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COUNTDOWN

Published September 2, 2016 by Naomi Rettig

Sunday.13 days to go.

I haven’t written a diary since I was fifteen. I found it the other day and was transported back to those carefree days, the summer of eighty-five, cider by the river on a hot day, Simple Minds on the radio, ‘Don’t you forget about me’. Except, I had forgotten about me. Reading the teenage me I sound so vibrant and hopeful. Here I am now, anything but. I don’t recognize myself.  I don’t know why I’m writing this now, maybe I need a friend to talk to, but I haven’t got one. Diary, I will call you Claire. Claire is a nice name for a friend I think, someone who would listen to my ramblings over a glass of wine. I will obviously have to drink your glass of wine for you though, and I will chat to you every day. And chocolates, I think you’d be the type of Claire to share chocolate with me.

Monday.12 days to go.

I’ve had a shit day, Claire. I think maybe we can take it that every day is going to be a shit day so I don’t need to keep telling you that. Work was the usual. Vanessa was her top bitchy self, she ordered cupcakes for everyone in the office except me, because she thought I was on a diet. She didn’t need to say it as loud as she did. Becca squirmed on my behalf, then took her cake and retreated. I don’t blame her; I would have done the same. The urge to squish one of the cupcakes into Vanessa’s flawless make-up was high. I did it in my head. Slightly satisfying.

No sign of Malcolm when I got home, no take-away cartons, so he is eating out after work again. Or at his slag’s house.

I’m sat by the fire now, having our wine, LaVis Storie di Vite Pinot Grigio. It’s Italian and apparently is fruity with hints of ripe pear. I can’t taste any pear so they are very vague hints. It hits the spot though. Accompanied by a bag of Malteasers, standard size. Do you crunch or let them melt? I like to suck and melt myself.

Tuesday.11 days to go.

Vanessa ‘accidentally’ spilt my coffee over me today. She saw me coming through the door carrying it even though she said she didn’t. ‘Thank goodness you don’t wear expensive clothes’, she smirked and sauntered off. Bitch.

No Malcolm again this evening. His bed had been slept in when I checked this morning, so I know he came home at some point. I don’t know why he doesn’t stay at hers. He must think I’m stupid, or he doesn’t think about me at all. I should have left him years ago Claire, but falling out of love with someone doesn’t just happen overnight, it kind of erodes away, revealing layers you didn’t want to discover.

Our wine of the night is Cuvee des Vignerons, Beaujolais. A fruity style that goes well with chicken, lamb or cheese. I’m accompanying it with a Curly Wurly.

Wednesday.10 days to go.

Vanessa was on a training course today, hooray. The boss was in full perv mode, boo. He managed to collar me as I was photocopying in the stationary room. I offered to pass him down the staples but he said he didn’t want to interrupt me and he’d ‘just squeeze by’. A paralyzing smell of Jovan Musk assaulted my nostrils as he far too slowly rubbed his crotch across my backside, and then back again, as he retrieved the staple box. Either he didn’t have an erection or his cock was so tiny I couldn’t feel it through his non-iron polyester slacks. I’d punch him in the bollocks. If I could find them.

Talking of men with no balls, I saw Malcolm this evening. I was eating my microwaved Mexican rice when he came into the kitchen, said he had come home to freshen up as he was taking a client out to Oscar’s up town. Told me not to wait up. I didn’t speak, I wasn’t going to play along with his game of let’s pretend. I just finished my rice slowly. Years ago I would have been on his arm at a business meeting. Either he didn’t think I was an asset anymore, or he was lying and was going for a passionate night with the slag. Judging from the trail of Joop Homme left behind on his exit, it’s the latter. She bought him that for Christmas last year and he’s overused it since. I knew they were having sex when she bought him that, who buys their boss eau de toilette? Yes, Claire, a slag.

Wine of the night is Champteloup Rose d’Anjou, a perfect match to charcuterie. I’ve matched it with Galaxy caramel. The ‘sharing – but I’m a greedy bitch and not sharing’ size.

Thursday. 9 days to go.

Vanessa was back in full gorgon mode today. ‘I envy how you can wear sensible shoes and not care what anyone thinks. Although I guess because you’re so tall and broad you’d look like a transvestite if you wore heels.’ I’m now torn between a cupcake to the face or a stiletto in the head for her.

Malcolm graced me with his presence this evening. We ate separately, sat separately. I watched people competing to make the best quilt on TV, he did Sudoku. I’d forgotten how much his raspy breathing annoyed me. At least I won’t have to listen to that for much longer.

Wine of the night is Torres Vina Esmeralda, apparently it has delicate honey and fresh grape characters. I can taste the honey. Or that might be coming from the Toblerone accompanying it.

Friday. 8 days to go.

Vanessa was training a new girl today, Anna, she’s temping for Mandy while she’s off having baby number three. Vanessa introduced Anna to everyone in the office except me. How petty. Bitch. I was the invisible employee today, no one spoke to me all day, and even the boss didn’t stop to look down my blouse while walking past my desk. I don’t know what’s worse, being the target of nasty comments or being ignored.

Malcolm announced he was going away for the weekend on a golfing break with Jeff. I happen to know Jeff is on holiday in Portugal with Marie, there’s a photo of them both with green cocktails by the beach on Facebook. We spent the hour before he left in silence. Him packing, me reading Take a Break magazine. I had red lipstick on and wore the navy polka dot dress he once liked. He didn’t notice.

Our wine of the night is Beronia Reserva Rioja, with earthy notes of leather and coconut – thankfully not too leathered. Me and the wine. Accompanied by a Snickers and the crackling of the fire.

Saturday. 7 days to go.

The sun was out today so I wrapped up and went for a walk along the river. It was so relaxing. I felt like I didn’t have a worry in the world. I wish I didn’t have worries Claire. I know other people have worries too, maybe I could cope with their worries better and they mine. My serenity bubble was popped by a family enjoying a day of sunshine in the winter. It’s crazy how someone enjoying life can expose how much you’re not. I watched this young family, laughing and playing, and I started to crumble inside. I always knew Malcolm didn’t want children, I fooled myself that I didn’t either. I indulged in crying when I got home. I’m not a pretty crier. My eyes now look like I’ve had an allergic reaction to shellfish.

Wine of the night is Valdo Oro Puro Prosecco, fruity and bubbly. Accompanied by a Toffee Crisp.

Sunday. 6 days to go.

It rained today so I went and sat in the National Gallery. I didn’t look at the paintings, I’ve seen them many times before, I looked at the people instead. I spent the day seeing the stories of people passing by. An old lady was sat looking at ‘The Fighting Temeraire’ by Turner. She dabbed her eye with a tissue, I sat next to her and chatted to her about the painting. It was her husband’s favourite, he died five years ago but she came every year on his birthday to visit his favourite painting. Her husband was dead, and I envied her grief.

Wine of the night is Oyster Bay Merlot, an elegant wine apparently. What is an elegant wine? Elegantly paired with a box of Matchmakers, mint flavoured. An elegant chocolate.

Monday. 5 days to go.

Nauseous start in work today, I caught the lift at the wrong time. Morning rush crush. The boss was stood behind me and groped at my backside for four floors. I stood on his foot but I think he liked that as he squeezed harder.

Malcolm spent the evening working in his study. I heard laughter at one point. I haven’t heard him laugh like that since, well, I can’t remember when. That felt more of a betrayal than the sex. How dare she make him laugh like that. Slag. I turned up the volume on Bake Off, I’d rather listen to Mary Berry talking about soggy bottoms than listen to Malcolm laughing about pert bottoms.

Wine of the night is Brazin Old Vine Zinfandel Lodi, best served with saucy ribs or spicy, meaty pizza. Or Thornton’s chocolate covered toffee, as I am.

Tuesday. 4 days to go.

The boss commented ‘nice blouse Jane’ as he walked past my desk today. Vanessa said he was being sarcastic, then gave me death stares all day. How can she be jealous of me having the attention from a lobotomized sweaty octopus?

No Malcolm this evening, just a text informing me not to wait up, ‘tied up in work’. I bet they laughed at that pun.

Wine of the night is Vignale Pinot Grigio, it has a refreshing finish apparently, so I’d better finish it. Accompanying it with a Crunchie.

Wednesday. 3 days to go.

I spent all morning working on a client’s proposal, and I know I definitely saved it before I went to the toilet, yet when I got back it had been deleted and the recycle bin had been emptied. Vanessa looked very smug with herself all afternoon.

No Malcolm this evening, apparently a client wanted to see Mamma Mia. A co-incidence that the slag loves Abba I’m sure.

Wine of the night is The Hedonist Shiraz, voluptuous and silky. Just like me. Maybe not silky as I have stubbly legs today. Having a bar of Aero. Mint flavoured. Family size.

Thursday. 2 days to go.

Vanessa went into photocopy just after I’d come out. She made a huge song and dance that she couldn’t use the machine as I’d broken it. We both know full well I didn’t. An engineer had to come out and fix it, he said it looked like someone had shoved a pencil where they shouldn’t. I know where I wanted to shove a pencil.  The boss had me in his office for an informal chat, said I needed to start impressing him more if I wanted to keep my job. He licked his lips slowly as he told me this, while staring at my chest, I wanted to be sick. After dry heaving in the toilet cubicle, I heard Vanessa and Anna come in. Vanessa was telling Anna, ‘Jane does things like that all the time, any excuse to spend time with Mr. Warren, it’s disgusting really. Throwing herself at a married man all the time, as if he’d be interested in a frump like her.’ Bitch.

More laughing in the study tonight from Malcolm. I can’t listen to it anymore; I’m going up to bed to listen to Puccini’s Madame Butterfly instead. It’s ok to cry with opera.

Wine of the night is Cuvee Chasseur Vin de France, an easy drinking wine. I can confirm this. Paired with Ritter Sport marzipan. I will finish it in bed.

Friday. 1 day to go.

Best day ever in work. I bought a coffee and walnut cake from the W.I. stall in the library on the way to work. I chose one with the thickest buttercream on top. I deleted all my files and contacts from my computer, then retrieved the cake from the drawer I stashed it in. I had such an adrenalin rush carrying it over to Vanessa’s desk. ‘I have something for you.’ Her face was surprise/confusion/pleased, until I planted it full on in her face, then it was shock/horror/disbelief. I’m not completely mean though; I’d removed the walnuts from the top first. Seeing thick buttercream clinging to her false lashes was very satisfying. I licked my fingers then sauntered back to my desk, I picked up my handbag and coffee. It had gone cold as I wanted it. I walked back to the still shocked Vanessa and poured the coffee slowly over her expensive hair extensions. The rest of the office seemed to be in mid game of musical statues. The boss had stepped out of his room on hearing Vanessa’s shrieks and stood motionless, joining in with the game of statues. I walked up to him, adrenalin running on ahead. ‘You disgust me. Don’t ever touch anyone again without their permission.’ I grabbed his crotch and squeezed as hard as I could. I obviously hit the mark as his eyes watered and he let out a guttural cry and crumpled like a string less puppet. I let go of his sweaty groin and he dropped to the floor. I didn’t look back, I just walked to the lift, smiling.

No Malcolm this weekend, my choice though. I told him I had a friend coming to stay and we were having a girlie weekend of DVD’s and face packs lined up, so was there any chance I could have the house to myself?  He was so keen to get a free pass for the weekend it didn’t cross his mind that I’ve never had any friends visit or even mentioned any friends before. He smiled at me. A genuine smile. Oh how I wanted that smile to be for me, not just at me. He will never smile like that about me again.

Wine of the day is Jackson Stich Sauvignon Blanc, a punchy wine I am teaming up with Terry’s chocolate orange.

Saturday. D-Day

I treated myself to a pamper morning at Chiltern Spa. Manicure, pedicure, facial, hot stone massage and some reflexology. Maureen doing the reflexology was concerned at the amount of blockages in my body, I reassured her I was aware of them and it was being dealt with. She gave me a complimentary Indian head massage. She knew.

I started to feel tearful, maybe all the sessions released emotions I didn’t want freed. I escaped to the cinema to be distracted by someone else’s story. I was distracted by Captain America. After being amazed by superheroes I dined at the Ivy, feeling like a film star with my freshly manicured hands and glowing skin. I enjoyed an exquisite meal of rocket soup with walnut and apple salsa, fillet steak with a green peppercorn sauce, and burnt banana & butterscotch tatin with rum and raisin ice cream. I had a sedate stroll home and watched day turn to night. A curtain coming down on the final act.

Wine of the day? Hell no, Claire we’re having champagne of the day! Louis Roederer Cristal, with notes of apricot, hazelnut and Danish pastries! Blew £150 on this, it better be good.

My letter to Malcolm is written and placed on the hall table. It’s complete bullshit, in it I blame him and his affair for my suicide, declare my undying love for him and saying I can’t go on anymore knowing he is with her, blah blah blah. I know the guilt will eat away at him and slowly sink their ship of passion. It’s bad of me I know. I’m choosing to die today because I don’t want to die a slow and painfully lonely death as the cancer consumes me, but I want him to suffer too. I’m a horrid person. Although I’m not really that horrid, otherwise I would have made my death look like murder and framed him. See, I’m not that bad Claire. Just lazy.

I’m sat by the fire now, black and red negligee on, hair and make-up perfectly done. I have the one hundred co-codamol I’ve stashed by my side, and I’m washing it down with the champagne. I’m sharing my last moments with you Claire, but I’d rather be dying in the arms of someone who loves me. No offence. Would that make this more difficult though? Probably. No one is going to miss me, no children, no friends, and no loving husband. I wonder how long it will be before she moves in here? If haunting is possible I’m going to stay here and scare the shit out of her. Every day. Slag.

So here I am, D-Day. Death day. It’s our wedding anniversary today. I knew he’d forget. Twenty years ago I said I do. Now I’m saying I don’t. I have to throw you in the fire now Claire, our conversations over wine are not for anyone else’s eyes. You’ve been the best friend I’ve had. I’m sorry.

 

 

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NUTS

Published September 2, 2016 by Naomi Rettig

I stop pumping up and down on Harry’s chest. I think I have broken two of his ribs. He is dead, it won’t bother him. It looks like I tried my best to revive him though. I only started my revival attempts when I couldn’t detect a pulse anymore. So I guess you could say I murdered my husband.

I stare at his lifeless body. Part of me feels sad. I stroke his hair. I’d like to say he looks like he’s sleeping, but he doesn’t, he looks dead. We were so in love in the beginning of our whirlwind romance. Our first date was in an art gallery and we bonded over abstract art and champagne. Harry whisked me away the following week to Paris and proposed at the top of the Eiffel Tower. A downward spiral followed, passion turned to possessive obsession, mind games and manipulation.

A siren outside snaps me back. I sweep over the apartment quickly, double checking myself. I’ve placed the note telling Harry not to eat the pie on the floor, seemingly fallen from his view. His plate and fork still on the breakfast bar, my plate and fork washed up and put away. A buzz at the intercom. I answer. Footsteps run upstairs.

I fling open the door. ‘Quickly, you have to help him! He’s eaten nuts and is allergic to them.’

The paramedics rush over to Harry. I feign distress.

Glancing at my watch I note I have plenty of time before I meet Marcus at the airport. He’s whisking me away to Rome. I met him on the same website as Harry and he’s fallen for me. He wants me to leave Harry. Marcus is diabetic, but I’ll help look after his insulin levels. I’m sweet like that.

STILL HERE

Published September 2, 2016 by Naomi Rettig

The rhythmic low beeping of a machine lures my consciousness from its hibernation. I can also hear what sounds like a small bellows breathing life into a small fire. I try to open my eyes to see where I am but the inky black darkness remains. I can’t even feel my eye lids attempting to open; I can’t feel anything. I try to move my arms, legs, anything I can but I have no sensation anywhere. It smells of a hospital wherever I am. That acrid clinical smell, sterile and sour.

Why am I in a hospital? How did I get here? I have no recollection of an accident or any explanation of why I would be in a hospital, I remember eating out with Michael. His sister Grace and Harry just got back from their honeymoon and we were having a post wedding celebration. We’d dined at The Maple Tree as it was Grace’s favourite – Michael thought it pretentious and over-priced with smarmy waiters but is always generous with Grace. I think he still carried the guilt of her blindness, even though he was only young at the time of the accident. Maybe I’ve gone blind? Oh don’t be stupid, people just don’t go blind for no reason, and even if they did they would still be able to move or feel something. Surely?

Grace always amazes me, some moments it’s easy to forget she’s blind as she moves with the elegance of a dancer and seems to glide effortlessly through life, enchanting all who meet her, while I’m a clumsy klutz always managing to trip over my own feet. I wish I could feel my feet now. I wish I could feel anything now. Grace certainly lives up to her name. She reminds me of a ballerina, willowy thin with wispy blonde hair always tied up in a bun. Michael has the same blonde hair, short but still wispy, and the most vivid green eyes. His eyes were what mesmerised me when we met, almost recognising each other from previous lives. The five years we’ve been together seems like a glorious lifetime and I can only remember my life before him in fuzzy detail, but my life with him is always clear and in sharp focus.

I hear a door open and the squeak of rubber soled shoes on a floor. Hello. Can you hear me? The squeaky shoes move towards me. I can hear paper moving. The door opens again and another pair of shoes enter the room to wherever I am, not so squeaky though as the first pair of feet.

‘Oh, you nearly done? Her parents are on their way up.’ My parents are here?

‘Yeah only jotting down the vitals.’

‘Anything changed?’

‘No, nothing.’ Nothing? What do you mean nothing? What’s going on?

 The squeaky shoes and the not so squeaky shoes fade out followed by the door closing. Come back, I’m here! My parents are on their way up, I must be in a hospital, I must have been in an accident, why can’t I remember and why can’t I move? I listen carefully but only the noise of the machine beeping and the bellows blowing disturbs the silence. Time drags like weighted quicksand.

The door opens, slower and more cautiously than before, a few seconds of silence and machines pass. Did I really hear the door open? A clip clop of heels accompanied by heavier solid footsteps move towards me.

‘Oh George, she looks like she’s just sleeping.’ My mother’s voice is such a wonderful sound to me even with its forlorn tone. Mum! I’m here! I can hear you! I can smell her Nina Ricci perfume. Is she kissing me or stroking my hair? I can’t feel her but a sudden waft of strong scent must mean she’s close.

A chair scrapes the floor, heavy legs on tiles, being dragged towards me. I see a blue plastic chair in my mind. Why am I seeing a blue chair? Is my brain trying to compensate for my eyes not working? I hear a faint deflating sound as someone sits close by. My Dad? Why is my Dad not speaking? The image of the chair in my head changes from blue solid plastic to green padded vinyl, morphing Dali-like in my mind, playing tricks. I picture my Mum sat in the chair, fluffy plum cardigan with deep pockets like abysses that can produce tissues, nail-files, cough sweets or mints on demand, red floral skirt and tousled uneven bob, the same shade of chestnut brown as my hair.

‘Here.’ Mum says. Yes! I’m here Mum! Can you hear me?

‘I’m alright.’ Dad says. ‘I don’t need it.’ Dad! Can you hear me?

‘It’s ok to cry,’ says Mum, ‘let it out.’

‘Don’t fuss woman, I don’t need to let anything out.’

I’ve never seen my Dad cry, I can hear him sniffing, is he crying now? Don’t cry Dad, I’m here. They sit in silence, an occasional sniff from my Dad and some throaty sobs from my Mum is their only dialogue. I float helplessly in black space, tortured by their emotions, longing to move my arms to hug them. Concentrate. Think about moving your arms and make it happen. As much as I will my arms to shift even slightly I still cannot feel them. Are they even still there?

Why is Michael not here with me too? He could comfort my parents for me. Oh God, he might be in another room injured too. If we were both in an accident. Or if Grace was in the accident too he would be in her room knowing my parents were here with me. Yes, he must be at Grace’s bedside. She’s the only blood family he has.

I try desperately to remember more details, panic is scattering my thoughts like disturbed cockroaches and my claustrophobic cocoon closes in. Think. Focus. Go back to the restaurant and remember.

I remember the desserts, key lime pie. We all had the same. Well, we nearly all did. Grace squealed when Harry told her key lime pie was on the menu as they’d had that on their wedding day in St Lucia. She insisted we all had it. Unfortunately the waiter informed us that they only had three pieces left. Grace said that she and Harry simply had to have the same, they had also done this with their starters and main courses, so I opted for the raspberry cheesecake. I remember dropping the red fruit sauce onto my pastel pink dress giving the illusion that I had been shot, and Grace apologising to me for missing out on the key lime pie as it was so divine. I remember Harry having too many tequilas and being told off by Grace for telling us rude jokes and I remember Michael taking Harry’s car keys from him and nominating himself as driver as he had only had two whiskeys.

Michael was driving, I was shotgun and Grace and Harry were in the back. Harry’s tequila’s had hit him hard in the fresh air and he had tripped on the gravel in the car park and head-butted his car. He kept saying sorry to Michael, thinking it was Michael’s car. We were winding around the country roads, no other cars, just our headlights on full beam. Harry had shouted that he was bleeding, his head was bleeding. Grace was demanding Michael drive us to a hospital, faster. Michael was telling me to get a tissue from the glove box, it was only a little cut to Harry’s head. I got a tissue and tried passing it back to Harry but he was too drunk to take it, holding his head and moaning loudly. Grace was too busy telling Michael where the nearest hospital was. I reached behind me as far as I could to Harry but my seatbelt kept jamming. I undid my seatbelt.

‘The doctors will be here soon.’ Dad says.

‘No.’ Mum says. ‘Don’t let them. Don’t let them take my little girl away from me.’

‘She’s already gone Mary.’ No Dad! I’m here! I’m still here!

My Mum’s sobs increase. Don’t cry Mum, please don’t cry, I’m here, right here. Just listen really hard and you’ll hear me.

‘It’s only the machines keeping her body working,’ says Dad, ‘you know that. They explained it.’ His voice is monotone, detached, as if he too is trapped somewhere else. No Dad, make them give me longer! I’m still here! Your little girl who used to be your best garden helper, remember? We grew the greatest tomatoes that one summer, they were so vibrantly red and perfect in shape, remember? You said it was because we grew them with love. Give anything love and it will flourish you said.

The sound of the door opening is followed by footsteps, too many for me to distinguish. A mixture of squeaks and thuds my only clue as to my executioners.

‘I’m so sorry we couldn’t do more Mr and Mrs Grant.’ Says a solemn male voice. ‘Would you like to stay here or wait in the relatives’ room?’

No, no, no! I’m still here! Please, someone hear me!

‘I want to stay here.’ Mum says. ‘I can’t leave her.’ Yes, Mum. Stay here, don’t let them turn the machines off. I just need more time. I haven’t told you how much I love you, you need to know that. When I was younger you would kiss my forehead when I was ill and tell me you’d made the germs go away as they were scared of you. I need you to do that now Mum, I need you to make these doctors go away, because I’m scared Mum, I’m scared.

‘Come on Mary,’ Dad says, ‘she’s already gone. Let’s get out of the way and leave the doctors to do what they have to do.’

A scrape of chairs and my mother’s cries are overwhelming. I don’t want to listen to this, why did my hearing have to stay with me, Mum, please don’t cry, I can’t bear this.

‘Goodbye sweet pea,’ whispers my Mum, ‘I love you so much.’ I love you so much too Mum. Don’t leave me. Mum!

‘Nurse Barter will look after you.’ Says the solemn man. ‘Linda, take Mr and Mrs Grant to the relatives’ room please.’

No! Please! I’m still here! Mum? Dad? My Mum’s guttural wailing ebbs away in the distance and I imagine my Dad’s big strong arms wrapped around her, holding her up, holding them together as they grow smaller in the corridor outside.

I can hear the click of switches and paper rustling. Is this it? Is this how it all ends? I’m not going to go with the click of a switch. I’m going to bloody well stay here until I can move my useless body again! You hear that? Can you hear me you stupid people?

‘They can’t hear you.’ Michael says. ‘Your shouting is wasted.’

‘Michael! You can hear me?’

‘Of course I can silly.’

‘I knew you would! I knew you’d hear me!’ Its ok, everything is going to be ok. ‘You need to tell them quickly, the doctors, tell them you can hear me.’

‘I can’t.’

‘Why not?’

‘They can’t hear me either.’ He emerges from the darkness, I can see him so clearly. He is so handsome and radiating a soothing glow as he smiles at me. ‘I’ve come to meet you, we no longer belong here.’

Michael holds out his hand to me. My hand reaches out to his. I can feel his touch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE BEE KEEPER

Published September 2, 2016 by Naomi Rettig

 

I’m in a moving vehicle. It’s too dark to see anything, but judging from my aching body in an unnatural foetal position, I’m in the boot of a car. I hear a whimper behind me and I hold my breath. The sniff of a nose and a small sob are centimetres away from my ear and I can feel faint breathing crawling through the hairs on my neck. I slowly exhale. ‘Hello?’

No reply, just another whimper. It sounds like a child. ‘Hello? Who’s there? My name’s Lucy.’ The whimpering has stopped. ‘What’s your name?’

There is a strained silence.

‘Joseph.’ A small wavering voice says.

Silence again.

‘Hello Joseph. How old are you?’

‘Five.’

I pause for a moment, trying to keep my voice sounding calm and soothing. ‘Well Joseph, I’m twenty two, a really old grown up, so you don’t have to be scared because I’m going to make sure we get out of here and get home safely. Ok?’

‘Ok.’ His voice sounds less shaky now.

I try to move my legs but they are too cramped up. My shoulder is aching from the angle it is in. I want to hug Joseph to comfort him but there is no room to stretch let alone turn around. ‘Do you know how you got here or did you just wake up in here like me?’

‘The bad man put me here.’ Joseph’s voice trembles a little.

‘What did the bad man look like?’

Joseph is silent again for a moment. ‘Like a bad man.’

I try not to sigh out loud. ‘Ok, what were you doing just before the bad man put you in here?’

‘Riding my bike.’ No pause, he is confident with this answer.

‘On your own?’

‘Yes, I’m a big boy now and I can ride my bike on my own.’

He sounds so proud. I imagine his mother telling him those words and waving him off as he rides around a corner somewhere. I want to cry for her but I keep it together for Joseph. She must have alerted the police by now, they will be out looking for us. ‘Where do you live Joseph?’

‘With my mum and my dad and Alfie.’

‘Oh ok, I mean which town do you live in?’

Joseph is silently thinking. ‘Cardiff.’

‘Ok, I was in Newport before I was in this car.’ We are heading east, out of Wales maybe.

‘Were you riding a bike too?’ His innocent little voice asks me.

I retrace my last memory in my head. ‘No, I was walking home from the shop with some milk.’ I see the milk carton hanging on my finger as I swing it while walking along the lane behind my house. I heard footsteps behind me but before I had time to turn around everything went blank. Like turning off a television channel. And now here I am in a different show. My head hurts.

The rhythmic hum of the car engine stops and we jerk slightly as we come to a standstill. As much as I want this journey to end, I don’t want to meet the bad man. A car door slams and slow footsteps grow louder. The boot opens and my eyes squint to focus. I am instantly confused as its night time and not the daylight I last remember. My confusion quickly retreats when I see the bad man. He is staring down at us, motionless, expressionless. He has a dark shirt loose over a dark t-shirt. I try and memorise his face, to describe it to the police, but he has no distinguishing features. He just looks average with dark hair, dark eyes, not thin, not fat. Just an average man, who has a woman and a boy in the boot of his car.

‘I’m going to let you use the toilet. If you run I will shoot you. If you shout for help I will shoot you. If you try and attract attention I will shoot you.’ The man pulls aside his shirt to reveal a gun tucked into the waistband of his trousers. ‘Understand?’

I nod my head as my eyes move from the gun back to his face. He leans forward and pulls me out in one effortless movement. I’m not heavy but the ease at which he did this makes me realise I have underestimated his physique. As he pulls Joseph from the boot I quickly glance around. We are parked in the far corner of a service station car park, there are only two other cars parked up. The man is about a foot taller than me, there is no way I can overpower him. Joseph stands next to me and his hand reaches for mine. I hold it and give it a squeeze. I don’t know if I’m trying to reassure him or myself.

‘Move.’ The man indicates towards the lit up station.

We walk towards it, my heart is hammering against my chest and I just want to run and scream but the image of the gun in my mind stops me. We enter the station. It’s only a small place, and one lad is manning a till, watching something on his phone. Only three other people are there. One middle aged man in a suit is looking at magazines while a young couple are using a self-service coffee machine. No one looks over as we walk on past to the sign posted toilets. We stop outside the ladies.

The man touches my shoulder. ‘I’ll be waiting right here. Try anything funny, I’ll shoot you.’

I nod, again not trusting myself to speak without screaming. I lead Joseph into the toilets, leaving the bad man guarding us outside. A quick scout around reveals no alternative exit, nothing to write a message for help with and nothing I can use as a weapon. We use the facilities and dry our hands under the noisy dryer.

‘When we get outside Joseph,’ I whisper, ‘I’m going to distract the bad man and I want you to run as fast as you can and keep running as far as you can. Ok?’

‘But I’m scared.’ His face puckered.

I crouch down further and rest my hands on his small shoulders. ‘I know you are, but I need you to be a big brave boy and run really fast and get away and get help. Can you do that for me?’

Joseph nodded. ‘Yes.’

‘Good boy.’ I splash cold water on my face and quickly wipe my hands on my jeans. I take Joseph’s hand and open the door to the toilets. I look down at the bad man’s boots, I don’t want to look him in the eyes in case he can read what I’m going to do.

We start to walk forwards, the bad man behind me, the people in the shop are still oblivious to us. The couple who were making their coffees are now sat on a table just to the right of me. The young man glimpses me in the corner of his eye. My heart feels like it’s going to explode in my chest. Now or never. Without hesitating I snatch the paper cup of hot coffee from the table and twist round, throwing it into the bad man’s face. I hit my target full on. He cries out. I let go of Joseph’s hand and push him away.

‘Run Joseph, run!’

He runs.

The coffee couple are frozen, open mouthed and wide eyed. I am about to shout for help when I am thrown by the head into a shelving unit. I am on the floor amongst boxes of breakfast cereals, stunned and disorientated, when the bad man looms over me.

‘You have blood on your hands.’ He pulls the gun out from his waistband.

I close my eyes in readiness for the shot. I hear the shot but fling my eyes back open, it’s not me that’s been shot. Another shot follows. The coffee couple are now on the floor. Motionless. Her eyes are open and looking at me but there is no life in them, they are like fish eyes, glazed and unblinking. Blood pools out from her head and ebbs across the cream floor tiles towards me. A stream of coffee runs alongside the blood then merges as one river. The river has almost reached me now, transporting a rogue raft-like cornflake with it. I am transfixed with watching these fluids until another shot slaps me back to the present. Then another. Four shots. That’s everyone who was in here. No shot for Joseph, he’s got away.

I listen intently to pinpoint where the bad man is. Complete silence. I wait. I don’t know how long I’ve waited for. I gingerly stand up and look over the top of the shelving stands, knees slightly bent, ready to drop down before a shot is fired at me. The bad man is not here. I know he will be back though. I frantically route around for a weapon. I can find nothing sharp or pointy or heavy enough to inflict serious damage. Armed with just a plastic spoon from the coffee self service area I head to the door.

I can see the car we arrived in still parked up. He must be waiting for me outside. Making my way back to the till area I find the shop assistant on his back, a hole in the centre of his head. His eyes stare at the polystyrene tiles above him. I crouch down and prise his phone out of his hand, almost expecting him to turn his head and look at me. Standing back up, I have dialled two nine’s when I hear a noise behind me. I spin around in time to see the gun handle heading towards my face at speed. It connects with an almighty force, blackness descends and my plastic spoon bounces gently to the floor.

*

I’m in the boot of the car again. The familiar hum of the engine and my cramped position tells me this. There is only my breathing though. No whimpering or crying. Joseph escaped. There is more room in here without him but there are plastic bags next to me, I can feel them and hear them rustle as I move and the bad man has put me facing inwards this time. I release my arm from underneath me and cautiously reach out. Definitely plastic bags, there are two. I feel the first one, it feels like cuts of meat. The top of the bag is tied in a knot. I move my hands, as much as I can, to the second bag. Again it feels like joints of meat. The top of the bag is not tied up. The car corners a bit fast and something thuds out onto my leg.

‘Shit.’ I fumble about to retrieve the beef or pork or whatever meat has landed on me. I feel a hand. A small hand. Joseph’s hand.

I scream and my head bangs on the lid of the car boot as my body tries desperately to recoil away from Joseph’s severed hand reaching out to me. I vomit over myself. My chest squeezes tight, I am clammy with a cold heat engulfing my whole body. I pass out of reality, relief drapes over me like a dark curtain.

*

I am awake. I am not in the car. I am sat on a wooden chair, tied with rope and I am naked. I am in an empty room that looks like a warehouse or garage. It is bright, a single lightbulb hanging from a cable is above me.  I try to move but I can’t. There is movement behind me. And buzzing. I can hear buzzing. Like bees. Footsteps get louder and the bad man appears from behind me. He stands in front of me and smiles with one side of his mouth.

‘I’m going to have fun with you.’ He walks back behind me and I hear the dragging of a large object. And the buzzing gets louder.

I see the object as he drags it in front of me. A beehive.

‘We’re going to play a game. If you can get stung one hundred times without flinching or making a noise, then I’m going to let you go.’

He stares at me, expressionless. I’m not even self-conscious about being naked anymore. My thoughts are just on those bees. I don’t think I can get stung without crying out or moving. Can a person even survive one hundred bee stings? My mouth has gone so dry. He moves the bee hive closer to me. The noise vibrates through me.

‘If you do make a noise or move then that’s game over. I win. And if I win I will sew the bees into you. I will put them into your mouth and sew your lips together. I will put them into your ears and sew your ears up, I will put them under your eyelids and sew your eyelids shut. Everywhere I can insert them I will and I will sew them all inside of you.’ He smiled his half smile again and slowly put on some thick black gloves.

Opening up the hive the bad man plucks a bee out and replaces the lid. He steps closer to me. My breathing is rapid and my pulse thunders in my ears. I’m praying for blackness. It doesn’t come.

‘Where shall we start? An easy one on your arm I think.’ The bad man places the bee he is holding between his gloved fingers onto my upper arm and squeezes.

The bee stabs me with its sting. I clench my teeth. I scream silently inside my head.

The bad man discards the used bee on the floor and plucks another from the hive. ‘Number two.’ He studies my body. ‘Lip next I think. Bee sting lips are all the rage I believe.’ His face has come alive.

Bee number two approaches my lips. Its loud buzzing alone near my face is making me want to duck away. But I don’t. He squeezes the bee. It spears my lip. Silent screaming commences. Bee two is tossed to the ground. My lip throbs. He goes in for bee three.

‘You’re braver than I thought.’ He studies my body again. Mischief dances across his face. ‘Eyelid.’ The sacrificial bee buzzes towards my eye. ‘Close your eyes.’

I close my eyes. I grit my teeth. I brace my stomach muscles to keep me still. The bee stings my eyelid. The pain is immense. My head moves. I open my eyes. My eyelid is swelling and my eye is watering. The bad man is shaking his head.

‘Game over. I win.’

He stares manically at me. I think he wants me to say something, maybe beg him to let me go. I won’t give him that satisfaction. I know he won’t let me go.

He walks to the side of me and crouches down, he whispers in my ear. ‘I’ll just go and get my sewing kit.’

***

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE BOOK MAKER

Published September 2, 2016 by Naomi Rettig

Michael fiddled with the button on his cardigan as he gazed out of the shop window into the narrow dusty alleyway. The few Denke Street traders were packing up for the day. Old Mrs Sampson had already closed and gone home, her vegetables long sold and bubbling away on customers’ stoves right now. Shivi yawned as he pulled the shutter down on his jewellers, Mr Bergen locked the door to his barbers and nodded his head at Michael, smiling briefly before turning and walking away. Mrs Klum hoisted up the awning over the cheese emporium while her daughter Freda smiled and waved at Michael. He half waved back, a hint of a smile flickered across his face as he retreated back from the window into the shadows of the shop.

Mother and daughter bustled away, Freda glancing over her shoulder toward Michaels’ direction, while winding her blonde ringlets absentmindedly around her fingers. Michael was about to turn away when the figure of a man came distantly into view. Dressed in a long billowing overcoat, topped with a fur hat with stray ear flaps, appearing to breathe smoke in the dusk autumn light, Michael recognised Mr Ingle. The dragon man.

As Mr Ingle grew larger Michael’s father entered the shop from the back workshop, wiping his hands on a tattered cloth. ‘Has everyone gone home Michael?’

‘Yes Papa.’ Michael turned to his father. ‘The Dra.., Mr Ingle is coming up the street.’

‘Ah, good. Go upstairs and wash up for supper, I won’t be long.’

Michael disappeared through the back door, closing it behind him as he always did when after-hours customers called. Before letting the latch slide into place he spied his father remove a wooden box from one of the cupboards and place it on the gleaming walnut counter. Michael knew that the wooden boxes were for the special books requested by the after-hours customers.

The regular books that were sold in the shop had hand stretched leather covers, binding together the palest of yellow parchment. Michael loved the comforting smell of leather and paper. He would watch for hours in silence as his father crafted the covers from pig or calf skin, whistling as he worked. The special books had soft leather pages as well as the leather covers, Michael’s father made those at night while Michael slept. But Michael always sought them out in their hiding cupboard to marvel at the workmanship.

The bell of the door jangled sharply as Mr Ingles entered. He looked directly to the crack in the door and through to Michael’s bones. Michael’s father turned his head, following Mr Ingles’ stare. Michael quickly closed the door.

‘No one else knows about my book Mr Jacobs?’ Mr Ingles said.

‘No, no.’ Mr Jacobs moved around the counter and locked the shop door, pulling the blind down before resuming his position behind the counter. ‘Just you and I.’ He slid the wooden box slightly towards Mr Ingles and removed the lid, placing it carefully on the counter. He gestured with open hands. ‘Your book.’

The stern expression dissolved from Mr Ingles and a greedy smile replaced it. His eyes devoured the book before he slowly reached in and picked it up. He held it to his face and inhaled deeply, closing his eyes as he exhaled. He then reopened his eyes and traced his fat fingers over the blank leather pages before placing the book back in the box and replacing the lid. Still smiling.

‘Excellent job Mr Jacobs.’

Mr Jacobs bowed his head a little, the light above him illuminating his new bald patch as he did. ‘Thank you.’

Mr Ingles removed a sealed brown envelope from inside his coat pocket and placed it on the counter. ‘As we agreed.’

‘Thank you. It was a pleasure.’ Mr Jacobs slid the envelope into his apron pocket and moved across to the door simultaneously with Mr Ingles.

‘Goodbye Mr Jacobs.’

‘Good night Sir.’ Mr Jacobs locked the door. ‘Come out Michael, I know you are still there.’

The door to the back slowly opened and Michael stepped into the shop. ‘I’m sorry Papa.’

His father sighed, then smiled. ‘That’s ok, it’s time I showed you the special orders. You’re a young man now. You’ll take over one day and need to know everything.’ He unlocked a display cabinet and took down an ornate carved leather book, placing it on the counter. ‘Here, come closer.’

Michael creaked across the floorboards.

His father fanned his hands out in a magician-like gesture. ‘Go ahead, touch, look.’

Michael gently let his fingertips trail over the embossed detailing on the cover, he opened the book and felt the silken texture of the blank pages, they felt comforting to him and as he turned the pages he rubbed them lightly between his fingers, like a child with the edge of a much loved blanket.

‘That Michael, is a special book. Our clients that order these are totally secret and expect privacy at all times. There is no paperwork, no records. You agree a price, in person, ask the details, remember it all, don’t write it down, and give them a date to come and collect.’

Michael continued to stroke the pages. ‘What details? What details do I need to ask and remember?’

‘Details such as where the carcass for the leather will be collected from, if we need to kill or are we just collecting. There will be a price difference of course for either options.’

‘So we don’t use Gwil’s butchers as usual then?’ Michael frowned slightly.

‘No son.’ Mr Jacobs smiled. ‘Specials are special due to what they are made from. Mr Ingles’ book was made from his wife.’

‘Made for?’

‘No, made from.’

Michael drew his hand back away from the book and took a couple of deep breaths. ‘Human leather?’ He stared at his father.

His father stared back. ‘Yes. Sometimes people don’t want to just bury their loved ones, alone and deep underground, they like to keep them closer by. On a bookshelf, on a table, by the bed. It’s the same way we use pig and calf, but with the specials we use all of the skin to make the pages too.’

‘You said ‘if we need to kill’. If peoples loved ones have died… I don’t understand.’ Michael ran his hands through his hair and then started to fiddle with his cardigan button again.

Mr Jacobs shrugged. ‘Sometimes someone wants a book made and the person they want to use hasn’t died yet. If they are too squeamish to do it themselves then I do it, for a much higher charge.’

The button fiddling stopped. ‘You murder people?’

‘I kill them humanely, just like the pigs and calves. It’s no different really. You use the captive bolt pistol into the head, then slit the throat to bleed out quickly before the stun wears off. I’ve only had two specials not bleed out and die before the stun wore off. I just stunned again. There was only a second or two of consciousness. I am a professional.’

‘I, I don’t, I can’t…’ Michael steadied himself on the counter with his trembling hands.

‘Of course you can my boy, it just takes time. That’s why we will start now. Build you up. It’s actually quite relaxing, watching someone die in front of you. Sometimes I even hold their hands, and more.’

Michael pushed his hair out of his eyes once more, the clammy sweat fixing it to the side.

Mr Jacobs laughed. ‘Don’t worry, you can work with me on the next one before doing your first solo one. You want your first one to be precious, memorable. And you want it to look exquisite, not shoddy.’ He cocked his head slightly to side. ‘I see the way you look at the young lady opposite. She would make a good first book. Soft pure pages.’

Michael stared down at the book on the counter. His face blank but his eyes tumultuously trying to process the unprocessable.

‘That is my first book. Beautiful isn’t it.’ The pride was clear in Mr Jacobs’ voice.

Michael continued to stare at the book. ‘Yes.’

After a small suffocating silence Mr Jacobs took off his apron. ‘It’s getting late, supper will be over cooked.’ He patted Michael on the shoulder as he walked past, heading towards the back. ‘Lock your Mother back up in the display cabinet and let’s go eat. I’m famished.’

 

 

 

 

THE FLORIST

Published September 2, 2016 by Naomi Rettig

Jenna laced her boot up once again and repositioned her rucksack while standing back up and stretching. She looked at the map again, hoping that the mud covering it was dry enough to pick off to reveal her surroundings. It wasn’t. Tripping into a squelchy mud patch was the final straw in her nightmare day.

Three of them had set off that morning but only a mile into the trek Frances had sprained her ankle jumping off a style. Becky had insisted she would take her back while Jenna went on ahead to meet up with the others waiting at the Windy Tor youth hostel. ‘No point in all three of us missing out on the weekend.’ She’d said.

Jenna was wishing she’d gone back now too. The map was unreadable, her phone wasn’t getting any signal to use the GPS on there and it had just started to rain. She shoved the map in the rucksack and pulled the hood of her anorak up and tightened the cords, a pale round face in a cocoon of blue nylon. She ploughed on through the field, looking for any features in the landscape that would guide her in the right direction. Only trees and fields were visible through the hazy drizzle. Until she reached the top of a small hill and saw a farmhouse another field over.

Relief lifted Jenna’s weary legs. She would either go to the youth hostel or go back home, wherever was the nearest. Maybe if she was really lucky someone at the farmhouse would give her a lift instead of directions. And maybe something to eat, Jenna’s emergency cereal bar had been eaten a while ago. And a cup of hot tea. Jenna smiled at the thought of a hot cup of tea.

The farmhouse looked a bit foreboding and neglected to Jenna, maybe it was just the rain and the failing daylight that was clouding her opinion. As she approached the weathered door she was desperately hoping someone was at home. She tapped with the rusty lion door knocker. And tapped again. No answer.

‘Hello!’ she shouted above the rain that was falling heavier now. ‘Anybody here?’ She looked around the yard, there were a couple of outbuildings and a barn but they looked quite deserted too. She knocked again, but louder. Still no answer. Jenna tried the handle of the door. It was unlocked. Biting the inside of her cheek she pushed the heavy door open. ‘Hello?’

Jenna stepped in out of the rain and onto a well-worn mat. ‘Is there anyone here?’

The only sound was the ticking of a grandfather clock in the hallway where she stood. She slipped her rucksack off and dropped it to the floor. Taking her phone out of her pocket she saw that there was still no mobile signal and slid it back away. Releasing the toggle of her hood and removing her wet anorak she told herself she would just find a phone and call Becky and to try and get a taxi, which was going to be a challenge as she didn’t know where she was. She placed her anorak on top of her rucksack and closed the door. Removing her muddy boots and leaving them neatly by the door too she moved into the next room.

A tatty floral sofa and armchairs filled the room as did a musty aroma of mildew and mincemeat. Dark wooden floorboards creaked as she walked across to a looming Welsh dresser; cluttered with paperwork, a book of pressed flowers, a half empty mug of tea and a half eaten pork pie. She tentatively picked up pieces of the paperwork, looking for a letter or something that would have an address on it to give to a taxi company.

‘What are you doing?’ A soft monotone voice behind her said.

Jenna spun around and saw a man stood in the doorway of the room. Black receding shiny hair, a double chin and a checked shirt that needed a wash months ago. His arms and hands hung loosely to his sides like they didn’t belong to him and his narrow eyes stared stagnantly at her.

‘I, I was looking for an address. I’m lost.’ Jenna said. ‘I’m sorry, I knocked and shouted.’

‘I was out the back. No one can hear you out here. There’s no one for miles. Mr Evans over at Croft Cottage is the nearest. But he’s deaf.’ The man just stood motionless and continued staring at Jenna.

‘Oh. Ok.’ Jenna’s stomach knotted. ‘Do you have a phone I can use?’

The man was vacantly fixed on her and Jenna wondered if he had heard her.

‘Don’t need a phone.’ He eventually said.

Jenna nodded, wishing she’d kept her boots on. ‘Can you tell me which direction the nearest town is then?’

The man took a step forward and Jenna instinctively stepped back, jolting the dresser. The mug fell to the floor and smashed, splashing cold tea over the dresser and the floor. The man howled and ran towards her with wide eyes, his hands now animated and holding his head.

‘I’m so sorry!’ Jenna stepped to the side behind one of the chairs, pulse racing.

He ignored the broken mug on the floor and picked up the book of pressed flowers, desperately wiping tea from it and its pages with his shirt. He looked up at Jenna, his icy eyes brimming with raging tears. ‘You shouldn’t have done that.’

Jenna bolted from behind the chair and ran to the hallway, disregarding her boots and rucksack, she reached for the door. As her hand touched the latch her head was yanked backwards as the man pulled her hair by the roots and smashed her face into the solid wood door. Warm blackness covered her.

***

Jenna could taste the metallic iron of her blood. Her tongue explored and she winced as it aggravated a split in her top lip. She lifted her hands to her head and again flinched when her fingers touched her broken nose. She could only see out of her left eye, her right eye was puffy and closed. Levering herself up from the stone floor she was lying on, her one eye adjusted to the dim light. She saw she was shackled to the ground. A heavy chain bolted into the floor led to a solid metal cuff around her ankle. She reached down to it, it was attached securely with a padlock and was too tight to slip over her foot, but she did try. There was a faint noise across the room.

Jenna held her breath and listened. Nothing. She thought she had imagined it but then heard it again. A faint gasp. It sounded like someone struggling to breathe.

‘Hello?’ Jenna quietly whispered.

No reply. She held her breath and listened again, squinting through the shadows of the room with her one good eye. The faint gasping breath came again. Jenna’s breathing became more rapid. She crawled slowly in the direction of the noise, the metal of her ankle chain scraping across the floor.

As she got a little nearer she could make out a shape in the corner. It was small and round and seemed to be a bundle of rags or blankets. She edged closer but the chain tethering her had reached its full length and jolted her to a stop. She lay herself flat to the ground so she could reach out a little closer. Stretching her fingers she could just reach the hem of a blanket. Manoeuvring it with her finger tips she managed to grasp it. She pulled it towards her. It flowed freely, revealing the source of the strange soft sound. A child, foetal and motionless, emaciated, a small skeleton covered with pale paper skin like a decaying butterfly.

Jenna screamed then froze. Her eye and her brain not wanting to compute the image she was seeing. Thin matted hair clung to the head of the near dead child and she guessed an age of four or five.

‘Hello, can you hear me?’ As Jenna asked she knew there would be no answer, this poor little corpse was beyond help.

The door to the barn slid open. Dusk light silhouetted the man. He stood looking blankly at her, then turned his head to the child. He smiled.

‘You sick bastard!’ Jenna screamed at him.

He walked towards Jenna, she saw he was holding a flower, an iris. He kicked her in the face, pushing her away with his foot. She sprawled backwards, her nose and lip spurting blood again and the pain ricocheting through her body. He crouched over the small body in the corner.

Jenna spat blood out of her mouth. ‘Stop it! Stop it you fucking monster, stop it!’

‘It’s ok,’ the man looked over his shoulder at Jenna, ‘I’m just taking care of his soul.’ He turned back and placed the flower into the child’s mouth. He then rested his hand on the child’s neck, monitoring the pulse.

‘You’re crazy! What are you doing you fucking psycho?’ Jenna tugged at her chain constraint and frantically scanned the bare room for something to free herself. The man stayed silent and kept his back to her, his hand still gently resting on the child’s neck.

Jenna stopped fighting with the chain. Her breathing was rapid and laboured. She spat out more blood that was pooling in her mouth. She suddenly remembered her phone was still in her pocket. Hope only lasted three seconds. There was still no signal. She let the phone slide out of her hand next to her on the floor. She reached into her other pocket. Her hand closed around her metal nail file, she dared to hope again.

The man sighed and bowed his head. ‘He has gone, I have his soul.’

‘What the fuck are you talking about?’ Jenna’s anguish and horror had turned to anger.

The man opened the dead boy’s mouth and retrieved the flower. ‘When they die I capture their souls in the flowers.’ He smiled at Jenna as if they were having a perfectly rational conversation. ‘I press the flowers and keep them in my book, the little children can stay pure and innocent forever then.’

‘There’s going to be a special place in hell for you.’ Jenna gritted her teeth and pulled herself upright, sliding the nail file out of her pocket. It was concealed in her hand, she was gripping it so tight it had started to cut into her hand.

The man stood up and frowned. ‘You nearly ruined my book. I have to kill you. I’ve never killed anyone before, you’ll be my first. I have to do it. I will kill you when I’ve pressed this soul.’ He held up the iris.

‘Never killed anyone before? What the fuck do you think you’ve just done?’

The man looked at Jenna and smiled again. ‘I didn’t kill him, you saw, he just died by himself.’

Jenna couldn’t comprehend the monstrosity in front of her. ‘How many ‘souls’ have you pressed?’

‘This is number twelve.’ He smiled proudly and started to walk towards the open door.

Jenna focused on not being sick, the urge to vomit was rising. She had to stop him leaving, she couldn’t let him abduct anyone else. She had to make him come close to her.

‘I’m going to burn your flower book.’

He stopped and turned to her, no longer smiling.

‘Yes, that’s right,’ continued Jenna, ‘I’m going to burn your flower book and set those souls free.’

The man placed the iris gently on the floor, balled his fists and strode towards her. Jenna backed up to the wall and crouched up on her feet. As the man swung his fist to her face she ducked and sprang to the side. The chain attached to her and the floor caught him just below his knees. It was enough to send him off balance and he crashed to the floor, landing on his back. Jenna quickly scrambled to him, taking advantage of his winded hesitation. She plunged the nail file into his neck with a force she didn’t know she possessed.

Blood spewed out and she stabbed again and again, raging for the twelve children that had a long and agonising death here. The man held his throat, gargling his blood.

Jenna leaned over him. ‘No one is going to save your soul you sick bastard.’ She stabbed the nail file into his right eye. He stopped writhing, his left eye stared motionless at the ceiling. The blood from his neck flowed to the open door, carrying the iris with it.

Jenna rolled off of him exhausted. The adrenalin surge in her had powered down. She led back on the concrete and wept.

 

 

 

 

 

 

ONE HOUR

Published September 2, 2016 by Naomi Rettig

Bournemouth: 1.09 pm

Barbara switched off the radio and looked around the room. Her lounge didn’t appear to be any different. The blue and cream striped sofa, with non-scattered scatter cushions, took up most of the space. A cream rug was positioned perfectly in front of it, all of its fringes fastidiously aligned. Aromas of furniture polish and potpourri lingered placidly. The soft ticking of a brass carriage clock, marooned on a circular lace doily, on the sideboard was the only sound in the room.

Barbara noticed her hands were trembling, she grasped them together, squeezing to keep them steady. After hearing the news on the radio the stillness of the room was no longer a comforting calm to her. The news reporter’s voice, which was being broadcast on a repetitive loop, still played in Barbara’s head. ‘In approximately one hour an asteroid will collide with our planet. The asteroid is so vast in size it will obliterate Earth from existence. There is nothing we can do to stop it.’

 

Bermondsey: 1.09 pm

Stephen dropped his empty mug into the kitchen sink and bowed his head. ‘Shit.’

‘Stephen, hush your mouth.’ Coral said as she placed her hand softly on his tense shoulder. ‘The kids’ll hear you. You gotta pull yourself together, now.’

Stephen snorted and shrugged her hand away as he turned to face her. ‘We’re all gonna die in an hour, a bit of cussing not gonna hurt no one.’

‘Now listen here baby brother, I got three kids through there and I don’t want them cryin and scared, so get yourself together and be funny Uncle Stephen ‘til the end. OK?’

Stephen’s nostrils flared as he stared at Coral. ‘I aint your baby brother, I’m twenty one.’

‘Well then be a man, baby brother.’ Coral raised her eyebrow before she turned to take a container of milk out of the fridge.

Stephen sighed and walked past her towards the lounge, stopping in the doorway. ‘Glad I missed my bus home last night y’know.’

‘I know. Me too.’ Coral kept her back to him, avoiding eye contact. ‘Now scoot, get from under my feet.’

Stephen hesitated a moment, watching his sister preparing drinks like she’d done so many times before, he took a deep breath and left the kitchen.

 

Brighton: 1.09pm

Tom flicked the radio switch to ‘off’ and looked across the room to Sophie. She was already gliding across towards him. They drew together like magnets, Tom wrapped his arms tightly around her, her face nuzzled into his neck. She inhaled his musky scent and squeezed him tightly in return. His hands moved slowly to stroke her hair, her beautiful golden hair that smelled of succulent green apples, and then he cupped her face, her perfect elfin face, in his reliable calloused hands.

‘I love you so much Soph.’

She searched deeply into his watery eyes and smiled. ‘To the moon and back?’

‘To the moon and back a million times over.’ He returned her infectious smile.

Sophie raised her eyebrows. ‘A million billion?’

‘A million zillion.’

They kissed tenderly, their eyes continuing their conversation. They hugged each other tightly again.

‘Our tree?’ whispered Sophie.

‘Yes, our tree.’ Tom softly wiped away the tears from under Sophie’s eyes with his thumbs.

They silently and calmly gathered up items from the hut; some bottled water and a fruit salad that Tom had just been preparing. Tom held up a dusty bottle of champagne but Sophie smiled and shook her head so he placed it back in the cupboard. She carefully slid her knitting off its needles and put it into a hessian bag along with a tartan blanket and the water and the fruit. They slipped their sandals on before taking one last glance around their homely hut. Tom carried the bag in one hand and held Sophie’s hand in his other, their fingers snugly entwined.

 

Blackpool: 1.10pm.

The Jack Daniels bottle was a quarter empty on the passenger seat. The stench of whiskey and sweat hovered thickly in the confined space of the car. Tom Petty’s ‘I won’t back down’ blasted out from the Chevelle’s stereo. Jason’s head was reclining on the leather head rest and his eyes were shut. A blast of a horn outside whipped them open, revealing a bloodshot left eye. Jason looked out of the window but whoever had disturbed his melancholic meditation was already moving away at speed. ‘Tosser.’

He had watched people rushing away on foot and in cars, all trying to get somewhere, be somewhere else, escape. There was no escape though. Jason laughed at their stupidity. He had parked up in the small car park overlooking the sea front. He’d grabbed the bottle of Jack from the off licence in the high street when he’d heard the news, it had felt good just helping himself to it and walking out without paying, he now knew how the thieves he arrested felt. An hour didn’t give him enough time to drive over to his kids at Leeds so he’d chosen to park up, watch the sea and drink.

 

Bournemouth: 1.13 pm.

Barbara closed her eyes and recited the Lord’s Prayer. On opening her eyes she kissed the cross hanging around her neck and took her telephone book out of the sideboard. Finding her daughter’s number she picked up the phone. There was no dial tone, nothing, just dead air. Barbara sighed and replaced the handset in the cradle. She felt a guilty relief. If she’d got through to Kirsty she wasn’t sure what she would have said.

Barbara put the telephone book back in its correct place and took out a small photo album. Sitting on the sofa she slowly turned the pages, watching Kirsty grow up, laughing and smiling with her dad, Barbara herself always happy to be a spectator behind the lens. They’d never had a close bond. Barbara had provided all the practical things Kirsty needed but just couldn’t give emotionally. Kirsty had been a ‘Daddy’s girl’ and her distance widened after he had died, emotionally and then physically when Kirsty had moved to New Zealand. Barbara gently touched Kirsty’s face in the photo.

 

Bermondsey: 1.13 pm.

Coral bustled into the lounge with a tray of drinks clinking together, she set it down on the table in the middle of the room.

‘Milkshakes!’ said Kyra clapping her hands, she was next to her sister Michelle on the brown leather sofa. Stephen was on the floor with his nephew Jerome playing with a fire truck and Gary was pacing slightly, hands stuffed into his jeans pockets, by the television.

‘I shut it off.’ Said Gary looking at Coral. ‘Just kept sayin the same thing. And the phone’s dead. Can’t get hold of no one.’

Coral nodded, ‘I ‘spect everyone is tryin to call everyone else and it’s got jammed up. Everyone’ll know we’ll be thinkin of them.’

‘Yeah.’ Gary frowned. ‘I feel like I should be doin somethin,’ he shrugged his shoulders, ‘but I dunno what.’

Coral moved closer to Gary, stepping over a police car on the floor. ‘Do what you do best, carry on bein the best dad and best husband.’

Gary bit his lower lip and nodded his head. Coral glanced around. Michelle was fiddling with her charm bracelet, Jerome and Stephen were still toying with trucks and Kyra was blowing through her straw to create large bubbles in her pink milkshake. Coral took a deep breath. ‘Right then. How about a movie afternoon? Who wants to watch a film?’

All three children put their hands up in a chorus of ‘yeses’ and were instantly chatting amongst themselves.

‘Coral baby?’ Gary frowned. ‘There’s less than an hour…’

‘Hush now, we’re goin to have a movie afternoon for the children.’ Coral raised her eye brows at her husband. ‘I need us all to be happy and be havin a good time, when we…’ She swallowed hard and Gary pulled her into a tight bear hug.

 

Brighton: 1.13pm.

Tom and Sophie strolled quietly up and along the dirt lane just like they were sauntering off on one of their regular picnics. Birds were quieter than usual and a light breeze tickled through the leaves on the trees. Open fields of lush green peeked through hedgerows enticing them to stray from the track and enter. They did so near the top of the hill. Squeezing through their gap in the hedge it was only a short walk through a buttercup dotted field to their tree.

A magnificent oak stood alone and confident in the field. It had become their tree from their first picnic date here two years ago. For every occasion since then their tree had featured, even in their hand-fasting wedding last year, where a few friends had gathered with them to celebrate love and life. Tom spread the blanket out and they sat on the ground in symmetry beneath their tree.

‘It’s so peaceful.’ said Tom. ‘It already feels like we’re the only people left on the planet.’

Sophie’s hand gently rested on Tom’s. ‘Do you think they’ve got it wrong? Do you think maybe we’ll be ok here?’

‘I think they sounded pretty definite.’ Tears trickled down Tom’s face and he wiped them away with the back of his hand, turning to Sophie. ‘I love you so much, and if there is another life after this one I will find you again.’

‘I know, I love you too, and we’ll be together for eternity.’ Sophie’s lips rose in a smile but the smile failed to reach her eyes.

 

Blackpool: 1.15pm.

Jason pulled the phone out of his jeans pocket and pressed redial for his ex-wife. Expecting the engaged tone again he was surprised to hear it ringing. After four rings it was answered.

‘Hello?’

Jason sat up straight. ‘Amy it’s me, Jason.’

There was a moments’ silence. ‘What do you want?’

‘I want to speak to the kids.’

‘Not happening.’

‘C’mon Amy, don’t be like that.’ Jason sank back in the seat.

‘I’m not being like anything. The kids don’t want to talk to you. I told you that last week when I had both of them crying cause you didn’t take them bowling like you promised. You preferred to shag some slag off the estate.’

‘It wasn’t like that.’ Jason rubbed his forehead. ‘Look there’s not much time left…’

‘Time ran out for you ages ago. You’re too late.’

‘Please Amy, don’t be such a bitch, just let me say goodbye.’

‘Piss off.’ The phone beeped as Amy hung up.

Jason pressed redial. It rang once then went to voicemail. He hit the end button and dropped the phone onto his lap. ‘Fucking bitch.’ Grabbing the bottle from the passenger seat he unscrewed the top and took another huge swig from it. Some of the whiskey spilled down his chin and he wiped it away with the back of his hand. Putting the bottle back on the passenger seat he picked up his phone again and scrolled through the contacts list. Stopping at ‘Beth’ he hesitated and then scrolled down to ‘Claire’.

 

Bournemouth: 1.19 pm.

The images in Barbara’s album flowed onto Kirsty’s children. These photographs had arrived in birthday and Christmas cards. She’d never really looked at them closely before, just filed them into the album after a quick glance. She’d had yes/no conversations on the phone with them when Kirsty made the dutiful birthday and Christmas phone calls, but knowing now she’d never meet them compelled her to study the pictures.  Kirsty had suggested chatting via Skype with them all but Barbara had kept putting that off, protesting that she didn’t like technology.

A flutter of ‘why’ butterflies filled Barbara’s mind. Why did she always wait for Kirsty to phone her? Why didn’t she just pick up the phone first for a spontaneous chat? Why hadn’t she visited Kirsty and her family? Too late for why’s now. Closing the album she looked at her hands rested upon it, mottled and plump, her nails painted a perfect shade of coral. She sat eerily still with the sound of the ticking clock counting down.

 

Bermondsey: 1.21 pm.

Coral pulled away from Gary. ‘I’m fine. Let’s not fuss.’ She wiped her eye with the back of her hand. ‘I got somethin in my eye, that’s all.’

Stephen stood up. ‘I’ll close the curtains, make it dark like the cinema.’ As he drew the curtains he paused and looked down. He could see others running, walking and driving off from the estate. From nineteen floors up they looked like ants. Where were they going? To try and get to their loved ones? He was grateful that he wasn’t in his own flat alone. He quickly closed the curtains, his hands trembling slightly.

Gary plonked himself down on the sofa between the girls, the leather releasing some air that made them laugh with its rude noise. ‘C’mon then, what film we watching? Stephen get them DVD’s out from under the telly.’

‘Frozen!’ said Kyra.

Michelle rolled her eyes. ‘We’ve seen that a million times.’

‘A million million times.’ Jerome said, abandoning his truck. ‘I wanna see Teenage Mutant Ginger Turtles.’

‘No way!’ said Michelle. ‘And its ninja not ginger, stupid head.’

‘Hey hey, that’s enough.’ said Coral, she looked across at Stephen. ‘Little brothers are never stupid heads, annoyin and silly, but never stupid heads. Why don’t we let Uncle Stephen pick the film?’

Stephen cocked his head to one side and raised his eyebrow at Coral. ‘Armageddon?’

‘That’s why.’ Gary glared across at Stephen.

 

Brighton: 1.21pm.

Sophie unpacked the fruit salad and ate a small chunk of melon. ‘This is the juiciest and the sweetest melon I’ve ever tasted, here, try.’

Tom leant forward and Sophie held the melon to his lips, brushing it lightly across then she giggled as she fed it to him.

‘Delicious.’ Tom smiled. ‘You’re correct as always.’

She leant forward and her lips brushed his hungrily. The passion in their kiss was intense, just like the one on their first date, when they both realised fate had gifted them to each other.

 

Blackpool: 1.22pm.

Jason touched his phone screen and listened to it ringing. He was about to hang up when she answered.

‘Hello?’

Jason smiled and rested his head back. ‘Hey Claire.’

‘Jason?’

‘Yep it’s me.’ Jason’s smile broadened. ‘How you doing?’

‘How am I doing? Are you kidding me?’

He laughed. ‘Yeah I know, crazy shit going down.’

‘Oh, do you mean the end of the world shit or the fact you used me for sex and haven’t called for months?’

Jason’s smile dropped. ‘Aw Claire, don’t be like that, we had fun, you know I had a lot on my plate with work and my ex…’

‘Tell it to someone who cares.’

Jason’s voice grew louder and snappy. ‘Look, I’m calling you now aren’t I, I want to be with you when it all goes tits up.’

‘I don’t believe you. I bet I’m just the nearest person to you.’

‘Don’t be stupid, I want you, I can be there in, like, five minutes.’

‘Well I don’t want you here, I’m with my family.’

‘C’mon, you know you really want to be with me.’ He laughed. ‘We can have some fun.’

There was a short silence on the other end. ‘Have fun by yourself you wanker.’ The call ended.

 

Bournemouth: 1.25 pm.

Barbara placed the photo album away and opened her writing bureau, where she retrieved a small round box of violet creams. Taking them out to the hallway with her she put on her beige brogues and cashmere coat. She checked her reflection in the mirror, smoothing down her silver bobbed hair and she reapplied her coral lipstick that matched perfectly with her nails.

Carrying the chocolates and hanging her handbag over her wrist she left her bungalow and locked the door. Barbara was the only person in sight and she noticed that the birdsong that usually greeted her outside was absent. Taking in a deep breath of air she took ten steps to the bungalow next door and knocked. There was silence from within and Barbara was about to turn away when she heard someone unlocking the door. It slowly opened about four inches.

‘Hello?’ Said Barbara.

‘Hello? Said a voice from within.

‘Hello, my name is Barbara Maitland. I live next door.’

The door opened a little more to reveal an elderly lady with fuzzy white hair and startled eyes. ‘I don’t know you. Have you just moved in?’

‘No, no I’ve lived next door for ten years.’

The old lady looked Barbara up and down while pursing her thin lips. ‘I haven’t seen you before.’

Both ladies just stared at each other. Barbara broke first. ‘Well, yes. Have you heard the news?’

The white haired lady looked blank. ‘Do you mean the explosion? Or has there been more news? My television stopped you see.’

‘No nothing new.’ Barbara shifted her weight from one hip to the other.

The white haired lady blinked a few times, as if she was sensitive to the daylight sneaking in through the slightly ajar door. ‘Righty oh’.

The ladies stared once again at each other, like two cats who had wandered into a garden at the same time.

‘Are you on your own?  I have these lovely chocolates you see.’ Barbara held up the violet creams. ‘And I didn’t want you to be on your own when, well, when the end comes, so I thought we could maybe sit together and share them?’

The startled eyes brightened and a smile spread across the fuzzy haired lady’s face, the door opened wider. ‘I’m Margaret, come on in, I’ll put the kettle on.’

 

Bermondsey: 1.25 pm.

‘Frozen it is then.’ Said Stephen. ‘I got a mean voice and can nail those songs. I think we should see who can sing loudest.’

‘I love you Uncle Stevie.’ Kyra gave Stephen a huge smile that revealed her two missing teeth.

‘I love you too Titch, and Chelle and my main man Jerome.’ Stephen looked across to Gary. ‘And your dad.’

Gary glared again. ‘Don’t be a muppet.’ A slight smile flickered on his lips then disappeared.

While Stephen set up the DVD player Coral went into the kitchen and when she returned she had a huge bowl of crisps and a packet of treat sized chocolate bars in her hands. The kids’ eyes widened like Jaffa Cakes when they saw.

‘What!’ squealed Michelle. ‘Where did they come from!?’

‘I have a secret hidin place. Or two.’ Coral squeezed the bowl and chocolates onto the table next to the drinks and sat on the sofa next to Kyra, Gary and Michelle.

Jerome scrambled up onto his mother’s lap and squished in beside her. ‘No room Uncle Stevie!’

‘That’s ok lil man, I’ll sit in front of you, like we’re in a for real cinema.’ Stephen pushed the table out a bit and sat down on the floor. Jerome plonked his feet onto Stephen’s shoulders and Stephen sniffed at the little feet in their blue socks. ‘Pooh! Stinky feet!’

Jerome giggled. ‘Stinky feet.’

‘Right then.’ said Coral. ‘Everyone tuck in, Gary press play. Are we all ready to ‘let it go’?’

 

Brighton: 1.28 pm.

They lay back on the blanket and Sophie took her unfinished knitting out of the bag and nestled close at the side of Tom. They linked hands and studied the sky.

‘It’s such a beautiful day.’ said Tom.

Sophie squeezed his hand. ‘Yes, it is.’

‘Elephant.’

‘Where?’ said Sophie searching the sky. ‘You can’t see an elephant.’

‘Yes I can, there.’ Tom pointed with his free hand. ‘Next to the lopsided butterfly.’

‘I think that’s a moth.’

‘Really?’ Tom laughed. ‘Ok’.

Sophie smiled. ‘You know I’m right.’

The clouds swirled and teased with different shapes as Tom and Sophie lay peacefully.

‘Bunny!’ said Sophie, then gasped slightly and reached to her tummy. The unfinished knitted baby blanket was resting where she had placed it not long ago, it moved slightly. She placed her and Tom’s interlinked hands on her tummy.

Tom felt a small kick too. ‘I think she likes the name Bunny.’

‘Bunny it is then.’ Sophie started to cry as Tom held her. He kissed her forehead and kept his hand protectively over Bunny. His tears followed and flowed with hers.

 

Blackpool: 1.28 pm.

‘Crazy bitch.’ Jason lurched for the Jack Daniels but knocked it over, the brown liquid started spilling out onto the seat. ‘Fuck’. He picked the bottle up but there wasn’t much left, knocking it back the alcohol clawed at his throat. Opening the window he tossed out the empty bottle. He shook his head and grinned at the thought that he was worried about the interior of his car when it was going to be blown up along with him. The grinning turned to hysterical laughter. The laughter turned into wretched sobbing.

Jason lifted his t-shirt up and used it to wipe his face, tears and snot were blotted up by Bon Jovi on tour. He stared at himself in the rear view mirror. Both eyes were now bloodshot and his face was red and blotchy. ‘Loser.’

 

Bournemouth: 1.31 pm.

Barbara stepped into Margaret’s home, hung her coat up in the hallway and was seated in a wing-backed pink chair, with floral embroidered headrest. Margaret shuffled off to the kitchen to make the tea. Barbara surveyed Margaret’s lounge. It was a cluttered room of ornaments and dust. China cherubs and a ceramic spaniel were staring at Barbara from the table to the side of her. The paint on the spaniel was worn away giving it a look of alopecia. A row of Victorian dressed dolls were on a shelf jostling for attention but Barbara’s eye kept getting drawn to a faded black and white photograph hung over the electric fire in the middle of the room. The subject of the photograph was a little girl with curled hair tied in ribbons and a broad dimply smile. The rattle of china cups heralded Margaret and the tea.

‘I thought I’d use my best cups, not often I get a visitor.’ Margaret’s eyes sparkled and her smile took years off of her.

Barbara opened the chocolates and placed them on the ring stained table in front of them while Margaret poured the tea.

‘Help yourself to milk and sugar.’ Margaret sat down in the chair next to Barbara taking a sip of tea. ‘Ah lovely, if I do say so myself. Can’t beat a good cuppa.’

Barbara poured some milk into her tea. ‘Thank you. Please, have a chocolate.’

Both ladies took a chocolate and popped them into their mouths.

‘Mmm.’ Said Margaret. ‘That’s lovely, I haven’t had one of those in years.’

‘They’re my favourites.’ said Barbara smiling, she looked up at the picture again. ‘That’s a lovely photograph, who is it?’

Margaret beamed. ‘My daughter Pamela.’

‘Oh, I bet she looks a lot more grown up now.’

‘No.’ Margaret’s smile faltered a little. ‘She died not long after, that’s the last photo we had taken of her.’

 

Blackpool: 1.33 pm.

Jason phoned Amy again. As he thought, it rang twice then went to voicemail but instead of hanging up he left a message. ‘It’s me. I know you don’t wanna talk to me and I get that so I just, like, wanna say I’m sorry for being such a crap husband and I wish it could’ve been different, I wish I could’ve been different. I just wanna say goodbye to the kids, and you, I love you, I never stopped. I’m just a loser.’

After hitting the end button he typed a text message to Claire. He read it back, his uncoordinated fingers, disorientated by Jack Daniels, made the words practically unreadable. He deleted it all apart from the word ‘sorry’. He then changed the recipient from ‘Claire’ to ‘all contacts’ and pressed send.

He cranked the stereo up to its highest volume and opened his glove box. Tom Petty was now singing ‘It’ll All Work Out’. Jason took out the handgun he had confiscated illegally in raid a few months ago. He should have handed it in but decided to keep it. It made him feel powerful having it close by. The cold metal felt comforting in his hands. He looked at himself in the mirror. Instead of seeing a puffy faced middle-aged man, red and tear stained, he saw Robert De Niro. ‘You have to think about one shot. One shot is what it’s all about.’ He ran his fingers through his heavily gelled hair. ‘I’m in control. I say what happens.’ He sat back. He released the safety catch. He closed his eyes. He held the gun under his chin with both hands. He pulled the trigger.

 

Bournemouth: 1.33 pm.

Barbara put her cup and saucer down. ‘I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.’

‘Oh you haven’t, we were blessed to have had her for the five years that we did. My husband’s already with her and I’ll be with them both very soon.’ Margaret placed her hand gently onto Barbara’s arm. ‘Have you got anyone waiting for you?’

‘My husband Gerald.’ Barbara looked down to the floor. ‘My daughter lives in New Zealand.’ She looked back up at Margaret with tears in her eyes. ‘I haven’t been a good mother to her.’

Margaret moved her hand down to Barbara’s hand and squeezed it tightly. ‘Don’t be hard on yourself. Mother’s aren’t perfect. I let my daughter play by the river on her own. You have to forgive yourself.’

Tears escaped from Barbara and she nodded her head, squeezing Margaret’s hand in return. ‘Thank you.’