Verity Richardson had a very easy childhood, all things considered.
Oh, perhaps her dad wasn't around quite as much as other peoples' fathers were, but he was busy flying aeroplanes around the world, and he'd always call her and bring her presents from cities and countries she'd never heard of. And when he was at home, he paid close attention to her and read her books and introduced her to games and was, really, her favourite person in the world (not that she'd tell Mum that).
So it didn't feel like such a big deal when her parents separated when she was nine. She stayed in the big house with Mum, and Dad got himself a smaller place a little closer to London, and she still saw him regularly when he wasn't flying. He'd take her to the zoo and to museums and to the theatre, and as a bonus he and Mum seemed to get along even better now that they weren't living together.
What Verity did mind was the wedding, when she was ten. She and Mum had both attended, and Mum had pretended she was very happy for him for Verity's benefit. Verity had, however, overheard her teasing Dad about it after he’d said they were engaged: it's not going to last, she'd said, you're just having a midlife crisis, she's ten years younger than you.
Verity wasn't too keen on Emily, either, for that matter. She talked to Verity like she was five years old rather than almost eleven, which was annoying, and she and Dad never really seemed to like each other all that much. Like Mum had said, Emily was younger than him. They didn't seem to have much in common.
But she put up with her new stepmother. She wasn’t evil, she was fine. And Dad was still close, and still paid just as much attention to Verity, so what was the harm?
The September she was eleven, Verity started at the private girls' secondary school in the next town over. Daddy was paying for it, of course; Mum was a nurse and didn't earn anywhere near enough to pay for private school, whilst Dad was a captain at Air England.
It was a good school. Pleasant. Verity got along well with the other girls there, had a big circle of friends, and did well enough in her lessons that all the teachers were wrapped around her little finger. All in all, she was very much enjoying her experience of Year Seven, and had high hopes of being cast in the school play in the summer term after her drama teacher had described her as uniquely talented on parents’ evening.
And then one morning in the Easter holidays Verity was halfway through a bowl of cereal with vague plans to meet Flora and Annie in the afternoon when Mum came into the room carrying a cup of tea and news that would crash the world around her.
"Your dad's just called," said Mum, and Verity would usually have protested at this pronouncement, indignant at her father calling and not asking to speak to her, but something grave and unfamiliar in her mother's tone stopped her. She swallowed her cereal. Put down her spoon though she wasn't yet finished. Looked up at her mother, a pool of tangled uncertainty making a home in the bottom of her stomach.
Mum sat at the kitchen table, placed the mug down on the table in front of her, and just looked at Verity for a moment. Something was not right.
"What's happened?" Verity asked, eventually. "Is he okay? Is Emily okay?"
"They're fine," said Mum, carefully. "But your dad's lost his job."
The dramatics of the conversation up to this point were not immediately obvious to Verity. Obviously her dad becoming unemployed was by no means a good thing, but it wasn't as though he couldn't just get another job.
"Verity, are you listening?
"Yeah," said Verity, shrugging. "But he'll get another one, won't he? Anyone would hire him. he's the best pilot at Air England."
The silence that sat between them seemed to suggest otherwise.
"I don't know if it'll be that easy, Verity," said Mum delicately. "And he's not paid your school fees for next term yet."
Maybe this was a problem after all.
Much to her alarm and surprise, Verity's dad did not get a new job before the end of the Easter holidays. He paid what he could afford for Verity’s school – a month’s worth of fees - giving them enough time to find her a place at another school, and, unfortunately for Verity, giving her enough time to have to explain that she was going to leave very soon. She tried to make up a plausible false reason to save face, but wasn't quite quick enough. The truth got out. And rather than reacting with cruelty, everybody was all overly nice to her the whole final month, and the embarrassment of being the subject of their pity was almost unbearable.
She was glad to get out, in the end.
She didn't see much of her dad during that period, certainly not one on one - he'd pop round for a cup of tea every so often, see her and her mother, and then head home. But her faith in his ability to fix anything had been quite dramatically shattered.
Her new school – the local grammar – was fine. She was Verity Richardson, so it wasn’t as though she was ever going to be alone and friendless. But it was harder to cement herself this far into the year, harder to gain the trust of teachers and students when she’d appeared brand-new in the middle of a term.
And that wasn’t something Dad could fix.
By the time she did start spending time at his house again, all she noticed were the arguments.
Not with her. With Emily. But that was almost worse. They'd scream at each other over almost nothing, barely even seeming aware that Verity was in the next room reading, and then Dad would storm out and he'd be gone for hours. Emily would try to talk to her, awkward and stilted as she always was, and they'd sit and watch telly in silence. Then Emily would head up to bed far too early, and would tell Verity to watch what she liked but be in bed for ten.
Later, around eleven when Verity was sitting half-watching an old Disney film she'd found on VHS (which seemed better than whatever was on telly so late at night), Dad would finally stumble in.
The first time, she tried talking to him, but he'd barely even seemed to see her leaning against the wall in the hallway. She hadn't bothered after that.
Sometimes he'd go to the kitchen. Sometimes he'd head straight upstairs to bed. Usually, though, he'd make his way to the bathroom, and Verity would sit, hugging her knees tight and staring blankly at the television, trying to pretend she couldn't hear him vomiting into the toilet.
Once his bedroom door was closed, she'd switch off the telly and dash to her own room as quietly as possible.
It wasn't just arguments that caused it, of course; that was just when she first noticed it. It was anything. She'd be over in the middle of the day, and Emily would be out shopping and she and dad would be playing a game, and he'd have a glass of something in his hand. Or he'd come to see her in the school play on a Saturday afternoon, and the other parents would be drinking teas or coffees and he'd have a glass of red wine. She’d stand with the girls she was friendly with and hope nobody else noticed.
Verity didn't say anything. She wasn't sure what she'd say, anyway; it wasn't as though he was ever violent, or horrible to her. He was her dad. He was the best person she knew. And anyway, he was having to do a lot of funny short-term jobs at the minute, because nobody would hire him as a pilot, even though he’d been the best one at Air England. Things would probably change when he got a job.
Around Christmas that year, when Verity was twelve, there was an announcement.
Emily was pregnant.
Now, Verity was by no means an expert on relationships or parenting, but nothing about this seemed to be an entirely good idea. Emily and Dad argued all the time. Emily seemed to have no idea how to talk to Verity, how on earth would she manage with her own child? And. Well. Verity was twelve years old, much too old to be a first-time sibling.
She didn't say any of that, though. Not to her dad and Emily, anyway; she said it to her mum, quietly, once Dad had dropped her home and driven off.
"He's going to have to stop drinking if he's having a baby," Mum had said, grimly, and Verity had flinched.
She didn't think anybody else had noticed. Well, why would she? They'd never acknowledged it. It wasn't one of the seemingly endless complaints Emily screamed at her dad when they were having an argument, and Dad never talked about it either, and who else was there?
"What do you mean?" Verity had asked, wide eyed, the picture of innocence. Lies and pretence had got her this far, after all, there didn't seem to be much point in changing tack now.
Mum paused, then. frowned. She had that look on, the one that usually meant she was trying to decide how much she ought to tell Verity.
"I shouldn't have said that," said Mum eventually.
"Well, you did," said Verity. And stared until her mother relented. She was, if nothing else, very good at getting her way.
"I think," said Mum, "that when your dad lost his job ... I think it upset him. And I think that he's been using alcohol to deal with that."
"I thought he'd been using alcohol to deal with Emily," said Verity darkly. and then, suddenly, remembered herself. Remembered her little secrets act. "I mean," she added quickly, "sometimes when they argue, he -"
"Sometimes." Verity retrieved her school bag from its spot in the kitchen for something to do, and pulled out a handful of books. What homework was due? She could feel her mother watching her as she tried to decide, which was incredibly distracting. Eventually she settled on English, and threw it down on the kitchen table.
"So, why would he have to stop for the baby, anyway?" she asked, sitting down with her homework. She was aiming for nonchalant, but she wasn't entirely sure she pulled it off.
"You can't raise a baby if you're drunk," said Mum.
"But it's fine to raise me drunk?"
Verity had once again been aiming for casual, cool, a question to which the answer didn't much matter. This time she was certain she hadn't pulled it off. Her voice had caught in the middle of the sentence, and she was suddenly trying very hard not to cry on her English book.
"Of course it's not," said Mum, so softly that Verity could tell she'd been seen through, which was infuriating, actually. Arms wrapped around her and Verity stiffened, not wanting the affection. Not here. Not about this.
"Your dad loves you so much," said Mum. She'd let go of Verity, and was instead stroking her hair. Verity didn't much want this either, but it meant she didn't have to look up from scowling at her homework, so she put up with it. "He's just going through a hard time. and I’m going to help Emily to help him through it, so that he can be there for you again."
He did stop drinking, at that.
It seemed hard, and she seemed to see less and less of him for a while, but she didn’t see him drinking anything alcoholic again.
And then the baby was born, and he got another job, all in the space of six months.
Which should, really, have been great: an opportunity for him to return to fixing every problem he came across so that he could teach Verity to do the same.
Only the other job was somewhere in the Midlands, up by Coventry. He was going to move to the Midlands with Emily and the baby. Leaving Verity to live over an hour away, after everything.
She knew, rationally, that he wasn't just replacing the family he'd had with her and her mother - for one thing, he still had a much better relationship with mum than with Emily, despite being divorced from Mum and married to Emily. But that didn't stop it feeling that way, sometimes. Not when she saw him, sober, carrying Millie around like she was the best thing he'd ever seen. When she remembered all those nights he'd come home, drunk again, and not even see that she was there.