Salvage

Before she was adopted by a loving family and raised in a leafy Home Counties town, Cass Montgomery was Cass Jones. Her memories of her birth family disappeared with her name. But when her adopted family starts to break down, a way out comes in the form of a message from her lost brother, Aidan. Having Aidan back in her life is both everything she needs and nothing she expected. Who is this boy who calls himself her brother? And why is he so haunted?

Aidan's a survivor. He's survived an abusive stepfather and an uncaring mother. He's survived crowded foster homes and empty bedsits.He's survived to find Cass. If only he can make her understand what it means to be part of his family. . .

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4. Chapter 12: CASS

Camden is one of those places that teenagers are meant to like – full of noise and people, shops and stalls, clothes and music, and cheap stuff to make you feel like you’re very individual and different.

I didn’t like it. It was too crowded and dirty, too smelly and unpredictable. It made me feel small and nervous. I could easily get lost somewhere like this. I wondered why Aidan chose to live here.

I was actually grateful to have Will with me.

‘I can’t believe you won’t tell me what this is all about,’ he complained. ‘I mean, what could it be? Are you a spy?’

‘No. I am not a spy.’


‘You could be, with your government connections.’


‘I promise you, I am not a spy.’


‘Is it an internet date?’


‘No, it is not an internet date. Will, I’m not going to tell you, all right?’

‘How far in the background do you want me to stay?’

‘About five miles. Seriously, I don’t want him to know you’re there.’

‘Oh, it’s a he, is it? And not an internet date? Are we talking secret lover?’

‘No!’

‘You’ll tell me eventually,’ he said, and I vowed silently that I would never tell Will Hughes anything about Aidan. Ever.

Half an hour to go. I was calm, in control, absolutely fine – on the surface, anyway. Underneath, I felt sick, scared, and like I could quite easily forget how to breathe. Will being there helped, because there was no way I was going to let him see how nervous I was.

We arrived at the café Aidan had suggested. My plan was to find two tables – one for Will right at the back, and one for me at the front.

Disaster. The whole place was completely packed with tourists.

‘Oh no!’ I moaned. ‘What can we do?’

‘You’ll have to head him off out here,’ said Will. ‘I’ll be behind you. Completely invisible. Don’t worry.’

‘I suppose so ...’

Quite unexpectedly, he grabbed my hand, squeezed it. ‘Cass. I don’t know what this is all about, but I won’t let anything bad happen to you.’

I took my hand back, hoping I wasn’t blushing. ‘Thanks.’

I’d tied my hair back as usual that morning, and dressed in jeans and a pale blue T-shirt and a grey cardigan. Then I looked at myself in the mirror. Somehow, my normal ponytail made me look severe, off-putting; somehow my ordinary clothes seemed drab and boring. So I’d let my hair loose and I’d found a bright blue shirt that Grace had bought me for my birthday and I’d never worn before.

I wanted to look different for Aidan. I wanted to look more grown up than usual. I even took more care over my make-up than usual – well, I put on mascara, which I only do for special occasions.

Even Mum had noticed when I left the house. ‘You look lovely, Cass. Going anywhere special?’

I had my story all planned out. ‘I’m meeting some friends and we’re going up to London. There’s an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum. Our history teacher recommended it.’

‘Is Grace going? Megan?’

‘No, she’s away all week. Pony-trekking in Andalucía. And Megan doesn’t do history. It’s just people. No one you know.’

‘Oh, well, have a good time. When will you be back?’

Mum always wants to know where I am and who I am with. Normally, I hardly notice that she’s asked. That Monday I was lying and lying. ‘I’m not sure. We might see a film or something.’

‘Oh, well, ring me if you’re going to be late. I’ll come and get you from the station if you need me to.’

‘It’s OK. I’ve got taxi money.’

Will looked at his watch. ‘Five minutes to rendezvous. I’m off.’

‘Where will you be?’ Suddenly, I didn’t want him to go.

‘In the shadows, round the corners ... don’t worry. I can blend into the crowd.’

Off he went. Six foot two – so he claims – and his hair adds another two inches at least. A dark indigo hoody and green skinny jeans.

I’d asked him if he had the right clothes for surveillance when we met at the station. ‘What do you mean?’ he replied. ‘This is completely neutral for Camden! I go there all the time!’

Will was completely unblendable . . . What was I doing . . . ?

‘Cass?’


I whirled around. That must be him. Aidan. Dark hair, a slight frown on his face. He looked as confused and nervous as I felt.

‘Aidan?’ I had thought I’d remember right away. But seeing his picture had confused me. What if I only felt as though I knew him because of the photograph he’d sent?

Then he smiled. His eyes crinkled at the sides, and I could see his teeth – a gap between his front two, just like mine before I spent two years in a brace.

I knew him! I remembered him!

‘I thought you’d be inside the café,’ said Aidan. ‘I was right at the back. Then I came out looking for you.’

‘I’m sorry! I was going to come in but it looked so busy. I didn’t know if I’d find you.’

I was burbling, because I’d never actually talked to anyone who looked like Aidan. He had three piercings in each ear – a line of studs in the lobe – and a ring in his left eyebrow. The tattoo on his neck wasn’t the only one: where his lumberjack shirt was unbuttoned at the top, I could see blue ink and a tangle of dark hair.

I didn’t know what to do. I stuck my hands behind me and said – too posh, too formal – ‘It’s very nice to meet you.’

‘Don’t I get a hug?’ he asked. ‘It’s been a long time.’

‘Oh! OK!’ We had the briefest of hugs. I could feel my whole body go tense and my shoulders hunch up to my ears.

He released me. ‘It’s so good to see you,’ he said.


‘Where shall we go?’


‘Maybe the park? I know it’s cold, but it’d be good to get away from all the people. We get loads of tourists around here.’ He pointed the way and we started walking.

Momentary panic. Was he just some internet nutter? I glanced over my shoulder to try and see if Will was following us. No sign of him. Oh, Jesus, I was breaking every rule of personal safety that my parents had drummed into me: walking somewhere with someone I didn’t know; someone who was older than any of the boys I’d ever socialised with; someone who was more of a man than a boy, in fact.

But I did know him. He was Aidan. He was my brother. I was almost certain I remembered him.

We walked away from the crowds, past huge houses with pillars at the front. We crossed a road. ‘Here we go,’ said Aidan, and we were in a park. Regent’s Park. Mum and Dad had brought us here before, to have a picnic and watch a cricket match. Press versus parliamentarians. I wondered if the journalist who broke the story about Dad and Annabel had been playing. Did he even know what damage he’d done? Did he care? Or was it just a game for him, the journalistic equivalent of hitting a six?

‘There’s a café at the top of the hill,’ said Aidan, and we kept on walking.

The hill wasn’t much more than a gentle slope, and the café had tables inside and out.

I asked for a cappuccino, he ordered two. The bill came to £5.80. Aidan dug into his pocket for change, spent ages counting it in his hand.

‘I can get this,’ I said, hastily. He couldn’t earn much, working in some salvage yard.

‘I can get my sister a coffee,’ he said, handing the change over the counter.

‘Oh. Sorry.’ I hoped I hadn’t offended him.

We went and sat outside. You could see right across the park. No sign of Will anywhere.

‘So,’ said Aidan. ‘Here we are.’


‘I can’t believe it.’


‘It was so easy. Thank God you’re on Facebook.’


‘I shouldn’t be, really. After all the stuff with the papers,

Dad’s press person said I ought to make my profile more private.’

‘You’ve not got much there. No party pictures.’

‘That’s what I thought. And I don’t like being told what to do by Party workers.’

He frowned, just slightly.

‘I mean, people who work for the Conservative Party . . . you know ...’

‘Oh, right,’ he said politely, stirring his coffee. I didn’t know if he understood me or he didn’t, and whether he thought I was an idiot or the most patronising person on the planet.

‘Um, so, how’s your job?’ I asked.

‘Yeah, it’s good. I got a half-day off today. Clive was pissed off with me, but I told him I had to see my social worker.’

‘Who’s Clive?’


‘He’s my boss. He’s OK. 100 per cent straight.’


‘Oh. OK.’


‘People kind of assume he isn’t because of the shop. You know. But it’s all kosher.’

I wasn’t sure if he was talking about his boss’s religion or his sexuality or what, so I just nodded and smiled and said, ‘Oh, that’s good.’ I felt like a member of the royal family, visiting some scheme for young offenders.

He leaned forward. ‘Are they good to you? Your parents?’

How could I answer that question? It felt as though I didn’t really have parents any more – just two individuals. ‘Well, you know, it’s been a bit difficult lately. They’ve just split up.’

‘So . . . you’re not happy?’

‘Yes, well, I thought I had the perfect family and everything was fine. So you can imagine what we’re going through.’

He smiled. ‘I never had much of a perfect family. Not until now, anyway.’

I ran my hands through my hair. ‘Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean ...’

‘Don’t worry about me. Everything’s good for me at the moment. Especially finding you.’

I’m embarrassed. ‘That’s really nice of you to say so.’
‘Tell me what it’s like, growing up in a perfect family.’
I had no idea what to say. ‘I mean, we live in a nice house and I go to a good school and we have holidays in lovely places. All the middle-class trimmings.’

He laughed. ‘Pony riding? Ballet? That kind of thing?’

‘Everything.’


‘My girlfriend grew up a bit like that. She didn’t like it. Too much pressure. Everyone pushing her to go to university.’

‘There is that, yes. I always feel ... well ...’


‘Go on.’


‘Like I have to do the best I can. To thank them ... sort of.’

‘For rescuing you?’

‘That sounds awful. I don’t mean it like that.’


‘No, I get it.’


‘Aidan? Do you think it was better for me to be adopted?’

He shrugged. ‘I don’t know. It was hard, that’s for sure.’

I’m not certain if he meant it was hard to lose me, or hard to be left behind. Either could be true.


‘I don’t know much about our background,’ I say, tentatively. ‘They gave me a Life Book with photos and things but it didn’t have many details.’

‘I had one of those. It must have got lost along the way.’

‘Aidan, why didn’t you get adopted, too? Mum – I mean my mum – said that’s what she thought had happened to you.’

He looked away, staring over at a football game between two teams of little boys. I glanced over my shoulder to see if I could spot Will, but there was no sign of him.

‘That’s what she said? She never talked to you about me?’ Aidan was still looking into the distance.

‘They said the social workers thought you needed a family of your own, to give you lots of attention.’

‘Oh, right. Well, I think that was their plan. But no one wanted me.’ It sounded bleak, but he made a funny face as he said it, so we laughed together. ‘The older you get, the more difficult it is. You were lucky. One more year and you’d have been like me. Unadoptable.’

‘Oh, Aidan, that sounds awful.’

He shrugged. ‘I had some brilliant foster parents. There was one couple – Betty and Jim – Auntie Betty and Uncle Jim, I called them. They lived out near Epping Forest.’

‘Did you stay with them for long?’ I’m thinking of my Life Book, how I stayed with one couple for six weeks, another for nine months. Was that what Aidan’s whole life was like? No wonder he’d lost his Life Book.

‘I stayed with Betty and Jim for four years. From when I was eight, to just after my twelfth birthday. They were talking about adopting me, too.’

What went wrong? That’s what I want to ask, but I can’t think of a tactful way to phrase it. So, instead, I ask if he still sees them at all and he shakes his head and says no, he hasn’t seen Betty and Jim since he moved out. ‘I didn’t have a mobile.’

Not having a mobile seemed to me to be a pretty lame reason to lose touch with people who might have adopted you. What about landlines? What about letters? But Aidan was looking into the distance again, and something told me that it might be better not to ask any more. After all, these people changed their minds about adopting him. I couldn’t begin to imagine how much that must have hurt.

‘That’s a shame.’

He switched on that smile again. ‘That’s how it goes. But, anyway, tell me about you. You’re at school? You like it?’

‘I like some things about it. History. Netball. English.’

‘English was my worst subject. They hated me, the English teachers. I couldn’t do it at all.’

‘Do what?’

‘Anything they asked me to do. I didn’t get on with school. Dropped out when I was 14 or so.’

‘At least you thought about it. I never think about whether I actually want to be going to school or not, I just do whatever’s expected of me. I’m meant to be applying to Oxford next year, and I’m not even sure it’s what I want to do . . . But I’ll end up doing it ...’

Aidan whistled. ‘Oxford University?’


‘If I get in. I probably won’t.’


I was lying. I was almost guaranteed a place at Oxford. As long as I got the grades, I’d get in. But how to explain that to Aidan? He couldn’t even spell.

‘You’ll get in,’ he said. ‘Why wouldn’t you?’


‘You have to be really good.’


‘I bet you are.’


As we talked, I was trying all the time to match his face with the boy in the photos. Straining after tiny flashes of memory.

I remembered Mum plaiting my hair. I remembered her tying pale blue ribbons into it. I remembered her telling me that I’m going to see Aidan, to say goodbye.


‘Do you remember the last time we saw each other?’ I asked him.


He paused, scratched his head, looked away into the distance. ‘Do you?’


‘No. I can’t remember anything much.’


He shook his head. ‘I don’t think so,’ he said. ‘It’s all muddled up in my memory.’

 

 

 

12: AIDAN

It’s one of the most difficult conversations I’ve ever had, and I’ve had some shockers in my time.

She hasn’t got a clue. No idea what foster care is like. No idea about children’s homes. She knows nothing about Mac or Mum, or why she was adopted. She knows nothing about me. It’s like the social workers waved a wand and sent her to frigging fairyland.

She’s probably never met anyone who doesn’t live in a big house, goes on holiday to swanky hotels, or gets top marks at school.

That makes me sound bitter and jealous and full of hate, but it couldn’t be less true. I think she’s great. It’s extraordinary just looking at her. She has shiny red hair, like those elegant dogs with long floppy ears. There are a few freckles on her nose, which is straight, a smaller version of my big beak. She looks nothing like me – of course, why should she, we have different dads for a start – but the way she holds her head, the curve of her jaw, her neat little ears . . .

It’s like looking in a strange, mixed-up mirror. She’s a little bit of me and Mum and Gran – and him, of course, he’s there, too. You wouldn’t think it was possible, but it is.

Mac. The monster who hurt everyone he came across. I’m looking at Mac in my sister’s pretty face and it chills me inside, it’s actually scaring me, just that twist of her mouth, the way her eyebrows arch.

‘Aidan?’ Her voice is nothing like mine or Mum’s or – thank God – Mac’s. Her voice is posh and confident and completely her own.

We’ve been chitchatting about this and that, her school, my job, her parents. I don’t say much about Holly because I haven’t told her anything about Cass, so it feels disloyal to talk about her.

Obviously, I should have told Holly this morning, but I sort of felt a bit awkward about the whole thing, plus she might not approve of this. She might think it was against the rules, because it is, and although Holly doesn’t like rules much, she might go for this one, she might agree that you shouldn’t see your family before you’re eighteen and only with your hand held by social workers and counsellors, because Holly believes in all that stuff a lot more than I do.

I don’t think the rule is fair, because the new family have had Cass for 99 per cent of her entire life, and I only want a few hours or whatever.

Anyway, Cass just looked at her watch and I have to go and pick up Finn soon, so maybe we’re going to avoid the most difficult questions of all.

‘So, do you see much of her? Our mum?’


OK, we’re not going to avoid them all.


‘She’s . . . well, she’s got her life together now. She’s got a husband and two kids – two more kids, I mean – and she’s a hairdresser.’

Cass raises an eyebrow just slightly. Is she too posh to have a mother who cuts hair for a living? What about a brother who unpacks boxes of salvaged sleeping bags or stacks bricks in a yard?

‘Two more kids? We have more brothers? Sisters?’


Oh, shit.


‘One of each. The boy’s about eight, the girl’s younger.’

‘Wow! What are their names? Have you got a photo?’

‘Louis, the boy’s called. Louis. I think the girl is Scarlett. I’m not part of their life.’


She’s shocked.


‘But why not? I thought you were in touch with her?’

‘Yes, but she, kind of, she keeps things separate. Them and me. I just see her now and again. She’s not really like a mum to me.’

‘What is she then?’

‘She’s ... I don’t know ... someone I used to know. I see her, you know, sometimes.’

I’m sweating. This is going wrong.

‘Oh! That’s sad. I’m sorry, Aidan. I’m probably saying all the wrong things.’

‘No, don’t worry about me. My life is good! I have a great place to live – a beautiful flat. I have a girlfriend, a job. It’s really something. It makes a big difference.’

‘But you’ve had a hard time in the past.’

What does she expect? Not everyone’s life is all holidays and riding lessons.

‘Well, everyone has, you know, challenges. I’m fine now. It’s all behind me.’

‘Are you sure? I mean you’re only, what, eighteen?’

‘You grow up really quick in care. They chuck you out when you’re sixteen, and you have to cope on your own.’

‘Really? I can’t imagine that.’

‘They put me in a bedsit. All on my own. I thought I was going to go crazy.’

‘I wouldn’t cope for a week!’

She would, actually. She’s clever and she’s pretty, so she’d probably get a job easily. She knows lots of people with money, so she’d be able to get loans, sleep on their sofas. She’s got connections. I’ve got them too, but only through Holly. Good connections through Holly. I’ve got some bad connections of my own.

‘I was lucky. I met my girlfriend and she offered me a room. I was her lodger at first, but then we got together. Except we have to keep it a bit quiet because you know . . . it might affect our benefits . . . ’

Just a moment too late I remember that her dad’s a government minister. The sort that thinks that anyone on benefits is a scrounger.

‘You won’t tell, will you?’

‘Of course not.’ She seems offended. ‘So, can you tell me anything else about our mum? And my dad?’

‘He went away a long time ago,’ I say. ‘No idea what happened. I can’t remember much about him. Mum’s OK most of the time. A bit touchy. She seems happy with her bloke.’

‘Do you think she’d want to meet me? Not now, but maybe one day?’

I know she would. I’m not sure I’m ready, though.

‘Maybe. She’s unpredictable.’


‘She must be if she doesn’t want to let you know her other kids. Maybe she’d feel the same about me.’


‘Maybe,’ I lie. ‘Maybe.’

I’m sure Mum would love to introduce Cass to Louis and Scarlett. She’d be their new big sister. My phone beeps at me. Time to pick up Finn. I’m proud that I’ve remembered.


‘I’m sorry,’ I say. ‘I’ve got to be somewhere.’


‘Aidan, has this been OK? Shall we ... can we ...’


‘Yes! Of course! We’ll do it again!’ I mean it. It’s just that her questions have opened up all kinds of memories, and she’s hardly started. She doesn’t even know the questions to ask.

‘I’d like to meet your girlfriend.’


‘She’d like that, too.’

I’ll have to tell her about meeting you first, though.


We’re making our way back through the market, standing

there, saying goodbye, trying to get over the awkwardness, when it happens. A shout of excitement, and then something grabs me round the knees.

‘Aidy!’ shouts Finn. ‘Aidy! Aidy!’ He rubs his runny nose on my jeans. ‘I sawed you!’

What the hell? I look around for Holly. Why is Finn running around Camden Market on his own?

‘Finn! Where’s Mum? Why aren’t you at Poppy’s?’

‘Granny!’ he shouts. ‘Go park!’


That’s all I need, the Wicked Witch of Primrose Hill.


I hoist him up into my arms. ‘Finn,’ I say, ‘meet Auntie Cass.’

 

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