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Waiting for Mark
The day I remembered Mark began like any other normal day. Lucy and I were getting ready for nursery like any other day. Four year olds need a lot of watching so I knew I was being ambitious when I left Lucy on her own, with nothing to do, while I put a load of washing on. I switched the on button then called up the hallway, “Lucy, time to get ready.”
The reply was a little worrying, “Err, mummy…”
“Lucy I don’t care if you can’t find the right shoes. Just wear anything.”
“But Mummy I’ve done something bad.”
“Lucy, come on. We have to go,” I said not hearing her and walking into her bedroom. “Oh God! What have you done?”
“I didn’t mean to. It just happened. I’ll make it up to you.” This made me laugh. It was exactly what I always said when I was sorry for something.
“Don’t worry, it’s only water. It’ll dry.”
“Um, actually it’s apple juice Mummy.” Lucy smiled me her ‘I’m very cute, don’t yell at me’ smile. It worked.
“Come on, you bad girl. Put your shoes on.” I smiled at her and she grinned back.
When I had unlocked the car, Lucy decided to finally remind me about snack money. “Mummy you forgot my money.”
“Oh bum. Do you really need it today?”
“Yes, you owe nursery £1.20. I haven’t had snack money for five days and today makes six days. I worked it out with your calculator,” she said, sounding pleased with herself, before repeating, “You owe nursery £1.20. You’d better go and get it.”
As I ran back in the house, I realised, without a four year old keeping me right, I would be in debt with the nursery. I grabbed £1.20 then rushed down the road and hopped in the car. Lucy smiled at me expectantly.
“What is it now?”
“Ugh, you’re old enough to do it yourself,” I groaned. Sure enough she bent down and fastened her seatbelt.
Lucy broke the peaceful silence, after about ten minutes. “Mumma?”
“Yes,” I answered reluctantly.
“Tilda’s daddy is dropping her off at nursery today. Why don’t I have a daddy?”
“Look, darling, much as I would love to tell you, I don’t want to talk about Daddies.” Lucy looked disappointed.
I suddenly remembered, after not having thought of Mark for years, accepting he wasn’t coming back. We were sitting, watching telly, when his phone rang. He went out the room to answer it and, being left on my own for five minutes, I began to pluck up the guts to tell him my good news. He came back in, full of smiles. “Jenny, I have a fantastic new contract.”
“Oh, darling, that is good. I have wanted to move out of London for ages.” I was thinking of my good news, our house was too small for three.
“Jenny, babe, you’re not coming with me. It’s in China. I’m only going six months or so. Jake said at most it’d be a year.”
“But Mark, you can’t. I…”
“Jenny, you’re nearly twenty-four. You can look after yourself. Sorry but it’s a bit last minute. I’m leaving tomorrow.”
“Mark,” I said as he walked out of the room. He didn’t hear me. He was too excited to listen at the airport the next morning.
I decided to move out of London anyway. I was sick of living so near my mum and I wanted a change for when Mark came home. I kept in contact with him for the first six months but after that it got too expensive and he was too busy. I rang everyday but I never got anywhere. I tried ringing the office but they never gave me any answers. I was beginning to suspect he’d met some young beautiful Chinese woman and quit his job to marry her but I tried not to give up hope. After Lucy was born I decided to move back to London. I wanted to be able to use Mum for baby sitting and I missed her. When I bought the house Lucy and I live in now, she was getting on for one and I was too busy decorating, writing and looking after her to think about Mark. Five years later and he’s still not here. I’ve given up. I still think about him but I’ve got Lucy now.
“Mummy, didn’t you see the corner?” Lucy broke into my daydream. She sounded puzzled. I looked around and my vision cleared. We had driven right onto the pavement and into a fence. People were crowding all round trying to see if we were all right. After I had made sure they knew we were perfectly fine, they started asking who we were. I said I was Jennifer Rowan, journalist for the Islington Express. They asked about Lucy. I told them to go away and let us get to nursery.
When we were safely back in the car, Lucy piped up again, “Mummy, what time is it? Are we going to be late?”
“Lucy, Be quiet and stop worrying. We’re in enough trouble as it is.” I was a bit worried myself. To calm down I told myself we’d only be ten minutes late.
The rest of the day was eventless except my mum decided to phone. She lives on the other side of London but we see her quite a lot.
“Hi Mum. What made you decide to ring?”
“Just wandering how you are.”
That was the cue for me to pour out my woes to her so she could come along and kiss me on the head and tell her darling daughter everything would be all right. My mum liked to play perfect mother of books. In reality she was a sixty four year old, single woman who enjoyed playing bridge and of course annoying me.
I decided I loved her enough to let her fix my troubles. I told her all about the crash (I tactfully left out the bit about Mark, knowing she would disapprove).
“Jennifer, you sheep.” She often used animal insults; I had been called a cow, a pig, a dog, a cat and now a sheep. Sometimes, I do wonder, whether it is maybe more insulting to the animals. “You could have lost your licence.”
“It’s ok, I just got a point and I have to give the guy, whose fence I banged into, fifty pounds.”
“I just got a point,” she said imitating me, “Jenny you can’t risk it. You have to be more careful.”
“Mum it’s fine. Honestly.”
“Look, Jenny, I know how much you disapprove of holidays but I think the least you need is some fun. I’ll take Lucy on Friday night and you go out with your girlfriends.”
“But, I don’t think…”
“Uh, no buts. It’s all arranged. I’ll pick Lucy up from school and you go out with your friends. She can stay over. I’ll drop her at her dancing lesson and you can pick her up.” Then she hung up on me.
I couldn’t get to sleep that night. I was thinking about Mark. At half twelve, I made myself a cup of tea. I was bringing it back to my bedroom when I heard Lucy crying quietly to herself. “Oh, darling,” I burst through the door, “What’s wrong?”
“Daddy, he’s going to die.” Lucy sobbed into my shoulder. I hurriedly put the cup of tea down and took her in my arms.
“Daddy’s going to die,” she repeated.
“Lucy, I don’t understand.”
“I met my Daddy but he went away and you were sad and now he’s going to die.” She was crying harder than ever now.
“You had a dream?”
“Well, yes. I suppose it was a dream. It didn’t feel like a dream.”
“It’s ok, just you go back to sleep.” I took her to my room and tucked her up next to me. She fell asleep almost instantly but I pondered over what she had said.
It was like she knew what had happened - like she had been there. Suddenly I thought maybe she had received a sort of vision. But then I decided she had just a coincidental dream.
It was half past ten before we woke up. I stirred and grappled for my cardi. Lucy sat up sleepily muttered something odd and lay back down again. When I realised what time it was, Lucy was woken by my yelp. She hopped out of bed perfectly awake and looked me straight in the eye. “Are. You. All. Right?” she asked slowly and deliberately.
“I’m fine. It’s just… Well, I think we had better stay at home today.”
“Why? Neither of us are ill, are they?” She queried.
“No, but Lucy. Let’s skip nursery today. Let’s have a pyjama day.”
“Ok, but that means hot chocie and biscuits in bed.”
“I’ll go and make it. You look at a book for five minutes.”
We had a fantastic, lazy day until after I had put Lucy to bed; my mind started wandering toward Mark again. I thought and thought till my brain ached. I decided it was time to find out the truth one and for all.
I woke Lucy up early the next morning and sent her to nursery with Tilda’s mum. Then I dug out my all access pass for anywhere in the city. I have so little work nowadays there’s not much point in keeping it in my purse. I caught the tube to South Kensington to pay a visit to Mr A Saunders Marks old boss to see if he could tell me anything. I never liked him much and suspected he was keeping secrets!
When I got there I didn’t receive a particularly good welcome! “Hello, can I speak to whoever’s in charge please.”
“Who are you? You aren’t allowed on these premises unless you work for Mr Saunders.”
“I’m Jennifer Rowan for the Islington Express. I have an all access pass and my husband works for Mr Saunders.”
“Um, ok. I’ll give him a ring but I still don’t think you’ll be allowed Mrs Rowan.” I was getting suspicious. Why didn’t Mr Arnold Saunders want members of the public coming to his offices?
“Right, Mrs Rowan. He says you can go up.”
“Thank you. Top floor am I right?”
“Yup.” The receptionist gestured to the left. I thanked her and went up in the lift.
“Mr Saunders,” I said as I knocked on the door.
“Yes, you must be Jennifer.” He was fat and pasty looking. On his table there were empty coffee cups and doughnut bags. He looked smug and confident, like he knew I wasn’t going to get anything useful from him.
“I’m Mark Rowan’s wife.”
“Mark Rowan. You sent him to China a few years ago.”
“Oh, yes. I haven’t heard anything from him in a while. No…?” He spoke more to himself than to me.
“No, that’s why I’m here.” His face suddenly had a flicker of doubt in it.
“Well,” He was lost for words, “I thought he would’ve come back by now.”
“He hasn’t. And I think you know why.” I was pleased to have the upper hand in our conversation.
“How would I know?” His confidence was failing him.
“Because the people in China had you as there contact if anything went wrong. I understand you wouldn’t have wanted the press knowing if anything…” I searched for the right word, “unexpected happened, but I’m not here for the press. I’m here for myself. Tell me Arnold Saunders, what happened to my husband?”
“I don’t know,” he broke down, “I’ve sent so many to China and they’ve never returned. It’s like a Greek Myth. We loose contact with them after the first six months. No one knows what goes on there. Families that ask don’t get any answers from me.”
“No they don’t get any answers. I rang you every day for a year when I lost contact with Mark.” I was trying to be funny but I was failing. I could feel the tears coming and I knew I needed to get out of there.
“I’m sorry, Mr Saunders. I have to go.” I ran out of the office, crying. No one knew where he was. I went over it again in my head, “It’s in China. I’m only going six months or so. Jake said at most it’d be a year.” Jake Roberts, Marks work friend. I knew I had his number somewhere.
I grabbed a sandwich on the way home while ringing Tilda’s mum asking if she could take Lucy back to theirs after nursery.
Hunting for Jake’s number I threw up bits of paper from the filing cabinet. Finally in a file marked ‘Other’ I found it. O154789651. I rang it.
“Hello, Jake here.” He answered.
“Jake, its Jenny.” I was about to add “Marks’s wife” but me and Jake had none each other longer than I’d even known Mark. I knew he would remember me.
“Oh, God. Hi! How are you guys?” He sounded surprised. “I haven’t heard from you in ages.”
“Well, it’s just me and Lucy.”
“What? You haven’t split up have you?”
“No, he never came back from China.”
“Oh my God!” He sounded just the way I remembered him. He was Mark’s best friend but I’d known Jake in high school.
“He went to China and never came back and I’ve decided to find out why finally because Lucy’s getting to the age when she knows its weird she doesn’t have a dad. I was ringing to ask if you knew anything.”
“Well, I went to China with him but we had an argument and Elaina wanted me to come home and be there when Isabelle was born so I came home.”
“So you came home early? How are Elaina and Isabelle? She must be the same as Lucy.
“She’s nearly six. They are both really good. Lovely as ever.”
“Oh so she’s a year older than Lucy. Thanks for telling me Jake. Maybe you and your family could come over for dinner sometime.” I remembered Mum saying she was taking Lucy on Friday night. “How about Friday night?”
“That would be really nice. Thank you. I’ll get Elaina to ring you later about it.”
So I still hadn’t found anything useful. I decided to put my internet surfing skills to work and find out what I could from www.chinagovenment.com. I clicked news and then clicked up to five years ago. Then it came up with some more links. Jail, British Workers, Cities, Country, Death. I clicked on British Workers. Nothing. I saw a search bar at the side. I typed Marks name. It took ages to load. Eventually an article came up. It was very short.
On the 4th August 2001, British worker, Mark Rowan was arrested for stealing Chinese government secrets and selling them to America. His trial was held on the 8th of the same month. He was jailed for ten years and although contact has been made with his British company Saunders Corp., he was not allowed a solicitor as it was the British company’s fault this happened. He also has no family here in China.
I was shocked. I couldn’t imagine anyone stealing government secrets and selling them let alone my Mark. A tear splashed down onto the keyboard. He was in jail. I almost felt a sigh of relief when it said no family in China. He hadn’t gone off with some Chinese woman. He hadn’t forgotten me. Then the phone rang.
“Hello, Jenny here.” I answered.
“Hi, Jenny. It’s Elaina. Dinner on Friday?”
“Yes, Come about seven.”
“Do you want me to bring anything? I have been perfecting my chocolate chestnut cake.”
“Mmm, sounds delicious. You could bring it if you want.”
“Ok, I will. Should we bring Isabelle? Will Lucy be there?”
“No Lucy is going to my Mum’s.”
“Ok, I’ll get a childminder for Isabelle. Thanks for inviting us. Bye then.”
“Yeah, bye.” I didn’t really care whether they came or not anymore. Mark was in prison. I was stuck here alone with Lucy. Ten years was a long time. Lucy would be practically grown up by then. Mark would’ve missed the most important years of his daughter’s life. He didn’t even know that he had a daughter.
As Friday rolled around I was beginning to feel more normal. I had spoken to my solicitor and even though they couldn’t do anything because they hadn’t been at the trial, it felt good telling someone. I had also told Lucy about what had happened to Mark. She didn’t really understand but she did know that it was bad and it made me cry so she promised not to ever mention it.
I made two different curries and bought some nice chutney from the Indian shop down the bottom of our road. Elaina was bringing the pudding so I didn’t need to worry about that. What I was worried about was seeing Jake and Elaina for the first time in four years. The last time I had seen them was at my uncle’s funeral.
At five to seven exactly the door bell rang. I finished my mascara and hurried down stairs. I was wearing a tight black dress with velvet shoes and a red cardigan. It was November and it was cold. When I got to the door I was surprised to see just Jake standing there with a huge bunch of flowers and a box of chocolates. He saw my questioning look and said, “Elaina couldn’t get a baby sitter. So I’ve come alone instead.”
As we ate, seeing Jake brought back memories from before I had even met Mark. Jake and I had been at school together. We’d gone out for nearly a year before we left school. He was the one who introduced me to Mark.
After we’d finished eating we went into the living room and sat on the sofa eating the chocolates and talking about high school and college and our lives before Mark had gone missing and before Jake had met Elaina. It was always just the three of us. Jake, Mark and me.
“Do you want to watch something?” I said reaching for the remote and handing it to him.
“Yeah, ok Jen.” He took it and switched to a rubbish comedy. I grabbed it off him and changed it before he could say two words. We were both laughing hysterically and I hid the remote down the side of the sofa. Jake reached over me and grappled for it in the dusty depths of Lucy’s side of the sofa where I was sitting. I knew it would be really mucky because she always stuffs disgusting things like old bread crusts down there.
Jake got it and was just wiping his hands when he kissed me. It was such a long intimate kiss that I think I must have kissed him back. “I’ve wanted to do that for such a long time,” He pulled me towards him again. I pushed him away.
“I think you should go.”
“But Jenny. I thought you…”
“I invited you and your wife to have dinner with me. It most definitely isn’t a date.”
“But you kissed me back.”
“Well I didn’t mean to. I may not have my husband at hand to batter you but I’m not giving up on him. Not yet.”
“Jenny we had such a good time before we met Mark. You and me were joined at the hip for so long. I hated it when you started flirting with Mark all the time. All these years Jenny, you’re the one for me. You’ll always be part of my heart, part of my family.”
“Mark and I were meant for each other. You have to accept that and move on Jake. You’ll always be a great friend to me but nothing more. After all these years can’t you understand that?”
“Kiss me one more time Jenny?” I kissed him on the cheek as gently as I could. “No Jenny properly.”
“I may not have seen Mark for nearly five years but I still love him,” I said before kissing him on his cheek again and handing him his coat. “Now go home back to your wife and your daughter. They’re your family now.”
As he left, I sighed a sigh of relief. I wasn’t going to repeat what just happened to anyone in all the days I lived.
The next day was Saturday. Lucy was home and we were having lunch after her dancing lesson. “It’s getting cold Mummy.” Lucy looked out of the window. There was frost on the ground and the tap in the garden had frozen.
“Well Lucy it is the end of November. It’s nearly Christmas!” Frankly I was dreading Christmas but I didn’t want Lucy to realise.
“Yes Mummy I know. Mrs Scott said we would be making Christmas decorations at nursery soon.”
“Well, that’ll be fun, won’t it?” I wasn’t really listening. As always I was thinking about Mark. I guess it must’ve been noticeable because Lucy’s reply was sad and reluctant.
“I guess Mummy.” She looked at me, studying my expression and carefully picking the right words for what she wanted to say. “Mummy, I don’t think Daddy’s coming back, is he?”
“No Lucy I don’t think he is.” Ever since discovering Mark was alive, I’d been trying not to let myself be convinced he was coming back. It hadn’t worked. I was hoping and hoping but deep down I knew he wasn’t ever coming back.
About a week or so later I was surprised to find that Jake had rung when I was at work. I shooed Lucy out of the room and listened.
“Hi Jenny, it’s me. I’m just ringing to say…well… I need to talk to you. Please give me a ring when you get this. Yeah that’s it I think.”
I rang him hoping Elaina wouldn’t pick up. “Hello.”
“Hi Jake. You rang?”
“Oh yeah. Hi Jenny. How are you?”
“I’m fine. Lucy is very excited about Christmas. Me well not so much.”
“Anyway what I was ringing about earlier was that Elaina is pregnant again and I realised that I don’t love you anymore. I was just bored of the middle aged man thing I’d gotten into. But now it’s all changing. We’re having a baby.”
“Good,” I said wistfully. I was pleased their life had turned out so good but I was a bit sad that mine wasn’t following in their footsteps. “I’m very happy for you Jake.”
“Right that’s all I really needed to say. Bye then Jenny.”
“Bye Jake.” And I put the phone down.
The next day, I decided to do some more searching for Mark. I’d found out what happened to him but I wanted to talk to Mr Saunders some more and find out exactly why he hadn’t told me. This time though I rang him.
“Hello. This is Saunders Corp. What can we do for you?”
“I need to speak to your boss. Its urgent.”
“I’m sorry I can’t just put you through. Do you have a valid Saunders and Corp. private entry number?”
“No but I have an access all areas London journalism pass.”
“I’m sorry but I’m unable to put you through without a P.E.N.”
I was getting mad at this snooty receptionist lady. “Well, I’m sorry but I have to talk to Mr Saunders about my husband who is in jail in China because of Mr Saunders’ bad communications department.”
There was a scuffle and then the voice changed. “And who may I ask are you.”
“I’m Jenny Rowan. Can I please speak to Mr Saunders? It’s very important.”
“Speaking. What can we do for you here at Saunders Corp.?”
“I need t ask you about my husband. He went missing and is currently in jail in Beijing.”
“I’m sorry but I can’t help you. Whoever your husband is he obviously doesn’t work for us anymore.”
“Mark Rowan. That’s my husband. Now please let me speak.”
“Ok keep your knickers on.” This is what made me get so mad at Mr A Saunders. He always treated you inferior.
“My husband went missing, all along you knew but you didn’t say anything. Why not?”
“Because the Chinese government said I wasn’t allowed to have anything to do with it.”
“So all those poor families don’t even know where any of them are?”
“Nope.” And with that he hung up the phone one me.
Lucy came home from nursery one day saying, “Mummy I made Christmas decorations. Can we put our tree up soon? Tilda’s had hers up since the fifth.”
“Maybe at the weekend. Those are very nice stars you’ve got there. How about we wrap one up and give it to Granny as a Christmas present?”
“Yesssssss Mummy,” she said drawing out the –ssssss’s.
That evening when Lucy was having her tea, she kept going on and on about Christmas. I was getting thoroughly sick of Christmas talk.
“Mummy can I have a pony for Christmas?”
“A Barbie mansion?”
“Daddy to come back.”
“No. I mean… What did you say?”
“Can my Christmas present be for Daddy to come back? Then you might go back to being normal instead of being sad all the time.”
“Oh Lucy. Is it that noticeable?”
“Yes Mummy. So can I have a pony for Christmas?”
“Stop going on about blooming Christmas!”
“Mummy,” Lucy said in a very serious voice. “Christmas does not bloom. Flowers bloom. You should now that being as old as you are.”
“Oh Lucy,” I said again, pulling the little girl into my arms and giving her a huge kiss right on her nose. “What would I do without you?”
The Saturday before Christmas, I left Lucy at my mum’s and went Christmas shopping. I knew exactly what I was going to get Lucy. Not a Barbie or a Barbie mansion. I was going to Harrods and I was going to get her a proper china doll. The draw up to Christmas was hard because I still missed Mark. As I walked down Knightsbridge, pulling my feel through the thick snow, I looked back over the past few months. I’d hardly thought about Mark till Lucy mentioned it that weird morning in October. And now here I was dreading Christmas because Mark wasn’t going to be there. Lucy and me had had so many other Christmases without him yet this year I was scared almost. Scared of how I might act or what might happen.
Christmas day dawned clear, cold and early on 14 Thonfield Road. Lucy came in jumping on me at half past six. I persuaded her to settle down in my bed and sleep for at least another half hour before opening her stocking.
At seven o’clock Lucy jumped on me again. This time I gave up on a lie in and watched her open her stocking. She excitedly showed me her “real grown up girl shower gel” and her “old-fashioned feather pen”. She was very happy and I tried to be too for her sake.
We ate breakfast – pain o chocolat and hot chocolate for Lucy and coffee for me – before going through to the living room to open one present. Then after one present Lucy got dressed and I showered before opening another present. As Lucy was on her fifth lot of wrapping paper and I was ringing my mum, there was a heavy knock on the door.
“Look Mum, someone’s at the door I have to go.” I turned to Lucy, “Say happy Christmas to Granny.”
Lucy yelled into the phone, “Happy Christmas Granny!”
“Come over about five-ish for dinner. Right see you then. Bye.”
There was another knock at the door. “Lucy stay here and play with your presents.” I looked at her and smiled happily. Then I walked to the door and opened it. I breathed a breath of disbelief. It couldn’t be…
“Gnugh.” I made a funny moan like sound. “Marghu…” Another weird noise.
“Jenny can’t I come in?” said a familiar voice. I just ushered him through the door unable to speak. “Jenny give me a kiss.”
“But I can’t believe it.” I looked at him. It had been so long. Although he was thin and tired looking he hadn’t changed a bit. There were those eyes that I’d fallen for al those years ago. I kissed him and finally breathed a proper word. “Mark…”
Lucy came running out of the living room. “Daddy!” she was squealing. “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy.”
“And you are?” said Mark uncertainly.
“This is Lucy. She’s your daughter.”
“Yes,” added Lucy, “And you’re my Daddy.”