She placed her hands on the glass window. A fragile mist formed around where her palms lay. Removing her fingers she looked at the shape created there then beyond to where, outside on the grey paved area, a prison guard looked back. The guard waved at her but she just turned away; unsmiling with a careworn frown upon her forehead. She was a woman of sixty-eight. Short, but still trim, with pretty features. Her fading blonde hair was trimmed into a neat bob. She wore no makeup. Outside a feeble sun reflected off of the puddles that gathered like riddles on the grim concrete.
There was a clock on the wall of the room she stood in. The clock said thirteen twenty-two. She was unused to seeing clocks on walls and the sight sent a quiver of fear down her spine. She shrugged her shoulders then again looked at the yard. Still no sign of what she was waiting, expectantly, to see. A deep sigh escaped her lips so she walked over to where a vending machine swallowed two forty pence pieces before spitting out bitter coffee. Picking the coffee up, she sat down on the tired, indistinct sofa nursing the plastic cup in her hand. During her time in the prison, she had caught the nicotine habit but didn’t have the money to buy cigarettes so she sat fidgeting, her fingers forming curious shapes.
The coffee grew cold and remained where she had placed it on the table in front of her. She rose from the sofa, her nerves getting the better of her and walked back to the window. Windows like this seemed odd somehow. Their very size was unusual. Again the outside provided no comfort. The thing she yearned to see was not there. From behind her, a shuffle of shoes alerted her to another presence in the room. A tall, impressive man, stood looking at her. He was smartly dressed in a grey pinstripe suit. He wore a tie of blue that was knotted into a Windsor. His shoes reflected the room’s lights.
“Hello, Anne, Your big day today. You must be feeling both excited and a little nervous.”
“I am a bit. My son is meant to be meeting me but he’s not here yet. I thought he would be by now. He said he’d be here by one o’clock and there’s no sign of him.”
“Could be caught in traffic; I wouldn’t worry too much. He’ll be here soon enough.”
She seemed to him to be very on edge. Often prisoners when leaving confinement after a long period demonstrate signs of agitation which is often caused by having been away from society for so long. Anne had served seven of her ten years: a relatively short period of incarceration. Whatever it was that was causing this anxiety it wasn’t the thought of the unknown. Perhaps the whole business of seeing her son as a free woman after so long was upsetting her.
“Your son is pretty reliable, isn’t he? I don’t think he has missed one visit in all the time you have been here has he?”
“Just once when my sister was taken ill; Martin stayed with her until she felt better”
The man nodded. He had forgotten the sister, Suzi; she too had been a regular visitor. Suzi was younger than Anne by some nine years. Not as pretty as Anne, a little more frumpy, dowdy even but a constant comfort to Anne during this the hardest time of her life. Anne had been found guilty of manslaughter. The original charge of murder had been dropped for one of manslaughter and Anne had pleaded guilty. The victim had been a friend of Anne’s, Barbara Thompson. According to Anne, they had argued over money owed to Anne. The argument had gotten out of hand and had turned to violence. Anne’s son had reported the incident to the police and when they arrived at the scene of the crime they had been surprised at how calm and collected Anne had been. Even after thorough, exhaustive questioning, she did not appear to be emotionally involved at all. This had given cause to the suspicion that she had in fact deliberately killed her friend as normally there are signs of grief, remorse even but not with Anne; she seemed remote or, as one policewoman put it ‘detached from it all, as if she hadn’t been there at all but had been watching it all from afar.’
“You have a close family Anne?”
“We take care of each other.”
“Would you like another coffee? You didn’t drink the last one you know.”
“I don’t really like coffee; more of a cuppa person to be honest and the tea out of those machines tastes like shit. Thanks for asking, though.”
“Would you like a cigarette?”
“I didn’t think you smoked?”
“I don’t but I always keep a packet spare for times like these.”
She took one of the offered cigarettes and placed it between her lips, tilting her head slightly to one side as he lit it for her. She took a deep lungful of smoke before exhaling. Then she waved her hands in front of her so as to keep the smoke away from him.
“Filthy habit; wish I’d never taken it up.”
“Why did you?”
“Boredom mostly; there is so little to do in here at times. I mean there is only so much reading you can do and I was never one for exercising.”
“There are many other things you could have done; the prison offers a multitude of courses. You could have learnt Spanish or French; studied for a degree in the subject of your choice.”
“I never have been on holiday abroad, certainly not to France nor Spain so what’s the point of learning a language you ain’t going to use? As for getting a degree at my time of life; why? I’m a housewife; have been ever since Bernard died. That and being a mother was all the qualifications I had or needed.”
He shrugged his shoulders. She was indisputably intelligent but like so many women of her age, she only saw herself as a stereotype. He went over to the vending machine and got himself a hot chocolate. When he came back she was still waiting by the window.
“They say that a watched pot never boils you know.”
“They say lots of daft things but it don't mean we have to believe them.”
She smiled at him as if knowing she was being prickly and was now trying to placate him.
“Your son is the only child you had.”
It was a statement, not a question. He had read her file and knew her life history almost as well as she did. Married in the sixties when she was only nineteen to a man fifteen years older than her to whom she bore the one son, Martin. The boy was born in nineteen sixty-five. They had moved from Plaistow to Hornchurch in the early seventies. Bernard had worked for Fords at their Dagenham plant. The early years had been hard with money too tight to mention but eventually, after promotion, life got a little easier for them all. They were a steady couple who never aspired to anything more than the routine that factory work gave them; routine perhaps but also security. Bernard had died of lung cancer some seventeen years before the manslaughter and had left Anne to fend for herself. Her son, Martin, had never left home and didn’t appear to want to. Now in his mid-forties, the likelihood of him moving out must be remote.
“Yeah, just Martin; we spoilt him rotten, me and Bernie. Still, what’s the harm? You only live once don’t you?”
“Is that not your son down there by the gate?”
The look of doubt fled her face to be replaced by one of sublime joy. “I knew he’d be here.”
“Hornchurch isn’t far; you’ll be home in no time at all. I remember your address well enough but have forgotten your house number. What is it?”
“Forty-two; right next door to Jim Baines in number forty-four.”
Jim Baines had lived in the same house for more than forty years. He had lived there long before Bernard and Anne had moved in as neighbours. He remembered Martin growing up; remembered giving the lad a Crunchie bar every Friday night after he came home from the pub. As regular as clockwork he would go into the garden where Martin would be waiting. Then he would pass the confectionery over the fence. He would watch as Martin tore away the foil revealing the milk chocolate within. Then Martin would place the bar into his mouth wrapping his lips around the shaft. They would stand face to face staring at each other until Martin had eaten every last bit and then Jim Baines would say his goodbyes adding that he would see him again next week.
He often saw the boy during the week but never to talk to. He would observe him as he went to school on the second-hand bike his Dad had purchased. Then again as he came home. The boy used to belong to the local Boys Brigade and could be heard practising the bugle; not that Jim minded as he fondly believed every boy should have a hobby.
The shed was Jim’s hobby. It was in his shed that Jim would work late into the night. Whilst others watched television with its endless repeats or reality game shows, Jim would carve his figurines. Not figurines really, more a series of faces with features that existed only in his imagination. With his tools, he was able to realise those dream faces until their completion when he would place them, alongside all the others upon the shelves within his shed. If he was lonely, something he would vehemently deny, then all thoughts of being so disappeared when he carved.
His fingers followed his imagination into strange realms where supple boys gambolled naked over verdant green lawns and through musty woodlands. Over the years his collection had grown in size; so much so that he had been forced to take many of the figurines faces inside his house where he stored them up in his loft hidden beneath decorating sheets. There amid the cobwebs and bric-a-brac the faces stayed: watchmen of a widowed man. His inspirations for these artefacts owed not only a debt to Jim’s creative imagination but also to his wry talent as an observer. Certain nuances of the feature had been captured having carefully observed people passing his house.
He had a pair of binoculars that he used for that very purpose. The binoculars allowed him to get close while not being noticed. Not a bad thing when you thought about it unless you were in the bathroom at the time or with your husband in the privacy of your bedroom.
He remembered one occasion when he had watched, late at night, Emma Thorn, who lived at the estate that backed onto his, masturbating in her bedroom. The thought of it still affected him; so much so that he placed the tool he was carving the boys face with, down on his bench. He thought of the boys; their comfort and joy. He thought of Martin, his young lips wrapped around the confectionary.
Baines undid his belt buckle. The sound of his trousers falling to the floor was a hushed whisper, a hiss of fabric.
The drive down the A12 was unremarkable. Little had changed. It wasn’t until they turned left toward the town, passing Gants Hill (Snobs Ville) as Bernie used to call it, that she saw that the Dolphin had gone to be replaced by an Asda supermarket.
“They’ve got rid of the pool.”
He didn’t turn his head, his sandy-haired now balding head, he just grunted a reply.
“Did that years ago.”
“I liked the Dolphin. It had memories.”
Memories. Yes, it did. He recalled them as well as she did.
“Mum, we need to talk.”
He flicked the indicator on then turned the wheel taking them left.
“You were away a long time. Things changed. I changed. We can’t do, we can’t be like that anymore.”
She snorted pulling the cigarette box from her purse the warden had given her. She struggled to find the lighter.
“Like what? Can't-do what?”
Her hand was shaking as she lit the cigarette.
“I’ve been a bloody good mum to you. No other mum would have stood your nonsense. No other mum would have done what I done for you.”
He sighed running the palm of his hand over his face.
“I know that mum.”
She took a deep drag from the cigarette holding the smoke a long while in her lungs before exhaling hard.
“I was born in Bow. Times were hard. I wanted for a lot. Never got half of it neither. You never wanted for nothing, nothing. Not a fucking thing.”
The car went around a curve in the road. To their left was a group of shops. One had the name ‘Jasmine’ above its door.
“We can’t do what we used to anymore, mum.”
“Why not? Seven years it’s been. That’s a bloody long time.”
“I appreciate that. I’m grateful for what you did but that doesn’t alter the facts. Things have to change. We can’t go on as we were.”
Anne wound the window down tossing the cigarette away.
“Seven years of my life for something I never done. That must count for something?”
Baines cleaned the marks from the floor. He needed the lavatory. He also wanted a strong coffee. Both of which could only be found inside. His cabin hadn’t been equipped with such facilities, a thing he deeply regretted. As he looked out the smeared glass to where his backdoor stood ajar he spotted the woman. It was Anne’s sister, Suzi, in the neighbouring window.
Of course, he knew what went on next doors. Binoculars may be focused on passing youth; they could also observe acts seen through net curtains. They were a very close family. She, Suzi, appeared to be cleaning. Perhaps it was in preparation for Anne’s homecoming. The local papers had been full of it. Notorious ‘man killer’ released after having only served seven years. He smiled to himself. If only they knew the truth. He knew the truth.
He helped her with her luggage, the one suitcase and two plastic bags she had. Leaving her to open the car door he walked down the short drive to the front door. Suzi opened it and upon seeing her sister threw her arms around Anne's neck.
"Good to see you, Annie. Welcome home."
"What you doing here. Thought you'd be with Brian?"
"It's over. Besides, I thought I'd give the house a clean. You know what men are like. Don't clean nothing proper."
Anne nodded watching her son take the luggage indoors, placing it by the stairs. The house looked much as it had the day she had been arrested. Same wallpaper. Same fittings and furniture. She looked at Suzi. She looked different. She was the one thing that had changed in all that time. Her appearance was less frumpy now, in fact, she looked positively fresh.
Suzi had always been subservient to Anne. Her character was amiable, too amiable, a little weak perhaps. In light of Anne's strength of will, Suzi had played second fiddle doing as instructed, forever following Anne's lead. Since Anne's incarceration, she had found more confidence, especially when Brian had left. She had no alternative than to make choices of her own. To stand alone as it were rather than defer to a stronger personality than hers.
"Cuppa tea Anne?" asked Suzi acting for all the world as if she was the house owner and Anne the guest.
"Go on then. I don't take sugar no more."
"Sweet enough eh?"
"Something like that."
Anne looked about her. The Lladro sculptures, those that Bernard had given her, twelve in total, were all removed from the mantle.
"Where's my Lladro's?"
"I sold them, mum."
The colour drained from Anne's face. At first, it appeared she was about to weep but then hurt turned to anger.
"Your dad bought them for me. It's all I had of him. What were you thinking? Not me that's for sure.!"
"We needed the money."
"Needed the money my arse. What about the insurance. There was enough of that to cover all eventualities."
"Don't mum me. What is it with you and 'mum?' You say it all the time. Makes you sound a proper whinger."
Martin looked to Suzi, shrugged his shoulders, then turned to leave.
"Don't you walk away from me, don't you dare walk away. Where's my fucking Lladro's?"
Martin ran his palm over his cropped hair, licked his lips with the edge of his tongue.
"I told you, we needed the money."
Anne threw her head back and laughed. It was an ugly sound. Like pebbles on a corrugated roof, a jangle of noise unnatural and false.
"We, is it? We, eh? Just who is this 'we' then eh? Not me and you. That's what it used to be. Me and you. I did everything for you, for my son. I even gave myself to you. So just who is this 'we' then?"
Sensing the tension building Suzi left the room weeping, a hankie pressed against her eyes. She'd never liked scenes. Certainly not the ones that involved Anne.
“All you thought of was yourself. You saw the figurines and they served an immediate purpose. You needed money. You didn’t think. You never do.”
Suzi returned to the room wearing a raincoat that had seen better days and pushing a suitcase.
"I'll be off. I only came over to help, to make sure the house looked nice for your return."
She spun on her heels dragging the suitcase behind her before leaving the house.
Anne watched her go. Neither she nor Martin said a word. They stared in silence as Suzi walked away.
"What's with all this with you?' You only served seven. Let off on parole for good behaviour. It could have been twenty."
Anne scowled at him. "Seven maybe but what about all time spent in police custody, all those hours having my mind examined by some analyst. The toing and froing from one psychoanalyst to another. They kept asking me over and over why I had killed Barbara. What motivated me? What had my neighbour and dear friend ever done to deserve being killed? I couldn't answer that, could I? They thought I was crazy. They said I was Non-compos-mentis. I could hardly tell them the truth. As for you, you were more ashamed of what we'd done, more afraid of that revelation being common news than face the consequences."
Martin turned on his heel. "I'm going out. I'll be back when you've calmed down."
Baines had showered. After, he had taken his laundry and shoved the load in the washing machine. All through that time, he had heard the row from next door. Even though the houses were semi-detached with solid walls raised voices travelled.
Baines had dressed selecting his usual beige array of clothes. As he pulled on the various items he had heard Anne and her son shouting at each other. Then came a silence; an unnatural quiet followed by a door slamming. Then a silence so deep, so encompassing you could have heard a pin drop.
He stood by his bedroom window, net curtains discreetly held back. He'd watched as Martin had driven away. Dear Martin. Compliant Martin. Off to goodness knows where. Just to get out of the house no doubt.
The Fatling had long been Martin's pub of choice. Years ago it had been the Bridge House but that had been developed. Developed into what you might ask? Certainly not a pub. At least The Fatling had the appearance of a pub, especially from the outside.
He saw the bar was pretty empty, a sign of the times he thought, so he wandered up to where a young girl was serving.
"Pint, please. Anything will do except larger."
The girl smiled. She was a pretty thing. Blonde, buxom and happy to reveal her cleavage. She struck Martin as being a bit of a stereotype. She pulled the pint, placed it on the brass tray then held her hand out.
"Two ninety-five please," she said. He noticed she had a large gap between her front teeth. That would put anyone off.
"Cheers!" he said taking a sip from the glass. As he did he became aware of someone by his side. He turned his head. "Hello Baines," he said.
"Martin, what a coincidence. You in the pub just as I felt like having a swift half myself. How's your mum? I see she's home. Been a while hasn't it? What is it now, ten years?"
Martin ignored the man. All his life, especially during his childhood, Baines had been the object of fear. He was a creepy man, furtive, predatory, always offering kids chocolate. Martin had never accepted anything from him in case Baines turned out to be another Brady.
Baines moved closer. His shoulder nestling against Martin's. He leant his head close to Martin's ear and whispered into it.
"The trouble with being a nosey cunt like me is that you get to know all that's going on, everything in fact. You see, it comes from having quality binoculars coupled with good hearing. I always liked your mum. Struck me as being the sort of mum who'd do anything for her son and when I say anything I mean, anything."
He smiled. He had broken teeth, yellowing and imperfect.
"Perhaps you'd like to see me later in my shed? Just a for chat like?"
Martin drank the remains of his pint, waited five minutes and then left.
The moment Martin entered the house his mother knew something was awry. She greeted him with a smile intending to apologise for her earlier outburst. In truth, she couldn't stand an atmosphere. Martin looked shaken, nervous as though something had deeply disturbed him. His face was colourless, taut lines etched around his eyes and about his mouth. His eyes glazed as if in a state of shock, of horror at some unseen sight witnessed.
"Baines. I did for him. He’d been watching for years. He knew everything.”
Anne gasped, throwing her hands to her mouth, her eyes blinking. She looked as dazed as her son. Seeing him standing there his shoulders slumped, she wrapped her arms around him. He'd always been a weak boy, not physically weak but unable to make the easiest of choices. Even as a little boy she had to clean up after him.
"I’ll sort it. Leave it to me"
"Do as I tell you, phone the police. Tell 'em Baines is dead. Don’t say no more than that. Just Baines is dead"
The clock on the mantle held their breath within its rhythmic ticking. The passage of time seemed frozen in the moment. Neither of them moved. Caught in the stasis of indecision. He gazed at her. Looking deep into her eyes as though a clue to her meaning, a sign of what she was contemplating could be seen there.
"Don't give me none of that whinging 'mum' nonsense. I’ll sort this. Where’s Baines?”
"Next door, in his shed."
"Right. I’m going over there. You phone the old bill."
Anne was breathing hard now, almost panting. Martin remained still, staring at her as if lost for what to do.
"Go on!" She screamed.
"Go on!" She screamed.
"But mum, what about you?"
"Me? I’m your mum. It's what mum’s do."