Julie was lonely, very lonely. It had been a traumatic weekend as the night before she had told her boyfriend that she would no longer marry him. He had taken it so badly with a mixture of confusion and anger. He had tried to change her mind but it had only made things worse. Now, here she was at the station, her sleeping bag in its blue nylon duffle resting on her lap. She was very conscious that she looked a bit scruffy, Her hair had the appearance of a scarecrow, and her shirt was distinctly sniffy in places you would rather not go. Her eyes looked tired and bloodshot. What she would not give for a shower and a place to lie down. She wondered what passers-by thought of her dejected figure if, that is, they even noticed, No longer did she enjoy the comfort of Dave’s parents’ fine home, but only a cold and draughty seat in this busy station. Was she imagining it or was everyone else walking in couples. Why did everyone seem so happy, so attached? As many passed by, hand-in-hand, she was reminded that she was now unattached. Or were they also hiding hurt and disappointment? She realised that you could never tell what was really going on in peoples’ lives, just as her friends had not realised the tensions that existed between her and Dave. Such observations must be arising from her emotional sensitivities. Her train back to Cambridge was not for another two hours, and she longed for the time to pass quickly so that she could once more be back in familiar surroundings and sink herself into the distraction of her studies. She began to think about the things that had brought her to this final and irreversibly decision: his inability to talk about things that really mattered, his untidiness, his thoughtlessness when she was in need of comfort, and his lack of interest in the things that mattered to her. In a moment of insight it struck her that it was now time to move on. As they say, tomorrow is another day.
There were just twenty boys to look after but she counted only nineteen after their afternoon of snowboarding. This was every tutor’s nightmare, and Rachel wondered how it could possibly have happened as she had been so careful, giving them clear warnings not to go off on their own, and to keep her always in sight. She shivered as the implications of what had taken place assaulted her consciousness. Her brief training had not prepared her for this, concentrating exclusively on the matter of snowboarding technique. She zipped her anorak high up to her throat, and lifted her snow goggles to the top of her head so that she might see around her more clearly. The atmosphere was clear and the surrounding trees were at least three hundred meters away, apart from the downward slope where there were none. She had, of course, called a role and had identified the missing child as Owen Davies, age eleven, who was normally obedient and not given to recklessness. In fact, he was placid and inoffensive in the extreme. She might of expected some of the others to take off, but not Owen Davies. The fact that he had been wearing a disturbingly bright red snowsuit made it clear that he must be some distance away, or perhaps he was lying injured and out of sight in some hollow in the ski slope. She dare not organise the other boys to carry out a search; further disappearances might result, and there was no other adult present to help. Rachel realised that it had been a mistake to take such a large group to the mountain on her own. She should have refused, but as they say ‘hindsight is a wonderful thing’.
Surely the wretched boy could not be far away. She began to think how long it had been since she last saw him, but the dreadful fact was that she could not remember every being conscious of his presence in the group. Had he ever been here? Could he be dreaming away in their hostel? It would be quite in character. She could soon find the answer to that by making a phone call on her mobile. She had to wait what seemed an endless time for the answer – no, he was not in his room, nor anywhere else on the premises. Reluctantly she had to admit that the problem need the help of others, so that a thorough search could be made, and as quickly as possible.
A party of men arrived carrying poles to probe the snow in places where it was deep, and there was a dog which seemed eager to be about its business. It ran off up the slope, and disappeared into the distant trees, quietly. The men fanned out and walked in a straight line starting at the bottom of the ski run, those at the extreme ends entering the forest. After about five minutes the dog barked loudly ahead of them and two of the men made off to where the sound had come from. Rachel’s hopes rose, and with great relief she received the message that the missing boy had been found, uninsured but frightened by the disorientation that had caused his removal from the party. Of course, questions would still be asked; maybe there would be a formal enquiry. She resolved that the role of tour guide was not for her.
Alistair had seen this coming. It wasn’t easy being a politician. There was always someone out there wanting to dig the dirt and bring you down. There was always someone prying into your past and your private life. It was even worse when you were the Prime Minister. Sometimes he wished that he could just ‘spend more time with the family’, but the system wouldn’t let him. He certainly had done his best to obey the rules but there were so many of them; there were bound to be those he did not know about. It really wasn’t fair. The papers were his worst nightmare. Where would they go next? What lay around the increasing number of corners in his life? When he had led the party to victory in the election everything seemed so delightfully simple. Then he had possessed a full head of shiny black hair and there had been a spring in his step. He had been full of vibrant energy. His visions had been clear. The adulation of his colleagues in the party had filled him with pride. But now seven years later…
Of course resignation was an impossibility. It would send clear signals that he was as guilty as hell. He just had to keep his nerve and wait for the storm to pass. He was not the only one under scrutiny; James and Margaret were as well. Alistair did not know the truths of their financial dealings. Certainly no one had made any revelations to him. Tight lips were the order of the day. It might be very difficult to stay confident as that fellow Baines wanted to interview him on his Saturday morning chat show. He really could not refuse. Then there was ‘Time for Questions’ when the public would have a go at him. What was it somebody said – ‘all political careers end in failure’. Was this to be his destiny?
He opened his laptop and began to write a summary of what he would say when he could no longer avoid making a statement to the press. It had to come over as forthright, positive, without shame, and emphasise that he wanted to concentrate on doing his job without the distraction of this senseless witch-hunt. Of course he started from a position of weakness – no smoke without fire, and all that. People would be suspicious and he had to disprove those presumptions of guilt. He straightened his tie which seemed to have drooped in mimicry of his own depression.
The phone rang. Should he answer it? Was this the beginning of the end?