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i grew up here til it all went up in flames

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Verity hated Christmas.

She hadn’t always hated it. In fact, she’d loved it as a child: her parents had always worked so hard to make it magical, and her dad, despite being a pilot, somehow managed to be around for the day every single year. There had been presents, and glittery footprints around the fireplace, and a little trail of presents leading her from the stocking at the foot of her bed through to her parents’ bedroom and, eventually, down to the Christmas tree.

She’d even loved it once her parents had divorced: they still got along, so sometimes she had both of them around for the day. And sometimes she’d spend the day with just one of them, but it would be special and magical nonetheless.

Then, of course, she turned twelve, and everything turned upside down. Christmas Day itself she’d spent at her dad’s, watching him drink his way through the wine her mum had brought over for the occasion, watching him become less and less in control of himself until finally he’d passed out on the sofa. She kept looking round to see if anybody else had noticed, but her mum and her stepmother were chatting away merrily as if nothing was wrong.

A week or so after that, of course, had been the pregnancy announcement; and a year later he was living all soberly happy families with his new daughter.

He’d invited her up that Christmas, but she’d decided to stay with Mum. She’d seen enough of him fawning over the baby, carrying her around protectively like she was the only thing in the world. He’d barely acknowledged Verity the year before.

He sent a card, and a selection of gifts, and an invitation to come up for new year.

She didn’t go.

She didn’t ever go again, in the end.

It felt stupid, and petty, not going to see him, but she couldn’t imagine looking at him and Millie all cuddled up together without having visions of all that time he’d spent leaving Verity by herself so he could go and drink.

Mum never tried to force her to go. She suggested, sometimes, that Verity should keep the option open. And Verity overheard her on the phone to dad sometimes, late at night after Verity had retreated to her room to read or do her homework or contemplate her future. Her mother would always tell him that she was trying, that she’d love to help them fix their relationship, but that it had to come from Verity.

The days after those phone calls, Verity would always be taken aside for a little chat with Mum. Your dad really misses you, or have you thought about calling your dad?, or did you send dad a thank you note for that birthday present he got you?

The problem, of course, was that Verity had never explained to her mother exactly what the issue was. Which, Verity realised (much, much later) may have helped; she could have gone to fucking therapy or something, instead of letting it all swirl around inside her brain building and building.

As it was, she continued to not see him, and he continued to send her cards and gifts for every occasion despite her continued lack of presence in his life: Christmas, birthdays, even holidays they didn't particularly celebrate and which didn't traditionally feature presents and cards, like Easter and Halloween.

She used to almost dread those holidays. Half of her would be looking forward to it, the reminder and acknowledgement that he still loved her even given her unforgiveable act of disappearance. The other half opened them with trepidation, soaked in guilt and regret as she read his careful loving messages and looked upon the gifts, chosen clearly in conjunction with her mother as they were always perfect.

I’m so proud of you , he wrote in a card he’d sent to congratulate her on her (excellent) A level results. You can’t be that fucking proud of me, she thought viciously. You don’t even know me.

Those first few years she was too full of anger and the crushing weight of resentment at feeling second best to a baby. But as the years went on, she wondered if maybe her mother was right. Maybe she should see him.

(It wasn't something she thought about a lot, you understand. Just around the special occasions.)

It was just hard to know how to go about something like that. How to contact somebody so important after so long; how to apologise and admit that you'd missed them without having to open up too much.

Opening up was not a strong point of Verity's in the first place. By the time she was twenty-six, her mother knew roughly three facts about her life: her address, her job, and her current boyfriend's name. And the last one only because they lived together. She'd had whole relationships she'd not told her mother about.

(She knew that was weird, because it wasn’t like she and Mum had a poor relationship. And she didn’t want things to go the same way as they had with Dad. She’d just forgotten, somewhere along the way, how to be close with people.)

So the idea of opening up to Dad? Who she'd not seen or interacted with since she was thirteen?

It was engineered, in the end, by a friend request on Facebook from one Millie Richardson.

Verity stared at her profile for a good three days before doing anything with the request. It was undoubtedly her baby sister, but thirteen years old by now (and god, the passing of time was fucking weird, wasn't it? Verity could swear she'd been thirteen herself barely five minutes ago). Thick dark curls, freckles, braces on her teeth, prettier and more fashionable than any thirteen-year-old girl had any right to be. Living in Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria – of course, Verity had known that from her mother, known that Emily had moved herself and her daughter north after the divorce (Dad was married again by now, last she'd heard, but Mum had stopped updating her on dad's life a few years ago).

Her sister.

Looking at her, that grainy little picture on her phone screen, she felt so stupid. She'd missed out on years of having a sister, of watching her grow up, and for what? Pride? Fear of rejection?

She accepted the friend request eventually, and then googled her father. She wanted to talk to him. And she didn't want to talk to Mum about it.

(Mum wouldn't say I told you so or anything, she was sure about that, but she'd not talked to her mum about all the complexities of everything she felt towards her father since she was twelve years old. It would be weird to start again now.)

She found his phone number easily enough. It was on his company's website. Which made absolutely no sense at all, but Verity didn't spend too much time considering it, just called him before she had time to convince herself not to.

It was a strange conversation. He sounded exactly the same - and of course he did, it would have been weird if he hadn't - and she'd had to introduce herself and explain why she'd called, and it had all been very stilted and not at all that easy chatter they'd had when she was a child, but he sounded so genuinely pleased to hear from her.

They'd agreed to meet sometime. He was still in Fitton, where he'd moved to with Millie and Emily all those years ago. Verity was in Manchester, working her way up the ladders of the TV industry, the latest up-and-coming screenwriter with several credits under her belt already.

He said he'd bring Millie, if she wanted. Verity wasn't sure how she felt about that – Millie had, of course, been sort of the reason she'd disappeared in the first place, and was now nothing if not a source of guilt. But there was no way to explain that, and honestly, she'd been vulnerable enough just by putting herself out there to call him. There was no need to give him anything more of herself.

So it was the three of them, in a cafe in Lancaster: neutral territory. Dad brought Millie in the car, and Verity got the train up, arriving early and trying to keep her panicking as invisible as possible whilst she waited.

Dad looked old. Of course, he was fifty-seven, same age as Mum, but it had been thirteen years since she’d seen him and that was quite apparent in his face.

“You’re so grown up,” he said, almost wonderingly, as the two of them sat down in the café, Millie having paused to add sugar to her hot chocolate.

Verity took a sip of her cappuccino. “I’m twenty-six,” she said coolly, and immediately regretted her tone. He was trying.

It was lucky that Millie was there in the end; she was bright and cheerful and everything that neither Verity nor her dad were naturally. Oh, they pretended, both of them, but Verity knew that both of them were carrying around mountains of guilt and echoes of poor life choices. Millie had none of that baggage.

She asked straight up why Verity hadn't been in touch before, for one thing, whilst she and Dad had very much danced around the thirteen-year gap in their history. (Verity had said it was complicated, not particularly wanting to get into the ins and outs of the whole affair, and luckily Dad had masterfully changed the subject.)

And she talked, relentlessly, about school and about her mum, and about her riding school and that birthday party where dad had dropped a brick on a carp.

(Nobody had expanded on that story, for which Verity was left both relieved and baffled.)

She left the meeting with her father and sister feeling almost more confused than ever. Completely endeared by Millie (which, of course, was almost worse, because she’d missed out on a lifetime of sweetness from her), but her dad?

He’d paid for the coffees. She’d tried to stop him, but he’d insisted. He’d been patient and charming and funny like he’d always been. And he’d asked, quietly, while Millie was in the loo, if she’d be interested in meeting again. Maybe without Millie, so they could talk.

Verity wasn’t sure if she was ready to talk. She thought she quite possibly needed several therapists before she’d be ready to talk candidly to the father she’d run away from thirteen years prior. And she’d never quite managed to work out therapy; she’d looked into it a handful of times on suggestion from her mother, who worried that she was too inclined to isolate herself. But the NHS waiting lists were ridiculous, and with private therapy you seemed to have to have goals and choose a type of therapy because therapists all seemed to specialise in different areas, and Verity quite frankly had no idea where to even begin.

She’d said yes to her father, though, in as noncommittal a way as she could manage. And then Millie had returned, and Verity had said her goodbyes and jumped on her train back to Manchester.

Mum called that evening.

“You didn’t tell me you were seeing your father again,” she said, and Verity could hear the bright cheer behind the accusatory tone.

“Oh, did he call you already?”

“We’ve been talking a lot lately,” said Mum. “He’s been trying to lure me to Fitton so he can introduce me to some man or other.”

Verity was not entirely sure what to make of that. Her mother hadn’t dated much since the divorce even though it had been almost twenty years ago now, and she wasn’t sure what some man Dad introduced her to would have that any of her mum’s other boyfriends didn’t.

He invited her out again a few weeks later. Asked if she'd prefer Fitton or Manchester, leaving the ball firmly in her court, which irritated her and then left her feeling guilty for being irritated.

So Verity chose Fitton. She'd not been there in years, and it was full of unpleasant memories, but meeting him in her new home city felt too much like letting him in.

She took the train down, again; she did have a driving license technically, but she didn't have a car in Manchester. There didn't seem to be much of a point.

Luckily Fitton was small, and the map on her phone informed her that the airfield was only fifteen minutes from the train station by foot. Unfortunately, the cheapest train had been the earlier one, so she’d arrived in Fitton an hour before Dad was supposed to finish work. She wasted a bit of time grabbing a coffee in town, but still ended up at the airfield twenty minutes early.

She’d visited her father at work before, when she was small. She and Mum had picked him up from Heathrow on Christmas Eve one year. He’d just flown in from somewhere far off and exciting, like Moscow or Beijing or New York, and she and Mum had stood in the airport waiting for him, Verity looking around with wonder at how large and gleaming it was, spotting pilots in their uniforms all around, and knowing in her heart that the Air England uniform was the best of them all.

Fitton Airfield was a far cry from Heathrow. So far as Verity could tell, it was just a runway with a small, elderly-looking aeroplane and some portacabins that looked as though they might be older than she was. She wondered once more what exactly had happened at Air England that had meant her dad had to come here, to a strange, small charter company with a very odd website that operated from a random field in a nondescript town.

She was wondering which of the selection of portacabins she should wait in when a tallish, smiley man around her age materialised beside her.

"Oh hi," he said. "Are you looking for the departure lounge? I didn't think we had any flights the rest of the day. I’m pretty sure Mum asked me to pick her up at four.” He paused, and frowned. “Unless she said tomorrow and I wasn't listening properly."

Verity stared. "Um. No. I’m not flying, I’m meeting someone."

"Oh, great, is it one of the grounds crew? I can go and find them for you."

He'd turned to walk towards one of the portacabins when Verity called him back.

"No. It's one of the pilots. I’m just early.”

"Oh," said the man, a grin spreading across his face. "Brilliant, you must be Douglas's daughter, he said you might be coming! He’s just finishing up his paperwork. I’m Arthur Shappey, I work for MJN too."

"Verity."

"Wow," said Arthur. His hand was warm, and his handshake as enthusiastic as everything else about him. "It must be great having Douglas as a dad. He taught me all about what people do in bars."

"Oh, really?"

Verity didn't trust herself to say anything else, didn't want to say that he taught me all about what not to do in bars, or that she'd gone through university constantly forcing herself to be the drunkest person on a night out so that she didn't have to be conscious by the time other people started vomiting. She wasn't even sure why all of this was so close to the surface all of a sudden, she'd not really thought about any of this in years, and now here she was lost in memories she didn't want to have in front of a random stranger?

"Yeah! And he always knows exactly how to fix things. That seems like a good thing for a dad to know."

Verity checked her watch as Arthur continued talking. Only five more minutes, thankfully. She didn't want to be rude to this strange, cheerful man – he didn't know Verity's history with her father, he was just trying to make conversation. In any case, it seemed as though he thought the world of her dad, which presumably meant the two were close, and no matter how little trust she was willing to offer her father, she didn’t want to instantly start things off on an adversarial note by offending a friend of his.

"So are you the daughter we nearly dropped a sugar brick on?" Arthur asked as Verity tuned back in to the conversation. God, this had clearly been an enormous event in everybody's lives considering how much people wanted to talk to her about it. A fucking sugar brick.

"Oh, no. I think that was my sister." Verity wondered, suddenly, when this had taken place. How old had Millie been? How had they even done it? How do you drop sweets from an aeroplane safely and accurately? (Of course, it seemed it hadn't entirely been safe or accurate, which worried Verity even more. Did she have to protect Millie from their father's irresponsible behaviour, now?)

"Oh, brilliant," said Arthur. "I wish I had a sister. or a brother. I think I might be quite good at being a brother, but I suppose it's a bit late for that."

“Arthur, who on earth are you harassing now?”

An older woman had appeared from one of the portacabins wearing a coat and an exasperated frown.

“This is Verity, Mum! Douglas’s daughter!”

“Ah,” said the woman – Arthur’s mother? – who then smiled and approached them. “Carolyn Knapp-Shappey, lovely to finally meet you.”

“And you,” said Verity. Finally? How much had this woman heard about her, and for how long?

Before she could retreat further down that line of questioning, however, the same portacabin opened its door once more and Dad stepped out, with a smaller, younger man in a pilot’s uniform on his tail. Verity waved, feeling suddenly self-conscious. Did all these people know her?

“Verity!” said Dad. “I thought I was picking you up from the station.”

“The earlier train was cheaper,” said Verity with a shrug. Dad was still stood next to the other pilot, and something didn’t quite feel right – Verity didn’t remember exactly what her dad’s old captain’s uniform had looked like, but this one seemed off for some reason. Maybe it was just that it was less fancy than the Air England uniform had been.

“I see you’ve met Carolyn and Arthur – this is Martin,” said Dad, waving in the general direction of the younger pilot. “Martin, this is my daughter, Verity.”

“Hello,” said Martin.

“Anyway, we’d better be off – see you later, everyone.”

Dad hurried towards Verity as his colleagues said their farewells, and led the way towards what she could only hope was the car park.

“Sorry about that, I really was thinking I’d just pick you up from the station,” said Dad. “I certainly wasn’t intending to introduce you to my colleagues already.”

“They seem nice,” said Verity, blandly, because this had been an extremely strange afternoon already. She’d expected her first meeting just her and her father to be exhausting; she hadn’t quite reckoned on having to deal with random strangers singing his praises before she’s even seen him.

“They are,” said Dad, as they arrived in the car park. “But they’re very much an acquired taste.”

Verity knew next to nothing about cars, but could tell even so that the one her father had unlocked was the most expensive one parked here. She climbed into the passenger seat, and felt a strange nostalgia as Dad got into the driver’s seat and started the car up: the radio was set to one of the classical stations, and she remembered being allowed to sit in the front seat as a child, the two of them playfully fighting over the radio. She’d always wanted the top 40 hits.

She didn’t touch the radio now.

“So,” said Dad, with a cheer that even after over a decade’s absence from his life she could detect as false, “where would you like to go? We could go to another café, or if you’d rather there’s a very nice Italian place that’s opened up –”

“A café will be fine,” said Verity. She was staring out of the window rather than looking at him, taking in all the sights of the town: the roundabout, the nursing home, the rather run-down-looking junior school. A quick coffee and then straight back on the train would be much easier to bear than an entire meal.

“Of course.”

He drove a little further, and pulled up in a supermarket car park.

“There aren’t many places to park in town,” he said, somewhat apologetically.

It was a short walk from the supermarket to the café. A very short walk, really; it was only across the road. Not too far from the train station, either, judging from the road signs. Good.

“Your mother tells me you’re working in television,” Dad said, once they’d collected their coffees – he’d paid, again, which was annoying – and found a table.

“Been telling you about me, has she?”

“Not so much, these days,” said Dad. “She doesn’t seem to know the finer details.”

Verity sipped her coffee, took a breath. Now was not the time to be worrying about her strange relationship with her mother, a relationship which, if she thought about it, had deteriorated precisely because she hadn’t wanted information about her life trickling back to her father.

She didn’t think Dad had meant it like that, though. He couldn’t possibly know any of that, and certainly wouldn’t throw it in her face like that – for all his faults, he’d never been cruel. Not to her.

“She hasn’t told me much about you, these days, either,” Verity said eventually.

“There’s not much to tell,” he said. “As you can see, I still live in Fitton, still fly for MJN, and … well, that’s about it.”

“You’re married again, aren’t you?”

“Divorced again.”

“Oh,” said Verity. Mum hadn’t told her that. Or had Mum not known? Did it matter? “Sorry.”

“That’s okay,” said Dad. And then frowned. “Your mum mentioned a boyfriend…?”

“Adam,” Verity supplied. But she didn’t want to talk about him, least of all to her father. She barely wanted to think about him most of the time. She probably ought to break up with him, really – they lived together, and they got along, but they existed very much in the shallows of a relationship. She shared more of her thoughts with her fucking manager than she did with Adam. But there were six more months on the tenancy, and neither of them could afford to be paying rent on two places, so she’d keep up the charade a little longer.

“Have you worked with the same people since you moved here?” she asked instead. “The young guy seemed like he knew you well.”

“Arthur?” said Dad. “Yes, I’ve known him since he was about twenty, and Carolyn a little longer. Martin’s the newest, but he’s still been around for five years or so.”

It struck Verity suddenly, staring at him still in his epaulettes, what was wrong with their uniforms. Captains had four stripes. Dad was only wearing three.

Of course, he’d never said he was the captain here, and nor had Mum. Verity had simply assumed, after Air England, that he’d still be one. Quite a fall from grace, really, after all that success – was that what awaited her, too? Quick to climb the ranks, and quick to fall down them again?

“Just the four of you?” she asked. She wanted to ask what had happened that had led him here, but she was a little afraid of the answer.

“Just the four, yes. It’s quite nice, really, it’s much easier to prepare for who you’ll be flying with.”

“You must be quite close,” said Verity. She’d almost finished her coffee, and wondered whether that meant she’d soon be free to make her excuses and catch the next train. She’d booked the six thirty-three to allow some time, and it was only just coming up to five o’clock now, but she was perfectly willing to sit in the station for an hour or so and read.

“I suppose so,” said Dad. “I’ve met most of their families by now. Even Martin’s, and none of his relatives are even in the industry.”

Funny, that, really. How he could know colleagues well enough to meet their mothers, but could hardly persuade his oldest daughter to spend a couple of hours in a café with him. And it was clear even without the clarification that he knew them well – Arthur had sung his praises in the airfield. Arthur, who he’d apparently known the whole time he’d been here – just as Verity had disappeared from his life, Arthur had entered it. It was almost poetic.

Verity downed the remains of her coffee.

“I should go,” she said, without preamble. It was impossible to be here without thinking too much, and if she was going to have to deal with her own thoughts she’d rather sift through them alone.

“So soon?” said Dad, his face falling. Verity’s stomach twisted at the sight, but – she was trying. There was only so much she could do at once.

“This is the last train before nine,” said Verity, an easy lie. Easy to check, too, of course, but she was prepared for that: they must have added those services later, or you can’t get on those trains with my ticket. She carried pre-prepared lies for almost any eventuality. Just in case.

“Fair enough,” said Dad. She wondered how carefully he was treading here, how many of his big dramatic gestures he was repressing in order to not scare her off. She didn’t want to know the answer.

He drove her to the train station despite her protests, and they said their goodbyes in the car before she hurried into the station. He’d call her, he’d said.

Half of her still sort of hoped he wouldn’t.