Authors: Jane Holland
GIRL NUMBER ONE
OTHER WORKS BY JANE HOLLAND
Kissing the Pink
Boudicca & Co
Camper Van Blues
Jane Holland also writes fiction as:
For my brother Michael
I know Mummy’s dead. But I have to check. You always have to check,
Kneeling beside the
perfectly still body, I stare up through the trees, watching the flash of white
I hear a crack of twigs as he makes his way higher up the slope.
He’s not really hurrying. There’s no other sound except the nearby stream. Even
the birds have stopped singing.
Maybe he’s going to come
She does not move when I
touch her cheek. Her throat looks red and swollen. I guess that’s where he
grabbed her and squeezed. Squeezed until she stopped struggling. Her eyes are
wide, staring up into the leafy branches that sway gently above us.
I should never have run away. Perhaps I could have done something.
Perhaps I could have stopped him.
But Mummy yelled at me, ‘Run, Ellie! Run and hide!’
Then he grabbed her.
I ran like he was coming after me too. I ran gasping and crying. Brambles
scratched my face, tore at my clothes. Then I stopped, lost and defeated in the
unfamiliar undergrowth, and loped slowly back towards the stream. Because where
could I go without Mummy? What could I do on my own?
I’m old enough to understand what death is. I kneel beside her for a
long time, leafy twigs pressing painfully into my knees. There’s one bird still
singing in the trees above us. Its hoarse repeated cry was like a warning
before. Now it sounds like it’s laughing at me. I don’t look up.
I take her limp hand and squeeze it hard, waiting for her to wake
up, to start breathing again, to smile at me and tell me everything will be all
right. But it doesn’t happen. It will never happen again.
‘Mum?’ I whisper, bending close to her face. ‘Mummy?’
In a minute, I will drop her hand and run.
I remember what day
it is even before the alarm on my phone goes off.
My eyes are still closed, my mind fighting its
way back from the suffocating world of my nightmare. I wait for the alarm tone,
aware that it’s coming, the way you know a storm’s on the horizon. The tiny
hairs have risen on my skin, one arm angled stiffly above the pillow, the other
dangling out of bed as though pointing to the floor. I’m frozen in that
position, my body still partially asleep at some level. But my brain is alert
It’s like waking up on a birthday and immediately
today is going to be wonderful,
today is going to be special
it’s the reverse situation. Like a photographic negative. Today is going to be
special alright. But it’s not going to be wonderful. It is going to be bad.
Very, very bad.
Something shifts me out of sleep. Memory clicks
back into place, as it does every morning, and suddenly I’m properly awake,
totally in the moment.
I’ve spent years in therapy, I know what to do
when all the colour bleeds from the world. I take a few deep breaths and run
through what the doctor used to call my ‘blessings’. The good things in life. This
cottage, my job. My friends, the ones that have stuck with me and not fallen
away since university. But I still feel the darkness beckoning. Not much, just
a vague sensation of …
The alarm sounds.
Rolling over, I fumble for my phone, turn off
the alarm, swing myself out of bed.
Not bothering to look in the mirror, I drag a
comb through my shoulder-length hair, then twist it up into a rough ponytail.
No shower yet. That can come later, after my run. It’s not like anyone will see
me in the woods. Not at this hour.
I pick up my mobile, check it for new messages.
A reminder from Jenny about end of term festivities. I hesitate over it, then
flick past. I resent having to think about work when I’m not actually there,
which makes marking books a nightmare.
late reply from Tris to my text sent just before midnight. By which time I had
downed several glasses of rum and coke, and was undressing for bed.
Planning to run through the
woods tomorrow. As a salute to my mum.
reply, sent at 1.45am, is terse.
Not a good idea.
, I text back, then press Send.
nothing from Denzil about next weekend, which irritates me more than it should.
We’ve dated a few times, in a non-committal way. It’s not like we have any kind
of special arrangement. We were so close in school though. I wonder if he finds
me boring now that I’m a teacher and no longer lurching from one adolescent
drama to the next.
disappointed, I toss the mobile back onto the bed. The woods at Eastlyn are a
notorious signal blind spot, so a phone is dead weight on a run there.
I wriggle into black Lycra shorts and a white tee-shirt
with a bold red Nike logo. Drag on my new pair of Mizuno trainers and lace them
up. Open my bedroom door. The house is quiet. Hannah must have come home while
I was sleeping and gone straight to bed.
A quick trip to the bathroom. Toilet and teeth.
Hands still damp, I tiptoe past Hannah’s room, then down the stairs, carefully
avoiding the step that creaks. Since she started to work nights at the hospital,
my early morning runs have become an issue and I’m keen not to get into an
argument with her again.
Out in the lane, the
air feels sultry and shut-in, the sky drawn tight across the cottage roof.
Migraine weather, Hannah calls it. The sun may be shining in our little part of
the world but dark clouds from the moors are already on the edge of the valley,
promising rain later.
I stretch out my hamstrings, then swing my arms
up and down to warm up. Ten times forward, ten times back. Shrug my shoulders a
few times, roll my head slowly round to the left, then back to the right.
I head off towards the village at a gentle
warm-up pace, pretending not to consider which route to take even though
there’s nothing else in my head today.
half a mile down the lane, the road runs past the gated entrance to what used
to be our farm, once upon a time, but is now a partial ruin. Renovation work that
was started years ago still lies unfinished, the roof flapping with poorly
secured plastic. There’s a thin black cat crouched on top of the old piggery,
staring malevolently in my direction, ears flattened on its head.
I stride out, beginning to run.
decision is made, I realise. I’m going through the woods today, not the
village. I need to live for the future.
is rising slowly in Tinker’s Field, obscuring the legs of the black-and-white
cows grazing there. Crossing the road that leads up to the village, I pause for
a noisy diesel van hurtling down the hill at standard Cornish breakneck speed.
WOODS VALLEY GARDEN CENTRE is written on the side in large green lettering.
driver’s window is open, music blaring out. Dick Laney is at the wheel, owner
of the garden centre, bearded, middle-aged and compact. He’s wearing work
overalls, so I guess he’s on a delivery.
raises a hand to me. ‘Morning, Eleanor.’
son, Jago, is in the passenger seat. He was at the local school with me, though
we were never close and have not seen each other for ages. He looks at me
the van has passed, I cross into the sunlit meadow and keep running. The grass
half-obscuring the path to the woods has not been cut this year and is almost
knee-high now. But I don’t mind, threading my way through with pleasure,
flicking the bright, rustling grasses on either side.
Running is a ritual, and one I’ve grown to love
over the years. To be able to shut out everything else in your life for an hour
and concentrate solely on your body, your technique, your stamina. That’s the
beauty of running. It purges the soul.
why even on a bad day, on the worst day imaginable, even a day like today, I
still need to run.
There is someone
else in the woods today.
I often get that feeling, to be fair. The
sensation of being watched when I run or spied on through windows at the
cottage. Like there’s someone out there, keeping me under observation. It’s
just nerves, my therapist used to say; a lively imagination playing tricks on
Today feels different though. Like it’s real, not
imagined. Today my skin is prickling as soon as I vault the stile from the
meadow, before I’m even ten feet into the woods. There’s a physical edge to the
sensation of being watched. Like it’s three-dimensional.
At first I try to ignore the feeling, pumping
air with my arms, checking that I’m striking the ground toe-first, not
heel-first, the way you’re supposed to.
I hear a crack of twigs behind me, and glance
round, frowning. But the wooded slopes are empty.
The woods feel unthreatening here, still so
close to the meadow and the main road into the village. On sunny days like
these, light slips through gaps in the leaves, soft and dappled, to give the
woods an almost magical air. I often catch a glimpse of fleeing brown rabbits
on these morning runs, or the occasional grey squirrel watching me from halfway
up a mossed trunk. Most days, I prefer to skirt the edge of the meadow rather
than enter the woods. I often head up towards the moor and enjoy the wide-open
vistas there instead. But today is special. And I’ve made up my mind, for
better or worse.
The deeper I move into the wood, the more the
air becomes curiously still, maybe even claustrophobic. There is no chukking of
alarm from the birds today, no odd rustles in the undergrowth. Even the sound
of the stream below seems muffled.
My mother used to love running in these woods. I
don’t remember much about her, and can only picture her face from having
studied old photographs. But I know she loved running, and where, because my
father used to mention it whenever I went out for a jog.
surprisingly, he always hated me going anywhere near these woods.
can understand the pull of this place. The woods nestle secretively beneath the
village church, curving round the hill like a dragon’s tail, dark green in the
sunlight. The trees stretch for several miles of shady paths, birds clattering
among the leaves, and a noisy stream at the bottom. It’s beautiful and
peaceful, popular with walkers and runners alike, especially in the summer.
Another tiny cracking sound.
Don’t look to left
or right. Head down and keep running.
My trainers are beginning to squelch in the
mud. Last night’s rainfall hasn’t helped the dampness of the woodland paths.
But I’m nearly at the dip. The dip is where the path divides, one descending narrowly
to the stream, the other broader and more welcoming, rising into sunlight once
it hits the road above.
push on round the next bend, keeping out of the muddy morass in this shady part
of the wood.
And slither to a halt.
There’s a sign blocking the path ahead.
A large metal sign, legs sunk in mud, leaning
slightly at an angle, bold yellow lettering on a red background.
The white arrow beneath points downhill towards
the stream. The path is narrow and very steep, and I can see from here that it’s
I study the metal sign again, my chest suddenly
tight. It takes an effort to persuade my fists to loosen, my breathing to slow
down. I look around, gauging the stillness of the woods, the solitude. This sign
is unexpected, yes. But not even remotely suspicious. I’m doing it again; I’m over-reacting,
letting the past win.
main path is closed, so I have to take the diversion. I start to run again. Not
back the way I’ve come but down towards the stream. Taking the path I haven’t
taken in years. The path I still see in my nightmares.
path that has always been waiting for me.
It’s strange how
the years have changed my perspective of the place. In my memory, trees crowded
this narrow track, branches dipping overhead, leaning in to block my view, some
of the trunks rotten and decayed, roots barely clinging to the soil. But the
slopes are not as overgrown as they once were. Perhaps as a terrified
six-year-old, the trees seemed closer-set, the undergrowth darker and more threatening.
Further along, the track begins to wander and deteriorate.
This is more like the dangerous territory I remember, the lost ground where the
worst could – and once did – happen. Here, the edges of the path
blur into undergrowth. The earth banks are mossed, riddled with muddied hollows
and the tracks of deer. Some of the trunks on the bank are scarred where deer
have rubbed against them on their way down to the stream.
I am light-headed at the risk I am taking. The
risk to my sanity. What would Dr Quick say?
in life is without risk.
I no longer see Dr Quick, of course. I decided
some years ago that I had outgrown therapy and told her I didn’t want any more
sessions. To my surprise she did not push the issue. Perhaps she thought, as I
did, that it was time to move on.
I glance up, startled by a rustling above me
and to the right. Catch a flash of white between tree trunks.
someone else running on the heavily wooded slope above this path. It’s the
merest flicker through shadowy trees: a momentary glimpse into insanity, like a
little white rabbit that appears for a second, then vanishes down a rabbit
when I lower my gaze, and realise there is something on the path ahead of me.
‘What the hell?’ My heart is galloping and I
can’t seem to catch my breath. Panic swells like a balloon in my chest.
struggle to clamp it down, to remember my breathing exercises. I know the signs
of a panic attack and how to control them. I must be calm and logical, go
through the drills Dr Quick taught me. But I can’t seem to reach that state
anymore. I’m past logic; I’m locked out of it and into nightmare.
slow down, staring.
assailant is described as tall and well-built, wearing brown leather gloves,
dark tracksuit and white trainers.
That was the only description of my
mother’s killer we ever had. Because a six-year-old was the only one to see