Authors: LeeAnn Whitaker
Nell blocked out everything. As did Jack. They were eighteen all over again, and didn’t care who was watching because they were having a ball. The crowd roared and clapped as Jack lifted Nell up and coiled her around his back, to end the song with her up in his arms. They panted, gazing into each other’s eyes, on cloud nine.
Doctor Smith huddled with his fellow judges as Jack let Nell’s feet drop to the floor. Jimmy glanced across. He was clearly annoyed, as he and Elsa were now bickering. Nell looked up at Jack and laughed. Neither really cared about winning. The whole evening had been such fun. A blast from the past they both needed.
Doctor Smith made his way into the middle of the room, holding a microphone.
“After great deliberation,” his voice echoed in the silence. “This year’s swing winners are numbers,” he paused. “Six and seven,” he bellowed.
Jack grabbed hold of Nell excitedly, and kissed her to the delight of the crowd. Doctor Smith approached and handed both Jack and Nell, a green first place rosette. Elsa and Jimmy then plodded over. Elsa gave Nell a hug as Jimmy shook Jack’s hand.
“Well, I guess it’s good to have some competition in this village at last,” Jimmy grumbled. “It will make us work harder for next year.” He pulled on Elsa’s arm, and they walked away in defeat.
“See you then,” Jack called.
After receiving their prize, a basket filled with a variety of jams and breads. Jack and Nell strolled back to the cottage under the clear starry sky. As they walked by a bench beneath a dim streetlamp, Jack began to hum, placing the basket on the grass.
“This is a lovely way, to spend an evening,” Jack bellowed out a Frank Sinatra number.
“Shush Jack! You’ll wake the whole village up.”
“And let them wake,” he said. “I haven’t finished dancing with my girl.” He kissed Nell’s lips and drew her body into his.
He continued to serenade Nell, turning the volume down a notch. “Can’t think of anything, I’d rather do,” he sang in her ear as they slow danced.
Nell melted at the sound of his voice as she laid her cheek on his chest. She closed her eyes and listened to every sweet word he sang to her. Everything felt so right. But she knew deep down she couldn’t escape her past this way forever. She was still married- for now. What would people think of her? Not two minutes after she left the marital home, she’s out gallivanting with another.
“Jack,” she peered up into his eyes. “What will we do?”
“For now Nell, we dance.”
The blue moon beams hovered above Nell as she lay fast asleep in Jack’s arms. Jack slept deeply, with one hand on her hair, and the other on the curve of her hip. Suddenly, a thunderous smash occurred downstairs that shook the entire cottage, but woke Nell only. Although she could barely open her heavy eyelids, and was still drifting in and out of sleep, she managed to lift her head a little. Squinting her eyes, she listened for a while, wondering if it was just a dream. But another noise immediately fired the adrenalin through her body. It was a clear thud, along with the sound of crunching glass. She pushed on Jack’s chest to wake him, but he groaned and twitched only. So she pushed again, even harder.
“Jack… Jack,” she hissed in panic.
He half-opened his eyes. “What,” he huffed.
“There’s someone downstairs,” she whispered breathlessly.
He frowned through narrow lids, until he heard something himself. With velocity he sat upright, swinging his legs out of the bed. Nell grabbed his forearm as he stood and hopped to pull up his trousers. He turned to her, pressing his finger against his lips. Nell didn’t want him to go alone.
“It’s probably just a badger or something,” he whispered. “Stay here.”
Nell quickly jumped out of bed as he placed his hand around the brass doorknob. She was by his side, refusing to listen to his instruction. He glared down at her, nodding his head toward the bed in frustration as another bang occurred downstairs.
“Jack,” she uttered through her teeth. “You can’t go down there empty handed. Here.”
She leant across her dressing table, and lifted up the hammer Jack used to hang a picture that morning. He took it out of her hands and twisted the knob. The squeaky noise it made could have been heard at the Durum’s house. Both Nell and Jack grimaced until the high-pitched rusty squeal stopped. He opened the door enough to see down the narrow landing.
“Right,” he murmured. “Stay here, and lock this door.”
Nell took a step back, scowling, clutching the fabric of her white cotton nightgown.
“Dammit Nell.” His naked torso sloped through the foot wide gap between door and frame.
Jack held the hammer by his side as his bare feet snuck stealth like to the top of the stairs. He waited, listening for an indication to tell him where the intruder was. Nell stood behind him, her breathing quivered as she inhaled a strong scent wafting up the stairs. Jack also picked up the odour, and knew exactly what it was. He had breathed the stuff in for years in combat, fighting alongside the heavy artillery equipment. It was petrol. The caution he had learnt out in the field over the years, also told him that this was no ordinary burglary.
Nell held her breath, quickly concluding the only evil person that would burn down the cottage, with her still in it, was Alistair.
Jack turned to Nell as she pressed both of her hands on her mouth, terrified. He gripped her arm and shook her, like he would do with one of his men who refused to fight. He looked down to the bottom of the stairs, at the front door. It was there before him, the only way he could get her out of there.
“Nell,” he breathed. “You need to be calm. You need to get out of here, now.”
Nell looked at the front door with tears rolling over her hands. It was bolted and the latch was locked. She knew Alistair had the ears of an owl. He would hear her trying to escape. She sobbed and propped against the wall with her legs nearly giving way beneath her. Jack pulled her harshly. Even if he had to kick the thing off its hinges, he knew he had to get her out.
“I can’t Jack,” she quietly snivelled, as Jack inspected the empty dark living room over the handrail.
He continued to pull her. “You damn well can Nell!”
All Nell wanted to do was to run back to her room and lock herself away. The way she learnt to cope back in Canterbury. It was the only way she knew how to escape Alistair’s wrath.
Jack eventually got Nell to the bottom step. He yanked on the rusty bolt, but opening the thing was a far cry from pulling a hot knife through butter. He had no choice but to do it as fast as possible. He tugged the bolt as hard as he could, then moved onto the latch. He managed to open the door and let a light breeze flow through, when out of the blue, from over Nell’s shoulder, the butt end of a riffle smashed into the temple of his skull.
“Jack,” Nell screamed out.
As Nell tried to drop to her knees to help Jack, her neck cricked back as her hair was pulled violently from behind.
Her scalp pulsed as her body was dragged backward into a horizontal position. She grappled, digging her heels into the floor. She looked up, and her worst possible nightmare was coming true. It was Alistair in his uniform. She could smell the whisky on him, and knew he was drunk. The violence she suffered with all those years, was most of the time when he was sober. On the occasions where he had drunk too much, it increased tenfold.
“Well, soon as you dropped in, might as well have a little chat with you my darling.”
Nell cried out as he slammed her body down into the wooden armchair in the alcove. He then unbuckled and pulled his belt out from his waist.
“Alistair please,” Nell begged.
Alistair smirked as he thread the belt behind the chair, her trembling body, and around her abdomen. As he slid the belt through the buckle, he pressed his nose against her cheek and inhaled.
“I once would take pity on you when you begged, Eleanor,” he said. “It was one of the things I loved about you. But to come home and discover you have left me, has completely changed my mind about what kind of woman you are.”
He pulled the belt painfully tight, so it cut into her biceps and midriff, taking the wind right out of her. Nell looked across to Jack’s lifeless body near the door. She wept and prayed he would wake up.
“And when I do get here to bring you home, I find out you have a man in your bed,” he growled. “And not just any man, but a man who I’ve wanted to meet again for years,” he said, as he walked over to Jack’s body. “You and the peasant boy, reunited after all these years, how romantic.”
“Don’t Alistair,” Nell yelled.
“Aww, what… do this?” He drew back his boot and kicked Jack in the stomach so hard, bones cracked.
“No!” Nell sobbed.
“Now,” Alistair said calmly, as he strolled back to Nell. “How long have you two been pounding the bed springs eh?” His face grew redder. “I came here to bring you home Eleanor, but now- now look what you have done… you slut!”
His boots strode with speed as she shut her eyes in terror. He struck her hard with the back of his hand. The sheer force of the blow, made Nell’s vision blur in and out of focus. He pulled the front of her hair to lift her drooping head.
“No you don’t.” He let go so her head plummeted to her chest.
As Nell had a few seconds respite with her head hung low, she gathered herself. Even if he did kill her, she needed him to hear some home truths. She couldn’t live or die letting him walk all over her again, making her feel weak and worthless. Since she left him she had come to realise, it was never her with the problem, but him. Twisting her mind. Brainwashing her into some frightened little girl. She wasn’t a girl anymore, but a woman who knew exactly what she wanted, Jack. A good man who would never touch a hair on her head in anger. Alistair took all those years of her life and she wanted them back, no matter what the cost.
Still feeling the sting across her cheek, she slowly elevated her thumping head. First she looked to the floor to see her Jack still out cold. He wouldn’t want her to lie down and take Alistair’s abuse. He would want her to fight. Her pupils bravely aimed directly at Alistair. He was stood before her, boots shoulder length apart.
“Well, well, well,” Alistair smiled. “No tears.”
“I won’t cry for you anymore,” Nell’s shaky voice boldly uttered.
“Will you for him?” Alistair marched across the room and kicked Jack again. “How long Eleanor?”
Nell flinched feeling Jack’s pain, and took a heavy breath. “Not long enough,” she barked.
Again Alistair strode in fury to her. He pulled her hair right back so her neck strained, and lowered his face to hers. His jaw opened as he exhaled his whisky breath on her cheek. Nell didn’t cry, or scream out. Her view remained on him with determination.
“You bitch… you are married to me!”
“You may have placed a ring on my finger.” She squirmed to move away from him. “But you never had my love- that has only ever belonged to one man.”
Alistair released her hair and struck her across the face again. Nell’s eyes watered with the blunt force of it. He let out a sinister laugh as she gasped in fright, watching him take a box of matches out from his pocket.
“Please Alistair,” she cried.
“You can both burn.”
He brushed the match against the box so sparks flew, and dropped it onto the floor. Like fire through dry grass, the flames spread rapidly. The sofa become engulfed, as did the curtains, and Nell was now trapped within a blazing prison.
Jack groaned and twitched as the flaming beams and floorboards popped loudly. He opened his swollen bruised eye, and clutched at his banging head. He saw the back of Alistair’s boots. He was stood watching Nell screaming out in fear. Jack was instantly consumed with a ferocious energy. Despite his injuries, he flew up to his feet and soared across the room. He knocked Alistair to the floor while Nell’s piercing screams came through the wall of fire. Jack punched Alistair again and again until his fists were covered in blood. Alistair was unconscious, but Jack couldn’t stop. The anger in him took over his senses. He pressed his hands on the sides of Alistair’s face and repeatedly beat his head down on the floor.
“Jack… Jack… Ja…” Nell’s voice faded.
Jack scrambled to his feet, leaving Alistair’s motionless body behind him. His heart careered as he frantically tried to find Nell over the barraging blaze. He coughed and spluttered, waving the heavy smoke from his path. The sound of the flames was now as deafening as gunfire, and if Nell were to shout out, he wouldn’t be able to hear her. Without a second thought, he jumped through the wall of fire.
Nell’s head was slumped over, and the bottom of her nightgown was alight. Using his hands, he patted out the flames desperately, smelling her flesh burn. In a frenzy, in which time seemed to stop, he undid the belt buckle and hoisted her limp body over his shoulder. With no time left to spare he leapt, carrying her through the fire, then raced out of the front door.
He sped across the damp grass, toward the only place he could think of, the lake. His bare feet sunk into the shingle on the shore as he waded through the water, cradling Nell. When the surface water reached his waist, he stopped. Nell’s eyes were closed; even the cold water wouldn’t wake her. Jack yelled at her, squeezing her cheeks as her long wet hair clung to his arm. Tears of anger, panic, and worry, fell from his eyes as he pressed his head against hers.
“Hey there.” I voice shouted from the shore.
It was Mr Durum and his wife, dressed in their nightwear. Woken by the smell of smoke and Jack’s cries.
“Help me,” Jack bawled.
Mr Durum kicked off his slippers and jogged down into the water. He paddled by Jack’s side, peering down at Nell’s soot coated face with concern.
“Come on lad,” he said. “She needs a doctor, now!”
An unconscious Nell had been transported in Mr Durum’s grocery van to Doctor Smith’s surgery, next door to the Black Sheep Inn. The chaos had created a small crowd of resident to form outside, as Mr Durum banged on the Doctor’s door. Jack stayed with Nell. His hands were now beginning to pain with clusters of blisters. But he didn’t care about anything other than Nell. He jumped down onto the cobbles, and lifted her body up into his arms. Doctor Smith opened his door, and Jack hurried up the steps inside.
Doctor Smith cleared a pile of papers off his patient bed, and Jack took great care laying Nell down. Smith proceeded to check her for a pulse, and then began to pace in a muddled manner, pulling the belt of his brown robe tight.
“What are you waiting for,” Jack barked. “Help her.”
Doctor Smith opened his medicine cupboard and pulled out a tub of Tannafax jelly. Jack had used this treatment on his men before now, and it was useless. Doctor Smith hovered over Nell’s legs, holding the tub. He had never seen burns so bad. Nell’s left leg, right up to the knee, was burnt so badly bone could be seen. He placed the tub down and let out a deep sigh.
“I haven’t got the means to help her here,” he said. “She needs a hospital, and quick before these wounds become infected.”
Jack grabbed Smith by collar of his dressing gown, clenching tight with his stinging fingertips.
“Do something,” he yelled.
“Jack… Jack,” Mr Durum pulled him back. “Calm down lad.”
“There’s a community hospital three miles away,” Doctor Smith said, nervous of Jack’s temper. “I’ll take her in my car.”
“Like hell you will,” Jack snapped.
“Jack,” Smith appealed. “My wife is a trained nurse, and she can look after Nell on the way.”