13 May, 8.59 p.m.
Above the matte Astroturf of the high-school playing fields, and above the ponytailed heads of the girl footballers, moths and midges birled and hung. At this distance, they looked like flecks of glitter swimming through liquid. Swifts dived in and out of the floodlights’ glare, their calls carrying over the car park in the warm evening. Ishbel Hodgekiss zipped up the electric windows of her Nissan Qashqai. She wouldn’t risk a midge bite, even at this distance.
The dashboard clock read 20:59, so she flicked on the car stereo to catch the headlines. She’d expected the Radio 2 announcer, but instead she was treated to a blast of cheesy jingle: Abigail had tuned the stereo over to local radio again.
Questions are being asked, said the newsreader, about an industrial accident that happened earlier today in the centre of Edinburgh.
Ishbel bent over the steering wheel, trying to see how to retune the station, the newsreader’s bouncy speech pattern grating in her ears.
The site developers claim, he was saying, that the man was not following correct safety procedures when he fell ten feet into the building’s foundations. Our correspondent Jenna Buckie has more …
Somehow, Ishbel found the right button, and flicked through stations until she heard a voice she recognised. She settled back to listen, and began to scan the football fields for any sign of Abigail. Practice had just finished – she’d heard the full-time whistle – so any minute now her daughter should come sauntering out through the gate in the tall, green chain-link fence, and over to the car.
Ishbel didn’t entirely approve of her daughter’s continued interest in football. After-school clubs were all very well, but now Abigail was in college, her mother felt that any extra-curricular activities ought to be more academic in nature. The fact that Abigail still lived at home brought Ishbel a quiet, if guilty, joy: it was perhaps the only silver lining to her daughter deciding against attending proper university. But she couldn’t help but feel that this weekly return to high school – to practise for an under-25s team that included girls far younger than her – was doing Abigail no favours.
‘You can’t put football practice on your CV, you know,’ Ishbel had said, more than once.
‘You can, Mum,’ her daughter would reply. ‘It shows you’re a team player.’
Ishbel still hadn’t come up with a suitable response to this.
Girls began to trail out of the long, low buildings and back across the Astroturf to be met by their lifts. The younger ones climbed into cars like Ishbel’s: family saloons and people-carriers manned by parental taxi-drivers. But older girls, the ones more Abigail’s age, tended to walk up to empty cars – tiny Ford Kas and rusted Citroën hatchbacks – slinging their gym bags into the passenger seat and driving away on their own. Abigail hadn’t yet passed her driving test, though the constant switching of the radio station was testament to her practising. Every week there were a couple of girls who were picked up by unsuitable-looking boyfriends. These young men would sit in their decked-out Imprezas – engines running, music shuddering through the tarmac – and then peel out with a hiss of air from their full sequential gearboxes. Ishbel shuddered.
‘There’s a boy,’ Aidan had said to her one night, about a week ago. He’d said it in a breathless voice that Ishbel remembered girls at school using to divulge information while swapping lipstick in the French-block loos. He said it as though he were a co-conspirator – there was no trace of paternal concern.
‘What do you mean, there’s a boy?’ She’d known exactly what he meant – she just didn’t want to admit it.
‘I mean,’ he said, ‘I think our daughter may have a boyfriend.’
Ishbel went quiet. Abigail had had boyfriends before, of course, but that was in high school – back when Ishbel could reasonably lay down rules and curfews and ask Aidan to help her enforce them. Now, Abigail was nineteen. In her head, Ishbel heard her own voice saying no, no, no, no.
‘How do you know that?’
Aidan had smirked at her. He’d been standing in front of the dressing table, shrugging on a clean shirt, and in the wrap-around vanity mirror, Ishbel had watched his three-times-reflected torso disappear into the fabric. For some reason it had occurred to her then – for the first time in what must have been years – what an attractive man he was. Still was. A spike of some old anxiety bothered at her.
‘She told me,’ he’d said. ‘She talks to me, you know.’
Ishbel had been folding laundry. She remembered looking down at the white cotton T-shirt in her hands and seeing it turn pink as anger clouded her vision. She was angry with Aidan a lot lately – they were angry with each other. She’d had that thought and then verbalised it, almost without meaning to.
‘Aren’t you angry?’ The words had come out sharp, an elastic band snapping.
‘Angry?’ She’d amused him, it seemed. She pulled in a breath. Is he just making this up, she wondered, to rile me?
‘I just … In the past, you’ve been one of those “no one’s good enough for my baby”-type dads. You’ve hated her boyfriends. We used to joke about it.’
He looked away from her, and pulled his hands down the front of the shirt to smooth it.
‘Sure,’ he said. ‘And you know as well as I do that if this young man decides to break her heart, then I’ll go for his knees.’
Ishbel had rolled her eyes. As a young woman, she’d loved his gallusness, his masculine swagger. Now she found it grating, and he knew that. He was still speaking.
‘But she’s an adult now. Protective dad needs to know when to take a step back.’
He’d paused, and shot a glance back at her. ‘Neurotic mum could learn to calm down a bit, too.’
Ishbel had closed her eyes. These small barbs were part of the daily routine these days, the double-act shtick the two of them seemed to have established. Why do I stay? she’d wondered to herself, more than once. Abigail, was the answer. Abigail, who adores her dad. She’d never forgive you.
A long silence opened out between them. That old anxiety swished around inside Ishbel like dirty water, until she’d felt like she had to speak.
‘She talks to me, too.’
Aidan had made a maybe face at her. Not for the first time, her palm itched with the desire to slap the expression away.
‘Sure,’ he said. ‘But you’ve been pretty distracted lately.’
Ishbel shook herself out of the memory. Across the road, Inverleith Park was blurring into a dark mass under its trees. If she looked in the rear-view mirror, she could see the spiked turrets of Fettes School silhouetted against the dimming sky. It wouldn’t be properly dark until after ten, but beyond the football field and its ring of artificial light, the city was an indistinct jumble of gables and spires. Streetlights began to flick on. The clouds turned pink: another fine day tomorrow, Ishbel thought.
Aidan was right. The Telford case – the biggest complaint she’d ever dealt with at work – had thrown her totally off balance. Even now it was all over, nearly three years since the initial complaint, she was finding it hard to get back into her old work-life flow. She had been distracted. So distracted that she’d let a week go by since that conversation with her husband, and she still hadn’t spoken to Abigail about the whole boyfriend issue. Aidan had told her that this boy was on Abigail’s course at college, and he had his own car and some sort of job. ‘He seems to come from a nice family,’ Aidan had said, twisting his voice into a parody of Ishbel’s own. ‘I know that sort of thing is important to you.’ She’d shrugged off that particular jab – she picked her battles carefully these days. But she’d allowed herself a small eye-roll. Her husband always accused her of being too status conscious, yet she found his endless positioning and repositioning of himself almost too tiring to keep up with. ‘Now there’s a real man,’ he’d say, about some athlete or celebrity he approved of. For years, she’d found it charming – sexy, even. Exciting. Now, she was relieved they’d had a daughter, not a son … but she was also worried about what Aidan’s enthusiasm for this new boyfriend meant. She’d pressed for more information, but Aidan claimed that was all he knew.
‘I’ve seen a photo, though,’ he’d said, puffing out his chest, an I know something you don’t know gesture. ‘He’s the tall, dark and handsome type. And he’s got a twinkle in his eye.’ Aidan had grabbed his keys: heading out once again to some rendezvous Ishbel didn’t quite know the details of. ‘You should be worried,’ he’d said.
Around Ishbel, the car park emptied. The football coach walked back out onto the pitch in her coat to patrol for litter, for jumpers or mobile phones left behind. Ishbel watched her: a small, compact figure pacing the perimeter. Soon the floodlights would be damped out, and the feeding swifts would be replaced by bats. Abigail had not come out. Ishbel’s was the last remaining car.
The clock now read 21:19. Ishbel made a clucking sound in her throat as she pulled her phone from her handbag, and dialled her daughter’s number. The phone rang through to voicemail. Ishbel could have predicted this – if Abigail was rushing to change her clothes and saw her mother calling, she’d surely ignore it. She’d know the call was a tacit nag: get out here already. Ishbel caught a glimpse of her own reflection in the driver’s side mirror. She looked pale, her short dark hair – dyed, these days – a little mussed. God, I look old, she thought. In her head, she was still Abigail’s age, and she always got something of a surprise, looking at her reflection and seeing the thinning lips and crow’s feet of an older woman.
Ishbel was seized by the impulse to leave a voicemail.
‘Abigail,’ she said, ‘this is your mother. Remember me? I have half a report to write tonight and I’d hoped to be home getting on with it by now. Whatever you’re doing, please get a move on, okay?’
She flicked the display to end the call, and felt thwarted. The cruelty of smartphones: you didn’t get the satisfaction of slamming a receiver down.
Ishbel didn’t return the phone to her bag, but propped it on the dashboard, just in case it rang. As she looked up from its glowing screen, her eye was caught by a far-off movement, a quick swim of light. A block away down the hill, Comely Bank Road ran parallel to the car park: from her vantage point in the car, Ishbel could make out the lit canopy of a newsagent’s, and the odd car rattling past the crossroads.
What had caught her eye was a city bus – a single-decker with big plate windows, lit up from inside. Some glitch in traffic had caused it to stop across the junction, idling in the yellow box until someone blew their horn. Standing, hanging on to the bus’s overhead rail, was Abigail. Ishbel was a long way off, and the bus moved on almost as soon as it had stopped, but she’d recognise her daughter’s profile anywhere. Unsure of her next move, she sat in the car, her hands on the steering wheel at two and ten, scrolling through a cycle of silent questions. Why would Abigail be on a city bus? Hadn’t she been at practice? If not, then why? And where had she been?
There must be some reason, Ishbel thought. Come on. But she could think of none.
It took about a minute for her daughter’s small figure to round the corner at the bottom of the block. The twilight made the vision indistinct, but Ishbel knew it was her. The pale cloud of hair, the shoulders hooked inwards – no matter how often Ishbel nipped at her to stand up straight – the striped, drawstring gym bag slung on one hip. The figure she was sure was Abigail slipped into the grounds of the school through a side gate, and disappeared.
Ishbel’s phone buzzed, but the text was not from her daughter. It was Aidan.
Assume you picked up Baby okay? If you’re at shop, pls get dishwasher tablets. A.
Baby was a pet name Abigail hated – or she hated it when it came out of Ishbel’s mouth. For some reason, from Aidan it was allowed. When Abigail was born the two of them had struggled to name her. Back then, you weren’t told the gender of your baby ahead of time, but Aidan’s mother believed in all sorts of old wives’ tales and convinced Ishbel she was carrying a boy. When Abigail arrived – the most feminine baby ever, her long blonde lashes already fully formed – they were caught unawares, unable to use Nathan or Jackson, the names they’d prepared. So, for a long few days they called her Baby, and Aidan had never really stopped.
Baby late out. Back soon. I. Ishbel thought about adding an x to the end of the text, but the corners of her mouth turned down at the very idea. She hit send.
She watched Abigail open the door onto the pitch and step out into the floodlights’ yawn. As she got about halfway over, they blinked out, plunging the practice fields into darkness. Instinct caused Ishbel’s heart to miss a beat, but her eyes became accustomed to the new dimness in only a second or two. Abigail was still trudging towards the car, the striped bag thumping against her side.
‘Sorry, Mum,’ she said, swinging open the passenger door. ‘I got chatting with Ms Lessenger.’
Emily Lessenger was the coach Ishbel had just seen patrolling the empty pitch. She flinched at her daughter’s smooth lie.
‘No you didn’t,’ she replied. ‘Ms Lessenger’s been out here, checking the pitches. I saw her. She was on her own.’
Abigail ditched the striped bag in the footwell, and slammed the car door.
‘When, just now?’ The girl’s face was placid, moon-eyed: butter-wouldn’t-melt.
‘Five minutes ago,’ Ishbel said. ‘Or so.’
Abigail tossed her head, shaking her hair off one shoulder and onto the other.
‘Oh,’ she said. ‘Before that, then. I talked to her and then got changed. Sorry. I didn’t realise the time.’
Ishbel studied her daughter. Believing her would be easy: it had been some other girl on the bus, some other girl who snuck across the street and through the school to the pitch. Just another girl with blonde hair and a stripy bag. Believe it. She could feel her daughter willing her to.
‘I phoned you,’ Ishbel said. She decided she ought to start the engine: the dash clock read 21:26. As Abigail rummaged in the gym bag for her phone, Ishbel reversed out into the road, and pulled away.
‘Oh yeah,’ Abigail said, lighting up the smartphone. ‘One missed call. Sorry.’
Ishbel made a left, and then an immediate right. She liked to drive along the park, past the Inverleith mansions with their oriel windows and electronic gates.
‘I’ve got a text from Dad as well,’ Abigail added, looking down at her phone – the pose Ishbel saw her in most often these days. ‘He says to say to you: dishwasher tablets.’
They paused at the ‘give way’ sign on Inverleith Row, waiting for another city bus to pass: the double-decker 23 to Trinity. Going my way, Ishbel thought. Typical. Now she’d have to follow in its chugging wake.
‘We don’t have time for dishwasher tablets,’ Ishbel said. ‘I’ve got to work on this report tonight, it’s due back to the complainant tomorrow. It’s late enough as it is. Text him to wash up by hand for once. It won’t kill him.’
Abigail snorted, but began thumbing out the text.
‘You know he’ll leave it for me to do when we get in,’ she said.
‘Yeah? Well it wouldn’t kill you, either.’
They drove on in silence. The 23 pulled up at a stop beside a row of takeaways: pizza, curry, Chinese. Ishbel glanced in the rear-view mirror, then nipped out past the bus and into the right-turn lane for Ferry Road. A cab driver pipped his horn as he let her go by. ‘Screw you,’ Ishbel hissed.
Abigail glanced up.
‘Jesus, Mother.’ She laughed. ‘You’re cranky this evening.’
Ishbel pressed her back teeth together. She steered off Ferry Road and into Trinity. They’d be home soon: only a few more streets. She had to say something.
‘Where were you really, Abigail?’
Her daughter’s head snapped up.
‘What do you mean?’ That moon-eyed face again.
‘Tonight,’ Ishbel said, pushing her voice into an even line. ‘Instead of going to practice. Where were you?’
Abigail laughed again. It was a confident laugh, there were no cracks in it – but there was something else. A little edge of nastiness.
‘I don’t know what you mean. I went to practice. You dropped me off. You saw me walk in. You just saw me walk out again.’
Ishbel soothed the car down to a lower speed.
‘No,’ she said. ‘What I saw was you getting off a bus on Comely Bank Road just now. What I saw was you sneaking in the side door of the school. Then I saw you walk out.’
There it is, Ishbel thought. There’s the crack in the veneer.
‘I saw you, Abigail. You got off the bus, you sneaked in the side door, and then you walked out over the pitch to make it look like you’d been at practice the whole time.’
Abigail said nothing. Her phone rested in her hands, its screen dark. She didn’t look down at it, just stared ahead through the windscreen.
‘Is it this boy?’ Ishbel kept her voice light, even as she tried to push out of her head the image of her daughter being bundled into some dim bedroom: some pungent male space full of pizza boxes, Playboy posters on the walls. ‘Dad told me you … might have a boyfriend.’
Abigail rolled her eyes.
‘Dad can’t keep his mouth shut.’
It was true, then: Abigail had sought her father’s confidence, but had deliberately kept this fact from Ishbel. Had Aidan always been so smug about things? She couldn’t, right then, remember.
‘Is it anyone I know?’ As she said it, Ishbel realised that she didn’t really know who Abigail socialised with these days. She knew of only one other person from the same high-school year who attended Three Rivers College – and he was a dark-haired boy.
‘Is it Ryan?’ she asked.
Abigail still wasn’t looking at her.
There was a pause. Abigail wrinkled her nose.
‘Wait – you mean Ryan Summers? From high school?’
‘Summers,’ Ishbel said. ‘That’s it – that’s his name.’
‘Jesus,’ Abigail said. ‘Absolutely not. I mean – ew. Ryan Summers is a total creeper. I wouldn’t go out with him if he was the last straight man on this planet.’
‘Okay!’ Ishbel lifted her hands from the steering wheel for a second, then imagined the driver in front seeing the two white stars of her palms flashing in their rear-view. ‘I just wondered. You can’t blame me for being interested in this boy … especially if he’s good enough to miss football practice for.’
She was trying to sound jokey, throwaway. It wasn’t working.
‘His name, for your information, is Jack. I’m surprised you don’t know that already, since Dad’s been blabbing. But I didn’t miss practice for him – I didn’t. I haven’t been anywhere near him tonight, okay?’
‘I wouldn’t mind if you told me you wanted to miss practice sometimes. I wouldn’t mind if you wanted to go to …’ Ishbel swallowed, and tasted acid. ‘To a friend’s, or something. But tell me. Just tell me, Abigail.’
They’d reached the road-end for Primrose Bank: home, Ishbel thought. She turned right. Abigail was still staring straight ahead, but Ishbel could practically hear her daughter’s mental gears shifting.
‘I just want to make sure you’re … being careful,’ Ishbel said.
Her daughter drew in a breath, as though to speak. As she pulled the car into the front drive, Ishbel thought maybe Abigail was about to own up – to admit what she’d been doing, and apologise.
‘Mother,’ she said instead, ‘you’re on fucking crack.’
Ishbel blinked hard. A shudder ran through her. She’d never heard Abigail speak like that – not once, in almost twenty years. The engine was still running, and her foot was still on the brake, keeping the car from rolling back out of the drive and into the road. But Abigail grabbed the bag at her feet and shoved open the passenger door.
‘Don’t you think you can speak to me like that,’ Ishbel heard herself say. Abigail slammed the door on her words, and stomped around the front of the car. As she passed, the car’s headlights lit up the backs of her legs. There were grass-stains on her acid-wash jeans.
Ishbel wrenched the handbrake on and turned the key in the ignition. Abigail had unlocked the front door and stormed through it – now it slammed behind her. Ishbel grabbed her bag and climbed down out of the car. When she reached the front door, she found that her daughter had slipped the security chain on, so she couldn’t get in.
‘We’re going to have serious words, madam!’ Ishbel yelled through the three-inch gap the chain allowed. She put her finger on the doorbell and left it there, listening as the non-stop trill filled up the house.
‘Darling.’ Aidan’s face appeared. ‘Please.’
Ishbel let go of the bell, and the door handle, which she’d been clutching so hard that the lines of its brass octagon had sunk into her palm. She listened as Aidan fumbled the chain off from the other side. He let her in.
‘I don’t know what’s going on,’ he said, ‘but can we think of the neighbours?’
Ishbel dropped her handbag onto the stripped wooden floor of the hallway.
‘Never mind the neighbours, Aidan. Where has she gone?’
Her husband put a hand on her shoulder.
‘Bel. What happened?’
She flinched the hand away.
‘She’s been sneaking around somewhere. She was late getting out of football, then just after I texted you, I saw her get off a bus at Comely Bank. She let herself into the school and walked out again to make it look like she’d been there all along. She thinks I was born yesterday.’ Aidan opened his mouth to speak, but Ishbel went on: ‘Then she gets in the car and lies about it, to my face. Right to my face, Aidan. Smooth as anything.’
Ishbel realised she was shaking. What was it – shock? Anger? Worry, she thought. But her husband was smiling at her.
Her eyes widened.
‘What do you mean, that’s all? Where has she been? Why is she lying to me? Why didn’t she tell me she’s got a boyfriend?’
‘Come on, Bel. Did you never have secrets from your parents?’
He made that slap-worthy face again, and then added, ‘I mean, from your mother?’
Ishbel paused, then waved her husband aside and stepped past him.
‘I can’t believe you’re saying this to me.’
She started up the stairs. Behind her in the hall, Aidan was still talking.
‘Did you never sneak off anywhere on your own? Did you never want to have something that was just for you?’
Ishbel whirled around, hand on the banister.
‘Do you know something else?’ she asked. ‘What else has she told you? Do you know what this is about?’
Her husband frowned.
‘No,’ he said, and she could see he was telling the truth. Damn. Him being party to something else that she wasn’t would have stung, but at least she’d have had a chance at winkling it out of him. ‘I told you everything last week. But Bel, she’s nearly twenty years old. She’s an adult. What she does and where she goes isn’t really our business any more.’
Ishbel smacked the flat of her hand off the banister. It hurt.
‘For Christ’s sake, Aidan,’ she said. ‘You know why I’m upset about this. It’s not the doing and the going – it’s the lying. I mean, why lie to me? Why swear at me, why be abusive? She’s not just coming and going as she pleases. There’s something going on here.’
Her husband threw up his hands: a whatever, you win gesture. It irritated her. Why wasn’t he angry, too? What was this?
‘No.’ She brought her hand down again. ‘You don’t get to just surrender! For once, just for once, Aidan, I need you to be on my side. I need you to feel the way I feel, or at least acknowledge it. She still lives under our roof, she still eats our food, I still sit in that godforsaken car park every week waiting for her to come out of football. When none of those things are true any more, then she can come and go as she pleases. When I’m no longer washing her jeans for her, then she can roll them around in the dirt. But while she lives here I have the right to know what the hell’s going on!’
In the quiet that followed, Ishbel realised she was breathing hard. The staircase and its landings rang with the harmonics of her outburst. But she didn’t feel any better. Something was still pent up inside her.
‘You hear that, missy?’ She tilted her head up, sending the yell in the vague direction of her daughter’s bedroom. Her voice was beginning to get hoarse. ‘We’re not done here, you know. You’re not going to lie to my face and get away with it, not while you live in this house!’
There was no answer. No sound came from above her head. Ishbel wondered if her daughter had even heard her – she could have put on her noise-cancelling headphones. She could be watching a TV show right now, oblivious. Down in the hall, Aidan’s hands were still in the air, as though someone were pointing a gun at him. Ishbel could see him on the edge of her vision. She felt as though all the life were ebbing out of her.
‘Well,’ Aidan brought his arms down by his sides. ‘Now that we’ve all had chapter and verse, can you please calm down?’
Ishbel glared at him, but the fight in her was dying.
‘I don’t know what’s going on with you, Aidan,’ she said. ‘This really isn’t like you at all.’
‘You’re just being melodramatic,’ he said. ‘And I think you know that.’
They stood looking at one another for a long time. Aidan in the hall, his shirtsleeves rolled up, a hole in one sock. Ishbel five stairs above him, her feet sore in her high-heeled shoes, and her heart thudding in her ears. Of course, she thought. He wouldn’t care about our daughter disappearing at all hours of the day and night. He does it himself, all the time. She tried to push the thought away.
‘Did you buy dishwasher tablets?’ Aidan said.
Ishbel brought both hands to her face, to shut him out.
‘I’m going to bed,’ she said, speaking into her own palms. When Aidan said nothing, she added, ‘In the spare room.’
But a moment later, when she dropped her hands, he’d already walked away.