This instalment is somewhat shorter than the last but don’t worry this is not because production has slowed. When I selected the text this just seemed like a sweet spot to finish, just the point that would make me, as a reader, think ‘one more chapter’. So here is the latest from Rachel, I have to say that she genuinely surprised me I had no idea this was in her history but that, I guess, is true of so many.
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“Problems?” the voice from behind made her jump and she narrowly avoided hitting her head on the raised bonnet, she turned to see Joe grinning at her. Joe was a local odd jobbing associate, one of those guys that could turn his hand to most things “almost started but I think that battery has given up the ghost” “I’ll go grab my motor and we can jump it” he headed off in the direction of the pub car park before Rachel answered. Giving the engine one last cursory glance Rachel fished in her pocket for a chewing gum and checked her phone. There was a text from Georgia saying that she was out shopping and would call later; oh how nice it must be to indulge in retail therapy. She saw Joe’s truck and moved out of the way as he pulled up close to the Ford, jumping out with a set of well used jump leads he lifted the bonnet on the truck. Passing one end of the leads to Rachel he put one clip in each hand “I’m not that stupid” she complained and he laughed connecting the other end to the truck’s battery. Taking the other end from her he leant under the Ford’s bonnet “Jump in Rach” there was a spark as he connected the leads.
Jumping back in the truck he pressed the throttle down increasing the revs and after waiting a short while Rachel cranked the Ford, quietly pleased that he hadn’t told her when to start. On the second attempt the battered Ford coughed and caught, she jumped out as Joe removed the leads from the truck. The little Ford didn’t falter and Rachel, keen to show she wasn’t helpless, leant in and disconnected the leads at her end. She felt a nudge as Joe bumped into her, standing she passed him the ends and thanked him. “I should have a battery in the garage that will fit that, pop it round and I’ll drop it in” “it’s probably lost in the travelling junk yard that you call a truck” she gave his shoulder a playful shove. “It’s on the list as soon as I have a spare £50 or win the Lotto” she did know that she needed a new battery but, like most things, it wouldn’t make the top of the list until the car wouldn’t start. “The battery is second hand and it don’t owe me anything, throw me a pint and were even” he meant it of course; this was the funny Robin Hood economy of villages. One person spent money getting a job done and the redundant components were recycled through the community in exchange for smokes or a pint, she liked this it was community spirit fuelled by beer, real life.
“Thanks, I’ll pop in next time I’m passing. You’re a lifesaver Joe I was beginning to think I’d have to call him indoors so he could tell me to call the recovery, I owe you one” he chuckled, jumped into the driver’s seat and pulled the truck clear “see ya later babe”. He watched her climb into the Ford and pull away, think I might stall do you? Not this girl thank she very much, she waved a thank you as she passed him and pulled out onto the high street. Taking the long route home to give the battery every chance to charge she finally pulled up on the drive at twenty to four. There was no smoke rising from the building, the door was closed and the windows intact, so far it appeared that Steve had succeeded in looking after his own children.
Opening the front door quietly she made it to the kitchen without being assaulted by any of the family. Dousing her hands in washing up liquid she scrubbed the grease from them and had just reached for a tea towel when Davey barrelled into her leg and wrapped his arms around her. “Mummy Davey wants crisps” the closest that the 4 year old eating machine came to a hello “Good to see you too tiger, I think that you have had snacks”. Prying his hands off her leg Rachel scooped the boy up and her face was instantly clasped between sticky cheese and onion scented hands as an equally sticky kiss was delivered. Reaching for the wash cloth Rachel wiped fingers, face and pulled the remnants of a crisp from Davey’s hair sneaking a wipe of her cheek whilst he was squirming. Carrying her son into the lounge she was met with a scene that she could have pretty much described from the car. The sofa cushions were on the floor with Lou lounging on them, head propped on little arms and studying a Disney movie on DVD. Steve was asleep in the armchair with a, now empty, coffee cup on his lap and the entire room seemed to be awash with crisp and snack packets in various states of emptiness.
“Oi tidy up please team and then we can go out” Lou looked up lazily acknowledging the presence of her mother. It was odd that if you left the children watching television their natural exuberance seemed to drain away and they became lethargic “chop chop Lou”. Returning to the kitchen Rachel filled the kettle and then emptied the washing machine, luckily it had not been long enough for the wet laundry to smell and she hung it over the clothes horse in the conservatory before making her coffee. Refilling the machine she called through to the lounge “5 minutes and I’m coming to check” this elicited squeals and prompted Lou to run through to the kitchen bin with an armful of rubbish. Drinking her coffee Rachel found the two cards that she had purchased yesterday, in the family one she completed standard greetings and filled in her name and Steve’s in the other she made some vague marks and kisses with a purple crayon. Tasking Lou with the small hand held vacuum she scooped Davey onto a stool, gave him a crayon and asked him to write in Zoe’s card. The youngster’s face lit up at the name “we see Zoe, mummy?” he enquired as he poked his tongue out in concentration “yes if you get that card written”. Walking into the lounge Rachel directed Lou to a hidden patch of crumbled biscuit and rearranged the sofa cushions “ok madam that will do, go put that on charge” she scooted the girl out of the room noticing that Steve’s position hadn’t changed.
Louise saw Davey writing and promptly climbed up on a stool “where’s my” was as far as she got before Rachel placed the card and pen in front of her and instructed her to write her name and put a kisses on the card. Sliding the crayon caked card from a reluctant Davey she sealed it in the envelope and supervised him placing a single kiss on the back of the envelope. Louise sealed the other card and wrote a spidery Zoe on the front. Inspecting the presentation of her children Rachel grabbed a fresh T shirt from the pile and changed Davey, straightening his hair with her fingers “go find shoes tiger”. She gave Lou the washcloth to clean her own face while Rachel brushed her hair back into some order. Putting shoes and jackets on the children and shrugging into her own hoody Rachel reached into the cupboard for her boots. At 5’8 Rachel’s legs meant she had a good height but the extra 4” of heel made her feel more on a level with the world and, she believed, made her walk more like a girl.
There was no need for a note, Steve probably wouldn’t wake up and even if he did she doubted he would even check if her car was there. His natural assumption seemed to be that if he couldn’t see or hear the children then somebody else, probably, Rachel was dealing with them. They streamed out of the door and the children argued over who would open the door, Rachel smiled, extracted the chocolate from the boot and shut it. “Mummy the doors are locked” Lou was the first to complain “that’s because were walking my little bundles of joy” before the groans kicked in she quickly added “if you’re good we will go to the park afterwards and maybe the shop”. Moaning averted both children fell into what passed as an orderly group and they headed off up the street
What would be a brisk 5 minute walk extended to over ten minutes with the children and would have taken longer if Rachel hadn’t hustled Davey through the short cut through alley to the adjacent street. Davey seemed to see the alley as a mysterious world and always wanted to investigate the rubbish that blew into the hedges, as if every discarded crisp packet was a treasure to be studied and catalogued. Rachel had already sent a text to Zoe so when they arrived at No5 she was standing at the open door “wow my favourite man came to see me, come on in”.
At the sight of Zoe Davey’s pace picked up, running towards the smiling girl. Rachel felt the slightest pang of jealousy and wondered if this was what it would be like in years to come when Davey had girlfriends, a way off yet though. Following Lou into the hall Rachel shut the door behind her and gratefully answered yes to Zoe’s offer of coffee. Walking through to the kitchen she grabbed a stool next to Louise and watched Zoe make the coffee with Davey fixed to her side. As their babysitter of choice, on the rare occasions that they needed one, Zoe was well versed in Rachel’s exacting coffee tastes which meant that there was no need to explain and no opportunity for criticism. Zoe passed Rachel her coffee and crouched down to Davey “juice for the young man?” barely waiting for the excited nod she turned to make a cordial and called over her shoulder “ask your lovely sister please”. Rachel was impressed to see Davey obediently ask Lou and return her positive response, despite the fact that Zoe had heard it.
Grabbing a diet soda from the fridge and popping the ring pull with one finger Zoe scooped Davey onto her lap, joining them on a stool at the breakfast bar. “Davey do we have something to say to Zoe” the youngster looked quizzically at his mother, “cheeky, you know what I mean” chided Rachel. Bursting into a huge smile Davey squealed “Happy Birthday!” followed by a beaming Lou and Rachel’s own salutation. Passing the cards to Davey she watched as he studied the two envelopes weighing up which to commence proceeding with. Settling on the family card he passed it to Zoe who theatrically opened it, thanked Rachel and gave Louise a big hug. No sooner had she placed the card on the table than Davey was waving his own card under her nose “this is from me”. Smiling Zoe opened the envelope, withdrew the card and took time to study the crayon ‘writing’ “wow you wrote lots, thank you Davey”. The boy gave Rachel a curious look as if just realising that he had been cheated of the option to write further but the look instantly dissolved into a pink grin when Zoe gave him a big kiss on the cheek.
“Where’s that dog?” Zoe challenged, lowering Davey to the floor. Lou quickly joined her brother and they charged off to the conservatory to play with the family’s good natured Border collie. Rachel passed the chocolate to Zoe “just a little gift from us, could do with putting some weight on your bones” taking the chocolate Zoe gave Rachel a mock look up and down “thanks, if it’s a weight thing babe we had better share”. Rachel liked Zoe; she was grounded and seemed far more mature than most young girls in her age group. “Have the parent’s gone out so that you can have a house party then?” Rachel grabbed Davey’s empty cup and took it to the sink “as if, they had to pop into town then they are taking me to dinner later, exciting eh? They must think I’m 30”. Rachel smiled at the girl’s assumption that the age of 30 was so horribly old, hadn’t she thought like that once? “What is that on your bum Rach?” Rachel twisted her head back “what, there’s nothing there apart from an old birds bum”. Zoe was off the stool and turned Rachel around “Oh my god who grabbed your ass girlfriend” she teased. Rachel was lost and couldn’t work out the joke “what are you on about Zoe? Is there something on my jeans?”
As Rachel turned around Zoe was posing her right hand in various angles “only a bloody great hand print on your ass, did you get goosed by a grease monkey?” Rachel began to catch on “oh no my car broke down I must have wiped my hands on my jeans while I was trying to start it”. Zoe was still twisting her hand around like an artist trying to frame a picture, she peered behind Rachel again “oh no, that is not your hand lady, it’s way too big, who was it?” Rachel thought back, she remembered Joe bumping into her but that had been his hip surely? It must just be her handprint and Zoe’s hormones were making something more of it. “Kidder, trust me when you’re a 35 year old mum of two your bum doesn’t get pinched and you don’t get goosed. Enjoy your youth, if I stripped naked and set fire to my clothes I would struggle to get noticed, you hit an age and you become invisible like a photograph that has faded away”
Zoe was having none of it and kept studying the mark on Rachel’s jeans like a crime scene “clearly a male hand was responsible for the markings seen on the victim’s derriere, definitely a crime of passion” she chirped. Rachel smiled at the way that youngsters automatically concluded that there was some sexual connotation to everything they saw; had she really been like that once? It seemed so long ago. Rachel was a person more than a woman now, a mate or a friend not a prospect or somebody to flirt with. If she turned up at Joe’s yard in a leather cat-suit his response would be “pass me that spanner, are you off out later bird?”
“Anyway Zoester how are you doing, is Billy still your number one man? Is he whisking you away to a Parisian hotel for the weekend” she teased, Billy and Zoe had been an item for nearly 6 months so practically married. “Billy is Ok but sometimes he can be such a prat” she said blushing a little “he wants to go to town on Sunday for lunch so we will probably end up in McDonalds with his stupid friends” “Oh, their eyes met over a candlelit milkshake, his eyes sparkled like the salt on his fries and she knew he was the one” she teased, skipping around the young girl. For her part Zoe took waited, smiling, for Rachel to finish and then returned with “Oo Miss Connor I do believe that your gasket is leaking, just lean right over that car and I will point it out to you” turning her with her hand and giving a mock appreciative gaze at her bum.
“Do you want another coffee Rach?” Zoe asked as she dropped her soda can into the appropriately coloured recycling bin. “No babe I’m going to get the mini terrorists home before your dog rings the RSPCA and Steve starts to worry that he will have to cook his own dinner, besides we can’t hog the birthday girl” Rounding up the children they said goodbye to Zoe who gave Davey a huge kiss and Rachel hustled her children out of the door. Just as she passed the threshold she felt a playful smack on her bum from Zoe “Hey Rach, whoever he is tell him he’s one lucky man” oh the folly of youth “yeah yeah whatever Zoester, bring me back a baguette”.
When they arrived home Steve had woken up and was in the conservatory with his plastic cigarette and a can of beer. Completing the routines of dinner, baths and bed it was near 11 pm when Rachel made it upstairs, Steve was already in bed playing some game on his tablet. Rachel got changed in the bathroom but then took a load of laundry to the washing machine. In the kitchen she went to spray stain remover onto her jeans but, before she did, she studied the stain; it definitely looked like a handprint. Setting the wash on and turning off the lights, TV, Sky, X-box and myriad other devices that would otherwise sit and ratchet up their electricity bill overnight Rachel climbed the stairs. Steve was asleep now and she slipped comfortably into her side of the bed wondering again when they had turned from frenzied lovers that couldn’t leave each other alone to strangers that shared a bed. Opening the bedside cabinet drawer Rachel took out the E-Book which, alongside her phone was her only nod to technology.
Settling back into the cool pillow she re-entered the fantasy world of her current romantic novel. Twenty minutes later she placed the E-Book back in the drawer, she could normally read for hours but tonight her mind wasn’t on it.
Lying back again she closed her eyes and couldn’t help wondering about the mark on her jeans and a time when it could have meant more. Replaying the day through her mind, as was her way, she lingered ever so slightly on the image of Joe as she had driven away, falling gratefully into sleep she wondered about the look on his face.
Rachel was drawn out of sleep by a demanding bladder at 3 am; she always rose at least once during the night since becoming a mum. Slipping out of an unusually generous and equally unwanted double helping of duvet, Steve must have thrown it off earlier, she slipped out of bed. Sitting in the ever dark bathroom she was reminded again of Steve’s comments about bathing in the dark, had he always been that thoughtless? He had always been a man’s man, that’s what had attracted her to him all those years ago hadn’t it? She couldn’t really remember maybe she had just overlooked it or perhaps become more sensitive as she got older. Washing her hands she could just make out the lonely silhouette cast in the bathroom mirror by the glow of the moon. She often wondered now if she had ever been really wanted or loved or if had always been the smoke and mirrors of the compromises that she accepted.
On the way back along the corridor Rachel paused at each of the children’s doors, watching them sleeping and silently hoping they really loved her. It was a nightly ritual born of the dreams that filled her rare sleeping hours. Partly Rachel worried that her dreams were right and her children merely accepted her as their compromise, taking guidance from her own relationship with their father. She would stand and watch their innocent sleep and convince herself that they loved her and that she was doing her best for them. Then there were the dreams that didn’t involve the children, the happy dreams where Rachel was young, loved and needed. On those nights the door standing was her atonement, a silent apology for thinking of herself outside of the role of mother. Her rituals completed Rachel padded back to the bedroom, distributing the duvet more evenly she slid into her side of the bed.
Raised on her elbows Rachel observed the dark shadow of Steve lying next to her and listened to the snuffling breathing, accentuated by the additional weight that he now carried. Looking at him Rachel was unable to conjure up the passion that they had once shared, there was nothing in the man that she found attractive now but more than that she couldn’t find any evidence of what she had once seen. Of course Steve was a compromise, the story of Rachel’s life; he was a safe haven when she had pulled away from a destructive relationship. Her previous partner, Gary, had been abusive, not in a physical way Rachel would never tolerate that but mentally. The thing with Gary was that his abuse had been like a creeping fog, one minute it was barely noticeable and the next it had separated her from reality and surrounded her.
What had started out as reassuring pride in their relationship had soon drifted in to jealousy. Gary had slowly separated Rachel from friends and family as he sought to control her time as if every other person she had contact with was a threat to their relationship. The change was slow and Rachel hadn’t seen it, thinking that Gary was right and that her friends were the jealous ones, wanting to come between them. She was ‘Gary’s girl’ and the warm sensation of being wanted, of being somebody’s girl, had somehow called out to the little girl that had never really been her daddy’s princess. But Gary’s raft of insecurities meant that simply getting the girl was not enough to ensure his happiness and Rachel’s peace. She had become subservient to Gary, hungry for any praise or reassurance that she was in his favour. As a compromise it wasn’t so bad Rachel slipped, almost too comfortably, into the role of a 1950’s housewife. In hindsight she could see that this was never going to be enough for the insecure Gary.
Before long it was the way that Rachel dressed that was wrong, never a particularly provocative dresser she had moved to trouser suits and high necks. Over the three years that the relationship had survived Rachel’s hair had gone from long to a short, abrupt bob and she had become painfully thin. Gary, for his part, took to telling Rachel that she was ugly, that nobody would want her and that she was fat. Since leaving the relationship Rachel had, over many sleepless nights, reconstructed it with herself in the third person, almost like a puppet that she could view. It was so obvious to her now that the constant erosion of her self-confidence had left her desperately looking to Gary for some small snippet of praise or even acceptance. The more that she sought reassurance from Gary the more he had despised her as if, having broken the woman he no longer wanted or was interested in the pieces.
The end had been as abrupt as it was unexpected; one single phone call had thrown a switch in Rachel’s head and terminated the relationship. Grace had been in full lecture mode on the telephone, Gary was in the pub, Rachel paid little attention and just made noises at the appropriate times but she was tired and she missed one cue. It was only a missed “oh I know” or “yes mum” but Grace was not one to be ignored “Bob, come tell your daughter” had been her instruction, called past a hand cupped over the phone’s mouthpiece. Rachel’s father had been married for 40 years, he knew when an instruction required immediate response and was on the line in seconds. Her father hadn’t bothered with a greeting but just growled “Kid you’re better than this, sort yourself out” Rachel hadn’t responded, she never had the opportunity as Grace recovered the phone and returned to her monotone script.
Rachel didn’t hear another word of that conversation, to this day her father gave no inkling that he understood the power of the simple line or indeed if he even remembered saying it. That evening Gary had returned home drunk and headed straight for the double bed, Rachel was lying on the single bed in which she had been sleeping for over a year. If Gary had bothered, as he often did, to slip into her room to give her a “sympathy shag” then things may have been different. If Gary had just peered in the room and muttered “what a pig” as he was also known to do then he would have only seen that his ‘partner’ was asleep.
In fact Rachel was dressed in the one pair of jeans that she owned and a contraband Bon Jovi T shirt that had stayed hidden in the back of the wardrobe for some time. If Gary had looked in to the kitchen he would have seen the small rucksack that Rachel had used for the gym, back when she was allowed to go the gym, sitting on the small kitchen table. He would also have seen the mug with three spoons of instant coffee and a teaspoon in, sitting next to the half full and still hot kettle. The mug may have got him wondering, Rachel never had visitors and he didn’t allow her to drink coffee because it was expensive whereas she was ‘cheap’. He may, of course assumed that the coffee was intended for him unless he inspected it and considered the mound of coffee, he was a strict ‘milk and three sugars’ man.
But Gary never did any of these things, he collapsed drunk on the bed and passed out, completely oblivious to the importance of the 8 words that had passed between father and daughter earlier that evening and the affect that they would have. Rachel had slipped out of the bed, placed her feet into her trainers and slowly, carefully tied the laces. Brushing the duvet back over the single bed she moved quietly out of the bedroom for what would be the last time. Barely making a sound Rachel reached the larger of the two bedrooms and looked in; three slow strides of Rachel’s long legs took her to the edge of the bed and close enough to smell the night’s lager as it rose in warm clouds from his mouth. Rachel wondered for just the briefest moment how it was that she felt so at peace with herself and the world at that precise moment.
Lifting her knee up Rachel gently placed it onto the mattress and then swung her body up landing astride Gary’s lap just above his crotch. An explosion of breath accompanied a surprised groan as his eyes blinked open and he managed the words “what the fuck…” before Rachel had punched him square in the face. Rachel was not carrying a lot of weight but she was carrying a lot of rage and, having grown up with brothers, she was well versed in directing it. Three years of pain and anger hit Gary square in the side of his face, bursting his lip and spraying a fine ruby red mist out of his mouth. The alcohol that had sedated his senses drained rapidly away and his arms raised defensively as his body started to thrash about. Rachel stayed firm, her knees biting into his ribs, with her left hand she reached and grabbed his right. Curling her long fingers around his closed fist she pressed hard upwards forcing the tips of his fingers back into the fist. The excruciating pain cut through the fog of confusion and his thrashing slowed “Rach what the fucking hell” releasing the pressure on his left hand a little she carefully said “Shut up and listen” each word enounced carefully as if explaining to a small child.
A slow movement of his head confirmed that he was calmer now and his wide eyes showed that Rachel had secured his attention. “Listen carefully you dumb little bastard, I am formally tendering my notice as your bitch” she said each word with calm authority her voice only slightly raised to ensure that he understood. His right hand, lubricated by the blood from his mouth, slipped through her grip and he roared, straining to sit up “you stupid fucking bitch”. Even now Rachel could remember the calmness; her heart rate had barely risen, as she held fast to her tormentor. She had slammed a second, equally powerful, right hook into his bloody face feeling a satisfying crack from what she thought was his cheekbone. He cried out in shock and pain, drawing both hands up defensively to his broken face. “I would like your full attention shitface, alternatively I can sit her and beat the living shit out of you. Frankly I don’t have much of a preference”. He was whimpering now, stunned as his mind tried to process this new dynamic to their relationship. She pulled his hands away from his face “look at me so that I know you are listening” she was both proud and saddened by the face behind the hands. Gary’s nose had taken on an odd angle and a large gash had appeared under his left eye which was leaking a steady stream of rich red blood. His lip was split and simply breathing was generating silky claret foam that dribbled from his lips and down the stubble on his chin.
Rachel had no real desire to hurt Gary, it was a means to an end, she needed his attention and this assured it. “As I explained, I have resigned and I will not be working any notice period. I have emptied the emergency cash from the draw and packed a few things, when I leave I will not be returning”. Rachel felt empowered but calm and had felt surprisingly little malice to the man pinned beneath her “I am going to get off of you, go downstairs, and drink a coffee then leave. You are welcome to sort yourself out but you will not set foot on a single stair until you hear the front door close behind me, do you understand?” The acknowledgment was almost gurgled but it was enough, he understood “You are free to offer any story to explain your injuries but you will not say a bad word about me, if you do I will tell everybody that this 8 stone sack of bones beat the shit out of you” leaning back Rachel arched her back and took a deep breath. “Should you think about calling the police then I suggest that you think very carefully because I have a very convincing story about the drunken partner who tried to force himself on me but couldn’t get it up. If you wish to spend several years in prison and labelled as an impotent rapist go ahead but it’s your decision”. That was the one thing that she had felt bad about, almost as if she had betrayed women that had experienced the horror of rape, had somehow belittled it. But she knew the choice that Gary would make, the words would stay between them and besides sometimes it was every woman for herself.
Opening her bruised right hand she placed her fingers ever so gently onto his cheek, tenderly as if caressing an injured lover. He flinched at the touch and whimpered as she traced a slow line under his eye, feeling the sticky warm blood between her fingertips. She pressed down on his cheek and felt the movement confirm the fracture that she had suspected, years of patching up rugby playing brothers told her it was a minor injury. He yelped, a high pitched squeal more befitting of a dog than a man “Shhhh” she urged and maintained the pressure as she lifted her weight off his body. When both feet were firmly on the ground she had taken her hand from his face, turned and calmly walked out of the bedroom, she had never looked back at him. Walking downstairs she had washed her hands carefully and scrubbed under her stubby, chewed nails. Boiling the kettle she has added hot water to the mug and drunk the most delicious cup of coffee that she had ever had, drinking it black and slowly, savouring every sip. There had been very little noise from upstairs, not that she cared she knew that she wouldn’t see Gary again that chapter was closed.