Genre: Fiction / Romance
Author: Polly Morten
‘I don’t believe it.’ Sarah dropped the letter on the breakfast table, and the colour slowly drained from her rosy cheeks, leaving her freckles standing out like a splatter of cold tea across her snub nose.
‘What’s up sunshine?’ Paddy put down her spoon, pushed her fair hair out of her eyes, and looked up from her bowl of cornflakes. The expression on her cousin’s face was so strangely out of character, that, for a moment, she didn’t look like herself at all.
‘My sainted mother.’ Sarah’s voice hardened, and the black Labrador at her side put a sympathetic paw on her knee. Her hand automatically went to his head to knead the comforting silky velvet of his ears.
‘What about her?’
Sarah pushed a banana skin and a scattering of cornflakes out of the way, and passed the letter across the table. ‘Here - you read it.’
Paddy scanned the tight, small writing, frowning as she did so. ‘Put the kettle back on, Sal. Make us some more coffee, and stop looking so fierce. It doesn’t suit you.’
‘She makes me feel fierce.’ She sloshed water into the kettle, dumped it back into place on the worktop, and flicked the switch.
Paddy picked up the offending letter, and read it thoroughly, her face showing disbelief followed by indignation. ‘OK, in a nutshell, she thinks it’s time you pulled yourself together, stopped sponging on me, got a proper job preferably as a secretary, got rid of the mangy dog, and stopped using a figment of your imagination as an excuse for laziness as you did at university. Right?’
Sarah nodded miserably.
‘God, I’m glad she’s not my mother. I’d have committed matricide, or suicide. Not exactly forthcoming with support and encouragement, is she?’ Paddy laid the letter on the table, pinned it with one elbow, and propped her chin in her hands.
‘I think it’s time for you to tell me exactly what happened don’t you. You were a bit incoherent six months ago when you came, and obviously upset, and I’ve never really liked to pry. I was hoping that sooner or later you’d be able to talk about it. Whatever your dratted mother says or thinks, something happened to put a big dent in your self confidence and equilibrium, and I hope I’ve been able to help. But I would like to know.’
Sarah spooned coffee granules into two large mugs, added boiling water and milk and put them on the table. She knew that she would be eternally grateful to her cousin for taking her in, not to mention a large dog, but mainly for asking no questions, just providing a kind and undemanding hospitality. She made a big effort to organize her thoughts into some sort of coherency, and took a deep breath. ‘You have helped. Tremendously. I don’t know what I’d have done if you hadn’t offered me a sanctuary with no strings attached. You believed me, and didn’t treat me as if I was a hysterical nitwit, and you didn’t mind Charlie coming here. I’ve never really thanked you properly.’ She looked affectionately at her cousin, older than her by fifteen years, elegant even in jeans and T shirt, and with her blonde hair escaping from the untidy bunch on top of her head. ‘And nothing happened, not really. That’s the problem except he wrecked my last two terms at college. They told me not to be silly. That I was imagining things.’
Paddy’s eyes crinkled into a smile, and a burst of sunlight from the open window behind her turned her topknot into a shiny mass of luminous spikes, making her look about sixteen, thought Sarah, instead of nearly forty. ‘You know I like having you here,’ she said. ‘I forget to eat when I’m working, and you stop me from fading away. More important, who’s “he”, and who’s “they”, and what are you supposed to have imagined?’
Sarah squinted into the brightness. ‘There was this man. He was watching me, following me, never close enough for me to get a good look at his face, but I knew it was the same man all the time because I got to recognise the way he stood and walked, and he always had a black dog with him.’ Sarah took a swig of tepid coffee. ‘Sorry, Paddy, this is all a bit garbled, isn’t it? He never did anything. No phone calls, or letters, or texts or anything, like you read about stalkers in the papers. He just kept turning up where I was. Coming out of lectures, biking to college in the morning, lunch, going out at night. There he was, in the distance, staring at me, and he’d always got the dog with him. I told Mother and my tutor at college. Mother just said, “Don’t be silly, who’d want to follow you?”, in that horrible patronising way she has sometimes, and my tutor suggested I was suffering from stress and should see a doctor. Well, in a way he was right. I was suffering from stress. But I felt haunted. You see someone with a dog and think they’re just part of the scenery, and then it slowly dawns on you that they’re not. Day after day, he was always somewhere near. And then one day he was in our street. Not right outside the house, but he must have followed me home or found out where I lived somehow. That’s what really freaked me. Mother was totally dismissive, even when I pointed him out up the road. Just a man with his dog, she said. It put me off my work and made me feel physically ill. I only scraped a third, instead of what everyone expected. I told them what was happening, but no-one took any notice and then the chap I was going out with dumped me. He didn’t believe me either.’ The unhappiness of that time sounded in her voice, and her green eyes clouded at the remembered injustice, and feeling of helplessness in the face of disbelief. She had begun to doubt the evidence of her own eyes, and her once ebullient self confidence had all but evaporated.
‘Then what?’ asked Paddy. Sarah had never spoken of the events of almost a year ago, properly, before and she had never tried to break her cousin’s reserve, reckoning that she would tell her when she was ready. Trouble with Sarah, she thought, was that she had one skin too few, and was too damn sensitive for her own good. She reached across the table and squeezed Sarah’s hand.
That’s when I asked you if I could come here. Didn’t want to stay at home, with people looking sideways at me, wondering if I was batty. Anyway, Mother wouldn’t have Charlie in the house, and I couldn’t leave him, could I?’
‘Where did Charlie come from. You never had a dog before, did you?’
Sarah smiled tightly. ‘Can you imagine Mother allowing a dog in her house? No. I got up one morning and there was this Labrador tied to our front gate. It was his dog, I swear it, but he had no identification at all. No microchip, no collar, nothing. Mother wanted to send him straight to the RSPCA, and rabbitted on and on about worms, fleas, disease, hairs, and dirt as if he was a bag of rubbish someone had left. His eyes – they were so sad, and he must have been there for ages. Just sitting there without a sound, waiting for someone to rescue him. So I did,’ she said defiantly, ‘and told Mother if she didn’t want him, then I’d move out so I could look after him. Then I phoned you. And you believed me. You didn’t think I was a neurotic nitwit, and here we are. You know the rest.’ She shivered. ‘But why me. Why not any other student or, well, anybody else?’
Paddy mentally filled in the gaps in the story, and ran her eyes over her cousin’s clear creamy skin, perfect even in full sunlight, her friendly, open face, topped with a riot of dark curls shot with auburn, her Junoesque figure, and long legs, and thought that she could see very well why. And then there was her smile. It lit her face with an extraordinary glow that embraced everyone within receiving distance, and could well have had a devastating effect on a possibly unstable young man, even if he was on the periphery of the sunburst. Sarah obviously had no idea of its potency. ‘You’re extremely attractive,’ she said at last. ‘Not everyone likes stick insects. In fact, if you dressed better, instead of living in those appalling baggy things, you’d be stunning.’
Paddy shrugged. ‘Please yourself but it’s true. I wish you’d come to me sooner, like when you first noticed him, rather than soldier on alone. You could have biked to college just as well from here as from home.’
‘Didn’t want to bother you. Knew you were busy, and anyway, it all sounds like something out of one of your stories. Talking of stories, how’s the new book coming on?’
‘Don’t ask.’ Paddy looked glum for a moment, then got briskly up from the table,
‘You on supermarket checkout duty today?’