Exactly two years ago this week, I was on this same beach (give or take a bit of sand) when I saw a woman in a deckchair and almost took her photo. Then I got worried – what if I shared her photo online and it had unexpected repercussions on her life or mine? So I didn’t take the photo, but decided to write the story in a book instead.
And now I’m feeling hugely nostalgic to find myself back here in the place where it all began, and slightly overwhelmed too, as I never imagined back then it could really be a book – all of this happened before I signed a book deal with my publisher at all.
I’m celebrating tonight with an Aperol Spritz, and I’m marking it here by sharing the first chapter of One Click. So whether you like psychological thrillers, or books about relationships, or you’re curious about what kind of fiction I write, or you haven’t read anything since your kids were born, or you read all the time and need something new – this is five minutes reading for you:
One Click – Prologue
If I’d known what would happen to all of us, I would never have taken the picture. Was there even a decision? Or just an unconscious microsecond between seeing the woman and reaching for my phone. A whisper of a pause during which I could have uncurled my fingers. The uncurled fingers, the unflapped wings of the butterfly in the unrippled water.
But I did it. One small motion. Like the hose lying flat and lifeless on the ground, before the tap is turned. Just one twist, and the hose takes on a life of its own, spraying water into the sky and drowning everything in sight.
One small motion. Just one click.
Chapter 1 Lauren
The woman is where she is every day. Her eyes closed, her face turned to the sun, and she has no idea I’m here. Turquoise waves lap around her feet and the low frame of her deckchair. Dark-red hair glints in the morning light and her book hangs loosely in her hand. It’s Utopia wrapped up in a single square shot and I can’t resist.
My phone is on silent, and there’s no tell-tale click when I take the photo, but still she glances up. Does she know? She looks at me for a moment, then down to her book.
I turn and take some more shots, out to sea this time. My arms drop to my sides and I stand for a moment, breathing in the sea air, letting the babble of accents wash over me. Then a wave splashes across my feet and the spell is broken.
My wet trainers squelch on the sand on the way back to the campsite. I should run, but it’s too hot now, and I’m tired. Or maybe old. Older than yesterday when I’m sure I ran for longer.
“Caffè? Pasticcini?” comes the familiar call from the kiosk.
“Cappuccino, per favore,” I say, feeling only slightly guilty that I don’t have enough money with me to bring pastries to the girls. I’ll drink my coffee on the walk back so they don’t get cranky. Especially Rebecca, I think, picturing the raised-eyebrow look she’s been perfecting since we arrived in Italy. The coffee is strong and hot as it hits the back of my throat, and the morning ritual is complete.
“Mum, did you bring us anything?” Rebecca asks as I walk up to the deck, not looking up from her phone. Her hand hovers absentmindedly over a plate of toast.
“Are you on Snapchat again? It’s going to cost a fortune, Rebecca.”
Now she looks up, and there’s the raised eyebrow. “Did you bring us pastries?” she asks, and takes a bite of toast.
“Nope, I didn’t have any money with me,” I tell her. “Where’s Ava?”
“Still in bed,” she says, going back to her phone.
Pulling up a chair beside her, I scan through my photos. Fourteen taken this morning – the girls will have a field day. They never take photos of the sea, or anything that doesn’t have a pouting human in the foreground, and they can’t understand why I do. I stop when I get to the girl with the dark-red hair. There’s something about her expression that radiates an easy indifference to the sunbathers and paddlers around her. The way the book hangs from her hand, the tilt of her wrist. Her upturned unlined face. The blush-coloured dress against nutmeg skin, a turquoise bracelet the onlyflash of colour. A sun goddess dressed up as a carefree millennial.Clicking into Instagram, I upload the photo. It doesn’t need a filter – the girl on the beach speaks for herself. I type a caption.
*All* the envyonmy morning run – this is #howIwishIspentmytwenties
I hit share, and put down my phone as Ava pads out of the mobile home and flops into a chair.
“I’m starving – did you bring us anything? Hey! Rebecca, did you eat all the bread?” And just like that, I’m back to the real world of ever-hungry teens and bickering siblings.
It’s after lunch before I check into Instagram. 354 likes already. I share it on Facebook and Twitter too, and Rebecca catches me smiling.
“Mum, are you obsessing over your blog again? You’re never off that phone,” she says, mimicking me.
“It’s not my blog, it’s Instagram, and I’m just checking it.I haven’t been on in hours actually,” I say, mimicking her back.
She leans in to have a look.
“Who’s that in the pic?”
“I don’t know – just a woman I saw on my run this morning. Doesn’t she look so happy and chilled?”
“Yeah . . . does she know you took her photo though? Did you ask her?”
“No, but it’s just a photo of the beach – people take pictures like that all the time. With strangers in them, I mean.”
“Sure, but this picture is very much about her, and now you’ve put it online. Like, you can see her really clearly – she’s not just one of the crowd. Ha – you’re constantly telling us not to post photos without permission, and now you’ve just gone and done it!”
“Excuse me, it’s not the same thing– photographers take pictures like this all the time. It’s a candid shot – a study of a person having a moment in time, that’s all.” I’m aware of how defensive I sound and, watching my daughter do her perfect eyebrow-raise, I see she is too.
“Whatever, Mum, but maybe practise what you preach?” she says, picking up her plate and walking inside.
I can hear her telling Ava about it and I can picture the eye-rolls. Shutting out their voices, I look down again at my phone. It’s just a good photo. That’s all. And the woman will never know I took it. Even if she did, she’d surely be flattered. She’s beautiful, and she has 354 likes now too.
At the pool, the girls jump straight in the water while I stay on a sunlounger with my book. It’s odd to think of all those times I wished for this when they were small – now they don’t need me any more, and I miss it. I watch as Rebecca stands under a fountain of water, shrieking that it’s cold. Memories of a similar pool in another campsite surface – a much smaller Rebecca standing under a stream of water while Dave held her, the two of them laughing hysterically. I close my eyes to block it out but it doesn’t work. Dave did all the holiday bookings – he was rubbish at lots of things, but great at finding just the right campsite in just the right part of France. That’s why we’re in Italy now – because I needed it to be different.
Still thinking about Dave, my eyes move across to the next pool and that’s when I see her – the woman from the beach is lying on a lounger, reading her book. Shit. I had no idea she was staying on the campsite. Then again, what does it matter? She’s hardly going to see the photo. I wonder where she’s from? At the beach I assumed she was Italian, but now I’m not sure. I squint to see the name of her book but I can’t. Did it show up in the photo? I click into Instagram to check. The Goldfinchby Donna Tartt – so she’s an English-speaker, or at least someone who can read books in English. A splinter of unease digs into the pit of my stomach. Maybe I should take down the photo . . . But it has over 600 likes on Instagram now and almost a hundred between Facebook and Twitter. I’m being silly – it’s not doing any harm. There are dozens of new comments about what people wish they’d done in their twenties too and, as I scroll, I spot one from Rebecca.
So much for ‘don’t post pics online without permission’ Mum.
She’s followed it with a smiley face but it still makes me defensive.
It’s a candid shot of a beach, smarty-pants I reply before scrolling on.
A message interrupts my browsing – Dave wants to know if he can let himself into the house to collect some more stuff. He’s thinking of booking a week in the sun, he says. With Nadine, of course. Closing my eyes, I take some deep breaths and only start to type when I know I can say the right thing.
Of course, any time. Weather great here.
I hit send, and stuff my phone in my bag. My book is on the ground beside me but I don’t feel like reading any more. How ironic, after all those years wishing I could do just this. I close my eyes.
The night-time humidity is a muggy blanket, and the only light on the deck is our candle, glowing in the centre of the table. Tonight’s game is Pontoon, and Ava is winning. My wine is crisp despite the heat, but it won’t be long before it’s lukewarm – taking a deep swallow, I check my phone. The photo of the woman has been picked up by an entertainment website and shared on their Facebook page – they’ve asked their thousands of followers to post their own answers and photos with the hashtag #howIwishIspentmytwenties and they’re doing so in droves, each one trying to outdo the last with funnier and pithier responses. They should have asked me first, but they do credit my blog name so I can’t complain really. Strangers are tweeting me with their answers to the question, and notifications light up my phone every couple of seconds. Someone called Jess122 says I’m being presumptuous about millennials, and a user called Maxx wants to know if I got the woman’s number. There’s a tweet from a VIN saying the beach looks lovely and asking where we are, and another person called Sharon would like our campsite details so she can book for next year – I can’t remember posting that we’re on a campsite but maybe I did. EmmaB says she’s in her twenties like the woman on the beach, but it’s too late to do anything – she wants to go back to her teens.
I wonder if any of us means it – would we change things if we could? Would I? I certainly got married too young. Twenty-four and barely out of college, with nothing seen of the world. Me the strait-laced psychology graduate, and Dave, the cliché: the handsome junior doctor who – more cliché – swept me off my feet. I had never met someonelike him. He didn’t care what people thought and he didn’t take shit from anyone. I remember when I first took him home to meet Mum – I was so nervous about what he’d say or do. But he flipped like a light-switch as soon as she opened the front door – turning into this charming template of a perfect boyfriend. Less than a year later she walked me down the aisle and into Dave’s arms, and ten months after that Ava came along. So would I change it? I look over at Ava, studying her hand of cards. Not if it meant changing the girls. But if I could have had those same children when I was older, then yes, maybe I would change how I spent my twenties – going straight from college to marriage to nappies wasn’t how I expected things to go.
I shake my head and Rebecca looks up.
“Are you okay, Mum?”
“Yep, just thinking.”
Rebecca touches my phone screen. “Wow, Mum, is that your beach photo on TheDailyByte.ie– oh my God, it’s practically viral! What are you going to do if the woman finds out?”
I pull my phone away. “Oh come on, it’s not a big deal, and she’s hardly going to see it – she’s probably Italian. I doubt she follows my blog or The Daily Bytesomehow.”
“She doesn’t look Italian – Italians don’t have red hair, do they? Ha, she’s probably Irish! I’m just amazed at the double standards, Mum. You’d literally kill me if I did the same thing.”
“That’s a completely incorrect use of the word ‘literally’,” Ava tells her.
“I don’t know . . . maybe not,” I mutter, clicking back into Twitter.
The person called “VIN” has tweeted me a second time asking what the name of the beach is, and someone called Oliver says the woman looks older than twenty, completely missing the point. But most people are focused on giving their own suggestions about how they wish they’d spent their twenties. Beer, wine, and sun feature heavily. My Twitter friend MollyRants72 wishes she’d spent her twenties having her kids so she’d be out the other side now.
“It’s not all it’s cracked up to be,” I reply, then feel guilty when I look at Ava and Rebecca.
CatherineW says she wishes she’d known she looked good, instead of worrying about losing weight – now she wants to look like she did in her twenties. This is all getting a bit serious, I think, replying to tell her she looks amazing. At least I assume she does – I’ve never met her in real life.
Then I see a third tweet from the account called “VIN”. Three less friendly unpunctuated words this time:
Where are you
I click into it to look at the details. It’s a new account – only one tweet so far – the question to me. No profile picture, no details at all. The display name is “VIN” and the underlying username below that is @Vin_H_O_Rus. Someone’s initials? I must be staring because Rebecca notices.
“What’s up, Mum, is something wrong?”
I put down my phone. “Nothing. Just an odd message.”
Ava looks up now. “It’s not that weird guy from last year again, is it? The one who was sending you the horrible ‘I am watching you’ messages? Leon?”
I shake my head. “No, God, nothing like that, love – don’t worry. Leon is long gone. He got bored when I stopped replying. He’s not back, I’m certain.”
But I’m lying. Really, I’m not sure at all.
… and that’s it, chapter 1 of One Click, two years on from Lauren’s first encounter with the woman on the beach, back where it all began.
If you enjoyed it or you’re curious to find out who is messaging Lauren and why they’re interested in the woman on the beach, you can pick up One Click in (I’ve always wanted to say this) all good bookshops or on Amazon. And yes, it was mortifying taking a selfie on the beach with the book, but the kids were too busy at the pool to come with me, and not remotely interested in how sentimental I’m feeling. Wave pool trumps sentiment every time.