© Jon Horne  

    It tears me up to see Annie this way; sitting there with her hands folded in her lap, staring past my shoulder like I’m not here. It’s just me and her in the room together - I thought that was what she wanted. I bring her a cup of coffee but she won’t meet my eye and I have to put it on the table in front of her.
    “Thank you,” she says. Politely.
    I sit down, slurp at my coffee and smack my lips too loudly.
    “So how’s it going?”
    She raises an eyebrow and tilts her head.
    “A-Levels next year.”
    “Are you still going to the tutor?”
    “That’s good. Listen love, if there’s anything worrying you...”
    She shoots me a look. It’s as if she’s afraid of me. I get up to make the dinner; a salad, something that won’t waste precious time.
    We used to have a lot of time, Annie and me. When Rebecca and I were still together and I was working at home, Annie would sit in my study and read. We’d talk about things - quietly. She was always quiet. Not like this though. Not silent.
    I put the salad on the dining table with some bread that I’ve buttered and quartered. I set the placemats next to each other and glance over to Annie, still in the armchair, looking down at her hands. I move the mats apart, so that we’ll be opposite each other.
    “Tea’s up,” I say. Annie walks into the dining area and sits down at the table. She takes the bowl and tongs, and serves herself a small portion. She has half a slice of bread and doesn’t use the mayonnaise.
    “You’re not on a diet, are you?”
    She rolls her eyes. I deserved that.
    Precious moments drag silently. We could have the telly on, but I leave it off so we can talk. We don’t, and when seven o’clock arrives, I realise that I’ve been looking forward to it. Seven is when I drive Annie back to her mother’s house - our house, as was.
    I walk Annie to the door. Rebecca, as always, invites me in.
    “Had a good time, sweetie?” Rebecca asks Annie.
    This ritual has lost its potency - it’s more like a real question. Annie doesn’t answer and disappears up to her room. Where once Rebecca would have gloated under a veneer of concern, now she just looks confused. I hear music coming from Annie’s room, something dark and discordant which I vaguely recognise; Nine Inch Nails I think, and it depresses me slightly that I still know the names of the groups Annie listens to.
    Mondays are bad enough at the best of times: teaching first-years all day, most of them more interested in each other than in the finer points of the Victorian novel. I grind my way through two lectures and a tutorial. I’ve got the afternoon off for research, so I go home and sit on the sofa with a two-inch-thick critique of mid-period Hardy, written by a Canadian with an aversion to full stops. It makes me yearn for the terse economy of, say, Dickens. I’ve waded through three chapters of this when I’m saved by a knock at the door. It’s Annie.
    “What’s up, love? Everything alright?”
    She shrugs her shoulders.
    Annie used to come round a lot, in the early days after the split. She’d get the bus here after school and sit around drinking syrupy black coffee. I’d give her a hand with homework, and sometimes she’d ask difficult questions about the break-up. She brought her first boyfriend here, a lanky, acne-encrusted youth; I thought she could have done better, but didn’t say so. At the time I was too scared of losing her and too pleased at being trusted.
    “Do you want some coffee?” I ask her.
    “No thanks.”
    She sits down in her usual position, avoiding eye-contact. Then she raises her head quickly and looks around.
    “Dad, is Jane coming here tonight?”
    “No, love. She’s... well, you know...”
    ...cleared off, like every other woman since Rebecca. Annie glances at me and gives a sympathetic half-smile. I think she knows what I’m feeling, which is also depressing.
    Come six o’clock, Annie is still here. We’ve sat through Grange Hill and Neighbours, and hardly said a word.
    “Annie, does your mother know where you are?”
    “No, she probably thinks I’m round Dan’s.” Dan is Annie’s latest, I think. It’s hard to keep up.
    “You should phone her.”
    Annie sinks back into the chair.
    “Well?” I ask.
    “OK!” she snaps, glaring. Then she turns away and says quietly; “Sorry.”
    “Would you like me to call?”
    She screws her face up and nods.
    “Annie, is there something going on with you and your mother?”
    Her face goes blank again, so I drop the subject and pick up the phone. Rebecca’s voice is controlled, but close to anger.
    “I should have been told. I’ve got company coming.”
    “Oh yes?”
    “Yes, and don’t sound so surprised.”
    What surprises me is the jealousy. It’s a hard thing to admit, but I still hate it when Rebecca brings men home - and it will be a man. Company is her euphemism for a date. I feel myself reduced to an episode in her past: the first husband, the mistake.
    “Hello?” says Rebecca.
    “Sorry, I was just...”
    “Look, if she wants to stay over with you tonight, I don’t mind.”
    I ask Annie this. She nods and mouths back: “Please.”
    “Yes, she wants to. I’ll take her to school tomorrow, alright?”
    “Well have a good time,” I say, which almost doesn’t sound sarcastic.
    Rebecca puts the phone down.
    “So,” I say to Annie, “shall we eat? What about going out?”
    “I’d like a shower first.”
    “Sure. If you want to change, there’s some of Jane’s clothes in the wardrobe.”
    “Oh. Won’t she be coming back for them?”
    “I can always put them in the wash,” I say, which doesn’t really answer the question.
    Annie, every day looking more like the young Rebecca, comes into the living room wearing a pale blue dress. ‘Sensible but summery’ was Jane’s self-mocking description of the dress. The last time I saw it, it was bunched up around Jane’s waist, on a frantic end-of-the-affair night. Whatever feelings I’m experiencing, I bury them in horror. But perhaps it’s instructive, because I recognise something else; an awkwardness in the way Annie walks into the room, a lack of poise that could only have been inherited from me. No matter how many hearts she’s breaking right now, there’s a vulnerability which she’s not going to grow out of. I never have.
    “Are you alright, Dad?”
    “I’m fine. Come on, let’s get a balti.”
    I’m still not sure why Annie’s here. Everything is conspiring against us talking; the traffic through the city, the nervous walk along dimly lit backstreets from the car to the balti-house, noise from the other tables, and the open-mouthed messiness of eating without cutlery. Perhaps that’s why. However, with a can of lager each, a bottle of lemonade between us and wokfuls of chicken-mix, it’s almost like it used to be. She finishes the meal before me and wipes her face and hands with a hot towel. Then she waits.
    Driving back to the flat, I tell her: “Listen, if you’re having problems at your mother’s, I’d like to know about it. I might be able to help.”
    “I’m alright,” she says.
    “I know it’s complicated, and I know we must seem like children sometimes, the way we carry on - but we both care about you, whatever happens between us.”
    “I know that.”
    “OK, you’ve heard it before. It doesn’t stop it being true.”
    “I know!” She tenses up and looks out of the side window.
    When we get home, Annie turns to her mock A-level revision. This sends me guiltily back to my research, and I spend the next three hours buried in the Hardy book. Annie’s fierce concentration acts as my conscience. It reminds me more than anything of being her age, under my parents’ cold gaze, forcing myself to work for exams which meant everything - to them.
    At half past ten, I emerge from the bedroom having filled four sides of paper with notes. Annie is still scribbling away at the table.
    “That’s enough,” I tell her.
    “Hang on,” she says. She scrawls a few final sentences, then sits back exhausted.
    “You’re working hard.”
    She greets this with embarrassment and disappears into the kitchen to put the kettle on. I drag Annie’s camp-bed into the living room and take some sheets from the airing cupboard.
    “Let me know when you want to hit the sack,” I say when she brings in the tea, “remember you’ve got school in the morning.”
    This brings another rolling of the eyes, but then she sits next to me on the sofa and says: “Are you and Jane finished?”
    I take a sip of the tea. “I think so,” I tell her.
    “Mum’s... with someone, now.”
    “So I hear. I think you were meant to meet him tonight.”
    “I’m tired, Dad,” she says, “can I turn in now?”
    I squeeze her hand, say Goodnight and go back to the bedroom. I can’t concentrate on Hardy though, so I get into bed, turn out the light and try to sleep.
    In the morning I drive Annie across the city to school. I’ve overslept and Annie is always a slow starter, so we don’t have time for breakfast. I stop at the garage and buy sandwiches for both of us which we eat on the move.
    From Annie’s school it’s a short run to the university campus. The staff common room is, as usual, the scene of a slavering competitive bustle. You wouldn’t guess by looking; the assorted academics sit inert in tight groups, the only movement being around the coffee machine - but amongst the whispers and the occasional call across the room, relationships are being formed, toes are being trodden on and careers are being made and broken. I pour myself a coffee and sit apart, observing, feeling further away than ever from the élite fast-track groupings.
    Into the room walks John Bannister, another like myself who can’t cope with departmental politics and is thus on the slow track to obscurity. A cold and difficult man in private, he is also one of the most able tutors in the university, which is why I’m paying him a small cash-in-hander every month to give Annie extra tuition in History and French Literature. I raise my cup to him and grin, but he doesn’t seem to notice.
    I get up and join him by the coffee machine.
    “John, have you got a few minutes?”
    “Oh,” he says, “I’m rather late.”
    “It won’t take long. I’m worried about Annie, that’s all. I wondered if you’d noticed anything.”
    “She’s coming along well - eighty percent and upwards in both subjects.”
    “I mean in herself.”
    “That’s hardly my business, is it.”
    “No, but you see her every week.”
    “I’m sorry but I don’t want to get involved in personal matters.” He turns tail and shuffles out of the common room looking harassed and annoyed.
    I come home from work tired and in need of a drink. I pour a good measure of scotch, sink it quickly and sit for a while drumming my fingers on the telephone table. Rebecca will be home by now. I dial the number.
    “You again. What is it this time?”
    “Is Annie there?”
    “No she isn’t. I’ll take a message.”
    “It’s you I wanted to speak to.”
    “Oh, what’s wrong?”
    “It’s about Annie. Can I see you?”
    “No you can’t. I’m expecting company.”
    “I see.”
    “Well I’ve been wondering if there’s a problem with this boyfriend of yours - with Annie, I mean.”
    “What’s she been saying to you?”
    “Nothing, that’s the point. She’s stopped talking.”
    “So of course, it’s my fault.”
    “I didn’t say that.”
    “As soon as I find some happiness with another person, you assume that that’s what’s making her depressed.”
    “Have you ever considered that you might be the one to blame? You carry on with all these women, show Annie off to them, and yet you never take an interest in her private life. Do you know where she is right now?”
    “With Dan?”
    “Correct. Do you know what she’s doing there?”
    “No, but I’m sure you’ll tell me.”
    “She dropped him last week and he’s been phoning ever since.”
    “She didn’t say anything about that.”
    “Ever thought of asking why?”
    “That’s what I’m doing!”
    “No you’re not! You’re just making insinuations.”
    “I’m not insinuating anything, I’m trying to find out what’s the matter with our daughter. You know as well as I do that she’s not happy.”
    “I think you’re the one who’s not happy.”
    I put the phone down, only for it to ring again, immediately.
    “Dad, it’s me. Please come and get me.”
    “Where are you? What’s wrong?”
    Annie is speaking through tears. “I’m at Dan’s.”
    “OK love, stay there. I’m on my way.”
    The boy Dan lives nearby. He won’t live long if he’s hurt her.
    When I get to Dan’s parents’ house, Annie is sitting on the doorstep, shaking. She rises slowly as I run over to her. I can hear the phone ringing inside the house.
    “What’s happened? What’s he done to you?”
    “It doesn’t look like nothing.”
    “He’s in hospital. He took something.”
    “You know - pills, aspirins. The ambulance just left.”
    Then she starts crying again. I hold onto her for a while, then I have to ask: “Do his parents know?”
    “I phoned them,” she says, sobbing.
    I wait until she’s quiet again, then lead her to the car. I open the door for her, then take a deep breath before getting into the driver’s seat.
    “Do you want me to take you to the hospital?”
    “No!” she shouts, reaching for the door-handle.
    I put my arm across to restrain her. “That’s alright love! I’ll take you home. OK?”
    She sits back and nods. “Sorry,” she says, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry...” She goes on repeating this until she’s out of breath. I interrupt her and say: “You did all you could,” but I don’t think she hears me.
    I drive slowly because I’m nearly as shaken as she is. When we get back to the flat I go into the kitchen and boil her up some milk, into which I put a little whisky. Then I sit down beside her and wait, hoping she’ll talk.
    It’s a long time coming. She’s nearly asleep with her head on my shoulder, and the first thing she says, once again, is: “I’m sorry.”
    “What are you sorry about?”
    “What do you think?”
    “I don’t know. I don’t know what else you could have done. If you hadn’t been there, he might have died.”
    “He wouldn’t have done it. Everything I touch goes wrong.”
    “Come on, Annie.”
    “It’s true. Look what I did to Dan.”
    “You didn’t do anything to Dan,” I tell her.
    “And you and Mum - I spoiled everything.”
    “What?” I shout.
    She pulls away from me and leans forward. She starts muttering, as if to herself: “It could have been alright again, you could have come home...”
    “...and now it’s finished. You’ll never come back and I’ll be gone next year and than it’ll be all over...”
    “Annie, if it wasn’t for you, your mother and I wouldn’t even be talking to each other. That’s our fault, not yours.”
    “It’s my fault she’s with him.”
    “Mister Bannister.”
    “Who did you say?”
    “If I’d let him have me, it’d be alright. Now she’s in love with him and you’ll never come back...”
    “John Bannister?”
    “Yes. He’s with her now.”
    “What do you mean, ‘if you’d let him have you’?”
    “I’m sorry, Dad. I’m sorry, I’m sorry...” The mantra begins again. Her voice tails off as she puts her face in her hands.
    I’ll kill him.
    When I get to the house, Rebecca lets me in and says: “He’s gone, in case you’re wondering.” Annie goes into the lounge and sits down. I push Rebecca into the kitchen.
    “Get your hands off of me!”
    “John Bannister?!” I shout.
    “What about him?”
    “That’s what I want to know.”
    “Look, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you before, but we both knew you’d react like this.”
    “Listen to me, Rebecca.”
    “No, you listen! You’ve no right to tell me who I can see. So what if he’s a friend of yours, it still has nothing to do with you.”
    “I don’t care who you sleep with, Rebecca - as long as they leave my daughter alone.”
    Quietly I tell her what Annie said.
    Rebecca stands motionless, her mouth half-open. I stare at her. She looks through me. We remain stock-still for what feels like forever. I start to notice the smells in the kitchen - something with peanuts - satay. Rebecca never cooked me anything like that. Maybe Bannister did the cooking tonight. Rebecca would have complimented him, then taken him up to our bed. Did he gently caress her, or just throw her on her back and take her? And all the time he was thinking of Annie, who was sitting outside a boy’s house, crying over what she thought she’d done to the boy.
    “Annie!” Rebecca suddenly pushes past me. “What have you been telling your father?”
    There’s no reply.
    “Answer me!” Rebecca screams. I run in front of Rebecca. She tries to hit me and I push her away so that she falls over a coffee-table, sprawling on the living-room floor. She tells me I’m a liar and I tell her that she’s a fool. We shout and we tussle, and Annie sits on the sofa with her hands folded in her lap, blank-faced and silent.

- - -

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