A Twist in the Tale

ONE MOMENT IN TIME by Valerie Francis

The train journey from Plymouth to London yesterday had been long, but bursts of spring sunshine, the changing scenery and above all, the excited chatter of her young daughter, had lifted Jane’s spirits. Who could fail to be cheered by the excitement of a seven-year-old on a long planned birthday treat; an adventure, to ride on the London Eye, to visit the Queen’s palaces, those grand buildings seen only on TV, and to stay in a hotel room, just the two of them? Jane tried to forget her doubts about the wisdom of going back to the city where she had spent four years as a student and had experienced living with a lover for around a year of it.

This morning Jane was woken early, too early, by Polly, eager to get started despite her delight in a cafeteria style breakfast, especially those chocolate muffins! So, it was barely eight-thirty when they rode the escalator down into the Underground. Jane had been a student in central London, years before, in what now felt like a parallel life. Perhaps her then backpack of law books and notes had been even heavier than today’s necessities?
They negotiated the myriad passageways, among heaving crowds of rushing commuters here at Paddington Station; Polly clung to Jane’s hand, no nagging required in this foreign setting. On the central line platform, the indicator board flashed ‘one minute to next train’ and the crowd pressed forward as the train pulled to a halt. ‘Mind the gap’ boomed that robot voice and they were swept towards the open door despite the people trying to emerge from it.
Suddenly Jane locked eyes with a passenger, a strap-hanging man, good looking in a dark, Celtic way, middle aged, silver wings in his thinning curls, but casually dressed, so not a business man. He looked through the window, quizzically staring at her, his head on one side as if he were trying to recall her name.

In a panic, Jane swept Polly into her arms, face to face and desperately fought her way backwards. The train pulled out and the man’s face disappeared, but his features were seared on Jane’s brain and she trembled at the flooding, unwanted memories. Telling Polly that had been the wrong train after all, they took the exit route up and over the line. Jane stood in front of the underground map, fighting to catch her breath, to quell her physical responses to that shock of recognition.

They went back down to the platform after a few minutes, catching the next train, one less crowded, thankfully. Telling herself to concentrate on Polly’s treat, Jane smiled and they looked again at the clutch of tourist brochures. Jane was determined to show her professional face, telling herself to be the calm, confident solicitor and loving mother, not a silly mature student, besotted with a young tutor. After all he, Sam, is not going to be at any of the tourist sites. Obviously he was on his way to work, or an appointment. Judging by his attire, he was in a University post or maybe lecturing at the City Law School. Sam has forgotten me, she thought - one among so many students these past eight years.

After watching the changing of the guards and exploring the displays in Buckingham Palace, Jane and Polly boarded a double-decker tour bus and hopped on and off it, seeing as much of the sights as they could that afternoon.

Back in the hotel, Polly soon fell asleep in the family room, tired by all the walking and excitement, but also stuffed with ice cream, snacks and fruit from the haversack. Her supper had been a rare McDonald’s meal, chips, ketchup and creamy hot chocolate. The TV high up on the wall at the foot of the double bed was not holding Jane’s attention, nor was her novel. She too was shattered by the busy day, but Sam’s face kept returning to her thoughts and sleep was denied her.

It had been a mistake to come here to London. Why, oh why had she promised Polly this and not a trip to a caravan or tent village somewhere? The Jubilee celebrations, that’s why. Who would have credited that out of a city with a population of eight million her path would cross with Sam’s? That he might even have recognised her? After all, it had taken years to put her guilt behind her, the temporary insanity that led to her dropping out of the Masters course, going to Plymouth for refuge with her understanding, widowed godmother.

When she applied for a Bristol Law School place five years earlier, she had dreaded her past catching up, perhaps through college reference requests. But the voluntary work she had done after Polly’s birth at the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, then her part time work as a legal executive, and probably her single parent status had interested the selectors more than a part-completed Masters.

If Sam tried to find her now, to accuse her of theft perhaps or worse, all that studying and exam passes would count for nothing. Her short legal career would be over. She could not stay in Plymouth, would have to take Polly away from all that was home. How could she start again? Where would she go?
Tomorrow, after a ride on the London Eye, they would be riding home on the midday train. Never again would she come to London. Sam had no reason to remember her name and even if he did, no real requirement to try to find her. Surely her secrets were safe and in time the memories could be buried again.
Through this long night Jane’s mind continued to whirl as she regretted the necessary deceits. Her godmother and her parents thought she had fled London because of Ted and the end of that intense relationship; that his crazy musician’s life style and her pregnancy were incompatible. Today her own family, godmother and friends all adored Polly and moreover, praised Jane for returning to study in her late 30’s and getting established as an assistant solicitor in a country practice.

No one knew of her real sin, her selfish reaction to Ted’s anger when he found an unused pack of contraceptive pills. He’d given her an ultimatum when her maternal clock was ticking loudly. No pill, no sex, no future.

In her distress that very week, fate gave her an answer and she had taken it. Not cash for a donor pregnancy; she’d not stolen money from Sam or anyone else. She had taken a couple of snaps from Sam’s bedroom on the last of her weekly charlady visits to Sam’s shared house - a paid job he’d offered her as she was struggling to pay her way through the masters course.

At four months pregnant she had left for Plymouth. She had decided to take the photos for the baby, if and when questions came. However, she had no intention of revealing the name of her baby’s father. Even if Sam had seen familiar features as he stared at Jane with Polly in her arms, he would not have suspected any relationship. He might later recall the missing snapshots, and associate petty theft with Jane’s abrupt departure from the course and his casual employ, no more. He could not guess that his important role in this tale was an inadvertent contribution on his part. Just a very recently used condom, tied and discarded in the bin beside his bed. Yes, Polly had resulted from a turkey-baster conception, not a relationship. The moment was just right, sheer chance.

But Jane would never travel to London again.