Her chest felt tight and tired and she was breathless at the top of the stairs. Rushing again. Should have taken the lift but it was so slow. Now the train was late and she needn’t have rushed at all.
There was a fine mist of rain on the platform drifting in from the sea. She was able to stay dry under the iron-girders of the arched roof, but it was a shame the mountains were shrouded in mist. She wanted them clean, bright and spectacular as they could be, above the valley with the merest curl of dragon’s breath cloud along the river before the sun burnt it away.
She felt nervous and could feel her heartbeat straining against her ribs with more than effort. Would she recognise her grand-daughter after fourteen years? She didn’t even know what they liked to call her. Not Virginia Rose, that was for sure. You couldn’t keep that up for long. There had been no photographs since the baby ones. She didn’t even know whether there were any brothers or sisters.
Of course she would have to tell her parents. Probably should have done so already. But the letter had only arrived this morning. Plenty of time, said her daughter’s waspish voice inside her head. It’s eight o’clock in the evening now. What were you thinking of? That’s so typical of you!
She had been thinking how wonderful it would be to see her again. What is more, she had been asked not to tell by the girlish hand on the pink scented paper. It had all been planned secretly. But she’s only fourteen, the voice persisted. Practically grown up these days, from what Ellen read in the newspapers. There was no changing of trains -well, at least not once you got to Euston. Ellen realised she was making excuses.
It seemed that her grand-daughter did know about her then. The annual cards and presents had not been in vain. No thank you letters though. She wondered what excuse her daughter had given for the lack of contact. Infirmity? But then surely they would have been expected to visit? No, it had to be a darker reason. ‘Not a nice person or ‘didn’t want to know’. ‘Alcoholic’ was probably the most likely, given Ellen’s fondness for a drop of whisky.
She had of course very much ‘wanted to know’. But relations were broken off when Ellen remarried .Not that they had been very good before, ever since the teenage years and the divorce.
The monitor showed another twenty minute delay. She would barely have reached Prestatyn yet. The names of the stops on the coastal line ran through Ellen’s head like a litany. Whenever she made the trip herself, each one increased her sense of relief at returning. She had moved here when her second husband died seven years ago. Until then it had only been a holiday destination.
Everyone said it was a dreadful mistake. Not the remarriage. ‘They’ had been moderately pleased over that, after so long alone. It was the relocation. Retirement, bereavement, and a house move out of the area where she was known. What on earth was she thinking of? They’d give her six months at most. The seaside wasn’t the same in winter, you know. No, thought Ellen, it was much to be preferred, but she had the sense to keep that thought to herself.
There were worse things than loneliness and she longed for the peace of the sea and the mountains where she was less well known. Not to have to answer any more questions. Especially about V.R. She had surprised herself by telling such brazen lies about her grand-daughter. Made up a whole curriculum vitae in fact. Visits away were fabricated with the greatest of ease. But it was hard to disguise the fact that none were ever returned. Everyone else seemed to have such perfect families, talked about their grandchildren all the time, even went on holiday with them….
So she had crossed the Dee. Just as her grand-daughter was doing tonight. Like hundreds of others seeking escape and refuge in Wales. She didn’t know the reason for this particular flight but, if the girl was anything like her mother at fourteen, she could imagine the sparks beginning to fly. Well, she could provide a safe refuge for a little while. A holiday in Wales, just as Ellen had always imagined, despite the lack of any response to her approaches as the years passed by. Even after her husband died. And the worst thing was Ellen had no idea why.
In the end she had to stop wondering and thinking. The only way she could bear the pain of yet another Christmas faced with the blank wall of silence was to put photographs away and try to pretend it had never happened and there was no Virginia Rose and never had been. No soft little baby she had once held in her arms with awe. No clean smelling baby skin and damp curls after the joy of bath time. It was not entirely successful, of course, but easier with new friends – well, acquaintances, really.
Still, the local History Society, Bridge Club, and Ramblers’ Group were congenial enough. Hill walking was out now though, after last year but Ellen thought herself reasonably content. What else could she expect anymore?
Except that now she could imagine a teenage girl at the carriage window looking out with fresh, young eyes. No doubt she would have the earphones of an I-Pod in situ. Nevertheless, she could hardly fail to notice the widening sweep of the Dee estuary, with the train suddenly running terrifyingly close to the silky grey water. The tide would be in, covering the mudflats where thousands of waders foraged. The rain had stopped; there were gaps in the clouds so the biggest black ones would be flushed and red-bellied from the setting sun. Hilbre Island and the West coast of the Wirral would be mere grey lines blurring into each other into the distance. She might just glimpse poor Richard the Second’s ruined castle below the lines at Flint.
Then she would pass the old ship with its rusting, rodent nibbled funnel and brown stained hulk that had been marooned at Mostyn Docks for so many years. The gas flame would flare briefly at the point of Ayr and she would catch sight of the wind turbines far out at sea. After that it was all green salt marsh pocked and patterned with pools until the moon swung up over rows of mobile homes next to the sand dunes. And next the curve of the Bay, twinkling with lights along to Rhos Point. Once around the headland and the train would pick up speed again towards The Junction
Ellen began to feel the cold seeping into her bones and shivered but here it was at last: the Holyhead train, three hours out from Euston, with its row of carriages presaged by a search beam, snaking around the bend. She jumped to her feet.
The train came sliding in. Came to a stop, oh so slowly. The doors opened with a compressed burst of air. Passengers began to alight in a stream which seemed it would never end. Except it did. There were others waiting and embracing. But there was no lone fourteen year old girl.
Ellen walked up and down in agitation, peering in through the murky windows. There was no-one even remotely likely. She asked the guard if he had seen a young girl travelling alone. He shook his head, blew his whistle and waved his board, anxious to be off. Asked her to stand back, if you please. She stayed on the platform until the last of the carriages vanished into the growing dark and she was quite alone in the silence. Then she sobbed uncontrollably but there was no-one else to notice a slightly stooped woman with grey hair on the cold and empty platform.
The rain started again, driving back over the cob, more forceful and heavy now, slanting in from the channel and soaking the floodlit stone walls of the castle. She put the gas fire on when she got in to her cottage. Summer didn’t seem to be what it used to when she was a child. Her answer phone was winking. She poured herself a generous measure of whisky.
The message was curt and from her daughter. Her speech was rapid and staccato, as if she wanted to get it over and done with as soon as possible. Ellen had to re-play it several times to make sense of it all.
“Thought I’d better ring. In case you were worried or did something dramatic like calling the police. Ginny not coming after all. Safe at home. Alexa’s mother rang to apologise for the cancellation of sleep over in case Ginny had forgotten to tell her. Not forgotten at all in fact, but deliberately omitted to mention! It was just another of her ‘running away to Wales to see her secret Grandma ploys after a row. First time she had ever written a letter though to their knowledge, or at least put stamp on and in box. Sorry about that”. (That was a first).
“Anyway they’d finally had to promise to take her on a weekend trip to Wales to calm the waters. Probably a good idea as she could see for herself then that it was cold, wet, wretched and unromantic, with nothing but sheep around. Naturally they would stay in a hotel. Was there a decent one in Llandudno? (!) But a meeting might be arranged”.
Ellen took a deep breath and poured another whisky. The constriction in her chest was easing. The drink was more pleasant by far than the heart spray which always gave her a banging headache. Good for VR! She smiled. Of course they hadn’t said when they would come. But she knew that her once beloved grandchild would make it here in the end, one day, either with or without her parents. She just needed to keep herself alive in the meantime.