Gus is barking his tiny brown head off, Mr. Thomas must be near. Gus came along four years ago, a pint-sized wolf in mongrel clothes. I glance down at my flour-dusted trousers and open the door a crack to greet Mr. Thomas. But I see it’s not Mr. Thomas, but a stranger. I quickly slam the door, hoping that he hasn’t seen me. There is a violent crashing sound as the mail is forced through the letterbox. Gus chokes himself trying to grab the hand, but he’s too late. I finally let him go and he gives me an angry scowl. I probably shouldn’t have slammed the door, but you never know, better safe. Lock the door. Check. Locked? Locked. Locked? Locked. Final check: locked? Locked. It’s locked.
I sort through the envelopes, mechanically shuffling the unadorned bills to the back of the queue. A leaflet: “Irina’s Spick-and-Span Cleaning Service” which I read aloud in my Cold War best; Gus looks up and cocks his head to one side. Next, a glossy catalog on kitchen equipment which I didn’t order and finally, a hand-written letter. A shiver of excitement: good old paper-and-pen days. My fingers freeze as I read the name on the return address: Derek Simons. A sky-blue Par Avion packet, clumsily gummed together, with an air bubble still intact. His air. I burst it immediately.
This must be a joke. Sick, but no one would do this. I move to the kitchen without looking up, my eyes fixed on the printed name. How does he know where I live? I open the cutlery drawer: forks and spoons stare impotently back so I grab a still-damp butter knife from the dish rack. I wipe it roughly on my jeans and then drag the blade through the fold of paper, ripping it a little.
Opening the letter, I cannot steady my trembling hand, so I try the counter, smoothing out the paper on the marble slab. Sobs come out; I can’t bring him in here. I lay my face against the cool surface of the counter, but I can’t get a full breath. Snatching a jacket, I scoop up my keys and slam the front door. Lock the door. Check. Locked? Locked. Locked? Locked. Final check: locked? Locked. It’s locked.
I have to get away. Gasping, I realize that he could be here, what if this is him? What if he is following me, watching, waiting. A warm breeze tries to comfort, but my goose bumps stay. It’s so quiet; it doesn’t feel like a Saturday. Just the alien postman, tiny in the distance now and the next-door-kids whose names I don’t know, playing stupidly on the lawn. I walk back and circle the house. Night after night after night of checks: the locks, the windows, the alarm system (extra charge to be linked to the police), the telephone, my mobile battery, my mobile battery back-up, knife under my bed. Mike sometimes catches me doing checks on the rare nights he insists on staying over; I can’t make him drink and drive. He must think that these rituals are wacky, but I cite OCD and he doesn’t push. Previous relationships died because I opened my mouth.
It’s a walk up the hill, but my legs don’t feel a thing, just a burning in my pocket where I have the letter. It was just something that happened; it was random. It doesn’t define you. I hear my sister’s angry voice, my mother’s sobbing voice and my father’s disappointed voice. That was the biggest surprise. My father couldn’t look me in the eye that day, or for many afterwards. He’d look past, or talk facing the fridge or the TV. When he finally did mention, “what happened” he imparted instructions: don’t tell anyone, best to forget about it and move on, pick yourself up. It will ruin your life otherwise.
“Did ruin, DID RUIN!” I hiss under my breath. A young woman holding a baby on the bench looks up in surprise, pulling her offspring closer. I run up the hill, I wish Gus was here. Gasping for breath, I reach my tree: a massive untidy elm, crumbling and ancient, it even smells old. Under its mighty shelter, I sit down and lay out the letter, as far away as my eyes can stand. His writing is almost illegible, but I can just make it out:
“I am sure you are surprised to hear from me. I hope you are well. I won’t ask if you remember me.”
Something sticky and sick is in my throat.
“I don’t know how to say this, but I needed to contact you. I had to. I need you to know that I am sorry, sorry for the hurt and pain I caused you that night. But I cannot take it back.”
“There is no point trying to make excuses, I realize that now. I am responsible for what happened. I shouldn’t have lied in court.
I think about what I did every day. I hope you are living a good and happy life. Thank you for reading this.”
My sister and I don’t look alike; she’s blond and slim whereas I am “big-boned” with brown eyes and frizzy hair. She is a photocopy of our mother, I am endowed with a tragic hybrid of our parents’ genes.
“Jesus fuck, you look terrible!” She shouts as she hugs me.
“Thanks, great to see you too.”
“Have you not been going to work?” Already reproach in her voice.
“Yes, yes I have.” Too quick. “I took a few days off, but I’m back.”
“Hmm. Let me see the letter. Please.” More softly.
“You just got in, for God’s sake, wait a minute, don’t you want a drink?” I pour myself a long gin and ice cocktail. Her eyebrows go up.
“Ok, but just a small one – seriously – I still have to drive tonight remember.” She holds out her hand, into which I thrust the letter preserved in two sandwich bags.
She scans it. “You’ve called the police?”
I head over to the freezer for extra-cold gin. The bottle’s almost empty, weird. “No, no yet. I was thinking about it.”
“Thinking about it? Why? Don’t you want to see him finally locked up? You have all the evidence you need now. He implicates himself in the letter!”
“I know. I’m just thinking it through, ok? Can we drop it now?”
“I know this isn’t going to be easy. But don’t you want to see him finally pay for what he did?”
“Let’s cook, ok. You must be starving.”
She gets up and moves to the kitchen, removing my drink and pouring it into the sink in one smooth move.
Dinner is delicious: roast fatty duck with crackled salty skin, superfluous vegetables and silky chocolate mousse. Mike is polite and excited to finally meet a member of my family. He wants to stay the night. I lie and tell him that Judy’s sleeping over.
As soon as Judy’s out of the door I rush to the upstairs toilet, pull up the seat and kneel. I count to two, there’s a long pause before three. I haven’t done this for so long, but then I jam my fingers down my throat. It’s like riding a bike.The deconstructed meal splashes into the bowl; I close my eyes from the drops that bounce back up.
I’ll clean up tomorrow. I’m tired but I cannot fall sleep. The last few days I have been awake until the sun rises. I keep thinking about him. Derek Simons, DS, Mr. Simons, Derek to his friends, is that how he signs his name? He is married he said. He won’t have told his wife. Why shouldn’t he also be scared of every noise in the night?
It’s been three weeks since I was told to take some time off work, someone must have blabbed. I have nothing to do all day as they’ve taken away my online access. If I didn’t have Gus I wouldn’t have left the house. I decide to go and see where Derek Simons lives, his address isn’t far, a direct train journey. I feed Gus and take him for an extra-long walk.
I am on the train and treat myself to a radioactive-coloured soda to wash down my rainbow of pills. It doesn’t take long until we’re there. We might even go to the same airport. I choose to walk from the station, I don’t want to answer some nosy taxi driver’s questions.
I stare at the house, the home. It’s so ordinary. Boring, cookie-cutter, with a fucking pinwheel dancing cheerfully on the lawn. I see movement in the window, a woman with long blonde hair. Why aren’t they all at work?
The door swings opens while I’m gawping at the house. She looks like a Barbie doll, complete with pink sweatpants and a vest top.
“Hi there, Louise?”
“Uh-” I start turning around to leave.
“Well you’re early, I wasn’t expecting you just yet.” She sweeps me into the house.
I say nothing and look dumbly at her. Eventually I force a smile.
“Well, please come in, you may as well start if you’re here early.” The house smells of cookies baking.
“I’m sorry the house isn’t very tidy, my youngest has been up all night with a toothache. Do you have kids?”
“Uh, no. No, I don’t.” I cough. “I have a young niece though.” Why am I still here?
“Would you like a coffee? Please take a seat while I get the paperwork.”
I sit obediently on the single armchair. I have to get out of here. “No. No coffee thanks. Excuse me but-”
There is a thundering sound from the stairs. It’s him. It is Derek Simons. I jump off the sofa and look at him. He stares at me, looking at his wife and back at me. I clutch at the sofa’s arm.
The wife looks at her husband as though he is quite mad. “Derek, this is Louise, about the mortgage, she’s here early.” To me she says proudly, “This is my husband Derek.”
I push against the sofa and force myself to stand up. “I’m sorry, I don’t feel very well. I need to leave, I’m so sorry.” I dash to the door and fumble with the lock as the wife calls after me. I finally open it and start sprinting. I don’t even know which way I came but I keep going. The sickly hyacinths and roses make it hard to breathe.
There are footsteps running behind me, he’s following me.
“Wait! Please wait, Sarah! What are you doing here?”
I have caught my breath but he’s still huffing and puffing. Despite the last few weeks, my training is paying off.
“I don’t know.” Dry-eyed, I laugh to myself. “I really don’t know Derek Simons. What am I doing here?”
He doesn’t have any answers; he just looks grey and old. I just want to go home and see Gus.
“Did you tell my wife?”
“No, that’s not what I came for. I really don’t know why I did.”
“Wait! Are you- Are you going to the police?” He pauses, looks at the ground and takes a deep breath. He looks at me and I make full eye contact. “You know what? Don’t tell me.”
I get back home just as the sun is setting. I get into bed and start reading but there’s a shuffling noise outside the door. My heart thumps loudly. I grab the blade under my bed. A scratching noise and a yelp at the door. A long exhale, before I open the door and let Gus in.
“Why are you so naughty, you little monkey? Can’t sleep either?” He looks at me as if I am quite mad. He barks loudly and dances at the top of the stairs. I pull on my dressing gown, and he bounds excitedly down the stairs.
Opening the kitchen door, I let the fresh night air swim in. Gus is rooting around in the grass like a little furry cow, looking up periodically to make sure I am still there.
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