Where Wild Flowers Grow

 

 wwfg.cover.proj

 

Jess woke suddenly, gasping for breath, fighting with the stifling grip of imaginary hands clawing around her throat, followed by a sensation of falling deeper and deeper into the shadows. The devilish reoccurring nightmare had grown increasingly vivid, such that she thought it was real, that death was imminent. As she wiped the watery film of condensation with the sleeve cuff of her dressing gown, there was enough light in the early morning sky to see the bony branches of the silver birch tree dancing in the breeze. “Thank god” she said.   

“Are you okay mummy?” Jonas mumbled apologetically, followed by a gentle, unimposing tap on the bedroom door.  He must have heard Jess shout out mid-dream, which was feasible and possibly a little frightening.  He was such a thoughtful, almost angelic child, which was truly a blessing, given her bedraggled and sleep-disturbed state. “I’m fine – let’s get breakfast” she said, to her dishevelled pyjama clad son, clutching Trevor, a well-loved, but barely recognisable threadbare grey rabbit in desperate need of a stitch or two. There was a definite nip in the air, as the age-old boiler struggled to circulate the heat in the winter.

It was unusual for a child to dislike sugary cereal, especially puffed rice grain steeped in milk, although Jonas had no issue with porridge with a little jam splodge on the top or soggy toast pooled with melted butter. After a frantic search for a clean white shirt and grey uniform trousers, and stuffing his school bag with packed lunch and sundries only a seven year old boy could comprehend, he was good to go. Maybe I should be better prepared, Jess thought, but she had never been blessed with patience or a penchant for being organised – the art of self-discipline was merely wishful thinking. Dressing for the working day ‘pre-Jonas’ was a different beast – a pre-medicated preening exercise to impress ‘all at the office’, as opposed to the usual mad dash – crumbly biscuits and random slurps of lukewarm tea while threading one arm in her jacket and ferreting in her bag with the other.

The school drop was purposefully swift to avoid any awkward, frivolous conversations with group gatherings of legging-clad mums holding sticky fingered toddlers. Jess wasn’t so much a snob as a little ‘anti-people’, much like her mother, who was always on the hot foot – flitting from one place to another with little time for small talk.  It was debatable whether Jess’s childhood experiences had maimed her tolerance for others or whether she was just born that way. As a child she was often ‘used up and spat out’ by ‘so called’ friends, and as a consequence, preferred her own company to meaningless relationships.

The morning’s hasty getaway didn’t quite go to plan as Miss Roundtree called Jess from beyond the playground. What has the little man done now, Jess mused, as the fresh-faced teacher drew closer, wearing a rather large fake fur hat which accentuated her petite doll-like face.   

There were concerns about Jonas’s reading progress, or lack of it, and Miss Roundtree asked Jess to maybe spend a little more time on the subject at home, just for a little while, which she did, but perhaps not as often as she should. The woman rambled on and on about school policy, acclaiming the importance of parent/child interaction and its essential role as part of a successful education. Maybe in an ideal world, but Jess did her best with the time she had, believing this to be just as relevant. Of course, the fact that Jonas was introverted and didn’t participate in class didn’t help, so Miss Roundtree, in all her wisdom, decided to offer the boy an opportunity to stand by the blackboard and read aloud, maybe from a favourite book or comic, to coax him ‘from his shell’. Jess was probably being over-fussy and a little paranoid, but feared he would struggle with such a task and became defensive, expressing a distinct aversion to the word ‘introvert’, an unsavoury descriptive casting a bleak image of a child, withdrawn and socially inept. She was totally accepting of her son’s social demeanour, having once been that unfortunate ‘geeky’ kid, wearing thick-rimmed glasses to correct amblyopia or ‘lazy eye’. Jess can clearly recall the heartache of being a social ‘misfit’, shunned by the school ‘in-crowd’ which was both painful and isolating. There were obvious concerns and mum referred her to a psychologist for several sessions of hair twiddling and awkward investigative counselling, but despite expectations, Jess didn’t morph into outgoing, ostentatious child.

During the swift walk home, Jess pondered Mrs Roundtree’s comments, feeling a tad neglectful. Lost in thought, she took a wrong turning and found herself amid the busy throng of market stalls - a weekly gathering run by local farmers and traders which stretched over the entire village square, spilling over into a nearby field and beyond. She rarely called purposefully, the last time to visit a reputable bookseller, which seemed incredibly fateful under the circumstances. It was bustling with customers eating various culinary concoctions while children weaved aimlessly in and out of legs, chasing each other and frightening the pigeons away. Greasy paper bags littered the area where they stood, as did cigarette stubs and bits of food floating in lingering puddles. Sellers hollered out offers of the day, randomly stepping out amid punters as they walked by, their incessant squawking assaulting the ears of those within close proximity. Fresh produce was healthy and appealing to many, but Jess found their forthright approach off-putting, preferring to shop without the pressure to buy.

The pre-Christmas season was novel, as sellers accessorized their stalls to attract more custom, trimming up with an array of tinsel and shiny things. Rogue traders would randomly appear, displaying counterfeit or stolen goods and the like, manned by twitchy guys in woolly hats, on constant watch for the constabulary. 

The stiff breeze accentuated various aromas from takeaway food stalls and marketers - some good and others not so, depending on personal taste.  Jess struggled with the smell of frying onions, filling the air with a pungent eye-watering fusion of fat and shredded veg, triggering memories of a childhood visit to a fairground when she was around twelve years old, spinning ad nauseam on the waltzer ride, twisting one way then the other when she suddenly and violently hit her head on the back of the car she was in. Once the ride stopped, she staggered slowly down the wooden steps, clutching a splintered rail while trying desperately to deny the nauseous feeling, but a dizzy head combined with the onion stench induced profuse vomiting all over the grass.

After wandering around the market for a good hour, shuffling among the lingering hoards of shoppers, Jess had grown a little weary. Her intention was to pass through without distraction, but the breeze was growing stronger, blowing the rain sideways, so she took shelter and by pure chance, found herself standing under the cover of the reputable book seller.  She was immediately overwhelmed by piles of well thumbed ‘reads’ teetering on corners and lined across tops of makeshift shelving.  She scanned the children’s section, mindful of the layout for fear of a paper avalanche, although typically, the ones that looked the most interesting were balancing precariously, threatening disaster if removed. A bespectacled lady popped up from behind the makeshift counter, wearing an inquisitive look, “Can I help?” she said.  Jess wasn’t really sure, but tried to explain what she was looking for. The lady then disappeared from view, but could be heard ferretting around in various places before returning moments later with a suitable selection. Despite the old cliché, a good cover really does sway the choice, as well as her desire to escape the horizontal precipitation which was now drenching her ankles, already damp from puddles and pram splashes. “If you buy two, you get a third free title” said the bespectacled lady, but Jess wasn’t good with random choices, free or otherwise, so she blindly grabbed the nearest, handed over her money and made her way home.

The rain was now bouncing inches from the pavement, but Jess battled on, quickening her stride with one hand clutching a flimsy plastic bag full of books levitating in the wind like a loose sail, the other delving for house keys, her view blighted by random hair strands lashing around her face. While struggling to negotiate the lock, she caught sight of Parker, her aptly named inquisitive neighbour, peeping out from behind tatty net curtains. He was an ‘odd ball’, ungainly and stick-thin, with shrunken sleeves and trouser legs, as if he wore the clothes of a shorter man. The poor guy was a widower and lived alone, and a prime target for idle gossip and youths shouting obscenities through his letterbox. Being strange doesn’t make you a paedophile or an axe murderer, just different.

Relieved to finally be indoors, Jess kicked off her rain-soaked shoes, exacerbated by tiny splits in the soles. Her winter boots would have been ideal, had they not been buried deep within wardrobe disarray until she could find the time and inclination to rotate according to season. Jess tipped the contents of her carrier bag on to the dining table, placing the books edge to edge, painstakingly chosen pre-judged choices as if through her son’s eyes – enticing narrative, strong images and presentation. The days of shiny coated cardboard and waterproof plastic pages are long gone, she mused.

Jess had clean forgot about the ‘third free title’, fusty and damp despite being housed in a clear plastic sleeve.  The ex-library book had a large white columned label on the first page which had been stamped over and over, continuing overleaf. The cover artwork was a painting of wild flowers – the kind that grow near water and in every conceivable space from the merest of soil traces in among grass strands and weeds and in no way indicative of the subject matter. Certain pages had turned down corners from where Jess read random paragraphs, written with a heavy usage of words like grief, loss, healing and psychological trauma, like some sort of therapeutic, ‘mind over matter’ self help guide and far too droll for staff room fodder. As she tried to locate a space on an already overloaded bookshelf, something fell from within its pages and landed by her feet.  It was a photograph of an adolescent girl in jeans and a patterned t-shirt, sitting on the backrest of a wooden bench similar to those that line seaside promenades. There was nothing written on the flipside to suggest who it was or where it taken, but Jess found herself unusually fascinated by the face staring back at her - there’s just something strangely nostalgic about momentary captions of life.  She could have simply thrown it in the trash, but instead, placed it behind the chipped pineapple fridge magnet for safekeeping.

Despite mild antisocial traits and the need to be alone, Jess took up a post at a local flower store around two years ago, within easy walking distance from home and school.  As well as providing a little income, the ‘ad-hoc’ shifts kept her in touch with the outside world and averted her chronic procrastination. Jess never quite got to grips with completing one task before starting another, which was catastrophic given that the store was currently closed for a refit.  By far the main advantage was striking up an unlikely friendship with the shop’s owner, Edith - a sweet old lady of eighty one years with surprisingly good skin for her age, complimented by a dot of ‘rouge’ on each cheek.

It was early morning and the neighbourhood had been remarkably still, until raised voices signalled a disturbance outside.  Jess went to investigate, peering behind the curtains of an upstairs window which overlooked the street and saw what looked like Parker tussling with two young men, his arms outstretched as they tore away at his trouser pocket, trying to grab his wallet. It was a disturbing sight to see such a frail old man being attacked in broad daylight and within yards from his own gate post – god only knows why Parker attracts the dregs of society like a moth to a flame. Jess ran outside, kicking and screaming “Leave him alone, you fucking hooligans” she yelled. Within minutes they fled, occasionally checking back for fear of pursuit. She watched with intent until they were out of sight, while Parker hobbled away without saying a word. “Hold on, are you okay?” she shouted, but he just kept on walking until he reached home, slamming the door behind him.  What if he’s injured, Jess thought, as she stood alone in the street. “Well, I’m going to call the police whether you like it or not” she bellowed.

The police arrived within the hour to take a statement. Jess didn’t spare the truth and warned them about Parker, “He’s not the easiest of people to talk to” she said. There had been a spate of similar attacks in the area, and although Jess gave an accurate description of the ‘likely lads’, it was a match for ever other male adolescent, clone-like in low slung jeans, ‘hoodie’ and white trainers.  The officers commended her bravery, but Jess wasn’t the sort to stand by and do nothing. Disturbances of a criminal nature were rare within such a close-knit community and aside from Parker’s passive ‘peeping’, local residents were very diligent.

The incident had unnerved Jess, who wasn’t used to incidental violence at any level. Paula, a good friend and neighbour who also lived alone with her daughter, Poppy, swept in ‘pre-yoga class’ to drop Jonas off, as per their routine ‘school-run’ arrangement, while Jess mumbled a brief descriptive of the attempted robbery and suggesting she keep an eye out for suspicious behaviour. “We’ll talk later” Paula sai

“Who’s the lady?” Jonas said, pointing to the photograph behind the chipped pineapple fridge magnet.  

“I just found it” Jess replied. 

“She looks nice” he said, smiling.

“Don’t forget to hang up your coat, and empty your lunchbox” Jess said.

Jonas loved to watch the usual ‘TV ramble’ – two hours of supposed educational viewing for younger children which he found strangely entertaining - mimicking the fresh-faced presenter as she grunted and squawked out various animal noises. Today and rather surprisingly, Jonas seemed more interested in the books Jess had laid out on the kitchen table and was eagerly thumbing through the pages, lingering over the illustrations. Jess sat down beside him, to subtly suggest they read together more often, but he didn’t so much respond as mutter under his breath. “Don’t like reading” Jonas said.

“You have to, it’s a big deal” Jess said, trying not to be overly forceful, which would be counterproductive. 

The aversion to reading began shortly after Jonas had taken his turn at reading aloud in class, as per Miss Roundtree’s random suggestion to ‘coax him from his shell’, but just as Jess had pre-empted, he didn’t fair well, his confidence in tatters as fellow pupils laughed out loud, launching clumps of paper at the blackboard. Jonas then fled into corridor, refusing to return to the classroom. Regardless of her son being a sensitive soul, Jess believed that such situations created unnecessary pressure and despite Miss Roundtree’s good intentions, it wasn’t a case of ‘one size fits all’.

Jess has lavished many an hour sat in her treasured ‘age-old’ leather chair, staring at the framed photograph of her father which stands centrally above the fireplace, lost in memories of when he was still alive, though less so than in the early grief-stricken days following his death. She would often sense his presence, as if he was right there, fuelled by imagination and an overwhelming desire to see his face again. “Chin up lass” - he would say when she was ‘off sorts’, wiping her tears away with a crumpled handkerchief.

Despite both her hands wrapped tight around a cup of hot coffee, Jess felt chilled to the bone, so much so she began to shiver uncontrollably, her breath clearly visible. She turned to the kitchen window to see if it was open too far even though it was a typically cold autumnal day, but it was tight shut. A dark and sprawling black shadow cloaked her peripheral vision, inciting an intense fear of what or who was invading her space. It was like an archetypal moment from a scary movie when the music stops dead and the sound of a creaking door breaks the silence. Her gut instinct was to stay still, but her gaze was drawn towards the kitchen, when she realised the photograph of the young girl was gone from behind the chipped pineapple fridge magnet. Though shaken and unsteady, she walked over to search the immediate floor area, peering in and around the small gaps between cupboards and under and around the dining table, knowing paper can float a fair distance and lodge itself into the most awkward, secluded spaces, but it was nowhere to be seen. At that moment, although inane and disproportionate, she felt an overwhelming sense of loss, as if she had lost something extremely precious. 

Jess couldn’t dismiss nor rationalise what had just happened, but had been feeling particularly nauseous and shaky since early morning and as one of life’s chronic insomniacs, she was no stranger to lethargy and the odd hallucination, so maybe it was just that – sleeplessness can play tricks on the mind and hinder logical thinking.

Edith’s call finally came, announcing ‘business as usual’ at the flower store.  It had only been closed for a short time, but Jess was excited and couldn’t wait to see the transformation. To mark the event, Edith had adorned the shop doorway with a garland of red ribbon and an elaborate bow at either end to hide the pins, and why not – this was a special day. She always wore a genuine double tiered pearl necklace whatever the outfit, and today it was blue - her late husband’s favourite colour, to celebrate the re-opening, having achieved positive changes given a modest budget and limited resources. The place seemed much bigger and brighter than before with a counter relocation to create an extensive working area to facilitate stem cutting, snipping and wrapping, floor to ceiling flower racks adorned the back wall and at long last, a reinforced glass panel had been fitted in the front door to fix the damage done by local vandals some months ago. “Shame we don’t have champagne” Jess said, feeling a little emotional.

No matter what, Edith always asked about Jonas - how was he doing at school, was he happy etc, and Jess would always say he was fine, regardless. Edith’s fondness was boundless and accentuated a certain sadness in her eyes, as she rambled on about the tragic stories you read in the newspapers, children being abducted, dying of cancer, murdered, blah, and that ‘sons should be treasured’ as if she was trying to say something without using the exact words. Jess wasn’t vastly intuitive, but couldn’t help, but wonder if Edith had once lost a child and derived comfort from Jonas, as if he were her own son.

Even on a good day, it was as if a small tornado had swept in and scattered the contents of every cupboard and drawer across Jonas’s bedroom floor, apart from Trevor, who was the grubbiest of toys, but took pride of place on the windowsill until bedtime. Various brightly coloured containers were spilling over, their contents filtering out towards the middle of the room - board games and jigsaws from toddlerhood lay idle in their damaged boxes, swamped by bundles of books fused together by various spillages and miscellaneous items that had long outlived their usefulness. Jess braved the mayhem, remembering to wear slippers to guard against stray toy parts that lay hidden in carpet pile that could stab the soles of her feet and draw blood. She threw most into black sacks to make room for more age-appropriate items and while gathering up leftover bits and pieces, discovered the photograph of the girl that had fallen from the ‘third free title’, though a little creased. Jonas must have taken it after all - maybe he was just as curious about the smiling lady as Jess was, though it wasn’t the first time he had ‘borrowed’ something only for it to be discovered months later.

The garage was a damp, dismal place, coated in cobwebs and slimy oil stains. Yet another storage area that remained ‘out of sight, out of mind’, used mainly for tools and sundries once belonging to Peter - Jess’s estranged husband, and sacks of old clothing and disused toys which formed an ever-growing black plastic mountain in the corner, awaiting delivery to the local charity shop.  Jess had always considered the place to be a man’s domain, but in truth, it was now a meaningless excuse to evade the issue. 

Jess hated the cold season and struggled to appreciate the evocative, earthy smell of autumn, the colour and texture of falling leaves edging pathways and forming a slushy carpet on the ground and the crisp, clear frosty mornings which nipped the ears and chilled the nostrils. There was no doubt that as winter grew closer, the car would be a welcome asset – even for short ops, but it hadn’t seen the light of day since last spring and was now dust-ridden, its roof cloaked with gritty remnants that had fallen from above.  She tried the driver’s side door, but it wouldn’t open at first pull, as the rubber seal had fused to the frame. It was dismally cold on the inside as would be expected from any vehicle that had stood lifeless and unused for several months. There were discarded crisps and sweet wrappers on the floor and old magazines that had been left in the backseat pockets. The windscreen and wipers were swathed in a thick layer of congealed gunk and dead flies. The heater fan belched out a cloud of fluff and old particles, causing Jess to cough and splutter – that’s it, she thought, it can wait for another day.

The onset of winter and shorter daylight hours meant that a particularly useful and favoured shortcut home from school had been best avoided after dusk as the dense woodland pathway could inflame the vaguest of imaginations – the sound of snapping twigs, a swift breeze whistling through the trees and the echo of a dog barking in the distance or was it a howling wolf?  Since the recent installation of modern halogen street lighting, the snicket isn’t quite as dank and mysterious, so Jess decided to brave the journey. Jonas was oblivious of any possible danger, real or imagined, treading stones and aloft on imaginary games. As they drew closer to home, Jess could see what appeared to be a smallish figure by the front door and to the side of the rosebush - a seasonal stick-like feature that ripped skin on contact. She stared intently at the mysterious shape, trying to pick out any contours or detail. It was a little eerie and unnerving, so she tried to distract herself and Jonas from the mysterious sight. “Did you take the photograph from the fridge?” she said.

“No, why would I?” Jonas replied, looking clueless.

The dark mass began to fade, as if seeping slowly into the wall and was completely gone as they reached the garden date.  It was probably a trick of the light or the result of tired eyes, but Jess lingered in the doorway, glancing one way and then the other to make doubly sure nothing was lurking in the shadows. As dusk turned into black night, the unusual experience played heavy on her mind. Whilst living alone with her seven year old son heightened her protective instincts, it was easy to catastrophise and give in to irrational thinking – it could be a burglar, someone casing the joint or an opportunist checking to see who was home.

Bath time drove Jess to distraction. Jonas wasn’t generally over-fussy, but his non-compliance with water temperature, of liking it ‘just so’ was a little irritating, though once achieved there was little else to do, but watch her son dive-bombing various action figures beyond the suds and into the blue tinged water, that was until shrill tone of the upstairs phone rang over and again, as if whoever it was couldn’t quite decide whether to make the call. “Hello, who is this?” Jess bellowed into the mouthpiece, and following a brief pause, a very weepy and barely audible female voice answered.

“It’s Jane” the distressed lady said.

“Oh my god, I didn’t realise it was you” Jess said, placing a finger over one ear to block out Jonas’s relentless playful squealing. Her dear friend was panic-stricken, making it difficult to pick out exact words.

“I’ve seen Si staring through the kitchen window” Jane sobbed. Jess’s eyes welled with tears, as memories flooded back of her previous pleas of desperation. What could she say? ‘I told you so’, but Jess would never patronize. “Get a taxi to my house – you can sleep on the sofa” Jess said.

“I can’t – what if he follows me” Jane said, worried it would only bring trouble to Jess’s door.

“To hell with that” Jess said, all the while thinking she Jane had a valid point. 

It would have been easy to make assumptions, but Jess was confused, having truly believed Jane was over the worst and had been happily living independently following a recent break-up with her previous narcissistic partner, Si - a text book case of ‘perfect guy turns into controlling, psychological predator’ in a matter of weeks. Looking back, Jess had lost count of the times she had accompanied Jane to hospital following yet another ‘slip of the fist’, while swallowing a million excuses to justify the maniac’s behaviour - ‘that’s just how he is’, ‘he doesn’t mean it” and, best ‘or worst’ of all, ”…but I love him”. What is it with the monkey grip of male dominance that suffocates and emotionally cripples certain women?  Si was insurmountable – Jane was not so much under his wing, but beneath the thick sole of his hobnailed boot.

Prior to the destructive relationship, Jane was a civil servant and in line for a considerable promotion. She was remarkably ambitious with fire in her belly and a determination to succeed, but within weeks of Si moving into her flat, her confidence dwindled, her aspiration lost. She developed a slight tremor and became a little insular, and wouldn’t leave the house for fear of reprisals. Even though Si was supposedly studying to be a doctor and on a low wage, he wanted kids, so she quit her job, giving up a considerable income to “prepare for motherhood”.  Jess eventually

quit being the ‘good Samaritan’, feeling useless and unable to influence Jane’s torturous situation, hoping she would eventually tire of being incessantly bruised and mentally shattered, wearing shades to hide the former. Several months later, Jane mustered up the strength to leave Si, taking a taxi to her mother’s house a good twenty miles away. All was well until a week later when she received a malicious text from the psychopathic maniac, threatening to find her and kill her. The police subsequently moved her into a women’s refuge until she was relocated into a two bedroomed house in a new area.

The following morning, Jess made her way to Jane’s flat, to try and comfort her. She rang the doorbell a dozen times or more before bellowing through the letterbox, “It’s me, let me in” she said, jogging on the spot to keep warm. The sky was heavy with angry rainclouds and a strengthening wind whistled down the narrow pathway.  The garden date was slamming back and forth on the latch with east gust. She could hear shuffling – could it could be the branches of the nearby weeping willow tree, sprawling and swaying in the breeze, or the power of suggestion given the grim circumstances, but as soon as Jane opened her door, Jess dived inside, her senses on overdrive. “What’s wrong?” Jane said, peeking around the doorframe.

“Nothing, it’s just freezing” Jess replied.

The entrance hall was lost in a veil of darkness. Framed pictures stood in a line against the wall, covered in dust. Scraps of carpet and underlay formed a temporary floorcovering to save standing on bare boards. “I’ll put the kettle on” Jess said, ferreting in the cupboard for clean cups.

“Excuse the state of it, but I just can’t go near ‘that’ window” Jane said, pointing to the mountainous pile of dirty pots and pans in the sink, used teabags adrift in the murky water.

“You can’t live like this” Jess said, rolling up her sleeves and searching for a clean dishcloth.

“You haven’t come here to play housemaid” Jane said, ushering Jess into the living room. 

Despite leaving Si, Jane’s tremor remained, but the denial less so. “Look at me” Jane said, holding out both hands which shook like a druggie craving the next hit, though it was no surprise given the sleepless nights, threatening phone calls and now the stalking. Jane had contacted the police again, and they had agreed to keep an eye on the flat for a while, which was a little reassuring. “I know what I’d do” Jess said, through gritted teeth.

“They have to catch him Jess” Jane said, which was her only hope of restoring peace of mind.

“Yes, they do” Jess said, recalling the familiar hopeless feeling of previous days, wishing she could make it all go away.

Driving rain pelted down so fast Jess had to tilt her umbrella so wouldn’t blow it inside out, her flimsy coat flapping like a flag on a pole. She had various winter coats, but preferred the freedom of movement, finding heavy fabrics restrictive, as were fiddly garments such as scarves, hats and gloves - they just rankle and suffocate the skin.                                                                                                         

Seconds from the bell, Jonas shot through the main doors like a cannonball. Although the rain had abated, Jess was still wrestling with her ‘sticky’ umbrella, which was refusing to close. ”Slow down” she yelled, trying to keep pace, but Jonas was way in front with a boy of roughly the same age and height, wearing short trousers, a grey jacket over a white shirt and tie, which looked decidedly odd given the time of year. As Jess eventually caught up, Jonas was excitable. “Can he come home with us to play?” he said, hugging the boy like a long-lost friend.

“Yes, ‘he’ can” Jess replied, how could she refuse? Jonas spent most of his time alone, locked in imaginary battles and solitary games.

Jonas and the new boy sat shoulder to shoulder, like bookends, engrossed in the usual ‘TV ramble’, laughing out loud and mimicking innocuous animal noises. Jess placed two amply filled glasses of black current juice, or ‘black ink’ as Jonas calls it, on the lounge room table. “So, what’s your name?” she asked of the rather sheepish lad sat cross-legged on the carpet. She was struck by his pale stick-like legs, covered in stray leaves and loose grass blades as if he’d been wading through a shallow pond. “Sam” he said, his dark blue eyes fringed with long eyelashes staring intently for what seemed like an age, before turning back towards the television. As Jess rose to her feet, a nauseous, heady sensation shifted her balance, like she had inhaled several deep breaths of marijuana, recalling the heady sensation from her teenage years.

Dinner, or ‘tea’ depending on geographical location, was always a haphazard, casual affair. Jess and her son preferred to eat when hungry regardless of the time, and always at the kitchen table and not on a lap tray while watching TV. She laid out an extra setting just in case Sam wanted to stay, but the house was remarkably quiet compared to only moments ago when the two boisterous little boys were tearing around the place, playing ‘catch’.. The aroma of meatballs baking in the oven soon filtered upstairs, as Jonas appeared alone. “Where’s Sam?” Jess said, pulling up a chair.  

“He’s gone” he replied.

“Did you let him out? Jess said.

“Nope” he replied.

“So, is Sam in your class at school?” Jess said.

“No, I don’t think so” Jonas replied, nonchalantly.

Sam’s discreet departure was a little mysterious, as the front door isn’t easy to open from the inside and sits tight in the frame – even Jess struggled, especially on warm days when the wood expands with the heat. It was also concerning that a child of Jonas’s age was happy to walk home alone in the darkness of an early winter’s evening. Maybe Jess was just too analytical, filling her head with reasons to worry and trying to be all things.

While wrist-deep in post-breakfast pots, Jess caught sight of mum’s bright yellow Citroen CV pulling on the driveway, fluffy pink dice swinging from the windscreen mirror and ladybird toggle on the aerial tip.  She watched tentatively as mum hobbled up the path with a bag on each arm and her walking stick held tight to her side, serving no purpose. There would be no point trying to help, by her own admission, such a ‘stubborn old boot’ – it just wasn’t in mum’s blood to rely on anyone, least of all, her daughter. Despite regular visits, she was always full of joy and boundless enthusiasm. “Come and sit down – I’ll put the kettle on” she said, snatching the dishrag from Jess’s hand and herding her towards the kitchen table, but in a good-natured way, preferring her undivided attention. “Here we go” mum said, laying open a white box containing two enormous apple turnovers packed with fresh cream and chunky fruit pieces in sticky syrup.

It wasn’t long before mum caught sight of the photograph from the ‘third free title’’, though it was a little incongruous amid Jonas’s random artworks and various lists pinned to the fridge door. “Who’s this?” mum said, holding the picture out front as if distance somehow made it clearer. She stared intently at the young girl, taking stock of every detail, absorbed by whatever goes on in that head of hers. Maybe she could shed some light on the mysterious lady, given her psychic and deeply ingrained intuition. Suddenly, mum’s face went as white as chalk. “So much sadness” she kept saying, over and over.

The psychic connotation was understandable, such that it stirred memories of a treasured family holiday when Jess was around twelve years old, walking with her parents along the promenade of some seaside town on the south coast when mum suddenly turned back, running like the wind and heading towards an old lamp post where she had seen a public information notice about a missing girl.  Jess shouted after her, but mum was oblivious, lost in the moment. After a while, she came bounding back, insisting she call the telephone number she had written on her hand with a scratchy biro. Being so young, Jess didn’t really understand, but mum explained everything some years later, that she had experienced some sort of vision or ‘remote viewing’ when first passing the lamppost and felt compelled to take a closer look. In her mind’s eye, mum was stood by a stone built bridge secluded by overgrown trees and behind her was an old wooden bench pitched on a grass verge edging the roadside.  The entrance to ‘Hangman’s Wood was close by, named by local residents as ‘the forest of lost souls’, as those who enter are soon engulfed by its sheer density, swathed in acres of trees and narrow paths sprawling in all directions, where it was assumed the girl had wandered while her mother stopped to give directions to a passing motorist. A week later, news came that the girl had been found beneath the stone built bridge, mildly hypothermic and with no memory of the event or how she came to be where she was. Jess can clearly remember as mum sat with tears rolling down her face, as if the child had been her own flesh and blood. Hangman’s Wood is now a designated park and only open to the public during daylight hours.

It was like history repeating. Mum was mesmerized by the lady in the photograph, and began stomping around the house like a gun dog searching for drugs, heading specifically for Jonas’s room and returning moments later, “I thought you were allergic to gold” mum said, holding out a necklace. The locket was found on the carpet underneath Jonas’s bed, but why was a complete mystery – whose was it?  Mum’s psychic ‘radar’ must have led her to the very spot where it lay, but she was very cagey with the details, given that such things had a tendency to frighten Jess a little, provoking acute defensiveness – an unfortunate characteristic for one who was no stranger to the spiritual world. “I’ll put the chain on my dresser” Jess said, wondering whether she should mention it to Jonas – surely he didn’t steal it, why would he?

“You should get the heating fixed too – it’s very cold in the lad’s bedroom” mum said.

“Stop fussing” Jess said.

Edith was feeling a little off colour and asked Jess to cover her shift at the flower store. It was busy from the onset, customers purchasing floral declarations and bouquets – nothing seasonal, just random. A rather stern looking man approached the counter to order six red roses. Jess didn’t care for his brittle tone and pretended not to hear. “Sorry?” she said, hoping the repeat request would be kinder than the first, but he just spat out the same words, leaning in for full effect. It seemed highly unusual for man to be so rude in order to express sentiment elsewhere, but Jess carried on regardless, sensing his impatience as she took considerable time preparing the order, slowly wrapping the roses in tissue paper and clear cellophane covered in pink hearts. “There you go” she said, snatching his money.

There was no feasible explanation for the large, murky puddle on the kitchen floor - there were no catastrophic drips from the ceiling or leaking water trails from the fridge or washing machine.  Maybe it was a spillage, but of what and by whom as the house had been empty since early morning and it wasn’t there prior to leaving for school. Jess grabbed the mop and bucket to soak up the liquid, but was feeling particularly nauseous and had to sit down. She was dithering and then sweating profusely - maybe it was a virus or something she had eaten, but it was an unpleasant sensation that came without warning.

As Jess walked towards the lounge, she was shocked to see Sam sitting beside Jonas, just like the previous day. “Where did you come from?” she said, standing over the mystery boy, but he didn’t react or say anything. She reached down to pick out twigs and blades of grass from his dishevelled hair – what it is with this boy, he seems to attract the earth’s debris like paperclips to a magnet, and was generally grubby, his white shirt soiled with several buttons missing. He remained silent and motionless as if he found her presence irritating. Jess somehow felt responsible for the child who wasn’t hers, stoking her maternal instincts. Maybe Sam liked being dirty, and his mother was perfectly happy with the arrangement, but it would be nice to know first hand.

Despite Jess’s irresistible desire to inflict her own standards on others, it felt good to see her son happy and playing with a child of a similar age - an invaluable opportunity to interact with others. If only she could figure out why Sam was so elusive, coming and going with little communication – surely his mother knew of his whereabouts after school and in fact, Jess had been expecting a phone call or a knock on the door in this regard, as kids can often wander off when distracted, oblivious to parental concern. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to check at school, and Jess made a mental note to pop in at the next opportunity.

Every Saturday morning without fail, Jonas would ask if daddy was coming, as this was the day he was most likely to call.  Peter’s visits had become far more random than regular, as the man wouldn’t commit to a definite arrangement - consequently, Jonas couldn’t look forward, but just wonder. Being estranged from her husband had reduced communications to the occasional grunt between gritted teeth, but despite the emotional distance, Jess was still in love with him and longed to rekindle their fractured relationship.

Peter was working as a personal assistant for Marsh & Reid, a small city-based law firm, when they first met. He had joined ranks as a newly qualified solicitor, a seamless businessman with confidence and prowess, and Jess was smitten from the onset. There was a defined chemistry between them, or ‘warm, fuzzy feeling’ as she called it, and knew right there and then that he was the one. Colleagues scoffed, saying that such a close working relationship wouldn’t last, but as with the old cliché, suggestive of a frivolous sugar-coated tale, it was ‘a whirlwind romance’ and they married within a year of meeting. Then Felicity arrived on the scene – a young female legal exec with a tidy cleavage and sleek blonde hair. Her sylph-like figure, shrinking hemline and tight fitting shirts, would drift through the office, closely followed by a waft of pungent eau de toilette. Jess would wince with jealousy and it was hard to watch as she flirted shamelessly with every man in the workplace, including Peter, like a backhouse whore. He neither reciprocated nor rebuffed her as she toyed with his ego, as is the male prerogative. Jess became fixated, obsessively comparing herself to Felicity, staring in the mirror and slowly picking herself apart until she could no longer stomach her own reflection, driven by a misguided belief that she was of no consequence - suddenly, just being ‘Jess’ wasn’t good enough.

Peter was never home, putting in extra hours on this job or that deadline, further stoking Jess’s emotional turmoil. Jaded by vodka tears, she would ring the office and leave random, incoherent messages, compromising her own dignity as a valued employee. To Jess, Peter was both Jekyll and Hyde – happy while at work, but radiating misery and discontent when he was with her, though time spent together as a married couple was rare, even to dine or watch TV together and they rarely slept in the same bed, only ever making love on impulse or if fuelled by alcohol. Jess desperately missed the intimacy of being skin to skin, and felt undesirable and baron. Defying the odds despite a lacklustre sex life, she fell pregnant which brought mild relief and gave her new focus if only for the wellbeing of the growing baby inside her. Shortly after the birth, she handed in her resignation to Marsh & Reid– the workplace held so many bad memories and could never be the same again, and even though Felicity had moved on, Jess still blamed her for everything.    

Baby Jonas brought Jess and Peter closer together for a brief period, but it wasn’t long before the familiar pang of resentment and mistrust returned. To the outside world they were the ‘perfect couple’, fooling everyone except mum, who sensed something was very wrong and that Jess was troubled and specifically entrenched in grief following the death of her father. Such a mood state can play tricks on the mind and the whole ‘Felicity’ thing was pervasive. Mum suggested that Jess see a bereavement counsellor, but she refused, insisting that everything was fine, except for her husband’s ‘supposed’ infidelity, which she felt unable to disclose to anyone, let her alone, her own mother.

Breaking point came during one very stressful day when Jonas was around two years old and being particularly tetchy and uncooperative. Jess needed bread and milk from the village, and as it was cold and wet outside, she decided to take the car. The experience was far from pleasant – dragging an unruly toddler around the mini-mart full of reluctant shoppers blocking the aisles, so she grabbed what she could and made a quick exit. To make matters worse, the car boot catch was ‘sticky’, and despite using both hands, the release button just wouldn’t budge, so Jess dumped the shopping on the backseat.  The inertia of the first sharp turn tipped the bags over and onto the floor, fracturing the seal on the milk carton and releasing its contents, which then bled into the grooves of the rubber car mats. While soaking up the excess milk with tissue, she discovered a folded piece of paper jutting out of a side door pocket.

Dear Peter,

 

You know I want you – take me.

 

Felicity xx

Jess was numb with rage, her eyes brimming with woeful, angry tears. “Who the fuck does she think she is, leaving her filth in our car” Jess said, her heart beating so hard and fast she could feel it in her throat. “Enough” she screeched, and once inside the house began rifling through kitchen cupboards for black sacks, tearing them apart one by one in a blind fury, emptying wardrobes, drawers and countless cupboards of books, folders, pens and scraps of paper, swiftly filling bag after bag until everything belonging to Peter was removed.  The task was arduous, but gratifying, and she slumped to the floor, staring at the countless plastic bundles full of memories and paraphernalia – a physical representation of the supposed betrayal. Still wired from the adrenalin rush, her heart flipped as she suddenly realised that the house was remarkably quiet and the front door was ajar. She leapt to her feet, catastrophizing wildly and fearing for a few terrifying moments that Jonas had wondered into the street, but as she turned around, saw that he was asleep on the sofa, clutching Trevor, coated in dried tears and random hair strands plastered to his forehead. 

A little over four and a half years gone and Jess can still recall the gut wrenching disappointment as she stood at the kitchen window, watching Peter bundled the black bags into the boot of his shiny red convertible without question or resistance. It could be argued that Jess was just ‘testing the water’, as surely any man worth a grain would fight his corner? Peter was a good man, but he was inanely stubborn and always battled with the truth in any situation, preferring to walk away than admit he was wrong, much like his antagonistic father, but actions speak volumes, right?

Heavy fog blighted visibility, as did the lengthy branches of silver birch tree which stood at the foot of the garden.  The awkward, edgy feeling was still as strong despite the passage of time and pre-empting Peter’s arrival was always a tense affair. Jess found herself intermittently checking through the window while Jonas sat on the lounge carpet, tossing Trevor in the air and cheering as he crashed to the floor.  To sway her thoughts, she got busy in the laundry cupboard, and while entangled in shirt sleeves and trouser legs, was startled by the unmistakable roar of Peter’s exhaust as he rumbled up the driveway followed by the familiar rat-tat on the door with his fancy ignition key. “Daddy’s here” Jonas yelled. Jess tried so very hard not to over-think, but there was no denying her heavy heart, no matter what the distraction.