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Authors: Isabel Ashdown

Flight (9 page)

BOOK: Flight
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They did, however, share a sleeping bag; Lisa was insistent. The tent was large, so they organised themselves with Wren and Laura at one end and Rob and Lisa at the other, with a large expanse of pitch-black canvas between them. But, just as things were looking up for Rob, as Lisa gently moved in to kiss him, to run her fingers along the arc of his hip and send thrills of pleasure through his ribs, Laura and Wren corpsed into peals of laughter. They snorted and hooted and spluttered until it seemed they might both be on
their final breath, and Lisa, tired of it all, turned her back to him and went to sleep.

‘Night, you two,’ Rob groaned out into the darkness, and he closed his eyes and slept too, imagining it was Wren with him there in the sleeping bag, Wren whose warmth he felt mingling with his.

 

Rob is woken by the sound of the telephone ringing on the bedside table. It’s dark; 6.55pm, the digital clock reads, and he’s lying flat out on the bedspread, pins and needles coursing through his legs where they hang over the edge like dead weights.

He grabs for the telephone receiver, his stomach lurching as he thinks of Laura. As he thinks of Ava. ‘Hello? Hello?’

‘Dad?’

It’s Phoebe
, his mind registers, disappointment jarring against the rush of alarm that woke him.
It’s just Phoebe
.

‘Dad? Are you there?’

Rob clears his throat, moves sluggishly over to the bedroom window to look on to the quiet street below. ‘Sorry, love. You caught me napping. I’m a bit fuzzy. Everything OK?’

‘Have you spoken to Laura yet?’ Phoebe sounds frosty, sharp.

‘I’ve been trying. She seems to have her phone switched off.’ Phoebe doesn’t reply. ‘Have you?’

‘No. I’ve sent her a few texts – I figured if she was driving she’d pick them up when she got to wherever she’s going. But I haven’t heard a thing.’

Rob’s helplessness is overwhelming. What to say? What to do?

‘Dad?’ Phoebe sounds lost too. ‘What’s going on? All this weirdness between the pair of you – I don’t get it. Are you two OK?’

A dog-walker passes the gate to the house, moving along the pavement in the darkness, disappearing beneath the drizzly glow of the street lamps and into the shadows beyond.

‘We’re OK, love. There’s nothing to worry about –
really
.’

‘Well, I don’t think Laura sees it that way. She told me about this letter you received, and I’m pretty sure that’s got something to do with all of this.’

Rob’s pulse quickens. ‘Letter?’

‘She said you got a letter recently, and that you wouldn’t show it to her – you said you’d thrown it away at work.’

‘Oh. Yes, it was from an old college friend.’

‘That’s what she said you said. But she said you were “shady” about it.’ A pause. ‘So? Are you having an affair or something? I can’t think what else you could be hiding. Is that why she’s gone, Dad?’

Rob is so shocked by the question that he struggles to answer. He listens to Phoebe’s expectant silence, hears it echoing like hollow space along the telephone line. ‘
No
.’ It’s barely a whisper.


Is that it
?’ she asks, lowering her voice. A click of a door latch and change of background noise suggests she’s stepped outside. ‘Dad? You know what, Laura just going off like this got me thinking – maybe that’s why my mum left, too. Maybe you did the same to her? Why else would a mother walk out like that? Why else –
how else
could a mother bring themselves to abandon a baby like she did?’

She’s angry now, and Rob can’t find words adequate to deny her accusations, to soothe her rising fury. ‘I’m sorry,
Phoebs, really I am – I don’t know what else to say to you. I’m struggling to work all this out myself at the moment. Can we talk later? When you get home?’

She sighs heavily. ‘No. I’m going to stay at Hannah’s – and you could probably do with some time on your own right now. To
work it all out
. I just hope you can work it out quickly enough to save what you’ve got with Laura, because from what I can see you’re fucking it all up, Dad. Left, right and centre. I’ll give you a ring tomorrow.’

The line cuts off, and Rob returns the phone to its base on the bedside table, breathing rapidly into the darkness as the dots of the digital clock blink red and the seconds tick by. The beginning of a hangover starts to pulse in the nape of his neck, and he presses his temples between his knuckles as a fresh dread memory of his message to Ava presses to the front of his thoughts.

‘Ava,’ he says aloud, trying it out in the gloom of the bedroom. ‘
Ava
.’

On weary legs, Rob returns to his study to check his emails.

 

There was an August bank holiday weekend, not long before they started back into the second year of college, when Wren caught the train to Surrey to spend a few days with Rob and Laura in Gatebridge. Her mother was away on another European tour with Siegfried, and Wren had spent most of the summer at her family home alone, dividing her time between coursebook reading and working in a family friend’s ghastly fashion boutique. In Gatebridge, she’d stayed with Laura, and on the Sunday they were all invited to join in the family lunch.


Robbie
,’ Laura’s father greeted Rob when he arrived on the doorstep at midday sharp.

Rob took his hand, allowing Mr Self to show him what a man he was, by way of his vice-like grip. It was the usual routine, one which Rob had gradually come to anticipate with neither awkwardness nor offence.

‘Cor, you wanna work on that handshake, lad! It’s a bit on the limp side – a bit lettuce-like! A bit Kenneth Williams!’ With a gravelly laugh he slapped Rob on the shoulder, and jerked his head towards the kitchen to tell him to go on through, as he returned to his balding flocked chair and his weekend sports pages.

Laura and Wren were out in the small box garden, sitting on deckchairs with their skirts pulled high enough to show a glimpse of their knickers. Their feet were propped on upturned flowerpots, and Laura lifted a leg to wiggle her toes at him as he appeared through the kitchen door. Rob crossed his arms above his eyes and pretended to be startled by the white of their legs, though in reality it was the white of Wren’s underwear that caused him to blush under the fierce sky.

‘Robbie!’ Laura flapped a hand towards the fence, where another deckchair was leaning. ‘Look at you in your jeans, man! Aren’t you roasting? You should get your legs out, get a bit of a tan, like me and Wren.’

He dragged the seat over and wrestled with it a while, making the girls laugh at his ineptitude until finally Wren had to take it from him and set it up.

‘Tans are overrated, if you ask me,’ he replied, easing off his deck shoes and rolling back his sleeves. ‘They’re
short-lived
– and they give you cancer. There’s not much going for them really.’

‘Yeah, but
everyone
looks better with a tan,’ Laura said. ‘Healthier. Better-looking.’


Sexier
,’ Wren agreed, with a provocative smile. She squinted one eye shut, tilting her head to one side to laugh at Robert’s reaction. ‘It’s true!’

Rob wanted to reach out and touch the skin on her thigh, imagined her letting him, her wanting him to. ‘I suppose there is that.’ He smiled back, then closed his eyes and allowed the sun to break through his skin and thoughts, as they sat side by side in their stripy old deckchairs, three wise monkeys, waiting for lunch.

Over Sunday roast, Mr Self insisted on making Rob drink bottles of brown ale with him, so that by the time they were finishing pudding – a bread and butter pudding, as he remembers it – he was handing a fiver to Laura and Wren and telling them to pop down to the Spar shop and ask Trevor for a few more bottles. ‘Go round the back door if he’s shut,’ he added, winking at Rob to show him he was a man in the know. ‘He’s an old mate. Tell him it’s for George.’

Rob wanted to go with them, but Laura’s dad wouldn’t hear of it, laying a firm hand on his shoulder as he tried to leave. ‘Let the girls do it, son. Makes ’em happy, running around after us men – doesn’t it, Laura, love?’

He was in larky spirits, and Laura raised a flat palm to block him out as she and Wren left them sitting in the small parlour room and set off down the road. Mrs Self smiled sympathetically as she got up and cleared the table.

Laura’s dad reached into his shirt pocket and produced a packet of cigarettes, lighting one as he spoke from the side of his mouth. ‘Want one?’

Rob shook his head. ‘I don’t smoke.’

‘Figures.’ Mr Self coughed into the back of his hand and got up to fetch two more brown ales from the sideboard cupboard. ‘Forgot about these,’ he grinned, as if Robert were in on the ruse. ‘Still, it’s always good to get a bit of peace and quiet away from the females, eh?’

Robert never knew quite how to reply to Mr Self’s particular brand of sexism. He found it almost impossible to work out whether he was joking or not. ‘Ha,’ he responded with a non-committal jerk of his chin.

Mr Self eased the crimped lids off with the end of his lighter, sliding a bottle over to Rob. Rob was actually feeling queasy at the thought of a third beer; he could visualise it floating like oil on top of the Sunday roast and stodgy pudding. But he couldn’t say no to Mr Self – it seemed no one could.

‘Shouldn’t I help Mrs Self with the washing-up?’ Rob asked, suddenly lighting on an escape route.

‘No! She’s fine – she likes it in there on her own. Now, son, how long’ve I known you? Since you were so high, eh? Forever it seems. I remember you calling round here in your Cub Scout uniform every Tuesday – knees like tiny white spuds, you had! And that daft haircut you got the year Argentina won the World Cup.’

Rob laughed, amazed that he should remember such a small detail, and wondered if he should have shared a cigarette with Mr Self after all.

‘And it’s fair to say that, over the years, I’ve been pretty unwavering in my opinion that you’re – and don’t be offended, son – a bit soft. Get what I mean? I’m not calling you a woofter, but you’re not exactly a
man’s
man either, are you? Can’t imagine you getting down the pub for a pint and a game of darts.’

‘O-
kay
– ’ Rob wished Laura could be there to hear this. She would have burst her bladder laughing.

Mr Self pointed at Rob’s bottle, encouraging him to drink it.

‘Anyway, that’s all beside the point. Because what I want to say to you now, man to man, is this. That Wren girl? I can see how much you like her. I wondered if you and my Laura would ever – well, I realise now that you’ll never be anything more than friends – but that Wren, you’re mad on her. My advice – and I’ll only give you this once – do something about it before she gets away.’ He eyed the open door meaningfully, and lowered his voice. ‘See my missus? Love her to bits. Couldn’t be without her. But, between you and me, she wasn’t
the one
. That one got away because I was a fool. Don’t make my mistake, son.’

Rob stared at him, wide-eyed, stripped bare.

Mr Self ground his cigarette into the ashtray and reached over to take Rob’s unfinished beer. ‘Now you can go and help with the washing-up. The missus could probably do with a hand.’

 

Back at his desk, Rob takes a bite of stale bread and cheese, chewing it laboriously, his mouth dry. He refills his wine glass as he waits for his laptop to come to life. It’s so slow, so laboured; perhaps it’s time for an upgrade.
God, it’s slow
. He takes another mouthful of cheese. A top-up of wine.

Eventually, he’s in, refreshing his Outlook, watching the stream of useless emails that fill his inbox. How do these fuckers get his email address?
Saga; LosingPounds.com; Dental King; Chelsea FC; PPI Hunters; Accident Claims Inc.; Funeral Insurance Planners 4U
– an endless stream of crap
and bollocks he’s never subscribed to. Tossers. Rob knows he’s drunk; it’s the only time he feels really at ease swearing, even if it’s only in his head. Still the inbox fills with
backed-up
junk as he leans in to search the scrolling messages for Ava’s name and his stress levels soar. The final email loads and he scans them again, hoping to locate her name.

Now, growing increasingly neurotic, he opens his sent mail to study the message he sent to her, and just as he starts to read it through for a third time he is alerted to a new message, sounding a startling
bong
as it lands. With rigid fingers he clicks over to the inbox and there it is. A response from Ava.

‘Shit, shit, shit, shit,’ he chants, shaking his head as he tries to sober up, to clear his thoughts. He pushes the almost empty bottle to the back of the desk, manically running his hands over his face before his nerves kick in, and he opens the message to read her reply.

Hi, Robert

 

Thank you for your email – I wasn’t sure if you would answer at all, so I’m feeling a bit surprised too! This whole thing seems a bit surreal to me, so I totally understand. I’m not really sure what you’re meant to do in these circumstances. Arrange to meet up? Talk on the phone? What do you think? Sorry if I sound overexcited – but I am! Here is my mobile phone number just so you’ve got it.

 

Ava Huxley

Robert blinks at her message, stunned, and taps out a brief response.

If you’re happy with email to start with? I have so many questions – I’m sure you do too. To start – how long have you known about me, and what do you know about your mother? Your natural mother, I mean (is that the right term?) You said in your letter that her name was Anne, but I’ve never heard of her.

Ava’s next reply takes a little longer, but within ten minutes it arrives.

We hardly know anything about her at all. When my adoptive mum died earlier this year we discovered in her things a letter from my birth mother together with the official adoption records. The letter names you, but the records say that when I was abandoned the hospital came to the conclusion that Anne White was a false name. So I guess it’s no surprise you’ve never heard of her!

Robert replies immediately:

BOOK: Flight
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