Andrew Kaplan was coming home, at last, and it’d be for a real holiday, not like that time last August when the company called him back to work after only four days’ leave, they’d guaranteed he wouldn’t be needed in until January 5th, that would very nearly give him two weeks. “Great,” his wife had said, when he’d phoned her and told her the good news, and Andrew asked whether his daughter would be excited too, and his wife assured him that she would be. The flight from Boston was packed with British people who’d be getting to see their families, and there was a revelry in the air, nothing too outspoken, nothing drunken or boisterous, they were respectable denizens of middle management – but there were polite smiles everywhere, everyone seemed to be sporting a smile, and the stewardesses were wearing tinsel on their name badges, it all seemed very festive.

The aeroplane took off half an hour late, but Andrew wasn’t too worried, he knew that nine times out of ten any delay is made good in transit. But when the pilot came over the intercom and apologised once again that they were going to have to circle Heathrow for the fourth time – “The runways are all full, everyone wants to get back for Christmas!” – Andrew began to worry about his connecting flight from London to Edinburgh. By the time that all the passengers had filed off the plane and made their way to baggage claim no one was smiling any more. Andrew was almost resigned to the idea that he’d missed the connection, but then he dazedly realised that his suitcase was the first on to the conveyor belt – and that never happened! – and if he ran he might just make it to the check-in desk on time; and so that’s what he did, he ran, and his case was heavy, laden down with so many special presents for his family, but he didn’t let that stop him – he raced down the travelator from terminal three to terminal two, apologising as he pushed other passengers to one side – and it was going to be okay, if he kept up this pace he was going to make it with minutes to spare, and he burst into the departures hall and looked up at the monitors for his flight details – and there they were, it hadn’t taken off yet! – and there was a word in red right beside it, and the word was ‘cancelled’.

And for a moment he felt quite relieved, because it meant he had no reason to run any more, and he’d done his best, hadn’t he? And for another moment he was quite angry. And then he just didn’t feel anything very much, he was just so tired.

No more flights to Scotland tonight. Sorry. Yes, the inconvenience is highly regrettable. There will, of course, be compensation, and somewhere for Mr Kaplan to rest until service resumed in the morning. But Andrew didn’t want an airport hotel, or, God knows, did they just mean some sort of darkened lounge he could sit in? – it’s all he had thought about on the flight over, that after three months away he was going home. He remembered what his wife had said, one of those last times he’d managed to get through to her on the phone – “We’ve never been apart so long before.” He’d asked her whether his daughter was looking forward to Christmas, and his wife had said, “Of course she is, she’s five years old, Christmas is all she thinks about!” And she’d explained that they had already decorated the tree together, and sent out the cards, and been carol singing – all the things they’d always done as a family, and this time he’d been away for them, and she didn’t press that point, she didn’t try to make him feel guilty – but then, she didn’t need to. And Andrew stood in the airport terminal and fumed; by rights he should be flying home right now, by rights he should be somewhere in the air over Birmingham. “I need to get back,” he said to the woman behind the counter, “I need to get back tonight, whatever it takes.” It was Christmas Eve tomorrow, he needed to know that when his daughter woke up on Christmas Eve her father would be there ready for her.

He was told there was a last train to Edinburgh, leaving from Kings Cross station within the hour. He joined the queue for a taxi, then pleaded with the people in front to let him go first, then paid them all ten pounds each. The taxi fare cost him fifty quid, but by this stage of the proceedings Andrew didn’t care about money any more – on the radio there was playing a non-stop medley of Christmas hits, and Andrew wasn’t in the mood for them, and the driver seemed quite put out when Andrew told him to turn them off. Andrew apologised with a healthy tip that used up all his spare cash. Andrew tried to call his wife to tell her he’d be late home, but his mobile phone was confused, it was still hunting for a signal from an American network provider. He asked the taxi driver whether he could use his phone. The taxi driver refused.

He bought a ticket with his credit card. The train was already filling up. He dragged his suitcase down the platform, and carriage after carriage he couldn’t spot an empty seat. He was starting to despair – and there, at the very last compartment, there were seats galore, the train was almost deserted. He couldn’t see why, he looked for a sign that said it was a different class, or required special reservation, but no, nothing. He climbed aboard, heaved his case into the empty luggage rack, plopped himself down wearily into a seat. He had a whole table to himself. He smiled at the people around him – “Pretty lucky!” he said, but they didn’t reply. There were a couple of businessmen sitting together, a young mother with a girl, an elderly mother reading a magazine, a middle-aged man who was asleep. Andrew decided to take his cue from this last passenger; he closed his eyes, and by the time the train pulled out of the station Andrew was snoring gently.

*

“Bang!”

And Andrew was awake, and there was the little girl, and she was leaning over his table as if she owned it, and she was pointing a gun at him, except it wasn’t a gun, it was two fingers, with a third wiggling underneath as a trigger. “Bang! Bang! Bang!”

Andrew wasn’t sure whether to respond or not. With his own daughter he tried to play along as much as possible, no matter what strange pretending game she flung at him, that was what a daddy was supposed to do. But this wasn’t his daughter, and he didn’t know whether he should encourage her, frankly he didn’t know whether he should be talking to her at all. So he sort of half went for it; he clutched at his chest, he said, “Ugh!” quietly, as if he’d been shot, as if he were dying, but it was all a bit pathetic, and even as he did it, Andrew could feel himself blushing red with embarrassment.

The little girl didn’t seem to mind. She looked delighted by this unexpected piece of playacting. “Bang! Bang!” she went, she shot him twice more for good measure, and Andrew didn’t know what he was supposed to do this time, he was already dead, wasn’t he? And she laughed out loud, and then, with a scream, turned and ran down the aisle to the other end of the carriage. She didn’t shoot at any of the other passengers, and Andrew didn’t know how he felt about that, whether he was annoyed or just a little bit proud.

He looked towards the girl’s mother, but she didn’t appear even to have noticed, she was staring dully out of the window. He looked around the rest of the carriage, with a rueful smile – kids! – but no one caught his eye. The old woman was still reading her magazine; the businessmen had run out of things to say, and were looking away from each other; the middle-aged man was still asleep.

Andrew rather envied him, because here came the girl again, running back down the aisle, whooping. Andrew wondered how anyone could sleep through a racket like that.

His head felt muzzy, he knew he was teetering upon the edge of sleep, and if only he could fall in the right direction he’d be dozing soundly all the way home. Why wouldn’t the girl shut up, why wouldn’t she just sit down and shut up – he’d never let his daughter run riot on a train, especially not when it was late at night, especially not when there was a passenger onboard who was clearly fighting jetlag – and he felt a resentment for the mother who was still not doing a thing to help, still just looking out of the bloody window, really! – and he tried to force the resentment down, because he knew if he let it the resentment would keep him awake, it’d growl away at his innards, he’d be unable to relax. And here came the girl again –

“Ssh!” he said, and glared at her, and put his finger to his lips. And she stopped dead, and looked surprised, and a little hurt maybe that her one playfellow, the one person who had given her a damn, had turned against her. Her bottom lip trembled. She began to cry.

“No, no,” said Andrew, “ssh!” And he put his finger to his lips again, but this time with a smiley face, see, all smiles, he wasn’t cross with her, not really. But it was no good. The tears were in full flow now, the girl let out a misery that was profound and was sincere, and was very very loud, she began to scream the place down. He hadn’t realised you could scream tears out like that.

Andrew panicked a bit, looked quickly at the other passengers. But no one seemed to mind. The woman didn’t raise her eyes from her magazine. The businessmen turned their heads in the child’s direction, but with supreme indifference – and then quickly turned away again, as if annoyed that the pair of them had been caught looking at the exact same thing.

And the mother said, very softly, but stern, “Come and sit down.” And for a moment Andrew stupidly thought she might mean him. But the girl sulkily turned, and went back to her seat. “Get out your colouring book. Play with your crayons.” The little girl was still crying, angry little sobs, but she did what she was told. And all the while the mother didn’t so much as glance at her, her attention still upon the window and whatever she could make out from the darkness.

The little girl took out her crayons. She looked down at her colouring book. Grim, not a hint of a smile. The crying had almost dribbled to a halt, there was just the odd little moan punctuated with sudden sniffs. Andrew watched her, carefully; the little girl didn’t seem to notice he was spying on her, but then, then, in one instant she turned her head towards Andrew, right at him – and what was that in her smile? Rage? Triumph? Something adult anyway, something almost sneering, and it made Andrew feel small and ashamed.

And then she was at work with her crayons. She wasn’t colouring anything in, she was attacking the book, stabbing down hard with the bright blue stick, slashing at the page. And now, in her left hand, she produced a yellow crayon, and she was stabbing down with that too, she was showing no mercy, the crying had stopped, she was instead giving grunts of effort as she stabbed as hard as she could. And Andrew realised only he could see this, mother took no interest whatsoever, and Andrew thought he should alert her, because this was wrong, something was terribly wrong – and as the child spattered blue and yellow cuts deep into the paper she looked at him again and he could see there was spit bubbling out of her mouth, was it even foam? And Andrew opened his mouth to say something, he didn’t know what, but before he got the chance –

– the woman had turned from the window. She didn’t look angry, or annoyed, or frustrated – that was the oddness of it – her face looked perfectly composed and neutral. “Enough,” she said, calmly, and stood up, and she was pulling the little girl up too, by the shoulders, and up into her arms. And the little girl began to scream again, and this time it was a scream of fear, she knew she was in trouble now – and the mother didn’t care, she was into the aisle, and carrying the girl up to the other end of the carriage, the girl struggling and kicking and lashing out, and yet for all that still holding on tight to her crayons and her colouring book. And the mother and child were gone.

The sudden silence was a shock. Andrew closed his eyes right away, to see if he could find that drowsiness again, but the silence rang right round his head.

He looked out of the window. It was black out there, just black. He couldn’t see a thing, not a single house, or a tree; it was as if someone had painted over the windows, and there was a glossy shine to the black that began to give Andrew a headache.

Presently the woman came back, and sat down in her seat. Andrew was pleased to see the noisy little girl wasn’t with her.

He closed his eyes again. A couple of minutes later, when he opened them, he saw that one of the businessmen had fallen asleep. He closed his eyes once more; when he opened them, a few minutes after, he saw that the second businessman had succumbed too, and his head was lolling against his partner’s, and they seemed huddled together for warmth and protection. It almost made Andrew laugh out loud – and he decided that he’d like to take a picture of them with his phone, and send it to his wife. She would find it funny, and she could show it to their daughter too! He took out the phone, but it still hadn’t found a signal.

Next time he closed his eyes he wanted to see whether he could make the old woman fall asleep too. But she didn’t, she remained forever glued so sourly to her magazine. Never mind.

The mother was staring out at the blackness of the night.

He wondered where the little girl had got to.

The mother then took a thermos flask out of her bag, and poured herself a cup of tea. She sipped at it, turned back to the window.

Andrew closed his eyes one last time, tried to fall asleep. The train rocked from side to side as it sped down the tracks, it made him feel like a baby, it made him feel drowsy. But all the while he listened out for the return of the little girl, he knew the little girl would be back soon, must be, he was tense with anticipation of the noise she would make.

He refused to open his eyes for a good ten minutes. He kept himself busy by reciting, silently, and in strict chronological order, the captains of the English cricket team since Len Hutton. When he reached the present day, he opened up – and looked – and the girl still hadn’t returned. The mother had put away her tea now, the old woman was still reading, the businessmen and the middle-aged man all still asleep.

Where was she?

He got to his feet. No one looked up. He walked down the aisle to the end of the compartment. The electronic door trundled open for him with a hiss.

The girl wasn’t to be seen. He tried the far door, but it was locked, this was the end of the train. A sign said the toilet was vacant, and Andrew knew that little girls aren’t always very scrupulous about locks. He hesitated, then knocked gently upon the door. “Are you all right?” he called.

There was no answer, and that annoyed him, she must have been in there for twenty minutes now, twenty at the very least, time for him to recite the English cricket team and back again! And he realised he needed the toilet anyway, he hadn’t been since halfway over the Atlantic Ocean, and so when he knocked again it wasn’t just as an interfering busybody, but as a man who had waited long and patiently for the lavatory and was now claiming his due right to pee.

He pushed upon the door, very tentatively, and it swung open, and he peeked his head around the door, fully prepared to make protestations of surprise when he saw the little girl inside – but there was no one there – and he supposed that was a good thing, he hadn’t really wanted the embarrassment of a girl with her undies round her ankles – but where was she then? Where had she got to? And the answer crept over him, and any urine that had been nestling in his bowels froze to ice and was never going to come out now, not ever.

The mother had thrown her overboard. She must have thrown her overboard. She had had enough of her tantrums, and had picked her up, and marched her down the aisle, and to the window, and chucked her out. And he could imagine the little girl’s screams being cut off as she was sucked into the night, and how her body would have fallen down the side of the speeding train, as if she were flying, as if she were a witch, a little witch who’d lost her broomstick, falling until her head smashed against the track.

And then the mother had calmly returned to her seat. And all the while since had been staring out into the blackness. The blackness into which she had tossed her child.

No.

That couldn’t be it.

Think.

He had had his eyes closed. And what had happened, surely – yes – was that the girl had walked past him to the other end of the compartment – tiptoed past, probably, unusually quietly, but girls were peculiar things, weren’t they, maybe she was playing some sort of game? – she was now no doubt terrorising another compartment altogether. And the mother? The mother who had just sat in her seat the whole time (half an hour more like, really) whilst her daughter ran amok somewhere without supervision? That made her a bad parent, perhaps, but he could live with that, he wasn’t the best parent in the world either, was he, was he? She could be a bad parent, that still made more sense than that she was a murderer.

He sighed with relief, and only then realised he’d been holding his breath, that he’d been scared. And he actually went to the toilet; he couldn’t do anything especially useful in there, but he splashed some lukewarm water on to his face, he wiped it off with a paper towel. It was better than nothing, better that than he’d had a wasted journey.

And with full confidence he walked back down the aisle to his seat at the other end of the compartment. And he was going to sit down, he really was, and that would have been the end of the matter – but there was just a moment’s hesitation, the need to satisfy some stupid lingering doubt – or maybe it was something to do with velocity, he was already on a trajectory to the next compartment, why stop short, why not walk straight on and look?

The electronic door wouldn’t open for him. He tugged at it. It wouldn’t budge.

It wasn’t locked, nothing like that, what would be the point? But it was jammed, very definitely jammed, and there was probably nothing suspicious in that, no cause for alarm, it wasn’t as if his compartment had been deliberately segregated from the rest of the train (why on earth did that pop into his head?). But he pulled at the door with all his might, he grunted with the effort. Until he became convinced that all the passengers behind him were watching, and laughing. And then he stopped, and he turned about, and of course no one was watching, no one even cared.

He stood there, bit his lip. Tried to work out what to do.

The girl was small, maybe she was hiding somewhere in the carriage? (Silently, for over half an hour?) He walked down the aisle again, and he looked this way and that, he looked underneath the tables and upon all the rows of seats. And he thought, has she got off? Could she simply have got off? The train hadn’t stopped at any stations yet, it was two hours’ journey until York – but maybe they had reached York; he hadn’t thought he’d fallen asleep when he’d closed his eyes before, but maybe he had without realising it, he was jetlagged to tiny bits, maybe they’d passed a dozen stations and he hadn’t even noticed, maybe the train had stopped and the little girl had got off – late at night – on her own – and her mother had stayed onboard and waved her goodbye – for some reason – and –

“Excuse me,” he said softly to the old woman with the magazine, “has the train stopped anywhere yet?”

The old woman looked up, at last, and stared at him, and she didn’t reply – and it didn’t seem to Andrew that she was being rude, there was utter blankness in that expression, maybe she didn’t understand English? (Although the magazine was in English, wasn’t it?) She continued to stare, she wouldn’t look away.

And he said, “What happened to the little girl?” And at that her mouth began to open, very slowly, it was almost as if he could hear the creak of those old lips parting, and muscles that had lain dormant for so long began to grind as they were forced into action – and suddenly Andrew didn’t want to see what would happen next – he didn’t want to see that mouth open – he didn’t want to see what might be inside – and he whipped his head away from her, he backed off, he fought down a sudden swell of panic and breathed and breathed again and felt his heart steady. He looked back at the old woman, he forced himself to, and she was once more staring intently at her magazine, it was as if he’d never approached her in the first place.

He saw that her eyes weren’t moving, she wasn’t reading anything, it was all staring, just stares. He walked past her and turned around to look at the pages, and saw that across the centrefold was a picture of a young woman, a model, prettier than the old woman could ever have been. He wondered if she’d been gazing upon this one picture for the entire journey. He wondered why.

He went back to the end of the carriage. He pulled down the window, and took a deep breath of fresh air, and felt better.

And he could see that it was possible, look. See how the window opened nice and wide? A little girl could squeeze through there, no problem. He himself could squeeze through, probably, if he hunched his shoulders a bit. That was all it would take, and then he’d be with the girl, they’d both be off this train and the wretched journey would be over. And the blackness was perfect, he could see the beauty of it now, this close up, his face so close it was grazing it. So shiny, new even – and the little girl hadn’t suffered, he could see that now, she had just flown away into the dark and would never have hit the ground, the wind so fast and carrying her off safely. And he knew then that he would do it too. He would do it. He would do it. He would step out into the blackness. He would do it. He would never see his wife or daughter again, but then, was he ever going to have seen them anyway, what, really? Because he couldn’t believe that, he couldn’t picture that, the three of them together, around a Christmas tree, laughing, hugging, it was beyond imagining, it seemed so fake – and there was nothing fake about the blackness, that was the only truth, why not accept it? He would do it. And the wife and daughter might be sad, for a bit, he wondered if they would. But they’d never find his body, it’d be lost within the black. – And he wondered whether his luggage at least would make it home, he had Christmas presents for his family, he’d like them to have something nice to open on the big day.

He stepped forward. He felt something hard under his foot. He toyed with it for a moment, rolled it under his sole, then frowned, wondering what it was. He lifted the foot to see.

There were two crayons. One blue, one yellow.

He picked them up. He looked at them for a while.

When he walked back into the compartment the lights seemed dimmer somehow. As if the darkness had seeped in from somewhere, or was it just because he was tired? Because he was so tired. And the old woman was asleep now, her head slumped awkwardly, uncomfortably, and she’d dropped her magazine on the floor – and Andrew thought he should pick it up for her, but he never wanted to go near her again, and as he passed her down the aisle he pressed his body hard against the opposite row of seats.

Everyone was asleep. Except the mother, who was no longer looking out of the window, she was looking at him. And smiling.

“Ssh,” she said, and she put her finger to her lips. “Let’s not wake them.”

“No,” said Andrew.

She tapped at the seat next to her. “Come and sit down,” she said. And Andrew did.

*

The woman took out her flask and poured herself a tea. She asked whether Andrew would like one. He thanked her, said no. And she nodded at that, as if that was what she’d been expecting, and smiled, and sipped at her tea, and looked back out of the window again, as if her audience with Andrew was at an end.

Andrew felt he should leave her, get up, return to his own seat. But he felt so heavy.

He was still holding the crayons, bunched together tight in his fist.

“Excuse me,” he said, and the woman looked at him. “Excuse me,” he said again, and held the crayons out to her.

He wondered what she’d do. Whether the woman would look shocked. Or remorseful. Whether she’d get violent, or cry, or confess. But her face didn’t change at all, it was most disappointing.

“Is that some sort of Christmas present for me?” she said.

“Yes,” said Andrew. “No. I mean. For your daughter.”

“Do you have a daughter?”

“Yes.”

“Then why don’t you give your presents to her?” And her eyes twinkled, because she was teasing him – was she teasing him?

“No,” he said. “I mean. You don’t, I. I thought. I think your daughter may have dropped them.”

She took them from him then, looked at them hard, studied them even. “I don’t think these can be my daughter’s,” she concluded finally, and handed them back.

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t have a daughter.”

Any more, thought Andrew – he dared her to say it, any more. “Oh,” he said.

The woman smiled. And went back to the window.

“No,” said Andrew. “I mean. Hey.”

She looked back.

“You don’t have…?” – and he so much wanted to ask directly, he’d seen her with her, hadn’t he, the whole carriage had – although he knew that if he woke them up they would all deny it, he knew that with sudden cold certainty, if they even talked to him, if they even acknowledged him at all. He wanted to say, but I saw you with the girl, the girl you got rid of, what did you do to her? And instead he said, “You don’t have a daughter? Well, have, have you ever wanted one?”

The woman raised her eyebrows at that, amused, and Andrew blushed.

“I don’t have anyone,” she said. And she held his gaze this time, daring him to contradict her – but, no, it wasn’t that, she wasn’t daring him at all, she spoke with the confidence of utter truth, she knew he wouldn’t contradict her, why would he try?

“I’m sorry,” said Andrew. “So, you’ve no one to spend Christmas with?”

“No.”

“I’m sorry.” And he felt an urge to invite her home, she could stay with his family, she could be his family, he felt it rise up inside him, if he had been breathing more freely then it might even have popped out.

She stared out at the night. He stared at it too. And it seemed to him they were hurtling through a void, they were nowhere at all, nowhere, that the tracks would end and the train would fall into the void deeper and deeper and they would be lost, it seemed to him this may have already happened.

“Are you seeing your family for Christmas?” she asked.

And he told her.

He told her of the presents he had for them in his suitcase. For his daughter he had some dolls bought specially in Boston, all of them famous figures from the American Revolution, she wouldn’t find them anywhere else! And for his wife he’d picked up some perfume at duty free. But now these gifts felt a bit paltry. What would his daughter want with a figurine of Paul Revere? But little girls were so good at playing games, weren’t they, he had seen her have hours of fun with a cardboard box, she had pretended it was a car, and a dinosaur, and a spaceship, and she’d said to Andrew, play with me, pretend with me – but Andrew wasn’t very good at pretending, when his daughter shot him with her fingers and Andrew fell over he always tried a bit too hard and he was sure she was embarrassed by his efforts; she had taken that cardboard box, pretended it was a time machine, and a zoo, and a father, he’d come home once and she’d got a box and was pretending it was him. He didn’t know what to do with his own daughter, and each time she’d grown, and aged, and changed. And what would his wife want with perfume? But he had a better present for them, something he couldn’t wrap, should he tell? He’d be coming home for good. For good. No, not this time, but soon, very soon. Because for the last year and a half he’d been doing these trips to the States, and his wife had said to him, you’re missing out on your daughter’s childhood! and he had said, but it’s my job, I have to go where they tell me, do you think I have any choice? But now he was coming home for good, by April he’d be back in Britain, they said some time in the spring, it’d be May at the latest. He’d be home, and his wife had said, you’re not only running out on her childhood, you’re running out on me – and she wouldn’t be able to say that any more. She wouldn’t be able to complain about a bloody thing. And when he told them both, and he’d tell them on Christmas morning, he’d keep it as a proper present, how happy they would be! Because his wife was wrong, he wasn’t trying to avoid her, that was ridiculous, he loved her, he was pretty sure he loved her, being at home with her again would take some adjustment but it would be worth it. He was scared. Of course he was scared. He couldn’t remember his wife’s name. How odd. The jetlag. His own wife’s name, and he was fairly certain she’d had one. He couldn’t remember his daughter’s name. He wondered whether he might have written them down somewhere, maybe they were on his mobile phone, along with the names of his bosses and his secretarial staff and all his clients, but no – no – he’d call them now, he’d ask – but there was still no signal, the phone said it couldn’t find a network provider. And he was scared, because he knew when he got home there would be that conversation, because that conversation always happened when he got back, sooner or later. And when he’d tried calling his wife recently she’d been so curt with him, she sounded so very far away – and when he told her he’d be home for Christmas for a whole two weeks she sounded almost sarcastic – “Great,” she’d said – that was all – “Great.” And she never let his daughter come to the phone any more, she was too busy being asleep in bed or playing with cardboard boxes or being dead. And he knew then. Oh God, he knew then. His wife didn’t love him. Not any more. She had once. Not any more. And his daughter. His daughter, his daughter was dead. She was dead. And his wife hadn’t even told him! She hadn’t told him, because he was in Boston, what good would it do? She hadn’t told him because she was angry with him, she’d had a daughter, and she’d slipped through his fingers, she’d got lost in the blackness of the night. Though, to be fair, maybe she had told him, didn’t he remember that time – wasn’t there a phone call – wasn’t there a conversation, and a lot of tears, and he’d had to go to a meeting, they were waiting for him, he wasn’t going to listen to this shit, “Bastard!” she’d said, she’d screamed her tears out, he hadn’t realised you could scream tears out like that, “now, now,” he’d said, “I’ll be home for Christmas, we can talk about it properly then.” “Great,” she’d said. Oh God. Oh God. He’d had a daughter, and she was lost, and he was lost too.

The woman who had never been a mother and had never had a daughter took his hand. She smiled. She asked if he would like that cup of tea now. He said yes.

“Wipe away your tears,” she said.

“Yes.”

She poured him a cup. It was steaming hot. It tasted bitter.

“You get some sleep,” she said. “Don’t you worry. I’ll wake you when you get home.”

“Yes. Thank you. Yes.”

He settled back in his seat. It felt so soft suddenly, and it was peaceful, there wasn’t a sound. And the train rocked from side to side as it sped down the void, it made him feel like a baby, it made him feel drowsy.

“Can I keep the presents?” she asked. He didn’t know what she meant for a moment. “The crayons?” He gave them to her. She put them in her pocket. She smiled again, took his hand again, squeezed it. She let him sleep.

*

It wasn’t the woman who woke him up. It was a station guard, shaking his shoulder gently. “Come on, mate, end of the line,” he said. There was no one else in the compartment, and the lights were on full. “Come on, some of us have Christmas to get home to!”

Andrew fetched his luggage from the rack. It felt lighter than he remembered. He stepped out on to the platform. Edinburgh was icy, and wet, and right, and home, and he breathed the air in, and felt awake.

He caught a taxi. The taxi driver was playing a medley of Christmas songs. Andrew didn’t mind.

He couldn’t find his keys. He hammered at the front door. “Let me in!” he cried. And then, to take the desperation out of his voice, “Let me in, it’s Santa Claus!”

And his wife opened up. There she was. Oh, there she was.

“Do you love me?” he said, and he could see that she did, her eyes shone with it, he hadn’t realised how very obvious love could look. “I love you,” he told her, “I love you,” and decided not to add that he couldn’t remember her name.

“Where is our daughter?” he said. “Is she all right? Is she alive?”

He didn’t wait for an answer, he ran up the stairs, ran to the bedroom. His daughter was in bed, and stirred at his noise. “Daddy?” she said. She rubbed at her eyes. “Daddy? Is it really you?”

“Yes,” he said, “yes, darling, I’m home, I’m home, and I’m never leaving again!” He wouldn’t leave, sod the job, sod Boston, he’d found something he thought had been lost, he wouldn’t let go. And she was better than he remembered, she’d reached the age at last where he would never feel uncomfortable with her, or anxious, she was perfect, she was shiny, what luck.

He pulled her out of bed, right by the shoulders, held her, hugged her, and he kissed her head and he kissed her hair. And he knew her name, it was all right. She smelled to him of earth, and mud, and dead leaves, but it was all right. He rocked her in his arms. And after a while he stopped, but the rocking just kept on going, and he didn’t know what it was.

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