Payline by Heather Magruder, Baker Prize English Prose winner 2011


Charlie sits, hunched, on a bench between the arcade and the pebbled shore. Behind him, a gaggle of girls giggles out, their pitch in harmony with the tinkly music and sounds of one-armed bandits in play. Coins roll down the insides of the machines, become losers’ money. Charlie knows the fleeting thrill of the play, the pull on the arm, the delight as the columns whirl with hope, suspended overhead. He knows the clenching of the gut as the columns lower, lower, lower, then settle, one-two-three. If the game is lost, the player must decide if the risk is worth playing again.
Charlie glances up the street, inland. He shifts his feet inside his black leather shoes. Does his jacket hide the coffee stain on his shirt? Grey-blue to match his eyes, Yves St. Laurent.
Largs is packed. It was the same on Cumbrae as he made his way to the ferry – loud children stuffing in ice creams, washing them down with Irn Brus. Charlie can’t fathom why it’s like this on a Monday, but then Charlie has never known the rhythm of children, the sway of school holidays. He thinks of this as he looks south down the firth; he thinks these swarms of children will make the woman he’s waiting for harder to spot. They also camouflage him.
Charlie wants to see her first no matter which way she comes – along the front towards him, from the ferry, from the top of the village; even if she comes from behind the arcade, she will have to cross the street in front of him. Grace. Her name whirls in his head. He has not yet tested it on his lips, felt it rise from his throat, vibrating, filling his mouth, then floating out from him into the world. This is what Grace did: came from him, unbidden, unknown, before she was taken away.
He’d thought it would be himself who would be away, forty-one years ago, when he came across the water and up the firth and in along the Clyde to Glasgow. He earned good marks in his course, gathered a girl by his side. The pair of them drank pints of heavy in the pubs, pointed to places on the map of the world that they might go when she was a fully qualified nurse and he an engineer. Less than a year it took them, to land in separate places, their baby settling with a couple on the other side of the country. Later, he landed a job at Hunterston, on the mainland, at least.
Even that is finished now, and himself tucked back in to his dead parents’ house whilst his daughter has been out in the world, away over Cumbrae and all Scotland’s westernmost isles, right on to America, so her letter said. He’s never known where her mother went.
He straightens his spine, there on the bench.
Any moment now, Grace will complete her journey back to him.
The village surges. Charlie’s belly rolls. His heart thumps. When was he last this aware? His skin tingles. Charlie presses his hands on his thighs, pulls in his belly.
He recalls his own father, decades ago, outside the arcade, a special Saturday when they’d gone the opposite direction of the Glaswegians. He recalls his father’s callused fingers pressing coins into Charlie’s small, smooth-skinned hand. He recalls the cigarette-rough of the old man’s voice, saying, “That’s all you get.”
“Hold your winnings,” he said. “Only fools go in again.”
Charlie could rise now, slip away. He smoothes his trousers, presses back his shoulders.
He sees her, striding down from the top of the village, auburn hair flowing behind her like a wake. The village stills. Everything falls away – the girls giggling, the ferry churning, the slot machines twirling.
Charlie watches her pass on the opposite side of the street, stands to move to her, the moment suspended. Grace.
Charlie steps across the street. Grace has stopped. She turns.
Charlie stops, inches from her, this girl, this woman, his daughter.
“Grace.” Charlie leans, hand extended, waiting for her hand to land in his.