Read No Longer Safe Online

Authors: A J Waines

No Longer Safe

NO LONGER SAFE
AJ Waines

 

Copyright © 2016 AJ Waines

 

The moral right of the author has been asserted. All
characters and events in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to
real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

All Rights Reserved.

 

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored
in a retrieval system,

or transmitted, in any form or by any means,

without the prior permission in writing of the author.

 

Find out more about the author

and her other books at

www.ajwaines.co.uk

 

 

For Ruth and Mike Holmes

You are both amazing

 

 
Chapter 1

 

15 November

You were the last person I expected to hear from.
After all this time. After all the cards and letters that had come back marked
‘return to sender’.

I drifted from the hall into the sitting room, carrying the
envelope on both outstretched palms, like a piece of newly discovered treasure.
One slice from Dad’s paper knife and it was open. At first I thought it was an
invitation to a wedding, but there was no card; instead it was a letter wrapped
around a glossy brochure of a castle nestling amongst snow-capped mountains.

It was your handwriting for certain. I looked straight down
to the bottom of the second sheet to confirm it. Karen Morley. That’s when I
had to sit down.

My head was suddenly too big for my body and I couldn’t
trust myself to read without feeling giddy. Was it really you? I checked the
address – Brixton – in London-terms that meant you were practically on my
doorstep. No distance at all.

I made my brain slow down so I could trail my eyes across
the curves of your fountain pen. That was a novelty in itself – the personal
touch – when nearly everything that landed on our doormat these days was typed.
But that was very much your way of doing things, Karen – making people feel
special, making that extra effort to show you cared.

Would be wonderful to see you again…remembered your
birthday…love to invite you…important time for me…

I read the first part again. It was an invitation, but not
to a wedding. You were inviting me to a cottage in the Highlands – on holiday.

I slid from the arm of the sofa into the seat. Nearly six
years without a word and now this. I tried to reach you after we finished Uni,
of course I did. You were the one who stood out, the friend I thought I’d found
for life. Once Uni was over, other associations tailed off and calls were
replaced with Facebook updates with the odd round-robin email. But ours was
different.

To be honest, I hadn’t expected you to fall away like you
did, Karen. We’d established a real bond – or so I thought. Afterwards, you
moved to Bristol while I moved back to London, but I was certain we’d visit
each other; I’d travel one weekend, you’d travel the next. I had my heart set
not only on keeping in touch, but staying best friends.

I did go to stay with you at the start – just once,
remember? You replied to my emails for a while, sent a cheery card that first
Christmas, but then, like the rest, you drifted away from me and I never heard
from you again. Until now.

I held the letter under my nose, stupid I know, just to see
if there was a trace of you left on the paper. Then I held it to my chest and
allowed your presence to sink into me again. You were my inspiration, the
person I wanted to be. I’d never felt that kind of admiration about anyone
before. You brought everything alive and coaxed me out of my shell.

With no siblings and a small disjointed family, my only
proper relationships were with my parents and I’d always found them impossible
to talk to. It had never occurred to me to bare my deepest feelings to them.
You were different. I knew straight away the first time I spoke to you. All my
doubts and failings came tumbling out, because you made me feel so safe,
without any sting of judgement.

No one had ever offered that to me before. No one else ever
seemed to notice when something was wrong. I’d spent most of my life going it
alone, because I was awkward and shy and people didn’t know what to do with me.

I brought my hand to my mouth. It must be a mistake. You
must have mixed me up with someone else and posted the invitation to the wrong
person. That would explain it. This was too much to expect after almost six
years of silence; it was too big a deal. An invitation to spend fourteen days
together out of the blue, without any preamble? But then that was you, Karen –
always surprising people, keeping us all on our toes.

I heard the bread ping out of the toaster and hurried into
the kitchen. Batting away coils of smoke, I retrieved the end result – crispy
black, again. The setting button had fallen off the ancient Morphy Richards
weeks ago. I dropped the charred slice in the pedal pin.

I was late. I ducked into the fridge and snatched the bundle
wrapped in cling film. Mum still insisted on making tomato sandwiches for me
every day for work. Nothing else on the bread, just tomato – they were always
limp and soggy.

On the way back to the hall to grab my duffel coat, I passed
the school photo of me, with buck teeth and pigtails, that my parents insisted
on hanging on the door of the cupboard under the stairs.

I’d desperately wanted a sister when I was growing up,
someone to share my family’s idiosyncrasies, of which there were many. I
discovered how different we were from other families at around the age of six.
Crisps, biscuits, sweets, soft drinks, for example, were forbidden.
What’s wrong with fruit and water?
my father
used to say.

Mum never left the top button undone on her blouse, never
wore shorts, never went bare-legged or open-toed even around the house; there
were no low-necklines or miniskirts allowed. A female revealing flesh was seen
as vulgar and ‘asking for trouble’.

The subsequent labels I started to collect in school
reflected the indoctrination I was subjected to at home: ‘prude’, ‘religious
freak’, ‘holier than thou’, ‘goody-goody’, ‘old maid’. Being around other
people –Brownies, then Girl Guides, the church choir – became lonely and
hostile territories and I’d have given anything to have had an older sister
holding my hand.

I picked up my scarf and gloves, but didn’t go any further.
Hearing from you like this had shaken it all up again and instead of reaching
for the door, I stood still. Then I went back; thinking, remembering.

I never understood why you took a shine to me. You and I were
from different ends of the spectrum – you were way out of my league in every
respect. Bright, charismatic and larger than life – you got a first in Anatomy
and Human Biology (no surprises there) and I scraped through in English and
History (ditto, regarding the surprises).

You were the sort of girl whose eyelashes curled up into
long sexy sweeps without mascara, whose teeth were marble white without dental
intervention. You were slim, but had shapely curves whereas I was ‘skinny’ in a
way that made my bones stick out. If you were a Porsche, I was a clapped out
Morris Minor – with an emphasis on the ‘minor’.

I was always in awe of you. You seemed to know something
everyone else didn’t. I often wondered how you’d become like that – the one who
naturally stole all the attention in the room.

I went back into the sitting room for the letter. Reading it
again to the end, I was satisfied that it
was
intended for me; you’d actually got my birthday right – and you were hoping to
use the holiday as a way to mark the occasion. With me. I could barely believe
it. I checked inside the envelope expecting to discover the invite was some
kind of trick, but it was empty.

The last time I’d heard from you was through a postcard.
When was that? 2008? I couldn’t remember, but it was pressed inside my diary,
so I could find out. It said something like,
Hi
– just back from a trip to Venice with Roland. Leaving Bristol soon, will let
you know…

I never heard any more. Now, your letter was addressing me
like there’d been no gap at all, as if we were best friends again and you were
offering to pay (yes,
pay
– I hadn’t
spotted that at first) for a two-week break together in the mountains.
You could take photos
, you wrote, scoring
another point for remembering my favourite hobby.
Can’t wait to catch up. You must fill me in on
everything!
you’d added.

I hadn’t taken in the penultimate paragraph until then.
There was some very important news – how could I have missed it? You were a
mother
now. There was a baby girl! Nine months
old. Crikey. There was no mention of the father.

It sounded like you’d been through a rough time. Melanie had
been a very sick child; problems with her breathing. She was in a specialist
children’s hospital in Glasgow and was finally going to be coming out after
months of intensive care.

Hence the trip to Scotland. It made sense – you wanted to
celebrate, while also being close at hand for a time in case there were
complications. And you wanted
me
to be there. I shook my head, still
woolly with disbelief. You suggested we travel up together – all I had to do
was give you a call on the number you’d given.

I felt for my mobile in my pocket, then withdrew my hand.
I’d ring later. I didn’t want you to think my life was so thin that your letter
was the only thing on my mind. Then I remembered my new rules.

In the years since we met, I’d been putting into practice
all I’d learnt from you. I’d stopped trying to fit in, stopped going along with
things, hiding my real self. I’d been braver, standing up for myself more,
saying what I thought and being more – what’s the word they kept using in the
books? –
authentic
, that’s it. I’d been
trying to be more real. I’d had a terrible set-back lately, I would tell you
all about that, but I was still doing well.
Karen
– you’ll be proud of me
.

My new rules meant I was going to call you straight away and
let you know how thrilled and touched I was with your invitation.

By then, I knew I was definitely going to be late for work.
Mr Domano would cut my lunch break, but I didn’t care. I pulled out my phone
and dialled the mobile number you’d given. My shoulders fell when I reached
your voicemail. I hadn’t rehearsed anything and was about to end the call when
I remembered that the new me was meant to respond in the moment and be true to
herself.

I babbled something about how much I’d missed you and what a
treat it would be to catch up. It came out like a long, loud explosion, until I
finally got to the point. ‘anyway…yes…I’d love to spend—’ I was interrupted by
a shrill screech; the voicemail had run out of patience. Never mind, I’d try
later.

As soon as I got to work, I marched straight past the lift
and carried on along the corridor in search of an empty seminar room. Once
inside the small room at the end, I put my bag on the desk and delved inside
for the letter. I drew it out and pressed it to my cheek. You and I were good
friends, Karen, weren’t we? Good friends could do this – have long breaks then
pick up exactly where they’d left off.

With the vision of you fresh in my mind, I tried the number
again. It rang three times and then your voice broke through. As soon as you
spoke I felt the air warm up around me.

‘It’s Alice,’ I said. ‘Alice Flemming.’

‘I
know
who it is! I
just got your message. It’s brilliant to hear from you.’ Your voice was just as
I remembered it; sparkling and full of life. Your words seemed to flood into my
bloodstream like a hit of alcohol.

‘I’m sorry it’s been so long,’ you said. ‘My fault entirely.
Can you forgive me? I’ll tell you all about it. Still – you’re definitely
coming to the cottage in two weeks’ time? You like the idea?’

‘Absolutely. Sounds amazing.’

‘Not too short notice?’

‘No – I’m owed leave.’ There was so much to say, to ask
about. ‘You have a little girl – Melanie. How is she doing?’

‘Good. Really good. I can’t wait for you to meet her. We’ll
have a wonderful time, Alice. I’m so pleased you can come.’

We made arrangements to meet at King’s Cross and then you
said you were getting into your car and had to go.

 

The following week I had an email with an amendment
to the plan. Karen was now driving up to Scotland on her own, a day earlier, to
check in at the hospital and she suggested it would be better if I went up
under my own steam.

I’d already envisaged us sitting together on the fast train
from King’s Cross, spreading ourselves out across four seats, our table piled
high with crisps, cups of hot chocolate and magazines we didn’t read, because
we had so much to talk about. She would have told me how much she’d missed me
since those days we lived in the condemned house in our third year at Leeds. I
would have reminded her about the slugs that got into our bedrooms and
slithered across the carpet because of the faulty damp course. Joked about the
hole in the bathroom floor that gave a panoramic view of Randy-Andy’s bedroom
below. I would have made her laugh and she would have put her arm around me.

But that wasn’t to be. I was going up on my own.

I sent a tentative text saying I didn’t mind tagging along
to the hospital one bit, hoping she might change her mind, but the reply was
short and to the point.
It’s better this way
,
she wrote.
See you Saturday
. There was
an innocent ‘PS’ at the end after her name.
Hope
it’s okay if you do some of the cooking, as I’ll have my hands full with
Melanie
. It was followed by three ‘X’s – big kisses, her trademark.

I sent a reply saying I’d be delighted to help out and meant
it.

You and me, Karen – like it was meant to be. 

 

Only later, with the glaring beam of hindsight, did
I see how easy it was for me to be swept along. Everything on the surface
seemed perfect. All I could think of was that our bond hadn’t died after all;
it had just gone into hibernation for a while. Inside I was smiling and
couldn’t stop.
Just think – you chose me
!

 

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