Saturday early evening she closes the shop. Pulls down the blind, the summer light still pouring in above the door. After cashing up the till, her hand is shaking slightly as she removes £7 and pushes the grubby notes into the back of her purse.
There isn’t much to Sunday.
Her son Michael spends hours on the telephone to his fiancé, going over final details for their wedding. When he’s not doing that he’s combing through back issues of a magazine called Trout and Salmon, on a vicarious and unending fishing trip. Meanwhile John, the aspirant art college student, has the Beatles new LP on the stereogram. It plays and replays as the arm lifts up, swings back and settles again on the already crackling grooves. There is one song that troubles her each time she hears it. Nothing troubles Stuart, the youngest. He has been following the Test match at Headingley: England versus India, engrossed in batting averages and bowling figures.
Her husband reads the News of the World, snoozes after Sunday dinner and watches the London Palladium in the evening. Then bed.
Monday the shop is always closed.
With everyone gone from the house, she gathers up her large grocery bag, drops the latch and steps out onto the pavement. Turning the corner she heads towards the Co-operative Stores. Like so many times before, putting together a mental list of ingredients for the evening meal as she goes. Reaching the shop door, and grateful for the absence of people on the street, she keeps her eyes straight ahead and walks on. Today will be different.
At the local railway station she buys a ticket. No one is about on the platform. The guard nods. She climbs onto the train and chooses the cleanest looking seat for her journey. As the carriages cross the river Tees at Victoria Bridge, she thinks of Stephenson’s Rocket, which everyone round here calls the first steam train. Today she is retracing its inaugural run.
Darlington station is dirty and noisy. Big trains push through heading north and south, forcing you back from the platform edge. She could be in Edinburgh by afternoon, London by evening. Or maybe still here, dead on the tracks.
She reaches into her purse and finds the address, on a piece of paper hidden under the small change. The landlady had sounded friendly on the telephone. She’d booked a single room at a reasonable price. Cash on arrival if you don’t mind.
At home the bright evening sunshine can’t cope with the darkening mood. Where is she? Not like her. Did she go to the hospital to visit someone? Worry quickly turns to annoyance. It’s not fair with the wedding coming up next month. Great start to the exams I must say. How do you think I feel? By nightfall he makes a decision. If no word comes by the morning, he’ll ring the police.
Tuesday’s dawn light creeps into the boarding house bedroom.
She has been here since the previous afternoon. Thankful for the kettle, some milk and a few biscuits. Summoning up her courage, she descends the stairs to the dining room. A lone fellow guest nods but fortunately doesn’t make small talk. She declines the fried breakfast, asks for tea and toast, leaving most of it behind as she gets up to go.
The police station ‘phone is ringing. He explains what has happened. We haven’t seen her since yesterday morning when we all went out of the house. Can you give me a description asks the officer. I’ll put a call out. Let me know if she turns up at home. They usually do.
She is on a bus. It’s a short ride from here to Richmond. She has no idea what is drawing her to the pretty town on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales, except perhaps the complete contrast with the place where she lives. She spends some time by the river Swale, the clean water of the falls bubbling down, full of life.
Money still in her purse, but she can’t face the thought of a bed and breakfast landlady. As the evening coolness draws in she makes her way across the bridge and through a park. Beyond there is a cricket ground. The ghost of a smile flicks across her lips. She knows about cricket grounds. It’s not locked. She goes through the gate, walks to the back of the score box and lets herself in. She pulls a few sacks over her and tries to sleep as the rafters creak and a mouse scurries about among some old practice nets.
At home they sit and brood. No word from the police. No search they can organize for themselves, except for around the town. But no one wants to explain to the neighbours that she’s gone missing. Their irritation is growing at the bother of it all. He picks up the Sunday paper, yellowod by the sunshine that streams through the window. Then quickly puts it down when he reads about a woman’s body found in a layby last week. Just off the Great North Road. A man is in custody on suspicion of murder.
Early Wednesday she creeps out of the cricket ground, light headed and hungry, in need of a change of clothes and a hot drink. In a public toilet she conducts a makeshift wash, wetting her comb and dragging it through her hair, until it hurts at the roots. The mirror is dim and blotched, doing nothing to enhance her exhausted look. She goes back and sits by the waterfall, warmed a little by the weak morning sun.
Later, in a café off the market square she nurses a pot of tea and a scone. Towards five o’clock the staff bustle around, wiping down tables and chairs until she gets to her feet, leaving her money with the bill and adding a sixpenny tip. The manageress bids her a friendly goodbye.
Tears welling, she begins to feel afraid as another evening presents itself. A few regulars are waiting for the Ship Inn to open. One calls out to her as she passes. Come and have a drink with us lass. She quickens her pace and turns the first corner she reaches. There are footsteps behind her. Then a female voice at her shoulder.
You look in a bit of a state, pet. Do you want to come back to the café for a while? I’ve closed up and there’s just me there now.
More tea and this time a proper sandwich. You look like you need it. Just settle yourself there, I’ve plenty to do.
Like an honoured guest, she eats alone. Slowly. Reviving a little.
The woman comes through from the kitchen. Now, that’s brought your colour up. I’m Doris by the way. It looks like you might be in a spot of bother.
She nods. Yes, I am really. Don’t know why I’m here. It just all got too much.
I can see that.
Three teenagers in the house. My husband home for dinner and tea on the dot every day. In and out all the time with his work. He’s an electrician. And then there’s the shop.
The shop? Yes, it’s at the front of the house. We live at the back. It sells electrical goods, lights and heaters, plugs, fuses, all that sort of thing. When the three boys were all settled at school I wanted to go out to work. But he suggested a shop. It would help his business he said, and I could stay at home.
I enjoyed setting it all up, but I realise now I was building my own prison. That was five years ago. I run it by myself, five days a week. Last Saturday I just couldn’t face it any more. On Monday I walked out. Left them to it for a while.
Well it might do them good. You don’t miss the water ‘til the well runs dry. Don’t rush back just now. I tell you what. You can stay here for a night or two. There’s a spare bed made up. I’m just by myself, it’ll be no trouble.
Oh I couldn’t do that, at least not without paying. I’ve got money.
Oh keep that. One of the girls is off tomorrow. How about you help out in the kitchen for a bit? We have a good laugh in there, especially when things get busy. What do you say?
She wakes on Thursday in the small bedroom. Rested but nervous. She should go home now. But Doris is right. They can wait.
They are leaving the house, getting on with the day. He broods as he fries a piece of bread for his breakfast, a cigarette at his lips. The others organize themselves, preoccupied. No one mentions her.
The café kitchen is a new world for her. She is one of three women who keep busy, slicing ham, grating cheese, buttering rolls. Cakes and scones come out of the oven to cool on racks, wafting delicious smells around the small space. Doris flits in and out with the orders. No one asks questions. They make jokes, raise an eyebrow as certain customers come in, thumbs up when they go out. Her guard begins to come down. She likes the atmosphere and the others can see she is a good worker. When her lunch break comes she’s ravenous.
The afternoon is quieter and Doris tells her to take a walk. She goes to the waterfall in the sunshine and sees one or two now familiar faces, drawn like her to the current and spray, hoping it will wash away their troubles. One catches her eye and then looks away.
In the evening she eats cottage pie with Doris and afterwards they drink a glass of ruby port together. She feels pleasantly sleepy after a remarkable day.
At home everyone is out. No one can tolerate the thick atmosphere of resentment that now fills the air in each room and won’t go away.
On Friday morning she is back with the team in the kitchen, like she has been there for years. Her apron washed and put on the peg, ready for her. The morning flies by. Busy and friendly. At 2pm, the rush over, Doris asks her to post some letters. She drops them in the pillar box, wondering if she should be writing home, to tell them she is safe, doing ok.
Happy to stay out longer in the sunshine, she takes a detour by the waterfall. The sunlight is playing on the spray, bouncing in all directions. She looks for her usual dappled spot among the trees. Just then two figures get up slowly from their bench and walk towards her. She thinks to run but feels rivetted to the ground. They are police officers in uniform.
Late afternoon on Friday, the shop bell rings.
Can’t they see we’re shut he says testily, getting up from his armchair. Three silhouettes are etched in the frosted glass. He unlocks the door. The two police officers are side by side. She is standing in front of them, hemmed in against escape. We’ve brought your wife home. Can we have a word inside?
They sit in the living room, uncomfortably perched on the edge of their seats. They can’t piece together where she has been all week. She says nothing. There isn’t anything the police can do except write a report for the files. The officers soon leave.
He walks into the living room, where the rest of the family are huddled in anticipation. Mam’s home, he says. Stuart, will you pop out and get us all fish and chips? That’ll be the easiest thing tonight.
So what happened? John over the meal. Where’ve you been? It wasn’t fair just clearing off like that. You could have left us a note or ‘phoned or something, says Michael. Stuart sits in silence, his food congealing on the plate.
Your mam got into a bit of a fluster about balancing up the till. That’s all. It’s nothing to fret about. So finish up your tea everyone. She’ll be opening the shop tomorrow, won’t you pet? Always a busy day, Saturday.
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