Runaway by Teresa Ashby
Her mother was behaving completely out of character. Something was clearly very wrong...
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?’
‘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
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
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.
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