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Authors: Maggy Farrell

Guilt Trip

BOOK: Guilt Trip
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Guilt Trip

by

Maggy Farrell

Cover image based on the original photo of the Battlefield
Cavern:
www.whitescarcave.co.uk
1

It comes to me in my dreams, over and over.
Intruding. Invading. Haunting.

In slow motion, almost frame-by-frame, the
scene unfolds.

The sharp bend.

The black ice.

Mum unable to control the wheel as we skid
across the road, crashing through the fence, careering down the bank, the car
flipping over onto its side as we descend.

Mum is below me now as we hurtle into the deadly-cold
river which quickly steals through the cracks in the windscreen.

It isn’t a lot of water: the river isn’t
deep, and we’re not far in. But it’s enough.

“Help me!”

I am aware of her thrashing about,
struggling to unfasten her seatbelt.

But it’s jammed.

And so I watch as the water begins to pool
around her, filling up the spaces - the air pockets - gradually taking her into
its freezing, smothering embrace.

2

“Melissa, honey! We’re almost there!”

Startled, I opened my eyes to find Dad grinning
at me like an excited schoolboy.

“Just look at this place,” he laughed,
gesturing out of the car window.

Before I’d fallen asleep, we’d been following
one large, busy motorway after the other, from one grey city to the next. But
now we were on a smaller, quieter road, twisting its way across a rolling landscape.

On every side, as far as the eye could see,
were green fields dotted with pale limestone outcrops and white sheep and
occasional pools of water which shone silver in the sunshine. And above it all,
the sky was vast and blue.

And though this area was new to me, I had a
sudden feeling of belonging. As if I’d come home.

I smiled to myself. I hadn’t been sure about
the trip at first. After all, this wasn’t a
real
holiday; Dad was actually there for work. He’d been one of the judges for a photography
competition and now the winning images were to go on show, and he had to be
there on opening night to talk to the press and stuff.

But he’d booked a few extra days at our
lodgings and sworn that we could spend some quality time together, and so I’d
agreed to tag along.

And now began a series of stops and starts
as Dad couldn’t resist pulling over every five minutes to ‘capture the sunlight
on that fell’, or ‘the particular angle of that limestone scar’. But I was used
to such erratic behaviour: apparently freelance photographers never rest.

And at least when he was absorbed in his
work, he wasn’t thinking about the other thing. About Mum.

It had been really hard for Dad. He and Mum
weren’t just my parents; they were also a proper ‘couple’. A pair of romantic lovebirds,
still surprising each other with breakfast in bed, drawing hearts in the
condensation on the bathroom mirror, leaving little love notes in the biscuit
tin. That sort of thing.

Completely embarrassing for me of course: I
mean, what self-respecting teenager wants to see her Mum and Dad holding hands
all round Tesco?

But that’s just the way they were. Inseparable.
Well … almost.

Of course he’d said that getting myself out
of the car was the best thing I could ever have done. “Imagine losing
both
my beautiful girls,” he’d whispered
by my hospital bed, his voice thick with tears. “I don’t know what I would have
done.”

Dr Henderson, in her objective clinical
tone, tells me that I had no choice in the matter; that flight is ‘an instinctive
animal response to danger’.

“Self-preservation is nature's first great
law,” she says. “That is how we as a species survive.”

But I just can’t help dreaming about it. How
I
escaped and Mum didn’t. How
I
lived and Mum died.

 

<><><>

 
 

The day was turning chilly when we finally
arrived at the small, country town where we were going to be staying. We drove
down the main street, which edged round a marketplace. It was getting late now,
and the stallholders were starting to pack up, the surrounding shops preparing
to close. Dad pointed out an old white building: the Fox and Hound.

Parking at the back, we made our way to the
reception desk in the front hallway. The place was quiet at this time of day,
between afternoon and early evening. I looked through a doorway to the right
into a low-ceilinged L-shaped room, with dark beams and brass lamps. Along the
bar, on the left, a row of various pumps advertised beer with odd names like
‘Spotted Hen’ and ‘Grumpy Sal’. On the opposite wall, in-between the low windows
which looked out onto the marketplace, stuffed foxes stared with beady eyes
from inside glass cases. And above the large, open, unlit fireplace on the far
wall, was a huge painting of a hunt scene - men, dogs and horses charging after
their prey.

While I was nosing about, Dad hit the bell
on the reception desk, and after a few minutes, we heard the creaking of footsteps
descending stairs, and then the door behind the reception area opened and a man
appeared.

Immediately, something inside me stirred. And
yet he was just an ordinary-looking guy, maybe about thirty-five or so, dressed
in simple jeans and a T-shirt - body not overly muscly, but you could see he
kept himself in good shape.

“Hi,” he said, running a quick hand through
his hair.

“Hi,” Dad said. “We have a reservation for
eight nights. The name’s Williams.”

“Mr Williams…” The man looked at his
computer. “Ah yes.” Having found the booking, he introduced himself as the
landlord, Luke.

“Into photography, are you?” he asked,
admiring Dad’s impressively complicated camera.

“Yes,” Dad said. “Actually, that’s why I’m
here. For the new exhibition at the gallery. I was one of the judges.”

“Is that right?” Luke sounded genuinely
interested.

“Yes. You should come along on Friday for
the opening night. I’ll organise an invitation if you like.”

“Thanks. I might just do that.”

“Great,” said Dad. “And while I’m here I
thought I’d take the opportunity to snap some local geology.”

“Plenty of that around here,” Luke said. He
checked the computer and took two adjacent keys from their designated hooks on
the pegboard. “In fact, this week we’re having our annual day-trip to the
Cauldron pothole. You could get some great photos there. We leave from here on
Saturday morning if you’re interested in joining us.”

“Oh yes. Already signed up online,” Dad
said. “We’re really looking forward to it.”

 
“Both of you?” Eyebrows raised, Luke
glanced in my direction.

“Oh, Melissa’s used to that sort of thing,”
Dad smiled proudly, reaching out to stroke my head. “Aren’t you, my adventurous,
little honeypot?”

I nudged him, ducking away from his
outstretched hand, mortified by his baby talk. You see, ‘Melissa’ is Greek for honeybee,
and so Dad is forever calling me ‘sweetheart’ and ‘sweetie’ and ‘honey’ and
stuff. Don’t get me wrong - most of the time I like it. But not now, in front
of this man.

And it was then, as Dad and I were messing
about, that I happened to catch Luke’s eye properly for the first time. And for
a tiny fraction of a moment, I thought I saw something. A flicker in his
expression. Surprise? Shock? Almost as if he recognised me. Knew me.

And I felt it too - deep down inside. Some
kind of spark between us. A connection.

But in an instant it was over, and he’d turned
away, giving his attention to the pegboard again, though the two keys were
still in his hand.

He looked back at his computer and pressed
a few buttons, clearly puzzled about something.

“That can’t be right.” He tapped the
keyboard again. “I think somebody’s made a mistake with the bookings. We’re
really busy at the moment what with the potholing trip and everything, and it
looks like someone’s messed up.”

He reached to the pegboard, putting one of
the keys back and then selecting a different one altogether, fumbling as he
took it from its peg. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to put one of you up on the
top floor,” he said, shaking his head. “I’m sorry. I don’t know how it could
have happened.”

Dad made mild grumbling noises about this. He
had, after all, asked for rooms next to each other.

“Tell you what,” Luke said. “I could always
ask the guests in the room next to you to swap if you like. Well - when they
come in.”

Immediately Dad said no to this suggestion.
He wouldn’t dream of messing everybody around like that.

And so Luke handed one of the keys to him.

Then he held the other out to me.

“Are you sure you’ll be okay on your own?”
he asked me. “You’re only one floor away from your dad.”

“Yes, it’s fine,” I mumbled hastily, snatching
the key, still warm from his fingers. I was flustered by his concern, aware
that I must seem such a baby. First Dad had called me ‘honeypot’, and now all this
trouble about my room. I mean, I was sixteen for God’s sake.

But at my words, his mouth stretched into a
wide, generous smile. And then he winked at me, a barely-perceptible gesture. A
secret communication between us - from him to me - a thank you for not making a
fuss.

And the thing inside me stirred again,
unable to settle.

3

Leaving Dad on the first floor, I trudged
up to the second. He had offered to switch places with me, but I wasn’t really
bothered. We’d be out most of the time anyway.

On opening the door, my first impression
was that the room seemed quite small, possibly because of the sloping ceilings
and the huge mock-Victorian brass bed, which dominated most of the available
space. My second impression was that it was all a bit beige.

Small and beige; dull and boring. I
shrugged to myself: it could have been worse.

Dumping my bags by the wardrobe, I wiped my
hands together. They felt grubby; and when I put them to my nose they smelled
metallic and in need of a good wash. And that’s when I realised: there was no
en-suite.

 
Going back out onto the landing, I looked
up and down. There were only seven doors in all, and I soon spotted the one
with the ‘Bathroom’ sign on it, second from the end, next to a door which cut
across the corridor itself. Opening it, I peered in. It was okay: a little tired
and old-fashioned, maybe; but nothing too bad.

 
And really, what was there to be so
bothered about? I mean, it wasn’t as if I hadn’t been camping loads of times
and happily used the communal shower blocks.

But this just seemed different somehow. Not
purpose-built and functional and anonymous like at a campsite, but a personal
space. A private bathroom to share with strangers. And some of them had left bits
and pieces of their secret lives behind: a pair of pointed tweezers on the
shelf above the basin; a half-empty toothpaste tube; a grey flannel drying on
the radiator. Looking at them, I felt like a peeping Tom. An intruder into
somebody else’s affairs.

Checking that the door was securely locked,
that no one could possibly walk in on me, I used the loo and then washed my hands,
soaping them thoroughly. I scrubbed hard at my flesh, washing away the grime of
a day’s travelling, and the smell of the key, wondering how many strangers had
touched it before me, how many had stayed in that same room.

And that’s when it happened: déjà vu - when
your brain takes a second to catch up with your eyes so that when it does, what
you register feels more like a memory than something happening right now. As if
you’ve seen it before. Just my hands at the sink, reaching for the tap.

 

<><><>

 
 

It was pretty busy downstairs when I met up
with Dad later that evening. Luke was behind the bar, chatting with his
customers as he poured their pints, but it was another barman who eventually
served us.

Having ordered the homemade steak-and-ale
pie, we took our drinks to a wooden table near the now-roaring coal fire, and I
sat opposite Dad, my back to the bar.

I’d brought a stack of leaflets with me from
reception and now I fanned them out across the table for us to look at. I’d deliberately
included a few touristy things like country houses, safari parks and corn mazes.
We didn’t usually go to places like that, Dad preferring the more natural
attractions - somewhere with geology he could photograph. But you never knew. After
all, we had over a week.

But Dad’s eye was immediately caught by a
leaflet featuring an area of high moorland. “Ah, ‘the Devil’s Lair’,” he read
excitedly. “ ‘A stunning range of fells under which lies a whole warren of
limestone caves and caverns.’ ” He turned the page and pointed at an enormous hole
in the ground. “Look, there’s the Cauldron - the pothole we’ll be visiting with
Luke.”

I looked in dismay at the hundred-metre
drop down which a visitor was being winched on a seat, like an acrobat on a swing.

But Dad was already turning the page,
pointing to another photo - a huge cavern, its roof hung with glittering
stalactites. “And look, in the show caves at Hell’s Mouth, you’ve got this
stunning cavern: the Hall of Teeth.”

 
“Oh - I know that one. We’ve seen it
before,” I said. But Dad looked at me blankly. “Maybe on National Geographic,”
I said uncertainly. I couldn’t be any more specific. Since Mum’s death, we’d spent
so much time curled up on the sofa together watching documentaries in a bid to
hide from our grief, that the information had started to meld together in my
mind and I was unable to unravel the exact programme.

But he couldn’t remember at all, so I
laughed and called him a ‘loser’ for letting his daughter beat him at geology-spotting,
and he laughed and called me a ‘know-it-all’. But the warmth of his smile told
me how proud he was of me for recognising it.

“Anyway, Melissa,” he said, dropping the
leaflet back on to the table, “don’t you go bothering yourself about how we’re
going to fill up our time this holiday. There are more than enough natural
features round here to keep us well-occupied.”

So that was a no to theme parks and
castles, then.

I looked at his face - full of happy
anticipation - and decided not to make a fuss. Okay, so traipsing across the
countryside wasn’t exactly what
I
would
call ‘fun’ - personally I’d always rather shop-till-you-drop followed by a
vanilla latte.

But at least we’d be together.

 

<><><>

 
 

Then a friendly, middle-aged waitress, who
introduced herself as Sandy, came over with two steaming plates of food, cautioning
us, like children, to be careful not to burn ourselves.

She set mine before me, my mouth watering
as I breathed in the comforting smell of buttery pastry and rich, meaty gravy.

“You thinking of doing a little sight-seeing?”
she asked, chuckling as Dad hastily pushed all the leaflets aside to make room
for his plate.

“Yes,” Dad smiled at her. “Can’t wait to
head off into the great outdoors.”

“Oh if that’s what you’re into, you should
have a word with
this
man,” she said,
gesturing behind me. “There’s nothing he can’t tell you about all that.”

I looked round to see who she meant, and immediately
sat up straighter. It was Luke, coming towards us with a tray of fresh drinks.

“Well, I know he’s organising our trip to
the Cauldron pothole…” Dad said tentatively.

“Oh not just that,” said Sandy, smiling
maternally at Luke as he reached us. “He’s got qualifications in it and
everything.”

 
“Stop it, Sandy, you’ll make me blush,” Luke
laughed.

“Well he has,” the waitress assured us,
patting Luke’s arm fondly as she began moving off towards the next table. “In
fact he used to be a top guide around these parts at one time.”

“So you did it professionally?” Dad asked
after she’d gone.

“Oh, not for a while now.” Luke shook his
head dismissively, placing a new beer next to Dad’s plate.

“So how come you gave it up?”

For a second, Luke faltered with his
answer. It was nothing really - I mean, Dad didn’t even seem to notice. But I
did. He was reaching over to set my drink down next to me. And suddenly I became
very conscious of his closeness. And somehow I was sure that he was very conscious
of mine too. Some primal instinct. A heightened awareness of each other.

But then it was over. And, having put the
glass down on the table, he straightened up, returning to the conversation almost
as if nothing had happened.

“Oh, I was busy here,” he told Dad, “learning
the ropes, ready to take over this place when my parents retired.”

“So this is a family business?” Dad asked.

“Yes,” he said, “lived here all my life.”

But though he spoke amiably enough, it was
there, in the tone of his voice. I was certain of it. A slightly unnatural quality
that hadn’t been there before. A self-consciousness. A knowledge of what we had
shared.

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