The dawn mist hung softly in the air, tinged with the promise of gold as the sun’s fingers gently caressed the earth. The small group walked confidently but silently towards the house, their weapons hung loosely by their sides. They did not expect a fight. The decision made, the order given. What was the point of fighting it?
The small wooden door was shut. The animal skin hanging over it gently flapped in the cool breeze. The leader stopped and listened but there was no sound from within. Glancing upwards, he saw that no smoke rose from the small hole in the roof: something was wrong. He forced the door open, stepping into the gloom; the others swiftly followed.
His cry shattered the silence, followed by the smashing of pottery as he unleashed his fury at such blatant defiance. He had acted weak for the sake of friendship and battles won. A mistake he must rectify. The man charged out of the house and quickly scanned the surrounding area.
The others gathered around him. Hatred and fear burned on each man’s face. Their weapons no longer remained idle. They gripped them tightly as the intensity of their emotion transferred to the wooden handles and along the shaft to the sharp, cold metal of their axes and swords.
Each man waited impatiently for their chief to give the order. They willed it, unable to keep their feet from moving. They had to go and they had to go now or may Odin forgive them if anyone else should step into their path. There would be no peace now until blood had been spilt.
Finally their chief gave the order and with it came their voices. They growled their consent and their bodies gave way to the roar of blood in their veins. They moved as one in the only direction their prey could have fled: the river, towards the sea.
The young girl watched the men disappear among the trees, and wiped away her tear. They did not see her and that would be in her favour, but she could not have stopped herself from watching even though her life may depend on it. Knowing the fate of the family and the reasons behind the decision did not lessen her grief: after all, she had known them all her twelve years and spoken with them almost every day.
She had sat beside the woman on untold occasions in the great hall whilst listening to stories, singing songs and praying to the gods. They had shared many meals, gossiping while she learned new skills for when she was married. Only yesterday she had shared a tearful moment with the woman Astrid over the death of yet another child. She had whispered her fear that the sickness was walking among them all and would soon choose another, and she was right.
She had heard the whispers of some who believed that this was a curse from the gods. They were angry because Halldor had allowed the priest to come into their village and talk of his God. She slammed her fist against the doorpost. She despised the new God that had brought so much unrest amongst her people. This one, true God who loved all of his children, yet the priest had said he had sacrificed his own son. Odin would triumph over such a cruel and weak god.
She closed her eyes for a moment, her head now resting against the wooden doorframe as a wave of dizziness swept over her. She felt hot against the cool morning air and knew that she had been cursed too. She had hours, perhaps a day before the sickness took a firm hold and then she would be fighting for her life. She felt the stirring of the world as it came awake and said a swift prayer to the God Odin and her favourite Goddess, Freya, before turning away back to her bed.
The rain had finally stopped sometime around four thirty. Getting out of bed for the sixth time Helen wandered around the house, their home for the last eleven years. Thoughts and memories of their lives ran at full speed through her head; it was beginning to hurt. Yawning, she made herself another cup of tea and climbed back into her cold bed, the mug resting warmly on her knee.
She sat that way for a very long time, trying to recall good memories. Most had centred around her daughter, but there had been others: though rare, they were there. She had woken abruptly with the early morning sun on her face and the cat purring loudly in her ear, the empty mug lying beside her.
Heaving another black bag out of the front door, Helen wiped her brow as the sweat trickled down the side of her face, tickling her neck. She glanced quickly inside the car to check that her daughter Charlotte was okay. She smiled as she watched Charlotte carefully comb her doll’s long blonde hair. Her high-pitched voice spoke clearly and precisely to the doll about what was happening today.
“You all right, baby girl?” Her voice did not betray her inner turmoil.
Charlotte looked up, waved the comb and smiled, “We’re okay Mummy. We are getting pretty for the journey. When are we going?”
Helen sighed loudly and pushed back a lock of hair, “Just getting the last bags now and then we’re off on an adventure; five more minutes …” She hated pretending, hoping to keep Charlotte from getting upset. Although, if she really thought about it, her daughter hadn’t got upset about the move when she’d been told. She had merely asked a few questions which had consisted of why, when and how and what would her new bedroom look like? Truth be told, she was the only one who felt negative about the move. She was the only one with doubts; but no one had cared if she would be upset.
Feeling miserable, exhausted and very lonely, she turned back towards the house and yanked out her large brown suitcase stuffed with clothes and knick-knacks. Jamming it into the last bit of space in the boot of the car, she ran back inside the house and picked up her large, multi-coloured shoulder bag that she’d had forever. It had so many patches on it she could barely remember the original pattern. Shifting it further up her shoulder, she scooped up a small handbag, a plastic bag full of sweets, crisps, fruit and sandwiches, a large bottle of water and a flask of hot coffee, all of which would be her life savers for the long trip.
Dropping them all onto their driveway she stopped. This was it; the moment she had dreaded for five months. From this instant her life was apparently supposed to change for the better! At least, that’s what she’d been attempting to convince herself. Staring at her front door, a memory came rushing back and she swallowed hard to contain the growing emotion that was choking her.
He had wanted to paint it a bright red colour that she’d said reminded her of blood. She’d suggested a lovely forest green colour that he said looked like something you’d find in your nose. They continuously argued and bickered about it until finally she had given in for a bit of peace. He had painted it red. It did look hideous and after a few months he changed the colour again, to black. Only this time, he hadn’t asked her opinion.
She thought of all the times he got his own way. Where they ate on the rare occasions he had taken her out on a date. The area they lived in, the holidays they had and when they could take them. It was always his friends from work that they met up with because he didn’t like her friends, saying he hated all the girlie giggling.
Work had been another battle. When they had met and married, she’d been a full time nurse at the local hospital. A fact he’d used on numerous occasions to make some inappropriate joke to his work colleagues. However, once Charlotte was born, his attitude changed. She’d agreed in principal that she wanted to be a full time Mum for a while anyway, but once Charlotte reached a year old, she’d wanted to return to work on a part time basis. It was the cause of many disagreements on child-care, which was a joke as far as she was concerned, considering his lack of parenting.
Robert had not been happy about her pregnancy and had even hinted that the timing was bad. She’d known what that meant and withdrew from him even further. Robert played very little part in her pregnancy. Always too busy at work to come to birthing classes or meetings with doctors; he even missed the scans.
It was the morning her waters broke she caught him watching her in the kitchen, a slight smile on his face. “You’re carrying a cherry pip. You look ready to burst …”
She’d rounded on him, months of frustration unleashed, “Cherry pip! This is a baby, you idiot … A BABY! You haven’t shown one ounce of interest until now and that’s the best you can come up with? You bastard!”
Robert had rushed to her side, taking her completely by surprise and held her tightly. She tried to fight him, but she was too big and too exhausted.
“I’ll stay home today.” It was as if he’d known. Later that morning, her waters broke and after nine hours of labour, Charlotte was born.
“My cherry pip.” Was the first thing he’d said when the nurse handed him his child and it stuck. She became known as Cherry. He’d cared then. Taking the time off and spending hours with her at the hospital, staring down at his daughter, watching fascinated when she’d breast fed Cherry. Two days after coming home, he’d gone back to work.
Now he was getting his own way, yet again, they were moving house because he needed a new start. He needed to get away from the bad memories for which he was responsible. He needed to run and hide and pretend everything would be all right. He could go on pretending if he hid in his old town, returned to his roots and started again.
Robert had convinced himself that it could work, but not her. She was sick and tired of hearing about his damned needs. What he needed to survive, what he needed to get his life back on track, what he needed to save their marriage. ‘Needs’: it was a word she had begun to despise this last year.
He hadn’t even had the decency to discuss the move before making a final decision. She vaguely remembered a brief conversation that went something like, “I need to get away from here, how about the Wirral? I have been offered a new job down there to start when I am ready. It’s not the same amount of money, but we won’t starve, so how about it? We leave as soon as we sell this place.”
She had sat in stunned silence for a long time after he’d darted from the room in the hope of avoiding any arguments. A large part of her hadn’t cared about moving. One house was just like another when your marriage is a joke, with no friends and no permanent job. The other part of her hated his every fibre and wanted to scream in his smug face to go to hell! Go to bloody Wirral and never return.
However, there was darling Cherry. How could she consider leaving her without a Dad? True, he hadn’t been much of a Dad since her birth, except this last year. If his breakdown had accomplished nothing else, he had found his fatherhood and bonded with Cherry.
It sickened her that Robert finally decided to behave as though Cherry existed and it had hurt her deeply that their daughter warmed to him, accepting him without question and yes, she could admit that jealousy played a big part, but surely, she’d earned those feelings?
The day after his announcement, she’d cornered him in the kitchen and pointed out to him that Cherry had only just begun a new playgroup and would be starting school very soon. Had he considered Cherry’s thoughts on the move? As it turned out he had: and Cherry was fine about moving.
She’d stared at him dumbfounded, looking for any sign of arrogance or smugness, but there’d been none. Merely a look of hope and expectancy; and she’d quickly left the kitchen feeling more like an outsider than ever before.
Shaking herself she tried to think of anything positive, but it was an extremely hard emotion to feel after the trauma of being married to a selfish bastard. She thought of all the times that she’d packed a bag, determined that enough was enough, only to cry and stay.
She was very aware that over the years she had become weak, allowing him to dictate her life; it wasn’t something she was proud about. She cringed whenever she thought about it for too long. Robert had once been a man she could count on. A man who looked after her, loved her, wanted her, desired her, but that had been a long time ago. Now she had no idea what he felt for her and absolutely no idea what she felt for him.
The man in question had left yesterday in his car to follow the removal van and had hardly looked at her mumbling a goodbye and “see you around dinner time …?”
She’d closed the door without saying a word. Since his breakdown, she’d scrambled around for anything positive to cling onto, but her time had run out. They were moving away from everything she knew and she hadn’t come up with any alternative plan. The sale of the house had been quicker than expected. Then the madness that followed, caring for Charlotte, packing, and sorting boxes in-between doing temporary work at the hospital; she hadn’t given herself time to think about it.
She realised now that she’d welcomed the madness, allowing it to take over and pull her in. It meant she wasn’t thinking, remembering or grieving for the man she’d lost. If she kept as busy as possible, she could pretend her life was fine and not shit. Now, she couldn’t continue hiding from the awful truth; they were leaving today and her stomach clenched with fear at making a terrible mistake.
Her friends, who had once been many, had slowly dwindled over the last four years as she shied away from them, making excuses for not having nights out or morning coffee. She had withdrawn and they had not followed. The single goodbye card she received through the post yesterday had confirmed her loneliness. They had stopped coming to the house long ago, now they could not even come to say goodbye. The card soaked, by her tears, was stuffed into her shoulder bag, a reminder of what she had once had.
“Mummy! When can we go?”
Taking a deep breath, she quickly wiped her face and turned to smile at her daughter who was poking her head through the car window. “We’re all set I think, or have we forgotten anything?” Pretending to search under the car, she heard Cherry tut.
“Mummy, you know Twinkle is already in the car with Emily and me.”
“Is Twinkle all right?”
Right on cue Twinkle gave a loud meow. She plastered on a fake smile and pushed the bags onto the back seat next to Cherry and slammed the door. Twinkle meowed loudly again. The poor cat didn’t sound too happy about the move either. She poked a finger through the cat basket and gave the cat a little tickle under the chin. Poor darling, she knew how she felt. After all, this had been Twinkle’s territory all her three and a half years. She’d rescued Twinkle the day Charlotte had come home from the hospital, two days old. The kitten had been dumped in the bin outside the maternity ward; some person’s idea of a sick joke.
Taking the kitten to the vet the next day, he’d told her that it was only five weeks old. Thrown away like rubbish: she’d decided there and then that she was keeping it, and paid for the treatments before gently carrying the tiny kitten home in a box, still with Charlotte happily sleeping against her chest in her baby carrier.
She must have looked a terrible sight to the young vet. Tired eyes she could barely open from only an hour’s sleep. Her lady bits bruised and battered that had made walking a little difficult - and large round stains on her shirt from leaking nipples as her milk came in, which brought with it a wave of tears that sat on the surface ready to fall at every opportunity; she’d cried twice whilst with the poor vet. To top it all off, she stank of breast milk, baby puke and pooh! No wonder the vet always smiled whenever she returned for Twinkle’s annual jabs, he was probably remembering the state she had been in.