Authors: Beth Moran
I lay in bed watching the moon glimmering through the gap in my old curtains as the clock ticked off those strange hours that dwell in the middle of a sleepless night. Everything felt the same. The same bed, same pale blue walls. It was all clean and fresh, but under the scent of freesias wafting from a vase on my dressing table, it still smelt exactly the same. Pencil shavings. Rose-scented drawer linings and the faintest whiff of the nail polish remover I used to scrub away my enforced dance-show prettiness. In the moonlight I could trace the outline of the pictures covering the far wall. My sketches and paintings of animals, reptiles and birds. One or two insects. All drawn from real-life observation, all scientifically accurate and annotated with David's facts about the species, habitat, eating habits and other information he deemed relevant.
Every picture recounted a story, a quest, an adventure. A memory. I felt some comfort there, in the dreams and sunny days of my childhood. I had once found a way to be happy here. To survive.
I had known who I was, then. Could I do it again? Eventually, sleep came, the animals racing with me through my dreams. Fast and urgent, we ran. Running to escape the darkness that hunted us. Desperate for safety. For home.
The following morning, I dragged myself out of bed to deal with the man picking up the hire van. Figuring that while I was up I might as well make coffee, I shuffled into the kitchen in my pyjamas and found a note propped on the kitchen table. Written on stiff card, with my mother's initials inscribed on the top corner, it said:
At the day centre supervising bingo. Back around 12.37. Please drop the cake off at the specified address. M xx
p.s. It is so wonderful to have you home! You are as utterly beautiful as ever (although worryingly scrawny).
My first thought was to crumple up the note and toss it into the bin. Or go back to bed and pretend I hadn't seen it. Then the familiar creak of my dad's footsteps on the stairs changed my mind. A day at home trying to avoid each other, swimming through a sea of simmering disappointment, felt more tiring than throwing on a pair of jeans and walking a cake down a few streets. I finished my coffee upstairs, pulling on clean clothes then shoving my dark mass of split ends into a ponytail and hastily brushing the caffeine from my teeth before preparing to run the small-town gauntlet.
One of the hardest things about going to Liverpool University had been the sheer volume of human beings. More than that, the endless supply of
people. The chance of bumping into a familiar face outside of the university campus or halls of residence was minute; the never ending stream of strangers, intimidating. In Southwell, even with a growing population of ten thousand, it had been impossible to walk anywhere without seeing people you knew. Every child in the town (bar the handful educated privately) attended the same school. On my last visit for my sister Lydia's wedding eight years earlier most of the shop workers still recognized me (helped, of course, by the bride's semi-celebrity status).
I briefly debated using Mum's parrot headscarf as a disguise, wrapping it elegantly around my head, Audrey Hepburn style. Was I delusional? Wearing a headscarf through the streets of Southwell in twenty-five degree heat to avoid being recognized? That would be ridiculous. Only a complete loser would contemplate going to such extreme lengths to avoid being seen.
So, scarf firmly wrapped around my head, secured in place with a pair of original 80s sunglasses I had found in a kitchen drawer, I scuttled through my home town.
I knew the name of the street the cake was destined for, but hadn't ever ventured onto it. The Nook turned out to be a tiny lane off one of the roads cutting down the far side of the hill. I huffed my way over the top, scurrying past the houses of old school mates, the bungalow where a retired cleaner from my parents' dance academy lived, and the huge cottage where I used to babysit, quietly cursing my mum's goodwill.
The kitchen had always been her second “studio”, so to speak â the place she was guaranteed to be if not dancing. And it was not mere food that came out of Mum's oven: it was an expression of herself, each stew or roast or biscuit carefully concocted to be as life-affirming, invigorating, heart-warming as possible. But what she called her “Christian duty” was an understatement. It seemed that in the last twenty-four hours she had iced more cupcakes than
one church â let alone one family â could stomach. As if all her energy once spent twirling and tapping on the dance floor was now funnelled into measuring and mixing, sifting and slicing. I had felt exhausted simply watching her, without having to join her too.
Bramley House was a ramshackle cottage set back from the road, surrounded by rambling gardens. Children's bikes and skateboards littered the brick path leading up to the red front door. A greenhouse stood to one side, along with two dishevelled vegetable patches. Assorted pots and planters lined the front of the house and several pairs of mud-encrusted wellies lay discarded beside the welcome mat.
Amazed and relieved to manage a ten-minute walk and only see one other pedestrian (an elderly dog-walker who unsurprisingly crossed to the other side of the road), I made my way up the drive.
Awkwardly balancing the cake box in one arm, I reached up to remove the sunglasses. At that moment, an ear-piecing screech split the air from several directions. I caught a glimpse of what appeared to be a blue-skinned goblin swinging towards me at head height from the corner of one eye and half a second later was karate-chopped in the back of both knees, one after the other in quick succession.
My legs buckled, sending me tumbling forward onto the ground, just slow enough for the goblin to catch me smack in the side of my face with his Spiderman trainers. I landed on top of the cake box with a graceless “oof”, forearms scraping painfully across the rough stone path as they landed beneath my chest. Something heavy bounced onto my back, squeezing out what minuscule amount of air remained in my lungs, while another weight pinned down my legs. A sharp pointy object pressed tightly against my neck as I tried to lift it up off the exploded cake box.
“Freeze in the name of the law!” The voice sounded reassuringly like that of a small child rather than a knee-sized ninja warrior. My relief lessened somewhat when the scarf was unwound from where it had fallen over my eyes, revealing the blue-faced goblin child's wild, staring eyes boring into mine from three inches away.
I tried to reposition myself, in order to suck some air back into my desperate lungs. The pressure increased on the back of my neck.
“Who goes there?” The goblin bared his teeth at me.
Struggling to find enough breath to answer, I forced out a strangled wheeze. Whoever, or whatever, was straddling my ankles began hitting my thighs repeatedly with what felt like a mallet. Or perhaps a sledge-hammer. “'Oo there. 'Oo there. 'Oo there,” they cried out, in time to the pummels.
I managed a mangled cry of “Help”, causing the goblin in the Spiderman trainers to try pushing the scarf into my open mouth. He shook his head, eyebrows knotted into a menacing frown. “Right, that's it!” Pulling out a small plastic spade from his back pocket, he waved it carelessly over his head.
“Get him!” the someone, or something, on my back cried. “Get the baddie!” They jabbed the pointy object I now suspected was a sword, or a pair of shears, or a machete, harder into the back of my neck.
The pummelling on my thighs increased in speed and intensity: “Get baddie! Get baddie!”
The goblin roared, “This is your last chance to confess everything before I pluck out your eyes, intruder!” Just as I began wondering if I was actually going to end up maimed, if not dead, a large hand swept out of the sky and snatched the spade out of the goblin's grasp.
The weight quickly lifted from my back and ankles, and above the roar of blood galloping through my veins I heard three children getting ordered inside in no uncertain terms.
Gingerly, stiffly rolling onto my back on the garden path, elbows grazed, gagging on a parrot, I wiped away the smear of cream-cheese icing obscuring my vision and sucked in some much needed oxygen.
A face loomed in front of me, causing me to groan with disbelief as I contemplated winding the scarf back around my head and diving for the bushes. It was no good. My body wasn't budging.
“Meat Harris. I should have guessed.”
Meat Harris squinted. He tilted his still-meaty frame forward and offered me his hand. I declined, pretending to ignore the pain as I heaved myself into a sitting position. The last time he had offered me that hand it had been in the form of what he liked to call a “meat sandwich”. He crouched down next to me on the path instead, thigh muscles bulging under his cargo shorts, and shook his head a little.
“I am so sorry. This is totally embarrassing. Last time I saw them they were happily building a clothes horse fortress round the back. I only went to check the cricket scores for a momentâ¦” He looked at me again: the blood, the dirt, the cake, the rip in the knee of my jeansâ¦
“She's going to kill me.” He stood back up, this time reaching his hands out and pulling me up without waiting for permission. “Come inside. I need to deal with the kids first but if you wait a minute we can get you cleaned up. I'll put on the kettle, make some tea.”
Urrr â no thanks.
“No. I'm fine.”
He looked at me again, more carefully this time. “Ruth? Ruth Henderson?”
Yes, it is me. The victim of your merciless bullying for the many joyful years we were at school together.
I nodded, feebly. “I brought a cake from my mum.” We looked at the mush of carrot cake on the path, already attracting a neat line of black ants. “Right. I'm going to go, then.” I bent down to pick up the sunglasses, now missing one lens, an arm hanging off.
“No way. You're coming in. I'm not letting you go like that.”
“With all due respectâ¦” My voice began to tremble. It took a lot less than a random attack from a gang of child savages to make me cry these days. “I really just want to go home.”
“Ruth. No. Look. Hang on a second. I need to speak to my kids, butâ¦” He jogged over to the front door, pushing it open and shouting, “Sweetpea? Can you come here a minute?”
Okay, that just about did it. What kind of woman let Meat Harris call her sweetpea? There had been girls at school who fell prey to his Neanderthal charm. Who enjoyed being associated with the kind of boy most people were too scared to argue with, or say no to. Those who tittered while he shoved weaker kids down the school bank into the dyke, batted their eyelashes at his continual putdowns and made him feel clever for hiding dog poo in other girls' PE trainers.
Kerry Long? Simone Jackson? I did not want to see those girls on my best day, let alone with cake in my hair, blood running down my arms or the imprint of a shoe on my face.
That they appeared to have produced more than one mini-Meat sent shudders down my spine. How was he not in prison by now?
He pointed one finger at me. “Don't move.” And disappeared inside. I sidled half way down the garden path, my legs reluctant to accept my brain's command to march out of there before he came back. When the front door opened again, Lois Finch, my second best (and only other) childhood friend, fellow victim of many of Meat's hideous pranks, launched herself down the path like a tiny rocket and flung herself at me, seemingly oblivious to cake, dirt or bodily fluids.
“Oh, Ruth. It's so good to see you. Your mum said you were coming home. I can't believe it. We've missed you so much. How are you? How's Maggie? How are things?”
I disentangled myself and stood, shuffling from foot to foot, looking anywhere but at Lois.
Um, excuse me, but Lois? Lois was Meat's sweatpea?
She gasped, taking in my dishevelled state, before narrowing her eyes and glancing back over her shoulder towards the house. “A blue elf, a white knight and a camel in a swimming costume?”
I shrugged. I hadn't seen the knight or the camel, but it sounded as plausible as anything else that had happened to me in the past fifteen minutes.
“I am so sorry. I asked him to watch them for five minutes while I changed Teagan's nappy. Connor's been learning about stranger danger at school, and they've got a bit obsessed. I never would have thought they'd launch the attack squad on someone bearing cake, though. Not unless they looked suspiciousâ¦”
I tucked the headscarf discreetly into my back pocket.
“Well, come on in. We'll get you cleaned up and then we can fill each other in on the past fifteen years. I would offer you some carrot cake, but I think we'll leave that to my darling husband to sort out. Once he's finished his little chat with the three musketeers.”
Husband? Darling? What!?
Lois smiled at me before reaching up to flick a large crumb off my ear. “It really
good to see you. You haven't changed a bit.”
I may not have changed that much, but she had. Her frumpy curtain of colourless hair now shone with highlights, and had been cut in a feathered bob showing up brilliant blue eyes. The purple smudges, a permanent feature underneath her eyes while growing up, had gone. She was still thin, but healthy thin, not close-to-snapping skinny, and she sparkled. A far cry from the ghost of a girl I once sat next to in English. And could Lois Finch really have become Lois Harris?
We had hung around together out of necessity â I had probably been Lois's only friend, and I liked her, but was so wrapped up in David I spared little time for anyone else outside lessons. We wrote once or twice from our respective universities, but once pregnant, I dropped all contact. We hadn't spoken since. I fought the urge to turn and run. Pride wanted me to avoid this, but my pride was squished into the garden path among the cake. I swallowed, and looked sideways at her.
“Meat Harris?” I shook my head, and frowned. “
How on earth did that happen?”
Lois burst out laughing. “Come inside for a cup of tea and I'll tell you.”
“I think it might take something stronger than tea to drag me across the threshold of Meat Harris's front door. Seriously.
Lois grabbed hold of my arm and started trying to pull me down the path. “No alcohol, I'm afraid. But I could rustle up a couple of pain-killers.” Freakishly strong for someone so minuscule, Lois barrelled me into the hallway before I knew it.
A voice called out from somewhere towards the rear of the cottage. “And these days most people call me Matt.”
“That was mean. And calculated. And manipulative.” I rubbed my arms, the grazes still stinging.
I found Mum pruning her rose bushes when I finally extricated myself from Lois, Matt and the four of their six foster kids who weren't at summer activities (I did bring with me an exuberant collage made out of leaves and flowers by way of an apology). She tilted back her straw hat and peered thoughtfully at a flower head. “I don't think so, darling.”