Donna stared at the paper.
The paper stared back.
She quickly snatched up the biro before returning to stare at the dotted line.
The pen was slammed back down with an exasperated sigh.
The man opposite Donna watched this unfold with growing annoyance. She had been running through this sequence for seventeen long minutes, and the chorus of anguished sighs escaping her were enough to turn his knuckles white. If he had been aware of the turmoil inside her head he may have been more sympathetic. Though, judging by the throbbing vein in his right temple, perhaps not.
“Come on,” Donna thought. “Just sign it!”
She snatched the pen up once more. She immediately dropped it again. “No!” she thought angrily. “Not here, not on a train.”
She looked up at the man sat on the other side of the table. “What’s he so annoyed about?” she wondered. She didn’t wonder for too long. Her attention yet again snapped back onto the document in front of her. “If you’re not signing it,” she said to herself, “why even get it out?”
“I wanted to make sure I hadn’t forgotten it.”
“Who the Hell forgets divorce papers?!”
Donna could have gone on arguing with herself, but she knew first-hand just how stubborn she could be.
Deciding to, for the moment, blot out the thought of her divorce papers, Donna pulled out her mobile. She had three missed calls; one from someone probably trying to sell her something; one from her solicitor, presumably wondering whether she was going to sign today or next year; and the third was from her daughter. That was followed by a text: “Sorry, rang you by mistake.”
Donna sighed and lowered the phone. The papers smirked back up at her.
“I know,” she suddenly thought. She raised the phone again, scrolled through the contacts, and then dialled. He’ll know what to do, he always does. In the past, when there had been no one else, Daniel had always been willing to help.
The phone rang for two beats before he answered.
“What do you want?” his morose, prim voice asked.
“Danny!” she trilled, putting a finger in her ear to block out the rambling chorus of the train. “I need your –”
“What?” Donna snapped. His voice had sounded muffled, blocked out by a racket in the background. She couldn’t decide whether it sounded like the anguished screams of a horror movie, or children. Either way, for a moment Donna thought he had said –
“No,” Daniel repeated moodily. “No, I am not going to give you advice that you will just ignore.”
Donna shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “Who’s to say that’s why I’m calling?”
“We both know I’m right.”
“Oh, okay.” Donna said. “But I really need to talk to someone about this!”
“Then get a therapist,” Daniel said. She could just see the smirk spreading across his lips. “Besides,” he went on. “I can’t talk, I’m on the train.”
Her eyes lit up at this news. “Train? What train? Where are you going?”
“Arsehole of the world,” her bother replied.
“Chaffley-on-Sea?!” she exclaimed, loud enough to make the old man beside her wake with a start. “That’s where I’m going! Where are you? What carriage?”
“Wait! Wait! Who’s to say we’re on the same train?”
“Come off it,” Donna said with a laugh. “This is Chaffley-on-Sea! We were lucky to get a train this decade.” She stood up suddenly, scanning the rows of faces and backs of heads. “I’m coming to find you!” Donna declared, snatching her bag and coat from the overhead rack.
“No! No, don’t –!”
Ignoring him, she hung up and began hurrying down the aisle.
“Excuse me!” It was the petulant-looking man that had been sat opposite her. He was hailing after her, trying to get her attention. But Donna was already passing through the automatic doors, not even bothering to glance back.
When she reached the end coach, she waited for the train to pull into the next station. When it did, she quickly hopped off and then climbed into the next set of carriages. In a matter of moments, as the train lurched back into motion, she spotted her younger brother, hunkered down in his seat.
“Found you!” she declared, triumphantly plonking herself down beside him.
“You could have just waited ‘til we reached the station,” Daniel declared sulkily, staring down at his phone.
“You would have just run away.” She glanced over at him. “So, why are you going to Chaffley?”
“Why are you going to Chaffley?”
“Annie’s performing at some gala tonight, and I promised I’d go.”
“Same here,” Daniel said innocently.
Donna stared at her brother. “Really?” she asked. “But – but this is the sort of thing you hate!”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well, there’ll be people there,” Donna said. “You hate people!”
“I don’t hate people,” Daniel snapped. “I just wish there weren’t so many of them.” He gave her a sideways glance. “Aren’t you worried he’ll be there?”
Donna felt herself stiffen. “Does it matter?” she asked. The indifference in her voice sounded feigned even to her own ears.
Her brother shrugged. “Not to me.”
She hadn’t actually thought about him being there, which was stupid. Obviously, he was going to be there. Chaffley was his home now. It had been his home, in fact, ever since the pair had split. Just hours after learning his marriage had dissolved, Steven had retreated to the seaside town and found refuge on his daughter’s sofa. Donna had received this news with dismay. That meant he had Annie on his side already. She’d only listen to his side of the story, and once again Donna would be the villain.
Not that she wouldn’t want to hear what her mother had to say. In fact, she’d insist on it. That was probably the only reason she had offered to give her a lift from the station. That was a conversation Donna was dreading. Just what would she say? “I’m divorcing your dad because . . . I want to?”
What sort of a reason was that? Not one her daughter would accept.
The pair sat like that for the rest of the journey. Daniel, relishing the silence, spent most of it staring out the window. Occasionally he would glance down at his phone, a curious look on his face. Whilst Donna, almost forgetting her brother sat next to her, was lost in her own thoughts. She rested a protective hand over her bag.
Twenty minutes later the train rumbled slowly into the final station. Daniel stared out the window, glaring at the platform. “We’re here,” he announced.
“Yes,” Donna said with a sigh. “How are you getting to town?”
“Cab,” he replied, standing up.
“Annie’s picking me up,” Donna explained. “You could always get a lift with us –”
Daniel smiled sarcastically. “No, no,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to get in the way of your reunion.”
She glowered at her brother and his smug look. Sometimes, she thought, he could be a real dick.
Annabelle didn’t even look up as her mum clambered into the passenger seat. She finished the text she was typing, tucked the phone into her pocket, then finally glanced over at Donna.
“Ready?” she asked, the tone in her voice practically giving Donna frostbite.
“Just a minute!” Donna answered, struggling to clip the belt around her. The moment she heard the click as it locked, Annie started the car and swept away from the curb. She ignored her mother’s instinctive hiss of disapproval as the car bolted down the road, oblivious to what a speed-limit might be.
And, for a few moments, that’s how it stayed. The pair wallowing in a frosty silence. Annie watched the road, now and then shooting her mother a glance. And Donna stared out the window, watching her childhood town zoom past in a blur. The only fixed constant was the pearl blue sea on the horizon. She watched that, as she had done as a teenager, and let herself drift along the currents of her memory.
“I don’t get it,” Annie suddenly exclaimed, releasing what had been pent up too long and yanking Donna back into reality with a sharp tug. “What happened?” she asked.
“Nothing happened,” Donna admitted.
“Did he do something?”
“Did you do something?”
“No!” Donna yelled, shocked her daughter could even imagine such a thing. She squirmed in her seat, all too aware she had nowhere to go. “The thing about your dad and me . . . well, the only thing we had in common was that we liked sleeping together. And we even lost that common ground ten years ago.”
“Is that it?” Annie asked, turning a furious glance towards her mum. “Twenty-five years, and the only thing that kept it going was . . . sex?!”
“Why not?” Donna asked innocently. “It’s why we got married.” Annabelle rolled her eyes. “You have to remember,” she went on. “Things were different when we were younger.”
“In the nineties?” Anna scoffed. “They were hardly going to chuck me down a well if I was born out of wedlock, mum!”
“I’m not saying we were forced to get married,” Donna said. She was getting flustered now, trying to explain something even she only half understood. “It was the opposite, actually. Your nan always described him as like a sock, but with less charisma. But, we were in our early twenties, I was up the duff, and he’d just got a new job. We thought we were on a roll. But, that’s all we had: a pumped-up libido, a crappy job in a chip-shop, and a baby neither of us planned on having.”
“I can crash, you know?”
“I didn’t mean it horribly,” Donna said, waving her hand irritably. “It’s just . . .” she sighed. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “I guess you just have to live it to understand.” She looked at her daughter, and the look of angered confusion twisting her features. “Although, I hope that never happens.”
“You’re right,” Anna said after a moment, pulling up at a red light. “I don’t understand how you can just throw twenty-five years away because . . . just because!”
Donna opened her mouth to respond, but then thought better of it. A few moments later, however, she changed her mind and turned to speak. But, realising she still had nothing to say, she changed her mind back again.
Just what could she say? That it was a mutual decision? That certainly wasn’t true. Steven still loved her, in his own odd and detached way. He wasn’t the sort to make a fuss about that sort of thing, but he would still put her before his other passion: The Evening Standard crossword.
He didn’t stand in the way of her doing anything; there was nowhere else in the world she wanted to visit, and if there had he’d always want to go just as much as her; she definitely did not want anymore kids, Annie was enough for a dozen lifetimes; And Steven had never got in the way of her career. In fact, she wouldn’t be two years away from becoming a senior partner if it hadn’t been for his support.
He was, in fact, the ideal husband. Just not hers.
“Have you signed the papers yet?” Annie asked, her voice strained like the taut string of a violin.
“Not yet,” Donna admitted, patting her bag protectively.
“Why not?” The accusatory meaning struck Donna like a knife.
Her face began to turn red and she stammered anxiously. “Well – I mean – it’s not like – I’ve only just –”
“Dad got his last week.”
“Has he signed it?”
“Why haven’t you signed yours?” Annie asked, ignoring her mother.
“Look, just because I haven’t –”
“The only reason you wouldn’t have signed it,” Annie went on, talking over Donna and only just swerving the car out of the way of an old lady crossing the road, “is if you didn’t actually want –”
“Fine! I’ll sign it now; will that make you happy?” Donna suddenly exclaimed, her face molten red and the blood thundering in her ears. Annie said nothing. Donna couldn’t help feeling that she had just lost a significant battle. Ignoring this thought, she plunged her hand into the bag.
She felt around for several moments.
She lifted the bag up and, with her heart racing faster than an ascot-winning racehorse, stared into its depths.
“Oh! Fuck me sideways and slap me silly!”
Annie stared at her with wide eyes. “Mum!”
“I’ve left my fucking divorce papers on the train!”
“You’ve done what?!”
“We have to go back!”
“The train’s not going to still be there!”
“We need to go back!”
Annie rolled her eyes, heaved a sigh and then performed a U-turn that nearly put half a dozen other drivers in hospital. Not that Donna noticed. She was staring out the window again, though this time she saw nothing. She was too wrapped in her own thoughts. Thoughts that always ran the same lines. Was she right? About anything? As she watched Chaffley pass on by, she questioned every decision she’d made that had brought her to this point.
Just as Annabelle had said, and Donna had feared, the train was not sat patiently waiting in the platform for her to return. Nor was there a knight in shining rail-guard’s uniform standing by with her divorce papers in hand. What there was, however, was a crusty-faced rail-attendant who had no desire to prove helpful.
The papers were more than likely lost for good, he had mumbled, his eyes twinkling slightly as Donna’s shoulders slumped with despair. Still, he had given her a number to call and, with any luck, she would only be on hold for the better part of three hours.
The mother and daughter had driven away from the station in a silence frosty enough to sink a luxury cruise-liner. Donna made several attempts to get hold of her solicitor, however, that was the weekend she had chosen to go on a yoga-retreat in the Yorkshire Dales. After leaving the seventeenth voice-mail message, Donna decided to give up on that front.
With venom in her voice, Annie asked if she’d like to come watch a rehearsal. Donna, her mind half-a-mile and twenty-five years away, automatically said that would be nice. It wasn’t until she was in the town hall, sat on a foldable chair, that she realised what horror she’d signed up for.
But, trying to not listen to her daughter’s band practice gave her ample time to give some thought to her situation. She sat back, folded her arms, put on an expression of pleasant interest, and then lost herself in the quagmire of her inner thoughts.
Maybe this is a good thing.
How? She asked herself bitterly.
Well, divorce is a big step.
So was getting married, but I never heard you pipe up then!
But, back then, she had been certain. She had been certain about most things, in fact. What nineteen year old wasn’t? After being told about the baby Steven had instantly proposed, and Donna had just as quickly said yes. After all, why wouldn’t she? She had been young, pregnant, and in love. At least, she had believed she was in love. She’d believed that for a long time. She may have gone on thinking that to this very day. If it hadn’t been for that one night she might have avoided this whole mess. The night the illusion cracked.
A girl from Donna’s office, back when she had been working at that printing firm, had just got engaged. She and Steven had gone along to the party, at that point nine years into their own glorious union, and still grateful for any excuse to get out of the child-dominated flat. Some of the glamour of the marriage had worn off, but she had yet to even consider doubting her decision. And then she saw them.
The party was held in a small, local pub and was packed with friends, family, and anyone else the couple had thought would bring along a gift. But, to Alice and John, no one else existed. Sure, they played their parts, they made the rounds of guests and acted like gracious hosts. But when they were parted, even for a handful of minutes, their heads would spin and their eyes would home in one another across the crowd. And, when together, their eyes never left the other’s face. Donna saw in their looks an ocean of feeling and devotion that she had never imagined. Books, poets and films had all tried to nail down the burning phenomena that was love, and Donna had thought she’d understood. But no explanation was quite as exact, or as undeniable, as the simple image of John and Alice, hand in hand, and losing themselves in each other’s eyes.
When was the last time she had looked at Steven like that? Had she ever? That was the first night Donna saw the fractures in the foundations of her life.
She didn’t go to the wedding.
Donna’s head snapped up. The hawking voice dragged her back up memory lane and into the present.
Annie was standing on the makeshift stage, one hand on her hip and her eyebrows raised questioningly. The other two band members stood behind her, shifting awkwardly.
“Yes?” Donna asked innocently.
“Were you even listening?” Annabelle snapped.
“Of course!” She’d gotten good at lying over the years. Not even her daughter could doubt the sincerity she saw in Donna’s face.
“And?” Annie asked. “What did you think?” She looked at Donna with the eyes of a sixteen-year-old looking for her mother’s not-too-honest opinion.
“It was good,” Donna said. “Except for you,” she added, nodding to the band member with the nose-stud and his hair in a quiff. “You were a bit slow.”
“Told you,” Annie snapped quietly.
Whilst the other two members of the band began to pack up, Donna sidled up to her daughter. “Look,” she said, anxiously fiddling with the straps of her handbag. “There’s a still a few hours before this show –”
“It’s not a ‘show’,” Annie said impatiently. “It’s a charity gala!”
“Whatever,” Donna said. “Either way, it’s not going to start for a while, so why don’t we go and grab something to eat?”
“I can’t,” Annie said, not meeting her mother’s gaze. “I’ve got to go to work.”
“Work? I thought you had the day off?”
“Yeah, well, Lucas asked me to come in for a couple of hours,” Annie explained quickly. “Needs my help with something.”
“Oh, right, well, no helping that then.”
The two women stood there, stewing in that familiar, awkward silence. “I might try that new café we passed,” Donna suddenly said. “It wasn’t open the last time I was here.”
“No!” Annie exclaimed, loud enough to make the other band members swear in surprise. “Not there!”
Donna frowned at her daughter. “Why not?”
“They – they always play Ska music!”
“Oh,” Donna said. “Oh, well, not there then.” She shrugged. “I’m – I’m sure I’ll find a place.”
“Just don’t forget,” Annie said, making her way to the door. “Be back for half-seven!”
“Don’t worry, I won’t forget.”
She ended up being forty-five minutes late. But that was through no fault of her own, it was entirely down to the town. She had been overwhelmed, shocked, in fact. When she was younger Chaffley-on-Sea had been a tip; a depressing black hole people yearned to escape. Now it looked like . . . well, a town! There was even a Pret where old Spiro’s Café used to be. She’d often went there with Steven. They’d sit and talk for hours about how they couldn’t wait to leave shitty old Chaffley behind. Of course, what they’d actually do with their lives once leaving was never spared a thought. Thinking about the future was a problem for later.
She’d spent a lot of time in that café on her own as well. She had hoped to spend some more time in there, gather her thoughts and come to a decision, like she had done in the old days. It had been easy back then. But it wasn’t Spiro’s anymore. It was just another Pret: full of people on their laptops, gossiping teenagers, and office workers enjoying their paninis.
Donna sat in the corner, a latte sitting ignored, and the demolished remains of a muffin waiting to be swept away. Her solicitor had finally returned her call. Donna let it go to voicemail. She didn’t listen to the message. She tried calling Daniel again, several times. He kept hanging up on her, eventually forcing her to take the hint.
In the end she had simply sat there, wondering what had driven her to stick it out for twenty-five years. Stubbornness, of course. She had been determined to prove her parents wrong and make it work. Of course she had seen the warning signs from the beginning. You couldn’t agree to marry someone, and have their child, without learning a few key facts along the way. But, she had thought, no one was perfect. As the years went by, and Donna got older, she found that love just seemed the easier choice. Because she genuinely believed she loved Steven. Even after Alice and John’s party, she still believed. Her love was just calmer. More subdued. More tepid. Yet nevertheless, it was love.
She kept believing that until seven months ago.
One morning she had been watching him eat breakfast. He was sat in the same chair, eating the same breakfast, and she was sure he was going to say the same thing: “Weather better hold out today.” And Donna remembered thinking: “That’s it. I can’t do this anymore.”
There was no fanfare with this thought, no resounding sense of achievement. She merely thought it with a tired sense of defeat.
She had been brought out of her reverie by a barista loudly clearing away her debris. Donna glanced quickly around the room. She was the only person left. “Shit,” she whispered, glancing at her watch.
It had just gone seven o’clock. Although many things had changed about Chaffley-on-Sea, one that stayed exactly the same, was the fact you could never get a cab when you needed one.
Just as the clock reached seven-forty-three, Donna had stumbled into the town hall. Annie was already on stage, partway through a song, and was completely oblivious to her mother’s tardiness. That suited Donna down to the ground.
At four minutes past eight, she had heard enough. Donna stepped out of the hall and pushed the doors shut, somewhat muting the music within.
“Why’d I give up smoking?” she thought bitterly.
Whilst Annie may have missed her mother’s late appearance, someone certainly hadn’t: Steven.
That was a conversation Donna didn’t want to have, and it had taken all her self-control to get through it.
There was a twinge inside her. He hadn’t looked how she had imagined. He looked . . . good. Well, as good as a man can look after having spent the last couple of months sleeping on his daughter’s settee. But he wasn’t as changed as she had thought. He just looked like the same old Steven, and it had been comforting.
She leaned back against the wall and stared up at the flickering bulb above. “Why?” she murmured.
Donna’s head snapped round, her heart trying to pop out of her chest and the scream already halfway up her throat. A man was standing a few feet away, fiddling awkwardly with an envelope in his hand and watching Donna nervously. “Sorry,” he said lamely.
“Are you trying to kill me?” Donna asked sourly.
“Sorry,” the man said again, taking a small step forward. She instinctively made her own minor retreat. “Are you Mrs. Donna Mangle?” He held the envelope up defensively. A small flicker of recognition began to smoulder in her mind.
“That’s me,” she said carefully.
“Then,” the man said, shifting awkwardly on the tips of his toes. “I think this is yours.”
Donna’s eyes lit up and her mouth dropped open as she finally recognised what the man was holding. “My divorce papers!” she exclaimed, joyously tearing them out of his hands.
“That’s what it is?” the man said, confused alarm appearing on his face. “And you left them on a train?!”
“Oh – well, the thing is – hang on,” she said, suddenly shoot him a sharp glare. “How did you get it?”
“I was sat opposite you on the train,” the man explained. “I tried to call you back, but – well, you ignored me.”
“So, you decided you’d track me down instead?” Donna asked. She quickly made a mental stock of every possible weapon she had in her hand-bag. The man didn’t look crazy, but you could never trust a man’s innocent expression. “Why not just hand it to the station guards?”
“I did think about that,” the man said. “But – let’s just say – they didn’t look like the brightest bunch.”
Donna chuckled and nodded. “I wouldn’t trust them to take out the bins,” she admitted. The pair stood and continued to laugh quietly, their eyes flickering over one another. Donna fiddled with the unsealed lip of the envelope. “Sorry,” she said eventually. “I didn’t get your name?”
The man smiled. It was a nice smile, Donna thought. Sure, his hair was rapidly running away from his forehead. And maybe his gut was straining the belt to breaking point, and obviously there was an age difference. But he seemed nice. So, maybe . . .
“It’s Bruce,” the man said.
Maybe not, she thought.
“Well . . . Bruce,” Donna said, straightening herself up. “How did you end up finding me?”
“It wasn’t easy,” Bruce said with a nervous laugh. “I tried following you on the train, but well –” he looked down at his inflated stomach. “Things got in the way slightly.” He went on to explain how, when the train reached Chaffley, he hadn’t been able to catch sight of Donna anywhere on the platform, nor out by the taxi rink. Through a swift Google search, he had found the telephone number of the office listed on the envelope’s return address. The office, however, had been closed. Eventually he had been left with no choice but to go about his original business, hoping all the while to catch sight of either Donna, or a clue that would lead to her whereabouts.
Finally, just as he was about to head back to the train station, and with the lost envelope almost forgotten in his briefcase, he had caught sight of a flyer for that evening’s charity gala. “It was seeing the name Annabelle Mangle that caught my eye,” Bruce concluded. “I thought that it wasn’t too common of a surname, so it couldn’t hurt to pop by and see if I had any luck.”
“Seems you did,” Donna said, flicking the corner of the envelope. They stood together for a moment longer.
“So,” Bruce said, breaking the silence. “Is she a relation . . .?”
“Daughter,” Donna answered.
“Ah, yes, of course,” he said, nodding. “I have a son, personally.”
“That must be nice.”
Bruce cleared his throat awkwardly, stuffed his hands into his pockets and then flashed Donna a limp smile. “Well, I guess I’d best head back to the station,” he declared. “Don’t want to miss the last train.”
“Yes, no, you don’t,” Donna said, tearing her eyes away from the documents. “Thank you, again. Really, you’ve saved my life.”
“Oh, well, it was nothing,” Bruce said, insincerely brushing the comment away. “Best of luck with it all then,” he said, nodding to the envelope.
Bruce gifted her another gawky grin, then turned and began tramping down the corridor. Donna watched him, then turned back to the door. Through the window she was able to spot Steven. He was paying her no attention. His eyes were focused on Annie on stage, a broad grin on his face. Any minute now, Donna thought, he’s going to start dancing. She couldn’t help smiling at that. She didn’t know anyone who danced quite as badly as he did. He stayed rooted to one spot whilst flapping his arms around. That was the first she ever saw of Steven Mangle. He had been standing in the centre of the dance floor, an empty circle around his flailing arms. His dancing had led to her friend Gill getting a broken nose. They’d both laughed at that, Gill hadn’t, but they had. After that they’d got chatting and . . . well, the rest was history.
She rested her hand against the door, torn between what she had to do.
“Bruce?” she called, looking again at his retreating back.
He turned around, his smile broadening. “Yes?” he asked eagerly.
Donna’s eyes flitted back to the door. “Do you have a pen?”