by Chrissie Loveday
'You're a lifesaver, Miss. Thanks.'
'It's OK. And it's Mrs. I'm married.'
'Er ... yes, of course. How d'you do. Tom. I'm Tom. Forgot the rest of it but I don't have much use for names.' He began to tear the plastic film off the somewhat squashed sandwich. 'Just the job this.' He bit a huge piece off the sandwich and began to chew it. There was a greasy film forming around his mouth. He wiped it away with his hand, in turn wiping the hand on his filthy trousers. 'Nice bit of grub this,' he added, smacking his lips. 'Always did like a nice, soft egg sandwich. Thanks again.'
'Don't mention it. I'll bring you another tomorrow.'
'Much appreciated M'am. Thanks. You're a lady.' He belched and Sandra looked away. He was so disgusting. Why she bothered with him, she'd never know. Maybe it was seeing his desperate need. She worked in a sandwich bar, a joint enterprise with an old school friend. They'd taken out a lease on the tiny shop and set themselves up in business together. They'd never make a fortune but it was popular, busy and gave her something to occupy her mind. The old tramp, Tom, as she could now think of him, seemed grateful for the leftover sandwiches each day.
It was a routine that had begun several weeks ago. She'd noticed him sitting at the edge of the little park, close to her home. She'd got into the habit of picking up a couple of sandwiches each evening, as she left the shop. Tentatively at first, she had offered them to the old man. He had stuffed them down as if he hadn't eaten for days. Maybe he hadn't. If there were no sandwiches left, she ransacked the fridge for left-over fillings, slapping them between bread slices. Surreptitiously, she pushed them into her bag. If Alex noticed, she never said a word. Maybe she thought they were for her own use. She smiled. What would Derek say if she fed him a leftover sandwich when he came home for supper? Wrong word. Dinner, they now called it, had to be a much grander affair.
Derek was all in favour of her enterprise. He had supported her all the way, even providing her share of the money to get them started. Called her his little entrepreneur. He usually said it with a bit of a smirk but she didn't mind. It gave her independence. That was something she prized. No way would she ever go the way her mother had. Poor old Mum.
Sandra pushed the key into her Tudor oak front door and pushed it open. Mum would have loved this place. Her daughter's very own home. Well, Derek's and her home, and the bank's. The bank still owned a bit of the house but as they didn't try to claim their share, she felt confident enough about the future. She pushed the button to retrieve the messages on the answering machine. Dinner invitation for Tuesday, a reminder about the cake stall on Saturday, the usual stuff.
It was the direction her life had taken. Derek was doing well and needed a reasonably decorative wife to support him. Cake stalls and dinner parties were a part of her life. How different from her background. She never spoke much of her childhood. Derek didn't ask. Her mother had died the year before she met Derek and Sandra had never known her father. She and Mum had always lived in cheap, rented accommodation so there had been little left, in the way of effects. A few clothes and various school pictures, where her gawky face peered at the camera looking unnaturally clean and tidy. A couple of china ornaments and some very tacky pieces of jewellery made up the rest of her mother's estate. A grubby envelope had provided the main anticipation at the time, though even that eventually fell flat. She could still remember discovering it. The one thing her mother had kept hidden for all those years, was her birth certificate. At last, she'd thought, she was about to discover the name of her father. Never would her mother speak of him. She would say nothing of what he looked like, who he was or where he came from. Whenever the subject came up, she would fend off all her questions, refusing to discuss the matter. In later years, Sandra had become haunted by speculation and the envelope had been there to provide the answers, or so she thought. She would always remember that day, following her mother's funeral.
The trembling fingers tugged at the flap and the bundle of documents slid out. Sandra's heart raced as she unfolded the long piece of paper. She closed her eyes before looking, a mixture of desperately wanting answers and yet wanting to prolong this moment. The anti-climax of seeing a blank space where the name of her father ought to have been, was almost too much. She could still remember the bitter disappointment. Frustration. Screaming, agonising frustration. She never had believed in virgin births, so somewhere, she must have a father. How could her mother do this to her? Maybe she hadn't even known who was the father of her child. Maybe there had been so many men that any one of them could have left his seed. But that was out of character for her mother. Sandra had never once remembered her showing an interest in any man. It was all history now. Derek's rather more middle class family showed a surprising lack of curiosity about their new daughter-in-law's antecedents. Perhaps they were being kind about her loss or preferred not to know.
The phone rang again. Derek would be late home. Just for a change, she said bitterly. No wonder she had no children of her own. Derek was always late home and usually exhausted. Children were not included in the master plan for their marriage. Derek intended rising to the very top. Besides, how could someone without a father ever have a child of her own? Pity really. A child would have been company ... especially when Derek worked late. They could have given a child a good life. No money shortages and she had plenty of love to lavish on it. She had more love to give, than her husband could really fit into his life. Now it was all too late.
Upstairs, she ran a bath. She poured her favourite oil into the water and began to soak away the smells of a hundred and ten sandwiches. Her reflective mood continued. Strange how a single memory could set a whole train of thought in motion. She closed her eyes and travelled back in time to her childhood. Truth to tell, she would always be seeking out clues to her father's identity. For many years, she had fantasised: he was someone famous who dared not admit to an illegitimate child: he was already married and had another family. Her poor, generous, inadequate Mother had tried to cope alone. Maybe he had never known there was a baby. Her mother was proud. She'd never have begged for anything. Could she ever have been married? Sandra always assumed so. Her mother had always been Mrs Simmons to the world. There were no photographs, letters or even a lock of hair to provide a clue.
'Who was he, Mum?' Sandra whispered, as she lay in her delicately scented steam. 'Why don't I know who my own father is? Was?' She could have begun a proper search. Gone to Somerset House or wherever it was. But that would have meant sharing something so deeply private with Derek. He knew nothing of her past and wouldn't like her to discover anything that might be slightly less than socially acceptable.
When she had finished her leisurely bath, she went into the immaculate kitchen to begin preparations for dinner. Something light and simple; something that would keep indefinitely. She switched on the television, ready to hear and see the day's events from the world. Her world was encompassed in her home and the sandwich bar. She saw little of their clients, as she was usually behind the scenes, making up their range of trendy fillings to trendy office workers. She had introduced a range of low calory fillings. They were an instant hit and the business was growing hugely. They wouldn't do for her tramp, she thought. Probably her small gift was becoming his main source of daily nutrition. Poor old thing. He seemed harmless enough. How did anyone ever reach that state? Many tramps were reputed to be middle class drop-outs. People who were sick of the rat race of life. She could sympathise at times. She could never understand the buzz Derek seemed to get from eternal meetings, business lunches and conferences. She smiled at the very thought of her unsullied Derek and his fastidious ways, compared to her old tramp.
'Salmon and salad today,' she said, smiling at her tramp the next afternoon.
'Blimey,' he snorted. 'Why don't the punters want such luxury?'
'It was just a bit left over. Thought you might like a change.'
'Used to love a bit of salmon, once.' His eyes suddenly faded. Maybe this was the chance Sandra had been waiting for. He could be in a mood to talk about his past.
'Where did you live before?' she asked, slightly hesitant. She didn't want to appear nosy but her curiosity was aroused.
'All over. I got sent anywhere and everywhere. Just got settled in one place and I was moved on.'
'What did you do? If you don't mind my asking,' she added.
'You wouldn't want to know, Mrs. Not pleasant.'
'Haven't you got any family?'
'Did have one once. Little girl. About your age, she'd be now, I guess. Maybe a bit younger. Now, did I say thank you for this sarnie? Very remiss of me.'
'What happened to her? To your wife?' Sandra's questions persisted.
'She couldn't keep up with the movin' around. I had to leave her behind and well, we just sort of lost touch.' His voice sounded slightly ragged. He was confronting emotions he had probably left behind him, years ago. 'My little girl was five. Just started school, so that was a big thing for her. She needed stability. Kids do. Pretty little thing she was. Dark curly hair. Your sort of colour.'
'Oh, my colour comes out of a bottle at the hairdressers. I'm boring mouse coloured.' She blushed slightly as she said it. He was eroding her carefully built facade, in some strange way. She'd never mentioned to Derek that she'd begun to colour her hair, soon after the first grey hairs acquired more companions than she'd liked.
'What about your family? You got kids?' he asked her.
'No,' she said quietly. 'Derek and I, well we decided it wasn't to be.'
'And how's your Mum these days?'
Sandra stared. Her jaw dropped slightly. Her control was slipping.
'My Mum? My Mum's dead. She died a long time ago. Did you know her? No, of course you didn't. How could you? That's impossible.'
He looked shifty for a second before he smiled.
'Might have done. Knew lots of women in my time. Sorry to hear it though. It makes it tough for you, not having anyone to talk to. You'd have had a kid or two if she'd still been alive, I bet.'
'I must go. See you again.' She felt distinctly flustered. This awful, smelly old tramp sounded as if her knew all about her. Must have been the way he talked. Yes, of course. That was it. It was a technique he'd developed over his years of begging. Make the punter think you knew them. As friends.
The next couple of days were wet. Despite the rain, she still walked to and from work. Sandra didn't have her own car. She had never learned to drive. Why should she? Derek drove them in his large, top of the range model, wherever they wanted to go. She was quite happy with that. All the same, the rain was unpleasant. The tramp wasn't there on either day. Rather than waste them, she had left the squashy package of sandwiches on his usual seat. They'd gone by morning, so someone had obviously benefited, if only the local wild life.
In the mean time, she was busy with many thoughts. Could her mother have known this old man? Obviously, he couldn't have been her missing father, could he? If he had lived with them until she went to school, she would surely remember something? The old man hadn't always been scruffy, shabby nor a tramp. He'd intimidated that he'd worked. Been moved around the country. What jobs could cause that to happen? Travelling salesman? Some large company? Just about anything really. She tried to imagine him cleaned up and wearing a suit. He'd look like anyone else. Pass unnoticed in any crowd. She remembered something. Derek had turned out a whole load of clothes recently. They were in a bag, waiting for someone to have a jumble sale. Why didn't she take them to the tramp? He could throw away that sleazy old raincoat. Why not? He wouldn't take offence, would he?
She hurried home after work that afternoon, taking a different route to avoid the park. She didn't want to meet her tramp, not yet. In the garage, she pulled out the plastic bag and riffled through the contents. A suit, scarcely worn. Several shirts, in now unfashionable colours. Even a tie. There were no shoes. Derek always wore exactly the same sort of shoes. He bought several pairs at a time and alternated wearing them. This way, none of them ever really wore out. He was extremely boring. A growing subconscious thought pushed itself forward, as if to confirm her thoughts. Her whole life was boring.. Apart from the little business enterprise, she had achieved nothing in her years of marriage. She had built a secure shell, a protective layer around herself. Maybe she had only married Derek to ensure her safe future. To make certain that she never had to scrape by in near poverty, like her mother. But the old tramp. What would it be like now, as an adult? How would it feel if you knew your next meal had to begged, scraped out of some unsavoury dustbin? She almost gagged at the thought. She had always known things were tough as a child, but she had never been truly short of anything. The worst she could remember, was having to go to school in someone else's cast-offs. But to be totally destitute. Like her tramp. She bundled the clothes into a large carrier bag and set out once more.
The dishevelled figure was sitting on the bench, his eyes scouring the road in the other direction. He was expecting her to come from work.
'Hallo,' she said a trifle awkwardly. 'I hope you won't feel insulted but I've brought you some things. My husband was clearing out his wardrobe. They might help keep you warm. In winter, I mean.' She held out the bag to the tramp. His eyes looked steadily back. They may have been a bit watery from the wind but the colour was strong. Very dark eyes.
'That's very civil of you, I'm sure M'am.' His words didn't sound quite right, she realised. He was an educated man but covered his past with the subservient tone. What was his background?
'I've got your sandwich too. I missed you yesterday.'
'Ta for leaving the grub, anyhow. I had things to do, the last couple of days. Had a bit of business to sort. Pity I didn't have these threads then. That'd have made them notice me.'
Sandra stared. His voice certainly held a slightly more cultured note than she'd heard before, despite his words.
'Did you go somewhere nice?'
'It was once. Now it's all changed. I was surprised at how much it had changed. Hadn't been there for years. Just wanted one last look around.'
Again, Sandra noticed a change in the man. He'd looked almost business-like at one point.
'Why a last look?'
'Memories, my dear. Just memories. Doesn't really do to go back to your past. Things have always changed too much. If they haven't changed, your memories of them have.' His poor old, common man accent disappeared, almost completely.
'Why don't you tell me about yourself?' she asked hesitantly. 'It might help you feel less bitter.'
'Believe me Sandra, you'd rather not know.'
She froze. He had used her name. Her first name. She knew she had never told him.
'How do you know my name?'
'Oh, I s'pose you must've let it slip sometime. Sorry. I was being over familiar. Should have stuck to Mrs, shouldn't I?'
The accent was back. He'd folded down again. Become the old tramp. For a few brief minutes, he'd looked like any ordinary man.
'It doesn't matter. And I certainly don't mind you calling me by name. I have no airs and graces about anything like that. But now, I'd better get home. Derek will be phoning with his plans for the evening. He'll ask questions if I'm late.' She began to walk away. She turned and looked back at him. 'Whatever you say, I know that I have never told you my name. Good evening.'
He was smiling. Smirking, maybe, she thought. He definitely knew something; something about her. She felt uneasy. He must have followed her sometime. Knew where she lived. Somehow, he'd discovered her name. Perhaps he'd found a letter addressed to her. That must be it, or something like it.
There was a message from Derek on the answering machine.
'Where are you? You're late, Sandra. I'll be home early tonight. We are going for drinks with old Williams and spouse. Be ready and put out a clean shirt for me. Blue tie, I think. See you soon.'
His voice was calm, boring as ever. He didn't even ask if she wanted to go for drinks with old Williams. She took a quick shower. He would want a bath when he got home and she didn't want to be in his way. She smoothed a mildly perfumed body oil into herself, luxuriating in the sensation. It made her forget about the old teenage days when she had felt grubby, longing for a bath. In their flat, they'd had to make do with a wash at the kitchen sink. No such luxury as a proper bathroom. Now, her life was perfect. Well, wasn't it?
She dressed appropriately for drinks with old Williams (and spouse) and gave a sigh. She would have honestly preferred to spend the evening talking to the old tramp. To Tom. At least he was interesting. He had mystery. Derek was as mysterious as a white sliced loaf from the supermarket. About as fascinating, too.
'Come on. I want to know how you found out my name,' she chided the old tramp the next day. 'I shall keep pestering until I know.'
'You'd be frightened off,' he said in a tone that was not to be challenged. ' Believe me lady.'
'I'll risk it. Besides, you have an unfair advantage over me. I don't know your name.'
'OK, Tom. You already told me that bit. All right. But won't you answer just a few questions? I think you look very smart, by the way. The suit fits well.'
'Ta. Very good of you to bother with a poor old man,' he said, the humble tone returning to his speech. 'Go on then. Two questions. That's your lot.'
Sandra hesitated. She must use her two questions carefully.
'Where did you live before you took to the road?'
He gave a sigh and looked carefully at her eyes.
She stared for a moment.
'But that's where we ... my Mum and I lived. Did you really know my Mum?' He nodded.
'In a manner of speaking.'
'You're not trying to tell me something are you? You're not ... No. You can't possibly be my father.'
'Why can't I?' he asked to her horror. 'Don't worry. Sadly love, I'm not. No such luck.'
'But how did you know my Mum?'
'You've had your two questions. Three really. Yes I knew your Mum. No, I'm not your father.'
'Did you follow me here?'
'Call it coincidence. I came here and happened to make your acquaintance. Went back to Bilstone the other day, as it happens. You been there lately?'
'Not for ages. Nothing to take me back there. Not now. It was another person's life, there. Did you work in Bilstone?'
'Once, I did. I have to go now, Mrs.'
'What sort of work?'
'I was a co ... no. I'm not talking about it. You ask too many questions. Have to go.'
He got up from his seat and began to walk away, surprisingly quickly. She hadn't missed the tears welling into his eyes. He was clearly, very upset about something. What had he been going to tell her? C.O. he had begun. What jobs began with co? Company ... something?
Sandra got out the dictionary when she was back at home. She went through the list of everything beginning c.. o.. Nothing made sense. She wished she could talk to Derek about it but it would be suicidal to let on that she had even spoken to the old man, let alone given him food and clothing. She lay awake half the night, wondering what he was going to say. I was a co .. She sat up suddenly. Copper. Cop. That was it. He'd been a copper. Why on earth had he given it up? Stress, she supposed. That was the usual thing.
She could hardly wait for the next afternoon. She rushed away from work and to the park.
'You were a cop weren't you? A copper. That's what you were going to say.' He looked at her sadly. She knew she was right. 'So why all the secrecy? Whatever did you do that was so wrong?'
'You were bound to find out, I s'pose.' He gave a deep sigh and looked down at his feet. 'In my way, I've been looking out for you, ever since I ...' he looked up at her face and then closed his eyes. 'Ever since I killed your Dad.'
She sat down heavily. Her face blanched and she felt sick.
'You killed my Dad?' she whispered. 'Killed him? How?'
'You sure you want to know?'
She nodded, unable to stop the shaking that was beginning to permeate her body. She was sitting next to a murderer.
'He was in the army. Only a young kid really. He'd been away on one of those duty tours that turn very nasty. I guess it unbalanced him. He got drunk one night and went over the top. He said he was going to shoot your Mum. He stood outside in the street, yelling and shouting. Said he had a gun. That's what I thought. Some neighbours called us out. He stood in the middle of the street at two in the morning, holding what looked like a rifle. He threatened to kill her because she was pregnant. With you, it must have been. He didn't believe her when she said you were his. He accused her of sleeping around while he was away. But your mum wasn't like that. I knew her a bit, and she wasn't like that. I tried to talk to him but the madness had taken him over. He kept on and on yelling and waving this gun around. He pointed it at me. I had to shoot him. Before he shot at her, or me or anyone else. A crowd had gathered, the way they do. My colleagues were trying to send them away but this was much too interesting. I had my firearms training and we'd responded to the neighbour. He was the one who said the madman was armed. He'd called us out. Got a gun he'd said. It was pitch dark, when we got there. I yelled at him to drop his weapon. He ignored me and kept it pointed right at me. I warned him that I was armed and would shoot, if he didn't drop his weapon. He just yelled back, strings of obscenities. What would you have done? Eh? I shot him, before he shot me and God knows who else.' He paused, tears flowing unchecked down his wrinkled cheeks. There were similar floods pouring out of Sandra's eyes.
'What happened?' she whispered.
'I was cleared. The court agreed that I had fired with just cause, even though his gun turned out to be a bar of metal. In the dark, it looked like a weapon. But I never forgot it. You don't forget such a terrible thing as taking a life. I'd shot to wound. I missed his hand, the one that held the gun. Maybe he moved at the last moment. I dunno. I got him clean through the heart. Poor sod. So, Sandra, that's why you never knew your Dad. It was my fault. I never got over it. Left my own family a few years later and took to the roads. Now, you'll be wanting to get home and forget all about me. The murderer.'
'I'll see you tomorrow,' she said firmly. 'I have to go now.' Calmly, she walked away from her father's killer. She felt unexpectedly grateful to the old man. He had cleared up the biggest mystery of her life. She had the answers she had always wanted. She had known nothing of her father so could not grieve for him. Not now. She would never understand why her mother hadn't told her the truth. Maybe it had been too difficult for her. When you live through a horror and survive, thinking back becomes too painful.
She returned to her perfect house, her easy life, her nice clothes, her successful husband.. She wondered if the cost of it all was just too much. Maybe the old tramp had showed enough courage to change the life he could he no longer live with. He had nothing left but his self respect.
The phone rang.
'I'll be late tonight dear. Don't bother to cook dinner, I'll get something at the club.'
She frowned. It was Derek who lived a life that wasn't real. She was supporting him. Condoning his artificial existence and sharing it. She had never had any self-respect, ever. She had kept her entire past hidden away, especially from Derek and his snobbish parents. She had invented a more acceptable history for her