Synopsis: Driving at night is always unnerving when you are unsure of your route. But Rebecca Gibson found more than she bargained for one dark night in October, and thought she was losing her mind.
Disclaimers: Yep. As always. But, the characters in this story are all mine. Bless them. I bet they wish it otherwise. Ungrateful gits.
Sex: Grin. Maybe. Erm. Although if you have read my previous work, that ‘maybe’ may turn into a ‘too damned right’. However, if you are too young to read about even a ‘maybe’ or a ‘too damned right’, you should close this now. If you live in place where it is illegal to read this, why are you still living there?
Violence: To be honest, what does the term violence suggest? Events refer to violence, but there is no real slapping going on. Well, violently anyway. I’m confusing myself now, probably because I’m still thinking about the sex disclaimer.
Language: English – and quite a bit of the effy jeffy going around. This is a story about a woman who is frightened half to death, so you can imagine the epithets spewing out of her dirty little mouth can’t you?
If you like my story, then drop me a line and let me know. If you want, that is. If you don’t like it, maybe (and not the sexy ‘maybe’) you may want to skip the dropping me a line bit. I’m feeling fragile at the moment. Honestly.
You can reach me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Or, better still, if you like what I do and want to check out my published work, follow the link. L T Smith Ylva Publishing I am with a new publisher now and they have some cracking books out there – even a few by me.
Driving Me Mad
by Fingersmith (LT Smith) ©
I’d been driving for over four and a half hours. Four and a half bloody hours. It wouldn’t have been so bad if I hadn’t been awake and on the go for nearly twelve hours before I’d plonked my backside in the car, but I had. The convention I was driving from had overrun and I’d been stuck with a mishmash of Sales Reps from all over the UK – some of whom would bore a train spotter. Believe me. I’m surprised I didn’t catnap standing up.
Like a fool, I thought I was good to go when the final speeches were over. Thought I was alert enough to get to the hotel I was staying in for the night without any mishaps. How wrong could I have been? I think I must’ve had some kind of mild brain trauma considering I’d been inflicted to shite all day, you know, like a Sales Rep version of concussion, whereby the violent shake to the head was me trying to keep awake.
Once again, like a fool, I thought I would beat my rivals to the next venue that was to take place the following day one hundred and ten miles away. By getting to the hotel just on the outskirts of Morley in the Peak District, I would be refreshed the next morning and only have to stroll down the stairs, eat breakfast, then take a pew right at the front.
However, I didn’t allow for tiredness, shite directions, a crap signal for my mobile and finding myself in the arse end of nowhere. The journey to the hotel should have taken me just shy of two hours, but, as you can tell, I’d been driving for over four and a half naffing hours and I still had no clue where I was.
Trees, trees and more trees lined the side of the narrow road I was driving along. Trees that were overgrown and half hanging over, ultimately blocking my view of the road ahead. Trees that would not look out of place in The Wizard of Oz or from some teen Cabin in the Woods slash horror flick. The full beam of my headlights fought valiantly to break the darkness, but they were failing to make any sense of my bearings – a little like myself.
‘Turn left.’ A disembodied voice from next to me made me grip the steering wheel a little too hard, forcing a sharp small swerve to my left.
‘Fucking Susan,’ I ground out. Susan was not a ghost, not a phantom hitchhiker suddenly appearing in my car reminding lost travellers of the terrors that claimed people along this stretch of tarmac. Susan was the name given to the useless piece of shit Sat Nav sitting on the passenger seat.
‘Speak now, yeah? Now there isn’t a left turn.’ My hand fumbled over to grab the previously thrown device, the cool plastic of the casing slipping into my grasp.
Eyes still riveted on the road, I felt around the oblong casing and pressed down the off switch. My car’s interior dipped into further darkness.
It was too quiet, both inside and outside the car. I’d killed the radio miles back because all I seemed to pick up were the tunes of interference. Although music of today does mainly sound like it is off key, it doesn’t usually sound as if it is white noise with distorted voices sporadically drifting in. Not the most reassuring sound when driving on my own at just turned midnight at the end of October. Not reassuring at all.
Glancing down, I checked my petrol. I still had just under half a tank – a sight that made me feel a little better about my dilemma. Not much better, but a little, and at this stage, a little was better than nothing.
My eyes were aching. It was partly due to being tired, but staring intently into darkness half lit by crappy headlights was not helping the growing headache that was inching up my forehead like a mini mountain climber using small sky hooks to dig into my skull. I also needed to pee. My stomach was ballooning and I definitely thought it was going to be a case of getting my car seat valeted when I arrived back to civilisation – especially if that buggered up Sat Nav spoke again.
A fleeting thought of public toilets skittered into my head. Why I honestly thought there would be public toilets out in the middle of nowhere is beyond me. The powers of the local council hadn’t even thought it viable to put up road signs never mind a toilet to help the stranded.
Another half an hour went by. My belly was imitating an eight month pregnant woman by this stage and I was feeling the pinch of it every time I shifted my feet on the pedals. I was still in the middle of Deliverance country, and I knew I wasn’t going to see the bright lights of the Land of the Living any time soon.
That was it. Pee time. Pee time behind a bush, behind a tree – hell – pee time in the middle of the fucking road. It wasn’t as if I was going to be flashed by headlights as I was flashing my arse to passing cars, was it? I hadn’t seen another soul for the last two hours. Normal people were in bed by now.
However, that didn’t mean serial killers weren’t out and about.
A nervous laugh escaped my tightly clamped lips, obviously escaping with difficulty. ‘I’ll set Susan on them.’ A snigger came next. ‘If she decides to work.’
Decision made, I pulled over to the side of the road. If I thought it had been quiet before, then this beat it tenfold.
Turning my engine off, I opened my car door. The ping pinging started, alerting me I’d left my lights on. Too right. My car could ping ping as much as it wanted to, but there was no way I was getting out in complete darkness. I was also going to leave my car door open so the interior light would aid my call of nature.
Stretching, I looked about. Nothing. No one. Dark with the hint of fake light. A memory of peeing at the side of the road with my mother popped inside my head and I opened the back door too, making a little cubicle between doors.
‘Nice trick, mum.’ Even though I was not too sure why I was hiding myself from prying eyes, I also wondered why I was talking to myself. I doubted anyone would be out here, and even if they were, the lights from inside my car would illuminate me to a voyeur anyway making the ‘cubicle’ idea redundant.
Then another thought hit me. What if there was actually someone watching me? What if that person wanted to do a little more than watch?
Back to the serial killer thoughts. Or rapist? Or the person with a pee fetish? And there I was - knickers around my ankles and silently inviting them to come and get some.
I wish I could say I decided I could hold on until I found a lovely, clean, white and sterile place safe from death or sexual assault, but I had gone past that. It was a case of taking my chances with my life and my bladder.
Squatting down, I slipped my underwear down to the point where it is just past being peed on. It would have been a damned sight easier if I’d been wearing a skirt, but alas, I was in trousers. It would also have been a damned sight easier if I hadn’t been such a twat and decide to beat the rush to the next venue, but that, too, was a thing of retrospect – although being a twat still stood.
Amazing, isn’t it? When you’re bursting to go, it won’t come immediately. It aches, it cries, it deliberates before trickling out slowly, and all the while I was on watch for an attacker. Every whisper of the wind, every movement of the leaves, I involuntarily clenched and stopped the flow. My ears seemed to grow into points and I perched like a German Shepherd on guard duty in the hub between my car doors.
Finished. Finally. And I’d forgotten to get some tissues from my glove compartment. Joy. Now this was October. End of October. Nearly one in the morning and a bloody cold end of October at that. I doubted I would ‘air dry’ in this environment. I was more likely to freeze my fou fou instead of drying her.
Standing, I began to pull up my trousers and underwear. A noise from my left alerted me of something moving in the foliage. Like my fou, I froze.
There it was again. A crunching. A snapping of twigs, like someone moving towards me. My hands were hovering over my zipper as if it had a concealed weapon hiding beneath. The rustling stopped.
Then started again.
As if on cue, the interior light decided to switch off making me make a noise I never thought would come from me. I can’t even tell you, onomatopoeically, how it went. It was just a sound of fear, if fear could be summed up in a wheezing, choking sound with the added indescribable noise thrown into the mix.
The noises from the darkness came again and I staggered backwards, totally ignoring the puddle I had recently made. This wasn’t the time to worry about standing in my own urine – I was too concerned about lying in a pool of my own blood to care if I had pee on my shoes.
‘Who’s there?’ My voice reflected how I felt. Shitted up. Why I’d decided to confront my nocturnal assailant is beyond me. That is if there was a nocturnal assailant to confront. Imagination is a powerful thing, especially in the wrong hands – or head – or anything. Unfortunately, my imagination was limited to my work and, as I had just found out, images of death and destruction. Pity I couldn’t amalgamate all three into my daily life. That way, I would be the top of my imaginative field and be CEO of my own little fucked up company instead of travelling in the middle of the night to try to get the best seat so I could get the newest and best information about selling shit.
I’m rambling – yes? In my defence, I tend to ramble when I’m scared. And considering the fear was still with me, I shall ramble a tad more.
I know that the mind can conjure things unbidden. I also know that it can also mess with a person so that person can believe things are knocking about when they are not. But, I wasn’t going to risk finding out if the noises I could hear were just in my head. Bravery was not my forte. I was more of a ‘run and hide’ kind of girl.
It wasn’t until I slammed the driver’s side door, put on my seatbelt and started my engine, did I realise I’d left the back door open. I was tempted to just drive off and hope the damned thing shut on its own, but knowing my luck, whoever was in the woods would grab the door, get in, put a knife to my throat and growl out ‘Drive’.
Leaning over the seat, I struggled to grab the side of the door. I didn’t want to climb out into the darkness again, but it looked as if I was going to have to.
One hand went to undo my seatbelt and the other grabbed the handle on my door and then halted before opening either. This wasn’t because I was undecided. This was because the back door did something I wanted it to do, but actually not the way I wanted it to, if you know what I mean.
The squeal of my tyres must have left a mark on the road – they must have – and I won’t mention the marks that surely had appeared in my underwear. I never knew I could drive without holding onto the steering wheel to start with. But considering one hand was on the door handle and the other was on the gear stick, I must have. And there was no mirror, signal, manoeuvre in sight.
My heart was racing wildly, almost like a joyrider. It was driving faster than me and I was clocking up the speed in my haste to get away from whatever had slammed the door shut. It wasn’t until I was a couple of minutes down the road, and my breathing was not hurting my lungs so much, that I had another thought.
What if the door slammed shut after someone had climbed inside the car with me?
The blood in my veins seemed to freeze. A tingling of apprehension rippled over my skin making the hairs stand to attention. I wanted to look in my rear view mirror and check it out, but I just couldn’t seem to drag up the nerve. What if I looked and someone was looking back at me? What if I saw the glint of a blade, or the prominent shape of vampiric teeth? Jesus. This wasn’t Twilight.
A little voice piped up inside my mind, ‘But it could so easily be on the front page of a national newspaper by tomorrow.’
Weirdly, I had a side step in my head at that point and wondered what photo they would use of me on the front page.
What the …?
I had to make a decision, and quickly. I didn’t have the nerve to look, and I didn’t have the time to not look. I had to act fast. Had to do something. Had to … had to do what? Deliberate? Do nothing? Act stupid instead of acting quickly?
Once again, what the …?
My feet jammed onto the brake and clutch, forcing my body forward. Thankfully, I didn’t hit anything so the air bag stayed put. I wanted to see if the person, if there had been a person at all in the back, would slam into my seat, or come flying through to the front. I doubted the ‘would be’ killer/rapist/attacker/hitchhiker would have considered putting on a seatbelt. I wasn’t au fait with the etiquette of frightening the shit out of someone by climbing into a backseat.
As soon as I got my bearings, I was out of the car and standing about four feet away. The back seat looked innocently empty, but I was still unsure. Slowly, I moved back towards the exposed vehicle, my door open, the lights blazing eerily into the darkness, and tipped my head from side to side trying to gauge the actual ‘emptiness’ of the seat.
The breath I’d been holding began to seep out and mix into the cool night air. White puffs floated in front of me and I felt a sense of relief that I was still breathing at all.
Climbing back into the car, I placed my hands on the steering wheel. Not surprisingly, they were shaking. I was cold, scared, lost and tired. I was imagining things. I was becoming desperate and hysterical. These were not very good ingredients for driving at night in a place where everything looked the same. For all I knew I’d been driving around in circles for hours.
Tears were brimming and I could feel the rumblings of a fully-fledged breakdown crawling throughout my body. A sob broke free and I angrily swiped my hand across my eyes, moisture clinging to my fingers. I was not going to lose it. I was going to keep on driving until I found a sign of life or even a sign that would direct me to life.
Then I saw something. Something that looked almost familiar. Well, it was familiar, but not for the last two and a half hours.
It was a light. A light from a house. Out here, a house. A person, or people, or a family with a dog and a cat and a phone and directions. I didn’t care anymore that the person living at the house was out to get me – by this time I would take my chances. I wouldn’t care if it was Bates Motel and Norman offered me a shower, I was going to knock on the door and ask for help. Obviously I would take my wheel brace with me and hide it inside my jacket. That was a given.
Instead of feeling scared, I felt a bubble of excitement rush through me. It wasn’t due to the duel to the death with me and a ‘could be attacker’ as we wielded our weapons of changing tyres; it was just the thought of getting out of here. Getting back to life and light.
Slipping the car into gear, I pulled away and headed towards the yellow glow that was a few hundred yards up the road.
The crunch of gravel under my tyres as I pulled onto the house’s driveway semi reassured me. The outside light was on and so were the lights downstairs. At least I wouldn’t have to wake someone up, unless they had fallen asleep without turning them off. If that was the case, they would be happy I had saved them from getting a huge electricity bill at the end of the quarter and welcome me with open arms instead of a shotgun. Yep. That was my fucked up reasoning to help aid my calmness.
Alas, it really wasn’t working because as soon as I opened my door, I felt someone watching me. I still had to get my wheel brace from the boot of my car, but that idea didn’t seem that wonderful anymore. Bending over into the blackness of the boot to rummage around looking for my wheel brace would leave me open and exposed to anyone who could have been watching. I’d seen Silence of the Lambs. I knew that an attacker could thwack a woman at the back of the head and shove her in the back of a van and drive off to claim her skin as his.
Yes. My overactive imagination was back again. I didn’t have a van. I had a Mazda 3.
Decision made, I grabbed my keys and my handbag, sucked in a breath and scuttled out of the car, the door slamming in place as I made a run for the welcoming light on the porch. I didn’t look about to see if there was a doorbell. My fist went straight to the wood and hammered hard. I couldn’t seem to stand in one place, couldn’t seem to just wait innocently for the person in the house to open the door. I was too busy checking my perimeters. Checking for someone sneaking up on me.
Hands grabbed my shoulders and pulled. The scream I had been saving for this very thing seemed to lodge itself inside my throat and refused to budge. I had to get it out before the person grabbing me covered my mouth and silenced me forever.
Almost roughly, I was turned and felt the same hands that had grabbed me slip around my shoulders and pull me in. Warmth blanketed me, a definite feeling of protection. How could I feel protected when I was being manhandled by a stranger … a stranger with breasts and a strong grip? A stranger that was shaking just as hard as I was?
I knew I should kick, should punch, bite, scratch and maim this person to save my life, but I couldn’t seem to move from the cocoon that was surrounding me. Those stranger’s hands slipped down my back in reassuring moves, before one lifted to the back of my head and pulled me more deeply into the softness of a chest.
‘I knew you would come. Knew it.’ The female voice above my head was wrought with pain and emotion, the agony apparent. ‘God! I’ve looked everywhere for you. Everywhere.’
Me? Looked everywhere for me? And what did she mean she knew I would ‘come’? I’d never been here before. I think I would have remembered if …
A soft kiss landed on the top of my head stopping my thoughts. The woman gently kissed my hair again before nuzzling her face against the side of my head.
This wasn’t right. Not right at all. But, strangely, it felt right. Felt right to be held in the arms of a stranger at gone one in the morning in a place I didn’t know. In her arms, I felt safe, like whoever had been watching me from the woods couldn’t hurt me now she held me close.
My eyes fluttered closed and I nestled into the contact of the woman again, inhaling a scent that was like nectar. I didn’t care that I didn’t know her, or knew what she looked like. All that mattered was that she kept on holding me.
‘Come on, Ellen. Let’s get you inside.’ Who was Ellen? ‘You’re shivering.’ The woman holding me pulled away slightly to direct our journey to inside the house.
With effort, I lifted my head to look around. Maybe Ellen was the one whom I assumed had been watching me. But there was no one there other than me and the unknown woman.
‘What’s up, Ellen?’ Although her voice was soft, it showed concern, like it was directed at someone who was acting strangely.
Just a minute. Did the woman think I was Ellen? I didn’t think it was that dark considering there was a light outside the door.
Twisting slightly, I was released from her grasp. Taking a step back, I faced the woman, the light from behind her casting a shadow over her face.
‘Who’s Ellen?’ I asked.
She stepped forward, but faltered. Her head cocked to the side and she appeared to absorb me. Another tilt and I saw the outline of a firm jaw, a jaw that was moving as if it was chewing words.
‘I’m Rebecca.’ It seemed as if she stiffened when she heard my name, so I thought I would elaborate. ‘Rebecca Gibson.’
The woman moved backwards as if she was trying to go back inside the house. Not without me she wasn’t.
‘Sorry. I … well … I’m lost and …’
Each step she took backwards, I took forwards. Soon enough, we were both standing in her hallway. Beautiful, dark brown eyes looked into mine, quizzical brown eyes framed by long lashes. They showed confusion as if what they were seeing wasn’t real. My own eyes drifted down a straight, defined nose and settled on full red lips slightly parted as if they were readying themselves to allow words to break free.
‘I’m sorry to impose on you at such a late hour, but …’
Her shoulders slumped before straightening once again. ‘Not a problem … Rebecca.’
Why did she feel the need to separate my name from her statement?
‘Come inside. You must be freezing.’ Her voice had lost the softness of previously and there was a distinct edge to it now, almost business like.
She moved past me and grabbed the door handle.
Before she closed the door, she stared into the darkness once again. A sigh left her and she clicked the door into place and attached the chain. ‘Come. In here to the fire.’ She walked past me and disappeared into a room to the right of where I was standing. With a shrug, I followed her.
Inside the room there was an open fire, the flames long gone but the embers glowing fiercely. The furniture was in fitting with the age of the house; classically rustic and well worn. My hostess was standing next to the armchair closest to the fire and she gestured that it was the place I should sit. I moved past her, my arm brushing against hers in the process. A spark seemed to ignite between us and I felt her jerk away, a short gasp leaving her lips.
Before I had the chance to sit, she had left the room and I found myself alone once again. The ticking of a clock seemed to be the only noise I could hear and my eyes hunted it out. One thirty four. Shit. No wonder she was pissed off at me. It certainly wasn’t etiquette to knock on someone’s door at such a late hour, especially since it was apparent she was expecting someone else.
A memory of being held in her arms on her porch flitted into my head. I couldn’t shake the feeling of belonging there, however strange that may sound. It wasn’t just the feel of her, the protection I felt, or even the smell of her. It was so much more than that. But, whatever that was, I couldn’t say.
Back to the clock. One thirty nine. Where had she gone? Once more, I started to look around the room. A leather sofa with throws draped over it; a coffee table littered with magazines. Stretching, I pulled one towards me. Might as well occupy my time doing something other than noting décor. If I hadn’t, I would have probably started rooting through her side board drawers.
Picture Post magazine, October 31 1953. I couldn’t believe I was looking at a magazine that was sixty years old. It didn’t seem to be that age, although the picture on the front was not exactly Hello magazine. It was far too dated for that. London smog? Nurses? 4D or 4 pennies – the price, that is – before decimalisation.
‘I thought you might need a cup of tea.’ The sound of the woman’s voice made me start, the magazine flying from my hands and onto the floor. ‘Sorry. Didn’t mean to make you jump.’
An awkward moment, I think. I had been nosing around her collectable magazines and been caught, thereby tossing it into the air and ruffling the buggering thing up.
Shooting out of the chair, I tried to grab it, but in my haste, I felt a page slightly tear. Fuck. And fuck again.
Carefully, although a little late for that, I lifted the magazine and offered it to her like it was a sacrifice. The woman just stared at me, a tray laden with teacups, sugar, and a teapot and milk jug balanced in her hands.
‘I … well … God. I’m sorry.’
A laugh broke through her cool façade. Don’t worry. I’ve already read it.’
I opened my mouth to apologise again, considering it was a vintage piece, but she shook her head. ‘Just throw it on the side will you? I need to put this down.’ I didn’t toss it. I placed it neatly on the floor underneath the table.
A couple of minutes passed as she was finalising the tea. After she’d poured, and I had accepted milk but no sugar, she settled into the seat opposite mine.
‘So, Rebecca.’ The woman sat down in the armchair opposite mine. ‘You were saying you’re lost.’
I sipped my tea, winced at the heat of it, before placing my cup and saucer onto the table. But before I could answer her, she spoke again.
‘My name. I thought it was about time I introduced myself.’ She leaned back into the armchair and pulled her cup to her mouth. Annabel didn’t take a drink; she just stared at me from over the rim like she was assessing me.
I felt like I was being scrutinised, probably because I was. It wouldn’t have been so bad if her eyes weren’t so intense, weren’t so beautiful.
A blush started to creep up my neck and spread over my face. I never blushed. Being a Sales Rep demanded it. So, why was I blushing now?
‘Erm.’ Good call, Rebecca. Three letters and a little intonation. Could work on the pace though. ‘Yes. I … well, I’m lost.’ Jesus. Why did I repeat the only thing apart from my name that she already knew?
A smile flittered over Annabel’s face before she sipped her drink. It looked like she was aware I was a moron.
The thought of her smirking at my unease put up my heckles. I was tired, pissed off, and my headache was still clinging to the inside of my skull.
The blush receded.
‘I was travelling up from Cambridge to Morley and seemed to take a wrong turn somewhere along the line.’ Annabel tilted her head to the side as if I should continue. ‘I’m supposed to be at Breadsall Priory ready for a convention in the morning.’
‘Breadsall Priory? Do you know the Haslam’s?’
Why on earth would I know the owners to a hotel? It was a bloody Marriott.
I laughed. She glared. I laughed again.
‘Not really, no. Although I have contemplated adding them to Facebook.’
Her face scrunched as in thought and I believed she would laugh with me. But no. She just looked pissed off.
‘You’re not too far from the Priory. About ten miles.’ She leaned forward and placed her cup on the table, her eyes fixed on mine. ‘But I wouldn’t advise driving at night. Not here.’
I wanted to laugh again, but thought better of it. It seemed as if Annabel wanted to scare me and I was fully expecting tales of goblins and will-o’-the-wisps.
‘The trees block the road in parts and it’s wisest to travel in the day.’
Maybe not. Maybe she was just being practical.
Annabel kept looking at me, kept staring into my face. I was beginning to feel uncomfortable, yet not, if you know what I mean. Soft brown eyes absorbed my features. They dwelled on each facet of my face for what appeared to be an interminable amount of time. All the while she did this, I couldn’t help but be amazed by her natural beauty. The fine chiselled jaw, the high cheekbones, the way the glow from the fire seemed to dance and enhance each line and muscle. I felt as if I knew her, had known her, but from where I couldn’t say.
‘I feel as if we’ve met already.’ It wasn’t me who spoke; it was her. ‘Have you been to Kirk Langley before?’ Her voice was so soft, almost addictively so. There seemed to be an aura around her that was not caused by the fire.
The moisture from my mouth seemed to have escaped me and I swallowed a couple of times before realising I had a cup of tea. A quick sip, a wince because of the heat of it, and I felt able to answer.
‘I didn’t even know where I was never mind been here before.’
Her eyes were riveted to my mouth and I licked my lips in reflex. She mimicked the gesture. Then it seemed to occur to her what she had done. Her face froze, her eyes widened slightly in acknowledgement, and then she slowly slipped back into her seat, her expression seeming to close off.
Back to the sound of the ticking clock. The atmosphere was charged with something indefinable, but also expectant. There were so many questions I wanted to ask her, but I didn’t feel as if I could for some reason. The main one was who Ellen was and why she had thought I was her. But, it’s not something a person just brings up, is it?
‘Who’s Ellen?’ What the fuck? Couldn’t I take my own advice of it being something that a person didn’t bring up?
Annabel’s eyes met mine and I saw a flicker of pain surface before being buried once again.
‘She’s my friend.’ Her voice was low, calm, but also guarded. I don’t think I had ever greeted my friends the way Annabel had greeted me – even though she thought I was someone else at the time. Come to think of it, I don’t think I had ever greeted any of my girlfriends like that. If they went AWOL they usually stayed AWOL. I didn’t look ‘everywhere’ for them, like Annabel had said. Didn’t know they were coming back, probably because I hadn’t cared enough if they had.
Back to uncomfortable silence. It was obvious that Ellen was more than a friend, but I wasn’t going to push it. Annabel’s relationship with the other woman had nothing to do with me.
‘I think I’d better take my chances and get to the hotel.’ I stood to leave. I had definitely outstayed my welcome.
Annabel shot to her feet, her arms stretching out to me. ‘No! No. Stay. I insist.’ The sheer panic on her face made my heart clench. Didn’t she want to stay here alone? Nah. That couldn’t be it. ‘It isn’t safe for you to go at this time of night.’
She quickly moved around the table, her hand grabbing my arm. I could feel the heat of her, smell her scent again. It was intoxicating.
Looking up, I met her eyes. If I thought they were beautiful before, I was wrong. Up close, her eyes absorbed me completely. Brown, so very brown, and deep and soulful and all-consuming. I honestly believed I could see my future within their depths.
‘I insist.’ The words were tender, inviting, magical. I couldn’t answer her; just nodded my agreement as I tried to stop my heart pounding through my chest.
Annabel released a breath, the softness of it hitting my skin and sending sparks throughout my body. She still held my arm as if she believed if she released it, I would disappear.
‘You can sleep in my bed.’
Huh? Even for me that sounded a little bit forward.
‘I’ll sleep down here.’ Her hand was still on my arm as she spoke. I looked at it before looking back into her eyes. They held a question and I answered without it being spoken.
‘Thank you. But …’ She squinted as she waited for me to continue. ‘If I do stay, I’ll sleep down here.’ Annabel went to interrupt but I beat her to it. ‘Now it is my turn to insist.’
She pursed her lips and tilted her head to one side as if she was assessing me all over again. Then a sigh slipped through her lips, followed by a single nod of her head.
Her hand left my arm and I missed the heat of it immediately. It was as if I was suddenly thrust into a world of isolation and desperately missing the contact of her skin on the sleeve of my sweater.
Annabel took a step back, her eyes flitting away from mine before returning back to absorb me once more. From my peripheral vision, I noted her hand stretch outwards towards me again before dropping to her side. Her eyes closed so deliberately, it seemed as if it was in slow motion. She kept them closed for a moment before opening them. Annabel inhaled deeply, held onto it, and then exhaled in one long breath.
All the time, I was transfixed.
‘I’ll get you some blankets.’ And she was gone, and I was left wondering what on earth had just happened.
I heard her footfall on the stairs, thuds against wooden slats. I listened to her quick footsteps across what must have been a bare wooden landing. And all the time I just stood there - just bloody stood there as if my feet were nailed to the floor.
What had just happened? What had been going through her mind as she touched my arm, held my gaze, closed those eyes and held the image of something only she could see inside? We had never met before but to me it appeared as if I had known her before, knew her more than a woman who had been kind enough to offer me a place of safety. And, by the way she was acting, I had a feeling she felt the same way.
‘Here you go.’ Annabel was back, arms full of blankets and pillows. ‘It’ll get colder in here when the fire gets low.’ She placed the stack onto the sofa, her back to me. I didn’t answer. Just watched her shoulders working as they moved the material over the space where I was to sleep. Annabel stopped her work and peered over to me. ‘Or I could put on more logs, if you’d like?’
I forced a smile from within and shook my head. ‘I’ll be fine. Honestly.’ Her brow furrowed slightly before her mouth opened to speak. ‘I get quite hot in bed.’ Fuck. And fuck. Not because of my inability to phrase things better, but the blush was coming back in full force.
A crooked smile lit across her face. ‘Really?’
Now this was the time where I could’ve flirted mercilessly, but I just couldn’t. I didn’t want to flirt with her. Didn’t want to cheapen how I felt about her by coming back with corny one liners and moving my eyebrows suggestively like they do in cheap trashy novels. I didn’t even stop to question what, exactly, I did feel about her. I just turned away and started to stack the tea things back onto the tray.
A couple of minutes later, I was walking into the kitchen with the tray. The weird thing about that is I hadn’t known where the kitchen was but I also knew where it was, if you know what I mean. The room was as I expected it to be – rustic. There was no sign of the usual expected things a person would find in a kitchen – no, that was wrong – it did hold the usual, but it didn’t. I’m not making any sense, I know that. The Aga cooker seemed dated, just like the steel kettle that sat on the top. There was no microwave, no toaster, no coffee maker. Just a huge wooden table and four chairs, cupboards, a cooker, a rectangle pot sink and drainer, and a cream coloured fridge. Copper pans hung from a rack over the cooker and I could see my face distorted in the shine of them.
Plonking the tray on the drainer, I stood back and stared at the small window above the sink. It was dark outside, obviously, and I could see my reflection there too. My face seemed to be cast in shadow, but I could see the definitions of my nose, mouth and eyes. I looked intense, like I was trying to work out the meaning of life. I don’t know why, because the only thing I was concerned about was why I had suddenly had the sensation of feeling something more than gratitude for my hostess.
Something wasn’t right – didn’t add up. My face looked distorted again, like it had when I’d looked at the side of the copper pans. Not like when a person checks his or her reflection in the back of a spoon – not like that at all.
I leaned closed, the image in the window moving closer too. Squinting, I tried to decipher what it was. Maybe it was because the window was double glazed that it appeared I had one face over the other. But it didn’t seem as if it was double …
Then my image blinked. I didn’t blink, the image did. I swear. It must’ve been tiredness, as I’d been up for over seventeen hours. No wonder I was imagining things. I scrunched my eyes and shook my head and looked again. No. Everything was fine. I was just …
I pulled back from the glass and listened.
Something was tapping on the glass from outside. I thought it was a branch, initially. Until the third time the noise came.
The reason why I realised it wasn’t a branch is simple.
Branches don’t have knuckles.
The scream that left my lungs was powerful. It reverberated off the walls, bounced off the copper pans and hit me full force. Scrambling backwards, I jammed into the table thus making me scream again. The tapping had become insistent, and I looked to the window and saw myself still waiting there. That was impossible. I couldn’t still be reflected in the glass – I was half way across the room.
‘What’s …’ Annabel came rushing into the kitchen and I couldn’t tell her, couldn’t do anything but grab hold of her and pull her to me.
I was shaking, the sobs intermittent between words that scrambled for coherence. Annabel placed her arms around me and pulled me closer, her hands rubbing my back in long, languid strokes. I couldn’t believe how wonderful it felt to be in her arms - how glorious it was to be held in such safety. She was making shushing noises to calm me and, strangely, it was working. Well, working enough for me to splutter out a little of what I had seen.
Her body stiffened, her hands freezing in mid stroke. I looked up at her, and caught the fixated look on her face. It seemed as if she slipped away from me with no effort as she moved towards the window. Strong hands landed either side of the frame and she peered against the glass. Her shoulders were rigid.
The tapping had stopped. Actually, if I cast my mind back, it had stopped as soon as Annabel had entered the kitchen.
‘I’m sorry … I must’ve imagined it.’
Annabel didn’t turn or acknowledge me - just kept staring out into the inky blackness.
Slowly, I moved towards her, my hand reaching out to touch her jumper clad back. The stiffness I expected seemed to evaporate on contact, but there was a slight tremble racing through her.
‘What did you see, exactly?’ Her voice was cold, distant.
‘Nothing. It was …’
She turned abruptly, my hand falling dejectedly to my side. Brown eyes bored into mine. ‘No. You did.’ She took a step forward. ‘What was it?’
I held my hands up, my palms displayed for her to see, then shrugged. Her expression didn’t change. She just stared into me.
By now I felt like a fool. I was tired, that was all. There wasn’t anyone outside tapping on the glass like fucking Catherine Earnshaw. It was a case of playing Bloody Mary, like I had when I had been a kid. ‘Stare at the glass and say Bloody Mary three times and you see …’
However, it never said anything about hearing a tapping sound when I played it back then. Or mentioning BM’s knuckles.
‘It was just my reflection. It seemed odd.’
Annabel stepped forward. ‘Odd?’
‘It was just your double glazing.’
‘Glazing. Your window.’
Annabel shook her head and glanced back at the glass. I could see the outline of her in the glass and part of my face peering around her.
I could feel her eyes on me and knew she expected me to say more. But what could I say? I saw my doppelganger at the window and it tapped on the glass? Fuck that.
‘Honestly, Annabel. I just freaked myself out.’ I stepped back and made to turn away from her. Her hand stretched out and held my wrist, holding me in place. ‘I’m just tired, that’s all.’
It seemed as if time metaphorically held its breath and waited along with me. I felt the stiffness of her touch gentle, and she released me along with a sigh.
‘I suppose you’d better get to bed then.’
Annabel walked past me and out of the room. With a last look at the window, I followed her.
Within ten minutes, I was alone in the living room and sprawled on the sofa. Piles of blankets covered me and I could feel the heat of them seeping into my skin. Annabel had offered me something to wear, but I refused. I had a suitcase in the car, but there was no way I was going to go back outside and root around to find my pjs. Not after what I had ‘thought’ I had seen. I was too much of a chicken shit to step outside until the broad light of day arrived. So, sleeping in my underwear and sweater was enough for me, as my hostess had put another log on the fire to keep the room warm for a while longer.
I could hear her getting ready for bed - could hear her walking around directly above me. And the sounds of it were like a comforter, a sense of safety after everything that had transpired that evening. Therefore, it wasn’t long before I felt the pull of sleep, my eyelids closing in submission to the respite of rest.
Dreams were rife and definitely fucked up. The first one had me standing outside at the side of the road obscured by bushes. It was dark and cold. I tried to keep warm, but warmth escaped me. As well as the coldness, I felt fear, fear of something I couldn’t quite grasp. Pains shot through my chest as if I had been running and had finally stopped through exhaustion. In the reasoning part of my brain I questioned why I was still cold when I should have been sweating. But no. I was still cold. Maybe the fear coursing through me was more prominent than the weather conditions.
A noise came out of the blackness and I felt my heart lurch into my throat. It was almost as if I was a hunted animal that believed it had escaped the hunter only to find it was not the case. I wanted to run again, but couldn’t. Wanted to hide, wanted to disappear, wanted to find safety of some sort, but, once again, I couldn’t. In my dream I knew where I was, knew I was close to reaching that haven, but in my waking world it was just blackness and trees.
Then the vivid lights of the car came into view and pulled over at the side of the road.
This was not just any random car. No. It was my car. Distinctly my car. A car I watched in rapt fascination as a person climbed out. Me, to be exact. I climbed out of the car.
I gripped the trunk of the tree and tried to steady myself. This was too fucked up even for a dream. How could I be watching myself get out of my car from twenty feet away? Was this a somnambulant out of body experience?
My breathing was becoming shallow and I honestly believed if I didn’t try to control it I would pass out. I tried to inhale deeply, but I felt the panic stopping the action. So I tried again, and again, and once again. My other self was opening the back door to the car and making what I knew to be a cubicle. I knew exactly what was about to happen. I should do. I’d experienced it.
The memory of how scared I had been blended with how I was feeling now. I wanted to contact my other self and put ‘my’ mind at rest, but I couldn’t speak. I was also hoping getting into the car would save me from what I had been running from.
Stumbling forward, I bumped into the tree, the bark grazing my arm. I could actually feel the pain of it, believed if I woke at that precise moment I would see the mark of it on my skin. My other self was getting up, pulling up trousers and getting ready to leave, when ‘I’ stopped before zipping up ‘my’ fly.
Another stumble forward, another attempt to shout out there was nothing to worry about, but it still wouldn’t come. Twigs snapped underfoot, leaves scattered away as I staggered over them. The interior car lights dimmed and I could sense panic from ‘me’ floating in the air as well as a noise eking from a panicked other self. I moved forward again.
‘Who’s there?’ I wanted to shout back ‘You’ but what good would that do? I knew I was scared; both of us were, to be more accurate.
So, instead of shouting, I decided it would be better to reach the car before it sped away – although I don’t really know how ‘I’ would have coped with seeing myself come stumbling out of the darkness.
The engine roared to life just as I reached the edge of the forest and I knew it would be mere seconds before it was too late. The back door was still open and I grabbed onto it, knowing if it was to drive off now it would cause an accident – all thoughts of revealing myself to the driver evaporating. What was the point? I was freaked out enough for the both of us.
Slam. The door had barely closed when the car sped away at lightning speed, the tyres squealing in defiance.
I just stood there. Just stood there in the middle of the road staring at the disappearing car. Just bloody stood there knowing how frightened I’d been as I’d moved away from that spot in my car.
Weirdly, I honestly believed I felt even more frightened standing in the middle of the road in the dead of night knowing there was someone still out to get me.
A noise alerted me once again that I was not alone.
Now it was time to run.
Shooting up, I grabbed the covers and pulled them sharply towards me as if they had the capability of saving me from whatever was coming. Sweat collected over my body, my armpits soaked. I didn’t want to push away the blankets in case I was seen. I know. Fucked up.
My heart was racing. The dream had been so real that it took me a few moments to realise I wasn’t standing in the middle of the road at all. I was, in fact, hunched up on Annabel’s sofa. The fire was still burning, but the flames had long since died down.
I don’t know how long I had been asleep when I woke, but I knew it wasn’t time to get up yet. I didn’t know what to do. It wouldn’t be right to get up and look around Annabel’s house – that’s not the right way to treat a hostess. I also felt as if I wouldn’t be able to sleep again that night. To be honest, I was too scared to close my eyes.
So I lay there. And lay there. And continued to lay there.
Minutes seem like hours when waiting. But that’s what I did. My eyes were burning, my joints were seizing up through being cramped up on the sofa.
But, as I said, I had dreams. And that means there was more than one.
Sleep beat me in the end and I acquiesced to the lull of it once more. This time I wasn’t standing in the woods. This time I was outside a window looking into the bright light of a kitchen. Annabel’s kitchen.
I saw ‘myself’ enter carrying a tray. The shock of it made me immobile. ‘I’ came to the glass and stared out. I could see the greenness of ‘my’ eyes, the loose tendrils of my hair falling forward as ‘I leaned forward. It is so different seeing yourself this way. It’s not like looking into a mirror at all. The actions are all fucked up, out of synch.
I had to get away. Had to leave before I scared the living shit out of myself – both myself and ‘myself’. I know. I did say my dreams were fucked up.
I was about to turn away, but my jacket clipped the window making a tapping sound. I saw the person inside straighten, cock her head, listen. It was too late.
From behind me I heard the distinct sound of footsteps on gravel. He was here. I don’t know who ‘he’ was, but I certainly knew he had found me. I also knew it would not be a pleasant thing when he caught me.
Fuck it. I had to get the attention of the people inside the house. Had to make them come outside. So I tapped on the glass. Tapped and tapped and banged and banged. But all I seemed to do was frighten the ‘other me’ – make ‘me’ rush backwards, make ‘me’ scream out.
I saw Annabel enter. Saw the woman I loved enter the room and race to help. I lifted my hand to get her attention but I was grabbed from behind, my body falling backwards and pulled in a hard chest.
‘You thought she’d help you, eh?’ It was his voice. Just as dark. Just as cruel. Just as wickedly spiteful as he always was. This time it wouldn’t just be a beating. No. This time he would take everything, including my life.
‘Fuck!’ I shot up again, the room filling with the first touches of dawn, my hands still gripping the covers. The fire was completely out and I felt the chill in the room try to invade the warmth of my body under the blankets. My heart was drumming a staccato rhythm in my ears and it was like being underwater.
‘You okay?’ Just the sound of her voice, just those dulcet tones drifting into the room, made me let loose the fear from my dreams.
A sob tore free, then another, then another, until it they blended together to make a cacophony of weeping. Strong hands slipped around my shoulders and pulled me close, the softness of her chest a contrast to the hardness of the man’s in my dream. I didn’t care that it appeared I was always crying when she was near, even though I would never class myself a crier in the past. All that mattered was I felt safe – Annabel made me feel as if that man could never hurt me.
She held me until the tears abated, then held me some more. Her voice was gentle, the words incoherent, but being in her arms and hearing her voice at all was so comforting that I felt the sluggish drag of exhaustion override my need to cry. Even though I felt numb to the fear, I didn’t feel numb to the sensation of being so close to Annabel. A thought from my dream appeared – ‘I saw the woman I loved’. Loved? I had only just met her so how on earth could I feel love? Attraction, yes. But love?
Annabel slightly pulled away, her brown eyes glistening. ‘How are you feeling?’ So soft. So enticing. I shifted forward, our faces impossibly close without touching. Her hand cupped my jaw, the thumb stroking my skin. I felt my eyes flutter, felt the sensation of something bubbling inside my stomach. Then this something seemed to spark and race throughout me, like an out of control urge to close the gap between us and take those beautiful lips with mine. But I didn’t get the chance. She did it for me.
It was initially a brushing, a tasting, a chaste connection between one person to another. Then her lips became firmer, more demanding, more delectable. Her hand moved from my jaw and cupped the back of my head bringing us closer, connecting us more deeply. I knew these lips. Knew the texture, the taste – knew how they would have the capability of claiming my own like I believed in my core they had done a thousand times before.
I began to lean backwards, began to pull her down with me. The heat of her body seeped through the blankets and connected with my own heat.
A tentative tongue trailed against my lips, a tongue that was begging for access. I couldn’t refuse her. I could never refuse her – and I didn’t even question that thought. The sensation was blinding. A moan climbed up my throat and surrounded her tongue like it was welcoming it. Annabel moved over me, her body pressing more firmly into mine, her breathing getting heavier, needier.
I slipped my arms around her and pulled her nearer. I needed to feel the solidness of her, needed to know I wasn’t dreaming anymore. This was real. This was happening. I was back with her.
Back with her?
My eyes shot open and looked at the woman kissing me. Her eyes stayed closed, her mouth and tongue still searching mine.
Back with her?
My brain hurt. It remembered her, but it didn’t. Remembered the feel of her lips, the smell of her, the brownness of her eyes, but it didn’t. It was almost as if there was someone else’s memories working alongside mine and making a mockery of this situation.
Annabel stopped in mid kiss. Her mouth warm against mine, but stilled. Brown eyes opened and looked straight into me – not just my eyes, but into me. Then she pulled back and I felt the loss immediately.
Ellen? She thought I was Ellen? As in the Ellen she believed I was last night?
‘Rebecca.’ My voice seemed as if it belonged to someone else. The word was quiet yet firm. I didn’t want to be kissed by someone, however much I was attracted to them, when they believed they were with someone else.
Her face contorted, her mouth moving around the feeling of my name. A flash of pain rushed through her face before she stumbled backwards and onto the floor. I watched, fascinated, as she semi crawled backwards as if I would hurt her if she turned away from me. Brown eyes filled with panic, then hurt, then what I can only describe as grief.
Then she was up and gone and I was left dumbfounded on the sofa.
I didn’t stay for breakfast. Didn’t want to be reminded over and over about what had happened each time I looked at my hostess. And I certainly didn’t want the repeated metaphorical slap of not being who she wanted.
Annabel seemed even quieter on our parting. Her face was pale, her actions staggered, those beautiful eyes dull and lifeless.
She reached out to me as I began to back away, and I just stuck out my hand to shake hers. There was no denying the feeling racing from her to me, from me to her. No denying that ultimate pull of connection, the definite knowledge of knowing her.
Her face brightened and mouth opened as if to speak.
‘Thank you, Annabel.’ I held up the directions she had written down in small neat handwriting. ‘It was lovely to meet you.’ Her mouth closed and so did her expression. She gave me a brief nod of acknowledgement.
Then, without a backwards glance, I was on my way to Breadsall Priory and a day of more shit.
The journey there was completely different than the previous evening. Roads I had thought to be deserted sported houses and shops. Why hadn’t I seen them the night before? Probably because they were shut then; no lights on to guide my way. Or, maybe, it could have been sheer panic that made me pass them.
I signed in to the hotel and offered my apologies for not arriving the night before. I didn’t go into detail as I doubted the man on reception actually gave two shits about my life story. The hotel was still paid for by my company, so it didn’t matter either way to them.
Then it was up to my room, toting my own bag instead of having to make small talk to the Bell Boy.
After showering and changing, I was in the meeting hall seated at the back. I didn’t want to be an eager beaver today. Far from it. I wanted to wallow in self-pity and forget everything.
Today was the final convention for me. I had booked an overnight stay at the Priory for that evening, but I wanted to go home. However, the scenes from the previous evening kept popping into my head throughout the day and I eventually decided to drive back to Norwich when the sun was up the following morning. At least I would have less chance of getting lost.
It was more of the same old faces, same old shit, and same old me. Actually, before this trip, I had loved my job and suffered through all the conventions, but now it just seemed a waste of my time. I found myself mentally drifting off and remembering what had happened that morning.
An ache filled my stomach as if it was real almost feeling like a chunk of concrete had settled there and was refusing to budge. Every meal was met with disinterest, my fork taunting the food and placing it on different parts of my plate.
Usually, I would use the opportunity of being at one of these things as a chance to network, but not today. Today I wanted to isolate myself from the other reps, wanted to shut off from the real world.
Bedtime for me was earlier than usual. I was mentally and physically exhausted. No surprise really, considering I must’ve had no more than three hours sleep the night before. I opted for a bath instead of a shower and soaked myself until my skin pruned.
When I opened my case and pulled out my pjs I thought of the previous night again. The pulling up at the side of the road and feeling as if I was being watched. The feelings of fear, of being hunted. Meeting Annabel and her believing I was someone else …
I stopped. My pjs hanging loosely in my hand. Everything that had happened after that seemed out of place, as if I’d entered a world that I did and didn’t belong in, like I was someone virtually stepping into the shoes of someone else and the shoes fit perfectly.
Fuck that. I wasn’t Cinderella. I must’ve been more tired than I’d thought, and believe me, I had been tired. I must’ve been, as how else could I explain the face at the window?
Then I remembered the dreams. Remembered the feeling of being on the outside of my life and looking in. A derisive snort left my nostrils as I acknowledged how true that was. It seemed I’d always felt that way in some way or another. On the outside of my own fucking life and looking at it as if it was under a microscope.
However, that didn’t change the fact that my dreams were even more fucked up than my real life – although I do recognise that is usually what happens in dreams.
For the first time in a long time I felt the pang of loneliness. I didn’t get lonely. I kept busy. Kept on the move and didn’t allow people to invade my private life. Even visiting my family was deemed as a chore – something that was done twice a year. I was happy being on my own, happy not having anyone to answer to. So why was my life suddenly not quite enough?
This was too deep. Too intimate. I was tired, that was all. I just needed a good night’s sleep and I would be fine and good to go. A restful night’s sleep would get rid of these vulnerable feelings, these feelings of loneliness … feelings of not belonging and not fitting in.
Decision made, I slipped into my pjs and then under the covers. Sleep was waiting for me almost immediately.
And so were the dreams.
It was different - so very different from the night before. The scene was inside Annabel’s house and I was sprawled on the sofa. Soft music was playing in another part of the house, but the sound of it was calming. The room was warm, the fire blazing in the hearth. Candles were scattered around the room to add to the ambience. It was so perfectly wonderful. So relaxing. So peaceful. I felt so at home here.
In my dream, I closed my eyes and allowed the serenity of the situation envelope me completely. The warmth, the music, the perception of safety was addictively wonderful.
Someone came into the room, but I didn’t feel alarmed. In fact, I welcomed it and still didn’t open my eyes. Fingers glanced and danced over my face tracing the route from eyebrows to mouth and back again; they changed to focus on my lips as they followed the curve of the lazy smile the stroking had conjured.
‘You are so very beautiful.’ The words seemed to seep into my skin and warm me even more.
Fingers were replaced by soft kisses, soft kisses that were returned by me. Once again, I knew those lips, knew the texture, the taste of them, knew how they would have the capability of claiming my own. I also knew that I had kissed these lips a thousand times before.
Even before I opened my eyes to drown in pools of brownness, I knew it was my Annabel. Just the feel of her lips, the smell of her skin – it was all her. Her. The love of my life. The woman who had made me feel alive from the moment I’d met her nearly four years ago. It was a pity I’d met her younger brother just before – her brother who ended up being my husband.
But this wasn’t the time to remember the cruelty of him. Wasn’t the time to recollect his fists, his biting words, his hatred for anything that didn’t fit into his bigoted view of life. This was the time I needed to be with Annabel and I wanted to make the most of it.
Slowly, I allowed my eyes to open and absorb the beauty above me. I felt my breath suck in and stay whilst I examined every feature of her face. One eyebrow was raised in question making her expression even sexier than usual.
Lifting my hand, I trailed my fingers down the side of her face. She turned and kissed them.
‘Is Bella asleep?’ My voice was husky.
Annabel made a mewling noise before answering. ‘Yes. Like a lamb.’ More kisses along my fingers, until she slipped one inside her mouth and sucked.
I gasped at the sensation. Her mouth and tongue did more than captivate that lone digit. Heat raced to my core and I felt myself shift more towards her.
‘Did … you read to her?’
‘Ahuh … Madeline’s Rescue is going down well.’ I felt her lips curl into a smile before she pulled away and looked lovingly into my eyes. ‘She wants me to tell you she wants a dog.’
‘Really? My three year old daughter said she wanted a dog, eh?’
Brown eyes widened in fake innocence. ‘Yep. One like Genevieve.’
I laughed. ‘You mean you want a dog like Genevieve?’
Annabel scrunched up her nose in thought before grinning widely and nodding.
‘Thought so.’ I placed my hand behind her head and pulled her to me. I wanted to feel those lips and that tongue again.
Before I could claim her mouth, she pulled back and looked straight into me. ‘You will won’t you?’ I didn’t have to question what she meant. I knew it wasn’t about a dog. Annabel was asking if we were still leaving Kirk Langley the following evening like we’d planned. It was a huge step for both of us. I would be leaving my husband and taking our only child away from him; Annabel would have to leave her home.
Freddie would never let it rest, never let the shame of it settle. No one left Freddie Howell. No one. Especially not his wife. He would hunt us down like animals.
Up until now Annabel and I had kept our love a secret, but it would all come out when she left too. People would not understand that two women could be in love, would want to spend their life together. Freddie would definitely not be happy that someone else had his property, even if it was his own sister. I knew I was committing adultery, but that sin paled in comparison to what Freddie had done to me over the years.
I sat up a little more and guided her eyes to meet mine. ‘Nothing will keep me from you. Nothing.’
The force of her kiss pushed me back onto the sofa. My fingers threaded through her hair and gripped. Just having Annabel with me made my world all right; made everything we had suffered worth it.
She shifted and moved over me, her body connecting with the full length of mine. The kiss was intensely wonderful and sparked pockets of desire throughout my body. Noises were escaping our mouths to be devoured by the other. It was obvious we both needed more.
My hands slipped around the front of Annabel’s shirt and began to pop open the buttons. The heat of her skin met my fingers and I became hungry for more. I pushed her shirt over her shoulders before breaking the kiss, only to place my lips on her shoulder. Annabel’s head tipped to the side, her throat exposed. Hungrily, I kissed my way over to it, my tongue joining in to taste more of her.
Annabel pushed back, sat up, grabbed the base of her shirt and pulled it free from her body in one swift movement to reveal she wasn’t wearing a bra underneath. The light from the fire danced over toned muscles, caressed the soft swell of her breasts.
My hand reached out to reverently worship the dips and curves of her. Brown eyes met mine and appeared almost black with desire. I reached the button to her slacks and popped it open and then moved the zipper slowly down. Slipping my hands back up, I grabbed the waistband and moved the material downwards. She placed her hands on top of mine and stopped my journey.
‘I want to see you – feel you.’ Her voice seemed to be dragged up through her throat, as if each word was difficult to say.
In response, I lifted my arms so she could unwrap me like a gift. Annabel lifted my jumper and pulled it over my head. Leaning forward, she unclasped my bra, allowing my breasts to be free.
‘Jesus, Ellen.’ The shock in her voice made me freeze before following her gaze. Bruises scattered across my ribcage, deep and dark and angry marks marring what should have been pale soft skin. The anger almost choked her, the tears filling her eyes with the pressure of keeping it back. Tentative fingers traced the outline of each one, and although they were tender, I held back the wince. ‘When?’ She spluttered just the one word, her eyes leaving the marks on my skin to capture my gaze.
I shook my head. I didn’t want to talk about my husband. Didn’t want to ruin the time we had together discussing how he had used me as a punch bag because of things that had happened at work.
Annabel didn’t give up. ‘When Ellen?’
The pain in her eyes made me cave in. ‘Tuesday,’ I said quietly.
She pushed back and away from me and I felt the loss of her immediately. ‘Tuesday?’ The word was spat out. ‘Tuesday! It’s Friday today. Friday!’ Anger spewed forth, but it was not aimed at me. I knew she was angry that I hadn’t told her about Freddie hitting me, but what was the point? We were leaving the next evening to start life afresh somewhere else, and I also knew if I had told her she would have confronted him. We were so close to escaping this life that I didn’t want to ruin it by Annabel showing her brother that she was in love with his wife. Why else would she try to defend me? Women were hit all the time by their husbands – other women didn’t step in. That wasn’t the done thing. It was a known fact that men could do as they wanted. Not right, but still done.
‘Annie.’ I used the nickname I had for her. No one else called her Annie – no one else was allowed to. ‘Please. Don’t.’ I could see her fighting her anger, trying to swallow it down, but so far it wasn’t working.
Standing, I moved over to her, my hands slipping around her waist and pulling her closer. She was slightly taller than me and I had to tilt my head backwards to look into her eyes. ‘Baby. We are so close … so close. Let it go.’ I could feel the anger vibrating through her, so I kissed her chin – then kissed her chin again. Slowly, the anger subsided and I felt her semi slump against me.
‘I’m so sorry. So sorry.’ She was crying now. Tears were racing down her face, so I brushed them away. ‘I just … just …’ More tears. I was making shushing noises and stroking her face and hair. I felt her body stiffen and I knew what was coming next. ‘I’m not like him am I? You know – with my anger?’ I smiled at her and shook my head. Annabel Howell was the gentlest woman I had ever met. The thought of anyone hitting someone made her hurt right along with them and it came out as anger. To think she was related to that bastard Freddie Howell was a mystery. They may look alike, but that’s where the similarity ended.
I stroked down her arms and took her hands in mine. Gently, I moved her to the sofa and sat her down before guiding her backwards so she was lying down. Before I joined her, I slipped out of the rest of my clothes and stood before her naked. Her eyes absorbed me, almost reverently, like I was a divine creation sent to earth for her. No one had ever looked at me that way. No one had ever made me feel so loved by just a look, by just being there.
I leaned over her, my mouth close to hers. She lifted, expecting me to kiss her, but I pulled back and grinned at her. ‘Your turn to get naked,’ I murmured. The shiver that passed through her was visible even in the half light.
Moving down, I kissed along heated skin and glorified in the involuntary flexing of muscle. Gripping the top of her trousers, I pulled them down and then returned to take off her panties. One hand on each foot soon got rid of her thick socks and she lay before me completely undressed. Annabel was a vision. A true balm to my soul. Every time I saw her my heart seemed to understand why it kept on beating every day.
Her hands reached forward and tentatively touched my bruises once more, but instead of getting angry again, she sighed and pulled me to her. My body blanketed hers, my face close to hers.
‘I love you so much, Ellen. So very much.’ The sincerity of her words delved deep inside and seemed to find their way into my very soul.
‘I love you too.’ And God. I did.
Mouths met mouths, lips and tongues and teeth. Hands explored skin, explored secret places, secret longings buried for anyone else but each other. I nudged her legs apart and settled between strong thighs. It felt so right to be here with her no matter what society said.
Annabel lifted her hips to make a deeper contact and I gladly obliged her request. Heat pooled at my very core and I wanted to share this with her, share my very essence with her, mix our essence until the two became one.
I kissed her skin, tasted her, fed from her as she pulled me even closer. The rhythm began to build between us, the tempo increasing with each thrust of our bodies. Being here with her, being on top of her at this moment was bordering on the celestial. I couldn’t see anything but her, couldn’t feel anything but the sensation of our bodies moving in perfect synch. It was all that mattered after all - just the two of us demonstrating our love, our connection.
I sought her lips again, claimed them, pressed harder against her. However hard I tried to close the gap it seemed impossible. I wanted to climb inside, love her from the inside out, live within the woman who had stolen my heart all those years ago and never leave.
Annabel’s fingers were digging into my back and I gasped my pleasure into her mouth. Her thighs moved around my waist and opened her secret sanctum more fully against me. I knew she was wet, could feel it with my apex, but I wanted more. With her, I always wanted more.
Gripping hold of one of her legs, I pulled her closer before pushing the other thigh down to the sofa. Lifting my leg, I positioned myself over her thigh and slicked my need across her skin. A groan left her lips. Nuzzling close to her ear, I whispered, ‘Can I take you?’ The noise she emitted almost made me cum there and then.
I pushed against her thigh again, then again, then again, full fluid strokes. My mouth moved from her ear to her breast and licked round a pert nipple before capturing it between my lips.
Divine. That’s the only word I could conjure for the sensation of holding such perfection inside my mouth.
Annabel’s hands gripped my backside and pulled me closer, my nub rubbing gloriously along the length of her. Sparks of rampant desire flooded through me and I released her nipple and made my way back to her mouth. My lips met her almost ferociously and I am definite I heard myself growl as I pulled away to kiss her neck once again. I could feel her heart hammering against my mouth, hear her ragged breathing, sense the need radiating into the air.
We were so close, so unbelievably close but it still wasn’t enough for me. Her hands were in my hair, wrapping around the tendrils and pulling slightly. My hips were beginning to rotate on her thigh, shocks of pleasure rippling through me making me pant, making me groan, making me need her even more than ever.
Slipping my hand between us, I was greeted by wetness, greeted by heat. Slick folds parted and granted me entry to her most secret place – a place reserved only for me. Slowly, I circled her opening. Annabel pitched forward in the attempt to force my fingers inside, but I pulled slightly back.
‘Please!’ The word was gasped out as if it was her dying wish.
I lifted my head and looked into those beautiful brown eyes once more. They were slightly hooded, expectant, the rhythm between us never faltering.
Instead of voicing the plea again, she mouthed, ‘I love you.’
An ache from my heart surged forward making me gasp out a sob. I loved this woman so much. Loved her so bloody much.
Slowly and gently, I entered her, watching as her eyes flickered with the sensation of being filled by two fingers. I held them there allowing her to become accustomed to the feeling, but Annabel wanted more. She moved her hips backwards and forwards, forwards and backwards, thus creating her tempo, a tempo I was happy to follow.
My own orgasm was waiting. I had felt it forming into something that could career out of control if not held back but I wanted it to share my release with Annabel’s cumming. I wanted us to be as one, to connect fully as one, to cum as one.
But seeing her lying there open and vulnerable and being filled by me … it was hard to hold back, but I tried.
Her hips were moving more quickly, my fingers taking her swiftly and firmly. I reached deep inside her before pulling back and delving deeply again. Sweat coated our skin and the movement of one body against the other was seamless. My essence was dripping onto her thigh and the sensation of rubbing against her was deliciously torturous.
Faster and faster, deeper and deeper, harder and harder. I couldn’t get enough of her, would never tire of hearing her moans, her groans, the delightful grunts of pleasure emanating from her. I could feel her walls tightening around my fingers, knew her release was imminent.
Pressing against her, I felt our breasts rub together to add to the bliss of the moment. So soft, so feminine, so perfectly and magically us.
Annabel tensed, clutched against my fingers, and held her breath. I curved my fingers inside her and felt for the spot I knew would tip her over the edge.
Her cumming was something I will never forget. Absolute beauty, absolute perfection. Her head was thrown back, her mouth open, eyes clamped closed. Breasts lifted and pressed into me as did her fingers.
I rubbed the spot again, pressing and caressing her until another orgasm ripped through her.
This time white, blinding light overcame me as my own orgasm released itself into the air, the ache in my chest escaping into the vacuous space in the room. I wanted to speak, wanted to tell her I loved her, but the words were lost, taken over by the primitive sounds of two souls reuniting.
I fell forward, my body spreading over hers. Strong arms wrapped around me and held me close, soft kisses hitting my hair. A feeling of contentment flooded through me. This is what I wanted for the rest of my life. Just to be with her, be held by her, feel safe, loved, wanted.
This time tomorrow, it would happen. Annabel, Bella and me starting over - the three of us together at last.
And then Freddie could never hurt us ever again. How perfect would that be?
With a start, I sat up in bed. The room was dark and I wondered where I was as the last thing I remembered was being on a sofa. But the thing at the forefront of my mind was the whereabouts of Annabel.
Stumbling, I nearly hit the floor but caught myself at the side of the bed before plonking back onto the mattress. It felt strange, the room I mean. Strange as if I should know where I was but everything seemed foggy and blurred. And even though I was still wondering where Annabel had gone, I didn’t shout for her.
Deep down I must’ve known it hadn’t happened. Not the best feeling in the world, but that was the length and breadth of it.
Focusing my attention, I peered around and tried to make out the shapes in the darkness. A hotel room. My hotel room to be precise.
To be honest, the feeling of coming back into reality made an ache claw up from inside my gut and travel up my throat. I knew it had only been a dream but it appeared as if my heart couldn’t quite accept the disappointment of it as of yet. Stupid, I know. I had never allowed the vestiges of sleep overrule my practical side before and I wasn’t going to start now.
Leaning over, I clicked on the bedside lamp and felt even worse than I had previously. So much for practicality. Seeing the room bathed in a subtle orange glow dismissed all hopes of actually being in my fantasy world. It was just me on my own again. Like usual.
I tried to swallow the nausea down. I couldn’t understand why I felt sick in the first place. It wasn’t as if my dream had been so horrific that I wanted to lose the meagre contents of my stomach over it was it? The dream had been pleasant. Very pleasant. Actually, too pleasant. And with that thought, I understood why I wanted to vomit.
Racing to the bathroom, I barely made it to the toilet before I let loose. Heave after heave after heave and then the dry kind, the hurting kind. My legs gave out on me and I hit the cold hard tile, the chill a reminder that this was my real world after all.
I sat there for what seemed like an age but was only about fifteen minutes. Tears were streaming down my face and I put it down to the action of being ill. I was trying to fool myself even at that stage.
Standing up, I realised I needed a shower. The smell of putrid stomach contents was making my stomach roil again and I knew I had to stand underneath the hot jets and allow them to work their magic. Maybe they would wash away the inherent sadness that covered me from the inside out. I could only hope.
It wasn’t until I lifted my sleeping top that something in the mirror caught my attention. Something underneath my ribs.
Walking over to the glass I lifted my arm and leaned closer. Bruises covered my ribs underneath my breasts. Deep, dark purple bruises. Bruises I hadn’t noticed earlier when I’d been soaking in the bath. Could I have hit myself as I slumped next to the toilet? And if that was the case, why hadn’t I felt it?
Tracing my fingers over the bruises, I winced. They felt fresh enough to still cause pain, but it didn’t add up. I knew I would have felt it if I’d hit myself on the toilet seat. And even if I had, they were all over me almost like I’d been battered.
‘Fuck!’ Battered. ‘Fucking hell!’ Battered like I was on the receiving end of someone’s fists. I knew I would have remembered that. Weirdly enough, I did. But not in the way I suppose I should have remembered it.
My hands were shaking as I outlined the dark mass. Were they the same as in my dream? No. That would be too fucked up even after everything that had happened in the last twenty four hours. People didn’t have dreams about being bruised and then wake up with them – not on that scale they didn’t. it wasn’t as if I’d banged my hand on the bedside table.
Turning the cold tap on full, I cupped handfuls of water and splashed my face. Part of me believed I must still be in some kind of sleep/wake limbo. But when I looked back into the mirror, the bruises were still there.
Then I felt it. Something behind me. Something waiting to be acknowledged. I knew I should have been scared, should have almost shit myself at that point, but I didn’t. It was as if I was expecting it on some subconscious level.
A voice. A voice full of pain, full of torment. A voice that seemed disembodied as it drifted into me as if it had bypassed my ears and went through my skin, through my pores.
‘I’m so sorry. So sorry.’
Spinning around, I looked for her … looked for Annabel. She had been the one who spoke. I knew it was her. I could sense her presence, feel her near me.
But apart from me, the bathroom was empty.
However, that was not the worrying thing about the whole scenario. The thing that worried me the most was when I realised I was on my own I felt disappointed. How fucked up is that? To be disappointed when there wasn’t the woman from my dream manifesting in my hotel bathroom?
And the reason? Simple. Because if Annabel Howell had been standing behind me, I might not have started to believe I was losing my mind.
I waited until the next morning to shower. There was no way I was going to strip off completely and climb into the shower – not with what had transpired in the early hours. I’d seen Psycho. I’d watched as Janet Leigh’s character had been slashed to death by a madman. I wasn’t going to be the next victim of Norman Bates. Stuff that. Marion Crane I am not.
It is quite difficult to shower whilst avoiding looking at yourself. I tried and tried to avoid acknowledging the bruises, but by doing so, I accentuated their existence even more. To be honest, it was the quickest shower I had ever taken and I wasn’t too sure I’d really rinsed all of the shampoo out of my hair. But I didn’t care. I was still breathing at the end of it. Breathing quickly, but breathing all the same.
Breakfast was a croissant and a coffee. I couldn’t seem to stomach anything else. Just the smell of the fried breakfast being served churned my stomach and I had the distinct impression I would do an encore of my bathroom yodelling if I didn’t rapidly get out of the restaurant.
All I wanted to do was get home and forget everything that had happened. Get home and kick off my shoes and love the rest of my weekend being terror free.
So, why didn’t I turn off the A38 instead of joining the A61? I knew I had to join the A52, but not in the direction I was going in. This route would take me completely in the opposite way to Norwich. This way was taking me back to Kirk Langley.
Even though I acknowledged it, I couldn’t seem to stop it. Unlike the previous evening, I knew exactly where I was going and how to get there. I didn’t need a Sat Nav to guide me; I had something else guiding me. Instinct. A definite pull to the house where it seemed everything in my life had changed since I put my foot over the threshold. On the surface, I wanted to put it down to being a woman – a woman who needed to clarify events in the light of day to put them at rest. But if I did put it down to that, I would be a liar. A big fat one.
To be honest, I think I just wanted to see her again, just to make sure she did exist after all. That way at least, only part of my mind would be going mad. The jury was still out on other part, though.
All the way to Annabel’s house, I could feel something building. It wasn’t butterflies, unless butterflies came wearing hobnailed boots. It was a sick feeling, a ‘knowledge’ that when I arrived I wouldn’t be happy with what I found out. With that said, the feeling must’ve been either fear or the sense of impending doom. How fucking dramatic is that? Fear I could understand, but ‘impending doom’? Jesus. I knew at that point that I was a twat – a twat who just couldn’t let things go.
The miles seemed to be swallowed up, but it appeared longer to get there than the previous day’s journey to the hotel. Expectation is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? No. Actually, it was terrifying. All the way I kept arguing with myself. Why was I doing this? Why couldn’t I just let things go? But, I kept on driving.
I nearly drove past her house. Nearly carried on and missed it completely. Not because I wasn’t paying attention. That wasn’t it. It was the house. It was different. Colder. Emptier.
As I pulled on the driveway, I saw a car parked near the front door, the boot open and bags piled inside. It looked as if I had just caught Annabel before she set off on a trip.
A flash of her speaking in my dream last night, her clarifying the journey she was to take with the somnambulant me popped into my head.
‘No. That was a dream, Becky,’ I ground out through clenched teeth.
Pulling the handbrake on, I waited a few moments before climbing out of the car. My heart was racing and my hands were trembling as I reached for the door handle. I stopped. Took a deep breath. Said a little prayer. And then tried to exit the car again.
I couldn’t see anyone, but I could hear them. Yes. Them. A man and woman. Laughter drifted from the open doorway and I hesitated before moving onto the porch and stepping inside the house. Amazing to think that I hadn’t noticed how battered the door was, how in need of a touch of paint it had been the previous morning. Probably because I had been so anxious to get away after kissing my hostess – a person doesn’t usually hang about to check the paint job when she is dying of disappointment and embarrassment does she? Well, not this woman.
‘Hello!’ My voice echoed down the hallway and I heard the people stop moving about. ‘Sorry to disturb you.’ Was I? I didn’t exactly know. But I did know I needed to get this over and done with and fuck off into my own little life once again.
Footsteps sounded on the floorboards upstairs and I thought about how I had heard the same movement when Annabel had scurried upstairs to get me some blankets. Jean cladded legs appeared at the top of the stairs and a voice drifted down to me.
‘Can I help you?’ Was that Annabel? It sounded like her, but not, if you know what I mean. A booted foot descended a stair and stopped. ‘Hello? Are you still there?’
It was her. It had to be.
The second foot momentarily stopped in mid-air before landing on the next step and stopping again.
‘Sorry to disturb you again, but …’
The feet started to move down the stairs a little quicker and the words I was going to say jammed in my throat. My eyes followed the trajectory of her body as it appeared and I found myself taking in a thick cream coloured sweater covering her torso. Then a slender neck, a firm jaw, red lips, a fine straight nose. I closed my eyes at this point in anticipation of looking into her eyes once again.
Beautiful, dark brown eyes looked into mine, quizzical brown eyes framed by long lashes. They showed confusion as if what they were seeing was a mystery to them. I stepped back, stumbled slightly, and tried to steady myself on the doorframe. The woman before me wasn’t Annabel but she was Annabel. I know. Fucked up. But it was and it wasn’t her. I don’t know any other way of explaining it.
A hand landed on my arm and I felt a charge of connection flow through me. Even the sensation of being touched by her was the same, but it wasn’t. I know I’m not making any sense, but it didn’t make any sense to me either.
‘Are you okay?’ Her voice was gentle, calming. ‘You’ve gone white.’ I felt white too. Deathly white. White enough to piss over and black out. But instead of doing that, I nodded. She tilted her head to the side and looked at me. ‘Well, you certainly don’t look it. Come. Sit down.’ The woman, who by now I realised definitely wasn’t Annabel, cupped my elbow and led me down the hallway to the living room.
It was exactly the same as I remembered it although distinctly different. An open fire, the flames long gone and the space filled with ash. The furniture was still classically rustic and even more worn than before. My ‘hostess’ was standing next to the armchair closest to the fireplace and gestured that it was the place I should sit. It was like déjà vu – but déjà vu with a twist.
As if on auto pilot, I moved past her, my arm brushing against hers in the process. A spark of recognition, of a memory, slithered into my head, but this time she didn’t jerk away, didn’t omit a short gasp.
‘Would you like some water?’ Her expression showed concern, as if she thought I was on the verge of keeling over and snuffing it in her house. Actually, I wasn’t too sure that I wasn’t going to do just that.
I nodded again, and she was gone and I was left on my own once more. This time there was no ticking of a clock to pass the time but the item was still there. With that in place, I started to look around the room. The leather sofa was still there, but the throws were absent; the coffee table was pushed to the side sans magazines. The change in the room was clear now as I put the differences down to the aging of everything. A stopped clock, missing throws, no magazines – true. But there was more to it. The décor, for a start. I hadn’t noticed how in need of updating through wear everything had been when I had been there two nights ago. I couldn’t even put it down to the lighting, as I had been there in the morning too.
‘Here you go.’ The sound of her voice being so close to me made me start. A glass of water was offered and I slipped my fingers around the cool glass. I felt the urge to pour the contents over my head to see if anything I was seeing or feeling would change, but decided I had probably freaked out the woman enough already.
I took a sip, the coldness refreshing my throat but nothing more. The woman stepped back and sat in the armchair opposite mine, her face still showing confusion.
‘I feel as if we’ve met already.’ It wasn’t me who spoke; it was her. Again. ‘Have you been to Kirk Langley before?’ Her voice was so soft, almost addictively so, and so much like Annabel’s it was unnerving.
At this point I wanted to say yes, that we had met – kind of – two nights ago and I had slept on her sofa. But I knew she would think I was an idiot. Probably because I was beginning to think I was too.
‘No. I don’t think so.’ I don’t think so? What the fuck? The woman stared at me as if she wanted to say the same thing as the words in my inner monologue – especially the ‘what the fuck’ part.
‘My name. I thought it was about time I introduced myself.’ She leaned forward in her armchair, her hands dangling between her legs. On first impression, a person may be forgiven for thinking she was relaxed, but she wasn’t. Not by a long shot. Clare’s eyes flickered over my face before settling on my eyes like she was assessing me. Then I realised I hadn’t introduced myself.
‘Sorry.’ I let out a shaky laugh. ‘Rebecca Gibson.’ A smile graced her lips making her face blossom. My heart clenched and released like it had been squeezed tightly by an unseen hand.
‘Well … Rebecca …’ Jesus. She even said that the same. ‘Nice to meet you.’ Clare reached over, her hand extended in greeting.
As soon as my fingers touched hers, the feeling of connection was back. Her eyes widened and she looked at me in wonder, like she couldn’t seem to process what was going on. However, neither of us let go immediately. It appeared to me as if the longer we held on, the clearer it would all become. Alas, that was not the case.
It was me who broke the contact first, but I could still feel the tingle of her, the sensation of her skin on mine.
Clare half slumped back, her eyes looking furtively from her hand to my face. Then she shook her head, only slightly, but I knew she was trying to get rid of the feelings that must’ve been coursing through her.
‘Erm … well, erm.’ I just sat there and waited for her to pull herself together. ‘You mentioned Annabel when you arrived.’ I stiffened, but still waited. Clare noticed the change in my demeanour, her eyes closing slightly. ‘Did you know her well?’
Images of the dream I’d had the night before sprang into my head. If making love with someone on a sofa wasn’t ‘knowing’ her I don’t know what is. However, I was asleep at the time, so maybe that didn’t count.
‘Kind of.’ Kind of? What ‘kind of’ statement was that?
Clare’s expression changed, the suspicion from earlier dissipating. ‘Sorry. You mustn’t know then.’ A dark eyebrow rose up in question.
‘My great aunt died in September.’
‘Great aunt?’ I have to admit, my intonation was well off. The pitch was a little too high, too.
‘Sorry. If I’d have known about you, I’d have invited you to the funeral.’
‘Great aunt?’ Although the pitch and volume was unquestionably better, the repetition was getting old. There was no way we were talking about the same woman. The woman I’d met was probably younger than the woman seated in front of me. Actually by about ten years. Annabel was about twenty five give or take a couple of years. ‘Are we talking about the same Annabel? Annabel Howell?’
Clare nodded. ‘Yes. My great aunt.’ She sighed. ‘She did really well living here all on her own until she was ninety five but …’
‘Ninety five!’ Pitch and tone all over the fucking shop now, but come on! Ninety five?
I think I unnerved my hostess as she held her hands before her as if to ward off my voice.
‘Clare!’ No. That wasn’t me. I was too busy shouting ninety five like I was at a darts match. ‘Who ya talking to?’ The male voice came from above us.
Instead of getting up and finding the man upstairs to explain she was talking to an idiot, Clare looked towards the ceiling before bellowing, ‘It’s all right, Granddad. Just a friend of Aunt Annie’s!’ Clare smiled apologetically at me.
‘Your aunt didn’t have no friends!’ was the reply.
Footsteps moved above us. Slow, laboured footsteps that allowed us to track the journey of Clare’s granddad as he made his way to the top of the stairs.
Deliberate steps hit the stairs and I could see Clare becoming agitated.
‘Excuse me, Rebecca. He finds coming down difficult these days.’
Once again, I was left on my own as Clare helped. Weirdly enough, I heard her race up the stairs; heard her speaking in low tones to the gentleman; heard his ‘Speak up, lass. Ya know ‘m deaf,’ followed by a shushing noise. So why was I so surprised when I turned back to face the empty armchair to see Clare sat in the recently vacated seat?
Probably because it wasn’t Clare.
This wasn’t because she was dressed differently. Wasn’t because her hair was a shade lighter than Clare’s. Wasn’t because her eyes seemed to bore into me – the same eyes I remembered. No. It was back to the fact I could still hear the other woman trying to help her granddad down the stairs.
I wanted to scream. Wanted to run. Wanted to be all dramatic and swoon to a dead faint. But, I didn’t. I just fucking stared right back like it was the most natural thing in the world to be seated in a room in front of a dead woman who was looking straight at me.
Annabel. Not ninety five. Twenty five. Seated in front of me, her mouth moving, her eyes filling with agony. Her right arm reached out as if to touch me but stopped mere inches away. I could feel the coldness seep from her and into me. And alongside this chill, I felt her utter heartbreak, felt her torment, knew of her loss. Knew she was asking me to do something, find someone, solve something. What, I don’t know, but I knew it as surely as I knew my name.
A word slipped through her mouth and seeped into me, just like in the bathroom of the hotel. My ears, once again, were redundant.
‘Clare.’ One word, but I felt it everywhere.
The people in the hallway were coming closer, the voices light and jovial. Annabel’s eyes widened and she tipped her head for me to look behind, brown hair falling forward slowly as if in slow motion.
Uncertainly, I moved my head to look. Clare was smiling at me as she walked up the hallway and closer to the room. She held onto the old man’s elbow, just like she had with mine. The old man was staring at his feet, probably making sure he didn’t trip over anything. Why wasn’t she looking shocked too? She must’ve been able to see the woman seated right in front of me from where she was.
A noise from behind me made me shoot my head back around. It wasn’t as if I thought the ghost of Annabel would hurt me in any way. If I’m honest, I think I may have been more worried that she would have disappeared before anyone else had witnessed her apparition. That way I would not consider myself to be going mad if she was still there. I had thought the same thing when I’d heard her voice in the bathroom of the hotel.
But, maybe I was going mad. Maybe my imagination, usually dormant until this trip, had decided it was time to kick in and add excitement to my drab and solitary life.
The chair was empty. As it should be. Empty. Just like how I was feeling.
‘Here you go, Granddad. I told you it was a lovely young lady here.’ Clare’s voice was so full of love that I had to turn and act like everything was normal.
My eyes met hers immediately, her face alight with the most wonderful smile I think I’ve ever witnessed in my life. She was so breathtakingly beautiful that the smile I wanted to conjure in return staggered a little before falling into place. Clare’s eyes closed slightly as if she was reading me before she turned her attention to the man holding onto her.
My attention followed hers and I waited for the old man to meet my gaze.
Slowly, his head raised, his attention going initially to his granddaughter. His smile was genuine, loving. I felt an ache in my chest when I saw the connection, as I had never really known either of my grandfathers and had always wanted to.
However, when his face turned to mine, I changed my mind. Not in the first few seconds, no. It took a little longer than that. His mouth was still in a smile as he turned to me, the echo of his affection for Clare still lingering on his lips. But the smile faded. Slipped off his mouth like it had been wiped away with a rag.
‘Ellen?’ The word croaked through his lips. Unlike the last time I’d heard that name, this time it was not full of concern, not full of love – no, not at all. This time is was an accusation. His eyes widened further, his jaw dropped even more than with the initial shock. I saw him lurch towards me, his hands balling into fists, and, instinctively, I covered my body where the bruises had been.
‘Granddad, no!’ Clare pulled him back, the horror of the unfolding events clearly written on her face. ‘This is Rebecca. Rebecca Gibson.’
The old man’s face churned into a grimace of hatred before he seemed to regain some semblance of control once again. Colour drained from him, as if he’d been bled, before he stumbled forward.
Without thought, I shot forward and helped to catch him before he went down. He was like a dead weight, true, but that wasn’t the only thing I experienced as I touched him. Images of running, of hate, fear, anger and guilt flashed through my mind and I nearly let him go. Dark brown eyes looked up into mine and I saw him in all his glory. Evil personified himself, Freddie Howell.
‘Get him to the chair.’ Clare’s voice was strained, probably with the exertion of carrying a man a lot bigger than she was.
I wanted to let him drop. Wanted to see him slump defenceless to the ground before I pummelled him senseless. Wanted to see him suffer, see him scared for his life. Wanted him to experience the knowledge of never getting up again … just like his wife.
I closed my eyes and tried to shut down my emotions. This was too fucking weird even for me, and I’d experienced some weird assed shit in the last two days.
Eventually, we got him in the chair. By this time he seemed to come around a bit. He waved Clare off telling her he was ok; it was just being in the house after all the years of being away. I knew deep down why he hadn’t been in the house, but it’s not something a stranger just happens to know is it?
Freddie Howell had killed his wife. That much was obvious. The strangest thing was why on earth was he walking about in broad daylight playing the doting grandfather? Granted, he might have done his time, but would he still be accepted into the family fold as if everything was ok? I doubted it.
‘I think I should go.’ My voice was strained, weak. I knew it was the right thing to do. Clare had enough to deal with without the added worry of entertaining a stranger. It wasn’t as if I wanted to make small talk with the old bastard was it?
‘No. Please. Sorry about all this.’ Clare’s voice seemed panicked and I thought she may have been worried about being left on her own with a sickly man. But, that idea seemed to change as she looked straight at me. It was more than that. Much more. It was disappointment not panic that flooded her voice.
With this understanding, I didn’t want to leave her. Not because I thought Freddie would hurt her, no. He was incapable of climbing the stairs on his own so I doubted he would tackle her down to the ground and choke the life out of her.
Choke the life out of her? Is that the way he ended Ellen’s life?
A sigh broke through my musing and it wasn’t from me.
‘I’ll walk you out.’ Shit. It was too late to change my mind. Trust me to be reflective at a crucial point.
‘Will you be ok for a minute, Granddad?’ The old fucker grunted and I wanted to slap him. I didn’t care that he was over ninety. ‘I’ll just be outside, ok?’
I nodded my leave and turned to go.
Less than a minute later, we were standing next to the open boot of Clare’s car. Although Clare was a little distracted at first, as she kept on looking around to check if everything was ok, it wasn’t long before she started to speak.
‘I think you shocked him.’ Too fucking right I did. ‘I thought I knew you from somewhere, but it wasn’t you.’ A small laugh hit the air like music. ‘You look like my grandmother, his wife.’
Just a minute. Clare knew her grandmother? Then I was wrong. He hadn’t kil …
‘Not that I ever met her. She ran off years ago.’ Clare leaned forward conspiratorially. ‘He’s never forgiven her for leaving him to bring up my mother on his own.’
‘She ran off?’ I thought my tone held disbelief because I doubted her grandmother had run off. However, Clare seemed to take the question the wrong way.
‘Yep. Broke his heart. Never remarried.’ She sighed wistfully. ‘He loved her so much, you see.’
No. No I didn’t. What Freddie Howell felt for his wife was not love. It was ownership.
But I nodded and tsked in the right places.
‘He always keeps a picture of her with him. Even now he is at the home.’ Clare sighed as if she couldn’t get over his enduring love. I wanted to gag at the thought. ‘It was taken when they were courting. Somewhere near the Roaches in Derbyshire.’ She moved as if to touch my arm but stopped. ‘You look so like her on that picture.’
Clare studied me as if trying to compare the photograph with the living, breathing woman standing in front of her. ‘Honestly. It’s uncanny.’
I pursed my lips and then changed them to a smile. She returned the gesture, the air between us silent for a minute. Brown eyes were looking deeply into mine and I wondered if she was still comparing me to her grandmother. Part of me was hoping that she was looking at me for a different reason. Actually, it was more than just a part. It was more like all of me.
‘He fell out with his sister, too. Annabel.’ I jumped slightly at the sound of her voice, but I didn’t think she noticed. ‘They hadn’t spoken for years.’ I bet they hadn’t. ‘I only got to know her when I was old enough to make my own decisions.’ Clare leaned back and looked me straight in the face, a smile appearing like magic. ‘Sorry.’ A small laugh punctuated her words. ‘I doubt you want to hear my life story.’
‘I would love to.’ For once in my life the tone came out exactly how I wanted it to – with just a hint of flirtation. I’d fully expected it to sound polite, which she then would have noticed and closed off.
But she acknowledged it for what it was – an open invitation for more, for a chance for us to meet again. I had no idea how that would happen, as I lived in Norwich and she lived in Kirk Langley or thereabouts.
Clare tilted her head to the side and half closed her eyes, a soft smile played over her lips. I had to tilt my head up to hers as she was slightly taller than I was. ‘I would love that too.’ Fuck. That voice. It seeped into me, not through the ears, but into me – deeply into me.
‘Clare!’ The old twat was calling for her and I saw her briefly glance over her shoulder in his direction. ‘Can we get going?’
‘In a minute, Granddad!’ she called back, her eyes never leaving mine. ‘Where were we?’ Another smile. God. My poor heart. Then I saw her stiffen. ‘What am I thinking? I don’t live here.’ I know. The house looks like it should be demolished. ‘I live in Norfolk.’
What the fuck?
The disappointment stood starkly on her face. ‘I’m leaving here this afternoon. Shit!’ She took a step forward but stopped. ‘I suppose I could stay another day if … if you’d like to get dinner or something?’
I smiled at her and she nodded, her face brightening.
‘Where in Norfolk?’
Confusion flitted over her face and momentarily dulled the brightness.
‘Great fish and chips. French’s on the Quay.’
More confused expressions slipped over her features. ‘You’ve been?’ A snort of laughter. ‘Of course you have if you know French’s.’ Then it was back to looking serious again. ‘Just a minute. Are you from here?’ I shook my head and smiled at her. ‘So … are you going to tell me or are you going to leave me hanging?’
I had to laugh at the ‘No way!’ she almost shouted.
A figure seemed to hover in the doorway just behind her and initially I thought it was Granddad Wife Killer. But, unless he had been dipped into the fountain of youth and also changed sex, it wasn’t him. Annabel leaned on the doorframe, her body seeming relaxed, her expression open and contented. I wanted to wave to her, wanted to beckon her out to experience this moment, but even I knew that was pushing my sanity. Not really a moment to introduce a dream lover to, hopefully, a future one – and maybe a lot more – especially because one was dead and haunting me and the other one didn't know I was prone to seeing her dead great aunt as she had been sixty years ago.
Annabel seemed to be watching Clare and me, seemed to show her approval of us talking, of us getting to know each other. It was good to see. I remembered the softly spoken ‘Clare’ as we had met in the living room once again and it all began to make sense. Even though Annabel’s spirit wanted me to know about what Freddie had done, she had also wanted me to take care of Clare, for some reason or another.
Then I saw him. Staggering down the hall and towards us, his face full of anger, full of hatred. He couldn’t half shift considering he was in his nineties. I knew he wanted me to go, wanted Clare’s attention away from me and what I knew, wanted to ruin another couple’s chances of happiness. But, he wasn’t going to do it this time. No way.
Just as he reached the doorway, I leaned forward and grabbed Clare’s arm. I needed her attention, needed her to look at me and ignore the old fart who wanted to stop what we had before it started. But it wasn’t me who stopped him. It was the front door slamming shut in front of his face just as he reached it. I could see the handle twisting maniacally before it stopped dead.
Clare’s head shot around, her expression anxious. ‘The …’
‘Wind, yes. It slammed the door shut.’ I smiled at her and added slight pressure to her arm. Her eyes drifted to the contact I’d made and I noted a small smile dance around before manifesting into something I could only class as sublime. I wasn’t going to tell her that her great aunt had slammed the door on the old git. Why would I? Not only because it would make me look like a Ghost Whisperer wannabe, but she would probably go and check to see if he was ok. Well, after she told me, in no uncertain terms, to ‘Fucking get away from me you demented woman!’
‘So. Where were we?’ I was smooth. Uncharacteristically so.
Clare seemed to think momentarily before nodding to an unasked question. ‘I think …’ she turned away, my hand slipping from her arm. Shit. She was going to check on him after all. Hark at me and my ultimate smoothness.
But she didn’t move towards the house, didn’t go to see how he was. Initially, I was surprised at this considering he’d had some kind of ‘episode’ recently and he was clocking on in years. She moved to the boot of the car and started to rummage through the bags. And all the time she was rummaging, I was trying to think of something else to say. Something memorable, something smoother than before, something that would be quoted in years to come as the epitome of slickness. Alas, the brain decided it liked whirring around and doing fuck all. Well, except for conjuring blank screens and noises of cogs turning.
‘I was just …’ her voice was muffled, and although I heard her, I stepped closer. ‘Looking …’ Another step and I was right behind her. ‘For this.’
She turned to face me, her smile radiant. Well, it was at first, until she realised how close I was and decided to scream and drop the item in her hand. It crunched on the gravel and I looked at the book splayed at my feet, the pages separated in submission.
We both bent down to retrieve it at the same time and slammed our heads together. The clunk of two skulls meeting should have made us cry out, but instead we laughed, albeit nervously. Then we did it again. Thunk. I believe I actually felt my brain shift inside my head after the second thwack, and the sensation was like a grape floating around in a pickle jar.
I stood straight and gestured to the book, indicating that she should be the one to retrieve it. It would give me time to frantically rub the sore spot before I looked perfectly pain free once again, although I have to admit it stung like a bitch.
But, I was waiting with a ready smile as she stood straight, the book held in her grasp.
‘That’s an old one.’ I nodded my head at the notebook in her hand. ‘W H Smith’s I believe. One of the original ones from Bridge House, Lambeth.’
Clare just stared at me as if I was talking shite. To any lay person, I would have been. But, you see, stationery was my thing. I was a stationery rep after all. Not the paper clip variety. More the upper end of the market – notebooks, diaries, writing sets. All the good stuff. The expensive stuff.
The woman in front of me turned the book over and checked the back. ‘Erm … yes?’
I grinned at her and jiggled my hand for her to pass it over, which she did, although she did hold onto it lightly and tug as I tried to get it. I just lifted an eyebrow and gave her my best ‘Give it up’ look. She laughed and released it into my care.
I liked that. The teasing, I mean. It seemed natural, like we had done the same thing a thousand times. I wasn’t used to feeling so connected to another person – male or female. I was a bit of a Billy No Mates, really.
With that epiphany, I felt the blush climb up my throat and I focused my attention on the book instead hoping she wouldn’t see how vulnerable and exposed I was feeling.
It was a beauty. I know that sounds like I’m a total fucking nerd, but it was. My hands travelled over the binding like I was caressing a lover. This book had been taken care of by its owner. There was no doubt about that. Nothing adorned the front; it was just soft brown leather. I turned it over and looked at the back to see the markings of the stationery house.
I lifted my gaze to meet Clare’s. She was watching me intently. ‘May I?’ I gestured the action of opening it. She nodded.
Inside was a name written in small neat writing. ‘Annabel Howell.’ I knew it would be there. I’d felt her mark even before I had opened the cover. The date underneath the name announced ‘December 1949’. On the inside of the cover, opposite her name, a message was written: ‘To you, from me. x E x’. If I wasn’t mistaken, I also knew the E stood for Ellen. No. I’m not a prophet, or seer – it just made sense.
‘It belonged to my great aunt.’ I nodded but continued to turn the pages, pages that were full of words, full of memories of a time long gone. However, just seeing the flowing script made me feel the action of each word being placed, lovingly, on each page.
Clare laughed nervously making me look up to give her a questioning look.
‘Sorry.’ I tilted my head and looked at her. ‘I feel bad now.’
‘Bad?’ I asked, my voice showing confusion.
Another laugh. ‘I actually got the book to rip a page out to give you my mobile number.’ My eyes widened in shock – not because of her giving me her number. I’m not that retarded.
‘Sacrilege!’ Clare looked embarrassed and I smiled reassuringly at her. It was her turn to blush. ‘I’m joking, Clare. It’s your book. You can rip out as many pages as you want.’
I offered it back to her and she deliberated before taking it. ‘I couldn’t do it now. I’d feel like I was destroying a part of history.’
‘One tick.’ I turned and ran back to my car leaving her standing there.
Less than a minute later, I was back in front of her, a small business card held out. ‘You can write your mobile number on the back of that.’ She opened her mouth to speak, but I was prepared. Lifting my hand, I wiggled another card. ‘And you can take this one to replace it.’
A grin split her face and she gently tried to pull the card. However, I mimicked her previous stunt and held on to it, tugging it back before releasing it. Lame, I know. Well, more like the actions of a dick head. But, she thought it was amusing, so who gives a shit if I was a moron? I didn’t.
‘There you go.’ She handed the card back to me with a wink making me want to blush all over again. Looking down at it I felt a gasp leave my lips as I read the words marked on the small card. No. That isn’t right. It wasn’t that she had written her name, mobile, landline and email address in such a short space of time. It was that Clare had the exact same handwriting as her great aunt.
I lifted my eyes quickly to see Clare grimacing, as if she was expecting me to say something about the amount of information she’d given me. She must’ve thought that’s why I gasped. It would have been so easy to just explain the reason, but I felt silly. Why would it be so important for me to point that out?
‘You write like your great aunt.’ What the fuckity fuck?
Those perfect lips parted, then moved, then closed.
‘I just thought …’
‘Funnily enough, everyone says I look like her too.’ Damned right she did. And then I wondered if her lips were as soft as Annabel’s.
‘Yeah. As soft as a ninety five year old woman’s.’ I was so thankful that thought stayed inside my head. I tried to push the image back of what I had dreamed about – not the actual dream, but the changed dream where Annabel was in her nineties. No good.
A knocking came from behind us. A knocking on the door. Man. That took him a while to think of that one.
A look of sheer horror appeared on Clare’s face. ‘Shit … oh … excuse me.’ Was she apologising for saying shit? I would be saying sorry every five minutes if that was the case. ‘I …’ She looked torn for some reason – like she wanted to stay talking to me, but also knew she was needed elsewhere. ‘I’ll … can I?’ She thumbed over her shoulder, indicating she had to leave.
‘Sure … sure … you get going.’ I started to back away, but she moved towards me, a light hint of panic on her face. ‘Can you, will you, erm …’
A smile crept over me. ‘Go to him, Clare. I’ll wait in my car for a while and we can make some arrangements, ok?’
Even though I’d been waiting for nearly fifteen minutes for her to come back out of the house, I wasn’t worried. At least it showed he wasn’t lying dead on the floor when she had got back, or was clasping his chest in agony. To be honest, I didn’t quite know what I felt about that last thought.
Furtively, I kept looking over at the house. I didn’t want to seem too eager when she reappeared. But sitting in the driver’s seat of my Mazda, I gave the impression of desperate. I needed to occupy myself so she thought maybe I was catching up on stuff and not hanging around like a sad loner.
Leaning behind me, I stretched to get my handbag I thrown on the back seat as I had rummaged around for the business cards. The little fucker was an inch shy of being captured, but I continued to do myself an injury by jamming my body between the gap of the front seats. It would have been so much easier to get out of the car and get it that way, but now it had become a mission.
Just as the tips of my fingers touched the strap, I froze. It wasn’t because I had pulled a muscle. No. The reason why I froze was because I got the distinct impression I was being watched.
Turning, I looked towards the house half expecting Clare to be grinning at me through my side window, but there was no one there. Frowning, I inched closer to my target, my middle finger inching under the strap and slowly pulling the slack handle towards me. Then I felt it again. Eyes watching me. Another look to my left indicated the place was completely empty, not even the ghostly figure of Annabel to greet me.
I waited a moment, the memories of believing I was being watched slipping effortlessly into my mind. The circumstances were different, granted. For a start, it was broad daylight and I wasn’t peeing at the side of the road. But that didn’t stop the hairs on my arms and at the back of my neck standing to attention as if they could somehow stop what was happening.
‘Find me.’ A voice, a female voice, an unidentified female voice came from next to me. It was soft, yet insistent. Even though it had only said two words, each one penetrated deep inside my core. All the blood in my veins appeared to stop flowing making the sensation even more terrifying than it already was. My right side could sense a patch of coldness pressing against it and I closed my eyes to ready myself for what was to come.
Letting go of the handle, I moved backwards, my eyes still firmly shut. I felt a hand touch the small of my back and guide me, but I didn’t fear it. This wasn’t a cruel hand, not by a long shot.
The cushion of the driver’s seat felt reassuring, but I still waited a couple more seconds before opening my eyes. I knew someone was staring at me from the passenger seat. Knew she was waiting intently for me to grow some balls and turn to meet her gaze.
I swallowed, and then swallowed again. My whole body seemed to vibrate and it wasn’t through excitement. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure it was fear as I knew she wasn’t here to hurt me. Knew she couldn’t … would never … had never … and never would.
Slowly, I turned. Green eyes were expectant, inquisitive and so very much like my own that it was like looking closely into a mirror. It was me, but it wasn’t me. Shoulder length blonde framed her face, her fringe tucked behind one ear. A half smile played along her lips as she looked me over. She was probably thinking the same thing about me – how we looked alike, I mean.
‘Ellen?’ I knew I sounded mad when I said it, but what else could I do?
A nod from her, her eyes flicking shut rapidly slowly. That doesn’t make sense, but that’s how it appeared.
Now what does a person say to a ghost? I know mediums wail out ‘Is there anybody there?’ when they are trying to make contact, but what then? ‘How’s the weather where you are?’ or ‘What’s it like being dead?’
So, I went for something obvious.
‘You’re dead.’ Not the best way to start a conversation, I know that. But I was feeling the pressure a little.
Ellen just smiled at me. Even she knew I was a twat and we’d only just met. I usually last a little longer in fooling people, but there was no fooling those green eyes.
‘Did he kill you?’ The smile she had given me completely faded and was replaced by fear. Her hand rose up and she pointed at the house. Why didn’t she answer me? She had spoken when I wasn’t looking at her, so why not now?
I turned to where she was pointing and saw Clare outside with her granddad. She was helping him climb down the steps, her focus not on him but on me. She looked concerned, as if she knew there was something happening inside my car but couldn’t make out what it was.
Could she see Ellen? Was she wondering why there were two ‘mes’ inside the car? Or was she just thinking about why I was still waiting?
‘You belong with her.’ Ellen’s voice broke through my mental meandering, making me jump before turning back to her.
Nothing. No one. Empty. The seat looked innocently vacant, as if no one had been there. Whiteness caught my eye and I spotted a small card sitting and waiting to be discovered. Tentatively, I stretched out to pick it up, even though I knew it was my own business card, the one id given to Clare before. There was something different, though. Something added.
‘To you, from me. x E x.’
‘Fuck.’ The word eked from my lips in disbelief. How had that happened? Ghosts don’t write messages do they? I thought when people talked about a ghost writer, it meant something completely different - not fucking ghosts actually writing!
‘FUCK!’ The noise at the window was my undoing, and I grimaced as I saw Clare’s facial expression change to shock. ‘Sorry … I …’ was I apologising for swearing like I believed she had? No. I was apologising for frightening the crap out of her.
Clare mimed the action of rolling down the windows and I complied immediately.
‘Everything ok?’ She leaned forward, her head poking inside, the scent of her shampoo drifting in to embrace my senses. ‘I saw you talking to someone …’ She saw me talking to Ellen. Thank fuck for that! ‘And I didn’t want to disturb you when you were on the phone.’ Phone? What phone? Shit. Exactly. She thought I was talking to someone because she could see me engaged in something bordering on a conversation, although it had been rather limited.
Was now the right time to tell her? Inform her that I had been seeing her bloody relatives for the last two days – even had dream love with one of them?
‘You look a little pale. You ok?’ Not really, no. I’d just been sitting next to a woman who had been dead for sixty years and could’ve been my twin. I think that could be a factor towards the paleness. Actually, I am surprised I was still lucid.
‘Clare! Come on.’ Freddie Howell was shouting from her car and I could feel my heckles rise. ‘I’ve got to get back!’
Clare shouted back she’d be a minute and then looked at me apologetically. ‘Sorry, Rebecca. He wants to get back to the home. Too many memories for him here.’
I bet there were – and none of them good ones.
‘I was thinking …’ Her eyes nervously shifted around the inside of my car before they briefly landed on my hands. A smile crept up and over her face and I realised she had seen the business card I still held.
‘You were thinking?’
Brown eyes looked into mine and seemed to sparkle. It seemed as if I was transfixed by them, as if I could see right inside her at the very moment.
‘I’ll be heading out as soon as I’ve got Granddad settled.’ Why was her voice so gloriously addictive? Soft, and round, and full.
‘And?’ My tone lowered, almost suggestively.
‘How about we meet for lunch?’ She paused and I waited for her to continue, which she did. ‘There’s a lovely pub on Adam’s Road not far from here.’ Another pause, her eyes seeming to prompt me for an answer. However, I was too busy staring at her to comprehend this at the time. ‘Erm … The Blue Bell Inn?’ God. She was beautiful. So very very perfectly beautiful. ‘Or maybe not.’
I didn’t catch on right away. It sort of drifted into my subconscious as she was pulling her head free from my window. Reaching out, I grabbed her and pulled her back, her face mere inches from mine.
‘I’d love to.’ Being so close to her, being within kissing distance of her made me want to bridge the small gap between us. Take the initiative and brush my lips over hers. Luxuriate in the softness I knew would be waiting for me.
I licked my lips in anticipation and she mimicked the action. Brown eyes flitted down to my mouth and then back to look into my eyes. I could see she wanted to kiss me too. I couldn’t miss it, just like she couldn’t miss the fact I wanted to kiss her. Considering neither of us had actually said we were gay, it was a huge assumption, but one I was sure of.
Her face moved even closer to me, her eyes fluttering shut. I knew it was coming, knew the sensation would be magical, would be what I had been waiting my whole life for …
The old bastard!
Clare’s eyes shot open and she rapidly pulled back, her head cracking the top of the doorframe in her hasty retreat.
‘Shit. Sorry …’ I hoped she was actually apologising for swearing and not for nearly kissing me. That was one thing I hoped she would never be sorry for.
‘I’ve got to go. About one?’ I nodded in answer to her question. ‘See you there.’
She walked backwards, her eyes fixed on mine. I couldn’t seem to tear my eyes away from her, even after she’d got in her car.
Minutes later, she was driving past me. I held up my Sat Nav to show her I was finding directions for The Blue Bell Inn and she gave me the thumbs up before mouthing ‘One.’ I nodded and returned the gesture. Freddie just glared at me, brown eyes full of hatred, and I fully expected him to stick his middle finger up as the car passed, but he was too busy conserving his energy to try and intimidate. It may have worked when he was twenty, but I had a feeling I would be ok now he was over ninety.
A snort left my mouth. I couldn’t believe I was thinking about an old man like that. Never, even in my wildest dreams, had I ever thought about hurting another human being, never mind someone who could barely walk.
‘Turn left.’ A disembodied voice from my lap made me jump and drop the useless piece of shit that was my Sat Nav.
‘I’ve got to turn around first, Susan.’ I tried to act cool, but my hand was shaking as I stuck the oblong device onto my windscreen. Considering all I had experienced of late, I was surprised the device had unnerved me.
The engine roared to life and I pressed the pedal to give it another kick. Slam. Gears in reverse, my attention fully engaged with the action of backing up. There were a few bushes knocking about and I didn’t want to drive into them.
I noticed Annabel’s house as I was looking backwards. It seemed so lost, so old and deserted that I felt a pang of sadness wash through me. I knew deep down that she had waited all her life in the hopes that Ellen would come back. It was never to be. How sad was that? How desperately heart breaking?
But. I’d met Clare. A grin split my face before I moved the car forwards. I still needed to reverse again, as the area I’d parked was not as big as I first thought. Instead of just moving back, I put my handbrake on. I just wanted to sit and think things through – sit and try to make sense of what had happened, past and present. I still had two and a half hours before I had to meet Clare, so I wasn’t in a hurry.
Had Freddie found out about their affair? If so, why didn’t he do anything to Annabel? Why just kill Ellen? I tipped my head in thought. It could have been because by killing Ellen, he would, in turn, metaphorically kill his sister.
Fuck. I knew things like this did happen in the world. People do evil and wicked things to other people for many different reasons – too many reasons to list. But to kill someone because she loved someone else? Why? Why would anyone want to hurt another because he or she didn’t feel the same way? What happened to acceptance? Understanding? Letting the person you profess to love be happy without you?
I’m not saying it wouldn’t hurt to know you weren’t her one. Not saying that the agony of being second best didn’t cut deep. But murder? Yes. I understand that things can get out of control, that sometimes things are said and done that we wish we could take back. However, to take a life? To see the light fade from the eyes of someone you professed to love? No. I couldn’t understand that and I don’t think I ever would. Granted, I had never been in that situation – never had someone I loved with my all tell me that I wasn’t good enough, so who am I to judge?
Who am I to judge? There was one thing I knew and that was I would never hurt Clare.
Clare? Why was I linking the thought of someone being my all to a woman I had known for an hour at most?
A sigh broke free releasing the pressure I hadn’t noticed building in my chest. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t attracted to Clare Davies, really attracted to her. But … my all? I think I was jumping the gun a bit with this thought, although there was a little voice trying to disagree with me coming from somewhere where the pressure had been building previously.
Time to leave. Better to be early – actually, with my case history, better to get there without getting lost again.
Slipping the car into reverse, I released the handbrake and moved backwards. My mind was elsewhere. I knew this. My thoughts were all over the place. I also knew this. I wasn’t paying full attention. I found this out the hard way.
The reason? Easy. I didn’t look ahead of me as I put the car into first gear and began to move forward. Why would I? I was on the driveway on my own. It wasn’t as if I was on the road, was it?
He was there. Tall. Dark. In front of my car. Dark brown eyes widened as I lurched towards him, my feet slamming onto the brake and clutch at the same time. I felt the car skid and pitch forward just enough to thud into him. Hands splayed over my car bonnet and he fell forward, his face contorted in surprise and pain. I lifted my hands from the steering wheel, for what reason I don’t know. I think I screamed, but I’m not too sure.
He slipped from the front of my car and I saw him collapse in front of my bumper, heard the distinct crunch of a body hitting gravel.
No. I couldn’t have killed him. Not at that speed. It barely should’ve affected him never mind make him act that way, make him slump.
I covered my mouth, the sobs being held back by mere palms. I felt the blood drain from my face as I tried to decide what to do. The practical side insisted it was someone trying to get me out of the car, someone who wanted to hurt or rob me or both. It had to be. I hadn’t even moved into second gear.
But his face. That face. It didn’t make me think of a trickster, a robber, a thief. It showed me someone who was hurt and hurt by me.
Turning the engine off, I unclipped my seatbelt and tried to peer out of my windows. Nothing. Not even a splayed arm peeping out. He must’ve fallen slap bang in front of my car. I considered reversing and taking in the scene, but I could hurt him even more as I didn’t know exactly where he was.
As my hand reached for the door handle, an image of the man’s face appeared again. Dark. Brown eyes. Pain. Surprise. Or was it pain and surprise I saw? I wasn’t so sure now. It could’ve been something else. Something a little more in fitting with those eyes. Anger? It could’ve been. I would have been angry too if some stupid bitch had mowed me over on a driveway.
But, again, it wasn’t because of that. Back again to the eyes. I knew them, fucking knew them.
No. No no no. It wasn’t Freddie Howell. It couldn’t be Freddie Howell. I’d just seen him being driven away in the passenger seat of Clare’s car. Ghosts were dead people weren’t they?
Decision made, I opened the car door and stepped out, my foot crunching on the tiny stones. Tentatively, I edged my way around to the front of the vehicle, my stomach clenching in rhythm with my heart beat.
I didn’t quite know how to feel when the space was empty. No slumped man, nothing but weeds and gravel. It had felt so real – appeared so real. I could visualise the moment so clearly - the expression, the sensation of a body hitting the bonnet, the sound of weight hitting the ground. But even though I could envision it, it didn’t necessarily mean it had physically happened did it?
Slipping backwards, I propped my backside onto the car’s hood. Was I going mad? I looked about me, taking in my surroundings. It was so quiet here, so deserted. It didn’t look as if anyone had been here for years. My attention went to the ground in front of me and stared at the spot where I had believed there should have been a man – a man called Freddie Howell.
I cast my mind back to two nights ago when I had been driving down the deserted roads completely lost. Finding this place was like a mirage, an oasis. But, ever since that had happened, my world had been tipped upside down. Dreams of running, of fear, of trying to escape; dreams of being loved, being wanted; waking to find bruises; hearing voices; seeing fucking dead people everywhere I looked.
Using both hands, I scraped the tips of my fingers down my face as if the movement would make me wake up from this life.
Then it hit me.
Did Clare actually exist? Or was she part of this screwed up world I had found myself in?
Jumping from the bonnet, I rushed to the door and leant over the seat. There was nothing there. No card, no handwriting, no email or phone numbers. I leaned back out, mainly to suck down some much needed air.
Fuck. And fuck. And what the fuck?
Back again inside the car, I rummaged down the side of the seat, but still nothing. Tears filled my eyes and I knew I was on the verge of losing it. ‘It has to be here. It has to be.’ A sob broke free and I was finding it more difficult to keep it all inside. So much had happened, so bloody much. But the one thing I couldn’t bear to think about was that I had imagined Clare Davies.
With that thought, I stopped my search and slumped down onto the ground. Tears fell unchecked. I didn’t care who saw me because even if someone was here they were probably be in my screwed up imagination.
I must’ve cried for ten minutes solid. Quite a short amount of time considering I had just realised I had lost the plot. Sniffling, I wiped my face with my hands, rubbing the skin to motivate the blood to move around my body.
It was time to go home; time to get back in the car and drive back to Norwich. A shaky laugh slipped from my mouth, ‘No wonder you lived in Wells.’ It was probably because my imagination couldn’t think of anywhere else to place my dream woman.
I knew I’d been working a lot of hours; knew I’d been here, there and everywhere in a short space of time, but it was part and parcel of the job. I also knew I’d not been sleeping or eating well; knew I was closing myself off from friends and family saying I was too busy to see them, but this? Did that all amount to this?
Standing up, I felt slightly light headed and I steadied myself on the side of my car. I took a couple of deep breaths before moving towards getting inside. But, just before I did, my mobile sounded, the ring stark and shrill in the desolate place I was standing.
Quickly, I opened the back door, grabbed my handbag and rummaged around the junk inside. Thankfully, I got to it before the unidentified caller hung up.
The voice seemed echoey as if I was on speaker phone.
Instead of speaking, I grunted.
‘Sorry to call, but I didn’t know what else to do.’ I heard the sound of a car’s indicator and knew the person calling was driving. ‘It’s ok. We’re nearly there.’
‘Excuse me? Who is this?’ I knew the voice, but I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about. Nearly where?
‘It’s Clare.’ As in my imagination ‘Clare’? ‘Granddad has had a turn and I’m taking him to the hospital.’ Hospital? ‘I doubt I’ll be able to make it by one.’ Granddad has had a turn? A turn? ‘Are you still there?’
‘Yes. Erm … yes.’
‘Can we say later?’
I felt some of the heaviness lift from me. Maybe I wasn’t losing the plot after all. I grimaced as I thought about all that had happened. Or maybe I was still losing the plot and it had become more digitally advanced.
‘Rebecca? Can you still hear me?’
‘Yes. Yes. We can meet later. Or …’ I had to find out once and for all if I was imagining this. ‘Maybe I could meet you at the hospital instead?’ I gritted my teeth expecting a knock back. The line seemed to quieten for a moment.
‘Have you got a pen?’ A grin split my face. ‘And a piece of paper?’
‘Sure … wait up.’ Digging through my pockets, I searched for a pen. Instead I found a piece of card. A business card. The same business card I had searched the interior of my car for and then broke down in tears because I thought I was going mad. Lifting the card, I kissed it and slipped it back inside my pocket. ‘Just tell me. I’ve a good memory.’
Although a slightly fucked up one, by all accounts.
Nearly an hour later, I was pulling into the car park of the Royal Derby Hospital. I could have been there sooner if the bloody Sat Nav hadn’t sent me the wrong way and nearly into the town centre.
After parking, I approached the exit. Standing outside was a very familiar looking person and I felt my heart kick start all over again, and it wasn’t just because she was real.
‘Hey. How is he?’ I didn’t give a flying fuck about Freddie Howell, but that’s not what you say to the man’s granddaughter is it?
Her face seemed to brighten as soon as she heard my voice. She was even more beautiful than I remembered, although a little pale.
‘He’s fine now, although I thought I’d lost him at one point.’ I saw the tears threaten to spill and I placed my arm around her and pulled her closer to me. Clare gripped hold of me and pulled me closer still, a sob slipping unannounced from her.
‘Come on. He’s a tough one. He’ll be ok.’ Amazing how those words didn’t scald my tongue on the way out.
Clare pulled her head back and looked into my eyes. The tears had made hers even more striking than usual and I felt myself lean forward as if I was being pulled.
This was not the time to kiss her. Not just because I didn’t know her that well, but it would have been taking advantage of a situation – you know, her feeling fragile and vulnerable after what had happened to her granddad. However, a little part of me wondered if I did kiss her, maybe I could verify that this was actually taking place and it wasn’t another chapter in my mental breakdown.
No. That wasn’t the done thing, was it? To kiss someone partly to check your sanity?
Soft lips met mine and my mind went blank. The only thing that mattered was the feel of her mouth. Even though we were only gently kissing, I could feel the connection of her everywhere. If this was what going mad was like, then I would be willing to lose my mind to her – lose my all to her.
Clare pulled back, her the redness of her lips stark against the paleness of her skin.
‘Sorry, I …’
‘Shush.’ I placed my finger over her mouth halting any apology for what had just happened. I smiled up at her, shy in her presence. ‘I wanted it too.’
Her face, once white, blossomed into a beautiful blush and my heart skipped a beat with the sight. How on earth had I ever believed she was a figment of my imagination? I couldn’t dream this. No way.
‘Good.’ The word was spoken softly but the intention behind the word seemed to seep deep within me. Then she stood straighter, seemed to collect herself.
‘I’ve got to get back to check on Granddad in an hour.’ I nodded, then grinned widely. ‘But, maybe we could grab some lunch?’
I nodded again. ‘I’d love to.’
Clare slipped her arm through mine and turned me towards the entrance. After a couple of steps she stopped and looked down at me.
‘And you can tell me how you knew my great aunt over lunch.’
I think I mumbled a reply, but I wasn’t exactly sure what.
I’d been driving for over four and a half hours. Four and a half bloody hours. It wouldn’t have been so bad if I hadn’t have left a beautiful woman standing in a hospital car park waving me off, but I had. The journey should have taken me all of three and a half hours, but traffic was bad. For once, I didn’t get lost.
I didn’t want to leave her. Didn’t want to say goodbye so soon after finding her, but she insisted. Freddie had to stay in overnight for observation, so she wasn’t going to leave until he got the all clear. Trust him to put the brakes on what could be a budding romance.
Funnily enough, that was the reason why he ended up in the hospital in the first place. By all accounts, Freddie had told his granddaughter that I looked like shifty character and she shouldn’t see me again. Not that he actually knew his granddaughter was gay – he just thought I was bad stock and would lead her astray. Clare had told him, in no uncertain terms, that it was none of his business. He had gone quiet for a while and then spluttered out something along the lines of ‘Done it once,’ before passing out. She didn’t know what he meant, but I sure as hell did.
He had wanted to stop us starting. Obviously. He hadn’t been able to stop the relationship his wife had had with his sister, so he had done so as soon as he did. That’s if he knew about their affair, which by now I was beginning to believe he did.
‘Welcome to Norwich. A Fine City.’ The sign lit up like a beacon, but instead of feeling happiness, I wanted to cry for some fucked up reason.
Fifteen minutes later I was pulling into my driveway. The house looked cold and dark and totally uninviting. Nothing new there.
Stretching as I got out of the car, I felt the muscles groan back into place. I needed a hot bath and an early night in that order. Tomorrow would come soon enough and I still had notes from my meetings to copy up.
As soon as I bathed, I was in bed. The last few nights had seen me without much sleep and I was shattered.
I don’t know how long I had been asleep before the dreams began. Too many images, too many sounds and emotions; too much of everything. Everything seemed to mishmash and make no sense whatsoever. I wanted to get things in order, tell those sounds and images to get in line, to wait their turn, but it didn’t happen. It just seemed to get more frantic.
I could feel hands around my throat, strong hands, capable hands. They were adding pressure, taking the pressure away, then adding it once again. In my dream I was weakening, losing the fight, moving away from life into something dark and unwelcoming.
‘Ellen!’ The voice was female. Female, not male. ‘Look at me Ellen!’ I tried to open my eyes, tried to look at the person who had her hands around my throat.
Brown. So very brown. So very brown and beautiful and deep and dark – her eyes looked into mine, quizzical brown eyes framed by long lashes. They showed confusion as if what they were seeing wasn’t real. My own eyes fluttered closed, the effort of keeping them open too much.
‘Please. Don’t. Look at me.’ The voice was frantic, almost as if it wasn’t quite sane.
I wanted to tell her to let me go, let me sleep, let me drift away, but I couldn’t. The pressure on my windpipe was consuming me. I could feel her tugging, pulling, sobbing, but I couldn’t seem to help her.
I sat up in bed coated in sweat, my hands clawing at my throat, a choking cough spluttering from within. It was like I was taking my first breath after being under water. My heart was hammering in my chest and I wondered if I was having a heart attack.
‘Shit!’ The word rasped out of my mouth. I was shaking, my body aching as if I’d been beaten.
Struggling out of bed, I staggered to the bathroom, my balance all over the show. I was like a pin ball bouncing off the furniture.
Click. Bright light illuminated the room around me and I stumbled to the mirror over the sink. A dark mark circled my neck almost as if a cord or a rope had been tied there. Tentatively, I touched it, the pain of the freshness shooting through me.
Images and noises came flooding back into my head from my dream and I felt a sickness wash over me.
Annabel had been there. Annabel had been the one to have her hands around my throat. I’d seen her. Heard her. Felt those hands adding pressure, releasing it before adding pressure again. The sensation of losing the fight to live, the weakening of my body, the wanting to give in and let the blackness take me seemed so real, even now I was awake. And there was Annabel’s voice demanding me to look at her – a voice that seemed not quite sane.
Had Annabel killed Ellen? No. She loved Ellen. I knew that. She wanted to be with her, move away and live with her, start afresh with her and Bella.
The memory of my dream with Annabel popped into my head. ‘I’m not like him am I? You know – with my anger?’ The words seemed to echo.
No. Annabel wasn’t like her brother. She loved Ellen. Would do anything for Ellen. Ellen knew this, she said so; she’d told me in a dream that even though Annabel and Freddie may look alike that’s where the similarity ended.
Like in the hotel, I slumped to the floor. This was too much. My brain was hurting, and so was the place in my chest.
My own thoughts from the previous day came back to haunt me. Why would anyone want to hurt another because she didn’t feel the same way? But Ellen did. I knew that. And I also knew that things could get out of control, that sometimes things are said and done in anger that we all wish we could take back.
Was it because Ellen decided to stay with her husband after all? Decided that a life of shame living with another woman in the fifties was not worth it?
No. Ellen wanted Annabel enough to cope with the stares and disapproval of society, hadn’t she?
The coldness of the floor was beginning to chill me, either that or the thoughts I was having. I wanted to put it all down to a bad dream, but I couldn’t shake it off.
Standing, with the aid of gripping hold of the sink, I turned one last time to look into the mirror. The mark seemed angry, dark and threatening. I leaned closer – looked harder. Faint lines of whiteness were intermittent with the purple and red making me lift up my head so the bathroom light could illuminate them.
Just a minute. I had felt hands on my throat. Hands. Fingers and hands. There were no finger marks on my neck, just the signs of a rope or cord. Even though I had acknowledged this beforehand, I hadn’t linked it to the other sensation in my dream. Maybe because the thought of being strangled became my focus when my life was being sucked away from me.
Annabel had been frantic, her voice pleading, her expression confused and slightly insane, true. But the pressure had been on and off, almost like she was untying something. Her desperate, ‘Please. Don’t. Look at me’ could’ve been because she had been trying to resuscitate Ellen not kill her.
My eyes widened. Fuck. And double and treble that fuck. Had Annabel found Ellen and tried to save her but Ellen had died? There are too many fucks to include at this point in time.
Questions swamped me. Questions about why Ellen had been attached to a rope in the first place. Did she do it herself? Did Freddie leave her swinging? Had Annabel used a rope and then calmed down enough to see what she was doing was wrong?
No. Annabel tried to save her. I could feel it now.
There were a couple of things left to consider. Where was the body? And why was Annabel still waiting for Ellen to turn up? The last one could have been denial, the non-acceptance of losing the one you love. Or, Annabel Howell had been haunted by the ghost of Ellen.
I had joked earlier about not being Catherine Earnshaw tapping on the glass, but what if it had happened to Annabel as well as me? If it can happen once, I’m sure it can happen again – even though that does seem rather far-fetched.
My head was hurting even more. I couldn’t think straight, as my brain was conjuring images of lost souls wandering in the night looking for their true love – a true love that either killed them or tried to save them.
Bed time. Not to sleep, I imagined, but to stew things over and over until I could make some sense of what had happened, and that would be a long time coming.
As I sat on my bed, I noticed something sitting on my bedside table. It was the business card I’d given to Clare. I hadn’t put it there – I’d put it safely in the small pocket inside my handbag. I wasn’t worried; it didn’t freak me out. I’d come to expect things like this happening to me. I mean, waking up after believing a dead woman was trying to strangle you made a small card appearing next to your bed pale in comparison, didn’t it?
Reaching out, I lifted the card and read the contact numbers and email again. Why this? Why now?
I tapped the card against my other palm and tried to think it through.
The logo to the company I worked for caught my attention. Jonson’s Stationery.
And? Why would I be focused on that?
I read through my name and contact numbers, my brain trying to make the connection.
What would stationery have to do with anything? I scrunched up my face and tried to think even harder. Not an easy feat, I can tell you.
Bam. Like a bolt of lightning, it came to me.
Stationery. I did stationery – that was my bag. I was a boring fucker who knew all about stationery. So much so, I had commented on the book Clare had been holding. Annabel’s book. The one with the small, neat handwriting and the dedication to her in it from Ellen. The one with pages and pages filled with thoughts, ideas, events.
A grin split my face and I leaned back onto the pillows.
I knew what I had to do, knew why I’d become embroiled in everything. It wasn’t just because I looked like Ellen. Wasn’t just because I would meet Clare Davies. Wasn’t even because someone somewhere was testing my sanity. It was the connection of what I’d dreamed about and the contents of that book. I was the link – the pivotal person to find out what happened and maybe even find the remains of Ellen Howell. No wonder Freddie hated me and thought I was a bad news.
It was time to get to sleep. I wasn’t worried about what I would dream about now. Actually, I welcomed it. It would add to my list of knowledge already gained.
And tomorrow, I would call Clare and make arrangements to meet. I would tell her to bring the book and that I had something to share with her too. I hadn’t told her how I knew her great aunt at the hospital. I’d waffled on about shite for an hour, so maybe if I told her first what I knew, she wouldn’t think I was a crack pot. Although, initially, she may think I am mad, but, hopefully, she’ll get past that.
I grinned stupidly. ‘Or maybe not.’
I snuggled even further under the covers. I had to get some sleep, get rested, as tomorrow was going to be a busy day. A woman needs her rest, especially when she has a murder to solve.
Closing my eyes, I saw brown orbs dance in front of me. Soft, gorgeous brown eyes. The eyes of Clare Davies.
A sigh of contentment slipped through my lips.
My last lucid thought was, ‘I hope I dream about her.’
And I did. How wonderfully magical is that?
As you can tell, this story definitely needs a sequel. Let me know if you think it does. If you think it stands ok on its own, then so be it.
You can reach me at Fingersmith
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