Verity's not doing much with her day off -- a Wednesday that she'd earned as time off in lieu from too many Friday nights of overtime. Phoebe is at uni, and having cleaned the whole kitchen by ten thirty, Verity decides to spend the rest of the morning reading, but she's barely three pages in to her book when her phone pings. She reluctantly picks it up to check her messages, expecting it to be Daisy or Claire with some office gossip. But it's not.
It's a Whatsapp from Dad.
They'd started texting more often, ever since that strange weekend she'd spent with him and Millie two months ago. Verity hasn't quite unpacked everything they'd talked about -- her coming out, by accident. Dad coming out, on purpose.
Dad hasn't mentioned the subject again. Verity thinks maybe he doesn't want to push. Verity hasn't brought it up either. She hates to admit to herself that she actually wants to have a conversation with her father about something that matters.
It's more than just having something in common, Verity thinks. It's like she can pretend that they're not father and daughter with a shared history they never talk about and thirteen years missing. It's like they're two different people. They're not Dad and Verity any more, they're just strangers, eyes catching in the street and a knowing smile shared. It's something new about both of them, a facet of each of them that's untainted by the years of baggage. She is so happy with this feeling that she doesn't want to ruin it by discussing it in any real terminology at all. That would turn them back into Dad and Verity. And she isn't ready for that.
She reads Dad's message.
Look at what I found this morning! it says, followed by an emoji of a man with a beard. Attached to the message is a photo of three people, squinting into the sun and all grinning happily at the camera.
In the middle is Dad, young and rakish. He looks close to Verity's age now. His hair and eyes are pitch black in the sun and he's got what Verity thinks is a rather unfashionable beard for the time, cut close to his cheeks and chin. On his right in the photo is a much older man, wearing a very tight t-shirt and jeans. On his left is another man about Dad's age, who has his arm round Dad's waist.
However, the main focus of the photograph is the banner that the three are proudly displaying for the camera. It's a big, raggedy bit of fabric that looks like it was probably cut from a bed sheet. Carefully painted on it in large blue letters (and Verity recognises Dad's handwriting) is the slogan OUT OF THE CLOSET AND INTO THE STREET .
Her phone pings again as another picture from Dad arrives, this time of the back of the photograph. The words Gay pride march w Herc & Rory, 1983 are scrawled across it in biro.
Wow! she types, and she's smiling in spite of herself. Dad looks so pleased with himself in the photo, and so happy. He'd been married to Mum for six years by that point -- and Verity can never get her head round that, they'd been so young -- and it would be another three and a bit years before she was born. Shaking her head, she types What kind of a name is Herc?
Verity doesn't expect a reply immediately. One thing she's learnt through their growing text conversations -- apart from the fact that Dad inexplicably loves using emojis and is something of a martyr to autocorrect -- is that he's a horrendously slow texter. She's never seen him at it, but she's willing to bet he pokes out his messages with one finger, peering at the screen because he's too stubborn to put his reading glasses on.
Right on cue, about three minutes later, her phone pings again.
Ridiculous, isn't it? Short for Hercules. As in the aircraft.
There's a little plane emoji at the end of the message, the small blue propeller plane one. She thinks that's Dad's favourite because he uses it a lot. Sometimes even when the conversation isn't about aviation.
That makes her think about how much Dad loves his job -- or at least loves flying, she knows he doesn't always enjoy dealing with passengers and his fellow crew -- and how much it's an intrinsic part of him and who he is. It's how she sees him, his identity, like an equation that reads Dad equals pilot . She suspects that he sees himself in the same way too. Even after losing his job at Air England he couldn't stay grounded, couldn't find another career that would give him more time at home, give him time to invest in the family he clearly wanted so much but didn't know how to be a part of, how to belong with her and Mum.
She wonders if the plane emoji is his version of the heart emoji.
Verity stops that train of thought in its tracks.
Before she can reply, her phones pings with one last message from Dad.
Got to dash, we're off to Istanbul this afternoon and I haven't packed. The sentence is punctuated with a grimacing face. Speak later. His message ends with a final emoji flourish: a man running, a jet plane taking off and the sun.
Have a good trip, she replies, and after a moment's hesitation, appends a little blue propeller plane of her own.
Half an hour later and Verity gives up on pretending to concentrate on her book. She picks up her phone and begins idly googling, scrolling through Wikipedia articles on the history of pride events in the UK. She clicks on the page about Manchester pride, and at the side it says Frequency: Annually - August Bank holiday. She doesn't have to check her phone's calendar -- she knows that's next weekend. Ten days' time.
She tries to tell herself later that she hadn't been thinking, that she'd sent the link to Dad without meaning to, that she'd intended to send it to Daisy instead and got their names confused in her Whatsapp, but despite her natural aptitude for lie-telling even she couldn't make herself swallow that one.
Verity had wanted to send the link to Dad. And so she had.
She tries not to examine the rather pathetic feeling of hope that she has too closely -- that this might be their big Hollywood ending, a reconciliation for the ages. She knows that's not realistic. She knows that the hurt caused by thirteen years of silence preceded by thirteen years of alcoholism won't be erased by a day out to watch some rainbow floats and drink overpriced cider (her) and flat Pepsi (Dad). But she wants it so much -- wants it in spite of herself -- that she resolves to try all the same.
She knows he's at work and that his phone will be turned off. That doesn't stop her checking Whatsapp every few minutes between mid-afternoon and dinner, after googling how long it takes to fly to Istanbul.
The second grey tick finally appears, indicating that the message has been delivered to Dad's phone. We could go? she'd written, followed by the link to the Manchester Pride website.
Verity waits another age between dinner and bed before the ticks turn blue to show that Dad's read it.
Her phone rings just gone 11pm.
"Hi darling." Dad's voice is soft. "I didn't wake you, did I?"
Verity tries not to think about the fact that the last time he called her darling was at least twenty years ago.
"No it's okay, I was sitting up reading. How was your flight?"
"Rather good, actually. Clear skies over the Med and we were only kept in the hold at Istanbul for ten minutes."
Tucked up in bed and hearing Dad's voice on the phone transports Verity back to some old childhood memory, curled under the duvet and hearing Mum phoning Dad late at night when he was out in some far flung exotic location, like New York or Tokyo. Being allowed one minute out of bed to talk to him -- and strictly one minute, as international calls were excruciatingly expensive, even on a captain's salary, even at that time of night -- and cradling the phone to her ear, Dad's voice coming through over the crackle and hum of the line, a bedtime story from five thousand miles away. He'd tell her what the clouds looked like from above, and how he'd raced a flock of geese over Greenland all the way to Canada, and how if he squinted up through the flight deck windscreen he could see into outer space.
"What time is it there? Don't you need to be sleeping?"
"Oh, it's about two am, I think. Only three hours ahead. We're heading back tomorrow so no point trying to sync up the old body clock. After this many years going the wrong way round the world at very high speed I'm pretty sure my circadian rhythm's thrown in the towel for good."
Verity laughs a little, and the line goes silent.
Then Dad says, "D'you really want me to go to Pride with you? Won't your friends find it a bit tiresome to have me hanging around all day?"
Verity swallows. Thinks, as she's sure Dad is, of the two months that have elapsed since she came out to him. "I haven't told anyone else yet."
"Oh," Dad says, very softly. There's a pause before he says, "Well, there's no rush. And if you're sure, I'd love to come with you. It'll be fun."
"Ok," Verity says, carefully, because she's suddenly and inexplicably happy and doesn't want to spoil it by thinking about it too hard. "Ok. Shall I get us tickets, then?"
"You need to buy tickets? That's changed a bit since my day."
"Yeah, along with everything else in the world, Dad," she teases, and it feels so easy.
"How much are they? I'll send you the money."
"No, that's ok." She smiles, even though he can't see her. "My treat."
"All right. I'll see if I can find a hotel or something for the night before." He pauses, as though he's thinking about what to say next. "It was really nice to talk to you, Verity."
"And you, Dad."
"Have a good day at work tomorrow, won't you." He sounds reluctant to let the conversation end, and Verity surprises herself when she realises she feels the same.
"You too." She remembers something Mum used to say to him before a trip. "Don't fly into anything I wouldn't fly into!"
He laughs, a deep wheezy chuckle borne of the smoking habit he'd finally managed to break when she was about five years old. The smell of cigarette smoke on his uniform when he got home was just another thing that she'd forgotten about him, like his penchant for opera and how dark his eyes are (as dark as her own, she reminds herself).
Not for the first time, Verity wonders why he'd managed to quit smoking but not drinking.
"I'll do my best. Night, darling."
It's two days before she gets another Whatsapp from Dad.
No hotels! it says, followed by one of the more distressed-looking emojis. All fully booked.
Verity chews her lip. Dad is flying out to Mumbai tomorrow and won't be back til Thursday. Despite his assertion that he's used to being jetlagged, Verity knows he'd rather drive up to Manchester on Friday afternoon and get a good night's sleep than have to get up at the crack of dawn on Saturday and spend the morning experiencing the delights of the M6 on a bank holiday weekend.
She thinks that Dad probably knows someone who knows someone with a spare room, or could inveigle his way into a stranger's room for the night if he so chose. She knows he likes to be the one to fix things for other people, because she likes to be that sort of person too. "God moves in mysterious ways to do lovely things for both the Richardsons" he'd once said to her with a grin, and she hadn't realised he was paraphrasing a hymn until many years later. In her childish naivety she thought it was a saying he'd coined, and she carried it with her like a talisman, until Dad lost his job with Air England and stopped paying her school fees. She didn't really believe in the phrase any more after that.
Even so, she doesn't want to make him have to call in a favour when she can be the one to fix the problem this time.
We've got a sofa bed, she writes. I'll check with Phoebe, but you'd be more than welcome to stay with us.
It takes about ten minutes for Dad to reply. Not that she's counting.
That would be terrific. Thank you :-)
Verity can barely sit still when she gets in from work on Friday, waiting for Dad to arrive. She's not a nervous person at all but she feels like she has to be doing something. It's only after she's rearranged the sofa cushions for the third time and Phoebe sighs rather pointedly that Verity grits her teeth and sits down to wait.
She knows that Phoebe doesn't really understand what's going on between Verity and Dad. (Verity is not trying too hard to understand it herself, after all.) And Phoebe, dear old Phoebe, who talks to her mum every day on the phone, who visits her grandparents every month and sees all eight of her cousins every Christmas, clearly cannot comprehend what it's like to have not spoken to a relative for more than ten years. To be so completely and utterly out of each others' lives but still unable to stop thinking about their absence, like worrying at a wobbly tooth with your tongue.
But that's in the past now, Verity tells herself firmly. They've had the first awkward phone call, the first awkward meeting, the second, the third. She's not thinking too hard about it, but she is looking forward to seeing Dad. And mercy of mercies, Phoebe is far too tactful to ask why Verity's dad is randomly staying the night in their flat. Verity is not ready for that conversation yet.
The doorbell goes and she tries not to stand up too quickly. Doesn't want to look too keen in front of Phoebe.
Dad looks the same as the last time she saw him, waving her off on the train back to Manchester from Fitton after that weekend, as she refers to it in her head -- but older, always surprisingly older than how he looks in her imagination. He smiles broadly and she returns it, and Verity's guiltily grateful that he doesn't attempt a hug. She doesn't think they're quite at that stage yet. She shows him into the living room.
"Phoebe, this is my dad, Douglas," Verity says. "Dad, this is Phoebe."
"Hiya Douglas!" Phoebe says breezily and they shake hands. "Lovely to meet you."
Verity gives him a quick tour of the flat and when they return to the living room, points out which sofa of the two is the one that folds out into a bed.
"I've got a couple of blankets and a spare pillow, I'll get them out later," she says hurriedly, suddenly all too aware of how meagre what she's offering is compared to the comfortably furnished spare room Dad had put her up in at his house -- one of three spare rooms, of which Millie's bedroom is another, and in the third Dad has a little studio-cum-office set up. Then, of course, he'd been married and working as a pilot for a major airline for nearly six years by the time he was twenty-seven. Verity, meanwhile, is painfully aware that all she's achieved by the same age is three failed relationships and five different shared flats in various states of disrepair.
"Thanks, I'm sure it'll be fine," Dad says, and perhaps he knows what she's thinking. He sits down on the sofa and nods approvingly. "I've certainly slept on worse."
"So Verity told me you're a pilot, Douglas?" Phoebe finds it so easy to talk to strangers, a skill that Verity feels she's lost in recent years. She sits down next to Dad on the sofa and thinks that this weekend will be a chance to get some practice in.
"That's right, yes. I do charter work these days, so I end up visiting -- and sleeping in -- a lot of strange places."
"I could never do a job like that," Phoebe laughs. "I mean, I'd find the responsibility so nerve-wracking! What if something went wrong?"
"Oh, well, if you have a competent pilot in control then things rarely go wrong," Dad says. Verity thinks about the sugar brick he dropped on Millie's party and bites her tongue. Dad and responsible are not two words she'd automatically put in the same sentence. "And if they do, we're well-trained in all the emergency procedures and can generally sort things out."
Verity can feel the conversation getting away from her. "Anyone fancy a drink? Tea, coffee?"
"Oh, come on, it's Friday night!" Phoebe says. "Let's open that bottle of Rioja. Can I get you a glass, Douglas?"
Verity's mouth goes dry and for a moment, her whole body feels like it's made of pins and needles.
"No thanks," Dad says easily. "A cup of tea'll do me just fine. But don't let me stop you two."
"Sure!" Phoebe heads to the kitchen to get the drinks and Verity relaxes. Passed again, she thinks. She wonders how long it's going to take before she can think about Dad and alcohol in the same sentence without clenching.
She can feel Dad glancing at her but she doesn't make eye contact.
Verity wakes the next morning when she hears the shower start up and creeps into the living room in her pyjamas. Dad has already folded the sofa bed away and stacked the pillow and blankets she'd given him at one end. The bag he'd brought with him is tucked away in the gap between the end of the sofa and the wall. Verity recognises it as his flight bag. It's unzipped and, glancing inside, she's strangely fascinated by how neatly everything is packed.
At the bottom is a cosy looking fleece jumper with a pair of silver pilot's wings pinned to the front, above the letters MJN Air embroidered in blue. His phone charger is carefully coiled up to one side and he's got two paperbacks and his glasses case wedged in at the other end. There's a space in the middle where presumably his sponge bag and change of clothes fitted. His passport and pilot's licence -- Verity recognises the bright blue cover with the gold embossed CAA logo -- are tucked into a small pocket at the back.
She thinks wistfully of a time when she was about six or seven and Dad had been away at work for an extended stretch. She'd written some silly childish note to him on a scrap of paper and decorated it with stickers and glitter glue pens. She'd given it to him when he'd finally got home and he'd tucked it away into his flight bag -- with his licence and passport, he'd said, so it would go with him on every flight.
She almost doesn't look. But something in her, the part of her that's been six years old for twenty years now, needs to know.
She takes his passport out of the pocket.
There, behind it, is a very worn and faded slip of paper, and on it, written in her own childish handwriting with a very blotchy biro is "To Dad, Love Verity xxx", squashed around a terrible drawing of an aeroplane flying through a glittery sky.
He must have to take his passport and licence out of his bag before every single flight, she thinks. Must have read her wobbly letters hundreds, if not thousands of times. And she thinks of all the years she spent hating him, and all the years after that that she spent trying not to think about him, and all the while he was reading her message of childish love on a daily basis and failing to work out how to fix the mess of his own making.
Verity hears the shower stop and goes into the kitchen to make breakfast.
Miraculously, the bank holiday weather is excellent, and it's a pleasant twenty minute stroll in the sunshine from Verity's flat to Canal Street. As they head across the park, a plane goes over in the clear blue sky and Dad cranes his neck automatically to watch it heading towards the airport. Verity wonders how many times he's landed there, so close to her, and still so distant.
"What is it?"
Dad squints against the sun.
"A 787 I think. Dreamliner. Probably coming in from the States." He smiles at some private joke. "My colleague Martin would be able to tell you for sure."
"Have you ever flown one of them?"
Dad laughs. "No chance. They only came into operation about five years ago. We were still flying Vickers turboprops when I joined EOAC and they were barely a step up from the Wright brothers. After the Air England merger we got various Lockheed McDonnell jets, as well as the 747s which were rather good. And Concorde, of course, though I wasn't selected to try for a type rating on that."
"And, well, now I'm flying for MJN it's just a little twin engine jet. You don't need anything too sophisticated for charter flights."
Verity thinks this is the moment she can finally ask what happened at Air England, why he lost his job, why it resulted in him working for a tiny charter firm flying a tiny plane, junior to a tiny man.
She's almost certain these days that his drinking must have had something to do with it, but she doesn't want to believe that. Surely even Dad, irresponsible as he sometimes was, wouldn't have actually flown an aircraft -- carried passengers -- while under the influence?
Verity isn't sure. It's still so easy to think the worst of him.
She bites her lip and doesn't ask.
Most of the day passes in a riot of colour and noise. Verity sticks close to Dad, and they follow the crowds to watch the parade. Later on they head to the main stage -- weirdly sponsored by Thomas Cook Airlines -- to hear some speeches and then a DJ set by Gok Wan, of all people. Verity gets them some drinks: a very sugary and weak blue cocktail for her (she's perfectly happy to just get a bit buzzed on the sugar and not get too drunk in front of Dad) and a Coke for him. They drink their drinks in the sun and dance a bit to the music, caught up in the rhythm of the crowd. Just two strangers, Verity thinks, sharing a drink in the sunshine and unable to talk because the sound system's too loud. All they can do is smile at each other as they keep time with their feet.
Later, they browse the stalls down one of the side streets. Verity hears Dad chuckling as he tries to suppress a laugh. She turns to look and he points out a t-shirt emblazoned with the slogan "Vagitarian" and a rainbow in the lesbian flag colours.
"Not in a million years," she laughs, and turns back to the adjacent book stall. Out of the corner of her eye, she watches as Dad wistfully thumbs through some other t-shirts on the rack, lingering on a plain black tee with two triangles in dark pink and blue, with an overlapping section of purple.
When he's distracted by the next stall, she sneaks back and buys the t-shirt.
At the end of the day they end up in a cafe. There are obviously plenty of pubs around, but while Dad doesn't actually say anything one way or the other, Verity thinks it best that they avoid them.
Once they've ordered and found a table, she pulls the t-shirt out of its carrier bag and presents it to Dad.
He looks really touched and for a worrying moment Verity thinks he might cry. But he recovers himself and gives her a huge smile, squeezing her arm in thanks. It's the closest they've got to a hug since that weekend.
"I'll put it on," Dad says and disappears into the toilets, coming out a moment later and striking a rather flamboyant pose next to the table so she can admire the t-shirt.
"I should have got you the one which said It's my god-given bisexual right to be dramatic," she laughs and Dad chuckles too and sits back down.
"This is another thing that's different from my day," he says, tracing the outline of the triangles on the t-shirt. "Bisexuality wasn't exactly welcomed in gay circles. Nice that it's changed."
"So when you went to marches and things back then...?"
"Oh yes, I never really advertised my sexuality. I knew I wasn't straight, but as I say, bisexuality wasn't as much of a thing in those days. At least, not an acceptable thing to be. You were supposed to choose: gay or straight, and god help you if you chose gay. Rory -- he was a senior captain that I flew with when I started out, the one in that photo I sent you -- sort of took me and Herc and some of the other pilots at Air England under his wing, encouraged us to be a bit more vocal. He was retired by then and since he didn't have to worry about losing his job he started to campaign for gay rights."
"Are you still in touch?"
"No. He died about a year after that photo was taken, actually. As for Herc -- you know I said I was in an on-off relationship with someone for years, punctuated by our marriages? That's him. I haven't seen him since I left Air England."
Something in Dad's tone says that the topic of Herc is closed, so Verity switches tack.
"It must have been really hard. Coming out, I mean. Or even just... existing in an atmosphere like that."
"Yes and no. I didn't tell many people. My brother, when we were still teenagers, even though I didn't know what it was called. He caught me admiring a copy of Vogue that I'd filched from the corner shop because it had a very beautiful man modelling swimming trunks as the centre spread. A few years later I told your mum, of course."
"And did your parents know?"
"I don't think so. I never told them, anyway. You know my mother was quite old fashioned about these things. I'm not sure she would have taken it that well."
Verity doesn't know much about Dad's parents, apart from the fact that they were both doctors, and that Dad not being a doctor had been the cause of a lot of friction between them. She'd only met them once, when she was about four years old, though she can't really remember much about the occasion. She has a photo of them all together somewhere, her, Dad, Uncle Ian and Grandma and Grandpa Richardson, as they were always referred to. She remembers it because her, Dad's and Ian's dark eyes and hair stick out in comparison to Grandma and Grandpa, who were both very fair. Were dark eyes a recessive gene? Verity can never remember how these things work.
Dad shrugs. "We were never that close, as you know." He sighs. "I was so determined not to be the same way with my own children."
"I could have tried harder, too," she concedes. The apologies remain unspoken.
"I think we have more in common than either of us would care to admit," Dad says, and he's smiling to soften it but Verity knows it's true. She knows that they are each others' perfect match in terms of pride, stubbornness and a pretty firm conviction that they're always right.
Then she relents, and thinks of her calmness, confidence, her rather quick wit, and how she almost certainly got all those from Dad, too.
"Some of it good things, though."
"Some of it good things," he agrees. "So... d'you think you'll tell mum? Not that I'm saying you should, but she won't be upset about it. I'm sure she'd like to know."
Verity looks away. "I'll think about it."
They eat their sandwiches and drink their coffees in silence for a while, but it's not such a tense and awkward silence as existed between them before.
"And you?" Verity asks, a few minutes later. "Will you tell Millie?"
"Perhaps... if the subject arises," Dad says. "It's not a particularly easy thing to drop into casual conversation, is it? Oh, hello, darling, how was your maths exam? Did you get the role in the school play that you wanted? And by the way, I'm not even remotely heterosexual. Besides, Emily would have my guts for garters."
"Mmm. You know our relationship was sometimes a little... fractious. My... non-conformity when it came to sexual attraction was just more fuel to the fire, I'm afraid."
Verity had never warmed to Emily -- and vice versa, she thinks -- but her previous apathy towards the woman instantly solidifies into concrete distaste.
Eventually, they finish their food and leave the cafe and head back across the park in the gathering dusk to Verity's flat. Dad is packed and ready to go in about three minutes, and Verity is so glad that Phoebe is nowhere to be seen, because it means she doesn't pull away when Dad leans down and envelops her in a hug.
"Thanks for asking me to come," he mumbles into her hair.
"Thanks for coming," she whispers in return. What she really means is thanks for coming back.