A childhood tragedy touches a family's lives for a generation in Ceinwen Haydon's emotional story.
"Mama," said Dominic as he sucked his thumb. "I'm four now aren't I? When will Frances be four so we can play properly?"
"Darling, she won't be four until you're eight years old. You'll always be four years older than her and she's only six weeks old just now," said Rachel.
"I love her, I'll wait for her, I've got lots of good games," he said.
"You're a good boy, Dom, Frances will love you to bits too. Now it's time for your nap."
Dominic slept soundly for a whole hour. He was woken by snow pelting on his bedroom window and the wind that rattled the glass panes.
"Mama, Mama," he called. When she did not answer he pattered down stairs and saw her fast asleep on the settee. He was going to snuggle in next to her when he heard Frances start to cry. He was a big boy now, and Mama was tired, he'd look after his baby sister.
He climbed back upstairs and remembered that Mama always made sure that Frances was wrapped up warm. He pulled a pile of bed clothes from Mama's bed and lugged them over to Frances's cot in the box room.
"Don't worry, I'll keep you warm until Mama wakes," he said, feeling grown up.
Gently he pushed the bedding into the cot, one thing at a time. With the blankets, Frances gurgled, and Dom was happy to please her. And then he added the pillows.
Red In The Morning, Shepherds' Warning
Rachel rolled this way and that in her tangled duvet. Any time now and she'd get the call. Lily had been in labour for twenty-four hours already, it couldn't be much longer. Just before six o'clock a rose blush rinsed the dawn sky and she gave up on sleep. As she glanced in her bedroom mirror, her mother's face stared back. The same wiry, pepper and salt curls, high coloured cheeks, smudged nostrils and jaw line. At least her eyes were her own, vivid blue and set in deep sockets with heavy lids, and her mouth was just like her dad's, curled upwards at the corners, with a full bottom lip. She didn't look her sixty-eight years, in spite of everything, and she refused to let her arthritic joints slow her down. In fact, she could walk further now than she'd been able to ten years ago. She was proud to opt for the 'challenging' options in her rambling club's programme; twelve miles and the rest, no problem.
"Well, my girl," she said. "Today's the day. Best get set up with a cuppa and get the show on the road."
As she drew her kitchen blinds, the phone rang.
Rachel was confused. What was she supposed to do now? The big question, to kiss or not to kiss. How could you not kiss your daughter in law after the birth of your first grandchild?
"My grandchild," she said out loud. Words of wonder.
The baby girl had arrived this morning weighing 8lbs 12 oz. But she and Lily were not on kissing terms. After she'd ventured a tentative peck on the cheek at their first meeting, Lily had sent a message back via Dom.
"Mum, she doesn't really do that stuff. She finds it embarrassing," he'd said. He'd looked at her forlorn face and given her a bear hug.
"Just indulge her, for me?" he'd said.
So, for the past seven years Rachel had contained herself with Lily. At those moments when she would have kissed anyone else, whether in thanks, celebration or in sympathy, her face ached with undischarged emotions instead. Exchanges of presents at Christmases and birthdays, the time of Lily's mother's death and when Lily miscarried three years ago: no kisses and no hugs. She'd tried so hard to get things right with Lily, Dom's remote Canadian wife.
Rachel waited with impatience in the corridor of the Royal Victoria Hospital, and looked down at her feet. Two odd socks, one black and purple stripes and the other red stars on navy blue, peeped up over the laces of her trainers. Typical, just when she wanted to impress them with her cool competence, and Lily would notice, she always did.
"Mrs Flynn? You can go in now," said the nurse who popped her face round the security controlled door of the maternity ward. 'Dayea Andrada' was written on her ID badge.
"Thanks, where is Lily, Lily Flynn? Well of course, you know her name, because you know mine. Sorry, I'm being stupid."
"Not at all. I'll show you, follow me. Mrs Flynn, Lily's had a hard time, she's tired, but she's very pleased that you've come."
"Maybe. My son, is her with her?" asked Rachel.
"I think he's just about to go home and get some rest, but you'll see him first," said Dayea.
Rachel's heart flipped a beat; how would she manage if she was left alone with Lily? Dayea led Rachel down the length of the ward, and they passed a dozen new mothers with their babies and assembled supporters. It seemed to Rachel, detached from their lives, that they all gloried in untroubled relationships with physical affection freely shared.
As Dayea reached the end of the beds she turned right and she leant across and opened the door of a side room. She beckoned Rachel in, and then she withdrew and closed the door gently behind her. The room was empty save for the baby who lay in the cot with her ink blue eyes wide open and her tiny left fist stuffed into her mouth. Rachel was enthralled.
"Darling, my little darling, Marie-Louise," she said.
Rachel reached out towards the downy, black hair and let a single finger rest on the crown of her head. Then she traced a fairy line over the child's forehead, her nose and her top lip. Her hand came to rest on the little fist that the baby suckled.
Then, the door of the en suite bathroom opened and there stood Lily. Her face was drawn and ghost-white, she swayed as if to pass out. Rachel rushed across the room, caught her and half carried her over to the bed, a task made easier by Lily's slight body and Rachel's rude health.
"He's gone," Lily said quietly.
"He's gone," she said again.
He didn't stop running until he reached the train station nearly two miles away. His legs were leaden and each step was an act of will. He glimpsed his own fast disintegrating images as they flashed by when he passed shop windows.
The rivulets of rain running down the panes dissolved any semblance of solid form. He had taken leave of everything, there was no possibility of return.
He stared at the departures board, the next Edinburgh train was due in in twenty-three minutes, Platform 1. That would do. He scurried down the escalator, headed for the far end of the platform, squatted on his haunches and waited.
The wind blew in from the north east and whistled along the flat, snaked tracks. The shakes started in his belly and shuddered along each axon, stings pattered and nipped his nerves, his limbs trembled. It would soon be over. It would soon be over.
He felt a light touch on his head. "Excuse me, son," said the old woman. "Are you alright?"
Her words fractured in his ears; they made no sense as they competed with the roar of blood that rushed and pounded in his head.
"What?" he said.
"I was right," she said. As she sat down beside him on the chill concrete. "Takes one to know one. We could always, you know, together?"
Dayea sat down in the nurses' rest room and closed her eyes; it had been a long shift. Maria clicked on the electric kettle and said, "Dayea, what in hell was going on with baby Flynn's dad? Has he come back yet?"
"Nothing, nada. I should have known he wasn't right after last night. I was making him a brew whilst Doc Milner was doing her rounds. I don't rightly remember how it came up but he started going on about curses and infants, Sleeping Beauty and such; very bizarre. I wondered if he was pissed, but he didn't smell of drink."
"The whole birth thing sends some men weird. Might be the shock of not being the centre of attention for once?" said Maria.
"This was worse than that, he seemed desperate. He said he needed to talk and asked if he could trust me. I told him my name means 'keeper of secrets', trying to lighten things up, the next thing I know he's pouring his heart out. He was obsessing about something that happened when he was a kid."
"So what was that then?"
"Can't say, can I? Confidentiality and all," said Dayea. "But anyway I thought he'd ease out when the baby came. It's Lily and his mum I feel sorry for. They're both worried sick. Lily won't let Mrs. Flynn out of her sight."
"They must be close," said Maria.
Life Goes On
"Dom, no," shouted the young mother as her toddler ran ahead of her, headed for the road. Nic stopped stock still, as he heard his old name. Gertie halted her shopping trolley, laden with black plastic bags, and took his hand in her in her dry, crusted paw,
"Nic, mate, you're right shook up, what's up?"
"Nothing, Gert, nothing."
He watched the mother scoop her son up into her arms, her face a perfect storm of mixed emotion, as tears leaked out from under her lowered eyelids. The child wriggled and whined, made uncomfortable by his mother's intensity, he wanted to be back on the ground. She let him go with reluctance but within seconds he had fallen flat on his face. He begged to be picked up, holding out his arms in desperation.
"Come on," said Gertie. "It's cold and I can smell snow for certain. There'll be no beds left at St Christopher's if we don't get a shift on."
"Sure, sure," said Nic. He wondered, not for the first time, why he hadn't accepted her first invitation on the platform, all those years ago.
"Rachel, I've brought you a cup of tea," said Lily as she came out into the garden carrying a tray. "Marie-Louise has gone to meet her friends at the library, they're revising for Friday's English paper."
The heat liquefied the air, everything shimmered, liberated from its normal solid state.
"Thank you," said Rachel. She took the tea and biscuits and kissed Lily on the cheek; Lily squeezed the old lady's shoulder.
"You've got the right idea sitting out here, it's too hot to do much. I'll get the other deck chair, hang on a sec," said Lily.
Lily went into the shed, dusted down a stripy lounger and set it up next to Rachel.
"Lily, there's something I need to tell you about, to help you to understand," said Rachel. "I should have done it ages ago, but you've always had so much on your plate. I daren't put it off any longer, I'm not getting any younger and who knows when... well you know."
"Don't talk like that, you're as strong as a horse, I couldn't manage without you," said Lily. "But what's all this about?"
Rachel reached out and took Lily's hand. "It's about Frances."
"I'm Sister Dayea McNamara," said the ward sister. He lifted his head slowly and squinted against the glare of the ceiling lights.
"What's your name? The paramedics said you were spark out when they picked you up in the park, and you had no ID."
"I, I'm Domin... no Nic, Flynn, no Smith. Nic Smith. Sorry my head hurts, not thinking straight."
"You've been hit on the head, a nasty blow and you might have concussion. You know, your face looks familiar. I know you, don't I?"
He stiffened against a wave of pain that abraded his nerve endings. After a moment he said, "Sorry, what did you say?"
"I do know you, years ago when I worked on Maternity, before I married," said Sister McNamara.
"Where's Gertie?" said Nic.
"My friend, in the park. Gertie," he said.
"Do you mean the old bag lady in the band stand?" she said. He nodded.
"I'm afraid the freeze got her. She was hypothermic, we tried, but she was too far gone."
Nic's canine yelp startled the nurse, she floundered and then put her hand on his shoulder.
"Sorry, I didn't know you were friends."
"You know fuck all," he said.
He brushed her hand away, stumbled to his feet and went away into the night.
Rachel was on the couch, wedged between Lily and Marie-Louise. They'd just had tea and sat in the half-light watching Strictly. The colours from the TV flickered over their faces and reminded Rachel of flames cast from the autumn bonfires of her post-war childhood. The blazes had licked warmth and light over her family, casting their features with magic.
Later, she and Fred had moved into Carlton Avenue to start a family of their own. At first they'd been blessed, Dominic had been a bright and happy child.
She and Fred had agreed that Dom must never feel blamed, they'd never bring it up unless he did and they never really knew what he remembered or what he understood.
Fred's death was sudden, he'd died of heart failure, it had all been too much for him. He'd not said much, but he'd worn sadness like an old vest, always there underneath his shirts. Then it'd all been too much for Dom as well, or so she supposed. Why else would he have gone?
Rachel felt very lucky to be with Lily and Marie-Louise tonight, just to be here.
The phone tweeted like a calling bird as the zappy ring tone cut into the stillness of the night.
"Yes, this is Mrs Flynn's daughter," said Lily. She rubbed her eyes, puffy with sleep. As she listened, silent tears drizzled down the creases etched by the smiles and frowns of many years.
"I understand, I'll be straight over, and please tell her I love her."
She drove on auto-pilot, her hands white knuckled as she hung onto the steering wheel of her car. The hospital car park was pretty much deserted so she parked near the entrance.
The young Scottish doctor was kind, but overstretched. She was quick to tell Lily that the end had been peaceful. Through her tears, Lily heard the physician add, "At tea time she was lucid, she said that she loved you all. You, Marie-Louise, and someone called Dominic?"
"Mum, did he ever get in touch?" said Marie-Louise.
"No sweetheart, he never did. Not with me. But he did send a letter to Gran once, a short one just to say that he'd done the right thing."
"Can I see it?" said Marie-Louise.
"I'm afraid not, Granny was so upset at the time that she burnt it. For years she'd thought he'd come back. Then that arrived. I'd already given up on him by then so I didn't try to stop her."
"That's not fair."
"Life's not fair, Marie-Lou, but if Rachel hadn't been there for me, I couldn't have come through for you, so just remember that."
"Do you think he's still alive, mum?"
That night he dreamt of Lily. They were together, with their daughter, in woodland. They played hide and seek, and laughed and called out excitedly. The sun dappled their faces and the trees threw shadows across their paths. He closed his eyes to count to ten; when he opened them the forest was pitch black and he was alone.
He shouted, "Coming, ready or not!" But he had nowhere to go.
Then he heard a baby's cry and saw a dim light under a nearby bush. He felt his way over to the glow and knelt down. Underneath the broom was a wicker basket, and inside he saw Frances. As he reached out to pick her up the light went out and every sound disappeared. He woke up wet and wasted with fever.
Caught on Film
Lily found Marie-Louise sitting in the middle of the floor in Rachel's old room next to sliding piles of snaps, and the shoe boxes that had held them. Her daughter's eyelashes glistened wetly.
Lily crouched down next to her; the first picture she noticed was of her and Dom on their wedding day. Fred stood next to her beaming, and Rachel peeped over her shoulder. She recalled with a jolt how she'd once hated the casual physicality of Dom's family, how they'd kiss you as soon as say 'hello'.
They sat together and sifted through the images. Marie-Louise stared and stared at the age-bleached pictures of her father. Her father. Her father as a child. Her father as a young man. Her father.
"Why mum, why?"
"What do you mean, why?"
"Why did he leave us?" said Marie-Louise.
"It's time I told you about Frances," said Lily.
Ships that Pass
"Got any spare change, miss?" he said, to the dark haired young woman who was about to go into the station. She turned towards the disheveled vagrant and caught her heel in a pavement crack.
"Fuck," she said, as she teetered on the verge of a fall then regained her balance at the last moment.
"Are you ok?" he asked.
She grinned, "Stupid shoes, my own fault; I don't wear heels as a rule. I've been out with my mates tonight, should've known better."
Something about her eyes called to him, in the warm autumn evening. Lily's eyes called to him; and he saw traces of his own mouth in the girl's as her lip gloss caught the setting sun.
"You're in luck," she said. "I've got a spare quid. Got to run, or I'll miss my train, bye."
"God bless," he said to her retreating back.
She looked back and waved, then she became just another pretty girl on her way home.