Updated: Jun 5
My gut tightens further with every pylon I pass. The irregular palpitations coursing through my body are at odds with the rhythmic rumble and gentle rocking of the 07:40 from Norwich. I release my hold on the green and gold package and pull at the front of my shirt collar, silently cursing Rachael for making me wear a suit.
‘It’s a matter of respect’ she had said over breakfast, as she placed the box into the Marks and Spencer carrier bag.
‘Nice touch’ I’d replied, ‘Mum loved Marks and Sparks.’
As the train speeds by the familiar black and grey graffiti, adorning the walls and windows of every building facing the tracks, I close my eyes and attempt to still my mind. The ambient sounds: women on phones, school kids arguing, and the tinny beat from the earphones of the man across the aisle, usually create the perfect conditions to lose myself. But not today.
My eyes open as I feel the train pull up at Diss station. Instinctively I check the time on my phone, and despite the somersaults in my stomach, derive great satisfaction from the fact that it is 07:58. Bang on time. I glance at my trench coat, neatly folded on the seat next to me, hopefully dissuading anyone from sitting there. Neatening the carrier bag on the table in front of me, I brace myself, the remains of my bitten fingernails forcing themselves into the palms of my hands.
I hear him before I see him, apologizing for bumping into everyone and everything, as he makes his way down the aisle. If it wasn’t for the adrenalin and cortisol flooding my brain, I might find it amusing.
‘There you are. Either trains have gotten smaller, or I’ve put on more weight than I thought. Good to see you Samwise.’
His voice is gregarious, but his smile is awkward and uncertain. I study him through my anxiety induced blurred vision and have to agree, he is no longer the athlete he was in our youth.
‘Don’t call me that,’ I say and beckon him to take the reserved seat opposite me. Neil slumps down, clearing his throat with a rasping cough. I am irritated by the smell of cigarette smoke lingering on his clothes. Just three years my elder, his greying hair and sagging jowl make him look at least sixty.
‘I love travelling backwards,’ he says, a glimmer of the boy within rising to the surface. ‘it’s makes it more of an…’
‘…an escapade. Yes, I remember. Do you think you could manage to sit still?’
He eyes the Marks & Spencer bag and this time his smile is real.
‘So, we’re really doing this then?’ he says, and the sparkle in his eyes confirms that his mischievous sense of adventure hasn’t changed.
‘Apparently so, though I’m damn sure it’s illegal.’ A gentle jolt signals the train limping out of Diss station. ‘Have you brought anything to read?’ I continue, ‘It’s an hour and twenty-six to Liverpool Street.’
‘Nah, thought we could talk, make the most of the day.’
‘I was afraid of that. How’s Daisy?’ I say, choosing my subject carefully, ‘ She must be, what, three now?’
He coughs some more, and I hand him a pack of Scotties and some hand gel.
‘She’s four Sam.’
He stares over the top of his designer glasses at me. I recognize that look, it’s his I-know-something-you-don’t-know-and-I-wish-you-would-ask-me look. Well, I’m not playing his stupid big-brother games. I’ve only got to get through today, then I won’t have to see him again for another decade, hopefully.
‘How’s Anna?’ he asks.
And there it is. Driving in the dagger of guilt that has made its permanent home in my heart; a constant reminder of my pitiful parenting skills.
‘She’s fine. Did you get the tickets?’
He draws an envelope from his inside coat pocket and waves it in front of his face as if he’s fourteen years old holding a free pass from school.
‘Two tickets to the Tower of London Battlements Walk,’ he says, ‘lovely day for it, too. Now don’t change the subject.’
I look out of the window. It is indeed turning into a lovely day, rays of sun are streaming in through the rain stained windows as we speed past ploughed fields, more pylons and the occasional tree.
‘Sam, it’s been years. We’ve gotta talk.’
‘There’s nothing to say, Neil. Don’t make this day more difficult than it has to be.’ I slide my copy of The Daily Express toward him, and thankfully, he accepts it. The aroma of coffee and bacon drift through from the dining carriage. I close my eyes once again and listen to the smooth repetition of the train on the track, my chest rising and falling slowly, soothing my nerves, whilst my mind searches for temporary escape.
Suzi, my ex-wife, is making breakfast for the three of us. I run my fingers over my chin; I definitely need a shave before work.
‘Anna!’ I call up the stairs. ‘I swear that girl spends longer in the bathroom every day.’ In the absence of a reply I climb the stairs, two at a time and knock on the bathroom door. It swings open. Surprised, but pleased to have access, I reach for the cabinet door, but something nags at me. It’s too quiet. Stepping back into the hall I can see that Anna’s bedroom door is open too.
‘Breakfast’s ready honey’ I offer gently. No answer. Her bed is made, and the overly pink room is unusually tidy. I walk in and see an envelope propped against the mirror of her dressing table. With a trembling hand I pick it up, but I don’t want to open it.
‘Here. Sam. I got you a coffee.’ Neil’s eager voice pulls me back from my personal hell.
‘Oh,’ I manage to say, straightening up and pulling myself back into the present. ‘Cheers.’ I blow on the contents of the steaming paper cup and take a sip of the forbidden beverage. It tastes better than expected and I push away my doctor’s voice warning of the effect on my nerves and my blood pressure. I look back up at Neil. He is staring at me as if searching for the switch that will make this all right. I put down my cup.
‘I can’t ever forgive you. You know that don’t you?’
‘I know, but I had no choice,’ he replies, ‘she begged us.’
‘She was a child!’
‘She’s never said anything?’
‘Not a word.’ The bitter, metallic taste of hurt and betrayal comes up from my throat and wants to express itself in anger, and as usual I turn it in on myself in painful frustration. My shaking hand reaches for the coffee as I try to focus on what I want to say. ‘A year Neil. A whole year,’ is all I can manage.
‘But you knew she was safe. She sent you e-mails.’
‘And thank God she did. Suzi blamed me of course. And I blamed myself. Still do. And then to find…’
‘It destroyed me, Neil. Suzi was right to leave. If it hadn’t been for Rachael, God knows where I’d be now.’
‘And where exactly are you Sam? You look a mess, man.’
He’s right, though he isn’t seeing me at my worst.
‘I’m better than I deserve, I think. We rarely see Anna, that hurts.’
‘And the drinking?
I slip my hand into my trouser pocket seeking the reassurance of the bronze sobriety chip I always carry.
The train pulls into Ipswich station. 08:21, one minute behind schedule. Strangely, today it doesn’t bother me. We sit in silence and both watch the few passengers board from the platform. The previously bright day has become bleak and overcast. I pull against my shirt collar, as the train once again rolls forward, anticipating the next round of interrogation.
‘Look, Sam,’ he says ‘this is an important day. You know Mum and Dad would want us to be on better terms. I really want us to clear the air.’
‘I can’t imagine they give a damn now.’ I responded. Neil winced at my comment and immediately I felt the dagger twist further in my chest. Bad parent, bad son. Mum and Dad always hated us quarrelling. I down the remainder of my, now cold, coffee.
‘I tried to send her home Sam, when she first turned up. She was in a terrible state, wouldn’t stop crying, and I wanted to call you.’
‘But you didn’t.’
‘Yeah, I know.’ He coughs some more, and I push the gel toward him. ‘It took days before she would say what was wrong. It was Tina who persuaded her to send you the e-mails, just to let you know she was ok, but she begged us never to tell you where she was or what was going on.’
‘So, I haven’t even got you to thank for that then.’ It is a statement rather than a question, and I deliver it with a touch too much spite. I was grateful that Anna had had them both to turn to. The thought of what might have happened otherwise still sends an ice-cold shiver down my spine. ‘I’m glad you were both there for her, and I know you meant well and she loved looking after Daisy. I, I’ve just never understood why she couldn’t tell me where she was.’
‘She knew you would come after her Sam, and she didn’t want that. She needed time to figure things out for herself.’ Neil is squirming in his seat; he looks as though he’s every bit as uncomfortable with this conversation as I am.
‘Why couldn’t she talk to me, Neil? Why can’t she still?’ I’m pleading now, and I feel like I’m ten years old, begging my big brother, to help me with my homework.
‘She loves you Sam, she’s always loved you, but this was something she had to do on her own.’
My eyes begin to sting. I turn once again to the window as another train speeds by on the opposite track. As its tail passes, a break in the clouds catches my attention above the busy A12. My gaze follows the beam of light fighting its way through the dark sky. I feel movement; the dagger is relinquishing some of its pressure. Something taps the back of my hand. I look down. It’s wet; a tear, followed by another. I check that nobody is looking at me, nobody that is except for Neil. I pull a freshly laundered handkerchief out of my blazer pocket and wipe my face and hand.
‘There’s more, Sam, if you’re ready.’ Neil’s voice has taken on a softer, more sympathetic tone as he picks up his phone and speed-dials a number. I hear it ringing, and then connect, but the voice is so soft I can’t make it out. ‘It’s time’ Neil says into the phone. ‘You OK?’
He must have received a confirmation, because he hands the phone across the table.
‘Time to fill in the gaps’ he tells me.
I take hold of the phone as if it is about to deliver a death sentence.
‘Hello, who’s this?’ I say.
‘Anna?’ My heart thumps and the blood rushing through my ears is making so much noise that I can hardly hear my daughter. ‘What’s going on?’
‘Dad, there’s something I have been wanting to tell you for some time.’
As I listen to Anna’s story, I look into Neil’s eyes, his gentle, caring eyes, and I begin to understand the weight of the secret he has kept from a beloved brother, for the sake of a beloved niece.
‘Dad, Dad, you still there? Say something, please.’
I can focus on just one question. A question I dare not speak, for fear that it will crush this fragile new hope of a stronger relationship. I’m torn between the shame of not protecting my daughter, a primal urge to obliterate the person responsible for her pain, and the realization that that same pain has bought her, perhaps, her greatest joy.
‘Anna, my brave girl. I’ve let you down, I’ve let Daisy down too. How can I make this right?’ A torrent of excited ideas gushes forth from Anna, but I can’t take it all in.
‘… dinner… Daisy… get to know you better… ‘
‘I’d like that too honey. Love you.’ I wait for her soft response before handing the phone back to Neil. My brain is frantically trying to process this new information, to fit new facts into four years of mystery, to reject the many awful scenarios I had imagined. I feel nauseous and wish I could get off the train. I glance at my phone, 09:22, nearly there. Breathe, Sam, breathe.
Gradually, it dawns on me; this was their plan all along. I place a gentle, appreciative hand on the green and gold package.
As the train pulls into Liverpool Street Station, I stand and pull on my coat. The world out there, even under the station’s glass roof, seems brighter than the one I had left not 2 hours earlier. I turn to Neil, who is clumsily extracting himself from his seat, and a forgotten warmth rises from my belly. An equally unfamiliar feeling spreads across my face; I am smiling.
‘Grab the ashes Frodo, let’s get this adventure started.’