Run­away by Teresa Ashby

Her mother was be­hav­ing com­pletely out of char­ac­ter. Some­thing was clearly very wrong...

Woman's Weekly (UK) - - Contents -

Nick was in his usual tear­ing hurry, rush­ing around the house, grab­bing his keys and look­ing fran­ti­cally for his phone. Fran felt as if she were stand­ing in the eye of a storm as he raced past her yelling, ‘My phone! I can’t re­mem­ber where I put it down.’ ‘Shall I call it?’

He stopped for a mo­ment, ran his hand through his hair and glanced around, look­ing but not see­ing, lis­ten­ing, but not hear­ing.

‘Maybe you left it some­where else,’ she said.

‘I can’t be late to­day,’ he said dis­tract­edly. ‘I’ve got a con­fer­ence call at 10am.’ ‘Nick, I was hop­ing…’

‘Is that it?’ He swept the news­pa­per aside and there was his phone, next to his break­fast things. His smile was huge with re­lief. ‘Sorry, Fran. I have to go.’

‘I know, but…’

‘See you tonight. I may be a bit late.’

‘This will only take three min­utes,’ she said. ‘Nick!’

He kissed her fleet­ingly on the mouth.

‘Sorry, haven’t got three min­utes,’ he said, and then he was gone.

He hadn’t got any time for her at all lately. Last night, he’d come home long af­ter she’d gone to bed. She’d been toss­ing and turn­ing, wor­ry­ing about him, but was too tired and an­gry for a con­fronta­tion when he crept into the bed­room. She daren’t let the lid come off the re­sent­ment she was hold­ing in­side.

Was it re­ally too much to want three min­utes of his time now?

She stacked the dish­washer

and set it to run, filled the wash­ing ma­chine, tim­ing it to fin­ish just be­fore she got home from work. She re­duced the heat on the chilli she had sim­mer­ing in the slow cooker.

Af­ter one last look around, she grabbed her bag and jacket and left the house. Fran ar­rived at school early and went straight to her class­room. It was so peace­ful be­fore her 24 six-year-olds ar­rived. She smiled. How lucky she was to be do­ing a job she loved. It had its share of stress and worry, but there was noth­ing to com­pare with watch­ing a group of chil­dren grow in con­fi­dence and abil­ity over the year.

She sat on one of the ta­bles and looked out across the school field. The break­fast­club kids were out there run­ning around, let­ting off steam. For a mo­ment, she for­got her wor­ries, but they trick­led back like the sea slid­ing into a foot­print on the beach.

Her life would be per­fect if it wasn’t for Nick chang­ing so much. She adored him, but for the last few months he’d been com­ing home later and later, and the closeness they’d once shared had van­ished.

Sit­ting out in the gar­den in the evening with a bot­tle of wine and chat­ting un­til stars speck­led the sky was a thing of the past. Ev­ery time she sug­gested do­ing any­thing, whether it be invit­ing the fam­ily round or go­ing to see a show, he’d say, ‘Let’s not.’

He’d had a week off a cou­ple of months ago, and it had been like old times, but, once he was back at work, he be­came dis­tant again.

Once she’d started to sus­pect him of hav­ing an af­fair, every­thing he did took on a sus­pi­cious mean­ing. He even smelled dif­fer­ent, and he’d let his hair grow longer. He’d lost weight, too, and she’d no­ticed him stash­ing a bag in his boot on more than one oc­ca­sion.

‘Morn­ing!’ Libby, one of her teach­ing as­sis­tants called out cheer­fully as she came into the class­room, jolt­ing Fran from her thoughts.

‘Morn­ing,’ Fran replied, just as her phone started to ring.

‘Fran? Hi, it’s Hilary from the surgery. I’m sorry to bother you, but do you know where your mum is?’

‘Mum? She should be there,’ Fran said as an icy fin­ger touched the back of her neck. What now?

‘That’s the thing. She hasn’t turned up. I won­dered if some­thing was wrong. I’ve tried ring­ing her land­line and her mo­bile, but she’s not an­swer­ing.’

Fran bit her lip and could feel the rapid ham­mer beat of her heart as she rose to her feet. Her stom­ach dropped in re­sponse to a feel­ing of dread.

‘It’s not like Mar­i­anne not to call in. One of the other nurses is see­ing her pa­tients, but we’re a bit con­cerned.’

‘I’ll pop over and check on her,’ Fran said. ‘Let me know if she turns up.’

‘Prob­lem, Fran?’ Libby asked as Fran slid her phone into her pocket.

‘Not sure,’ Fran an­swered. ‘Do you need to go?’

‘I think I do. That was the surgery. Mum didn’t turn up for work this morn­ing and they can’t get hold of her.’

‘Go,’ Libby said. ‘We can get Ruth to cover for you.’ ‘Thanks. I’m sorry.’

‘Don’t be. Get Nick to go

with you, just in case.’

But Mar­i­anne was only 50, and in very good health.

There should be no ‘just in case’ to worry about. Be­sides, she couldn’t dis­turb Nick to­day. He had that im­por­tant con­fer­ence call, af­ter all.

She grabbed her jacket and hur­ried out to the car park.

‘Where are you off to in such a hurry?’ an­other teacher called out to her.

‘Fam­ily emer­gency,’ Fran called back. ‘I’ll be back be­fore reg­is­tra­tion.’

She sat in her car for a mo­ment, breath­ing deeply be­fore try­ing her mother’s mo­bile and land­line. No re­ply to ei­ther. It was per­fectly pos­si­ble she’d for­got­ten her phone and

was stuck in traf­fic on her way to the surgery with no way of let­ting any­one know she was de­layed.

That must be it. When Mar­i­anne re­alised how ev­ery­one was wor­ry­ing about her, she’d laugh at them and say they were daft. Fran smiled at the thought. Her

mother was least flap­pable per­son she knew.

She was also the most re­li­able. She’d hate let­ting her pa­tients down, even if one of the other prac­tice

nurses was fill­ing in for her.

The sooner Fran got over to her mum’s and sorted this out, the bet­ter. She drove past the surgery and took the re­verse of the route Mar­i­anne would take, but there was no sign of her, and no hold-ups.

When she ar­rived at the bun­ga­low, the car wasn’t on the drive. Fran rang the surgery in case she’d turned up, but they still hadn’t seen or heard from her.

‘Where are you, Mum?’ she whis­pered as she opened the door and stepped in­side.

The bun­ga­low felt empty, but the ra­dio was on and, as she walked down the hall, chitchat mor­phed into Olly Murs singing about be­ing cold and alone. What words to hear when her mother was miss­ing! And how was it pos­si­ble for Fran to miss her so much al­ready when she’d only seen her yes­ter­day? In the kitchen, the re­mains of Mar­i­anne’s break­fast were on the ta­ble – half a slice of toast and an al­most full mug of tea. The tea had been spilt slightly, as if Mar­i­anne’s hand had been shak­ing as she’d set the mug down.

‘Mum!’ Fran called out,

just in case, but there was no an­swer. She turned the ra­dio off and went to the back door, shak­ing her head when she found it un­locked. ‘For good­ness’ sake,’ she mut­tered as she stepped into the gar­den. What on earth would pos­sess her mother to rush out and leave the bun­ga­low un­se­cured?

She must have been called out on an emer­gency. Some­one needed her, and she’d dropped every­thing. Tak­ing off in re­sponse to a cry for help was typ­i­cal of her.

Wash­ing bil­lowed on the

line, fill­ing the air with the scent of fab­ric soft­ener. Fran stood, hands on hips, look­ing around the small gar­den as if ex­pect­ing her mother to sud­denly ma­te­ri­alise. There’d been no hint that any­thing was wrong yes­ter­day. Per­haps noth­ing was wrong and Fran

was jump­ing the gun.

She went back in­side, threw away the toast and tea, and put the dishes in the dish­washer. Mar­i­anne’s lap­top was open on the ta­ble. Fran closed it.

All she could do was leave a note, ask­ing Mar­i­anne to get in touch as soon as she got home. At least she could make sure the bun­ga­low was locked up.

As she was get­ting into her car, the young woman who’d moved in next door came out, a child rest­ing on her hip.

‘Ex­cuse me, are you Mar­i­anne’s daugh­ter?’

‘Yes.’

‘I hope she’s all right?’ ‘Why shouldn’t she be? Do you know where she is?’

‘No idea, but she ran out this morn­ing and screeched off the drive, then ended up

fish­tail­ing down the road. I thought she was go­ing to crash! I haven’t known her long, but she doesn’t seem the sort to be reck­less.’

‘No, she isn’t. Did any­thing hap­pen be­fore that? Did you see any­one here?’

She frowned and shook her head. ‘No-one. She shouldn’t drive like that, though, no mat­ter how up­set she is.’

‘No, no, she shouldn’t. Thanks. I’ll speak to her… when I find her.’

If I find her. The thought shook Fran as it came out of the blue.

Her phone was ring­ing, and she thanked the neigh­bour and went back to her car. It was the surgery again. ‘Mum?’ she said hope­fully. ‘Sorry, Fran, no. I was ring­ing to see if there was any news?’

‘Noth­ing,’ Fran said.

If only Terry were still alive. He’d know what to do. He was de­pend­able and strong – the sort of man who made every­thing right. Fran’s mem­o­ries of the time be­fore Terry came into their lives were hazy. The strong­est was of star­ing down at her white an­kle socks and red san­dals while Mar­i­anne brushed her hair un­til she pulled away, fed up.

They were sit­ting out­side on con­crete steps, catch­ing a tiny shaft of sun that was bleed­ing through a gap in the

The tea had been spilt slightly, as if Mar­i­anne’s hand had been shak­ing

‘It’s just us, Fran­nie, you and me. We don’t need any­one else’

build­ings op­po­site. Mar­i­anne raked a comb through the brush, pulled away a hand­ful of hair and dropped it into the breeze.

‘The birds can use that for their nests.’

Then the man – the tall man with dark, curly hair

that flopped over his fore­head – stooped and swept the hair up in his huge hand.

Fran re­mem­bered how her heart had leapt at the sight of him. Daddy!

‘No,’ he said to Mar­i­anne, ex­am­in­ing the hair. ‘Hu­man hair can get caught round birds’ legs and cause in­juries.’

Mar­i­anne jumped to her feet. ‘Get in­side, Fran­nie,’ she said, turn­ing Fran round and pat­ting her bot­tom so she ran up the steps.

The man smiled at her and winked, and Fran smiled back. She held her arms out to him, want­ing him to pick her up and hoist her onto his shoul­ders like he al­ways did. See­ing him again made her want to laugh and cry at the same time.

She used to bury her

fin­gers in his hair – and, to

make him laugh, she’d hold

her hands over his eyes.

‘Go!’ Mar­i­anne snapped, so Fran went, run­ning all the

way up the stairs to their flat, sob­bing be­cause she didn’t want to run away from him.

They lived in one room with a kitchen in one cor­ner and a bed in the other. The only bright spot was where the net cur­tain blew in.

Mar­i­anne’s an­gry voice

drifted in through the

win­dow. ‘How did you find us, Denny?’

‘It wasn’t easy, but I told you I’d come for you.’

‘And I told you not to.’ Fran leaned out of the win­dow, hop­ing her mum would bring him in so she could climb on his lap and pull at the gold ear­ring he wore. He al­ways brought laugh­ter, and she’d missed that since they’d left him.

‘OK,’ Mar­i­anne said. ‘Come back in the morn­ing, Denny. We can talk then. I need time to get my head straight.’

‘You’re not go­ing to run out on me, are you?’

‘No, Denny. That’s what

you do.’

When Mar­i­anne came up­stairs, she started throw­ing their things in bags.

‘We’re leav­ing,’ she said.

Fran was happy about that.

She didn’t like the flat at the

top of the stairs or the noisy

man who lived op­po­site and

shouted out drunk­enly in the mid­dle of the night.

‘Are we go­ing back to live with Daddy?’ she asked hope­fully. ‘When he comes back to­mor­row?’

‘You don’t have a daddy,’ Mar­i­anne replied, hug­ging her tight. ‘It’s just us, Fran­nie, you and me. We don’t need any­one else.’

Their next home was a

beaten-up car­a­van on a farm with a leaky roof and noisy geese that tapped on the

door with their beaks ev­ery morn­ing. Mar­i­anne worked on the farm while Fran ei­ther trailed round be­hind her or stayed in the farm­house with the other work­ers’ chil­dren.

They’d moved around

fol­low­ing the work un­til the weather had turned cold, then Mar­i­anne had taken Fran into a town.

She re­mem­bered meet­ing Terry at the cloth­ing factory

for the first time. He was al­ways smil­ing, and had taken her to a room with other chil­dren, where she’d

been given milk and bis­cuits.

She’d hid­den some bis­cuits

in her pocket to give to her mum. Young as she was,

Fran knew that Mar­i­anne was go­ing with­out food so that she could eat.

When Mar­i­anne came back for her, she said that she had a job as a trainee ma­chin­ist and that things were go­ing to get bet­ter – and she’d been right.

It was the turn­ing point. A few months on, Mar­i­anne started bring­ing Terry home, and Fran adored him. He bought her sweets and tapped the side of his nose say­ing, ‘Don’t let it spoil your tea or I’ll be in trou­ble with your mother.’

Look­ing back, he was an

av­er­age man with mid-brown hair speck­led with grey, and soft, brown eyes, but he was Fran’s hero. He was quite a bit older than Mar­i­anne, but that didn’t mat­ter.

Fran would sit on Terry’s lap while he read to her, and she could still re­mem­ber his smell – a mix­ture of pipe to­bacco and ex­tra-strong mints. She tried one once, and had to spit it out into a tis­sue be­cause it felt as if her mouth was burn­ing. Blink­ing back tears now, she went to call Nick. But how could she? He was far too busy. She sent him a text: Mum miss­ing. I’m look­ing for her. Maybe, if he cared, he’d call her.

She tried ring­ing her mother again. No an­swer. But then she re­mem­bered they’d put ‘lo­ca­tion shar­ing’ on their phones ages ago.

‘Just in case you ever get lost like you did in Woolies that time, do you re­mem­ber?’ Mar­i­anne had laughed be­cause it was so long ago, but Fran could re­mem­ber it

very clearly.

The shop was had been hot and crowded with peo­ple buy­ing Christ­mas dec­o­ra­tions and wrap­ping pa­per, and some­how Fran was pushed be­tween two gon­do­las and couldn’t get out again.

Mar­i­anne reck­oned they’d

have heard Fran’s screams at the other end of the High Street. She’d found her quickly and pulled her into her arms, and she reck­oned it had taken all day for them both to stop shak­ing.

She checked the phone map and saw Mar­i­anne’s smil­ing photo in a round

bub­ble just above the petrol sta­tion, but it hadn’t up­dated for a cou­ple of hours.

Nev­er­the­less, it was a start. Their lives had changed be­yond recog­ni­tion when Mar­i­anne had mar­ried Terry. They moved into his big house on Franklin Av­enue and Mar­i­anne had her hair cut short and be­gan to dress like the teach­ers at Fran’s school. She wore jew­ellery and per­fume and started to train as a nurse.

Some­times it seemed to Fran that she’d had two moth­ers: be­fore Terry and af­ter Terry. She missed the Mar­i­anne of old, the one with a riot of corn-coloured

curls tum­bling over her shoul­ders, who used to squeeze Fran so tight she could hardly breathe. She missed those big hugs. Fran called the school and told them she wouldn’t be in for the rest of the day.

Then she headed straight for the petrol sta­tion.

‘Hello, Fran,’ Ja­mal greeted

She’d had some silly no­tion of wait­ing for the re­sult with Nick

her with a smile. ‘Shouldn’t you be at school?’

‘I’m look­ing for my mum,’ she said. ‘Have you seen her?’

‘Yes. Didn’t she tell you about her trip?’ His smile faded at the blank look on Fran’s face, and he shook his head. ‘She was in a ter­ri­ble hurry. She wanted to know if I sold sat navs, but I only have the old-fash­ioned sort.’

Fran frowned, puz­zled, prompt­ing him to point at a rack of maps and map books. ‘Why did she need a map?’ If there was one thing Mar­i­anne didn’t like, it was driv­ing. Go­ing back and forth to work was about her limit.

‘I as­sume Devon is un­fa­mil­iar to her,’ Ja­mal said. ‘Devon?’

‘She seemed rather up­set,’ he said. ‘Dis­tracted.’

‘I’d bet­ter fill up with petrol then,’ Fran said. ‘It seems I’m go­ing to Devon.’

Although what she’d do when she got there was an­other mat­ter. She could hardly just drive around hop­ing to catch sight of her mother. But per­haps by the time she got there, Mar­i­anne would have been in touch.

Back home, she turned off the slow cooker and threw enough clothes into a bag for a week.

Be­fore leav­ing, she went into the bath­room and took the preg­nancy test­ing kit from the cup­board. She’d been go­ing to do it this morn­ing, but she’d had some silly no­tion of wait­ing for the re­sult with Nick.

Now she sat on the edge of the bath, alone, think­ing that these had to be the long­est three min­utes of her life.

While she waited, she tried call­ing Nick on his mo­bile. He wasn’t an­swer­ing. This was ridicu­lous – it was an emer­gency! He’d told her not to call him at work any more; it was too busy, jobs were on the line, the com­pany was crack­ing down. It all sounded like a bunch of lame ex­cuses to her now.

She called his di­rect line, but a stranger an­swered.

‘Could I speak to Nick, please? It’s ur­gent.’

She could hear muf­fled voices as the stranger spoke to some­one else.

She stood up, hold­ing the phone against her ear. Her heart was thud­ding, her stom­ach ty­ing it­self in knots.

‘Hello!’ she called into the phone im­pa­tiently.

‘Hello, Fran?’

It was a voice she vaguely recog­nised, some col­league of Nick’s she’d spo­ken to at work par­ties. The men she’d met tended to blend into one – men in suits. They all looked the same, ex­cept Nick. He stood out from the rest.

‘I need to speak to Nick,’

she said, fight­ing to keep the trem­ble out of her voice. ‘Nick’s not here.’ ‘Per­haps you can tell me

where he is?’ she asked stiffly.

It was like try­ing to squeeze blood out of a stone. Why were they be­ing so eva­sive?

‘I’m afraid I have no idea. Nick hasn’t worked here for some time.’

‘What do you mean by “some time”? Days?’

‘More like months, Fran. I’m sorry.’

She hung up, scared and hu­mil­i­ated. Just what was go­ing on? Bad enough that her mum had dis­ap­peared,

but now to find Nick had

been ly­ing to her. Why?

She looked down at the preg­nancy test­ing stick and dou­ble-checked the re­sult. The news that should have been joy­ous brought only de­spair. How could she bring a baby into this mess? CON­TIN­UES NEXT WEEK

Teresa Ashby, 2019

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