Authors: Robert McCracken
© Robert McCracken, 2015
Robert McCracken has asserted his rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
First published 2015 by Endeavour Press Ltd.
Ten years now but she could never forget.
She’d taken Meg, her Springer Spaniel, a different route on their morning walk. Through the meadows and down by the river. A chill fog was slowly rising above the trees and bushes, dawn gaining an upper hand on the darkness. Scampering over the lid of a large bin, a grey squirrel kept an eye on the wagging tail of the dog sniffing its way along the path. A keen jogger slipped by heading towards the boat houses, already open, a crew preparing for an early workout. She felt snug within her sheepskin coat, old yet reliable, her collar turned up, a woollen beanie bright and cheerful on her head. The only sounds were of the few cars crossing Folly Bridge and of her own footsteps, her flat-heel boots on the cinder path. Meg, off her lead, was always obedient, always came to her call.
But not today.
Suddenly the dog was off the path and in among the trees, another squirrel darting to safety. Meg was on a mission, head down and tail wagging. Beneath a sycamore she began to dig. Her paws tore at the loose earth, sweeping leaves and twigs aside. In seconds the excavation was complete, and the dog, front paws outstretched, sinking low on hind legs, began to bark.
With no response to her call, she marched twenty yards over the grass to the place Meg found so interesting. Instinctively, her hands gripped at her face when she saw what the dog had uncovered. Trying to scream, she felt only the bile rise from her stomach. Meg whimpered. A grave. Only six inches deep. Tiny limbs, blue-grey, spattered with damp earth, a baby, naked, scarcely born or born dead. She would never forget the vision of the lifeless child, discarded and pressed in the ground.
Every November since then, she’d returned to this spot by the river. This morning she placed a spray of white carnations beside the brass plate that marked the shallow grave where the baby boy had been discovered by her Meg. No one had ever come forward to claim the child the police had named Baby Isis.
Callum Armour was already late. Very late. Not entirely his fault but Tilly would never believe him.
‘Don’t you dare blame poor Jian for your missing the train,’ she would say. But it was Jian’s project. It was his batch of samples running on the mass spectrometer in the lab, and Callum wanted to be certain the run was successful before leaving for his Easter break. Success now meant that Jian could fire ahead with the remaining work in his post-doc project. He had targets to meet, and Callum didn’t want to hold him back.
Jian, twenty-eight and painfully thin, long-haired, wearing a black
T-shirt and chewing gum, peered at the monitor, inspecting each sample result generated by the computer. Callum sat next to him, tapping the fingers of his right hand on the bench, awaiting the appearance of the single peak on the display that would indicate successful detection of the drug metabolite they had been trying to isolate for weeks. This would be conclusive proof that chicken products imported from South-east Asia were contaminated with antibiotic drugs, and Jian, Callum’s Chinese researcher, would be well on his way to completing his food safety project.
His mobile rang in his left hand. He knew who it was without looking at the screen.
‘Hi, love. Just about to leave.’
‘You’re still in Oxford?’ said Tilly, an exasperated Tilly.
‘Train isn’t till six.’
‘It’s ten-to-six now. And you’re still at the lab.’
Callum glanced at his watch.
‘There it is,’ said Jian, excitedly. ‘We found it, Callum.’
‘What?’ said Tilly.
‘Sorry, love. I’m on my way right now. I might still make it. How’s my wee Emily today?’
‘Your daughter is fine, enjoying her tea as we speak, although most of it is either on her bib or wonderfully spread across her high chair.’
‘Lovely. And how’s my wee wife?’
‘Your wife is fine, too, but will not be happy if her husband comes home late again. You haven’t packed yet, and we’re going to Devon tomorrow.’
‘I know. I won’t be late. I promise. Just tell me you love me.’
‘I love you. Call me when you’re on the train, and I’ll meet you at Reading Station.’
‘OK, bye.’ He ended the call, his attention returning immediately to the monitor, a single symmetrical peak traced in red on the display.
‘Well done, Jian. Now we’ve found it all we have to do is repeat the exercise with another two hundred samples, and we could be on for a Nobel Prize.’
‘I not think so. You always make joke, Callum.’
‘You never know, Jian. Keep chasing your dream, that’s what I always say.’
Callum moved at speed across the small laboratory, crammed with instrumentation, pulling off his white coat and reaching for his jacket hanging on a hook to the left of the door. He called goodbye to Jian, gleefully engrossed in the data spilling onto his monitor.
‘Enjoy holiday, Callum. See you next week. I lot of work to do now.’
‘Bye, Jian. Don’t forget to go home this evening.’
‘Funny man, Doctor Armour. You hurry now. Catch train.’
He left the door to swing closed, sprinted along the corridor to his office, grabbed his rucksack from beneath his untidy desk and hurried to the stairs. He knew he had to make the effort but realised he couldn’t get from the Food Chemistry Department to the station in ten minutes. By the time he reached the bottom step he was already in holiday mode. Issues of mass spectrometers, drug metabolites and contaminated food were fading fast. He couldn’t wait to see Tilly, couldn’t wait to have Emily in his arms, raising her to the ceiling and watching her giggle with delight. A week by the sea, the three of them playing on the sand, lunch at the Lobster Pot and a cosy fire in the evening as Tilly read aloud her latest chapter. All good.
He was twenty-eight, fit, healthy and above all a lucky man. Happiness swirled around him like a summer breeze, a man well aware he was blessed with good fortune. He had an interesting career, a wonderful wife and a beautiful daughter. All these things flooded Callum’s mind as he swept by the reception desk en route to the exit of the Chemistry building. As he pushed the door open, he heard the clerk calling out to him.
‘Some mail for you, Callum,’ she said, holding up a white A5-size envelope. He hurried back and took the letter.
‘Thanks, Eleanor. Have a nice Easter. Have to fly. Tilly’s going to kill me if I don’t make the train.’ The fifty-year-old woman, with a round face and glasses perched low on her nose, smiled her understanding, well used to seeing Callum running late smile.
‘Bye, Callum. Enjoy your break.’
He shoved the envelope into his bag as he barged through the door into the rain. He hoped it wouldn’t last. Maybe in Devon the sun was splitting the trees. Callum was six feet tall and had a rapid stride, but he knew he hadn’t a hope of making the six o’clock. He would have no trouble with the six-thirty, but Tilly would not be pleased. It meant bringing Emily out after dark to meet him at the station, when she should be tucked up in bed.
Tilly waited all afternoon for his call. Finally, she had to phone to remind him that he should be on a train racing to see her instead of salivating over test results that would be waiting for him after Easter. It wasn’t the first time and wouldn’t be the last. She recalled the occasion when she had to go and fetch him at two in the morning. They were supposed to have dinner with friends at seven, and he’d called to tell her that he was running late. Callum didn’t show. When she got to Oxford she’d found him slumped across his desk, reams of printouts littering the floor.
‘Another five minutes,’ he’d murmured, oblivious to the time and her standing over him.
Tilly loved his enthusiasm. She loved his dedication, not only to his work but to her and Emily. She realised that he had a lot to put up with sometimes; she was no easy partner. A writer could never be relied upon either. While he may lose track of time and forget to come home, there were many occasions when she simply needed to get away. If she had an idea swirling in her head, threatening to overcome, then she had to run with it. She had to lance the boil. On occasions that meant being alone, undisturbed, not distracted, even by Emily. At those times Callum was always there to hold things together, while she raged with her writing.
He’d called her at six-thirty-five to say that he’d made the train. She had promised herself to shower and change, wash her brown hair, slap on some eye-liner and lipstick, to look remotely human for her lover, but her afternoon had gone awry. Emily wouldn’t take her nap. Tilly had a character to flesh out. That was a disaster, because she couldn’t settle on a first name for the lonely beach bum who rescues the kids from the incoming tide. Had to be something heroic. For a second, she considered using Callum but only for a second. By five-to seven, it was Tilly who was running late, and oh how Callum would relish that. She’d washed Emily after her encounter with vegetable stew and rice pudding, but she had no time for her shower, a change of clothes or the slapping on of make-up. She carried Emily to the car, opened the rear door and strapped her into the car seat. A fierce wind was getting up, giving the rain that extra soak-ability. She hurried back to the cottage, gathered her anorak and handbag, and slammed the front door behind her. Driving the small silver hatchback off the patch of gravel that was their tiny front garden and onto Bolney Road, she allowed herself a glance in the mirror. God, she looked awful. What was Callum going to say? ‘Where the hell’s my wife? This can’t possibly be her?’ Then she smiled to herself, because that’s exactly the sort of thing he would say. If she turned up in evening wear, with fresh clean hair, sparkling ear-rings and a cleavage threatening a night of unbridled passion, he would still say, ‘Where the hell’s my wife?’ She loved him, couldn’t wait to see him, to hold him, to run her fingers through his thick mop of black hair, to rasp the back of her hand on his unshaven face and to gaze into the dark pools of his Irish eyes. She felt blessed to have found him, to be given him. She was thankful for the day she received word that she was going to Oxford. She’d always had a plan. Oxford first, then write and write. She’d never expected Callum. Even in her wildest imagination that she battled to get into print each day, she could never have thought up Callum.
By tomorrow afternoon the three of them would be holed up in the cottage in Teignmouth that her parents had owned for years, used for weekend breaks and summer retreats. She’d lost count of the good times she’d had there as a child and more recently with Callum. She allowed herself the thought that Emily was quite possibly conceived there, in the tiny loft bedroom, with its curtain-less window and a view of a rolling sea.
She turned the car into Station Road, where there was a level crossing to negotiate. It was never that busy. In the three years she and Callum had lived in Shiplake, she could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times she had to wait for a train to pass. There were no barriers, just the alarm and the obligatory flashing lights. Tonight of all nights there would, of course, be a train due. She slowed well in advance of the stop sign. Emily was almost sleeping at last, and Tilly didn’t want any sudden braking to jerk her out of the notion. Better that she was fast asleep when Daddy met them rather than he having to deal with a screaming noise-box. It was dusk, and the flashing red lights throbbed against the dull greens of the hedgerows. The car drew to a halt on the lane, and she waited, tapping her fingers on the steering wheel, urging the train to get a move on. Still irked by her poor appearance, she returned her gaze to the mirror; it filled with light as a large car, a four-by-four, pulled up behind her. She hadn’t noticed any other vehicles as she emerged from Bolney Road but thought little of it. She was going to be so late for Callum. To her right, in the distance, she caught the lights of the approaching train, and her attention left the vehicle behind. She felt a bump. Her head bounced on the headrest. Instinctively, she pulled at the handbrake as the car lurched forward. Stamping her foot on the brakes, she glanced in the mirror and squinted from the glare of the main beam of the four-by-four. She felt another bump, and the hatchback lunged again, sliding towards the railway line. Tilly screamed. Emily awoke, crying. The car behind roared forward, its wheels spinning, its engine growling, sliding the hatchback across the white line on the road, beyond the flashing lights. Her engine was still running. She hadn’t stalled. But the four-by-four continued its shunt. Should she drive across the track? Get out? Get Emily out? Screaming at the driver to stop, she no longer had a choice. Flooring the accelerator, her wheels spun on the damp road. The four-by-four suddenly lost contact, and the hatchback shot forward. There was no time. No precious seconds for a train to slow. The silver hatchback crumpled like a tin can. Blitzed glass and plastic sprayed over tarmac; a petrifying screech of metal grating on metal as the train shoved the captured chassis a hundred yards down the track before rolling to a halt. Lights still flashed red. The tyres of the four-by-four crackled over shattered glass and plastic but soon were humming along the road to Henley.
Callum groaned at the announcement. Train delayed due to signalling problems near Pangbourne. He called Tilly on his mobile, but there was no reply. He left a message on her voicemail, saying that his train was delayed. She would be so pissed at him for being late. The passengers around him, commuters, day-trippers and students travelling home for the Easter break, muttered complaints then returned to whatever passed their time on train journeys: newspapers, mobile phones and lap-tops. Callum opened his rucksack, searching for a book to read. He’d bought a couple for the holiday. He liked comedy novels. Wasn’t one for violence or tragedy. He liked to be entertained, and what could be better than to have a good laugh?
, the story of a man coping poorly with turning fifty. He left it in the bag and chose instead,
, the story of a man coping poorly with his marriage. He noticed the letter he’d picked up on his way out of work, squeezed between the two books and a little creased. Removing it from the bag, he stared at the envelope. There was no address, no stamp or post-mark, only his name, typed: Dr Callum Armour. It was a sealed envelope, so he eased his finger into the gap at the edge and ran it along, ripping it open. He pulled out a card, and his eyebrows met in confusion. There was nothing written on the inside, no message and no names. The outside had a picture of a large spray of flowers, white lilies. Printed in silver letters above it were the words ‘