Authors: Isabel Ashdown
They raised their arms in synchrony and waved at Wren across the room, beckoning her over to join them. At first,
her expression somewhat aloof, she appeared not to notice them, until her face shifted and she crossed the room to slide her tray on to the table, sweeping the crumbs from the seat opposite.
‘Will you be in our gang?’ Laura asked her, purposely affecting an adolescent twang.
Wren was cool; she leant back, tipping the front legs of her chair off the floor to arch over and fetch the salt from the table behind. ‘I’m not much of a crowd person. How big is the gang?’ She raised the salt cellar, poised to sprinkle her rice. Robert ran his hands up through the front of his floppy fringe, betraying his embarrassment.
‘It’s very select,’ Laura replied, now lowering her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. ‘We like to keep the numbers down – weed out the riff-raff, you know?’
‘I understand,’ Wren said. ‘So, just you two, then?’
‘Correct – should you choose to accept our offer of membership.’ She reached into her parka pocket and brought out a strip of Wrigley’s gum. ‘And there’s a free gift if you sign up now.’
Wren took the gum, sliding it under her plate with a solemn nod. Robert’s face relaxed enough to break into a wide smile.
‘So, you’re in?’ Laura said, offering her hand across the plates of steaming curry.
Wren shrugged, and took her hand, giving it one firm shake. ‘OK. I’m in.’
The headlights from Robert’s car flood through the front windows as he pulls up on the drive outside, rousing Laura from her slumber in the darkness of the living room. She
rises from the sofa, fuzzy-headed, and dashes to the kitchen to remove the supper from the oven, relieved to find that she hasn’t let it overcook.
‘Smells good!’ he calls as he opens the front door, dropping his keys on the telephone stand in the hall. ‘What’ve we got?’
Laura places the dish at the centre of the kitchen table, pushing her hair back and gesturing towards it like a game show hostess as he enters the room. ‘Shepherd’s pie – Laurastyle, I’m afraid. We didn’t have as much mince as I thought, so I had to improvise: I bulked it out with a can of baked beans.’
‘Ah, that takes me back to our student days. You were always a dab hand at conjuring a meal out of nothing.’ He fetches plates and cutlery, pausing to kiss Laura on the lips before laying the table. ‘How was your day?’
She opens the fridge and brings out a bottle of white wine, snapping open the screw cap and pouring two large glasses. ‘I don’t know where to begin.’ She indicates towards the table and Robert sits, removing his tie and ladling a large helping of supper on to his plate.
‘Any veg?’ he asks as he passes her the spoon.
Her face falls into a frown. ‘I meant to do some broccoli to go with it. Damn. My mind’s been all over the place today. Do you mind?’
Robert shakes his head, raising his face long enough for her to see his contented expression before he goes to work on his meal. ‘Nope. This is perfect. So – what’s up, then? You look worn out. Everything OK with Phoebe? Where is she, by the way?’ He takes a large mouthful of pie.
Laura gazes across the domestic landscape of the table, at the benign concentration of Robert’s sun-speckled face, and
wonders how to put it all into words.
I think your daughter’s pregnant, Robert. I think she’s got herself in a bit of bother. I think Phoebe’s having a baby and I wish it was me. Oh, and then there’s the Wren thing
‘She went out,’ she answers. ‘Actually, we had a bit of a falling-out. I guess she’s gone round to Maisy or Hannah’s for a bit.’
‘Really? That’s not like you two. What was it about?’ He rests his fork on the side of his plate.
She almost says the words, almost tells him. But wouldn’t Phoebe hate her for it? Isn’t it Phoebe’s right to tell him herself?
‘It was my fault really. I was pressuring her about knuckling down to something now she’s dropped out of uni, and she wasn’t ready to talk about it. Anyway, it’s probably better coming from you, Rob. You know how much she cares about your opinion. I’m pretty sure I’ll only wind her up if I mention it again.’
He grimaces. ‘And there was I thinking life would be a breeze by the time she was out of her teens. Honestly, when she left for Hull I had visions of you and me heading off on weekend city breaks and tours of the French vineyards. Mind you, looking at the abysmal state of our pensions, that plan doesn’t seem too likely whether Phoebe’s at home or not.’
‘Please don’t start on the pension conversation again, Rob. It’s just too boring. We’re well off, compared to lots of other people I know.’
‘Actually, Ben in the finance office was saying that if your pensions are looking dodgy – and let’s face it, most are – ISAs are the way to go. We ought to think about it – ’
Laura puts her fork down, stretches her arm across the table, palm up. Robert pauses, smiles at her dead-eyed
expression, and takes her hand in his. ‘OK, OK, I’ll stop. Just planning for a comfortable future, that’s all.’
‘Well, don’t, please. It’s boring. You’re turning into your father.’
‘In that case I’ll stop right away.’ He squeezes her fingers before reaching over for a top-up of wine.
After supper, they clear the table, and move into the living room with what’s left of the wine. Robert pulls up a footstool and flicks through the television channels while Laura searches the bookshelves until she finds the photo album she’s looking for – the oldest, most well-thumbed of the collection, the one labelled ‘Kingston’. Sitting
on the sofa beside Robert, she cradles her glass in one hand, turning the leaves of the album with the other. Every couple of pages she pauses to study their young faces, noting the subtle changes in their hairstyles, their clothes, their eyes, as the years pass from the early days at college to their final term of those turbulent, delirious, distant days of youth.
Robert glances at the album on Laura’s lap. ‘There’s something else you’re not telling me,’ he says, frowning. ‘What is it, Laur?’
Laura gently closes the album, smoothing out the wrinkles of its vinyl cover. ‘It’s about Wren.’
‘Wren?’ Robert presses the mute button on the remote control, and the quiet of the room expands in the expectant pause.
‘A journalist phoned today, looking for her. He was asking all sorts of questions, asking if we knew whether she was dead or alive. He said something about her winning some money on the Lottery. He was really pushy. And it got me thinking – what if he’s got a point, Rob? What if she
dead? What if she died all alone – and neither of us was there for her?’ Laura presses her face into Robert’s wool-clad shoulder, the weight of her anxiety now given voice.
He shifts himself back to look directly into her eyes. ‘She’s not dead, Laura. Wren’s no more dead than you or I.’
She hugs the photo album to her chest, as if the secrets are somehow stored within. ‘But how can you be
? What about her car? You said it was burnt out when the police found it.’
‘Yes, but they were pretty certain it had been stolen – it’s what joyriders do, drive around a bit then set a match to it. And that solicitor’s letter made it quite clear that she’d decided to stay away, that there was no reason for us to fear for her safety. Anyway, don’t you think we would have felt something if Wren had died? Don’t you think we would just know?’
He’s right, of course; this is Wren they’re talking about, and somehow they would simply know.
From the earliest age, Laura was driven by a ferocious competitive streak when it came to the boys in her life, even with Robert, who she loved like a brother. Tired of the constant suggestion that boys were stronger, smarter, more interesting than girls, she did everything in her power to outrun them, outwit them, outsmart them. It wasn’t just the boys in her class who held this opinion – it was the teachers, male
female, the stuffy besuited men on the telly, the man behind the counter in the local post office… even her own father. It seemed like madness to her young mind, a crazy, topsy-turvy lie of a thing, and she made it her mission to prove them all wrong.
‘You’ll never get a husband if you don’t dress like a female,’ her dad once told her. She was nine at the time. ‘No one likes a tomboy.’
‘Robert does,’ she replied smartly, as her mother applied Germolene to the fresh skating graze across her left knee.
‘I’m not talking about nancy-boy up the road. I’m talking about everyone else. Women should be feminine, look nice and pretty. You look as if you’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards.’
Laura dropped down off the dining table, stooping to inspect the clean dressing, stark against her grimy, tanned legs. ‘Did I tell you I came top in the spelling test again? Twenty out of twenty.’ She peered at her father through the thicket of her rich red fringe. ‘That’s three times in a row.’
He lowered his newspaper and gave her a curt nod. ‘Nobody ever made a happy home with spelling prizes. Spelling doesn’t cook the dinner, does it?’
‘None of the
got twenty out of twenty,’ she replied, standing tall and planting her hands on her hips. ‘Maybe
could cook the dinner.’
Her father slammed the newspaper into his lap, his face shifting into waves of irritation. ‘How dare you speak to me…’ he started, but he ran out of words as he glared into Laura’s unflinching young face.
‘George,’ her mother said, raising her small hands as a peace offering, careful to keep her voice soft, ‘a girl can do both, can’t she? You know we’re very proud of your school achievements, Lolly. Aren’t we, Dad? And doing well at school won’t make her any less of a homemaker, will it?’
Her dad returned to his newspaper and cleared his throat. ‘Stick the kettle on, love,’ he told her, and that was the end of the conversation, his point made as her mum obeyed
his request. Laura straightened the buckles on her battered red rollerskates and rattled up the road to call on Robert.
‘I’m never getting married,’ she told him as he sat on the kerbside, lacing up his own skates. ‘
. I’d rather poke my own eyes out with a saveloy.’
Robert laughed and held out his arm to be helped to his feet. ‘You will. I bet you will. I bet you a pound that you’ll get married and have six children.’
‘Never!’ she screamed, tearing up the street on her skates, wheeling her arms wildly as she picked up speed. ‘Never, never, never!’
Every Saturday morning Laura cooks the same breakfast: poached eggs on smoked salmon, freshly squeezed juice and a large pot of espresso coffee. In their student days, this was the feast they’d reward themselves with if they had any spare cash – a rare treat. Back then, of course, Wren would cook, while Laura laid the tiny Formica table and Robert nipped along the street for the weekend papers. Fleetingly, as she scoots a knife around the edge of the poaching cup, Laura wishes that Wren were here now, to cook them their royal breakfast, to sit at the head of the table that’s rightfully hers.
‘Are you ready for your coffee?’ she asks Robert as he brings in the newspapers. ‘I’ll heat up some more milk if you are.’
‘Thanks,’ he replies, reaching into his trouser pocket to fetch his mobile phone. ‘Ah – message from Phoebe. She’s on her way home now. Told you not to worry.’
Laura removes the jug from the microwave and pours steaming milk into Robert’s Superdad mug. ‘I wasn’t worried. I just hate parting on a bad note, that’s all.’ She places the
cup on the table in front of him, watching the milk and coffee swirl and blend around the spoon. ‘I know it’s a cliché, but she really is like a daughter to me. I couldn’t bear it if she hated me, Rob.’
‘She doesn’t hate you, Laur. She’s just a bit sensitive about the whole dropping-out thing at the moment – she was just sounding off, and it happened to be you who was in the room at the time.’
‘OK.’ Laura feels sick with the weight of her suspicions. She wonders what the right thing to do is – wonders if she’s making a terrible mistake by not sharing her concerns with Robert.
It’s Phoebe’s secret
, she reminds herself again. And, at any rate, perhaps she’s got it all completely wrong.
The first time Laura conceived, she was just fifteen. The boy, Niall, a wiry little Irish lad with black eyes and biceps like smooth pebbles, was with Quinn’s Travelling Fair, which stopped on the common for a week each October. He was not much older than Laura, and they had first met on the waltzers after she’d quarrelled with Robert over which ride to go on next. Laura had wanted to stay put – she’d already spotted Niall giving her the eye – but Rob had wanted to move on to the shooting range. So he’d left her there, where, beneath the seductive charge of Niall’s unwavering attention, she took another spin, and by the end of the ride they had arranged to meet behind the ghost train at nine – an arrangement they would repeat on every one of the six nights that followed. By the time Niall and Quinn’s funfair had left, Laura was feeble-minded with passion and, for a few weeks at least, oblivious to the tiny cluster of cells that now grew and divided within her.
Finally, it was Rob who broke the news to her.
‘Something’s changed, Laur,’ he said. ‘You’re different. You
In that instant she knew; of course, the signs were all there – the halt in her monthly cycle, the taut swell of her breasts, the voracious appetite. That night she locked herself in the bathroom with a half-bottle of vodka stolen from her dad’s drinks cabinet and drank herself incoherent, all the while topping up the hot bathwater and praying for a miracle. Whether it was the combined power of prayer and liquor or nature’s will, within days she collapsed in Rob’s upstairs toilet and the tiny life slipped from her in a pool.
‘Laura’s got her period,’ she heard him whisper to his mother outside the door, the hesitancy in his voice conveying his embarrassment. ‘It’s really heavy, she says – have you got anything?’
Rob’s mum fussed about, discreetly providing sanitary napkins and paracetamol, encouraging Laura to lie down on Rob’s bed until the pain passed. ‘It’s a woman’s curse.’ The older woman smiled as she placed sweet tea and chocolate biscuits on the bedside table. ‘It gets much better once you’ve had kids, I promise you, sweetheart.’