Authors: Sarah Painter
Iris had been in love once, but it was so long ago that it felt as if it had happened to a different person. She had been just a girl at the time, so in a way that was true. Her gift for giving people what they needed had saved her from a very bad marriage but, at the time, it hadn’t felt entirely as if she’d been saved. It was too long ago; she couldn’t recall the feelings of love, only remember that she’d had them. A dried-out memory, like a flower pressed between the pages of a book.
Across town, Bex Adams was crouching next to the peach toilet bowl in her employer’s en-suite attempting to coax a nervous pee-er. ‘Come on, sweetheart, do your wee. It’s okay.’
This was not how my life was supposed turn out.
She squashed the disloyal thought, feeling guilty. She was lucky to have this job. Lucky to have any job.
Mrs Farrier’s middle child, the three-year-old blonde moppet, Carly, shook her head. Her eyes were squeezed shut and she was shaking with the effort of holding herself suspended over the toilet seat.
‘It’s okay, just relax. Relax, sweetie.’ Bex could hear the strain in her own voice and wasn’t in the slightest bit surprised when Carly cracked open one eye and shook her head furiously.
‘How about a deal? If you do a wee on the loo, we can play Incy Wincy Spider.’
Carly was shaking her head before the sentence was out of Bex’s mouth. Carly was nobody’s fool. She tried again: ‘We can play the game and have ice cream.’
‘In a cone.’
More head shaking.
Bex pulled out all the stops. ‘With toffee sauce.’ Carly still wasn’t peeing, but she wasn’t shaking her head, either. A frown of concentration appeared across her soft baby features. Finally, she opened both eyes and looked at Bex with such an expression of anguish that it stabbed Bex straight through the heart. God only knew how she would manage if she ever had kids of her own.
‘I can’t,’ Carly whispered. ‘Need my nappy.’
Looking at the tense little girl, Bex had a sudden flash of inspiration. ‘Okay, forget about the wee. Just sit for a moment. Have a rest.’
She shuffled forward and wrapped her arms around Carly, giving her a cuddle. ‘Good try, honey. Well done. You’re such a big, brave girl.’ She felt Carly’s exhausted arms relax and the child’s body settling, very lightly, on the seat. She kissed the top of her head and held the position for a moment, her knees sore on the hard tile of the bathroom floor. ‘I know,’ Bex said, as if the idea had just occurred to her. ‘Let’s play blowing bubbles.’ She pulled back slightly and made sure Carly was watching. Then she mimed unscrewing the lid on a bottle of bubble mixture, dipping the wand and holding it out.
Carly’s eyes widened in understanding and she grinned. Bex blew through the imaginary wand and mimed watching the bubbles float around the bathroom.
‘My turn!’ Carly said.
‘Okay.’ Bex repeated the mime and, as Carly blew with all her might into the imaginary wand, her cheeks puffing out with the effort, Bex heard the welcome sound of liquid hitting the water in the bowl.
A crash from downstairs launched Bex from the bathroom. Her legs had cramped from being crouched on the floor for so long, so she half hobbled down the stairs calling to her older charge, Tarquin. ‘Are you okay?’
No screams of pain. That was good. She rounded the corner from the living room to the family-size kitchen diner. Her ironing basket, which had previously been piled neatly with freshly pressed clothes, was upside down on top of the island. The clothes were heaped on the tiled floor, a pair of Mr Farrier’s navy chinos was draped over the extractor fan and a bed sheet was stretched between the stools from the breakfast bar. Bex frowned at the mess, looking for the cause of the noise. It had been a crashing, a breaking –
The phone rang shrilly and she snatched it up. ‘Yes?’
‘Rebecca.’ The cold tones of Mrs Farrier stopped Bex in her tracks. ‘I just wanted to check that you had remembered to get extra chicken for tonight.’
Bex wanted to say ‘Of course I bloody have’, as she hadn’t – not once – forgotten an instruction from Mrs Farrier or, as far as she was aware, let her down in any way, shape or form. It didn’t stop Mrs Farrier from treating her like an incompetent skivvy, however. Instead she followed her own personal mantra of ‘kill them with kindness’ and made her voice especially warm and bright: ‘It’s all in hand.’
‘Good.’ The tone was incrementally warmer and Bex chalked it up as a success. She was bloody likeable. She would wear down Mrs Farrier, break through that chilly exterior. Eventually.
Mrs Farrier ran through the rest of the day’s tasks, as if they weren’t already written on the daily sheet attached to the fridge, and she hadn’t already gone through them verbally the night before. Bex took the opportunity to sidle past the clothing mountain and peer into the utility room. It was empty.
Bex stalked into the big larder cupboard, throwing open the door to surprise the pint-sized fugitive. It was empty. ‘You can run, but you cannot escape,’ she muttered.
‘Sorry, Mrs Farrier. If that’s everything, I’d better –’
‘Don’t forget Mr Farrier’s cufflinks. He wants the gold ones for tonight.’
‘Right-o,’ Bex said. She had spotted a pair of Converse boots sticking out from behind the open kitchen door. ‘Have a good day!’
Bex ended the call and crept forward, planting hands on ankles and yelling ‘Tarquin!’ The boy’s legs convulsed as if electrocuted and the rest of him appeared, looking somewhat pinker than usual.
Bex had corralled the laundry back to the basket, given Tarquin a firm talking to, and removed most of the pen marks from the wall. There were still a couple of red lines, though, and Mrs Farrier was going to hit the roof. Bex knew it wouldn’t be Tarquin who bore the brunt. The kids were still sweet, the rebellions small and appropriately childlike, but it couldn’t last for ever. Tarc was twelve next birthday and already the same height as her. Things couldn’t go on with this lack of control. It wasn’t in anyone’s best interests, as Bex knew better than anyone. Her mum and dad had been too busy falling out of love to take a firm line with Bex when she had been Tarquin’s age, and look how that had turned out.
She knew she ought to speak to the Farriers about Tarc, but that would involve a sit-down meeting with both Mr and Mrs Farrier and Bex preferred to avoid Mr Farrier as much as possible. Especially after –
‘Ex?’ Carly was in the doorway, naked from the waist down. ‘Had an accident.’
Bex shoved her worries to one side. ‘No worries, kiddo. Let’s get you some new clothes.’
Later, Bex put the laundry away in the bedrooms and went to locate Mr Farrier’s cufflinks. He didn’t usually wear shirts which needed them, but she assumed they would live in the stone dish on top of the chest of drawers in the dressing room. That was where he kept his fancy gold watch and rings, and a silver money-clip that the children had given him last Father’s Day. It was engraved with ‘The heart of a father is the masterpiece of nature’, which, apparently, was from an opera or something. Bex was cheerfully ignorant of such things, but Mrs Farrier had explained at great length when instructing Bex to get the clip from the jeweller’s. Bex had to admit it had given her a little thrill; she had never met people who didn’t buy a ‘World’s Best Dad’ mug from the card shop and be done with it.
There was a pair of cufflinks in the dish, but they were tarnished silver, engraved with his initials. They really liked engraving things in the Farrier household. She checked on top of his bedside table and in the wardrobe. She didn’t want to start going through drawers, as that felt like a breach of privacy, but she checked in all the places she put laundry away. That was one of her jobs, after all, one she’d been doing for months.
The panic didn’t really set in until she had checked the wooden dish that sat on the console table in the hallway. Bex realised that she had been subconsciously counting on Mr Farrier having taken them off after his last fancy dinner and dropping them there on his way into the house. Now, she was stuck.
She checked the pockets of his suits, finding only an old receipt in one and a few coins, which she placed carefully on top of the dressing table. The panic was full now, making her heart race. What were the chances that Mrs Farrier would accept that the gold cufflinks had gone missing? Weighed against that, what were the chances she would blame Bex for the disappearance? She blamed her for everything else, after all.
She began on the children’s tea, slicing bread and cutting carrot sticks, while trying to push away the very worst thought; what if Mrs Farrier thought she had taken them? Her mobile rang and she answered quickly, grateful for the distraction.
‘I need a favour.’
‘Hi, Nicola,’ Bex said. I’m at work so I can’t talk for long.’ Bex had known Nicola since primary school and knew that, given free rein, she would ramble without pause for an hour or more.
‘I’m in Waitrose,’ Nicola said. ‘The nibbles here are amazing. They’ve got balsamic vinegar cashews. Have you tried them? I shouldn’t get them, I’ll just eat them all.’ A packet rustled. ‘Sod it, I’m getting them.’
Bex resumed chopping cucumber and waited for Nicola to get to the point. The background noise of the supermarket went suddenly muted. Bex could picture Nicola tucking the phone under her chin as she reached for a bag of cashews. Nicola prided herself on multi-tasking and she often called while shopping or driving or, once, while learning archery.
‘I’ve got some for you, too.’ Nicola was back. ‘Seriously, they look so good. My mouth is full-on watering.’
‘Nic, I’m working –’
‘Yeah, right. Sorry. I was wondering if you were going to the pub tonight?’
There was only one real pub in Pendleford. The others were tourist traps or bistros with tiny bar areas. The Red Lion had music every Wednesday, provided by Bex’s best friend, Jon. ‘I don’t think so,’ Bex said. ‘I’m knackered.’
‘Oh, go on. I haven’t seen you in ages.’
‘I saw you Sunday,’ Bex said, mildly insulted that Nicola had forgotten.
‘I want to meet Jon.’
Bex gripped the handle of the vegetable knife. ‘Jon?’ Her stomach flipped at the sound of his name spoken aloud.
‘Yeah. I know he’s your friend, but you must have noticed the hotness.’
‘We’re just friends,’ Bex said automatically. She began dicing one of the carrot sticks.
‘I know,’ Nicola said, sounding impatient. ‘That’s why I’m asking you to introduce us.’
‘Sure,’ Bex forced out.
And I’ll just stab myself with this vegetable knife while I’m about it.
Today just got better and better.
After Martin’s visit, Iris had taken a bath in the claw-footed tub, hoping to ease the dull ache in her back. Now, however, she was having difficulty getting back onto dry land. When she’d stood up, the room had swayed treacherously, and she felt light-headed. Her sense told her that she’d stood up too quickly, had lain in water that was perhaps a touch too hot for too long, but her animal instinct screamed ‘danger’.
Iris steadied herself with both hands on the side of the tub and concentrated on breathing deeply until her vision cleared and her head stopped swimming. That was when the real problems started. Her back decided to spasm, running an electric pain across her pelvis and down her legs. Muscles clenched unhelpfully, trapping nerves and causing the excruciating feeling she was experiencing. In between panting breaths, Iris reminded herself that there was nothing seriously wrong. That, while it may feel as though her vertebrae had dislocated, she would be fine. Just as soon as she could get out of the damn tub.
For the first time in about an ice age, Iris wished that she didn’t live alone. A month or so after her eightieth birthday, she had been visited by a cheery man from the council who wondered whether she would like to join the meals on wheels scheme, or go to the seniors’ bingo on the special bus on a Friday morning. He had been new to the area and hadn’t heard of Iris. She imagined he had come in for some gentle leg-pulling when his colleagues realised he’d visited the witch and offered her leaflets. If Iris hadn’t been concentrating on not passing out from the pain in her back, she’d have snorted at the memory. He’d left a panic button thingy-ma-jig, though, which would’ve come in handy right about now. Iris had her pride, but she wasn’t an idiot. You had to play the cards you were dealt, after all.
The button, however, was downstairs on the hall table. She was supposed to wear it around her neck on the cord supplied, like one of those children’s purses, but she never had. Not that she’d have been wearing it in the bath, Iris reasoned. No, she had no reason to feel silly or humiliated as a result of this predicament.
Logical though this thought was, it didn’t help. It didn’t help her out of the bath, either. That took half an hour of minute movements, followed by an undignified, hunched-back crab-walk before she had a towel wrapped around her body and the cork tiles of the bathroom beneath her feet.
If only she had been a fairytale witch, Iris thought, as she edged her way across the landing. Then she could’ve waved her hands and removed her pain. She could have killed a lamb at full moon, eating its still-twitching heart to stay young. She could have captured small children with her gingerbread cottage and put them to work. If she’d been a storybook witch, she wouldn’t be creeping sideways, bent-double, to get the extra-strength painkillers in her bedside drawer.
Just as she had made it to the bedroom and into her dressing gown, she heard the unmistakable sound of someone knocking on the back door. She slipped the tablets into her pocket and began the slow, painful descent, for the second time that day. That was another problem with being a real witch as opposed to a made-up one. When someone came knocking you had to answer. Damn and blast the rules.
Bex Adams had been raised to be independent, and then, as if to seal the deal, her parents had divorced just before her seventeenth birthday, and her mother had moved to London and into her boyfriend’s flat. Bex’s dad had bought a little two-bedroomed house on the new estate off the Bath Road, which Bex thought should’ve been more properly marketed as ‘one-and-half bedrooms, if all your furniture is made by pixies’. When friends complained about their parents turning their old bedrooms into craft rooms or gyms, Bex snorted. Her childhood bedroom had gone for ever and the replacement set-up was cramped and tinged with sadness. Her dad did his best to make her feel welcome and she knew she was lucky to have a home with family-rate cheap rent, but he was out all hours trying to find a life and the place felt unloved and temporary.