You know when you’re on a long journey and although you’ve done nothing but sit and eat all day, you’re utterly spent? Those times when you reluctantly allow permission to let yourself wander into those dusty, little crevices of your mind that you usually ignore or forgot you ever knew? Or when you’re in a strange place and you see memories of features or expressions of people you used to know in the faces of strangers? I hugged someone I’ve never even met before, at Chrissie’s funeral because she looked so much like her. I thought this holiday would relax me but I’m still so tightly wound and raw. I cry whenever anyone touches me. I hope it doesn’t put off the new kitten from loving me. I need a new friend.
Four hours into an overnight, trans-atlantic flight from JFK to Heathrow, it hit me. I’d worked it all out. It was so simple that it couldn’t possibly be true. The realisation almost winded me. I felt like a nervous tourist who kept patting their pocket to check that their passport and foreign currency were still there.
“Are you awake?” I whispered.
“I am now,” he replied, opening one eye. “What’s up?”
“I think the chest of drawers in the spare room is haunted.” I blurted out.
He breathed out heavily, opened both eyes and wriggled in his seat. “Is there any of that pepsi left?”
“Yeah, it’ll be a bit flat though.” I said, reaching into the seat back pocket. He yawned, scratched his head, gulped some of the sweet black liquid then said,
“go on, then. You’ve woken me up now, so you have to tell me.”
“Ok, right, so the people who lived in Mum and Dad’s house before them were Russian. She was called Joan but her real name was Zia. Josef was actually called Yosef and their son Alex was actually Xander. They all died in that house. The chest of drawers in the spare room was already there when Mum and Dad moved in. Remember when my uncle Alan came to stay last year and he had a heart attack in that very room? Then our cat died. Babs napped on that window seat all the time in winter because of the sun, and Chrissie had slept in that bed loads of times but nothing bad happened until after Alan died. X, Y, Z, A, B, C. Don’t you see?”
He makes a snorting noise like he’s read something funny and shakes his head, smiling. “Aw babe. C’mere.”
I don’t need to say any more. He gets me. He puts his arm around me and I breathe him in as I sob on his chest.
“I think you’re just tired babe. Honestly, furniture can’t be evil. I know it looks like it makes sense right now but it’s just a coincidence. Cool story though. But really, babe, it sounds like you need to get some sleep.”
He was probably right. I was exhausted. I desperately needed answers but the Drs couldn’t give me any, so my mind was creating them out of nothing.
A few hours later, whilst I was in the queue at Passport Control, I switched my phone on for the first time since yesterday morning. I had a few notifications about roaming charges, a couple of texts from Mum and a picture of our neighbour’s newborns.
“Saw Danny and Georgie’s twins, Freddie and Ella. They’re absolutely gorgeous! I’m already knitting! Mum xx”
“Spare room finally finished! Dad took that chest of drawers round next door for the twins’ room. How come babies are so small but they need so much stuff? Mum xx”
Watching people lift (apparently identical) black suitcases off the conveyor belt, my phone pinged with a new text alert. Mum again.
“Blue light ambulance and police car next door. Don’t know what’s going on. Hope those kiddies are ok. Text me when you land Mum xx.”
By the time the police arrived, Mrs Jones was sat on a low garden wall, next to what was left of her car. A couple of kids on bmx bikes were watching from a short distance away. The man who saw it all happen was sat in his car still talking into the handset.
That beautiful red union jack mini was a write-off. Crumpled against a concrete lamp post, a perfect arc of skid marks visible in the road. People drove slowly past, phones ready, craning their necks to see if there was any blood.
As she was being breathalysed, a teenage girl briskly walked up, held out her phone at arms length, took a photo, then ran off. Her friend followed, shouting, “Was that Mrs Jones? Was it? Wait for me!”
Still gently sobbing, Mrs Jones was grateful for the quiet routine of the police station. She listened patiently whilst the Police Constable spoke to the Custody Sergeant. Fortunately, he was one of those rare officers still working in a public-facing role in his fifties. Mrs Jones was relying on his age and experience for his empathy of her situation.
“Arrested for dangerous driving. She said she saw a mouse in the car and panicked. Drove through a red light and into a lamp post. Breathalyzer negative. No injuries. Car towed. Scene clear. CCTV requested,” said the PC, closing her pocket notebook.
The PC then lightly touched Mrs Jones on the arm and said, “My Sarge will look after you now. Don’t worry. It’ll get sorted out.”
“The Duty Solicitor has just gone into an interview, so it will be about an hour. I’m going to have to put you into a cell for a bit,” said the Custody Sergeant.
“Um. Ok. Oh, I need some things from my bag though,” she said.
“What sort of things?” asked the Custody Sergeant. He’d heard it all before.
“Um.” This was no time to be coy. “I’m going through the change and I’m flooding, so I need a few sanitary towels. I need to take my pills in an hour and I have to eat a biscuit soon because stress makes me hypoglycemic and I can’t take tablets on an empty stomach or I’ll vomit.”
The Custody Sergeant studied her face for a moment. He remembered how it was for his missus a few years back. How the bleeding got so heavy that she couldn’t leave the house some days. When she sneezed, it looked like a crime scene.
“What pills do you need?” he asked.
“I’m due to take two ibuprofen, two paracetamol and codeine and two tranexamic acid in an hour,” she replied.
“I just need to make a quick call to the Doctor.” he said.
A few minutes later, he handed her a clear plastic evidence bag containing four sanitary towels, six tablets, plus the remains of a packet of hobnobs from her handbag.
After an hour in the cell, a different police officer brought her a cup of tea. “Your solicitor won’t be long now,” he said.
“Oh it’s ok. I don’t want to be a nuisance. I know you’re busy,” she replied.
The police officer turned to leave, then paused, “You don’t remember me do you? I was in your class at Hill High School and in the army cadets with your Davey. How is he these days?”
“Oh, I’m sorry love, my Davey passed away two years ago. He had a few problems with heroin and ended up homeless,” she said. Mrs Jones was used to this, having to offer comfort to those who only just found out.
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. I really am. We were good friends for a bit, me and Davey. We got up to all sorts, like teenagers do. I joined the army straight from school and we lost touch. I remember he was well into his music and motorbikes. I did 12 years and then joined the police,” he replied.
Mrs Jones already knew this.
A couple of hours later, she had been interviewed, charged, bailed, and was home in time for Emmerdale. She surprised herself at how little shame she felt.
The next day, Mrs Jones was walking through town and saw Fred, one of the homeless guys she often chatted to, sat on a bench near the fountain in Town Hall Square. His worldly possessions were neatly packed into a rucksack on the ground. He was watching the pigeons scratting around for bits of discarded food, as he absentmindedly picked at the edges of a paper coffee cup.
“Hi Fred.” She said, cheerfully. No matter how many problems she had, they paled into insignificance with what was going on in his life. “You’ll never guess what happened to me yesterday?” she said.
“No, what?” said Fred.
“I got arrested for dangerous driving.”
He sat up straighter. “Are you ok? Was anyone hurt?” he said quickly.
“No, I’m getting a bit of a bruise and my neck’s a bit stiff though.” She drew a diagonal line from neck to waist to show where the bruise was.
She stuffed her hands into her pockets, then said hesitantly, “I saw him though. I talked to him. He remembers Davey from before….” Her voice trailed off, then almost immediately she composed herself.
“He’s on afternoons all week. You still want to do it?” She asked.
“Yep. I’ve made up my mind. I can’t spend another winter outside. He’s as good as anyone, and he deserves it. Those who think they haven’t done anything wrong when they have, deserve it more,” said Fred.
They held each other’s gaze for a second longer than they usually did.
“His collar number is 1471” she said. “They never even searched me, probably cos I’m a doddery old woman. They even put it in a bag for me. It’s in the mattress, in the seam at the top. Cell number two.”
“Well, then,” said Fred. “Consider it done. For Davey.”
“Well then, yourself. Take care,” said Mrs Jones. “Oh, I got you these.” She pulled out a new packet of cigarettes and a lighter from her coat pocket and offered them to him.
“Thank you. That’s really kind. God bless. See you, Mrs Jones,” he said, as she turned away, her hand raised in an it’s nothing/don’t worry about it/goodbye gesture.
Two months later, Mrs Jones and Fred are sat at a table in the visitor’s room at the local prison. “This is nice, isn’t it?” said Mrs Jones, “to be out of the cold.”
Fred’s cheeks have plumped out and his limp is less pronounced than before. Even though he’s just about to officially start a life sentence, his spirits have lifted.
“Three meals a day, a room to myself with a telly, no-one kicking or pissing on me while I’m trying to sleep, hot showers, proper toilets, books, people to talk to. I might even get some qualifications. This is luxury. If I’d have known what getting lifed off was going to be like, I’d have done it years ago.”
She smiled. They both got what they wanted.
The one who gave her son his first cigarette. His first can of beer. His first joint. His first ecstasy tablet. His first wrap of speed. His first shoplifting spree. His first joyride. His first fist fight. The one who started it all. He was gone now.
Killing a police officer meant that Fred was given a longer sentence, but the tariff didn’t matter. It would be a life sentence. Years of living on the streets had taken its toll on his body. Fred would die in here, but it would be in the warm with a full belly surrounded by people who were paid to care. He wouldn’t be alone.
“They put me in cell number one at first, so I puked on the floor, and they moved me. I think after the sentence next week, I’m getting transferred to a prison up north,” said Fred. “Will you still come and visit me?”
“Course I will, love,” she said, having absolutely no intention of ever seeing him again.
I was always bored at my Nanna’s house. She didn’t have any good toys and her felt-tips were all dried up. I liked it when we baked. If I stood on a stool, I could reach the top shelf where she kept a tiny tub of silver balls to sprinkle on top of wet icing. It was only water and sugar, but it was important to get it just right. There was another little pot with lemon and orange slices that were small enough for a dolls house. When I used those for decorating my buns, I squeezed a drop of juice from a plastic lemon into the icing sugar instead of water. Mummy said the baking ingredients were “out of date” but Nanna said that people worried about far too much these days. She had seen a programme about someone eating honey from Egyptian times, and that sugar didn’t go off. I thought it was strange how when she wanted to read something she held it out at arm’s length. Surely it would be easier to read if you looked at it close up? One day, Mummy took out all of the tins and jars from Nanna’s cupboard, then put most of them back in again.
Nanna said her fingers were too old and stiff to play the piano anymore, but because I had just started to learn it, I was allowed to practice my scales and play some tunes. I liked listening to her telling me of her concerts, and her stiff, swishy dresses. People used to stand up and throw flowers at her and she was in the paper once.
Sometimes in the afternoons, she would fall asleep in her chair to “rest her eyes” but I heard her snoring. I only peeped in the drawers in her dressing table once, but then my face felt hot and I got a stomach ache. Nanna said my tummy hurt because I’d done something I shouldn’t have, and it was my body’s way of telling me not to do it again.
On day, Mummy and Nanna were having a cup of tea and talking. They were crying and holding hands and saying something about it being twenty five years ago today. I wanted to make them feel better, so I played my new song on the piano that Hannah Ruth had taught me. I tried to not make any mistakes and so I was a bit slow. They didn’t clap afterwards like they usually did. Mummy asked me if I had heard that tune at school, but when I told her, she put her hand over her mouth and stared at me, which scared me, so I went and cuddled up next to Nanna, who stroked my hair and kissed my head.
Mummy went into the spare bedroom and took down a dusty old suitcase from the top of the wardrobe. Inside were shoeboxes, a fur coat and some photograph albums. I had never seen those photos before. I pointed to a picture of Hannah Ruth and another girl, who were both wearing yellow checked dresses and straw hats. Mummy said she didn’t know who the other girl was, and then started to cry again.
The next time I went to Nanna’s house, she gave me a gold necklace with a little cross on it from her jewellery box. She told me that Hannah Ruth said she wanted me to have it. I was pleased and felt grown-up, because Mummy wears a necklace just like it.