Sunday, 16 February 2014

Coming down

“That’s the fourth time this week,” she sighed and drained the last of the tea from her mug. Becky turned from the window overlooking the back gardens of the Regency terrace, and padded across the wooden floor to the corner kitchenette.

Scrubbing the last trace of tannin from the dainty porcelain, she fretted about the young woman she’d watched letting herself into next door’s shed. The house had been empty for years. Who was she? What did she want?

She looked harmless enough, certainly no threat to the sanctity of Becky’s citadel. No shouts in the night or muddy footprints had betrayed the presence of anyone but the supermarket man who brought her weekly order - that nice chap trained to find the key in its hiding place and remove his shoes before coming upstairs to her flat.

So long as that skinny scrap kept her distance, she wasn’t Becky’s problem. And from the way she moved, the girl barely had the energy to make her nest for the night, let alone sprint the stairs and disrupt the familiar security of her third floor world. Who was she to make waves for a waif who’d otherwise spend the night on the street – or worse? 
Anyway, that would mean dealing with things. Out there.

She shuddered.

“Someone walked over your grave” her mother would have said. She wondered how Mummy had been so glib despite years staring her own mortality in the face from her twisted, tortured body before succumbing to ‘flu 25 years ago.

A tick of the clock on the mantelpiece brought her back. 2 o’clock. In just three minutes, she would turn on Radio 4 to catch up with antics in Ambridge.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“Doesn’t she EVER go out?” wondered Stella as she stared up from her bed of musty potato sacks at the woman on the third floor. “Who are you, lady? Don’t you have any friends? Not even a cat?”

It was a week since she’d escaped the mean streets, and the meaner creatures that prowled them. And for a week, she had watched the woman stand and stare out the window five times a day. Every day. Regular as clockwork. If Stella had a watch, she could have set it by the old biddy.

Finding this shed had been a stroke of luck. Luckier still, no junkies, lost souls or assorted illegals had discovered the empty house.

Some might have put her in the same category. She hadn’t been born here, after all. Not that she could remember anything before arriving from Bosnia in 1997 as a mute, wide-eyed five-year-old clutching her shell-shocked mother’s hand. Mama had insisted they only spoke English. Soon she’d forgotten what little of her native language had had the chance to develop before hell spewed forth in their village, taking the men away and rounding up the women in the place called ‘Karaman’s House’. No words remained, not even her original name, just a series of impressions of rough men and her mother stroking her hair before they dragged her to the closed room at the end of the corridor.

She hadn’t seen Mama for years. Probably now the same age as the woman at the window, in Stella’s mind she remained the same. Tired grey eyes and caramel-coloured hair caught in an elastic band at the nape of her neck. That was where the resemblance ended. Mama was always at the hub of whatever was going on. Never a dull moment. Enough to make Stella crave a lifetime of dull moments.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

An ecstasy of banging broke the night quiet into a millon pieces. Someone was hammering at the front door and howling wordlessly from the street below.

Becky stared wildly into the black beneath her quilt, curling tighter into a comma and hugging her knees to her chest.

“Go away, go away, go away….” she swept the mantra over her like a security blanket, willing the repetition to cast the evil out.

The bangs ended abruptly. A hiccough and a sharp intake of breath, then chaotic footsteps beating a hurried retreat. Empties rattled in a recycling bin as a startled cat scurried out of the way.  A distant ambulance siren screamed a whoop of fear on its way to hospital.

Hospital. All white walls, endless corridors, and antiseptic and anxiety-scented air. Worried eyes seeking good news after her mother had been taken in for the very last time. The answer, an unspoken apology.

And then, nine months later, guilty secrets misting her mind as she discharged herself leaving the ward sister with a fake name and a helpless bundle conceived in a fumbled sorrow- and gin-soaked one night stand after Mummy’s rain-washed funeral. Weak from the ordeal her mind denied, but her body had been powerless to stall, she had stumbled through the 3am streets to fumble for the key beneath the garden gnome and tumble through the door like a delivery of junk mail. After a numb hour under the scorching shower stream, she took to her bed for a week. And so started her self-imposed life sentence.

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The quiet of the shed was enough. She could scrounge or scavenge enough to eat most days, and did a decent job getting clean in public toilets. But the street never gave her freedom to drop her guard and breathe easy without wondering if the next person to pass would make her their victim. She was no-one’s victim - that’s how she had survived so far. But she was tired. So very tired.

Her senses spiked as someone beat on a door somewhere along the street, then she pulled the hessian sack over her face, safe in the knowledge that no-one knew she was curled up among the earth-encrusted spades and packets of long-dormant seeds. Relaxed, she slept. Deeply, strongly, like the dead.

She didn’t hear the sniggers and scrapes as a firework was stuffed between the shed’s slats. Nor did she smell the sting of gunpowder as the fuse was lit. Only when it exploded, bursting through her dreams like the bombs that had rained down on grandma’s house did she come screaming back. Animal instinct took over. She ran.

The blaze behind her made the dark night unseeable. She slipped, falling through a wall of unkempt conifers to the garden next door.

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Sleep fled as the wailing sirens and blue flashes invaded the dark like a thrash metal vocal at a string quartet recital.

“No, no, no” Becky moaned. This could ruin everything, rob her of the familiarity shielding her from the world outside and her demons lurking downstairs. She dived beneath the covers.

As dawn broke, she peered out at a pile of charred timbers arranged around discarded garden tools like a sad Stonehenge. The blaze hadn’t spread. Her little world hadn’t been violated. Nothing had changed. She was sa…..  

Wait! Something HAD changed. At the bottom of her garden a small figure was balled up against the fence, rocking rhythmically in the drizzle.

Something in that cowering foetal coil woke an ache deep inside Becky. Someone needed to be held, comforted. To be told the monster had gone. Someone needed her arms around them.

The walls swam as she opened the door from her flat. The ceiling crawled with unknown horrors as the staircase leading down stretched out before her. Becky fought the urge to vomit and stifled a scream that threatened to drag her into oblivion. She grasped the handrail and groaned as she took the first shuddering step.

It took an hour to reach the landing, and another for the next two flights, interspersed with juddering jolts of breath and dry heaves. Ahead lay the back door, key in the lock. The final barrier between her and the world she had been hiding from for so long.

Almost catatonic with terror, she reached forward, turned the key, unbolted the latch and opened the door.

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Clicks and a tortured creak broke the quiet damp as the door opened. Stella looked up, expecting gruff men in uniform, crazies wanting to touch her or vampires wanting to suck the last drop of sanity from her fractured psyche.

Instead, she saw a small, shaky figure peering out. A woman with tired grey eyes and caramel-coloured hair caught in an elastic band at the nape of her neck.

She stretched out her hand. “Mama?”

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