We Were Swans

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Parking the Merc, I sat there for a moment or two, considering the wisdom of being here. We hadn’t had a huge social circle and it had been spread far and wide. We rarely, if ever met friends here, preferring instead to gather when it had been too long since the group’s last catch up, usually at each other’s homes. None of them came here, it was where on a Friday evening, if I wasn’t abroad on business, we had our date night. We generally arrived separately, both coming straight from work, it made it feel more like an assignation, keeping the romance alive. I was instantly saddened by this reminder of our change in circumstances. Mentally, I shoved this to one side and allowed my curiosity to get the better of me, I got out, locked the car and walked quietly into my past.

Above the door, the licensing plate told me Brian and Sue were still the Landlords. I twitched a bit at that but then carried on through the door. Them still being here made no difference. If asked, I was just passing through but the reality was that I felt compelled by something. I didn’t know what that something was and didn’t try to analyse it, perhaps I was looking for a comfort zone, a friendly face. Time had blurred my attitude to memories and I felt reasonably confident I could deal with them if, or more likely, when they occurred. Inside it was pretty much the way I’d remembered it. Clean, cared for and homely. Most of the furniture had changed but the layout of the interior kinda dictated the seating plan and much of that remained. Including our corner. A table with four soft, highbacked chairs next to a radiator with a picture window offering daylight and a view. My eyes pricked, then moistened. From time to time, that table had been occupied when we’d arrived for date night. It had amused me how Sacha couldn’t settle until it had been vacated. Grabbing her handbag and drink, she’d scuttle quickly over and grab it like a trophy. Then, and only then, could our evening begin. Overcoming my brief, gloomy moment, I pushed back the doldrums and smiled at the memory of it. Behind the bar, as if trapped in time, was the scatty bird that only worked Saturday’s. Forever single, she was a cat collector and I recalled the way they’d totted new feline arrivals up until on reaching five, she been declared officially crazy. The joke had been that she’d been found on the kitchen floor, quite dead and partially eaten by her pets. She absolutely did not mind the light-hearted nature of her imagined and oft discussed demise.

“It’s you!”

“So it is.” I replied, offering a slight smile. “How many now Chris?”

Her blue eyes twinkled and a wide smile replaced her surprise. “Oh, just the five still. I’m not totally batshit nuts you know.”

“Not the same five, surely?”

“No. Some are replacements. I’ve had to dig a few more holes in the garden.”

I ordered a pint and there was silence as it was poured. Placing it on the bar, as kindly as she could, Chris broached the subject we both knew was uppermost. This was the first time I’d been back to the pub since the murder, the Press putting an end to our date nights. “We were all so... I’m sorry, but it was just...”

I leaned on the bar and picked up my drink. “It’s ok, Chris. We meant to thank you for the flowers but some good intentions got lost in the mess. For the record, we really appreciated them.”

The pub had sent a wreath to Ellen’s funeral, it wasn’t store bought but was handmade and had come from their own garden, it was all the more meaningful for it.

“It’s done, Chris. 8 years now. I’m ok, honest.”

“I know but still… we, I’m sorry.” She was choked and I wasn’t far away. To break the mood, she trotted off and made herself busy behind the bar. Standing there, in this most familiar of places, I couldn’t resist the urge to turn and look at our corner. The place was relatively empty, I could have sat anywhere I guess, but I couldn’t sit somewhere else looking at it, imagining handbags and drinks being swiftly ferried over nor did I want anyone else to sit there. So, taking my pint in hand, I wandered over and sat down. It might not have been the same chair but it was in the same place. The view unchanged except for Sacha’s absence.

Word had got out that I’d turned up. Sue came from behind the bar clutching a small drink. Despite running a pub, from choice Sue had been teetotal, until she discovered Amaretto when on a cruise holiday. It was the only tipple she enjoyed but I’d never seen her with one in her hand before. She sat down, thoughtfully, not where Sacha would have been.

“Ay up stranger. Alright are you?” This was a small, former mining town in Leicestershire and her accent was true to her roots. She’d often declared she was born here, raised here and with any luck and a following wind, would die here. Sue was a stickler for keeping the local economy on an even keel and ensured that her staff were cast from the same mould. Youngsters willing to work their way through higher education were top of her list when vacancies occurred. We’d liked coming here and Sue was part of why.

“Fair to middling.” I acknowledged. It’s true to say I was enjoying the familiarity of this link to the past. Twin hunting was a solitary occupation and since The Hole, with the exception of Sid, my gardener and the occasional conversation when fuelling the Merc, I’d had little in the way of human contact.

“Her bottle is still there.” I nodded at the back of the bar. Sacha was and possibly still is, a white spirit girl. Date nights weren’t just for flirting with each other. Sacha had expressed an interest in craft gin’s and vodka’s and Sue, good as gold, had furnished a variety of interesting and unusual concoctions, most of which went untouched by the regular clientele. Sacha had eventually declared a bison grass vodka to be her favourite of these. There was a half empty bottle of it on a shelf behind the bar.

“Wrong.” Sue countered. “I have to source that stuff about once a month. That’s not the same bottle.”

“Sue.” I said, leaning forward, “There is no way your regulars would touch that stuff, not being cruel or typecasting anyone, but it’s a tad exotic and Sacha a bit possessive. Unless your customer base has gravitated away from its roots…….that would have to be the same bottle.”

Mimicking my conspiratorial pose, Sue leaned towards me and cocked her head. “It hasn’t and it isn’t.”

Leaning back, Sue took a genteel sip from her Amaretto, then casually dropped her bombshell. “Sacha still comes here. Every Friday night and sometimes at the weekends.” She nodded to the chair on my left. “She sits there, I sit here, she’s got me breaking my own rules.” Sue raised the glass in her hand as evidence.

I sat back, perhaps a little abruptly. The house I’d bought her was at least ten miles away and a fair old way to come for a drink, even if it was a bison grass vodka. I wasn’t going to let on that I knew she’d moved but felt reasonably assured I could ask the question without appearing too interested or aware.

“I thought she’d moved?”

Sue smiled. “Oh, that place. You know I like to keep a few quid spare, just in case of emergencies? Well, when she told me about this mystery house, me and Brian went with her to have a look at it. Lovely. Really lovely. We’re renting it out at the mo. We’re going to retire there… if we ever bloody retire.”

Something else that hadn’t crossed my mind. That Sacha might not want the house.

“You bought it?”

“Lock, stock and barrel.” Sue declared. “A bargain too, fair but no messing, which was how she wanted it.”

“She’s still down the road?” My surprise was evident and complete. Our old house was a ten-minute walk away, eight if you had the dog.

“That’s right. Never moved.”

This was way too close for comfort and I felt oddly flustered. I hadn’t really counted but it had been maybe 6 years since the divorce and as I hadn’t asked the Jedi for anything but protection for her, they’d had no reason or brief to offer anything but that. They didn’t call me, I called them, that was the arrangement.

“It’s been nice, Sue.” I put down my half-finished pint and made ready to leave.

“Not so fast, young man.” Jesus, I was anything but that. Not much of the young man left in me but that was Sue’s way. “She’s outside. In the garden with the dog. She knows you’re here. You’d best take yourself out there.”

That wasn’t part of the plan. I accepted that something had brought me here and until now, it had been a pleasant diversion, but the last feelings I’d had towards Sacha, had been inadequacy and sadness and I’d journeyed too far in myself to go down that road again. My heart said go outside. My head said run. In-between though, a sense of curiosity elbowed its way in. Perhaps I could. Maybe even should. It was Sue that toppled the scales.

“Tom, Sacha and me… we talk.” She gave me a knowing look. “Go into the garden. I’ve planted lilies, you’ll love it. Take your drink. I’ll keep an eye out if it looks like running dry.”

Sacha must have asked for this, Sue wouldn’t have pushed me if she hadn’t, the sisterhood at work. It seemed I had little choice and wondered whether I’d have exercised it if I had. I picked up my unfinished pint and followed her through the bar. Sue pushed the outer door open and nodded. “Out you go.” I went.

Being sunny, most benches were occupied. Families mainly, not what I was looking for. Then I saw her, a solitary figure with a small, dark dog by her feet. Pooh. It was the first real word that had been recognisable amongst Ellen’s baby babble. She’d been about 9 months old when we’d bought the dog on the principle that every child should have one. It had been my idea on the basis that I remembered few of my toys but every pet that had belonged to my family. House training consisted of shouting, ‘Poo!’ whenever the pup had squatted and shooing him out into the garden. Ellen had picked it up and for a week or so it was all she would say, so the name changed from Biscuit, to Pooh, we added the ‘H’ mentally, all the quicker to forget any connotations the word without it implied. My legs feeling suddenly weak, somehow carried me over. She looked up.

“Hey, you.” Clearly unsurprised, she must have been briefed I was here, the words said simply, a brief smile flitting over her face. Pooh stirred, looked at me and yawned, collapsing back onto the grass. ’No recognition there, then.’ Sacha’s mid-western drawl had softened over the last six years or so but still gave me goosebumps.

“Hi.” Was as good as I could give, my throat tightening. Sacha gestured to the other side of the bench so I sat.

She had always been the most exotic creature in my world and looking at her now, nothing had changed. She looked simply stunning. Her hair was different, auburn still but now bobbed and featuring carefully engineered highlights. It suited her. No makeup, she didn’t need it and rarely wore it and there were perhaps a few lines on her face that hadn’t been there, but Sacha and her essence, still hit me. She wore a light jacket against the breeze, black leggings and trainers… walking clothes. If she’d gained weight, I couldn’t tell. Being this close to her, after all this time, set me trembling. I clasped my hands together in an attempt to quell it.

“You look well. Been working out? And no limp?”

“I’m good, thanks. The Doctors sorted out the limp.” Pumping weights was out of character for the old Tom Hood so I made no response on that front. This was the fittest I’d been since I’d let myself go in my thirties. I became aware I was being studied.

“There’s something else about you that’s different.” I sat there, uncomfortable under the microscope. “Should I ask or are you going to tell me?”

No preamble, direct and occasionally discomfiting, she had a knack of phrasing a question that left you no option other than to respond. I had little to offer though. I hadn’t anticipated being here and certainly hadn’t expected to bump into Sacha. Sid aside, who knew nothing of the old Tom Hood, I hadn’t had to explain myself to anyone since the meeting with Christian. I’d had limited contact with the human race and as no cover story had been needed… I didn’t have one. I knew I’d changed since my last physical contact with Sacha but hadn’t considered that there might be outward evidence of it. Whatever it was, Sacha had clocked it.

“Doing much?” She asked. My silence had perhaps answered her question for her.

She must have known I wasn’t with the airline anymore but it seemed like a casual query. My problem remained. I wasn’t used to being quizzed and had nothing prepared. Millionaire Twin hunter would not be an appropriate answer.

“A bit of freelance consultation, it pays the bills.” Vague I know, but it was the best I had.

“Tom, I saw the car… and those clothes you’re wearing… I know designer when I see it.” She leaned forwards. “What,” she said, “are you really doing?” She didn’t wait for my answer, she was on a roll. I’d had these kinds of conversations with Sacha before. They were one sided then and this one was turning out to be no different.

“Someone… anonymous, bought me an expensive house and car. Out of the blue I had a phone call from a solicitor. Good news, something to my advantage etc… could I come to his office? Perhaps morning appointments work better for most of his clients but mine was post lunch… which he’d had at the pub. Most of it, apparently liquid. Do you know anything about that?”

She paused. She knew I was on the back foot but instead of pressing her advantage home, she softened, leaning back. “But that’s bye the bye. I have a real question, one you can answer.”

I was struggling a bit. Role play I can do, outright lying though, wasn’t my strong point. She’d know. Oddly though, her next words let me off the hook a little.

“How are you? I mean really, how are you?”

“In what sense?”

She shuffled impatiently, a clear sign that this wasn’t going to be a comfortable conversation. “Ok,” she said. “I’m going to tell you a story. When I’m done, I want to know how you are and hopefully then you’ll understand the question and I’ll eventually get my answer.”

Her tone changed from inquisitive to one of regret. “It seems like a lifetime ago now but I once had a man in my life. A man, simple in his own way but in saying that I don’t mean dim. Before him, there had, of course, been others. I’d even had proposals of marriage. Tempting offers but never enough. I needed someone I could depend on. I mean utterly depend on. So, I waited until eventually he came. That man was you, Tom.” There was an intensity in her voice but it was more apparent in her expression, a deep need to convey a message.

“My life was complete. Fulfilled even, made more so by our Ellen. What happened next, to Ellen and how it changed you, left me with nothing. It shouldn’t have been that way. You had an indefinable something that gave me hope, hope that you were the one I’d waited for, someone I truly believed I could depend on… and you let me down.”

I was about to interrupt but was stopped by a raised hand.

“Hush your mouth, Tom Hood. This is my story and you have to hear it. Maybe I should have done this at the time but if I’m going to be honest with you, I have to be honest with myself. Perhaps if I’d been more open, we’d still be married, but I wasn’t. I don’t know how much of what happened to us was my fault and if I let you down in any way, any way at all, I’m truly sorry. But it was you that shocked me, Tom. You crumbled. The one time we really needed each other you just broke apart and left me standing there, feeling alone. One of the reasons why I fell in love with you in the first place is your over developed sense of responsibility, a real sense of the difference between right and wrong but your sensitivity, that brain of yours, broke you. You are a fixer, Tom. Someone who when presented with a problem, finds joy in providing a solution but when that problem is an emotional one rather than practical, one where perhaps the simple answer is just to offer support, you couldn’t do it. Maybe you don’t have the words. I don’t know. But when you found yourself helpless to change anything that had happened, when there was nothing practical, hands on, that you could apply yourself to, you ran. Mentally and physically the one thing, the one person I truly felt I could rely on had simply melted away, turned inwards, if you like. That wasn’t the man I needed, Tom. It wasn’t the man Ellen needed so until that man resurfaced, I cut him loose. Do you remember how easy it was for you to leave? How easy I made it for you?”

She let the question hang between us as I thought back. There had never been arguments, no smashing of crockery or blazing rows. Just a shift in mood and trust, a dropping off of a sense of belonging, of togetherness. I looked across at her. I got the feeling that her point was about to be made as I watched her eyes change. It was subtle. An almost imperceptible adjustment in colour, from hazel to green.

“So, Tom. How are you? Are you the man I thought you were or are you still feeling sorry for yourself?”

Was this was the point where I was supposed to tell her everything? When I’d lost Sacha’s respect, I’d kinda known that we were in the end game and looking back, perhaps that had been the point where my decline had been complete. We’d been two people who knew that without having to measure it, had total faith in each other. We were friends. It was as fulfilling as it could get, for us at least. Part of me imagined that by running my mouth off at how I’d become an avenging angel might somehow bring that back. But, how could I? How do you begin a conversation like that? Was she looking to see if I’d matured emotionally? That I’d somehow become more able to understand what she needed to see us both through the turmoil of Ellen’s murder? I had no answer to that. My way of dealing with it, of picking myself up from the floor, of scouring events, was reprisal. I hadn’t thought about the kind of epilogue Sacha was seeking. Did she want the twins’ dead? If I told her, would I come away with her respect as the man she remembered or would I be condemned as a dreamer fantasising about retribution? I shouldn’t have come here. Until now, I’d had purpose and a clear idea of how it would end. But sitting here, opposite someone I’d never stopped aching for, I felt the need to regain some pride and sense of honour, to make her feel that I was worthwhile, strong, brave and solid. Someone dependable. Her fixer, she’d said. There was also the sure and absolute knowledge that I loved her. I missed her.I craved for my place beside her and knew that the truth was the only route that I could follow and be believed, trying to feed her anything else would lack credibility and she would simply see through the lies without understanding their purpose. That could only end with her contempt. I couldn’t leave without grasping at the possibility that there might be a way back for us and right now, with what she knew or remembered, that would never happen. Mentally weighing up the repercussions of confessing, I was fairly certain that if I told her everything, she wouldn’t involve the Police, the worst-case scenario was that she would walk away, so I had nothing to lose and the possibility, however remote, that I had everything to gain. So, I told her. All of it. Christian, the money, The Hole in the Wall. The gun and the hunt. She listened, impassive, occasionally thoughtful, impatient only when I lost my train of thought and had to wend my way back to it, via chronology or stark memories. Only her eyes expressed surprise but to my relief, no consternation or concern. The conversation, albeit one sided, was occasionally interrupted as Sue spotted the need for refreshments and duly delivered. My tale took the rest of the afternoon and evening began to fall. When I was done, I sat quietly, nursing my latest pint, which had gone flat. I wasn’t a great conversationalist and the last couple of hours had emptied my word bank. I was now a waiting man. Waiting to be judged, waiting to see how my admission would be received.

“Thank You.” Two simple words expressed in a way that said it all. Everything about her had softened. Even the failing light had mellowed the edges of what, for me, had been a petrifying experience. “Your solicitor was pissed, Tom. I knew you’d bought the house and car. He never said as much but I knew it had to be you. I was mystified by where the money had come from, I thought maybe you’d won the lottery or something.” She leaned towards me over the bench and laid a hand on mine. “What you’re doing……mad and extreme as it seems sitting here listening to it……it’s the right thing. I can’t justify it or at least, in another life I couldn’t, but in my heart, I feel that some things, right or wrong, need to be done.’ She paused briefly, wavering. ’I’ve never mentioned this before, and before I do, I’m telling you that this isn’t a criticism, that I understand… really do understand… why you didn’t watch the video shown in court.” She waited for a reaction from me, I had nothing to offer but a sense of shame. Sacha shouldn’t have had to go through that alone but if I had a chance to sit through it with her now, I still wouldn’t be able to do it. I don’t have a coping mechanism for it. She continued, “But I did. I saw it all. I didn’t want to, I shouldn’t have had to but I sat through it.” She paused again, raw emotion halting the flow of words, her eyes downcast. “It was abominable, vile… the memory of it will never, ever leave me.” Her head came up and she looked me straight in the eye, her expression grim. “I ’aint gonna lie to you. I’d considered doing something drastic myself but couldn’t see how. Before Ellen, before we actually needed justice, I suppose I never really thought too hard about how the system works. But now, when I think about them, what they did and how they’re getting on with their lives, getting away with it… I don’t think I’ve ever felt more hate towards anyone or anything.” Her eyes misted and her voice almost broke with emotion. “They’re free and clear, Tom. It’s wrong. Just fucking wrong.”

Sacha rarely swore, using profanity for emphasis, not punctuation. Even with a few drinks inside me, I was taken aback. Her eyes flashed fiercely, ablaze at the injustice of her last sentence. It was a look I hadn’t seen before and in my new identity as avenger, I liked it. I liked it very much. I wondered though, how the world might look tomorrow, after we’d both sobered up and considered what had happened here today.

It was obvious I wasn’t driving anywhere. At the back of my mind, the idea surfaced that Sue, in providing a steady flow of drinks had undertaken some kind of social experiment. A taxi would be stupidly expensive and I’d have to come back in the morning for the car, it didn’t matter that I had the money to pay for it, it was a waste, something Sacha and I abhorred. Saying goodnight to Sue was surreal, following Sacha’s surprise suggestion to crash for the night at ‘her’ place, we took a trip back in time as with Pooh leading, we walked unsteadily from the pub to the house. Even with the dog, keen to get home, it was slow going but eventually, we turned the corner and I saw our old home. There was a Porsche parked outside.

“I kept the car.” Sacha said with a smile. “I’m not completely stupid.” Inside, the house was much as I remembered it. Apart from new carpets, Pooh, I guessed, little had changed. My DIY handiwork appeared to have stood the test of time, shelving and the like still intact. The main difference was the staircase and first floor landing. Sacha had selected old photographs and had them blown up into canvasses. From the bottom of the stairs, winding up them and around the landing all the way to the upstairs bathroom was our life writ large. Ellen much in evidence. It took an effort of will to drag my eyes away. I hadn’t been able to look at our daughter since a couple of days after she’d died.

“Deliberate.” She said. “Every morning and every night, these are the first and last things I see. It helps.”

“I’ll take the sofa.”

“Damn right you will. This conversation isn’t over. I want the Twins dead.”

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