They call him Scouser Jimmy at the construction site. Everyone has a nickname, so Jimmy takes it in his stride. “You remind me of another Jimmy,” the boss says one day when they’re standing on a plank, high above Brackenham Street. “Both of you have the heart of a lion.” Jimmy read in the Daily Mail months ago that Man United had signed up a Brackenham council estate kid, same age as him. Word on the street is that the other Jimmy has given it his best, all his life. Scouser Jimmy’s becoming a fan, although he’ll be hammered back in Liverpool for admitting it.
He misses home. More than anything he misses his ma and da, sitting with them after dinner in front of the telly, talking about everything and a whole lot of rubbish, really. But the thing is that Jimmy wants to see the world, so he’s in London now, holding down three jobs. Working on construction during the week, pub work at night, and shucking out the stables at Richmond Park on the weekends. If he puts his head down, he’ll have enough to take off within a year because it’s always been his dream. Ever since his parents bought him that atlas with his confirmation money. Jimmy’s ma said that when Da was his age and old enough to sign the papers, he applied for a passport, but never got to use it.
“Why don’t you meet me someplace?” Jimmy asks when he rings one night, just to hear their voices. “Maybe Australia.” Because it was Da who once showed him the images of the red earth there.
Da doesn’t say much. Just mumbles a “maybe.”
So he makes a detour and walks down Brackenham Street to St. Christopher’s, on the corner. He’ll light a candle and make a vow. He’s going to find a way to get Da’s passport stamped. Even if it’s the last thing he ever does.
Bish dreamt of his son again. It was what woke him. Not that he needed to pinpoint the reason these days. Three a.m. had become his witching hour, and the fears that revealed themselves made him shudder at the thought of all his future 3 a.m.s—of what they might produce. Shaking him awake and reminding him of loss and longing and mortality.
He woke again hours later, dragging himself out of bed to the sameness that he’d become used to this past week. A blinding headache. A flat that looked like a university dorm: laundry piled high and a week’s worth of glasses fighting for space on his bedside table. A dead goldfish. That was becoming a ritual now. Another day, another dead fish.
At the front door he collected his post and sat at the breakfast bar sorting it into bills, junk, and letters, marveling at how considerate his postman was, bundling together a deficit to his bank account of five hundred quid in one neat package. Phone bill. Gas bill. Electricity bill. Then he came across handwriting. A postcard from Bee: You said to send you a line from Normandy. That was it. No Dear Dad or Miss you heaps. As someone used to spending his days dealing with the scum of the earth, Bish Ortley found no species crueler than the adolescent female. He stared at the cursive, wondering how long he had been waiting for something handwritten, evidence that someone out there had taken the time to reveal the wonders of the world to him.
When his phone interrupted his hangover-induced musings, Bish saw the name of his old boarding school mate. They met up sporadically over the years, usually on Elliot’s initiative. Last Bish knew, he was working for British Rail.
“Tried you at work but you weren’t there, Ortley.”
Bish wasn’t in the mood for explaining that.
“Listen…things are sketchy, but I thought you needed to know,” Elliot said. “One of the communications people here has picked up talk of a bombing. At a campsite between Calais and Boulogne-sur-Mer. They’re suggesting it could be a busload of British kids on a tour of Normandy. Bumped into your mother last weekend and she mentioned Bee—”
Bish hung up. Heart thumping, pressing Bee’s number with a shaking finger, waiting. Heard the ring first, then her voice.
Obviously not here. Or obviously avoiding you. Pick the reason. Leave a message.
His ex-wife once warned him that the key to dealing with Bee was not to beg. She was extra cruel when Bish or Rachel pleaded. But he’d trade a lifetime of that cruelty to hear her voice right now.
“Sweetheart, ring as soon as you get this. Even if you’re angry with me, just ring. I need to know you’re okay.”
He rang Elliot back.
“What does your comms person know?”
“Not much. Just that it happened about twenty minutes ago. Someone at the campsite tweeted that the bus had French number plates, but they’re saying it was carrying British kids. Doesn’t necessarily mean it’s hers.”
Bish’s mouth was dry and he didn’t know where he found the word, but it was there. It had formed on his tongue the moment Elliot had said “Bee” and “bombing” together.