America: A Short Story by Rob Mimpriss
Gwilym Lloyd stepped out of the house in Fforest a little after six in the morning. There was dew on the ground, a fox was barking, and another search party were looking at maps in the lights of a police Land Rover.
Gwilym put his coat in the car and crossed the road. On the fringes of the group he approached the hotel manager, and touched him on the shoulder.
‘What’s the news?’ he said.
‘Nothing,’ said Pennant Hughes, ‘we’re waiting for the parents. I hear they’ve got dogs further up.’
A man in a headlamp glanced their way. His light revealed Hughes’s weariness, but his own face stayed in shadow.
‘I can’t come today,’ said Gwilym. ‘I’m collecting my daughter from Heathrow.’
‘It doesn’t matter,’ said Hughes; ‘we’re looking for a corpse. I’m afraid she won’t be seen alive again.’
‘I sincerely hope you’re wrong. I’ll see you later.’ He shook Hughes by the hand and returned to the car. He drove past the search party and the Land Rover slowly.
Amy Jessop had gone missing five days before. The Jessops were from Liverpool, and were staying in Fforest in Pennant Hughes’s hotel. Amy had left the hotel at six o’clock in the evening, and told a friend she was going to the Shuttle Falls to watch the sunset. She was eleven years old. Twelve hours after she was reported missing her trousers were found in the forest.
Like his neighbours, Gwilym had joined in the search. Three days later his daughter had phoned from San Francisco, where she had been au pairing with a couple called the Stracinskys. The Stracinskys’ marriage was over; they had no more use for Ffion. She had been in some distress, and had told her parents little. What they did know was that Ffion had slept with Ted Stracinsky.
He was in no haste, and drove carefully. He stopped at services south of Manchester for breakfast. He ate sliced meat and salad and looked out of the window, where uniformed staff were lining up on the steps for a photograph. The picture was taken; the women laughed, and lifted their legs: chorus girls with irony. Gwilym arrived at Heathrow at noon, and saw that the plane was landing.
She didn’t see him. She was wearing a short cotton skirt and a low-cut top, and her hair was tied in a bun. She looked around her, missed him again, and strolled across the concourse towards the telephones. Gwilym moved to catch up with her. He caught the strap of her bag, and she turned. Her hair was clean and her teeth were dirty.
It was awkward, embracing. He took her bags, and led the way back through the car park. When they were inside and the engine was started she said, ‘So you bought the new car?’
‘There’ve been a few changes.’
‘Worrying about you.’
They followed the traffic out of the car park, past signs predicting delays. He said, ‘When you phoned your mother, it was three o’clock in the morning. We kept trying to phone you back, but we couldn’t get through. It must have been very sudden.’
‘It was sudden. Ted was packing his bags. He dropped me off at a hotel.’
He brooded on this. ‘How are the Stracinskys?’
‘They’re upset. But relieved as well. Just with Ted being away so much, you could see it wasn’t working.’
‘I see,’ he said. The rain started speaking.
‘Can you turn the heater on, dad?’
‘There’s a switch there.’ He pointed without looking. He was watching the road, and his face stayed hidden and tense.
The signs said Uxbridge. The signs said M40.
Sour English rain fell steadily on the glass. The wipers drove it to the right, to the left.
‘Have you had lunch?’
‘My body still thinks it’s four in the morning.’
The heater blew warm air at their feet. He searched for something to link him to her.
‘I don’t know if your mother told you about the missing child?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘What missing child?’
‘A little girl went missing on holiday in Fforest.’
‘And? Do they have any idea what’s happened?’
‘When I left this morning the search parties were still looking.’
It was a long time before Ffion spoke.
‘I lost Ted and Marcia’s little girl in a mall in San Francisco. It was one of the scariest incidents in my life. But to lose, really lose someone that close to you…’
‘You’ve seen it. With the Stracinskys.’
She did not answer at once.
‘Ted took me to the airport. I had to wait a couple of hours for the plane. There were things he had to see Marcia about; there was a flat he had to go, see… But somehow he’d lost the will-power just to get on with it.’
‘So we sat in the café. He told me not to worry. He bought me a coffee and some magazines… and we talked.’
‘And what did you talk about?’ said Gwilym.
‘About my future. His future. His marriage to Marcia. Whether we’d see each other again. And then he left me at the barrier.’
‘And do you think, if you hadn’t gone to San Francisco this summer, he’d still be divorcing Marcia today?’
‘I think the marriage would be in a lot of trouble,’ said Ffion.
The signs said Oxford. The signs said Bicester.
Ffion opened her mouth and snored. She woke, slept, and snored again.
The rain stopped. A south wind pushed the cumulonimbus aside. The radio announced delays on the M6 north of Birmingham.
The signs said Services, 5 miles. Ffion woke up in the service station car park.
‘Where are we?’
‘Near Banbury. You haven’t been sleeping long.’
She washed, and ate, and wiped her mouth. She looked at Gwilym across the table and smiled a troubled, tender smile.
When they left the service station a kestrel was hovering.
He said, ‘I know you don’t want to think about it now. But do you have any plans?’
‘A friend’s invited me to go travelling in Mexico.’
‘An American friend?’
‘I met him in San Francisco, yes.’
‘I’ve handed in my notice, Ffion. I’m taking early retirement.’
‘I know. Mum said.’
‘It’s been coming for long enough. All the changes at work, and older people stepping down. When Amy Jessop disappeared it was really the final blow.’
‘I’m sorry, dad.’
He was awkwardly silent.
She said, ‘And what are you planning to do when you retire?’
‘Play golf and wear slippers.’
‘We’re doing the loft conversion, and the conservatory. There’s plenty to do at home.’
Later he said, ‘I’d like to see Europe, if I thought your mother would come… I’d like to see Florence and Rome.’
Then he hardened; he felt he’d condoned her. Ffion didn’t notice.
‘I was hitching through Poland with a university friend. We met some Italian girls in Gdansk, and he headed south with them. A year later I had a postcard from him, working as a tour guide in Rome.’
‘Maybe the same thing will happen in Mexico.’
Ffion laughed. ‘Luck of the road.’
But she looked at Gwilym, concerned, although they said nothing.
At Warwick services he stopped again. Ffion went to wash and buy drinks, and Gwilym stayed in the car and studied the map. But he couldn’t stop thinking. He and Ffion had once spent a day on his boss’s yacht at Moelfre. He remembered her sitting on deck in the stern, drinking a Tia Maria and flirting. He rolled down the window and watched her return. She strolled past women collecting for palsied children, and the south wind fingered her skirt.
They drove through Birmingham, and she was asleep.
Gwilym was trying to imagine what it was like to have an affair. He remembered his last secretary, who had made it clear she was willing, and quietly he had had her transferred. He remembered his boss, a well-known womaniser, desperate and camping on Gwilym and Marion after his wife had left him.
He had wanted to talk to her after the day on the yacht, but it had been impossible. They had never been an intimate family; even he and Ffion had always used the chi with each other.
At Froncysyllte he saw that she was awake.
‘When you were sitting with Ted Stracinsky in the café,’ he said, ‘and you were talking about meeting again: what decision did you come to?’
She said, very quietly, ‘I’m sorry, dad.’
They drove through Corwen, passed Cerrigydrudion.
Amy Jessop’s body had been found by police dogs that morning in the old mine near Castell y Gwynt. A detective sergeant had recovered the body, at some risk to himself. The little girl was half-naked, and had been raped and strangled.
Gwilym turned off the radio. He pulled up on the roadside and wept briefly.
In Ffion there were two natures. Gwilym could understand both. But what he could never understand was how the two existed together with such ease.
He started the car. They passed the hotel. They drove into Fforest in the manner of a hearse.