The Dead Ex – Jane Corry

I unscrew the lid, inhale the deep, heady smell – straight to the nostrils – and carefully measure out three drops into the glass measuring jug. Pure lavender. My favourite. More important, perhaps, this clever little remedy is renowned for its healthy level of esters, otherwise known, in my business, as ‘healing properties’. Healing? Who am I kidding? Nothing and no one can save me. I might look like a fairly average woman in her forties. But deep down, I’m a walking time bomb. It could happen any second. You might wait for weeks, maybe months. All quiet. And then, hey presto, along it comes when your guard is down. ‘Don’t think about it,’ they advised me. Easier said than done. Sometimes I liken it to an actress coming off stage to be consoled on her performance even though she can’t remember a single damn thing. Standing on my tiptoes, I reach up to the shelf for a second bottle and add ylang-ylang, or ‘poor man’s jasmine’.

Second-best can be just as good. Or so I tell myself. But let’s be honest here. There is no escape from my underworld. Now for petitgrain. I take down the third phial carefully, remembering the lesson in which I learned that the contents are made from the leaves of the bitter orange tree. Blend with grapefruit? Possibly. It depends on the client. We all behave in different ways, especially in this ‘club’ of mine. Of course, there are things we can do to minimize damage, but at the end of the day, if something goes wrong, the ultimate price is death.

The oils need to be treated with respect in order to reduce the dangers. I love aromatherapy. Its magic is both distracting and calming. But tonight isn’t about me. It’s about my new client. Though she’s not a fellow sufferer, her face bears similarities to mine, with those soft creases around her eyes, suggesting laughter and tears, and the slightly saggy, soft-looking pouches underneath them, which she has tried to hide with a lightreflective concealer. Silently I admire her peach lipstick. I no longer bother with it myself. I always used to wear ‘Beautiful Beige’ to prove my femininity. The woman before me has blonde hair, tied back loosely with the odd wisp escaping.

What I’d give for a colour like that! The ‘freckly redhead’ tag from school days still stings. But David had loved it. ‘My very own beautiful Titian,’ he used to say. Both my client and I wear brave smiles which say, ‘I’m fine, really.’ But she’s not, or she wouldn’t be here. And nor would I. ‘I just need something to help me relax,’ she says. ‘I’ve had a lot of stress.’ It’s not my job to be a counsellor. Even so, there are times when I want to interrupt and tell my own story to show these women (I’ve never had a male client) that they aren’t alone.

Of course, that wouldn’t be wise, because it might scare them off. And I need them. Not just for my business. But to prove myself. What happened to the strong, confident woman I used to be? The one who wouldn’t take any nonsense. ‘Vicki’s got breasts and balls,’ they used to say. But that was in my old life. Time to go over my client’s medical history. ‘Are you pregnant?’ I have to ask this question even though her disclaimer form states that – like me – she is forty-six. It’s still possible.

She gives a short laugh. ‘I’ve done all that. Why do you ask, anyway?’ ‘There are some aromatherapy oils which aren’t suitable for expectant mothers,’ I say. I move on swiftly. ‘Do you have high blood pressure?’ ‘No. Though I feel I should have. Can this stuff affect that too?’ She glances with suspicion at the bottles lined up above us with all the colours of the rainbow trapped inside. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. For a minute I’m aged nine, in the small northern mining town where I grew up, reciting them to the teacher. Some patterns you don’t forget.

‘No, but it’s good for me to know. The oils are like medicine.’ I hear my tutor’s words tripping out of my mouth. ‘Very good for you when used appropriately.’ We run through more details. She’s declared on the disclaimer form that she has no medical issues. Yet, for some reason, I feel apprehensive. ‘Would you like to change?’ I suggest. ‘I’ll leave the room for a few minutes to give you privacy.’ She’s clearly nervous.

Then again, so are many of my clients who’ve never had this kind of treatment before. I see her glancing at my certificate on the wall for reassurance. Vicki Goudman. MIFA. ITEC LEVEL 3. Member of the International Federation of Aromatherapists. Sometimes I don’t believe it myself. It’s certainly not what I’d planned. When I go back into the room, my client (or lady, as I was taught to say) is lying face down on the treatment couch as instructed. Her bare shoulders, which reveal a dark mole on the right blade, are thin.

Scrawny. Her skin is cold even though I’ve got the heating on high at this time of year. ‘I haven’t felt like eating much recently,’ she says. ‘I’ve lost weight.’ Trauma does that to you. Or it can make you pile on the pounds. I’ve done both. I turn on the CD player. The angel music is soft. Healing.

Sleepy. ‘Mmmm,’ she says in a different voice as I massage the oil in deft circular motions down her spine. ‘You’ve got a real touch. I love that smell. What is it again?’ I repeat the ingredients. Lavender. Ylang-ylang. Petitgrain. Grapefruit juice. ‘How do you know what to use?’ she asks, her voice muffled because of her position.

‘It’s a bit like a marriage,’ I say. ‘You match the oil to the client’s needs. And you follow your instinct.’ There’s a snort. I think, for a minute, that it’s laughter, but then I realize she’s crying. ‘If I’d listened to my own instinct,’ she sobs, ‘I might have kept my husband.’ There it is again. That temptation to give away too much about yourself. You think you’re doing it to put them at their ease. But really it’s giving in to your own need.

Afterwards, you regret it. The client feels awkward on the next visit. And so do you. This is a business arrangement. Not a friendship. So I hold back the longing to tell my lady that David and I would have been coming up to our sixth wedding anniversary in a few months. I also resist the temptation to remind myself that it is Valentine’s Day. That on our first – and only – one together he had given me a pair of crystal drop earrings which I can no longer bring myself to wear. Instead, I breathe in the lavender and imagine it’s wrapped around my body like a protective cloak. ‘Sometimes,’ I say, kneading the stress knots, ‘you have to go through the dark to get to the light.

’ My client relaxes more then. I’d like to think that it’s my words that have soothed her. But it’s the magic. The lavender is getting into my own skin too. That’s the thing about oils. They’re always the same. A constant. Unlike love. ‘Is there anything in particular stressing you out?’ I ask gently. She gives a Where do I start? laugh.

‘The kids are driving me crazy, especially the little one. He’s impossible.’ ‘How old is he?’ ‘Nearly four. Going on ten.’ Now it’s my skin that goes cold. ‘He’s in trouble at school for biting this new boy in his class, and the teachers think it’s my fault. They’ve actually asked me if there is violence in our family.’ Is there? The question lies unspoken. She wriggles slightly on the couch. ‘Do you have kids?’ My hands dig deeper into her muscle knots.

‘I have a son. He’s four too.’ ‘What’s his name?’ ‘Patrick.’ ‘Is he a good boy?’ I think of the picture in my pocket. ‘He’s perfect.’ ‘You’re lucky. Who looks after him when you’re working?’ I pause briefly. ‘He’s with my dad.’ ‘Really? You hear a lot about grandparents helping out nowadays.’ My thumbs are really pressing down now.

‘Actually, that’s hurting.’ ‘Sorry.’ I release the pressure with a slight degree of reluctance. After that we continue in silence with only the angel music in the background. Some like to talk throughout. Others don’t say a word. Many begin to confide and then stop, like this one. She might tell me more at the next session. I sense she’ll come back. But I hope she won’t.

She’s too nosy. ‘Thank you,’ she says when I leave her to get dressed. I return to my notes. I write down, in purple ink, the exact treatment and areas of the body which still need attention. Those knots were stubborn. They are often related to the knots in the mind. After David, my shoulders were stiff for months. ‘Would you rather have cash or a cheque?’ she asks. ‘Cheque, please.’ Paper payment – or an electronic transfer – allows me to be absolutely certain who has paid me and when.

My business must be above board. If nothing else, I’ve learned that. She puts on her coat. It’s cold out there. The wind is rattling the windows. ‘I like your place,’ she says, looking around as if seeing it properly now she is about to go. ‘Thank you.’ I like it too. One joy of being on your own is that you can do exactly as you wish. David had liked modern.

I chose a converted ground-floor flat in a Victorian house. My ex was a black-and-white man. My consulting chair is draped with a restful duck-egg blue woollen throw. The lighting is soft. Unlit scented candles (lavender again) line the low table that I painted myself in a creamy white. The pale purple rug, which I take with me every time I move, along with anything else that’s portable, disguises the stain on the carpet beneath. No stairs. The front door leads straight onto the street opposite the seafront. There is nothing about my home that could hurt. Unless I choose it to.

‘Wish I could work from home,’ says my client. ‘I had to give up my job in the bank after my second child.’ There are pros and cons, I could say. You don’t get out enough if you are busy. You don’t have office colleagues to talk to. To joke with. To share problems with. A sudden wave of loneliness engulfs me. ‘May I make another appointment now?’ she says. ‘Sure,’ I say, vowing to keep quiet about my own personal situation the next time.

No more talk about Patrick. And that’s when the door sounds. I specifically chose a place with its own front entrance. I also, with the landlord’s permission, disconnected the bell. Sharp noises disturb me. A knocker is less strident. But this thud makes me jump. Why is someone here now, at this time of night? Have I forgotten about another client? Usually I am very careful to write things down, but there have been one or two mistakes recently. ‘Would you mind waiting a minute in the studio?’ I ask. It takes a while to open up.

I have a thick safety chain and I’ve double locked it, as always. There’s another knock as I search for the key. There it is, on the side table. Once more, I must have forgotten to put it in its place on the hook. Not a good sign. ‘Coming,’ I call out as the knocker thuds again. The open door brings in the biting wind with a trace of fog. I do a double take. A woman is standing on the doorstep brandishing a warrant card as proof of identity. Her face carries all the hallmarks of stress.

Immediately my mind springs into action as I mentally concoct a mixture which would soothe her. Lavender. Maybe lemon grass too. The man next to her is sporting a fawn raincoat. He appears angry. Defensive. I learned to read body language the hard way. Not that it did any good in the end. Neither looks like a possible client. ‘May I help you?’ ‘Vicki Goudman?’ I nod, taking in this man and his strikingly assured air.

‘Former wife of David Goudman?’ he continues. I nod again. Less certainly this time. Now he too is flashing ID at me. ‘Detective Inspector Gareth Vine. This is my colleague, Sergeant Sarah Brown. May we come in?’ My throat has swollen with apprehension. I run my hands through my hair, which I’ve started to grow again as part of the ‘new me’. Sweat trickles down my back. My mouth is dry.

‘What’s happened?’ I ask. He ignores the question. ‘May I ask when you last saw your ex-husband?’ The question is so unexpected that I cannot think. My right sinus – always partially blocked – now clears itself with shock. I feel a sick knot in the pit of my stomach. ‘Years ago. Why?’ The sour taste of bile is in my mouth as I speak. The woman in uniform is staring at me. Her eyes are sharp. Appraising.

‘The present Mrs Goudman has reported him missing.’ Sometimes I wonder how it’s possible for another woman to carry my name, let alone Tanya, his former secretary, or ‘the bitch’ as I sometimes call her in my head. ‘How long …? When …? Is he all right?’ Even as I ask the last question, I’m aware it’s a ridiculous one. If he was OK, they wouldn’t be here. It’s the inspector who answers. ‘That’s what we’re trying to ascertain.’ He rubs his chin. ‘David Goudman has been missing now for fifteen days. His wife is insistent that it is out of character, so we are exploring various lines of inquiry.’ My body begins to twitch.

Stress is a significant trigger. So too is lack of sleep, and even certain music pitches. It was one of the first things they told me. And if it does go wrong, well, I can’t be held responsible for either myself or anyone else. ‘You said just now you hadn’t seen him for years,’ continues the detective. ‘Can you be more precise than that?’ ‘Since 2013.’ I swallow. ‘It’s when we got divorced.’ ‘I see.’ He says this as though he doesn’t.

Or perhaps he does – all too clearly. ‘Where exactly were you on 31 January this year?’ That’s easy. I rarely leave this place. ‘Here. At home. Or maybe on the seafront. I usually walk along it once a day for some air.’ ‘Can anyone confirm that?’ I stare hard at him. ‘No. I live alone.

’ ‘Any friends who might have seen you out and about?’ ‘Not been here long enough.’ ‘Don’t you want to check your diary?’ ‘There’s no need.’ There’s a brief silence during which I force myself not to speak any more, conscious that I haven’t sounded very convincing. ‘Mind if we take a look round?’ asks the woman. ‘I have a client here,’ I say. ‘Ah yes. I believe you are a masseuse?’ Her manner of speaking suggests that I offer a different kind of service. It wouldn’t be the first time that my occupation has been misinterpreted. ‘Aromatherapist, actually.’ The man stares at me blankly.

Those who aren’t familiar with alternative treatments can easily get the wrong end of the stick. ‘I do massage people, but with essential oils.’ As if on cue, there is an ‘excuse me’ cough behind. My lady has clearly got bored with waiting. ‘I can see you are busy.’ She glances nervously at my two visitors. ‘I’ll ring later to make that appointment.’ She slips out into the dark. I suspect I won’t see her again. Despite my earlier wish that she wouldn’t return, I am not comforted.

That one will talk. I gesture my visitors towards my studio, wondering momentarily whether I’ve remembered to close the trapdoor fully. Thankfully, I have. They look suspiciously at the phials of liquid on the shelf above my desk. ‘Do you make your own potions?’ says the woman. I resist a smile at her use of a word which suggests witchcraft or black magic. ‘We call them essences. Actually, I buy them from a mail-order site.’ ‘What does this stuff do?’ asks the detective. Just what I’d asked at the beginning.

‘Relaxes you. Helps restore memory. Gives you strength.’ The woman is picking up the lavender oil and smelling it. ‘I’ve always wanted to try it out.’ ‘I can give you my card if you like.’ ‘We know where you are.’ Of course. ‘So you work from home?’ says the man. ‘I’m registered.

’ My tone is more defensive now. It doesn’t take long to do the ‘tour’. It’s a compact, two-bedroom, one-level apartment (one of the bedrooms having become my studio) right on the seafront, ‘boasting easy access to the amenities of Penzance’, as described by the estate agents. ‘Nice view,’ says the woman, looking out at the sea from my bedroom. It’s why I came here. This morning, the water was a particularly striking azure blue. Yesterday it was green. The day before, black. Too dangerous for me to swim, even if I had a wet suit like some of the keen locals. ‘You don’t miss city life, then?’ It’s as though they are purposefully ignoring the elephant in the room.

‘David,’ I say desperately. ‘Where was he when he went missing?’ The woman swivels round. ‘We were hoping you could tell us.’ ‘Why should I know?’ ‘Come on, Vicki.’ It’s the detective this time. Voice silky smooth. Reeking of suspicion. ‘Mrs Goudman tells us that she saw you near their home in Kingston just before Christmas.’ He gets out a notepad. ‘ “Standing at the gate and staring at my house.

” Those were her exact words.’ ‘I had an appointment with a consultant,’ I say hotly. His eyes narrow. ‘In London? That’s a long way to go.’ I shrug. ‘The outskirts, actually. He wasn’t far from my old house, so I walked past. I felt nostalgic. Anyone would be.’ I note a swift flicker of sympathy in the policewoman’s face.

‘They’d dug up my roses and replaced them with a hideous rockery,’ I add. I’ve never cared for rockeries. Too cemetery-like. ‘You can prove that?’ ‘The roses?’ ‘Your visit to your “consultant”.’ His voice is tight, as if he thinks I’m taking the mickey. I’m not. I’m still livid about those roses. ‘Peace’, they were called. A beautiful creamy petal with a to-die-for smell. I reach for my address book and scribble down a name and number.

‘There. Ring that.’ ‘We will.’ ‘The lounge is through here,’ I say, anxious in case they make too close an inspection of another room. We go into the small lounge with its duck-egg blue throw on the sofa (just like my studio). ‘No television?’ the woman remarks, looking around. ‘No.’ She raises an eyebrow and then hands me a card. I want to turn it down, as she had done earlier to me. ‘If you do hear from your ex-husband, please get in touch immediately.

’ I nod. Vine shakes my hand. They go. I double lock the door. Put the safety chain up. Run to my bedroom. Then I pick up the phone and dial the number, which is firmly engraved in my head. ‘This is David. You know what to do.’ My ex-husband’s voice is deep.

Dark. Comforting, despite everything, in its familiarity. ‘Please answer,’ I choke. ‘It’s me.’ 2 Scarlet 8 March 2007 What a clever, grown-up girl! That’s what Mum was always saying. They didn’t need anyone else. Just the two of them. They were a team. Especially when it came to the game. There were three types: the swing, the see-saw, and hide and seek.

Out of the three, Scarlet preferred the last. ‘Sometimes, love, we have to do the others too,’ Mum would tell her in that sing-song voice that came from a place called Whales. ‘Why?’ ‘You’re too young to understand.’ ‘But I look older, don’t I? Cos I’m tall like my dad was.’ ‘Yes,’ Mum would murmur. Then she’d kneel down and hold her tight. Sometimes she’d put her dark hair into neat little braids. That was Scarlet’s favourite thing. She would breathe her mother in. She always smelled the same.

Pat Chew Lee. That’s what the bottle of her mum’s perfume said. P–A– T–C–H–O–U–L–I. Scarlet was good at English. Her average reading age was eleven instead of eight. Her teacher said so. ‘We’ve got loads of books at home,’ she’d told him proudly. He’d looked surprised. ‘My favourite is Alice in Wonderland,’ she’d added. ‘Mum had it when she was little. She reads it to me every night.’ Something stopped her from saying that the reading thing only happened when Mum had smoked the magic cigarette and was being all funny. Back to the swing game. So scary! You never knew who was going to come up behind and push. Mum was nearby. That’s what she always told Scarlet. But they mustn’t actually see each other, because that might give the game away. All Scarlet had to do was sit on the seat and pretend that the pusher was someone she knew. Even though she didn’t. Then she had to say, ‘Please can I have something to eat?’ It was really important that she spoke loudly in case anyone else was listening. The reply was always the same. ‘Again?’ That’s when she’d turn round and see the person behind her. It might be a woman. Or it might be a man. Sometimes they smelled of beer or pee or the wardrobe which she and Mum shared. But they always did the same thing. They’d hand her some crisps. Not the kind you got in a packet but the ones in a tube with a plastic lid. Then she’d stop the swing for a bit so she could take off the lid and eat the crisp on top before putting the lid back on again. Snap, it would go in her mouth. Unless it was stale. ‘Give us the old one, then,’ they’d say. So she’d hand them the empty crisp tube in her little pink shoulder bag, which Mum had bought her specially for the game because she was so good at it. After that, they pushed the swing a few more times. When she turned round to see why they’d stopped, there was no one there. That was when she had to walk to the park entrance, and Mum would be waiting. ‘Where have you been? I’ve been worried.’ Scarlet knew exactly what to say. ‘I wanted a swing. This nice person pushed me.’ ‘What have I told you? Don’t talk to strangers.’ But Scarlet wasn’t upset because this was all part of the make-believe, just like the tales in her story books. Mum wasn’t really cross. She was only pretending to be! When they got back to the flat, Mum would snatch the tube, which didn’t have any crisps. Instead, there were lots of tenners. After that, they’d share a packet of fish and chips for tea as a treat. The vinegar made her mouth sting. Then Mum would light up a fag and open a bottle of wine. ‘Have a sip,’ she’d say. ‘It will help you sleep.’ Yuk! But she took it anyway, just to be a good girl. Sometimes they used empty cans of drink instead of crisp tubes. It was good, Mum said, to have a change every now and then. But you didn’t need either for the see-saw game, which was her secondbest. The nice part was that you got to see the other person. So it wasn’t quite so frightening. The girl or boy on the other side would start to go up and down very fast. It made Scarlet’s head all dizzy. She’d have to hang on very tight so that the little parcel that was tucked into her jeans pocket stayed exactly where it was meant to. The next step was to fall off carefully so that she didn’t hurt herself. ‘Make sure you cry loudly,’ Mum had told her. ‘When the other person helps you up, use the confusion to do a quick swap.’ This was more complicated than the swing game. ‘It takes a real pro like you to do it,’ said Mum. Scarlet wasn’t sure what a pro was, but it sounded good. Especially as Mum often gave her a shiny pound coin in return for bringing back the tenners. Sometimes she was allowed to touch the notes after Mum had done her counting. They were as crisp as autumn leaves. But the best game of all was hide and seek. They did this in the shopping centre. Scarlet liked this most because it was warm in the winter and also because Mum came with her. It made her feel safer. First they’d do something called a decoy. This meant trying on new clothes without buying. ‘Give us a twirl,’ Mum would say when the assistant came to the changing room to see if she could help. ‘Pretty girl.’ Then Scarlet would look at herself in the mirror and flick back those braids with the little red beads and wonder once more why her skin was darker than Mum’s. Mum said it was because her father had come from a place called Trinny Dad. ‘Where’s my dad now?’ she’d sometimes ask. But the answer was always the same. ‘I don’t know and I don’t care. We’re happy enough on our own, aren’t we?’ Back to the game. One day, an older woman had come up to them in a shop and told Mum she was a ‘model scout’. ‘Your little girl would be perfect.’ But Mum had said they didn’t want any of that and had rushed her out of the doors. ‘We mustn’t attract attention,’ she explained. It almost spoilt the game. But not quite. After they did some more trying on, Mum would leave. Scarlet would burst into tears. This was called ‘role playing’, said Mum. But you spelt it with an e: r–o–l–e instead of r–o–l–l. Then one of the assistants or maybe another customer would ask if she was all right. At exactly that point, a woman would come rushing in. Scarlet had to pretend she knew her. ‘There you are, love. Your mum’s fallen ill, so she asked me to come and get you.’ The next bit was tricky. As they were walking out, the woman would hand her a tissue. After she’d blown her nose, Scarlet would put it in her pocket. Then the woman would tell her to hand it back so she could throw it away. But Scarlet would give her a different tissue back. The first tissue had a whole £50 note in it, which she would then give to Mum. And the second had a little plastic bag in it with white powder. Once the game almost went wrong when an assistant asked the strange woman for identification. ‘What do you think I am?’ she’d demanded. ‘A child snatcher? Go on, Scarlet, love. Tell her!’ ‘This is my Auntie Julie,’ Scarlet said, remembering what Mum had told her. And the assistant had gone all pink and said she was sorry but you couldn’t be too careful nowadays. That’s why they had to make sure they didn’t do the tissue swapping bit anywhere near a See See TV camera. But then came that Wednesday. Usually Wednesday was Scarlet’s favourite day of the week. You could choose whatever book you wanted from the library and read it on your own in class while the teacher did some marking. It was nearly always shouty, because the other kids didn’t like reading and got into fights instead. But Mum had taught Scarlet to shut everything out. You had to do that on the estate. The people in the next flat were always thumping the walls with their fists or screaming or playing loud music. But a book took the noise away, especially if there were pictures. Once, when there weren’t any, Scarlet drew her own on the page. It was the only time the teacher had got cross with her. Once, she and Mum had played the hide-and-seek game in a massive shop called Sell Fridges. It sold a lot of other things too, and was in a posh part of London, ages away from Hackney. Scarlet almost forgot to pretend she was lost because of the lovely clothes that felt so soft. ‘One day,’ said Mum, her eyes bright, ‘we’ll be able to afford stuff like this.’ But that particular Wednesday felt all wrong, because Mum hadn’t wanted her hair stroked or to sing along to the radio like she usually did. She also got cross because they had run out of bread. ‘It’s all right,’ said Scarlet, even though her stomach was rumbling. ‘I’ll just wait for lunch.’ (The other children called it ‘dinner’, but Mum said that wasn’t right.) ‘That won’t help. You’re not going to school.’ ‘But it’s library day and News Story Hour.’ ‘Forget it. We’ve got to do the swing game today. Don’t look like that. If we finish quickly, you might be able to go in late. Just tell them you were at the dentist’s.’ ‘But I said that last time.’ ‘Then we’ll pretend it was the doctor’s. OK?’ ‘They’ll ask me for a letter.’ ‘I’ll do you one later when we’ve got more time. Now stop arguing and do what I say.’ Scarlet shivered, and not just because it was cold. ‘Wear this,’ said Mum, handing her a big, fluffy yellow fleecy jacket. ‘Wow! It’s just like the one we saw in the market.’ The market was one of her favourite places. You could get anything there. Mum looked pleased. ‘I bought it for you because you’re a good girl.’ Then she handed Scarlet a crisp tube for her pink shoulder bag. The lid was slightly open. ‘Why is there sugar inside?’ ‘Don’t touch!’ Mum shut it quickly. ‘I’m sorry.’ Mum’s face went kind again. ‘It’s me that should be sorry, love. I’ve got a lot on my mind. Tell you what – how do you feel about moving somewhere new?’ They often imagined going to different places. It was part of the game. ‘Where this time?’ ‘Somewhere warm.’ Mum’s eyes went all dreamy, like they did when she woke up. ‘We could have a home near a beach and build sandcastles.’ ‘Could we eat ice cream? The ones with chocolate flakes that melt in your mouth?’ Mum lifted her up into the air and swung her around. She wasn’t dreamy any more. She was awake and excited. ‘As much as you want.’ ‘Yes please!’ ‘We can only do it if you follow the rules. Got it?’ Scarlet nodded solemnly. ‘Got it.’ The words made her feel all grown up. They made their way down the steep steps outside their flat and the big red letters that someone had painted on the walls. C–U–N and then another letter which had been crossed out. ‘We don’t need to know what that means,’ Mum always said. ‘Watch out for the dog shit. Jump! That’s right. Hold my hand when you cross the road. Are you warm enough? Don’t forget your words.’ But all the time, Scarlet kept thinking about the book with the pretty pictures which she could have been reading in class right now. The rain trickled down the neck of her new jacket. ‘Just a drizzle,’ said Mum. She kissed her. The Pat Chew Lee was mixed with the smell of the fags. ‘Off you go. See you at the gates.’ Scarlet ran over to the swings. No one else was there. Not even the mothers with the little ones who were too small to go to school. She kicked the ground to start herself off. Forward. Back. Waiting. Waiting. ‘Shall I push you, love?’ The voice had the same friendly sound that had belonged to the man who had visited last night. It meant he was from ‘the south-west’. Back. Forward. Back. Forward. Don’t forget your words. ‘I’m hungry,’ she said. ‘Want some crisps?’ Scarlet stopped. The man handed over the tube. Then she reached in her bag for the sugar. Just as she gave it to him, there was a shout. ‘You there. Stop!’ Another man was running up to them. ‘I am arresting you on suspicion of illegal possession of a controlled substance …’ ‘No. NO!’ Mum suddenly appeared, but then a woman in cop uniform ran up and held her back. A second one tried to take Scarlet’s hand. ‘Come with me, lass. It’s all right.’ ‘LET HER GO!’ ‘MUM! COME BACK.’ ‘Scarlet! SCARLET! Let me talk to my little girl, you bastards.’ Mum’s cries pierced her ears as they pulled her away. Was this part of the game? ‘It’s all right, love,’ said the cop. ‘You’re safe now. Come with me.’ ‘GET AWAY.’ The man pulled his hand away but not before she’d sunk her teeth into his flesh. ‘Don’t bite me, you little cat.’ They were putting her in one car and Mum in another. Hers went first. ‘COME BACK,’ she wept, hammering on the window with her fists. But Mum grew further and further away until the other car was a little black spot. And then she was gone.


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