He dabbed at his temple with a handkerchief. The air-con was working flat-out. It was only a little after breakfast and the sun was already beating down on golden fields. Grass was parched, spiky and straw-yellow; brooks and streams reduced to a silvery trickle. He couldn’t remember when it’d last rained. In the free paper on his table there were photos of a depleted reservoir; a canoeist paddling past the spire of an abandoned church. He hoped the weather was a good omen. A woman at the next table was hugging her briefcase. She swayed with the train, rocking back and forth. The woman tugged a strand of hair from where it had stuck to her forehead and pinched the flesh between her thumb and forefinger. It was a sign he knew well enough: a distraction technique. He stowed his flask away in his backpack, folded the newspaper and waited.
He’d made sure to pay the correct fare in cash, knowing they’d be watching for him, not wanting to leave a trace. He set the tickets out on the table, ready for the conductor to check. As they entered Primrose Hill tunnel with a whoosh and suck of hot air he squeezed into the toilet, sure he wasn’t going to pay thirty pence for the privilege of slashing the porcelain at Euston. When he was done he washed his hands with that perfumed pink soap, put down the lid and set down his backpack, checking off the contents. Everything was in the zip compartment where he needed it. Plus, he had a spare shirt, socks, pants, and a bottle of water. It was sweaty, what his mother would’ve called ‘close’ and he’d need them. It paid to be swift at Euston. He knew there was CCTV everywhere, that private security patrolled the concourse and platforms. There were transport policemen too.
His hand hovered over the sink, while he waited for the sensor to kick in. Lukewarm water spattered into his palms and he moistened his forehead, neck and shoulders for what good it did. He smoothed his damp, grey hair behind his ears and straightened his collar. He wore a loose linen shirt for London, where it always seemed several degrees hotter, sand-coloured chinos and comfy shoes for all the pavement-pounding he’d be doing. He’d clipped his toenails too. He grabbed his rucksack and unlocked the door as a woman with a baby on her shoulder tutted and shoved past him into the toilet. The baby cooed at him and he smiled and winked back. There was a jolt as they slowed into Camden. He swallowed, knowing he was close, clocking the familiar sights: a rainbow of graffiti that was unreadable, Stevenson’s Roundhouse, the Pirate Castle over the canal.
When everyone had got off, he stepped back to allow a cleaner onboard. The cleaner looked Portuguese and wore his hair like a Teddy boy. He got his backpack and made his way up the platform to the ticket barriers. His shoulders dropped, and he shook out the tension from his forearms. The crowd had dispersed, meaning no one was checking tickets. He made his way up to the main concourse, bought a Cornish pasty wrapped in a serviette, and pretended to study the electronic boards as he munched. Liverpool, Manchester, Stoke-on-Trent and Glasgow flashed up, reporting boarding and delays and extra stops. He jumped up and down, to shift the contents of his backpack where something was digging into him. He wiped his hands on the serviette and went in search of a bin. It wasn’t easy finding bins in London, likely to discourage people like him. You could either leave litter on a bench or a shelf, or you had to find someone pushing a cart full of rubbish and smile at them apologetically. Two cops were standing talking outside WHSmith. He stuffed the tissue in his pocket, folding the grease on the inside. A security guy was patrolling the ticket office, cracking his knuckles into his palms as he trod circuits of the gawdy red carpet. Outside, a Met patrol car had parked up, lights flashing in the bus lane. He got a coffee and waited out the patrol car, blowing and sipping, and watching through his eyebrows. They dragged a lanky kid off a bus, cuffing him when he tried to slap one of them. When they’d gone he crushed his coffee cup and went back inside, deciding it was now or never. It was always going to be busy, wasn’t it? And the whole point of him being here was to strike when it was crowded, when it was busiest. That was his best chance of getting results. He breathed through his nostrils, out through his mouth, the way he’d been taught. He knew they had guys paid to watch CCTV full-time; to pick out the hangers-on, the ones that didn’t fit. He tried to rule that out, focus. In a few minutes none of that would matter.
Not many people knew it, but they could kick you off a train station for loitering. He crouched down beside the payphones as if searching his backpack for change. He rummaged around inside the internal pouch till he found what he wanted. He’d made it himself, designed it to look like a marker pen. He took it out, removed the cap. He’d start by the entrance to the toilets, where it was so busy with folk fiddling for change or trying to craftily shuffle or vault the barriers, no one minded him. He found a pillar, round and smooth, perfect. He glanced about, taking a final check, and drew a frame with the pen. To anyone watching it would appear as invisible ink, as if he was miming as he left no trace. Just like Dennis, he thought. He crossed the frame he’d sketched out diagonally with a fast trail of the pen like a Scottish flag. He touched where he’d drawn with a fingertip to check it was tacky. It was warm and muggy, so he wouldn’t have long till it’d dried and set. He unfurled a poster from the roll in his backpack and pressed it to the pillar, smoothing it flat with his palms. MISSING, CAN YOU HELP? was written above a blurry photo. He scurried on and posted three more of the notices before a tap on the shoulder almost made him jump out of his shoes.
‘I know that fella.’
‘I’m telling you.’ The man was sitting in a crushed crisp box beside the doorway of Marks and Spencer. His crown was sunburnt where his ginger thatch was thinning, but he wore an army jacket and several pairs of thick woolly socks turned down over his cracked boots. ‘Let me see now. Let me think.’ He put a finger to his lips, grubby with newsprint or dirt. His mangy terrier watched from a rumpled tartan blanket, huge white eyes like cue balls. ‘Must’ve been a few days since, like.’ His accent was Scouse. ‘Here, let us have one.’ He offered a hand, said he was called Ged. He handed Ged a flyer. He’d printed dozens of them.
‘Likes his music, this fella.’
‘Why do you say that?’ he said.
‘He had a guitar, I’m telling you.’
Half a nod. Dennis was musical, it was true.
‘He kept saying he was in one of them…’ he searched for the word. ‘Them bands as play old hits.’
‘Tribute bands,’ he said. He pinched his nose, unable to picture Dennis banging out hits like ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ or ‘Candle in the Wind’ in some dingy pub. Ged’s scalp flaked as he scratched at it. He got to his knees with a groan, stretched his spine and read the name and the age from the flyer. ‘Dennis Meadows. Last seen wearing blue jeans, a checked shirt and brown boots. He had a gold St Christopher…’ Ged looked up to meet his eyes. ‘Patron saint of travellers eh?’ He said nothing. ‘He got a tat?’ He got a blank look in return. ‘He got any marks or scars?’ He tapped the flyer with that filthy finger. ‘Says he went on the second of July?’
‘But that’s today.’
‘And that’s why I’m here,’ he said. ‘To jog someone’s memory. Now, can you help me or not?’
Ged took out a tobacco tin, picking the lid off with his thumbnail. ‘I’d like to mate, but…’
He’d been here before. ‘You want some money?’
‘It’s not that, but if you could you see your way…’
He sighed. ‘Dennis didn’t have a guitar. He played violin and he wasn’t in some bloody tribute band.’ He got that prickling in his neck, the tightening at his temples. He breathed deep, counted them out.
‘Hey, you alright, bud. I meant no harm. Keep your hair on eh?’
He blinked away the sparkles, the flashes of light at the edge of his vision. He took a fiver from his wallet and handed it to Ged, telling him to feed the dog.
‘Yeah, might even treat myself to a Twix,’ Ged said.
He went into the toilets, feeding his coins into the slot and splashing tap water onto his arms, dousing his fringe and forehead. When he’d dried himself and slowed his breathing by counting to ten over and over, he strolled up to the information desk. An angry woman in a waistcoat said it was easier to get to the moon than Milton Keynes. Her amber bead bracelet clicked on the metal counter so much that he wanted to rip it off and send the beads scattering across the concourse. He stared up at the sky and counted; in one nostril and out the other. It wasn’t helping. A man with a pinkish face and toothpaste he didn’t know was on his lapel said his season ticket now cost more than his mortgage. He waited, grinding his teeth. When he was fourth in line, in reach of the desk, he lined his flyers on the edge of the counter. The woman’s beads clacked against the metal and he screwed his eyes tight and shuffled across to the escalator, gasping with relief as he got up to the balcony. He bought a lemonade, asking for ice, and rolled the glass along his forehead where it throbbed. He stared through the cloudy liquid and bubbles, scanning the distorted view of passengers scuttling this way and that beneath him. He’d watch and wait for the first commuter to pick up a leaflet. A chair was dragged back. ‘You don’t mind if I sit here.’
He set down his lemonade, tried not to frown. There were plenty of empty tables the fella could’ve chosen. People usually understood the need for space in London better than anywhere. The man ordered a coffee and slapped his folded newspaper down, the one with the disappearing reservoir in it. The man pushed a flyer across the table. ‘They were going to throw the rest away, so I’ve got them to keep them for you.’
‘Nothing to do with me,’ he said.
‘OK, no problem,’ the man replied.
For a time neither of them said anything. He sipped his lemonade, trying to remember, trying to grasp a thought that was always out of reach. It was like this for him when he tried too hard: a balloon he chased, that dipped and climbed as he snatched at it, always out of reach, yet close enough to believe he might.
‘You need permission to stick up your posters, Michael. Otherwise-’
A face came to him, a uniform perhaps; then it faded away. ‘You’ll get them to lock me up?’
‘Don’t be so daft.’ The man’s coffee cup left a ring on the zinc. ‘You do remember me then?’ He offered a hand. ‘Peter,’ he prompted.
‘How many years has it been?’ Michael said. It was a London Transport uniform he’d seen, not a copper’s.
Peter puffed out his cheeks. ‘Wouldn’t like to guess. Too many. Look, I’ll have a word, Mike. I’m sure I can get some posters up for you.’
‘What, in the canteen?’ Michael’s cheek twitched. His chair leg squealed on the tiles as he got up.
‘Hey, come on.’ Peter waved one of the flyers. ‘I’d like to help. You’ve come all this way and I’m here.’
‘Twenty-three years today. See there?’ Michael tapped the flyer where the date was printed in bold type. ‘I leave the year off now. I didn’t use to, but people think it’s hopeless. They want you to accept things and move on. You’re just an inconvenience, an embarrassment to them.’
‘You’re trying. You still care. Dennis would be flattered to know you haven’t given up.’ Flattered wasn’t the right word, but Peter didn’t have another that seemed right.
‘Would he though?’
It was something Michael had thought about every day since Dennis had left. Would Dennis be pleased to know he hadn’t given up? To know the answer to that he needed to know what had happened to his friend. The question every missing person left behind was why? If he chose to believe Dennis was dead (and he never had) then there was nothing to cling to. If he accepted Dennis was out there somewhere, making a new life, that meant rejection; and why was Dennis putting him through such pain?
When Peter got the call, he ran through the facts, as if he needed to remind himself. Dennis Meadows hadn’t left a trace. If he had money he’d secreted it. His bank account was untouched. He didn’t own a car or drive. He had a small flat and no pets. He got onto a train at Stafford. He got off the train at Euston. He’d been picked up by the CCTV, a grainy, blurry figure, tilting forward so police wondered if he might be drunk. Michael had analysed every frame of that CCTV to death. Dennis and Michael were in their early twenties when Dennis went missing.
‘I should be getting going,’ Michael said.
‘Stay a bit. My round.’
Michael shrugged, deciding he’d flyer Kings Cross, maybe Oxford Circus too if no one stopped him. While Peter ordered two more beers Michael took a brown envelope from his holdall. It was folded over and its contents held in place with an elastic band. The perished elastic broke as he tugged at it. He took out a stack of photographs and flipped through them until he found the one he wanted. He slid it across the table as Peter set the beers down on mats. ‘You know how many hours I’ve spent staring at that?’
Peter sipped his beer. ‘Too many.’
‘It’s the last sighting of Dennis. Last seen wearing and all that. It was here. Just outside. He’s in shot for a second, maybe two and then he’s gone.’
Peter could’ve said he knew, that he’d seen it all before, but he let Michael go on. Michael swallowed half of his pint, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. ‘I’d keep asking myself what was he thinking? Was he going somewhere? Was he preparing to meet someone?’ Michael ran a hand through his fringe. ‘If he was going to…you know…why not find somewhere near us?’
Peter didn’t look at Michael. He didn’t want to suggest Dennis was sparing him that. ‘No one could blame you, you know.’
‘Maybe it’s time to let go of all this.’
‘Well that’s my choice.’
Peter stayed silent. A young woman in a waistcoat was collecting glasses. Slavic, Peter thought, with those cheekbones. Peter drained his pint. He shouldn’t have bought Michael a beer, but Michael had been lucid, focused. There’d be repercussions, he saw that now. Michael’s hand shook, a faint tremor picking up momentum. He’d be on pills for nerves, depression. You didn’t go on like this for more than two decades without it taking its toll. Michael stared at him. ‘I still need to find Dennis.’
Peter took the glasses and set them down on the table behind, scared they’d tumble and smash. He didn’t want half the station staring at them; didn’t know what that level of attention, scrutiny, would do to Michael. ‘Look at me,’ he said.
Michael shook his head. He took Michael’s hand and gripped it. ‘You don’t remember, do you pal?’ Michael’s eyes were watery. Peter nodded at the two police officers on the stairs to let them know all was well. ‘I’ll get you some water,’ he said to Michael, motioning to the waitress. Michael blew his nose. ‘What do you remember about him?’ he said.
It was a tricky question. At times Michael thought Dennis had disappeared at Euston, other times he acknowledged he’d found a job on the Underground at Shepherds Bush, started building a life. Peter gave Dennis his first job as a station assistant, got him started in London. Dennis meant no harm upping sticks but couldn’t face telling the few friends and family he’d left behind. He had a history of mental health problems and wanted a fresh start. He knew they’d stop him. It took Peter months, but he’d persuaded Dennis it was time to make contact, set people’s minds at rest.
‘He was a cracking fella,’ Peter said, deciding to play it safe.
One night in mid-December, Dennis was making his way to the payphones on the Green to make that call, sick and tired of Peter nagging him. He’d heard shouts, glass breaking, and he’d stepped in to help a man beating taunted by drunken office workers going home from a Christmas party. One punch was all it took. Dennis was caught off balance and staggered back, fracturing his skull. He died from a bleed on the brain with a circle of idiots in party hats and stupid sweaters standing over him. Peter was on leave, riddled with guilt he hadn’t been there. When Michael was well, years back, he’d told Peter his phone had rang that night and he’d known. He’d picked up and known it was Michael on the other end. Peter knew why they were such good friends. Michael told him at the funeral. They’d have been thirteen. Michael had been dared to swim across the levelling pond at the back of their housing estate. He’d got two-thirds of the way across when his leg cramped in the bitterly cold water. He swallowed a mouthful of water and coughed and panicked as he thrashed about, legs caught in the weeds. His mates were bawling and shouting but they watched him go under. It took Dennis, the gawky kid no one spoke to, to strip to his Y-fronts, dive in and get him out. It was why Michael never gave up. It was why he returned to Euston. Peter had helped before, been a point of contact when Michael absconded, so St Bert’s had his number. They should’ve been more careful on this day of all days. They phoned Peter and said they were sorry, but could he help. ‘But he keeps doing this,’ Peter said. ‘He needs your help.’
They told him Michael’s memory went; that Dennis was missing in Michael’s mind, not dead. Best leave it that way, till he’s back safe and sound at any rate. They told him Michael circled the day in the calendar, talked of nothing else. Peter was tempted to ask why he’d got out then. ‘If I find him will you collect him?’ Peter said. There was a crackle on the line, the nurse muffling the mouthpiece while she shouted to someone. Michael was sitting chatting to one of the police officers, so Peter smiled and waved. There was talk of a plaque at the station, where Dennis fell.