There’s a place where they picnic.
As the day ends and the long Summer evening begins, Tom pulls the car into the layby on the narrow country lane and they sit for a moment in the silence, side by side, not looking each other.
“Come on, daddy!” Tom turns back to press the seatbelt release. Immediately their daughter is climbing out of her car seat and pushing herself between them. “Let’s go folks!” She’s picked that up from somewhere. Liesel climbs through into her mother’s lap. “Can we go now?”
With their daughter dancing ahead of them, they carry their awkward wedding-present hamper from the layby in the narrow country lane, through the gap in the hedge next to the bent aluminium gate, across the bumpy field (hamper bumping awkwardly between them), through the always-open broken-down wooden gate, to the flat grass space caught in the crook of the river.
Their daughter is disappointed that there are no cow poos.
They catch each other smiling at that and share the moment. Their daughter.
Liesel finds her place on the river bank and lies flat on her stomach. Her father calls “Be careful!” as he always does, and she moves her body forward so that her face is above the slow, green, moving water. There are insects on the water and there might be tadpoles, possibly a frog or a water vole, if she can keep still enough.
Her parents share the spreading-out of the rug and lie down together before they unpack anything else. They lie diagonally to each other, heads closer together than their legs, so that they can both look down the space between them and see that their daughter is safe.
Satisfied, both of them, that she is in no danger they reach their faces forward, breathing each other in as their lips touch.
“Mmm,” says Rosa, although she is always the first to pull away. They have always liked to begin their private picnics, visits to the beach, rug-based events generally, with a lying-down moment.
In the early days, they would take chances that they don’t take now. This place by the river, as several of their other places, might be where their daughter was conceived.
But Rosa just smiles whenever Tom suggests that they come here again some time without Liesel.
Rosa pulls away. She sits up and clasps her arms around her knees. Tom raises himself onto one elbow.
“What’s up?” he asks, although he knows she won’t reply.
She’s looking towards Liesel, though maybe looking past her daughter and out into a further distance, and on her face is that expression.
Tom knows that whatever he says, she will just shake her head and smile at him and say nothing.
He reaches out a finger and strokes the soft fine hair of her forearm. “What’s up, my love?” he asks, but just to let her know that he’s there.
She won’t answer. Not in words.
“Daddy! Daddy!” Liesel whispers urgently, looking back and beckoning.
Tom leaves Rosa and goes to his daughter, crouching at first and then going down on his knees and hands to crawl as he gets close to her.
“What is it?” he whispers as he lies down beside her. Something in the river. He is careful not to put his head immediately out over the water, lying down and moving gradually forward. This he has taught Liesel, on past visits, because she is fascinated by the river, although this time she has forgotten in her excitement and he doubts that there is anything still down there — if there ever was anything.
Liesel’s lain straight back down with her face right out over the water.
It’s a fish. A bloody great actual real fish.
Tom, who sometimes regrets that he never went fishing with his father, that neither of them ever really caught on to any of those man-and-boy things, fails to identify the brown trout hovering against the slow current in the clear water below them.
But it’s a bloody great fish with spots on its back. And it seems to be ignoring them. It must know they’re here.
Now it’s his turn to look back and beckon. But Rosa is kneeling over the wedding-present hamper, unpacking the picnic. Because of the fish, Tom can’t make a sound to get her attention.
He comes back round onto his elbows and together father and daughter watch the fish. It must be a foot long at least, Tom thinks, in his mind already telling the story later; it must have got lost somehow to be here in this shallow, narrow river.
But it’s here. A bloody great fish. Tom stares, and then he and Liesel exchange a look that makes the moment theirs: daughter and father together; their fish, their moment.
Then Liesel shifts her position to bring her arm forward and Tom watches as she reaches her hand down to the water.
“No,” he whispers, and when she ignores him, “Be careful,” and then he is silent as he recognises what she is doing.
His mother, who is Granny now, read this story to him once, a long time ago, from one of her old books; she must have read it to Liesel as well. She read the story and Liesel has remembered the scene that Tom now remembers, with the children by the river, on a camping adventure in the past; the scene with the boy and the fish.
Liesel’s fingertips break the surface of the water. They watch as her hand, bent by the refraction of the water, gradually approaches the fish, which still doesn’t move. Liesel’s sleeve is in the water now but Tom says nothing.
“Okay,” says Liesel softly, and Tom sees that she turns her hand over, palm upwards, to move it under the fish. It’s further away than it looks; Liesel has to stretch her arm to reach. Her hand goes under the fish and then — Tom can’t believe this, but he’s seeing it — she is cupping its underside in the palm of her hand.
“Just tickle it,” she says, “gently,” and for a moment it’s as if she’s telling him how to do this, or maybe that boy in the story is speaking in her voice, passing on what he knows, and it seems to Tom as he watches his daughter gently stroking the underside of the fish, that something momentous is happening, something bigger than him.
Then, suddenly, but not as though they’ve scared it, the fish flicks its tail and is gone, streaking away into the green darkness upstream.
Neither of them moves.
“Goodbye,” says Liesel. She raises her arm from the water and then scrambles back onto her knees.
“Ugh!” she says. Her sleeve is wet.
Tom is still lying flat on the ground. He brings himself round to face her. He wants her to look at him again, to meet her eyes and share what has happened again like they shared it just now.
But she is scrambling up to her feet and now she is running back towards Rosa.
“Mummy! I saw a fish! I touched it!”
“Well done, darling,” says Rosa.
But Tom can tell that Rosa has heard Liesel’s excitement, not her words.
Tom gets to his feet. He stands looking down at the river. He has something to say, but he doesn’t know what it is. “Yes,” he says, thinking of the boy in the story. “Yes.”
Rosa has hold of Liesel’s hand; she’s palm-reading for germs. A second later the T-shirt is a wet little blot on the grass. Got your cow pat, Tom thinks.
Now Liesel is wearing the warm top they packed for later. Tom knows that Rosa will have words with him tonight about letting Liesel put her arm in the water.
He turns back to the river, pulling out his phone.
He takes a picture of the clear green river and a close-up of the riverbank like a scale model of a cliff-edge and then a final picture of the empty water that secretly holds the imprint of his daughter’s hand.
Then he begins the walk back to his family.
When he reaches them, he will confirm the truth of Liesel’s story. He will show that he has been surprised.
He will try to reassure his wife, if she will hear him, that happiness, once found, need not be lost.