On a Friday night between one and two, Colm could always be found sitting alone in the Pay and Display, waiting for his daughter. He’d chosen this spot himself, down by the river, well away from the pubs and clubs and most nights he was not disturbed. Danielle knew where to find him. Tonight she was late, but Colm hadn’t noticed yet.
He felt insulated from everything, there in the dark, watching the misty rain coat the windscreen. The pulse of the radio, the tilt of the seat, even the butts in the ashtray, all of these comforted him. Sometimes he would turn off the heating and let the windows mist up around him like a shell. There was no other time he could do this. When he wasn’t working, he was with his girlfriend, and she’d be waiting for him now with her camomile and ginseng and swollen belly. Just eight years older than his daughter.
He became aware of a taste in his mouth, a smell, like whiskey, an old smell that disturbed him. With it came an image of his sister. She was lying curled up on her bed, her face covered, refusing to speak. It was the day he’d left home. He’d tried to touch her hand but she’d flinched and drawn herself in tighter. I have no choice, he could hear himself saying. Leaving the room he’d heard her speak, under her breath, like the words had escaped on their own. Fuck you, she’d said. She was twelve then.
He spat into the ashtray and glanced at the clock. Danielle was twenty minutes late. Turning the wipers on, he peered out. It was unusually still, only a few couples passing on the other side of the road. Two police jeeps crept around the roundabout at the far end of the street. Colm rolled down the window to listen, letting the rain in. There were crowds all right, a muffled hum somewhere.
He decided to phone her mobile.
‘Hello Daddy,’ said a female voice that was not his daughter’s.
‘Who’s this?’ Colm’s heart quickened. ‘Where’s Danielle?’ His throat was dry.
‘Whe-er-re’s Danielle?’ the voice sang back. ‘That’s the question.’ The line went dead.
Colm phoned back and the same voice answered. ‘Daddy?’ it said.
‘I want to speak to Danielle.’
‘Could you hold the line please?’ There were sniggers and whisperings and Colm lit a fag, twitching.
‘Hello Daddy.’ A new voice now, male in falsetto. Colm hung up. He tried to think…
There was a movement at his right shoulder. He jumped, dropping his half-burned cigarette on to the floor. It was Danielle. As he struggled to retrieve the fag, his daughter sauntered around the car and sat heavily into the seat beside him.
‘What’s happnin’ Da?’
He threw the cigarette out the window. ‘Your phone Danielle. Where is it?’
‘Oh,’ said Danielle, pulling at the seat belt, ‘Tan has it. I’ll get it back tomorrow.’
‘Do you know how much that phone cost me, Danielle?’
‘Naw Da, it’s grand. I’ll get it back tomorrow. She was taking photos for me, of me and the gang. I forgot to get it off her again, that’s all.’
Slowly it dawned on her what had happened.
‘Did you phone my mobile?’ She threw back her head, yelling a laugh. Colm realised how drunk she was. Starting the engine he drove slowly out of the car park.
‘Who’s this Tan anyway?’ he asked when she was quiet and resting her head on the seat, looking at him.
‘I know her from school.’ As she spoke, she turned her head away from him to look out her window. ‘Off her head though.’
No more was said. The wipers were on intermittent and Colm began counting the seconds in the intervals. His sister’s voice stayed with him. By the time they had reached the house Danielle was nearly asleep.
On a clear night, a few weeks before, a girl in her late teens was seen crossing the Pay and Display car park, making her way unsteadily towards the river. Reaching the low wall at the water’s edge, she climbed on to it and stretched her arms out on either side as if she was preparing to dive. For a while she stood there unmoving, staring at the water.
Eventually she turned to her left. With small steps, heel to toe, she walked along the narrow wall, swaying more than once, but never falling.
A man got out of a car that was parked further up the quay and approached her slowly. When he was close enough, he called to her, ‘Are you alright?’ The girl spun round to face him. She lost her balance for a second, but recovered quickly and stood above him on the wall, staring at him without speaking. The man reached his hand up to her. He was close enough to touch her.
As suddenly as she had faced him, the girl turned away. The man raised both hands up towards her waist, and for a moment they looked like two ballet dancers performing a graceful lift. Then she fell backwards, into his arms, and he caught her.
With her head bowed, the girl appeared not to reply as he guided her to his car. When they were inside, they didn’t move off for a minute or so, and the windows began to mist up with their breath. Finally, the engine started, the mist cleared, and they left the empty car park.
Tan strode down through the estate to Danielle’s house on Saturday evening leaving her mother raging at the door behind her. It would be a few hours before the vodka did its work and settled her in a chair for the night, and then maybe Tan would go back, slip in unnoticed, up to her room. She’d woken mid-afternoon, thirsty and sore, and knew straight away from the noises downstairs that she would have to be out before seven. The light in the room was already fading.
Nuala, Danielle’s mother, opened the door.
‘She’s not in, love. She’s with her father this weekend. Did she not tell you?’ Tan remembered Danielle saying something in the club. She tried to think as she and Nuala faced each other. Where else would she go? What if she had to go back to the house? She couldn’t trust herself around her mother any more. Nuala decided for her.
‘C’mon in,’ she said, ‘and I’ll ring and see if you can go over.’
She waited in the living room, fidgeting with Danielle’s mobile until it died in her hands, while Nuala made a phone call in the kitchen. When she came back, she looked like she’d won some minor victory.
‘You can head on over there now if you like, love. Danielle knows you’re coming.’ Tan rose quickly from the seat and for a second her head swam and she thought she was falling. She hadn’t eaten. Nuala stepped forward, reaching towards her, but she righted herself and moved towards the door.
‘You alright, love?’ Nuala asked, but she was already halfway out. ‘I’m grand. Seriously. Got up too quickly, that’s all.’
Nuala told her the address and watched her from the doorway until she was out of sight.
The heavy mizzle hadn’t stopped since the night before. When Tan got to the first mobile chippie she bought a bag and was soon huddled behind the van mechanically placing the chips in her mouth. She tried to calculate how long it would take to get there. Even if it turned out she couldn’t stay long, a good couple of hours would be killed in the process. Two boys, about ten, were crouching near her, scratching the initials of their favourite team into the van’s painted metal with shards of stone. She gave them the end of the bag.
Warmed and sickened, she set off along the main road, ignoring the obvious shortcuts. It was already dark. In her head, she broke the route up into four, so she would only ever be moving from one point to another, from roundabout to roundabout. To stop herself thinking and losing her nerve she counted her footsteps, and when she lost count she started again.
The house was on one of the new developments on the edge of the city. When she got there, nothing was familiar. She began thinking about the possibility of not finding the house. And then about finding it, and him answering the door and maybe still annoyed about the phone calls, and her looking like this. He’d wonder what she was doing hanging about with his daughter. But she couldn’t go back, not yet, and, anyway, she had to give Danielle her mobile.
She tried to remember the night at the river.
Pushing out of the pub, puking on the street. Feeling like her whole life had spilled out on the pavement, to be washed away by morning. Walking somewhere. Nowhere. Empty and floating. Then the car park. The wall. The river full and still, waiting.
She’d gotten into his car, she thought, but after that, nothing, until she woke at home in the hall and crawled up the stairs. What had happened in between?
Had he been in her house? Her keys were lying in the hall when she got up the next day. How long had she been in his car? She’d blacked out. But he’d saved her, hadn’t he? Gotten her home? He would hardly…
She’d seen his face on Danielle’s phone as she flicked through the photos. She never said a word to Danielle. She wanted to ask her what kind of man he was, but how could she? She’d spent the rest of the night thinking about him, wondering what kind of father he was, about her own father who never knew that she had stood on that wall, who never would have caught her. She watched Danielle on the dance floor.
And then he’d phoned her, well, phoned Danielle, but she’d lost them all outside the club and still had the phone. She was walking home with a few fellas who were all blasted and shouting the odds. His name appeared on the screen. ‘Daddy’. She’d wound him up, made a joke of him, even when she heard the fear in his voice. She’d even got one of the fellas to speak to him.
Colm heard the doorbell, but made no move to answer it. Danielle called from upstairs.
‘Can you get that Daddy? It’s Tan.’
No one had told him that Tan was coming. The girl on the phone. He muted the TV and pulled himself noisily from the leather recliner. Through the glass of the door he could see a slim black figure stretching an arm forward. The bell sounded again. I’ll get her back, he thought, show her what it’s like. He opened the door.
The girl met his eyes with defiance. He recoiled. He wanted to close the door on her.
‘I’m Tan, a friend of Danielle’s,’ she said, looking past him into the house. ‘Nice gaff.’
What’s she playing at, thought Colm. She’s pretending she doesn’t know me. Maybe she doesn’t. Maybe she can’t remember a thing. The phone call though, she remembers that.
‘Yeah,’ he said, stepping back to let her in, ‘we spoke on the phone. Remember?’ He thought he saw the corners of her thin lips curl up as she passed him.
‘Aye, sorry about that. I was a bit drunk.’
Colm followed her into the living room as Danielle called from upstairs. ‘Is that you, Tan? Won’t be long. I’m just out of the bath.’
Tan sat down on the edge of the sofa, her hands and knees clasped tight as Colm moved past her to the recliner. He sat for a while staring at the silent images on the screen, a handcuffed man being bundled into a police van, his head covered, an angry crowd. Tan said nothing.
Eventually he spoke, as if waking from a trance. ‘So Tan,’ he said, ‘where’d you get a name like that?’
‘Tanya. It’s short for Tanya.’ She didn’t look at him as she spoke, and didn’t elaborate. Colm couldn’t think of anything else to say.
He could see her mood had darkened. Why was she here? He needed to think, work out how to handle this.
‘I’ll make tea,’ he said, and left her there.
Tan closed her eyes. He’d given nothing away. He’d made out as if he’d never met her before. She wanted him to tell her that it was him who caught her that night, and he’d do it again if he had to. He would reassure her that he’d left her home safe, promise to tell no one about any of it. She would be asked to stay, as Danielle’s friend, so she wouldn’t have to go back for one night.
Danielle was coming down the stairs. Tan opened her eyes and straightened herself as she appeared in the doorway. Her hair was tied high on her head and she was wrapped in a pink dressing gown with a hood and tiny hearts on the pocket. She looked much younger without her make-up, fair fresh skin, moisturised and shining in the lamplight.
‘Tan. What’s happenin’?’
Tan stood up to perform the customary hug, aware of how bad she must look.
‘You’re soaking,’ Danielle said, pulling away from her quickly. ‘Do you want a towel or anything?’
‘Naw, I’m alright,’ said Tan, handing her the mobile and sitting down again. ‘Your phone’s dead though.’
Danielle curled herself into an armchair. ‘Where’s my Da?’
‘He went to make tea.’
‘Not like him.’
‘Where’s yer woman?’
‘At her mother’s.’
‘When’s she due?’
‘She’s eight months.’
‘New wee sister.’
There was a pause. Tan glanced at Danielle. Her face had that look she took on when she was talking to someone she didn’t think much of. A glaze on her eyes, a tightness around her mouth.
‘Your mother told me to come on over,’ she said. Danielle wasn’t interested.
‘What did my Da say about the phone call last night?’
Tan couldn’t make out her tone. She seemed to be inspecting her. ‘He seemed grand,’ she replied.
‘He was raging, so he was.’
The kettle reached its boiling point in the kitchen and clicked off. There was the sound of pouring water and teaspoons against delft, then the back door opening.
‘Your Da’s away then?’ Tan said quickly.
‘Naw, he’s away out for a smoke. She doesn’t let him smoke in the house.’
‘Do you fancy heading down the town,’ asked Tan, ‘see what’s happening.’
‘I’m too knackered. I’m going to my bed,’ said Danielle.
Tan got up. ‘Sure I’ll head on then. See you on Monday, eh?’ Her nails were pushing into her palms.
Danielle didn’t say anything until they were at the door. ‘It was a good night last night wasn’t it?’
‘Great,’ said Tan. She opened the door and let herself out. ‘See you later then.’ And she left.
Colm had two mugs of tea ready in the living room when Danielle came back. ‘She’s gone then,’ he said.
‘Aye, she’s away.’ Danielle lifted a mug of tea and held it to her chest. ‘God forgive me Daddy, but she does my head in. I don’t know why I said to Mammy to send her on up here. She could’ve left the mobile at my house. I hardly know her, you know.’ She turned and headed out of the room. ‘Can I use the phone Daddy?’
Colm didn’t answer.
He was remembering how, in the car, he’d tried to calm himself down, rubbing his sweating palms on his trouser legs before lighting a cigarette. He wished he’d gone with his first instinct and driven away when he first saw her on the wall. But now she was inside his car, slumped beside him, almost asleep. He had to do something. Get rid of her somehow. So he tried again to find out where she lived. After a while, the girl mouthed a street name, and eventually a house number. It was the estate where Danielle and her mother lived, and he’d lived there himself until the split. This address thankfully was in the newer houses at the top, well away from his old house. He had no idea what he would say to whoever opened the door. He knew how it would look. But he couldn’t just leave her.
She was asleep by the time they got to the house, and getting her in wasn’t easy. There was a TV on in the living room, but no one answered when he knocked and he couldn’t start hammering on the door and drawing attention to himself. That’s when he thought she must have a key on her. She had no bag but was wearing a long dark coat with deep pockets. He opened the passenger door and tried the nearest pocket first. There was a mobile in there, with a lipstick and eyeliner, but no key. He went round to the driver’s side and without getting in, stretched across to check the other pocket that was crammed under the seat belt. In it was a small purse and a key on a penknife keyring. A taxi passed and disappeared around the corner, but otherwise the street was quiet.
Going back round to the passenger door, he manoeuvred her out of the car, her body almost a dead weight, and managed to get her to her feet, with her arm around his shoulder and his own around her waist. In this way they moved awkwardly up the path to the house, the girl lifting a foot occasionally and muttering something that was beyond him. Colm kept his head low, praying no one he knew would see him. Unlocking the door, he got her inside and eased her gently down in the hall.
All he had to do then was leave.
But he heard the murmuring of the TV in the living room, and found himself pushing the door open.
The TV was the only source of light in the room. In an armchair a woman was slumped, an empty vodka bottle and glass on the floor beside her. Her hair was bleached with black creeping roots. From her face he could see she was around his own age, but she was skinnt and wore low-hipped jeans and a short T-shirt that had pulled up from behind to reveal her back and stomach. Everything around her seemed frozen in the blue light. On the wall was a large portrait photograph of mother and daughter, the child around ten or eleven, its glass reflecting the images from the television.
Colm was about to close the door again when the woman’s eyes opened and looked at him. He wasn’t sure if she could see him but he felt he couldn’t move, frozen himself like the rest of the room. Then she tried to get up using her elbows on the arms of the chair, but couldn’t and sank back, fixing him with her eyes again. He began to panic. What if she went hysterical, started screaming? The neighbours would call the police.
But instead she let him go, her eyes slowly closing, her neck relaxing. Backing away into the hall he sat down on the stairs, exhausted. The girl was lying at his feet curled up, her dark hair fallen across her face. He thought he had done the wrong thing, bringing her home. He didn’t want to leave her. She might wake and go back to the river. He stayed there, as if waiting for permission to leave, with his arms over his head like he was being crushed from above, holding his breath and counting in his head. Minutes passed and neither of them moved.
At last he rose and checked his watch. He had no choice. Danielle was waiting.
Something took hold of him as he left the house. He found himself shaking, fumbling at the car door, stalling the engine. His fist hit the dashboard.
Colm rose from the recliner and headed out the door, shouting to Danielle that he wouldn’t be long. He wanted to find her. Help her or something.
She was fifteen, his sister, when she went missing. He was with Nuala then, expecting Danielle. The police had come. Had he any information, they wanted to know, or could he think of any reason she might run away? Colm couldn’t say the words. No. No reason, he told them. She was loved.
They never found her.
The wipers beat relentlessly across the windscreen as he tried to define passing figures in the wet orange light. He thought of his sister walking the streets of some other city while Danielle was being born, or while he was burying their father and listening to the eulogies.
A female figure appeared ahead. Is that her? No, it couldn’t be. He was nearly at the estate and she couldn’t have walked that far already. She must have gone the other way. Turning at the next roundabout he headed in the other direction.
If I’d stayed I would have killed him, he thought. I would have paid him back in full. I told her that. Why didn’t she run to me?
Tan was walking towards the town, a pressure building inside her skull. Something was trying to push its way out. She needed to control it, keep it in check. She walked faster, her head down, her nails embedded in her skin, the mizzle thickening to rain and drenching her face and bared neck. She was not going home. If she did she might lose it. Crack and push her back. And then what?
I shouldn’t have gone there. I was in the way. She thought they were closer, Danielle and her. And him.
In his house she’d begun to think it was only a dream she was remembering. Maybe it was. What did it matter anyway?
A group of fellas were crossing the road towards her. They had carry outs with them and were hooded against the rain. As they got closer she realised she knew a couple of the faces.
‘Right Tan?’ one shouted. ‘Coming down to Dom’s with us?’
‘What’s on?’ she asked, when they were closer. They looked a bit stoned already.
‘Party time,’ one of them said, holding aloft his blue bag. He moved closer, putting his arm around her. She knew him. He’d come on to her at a party a few weeks before. He was heavy and smelled and seemed completely comfortable with it. In his soaking clothes, the combination of aftershave, sweat and wet fabric was overpowering. ‘C’mon Tan. How about it?’ He was claiming her for the night. Then he laughed to himself and said, ‘You’ll have to get out of those wet clothes.’
The others moved ahead of them and turned down off the main road. Fuck it, thought Tan. Fuck him. And she went with them.