Turning Tables, Short Story/Excerpt from Family Matters
My story today, for Day 3 of A Story a Day for a Week in May, features Sarah, the main character of one of my published novels, ‘Family Matters’ and, once again, the pint of milk is incidental. Funny how that happens: the prompt prompts the writing without becoming the subject of the piece.
He was standing at the corner of Princes Street and Hanover, leaning against the wall, holding out a copy of ‘The Big Issue’, the rest of his bundle lying at his feet.
Alan Hoddle, drug addict and spectre of her dreams. How often she had imagined herself following him, questioning him. ‘Who is your supplier?’ ‘Did you know my son?’ ‘Did you show him where to get drugs?’ ‘Are you the one I can hate, the one I can blame?’
Rationally, she knew the odds were against him knowing David, having anything to do with him or his habit, but irrationally, he had become the focus of her feverish desperation to find someone to blame, someone to punish. He was the only link she had to the twilight side of addiction. All the others she met at Omega House, were seeking the daylight. Alan dwelt in darkness.
Looking around, she selected a shop across the street from which she could watch him unobserved: see who he talked to; if anyone gave him anything other than the price of the magazine; when he moved off, in which direction he went.
She pretended to study the magazines in the rack by the window, until the shopkeeper started hovering nervously nearby. So she bought one: about motorsports, the one that came first to her hand. She lingered by the counter.
“Anything else?” the woman asked.
Sarah looked at her, incomprehension causing her to stare. “Sorry?”
“Do you want something else?”
“No, thank you, or, yes. Yes! I’ll have…” She glance around the shop quickly, fearing distraction from her vigil. “A pint of milk! Yes, a pint of milk, please.”
“Do you want a bag for that?” The shopkeeper nodded towards the magazine and the milk.
“Thank you! Yes! Thank you.” Sarah took the bag, threw some money on the counter, enough she hoped to cover the cost of the milk, and hurried to the door.
As far as she could tell, he had hardly sold any copies from his bundle, no-one had spent more than a moment in his company and no-one had given anything into his hand other than the coins he dropped casually into his pocket. Her eyes stung from their unblinking vigil, her body ached with tension.
As he moved off, so she sprang into action, and was out of the shop too fast. He was crossing the street, coming up, past the doorway she lingered in, her face turned at the last moment to study the colourful posters in the window beside her, her breath held painfully against the instinct to cry out.
He walked past, his steps unhurried, his head down, shoulders hunched. She slid into step behind him, feigning a casual saunter, her head up, watchful, looking around as though the street were new to her.
When he turned the corner, so did she. When he crossed the road, she did too.
He stopped at a bus stop. She froze. What should she do? Could she boldly walk up to the stop too? Stand beside him? Wait for the bus? What if he recognised her? What if he spoke?
She hesitated, stepping backwards into the shadow of the Building Society entrance. Several others joined the queue before the bus came and she was able to sidle on behind him, unnoticed, at the last moment.
He went upstairs: she was about to follow, hesitated, torn between the fear of recognition and the need for close observation. What if he met someone on the bus? If she stayed downstairs she might miss the all-important moment, the secret hand-over of some little package, the exchange of money for goods other than ‘The Big Issue’. But, if she followed him upstairs, he might see her, recognise her, sense she was following him. She didn’t dare to climb the stairs: would have to take the risk of missing the moment. She sat facing them, watchful for his descent, waiting for the moment of disembarkation.
Not knowing her destination, and not hearing his mumbled exchange with the driver, she had no idea what fare to request, had paid as much as she thought likely and prayed that it would fit her journey. Now she sat trembling. What exactly was she doing? What did she hope to gain? And at what cost? This was all so crazy.
Surely everyone could see her agitation? Yet no-one paid her any heed. Couldn’t they see the sweat that ran from her hairline, down the side of her face, the bridge of her nose, from her upper lip? She was so cold: cold with fear, chilled despite the warmth of the evening and the crowded bus.
The bus swung round corners and lurched across junctions, chugging up hills and coasting along straight roads. Minutes felt like hours and Sarah felt the numbing of time standing still. Every time the bus approached a stop, she readied herself for the sudden leap she must make if he disembarked here. Every time it started onwards again she sat back thankfully, glad of the procrastination, afraid of the daring of her impulsive plan.
Eventually, there he was, coming down the stairs. She recognised his boots, ‘Doc Martins’, old and scuffed, as dirty and neglected as the rest of his apparel, his old jeans and army-surplus coat, his unkempt, shoulder-length hair. He stood, leaning against the handrail, staring at nothing in particular. Casually, he mumbled something to the driver who grumbled his reply, bringing the bus to a halt without looking at the man who addressed him.
Sarah stood to follow him, then realised with horror that this wasn’t a bus stop. The driver had stopped opposite a junction to oblige his regular passenger. If she also got off here, it would be obvious she was following him: he couldn’t help but notice her. If she stayed on, she might miss where he went. Sickened, she hesitated too long to make the choice. It was made for her when the bus lurched forward again and travelled a further hundred yards or so down the road before stopping again at the bus stop and at the request of an older lady, carrying two heavy bags of shopping.
“Thanks Erchie. Greta all right?”
“Aye, hen. Tam?”
“See ye then.”
Come on, come on! Get off the bus. Get out of the way. I need to see where he’s headed.
Knowing she should be offering to help, rather than desiring to harass, Sarah tried to contain her impatience as the woman grunted and groaned her way off the platform of the bus. At last, Sarah was able to get around her and run back towards the junction across the road.
She saw him immediately. He had had to wait for a gap in the traffic before he could safely cross and he was only just reaching the junction now. If she could get across herself, she could catch up, keeping a little distance between them.
“Terrible place this tae cross.” The woman had hobbled her way to the same point before there was another opportunity to cross the road. “Should be a pelican here,” she puffed, breathless from the exertion of hauling her burden this far. “Ye cin wait long enough tae get over, ken. Mind, it gies me a wee breather,” she coughed, putting her bags down at her feet while she caught her breath.
All of Sarah’s instincts cried out for her to offer to carry the woman’s bags. But she couldn’t. If she took the time to help her, she would miss him. He was already turning the corner ahead. She mustn’t lose him. She just mustn’t!
Rudely, she ignored the woman’s panting comments. If she stopped to answer them, she knew she would feel obliged to offer the assistance so obviously needed. Heedless of the oncoming traffic, she headed across the road.
“Watch yersel’, hen!” the woman cried after her.
“Beeeeeep!” a car horn sounded.
But she was safely across, hurrying towards the corner, praying that the commotion would not cause him to turn round.
This part of Edinburgh was new territory for Sarah. The bus displayed a sign for Wester Hailles, but the bus had not reached its terminus. The streets here were all named things like Ladyburn Road, LadyburnGardens or Park or Grove, so she supposed the area was called Ladyburn, but she had never been here before, not having any need to come, not having any friend or acquaintance living here.
Her first impression was borne in upon her without conscious thought: grey, concrete buildings, littered stairwells in shadowy tall blocks of flats, some highrise, some three or four storey. Blank windows watched her as she stole along, close to the walls, keeping as many paces behind him as she dared.
When he turned a corner, so did she. When he crossed the road, she did too.
Intent on following him, on keeping out of his sight should he turn round, she kept a wary eye for nearby shelter, paying scant attention to the path they took, forgetting that she would need to be able to find her way home at the end of this exercise. Her mind had not foreseen an end to the exercise.
A bicycle whizzed past close to her, startling her, so that she jumped against the wall grazing her hand. Another bike followed, missing her only because she hadn’t moved. Neither rider so much as looked back to note her safety.
Shaken, she took a long breath, her eyes scanning the road ahead frantically.
He was still up ahead, exchanging curses with the uncaring cyclists, though he had fared better than she. He walked on, shouting after them, shaking his fist.
She put the side of her hand to her mouth to soothe it, staying where she was until she felt sure he would not look behind him: until it seemed safe to recommence the stalking of her prey.
He led her deeper into the scheme, the flats becoming shabbier and darker, with less signs of life. Windows boarded up, doors barricaded and padlocked, graffiti decorating them. Here and there limp curtains dressed the windows that had not been boarded: sometimes only one or two in a property. Surely a frightening place to live: the underbelly of the city.
Some children ran, screaming, across her path. Instinctively, she checked her watch. After seven o’clock, nearer half past. Surely time children so young were being called to bed?
They doubled back, their language that of the shipyard rather than the nursery playground, their manners non-existent as they jostled past her on the pavement. She shook her head in sadness, watching them as they scrabbled on the ground, fighting out some junior gang-land battle.
He was gone!
Her attention was diverted for a moment and he was gone!
Furious with herself for permitting the distraction, she rushed forward to where she remembered seeing him last.
But which way now?
She could go forward, round the next corner, across the next street. But he might not have. He could have entered any one of the gaping entrances around her. She stood at a cul-de-sac, a sort of dilapidated play area surrounded by flats, each one the same as the next, each one the possible lair of her fox.
Suddenly, she felt very vulnerable. She was in his territory. Without realising it, the table could be turning, she could become the hunted instead of the hunter.
She cowered in by the wall, her heart hammering, blood pounding in her head, not sure whether to seek him further or cut her losses. Still feeling exposed, she crept furtively along the wall and dodged into the first entrance to give herself cover, time to regroup, time to think.
“Aagh!” A scream was strangled in her throat.
The first she realised that he was there was when he grabbed her and pulled her into the darker recesses of the close, his voice hissing in her ears, his words fierce and dirty.
He demanded to know who she was and why she was following him, but there were so many expletives that she could barely understand his questions. He was holding her so tightly she couldn’t get breath to answer him anyway.
Then he recognised her. “You’re from Omega House,” was the gist of it. “Mike’s bird’s mother. Ah ken you.” His grip slackened a little. “So what d’ye want? Why’re you followin’ me?” he asked again, no more politely, with no fewer expletives.
She was still unable to speak. Her throat was constricted partly from the pressure exerted by his arm about her neck, partly by the fear that disabled her.
“Ach, yer as bad as yer wimp o’ a son,” he said, releasing her with a push that sent her reeling into the wall, a pipe burying itself cruelly in her shoulder. Before she could catch her breath, he was upon her. “Got nae mair’n he deserved. Should’ve kept his nose out o’ where it didnae belang.” He spat on the ground at her feet. “An’, here’s your warning tae dae the same!”
He punched her hard in the stomach, then knocked her sideways with the vicious application of his knee to her side. She fell, wracked with pain and losing consciousness from the blow he administered to the back of her head. He spat again, but not at her feet.
The last she remembered was the pool of milk seeping out from under her where she’d landed on the bag that held it.
If you’d like to read what happens to Sarah, what she uncovers and how it impacts on her life, here is the link for the book, ‘Family Matters’: