[Book Extract] Abandoned, by Jeanette McCarthy


When Tess woke up on the first day, she was so cold she thought the bedroom window must be broken. She reached for the covers, blearily opening her eyes when she didn’t find them. She should have been looking at the ceiling, but someone had taken it away in the night.

She sat up quickly, and a wave of nausea brought the contents of her stomach hurtling for the outside world. When at last the spasms passed, she stumbled to her feet, panic driving tears into her eyes.

She was in a wood of young trees. The ozone smell of the sea was sharp in the air, the sound of the waves barely discernable over the thudding of her heart. A thin drizzle began to fall. She had no idea where she was.

Mike, she thought.

She’d thought at the time that he’d taken it well. He stood on the doorstep as they exchanged the CDs and books each had borrowed, giving back the little pieces of themselves that they’d shared for a time. She’d asked him in, just to be polite.

No.

If she was honest, and she may as well be now, she asked him in because she was too pathetic to tell him to leave. That was the story of her life.

On that first day, Tess stood and looked around at the hard, unknown landscape, crying like a lost child, fear sizzling in her veins. She pushed freezing fingers into the pocket of her jeans and found a scrap of paper there. As she read it, dread closed a fist round her heart, and she fell to her knees, the hacking sobs making it hard to draw breath. The words on the paper smeared in the rain and ran together like hieroglyphics. It didn’t matter, because she wasn’t going to forget those words for a long time.

You said you could look after yourself, they said.

Go ahead and try.

***

December 1989

‘Lewis, this tea is shite.’

Lewis grinned as if this was the greatest compliment. And what a grin it was. He had a mouth that seemed to fill up half his young face, and teeth that seemed far too many even for such a mouth. ‘I thought you liked my brew,’ he said.

‘Donno’s right,’ Billy said. ‘It’s fucking crap. Tastes like nothing.’

‘Anyone want any more?’ Lewis said, picking up the bivvy tin. Mike held out his cup. ‘I’ll have some.’

Donno and Billy laughed, and the sound echoed, breaking the silence of the woods. Donno pulled out his tobacco pouch and began to roll up a cigarette.

Billy pushed a stick into the fire. ‘This is such a doddle,’ he said. ‘How many times have we done this now?’

‘Five,’ Donno said, drinking his so-called tea.

Lewis picked at a ripe spot on his chin. ‘This island’s new, though.’

‘Yeah, it’s bigger. There might even be deer.’

‘Yeah, Donno, like you’re going to kill a deer.’ Billy sniggered.

‘I never mentioned anything about killing one,’ Donno said, his voice hesitant. ‘I’ve never even seen a deer.’

No one replied. None of them had.

‘Well, anyway,’ Billy went on, wrapping his jacket around him against the December cold. ‘Survival training? It’s a fucking doddle.’

‘You’re complaining?’ Lewis said. ‘Like, you joined the army to get shot at, rather than sit around with your mates drinking tea?’

‘Think I’d rather get shot at than drink this tea,’ Donno said.

Mike grinned, leaning on his kit bag. He was the youngest of the four, although none of them knew it, they thought he was eighteen, same as them.

They fell into a companionable silence, as the woods around them began to fill up with dusk. Their tents had already been set up, but no one was in a hurry to sleep. Donno drew hard on his skinny cigarette, just as a twig snapped in the trees to their left.

All four froze, slowly turning their heads to the source of the sound. This island was uninhabited, or so they had been told. Mike gently released the catch on his belt holster and pulled out a darkened blade. In the silence, another twig snapped, and he heard Billy take a surprised breath.

Through the pale trees, dark shapes moved, lithe and swift and cautious. Billy let his breath out slowly, as they watched the deer move quickly through the birch woods. Even when the animals had long gone, the four friends stayed rooted to the spot, staring silently into the trees.

And then it began to snow.

Mike looked up at the thick flakes drifting through the silence, and knew deep in his soul that this was the happiest moment of his life.

‘Did you see their eyes?’ Donno whispered, his own eyes gleaming. ‘They were huge!’

‘I can’t believe that just happened. We were just talking about — they weren’t fifty feet away!’ Billy shook his head, the snowflakes sticking fast to his cropped hair.

Lewis’s grin had not moved.

‘You know,’ he said quietly, looking up at the falling snow, holding out his empty hands to catch the flakes. ‘There’s nothing like this, is there? I mean, all joking aside and that. This is what it’s all about, isn’t it? Just us, our wits, and the wild.’

The others looked at him. Normally such a personal admission would have been greeted with derisive hoots and laughter, but not tonight, when the deer and the snow had felt like the work of magic.

‘Just us, looking after ourselves. Not needing anyone else.’

Despite his grin, Mike heard the bitterness in Lewis’s voice. His friends nodded. None of them were here because they wanted to be. They were here because they didn’t want to be somewhere else.

The snow began to pile up around them, but it didn’t feel cold.

‘I can’t wait for tomorrow to go and explore,’ Billy said.

Donno grinned. ‘Let’s see if we can track those deer.’

‘Not to kill one-‘ Billy protested.

‘No,’ Donno said. ‘Not to kill, just to look.’

Mike smiled, pulling up a sprig of heather. He raised it to his face and breathed in the faint woody aroma. The deer had seemed both delicate and perfect, like something from a fairy tale, too wonderful to be real. He looked round at his friends, the only ones he had, and knew that Lewis was right. This was what was important, this and little else.

***

Mike shoved his old kit bag hard into the locker. He really didn’t need all its contents, not for this job, but he had been taught to expect the unexpected at all times, and once something was learned, it stayed with him like another layer of skin. He could hear the two men behind him whispering, and knew they were talking about him. This didn’t bother him. He knew they thought he was different from them, and he was. He was better.

He straightened his tie, gazing at his pale features in the rust-spotted mirror. His thin lips looked lost in the square, clean-shaven jaw. His dark brown hair was close cropped, as it had been for the last twenty-odd years. He leaned forward, looking carefully into his own eyes, as he did every day.

‘Hey Mike, you see that Lisa from Next this morning? Skirt the size of a belt!’

‘Nah, Joe, Mike’s into the quiet ones, isn’t that right?’ said Louie, cracking his knuckles.

Mike turned round and stared into the security guard’s eyes. Louie swallowed and looked away, a pink stain invading his cheeks.

Mike’s lips widened into a smile that never reached the rest of his face. He walked past his colleagues and into the early morning silence of the mall.

This was not quite the job he had in mind for himself when he left the mob, but it was strangely satisfying. The long hours walking the air conditioned corridors, so mind-numbingly tedious to the other security men, he spent staring intently at the shoppers, picking out potential shoplifters by the way their eyes shifted away from him. The kids were the easiest. He could almost smell their guilt, the thrill-sweat on their skin as they made off with their prizes. The terror in their eyes as they looked up into his made him feel good; in control. He obeyed orders, took the miscreants to the basement where the police were called, although if he had his own way, it would be very different. Oh yes.

He walked along the corridors of the mall, following his daily routine, as the early morning shoppers browsed and bought, ignoring him. He listened to the litany of footfalls on the cool tiles, the mingling of muzak from the various shops, the giggling gossip of the shop girls, more alive now than they would be after a whole day working here. It was comfortable, reassuring.

At exactly six minutes to ten he reached the top of the second floor stairs. Up here in the dim light the shops had a sad, tired feel about them. Not many people bothered to come up here these days, the prime sites were all down below. Mike came as usual to the china shop: City of Glass, and here he stopped, looked slowly and carefully around, and checked his intuition for anything untoward in the air. Then he looked into the window at the brightly lit crystal and china, all of it delicate and vulnerable. His particular favourite was a unicorn made of clear glass, its single horn the colour of clear water flowing over pebbles. He knew if he were ever to hold that unicorn, it would break into a million deadly shards. His hands shook at the thought of touching something so fragile, of it belonging to him.

He tore his eyes away from the figure and looked through the window to the counter within, where Tess was gift wrapping a box for an old woman. He watched their lips move as they exchanged pleasantries, Tess, smiling as she always did, a strand of her rich dark hair escaping from its clasp to fall across her pale cheek. He waited until the woman left the shop, then carried out his surveillance again before finally going in.

‘Oh, hello Mike,’ Tess said, still smiling. She had eyes as gentle and trusting as a doe’s. She was the human version of the unicorn, only this one he could hold without breaking.

‘Are you coming round tonight?’ She asked, looking at him shyly. He loved the way she seemed embarrassed by the suggestion. He smiled, and this time it reached his eyes.

‘Sure,’ he said. His first word that day.

*

Tess sat at her dining room table, watching Mike eat.

‘This is really good,’ he said, between mouthfuls. Tess smiled.

‘Glad you like it.’

He looked up at her, eyes as fathomless as ever. Even when he smiled, he held most of himself back.

‘You wore my favourite dress.’

Tess looked down at her lap, touching the pale blue fabric. She always wore the dress. Wearing anything else wasn’t worth the silent disapproval that ensued. She struggled to think of something to say.

‘The men came to replace the glass yesterday.’

‘Yes, I saw.’

She sighed. Of course he had.

‘Mrs Dennis went on for ages about the cost. I don’t know why, it must have been covered by insurance.’

A week or so ago, vandals had broken into the mall and thrown concrete rubbish bins at random shop windows. The toughened glass didn’t smash, but instead shattered into a huge spider web of light. Tess’s boss, who had a permanent padlock on her purse, had been furious.

Mike said nothing, and Tess stifled another sigh.

‘So, did you have a quiet day?’

He shrugged. ‘I didn’t catch anyone stealing.’

‘The shoplifters must have all stayed home,’ she said with a bright smile.

‘I doubt it.’

She turned away from his hard blue eyes, and began to clear the dishes. As she reached for his empty plate, his hand snaked out and touched her arm. She looked at him, and saw he was staring at his own fingers stroking her skin, his mouth open, his eyes now wide and curious, like a child’s. As if aware of her gaze, he looked up into her face, and tried a smile. She smiled back, as he stood up and put his arms around her.

He was always gentle, but she never felt reassured. She knew he would never hurt her, but there were worse things. Every morning Tess looked at her thirty-one year old face and told herself it was time to move on, and every night she went to bed without having had the guts to do it.

She took his hand and they walked upstairs to her bedroom, where he banished the colony of teddy bears from her bed with one sweep of his arm. She lay down, pulling him with her, kissing him and reaching under his T shirt to touch his skin. He sighed, his fingers reaching to pull up the dress. For a moment she thought he was going to tear it, and an excited thrill ran through her, but instead, he let it go, and left her alone while he took off his own clothes. She sighed, doing the same. In the dark, she felt him come inside her, and heard him gasp as if he had never done this before. It was all over very quickly, and she lay there afterwards, looking at the streetlight outside, listening to his breathing becoming regular again.

‘You are wonderful,’ he whispered, after she had thought he was asleep. The words filled her with dread.

‘Mike?’ She leaned on her elbow, facing him. When he looked at her, she hesitated, but in the dim light, she couldn’t see his eyes, and that gave her strength.

‘Have you had many girlfriends?’

There was a long silence. ‘Why are you asking me that?’

‘I don’t know. I just wondered. We don’t know very much about each other, you know.’

He moved away from her.

‘I know you were in the army, but that’s all-’

‘You don’t want to know more about me,’ he said. He reached for her hand and squeezed it so tightly she winced.

*

Next day, Tess woke up to find Mike had left early, as he always did. She replaced her soft toys on her bed, feeling bad about herself. She should have told him she wanted to finish it. As usual, whenever the moment came, she chickened out.

It wasn’t that he was crazy, just a bit strange. She assumed being so long in the army had caused that, but if he wouldn’t talk about the past, how could she understand? All he had ever mentioned were some of his training expeditions, gangs of young soldiers on Scottish islands learning survival skills. Nothing about war, although she knew he had been involved. She wondered absently if he had killed people. The thought excited her, and that itself made her startle with guilt. Something had happened to him, something bad, to make him as obsessed with her as he was. But she couldn’t cope with it, she had to leave him. She had promised herself that she would tell him after New Year, but now here they were in February. Come the weekend, she told herself, looking at her reflection in the mirror. She was definitely going to do it. Definitely.

***

Cal Fisher couldn’t sleep. He lay tossing and turning for a while, before giving in and getting up, walking into the kitchen in his T shirt and boxers, and heading for the cupboard. He poured himself a neat black label vodka, and took a sip of the clear liquid. It burned pleasantly in his throat, and he carried it through to the living room, where he slumped on the sofa and stared blankly at the dead TV.

Another sleepless night. What was the matter with him?

It wasn’t the job. Hell, that was the only thing keeping him sane, the only thing that mattered. Cal had been a policeman for twenty years, and he was still only thirty eight. He could retire soon, as if. He knew he was obsessive and pedantic, but he preferred to think of it as passionate. That’s what his mother had always called him.

A sharp spike of guilt made him sigh. He rolled the glass between his hands, warming the alcohol, as if that might make it go down easier. Mother didn’t know his name, most days, but on those times she did, her eyes were filled with disappointment and regret.

Cal finished the vodka and lay back on the settee, gazing out of the wide windows at the dark city sky. His flat was on the top floor of a converted factory. He had a great view of streetlights, abandoned lots and the murky canal. Leicester wasn’t the prettiest town in the world, but it was still home.

Maybe if he and Lynne had made it through things would have been different. But she was long gone, and never coming back. Thinking about his ex-wife brought on the familiar dull ache in his chest. He glanced at his reflection in the mirror over the fireplace. In the dim light from the kitchen, he looked as cold as stone, pretty much how he felt. Brown eyes, crooked nose, light brown hair heading gradually for the hills. The sort of face that wouldn’t merit a second glance. Not from a woman, anyway. Hell, was that it, was he just lonely?

Thirty eight years old, he thought gloomily. Sitting here feeling sorry for myself.

He took the glass back to the kitchen and dumped it in the sink before wandering back to bed. Things were pretty quiet at work at the moment. He was sure that if they heated up a little, he’d sleep all right.

But not tonight, he thought sadly. Not tonight.

*

When Tess got home from work that night, there was a car in her parking place, and she sighed as she recognised it. She wiped at her tired eyes. Mother. Just what she needed.

‘Is that you, Tessa?’

Who else would it be, she thought, dumping her bag on the kitchen table and walking through to the living room.

‘You know, you ought to get these windows sorted. They’re in a terrible state.’

Tess tried to smile. Her mother was peering at the windowsill, her blonde hair tightly fastened in a tortoiseshell clasp. She looked round.

‘You should get them done now. The weather will be turning warmer soon. It’ll be cheaper.’

‘Yes mum. Do you want tea?’

‘No, dear, you know I don’t drink tea. Well, how are things?’

Tess sat on the sofa, picking up a velvet cushion and absently toying with the fringes.

‘Fine, mum. You look nice tonight.’

Sheila Harrison smoothed her pencil skirt, her eyes fixed on her daughter. ‘I’m on my way to bridge with Gilly and Rich. Just thought I’d pop in and see you-‘ she hesitated.

‘So are you still seeing the weirdo?’

Tess sighed. ‘Mum, he’s not weird, just quiet.’

‘Oh right. You know nothing about him, he never smiles or laughs, follows you round like a lost puppy, turning up when you least expect him, and that’s not weird? Listen Tess, you’d do better just to get rid-‘

Tess stood up, heading for the kitchen. The last thing she wanted to do was discuss Mike with her mother. She eyed the open bottle of wine on the windowsill, but hearing Sheila’s footsteps, she filled the kettle instead.

Tess felt her mother standing behind her like a thundercloud about to strike. Naff off and leave me alone! Biting her lip, she busied herself with tea bags and milk.

‘Have you thought any more about that job over at Taylor’s?’

Tess concentrated hard on the bottom of her empty mug.

‘You know Rich said he’d be happy to put in a word for you, and you’d have great prospects there. You could be managerial staff in no time.’

‘Mum, I’m happy with the job I’ve got.’

‘What, a shop girl? And look what than that old skinflint pays you. Look Tess, you’re a clever girl. You can do much better. I hate to see you settling for second best.’

Tess turned round, looking at her mother in her ivory jacket and skirt, her perfect apricot silk blouse; better clothes than she herself owned, and Sheila was only going to a bridge game. She didn’t look at her own flouncy skirt and embroidered blouse. That would only draw attention to them, and Sheila would no doubt find some comment to make about her ‘hippy’ clothes. Second best. Was that what she was doing? She glanced again at the wine bottle, and this time her mother saw her and picked it up.

‘Sauvignon,’ she said, peering at the label. ‘I prefer Chardonnay, myself. I hope you’re not sitting here by yourself at night drinking, my girl.’

Tess shrugged, pouring hot water into the mug. ‘It’s nice sometimes to have a glass of wine when I come home from work.’

There was a lecture brewing, she could almost taste it. What time was the damn bridge match? Why couldn’t she just go. In the awkward silence, Tess heard something scraping at the lock, and turned in time to see Mike opening the door. She let out a gasp, her mouth falling open.

‘Mike!’

Mike looked from Tess to Sheila, his eyes carefully blank.

‘You gave me a start,’ Tess said, trying to sound light hearted. Her heart was pounding with panic. She had not given Mike a key, but there was no way she was going to have a scene in front of Sheila. Her mother’s lips had pulled into the usual thin disapproving line.

‘You have company,’ Mike said quietly. ‘Sorry. I’ll leave you to it. See you tomorrow.’

Tess began to say thanks, but the door had already closed behind him. Sheila looked at Tess, her face hard. Tess waited gloomily for the tirade.

‘Well. I hope you know what you’re doing,’ Sheila said, picking up her handbag.

‘Oh mother, don’t go off in a huff.’

Sheila gave her an angry look. ‘As if I would! I must go or I’ll be late, that’s all.’

Tess walked her to the door, reluctant now for her to leave. She was sure Mike was simply waiting somewhere close, hoping she would go so he could come round.

‘I saw dad at the weekend,’ she said, desperate for something to say. Sheila looked at her, uninterested. ‘Oh yes? What did he have to say for himself?’

‘He’s got a new job. Not plumbing any more, it’s contract management.’

‘At his age? Well good luck to him. Pity he didn’t sort his life out long ago, when it mattered.’

Tess winced. Of course, it had been a mistake to bring up the subject of her father.

‘Goodbye, love. And please, think about the job at Taylor’s, will you?’

Tess nodded as her mother kissed her on the cheek. Not a chance.

When Sheila left, she put the catch on the door and went to the kitchen, pouring herself a large glass of wine. How on earth had Mike got hold of her key? He must have taken hers out of her bag at the shop. Her heart pounding, she finally felt galvanised into telling him it was over. She gulped the wine, not daring to look out in case she saw him. She went upstairs and turned on the bathroom light, in the hope he’d think she was running a bath. Tess was scared now, but whether of Mike or of the inevitable confrontation, she didn’t know.

*

Mike spent most of the night crouched in the ornamental shrubs surrounding the turning circle. He was good at staying still for long periods, after all, he’d had plenty of experience. He watched as the hard-faced woman left and the bathroom light clicked on. He toyed with the idea of going in and surprising Tess in the bath. The thought of her shy embarrassment at his intrusion filled him with the familiar emotion; a mixture of raw sadness and desperate love. The emotion suffused his whole body, making his muscles weak and his vision blurred. It didn’t come to him often, but when it did, he was helpless. Now he crouched, the ache in his leg muscles nicely balanced by those wonderful feelings. He didn’t want to move and lose them.

After a while he stretched out first one leg, then the other, flexing each muscle to bring the oxygen back. He watched cars come and go, Tess’s neighbour getting off the bus and walking into the close. She’d had a drink, he could smell it, and she dropped her keys twice as she tried to work the lock, giggling to herself. He turned away, revolted.

He waited until he saw the bedroom light go off, and then he stood up. Perhaps he would surprise her now, slip upstairs and put his arms around her gently, and she would turn to him and sigh.

He padded over to the door, removing the Yale key from his pocket and slipping it soundlessly in the lock. It turned, but the door didn’t open, and he realised she had bolted the door. He felt heat rush to his face. He hadn’t expected this. How dare she lock him out! He padded back to his bushes, crouching down again to think.

Orange lights were flashing at the back of his eyes. He shut them tightly, taking deep breaths.

He had told her he would see her tomorrow, after all. And didn’t all decent girls lock their doors at night? He began to relax. The simple explanation was obviously the right one. His heart began to slow down.

He checked his watch and saw that it was after midnight, but he wasn’t ready to go just yet. He sat carefully in the leaf mould, imagining Tess in her bed dressed in her pink nightie with her soft toys on the pillow, her slippers shaped like hedgehogs, the walls covered with her prints of dolphins and flowers. She was as soft and gentle as a summer breeze. He closed his eyes. He couldn’t get enough of her.

Eventually he dozed. He dreamed.

The door slammed with a dull thud, and the only light then came from the strip at the base, beyond which he could hear the radio playing, and a man’s low laughter. It was the sort of laughter he recognised well, laughter that wasn’t really funny, it meant something else, something he didn’t fully understand. He crouched in his cupboard and listened until the only sound was the radio. He listened out for Sandy, but she knew better now than to make a sound. After a while the laughter started up again, and then he heard his name mentioned. They were coming for him, and his heart began to pound in terror. He cringed into the back of the cupboard, trying to hide behind the clothes hung there, smelling the familiar cheap perfume scent of his mother. Any second now the door would open and they would drag him out, and he would cry, but it wouldn’t matter. No one would listen. The footsteps were coming closer, and suddenly the door opened and the light was blinding. Mike woke with a gasp, eyes wide, heart smacking at the walls of his chest as the car circled in front of the bushes and drove off.

He took deep breaths, just as he’d been taught to do, and after a long while, the dream receded. He crept out quietly and walked home.

***

Tess was in the shower the next morning when the telephone rang. She rushed from the bathroom, dripping wet, catching it just as the ringing stopped. ‘Bugger,’ she hissed, as the drips from her soaking hair turned the pink carpet dark as blood. It looked horrible, and she hurriedly wrapped the towel round her hair before dialling 1471 and getting her father’s number. She sat on the bed. Dad was sure to want to go out somewhere, and she wasn’t in the mood, but nevertheless she dialled the number and waited for Roy Hardy to answer.

‘Hello dad.’

‘Hello sweetheart. Did I get you out of the shower?’

‘Yes.’

He laughed. ‘I’m sorry. I have a talent for that, don’t I? Are you all right, love?’

‘Yes, I’m fine. Are you?’

‘Yes, love, you know me.’

The conversation was virtually identical every time. It made Tess smile.

‘So do you fancy coming out for a drink with an old man?’

‘Of course. And you’re not old. Where do you want to go?’

Roy chuckled. ‘Anywhere you like.’

‘You decide,’ Tess said, as firmly as she could. Dad could be worse than her. ‘I’ll meet you at the usual place. Seven o’clock.’

As she sat ironing her wavy hair straight, she decided that tonight it would be The Highcross. They’d not been there for a while, and Tess had inherited Roy’s thought processes. She smiled to herself. At least the food was good.

*

Lights were going on all over the mall as Tess opened the front door of the shop. She caught sight of a few early shoppers hanging around with their children, waiting for opening time. Down on the ground floor, there was Mike, pacing slowly in his dark blue suit, like a shark in a paddling pool. Tess shivered. Something was going to have to be said about the key, but her heart began to race at the thought of the confrontation. She went back behind her counter.

It was a quiet day, and she had plenty of time to daydream. Tess had watched a Harrison Ford film the previous weekend, about a man and woman stranded on a Caribbean island. They had started off hating each other, but it inevitably turned out all right in the end. She was still imagining living beside the perfect beach, the sun in her hair, when there was a loud rap on the counter.

She jumped, startled. Mike looked torn between embarrassment and annoyance.

‘You were miles away,’ he said.

‘I was,’ she agreed, smiling uneasily. ‘Are you all right?’

‘Yes.’

The shop was empty, and she prayed for a few customers, just for some vestige of moral support. It was now or never. She took a deep breath.

‘Mike, how did you get my door key?’

There it was out. She smiled, to ease the accusation in her voice.

‘You gave it to me,’ he said, staring calmly at her. ‘Don’t you remember?’

Did I? She thought, panic arriving. She didn’t remember giving him a key, but she was so scatty. Could she have given him the key and forgotten?

No. She couldn’t. She knew she hadn’t given him the key.

‘No,’ she shook her head, ‘I don’t.’

‘Well, you did. How else would I have got it?’

She looked up, but his eyes were as cold and relentless as ever. When he looked like that, his lips seemed to disappear into his face, making his jaw seem like an immovable mass. Her heart was racing, making her light-headed.

‘Oh well, if I did, I did,’ she said lightly, as if it were nothing.

‘You can have it back, if you want.’

Now was the time. She should tell him the truth, get the key back, call it a day.

But, in a sudden moment of terrible clarity, she saw that there was no point in getting the key back.

He probably had another one somewhere. And if she told him she no longer wanted to see him, he was not going to simply shake hands and say goodbye.

She smiled as brightly as she could. ‘No, no. It’s all right.’

At long last a customer came into the shop, and Tess let out a breath she didn’t know she had been holding.

‘Can I come over and see you tonight?’ Mike asked, the small smile back on his face.

‘Not tonight,’ she replied. ‘I’m going out for a meal with my dad.’

‘Oh, that’s nice,’ Mike said, the tension lines round his eyes deepening.

‘Where are you going?’

‘I don’t know yet,’ she replied, suddenly glad that she’d made Roy decide. ‘It’s my dad’s turn to pick the venue.’

‘I see.’

Tess swallowed, turning to smile at the customer approaching.

‘I’d better get on,’ she said apologetically. Mike nodded.

‘Bye, then.’

She served the lady and sat back at the counter, taking a deep breath to still her heart. This couldn’t go on, she was becoming terrified of him.

What’s more, her mother was right, he was following her. It wasn’t normal. Yet there was nothing she could do. She was too scared to dump him, too scared to go out with him.

She would get the locks changed, that’s what to do. But even as she thought it, she realised how angry that would make him.

Oh God, she thought. I’m really in trouble.

*

Mike walked down to the security room and gently closed the door behind him. Then he sat down at his desk and put his head in his hands. Blood was pounding in his head, coursing like acid in his veins. He took a series of deep breaths to try to still the pain. He clenched his shaking fists, cursing under his breath. How dare she. How dare she!

And the fear. He had seen it in her eyes, clear as sunlight. She was afraid of him, and he knew what happened when people were afraid; they lashed out. He was losing control. The pain pulsed in his head until he thought his skull would explode. Without control, he was nothing. And abruptly, a memory came stinging into his mind, the fierce heat of the humiliation bringing colour to his cheeks and tears to his eyes.

Get away from me! I don’t need your help, you little shit. Just get lost!

Control. He had to get control. He screwed his eyes tightly shut.

Breathe deeply. Think of the calm place.

But he had, after all, hadn’t he? In the end, they had come full circle. In the end, he had taken charge. She had backed down. He had been the one in control.

The pain gradually waned, and after a while he opened his eyes and slowly unclenched his fists. He did his breathing exercises until his heart rate returned to normal, and only then did he stand up and go to the locker room, where he looked at himself in the rust spotted mirror.

He looked just the same. This always surprised him.

*

Tess was certain Mike had followed her to the clock tower. Just because she couldn’t see him meant nothing. She decided to tell her father about Mike. Not that Roy would be much help, but at least it would be good to talk about it.

Of course, she could always put the whole problem into mother’s lap. Sheila would delight in telling Mike where to go.

Roy was late, as usual. She watched him; a short, overweight man in a badly fitting suit and a silly grin, jogging unsteadily up Belgrave Gate towards her. She smiled.

‘Hello, my sweet. You look gorgeous. I’m sorry I’m late.’

‘Forget it.’ She linked her arm into his. ‘Where are we going?’

‘I thought, the Highcross? If you like?’

Tess laughed. ‘Great idea, dad.’

She ordered steak with all the trimmings. Though she spent most of her life struggling to avoid becoming the same shape as her father, somehow being with him eroded what little will power she had. She tucked in, listening to Roy’s funny stories, watching his bright blue eyes grinning at her.

‘This is better than last time, eh?’

‘God, yeah. That seafood place.’

Roy chuckled, shaking his head. ‘All these years, and I didn’t know my little girl hated shellfish.’

Tess grinned. ‘I had scallops once and they made me really ill. It put me off. It was my fault, I should have told you. You weren’t to know.’

Roy grinned back at her through a mouthful of chips.

‘So how’s the new job?’

‘Oh Tess, love, it’s great. I should have done this years ago. The lads are a great bunch, and we’ve got more work than we can handle. I get my driving license back next month as well, you know.’ He shook his head. ‘I’m never going to be as stupid as that ever again.’

Tess reached over and patted her father’s hand.

‘Hey, I might even manage a holiday this year, how about that?’

She laughed. ‘Well, it’s about time.’

‘I might need a companion to come with me, though,’ he winked. ‘Someone to keep me out of trouble.’

Tess shook her head. ‘Dad, I’d bore you rigid.’

‘You don’t fancy it then, some exotic island in the sun?’

She took another bite of steak. ‘Do I ever-‘

Out of the corner of her eye, she caught sight of a man standing at the bar. She turned quickly, but he had gone. Abruptly her good mood vanished. She had almost forgotten about Mike, until then.

‘What’s up, love, you’ve gone all quiet?’

She looked into Roy’s concerned face. Remembering all his good news tonight, the fact that at last things seemed to be going well for him, she hadn’t the heart to spoil it with her own problems.

‘Indigestion,’ she grinned, making him laugh.

‘It’s good to see you tucking into your grub. Most of these lasses you see today, they eat like birds.’

‘So, you going to get a car then?’

Roy shrugged. ‘I’ll have to see what the insurance will cost, what with the DD conviction.’

Later, as they stood waiting at the bus stop, Tess glanced around at the people wandering through town, heading for pubs and clubs. Couples, groups of lads and girls. She and her father. And, she thought bitterly, somewhere in the shadows, there was Mike. Roy’s bus turned up first.

‘I’ll phone you tomorrow,’ he shouted as he climbed aboard. Tess waved, knowing that he wouldn’t. She leaned against the plastic wall of the shelter and looked down at the clock tower, at the office lights still gleaming in the buildings beyond.

‘Hello.’

She jumped, looking up into Mike’s face.

‘Mike, you startled me!’

He smiled. ‘You’re easy to startle.’

‘What are you doing here?’

There were six other people waiting for buses. Tess took a step backwards towards them.

‘I came into town for a drink.’

‘Mike, were you in the Highcross?’

He nodded, and now she could see the ice returning to his eyes, his lips vanishing into a thin line.

‘Were you following me?’

He gave a quiet little laugh. ‘You’re paranoid.’

‘Am I?’ she said, sudden anger surging through her. ‘This morning I was absent minded, now I’m paranoid. What’s tomorrow’s special; schizophrenic?’

Mike seemed to draw himself in, to become taller and stiller. Behind the anger, Tess felt her heart fluttering in terror, but knew if she didn’t speak up now, she never would.

‘Mike, I think we’re getting too claustrophobic. I think we need to back off. See a bit less of each other.’

He said nothing, just stared at her, standing rigid under the streetlight. She sensed the people behind her, listening, and resisted the urge to run and hide behind them. A bus arrived, and she didn’t care if it was hers. She turned to climb aboard, and felt his hand on her arm.

‘I’ll see you in the morning. We can talk about this.’

She pulled away urgently. ‘No,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry.’

The bus drove off, and without looking, she knew he would still be standing there, looking after the departing bus. Despite her pounding heart, she felt exhilarated. She had done it at last!

But by the time the bus reached Kirby Muxloe, she was once again gripped with fear. What if he’d driven, and was waiting for her at home? On an impulse she got off well before her stop and called into the Royal Oak pub, where she phoned a taxi and self-consciously gulped back a glass of wine until it arrived. When it drew up at her house, she asked the bemused driver to wait until she signalled him to go, and put the key in the lock with trembling fingers.

The house was in darkness, as she’d left it. She stood in the hall, listening, ignoring the voice inside that told her that she’d never hear him anyway. She turned on the living room light, the kitchen, the stairs. The bathroom door lay open, and she ran past to check her bedroom, even looking in the wardrobe. No one. With a sigh, she turned and headed back down stairs.

And stopped dead halfway down.

Through the slats in the stairs, she could see the bottom half of a man, waiting for her. Gripped with terror, she looked back, but there was nowhere to hide. Looking down, she realised her only chance was to run, and try to get past him. She let out a shriek and ran downstairs, straight into the arms of the taxi driver.

‘Hey hey, love, take it easy. I just came in to see you were all right.’

Tess could hardly draw breath to cry. The driver sat her down and made her tea, by which time she was sobbing into one of her best cushions.

‘Drink this, me duck.’

She took the tea with shaking hands.

‘Now, you’re worried about someone being in your house? I think we’d better call the police, don’t you?’

‘N-n-no. It’s all-ll-right.’ She tried to take a deep breath.

‘I was just being paranoid,’ she said, giggling hysterically.

The driver took some convincing, but left eventually, after checking all the windows and insisting she put the chain on the door. Tess sank onto her sofa, her hands still shaking, feeling utterly drained. First thing tomorrow she would get the locks changed, then she’d take a taxi to work, and to hell with the expense. She glanced out at a chink in the curtains, remembering her mother telling her to get new windows. Maybe I should start with a new backbone.

Tess climbed the stairs to bed, kicked off her shoes and climbed under the covers fully clothed. She cried for a little while, hugging one of her soft toys, before reason began to shuffle back in, looking embarrassed.

Thirty one years old, she thought sadly. And here I am crying into my pillow and cuddling a fluffy toy dog. No wonder mother is embarrassed by me. I’m pathetic.

Eventually she fell into an exhausted sleep, and Mike came out from behind the bathroom door and stood in the dark at the foot of her bed. He stood there for a long time, before slowly turning and walking back into the bathroom, where he climbed back out of the window and disappeared into the night.

*

Mike awoke to the sound of screaming, and lay there, unmoving, his heart thudding in his chest. He wanted to get up and go to her, try to help, to at least protest, but another part of him said no; stay here, while they are hurting her, you are safe. That thought made him feel sick, even as he turned his head into the pillow. She needs you, said his heart. She needs you to help her, to take care of her.

You can’t help her, said his head. You’re too small. You can’t do anything, and they will only hurt you too.

And as Sandy cried his name over and over again, he pressed one of her soft teddy bears to his skinny chest and made a promise; I will help you. Somehow, I will find a way. I will take care of you. I will.

(c) Jeanette McCarthy, 2008

About the author

Jeanette McCarthy works for a solicitor in the small town of Ashby de la Zouch, Leicestershire.

She lives in the village of Newbold Verdon with her husband and three border collies.

Abandoned (Lulu, 2008) is her first novel.

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