Her right foot started tapping like it always did when she was nervous. She peered out of the steamy bus window and took in the late autumn evening, shifting uncomfortably in her seat. The sun had almost fully retreated behind the tall buildings, leaving the sky a hazy violet with an inky darkness slowly bleeding through the air. There were fewer street lights now. By the time the bus reached her stop, the sky had turned a deep navy blue.
Alex set off along the pavement, her shadow dragging itself reluctantly behind her. Her heartbeat quickened with every step. Keep going, she told herself. You have to do this for her; you have to make her proud.
She stopped in front of the boarded-up working men’s club. This was it – the place she’d approached countless times in the last few weeks, trying to find out if the rumours were true. Trying to catch a glimpse of him – to make sure. Trying. The night air shuddered through her lungs. Wishing she’d told someone where she was going, she strutted round to the side door of the abandoned building. She remembered to ruffle her hair in the direction of the CCTV camera she already knew was there.
Raising her head and cocking it to one side, she lifted a fist, swallowed, and, for the first time, she knocked. Footsteps. She transferred her weight across to her right leg and placed her trembling hand on her hip, attempting to look confident, mirroring the movements of a girl she’d seen enter the club last week. With a creak, the door pulled into the building to reveal a slice of the dusty, dimly-lit room. Whoever opened it stayed behind the door. They didn’t say a word. She stepped into the building, jumping not at the thud of the door closing, but at the clunk of the heavy bolt thudding home.
“Through there,” a deep voice growled from behind her. She went to stride forwards, but her feet only managed a small, slow shuffle. The doorman grew impatient and pressed his large palm into the small of her back, pushing her through large, open double doors, and into what would have once been a meeting room. The furniture had been pushed to the sides and covered in large white . The doorman gave her a final small shove and left quietly, thankfully leaving the doors open. A group of men stood under one of the bare light bulbs, apparently deep in hushed discussion.
It was him – Alex recognised him instantly. He looked exactly as he did when she was six, aside from a few added wrinkles and strands of grey in his hair. Alex very little of her childhood, but she recalled with absolute clarity the weeks leading up to when she last saw him, ten years ago.
“When’s Daddy coming home?” It was the second evening he’d not been there. He’d often worked late, so her dad missing her bedtime the night before wasn’t unusual. He usually left very early for work too, so his empty seat at the breakfast table the following morning hadn’t concerned her. This time was longer. It was different. Her mum was different. When she asked, her mum just pulled her into a lavender-scented hug and pressed her lips on her daughter’s head.
“He’s… been taken from us.”
“Has he gone on another work holiday?”
She looked sadly at her daughter. “No, sweetheart.”
“But he’s coming back soon, right?”
There were never any explanations or answers. Instead, her mum packed a bag of Alex’s clothes and Alex spent a week with her grandparents while her mum ‘dealt with some things’ at home. She didn’t ask much; she got a week off school, who was she to complain? Her grandparents kept her entertained with walking their dogs and letting her help bake cakes; she often forgot why she was there. When her mum brought her home a week later, Alex realised all of her dad’s stuff had gone. She asked why and where her daddy was again, but her mum didn’t answer. She simply hugged her daughter.
There seemed to be an increasing number of visitors, none of whom were ever invited in. They’d got a doorbell a few weeks before; her mum had always said that knocks were often unheard and it gave the postman an excuse to steal their parcels. She let Alex pick the tune she liked best and they’d installed a doorbell that could be heard everywhere in their house – their neighbours frequently complained that they could hear it too. They stopped complaining after her dad had gone, which Alex found odd considering how much it was ringing now. Her mum would go to the door, shutting Alex in the front room with her after-school cartoons, and would come back a few minutes later by herself. Alex never saw who was coming round; her mum had taken to not opening the curtains. Sometimes when her mum came back, she’d be clutching flowers and what looked like unopened birthday cards.
“Who was at the door, Mummy? Was it Daddy? Has he come back?”
“No, sweetheart… It was nobody.”
“What’re they?” She’d point to the flowers and cards.
Her mum always took any flowers and cards straight through the house and to the bins by the back door. Alex didn’t ask any more about them. It wasn’t either of their birthdays, after all.
She’d had a day off school in the run up to Christmas; her mum said it was for something very important. Instead of donning her usual blue jumper, black pleated skirt, and white knee-length socks, her mum had picked out a rather dull-looking black dress for Alex to wear. Her mum, once again, didn’t respond to Alex’s questions about where they were going and why was she still crying, but instead kissed her daughter on the head and asked her to put the dress on. She remembered it being itchy.
In the car, Alex hadn’t been paying attention to where they were going. It was only when her Disney CD stopped playing that she’d looked out of the window. They were in a relatively small car park with a ticket machine to the left of where her mum had parked. She watched her mum pressing the buttons and feeding it the coins; Alex now noticed that her mum was wearing black too.
They arrived in the marble entrance of the court, her mother grasping her small hand firmly. Alex clung to her mother when they got there; people were looking at them. She thought it was because her dress looked stupid. Her mum led her down the corridor to a quieter area and a row of chairs; Alex climbed onto the chair furthest from the crowds.
“Wait here a minute, sweetheart,” her mum whispered to her as she went to shoo away a man with a camera and notepad, leaving Alex alone on her chair.
Alex stared silently at her shiny black shoes that didn’t reach the floor, and began swinging them back and forth in frustration. She was aware of the people looking down the corridor at her and whispering. She stared hard at the reflective floor, gripping the chair with all her might, until her mum’s heels came into view, closely followed by her bent legs, before a finger glided slowly into sight and gently tilted her chin up.
“Alex, I know this is strange…” her mum began, crouched in front of her.
“They think my dress is stupid.”
“Sweetheart, they don’t. You look lovely.”
Alex would not look at her mother. Her eyes were flicking about everywhere else – anywhere else. She looked at the golden chandeliers, the white-patterned ceiling, the tall gleaming windows. She’d been listening to the thudding echoes of footsteps up and down the corridor and the excited mutterings around them. She caught the scent of her mother’s lavender perfume as she furiously breathed in with clamped lips.
“Alex… It’s, it’s really important that you’re… That we’re here.” The familiar, confident voice of her mother had vanished. Instead, her mum spoke in a whisper. A clumsy whisper. Alex looked up and into her mother’s eyes and saw a shimmer of liquid glazed across them. She leapt out of her seat and threw her arms around her mum’s neck, clasping her clammy hands together when they met.
“Why are you crying?” she whispered into her mum’s ear through the strands of blonde hair that had come loose from their clip.
“I’m not darling…” She unfastened her daughter and drew back before placing her hands firmly on Alex’s shoulders. “Do you know why we’re here?” Alex shook her head. Her mum took a large, visible breath. “We’re here to start our lives again, just you and me. Very soon, you’ll have to be a very brave girl and see the man that ruined…” She caught herself. “… That changed our lives. The man who took your father away from us.”
Alex continued to look at her mother. She blinked slowly.
“Daddy’s not coming back, is he?”
“… You don’t have a daddy anymore, sweetheart. I’m so sorry.” There was a sudden flurry of people, of noise, of flashes from the front doors of the court. Alex’s mum picked up her daughter and carried her back to the crowds gathered around the entrance. She rested her daughter on her hip, just so Alex’s head bobbed up above the herd of frenzied people. She looked down at the scalps of people shaking their fists and shouting, some of whom were waving large signs. She tried to hold on to her mother, to get down.
“You stay there, sweetheart, my brave girl,” her mum shouted to her over the chaos, anger threaded in her voice. Her mum hitched Alex a little higher up on her side. “You look at him when he comes in!” she was yelling now. “He ruined your life!”
There were jeers from the crowds. Someone bumped into Alex’s mum, making her and Alex sway. Alex felt her mother’s grip tighten. Large men in suits were holding back the crowds as police officers escorted a man inside.
Although flustered and ambushed, Alex saw his eyes lock on hers above the crowd. He stared directly back at her. He looked like… She called out, but her words were lost amongst the crowd. He didn’t hear her – she couldn’t hear herself. He was almost level with her now. She noticed the shape of his ears, the green of his eyes, the flick at the end of his nose. She tried to yell louder, desperate for him to hear her, wanting him to say something – for it all to stop. He stared back, but only for a second as he was rushed through the angry mobs and swept away by the police, but there was no mistaking it. He’d seen her.
He hadn’t seen her now, but she’d definitely seen him. There he was, in the grotty boarded-up club with a bunch of, by the look of it, other criminals. He hadn’t noticed her being pushed in. None of them had. She stood perfectly still, burning her eyes into the profile of the man who ruined her and her mother’s lives. Oh yes. She’d definitely seen him now.
She hadn’t learnt the true facts about the murder until years later. She’d found out from someone else, someone in her tutor group at secondary school. It was exciting gossip to her peers, discussed openly with no veils of condolence or consideration of feelings. She’d stormed home and demanded to know why nobody had ever told her how she really lost her dad. Her mother said she’d been waiting until she was old enough to understand – that she hadn’t thought it would have come out like that.
The pair had sat and shouted and cried and got up again and screamed and apologised and cried some more before finally, together, they slumped onto the sofa and held each other. It wasn’t just Alex who’d lost her father; it was also her struggling mum who’d lost her husband.
The man standing in front of her now was the reason she’d grown up without a father, and why her mother had battled to be the single parent, trying to raise her daughter away from the scandal. Alex remembered why she was there. She adopted the confident stance she’d practised in her room – hand on hip, shoulders back, legs slightly apart – and she coughed.
One or two looked round and whistled. She kept her eyes firmly on him as he flicked his dark hair from his face. He was in deep conversation with one of the others who hadn’t turned.
“And who might you be, little lady?” A large, greasy man broke from the group and took a few slow steps towards her. She hadn’t prepared for this. This wasn’t part of the plan. The dark-haired man was supposed to notice her.
“Jade,” she invented, pulling herself together and shifting her slight weight from one leg to the other. “But you can call me whatever you want.”
“Can I, indeed?” he chuckled, glancing back at the seedy men behind him, doing something Alex couldn’t see, blocked by his frame. It resulted in roaring laughter from the men that were paying attention.
“Give it to her, Johnny!”
Johnny turned round, his lips stretched up one side of his face. He took another step closer. Alex panicked and took half a step back.
She regretted it instantly.
“Ooh, shy now are we? That’s all right, we’ll take good care of you…” Johnny licked his lips. Behind him, she saw, the men that were laughing had nudged the dark-haired man and his acquaintance out of conversation, and he’d looked up at last, squinting.
His eyes bulged in recognition. She stared back and raised her chin, aiming to appear confident, while she bit the inside of her lip. Johnny, she realised, had crept up on her while she was staring at the dark-haired man behind him.
“Look at me!” Johnny went to grab Alex’s hair.
“GET OFF HER!” It was him. The dark-haired man. The one she wanted, pushing through the crowd towards them.
Johnny let his bulky arm fall and took a step back, turning to address the interruption.
“All right, Charlie boy, what’s gotten into you? She’s no different than that piece the other week. I don’t recall you objecting then.”
“I want her,” he said, staring directly into Alex’s eyes now that he’d reached Johnny’s side. “She’s mine.”
These statements resulted in more whistles from the pack, and chuckles from Johnny, who went to put his arm around Alex. “Selfish bastard, isn’t he love?” His hand dropped to her lower back, and then a little lower. “Tell you what, you can go first,” he bellowed to the others, giving Alex a squeeze, “and then you can pass her round.” Laughter.
“Fine,” he barked, storming up to the pair and grabbing Alex by the arm, pulling her free. She shook her arm out of his grasp angrily and led herself back through the double doors and into the entrance room. It was empty now. The doorman had either gone, or was waiting in the shadows; Alex didn’t know – she didn’t care. She stormed on, the dark-haired man closely behind her, and they ended up back out in the street. She spun round to face him. She’d never imagined she’d get this opportunity, the chance to see him again and confront him.
“What the fuck are you doing here?” he hissed, slamming the door shut behind him.
“Could ask you the same thing, Dad.”
He stepped back and forth and to the side, furiously tugging at his dark hair. “Look at the fucking state of you.”
“Don’t start playing the role of a doting father. Besides, you think they’d have let me into your seedy little club wearing a jumper and jeans?”
His eyes widened. “You knew I was here?”
“Of course I did! I’m not a slapper. I could hardly knock on the door and say ‘Excuse me but I’d like a little chat with my estranged twat of a father’ could I?” She paused, shocked at the words her anger produced.
“No. I don’t want to hear it. I’m not here for excuses or fake apologies or anything like that.” She was breathing heavily now, realising how furious she was at him. “I’ve come here to tell you to your face,” – she almost spat the word at him – “that I’m disgusted you’re my father. I hate you. I actually hate you.”
She stopped and stepped back, shaking furiously, suddenly having no idea what to do; the speech she’d practised for weeks, ever since she’d seen the headlines confirming his release, had vanished. He looked almost harmless. She looked in his eyes. His sad eyes.
No, she instructed herself, clenching her fists, don’t you dare feel sorry for him. He’s a murderer. He took a life and left you and your mother to face the consequences; the hate mail, the bullying. It’s all his fault.
“Your mother was having an affair,” he said bluntly. All the anger had gone from his voice.
She snapped out of her thoughts and scrunched up her face in confusion. “What?”
“She said you weren’t mine.”
She noticed the shape of his ears, like hers, and the green of his eyes, like hers. The flick at the end of his nose. Like hers.
“I don’t believe you.”
“Why would you? I don’t expect you to. It’s not true…I mean, the affair was, but you’re mine.”
“Why would she make stuff up? And… Just… Stop trying to justify what you did!”
“I’m not, I’m just trying to explain. Your mother hated me. She wanted to hurt me. It went down as manslaughter – we were both drunk. He came up to me… I had no idea of any affair. He started prodding me, goading me. Started saying my little girl was his little girl…” He trailed off. “I accept responsibility for my actions, Alex, and I’ve done my time. But don’t you dare think I’m the sole reason for any of this. See – look at your face! That spiteful bitch never told you.”
She furrowed her brows and closed her mouth; she realised it had been hanging open throughout his speech.
She couldn’t speak, and he said nothing more. She clawed her hands through her hair then threw her arms back by her sides, exasperated.
“I’ve nothing to say to you,” she asserted, drawing herself up. He opened his mouth to speak, but a series of thuds from the club made the pair jump.
“Charlie boy! What’s taking so long? You’re usually the first to finish! Come on, man, we’re starving in here!”
Alex scrunched her face up in disgust and turned away. Her dad caught her by the arm and pulled her back, fumbling in his pocket with his free hand.
“You listen to me. Take this,” he pushed a wad of notes into her sweaty palm, “and get the fuck out of here. Go up by that bus stop, turn left down there, and onto the main road. There’s a taxi rank. Go home.”
“I’m not taking your…”
“You are. Go. Don’t come back here.” He gave her hand another push and let go. “I’ll deal with them.” She didn’t move. Bangs and jeers echoed from the club. “Alex, go.”
She turned and ran, past the bus stop, left, and to the main road. Her feet pounded the ground. She clambered into the first taxi, struggling to catch her breath as she said her address. The taxi started up and swung back around, heading slowly down the narrow alley she’d just run up.
They passed the club. Her dad was still outside. Waiting. She’d seen him. And through the misty glass that separated them, she knew that his green eyes had seen her.