Authors: Sarah Painter
Iris’s abiding memory of her mother was of her holding a white handkerchief in front of her mouth to disguise whatever item was emerging. Sometimes she’d cough violently, the watch or ring or coin lodged in her throat for a frightening moment, and sometimes you’d just see a minute change of expression before the handkerchief was raised and whatever had appeared was swiftly relocated to a pocket. The physical repulsion paled in comparison to the humiliation. Iris’s mother was a proper lady and this messy and unnatural behaviour was mortifying.
When Iris’s gift showed itself and she began to feel wicked compulsions, such as the intense need to give away her best dress, she wasn’t entirely surprised. While part of her was relieved that she wasn’t gagging on fob watches and cast-away love notes, she wished it was something she could keep to herself. Iris couldn’t hide her compulsions behind a lacy handkerchief. She would feel the need to give somebody an item as an itch in her mind and that feeling would spread over her skin, driving her to distraction, until she fulfilled her task.
She’d loved James Farrier, though. No matter what the truth of him turned out to be, her body and soul called out for him and it took many years for the longing to fade. She’d witnessed him committing an act of breathtaking cruelty, one which her rational self could not deny or excuse. It didn’t stop her irrational weakness from trying, though. ‘It really had just been a game gone wrong,’ her irrational soul said. ‘He didn’t mean it.’ Worse yet, ‘He’d never do it again. He learned his lesson.’
Iris liked to pretend that she would’ve kept an eye on the Farrier family, that she would’ve ensured that James Farrier was never cruel to anyone else, that his behaviour didn’t escalate. The truth was, however, that Iris had been a wreck.
In the months after the broken engagement, she’d barely been able to function. She delivered items that were needed when her gift demanded it, but all else – hobbies, friends, joy, or even cleanliness, were too much for her. Iris barely left the house. Her appetite disappeared and her sleep was disturbed.
The grief was overlaid by guilt. Her mother was mortified by the public termination of the match and by Iris’s gift of giving. ‘Can’t you control it a little better, dear? Maybe if you just tried …’
It was so unfair. Of all people, her mother should have understood that the gift was an affliction, beyond Iris’s control and nothing she had ever asked for or wished into being. She retreated further inside herself until her parents grew worried that she was seriously sick.
Finally, her father came up with a solution. Iris would move to the nearby town of Pendleford. He bought a cottage on the very edge, where it would be quiet for her to recover. ‘A safe bolthole for you to lick your wounds,’ he said, explaining it.
‘It doesn’t sound very proper,’ Iris’s mother said. ‘A lady alone.’ Her objections lacked conviction, however, and Iris knew that she was secretly relieved. Her mother welcomed Iris’s move, hoping that it would still the wagging tongues.
‘You’ll be able to help the people of Pendleford,’ her father had said, a small sad smile around his lips. ‘You’ve helped around here quite enough.’
So, aged twenty-one, Iris caused a minor scandal by moving into End House, Pendleford, alone. She refused her mother’s offer of a maid and set about cultivating an air of untouchable mystery.
Iris squeezed her eyes shut and concentrated on relaxing every part of her body, hoping to chase away the memories with simple meditation. She began with her toes, tensing and relaxing the muscles, but by the time she’d hit her calves, James Farrier was looming over her, a lock of hair falling across his forehead and his eyes boring into hers with that intensity. The look that spoke to the quietest, most secret parts of Iris, the parts that had wanted to be wanted, to be loved and desired. James Farrier had treated her like a queen, but then she had discovered he was a monster wearing the mask of a man. The promise of that mask had been so hard to turn away.
Bex picked up Carly from nursery and gave her lunch. She played games and read books and acted as if it was a normal day for the kid’s sake, and when Tarquin arrived off the school bus, she gave him a snack and monitored his screen time. He was supposed to do his homework before anything else, but Bex had worked out a deal whereby he could have half his screen time first and the rest after. Mrs Farrier didn’t know the details of this – or any of the other – deals which Bex had worked out while learning to handle Tarquin. Good luck to her replacement, Bex thought, and then felt a little guilty.
She ironed the school uniforms and made the dinner and bathed Carly, being conscientiously kind and normal. Every part of her screamed with anger at the injustice. She felt betrayed, but she refused to let even a tiny part of that spill over into the children’s lives. It wasn’t their fault.
As she sculpted a shampoo-bubble quiff for Carly and joined in a make-believe game in which the wind-up shark was having a fight with the red Teletubby over who got to pilot Carly’s sponge around the tub, Bex rehearsed arguments in her mind. It wasn’t fair to be dismissed without a reference when there was no evidence. They couldn’t just assume she was guilty; that wasn’t how people were supposed to behave. And what about the children? What about their security, continuity of care?
By the time Mr and Mrs Farrier came home, Bex had worked up a good head of self-righteous steam and was ready for the off.
She found the couple in the kitchen, large glasses of red wine on the counter with a bowl of olives between. It was such a normal post-work tableau that Bex wondered if they’d changed their minds. Perhaps they had realised their mistake and were going to apologise. Surely they wouldn’t be having drinks and nibbles with a dismissal. It wasn’t supper theatre.
Mrs Farrier asked Bex about the children and whether Tarquin had finished his homework. He was up in his room, playing on a games console, so Bex chose to say ‘yes’. If the conversation went well, she’d pop up and check that was true before leaving for the night. If it didn’t … Well, in that case, Tarquin’s academic progress would no longer be any of her business.
Mrs Farrier didn’t seem to be paying proper attention. ‘That’s good,’ she said, and took a healthy gulp from her glass. ‘You’ve been very good all round, Bex. I’m sorry to lose you.’
Bex opened her mouth to argue when Mr Farrier walked in, loosening his tie. ‘That’s Carly off,’ he said, as if he’d spent hours on her bedtime routine rather than just five minutes giving her a kiss goodnight.
‘Ah,’ he said, spotting Bex. ‘Good. Let’s get this over with, shall we?’
‘Did you find the cufflinks?’ Mrs Farrier said, sounding anxious.
‘No,’ Bex said. ‘I told you that I’d already looked. Are you sure they got lost at home? Perhaps you left them out somewhere. Or in a hotel.’ The words hung in the air and Bex realised, too late, that they could be taken as some kind of accusation regarding Mr Farrier’s extra-curricular activities. ‘When you were on holiday, maybe?’ She added, for damage limitation.
Unfortunately, Mrs Farrier had gone rather pink. Everyone in town knew that Mr Farrier was unfaithful to his wife. Bex was pretty sure Mrs Farrier knew it, too, but it wasn’t polite to suggest it to the couple’s faces. She certainly hadn’t meant to do so. Not when she was trying so hard to keep her damn job.
Mr Farrier was smiling nastily. ‘That would be convenient, wouldn’t it?’
‘It would be convenient for you if I thought that. But no. I’m afraid I’m certain I left the cufflinks here and I’m certain, therefore, that they have been stolen.’
Bex wanted to ask why ‘lost’ meant ‘stolen’, but she knew the answer: because he said so. Because he wanted to teach her a lesson. Because he wanted her out of his house and in the quickest, most unpleasant way possible. Looking at Mr Farrier’s smug expression confirmed a suspicion Bex had been nursing; if she’d kissed him back when he’d cornered her in the utility room, none of this would be happening.
‘Bex,’ Mrs Farrier said. ‘Are you absolutely sure you didn’t find them today? Maybe they slipped down behind a chest of drawers …’ She trailed off.
‘I checked everywhere I could think of yesterday,’ Bex said. ‘I didn’t see the point of looking again.’
‘Oh, well,’ Mrs Farrier said, looking relieved. ‘Have another look around tomorrow and we’ll see –’
‘No, dear,’ Mr Farrier said. ‘I don’t want a thief under our roof any longer than strictly necessary.’
Bex felt as if she’d been slapped. Thief.
Farrier was looking at her with something close to pleasure. ‘Consider yourself finished here. I will give you a week’s pay in lieu of notice.’
Mrs Farrier’s mouth opened, but no sound came out. Bex knew how she felt.
‘I’ll call the agency in the morning and they’ll send round a temporary replacement,’ he was saying, as if this was a normal occurrence. Perhaps, for them, it was. How many nannies had Carly known in her short life? How many had Farrier driven away with his lecherous ways? Bex had only stayed because she knew how lucky she was to get a job with her record. She was on a strict probationary period with the agency. Besides, she hadn’t wanted to let the owner, Emily, down, not to mention Carly and Tarquin.
‘I haven’t said goodbye to Carly,’ Bex said. She looked at Mrs Farrier, the woman she had been cooking for and exchanging childcare messages with for over six months.
Mrs Farrier swallowed, not meeting her gaze. ‘I’ll tell her that you had to go unexpectedly.’
‘Can I leave her a note?’
‘She can’t read,’ Mr Farrier said in a nasty tone.
‘I’ll draw her a picture,’ Bex said, not looking at him.
Mr Farrier snorted.
‘That would be nice,’ Mrs Farrier said, looking about as uncomfortable as Bex had ever seen another human being look. She almost felt sorry for her. Almost.
After a disturbed night of sleep, Bex was still smarting from her encounter with her employers. She felt physically bruised, as if the Farriers had been using fists, not words. The image of Carly’s little face kept leaping into the front of her mind and Bex had to blink hard to stop herself from crying. She was not going to blub over a stupid job. She would get another one. She didn’t need the reference. They were horrible, small-minded people and she was better off out of it all. Perhaps she could change jobs. She wouldn’t need a reference for nannying if she went back to waitressing. Or she could go back to college, do a course in something. Maybe this would be the making of her. In five years’ time, as she was being interviewed by the paper as an amazing success story, she would say, ‘I nannied for a while, but I always knew I was destined for something greater.’
Bex showered and got dressed. She wanted, predictably enough, to phone Jon and tell him all about it. Of course, then she’d have to explain why she was so afraid of the police being involved and he’d look at her differently. Plus, she remembered her resolve of that morning. She had to move away from Jon, stop relying on his companionship.
Instead, she scrubbed her hair until her scalp tingled and used half a bottle of her favourite almond shower gel, then she stomped into the kitchen to find something to gnaw upon, something to relieve her feelings. She banged the fridge shut after a disappointing perusal and tried the cupboards. Living with her dad was okay, but as he ate everything even slightly treat-like and went shopping on a strictly once-a-fortnight basis, there were never any decent snacks left. Eating cereal by the handful while leaning against the worktop wasn’t the best coping strategy in the world, but it was better than crying on Jon’s shoulder. Saturating his shoulder would only lead to an increase in wanting, and Bex was pretty sure her system couldn’t deal with any more of that without imploding.
Her skin felt too tight and she couldn’t concentrate. The cereal was dry and she filled a glass with cold water to wash it down. What she needed was something sweet and mouth-filling. Chocolate.
Her phone rang, interrupting an elaborate fantasy she’d been constructing involving a family-size bar of Galaxy.
‘Oh, hey.’ It was Jon. Bex’s hunger disappeared and her stomach tightened with a different kind of longing.
‘I thought you’d be at work. I was just going to leave a message on your machine.’
‘I just got fired.’ Bex hadn’t meant to say it so baldly.
‘No way!’ He sounded genuinely shocked. ‘I thought you liked that place.’
‘I do,’ Bex sniffed. She wasn’t going to cry.
‘Let’s do something,’ Jon said. ‘I’ll take your mind off it.’
‘Don’t you have practice?’ Bex kicked herself. Now he’d know she’d memorised his routine. Luckily, he didn’t seem to notice. ‘Nah, new singer just cancelled.’
‘Oh, hell. Sorry.’ Jon’s band had been trying to get a singer after their original line-up went kablooey. They hadn’t had much luck. Either the person was talented but flaky or they were a bad fit artistically speaking.
‘You want to go for a drink?’
‘It’s a bit early for that, don’t you think?’ Bex said, smiling despite herself. Jon could be endearingly flaky at times.
‘Oh, yeah. Maybe. What time is it, anyway?’
‘I might just go for a walk along the canal.’
‘I’ll come with,’ Jon said.
‘You don’t have to do that,’ Bex said, but he was talking over her, telling her to meet him by the green.
It had warmed up into a beautiful day, more like summer than spring. The green that ran from the pub down to the canal was full of teenagers lounging on the grass. Jon was waiting in their usual spot, his face turned up to the sun and his eyes shut.
Bex enjoyed the opportunity to watch him without him seeing her, but she said ‘hello’ when she was a few steps away so as not to startle him.
‘We can build up an appetite and then go for something to eat.’
Bex pulled a face. ‘I don’t think I should spend any money. Not until I get a new job.’
‘My treat,’ Jon said, but she shook her head.
‘You’re broke, too.’
They walked along for a while before Jon said: ‘You’ll get a new job. You’re really good.’
He had no way of knowing what she was like at work, of course, but she appreciated his show of support.