Standing on a chair, with her hands shaking, she slowly pulled her dusty Nikon camera bag off the top shelf. The morning sunlight was just peeking out of the thin parting in the curtains. It had been nearly two weeks since they got back from their camping holiday, yet every time she felt that she had plucked up the courage to try it, she would change her mind.
This time Vicky told herself, there is nothing to be scared of.
That and the pressure of needing to prove her point to Albert, once she finally meets him. At last, that day had come. Despite their frequent texts, she decided against telling him over the phone, he had to see it for himself. There is no way anyone would ever believe her, without her showing some evidence. She hadn’t even told the only person she really trusted – her brother.
She blew over the bag and instantly regretted it. Vicky sneezed uncontrollably as the dust filled the air, glittering in the sun beam. Quickly grabbing onto the lower shelf to steady herself, she heard a number of loud clunks as a heavy book slid and fell to the floor.
The Paradox of Time, the title had read. Vicky stared at it with curiosity. It was a present from her nana when she was a young girl. Just a funny, quirky collection of stories about time loops and time travel.
Not another little sign. She had been getting them nearly every day, nudging at her.
Vicky climbed off the chair and bent down to pick it up when the door of her bedroom was yanked open forcefully.
‘You woke me up!’ The puffy-eyed hungover face of her mum’s boyfriend was glowering at her.
‘Yeah?’ he said through gritted teeth, rubbing his tattooed bare chest. ‘Sorry is not going to make me go back to sleep!’
Vicky thought the better of it to reply. Six months of him living there proved it was better not to get on the wrong side of his temper.
‘What were you doing?’ He eyed her up and down. ‘Huh?’
‘Just getting this.’
She clutched her camera bag tightly as he walked over sluggishly to her, halting at an uncomfortable proximity. A sharp stench of vodka filled her nostrils.
‘And what’s so important about your stupid camera this time in the morning?’
Without waiting for an answer, he suddenly wrenched the bag out of her arms and threw it against the wall. It made a horrifying thump before collapsing to the floor, next to her book. Vicky couldn’t move, her eyes transfixed to where it lay.
‘What did you just call me?’ she heard him screech.
Something deep inside her very being had flipped over. She turned eagerly and stared at his redden face.
‘You stupid idiot.’ She didn’t shout, her words steady and firm.Suddenly, like in a dream, her world went fuzzy and she fell to the floor. Don’t ever speak to me like that, his words echoed somewhere in the distance. The pain in her eye was unbearable. But she didn’t lose consciousness. Instead she lay there, breathing heavily, watching his feet finally walk to the door and disappear.
The face in the mirror stared back gloomily as she stood in the bathroom, listening to the rushing of tap water. The bruise on her left eye has already started to show. Vicky pulled out her mobile from her pocket, still gazing at her own reflection. Her thumb pressed the speed dial for Albert.
The person you are trying to reach is unavailable, please leave a message…
She heard the beep.
‘Hi. It’s me,’ she said, trying to steady her voice as her eyes started to feel wet. ‘I’m really sorry, but … I don’t think I can make it today. Something’s come up.’ She looked over at the window, holding back the tears. ‘I really want to see you again, but is it okay if we rearrange? Call me. Sorry again. Bye.’
As soon as she ended the call, Vicky’s mobile started playing Vivaldi’s Summer while displaying her brother’s name.
‘Hi. You just tried to call me. What’s up?’
‘What? That’s weird,’ she frowned to herself. ‘I was just about to call you, unless …’
‘What time’s your train again? I was going to come over a bit earlier. Kate said the traffic’s bad this morning, though it should hopefully clear by lunchtime.’
‘That’s what I was going to call you about,’ she said, still a bit confused. ‘You don’t need to take me to the station. I’m not going.’
‘You’re not? Why?’
‘Doesn’t matter. There’s stuff I’ve got to do. I asked Al to rearrange.’ She thought she did a very good job sounding matter of fact.
‘What’s wrong?’ Nick said in a serious tone. Apparently, there was no fooling her brother. ‘Vic?’
‘It’s nothing. Really.’
‘Are you sure? You sound down.’
‘I’m fine. Just tired. Didn’t sleep much last night as was thinking about meeting Al.’ At least that wasn’t a lie.
‘Nerves, huh? Okay.’
‘Better go, bye.’
With an uncontrollable force it hit her as she put the phone away. The tears streaming down her face showed no sign of stopping. Vicky cried silently. She did not want him downstairs to think he had got to her.
Not being able to face examining her camera just yet, she decided she needed some caffeine. It had been about half an hour now and, satisfied that she didn’t look too upset, Vicky came out of the bathroom and went downstairs towards the kitchen. Ignoring his stare, she walked past him when the doorbell went.
‘Get it,’ he barked.
Her mum wasn’t due back from nana’s until the next morning. Slightly apprehensive, Vicky fiddled with her hair so that it partially covered her left side before getting to the front door. She opened it just a small amount, jolting when she saw who it was.
‘Hey, I wanted to check you were okay,’ said Nick, trying to peek further inside. ‘You sounded a bit … what the –’ he pushed the door wider still as she moved back.
‘What the hell happened?’
‘I er …’ she squeezed her arm, ‘I walked into a door.’
For several seconds he didn’t appear to move. His nostrils flared and Vicky recognised the scary Nick from childhood. He sprinted past her inside and within a flash disappeared into the lounge.
At first Vicky only heard commotion and things falling to the floor. Then came some broken words of “didn’t mean” and “that hard”. After a few moments however, she heard her brother’s voice asking her to come into the room.
The two men were in a clench, with Nick holding the other by the arms behind the back and with one hand gripping the greasy hair.
‘Say it,’ Nick gave him a rough tug.
‘S-sorry,’ he spluttered, blood dripping from his nose. ‘Didn’t mean to –’
But Nick didn’t let him finish, forcing him hard to the floor, face down and growled in his ear, ‘You ever touch her again,’ he breathed, ‘I promise I’ll break more than just your nose.’ He gave the head a final thud against the floorboards and let go.Getting to his feet, Nick rummaged in his pocket and took out a cigarette. He glanced at Vicky and pointed upstairs. ‘Get your stuff,’ he said igniting a lighter. ‘Just the essentials for now. You’re coming with me.’
Placing her rucksack and camera bag on the backseat, Vicky jumped in the passenger seat of Nick’s cherry coloured Jeep. She looked towards the family home with trepidation as they made their way out of the drive, not really knowing what the future was going to hold. It felt like she was at a crossroad now. The morning sun started hiding behind heavy grey clouds.
‘Has he ever hurt you before?’
She watched the house slowly disappear in the wing mirror.
‘No,’ she said quietly. ‘It’s mostly been verbal. I’ve not been stupid enough to retaliate.’ She turned to look at him. ‘Until now.’
He looked back, asking a silent question.
‘He broke my camera.’
Staring ahead at the road, he cleared his throat. ‘Um, don’t hit me, but – I thought your camera was already broken.’
She smirked bitterly. ‘Well, he probably finished it off for good.’
They were silent for a little while. In the distance, the dark clouds continued to swirl and the first raindrops started hitting the windscreen.
‘So you weren’t going to tell me?’ he said, turning the wipers on. Vicky gazed at them swishing back and forth, like a metronome, giving her that lull repetitive feeling which seemed to be so captivating.
‘I knew what you would do,’ she said and instantly cringed.
‘Okay. And that’s bad because?’
‘Look, you have no idea what he’s like.’
‘No?’ he chuckled. ‘He looked pretty crushed to me.’
Vicky was silent. There was nothing even remotely amusing about it.
‘I’ve told mum a hundred times to get rid of him,’ he carried on, ‘But she’s doing her typical ostrich thing. That’s it.’ He looked at her again before turning a sharp corner. ‘You’re staying with us for a while. Have the guest bedroom.’
‘Yeah, I’m sure Kate will be pleased.’
‘Don’t be stupid. She and the girls are crazy about you. Besides, you can’t afford a place by yourself just yet …’
His words trailed away as suddenly Vicky’s heart seemed to leap into her throat.
‘Look out!’ she yelled, grabbing the edges of her seat. Instinctively, Nick hit the brakes and the wheels screeched harshly against the wet tarmac. The Jeep spun several degrees before abruptly grinding to a halt in the middle of the road. They heard a car behind them swerving and then stopping inches away. Someone was beeping their horn at them.
‘What did you just make me do?’
‘That old lady,’ Vicky panted. ‘You were going to run her over.’
‘What old lady?’
Vicky looked ahead at the empty road. She was sure the pedestrian crossing was nearer than that. Turning to the window towards the path, she saw several people looking back at her in shock, one of which was the old lady.
‘That one,’ she barely whispered. The woman shook her head and started walking off, back along the path. Vicky looked back at Nick. There was something strange in the way he was observing her.
‘What?’ she said.
‘That lady,’ he spoke cautiously, without taking his eyes off her, ‘or anyone else for that matter, were nowhere near the road.’
‘But, I just saw …’ she broke off, watching the crossing and the old lady now walking warily along it. Unconsciously, Vicky placed her hand on her left temple. The rain splattered hard, bouncing off every surface of the Jeep. Several cars behind them beeped their horns as Nick revved the engine back to life.
‘I’m taking you to A&E,’ he said.
‘What? No. Don’t be silly.’
‘Just a precaution. It’s not that far.’
‘No. It’s miles away. I’m fine. Honestly!’
The Jeep straightened up and moved slowly ahead, letting all the angry drivers go past them. His fingers started tapping on the steering wheel. ‘I just want to make sure you’re –’
‘I. Am. Fine.’
He let out a long sigh. ‘Right. When she’s back, I’ll get Kate to look you over then. And if she agrees with me – I’m taking you. End of.’‘Right.’ She shook her head and rolled her eyes.
Vicky sat on the squashy big sofa with her arms around her knees. The pain in her head was still prominent, yet the smooth black coffee Nick had made her, seemed to take the edge off it. He returned and sat next to her, giving her shoulder a squeeze.
‘I’ve taken your stuff upstairs already and sorted the bed,’ he said. ‘Why don’t you go and lie down for a bit?’
She only managed a small grunt in agreement and took out her phone. There were no new messages or missed calls. Tutting, she plunked it onto the coffee table rather harshly.
‘That’s it then,’ she said. ‘I’ll never see him again. Great.’
‘I’m sure he’ll reply soon enough. It’s only been a couple of hours, if that.’
‘He’s going to get the wrong idea.’
‘He’s probably busy. It’s the Saturday before all terms restart, everyone’s rushing around like mad. Look at Kate, leaving the shopping to the last minute. As usual.’
Vicky listened to him recounting how, every year it seemed that Kate would forget this thing or that from Alice’s back-to-school list. This year it being double the trouble since it was Helena’s first year at primary school.
She knew well enough he was trying to get her mind off things and she didn’t mind. His voice was familiar and calming as her eyelids felt heavy. A soft blanket seemed to hug her and something warm touched her forehead.
At first there was a release of nothing. But soon, Vicky dreamt of an extremely elderly woman, angrily brandishing a mobile phone, which then, strangely turned into a violin. Something was shaking her, slowly from side to side, then more and more vigorously.
‘Wake up auntie!’
Little hands were clasped around her arm and then Helena’s face came into focus.
‘Look at my new toy!’ she squeaked and ran off into the kitchen. Instead, Kate’s concerned face appeared in front of her.
‘Sorry she woke you. How’re you feeling, hun?’
Vicky sat up slowly, her head heavy and dazed, her voice stifled.
‘How long was I asleep?’
‘I don’t know, we just got back. I need to check you.’
‘I’m fine.’ She yawned, rubbing her good eye roughly. But Kate wasn’t listening and sat down next to her, pulling out a small torch out of her pocket.
‘If I ever bump into that son of a bitch,’ she said taking Vicky’s face into her free hand. Her lips pursed, she struggled with her words. ‘Well, just wait ‘til I get my hands on him.’
‘No you won’t,’ Nick’s voice came out of nowhere. ‘You stay well away from that piece of crap. And that goes double.’
‘Look! Look what mummy got me!’ Helena reappeared, running towards Vicky and thrusting something black and white and soft into her hand. ‘It’s a bear!’
It still had a tag attached to it, only it seemed that Helena had already got some blue paint all over it.
‘Not now,’ said Kate, flashing the torch in Vicky’s left eye. ‘Auntie and mummy are busy.’
After a few minutes of checking Vicky’s vitals, Kate exhaled a solemn yet satisfied sigh. She turned to Nick and nodded. ‘She’s okay.’
‘Told you. Handy having a nurse for a wife, huh?’ Vicky smiled eagerly, hoping that would get him off her case.
Kate laughed as she stood up and edged towards him. ‘He only appreciates it when he asks me to wear my uniform to bed.’
This did change the look on his face and he couldn’t resist a booming laugh, though Vicky suddenly felt like squeezing her fingers inside her ears and singing a rendition of “La, la, la”. She didn’t want to hear what they were saying to each other as they giggled, cuddling.
‘Look, guys,’ she opened her eyes cautiously, ‘Me and my mates have been talking about it for ages. We’re thinking of renting a place together. I’m sure I’ve told you.’
‘Rubbish,’ said Kate. ‘You’re staying here. At least for a little while, we insist.’
‘You do know what this means?’ Nick looked at Kate meaningfully.
It didn’t take her long and she almost leapt up. ‘Babysitting!’
Vicky saw both of them high-fiving and then turning to look at her pleadingly.
‘Of course!’ she laughed. ‘It’s the least I can do … Hey, why don’t you two do something tonight?’ It was better they were doing the cuddling thing somewhere else.
There was a suspiciously guilty look on Nick’s face and when Vicky asked, he explained that he had already booked something for the evening, while she was asleep.Appalled, Kate tried to tell him off, but both him and Vicky managed to persuade her otherwise. Especially when Nick whispered something in her ear. It had been ages that the two of them had an evening to themselves.
Wearing a velvet red dress and high heels, her honey-blond hair waving down to her shoulders, Kate came downstairs and sat down next to Vicky. Despite telling her for the third time that she was happy to look after the girls while they were out, Vicky tried to hide a tinge of gloom and a little bit of jealousy. It was supposed to be her night tonight, with Albert.
She stared at her mobile on the table.
‘Cheer up, hun. I’m sure things will start looking up soon,’ Kate smiled.
‘Cheer up? My camera is broken beyond repair, I’ve lost the guy of my dreams and on top of that, I look like half a panda.’
Two little laughs rang out from the direction of the kitchen.
‘Half a panda!’ Alice sounded beside herself, while Helena jumped off her chair and rushed towards them, waving her toy.
‘Look! Look what mummy got me!’ She put it in Vicky’s hand, ‘It’s a bear!’
Vicky stared at the black and white cuddly toy. It was a panda.
‘Come on, Helena, go finish your dinner,’ Kate said and looked back at Vicky. ‘You okay?’
‘Yeah,’ she whispered, her eyes still on the bear. ‘Déjà vu …’
They heard Nick’s voice from the kitchen, calling after Kate. It was time to be heading out. But Kate didn’t get up. She grabbed her small torch again, this time taking Vicky’s face and flashing it into her ear. Briefly making tutting and “hmm” noises as she probed, she then put the torch away.
‘What are you doing?’ Vicky asked as Kate frowned.
‘You’ve been having the déjà vu thing long?’
‘Um, no,’ she hesitated. Relieved Nick wasn’t listening, she lowered her voice. ‘Not exactly. Why?’
‘I’ve been reading this medical research the other day. It was about the feeling of déjà vu and what seems to cause it.’
‘Well, the results are inconclusive as it’s such a difficult thing to study. Usually, the link is associated with chronic pain or head injury,’ she said but following the look on Vicky’s face quickly added, ‘But this research suggests the link might be due to anxiety or depression. This one patient was stuck in a constant déjà vu, and the more worried he became, the worse the feeling got. He was having a déjà vu of a déjà vu.’
‘So what are you saying exactly?’
Kate sighed. ‘All I’m saying is just take it easy and let’s keep an eye on it. If you feel another episode coming, just take a deep breath and try to stay calm. Okay?’
‘Try not to worry. But, if you think it’s really getting worse, call me. Or Nick. We’ll come straight back.’
‘Did someone say my name?’ Nick’s face emerged from the kitchen. ‘Come on, I don’t want to lose our table. What are you two jabbering on about?’
‘Nothing,’ Kate said. ‘Just coming.’
‘Don’t tell him.’ Vicky glanced after him. ‘He’ll just go mental. Please?’
Kate contemplated her for a second but then agreed.
When the girls had polished up their dinner, they ran and hugged their mum and dad at the front door. Even though she remembered the routine from times before, Vicky listened patiently to instructions of dos and don’ts, right and wrong snacks and rules of bedtime.‘I’ve got it all under control, don’t you worry.’ She smiled and waved at them through the door as they were getting in to a taxi. Though she thought there was something peculiar in the way Nick winked at her and told her to “have fun”.