Keep You Safe – Rona Halsall

Natalie sits on a metal bench on the top deck of the ferry, watching the mountains of the Lake District glide past. She wonders what her son looks like. Has his hair darkened, his face thinned out? They change so quickly when they’re young and she has nothing to go on, not a single picture since he was a baby. She’ll know soon enough, she thinks, with a shiver of nerves, uncertain of what lies ahead but sure that she’ll risk everything to have him with her again. She wraps her arms around her chest and imagines that it’s her child that she’s hugging. She can almost feel his hair against her face, his breath tickling her neck and she hugs tighter, fingers feeling the bones of her ribcage, even through two layers of clothing. What if things go wrong? Her jaw tightens, and she knows that she can’t let herself dwell on the idea, not for a moment. Confidence is the key to success. She has to believe her plan is possible, has to have faith in herself. After all, she’s not the same woman she was three years ago, before she went to prison. Her anger is carved into her heart, is part of who she is now and she’s a little scared of what she’s capable of when pushed to her limit. If it’s happened once, it can happen again, can’t it? She shivers and wraps her fleece a little tighter round her body. Prison was a place full of raw emotions, a place where it was impossible to relax, where people played mind games, bullied and manipulated to get what they wanted. Or just to pass the time. Fear lurked in every dark corner, every sudden noise, every scream.

And fear is an emotion that doesn’t disappear overnight. It has to unwind itself, loosen its tendrils until you can ease yourself out of its grasp and finally step away. That’s what she hopes will happen, and soon, because living on adrenaline is exhausting, draining the life out of her with the effort of keeping safe. On the upside, she knows how to fight now, which would be a surprise to everyone who knew her before. She can throw a proper punch, knows which parts of the anatomy require a kick, a stomp or a jab, where the main pressure points lie, and even how to use everyday things as lethal weapons. Spoons to gouge eyes, toothbrushes to jab, pens to stab, shoes to batter and smack. She’s seen it all. Even clothing can be dangerous. It’s true to say that she’s learned self-defence from some pretty ferocious women, uncompromising in their methods when it comes to protecting themselves and their families. She liked some of them.

Admired them for their resilience and sheer determination to survive. And then there was Katya. Her body gives an involuntary shudder. She hugs herself harder, shakes the idea of violence from her mind. Anyway, physical skills are not the most important for the task ahead. She needs to meld situations to her advantage, engineer possibilities, mess with people’s plans. What’s going to be really important is the art of cunning. And the certainty that she will do whatever it takes to be with her son Harry again. No questions, no doubts, no hesitation. She sits back in her seat, unwraps her arms and stretches out her fingers.

Relax, relax, she tells herself. I can do this. As long as she can stay calm, keep her mind focused and not let anger take control. She imagines Harry as a four-year-old boy instead of the baby she knew. His hair will be brown like hers, she thinks, rather than the dark blond of his father. His eyes, she knows, are wide apart and hazel. And his face? She prefers the idea that it is oval, like hers rather than square like his father’s. His nose, of course, will still be a little button of a thing, covered in freckles that spread across his cheeks, just like the pictures of her when she was a child. Days, weeks, maybe months of her life have gone into building up this mental picture of her child. A child she doesn’t know.

In the absence of photos, she’s used magazines to find pictures of children and build them into a likeness of her little boy. She’s invented a voice for him, a laugh, a smile, even his own set of mannerisms. Likes and dislikes. Now the image is so strong, so certain, that she can conjure him at will into her daydreams. And as she closes her eyes, she can feel his little fingers holding her hand, hear his excited voice telling her stories about his day, his life, what he dreams about. And questions! So many questions. She imagines picnics, playing on the swings, the roundabouts, helping him scale the climbing frame. A seed of joy germinates in her heart as she allows herself to create a future that almost seems real. Soon it will be real. In another place, where her past can’t find her and she can start again.

A smile creeps onto her lips and expands into a proper grin, stretching muscles that haven’t been used for quite some time. It’s a forgotten feeling; this bubbling in her stomach, lightness in her shoulders, laughter in her throat. The movement of the ferry, as it rolls gently from side to side, is a weird but pleasant sensation, reminding her of fairground rides when she was a little kid, when life was simple. She sighs. Is it possible that life can be fun again? Natalie puts her head back to feel the sun on her face. Goodness knows, she could do with a tan. She’s so pale, she looks like a member of the walking dead, veins visible beneath her skin. If she’s being really honest, she thinks she looks a bit scary in an unwell sort of a way, with her hollow cheeks and shadows under her eyes. The wind whips at her hair, flicks it into her eyes and she grabs it, twists it into a knot at the nape of her neck. For some reason, she thought she would feel more light-hearted as a blonde, had decided it would be a good disguise.

But she feels like a fraud, a cheap caricature of herself and more obvious than if she’d stayed her natural brunette. That’s the first thing that’s going to change, she decides as she closes her eyes, trying to visualise a new hairstyle. She needs to look like something else. She needs to look like a mum. The rocking of the boat lulls her into drowsy daydreams about haircuts, soft beds and the smell of newly washed linen, until a man’s voice startles her, his accent northern, but she can’t quite place it. ‘Do you mind if I sit here?’ Her eyes flick open and her hands grip the edge of the seat, body tensed. Hairs prickle on the back of her neck as she studies the dishevelled-looking bloke who stands in front of her. He is tall and broad-shouldered, dressed in black biker gear, holding a shiny black helmet stencilled with a silver skull and crossbones on the back. Dark hair hangs in lank waves to his shoulders. The start of a beard darkens his face.

It’s okay, she decides, heart bumping in her chest. He’s not Eastern European, doesn’t look or speak like someone related to Katya. No one knows that I’m out yet, she reminds herself. But that’s not the only reason to be worried. She shouldn’t be on this boat, and there’s a nagging concern at the back of her mind that a computer system somewhere will have worked out that she’s here. Obviously, this is ridiculous, because she didn’t book her ticket under her real name, didn’t have to show a passport or identification of any sort, but there are CCTV cameras everywhere these days and, well, you never know, do you? She glances round, sees there is nobody else out on the deck. All the other seats are free. There were lots of people out here when the ferry set sail, but the unseasonably cold wind has driven them back inside. She knows why he wants to share her bench; it’s the only place that has any shelter from the wind and she stares at him with her ‘I want you to go away’ look. He smiles at her, an easy grin.

She notices tawny brown eyes, fringed with long dark lashes. Kind eyes. It’s good to share, she tells herself and shuffles up to the far end of the bench. ‘Very wise,’ he says as he sits down and puts his helmet and backpack on the bench between them. ‘Just been to Glastonbury. Haven’t washed in a few days.’ He pulls a face, then laughs. ‘I’m definitely humming.’ Natalie looks away, clasps her hands in her lap. They sit in silence for a while, watch the sea and the forest of wind turbines, all that’s left to see now that the ferry has left the Lake District behind.

Out of the corner of her eye, she notices him rummage in his bag, then cringes when he pulls out a harmonica. She hates the harmonica; it reminds her of the endless Bob Dylan tracks her ex-husband used to play. Her teeth grind as Tom’s face flashes into her mind and she pushes it away, unwilling to let him sour her day. ‘Do you mind if I have a little practice?’ the man says. He holds up the harmonica, waggles it in the air. ‘I’ve got a charity gig tonight. Just need to go through a couple of songs.’ She stares at him, blinks. His eyes plead with her. ‘I won’t take long,’ he says.

‘Ten minutes, tops.’ ‘Okay.’ Her shoulders scrunch closer to her ears and she decides she’ll just have to go and sit somewhere else if she really can’t stand it. He runs up and down the scales a couple of times with obvious expertise, then starts to play. It’s a haunting melody, not what she was expecting and against her initial instincts, she’s enthralled. It sounds Celtic and reminds her of the Sinead O’Connor’s song, ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’, a song her mother loved. She sighs. The thought of her squeezes Natalie’s heart so hard that it hurts and she has to remind herself that it doesn’t matter that they’re not in touch anymore. Nothing matters except Harry. The music flows over her, into her, though her, flushing emotions to the surface and by the time he’s finished, her eyes are stinging.

A tear escapes and runs down her cheek. She turns away from him, wipes at it with the back of her hand. ‘That wasn’t too bad, was it?’ ‘Lovely,’ she says, with a sniff while she pretends to study a seagull, which glides alongside the boat. ‘Mind if I sing something?’ He takes a bundle of folded pages from his bag and flicks through them until he finds what he’s looking for. Her whole body goes rigid and she looks around to see if anyone else has appeared on deck, making sure she still has an exit strategy. ‘No, no, you go ahead.’ She squirms at the thought of this man bursting into song next to her. She’s spotted another bench that might have a bit of shelter and prepares to move, but as he starts to sing, she halts in mid-air and sits back down again. His voice is soulful and sandpaper rough, a perfect match with the song he’s singing. ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’.

All the breath goes out of her and she’s aware of nothing but the words hanging in the air. She knows this song, knows every word, every note, because it’s the song she used to sing to Harry. She sang it to him while she was pregnant and then to lull him to sleep when he was a baby. Since they’ve been apart, singing it has kept him close to her. Now she can’t stop the tears, so salty they sting her eyes, big sobs catching in her throat, shaking her body. ‘Oh my God, I’m so sorry!’ he says when he finishes and looks at her. By this time, she’s a mess of snot and tears and can feel her cheeks burning. He delves into his bag, holds out a packet of tissues. She takes one and blows her nose, takes another and wipes her face. ‘Sorry,’ she says to the deck, elbows resting on her knees, hiding her face in her hands as her sobs stutter to a halt.

‘No, no. I didn’t realise I was that bad.’ She attempts a laugh, which comes out as a snort and takes another tissue to finish the mopping up process. ‘Let me get you a cup of coffee or something. Whatever it takes to cheer you up.’ Natalie risks a glance at him, sees the concern in his gaze and has to look away before she starts blubbing again. ‘I know!’ He slaps his thigh. ‘Chocolate always does the trick.’ He lopes off across the deck, leathers creaking, biker boots clanking down the steps as he disappears into the bowels of the boat to find the café. I should go and hide, Natalie thinks, but she’s welded to the seat by her misery and her legs refuse to move.

The sound of footsteps makes her eyes flick to the stairs, her body tensed, ready to move. But it’s just a mother with two children, coming to look at the view. She breathes out and tells herself, once again, that nobody knows she’s here. By the time he comes back, with big cups of coffee and chocolate muffins, she’s tidied herself up as best she can, the whole packet of tissues scrunched into a soggy ball in her fist. She squishes it into her pocket as he sits next to her, long legs akimbo, so at ease with himself that she feels a pang of jealousy. She wonders when she’ll ever get to feel that relaxed. ‘I’m Jack,’ he says, with a grin as he bites into his muffin. ‘Natalie,’ she replies, before it occurs to her she should have made something up. He’s a chatty man, and as they sip their drinks and eat their cakes, Natalie feels the knot of tension in her shoulders start to loosen. He tells her about Glastonbury, the people he met, the bands he saw.

It brings back memories, happy memories, of the young woman she used to be. She finds out that Jack was born and bred on the Isle of Man. He’s thirty-one, a couple of years older than her, and he fronts a band called Whiplash, who are playing at a charity gig in aid of Youth Arts that evening to help them raise funds to buy musical equipment for local kids. The coffee is deliciously strong and a forbidden treat because coffee makes her go into verbal overdrive. She savours every sip. ‘So, what do you do?’ he says. She drains the last remnants of her drink, taking her time, trying to pick something that sounds cool. It’s hard when you have so much choice, and the silence mushrooms between them, her body uncomfortably hot. ‘I’m um… I’m a nanny.’ Her breath hitches in her throat.

Did I really just say that? Of all the jobs she could have picked, that was probably the most stupid. She looks like she might eat children, not nurture them. His eyebrows shoot up. ‘Wow, I’d never have guessed.’ ‘Yes, but I’m er… taking a break.’ She shrugs. ‘Had a few health issues. So…’ She lets the sentence tail off. ‘Ah, right.’ It always works, she thinks.

Guaranteed conversation stopper. Because people struggle when they think you’re seriously ill. He finishes his muffin, licks the crumbs off his fingers and looks out to sea. Her fingers knot themselves together. The idea of spending the rest of the journey in silence seems pretty bleak after the warmth of his conversation. ‘But it’s a great job,’ she says, putting all her energy into sounding upbeat and interesting. ‘Been all over the world, looking after rich people’s kids.’ He turns and looks at her, curious. ‘Have you?’ She nods and before she can stop herself, she’s crafted a wonderful web of lies, words flowing like a mountain stream, as she burbles on about the life she might have had if she’d been born to different parents, met different people, and made better choices. What does the truth matter anyway? she thinks as she watches him laugh at something she said.

He’s just a stranger on a ferry and I’m tired of being me. They swap stories until she notices the Isle of Man ahead of them and realises her face is numb from a wind that is ridiculously cold for the end of June. She stands up and stomps around to get some feeling back in her feet, scanning the pretty horseshoe bay lined with its tall, smartly painted Victorian buildings, which run the whole length of the promenade. Rocky headlands rise up on either side of the town, which nestles against the hillside. And there, on that hillside, is the house where her son lives. She can feel Harry’s presence and her heart starts to race. Not long now. Not long. ‘Here already,’ Jack says as he starts to gather his stuff together. ‘You didn’t tell me… where are you heading?’ ‘Not sure yet.

’ She picks up her holdall, watching the harbour get closer, itching to get off the boat now. ‘No real plans.’ He unzips a pocket in his backpack and pulls out a pen, rummages around for something to write on. ‘Here’s my number.’ He scrawls figures on the back of a till receipt. ‘And this is where we’re doing the gig tonight. The Centenary Centre in Peel. Come along, eight o’clock. I’ll tell them on the door to look out for you.’ The paper flutters in the wind as he passes it to her and she snatches at it before it’s blown away, tucks it in her pocket.

I don’t have time for gigs, she thinks, as the tune of the engines changes and the ferry starts reversing towards the loading bay, but she gives him a quick smile of thanks. Then the call comes for drivers to re-join their vehicles and she waves her goodbye and dashes down the stairs ahead of him. ‘Incog-bloody-nito, you useless cow,’ she mutters under her breath as she gets into the car she has borrowed, annoyed now that she let her guard slip and at least one person on the boat has had a really good look at her. He wasn’t taking much notice, she tells herself. Distracted by the gig. It’ll be fine. The weight of her mission settles on her shoulders and she jiggles in her seat, fingers drumming on the steering wheel as she waits for her turn to leave the boat. Just the thought of seeing Harry after all this time leaves her breathless and she is drawn to him with a gravitational pull that is as old as time. Nothing is going to stop her. She has to take the threats to Harry’s life seriously, doesn’t she? Even if nobody else will.

In her imaginings, Elena, the nanny, opens the door, Harry by her side. Elena would still be there, she was sure, because Tom wouldn’t cope on his own and he never stopped telling Natalie how brilliant he thought she was. Tom is still at work. His parents are abroad. Harry’s eyes widen when he sees her, his face alight with excitement. He knows straight away who Natalie is and runs to her, throws his little arms around her neck and they hold each other tight, neither of them wanting to let go. He would come with her, just to the playground; she’d tell Elena, no need for her to join them. And they’d make their escape, in a yacht that was ready and waiting in the harbour and they’d sail away, down past France and Spain, through the Mediterranean until they landed in Turkish-run Northern Cyprus, the latest hotspot for fugitives, so she’d heard, to start their new life. Of course, it won’t work out that way. It would be the perfect plan, but it’s an obvious fantasy.

There is an Irish fishing boat that will take her to Larne, though, and from there she will be picked up by an ex-convict friend and taken to Connemara, where she has the use of a holiday cottage for the rest of the summer, while she sorts out the details of her long-term plan. The fishing boat is her only real hope of escaping undetected, given that the official means of transport off the island, such as planes and ferries, would be policed if a child went missing, and out of the question. She has the contact details of the skipper, who is primed and ready to pick her up and she still has a few thousand left from her divorce settlement. More than enough to pay her way. The bones of her plan are there, but the timing is critical, the main sticking point being that the fishing boat will arrive in two days’ time to land its catch and will be going back to Ireland the following day. After that, her chance to get Harry to safety will have gone. Natalie’s hands tighten round the steering wheel. Three days. That’s all I’ve got.

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