Hamphill is a large industrial town in the north of England. I was born and brought up there. I would walk to school and see the huge blast furnaces in the steelworks at the edge of town billowing filthy smoke into the surly sky. It was always grey - sunlight never seemed to penetrate the permanent cloud and when it rained, it rained black. Mothers would hang out their washing only to see it darkened hours later by soot from a dozen factories dotted around the town. I would join my pals every night in an impromptu game of football in our back lane and at weekends we would play on the rusty roundabout and cracked see-saw in the weed-infested park.
I did well at primary school and gained a scholarship to the local grammar. From there, I progressed to university, where I gained a degree in history. My father wanted me to work for Hamphill Council and my mother wanted me to teach. I desired neither. I needed to leave the doleful environs of that blighted town, so, one day, as another sullen dawn broke, I crept out of the house, caught a bus to the station and took a train to London. I left behind two distraught parents and a girl.
I should have mentioned the girl before, because she formed a significant part of my backstory. Her name was Helen Shields. She was pretty, with short blonde hair, a pleasant, feline face and a graceful figure. I met her at grammar school, and we dated for several years before she expressed a desire for us to become engaged and to wed. I failed to tell her that was anathema to me, for I wanted to live my life free of the trappings of marriage, and that was another good reason for me to quit Hamphill.
Just before I left, I sent Helen a letter, saying that I’d had the offer of an excellent job in London, and I’d had no real alternative but to take it. I said I was sorry not to tell her face-to-face, but the job offer was only open for a short while, and I had to leave immediately. She never replied.
I lived in London for twenty years. I enjoyed my time there. I got a job as a librarian in Euston, and that suited me well, for I’ve always loved the touch and feel of books. You can keep your Kindles; books are all that matters to me.
I lived a pleasant bachelor existence in a rented flat in Goldthorpe Road, Camden Town. I courted several girls, though not simultaneously, and made plenty of other friends. London is a wonderful place to live – so alive, bustling, and attractive. Living in Hamphill by comparison is like living in a coal-mine.
I lost touch with my parents – I didn’t phone, didn’t write, didn’t let them know where I was living. I know that was reprehensible of me, but in a way, I blamed them for subjecting me to twenty years of dreariness in a town I’d always loathed.
No-one knew of my whereabouts, at least I thought no-one did. I’d forgotten about my LinkedIn account – it was useful for contacting work colleagues. Anyone can search for a member and send them a message. I opened LinkedIn one evening after work and a message popped up in my inbox. It was brief and read:
Dear Mr Randolph, I found your details on LinkedIn, which is why you are receiving this message through this medium. You may not be aware of this, but your parents were killed in an automobile accident two days ago. You have my condolences, but, as their solicitor, I must request that you return to Hamphill as soon as possible to handle their affairs. They left a will and named you Executor. Regards, Thomas Hadaway.
There was a telephone number at the foot of the message, so I rang it.
‘Hello, is that Mr Hadaway?’
‘Yes. To whom am I speaking?’
‘Andrew Randolph. You sent me a message on LinkedIn.’
‘Ah, Mr Randolph. Thank you for telephoning.’
‘You said my parents were killed in a car accident. How did it happen?’
‘They were driving to Todmorden. There was a puncture and they swerved into the path of a coal-lorry – they hit it head-on.’
They must have been going to see Cousin Frank - he lives in Todmorden.
‘How soon do you want me back?’
‘The funeral is still to be arranged. You’ll need to do that as a matter of urgency.’
‘Where are my folks now?’
‘At the mortuary in the general hospital.’
‘I’ll get the ten ‘o’ clock train tomorrow morning.’
‘Perhaps you could make an appointment with my secretary to see me before the end of the week.’
‘Fine,’ I said and put down the telephone.
My first reaction, after the shock subsided a little, was a feeling of guilt. I’d abandoned them, left them to their fate without a thought for their wellbeing and now they were both dead and I had made no attempt to heal the breach between us. I cursed myself
for being a coward, a self-serving, self-seeking, egotistical swine with no thought for anyone else.
I decided the best thing I could do was to ensure they were given the best funeral I could afford and that I would devote as much time as possible to dispose of the house and all their chattels. It meant leaving the library and London, but it was the least I could do for them.
I packed a case, left a note for my landlady telling her where to send the rest of my things, rang the library to inform them I wouldn’t be coming back, and set out for the station. The train was on time and pulled into Preston at one ‘o’ clock. I caught a connection from there to Hamphill, arriving there at half-past two. I dragged my case off the train and stood on the platform of the station I’d last seen two decades ago. It was even seedier than I remembered. Pigeons pecked dumbly around the concourse, the track was covered in litter, and rain cascaded from several broken windows in the trainshed roof.
The station clock stood on a pedestal next to the waiting-room. It had stopped at half-past nine, goodness knows when. A tall, slim woman was standing in front of it. She was wearing a sort of tam-o-shanter on her head and a navy-blue raincoat belted tightly around the middle. She looked oddly familiar – it was the pose she adopted when she stood, hands out in front of her, clutching her handbag. I walked towards the station entrance. As I passed her, she turned her face towards me.
I gasped in astonishment.
‘I’m so sorry, Andrew. It’s such an awful thing to have happened, to such lovely people as well. You must be devastated.’
‘It was a great shock. I made it my business to come back here as soon as I could.’
‘I’m so glad.’
‘How did you…?’
‘Know where to find you? I’ve been in touch with Mr Hadaway. He told me you would be here about now.’
‘Have you been waiting long?’
‘Fifteen minutes, that’s all.’
‘You didn’t need to, you know.’
‘I just wanted to give you whatever support and help I could.’
‘Thank you, Helen. The train had no trolley and I’m parched. I see it’s pouring down outside. I could do with a coffee, even though the stuff in the station buffet hardly resembles that beverage. Care to join me?’
‘I’d love to.’
She put her arm through mine and led me towards the buffet which, inside, was a low-grade sewer.
I helped Helen off with her raincoat and we sat at a table sticky with some glue-like substance left by a previous customer and not wiped away. I ordered two coffees and regarded her closely. She was still pretty, but her blonde hair was no longer natural, and the
crowsfeet around her eyes were testament to the passing of twenty long years.
The waitress banged two mugs on the table and flounced away.
We sat in silence for a while, neither of us knowing what to say.
Eventually, I spoke up.
‘I’ve packed in my job. I felt I owed my folks that.’
‘Mr Hadaway told me you were a librarian, in London.’
‘You liked it there?’
‘And now you find yourself back here.’
She waved a hand in the general direction of Station Road.
‘Under the most trying circumstances,’ I said.
‘You never liked Hamphill, did you, Andrew?’
‘No. I thought they should have renamed it Hades.’
Helen smiled, a tired, worn smile.
‘I wish you’d said goodbye to me properly, instead of leaving me that letter.’
‘I’m sorry, Helen. I suppose I was too much of a coward. You never replied, so I thought you didn’t want any further communication between us.’
‘I couldn’t reply. I had no idea where you were.’
‘Of course.’ I snapped my fingers in anger. What a fool I was!
‘I went to see your mum and dad, but they didn’t know, either.’
‘They wouldn’t. I told no-one. Hadaway only found out through my LinkedIn account.’
‘Good job he did.’
‘Yes, I suppose it is.’
‘Did you marry?’ asked Helen, ‘in London?’
‘No. Did you, in Hamphill?’
‘No. The right man never came along.’
‘Nor woman,’ I said.
‘Coffee’s awful,’ said Helen, pulling a face.
‘More like gravy,’ I replied.
An elderly couple sat at the next table and the man unfolded a newspaper.
‘Have you forgiven me for what I did to you?’
‘I forgave you straight away. You wanted a better life. You couldn’t find it here. You knew I wouldn’t go to London with you. You let me down lightly, except I wish you’d said goodbye in person.’
‘You’re someone very special, Helen.’
I took her hand and brushed the back of it with my lips.
She smiled and said:
‘What’s next, Andrew?’
‘I want to go to the morgue and see my parents, then I’ve got to register the deaths down at the Town Hall and ensure they let all the relevant organisations know of my parents’ decease - Pensions and the like, then I have to go to the Co-op and arrange the funeral, then I’ve got to meet Hadaway about the will - Friday morning, that is. Then I’ve got to clear the house.’
‘You don’t have to…clear the house, I mean.’
Helen looked me straight in the eye.
‘You might choose to live there.’
She must have noticed the startled look on my face because she added:
‘Only if you wanted to.’
I was intending to go back to London at some point in time but what she said made me think.
‘What on earth could I do up here? I’d have to find a job.’
‘Your mother thought you might teach.’
‘Well, yes, I suppose so - a year at teacher’s training college and with my degree I could teach English and History.’
‘You haven’t changed all that much, Andrew. You’re still pretty much as I remember you.’
‘As are you, Helen.’
There was something unspoken between us, I could feel it – a frisson of excitement,
of longing, of missed opportunities. I could see it in the expression on her face, and I felt the same way.
‘I suppose I could make a go of it.’
‘I’d always be there to help you and support you,’ said Helen.
I looked at my watch.
‘Time to go – I need to get to the hospital.’
‘I’ll come with you. There’s a number thirteen stops outside the entrance – one due any minute.’
Helen took my hand as we walked from the station. The rain fell in torrents from a lowering sky, but, for once, it wasn’t dirty rain; it seemed to herald a new, clean, beginning.
© R.T. Hardwick