• Joanna Seldon

  • Getting Hold of Milly                   

    Getting hold of Milly

        Night hasn’t fallen.  But when you enter the hall it’s an instinct, unconscious as flinching when the front door squeals shut behind you, to turn on the light.  Here there are no windows, so it’s always gloomy.  Key into pocket; handbag onto second stair from the bottom; the sensation of empty space as you call, “Hello?”


        Milly said she’d be in.  But (a glance at your watch) you’ve got back later than expected.  You can’t blame her if they’ve gone already.  You undo the top button of your coat, then fasten it again; before you start to climb the stairs you give the radiator a quick stroke to make sure it’s working.  Your forefinger jumps back, astonished. 

        Through the closed sitting room door on the first floor, you can just about hear two men singing in harmony about neon gods.  They’ve put on your Central Park concert CD.  You stay still for a minute, listening.  The sound of silence is too much.  You turn the door handle.  As you knew it would be, the room is empty. 

                People talking without speaking,

                People hearing without listening…

        The music plays; the four matching burgundy table lamps, atmospherically dimmed, have cornered the invisible song.  It’s warmer in here, but you catch yourself shivering.  The white speckled cushions – the ones that make such a nice contrast on the wine-coloured sofa – are all squashed into one corner.  That’s the first thing you see as you step further into the room.  You feel your jaw clench.  The next thing you notice is the half-drunk cup of coffee on the floor, just waiting for someone to trip over and spill it.  On the large central pouffe, a second cup (empty, this one, you make a point of checking) sits precariously close to the edge.  Whoever plonked it there obviously couldn’t be bothered to use the lovely big plate with those Picasso-style bulls and goats circling its edge – the one Patrick picked up in Valencia or somewhere.  You keep it there for mugs, glasses, bowls of olives, to protect the fabric.  And because it’s beautiful, of course.  Patrick’s always had a good eye for what’s attractive.

        Not surprisingly, you catch the sour scent of dead coffee.  And then something else.  You turn to unfold the guard and put it against the fire, which still blazes and crackles.  Why did they bother to light a fire if they weren’t going to be in here long?  And how dangerous to leave it unguarded.  You’re just thinking that as you step back from the heat when, along with the smell of coffee and burning logs, you pick up another whiff of danger.  Cigarettes.  It doesn’t take long to find them.  Again – that sense of people in a hurry to leave: the two stubbed culprits are only half smoked.  You don’t have ash trays in your sitting room.  Mustn’t encourage people.  But, taking in the ugly beast that squats on the mantelpiece, you wish for an instant that one had been there at the ready.   Like a pair of bent horns, the squandered cigarettes sprout from your gorgeous red Jo Malone candle.  Fortunately, this hasn’t been lit.  With a small lurch in your guts, you register the heavy crimson smudge that rings one of the cigarettes.  It has the heavy matt patina of Mac’s ‘Glam’.  So perhaps Milly borrowed your lipstick.  Does it matter so much?

        In the mirror over the mantelpiece you catch yourself.  A bright spot flares on each cheek.  Maybe it’s just from the heat of the fire.  What strikes you most, as you continue to study your reflection, is your separateness.  The head and shoulders are flanked by empty space, the apricot-coloured wall behind you just visible, and the watercolour sunset in the corner pallid, one-dimensional.  So often, it seems these days, you are apart from other things, and other people.  Where is it Patrick’s gone to this time?  The Hague?  No, that was last week.  And next week, doubtless, it will be somewhere else.  And, once again, you’ll fail to remember.  You’d have found it handy if he’d been here tonight.  You can’t quite put your finger on why exactly you’re so unsettled.  Milly’s absence should be no more ominous than her father’s.  She said she was going out, after all.  Then they’d all meet up later at the theatre.  Unfinished coffee and cigarettes mean nothing.  Even the riotous and unguarded fire might be put down to the carelessness of fifteen year olds.  So why do you find you’re hugging yourself as if to keep warm, to ease that terrible shudder that seizes you once more?

        Patrick would  have told you what to do.


        The phone rings.


        It takes only a few seconds to rush to the corner by the window and pick up the phone.  But the dead burr at your ear tells you that the person at the other end has already hung up.  You’re not even surprised when, on dialling 1471, you hear the crisp, indifferent voice saying that you were called today at 4.58pm, and then adding “The caller withheld their number.”  You slam shut the drawer of the phone table.  Someone’s been rifling though the papers you keep there – mostly bank stuff; nothing useful or worth stealing.  You tell yourself not to get so upset that it’s been left hanging open. 

        A thought strikes you; your belly does a quick somersault and you plunge your hand into your coat pocket.  Your mobile isn’t there.  You almost fall on the staircase as you run down, feeling your knees begin to buckle, just making it to your handbag before sinking to the ground.  Your phone’s in that thoughtfully designed pocket in the lining.  You notice your hand tremble as you seize it.  The trembling doesn’t stop when the wallpaper portrait of the three of you springs to life.  A restaurant near the Piazza di Spagna in Rome; a family holiday last Easter; the waiter kindly offering to snap the three of you together.  The smiling, sun-dipped trio, tinged with a curious fluorescent glow – you’re all teeth and tilt and pose. 

                No missed calls.

                No messages.

        Sitting in semi-darkness on your lucky step – second stair from the bottom – you unlock the phone and punch in your text.  Press send.  Then you shove it into your coat pocket and, burying your head in your hands, try to imagine the cold and callous ether into which your plea has been launched.




        “OK Mum, so we’ve seen where Keats died.  That was your treat.  And this afternoon we’re doing Dad’s Vatican stuff.  Can’t we just chill out this evening?”

        Milly twirls linguini round her fork; watches it slither off, then leans forward and starts shovelling in the red-smeared Napolitana dish using fork, spoon and tongue curled concave like a ladle.  From the corner of one eye, you see Patrick frown.

        “You can slow down; no-one’s going to steal it.”

        Milly simply raises one eyebrow as she cocks her head in your direction, then continues to slurp and to swallow.

        Patrick, re-settling his glass of Barolo, murmurs, “Looks like a bowl of intestines.”

        “Mmm, I see what you mean.”  Their daughter sucks in a stray strand.  For a minute, you think Patrick’s wincing again, but then you realise he’s smiling.

        “Of course intestines aren’t as fine…”

       In a very precise movement – almost self-conscious, you decide, as though seeking approval – but not from you – Milly lays down her cutlery.  She’s smiling back at her father.  Their mouths and their eyes are so similar – the curiously flat lips, the hooded lids sheltering pale blue irises – it is almost as if each is drinking in their own reflection.  They stay like that, entranced by one another, for fully half a minute.  You find yourself counting backwards from twenty.

        “We were going to that son et lumière at the Colisseum this evening, weren’t we?”

        But neither of them seems to hear you.


        A crash breaks the spell.  Milly, pushing her bowl away, has sent her glass of Coke tipping and spinning.  It explodes on the pavement.


        The drink was almost finished.  Patrick leans over and dabs at the dregs which spatter her thighs.  She’s wearing that short flared skirt with the tiny strawberry pattern.  Then the waiter rushes over with extra napkins, and all is hilarity.  The shards of glass are swept up; the sharp Italian sun sets the contents of the dust-pan alight as the waiter rises from his knees.  You snap husband and daughter laughing together over the carnage, the unfinished bowl of fine, bloodied intestines between them.  And that’s when the waiter, all attention and grace, seizes your camera, clicks, and hands you back a memory.  Yes, it makes a beautiful wallpaper for your screen.  But it’s a memory that’s troubled you ever since.  And you keep it there – the first thing you see when you’ve dived for your phone – as a kind of defiance.  You’re telling yourself not to be daft.  There was nothing amiss that day.  It was perfect, wasn’t it?




        You’ve put the coffee mugs in the dishwasher, and you’re about to sling the cigarette stubs before doing a quick decontamination job on the Jo Malone candle.  But you stop and take a quick look.  You’re not the only one from whom your daughter has been borrowing.  Or call it stealing, if you like.  The fine red lettering just above the filter tip gives it away: Milly’s helped herself to her dad’s Dunhill International.  An odd taste for a fifteen year old – which possibly accounts for the only half-smoked condition.  Where did she find them?  Patrick doesn’t normally leave them lying around: he knows you hate his habit.  He never keeps spare packs in the house – unless they’ve been very cleverly hidden.  Again, that shiver.  You bin the crooked evidence, bang out the ashes from around the candle wick, turn out the kitchen light and, checking the top button of your coat is fastened and looping your bag over your shoulder, prepare to leave the house.


        As you walk towards the underground you check your phone.  No reply from Milly – and you’re not even surprised.  You almost trip over a loose paving stone as you navigate to your daughter’s name on your contacts list.  The phone stays clamped to your ear as you slam your Oyster card at the barrier and, borne into that underworld where no signal can reach us, realise that she’s not answering, she’s not there, she doesn’t want to hear.


        So when you surface at Waterloo, it’s time to try Erin.  You’re not even sure if that’s who Milly was planning to bring with her for tonight’s half-term theatre treat.  But, insofar as you still have a handle on your daughter’s life while continuing (on robust principle) to recoil from Facebook, you’re pretty certain that Erin retains ‘best friend’ status.  The voicemail instantly slices through hope.

        “Hi, this is Erin’s phone.  Please leave a message.”

        You halt by a flower stall, wondering if it’s even worth obeying.  Milly always complains that it costs her to pick up voice messages.  So you stand there, rush-hour commuters swirling around you, and start to compose a text.

        “Hello Erin.  Jane here.” 

        Your message disappears into Drafts as a passing backpack lunges at you and you strike the wrong key.  You can feel yourself begin to crumple.


        “South West Trains regret to announce that the 18.12 service to Southampton is expected to depart approximately nine minutes late.  We apologise to customers for any inconvenience caused by this delay.”


        You’ve got nearly an hour and a half before curtain up.  You need to do things carefully.  And kill time.  There’s a likely-looking haven in Costa: you like being certain what you’re going to order.  You place your green tea and granola bar on a small table at the back, take a few sips from the faintly grubby-looking glass mug, swoop into Drafts and complete your text.

        “Is M with u?  Wd b gr8ful 4 reply.”

        It takes only a three-second debate for her to add a kiss and a winking smiley.


        The cold February air seals you into yourself, an icy coating separating you from all those other travellers whose chins disappear inside scarves, whose heads are down and braced against the wind.  You gather pace on the steps going up past the Festival Hall; slow down along the grey river bank where the street performers have fled and the second-hand bookstall where you and Patrick browsed on your very first date has vanished under a heavy black pall.


        Then you’re inside the National, cold air backing away from the heavy glass doors – and you pause next to the bookshop, wondering where they might be most likely to come and find you.  Even in the midst of play-going chatter, and the mellifluous trill of a jazz trio, you find the place austere as ever.  Your eye travelling up through all those higher levels as you press your shoulders against a pillar, you feel yourself to be part of some exhibit inside a coldly clever piece of 1970s art.  Your watch tells you that it’s still some way off seven o’clock.  Plenty of time, still, for them to turn up – though it’s a shame you’ve pretty definitely missed a bite to eat together at the cafeteria here.  Just as well you stopped off for that lingering Costa snack.  Not that it was relaxing – nothing to read, ears constantly on the alert, your glance boomeranging back to that tiny, cruel screen.  Still – you try to comfort yourself with the thought that you’ve covered all bases.

         Yet again, you check.  No messages.  As Milly and Erin’s chirrupy, syrupy voicemail greetings continue their assault, you decide there’s no longer any point in calling either of them.  But you keep your phone cradled in the palm of your hand, just in case.


        “Jane!  What a lovely surprise!”

        The voice that comes at you from left flank is immediately familiar, but you have to turn and look directly at its owner before you can put a name to it.

        “Ian.  Nice to see you.”

        You hate it when people who aren’t your friends swoop down and kiss you.  Ian Mulcahy is a both-cheeks man.  But you need to be courteous to Patrick’s colleagues, so you try not to flinch, stiffening just slightly against your pillar as you greet him and treating him to your shiniest Mrs Marketing Director smile.

        “Waiting for Patrick, are we?”

        “Actually, no.  I’m expecting our daughter and her friend.”

        “Lovely.  Lovely.”  He has sharp little canines, and a bead of moisture at one nostril.  Sniffing it back in, he murmurs, “Chilly enough out there, isn’t it?”

        Your shiver this time is a fake.  “It certainly is.  But” (you thrash around for a minute) “Guys and Dolls should make it worth the effort.”

        “Yes.  One of Eleanor’s favourites.  My wife.  I think you met her…?”

        “Of course.  At the Christmas bash.  She came dressed as… Cleopatra, didn’t she?”

        You don’t know why you bothered to hesitate or to query: Mrs Mulcahy’s notions of Egyptian costume made for a memorable evening.

        But Cleopatra’s consort seems to remember the display without embarrassment.  “That’s right!”  The sharp little canines glint.  “A great evening.  And now…”  He dives towards you once more, a hissing conspirator smelling of winey old business lunches.  “Tonight is Ellie’s birthday.  My P.A managed to get us a couple of fabulous seats.  Then a nice little dinner afterwards.”

        No further water droplets have formed, but he still allows himself a deep sniff.  As satisfaction settles into all extremities of his bulky frame, he gives your arm a quick pat.

        “A pity, though, that we’re both being kept waiting.  Goodness knows what’s holding her up.”  He glances at the monster time-keeper on his wrist.  “At this rate, there’ll be no time for a nice little pre-show glass of something.”  A thought seems to strike him.  “Perhaps you and I…?  I could text Ellie and tell her she’ll find us at the bar…?”

        “No.  Oh no.  I’m afraid not.”  You push away from the pillar, squeezing the warmed metal in your hand.  “You see, I have to wait… I’m not sure…”

        “So Patrick’s not joining you?”

        “No.  He’s in…”  You find yourself stroking the sleek underside of the phone with your thumb.  “Well, to be honest, I can’t remember exactly where…  You might know.  A conference or something… in Europe.”  You’re appalled by yourself.  Eleanor Mulcahy would never be caught floundering in this way.

        Ian looks puzzled.  He runs a hand over his receding hair line.  You catch a reddening of the jowels.

        “A conference in Europe?  I don’t think so, Jane.  I mean…”  He pauses, and although it affords you an unnerving encounter with the canines, his smile is really quite kind.  “I saw him late this afternoon in the office.”  He slows down.  “At a meeting.”  He stops.


        You feel a little giddy; the pillar won’t support you; your hands are trembling, and you drop your phone.  Ian Mulcahy is down on one knee in an instant.  It’s obvious, as he scoops it up and hands it back to you, that he doesn’t care to look you in the eye.  But then a brown angel in a huge cape like wings descends to rescue you from each other.  With a polite but unrecognising nod at you, Eleanor Mulcahy bears her husband away to the bar for recuperation, celebration and, perhaps, a small sip of gossip.


        The jazz trio has fallen silent.  Most people have been swallowed up by the auditorium, those still eating and drinking presumably not here for a show.  So you manage to spot an empty space by the window.  Your surge towards it is really more of a stagger.  Sinking into the seat, you close your eyes, concentrate on trying to steady your breathing.

        Why would he do it?  Why tell you he was going abroad when he quite clearly wasn’t?  Spell it out: why would he lie?  But perhaps he genuinely had intended to go; perhaps a last-minute change of plan emerged; perhaps that meeting this afternoon became more urgent than yet another conference.


        “Ladies and gentlemen: will you please take your seats.  Tonight’s performance of Guys and Dolls in the Olivier Theatre will begin in five minutes.”

        The stars of today’s soundtrack have undoubtedly been sleek-throated women who know it all.


        Without allowing yourself time to stop and deliberate, you open your hand.  The lonely little Nokia whom no-one has tried to call sits in your palm, its unlit screen like a cataract-filmed eye.  You hear yourself snort as you go to the favourites on your contacts list.


        “Patrick!  Thank goodness…”

        “Where are you?”

        “Don’t you remember?  I was taking Milly to Guys and Dolls.  I’m at the National.”

        There’s silence at the other end.  You can’t even hear him breathing.

        “She’s not here.  She was bringing… I don’t know.  I thought Erin was coming too.  It was your ticket, but then you said you’d be abroad.”

        “Janie, I can’t hear you.”

        Your eyes are screwed so tight now you can feel pain along your forehead.  But it’s an instinct to stand up: you might catch more signal.

        “Is that any better?  Look, Patrick, I just bumped into Ian Mulcahy, who said you were still at the office this afternoon.  Forget it.  I’m getting frantic.”

        “Sweetie, I…”

        “No.  I said, forget it.  What matters is that Millie’s not here.”


        You can hear him breathing now, in the chasm at the other end of the line.  Like you, he seems trying to calm himself.

        “I don’t think we need to panic yet.  She probably forgot.  But she seems to have left home in a bit of a rush.  All a bit odd.  Patrick?  Are you still there?”


        “Ladies and gentlemen: will you please take your seats.  Tonight’s performance of Guys and Dolls in the Olivier Theatre will begin in two minutes.”


        A torrent of red and blonde dye erupts from the Ladies and, defying gravity, streams in chattering waves upstairs towards the auditorium.  Only half-conscious, you register the disappearing legs even as you strain to hear the non-existent voice.

        At last, it comes.

        “There’s a lot of noise at your end.”

        “Of course there is!  I’m in the foyer of the Olivier!  They’re announcing the start…”

        “Well why don’t you go in and watch?  And you’ve got a couple of minutes to try and sell those tickets.”


        You sit down again.  You make yourself do it slowly.

        “What are you talking about?”

        This time, the silence is quite brief.  You sense that he’s at last worked out what he’s going to say.

        “Janie, my sweets.  Milly isn’t going to be joining you.”

        “How do you know?”

        “Because she’s with me.”

        Quietly; deliberately.  Then he repeats the message.  “She’s here.”

        “Where?”  That’s all you can think to ask.

        “We’re on a train.”  He lowers his voice still further.  “That’s why I can’t speak loudly.  Nothing more annoying… You know what it’s like on trains.”

        “But…  Bloody hell, Patrick, what the fuck are you playing at?”

        An usherette balancing a pile of programmes gives her a sharp look as she bustles past.

        “Why not?  A half-term treat.  Secret destination.  But… somewhere in Europe.  She knows that much: we’re on Eurostar.”  His voice has been growing steadily brighter, steelier.  “Would you like a quick word with her?”

        “I’ll have several words with her, thank you, when she gets back.”

        “Ah well, who knows?”

        That plunge of the guts.

        “And what’s that supposed to mean?”

        “Janie, I really can’t talk any longer.”

        Your eyes are wide open now.

        “So it was you at the house with her?  The pair of you… you were drinking coffee together, plotting your… your escape.   Smoking cigarettes.  Patrick, she’s fifteen!”  You’re beginning to sob, but you manage to add that final reproach.  “And you left the fire guard off.”

        “Sweetie.  Calm down.  It’s really very simple.”

        And you think you can see them now, smiling across the compartment at one another from under those hooded lids.  All you can think to say is,

        “You bloody thief!”


        Then you cut him off, put your phone on silent, slip it into the special lining inside your bag and, grabbing the handrail, make for the heavy glass doors.  But you stop there, hesitating.  A young man in a silly bobble hat opens the door from the outside and runs in, panting.  A shaft of cold air, solid as a marble slab, chases him in from the dark.  And the pressing cold swivels you back round.  Now is not the time to be alone in the night.


        You manage somehow to haul yourself to the stalls.  They’ve started to close the doors, but swiftly check your ticket and motion you to your seat.  You’re near the back, so create little fuss – just a couple of whispered apologies, and the decision to keep your coat on so as not to cause any more distraction.


        The lights dim.  For a moment, you sit in darkness next to the two empty seats.  Then the audience breaks into applause, and you find yourself automatically doing the same.  You can’t see him, but the conductor must have arrived. 


        And, as the music carries your ears to 1930s New York, your brain is busy picturing that reflecting darkness into which your husband and daughter have also been plunged.  And you wonder into what magical places their conductor is bearing them.  Away from you, always away from you, as they always have been.  You see it now.  And you hear the echoing emptiness, even as Nicely-Nicely Johnson begins to sing.