IT’S so good to see that Salisbury is finally having its own literary festival (27th to 29th October), with an emphasis on creative writing “rather than non-fiction memoirs and celebrity-led books”. Those are the words of Festival director, Tom Bromley, in his Welcome at the front of the brochure. http://www.salisburyliteraturefestival.co.uk
The Happy Moonraker has never been a creative writer, facts having always been my stock-in-trade. Some years ago, however, in a break with tradition, a short story emerged from the keyboard. I’ve no idea where my inspiration came from, but I am happy to post it on this blog, just for a change from nature notes and similar fact-based ramblings.
I would point out that, since the story was written, the law on carrying babies and children in cars has quite rightly become complicated and strict.
SHE backed carefully into the parking space, switched off the engine and sighed.
‘I just wish I could work out why she hasn’t been in touch. All those promises about emails, letters, phone calls and so on, and in almost two years she’s rung twice, and sent three measly postcards.’
Mike fidgeted in the passenger seat before turning to her. ‘It struck me that it might have been something one of us said when she was planning this trip.’
‘You could be right, but don’t think I haven’t gone down that route too. I’ve been awake for hours, night after night, mulling over the time she stayed just before she left and I honestly can’t find any clues that make me think she was planning to cut herself off for so long.’
‘Still, she’s due on the next train, we’re here, and I’d better go and check the train’s arriving on time,’ said Mike, as he got out of the car. He strode over to the passenger hall, dodging a white taxi as he did so. Mid-afternoon. A weak wintry sun was dipping low to the west. Everywhere was very quiet. Just one woman buying a ticket. He glanced up at the screen. Yes, the London train was due in at 3.34.
He stamped his feet, blew on his fingers and hurried back to the car. ‘It’s damn cold out there,’ he said, as he banged the door shut.
They said nothing. Their breath started to steam up the windows.
Suzie leant across and looked at Mike’s face. ‘You’ve got a bit of shaving foam by your ear.’
She tried to rub it off with her finger.
‘How long d’you think she’s been back in the country?’ he asked.
‘How should I know?’
‘Well, you spoke to her.’
‘That was last night and she said she was on a borrowed mobile, so I told you we couldn’t talk for long,’ said Suzie.
Twisting the rear view mirror, she looked at her reflection. ‘God, what a sight. I look about a hundred. I bet she’ll say I look old.’
Mike chuckled and squeezed her gloved hand. ‘She’d better not. You hardly look a day older than … well …. 50.’
‘Very funny. It’s so unfair. Why do men seem to improve as they get older? Except for all that hair, of course.’
He changed the subject. ‘She left with that enormous backpack, didn’t she? I wonder if there’s room for it in the boot. Mind you, she may have left it in London.’
A rush of cold air whipped round the inside of the car as Mike opened the hatchback to move his golf clubs.
‘Oh, come on, let’s go and wait on the platform. I can’t bear this,’ said Suzie.
She grabbed his hand as they walked into the station.
‘The thing we have to remind ourselves is that she’s an adult. She was 27 in April, she’s supported herself for the past five years, and she can do what she likes,’ she said, shrugging her shoulders and looking for other signs of life on the platform.
‘I know, I know. And I bet I have to try hard not to start telling her what to do with the rest of her life. After all, if she wants to make any real progress up the management ladder, she can’t just suddenly pack it in and tell them she’s clearing off again. Even a big company can’t afford to invest in all that training and monitoring, only to see the trainee disappearing for two years.’
He thought of how responsible and hardworking he’d been. And how boring it all was, and how he’d much rather have been travelling the world, like his errant daughter. Perhaps he should have gone when he was 25, just as she’d done. But he’d never have met Suzie.
Was their daughter irresponsible? Was she feckless? He didn’t know. All he knew was that he and Suzie felt they’d done their best for her.
As they both heard the familiar buzzing on the rails telling them that the train was about to appear on the bend, Suzie suddenly felt her heart racing. The pulse throbbed in her neck. She began to gulp with nervousness.
The platform had filled up. There must have been about 40 people, some clearly waiting to get on board, others meeting passengers.
As the train approached, Mike and Suzie tried to look through the carriage windows for their daughter. Doors opened with their distinctive hiss and bang, and people started to emerge. Halfway along, they both recognised Louise at the same time but she hadn’t yet spotted them. She then turned round as though she was getting back on the train, only to emerge lifting the front of a child’s buggy, while an invisible pair of hands, belonging no doubt to the mother, held the handle.
‘Oh, look – she’s helping someone with their baby,’ said Suzie, and she smiled as she and Mike started to walk along the platform towards her. But, once the buggy was safely on the platform, Suzie took control of the handles, hitched a bag on her shoulder and turned towards them. As she recognised her parents, she started to run and flung her arms round her father’s neck, before turning to her mother, kissing her on both cheeks and taking her by the hand.
‘Well, we’re back,’ said Louise, bending down to investigate the furry cocoon in the buggy. ‘Mum, Dad, this is Matthew and he was eleven weeks old yesterday.’ She gave a lopsided smile, and then burst into tears.
Suzie was speechless. She found herself gaping. ‘But darling, is he yours?’ she finally asked, trying not to sound horrified.
‘Of course he is, Mum. I’m not in the habit of walking off with other people’s babies.’
‘No, no, I’m quite sure you aren’t. In fact, I seem to remember you being rather averse to them not so long ago. But how are you going to manage?’
Mike felt stunned. Was he now a grandfather then? What the hell was he going to tell his mother? She was fairly old-fashioned about these things at the best of times, but where her own granddaughter was concerned, he didn’t dare contemplate how she would react.
‘Let’s get to the car,’ he declared, ‘it’s too cold to stand here.’
Realising they were the last on the draughty platform, they hurried out to the car park, Mike grabbing his daughter’s bag, Suzie desperately trying to peep at the baby.
‘It’s all right, Mum,’ laughed Louise, through the tears, ‘you can hold him in a minute.’
She gently lifted the cocoon out of the stroller and handed her sleeping son to Suzie, who wrapped her arms round him. She found herself wanting to cry. He was so beautiful. She wondered who the father was and started thinking that it was so sad that all these children were being brought into the world, without much hope of ever having a stable, two-parent up-bringing. Still, she and Mike were young enough to be able to help, if Louise would let them. Her grandson opened his big blue eyes and looked solemnly at her. She could feel his little legs stirring inside his cosy coverings.
With the buggy folded and put in the back, the three of them got in the car and Suzie handed Matthew back to Louise, before turning on the engine in the hope of getting some warmth from the heater.
‘I can’t believe how cold it is in England, you know. It was summer when we left Australia.’
‘Who’s we, darling?’
‘Well, the thing is, I’ve been wanting to tell you, but I just couldn’t find the right moment and the weeks went by and … well, anyway. The thing is, I’m married. In fact, we got married as soon as we could after we’d arrived in Sydney last year, but then I found I was pregnant and I was as sick as a dog and we didn’t know whether to come home or stay put. We stayed put in the end, because of work.’
‘Actually, we weren’t even sure where you were,’ her father said, a note of reproach in his voice.
Louise burst into tears again. She leant forward in the steamed-up car, putting an arm round both her parents and whispered, ‘I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.’ She gulped, blew her nose, and then said: ‘You know Matthew’s father. It’s Ben from school.’
‘It’s who?’ Her mother’s voice rose in horror.
‘Ben Paynter. He joined in the sixth form.’
‘I don’t think I remember his name at all. I thought you meant Ben from round the corner,’ said Suzie, with relief.
‘Oh, Mum, honestly, I haven’t taken total leave of my senses. We met up again at Jane’s party in London just before I left and he said he was about to do a job swap in Sydney, so we saw each other after I got there. And the rest’s history, as they say.’
‘So you and this Ben Paynter married in Sydney,’ said Mike, trying to sound casual. ‘But why couldn’t you invite your old parents to the wedding?’
‘I know it sounds silly now, but we thought we’d surprise you and his parents, that’s all. And so few people seem to get married these days, we just thought we’d do the unconventional thing, and do it properly. And we are happy, honestly.’
‘Where is Ben now? Is he still in Australia?’
‘No, he’s in Andover, Dad.’
‘We’ve just rented a house nearby because his boss has offered him a job managing a new subsidiary he’s starting there.’
Her mother laughed. ‘And I thought you’d come from London! Why isn’t he with you and Matthew now?’
‘He’s coming over this evening, after work. I promise you we would have come days ago but we were jet lagged and I didn’t want Matthew to be crying when you first met him,’ Louise said, abjectly.
Mike said: ‘But I still can’t work out why you didn’t keep in touch.’
‘Well, the last thing you said to me, Dad, was, ‘if you do anything mad, don’t tell us,’ and I thought you meant it,’ said Louise.
Mike felt a lump in his throat.
‘Come on,’ said Suzie, putting the car in gear, ‘I think it’s time we started for home.’