Get Away with Martha Hall
It had taken her the best part of twenty years but Janine O’Reilly had finally got the house she’d always wanted, the kitchen she’d always dreamed of. She was happy to have the Aga pump out heat in the middle of August just so that in the winter she could rest on that wee bar and warm her arse. And for some reason, that made her unbelievably happy. The kitchen table was a big thick block of wood, like having half a tree in the middle of the room. It comfortably sat eight people and apart from the most formal of dinner parties was the location for every meal. Currently Jo Wheeler was sitting at it, sipping a mug of tea. Janine had offered her a coffee but both of them knew she couldn’t work the machine, and you couldn’t go far wrong with a tea pot.
Jo had been with her for the past fortnight, shadowing her, observing every aspect of Janine’s life, and she’d been happy to have her there. She was unobtrusive and easy to get on with, but there was something about her, she was, well, enigmatic was the word that came to mind. She seemed withdrawn, and Janine guessed that was part of her job, to remain detached, but it seemed more than professionalism. She suspected that even if she wasn’t a journalist, Jo would be emotionally self sufficient. If anyone was able to keep a secret, it would be Jo Wheeler.
The only time she’d seen any flicker of emotion was when she’d held Martha Hall’s hand for longer than it took to shake. Now she was sitting at the kitchen table looking through some photos from Janine’s time on Good Morning World, absently touching one with the tips of her fingers; Janine looked over her shoulder. It was Martha at a Christmas party, laughing at something Dougie had just said to her. The expression on Jo’s face was hard to read. She suddenly looked up at Janine, her eyes silver.
“She looks so young”
“She was young. She couldn’t have been more than twenty two”
Reluctantly, Jo let the photo drop to the table with an almost inaudible sigh. Janine sat down opposite her, taking a sip of her tea. She decided to go for broke.
“Jo, can I ask you something?”
Jo leant back in her chair.
“Have you met Martha before?”
Janine had never seen anyone disengage so rapidly. The previously silver eyes suddenly became as opaque as a fog bank, her face shuttering down as Janine watched. She turned her attention to a knot in the wood of the table top.
“I live in Broadhaven”
She said it as if that was all the explanation necessary, and Janine was prepared to leave it. She liked Jo and didn’t want to make her uncomfortable. But then Jo cleared her throat.
“I met her in February. She got hit by a wave”
“That’s the seaside for you. Dangerous place”
Janine cocked her head to one side and took a good look at Jo. She was an attractive woman with floppy dark hair that was in need of a cut judging by the way she kept pushing it out of those incredible eyes; her face was almost triangular, coming to a point at her chin. She was cute rather than pretty; no, cute was the wrong word. Cute implied shallow surface. Striking was a better word. You’d look at her twice if you passed her on the street, and most of that was due to the confidence she exuded. Janine thought about the award ceremony and the expression on Martha’s face when she’d taken Jo’s hand. Her friend had pretended not to know Jo but there was a flush she’d tried to hide. Marco had noticed it too, that hadn’t been wasted on Janine.
“Jo, be careful of Marco Santini”
She hadn’t meant to blurt it out like that and she was as surprised as Jo. The other woman let out a startled laugh.
“I’m not sure there’s much he can do to me but thanks for the warning”
Janine reached over and squeezed Jo’s hand.
“I like you, Jo, and I love Martha like she’s one of my own, I just want you to be happy”
For the first time in two weeks, Jo’s smile was open, and Janine could see what Martha might see in her.
Jo’s breast pocket was vibrating. She pulled out her mobile, smiling when she saw the caller ID.
“How did you – ? Of course, it says, doesn’t it? I always forget to look”
“Keeps life interesting, I guess. Where are you?”
“Can you believe I’m on a train in the middle of Canada?”
The sigh on the other end of the phone was deep and heartfelt.
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you? Can I tell you something I’ve never told anyone before?”
Jo propped herself up against Janine’s beast of a kitchen table.
“I hate travelling, I always have. God, it’s such a relief to admit that at last”
“But you host a travel programme”
“I know. One of life’s great ironies, eh?”
“But why – ?”
“It meant I didn’t have to be a weather girl anymore. And I got out of that fucking train wreck – o don’t pay me any mind. I just wish I was coming home not looking out of a train window at a bunch of moose. Tell me what you’re up to”
“Funny you should ask. I’m at Janine’s looking at photos of you when you were a child”
“Please don’t hold that hair against me. The stylists made me do it”
“You say that now – ”
“Jo – when I get back, can I see you?”
The hint of uncertainty in Martha’s voice caught unexpectedly at Jo’s heart. Her own voice was soft when she replied.
“I’d like that. A lot”
“Jo – ?”
“It’s just – I just – I miss you”
Jo closed her eyes, easily picturing Martha’s face: her full lips, thick lashes and those blue, blue eyes. It was amazing to think that Martha was thousands of miles away, she sounded as if she was calling from the other room. When she opened her eyes she noticed the photo of Martha, she picked it up; looking at it while she could hear Martha’s voice made her almost present in the room. Jo could feel the heat rising. She closed her eyes again.
“I miss you too”
Jo liked this café; it was a combination of a trendy coffee shop and the sort of greasy spoon she remembered from her childhood. The furniture was mismatched: solid pine tables and chairs, a battered sofa and single armchair. It did the full range of coffee but also tea strong enough to stand a spoon up in. Jo had ordered a pot with her full English breakfast and was mopping up a mixture of egg and tomato sauce when she became aware of someone standing in front of her. Expecting it to be the waiter, she smiled and was about to thank him but when she looked up, she was surprised to see Marco Santini.
Jo guessed he was a handsome man, if you liked that sort of thing. But even if she was straight, she’d never have gone for him in a million years. Arrogance came off him in waves like the expensive and overpowering aftershave he wore. He was anxious that everyone believed him to be an old school geezer but was far too concerned about how he looked. Not that the vintage faces didn’t spend time looking sharp, but they would seriously impugn the masculinity of any man who took as much care of his skin as Santini evidently did. Even this close – he was leaning in, obviously trying to intimidate Jo – she couldn’t see a single enlarged pore. She popped the egg soaked toast into her mouth and sat back.
“Something I can do for you, Mr. Santini?”
“Yeah, you can stay away from my woman”
Jo unhurriedly took a sip of her thick brown tea. Nice. Although maybe it could do with a bit more sugar. She shook a paper packet before emptying half of its contents into her mug. Yeah, that’s better. Santini, meanwhile, was trying to bore a hole in her using only the power of his eyes.
“I wasn’t aware you owned Martha. I thought she was her own woman, like we all are these days. God bless Christabel Pankhurst”
“Don’t get clever with me – ”
“I can’t help being clever, Mr. Santini”
Santini was turning a very interesting shade of red that was verging on purple. If this were a cartoon, steam would be pouring out of his ears with the force to rival the Gaggia machine behind the counter.
“Maybe you’d like to sit down. You’re getting a bit of an audience”
It was true. Several of the other customers and all of the waiting staff were watching them with a combination of amusement and nervousness. He frowned but complied, dropping into the seat opposite. Jo slung her arm across the back of her chair. Santini flexed his forearms as he linked his hands in front of him. He might’ve looked tough if his nails hadn’t been so immaculate. Lovely cuticles, better than her own. Not that that was hard. She looked at the back of her hand; her nails were neatly trimmed but she had a habit of chewing the skin around the edges of them when she was thinking things through.
“I didn’t like the way you were looking at her the other night”
“It was only looking. Most blokes would be flattered. Well, most secure blokes. Martha is a very beautiful woman”
“Yeah and she’s my very beautiful woman”
“Again, we don’t live in the nineteenth century anymore. She doesn’t belong to anyone. Not you, not me”
“Now listen here, you bitch. I don’t want some dyke looking at my girlfriend like that”
“I’m not really sure you can stop me”
Santini dropped his voice to what he clearly considered a threatening growl, as if he’d learnt it from watching Bob Hoskins films.
“You don’t want to mess with me, girl. I know people”
“Really? Who do you know?”
His smile became smug.
Jo whistled between her teeth. Santini was attempting to bring out the big guns. The Bonettis were an important family in the West End, having had their fingers in numerous entrepreneurial pies since the 1960s. Their legitimate business face was cafés and restaurants, a couple of nightclubs. Their less than legitimate ventures were far reaching to say the least. An impressive card to play and he knew it. As a journalist she’d be bound to know of the family. He crossed his arms over his chest, confident he’d won. Jo picked up her second piece of toast and buttered it. Sadly, it had gone cold, but she could remedy that with a bit of strawberry jam. She bit into it. Yeah, that wasn’t too bad. She waved to the boy behind the counter.
“Darren, can I get another pot of tea?”
She turned her attention to Santini.
“Anything for you, Marco? Is it alright if I call you Marco?”
His smug smile had mutated into a puzzled frown.
“No? Just the tea then. So, the Bonettis. That is impressive. Do me a favour, Marco. Next time you speak to Big Joe, tell him Frankie Wheeler’s girl says hello, and that I’ll see him at Antonia’s wedding. I expect I’ll see you there too as you’re so close. Get Martha to wear that black and white dress. She looks lovely in it”
Yeah, she loved this café. The tea was fantastic.
Martha could never decide which part of flying she hated the most. When the plane taxied onto the runway, the panic would start to tighten in the pit of her stomach, knowing it was only a matter of time until everything would rush past with increasing speed before it fell away under her. When they were in flight she was constantly aware that they were thousands of feet in the air in a metal box filled to the brim with the most explosive fuel known to man. No matter how much the stewards smiled and plied her with alcohol, they couldn’t fool her into believing it was a safe way to travel. They would hit a pocket of turbulence and the plane would drop in a heart stopping, gut rocking plunge, and the captain would pretend it was nothing. Nothing. How stupid did they think she was?
She didn’t share the boredom of both passengers and stewards when it came to the safety demonstration, she watched it with the rapt concentration of a terrified six year old. They made it look so easy, so calm, but when it came to it, Martha knew it would be a free for all, every man and woman for themselves, so she needed to know where every exit was. Landing was a mixed blessing. The ordeal would be over in a matter of moments, but the joyful relief could be so easily snatched from her. Anything could happen and there had to be a reason for the fire engines banked alongside the runway. The plane would screech and protest as its wheels touched the tarmac and then decelerate with such alacrity Martha felt her stomach hit the back of the seat.
She fidgeted, glad that they flew business class. She could at least stretch out her legs and not kick the seat in front of her. Anya was sitting next to her reading a Patricia Cornwall novel she’d picked up at the airport. Anya was the most laid back and pacific person Martha had ever met, she’d never once heard her raise her voice, but she had a passion for the most horrendously violent and gory detective novels and true crime stories. Anya sensed she was being watched. She frowned slightly and reached out a hand to squeeze Martha’s arm.
“You alright, babe?”
Martha nodded absently and turned her attention to outside the window. They were flying over the Atlantic. She watched the patterns of light scatter across the water. If they went down now, there was a chance that the fuselage would float for a little while, giving them a sporting chance of getting out. There would be life jackets with their whistles and the little tubes for topping up the air. Infinitely better than hitting the hard, hard ground only to explode into a massive fire ball that no one could walk away from. If we have to go down, could it please be now?
Martha took a slug of her gin and tonic, letting the ice clack against the glass and the bubbles fizz against her tongue. It had been a long, hard week. Of all the means of transport, the train was probably the one she could cope with the most. The scenery had been stunning, awesome in all the senses of the word, but it’s easy to be disengaged when you’re watching it glide by through glass. Hard to care about lakes, forests and snow capped mountains when you’d rather be eating crabsticks on the pier. She hadn’t meant to call Jo but loneliness hit her quickly and only intensified as the miles slipped away, pulling the train further and further west. Four o’clock in the morning she was lying in her cabin listening to the rhythmic chakka chakka chakka chakka of the wheels on the rails. Usually it would be enough to lull her to sleep, but that night it niggled away at the edge of her consciousness. With a sigh, she slipped off the bed and out of the cabin to the observation deck at the rear of the train. Quietly spoken porters greeted her and didn’t comment on the fact that Martha was in her pyjamas.
She sat on the bench seat, pulling up her legs, wrapping her arms around her knees. It was a clear night, the sky was cloudless and endless, studded through with stars, constellation after constellation. This was a sight that should be shared, resting in the arms of someone soft and warm. As it was, it was too much beauty for one person to bear alone. Staring at the luggage rack over her bed was surely preferable, suitcases were too prosaic to cause existential angst, but it wasn’t enough. She was weak, she knew, and despised herself, but the phone fitted so snugly in her hand, it was so easy to scroll through the menu until she found the number.
It didn’t occur to her until later the next day that she hadn’t phoned Marco. She could rationalise it: Marco would be busy and would not have appreciated being disturbed. He wouldn’t have understood her need for connection, would’ve seen it as silly and essentially female. But she had to admit that it hadn’t even crossed her mind to call him; it wasn’t his voice she wanted to hear in the middle of the Canadian night. It was Jo’s.
Tempted as she was to drop to her knees and kiss the floor of Arrivals, Martha managed to restrain the impulse, instead collecting her suitcases from the carousel and shuffling through Customs with everyone else. The Customs officer, a very pretty red head, looked at her photo, then up at her and did a double take before blushing slightly.
“Nice trip, Ms. Hall?”
Martha made sure to give her a bright smile despite the first disorientating twinges of jet lag.
“Not bad, erm – ”
“Canada’s somewhere I’ve always wanted to go”
“You definitely should, it’s a beautiful country”
“I look forward to seeing about it”
“Thank you, Julie. You take care”
Julie’s blush intensified.
“You too, Ms. Hall”
The taxi pulled away as Martha fitted her key into the lock. She loved her little house; a Victorian mid-terrace on a quiet back street, it had a tiny garden at the front. The one at the back wasn’t much bigger. There was enough room for a small wooden deck and a piece of lawn the size of a handkerchief, but it was a miniature sun trap and Martha would always rather sunbathe than garden. The part of London she lived in was not fashionable, not like Notting Hill or Islington, but that suited Martha just fine. She didn’t want to be constantly in the spotlight, having her photo taken when she’d popped out to Tescos for Tampax without any make up on. So far in East Dulwich that hadn’t happened, and there had been times she’d left the house in a right mess. She wasn’t looking too great now, that was for sure. She felt sweaty, gritty and that she could sleep for two days straight; all she wanted was a good long soak and her bed. With a sigh she felt the lock click and with a slight shove, the door opened. Sliding the largest of the three cases onto the black and white hall tiles, Martha caught a whiff of a very distinctive scent.
There was no reply, but she knew he was there, or at least had been.
“If you’re here, babe, can you give me a hand with these cases?”
Still nothing. He must’ve been and gone. Odd. He knew she was due back today; why would he come and then go again? She brought the other two cases in and left them at the bottom of the stairs. They could wait. A cup of tea, however, could not. When she walked past the living room, she saw a figure sitting in the leather armchair. Her heart leapt into her throat.
“Jesus, Marco, you startled me. Why didn’t you say anything when I called you?”
He was sitting with his elbows resting on the arms of the chair, his fingers steepled, still not saying anything. Martha nervously tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear.
“D-do you want a cup of tea?”
Cold brown eyes met hers, and she swallowed convulsively, rooted to the spot.
“Is something wrong, darling?”
“I don’t know, Martha. You tell me”
She hated this, the not knowing what it was she’d done, but it was obvious she’d done something. It never took much for the ten year old inside Martha Hall to panic: a tone of voice, a certain phrase and she would cower. When it happened, she looked at Marco and saw her father, heard his voice and waited for the heavy handed blow. Cold to hot fury in a matter of seconds. Martha attempted to slow her breathing, to calm her heart and stop it from crashing out of her rib cage. She sat on the edge of the sofa, clasping her hands in front of her. Marco didn’t change his position, just stared at her with icy intensity.
“Did you have fun making an idiot of me?”
Panic was quickly turning into anxiety; Martha’s face was burning, her breathing hitching to only a short step from hyperventilation.
“I don’t know – ”
“It would’ve been bad enough with another man but a woman – ”
There it went, her breathing. Short and choppy, coming out in spurts. She was already feeling light headed.
“I might’ve understood if it had been a hot chick, that might’ve been entertaining, but no. You, you stupid cow, had to pick the biggest dyke in the world. As if that other friend of yours wasn’t bad enough. At least she had the sense to leave you alone”
“Marco – I don’t know – ”
Suddenly, his voice was raised.
She started to tremble, and once that started, it wouldn’t easily stop. Marco dropped his voice, his point made.
“Shall I tell you something about your precious girlfriend?”
“My – my – ?”
He pushed himself out of the chair and walked over to Martha, leaning down so his face was only inches from hers.
“Her father is a murderer”
With that, he turned his back on her and walked out of the house without even needing to slam the door.
“Matty, if you’re there, please open the door. I’m going to stay out here until you do, ringing your bell until you come and tell me to quit doing it”
Jo was feigning a light heartedness she didn’t feel. Hard to be genuinely jovial when your calls haven’t been returned for three days, when you’ve had to involve others in your rising panic, and have sat on the doorstep of a redbrick Victorian house for the last hour talking through the letter box, hoping the neighbours won’t call the police.
“Please, Matty. Please talk to me”
Someone was moving around, she saw a glimpse of them, and dropped the letter box guard so quickly, it rattled. She didn’t want to be caught like a peeping tom. Seconds later, the door opened a fraction, the chain pulled taut, only wide enough for Jo to see an eye and she felt her stomach lurch. It was a cliché about the eyes being the windows of the soul, but in the case of Martha Hall it was true. Whatever she felt was reflected so clearly; they were weather predicting eyes. That day they were dull and overcast, the light gone out of them. Jo was surveyed listlessly.
“Go away, Jo”
Jo’s pulse thumped painfully in her head.
“Not until you talk to me, tell me what’s happened”
“I just want you to leave”
However, she didn’t shut the door. A glimmer of hope kindled in Jo’s chest.
“What’s happened? Last time we spoke, you were looking forward to seeing me. At least that’s what you said. What’s changed?”
Martha’s sigh was bone weary.
“Why did you tell Marco?”
Her words were accusatory but her tone flat, tired.
“Tell him what? I don’t understand”
“Tell him about us”
Jo began to properly panic.
“I didn’t tell him. He’s a sharp bloke, he figured something was going on. O Christ, I implied stuff but I never told him, I swear”
The same flat tone.
“Do you realise you’ve probably ruined my career? Everything I’ve worked for in the last eight years – wait, how did you know where I live?”
Jo stared down at her trainers.
“I asked Janine”
“When you wouldn’t return my calls, I panicked and thought the worst. I – I asked Janine for your address”
“Brilliant, so now everyone knows?”
“No, no, Janine won’t tell anyone. She cares too much about you to do that”
“Why couldn’t you just leave it alone, Jo?”
Jo rarely cried, even when she was a kid. Her family prided themselves on being hard and never showing weakness. That was what had got her into this whole mess in the first place. She let Santini get to her and then had to out tough him or lose face. But the flat finality in Martha’s voice was tearing at her, and she could feel tears burning at the back of her throat. She was a fucking idiot who had to get one over on some stupid no mark bloke because he had what she wanted and was gloating about it. She was no better than he was and was deluded to think otherwise.
“Matty, will you let me in? Just for a minute”
“I don’t think so, Jo. I think I’d rather you left”
“Please – ”
“Were you ever going to tell me about your father?”
“My – my father?”
“Marco said he’s a murderer”
It was a miracle Jo didn’t throw up on the doorstep. Well, that served her right. She was the one who brought her father into it, that was bound to have exploded in her face. She lowered her voice.
“Do you really expect me to talk about that on your front doorstep?”
The door shut in her face. Jo slid to the cold concrete step, her back to the wood and buried her face in her hands. There was no way she could stop the tears now.
Continued in part 10
Return to the Academy