I have recently polished THE MAN IN THE PAINTING, the fourth of my thirteen fantasy novels. Please find below an outline and sample pages.
THE MAN IN THE PAINTING
When twenty-eight year-old Harriet Painter, and her eight year-old son George, settle in a quiet English country cottage, she hopes they are at the beginning of a fresh chapter in their lives, finally able to put the fear and pain of recent years behind them.
A lawyer returning to work at the esteemed legal company of Carter and Black, she has at last seen the courts impose a restraining order on her former husband, Scott, after years of increasing incidents of physical and mental abuse.
Succumbing to a long-held desire, she has finally bought the old stone cottage she discovered on her way to work over a year ago. It is a warm, friendly place of great character, deep in the English countryside. It is a home to enjoy new beginnings.
One day, while cleaning her new pantry, Harriet falls through the rotten floorboards to find herself in an ancient cellar, long hidden from human eyes. The dark and dust-caked room contains only one item, a leather-shrouded, five-foot painting depicting a medieval knight in armour, standing before a dark forest. There is no title and no artist’s signature.
Harriet is strangely taken by the painting and decides to bring it into the house, placing it above the fireplace in her living room. It almost immediately begins to have a positive effect upon the lives of her and her son.
But when Scott, reaching the end of his own psychological tether, discovers where she lives, despite the restraining order, he embarks on a series of intimidation tactics.
Added to this, her company have demanded that she represent a member of the notorious Janey family, importers known for their criminal and violent business dealings, in a case of illegal importing. A case nobody would take on unless they were given no choice.
One night, unable to sleep, fragile from the fears of her life, Harriet enters the living room where the painting hangs above the fireplace.
Quickly though, she realises that the landscape of the painting is empty, and that a huge armoured figure sits before the dying fire…
THE MAN IN THE PAINTING
I Never Know Where My Heart Is by Judy Tzuke plays on the radio. It caresses Harriet Painter as caramel upon an apple, and today she hangs onto that effect, for she is putting behind her all that gave her the vaguest illusion of safety and security, driving as she does now to into the bare, foreign territory of Her Life Free Of Him. She’ll be strong and empowered tomorrow. Today is enough all by itself. Today is testing her acting abilities to the fullest. Breathe. Don’t cry. He’s relying on you totally. As you go, so will he, so go confident and bright. Just for today. Up! Up! Up!
Actually George seems to be asleep, but neither Harriet nor the music seems to care. The song melts the edges of the jagged fear-rock in her belly nicely, and all she has to do is let it. It synchronises with the rushing autumnal countryside outside her car window to perfection, with, for a brief time, the flickering shafts of light through the branches landing on the beats of the drum. The battleship grey road ahead of her is taking her through the most idyllic landscape England still has to offer, here in the portion of the nation called Kent.
A beautiful pink and gold sunrise holds the sky in front of her, saying it’s okay and she’s welcome. Yes, it’s all good now. The early start was a good idea, and she doesn’t feel so tired at all really, and what fatigue there is, is really only the good kind. The happy, over-the-horrifying crest of the mountain kind that is supported further by something good at the end of the journey in front of you. Oh the feeling of finally being pulled instead of pushed. That’s a great one!
Yes. Nothing showcases bright light like a black-as-pitch backdrop.
She blinks to get rid of the name. Nope! Be gone. Away. Bad name. Old name. Old Programming. Time and practice will erase it. Don’t think of him and the brain will reconfigure eventually. All of that part should get weaker and more faded with time. Just get through the time. Play Judy Tzuke until the CD player protests, it doesn’t matter. It isn’t a name needed here anymore. It has no purpose. Part of Harriet’s gone life, along with her ignorance, then stupidity and weakness. Old pain. Don’t feed it with attention. Let it die.
Her red Citroen Cactus is loaded with suitcases and ‘bare necessities’; strapped to the postage stamp roof, and filling the hopelessly inadequate-for-starting-again boot so much that the lid has to be tied down because it won’t close properly. And George of course.
George Painter. Eight years-old, sleeping like a good ‘un in the back seat, comically less enamoured with the morning start, occasionally burbling something in his sleep. Occasionally wrinkling his nose and snorting back a flop of sandy hair that lies annoying over his right eye. George is the prize awarded to Harriet for surviving…..it. (She won’t label it further. Let it die.)
He was born out of the best of the bad times, at the beginning when the angry air currents hadn’t percolated into a raging marital storm, and the giddiness of a younger Harriet Painter going through a rebellious (“Let me live my own f—king life, Dad!”) phase, eloped with Scott Lee Headford, not one whole week after graduating with her law degree.
George is the softest-centred chocolate in the whole candy shop. Polite, thoughtful, huggy almost to a fault (which is no fault at all when you’re a shaky single parent stepping away not-unbloodied from an emotional train crash), reasonably good at school though he dreads Maths. He is an artistic soul right to the very quanta of his being, and absolutes make him wrinkle that nose and sigh like a seventy-five year-old getting to grips with a Sky Plus menu.
The road. God bless the open road in front of her. This is really what she needed without predicting it. To get away, to get free, the actual passage to a better life, and better is what it will be because really anything is better than what lies behind her. Scott (let it die) lies behind her, and the year upon year of surprise becoming unease….unease becoming disappointment….disappointment becoming flat-out concern…then that first day that concern became shock….then horror…and the taste of blood in her mouth...
Blink. Gone again. Get through the time. Focus on the road.
She glances at her watch. They’re making good time, although she’d part with a less vital organ for a decent cup of coffee. They haven’t passed a petrol station for a while, so they might as well push onto The Cottage. The cafetiere is nestled in crumpled paper in a plastic crate in the boot....or is it amongst the stuff on her roof? It’s there someplace, and so is a quarter-full jar of Columbian Strength Four ground coffee. That thought helps. It is the little things.
A muffled “Nnngh” from George pulls her eyes to the rear view mirror. He’s frowning in his sleep. No eight year-old should frown in his sleep, and it catches in her throat somewhere, but then, if bad dreams are all they both have to live with in order to be on the road to The Cottage...to be free of all if it….then okay. Well, there are bruises still faintly visible at the base of her neck and on her left deltoid after the Bad One nine weeks ago, but even that had its sort-of silver lining. The Bad One was what got the police involved after Scott crashed over that famous line and carried their marriage into the Domestic Violence parking area. Suddenly, because of those bruises, no matter how painful to get and for George to witness, Harriet was no longer alone. The hissing cat was out of the marital bag, and no more did Harriet have to miserably manufacture reasons for her neighbours in Bayswater to cover up the noises…to cover up the crying fits that came upon her without mercy at work.... Suddenly Harriet was surrounded by men stronger than Scott, and they were on her side. Suddenly Scott’s field of authority was reduced into a much smaller plot of land than the isolated, self-contained Kingdom of their marriage, the one that he had blatantly proclaimed himself ruler of about three months into their marriage.
Love at first sight? A hasty ‘carefree’ marriage to rebel against a father who said he was no good? A belief in the miraculous healing power of something that at least had aspirations of being love?
Bull****! Live and learn. Maybe the very hard way, but live and learn all the same. School’s out for summer. Or at least the Autumn.
Blink! Back to the car and the road again. She checks her watch. 6.45AM. Time was slipping past and so was that battleship grey road, and she’s surprised to remember that fear-rock again when she passes a gnarled old tree on her right that signals The Cottage is just up ahead. Nervous because now there was no getting away from the fact that ready or not, her life as a single parent is about to begin. But still, she must recall it will only be better, no matter how hard. Always better from now on.
Aaaaaaaaaaaaand there it is!
She slows the car to a pause before even turning into the rough gravel drive that probably needs a fence either side of it. She just stops and looks at The Cottage…and then she lets out a sigh for the Ages that contains a great many stories in it. But the biggest story is relief. All the work is done. The deposit for The Cottage is paid for, the packing is all taken care of. What’s not improbably attached to the Cactus will be arriving today in a lorry around ten o’clock according to the man on the phone. George’s place at his new school has been secured. All the important mail has been redirected here using a Post Office Secure-Send package that means he will never be able to trace it. She returns to her job at Carter and Black Legal tomorrow after seven weeks away. She may have to do a hundred free overtime hours this year to make amends, no matter how compelling the reasons for her time off, but that doesn’t matter. Somehow, Harriet Painter has taken care of everything that matters, and she’s done it all herself.
She realises this and slowly her head sinks upon the steering wheel where she lets it lay for a most of a minute, and then raises a much heavier head that looks back The Cottage, the shining light at the end of her own particular long dark tunnel.
It sits within its own meagre field, and there are at least three more hedged-off fields either side of it before more houses can be seen. It sits in splendid isolation amongst a wonderfully overgrown garden that hasn’t seen a hedge trimmer since frost lay on the ground. It’s weather–battered white walls appear to be made of pleasingly ugly lumps of boulder stone placed perfectly together, rather than modern-day bricks.
The woman from the agency who showed her around, constantly looking at Harriet with an apologetic air, pointed out the building was very old, and nobody was sure quite how old, but wasn’t it full of charm? The original roof was thatched, they believed, but had been replaced with more modern roofing about eighty years ago. Luckily the new roofing is ‘thatch-effect’ and somehow blends it with its older cousin below. The Cottage is squat and wide enough to make up for the fact there is no attic. It has a crude, fence-less gravel drive leading up to it, and if you were so inclined, and squinted hard enough, you could probably surmise that the whole thing was sliiiiiightly leaning to the left. But that’s okay. In another life, a different, paler incarnation of Harriet had driven passed the place on her way to work, day after day, seeing the eternal, weathered FOR LEASE OR SALE sign, pleasuring blatantly and eagerly in the fantasy of owning it. A sanctuary close enough (though not too close) to her office in London, but otherwise far and gone from the kind of society that had so far been part of her life. Initially….while she had still been with Scott…it had been just that. A fantasy. An important fantasy, given the nature of her reality at that time, but beyond her conscious consideration as a being a possibility in her life. Then things had changed….or changed more…then slid….then crashed…and shortly before That Final Incident that had required her to go to hospital and require a leave of absence from her job, she had made a note of the number on that weathered sign and starting thinking as seriously about it as anything in her life. It was no longer something ephemeral, it was now officially a life-jacket…shelter…haven. A place she planned to be hers for some initial emotional recuperation, then out-and-out construction of a better life. Then the Bad One had happened, and once her fingers were able to bend enough to hold her smartphone from that hospital bed, she had put in a call….the kind that brooks no refusal from the guy at the other end. She would buy it. What was necessary to make it happen? No, no dancing around or back-and-forth with the seller. Make it happen and she’d put her signature on the line.
Yes, it was cramped in some rooms inside, and practically-speaking, might have been something of a bad idea if she was anything more than a single parent with one child, but she was just that, and so The Cottage fitted her and George just fine, when it wouldn’t (and clearly hadn’t) fitted so many others in a long time.
George wrinkles his nose and shifts. The lack of car-motion has stopped lulling him and he is awake, although his eyes disagree for the time being.
Coffee! Black-as-tar, the tiniest splash of milk, in the biggest effing mug Harriet had!
“Up and at ‘em, George. At least until I can get the sheets on the bed.”
“Yeah me too. But as I say, up and at ‘em.”
Getting there. Getting there.
And they are, she and George. After chugging down one-and-a-half life-giving mugs of that dark ambrosia (allowing George a sneaky, sugar-loaded sip so he wouldn’t be lumbering through all the unloading of everything), she and he have spent a solid hour getting well acquainted with The Cottage. There is more to it than might meet the eye from the simplistic outside, with more rooms, nooks and crannies inside than there probably should be given the limited square footage. No matter. Space had to be found for stuff and the task of unloading has helped them both become friends with their new home. George, coffee or no, soon found his eight-year old energy fired up once he had accepted he had to leave the car. Soon he was carrying everything and anything Harriet could load into his blue-jumpered arms in through the black-painted front door with a good old childish glee that had been absent from him for too long. It was no less than a tonic to Harriet, and what that jolliness started, the fresh morning countryside air lifting her dark auburn hair and drying her green eyes finished. This really was a long way from Bayswater. They really were in the country, the real country where animals populated fields and birds could wake you up in the morning. The apartement-shaped prison was gone from their lives, and this building, in this part of the English countryside, was theirs and no one else’s.
They had visited the cottage together once before, (his approval had somehow been vital to her) but in unloading the car, they had walked around the dim interior as if for the first time. The ‘charming’ unpainted walls inside showed the original ancient stonework, broken up by mighty beams of blackened wood. The slightly too-low ceiling, carried thinner wooden cross beams here and there (that simply guaranteed a bump on Harriet’s noggin some sleepy morning), came at roughly five feet intervals, but were closer together in the Kitchen. This room sat alongside the Living Room in an open-plan arrangement, with only a Seventies-era counter-top to separate the two. That was fine. Cosy. The Kitchen had dark wooden floorboards. They were clearly more modern than the floorboards in other rooms, concealed occasionally by more circa-Seventies carpeting that would go the second she could shift that dry-throat feeling about the amount of things she had to find money for in the coming months. Carpet would remain on the Someday List for now.
The Kitchen had a pantry built into the wall, fitted with a white-painted wooden door, and the interior was higher than the ceiling around it, going up to a small degree through the rafters. Stacked with musty-smelling empty shelves that needed a serious cleaning before anything not in a tin should be deposited, the pantry was about seven feet deep, dark as rainy-day shadow, and possessing decidedly old floorboards that creaked quite alarmingly. The wooden was of a different grain, more discoloured, with flecks of what could have been lichen or some domestic fungus in places. Scrubbing required and then some!
George had naturally loved the pantry. It was a ‘hidey-hole’ and Harriet foresaw a lot of unrequested games of ‘where the hell are you, George?’ in the months to come.
Her bedroom contained a double bed, a wardrobe, a chest of draws, and little else, which was fine because there was barely room to swing a kitten let alone a cat. George’s room was at the end of the hall, and was two-thirds the size of her own. He’d better not grow too much too quickly if he knew what was good for him.
They had carried in everything the Cactus had brought with them, and as George slumped on the too-small Seventies sofa in the Living Room with a very adult sigh, Harriet had given herself a mental slap in the face and made herself walk to his room and make his bed, laying on the lining sheet, the mattress cover-sheet, and finally flumping his Batman duvet over the whole lot. Resisting mightily the urge to spin and fall flat on that comfy-looking slice of kiddie paradise, she had turned and walked back to the Kitchen, feeling the whooping caffeine spike of the one-and-a-half mugs slipping away, and a vengeful fatigue creeping in.
Harriet had been awake since 3.25AM. She had awoken nervously at her father’s guest room in Ealing where she and George had lived quite uncomfortably for the past three weeks. She had lain on her back and stared nervously at the ceiling, a thousand thoughts, none comforting going through her head.
“Bed’s made” she says to George. George has slumped sideways on the sofa, so the caffeine may be having its revenge on him too, or possibly it’s just his 5.30AM wake-up.
“I’ll wake you about nine for breakfast. Removal men said the stuff would be arriving at ten, so we’d better hold them to their word. Off you toddle and sleep well.”
“Night, Sleepy Bird.”
He ambles over and gives her a hug and she kisses the top of his head. He ambles off and actually thunks into the open doorframe as he turns into the hall.
“Mmf!” she hears, but then he’s off and out of sight. Then she hears the creak of the bed.
Something about that creak says to Harriet “You’re done. You’ve arrived. Time to stop.” So she does. Although there’s probably a hundred practical things she could do, she slumps down on the sofa, her head finding an oh-so tempting lime-green cushion (damn you, Seventies) on the brown-checked covering at one end. She shouldn’t. She really shouldn’t.
She has to tuck her knees up to fit on, barely managing to kick off her trainers, and the rest is all she wrote. She is done, but not just with the moving. With the last nine weeks, with the aftermath of the Bad One, with the holding it together for George, with the fraught conversations with her father with whom she could not simply escape this time by walking out the door… Oh, and with the nine years of marriage previous. All of it has demanded a reckoning, and now it’s being called in, in the currency of fatigue. The weight of responsibilities for Moving Day was just the icing on the Reckoning cake. Oh yes, she’s going to sleep whether she wants or not. She closes her eyes, the scent of some stranger’s sofa in her nose, the fading twilight through the Living Room curtains, the chirping of some bird in the garden outside, the garden she hasn’t so much as looked at since she and George arrived. The garden she really.....really shoul.....
Wait, now there’s something, something at the very end of the blackness and the silence. It’s very faint though. Blurry but...
Yes, a face. A face without a body beneath, although maybe the body is hidden in shadow. Maybe she’s looking at a figure that has a shaft of light across one side of its face. After all, the body must be there beneath it right? That only....
She knows that face, even though it’s blurry. She is sure she does, but she can’t make it come into focus. One thing is clear though, it’s getting closer, moving from side to side across her field of vision as though dancing or....more like a boxer feinting left and right with his opponent. Oh no! This doesn’t feel good. There’s an ugly feeling now and she doesn’t like this at all. She wants out of this now thank you, but there doesn’t seem to be a way to stop it, she has no control over what’s happening. She can’t even look away, only watch helplessly as the face dodges almost playfully from left to right in front of her, getting closer and yet strangely no more in focus, not unless she tries really hard.
Suddenly Scott is there in front of her, of course. His disembodied head hangs before her and there is no body beneath it. Just a fist that stops at the wrist. She’s looking at that familiar clenched fist but she can tell Scott is smiling and saying something ‘clever’ to explain why he’s going to hit his wife, vaguely justifying it to God Knows Who. She can tell his lips are moving but she can’t look away from the disembodied fist that reaches back very slowly, and then, with familiar gunshot speed, POWS into her face.
It’s a barely emitted sound, but it signals a rushing sound in her ears as the dream gets irritably pushed back into its box and Harriet comes back into consciousness. Eyes slowly open with difficulty and with a sleep-fogged awareness, she takes in where she is.
Oh, that’s right. She’s lying on this stranger’s sofa that must become her sofa until she has the money for the Someday List. As she tilts her head up a little, she sees the twilight outside the curtains is gone gone gone, and there is nothing but overcast daylight outside. She lowers her head and she looks at the large, misshapen stone-edged blackened fireplace directly in front of the sofa. Must clean out that at some point. Must do a lot of things. Today. Must, must, must....
She checks her watch. 9.23AM! Oh God she should be up! She should be showered and changed by now and making breakfast. She should...
Too many shoulds at once and she sinks her head back onto the sofa and does the foetus position thing again. Soon, parental responsibility overrides the other stuff, plus an awareness of her own body odour, and she slowly swings her legs off the sofa and stands up. A dozen muscles shout “Oi!” and she needs a moment before they quieten. What to do first? She opens the curtains, which is about all she’s capable of just then, and she sees the garden properly for the first time. A moment later, she is absolutely struck with the feeling that this is hers! All hers!
Despite all she should and must do there and then, Harriet ambles through the Kitchen to the back door that leads onto the garden, and without so much as closing the door, bathed in nine AM sunlight, she wanders in her socks down through the garden.
Fresh air like medicine fills her lungs, a thousand countryside scents thrill her sleepy senses, and her socks and the hems of her jeans are getting wetter by the second from the morning dew as she pushes through the long grass. There’s a paved path beneath her feet somewhere but it scarcely counts in this shambles. She loves this garden this way! Can’t she leave it like this? Will that make her a bad homeowner?
The garden is about fifty feet long, thirty feet wide, and is broken up from a perfect view from her Kitchen window by large and wide clusters of bushes and low, safe, gloriously ugly trees that George will climb until the cows come home. The garden is bordered by hedges so wild they hardly earn the name ‘hedges’ at all, and beyond the end of the garden is just more fields. A farm of some kind is in the distance, but it’s far enough away to be blurry to her vision.
She pushes past the brown-leaf branches of some bush
or other and re-discovers the pond she had completely forgotten about. Barely ten feet wide, it has a very
convenient rock beside it for sitting on to gaze into its scum-surfaced depths,
so she does just that. She plonks herself on it right then and there and looks
into the liquid blackness, breathing in the sensory caresses that cosset her
eyes, ears nose and mind.
Then she remembers the dream, and a wave of Something comes over her. Unfortunately it doesn’t move on, but stays and stays, and sleepy, dishevelled Harriet Painter is in no mood to fight back. Her shoulders shrug all on their own.
She bursts into tears, sobbing into her left hand, part of her brain saying it’s okay. George, if he’s awake, can’t see her thanks to all those bushes, but then and there it wouldn’t have mattered if she’d been sitting on plastic bench in the middle of shopping mall on a Saturday afternoon. This has been coming for too long and won’t be denied. Another part of the Reckoning that won’t take the Stiff Upper Lip protocol anymore. A purging. A purging of stuff that isn’t needed anymore.
After a good few minutes, she finally stops and just breathes for a few minutes more, wiping her eyes. She begins to look around her, and she is struck once more by the wonderful sights she can see, followed by the more wonderful thought that no matter how hard she will have to work to pay for the mortgage on top of everything else, it will be worth it. She has made the right decision.
The feeling that follows that is how bloody hungry she is. Scrambled eggs (three), brown toast, marmalade. Maybe a spoonful of George’s muesli. All good stuff.
That gets her to her feet and suddenly she is walking, not ambling, back to the house.
* * * *
The cold cream block of stylish cement that essentially represented the offices of Carter & Black Legal (est. 1973) looks back at her. She stands a short way along Peachyard Road in Islington, and she is dressed for work as professionally as she ever has. Her auburn hair is pinned back in the tight and strict design she had adopted four years ago when she achieved a position here. She is a lawyer with the degree and the successful case histories to prove it. She has been good enough to get a modest pay raise two years running. She has no reason at all to feel the way she does standing there now.
But she doesn’t go in. She checks her watch. 8.53AM. It will look good if she arrives a little early, but if she wants to stay standing there, it’s okay. She stays there, breathing in. Rustling traffic behind her, and a cool breeze pulls at her sheened hair.
She has only been gone a relatively short time, but oh what a relatively short time it has been. A family unit has been hit by a sort of fragmentation grenade. Harriet has been cannonballed out into the world on her own, relying on well-meaning strangers and her father with whom she has only a bond that is little more than genetic and social obligation-based. Any lingering sense of security from that famous bedrock of marriage to Scott was finally eliminated by the arrival of that squad car under the flashing blue lights that night. The time where Scott went too far, and frankly, as the officers bundled him into the car while the neighbour who rang them watched through her curtains, he didn’t seem awfully broken up about it. Not like Harriet. Not like Harriet at all.
There has been the court appearances opposite a Scott who looked like a clone of himself in his borrowed suit and shaven-jaw. His too-loud snorts at her testimony, and overdone head shakes of disbelief hadn’t worked, and every jury member had found him guilty. He somehow wasn’t sent to jail, but he was given a suspended sentence, a fine that he would never repay if he repaired a hundred cars a day in ‘Scott’s Garage’ for the following year. He was given a restraining order by the court, told not to come within one hundred metres of either Harriet or George, or his and her places of domicile, education, leisure or employment. He had snorted even louder at that.
Harriet has survived all of this, has relocated her life and her son to Kent, and now she stands before her place of work as if nothing, purely superficially speaking, nothing has happened. When she walks in, which she’d better do any second now, she will look no different on the outside than when she left.
But she is so different inside, it is difficult to take that first step. She stands there, feeling that ‘stranger in a strange land’ vibration, and soon, a whole dangerous minute has passed…and then she remembers the mortgage on her haven, and she steps inside.
Three hours later, she is behind her desk, and while she doesn’t feel as at ease there as much as before she left, the shock and rust of the return is wearing off. She’s dealt with the polite welcomes and dutiful questions from the Carter & Black team, which consists of five other lawyers, four secretaries, and Lester Needs, her immediate boss. Nobody called Carter or Black actually works at this office. They oversee it along with other offices around the world from some palatial mansion in Barbados.
She sits there now, trying to make headway through a series of notes from her last case, which another lawyer in the company finished when she was abruptly taken into hospital. It seems they did a reasonable job, though not as thorough or polished as she would have liked. Still....
Suddenly the door opens and Lester stands there again. She’s already spoken pleasantries to him so this will be about business. He’s fifty-something, with grey hair carefully slicked back on his head, and he’s wearing yet another very pale grey suit that looks too close to dirty white for her taste, but with his very pale grey eyes it’s not inappropriate. Lester always wears pale suits.
“Ready to talk business, Harriet?”
“Absolutely,” she says too cheerily. It sounds silly.
Lester sits in the chair opposite and she realises he’s holding a file. A thick one. To her lawyer’s eye, that says a lot. This is no casual case of one man saying the fence his neighbour put up is three inches on his side of the garden. This case has meat to it, and will be a serious deal. In at the deep end, she thinks. Thanks. Again though, she’s not shocked.
“Got a good one for you, Harriet. Has some history, but if you pull it off, it
will be a good one on your file. Good
commission for the firm. One hundred thousand.”
“One hundred thousand!?” blurts Harriet. It is serious, and maybe a little too serious now for a lawyer back at her desk for three hours what has happened, but Lester is already pushing the file across the desk in a way that suggest he wants to get rid of it slightly more than generously offer it to her. Harriet recognises the signs and remembers again why she doesn’t go out socially with Lester. He has sides to his character, some blatant and Public Access, some kept carefully in the Members Only section, that stop her from liking him enough.
She takes the file and opens the front, aware that Lester isn’t filling her in on the details as he normally does. He’s waiting for her to read something, and unfortunately she finds it right away.
CLIENT: NILE JANEY.
Harriet feels a hard dump of all sorts of bad energies, and then looks equally hard back at Lester. Then she begins talking before he can, and she talks awfully like a woman talking calmly to a mugger holding a gun on her, trying to be reasonable, but there’s a whole lot of unreasonable underneath.
“You’re giving me one of the Janey family,
Lester? And one of them really means the
whole family, you know that don’t
you? They are organised crime, Lester.
Yes, they are! They are organised crime who have never been
caught because they are too good at what they do, and they are even better at dissuading
people who might prosecute. Janey
Imports is a bloody open-air smuggling operation, and they have ‘friends’ of
their kind all over the world, as if they weren’t bad enough on their own. They are thugs, Lester. Violent thugs, and
you are not giving them to me to represent…..I will not! No.”
But she can hear her voice tailing off in weakness at the end, because Lester has the trump card. He is her immediate boss, and he can dispense the cases as he sees fit. And he knows she has a mortgage. He is frowning now and has crossed his arms. Harriet could be talking to a brick wall. Finally he speaks.
“Nile Janey was found sitting behind the wheel of lorry
parked on Southampton Docks at 2.30 AM last Saturday. Police got a tip-off and found thirty
thousand pirate DVD’s aboard an Albanian trawler docked nearby. Nile was caught onboard with the captain who
doesn’t have a license or import documents of any kind of course. Nile, who has recently become old enough to
join the family business it seems, says he was he was just there to ‘Look at
the ocean’, and got chatting to the captain who invited him on board for a
drink. At 2.30AM. Categorically denies
he’s not there to collect the DVD’s, despite the fact Customs says they are all
English-language. This is the fifth
time he’s been arrested, but the prior four were all for anti-social behaviour. It is also the twenty-second time in total
that one of the five Janey brothers has been arrested. They heard about us and have commissioned us
to represent Nile for his court appearance next Monday.”
“And the hundred thousand commission is why we’re not doing the sensible thing and rushing to saying no, right?” snaps Harriet a little breathlessly, though the dread is tightening her tummy. “The money and maybe the fear of what they’ll do to these offices if we say no? Everybody in the legal business has heard how well the Janey family respond to ‘No’.”
An ugly pause. Harriet hears her own tight breathing.
“Ah…I need you to be a bit more professional about this, Harriet,” says Lester, in a voice that is a horrible combination of deliberately mannered over weakness.
“Tell me, Lester,” Harriet nearly hisses, “how many lawyers did you offer this to before coming to me? Or did you just keep it for me all along, knowing how....how....how eager to please I would be after everybody being so ‘understanding’?”
Lester waits and her fear-strength leaves her again. Then;
“Watch your tone, Harriet. Yes, we’ve all been very understanding towards your situation, but I’ll take this moment to remind you that you are lucky to be part of this firm, and that you will have to pull your weight after the amount of time you’ve taken off. You will take this case because everybody else, including myself, has a full caseload as it is. You have nothing. That’s it. It’s not personal, so kindly stop acting like it is. But you will take this case or your position here will be reconsidered. Do I make myself clear?”
Three hours earlier, after entering her offices, it had been Lester who’d welcomed her back first, given her an awkward, alien pat on the shoulder, and to whom she’d eagerly shared warm details about The Cottage, including the deposit. Unwittingly, she’d given him an even bigger stick to beat her with. He now knows how badly she needs to keep this job, and suggesting she might lose it is the only strike he needs to make.
“Oh Jesus!” is all she can manage, and that’s said more to herself.
“He’ll be here tomorrow at one. You’d better be prepared by then.”
Lester pauses as Harriet closes her eyes for a moment in pain, when she opens them, it looks like he might say something sympathetic, but yes, there’s a very solid reason Harriet doesn’t go out socially with Lester, and it’s revealed right now by him simply turning and leaving the office instead.
Harriet lets out a slow, slightly ragged breath.
The file about Nile Janey sits before her like an ugly manila brick in the middle of her peace of mind.
But her day isn’t over yet.
After an unpleasant day at the office preparing to take on a case she doesn’t want, it’s finally time to leave and collect George from St. Martin’s Primary School. She’d left him at the fence outside the playground at 8.30AM this morning, dressed in his brand new St. Martin’s uniform, clutching his Batman rucksack, looking perhaps the most adorably nervous thing on the planet. She kissed him on the cheek and gave him a quick hug, which he returned with three times her strength before blatantly plastering a smile over his face and waving goodbye, heading in through the Main Entrance as the bell rang, lost among a sea of noisy uniforms.
Harriet was under no illusions that the smile was only for her. George doesn’t like change. He lacks physical strength or agility, will probably grow up to be a podgy but loveable man who works with animals or children or in the charity sector, such is his sweet temperament, which itself may be an over-reaction to the ugliness of the marriage he grew up under.
Still, he had entered the Main Entrance, and Harriet had waved again, her throat constricted, trying not to cry since it would make her mascara run before entering her own St. Martin’s of Carter & Black Legal thirty minutes later...
But that was this morning.
It’s 3.30PM. Now Harriet has parked her red Cactus outside the school, surrounded by similar cars, and though the windscreen, watches the trickle of parents arriving on foot to collect their little ones. She sees many Dads, and wishes...well....she just wishes...
Then a large cluster of children leave the Main Entrance, and Harriet leans forward in her seat to try and find George, but it’s too difficult, especially when a larger cluster of parents move against the fence in front of her. She gets out of the car, hoping he’s had a good day, no, a frigging wonderful day to make up for her own. She’s meeting Nile Janey tomorrow and the thought hits her heart with an icy stab whenever she remembers.
Forget that now, she tells herself.
She shuffles through some of the clutter to find her own spot at the fence, and now hordes of the little uniformed darlings are spilling out of the Main Entrance. No sign of George yet, unless she’s missed him. Where the hell...?
A tug on her business skirt. She turns.
George is standing before her, not remotely the most adorable thing anymore, because his lip has been cut, there’s faint trace of dried blood around his nose, his white uniform shirt of muddied around the collar, and his tie has been tied by himself at some point, since she did it for him in the Living Room this morning. Meaning somebody has removed it since, and not gently either.
“What the hell, George?!” It’s hard to say much more because her mouth has fallen open in shock as she takes him in.
“Hi Mum,” manages George , voice shaken by the effect of his lower lip starting to tremble all by itself, and suddenly Harriet stops assessing him and throws her arms around him juuuuuuust in time, since George bursts into sobs on her shoulder. Mother and son hug each other in their own secure little world, as uncertain parents and staring children flow around them on the pavement like air in a strange sort of wind-tunnel....
* * * *
It’s 5.45PM. George has changed and is sitting dolefully at the Kitchen table while Harriet tries gamely to tear the Headmaster of St.Martin’s Primary a new one over the phone. She stalks up and down the Living Room area, which isn’t built for stalking but it’s all she has.
“No, Mr Dale, I’m not saying he should receive your teachers’ ‘undivided’ attention, but I’m just dying to know who was on duty during dinner break who was so frigging incompetent that this bunch of baby-thugs could do this to my boy, and they do not see it. I mean, you do have somebody present during dinner break, don’t you? I’m fairly sure that’s required by law, and with my job I can bloody well look it up faster than you’d like me too!”
Silence while she listens, lips pressed into a straight line.
“No! No! No! I’m afraid ‘these things happen’ isn’t good enough. Did you see the state of my boy? He says this Josh Welby brat, and his little band of three Hitler Youths targeted him within minutes of his first class, and then continued to persecute him whenever possible through the day. This will not be allowed to continue, and I shall be bringing my full legal attention to how your school, under your supervision, Mr Dale, handles or doesn’t handle the safety and wellbeing of its students. Assault by a gang of four on his first day does not belong in the ‘these things happen’ file if you’re a parent, which from your frankly blase’ manner in the fifteen minutes we’ve been talking, I’m guessing you are not. This situation had better improve, Mr Dale, or I’ll be taking steps to ensure that it does. Goodbye!”
And she stabs the mobile phone ending the call, because she can feel part of herself that shouldn’t come up from her hidden depths doing just that, a part that was created by the trauma of the last few years of being married to Scott Lee Headford, and a part that must not be allowed to enter her professional life. Being a lawyer requires the coolest, most analytical personality. Getting inflamed, getting personal, is a bad idea, and Harriet could feel it creeping into her voice. But it was the violence that did it. The violence against her son. Okay, so it was from four eight-to-ten year-olds, (Jesus! Who raised kids like that?) who it turns out had bullied her son almost from the moment he was lost from her protective sight inside the Main Entrance.
And she couldn’t stop it. Helpless. And what a horribly familiar feeling that was. Hence the abrupt end to the phone call.
She expels some of that bad stuff now with a short sharp breath and slipping on an oven glove, takes a tray of turkey sausages, (George’s favourite, bought especially on the trip home to ‘cheer him up’) out of the oven and bangs them on the counter.
George is sitting at the table, dinner mat and cutlery before him (dragged from one of the many boxes the removal men bought yesterday that threaten to overpower the tiny Kitchen.)
“Useless bureaucratic little fffffairy cake,” she manages.
“S’alright, Mum,” says George in that timid little voice life under Scott has helped perfect. He sounds nervous in his own home and that’s not good. Harriet snaps herself out of it and gives him the fifteenth hug since 3.30PM.
“I’m sorry honey, I don’t mean to be angry but...I
just don’t like professional incompetence.
He should run a tighter ship.”
“What’s a fairy cake?”
“Er...a delicious piece of confectionary. Did you get the names of any of the others of this little gang?”
“No. After English class, which was my first, and where Josh started flicking my ear with his ruler, somebody giggled on the either side and said “Go on, Josh,” and later....after it happened, the teacher in the playground who found me after they....hit me...said ‘Was is Josh Welby?’ That’s all.”
“Right, so the little....boy....has ‘form’ does he? Right!” mutters Harriet.
“Never mind. Just figuring out what to say to your Headmaster tomorrow.”
Tomorrow. Nile Janey. Cold stab in her heart again.
“Christ, what a day!” falls out of her lips before she can stop it. George doesn’t miss a thing.
“How was your first day back at work?” he asks in that horrible cautious way no eight year- old boy should speak in.
“Fine,” she says, and hopes he won’t ask any more. To help stop him, she puts the white dinner plate edged with faded roses full of oven chips, broccoli and turkey sausages in front of him. “Eat up, and let’s forget all about today. It’ll be better tomorrow.” She nearly says “I promise” but she can’t promise that. Her boy is out of her hands for seven hours tomorrow and in the hands of strangers. Fact.
“ ‘Kay,” say George through a mouthful of chips. He sounds equally unconvinced. Harriet sits down and begins to eat her own meal, hoping that the strength and wisdom required to be a single parent is going to magically kick in at some point, because despite the jolly small talk she is about to make, there’s no sense of it inside her just then. Just then she feels like a passenger of bus that has a hijacker at the wheel, and all she can do is hold on…
They say it gets darker before the dawn.
The day after. It’s 12.55PM and Harriet is sitting at her desk in her office at Carter & Black Legal. Her notes for interviewing Nile Janey are before her. His formidable Previous file is to one side. Her desk has been neatly arranged and rearranged nine times in the last ten minutes as a kind of nervous reaction. She checks her watch again and mentally runs over the notes in her head. She clicks her pen on and off so many times that the joint of her thumb starts to hurt. She makes herself stop and breathes out.
Her desk-com buzzes loud enough to make her heart hurt slightly, and Elaine, the blank-faced, moody, middle-aged pouting cow (steady, that’s not fair) in Reception is heard a second later, her voice scrambled a little by the early Nineties-era gadget.
Janey Family are here to see you. Shall I send them in?”
And a thousand things are said in that brief line. The carefully-held tension in her voice. The calm, coldness.
The Janey Family. But Harriet has to reply and sound equally cool.
“Nile Janey has brought a family member?”
Click. A snigger caught in the distant electronic background before Elaine’s response. “Yes. Several of them. Shall I send them through?”
Get them away from me! is in the subtitles. Harriet swallows but a delay would be bad. “Yes Elaine, send them through.” She almost hears the relief behind the click as Elaine takes her finger off her own desk-com button.
Jesus Christ! The whole Janey family are here, despite, despite Harriet telling him to come alone. But that was naive, she sees that now. The Janeys know their strength is intimidation, and one Janey alone would...aaand here are the footsteps!
A mild guffaw and heavy male muttering outside her door. She feels the air change. She sits further upright, as if that will help anything at all, the door handle is yanked down and her door is opened hard enough to bang against the filing cabinets that are never usually hit by the door, because her visitors don’t normally resemble...this.
Bradford Janey, the father. Sixty-one. A squat, fat, anvil of a man, with thick short grey hair, and dressed in clothes good enough to spend the night sleeping in a doorway, despite the great wealth of the Janey family. Don Janey, the eldest brother at forty, and over halfway to being his dad physically. Tony Janey, a stick thin thirty-something in tracksuit bottoms and trainers but wearing a shabby suit jacket and tie (although the tie is around a green polo shirt,) almost certainly done for a joke. (“Meetin’ the lawyer today. A laydeee!”) Ian Janey, somehow the scariest; twenty-five, built like a strand of bent wire, a scowl carved permanently into his features, more hair on his face than his skull, with a tattoo of five stars of different sizes along his left cheek.
And Nile Janey, the ‘baby’ at twenty-one. Thin, weak, might be nervous except big brother Tony has his arm around him, and even now is whispering something rude into his ear after glancing at Harriet. Nile manages a smug smile and nods as he looks at her.
“You the lawyer then.” It’s not a question from Bradford. He’s at the front and eyeing her up and down, and she immediately knows she’s going to be dealing mostly with him instead of his brother. His voice grates over his tongue on the way out of his mouth.
“Yes, Harriet Painter.
Er...I don’t think I have enough chairs for all of you, but then I did
“Nile doesn’t like being alone with women, does he?” says Tony with half a grin on his face. Nile gives a bashful ‘You got my number right there, mate’ grin, and looks at his feet.
Ian Janey has his arms crossed and is looking very directly at her. She thinks about holding his gaze and asking him ‘Is there a problem?’, but she doesn’t because she can already tell where that conversation would go. She has to just get through this.
“Boys are here ‘cause they wanted to see a lawyer’s office. And they wanted to see who would be representing their little brother. I’m talking on behalf of my boy,” says Bradford. “He’s the shy type. I don’t want him pushed around by a lot of legal talk made to make him feel stoopid. I don’t want him led up the garden path or misrepresented by some...girl....just out of law school.”
Okay. “I’m actually not just out of law school, Mr Janey.” Sniggers in the background from somebody. Don leans back and whisper-mimics a posher version of what she has just said to Tony, who grins. Ian is still trying to stare her down, despite the fact she’s trying so very hard not to look at him.
“Listen!” Bradford cuts her off and leans forward
hard. “I asked this high-chargin’
company who their best lawyer was, and they gave me three names one after the
other before they gave me to you. Each
time we get a phone call saying that person is suddenly unavailable with too much
f***ing work on. Finally I get you, which all tells me three other
people in this company are better than you, and that my boy is getting the thin
end of the wedge. He’s got a court date next
Monday, and you are going to represent him because there’s no time to fanny
around finding somebody else. But if
I’m getting the bottom-rung bird in this hen coop, then I decided I wanted them
to be really clear about how much it
means to his family that the lawyer does a decent job.”
He stops and just stares through muddy eyes set in that blemished, weathered face under that square hat of grey hair, and says something equally as direct with the silence that follows.
Harriet has all of a second to realise that dad Bradford is still probably the brains of this outfit, and that though he may dress like somebody whose office is an off-license, he knows exactly what to say and what not to say. And how to say it.
“Let’s get on with the details then,” says Harriet in a voice hopefully tough yet professional. Bradford at least leans back in his chair again, which with his face is a blessing. (She doesn’t want to think about what that face has seen.)
“The jury are going to have a hard time believing that
Nile was at Southampton Docks with an empty truck, just taking in the sea air,
(she’s very careful not to say that bit sarcastically), especially with a boat
full of illegal DVD’s docked in front of him.
He was found onboard talking to the captain. I know you say (she deliberately reads from
her notes to show she’s a good lawyer despite not needing to) he was ‘just
passing the time with him’....”
“Yeah, that’s what happened, Miss.” Ian speaks now, and his voice resembles his manner. Steel-sharp, and said like somebody ill at ease if they’re not spoiling for a fight. She glances at him and his left eye twitches.
No, no wiggle room here at all.
“That’s not going to be good enough.” Whoompf. She feels a cloud of anger building in the
room, so she presses on. “If that’s all
you have to go into court with, the jury will find Nile guilty of smuggling,
which is certainly what the police report describes his actions as being. The captain of the boat has requested police
protection ...(another snigger at the back)....and refuses to speak to me or
any media until after the trial this Friday.
Assuming Nile is innocent of the charges (she looks at her desk for
that), then you will have to have a stronger reason for being there. Your offices are in The Elephant and Castle,
London. Southampton is a long way away
from home. Was Nile at Southampton for
any other personal or professional reasons?
Visiting any family or friends in the local area?”
“Friends.” Nile has finally spoken, and his voice matches his weak body language. “Went down to go drinking with some mates. Catch up.”
Harriet catches a slight scowl on Bradford’s face but
he says nothing and clearly stops himself from looking at Nile, who is equally
clearly making this bullsugar up as he goes.
He’s not practiced at it though. His voice is quivery, no confidence.
“Right. These mates can vouch for that, can they?”
“Well that’s something. I’ll need their names and phone numbers.”
“We got well p***ed. Can’t remember everyone who was there.”
Let’s just see this farce through. “But you can remember some, I’m sure.”
“Write their full names on this paper, along with
phone numbers, addresses, emails, every bit of contact info you have for them.”
Bradford now wants to stop his son from doing this right now, but it’s difficult.
Nile takes the proffered pen and legal pad, and writes
too quickly before pushing the pad back to Harriet. He’s written JOHN, SAM, TED in shaky writing.
“Can’t remember the phones numbers. They’re in my mobile and I haven’t
got it on me.”
“And we got business to be getting on with,” says Bradford, standing up so hard the chair falls back with a sharp noise that syncs with the mood of the room too well. Very unpleasantly, he doesn’t pick it back up. A gauntlet has been thrown. The other Janeys look surprised, since it seems the meeting is suddenly over.
“I’ll ring you later with them,” says Nile cautiously, looking at his dad who bristles again, and Nile positively shrinks. Yes, ‘Baby Janey’ will be paying for this unscripted helpfulness as soon as they’re out of earshot of this building.
Harriet places her hands on the desk, which she’s been taught is a body-language sign demonstrating authority.
“I need those contact details if I’m to help your
Suddenly the air in the room solidifies, and Bradford lets out a short sigh, looking at his feet, hands on hips. Then he leans forward and places his hands directly on the table just in front of Harriet’s and she shrinks back, because any facade is melted by the heat of the aggression before her.
“Listen, darling. You’ll get my son off this charge. If he goes to prison because we’ve been given the dumbest b**** in the world for a lawyer, I’ll be angry and want to get compensation. Real compensation. Over and over and over and over again.”
And he slightly lifts one meaty hand and brings it back down on the table. “And if you don’t yet understand what I’m f***ing saying, you are the dumbest b**** in the world.”
He stands up straight but doesn’t break eye contact. “Let’s go boys. Work to do. Just like Missy Painter here, our lawyer.”
A giggle from Tony. They bang open the door and Tony quite deliberately reaches out a finger and tips over the potted plant on the shelf on the other side of the door to the filing cabinet. It falls, rolls over and wallops onto the carpet, spilling soil everywhere...
“Ooops. Sorry. Don’t sue me! Don’t sue me!” Hysterical laughter as the last one leaves and the door swings shut.
Heart racing so much she can almost hear it, and with a desert-dry throat, Harriet hears them discussing her loudly and using at least four very bad words before reaching the end of the corridor and moving out of earshot.
She breathes and very, very slowly, rests her head in her hands....
But not done yet.
3.30PM and she pulls up at a useful parking space outside of St. Martin’s, her heart still capable of emitting a shiver whenever her mind summons up the way that meeting ended, which happens with merciless ease and frequency. In fact she literally can’t seem to stop her mind doing so. It plays over and over and over and over again as she sits in the car, watching the throngs of shouting, gossiping children billow out of the Main Entrance. It’s happened through nearly every minute since the meeting was over, and the Janey family had been warily confirmed by a shaken-sounding Elaine as having left the building.
She sits there in the car, going over the many ways she utterly wasted her time in the hours that passed, trying to either come up with a viable argument for Nile’s defence, or enlist the help of one or more of the other lawyers (the ones on the Better List), thinking that maybe if the ‘strength in numbers’ thing could work for the Janeys...
It all came to naught of course, just as she felt it would before she even tried. She felt a cloud of desperation, perhaps of full-on doom hung so heavily over her that cats, dogs and humans were physically driven away from her, even if they didn’t know why. Everything she tried after that meeting failed. Nobody helped her. She was on her own, again.
So she sits now in her car, staring out of the windshield, not seeing anything beyond but Bradford Janey’s face only a couple of feet from hers, his lips moving, faded red veins in his yellowing eyes prominent. Each time the scene replays in her mind, it takes on a more cartoonish malevolence as her darling imagination polishes it.
She sees a group of children pass in front of her car. A rucksack hanging from one shoulder bangs the bonnet and she wakes up....
....to see George standing there, crying. He has a full black eye now, no tie at all, and no shoes. No shoes and no socks either.
“Oh......f***!........” whispers Harriet without breathing in first.
* * * *
Twenty-three minutes later, back at The Cottage.
“Yes I f***ing WILL raise my voice, you useless b***h!” shouts Harriet into the impotent smartphone that does nothing to repair anything lately. “My son has been assaulted, yes, assaulted by this Josh Welby b****** and his gang for the second day in a row. They have stolen his shoes, his socks, his tie, torn his shirt and given him a black eye, and when I go into the school to have words with the world’s weakest Headmaster, I get told by his receptionist that he is in a meeting and is unavailable. She won’t tell me where the office is, and she threatens to call the police if I go looking, so that’s him all nice and f***ing protected, and this woman tells me to try ringing later, which I am, and that my message has been passed on, except now that unhelpful b**** has gone home....and I am left with....with WHAT! WITH WHAT?!”
...Don’t you dare hang up....DON’T YOU F****** DARE!”
“ARRRGH!” and Harriet puts the smartphone down on the counter top beside her way too aggressively. It slides off the other side and falls to the floor.
And George, sitting like a good boy at the Kitchen table, bursts into tears and immediately tries to silence them with his hands pressed over his face.
Harriet needs a shuddering moment to come out of the red mist she’s been wading through for several seconds, and then she makes it back to the present moment and sees her son, seemingly completely alone only three feet from her, and she breathes out the last of the anger-poison, and hurries over to him, pulling up a chair beside him and flinging her arms around him, as much to save herself as him.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. It’s alright. It’s...(ha!)...it’s alright. I’m not angry anymore.”
George gurgles something through tears into her shoulder and then turns properly in his chair so he can cry properly while hugging her back, and then she’s crying too, which is no sound for a child to hear, and that pushes the boat a little further along the stream, so to speak.
After a minute of polite hysterics, Harriet realises she’s just purging her meeting with the Janey family onto her bullied son, which probably isn’t a thing good mothers should do, so she stops herself and says again;
“It’s alright now.
Everything will be alright.”
“How?” says George, wiping his nose on his sleeve, and still the man of practical matters.
“I don’t know, but I’ll take care of it somehow,” says Harriet.
She says some other stuff while she makes dinner, but it doesn’t fool her and doesn’t appear to fool George much either. It’s just one of those moments in life when bad stuff is happening and nobody involved knows what to do about it.
Just one more thing before bed on their second day in The Cottage.
Harriet lies on the sofa. George is in his room reading comics, or at least she hopes he is. She has an awful mental image of him staring fearfully into space, dreading every minute until he has to go to school tomorrow.
Harriet should be doing many things. Many things. She really should compile a proper list; things to do with George, things to do with the Janey case, things to do with The Cottage, things to do with....
But all she is capable of doing right then and there is slumping on the sofa, staring pretty mindlessly into space herself with a large glass of red wine that is nearly drained. Her second. This is not the responsible thing for her to be doing, in fact it is completely wrong given her situation, and possibly even dangerous if this is the forming of a habit, but then Harriet Painter is a twenty-eight year-old human being, and while she does her best for 99.9% of the rest of her life, she’s hitting that1% spot at the moment where she can’t do a damn thing but just sit and stare.
That noise lifts her hard from her staring. She hasn’t heard her own doorbell yet, wasn’t even sure it worked, but apparently it does.
Neighbours coming to say hello? They’ve had a decent walk over if it is. And look at her, slumped bleary-eyed like a lonely singleton staring into the punch bowl at the end of a Christmas office party.
She puts the glass down and stand up a little clumsily, brushing her hair slightly and heading out of the Living Room, down the short stretch to the front door. As she does so, she wonders if it has something to do with George, which suddenly seems far more likely. As her hand goes to the doorknob, she replaces the pleasant welcoming face with one of determined parent. She opens the door with a faint screech of wood on wood.
“THERE’S my girl!”
Scott hasn’t shaved since she last saw him in court, looking almost lost behind a grey-flecked mess on his chin that is too obviously wild to be called anything as nice as a beard. If he’s showered lately it was too quickly. He’s wearing his Eighties-style outfit of denim jeans, denim jacket and workboots. Underneath the jacket is some faded, heavy metal band T-shirt that should have been put to death a long time ago.
But Harriet isn’t taking in much of these details because the blood is draining from her face as she grasps part of the doorframe to steady herself. Scott looks....crazy. No, not crazy. That would imply a lack of control. He’s perfectly in control, which is worse.
“Hello darling,” he says. “Dya miss me?”
He’s immensely pleased with himself and says nothing, relishing every moment of his sense of power in this moment.
Finally she gets out; “What are you doing here? You can’t be here.”
“No?” He manages mock surprise and looks his body up and down. “Seems I am though, aren’t I? “ He looks at The Cottage around the door. “Nice pad. I’m going to like coming here. Yeah. Got a cold beer or something? That’s polite for visitors isn’t it?”
I was married to this once.
“Get away from here! You can’t be near me or Scott or where we live. The judge said so!”
“Yeah? Yeah?!” Scott visibly pushes his chest out. “I’m not here though am I? No proof darling, no proof. Out here, nice little quiet spot in the country. Short ride from St Martin’s.”
He followed us. Somehow he found George’s school and then he followed us here from there.
“Where’s my son?
Bet he’s secretly thrilled to
see his Dad. Must be sick of being around a f***ing woman all day every
day. Needs a man in his life. And you better not have found one!”
“GET AWAY!” shrieks Harriet, the threatened primeval human replacing the civilised lawyer. She’s just been at the limit too long.
“Oh no! NononononononoNO, darling,” says Scott, leaning casually against the doorframe like they’re discussing the weather. “I’m coming around lots and lots now. I’ve got a right to see my son and no judge is going to tell me I can’t.”
“I’m calling the police!” she hisses through eyes that blur against her control. He sees this and he almost glows, knowing he’s got her so firmly under his thumb.
“Really? Go on then. I’m not stupid, Harry…
“Don’t call me that!!”
“…even though you always liked to think I was. Made
you feel better. Made yourself feel
superior. Jesus, all those years I let
you put me down. Contradicted every little plan and idea I had to better
myself. Oh God, the places I’d be and
the things I’d have if I hadn’t had this nagging witch on my arm. “We caaaaan’t, Scott. We can’t afoooooord it, Scott. It’s not
sensible, Scott!” He bangs his fist
on the frame. “Christ, I deserve a medal for putting up with you! My garage is gone because of you! My everything
is gone because of you. So I’ll take
what you’ve got instead. Reckon you
owe it to me, Harry. You owe it to me! Oh yeah, I’ll be coming
around here loads. Go ahead!
Call the pigs. I’ll be gone each
time they arrive, and each time they’ll think you’re a little more paranoid, a
little more crazy. Soon they’ll start to
respond slower and slower, then less and less.
I got pals....real pals now....giving me alibis each time. I’m with them right now, having a pint in The
Four Corgis. Go on, darling. Scamper to the phone while I watch. You look f***ing awful by the way. I thought you’d let yourself go when I saw
you across that court room, but you’ve only gotten worse. What fella would fall for your nicey-nice
girl act now. Me? Oh my God!
I’m pushing them off now. Like a bad boy, do the ladies. No, no, no. Me and my pals are never sleeping alone
now. You actually did me a favour,
chickening out and running out on me, stealing my son. You freed me. (His voice is rising) I’m free now. Free from YOU (fist thump.) Free to BREATH (again.) Free to feel a
f***ing MAN again!”
“GET OUT!” she screams with what little she has left and she slams the door in his face with a speed she wouldn’t normally credit herself with. The latch clicks and he can’t get it open. He gives a single violent BANG on it, then;
“WHOO-HOO. Be seeing you. I’m moving in, darling. I’m setting up camp here. You’re not getting rid of me. Going to be around a lot. Looking forward to seeing my boy again. Be in touch! WOO-HOOO!”
She staggers, literally staggers to her smartphone upon the counter, and stabs 999. She gabbles a phone call, not sounding like a legal professional, more like (to her ears) a hysterical airhead who’s seen a spider in the bathtub, yet she does everything she’s supposed to. Even as she clutches the phone, she can see the future, playing out as a film projected on a rough stone wall in her mind. The film-predictions all come true to the letter. The police car comes nine minutes later and two burly male officers search the premises and surrounding road and (very briefly) adjoining field. There’s no sign of Scott. No vehicles parked nearby. Sorry Ms Painter but there’s no CCTV in this stretch of countryside. We’ll have some people in London interview him. Thank you for all the information you’ve provided us. We’ll do what we can but if he has an alibi from....
And George. Oh George heard every word, and when the police have gone, and Harriet has double-checked every lock on every window and door, another hour is spent with him, sitting beside him on his Batman duvet, one arm around his shoulder, telling him everything is going to be alright, blah blah. That yes, he’s found where they live, but all he can do is make noise and say nasty things, blah blah. The Mighty and Heroic Law will stop him doing anything else (like it’s stopping him now?) and that he’s just.....being angry. He’ll get bored and stop (oh God, George actually looked like he might have believed her) and she finally, eyes closing from her own adrenaline exhaustion, kisses him on the top of the head, tucks him in though he’s really too old for that now, turns out his night light and heads to the door of his bedroom in the house that was supposed to be their haven, the start of their new and better life.
Without turning to look at him, she says in a sleep-chained voice; “It’ll all be alright in the end,” and then wanders to her own bedroom, where she musters up the final energy to pull off her ‘civilised’ clothes, stumble into her sleep gear, and fall into bed, praying for darkness to pull her into it for a long time....
But the dawn will come. It won’t be denied.
It’s 3.45AM. Harriet knows this because she’s lying on her side in a still-strange bed, looking at the blue digital alarm clock she bought only last week. She spent a lot of money buying things for The Cottage in the last few weeks, because although Scott had been ordered to leave their flat, which technically was in Harriet’s name to begin with, she had wanted to keep nothing from that time. No trinkets, appliances, and very little of her clothing. Now, the flat is being let out by an agency, and of course has been swept clean by her before doing so, but most of that married-life ‘stuff ‘was just donated rather urgently to charity shops. Clean slates can be pricey, but they are usually worth it.
But the fact is Harriet should be asleep right now and she’s not. A digit changes and it’s now 3.46AM. Harriet turns away from it, shifting her position for the ninth time in the last quarter-hour, but it’s not working. She’s awake for good now, the signs are too familiar, and plus there’s just too damn much going through her mind. On top of the endless list of things she must do on a normal day-to-day level, there is a lovely additional anchor of concern on top of that about George at school tomorrow. Then of course, there’s her meeting Nile Janey at one today. She adamantly refuses to go over either the case or her feelings about it in bed at 3.46AM. It will do her no good and she knows it. She already knows pretty much what she’s going to ask him from a legal standpoint but...
“Stop,” she mutters, breaking the silence.
And it really is silence. That’s the other strange quality about this bed. Back in their Bayswater flat, she had never known absolute silence while lying in bed. On top of the traffic and people out in the Great City, then there was Scott’s gravelly breathing beside her at night.
But the silence is good. There’s none of that silly ‘missing the rush of big city’ nonsense. The more she lies there thinking about that, the more she sees what a mindless automaton of routines and obligations her ‘life’ in the City was. The daily grind of traffic, crowds, The Tube, plastic-wrapped lunches bought at speed from deli’s as she hurried somewhere to complete the next item on the Daily List of ‘Must do’s’ just to keep all the balls of her life in the air.
And it’s not like it even paid off, did it?
So she lies there now in the silence, realising that no matter how scared she might be at the problems she has, at the newness of so many of those problems, it’s still all better that it was. Anything is better.
But she ain’t going to fall asleep again.
“F***!” she mutters, and with a sound that’s too sleep-infected to be a snarl she tosses aside the duvet.
Eight minutes later, she’s sitting on the sofa in the Living Room in her T-shirt/jogging bottoms idea of pyjamas, holding a chipped mug containing hot chocolate made with half water, half milk and plenty of chocolate powder. She sips it numbly. It helps to comfort, but that’s all. What to do?
Ten minutes later, clad in her dressing gown with
trainers pulled on her bare feet with shoelaces left untied, Harriet is
physically working off her worries. She’s cleaning,
and she’s cleaning like a good ‘un. Her brand new plastic bucket of cleaning supplies is by her feet. She’s rubbing the counters with a large green sponge sprayed with Kleen-Rite. Then she does the doors and shelves of all the cupboards in the Kitchen, which is easy because there’s almost nothing in them.
Fifteen minutes later, she finishes the last cupboard and looks around her like a hunter looking for a fresh kill, and that’s when she spies the pantry.
With its white-painted door (made of vertical boards) that sinks into the pale grey stonework around it, it’s somehow very easy to forget that it’s there, and she’s hit with the ‘Oh yeah’ moment again. She then remembers how musty and filthy it was, and she mutters...
...in the silence and heads towards it.
Thirteen minutes later, she has done all the wooden shelves after blocking open the door with her bucket, since despite having no spring on the hinges, the door seems to casually close by itself if left to its own business. There’s a dust-encrusted light socket hanging from the ceiling, but no bulb in it, so she’ll be working in pitch black in that cramped space if she doesn’t wedge the door open. As it is, she’s in semi-gloom, the light from the Kitchen losing its lustre in this space.
She looks around her in that cramped space and huffs. Is that it? Is that all there is? She’s got her wind up and doesn’t want to stop. She hasn’t thought about anything unpleasant since she came in here, and that’s been just great. She looks down. The floorboards! The ones that creak so damn loudly under her feet. Certainly they could benefit from a good scrubbing.
She gets down on her knees, and feels the boards bend almost alarmingly as her knees hit heavily. They don’t seem to spring up quite as straight as before either. No matter. Her hand pulls a stiff bristled floor scrubbing brush from the helpful bucket, gives it a blast of KLEEN-RITE, despite the fact she should really use a bucket of hot soapy water with a trace of bleach, etc, etc. Not tonight. These floorboards do reek a bit though. Serious mould and maybe damp going on in them. When were they last cleaned? How much space is under them if they can bend and squeak like this? A few inches?
She sets to, scrubbing hard, shifting her position, knees starting to hurt slight...
A serious structural shift beneath her makes her stop deader than disco. She even stops breathing and her eyes go wide. She moves not a muscle for the next nineteen seconds. No more sounds, but now she’s kneeling in a definite curve of boards that were flat when she came in here. Mould and damp have left their mark.
She gentle leans out to the wall to assist her getting slowly to her knees, and that simple movement is all it seems to take.
For half an instant, her brain thinks a proper trapdoor has swung open under her, but in fact it’s just a rough rectangle of rotten wooden boards that breaks away. She drops from sight like that infamous piano off a cliff, and is very lucky not to catch her chin on the ragged front edge of the hole as she does. She lets out a kind of half shriek but has not enough breath in her lungs for anything louder...
Not for long though. She falls for about ten feet into near pitch-darkness, hitting flat rock or very hardened earth beneath her legs which have naturally shocked out straight as she fell. Her knees give way and she collapses to her side, hands hitting that hard surface which now feels more like the very hardened earth than the rock, though there’s little difference in terms of shock and pain. She has hit hard.
Her remaining breath is knocked out of her as she slumps further on her side, and the suddenly a cloud of dust thick enough to write your name in billows up around, and suddenly breathing is the only thing that really matters, mostly because she’s suddenly having such a hard time doing it.
She coughs and swats at the air, which contains bits and stuff she doesn’t want to see, which is fine because she can’t see a damn thing in the dark. She coughs some more, swats again, and soon her throat clears, although the pale shaft of light through the hole above becomes a perfectly defined, rectangular ghost-column as the dust billows through it.
She takes another minute to let the shock of what’s happened pass, to realise she’s not fallen far, not seriously injured, not dead. She blinks and looks around her.
The air is definitely colder down here. The earthen floor is grainy and slightly uneven. The rectangle of dusty light on it shows it to be dark chocolate in colour. Now that her eyes are very grudgingly adjusting to the dark, she can see more of the wall nearest to her, which appears to be made of the same unpainted stonework as the walls of the house. She’s in some kind of crude cellar or basement perhaps. One that hasn’t been visited in quite some time. She can’t see any more than that. She really should see if she can get out of here first.
It takes eleven minutes of increasingly hoarse shouting, but she finally manages to wake George. Very amused and excited by what has happened to his mum (it’s put a smile on his face at least, so that’s something), she has gotten him to find the aluminium ladders the removal men brought, the ones donated by her father and grudgingly accepted by Harriet (she couldn’t see a need for them; she already had a step-ladder) to keep the peace with what little remained of their connection.
But now George, all four foot eight of him, is dragging the mightily awkward and clunky ladders through the house from the spare room that is destined to become the Store Room for the foreseeable future. Harriet winces at every thunk and clunk and scrape and bang as George makes his odyssey with his heavy load down the hall, walloping various things on his way through the Kitchen, finally arriving at the pantry in his pyjamas, to grin breathlessly at Mummy’s absolutely hi-larious dust-coated face.
“Well done, George,” she coughs. “Anything left standing in the whole house?”
“Now what?” says George, that Man of Practical Matters.
It takes some doing for his eight year-old fingers, but he manages to undo the aluminium latch that allows the ladders to extend. Then, very carefully, she instructs him to slide the ladders down over the edge of the hole whilst standing as far away as possible. It really wouldn’t be hi-larious if he also fell through.
He manages this pretty well, until Harriet can grasp the end and pull the ladders down along with him. Ladders in place, and the emergency seems over.
“What’s down there?” asks George.
“Keep back! The boards are still rotten,” says Harriet, but George has asked a decent question. She now takes the time to look around her. She can still see nothing beyond the immediate gloomy walls closest to her. Well, since she’s here...
“Can you fetch the torch from under the Kitchen
sink? Should be on the left, George.”
George scurries away, and she hears three doors bang open and closed with eight-year old enthusiasm. She’s about to shout “Kitchen sink!” again when she hears a muffled “Ah!” and scurrying bare feet.
“Don’t come too close.
Just roll it over the edge and I’ll catch it.”
She stands directly under the hole, palms up.
“Here it comes, Mum!”
A skittering of plastic and the red cylinder of the Painter family’s one and only torch rolls over the edge. She catches it just wrongly, hurting her fingernail and she drops it.
“Did you drop it?” Sly and cynical for eight years-old.
“No,” she says naturally. “Stay back. I’ll be up in a minute.”
She picks up the torch, feeling the coldness of the ground again, and the thought flitters back through her mind; When was the last time somebody came down here?
She flicks the torch on a little warily, suddenly afraid of what she will see. She begins to pan slowly from left to right, sliding the shaky circle of light along the rough-stone wall...
At first there is nothing. The room seems to be about twenty feet square, earthen floor, with the ceiling comprised partly of boarding that must stretch outside the cottage itself and into the left side of the house, currently hidden under grass. (Better be careful walking around there, she thinks.) It must be a cellar.
She continues to pan the torch around, and it seems, with a distinct air of disappointment, that this found room, which seems to have no obvious door to it, really is emp...
The light stops. For a second there, her heart went cleanly into her mouth, and the circle of torch light jiggled a little upon its target, because just as she was completing her search of the room, her torch-light finds something.
It’s big, leaning against the wall to her far right. It’s shrouded in something leathery and loose, which for a silly, silly second, with her torch light creating shadows, looked like...a....thing. Whatever she means by that.
But it’s ‘just’ a shrouded object.
“What can you see?” says George, a little annoyed.
“There’s something here!” says Harriet, not sounding like a sensible parent just then.
“What!” George now sounds very eight years-old.
“Just....hold on!” Harriet steps carefully over towards it, checking the floor in front of her, giving a quick final sweep around this old cellar, basement, whatever it used to be. There’s nothing else here. She reaches the object and is stopped by an additional wall of musty scent that, while not actually unpleasant, is enough to check her for a second.
The shrouded object is about five feet tall, very roughly rectangular, and is not actually under a shroud or dust cloth as first appeared, but is very heavily wrapped and bound with darkened cords that don’t look like normal rope at all, but like some sort of crude, homemade attempts at rope. Even under direct torchlight, those ropes are black, and look like they are coated with paint or tar. The wrapping itself seems to be the source of the smell, and it could have been leather a long time ago, but it is badly corroded by either fungus or mould or something less fun. The colour is mottled to varying degrees, occasionally appearing as black as the ropes in some areas, and nearly milky white in others. These paler areas are speckled with some nature of organic green dots she doesn’t want to get close to.
What the hell?
She shivers, and this seems to wake her up. It’s been cold since she arrived down here, but she hasn’t actually shivered yet.
“I know, I know, so am I. I’m coming out now. I’m going to try and....bring something. At
least under the hole.”
And she is by God, although she wasn’t planning on doing that a second ago. But suddenly the idea of just leaving this object here is unthinkable. She has to bring it out of this place, has to bring it into the light, has to get these wrappings off and see what’s inside.
Something has gone off inside her. Excitement. Sheer, unadulterated excited, undiminished by age, grief or parent responsibilities. Suddenly she needs this thing in her life. This.....adventure. It’s been a long time since such feelings of thrill and unknown, and part of her soul needs this very badly.
She looks the object up and down, trying to see if there is a way of dragging it that won’t leave her filthier than a Northern comedian.
“To hell with it!” she mutters. The fall into The Room (which it has been silently titled in her mind) has finished off the clothes she’s wearing until they meet a good spin cycle.
She steps forward, taking a small breath because the smell is powerful, while again, not too unpleasant. Just Time. Time has a smell all its own, and this thing has been here for a lot of it.
She wraps her arms around it and braces herself for a heavy drag, which it is, but not as heavy as it could have been. It’s a breathless effort and she feels all kinds of wonderful things smear her dressing gown and jogging bottoms as she steps carefully back across that earthen floor, torch in her pocket, heading towards that dusty rectangle of light. There is a lot of scraping, noisy scraping that might attract curious boys.
“Don’t....huh.....don’t come near the...huh...edge!”
Then she is there, under the light. She stops with a clunk, rests the object against the wall, chooses not to look at the state of her clothes, and catches her breath. (She used to be fitness fanatic eons ago. Where has that gone? Bloody parenthood!) She tries to think what to do. Does she leave it here for now and deal with it later? Does she unwrap it here? No, that would seem unfair. George is practically hopping from one foot to the other in anticipation, and after recent times, she isn’t not going to share this with him. Alright then. Also, there is no way in hell she is going to be able to coolly forget about it and cruise through the day without knowing what she’s found. The eight year-old in herself, mercifully, hasn’t been extinguished. She’s going to need help.
“George? We’re going to get this thing out of here. I’ll try and get it up the ladder to the hole but it’s heavy. I’ll need you to risk standing near the hole to grab the top and pull.”
“The boards should be strong nearest the entrance to
the pantry, nearest the boards of the Kitchen which are newer than the ones in
here. It should be okay....I think.”
She smiles. Enthusiasm is infectious and good for the soul.
“Okay. Here I go. Hold the ladder steady.”
She takes a breath, stretches her arms around the object, and then lifts instead of drags. Ooof! It’s heavy and no pleasanter-smelling for pressing her face against it. This is not healthy. Too late.
She staggers to the bottom step of the ladder and steps up, leading against it as much as possible so as not to fall off sideways. It is hard on her legs, and if her life ever reaches a state of vague normalcy, she’ll join a gym again because this gasping is ridiculous on a twenty-eight year-old. A shadow flits over her and she knows George can’t help himself and is peering into the hole.
She staggers up one step at a time, and never did such a short journey seem so long. Finally, though, her eyes are at the level of those damaged, treacherous floorboards, which, from mere inches away, appear to be utterly riddled with holes.
“Wow!” mutters George, still holding the ladder.
“Help me then!” she gasps.
“Oh, yeah.” says George, and he grabs the top of the object, hands sinking into that leathery wrapping with a profound and deeply accurate “Urrrrgh!” Still, his young efforts help and he helps drag the thing away from her, holding the top end while she supports the bottom. Then it’s on the floor of the Kitchen, and he’s dragging it away to the centre of the floor while Harriet, gasping like a steam engine, recovers and finally, blessedly climbs out of the hole.
George glances very briefly at her and emits a “HAHAHAHA!”
Grimly, Harriet looks down. Yes, she looks like she’s been swimming in a septic tank, thank you very much, and these clothes will be burned in the back garden now. The washing machine hasn’t been invented that will ever undo the effects of this little adventure. She sighs and moves to the sink, splashing cold water repeatedly on her face, breath returning. She pulls off the hopelessly destroyed dressing gown, and flings it hard on the floor.
“That pantry is off-limits, George! Got it?”
“Yeah. Look at it!”
George is nearly beside the object, and under the bright Kitchen light, it has taken on an even stranger, alien quality that it didn’t have in its ‘natural habitat’ of a dusty, dank, dark and forgotten room (Was it forgotten, a part of her mind wonders. )
“Can we open it?” he says, looking at her with all the pleading he can muster.
“I suppose we’d better, hadn’t we?” (Huh, as if she would ever be able to live with anything else, but she sounds like a parent again.) “Fetch the scissors from the drawer on your left.....no, your other left.”
“Keep going. Next one.”
He hands them over and kneels down beside her, and though his nose wrinkles at the smell so much she can still see out of the corner of her eye, he doesn’t say a word, only smile a little wider, because that smell is all part of the adventure.
“Do you think it’s something the previous people left
She shakes her head. “No. They moved out over three years ago. Old couple I heard. Been here about thirty years. I don’t think anybody has been in that room for a lot longer than that. The amount of dust... Strange. I couldn’t see a door down there or any other kind of way in. I wonder if...”
She was about to say “I wonder if it was sealed up deliberately”, but she can see George is on a hire-wire of thrills at the moment, and he doesn’t need any further stimulation, which a Secret Room would bring in bucket loads.
“Can I cut it off, Mum?”
Who is she to steal this moment from her son? Closest he’ll probably ever get to finding buried treasure, although an unworthy part of her was looking forward to doing it herself. After all, she did the falling, dust-eating and muscle-straining to bring the bloody thing up. Still....
“Go on, then.
I’d start along there, near the bottom, and work your way up. If it’s too tough and hurts your fingers, I’ll
Some chance. George, with utter focus, is cutting with ridiculous care. With each cut, a fresh burst of scent that has been locked up for too long within the fibres of the wrapping is released, and now both are wrinkling their noses without restraint.
As he cuts, she has the time to take a fresh look at that mottled, decaying wrapping, and those blackened ropes. What it looked like fresh and new, when it was first placed down there, she can’t imagine. There is the sight of atmospheric corruption along every inch of the object’s covering in some shape or form. Even those ropes have flecks of bluish mould of some kind on them. Suddenly, she’s thinking of nothing else but when this thing was put down there. She’s thinking that because everything about somebody’s efforts at protecting whatever rectangular object is inside smacks of a different era, far beyond the Seventies furnishings of the house above her.
George is cutting along the top now, and he needs to work a bit at the ropes. They seem rubbery to the scissors, but he’s through them now and Harriet is glad she resists the urge to step in to help. He’s nearly done. She sees a puff of what she hopes is only further dust billow faintly up as part of the covering shifts from being freed. She wonders how unhealthy what they’re doing is, but of course it’s far too late to worry about that now.
“Done...it!” said George with a satisfied grunt.
“Nicely done. Okay, step back. My turn,” she says quite directly. George does, so she takes two good handfuls of the still-cold wrapping in her hand, and pulls away hard. It still takes three good yanks, but then the wrapping scccchraps away, and the object within in revealed.
“Oh....my.” says Harriet. George just says nothing. As one, they both stand up though, staring at it.
It’s a painting in a thick, very dark wooden frame. The frame has no carving or prettiness about it. The painting within....doesn’t need it.