The train was flashing through Peterborough when my phone beeped. I grabbed it eagerly – I was on my way to Edinburgh to join some friends for a weekend at the Festival, and they hadn’t yet got round to telling me where I should go when my train arrived.
My hopes weren’t too high for any helpful communication, though. The play that I had helped to write (an adaptation of Laurence Sterne’s eighteenth century novel Tristram Shandy) opened the next evening, and in recent days my phone had almost melted with the frantic pace of discussion about how we were going to make it look like the star of the show had been accidentally circumcised by an unruly sash window without actually… You get the picture.
To my surprise, the text message was from my little sister, and didn’t include any hopeful suggestions that “a bit of honey roast ham might do the trick”. It read:
“I think Mum and Dad are lost at sea.”
In other families, that might sound like exasperated hyperbole, borne out of frustration at unpunctuality or otherworldliness. In ours, it means exactly what it says.
Our parents, you see, consider time spent on land to be merely an irritating interlude between sea voyages. As immigrants from South Africa, they first arrived in the UK on a boat they had built themselves. It took them three years to build the boat, and three months to sail it from Cape Town to Falmouth, and they didn’t stay ashore more than they had to even after they had decided to settle here. One of my very earliest memories is of us sailing across the North Sea in the middle of the night. I’m trying and failing to count the stars because the boat is smashing through the waves and the constellations are in constant motion above me. I think I was four years old.
A quick call to my sister ascertained several things. No, our parents hadn’t arrived to fetch her from a friend’s house that morning as promised. No, she hadn’t been able to get any answer from them on the satellite phone they carry when at sea. No, she hadn’t had any communication at all from them since they set off north from Ramsgate five days ago. Yes, she was scared. Could I please come and get her?
I wanted to, desperately, but I couldn’t. I was trapped in a train, being swept further away from her with every passing second. I was on the last train out of London to Scotland on a Friday night, due to arrive in Edinburgh at half past midnight; even if I got off at one of the four intermediary stops, there was no chance I would be able to make the connections to get to her that night. She staying by the sea in the small village of Bosham on the south coast, and it felt like I was being irrevocably yanked northwards, away from her, divided by the efficiency and speed of the East Coast Main Line.
The train plunged onwards into an area of patchy phone signal and we had to end the call. It was getting dark outside so the interior of the carriage looked especially brightly lit and cosy against the greying sky reflected between the windows. I stood up, instinctively scanning the seats for a responsible-looking adult I could ask for help. Blank, disinterested faces turned as people avoided my gaze.
What do you do if you think your parents have drowned in the North Sea? The question bounced around my brain. Can you call 999 and ask for a nautical rescue? I even started to dial before I realised that I had no answer to the first question an emergency responder would ask me – I didn’t have any idea in which bit of the sea they were lost.
This wasn’t a normal kind of voyage they were on, where you travel from one port to another. The purpose of this trip was to meet the qualification requirements for an ocean race they wanted to enter the next year. This meant clocking up five hundred nautical miles, non-stop and out of sight of land. With customary ruthless practicality, they had simply intended to sail north-north-east from Ramsgate for 250 miles and then turn round and come back again. Since they had left five days ago, they could now be anywhere in the North Sea. As well as being the sea, with all the usual dangers that entails, the southern part of this particular stretch of water is very shallow for offshore water – only 25 metres in places. For this reason, it takes very little in the way of weather for it to develop a choppy, unpredictable swell, which is why I couldn’t make the stars stay still to count them that time. Oh, and it funnels into the English Channel at Dover, which is the busiest shipping lane in the world, with hundreds of enormous commercial ships whizzing about at all times of the day and night. I did some deep breaths. I got hiccups.
Usually, the train journey from London to Edinburgh is an experience that causes an abiding, powerful sense of calm in me. I love seeing the bridges and the rivers and the cities and the spires of England flash past, knowing that I’m travelling on the same route and in the same way as thousands, millions before me. This is the line that the Flying Scotsman and Mallard sprinted on, that Richard Hannay dodged the police on in The Thirty-Nine Steps, that Lexie and Archie argued on in the superb first series of Monarch of the Glen (don’t judge my cultural references, please). Every time, I look forward to this journey almost more than I look forward to arriving at the end of the line. But this time, it was all wrong.
Another tearful phone call from my sister catapulted me into a heightened state of panic. Because my parents turned up in this country from Africa decades ago in a small boat, I don’t have any relatives who live less than five thousand miles away who might be able to help. I briefly entertained a wild fantasy where I somehow gained access to my parents’ bank account, wired my most capable cousin the money for the air fare and then sat back while she sorted everything out, but this otherwise foolproof plan was foiled by the lack of mobile phone signal. And a few other considerations. Whenever I could, I called the boat’s satellite phone, but just got strange clicking sounds, which in my agitation I decided must be the noise it makes when at the bottom of the sea. My mind raced the train up the line, playing out all the possibilities. For the first time, I fretted about inheritance tax, and did feverish calculations on the back of my ticket about how much I now owed the government. I planned a funeral, and started practising a possible reading. I felt nervous about having to go to my sister’s next parents’ evening. Darkness fell outside. I stared at my bright, pale reflection in the window. It didn’t have any useful ideas either.
Half-past midnight at Waverley station. Tristram Shandy’s Uncle Toby met me at the station, and I had to explain why I had burst into tears as soon as I caught sight of his threadbare frock coat. We stayed up all night fiddling with the set, trying out innumerable foreskin options for the crucial sash window moment. I took charge of the plasticine moulding and ham chopping to stop myself from redialling the boat phone number every thirty seconds. At 4am, I called a non-emergency coastguard number the lighting technician had found on the internet. They said they would try and establish proper radio contact, and consider starting a preliminary search if they got no answer. The operator lingered over the fact that it had been nearly six days since we had heard from them. To me, it sounded like she was doing a special Bad News voice.
Eventually I slept, or tried to, on the kitchen floor in the cast’s flat. I opened the fridge door every few minutes for some light by which to squint at the torn corner of script with the coastguard’s phone number on it. Every time, I lost my nerve before I could press “call”. Until someone confirmed that the boat had sunk, I could still keep it afloat.
They turn up at lunchtime the next day to collect my sister, cheerily apologising for being a day and a half late. The wind had veered into the south-west, so they had done an extra loop out towards Norway to make sure they had completed the qualifying distance. They are angry with us for thinking that their late arrival could have been for any other reason.
I haven’t been back on that train line since. It will always be the place where my parents are lost at sea.