She woke up in a flat she had never been to before, with a vague idea that something had gone very wrong. A quick check of her immediate self revealed she was fully dressed and had both kidneys still in place. They were making themselves felt – groaning under the orthodoxy that too much of too many things is bad for you. Having ascertained limbs still functioned, she surveyed her surroundings. White walls, flora bedding, storage company branded boxes stacked on ever available surface. No landmines or hidden camera though.
After slowly getting to a seated position and then to her feet, she stubbled across the ancient boards, who’s groans matched her own, to a set of stairs which could best be described as treacherous. Gingerly, feeling each tread with the trepidation a free climber at the peak of Everest, she stumbled her way to the top of the steps and tentatively pushed open the door.
The large open plan room beyond told her little more than the bedroom below. Bare, unclaimed walls with scant furniture and a few unboxed belongings strewn on available surfaces. There was a panini toaster on a footstool in what she supposed was the bathroom.
If I die here as they remove my kidneys, she thought, at least they won’t have to scrub down the soft furnishings.
She searched the cupboards and the unplugged fridge for clues of occupancy, or at the least a tea bag and some UHT milk. Neither were forthcoming.
Finally, it occurred to her to check the door. As she suspected, it was double locked. She was clearly being held prisoner for nefarious reasons in an suburban London gang pad, ready to be shipped off for the white slave trade. Quietly, she thanked her lucky stars for impacted wisdom teeth and extracted molar last year, fully believing this would keep her at least from having her teeth sold on Dark Web eBay.
Well, if slavery it was, the least she could do was face it clean. She located the dusty shower and an ominously stiff towel.
The joy of not smelling of an odd combination of whisky and olive oil, revived her flagging spirits.
So, she surmised as she pulled her disparate thoughts together, the bedroom is on the ground floor. I can simply climb out the window.
A further ten minutes saw her locate her shoes, approximately 20 feet away from each other, and bag, in a cupboard disguised as a spare room. Or, more likely knowing London real-estate, it was a room housing a small family of ten.
Downstairs, much to her surprise, the sash window slid smoothly upward. Either the kidnappers – obviously numerous kidnappers as part of an international plot to grab powerful, high value females with natural child-bearing hips for sale on the open market – thought she was out for the count or that she was too weak and defenceless to find her way out of the flat. All those hours playing locked room puzzles on the schools BBC computer back in the day, were finally bearing fruit. She was however acutely aware, she was the wrong side of 35 to be doing this, but it was an emergency. Propriety be damned.
It was just as she was halfway out the window, that she heard the “ummmmm, hello…?”
Still recumbent across the frame, astride the window sill, with posterior hanging out jeans, she dubiously turned her head to see him.
Him?! What the hell was he doing here. He was supposed to be in Singapore or Dubai or wherever raging balls of darkness like him went to make phenomenal amounts of money in soulless jobs that sucked the life out of humanity.
Not moving from her position, casually as she could manage she said, hello.
Why are you climbing out of my bedroom window?
This sent her mind whirring. His bedroom window? How had she ended up in his bedroom, let alone astride his velux window?
I was just admiring the quality of the workmanship. Are these new?
She was impressed at her own insouciance. He looked less awed. Rumpled. Carrying a stack of newspapers and a large bottle of fizzy water.
I thought you might need this.
He held out the water, like a zoologist trying to placate a rabid tiger with a banana. It was at this point she realised she could actually put her feet on the floor either side the window. She grabbed the proffered bottle and gulped down the contents, aware for the first time quite how thirsty she was. Then she burped. She should be mortified, but after all this time there was little she hadn’t done in his presence.
He regarded her, that long hard stare that she had come to dread. Reserved only for her, at her most ridiculous.
Cass, he said, a deep sigh punctuating the sentence that had ended everything five years ago.
I think we need to talk.
They sat in the coffee shop, barely making eye contact. Over the last half hour, he had unravelled all the gory details of the night before. Cold shivers of recognition and horror cleared the cobwebs from her brain. She had called him, in tears apparently. Told him she was going to die if she was alone tonight. She’d seen his location on a Facebook post, knew he was in London, setting up his new home ahead of the arrival of his young wife and newborn baby.
When she arrived, drunk beyond sense, she had opened her mouth, vomiting what appeared to be frozen mojito on a €900 rug. He had taken her mobile – her phone of course!? She was usually chained to it – and put it safely in her bag, away from drunken fumbling or further spew-age.
The silence between them grew. A gulf in time and space no longer surmountable with a self deprecating turn of phrase.
You need to stop this. Stop backsliding. Anyone is not better than no one.
She looked up at him, not knowing how to explain. The sheer loneliness of the rejected; the grief of the lost. At least when people died, you didn’t have to watch them be happy without you. She was a ghost. So she said nothing.
He paid the bill. She had lost her purse at some point during the evening’s adventures. He made a joke about that being convenient.
After an awkward goodbye, neither knowing what the protocol sign-off of a home invasion was, she tottered uncertainly to the bus stop.
Suddenly, she realised, as the 102 pulled away with her stowed aboard its scuffed back seat, she felt lighter. She didn’t want him. Not really. Not ever. He’d gotten bald and soft round the edges, a full roll of stomach clearly visible over his jogging bottoms. Jogging bottoms? When did he decide it was acceptable to wear those in public? He clearly hadn’t been to the gym for…
Settlement for him, commitment to his now old new life, had meant subsidence, of both his looks and, it seemed to her, the extinction of the bright light that had been his fervent charm. He was beaten meat. One wife and one baby, and to be fair a very long-haul flight, had left him smattered on the pavement, without the resilience to embrace the life he’d always claimed to desire. The life that had never featured her.
And she was glad. Happiness welled up inside her, forcing out a laugh from between her dry lips. The sun shone in through the grubby bus window. She drew a smiley in the interior grime. Suddenly, she felt better than she had in years.