‘It’s a hell of a lot of money.’
Ashley frowned at the letter. Addressed to her daughter Molly, there were deep creases where it had been opened out, read and refolded many times, though this was the first time Ashley had seen it. She looked up at Molly, who was perched anxiously on the edge of the sofa.
‘But it’s the best, most amazing music school!’ Molly said. ‘Seriously, Mum, how else am I going to get into a decent orchestra?’
‘You can take music at A level at the sixth-form college. I thought we’d already agreed that.’
‘It’s not as idiotic as it sounds,’ Ashley insisted. ‘Other kids do it, and it’s good enough for them.’
‘The course isn’t the same… the conservatoire has teachers from all over the world. Proper teachers who’ve performed at huge concerts. They know everything.’
‘It’s OK, but…’
Ashley let out a sigh. God she wanted to give her daughter this – of course she did. She wanted more than anything to give her daughter all the opportunities she herself had been denied. She didn’t want Molly to end up like she had – pregnant at eighteen and going nowhere fast. Ashley had had dreams once, just like everyone else. And here she was, sixteen years later and not a scrap of them left to show they’d ever existed.
‘It’s just… of course you know I’d let you go in a heartbeat if I could find the money but…’
Molly stood up and took the letter from her, screwing it into her palm. ‘I should never have gone to the audition.’
‘But I wanted to surprise you; I thought you’d be so proud if I got in.’
‘And I am! God, I can’t put into words how proud you make me every day, and I would move heaven and earth—’
‘It doesn’t matter.’ Molly shook her head, her shoulders slumping. ‘I suppose I can check out the college music department. It’s probably not that bad…’
Ashley turned to the window. She hated saying no so much. It wasn’t like Molly was asking for overpriced clothes or an unnecessary new phone or permission to go to an inappropriate party – she was asking for a chance at an amazing future; Ashley wished that for her with all her heart and would sacrifice anything to give it to her. But they both had to accept that some things were out of her control.
‘I’ll see what I can do,’ she said quietly. God knew what but there had to be a way, didn’t there? For a chance this big she owed it to her daughter to try. ‘Moll…?’
Getting no reply she turned to face the sofa. But Molly had slunk out, taking the letter with her.
In the end it had seemed sensible to give Molly a bit of space. Ashley had gone to make a coffee and was now sitting at the kitchen table, gripping the mug as it cooled in front of her. Staring at an invisible spot on the wall, she gazed into a past she’d reflected on so many times before, though never with such profound regret as she did today. She’d never wish undone what she’d done that night, because she would never have had Molly, the best and most incredible thing that had ever happened to her. But there were plenty of other things she would have done differently. Maybe she’d have found out the boy’s surname for a start before she’d leapt into bed with him. Slut was what her mother had called her in a fit of temper when Ashley had revealed the news. Stupid, stupid slut. She hadn’t meant it, of course, but it was only what plenty of other people were thinking. How could you not know his name? she’d asked. How could you not know where he lives? How could you not have his phone number? How drunk were you?
Even though not all the things she’d told her mum were entirely true, Ashley had no sensible answers for any of these questions. She’d asked plenty of her own too, long after her mum had stopped, when she’d lain in bed with a hand to her tummy as her baby kicked and wriggled inside her. Would the boy have stuck by her even had Ashley been able to track him down armed with only the scantest information? Perhaps not, but at least she’d have known where to go when her daughter needed exorbitant music-school fees to realise a dream she’d had since she could remember, a moment she’d been working hard towards since she’d first picked up a battered old violin in primary school. Her biggest chance to make the kind of life for herself that Ashley could only dream of was slipping away, and it all boiled down to money.
It would be easy to blame it on circumstances beyond their control – that the one and only scholarship had been snapped up by a girl from Japan who’d been playing practically since birth, that the school would have been beyond the reach of most working-class people, that maybe it was better to start small anyway – but Ashley couldn’t shake the idea that, when all was said and done, her own mistakes were the bottom line. Molly would fail, and it was Ashley’s fault.
She closed her eyes and it was 2001. She was sitting in a bar in Ibiza on her first and, as it turned out, only foreign holiday without parents. The air was sultry, heavy with a mass of synthetic perfumes and deodorants, of cocktails and hormones, pulsing with the rapid beat of dance music, lights low and hypnotic. Her best friend, Abigail, had gone to the toilet and that’s when he’d come over. He’d seemed shy, sweet… not the sort of boy who’d leave you pregnant and disappear. He’d made her laugh, and he was good-looking – the kind of good-looking that at first was unassuming but got steadily better with every shot of vodka she downed as they chatted.
His friend came over and Abigail returned, and the four of them had a drinking contest. Who’d won? It didn’t matter. They’d danced together, and he’d smelt so good. She recalled lifting his shirt and caressing his back – the skin smooth and taut. Those chocolate eyes that seemed so at odds with his sandy hair, though they’d pulled her in anyway. She’d thought she could see his soul in there, and she’d thought it was good. They’d kissed and it had been like a thousand volts, setting her on fire. They’d staggered back to her apartment and they’d kissed again on the porch. She’d asked him in for more drinks and in minutes they’d been naked in her bed. It had been strangely beautiful, and she’d been in love – of that she was certain. It was crazy to be in love with a man you’d just met, but it had happened. She’d wanted to see him again, and he’d written his phone number on a scrap of paper before rushing out at the crack of dawn for a flight he couldn’t miss. He’d told her she was incredible, that he desperately wanted to see her again when she got back to England, and he’d left her with a fiery kiss.
But she never saw him again. The phone number he’d left led her to a haulage firm. She had only Molly’s chocolate eyes, which showed her moods as plainly as if she’d opened them out as a book, a certain look, the odd turn of the head, to remember him by.
And a name. Haydon.