Copyright © Belinda Bennett
Published by BB Digital 2017
All rights reserved by the author. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the written consent of the Publisher, except where permitted by law.
Hired Hands is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and events either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or events is entirely coincidental/fictitious.
This is it. I draw in my last lungful of stale air and hold my breath.
The single step that carries me beyond the perimeter wall seems insignificant, almost weightless. It doesn’t outwardly convey the enormity of the moment my body passes from one world into the real world. Perhaps it is because I did not think this day would ever come; that I’d actually get to walk beyond the solid brick and barbed wire fortifications that contained me for more years than I thought I could possibly survive. Maybe, my senses have become so immune to taste, slowly destroyed by wan horseshit Her Majesty’s Prison Service called food, that it is impossible for me to savour the mind blowing scent of freedom. Or perhaps it is because, deep down, I don’t really think I deserve this day; the first day of the rest of my life.
I can’t explain exactly how I’m feeling, because I truly don’t know. It is the moment I have waited more than half a lifetime for and you’d think I’d be a bag of expectant nerves, primed to turn cabin fever on its head. You’d imagine I’d be filled with anticipation and bursting to take in everything that passes my wide, vacant-looking eyes. But I am not. I am numb.
Freedom is such an over-used word, I think. Who, in this day and age, is really free? Nobody is free from responsibility, are they? Except, of course, those who have been totally stripped of their birthright to live among their peers; people who, for whatever reason, have been ripped from the aching bosom of their families or dragged, kicking and screaming, away from their piss-stained turf on rat infested streets. These are the nobodies, the sub-humans, the immoral minority – crooks and vagabonds – who are held by force, incarcerated, in state sponsored hellholes. What is ‘responsibility’ to them? A distant goal that they never quite achieved but hope beyond hope will one day be within sniffing distance again.
On this day, the day that every tensed sinew and ounce of my sallow flesh has craved, prayed for, even begged for, I don’t feel up to ‘responsibility’. Not yet. Here I am, on my way to a whole new life, the life I should have lived twenty years ago, and I’m almost ungrateful. I feel like a bird-of-paradise that has been caged for so long it is too afraid to take flight when the coop’s wire door is eventually left ajar. Fear of the unknown can betroth you to the fear of the familiar. Trust me.
‘Got someone special waiting for you, Love?’ the taxi driver harks over his shoulder in a thick Yorkshire accent. Nosy git.
I am so lost in my thoughts, I wasn’t paying much attention to where I was.
‘Just Mum and Dad,’ I reply rather reluctantly, having to accept that the abstract green and grey shapes I dare only glimpse from the corner of one eye are parts of the built environment whizzing by. I really am on my way home. I feel like punching myself full on in the face for not being thankful. Ungrateful bitch!
It was a mistake to let Margie Baker, my probation officer, organise the transport home. I would have preferred to have have taken a taxi from the prison gates to her office and to then have caught a train and walked the rest of the route. I suppose I would have felt more anonymous that way. Perhaps ‘normal’ even.
I guess, even I, a dependable ‘trustee’ for the best part of fifteen years (after the system had broken me), couldn’t be relied upon to make it from A to B without being tempted to abscond in an entirely different direction – lured by the stinking, sinful bright lights of King’s Cross or the pure, rural isolation of the Scottish Highlands. The thought had crossed my mind. At least that way, nobody would know who I really was or anything about my past. It wouldn’t be like that at home.
I am not sure if Mum and Dad actually want me home. That’s the truth. For all I know I could be sent packing the moment I darken their doorstep. I haven’t seen them for twenty years, three weeks and four days (I’ve been counting) – not since a stern-faced old prune of a judge at the Old Bailey sentenced me to life and as near as damn it threw away they key. They were ‘ashamed’ of me, they said. ‘How could our Mandy do such a thing?’ That’s what they told me, before saying they wouldn’t be visiting me in prison again. It was ‘all too much’, I can’t quite forget Mum snivelling into a man-sized tissue.
I half expected them to relent after a month or so – especially after reading the letters I wrote them every day. But I never saw them after that first day. Not even once. They never even replied to my letters.
I’ve only got Margie’s word for it that they have agreed to let me come home. I suppose helping to heal old, deep-seated family wounds is cheaper – and easier – than having to find me my own flat, which, in all honesty, I would have preferred given I’m two months off my thirty-seventh birthday. Blimey, Margie must have clapped her hands with delight: ‘Retired former professionals with not so much as a parking ticket between them.’ She must have thought she’d hit the jackpot with me.
I obviously can’t be trusted to live on my own, even though living with my parents is going to be worse than bunking up with total strangers. Hell, they are total strangers! I can barely remember them.
I don’t even recognise where I am. I could be in a foreign country for all I know. I am used to looking at peeling paint on four walls that slowly closed in on me before becoming my entire, safe world. Yes, safe.You may not believe it, but I felt ‘safe’ in prison. I knew what to expect there. I’d been there long enough to know the score and how to avoid trouble. I learned how to blend into my surroundings; to be invisible.
‘How far along Tucker’s Lane is your parents’ turning?’
Shit! I haven’t got a clue – I can’t remember.
‘Um, I’m not sure…’ I mumble, deliberately attempting to sound as though I’m trying to recall every inch of the route from twenty years ago.
The taxi driver flashes me a sympathetic glance in his rear view mirror. ‘Long time, huh?’
‘How could you tell?’ I can hear myself asking, but I am not sure why. It’s none of his business.
‘Oh, you’ve got that look. I’ve seen it before.’ He sounds confident, knowledgeable – like driving lifers home from jail is an every-day occurrence. Perhaps, for him, it is.
I feel less anxious than I thought I’d be in a male’s company. When I first realised it was a man behind the wheel, I’d hesitated before shutting the cab door. I’d allowed one foot to linger on sweating Tarmac before cautiously drawing it towards me and thinking What the hell. I wasn’t one hundred per cent sure I’d be able to relax. Don’t get me wrong, I am not ‘comfortable’ now; I’m just not scared anymore.
‘Look?’ I ask.
‘Yes, you all look the same – pretty damned vacant most of the time,’ he says. ‘Some, I think, are terrified at the prospect of getting their lives back. Maybe, they don’t want the same kind of life they left behind. Others, like you, look as though they are not sure if they can start over. But you’ll be fine. Just you see.’
His voice is irrationally kind of soothing. And his deep set brown eyes, which I can see in the mirror, look charitable and not at all judgemental. I am quite taken aback that he hasn’t asked the obvious: ‘What were you ‘in’ for?’ Not that I’d tell him, of course. Well, not the truth. He’d be judgemental then, for sure.
He raises his head and tilts it at a forty degree angle and, for the first time, I can see his mouth open and close as he speaks. I am looking at the mirror and can tell he is clean shaven, slightly bronzed, like he’s just come back from holiday, with wide, plump lips and off-white teeth. I’m guessing he is in his forties, but I could be wrong. The only men I’ve seen for more than half of my life have been in uniform and they all looked the same. Mean.
‘The sat nav says we are about three miles away,’ the driver says. ‘I gather from the Probation Service that your parents’ house is down a half-mile track. Sounds rather grand. I usually find myself dropping ex-prisoners off in the middle of run-down council estates or town centres. It’s not often I get to take a trip out into the countryside.’
I stifle a cough. More like the back of beyond! I want to recognise the scenery I am now tentatively glancing at, but I don’t. Fields parched by a long, hot summer and random herds of cows straying perilously close to barely-there hedgerows don’t look dissimilar to scenes I’ve seen on TV. Christ, the countryside is boring.
I hope everything is going to work out at Mum and Dad’s, because life’s going to be unbearable if we can’t rub along. The thought of being stuck out in the middle of nowhere with two aged relatives who’ve probably passed me off as dead for years is dire. Margie says going home will give me a good grounding and that, in six months or so, it will have provided me with the springboard I need to more independent living, perhaps in a flat somewhere. I hope so. I prefer my own company.
Not because I want to, but because I have to, I am trying to picture what ‘home’ looks like. It was so long ago that any image creeping into my mind is tinged with a layer of graininess that makes it hard to decipher. I’ve never totally forgotten my bedroom, although I can’t be sure if my memory of it today is the same as it was the day the police came and dragged me away.
I remember, as a thick set policeman roughly handcuffed my hands behind my back and Mum shouted ‘Is that really necessary?’, I glanced back. I looked over my shoulder, at the soft divan bed that just a few minutes before I had been sound asleep in and at the poster above my pink velvet headboard of the Backstreet Boys. Or was it a poster of Take That, or Westlife? I am almost certain it was the Backstreet Boys because I definitely remember having a massive crush on Brian Littrell. The infatuation was a seminal phase in my mid-teens.
Will everything be exactly as it was then, or would Mum and Dad have removed every trace of me from their world in the years that followed my conviction? I guess I am about to find out. I don’t suppose this is going to be a happy reunion, although I’d like it to be. I figure, having not heard from them for so long, that they are taking me in much as an animal lover would a stray cat and out of a sense of duty. It’s their fault I exist, after all.
‘This is the turning, Love. You’re almost home,’ the driver tells me. I am glad, because I haven’t got a clue where ‘home’ is. I am amazed, after all this time, that it is still there. I am one of the lucky ones, I know that. I should be feeling elated, grateful from the bottom of my heart. Instead, I feel nothing – except, maybe, cheated. Why didn’t my parents stand by me? Why didn’t they believe me?
I can hear tyres scuff in baked dirt behind me as I cast my eyes adrift from their anchor on the ground and look up at ‘home’. I won’t be needing the card the taxi driver gave me with his firm’s number on, and I was going to tell him that when he stuffed it in my palm. He must have realised that I wasn’t going to take it from his outstretched hand when I didn’t even look at him. I’ve poked it through a gap in the top of the big, clear Her Majesty’s Prison bag that contains everything I own. I’ll bin it when I unpack. Just for now, for a minute, I want to savour the sight in front of me.
With its sloping roof at a gentle twenty-five degree angle and distinct 1970s design, ‘home’ looks very much like an over-sized chalet. Not quite as quaint as a doll’s house or as grand as something colonial, but still oozing a certain charm that I am sure I marvelled at as a child. Whitewashed walls, partly concealed by rampant common ivy, and a black door flanked by pale amber rose bushes in full, abundant bloom, have taken my breath away. I close my eyes and re-open them, as if to be doubly certain that I am actually seeing what I am seeing. It is a heart-pounding moment.
I do remember it! The day we moved in, I must have been about six or seven, I thought it was a palace – it seemed enormous. I can picture myself running from room to room, shouting at the top of my voice that I am a princess. And, back then, in that moment, I really thought I was; I felt ‘special’. I could tell, just by the way they spoke about it, that my parents were hopelessly in love with the place. It was the dream house they had worked so hard for.
It doesn’t look all that much like a palace now, I have to admit. The paint is peeling on the front door, the exposed wood damp and rotting, and I can see that the garden has not been tended for a long while. I guess, Mum and Dad are not as young as they used to be. Mum is 70 and Dad is 73. Who knows how the years have treated them. I’ve been so busy thinking about myself that I haven’t paused for a minute to think about them. They could be frail or infirm. God forbid, one of them could even be dead.
I’m nervous now, because I realise that today is as big a day for them as it is for me. A hard day. One that, perhaps, they never anticipated or even wanted. A day that has been thrust upon them by a creaking system that is so starved of cash that building bridges is simpler than finding a home to rent. But it is a day that could be a beginning. A fresh start for the whole family, for all of us.
A flash of anticipation flickers across Daniel Jones’ bronzed face like a Mexican Wave the moment he hears the telephone ring.
‘Danielle!’ he calls out.
A slightly-built woman with shoulder-length, mousy-brown hair and pointed features hurries to lift the receiver as if she has been on standby for the command. As she elevates the chunky, dated handset to an ear she’s careful not to take her eyes off Daniel. And he fixes his gaze on her mouth. Careful what you say, he’s thinking – and she can read his mind.
‘Oh, Claudia – it’s you.’ She nods at Daniel and he returns the gesture, rather solemnly.
He had been anticipating the call and, in any other circumstances, would have been delighted by it. In fact, it would have been cause for a considerable celebration. Champagne would have been on ice within minutes and tenderised rump steak ready to pop under the grill. Instead he looks like an undertaker, grim-faced and austere. The fact that there would be no celebration was cause for concern.
‘Thank you very much, Claudia. Unfortunately, my husband and I will not be able to take the jobs after all. Slight change of plan.’ Danielle sounds genuinely sorry, her tone of voice full of remorse. But she’s not sorry. She’s relieved.
Claudia Burton was perfect in every way; not too demanding, flamboyantly welcoming and ultimately trusting. She and husband John enjoyed a quiet life, cosseted in their country retreat like fragile Royal Doulton figurines preserved in bubble wrap. Surrounded by rolling pastures and very few near neighbours, their country pile was a real find. Although their considerable bank balance afforded them homes in London and the South of France, it was in Dorset that they preferred to spend most of their time. In fact, these days, all of their time.
Not because they necessarily needed it, but just because they could, they liked to employ staff to be at their beck and call. It gave them a sense of being pampered in old age and ensured the neatly presented grounds that flanked the driveway to their generously proportioned former manor house stayed that way. They were manicured to a standard that wouldn’t look out of place among winners at the Chelsea Flower Show. Hired help was a luxury they had promised themselves when they planned their retirement.
The Burtons were never fussy types, and this was reflected in the zero turnover of staff in their household for a considerable number of years. However, according to their advertisement in The Country Gentleman magazine, ill health had forced the departure of their long-time, live-in housekeeper and groundsman. The husband and wife team, it said, had been ‘part of the family’ and a ‘similar couple’ was being sought to replace them. One had to be a ‘good cook’ while the other ‘must be an accomplished gardener’.
Danielle had spotted the prominently displayed advertisement first but felt Dorset was outside of her comfort zone, preferring not to stray too far from her home county of Cornwall. That’s why she didn’t mention it to Daniel. But, just a few hours after she’d wedged the glossy monthly into the top of a filthy, overflowing pedal bin, he’d spotted it and ripped it away from the jagged clutches of tin lids and stench of rotten fruit.
‘You didn’t tell me about this one,’ he said, flying off the handle and shoving the advertisement under her nose.
She’d tried to feign ignorance, glaring up at him with genuine-looking shock etched across her otherwise plain face and whispering, ‘I must have missed that one.’ She could tell by the way that his eyes seemed to be boring into the back of her head that he didn’t believe her and she made a mental note to be more careful next time.
Within an hour Daniel knew everything he needed to know about the Burtons to be sure they would be perfect employers.
‘They are in their early seventies. He’s a retired jeweller and she’s a rather reclusive former model. They don’t appear to entertain very often and they live in the back of beyond,’ he was saying. ‘The nearest town is Bridport – from what I can gather not the pinnacle of high society – so I can’t imagine very many friends travelling down from the big smoke for catch-ups. They are perfect for us, can’t you see? It’s easy money.’
Perfect for you, more like, Danielle had wanted to say. Instead she held her tongue, acknowledging to herself that things had been good between them for so long that she could only just remember the bad times. She never wanted a repeat of those sickening episodes. Just the thought of them made her want to curl up in a ball and tuck herself away somewhere out of sight, somewhere she could remain hidden from his black moods and perverted, violent tantrums.
There was never any doubt that they would get an interview. With their impeccable references that nobody would ever be able to check, they knew the jobs were as good as theirs before they had even clapped eyes on the Burtons. In fact, Daniel had already started packing.
John was ‘at the doctor’s’ when Claudia interviewed them. ‘He’s got a dicky heart,’ she revealed. A model hostess, she had welcomed them in through a back door to the kitchen and immediately offered them a ‘tipple of sherry’. ‘I hope it’s not too early for you,’ she’d gushed.
Although obviously no youngster, Claudia still exhibited subtle signs of youth that often vacate women in their mid-fifties. She seemed to walk with a spring in her step and her neatly brushed bobbed hair was glossy and thick, belying her advanced age. Although clearly dyed brown, it swayed when she moved and made Daniel think that it was only that way because she made regular trips to a high-end hairdresser.
Daniel was impressed, gently swiping a glass from her hand a split second after he first clapped eyes on her beaming face. He had expected a cup of tea, if anything at all. Danielle took to her instantly too, struck by her warmth and charm – and especially the heavy-set gold chain that was sitting like a fallen halo around her neck. It was mesmerisingly dazzling.
‘Now, tell me all about yourselves,’ Claudia had said, beckoning them with a pat on a cushion to join her on a large, cream-coloured leather sofa that dominated a neutral themed occasional room off the oak-finished kitchen. She wagged a Biro between two fingers and had a notepad rested on her lap, but even she knew she was very unlikely to use them. Note-taking wasn’t her forte and, if truth be told, neither was interviewing. Like the chinks of twenty-four carat wealth rested on her collar bone, they were mere props. And it was tragically obvious.
Danielle let Daniel do the talking. He knew what to say – or what not to say.
‘We’ve been ‘in service’, as it were, for as long as we’ve been married, haven’t we Darling?’ He squeezed Daniel’s hand and she was careful not to let Claudia see her almost immediately draw away from him. She thoughtfully nodded and forced a smile, cleverly detracting attention away from the flinch.
‘My wife does the laundry, cooking and cleaning. She especially enjoys preparing nutritious, home-cooked meals and tries, whenever possible, to source the ingredients locally.’ Daniel added that a ‘slap up Sunday roast is always on the menu’ and ‘a full English breakfast never a problem’. He added, ‘And, of course, we team up for special occasions – such as when our employers are entertaining.’
Claudia looked slightly embarrassed as she let out an audible titter. ‘We very rarely ‘entertain’, as you say,’ she imparted. ‘In fact, I can’t remember the last time we had guests round for dinner.’
Danielle sensed her husband’s delight. If Claudia had been blind, Daniel would be rubbing his hands with glee right in front of her. If she’d enquired about the sound, he would have passed it off as an itch. He was so inebriated by her words that his excitement was getting the better of him; he could barely sit still. His shuffling movements made Daniel feel anxious and, if she wasn’t in the situation she was in, she may have been tempted to gently nudge him.
‘My husband is the gardener among us. I’m afraid, I’m utterly useless outdoors,’ Danielle found herself saying in a bid to quell Daniel’s nervous energy. ‘He’s a genius when it comes to flowers.’
‘Have you much experience with roses?’ Claudia asked, knowing full well she was being very specific.
‘Oh, yes, definitely. In fact, roses are one of my specialties,’ Daniel told her. The fact that he couldn’t tell a Damask from a Golden Celebration was something he was certain Claudia would never discover.
‘Only my husband and I have two rose gardens, one to the left of our front lawn and the other to the right of the rear lawn. We have spent years watching them grow to their present, splendid state and are extremely fond of them. Alan, our previous gardener, worked morning, noon and night to create them. We would very much like to enlarge both the gardens using cuttings from the existing plants. Do you think you could do that?’ Claudia almost pleaded.
‘Certainly. It would be an honour,’ Daniel lied.
‘Now, I know you have both been working in Cornwall for many years and that, sadly, your employer, Mrs Jacobs, recently died. How thoughtful that she wrote you such a glowing and in-depth reference in spite of her failing health. I take it, you are free to start work almost immediately?’
She gestured with her head towards a large picture window, adding, ‘The staff accommodation is an eco lodge located to the far side of the rear rose garden. It’s fairly comfortable with all mod cons.’
Claudia’s eyes scanned the two candidates beside her, almost imploring them to want to work for her. It was as though she couldn’t bear to do her own washing up and laundry for another day. It was as if she was telling herself I’ve found them.
‘In one week,’ Daniel assured her.
For the first time since they all sat down, Claudia appeared to write something in her notebook. Her ‘candidates’ couldn’t see what she’d written because she was holding the notepad at an angle that deliberately tilted towards her, but it was a one-word note to herself – ‘Bingo!’ After countless interviews with countless couples, she’d finally found a pair she felt comfortable with.
‘If it is all right with you, I will talk things over with my husband and give you a call tomorrow,’ she said. ‘I won’t trouble you tonight – you’ve got a long journey ahead of you.’
‘That’s fine,’ Daniel assured her, taking a sip of sherry and relishing the expensive taste it left in his arid mouth.
Their next jobs were in the bag he was thinking as Claudia showed them back through the enormous kitchen, passing a marble topped island that ran almost the entire length of the room. Daniel could already picture himself there, making himself at home and doing as little as he could possibly get away with while charming the Burtons into heaping praise on him with cleverly constructed distractions.
Danielle, he sensed, was equally taken with the place. It oozed the kind of rural charm that she had missed. Although not small, with probably four bedrooms, it was more of a cottage than the Swiss-style mansion they had called home for longer than she cared to remember. It was a reminder of her real home. She’s sold on it, Daniel was sure.
It was only as they were about to leave the house from the door they came in that Claudia thought to mention it. Why she hadn’t said something sooner was a complete mystery. Ever so casually, in the middle of parting pleasantries, she had slipped it into the conversation. ‘I hope you aren’t allergic to teenagers.’
Daniel instantly flashed Danielle a black, knowing look.
‘Teenagers? You didn’t say anything about children.’
‘Oh, Mr Jones, they aren’t mine – they’re our grandchildren. Didn’t I tell you, they live with us?’
‘No, you didn’t mention them at all.’ Underneath the veneer of politeness, he was secretly seething. If the advertisement had mentioned them he would have followed Danielle’s lead and stuffed the the magazine back in the bin. What a waste of time. Another dead end. He begrudged the sixty pounds in fuel it had cost them to fill up the old Jag for the journey.
Before the door closed behind them, Danielle knew she would never see Claudia again while Claudia was certain she had found the perfect couple she had so desperately been looking for.
Later, when she was describing them to her husband, Claudia said, ‘John, they were heaven-sent. Salt of the earth types – just what we have been looking for. I know Judith and Alan will be hard acts to follow, and there’s something about the husband that makes me think he’s a bit of a rough diamond, but, all in all, I don’t think we can go wrong with this pair.’
John looked almost disinterested in what his wife was saying for the best part, fumbling with compartments in a white plastic pill box on a highly polished dining table, but his ears seemed to prick up when she mentioned Daniel. ‘Is he any good with roses, that’s all I want to know?’
‘It’s his specialty, my dear,’ Claudia delighted in telling him as she passed him a glass of water.
He popped a handful of pills in his mouth and swilled them down his scrawny neck with one, mammoth gulp. ‘Mmm, and what did you say they are called?’
‘Daniel and Danielle Jones.’
‘Sounds very odd to me. Can you tell which one is which?’
Claudia laughed, ‘Now you’re being a cantankerous old git!’
There was no mistaking them and, when John saw them, he would know why. Danielle was the proverbial wilting wallflower while Daniel, with his olive complexion and loose, dark curls, had a touch of the exotic about him. His eyes were wide, with small but piercing black pupils, and that was what connoted the air of ‘roughness’ that had struck her. Yes, it was his eyes that had brought him down a peg or two in her estimation. They were the weakness that, if he let his guard down, would betray the mask of respectability that he so was cock sure would never slip.
Although Daniel can’t hear exactly what Claudia is saying, he can guess. ‘Oh, but why?’ and ‘Is there anything John and I can do that would change your minds?’ Danielle, he thinks, is doing a grand job at deflecting her pleas.
‘We’re ever so sorry to have wasted your time, Claudia,’ she says. ‘If we’d known we were going to get the position on the Isles of Scilly, we wouldn’t have put you to all that trouble. It truly is our dream job, in the most perfect location, and we simply can’t turn it down. St Mary’s has always been our most favorite place on the planet.’
After a few more seconds of thinly veiled pleading from Claudia and finally an admission of defeat as she signals the end the call, Danielle adds, ‘Thank you for being so understanding. I hope you find a suitable couple soon. Goodbye.’
She carefully returns the receiver to its base, not forgetting to give it a good dust with the sleeve of the faded brown cardigan she’s wearing. ‘What now?’ she says deliberately not turning around to face Daniel. She can sense his closeness and it makes her feel uncomfortable as she tucks a wayward clump of greasy hair behind an ear.
‘We keep looking,’ he replies in a determined voice.
‘And what if we can’t find somewhere? What then?’
‘We will,’ he assures her. ‘We’ve got to. We can’t still be here at the end of the summer. We’ve got to go.’
The end of the summer was less a month away, hardly any time at all. And in those few, short weeks they had to find the right job for them and get it. Danielle couldn’t help but think they’d waited a little too long before moving on, that they’d lingered in one place light years after it had lost its appeal. They’d pushed their luck further than they’d ever dreamed possible. Now they were running out of time.
‘Honest, hardworking couple seek live-in work. Competent in cooking, cleaning, gardening, general maintenance, DIY, etc. Extensive previous experience of working in family homes, most recently with an elderly couple. Immediate start. References available.’
‘Joan, look at this ad. This couple would be ideal.’ Jeff Pearce uses his index finger to stab at a cheaply bought tract of lineage in the classified section of The Truro Times.
His wife sidles up beside him in the lounge of their rambling farmhouse. She pops a pair of spectacles on the end of her heavily powdered nose and starts reading, pursing her lips. The newspaper is spread across a Porada Infinity table that looks ridiculously too luxurious and modern to be in a glorified barn and she rests her elbows on the glass while she pores over every word.
‘What do you think?’ her husband asks impatiently. ‘Shall I drop them a line – there’s a box number?’
‘Hang on, Jeff. I haven’t finished reading it yet.’
Jeff leaves her side to stretch his legs, knowing full well Joan will take about one minute to read the advertisement, a further minute to digest what she has read and then at least another ten minutes to form an opinion which she will, of course, keep to herself. She would tease him for hours before engaging in any form of discussion about the topic. Joan wasn’t one for doing anything in a hurry. He’d probably have to wait until the evening for her to give him any sort of concrete response.
Joan was in the process of returning her spectacles to their case when she was distracted by a movement the other side of the cross casement window she found herself facing. She moves a step closer and watches as Jeff braces himself in a keen south easterly breeze and gazes in the direction of their slightly overgrown lawn with a ramshackle, redundant cowshed visible behind it. What idiots we have been to think we can run a farm at our age. Whatever possessed us? she was thinking, and she knew Jeff had long been thinking the same.
He was right; they needed some hired hands to lighten the load – or admit defeat and sell up. Without hesitating, Joan moves forward and raps on the window. She gestures to a briefly startled Jeff, pointing at herself and then back to him.
‘I’ll be with you in a minute,’ she mouths. ‘I’m coming to join you.’
He nods at her, indicating he’ll stay put until she is in his company. A good, long walk would do them both good, he was thinking.
After a rare heatwave summer, the leaves that litter the lawn are crisp and golden before their time. Hues of red, orange and yellow mingle with brown to give the cast-offs a distinctly autumnal look. Jeff had no time to rake them into a pile and set a match to them. He could only kick them away from his immediate environment as he waits for Joan to join him.
‘God, it’s cold for this time of the year,’ she says, coming into Jeff’s view and wrapping her arms around herself. ‘After all that sun, I think we’re in for a bad winter.’
‘I’m not sure I can face another bad winter,’ Jeff admits, giving her a sideways glance as she reaches him. ‘It always seems colder here, out in the country. Winters were never that bad back home, were they?’
Temperatures out in the sticks, especially in areas away from the coast, are always lower than those in towns and cities, but when you are buying into the rural idyll it can be easy to forget that.
Joan shakes her head. ‘It’s been so long since we visited Exeter that I really can’t recall. I just know that my vision of winters in over-sized jumpers and cosy nights in didn’t quite pan out…’
She hesitates before continuing, slowing down the pace of her previously brisk walk. She wants to be sure that what she is about to say doesn’t obligate her to something she may not want to see through – not if it doesn’t feel right.
‘Go on then.’
Jeff turns back to face her. ‘Go on, what?’
Joan looks at the ground, focusing her vision on the carpet of shed leaves that had once formed a magnificent canopy over a tired-looking garden bench. She didn’t want to be seen to admit defeat, even though she was. ‘Drop that couple a line. It can’t do any harm,’ she whispers.
Jeff reaches out and clasps both of her arms, before releasing her on one side to gently lift her chin. ‘Do you mean it?’ he asks, scanning her eyes for any signs of doubt.
She nods, ever so slightly, using her eyes more than anything to signal the confirmation. She wants to convince him that her mind has been made up. The niggling worries about sharing their space with strangers and having another woman around the home, no doubt doing things completely differently to how she would do them, cleverly masked by a staunch determination to support her husband.
The way Jeff so quickly vacates her company leaves her in no doubt that selling up is a real and looming option. If she thought there was any chance of just muddling on, she was wrong. Without help – and soon – he’d be the one to buckle under the strain, not her. She knew that. For the sake of his health, she had to agree to his solution.
‘We’ve had a bite!’ Danielle is so relieved, she can barely contain herself. The words tumble out of her mouth almost all at once, ‘At last, after all these weeks, someone has replied to our ad – and they are in Cornwall.’
‘Really?’ Daniel, who has come in fresh from working under the bonnet of the Jag, rubs parallel streaks of black grease down the front of hideously outdated overalls and rushes to her side. He leans over her at the kitchen table as she carefully removes a neatly-written letter from an envelope that was sent to their box number at the newspaper office.
‘We saw your advertisement in The Truro Times and would like to invite you to an interview…’ Danielle is nervously reading aloud, feeling intimidated by Daniel’s closeness, when impatience gets the better of him. He snatches the letter out of her hand, confident he can read it more quickly himself.
‘My wife and I run a smallholding a few miles outside of Truro from a fairly isolated old farmhouse. We took the business on as a retirement project, but now realise it’s a bit more than we can handle on our own. Our children live in New Zealand and the time has come for us to admit we need paid help.
‘We are looking for an extra pair of hands around the farm, tending a flock of fifty-four sheep, around five hundred free-range chickens and roughly one hundred acres of agricultural land, as well as a reasonable-sized country garden.
‘From your advertisement, we can see that you come as a couple. Therefore, work would be available in the house. Duties would mainly be cleaning on a part-time basis.
‘The salaries for both positions are negotiable and accommodation is available, if needed, in the form of a granny annexe.
‘If this position is of any interest, please contact me on the telephone number above to arrange a suitable date and time for us to meet and discuss things further.
‘Yours faithfully, Jeff Pearce.
‘Avalon Farm, Ferrets Lane, near Truro.
Daniel neatly folds the letter in two and passes it back to Danielle. ‘They’re perfect,’ he says with a smile.
‘Aren’t you going to ring them, then?’ she asks, reluctant to return the letter to its envelope.
‘Oh, yes, I’m going to ring them – just not today,’ he assures her. ‘Don’t want them thinking we’re desperate, do we?’
‘But we are desperate. We’ve got to be out of here by the end of next week,’ Danielle reminds him, a pleading tone infiltrating the statements.
‘And we will be,’ he assures her, using the flat of a greasy palm to ruffle the top of her already messed up hair.
He knew then that he would wait no longer than two days before calling the number Jeff Pearce had given him. They’d get that job, because he’d make sure of it. Nothing would be too much trouble. They would be the exact kind of people Jeff Pearce had in mind when he replied to the ad. It would be a doddle.
Danielle knew nothing was going to stand between them and that job. There would be no more ‘Claudia syndrome’, as she now liked to call it – unforeseen circumstances hindering their plans to move on. Daniel would see to that, like he always did. She couldn’t help feeling an overwhelming sense of relief. They’d be away from where they’d been comfortable for so long, not out of choice nor desire but out of necessity. And they’d make the best of it. Like they always did.
I didn’t expect balloons on the door or a yellow ribbon tied to a tree, but I expected something. Perhaps a stern nod from Dad and a stiff, reluctant embrace from Mum. Maybe even silence accompanied by wary, unforgiving eyes. But nothing? The fact that I have knocked on the front door four times and shouted through the letterbox twice makes me doubt I’m wanted here at all.
Is it possible that the two human beings who made me, whose DNA I share, are sitting in silence, hiding behind closed curtains in the hope I will tire of their ‘absence’ and eventually go away? Well, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility – is it? Could Margie have got it wrong, perhaps mixed up my notes with someone else’s?
‘Mum, are you there? Dad?’ My throat is getting kind of dry. I am not used to saying much, not out loud. When you have only got yourself to watch your back, you learn to watch your tongue too. You keep quiet.
I sense myself getting frustrated because it feels like it’s been a long day, even though it must only be around lunchtime. I’m thirsty and tired, and just want to get the reunion, if that’s what you can call it, out of the way. I hope I don’t come across as selfish when I see them, because deep down I do appreciate what they are doing for me. It’s just that I may find it hard to show my gratitude. Showing your feelings just makes you vulnerable, I think. I don’t want to experience the pain of rejection all over again.
My knees are stinging and starting to ache, because I have been crouched on the rough, concrete doorstep, trying to look through the letterbox, for at least ten minutes. I can’t see anything that tells me much. There is a fresh bunch of Golden Celebration roses, no doubt picked from the garden, in a clear vase on a painted table in the hallway. They look as though they have been stuffed into their plain glass container with little thought, two or three perfect yellow blooms hanging by vegetative threads from snapped stems.
A rug that looks vaguely familiar, even though its abstract pattern is faded and worn, stretches from the far end of the hall to the front door. It covers the unpolished oak floorboards almost in their entirety. The corners of picture frames on one wall sneak into my line of sight, but what they display is tantalisingly out view. Could they possibly contain family photographs?
That is all I can see. The doors to the lounge and study are both closed and I can’t see the stairs, because they are to my right and the letterbox only allows me a small view of the left-hand side of the hall. I tried looking through the lounge windows after the second knock on the door rendered no response, but the curtains were so tightly drawn they overlapped. In case Mum and Dad are in the back garden, I am on my feet and walking tentatively down a pathway at the side of the house.
I can’t help noticing weeds, poking up through gaping cracks in the crumbling paving and sprouting in every direction. Mostly, my route is peppered with dandelions but the odd stinging nettle claws at my ankles. Surely, Dad has spotted how out-of-control they’ve got? I tell myself that, even if I don’t feel like it, I’ll help him dig up their roots the moment he asks me.
There’s no washing on the rotary line to the left of the conservatory and Dad’s over-sized greenhouse at the bottom of the garden is empty – even of plants. I am surprised as his home-grown tomatoes won awards when I was at primary school. If I didn’t now better, I’d say this house was unlived in, which makes me wonder if something is terribly wrong. Is one of my parents in hospital, perhaps?
The Venetian blinds in the conservatory are closed. I try a handle on its double doors but, no joy, it’s locked. I’ve been here for over half-an-hour now and I need to know if I’ve got somewhere to stay, or not. I want to know if I am welcome; if Mum and Dad still want me to be their daughter. I have to know if things are all right.
Thank God there are no neighbours. Nobody can see me looking pathetic, standing still and gazing about like a lost child who has come out of school on their first day to find nobody waiting for them. The similarity is actually quite striking. I am still holding the plastic bag I left prison with, only now noticing the effect of its weight on my upper body. I hadn’t even loosened my grip when I was on my knees, still on my guard and expecting somebody to try and grab it away from me – just like they would have done where I had come from.
Realising there is nobody within grasping distance, I let the smudged plastic slip from my nervous, sweaty grip. And I know what I’ve got to do. I rush towards the back door that I overlooked until after I tried to get into the conservatory. Stupid oversight. This time, when I pull down on a handle, I am surprised when the door opens. I’m in!
The note on the kitchen table is the first thing I see. It isn’t in an envelope. Propped up against an empty bowl of sugar, the lined piece of A4 is crammed with words and it is addressed to me.
‘Dear Dawn – We are so pleased to have you home and are looking forward to helping you rebuild your life with the help of Margie. We know we haven’t been there for you much during your years in prison, but we hope to be able to make up for that now. This is our fresh start.
‘Unfortunately, Aunt Brenda – that’s your dad’s sister who lives in Australia, in case you have forgotten – has passed away rather suddenly and by the time you find this letter we should be the other side of the world making funeral arrangements. She never married or had children, you may recall.
‘We expect to be back around ten days after your home-coming. There’s plenty of food in the freezer and some money for essentials like bread and milk in the bathroom cabinet.
‘We are truly sorry we can’t be there for you at what must be a very bewildering time. We didn’t tell Margie we were leaving the country, because we were worried, if she knew that, she may not let you come home. We didn’t want you ending up in some awful hostel. Make yourself at home and we’ll see you soon. We’ve got so much to tell you.
‘Love, Mum and Dad.’
Now this is strange – I mean, really odd. First up, they were never there for me in prison, not after that first day. To say they hadn’t been there for me ‘much’ is an understatement. They weren’t there at all. Why would they write such an affectionate letter to someone they haven’t seen for twenty years?
Also, who the hell is Aunt Brenda? I can’t even remember her being mentioned, let alone ever meeting her. Although, I suppose, if she lived in Australia that could explain it. If only Mum and Dad had left me the telephone number of their hotel, I could call them – actually get to speak to them and know, for sure, that everything really is going work out.
This isn’t how I imagined my first day out of prison would be. The first part, the formalities bit with the Probation Service, went exactly as I’d envisaged – but after that… First the taxi driver, who could not have been kinder if I was the Queen, even though he knew full well that I’ve done something so terrible in my past that I was excluded from society for two decades, and now this – an empty house.
I can’t help noticing how clean everything is. For an older couple, Mum and Dad have done a good job at keeping the house in order. There’s only a very thin layer of dust on some surfaces, meaning they must have cleaned everything just before they left. Their taste hasn’t changed much. In fact, come to think of it, it hasn’t changed at all.
I’m starting to recognise pieces of furniture, like the glass-topped kitchen table and old pine dresser. If I didn’t know better, I’d say they haven’t even changed the cooker. I’ve never been able to forget the beige and brown double oven because it’s the same one Ken Barlow had for years in his kitchen on Coronation Street. It made me think of home every time I saw it. They’ve obviously replaced it with a newer version of the same model.
Seeing the kitchen left so spick and span makes me wonder why the garden is in such a mess. I am itching now to see what the rest of the house is like – especially my bedroom. As I make my way towards the hall through the dining room, I can’t help but notice pictures of me – lots of them. Some are on the walls, framed by silver no less, and, of those, one or two are a bit wonky – like whoever hung them didn’t have the time to ensure they were straight. Others are just randomly dotted about the place. The ones that are not framed are wedged between ornaments and empty vases, like they have been ripped from the pages of an album and scattered about for effect. They are too deliberately positioned to have been distributed like confetti.
For a moment, I can imagine Mum sitting down and flicking through the family photo albums, shedding the odd tear and not wanting to put images of me away. That’s what I’d like to think. The fact that I never heard from her for two decades makes me wonder, though… Is any of this real?
It’s a similar scene in the hallway. The picture frames I’d glimpsed from the letterbox all contain pictures of me. Most of them are portraits taken at school, but one or two look like they were snapped in the garden or when we were on holiday. One in particular stands out, because I actually remember posing for it. It was taken at a funfair in Blackpool when I was sixteen – just before I got into trouble. I’m sitting astride a beautiful, vividly painted horse on a merry-go-round, one hand waving while the other clings tightly to a gold-coloured post.
The picture makes me sad, because it shows me smiling, looking carefree and happy. I had no idea then, when that photo was taken, that in less than a month’s time my life as I knew it would be over. I was so innocent, and stupid. Anyone looking at that picture would never, not in a million years, think the girl they were staring at was capable of murder. Yet ‘murder’ is what I was sentenced to life for.
It’s a shrine, isn’t it? I mean, what else could all these photographs be? Maybe Mum and Dad just wanted to remember me from a time before our lives were turned upside down. It’s weird, but then so are parents! Who knows how their minds work? Just look at those snapped roses in the glass vase – they aren’t even real.
The handrail going up the stairs is highly polished. It must have taken Mum half a day to achieve such a shine. I am really looking forward to seeing my room now. I just know there will still be posters on my walls and my pink velvet headboard will be waiting for me to press my face against it, just to feel its unrelenting smoothness. As soon as I’ve reunited myself with ‘me’, or who I was, I am going to fetch my things in from the garden, make myself a cup of strong tea and then have a long, deep sleep.
Here I am!
As the white painted door swings open and comes to rest with a slight knock against a papered wall, I want to cry. I feel crushed. My heart, which had been in mouth, dropped with a breath-taking thud into my stomach. After everything I had seen downstairs, I was confident – utterly convinced, even – my bedroom would have remained untouched. As it stands, it is the only room in the house that has been touched. I don’t recognise it.
Just one thing amid the modern black and grey theme catches my eye – a bundle of papers on the bed. And without moving from my spot in the doorway, I know they are the letters I sent my parents from prison.
With nobody to say it to me, I have to say it to myself…
‘Welcome home, Mandy.’
Startled, Jean clasps a hand to her chest. She had temporarily forgotten she now shares her home with another woman. Danielle was never very far away. In fact, she was more like a lap dog than an actual lap dog. Well, that’s what Jeff said. She seemed to second guess Jean’s every command; it was like she knew what she was going to be asked to do before Jean had even thought of it.
‘Danielle, you must stop sneaking up on me like that,’ Jean mumbles.
Danielle rubs both hands down the front of her crisp, white apron, nervously casting her gaze to the floor as she racks her brain for the correct response. Daniel would know what to say, but she wasn’t Daniel. ‘I’m terribly sorry, Mrs Pearce,’ she eventually says. ‘I didn’t mean to…’
Jean rushes to interrupt her. ‘No, don’t be silly. I’m joking, my dear,’ she spiels in a reassuring tone. A broad, jolly smile creeps across her face, getting broader with every word she speaks.
‘Oh,’ Danielle says meekly. ‘I thought I was in trouble.’
‘Trouble? Never. Look at this bowl…’ Jean beckons Danielle to come closer. ‘I have never, ever liked this dratted thing. The only reason I haven’t donated it to a jumble sale is because it used to be my mother’s. It is only on display and not consigned to a dusty old corner in the attic because Jeff has always liked it.’
Danielle flashes the bowl a cursory glance before looking back at Jean. ‘It’s a Royal Worcester.’
‘I know, but I never really noticed it before today. Not really. It was just a bit of old tat to me. But, thanks to your fabulous cleaning, I have seen it in a new light. It is really quite marvellous, and I can see why my mother and then Jeff fell in love with it. You must have spent an absolute age polishing it.’
‘Not really, Mrs Pearce – about twenty minutes or so,’ Danielle feels obliged to admit. ‘Definitely no longer. To be honest, I probably spent five of those minutes studying the writing on the bottom of the bowl – that’s how I know it’s a Royal Worcester. My previous employer, Mrs Jacobs, had one very similar.’
‘Did she? How interesting…’
Jean is distracted by the sight of Jeff walking across the lawn towards the house. His footsteps are purposeful but not hurried and Jean smiles to herself. He looked relaxed for the first time in months.
‘Go and put your feet up for a bit, Danielle,’ Jean says, walking to meet Jeff as he strides into the house via the back door. ‘You’ve worked way over your hours today, far more than I should expect of you.’
Danielle looks bewildered, as if she doesn’t quite know what to do with herself.
Joan shoos her away in a firm but friendly manner, insisting, ‘Go on!’
‘Everything all right?’ Jeff inquires as Danielle hurries past him.
Jean smile, ‘Yes, of course. I was just about to put the kettle on. Fancy a brew?’
‘Not half!’ he replies, shrugging off his heavy Barbour coat and hanging it on the back of a door. A cup of tea was exactly what he needed he is tells himself, settling down at the antique pine table that dominates the kitchen.
‘How is Daniel managing with the livestock?’ Jean didn’t want to be too pointed when she asked the question, but there was no avoiding the directness. It was a question she had been meaning to ask for days and, by the way she hesitated handing Jeff his cup of freshly brewed Darjeeling as she said it, one she wanted answered.
Out of the two hired hands, Daniel was the one she was most perturbed about. She’d had him down as a skiver and not to be trusted from day one. There was something about his eyes that she didn’t like. Whatever it was, it sent a shiver down her spine. It left her feeling very uneasy in his company.
‘Blooming brilliant, Jean,’ Jeff says, which forces her to raise an eyebrow. ‘To be honest, I don’t know how I coped before.’
‘Really?’ Jean breathes a sigh of relief, allowing her slight frame to fold neatly into a chair next to her husband. ‘I can’t tell you how pleased I am to hear that, Jeff,’ she tells him. ‘I was worried we had made a big mistake, letting strangers move into home. I mean, other than the privacy issue, you can’t be sure, not really sure, who you are hiring these days.’
‘Sharing our space is nothing, if it helps us keep this place on,’ Jeff tells her, clasping one of her hands and gently squeezing it. ‘A few weeks ago I’d as good as decided to sell up. I was dreading another winter, but now… Well, I’m enjoying the kind of life I envisaged when we first moved here.’
He takes a sip from a chipped bone china cup that Jean couldn’t quite part with and adds, ‘That Daniel really knows how to keep on top of the workload – he never sits still. If he isn’t tending the sheep or chickens, he is repairing stock fencing or working in the garden. We really were very lucky to spot that ad in the paper.’
Jean nods in agreement, something she had not envisaged herself doing at the outset of the live-in arrangement. She had only ever entertained the idea for Jeff’s sake. Now she could see the beneficial impact it was having on his health, she wanted to show her support.
‘How about I cook us all a lovely dinner tonight?’ she suggests. ‘A little celebration to mark our fresh start here and to thank Daniel and Danielle for being wonderful?’
Jeff straightens his back and lets it drift away from the back of his chair, relaxing his shoulders at the same time. ‘I think that is a wonderful idea, Jean. It will give me the excuse I’ve been waiting for to open the Solera Grand Reserva. I’ve had that bottle of brandy tucked away at the back of the drinks cabinet ever since I ‘retired’.’
‘It’s a date, then?’ she smiles, and Jeff gives her an eager nod of agreement.
The convivial atmosphere and pleasant, engaging conversation had made time fly. Nobody had put a foot wrong. Jeff and Jean were certain they had been the perfect hosts. Daniel delighted in the fact that he had the Pearces exactly where he wanted them – in the palm of his hand. Plus, there had been no awkward questions – like ‘Planning to start a family?’ Danielle was just glad it was almost over.
‘Gosh, it’s nearly midnight!’ Jean gushes, lifting herself up from her seat at the kitchen table and reaching out to gather up plates that had been licked clean.
‘Let me do that,’ Danielle insists. ‘You did the cooking, after all.’
‘It truly was a marvellous meal, Mrs Pearce. I haven’t had a roast dinner like that in years. We’ll do the clearing up,’ Daniel adds.
Jean looks at Jeff, as if seeking permission to accept the offer. He smiles, removing a plain napkin from his lap and tossing it into an empty dessert dish on the table.
‘Okay, if you insist,’ she laughs. ‘But don’t think I will expect you to do the washing up as a matter of course. I like to run my own kitchen.’
‘We know,’ Danielle and Daniel chorus, which makes Jean laugh a little louder.
The sound of her own cackle reminds her not to drink so much in future. That brandy’s gone right to my head! What will they think of me?
Jeff feels he must steer his wife out of the kitchen, with both hands on her shoulders, before she helps herself to more booze. ‘This way, Jean…’
Daniel joins Danielle at the kitchen sink, and they both carefully survey what’s going on behind them until Jeff and Jean disappear from view. Only when he is certain they are alone, Daniel whispers, ‘I knew it – they can’t get enough of us. All we’ve got to do now is encourage that stupid woman to let you do more in the kitchen.’
Danielle passes him a plate to dry, deliberately keeping her eyes on the popping mountain of bubbles she plunges her hands into. ‘Not yet. It’s too soon,’ she tells him, passing him another plate.
‘One week. Seven days, Danielle – that’s how long you’ve got to win her trust. I can’t keep up the pace for much longer than that.’
Raising her hands out of the dishwater and resting them on the lip of the sink, Danielle pauses to compose herself. She wants to ask Daniel if, maybe, it’s time to stop. We’ve found somewhere half-decent, let’s just get on with it, she was thinking. If she wasn’t afraid of what Daniel’s reaction would be, she may have said it out loud. Instead, she just nodded.
‘That’s my girl,’ he says, squeezing a cheek of her small, pert buttocks.
The fact that his touch makes her immediately vomit does nothing to deter him. He squeezes a little harder as she clasps one hand to her mouth while using the other to desperately pull the plug in the sink.
I slept for a full thirteen-and-a-quarter hours, once my head hit the pillow, on that first night. I swear, it was only the sound of the central heating system kicking in that stirred me. There was nothing stranger than waking up in a room I didn’t recognise. It got me thinking that I didn’t belong here, because it was an uneasy feeling. I felt like Goldilocks.
It’s been over a week now. No word from Mum and Dad, and I’ve run out of all the basics: milk, bread, butter, sugar… I must have explored every square inch of the house, reacquainting myself with its unique character and the odd stray shoulder pad along the way in a bid to waste time. So far, I have resisted the urge to look at the letters I sent. I can see they have been read, though.
Margie was due to carry out a home visit yesterday but, luckily, she postponed it. Something about ‘heavy workload’ and being ‘over-booked’. Bet the public would be shocked to know even a murderer can’t be properly supervised on the outside. She has rearranged the visit for a week’s time. Hopefully, Mum and Dad will be home by then.
I have decided to walk to a little hamlet about two miles away. I seem to recall passing a shop when I was in the taxi. It will get me out in the fresh air and give me a chance to clear my mind. Besides, I’m starving. I would say, I’d kill for jam on toast – but that would be crass, given my ‘history’.
Solitude is bad for my psyche. When there is nobody else around, I tend to end up talking to myself. Everyone knows that is the first sign of madness. I am fairly convinced I’m not mad, but I’ve got a long way to go to convince others of it. That is why, if ever I felt like talking to myself in prison, I only ever opened my mouth when I was alone in my cell. That way, I kept my ‘madness’ behind a closed door. A thick, heavy door that my silly words would not penetrate.
The public footpath I’m taking is not at all overgrown, which surprises me. A well-trodden tract of flattened grass makes the route easy to navigate. In spite of its obvious popularity, I see just one dog walker, who politely nods as he and his Jack Russell give me a wide berth, and a stray spaniel whose owner I can’t see but who cannot be far away. After climbing over a second, well-maintained style, I can see the shop up ahead.
I have left the footpath as it meets a country road. Behind me are open fields. To my left, I can see the lane snakes to a long climb and I cannot tell what lies beyond its summit. In front of me and to my right, a cluster of thatched buildings make an interesting splash of colour, injecting a touch of the built environment into an otherwise bland landscape. The shop, which doubles up as a Post Office, lies directly in my path. Next to it is a large country pub with two rows of wooden tables and chairs outside.
If I was a real hellraiser, I would have headed straight for the pub. The fact that it looks closed anyway doesn’t influence my decision to retrieve a shopping list from my coat pocket and aim for the shop. It is surprisingly cold for early September and the warmth that greets me as I step inside is a welcome surprise. It sweeps away some of my nerves, leaving me more capable than I expected to undertake a task I haven’t done for more than half of my thirty-six years on the planet. I used to lie awake at night, dreaming about being in a shop with money in my pocket and now it is real.
Of course, the crisp twenty pound note I took from the bathroom cabinet is not a fortune. It’s just enough to get what I need, the change having to be kept back in case Mum and Dad don’t return before my supplies run low again. It is to buy essentials – that’s what their note said. So, even though I am mightily tempted to buy a massive bar of Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut chocolate, I am going to do exactly as they told me and stick to the basics.
My little wire shopping basket doesn’t contain much, but weighs a ton. I heave it up onto the counter and wait to be told how much I’ve got to pay. The till is like something out of a sci-fi movie and I’m amazed a village shop, of all places, is equipped with such technology. ‘Lisa’ – that’s what it says on the badge she’s got pinned to her sweatshirt – is just whizzing my purchases over a glass plate and popping them into a plastic bag. Every time an item passes the plate, I can hear a bleep. Clearly, there is no need for her to scour each product for a price and tap it into the till.
‘We don’t charge for bags,’ she says and I flash her an ‘I should think not’ look. Whatever next! They’ll be rationing what rubbish you can put in your bin, if we’re not careful. Don’t charge for bags, indeed.
If I hadn’t received cognitive therapy to help me think things through, I may have been tempted to swear when ‘Lisa’ informs me that the cost of my shopping is ten pounds and twenty-three pence. TEN POUNDS! My mind boggles at what that would have bought me twenty years ago.
As I turn to head out of the shop, I can’t help but compare myself to my dear old gran. ‘How much? Daylight robbery – I remember when it was tuppence,’ she used to crow about the price of everything.
It is while I am reminiscing that I notice an old woman looking at me. Her eyes are locked, like a laser has guided them to a target, me, and I just know that if I ignore her nothing is going to shift her gaze. Instinct is telling me to look the other way. Even though she looks strangely familiar, I cannot return her interest. I must not.
The woman, who is well-dressed for an elderly pensioner, is resting on a quad based walking stick about three metres away. She reaches into an unzipped handbag that is dangling from a forearm and pulls out a handkerchief. I can see she is pressing it to her mouth, as if drying her lips. I cast my gaze downwards as I start to move towards the door.
As I inch away from her unnerving attention, I sense she is following me. I pick up my pace because I don’t feel ready to have to explain myself or to tell lies about how Mum and Dad have reacted to having me home. After twenty years, I am fairly certain I have changed beyond all recognition. If there is anyone around these parts who still remembers Mandy Jacobs, they are very unlikely to link her with me. Are they?
‘It’s Mandy, isn’t it?’
I look down at the aged hand that has clasped my left arm and want to swipe it away.
‘I am sure it is Mandy, Mandy Jacobs – you look just like your poor mother.’
She squints when I look her square in the eyes, as if struggling to take in the fact that I really am Mandy Jacobs. She hasn’t made a mistake.
‘Oh!’ she gasps, returning the handkerchief to her mouth.
I am tempted to ask ‘And you are?’ but something she said has upset me. She referred to my mother as ‘poor’, inferring she felt sorry for her. What does that mean? Is my Mum ill?
When I open the shop door, I waste no time leaving. The chill that greets my flushed face just braces me for a brisk walk home. I am about half way across the road when I hear a young voice shout after me.
‘Hey, you’ve forgotten your shopping.’
Without turning to face her, I just know she’s holding my carrier bag and expecting me to walk back and fetch it.
I am motionless. If I carry on walking I will go hungry until I can catch a bus into town, but I will avoid another encounter with the old woman. However, what will people say about the ‘newcomer’ if I do that? I would be drawing attention to myself, which is the last thing someone in my situation should do. I make an about turn.
My hand is already outstretched to relieve ‘Lisa’ of my shopping when I apologise for my mistake. ‘I am so sorry. My head must be screwed on backwards today.’
‘You’re not the first and you won’t be the last,’ she assures me.
I quickly turn on my heels, determined not to let the old bat catch up with me – but I’m too slow.
At almost the exact spot in the middle of the road, I reluctantly stand still for a second time. My back heaves with the deep breaths I am taking to calm my nerves. I hear her walking stick grating on lose chips of bitumen as she crosses the road. Her wheezy chest spits out a nasty-sounding cough and I know she is right behind me. I want to run.
‘Mandy!’ the old woman gasps, and her frailty conquers my bad manners.
‘Yes, that’s me,’ I admit, turning to face her. ‘And you are?’
She catches her breath for a moment, before informing me, ‘I’m Judith – Judith Stevens. I used to run the Post Office.’
I thought I recognised her.
‘Awful business all those years ago,’ she mutters. ‘I hope it hasn’t damaged you too much.’
When I set off to buy staples like bread and butter, I never envisaged having to discuss my ‘crime’ with anyone. Hell, I didn’t think anyone would know who I was. She must sense my unease because she gives me a wry smile and taps my arm.
‘I hope your mother got over her illness,’ she nods.
Illness? What illness? The look of ignorance that must have enveloped my face obligated her to give me some sort of explanation.
‘No, I haven’t seen your mother for, oh, must be eighteen years – possibly more,’ she tells me. ‘Every time I asked after her, I was told she was still the same.’
‘The same?’ I enquired.
‘Yes, bedridden – that’s what the housekeeper said. I do hope things will improve now you are home.’
‘Housekeeper?’ I whisper and I can tell by the look of surprise on the old woman’s face that she knows she has put her foot in it.
‘Didn’t your parents tell you?’ she flusters. ‘They employed a couple to help around the home – must have been shortly after you got put away. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen them around for a few weeks. I don’t suppose their services were needed, if you were coming home…’
I smile, politely, but only because I want to get away.
‘If you fancy a change of scenery or need any advice on how to care for a relative, just pop in and see me – I still live above the shop.’ She raises a hand and points upwards. ‘I cared for my Arthur for fifteen years, you know, before he died?’
‘That’s very kind,’ I tell her knowing full well I will never take her up on her offer.
She smiles as I turn and start walking away. ‘Give my love to your mother, won’t you?’
‘Yes, of course,’ I whisper, wondering why Mum and Dad never mentioned the housekeepers nor Mum’s ill health.
To be continued…