Saturday, 3 August 1963
Saturday afternoon: Crawley New Town
One behind the other, the two men lead the way from the bus station with the battered leather suitcase hoisted high above their heads. They are identically dressed in long drape jackets with velvet-trimmed collars, suede shoes with thick crepe soles, drainpipe trousers and bootlace ties. One has a cigarette that bobs dangerously from the corner of his mouth; he squints as the smoke snakes into his eyes. In sashaying polka-dot circle skirts and sling-back heels, their bottle-blonde girlfriends follow on in single file. Behind them are the children, Megan and then Baxter. Christie brings up the rear, carrying the baby.
And they are doing the conga.
A minute ago, everything seemed beyond her, everything seemed hopeless, and Christie felt tears coming to match those gathering in Megan’s eyes. But now they are doing the conga with strangers through a strange town and Megan and Baxter are giggling and kicking out their feet in time to the breathless voices.
♫ Let’s all do the conga,
La la la la,
La la la la
It’s difficult for Christie to take it in, to adjust to what’s happening. They have nothing in the world and nowhere to go and yet here they are, dancing through the streets with people she doesn’t know, people she would normally usher the children across the road to avoid. And they are dancing her joyously, recklessly towards an unknown future.
♫ La la la la,
La la la la
Baxter turns to look up at her. She holds the baby close with one hand and waves to him with the other. He stumbles. Almost falls. Kicks out his leg again and laughs.
Earlier that day: Ashdown Forest, Sussex
It’s madness. Even as she drags the suitcase on to the bus and fumbles for the fares for herself and the children, Christie keeps telling herself that it’s an entirely ridiculous idea.
And, if it’s ridiculous then, it becomes even more obviously so when she sits down, shakes out her purse and finds she has just five shillings left in the world.
There are so many reasons why she should be doing the safe and sensible thing, the only rational thing, however difficult and distasteful that might be. And of the three that matter most (in the end the only three that matter at all) two are sitting in the seat in front of her and the third is screwing up his face in complaint in her arms.
She leans forwards, puts her head between those of Megan and Baxter.
‘OK, everyone?’ she says.
They half turn towards her and nod. Megan manages a small smile of reassurance.
They have no idea where they are going or what to expect when they get there and yet still they are trying to be brave for her. They sit close together and in silence, staring intently ahead as the bus pulls away from its stopping place in the forest. They look so small, Christie thinks; so heartbreakingly small, so pale and tired.
As the bus manoeuvres steeply around the first bend, Christie glances back to the potholed track that leads to the clearing far in the woods. The branches of a great twisted oak hang in a dense forbidding canopy over its entrance; brambles spill menacingly from its tangled verges.
Christie shivers, closes her eyes and holds the baby tightly.
They left the clearing just a few hours ago, but so much of what took place there seems like a dream; it’s as if it happened long ago and to someone else, not to her and the children. It’s impossible to believe that they lived in that cramped and ugly caravan for six weeks. And for a moment, it’s as if the storm that broke yesterday at sunset is something she imagined.
Leaning against the window with her eyes still closed, Christie can feel the August sunlight playing on her face as the bus slowly follows the meandering twists and turns of the road through the forest. She breathes deeply, letting the warmth soak into her. She is strangely calm, drifting almost towards sleep.
The bus turns a sharp corner and the sunlight disappears behind a tall hedgerow. Christie’s eyes snap open.
The ache in her arms from hauling the suitcase reminds her. None of it is a trick of her imagination. None of it is a dream. They did live in that caravan for six weeks. The storm did rage all around them. Truman is gone. They have no home to go to. All that they own, all that they have left, is in that suitcase. And everything in her life has been a lie.
Everything except the children.
Now, instead of doing the difficult, distasteful, rational thing and going straight to her mother, she and the children are heading for a town she doesn’t know. And her only plan when they get there is to turn up on the doorstep of a woman she has never met; who she knows absolutely nothing about; who, until yesterday, she thought had been dead for twenty years. And who has no idea that any of them exist.
And if it doesn’t work out, if this woman turns them away (and who can blame her if she does?), then Christie will have just five shillings to feed the children and find shelter for them tonight.
It is madness.
On the bus
The truth, of course, is that Christie knows exactly what kind of life they could expect at her mother’s house.
Her mother would be mean and hateful. She wouldn’t want Megan and Baxter there and certainly wouldn’t want the noise and fuss of the baby. Christie’s twin sisters would have to move in together and share a room to create just a small space for her and the children. The house would be crowded and full of resentment.
With Truman’s mother it’s at least possible that it might be different; and that possibility is better than the certainty that otherwise awaits them.
And that, Christie tells herself as the bus lumbers along the narrow winding lanes, is why, however ridiculous it might seem, it’s worth trying.
But what will she say to her? To this woman she doesn’t know. How can she even begin to explain it to her?
How will she begin?
‘Hello, Mrs Bird, you don’t know me but—’
No, that won’t do at all. That’s how someone bringing bad news might begin. Or it’s a door-to-door salesman’s opening patter.
‘Hello, Mrs Bird, my name is Christie and I’ve brought your grandchildren to meet you.’
Better: to the point.
‘Grandchildren?’ she’ll reply. ‘You must have made a mistake, dear. You’ve got the wrong house. My son’s not married.’
She’ll try to close the door on them, send them on their way. Christie will have to be strong.
‘There’s no mistake, Mrs Bird. We’ve been married ten years.’
‘And this is Megan, who is nine. And this is Baxter, and he’s eight. And the baby is—’
Ten years. And only now does Christie know that they were ten years of cheating and lies. Ten years when she’d been afraid; too afraid to try to discover the truth.
‘I know it’s a terrible shock for you, Mrs Bird. It’s a shock to us too.’
One of the lies: he said he was an orphan. Christie’s eighteen-year-old heart had broken for him when he told her.
‘He said you died years ago. When he was growing up.’
‘But how could he?’
Yes. How could he?
‘We’re here, Mrs Bird, because we need your help.’
More than that. Much more.
‘We’re here, Mrs Bird, because your son has left us with no home and no money and nowhere else to go.’
‘Mrs Bird, all we’ve got in the world is five shillings and the clothes in this suitcase.’
It’s not perfect, but it’s the best Christie can do. The truth is so new to her that she doesn’t fully trust herself to speak it aloud. But she will have to find the words when they get there; these words or words like them.
And then either the door will slam in their faces, or it will open and she will let them in.
Mid-afternoon: Crawley New Town
Christie isn’t sure what she’d imagined; but it isn’t this. As the bus finally makes its halting way through the cheek-by-jowl housing and industrial estates on the outskirts of Crawley, and then as it goes on to the bus station in the centre of the town, there’s one thought that keeps running through her head. How can she and the children live in such a place? Everything is newly built and yet it looks so grey, anonymous and worn.
Reality comes rushing back to her when, with a hiss of its brakes, the bus finally comes to a stop. What has she been thinking? She doesn’t know whether they’ll be able to live there at all, let alone choose to do so. She’s going to have to beg charity from a stranger. And beggars most certainly can’t be choosers.
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It is mid-afternoon when Christie shepherds the children off the bus, hands the baby to Megan, passes the carry-cot to Baxter and goes back to heave the suitcase to the pavement.
She has shown the bus driver the address on a slip of paper and he has chirpily pointed them in the right direction. It’s not far, he says, they can walk it in fifteen minutes.
Checking the address again and making sure it’s safely secured in her purse, Christie bends to take the suitcase by the handle.
She tries to lift it. It was hard before; now the tiredness in her arms makes it impossible.
She tries dragging it. It moves a yard. Two.
She looks at Megan and sees tears coming, her lip begin to tremble.
‘It’s OK,’ she says quietly. ‘It’s OK.’
Baxter puts the carry-cot down and comes to help.
They pull together. Another yard.
She feels a tap on her shoulder.
‘Here, love,’ a man’s voice says.
She turns to look at him. A cigarette dangles from the corner of his mouth.
‘I think me and my mate should give you a hand with that, don’t you?’ he says.
It’s seeing the men carrying the case, one following the other, that starts their girlfriends dancing behind. Megan and Baxter quickly join in and Christie, reluctantly at first, follows on.
♫ Let’s all do the conga …
As they jig around a corner, Christie manages to glance quickly about. There’s nothing grand or beautiful to be seen, it’s still the same grey dreary place, yet somehow it’s no longer quite so dispiriting. People in the street smile at them and wave as they conga on.
At the bottom of a concrete flight of steps they pause.
Christie had hoped, had prayed, that Truman’s mother would have a large house with plenty of space for her and the children. Shielding her eyes against the sun and looking up to the top of the steps, all she can see is a drab terrace of small council flats.
As they climb the stairs, their voices hush to a whisper.
♫ Let’s all do the conga …
Outside the door the men deposit the suitcase and then the four strangers dance away. The two women kiss Megan and Baxter on their cheeks and wave goodbye to Christie.
♫ La la la la,
La la la la
There’s been no time for Christie to ready herself. She had planned to keep rehearsing what she was going to say as they looked for the address. But suddenly they are here and she can feel Megan and Baxter’s eyes on her, waiting for her to do something.
She knocks on the door.
What were those words? The words she prepared on the bus?
No money and nowhere else to go.
She can hear someone coming towards the door, a bolt being slid, a chain being released.
The door opens, just a crack, and a small grey-haired woman peers out.
‘Mrs Bird?’ Christie says.
Her hands are trembling as she holds the baby; she can feel the colour coming hotly to her cheeks.
‘Yes, dear, that’s right,’ the woman says uncertainly.
‘Mrs Bird,’ Christie says. ‘We’ve got no money and—’
It’s not how she should have begun; she can see it in the woman’s eyes, in the dismissive shake of the head. She thinks they’re there to beg for money. The door begins to inch to a close.
Megan and Baxter are standing by Christie’s side. As the door slowly closes, Megan reaches urgently for Christie’s hand. Baxter though takes a small step forward.
‘We’ve been doing the conga,’ he announces to the woman.
‘Have you, indeed?’ Mrs Bird says.
A smile coming to her face.
The door opening wider.
Ten Years Later
Monday, 1 October 1973
Eleven o’clock: Lecture Theatre One, Attenborough Tower basement, University of Leicester
Leaning forwards on the hard plastic edge of his seat, Baxter sits with his neck cranked and craned uncomfortably to the left as he looks back and along to the far end of the row.
It’s the only way he can see her.
He’s been sitting like this for so long that part of him has forgotten what he’s doing here, what they’re all doing here.
She is half turned towards him and talking to her neighbour in this totally intense, completely absorbed way that Baxter has decided is uniquely hers. From time to time she runs her heavily ringed fingers through the long silky gloss of her hair and laughs; and when she laughs, the small silver stars clustered on her right temple dance under the neon brightness of the lecture theatre lights.
Her fingernails are painted black to match her hair; Baxter noticed them while they were waiting in the corridor outside. Everyone had arrived early because it was the first time and finally it was to begin. It was crazy out there, all shivers and whispers and sudden shouts of laughter. You could feel it running through the air, how jittery they were. Not that anyone was actually coming out and saying it, of course; not that anyone would have admitted how wound up, how wired they were.
He’d been among the first to arrive and had watched as she came down the stairs to the corridor below. She came down slightly sideways, minding her feet to make sure she didn’t step on the wide bottoms of her flared jeans with the platform soles of her boots, and her long black coat fell open just enough to show the purple velvet top she’s wearing.
It was then that Baxter forgot to breathe.
It was like she was wearing it for him, as if she rifled through the hangers in her wardrobe and put it on because he thought she’d looked so amazing in it when he saw her that time before. The previous week. On the first day of Freshers’ Week. In the Union coffee bar. After they all queued for registration. That time.
Then suddenly and just for a moment – not long enough for him to be able think of anything to say, his mind a complete frigging blank – suddenly she was at the bottom of the stairs, standing close by. Close enough for him to reach out and touch her hair if he wanted to. Which he did – did want to. But which he managed to stop himself doing. Just. But that’s when he saw them, the fingernails painted black; and that’s when he noticed the silver stars.
He should have said something about the stars.
‘Nice stars,’ he could have said, pointing, smiling.
‘Stars. Far out.’
But he didn’t say anything, couldn’t say anything, and then she recognised the girl she’s now sitting next to and went through the crowd to greet her.
As she moved away, he saw she was carrying her books in a black Biba carrier bag, the ornate filigreed logo and lettering standing out in dulled gold.
‘Biba. Far out.’
He should have said that. She would have liked that.
Despite the stiffness accumulating in his neck, Baxter continues to stare along the row. There was a moment earlier when he thought he caught her eye and was rewarded with a half-smile of half-recognition. He’s waiting for her to smile again.
Her name is Abby. He knows that now.
Abby: it’s written on the folder sticking out of the top of the Biba bag.
‘You’ve got no chance there, man,’ Josh says, leaning forwards, following Baxter’s gaze along the row.
From the beginning, Baxter hasn’t been sure whether he truly likes Josh. They were thrown together from the first. They’d boarded the same minibus at the station, helped each other with their cases and then, sitting side by side, had quickly discovered they were on the same course. It had been inevitable that their rooms would be on the same corridor of the same hall of residence. Later, Josh knocked on Baxter’s door and they went together to the high-ceilinged bare-brick Junior Common Room bar. Baxter was glad of his company, glad of any company, on that first day, and they’ve stuck together ever since.
Josh sits back in his chair, cups his hands behind his head.
‘Way out of your league, brother,’ he says.
Reluctantly, Baxter settles back in his seat. It’s only then that he becomes aware of the buzz of conversation swelling all around. The lecture theatre seats more than two hundred and it’s very nearly full.
He glances at his watch. It was a present from Nanna Bird; because of his grades, she said. It’s not the LED digital he would have chosen – but he didn’t tell her, of course. She’d saved for it for so long.
‘We should have started ten minutes ago,’ Josh says, anticipating his question. ‘But there’s something going on out there.’
Baxter follows Josh’s pointing finger to where the lecture theatre door is being held ajar by a large, round, uniformed security guard. In the corridor beyond, a woman in a black academic gown is standing on tiptoe, unnaturally close to a tall man with immaculately groomed, steely-grey hair. He is bending towards her, lowering his head, and she is whispering urgently into his ear.
Baxter slumps further into his seat and watches as the woman takes a half-step away and the grey-haired man slowly shakes his head, turns towards the doorway, turns again as though for confirmation and then comes sweeping into the room to take his place behind the lectern.
The room falls silent.
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‘Good-morning, ladies and gentlemen,’ he begins. He has a vicar’s melodious voice, rising and falling. ‘My name is Professor Arthur Humphreys and I must apologise for my tardy arrival on the occasion of our first meeting.’
He pauses and peers eagle-eyed at those seated nearest to him. Baxter sees them shift uneasily in their seats, too close for comfort.
‘In a few moments I will begin to map out the great voyage of learning and discovery that we will be embarking on in the coming weeks and months.’
A low murmur of anticipation runs through the room.
‘But before we begin … I regret to say there’s some distressing business that I’ve been asked to conduct.’
Another murmur, this time rising as a question. Distressing?
‘This is most unfortunate … most unfortunate on any day, let alone on our first,’ he says. ‘I’m afraid … I’m afraid I must ask one of your number to make himself known to me.’
Baxter feels something clench inside him. It’s the old fear: the old fear of being picked on in the playground, picked on by a teacher in the classroom. He pushes it away from him, turns to Josh and smiles. It isn’t him, the smile says. It can’t be him.
The professor looks down at the untidy sheaf of notes he has deposited on the lectern.
‘Is there a Mr . . .?’
He looks down at his notes again.
‘Is there a Mr Bird with us today?’
Baxter’s smile falls away, his heart races.
He tries to steady himself. No, this is crazy. It can’t be him. It’s a common enough name: among two hundred students, there’s sure to be more than one.
People begin to turn in their seats.
‘A Mr Baxter Bird?’
Josh looks at him, his eyes widening in question and surprise. Baxter meets the question with a small bewildered shrug of the shoulders.
‘Mr Bird?’ the professor says again, scanning the packed rows of the lecture theatre.
Slowly, Baxter raises his hand.
‘Ah, Mr Bird, there you are,’ he says.
Distractedly, he tidies his sheaf of papers.
‘Mr Bird, I’m afraid I must ask you to make your way outside. A member of the university staff needs to speak to you on a matter of great urgency.’
Baxter could not have been sitting in a more difficult place from which to make a premature exit. He’d positioned himself in the very middle of the row at the very centre of the lecture theatre. At the time it was the obvious choice – safely at the heart of things, not exposed on the periphery like those at the front.
Aware now of the weight of silence that has settled on the room, feeling that every eye is on him, he pulls himself upright.
As the colour surges to his cheeks, he picks up his bag and sets off, nudging and shuffling past first Josh and then, one by one, everyone else in the row. Some stand to let him through, others merely pull their knees to one side to let him struggle by. With every apologetic step he takes, he can feel people turning away from him, as though embarrassed to meet his eye.
A moment ago he was one of them. Now he’s been singled out, he’s tainted, suddenly less than them.
Less than them?
His heart plummets.
That’s it, that must be it. It’s the only explanation. They must have decided that there’s been some kind of a mix-up; that his grades aren’t good enough for the university after all.
And he’s worked so hard to get here. It’s what he has imagined for so long: his dream, his mother’s dream.
‘One last question, Mr Bird …’
The university admission interview is coming to an end. It hasn’t gone well. It’s been a tough two hours: the three of them firing questions, the one of him stumbling flush-faced through answers.
There have been long pauses. Embarrassed silences.
The room is hot. Baxter fingers his collar, squirms in his chair. He just wants it over now.
The well-padded, world-weary man with a cut-glass voice who has asked most of the questions consults his notes and peers over his heavy horn-rimmed spectacles. He sighs.
‘Mr Bird, I’m going to be merciful and give you a final chance. And this time I want you to amaze us, dazzle us; I want a glimpse into your soul. Can you do that?’
Baxter manages to nod. Dazzle?
‘Tell us then, I beg you,’ the man sighs again, ‘in words that will both astonish and inspire, what a place at university would mean to you.’
Baxter may have struggled with some of the questions – how would he describe himself? How is that different from the way others would describe him? – but he knows the answer to this one. He just hasn’t been confident enough to give it.
What does it mean?
Should he say it? Should he tell this plush, polished, condescending man what five people in a cramped council flat and no money is like? About sharing a bed with your brother, having no space of your own. Should he tell him about Pauper Bird with his second-hand school uniforms, second-hand clothes, second-hand football boots, jumble-sale books? About being cold because there’s no money for the meter. About being hungry and not showing it, because there’s no point, because there’s no more. About his mother always doing her best for them, on her own; worrying, working every hour, urging them on. About Megan.
Tell the truth, his mother had said to him as he set off that morning. Just answer honestly and you’ll be fine.
Quietly, hesitantly, he begins. At the beginning. In the forest.
And he does tell him.
All of it.
And then – more confidently, finding his stride – he closes his eyes and tells him what getting to university would mean. He can see it, imagine it.
It would mean long days in the sunshine, reading; long nights in the bar, talking. His own room. Friendships. Girls. Rock concerts; discos; dancing; laughter.
He’s never spoken so long, said so much.
When he stops, amidst the silence like a presence in the room, the horn-rimmed man takes off his glasses and starts to polish them. And then he stands up. And shakes Baxter’s hand.
But now the dream is over and he’ll have to go home and tell his mother he’s been kicked out before he’s even got started. He hasn’t even made it through one lecture.
Not one frigging lecture.
Not that he’s entirely surprised. All through Freshers’ Week, he didn’t believe he truly belonged. He felt weird, self-conscious, like he was acting a part. Look, this is Baxter being a student registering for his course; being a student drinking in a bar; going to a freshers’ disco; listening to music; hanging out with Josh; playing his guitar in his room, practising the same song over and over.
♫ Imagine there’s no heaven …
All week he felt like an impostor, waiting to be discovered at any moment.
Well, now he has been.
And what’s worse, what puts the cherry on the icing on the very top of the frigging cake, is that with every step he takes, with every clumsy apology he makes as he bumps his bag into someone’s arm, as he treads on someone’s foot, he knows that he’s getting closer to the end of the row, closer to her.
He may not have made much of an impression on her before but she sure as hell isn’t going to forget him now, is she?
There she is. So amazing, so composed, so totally together; with her rings and her stars and her hand running through her glossy black hair. And here he is: a blushing, clammy loser.
‘I’m sorry,’ he says, when he finally reaches her.
She’ll never know it but it’s much more than an apology for having to stumble past her. It’s an apology for having the audacity to breathe the same air as her, for thinking even for a moment that he belonged in the same room, for ever having looked at her and dreamed, for talking to her now, for not talking to her before, for wanting to touch her hair, for never now having the chance to touch her hair. For everything.
As she pulls her knees to one side to let him through, she looks up. In the entire row, she’s the only one who has looked up. And as she does so, there’s a question in her eyes and a small frown on her face that crinkles the stars on her temple.
A small frown, as though he has disappointed her.
Lecture Theatre One
Mechanically Abby pulls her knees to one side to allow the boy to push past. She looks up quickly at the sound of his voice but doesn’t really see him, doesn’t focus. Because she’d been so lost in her own thoughts, she didn’t catch what the professor said and she’s not sure who the boy is or why he’s leaving. In any case, he’s not someone she knows, anyone she’s seen before.
She’s got other worries.
It’s the stars: they’re too much. She can see that now, of course, now it’s too late.
She imagined they would say something new about her – or rather, say something about the new her. And it turns out that she was right. They’re eloquent; they speak volumes. But they say all the wrong things.
They’re meant to suggest she’s this free spirit – that she’s different, somehow original, artistic, daring, confident, perhaps even a bit quirky. And these are all part of her true persona that can finally reveal itself now that she’s free of Pontlottyn.
But as soon as she came down those stairs and saw Georgie and the others, saw how they were dressed, she realised that what the stars actually said, what they shouted from the nearest mountaintop, was ‘TRYING TOO HARD.’
No, it’s much worse than that.
What they shouted was ‘JUMPED-UP TARTY VALLEYS GIRL TRYING TOO HARD.’
What they screamed was ‘TRIVIAL, LIGHTWEIGHT, VACUOUS.’
Most of all what they said was ‘Stupid.’
Georgie’s friends were polite about them, of course.
‘Stars. Far out,’ someone said.
But Abby could see what they really thought.
And if she could see it so clearly then, why in heaven’s name hadn’t she seen it before, when she could have done something about it? After all, she’d had time enough.
She’d been up since before dawn; there was simply no point in lying there any longer with her eyes wide open and her mind turning like the wheels of an express train, always on the same fretful track, over and over, faster and faster. She’d hardly slept a wink; she’d been too nervous and excited to sleep. It was only natural, she’d told herself – it was the sort of thing her mam would say and there had been comfort in that – only natural to be nervous. First day at college. First proper day, anyway.
So she was up before the first yellow glimmer of daylight and, while the rest of Leicester still slept, she tried on everything she had in her wardrobe. Twice. She’d already decided what she was going to wear, had laid it out the night before so as not to have to worry about it in the morning. But she’d had second thoughts. And then third. After that, she read through the introductory course notes for what must have been the hundredth time. She checked and rechecked the time and the place of the first lecture. She did her make-up and did it over again. And then, at the very last moment, when she was almost out of the door, she decided on the stars.
Twenty pence from that tacky stall in Ebbw Vale Market and only thrown into her suitcase as an afterthought, they came into her mind from nowhere. She rushed back through the door, delighted with the sudden inspiration, stuck them on, admired herself in the mirror and smiled.
And the rings? Far too many rings. And the black nail varnish? What on earth was she thinking? She’s dressed for a disco, not a lecture hall.
And, of course, the accent makes everything worse.
She didn’t realise how strong it was until she arrived in Leicester and found herself surrounded by the likes of Georgie and her friends: all these posh kids from Guildford and Woking and Winchester and wherever.
Abby has liked Georgie from the start. They sat at the same table in the Union coffee bar on the first day, got talking and they haven’t really stopped since. About everything, all at once.
Even now, sitting waiting for the lecture to begin, they’ve skipped through South America and Asia: Allende’s suicide in Chile and the last bombings in Cambodia. They’ve hopped to Europe: Black September and Athens Airport. From there they leapt to Mary Whitehouse and what she said about Last Tango – how dare she, when she’s never even seen it? Sanctimonious blue-rinsed cow, Georgie said. They then quickly moved on to the way the girl’s head swivelled in The Exorcist – and wasn’t it the grossest thing ever when Regan threw up? And it was green! – and then on again to Mike Oldfield and ‘Tubular Bells’ – you had to love it or hate it; they both love it.
Once they’d started talking they’d gone tumbling from one subject to the next. Or rather, Georgie had. Thinking about the stars had distracted Abby, kept her quiet. The stars and the accent.
Abby shakes her head: perhaps all this new-persona business is just so much tosh after all. Maybe she’s destined for ever to stay plain Abigail Evans, Little Miss Mouse, Little Miss Diligent, Little Miss Prim-and-Proper from Pontlottyn.
Long ago Abby discovered that if you grow up in a scattering of houses in the shadow of a pit in the fold of a valley, the few people you know make assumptions about you. And that soon enough you are making the same assumptions about yourself. It’s as if, in the small drama of village life, you’re given a role, you play that role, you become that person.
So, because no one can put from their minds what happened on her eleventh birthday – and because she’s an only child, living halfway up the hill, always on her own, her nose buried in a book – people assume they know who she is.
There’s Abby: she’s the quiet one, the serious one.
And she is! She is quiet, she is serious. But that’s not all she is.
She also has it in her to be that free spirit – she’s sure she does. But she could never show it in Pontlottyn because that’s not who they permitted her to be. To have suddenly become someone else there would have shocked and disappointed all those people who think they know her best, and it would have embarrassed her, mortified her.
So getting to university, getting away, was meant to set her free.
But she hasn’t escaped at all, has she?
Because in one day, she’s somehow managed to transform herself from one person she isn’t to another. Because in just that one day she’s stopped being Pontlottyn’s Little Miss Prim-and-Proper and has become the University of Leicester’s Vacuous Welsh Tart.
Attenborough Tower basement
Waiting in the corridor outside the lecture theatre are the portly security guard who had held the door ajar and the woman in the academic gown, the one Baxter had watched as she stood on tiptoe and whispered urgently in the professor’s ear.
As the guard pulls the door to a close behind Baxter, shutting out the accusing silence of the lecture theatre, it’s the woman who takes a step towards him.
‘Mr Bird?’ she says.
When he’d watched her from a distance, Baxter had thought there was something flirtatious in the closeness with which she stood next to the professor, in the stretch of her body, her upturned head. Because of that, he’d assumed she was a postgraduate student, not much older than himself. But now, as she moves towards him, holding her black gown tightly to her, he’s surprised to see that she is older than he imagined, old enough to be his mother.
He blinks. This isn’t about grades.
Something has happened, something bad: he can see it in the woman’s every anxious gesture as she comes closer. Her eyes go to his but can’t stay there: she looks away, looks down; her hand goes nervously to her hair, gathered in an unruly bun.
It’s happening again, Baxter thinks – he feels the familiar sinking rush of guilt when he thinks of his sister, the appalled heaviness in his chest – it’s like Megan’s day, the day they called him out of school. That’s it; that must be it. Something has happened. To his mother, or his brother, or Nanna.
‘Mr Bird?’ she says.
He nods, a numbing panic rising.
‘Mr Baxter Bird?’ she says, frowning, seeking confirmation.
He nods again.
‘Mr Bird, I’m afraid I must ask you to come with me.’
Before he can say anything, ask anything – before his mind can kick back into gear – she turns and leads the way along the corridor. He trails behind, the security guard walking beside him.
To the left of the stairs is a glass-panelled door. The woman pushes it open and holds it for him. For a moment, Baxter hesitates; whatever it is that she’s about to tell him, he suddenly doesn’t want to hear it. He has to know, he needs to know urgently, but at the same time he wants to put it off for as long as possible. The guard takes him gently by the elbow, nods reassuringly and steers him through the door before taking up position outside.
It is a small windowless room with a distant smell of stale cigarettes. A pine-topped table on thin chrome legs stands in the middle and against the far wall are four red plastic stacking chairs. The woman pulls one of the chairs to one side of the table, pulls another to the other and gestures to Baxter to sit. She then takes her place opposite him.
‘Mr Bird,’ she begins earnestly. ‘My name is Dr Rosetta Paulizky—’
Baxter gives a small laugh; he can’t help it.
‘But you must call me Rosetta,’ she adds reassuringly.
Baxter is dimly aware that he has closed his eyes, that he is slowly shaking his head and that his mouth has fallen open. This is getting unreal. Surreal. It’s as if he has been catapulted into this dream, the weirdest frigging dream.
He opens his eyes. She takes this as her cue to continue.
‘I work for the university’s student-counselling staff,’ she says. ‘And I’ve been asked to speak to you …’
She pauses, leans forwards, briefly rests the tips of her fingers on her temples.
‘Forgive me, Mr Bird,’ she says, flustered. ‘This is most unorthodox and I’m not entirely sure it’s the right thing … I mean, I’m not sure I should be the one to tell you … but he was most insistent, most persuasive.’
She composes herself and begins again.
‘Mr Bird, there is someone here to see you and he has some bad news. Very bad news indeed.’
Once more she pauses. Closes her eyes.
‘You see, he thought it would be easier for both of you if I were to tell you. And if you then had a few moments … before you meet.’
Baxter finally manages to speak, his voice no more than a whisper.
‘Who is it?’ he says.
Dr Paulizky leans across the table, her eyes now open and locked to his. She holds out a hand towards him; Baxter can see what she intends. It’s for him to take, should he need it.
‘You must prepare yourself,’ she says softly.
‘Who is it?’ Baxter whispers again.
‘I’m afraid …’ she says. ‘I’m afraid it’s your father.’
‘My father?’ Baxter almost shouts.
Startled, Rosetta raises her hand to quieten him.
‘Mr Bird, there’s no easy way to put this. Your father is here and he has asked me to tell you that he’s had the most terrible news.’
She looks down at the tabletop. There’s a white ring left by a carelessly placed coffee mug; she begins to trace the circle of it with her finger.
‘He has asked me to tell you …’ she says, ‘that he doesn’t have long.’
‘Long?’ Baxter says, mystified.
‘That he’s come to say goodbye,’ she says.
‘Goodbye?’ he parrots.
‘That he’s dying.’
‘Dying?’ Baxter splutters.
Dr Paulizky nods, still looking down, tracing the ring.
‘The doctors say he has only a few months …’
She looks up, puts her hand beneath her breast and taps at her heart.
In the long silence that follows, what breaks over Baxter in an exhilarating rush, what runs through him in shivering waves, is a feeling of profound, undiluted relief.
It’s not like Megan after all. They are all safe: his mother, his brother, Nanna. Everyone is safe.
‘Dying?’ he says, laughter starting to bubble.
Dr Paulizky looks up, alarmed by what she hears in his voice.
‘But he can’t be dying!’ Baxter says.
‘I know this must be very difficult—’ she starts to say.
Baxter leans back in his chair, folds his arms across his chest and makes no attempt to conceal the broad smile that has fixed on his face. They are all safe. He hadn’t realised until now how important that is, how much he depends on them all just being there. They’re all safe and they’ve got the wrong student. It’s not him who should have been called from the lecture theatre; it’s some other poor unsuspecting sap. It’s all a mistake, a colossal cock-up, a cosmic balls-up.
‘You don’t understand,’ he says. ‘My father can’t be dying.’
‘Why ever not?’ she says.
‘Because …’ he says, stifling the laughter, ‘because you can only die once, can’t you?’
‘What?’ she says.
Baxter leans forwards to explain.
‘You see, he walked out on us, ten years ago. I was eight years old—’
‘But that doesn’t mean—’ she tries to interrupt.
‘He walked out on us,’ Baxter persists. ‘And then …’