The Book Lovers

booklovers“Who was she?” That was the first thought that came into my mind when I saw her in the bookshop. Her long, silver plait snaked over one shoulder until she flicked it behind her where it came to a stop, bisecting her back perfectly. Her hair made it almost impossible to determine her age as her unlined face had a timeless quality to it; she could have been anywhere between forty and sixty. As she moved about the stacks, I noticed she had a dancer’s litheness of movement, bending gracefully to read the spines of books and placing her feet just so.

I watched her out of the corner of my eye as I unpacked a box of newly delivered books, enjoying the feel of leather and cloth against my fingertips and inhaling the spicy aroma of the tea-coloured pages. My attention was diverted when I noticed a pristine copy “The Great British Book of Birds” and I spent several minutes marvelling over the beautifully vibrant colour plates and skimming through the chapter describing how to preserve a gentleman’s carefully collected birds’ eggs. I stroked the book as I closed it then glanced up but the silver lady had gone. I was certain she hadn’t left, as she would have walked past me, so she must have made her way into the non-fiction section at the rear of the shop.

I priced a handful of the newly acquired books and went to find her. The shelves were all made of mahogany from a bygone era but when the sun shone through the high window, it transformed this back room into a softly glowing space where dust motes floated in the mellow sunlight. I had placed two comfortable armchairs in here to encourage browsers to sit and bide awhile and this was where she had settled with one leg tucked beneath her and her chin resting elegantly in the palm of her hand.

I moved quietly as I slotted the bird book amongst its kin in the ornithological section and found suitable homes for the others, all the while hoping to catch a glimpse of what the silver lady was reading. I was squinting and trying to discern the book’s title when I realised I was being calmly observed by a pair of inquisitive hazel eyes.

“I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt,” I apologised in a rush. “I thought if I could see what you were reading I could offer suggestions for other books you might like.”

“That’s very kind of you. It’s Robert Hooke’s Micrographia. The text is a little hard going but the microscopic drawings are fascinating. Here, look at this flea,” she turned the book towards me so I could look at it. “The detail is amazing, you can even see the hairs on its legs.”

Her face lit up with a child-like wonder as she flicked through the pages then smiled up at me. Oh dear, I thought, as my stomach flipped and somersaulted like a panicked fish, this is what it’s like to fall in love.

Genius

red shoeI met a genius on the train today.

I got on at Bristol Temple Meads at dusk, feeling decidedly ropey and just wanted to fall asleep until a guard kicked me off at Southampton. I was clutching a carrier bag full of Lucozade and Haribo Fangtastics, my surefire hangover cure. I was hoping for a seat in the quiet carriage but as I looked around, a sea of heads stretched out before me, most with iPads or Kindles but some with actual paperbacks. I sighed and went through to the next compartment. Ditto, although it was a lot noisier with rugby fans celebrating a win at Cardiff Arms Park. I made my way through the train, wondering if I’d ever get a seat then groaning as I realised I might have to stand for the whole two and a half hour journey. Perhaps I’d be allowed to curl up in a corner of the guard’s carriage, amongst the bikes and surfboards? Or maybe an old lady would take pity on my fragile state and offer her seat to me?

The door to the last carriage hissed open and I shuffled dejectedly along, having already resigned myself to sitting on the floor when I spotted a seat. I picked up my pace worried it might be a hallucination brought on by alcohol poisoning but no, there were in fact three spare seats on a completely full train with standing room only. I didn’t care and slumped onto the velour fabric with a huge sense of relief.

I was woken by a sharp prod in my chest. I ignored it, shifted in my seat and tried to go back to sleep. Another prod, accompanied by, “Wake up, mate! You’re snoring.” I opened my eyes and was startled to find myself looking at the face of the hairiest man I’d ever seen, six inches from mine. He had long, dark, frizzy hair and beard and looked like the lead singer of a 70s rock band. I got a whiff of his pungent odour and switched to breathing through my mouth instead of my nose.

“I’m Tor, pleased to meet you. I was hoping someone would sit here soon as these journeys can be really boring unless you’ve got someone to chat to,” he fidgeted while he spoke then smiled at me displaying yellow teeth.

“I’m sorry but I’m really tired and just need some sleep,” closing my eyes.

Tor ignored this and said, “I’ve invented time travel.”

My eyes flicked open in horror as I realised why these seats had been empty. I’d made the worst possible mistake on public transport and had sat opposite The Loony.

“Yeah, all those scientists have been working on it for years and I invented a time machine in my mate’s shed.”

I tried not to look directly at him, as you would the sun during an eclipse, but I’d engaged with him and now I was trapped.

“It’s not like the Tardis or that fancy machine from the film. Have a guess what it is.”

I sighed and realised he wasn’t going to let me sleep so I might as well have some fun, “A wardrobe, like the one that takes you to Narnia?”

“Nah mate, that’s a portal to another world not a time machine.”

“A cardboard box?”

“Nah, you’re not even trying.”

“A hat? A nice trilby?”

“Close but no cigar, mate.”

“I give up. What is it?”

“Shoes,” he said theatrically as he made a “ta dah” movement with his hands.

“Shoes?”

He nodded and grinned, displaying his nicotine stained teeth again.

“You’ve invented time travelling shoes?” I asked in disbelief.

“Yeah. They’re a nice pair of trainers I got from a charity shop for two quid.”

“What did you do to them to make them travel in time?” I shouldn’t have carried on the conversation but he’d drawn me in and now I was intrigued. He was good, he was very good.

Tor looked around him to check no-one was listening then whispered louder than most people talk, “I painted them red.”

“What, like the ruby slippers?”

“Exactly, mate,” he cried clapping his hands together. “I knew you’d get it.”

“So, you click your heels together, say where and when you want to go and …”

“I’m whisked down a wormhole quicker than you can say Jack Sprat.”

“So where have you been? The Battle of Hastings or to witness the Big Bang?”

“Nah, somewhere much better.”

“Where?” I asked and actually leaned forward in my seat.

“The Tesco down the road from me last Wednesday.”

“What?” I exclaimed.

“Yeah, I’d missed the bus so didn’t get there in time to get the cheap meat and cakes. It would’ve been cold beans for a week if I hadn’t got down there.”

“Why don’t you use the shoes to better advantage? You know, put a bet on a surprise Grand National winner and make some money?”

“But that would be dishonest,” he said, with a shocked expression.

“Okay, okay, I didn’t mean to offend you.”

“Tickets please,” the inspector called out as he entered the carriage.

“Mate, I gotta scarper as I haven’t got a ticket.”

“Hang on, you just said…”

“No time mate, good talking to you,” Tor said as he clicked his heels and disappeared with a quiet pop.

SugaPuff

SugaPuffThe metal panel clattered off the wall of the silent office. Mark clambered inelegantly out of the air conditioning duct and onto the top of the photocopier then lost his footing and landed in a heap on the floor, like a puppet whose strings had been cut. He disentangled his gangly arms and legs and stood up to his full 6′ 4″ height, brushing bits of fluff from his black polo neck jumper and trousers. He had planned to wear a balaclava but at the last minute had decided that it was unnecessary and a bit of a cliché. Unable to stop himself, he looked around to see who had witnessed his clumsy entrance then remembered that it was 3am and he was completely alone.

Despite this he tiptoed in a pantomime fashion across the carpet until he realised how ridiculous he must look. He reached his destination and glanced around at the gonks with nylon hair in a variety of fluorescent colours and pink hearts decorating the desk. He paused briefly to muster his courage then hesitantly lowered himself into the chair, as you would with a too hot bath, a flush rising from his neck to his forehead as he did so. He took a moment to start breathing again then fired up the computer. He couldn’t help but notice that a photo of a pretty blonde holding a chihuahua puppy in a pastel-pink heart-shaped frame took pride of place next to the monitor.

The computer had completed its start-up process and the login page was displayed. He typed “Samantha Ward” into the user name line, pressed return and then watched as the cursor blinked patiently at him from the password line. He looked around the desk for inspiration: gonk was too short and chihuahua too difficult to spell first thing in the morning. He had an idea and typed “pinkheart” into the space. Invalid password. Blast, only two more attempts. He thought harder and tried “purplegonk”. Invalid password. Last chance. Mark had a lightbulb moment and typed in “SugaPuff”, taking care with the spelling and capitalisation. Bingo! Of course, Samantha had used the name of her new puppy.

Once Mark had gained access into the computer, he waited a moment for the home page to load and was delighted to see a photo of the pretty girl hugging her puppy as the background picture. Samantha’s blonde hair shone in the sun and her sapphire blue eyes were hidden by Jackie O sunglasses. He felt a twinge of jealousy when he realised SugaPuff was licking his owner’s face and she was squealing in delight. “Oh, if only that was me,” Mark sighed out loud and made himself jump in the silence. Mark checked his watch. 3.12am. He clicked on the email icon and opened the last message, sent by him at 10.27pm.

Mark cringed as he read the contents of the email:

My Darling Samantha,

The sun is dimmed by your loveliness and the moon weeps stars at your beauty. Flowers bloom in your footsteps and birds sing joyfully as you pass by. Your skin is as soft and unblemished as a peach, your hair shimmers like ripe barley in the sun and your eyes reflect a perfect blue sky on a summer’s day. Every man is undone by you, especially me, who worships you as Aphrodite, the goddess of love. No woman is more perfect, more beautiful or more loveable than you as you are the epitome of womankind. I am not worthy of you but know that I would do anything for you and the power of love will sustain me for an eternity.

I will always love you,

Mark

He had drunk a bottle of red wine then thought it an excellent idea to declare his undying love to Samantha. He had composed the email, then fallen asleep at his computer and woken in a cold sweat, and with an imprint of the keyboard on his face, when he realised he’d actually pressed the send button. Mark had panicked, then forced himself to calm down and hatched the plan to break into his office and destroy the evidence.

Mark pressed delete and breathed a sigh of relief. Samantha would never know about his passion for her as he would prefer his love to remain hidden rather than having to suffer the embarrassment of rejection. Anyway, he was used to his love being unrequited as he had never been able to tell a woman how he felt, not after Marie Newman had broken his heart when he was fourteen. She had agreed to go on a date with him to the cinema to see Beaches (her choice, not his) and had stood him up. He had waited over two hours, the reasons for her non-appearance becoming more fanciful in his mind the later it became. He didn’t realise it had been a cruel joke until he went to school the following day and everyone sang “The Wind Beneath Your Wings” at him and he’d ended up taking refuge underneath the stage in the main hall. Mark logged out and switched off the computer, checked that everything was in place on Samantha’s desk and then climbed on top of the photocopier and retraced his route out of the building.

Mark felt dreadful but managed to drag himself into work the following day. By the time he had returned home, he had only managed three hours sleep and had woken with a monumental hangover. His only consolation was that Samantha would never read his email and he would avoid the embarrassment of everyone in the office finding out.

Mark was inputting that month’s sale figures into a spreadsheet when he smelled perfume, Samantha’s perfume, and whirled round in his chair. There she was, closer than she had ever been before, so that he was able to admire her flawless skin and bask in her unparalleled beauty.

“Hi Mark. Wow, you look really hungover! Heavy night on the tiles, I bet!”

Mark smiled ruefully but didn’t say anything.

“Hey, I just found an email which I think is from you.”

Mark froze with fear. He couldn’t believe he hadn’t checked Samantha’s recycle bin and just assumed that her emails were deleted every time she logged out. He could feel adrenaline pumping round his body, preparing him to run fast, anywhere but here.

“Email?” Mark finally managed with his Sahara-dry mouth. “I don’t remember sending you an email,” he said as nonchalantly as possible.

Samantha looked at him in puzzlement, “But you’re Mark Telford, aren’t you?”

Mark couldn’t speak so just nodded.

“I was really surprised when I read it but it was so sweet of you. You know I’ve just split up with my boyfriend and been feeling a bit low, so that was very kind of you to try and cheer me up.” Samantha leant over, gave him hug and whispered in his ear, “Don’t worry, I won’t say a word.” Samantha rubbed his back briefly before releasing him then gave him a brilliant smile showing off her gleaming white teeth before turning away and walking back to her desk.

Mark stared after her in amazement. She was perfect, absolutely perfect, and his love for her fizzed and bubbled like champagne. He would dream about that hug forever and would tend the eternal flame of his love for her while being so very privileged to worship her from afar.

The Sphinx

Sphinx2At an entrance to the park there are two stone gateposts four-sided, bevelled at the top, Egyptian-looking. I’d walked past before, never really noticing them, but today they’d piqued my curiosity; such an exotic gateway to a place where people take their children to feed the ducks or young lovers laze on the grass in the summer. I ventured in wondering why I had never stepped over the threshold before. Just because it was located on the other side of the town from where I lived wasn’t a good enough reason.

The park was well laid out with specimen trees of Japanese maple and cherries that would have looked beautiful in their autumn colours. Birches glowed in the half-light of a dull February day and I couldn’t resist the satin feel of them, running my fingers around their trunks and peeling translucent bark off in tiny strips.

Something caught my eye through the trees, possibly a statue but I wasn’t sure. I wandered deeper into the park, catching glimpses here and there. The path completed it’s circuitous route through the trees and the park opened up to reveal a rectangular pond, filled with glassy water reflecting the grey sky, with Cleopatra’s Needle at one end and a sphinx guarding the other. I approached the stone figure and stared into it’s inscrutable, androgynous face. I ran my hand down it’s flank, enjoying the feel of cold, rough limestone under my fingers, finishing up at the tip of the lion’s tail which flicked. “Who dares touch me?” a voice demanded. The tail flicked again in irritation and I made my way back to the sphinx’s head with some trepidation. “Well?”, the stone eyes blinked at me as I looked at my feet and mumbled an apology. “Not good enough. If you can answer my fiendish riddle I’ll let you go.” “What happens if I can’t answer it,” I asked nervously. “Then I’ll have to eat you,” the sphinx replied. “What is greater than God, more evil than the devil, the poor have it, the rich need it, and if you eat it, you’ll die?” My mind became blank, a dark, swirling void containing nothing of any use. I’d always hated riddles and couldn’t think of a response that would save my life. I could feel sweat inching down my back as the seconds ticked by. “I’ll have to hurry you,” said the sphinx, sounding like a quiz show host. “Nothing. I know nothing so you’ll have to eat me,” I said with a resigned sigh.

The sphinx emitted a cry of intense frustration and rage. “Who told you?” it screamed. “I don’t know the answer so just get it over with,” I closed my eyes and waited for the inevitable. “Nothing IS the answer so leave this place and never return.” I opened my eyes gingerly and the sphinx was once again inanimate. I didn’t need to be told twice so ran as fast as my legs would carry me.

Lost and Found

large houseThe young woman walked through the woods, unsure how she had come to be there. Her mind was fuzzy and she felt as if she had just awoken from a drugged sleep. An image of a large house with immaculate gardens flickered in her mind like an old film but when she tried to grasp the memory, it slipped away from her. She found it difficult to move quickly without tripping over exposed roots and tree stumps so she made her slow, stumbling way through the autumnal forest.

With relief, she suddenly remembered why she was there. She was visiting her friend, Jemima, for a weekend house party and someone had suggested playing hide and seek. This childish game had appealed to them and many clapped their hands with glee. Jemima’s brother, Robert, was down from London where he was something in the City had looked indulgently upon his sister and her friends, whilst reading The Times. Robert was blond and tanned with an athlete’s physique so caused quite a stir amongst the female guests, whose eyes shone more brightly and hair needed touching far more than was necessary whenever he was around. She had hung back, mesmerised by his good looks but feeling far too gauche to approach to him.

Several of the more forward girls declared Robert “it” so he gamely turned his back and started counting steadily to one hundred. She and the others had squealed with excitement and scattered like hens across the lawn. Most had kept close to the house, or disappeared inside to find neglected rooms in which to hide, but she remembered Jemima had mentioned a secret glade, where statues glowed in the half-light. She thought it the perfect hiding place so ran away from the house, leaving behind echoed giggles and an abandoned croquet game, and plunged into the trees’ silent depths.

She followed the path, her shoes kicking through crisp, brown leaves, heading towards the river where Jemima had said the glade could be found. A small path intersected the main ride so she turned onto it, thinking it looked exactly like it should lead to a secret glade. After several minutes she realised she was hopelessly lost and had no idea in which direction either the river or the house lay.

The shadows had started to lengthen when she heard someone calling her name, “Sylvia!” She froze like a startled doe for a moment then quickened her pace, moving away from the sound. She thought she recognised the man’s voice, although it sounded different somehow, and it scared her.

“Sylvia, where are you?” the man called, a trace of panic in his voice. He sounded closer so she tried to speed up but her legs wouldn’t move quickly enough. “Sylvia! There you are!” the man cried out with relief. She turned to see an old man walking towards her, arms extended. She screamed and lashed out at him as he approached, his hands covered his head to protect it from the volley of blows she had rained down on him.

“Calm down, Sylvia, it’s me!” he entreated as she continued to pummel him. “Go away!” she yelled, “Leave me alone! Mama told me never to speak to strangers!” He grabbed Sylvia’s wrists and drew her to him, enfolding her in an inescapable embrace. She continued to struggle and let out a piercing scream in the hope that Jemima or one of the other guests would hear and come to her rescue.

Robert held Sylvia until her hysteria had subsided. The unseasonable warmth of the day had fled and the air had turned chilly so Robert removed his jacket and rested it across his wife’s shoulders. Her pale cream shoes were streaked with green smears and threads on the hem of her skirt had been pulled by brambles. This touched him deeply so he cupped Sylvia’s face in his hands and kissed her gently on the lips. They were cold and dry and she neither responded nor drew away from him. Her face was etched with lines caused by all the emotions she had ever experienced but was now as expressionless as a mask. This was the first time she had failed to recognise him and sadness overwhelmed him like a tidal wave. When had his beautiful, vibrant wife turned into a confused, scared, old woman? Sylvia had become quiet and biddable so he put an arm around her waist and, gently guiding her, they made their cautious, shuffling way home.

Modern Love

white sofaTamai and Kaiko sit close together on the white sofa, almost but not quite touching, stealing shy glances when they believe the other isn’t looking. Kaiko reaches out and clasps Tamai’s hand in his and she blushes furiously, casting her gaze downwards. Their fingers are elegant and slim and, intertwined as they are, it is difficult to tell them apart. Tamai colours even more deeply as Kaiko disentangles their grasp then lifts Tamai’s hand to his mouth and places a gentle kiss in her palm. This is the blossoming of their first love.

Tamai and Kaiko could be mistaken for siblings with their androgynous features, large, dark eyes and slim build. Professor Ishida himself has commented on it as he watches their tentative steps through this fledgling stage of courtship. He views their progress via a battery of high-definition camera equipment, secreted around the laboratory, and his team of researchers record every aspect of the teenagers’ behaviour. The scientists measure the temperature of their subjects via state-of-the-art thermal imaging cameras.

Kaiko brushes hair from Tamai’s face and gently strokes her cheek, her skin as soft as velvet. They stare deeply into each other’s eyes, as if the answer to every question posed in the world can be found in them. Kaiko tilts his head slightly and leans in for their first kiss. Their lips barely touch but they are both transformed. As they open their eyes and stare at each other in wonder, Kaiko and Tamai realise that they have left childhood behind and are now embarking on the long road to adulthood. Tamai glances around the room and is amazed by how different everything looks. She then realises that it is not the room but her perception that has changed. Empowered, she kisses Kaiko more passionately and waves of desire threaten to overwhelm her.

Much later, Professor Ishida silently enters the laboratory so as not to disturb his subjects who have fallen asleep in each other’s arms. He switches them both off then locates the relevant port at the back of Tamai’s head, inserts the USB stick and uploads that day’s data before wiping all trace of Kaiko from her memory bank. Two of the stronger members of his team extricate Kaiko from Tamai’s embrace then carry him from the laboratory, leaving Tamai on her own in the large, white bed.

Tamai and Yukai sit close together on the white sofa, almost but not quite touching. Yukai reaches for Tamai’s hand but she withdraws it, knowing that this feels wrong. She yearns for the love of someone else who exists only as a ghost in her memory.

Home Visit

horses

Sharon Kent heaved herself out of her Fiat 500 and puffed her way up the driveway to the anonymous bungalow. She rang the doorbell and waited patiently until she heard a rhythmic thud and shuffling feet and saw an indistinct shape through the frosted glass. There was a rattle as the chain was attached and the door opened a crack. Sharon could only see a sliver of the person behind the door and got a glimpse of powder soft skin, a cream coloured silk blouse and a gimlet eye. “Miss Ida Jennings?” A brief nod encouraged her to continue, “I’m Sharon Kent from Social Services.” She flashed an ID badge with an unflattering photograph and the Council logo into the gap. “May I come in and speak to you about your home care review?” The door closed briefly, the chain was removed and the door opened fully to allow Sharon to get a good look at her new client. Miss Jennings was short and round with white hair styled in soft curls. “Come in,” she said as she turned and made her way slowly down the hallway, taking small steps and leaning heavily on her zimmer frame. Sharon closed the door behind her, inhaled the familiar smell of talcum and overcooked vegetables, then followed her client’s painfully slow progress to the living room.

“Take a seat and I’ll go and make some tea,” said Miss Jennings as she turned to start her glacial progress to the kitchen. “Please let me,” said Sharon. “No!” replied Miss Jennings sharply then checked herself, “No thank you, I’m perfectly capable.” Sharon heard her make her way next door and a click as the kettle was switched on. She wandered around the room, looking at the bookshelves, mostly autobiographies and travel books, and photographs on the mantel of a smiling girl who aged from childhood to middle age via motherhood in a few frames.

There were ornaments, too many, arranged in neat rows. Shiny, porcelain shire horses with fake brass accessories, a snow globe depicting the Empire State Building and emblazoned with I ♥ New York, nesting Babushka dolls, the last one smaller than your fingernail, and other mementoes from trips to far flung places. Sharon sighed. The furthest she’d ever been abroad was a day trip to Calais and what a disappointment that had been. The French port had been grey and depressing, shrouded in rain, and she had spent most of the time in a monumental supermarket, shopping for cheap red wine and incredibly smelly cheese.

The room was tidy and clean but the decor was circa 1978, despite looking fairly recently decorated. The one item which looked out of place was a black leather recliner which brooded in the corner like the Mastermind chair. Sharon thought she had a few more minutes before Miss Jennings returned so lowered herself carefully into the monolithic chair. It exhaled quietly as she settled herself and leant back, her ample frame expertly supported. She decided it was the most comfortable thing she’d ever sat in and she had to have one. She knew they weren’t cheap but it would be worth it to feel this weightless whenever she watched her soaps. Sharon heard clattering in the kitchen and reluctantly levered herself out of the chair to offer her assistance in carrying the tea tray.

Miss Jennings poured tea into china cups decorated with garish pink roses and then added far too much milk for Sharon’s taste. She offered a plate of rich tea biscuits to Sharon who was unable to hide her disappointment as she reluctantly took one of the bland, beige discs. Rich tea indeed. They weren’t even coated in chocolate so what was so rich about them?

“Miss Jennings. May I call you Ida?”

A short pause. “I’d rather you didn’t as I’d prefer to keep this at a professional level and first name terms implies … friendship.” Miss Jennings hesitated over that last word as if it left an unpleasant taste in her mouth.

Sharon flushed briefly at this slight and thought, not for the first time, how everyone expects the elderly to be saccharine sweet. Someone who is bad-tempered, grumpy or just plain nasty when they are younger doesn’t suddenly receive a personality transplant when they retire. In Sharon’s experience, the worst offenders had dispensed with social niceties altogether and revelled in calling a spade a spade before hitting you round the head with it.

Sharon counted to ten under her breath and started again, “Miss Jennings, I’m here to talk to you about your home care package.”

“Yes, you said that already. I’m not feeble-minded you know; it’s my body that’s failing, not my brain.”

Sharon bit her tongue, “You need some help and I’ve been appointed to discuss your options with you.”

“Options? As far as I can see I only have two options: stay here and endure an over-worked, under-paid care assistant invading my house twice a day or go into a home for the permanently bewildered where my will to live will be sapped by watching mind-numbing daytime television and being forced to sing along to Vera Lynn to remind us of the good old war years, even though I’d barely been born.”

Sharon laughed and said brightly, “Well, that would only be what you deserve, Miss Jennings.”

Miss Jennings froze briefly before placing her teacup carefully on its saucer, “Pardon?”

“If that’s your idea of hell, then that’s where you deserve to live until your dying day,” smiled Sharon.

Miss Jennings narrowed her eyes, “Who are you?”

“I’m your social worker, as I think we’ve already established.”

“No really, Sharon is it?”

“Ms Kent to you as you’ve made it clear you want to keep this relationship on a professional footing,” Sharon smoothed her skirt over her knees.

“Do I know you?”

“Do you remember a little girl called Sharon Buckby from forty years ago?”

“I’ve known so many Sharons, Susans and Sarahs over the years, you’ll have to enlighten me further.”

“Alright. It’s 1975 and you’re managing the Birchglen Children’s Home in Northampton. You like to think you’re firm but fair, but that’s far from the truth. You play children off against each other, always girls, spreading rumours and watching as friendships fall apart and the most vulnerable girl is left alone and friendless. Then you humiliate her for your own pleasure, the other girls playing along because they’re just relieved it’s not them. Ring any bells?” Sharon stared hard at Miss Jennings, her cheeks flushed and jaw clenched.

“I remember no such thing!”

“So you weren’t at Birchglen in the mid-seventies?”

“Yes, of course I was but none of that ever happened. Has a meddling psychotherapist been implanting memories of child abuse into your mind during your sessions? I wasn’t soft on my charges but do I really look like a monster?” replied Miss Jennings, holding out her arms in a gesture of submission.

Sharon looked Miss Jennings up and down and a tiny flicker of doubt caught light in her mind. She looked like central casting’s idea of a doting grandmother from any number of interchangeable television adverts. Sharon silenced the traitorous thoughts before they could grow and paralyse her. She knew that Miss Jennings had only ever been married to her job so would never be anyone’s grandmother, doting or otherwise. Those pictures of the smiling girl on her mantel were of her niece not of a daughter.

“Stop twisting my words! So you’re saying that you didn’t starve me and then, when you found me searching the slop bucket for edible leftovers, you didn’t fill a trough and make me eat from it on all fours, like a pig?”

Miss Jennings struggled to suppress a smirk and lost, “Oh, that was you, was it? One of my most imaginative punishments, even if I do say so myself.”

Sharon felt the relief as forty years of torment lifted from her shoulders, “Finally, you’ve admitted it. I endured nine years of your cruelty but I don’t want revenge, just an apology.”

“Well, you won’t get one from me. You were such a lumpy, potato-faced child it made me so cross to watch as you shuffled around so meekly. I chose girls I thought needed toughening up to prepare them for the harsh reality of life.”

“But I was a seven year old orphan,” Sharon said plaintively.

“You weren’t an orphan! Your mother abandoned you because she already had five children and couldn’t afford to feed you all. That woman was no better than she ought to be as you all had different fathers. She did keep your brothers and sisters though.” Miss Jennings finished slyly, watching Sharon closely for her reaction.

“Brothers and sisters? Where are they?” Sharon demanded.

“No idea and you’ll never find out as Birchglen burned down in 1988 and all the records were destroyed,” replied Miss Jennings nonchalantly.

“Why raise my hopes up then dash them to the ground?” Sharon cried, tears welling in her eyes.

Miss Jennings shook her head sadly, “You still haven’t learned that life is inherently unfair, have you? All my lessons were for nought. As you call yourself Ms Kent, I assume that you are divorced. I’m also willing to wager that you are childless. If you had grown a backbone at Birchglen, you might have avoided all these disappointments and made something of your life.”

Sharon grabbed a heavy brass lamp and smashed it into the side of Miss Jennings’ head. It was worth it just to see the look of shock in her accusing blue eyes. Miss Jennings made a strange gurgling, choking noise as blood spurted from the wound, staining her silk blouse a vibrant red. That’ll be a nightmare to get out, Sharon thought randomly and clapped a hand over her mouth to stifle a giggle. She pulled her chair closer and watched as the life drained out of Miss Jennings. It took several minutes.

Sharon cocked her head to one side and thought how funny Miss Jennings looked, covered in blood and with that big dent in her head. Her eyes widened when she realised that Miss Jennings’ critical voice had finally been silenced. Not just in reality but also the voice she’d carried in her head for all those years, the one that constantly undermined her by saying she was too fat, too ugly, too scared, too weak and too stupid to ever amount to anything. Sharon beamed all the way to the police station. She was finally free.