Authors: Anna Jacobs
Ned nodded, helping to throw them into baskets, before running across to grab his mother’s hand. ‘I builded a tower with wooden bricks. It was so high.’ He held up one hand above his head. ‘But it all fell down.’
‘You can build another tower next time you come here.’ Joss tossed the last wooden brick into the basket and joined them. ‘Ready to go?’
‘Yes.’ Libby fell in beside him. ‘Where to now?’
‘Lunch, I think.’
‘I’m not really hungry. Couldn’t we just get the shopping done?’
‘I’m afraid I’m ravenous. You can watch me eat, if you don’t want anything, or I can treat you and Ned to a sandwich. Last of the big spenders, me.’
‘Oh. All right.’
‘I know a great little café near a big supermarket. We’ll go to the bank after we’ve eaten, or we can go tomorrow, if you prefer. We have to buy our groceries and get your new battery, after which you can go home and settle in.’
She was tired now. She’d be wiped out by the time they’d finished. But she’d be financially independent and have a car that worked, in case she had to flee again. She’d be stupid not to make the effort. ‘We’ll go to the bank as well today, if you don’t mind.’
People were still steamrollering her, she thought as she got into the car. But not in a bad way. She was suddenly hungry, for the first time in days, and had no doubt Ned was too.
She glanced sideways at Joss. He was better looking than she’d realised last night, and very attractive to women to judge by the receptionist’s reaction to him. At the moment he was favouring one leg slightly, as if it was aching.
How must it be to be fit and healthy, then suddenly be injured and left with a permanent weakness?
As bad as it felt to have your willpower stripped bit by bit, and the bars of an invisible prison erected around you before you’d fully realised what was going on?
At least Joss had known that what had happened was by accident, though that didn’t mean his enforced change in lifestyle would have been easy.
But she hadn’t understood till too late what Steven was doing. It had been a carefully calculated way of controlling her. And he’d succeeded for more years than she cared to think.
She was going to get over it, though. She was. Whatever it took.
Steven took out the bag of rubbish from the kitchen, even though it was only half-f, because it was beginning to smell. He dumped it in the bin and turned to go back into the house, but something wasn’t right, so he turned back.
He lifted the new bag of rubbish out of the bin again, and stared at the crumpled, empty bin liner lying on top of a full bag of rubbish.
Why would Libby throw away an empty bin liner? She wasn’t a wasteful woman.
He went back into the kitchen, put on a pair of rubber gloves and a face mask from the box he kept for dirty jobs. Picking up the empty rubbish bag, he shook it out.
Ah. It had split. He must not have taken it out before he went off to work yesterday morning. Well, it had been a hell of a week, and he’d been angry at the second letter from the lawyer in Rochdale.
He was about to throw the bin liner away again when he remembered that he’d thrown the letter from the lawyer into the rubbish that last evening. Had she seen it? Had that been the trigger for her leaving? It couldn’t have been the beating, because he hadn’t laid a finger on her before. And he wouldn’t again.
He was angry at himself for losing control. That hadn’t happened for years. Wouldn’t again. His father had helped him overcome early problems with his temper, and he was grateful for that, even though it had been a painful series of lessons at the time.
What was the damned lawyer’s name? He racked his brain, but couldn’t remember. How stupid he’d been to throw away those letters. Only they’d made him angry, because they had the potential to disrupt his carefully planned life. He should have kept them at work, or in his safe at home. Just in case.
Had Libby seen the letter?
He stared down at the open dustbin, his nose wrinkling in disgust at the smell. But it was no use. He had to find out whether the letter was still there. Because if it wasn’t, she’d definitely seen it and that was probably why she’d run away. The grandmother hadn’t left her a lot of money, but it was enough to help her get away.
She could be anywhere by now. In a women’s refuge, as had been his original guess, or in Rochdale, where her grandmother had lived and where this lawyer was. She’d have to go there first, wouldn’t she, to claim the inheritance?
He smiled. The pieces were coming together, as they always did.
The dustmen were due tomorrow, so he had to check the rubbish tonight. Almost itching with disgust, he methodically spread other bin liners on the garage floor and tipped out the rubbish.
Item by item he picked through the stinking heap. The smell of it after only two or three days made him retch, but he persevered, because he had to know.
He found the other letter he’d thrown away at the same time and set it aside. But he didn’t find the one from the lawyer, not even the envelope.
He stood up, staring down at the stinking mess. The letter should be here, with the other one. Only it wasn’t. Which meant she’d definitely found it.
He picked up the other letter. She hadn’t found this one, though, had she? How stupid not to have checked everything! Well, she was stupid, compared to him. Women just didn’t think logically. Which was why they needed a man to look after them.
The letter was from the adoption agency. He recognised their acronym. They’d written once before, asking if Mrs Elizabeth Pulford was the former Elizabeth King from Rochdale. He’d tossed that one away. No need to stir up Libby’s past.
Methodically he packed the rubbish back into the bin liner and set the dustbin ready to take out in the morning for the weekly rubbish collection. Then he picked up the other letter, stained and dirty though it was.
When he went inside, he sprayed it with disinfectant. He kept the rubber gloves on, though, until he’d brought a document protector from his study and slipped the letter inside. Only then did he take off the gloves and mask, and wash his hands thoroughly.
He read the letter. They wanted to know if she had received their previous letter. Would she kindly reply to this one so that they could set their records straight? If she refused all contact with her birth mother, she would hear nothing more from the agency, but they would be grateful if she’d make her wishes known.
Irresponsible fools, upsetting families. He’d had good parents who’d given him a sound education and brought him up to recognise the importance of tidiness and doing things the
way. His parents were dead now and he hadn’t kept in touch with any of his relatives. Well, they’d never liked him and he thought them fools.
He was grateful to his parents for the careful upbringing and sound education, though. Always would be. He intended to do the same for his own son.
He left the letter in its transparent cover lying on the draining board. He’d think about it carefully. No use rushing to act.
And he’d need to remember the lawyer’s name. It wasn’t like him to forget. If he didn’t remember, he’d phone every lawyer in Rochdale, if necessary, till he found the one who’d contacted his wife.
He went to bed at his usual time, not having taken in what had been playing on the TV, because he had a lot to think about. The TV was just a noise, something to fill the silent house.
He did not, he decided, like living alone. Not that he wanted to live in a tribe. No way. One wife and one child suited him perfectly. He’d had a vasectomy so that he couldn’t have any more children. Hadn’t told Libby. That was his decision, not hers.
He’d get her back, however long it took. Oh, yes.
Ned sat in the café, wide-eyed, taking it all in.
Joss watched him, then looked at Libby. ‘Hasn’t he eaten out before?’
‘Not during the past year. Steven preferred to eat at home and I couldn’t afford to eat lunch in cafés when we were out shopping.’
‘I thought your husband had a good job.’
‘He has. A very good job. He has a luxury car, expensive suits, anything he wants.’
Joss shook his head very slightly, disapproval etched on his face, but he made no further comment. When he turned back to the little boy, his expression changed completely, becoming warm and caring.
The receptionist was right. He really loves children
, Libby thought. For all his cat-that-walks-alone act with adults, Joss could win children’s confidence easily. She’d never seen Ned take to a stranger like this before. He usually stayed close to her when they were out.
Joss showed him the menu. ‘This tells you what there is to eat, Ned. You can choose what you want. Shall I read it to you?’
Ned nodded, listened intently as Joss read out the three items that were specifically for children.
‘Tell Joss which you want, darling,’ she prompted.
‘Cheesy chips, please.’
Joss gave her a wry glance. ‘Not the most healthy option. Do you mind?’
‘No. I give him healthy food the rest of the time. If he wants chips and melted cheese once in a while, he can have them.’
‘Does he know what they are?’
‘Yes. I’ve made them for him at home once or twice.’ When she’d needed comfort food, needed to rebel against Steven’s ferociously healthy meals. Childish, but it had made her feel a bit better. And Ned had learned not to tell his father anything which she said was a secret.
‘What would you like to eat, Libby?’
She realised Joss wasn’t the only one who was ravenous. ‘A burger, chips and a garden salad, please.’
‘That’s what I’m having. Pot of tea for us and an orange juice for Ned?’ At her nod, he went to put in the order.
When he came back, he pulled an envelope out of his pocket, opening it to show a wad of notes, but shielding that from the other customers. ‘Henry asked me to get some money out of the bank for you, and when we go to the bank to sign the papers, you can put in an application for a debit card.’
‘Thank you.’ She put the envelope into her handbag, feeling so much better for having it.
‘Are you sure it’s not too much to do after yesterday? This is a pretty full-on day. We could go to the bank tomorrow.’
‘I’ll be fine. Oh, I forgot to bring Ned’s pushchair.’
‘I can carry him if he gets tired.’
She didn’t protest, because at the moment her chest hurt too much to carry her son. ‘Thanks. I’m very keen to get my
finances sorted out.’ It was such a strong need, she almost ached with it.
‘Um … I forgot to ask Mr Greaves, but maybe you know. Do the payments I get during the six months I have to live in the house come out of the bequest money?’
‘No. The living allowance is extra. And there may be a little more than the £20,000 at the end. It depends how things go with the rest of the bequests.’
‘Did Grandma Rose leave many bequests?’
‘I’m not at liberty to talk about the others, just as they know nothing about you.’
When the food came, her mouth watered and apart from keeping an eye on Ned and offering him a few mouthfuls of her salad, she ate steadily. It felt as if she was filling up a huge empty hole. ‘Paint me a cavernous waste,’ she murmured without thinking.
She was surprised. ‘Do you like poetry?’
‘Some of it. What made you quote that one?’
‘I was thinking of how hungry I was, so I left out the last word of that line and it seemed to describe how I felt.’ She concentrated on the pleasure of eating, finishing before he did. She pushed her plate back a little and sighed with pleasure. ‘That was absolutely delicious.’
‘Abs’lookly d’licious,’ Ned echoed, eating the last three chips covered in melted cheese and licking his fingers before drinking the rest of the orange juice.
She took him to the toilet before they left, teasing him as she wiped grease off his chin and fingers. She could see them both in the mirror above the washbasins. They looked like a normal mother and son. Happy, even. Except for her bruises.
Since she’d checked the tinned and dry goods at her grandmother’s house, she knew exactly what she wanted from the supermarket, so that didn’t take too long. Afterwards they went to the bank, then to get a car battery.
By the time they returned to Top o’ the Hill, it was nearly teatime. The skies had cleared and the view from the road up the cleft was stunning.
She stared out of the car window in delight. ‘The scenery is like something from
Last of the Summer Wine
. I love that programme.’
‘So do I. The villages where it was filmed aren’t far away from here.’
‘Really? I must go and visit them once we’ve settled in.’
‘It’s playing on TV again. They often repeat it. I’m especially fond of Nora Batty.’
Libby chuckled. ‘She has some brilliant lines, doesn’t she?’
And they were off, comparing favourite incidents from the series as he negotiated the final bends and the narrow streets of the village.
Joss helped her carry in the bags of shopping. ‘If you give me your car key, I’ll put your new battery in.’
‘I could do it myself. Though probably not as quickly as you.’
‘I don’t mind doing it.’
So she found the keys and went out to watch him, Ned trailing along behind her. She had to learn to look after herself, so she watched carefully. Yes, she could have done it. ‘Thank you.’
Joss sat in the driving seat and turned on the ignition. The car started first time, at which he let out a crow of triumph. ‘Want me to check your oil and tyres in the morning?’
‘Thanks, but I can do that myself. Steven wouldn’t have anything to do with my car, nor would he pay for a service, so I did what I could myself.’
‘OK. Then I’ll see you tomorrow.’
Ned watched Joss go into his house, the corners of his mouth turning down. ‘I want Joss to stay with us.’
‘He can’t. He lives next door. You’ll see him again tomorrow.’
She diverted his attention by unpacking some of his toys and settling him at one end of the table in the back room. He began to play with them as she unpacked her groceries, telling his trio of tiny stuffed animals that they were in a new house now and had to be very good and not make a mess.