The past is always with us; it’s just that sometimes we don’t see it.Summer 2004. Tom Searight can’t relate to his 14-year-old daughter, Charlotte, or his cantankerous old father, Robert. But his life really disintegrates when he discovers his wife of 15 years, Julie, is having an affair with Charlotte’s favourite teacher.A chance letter from France takes Tom on a journey to learn about the life of his great uncle, Guy Searight, a veteran of the First World War. But as Tom learns more about his family’s tragic past and his own father’s turbulent childhood, his future becomes increasingly uncertain.Can Tom learn from the lessons of the past to save his marriage and his family?“The handling of the situation, from seven different viewpoints, is extraordinary! Absolutely brilliant! I wonder at Colley’s talent with words!”“The links to family, the events and their consequences on individuals, the resultant effects on their behavior, and the impact on four generations was masterfully done.”“The characterizations are wonderful.”“This is a great book. It is strong, sensitive, well-written, and I love it! It spoke to me on many levels.”“Rupert Colley is such a clever writer who grabs the reader’s attention in the first couple of pages.”“Have just read ‘The Red Oak’, and hardly took a breath. I thoroughly enjoyed every page. You can tell a good author by the way the opening of the book grips you, wants to make you read on, and this story really does all that. Colley made the family so real, it was almost as if we were there with them. A wonderful book.”Historical fiction with heart and drama.
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The Red Oak
© 2017 Rupert Colley
The Red Oak
Chapter 1: The Day Everything Changed
Chapter 2: The Library
Chapter 3: The Letter
Chapter 4: The Café
Chapter 5: Parents’ Evening
Chapter 6: The Departure
Chapter 7: The Father
Chapter 8: The Unforgiving Sea
Chapter 9: The Presentation
Chapter 10: The Diary
Chapter 11: The Visitor
Chapter 12: The Photograph
Chapter 13: The Return
Chapter 14: The Suspension
Chapter 15: The Drunk
Chapter 16: The Compromise
Chapter 17: The Red Oak
Epilogue: Sunday, 6 February 2005
Other works by Rupert Colley
Get in Touch
Aftermath by Siegfried Sassoon used with the kind permission of the estate of George Sassoon.
Dulce et Decorum Est taken from "Wilfred Owen: The War Poems" edited by JonStallworthy (Chatto & Windus, 1994), used with the kind permission of the Wilfred Owen Royalties Trust.
The strong acidic smell hit Tom Searight in the back of the throat as he groped through the darkness of the museum exhibit. The sound of artillery fire shook the stillness of the room. He passed a dugout and listened as the officer inside bellowed down a telephone, his clipped English accent cursing at the sudden loss of signal. A dim lamp flickered on the shelf, next to the tins of condensed milk and a half-full bottle of wine. Tom moved on through the trench, one deliberate step at a time. The noise of the attack died down. He came to a soldier standing stock-still on the 18-inch-high fire step peering through a periscope into No Man’s Land. Tom stepped up next to him, conscious that even in the dark, if his head peeped over the parapet, he risked being caught by a German sniper. The soldier, wearing a greasy waterproof cape, held his rifle in his right hand, the steely point of the bayonet glistening in the semi-light.
Tom heard a commotion to his left. He turned to see a small group of schoolchildren brush hurriedly by, no more than about twelve years old, all commenting on the horrible smell and complaining of boredom. Would he have been so dismissive at their age? Probably not. But then, maybe at the age of thirty-eight, Tom was already turning into a younger version of his intolerant, octogenarian father. If nothing else, he would have thought a trip to the Imperial War Museum was a good excuse to get out of school for the day.
At least his own daughter appeared motivated. Granted, her motivation stemmed from wanting to impress her history teacher, who seemed to be the current flavour of the month. In two weeks’ time, Charlotte was doing a recital of war poetry in a class presentation marking the ninetieth anniversary of the start of the First World War in front of the whole school. She’d suggested a half-term trip to the museum as a means of gathering background information. This teacher, Mr Moyes, was obviously quite something, thought Tom. Not wanting to discourage his normally work-shy daughter, he had volunteered to accompany her during his week off work.
Tom left the trench exhibit as the officer yelled down his radio for the umpteenth time that day and the sentry kept up his watch, his gaze forever fixed on the invisible foe on the other side. He found Charlotte nearby studying a group of medals in a glass display. ‘Found anything interesting?’ he asked her.
She shrugged her shoulders and curled her lip. ‘Not really. Can we go now?’
‘Already? But we’ve only just got here.’
‘Yeah, but I’m bored.’
Tom couldn’t help but feel disappointed. He’d been looking forward to a morning out with his daughter; they talked so rarely now. The First World War project provided a connection; the trip to the museum a shared venture, an opportunity to talk. But his efforts to engage her in conversation on subjects pertinent to her life came across as either patronising or invasive. He was trying too hard and she let him know it by her monosyllabic answers. He wondered whether Julie would have had more success but she had the convenient excuse of a pre-arranged lunch date. ‘Have you seen everything you want to see?’
‘Yeah. There was nuffink on the poets anyway.’
He suppressed the urge to correct her use of the “th”; instead, his attention was caught by a mug made out of a golden syrup tin. ‘Look, sweetheart, ninety years on and they still use the same logo.’
‘Dad,’ said Charlotte, lowering her voice and glancing around, ‘do you have to call me that?’
‘Sorry, petal, am I embarrassing you?’ It was only meant to be a little joke but her scornful look reminded him that irony wasn’t Charlotte’s strongest point. But it was true; at fourteen, she was already too grown-up and self-conscious for pet names. Fourteen going on seventeen, Charlotte was a pretty girl; she had inherited her mother’s fine bone structure with her cheekbones and delicate nose, and the long blonde hair. Despite the semi-permanent scowl, Charlotte’s natural attractiveness was cause for a mild dose of anxiety for Tom; she was already receiving far too much attention from ill-suited boys.
‘Right,’ he said. ‘Can we at least go to the museum shop?’
The shop was packed, far more than the exhibition they’d just left, with people more interested in buying branded rubbers or key-rings than viewing the exhibits themselves – anything to show they’d done their bit, shown a passing interest and had the souvenir to prove it. Tom gave Charlotte a fiver, with which she bought a small book on First World War poetry. He could tell she would have far rather pocketed the money and used it on something else. For himself, he bought a lightweight account of the Western Front. At least it showed willing and, if nothing else, would impress his father.
Half an hour later, they were on the stifling tube, heading back to Holloway, both half-heartedly reading their respective purchases.
‘Dad,’ said Charlotte, in a depressingly familiar tone that Tom knew all too well. Charlotte was never one to initiate a conversation unless she wanted something. ‘Y’know you said you’d take me out for dinner after the museum?’
‘Lunch you mean, what about it?’
‘I was wondering, would it be OK if I could go and see Abigail instead? I could show her the book; y’know, read the poems and that.’
Hmm, likely story, thought Tom. But he’d taken the father-daughter thing far enough for one day and his disappointment was deepened by the realisation he was relieved by its premature end. She’d said Abigail: the two girls had been friends since nursery and, like an automatic reflex, whenever Charlotte mentioned her friend’s name, he thought of her mother, Rachel. ‘Well...’
‘But only if you’re back by four – and you actually do some work. OK?’
‘Yes, I promise. I am your “sweetheart” after all.’
Fourteen-years-old and she thinks she can twist me around her finger, thought Tom with a wry smile.
Two stops later, Charlotte bounced up from her seat unaware of two adolescent boys in logo-emblazoned sweatshirts watching her. ‘I’ll get off here,’ she said, giving her father a peck on the cheek. ‘Thanks, Dad, see ya later.’
‘Four o’clock, OK?’
‘Yep, four o’clock.’ Tom watched her as she disappeared into the throng of people. He spotted her book of war poetry wedged against the armrest of her vacated seat. He snatched it, rose to his feet and fought against the tide of incoming passengers, calling out her name just as the doors snapped shut, leaving him pawing at the glass door. As the tube picked up speed he saw a glimpse of her striding purposefully along the platform, her eyes fixed on the phosphorus green screen of her mobile. He turned and leant back against the curved door. The two adolescent boys caught his eye and sniggered.
He got off at the next stop and emerged into the oppressive London heat. He zigzagged his way along the Holloway Road avoiding the abundance of semi-clad youngsters – men stripped to the waist, pale legs and fresh tattoos; girls with exposed midriffs, large earrings and pierced bellybuttons. He popped into his local newsagent, the place decked with England flags ahead of the European football championship due to start in a few days. He bought a copy of The Times, Tony Blair’s serious face dominating the front page. As Tom ambled back home along their quiet, tree-lined road, he felt saddened by the way the morning had gone. She was a good kid, but if only he could breach the widening divide of misunderstanding. And he hated the way that his daughter’s cool detachment made him feel gauche and unsure of his actions. He pined for the little girl who was forever gone and no number of how-to-parent-a-teenager books could alleviate that longing.
He set his mind to the rest of the day; the sun was out and he had the house to himself. He could sit in the garden with a cup of tea and read the paper or his new book. Tom returned home feeling quietly smug.
At first, Tom didn’t notice anything. He closed the front door behind him, threw the newspaper on the small telephone table in the hallway and was greeted with yelps of excitement from Angus, the family’s white Highland terrier. ‘Hello, boy, you all alone?’ He put his head round the sitting room door. Empty. ‘Is anyone at home?’ he yelled. He walked through to the kitchen, noticing the smell of bleach, put the kettle on and let Angus out into the garden. Julie had left three envelopes on the kitchen table propped up against the vase of flowers – the flowers he’d given her on their recent anniversary. He glanced at them quickly. One was a gas bill, another a clothes catalogue for Julie, but it was the third one that intrigued him. It had a French stamp on it and, handwritten, was addressed to him. Who in the dickens would be writing to him from France, he wondered. He was about to open the letter when he saw it: a briefcase at the foot of the telephone table. A big scruffy brown thing that had obviously seen better days. It was a man’s briefcase. Whose was it? He’d definitely not seen it before. Did it belong to a friend of Julie’s? The more he stared at this brown briefcase, the greater his sense of unease. And suddenly he knew that it shouldn’t have been there; that something was wrong. The soft brown leather was heavily scuffed with deeply-embedded lines like cracks in the parched earth of a dried-out riverbed. He wanted to flick open the scratched silvery latches, to rummage inside for clues as to why it was sitting there, leaning against the telephone table in his hallway. It owed him an explanation for its presence but somehow an inbred respect for privacy held him back. He turned to peer up the stairs. ‘Is anyone home?’ he shouted out again. But this time he felt convinced he wasn’t shouting to an empty house. The silence was overwhelming, unnatural. Tom knew there was someone else in his home.
Julie Searight lay on the bed in the spare bedroom, her fingers gripping the hot crumpled sheet beneath her. She was naked. She hadn’t moved; pinned to the bed by panic, immobilised by the thumping of her heart. She could hardly breathe in the humid closeness of the room, melting into the cloying stickiness of the sheets, her back drenched in sweat. She would have opened the window if she hadn’t felt so frozen with panic. Her mind blank, she stared at the ceiling, her mouth gaping, her breath coming in short staccato bursts. Her world was about to collapse around her at any moment. How could she have been so stupid? She lowered her eyes and looked at Mark. She hated him for having put her in this position. Mark too hadn’t moved an inch since they heard the door key turn in the latch. He was kneeling on the bed between Julie’s opened legs, his hair stuck to his forehead, a bead of sweat glistening on his upper lip. The smell of illicit sex hung in the air like an accusing spirit mingling with the early afternoon heat. She looked at the pile of hastily discarded clothes on the wicker chair in the far corner of the room: a dark blue tie, a black sock, his favourite boxer shorts (which he wore on every occasion), and her bra coiled half in and half out of the snake-charming laundry basket. She could hear Angus yelping outside – Tom must have closed the kitchen door on him.
At least, she thought, Charlotte hadn’t come back. But what was Tom doing home anyway? They weren’t due back for ages yet. What could she say? Introduce them? Mark meet Tom; Tom, this is Mark; Mark and I have been having a rampant affair these last eighteen months; you don’t mind, do you, love? She almost laughed; what an absurd situation she found herself in – caught red-handed by her husband in bed with her lover. This had been the first time she had invited Mark to her house. It’d been Mark’s idea. Or had it been hers? She couldn’t remember. Usually when Tom said he’d be back at three, you could depend on him being back at three, not two hours earlier.
‘Is anyone home?’ Second time round, Tom’s voice had an edge to it – he knew something was wrong. The first time, there was still a chance. A chance he might have gone out into the garden and cut the lawn, or fallen asleep in the sun-lounger. A chance he might have gone out again, taken Angus out for a walk, anything. Mark could have slipped away. She could have pretended to have been stood up by her lunch date, returned home early and had a snooze. In the spare bedroom? She could have fluked it. Tom would never have known. She would have taken the sheets and put them in the wash – just doing the domestic chores. But not now. The second shout was more real, more urgent. What had given the game away? Maybe he heard something, but she and Mark had barely moved a muscle from the moment he came in.
Julie and Mark looked at each other, both lost in their own fearful thoughts, Mark’s hand resting on Julie’s bent knee. Averting her gaze, she concentrated on the reflection of Mark’s slender back in the long mirror opposite the bed, the hollows in the small of his back, the arch of his spine, the top of his smooth buttocks. They heard Tom moving around downstairs. Even his footsteps sounded different as he carefully and deliberately checked each room: the sitting room, the living room, back to the kitchen. Julie’s heartbeat, already unbearably fast, quickened at the sound of Tom’s muffled footsteps on the carpeted stairs. She tried to control her breathing as Mark’s hand tightened its grip on her knee. With Tom at the top of the stairs, they both felt the need to appear slightly more dignified. Mark covered his lap with his tee shirt. Julie pulled the warm sheet over herself, covering her nakedness.
Tom was on the landing. Julie wanted to scream: ‘Just get it over and done with’. She heard him cross the landing and check their main bedroom, and then heard him say ‘hello?’ as he looked in Charlotte’s room. Two bedrooms gone, one to go. I’m sorry, she thought, I’m so sorry. As Tom approached the spare bedroom, Mark put his hand to his mouth and Julie gripped the sheet tighter still. They both turned to face the door. The bed was behind the door as it opened, so Tom would have to open the door fully, or put his head around it before seeing them. It was the last room of the house. His presence lingered on the other side. What a sight to behold, she thought, as her self-pity transferred itself to Tom. Poor man, he’d done nothing wrong; nothing to deserve this indignity, this shame.
Holding her breath, Julie watched as the doorknob moved slowly around. The door opened an inch, maybe two. And then paused. What was holding him back, was it the mirror? But no, it was too far to one side. Then, miraculously, the door slowly closed again. The doorknob moved back to its original position, finishing with a tiny clunk. Tom had let go.
Her heart still thumping furiously, Julie breathed out. She heard Tom walk back across the landing and quickly back down the stairs. Mark raised an eyebrow and looked as if he was about to speak. She put a finger to her lips and listened as Tom went through to the kitchen and let Angus back in from the garden. To her eternal relief, she heard the jangling of the dog lead, the sound of an excitable dog and Tom saying, ‘Come on, let’s go for a walk.’ He was going out after all. The front door closed and Julie sighed loudly and resisted the urge to scream out. She rubbed her eyes and groaned.
‘Christ,’ breathed Mark, running his fingers through his hair. ‘That was close, too damn close. He must’ve known; why didn’t he come in, could he smell us? I mean, what stopped him?’
‘Shut up a minute.’ She needed silence, not the sound of Mark theorising on the obvious. What was he so worried about anyway, what did he have to lose?
Mark didn’t take the hint. ‘I’m sorry, Julie, that was too much. Too much. I told you it was too risky; we’re not doing it here again.’
Julie sat bolt upright, clutching the sheet over herself, seized by a sudden sense of anger for compromising her marriage for the sake of idle sex. She wanted Mark to go and to go now. ‘Mark, get out, just piss off. We’re not doing it again here or anywhere. I’m through with it. Just leave.’ She grabbed his shirt from his lap and threw it at him. She fell back against the pillow, exhausted and close to tears.
Mark recoiled at the harshness of her words. He’d expected her to be upset, but not to so vehemently take it out on him. He climbed off the bed and grappled furiously with his clothes, fighting back his own anger at the injustice of her comments. ‘You bitch,’ he muttered, as he hastily pulled on his boxer shorts. ‘You bloody bitch. I know you’re upset, but don’t take it out on me. I mean, at the very least, I thought I meant something to you. But no, obviously not. I was just a bloody shag to you, wasn’t I? Well, thanks, Julie; thanks a bloody bunch.’
Julie rolled her eyes. She knew Mark deserved better, but she didn’t care, not now. ‘Go, Mark, just go.’
‘I’m going all right. I just hope for your sake I don’t bump into Tom on the way out,’ he said menacingly. He stuffed his tie into his trouser pocket, grabbed his jacket, and paused at the bedroom door. ‘I’ll see you at school sometime then.’ Julie lay still, unable to move, unable to make any response.
Mark hurtled down the stairs and saw his briefcase in the hallway beneath the telephone table. Damn it, he thought, what a stupid place to leave it. Tom must have seen it. He paused briefly at the hallway mirror and brushed his hair back into place, rearranged his collar, and gave himself a pitiful look. Taking a deep breath, he opened the front door, looked up and down the street, and walked hurriedly up towards the end of the road where he’d parked his car. The visitor’s parking permit had run out barely fifteen minutes ago, and already stuck to his windscreen of his Ford Fiesta was the familiar yellow penalty notice. Mark cursed – what a crap way to end a crap day.
Meanwhile, Julie, realising she might have little time before either Tom or Charlotte returned, suddenly snapped out of her state of self-pity. She began by hunting for a clean, nondescript bra and knickers, placing the more alluring set neatly in her drawer. With a pang of guilt, she realised how her sexy underwear saw the light of day more for Mark’s benefit than Tom’s. She desperately wanted a shower to remove the smell of sex and sweat but she knew time could be against her; a quick wash would have to suffice. Once fully dressed, she began maniacally making the bed, stuffing the crumpled sheets into the laundry basket, replacing them with ironed duplicates and puffing-up the pillows. Half an hour later, both she and the spare bedroom looked as they should in the middle of a weekday afternoon. Only the faint aroma of sweat remained. She opened the window and then cruised around the house picking up dirty mugs and plates and stuffed them willy-nilly into the dishwater. Tom would have a seizure. He liked the dishwasher to be loaded properly to his exacting standards. The main plates went here, the bowls there, the mugs at ninety bloody degrees from the sodding side-plates. One of the mugs slipped, fell to the floor and broke. Julie swore; her nerves were on edge. To her horror, it was Tom’s favourite mug, his Arsenal football mug, celebrating the ‘Double’ of 2002, a Christmas present from Charlotte. Fortunately, only the handle had snapped off, the mug itself was still intact. She put the handle in the mug, and hid the evidence behind the tins in the food cupboard.
Still feeling jittery, Julie made herself a coffee and went outside into the garden to try and enjoy the sun. Sitting in the sun-lounger beneath the shade of the laurel hedge, she closed her eyes, breathed deeply through her nose and tried to compose herself. She promised, to whatever greater being might have been eavesdropping, that she had learnt her lesson. From now on, she was going to be the perfect mother and the model wife. Things were going to change.
Tom had seen them all right.
From the moment he saw the briefcase he knew something was amiss. Aware of the stilted silence, he had begun climbing the stairs, conscious of the slightest sound, the tiniest creak. As he trod carefully across the carpeted landing, his heart pounding, he told himself he was being irrational. What did he expect to find – a burglar? But burglars don’t leave briefcases in the hallway. Having checked his and Julie’s bedroom, and then Charlotte’s, he relaxed slightly. But perhaps he should check the bedroom at the back of the house as well. He placed his hand on the doorknob – white and shiny with a small floral pattern on it but with a crack straight down the middle he hadn’t noticed before – and slowly turned. He thought he heard a small sharp intake of breath from within. He paused. Angus was yapping outside in the garden. He opened the door a fraction, barely an inch or two, and then stopped. Tom peered through the gap between the edge of the door and the doorframe. There, through the slither of view, he could clearly see her lying on the bed. Between her legs, the crouching knees of a man, a tee shirt on his lap, and the dark hairs on his painfully pale legs. What should he do? Burst in and confront them in their humiliation? Instead, fearing his own humiliation, Tom did nothing. He gently closed the door, wondered momentarily where he could find replacement doorknobs with the same pattern, walked slowly back along the landing and down the stairs.
He stood in the hallway and tried to control his breathing. His throat felt dry, his head spun. The familiar surroundings seemed oddly out of place. The hallway mirror seemed too big for the limited amount of space within its reflection, the rug seemed too dark, its triangular pattern too fussy, the small crack in the ceiling looked menacingly large. He needed to get out and get some air. He whistled for Angus and remembered the dog was still outside in the garden. Letting him back in, Angus ran straight past him, headed for his basket in the corner of the kitchen, and dived into the comfort of the chewed blanket, looking somewhat put out that Tom had forgotten him for so long. Tom picked up the dog lead and all was forgiven in an instant.
‘Come on, let’s go for a walk,’ he said, trying to make his voice sound as natural as possible. Grappling with Angus’s lead, he fumbled as he tried to attach the metal loop onto the dog collar. Every action seemed unnatural and clumsy, as if he was critically watching himself from the outside. He saw the briefcase again. He glanced upstairs and guiltily lifted the unlocked flap to see what was within. Inside, he saw a book, various files and The Guardian newspaper. Angus barked with impatience, making Tom jump. Without thinking, he swiped the book as Angus pulled on the lead and stretched for the front door.
The heat outside was as oppressive as the surreal tension inside. Someone said hello, a neighbour. Tom grunted an acknowledgement. Angus tried to scramble ahead as his master brusquely yanked him back. Tom strode forwards, his mind incapable of taking in the vision of his wife in bed with another man. Actually in bed. Should he take comfort that it was only the spare bed, and not theirs? Perhaps he’d imagined it; it seemed too unreal. He felt like going back to check he hadn’t been mistaken. But the knotted feeling in the pit of his stomach told him it was real all right.
Angus saw a pigeon and lurched violently towards it, twisting mid-lunge as the lead snapped him back. A few minutes later, they were in the park. Tom let Angus off the lead and the little dog charged off chasing an invisible prey. Being a sunny day during the half-term week, the park was predictably busy with children shrieking, boys playing football, grown-ups playing Frisbee. An ice cream van played its shrill tune; an elderly lady with a Yorkshire terrier tried to shoo Angus away. He wandered along the tarmac path and alongside the green wicker fence behind which was a café and an ankle-high paddling pool. He paused and watched the small children splashing in the sun-reflected water. He remembered Charlotte as a toddler doing exactly the same, while he and Julie sat sipping coffee wearing sunglasses to shield their eyes from the painfully white plastic tables. From the path, Tom cut across the grounds and breathed in the smell of the freshly cut grass. He headed for the large ancient oak tree that dominated the middle of the park, now in its full glory; its huge branches casting long shadows across the large expanse of neat grass. Only the scattering of litter spoilt the effect. It was, apparently, a red oak, not that Tom knew one oak tree from another, but he’d always loved the gritty lines of the bark, the twisted and gnarled branches.
Over the years, it’d become their tree, the Searight tree. Charlotte still used it as a reference point when taking Angus out for a walk. When she was a toddler, Tom used to hide round the sturdy trunk and play peek-a-boo with her while Julie lay on the grass watching them, smiling with maternal contentment. In the days before Charlotte, Julie and he often used to take an early evening stroll during the summer weekends. Hand in hand, they’d wander up to the tree and lie within its shadows and idle away the time. Tom had always been tempted to carve his and Julie’s initials into the bark. He smiled at the memory, stopped a few yards short of the tree, and sat down cross-legged within its looming shadow.
He looked at the book he’d taken from the briefcase. A strange little coincidence: it was a book on the First World War. Well, at least they had more than just his wife in common. Flinging the book to one side, he lay back, closed his eyes, and listened to the gentle breeze wafting through the leaves high above him. Meanwhile, Angus busied himself in his olfactory pursuits, occasionally checking back with his master, making sure it wasn’t time to go yet.
Tom tried to think, but his mind was still a blank, his senses devoid of any comprehensible feeling. A strange numbness covered him like a lethargic blanket denying him any semblance of emotion or reaction. She was having an affair; he had failed her. Why was she doing this? He sighed; he’d failed her. The enormity of it suddenly hit him as his heart squeezed inside, leaving him gasping for breath, his eyes pricking on the brink of crying. Burying his face in his hands, he tried to hold back the tears.
‘Tom? Are you all right?’
Angus barked. Tom opened his eyes to see a pair of feet in sandals with a ring around the left middle toe. Recognising the high-pitched voice, he looked up. ‘What?’ It was Rachel, Abigail’s mother, looking resplendent in a pink top and pale trousers. ‘I’m s-sorry,’ he stuttered, sitting up.
‘My God, Tom, what on earth’s wrong?’
‘It’s nothing, it’s... Just some bad news, that’s all.’
‘Are you crying?’ Uninvited, she kneeled down facing him.
‘No, no. It’s fine, really.’
He’d known Rachel for years but it had been a few months since he last saw her. He vaguely recognised a smartly dressed man hovering nearby, in neatly pressed chinos, polished brown leather shoes and an expensive shirt masquerading as casual wear. Seemingly overdressed for the park, his attire appeared at odds with his earrings and his beard dyed blue. Rachel looked embarrassed and twirled a long slender finger around a strand of her shoulder-length hair coloured different shades of red. ‘I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have disturbed you.’
‘Doesn’t matter,’ said Tom, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. She looked thinner than ever and as attractive as always with her bright lipstick and huge smile. Coughing to clear his throat, he asked whether Charlotte was behaving herself.
‘You’re asking me?’ She looked genuinely puzzled.
‘Yes, isn’t she with Abigail?’
‘No, why? Should she be?’
‘Yes, she said she was seeing Abigail this afternoon. She left about an hour ago.’
Rachel shook her head. ‘I’m sorry, Tom,’ she said softly, ‘but Abigail’s out for the day. She’s visiting her granny in Lewisham. And I certainly haven’t seen Charlotte; Adrian and I only left the house a few minutes ago. Oh, by the way, this is Adrian.’
The man with the blue beard was stroking Angus. Yes, thought Tom, he’d seen him once at Tom’s place of work; he’d come to see his boss. The man stood up and briefly acknowledged Tom before announcing, ‘I’m off to get us an ice cream. Do you fancy one, mate?’
‘No, you’re all right, thanks,’ said Tom.
Bluebeard sauntered off, hands in pockets, jangling his loose change.
‘So tell me, how’s Julie?’ asked Rachel. Tom grimaced at the question as the slithered vision of his wife with some strange man flashed across his mind. He tried to cover it up with a smile, but she’d spotted it. ‘Something’s wrong, isn’t there?’ she asked softly, her head tilted earnestly to one side.
‘Nothing. Really,’ he replied, too quickly, avoiding eye contact.
She glanced around, as if making sure Bluebeard was out of earshot. ‘Come on, Tom Searight, I’ve known you long enough and well enough to know when something’s not right. Tell me, what’s up?’
He could feel his eyes pricking again. He couldn’t cry; not in front of Rachel; not in front of her. He didn’t want to tell her but he knew that she, of all people, would understand and he knew one way or another, she would winkle it out of him. He always used to tell her everything. And right now, he needed someone to take his side, to sympathise.
‘Tom?’ He could tell she was dying to know, desperately trying not to appear too eager.
He could feel his heart pounding within. ‘I think she’s seeing someone.’ The words came quickly as if trying to deny their existence. And why, he wondered, had he said, “I think”, as if implying there was still room for doubt? What clearer evidence did a man need?
He caught her immediate reaction, the gleeful glint in those hazel eyes, the suppressed smile. ‘Oh dear, I am sorry.’ She didn’t mean it; he could tell. ‘I knew something was wrong. You poor thing, how long have you known?’
There was no room for doubt in Rachel’s mind, no acknowledgement of his “I think”. Tom looked at his watch in mock seriousness. ‘About half an hour,’ he said, sardonically.
‘Oh my word, how did you find out?’
‘I... I just did.’ He couldn’t tell her, not that; it was too humiliating. ‘I’m still in shock, I suppose. I don’t know what to do.’ He rubbed his eyes again, taking a deep breath. ‘I just don’t know what to do,’ he repeated to himself with a sigh.
Rachel put on that familiar half-smile of sympathy. ‘I understand,’ she said, nodding earnestly. ‘Look, later on, why don’t you come back to mine and–’
‘No, no, it’s all right, I just... you know.’
She nodded again. ‘Look, I can see you need some space, but I’m still at the same place. I’m sure you haven’t forgotten my number.’ No, thought Tom, he hadn’t forgotten, it was still there, embedded in his memory. She ran her hand over his sleeve. ‘If you ever want to talk about it, give me a ring.’
‘Yeah, thanks, Rach.’
She lowered her head and peered up at him. ‘I mean it. Anytime, OK?’
‘I ought to go,’ he said, although he had no idea where to or why he ought to. Calling for Angus, he struggled to his feet, his whole body feeling suddenly rather heavy and awkward.
‘Lovely to see you again,’ said Rachel, with that huge painted smile of hers.
‘Yeah. You too.’ He turned to leave, conscious she was watching him as he strolled away, Angus bounding nearby.
‘Tom!’ shouted Rachel after him. ‘Your book.’ She scooped the book off the ground and looked at the title. ‘Reading about the First World War, are you? Isn’t that the history project they’re doing at school at the moment?’
Tom nodded. ‘I found it in the house.’
‘He was inside your...’ She stopped herself. ‘Oh dear.’ Opening the cover, she noticed the date label inside. ‘It’s a library book, from Valentine Road library. Do you know who he is?’ Tom shook his head. ‘Why don’t you use this to find out? Just take it back to the library, it’s only up the road.’
He looked at her. ‘Really?’
Bluebeard reappeared clutching two ice cream cones. ‘Here you are,’ he said gruffly, handing one to Rachel. ‘One pound, twenty.’
‘I think, Adrian, you’re meant to say “my treat”.’ She looked at Tom, smiling sympathetically at him. ‘Nice to see you again,’ she said softly.
Tom returned the smile and wondered whether she was also thinking about that time all those years ago.
Bluebeard licked his ice-cream, looking from one to the other. He seemed slightly ill at ease, thought Tom.
As Tom walked away from the oak tree with Angus at his side, he looked again at the book cover. The picture showed a soldier, rifle at the ready, leaning against a sloping muddy trench wall, gingerly peering into No Man’s Land. Tom hadn’t given a moment’s thought to the First World War for years, probably since he left school, and yet the subject seemed to be dominating the day, following him around like an unwanted companion. He glanced at the contents page: there was a chapter on the art and literature of the Great War, including, of course, the war poets. He flipped to the page and saw the familiar names: Brooke, Owen, Graves, Sassoon, and others he didn’t recognise. His eyes settled on a poem by Sassoon, one he knew bits of by heart. For some strange reason, he’d never forgotten the final stanza. Perhaps Charlotte could use it in her recital. He closed the book and muttered the words to himself: ‘“Have you forgotten yet? Look up and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget”.’
He looked at his watch; it was only a matter of four hours since he was standing in the mock trench in the museum. Four small hours. And in that time, his life had inexplicably changed. Four hours ago, he’d been a normal dad taking his daughter out to a museum, with a wife who loved him, or so he thought, and a happy, normal home to return to. In a matter of an afternoon, everything had been turned on its head. To what was he returning now? A manipulative, conniving daughter and a deceitful, adulterous wife. As he approached the library, Angus pulled on his lead and wagged his tail enthusiastically. At least someone seemed happy.
Presumably, thought Tom, if the man frequented Valentine Road library, it meant he was local. Looking at the date label again, Tom noticed the book was almost a fortnight overdue. He felt in his pocket and found a fifty pence piece. That should cover the overdue fine, he thought. He hadn’t been to a library for years and did not possess a library card. He tied Angus up to a wooden bench outside, promising the dog he’d only be a few moments, and went inside. It was a small, dark library with heavy wooden shelves and peeling notices; a typical municipal affair opened only a few hours per week. As he entered, he noticed a small display of books and pictures on football, a rack of videos and DVDs, and a sign with a large X over a picture of a mobile phone. The place was almost empty. A few users congregated around the shelves marked ‘Returned Books’. He approached the deserted counter. Behind it stood a young, tall, black girl, her white blouse neatly pressed, her hair tied tightly back. She smiled politely at him. ‘Can I help?’
‘Yes, I’m just returning this book.’
She opened the front cover, scanned the barcode with a light-pen and peered into the computer screen in front of her. ‘It’s a few days’ overdue, I’m afraid, and there’s another nine books due on the same day, I might as well renew all of them for you.’ She pressed a few buttons and the computer bleeped. ‘There,’ she said, ‘all due now on the twenty-third of June, that’s three weeks’ time. That’ll be nine pounds, please.’
‘How much?’ Tom had no idea library fines could be so expensive. ‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes sir, it’s fifteen pence per book per day, that’s ninety pence per book. Ten books altogether, so that’s nine pounds exactly,’ she said with a flourish.
‘Heck, can I pay next time?’
‘We’d rather you pay now, sir, otherwise it affects your borrowing rights.’
Typical, thought Tom; he screws my wife, I pay his library dues. Anyway, he needed to get the man’s name and address. He handed over a ten pound note, and, trying his best to sound casual, remarked: ‘I think you may have my old details on there, can you tell me what address you’ve got for me?’
‘I’m sorry, sir, I can’t because of the Data Protection Act, but I can confirm an address. What details do you think we have?’
This was going to be more difficult than anticipated. He tried to quickly think up a fictional address – the street next to his. ‘Er, twenty-four Crescent Road?’
‘No, that’s not it. Previous address?’ she asked, handing him back his change and a receipt.
‘Forty-four East Avenue?’
‘No, that’s not it either. Perhaps you should bring in some proof of address next time you’re in, like a gas bill or a recent bank statement.’
‘Can’t you just tell me?’
‘No, I’m sorry, sir, it’s the–’
‘Data Protection Act, I know.’ It hadn’t worked. £9 for nothing – no name, no address. ‘OK, thanks anyway,’ he said, turning away from the counter.
‘A pleasure, Mr Moyes.’
Tom stopped. Mr what? He knew that name. He turned back to face her. ‘What did you say?’
Tom’s odd reaction took the smile off her lips. ‘Erm, I said it was a pleasure.’
Mr Moyes? Wasn’t that the name of Charlotte’s history teacher? ‘Do you have my first name? I think it’s Mark.’ He wondered whether that sounded as ridiculous as he feared.
She glanced nervously at the screen. ‘Er, yes, sir, Mark.’
‘Oh bloody hell,’ Tom muttered under his breath.
‘Are you... you all right, Mr Moyes?’
But Tom had stormed out, clutching the one pound coin and the crumpled receipt, his head spinning. The young library assistant stared at the computer screen, trying to work out what she had said to suddenly upset Mr Moyes. He seemed quite nice at first – before he turned all weird on her.
The bright morning sun streamed through the thin curtains and into the bedroom. Tom opened his eyes, smiled at the prospect of another day off, and turned his head on the pillow to look at his still-sleeping wife. His stomach lurched at the sudden remembrance of the preceding day; those few seconds of somnolent morning optimism quickly draining away.
Why Mark Moyes?
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