It was the boy’s curly blond hair that caught Angie’s attention, distracting her from the goblin thoughts that had plagued her since she received that letter from the hospital. The letter that told her the results were through. Angie could guess what those results were: she had cancer. The summons to see the consultant was just so that they could break the news gently. Give her a leaflet, telling her that she wasn’t alone – and that was a joke, because Angie had spent a lifetime of being alone. But she did wonder how long she had left to live.
Poor old Aunty Mo had a bleed, her menopause had been and gone by then, and just three months later they were burying her. Loitering by the spider plant, in an attempt to lose her sherry glass before Uncle Jim refilled it, Angie overheard Mum say that Gran had died of the same thing in her fifties and it was a curse on the women in their family. Not on Mum. It was a weak heart that carried her off, and she was well into her seventies. But if anyone was to be cursed it was Angie. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but it did. How was she to know that time was running out? There should be some kind of official warning.
Angie had lain awake most of last night. Best not borrow another library book, which was a pity as she’d been meaning to read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. And it wasn’t worth doing anything about that damp patch in the corner of the ceiling. Instead of dwelling on what she couldn’t do, maybe she should make the most of what time she had left. Angie caught her breath – the time that she had left. Was her life ending because she had wasted it? I’ll make the most of every moment, if only you’ll give me more time, Angie bargained with a God that she had ignored since Sunday school.
Angie had overheard the girls in the factory, where she worked as a machinist, talk about their bucket lists, the things that they wanted to do before they were too old, or died. Brenda wanted to ride an elephant and Sonia talked endlessly about visiting New York. Angie had never given it much thought until now. What did you put on a bucket list when you hadn’t done anything? Hadn’t moved from the terraced house in Dagenham where she had grown up, hadn’t had an interesting job, hadn’t fallen in love or married, hadn’t had a child, hadn’t gone abroad.
Angie buried herself under the duvet. How did you make up for forty wasted years? One fateful day had robbed her of the life she might otherwise have had. So much had been stolen from her and now time was running out. Angie kicked her legs and wailed. She pounded her fists into the mattress. Too late. Too late.
The digital clock clicked to 3.42 am and Angie hoisted the slipped duvet back onto the bed. She may have wasted forty years but she wasn’t going to waste another day. Another hour. Another minute. From here on – every moment of every day was going to be lived. But how?
4.25 am. She knew what she had to do. She would go back to Jaywick Sands. It wouldn’t change what had happened all of those years ago but she didn’t want to die without saying goodbye to what was her favourite place in the world. Top of her bucket list: go back to Jaywick Sands. It was a pity that the other things she had missed out on weren’t so easy to find.
With a sense of purpose, Angie got up and waited for the world to rouse itself, so that she could start her journey. The hospital appointment was for nine o’clock. She would hear what they had to say, and then take straight off. With a bit of luck, she could be on a train to Clacton by ten-thirty,
The Tube carriage was packed, barely room to breathe. Squashed near the door, Angie spied the pretty child holding his mum’s hand. Angie wondered idly whether his mum’s hair was that golden colour when she was a girl, instead of the nut brown that swung in a ponytail as she fussed with her bag. Some women dyed their hair. Brenda, at the factory, had been peroxide and then auburn. Mahogany she called it. Why would anyone choose to be that colour? Angie hated her own red hair but could see no point in trying to look like someone else. She was born Angie Winkle and Angie Winkle had frizzy red hair.
The train was coming to a halt, like a roulette wheel picking which passengers would be favoured with the coveted doors. Slowly, slowly. They were going to be lucky. The doors would open right in front of the boy and his mum. Angie tried to imagine being that woman; a swingy ponytail, pert breasts. But, it was having a child that Angie envied most. What was it like being a mum? Holding a tiny warm hand in yours? If only she had done things differently. But it was too late; the crumpled letter in her pocket, a reminder of the years she had wasted. Overhandled, overthought, overread, the letter scorched her thigh. It wasn’t fair.
What was the girl doing messing around with her child’s backpack when she should have been ready waiting to get on? The zombies were ready – lined up, their eyes fixed on the exact spot where the doors would open, ready for the off. But oblivious to her fortune in standing in exactly the right place to bag a space on the crowded train, his mum was releasing the red and green rucksack from the boy’s back.
At first the crowd flowed around the boy and his mum. But then they caught the child up in their wake and swept him like a piece of flotsam into the carriage. Angie kept close to the little blond head, keeping an eye until his mum got on. The boy could only be three or four years old.
Angie craned her neck to keep his mum in sight. People were forcing their way into the carriage, but she was waiting for some kind of invitation. For someone to say, room for you here. What was the matter with her? Just get on. Get on! Angie felt the mum’s panic, but there was nothing she could do to help. The doors started to close. An ashen face, mouth in an O, eyes wide; the realisation that she had lost her child.
Something or someone must have stopped the doors from closing because they opened again. Just for a few seconds. With a look of relief, the mum smiled thinking they had opened for her. Angie desperately wanted to shout out, Help that woman. She’s been separated from her child. But she couldn’t. Everyone would look at her. Get on! Get on! You stupid woman, get on the train!
The doors closed against the bent backs of commuters as they took up the shape of the carriage. His mum had missed her chance. How could she be so careless? The boy was very still. A soft toy masked his face. Angie wondered whether he even knew that his mum was still on the platform watching the train disappear into the tunnel.
Don’t worry, angel. I’ll keep you safe. Angie rested a hand on the boy’s shoulder and a warmth flooded through her, as though her soul was being nourished. The boy glanced up at Angie and smiled. No one else seemed to have noticed what had just happened. If they had, they were pretending to be busy, studying the back pressed up against them.
Don’t worry, mate, I’ll look after you. The train lurched as it twisted through the tunnel and Angie steadied the boy, holding him close, until it came to a stop.
‘Come on, darling.’ Angie led the boy off the train. He was far too trusting; his mum should have told him about Stranger Danger.
The letter in her pocket cooled. Directions to the hospital scrawled on the corporate red and blue paper temporarily forgotten, as she focused on the child.
She crouched down. ‘It’s alright, sweetheart, we’ll get you back to your mum.’ She wasn’t sure how, as there were no guards on the platform. The golden-haired angel offered Angie his raggedy bunny.
‘Who’s this?’ Angie flicked a soggy ear.
The boy yawned.
‘Reckon you could do with a little nap. Where was your mum taking you?’
The boy sucked his thumb.
Several trains had come and gone with no sign of the boy’s mum. The commuters had thinned to a trickle, just a few stragglers scattered the platform. A gust of air threw up a discarded newspaper and Angie’s wraparound skirt flapped open. A fast train was approaching. As Angie cradled the boy to keep him safe, his baby scent of vanilla and soap triggered a memory. Angie squashed it back to a safe place.
Sometime after the train had passed and the air had settled, a blanket of burnt rubber and oil, Angie was still hugging the boy. She imagined them captured in a photograph. A summer garden replacing the dismal grey of the platform – grandma and grandson. A birthday celebration, her fiftieth. There would be an expensive cake with sugar roses and lots of friends and family toasting her with bubbly wine. She would allow her grandson to have the teeniest sip and his face would pucker, making them all laugh.
The boy interrupted her daydream, as he pointed to the rail tracks. ‘There.’ Angie peered over as a black rat darted into the shadows.
Still no guard. Angie didn’t have a plan. She knew that she wouldn’t leave the boy until she could hand him back to his mum. The little love wound his fingers in Angie’s hair. He had better be careful, her hair was known to harbor all sorts of lost property. Only this morning, she had discovered a pair of tweezers in there, from where she had been coaxing a denim collar right side out.
‘What’s your name?’
The boy offered Angie his toy. ‘Kroliky.’ Angie wasn’t sure if that was the bunny’s name or the boy’s.
‘Licky?’ she asked.
The boy laughed. ‘Licky.’
‘Okay, Licky, let’s go and ask a guard to help us find your mum.’
Angie wasn’t one to volunteer to do anything. The thought of being the centre of attention made her stomach flip. But needs must. They couldn’t wait on the platform all day.
A black man collecting rubbish in a big cellophane sack directed Angie to an office. It was hard getting him to talk – another one who avoids the limelight. We’re like those rats hiding in the shadows, while everyone else gets on with their life. Funny how we see each other when nobody else does.
Three uniformed staff milled around the doorway of the office. So that’s where all the guards were hiding. She tried coughing but remained invisible. For the boy’s sake she summoned her courage.
‘Excuse me. Could you make an announcement over the speaker?’ Blood pumped in angry bursts. It throbbed in her neck, strangling her voice. Everyone was looking at her. Angie clutched the boy tight, drawing strength from a maternal urge to do the right thing.
‘Please could you say that his mum should wait at Liverpool Street Station and I’ll take him back?’ She sounded too loud and brash.
The man in the office whipped round to face her. Angie had become important. ‘How did you come to have this child?’ He made it sound like she’d kidnapped the boy or something.
A heat rose in Angie’s chest, as it always did when she became the focus of attention. ‘He got separated from his mum. Can you tell her to wait at Liverpool Street?’
Angie had already turned when he replied. ‘I think it’s best you leave the child in our care. We’ll alert the police and see that he’s safely returned.’
She couldn’t hand the boy over, not when she had promised to help him find his mum. She squeezed the boy and he wriggled against her. ‘No, you don’t understand. I’m a friend of his mum. I’ll go back and meet her at Liverpool Street Station – by that statue. The one with the kids.’
He smiled, all cheerful, like they were mates. ‘Why don’t you both stay here with me and I’ll make an announcement for Liverpool Street and other stations on this line.’
If she did that, then it would all be over. If she could just cherish his warm weight a little longer, his baby breath on her neck. ‘Well, if you can’t be bothered to help me,’ she blustered. ‘I just wanted a simple announcement to be made while I took him back.’
The man got a call on his phone. Behind him a bank of CCTV screens showed commuters getting on and off trains. Another phone rang. The man covered the mouthpiece and turned to Angie. ‘Okay, I’ll make an announcement that you’ll be standing by the statue on Liverpool Street Station at the entrance to the Underground.’
Angie left him before he changed his mind. ‘We’re going to get another train. Find your mum. I bet she’s waiting at Liverpool Street,’ Angie chirped to the boy, as they waited on the platform. ‘I don’t think your name’s Licky. What is it?’
The boy gave Angie his bunny. ‘Licky.’
‘Ah, this is Licky. How do you do, Licky?’ She flopped the rabbit’s head up and down. The boy laughed and snatched him back.
‘My name’s Angie.’ She pointed to her chest. ‘Angie. What’s your name?’ She tapped the boy’s chest.
‘Danek.’ He spoke clearly, despite his accent.
‘Okay, Danny boy, here comes our train. Now, hold my hand tight. You don’t want to get lost again.’
A blast of diesel and warm air preceded the train. Angie’s cardigan twisted around her and the letter worked loose. It slipped from her pocket and was swept up on a gush of air – a ball of red and blue. It skittered in a zigzag between the feet of commuters until Angie could see it no more. It was a sign; she wasn’t meant to go to the hospital – not today. Today, she had been sent a little boy to take care of. Make every second count.
Nikoleta crumpled in pain and then howled. The people around her, the ones who’d been waiting three rows deep to squash onto the next train, shifted slightly, as though proximity would taint them or make them responsible in some way.
The dinosaur rucksack dangled from her wrist. Two minutes ago, it had been on Danek’s back. They were a unit, the two of them. The next hour or so, their journey to Earl’s Court, finding the apartment Kamil had rented, was as certain in her mind as the past – getting on the scheduled flight from Warsaw early that morning, travelling to London on the seven forty-two from Stansted. She had held the directions in her head, every stage of the journey. But now it was unravelling, as though a thread was being pulled with Danek as he disappeared into the tunnel. Leaving Nikoleta bereft, lost, and very, very afraid. What had she done?
‘This can’t be happening, Matko Boska. Kamil will go crazy.’
She searched for someone – anyone – to acknowledge what had just happened but people turned their heads. It was a nightmare. She had only been in England a few hours and she had lost Kamil’s only son. Danek was the centre of Kamil’s world. From the day they first met, Nikoleta knew that however much Kamil loved her, she would always come second to his beloved son. That was one of the things she loved about Kamil – his love for Danek. Nikoleta adored Danek too; he was a beautiful child. And now she had lost him – in a foreign city, with nobody to turn to for help. She felt sick – paralysed with fear and disbelief. Please someone help me.
Nikoleta was still pleading with the faceless commuters when another train pulled in. Just as before, commuters crushed into the full carriages, their places on the platform were taken up by new arrivals until only Nikoleta knew that a few minutes ago she had been holding Danek’s hand. As before, the commuters stared ahead. Kamil said that the Englishwere kind and welcoming but to Nikoleta they seemed cold and heartless. She had to find someone in authority.
Nikoleta battled her way through a relentless stream of people. Her mind had gone blank. Years of English classes at school – multiple-choice tests. It was all there, somewhere, but her frantic brain scrambled everything she knew.
‘Please, please,’ she cried in Polish.
Nobody looked at her. They averted their eyes as though embarrassed by her distress or stared ahead, their eyes wide and glazed like mad dogs. Danek was being carried further and further away. She was losing valuable time.
A man bumped against her and said something. Nikoleta turned to smile; at last someone who cared. But the man tutted and pointed at her wheelie case.
Nikoleta pursed her lips. She had to toughen up. London was nothing like home. All these people from different nationalities none of them stopped to see her and listen. Matko Boska! Please let Danek be safe. Please someone take care of him. No time to pray. No time to panic or cry. She lifted her case – thank goodness she’d only brought hand luggage – and climbed back up the stone stairs and over the bridge. Here there was more space, as people swarmed like ants from the ticket office.