If she called, he was going to say yes. That was that. No more thinking or worrying; it would be a simple ‘Yes’.
Daniel glanced at his phone.
Why the Hell wasn’t she calling?
“It’s a slam-dunk, Danny-boy!” That’s what his agent, Colin, had said, through a mouthful of nicotine gum. “Better start packing!”
That had been a week ago and, so far, there had been nothing more.
Why hadn’t she called yet?!
Why did he still have that agent? Colin was probably the biggest hinderance to his career. He had once been given an opportunity to write for Casualty; but, thanks to Colin, he had been sent to the wrong building. In the wrong town. On the wrong day. Yet the pair had been together since the very beginning, and Daniel had a crippling difficulty with letting things go. That was exactly why he was sat on this train hurtling him back into the arse-end of nowhere.
As he stared out the window, watching the train roll further and further away from respectable civilisation, he tried to concoct an excuse. A reason for travelling so far. It was bad that he was doing this in the first place; but to do it without a proper explanation?
His mind was just mixing together something that might have sounded half believable, when his phone began vibrating in his hand. His heart rocketed into his throat and his eyes snapped down. The excitement was short-lived, however, when he spotted his sister’s name flashing on the screen.
Daniel immediately answered it, hoping to get rid of her just as quickly.
“What do you want?” he snapped.
“Danny!” she exclaimed. He frowned. There were two things that troubled him; one, there was an almighty racket in the background of Donna’s call, almost as if she was standing in the middle of a hectic high street. And, secondly, his sister only ever sounded that pleased to hear from him when she wanted something. Given that she was currently going through a divorce, long overdue in Daniel’s opinion, she could only want one thing. “I need your –”
There was a brief pause on the other end. “What?” she eventually snapped, sounding like her usual self.
“No,” Daniel said again. “No, I am not going to give you advice that you will then ignore!”
“Who’s to say that’s why I’m calling?”
Daniel barked with laughter. Some of the neighbours in his carriage looked up at him angrily. It was already bad enough they were travelling to Chaffley-on-Sea, but they’d be damned if they’d suffer someone enjoying it. “We both know I’m right,” he said, lowering his voice slightly.
“But I really need to talk to someone about this!”
“Then get a therapist!” Daniel snarled. Shit, he thought. What if, right now, Vivian from the LPN Network was trying to get hold of him? What if, yet again, he was going to miss out on the opportunity of his career? “I can’t talk, I’m on the train,” he added, already moving his thumb to end the call.
“Train? What train? Where are you going?”
“Arsehole of the world,” Daniel replied, banging his head against the window as he was throttled closer to that hateful dead-end.
Daniel’s head snapped up. He knew that tone. He didn’t hear it often, but it still sent a shiver down his spine. His sister was excited. “That’s where I’m going! Where are you? What carriage?”
Panic took command of his system. He rocketed to his feet, almost concussing himself on the overhead baggage area. “Wait! Wait!” he exclaimed, oblivious to the murderous stares he received from his fellow travellers. “Who’s to say we’re on the same train?”
But he knew it was fruitless. His sister, once she had made up her mind to do something – something no one else wanted her to do – would stop at nothing until it was accomplished.
Donna was on her way.
For several minutes he stood in the aisle, paralysed by indecision. Where could he go? He was on a bloody train! He could always get off at the next stop. And then what? Not go to Chaffley? Going was a pretty stupid idea, but the thought of not going . . .
In the end, and much to the annoyance of the woman sat opposite, Daniel fell back into his seat. He tried to hunker down enough that, should his sister appear, she would walk past without seeing him.
Daniel cursed his catastrophic bad luck as Donna conquered the seat beside him.
“You could have waited ‘til we reached the station,” he murmured.
“You would have just run away,” Donna said, quite accurately. “So, why are you going to Chaffley?”
Damn it, he thought. I’m a writer! This should be easy. Just make something up!
“Why are you going to Chaffley?” he eventually asked, stalling for time.
“Annie’s performing at some gala tonight, and I promised I’d go.”
Eureka, Daniel thought. Living vicariously through other people was second nature to writers, and this was no exception. “Same here,” he declared. He became all too aware of her disbelieving stare. “Really? But this is the sort of thing you hate!” she exclaimed. “There’ll be people there, and you hate people!”
Daniel bristled at this accusation. “I don’t hate people,” he said. “I just wish there weren’t so many of them.” He gave her a sideways glower. “Aren’t you worried that he’ll be there?”
This time it was Donna that bristled. “Does it matter?” she snarled, not even trying to sound indifferent.
The siblings submerged into a gloomy silence. Well, he thought. How long am I going to get away with that excuse? Who cares? It’s enough to keep Donna out of his business for now. He could try and put some effort into a proper one later. He risked a glance at his older sister. She had a faraway look in her eyes, and was chewing anxiously on her bottom lip. Daniel quickly looked away. For as long as he could remember, Donna had been as resolute as a concrete pillar; and about as interesting as one. Seeing her in such a condition made him feel uncomfortable. Perhaps now wasn’t the best time to move to a completely different country. After all, he had been waiting years for her to leave that moron. Now the day had finally arrived, was he really going to give up his chance to enjoy it? Studying her in the reflection of his phone screen, he realised it wasn’t going to be quite as fun as he had hoped.
Stop worrying about her, he thought angrily. You’ve got your own problems. Yeah, never mind coming up with a fake excuse; how about coming up with a real reason for this bloody trip.
As his thoughts whirled like an out-of-control carousel, Daniel repeatedly glared down at the phone, hoping that Vivian from LPN would call and offer a hand of stability. He had no such luck. After twenty minutes that felt like a decade, the train crawled into the bleak carcass that served as Chaffley’s only station. Donna, with an almost pleading look in her eyes, offered to have her daughter give Daniel a lift. He eagerly declined. He was already trying to orchestrate one awkward reunion today; he didn’t need to be present at another.
Before the train had even lumbered to a stop, Daniel was already pouncing from his seat. He was the first to launch through the doors and, ignoring Donna’s shouted goodbyes, he was throwing himself into the closest taxi.
The grizzled driver glowered at him in the rear-view mirror.
“Where to?” he asked, his throat full of phlegm.
Daniel considered this question. He had her address – for her work, nothing sinister. But turning up announced? That would certainly take him into the creep category. He hadn’t even worked out why he was here; real reason or fake. In the end, he heaved a world-weary sigh. “I need a drink,” he declared.
The driver gave him an odd look before shrugging and pulling away from the station.
The taxi pulled up outside The King’s Cheek and Daniel sighed. He shouldn’t have been surprised, but as a teetotaller, he often forgot that people needed something stronger than a flat white to get through the day. Being too embarrassed to correct the man, and because he was eager to escape the stench of onions and pilchards, Daniel clambered out of the taxi.
When the car was out of sight, he turned away from the dreary looking pub and made his way down the street. As Daniel trudged on, he felt his thoughts begin to cocoon the inside of his head. “Try and view it like a story you’re writing,” he told himself. “If one of your characters was doing this, what reason would you give them?”
He shuddered as one word immediately jumped forward. “Closure,” he murmured through gritted teeth. That was fine for stories, but you couldn’t live in the real world by following clichés. People didn’t really turn up, unannounced, at the workplace of someone they hadn’t seen in decades. At least not on purpose.
Would it really matter if he moved to America without seeing her? Daniel fell still. What was with that ‘if’? Hadn’t he already decided to go?
But she hadn’t called yet.
“She’s going to call,” he muttered quietly, nestling the phone in the palm of his hand. But, if she did . . . was he going to say yes?
Shaking his head angrily, Daniel ducked into the first café he saw. His mind was still squirming from that uncomfortable revelation as he approached the two baristas. One immediately vanished to the back of the shop, whilst the second, with his back turned to Daniel, peered down at his phone.
“Ahem,” Daniel said, loud enough to make the nearby display of cups rattle.
When the barista turned his welcoming smile towards him, Daniel felt his eyebrows shoot up. He had to fight every urge in his body to not burst into peels of laughter. He took in the gaudy-coloured t-shirt, the coffee-stained apron, and the crooked name badge, and then looked back into the eyes of his soon-to-be ex-brother-in-law.
“I always thought you were lying about that marketing firm,” Daniel declared, realising too late how deep he had plunged himself into the arctic waters of awkwardness.
Steven Mangle, a man on the unflattering end of his fifties, burst into a good-humoured chuckle. “No, no,” he said. “I chucked all that in.”
“And decided to enter the high-stakes, cutthroat world of coffee making?” Daniel said. He glowered as Steven laughed again. He always did that. Every time Daniel tried to telegraph just how much he disliked the man, Steven treated it all as a joke.
As the pair continued to make idle, uncomfortable small-talk, Daniel let his mind wander. He’d gotten quite skilled at that. Having a conversation with Steven didn’t take much intellectual investment. The man could be entertained by a coatrack.
Not for the first time, Daniel wondered how this man could have gone through nearly three decades without realising that his wife had absolutely no passion for him. Who’s to say he hadn’t? Perhaps he had, just once. Had it been in the middle of the night? Had he been woken by the burning glow of the streetlights filtering through the curtains, revealing her pale back turned towards him. Had he, in that brief moment spent drifting between slumber and consciousness, realised that for their whole relationship his wife had had her back turned towards him? Had he been offered a chance at clarity, but instead embraced ignorance?
Daniel made a mental note to remember that image. It would be a good thing to explore when he decided to write something serious. But there was something that was bothering him about Steven. There was an odd glint in his eyes that made Daniel feel oddly self-conscious. Before he was forced to accept what the darker parts of his mind were telling him, and just as Steven handed him something that might be mistaken for coffee, they were joined a young man the barista seemed to recognise.
“Rhys!” Steven exclaimed. “I thought you were heading to rehearsals?”
“I was – I am,” the newcomer stammered, eyeing both Daniel and Steven nervously. “I just forgot my coffee.”
With the beaming smile of a child who’s just tied their own laces for the first time, the man passed over the abandoned coffee. “I’d like you to meet Annie’s uncle,” Steven continued, ignoring Rhys’ obvious attempt at escape. “This is Daniel Fayne. And Daniel, this is Rhys.”
Daniel gave the young man a cursory glance. He was lanky, dark-haired, and obviously going through the depressing stages of his twenties. “He’s in Annie’s band,” Steven added, as if this titbit would make him any more interesting.
“I’m overjoyed to have been a part of this,” Daniel declared, turning his attention back to his phone. The small amount of patience he had for Steven had long since boiled away.
“I’m guessing you’re Annie’s mum’s brother?” Rhys said, snorting awkwardly.
“You mustn’t think that’s the reason for his attitude,” Steven said. “Daniel’s miserable like this all the time.”
And, with that, even the vaporous remains of his patience disappeared. “Around you, anyway,” Daniel snarled, not looking up. “You got my sister pregnant, strong-arming her into marrying you.” He glanced up and, surprisingly, felt a little bad at seeing Steven’s face drain of colour.
“That’s not why we got married,” he said, attempting a laugh that rattled weakly in his throat.
“My mistake,” Daniel said, trying to shake the encroaching feeling of wretchedness. “It’s because you were the only boy in town with a bike, and she just found you irresistible when riding it.”
“You had a motorbike?” Rhys asked.
Dim, Daniel decided. Definitely a friend of his niece.
“It was a BMX, and I still have it, actually,” Steven admitted, as if it were his greatest achievement. Probably was, Daniel considered. His marriage certainly wasn’t worth boasting about, even before it collapsed. “Sure, Annie coming along played a part in us getting married; but, if anything, it just sped up what was always going to happen!” For a brief moment Daniel forgot about the phone in his hand, or the fact he had travelled all this way for reasons he still couldn’t quite admit. The sight of Steven’s face reddening, and the sheen of sweat beginning to appear on his brow transfixed him. This was a moment of pure art. “I loved Donna! That’s why I wanted to marry her!”
“I’m not saying you didn’t,” Daniel said. He knew he should have killed the conversation long ago, but it was like watching a man build a house of cards. You knew it was going to collapse, you knew someone would have to clean it up. But you couldn’t resist the chance to watch it come crashing down. “If she didn’t love me, then why did she stay with me all these years?!”
And there it was, in all its tragic glory. In the nearly thirty years that Daniel had known him, not once had he seen Steven in such a state. The back of his pastry-coloured hair was jabbing up, his eyes were bulging and bloodshot, and a blob of spittle was nestling in the corner of his mouth. All three men shifted uncomfortably.
“Things will turn out all right in the end,” Steven murmured, patting down his frantic hair. “They usually do.”
“What?” Daniel remarked. “You think you’re going to win her back?”
“It’s not a case of winning her back,” the middle-aged, almost-divorced man argued. “I just need to remind her of what she’s throwing away.”
Suddenly, a voice Daniel thought existed only in his head leapt out of his lips. “How are you going to do that?” It was cold and bitter and made Steven flinch. “I know you’ve tried calling her. I know you’ve sent her messages on Facebook, email, you even joined Twitter to try and talk to her!” Now he realised what it was about Steven that made him so uncomfortable.
“There’s always the charity gig tonight,” the pale young man beside him suggested, self-aware enough to look embarrassed at his own suggestion.
“And how’s that going to help?” Daniel asked, turning his venom towards a younger target. “You going to sing a romantic hit from the eighties and hope they slow-dance their way back into love?”
Rhys wilted under the glare.
“Maybe Donna just needs to see how happy I am!”
Daniel took a brief, unimpressed glance at Steven. From a more self-conscious man that would have sounded like an attempt at irony. Steven Mangle, however, didn’t possess that sort of intellect.
“How’s she going to do that? You know she hasn’t got much of an imagination.”
“You just watch!” Steven declared, a panicked desperation clinging to every word. Then, before reality could make a dent on him, he bolted from behind the counter and towards the back of the café.
“Poor bastard,” Daniel muttered. He suddenly glanced up, realising that he had spoken aloud. Unfortunately, that invited Rhys to think he was the sort of man who enjoyed small talk. For a friend of Annie’s, he was annoyingly chatty. Turning himself onto autopilot, Daniel turned his attention back onto Steven. For the greater part of their relationship, the man had only made Daniel mildly annoyed, and for the other part he had inspired a deep sense of pity. But, right now, the sight of Mangle made him furious.
The man was deluding himself into thinking the romps of classic films would work in real life when, in truth, they were the antics of stalkers and creeps. And, here he was, about to attempt the exact same thing.
“It’s not the same,” Daniel thought, bitterly.
Oh, yeah? What’s the difference?
“I’m not trying to win back someone who doesn’t love me anymore.”
Then what are you doing?
That was the problem. Daniel had no idea. Life wasn’t like one of his plays. He wasn’t going to lay eyes on her and suddenly the world would make sense for him. He’d still be the same bumbling moron, only, this time, he’d be standing in front of a woman he hadn’t seen for twenty years, and who had probably forgotten all about him. So, why did he still want to see her?
He felt as if the answer was just within reach when a woman who looked like she could glare a wall into falling down suddenly appeared. She launched into a tirade against a visibly terrified Rhys, which was very amusing, then rounded on Daniel. “We’re closed.”
There was no room for argument, and he was in no mood to do so. He drained the last of his coffee, then absconded from the café. He was so wrapped in his own thoughts that he nearly cannoned into a pair of pensioners.
“Sorry,” he murmured.
The man gave him a dazed look, whilst the woman gifted him a strained smile. “No harm done,” she mumbled. She tightened her grip on her husband’s arm, then went to push against the café door.
“They’re closed,” Daniel said.
The old woman frowned at him, then shot a glare at the café door. “But it’s barely past lunch!”
The writer shrugged. “I know, but they just kicked me out and said they were closing.” Deciding he had done enough charity today, Daniel turned and stomped down the street.
“Now what?” he mumbled to himself.
Home. That’s where he ought to be going. Go home and start packing for his big move that was definitely going to happen. He opened up the train timetable on his phone and, after a brief search, swore loudly. The next train out of Chaffley wasn’t until ten that night. Maybe a taxi then?
Ha! It would be cheaper just to buy a new car then pay that fare. He fell completely still. “Oh, shit,” he murmured. It was the only alternative. It was a stupid one, he’d be the first to admit that. But it was the only one he had, unless he wanted to spend nearly eight hours waiting on a windy train platform. Cursing the universe and its fondness for kneeing him in the privates, Daniel reluctantly made a U-turn.
Standing in the centre of the showroom, Daniel’s anxiety about seeing her again was all but extinguished by his overwhelming discomfort. He knew next to nothing about cars, and was sure he only passed his driving test because someone felt sorry for him. Parallel parking still gave him a mild panic attack. But it wasn’t just his lack of skill that irked him. There was something insidious about the whole car culture. It oozed out second-rate testosterone similar to pus out of a leaky boil. And now the human equivalent of that pustule was stalking his way towards him.
With a smile like an anaconda and a shop-bought tan that didn’t even reach his Adam’s-apple, Daniel instantly festered a dislike for the man. And, judging by the iciness in his eyes, the feeling was mutual. “Good afternoon, sir,” the salesman purred. “My colleague tells me you have a . . . specific requirement?”
“Yeah,” he responded, casually glancing at the assembled cars. “I was looking for a car.”
The salesman’s smile inched wider. “Ah, so you want to buy a car?” he asked.
Daniel shook his head, knowing that he was going to enjoy winding this man up. “No,” he said. “I asked your colleague if you had anything to rent.”
He couldn’t stop the smirk from creeping in when he saw the tic beneath the salesman’s right eye. “Rent?” the man said, the tone so chilly he was nearly spitting snow.
“That’s right,” Daniel said, stuffing his hands in his pockets. “I need to get to London, quickly. I don’t fancy waiting for the train.”
There was a moment of silence as the two men stared at one another. Daniel knew the salesman was using every ounce of his strength to stifle a scream of fury. “You want to . . . rent one of my cars?” the salesman repeated, his welcoming smile twitching with each painful word. “And how would you return it?”
Daniel shrugged, knowing this could be the one that earned him the punch in the jaw. “Maybe one of your assistants could drive down and pick it up? I only need it for tonight.”
His eyes quickly shot down. The man had more self-control than he’d thought. He hadn’t yet curled his hands into fists. “Firstly,” the man said through gritted teeth, “my sales associates are far too busy to go gallivanting down to London.” Daniel cast his eyes over the otherwise empty dealership. “And secondly,” the man went on, “we don’t rent cars here. We only sell them.”
He was just about to take another stab before he was interrupted by: “Daniel?!”
There she was, emerging from behind a Ford Focus. Daniel could almost hear the swell of the orchestra in the back of his mind. Almost. The dramatic moment still wasn’t enough to drown out the nocuous voice of the salesman.
“You know this guy?”
Daniel’s chest began to tighten, and felt a bead of sweat begin to dance down his spine. All the excuses and stories he had conjured up to explain his appearance were gone. Evaporated under the heat of her smile. “It’s been a while,” he said, hoping the tremble in his voice wasn’t noticeable. “Moley.”
She paused at this. Shit, he thought. After all this time, and he still can’t say her proper name?
“Yeah, yeah, it has,” she said, smiling.
“Moley?” the other man sneered. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Daniel was relieved to see she found the man just as insufferable as he did. Even critics weren’t as awful as this salesman. Watching her glower at him gave Daniel a feeling he only ever felt when he was writing. All the apprehension he had felt about this meeting was beginning to melt away.
Eventually the salesman took the hint and left the pair alone, though not without a venomous glare back at Daniel. “Must be a laugh a minute working here with a boss like that,” he said. Just what had he been worried about? It was as if he was a teenager again. This was going to be easier than –
“I don’t just work here; I co-own it,” Molly declared. And there it was. The weight of all the years passed fell back on his shoulders with a crash. Of course, things were never going to be easy. They’d lived whole lives since they’d last seen one another. Then again, he thought, it was only a crappy used car emporium. She couldn’t be that attached? “Also,” she went on, “Lucas and I are engaged.”
That revelation punched him in the gut. At least, it felt like it. He’d never been punched before, which was a miracle. But this news definitely felt like that.
“So,” Molly said, her voice taking a high, unfriendly tone. “What drags you back to Chaffley?”
No bloody clue. The words were actually on his lips, and it took reserves of strength he never knew he had to keep them from spilling out. There were some stupid people in the world, but doing this had to place him in the top twenty, at the very least. He took another glance at her. Every aspect was exactly as he remembered. The chestnut-coloured hair, her eyes that danced in the light, and the little mole on the left-hand side of her chin. It was all the same. Maybe the trip wasn’t a complete waste of time? Perhaps he could make her understand . . .
“Just saying goodbye, that’s all,” he said, turning away in what he hoped was a pointed and dramatic manner.
“Goodbye?” Molly scoffed, missing the point entirely. “You left – what is it? Seventeen years ago?”
“Eighteen, actually,” Daniel murmured.
Molly’s slight shrug sent a bolt of pain through him. That answers that then, he thought. “Why say goodbye now?” she asked.
“I’m moving away,” Daniel said, turning back to study her reaction. “To America.” Maybe, he added silently.
“A-America?” she said, laughing slightly. Just what did that mean? “But you always said you hated it there!”
“I hate a lot of things I do,” he said. Like this, right now. “I’ve got a job, you see,” he continued. “Writing for some new sitcom.”
He hadn’t expected the eruption of laughter. He shifted awkwardly as Molly slowly recovered. “You? Writing for an American sitcom?” she exclaimed. “You said you’d rather shoot yourself than do that!”
How did she remember him saying that? The last thing he wanted was to become the guy who found non-existent meaning in whatever a woman said. But was it too late? His strongest memory – the one he had played a hundred thousand times in his head – was of their last afternoon together. Had he spent nearly two decades allowing that memory to fester in his head? Was that the reason he’d dragged himself in front of her? Looking at her and seeing that old familiar smile brought a flood of feelings back. He’d always told himself that he was the only one who could make her smile like that. Then again, he had always been something of an egomaniac; it came with being a writer. What if he had been nothing more than someone she knew? Had he even considered that? For a single moment?
“How long have you been engaged?” The question shocked him as much as it did Molly. They had been quietly cruising through a mundane conversation and, suddenly, the swirling thoughts in his head had burst out loud. But it was out now, there was no taking it back. Daniel stared at her, eager to hear her response.
“Not long,” she eventually said. “Three weeks.”
“So, if you realise he’s a prick and decide to leave him, you won’t have lost too much?”
The temperature in the showroom plummeted. A steel wall fell behind Molly’s eyes, and two red patches appeared on her cheeks. “Lucas is not a prick!” she shouted. Daniel stumbled back slightly beneath the assault. “And I’m not going to leave him,” she added, lowering her voice slightly. “If you’re not buying a car, Daniel, I’m not sure how else I can help you.”
Neither do I, Daniel thought. He hadn’t a clue all day as to what he’d achieve here today. Heaving a small, defeated sigh, he straightened up. She wasn’t the only one who could drop the emotional shutters. “Fair enough,” he said. “I would say ‘see you around’ but . . . well . . . I won’t.”
Just as he was turning, his eyes met Molly’s. It was the briefest of moments, but he felt it drag back decades. The feelings that he couldn’t put into words thundered deafeningly in his head. What was he doing? All he had to do was say the words and . . . what? How many times did he have to tell himself? Life wasn’t like a story. He’d say the words and, at best, he’d embarrass himself. At worst he’d ruin the memories he treasured. Knowing that it was the last time he’d have the chance, Daniel tore his eyes away and retreated.
He flicked a soggy chip towards a seagull, then turned his gaze back to the dull waves. How long had he sat there? Long enough for his saveloy to go cold. Most of the birds had wandered off, bored of his stinginess. Now it was just Daniel and that solitary, patient seagull.
It had been eighteen years ago that he had last seen Molly. Eighteen years since he had wasted his only chance to tell her how he really felt. They had been sat on this very beach, waiting for Daniel’s sister to come and ferry him out of Chaffley.
“This guy asked for my advice recently.” That’s how he had started. A tried-and-true manner of confession that, if it all went tits up, got you completely off the hook. Besides, as he hadn’t been able to find the word to tell her how he felt, why not get her to do it for him? But, like everything in his life, it hadn’t gone as he had wanted. Before he knew it, his sister had come crashing onto the scene. Having just recently given birth, she had been in no mood to be kept waiting, and had pressed her fist onto the car horn until Daniel was forced to say his final goodbye.
Since then, there hadn’t been a week that passed by without Daniel thinking of that day. Every opportunity he let slip made him think of this beach. Every project of his that failed reminded him of Molly’s face. And now he had another failure to add to the long list. Maybe he should have become one of those weird guys who checks up on people’s social media. At least then he would have known she was engaged and, perhaps, he wouldn’t have come out here in the first place. No, he thought, dropping another chip for the seagull. That would have been too sensible; he hasn’t been acting in that way for some time now.
If anything, it would have just given him a perfect excuse to make the trip in the first place. He probably would have convinced himself that she wasn’t really happy, and that she needed him, a knight in grubby corduroys, to come and save her. Could she really be in love with a man as evil as that Lucas? Well, perhaps that was a bit harsh. He wasn’t the ‘kick-a-puppy’ kind of monster, but he was definitely a ‘sell-some-dodgy-premium-bonds-to-a-pensioner’ kind of villain. Either way, Daniel couldn’t believe Molly would choose that sort of man to spend the rest of her life with. That was why he found himself here: sitting on a bench in front of the beach he hadn’t stepped foot on in nearly twenty years. The reunion may have been disastrous, but it might not have been fruitless. Maybe, and here he really was clutching at straws, maybe seeing him again after all these years had rekindled something inside of her. “That’s assuming she felt anything in the first place,” he mumbled, glancing down to see the seagull glowering up at him. But, if she did, then maybe she’d start yearning for the old days. And then, just then . . .
It wasn’t a trope Daniel particularly enjoyed, but he suspected it was the sort of thing Molly might. So, here he was, sitting and waiting for his second chance to have a last chance. The only question was: How long was he willing to wait? His mind, when it wasn’t dragging itself through that day, flitted to the phone in his pocket. It had been silent for a while now; it may as well be switched off.
Panic suddenly gripped him. The remains of his saveloy and chips crashed to the ground as he leapt to his feet. He snatched the phone out of his pocket and immediately let loose a sigh of relief. The phone was on, and had plenty of battery; it was just that no one wanted to talk to him.
He glanced down with disappointment. The gull had wasted no time in launching itself headfirst into the remains of Daniel’s dinner. As three more of the birds swooped to join the feast, Daniel stuffed his hands into his pockets and sat back down. Just how long could he stick around? This whole situation was the dictionary definition of a hopeless endeavour. But, even so, he still leaned back and stretched out his legs. The sound of the seagulls squabbling was oddly reassuring. Did they have seagulls in America? Obviously, they did, he thought. There was a whole film about them.
Being lulled by that avian chorus, Daniel stared out at the sea. His mind rolled back through the memories of that day. He swore at himself for missing that golden chance, and he cursed his sister as well. Not once in her life had she ever been on time for anything, except for that day. If only she hadn’t rolled into that car park. His head, mimicking the actions from twenty years ago, turned to look at . . .
The car park wasn’t there. There was just a stretch of pavement, empty, save for an overflowing bin. Once again, he launched to his feet, this time scattering the gorging gulls.
“I’m at the wrong shitting end!” he shouted. He glared at where the car park ought to have been, then down the long stretch of road that led to the other end of the beach.
Daniel did not believe in God, or any sort of higher power, but he was beginning to believe he was being punished. Either that, or his life was someone’s idea of a practical joke. If he listened very carefully, he was sure he could hear laughter hidden within the crashing of the waves.
“It was a stupid idea anyway,” he murmured, kicking away the remaining scraps of chips. Slowly, he began to wander up the road.
When he realised he had instinctively started heading towards the beach’s opposite end, he corrected his course and made way for the station. There he’d been, once again trying to live his life by clichés, rather than by reality. What would seeing her even do? He had to go to America. It was a good chance for him. Besides, saying yes had been his gut reaction, and he always listened to his gut. Most of the time, anyway. All right, sometimes. But that thirty percent he did listen, it always turned out all right.
Speaking of which, Daniel snatched the phone out of his pocket. Perhaps they’d called his agent instead. That was always a possibility. After all, he had to pay him to do something, right? A car horn suddenly blared out, startling Daniel and making him almost lose both his phone, and control of his bladder.
His heart still drumming in his ears, he rounded onto the offending culprit. Without realising they had risen, his hopes immediately deflated. “It’s a small town after all,” he murmured.
“Uncle Dan!” Annie exclaimed, clambering out of her car.
“Hello . . . you,” Daniel said, sliding the phone back into his pocket.
His niece rolled her eyes. “Ha ha,” she replied. “Mum didn’t say you were in town?”
Daniel shrugged absently, his eyes flicking up and down the road. “Well, she does have a bit more on her mind at the moment,” he commented.
Annie’s eyes darkened at this. “Yeah, tell me about it,” she said. There was a brief pause between the pair. Daniel actually didn’t mind his niece. They both valued the meaning of silence. What she said next, however, threatened that relationship. “What do you think of it all?” she asked. “About mum and –”
His hand shot up, cutting off her words like a scythe. “I’m not getting involved,” he declared. “I told your mum that, and I told your dad that.”
The young woman began to pout. “You never did like dad.”
“He never gave me a reason to like him,” Daniel retorted.
“If you’re not here to sort mum and dad out,” Annie said, giving him a shrewd look inherited straight from her mother, “what are you doing in Chaffley?”
“You’ve got a concert, right?”
Annie frowned suspiciously. “How did you know?” she asked. “You weren’t invited.”
Daniel held a hand to his chest. “Why ever not?” he exclaimed in mock horror. “Aren’t we flesh and blood?”
“It’s a charity gig, and you hate charity.”
“I don’t hate charity,” Daniel said. “I just don’t like people asking me for my money.”
“Come on” Annie said, leaning against her car. “Why are you really here?”
He gave her a studied look. She had never shown such interest in others before. If he didn’t know better, he’d say she had something on her mind that she wanted to avoid.
“Just revisiting the old stomping ground,” Daniel declared, looking back towards the beach. “After all, everyone else is.”
That was the question. Unlike her mother, Annie didn’t seem distracted enough to accept any old answer. If anything, judging by the gleam in her eye, she was more than willing to make this interrogation her sole focus. If he tried the sentimentality excuse, she’d laugh him out of town. He couldn’t use a mid-life crisis, like Stephen. Nor could he blame her, like his sister. Even Annie had an excuse for coming back. Admittedly it was the childish notion that whatever her parents disliked had to be great. But that was certainly better than Daniel’s stint as a stalker.
“I’m moving to America,” he finally admitted.
“America?” Annie said, looking visibly stunned for the first time Daniel had ever known her. “But why?!”
“Work,” Daniel said, more than a little concerned with how alarmed Annie looked at such news. “I’ve been offered a writing job over there.”
“Writing? You’re still doing that?”
Daniel’s left eye twitched. “Yes, I’m still doing that,” he snapped. “It’s my job! I’ve won awards!”
“Yeah,” Annie said, “but only for Off-West End stuff.”
“Hey!” he said. “Off-West End is where you find the truly creative stuff! Besides, I also edited a script for Doctor Who, remember?”
“Wasn’t that the year it got cancelled?” A small smile crept onto her lips and, when he saw it, Daniel felt his annoyance fade away. But, even if he did enjoy their little jousts, he certainly wasn’t going to let her get the last word. “How’s your music going?” he asked waspishly.
The smirk instantly vanished. For some reason, Daniel felt that barb might have drawn some blood. “When are you leaving?” Annie asked, her tone uncharacteristically soft.
“Chaffley? Or England in general?”
“A week? Maybe a fortnight,” Daniel said with a shrug, fiddling with the obstinately silent phone. “Chaffley? Well, as soon as humanly possible. Preferably sooner.”
“Wow,” she murmured. “Does mum know?”
Daniel shook his head. “Not yet,” he said. “And don’t tell her. She’s got enough on her plate.”
“Why don’t you come to my gig tonight?” Annie suggested. “It’s a charity event, and invite only, yeah, but I can talk to Lucas. He’ll be sure to let you in.”
Daniel frowned slightly. “Lucas?” he asked. “This isn’t the same Lucas that owns that used car sales lot, is it?”
This time it was Annie’s turn to frown. “How do you know that?”
“I met him this afternoon,” Daniel admitted. “He didn’t seem to like me,” he added with a hint of pride.
Recognition bloomed in his niece’s face. “You’re the prick who wanted to rent a car?!” she exclaimed.
“That’s right!” Daniel said, nodding with barely restrained glee. “Is he still annoyed?”
“Yes, he’s still bloody annoyed,” Annie snapped. “And, he’s my boss!”
“Why does everyone work for that arsehole?”
“What do you mean by ‘everyone’?” Annie suddenly asked, evidencing that she had not inherited her father’s intellect.
“Nothing,” he said quickly, glancing away. “And thanks, but I’ll pass on that gig. Like I said, I want to get out of Chaffley as soon as I can.”
“Why don’t you wait for a train?” Annie asked. “Like a normal person?”
Daniel gave his niece a disappointed look. “When have I ever struck you as being normal?”
“Fair enough,” she said. For a minute it looked like the conversation was at an end. That didn’t bother him. After all, it wasn’t as if going to America meant he was never going to see her again. Though it would have to be a damn good reason to drag him back. “Borrow my car,” Annie suddenly said, a new fire burning in her eyes.
“You said you needed a car, right? Well, I’m not using mine.”
“Really? Because I’m pretty sure you have a gig to get to. And a flat, presumably?”
“It’s Chaffley, Dan,” Annie said, shifting impatiently. “I can walk everywhere.”
Up until this point he’d always seen his niece as some sort of permanent teenager, perpetually stuck in some rebellious frame of mind. And, sure, loaning your car out to someone at the drop of a hat didn’t smack of maturity, but there was something different about the young woman. Daniel could sense she was standing at some kind of crossroads in her life. Maybe her parents getting divorced was finally helping her to grow up.
“Thanks,” he said. “If you’re sure.” Annie chucked the keys towards him, laughing as he just managed to catch them.
“By the way, I got this from work,” she added, patting the car bonnet. “So, if it breaks down before you’re a mile outside of town, don’t blame me.”
“I’ll bear that in mind,” Daniel said, staring at the car with newfound dread. “If I manage to make it back home, I’ll leave it outside my flat for you to pick up. You remember where that is, right?”
“Remember?” Annie scoffed. “I’ve never been to your flat. No one has!”
“Oh, yes, that’s right,” Daniel said with a smile. He was just climbing into the driver’s seat when he paused. “Do you want a lift?” he asked, popping his head back up. “I guess it’s the least I can do.”
Annie smiled. “No,” she said. “I could do with the walk. I’ve got a lot to think about.”
“You should be careful,” Daniel said with a nod. “Too much of that is dangerous.”
There was a brief pause between the pair. In that moment Daniel felt a pang of regret. He actually liked Annie. She had inherited the best parts of her mum and, miraculously, what little good there had been in her dad as well. He wished he was better uncle material. “Take care, Dan,” she said. “And make sure you call mum at least twice a year. How else will we know you haven’t died?”
“Will do,” he said, ducking quickly into the car before his mind became too wistful. But, even so, he paused to watch Annie walk away. Whatever path she takes, Daniel thought, I hope it’s the right one.
Winding his way down those familiar roads, Daniel allowed himself to take a leisurely speed. It was just coming up to seven, so the Chaffley streets were empty. The concept of a night-life was quite alien to the town’s residents. As such, Daniel felt quite comfortable taking a snail’s pace down the road. Last time, he had been so eager to leave town that he only stared straight ahead. Tonight, though, he let himself press every sight into his memory. Who knew when he’d next stumble in?
He wound down the driver’s window and let the bitter breeze drift in, dragging with it the salty tang of the shore. The street lights buzzed and flickered along, saluting him as he passed. It was strange how little of the town had changed in the two decades. Aside from the Pret where Spiro’s had once stood, it was still precisely as he remembered. He could even swear the crisp packet fluttering in the gutter had been there since his childhood. He hadn’t missed Chaffley since moving away, but maybe putting an ocean between them would change that. That is, if he went to America. The phone was still silent, ominously so. They had sounded so positive in the interview, Daniel thought, anxiously. But, then again, they’re Americans. They’re positive about everything.
Rounding a corner, his headlights illuminated a rarity on Chaffley streets. Someone was out! He was still too far to make out the woman, but by a madcap leap of logic, his heart began to rumba against his ribcage. Maybe it’s her? What if life really could work out like it did in the movies? He smiled a little at that flicker of naivety. Then he nearly choked because his heart suddenly frog-leaped into his throat. It actually was her!
He was close enough now for the headlights to bathe over her, making it impossible to mistake her for anyone else. There was a look of surprise on Molly’s face as well, and for a moment Daniel thought she could see him. But, then, in an instant, it was replaced with a steely look of determination. She raised her arm, and shot a thumb into the air.
“What the Hell?” Daniel mumbled, chewing on his lower lip. Should he do it? Pull over? What’s the worst that could happen? She could see it was him and then refuse to get in. Then the question hit him: Why was Molly standing on the side of the road trying to hitchhike? “Only one way to find out,” he said, trying to get his pulse back down to a healthy pace. Then, wondering if this was the maddest thing to happen in his life, Daniel pulled over. He gripped the wheel until his knuckles turned white. Molly wasn’t moving. She was still staring at the car.
Shit, she’s seen it’s me.
Then she looked over her shoulder, considering . . . something.
Should I get out?
The moment of indecision was gone. Molly marched over to the car and yanked open the passenger door.
The pair stared at one another. Neither wanted to break the silence.
Molly sat, her hand on the seatbelt, and her mouth agape. Of all the cars, in all the town, she had to climb into his.
Daniel stared back, one hand on the wheel, the other on the gearstick. She’s either going to say something, or she’s going to leap out.
“Hi,” she eventually said, locking the belt into place.
“Hi,” he replied, clearing his throat.
They sat like that for several more moments, this time staring ahead. “I suppose I’d better . . .” Daniel said, finally pulling away from the curb. It’s now or never, he thought. She’s right there; you’re both right here. Trapped together in a moving vehicle. The only other scenario better designed for such a situation was if they were trapped in a broken lift. He shifted his grip on the wheel, leaving behind a sheen of sweat. He mumbled something under his breath, wiping his damp hand on the leg of his trousers.
“What’s that?” Molly asked, her head snapping around.
“Err,” Daniel murmured, glancing towards her. What was with that look? Was she annoyed? At what? What had he done? “Where to?” he said, trying to sound chipper.
Molly studied him for a moment. What’s with that tone? She wondered what he could be so happy about? He was leaving Chaffley, she reminded herself. So am I; but I don’t feel so giddy. Maybe this was a bad idea after all. “Town hall,” she murmured.
Daniel nodded. “Right,” he said. “For your . . . thing.”
“The charity gala, that’s right.”
The car continued along at a sluggish pace. If I keep it like this, Daniel thought, it’ll take us ten minutes to get there. Will that be enough time? “Why does a guy who owns a used car emporium,” he said aloud, “want to throw a charity gala?”
Molly propped one elbow up against the door, then rested her chin in her palm. “To make money,” she said simply.
“How does that work?” he asked with a frown.
“He spends a couple of hours pretending he cares about people less fortunate, people who don’t know what he’s really like get impressed, then they decide to buy cars from him rather than from someone just as awful.”
Daniel nodded. “And that’s how you talk about someone you love?” he said with a weak chuckle.
Molly replied with an equally strengthless smile.
“So, what happened to your car?” he asked.
“Uh-huh,” Daniel said, his smirk spreading somewhat. “And you got it –?”
At this rate, Molly thought as she watched the town roll past her window, it’ll be midnight before we get there. She didn’t feel too upset at that idea. Occasionally her eyes would flicker over to Daniel. For the first time in his life, he looked awkward. He was chewing the inside of his cheek, and he kept shifting his grip on the wheel. “Where did you find a car?” she asked.
“Hmm? Oh, Annie. It’s Annie’s.”
“Huh,” Molly said, studying the interior with a newfound intensity. “I should have recognised it.”
“It’s all right,” he said. “I didn’t realise it was you until you were nearly inside.”
“So . . .” Molly said slowly. “If you had seen it was me straight away, would you not have stopped?”
The car jolted slightly as Daniel’s foot slipped off the pedal. “No. What? No!” he spluttered. “’Course I would have stopped for you.” His head snapped round as he heard her laughing. Suddenly, with that simple sound, everything seemed normal. His heartbeat steadied, his palms began to dry, and the itch he felt at the back of his throat started to clear up. The world outside drifted away, until there was nothing left but the pair of them. He actually began to believe that, at any moment, he would finally tell Molly everything. And there was a part of him that firmly believed she would admit to feeling the same.
But that serenity was burst as he saw himself turning into the car park for the town hall. Whilst his mind had been drifting into fantasy, his body had slipped into autopilot, cutting their journey back to its natural length.
“Right,” he murmured, gritting his teeth. “Looks . . . looks like we’re here.” And, as if to twist the knife even further, the only available parking space was barely five steps from the main entrance. He pulled into the space, cut the engine, then sat back. “We’re here.”
Both of them stared straight ahead.
The only sound came from the ticking of Daniel’s watch.
“This is usually the point you get out,” he quietly said.
“Yeah,” Molly said. “It is.”
They continued to sit.
“But . . . you’re not?”
“Why did you come back?” Molly suddenly asked, rounding on him. This was the moment, she knew it. Forget earlier; this was the one chance. The chasm was small enough for either of them to hop to the other side. The only question was: who would find the strength first?
Daniel didn’t meet her gaze. He found it easier that way. He’d spent years rehearsing what he was going to say; sometimes, in his darker moments, even reciting it to himself in a mirror. Now that she was here, and the opportunity was at hand, he knew looking into her eyes would make it impossible. He let go of the wheel and knotted his hands together in his lap. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life,” he started. “I don’t mean anything dramatic, obviously. But I’ve turned down jobs, not applied for things, insulted the wrong person, you know, that sort of thing. And they all stack up into a long, long list that I can’t help going over at night. And, right at the top of that list, is you.”
Molly felt the back of her throat tighten. They were miles away from the spot, but the tang of the ocean suddenly filled her nostrils, just like all those years ago.
“When we last saw one another,” Daniel went on, “I should have told you something. I was going to, but . . . well, I didn’t. As I said, that mistake sits right at the top of my regrets. And, sometimes, it feels like, because of that day, every decision I’ve made, and will make, is doomed to fail. Life can’t be redone. Bad choices can’t be unmade. But I couldn’t help but feel, if I came back, just once, and saw you again . . .” The words suddenly dried up. It was as if someone had poured sand down his throat. He took a long, ragged breath, still staring fixedly at the glass entrance to the town hall, and ignoring the faint reflection of Molly he could see in the windscreen. “If I could see you,” he managed to say, “and see that you were happy, then I would feel that . . . it wasn’t a mistake. Me not saying anything wouldn’t have been a mistake, because you would have been happy. And if that day wasn’t a mistake, then none of my decisions would have been a mistake. Going to America won’t be a mistake. That’s . . . that’s why I came back.”
Neither of them said anything. Their minds were both filled with thunder. Molly was paralysed. She’d heard everything he’d said – the words had landed like a mallet against her skin. But what the Hell had they meant? If she was happy? “I . . . I don’t understand,” she stammered.
Finally, Daniel turned to look at her. Her cheeks were burning and there was flint in her eyes. “That’s why you came back?” she asked.
Wordlessly, he nodded.
“And, what if I’m not?”
“I . . .”
“What was your plan if I wasn’t?” Molly asked again. His eyes glanced down. She followed and saw Lucas’ ring, the stone glinting from the street lamp outside. She slapped her hand down over it and turned her head, biting down hard on her inner cheek. “Let me guess,” she said, her voice growing cold. “You’d imagine yourself as some knight in shining armour, here to whip me away from my depressive life in this shit-hole of a town. Is that right?”
“Molly . . .”
“But that doesn’t work, Dan,” she snarled. “Life isn’t like one of your stories. It’s as you said; it can’t be edited. You can’t write yourself a happy ending.” She dug her nails into the fabric of her trousers, glowering at her hazy reflection. “I spent twenty years . . . waiting. Thinking that, one day, you’d come back. But you didn’t. At least . . . not the Daniel I knew.”
He couldn’t help but scoff at this. “What are you saying?”
Molly sighed, finally feeling the weight of all those years on her back. “I’ll put it in a way you’ll understand then,” she said quietly. “Our story ended on that beach. We’re different people. We grew up. We don’t know one another anymore. I’m not Moley, and you’re not Dan.”
Daniel stared at her, his hand halfway out to her shoulder. He let it drop. “I get you,” he said. “Just, tell me . . .”
“Yes,” she said, cutting him off. “I’m . . . happy.”
Gritting her teeth, Moly threw the door open and climbed out. “I hope you do well in America,” she said. And then she closed the door. It was only a soft click, but it echoed in Daniel’s ears like a gunshot. He watched her walk the short distance to the entrance like she was underwater. Every step stretched out in his mind like an age. And then he blinked, and she was gone.
Well, that’s that. He felt numb. His throat was dry, his mind was . . .
This is usually the point you run after her.
“It’s not a story,” he mumbled, taking hold of the wheel again.
Fuck that. Life most definitely was a story. Every minute of every day is spent fighting to earn ourselves that happy ending. He continued to stare at the door, knowing that it was over. But, he thought, all the best stories have an epilogue.
Swearing at himself, Daniel yanked the key out of the ignition, threw the belt off of himself, and burst out of the car. “What the Hell am I doing?” he muttered, barging through the entrance. His head snapped from left to right, then up the hall. I thought this was a gala? Is there no one bothering to check tickets? Ignoring this attempt at sense, he marched down the hall. The blood was pumping in his ears and there was a bitter taste in his mouth. The voice of logic was being drowned out by the cheering of his foolishness. For the first time in his life, Daniel didn’t doubt that he was doing the right thing.
He reached the double doors and planted his hands, ready to fling them open, hopefully whilst a fitting backing track was performed by his niece. Then he fell short. Through the rectangular windows, he saw her. Molly was moving through the crowds, dodging and squeezing past guests at varying points of drunkenness. Standing behind the doors, watching through the wire mesh in the glass, Daniel saw her pause. “Turn,” he whispered. “Turn around . . .”
Molly kept moving. She approached a man and patted him on the shoulder. He turned and Daniel saw it was the same one from the car emporium. Lucas. Her fiancé. He looked at her with an expression that turned Daniel’s blood cold. And then it was gone. Replaced with a beaming grin only Molly could provoke. Lucas threw an arm around her shoulders, squeezed her closer, then waved a half-empty glass at a group of people he was forcing himself upon.
Daniel’s hand slipped away from the door. The moment was gone. As he continued to watch her move further away into the crowd, Daniel became aware that his trousers were buzzing. Confused, he fished around in his pockets and pulled out his still vibrating phone. He stared at the screen. The name VIVIAN was flashing above two options: hang up, or answer. Clutching the mobile, Daniel glanced again into the hall. Did their eyes meet for a brief second? Did she suddenly look away?
No, he thought. That sort of thing doesn’t happen in real life.
He looked down at his phone.