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.