First Free Chapters of The Cross Over

 

Prologue

 

I keep my promise, to a point.  I ring Teresa and Janet neither is in.  I leave messages.  I think about sleeping at the office.  I think about going to Mum and Dad’s.  But it all seems rather…melodramatic. Not that I don’t believe he has hurt her in the past, and hurt her badly from the sound of it.  I recall the crooked nose, the scar, the burn on her wrist.  It is hard for me to reconcile the man I met with the kind of man who would do such things.  I shudder.  Still, I don’t see where I fit in.  And in truth, I don’t think he would hurt me.

Nevertheless, I make sure all the windows and doors are properly secure, something I am rather lax at if I’m honest.  Tom used to do that.  Since he’s been gone I often wake in the morning to discover that I have been asleep in an unlocked house.  My experience suggests we’re safer than we think we are.  The odds are in my favour, especially living out here.

But I am aware before I go to bed, that I should ensure everything is locked.  It would be foolishness not to pay some heed to the warning they came to give me.

I check the back door.  I can’t see outside. It is moonless, and when I look out the kitchen window all I can see is my face staring back at me.  It unnerves me, so once I’ve checked the windows are secure I close the blinds.  Shut myself in.  Check them twice more.

I move to the lounge and check the windows again.  My face looks ghostly in the window pane as I pull the curtains closed.  My eyes are wide and I look scared.

I check the front door and put the chain on.  No one can get in, but my heart beats a little faster than it usually does.  I wish Tom were here.  I wish my boys were here.  I wouldn’t be scared then.  I would have to be brave for my boys, and Tom would be there for me to hold onto.  I want to cry, for the first time in weeks I want to cry.

I move from room to room.  Check all the windows upstairs; close all the curtains.  Some of these curtains have never been closed.  We are in the middle of nowhere, so we don’t usually feel the need to close them, except perhaps to keep out the draughts in winter.  I straighten the chair in Matt’s room, smooth down Ant’s bed in his.  I want to feel there is someone who needs something from me, but there isn’t.  I am alone and no one needs me.

I sit on my bed, pick up the phone and listen to the dialling tone.  Think about calling mum but dismiss the idea.  I don’t generally ring up just for a chat and she will worry.  Mums are good at knowing when something is wrong.  I remember Ant at the breakfast table worrying about something.  I never did find out what it was.  Little regrets.  You can never buy back time.  I hang up the phone and lie on the bed.

I’m not ready to sleep.  I can feel the adrenaline surging through my body.  Nothing will happen tonight, and I’ll feel foolish in the morning, but right now, I am sorry I am here.  Sorry I didn’t make more of an effort to be somewhere else.

What if he does come?  Who would I call if I could hear a breaking window downstairs?  The thought brings me out in a sweat.  I should stop this, letting my mind run away like this.  I mentally give myself a shake.

But perhaps I should have used my intuition before deciding to stay here.  I’ll do it now.  It’s not too late to phone someone, ask them if I can go over.

I sit up, take some breaths, and try to remember what I have been taught.  It was something along the lines of using all the tools I had learnt so far from the previous seals.  Be in my body and be in this moment, still the mind chatter, slow everything, allow the senses to heighten, and then listen.  Use my will to get to that quiet, calm place.

It feels like the first time you get behind the wheel of a car when you are learning to drive.  There is so much to remember.  And my mind chatters, full of what-ifs and memories and scenarios being played out on a loop.  That is what I need to tackle first.  I am sure the rest will drop into place once I can still my mind.

I take some more deep breaths, let my body settle, let the beat of my heart slow down, allow the blood to move more slowly round my body.  I can feel the quiet begin to descend.  My body begins to let go, relax.

It doesn’t take long for my mind to follow.  For the spiral of thoughts to slow and the synapses to quit firing quite so rapidly.  A ceasefire is being called, and after less than five minutes the arms are laid down, and I can feel the peace of having nothing to think about.

I allow myself to stay that way for some time.  It’s similar to taking a holiday from yourself.  It feels really good.  In time I turn to the purpose of this exercise, and ask myself the question, ‘Should I stay here tonight?’

The response is immediate.  ‘No.’ I feel it with every fibre of my being.  I question whether the answer is coming from fear, but push that thought to one side.  It doesn’t matter, that’s mind chatter.  It’s the feeling that’s important, not the why.  I do not want to be here and whether that is an intuitive ‘I am in danger’ warning, or simply coming from the fact that I am afraid to be in this house on my own tonight, is not important.

I pick up the phone and dial Janet.  This time after six rings she answers.  It feels as if I am hanging on the phone for an hour.

‘Hey you!  I was just going to ring you back.’

‘Janet, can I come and stay with you tonight?’

‘What?  Now?’

‘Yes.’

‘Erm, yeah of course you can.  Any particular reason?’

‘I’ll explain it all when I get there.  I’m probably being stupid and over-dramatic, but I need to get out the house tonight.’

‘Sounds intriguing, and not at all like you,’ she laughs.

‘Yeah I know.  That’s what’s scaring me.’

Her tone changes.  ‘You okay?’

‘I will be, when I get out of here.’

‘Are you in some sort of danger?’

‘Possibly.’

‘Look, maybe Bob and I should drive over and pick you up?’

‘No, I’ll be fine.  I’ll throw a few things in a bag and be with you in twenty minutes.’

‘Okay babe, you take care.’

I put down the phone and open the wardrobe, pull out the small overnight bag I keep in there.  I won’t need much.  Change of underwear, deodorant, toothbrush, book from my bedside.  I am packed and heading down the stairs to the front door within minutes.

I unlock the door and lock it behind me.  I’m not sure why, but I feel I am abandoning my house and I want it to be safe in my absence.  Want it to think I care.

I hurry over to the car, scramble in my handbag in the dark to retrieve my keys, when I hear his voice.  The muscles of my body shrink wrap onto my skeleton; my head feels light.

‘Hello Toni,’ he says.

I turn, and he steps into the pool of light created by the automatic lamp outside the front door.  This might be the night I die.

 

 

Ten Months Earlier

 

 

Chapter One

  

I stare at the teapot stain on the ceiling and listen to the wind, wonder how the building has survived after one hundred and fifty years of battering.

Penny Brick Farm stands in the nook of a barren hill.  The wind plays the house like a musical instrument.  Windows drum out a beat; floorboards groan; tree branches beat against the walls and the wind’s breath blows down the chimney, causing a low keen that wouldn’t be out of place at a Greek funeral.

Last winter I loved this house, but then last winter I had Tom and Matt and Ant banging around in it.  Filling it up with noise and laughter; shouts and arguments; music and teasing.  The place feels abandoned with only me and Missy.  She sits poised on the bedroom chair on the other side of the room, with one leg stretched out high, a ballerina doing her warm ups, preening herself and oblivious to the emptiness.

A clock ticks out time on the bedside table.  A fake antique I bought by accident at the sale rooms which neither Tom or I liked.  We always meant to replace it.  There were so many things we meant to do.

It has become unreliable, the clock, in the weeks since the accident.  Not in the conventional way; instead, the hands move erratically.  I return from a trip to the bathroom and it has gained an hour, or lost two in the time it takes to make the bed.  It unnerves me.

I cast my eye across the battered bedroom furniture.  We furnished the house on a budget, and it shows, like the house it is all old and worn.

Things frequently break in a house like this, and Tom would ‘ho hum’ before getting his tool box out to fix it.  I liked to watch him work; watch the sinew in his forearms move under the skin.  His hands and arms are my favourite part of his body.  Were, I remind myself, were my favourite part. The memory bites.

Waking up in the morning is the worst part of the day.  Imagine it if you can.  That cruel moment when you open your eyes and forget, just for an instant, that your life as you knew it is over, that all you held dear, everything you cherished, has gone.  That cruel moment when you open your eyes and forget you are alone.

It tumbles down on you; the rubble of grief crushes you until you think you can’t survive; hope you won’t. But you can’t imagine it, no one can.  They only think they can.

I turn over and hope sleep will claim me again.  I don’t want to get up and face another day without them, another day in a silent and empty house, a silent and empty life.

I want the boys’ heavy footsteps to pound up and down the stairs; I want their shouts and arguments.  They drove me mad and I said I’d give anything for a bit of peace and quiet.  I was wrong.

I love the abyss of sleep.  So soft and inviting, so warm, dark and unconscious, so wildly delicious.  I close my eyes and welcome back the oblivion.

 

*****

 

I wake up with Tom’s arm flung across my body.  It is more of a body-lock than an embrace, and the weight of his arm pins me to the bed.  It used to annoy me, being woken this way.  Tom remained in his deep sleep whilst he stirred me from mine, I had probably tried to turn…or breathe.

But tonight it thrills me to have his presence here, beside me, around me, feel the weight of him and the heat flow from his large naked body beside me.  I can smell his muskiness permeating through the bath foam and soap.  It is delectable.  I breathe deep and a joy floods my body, pushing through my veins, clearing the toxins of sorrow.

I dreamed he was dead, that they were all dead.  The thought brings tears to my eyes and I shake my head at the silliness. It was just a dream, a daft dream.  I push my body up against Tom’s, I can’t get close enough.  I want to eradicate the memory of it, push it away with his presence.

Tom murmurs an apology in his sleep and begins to remove his arm.  I smile; he is well trained.  The patterns of seventeen years of marriage emerge.  But tonight I don’t want him to turn over and give me space.  Tonight I want him close.  I pull his arm back.

‘Whaaat?’

He is dozy with sleep, his skin warm and my body begins to respond to him.   I reach out and find his flaccid penis nestled against his leg.

Tom takes in a sharp breath, then groans softly and pulls me close.  We instinctively find each other’s mouth in the dark.  His breath is sleep-stale and I am glad.  If this was a dream it would all be perfect.  And I don’t want perfect.  The staleness of his breath, the numbness of the arm I was laid on, only serve to prove this is real.  That Tom is alive and my boys are sleeping across the hall in their beds.  The thought makes me catch a sob in the back of my throat.

Tom’s chin rasps against my cheek as he pulls back.

‘You okay?’ concern fills his voice.

I nod at first then find my voice in the dark.  ‘I had a bad dream.’

‘Want to share?’

‘No, just hold me for a moment.’

He encircles me in his arms and I love how big they are, how small and safe I feel.

I could die now and be happy.

 

*****

 

I choose to ignore the banging on the door until I hear Janet’s voice bellowing up at me.

‘I know you’re in there.’

It’s the third day in a row she has been here.  The first time she banged on the door for over an hour, so I know she will not leave until I give her tea and reassurance.  I hunch down under the covers, waiting with dread, my heart thumping, knowing another knock will come, but hoping it won’t.

When it does it reverberates through the empty house and the noise twangs across my tightened nerves.  My teeth clench and I fling back the covers, angry at the intrusion.

Why don’t they all just leave me the fuck alone?  Don’t they understand that no matter what they do they can’t help?  Why can’t they just leave me alone?

The air in the bedroom is chill and I dress quickly in the dirty clothes that lie on the bedroom floor.  I don’t remember the last time I washed.

I stomp down to the front door to face Janet.  Seething with resentment I pull the door open and walk into the kitchen.  Janet follows.

‘Good morning to you too,’ she says, putting a bag of groceries on the table.

I fill the kettle, turning the tap hard.  The cold water thunders in and I let the sound drown out my grunt.  I hate her.

‘You eaten?’ she asks, I hear the rustle of a bag.

I hit the button on the kettle and it clicks hard, the sound tight.

‘If that’s your way of telling me to fuck off I just want you to know I hear it loud and clear, but I’m going to ignore it, so you might as well do us both a favour and be civil.’

‘Fuck off.’

‘And now we’ve really cleared the air do you think we could have some brunch?’

‘I’m fine.’

‘Is that a ‘no’ then?’  She sighs, ‘Toni?’

I know what is coming and my insides groan.  I refuse to turn around and look at her.

‘Toni?’

I don’t turn round.  ‘What?’  Even I hear the bitter stab of the word.

‘It will get easier, you just need time.’

‘Thanks for that.  D’you want a drink?’

‘Tea would be nice.’

I watch my hands make the appropriate movements to produce two mugs of tea.  It is not until we are sitting down at the table that I remember I hate tea.

Janet has laid out an array of foods to tempt me and I let my eyes flit over them.  Chocolate doughnuts, peach Danish pastry, pain au chocolat.  She knows my sweet tooth, but nothing stirs inside.  I am numb.  I find it is best.

‘You want something to eat?’  There is hope in her voice and I take pleasure in crushing it by a shake of my head.

‘Toni, you need to eat.’

‘I do eat.’ I don’t look at her when I say this because we both know it’s a lie.  The funeral was over a week ago, and I can’t remember eating anything since.  I have never been heavy, but now my bones stick out from my body at such odd angles I resemble a molecular model.

‘How are you?’

‘Bloody marvellous!  You?’

‘Teresa was asking after you,’ she says, choosing to ignore my sarcasm.

Teresa still has Dale who is eleven; Ant is thirteen.  Was, I remind myself, was thirteen.  She is also still in the possession of a husband.  I hate her too. I hate everyone.

‘Has your mum been over?’

‘She was here yesterday.’

‘That’s good.’

It wasn’t.  It wasn’t at all.  She exhausts me.

‘How was she?’

‘Exhausting.  Janet do we have to do this?’

‘What?’

‘This shite.  This trite shite.’

‘Would you rather I was honest?’  She’s angry now and I’m pleased.

‘Yes, I think I would.’

‘Okay,’ she takes a breath.  ‘You look like death and you smell even worse.  When was the last time you washed?  You look like a refugee.  You’re wasting away in front of my eyes and Tom and the boys would be appalled.  If they saw you now they’d-’

‘What?  Turn in their graves?’  I shout.  It forces its way out through the numbness.  ‘They’re not going to see me are they?  They’re gone, they have fucking gone.  Dead!  Dead!’  I stand and throw my mug at the wall.  The crash satisfies some deep need in me to destroy.  It is terrifying how much damage I could do so I sit down and wait for it to pass.  Tea drips down the wall.  We sit in silence, except for my breath.  Angry.  Angry I can do.  I can do angry really really well.  A long time passes.

‘Toni,’ Janet says eventually.  Her voice comes out quiet.  My body tenses up.  I just want to push her face in.  ‘I am your best friend, please listen to me.  You can’t continue like this or you’ll get sick.’

I look directly at her for the first time since she arrived.

‘So.  What.’

It is spiteful I know, but it has the desired effect.  Neither of us say anything.  What else is there to say?  The weight of it, the despair, hangs heavy in the air like thick blankets drying indoors on a damp day.  I can barely breathe.

‘Shall I go?’

I nod.  I don’t trust myself to speak, I don’t trust myself to do anything,  I need to retreat into nothing, I need…I need…I don’t know what I need except to be left alone.  She stands and I follow to see her out.

As I watch Janet’s car disappear down the drive a weight leaves me.  I don’t know how to be anymore.  I don’t know how to fill this void in my life.  I don’t know who I am, why I am here or what I’m supposed to do with this rag of a life I have left.

As I close the door the emptiness of the house echoes in my heart, and all those ‘don’t knows’ bring me to my knees in wrenched sobbing.

 

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About me

Allison Agius lives in the North East of England with her husband.  They have five children between them. 

When she’s not working or writing she spends her time riding her Honda Hornet (in the summer), running (in the summer) and eating chocolate!