Natalie Richards’s first reaction to the letter in her hands is one of suspicion. A response fuelled by her misgivings, the ones prompting her to search through her boyfriend’s possessions, like an addict seeking a fix. Who the hell is Joshua Barker, and why does Mark have a letter addressed to him?
She first discovers it at the bottom of his bedside cabinet, when she’s almost given up on finding anything. From the outside, the letter holds no clue as to the explosive nature of its contents. She almost misses it; it’s tucked away at the very bottom of the last drawer, under a pile of bank statements. Natalie flips through them quickly; what she’s seeking isn’t likely to be concealed amongst cash withdrawals and direct debits. She goes to replace the bank statements and close the drawer, when she notices the envelope. It’s lying face down, almost as if it’s hiding. In the interests of being thorough in her search, she pulls it out.
She reads the letter, the name of Joshua Barker nagging at her as she does so, its vague familiarity teasing her. As the contents sink into her mind, the realisation of who Joshua Barker is claws its way to the surface in her brain, exploding through her skull in a myriad of disbelief and denial.
Natalie hurls the letter from her grasp as though the paper has burned her. Which, in a way, it has. It lands near the door, the momentum causing it to slide partly underneath, as if to crawl away from her. A low moan escapes her as she sinks to the floor, her stomach clenching in rebuttal of what’s hammering through her brain. She stares at the cheap melamine bedside cabinet as though it has betrayed her by offering sanctuary to Joshua Barker’s letter. Would to God she’d never decided to search through Mark’s things. She’s been expecting to find shit, but not something that stinks this bad. Nobody could have anticipated the contents of the letter taunting her from the other side of the room. You screwed up again, Natalie. Drawn to bad boys, aren’t you? Well, they don’t come much worse than this one.
She huddles against Mark’s bed, which is neatly made, of course. Everything with Mark is always tidy, regimented, in its place. The almost antiseptic neatness of his cramped flat reveals little about the man she’s been dating, on and off, for the last four months. The on part is mostly down to her; she doesn’t let herself wonder if Mark ever contemplates pressing the off button.
Natalie’s come here today because she suspects her boyfriend may be seeing another woman. Given her track record with men, it’s the obvious conclusion when Mark seems distant, evasive, oblivious to her hints about taking their relationship further. Getting their own place. Perhaps a baby in due course. So far Natalie has only given the vaguest of suggestions on the baby issue; Mark’s abrupt withdrawal when she does so silences her immediately.
Finding a man who wants what she does - commitment, togetherness, stability - doesn’t come easily to Natalie. She knows men like that exist. Take her cousin Janine, for instance. Married for five years now, with a two-year-old daughter and another baby on the way, her husband Gavin the archetypal faithful adoring partner. Janine, though, has the shining example of her parents, happily married for thirty years. Not so with Natalie. Before the divorce, her father seems determined to bed every available woman in Bristol. Eventually he walks out on his wife and eleven-year-old daughter and doesn’t come back. His contact with Natalie is reduced to sporadic Christmas and birthday cards that eventually peter out. Callie Richards, angry and embittered, is left to bring up her daughter alone.
No wonder Natalie has a track record of always going for the bad boys. A psychologist might say she’s on a mission to find and reform her errant father. The finding’s not been a problem; it’s the reforming that’s proved a fruitless quest so far with the men she dates.
Mark, though - well, he’s always seemed different. At first, anyway. Even now, at times she gets the impression he likes her more than he lets on. Gradually, though, his evasiveness, the apparent lack of any desire to move things between them off casual status, erodes Natalie’s hopes. Another woman is the obvious conclusion she reaches. Someone prettier, funnier, more interesting. Someone carrying twenty kilos less in weight.
She’s off work this week, thankfully, taking time out from the demands of her job as a television production assistant. Mark will be at the builder’s yard, ordering concrete, checking purchase orders, doing whatever he does there. His absence means she has the opportunity to search his flat, seeing as the spare key nestles so temptingly under the potted plant in the hallway outside. A key that invites her to take it, turn it in the lock and go inside, to see if she can find evidence to confirm her worst fears. That Mark is seeing another woman.
More specifically, a woman with the initials A.J.
Oh, yes. It’s not just Natalie’s genetically programmed-in homing device for bad boys that’s brought her here today. She has firmer foundations on which to base her suspicions. A few days ago, angry and hurt after Mark has ignored her hints about their relationship once again, she grabs his mobile whilst he’s taking a piss. Her fingers flick through the contents. Nothing incriminating in the messages, either sent or received; he’s only kept the last few and they’re all to or from her. Mark’s calendar is what gives her cause for concern. Marked down every few weeks is the entry ‘A.J. Here, 6pm.’
When he comes back, still zipping himself up, she confronts him.
‘Who’s A.J.?’ she demands, her self-righteousness sweeping away the need for preamble. Alarm creeps into his eyes, before he tells her she shouldn’t snoop through his phone. Well, duh, she knows that already, doesn’t she? His reaction convinces her A.J. is female and, of course, not carrying the rolls of surplus flesh Natalie does. All Mark will say is that no, he’s not seeing anyone else, and yes, he wants to be with her, she mustn’t think he doesn’t. How A.J. is an old school friend, and male, not female. Except that the alarm she’s already clocked in his face, together with her radar for detecting lies, a skill born out of having a philandering father, warn her he’s not telling the truth. Hence why she’s here today, on a quest to find out who this bitch A.J. is and how long she’s been sleeping with Mark.
Now, crumpled on the floor beside his bed after reading the letter, she remembers the old saying about eavesdroppers hearing no good about themselves. Does the same hold true for snoopers, she wonders. Because what she’s found is utter shit; right now all she wants to do is press the eject button in her head and thrust the name of Joshua Barker into the far reaches of outer space. The envelope still taunts her from its vantage point on the floor, the portion that’s visible under the doorjamb mocking her.
The letter. The one Natalie almost doesn’t read, addressed as it is to someone called Joshua Barker. Initials J.B., not A.J., and male to boot. A letter with seemingly no connection to Mark and her misgivings about him; of no interest to her. When she finds it, she goes to replace it, unread, in the drawer. Then her suspicions flare up along with her curiosity. Of course the letter is connected to Mark; it’s in his flat, isn’t it?
She turns it over in her hands, checking it out. The envelope is plain white, the paper good quality. Expensive stuff, the kind favoured by an older generation. No return address on the back. The writing is neat, regular, its black ballpoint easy to read. A soft slope from left to right, the loops and swirls announcing the addressee as Joshua Barker. Address: Vinney Green Secure Unit, Emersons Green, Bristol.
Vinney Green. A name vaguely familiar to Natalie, although she can’t quite place it at first. Ah, yes. The detention centre for juvenile offenders on the outskirts of Bristol. Whoever Joshua Barker is, he’s been a bad boy, it seems. The stamp appears old fashioned and, peering closer, she can just about discern the postmark: Exeter, November 15, nearly fourteen years ago. Mark would have been eleven back then.
The envelope has been neatly slit open along the top, inviting Natalie to draw out the contents. One sheet only, in matching thick, heavy paper. Her fingers stroke the surface, caressing its coolness. A slight hint of mustiness reaches her nostrils. No date or address at the top. Just the words. She perches on the edge of the bed and starts to read.
My dear Joshua,
I am writing this letter to tell you something that will hurt you, although that is the last thing either your grandfather or I would want. There’s no easy way to put this. Joshua, my love, your mother has decided to move away from Exeter and change her name, and it is her intention to begin a new life, a life without you. You must have wondered why she has not visited you and from what she tells me she has not written or called either. Try to understand, Joshua. She has found life very difficult since your detention. This is her way of dealing with what happened.
Both your grandfather and I have tried to persuade her not to break off contact with you but she is adamant on this point. I realise this must be hard for you, my love. You know how your mother can be at times. Rest assured we will continue to write and I can only hope that will be of some comfort.
Your loving grandmother,
Natalie’s first thoughts centre on how harsh, how unforgiving, a woman must be to abandon her child. And for what reason? Whoever Joshua Barker and his mother may be, Natalie thinks, one thing’s for sure; they’ve never had a normal parent and child relationship. Impossible to experience pregnancy and birth, bond with a child and then desert him, surely? This woman, so adamant about starting a new life without her son, has probably always denied him maternal love. Natalie briefly wonders where Joshua’s father is, hoping he’s forged from different metal to the boy’s steely mother. A man more in tune with Linda Curtis, with any luck.
Joshua Barker. Impossible to tell how old he is when he receives the letter. She wonders what offence he’s committed. What has been bad enough to get him sent to Vinney Green? A crime so terrible his own mother rejects him? So awful she doesn’t even tell him herself she’s moving away, changing her name?
Then Natalie remembers. The vague stirrings of memory when she reads Joshua Barker’s name on the envelope coalesce into a sharp, stabbing thrust in her mind, one causing her to recoil in denial, shock, revulsion. A possible reason as to why her boyfriend has this letter forces its way into her consciousness. It all comes together in a millisecond in her horrified brain, causing her to fling the letter across the room and sink to the floor, hugging her knees. Her stomach churns and she wonders if she’s going to puke; eject the vileness of her thoughts in one long stinking stream of vomit. If only it were that easy, she thinks.
Joshua Barker. Another name bursts forth from Natalie’s memories to join it. Adam Campbell. Pictures connect with the names in her head. Two photos, first seen fourteen years ago on television and whenever they’ve merited news time since then. Both of boys with dark hair, although one wears it longer and more unkempt. That particular boy is unsmiling and sullen, clearly unwilling to pose for the camera. The other looks nervous, a rabbit before a wolf, his expression uncertain. Natalie can’t be sure which is Joshua Barker and which is Adam Campbell, although she thinks Unkempt and Sullen might be Adam. Which means Rabbit Boy is Joshua Barker. The boy so summarily rejected by his mother. Did Adam Campbell’s mother react the same way, Natalie wonders. Was he similarly dismissed from his parents’ lives, abandoned to a secure detention unit, like Joshua? Rejected because, together, at the age of eleven, still children themselves, they committed a crime so shocking and sickening it hardly seemed possible. Not for two eleven-year-olds, anyway; an older man, perhaps, some twisted loner from a tortured background, but not two young boys. Not children brought up in stable home environments, with no known abuse.
Kids of eleven don’t lure a two-year-old child, blonde and pretty Abby Morgan, from her home and first batter then stab her to death.
Except, fourteen years ago, in the case of Adam Campbell and Joshua Barker, that’s exactly what they did.
Nausea wrenches at Natalie’s stomach again.
Her memories zoom back to Rabbit Boy, all wide-eyed and worried, and then shoot forward to Mark Slater. She pictures his hair, his eyes, so similar to Rabbit Boy’s, and desperately hopes she’s mistaken. That the two aren’t the same, and that a perfectly innocent explanation exists as to why Mark has Joshua Barker’s letter in his possession. Other than the obvious, hideous, too painful to be contemplated reason.
That Mark Slater is Joshua Barker, fourteen years older. And that she’s been dating a child killer, who’s protected by a new identity.
Natalie hauls herself to her feet. She can’t bear to be in the same room as the letter a minute longer. Her nausea forgotten, she resorts to food, the way she always does when upset. She walks through into the tiny kitchenette, pulling the fridge open, seeking rich soothing carbohydrates, shelving all concerns about her excess kilos. She takes out whatever comes to hand, slapping butter thickly onto bread before pressing several slices of ham on top. She yanks a stool out from the breakfast bar, ploughing into the sandwich, her jaws chewing furiously, the taste of the food unimportant. A packet of chocolate biscuits catches her eye and she grabs them. She’ll need every ounce of carbohydrate comfort the sandwich and biscuits can offer if she’s to confront Mark. Will she, though? Natalie squashes down an inner voice, the alarmist one, telling her how someone who can batter and stab a two-year-old to death may not take kindly to having the lid ripped off his new identity, his fresh start. Especially by a girlfriend who’s resorted to snooping through his possessions.
She glances around her as she crams the food in her mouth. The kitchenette is as neat and orderly as everything else in Mark’s flat is. No plates left to drain in the rack, no dirty coffee mugs on the table, no overflowing pedal bins. The scent of lemons drifts over to her from the sink. So clean, so organised, unlike Natalie’s own kitchen, where the fridge is a place for food to die and the tea towels are always grubby. She’s frequently teased Mark about his penchant for tidiness. He always shrugs, telling her that’s just the way he prefers things.
Now she considers his sterile surroundings symbolic of how little she knows about the man she’s been dating. Mark’s never been one to talk much about his past. From what he’s told her, his mother and father are dead and he has no other family. How, as a child, he had an ordinary upbringing here in Bristol. If he’s really Joshua Barker, then that’s a lie. Natalie remembers both of Abby Morgan’s killers come from Exeter. Same as the letter. As for his parents being dead, well, his mother certainly intends to be exactly that where her son’s concerned. Natalie’s not sure any longer whether she blames the woman for deserting him.
The letter. Natalie recalls how worn the creases are, how often it must have been read over the years. What emotions does it evoke in Mark each time he unfolds it? Those stark words, revealing a mother’s rejection of her son. Small wonder, she thinks, Mark has always been reluctant to discuss anything that hints at them having a future together. He’s been concealing the capacity to murder a child, a defenceless two-year-old, and she’s been considering having kids with him. Such a man has no business being a father. You’ve got to admit it, Natalie, the voice within her berates. You’ve picked some turkeys in the past when it comes to men, but this one beats them all. A child killer? Really?
Some small part of her protests, however. She remembers moments of tenderness, rare and thus precious, from Mark. Sometimes he seems like he’s holding his emotions on a leash before temporarily setting them free, his smile soft and warm as he bends down to kiss her. Moments like these have kept her going every time he’s shied away from her hints about seeing each other more often, perhaps getting a place together. They’re now insisting she allow Mark a chance to explain. Either give her some credible explanation as to why he has Linda Curtis’s letter to her grandson in his bedside cabinet, if he’s not Joshua Barker. Or, if he is, explain Abby Morgan’s death to her. How he was just a child at the time; how he never intended anything so dreadful to happen.
Natalie looks at her watch. Four o’clock. Mark won’t be home until six. Decision made; she’ll wait, and confront him when he walks through the door.
She’ll have to skip any more comfort food, though. She recalls again how she’s hoped this man will father a baby with her, and with that, the image of a bloodied and battered Abby Morgan forces its way into her brain. Her stomach clenches and heaves and she only just makes it to the bathroom in time. A vile mess of bread, ham and biscuits surges up from Natalie’s guts as she retches over the toilet bowl, one thought hammering through her brain. Dear God, let it be a mistake. Don’t let him be Joshua Barker. Please.
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