The child gazed out through the tall window at the manicured grounds bordered by a small stream, fronded willows and golden laburnums. It was one of those long shadowed afternoons and the elegant garden lay still and empty under a watery sun.
The boy’s hand curved against the glass pane as he pretended to cup the swaying branches that edged the flowing water.
He was listening to the voice as he always did. Not the voice of the one who took care of him. No, this was a sweet voice that covered him in warm, blissful breath. He loved the voice. It called him something but he could not hold on to the memory of it. He tried to understand but the world was like a soft pink cloud. He whispered a song to himself enjoying the feeling of sound on his tongue.
He could hear her approaching.
His wheelchair was suddenly yanked from the window and spun around to face the room. He looked at his toy soldiers, teddy bears and bouncy ball for help. He chattered a string of meaningless fearful sounds.
A trickle of warm saliva slid from the boy’s open mouth and descended in a slimy rivulet towards his chin. He blinked in frustration while he tried to close his drooling lips but his facial muscles would not fully respond. The three-year tried to wipe the spittle away. He raised his hands to his face but the nurse got there before him. She dabbed his mouth with a clean tissue. “There, isn’t it that better?” she whispered.
The boy shifted his gaze but gave no indication that he understood or even heard the nurse’s voice. The other voice had gone and he was sad. His head lolled forward and a lock of blond hair fell onto his forehead as he shifted his gaze.
The nurse carefully patted the child’s hair back into place and rested her hands on his shoulders.
“Daydreaming again, were you?” said the nurse. “No time for that today, young man. Today is a big day and we’re going to be busy so no playing up. It might be your birthday but that’s no excuse.”
From somewhere behind them a radio was playing, soft and muted in the distance. Karen Carpenter’s velvet voice, aching with the pain of unrequited love, soared effortlessly.
’Why do birds suddenly appear
Every time you are near?′
The nurse lowered her face until her lips were close to the boy’s ear then she crooned softly in a husky contralto. ”Just like me, they long to be close to you.”
The boy tensed and tried to move his head away from the nurse’s warm breath. She giggled, then removed her hands from his shoulders. Her touch was gentle as she stroked the soft downy hair at the nape of his neck.
The nurse’s expression hardened suddenly.
“We’ve always understood each other haven’t we?” she said. “In days gone by, children like you would have been locked away and forgotten; left to die. But we live in so-called enlightened times, or namby-pamby times as I call them with all that child psychology nonsense. You’ll be leaving here today for a new life. But what kind of life will that be, given…” She silenced herself abruptly and bit her lip.
The nurse’s fingers encircled the boy’s slender throat. He made a faint croaking noise and blinked a tear away that rolled over the nurse’s fingers that were now like talons enmeshed around his neck. He wriggled and jerked his head. He placed his small hands on hers.
“It would be so easy,” she murmured, “so, so easy. Then it would all be over. You weren’t expected to live so it would look perfectly natural.”
With a sigh of regret, the nurse dropped her hands and placed them on the handles of the wheelchair. She turned the boy away from the window and pushed him over to a low desk. She locked the wheels then sat down in a chair beside him. On the desk in front of them was a photograph album.
“Today is a very special day. And you look the bee’s knees, you really do. I wonder where that expression came from, the bee’s knees. It’s funny, isn’t it?”
She touched the scar on his temple and felt him flinch.
“Let’s look at the photographs again, shall we? I know you understand.”
The nurse opened the album and slowly turned the pages. The images seemed to reflect in the boy’s eyes as they both stared at the ghostly figures.
“There,” said the nurse pausing at a snapshot of a handsome man and a pretty young woman holding a baby. They were sitting on a grassy hillock amid sand dunes. A seaside town could be seen below them in the distance.
“There you are, darling, with mummy and daddy.”
The boy moved his tongue. “Mu...” he muttered.
“You can’t remember, of course you can’t. You were just a baby.You could at least try to speak a little. I’ve been teaching you your sounds and letters but you just won’t make the effort.”
She flipped one page after another, gently at first then with increased downward pressure. “That’s you again on the garden lounger, and there you are being carried on mummy’s back.” She inhaled noisily. “And that’s you at Blackpool Tower. You’re smiling. It was before you...but we mustn’t speak of that, must we?”
Finally, the nurse stopped. The photograph on the page showed the same tall, good looking man. Beside him, a different woman held the baby.
“It gets a little complicated, darling. That is your other mummy. Aren’t you a lucky boy?”
“Aahh!” he wailed. The boy became agitated, jiggling up and down in the whellchair.
The nurse looked at the damp patch spreading across the front of the child’s trousers. The boy trembled and fluttered his hands.
The nurse replaced closed the album and put it back the table. She squeezed her eyes tightly and inhaled a deep, calming breath. “Oh, you haven’t,” she said crossly. “Those are your new going out clothes. I’ll have to change you now.”
She reached out, took the boy’s earlobe in her fingers and twisted it. “You know what you get for doing that, don’t you? I pull down your pants, put you over my knee and smack your bottom, don’t I? When you deserve it. God, I thought you’d grown out of that kind of behaviour.”
The boy tried to speak but his mouth could not translate his thoughts.
The nurse said. “Well, as this is a special day I’m not going to chastise you. I’ll fetch some fresh clothes for you and we’ll get you looking smart and lovely again.”
The nurse went over to a large chest. She selected fresh underwear, a pair of striped trousers and pale blue shirt. Calmly and gently she undressed the boy who had begun to wriggle uncomfortably. The nurse checked the wheelchair and dabbed it with a tissue.
She cleaned and dressed him, her movements slow, deliberate and well practised. “There, that’s better, isn’t it? Not long now and you’ll be leaving here for the last time. I know you can walk a little but I need to strap you in for the journey.”
The nurse wheeled the child slowly around the room so that he could say goodbye to his posters and mobiles, his bed with railings, his box of toys with stuffed bears and cats scattered on the floor. He waved at them sadly. It was a light, airy room with a pale carpet patterned with vaguely recognisable cartoon characters.
The nurse knelt by the boy and peered into his eyes. “All those tests and all those experts. Still, you have made progress. The doctors have high hopes for you. I shall miss you, darling. Even though I punished you sometimes it was for your own good and much better for you than all those drugs. Some old-fashioned methods are still the best.”
The nurse glanced at her watch and sighed. “It’s time.” She leant in and kissed the boy’s cheek. He regarded her with a glassy eyed stare.
The nurse’s heels click-clacked on the porcelain tiles as she pushed the wheelchair out of the door and along a brightly lit whitewashed corridor.
At the far end a corona of light blazed from an open door to the street.
The boy’s head lolled to one side as he stared at the silhouette of a tall man haloed in the doorway, his image flickering in the heat haze effect. The man didn’t move. The light behind him made him appear as a solid black figure framed in the doorway with no face or features.
Then the man took a step forward.
East Sutton Open Prison, Kent
The red brick Elizabethan mansion house overlooking the weald of Kent, complete with working farm, could, to the casual observer, have been owned by an Internet mogul or a reclusive rock star.
The mansion glowed in the April sunlight as a Ferrari purred along the drive and parked in the visitors sector.
East Sutton had been Jess’s home for the past two years four months and seven days. The time she had spent in the open prison had been tedious but bearable. She’d discovered a talent for gardening and a love of animals as she worked her shifts on the farm and in the productive vegetable plots. She’d also put on plays and concerts with other like-minded inmates. She enjoyed performing and writing, both drama and music.
Most of the prison staff had been nice to her. And she had behaved herself. She didn’t complain. She didn’t argue and she smiled a lot. She’d only been in a couple of fights. They’d been not of her making but she lost privileges for a month. It didn’t take long for Jess to ensure certain palms were greased and normal service restored. Money talks in prison.
The bitches had just been envious, that’s all. She had what they would dearly love to possess.
Jess had started her prison term with a reputation. What she had done brought her instant kudos and sympathy amongst a majority of the inmates and staff. To most, she wasn’t guilty and should never have been locked away. But that didn’t stop envy from wriggling into their minds.
As she left her cell for the last time after breakfast, cheers of goodbye and don’t forget us followed her.
“You certainly won’t need support on the outside,” said prison officer Miller as she escorted Jess along the corridor. They’ll be collecting you, will they?”
“Yes, they will.”
Jess wanted to shut her up as she walked down the puce coloured corridor with its high windows and quarry tiled floor. But she was going to behave herself to the last. She had only a few minutes to go.
“So, you’ve forgiven your old man, then?”
“I’ll have to wait and see. I think he’s come to his senses.”
“He knows which side his bread’s buttered on.”
Jess stopped, pinned the officer with a dark look and cut in. “That’s only while I’ve been inside as a punishment. We’ve been assessed again and again. There’s nothing more they can assess. It’s all behind us now.”
They reached an open area with storage rooms and offices. Jess collected her belongings and changed into her own clothes in a nearby anteroom. She glanced at herself in a mirror. Her hair was shorter but other than that she showed no ill effects from her incarceration.
Finally, after going through the release process she gripped a plastic bag containing her few belongings and walked out through the imposing black doors onto the circular gravel drive that ran around a central flower bed and smiled into the sunshine. She turned back to take one final look.
Before she went to meet them she reminded herself that nine years had passed since it had all begun. It was appropriate to think of this now as she stood outside the prison gate. She wanted this special moment imprinted on her mind when a new chapter of her life began.
She heard car doors open and close and footsteps on the gravel.
And then they were there.