The Personal Touch

 

It began on Sunday, which was accounts day, although neither Lucy nor Karen ever remembered. Even when their father opened the door of his study and stood there, all confrontational and breathing through his nose, even when he wore that expression of dark anger, they stared back uncomprehendingly.

‘What have I always told you, girls?’

The two sisters turned their incomprehension towards each other. What had he always told them? There were so many things. If you take care of the pennies, the pounds will take care of themselves. Never give up on your dreams. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

‘I’ve always told you not to disturb me when I’m doing the accounts. Now get lost, the pair of you!’

That wasn’t really the beginning of it, though. The beginning was later that day, when their mum came back from the shops with tidings of the new neighbours. The girls sat by the big window in the living-room and watched them move in. The Hackermans’ house was well situated for watching comings and goings in the close, sitting just at the curve of the cul-de-sac. The newcomers were four doors down, nearer the quiet road that led onto their quiet close. Everything was quiet here; it suited the quiet. Mum said the husband was a therapist of some sort (‘“life coach,” he called it’), but the wife was a singing teacher, and that got Karen’s attention. Karen’s stated ambition was to be a professional singer and she spent every Saturday night glued to the TV talent shows that promised stardom to the unknowns. When she learned that one of these shows was holding auditions in their sleepy town, she begged and begged her mum to let her go, which eventually she did. Now she had a guaranteed spot in two weeks’ time, in a staged audition that would be televised live all over the country. What she needed though, what Karen desperately needed, was some coaching. Even her best friends told her that. What everybody feared, but nobody dared share with her, was that the audition would be a humiliating failure. There was a judge on the TV show who was known for his cruel and cutting remarks to contestants who didn’t make the grade. The worry was that such a barrage of criticism unleashed at poor Karen might just push her over the edge.

But now there was a chance. Now there was a singing teacher moving in down the road. It was fate.

Karen knew she didn’t have the greatest voice in the world, she didn’t expect to win the contest. Her hope was to get selected for the next round, which would be held in London (she had never been to London); but even if she didn’t get selected, Karen thought her appearance at the televised event might bring her some work in the local area at least, and Mum was right behind her in this. Lucy, Karen’s senior by two years, might have been secretly cynical about the idea, but publicly she was wholly supportive. The only problem was Dad.

Dad was Tony Hackerman, the proud proprietor of Hackerman’s News, the local shop. Business was thriving and well-established by now, but it hadn’t always been that way. ‘What have I always told you, girls?’ he liked to say. ‘I built this business up from nothing. And why? Because it was my dream, that’s why. Ever since I was a little boy with my nose pressed up against Hardcastle’s in town, looking at the racks of newspapers and magazines all neatly arrayed, like a wonderland of knowledge for every customer to peruse and purchase as their whim dictated. Ever since then, I wanted to be in the newspaper business, the selling end. And now I am, and it’s successful, and all because I followed my dream.’

Well, that was fine, thought Karen, but the same principle did not apply, it seemed, to others and their dreams.

‘What have I always told you, girls? It’s hard work that gets results – good, honest graft that leads to the good, honest life. Not singing for your supper, not pubs and clubs, and certainly not TV talent shows.’ Lucy was spared this lecture, on the whole. She was at college already, learning Business Studies so she could join their father in the shop, take over from him one day. But Karen was still at school, facing her GCSEs and, as far as her dad was concerned, star-struck. She needed talking out of it.

‘TV talent shows! Faceless, fly-by-night nobody shows, more like! Listen to me, Karen. When I took over the shop, it was a clapped-out woebegone eyesore, long since abandoned by the locals in favour of The One Shop. Bloody convenience store! The One Shop – like you’d never need another. One size fits all! But it was part of a chain, wasn’t it, that place? Run by a forty-something fat manager headed for a cardiac and staffed by a troop of spotty-faced teens who nicked the fags when the boss wasn’t looking. I couldn’t afford to stock the range of items they stocked, but I did possess one advantage over my rivals: I knew the people who live round here, I’ve known them all my life. So I made my business meet their needs. I kept papers back for those I knew well, ordered special interest magazines without being asked, passed on my recommendations to grateful customers, even extended a little credit to those who really needed it. That’s why my business works, Karen: I’ve got the personal touch.’

But now there was a chance. This changed everything.

‘So, you already asked her, Mum? And she said she’d give me lessons? And Dad’s OK with this?’

Mum caught Karen’s eye and smiled. ‘Don’t worry about your father, love. I’ll handle him. The important thing is you get ready for that audition. The lady said she can give you thirty minutes every evening from now for the next two weeks.’

‘Mum, that’s brilliant! What’s her name?’

‘Sue. Sue – ’

‘Sue what?’ Tony was standing in the doorway. He’d finished the accounts and it wasn’t time yet to go to the pub. He was just standing there. The girls made themselves scarce. Linda didn’t miss a beat.

‘I was just saying about our new neighbours. She’s a teacher and he’s a therapist, apparently, although when he tried to explain it to me, I couldn’t make head nor tail of it, so I’m none the wiser, really. Friendly, though. Must have a bit of money, I reckon.’

‘Oh. So you’ve done the welcome chat, have you? I saw them arrive, but I was busy with the accounts, so….Maybe I’ll introduce myself, tell them about the shop.’

‘You might know him actually, the husband. He told me he grew up round here, and he looks your age. David Whateley. David and Sue.’

Linda continued putting the shopping away. She was talking to Tony without really looking at him. Only Karen, watching from between the banisters, saw him raise his eyebrows, saw the jutted line of his jaw drop a little. Just for a moment, he was taken aback. Then the moment passed and Tony said, ‘I’m just popping out for a minute, alright, love?’

Karen was at school the next day. She didn’t know that her dad spent most of his working hours that morning on the phone. Even Linda wasn’t sure who he was talking to, old friends by the sound of it. That night, he announced he would be meeting up with mates next Sunday, at the pub. No one said anything. Tony always went to the pub on a Sunday. His family assumed he met his mates there every week. Otherwise, why did he go? And why mention it now? But no one said anything: Lucy really didn’t care, Linda didn’t want to think about what her husband might get up to when he was out of her sight, and Karen had her own secrets to keep.

‘Where are you going?’ said her dad.

‘Just out,’ she replied with the briefest glance in Mum’s direction.

‘Don’t bother her, Tony,’ put in Linda. ‘You know what young girls are like.’

The week went by and Karen had a secret singing lesson every evening. By the following Sunday, she felt ten times the performer she had been. Sue was great: in just a few short sessions, she had taught Karen how to improve her breathing and they had chosen a song for her to perform at the audition the following weekend. This was a great relief, as Karen had been unable to choose between three standards, classics of the old school, each of which she thought she sang well enough, but Sue had shown her how actually her voice was suited to something much quieter and more sensual. It wasn’t only that Karen felt happy about the choice of song; she felt like a woman when she sang it. The next step, Sue said, was to involve David as well: he was a life coach and would be able to make her feel more confident about how she presented herself before the judges. Would she like that? Karen said yes straightaway. Though she didn’t like to say so, she was worried about facing the judges, especially the one who seemed to enjoy upsetting the contestants. A bit of life coaching to deal with that would be fantastic! Then she hesitated, realising there might be a financial implication, but Sue said not to worry, that was all sorted between her and her mum.

Just as she got back in, Dad went out. Karen was too excited to settle into the humdrum existence of a family evening and decided she would go for a walk to try and burn off some energy. Without really meaning to, she ended up following her dad – at a distance – all the way into town and right up to the pub. Karen stood outside a while, hidden from sight but within earshot. It was a warm evening, the doors were open and the stillness of the air allowed her to hear all of the conversation that was going on inside. She didn’t mean to, but she couldn’t help but listen.

Tony was stood in a circle of men, each of them in shirtsleeves and jeans, like a middle-aged boyband, each of them with a pint of lager in their hands, swilling it down like pigs in…well, lager. They looked just like any bunch of men on an average night in the pub, but they didn’t sound that way. Their voices, raised unnecessarily by the amount of alcohol each was busily consuming, were earnest and bitter. It was her dad whose voice she caught first.

‘But he’s back, I tell you. David Whateley is here.’

‘Are you sure it’s him, though?’ said a mousy-looking fellow. ‘I mean, after all these years?’

‘I’d never forget him,’ answered Tony. ‘I grant you, I’ve only seen him as I pass by, but it was just like being back at school. I’d never forget him.’

‘Nor would I,’ said a burly, tattooed man next to Tony, his gruff voice sinking into the air like smoke on a foggy night. ‘The question is, what are we going to do about it?’

‘Good question, Brian,’ said another man. ‘What time’s he coming?’

‘He’ll be here soon,’ said Tony and there was a pause while each of them supped his pint and hoped someone else would speak next.

‘What exactly did you say to him?’ asked the mousy-looking fellow.

‘I didn’t say anything. I put a note through his door. It just said that we knew what he had done and it was time to answer for it. Then I put the time and place.’ No one spoke. ‘Well? What else should I have put? We have to get him to explain himself once and for all. Or get out of town.’

‘Who are you, the Sheriff of Dodge City?’ Laughter. Tony ignored it, but the relief of the shared joke softened the mood a little. Until Tony spoke again.

‘I’m just saying. He’s got questions to answer. If he wants to come back to this town, he’d better be ready to explain himself.’

Nobody said anything. They were looking at the door.

David Whateley had just walked in.

Later on, Karen ran all the way back home. She felt sick but, when she got to the room and pulled the bucket out from her wardrobe, there was nothing but spit to bring up. Her mind was racing. Was what had happened real? Why did they keep asking him, over and over? Was it her imagination again? Sometimes, Karen knew, her fantasy life was a little too vivid to be believed. She crept downstairs and watched through the window, kept an eye on the close until she saw David walking safe and sound back through his front door. She gave a sigh of relief and went to bed. Half an hour later, Tony came swaying in drunkenly and crashed out on the sofa without a word to anyone.

The next morning, Karen was awake early. Lucy popped her head around the door before leaving for college, ‘just to check you’re alright.’

‘Why wouldn’t I be?’ replied Karen distractedly.

‘No reason. I just thought you might be getting nervous about the audition.’

‘No, actually.’ She raised herself up in bed, leaning on her elbows, and regarded her sister. Lucy was like her mother, the same streak of concern for Karen’s wellbeing running through her soul. There was a gap of only two years between them, but it sometimes felt like a generation. How did she get to be so grown-up and sensible when Karen was such a mess? ’I feel much more confident since I’ve been working with Sue. You don’t have to worry about me.’

‘Hmm.’ Lucy came and sat on the end of the bed. ‘There’s something bothering you, though, isn’t there? You know you can tell me, whatever it is. You were acting dead weird last night, staring out the window. And earlier…when you came in…I heard you retching in here. Karen, I –’

‘No, that was nothing. Don’t worry. It’s not what you think. I – I saw something in the pub.’

‘The pub? What were you doing in the pub?’

‘No, I wasn’t – I saw Dad in there. Oh, listen, I might as well tell you the whole story.’

And so, the whole thing came out. Karen told Lucy how she had followed their father without really meaning to, about the circle of men with their pints of beer and then David’s entrance.

‘What happened next?’ asked her sister, enthralled despite herself.

‘It was a bit like being in a playground, you know, when all the kids gang up on one person. You know, the fat kid, or the spotty one, or whatever.’

Lucy shrugged. Karen had more experience of that than she did. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Well, they all started picking on him, sort of pointing and laughing, like kids. They were calling him Whateley instead of David as well, which was weird.’

‘Maybe they all knew each other from their schooldays or something.’

‘Yeah, that’s what I thought.’ Karen was sitting straight up now, gesticulating with her hands to help tell the story. ‘Anyway, there was some stuff I couldn’t hear so well, but the gist of it was they kept asking him what happened to her, where did she go, what happened to her.’

‘Who?’

‘I don’t know. But it was clear David knew what they were talking about.’

‘What did he say?’

‘He just kept saying “Nothing, nothing, I don’t know,” and things like that. They kept asking him, though, as if they thought he’d done away with her, whoever she was. Why would Dad be accusing our new neighbour of murder?’

‘Hang on, Kay! Who said anything about murder?’

‘Well, nobody, as far as I know. But that was the obvious implication.’

‘Right. Listen, Karen, don’t let your imagination run away with you on this. There’s probably a very simple explanation. When you only hear half a conversation, it’s very hard to know what it’s really about. The chances that Dad – or David Whateley, for that matter – is mixed up in anything dodgy are very, very small, right? Remember that.’

‘Yeah, I know. Don’t worry, I’m not going to go off on one. But it is odd, you have to admit that much, Lucy.’

‘What I think is, you’ve got a big audition Saturday night and that’s what you should concentrate on. I won’t tell Mum about this, not if you don’t want me to, but do you think it might be a good idea if you went back to Dr Richards, just for a check-up maybe?’

‘No! No, I don’t want to go back there. You’re right: I need to concentrate on the audition. Just let me get through that and I’ll be alright.’

‘OK, but if this carries on next week, you’re going back to the clinic, OK? Or I will tell Mum – and about the retching.’

‘Fine! Fine, really. I’ll be alright.’

‘Come on then, get up, or you’ll be just as late as I am.’

Despite what she told her sister, Karen couldn’t help but dwell on the previous night’s events. When she came downstairs, she was surprised to find her father sitting in the kitchen, elbows on the table, his forehead resting in the palms of his hands.

‘Where’s Mum?’

‘She’s minding the shop, love. I’ve got...I’m not feeling too good.’

‘Right.’ He had a hangover.

‘I’ll go in later. What about you? Aren’t you going to be late for school?’

‘Yeah, I’m just off.’

‘Have a good day, Karen. I love you.’ He looked up and managed a smile. It wasn’t often Karen found her father in such a tender mood. Who knows when it might happen next? He wasn’t a big drinker, after all. She decided she had to strike while the iron was hot. A mood like this might loosen his lips a little.

‘Dad?’

‘Yeah, love?’

‘You know my friend, Sarah?’

‘Not really. Who’s she?’

‘Doesn’t matter, but she texted me just now. She says her dad saw you in the pub last night. She says he told her you got into an argument. Is that right?’

‘Sarah’s dad said that, did he? Who is this bloke? Must be a real busybody.’ Seeing the concern on his daughter’s face, Tony smiled again and drew himself upright. ‘It wasn’t really an argument, Karen, nothing for you to worry about.’

‘What was it then?’

‘Come on, you need to get going, don’t you?’

‘Oh, yeah. Well, I guess I can ask Sarah about it at school. She said her dad was going to tell her the whole story.’

‘Wait a minute.’ He paused, trying to weigh up the options in his head. ‘Alright, sit down. There’s not much to tell anyway.’

Karen took a seat opposite her father and waited for him to begin. Tony clasped his hands together on the table and stared down at the cruet set that always sat right in the centre.

‘Well, it’s like this. You know we’ve got new neighbours, don’t you? Well, I don’t want to worry you, love, but the bloke, he’s a wrong’un. See, I used to know him back at school and last night I was having a drink with a few of my old mates and he walked in, didn’t he? David Whateley, bold as you like. Now, the last time any of us had seen his face was back in the day, back in the middle of a police investigation. Are you sure you want to hear this, Karen?’

‘Yeah, go on.’

‘This David Whateley, he was always a bit of a pillock, you know – what you might call a nerd or a geek these days. He wore stupid glasses and these big, heavy shoes and he walked around the place in these clomping great shoes of his and acne all over his face and….Well, you know what kids are like, love. The kids at school…made fun of him….Yeah, put it that way.’

‘Did you make fun of him, Dad?’

‘We all did, all us lot. And not just the boys. In fact, there was this one girl who used to pick on him the most. Gemma, her name was. I think she did it to impress us lads, you know. She was one of those girls who never seem to have other girls as her friends, and yet can’t quite seem to attract boyfriends, either. She hung out with us, we liked her. None of us fancied her, though, even if….Anyway, Gemma would often make fun of Whateley, cast doubt on his manhood, his…abilities, you know. Used to do it all the time, whenever us boys were around definitely, it made us laugh. There was no real harm in it, love, it wasn’t like…well, it wasn’t like the kind of thing you’ve experienced.’

‘Never mind that. Go on.’

‘One day, Whateley decided he’d had enough. Gemma was kind of pointing at him, making fun, you know. Nothing serious, just the usual. Suddenly he stuck out an arm and grabbed her, right here on the top of her shoulder, squeezed her hard. I could see the ends of his fingers go white with the pressure. She screamed out, of course. He hurt her. Then…something else happened. I mean, nothing happened, but…we never saw her again.’

‘What?’

‘Right after that, after he touched her like that, she disappeared. Completely vanished off the face of the earth. The police reckoned she’d run away from home, but we knew. We knew Whateley had done something with her.’

‘How did you know?’

He looked her squarely in the eyes, his face set hard as granite. ‘We just knew.’

‘Did you tell the police?’

‘Tell ’em what? We had no proof or anything. Do you think the coppers are going to listen to a bunch of teenagers who were known for bull – for not liking the kid they were accusing? No, there was no point going to the police. But we knew. Soon after that, he left town with his family, and that was that. Or so we thought.’

‘Why did he leave? You drove him out? He left to get away from you and all the bull – all the teasing?’

‘No! Course not! His dad got a new job or something. Once he left, though, there didn’t seem any point thinking about it anymore. Gemma was gone. The damage was done and we couldn’t undo it. I suppose it was easier to think of her as just another runaway. We forgot about it. Until he turned up again, the man who made her disappear.’

When Karen finally left for school, she looked around herself with new eyes. It wasn’t shock she felt about Gemma; it was envy. A soft rain was falling from a grey sky and everything – the thin clouds, the dreary buildings, the pavement and even the people who walked it, all seemed as dull and uniform as the sky above. It was a drab town really, a backwater place, nothing more than that until the post-war rebuild, the nineteen-fifties semis springing up, their tidy garages attached. It was exactly the kind of town you would want to disappear from, she thought, especially if you were a young girl trying to fit in to a world that didn’t seem to want you. Gemma, that was a nice name, better than Karen. But no one likes their own name, do they?

That night, Karen was more nervous than usual as she got ready for her lesson with Sue. She wasn’t scared of David, exactly. Her father’s story had seemed thin when he told it to her, even more so as she thought about it during the day. He’d been something of a bully at school had her dad, but so what? That was no real surprise. She knew enough of cod psychology to know that blaming David for Gemma’s disappearance was just her father’s way of covering up his own feelings of guilt. That’s what they do, bullies, she reminded herself. That’s what they have to do. No one thinks of themselves as the bad guy, after all. No, she wasn’t scared of David, but she was nervous about that evening’s session. What if she accidentally let slip what she’d been told? Wouldn’t that be embarrassing? Did David know who her father was? But then again, it was just as unfair of these men – both of them – to expect her to play whatever game it was that was going on between them. The events of years ago had nothing to do with her. She had an audition to prepare for. Maybe, she thought, it would be better to get it all out in the open. Maybe it would be better to tell.

In the end, the decision was taken out of her hands. After her time with Sue was over, she and David sat in a pair of comfortable, high-backed armchairs for her first life-coaching session. Karen was nervous, but whatever she was expecting David to say, it wasn’t this.

‘So Karen, I think I should tell you something about your father, Tony Hackerman. I know he’s your dad. I used to know him when I was at school. Were you already aware of this?’

Karen couldn’t help blushing. She was useless at secrets. It must be written all over her face. With relief, she let it all spill out, everything Tony had told her. Of course, she made it clear that she put no belief in her father’s story. In the end, she was so glad to get it off her chest, she wasn’t at all worried about what David’s reaction would be. In any case, he seemed to share her sense of relief.

‘I’m glad you’ve told me this, Karen. I don’t want there to be any secrets between us. How could you trust me as a therapist if you didn’t trust me as a man? Let me tell you what really happened.’

‘You don’t have to, David.’

‘But I do, I really feel that I do. You see, when I was younger, like a lot of people, I had a dream. Just like you with your singing. Mine, I’m somewhat embarrassed to say, was illusion. I was a magician, Karen, an amateur magician, but a rather good one all the same. Unfortunately, unlike you, I had no one to encourage me in my dream. I was left to my own resources, you might say.’

Karen thought it was no wonder he had been bullied. Kids who did magic shows, guessing which card you’d chosen or making a coin appear from the back of your head, they always seemed to make enemies.

‘Of course, I kept this talent to myself. I had enough trouble dealing with my fellow schoolmates, what with the acne and glasses, without giving them more ammunition to use against me.’

Karen smiled. Somehow, knowing he’d been picked on for how he looked and not what he did was a comfort to her. It was strange, she thought, to find that comforting, but it made her feel closer to David somehow.

‘Then one day this girl, Gemma, she went too far. Or maybe she was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. In any case, I snapped and, instead of ignoring her, I struck back, in the only way I knew how. I made her disappear.’

‘What do you mean, David?’

‘I made her disappear. You know, the old vanishing trick. Here one minute, gone the next. It was only a trick, of course but, shortly after that, Gemma did disappear. She ran away from home, the police said. Your dad and his mates, they hadn’t seen her, I suppose, between me doing the trick and her doing her own vanishing act, so they thought…well, they thought I really had got rid of her. Do you understand?’

‘So you made it look like she disappeared and then, when she really did, you got the blame?’

‘Yes. If you like. Although, strictly speaking, my trick was to make her disappear, not just to make it look that way. Sorry, that’s just my magician’s vanity talking.’

‘Now you’ve lost me again. How exactly did you make Gemma disappear?’

‘You know, like this.’ He clicked his fingers in the air.

‘You mean, you made it seem that way?’

‘No, I mean I really made her vanish.’

‘Are you saying that you actually made Gemma disappear? Like into thin air?’

‘Yes.’

‘That’s what you’re saying?’

‘That’s what I’m saying, yes. You don’t believe it’s possible?’

‘No, David, it’s not possible.’

‘Such a shame. I thought you were more imaginative than that.’

‘What’s my imagination got to do with it? You can’t just make people disappear!’ This was starting to make Karen feel distinctly uncomfortable.

‘If I showed you what I can do, would you believe me then?’

‘Showed me how?’ Her discomfort was obvious now.

‘Don’t worry. I didn’t mean I was going to make you disappear. Would you like some water, Karen?’

‘No, I’m OK, thanks.’

‘Alright. Well, you stay here, and I’ll just get a glass.’

While David was out, Karen looked around the room. She had the new eyes again and now they made everything seem dark and sinister. Shadows stretched out towards her from the corners of the room, like fingers grasping blindly in the dark. She wondered how long it would take her to reach the front door if she made a bolt for it, and whether David would be able to stop her before she got there. He said he’d gone to get a glass of water, but she wasn’t thirsty. What if he’d gone to get something else? He wasn’t a strong man, but….What if David and Sue were in it together? What if…..?

Then David came back into the room and the shadows lifted. He smiled in his usual, friendly way and prodded his glasses back along the bridge of his nose from where they had slipped. Plodding awkwardly across the carpet, an empty glass in his hand, he was the harmless therapist once more. When he sat down and put the glass on the little table between them, Karen was struck by the unusual design of the glassware. There was an intricate pattern woven around its circumference of a type she’d never seen before. Something Celtic, maybe. 

David stared fixedly at the empty glass for a few seconds, then carefully stretched out one arm and held it firmly in his fingers, the ends of them turning white with the pressure. Then there was a snap of air, like a tiny gasp in the wind, and the glass was gone.

‘What?’ said Karen. ‘How did you do that? Where is it? Where’s it gone?’

David sat back and smiled enigmatically. ‘You’ll see,’ he said. ‘Now, shall we continue our session?’

Karen didn’t think she could continue anything after what had just happened, but David’s manner was so calm and reassuring that, after a very little while, everything seemed perfectly normal and ordinary again and she was able to concentrate on what she was there for. It was a more confident, self-possessed Karen that strode back to her house later that evening. Whatever else he might be, David was an excellent life coach and she was feeling really positive about the audition now. Her parents were sat on the sofa in the living room, quietly chuckling at some inane TV show. Lucy was listening to music in her room. Karen headed for the kitchen for a drink of milk and the first thing she saw, sitting next to the cruet set on the table, was an empty glass with an unusual, intricate pattern around its circumference. Something Celtic, maybe.

Karen stared. How had he done that? She sat and held the glass in her hand. It was perfectly solid. It must be the table, he must have used a trick table with a sliding compartment or something. She knew from all the TV talent shows she watched that misdirection was the magician’s method. He must have distracted her attention for a split second while the glass slid through a secret compartment, maybe even underneath the floor. Then Sue must have collected it and smuggled it into the Hackermans’. Maybe she had persuaded Mum to play along, or she might even have snuck in the back door. There was a rational explanation for everything, she reminded herself.

By the following Saturday, Karen felt ready for anything. Sue had helped her define her approach to the song they’d chosen together and David had made her feel confident in facing whatever that TV judge could throw at her. She was particularly proud of her mother, who had arranged the whole tuition process and managed to keep it a secret from her father. Karen set off early that morning. She knew there would be a long wait. Linda didn’t tell Tony that they had tickets for the event until two o’clock in the afternoon.

 ‘You what?’ exclaimed her husband, but they were in the newsagent’s and he couldn’t have a shouting match with his wife at work.

‘I’ve got tickets and we’re going,’ she calmly replied. ‘I want to see my daughter perform.’

‘I thought I made it clear that I didn’t want her involved in that TV singing marlarkey. What have I always told you, Linda?’

‘You’ve always told me a lot of things, Tony, but very few have had much sense to ’em. Now I’m saying something. You followed your dream, so Karen’s going to follow hers. She’s had enough trouble in her life and we’re going to make sure she has something she can feel good about.’

‘Don’t make me out to be the enemy,’ snapped Tony. ‘I want her to be happy, too. I just don’t think this is the way. She’s not that good a singer, is she?’

‘Yeah, well, she’s been having lessons off that Sue Whateley every night the past two weeks.’

‘You what?’

‘Yeah. I arranged them. And life coaching from her husband, too. And I think – what’s the matter, love?’

All the colour seemed to have drained from Tony’s face. Linda held him as his body started to collapse into hers. ‘Jesus Christ, woman,’ he whispered. ‘What have you done?’

That evening, an ashen-faced Tony Hackerman took his seat next to his wife and eldest daughter and waited for his youngest to perform on stage at the local auditions for the national TV talent contest, broadcast to millions. Neither Sue nor David Whateley were anywhere to be seen, yet Tony’s hands shook as he rested them in his lap. He had no idea what was going to happen, but he was somehow sure that after this night he was never going to see his little girl again. The incredulity with which Linda and Lucy had listened to him tell the same tale he had told Karen earlier in the week only seemed to reinforce his nervousness and fear. Then the lights went down, the show began, and Tony knew that he was powerless to do anything but watch. It was fate and somehow he deserved it.

‘If she gets through this,’ whispered Linda at his side, ‘she’ll go to London. Imagine that!’

There was a number of not very good contestants taking the stage before it was Karen’s turn. For each of them, the judges had well-prepared putdowns at the ready, career-ending, soul-destroying barbs of cruel wit. The audience lapped it up, like pigs at a trough thought Tony, whose only comfort was the idea that Karen was not much better than these other tuneless songbirds and would soon forget her foolish ambition in the face of such relentless criticism. But then his daughter took the stage, and Tony’s heart leaped into his mouth.

‘What’s your name?’ asked one of the judges.

‘Gemma,’ she said in a quiet voice.

‘Is says Karen here,’ complained the judge. ‘Karen Hackerman.’

‘Yes. But tonight, Simon, I want to be Gemma.’

‘Very well, Gemma. Let’s see what you can do.’

Karen was a vision in a blue dress, lit from above by a single spotlight like a halo and from the side, which accentuated her figure. Dry ice surrounded her. She looked like an angel and, when she opened her mouth to sing, it seemed to Tony that the very heavens split open and he was afforded a glimpse into the face of God, the sound of the heavenly choir and the peace that passes all understanding. When it was over, he was left with a feeling of great contentment, a bliss that was buoyed along by the sound of ten thousand hands clapping themselves sore, five thousand cheers out of five thousand throats. Karen was a success, a revelation to everyone. Even the judges were standing to applaud her, standing like the rest of the audience, standing like Tony, standing to praise his little girl.

‘Thank-you, thank-you,’ Karen said through her tears. ‘But I couldn’t have done it without the help of my fantastic coaches, Sue and David.’

‘Are they here with you today?’ said the judge.

‘They are indeed,’ sniffed Karen.

‘Then bring them out, let us see them!’

Tony felt the happiness leak out of his heart. To whoops of delight from the audience, Karen turned and gestured towards the wings and David Whateley walked onto the stage, clad in a white suit with a white shirt, accompanied by his wife in a smooth, red dress. The judge was saying something, but it couldn’t be heard over the noise of the applause. Karen was applauding too, and Sue, and then suddenly David Whateley stuck out an arm and grasped Karen at the top of her shoulder.  His hand rested there for a second and then he began to tighten his grip. Tony’s blood froze; time seemed to slow down. Every movement of the muscles in Whateley’s hand was clearly visible in Tony’s mind. Dry ice was everywhere, swirling like clouds in the room, like the grey skies the day Gemma disappeared.

‘Don’t do it, David,’ Tony heard himself say, but no one was paying any attention. They were listening to the judge telling Karen what she had to look forward to now. Couldn’t they see what was going on? All the dry ice was making his head hurt. All the clouds were inside his brain. Tony sat and gripped the arm-rests on either side of his chair. His wife leaned down towards him.

‘Are you alright, love? What’s the matter?’

Then Linda was helping him back onto his feet. He looked up and caught a glimpse through the mist of his daughter, an angel all in blue, David’s hand still firmly clasped on her shoulder, the tips of his fingers turning white. Karen was looking for her family in the audience. She was scared! No, she was smiling, the tears were of happiness. If only he could make her understand the danger she was in! Then Karen saw her mother and sister, smiled and waved, and looked along the row for her father. There he was. They looked into each other – Tony helpless, Karen radiant, Whateley’s hand like a vice on her shoulder. Tony watched as slowly, almost imperceptibly, the smile on his daughter’s face began to fade. He saw it; he saw it go. It began to fade and then, as he continued to watch, it disappeared from view altogether.

She had made it. She had made it at last.