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Authors: Lesley Thomson

The Runaway

BOOK: The Runaway
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The Runaway

About Lesley Thomson

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The Detective's Daughter
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Wednesday, 14 November 1973

Bang.

Stella crept to the door and cupped her ear to it. From the other side came a huff, then a sigh. She spun round and scanned the small bedroom as if looking for somewhere to hide.

At five feet, Stella was tall for her seven years, but surely wouldn't have been able to clamber through the hatch in the ceiling even standing on a chair. The single bed in the corner opposite the door had been stripped to the mattress. The Noddy duvet was packed with the rest of Stella's things. Had it been Stella's intention to hide she was out of luck. The doors to an oak wardrobe were open to reveal a lone hanger, bright blue and emblazoned with the words ‘Bo Peep' painted round some fluffy white shapes, presumably sheep. The wardrobe had been emptied, Stella's clothes stowed away in cases and boxes and driven off in a van a few minutes ago. Stella herself had packed her few toys and her Thomas the Tank Engine money box, filled with carefully saved pocket money, in a new pink suitcase that was waiting by the front door.

The blue hanger, given to Stella by her nana, was the only item in the room that offered a clue to the age and gender of the occupant. The salmon-pink walls were now bare and dotted with white Sellotape marks from where Stella's mum had pulled off her posters. These, rolled and fastened with an elastic band, had gone in the van and been crushed by a box of crockery. A patch of richer pink above a melamine shelf shadowed where Stella's books and dolls had been. Apart from the encyclopaedia, Stella hadn't read any of the books, which were a handful of Enid Blytons and a hardback of
Black Beauty
illustrated in colour. She didn't like made-up stories or giving tea parties for the dolls as if they were real.

Stella Darnell had learnt at an early age to face real life head on.

When her dad had suggested that she leave some clothes and toys behind for when she came for her ‘Access Weekends', her mum had shaken her head and said Stella could bring what she needed in the ‘ghastly pink suitcase'; it was better that she had all her familiar things around her in Barons Court.

Stella's dad had explained about Access Weekends. They would not be
every
weekend because of his work. His work, her mum had chipped in, was the cause of the Matrimonial Troubles.

Another huff. Stella marched over and snatched open the bedroom door. Immediately she was assailed by an orange and white spaniel. Tail thrashing, standing on hind legs, he pawed at her stomach and nosed at the bagging wool of her tights.

There were voices coming from along the landing.

‘You care more about your criminals than you do about your family. You don't deserve children.'

‘They're not my criminals. I do it for my family!'

Stella's lips worked silently. Her parents' arguments kept to strict tramlines, the words and phrases they flung at each other so well used that their daughter had learnt them. The thread of most quarrels was that Stella's dad being a policeman meant he was never at home.

The dog sat down at her feet, his head cocked.

Stella never took action without first assessing the situation. Now she deduced that the bang she had heard was their bedroom door slamming. She stayed in the shadow of her own bedroom doorway, watchful, hesitant.

That morning her mum had said that today was ‘special' and, although it was a Wednesday, she'd cooked up a ‘Sunday breakfast' with grilled tomatoes as a treat. Her dad had said that Stella didn't like tomatoes and that had started this particular argument. Stella could lose track of the beginnings and ends of their quarrels; they had joined up into one long argument. She would resort to clearing up, tidying already tidy rooms, straightening coasters, readjusting ornaments, hopeful that if everything was back in its place their discord would end and their Matrimonial Troubles would be over. For the Troubles to be over was Stella's goal and all that she did or said was with this plan in mind. Recently her parents had begun to appeal to Stella to take sides. Used to blanking out when they were arguing, she'd had to change her strategy and remain vigilant. She searched in vain for the right answer, too young to know there was no right answer.

Perhaps mindful of using their daughter as a pawn, Terry and Suzanne Darnell would launch a bid for her support indirectly. They would refer to Stella in the third person even though she was there.

‘Stella likes them now.' Her mum had tipped out a generous helping of tinned tomatoes from the slotted spoon to land beside Stella's bacon. Stella made a shying motion, affecting something between a ‘yes' and a ‘no' and a ‘thank you'.

The eggs, two sausages, bacon and the tomatoes were, like the day, special. It was rare for all three of them to sit down to eat together and something of a success for Stella's plan. Her mum kept saying how rare it was to eat as a family and this had made her dad cross.

‘Even when I'm here you complain! Nothing I can do is right.'

Heads bowed over the congealing breakfast, the Darnells presented a tableau of domestic anguish. Terry Darnell had remarked that today was far from special; it was nothing short of a tragedy. A word Stella didn't know, but that she presumed was funny, because they had both laughed. While not understanding the joke, she laughed too.

Stella Darnell was the only daughter of Detective Inspector Terry Darnell of the Metropolitan Police and his soon-to-be-estranged wife Suzanne, who had resigned as a secretary at Hammersmith Police Station where Terry was based. For nine years, the Darnells' marriage had see-sawed between on and off, until coming to rest at off. Their separation, Suzanne had decreed, would end in divorce. She had taken a
wrong turning
in her life and while there was time, still in her twenties, she would have a Fresh Start.

The Fresh Start was a rented flat in a mansion block near Barons Court Underground station, two and a half miles from the terraced house in Hammersmith where Stella had lived all her life. A house for which Terry Darnell, his voice carrying across the landing now, had ‘worked every hour God sends to buy for my family and all for
nothing
! You knew what I was when you married me. What was all that about being irresistible in uniform?'

‘Sshhh! Remember Stella!'

Her dad: ‘Do you think I could forget? No, don't answer that!'

Terry Darnell had offered to leave so that Stella could keep all her things together in her ‘real bedroom' and stay at her school with all her friends. Suzanne had said, ‘Stella will find her feet, it's a fresh start for her too.'

Stella pictured their jibes and scripted phrases – Fresh Start, Access Weekends, Wrong Turning, Every Hour God Sends – as carved on towering stone.

Picking at the tepid tomatoes, anxious to lighten the mood, she had piped up that she hadn't lost her feet so they didn't need finding. Neither of her parents had laughed.

An organized child, Stella never lost things, feet or otherwise, but was afraid that in a new bedroom in Barons Court she might not find anything, least of all herself. Stella never voiced or contemplated such fears; she took refuge in action. She had packed her things in the pink suitcase – she knew where
they
were.

Standing on the landing, listening to her parents arguing, she took stock. Nine dolls, the large stuffed giraffe that had stood by the wardrobe and from the desk a plastic Noah's ark with animals that she had arranged two by two, less for the biblical accuracy than for best use of the cramped desk. Last to go into the pink suitcase was Pooh Bear, given by Terry's mother to her granddaughter on the day Stella was born in 1966. Stella's beloved nana had died three years ago. Stella tried not to think about her because she had decided that girls didn't cry.

Her mother's voice was loud and clear from the bedroom.

‘Even when she was born you took three days to came to the hospital because you were working. Birthdays, anniversaries, where are you? You might as well live at Hammersmith Police Station!'

The nine dolls didn't have names; Stella had never brushed their stiff nylon hair or changed their outfits. Periodically, she stood on the bed and got them off the shelf. She gave them a wipe and replaced them in order of size, although there wasn't much in it. From their eyrie, the nine glassy-eyed faces observed Stella's stock-still vigil as, perched on her bed, Pooh on the duvet beside her, she would wait for the words and phrases to stop so she could venture out. Only because her mum and dad's bedroom door was shut did she now go as far as the top of the stairs.

Thin sunlight seeped through frosted panes in the front door, spilling across the beige stair carpet. The carpet was spotless: Stella had cleaned it after the breakfast that no one had eaten. Lugging out the vacuum from the under-stairs cupboard, she had lifted the heavy machine on to each step and, using the nozzle, had made sure every speck was gone. Stella held to the belief that if she got everything clean – a Fresh Start – there would be no need for Access Weekends or Sunday breakfasts on Wednesday. Everything would be in its proper place.

Her mum had found her doing the kitchen floor and, perhaps appalled to see her little girl – like a modern-day Cinderella – struggling with a squeegee mop and bucket, had told her off for cleaning in her best dress. Terry Darnell, arms folded, had reminded her mum that if Stella kept some clothes in the wardrobe, she could change.

Neither of them resisted the ‘I told you so' line.

It was a rational conclusion for Stella, considering how she was often the subject of a quarrel, that she should hold herself responsible for their arguments. If she was not there, she decided now, perhaps they would like each other.

‘There's no harm in talking it over,' her dad was saying. ‘It's never too late.'

‘It was too late a long time ago.'

Their bedroom doorknob rattled. Someone was coming out. Jamming her fingers in her ears, Stella hurtled downstairs, two, three at a time. The dog kept pace and gained the hall a fraction of a second before her.

The pink suitcase was still by the front door. To the little girl it looked pinker than ever. Her dad had brought it home as a present for her last week.

‘She hates pink!'

‘No, she doesn't. Why do you think her bedroom walls are pink if she doesn't like it?' Terry Darnell had stood by the front door, holding the little pink case, as if he was going away and not Stella.

‘Why indeed? Because you went ahead with the surprise painting without asking her, that's why!' Her mum shook her head. ‘Pink for a girl and blue for a boy, was that your idea?'

‘Don't, Suzie.'

‘You bought it for the daughter you wanted, not the one you got.'

BOOK: The Runaway
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