Rob Mimpriss
America

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 a group of twenty were looking at maps in the lights of a police Land Rover.

     Gwilym put his coat in the car. Then he crossed the road and went up to a man he knew. It was Pennant Hughes, a hotel manager.

     'What's happening?' he said.

     'Nothing,' said Hughes, 'this is just another search. I hear they've got dogs further up.'

     A man turned round; he was wearing a headlamp. He glanced at Gwilym, and then glanced away.

     'Then they must have found something of hers,' said Gwilym.

     'The trousers,' said Hughes. 'Aren't you with us today?'

     'I'm collecting my daughter,' said Gwilym.

     'It's all secret,' said Hughes; 'they don't tell us anything. I suppose even I'm a suspect.'

     'I've got to go; I'll see you later.' He pressed his shoulder, and went back to the car. He drove past the search party and the Land Rover slowly.

     He came out of the forest road onto the A5, and turned left towards Betws y Coed. He crossed the Conwy river, and took the road through Llanrwst. When he joined the express-way, the estuary and the castle were away to his left. The sun was rising over Clwyd.

     He was collecting his daughter at Heathrow airport, off the plane from San Francisco. Ffion had been au pairing all summer with a couple called the Stracinskys. Two days ago she had telephoned in distress from a hotel. The Stracinskys' marriage was over, and they had no more use for Ffion. The phone call had been brief; they did not know the details. What they did know was that Ffion had slept with Ted Stracinsky.

<  2  >

Gwilym had been helping the search parties.

     Amy Jessop had gone missing two days before the phone call. The Jessops were from Liverpool, and were staying in a caravan in Fforest. Amy had left the caravan park 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. At ten o'clock her parents had reported her missing.

     The next day her trousers were found in the forest. Police and local people had started a search. Like the others Gwilym had set out at dawn, spent the day calling her name, and gone home at dusk to eat a meal with Marion. Neither had given the other much news.

     He was in no haste, and drove moderately. 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; they laughed, and the women lifted their legs self-deprecatingly. Gwilym arrived at Heathrow at noon, and saw that the plane was landing.

     He waited. Sour English rain fell briefly on the glass. He remembered a holiday he had taken last summer, with Ffion and Marion in Bala. One day they had left Marion at the guest house, and cycled to Llyn Celyn. He looked up, and Ffion was coming through the gate.

     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 moved 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.

     'How are you, Ffion?'

     'Hello, dad.'

     'The car's waiting just outside.'

<  3  >

     It was awkward, embracing. He took her bags, and led the way back through the car park. The boot took her bags easily. When they were inside and the engine was started she said, 'So you bought the new car?'

     'There've been a few changes.'

     'How's mum?'

     '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 tried to phone you back, but we only had the Stracinskys' number. It must have been very sudden.'

     'It was sudden - Ted was packing his bags. He took me to a hotel.'

     He brooded on this. 'How are the Stracinskys?'

     She took a long time to answer that question.

     'They're upset. But relieved as well. Just with Ted being away so much, they could see it wasn't working. From now on they want to be friends.'

     'I see,' he said. The rain started speaking. 'There's a coat in the back if you're cold.'

     She reached back. The car was spacious, and she had to undo her seat belt.

     '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.

     Spray from the lorries fell on the windscreen. The wipers drove it to the right, to the left.

     'Have you had lunch?'

     'My body still thinks it's four in the morning.'

<  4  >

     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, immediately concerned. '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 they were still looking.'

     'And how are the parents?'

     'They're still in the caravan. They've been helping with the search parties.'

     It was a long time before Ffion spoke.

     'I lost Ted and Marcia's little girl in a supermarket in San Francisco. It was one of the most terrifying 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 he found it so hard just to drag himself away.'

     'You were all he had left.'

     'Not quite; he said himself he had other things. But somehow he'd lost the will power just to get on with them.'

     'I see.'

     'So we sat in the cafe. 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.

<  5  >

     '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 slept for over an hour.'

     She washed, and ate, and wiped her mouth. She looked at Gwilym across the table and smiled a troubled, tender smile.

     'How's the car?'

     'It needs filling.'

     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.'

<  6  >

     'I'm sorry, dad.'

     'Why sorry?'

     'Late night phone calls. Making you worry.'

     He was awkwardly silent.

     She said, 'And what are you planning to do when you retire?'

     'Play golf and wear slippers.'

     'No, dad.'

     'We're doing the loft conversion, and the conservatory. There's plenty to do at home.'

     'Are you planning to travel?'

     'No,' he said.

     Later he said, 'I'd like to see parts of Europe, if I thought your mother would come.'

     'Are you going on holiday this year?'

     'Harlech.'

     Later he said, '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 the car. 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 with his boss on his boss's yacht at Moelfre. He remembered watching her sitting on deck, 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.

<  7  >

     'This is water with peach, and this is Perrier water.'

     'Thank you very much.'

     'I bought these flowers for you and mum. I hope they last. It's just a way of saying thank you, really.'

     'That's very kind. She'll appreciate it.'

     They drove through Birmingham, and she was asleep.

     Gwilym was trying to understand 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.

     They drove towards the ruins of the sun.

     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 cafe,' 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 and 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.

<  8  >

     The day they cycled to Llyn Celyn he let Ffion ride ahead of him. He watched her cycling with easy movements past banks of foxglove and rosebay willowherb, sometimes disappearing round a bend in the road. But always she was ahead of him.

     He started the car. They passed the camp-site. They drove into Fforest in the manner of a hearse.

 

AUTHOR'S NOTES:

     'The Shuttle Falls': Actually called the Swallow Falls, but Shuttle Falls is the correct translation.

     'Llyn Celyn': A village in Clwyd, flooded by Liverpool Council in the 1960s. The flooding of Llyn Celyn is seen as a key historical event.

     'used the chi': used the polite form of the verb with each other. Most parents and children would use the intimate form.

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