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Authors: Corinna Edwards-Colledge

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Now I must finish, or my letter get too long, and I will end it by
saying my love will always be with you. If I get to live a whole life I will
prove it to you figlio. If I don’t, you will just have to believe. I hope this
letter will help you do that.

 

Con tutto il mio amore

 

Papa

 

I started to cry
then. I went into my bedroom and climbed wearily into bed. I cried and cried,
tears mingling with mucus from my nose, until my face felt like it was melting
into salt water. Why did my little boy have to grow up without his lovely
father, and how was I going to do it all without him?

 

I could hear
sobbing as I descended. I knew it was him and the sound tore at me. I
floundered, trying to will myself to the ground faster but it didn’t work. As
soon as I felt the tiles press up against my feet I ran over to the window
seat. He was huddled in the corner, his back against the glass, and his face
buried in his knees. His little back shuddered as he cried. I dashed over to
him and tried to hold him.

‘No!’ He shrieked, staring up at me, horrified.

‘I’m sorry! I just….’ I collapsed on the floor in front of him in
agony.

‘You mustn't touch me!’

‘I’m sorry! I forgot!’ I said wildly. ‘But you can’t imagine how much
I want to hold you. To make you feel better!’

‘I needed you Mummy. I called you and you didn’t come!’

‘Oh God, sweetheart. I’m so sorry’. I sat down next to him. ‘It’s just
been so hard, and I’ve been so scared about going under again, and I so
desperately don’t want that to happen. I want to be the best Mum I can to you;
that’s why I went into hibernation, to protect us.’

‘You mean you hid Mummy.’

With an effort of will I turned myself to look into his face. He
looked back at me composedly, his tears drying to a soft sheen on his dark
cheeks.

‘Yes.’ I said finally, turning back and hiding my face in my hands. He
was silent for a while and then I heard him shuffle down the sofa towards me.
Eventually I felt the warm, tingling stroke of his breath on my neck. It was
the closest he had ever got to me.

‘I love you mummy.’ He said softly, and I felt goose-pimples flush
down my arms. ‘I love you and you’re all I’ve got. I know you can do it, but if
you don’t start to believe it too, I’m lost.’

‘I know.’ I managed to whisper. ‘I won’t ever let you down again, I
promise you with all my heart and soul.

‘But you will Mummy! However hard you try you will if you don’t
believe!’

‘I’m going to try sweetheart. I’m going to really really try to do
that.’

I heard him start to sniffle again so I turned back round to face him,
he looked up at me, his eyes full of fresh tears.

‘My Dad was a really nice man wasn’t he?’

‘Yes. He was a wonderful man with a wonderful heart.’

‘I wish I could meet him.’

‘Me too.’

He wiped his eyes on the back of his sleeve and seemed to collect
himself. ‘Mum.’

‘Yes sweetheart.’

‘You need to look in the envelope.’

‘I did, I read it today, that’s what brought me back to you,’

‘No, the other envelope. The one John brought.’

‘That…I’d forgotten about that.’

‘You need to look, remember, John said, just in case.

 

Dad held my hand
tightly. The radiologist squeezed a line of cool gel across my belly then
started to move the scanner gently but expertly over my skin. There were a few
taut seconds where there was nothing, just shifting layers of black and grey as
if the scanner was travelling though space, and I held my breath. But then he
appeared, magically, from the pixelated darkness; his tiny arms waving, diving
and somersaulting so vigorously that I wondered how it was possible that I
couldn’t feel it. My eyes prickled. Sergio should have been here to see this.
This was his son, his flesh and blood. It was wrong, all wrong. I turned away
from dad for a moment, trying to collect myself. As I did, I sent the image of
our child into the ether, maybe to Sergio, wherever he was. I turned back and
allowed myself to feel the flush of joy too – that he was there, my child, he
existed. The Radiologist was talking to the doctor who was sat at a computer
behind her. She turned to me and laid her hand on my arm. Everything looked OK,
but she had to check the development of the nasal bone and measure something
called the
nuchal
transparency at the back of his neck. I was only half
listening. I was imagining my son alone in the warm dusk of my womb.

‘From the scan I’d say your about twenty weeks. Ms Armstrong?’

‘I’m sorry, what?’

‘From the scan I’d say you’re about twenty weeks pregnant, half way!’

‘So everything looks OK? I thought it probably was – I’ve felt him kick.’

‘Yes, this is later than usual for a first scan but your measurements
look fine. For your age, your risk of having a child with Downs Syndrome should
have been about one in 200. With odds like that you might have wanted to
consider an amniocentesis, but that is an invasive technique and carries a one
percent risk of miscarriage. However, that’s a decision you won’t need to take,
the scan looks good, and put together with the results from your blood-test
your risk has gone down to about one in a thousand. It’s the same for your risks
of other chromosomal abnormalities, which have gone down to about one in two
thousand.

‘So everything really is OK?’ I wanted to embrace the sonographer, as if
she was personally responsible for the health of my baby.

 ‘Because of your age I’d still recommend you have a follow-up scan at
about thirty weeks locally. It’s good to keep an eye on the baby's development
and they will be able to tell you the gender then if you want them too. I could
have today considering that you are later on than most, but baby was very
mobile. 

‘I know that already. It’s a boy.’

She smiled. ‘Mum’s are often certain they know the gender, and funnily
enough they’re usually right too.

Brighton 1988

 

Mum and Dad are acting really weird this morning. They
keep looking at each other but not saying anything, and Dad keeps taking hold
of mum’s hand. They’ve said we’re going on a walk, up at Castle Hill. I said I
was supposed to be seeing Jamie and Roz today, to shop for the Year 11 disco,
but they just wouldn’t give in.

Dan is leaning against the living room
doorway, he’s already got his walking boots on. He’s suddenly looking really
lanky, and like he’s morphing into a man but stuck somewhere in-between. His
chin is getting broader and he’s loads taller, but his cheeks are still smooth
and plump like a little boy. ‘Something’s up Sis’.

‘I know, I wish they’d say what it is.
Then I might just get back in time to get to town by lunchtime.’

‘You know them. They love a bit of
mystery.’

‘God you don’t think mum’s pregnant do
you?’

Dan snorts.

‘Its not that crazy an idea, she’s only
forty six.’

‘Don’t women’s parts stop working when
they’re forty?’

‘God Dan, have you paid no attention in
sex-education at all?’

‘I have to the bits that interest me.’

‘Hmm, I won’t ask what they are.’

We can hear mum and dad talking in hushed
voices behind us in the kitchen.  Dan leans round into the hall, his arms
crossed, and shouts. ‘Shall we get in the car or what?’

‘Yes…’ mum’s voice is faint, agitated.
‘…good idea, go and get in the car.

 

It’s a mild day but the sky is muddy and flat. Some
wildflowers have started to come up, studding the banks with dots of yellow and
purple. We came here with school once and one of those park rangers, or
something, told us that it’s chalk grassland here and all along the Downs. That
means the soil’s really poor, but that’s actually a good thing because it means
that only rare and delicate things like bee orchids and wild violets grow here
and the big weedy plants don’t because they need more goodness than the thin chalky
earth can give.

We’re walking in the gully between two
great grassy hills, a route that we’ve done a hundred times before. The banks
loom over us, beautiful and a bit scary at the same time. Once, millions of
years ago, this was probably full of water – then the ice-age came, and all the
earth was pulled apart. It’s hard to imagine now, it’s all smooth and gentle;
like a sleeping Goddess whose curves have slowly been covered by grass and
flowers.

Mum and dad stop short ahead of us, Dan
and me run to catch them up. They’re looking at something on the ground. Dan
breaks away and gets there ahead of me.

‘Cool, hey look Maddie, it’s a fox
skeleton!’

There’s a perfect set of bones embedded in
the grass. They’re clean and white like they’ve been washed. I can see a jaw,
skull, spine, ribs, even little paw bones as thin as needles. It’s so perfect
and undisturbed, it’s as if it’s just dropped dead on the spot. It’s weird no
other animal has come, the whole time it was decomposing, to rummage in it,
knocking the bones across the grass.

All of a sudden Dad starts crying. Not
just a little bit, a few tears out of the corner of his eye, but proper
sobbing, his nose even starts running and he’s snotting into his hand, and not
even caring. Dan looks scared, mum goes over and holds him. I can’t move. ‘What
is it Dad? What’s the matter?’ My arms are limp by my side. Dan finds one of my
hands and holds it tightly. We both know something really bad is coming.

‘We wanted…’ Mum breaks away from Dad but
is still holding his hand, Dad has his head turned as if he’s embarrassed, but
he’s still crying. ‘We wanted to bring you somewhere beautiful to tell you.
Somewhere you’ve known since you were little.’

‘Mum! What’s going on?’ Dan’s crying now
too and goes over to Mum and she hugs him tightly. His head fits just under her
chin. Watching them makes me feel really old, like because I’m 16 now it can’t
be me hugging her, like I’ve got to be strong, whatever’s coming. Mum keeps
holding Dan really tight, wisps of her silky dark hair are blowing across her
face. She looks beautiful and sad. I’ve been giving them a really hard time all
morning about not being able to go shopping with Roz and Jamie. I feel so bad
about it now, even though I don’t know what’s coming, that I just want the ground
to open up and swallow me.
I’ll never go shopping again, I’ll never want
anything again, just don’t make it really bad, whatever it is, please God don’t
make it something bad.

Brighton 2006

 

Excitement and
impatience bubbled inside me as I watched John walk up the hill. He looked
tired. As he sat down beside me on the bench - his jacket straining at the
seams – he reminded me of an old bear; carrying his bulk wearily, but with the
potential for sudden and ferocious action.

I had to grab him in his ‘lunch hour’ – something that I imagined he
never normally took – so we met just down the road from the main police station
on John Street. We sat on a bench set in a small patch of green at the feet of
several red brick tower blocks, built like giant's steps up a steep hill. The
city vista spilled away in front of us, icy clear in the sunshine after a night
of rain. He looked at me closely.

‘You’re starting to show.’ He said, nodding towards my tummy.

‘Yes!’ I laughed happily and laid my hand on the taughtness of my belly,
strangely flattered.

‘So what can I do for you Maddie?’

‘Dan
is
in Italy.’

He shifted towards me, putting his arm over the back of the bench. The
low winter sun back-lighted the green of his right iris and made it glow. ‘Why
do you say that?’

‘The passenger lists for the days around when Dan went missing. I looked
through them as you suggested. I think I’ve found him. There was a Danilo
McCarten. Danilo is an Italian version of Daniel, and McCarten is my Mum’s
maiden name. It’s too much of a coincidence, don’t you think?’

John put his chin in one of his giant hands and looked out across the
rooftops, frowning. ‘He could have changed his name by deed poll. If you do
that you can get a new passport. I can check it out easily. I’ll do it this
afternoon.’

I put my hand on his arm. It was like taking hold of the branch of a
tree. He didn’t flinch, but he didn’t put his hand on mine either, like he had
on that terrible morning a month ago when I’d heard about Sergio. ‘Surely this
is something, something important? You’ll have to send some officers to Italy
now won’t you?’

He looked at me again – his expression kind, but exhausted. ‘I’m sorry
Maddie but one missing guy in Brighton isn’t the top of my department’s
priorities. It’s not about people any more, it’s about figures, and unit-cost
and SMART targets and
best practice
.’ He made a short, sharp sound of
disgust and shook his head. ‘That’s what it all boils down to,
box-ticking.
Everyone
who works in my team has a got a mountain of shit to work through – and hardly
any of them has the time to stop and see each layer of that shit as a life, a
person, a life changing event. It’s a number to work through, a
box to tick
,
so they can get home in time to kiss their kids goodnight.’ He stopped then, abruptly,
and pushed his hand through his thinning, but still wavy hair. Sorry Maddie,’
he said, laughing softly, ‘it’s not
quite
that bad, I’ve just had a bad,
bad day. I do care about your brother, and I do want to find him, but to be
honest, I can’t put any more resources into this unless we get more than that.’

I put my head in my hands. I felt suddenly very tired and disheartened.
I’d let myself believe that this revelation was some kind of hand-over; that my
work was done. And then I felt guilty at the thought; I wouldn’t get Dan back
this easily. He wasn’t going to be rescued by some Knight in shining armour. At
least, maybe
I
would have to be the knight in shining armour, whether I
liked it or not.

‘It’s hard John; after everything, to be doing this on my own. It feels
like it’s been just me for a very long time. And now – with a child, I’m more
alone than ever. That’s one of the reasons I want Dan back so bad. He was
always my compadré, my partner in crime.’

‘You may feel alone inside,’ said John, laying his hand on my back, ‘but
it’s not how it really is. What about your Dad, Nicholas? And I bet you’ve got
lots of friends,
good
friends who love you. Maybe, and I hope it’s true,
your brother is alive and well, but you may never know. Has it crossed your
mind that he might have wanted to disappear? And it’s all just smoke and
mirrors? I’m not saying you should give up, that
I’m
going to give up –
but there’s not much more I can do to help apart from speaking to Italian
customs to try to find out more about what this Danilo McCarten did next – but
make sure you get on with your own life too. Make that your priority.’ He got
up and stamped his feet, looked at me a little guiltily. ‘I hope you find out
what you need to, but look after yourself. Have a little walk, get something
nice in for you dinner then get a good night’s sleep.’

I watched him walk back towards the station, his head slightly bowed, and
was surprised to still feel the outline of his hand branded on my back.

 

After I’d
descended through the tactile darkness, I found him curled up on the cushions
on one of the window-seats, his head resting on the crook of his arm. The
evening was pale and still, and the sea shone dully, like a piece of silver
leather, through the window I sat down beside him.

‘You’ve found him Mummy.’

‘Who?’

‘Dan.’

‘Really? Do you think that’s him? The name on the flight list?’

He nodded resolutely then looked thoughtfully out of the window.

‘What was your best Christmas ever?’

‘I think it must have been when I was about seven. I was crazy about
cheetahs,’

‘Are they the really fast ones with spots?’

‘That’s right. BBC2 did a series on them – you followed the lives of a
cheetah family – from when they were cubs to when they had their own children.
I fell in love with them. And when I woke up on Christmas morning, I could see
this furry cheetah head poking out of the top of my stocking. I was so excited,
but it was too early. Mum and dad had said that I could get up after six, but
it was only quarter-to, so I lay there for fifteen minutes, staring at the
Cheetah, my tummy doing excited somersaults.’

He raised his head onto his hand and looked at me intently. ‘So when
you got it out, what was it like?’

‘He was beautiful. He was quite big and he had a brown leather nose.
In fact, I think it might really have been a Leopard, but I didn’t ever let
myself believe it. In fact I’ve still got him.’

‘I wish I had my own toy Cheetah.’

‘What would you choose? What would be your best Christmas present
ever?’

He looked up and frowned, the cogs of his brain almost audibly
turning. ‘A train.’ He said, finally and resolutely. ‘I’d like a beautiful big
dark green steam train…and a puppy’

 

I was seeing my
son more and more regularly, sometimes as often as three or four times a week.
Although I didn’t know what these ‘dreams’ meant (if indeed they even were
dreams) they were very precious to me. Funnily enough, I didn’t feel the
slightest compunction to tell anybody about them. To have done so would have
felt strangely obscene – gynaecological almost. On a gut level, I did believe
that they were something more than vanity or wish fulfilment. The world had
become a more mysterious and unpredictable place since Italy, and particularly
since meeting Nonna again. Her uncanny insights had unsettled me on a deep,
seismic level; and many of my assumptions had disappeared; leaving me on
precarious, but infinitely more fascinating ground.

My nesting instinct also seemed to come earlier than most, because over
the couple of weeks during the run up to Christmas, everything in my flat was
sorted, dusted, washed, polished, folded and filed. Nothing escaped scrubbing,
including the insides of my kitchen cupboards and the tops of the
skirting-boards. By the time I was finished, there were six big bin-bags full
of my past waiting on the step with a fiver’s Christmas tip for the bin men. As
I drove away with dad in his old bottle-green Lancia, I felt the peculiar sense
of satisfaction that follows physical work. And there was another feeling too,
a feeling of embarkation. Of hope, reacting to a sudden impulse I reached over
and squeezed dad’s arm.

‘I know Dan’s still alive Dad. Somehow I know he’s going to meet his
nephew.’

His cheek moved slightly, suggesting a small smile. ‘I hope so Maddie. I
really hope so.’

‘You know I’ve found something out. I haven’t told you yet because I
didn’t want to build you up – but I think you ought to know.’

He looked over then, briefly, cautiously, ‘What is it?’

‘It looks like Dan went to Italy. The police have got to check it out
first, the name’s slightly different, but it looks like he might have changed
his name by deed poll.’

‘Why would he do that?’ Dad crunched the gears clumsily into reverse.

‘I don’t know, I really don’t, but it’s something, it’s a start isn’t
it?’

 

 

Dad appeared in the
doorway with a tray precariously laden with drinks and a big tin of Quality
Street. On the TV Chris Evans was flirting with some young female celebrity I
didn’t recognise. He was wearing a jumper with a Reindeer on.

Nick sighed and dramatically threw his head back onto the sofa. ‘I’ve
been struck dead by the mundanity of the BBC’s Christmas Eve broadcasting.’

I smiled. ‘Come on Nick, where’s your stamina, it’s only once a year.’

‘You always do try to see the bright-side Maddie, well, except when
you’re clinically depressed of course.’

I laughed and stuck two fingers up at him.

‘Now now, that’s not very ladylike.’

Dad cleared a space on the table and plonked down the tray. ‘Who’s for
another drink?’ Nicholas held up his empty glass, the rims of his eyes had gone
red.

Dad poured a finger of Brandy in his glass. ‘You ok?’

‘Yeh, you know. Just thinking about Dan. What he’s doing right now. If
he’s ok.’

Dad took Nick’s hand and squeezed it. ‘I’m sure he is, we’d feel it if he
wasn’t. Maddie love, do you want a brandy?’

‘I’ll have a small one thanks.’ I said, raising my glass next to his. 
‘I’m following Australian rules now the baby’s out of the first trimester.’

Dad gently poured three quarters of an inch into my glass. ‘What do you
mean ‘Australian rules’? Is that something to do with cricket?’

‘No! It’s to do with units of alcohol. In England it’s a measly three
units a week maximum. In Australia it’s ten.’

‘So let me guess Maddie dear,’ said Nicholas dryly, ‘you’re going
Antipodean?’

‘Yep.’

‘It’s all that sun…’ Said Dad, sitting down carefully next to Jip, his
old Jack Russell, who looked up at him, disgruntled, one side of his mouth
squashed up by hours of sleep. ‘…makes them more cheerful. Everyone's getting
too precious about kids these days. No mud, no cows milk, no air, no peanuts,
those horrible reins, as if you’re dragging a dog about. Life
is
mess
and danger. Got to let them find that out at some stage!’

‘But maybe not when they’re babies Dad eh?’

He shrugged and laughed. ‘Ignore me Maddie. I’m a grumpy old goat these
days. But as we’re on the subject of kids, there is something important I
wanted to talk to you about.’

I nodded a little sleepily; the brandy was working quickly on my new
substance-free blood. I felt deeply safe and content in Dad’s cosy living room,
and only dreamily aware of the dark cold world outside. I suddenly felt a wave
of nauseous anxiety about Dan. This often happened if I found myself slipping
into happiness, a kind of guilt trigger, finely set. Was
he
safe and
warm? I found the idea of his vulnerability almost unbearable.

When I was about seven, on my first trip to London we went to see the
Christmas Lights. Down one of those impressive streets in the square mile – all
wrought-iron railings and Georgian facades, I saw a stray kitten. It popped its
head out of some bushes and meowed. I went to stroke it – then recoiled. Its
right eye was swollen to the size of a golf ball, criss-crossed with stretched
veins. I never forgot that kitten. It expressed so many things in that instant;
the pathos of deformity, the extremities of physical pain, the stark loneliness
of London and its cold, glamorous nights. Also it came to embody my sense of
guilt; the childish revulsion that had stopped me from providing a tiny act of
kindness.

‘Maddie, wake up darling, I’ve got something important I need to say.’

I realised I’d actually dropped off for a moment and forced myself into
consciousness.

‘It’s stupid my sticking here, in this big house with no-one else, so I
thought, you and I could do a swap. I’ll sign the house over to you, and you
can sign the flat over to me. Then you get the benefit of the extra capital
too, and I don’t have to pay so much inheritance tax, what do you think?’

‘God Dad, are you sure? This place is worth double what mine is.’

‘I’m totally sure Maddie. There’s no real reason is there for me to stick
on here other than habit.’

‘What about Mum? I don’t mean…I just thought you might want the
memories?’

‘No sweetheart. They’re all in here anyway,’ he touched his chest. ‘After
all, a kid needs a garden. How’s he or she going to grow up strong without a
tree to climb and some bushes to hide in?’

‘But why don’t I just sell the flat and live with you here?’

‘Because, my dear daughter, apart from the fact I’d like to be nearer the
sea, I also relish my independence. And one day you’ll meet someone and want
the place to yourself. So there it is. Just say yes.’

I went over and
showered the top of his warm bald head with kisses. ‘Thank you, it’s the best
Christmas present ever.’ The phone rang and Dad extricated himself, gently
squeezing my hand before he released it.

‘Hello. Oh hi Detective Nickelby, yes, she’s here, I’ll pass you over.’
He gave me a meaningful look and passed the handset to me. I took it and sat
back down, my heart beating hard against my ribs.

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