April 2016: Present day
Punishment for the three-year-old could come suddenly and without warning. Only when the boy heard the heavy, clumping footsteps almost upon him did he shake with uncontrollable dread.
He was gazing out through the barred window at the manicured grounds bordered by a small stream, fronded willows and golden laburnums. It was one of those long shadowed afternoons and the elegant garden lay still and empty under a watery sun.
The boy's hand curved against the glass pane as he pretended to cup the swaying branches that edged the flowing water.
He was listening to the voice as he always did. Not the voice of the one who took care of him. No, this was a sweet voice that covered him in a warm, blissful breath. He loved the voice. It called him something, but he could not hold on to the memory of it. He tried to understand, but the world was like a soft pink 1cloud. He whispered a song to himself, enjoying the feeling of sound on his tongue.
Heavy steps thumped to a halt behind him.
Before he could draw breath, his wheelchair was yanked from the window and spun around to face the room. He appealed to his toy soldiers, teddy bears and bouncy ball for help whilst chattering a string of meaningless, fearful sounds.
A trickle of warm saliva slid from the boy's open mouth and descended in a slimy rivulet towards his chin. He blinked in frustration as he tried to close his drooling lips, but his facial muscles would not fully respond. The child tried to wipe the spittle away. He raised his hands to his face, but the nurse got there before him. She dabbed his mouth with a clean tissue. "There, isn't it that better?" she whispered.
The boy shifted his gaze but gave no indication that he understood or even heard the nurse's voice. The other voice had gone and he was sad. His head lolled forward and a lock of blond hair fell onto his forehead as he averted his eyes.
He tried to move his head as the nurse patted his hair back into place then rested her hands on his shoulders.
"Daydreaming again, were you?" The pitch of her voice became more strident. "No time for that today, young man. Today is a big day and we're going to be busy, so no playing up."
From somewhere behind them a radio was playing, soft and muted in the distance. Karen Carpenter's velvet voice, aching with the pain of unrequited love, soared effortlessly.
'Why do birds suddenly appear every time you are near?'
The boy felt the nurse lower her face until her moist lips were close to his ear, then croon softly in a husky contralto. "Just like me, they long to be close to you."
The boy tensed and tried to move his head away from the nurse's warm breath. She giggled, and he felt the pressure of her hands leave his shoulders. Her touch was gentle as she stroked the soft downy hair at the nape of his neck.
His breath caught in his lungs as he watched the nurse's expression harden.
He heard her say. "We understand each other, don't we? In days gone by, children like you were locked away and forgotten; left to die. But we live in so-called enlightened times, or namby-pamby times as I call them, with all that child psychology nonsense. You'll be leaving here today for a new life. But what kind of life will that be, given..." She silenced herself abruptly and bit her lip.
He felt the nurse's fingers encircle his slender throat. He made a faint croaking noise and blinked away a tear. It trickled over her knuckles. Her fingers reacted by momentarily stiffening like talons. The boy wriggled and jerked his head. He placed his small hands on hers.
"It would so easy, so, so easy. You weren't expected to live after all, were you?"
The boy didn't understand the words but he heard her sigh with regret and felt her hands grip the handles of the wheelchair then push him away from the window and over to a low desk. She locked the wheels then sat down in a chair beside him. On the desk in front of them was a photograph album. The boy waited for her to speak.
"Today is a special day. And you look the bee's knees, you really do. I wonder where that expression came from, the bee's knees. It's funny, isn't it?"
He flinched when she touched the scar on his temple.
"Let's look at the photographs again, shall we? I know you understand."
The nurse opened the album and turned the pages. The images seemed to reflect in the boy's eyes as they both stared at the ghostly figures.
"There," said the nurse pausing at a snapshot of a handsome man and a pretty young woman holding a baby. They were sitting on a grassy hillock amid sand dunes. A seaside town shimmered in washed-out tones below them in the distance.
"There you are, darling, with mummy and daddy."
The boy moved his tongue. "Mu..." he muttered.
"You can't remember, of course you can't. You were a baby."
He hated it when she tweaked his ear. He wanted her to stop talking.
"You could at least try to say a few words. I've been teaching you your sounds and letters but you won't make the effort. I've heard you chattering to yourself when you thought I wasn't there."
She flipped one page after another. "That's you again on the garden lounger, and there you are being carried on mummy's back. And that's you at Blackpool Tower. You look so contented. That was before...but we mustn't speak of it, must we?"
The boy stared at the page. The photograph on display showed the same tall, good looking man. Beside him, a different woman held the baby.
"It gets a little complicated, darling. That's your other mummy. Aren't you a lucky boy?"
"Aahh!" he wailed. The boy became agitated, jiggling up and down in the wheelchair. He saw the nurse's expression change when she noticed the damp patch spreading across the front of his groin. The boy trembled and fluttered his hands.
The nurse closed the album and put it back on the table. She squeezed her eyes and inhaled a deep, calming breath. "Oh, you haven't," she said crossly. "Those are your new going away clothes. You've been out of nappies for ages. I'll have to change you now."
The boy whimpered when she reached out, took his earlobe in her fingers and twisted it. "You know what you get for doing that, don't you? I pull down your pants, put you over my knee and smack your bottom, don't I? Only when you deserve it, though. I thought you'd grown out of that kind of behaviour."
The boy tried to speak but his mouth could not translate his thoughts.
He heard the nurse say. "Well, as this is a special day I'm not going to chastise you. I'll fetch some fresh clothes for you and we'll get you looking smart and lovely again."
The boy watched as she went over to a large chest from which she selected fresh underwear, a pair of striped trousers and a pale blue shirt. She undressed him, and he began to wriggle. The nurse checked the wheelchair and dabbed it with a tissue.
She cleaned and dressed him, her movements slow, deliberate and well practiced. "There, that's better, isn't it? Not long now and you'll be leaving here for the last time. I know you can walk a little and soon you won't need the wheelchair but I need to strap you in for the journey."
The child said goodbye to his posters and mobiles, his bed with railings, his box of toys and his stuffed bears scattered on the floor as he was pushed around the nursery. He waved at them sadly. It was a light, airy room with a pale carpet patterned with images of cartoon characters.
The nurse knelt by the boy and peered into his eyes. He tried to look away.
"All those tests and all those experts. Still, you have made progress. The doctors have high hopes for you. I shall miss you, darling. Even though I punished you sometimes it was for your own good and much better for you than all those drugs. Some old-fashioned methods are still the best."
The nurse glanced at her watch and sighed. "It's time." She leaned in and kissed the boy's cheek. He regarded her with a glassy-eyed stare.
The nurse's heels click-clacked on the porcelain tiles as she pushed the wheelchair out of the door and along a brightly lit whitewashed corridor.
At the far end, a corona of light blazed from an open door to the street.
The boy's head lolled to one side as he stared at the silhouette of a tall man haloed in the doorway, his image flickering in the heat haze effect. The man didn't move. The light behind him made him appear as a solid black figure, framed in the doorway with no face or features.
The man took a step forward.
Two months later – East Sutton Open Prison, Kent
The red brick Elizabethan mansion house overlooking the weald of Kent, complete with a working farm, might, to the casual observer, have been owned by an Internet mogul or a reclusive rock star.
The stonework glowed in the April sunlight as a Ferrari purred along the drive and parked in the visitor's sector.
"Two years, four months and seven days," said Jess as she prepared to leave her cell. Prison officer Miller regarded her with an expression verging on respect.
"Anything you don't want to keep goes in the black bag," she said, keeping her voice stern but neutral. "Time off for good behaviour. You should be grateful."
"Grateful?" said Jess as she tied up the string on the rubbish bag.
"You've done all right here," said Miller. "It wasn't all bad, was it?"
"I'll miss the gardening," Jess admitted. "I never thought I'd like growing anything, let alone vegetables."
"You'll be a big loss to the drama group," said Miller. "Then, some say you gave your best performance in court."
"Is that what they say?" said Jess. She looked around her cell. "I'll miss them too. We put on some good shows."
"And you only lost privileges a couple of times," Miller reminded her.
"The bitches were jealous, that's all."
"You've got some guts. I must say. Taking on the nastiest lady in here and almost winning."
"It was a draw," said Jess. "And she's no lady."
"We had to pull you off Cronin."
"She deserved it."
"It still cost you."
"Yes," said Jess, "But once a few palms were greased..."
"What're you insinuating?"
Jess smiled at her. "The governor was very pleased with the donation, let's leave at that."
"Come on," said Miller, "let's go."
As she left her cell for the last time, the farewell cacophony began.
"Good luck, Jess."
"You did the right thing, girl."
"Piss off, baby snatcher."
"Shut the fuck up, Cronin."
"I'd have done the same, Jess."
"Hey, big spender..."
"Spend a little time with me," came the croaking chorus.
"You won't need support on the outside," said Miller as she escorted Jess out of the main cellblock and along the corridor. "They'll be collecting you, will they?"
"Yes, they will."
Jess turned her head away from the prison officer as they walked down the puce coloured corridor with its high windows and quarry tiled floor. But she was going to behave herself to the last. Only a few minutes to go.
"I'm surprised he's still around after what he did," said Miller.
"He's come to his senses," said Jess but her voice lacked conviction.
"Still not sure, are you?" said Miller.
"We'll have to see, won't we?"
"He knows which side his bread's buttered on."
Jess stopped, pinned the officer with a dark look and cut in. "That's only while I've been inside. We've had all the assessments and tests they could throw at us. There's nothing more they can check. It's behind us now."
They reached an open area with storage rooms and offices. Jess collected her belongings and changed into her own clothes in a nearby anteroom. She glanced at herself in a mirror. Her hair was shorter but other than that she showed no ill effects from her incarceration.
Finally, after going through the release process, she gripped a plastic bag containing her few belongings and walked out through the imposing black doors onto the circular gravel drive that ran around a central flower bed. Jess smiled into the sunshine. Then she turned back to take one final look.
Before she went to meet them, she reminded herself that nine years had passed since it all began. It was appropriate to think of this now as she stood outside the prison gate. She wanted this special moment imprinted on her mind when a new chapter of her life was about to begin.
It was like walking into a new existence, a new her, transformed, assertive, in control of her destiny.
She heard car doors open and close and footsteps on the gravel.
And then they were there.
April 2007 onward
Jess cupped her chin in her hands, leaned on the windowsill and stared out at the tidy suburban street where she'd lived for most of her existence. So this is how it felt; the first day of the rest of her life. That's how the cliché went. Well, it was time to make a start. She moved from the window to her dressing table and prepared to transform herself into someone else.
School was finally over. University beckoned. But in the meantime, tonight was the end of term girl's night out at The G-Spot.
The moment Jess stepped outside her door she knew something was wrong. She retreated back inside. Downstairs her mother Annie had been speaking to her father in that tone of voice she reserved for matters5 of serious news, good or bad. Minutes later, there was a knock on the door and Annie came in.
"What's the matter, Mum?”
"You've been crying, haven't you?
"Your father has too."
"Why, what's happened?"
"You're not getting divorced, are you?"
"Of course not."
"Your father's had some bad news."
"Like what?" Jess said.
Annie sat down next to her and held her hand. “Aunt Alice died today. Dad's taken it pretty badly. We were going to tell you tomorrow but..."
"Aunt Alice, no," Jess cried. "I loved Aunt Alice."
Jess could see her mother trying to summon up the courage to say something else.
"Jess," said Annie finally, "we all loved Alice, and your dad was very close to her. They were twins, after all. No, it's not only that."
"I came into your room today to do a bit of tidying up. Yes, I know, I know, it's your special place but it needed a bit of a clean and there's all your dirty washing everywhere. Well, I found something."
Jess stared straight ahead.
"What do you call it, a joint?" said her mother.
"Drugs, Jess. I was worried, that's all. I haven't told your father.”
"It was a joint, Mum. I tried it out, that's all. I am not an addict. You have to believe me. I thought I'd got rid of it. I can't see what the fuss is about. Look, I'm sorry about Aunt Alice. You know how close we were, don't you?"
"Of course I do. We're seeing the solicitor about her will soon and that's not going to be pleasant. Okay, we'll discuss all this tomorrow. You know we trust you. Just be careful. Make sure your phone is charged. And don’t be too late back. And promise me, no more…”
Annie got up from the bed and went to the door.
“Promise. Thanks, Mum. I’ll be careful, don’t worry.”
Would Aunt Alice be appalled if Jess went out to a club tonight having heard the news? No, Jess decided. She could hear her aunt's voice chuckling in her ear urging her to live while she had the chance.
"Freakaholics and fruit flies, dung vampires and gruesome twosomes, scary Marys, jiggered Juliets and rampant Romeos, now's the time to wallow in the disgusting swamp of gore that is the G-Spot Shockarama. Who will be our witch and warlock of darkness? Who will win the vampire's kiss? Who will be our Hemlock Prince or Princess? Dance wild. Dance to the death. Let your pores pour pure evil."
A heaving mass of orgiastic, wildly made-up and costumed, masked and violently attired dancers gyrated like a hive of programmed insects as DJ Horrormeister Drax ramped up the adrenaline level close to intoxication point.
Jess, Clara and Zoe writhed and jumped in the midst of Dracula lookalikes and countless horror and fantasy movie creatures all screaming and posturing, as wide-eyed and spaced as a zombie jamboree on Haiti.
Jess downed three shots with one arm draped around Clara's shoulders. She had no idea what they were. They had appeared before her at the bar. Clara lurched off in the company of a spotty, geeky guy. Jess hardly noticed. Somebody offered her a smoke. Through blurred vision, she grabbed it and inhaled deeply. Someone took it back from her and placed a hand on her thigh.
Jess stepped back, turned and gyrated her way through the heaving crowd. Her face was streaked with sweat and make-up and her mind had melted into a hypnotic cyberdream.
She could feel her heart pounding. Then it began to race. She all of sudden felt ill, her stomach fluttered with nausea, and the vibrations pounded up through the soles of her feet, through her body until her ears were buzzing.
Jess pushed through the throng breathing heavily. She had lost sight of Zoe and the others in the midst of the gyrating mob. Jess staggered towards the chill out zone and reached the bar where she collapsed gratefully onto a barstool.
Adam Ant shouted to her from behind the bar where he was washing glasses.
"Hi, you don't look well, girl."
"I'll be fine," said Jess in a husky whisper.
The barman shook his head and pointed to his ear.
"Need something to settle you down, make you feel better?" he yelled.
Jess gazed at him with glazed eyes and made no reply.
The barman poured her a shot of dark liquid and placed it on the counter in front of her. He placed a small pink pill by the side of the glass.
"Trust me," he hollered above the thundering noise. "This will sort you out, girl. Go on, no charge."
Jess looked at the drink and pill. She needed something to stop the feelings of sickness and the thickening of her thoughts that were causing her mind to float in treacle.
God, how much had she had to drink? She wasn't a real smoker but the weed had been good. Now it had all gone sour.
She put the pill on her tongue and swallowed the drink in one. Jess rested her head on her folded arms and allowed her mind to free fall. For a while all was still and peaceful between waves of nausea. Then her stomach settled down.
How long she spent crouched on the barstool leaning against a wall tucked away in shadow she had no idea.
The illusions were more realistic than dreams. They swept her away on a tidal wave of sensuous images and wonderful adventures that had no meaning.
She looked up. The club was on fire but she couldn't smell smoke or feel the heat from the blaze. Yet every person was glowing like incandescent sparklers on Bonfire Night. Faces swirled in front of her and voices spoke to her but she paid them no attention. They were whispering meaningless gibberish.
She could feel her legs moving. She needed fresh air. This was her only thought now despite the images and kaleidoscopic lights inside her mind.
Somehow Jess found her way to the exit, experiencing moments of here-and-now clarity before she was sucked into another hallucinogenic nightmare.
The cold air hit her like an ice pick. Her head expanded like a hot air balloon.
She couldn't see the night sky but she could feel the weight of the universe bearing down on her. The stars were alive, surrounding her with their auras. They were so beautiful. She reached out and touched them.
Angelic beings floated high up in the atmosphere. She could hear them whispering to each other in a magical tongue.
She stumbled, fell and got up again.
She must be on a major thoroughfare because there were traffic noises and streetlights. Jess struggled to comprehend the sounds, to work out what they were. She tried to walk in a straight line but there was a disconnection between her brain and her legs. The sounds around her rose and fell like the drone made by that Australian bloke playing, what was it, a wobble board or something?
Now there were voices calling to her, shouting and warning her but their cries another monstrous noise drowned them out.
It sounded like a jumbo jet screeching toward her.
The pain of the impact was extreme. Something substantial hit her side-on and then she was flying. For a moment she was lucid, as though the pain had driven the effects of the drug from her mind and nervous system. Then she stopped breathing. It was wonderful. She knew if she drew breath the pain would be unbearable.
"Oh, my God," cried a woman's voice.
"Is she dead?" called a man's voice at the end of a tunnel.
"Someone call an ambulance."
Indigo blackness pinned with stars. Here there was no pain, no thought, no feeling.
Jess lay half on and half off the pavement on Whiteladies Road. A small crowd had gathered around her twisted body. There was very little blood. A soft rain had begun to fall. Someone opened an umbrella and held it over Jess.
An ambulance arrived in a blaze of flashing lights.
'Resus, resus,' a voice barked and echoed from somewhere. Darkness and sudden pain. Then nothing. Then McFly was singing 'Transylvania' above a swirl of murmured voices. 'Pelvic fracture,' a deep voice shouted. 'My God, Jess,' a woman cried. It sounded like her mother but distorted and distended as through an echo chamber.
A dark brown face with pale eyes stared at her. Teeth flashed white as the mouth opened and closed but Jess could not make out the words. A needle entered her arm and she jolted as a mask was clamped over her mouth.
Her instinct was to struggle but the voices came at her from all directions urging her to relax, be still, don't fight us.
'You're going to be all right," said the deep voice close to her ear. 'Have sweet dreams, Jess.'
'We need to operate, now,' another voice called out and the words repeated and reverberated into a deep well of numbing comfort and peace.
One month later - 10 a.m
Jess awoke to the sound of knocking and her mother's voice calling her name. She searched for the voices and the icy knot and the open sweat glands and found they had gone.
Jess dabbed her eyes. She coughed back the lump that threatened to close her throat.
She took a deep breath and struggled upright from where she had slumped onto her pile of cushions. It took her a couple of seconds to stop shaking.
At last her head was clear, except for the chilling memory of what had happened.
There was another knock on her door and then her mother's voice. "Can I come in?"
"Yes," Jess called with a sigh picking up her guitar. She stood up as her mother came into the room. Annie was holding an official looking envelope. She made space on the bed and sat down indicating Jess sit next to her.
"This could be it," she said handing Jess the envelope. "It's from Cardiff."
Jess opened the letter and her face brightened a little. "It's a confirmation. I start at the end of September."
"Well done, darling. You must be so happy," said her mother putting her arm around Jess's shoulder.
"I am, I suppose," said Jess.
"Come on, sweetheart, it's great news." She hugged her. "Look, the scars will heal. You'll hardly see them."
"It's not the scars, Mum."
Her mother looked down and sniffed. "I know, and when I say I understand, of course I can't know how it really feels to realise you may never..."
"Loads of people can't have children," said Jess. "I'm eighteen, Mum. I don't want to think about having kids right now."
"I understand, darling, I really do. I'm just saying, you don't know how you'll feel in a few years. Okay, so IVF is out of the question but there are new treatments coming on stream all the time. New advances."
"Mum, you know what the specialist said. Asherman’s Syndrome sounds so mechanical.”
"They had to operate," said her mother. "It was an emergency. There's always a risk. Try and be positive."
They were silent for a moment.
Then Annie said. "I know you didn't want to go to university but I think you'll love it. You're so bright. It would be a shame not to explore your potential."
Jess rubbed her eyes. "I don't know how I feel about anything right now."
"You know your dad and I are here for you, don't you?"
Jess nodded. "I know, Mum. And I know if I'd done what you said that night none of it would have happened. You’ve told me enough times. But what's done is done."
"We've always tried to teach you it's best to face up to things no matter how bad they are. Besides, if it ever comes to it..."
"I don't want to talk about it anymore, Mum, sorry. I can't think about it. But thanks. You know I appreciate everything you and dad have done for me."
Her mother dabbed her eyes and stood up.
The door burst open and Jess's father rushed in. "I think you'd better sit down again, darling. I've just had a phone call."
“Paul, what kind of phone call?" said Annie, her expression full of sudden anticipation.
"It's the news we've been waiting for. There'll be a letter in the post to confirm it."
"Oh, you mean..." Annie smiled broadly.
"Come on, Dad," said Jess. "You look as though you've had a shock."
Jess's father took a deep breath and took a few paces. "Right," he said. "The phone call was from Quentin Merridew, you know, the solicitor friend of mine. He represents the estate of your Aunt Alice, Jess."
"Okay," said Jess. "So?"
"We would have told you before but there's a rule about probate so we couldn't say anything. That call was to confirm everything is now in order but we can't go public, right. She left a will. It seems the daft old bird used to do the lottery." He paused. "And just before she died, she won."
Jess stared at him.
"Jess, Aunt Alice has left your mother and me five million pounds.”
Dan Brady watched the skinny cat prowling across the sad, forgotten graves, sniffing at the headstones, in search of a graveyard mouse.
Twelve mourners had gathered around the gaping hole that led, for some of them, to a new beginning, a life in the world of spirit, the superhighway to God.
He watched as his mother's simple casket was lowered into the ground. He should have been here for her. Typically, Cissie had kept her illness from him; the blood disorder that finally killed her. Even though he contacted her every month she never told him. She didn't want to worry him or disturb his life on the other side of the country. Christ, Mum, why didn't you tell me? Why didn't you let me help? Dan didn't try to prevent the tears from falling or the cold feeling in his guts from turning his blood to ice.
“She'll be taking her ground sweat, Danny boy,” said a grizzled elderly man with a shock of white hair clinging to a leathery skull. He put a heavy arm around Dan's shoulder.
“At least she's at peace now, uncle Christie,” said Dan.
“There's no feckin' peace in this world that's for sure, lad,” said Christie.
Dan noticed the cat, meanwhile, was defecating three graves away onto brittle imitation flowers. His Aunt Bridget came over and clasped his hand.
“Our prayers are with you, Dan, We're having a Mass said for Cissie,” said Bridget. “God, your mother loved you, her only child.”
“Thank you,” said Dan. He squeezed his eyes with his finger and thumb.