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Letters to the Lost
By Iona Grey
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2015 Iona Grey
All rights reserved.
London, February 2011
It was a nice part of London. Respectable. Affluent. The shops that lined the street in the villagey center were closed and shuttered but you could tell they were posh, and there were restaurants—so many restaurants—their windows lit up like wide-screen TVs showing the people inside. People who were too well-mannered to turn and gawp at the girl running past on the street outside.
Not running for fitness, wearing Lycra and headphones and a focused expression, but messily, desperately, with her short skirt riding up to her knickers and her unshod feet splashing through the greasy puddles on the pavement. She'd kicked off her stupid shoes as she left the pub, knowing she wouldn't get far wearing them. Platform stilettos; the twenty-first-century equivalent of a ball and chain.
At the corner she hesitated, chest heaving. Across the road was a row of shops with an alleyway at the side; behind, the pounding echo of feet. She ran again, seeking out the dark. There was a backyard with bins. A security light exploded above her, glittering on broken glass and ragged bushes beyond a high wooden gate. She let herself through, wincing and whimpering as the ground beneath her feet changed from hard tarmac to oozing earth that seeped through her sodden tights. Up ahead there was the glimmer of a streetlight. It gave her something to head toward; she pushed aside branches and emerged into a narrow lane.
It was flanked on one side by garages and the backs of houses, and by a row of plain terraced cottages on the other. She swung round, her heart battering against her ribs. If he followed her down here there would be nowhere to hide. No one to see. The windows of the houses glowed behind closed curtains, like slumbering eyes. Briefly she considered knocking on the door of one of the small cottages and throwing herself on the mercy of the people inside, but realizing how she must look in her clinging dress and stage makeup she dismissed the idea and stumbled on.
The last house in the little terrace was in darkness. As she got closer she could see that its front garden was overgrown and neglected, with weeds growing halfway up the peeling front door and a forest of shrubbery encroaching upon it from the side. The windows were blank and black. They swallowed up her reflection in their filth-furred glass.
She heard it again, the beat of running feet, coming closer. What if he'd got the others to look for her too? What if they came from the opposite direction, surrounding her and leaving no escape? For a moment she froze, and then adrenaline squirted, hot and stinging, galvanizing her into movement. With nowhere else to go she slipped along the side of the end house, between the wall and the tangle of foliage. Panic made her push forward, tripping over branches, gagging on the feral, unfamiliar stink. Something shot out from beneath the hedge at her feet, so close that she felt rough fur brush briefly against her shin. Recoiling, she tripped. Her ankle was wrenched round and a hot shaft of pain shot up her leg.
She sat on the damp ground and gripped her ankle hard, as if she could squash the pain back in to where it had come from. Tears sprang to her eyes, but at that moment she heard footsteps and a single angry shout from the front of the house. She clenched her teeth, picturing Dodge beneath the streetlamp, hands on his hips as he swung around searching for her, his face wearing that particular belligerent expression—jaw jutting, eyes narrowed—that it did when he was thwarted.
Holding her breath, she strained to listen. The seconds stretched and quivered with tension, until at last she picked up the sound of his receding feet. The air rushed from her lungs and she collapsed forward, limp with relief.
The money crackled inside her pocket. Fifty pounds—she'd only taken her share, not what was due to the rest of the band, but he wouldn't like it: he made the bookings, he took the money. She slid a hand into her pocket to touch the waxy, well-used notes, and a tiny ember of triumph glowed in her heart.
* * *
She'd never broken into a house before. It was surprisingly easy.
The hardest part was crawling through the hedge, and beating through thorny ropes of brambles and spires of stinging nettles in the garden as her ankle throbbed and burned. The glass in the back door was as brittle and easy to break as the crust of ice on top of a puddle, and the key was still in the lock on the other side.
The kitchen was small, low-ceilinged. It smelled musty, as if it had been shut up for a long time. She turned around slowly, her eyes raking the gloom for signs of life. The plant on the windowsill had shriveled to a twist of dry leaves set in shrunken soil but there was a kettle on the gas stove and cups hanging from a row of hooks beneath the shelf on the wall, as if the occupant might come in at any moment to make a cup of tea. She shuddered, the hairs on the back of her neck rising.
She spoke loudly, with a confidence she didn't feel. Her voice sounded peculiar; flat and almost comically Northern. "Hello—is anyone there?"
The quiet engulfed her. In a sudden flash of inspiration she fumbled to find the pocket of her jacket and pulled out a cheap plastic lighter. The circle of gold cast by the flame was small, but enough to show cream tiled walls, a calendar bearing a picture of a castle above the date July 2009, a kind-of vintage cupboard unit with glass-fronted doors at the top. She moved forward awkwardly, reaching out to support herself on the door frame as pain sank its teeth deeper into her leg. In the next room the glow of the tiny flame outlined a table by the window and a sideboard on which china ladies curtseyed and pirouetted to an invisible audience. The stairs rose from a narrow passageway. She paused at the foot of them. Staring up into the darkness she spoke again, softly this time, as if calling to a friend.
"Hello? Anyone home?"
Silence greeted her, and the faintest breath of some old-fashioned perfume drifted down, as if she'd disturbed air that had been still for a long time. She should go up to check that there was no one there, but her aching ankle and the sense of absolute stillness deterred her.
In the room at the front she let the flame go out, not wanting to risk its glow being spotted from outside. Drooping curtains were half pulled across the window, but the light from the streetlamp filtering through the gap was enough to show a sagging and lumpy settee pushed against one wall, with a blanket made up of crocheted squares in clashing colors covering its back. Cautiously she peered out, looking for Dodge, but the pool of light around the streetlamp was still and unbroken. She sagged against an armchair and breathed a little easier.
It had been an old person's house, that much was obvious. The television was huge and comically outdated, and an electric bar fire stood in front of the boarded-up grate. Against the front door a pile of mail had gathered like a drift of autumn leaves.
She limped back into the kitchen and turned on the tap above the sink, letting the water run through the clanking pipes for a few moments before cupping her hands beneath it and drinking. She wondered who owned it and what had happened to them; whether they'd gone into a home, or died. When someone died their house got cleared out, surely? That's what had happened to Gran's, anyway. Within a week of the funeral all the clothes and pictures and plates and pans, as well as Gran's vast collection of china pigs and the fragments of Jess's shattered childhood had been packed up and dispersed so the council could get the house ready for the new tenant.
The darkness felt mossy and damp against her skin. Goosebumps stood on her arms beneath her fake-leather jacket. Maybe the owner had died and not actually been discovered? Some masochistic instinct brought out by the dark and the quiet made her picture a body decaying in the bed upstairs. She dismissed it briskly, reasserting common sense. What harm could the dead do to you anyway? A corpse couldn't split your lip or steal your money, or close its fingers round your neck until stars danced behind your eyes.
Suddenly she felt bone tired, the pulse of pain in her ankle radiating outward so that her whole body throbbed with exhaustion. She made her way haltingly back to the front room and sank onto the sofa, dropping her head into her hands as the enormity of the events of the last hour overwhelmed her.
Shit. She'd broken into a house. An empty and neglected one maybe, but even so. Breaking and entering wasn't like nicking a packet of crisps from the corner shop because you didn't want to be called a skank for having a free school dinner. It was a whole different level of wrong.
On the upside, she had escaped. She wasn't on her way back to the flat in Elephant and Castle with Dodge. She wouldn't have to endure the lust that afflicted him after a beery evening watching her sing in the slutty gear he made her wear. Not tonight, not ever again. The first thing she'd do when her ankle was better was find a charity shop or something and spend a bit of the precious money on decent clothes. Warm clothes. Clothes that actually covered up her body, rather than displaying it like goods in the window of a cut-price shop.
Wincing, she lay back, resting her leg on the arm of the sofa and settling herself on the cigarette-scented cushions. She wondered where he was now; whether he'd given up looking and gone back to the flat to wait, confident that she'd come back eventually. She needed him, as he liked to tell her; needed his contacts and his bookings and his money, because without him what was she? Nothing. A Northern nobody with a voice like a thousand other wannabe stars. A voice that no one would ever hear if it wasn't for him.
She tugged the crocheted blanket down from the back of the sofa and pulled it over herself. In the wake of the adrenaline rush her body felt heavy and weak, and she found she didn't actually give a toss where he was, because for the first time in six months what he thought or felt or wanted was of no relevance to her whatsoever.
The unfamiliar house settled itself around her, absorbing her into its stillness. The noise of the city seemed far away here and the sound of cars on the wet street had receded to a muted sigh, like waves on a distant beach. She stared into the shadows and began to hum softly, to keep the silence at bay. The tune that came into her head was not one of the songs she had belted out on the stage in the pub earlier, but one from the past; a lullaby Gran used to sing to her when she was small. The words were half-forgotten, but the melody stroked her with soothing, familiar fingers, and she didn't feel quite so alone.
* * *
Light was filtering through the thin curtains when she woke, and the slice of sky visible in the gap between them was the bleached bone white of morning. She went to adjust her position and instantly pain flared in her ankle, as if someone had been waiting until she moved to hit it with a sledgehammer. She froze, waiting for the ripples of agony to subside.
Through the wall she could hear noises; the rise and fall of indistinct voices on the radio, then music and the hurried thud of feet on the stairs. She sat up, gritting her teeth as she put her foot to the floor. In the icy bathroom she sat on the loo and peeled off her shredded tights to look at her ankle. It was unrecognizable; puffy and purpling above a foot that was smeared with dirt.
The bathroom didn't boast anything as modern as a shower, only a deep cast-iron bath with rust stains beneath the taps and a basin in the corner. Above this there was a little mirrored cabinet, which she opened in the hope of finding something that might help. Inside the shelves were cluttered with boxes and bottles that wouldn't have looked out of place in a museum, their faded labels advertising the mysterious medicines of another time; Milk of Magnesia, Kaolin, Linctus. In among them, on the bottom shelf, there was a lipstick in a gold case.
She took it out, turning it around between her fingers for a moment before taking off the lid and twisting the base. It was red. Bright, vibrant scarlet: the color of poppies and pillar-boxes and old-fashioned movie-star glamor. An indentation had been worn into the top, where it had molded to fit the shape of the lips of the user. She tried to imagine her, whoever she was, standing here in this bathroom with the black-and-white tiles and the mold-patterned walls; an old woman, painting on this brave daub of color for a trip to the shops or an evening at the bingo, and she felt a burst of admiration and curiosity.
There was a roll of yellowing crepe bandage on the top shelf of the cupboard, and she took this and a packet of soluble aspirin into the kitchen. She unhooked a teacup and filled it with water, then dropped in two of the tablets. Waiting for them to dissolve she looked around. In the grimy morning light the place looked bleak, but there was something poignantly homely about the row of canisters on the shelf, labeled "TEA," "RICE," "SUGAR," the scarred chopping board propped against the wall and the scorched oven gloves hanging from a hook beside the cooker. The cup in her hand was green, but sort of shiny; iridescent like the delicate rainbows in oily puddles. She rubbed her finger over it.
She'd never seen anything like it before, and she liked it. It couldn't have been more different from the assortment of cheap stained mugs in the flat in Elephant and Castle. She drank the aspirin mixture in two big grimacing gulps, her throat closing in protest at the salty-sweetness, then took the bandage into the front room where she applied herself to the task of binding up her ankle. Midway through she heard whistling outside, and stopped, her heart thudding. Footsteps came closer. Dropping the bandage she got to her feet, tensed for the knock on the door or, worse, a key turning—
With a rusty, reluctant creak the letterbox opened. A single, cream-colored envelope landed on top of the heap of garish junk mail and takeaway menus.
Mrs. S. Thorne
4 Greenfields Lane
It was written in black ink. Proper ink, not biro. The writing was bold and elegant but unmistakably shaky, as if the person who had written it was old or sick or in a rush. The paper was creamy, faintly ridged, like bone or ivory.
She turned it over. Spiked black capitals grabbed her attention.
PERSONAL and URGENT. If necessary and possible PLEASE FORWARD.
She put it on the mantelpiece, propped against a chipped jug bearing the slogan "A Present from Margate." Against the faded furnishings the envelope looked clean and crisp and opulent.
Outside the world got on with its weekday business, but in the little house time faltered and the day dragged. The initial euphoria of having got away from Dodge was quickly eroded by hunger and the savage cold. In a cupboard in the kitchen she discovered a little stash of supplies, among which was a packet of fig rolls. They were almost two years past their sell-by date but she devoured half of them, and made herself save the rest for later. She kept trying to think of where to go from here, what to do next, but her thoughts went round in futile circles, like a drowsy bluebottle bashing senselessly against a closed window.
She slept again, deeply, only surfacing when the short February day was fading and the shadows in the corners of the room had thickened on the nets of cobwebs. The envelope on the mantelpiece seemed to have absorbed all the remaining light. It gleamed palely, like the moon.
Mrs. S. Thorne must have been the lady who had lived here, but what did she need to know that was "Personal and Urgent?" With some effort she levered herself up from the sofa and scooped up the landslide of mail from beneath the letterbox. Wrapping the blanket around her shoulders she began to go through it, looking for clues. Maybe there would be something there to hint at where she'd gone, this mysterious Mrs. Thorne. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Letters to the Lost by Iona Grey. Copyright © 2015 Iona Grey. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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