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Authors: Isabel Ashdown

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BOOK: Flight
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But if she named me as the father, why didn’t the adoption agency contact me when you were brought in? I’m not doubting you, just anxious to know more.

He stares at the words he’s just sent, realising how bullish he sounds. He didn’t even say he was sorry about the death of her mother. Idiot. God knows what she must think of him now. He waits, and waits, staring at the screen, willing her answer to arrive, dreading it all the same. Before too long, a new message pops up:

It’s complicated – but I’ll try to explain! The letter says my father was a man called Robert L. Wing and that he was a history teacher at a school in south London, but according to the records they found no one matching those details at all. I thought we’d hit a brick wall, until this Monday I was sitting in the dentist’s waiting room, reading an article in a weekend paper about the National Lottery of all things, and one of the names jumped out at me – Robert Irving, a history teacher living in south London. I suddenly thought, what if we’ve got the name wrong? As soon as I got home I took another look at the letter – it was written on a paper napkin – and I just knew I was right! The name they had transcribed as Robert L. Wing was actually Robert Irving. I hired a family tracing agent, and after just a few phone calls, following up with schools and so on, the trail led straight to you.

 

So what happens now?

A simple error; a slip of the pen. Robert feels himself reeling at the speed of this exchange. Could Ava’s detective have got it wrong? He struggles to recall the cluster of wretched encounters during those months following Wren’s departure, a blur of hazy, distant coitus shared with hazy, distant bodies. Sarah from the PTA; Ruth from the office… one-off mistakes, never to be repeated. The string of unhappy women and strange beds he ended up in on Friday nights out while baby Phoebe went to his parents, while he staggered through his fog of grief and came to terms with his life alone. God, he could hardly remember the names – or faces – of these strangers, let alone imagine that together they might
have created a new life. And what about this newspaper? Laura said the journalist who phoned talked about Wren winning a Lottery prize – but why were they mentioning him in their article? That Ava should stumble across the story in the national press is too much to take in.

Rob re-reads the email, feeling the cold, damp fingers of nausea travelling up his neck and behind his ears; he should never have drunk so much. Staggering out into the hallway, he makes it to the bathroom just in time to vomit into the toilet bowl, heaving from the pit of his stomach until there’s nothing left to expel. ‘Jesus,’ he mutters at his reflection in the mirror, running a wet cloth across his face and pushing the front of his short greying hair up into spikes. There’s a fallen quality to his skin that wasn’t there even a fortnight ago, giving him a translucent appearance, as if he’s missing a part of himself, as if he isn’t entirely there. He thinks of Phoebe, imagines her worrying that Laura has left for good – Laura who has loved her, mothered her, gathered her up in her arms when a hug was the only thing she needed. Leaning against the rim of the washbasin, he studies his eyes, so like Laura’s that it brings thoughts of her to the front of his mind, sending him sprinting down the stairs in search of his phone, to check again if she’s tried to make contact.

 

Soon after Wren’s father died, she was sent off to St Frederick’s girls’ boarding school, to complete her last few years of education. Wren told Rob she had been glad to be a boarder, as her mother’s social calendar left little time for the domestic niceties of home life, and at least at school there was company when she wanted it.

‘Did you miss your mum when you were away at school?’ He was yet to meet Eliza Adler, yet to experience her particular style of parenting and charm.

Wren pulled her legs up on to the futon, hugging a cushion to her chest. ‘I missed the idea of a mother, but not her specifically. I often used to wonder what she was up to – where she was in the world. She travels quite a lot – especially since she got together with Siegfried. And she wasn’t all that good at keeping in touch. Still isn’t, as it goes.’

Rob couldn’t conceal his surprise. His own mother was a wonderful woman, devoted, kind, always simply there.

‘Don’t get me wrong,’ Wren said, in response to his shocked expression. ‘She’s not a bad woman. She’s just very selfish. Self-centred. It was fine when Dad was around; he sort of balanced that out in her. He could be so funny – he never let her get away with too much. He’d say,
Ellie, you’re being a brat!
But, once he was gone, she didn’t know how to be any other way. She’s not an unkind woman.’

‘That sounds pretty unkind to me,’ Rob replied, instantly fearing he’d said too much. They had only recently moved into Victoria Terrace with Laura, and were still getting to know the boundaries of their friendship, the margins of conversation.

‘Not unkind,’ she repeated. ‘Singular. She’s a singular kind of gal. She likes her own space –
grown-up space
, she’d say. I guess some women aren’t made of maternal stuff – Ellie Adler just happens to be one of them.’

He knew she was trying to make a joke of it, but it upset him, seemingly far more than it upset her. ‘Is she affectionate? Does she ever hug you?’

Wren laughed, before her face fell into serious repose. She turned away, picked up the remote control and changed
the TV channel. ‘Only in public,’ she replied, and Rob knew from the barbed hurt in her voice that, for now, the conversation was at an end.

 

When he wakes in the early hours of Saturday, Rob finds he is slumped into the corner of the sofa, desperately cold and fully dressed. He reaches out to retrieve his phone from the floor, and a shooting pain makes itself known along the tendons in his neck. As soon as he registers that there are no messages from Laura, he thinks of Ava, and on heavy legs he trudges upstairs to his office, flinching at the bright glare of the first-floor landing, where the overhead light has been left on. He had meant to return to his desk last night, to reply to the last message – but what? He can’t remember anything after he sat down in the living room to look at his phone.

In his inbox, he finds nothing new. The top email is Ava’s last message, with her expectant sign-off,
So what happens now?
Rob takes a deep breath, and tries to feel something, anything other than the dread that Ava’s sudden materialisation has provoked in him. What were you meant to do in this situation? Was there an approved protocol for dealing with long-lost and unexpected children? Did you
have
to do anything? He scans her last message one more time, before hitting the reply button and starting to type.

Dear Ava,

 

I’m sorry about last night – I fell asleep before I managed to send you a reply. It’s been a bit of a week for me this end, but I won’t bore you with that. Listen, I don’t know how to ask you this without sounding
like
a complete waste of space – but are there ANY clues about your mother? What is your date of birth? Back then I had a bad few months after my wife left me, and – well, I had a number of relationships during that time, some meaningful, others rather less so. Please don’t judge me, Ava. I really am pleased to hear from you – and I’m so sorry to hear about your adoptive mother. I should have said that earlier.

 

Warmest wishes, Robert

Surely he should feel something more generous than fear at the discovery of this hidden daughter; a better man would embrace the news, welcome her into the bosom of his family, not hide her existence like a shameful secret. But he does feel ashamed. There’s nothing about that period of time after Wren left that makes him feel good about himself; over the years it’s something he’s managed to sublimate into insignificance, a mere smudge in his otherwise honourable copybook. Even now he tries to push away the reminders of his bad character – even now, with the living, breathing evidence of his actions rising up to incriminate him. Feeling miserable with shame, he sends the message and checks the time – 6.05am – before stripping out of his musty clothes and running a shower. In the rising steam, he stands before the bathroom’s full-length mirror and considers his naked form. He’s still in relatively good shape, at least compared with many of his colleagues who have run to fat. The grey in his hair is fine, distinguished even – but his face… his face looks shot to hell. It’s the hangover, he tells himself, making him ugly, but still, he doesn’t like what he sees. Where’s the Rob of his youth, the lean-faced eager beaver of
days long gone? Robert steps into the shower and attempts to wash away his grubby sense of worthlessness, his fear of what’s to come.
Has Laura found her?
he wonders, holding his face up to the hot blast from the shower head.
Has Laura found Wren?

 

The night he and Wren got together is stored in Rob’s memory as one of the purest moments of happiness in his entire life. He recalls the tremor of Wren’s hand linked in his, as they stood in Laura’s doorway, looking on like anxious parents, their shared protection and concern entwining like some strange alchemy. Rob had imagined some such scenario more times than he could recall, and yet in that moment he needed no Dutch courage, no gearing up to make his move, no internal struggle or fear of rejection: they simply kissed. He kissed her, and she kissed him – and the rest simply followed.

The next morning he told her he loved her.

‘I know,’ she said. ‘I wouldn’t be
here
if I didn’t believe that.’ She lay on her side, stretched out in the dawn light like a shadowy cat, circling her hands around his neck.

‘Have you ever done this with someone who didn’t love you?’ he asked in newfound boldness, as a sudden jealousy of men gone by reared up.

‘A few times,’ she replied, ‘more fool me.’ And she held his gaze in such a way that he knew there was no more to be said on the subject.

It took them four weeks of furtive lovemaking and subterfuge before they were able to break the news to Laura, who crumpled into tears of joy, grabbing them one in each fist to pull them to her, to roll about in a knot of limbs and
tears while she yowled and laughed and kissed their cheeks till they were wet.

 

After his shower, Robert tries phoning Laura again without success. Knowing it’s too soon to expect one, he checks his inbox for a new message from Ava, before sending a text to Phoebe, asking her what time she might be home. There’s nothing to be done in the house; apart from the single glass and plate he used last night, it’s still spotless from his manic cleaning efforts of yesterday morning, and he now stands staring at the fridge, pointlessly pushing around alphabet magnets. The plastic letters have been up on the fridge for years, gradually dwindling in number, as pieces were lost beneath units and sucked up inside various vacuum cleaners. The pieces for W-R-E-N still exist. He can do R-O-B too, and he can spell out half of Laura – L-A-U. The P, H and O for Phoebe can’t be found; she used to get them down so often that they disappeared long ago. With the remaining pieces, if he steals the A from L-A-U, he finds he can make A-V-A, which he finds strangely reassuring. He stands back and looks at the words, in a soft-focused haze of fatigue – and reaches for his car keys. He can’t stand around here all day, just waiting for something to happen. Rob checks all the doors and windows are locked, and leaves the house; he’s going for a drive.

 

Sitting in his car outside No. 3 Victoria Terrace, Rob realises that very little has changed at all. The tatty curtains and flaking paintwork suggest that most of the flats are still student lets; there’s even a purloined traffic cone on the
inside windowsill of one ground-floor flat, a university sticker on the inside of the glass. No longer a college, he notes; everywhere’s a university these days. He gets out of the car as a young couple comes out through the communal entrance, looking so like the students of his own day that for a moment he feels as if he’s stepped back in time, as if he could simply walk across the road and through the door himself, up to Flat B. The strangest thing is, that’s exactly what he does.

Up on the landing, he faces the closed door of Flat B, wondering who and what he will find beyond. Will he recognise it? Will it feel like home? The smell of the place has hardly changed at all, the mustard colour of the stairwell walls just as it was all those years ago. He knocks, and, as the door opens, he is met by the sight of a young man in low-slung pyjama bottoms walking away from him across the living room, spooning cereal into his mouth from a bowl.

‘Er, hello?’ Rob calls after him. He steps over the threshold, taking in the sparsely furnished lounge in one sweeping gaze, as the surprised student turns, cradling the bowl in one hand and scratching at his goatee beard with the handle end of his spoon. The hint of geranium and damp wood still hangs in the air, though absent is the aroma of Laura’s ghastly tuna-pasta bake with a sprinkling of Paxo.

‘Shit – sorry, mate – I was expecting someone else.’ He puts his bowl down on the magazine-strewn coffee table, tugging at the baggy waistband of his pyjamas. ‘Who – ?’

Rob takes another step forward, thrusting out his hand. ‘I’m Rob.’

‘Ben,’ the lad replies, looking bemused but shaking his hand all the same.

‘Look, I’m really sorry to intrude like this. I know it’s early. It’s just… well, I used to live here.’ Rob feels ridiculous,
old
, in his conservative grown-up clothes and neat haircut. ‘Nearly thirty years ago, I shared the flat with a couple of friends when I was at college.’

‘No kidding?
Wow
.’ The lad looks a little dazed by the notion.

‘I was wondering, if you didn’t mind – if I could have a quick look at the place? For old times’ sake?’

At that moment another young man appears through the open front door and Ben is distracted as he and his friend exchange a series of complicated handshakes and fist bumps.

BOOK: Flight
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