swayed on his feet a little. He looked tired. He always seemed to be tired. Not sad or depressed or angry, like he’d been for the last few months, just tired, like there was something inside of him that had just been knocked down too many times. He sat on the edge of my bed.
‘Where is she?’ I said.
‘On the couch, she might be asleep,’ he said. ‘You’ll have to wake her up.’
I got up, I was still fully clothed, and headed out towards the living room. Dad lay down on the end of my bed and wedged a pillow under his head.
In the living room Mrs Laylor was standing beside the window. In the distance I could see the spotlights from the airport sweeping back and forth. I didn’t want to say her name out loud. I stood there until she turned and noticed me. When she saw me her expression didn’t change. I thought that she was as drunk as dad, but when she spoke it was with surprising confidence.
‘You my ride home?’ she said.
‘I am,’ I said.
Mrs Laylor started to gather her things from the couch and put them in her handbag. When she walked over to me her heels clicked on the wooden floor and the sound was as clear as ice cubes.
In the driveway I opened the car door and the inside light came on and I gathered up a few empty coffee cups and ice-cream wrappers from the passenger seat and threw them in the back. After I cleared the seat Mrs Laylor opened her door and sat down. I drove out of the driveway and she rolled down her window and lit a cigarette.
‘Is this your car?’ she said.
‘It’s dad’s,’ I said.
Mrs Laylor nodded. Her skirt had ridden up and I could see her tanned thigh. I wondered if her entire body was the same shade of brown. We stopped at a red light. There were no other cars on the road.
‘One day you’ll save up enough so you don’t have share with your father,’ she said.
‘I hope so,’ I said.
A few years before, when my parents were still together, Mrs Laylor had given me a book, saying that I might enjoy it. She had come into my bedroom and laid it on my desk. I was sitting on my bed and trying to get a splinter out of my foot. She had looked around my room quietly, then smiled and left.
As she was leaving, after lunch, we all stood together on the front veranda. Mrs Laylor mentioned to my parents that she had given me a book.
‘Did you say thank you?’ mum asked me.
‘No,’ Mrs Laylor said in a joking kind of way. ‘He didn’t, but that’s alright.’
She was lying though, I had said thank you at the time.
I stopped in front of her house. I could hear the ocean through the car’s open windows because the radio was turned off. Mrs Laylor looked at her house. For a second she was motionless.
‘I forgot to leave a light on,’ she said.
‘I can leave the headlights on so you can see the key,’ I said.
She turned to me and smiled and put her hand on my shoulder and squeezed it for a moment before letting go. She smelled like sunscreen. She opened her door and climbed out and closed it carefully behind her. I leaned forward, over the steering wheel, to watch her walk. Before getting to her house she kicked off her shoes, each one arcing through the air, so she could walk better across her front lawn.