‘Give it back,’ I yelled as I ran into our shared room and wrestled my stupid sister to the floor. She grabbed the doll harder, pulling it close to her heart. My sister wasn’t having it, she always got what she wanted. My mother made it and I wanted it. I forced my fingers into the protective ball she’d formed with her body. That doll was going to be mine. Even though she was a whole year older, she was clumsier and tinier – born too early, they all said. I was cleverer at six than she’d ever be, stupid child. I’d show her just how much. She needed to know her place. What was hers was mine, and that’s the way things would always be. As I snatched the arm of the knitted doll, the sound of its button eye pinging against the bed frame stopped us both. All I could hear was the music Daddy played on the wireless, something about the devil in disguise. My stupid sister was the devil in disguise. She gave me a teary stare as she hugged the disfigured toy.
‘Don’t you dare cry! You know what you’ll get if you cry.’ It wouldn’t be the first time my idiot sister had got me into trouble by bawling her eyes out for nothing. She was always Mummy and Daddy’s favourite with her strawberry blonde curls and her stupid sickly pale face. With a trembling bottom lip, her tears turned into loud sobs. I pinched her hard. ‘Stop it, stop it, stop it,’ I yelled. My heart began to hammer as I heard the music stop, followed by Daddy’s footsteps thundering up the creaky old stairs. ‘Your mother goes out for five minutes and you just can’t be a well-behaved little girl. What’s going on here? I should tan your bloody hide,’ Daddy shouted. I realised I was gripping her so hard that she was turning red.
‘She broke her doll and she’s upset,’ I said as I pretended to hug her. Feeling her pulling away from me, I gripped her closer until I was pinching her again. ‘Don’t you dare move,’ I whispered in her ear as I stroked her hair. Her tears began to wet my sleeve, all because of her stupid doll. ‘Are you all right, my lovely?’ he said as he kneeled down, prising my arms from her. Always her, she could do no wrong. I pulled her back towards me and squeezed her harder, pinching the skin on the back of her arm, and she nodded. Her expression was betraying me as her bottom lip began to quiver again. Daddy’s gaze moved from hers to mine. ‘I’ve told you about this before, haven’t I?’ he yelled as he pulled me from my sister and dragged me along the wooden floor and down the landing, the floral dress Mummy made me riding up towards my chest.
‘Not the cupboard. Daddy, please. I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’ It was no good pleading. After slapping the top of my leg and flinging me to the back of the dark cupboard, he turned the key in the lock, leaving it in so that no light could filter through. I shivered in the darkness. It was all her fault, it always was. As soon as Mummy came home, she’d let me out and I’d show my horrible sister exactly what I could do. The wireless was switched back on. Daddy was downstairs again singing along to some old song that Grandma likes, probably resting in front of the fire, awaiting Mummy’s return.
‘Let me out,’ I called. A shaft of light replaced the darkness. My sister’s green eyes stared at me through the keyhole. ‘Let me out.’ She took a step back, the torn knitted doll, gripped in her arms, unravelling a little more with each step. Her red puffy gaze met mine and she shook her head as another tear slid down her cheek. ‘You wait. You just wait, you naughty little girl.’ I kicked the inside of the cupboard before realising I’d just disturbed all the spiders. The light was taken from me as she placed the key back in the lock.
‘Leave the key out,’ I yelled as I kicked harder. Daddy turned the music up even louder until my cries could be heard no more. I hate her, I really do. I will always hate her. ONE SATURDAY, 14 JULY 2018 Toby sucked on the last of his roll-up. In fact that was the last of his tobacco, his pouch was well and truly empty. Maybe he could scrounge a smoke during his break time, some kind person might help him out. He shook his head, dreading actually arriving at his new job, the job he never wanted in the first place. If it wasn’t for the cowbag at the job centre penalising him for turning up late, he’d have received his benefit money. Instead, him turning up to explain that he’d fallen out of bed, hurting his ankle, hadn’t been convincing enough.
It was an excuse, he knew that, but overslept isn’t a reason they take pity on and he had genuinely overslept. Alarm didn’t go off – yeah, right. He’d left with a lecture on timekeeping and information on a lead for work with a local job agency. He shook his head as he flicked the nub end onto the grassy verge. Whizzing around the bends of the snaking Warwickshire roads in his trusty old car felt like freedom. That freedom was soon to end and be replaced by some jumped-up line manager shouting orders all day. A little weasel of a human who was way less qualified than him. He pulled the sun visor down. Seven in the morning on a Saturday. Who works these kind of antisocial hours? Him, apparently – for at least the next six weeks.
That’s when the dreaded minimum wage contract finished, unless his nightmare was to come true and they’d offer him a permanent job. No, the strategy was to go in, do the minimum required, show no aptitude for more, don’t be too productive, and escape to the toilet as often as possible. Steal a toilet roll. He’d run out and no benefit money meant no toilet rolls. He’d come back with a few tins from the food bank last night but no toilet roll. It wasn’t thieving, it was survival. Besides, he’d make it up to society when he discovered himself and finally decided what direction his life was going in. The July sun already made him sweat. At least it would be cool at the meat packing factory. If the heat or lack of breakfast didn’t make him queasy, the sight of portioned up dead animals and being surrounded by the metallic aroma of blood certainly would.
It was gone seven fifteen and he was meant to be there for his induction in a few minutes. He pushed the tape into his old cassette player and ‘Ace of Spades’ by Motorhead filled his little car. With every stretch his speed increased. There was nothing on the road. It was fun time. As he sped out of the bends he shouted the lyrics as the chorus came on and banged his fingers on the steering wheel to the beat. His dad would be so proud – not. He imagined his dad giving him that father to son lecture about wasting his degree. He never wanted to be a dentist anyway. He hated people’s yellow teeth, their gingivitis and their chapped lips and gumboils.
His father may have bullied him into doing dentistry, but he was a man now and he’d make his own choices. Right now, he chose to live alone in his bedsit, run his banger of a car, and take odd jobs followed by long stretches of free time. That suited him just fine. ‘Up yours, Dad,’ he shouted as he sped around the last bend where the road merged into Laurel Lane. Lemmy’s voice boomed through his car for the finale chorus as he came out of the bend. As the low sun dazzled him, the back doors of the white van in front suddenly opened. Slamming his brakes on, he skidded as a person slipped out, landing on the road just in front of Toby’s car. The van continued at speed along Laurel Lane with the back doors flapping open. Lemmy stopped singing and birdsong broke the silence before the next track came on. Toby rolled his window down further and listened for any sound of human pain but there was nothing.
Gasping as his heart hammered, he peered through the windscreen. The person was no longer there. He wiped his sweaty brow with his sleeve and Alice Cooper began singing the opening to ‘Poison’. He slammed the flat of his hand into the tape player and the tape ejected. Shaking, he opened the creaky car door, giving it a shove to widen the gap enough for him to get out. He checked the time, seven thirty. He’d really blown it. With reporting the incident and making a statement, there was no way on earth he’d be making work today. A murmur came from the front of the car. With wobbly legs, he took one step followed by another until he spotted the girl.
‘Shit.’ He kneeled down as comfortably as his lanky frame would allow and grabbed his phone, calling the emergency services. The girl tried to speak but instead of words, flecks of blood came from her mouth, spraying his T-shirt. ‘Ambulance, and police, Laurel Lane, Warwickshire. There’s been an accident and a girl has been hurt. You need to get someone here quick, mate,’ he yelled as he tried to stop the bleeding from the girl’s abdomen. Blood flowed over his quivering hands. He let her go and removed his T-shirt, rolled it up and pressed it against the open wound on her side, stemming the flow. ‘Talk to me,’ he yelled as the girl drifted in and out of consciousness. He wanted to turn her over into the recovery position but he knew better.
He might make her injuries worse if her bones were broken. The young girl was covered in dirt and the smell coming from her almost made him want to gag. Her straggly hair half covered her gaunt face and he cringed at the sight of her plaque covered teeth. As he held the T-shirt to her bony side, he could feel that there was nothing to her. He wished she’d come around again but it wasn’t looking good. His mind flashed back to the white van. He had to remember as much as possible. Had he run her over? No, he hadn’t heard a bump and there was no sign of damage on his bonnet or bumper. He had been speeding. He knew he had.
There was a forty sign on the stretch before and he’d been going at least fifty coming out of the bend. He hadn’t run her over though, she’d fallen in front of him, came from nowhere out of the back of a large van. He had no MOT on his car. Was his insurance still valid? He racked his brains but couldn’t remember. The MOT was a month overdue. Damn, he wouldn’t escape this without a fine, points and a ticking off, all because of someone else, nothing to do with him. No one knew his name; he could just get back in, turn Alice Cooper up to full volume and keep driving. He looked at the girl and thought of what his dad would say and he knew on this occasion his dad would be right. He would stay with her and take whatever punishment came his way. It’s not like he had any prior convictions and he hadn’t hurt her.
He’d just tell the truth. With his other hand, he stroked her thin wisps of red hair and whispered, ‘An ambulance is on its way. Just hold on.’ The heat from the sun was burning his lily-white bare back. He really needed a smoke to calm his nerves but now he had no chance. The more of her features he took in, the more he noticed how unusual she looked. All skin and bone, blemishes and chapped lips. She had a starved, dehydrated look about her. ‘What happened?’ he asked as he continued stroking her hair to the sound of the approaching sirens. As the ambulance pulled up, the girl’s body jerked.
Trying to hear what she was saying, he leaned in closer feeling her desperate breaths on his neck. ‘Help her,’ the girl managed to whisper before her body flopped in his arms. ‘Wake up. Wake up,’ he yelled as her body began to jerk and fit. TWO Gina’s mobile buzzed across her bedside table. She reached out with closed eyes, searching for the phone with her fingers. As she grabbed it, Gracie called out. ‘Nanna. It’s morning, Nanna.’ She prised an eye open and accepted the call.
‘Hang on a minute, chicken. What’s up, Jacob?’ ‘We’ve had an incident, guv. I know it’s your weekend off but it’s a biggie. A young man named Toby Biddle reported an incident just before seven thirty, saying that a woman jumped out of a van on Laurel Lane. Looks like she’s malnourished. Her hair and teeth are in an awful state. Something bad has happened to her by the looks of it as why would she jump out of the back of a van? Officers at the scene checked his car over and concluded that there hadn’t been any impact between the girl and his car. Paramedics are just attending to her at the scene and then heading to Cleevesford Hospital. It doesn’t look like she’ll make it from what they’re saying. If she doesn’t we could be looking at a murder case.
Shall I meet you there?’ Jacob asked. ‘Nanna?’ Gracie giggled as she tugged on the curtains and began to sing. ‘Sounds like you have company.’ ‘My granddaughter, and she kept me up half the night – I seriously feel like death. I feel even more like death now I have to call my daughter to say I’ll be dropping her off at this time on a Saturday morning. She’s going to be well thrilled with me. I’ll be there as soon as I can, within the hour.’ She ended the call and watched as Gracie began pulling the curtains harder. ‘Gracie, don’t do that, chicken. You’ll hurt yourself.
’ Gracie returned her warning with a mischievous smile and yanked the curtain, dragging the pole down, which narrowly missed her head. The little girl began to cry as she realised she’d had a near miss. Gina stepped out of bed and lifted the child out of the chaos. ‘I told you not to pull it. Let me see.’ She ruffled her hand through Gracie’s light wisps and smiled. ‘Has Gracie hurt her head? Has Gracie hurt her arms? Has Gracie hurt her feet?’ Her granddaughter’s cries turned into shrieks of tear-sodden laughter as Gina touched her sensitive toes. ‘No,’ Gracie yelled. Gina moved her fingers away from Gracie’s foot and gave her a kiss on the cheek. ‘Right, Nanna has to go to work and I have to take you back to Mummy.
We had a lovely night though, didn’t we?’ ‘Want to stay, Nanna.’ ‘So sorry, darling. We’ll do this again soon. You know Nanny loves you, don’t you?’ Gracie chuckled and held onto a strand of Gina’s frizzy brown hair. ‘I want to stay.’ Gina knew Hannah would be disappointed. Her night off would be ruined by the lack of a lie in. Nanny Hetty had never sent Gracie back early. They always reminded Gina about how good Nanny Hetty was, but Nanny Hetty, Gina’s ex-mother-in-law, was a lot older than Gina and had retired many years ago. She could never compete and she wasn’t about to start.
She had a busy job that she loved and an incident had come in. ‘I promise we’ll do something fun very soon,’ Gina said as she fed Gracie’s dress over her head, pulling her chubby little arms through. As she led the toddler to the bathroom, she phoned her daughter. ‘Mum? It isn’t even nine. Has something happened?’ ‘I’ve had a call. So sorry, love. I need to drop Gracie home on my way to the station.’ ‘For heaven’s sake. It was one night. One measly night and you have to go to work? I thought you’d booked the weekend off.
I thought we were all going out later. I thought things were going to change – you promised. I even booked cinema tickets to watch Incredibles 2 this afternoon and was going to surprise you.’ Gracie began to laugh as she pretended to gargle while playing at brushing her teeth. ‘No, you’re not being fair with us.’ ‘Sorry, love—’ ‘You always say sorry. Even after what happened with your last case. You’ve let me down but this isn’t all about me or Gracie. What case is it? Not another where you’re going to be in grave danger or some madman is going to force his way into your home and try to strangle you? You’re really selfish, you know that? I don’t want to lose another parent and I don’t want Gracie growing up without her nanna.’ The moment she broke down in front of the workplace counsellor flashed through Gina’s mind.
Hannah was right, the last case had hit her hard and Hannah had seen her slowly withdrawing afterwards. Their relationship had never been the best but deep down neither wanted anything to happen to the other. Hannah and Gracie were all Gina really had when it came to family. Her parents had passed away a long time ago and she had no siblings. The moment when her attacker was throttling her on her kitchen floor filled her mind and her heart began to bang as her throat constricted. ‘Mum, Mum—’ ‘Sorry. I was just err…’ She was just what? She didn’t know how to respond to Hannah as she opened her mouth to continue speaking. The incoherent jumble of words remained in her head, unable to escape. ‘I was just saying, I’ve already lost a dad. I know things happened between you and Dad, and I know he wasn’t good for you—’ ‘Good for me? He would have killed me if he’d had the chance.
We’ve spoken about this!’ She began to tremble with rage. Had her daughter not understood a word she had said when she told her how severely Terry used to beat her? How he’d broken her ribs, thrown her around and kicked her, mentally chained her to their house. All those years it took her to finally confide in Hannah were now being repaid with a total lack of understanding. She wished she’d never said a word. Sometimes the truth is overrated, she thought. She heard Hannah sighing. Gracie stared up at her, tap running and her toothbrush tickling her teeth in a poor effort to clean them. Gina pulled the little girl close to her, not wanting to upset her granddaughter. ‘I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.
’ Hannah began to weep. ‘It’s just… I can’t lose you as well. I know I can be a bitch sometimes but don’t you ever put me through what happened last time, again. You shouldn’t be doing this any more.’ ‘Are you telling me I should give up my job? I can’t do that. You can’t expect me to give up everything I love or else what the hell have I got to live for.’ Gina gripped the phone as she awaited her daughter’s response. ‘Now I really know where Gracie and I stand. Say no more, Mother.’ Hannah ended the call.
The little girl wriggled free and began singing as she played with her toothbrush. ‘Bloody hell,’ Gina said as she dragged the brush through her tangled hair, and then tied it back. She realised what she’d just said to Hannah and wished she’d kept those thoughts to herself. ‘Bloody hell,’ Gracie said mimicking her angry expression. Gina smiled through the tears she was holding back and the toddler dabbed toothpaste on her button nose. ‘Whatever you do, chicken, don’t say that to Mummy, okay? Nanna said naughty words.’ ‘Bloody hell,’ she shouted as she giggled. Gina knew she’d be in more trouble now. She tied Gracie’s hair back. ‘There, you look lovely.
Let’s go and grab your bag and get in Nanna’s car.’ ‘Is Nanna crying?’ ‘No, chicken. Nanna just has something in her eye. It’s nothing.’ She wiped the tear running down her face and kissed Gracie on the head. As she turned to the landing, a message from Jacob pinged on her phone. You need to get here, quick. Things aren’t looking good. She lifted Gracie, grabbed her bag from the bedroom and ran down the stairs and out the door.