Bish dreamt of his son again. It was what woke him. Not that he needed to pinpoint the reason these days. Three am had become his witching hour, and the fears that revealed themselves made him shudder at the thought of all his future three am’s – of what they might produce. Shaking him awake and reminding him of loss and longing and mortality. He woke again hours later, dragging himself out of bed to the sameness that he’d become used to this past week. A blinding headache. A flat that looked like a university dorm: laundry piled high and a week’s worth of glasses fighting for space on his bedside table. A dead goldfish. That was becoming a ritual now. Another day, another dead fish.
At the front door he collected his post and sat at the breakfast bar sorting it into bills, junk and letters, marvelling at how considerate his postman was, bundling together a deficit to his bank account of five hundred quid in one neat package. Phone bill. Gas bill. Energy bill. Then he came across handwriting. A postcard from Bee: You said to send you a line from Normandy. That was it. No Dear Dad or Miss you heaps. As someone used to spending his days dealing with the scum of the earth, Bish Ortley found no species crueller than the adolescent female. He stared at the cursive, wondering how long he had been waiting for something handwritten, evidence that someone out there had taken the time to reveal the wonders of the world to him.
When his phone interrupted his hangover-induced musings, Bish saw the name of his old boarding school mate. They’d met up only sporadically over the years, usually on Elliot’s initiative. Last Bish knew, he was working for British Rail.
‘Tried you at work but you weren’t there, Ortley.’
Bish wasn’t in the mood for explaining that.
‘Listen . . . things are sketchy, but I thought you needed to know,’ Elliot said. ‘One of the communications people here has picked up talk of a bombing. At a campsite between Calais and Boulogne-sur- Mer. They’re suggesting it could be a busload of British kids on a tour of Normandy. Bumped into your mother last weekend and she mentioned Bee —’
Bish hung up. Heart thumping, pressing Bee’s number with a shaking finger, waiting. Heard the ring first, then her voice.
Obviously not here. Or obviously avoiding you. Pick the reason. Leave a message.
His ex-wife had once warned him that the key to dealing with Bee was not to beg. She was extra cruel when Bish or Rachel pleaded. But he’d trade a lifetime of that cruelty to hear her voice right now.
‘Sweetheart, ring as soon as you get this. Even if you’re angry with me, just ring. I need to know you’re okay.’
He rang Elliot back.
‘What does your coms person know?’
‘Not much. Just that it happened about twenty minutes ago. Someone at the campsite tweeted that the bus had French numberplates, but they’re saying it was carrying British kids. Doesn’t necessarily mean it’s hers.’
Bish’s mouth was dry and he didn’t know where he found the word, but it was there. It had formed on his tongue the moment Elliot had said ‘Bee’ and ‘bombing’ together.
‘Nothing clear yet. But some online images are coming through now. It doesn’t look good. Ambulances, helicopters. Definitely kids being taken away. The French will lock out the press and may jam mobile phone signals if there’s a threat of another device going off. If it were my kid, I’d go now. Can’t imagine the French letting anyone else but parents in.’
Bish didn’t need to be told twice. He’d have to let Rachel know, and he wasn’t sure how. His ex-wife was eight months pregnant, and if Calais came across on some news feed she was following, it wouldn’t be good. But a phone call from Bish while their daughter was away would alarm her. He knew he had to do the right thing, regardless of the fact that the man who’d replaced him was the last person Bish wanted to speak to. He rang before he could change his mind.
There was a moment’s hesitation.
Good. No pleasantries.
‘Listen, you need to prepare Rachel. There’s been a bombing outside Calais. A tour bus of British kids.’
‘Oh fuck. Fuck. Fuck! ’
Maybe not such a good idea to tell the second husband.
‘I haven’t heard from Bee yet,’ Bish said. ‘Tell Rachel to keep off her phone. Bee may try to ring her. Tell her I’m driving there now and I’ll ring the moment I’m at the campground.’
‘Bee doesn’t cope with the tunnel,’ Maynard said. ‘So drive her back on the ferry.’
Bish hung up. His daughter. His claustrophobia she’d inherited, thank you very much. He couldn’t think of anything worse than going through the Channel tunnel, but he didn’t need to hear that from the man who stole his family.
Twenty minutes later he was on the M20 heading to Dover. He’d exhausted every radio station, all regurgitating the same facts or predicting the worst. August in France meant the campsites were packed with kids on tours and families on holidays. He turned down the volume when the talk switched to how many British kids travelled to Europe each year. Next they’d be calculating possible death tolls.
His phone rang and he fumbled to see whose name appeared on the screen. His heart sank.
‘Bish darling, do you know anything?’
His mother had never been much of an alarmist but he could hear the fear in her voice now.
‘I’m on my way there,’ he said.
‘If you haven’t passed the turn-off, let me come with you.’
Saffron Ortley lived forty minutes out of London and en route to Dover. Bish was tempted to lie, say he was long past the turn-off, but his head felt like jelly and lying took effort.
‘Please, Bish. I don’t want you going there alone.’
Three hours later they were sitting on the ferry, sailing towards a nightmare of uncertainty. Saffron, though, had the look of cool practicality that came from years of being a diplomat’s wife. She was the person people noticed when she entered a room, and now, in the ferry lounge, two elderly sisters on their way to visit a niece in Bruges asked her if she’d be a dear and get them a pot of tea. She had already rearranged the seating between them and a couple of backpackers who thought their packs needed a seat of their own. All without a fuss.
‘Who could stomach a beer on a Channel crossing?’ one of the sisters said, watching the activity at the bar where Saffron was buying the teas and shortbread.
Bish could. He could stomach a drink anytime.