And Then She Ran – Karen Clarke

‘You can’t take the baby, Grace.’ Patrick’s tone was pleading. ‘I need her.’ ‘Please, just let us go.’ ‘I can’t.’ His tone hardened. ‘I won’t let you. It’ll ruin everything.’ ‘If you don’t, I’ll go to the press.’ My heart pounded. ‘I’ll tell them the truth.’ He froze, perhaps imagining the implications, what it would mean for his career. He came closer. For a moment, I thought he was going to hit me. I cringed as he punched the wall by my head.

‘What am I supposed to say to people?’ I straightened my shoulders. ‘You’ll think of something,’ I said, heart racing. ‘You’re good with words.’ He stared at me with something close to hatred. ‘And if I let you go, you won’t tell anyone?’ ‘I promise.’ I kept my eyes on his. ‘And you’ll leave us alone?’ He was silent for a moment. ‘Do I have a choice?’ I bundled Lily into her carrier, opened the door and ran. Chapter 2 Now I looked around the busy airport, heart drumming against my ribs. Despite the promise he’d made, I wasn’t convinced that Patrick wouldn’t come after me or have me followed. The urge to keep checking hadn’t left me since I boarded the plane in New York. When I wasn’t feeding or pacifying Lily during the seven-hour flight, I was inspecting the other passengers in case Patrick had sneaked on board, or sent somebody to reclaim his eight-week-old daughter. My chest tightened with worry, my hand rigid on Lily’s back as I scanned the arrivals area once more, while a sea of people surged past. It was both familiar and strange being back in England – the first time since a fleeting visit to my mother’s place in Berkshire four years ago. There was no one here to meet me.

No one knew where I was. Patrick had probably guessed I’d return to the UK, but would have no idea where I was heading from Heathrow. I hadn’t mentioned my aunt when we were exchanging potted life histories a year ago. He didn’t know where she lived and I hadn’t told him. Morag was a private person and I respected her wishes. She’d only told my mother her new address in case of emergencies, though her sister was probably the last person Mum would turn to in a crisis, their long-standing rift unhealed. Unaware of our noisy surroundings, Lily slept soundly at last in the ergonomic carrier Patrick had bought, designed to hold her against my chest like an embrace. Her cheeks were stained red, her long lashes spiky with tears as she nuzzled into me. I kissed the soft fuzz of her fine dark hair as I hoisted her gingham baby bag onto my shoulder. Grabbing the handle of my suitcase, I followed signs to the taxis, inhaling sharply as a blast of cold air greeted me outside. It was mid-March, but the temperature felt Baltic after the overheated journey and milder Manhattan weather I’d left behind. I tugged out Lily’s lemon-coloured blanket and draped it around her as she began to stir. ‘Hush, hush,’ I murmured, shivers of cold rippling through my cheap, zip-up jacket as I hurried to the first waiting taxi. ‘S’cuse me, there’s a queue.’ A man stepped forward blocking my way.

He had wiry grey hair and an aggrieved expression; the look of someone spoiling for a fight. ‘Oh, I’m sorry.’ Tears rushed to my eyes, anxiety spilling over. ‘I didn’t … I wasn’t—’ ‘Leave her alone, Len. You can see she’s got her hands full.’ A woman – probably his wife – gave a compassionate smile that creased her whole face. ‘Take it, love. We’re not in a hurry.’ Relief made me gush. ‘Thank you, if you’re sure? I need to get her home and settled. My husband’s expecting us.’ Home. I no longer had one. ‘Shame he’s not here to pick you up.’ The man’s hard gaze didn’t soften as he jammed meaty hands in the pockets of his padded coat.

‘Stop it, Len.’ The woman rolled her eyes. They were large and glassy, like marbles. ‘I remember what it was like with little ones, even if this one doesn’t.’ The driver had got out of the taxi and was stowing my suitcase in the boot. He slammed it shut and returned to the driver’s seat. ‘Well … thank you,’ I said to the woman, keeping my face averted, not wanting the pair to remember my face. She was wearing a navy baseball hat, tortoiseshell glasses, no make-up. Plain, I suppose. Early thirties, hard to tell. Had a baby, but covered up. No idea what it looked like. Lots of women with babies must pass through the airport every day. Maybe some of them were running away too, wearing a cheap disguise; reading glasses that slightly magnified everything; hair thrust into a generic baseball cap to disguise its length and colour; a baggy grey sweatshirt with shapeless jeans and jacket, all purchased at a Walmart on the way to the airport and changed into in the toilets, before I continued my journey in a different cab. Patrick wouldn’t recognise the dowdy, androgynous woman currently climbing awkwardly into the taxi.

No one from my old life would. Heart jumping, I sat back and settled Lily. She was falling towards sleep again, her rosebud mouth making little sucking noises. Love rose like a sickness. This has to work. ‘Where to?’ I met the driver’s disinterested gaze in the rear-view mirror, then took a last look through the window at the dreary grey afternoon, where the couple were now quietly arguing at the pavement’s edge. ‘Victoria Station, please.’ Once there, I’d buy a ticket and take a coach for the last leg of my trip; to my aunt’s home in deepest Wales where, I prayed, no one would ever find us. Chapter 3 It felt strange at first, being on the opposite side of the road. I kept catching my breath whenever a car drove past in the ‘wrong’ lane, but after feeding and changing Lily, glad of the empty seat on the coach beside me, I finally dozed, worn out from adrenaline and the flight. My body was still running on a different time zone, aware it was early afternoon in Manhattan. It was seven-thirty and dark by the time we reached Fenbrith and rain was falling steadily. Lily awoke, blinking her round brown eyes – recently darkened from blue – as she looked about, her tiny fingers splayed out on my chest. ‘Hello, little mouse.’ I felt an ache in my lower back as I rose.

‘Looks like we’re here.’ The driver got out and dumped my case on the rain-slicked ground. ‘OK?’ he asked as I disembarked, as if compelled to question the silent woman he’d just driven for over five hours and two hundred miles. I forced a bland smile, one hand cupping Lily’s head as I summoned my steadiest voice. ‘Yes, thank you. It’s been a long day that’s all. We’ll be glad to get out of this weather.’ Long day. Weather. I was speaking a universal code. ‘You and me both.’ The driver nodded in tacit understanding. ‘On holiday, are you?’ ‘Something like that.’ ‘Well, this time of year Snowdonia’s not too busy so make the most of it.’ ‘I will.

’ Every contact leaves a trace. I realised afresh how hard it was to truly disappear, to become invisible. Especially somewhere like this, where a stranger was bound to stand out. Patrick doesn’t know where you are. For a second, as the coach pulled away, I imagined him appearing behind me, saw the flash of anger in his night-dark eyes and felt the grip of his fingers on my shoulder. You didn’t really think I’d let you go, did you? I wheeled around, a tremor running through me. There was no one there, just Lily and me on the empty street. The rain had eased, but Lily was growing restless, flexing against me, unhappy at being back in her carrier. It had been a couple of hours since her last feed, which I’d undertaken in a sleepy haze, thankful I’d stuck to my guns and continued to secretly breastfeed whenever I could, despite Patrick insisting I use formula or at least pump and freeze, as if I was a machine – or a cow. It was clear by then that fatherhood didn’t suit him. Or maybe it was because Lily wasn’t the son he’d longed for. Shivering with cold, desperate to get my baby to warmth and safety, I moved closer to the pub I was standing outside; a low-roofed building with light spilling from diamond-paned windows. The Carpenter’s Arms, according to the sign, which creaked in the breeze like something from a horror film. The pub where I’d arranged to meet Morag. As I bumped my suitcase into a sheltered porch in front of the door, I briefly considered phoning my mother to let her know I was in the country, but it was better she didn’t know in the unlikely event that Patrick decided to call her.

Then I remembered; she didn’t have the same surname as me, had changed it after my father’s death, which would make her hard to find. An image of Patrick rushed in again, his lip curled in anger. I squashed it down. The day was taking its toll. I needed to sleep properly, in a bed, and give myself time to adjust to my surroundings. I hoped Morag was already waiting in the pub. She lived three miles from the village. I could hardly walk in the dark with a baby and a suitcase, and didn’t want to attract attention by taking a local taxi – if there was such a thing in this tiny hamlet. It had the air of a place from a bygone era. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a pony and trap clatter past. As Lily let out a thin wail, I reached for the worn brass knob on the door just as it swung inwards. A wave of beer-scented warmth, the chink of glasses and the sound of laughter hit me. A pungent aroma of food made my mouth water. When had I last eaten? I stood back, a protective arm across Lily, and yanked my suitcase out of the way as a woman emerged, backlit by the brightness inside so I couldn’t make out her features. She half-turned, starting at the sight of me lurking by the door.

As Lily began crying in earnest, a tired sound that squeezed my heart, the woman’s eyes met mine. I was aware of her comforting scent; laundry powder overlaid with something earthy; the smell of a garden, a hint of rosemary, and when she spoke, I instantly recognised her voice: raspy with a hint of steel, her Welsh accent barely detectable. ‘There you are,’ she said. ‘Why are you hiding out here?’ ‘Hey, Aunt Morag.’ I heard my slight American intonation and knew I’d have to lose it. ‘It’s good to see you.’ She stared for a long moment, the silence punctuated by Lily’s intermittent cries, then let the pub door close behind her. ‘We’d better go.’ She jerked her head at the tiny car park at the side of the pub. ‘You’ll catch your death out here.’


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Updated: 8 May 2021 — 19:34

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