Am I Guilty – Jackie Kabler

They were staring again. I shivered, curling my fingers tightly around the handle of the pram, and walked quickly past them, my eyes not meeting theirs. It was two women this time, around my age, late thirties, standing outside WHSmith. I’d only stopped for a moment, to adjust my scarf, but I knew instantly that it had been a mistake. Never stop, keep moving. Keep your head down. Don’t give them a chance to recognize you. I was usually so careful, on the rare occasions I ventured out. Tried to avert my gaze from store assistants, cashiers, other shoppers, looking down into my purse or at the pram, so they didn’t get a good look at me. It was easier that way, safer. But today, with the scarf slipping, I’d risked it, just for a moment, stopping to wind the stupid thing back into place. Idiot. It was January, the sky a bleak grey, a biting wind whistling down Cheltenham High Street and whipping loose strands of hair across my cheeks, a crisp packet scudding across the road in front of me as I hurried past the shopfront, eyes fixed firmly ahead, not looking at their faces. I heard them, though, their voices sharp and full of disgust. Full of loathing.

‘It is her, isn’t it? Look at her. What a freak,’ said one. ‘Evil bitch, more like,’ said the other. A sob caught in my throat and I walked faster, suddenly desperate to get home. I shouldn’t have come out today, I shouldn’t. I’d been feeling all right earlier, almost sprightly, after a good night’s sleep for the first time in weeks. Seven hours. Seven. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d slept for that long and it had done wonders, made me feel that today I could cope, that it would be fine to go out, get some fresh air, pick up a few bits and pieces in town before I started work. I did most of my shopping online now, but it had seemed silly to pay delivery charges when you only needed some cotton wool, wrapping paper, a pack of pens.

And sometimes, it was fine. Sometimes I got away with it, and nobody recognized me, nobody stared or commented or shouted abuse across the street. Not often though, and not today, clearly. It had started to rain now, fat drops spattering the clear plastic cover I’d put over the pram before going out. Beneath it, a white cashmere blanket was pulled up high, but I could picture Zander’s sleeping face, his ludicrously long lashes resting softly against his delicious pink and cream cheeks, see in my mind’s eye the gentle rise and fall of his little chest as he dreamed his baby dreams, oblivious. At the thought of him, my darling boy, I sobbed again, aching to hold him in my arms, look into his bright blue eyes, hear his adorable chuckle as he reached up to grab my hair, the chuckle that made everything bad in the world simply melt away. I bent my head against the wind, wiping my tears away fiercely with one hand as I steered the pram round the corner onto the Prom, heading for home. Everything would be fine, I told myself. I’d get back, have a nice cup of tea, something soothing – camomile? – and then get to work. I didn’t really like camomile tea, but Isla said it always calmed her down, and Isla knew about these things.

She was my best friend, one of the few who had stuck by me. We were more like family really, me and Isla, discovering soon after we met all those years ago that both of us were only children who’d craved siblings, jokingly offering to be each other’s substitute sister, bonding quickly, irreversibly. From day one we hated to be apart for long, and it was the same even now, now that we were both all grown up with homes and jobs and responsibilities, and even though our everyday lives were so different. She was a real party girl, Isla, but she balanced out the excesses of her crazy work and social life, the boozy nights and junk food lunches, by being into all that healthy stuff too – Pilates, meditation, mindfulness, smoothies, funny teas. She’d only managed to persuade me to go as far as the tea, but she was persistent. ‘Yoga next!’ she’d said chirpily, when she’d rung me before bed as usual to check that I was OK. ‘We can have a private lesson, just the two of us, and I’m paying, so no excuses. It will do you good, Thea. Especially now. I know everything is horrible, but you need to chill out a bit.

You’re too tense, and it’s not helping. I’m going to book it, and you’re coming, and that’s that.’ I hadn’t argued, didn’t have the energy. And Isla knew me better than pretty much anybody; so maybe she was right, maybe it would do me good. I had so much to do, my work more important than ever now that I was a single parent. I didn’t even have an assistant anymore, not since November, not since Flora had left, and I hadn’t got round to trying to find a replacement, not yet. I doubted I’d find anyone who’d work for me anyway. So, I had to carry on, even if it was just me now and the workload was overwhelming. I’d let things slide recently, there was no doubt about that, and I needed to get the business back on track. The orders had slowed drastically for a while, last autumn.

But they’d picked up over Christmas, and I needed to get on top of things again. I had to keep going, no matter how shitty I felt. I needed to show everyone that I could still do something good, something positive, despite everything. That I was still me, no matter what I’d done. Still Thea. Still Theodora Alice Ashfield. I stopped outside GAP as the bloody scarf started to unwind itself again, one end trailing perilously close to the pram wheels. Frustrated, I yanked it off and stuffed it under the plastic cover, catching a glimpse of myself in the shop window as I straightened up again. I paused for a moment, staring. I didn’t look good.

My long dark hair, unwashed for days, was pulled up into a messy topknot, and even in the hazy reflection I could see the dark shadows under my eyes, my high cheekbones in sharp relief. I’d lost weight recently, and not intentionally. I dragged my gaze away from the window and started moving again. As I crossed Montpellier Gardens the rain grew heavier, and I walked faster, almost jogging now, the pram bouncing over the uneven path. A park keeper in a luminous jacket, pulling up weeds around the bandstand, paused as I approached, watching me, and my chest tightened, my heart rate suddenly speeding up. Not again, please. Not today. But as I got nearer he smiled and waved a muddy hand skywards. ‘Nice mornin’ for ducks, eh love?’ ‘Yes. It is, yes.

’ I stopped for a moment, bending to adjust the pram cover and push my shopping bags further under it, and smiled back at him before moving off again, the momentary panic subsiding, my breathing steadying. Feeling almost dizzy with relief, I twisted my right wrist round as I walked, checking the time on my vintage Omega. Just after eleven. I had about four hours before Nell would be home from school. Four hours to do some work, drink tea. Eat something. Avoid the gin bottle. Or try to. Try hard to. Keep focused.

I lowered my head against the now-torrential rain and headed for home. 2 FLORA I stretched luxuriously, wriggling my toes against the 400 thread count Egyptian cotton bedding, then reached for my phone, which was on the bedside table, tapping it to check the time. Just after eleven. For a moment, I felt a pang of guilt for still being in bed at such a late hour, then shrugged and pulled the duvet back over my head. Stuff it. It was Monday, my day off this week, after all. And the weekend had been hard work: a two-day fiftieth birthday event at a stately home near Oxford. Annabelle had been anxious, and even more needy than usual, and she’d run me ragged. I didn’t mind, not really – I enjoyed the job, loved it in fact. But today I was tired, and I deserved the lie-in, I thought.

I’d worked for Annabelle Garrington for nearly two months, as her personal assistant. Bit of an unusual PA job, compared with most – I lived in, like a nanny, and indeed part of my role was helping out with the kids, but it was much more than that. It was the second job I’d found through a specialized London agency, and my job was mainly helping Annabelle with her business. She ran an events management company, her clients mainly the Cotswolds set, the glitzy sort, numerous celebrities among them. In the short time I’d worked with her, I’d helped her throw a flamingo-themed baby shower for a well-known catwalk model, a Christmas party for a flamboyant London hair stylist at his Gloucestershire hideaway, and a fortieth birthday lunch for a slightly neurotic daytime television presenter who, clearly in denial about her age, had banned the word ‘forty’ from her event entirely, even asking me to quietly destroy several birthday cards and a balloon bearing the dreaded number presented to her on the day by well-meaning friends. Yes, it was hard work, this job, but I was enjoying it thoroughly, and there were some exciting events coming up in the next few months. The day, though, was all mine, and I planned to spend it doing very little indeed. A run first, obviously. Then a leisurely brunch, followed by a wander around nearby Cirencester to pick up a few bits and pieces, maybe. And then an evening chilling in my room, catching up on some TV or something on Netflix.

I pulled the duvet down so my head was free again and gazed with pleasure around my little home. It was a big, bright room on the top floor of the Garrington house, a rambling but lovingly – and expensively – decorated and modernized Victorian villa, set in three acres of manicured gardens. Two large sash windows gave me a stunning view of rolling countryside and Cotswold stone houses, a church spire visible in the distance. On Thursday and Sunday evenings the bell-ringers did their practising, the peals drifting across the fields as they had for centuries: a sound which had driven me mad at first, but which I’d gradually begun to find oddly soothing. My room was flooded with light, even on a grey day like today, and the white walls, soft cream curtains and duck-egg blue cushions on the big, squishy sofa gave the space a calmness, a much- needed contrast to the frantic pace of life outside it. The ensuite bathroom was spacious too, with a separate shower and a glorious free-standing claw-foot bath, and Annabelle had made sure I had everything I needed to be self-sufficient up here, if I’d wanted to be. I had the run of the main kitchen downstairs, of course, but there was a little kitchenette in a corner alcove of my room, and she’d also installed a forty-inch television, so I could watch my favourite shows alone, away from the chaos of the family living room. She was thoughtful like that, Annabelle. She seemed to really like me, and I liked her too, liked the whole family, in fact, and I knew I’d been lucky to land a new job so quickly. It helped that I’d known Annabelle for a while, although only vaguely.

Before this job I’d worked in Cheltenham for Thea Ashfield, who ran Just Enfant, the children’s online clothing company. Thea’s daughter Nell and Annabelle’s Millie were the same age and went to the same school, so Thea and Annabelle were acquaintances, if not exactly close friends, and I used to chat to the tall, glamorous Mrs Garrington now and again when Thea put me on the school run. When I needed a new job – when I decided back in November that I just couldn’t work for Thea any longer – I was amazed when the agency told me about the vacancy at Annabelle’s, and she’d seemed equally delighted. Serendipity, we both said. I never spoke about what happened at Thea’s, though, not to Annabelle – not to anyone, to be honest. I just couldn’t. It was too awful, too horrific. Annabelle hadn’t asked either, not even in the beginning. I supposed it was because she knew all about it already – everyone did really. You couldn’t escape it, at the time, and for weeks afterwards – the papers, the television news, and then all that horrible social media stuff – and Annabelle didn’t seem to need anymore details, for which I was grateful.

I had tried to stay on with Thea, afterwards, but it was never going to work. I just couldn’t do it. I managed nearly two months, but then I quit, took a holiday, then came back to start at Annabelle’s. I thought about Thea a lot though. I still saw Nell, via Millie, which was nice. Nell and I had been close, still were. But I often thought about Thea, and Rupert, her husband. And about Zander, of course. Zander, the beautiful baby with the bright blue eyes and the winning smile … Their faces swam through my head and I shivered, even though the room was warm. Then I jumped as there was a gentle rap on my door.

‘Flora? Flora, are you up? I’ve drawn a picture of you. Flora?’ I smiled. I’d never have admitted it to Annabelle, but Sienna, the youngest, was my favourite of her brood. They weren’t supposed to bother me, the kids, not on my day off, but I didn’t mind. And it was time I was getting up, anyway. ‘Come in, Sienna, sweetie, come in and show me,’ I called, and threw back the duvet as she ran in, bright-eyed, clutching her drawing to her chest, and leapt onto my bed, giggling. She was three years old, blonde and adorable. I grabbed her, pretending to try to wrestle the picture from her, and she shrieked with delight. I grinned, and she grinned back, her tiny nose wrinkling, blue eyes squinting up at me. They were gorgeous, those eyes – sparkling, cornflower blue.

Eyes that reminded me of Zander’s. I swallowed hard, my heart aching for a moment, then resolutely pushed the feeling away. Stop it, I told myself. You’re with a new family now. Move on. ‘Right, missy. Are you going to show me this picture or not?’ I demanded. Sienna looked coyly at me for a moment, then beamed and pushed her drawing into my hands. I took it and frowned at the scrawl of red and yellow scribbles topped with a vaguely face-shaped blob, then raised my eyebrows at Sienna in mock shock. ‘Well, if I look like this, I need a makeover pronto,’ I said, then jumped out of bed, scooping the giggling little girl up into my arms.

Today, I decided, was going to be a good day. No more thinking about Thea, or about any of them. What was the point? It was over, all of it. ‘All over. Done,’ I said out loud. ‘What?’ Sienna frowned, and I laughed and ruffled her fine, soft hair. ‘Nothing, sweetie. Come on, help me choose what to wear.’ I put her down gently and headed for my wardrobe.

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