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Authors: Isabel Ashdown

Flight (5 page)

BOOK: Flight
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It’s mild for November and the pink horizon shimmers beyond the barnacled rocks and pools of the bay, the peace only broken by the cries of gulls feeding some way out. Waders cast shadows along the wet shoreline, a colony of industrious migrants, digging deep for lugworms and rag. Wren doesn’t wear a watch, having never replaced the dead battery in her old one. That, along with countless other personal effects from her life before, now languishes at the bottom of an old wooden trunk she stores in the back room alongside welly boots and garden spades and industrial bags of bird feed. The watch had cost Robert a small fortune, a gift for their first wedding anniversary; Wren is sure he would be sad to see it cast aside like a cheap trinket. She pauses to rest
against a rock, vertigo rising through her limbs as she allows herself to think his name for the first time in years.

The dogs stop on the sand ahead, waiting for her indication that they can run on. They tilt their heads in opposite directions like small mirror images, their sturdy little bodies casting long, thin shadows along the beach, their tails standing stiff like car aerials. Wren closes her eyes and takes purposeful breaths, in, out, in, out, until her pulse rate decreases and she has the strength to carry on. Damned newspaper, damned Lottery.
Damned newspaper, damned Lottery
. She incants the phrase in her mind, the rhythm of it helping her along, helping her to regain her pace, her stability. By the time they reach the entrance to the car park, the beach community is starting to arrive in board-strapped camper vans and pick-ups, and Arthur’s kiosk is open for business. The dogs bound ahead for their daily visit, arriving at his side just as he reaches below his counter for the dog biscuits he stores there. He leans across the newspapers, feeding a biscuit into each eager muzzle, simultaneously picking up a cardboard cup for Wren’s coffee.

‘Red sky in the morning – what d’you think? Shepherds’ warning? Are we in for some rain?’

Wren feels around in her pocket for coffee money, surveying the skyline, her anxiety slowly subsiding in Arthur’s warm presence, melting down through her boots and out across the sand. She counts coins into her gloved hand, handing Arthur the right change as he pours milk into the cardboard cup and snaps on a plastic lid. ‘Could be.’

He drops the cash into his money tin. ‘No newspaper today, Wren?’

Wren starts to walk away. ‘One’s enough, thank you. None of it’s good news, from what I can see.’

‘Too true, too true.’ Arthur laughs. ‘But you might want to look at last Sunday’s, love.’

Wren stops on the path, turning back to face him. He stands behind his counter, wrapped in his coat and hat and scarf, a newspaper held aloft in his fingerless-gloved hand.

‘Why’s that?’ Wren asks, barely a whisper.

Arthur smiles, kindly, his words hesitant. ‘Well, I might be wrong. But it’s an unusual name – Wren – isn’t it?’ He drops the tabloid newspaper to the counter and flicks through the pages, stopping on page five, which is dominated by a series of photographs, of seven faces. His finger comes down on the last one. ‘Only saw this last night, when I was sorting the recycling. There we go.
Wren Irving
. Now I know your name’s not Irving, but – well, if push came to shove, I’d say that one looks more than a bit like you.’

Gingerly, Wren takes a step forward to look at the picture. There’s no doubt about it. It’s her.

 

The moment her numbers came up, Wren knew she would tell no one. She had no way of guessing how much her fortune might be, or whether it would be enough. For almost an hour she sat motionless on the sofa, the baby slumbering in her arms, post-feed. Her imagination travelled over the possibilities, stumbling across the fog of her mind, a strange, shameful excitement growing in the pit of her stomach. Somehow the sounds of the house had grown magnified: the click of the boiler, the distant narrative of the kitchen radio, Robert’s footsteps treading softly, barefoot between bedroom and bathroom overhead. He’d be going out soon, for his Saturday night pint at the Fleece. He’d be gone just for one hour, long enough for Wren to put the little one to
bed, to make that phone call and claim her prize. Would they protect her identity? She was sure they would, certain there must be rules about anonymity if it was requested, if people didn’t want their friends, neighbours – husbands – to know. Pushing it down, inwardly shaking with the repressed energy of her secret, she remained on the sofa, motionless, until Robert returned from his shower, fresh and revived.

‘I won’t be long,’ he said, kissing Wren on the top of her head as he slid his arms into his heavy woollen coat. ‘We can watch that film later, if you’re still awake?’

Wren lingered in that position long after Robert had closed the front door, long after she’d heard his footsteps crunching over the gravel, listened to the squeak and clang of the low iron gate as he pulled it closed behind him. The baby didn’t stir; nor did Wren. Despite her frozen exterior she could feel herself unfurling, as new thoughts and possibilities presented themselves, eclipsing the uselessness and apathy that invaded her every waking moment, chasing into the recesses of her mind her puzzled detachment, the sense of nothing being real. Her subconscious was awakening, planning, plotting another way, and the greater the anticipation, the calmer her exterior grew. And, when Robert returned from the pub, there they were, his beloved wife and child, sitting in the living room exactly where he had left them. Robert carried the baby to her crib and Wren slotted a film into the video player, pouring her husband a glass of red wine and returning to the warm spot on the sofa where she had been sitting all evening.
Tomorrow
, she thought.
Tomorrow I’ll make the call
.

 

Back in the safety of her small kitchen, Wren spreads the newspaper across the table. She pulls out a chair and sits,
turning the pages until she stops on one headed ‘
Where Are They Now? Britain’s First Lottery Winners
’. There’s an introduction saying that this coming week sees the twentieth anniversary of the first National Lottery, and then a small paragraph of detail given for each of the seven jackpot winners, along with two rows of photographs, the top ones taken around the time of the win in 1994, the bottom ones showing a more recent update. Under Wren’s section there’s only one picture, a tiny cropped image taken from one of her wedding photographs – and, below it, a blank silhouette with a question mark for a face.

She’s not the only one who hasn’t been found – in fact there are two others – but that doesn’t reassure her in any way. She shouldn’t be there in the first place, having asserted her anonymity from the outset, having protected herself so entirely from this type of exposure. Bringing her hand to her mouth, she braces herself to read the column beneath her image, the fear in her swelling and surging at the reality of her situation.

Wren Irving, now aged 50, is believed to be the seventh of the original Lottery winners. At the time of her win she was living in south London with her husband Robert Irving, a history teacher, and their six-month-old daughter. A National Lottery insider gives us reason to believe that after claiming her jackpot prize Mrs Irving elected to keep her identity a secret before vacating the family home, leaving no forwarding address. Though estranged, the couple are still married; however, Mr Irving was unavailable to comment on his wife’s good fortune. If anyone has information regarding Mrs Irving’s current whereabouts, we’d like to hear from you.

An insider. A secretary, an administrator, an employee with an axe to grind? Could have been anyone, it’s not even important; the fact is, it’s out there now. Wren’s blood runs cold as she wonders where the photograph came from. Did Robert provide it, or her mother, or Laura perhaps? Wren’s eyes fall on the line appealing for information and her breath catches in her throat, as she realises these people must have been in contact with the family, digging around for information. It’s an idea she can hardly bear to contemplate.

She pushes her chair back from the table, fills the kettle at the sink, and gazes from the window across the lawn. Far out beyond the meadow, out, out on to the horizon, the waves are now tumbling, broiling and casting the tiny figures of surfers up and over the sea’s surface. Memories flood her thoughts, words and images of a distant land, alarming in their precision, crushing in their impact.

 

It was Laura she saw first, holding up the lunch queue in the college refectory, standing alongside a straight-backed young man who was trying to hurry her along. Laura’s dark red hair hung loose in thick, rich tendrils reaching the small of her back, where her black vest was tucked into baggy army surplus shorts, nipped in by a thick leather belt. She was tiny; a perfectly formed little woman, with lean, tanned legs ending in battered Doc Marten boots, a tatty friendship bracelet snaking around her wrist as her hand dithered between dishes. The young man beside her was Robert; he turned to her as she slid her tray along the counter to join the queue, mouthing a
sorry
and making
hurry up
eyes at his friend. Wren assumed they were an item – or perhaps even siblings – judging from the way he pressed his soft fist
against her upper arm, urging her along, laughing at her indecision, whispering joke insults to the back of her head.

‘The curry’s quite good,’ Wren offered, leaning around Robert to meet Laura’s green eyes.

Laura returned a wide, surprised nod and her smooth face crinkled into a smile. ‘Then I’ll have the curry,’ she told the canteen lady, and the queue moved on as the pair made their way to the till, leaving Wren at the counter, ordering the same.

Wren paid, picked up her own tray and surveyed the room, searching for a quiet seat where she might eat alone. She’d only moved into halls a few days earlier, so she knew no one and struggled with the self-conscious ritual of lone dining, the toe-curling ceremony of lifting fork to mouth while avoiding eye contact with all the other awkward diners. A window seat was always a good option, she had found, and a book. But then, as she scanned the tables that looked out on to the courtyard, Laura and Robert raised their hands, beckoning her over like an old friend. She hesitated, uncertain if it was her they meant. Laura pointed to the seat opposite.

‘We don’t know
anyone
,’ the red-haired girl confided as Wren placed her tray on the table, sweeping the crumbs of a previous diner from her seat. Her eyes sparkled with mischief. ‘Will you be in our gang?’

Robert’s hand shot across the table, to shake Wren’s enthusiastically. He wore a chambray shirt of the type her father favoured, and neatly ironed pale blue jeans, and his gentle charm was infectious. ‘Ignore her.’ He smiled. ‘She’s still overexcited about leaving home. You’d think
Kingston-on
-Thames was the other side of the world from home, not thirty miles away. I’m Robert, by the way – did I say that? And this is Laura.’

Laura leant over the steaming plates of food to embrace Wren in a shoulder-hug. Casting a long-suffering glance at Robert, she coiled her locks into a single thick rope and threw it aside as she retook her seat. ‘Actually, you should ignore
him
. He’s an old man before his time. Thank God he’s got me to lead him astray!’

 

He was such a good man. Wren’s anxiety claws beneath her ribs as she paces the tiny cottage, trying to organise the jumble of words and memories that in such a short space of time have infiltrated her peaceful world. Badger and Willow are unnerved too; they move from sofa to armchair, from kitchen to bedroom, keeping Wren within their sights, a little whimper escaping Badger every time she moves out of view. It’s gone midnight and nothing is done; the house stands still. Wren has spent years cultivating a soothing routine that works for her, one that fits with the rhythms of the seasons, for the motions of her mind. But now this – this hideous intrusion, this rupture that threatens to break her peace apart… On this clear, cold night Wren can see far out across the water, out to where the night fishing boats bob and blink, to where the seals bask, as dolphins slice through the icy waters. This is her whole world, and today it has been blown asunder. For the first time in all these years, Wren pulls the blinds to the kitchen windows, and shuts out the sea.

 

During her afternoon walk, Wren is met on the coastal path by a young man wearing ridiculous shoes. His pointed toes shine brightly in the autumn light, below too-narrow
trousers and a cliché of a business coat. He must be all of twenty-two, a polished boy in the guise of a man.

‘Wren Irving?’ he asks, as he approaches. He smiles broadly, displaying straight white teeth and a trusting face.

Wren gives Badger’s lead a little tug, a signal for him to growl at the stranger. ‘No,’ she replies, and she continues walking, with Badger casting warning snarls back along the path. She studies the light of the sky – it must be an hour later than her usual time. How could anyone know she’s here? It’s been so long, and she covered her trail so well;
no one
could know she was here.

‘Mrs Irving? Listen, I know you didn’t want your Lottery win advertised, but now it’s out there – you might as well share your side of the story. You’re one of the original seven – it’s something to be celebrated!’

She halts, her back resolutely against him. ‘Who are you?’ she shouts into the breeze, her voice emerging harsh, and older than she remembers.

‘Mike Woods, freelance journalist.’ Wren looks back to see him reach inside his jacket pocket and wave a business card in the air, as if that solves everything. ‘I’m just interested in giving your version of events – there’s bound to be public interest.’

Wren lowers her head and walks on, her heart pounding, willing the journalist to vanish with every watched step she takes. At the car park, Arthur’s wave turns into a beckoning motion as she sets course to bypass him, and he calls her over, whistling for the dogs, not taking the cue from her studied stance of avoidance. Badger and Willow decide for her, bounding ahead, and with heavy feet she turns about, following in the kicked-up trail of the dogs to join them at the kiosk.

BOOK: Flight
7.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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