The third time the knife sliced through her clothing, it cut deepest. Sharp as heat through butter, but this was no blunt cutlery; this was a knife designed for gutting defenceless creatures on a hunting trip, the kind of knife you needed skill to wield. And this predator had skill.
She twisted, thrashing out with her arms, managing to catch her assailant in the face with the back of her right hand. A useless hit: no pain; no blood; no sound.
Black as pitch, the night wrapped itself around them, revealing nothing, concealing faces and identities. How does he know who I am? She questioned, as her eyes struggled weakly to focus the dark.
She felt the movement first this time; the sudden gathering of muscles as the knife arm lifted to strike a fourth time. They were behind her, close enough to brush against her, one hand locking around her throat even as she reached to defend herself. This was the only chance she’d get.
Even as she thrust her young body backwards, she felt the blade connect, through the hoodie and the t-shirt and the vest top, right down to her unwilling skin. Shout. Shake. Writhe. Break. The sound of running feet, receding.
Alone again, with no blood to tell lies about.
Chapter One: Homecoming
They came early on Saturday morning, in the darkness before the January dawn, invading the house with their cold, smooth, efficiency and their dark, unforgiving suits. The doorbell had rung out harshly in the quiet, waking me instantly. By the time I had dressed and got downstairs, they were already packing all of our belongings into boxes, dissembling the family home piece by intimate piece. It felt strange to have a male presence in the house again, after so many years.
My mother moved meekly, and I sensed that she had been fore-warned. After all, it wasn’t as if I hadn’t known that something was in the air: the countless late-night phone-calls; her leaving the house at strange hours; that I had ceased bothering to attend school with no reprimand, and the way she fell so easily to lying to the Mentor that kept calling. Attendance was voluntary anyway, in Year Twelve. But this was not what I had expected; some notice would have been welcome.
Still, I followed their instructions obediently; cold, still faces mouthing clipped commands. I sought for the one familiar face that haunted me but, dressed as they were, I had nothing else identifiable to go on. So I just went through the motions; it had been months since I’d passed caring what my fate might be. Living had become a matter of simply existing after…my heart shut down as my hands moved faster to cut the memory, packing clothes into a suitcase, other essentials into a backpack, dragging a large, faded hoodie over my head to hide beneath.
Her goodbye was brief and slightly apologetic. I sensed that she didn’t really know what to say and, under that, a hint of relief. We never talked now, after the late summer arguments, the tears, the recriminations. What was there to say? The years had not readied me, and she had not laid the groundwork. There had only ever been a lack of communication; the knowledge that she was not prepared to discuss it; that I’d have to figure it out on my own. Now, she said my grandmother was expecting me, but left me with no explanation of where she, with all of our belongings, was headed.
One of the suits drove me to the station. It was as if I wasn’t in the car. An invisible figure, melting into the black leather of the backseat in my black hoodie; a shadow without acknowledged form. As I exited the vehicle, he pressed a ticket into my hand. It was still dark as I boarded the train.
The sun rose outside across the fields and suburbs outside the train window as the short journey ebbed away. For a town only a few miles outside Bristol, Keynsham seemed so distant; I had hardly ever visited, but now I understood it was to become…I hesitated to call it home. What was that old saying? ‘Home is where the heart is.’ So where is home when you’ve lost your heart?
I pressed my clammy forehead against the cold glass, seeking its cool, hoping it would soothe, willing the past to stay behind me. I had hoped the fear would be shed also, but here it was, an unwanted hitchhiker, filling the carriage with its sharpness. The train juddered and I tensed; it had been weeks since I’d been inside a fast-moving vehicle, and it unnerved me deeply.
She was waiting at the bus station, a diminutive figure in a pale blue coat; elegant knee-high boots guarding her feet from the wet; a peaked hat shading her eyes from the piercing early rays. She stepped forwards, grinning, to take my case and I followed her striding figure towards the waiting taxi. Together, we slipped inside the warmth of the car. The directions she gave to the driver were the first words she uttered. Then she turned her full attention onto me.
‘I didn’t know how to begin,’ she admitted, smiling ruefully, ‘so I thought I wouldn’t. It’s easier to just leap straight in to life after a change. No trampling over the past and muddying it.’
I sat, dumbfounded at her honesty. I hadn’t known what to expect. Maggie wasn’t like other people, I had always known that, but I had been worried about how she would ‘deal’ with me now; after all, this wasn’t a normal visit. It had been two years since I’d last stayed; last summer I had been consumed with… but that way, the curtains started to peel back, and I closed the pathway, firmly.
‘Anyway,’ she continued, ‘I’ve provisionally registered you at the local school. They were concerned that you would be joining the sixth form so late; you started studying different exam boards in Bristol; but you’ve been absent so much anyway… well, you’re just going to have to start again and catch up on what you’ve missed. English Literature, Maths and Biology. You could always wait until the next academic year, but it’s a whole nine months until September, and how you’d occupy yourself until then, I don’t know. Besides, it’s best not to get behind.’
She stopped talking abruptly. It was clear that she’d said everything she felt she needed to, and now she let the silence grow in the car, turning slightly away from me to give me the space to absorb and settle. I didn’t know how to respond; I felt ill-equipped to deal with her thoughtful organisation of my life, now that it was in her hands. So I just sat and watched the streets flow by, as the taxi ushered us ‘home’.
Once we had exited the taxi in the quiet country lane and entered her small, detached dwelling, I had the chance to properly assess my new guardian. She hadn’t changed much; she didn’t bear the name ‘Grandmother’ well, always insisting upon ‘Maggie’. She smiled out from her curiously unlined face framed by long brown hair, released from her hat in a swinging, rich curtain, her blue eyes sparkling at me. It was uncanny how alike we were, my grandmother, my mother and I; all three of us tall, thin and pale; same cold, grey-blue eyes, same long brown hair, same freckles. She cooked me lunch enthusiastically: some sort of stew with dumplings and a large glass of red wine ‘To settle the travelling nerves.’ My granny: the alcohol pusher. She didn’t look a day over forty. As the wine flowed, so did the conversation. The ease of family returned and we chatted about things that did not matter, both dancing carefully around the topics we considered most dangerous.
We spent most of Sunday ‘experimenting’ in the kitchen. It felt strange not to have to occupy myself. She encouraged me to try various forms of cake and cookie from her hallowed Chocolate Recipe book, while she concocted various herbal brews for every sort of ailment. Maggie was famous locally for her skincare products and bath soaks; she’d even sold some formulas to a large beauty company, who now stocked a range of her products in their nationwide stores. ‘Enough to pay the rent!’ she’d laugh when I pressed her for the amount she raked in. I suspected she owned the cottage outright.
She had given me my mother’s old room, as always, but not as I remembered it. The smell of fresh paint filled my nostrils those first few nights, and the new double bed took up most of the available space, the rest of the floor a battleground between the desk and wardrobe. She’d even bought me a laptop; it sat proudly on the table. Everything was purple. ‘The Western colour of royalty and wisdom,’ she joked, and then added, under her breath, ‘and the Eastern colour of mourning.’ I appreciated the reference, but the smile I thought she sought would not come out to meet her wry one.
My mother had left home at the age of eighteen, and Maggie and she had barely spoken since. Probing over the years had revealed no clues; they each stuck to their stories like glue, repeating the same tired lines with the same faint smile of regret.
‘I had to escape; you’ll see, one day,’ Mum used to tell me. ‘I escaped to University, and once you leave, I mean really leave, it’s impossible to go back.’
‘Not even to visit your own mother?’ I pushed.
‘We fell out, irreconcilably, a few years after I left,’ she had admitted as I grew up, but would never tell me what it was that had caused such an unbreachable rift. ‘Going back after that was just impossible.’
Maggie was more light-hearted, simply laughing and repeating,
‘Blood is thicker than water, love, and for some, impossible to swallow!’
The old saying seemed to tickle her, the emptiness in her eyes as she laughed the only betrayal of a deeper hurt, a wound that would never heal. I could feel the atmosphere, even in here. The only evidence that my mother had ever been a presence in Maggie’s life were the photographs on top of the baby grand piano that dominated the living room, and the framed degree certificate on the wall. I knew that my mother’s graduation from University was the last time they’d ever had face-to-face contact. My photos jostled for position; Mum had always sent my school ones. But there were others that I hadn’t expected: photos of me with my friends; photos of me as a child with Mum’s great, grey dog; and one, the shocking one, the one that rooted me to the spot and held my mouth agape in a rigid, silent ‘O’.
My father’s face stared out at me from behind the glass. He stood proudly, holding a baby (me) in his arms, pointing at the camera to direct her eyes to the lens. My mother must have sent it all those years ago. I had never seen it before. I think she must have erased all traces of him from our house; no pictures, nothing to remember him by. I felt the tears begin to well inside the pools of my staring eyes, and shuddered, breaking the spell, turning away from the photograph and closing my mouth, blocking the passage of my throat, keeping the numbness down. It felt familiar, writhing in my stomach like a snake, blotting out all feeling from my heart. I raised a comforting hand to hold my belly, taking comfort from the nothing I felt in the space where my heart had been, as I swallowed the tears back down.