PROLOGUE - Beth
‘Hey, check out that tart! Can you believe the state of her?’ Sniggers erupt from the two teenage boys nearby, who nudge each other as they stare at me. I avoid eye contact, praying they’ll find another source of amusement. Ahead is a pedestrian crossing, where an elderly woman waits to cross. She’s older, wiser, won’t judge me. I shuffle towards her.
‘What a nutter! The bitch has got slippers on!’ The mocking hoots of the teenagers follow me, straight into the ears of the old woman. Her eyes scrape over my clothes, grimace at my footwear, before she spots my jogging bottoms, slashed and dark with my blood. Disapproval tugs the corners of her mouth. I shrink, chastened, into the doorway of the nearest shop, until she stops staring.
Not that I blame her, or the boys. The cuts to my knees must look bad. As for my feet, I don’t own any shoes; the soft pink slippers are my only form of footwear. Wear them, or go barefoot; that was my choice. The rain started ten minutes after I left the cottage, rendering my feet cold and wet. Sore, too. The thin leather soles aren’t suitable for walking the distance I’ve travelled. What must it be, two, perhaps three miles? The Clock Tower is straight ahead of me, its red brick a distinctive Kingswood landmark. Past it is The Busy Bean. The coffee shop where life as I once knew it ended two years ago, when I was eighteen.
The doorway provides shelter; I tell myself I’ll move on once the rain isn’t so heavy. The idea of taking an umbrella didn’t occur to me before leaving the cottage; it was a soft September morning as I eased myself over the windowsill, the sky a uniform blue. Weather isn’t something I’ve concerned myself with during the last two years. You might say I’ve led a sheltered life during that time.
As well as my feet being sore, my calves ache; I’m not used to walking so far. Weariness seeps through me, threatening to reduce me to tears, another humiliation I don’t need. To the casual observer, I must look weird enough already, what with the fluffy slippers and the bloody knees. Not to mention the jacket I’m wearing, the sleeves of which are long enough to cover my hands. It’s Dominic’s jacket. Like shoes, a coat isn’t something I possess. I’ve not ventured outside the cottage for two years; it’s likely I never would have again, but the need to find Dominic proved too urgent.
Liar, a small voice in my head chides me. He’s not who you need right now. Instead, an image arises in my brain: a woman with long, dark hair piled on her head in messy disarray, her eyes tender with the smile they hold, the love in her expression warming me to the soles of my cold, wet feet.
The rain has eased to no more than a drizzle. I should move on, but I’m frightened. Everything’s louder, bigger, brighter, than I remember. My horizons have shrunk to the confines of a damp basement, and I’m unprepared for how terrifying the outside world is. Were there always so many cars on the roads? All these people thronging the streets? A child starts screaming, the sound magnified in my ears. Panic grips me. I can’t do this.
It’s not too late, I tell myself. Go back to the cottage; take refuge in the familiarity of the basement. Where mouthy teenagers can’t mock. Where old women don’t judge.
In my head, the woman with the messy hair smiles at me again. ‘Come home,’ she says. My panic subsides.
I turn towards The Busy Bean, its heady coffee aroma meeting me several yards from the open door. The rich caffeine scent, a smell I’ve not inhaled for a long time, teases my nostrils; I close my eyes with pleasure. Dominic is a staunch Earl Grey man. And what he drinks, so do I.
I walk towards that delicious aroma, as though I intend to stride through the door and order lunch, grabbing my usual table towards the back, when I stop myself. The soaked slippers, the obviously-not-mine jacket mock me, echoing the teenagers; I’m too wet, too weird, too wacky, to venture inside. The windows are wet and smeary as I peer through them. None of the baristas looks familiar, but then serving in a coffee shop isn’t usually a long-term job option. Nobody is likely to recognise me, but I still can’t go in. They’ll expect me to order something, and money, like shoes, isn’t a commodity I possess. I don’t have a handbag, or a purse, any coins or credit cards. I did have, once, but Dominic disposed of everything I owned. Ah, my blue leather wallet, the loss of which still hits me like a wrecking ball. A memory surfaces of the woman with the messy hair, smiling as I unwrap her surprise present.
My stomach growls, no doubt alerted by the coffee and cake smells. In the last thirty-six hours, my only food has been a hummus sandwich; I need to eat, and quickly.
I turn away, and there, opposite me, leading off the High Street, is the road towards Downend. I cross towards it. Saplings are growing along the pavement, their branches sprouting new life. My fingers trail over the bark of one of them, enjoying its roughness beneath my skin, such a contrast to the soft foliage above. As I explore, reacquainting myself with the luxury of doing so, a terrier approaches, sniffing me. I bend down, allowing myself to stroke its wiry pelt, before yanking my hand away, remembering. Dogs are dirty, carry disease. Dominic said so.
I start walking again. Every step is a reminder of my sore feet, my aching calves. I ignore my body and retreat into my head, my thoughts fixed on my destination. And the reception I’m likely to face. The reason I’ll give for my two-year absence. My mind spins back to my parents, to my old family home, which is where I’m heading. The woman with the messy dark hair is my mother. My father, with his heavy jawline, his greying hair, his jowly chin betraying the fact he’s going to seed, joins her in my head. Along with Troy. My brother.
Whatever I say, it won’t sound convincing. My best bet is to tell them I’ve been staying with friends, provoked into leaving by my father’s constant nagging. Either get a job or go to university, Beth, for God’s sake! The two choices he sees as a fit path for my future. My mother will be hurt, of course, disappointed by my apparent selfishness, but better that than revealing the truth. How would I ever find the words?
One thought has always tortured me. Why no one found me. Troy must have told my parents what he saw that night. Why wasn’t it enough for the police - because of course my mother would have called them - to track me down?
I turn into Draper Street. My eyes fall on the house where I grew up, where I lived all my life until the age of eighteen. Before I went missing. Tears mist my vision. My chest grows tight.
I walk towards the door. My fingers rub against what’s in the pocket of my jogging bottoms, its small yet solid coolness hard against my touch.
‘Wish me luck,’ I tell its former owner.
My hand moves towards the bell, before stopping. To press my finger against it is an irrevocable action, bringing the inevitable question: where have you been for the last two years?
My wet feet, my aching legs, the desperate hollow in my stomach, leave me no choice. More than that, the yearning to have my mother’s arms wrap around me, the warmth of her body pressed against mine, sweeps through me with tornado-like force. ‘Beth,’ she’ll murmur against my hair. ‘You’ve come home. At last.’
My finger pushes the doorbell, releasing the familiar one-two ding-dong chimes deep into the belly of the house.
Anxiety invades my brain, conjuring up unthinkable scenarios. My family have moved away, abandoned me, leaving me standing here with my ice-block-cold toes and my empty stomach. Then reason asserts itself; my mother’s car is in the driveway, the familiar faded red of the Fiat’s bodywork proof that she, at least, hasn’t exited from my life. I press the bell again, its chimes a plea for her to come.
Footsteps sound in the hallway, moving towards the door. It’s solid wood, so I can’t see who’s behind it until it opens.
Teak gives way to space, and to my mother.
I’m home. At last.
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