The stench made her gag. For a moment she was transfixed by the room’s awfulness; the gloom, the paint peeling off the walls, the thin foam mattress covered by a filthy blanket. Behind her the door slammed and she turned. But it was too late. She heard a bolt being drawn on the other side and the gravity of her situation hit her. She should have listened to her mother.
Jane stared at the note she’d found on her daughter’s pillow, struggling to make sense of the words. Anna had lied. She wasn’t staying with a friend.
She sank onto the bed, white with shock, her hands shaking. Her worst nightmare was coming true. For eighteen years Jane had tried to protect Anna from their past but now, as she stared at the brief letter, the fabric of her carefully constructed life unravelled.
Hi Mum, I knew you’d look in my room eventually. You won’t like this but since you won’t tell me about him I’ve gone to Tunisia to try to meet my dad and maybe I’ll find out what happened to your sister, too. I got a really good deal on a package holiday so it didn’t cost me much! Please don’t be angry and DON’T WORRY, I’ll be really careful. I’ll phone you on Friday. Love you, Anna xxx
Jane contemplated the last sentence, I’ll phone you on Friday. That was today and there’d been no phone call.
Her heart hammering, she screwed the note into a ball and hurled it across the room, rejecting this awful news. Anna had always been independent, determined to manage on her own. And now she thought she could cope, abroad, with nothing but savings from her Saturday job… and this obsession with finding her father.
Her father… Jane groaned and leaned forward, elbows on her knees, head cradled in her hands. She should have told her about him years ago. But where would she have started? When had been the right moment? Time had passed and opportunities had been missed; Jane had buried her head in the sand.
She could kick herself for that moment of weakness a few months ago when, after too many glasses of wine, she had let slip she had a sister. That had been the trigger for everything that followed.
‘A sister! Why have you never told me about her before?’ Anna had seized on Jane’s words. ‘Where is she now?’
Jane had taken a sharp breath and tried to gather her thoughts. ‘Crystal lived in Tunisia… years ago, before you were born. I tried to get her to come back to Britain with me, but…’ Jane had stumbled over her words, ‘… she changed her mind. She didn’t want to leave so she went back… to her husband, and…’
Anna had stared at Jane, waiting. ‘And…?’
‘That’s all there is, Anna.’ Jane looked up, stricken. ‘Crystal stayed over there and I’ve never seen her since. We fell out, then just… lost touch.’ Jane rubbed her hand across her forehead.
‘What did you fall out about?’
‘I’m sorry but I can’t talk about it.’ She had got up, trying to hide her crumbling face from Anna as memories from the past crowded into her mind. The stress of keeping so many secrets made Jane feel wretched, as though she had disintegrated into the shell of the person she used to be, always punishing herself for what had happened.
Anna hadn’t been willing to drop it. ‘So, you won’t tell me about your sister. Will you at least tell me about my father?’
‘I’ve already explained, Anna. It was a brief relationship and we split up before I even found out I was pregnant. I’m not proud of it but I’m glad it happened or I wouldn’t have you.’
‘Did you meet him when you lived in Tunisia? I mean, look how dark-skinned I am compared to you.’
‘It was after I came back. And before you ask, I’m sorry, but I’m not going to try to track him down. We’re fine on our own.’
‘You’re lying! I can tell. Your eyes go all shifty when you lie. I think he was Tunisian and you don’t want to tell me about him, just like you don’t want to talk about your sister or anything that happened to you back then.’
‘Can’t you just be happy with your life as it is? You’re going to university in a few months. Live for the future, not the past.’
Anna had rolled her eyes. ‘Then I’ll find out for myself.’
‘Do what you have to, Anna.’ Jane had sighed and ignored the anger that burned in her daughter’s eyes, hoping it was a passing teenage phase. But now, faced with her note, Jane realised Anna had meant what she’d said. She’d gone through Jane’s things and had found the photo of Jane and Ali at the watersports base. She’d seen the love in their eyes as they gazed at one another. She’d jumped to conclusions. And now she was gone.
Jane felt the spectre of her previous life reaching out to haunt her; she had to go after her daughter. She had to keep her safe.
The next morning Jane boarded a Tunisair flight from Heathrow, jittery with nerves and caffeine. She closed her eyes and leaned her head against the airplane seat, listening to the Arabic voices around her as the plane accelerated down the runway. The usual twist of angst Jane felt at the moment of take-off was multiplied tenfold. It was too late to get off, too late to change her mind. The plane carried her back in time, filled with dread.
A warm wind blew Jane’s fair hair over her face as she stepped off the aircraft. After the grey January skies of London, the bright blue dome over Tunisia was welcomed.
‘Let’s get ahead of the queue,’ said Gary as they hurried across the tarmac in a crowd of holiday makers.
In the stifling heat of the airport building, Jane fanned herself with her passport. ‘I hope I’m doing the right thing,’ she muttered, not for the first time. Every now and then the strangeness of the situation hit her and she felt a flash of nostalgia for her life before she found out she had a sister. She couldn’t shake the feeling she’d stepped into the shoes of someone more adventurous than herself.
‘You want to find your sister, don’t you?’ asked Gary.
‘Of course I do, but it’ll be weird. And I’m worried about my dad.’
‘Sam wanted you to come. And the hospice will get in touch if he gets any worse. He was insistent that you find Crystal before, well…’
Jane’s heart squeezed in pain at Gary’s unsaid words. Her father’s death was only a matter of time and the thought was unbearable. The prospect of losing her only family member was a dull ache she carried around.
‘What if Crystal doesn’t want to be found? She might not know she has a sister. She might not want to know!’
‘I bet she’ll be delighted. Now stop worrying. What would Sam say about all this negativity, hmm?’
‘He’d tell me to snap out of it and be positive.’
They arrived at their tower-block hotel in Sousse to discover they were booked into a double rather than a twin room. Jane tried to explain they weren’t a couple but the receptionist shrugged and looked blankly at her.
‘Don’t concern yourself about it, Jane darling. If there are any men around of my persuasion, I will be making it very clear you mean nothing to me.’ Gary did an exaggerated mincing walk across the lobby and Jane giggled. Gary always made her laugh and it was most welcome; it wasn’t easy to smile these days.
It was two in the morning and they were both exhausted by the time Gary opened the door to their room. ‘Seventies retro, how fabulous,’ he said, pointing at the faded orange and brown carpet, with matching bed cover and curtains; the hotel had been built in 1975 and not renovated since. They dumped their cases in the corner and agreed to get straight to sleep. ‘No funny business,’ said Gary as they climbed into bed together.
‘You’re not my type,’ she replied, kicking him.
A while later, unable to sleep, she asked if he was still awake.
‘No, I’m sleeping.’
‘What if we find Crystal but she doesn’t believe who I am?’
‘Holy cow, will you stop agonising and get some kip!’
Gary was soon mumbling at his work colleagues in his dreams while Jane lay, staring at the ceiling, anticipation coursing through her veins. Even Gary, her best friend, didn’t understand how much it meant to Jane to know she had a sibling, some family other than her father. Jane twisted away, put the pillow over her head and tried to sleep.
In the morning, they joined the rush for the last ten minutes of breakfast buffet before starting their search. All they had to go on was a letter Sam had obtained via Social Services from Crystal’s adoptive parents saying she had married a Tunisian man called Waheed Hadda, who was the manager of a hotel in Sousse. The parents hadn’t been supportive of the marriage and had lost contact with Crystal several years earlier. Sam had dropped that bombshell not long before he’d been admitted to the hospice.
‘I’m so sorry for shocking you, Jane,’ he’d said. ‘I should have told you about your half-sister a long time ago. Your mother had Crystal about a year before I met her but she couldn’t cope and the baby was put up for adoption when she was a few months old.’
Sitting by his bedside in the hospice, Jane had absorbed this in silence. Hot tears had burned in her eyes for the sibling she had never known and for the mother she could not remember.
‘When I met your mother I was such an arrogant sod I thought I could look after her, cure her demons.’ He had given a tight smile. ‘I couldn’t, of course. We had you soon after we met but she never recovered from giving Crystal up and begged me never to tell you what she had done. You were only a toddler when she took her life and I thought I should respect her wishes… but I was wrong. I realise now she wasn’t thinking straight. I should have told you.’ He looked at Jane with bleak eyes. ‘When I found out I was ill, I contacted Social Services to find out what had happened to the baby. That’s when I got the letter.’
Jane had sat back for a moment, overcome. Sam had gripped her hand. ‘I’m not going to be around for much longer and it would mean everything to me to know you’d met her, that I wasn’t leaving you on your own. You must go and find her.’
‘People will think I’m a terrible daughter, leaving you when you’re so ill.’
‘We live for ourselves, not for others, don’t we Jane?’
She nodded. Sam had always done what he wanted, and had encouraged Jane to do the same. Somehow, though, it had usually meant Jane doing what Sam wanted.
So it had been with mixed feelings that Jane had booked a week off from her admin job in a recruitment agency and asked Gary to accompany her on a cheap off-season package holiday on what felt a bit like a mad quest. Gary, of course, had been instantly enthusiastic. ‘God, I need a holiday. These bastards at my law firm think I’m some kind of slave, not a trainee.’
It had all happened so fast that it wasn’t until after they’d stuffed themselves on breakfast buffet that it sunk in neither of them had much of an idea where to start their search. On a whim, Jane asked one of the hotel staff if any of them had heard of Waheed Hadda, manager of a hotel in Sousse.
‘We don’t know,’ said Jane, elbowing Gary as he rolled his eyes and muttered that if they knew which hotel then that’s where they would have gone to ask. Her request was met with blank stares.
‘We need to hire some kind of investigator,’ said Gary. ‘We can’t go around asking random people if they’ve heard of him.’
‘I think we should ask at a few hotels first. If he’s a manager, there’s a chance someone will have heard of him. Finding an investigator will be much more difficult. We don’t know where to start, we don’t know if they’d speak English, we don’t even know if they would be legally permitted to track somebody down and—’
‘Okay, okay,’ Gary held his hands up. ‘We’ll do it your way.’
Outside the hotel a strip of signs advertising fast food and car hire stretched into the distance. Jane fastened her denim jacket against the slight winter chill as a gaggle of young women, oblivious to the cold in their flimsy dresses, hurried past along the chipped pavements. The scent of cheap-smelling perfume in their wake briefly obliterated the unmistakable aroma of dry foreign climes: jasmine, coffee and the sun-parched dust that was thrown into the air with each motorcycle that passed.
They made their way along the promenade, entering each hotel to ask about Waheed Hadda. Nobody had heard of him. Indeed, hotel workers were perplexed to have two tourists ask about a local man. The general reaction was off-hand, if not downright hostile. It was early afternoon by the time they wandered, disheartened, onto the beach to enjoy the stronger rays of the midday sun and contemplate their next move. People on genuine holidays ran about in bikinis and shorts, but with the temperature struggling to hit twenty-five degrees, few people ventured into the sea.
‘Hey, nice people, you wanna take a jet ski ride?’ A local man in a faded T-shirt and cut-off denim shorts stood in front of them. ‘I give you good price.’
‘No, thanks,’ said Jane, prompting the man to throw himself onto the sand beside her.
‘But why? Why you not want to? It’s good. Not expensive. Come on – have fun when you on holiday!’
Gary pushed his sunglasses onto his head and lay back to watch Jane cope with the sales pitch. Jane didn’t have it in her to be rude and, sure enough, she started explaining to the man.
‘We’re not here on holiday. I’m here to look for my sister.’
‘I’ve never met her. I was told she was married to a hotel manager in Sousse.’
The man’s face lit up and he placed his hand against his chest. ‘I will help you find your sister.’ He shouted across the beach to a couple of local lads who were sitting idly on an inflatable banana boat, waiting for out-of-season custom. They jumped to their feet and approached, grinning at Jane and Gary. After a staccato burst of Arabic, the first man pointed at Jane, then asked her what she knew.
‘I only know his name: Waheed Hadda.’ There was another round of Arabic, with some gesticulating.
‘This is Yousef.’ The first man stood and put his arm around the shoulders of one of the other men. ‘He knows Monsieur Hadda. He is manager of Hotel El Chems in Port El Kantaoui. Yousef’s cousin works for him on the watersports base in front of his hotel. Well, he works for Mr Hadda’s nephew, Mustafa, but it’s the same thing.’ The man leaned towards Jane as she got to her feet. ‘But Waheed is not Tunisian. He’s from Saudi.’ He raised his eyebrows and nodded as though this were of significance.
‘Where did you say his hotel was? Port something?’
‘Port El Kantaoui. It’s ten kilometres away. You find your sister, you tell her Mohammed and Yousef from Base Five in Sousse helped you.’
‘Thank you so much.’ Jane accepted the man’s outstretched hand and found herself engaged in a vigorous handshake. ‘We’ll look for her straight away.’
‘You go on a jet ski first.’
‘Well…’ Jane started to back away but the man kept hold of her hand. ‘I help you, now you help me. I spent this time talking to you. If you don’t take a ride, my boss is going to be angry with me.’
Gary handed the man thirty dinars. ‘I’m sure that’s enough to cover your time. Come on, Jane.’ He took her arm and pulled her away. Jane called out a thank you over her shoulder as they left, but the man was busy counting the money and didn’t notice.
Jane followed Gary away from the beach, her mind in a swirl. Could they really have found Crystal’s husband already? A tiny part of Jane had thought they were being delusional; amateur sleuths with no realistic possibility of locating someone on such scant information. But perhaps it wasn’t so unfeasible after all. Jane’s heart fluttered a little as she took one step further into the unknown.
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