I found a gap in the bushes and dragged the chair hard up against the fence and tried to make it as stable as the dirt would allow. Then, I climbed on, grabbed the top of the fence, and slowly straightened until I could look over. There was a tree the other side of the fence but I was able to reach over and pull the branch slightly to one side, giving me a clear view into the back yard of the house in front. My hand was shaking badly, which showed that determination didn’t kill fear, only made you stupid enough to ignore it.
There was a man in the back yard, in loose-fitting white trousers with no top on, doing some sort of exercise. He was chopping, turning and kicking. With some movements, he expelled his breath making a sound like a whoosh. He was working around what looked like an old tree stump - the kind you see used as a chopping block. As I watched, he kicked the stump, which tottered and then fell to its side, making the thump I had heard.
I pulled the branch back even further and watched, fascinated. My first impression was of a strongly muscled back and that he was starting to build up quite a bit of a sweat. My second thought was that this was someone who should be without a top, he was in such great shape. He moved out of my line of sight, although I could still hear his movements. I leaned closer to the fence, trying to get a better look, a smile playing around my mouth. Me, a peeping tom. Then it hit me, this was a very fit man, he looked like a fighting machine. Would he be safe to live next to or would he be dangerous? I was just absorbing this distasteful idea when a hand pushed through the bush and grabbed me by the wrist, a strong hand. A face appeared below me and as I pulled back in sheer terror, I lost my balance, desperate to get free. My wrist was released and I flew backwards, through the garden and fell flat on my back on the lawn. I lay there winded and heard someone in the distance call out, “Are you okay? Hold on, I’m coming over.”
I was concentrating on trying to breathe, when the bushes exploded and, true to his word, he came over. Flew over, straight through the bushes and over the fence. He landed in the dirt, feet first, in a crouch. How did he do that? And I was right, he had built up a sweat. His chest and stomach were shiny. I lay there looking up at him, totally vulnerable as he walked over to me, rolled me on my side and delivered a strong whack on my back that made me gasp.
“That’s it, just take it easy. What the hell were you thinking? What were you doing?’
When I didn’t answer, he bent down and helped me up. ‘Come on, I’ll take you inside,’ and guided a very wobbly me to the open French doors.
‘No! Don’t go inside!’ It brought last night back as fresh as if it had just happened. I didn’t want a stranger in my house.
He stopped, his head on one side, assessing. ‘Okay, let’s just sit down here.’ Still holding my arm, he led me to the concrete step and I slumped down, feeling a complete fool. He must think I’m some kind of complete idiot. ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be spying on you. I just heard the thump, the whooshing sound and I thought my intruder had come back again.’ It was all I could get out without tears. They were perilously close and I was not going to sit and weep in front of him. I needed to retain some dignity and to hide the tears.
A quiet voice by my shoulder asked, ‘Intruder? When did you have an intruder?’
‘Last night,’ I rasped, still a bit breathless. ‘He tried my bedroom door.’ I turned my head and looked him in the eye, as he settled on the step beside me. I wanted to watch his expression, would I see fleeting guilt?
‘How did he get in?’ There was a frown and I took in brown, intelligent eyes with a lock of wet, black hair hanging over his forehead. How bizarre, that in the most fraught situations, I could make such inane observations.
‘He must have had a key. He…’ I realised I was finally talking to a neighbour. ‘Did you know Frederick Hopmann? The man who used to live here?’
‘No, I never saw anyone here, not since I’ve been here anyway.’
‘When did you move into the street?’
A crooked grin preceded the comment ‘I thought you weren’t spying on me. Aren’t I meant to be asking the questions?’
I turned to face him. ‘It’s really important. Did you know the man who used to live here? Do you know if anyone in the neighbourhood has keys to this house?’
‘I’ve never seen anyone here, but you can see why.’ He indicated the bushes and thick, green shrubbery between the two houses. ‘I’ve never really bothered about who lived here, just been grateful that they’ve left me alone. I’m not fond of nosy neighbours.’
‘Oh, I’m so sorry! I wouldn’t normally do anything like that. Mind you, I was simply checking out some very weird noises. That thump, I thought you’d jumped the fence. I thought he’d come back.’ My voice wobbled. ‘I’m sorry, it was so stupid of me.’ And just like that, there I was helpless, yet again.
‘I don’t blame you, if you’ve had an intruder. Did you contact the police?’
I looked at him in utter amazement. ‘You know, it hasn’t crossed my mind to call the police. How can I be so stupid! Do you think they would believe me? I mean, he must have had a key so that’s not breaking and entering. Nothing was taken, so it wasn’t a burglary. What was it?’ I had watched enough crime shows to know the basics.
‘Stalking? Is that why you’re so frightened? Is that why you haven’t called them, because you think they won’t believe you?’
‘No, it simply hasn’t occurred to me to call them. I was thinking that if I could find out more about Frederick, I would be able to find out who it is and somehow ….’ I didn’t know what came next.
Again that lopsided grin. ‘And Frederick Hopmann is who?’
‘He left me this house. Do you know any of the neighbours in this road? Do you think he might have been left keys with one of them to look after the house?’
“There is a guy who lives further down but he pretty much keeps to himself. I wouldn’t have a clue, you’ll have to ask him.’ He looked at me sideways again. ‘You’re asking about this Frederick and yet he left you this house?’
‘I know, strange isn’t it? A complete stranger left me this house. I don’t know anything about him. And something’s not right.’ I looked up in time to see his eyes narrow, he looked away from me to glance across the house. A sense of unease settled in me again, and I realised how much I had blurted out to a complete stranger, a fit one at that. A dangerous one? I must have made a movement, which revealed the train of my thoughts because he suddenly moved away, scooped up my pad and pen, and wrote on it. He looked at me and I thought he was going to say something, but he seemed to change his mind and straightened. ‘Well, I’ll get back to my practice. That’s my phone number if you have anything happens again. You can call me, any time.’ He headed across the lawn towards the gate to the driveway and turned, holding the gate open. ‘Contact the police and report it. The station’s only two blocks down and turn right. The uniformed staff will raise an incident report. Tell them everything that’s happened and call me if you have any further problems. And get your locks changed.’ And he was gone.
By the end of that afternoon, much had changed. The locksmith had taken me seriously when I told him it was urgent and all my exterior doors had new locks. Plus I had bolts on every external door as well as on my internal bedroom door. I was not taking any chances. I had new industrial strength torches stashed in several convenient places and had booked an electrician to install sensor lights. I would get one installed at the back door, one outside my window in the garden and one overlooking the gate from the drive. I was nothing if not thorough.
I also spent an embarrassing half hour in the police station. Their biggest concern was not one of disbelief, but one of annoyance that I hadn’t called them straight away. However, they raised an incident report and I was given a number. I was told that it was a lower scale incident, but that I should let them know if anything else happened. Did I know of anyone who would want to harass me? They said if I’d phoned them straight away, they could’ve patrolled the area, and they added to the guilt factor by suggesting that I may have prevented a break-in for someone else if they could have caught him walking the streets. Next time, I promised myself. Oh God, don’t let there be a next time.
While I was on a roll, I drove down the road and up the drive of the house down the road hidden in the trees. It was a long, steep drive. I didn’t know what I was going to say but I got out of the car full of determination and decisions and walked up to the front door and knocked. My guess was that this was the original farmhouse for the area and while run down, the house was no means dilapidated. I was determined to find out as much as I could about Frederick and whether he had left any keys. The house remained silent and no one came to the door so I walked back to my car. But before getting in, I turned to look back down the road. You could see my house from here. Well, not much of the house because of the trees, but you could quite clearly see the drive. Would Frederick choose this neighbour to look after the property? I would try again later. I checked the house at the bottom of my drive as I drove past. My fit friend obviously wasn’t interested in keeping track of his neighbour’s movements.
That night, despite all the new security, I was still jumpy. With darkness came dread. I couldn’t see what was out there, I didn’t know who might be watching. I didn’t have the security lighting installed yet. I sat on the floor, sipping my wine, my back against the couch, my mobile close to my fingertips. I had hugged Marmaduke too tightly and, as punishment, he had left my lap to curl up on the couch.
I found myself wondering what David was doing. Had I abandoned him at the first symptoms of his illness? I’d walked out, and yes, I’d had good reason to, but I hadn’t given him any chance at all. I realised that I could have got locks put on the spare room door just as quickly as I had done here. But I had flown the coop after one pathetic attempt at trying to talk about what had happened between us. I had been offered a way out and I had taken it, instantly without thinking. But the argument bounced back, I was frightened. You don’t think clearly when you are frightened and feel threatened. But I’ve been thinking clearly here, and I feel frightened and threatened here too. I’ve gone from feeling threatened by my husband to feeling threatened by a stranger. I raised my glass to some sort of weird progress.
Sipping the rich red wine, I looked around the room, wondering about Frederick and the faded squares on the walls from the missing pictures. Who would know about him? Was it a coincidence that our family had come from Germany? How could I find out a bit more about my childhood?
I sat up suddenly, almost spilling my wine. I placed the glass carefully on the hearth and picked up my mobile phone, dialling Brian’s number.
‘Brian, it’s Sam.’
‘Well, well. So you’ve finally surfaced. What the hell’s going on? David’s beside himself, he’s searching for you everywhere. Are you going to at least contact him and let him know you’re okay?’
‘Yes, I’ll call him, but I want to ask you some things about our childhood. In Germany.’
“’ knew it! This chap who left you the house, he was from there, wasn’t he? Was he a friend of the family?’
‘I don’t know. Brian, I can’t remember much about Germany, can you tell me a bit about what happened? Why we left?’ I hesitated to walk on forbidden ground, a childhood of stern warnings about to be defied. ‘Brian, did they ever have a suspect, you know, about… mamma?’
I waited. Instinct had picked that word, so much more personal than mother, which is what was the only way we had talked about her in the past. When we did talk about her, which was almost never.
’What do you want to know about that for? Has that got something to do with why you got the money?”
‘For God’s sake Brian, forget about the money! I want to know about our childhood. Why did we leave?’
‘It was Dad, he couldn’t stay there any longer. After Mamma died, he tried to investigate some leads of his own and one day, he just announced that we were going to emigrate. I think he wanted to get as far away as possible. I seem to remember there was some talk that she had had an affair.’
I was gob smacked. ‘What do you mean? Why have you never told me this before?’ My beloved mother had an affair?
‘I overheard the neighbours talking. They were looking after us while Papa was at work and they thought I was outside. They were talking about some gossip they’d heard about her and they were trying to figure out who it was. They thought it was a younger man, more fun, more like her, not like Papa.’ He paused, ‘You probably don’t even remember your real name do you?’
‘My real name? We changed our names?’ The foundation of my world shifted.
‘Oh, come on, Sam. Don’t tell me you’ve never wondered. Sam and Brian? And we came from Germany.’
‘No, I’ve never thought about it before. It seems there are a lot of things I’ve never thought about before. What was my real name? In Germany I mean?’
‘You were Unger and I was Adalbert. Our surname was Baumhauer.’
The way he pronounced the name, with a German accent, coiled through me with a strange twist of familiarity. ‘Unger Baumhauer.’ I tried the feel of the name on my tongue, but it was a strange as it sounded. ‘Did he change our names by deed poll? Why Sam and Brian?’
‘It was as far from our real names as he could get, I guess. He wanted to wipe out all reminders of our lives back there, which is why we were never allowed to talk about it. He told me I had to distract you every time you asked for mamma.’ I could hear sadness in his voice, shades of my big brother.
’Mamma.” I spoke the name. ‘Tell me about her.’ I thought he wasn’t going to answer. Then he started and it all came out with a rush.
‘She always wore rose perfume; she called it her Rose Water. And she adored flowers. She had a great flower garden. We had a tiny house, but she had pots and pots of flowers along the path out the front.’
I thought about my new rose-covered bedding I had bought. ‘Go on.’
‘She was fun, she used to play with us. She made all our clothes and they were always pastel colours. Other people’s children wore clothes in grey, black or brown. I used to get embarrassed. I thought it was silly to wear such colours and was grateful for our grey school uniform. I wanted to be more like Papa. She liked making things, she would bake, she knitted, she liked all sorts of handcrafts. She had a big collection of books on crafts and making things for the home. She would make those little things for vases to sit on. She was always making something.’ His voice faded away. ‘They thought I was going to be their only child, and I was 10 when you arrived. She liked to dress you up. She used to call you her Little Princess. When you were little, people used to stop her and comment on your clothes. She loved it when people stopped to admire you. She was always trying to make you look pretty, feminine. You had ribbons in your hair. It was really long. Do you remember having long hair?’
I put my hand to my hair. It had always been short, really short. ‘No, I ….’
‘Dad had it cut when we got here.’
I felt a lump in my throat. ‘No, I don’t remember.’ I felt I’d lost so much.
‘She used to sit you on this stool, and your hair came right down past the edge of the stool. She used to spend so much time brushing it, putting it up into different styles. She was always finding new ways to do it. She used to plait it for you to go to bed. If she had lived, you would’ve been spoilt rotten.’ There was a break, he was thinking. I could hear the smile in his voice. ‘You were spoiled. Do you remember the canary? It was …’
With a jolt, I interrupted him. ‘It was in the corner of the room. I remember, the cage. A big cage, a long one.’ I said uncertainly. Or had I seen a picture in a magazine?
‘Yup. It was in the corner of the lounge. You loved it, but it drove papa nuts. Mama would whistle at it to get it to sing more. It used to sing so much we had to put a cloth over the cage at night so it would go to sleep. Mamma used to tell you it was time to sleep because the canary had gone to sleep. It was the only way she could get you to bed at night. You wanted to stay up and play with your dolls.’
I was stunned. ‘I remember my dolls! They all had long hair with ribbons. I had a blonde one, one with dark hair and a baby doll. I had a cot for them too. Did we leave them behind too?’
“When it came time to leave, papa said that you could take only one with you, and you threw a tantrum, a real beauty. See, you were spoiled. And I think it was the last straw for him. It was the strain of everything, mama’s murder, the rumours about her playing around and leaving all his friends, work. I mean, when I look back on it now as an adult, that was a big thing to do, move countries with two young children. No family to go to, no work to go to. That took a lot of courage.’
‘Or unbearable despair,’ I suggested. What a new picture I was getting of my father. Suddenly, behind the dour, withdrawn image, there was a poor, wounded creature who was doing his best to create a reasonable life for his two children.
‘You screamed, kicked, sobbed and begged, but he said we only had room for one doll. It wasn’t like we were sending boxes ahead of us, we were only taking what we could carry. We had a large suitcase each but no, you had to have all your dolls. So you refused to pick one. I guess, he just snapped. He picked you up, carried you out and said that if you wouldn’t pick one, you could leave the lot behind. ’
I realised that I had been holding my breath and slumped as I exhaled. What a mess, poor papa. Brian continued. ‘It was awful. It was bad enough before, but then you wouldn’t stop crying. You kept calling out their names and trying to reach out the window. Papa just kept his arms locked around you and ignored you. You fought him to begin with, but in the end you cried yourself to sleep. When you woke up later, it started all over again. We were leaving our home, our mother had been murdered, and all you could do was cry over your dolls.’ I heard the young boy’s sneer in his voice and wondered if that was the reason he had always seemed to be critical of me. I always felt that Brian had no time for me, even though he had done nothing I could think of that would indicate that. It was just a tone he sometimes used with me, small comments.
‘Brian, why haven’t we ever talked about this before?’
‘Why bring up the past?’ Sadness was replaced with his habitual indifference. ‘It was nicely settled. Look what’s already happened. It’s best left where it was, Sam. Just call David.’ The phone clicked and I was left listening to the dial tone.
I sat there, stunned trying to find more pictures in my mind. I could remember the canary, the dolls all so clearly that tears prickled in my eyes. I tried to think of the canary in the lounge, and in my mind’s eye, tried to look around the room. But, there was nothing there, just a brightly coloured yellow canary and three beautifully dressed porcelain dolls. Two with long, lush hair tied back with ribbons, and one with a cotton cap on. I remember their dresses. I wondered if mama had made the doll’s clothes for me. All I could remember was how beautiful I thought their dresses were. I could remember a little blue wooden wardrobe full of dolls’ dresses and a matching blue cot. When they weren’t sitting on the chair in the lounge, they were lovingly tucked up in their cot.
I sat there until quite late pondering on our abrupt departure until my thoughts led me back to the one place I didn’t really want to go, Mamma’s murder. Could any of this have anything to do with her murder? Did Frederick give me the house as compensation? Was a guilty, deathbed conscience the reason I was now living here? Or was it just a big coincidence?
As I took myself off to bed, I was determined to discover what else the lawyer knew on Monday morning. I would find out everything I could to put this to rest once and for all. And, I would find out more from Brian. Now we had started talking about it, he must have more information he can give me. I’ll get that too. And my last thought before I dozed off, was that I would phone David tomorrow and see how he was. Was he really searching everywhere for me? Was the old David back? Was that behaviour just a flash in the pan? What if he wanted me to go back to him? I pushed that thought to the back of my mind secure in the knowledge that I had my own bolthole and that I had a choice. I didn’t have to do anything I didn’t want to.
It wasn’t a great night’s sleep. With a strong wind blowing, I kept hearing strange noises and woke in panic each time, thinking there was someone in the house again. I kept waking and listening hard, willing the noise again so I could identify it. But each time, Marmaduke opened one eye, looked at me and settled back to sleep. At one stage, I reached over and stroked him, smiling, ‘You’re my intruder indicator, Marmaduke. You calm my nerves, you do. You’re my little rock, you fatty you.’ I picked him up and gave him big cuddles, then placed him back where he had been snuggled up against my leg. He took a few moments to find the right spot, the right position and settled down back to sleep again. As did I, only to be woken again some time later to start the same ritual all over again.
By morning, I was exhausted. I was safe, but I felt worn out. I made myself a cup of coffee, refilled Marmaduke’s bowl with pellets and took my coffee back to bed. I looked around me and stroked that silky cover of my quilt. It looked so pretty. Imagine having a garden full of flowers like that. And then I wondered, was that my mother’s influence, or my own thoughts? It was spooky, not to know if something was a genuine desire of yours, or an echo of another faded life. God, I was getting morbid again, I needed to get out. Go and do something. It looked like it was going to be a fabulous day and I had no obligations, no deadlines for anything and no-one else to think about or to pander to. I could do anything I wanted to; it felt decidedly strange.
I sat there sipping my coffee, wondering why this didn’t make me feel better. Independence. Isn’t that the great dream for every woman? Or was it supposed to be? Or had I simply lost the art of spontaneity? Had I ever had it, I wondered? I couldn’t remember doing anything simply because I wanted to in my whole, careful life. Had I been so traumatised by mamma’s murder, followed by leaving everything that was familiar and that I cared about, that I had shut down? I had left the safety of my father’s house, for the safety of my husband’s guiding hand. When in all my adult life, had I ever wanted something? Really passionately yearned for something? I hadn’t wanted to have children, a career or travel. These things didn’t seem to enter into my sphere of desire. I saw them in other people, but they were unimportant to me and I had never stopped to wonder why that was. I had simply accepted David’s comment, that I was just that kind of a woman. That kind of a woman. What kind of a woman was that? Was this nature or nurture? I was always convinced that it was nature, but I was starting to wonder if I had been shaped by my childhood experiences far more than I could have imagined. I had a strange sense of being disconnected, of having lost a large piece of myself along with precious memories.
I decided then and there that I wanted to know everything, no matter how uncomfortable, how distasteful or distressing. I wanted to know. I wanted to know all about mamma’s murder, I wanted to know who Frederick Hopmann was and what connection I had with him. And most of all, I wanted to know myself. I determined on a pathway of discovery and if it led into alleyways that were dark and threatening, so be it. If it was going to be a scary journey, so be it. I wanted to expose all darkness with my attention and my focus, but most of all with my understanding. I wanted to know it all.
My attention was drawn to the warmth of the sun slowly creeping across my bed. The beach. I decided I would go for a walk along the beach. Paddle in the sea and generally enjoy being at the beach. Then I would phone David, then I would go and browse through the shops, discover what I like and what I didn’t. Perhaps buy something completely different for my wardrobe. And perhaps start to plan my future over a hot drink in a coffee shop. It seemed so straight forward. I was buoyed with the false sensation of being in control. How we fool ourselves into thinking we are once again in control. It simply sets us up for an even bigger fall.