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Authors: Isabel Ashdown

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BOOK: Flight
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‘You look terrible,’ he says, as he pours her a tea. The dogs paw at the side of Arthur’s counter, demanding their treats.

‘I didn’t sleep too well.’

Arthur snaps a lid on the cardboard cup and hands it to her. ‘So what did the city boy want?’ He tips his head towards the journalist, who now stands watching from the brow of the path, his ugly shoes obscured by billowing sea grass.

Wren sighs, feeling her breath shudder as she exhales. ‘My
story
.’

‘And is that something you want to tell?’ Arthur hugs himself, patting his upper arms with gloved hands, his breath white in the crisp air.

She pulls her collar up around her neck, tugs her hat lower, and looks out across the water to where the gulls dip and dive. The tears spring to her eyes before she can stop them, and she holds her gaze on the shore, clicking her fingers for the dogs to come. ‘I can’t, Arthur. It’s not my story to give. The picture of me in the paper yesterday – I don’t even know that woman any more.’

 

Wren was always the sensible one, level-headed in a crisis, reliable and focused where others around her would crumble. From the very first time they met, Laura’s fierce feminism enlivened her, as she’d sit and listen to her peppering the air with a whole new language, waving her cigarette smoke in theatrical whirls and challenging Wren’s adolescent viewpoint with her own developing ideologies. At home, Wren had never had to fight her corner when it came to being or becoming a young woman; her father had been curiously brusque on the issue of women’s careers and
education. ‘You’ve got a brain,’ he’d told her when, at twelve, she first expressed an interest in teaching. ‘Why not? Your mother – she could’ve done anything she wanted with a brilliant mind like that. She was top of her class at university when we met – a far better scholar than me.’

‘But she doesn’t do anything now,’ Wren had replied, the enormity of the future rising up around her. ‘She just looks after us. And the house.’

‘And very nobly she does so. The point is, she
could
have done anything. She had
choices
. The world is out there for you to explore, Little Wren. I hope you’ll exercise your choices sufficiently.’

At times like these, from the youngest age, the idea of the future crashed in on Wren, so that she felt the way she did in those dreams where she was running and arriving nowhere. She would observe her parents and their friends, listening in on their dinner party chatter from the top step of the stairs or dawdling in the hallway beyond the dining room. Between the clink and scrape of cutlery on china, the earnest talk and jovial laughter could set her ill at ease for days: talk of joblessness, the starving millions, poor Sophie Hopkins who’d lost another child.
How do you lose a child?
she would fretfully wonder.
Are the people starving because there are no jobs?
Low voices and concern over Jill and Tom Springfield, who were absent tonight –
going through a divorce
– and Wendy-Anne Charlton from her class, recently removed from school because of
concerns at home
. Met Office fears for the rise in the tide table – the plight of the dolphins – the fence at the back of the house that was
sure to blow straight through the patio doors if we get another storm like the one last week
. Each of these things, filtering into Wren’s young consciousness, were in themselves manageable, if somewhat
bleak. But it was the creeping accumulation of her fears which could, at times of uncertainty and fatigue, reach out to grab at her ankles and send her scurrying to her room in a fog of terror. There she would fashion her pillows and blankets to form a small, dark cave, into which she’d crawl, surrounding herself with the reassuring company of her careworn bears and Raggedy Ann. At best she would slip into fitful sleep, before Dad stopped by to kiss her goodnight and straighten her bed sheets; at worst, she would remain there awake for hours, wishing herself rather dead than alive and responsible in some way for the ever-shifting state of the world.

She spoke once of these terrors with Laura, many years after they had first manifested themselves at the age of nine, on a night in January when a gin-loaded pal of her parents’ crashed his car on the way out of the drive. Wren had seen the whole thing from the landing window, where, fuelled by the disquieting stories the grown-ups had been sharing over dessert, she had gradually convinced herself that according to the law of averages at least one of her parents was likely to die prematurely. The friend was fine, no more than a small bump and a bruised ego, but that made no difference to Wren: it could have been a lot worse.

‘Does the future frighten you?’ she asked Laura, who was sitting, her legs stretched out across Wren’s, at the other end of their futon in Victoria Terrace, the student digs they had moved into at the start of their second year.

Laura leant out, her hand feeling around the carpet for her cigarette packet. She passed one to Wren and flipped open her lighter, drawing deep to ignite her own cigarette before passing it along. ‘In what way?’

‘I don’t know – jobs, children, nuclear war. Breast cancer. Loneliness – anything.’

Laura rubbed the thumb of her cigarette hand along her jawline. ‘Hmm. Yes and no, I guess. I mean, the world’s pretty much one great shitty melting pot of evil and disaster, but I can’t say it keeps me awake at night.’

‘But when you think about all those world disasters – people starving in Cambodia or animal testing or all those poor men burnt to death in the Falklands – doesn’t it scare you, that you can’t do anything about it? That it’ll all be a hundred times worse when our kids are our age?’

Laura drew deeply on her cigarette, blowing three perfect smoke rings into the space between them. ‘Well, I’ve already decided I’m not getting married or having kids, so that’s one less thing to worry about, I suppose.
Of course
that stuff bothers me. But why get all angsty about these things, that’s what I say. If you care enough about something, you should
do
something about it. It’s mad to give yourself a coronary worrying about things you have no influence over.’

‘Yes, but how
do
you “do something about it”? When you’re just nobody from nowhere, with no voice.’

‘Everyone’s got a voice, Wren,’ Laura said, with a face that told her she was shocked by Wren’s naivety. She ground her cigarette into the ashtray on the floor and pulled her chin in. ‘You do believe that, don’t you?
Everyone’s
got a voice.’

 

The sky is already growing dark when Wren arrives back at Tegh Cottage. She stands for a moment in the dimming light, looking back along the meadow path, down towards the beach and the caves beyond. The dogs run on, to wait patiently at the threshold of the house until Wren crosses the garden and lets them in. Inside, she drops her keys on the side and enters the back room to ease off her boots and
hang up her coat. The wooden trunk sits under the coat rack, almost entirely hidden by buckets and trowels, and sacks of birdfeed. Grasping a metal handle at one end, she drags it out, pushing the various obstacles aside and lowering herself to the stone floor as she unlatches the catch to ease open the heavy pine lid. Willow and Badger stand in the doorway, looking concerned; by this point she’d normally have reached the kitchen to hand them their treats.


Shoo
,’ she whispers, and they turn, dejected, and trot over to their blankets on the sofa.

Inside the wooden box are many of the things she brought with her when she first arrived at the cottage, things she’d thought she’d need, but then found she could do without. A large leather handbag containing the trivia of a past age: a cosmetic bag stuffed with expensive make-up; a red leather Filofax; a dried-up packet of baby wipes; a Clarins hand cream and a pair of tweezers. Wren flings the bag to one side, planning to dispose of it later. One whole side of the trunk is taken up with clothes she had brought away with her, and she lifts them out now, one by one, marvelling at the stark contrast between them and the small capsule wardrobe of earthy garments she wears today. She’s no heavier now than she was twenty years ago, but she could no more wear these clothes in this life than run on the beach naked at low tide. The materials are exquisite – silks, cashmeres, angoras – and the fit of each is feminine and sensual. She holds up a burnt orange blouse, shimmering and sheer, with a draping neck tie at the chest, and without a pause she recalls the day she bought it. It was a bright Saturday afternoon, and Robert was back at home working on his PhD proposal, some months before they would discover the news that they were expecting a child. Wren had phoned Laura to see if she could
meet up, but, as had become increasingly the case, Laura was elsewhere, doing other things, and so Wren had headed up west alone. From across the road in New Bond Street she’d spotted the orange shirt in the window of Fenwick’s, at the heart of an autumn display ablaze with colour and hope. In what seemed like moments later she was at the counter of the ladies’ department, handing over her credit card and running her thumb over the thick handle of a green carrier bag. Now, Wren holds the blouse up, smoothing the silk fabric against her torso, wondering if she might wear it some time again, perhaps in the spring?

‘Ha!’ she scoffs, embarrassed by her folly, and slings the orange shirt on top of the handbag and the growing junk pile. Standing abruptly, she slams shut the lid of the wooden trunk and sets off to the kitchen to fix the dogs their supper.

 

Rob was by nature awkward around girls –
overly courteous
, Wren and Laura would often tell him. If he liked someone, he found it almost impossible to let them know, being inclined to avert his gaze almost entirely, snatching furtive glances only when he thought their attention was diverted. Wren knew this to be the case; she was for the most part the object of his glances, and she did her best to hide her awareness of this fact. By the time they had been living together in Victoria Terrace for several months Laura had already tried and failed countless times to set him up with college friends of hers, and she and Wren had been all but ready to give up on the mission and leave him to work it out for himself.

In June, as the second year at college came to an end, Laura talked Wren and Rob into travelling with her to Stonehenge for the midsummer festival, promising them it
would be a trip to remember. ‘Be there or be square,’ she warned Rob, prodding the two fingertips of her peace sign against his chest. ‘Hippy,’ Rob replied, but he agreed all the same and spent several days in the run-up fretting about what to wear so as to not stand out. A preppy polo shirt definitely wouldn’t cut it, and ironed jeans were a definite no-no. ‘Think chilling out – think dressing down.’ Rob seemed none the wiser.

Laura and Wren managed to borrow a family tent from one of their lecturers – mildewed and unused for years – and a set of portable trolley wheels with which to cart it, along with a carrier bag of provisions, to the train station at Kingston where they had arranged to meet Rob after his last tutorial. They planned to take the train as far as Longcross, before getting off and taking their chances hitching the rest of the way from the side of the M3. When Wren and Laura arrived at the train station after a wobbly and exhausting walk with the tent trolley from Victoria Terrace, Rob was already there in starched beige shorts and a new black T-shirt… and he had a girl with him.

Laura halted the trolley at a distance, and stooped to adjust the bungee cords that held the tent in place. ‘Who’s he with?’ she hissed at Wren.

Wren leant in and pretended to help, taking a brief peek in Rob’s direction, summing up his body language, and hers, trying to establish if she recognised the girl or not. She was petite, carefully dressed in neat yellow shorts and a pink tie-waist top, and her ash-coloured hair was long and poker-straight. ‘She’s kind of familiar, but I don’t know her – perhaps she’s on his course?’

Laura stood upright and hoisted her rucksack higher up her shoulders, taking hold of the trolley handle to continue
along the path. ‘Look at him!’ She brought her hand to her face and pretended to scratch her nose, obscuring her mouth as she spoke. ‘He’s got his hand round her waist!’

Wren noticed the floral beach bag at the girl’s feet and, as the girl smiled up at Rob, irritation rippled in the shadows of Wren’s mind. ‘That’s a big bag,’ she muttered to Laura. ‘Is she coming with us?’

‘Fuck it, I hope not.’ As she reached Rob and the girl, Laura threw her arms around him and planted a noisy kiss on his lips. ‘Rob!’ she sang, grinning back at Wren as she released the rucksack from her shoulders, dropping it to the pavement with a thud.

‘Hi,’ Wren said, raising an awkward little wave. As ever, her manners kicked in, uneasy as she was at the girl’s discomfort. ‘I’m Wren – this is Laura.’

The girl looked relieved. ‘Lisa,’ she said, and her hand quietly reached for Rob’s, their fingers lacing in the narrow gap between their bodies. Wren didn’t know how to feel about this, having never seen Rob with a girlfriend before. There was something unsettling about seeing those two hands intertwined, when the owners seemed little more than strangers.


Rob
?’ Laura asked, nodding her head at Lisa.
You dirty beggar
, her face said. ‘Anything you want to tell us?’

Rob flushed a deep shade of pink, and Wren realised he was avoiding eye contact with her, addressing Laura and Lisa, but managing to blank her out altogether. ‘Um, so – this is Lisa. She’s – well, she’s kind of – coming with us to Stonehenge.’ His eyes met Laura’s, mutely begging her to be nice.

‘Really?’ Laura said, and Wren could sense her assessing Lisa’s attire, her clean hair and fresh skin. ‘Have you been to Stonehenge before, Lisa?’

Lisa tugged at Rob’s hand. ‘No. But I’m really looking forward to it – it should be fun.’

‘Fun. Yup. Should be fun.’ Laura stuck an unlit cigarette in the corner of her mouth and wrestled herself back into her rucksack. She passed the trolley handle to Rob. ‘You can take this now you’re here. It’s a bloody liability – the wheels keep jamming and it weighs a ton. It’ll give you a chance to show Lisa your man-muscles.’

BOOK: Flight
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