Laura woke… much too late.
She had slept badly although she could not remember having been awake. Something still clung to her from that torturous sleep and she felt it like a dull throb pulsing inside, pushing its poison out towards the surface.
She was late, feeling a little confused and remembered something about Pete who was still sleeping at her side. The new Laura would have counted to ten, she would have breathed deeply and would have visualised herself watching the sun setting from her favourite place in her first marital garden. She would have sat on the bench with Simon, their first child still ensconced within her womb, and she would have reminded herself of that moment that was to define her forever understanding of happiness. Now she was waking with the weights of a bad night still pulling at her, pulling her downwards, and she wanted to scream.
Just, and only just, she held back the anger.
Perhaps the tablets? She had been off them for some time, hoping that she would never need them again. She had freed herself of their suffocating dullness and was living an ordinary life. Even that life was a replacement for the one that had gone so tragically wrong.
For a while it had been going well. She had been working on herself and on her world.
Laura had moved house and home, though she wondered if there would ever be another true home, and she was back in the world of the living. She had swum to the surface of the black waters and had floated free, but the dreaded knowledge of it remained.
She raised herself from the bed and made for the bathroom. Once there, she shed her nightclothes and turned on the shower with a heat and intensity that was meant to smart. She washed, no she scrubbed herself under its relentless pressure as if she were disinfecting her flesh. Emerging red and raw, she knew that today held only trouble.
“You’re looking tired. Are you all right?”
Laura had snapped back at that comment with a ferocity that made the inquirer recoil.
“Thanks very much for that. Have you been storing that one up or did you just think about it in the way that normal people just think about saying hello?”
“Sorry, dear. I was only asking after you.”
“Well try saying something pleasant in future or don’t say anything at all!”
This was the old Laura, the one the one who sought out the doctor after Simon had gone. She shivered with the memory and yearned for that blanket of calm that had first comforted her with the taking of the medication. Now, with that brief snap, she had a name for herself and it was obvious that others were starting to talk about her in the office.
At the last minute, one of the new doctors asked her to type up a report. It was extremely urgent and he pressed Laura for it to be done before she left for the evening. She completed it and threw it in to his pigeonhole before grabbing her coat and bag without offering a goodbye to anyone.
That would give them some more ammunition.
The dark night was rushing in as she made her way across the car park. The rain began to gather and she became aware of the bitterness of the wind, a wind that promised to blow no good. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw half a dozen youths, their hoods pulled up, hanging around the entrance to the hospital. They also noticed her and made to follow.
Brian was sitting in his usual bay waiting for her arrival. His solid mustard paint was now smeared with the dirt from the autumn roads, but she was reassured by his presence.
“Oy, Mrs, you lost something!” A voice came from behind.
Laura turned and saw that the group of youths were now only yards behind her. A sudden nettling of anxiety prickled along her skin and she swallowed hard to control it. There was nobody else in the area and she realised that she was no longer visble to the world. She reached inside bag for her mobile phone and could not find it. Laura surveyed the distance between herself and the car and thought that she could reach it’ with a little luck.
“I said, love, have you lost something?”
The youth who spoke these words was somewhat taller than the others and was holding out his hand which had within it something that definitely looked like a mobile phone, her mobile phone.
Walking towards her, the youth held out his hand again, proffering the object for her inspection.
“It dropped from your bag as you were crossing the road.”
He handed it over and a smile ripped its way across his face.
“Can’t have you losing that after you’ve lost so much more already.”
Taking the phone, Laura halted for a moment.
“What do you mean by that?”
“Oh just that being a widow and all that must be difficult and having a son who you really cannot trust anymore must be even worse. You’re that Andrews woman aren’t you? Bad husband and bad son. Deary, deary me. What kind of a mother are you?”
She watched him from eyes that could not hide their contempt.
“Anyway now that we’ve got your number, me and the lads will be able to pop round any time you want and help you out. We could even take care of that bad son of yours for you and send him the same way as hubby.”
The rest of the group were crowding around her so she turned quickly in an effort to get away from them. One of the younger ones blocked her exit.
“You’re not going so quick are you? We’ve just got to know you.”
Laura pushed him sharply and was surprised by her own strength. The youth fell over backwards and landed in a puddle, to the obvious delight of his friends. Laura ran in the direction of Brian and fumbled to find her keys.
The youth, whom she had pushed, got up, stung by his immediate downfall and went to chase her. Laura was in the car and locking the doors just as he aimed a wild kick at the bodywork. The force of the blow, mixed with Brian’s tank-like qualities, ensured that the offender was the one most damaged. He let out a frustrated scream that was coated with a line of surprisingly unpleasant invective just as the engine caught.
Laura aimed the vehicle at the rest of the gang who jumped out of the way. She drove for some time before realising that she had not switched on her lights. Shaking uncontrollably, she pulled to the side of the road and wept. The bad times were returning and sooner or later they would break her.
After a while, she realised that she had no more tears. They had been born of frustration and anger and those two emotions were now spent. Pulling the rear-view mirror towards her face, she dried her eyes. They were a little red and puffy but she knew that the darkness would hide that. She took a deep breath and turned the ignition key welcoming the way Brian fired into immediate life once again.
“Life’s like you, Brian,” she said out loud, “so bloody inconsistent.”
Then she laughed with a warmth that chased out some of the demons. She had Pete to pick up from nursery and did not wish to be late. Pulling back into the road and the accumulating rush hour traffic, she headed off towards her youngest, pushing what had been said about her husband and son to the back of her mind.
The incident had receded into a blur by the time she had reached her destination, but back at the car park the small gang were gathering around a tall, distinguished gentleman who appeared to be talking in some depth to them.
“We did what you told us,” their leader said. “She looked scared. If you want, we could give her a visit.”
“No, that won’t be necessary. You have done well and here is your reward.”
He held out a hand in which he was holding an envelope. Immediately, their leader snatched at this. They had indeed earned their reward and were hungry for more. The old guy was alone and they were not.
“What if we wanted some more?”
“There is no more. This is what we agreed.”
“But you must have some more where that came from. What if we were to take it?”
The threat was not rhetorical, but the gentleman remained calm.
“You will not be able to take it, young man. Not on your own or with the rest of your little group. Let me explain…”
And before the boy could respond, the old man had covered the space between them and had grabbed him around the neck with a ferocity that was hard to believe. He had been pulled up so that only his tiptoes kept him in contact with the floor. Apart from this tenuous link, the boy was being suspended in the air, being slowly strangled by the strength of the arm around him.
The others were watching in amazement, backing away like the feral pack they were. Their little leader registered something else that was more alarming than the arm squeezing his windpipe, he felt the sharp pain of a knife slicing across his the skin of his throat.
“Is that sufficient explanation, my child? Is that something you understand?”
The boy tried to nod but only managed to force the blade, which was a surgeon’s scalpel, deeper. Tears of pain and fear sprung from him as he lost control, shaking uncontrollably.
“I take it that you do. Now, do they understand?”
The grip was released somewhat and the boy was able to utter the words, “Yes, they do,” before being flung to the ground in front of the rest of the group. Fear dictated that none of them went to his assistance.
When they looked up again, the stranger was gone.