Chapter 13

Julia stood shivering between the stone columns of the National Gallery, stamping her feet in a vain attempt to stay warm. Through the bustling December crowds came her friend, late as always.

 “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” Anna called, approaching Julia for an embrace.

Anna could never seem to figure out why she was always running behind everyone else. Organised and efficient in so many other ways, she swore that she almost always left on time for where she was going, yet somewhere in between destinations things seemed to move more slowly for her than for other people, so that every time she looked at her watch she was late.

“Well just this once I’ll forgive you, seeing as it’s your birthday.”

“I think you’ve been forgiving me on a weekly basis for about seventeen years now,” laughed Anna.

“So I’m well practised in the art,” Julia grinned in response. “Anyway, which of our traditional birthday activities are we doing first? Burger, shopping, big wheel or hot toddies?”

The two friends had a regular practice for Anna’s birthday of coming to the Christmas market together, soaking up the festive atmosphere and buying each other a new ornament for their respective trees. It started with Fran as their guide, the year that Anna’s Mum passed away. The funeral had been a week before her birthday and if it had been left to her dad then the day may have gone entirely unmarked. There were gifts already bought and wrapped by her mother, but Struan Ferguson was missing in action, a shell of the man he’d been only a few months before. Fran had swept in like a fairy godmother, pampering both girls with sweets and snow globes, using every bit of distraction the city had to offer. What began in necessity became a yearly treat, still funded by Fran even after the girls decided they were old enough to go to the market on their own. In more recent years she left them to their own devices for most of the day, but insisted on joining them for a little glass of something later in the afternoon.

“You look like you could use some warmth,” Anna said, noticing Julia shivering despite her coat and scarf.

“It’s like you read my mind,” Julia nodded while her teeth chattered. “How about we start with a hot chocolate and leave the hard stuff for when Mum joins us?”

*

A couple of hours later they sat across from one another high above the city as the ferris wheel took them away from the clamour and chaos below and up to where they could enjoy the lights and sounds in their own little metal bubble. With stomachs full of burgers and waffles and shopping bags at their feet this was a small oasis of calm and quiet. Both sat back, enjoying the view and the well-worn path of this yearly practice.

“So, I assume it’s dinner with your Dad tonight?”

Anna sighed and nodded in response.

“You know that it’s your day and you can do what you want. If dinner with your Dad isn’t fun then you can ask to do something else.”

“I know, I know, but it’s his way of connecting with me, which I do appreciate. And it is nice to get dressed up and go somewhere a bit fancy. It’s just that there’s something I really need to speak to him about and this is the first proper chance we’ve had to sit down together and talk.”

“Well at least you’ve got some conversation lined up.”

“Except,” Anna hesitated, looking across the city at the twinkling and hopeful lights below, “it’s not really a fun birthday chat. It’s pretty serious and I’m not sure how it’s going to go.”

“Are you ok?” Julia leaned across to place a hand on Anna’s knee.

“I’m fine. I just found some family stuff in Elie that I didn’t know anything about and I need to talk to Dad about it. I’ll tell you about it when I know more, but it’s really something I need to speak to him about first. I guess I’ll just see how this evening goes and decide in the moment if it’s a good time to bring it up. But I’ve been sitting on it for a few weeks now and it’s starting to drive me crazy, so I might just have to bite the bullet, birthday dinner or not.”

“Well let’s get you prepped then,” Julia suggested, lifting her mobile from her pocket to answer a text message. “Right on cue. Mum’s down at the bar and is getting the drinks in. Time for some Dutch courage and to toast the birthday girl.”

**

“To my darling daughter,” Struan smiled, raising his glass across the table towards Anna. “Happy birthday.”

“Thanks Dad.”

Glasses clinked and a nod towards the waiter produced a slice of cake complete with sparklers and a birthday message in chocolate script written around the edge of the plate. Anna beamed at the gesture while simultaneously feeling a little conspicuous and embarrassed by the fuss. They ate dessert in relative silence. Having chatted amiably for most of the meal they had finally run out of conversation. Or at least Struan had. Anna made an assessment of the situation and decided to make the most of the moment, hoping to harness the warmth between then rather than douse it to extinction.

“There’s actually something I’ve been wanting to talk to you about Dad,” she began tentatively.

“Oh yes? What’s that?”

“Remember when I asked about our family tree and you told me to speak to Abigail?”

“Mmm hmm.

“Well I did. But she didn’t know anything.”

“Ah. Well there you go.”

Anna sensed her father’s relief and desire to move on, even amongst his still cheerful manner. She paused and took a deep breath.

“She thought Mum might have looked into it and suggested I have a look in the house at Elie to see what I could find. So I did.”

Struan looked intently at his glass of wine, suddenly avoiding the gaze of his daughter.

“Did you know she’d researched her family? Her step-father’s family?”

“She mentioned something about it once. She did love her history.”

He was a peculiar blend of wistful and tense as he spoke.

“It seems she was good at it too,” Anna continued. “She found stuff going back generations.”

A silence sat between them littered with unexploded secrets. Tread carefully, Anna told herself.

“There was a box with some papers in it. And a family tree.”

Her father signalled for the bill and Anna could feel her grip on the conversation loosening.

“Dad.” She was calling for his attention, pleading with urgency. His eyes met hers and she saw before her a little boy, desperate and afraid.

“Let’s go home. This isn’t the place for this conversation.”

They made the short walk home in silence but arm in arm. For the first time Anna felt her father leaning on her, as though he had been carrying a weight and was now tired of it and ready to set it down. Entering the house they walked through to the kitchen where Hector rose to great them expectantly.

“Soon, buddy, we’ll go soon,” Anna reassured him with a pat on the head. She put the kettle on and made an offer of tea.

“I think I need something a bit stronger,” Struan replied reaching into the cupboard for a bottle of whisky. Pouring himself a large glass he settled into a chair at the dining table and waited for Anna to join him.

“Dad,” Anna began softly, “you had a twin sister.”

It was a statement but also a question. An offer to open the door to something locked away for a long time.

“Josephine. But I only ever called her Josie.” He took a deep breath and exhaled, still trying to keep a lid on things. “We were inseparable,” his voice faded away to a whisper and his face began to crumble. “I can’t remember the last time I said her name out loud.”

Having said it once, he suddenly wanted to say it again.

“Josie, my Josie,” he called quietly, swirling the whisky in his glass as the first tears began to silently fall. “I still see her in my dreams sometimes, still feel her right here,” he said searching in the air with his right hand. “She was always on my right, I could always reach for her. We slept entwined in each other’s arms for years, because it was how we were most comfortable. It was how we’d been formed. I was never without her. And then I was.”

Anna didn’t want to add to his misery, but there was still a question to ask. She moved around the table to sit beside her Dad and hold his hand.

“What happened?”

“She was knocked down by a car. We were seven years old and out for the day. She had a red balloon which my father had bought for her and she carried that balloon around all afternoon as though it was the most precious thing she’d ever owned. She would glance back at it bobbing along behind her as we went along the street.”

He smiled to himself at the memory before being overtaken with pain.

“We were messing about, teasing each other and laughing. In all the fun she let go of the string for just a second and the balloon slipped away from her. She didn’t think, didn’t look, just gave chase after it. She ran straight into the road and into an oncoming car. Just like that she was gone, right before our eyes.”

“Oh Dad. I’m so, so sorry.”

Anna waited, knowing there was more to come, instinctively letting her father speak only when he was ready. The whisky circled the glass several more times.

“If only I hadn’t teased her, if only I’d simply walked beside her instead of messing about, she’d have kept hold of that balloon…”

Finally the dam broke. Struan Ferguson hunched over the table and let go of a lifetime of tears. Anna wrapped her arms around her father’s shoulders and held him tight as Hector rose from his bed to stand sentinel on the other side. After a while the torrent subsided and a sorrowful peace settled upon the trio. They sat together in silence, truly comfortable in each other’s company for the first time in years, despite the uncharacteristic outburst.

“I don’t remember many details of the aftermath, just a sense of terrible sadness. In my heart I knew it was my fault that she was gone. When I was sent to boarding school it confirmed that my parents blamed me and so I tried be the very best at everything to somehow make amends. I never could of course, either for my parents or for me. But that didn’t stop me from trying. I’ve been chasing absolution ever since.”

He sat there slowly shaking his head, years of effort etched on his face.

“Dad, you were just a little boy playing with his sister. This wasn’t your fault.”

“But if I’d…”

“No, Dad,” Anna’s words were firm. Gently she lifted her father’s face to look at her. “It was an accident. A sad and tragic accident. But it wasn’t your fault.”

The clock ticked loudly in the background.

“That was what your mother said,” he whispered, a look of devotion and longing in his eyes.

“Somehow she found a way into my darkness and set me free. But when she died it was as though I fell through a trapdoor back into my worst nightmare and I had no idea how to get out. I’ve been stumbling around ever since unable to find my way. I’m so sorry Anna. It’s like there were times I could remember the father I used to be before she was gone and I longed to be him again but I didn’t know how. I could feel you slipping further away from me but I didn’t know how to draw you back. So I went back to what I knew, what I’d always done. Working hard, trying to be the best. If I couldn’t do anything else I could provide for you all, give you that platform. I know now that it wasn’t the best thing, but it was all I knew how to do. The boys were older and away, so it didn’t cost them as much. But it cost you a lot. And me.”

Anna saw everything differently now, as though finding the place for that one piece of jigsaw puzzle that sits to the side until the very end. You keep looking at it, sure that it doesn’t go anywhere in the picture your building, not seeing where it’s shapes and colours fit, until eventually you slot it into place and in the context of all the other pieces it finally makes sense. So much of who and how her father was crystallised right in front of her. She was heartbroken for him and for all that had been lost between them over the years. Wrapping her arms around him she hugged him tightly, allowing her own tears to surface as she did.

“You did the best you could Dad. And now that I know, I understand. I just wish you’d told me sooner, or maybe talked to someone who could have helped.”

“That doesn’t seem very like me now, does it?” he confessed with a wry smile.

“Well no, that’s true. But keeping all of this locked up inside you hasn’t done you any favours, has it?”

“No, no it hasn’t.”

“None of us can change the past. What’s done is done. We can either learn from it and grow, or bury it. But then it just festers and poisons our view of the world, and that’s no way to live.”

Struan took hold of his daughter’s hand and looked at her in wonder.

“How did you get to be so wise?” he smiled.

“History is a good teacher, if we pay attention.”

Anna leant her head on her Dad’s shoulder and he kissed the top of her head. Not wishing to be left out of the affectionate embrace, Hector began to paw at them both and wag his tail in anticipation.

“Hector old boy,” Struan placed a firm hand on the dog’s head, “you’ve been a good and faithful friend to Anna.”

“Yes he has,” she agreed, reaching over to rub the dog’s ears. “And he’s been very patient as we’ve talked, but I think it’s probably time for you to go out and stretch your legs, isn’t it pal? Will you be in bed by the time I come back?”

“I think so. It’s been quite an end to the evening, but I’m glad we talked.”

“Me too. I know it’s hard Dad, but some other time can we talk about Josie again? I’d like to hear more about her.”

“Of course. Actually I think I’d like that a lot.”

“And can we talk about Mum too? I have so many things I’d like to know.”

“We can – but let’s go gently? This is a lot for me Anna.”

“Sure.”

Anna pulled on her coat, clipped on Hector’s lead and headed for the door.

“Goodnight Dad.”

“Goodnight sweetheart,” Struan replied, raising his glass towards his daughter.

Hearing the front door close he drained the last of the whiskey, set the tumbler by the sink and headed for bed. Walking up the stairs he found himself lighter with each step, as a man lifting stones from his pockets and letting them fall to the floor. As he lay his head to the pillow his sister’s face swam before him, laughing and calling his name.

“Josie, my Josie.”

The words tumbled almost silently from his lips as he drifted off to the most peaceful sleep he’d had in a long time.

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