The Blackbird

By Claire Allen

A novel about the Liverpool Blitz and how it resonates for an elderly woman, caring for her husband.

Chapter 1 – 1941

He was scowling, one hand shielding his eyes against the sharp morning light as he squinted up at the steeply-angled shadow on the transept roof, which was all he could see of the opening in the tower wall. Any moment now, the first of the men would emerge. 

To start with, it hadn’t been certain they would go up at all. Half an hour earlier, they had been standing ready in their overalls, waiting, some huddling together by the chapter house wall rolling thin cigarettes and muttering, the rest picking their way up and down the length of the cluttered yard as they smoked. Every few paces, they had to stop and step around the slabs of red sandstone which were stacked two and three high in every available space, each with its carved mason’s mark and, carefully scratched on in pencil alongside, a series of numbers and letters giving its final position on the tower. So much stonework was ready to be lifted and fixed into place, there was no more room left under cover. Finished pieces were being brought outside and left in the open until their time came to be strapped into the lifting gear at the end of one of the cranes and winched towards the heavens. The stones, too, had been waiting for a decision. 

Thomas glanced up again. It was impossible to see anything. The sun was still climbing and hung low in the sky, right behind the tower. It threw everything into such stark contrast all he could make out was the dark, familiar silhouette. He gave up and looked away, blinking, the outline of the unfinished building swimming drunkenly in front of his eyes like a piece of coloured cellophane. Craning up had reawakened a twinge in his neck. He rubbed at it, cursing. 

It was Jenner who really made him want to curse, though. There was a man who had a certain talent for complicating things. Whether or not the men went up wasn’t his decision to make. Mathieson’s had been contracted to do the work and it was up to them to decide. But Jenner had the architect’s ear, and – give him his due – he was a fair and diligent clerk of works. He trod conscientiously across the hazard-strewn ground between those who had designed the building and those who were actually building it. It was no easy job, keeping both sides happy, and the master masons knew that, so young Mr Mathieson was obliged, at the very least, to hear him out.

And Jenner hadn’t wanted the men to go up. Not with so many missing and everyone else so exhausted. They were having a run of serious bad luck. Last week, Barker had lost his wife in a raid and was in no state to work. They were down to just eight now, including Thomas himself, and eight men were just not enough.

Thomas knew all of this. Still, he had found himself trying to change Jenner’s mind. The men were already here, he’d pointed out. They were willing. Surely it was better to get something done than nothing. He didn’t usually get involved – he knew his place – but he’d noticed something recently and it had been bothering him more than he realised. Jenner was getting above himself. Nothing he could pin down. It was just in the way he carried himself, the way he inspected their work so meticulously – as if that made it somehow his work too. Thomas had been trying to ignore it for weeks now, but this morning he couldn’t keep his mouth shut.

He had other, more selfish motives, too, of course. At the prospect of being forced to return home early again, he had felt the already too-familiar prickle of dread. He saw the empty flat in Hunter Street, the unmade bed and unwashed dishes and everything just the same as he’d left it. 

So, he had nudged Jenner towards the decision he wanted. And slowly, Jenner had warmed to the idea of the men going up. The prospect of reporting some progress to the architect in London, no matter how slow, was clearly tempting. And at least the men would get a day’s pay. Thomas knew Jenner cared about that and made sure to mention it.

Still, he was surprised at how easy it was. Jenner didn’t come across as the kind of man who could be persuaded. He had a clamped way of speaking; he used his hands in rigid, jerky movements, for emphasis. He seemed an immoveable sort. And yet, he had been manoeuvred with hardly any effort at all. 

With the clerk on side, any debate about the men’s fitness for work was over. This was the biggest contract Mathieson’s had ever had. They weren’t keen to get on the wrong side of the architects. The men were sent up. 

Finally, they emerged, one by one, onto the transept roof, like a series of shadow puppets, and started the ascent up the framework of ladders and scaffolding around the outside of the half-built tower. The younger men went up ahead – Riley, Kinsella, Jones – even in silhouette he recognised their leaner outlines, their agility as they moved up the ladders. Less affected by the lack of sleep, they were keen to get the day's work begun so that it would be sooner finished. Thomas watched through eyes narrowed to slits as they zigzagged upwards. 

The raw edge of the unfinished tower waited for them. Soon, he would be up there too, craning down to watch the inch-by-inch ascent of the first blocks of stone, their almost imperceptible progress, until they were there level with him, cantilevered out over the drop. Everything working in harmony. The rest of his life would be down there, safely out of reach, out of his thoughts. Working took all his concentration as the blocks, one at a time, were slowly swung into position. Eight palms flat against the grain of the stone as four men oriented each piece by hand, a fraction of an inch of air becoming a hairsbreadth becoming nothing at all as the stones were lowered and fixed into place. Well, he had got his way this time. He shrugged and squinted up at the tower again. 

Jackson was back at work this week. Thomas had been watching him as they crossed the central space to the stairwell together. Even before he’d started climbing his breathing was ragged. He had a handkerchief clenched in his fist, ready to clamp against his mouth if the coughing started up again. Thomas had half-heartedly tried to persuade him to go back to his doctor, and, seeing him standing there so hollowed out, he knew he ought to have been more forceful. But the truth was, they needed him. And Jackson was a grown man, capable of making decisions for himself. Thomas found refuge in this thought and tried to put the sound of the older man’s heavy, rasping breaths to the back of his mind.

He was waiting for Jenner to bring the updated schedule before he followed them up. Jackson was the last to reach the foot of the ladders, though Murphy was almost as slow. Murphy was fifty-nine and, though strong, and as precise and perfectionist a fixer as they come, he’d been having trouble with his knees and the climb wasn’t getting any easier as the tower grew. Thomas sighed: it felt like the whole bloody lot of them were there on borrowed time.

The men were hollering down at him to hurry up. They weren’t supposed to climb the tower without a supervisor. Stupid, of course. The oldest of them had twenty years’ experience over him. He waved at them to go on up. He would follow once he'd spoken to Jenner. But where the hell was he? At this rate, they would never get started. ‘I’m right behind you,’ he shouted. 'Give me five minutes,' and he gesticulated again that they should make their way up without him. 

He was just turning away when it happened. A sudden quick movement, a blur in the corner of his vision, and he looked back towards the tower. Johnny Kinsella was already up, his slender, frizzle-headed silhouette pinned onto the impossibly blue sky. He stood there, oblivious, unable to see what was happening, as his young friend, Dan Riley, lost his footing on the ladder. 

Everything stopped. The men who had been behind Riley froze where they were; they could do nothing but watch him fall. Riley straightened out and for a moment seemed to be standing in mid-air, his arms held out at right angles. Thomas couldn't compute the fact of him as flesh and bone and blood. Their lives were so much taken up with stone, he could almost persuade himself that this was a stone figure, some forgotten statue, accidentally dislodged from its niche. When it met the lead roof it was falling towards it would perhaps cause some damage; it might smash into pieces and be broken and that would be that. Another one would have to be carved. More time and money lost, but not the mess and horror of a living body falling from that height. 

Daniel Riley. Thomas's mind whipped through what he knew about him as if a sudden breeze had riffled through the pages of a book left open. Twenty-two years old. Spared conscription because of a collapsed lung, the result of a childhood illness. Other than that, as fit as a fiddle, and a focused, careful worker. An invalid father and younger sibling, a sister, who had epilepsy. The mother had it tough, looking after them both. The girl was more or less an invalid, too, because of the fits, and she was sometimes violent. Riley had badly wanted to join up, but he put it to the back of his mind and made the best of things. It seemed like something he was used to doing. Even as an apprentice, he’d felt the pressure to support his family. Thomas remembered the tall fifteen-year-old of seven years ago as clearly as if they had just met that morning.

When he hit the roof of the eastern transept, he didn't break into pieces, but struck it like something flung in anger, limbs splayed and awkward, just short of the apex, then slid down, rolling over himself, his limp arms tangling round his body, until he disappeared from view behind the parapet that rose from where the sloping roof met the transept wall.

It was a long journey to his side. Thomas heard his own voice bellowing out for someone to call an ambulance as he ran across the masons’ yard. For someone to get the lad's mother. For someone else to fetch blankets. And then he was taking the spiral steps three at a time, circling up through the darkness to the narrow, bright opening at the top. Blinkering his thoughts, not allowing himself to consider what he might find when he got there. He'd been for a drink more than once with Riley, and sensed that the lad looked up to him a little. He hadn’t wanted him to. Riley could find a better man to be his role-model. Thomas didn't want to take him on in that way. He wasn’t the mentoring type.

He reached the doorway and burst out into the light, clutching hold of the stonework as he tried to catch his breath. He couldn’t see Riley for the men. They had all clambered back down the ladders onto the roof and he could see Jackson and Kinsella crouching over him next to the parapet. Kinsella, kneeling at the head end, was bending over the boy, but lifted his eyes at the sound of Thomas’s boots, and Thomas saw his stricken, grey face. Jackson, at Riley’s feet, didn’t look round. His head, too was bowed, as if he were praying. The rest of the men stood or squatted on the steep slope of the roof, forming a silent semicircle around the tableau. Still breathing heavily, Thomas approached. Riley had come to rest on his side, with one arm sticking out oddly behind him, the other thrown across his face which was turned towards the parapet, away from the men.

He crouched down in the gutter between Jackson and Kinsella and put his hand, gently, on the boy's outflung arm. Moved it gently to the ground, elbow bent, so that he could see his face. He leant over him, close, his head pressed against the stonework. He was breathing, at least. In the shelter of the low wall he could hear the shallow sips of air, and could see, now, the rise and fall of the boy's side. Next, he felt for a pulse at his wrist, and it was there, flickering unsteadily under his fingers. But his eyes were closed. Thomas closed his own eyes for a moment, still holding the warm wrist in both hands. Thank God he was alive. Although... No. He mustn't think that. It would not have been better. Let his poor mother have some hope of getting her son back. At least for a while.

He opened his eyes again. He didn’t know what to do. He started talking, his voice quick and low. He was just speaking words, nonsense words. He had no idea what he was saying. Out it babbled. About Riley’s mother, his kid sister and how they both needed him to get through this, but not to worry, they'd all look out for them for in the meantime. He could take as long as he liked to get well again. Someone had gone for his mother – they lived in one of the roads off Canning Street – and she would be there waiting for him when they came down. He didn’t stop to think how they would get him down. But already the ambulance was here – he could hear the siren wailing, and Murphy and Jones sprang to their feet and called down and within moments, it seemed, the ambulancemen were emerging onto the roof. He stood there, mute and helpless, as Riley was gently lifted and strapped onto a stretcher. He could do nothing. And then the slow, awkward progress down the spiral steps. He followed, in silence, with the rest of the men.

When they carried him out, his mother was there beside the ambulance with the epileptic girl by her side. She rushed forwards when she saw her boy, a great sob heaving out of her. But some of the men managed to catch hold of the sister and persuade her to stop with them and she watched from a distance as Riley was loaded into the back of the ambulance. Not that he looked a mess. There was no blood, nothing was crushed or twisted out of shape, but some of the men knew the family and said it was best to distract her if they could – she was very sensitive to shock.

There was something of a disturbance going on outside. Jenner put his pencil down on the desk. He listened. He couldn’t tell whether it was something or nothing. He was annoyed with himself, on edge. How the hell had he ended up going along with Shaw? He’d been dead set against it at the start. The fixers weren’t in any shape to be up there; he knew that. But, somehow, he’d been talked into thinking it was for the best. 

He sighed. He, more than any of them, understood the opposing tensions. For the masons, building was by necessity a slow process; they lived a cathedral into being. But the architects came at it with a sense of the whole thing fully-formed. Their familiarity with the countless, intricate drawings of the finished elevations and details clouded the reality of construction. In their minds, the building already existed, and its actual incompleteness irritated them. Any kind of delay was intolerable. It wasn’t unusual for Jenner to be caught between the two sides. He knew the nature of a building’s growth – he had been a mason for almost twenty years himself – but his own feelings tended towards the architects’. He, too, was impatient. It was, after all, no longer the Middle Ages. They ought to be able to make swifter progress. 

It was also true that if construction slowed too much, the inevitable questions would start to be asked higher up. It wasn’t inconceivable that the work could be stalled completely until the end of the war, and that might be years. They'd been given a slim enough allowance of materials as it was, and those could easily be reallocated. If that were to happen, what would the men do? They were too old to go off and fight. Even the younger ones weren’t fit enough. That was why they were here. What else was there for men whose whole working lives had been spent working on this one building? They couldn’t all make a living from headstones, even in wartime. It was in all of their interests to get on with the work. He knew this. And yet, he was uneasy.

He wasn’t fully certain how, or even why, Shaw had done it. Shaw was a mason through and through – happy with the human pace of construction, the contact of hand with stone. He wasn’t in a hurry. So why push the men up when they were understaffed? 

Jenner knew he wasn’t usually so suggestible. But there was something about Shaw; he’d noticed it once or twice before. A magnetism that drew him the kind of attention and friendship from other men that he himself had never known. Had he been more inclined to feel the lack, he might have envied his easy popularity. As it was, Jenner needed very little from other people, and what he did need, he took from his wife and the companionship she gave him.

Had he, then, been drawn by this peculiar appeal Shaw had? Or was the truth plainer? Had he simply let his guard down and allowed himself to be persuaded? Either way, it had set him on edge. He didn’t like the fact that his clear judgement had been clouded, and that it had happened without his noticing.

What was going on outside? He pushed back his chair and strode out of the makeshift office next door to the chapter house, making his way round to the first transept crossing and then to the central space, directly beneath the tower. A figure flitted across an open doorway, making the sunlight blink. And another. Surely the men had already gone up, so why the milling about down here? Another figure appeared at the doorway and this time came inside. One of the apprentices, approaching with an avoidant, unwilling look about him.

'What is it?' he called out. ‘Have the men gone up?’

The milk-faced lad stopped in front of him. ''Bin an accident, sir. Man's fallen, sir.'

Jenner clenched his jaw, feeling a sharp, familiar ache in one of his back molars. The pain gave him the comforting spur to self-control that he needed. What new horror was this that they must absorb? Slowly, he released the pressure on the tooth before speaking. 'How bad is it?'

The boy shot a look at the doorway he'd just come through. 'It's bad, sir. Ambulance is comin', sir, but it looks bad. He–'

'–Where's Shaw?'

The lad looked at Jenner, then looked away. 'He's with 'im, sir.'

The messenger scurried away. Jenner watched the daylight blink again as he disappeared through the doorway. Slowly, he leaned his head back and gazed up at the stone ceiling high above him. The elegant rib-vaulting curving up and in towards the bell trap at the centre of the vast, domed space directly beneath the tower. The height was dizzying. He lowered his head and stared hard at his shoes, firmly planted on the flagstones, trying to quell the sudden nausea he could feel rising up his body. The low sun was slicing an oblique girder of light through the stained glass at the other side of the crossing. He saw now, that it had spattered the nearby paving and wall with patches of watery colour, one of which fell across his shoe. Another mingled the grey of his trouser leg with emerald, and a purplish-blue had lighted on the back of his hand like a bruised butterfly. He flinched and gasped, and had to stop himself from trying to shake the colour away.

What had they done? What kind of broken mess had they caused by sending the men up the tower? A brutal picture was already fixing itself into place in his mind, breeding questions. How high had the unfortunate mason been when he fell? Was there any hope for him? He tried to block it all from his mind but he couldn’t pull free of it. He knew he should go outside, offer his help, bear witness, but he couldn’t move.

Thomas found him hunched over his desk, scribbling in the margin of a typewritten sheet. The door was open so he'd walked straight in without knocking, glad not to have to feign a deference he didn't feel. Now he cleared his throat to alert the clerk that he had arrived. 

Jenner looked up. Gestured for him to come further into the room, possibly sit down. It was difficult to tell. Thomas guessed that it was deliberately vague. Jenner had always seemed a little uncomfortable around the masons and Thomas assumed he felt himself superior, since his work was based here, at a desk. He would never cope with it, he thought. Face to face with the elements day after day, a hundred and sixty feet up at the growing edge of the tower, with the stone-cold air blasting in from the river. He might have been a mason once-upon-a-time, but he’d never done work like this.

Either way, Thomas preferred to stand. He watched Jenner screw the cap carefully back onto his fountain pen before standing up.

'How is he, the er…?'

'Riley,' Thomas said. 'His name’s Daniel Riley.' There was something chilling about Jenner's non-appearance outside. As if what had happened mattered so very little he couldn’t be bothered to stir himself. And one of the apprentices had gone running in to tell him. Surely it would be the first thing you'd ask. Who? Who has fallen? And then you would rush to offer your help. But that was Jenner all over. Just sitting in here, coolly doodling at the margins of his beloved plan of works. There was something inhuman about it. Nothing really mattered to Jenner but the tower. The men existed only in the abstract, no matter how much he spoke up for them at meetings. He didn’t see them as individual people, flesh and blood.

Jenner nodded. 'And, is Daniel Riley badly hurt? 

Thomas looked at him. 'I don't think,' he said slowly, 'that he'll be coming back to work any time soon.'

He saw the expression in Jenner’s eyes – one of almost pure animosity. And then the clerk turned away and stood with his back to Thomas, apparently debating with himself. Perhaps trying – and failing – to hide his contempt. Undismissed, Thomas waited.

When Jenner turned to face him again, he seemed to have come to something. His face was closed and composed. ‘I’ll recommend that the men go back up,’ he said quietly. ‘I think it’s for the best.’

It wasn’t for the best. Not at all, and Thomas said so. The men needed to go back to their families and try to banish what had happened from their minds. The morning was half gone already; what difference would the rest of the day make? For God’s sake, he said. Let them go home. But Jenner couldn’t be shifted. He made his recommendation, and Thomas went outside to tell the men.

He watched from the transept roof as they climbed the scaffolding for the second time. The six men had been standing in the cold for almost an hour, waiting to be told what to do. He felt for them as they beetled their way stiffly up the ladders once more. The fall was probably playing on all their minds, as they went rung by rung, past the place where Riley had fallen, up to the uneven rim at the topmost point of the tower. He certainly couldn't get it out of his own mind – the outstretched arms as he dropped, the way he rolled down the roof, and the ungainly shape of his body, bundled against the parapet. 

He put his hand on the first of the ladders and grasped the rung. For himself, he wasn’t so bothered. He preferred it this way. Keeping busy. Avoiding the alternatives. Only when he was up above the city could he begin simply to be. He was at his best when he was working. Everything else was just the murky complication of human relationships. He shook his head. He'd been a good husband for a long time before he strayed, and he'd never been anything but a decent father to his daughter. But he didn’t know how to fix the things that had gone wrong. He started to climb. 

He had tried to soften the news. A day’s pay in their pockets. Jenner wasn’t a monster, he’d said, trying to sound like he meant it. It was probably for the best to keep going and not dwell on what had happened. But they mocked him, told him he'd gone over to the other side. Sticking up for the gaffers, now, are you, they’d said. They didn’t mean it, of course. They knew he was one of them through and through and always would be. Still, it grated on him that he’d endured it on Jenner’s account. 

He had an uneasy feeling that Jenner was punishing him. Pulling rank. Reminding him that he, Jenner, was of more consequence. As if he needed to be reminded: the man was omnipresent – looking over their shoulders every minute. Assessing, advising, poking his nose in. Reporting his findings back to the architects. None of the masons was ever allowed to forget that he was more elevated than they were.

But he only worked for the architects because he was a mason, not because he was one of their own rank. He knew the trade, knew what to look for in the workmanship he inspected. He was really not so different from the men, despite the advancement of his career. And, in a way, he was caught, with fellowship offered by neither masons nor architects. He was on his own.

Thomas reached the top of the tower and climbed up over the lip of stone and brickwork onto the temporary wooden platform built on the inside. Periodically, as the walls of the tower gained in height, the platform would have to be dismantled, raised a little, and set down again. It was due to be lifted – there was now quite a drop down from the working edge. Yet it gave them a good deal more shelter when it was like this than when the drop was shallower. He crouched in the bowl of it now, his back against the brickwork, his shoulder hard up against a wooden joist, catching his breath. Already, the first pieces of stone on the ground were being prepared for their ascent. He could see the cables tautening and slackening where they ran over the wheels at the end of the jib. 

The shout came from below and he waved at the crane operator to start hoisting. He pulled himself to his feet and touched Jackson on the shoulder. ‘You pair up with me this side,’ he shouted, over the noise of the winch. That way, he could keep an eye on him, make sure he strained himself as little as possible as they pulled the pieces into position. Opposite, Kinsella and Doran were pulling on their gloves. As he peered over the edge to watch the slab’s slow progress up the side of the tower, he leaned on the stones they’d fixed into place yesterday, and thought back again to the night a few months back, in the autumn, when the raids first started up in earnest. 

He had been walking home after spending a few hours with a girl he’d been seeing – Merle, her name was, like the film star – and had paused to smoke a cigarette in the darkness of a doorway, when the sirens began. He was in one of the roads that ran parallel to the cathedral. The chief engineer lived on this road and Thomas remembered talk about a meeting that was being held at his home that evening. Almost directly opposite where he was standing, a door opened abruptly. It seemed the meeting was right here, and breaking up as he watched. Through the open door he could see dark figures hastily shrugging on coats. He watched shadows emerge and move down the steps, hunching their shoulders with unconscious, skyward glances, as if they were expecting rain. Hurrying, but trying to look as if they weren't. He saw Jenner appear and cross the road towards him, conscientiously not looking up into the sky before striding off into the darkness. Within a couple of minutes, the street was deserted, the door closed and sealed up. Not a chink of light escaped. In the still air, the approaching planes nothing more than a tense, half-imagined hum, just beyond the periphery of hearing. Reluctantly, Thomas dropped his cigarette end and scuffed at it with his boot, then started walking.

Twenty minutes later, the house took a direct hit. The meeting had been attended by every single person of consequence involved with the cathedral. The architect and his advisers, the various parties involved on the money side of things, representatives of the diocese. Old and young Mr Mathieson, too, had been there. All escaped without a scratch. All save the chief engineer and his family.

Emboldened, the warmth and pleasure of Merle’s bed still fresh in his mind, Thomas had stared directly at the planes, daring them to do their worst, determined not to be cowed by them. He smoked another cigarette as he made his way through the city centre. The raid was in full force, but he knew the streets so well he could have gone blindfolded. He walked deliberately in the middle of the road, taking his time. Not another soul out of doors. Even the wardens had taken cover, and he was yelled at only once, the man gesticulating towards a shelter, opening and closing his mouth at him, his voice swallowed up in the roar and smoke and din of it. Thomas shrugged him off when he tried to push him towards the shelter, and kept walking. He felt untouchable. He didn't look behind him. When he got to Hunter Street he strutted through the archway that led to the flats and winked up at the hod carrier set into the brickwork above his head. The figure was one of a pair – on the other side was an architect – the two of them, he supposed, being necessary for the creation of buildings. When his wife and daughter were still with him, he liked to imagine the statue watching over the place, keeping it safe. But he didn't need its protection: he was indestructible.

He learnt about the chief engineer’s house next morning, but it was several days before he found out Merle’s house had also taken a direct hit. She must have been dead before he even reached home.

Since that raid, Thomas hadn’t been able to forget the miserable folly of his walk home, his seduction by an utterly delusional sense of his own agency, whilst his lover lay beneath the broken tiles of her fallen-in roof, and the engineer’s whole family was wiped out in a moment. Merle had wanted him to stay but somehow it was her attachment to him that had made him leave and so had spared him. 

He started to dislike himself. At the same time, he started watching Jenner – he didn’t know why exactly, but he’d had the uncomfortable feeling they had been pitched into something together since that night. He wondered whether Jenner’s brush with mortality had affected him at all. 

Perhaps it had. What he had seen flare in Jenner's eyes earlier was surely the will to control, to master the situation. He could understand it. But he didn’t agree with it. Sending the men back up the tower in anger, because he’d been swayed against his better judgement, was ridiculous. A man had fallen. Accidents happened, he knew that. Everything came down to chance – who died, who survived. You could go through your prayers, your rituals to try to save yourself, if it made you feel better, but none of it made any difference. One false footing and that was it. You fell or you didn’t, just as the bombs would either do for you or they wouldn't. There wasn't any way of controlling it. But sending the men back up: that was just plain wrong.

Chapter 2 – 2014

The kitchen window opens onto the walkway outside. As she forks a sausage out of the grill, there is the scuff of someone walking past, the momentary blink in the daylight as they pass. She can't see who it is because of the frosted glass – just a person shape. The walkway is narrow and their coat, or bag, drags against the wall. Louise winces, remembering Jake's grazed knuckles yesterday, as he tried to pedal next door's tricycle to the end of the row of front doors.

She spoons a dollop of mashed potato next to the sausage and puts the plate in front of him, reaching over his head to chop the sausage into slices while he jiggles his legs in the high chair, watching her hands. When she’s finished, she pushes the miniature fork into one small fist, the knife into the other, and sits down next to him. 

Their flat is on the third floor of a U-shaped block which wraps around three sides of a patch of grass with a tiny kids' play area in the middle. A climbing frame with a kind of Wendy house on top, and a couple of animals on springs that rock backwards and forwards. No swings, though, or slides, which Jake likes best. Still, it's better than nothing. And she finally feels settled here. It's home.

There's a knock on the door, followed almost immediately by a more peremptory rattling of the letterbox. Probably Minaz from the end flat has forgotten his keys again. She glances at the clock on the cooker. If it is Minaz, he's late. He should have been back from school an hour ago. But sometimes he hangs around down in the kids' playground after school with his friends – sitting inside the little den eating chicken and chips from boxes. Climbing on the roof and dangling their long legs down before jumping off. But she hasn't heard them down there today.

She helps Jake steer his fork to his mouth as she stands up. 'Back in a sec,' she says. 

She isn't surprised when it isn't Minaz, but the fact that it's Benny standing there does take a moment to register. She doesn't quite manage to say anything at all before he has taken control and started speaking himself.

'I’ve been thinking about you,’ he says. ‘I wanted to say hello. How've you been?' He gives her a broad smile and swings his bag to the ground. It seems heavy. She notices that it lands half over the threshold. 

'I'm fine,' she says. 'How did you...?'

'Find you?' He grins again. 'Oh, well. Easy when you know how, isn’t it?'

Her hand is still on the door. She waits. He sniffs. He is looking at her, waiting too. She glances up at his face and looks away. It was always his eyes, the intensity of his gaze, that drew her in. Seeing that look again stirs something. 

'So,' he says. ‘Are you going to ask me in?'

His clothes look dusty and he is wearing heavy boots. He's probably been labouring again. Which means he's back living in London. She looks at the bag, the boots, the heavy overcoat he’s wearing even though the weather is warm. She doesn't want to ask him in. He has never been here. This flat is entirely her own. She doesn't like the idea of him coming inside, seeing the life she has made for herself. It would spoil it. 

'I'm busy, Benny.'

He doesn't react immediately. And then he nods slowly, as if he’d known it would be like this. He turns and looks down into the playground below, gripping the railings with both hands, arms spread wide apart. When he turns back to her, there are tears in his eyes. ‘I just want to see him,’ he says.

Bang on cue, Jake totters into the hall from the kitchen. He is still clutching his knife and fork and his open, about-to-cry mouth is full of mashed potato.

‘Christ!' he says. He lowers himself onto his haunches and stares at the child. ‘He’s grown.’

'Kids do that,' she says. 

Jake lets loose a wail and some of the mash drops from his mouth onto the floor. Louise bends down to cuddle him then steers him back towards the kitchen and lifts him into his chair. 'Finish your dinner, sweetie. There's a good boy. I'll be back soon.'

'Aren’t you going to tell him who I am?' Benny says when she comes back to the door.

'No. I'm not planning to.' She faces him, her gaze as level as she can make it. 

'Do you think that's fair?'

She doesn't answer. 

There is a crash from the kitchen. She turns towards the sound, is going into the kitchen, when she sees Benny reaching down for his bag and stepping into the hall.

'No,' she says, stopping. 'I said don't come in.' She can hear Jake whimpering in the kitchen. She stands, blocking the hallway. She can just see into the kitchen. Jake's food is on the floor, the plate lying in two pieces.

She waits until Benny has shouldered his bag and stepped back out onto the walkway before she moves. Then she reaches for the door and closes it behind him.

With a fresh plate of food and a change of clothes, Jake is back to his cheerful self again. It was the interruption that bothered him. And being left alone. He has never been happy on his own. She wishes she could be as easily placated. How the hell did Benny find her? 

Well, he isn't going to mess things up for her this time. Last time he came back she made it so easy for him. She asked for no explanations, nothing. She simply took him back and fell in love with him all over again. It was just after she’d had the first letter from the council about the redevelopment, and she was frightened. It was like he had known, holding off, waiting to come back to her when she was at her least resistant. And then there he suddenly was again, with his reassurance, his glib pronouncements that it would be years before the council actually did anything. That, by then, they probably would have moved on anyway – they weren’t planning on staying here for the rest of their lives, were they? She’d thought, but hadn’t said, that she’d already lived there for most of her life, and it suited her just fine. 

She trowels some mash onto the end of a chunk of sausage and holds the fork out. It hovers in front of the child's face. He makes a half-hearted lunge and then, abruptly, changes his mind and opens his mouth, as if all the fight's suddenly gone out of him. She feels a stab of pity, recognising the mute acceptance, the defeatedness. The decision just to go along with things. 'Here,' she says, nudging the bit of sausage into the middle of the plate and pushing the handle of the fork into his potatoey hand. 'You do this bit.'

It had been good, at first, having him back. She hadn't started seeing anyone else when Benny left, and neither had he, he said, even though he’d been gone for months. Somehow that made a difference. As if it proved something about their feelings for each other. After all, the strength of his love was what had brought him back to her. That was what he'd told her. And the redevelopment notice gave everything an electricity. They didn’t know what was going to happen, how long they’d have until their lives were thrown into the air. That he had chosen such instability showed that what they had together meant something. It didn’t occur to her until much later that it might have been the temporariness that appealed to him.

She'd felt proud to be with him, then. Had forgiven him for leaving her. She can't remember when it was, exactly, that she knew she was pregnant for certain. She had known for quite a while anyway, without needing the test kit to prove it. Since his return, she'd been wilfully reckless about sex. She'd come off the pill after he left and hadn't started it up again when he came back. Part of her wanted it to happen. Maybe she saw it as a way to cement what they had, to keep him to her. And it seemed so right, the carelessness, the thrill of it, the closeness she felt to him. Everything about that time was to do with herself in relation to him. She stopped seeing her friends as much. Cut down on visits to her own family. She needed to be near him, to have him in sight. He, too, would catch at her fingers, or stroke the back of her neck, whenever she came within his orbit. As if he, too, needed the contact, the affirmation of their togetherness. He had made her feel that she was the queen of his life, and, with the slow suspicion, which grew into a certainty, that she was carrying his child, she had felt life was at its zenith.

When the meal is finished, she runs a bath. Jake wants to go on the tricycle out on the walkway again, but she feels unsettled. Not that she thinks Benny’s still around, but she'd sooner keep the door firmly closed. She gets Jake interested in his trains and he busies himself building a track down the hall while the bath fills. She stands in the doorway watching him. He's humming to himself now, tricycle forgotten, as he joins the wooden sections together with urgent fingers, in a race to build as far as the front door before he has to get undressed.

She has never regretted him. Not once, even when Benny left again, when Jake was still only weeks old. She loves him solidly and without question. A love so different from what she once felt for Benny, it is hard to give the two things the same name. When he left for the second time, she woke up to quite a lot. She would never allow herself to get so lost in someone again. Neither Benny nor anyone else. Everything changed for her when her son was born. She felt herself adjusting, settling, the different elements shifting position and pulling into place. A tighter, more pared-down self, like a freshly weatherproofed house. Everything that mattered safe inside, shuttered against the outside world, yet standing squarely slap bang in the middle of it. That was how she felt after Jake arrived. Perhaps Benny had recognised the transformation, and realised his time was up. Maybe that was why he left when he did. 

She turns off the hot tap and swirls a bit more cold in. 'Come on, Jakey. It's bath time.' She steps over the section of train track he has built across the doorway and picks some lengths up from the floor to help him. 'Let's join it up,' she says. 'Then you can watch Percy from the bath.' They finish it together, building it all the way down the hall and back, and set the little train going round with an assortment of carriages and coal trucks in tow. He is pleased with it. In the bath, he chuckles each time he sees it trundle past the doorway. 'Toot toot,' he crows, and she rubs at the dried mashed potato crusting his cheeks.

Funny that he has no idea who that man was. Knew he was no good, though. Why else would he throw his dinner on the floor? She dips one of the stacking cups into the water and holds it up high, and they watch the water spray out through the holes in the bottom. 'Have shower,' he cries, so she does it again and holds it over his head. He lifts his face, open-mouthed, to the falling water. Drops cling to his eyelashes. With a rush of anger, she sees again Benny's big work boots stepping into the narrow hallway. As if he really thought it was as easy as that. Just walking back in. She isn't going to let him. She can't. She has her life the way she wants it, now, and she isn't going to let anyone wreck it for her. 

'Again, again!' She dips the cup and holds it over Jake's head. The fine, wet hair plastered to his scalp. Boots, she thinks. Just there, where the train track stops. 

When he abandoned them, it was a pair of boots that alerted her to the fact that he'd gone. Jake was six weeks old, maybe eight. She can't remember exactly. Old enough for them to have got into a kind of routine, anyway. She'd be getting up every couple of hours through the night, sometimes every hour, to feed him, so in the mornings, when he seemed to have his longest sleep, she'd stay in bed, and Benny would be gone when she finally woke up. At the time, he was labouring on a building site somewhere. He'd been to university, but hadn't done anything with it. He had ideas but no focus. He never seemed able to settle at anything for long enough. He would say stuff about how good it felt to do work that felt like work, that used your whole body instead of sitting at a desk all day. She hadn’t questioned it, but afterwards, she wondered whether it was more to do with avoidance than anything else. Labouring wasn’t something he could fail at, the work so short-term and irregular he didn’t have time to get bored with it. 

Anyway, he'd be gone when she got up, and she'd spend the day alone with the baby. There were still a few people left in the flats on their floor, but the nearest was the other side of the stairwell, so in their section of walkway they were on their own. It was nice, when the sky was clear and blue, to wrap a blanket round the baby and just walk up and down until he fell asleep. It saved having to wrestle the buggy down the stairs, because they'd more or less stopped fixing the lifts, now the estate was less than half-full. Last time she'd gone out, someone had laid a turd on one of the half-landings and she'd almost gone through it with one of the buggy wheels. It wasn't fair. They were running the estate down deliberately, leaving it half-deserted, and then they used it against the place, saying it’s just as well we’re knocking it down if people can't respect the place they live in, when it was smackheads and truanting kids coming in from outside who were leaving all the crap. She'd seen the groups of boys in grey trousers with their school blazers stuffed into bags, whooping and shrieking, high on something they'd brought here to mess around with, pushing each other up and down the corridors in trolleys they'd nicked from Tesco's. And she'd seen the desperate-looking figures skulking around one of the empty flats that had been broken into, with their hollow, grey faces and unwashed clothes, waiting for their dealers to show up.

That day, it was only when Jake had fallen asleep and she came back inside that she noticed Benny’s other boots were gone as well as the work boots. He normally left them in the hallway. She'd laid the baby in the Moses basket and carefully unzipped the fluffy all-in-one he was wearing, in case he got too hot. She hadn't panicked. Her mind was perfectly blank as she lay down on the bed. She had closed her eyes and lain still for a long time before getting up again and looking in the cupboard. When she did, she saw straight away that the backpack was gone. His two drawers of clothes had been emptied, and there was the swipe of his hand through the dust on top of the bedside table, where he'd swept the loose change, a half-packet of fags and her spare earphones into his bag. He had gone.

She was numb for about a week. She didn't leave the flat except to go out on the walkway, startling the pigeons that strutted along the top of the railing and huddled on every ledge they could find into sudden, noisy flight. It was January, and she would stay out there in the cold, walking up and down, up and down, until, one by one, the pigeons returned, eyeing her half-heartedly as if they knew she was no threat to them. She would listen to their soft gurgling coos as the baby slept. She wrapped him up carefully enough each time, but she didn't bother about keeping herself warm. She wanted to feel something: anger, hurt, cold, anything. Nothing got through. She gazed out numbly over the estate. Its huge trees were bare, and the enveloping green she remembered from summers past seemed like something that would never return. Up against a huge oak, someone had dumped a sofa. It lay there, tipped on its back, cushions sodden and scattered amongst the tangled tree roots. The branches were filled with birds, though, and with less human noise to drown them out, their song seemed louder, the liquid burbling of a robin somewhere out of sight, brittle and clear in the frosty stillness. Eventually she had to go further afield because she ran out of food, and that jolted her back into a semblance of living. She hadn’t been down the stairs for more than a week. There was more graffiti, more rubbish strewn about. A broken kitchen chair blocked one of the landings and, further down, there was the blackened evidence of a tiny bonfire in a corner of the stairwell.

When she got back from the shops she rang his mother before she’d even put the shopping away, standing in the hallway with the bags at her feet, Jake still strapped in his buggy. She didn’t want to lose her nerve. Benny had given her the number, once, for some reason, and she'd saved it on her phone. She said who she was – they had never met – and that she was only ringing because she was worried. She explained how he had left without warning, and hadn't returned any of her calls. 

Benedict isn't here, his mother had said, accusingly, and she knew straight away that he was. She knew already that she was disapproved of. Benny was rather proud of the fact, as if it gave him credibility. It was childish, really. And it had once or twice made her wonder if her difference from him was all that had drawn him to her in the first place, as a way of scoring points, proving his independence, his lack of prejudice. He tended not to say much about his parents, about his background, but she’d figured out enough to know that she probably ticked all the wrong boxes. Anyway, the mother had gone very quiet when Louise mentioned the baby, and it was only after she'd put the phone down that she understood why. He hadn't told her. 

She lifts Jake out of the bath and wraps him in a towel and they watch the water gurgle down the plughole before putting his nappy and pyjamas on. She pours some milk into his Tommee Tippee while he crouches in the hall in the middle of his train track, watching the train go round and round. He picks it up and caresses it while he has his story, touching its little grey, plastic face. Running the wheels along his palm. He drinks his milk and she feels the heaviness in his body as he leans against her, falling asleep. She gets up carefully and lifts him into the cot. Uncurls his fingers from around the toy train and puts it where he can see it when he wakes up.

She's tidying some toys away in the living room when she hears footsteps on the walkway and stiffens. Please not again, she thinks, listening, tiptoeing into the hall. She glances in at Jake. Please no. But then it comes. A restrained knock on the door. He's going to try again. He really means to work his way back in. She is going to have to be careful, and strong. She pulls the bedroom door almost closed and takes a couple of deep breaths. The knock comes again. More insistent, but still controlled.

He's had a drink. Enough to soften the sense of urgency. He used to do the same when they were together. He hasn’t changed, then. Still has too many things buzzing round in his head. He used to say being with her calmed him down. 

He smiles at her apologetically. 'Lou,' he says. 'I'm really sorry about earlier. Stupid of me to just turn up out of the blue like that. I should've thought. That's why I've – '

' – Benny,' she says, her tone immediate and sure. 'I'm not interested. I want you to go away and leave us alone. We don’t want you here.'

He puts his face in his hands and shakes his head, as if he can throw off her words. 'No,' he says. 'It's not... It's...' He takes a deep breath and pulls himself up straight. 

He is struggling – she can see that. It must have taken some guts to come back. Almost three years. Although, for Benny, perhaps such things are easier. Self-doubt was never something he was troubled by. Briefly, she wonders how he has spent the time, where he has been living, but she cuts the curiosity dead. She won’t let herself feel anything.

'Lou,' he says again, reaching across the threshold and touching her arm. She shakes his hand away. 'Don't be like that,' he says, a querulous note escaping and catching at the edge of his voice before he can suppress it. He takes a deep breath and exhales strenuously, puffing out his cheeks. 'I know... Christ... I know how it's been. What I've put you through. All of this.' He gestures vaguely with his arm. 'On your own.' He moves his head closer to her and drops his voice. It comes out slightly husky. 'I should have been here.' 

'Well,' she says. 'You weren't – '

' – Everything's changed. Things are different now.'

'Yes.'

'It won't happen again.'

'No.'

'I won't leave you again.’ 

He means it, too. She knows he does. He always did believe what he said when he said it. It would be so easy, she thinks, even now, just to slip back, to believe it, too. But she won’t. He has no more chances. 

'You're leaving now,' she says. 'And you're not coming back.'

After he's gone, she checks on Jake. Fast asleep. She bends down low over him, notices his hot little breaths, the slight flush on his cheeks. When he was a baby she would sit and watch him as he slept for hours at a time, preferring to be with him, quietly, in the room rather than alone in front of the television.

She would like to kiss his warm cheek, or brush it with her fingers, but she doesn't. She undresses quickly before climbing into her own bed and turning off the light immediately. Just don't think about it. Benny won't come back again. She lies down and stares up at the ceiling in the dark. It had been so difficult to keep control of her voice. Everything felt like it was welling up at once – anger that he was there at all, trying to wheedle his way back in; anger at herself, too, because it was her own fault he expected it to be so easy. He'd managed it before, after all – getting her so caught up in him again after his first disappearance that she'd felt she was the luckiest woman alive. And a tiny part of her, even after everything he’s put her through, was glad to see him. But things are different, now, and she is frustrated, too, that he hadn't been able to see that. He had always been self-centred; it was part of the boyishness that once won him such appeal, and gave him the confidence to throw himself so wholeheartedly into things. But it was also part of his problem. He fed on attention, liked to be amongst people who put him at the centre and bolstered his self-image. He hadn't grown up enough to cope with anything else. It was always easier to move on, reinvent, rather than stick around and adapt. He hasn't changed, and he was too busy with what he had to say about himself to notice that she has.

There is also a little kernel of anxiety. She knows it's nothing, but can't quite make it disappear, especially now, lying in the dark. It hadn't been easy to make him go away. She'd had to keep on with the calm, quiet voice, saying no, and eventually he'd twigged that things weren't going quite as he'd planned. He hadn't had the bag with him, the second time, but it occurs to her now, he'd probably just hidden it round the corner. It was when it started to dawn on him that he was unlikely to be spending the night there that his tone grew a little darker. Not threatening. She wasn't actually scared – or even close. He is a coward at heart. She almost pities him. He is so unprepared for rejection. No, he hadn't gone so far as to threaten her. But there was something. She feels wide awake. She sits up and switches the bedside light back on.

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A handmade, signed limited edition hardback book. Beautifully litho printed in black and yellow. Half-bound in Tex-Libris and Cement paper. Cover foil debossed. Interleaved with fold-out reproductions of drawings by David Henningham

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A handmade, signed limited edition hardback book. Beautifully litho printed in black and yellow. Half-bound in Tex-Libris and Cement paper. Cover foil debossed. Interleaved with fold-out reproductions of drawings by David Henningham, plus an original drawing from the book by David Henningham.

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