Humanity – chapter two
Slamming off the shrieking alarm, Bea rolled over and pulled the bedclothes back up over her head. A tuft of her dark hair showed against the pale sheet. Ten more minutes? Please? But no. Guilt told her she had to get up. Now! Okay then. Eye exercises. Open, left. Close. Open, right. Close. Now, concentrate! Open both. Don’t worry. Try it again. C’mon body, she groaned, time to start another day. Open, both. It worked! It’s a miracle!
‘It’s alive!’ moaned Bea to herself, zombie-style.
A cautious, groaning stretch of arms, legs, stretch that spine, tote that barge, fill that pail, something like that. Okay, now the acid test. She rolled into an upright position. ‘It’s official,’ Bea declared to herself, ‘I’m UP!’ And she sat on the edge of the bed and yawned.
The door burst open. A small figure, pajama-clad and tousled, wandered in, three teddies under one arm, a furry toy dog with only one ear, Malibu Barbie and Cinderella Barbie under the other. The small person stumped into the room and plonked down on the bed. Hard.
Bea knew exactly what was coming next. After all, it was Monday. Therefore gym. Therefore Travis Peters and Matthew Warren. Therefore…
‘Mummy, I don’t feel well. I don’t want to go to school today.’
Bea scooped the little one onto her lap. Gave her a cuddle. A kiss on the top of the head. ‘I know, sweetheart. Because it’s Monday, which means gym which means Travis and…’
‘No. I like gym,’ the child fibbed like the natural expert she was, snuggled against her mum’s neck. ‘I do,’ she protested, catching the doubtful look in Bea’s eye. ‘But I don’t feel well. Really truly. I’m hot!’ she announced, and as if to clinch the matter, peeled back her fringe, inviting Bea’s confirming touch.
Bea kissed the delectable but normal temperature forehead, the luscious cheeks, tickled the munchable tummy, swatted the smallest, cutest butt in the world and chased the pj-clad five-year-old downstairs to the kitchen for breakfast, stopping on the way to peek round another door and gently to remind the form still skulking under the covers that it was time to get up, even if it was Monday, and in any case the maths test would be a breeze. She got a grunt in reply.
It didn’t matter, that’s what teenagers do, Bea reminded herself. She’d done it. And she’d never stopped loving her mother. Just, it wasn’t always easy. But today everything would be fine. Life is good, Bea told herself, and even Mondays could not be all bad. She continued downstairs feeling cheerful.
But once she reached the kitchen, at some point she couldn’t quite pinpoint, things changed and she became aware of a growing sense of unease.
Olivia chattered happily through her Coco Pops, little legs swinging under the table, one of the other chairs occupied by her ‘family’ of Barbies, Teddies and Dog.
Shaking off the strange sensation, and going across to fill and boil the kettle for her coffee, running on autopilot, Bea picked up the tiny piece of white paper from the floor and crinkled it into the under-sink trash can.
‘Gauze dressing,’ she said to herself a second later as the water dribbled into the kettle. She plucked the complaining cat off the drainer and placed him on the floor. Gauze dressing. She switched on the kettle. Gauze dressing? She got a mug out of the cupboard, kissed hello to her eldest daughter, Grace, and mopped up the brownish smudges on the counter top. She plucked the complaining cat off the drainer and placed him on the floor.
Rinsing the cloth under the cold tap. The water, with a brown tinge, ran down the plughole as Bea began a ‘Yes, you are,’ response to Olivia’s repeated chant of ‘I’m not going to school, I’m not going to school,’ and said, yes, Grace could go to the cinema on Friday evening with Lauren and Magda. And she plucked the complaining cat off the drainer and placed him onto the floor.
She frowned at the water in the sink. Looked at the cloth. It was a new one. So why wasn’t it clean? Looked in the rubbish bin. The backing paper from some sticking plaster. Gauze wrapper. Something. Something on the cloth, on the counter top. Something odd going on. She felt bewildered.
‘Grace, did you cut yourself or something?’ She asked as she mashed cat meat into a fresh dish. She narrowly avoided falling over the idiotic fleabag as he hindered her progress, weaving in and out of her feet as she went to put the dish in the customary place.
‘No. So anyway, I said to Ashley, just get a life you sorry little creep, and he said, well I won’t tell you what he said, but anyway things went downhill from there, so that’s why I’m not exactly excited about going in today…’
‘I’m sure everything will work out,’ Bea said automatically. ‘Olivia, did you cut yourself at all, and put on a plaster or something?’
‘No, Mummy. My head hurts. I don’t want to go to school today.’
‘Honey, you’ll be fine. You just need to stop worrying about Travis and…’
Well if they said they hadn’t, then they hadn’t. Bea was still perplexed. Hastily she combed Olivia’s hair and pushed packed lunches into the schoolbags of both her children.
And then it was time to go. Olivia kissed the cat goodbye, smudging toothpaste froth from her top lip onto his left ear. He didn’t mind. He had the cleanest ears this side of London.
Even as she drove, half Bea’s mind was on the image of the brownish water whirling down the drain, seeing again her own hand as she mopped up the smudge, like watching an old black and white movie, herself standing at the sink, rinsing the dishcloth, cue a close-up of the brown-tinged water spiraling away. What was that?
She kissed them goodbye at their respective venues. Negotiated traffic. Must remember to wash and dry her uniform ready for the first night-shift of the week. And in her mind an image of a tiny piece of white and red paper. A brownish stain on the worktop.
Arrived back at home. Opened car door. Got out. Closed door and lock. Leave car out of garage. Into house. Now. She halted and looked around her. There was something odd going on. What was it? Went to check in kitchen.
But everything looked fine, looked normal. Except she had seen what was in the rubbish bin, the bit off the back of a plaster. Remembered wiping up the brown smudge. Blood. It was blood, of course. Women know blood. They see so much of it. And nurses more than most.
She checked the first aid kit, to see just what was missing.
It was all wrong. Bea stopped right inside the laundry room door and shook her head. Confused. It had been a very long time since she’d seen that.
The toilet seat was up. Peeking in, she saw the water was yellow. Automatically she put down the seat and the lid, and flushed the toilet, then she turned away. Still thinking. Opened the cabinet and reached down the first aid kit.
Couldn’t miss seeing the brownish blood smudges on the white plastic cover of the box. More blood.
Bea leaned back against the washing machine, thinking for a moment. Then suddenly remembering, she dragged Grace’s wet laundry out of the washer and shoved it into the dryer, tossing in a woven fabric conditioning-sheet after it. Slammed the door shut and pressed the on button. Shoved three uniforms and some underwear into the washer. Tossed in a washing powder cube and slammed shut. Pressed on.
Leaned back against the throbbing washer again. Puzzled. She looked at the first aid kit again. She opened it again and looked inside. A few things were missing—as expected. She frowned into space. Her eyes gazed blankly at the wall opposite as she puzzled it over. At first she didn’t see it.
Then. Oh my God! And then she was across there, examining the huge bloody smudge on the tiling on the wall. It was blood all right. Still red in places. A man had bled all over the wall as he’d leaned against her bathroom wall to pee into her loo and not flushed or replaced the seat (the Rat!). He’d used her first aid kit to patch himself up—bled all over that, too.
But when? It could only be—it had to be some time after she’d gone to bed at around eleven o’clock the previous night, but before she got up at seven o’clock this morning.
Who was he? Couldn’t be Paul. Ex-husbands don’t sneak in or out without leaving a whole lot more mess, emotional trauma and a large pile of laundry. Anyway, Paul hadn’t been anywhere near her for four blissful years now. Couldn’t be Grace’s kind-of boyfriend, Jackson. Grace had been perfectly relaxed and normal this morning—if she’d sneaked a boy into the house, Bea would have expected more tension and a damn good cover story. And that didn’t explain the blood, Grace always freaked out at the sight of the merest spot of blood. So who was he?
The house suddenly seemed too still, too silent, as if it held its breath, watching, waiting. The air was thick with complicity. The house itself felt guilty as hell. And then Bea knew.
He was still here.
She just knew it. She felt the goosebumps prickle up on her forearms.
She supposed she should call the police, she knew that she should. But she didn’t know for sure there was an intruder in her house, hadn’t actually seen or heard anyone. But deep inside, she felt someone else was here in the house with her.
He wasn’t in the sitting room. She was sure of that. He wasn’t in the dining room, the kitchen, or the laundry room. She was sure he wasn’t outside. He was in the house. Right now. In the house. With her. Had to be—upstairs.
But she wasn’t going up there alone. As back-up, Bea took the wooden rolling-pin from the same kitchen drawer as her first weapon of choice, the bread knife. Praying she didn’t have to use either, praying neither one was turned back on her, praying she was wrong, crazy-wrong, would be laughing at her own stupidity and wild imaginings any second now, she walked to the stairs and began her ascension.
Not for the first time she was glad the previous occupants had paid out a huge sum of money for the fat carpeting on the stairs and landing. Her approach was virtually silent. Nothing creaked.
She reached the top of the stairs, paused to listen and to decide which room to try first. She listened. She held her breath, her lungs aching with the fear of it. Then she heard it. Soft snoring. Coming from the direction of her own bedroom.
Rage swept through her, driving out fear. How dared he? What the hell was this, a cheap hotel? Bleeding on my walls, using my medical supplies, leaving my toilet seat up! Bastard!
She marched straight across to the door, flung it wide open, caution cowering on the landing way behind her. She blinked in surprise at the cat—her cat!—sprawled across the legs of the sleeping form. You traitor, George!
In spite of her expectations she still felt a jolt of shock when she saw the undulating form under the duvet, on her side of the bed, the blond hair sprouting on the pillow all that was visible. Blond. Not Paul then. Not that she’d thought it would be. But he was the only man who’d ever shared her bed, the only man who could even remotely possibly have a key to her house. No. This was Someone Else. A MAN.