Brennen – Helen Johnston

F PROLOGUE inally, I’m home. The long walk was made worse by the terrible storm that’s been raging all day—usual weather for England during the middle of winter. While on my journey, one kind citizen decided to drive straight through a giant puddle and gift me with a cold shower. And as if that wasn’t enough to make my day miserable, I’m exhausted after an incredibly long twelve-hour shift. Being on my feet all day is wearing thin. I have no idea how others do it year in year out. Opening the heavy front door, I holler, “Macie, are you home?” “In the kitchen,” I hear her soft voice call out. I hurry inside and close the door firmly behind me so the rain can’t splatter the fancy wood flooring in the entrance hall. After dumping my rain-soaked jacket and waterlogged shoes in the cupboard, I make my way to the kitchen, seeking the heat I know will be coming from the Aga. “How was work?” Macie asks, handing me a strong mug of tea. I hum a sound of pleasure. “Thank you.” It’s just how I like it: hot, dark, and sweet. I smile, inhaling the steam and wrapping my hands around the mug, warming my numb fingers. “Work was… well, work.


” I shrug. “You know that new manager?” She nods. “Well, she’s making waves.” I roll my eyes. “I don’t think I can stay there much longer. It’s zapping the life right out of me.” “Well, I might be able to help with that,” Macie informs me with a bright smile, taking a sip of her own tea. I raise an eyebrow and place my mug on the marble countertop. “I think you’ve done enough to help me.” “Just hear me out, okay?” She waits until I nod for her to continue. “As I’ve said before, you did me a huge favour when you moved in. Who else would have looked after Gertie and Bettie while I was working?” I let out a very unladylike snort. Gertie and Bettie are her houseplants. “It’s true.” We laugh, because in the short time I’ve been Macie’s tenant, I’ve already killed Gertie and Bettie’s predecessors.

I haven’t got a single green finger. Perhaps mine are the fingers of death— to houseplants, at least. I lean against the countertop. “So, what’s this way you can help with the job situation?” “I have to go into hospital. No, it’s nothing serious,” she adds when my shock and worry become apparent. “I’ve finally got the date for the operation on my dodgy knee.” She stirs her spoon around her mug, not quite looking me in the eyes. She’s got a dodgy knee? I had no idea. She certainly didn’t show any pain when she dragged me along to her latest HIIT class at her private gym. Macie is highly active, and it shows. She has a banging figure, which is complimented by her height and blonde hair. I’m not gay, but she’s a perfect specimen of womanhood in my eyes. “I didn’t know you had a dodgy anything. You should have told me. I would have done more to help around here.

” I wave my hands around, indicating the house, feeling guilty for not knowing this basic information about her. “It’s not that bad, honestly.” Her aqua eyes stare into mine as she waves my comments away. “But here’s the thing: I won’t be able to continue my cleaning of the church. So, I’m thinking you could drop your hours at the supermarket and pick up my cleaning job in the evening. You’ll be a lot better off as the church pays very well.” She’s smiling at me, knowing full well I won’t turn down the chance to reduce my hours. It really is becoming unbearable. The staff—most of them, at least—are a great bunch of colleagues, but no matter where you work there will always be a few who take great delight in making life hard. So, I’m not going to kick a gift horse in the mouth. I take a sip of my tea, unable to stop the grin forming on my face. “Do you think the church will accept me—me being a heathen and all?” I laugh. She laughs with me. “You are no heathen. You’ve just lost your way for a while.

” She gives me a knowing smile. I place my mug down and give her a hug. We’ve not been friends long, but she’s become a sister to me. A ‘sister from another mister’ as they say. She found me when I was at my lowest point, picked me up, and shook me off. Now I’m living in her home, working hard to get together a deposit for my own flat. I pull back and give her a bright smile. “Okay, I’ll do it.” F C H A P T E R O N E A few months later. or fuck’s sake! my mind shrieks, as my ankle twists and I fall to the ground with all the grace of a baby gorilla— though to be honest, I’m sure they’re far more graceful than I. Looking around, I’m thankful no one is here to spot how uncoordinated I am. It’s usually quiet this time of night; just me and my trustee cleaning equipment. People ask me why I don’t find it creepy to clean the old church, especially during nights like this, when it’s thundering and blowing a hooley, as my mum often said. I usually tell them to just look around. It’s such a beautiful old building, full of history.

Faded tapestries of brave warriors going off to battle on their fearsome steeds hang from the ancient, arched windows, and charmingly worn parquet flooring greets you when you enter. I’m not religious in any way, shape or form, but I can appreciate the history and architecture of this building. It’s seen so many people come walking through its doors. If only the walls could talk; I bet they could tell an interesting story or two. Macie had her operation a few weeks ago and is now recuperating at home, but it will see her out of action for a further six months or longer. Every night, I make sure she’s comfortable before leaving her to come and clean this church. After everything she’s done for me, I want to help her. Plus, the money is really good. I couldn’t afford to say no, not if I wanted to leave my job at the supermarket at some point in the future. Not when I was in a mountain of debt, thanks to Giles, the pig spawned from Hell. He just upped and left after deciding we were over, saying he’d fallen in love with his secretary, who was more ‘his type’. I remember the night in the pub when he pulled the rug right out from under me. His eyes had travelled up and down my body contemptuously, a sneer firmly in place as he grimaced and told me, “I really don’t know why I’ve been with you. It’s a mystery how someone like me could be with someone like you in the first place.” At the time, I wanted to scream at him, but then again, I wasn’t sure why he’d stayed as long as he had either.

We never had sex. He always worked late, and I was asleep by the time he got in. At the weekends, he always preferred to spend his time at his private gym rather than with me. In hindsight, Macie and I guessed he had probably been banging his perfectly groomed secretary the whole time I’d been with him. I roll my eyes every time I think about how cliché it all is. The only thing that worked out in my favour was we weren’t married— not that he’d ever shown any interest in being married; at least not to me. After our breakup, however, his friends took great delight in informing me his secretary was sporting a rock the size of a small country on her finger. I hobble to stand and wince at the pain shooting up my right leg. That’s going to leave a bruise. I chew my lip, something I tend to do when I’m in pain or worried about something. I plonk my ass down on an old, worn pew and tug my jeans up, then remove my trainer and sock, both of which have seen better days. Yep, my ankle is already starting to swell. Luckily, I’m about finished here anyway, so I’m going to call it a night and walk home—very slowly. Home is still a rented room at Macie’s place. I moved in with her because I could no longer afford the rent on the lovely flat I shared with the pig spawned from Hell.

Not that I was given the option of keeping it. After Macie took me home with her on the night of the dumping, I received a phone call from his lawyers, who asked where my belongings should be sent to. I never thought I’d be here—alone; a lodger in someone else’s home at the age of twenty-six. Feeling sorry for myself, I decide to go ahead and lock up, when a door loudly slams shut somewhere in the church. My skin prickles. No one should be in here at this time of night. I’ve been doing this shift for a few weeks now and haven’t spotted a soul. I hurriedly shove my foot back into the sock and trainer, then stand, crying out when I put weight on my ankle. “Who’s there?” a man shouts from within the vestry, his rich, baritone voice carrying a thick accent, as if English isn’t his first language. It’s not one I recognise, and it makes the hairs on my arms stand on end. My eyes pop wide when he stalks into the main part of the church. He stares at me with an unblinking gaze that travels up and down my body, assessing me. I feel like a bug under a microscope. It’s a tad disconcerting to be studied so intently, especially by a stranger, and one that’s so large. My brain suddenly catches up with what I’m looking at.

Bloody hell, he’s huge. My mouth falls open when he strides confidently towards me. I back away the best I can on a busted ankle, but even if I could run, I suspect he’d catch me without any trouble. When he shows no signs of slowing down, I turn and try to run anyway, but cry out when his hand lands on my shoulder. As heavy as an anvil, it almost knocks me to the floor.

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Updated: 15 September 2021 — 03:04

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