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The Other Daughter – Sara Alexi’s Latest
The Other Daughter by Sara Alexi is a compelling and gritty tale, set amongst the wild moors and crooked streets of a Yorkshire Village, following one woman who finally untangles herself from the clutches of a painful past and a self-centred mother.
More than a decade after leaving home Dawn finds herself stuck in a dead-end job, in a rundown flat, while her sister has it all – the husband, children and prestigious job in sunny Australia. Their mum’s favouritism is palpable, and even as she has a terrible fall leaving Dawn to pick up the pieces, nothing Dawn does can live up to her perfect, absent sister.
But still Dawn persists with taking care of her aging and fragile mum, until one day it begins to feel like the only thing standing between Dawn and her happiness is her mother’s continued, pitiful existence…
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THE OTHER DAUGHTER
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Dawn slams the brakes on, one wheel on the kerb, yanks the door open, runs to the house and fumbles in her bag for the keys. ‘Don’t be dead, Mum, don’t be dead!’
She leaps up the four steps to the back door, hands trembling. The key won’t go into the lock. It’s always stiff; she’s been meaning to get someone to fix it for years.
‘Please don’t have left your keys in the other side …’ A whispered prayer.
A click, and relief flows as the door swings open and Dawn hurries inside. The silence is thick and the smell of musty carpets mixed with the aroma of old coats, as usual, sticks in her nostrils. Her feet slow and then halt. Her heart thumps in her chest and the sound repeats itself in her ears.
‘Mum?’ She whispers the word, terrified that if she says it out loud there will still be no answer.
The utility area that connects the back door to the kitchen is narrow: washing machine and freezer down one side, supporting a worktop on which there is a microwave and stacks of tin cans. Once upon a time, when both she and Amanda lived here, and Dad was still alive, these tins were filled with Mum’s home-baked cakes and scones. They’ve been empty for years now. Above the counter are shelves, sagging under the weight of tins of food, some of them three and four years old, probably older at the back.
In the kitchen, she puts her keys down silently on the table, listening. Nothing! Her bottom lip starts to tremble. Her vision blurs and her eyes swim. Once she has passed through a second door, into the hall, the sound of her footsteps is muffled by the carpet, laid on a thick layer of bubble wrap underlay, Dad’s clever idea. The popping stopped long ago.
The television room door is closed. That is where she will most likely be. There is no sound of a television.
‘Mum?’ Dawn calls out, slightly louder. The sound of her own voice ringing in the emptiness calms her, but there is no answer. Taking a deep breath and then clenching her teeth, she opens the door.
‘Oh Mum!’ She exhales rapidly. ‘Oh, thank goodness.’ She hurries to her mother’s side and puts her arms around her. ‘Are you all right?’
‘No, I’m not. Look at these poor mites!’ Mum is staring at a charity letter, on her knee, which shows photos of faraway places, and little African children so thin it is amazing that they are alive.
‘No, I meant you, Mum? Are you all right?’ Dawn backs off and looks her over from head to foot.
‘Me? Yes, why would I not be? But these little children aren’t, look how thin this one is. Came yesterday, it did. Imagine how they are today.’ Her bent finger traces across the picture.
‘Mum, I got a call, you fell!’ Dawn crouches so they are eye to eye.
‘Yes! I got a call from your window cleaner. John, is it? He said he had to get Jim to help pick you off the floor.’
‘Such nice men. John and Jim. You wonder where their parents are.’ Her fingers still on the child’s face.
‘Mum, it’s just a begging letter. You can’t afford to give away your money. Throw it in the bin. We’ve talked about this before.’
Mum looks at her with surprise.
‘You want me to put the children in the bin?’
Dawn gently eases the cheap print from under Mum’s hand and puts it on the little round table next to her chair.
‘Mum, tell me about the fall, tell me about Jim and John.’
‘Such nice men. Window cleaners. Both of them. I think they work together. Is it Wednesday already?’
‘No, Mum, it’s Monday.’
‘This isn’t your day.’ A frown passes across Mum’s brow.
Dawn comes on Wednesdays for tea, and leaves after Midsomer Murders, reruns of which are on most days. On Fridays and Saturdays she is at Mum’s for tea again, and they watch television after that – usually an old film, a repeat. She arrives at five thirty and leaves at nine: the same routine these past sixteen years.
Now she is back on her feet. ‘You’ve dried blood in your hair. Mum, what happened?’
‘My head does hurt.’ Mum is looking at the letter on the round table.
‘I’ll get you some painkillers, but you must tell me what happened.’ The painkillers are in the kitchen, in the bottom drawer. She leaves both doors open so she can still hear Mum’s voice.
‘It was the Damart catalogue.’
‘What was?’ Next to the pills is a half-eaten family-size chocolate bar and a stack of leaflets from local takeaways. She puts the leaflets on top to hide the temptation.
‘It was under the door.’
The tap runs cold and Dawn fills a glass and wets a tea towel, takes them through.
‘What has the Damart catalogue got to do with anything?’ She passes the glass and Mum holds out a curled hand to receive the pills, and then she starts to gently dab at the dried blood with the wet tea towel. Mum does not flinch; Dawn has never known her to flinch at anything. It is almost as if she is disconnected from her body.
‘I told you, the Damart catalogue was on the step. I’d been out to the post office, for my pension. Now where is my bag …’
‘I’ll find your bag in a minute. Sit still and tell me what happened.’
‘The catalogue was wrapped with plastic, and it was slippery when I stepped on it, that was the problem.’
‘Oh God, Mum – you didn’t fall back down the steps, did you?’ Dawn stops dabbing to look in her mother’s face.
‘I don’t think so. I sort of twisted, I think. Which reminds me, there’s a twenty-pence piece under the stool by the back doormat.’
‘So you fell by the back door?’
‘I suppose I must have done. I called out and John and Jim came.’
‘Oh Mum, how long were you calling out for?’
‘I don’t know. I looked around for a bit, not knowing what to do. I was like an upturned beetle. That’s when I saw the twenty-pence piece. You can have that, it’s under the stool by the back door. I might have had a little sleep, too, I don’t recall.’
‘John and Jim?’ Dawn puts a hand to her own forehead; the pain there is spreading, a dull ache. It might be the beginning of a migraine.
‘Yes, they came, they heard me. It took the two of them to get me up. There was no room, you see, not with me lying in front of the washing machine. John, with his long legs, stepped over me. Pushing and pulling, they were.’
‘It sounds horrible. I’m so sorry.’
‘Why are you sorry? You didn’t leave the Damart catalogue under my door. I think I’ll write to them.’
‘Yes, you write to them, Mum.’ Dawn balls the damp tea towel. The cut is really very small and it isn’t bleeding any more. ‘You want a cup of tea?’
Mum’s complexion is not pale, she has colour in her cheeks, but Jim must have been worried at the time; why else would he have called her, why else would Mum have given him her number?
‘Oh, that would be lovely. Is it time for Midsomer Murders yet?’ The charity leaflet slips from the table and arcs to the floor as Mum leans over and reaches for the television remote control.
‘Too early, Mum.’
‘But you’re here …’
‘I came out of work early, when I got the call.’
‘John and Jim.’
‘Nice men.’ She turns the remote in her hand, pointing first one end and then the other at the blank screen.
Dawn goes through to the kitchen, fills the kettle.
‘I have a new supervisor,’ she calls back down the hall.
‘Bit early for supper,’ Mum calls back.
Dawn opens the bottom drawer and snaps off a line of chocolate, pops it in her mouth. She closes her eyes to concentrate on the velvety sweetness, the instant lift it seems to give her, the comfort. But all too soon it is gone. She kicks the drawer shut to hide the temptation and the kettle starts to hiss.
‘No, I said I have a new supervisor.’ She goes back into the television room and slumps into the other comfy chair, on the other side of the gas fire. The sofa, on the opposite wall, side on to the television, is piled high with magazines and catalogues and letters from charities; packets of notelets from the RSPCA show cute baby animals, and there are free pens from the NSPCC.
‘A new supervisor?’
‘She’s one of those people who loves the power. I hope she doesn’t notice that I left early.’
‘Why did you leave early?’ Mum is still pressing the buttons on the remote but nothing is happening.
‘Because you had a fall, Mum.’
‘Press the red button at the top. I’ll make the tea.’
Her shoulders drop as she walks; the threat of a migraine is leaving her. She will take her time to make a pot of tea, let herself slow down, reflect a little.
‘Stupid!’ She condemns herself for the way she drove to get here. The roadworks were still going on and the light was turning red as she approached. Her foot hovered over the brake. That was when she felt the first twinge of a migraine and she closed one eye in an attempt to alleviate the sensation.
‘Traffic lights for a single small hole on the pavement!’ she comments, and she drops two teabags into the pot. The kettle clicks off.
There was no one coming so she stamped hard on the accelerator, at the last moment. The red light flashed across her eyes as she passed; a check in the rear view mirror showed the silver car behind stopping. A glance at her phone told her there had not been another call. She would have heard it anyway. Both arms stiff, tightly gripping the wheel.
She sniffs at the milk and pours it into a little stainless steel jug.
All the time she was driving, all she could think was, ‘What if it’s worse than John said?’ The hill drained the car’s momentum and the silver coupe that had stopped behind her at the traffic light cruised past.
‘Come on!’ she remembers shouting, urging the little blue car on and glancing again at her phone. Nothing. ‘Keep calm,’ she told herself. ‘If it is bad, John or Jim will have stayed with her. If it’s really bad they’ll call an ambulance.’ She imagined her mother adamant, insisting that she wanted no doctors, however bad the damage.
She puts a piece of kitchen paper on the plastic tray so the teapot and milk jug do not slip and she finds two cups.
Finally the little blue car crested the hill and gained speed, catching up and passing the coupe on the way down the other side. The roundabout at the bottom looked clear. With no decrease in speed she turned the wheel hard and the car lurched, and for a moment she wondered if the near side wheels lifted. Her instinct was to slow down, but she couldn’t, she dared not, and so she exited the roundabout as fast as she entered it.
‘Just stupid!’ she repeats, and she lifts the tray, then puts it down again; they could do with a biscuit or two, after the shock.
Savouring another strip of chocolate, she looks at the calendar on the wall. Two kittens playing with a red ball of wool advertise the local veterinary surgery. The muscles around her heart seem to tighten at the sight. She could have done it, with just a little encouragement. It might have taken her longer than most but she could have been a vet, or a veterinary nurse at the least. She lifts the page to look at the miniature ponies that grace next month’s page. But no, she was not allowed to be the one to shine. Amanda got all that glory. On the corkboard by the cooker, there is a new card from Australia. She plucks it free of its coloured pin.
The sun is still shining here in Australia, the sun always shines here. The boys are well and send their love, as always. Carl loves high school and is doing well. Lucas is jealous but I have told him he will go next year. They have cut my shifts at the hospital which I guess is a relief. Brax sends his love as always. Love Amanda. P.H.D.
‘P.H.D.’ stands for ‘Please say hello to Dawn’. When Amanda first emigrated to be with Braxton, she would address the postcards to both of them, but somehow, over the years, it turned into an afterthought, an abbreviation. Twelve years, to be exact. It’s meant to be a sort of joke, as she is a doctor of medicine but does not actually have a PhD. Dawn pins the card back to the corkboard.
She takes the last strip of chocolate and puts the wrapper in the bin, stuffing it under the empty milk carton, then takes the tea through.
‘I should have been a vet, you know.’ She wants to add if you had given me one second of encouragement.
‘Did I find my bag?’ Mum has put down the television remote control and picked up the charity letter again. ‘I need my chequebook.’ The adverts are on silent.
‘You always have so much to give others, don’t you, Mum?’ Dawn mutters, but quietly enough not to be heard clearly.
‘Here’s your bag.’ Dawn takes the bag from behind the sofa.
‘I’ll just give them a little something.’ Her crooked fingers scrabble for her cheque book and pen, both of which she finds with remarkable ease, considering how full she stuffs her bag.
‘Mum, you can’t afford to. Listen! You don’t have the money to be giving it away.’
‘I have a house, dear, I’m one of the lucky ones.’
‘Yes, but you have bills to pay and food to buy.’
‘I’m sure it will be fine.’ She starts to write out the cheque.
Dawn wants to swear as she watches the old woman pretending to be all official, notes the sense of power it seems to give her to write a cheque, and then in a moment of lucidity the old woman becomes her mum again and looks up.
‘So, a new supervisor. Maybe that will improve your job.’ She smiles and tears off the cheque, and puts it in the prepaid envelope.
‘I don’t think anything could improve that job,’ Dawn grumbles, pouring the tea.
‘Yes, but you stick with it, girl. It has a pension, and you’ll be glad of that in the long run.’
‘In the long run,’ Dawn mutters, and she pours the milk. Sixteen years have slid by since she took the job. Sixteen years of her life gone in that hideous role.
The television is now unmuted and the familiar music of Midsomer Murders fills the room at full volume.
‘I do wish they wouldn’t mutter, can you make out what they are saying? They mumble.’ Mum says the same thing every time she switches on the television. She can eavesdrop on conversations at a hundred metres, but the television she always needs on full volume. Dawn takes her earplugs from the porcelain box that jostles for space with an assortment of family photos on the shelf above the radiator. Carl and Lucas, the grandchildren Mum has never seen. Amanda in her graduation gown. Amanda on a tricycle aged two. Amanda and Braxton getting married on the beach in the Seychelles. There is also a photo of Amanda with Dad and one of Mum and Dad in their twenties.
‘You know, you don’t have one photo of me here.’
The moment she has said this, she wishes that she had not. Not one part of her wants to hear the excuses that serve to avoid saying the actual words, the real reason why her image is not there with the rest, which is that her mum does not want to see her there. She is a disappointment.
‘Why do I need a photo of you when you are here nearly every day? Could you get me my chocolate, please, dear? Bottom drawer, in the kitchen.’
They watch Chief Inspector John Barnaby solve a crime of passion, with Mum giving a running commentary throughout. Each time the adverts come on she mutes the sound and the images flicker in silence. Justice prevails in the final scene of the drama and Mum sighs, satisfied.
‘I knew it would be him who done it. Never liked him as an actor. Shifty eyes.’ She turns the television off. ‘I’d better get the tea on.’
Leaning to one side, with one hand flat on the round table and the other on the arm of her chair, she shuffles her bottom forward and then, rocking her weight forward over her feet, she stands unsteadily. She’s misjudged it and her weight is too far forward; she tries to put one foot in front, to halt the momentum, but doesn’t manage it quickly enough. Her fingers fumble to grip the occasional table but it is an unstable three-legged affair. Dawn is on her feet, her hands out, and balance is re-established.
‘Mum, you nearly fell again.’ She says it as kindly as she can, to counteract the unexpected fury raging in her gut.
‘I just missed my step, which is not a fall. Don’t exaggerate.’
‘Okay, walk to the kitchen then,’ Dawn challenges her, trying to calm her own unexpected internal response.
‘That’s where I’m going. I think I have a nice leek and potato pie in the freezer, or I have some stuffed potato skins that were on offer. No fresh beans, I’m afraid. You didn’t tell me you were coming round.’
‘Watch each step, Mum.’ Dawn follows her mother, arms out, one either side, ready to catch her.
‘And a lemon cheesecake for afters.’
‘It must be off by now, Mum – you’ve been eating that for weeks.’
‘The lemon cheesecake?’
‘Well, it lasts for ages, doesn’t it, in the freezer? Oh, I don’t know why but just coming in from the other room has tired me out.’
She grasps the edge of the cheap pine kitchen table and pulls out a chair, but as she lowers herself onto it she misjudges it. ‘Oh!’ she cries, lurching to one side, but Dawn is there to catch her and sit her upright again.
‘You okay, Mum?’ she says, and there is the rage again. It makes no sense. And it’s very unkind.
‘I’m fine.’ Mum sits carefully with guidance.
‘You nearly fell again!’ Dawn squats to look her in the face, forcing her own feelings down.
‘I didn’t, don’t fuss.’ She will not make eye contact.
‘What if you fall tomorrow and there’s no one here to catch you? What then?’
‘I won’t, don’t be so silly. Just give me a moment and I’ll get the pie out.’
‘I’m worried, Mum. What if you do fall? Maybe the incident with the Damart catalogue has shaken you. Maybe in a few days you’ll be fine but right now I think you need someone to be here with you, for a few days.’
‘Can you take the time off work? The pie’s in the second drawer down in the freezer.’ She points in the direction of the back door but makes no effort to stand.
‘No, I can’t, not with this new supervisor.’ Dawn struggles to open the freezer door. It needs defrosting.
‘And peas, bring out the peas.’
Dawn puts the pie in the oven and the peas on the stove, and is about to sit.
‘Let’s not have steerage, eh?’ Mum says and points to the cupboard on the back wall where she keeps the lidded bowls and other serving dishes she has collected over the years from charity shops. The pie must be served onto plates before it comes to the table, or else it needs a presentation plate of its own. The jars of mustard, hollandaise sauce and ketchup from the fridge are arranged on saucers, each with a teaspoon. Dawn plays by the rules. Usually she does it without a thought – it’s as it has always been, as it was when she was small – but occasionally it strikes her as pretentious. Mother was brought up on a council estate, after all, in the poorest part of Bradford.
‘Did you see we’ve got a postcard from Amanda?’ Mum chirps. ‘The boys are doing so well at school, top of the class for Carl. I think Lucas is a little jealous, and even though they can’t manage without her they’ve finally cut down Amanda’s hours at the hospital. She works such long hours, I do worry that she puts herself under too much pressure.’
Dawn nods and makes the right noises. She stares out of the window at the flat, grey sky. The weather has turned cold and she wouldn’t be surprised if there was a frost. It’s a way off yet but it’s been many years since they had a white Christmas. It would be nice to have a white Christmas, like they had when she was a child. Didn’t they?
‘I think the pie’s burning.’ Mum makes no attempt to stand so Dawn gets up and puts the food into the serving vessels. Mum fusses with the cork mats they are to stand on. Then Dawn sits and waits for the complaint that the plates are not hot enough, but it doesn’t come today. The food is chewed mostly in silence, with only a brief exchange about the new brand of hollandaise sauce. But as Dawn puts her knife and fork together she notices that Mum has hardly eaten a thing.
‘The potatoes and leeks are good,’ she encourages her. ‘Try them, leave the pastry.’ But Mum just pushes her pie about the plate.
The lemon cheesecake has seen better days but at least Mum will eat that; she’s always had a sweet tooth.
‘I’ll just give it a second in the microwave, Mum, so it’s not so frozen.’
But today Mum does not eat dessert either, and she demands coffee instead, freshly ground and filtered, but when it’s made she fails to actually drink any.
‘How much have you had to drink today, Mum?’ Dawn asks as they settle back in the television room. The dishwasher hums away in the kitchen – a comforting sound that makes the place feel more lived in.
‘Same as usual. A coffee here and there.’
‘You drink too much coffee. Have you had any water?’
‘You know I don’t drink water.’
‘Well, you should.’
‘Listen, Mum, I need to go home. There are things I need to do.’ This isn’t true, but Dawn just doesn’t want to be here. She wants her own space, her own things about her. ‘Are you are all right, will you be all right tomorrow?’
‘I’ll be fine. A good night’s sleep will see me right.’
‘Shall I help you to bed?’ Dawn offers.
‘It’s a bit early.’
‘Yes, but – well, there are the stairs.’ It’s selfish to put her own needs first. ‘I tell you what, I’ll stay a little longer and then see you up the stairs.’
Dawn settles back into her seat. A repeat of her soap opera comes on and she relishes the chance to escape, even though she has already seen it. But two minutes into it, Mum says, ‘Drivel,’ and changes the channel to something about a man sailing a raft down the canals to London to deliver a piano. Although annoyed about missing her soap, Dawn is interested in this mad scheme. The presenter is just about to speak to the raft owner himself, who comes from a nearby town, when Mum pipes up again – ‘What stupid things some people do!’ – and the channel is changed again to some old black-and-white film. The film holds Mum’s attention, and Dawn retreats behind a magazine from the sofa.
By the time the film has finished Mum is yawning, and Dawn encourages her up the stairs to bed. She looks old and frail, taking up only part of her half of the big double bed. Dad watches over her sternly, framed in silver on the bedside table; the sheets on his side are smooth, undisturbed.
‘Mum, I’m going to make you some sandwiches for lunch tomorrow and I’ll leave out five mugs, each with a teaspoon of coffee in them, or a teabag. That way you can keep track of how much you’ve drunk and eaten, okay?’
‘Pass me my book, dear.’
‘Did you hear me?’ There is a grunt. ‘Goodnight, Mum, I’ll come after work tomorrow.’
‘Hmmmm.’ Mum fumbles with her glasses and opens the book.
Dawn’s phone beeps, a text from June.
Hope you have ‘naughty’ reasons for missing pub quiz? Hilary and I failed miserably, as per always 😉
The new supervisor is pushing her weight around the following day and all the staff are complaining about her, even the canteen staff. On top of that, there are way too many emails in Dawn’s inbox, the first of which is about Hogdykes Abattoir, and the annual inspection that is due. She forwards the email to several colleagues – someone else can deal with it. There’s a new case for her to look into today – a complaint about a house with too many dogs and rabbits being kept in unsanitary conditions over in Little Lotherton. Dawn has not been there before, and on the map it looks to be out in the middle of nowhere, a single street of mill cottages backing onto the moors and farmland. It actually turns out to be not a million miles away from Hogdykes Abattoir.
‘That has to be the smallest village ever,’ Dawn mutters to herself as she looks more closely. It’s an old map and it shows a stream running down one side of the street. One plot of land is bigger than the rest – that will be where the mill was originally. The cottages will have been built for the millworkers, but who would want to live so far from anywhere in this day and age, and how would they earn a living? She’ll have to drive out there to take a look, check out the validity of the complaint. A day in the country, away from Ms Moss, her new boss. Maybe she could even stretch it to a pub lunch.
The little car starts with ease. It feels good, liberating, to be out of the office. The roadmap is open on the passenger seat but she doesn’t refer to it for the first part of the journey – she has a good general idea where the village is located.
The route to Little Lotherton takes her out of Keighley’s granite streets and into open countryside, along the Aire Valley, following the train tracks that snake along the valley bottom. Hills rise up on either side – sheep in fields neatly divided into squares by dark drystone walls on one side, and the rugged open moors on the other.
Dawn passes through a number of villages, and now she has to stop often to consult her map. She is not the best of map readers.
‘Ah,’ she exclaims as she eventually crosses over the train tracks. To her right is signposted Greater Lotherton. She wants to go the other way – Little Lotherton is reached by a lane off to the left here somewhere.
‘There you are!’ Dawn spots the exit, then turns the car off the main road and up a narrow cobbled lane. There’s an old red phone box on the corner, of the type that you don’t see much these days. Cars are parked intermittently all the way up on the right-hand side, which means if she drives up she will have to reverse back down; the street is not wide enough for her to turn around. She leaves her car at the bottom, and her cardigan flaps in the wind as she climbs out. She should have brought a coat, but the office is kept so warm and it always fools her. She wraps the thin knitted fabric around her. The narrow pavement is made up of large old flagstones, worn here and there for puddles to gather, tidelines showing where these have evaporated again and again. The street is a steady incline.
‘Which makes sense if there’s a stream at the back of these houses,’ Dawn observes.
The cottages are on two levels, built of blackened stone, with tall narrow windows on the upper floors to give maximum light. These are old weaving cottages, built some two hundred years ago. One up, one down, and an outhouse behind. It’s extraordinary to think that looms once dominated these upper floors and the families lived in such cramped conditions below.
Near the top is a house that must be the place she has been called out to see. The windows are dark, as if things are piled up in front of them on the inside, and where the front door should be is a wardrobe, which acts as a rudimentary porch. But it is the smell that really gives it away. The stench is nauseating as she approaches and Dawn thinks she might be physically sick. She pulls her cardigan over her nose and mouth but it doesn’t help much. The cottages are set back a little from the street, and each has a very narrow strip of garden in front, edged by a low stone wall. Most of these gardens are neatly tended, and one or two are overflowing with flowers. Others are no more than a patch of earth and gravel. There are no flowers in front of the house she has come to inspect.
She leans over the wall and knocks. The wardrobe rattles and inside the house several dogs bark, but no one comes to the door.
‘Excuse me?’ Dawn calls to an elderly man who is opening a window in the house next door.
‘What d’you want?’ He eyes her suspiciously.
‘Dawn Todman, Health and Safety. Bradford Council. Do you know if anyone’s in?’ She knows the title she has just given herself is not wholly accurate, but past experience has proved that it gives her the gravitas to get the job done.
‘Health and Safety? ’Bout time you did summit ’bout ’im. Hundreds of dogs he has, and rabbits! It’s not nice. Not proper.’ He seems a little more friendly now.
‘Well, I’ve heard several dogs barking. Where does he keep the rabbits – inside?’
‘No, round back.’
There are several cages at the back of the house, rough-looking home-made affairs, stacked two and three high. The rabbits look well enough, except one that is so large it can hardly turn in its cage.
Dawn had a rabbit called Jemima when she was a child – Myma for short.
‘Place is overrun with the creatures,’ the neighbour grumbles.
‘How many dogs are there?’ She looks towards the house as the wind changes.’ And what’s the smell?’ she exclaims, holding the sleeve of her cardigan over her nose.
‘That’s what I’m saying, it’s not right. I have to live with that!’ The man sounds triumphant. ‘That’s what happens when you have too many animals inside.’
‘Is it coming from the house?’
‘So now you can get rid of them animals, and get rid of that bloody Cyril too!’
‘I think there might be a need to get rid of the animals if that’s what’s causing the smell.’ Dawn turns, eager to get away from the stench. ‘I’ll write a report and see what can be done.’
Cases involving animals are tricky. If her feedback to her boss is too strong and it is decided that the occupier cannot continue to live as he is doing, then there is a good chance that the animals will be put down. She must tread carefully.
‘Write a report! Bloody typical. You need to get shut of them animals, not write any report. What good will that do!’
‘I have to follow procedures, Mr …?’
‘Well, Mr Brocklethwaite, I’ll write my report and proper steps will be taken.’ She puts her cardigan over her nose again. ‘That’s bad, isn’t it,’ she says.
‘Aye, and I have to live with it while you go off and write your bloody report.’ Mr Brocklethwaite stands on his doorstep, hands thrust deep in his pockets.
Back in the office, Dawn words her report so as to emphasise that the animals appear to be in good health, hoping that by focusing on this she might spare them death. It may be possible to rehome the dogs, although she didn’t manage to get even a glimpse of any of them. It’s the rabbits that will be more of a problem, she stresses.
How she had hugged and petted her Myma when she was little. Myma – she was her confidante, an ally to whom she had whispered her secrets, voiced her stifled frustrations about Mum, promised that she would become a vet and earn enough money to liberate all Myma’s relations at the pet shop.
Dawn looks up from her report. ‘I got her when I was seven and she died when I was’ – she looks at the ceiling, trying to recall – ‘seventeen.’ Ten years she had had the rabbit, and she can still remember her heartbreak when she came to feed Myma one morning and found her curled in her bed, her grey muzzle not twitching, her lungs still.
With a sharp intake of breath, she realizes her thoughts have wandered from her work and she looks across at her supervisor’s cubicle, partitioned in glass. Ms Moss is on the phone. She doesn’t look so fierce when she smiles, but just as Dawn is thinking this Ms Moss catches her watching and the smile is gone, her face blank. She swivels her chair around to face the window.
A glance at the clock on the wall shows that time has slowed down. Dawn reflects that she should have taken longer when she was out, sat in the car a while.
‘I have to go out now. If anything urgent comes up, leave a note on my desk. I’ll deal with it tomorrow.’ Ms Moss emerges from her glass box, pulling on her coat. Her heels click as she marches out of the office.
Sighs are heard from all corners of the open-plan office, and yawns and stretching noises follow. Dawn looks at the clock again. She should go, see if Mum is all right. She waits a few minutes, long enough to be sure her supervisor has definitely gone, and bundles her coat up, carrying it in front of her, pressed against her stomach, hidden by her flapping cardigan, and she takes the door to the toilets. There are no lifts here but there is a staircase, and as soon as the door behind her has swung shut she starts down the stairs that lead to the garage under the building. The place is only half full of cars, which shows how many people leave early, and now she is one of them.
The smell of yesterday’s leek and potato pie is mixed with the permanent aroma of old coats and dusty carpets. Nothing has moved in the room by the back door, and in the kitchen the sandwiches sit untouched, their corners curling on the plate on the table; the tea and coffee mugs are undisturbed. She listens, and her hunched shoulders relax a little when she hears the television is on.
‘Mum?’ she calls out over the sound of it.
‘Who’s there?’ The old voice sounds frightened.
‘It’s only me, Mum – Dawn.’
Mum is sitting in her usual chair, television remote in her hand. She looks smaller today, for some reason. ‘You haven’t drawn the curtains? How are you?’ Dawn has to shout over the adverts, which Mum has not muted.
‘I feel so tired.’ She gives the appearance of having melted into the chair.
‘Shall I plump up your cushion?’ Dawn takes the remote and turns the sound down.
‘My back hurts.’ Mum speaks in her normal voice; there is no need to shout now the sound is muted.
‘Well, judging by the uneaten sandwiches and the coffee cups, you’ve been sitting here all day. No wonder it hurts. Come on, get up.’
‘In a minute.’
‘Never mind in a minute, you’ve had all day. Why did you not drink anything?’
‘I did.’ Her trembling hand indicates a tiny sherry glass on the round table beside her.
‘Mum. Listen.’ Dawn squats to put her hands on Mum’s knees, and looks her in the face. ‘You’ve neither eaten nor drunk anything. I really think the Damart incident has knocked you for six. I’m going to call in a favour so someone can be with you tomorrow and Thursday, then I’ll be here for Friday and the weekend and we’ll see how you are after that. Okay?’
‘I managed fine today, didn’t I? I didn’t fall.’
‘You didn’t move and you didn’t drink, and you’ll be dehydrated. I’ll make some tea but you really need to drink more than that.’
She leaves Mum to fiddle with the remote, goes through to check the sideboard in the dining room. This room is rarely used – once a year at Christmas, but not in recent years. A layer of dust shows Dawn how long it has been since she was there to give everything a proper clean. The sherry bottle is almost empty; she will get more. Mum has so few vices – a drop of sherry and a square of chocolate will do more good than harm at her age. She takes a swig straight from the bottle, and then another. A picture of Dad scowls down at her from the wall.
‘I don’t know what you’re staring at.’ She pulls her cardigan around her to hide her overhanging stomach. The void is never filled by food or drink, no matter how sweet it is, but it does somehow take the edge off. Mildly curious, she opens the sideboard cupboard, which is filled with glasses, and there is also a bottle of fizzy fruit juice.
‘Hmm, how long have you been there?’ She picks up the juice and reads the label. There is no sell-by date. After pouring a thimbleful, she first sniffs and then sips. ‘It’s fine, she’ll think it’s wine.’
She fills a glass and takes it back through, and to her delight Mum drinks it relatively quickly. A mischievous glint in her eye confirms that she thinks it is wine and that she has been ‘naughty’. Dawn takes the glass from the room, refills it and returns it to the round table with a conspiratorial wink.
‘See if there’s any frozen sweetcorn, dear. I’m not sure what else there is … Oh, we can have those stuffed potato skins that I got on offer!’
‘Your freezer is stuffed, Mum, and the shelves over the microwave are bending under the weight of cans and packets. There’s enough food to feed you for months.
‘I fancy the potato skins.’
‘I’ll go and start everything off.’
Once the sweetcorn is waiting in a pan to be heated, and the peas too, and the potato skins are in the oven with the plates, she picks up the house phone and looks in her bag for her diary to find the number she needs.
‘Time to call in that favour.’ She dials Janet’s number. It rings once and is picked up. The television blares into life and she holds her hand up to her free ear.
‘Hello, it’s Dawn. No – Health-and-Safety-and-everything-else Dawn … Yes, that’s the one … Yes, fine. I’m so glad. No, actually, I have a bit of a favour to ask in return …’
She can see Mum through the kitchen door, down the hall, as she speaks, noting the curve of the old woman’s spine, rounded by the years, the slight lump at the back of her neck – a touch of osteoporosis – but always a jumper to match her skirt, always jewellery, no matter how cheap, chosen to match the colours of the day. Today she is in reds and browns.
She explains the situation to Janet, who says she will see what she can do, and not to worry – there are ways of jumping the queue and getting things done, and she’ll send someone round tomorrow. It seems it was a good call – she knows the right person to ask, and Dawn is assured that what Janet promises will actually happen.
‘Okay, Mum’ – she turns the television down – ‘there’s a lady coming round tomorrow to help you.’ She crouches in front of her, looking her in the eye to be sure she has made contact.
‘I have just jumped the six-month NHS waiting list for you, so don’t mess it up.’ She says this last part as a joke; she can introduce humour now. Knowing that someone else is going to help takes the strain away and she suddenly feels huge relief.
‘I don’t really need anyone,’ Mum says, standing with some effort and making her way down the hall to the kitchen. ‘Is there any more of that wine?’ she asks.
‘You’ve had two glasses, Mum,’ Dawn teases, delighted that the fruit juice has been drunk. ‘Did you bring your glass?’ Mum looks back the way she came and sighs.
‘I’ll get it,’ Dawn says. On her way there and again on her way back her phone beeps.
‘Damn!’ She does not have to read the text to know it is June, and that she has missed her watercolour evening class.
‘Damn,’ she mutters again.
Sitting down to eat, Mum seems to come to life a little.
‘No napkins, dear?’ she asks. ‘These plates are not very warm,’ she adds, ‘and can you get out the hollandaise sauce?’
Normally these comments would rile Dawn, but today she is glad to see Mum back to normal.
‘So, are we clear?’ she says between mouthfuls of potato skin. They are mushy and remind her of baby food. ‘To give yourself a break to get over this fall, we’ve got you in the NHS loop, so let’s keep you there. You know how these things are, once you are on the radar then all sorts of services become available, but drop out and you’ll be back on the six-month waiting list. We need to keep you in the system. We don’t know what the future holds.’
‘Can I have a spoon for the hollandaise, please?’
The Greek Village Series
A Wander Through the Village
Greek Village Series # 18
Grigoris sits under his olive tree, reluctant to go home and face the wrath of his wife, Lena…
He’s not been able to sell the oranges this year, and she’s going to furious!!! Just then, a little green fly lands on his shirt, and it gives him an idea – something he can use to explain why the crop failed, and deflect the blame.
It’s a bold lie, but it might just work…
Greek Village Series # 17
Rallou wakes up one day to find that her dreams have escaped her. The children are grown and gone, and her husband is no longer the man she married.
Their house is not their own, and Rallou has not achieved the things she thought she would with her life.
Has she really made the choices that have determined her life, or is it a case of ‘once a village girl always a village girl’? Either way, it is not enough…
Saving Septic Cyril
Greek Village Series # 16
In a dim terraced house on a cobbled street in West Yorkshire, Cyril gives refuge to all the stray dogs, abandoned furniture and broken toys he finds.
The ghosts of his past find their way in anyway – and now one of his neighbours wants him evicted.
When Saabira moves in next door with her husband Aaman and their young daughter, she hopes the family has left all its troubles behind in Pakistan.
But memories can be stubborn things, and Saabira has a few that even the wild winds from the moors can’t shake.
The Rush Cutter’s Legacy
Greek Village Series # 15
Born and bred in a small agricultural village, Vasso spends her days in the yellow wooden kiosk at its heart, keeping the locals supplied with cigarettes, sweets, ice creams and more.
By now, Vasso knows the stories of most of her fellow villagers, and can often be found sharing them over a frappé with her friend Juliet. But Juliet has noticed that Vasso rarely talks about herself.
Why is Vasso so reluctant to share her own story? Why did she leave the village for Orino Island one summer, many years ago – and what was it that finally drove her back?
View a list of all Sara Alexi’s books…