The idea came to her when she was in the water: she could just carry on swimming. It was only a mile to the mainland. Once there she could nick some clothes from a washing line and hitch all the way to Dad’s cottage and that’d be it: she’d have escaped.
There were various problems:
1. She might not make it.
2. She would have no money.
3. What if she got picked up by a murderer or a weirdo?
4. Dad would make her go back.
5. Dad wouldn’t make her go back but he’d make her go to a new school.
Swimming on, cushioned in the bubble of heat that had formed around her, she came up with some solutions:
1. She was the best swimmer in her class: she could easily swim to the mainland.
2. She could put some money in a plastic carrying thing around her neck, like surfers wore.
3. She could buy a train ticket with her birthday money and avoid murderers and weirdos.
4. She would plead with Dad not to make her go back, tell him how much she hated it at John’s, how much she hated school. If none of this worked, she would lie on the floor and refuse to move.
5. She would persuade Dad to teach her at home. He didn’t believe in school anyway. He once told her that school was a glorified crèche, an idea developed by adults because they couldn’t be bothered to deal with their children. It was the most thrilling thing she’d ever heard; like he’d broken a law that every other adult in the world obeyed.
She turned and was shocked by how far she’d already swum. Above the shore was the steep panorama of the town, at the top of which stood John’s house, the house where she and Mum now lived, the house with a lawn like a golf course and a balcony where John could stand and look down on everything.
The heat bubble had burst but she didn’t want to go back. Floating nearby was a white rowing boat with the name Lady in Red painted in red letters. She thrashed towards it, hauled herself over the side and lay shivering on the deck. Boarding someone else’s boat was probably illegal but she needed a place to think. The owner shouldn’t mind. She wasn’t going to steal it. As Dad had told her many times, rules are there to be broken.
The sun, bouncing off the white interior, warmed and dried her. The rocking of the boat was so restful she thought she might fall asleep. Sleeping in strange places was one of her favourite things. Before Mum and Dad split up, before she and Mum moved into John’s, she sometimes slept in the tree-house Dad had built. Last time they spoke he’d bought a camper van, an orange and white one. She couldn’t wait to sleep in it.
The idea of swimming to the mainland seemed silly the more she thought about it. Rowing there in the Lady in Red would make more sense although that really would be stealing.
A figure on the beach was watching. She lay down again. Everyone was always watching. Always waiting to tell her off or laugh at her. She had always done something wrong and, even if she hadn’t, she was wrong in herself. The only person she felt right with was Dad. She hadn’t seen him in ages. It wasn’t fair. Dad didn’t do email and he wasn’t good on the phone so they mainly communicated by postcards: the Needles, St Catherine’s Lighthouse and the yachts at Cowes from her. Lulworth Cove, Old Harry and the chalk man on the hillside with the big willy from him. John thought the chalk man postcard “inappropriate”. She overheard him say this to Mum, who said, “It doesn’t mean anything, John, it’s just Andy’s sense of humour. Anyway, it’s a beautiful piece of ancient art; it’s actually quite educational for her.”
Dad hadn’t replied to her last postcard of the donkeys at Carisbrooke Castle or to the one before that of the dinosaur at Blackgang Chine.
“When’s Dad going to write to me?” she had asked Mum the previous week.
“I don’t know, darling.”
“It’s his turn. I wrote the last two postcards.”
“Maybe they got lost in the post.”
“None of the others have got lost.”
“He’s probably busy.”
Too busy to write a postcard? If she had a mobile she and Dad could have texted but she wasn’t allowed one until she was twelve, even though everyone else in her class had one. Another reason she was considered wrong.
“How was your last day, sweetheart?”
When her mother’s back was turned she squeezed the last of the sea from her hair onto the kitchen floor.
“Never mind, six weeks hols now.”
“Can I go and stay with Dad?”
“I don’t know about that, Katie. Dad’s a bit busy.”
“Work and stuff.”
“He’s not usually busy.”
“Well, he is at the moment.”
She looked up Worth Matravers, where Dad lived, on Googlemaps. It was about ten centimetres from the island, only a finger step beyond Swanage. On clear days you could see Swanage from the Needles. If only she could rope-slide across. She’d been on a rope-slide at Robin Hill Country Park. It had been amazing. As close as you could get to being a bird, bar paragliding.
Really the ferry was the best plan. But the men on the ticket gate might stop her, ask why she was travelling alone. Same with the train; that part of the journey would be longer than the ferry; even more chance of being noticed and questioned.
If only there weren’t any weirdos or murderers she could have hitched. Hitching was great. Three years ago, she and Dad had hitched all the way from Niton to Newport, where Dad’s car, which had broken down, was being fixed. They had stood with their thumbs out at the edge of the village. Within twenty minutes a gold Rolls Royce had glided up and the man driving had told them to hop in. The car had been amazing: cream padded leather upholstery, which smelt of new shoes, shiny wooden panelling, a little table with circular hollows for your drinks; like being in a very posh living room.
“That was a stroke of luck,” Dad had said after the man dropped them off. “Who’d have thought it? A Roller. Don’t usually get posh cars picking you up.”
“Because people in posh cars are usually arseholes.”
“Because they’re rich.”
“Why are they arseholes?”
“Don’t use that word, darling. Only I’m allowed to use it.”
“But why though?”
“Because rich people only care about money and they’re selfish.”
“That man must have been rich.”
“Yeah, must have.”
“Was he an arsehole?”
“Sweetheart, don’t use that word.”
“But was he?”
“No, he wasn’t, he was nice. He probably picked us up ‘cos of you.”
“Because you made me look respectable.”
“You know: nice, normal, straight, trustworthy.”
“Why do I make you look respectable?”
“Oh Katie. Why? Why? Why? Just because.”
If she couldn’t hitch and she couldn’t take the train, she could walk. She could forage through the countryside, eating mushrooms and berries and dandelion leaves. She could sleep in hedgerows or abandoned barns. Tickle trout in streams and set traps for rabbits. How hard could it be? She had watched all of Ray Mears and Bear Grylls and Dad had taught her a lot. She knew how to drain dirty water through a sock filled with sand.
Ten centimetres, from Lymington to Worth Matravers, equalled approximately forty miles, according to her reckonings with a ruler and a calculator. How long would that take on foot?
The scraping of cutlery on plates. John’s squeaking jaw as he chewed. Him trying too hard to be nice: “Six weeks off, eh?”
“What are you going to do?”
“I want to go and stay with my Dad.”
“…Jenny, how about Katie doing a sailing course? Paul Bristow runs courses over in Yarmouth. I could look into it, probably get a discount; Paul gets a lot of business off us.”
“Aren’t they for adults, these courses?” said Mum.
“No, all ages. Be good for her. Good to do something productive, learn something new…”
“I’m always learning new things at school. Can’t I go and stay with Dad?”
Why wouldn’t they let her stay with Dad? It was like they couldn’t hear her. Dad could teach her to sail. He had a little boat.
“Dad could teach me to sail.”
“He’s too busy to teach you to sail,” said Mum.
“You always say he’s too busy.”
“This course’ll be great,” said John. “There’ll be loads of other kids. Much more fun than being at your Dad’s.”
How stupid John was. A load of unknown kids: nightmare.
Next day she waited until Mum was out before ringing Dad’s landline from the hall phone. The phone rang for ages. Eventually she hung up. She tried his mobile.
“The person you are calling is not available. Please hang up and try later.”
She tried later.
“The person you are calling is not available. Please hang up and try later.”
Why wasn’t Dad available? Was it because he thought she was Mum? She tried disguising the number by ringing from the phone box down the road. It smelt of pee and ash. Pash? Peesh? Again the posh electronic woman answered.
She tried Dad’s home number once more.
“Hello?” A not-so-posh real woman.
“Who’s this? Can I speak to my Dad?”
“Is this Katie?”
“Yes. Who are you? Can I speak to Dad…Please.”
“Your Dad’s not here at the moment.”
“Where is he?”
“Who are you?”
“I’m Ellie, I’m a friend of your Dad’s.”
“Can you tell him Katie rang? It’s really important. Really.”
Dad didn’t ring that evening. Or the next day. Or the next.
“Who’s Ellie?” she asked Mum.
“Ellie: she’s a friend of Dad’s.”
“Oh. Ellie. Yes.”
“Who is she?”
“Just a friend.”
“Yes, darling. A girlfriend.”
“I want to ring Dad.”
“He won’t be there.”
“How do you know?”
Katie ran to the hall phone. As she was dialing Mum snatched the receiver.
“No, Katie. I said no.”
“Why? I want to speak to Dad. It’s not fair. Why can’t I speak to him?”
“Dad isn’t there at the moment. He’s gone away.”
“Where is he? When’s he coming back?”
“He’s working…In France.”
“France! Whereabouts in France?”
“I don’t know exactly but he’s going to be away for a while…”
The man in the booth at the ferry terminal barely raised a flicker of interest when she bought a one-way ticket to Wareham, the nearest station to Worth Matravers. She sat for most of the ferry journey in the disabled cubicle of the ladies’, on top of the toilet lid with her feet drawn up so no one looking under the door could see her.
Mum’s vagueness had given her away. No way was Dad in France. Why would he be there? Dad was definitely still in Dorset. But why lie? Because of Ellie? He’d had girlfriends before. She’d got used to the idea that he and Mum were never going to get back together.
Hiding in the train toilet didn’t work. There were too many people queuing for it.
At Brockenhurst a lady boarded with two daughters, roundabout her age. They were on their way to Weymouth.
“Are you travelling on your own, darling?”
“My dad’s meeting me at Wareham.”
The lady made a face like someone had done a bad fart. She’d never let her daughters travel alone. Already the woman disapproved of Dad. Mum, John, Grandpa, her teachers, her classmates’ parents, this lady: everybody disapproved of him.
“Do you want to come and sit with us?”
An order rather than a question. The daughters looked at her as if a bogey was hanging from her nose.
“This is Jessie and this is Maddie. What’s your name, darling?”
“What a pretty name.”
No it wasn’t. It was the name of her worst enemy but she smiled and pretended to agree.
Jessie kept her eyes fixed on her Game Boy, Maddie on her Harry Potter. At Bournemouth the mother got out three bags of crisps, a packet of Mr Kipling’s French Fancies and a tupperware box containing white bread ham sandwiches, Dairylea triangles and Penguin bars.
“Would you like something to eat, Chloë?”
“No, thank you.”
“Are you sure?”
Everything looked so deliciously unhealthy and completely different to the kind of packed lunch Mum would have prepared that she was sure she did want something to eat but Jessie and Maddie’s blue eyes were skewering her with matching cold glares.
“Do you have any lunch with you, Chloë?”
“No, but it’s all right, I’m not hungry.”
Again, the fart face. The woman pressed a sandwich into her hand. It was cut glamorously into a triangle. The bread was so soft it stuck to the roof of her mouth and the ham tasted wonderfully like salty plastic. A lurid pink French Fancy was placed in front of her on a square of kitchen towel. Kitchen towel equalled money. Mum started buying kitchen towel when they moved into John’s. Before that they only ever had toilet paper. Last term she had a really bad cold and, having forgotten Mum now also stocked up on tissues, when she pulled a ribbon of loo roll from her pocket Chloë and everyone wet themselves laughing. “Do you need the toilet, Katie? Have you pooed yourself?”
“Where’s your Mummy, Chloë?”
“She put you on the train?”
“And your Daddy’s meeting you at Wareham?”
“What does your Daddy do in Wareham?”
“He works for Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. In Axminster.”
This wasn’t exactly a lie. Dad had worked for Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall for a while but now he didn’t. He and “that curly-haired four-eyed ponce” had fallen out. She wasn’t quite sure why. Dad said it was because Hugh expected everyone to work for peanuts: “If he pays peanuts, he’s going to get monkeys. And I’m not a monkey.” But there was more it than this. Eavesdropping on Mum and John, she’d heard how Dad could never hold down a job, how he had no respect for authority, how he always blew every chance he had.
“Face it, Jenny, he’s a loser. A feckless loser.”
She wondered what feckless meant. What was a feck? Dad apparently had less fecks than you were supposed to. This sounded rude. But John didn’t use swearwords. Not like Dad. John wasn’t a loser. He’d been given a lot of money by his dad and used it to set up a boat-building firm in Cowes, from which he had got lots more money, which had helped him get Mum. He was obviously feckmore.
“I’m so tired of being poor,” Mum said when they moved into his big house. “Now we can have everything we want.”
But Katie didn’t want the things that John gave her: new clothes, new toys, a new bike, a new computer, a new posh school where she was the new girl and the other kids hated her because she was a pikey and a chav.
“Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall! How interesting. What does he do for Hugh?” The woman was acting like she knew Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall personally.
“He does mushroom forays and catch and cook.”
“Catch and cook what?”
“And mushrooms. He helps people forage for mushrooms and he shows how to cook them.”
“Have you met Hugh yourself?”
“What’s he like?”
“He’s got curly hair and glasses.”
The woman laughed. She nudged Maddie. “Chloë has met Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.”
Maddie looked unimpressed.
“He’s a famous chef. He’s on telly. A bit like Jamie Oliver.”
Maddie still looked unimpressed. “Have you met Jamie Oliver?”
“I’ve met JK Rowling. She signed my book.”
She revealed the big looping signature. Dear Maddie, Lovely to meet you, Love JK Ro……… The last part of the surname disintegrated into a squiggle and a half kiss.
Maddie’s mother turned back. “But your Mummy didn’t give you a packed lunch?”
“Dad’s going to cook me a fish when I get to Wareham. Probably some mushrooms too.”
At last the train arrived at Wareham.
“Say hello to Hugh from me,” called the lady as she waved goodbye.
The print-out showed a chunk of Dorset with Worth Matravers at the bottom. This would be the journeyish part of the journey. She decided she was good at escaping. It was in her blood. Dad had run away from boarding school in Edinburgh two months before his A levels. “One day I realised I’d had enough. I’d had ten years of authoritarian hierarchical bullshit and I couldn’t take it anymore. I packed a small bag, pretended I was going into the town, got on a train and went to the Isle of Wight instead. I wanted to get as far away from Scotland as possible.”
She wasn’t sure what authoritarian or hierarchical meant but if Dad thought these things were bullshit they probably were.
An hour along the A351 she sat and ate her sausage roll. Sitting down made her realise how tired her legs were. She hauled herself up. A hawk floated over the road, as if the wind was half-solid like the sea.
Once, a man had brought a peregrine falcon into school. The bird had sat haughtily on his big leather glove. Like a queen allowing courtiers to pay their respects, she let everyone stroke her head one by one. Her glassy eyes had a faraway yet sharp gaze. Out in the playground, the man released the strap around her leg and swung a piece of bloody meat on the end of a string. Round and round his head he’d swung it. The falcon regarded him calmly from the top of the climbing bars. As if it were an afterthought, she swooped and snatched the meat at the highest point of its swing. The man made the falcon perform this trick several times. Watching the repeated swing, swoop and snatch, Katie wondered why the falcon didn’t escape. She willed the bird to take off into the sky, to the joy of live meat and freedom. When home time came, she was disappointed to see the falcon meekly accept a dark leather hood thrown over her, so she didn’t “make a fuss in the van”.
By the time she got to a lay-by with a snack van she was exhausted and dying of thirst. The sign on the van said Fat Matt’s Snack Shack. A fat man was leaning by the door smoking a roll-up. As she approached he stubbed it out reluctantly and carefully on the door-frame, slipped the unsmoked half into the top pocket of his white chef’s jacket and went inside.
“And what can I get you, young lady?” He looked like a greasy snowman with his huge stomach pressed against the counter. The smoke lingering around the van smelled dark green and planty. It reminded her of Dad.
“A cup of tea, please, and one of those…”
“…Tunnock’s Tea Cake…certainly, sweetheart…”
He craned his head outside the hatch after she had paid.
“You on your own, darling?”
“Where do you live?”
“Your parents know where you are?”
“Yes, definitely…I’d better get on.” She set off, splashing her tea down her jeans in her hurry to get away.
“Hold on. You’re going to walk all the way to Swanage?”
She didn’t turn. A door banged. The man was waddling after her.
“It’s seven miles.”
“It’s alright. My dad knows I’m on my way.”
“Look here, love. I don’t like the thought of you walking all the way there on your own. I’ll give you a lift. Only take me fifteen minutes to run you down there.”
“I want to walk.”
“Not right for you to be on your own. You don’t know who might be on that path.”
And who might he be? Fat Matt. He could be a murderer. He was definitely a weirdo.
“Don’t worry, love, you’ll be safe with me. I’ve got a little girl about your age. I wouldn’t let her walk seven miles along a busy road on her own. Come on, I’ll drop you off at your dad’s, you’ll be there in no time.”
The fact he was a dad made her feel safer.
“What’s your name, sweetheart?” he asked, once they were in his small red car which made her think of jokes about fitting elephants into Minis.
A small silence passed in which he waited for a gap in the traffic before pulling out. She looked at the air freshener shaped like a Christmas tree swinging from the rear-view mirror. The smell of it was worse than stale air. He pulled the unsmoked half of his cigarette out of his pocket and lit up. The planty smoke was nicer.
“Are you Matt?”
He laughed. “What do you think?”
“I’m certainly not Thin Matt, am I?”
They both laughed.
“What school do you go to, Chloë?”
“I don’t go to school. My dad teaches me at home.”
“My dad says school is just a glorified crèche because grown-ups can’t be bothered to look after their own children.”
“What about the fact that grown-ups have got to go out to work to earn money?”
“My dad says work is a capitalist plot.” She wasn’t sure if this was the right phrase but then Fat Matt said, “I know a bloke that says the same thing.”
“Your dad’s got some funny ideas, hasn’t he? Letting you wander off on your own seven miles from home, not working, not sending you to school…” Fat Matt was now wearing the bad fart face.
“My dad does work. He just doesn’t believe in authorititarian higher arching.”
“What’s that when it’s at home?”
“Authorititarian higher arching.”
She nearly added that Dad thought it was bullshit but Fat Matt was a disapprover like all the others so she didn’t.
“Authoritarian hierarchy,” he said a few minutes later, more to himself, then turned to look at her curiously.
The sign for Corfe Castle appeared with the turn-off towards Worth Matravers.
“You could just drop me at Corfe Castle.”
“Thought you said you lived in Swanage?”
“No, nearer Corfe Castle.”
“Where do you actually live, darling?”
“Really?” He peered at her. “Sweetheart, just tell me where you really live and I’ll take you there, no questions asked.”
“You sure it’s Worth Matravers?”
“Sure it’s not Langton Matravers or Lytchett Matravers. Or Lytchett Minster?”
The car careered along the lane towards the coast. The hedgerows grew thicker and higher and the sky between them contained the sense of imminent sea although she could not explain why. Still, there was a definite feeling that they were heading towards the edge of land, towards 180 degrees of space.
She directed Fat Matt around the twists and turns towards Dad’s cottage but he drove so fast it seemed as if he already knew the way. She worried he would burst out like a popped cork when they got there and have a go at Dad.
As it was, he pulled up outside the gate and said, “You sure this is it?” giving her the same curious look as before.
“Well, hop out then, sweetheart. I’ll just wait to see if someone’s there and then I’d best be off.”
She opened the gate and walked up the garden path feeling both self-conscious of Fat Matt’s gaze and fearful of Dad’s reaction. The garden was so overgrown she had to fight through the roses and ten-foot-tall hollyhocks that kept hitting her in the face. The cottage looked dark and empty. She prayed for Dad to be in; even if he was cross it would be better than having to explain herself to Fat Matt. The new camper van was parked in the drive so even if he was out he hadn’t gone far. It looked like a brilliant sleeping place but her excitement was dampened by nervousness. She knocked on the cottage door. No reply. She knocked again. A sound came from inside and then footsteps.
A woman opened the door. Younger than Mum, long-haired, pretty, puzzled-looking.
“Is my Dad in?”
The woman frowned and put a hand over her mouth. “Oh god.”
The woman pulled her inside. “You’d better come in.”
“Are you Ellie?”
“Yes. You must be Katie.”
The engine of Fat Matt’s car started. Surprising how fast he drove away considering he had been so worried about her. She could have been lying: this could be a complete stranger’s house.
She allowed Ellie to sit her down. She shrugged as Ellie expressed amazement that she had come all the way from the island on her own and that she had accepted a lift from the man who ran a snack van on the A351.
“Was it Fat Matt?”
“Yes! Fat Matt’s Snack Shack. Do you know him?”
Ellie rolled her eyes. “Fat Matt’s a friend of your Dad’s.”
“He never said! That’s so weird.”
“They’re not that good friends.”
“That’s really weird.”
Ellie didn’t seem interested in the coincidence. “We’ve got to ring your Mum. She’s worried sick. She’s phoned the police. They’ve launched a search for you already.”
“Really?” Katie felt guiltily thrilled.
“Tell me where Dad is. Is he in France?”
“Where is he?”
“I don’t want you to get upset—”
“Where is he? Is he alright?”
“Tell me where he is.”
“It’s not as bad as it sounds—”
“Is he ill?”
“I’m so sorry to have to tell you this, Katie, but your dad, he’s in prison.”
She batted away Ellie’s attempt at a hug and ran into the garden. Dad was in prison. Dad was in prison. Locked up.
Ellie followed her to where she stood at the bottom of the shaggy lawn, crying with her face to the hedge. Everybody had known. Mum, John, Ellie, even Fat Matt. Everybody had known and nobody had told her. Probably her teachers knew. She wouldn’t have been surprised if Chloë had found out somehow. How wrong she always was about everything. She was too upset to properly listen to Ellie explaining that Dad had been involved in some “dodgy business” to earn money after losing his job with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and the police had found out about this “dodgy business” and had locked him up. The only thing she did clearly take in was that Dad, for the past two months, had been in HMP Parkhurst, less than a centimetre on the map from John’s house.
Rowena Macdonald was born on the Isle of Wight, grew up in the West Midlands and now lives in east London. Her debut collection, Smoked Meat (Flambard Press), was short-listed for the 2012 Edge Hill Prize. Her short stories have also been published by Influx Press, Galley Beggar Press, Ambit, Unthank Books, and Serpent’s Tail. In the last year she has won first prize in Glimmer Train’s Family Matters competition, second prize in the 2014 Write Idea competition and runner-up in the 2013 Royal Society of Literature’s VS Pritchett Prize. She has recently finished a novel, which is currently with her agent, Jamie Coleman of Greene & Heaton.
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