by Sam Thompson
I travel for my job. It’s fine: three or four times a month I have to leave at short notice, but I’m never away for more than a night or two. Clare and I haven’t found it a problem, though things did get harder to manage after Felix came. At the time I’m thinking of he was four months old, and of course it killed me to be away from them. Plus I think Clare and I were embarrassed to be falling so easily into these roles, me going off to earn while she stayed at home with the baby. We felt like, could we really not do better? But the truth was that over those months I came to value my work trips in a new way. I’m not saying I didn’t want to be at home every minute I could, but I did gain an appreciation for how simple and orderly life became when I got on the train, travelled to the assigned location and did my work. Sometimes, too, I felt sure that Clare was relieved when I left. I could understand that—but every now and then I had a sensation like vertigo. As if I might fall away from them; as if none of us would mind if I did.
I hardly know why I’m thinking of this particular journey. Nothing remarkable happened, but maybe that’s the reason. Looking back now, I see that we were at a point where things could have gone differently if our luck hadn’t held. We were moving into a new phase of life, after all, and no transition is perfectly smooth.
Clare and I argued as I was leaving for the station that morning. It was five-fifteen am, I was pulling on my clothes, and she’d been up all night with Felix, who was going through a patch of bad sleep, the sort of normal developmental glitch that’s forgotten as soon as it’s over but feels like the end of the world in the small hours when the baby won’t stop screaming, your wife’s sobbing from exhaustion and you have to bike to the station before dawn. I was already running late when we fought, really over nothing. I made some half-thought-through suggestion about how we might get him to sleep better, she curtly told me why it wouldn’t work, I got defensive…then I had to race to make my train and fell into the carriage out of breath, with the argument still loose in my mind. I wanted to make it up. I wanted to take the baby gently from her arms and support the weight of the hot, ribby, squirming little body, and I knew I wouldn’t feel easy until I saw the two of them again. But I knew she was glad to have me gone.
The rhythm of travel was soothing. Work claimed my attention. I put on one of the playlists of familiar songs that I find good for concentrating, and went through the file for the visit. For the first hour I had the carriage to myself except for a pink-haired young woman in a camouflage jacket, carrying a rucksack that must have weighed as much as she did. Our eyes met as she came down the aisle, and I thought I should help her lift the bag onto the rack, but by the time I was half out of my seat she had done it herself. For a few seconds, I wanted to talk to her—to find out how she saw the world and to be understood in return—but naturally I didn’t bother her. Like any journey, this one was made of moments like that. Moments in which nothing happened, but which for all I know might have tipped some hidden balance in me or started some hidden process.
The visit itself was unremarkable, practically textbook. After the train I checked into my hotel. The agency always books me into the same ubiquitous budget chain, and I’ve come to like the way the corridors, bedrooms, check-in desks and bland breakfast areas are reproduced identically in hundreds of locations around the country. At least, I’ve come to appreciate it, the way you might appreciate a laboured joke. I took a taxi to the address. It was like any work trip: three o’clock in the afternoon, overcast, cold and getting dark, me paying the cab and peering at the numbers along a street in a provincial town, then pressing the buzzer of a bay-windowed terrace house that looked no different from its neighbours.
The appointments can be stressful in their way, of course. Emotions will be unstable, and the relatives tend to be confused about my role, often having unrealistic expectations about the forms of assistance I can and cannot offer. Occasionally they even seem to believe that the agency I represent is in some way responsible for what has happened to them. As a rule, though, they are civil to the point of submissiveness, listening gratefully as I explain what they can expect from here on in.
I talked through the preliminaries and handed over some leaflets to the relatives, who in this case were parents in their early forties, both evidently suffering from a chronic lack of sleep, and an elder sister, perhaps twelve years old. I took them through the standard questionnaire, while at the other end of the living room the subject, indistinguishable at a glance from a three-and-a-half year old boy, played peaceably with a toy garage. No one had thought to turn the lights on, and I detected a kind of visual buzz, not quite a flicker, as if the dim air itself were a screen behind which a fluorescent light was malfunctioning. I caught a faint stink, too, like a single burning hair, and noted my impression that a film of grease had coated my hands and the inside of my mouth. Again, textbook. I’m attuned by now. The relatives did not seem to have noticed the feedback signs—signs that the thing at the end of the room was in no respect what it appeared to be—and of course I didn’t point them out. Soon enough they would become impossible to ignore.
After securing the papers in my briefcase I took time to discuss the parents’ concerns. Everyone asks the same questions, and I’ve learned to make my answers simple. I’m honest, certainly, and I don’t sugar-coat, but nor do I admit to ambiguities or gaps in knowledge. I don’t indulge in sympathy. Today as always there were some misapprehensions that I had gently to correct. No, I told them, it’s not him. No, I’m afraid it’s not meaningful for you to ask where the real child has gone, or what’s happening to him now. We simply don’t know enough to give you an answer. (Not true, but here candour reaches the limits of its value.) I told them that the subject might carry on for months, years or decades giving every appearance of normality, at least to the casual eye. In that case, or in any other, the firm advice was to continue as though nothing had happened. Just pretend, I told them. I gave some advice on how to manage the symptoms of cognitive dissonance that they might expect to arise from this approach.
As I spoke, the father kept grinning, as if to placate me, but I saw that the mother’s response was going to take a different form. I wasn’t surprised when she interrupted. It’s another way of processing the situation: some people demand to be given all the available information, however technical, as if by grasping the facts well enough they might force them into meaning something else. Occasionally they can become confrontational, even accusatory—talking about conspiracies and cover-ups, or suggesting that I’m somehow personally complicit in their difficulty—and while I can understand such behaviour, I’m obliged to make clear that it is not acceptable. This time there was no real problem. A little extra firmness in my voice was enough to calm the mother, and eventually both parents nodded their acceptance in the rather touching way that I’ve come to recognise. They signed the release forms and promised they would carry on as I’d advised, doing their best never to discuss the matter, even between themselves, after today. To finish, I outlined the sources of support that they might consider drawing on—not many, regrettably, in spite of the increasing incidence. The parents took it all in. The daughter was bored. No one paid attention to the small figure playing or seeming to play at the other end of the room, which struck me as a hopeful sign for the future.
When I ended the visit it was after four o’clock and almost fully dark. I set off for the hotel in a state of guilty anticipation. The truth was that I could have travelled home that same night, but I had chosen not to. Instead, my plan was to eat a sandwich in my hotel room, finish off the paperwork at leisure, then read a little and watch TV for a while. Later perhaps I’d send Clare a text message to ask if she wanted to say hi before bed. I like my work, I genuinely feel that what I do makes a difference, but at times like this I wasn’t sure that I didn’t enjoy these moments most of all: the small intervals, the gaps between the claims of work and loved ones, in which for a few hours I had nothing to do and I could imagine that my life was neither one thing nor the other.
This time, though, something curious happened. It was early evening, but as soon as I got into the room I lay down on the bed and fell into a shallow sleep. With some half-conscious part of my mind I seemed to be working out in great detail how I would travel home tomorrow, but I couldn’t quite bring the train times, station names and platform numbers into focus as they reeled past: then I realised that I was already on the train and that now my world ended at the ticket barriers, so that I would circulate forever in a purgatory of stalled coaches, seats musty with sweat, pungent toilets and station stops recurring like headaches. I scrambled up and went to the window, where I saw something monstrous in the darkness outside the hotel. It was a vast, cylindrical structure, prison-like, faintly luminous, almost invisible, crammed with the living bodies of the lost. Somewhere inside it was my son.
With an effort I gasped and blinked until I was awake, then washed my face at the sink. Hours had passed. It was almost ten o’clock. I was unnerved less by the dream than by the fact that I had fallen asleep at all. But once I had shaken off the disorientation I felt better than I’d felt all day. I was not tired. I said to myself: now you know what’s real. I thought of Clare and Felix, and knew that I would do anything for them. For them, I told myself, I would sacrifice anything. I knew in a way that I had not known when I left home that morning that life comes in phases and that this is right and good. I could hardly believe that I had been planning to stay away from home for longer than was necessary.
Thinking of them safe and warm in our house two hundred and ninety miles away, I looked up the train times and found that if I left now I could be there before dawn. I would step silently into the room and lie down beside them where they slept. None of us would need to wake up.
Sam Thompson was born in London and now lives in Belfast. His first novel Communion Town is published by Fourth Estate, and a new novel, Jott, will be published by John Murray in June 2018. For more, visit samthompsonwriter.com.