As Hayley polished the Louis XV table her eyes kept being drawn back to the painting above the fireplace. A white-bearded man knelt over a prostrate boy, forcing his head back to expose his throat; at the same time an angel seized the old man’s hand making him drop the knife he was holding. The old man stared at the angel in bewilderment as if he’d just woken from a trance. The knife, rounded like a cut-throat razor, seemed to hang in mid-air as if floating.
‘It’s a Rembrandt,’ a voice behind her said.
Hayley turned to see an attractive, dark-haired woman in her thirties smiling at her from the doorway of the library.
‘Not an original sadly.’ She came further into the room and stood before the painting playing with the pearls at her neck.
‘What do you think of it?’
Hayley tried to choose her words carefully, worried about offending Mrs Clarke.
‘Go on, don’t be frightened.’
‘I think it’s a bit ugly to tell you the truth – but at the same time it’s sort of hard to take your eyes off it. The way his hand’s covering the boy’s face…’
‘Ah, Rembrandt’s famous for that sort of thing. He’s got an eye for the horrible little detail that sticks in your mind…’
‘It’s a Bible story isn’t it?’
‘Yes, that’s right. Abraham and Isaac.’
‘I think we did it in scripture class at school,’ Hayley said, narrowing her eyes as she remembered. ‘God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son and he’s just about to do it but an angel stops him at the last second. We had to write an essay about it, about why God tested him and what it all meant.’
For a moment they both contemplated the painting in silence like viewers at an art gallery.
‘So,’ Mrs Clarke smiled, ‘not something you’d put up on your bedroom wall.’
Laughing, Hayley shook her head and returned to work, and Mrs Clarke found the book she’d come down for. But instead of returning to her office, she remained by the bookcase watching the slightly-built teenager dusting a sculpture of Eros. She wasn’t like the women who came with her to clean The Grange and filled the house with their loud voices and coarse laugher; there was something composed about her, something serene. She was a new addition to the cleaning team and Mrs Clarke had to study the pale face and shoulder-length auburn hair for several seconds before she could remember her name.
‘So how does a bright girl like you, Hayley, come to be cleaning other people’s houses for a living? You didn’t fancy staying on to do ‘A’ levels? Going to university?’
Hayley flushed a little and lowered her eyes to the richly-patterned carpet.
‘I was doing my ‘A’ levels, but I dropped out before the exams.’
‘Oh, what a shame. Were you unwell?’
‘No,’ Hayley said with an embarrassed shrug of her shoulders. ‘I met a boy. My parents didn’t like him,’ – she laughed nervously – ‘well, that’s a bit of an understatement actually. My parents hated him.’
She let out a long sigh as if she still didn’t really understand what had happened. ‘He was four years older than me and worked in a garage – I – I don’t know – they just didn’t think he was right for me, I guess. Anyway, things got so difficult at home that I finally went to live with him and dropped out of school.’
‘Was it the right choice?’
Hayley’s face became strangely animated. ‘Oh yes! Caleb’s fantastic. I love him to pieces. We’re really happy together.’
‘I’m glad to hear it.’
Mrs Clarke didn’t like the thought of family break-ups. She couldn’t help adding, ‘And you never know, in time your parents might change their minds about Caleb – especially when they see how happy he makes you.’
Hayley pursed her lips. ‘That’ll never happen.’
‘Never say never.’
The click of the library door made them both look round. An elderly woman came in, cradling a chubby baby in a blue romper suit and Mrs Clarke broke into a broad smile.
‘I’ve given Leighton his bottle, madam,’ the woman said in the faintest of Scottish accents. ‘I’m going to take him upstairs to the nursery for his nap now.’
‘It’s okay, Fiona, I’ll do it. You go and have your lunch.’ Mrs Clarke gently took the baby from the nanny who withdrew awkwardly from the room as if she was forbidden by protocol to turn her back on her employer.
Hayley drew closer. She’d been cleaning The Grange for two months now but this was the first time she’d seen the baby up close.
‘He’s so cute! How old is he?’
‘Six months,’ Mrs Clarke said, contemplating the enormous eyes and soft curls with maternal pride.
She couldn’t help noticing the rapt expression on Hayley’s face and was touched.
‘Would you like to hold him?’
Mrs Clarke passed the child into her arms and Hayley stiffened as if she’d been passed a volatile explosive she was terrified of dropping.
‘Jog him a little. He likes that.’
Tentatively she jiggled the baby up and down and he let out a peal of high-pitched giggles. Hayley’s mouth fell open, as if she couldn’t quite believe that she’d been the cause of such a delightful effect. ‘You like that don’t you?’ Mrs Clarke cooed, bringing her face close to the baby’s and tickling his chin. ‘You like that don’t you?’ He gave a sharp cry and kicked his legs, and sensing he was anxious to return to his mother, Hayley passed him back. Mrs Clarke laid him against her shoulder with expert ease and began softly patting his back.
‘I’m always looking for good baby sitters, Hayley. If you’re interested just say the word.’
The library door opened again and Sally’s harassed-looking face appeared. ‘Have you done the downstairs loo, Hayley? All the other girls have finished.’
‘N- No,’ Hayley stuttered. ‘I – .’
‘I’ve been distracting her, Sally, it’s my fault. Forget about the loo today.’
‘Are you sure, Mrs Clarke?’
‘Yes, yes, quite sure.’
‘In that case we’re all done.’
Sally remained in the doorway looking at her expectantly and it took Mrs Clarke a moment before she understood.
‘Oh, your money. I’ll just get my handbag,’ and placing a protective hand on the back of Leighton’s head, she hurried to the door. ‘Don’t forget what I said about babysitting, Hayley,’ she called over her shoulder.
Under Sally’s stern gaze Hayley stuttered, ‘No. Yes. Thank you, Mrs Clarke.’
Sally’s white mini-van, with Spic ‘n’ Span Cleaners emblazoned on its side, was parked in the gravel driveway. As Hayley walked towards it, she saw that the other cleaners were already inside and felt a pang of anxiety. The four women, all in their late twenties, had worked together for a number of years and formed a tight clique which they’d determined not to let Hayley join. Zoe, their undisputed leader, was a big woman with big breasts, big glasses and big personality; she’d made it clear from the outset that she didn’t think they needed anyone else on their team and, if they did, then Sally should have hired another woman not ‘some kid straight out of school.’
When Hayley slid open the van door Zoe was showing Colleen, Emma and Chloe photos on her phone of a baby shower she’d gone to the day before. Hayley looked around for somewhere to sit but all the free seats were piled with bags and coats. Colleen made a half-hearted effort to clear a space, but Hayley waved her not to bother. ‘It’s okay,’ she said brightly, ‘I’ll sit in the front’ and clambering back out again she got into the passenger seat.
While they waited for Sally, Zoe and co. carried on looking at the baby shower photos, steadfastly ignoring Hayley. The teenager tried to tune out their honking laughter and turned her attention to The Grange’s Georgian façade, the manicured lawns, the white Porsche 911 parked at the side of the house. Peter Clarke was a television producer and his wife worked as an editor at a major London publishing company. Hayley had never met the husband as he was always at work when she cleaned there, but she’d seen photographs of him around the house; he was much older than his wife and had the grey hair and craggy good looks of a catalogue model. According to Sally, who was an inveterate gossip, he was married with a grown-up family when he’d begun an affair with the present Mrs Clarke, who was thirty years his junior. He was sixty-three when Leighton was born and by all accounts doted on his young wife and their new baby. Sally, who’d had four children before she was thirty-five, ridiculed the new mother with her six months’ maternity leave, afternoon naps, and army of nannies, and referred to her scathingly as ‘a pampered Princess’. ‘She should try bringing up four kids on her own,’ she’d say bitterly. ‘I didn’t have any bloody nannies to help me.’
Sally came down the flight of grey stone steps counting her money and, climbing into the driver’s seat, stuffed the roll of notes into her handbag with the rest of the day’s earnings.
‘All there, Sal?’ Zoe asked.
‘Yeah. Best to check though. The richer they are the more likely they’ll try and rip you off.’
‘She’s such a stuck-up bitch,’ Emma scowled. ‘Did you hear her giving me a hard time because I forgot to clean the water glasses in their bedroom last week?’
Chloe rolled her eyes. ‘She should get a bloody life!’
‘Well, looks like she’s fond of you, Hayley,’ Sally said, flashing her a meaningful look, and she passed her a laminated business card.
Hayley looked at it and read: Mrs Isobel Clarke, editor-in-chief, Cobalt Publications.
Sally twisted the driving mirror so she could see herself better and flicked at her fringe with her fingers. ‘Wants you to baby sit for her does she?’
‘You should feel honoured!’ Sally said sarcastically. ‘It’s not any mere mortal who can be trusted to look after ‘the golden child’. She’s never asked any of us to babysit. Are you going to do it?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe.’
‘Just you watch,’ Zoe said, ‘they’ll roll in hours later than they promised, then deduct the money for any coffee you’ve drunk from your wages. I’d bet money on it.’
‘I don’t know,’ Hayley shrugged. ‘I like her. She’s always been nice to me.’
‘Well, you’re young yet,’ Zoe smiled patronizingly. ‘You’ve still got a lot to learn. But you don’t get that rich by being nice, believe me.’
Hayley wanted to say more in Mrs Clarke’s defence, but just at that moment Sally turned on the engine and ‘Shake it off’ burst from the radio’s tinny speakers. Chloe gave an excited shriek when she recognized it and the four women in the back began to sing along at the tops of their voices.
It was a twenty minute drive from the Clarkes’ house back to Oakfield. Sally didn’t want to battle through the lunch-time traffic and dropped Hayley at the Texaco station at the bottom of the high street. She waved at the van as it drove away, but stopped when she realized no one was looking back, and, zipping up her jacket against the wind, walked to the shopping arcade in the town centre. A group of workmen were repairing a section of pavement outside Toys R Us and the whine of their handsaws was so piercing that Hayley had to cover her ears as she passed. In Tesco’s she bought herself a coffee and a salad roll at the in-store cafeteria and sat at a table the waitress had just cleared. Hayley didn’t like eating on her own in public as it made her feel self-conscious, and she played with her phone while she ate so she didn’t have to meet anyone’s eyes. When she’d finished she walked to the back of the supermarket, and pushing open a door marked ‘Staff Only’, made her way to the female locker room and changed into her uniform. Back in the store she found her supervisor, a bird-like woman with a crest of sulphur-coloured hair, who sent her to take over on check-out number five.
The store was crowded for a Monday afternoon but Hayley didn’t mind. She’d rather be busy as it made the time go faster and if things were slack her supervisor sometimes asked her to restack the shelves, which was a job she hated. As she greeted each new customer and scanned what seemed like an interminable conveyor belt of items, Hayley was aware that something was bothering her, that something had happened earlier in the day to sour her good mood. She thought at first it was Zoe and the other cleaners’ rudeness until she remembered the conversation she’d had with Mrs Clarke. Hayley hadn’t exactly lied to her about the reasons she’d left home but she hadn’t been completely honest either, and she couldn’t help feeling that by fudging the truth she’d done both Caleb and her parents an injustice. The truth was complicated, much more complicated than she’d let on.
Hayley met Caleb at Janice Webb’s seventeenth birthday party. School had just broken up for Christmas and Janice was determined to throw ‘the best party ever’. In spite of her best efforts, however, the party ended up being like all the other teenage parties they’d ever been to: the suburban house heaved with the same rent-a-mob from school who’d been getting off with each other in an incestuous merry-go-round since puberty. To escape the crush and heat, Hayley and Rachel Merriman had gone upstairs to a small landing which overlooked the front room and it was from that vantage point that she’d first seen Caleb. His blonde hair was slicked back and shaved short at the sides like Brad Pitt in Fury and he wore a large gold earring in his left ear. If Hayley had been asked to describe her physical ideal, her perfect man, then it would have been this youth in a red checked shirt edging his way through the throng swigging a bottle of beer. She found it hard to concentrate on what Rachel was saying and was actually relieved when he disappeared from sight and she could think clearly again.
When, an hour so later, he’d materialized by her side in the kitchen and started chatting to her, she’d feigned a cool detachment while her heart thumped wildly under her dress. He was even better looking close up – his eyes were a startling blue, his skin smooth and hairless like a baby’s. He had a dimple when he smiled and, to her delight, he got bashful when she teased him about it. On his right wrist she noticed a tattoo in the shape of an arrow-head.
‘What does that mean?’ she’d asked, running her finger over it.
‘It’s an ancient Indian symbol. It’s to ward off the evil eye, stop someone putting a curse on me.’
‘Maybe I need one of those to protect me from you,’ she’d said, and making himself go cross-eyed and waggling his fingers close to her face he’d pretended to put a spell on her. There was an easy rapport between them from the very beginning but Hayley found it difficult to relax and enjoy flirting with him; there were lots of girls at the party much prettier than her and she was anxious that one of them would cut into their conversation and lure him away. In the event, it was Janice’s older brother Jeremy who’d interrupted them, drunkenly accusing Caleb of gate-crashing the party; Jeremy had been spoiling for a fight and Hayley had had to work hard to convince him that Caleb came to the party with her.
They’d danced in the overcrowded, overheated front room. A strand of Caleb’s hair had come loose and hung in his eye, and as she’d been trying to stroke it back into place he’d put his arm around her waist and kissed her. It was a frankly sexual kiss that made no secret of what he wanted, and feeling slightly out of her depth, she’d tried to kiss him back with equal frankness. They went upstairs and made out in one of the back bedrooms, and even though she’d only known him a few hours, she went further with him than she’d ever gone with anyone else before.
Hayley spent the morning after the party tortured by the fear that Caleb wouldn’t ring, fretting that it had all been too good to be true. In fact his call came a full forty-five minutes earlier than he’d said and lasted nearly an hour, and when she finally hung up they’d arranged to meet again that night. Hayley spent the intervening hours lying on her bed in a sort of trance-like state, replaying everything that had happened at the party in her mind, listening to music on her headphones and writing Caleb’s name over and over in the back of her notebook. From the age of ten she’d been waiting for love to come into her life, love with a capital ‘L’. She wasn’t a prude, she was as sexually curious as any other seventeen-year-old, but sex was a means to an end for Hayley not an end in itself; what she really wanted was love, the sort of love they wrote the novels and made the movies and composed the songs about, an all-encompassing, all-consuming, romantic Love. For seven long years she’d been waiting for Love. And now it had finally arrived.
She could only hold out against Caleb’s entreaties for two dates and on the third she went to bed with him in the room in the flat he shared. Afterwards, as they’d lain in each other’s arms, Hayley had suddenly clung fiercely to him.
‘Good?’ he’d said, running his hand through her hair.
Hayley just nodded. She knew words couldn’t begin to do justice to what she was feeling. She was like some subterranean creature which, after a life in the darkness, suddenly emerges into the bright light of a summer’s day.
She felt like she’d been saved.
Hayley’s parents had been against the relationship from the start. They’d spent their lives labouring in menial jobs to escape the poverty they’d been born into and they didn’t want their daughter to have to struggle like they had. They’d set their hearts on her studying law at university and going on to become a barrister, of living a life of middle class privilege and wealth which had been impossible for them. And they sensed at once that Caleb Ireson presented a mortal danger to their hopes.
In arguments that grew increasingly bad-tempered by the day, they tried to persuade her to break up with him, repeating their reasons while she sat with her arms sullenly folded: Hayley was in Year Twelve, the most important year of her school career and the last thing she needed was the distraction of a serious relationship; she was seventeen and Caleb was twenty-one and those four years made a big difference at their age; Caleb was from Gormley, one of the roughest council estates in Oakfield, he’d left school without a single qualification and worked as a grease monkey in a local garage (‘you can do much better than him, Hayley,’ her mum said. ‘You’ll meet a nice boy at university, someone with some brains, someone who’s actually going to make something of himself.’). Her dad seemed to have taken a visceral dislike to Caleb, he criticized his earring and tattoos, the way he carried himself, the way he spoke. ‘I don’t trust him,’ he’d said, over and over again. ‘He’s a cocky so-and-so. It’s obvious he’s only after one thing.’
But the more her parents tried to pull her away from him, the more fiercely Hayley clung on. She vigorously defended Caleb against their attacks; she accused them of hypocrisy (there was a seven year age difference between her mum and dad), and railed at their snobbery (‘It shouldn’t matter what job he does or how many qualifications he’s got or how he speaks,’ she’d argued. ‘All that matters is that I love him and he loves me.’). As for her dad’s personal attacks, she complained that he’d never given Caleb a chance, that he’d taken against him from the very first because of the way he looked. The only argument that pierced her complacency was that Caleb would distract her from her exam preparation (Hayley knew only too well how much her school work had suffered since she’d started dating him).
She refused to give Caleb up and there was little they could do to stop her seeing him (her dad wanted to take back the car they’d bought her for her seventeenth birthday but her mum, fearing it would only make things worse, managed to dissuade him). Such meetings as there were between her parents and Caleb were tense and awkward; Hayley’s mum at least went through the motions of civility but her dad treated him with undisguised contempt and Hayley could scarcely believe that this was the same gentle man she’d known all her life.
After a while her parents fell silent on the subject of Caleb, and Hayley began to think they’d decided to accept what they couldn’t change. And then one evening when they were sitting in the lounge after dinner her dad had switched off the TV and announced that he’d something important to show her.
‘You know I’ve always had misgivings about your relationship with Caleb…’
Hayley had rolled her eyes and said, ‘Can’t we just have one evening when we don’t….’ But he interrupted her.
‘So, to put my mind at rest, I decided to employ a private detective to check him out …’
Hayley stared at him wide-eyed with incredulity. ‘You did what?’ She stood up, flushed with anger, and started to walk out of the room, but her dad begged her to read what the detective had written.
‘Please, Hayley. It’ll stop you making a terrible, terrible mistake.’
Reluctantly she sat back down, and taking a yellow folder from the sideboard drawer, he put a typed report on the coffee table. According to the private eye, Caleb Ireson was a member of a drug gang run by Curtis McCullen, a notorious local villain. A photocopied appendix listed Caleb’s criminal convictions – common assault, handling stolen goods, aggravated burglary, possession of a class ‘B’ drug…
‘He’s a criminal,’ her dad said into Hayley’s stunned silence. ‘He’s a drug dealer. He’s the lowest form of life there is. You can’t possibly want to keep seeing him now you know about all this…’
Hayley had tried to hide her shock. She’d accused her parents of breaching Caleb’s privacy, of grubby, underhanded tactics. But the revelations had shaken her and that night she drove to Caleb’s to confront him.
He was weight training in his room when she arrived. He sat on the edge of his bed and looked through the report, the blood fading from his cheeks. ‘Look, I was going to tell you about all the convictions,’ he said at last, ‘but it seemed too soon – I didn’t want to scare you away.’ He picked sullenly at the stitching of his leather mitt. ‘I was just a kid. I went off the rails when my parents got divorced. I did a lot of bad things...’
‘But what about this gang?’ she’d pressed him. ‘Is it true you’re part of this gang?’
‘No!’ he’d cried. ‘I used to be, but I broke with Curtis ages ago. On the estate it was hard not to get caught up in it. But I got out as soon as I could. I don’t have anything to do with that crowd anymore. I’ve moved on. I’ve got a good job at the garage. And I’ve got you.’
‘You really don’t belong to this gang?’
He shook his head. ‘Ancient history, Hayley.’
She was unsure what to say, unsure what to believe.
Caleb stood and spread out his arms in appeal. ‘Your parents are trying to split us up, Hayley. You know that. Don’t let them do it, babe. We’ve got something special here.’
She felt suddenly ashamed at herself for doubting him, for letting her parents manipulate her so easily, and terrified that she’d caused permanent damage to their relationship, she’d burst into tears.
‘Come here,’ he said and she went to him and he folded her in his arms. She kissed his face again and again and each kiss was a plea for forgiveness.
Hayley’s relationship with her parents had steadily deteriorated. She’d bridled at their naked attempts to control her life, their narrow-minded snobbery, the insulting, derogatory names her dad called Caleb; they’d condemned what they saw as her self-destructive stupidity, her wilful blindness, her determination to continue a relationship which, for them, bordered on the immoral. Caleb tried to persuade her to leave home and move in with him and it was only an ossified sense of duty that made her stay.
It was Hayley’s decision not to go to university that caused the final breach in the relationship. Hayley knew she couldn’t be apart from Caleb for three days let alone three years, he was too important to her to subject their relationship to all the risks that separation would bring. She’d intended to keep it secret from her parents and take her exams in the summer as planned, but her March school report put paid to that. Teacher after teacher complained of poor concentration in class, unfinished or substandard assignments and her expected exam grades were drastically revised down. In the furious row the report triggered she’d become so exasperated by her dad’s nagging that she’d finally blurted, ‘I’m not going to university! Okay? I’m staying here with Caleb!’ Her dad had stared at her as if she was a complete stranger. Shaking his head in bewilderment he’d said, ‘I can’t do this. I can’t watch you throw your life away like this any more.’
Hayley had got abruptly to her feet. ‘Well you know what, Dad? You won’t have to.’
She ran upstairs and quickly packed two bags (she almost took her school uniform then stopped herself – she knew she was never going back to school now). When she’d finished she hurried downstairs, and without exchanging another word with her parents, left the house which had been her home since she was six years of age. Before she started her car she texted Caleb to tell him what had happened and he was waiting outside his house for her when she pulled up to the kerb. He was barely able to contain his excitement and carried her bags up to his room like an overzealous bellboy. A little over an hour after the row with her parents, Hayley was hanging up her clothes in Caleb’s wardrobe while he stood behind her nuzzling at her neck.
It was less than an ideal start to their life together. Caleb’s landlord was a cheapskate who’d furnished the rooms with second-hand junk and wouldn’t spend any money on renovations –the kitchen cupboards smelt of mould, the cooker was prehistoric and dangerous to use, and there was no washing machine which meant they had to go to a launderette to do their washing. They shared the kitchen, bathroom and lounge with two other people – Kai, an oriental student, and a heavily-tattooed skinhead called Marlon. Hayley didn’t mind Kai, who was hardly ever there anyway, but she didn’t feel comfortable around Marlon. He had a thin, ratty face and a supercilious way of looking at her, as if he found everything about her faintly ridiculous, and although she didn’t say anything to Caleb, she didn’t like it when he went out drinking with him.
The buzz of living with Caleb, however, more than made up for the inadequacies of their accommodation. Hayley couldn’t get over the thrill of going to bed with him every night and waking up next to him every morning and she threw herself into her new routine as if it was the only one she’d ever known. They had breakfast together in their room every morning at the wobbly table in the bay window, the net curtains pulled back so they could watch what was happening outside in the street; when Caleb left for work she’d make the bed and wash up the breakfast things and do whatever other chores needed to be done (they only had one shelf in the small fridge they shared so she had to shop a lot). At lunchtime she walked into town and met Caleb at the garage and they’d have lunch together at the Subway in the high street. In the evenings they binge-watched US TV series or downloaded movies; if they fancied going out they went to the Robin Hood for a drink or had a meal at the pizza restaurant in town they liked. As the weather grew warmer they went on excursions into the countryside around Oxford on Caleb’s motorbike and one Sunday they went all the way to Weston-super-Mare and had fish and chips on the beach. For Hayley’s eighteenth birthday at the end of May Caleb bought her a Staffordshire terrier which she called Spike after the dog in the Tom and Jerry cartoons. She doted on the puppy almost as much as she doted on Caleb and she took him to obedience classes three mornings a week and for long walks in Oakfield park almost every afternoon.
In spite of the way her parents had behaved to her, Hayley missed them. She called her mum from time to time and occasionally they met for a coffee in town but an unbridgeable chasm still remained. To Hayley’s surprise she didn’t miss school at all; she didn’t miss Janice or Rachel either or any of her other friends. It was as if that whole life had just sloughed off her like a dead skin. Glancing at the calendar one day in June she realized that she should have been sitting her first ‘A’ level exam that morning. She didn’t feel the slightest tinge of regret, more a sort of bewilderment that she’d ever planned to study Law and become a barrister. It brought home to her what she’d only intuited before: that it had been her parents’ ambition, not hers, and she’d gone along with it to make them happy.
Lying in bed at night, Caleb and Haley began to plan a very different future together. Caleb came from a large family which had fractured when he was still young and he was keen to have a family of his own, but first he wanted to save enough money to put a deposit down on a flat of their own. Hayley had never given much thought to being a mother, but she found the prospect strangely thrilling now; she felt that a baby would prove the strength of their love to the whole world, it would prove its seriousness, its authenticity. Even her mum and dad would have to respect what she had with Caleb if they had a baby together.
There was another reason she wanted to have Caleb’s baby, one which she didn’t talk about with him: she was convinced a child would bind him to her with indivisible cords, that once she’d had his baby he’d never leave her. She began to look at babies on TV and in the street in a different way now, she began to look at them as a prospective mother and she was so keen for this new stage of her life to start that some mornings she was tempted not to take her contraceptive pill.
In spite of the cupboard drawers that stuck, the stained lino and threadbare carpets, Hayley was happier in the dingy rented flat than she’d ever been in her life before. It wasn’t the happiness of a fleeting desire gratified, it was something deeper, something profounder than that: it was an integral happiness, a happiness in her soul.
And then it all came to an end with a violent pounding on her door.
It was a Wednesday in late August. Hayley had fallen asleep waiting for Caleb to come home from work when the banging woke her. Still groggy, she’d unlocked the door and opened it a crack. Marlon was standing in the hallway looking shaken and pale.
‘Caleb’s been arrested,’ he said.
‘What? What’s happened?’
‘A deal he was doing went bad. The cops picked him up.’
‘A drug deal for Curtis.’
‘But – but – Caleb isn’t involved in that anymore…’
Marlon’s eyes narrowed and his lips twisted into a contemptuous smile.
‘Try telling that to the cops, darlin’.’
Hayley finished her shift at five. She didn’t head home immediately as she needed to get some dry dog food for Spike, and, collecting a basket, she made her way to the pet food section. She searched for the brand she usually bought, and had just taken a bag from the shelf, when Janice Webb and Rachel Merriman turned into her aisle and began walking straight towards her. Hayley’s heart leapt and she quickly averted her face, but she knew they’d recognized her by their sudden silence as they passed. She watched them walking away, whispering conspiratorially together, and knew they were talking about her – Hayley Beckett, their one-time friend who’d dropped out of school to shack up with a drug dealer. She hurried to one of the self-service stations, terrified they’d reappear before she could escape, and, as soon as she’d collected her receipt, she dashed out of the store.
She walked to the end of the high street in the gathering dusk and waited at the crossroads as the rush-hour traffic thundered by. Across the road The Robin Hood pub stood like a ship in dry dock in its vast car park, a torn banner advertising a Roxy Music tribute band flapping in the wind. When the lights changed Hayley crossed, breaking into an apologetic run when the red man began flashing. As she descended the hill, picking her way through the garbage outside a fast food joint, following the detour around a block of flats under construction, she passed a row of Tudor cottages that looked hopelessly out of place in the grimly urban setting. Thirty-five miles to the west of London, Oakfield had been a country town for most of its history; the other end of the high street, with its cobbled marketplace and coaching inns, still had a Dickensian feel to it. But almost imperceptibly London had crept closer and closer until Oakfield had become absorbed in its web of concrete and steel. A stranger could get off the train at Oakfield station now and be forgiven for thinking they’d never left the capital.
Hayley came to a parade of shops and turned into a quiet side street. The Victorian villas, which had once been home to individual families, had all been converted into flats now, their entry buzzers crowded with different names in different handwriting. Hayley slowed in front of a house with a wildly overgrown garden and stared up at the bay window on the first floor. This had been the room where she’d lived with Caleb; non-descript, anonymous to other pedestrians, the house was almost a holy site to her and she walked on with a bitter pang of nostalgia.
Hayley had visited Caleb in prison while he waited for his bail application to be heard. She was angry, confused, and hurt, but at the same time racked with anxiety when she thought of him languishing in a prison cell. Any lingering resentment she still felt towards him vanished the moment he’d shuffled into the visitors’ room in his grey prison overalls. The pallor of his skin and the terror in his eyes truly shocked her. Among the shaven-headed old lags, the bull necks and weightlifters’ arms, Caleb looked like a frightened boy of sixteen not a man of twenty-one.
Her prison visit wasn’t like the movies. Caleb didn’t sit behind a glass screen, they didn’t have to talk to each other on a telephone. The visitors’ room was like a huge, whitewashed cafeteria with a line of vending machines along one wall, but instead of waitresses, burly warders patrolled back and forth. Caleb sat across from her at a cheap Formica table barely able to hold her gaze for a second before looking guiltily away.
‘What happened, Caleb?’ she’d asked. ‘You told me you’d left Curtis’s gang.’
‘I had left, Hayley. I swear to God I had.’
He put his hands on the table and stared at them glumly.
‘Curtis came to the garage and asked me to do a job for him. I said I wasn’t interested but he told me he’d pay five K for one night’s work.’ He flashed an appealing look at her. ‘I knew how long it would take me to save that money, babe. I thought it could go towards the deposit on a flat for us.’
‘What did he want you to do?’
‘I had to take fifty grand to a house out by the canal and buy four kilos of cocaine off a Polish crew from London.’
‘I picked up the money from Curtis after work. He insisted I take Marlon along with me as back up.’
‘Marlon works for Curtis?’
‘The Poles were waiting for us when we got there. The house was just a shell – it looked like it was in the middle of being renovated – and we went up to the top floor to do the deal.’ He grimaced as he remembered. ‘We’d only just got down to business when they raided the place. All hell broke loose. Everyone ran for it. Marlon legged it down some back stairs. I went out the window and over the roof tops, but the police were waiting for me when I climbed down.’
He hung his head in shame. ‘I’m sorry, Hayley. I’ve screwed everything up, haven’t I?’
He looked up suddenly and stared at her with a dreadful intensity. His face flushed red and seemed to crumple in on itself and she realized he was crying. ‘Don’t leave me, baby,’ he sobbed, clumsily wiping away the tears with the heel of his hand. ‘Please, please, don’t leave me.’
Hayley felt tears welling up in her own eyes and, reaching across the table, she put her hand on his.
‘I won’t leave you, Caleb. I promise.’
‘NO TOUCHING!’ a warder barked. Hayley squeezed Caleb’s hand as hard as she could before she let it go.
The next day Hayley was walking Spike in Oakfield park when her phone rang.
There was no hello, no preamble. ‘Do you believe me now?’ her mum demanded.
Hayley was so taken aback she was lost for words.
‘We know all about Caleb’s arrest, Hayley. He lied to you. He never left that gang. He’s a drug-dealer. He’s a low-life drug dealer and he’s been caught red-handed. What more proof do you need?’
‘You’re wrong,’ Hayley said dryly. ‘He did quit the gang but they tricked him into going back. He made a stupid mistake that’s all, mum. And he did it with the best intentions. He did it for me. He did it so that we’d have the money for a place of our own.’
Mrs Beckett gave an exasperated cry. ‘And you believe that? When are you going to wake up, Hayley? He’s playing you for a fool. Come home, sweetheart, get away from him now while you still can. Dad and I will help you. You can resit your ‘A’ levels next year if – .’
‘I’m not coming home, mum,’ Hayley interrupted her.
Mrs Beckett fell silent. When she spoke again her voice was icy. ‘You’re not coming home? You’re going to carry on making a laughing-stock of yourself in this way?’
‘That’s right. I’m going to wait for Caleb.’
‘You’re a stupid, stupid girl.’
Hayley began to defend Caleb for the millionth time, but her mum had already hung up.
Caleb pleaded guilty to possession of a class ‘A’ drug with intent to supply. His sentencing was fast-tracked and he and Hayley only had to wait three anxious weeks to learn his fate. At the hearing, Roy Tanner, the garage owner, stood character witness for him, but in spite of his glowing testimonial, the judge sentenced Caleb to two years in prison. As he was being marched down to the cells by the security officers, Caleb looked across at Hayley and mouthed, ‘I love you.’
Hayley stayed living in Caleb’s flat after he went to prison. She disliked Marlon even more now that she knew he was a member of Curtis’s gang. She didn’t feel safe alone in the house with him and sometimes when she heard him moving around outside her room late at night she wedged a chair under the door handle like she’d seen people do in the movies. Even though Caleb continued to pay the rent Marlon seemed to resent Hayley living there and made snide comments about her ‘freeloading’ on him and Kai. When Spike got into his room and chewed one of his shoes, Marlon flew into such a terrifying rage she really thought he was going to hurt the puppy and he only calmed down when Hayley wrote out a cheque for a new pair of shoes.
Hayley was desperate to find a place of her own, but although she still had some savings left she needed a regular income to secure a rental property. She took a part-time waitressing job at the Caffé Nero in the high street and shortly after that began working at Tesco’s as well. She tried to work as many hours as she could and volunteered for the unpopular shifts like weekends and holidays. When she had a decent collection of pay slips she began house-hunting in her spare time. It was a disheartening experience; the flats she saw were either unbelievably grotty or, if they were nice, the owners wouldn’t let her live there with Spike. She was starting to get desperate when she noticed a handwritten advert for a ‘self-contained flat’ on the message board in Oakfield Post Office. It was walking distance from the high street and the rent was manageable – at a stretch. The landlady’s name – Audrey Holborne – was printed neatly at the bottom of the card along with a mobile phone number. Hayley rang her there and then and arranged to see the flat that night.
Audrey was a smiley divorcee in her late forties. The ‘self-contained flat’ turned out to be the double garage directly behind her suburban house which her ex-husband Derek had reformed. He’d done an excellent job too, converting a roller-doored block house into comfortable accommodation. He’d put a new gable roof on it and built a bedroom with en-suite bathroom in the attic space he’d created. It had a beautiful hard wood floor and was nicely furnished, but what really caught Hayley’s eye was the spiral staircase in the corner of the lounge with its two corkscrew twists. She might have been eighteen, but there was something about a spiral staircase that still excited the child inside her. Audrey had been a little unsure about Spike as she didn’t usually allow pets but after deliberating for a moment or two she’d said, ‘Oh, what the hell. Let’s give it a try. I don’t know what it is but I’ve got a good feeling about you, Hayley Beckett.’
They’d gone into Audrey’s house to go through the paperwork and as they’d chatted Audrey had asked Hayley about boyfriends. Without thinking, she began singing Caleb’s praises, but faltered when she realized Audrey might change her mind about the flat if she found out he was in prison. ‘I – I don’t see him often,’ she stammered, ‘he works away actually – on the oil rigs.’ Luckily for Hayley Audrey didn’t press her further on the subject as she was anxious to talk about herself, and Hayley had sat in sympathetic silence as she’d told her all about the medical condition that had stopped her having children and the strain that had put on her marriage.
The following Saturday Hayley packed again and took a final look around the room where she’d been so happy. She lugged her bags down the stairs into the hallway and was fumbling with the lock on the front door when she’d heard a noise behind her. She looked round and saw Marlon at the top of the staircase. He was leaning against the wall, arms folded, watching her as a cat might watch a mouse it had trapped by its tail.
‘I’ll be seeing you then, Hayley.’
It sounded like a threat not a goodbye.
Hayley let the slam of the door answer for her.
Hayley’s life in her new accommodation revolved around her part-time jobs and visits to see Caleb in prison. She passed a miserable Christmas alone for the first time in her life and if it hadn’t been for Spike and a long conversation with Caleb the authorities allowed him on Christmas day she didn’t know how she would have got through it. She continued to have sporadic contact with her mum but they remained as far apart as ever and Hayley’s attempts to make her see the real Caleb, the Caleb she loved, invariably fell on stony ground. She was sometimes tempted to tell her mum that they were planning to have a baby together but she knew the idea would only appal her. She had to see the baby, she had to be confronted by her grandchild, only then would she soften. Hayley’s dad remained implacably hostile and refused all contact with her. He’d continued to pay her car insurance after she’d left home but early in the New Year the standing order was cancelled. This extra expense, plus the cost of the four hour round-trip to see Caleb twice a week, put Hayley’s fragile economy in jeopardy and she found it hard to get to the end of the month. One of the baristas at Nero’s mentioned that his mum ran a cleaning company and might be willing to take on another person and a few days later Hayley found herself sitting in McDonald’s being interviewed by Sally. Despite her lack of experience Sally agreed to give her a try and early next morning Hayley was riding in the mini-van while Zoe, Colleen, Emma and Chloe looked her up and down with puzzled resentment.
Working three jobs was exhausting and Hayley was too tired to do much other than sleep when she got home. She lived for the two hours each week she spent with Caleb in the prison visitors’ room. When she was sitting across the table from him looking into his blue eyes, the drudgery and the loneliness of her daily routine faded into insignificance; when she was with Caleb everything she suffered seemed worthwhile.
And then on her last visit to the prison just the previous week Caleb had given her the best news possible. After serving only six months of his sentence he was going to be released on licence. There were conditions – he would have to live at home with his dad and his step-mum, wear a tag, and observe a 10pm to 8am curfew, but this didn’t dampen Hayley’s euphoria in the slightest.
All that mattered was that Caleb was coming home!
Hayley turned into Hanbury Close, the cul-de-sac where she lived. Audrey was weeding the front garden of number 53 in a fuchsia vest despite the winter chill still lurking in the shadows of the March afternoon. Hayley was anxious to get inside but she knew she’d have to stop and chat with Audrey. Audrey always wanted to chat. Audrey always needed to chat. It was this need that people recognized and that was why they tried to avoid her.
The moment Audrey saw her, she jumped up and hurried over, muddy trowel still in her hand.
‘And how’s my favourite tenant?’
‘I’m good, thanks, Audrey, I’m good. How about you?’
‘I’m okay,’ she said, dragging the word out so long that it began to mean the very opposite. ‘Derek popped over this afternoon to do the gutters, but he didn’t bring a big enough ladder so he did a few jobs around the house instead.’
She pointed the trowel at the bag of dog food. ‘Spike’ll be happy,’ she laughed. ‘I looked in on him earlier – he was disappointed I wasn’t you, naturally.’
Hayley noticed that Audrey was slightly out of breath and her skin was glistening with sweat, and straight away she understood the reason for the vest and the track pants; even this half an hour in the garden was an opportunity for aerobic exercise – the hours she spent on the treadmill and Stepmaster at the gym still not enough for Audrey. She was in extraordinary physical shape for her age, there was no doubt about that; she regularly ran half-marathons, and her stomach was as flat and her arms as sinewy as a professional dancer’s. And yet she didn’t look healthy. Her frizzy ginger hair was thinning, and the line of her cheekbones traced an hour-glass beneath the skin. And Hayley wondered again whether Audrey’s exercise obsession wasn’t about perfecting her body at all, but punishing it for letting her down so badly.
‘How long now before Caleb comes home?’
‘He’s flying back from Scotland on Thursday morning.’
‘And you were saying he’s giving up the rigs for good?’
‘That’s right. He’s found a job at a local garage here.’
Audrey winked suggestively and gave her a nudge. ‘I bet you can’t wait. I used to hate being apart from Derek. I still miss having a man about the house. Which reminds me – when are we going to have another girls’ night out? I’m still looking for the man of my dreams, you know.’
Hayley had gone out with Audrey on two or three ‘girls’ nights out’ and they’d all ended the same way: the two of them sitting in a corner of The Robin Hood while Audrey, teary after too much white wine, rehashed the history of her failed marriage: the blocked Fallopian tubes that had stopped her conceiving, the years of IVF treatment that ultimately proved futile. Audrey never tried to meet any men when they went out together in spite of all the talk about finding another husband, and it was obvious to Hayley that, even though Derek had remarried and had two children with his new wife, she was still in love with him.
It wasn’t a night out Hayley looked forward to with much enthusiasm, but she felt sorry for Audrey and didn’t have the heart to say no. It was only the odd evening out of her life, she told herself, she could hardly begrudge her landlady that.
‘Another girls’ night out – sure,’ Hayley smiled. ‘As soon as Caleb’s settled, okay?’
‘I’ll hold you to it.’
Audrey took a deep breath and sighed. ‘You and Caleb will be getting your own place in no time I wouldn’t be surprised. I don’t know what I’ll do when you go. You’re the best tenant I’ve ever had. I’ll never find another Hayley.’
‘Don’t say that,’ Hayley laughed. ‘I’ll blot my copy book now.’
‘How could you?’
‘I don’t know – blow up the boiler or something.’
‘It’s funny you should say that,’ Audrey said, giggling in anticipation of the story she was about to tell, and launched into a convoluted anecdote about the boiler. Hayley tried to look interested, but the bag of dog food was making her arms ache, and she tried to think of an excuse to get away without hurting Audrey’s feelings. As luck would have it, she didn’t have to. Audrey’s eyes suddenly darted away from her and she gave a squeal of excitement. Hayley looked around and saw a young woman in a shell suit hurrying by on the other side of the road pushing a pram.
‘That’s Dina with her new baby!’ Audrey exclaimed, bouncing eagerly on the balls of her toes like a child that’s seen an approaching ice-cream van. ‘I must go and say hello,’
‘Sure,’ Hayley said, ‘we’ll catch up later,’ but Audrey was already jogging across the road, still carrying her muddy trowel, calling after the young mother. Dina stopped – with some reluctance it seemed to Hayley – and indulged Audrey, who leaned into the pram, gushing, ‘Oh, she’s gorgeous! She’s gorgeous! Aren’t you gorgeous?’
Hayley walked down the driveway to the back of Audrey’s house and the converted double garage that was now her home. Beyond Audrey’s back garden there was a paved area just large enough for two cars. Hayley’s Fiat Punto was parked in it now, a neighbourhood tabby stretched out on its bonnet casually licking its paws. Hayley hated having to park there but the street was permit holders only; getting the car out involved a tricky three-point turn (that she never managed in three), and no matter how gentle she was on the accelerator the engine sounded like a formula one racing car in the amphitheatre created by the surrounding houses. If that wasn’t bad enough, the next door neighbour’s Honda Prius sometimes encroached over the driveway from which she had to exit, and if Audrey had parked her Santa Fe sloppily, Hayley would only just be able to edge her way out between them. She hadn’t been blocked in yet, but she knew it would happen one day.
Hayley let herself in and went straight through to the kitchen, dumped the dog food on the worktop and unlocked the back door. Spike was asleep in his kennel on the strip of grass at the side of the flat. He sat up and contemplated her drowsily.
‘You’re not much of a guard dog are you?’ she said.
The brindle Staffy trotted over to her, his tail whipping excitedly back and forth. Hayley sat on the back step and made a fuss of him, tickling his ears and inhaling the puppy smell which still clung faintly to him. Kissing him squarely on the nose she went back inside and filled his bowl with dry food while he whined and fidgeted in greedy anticipation.
She put the kettle on and went upstairs to the bathroom. Her eyes felt sore and standing at the sink she splashed cold water on her face and towelled herself dry. She lingered there, studying her reflection in the mirror. She was so nearly pretty. It was just a matter of millimetres. If her nose had been just a little smaller, her top lip just a little fuller, her hazel eyes just a little bit bigger…Beauty was determined by the finest of measurements and Hayley just missed it. By millimetres.
She pulled her hair up to see what she’d look like with it short, sighed and let it drop again. What did Caleb see in her? She was so plain compared to the other girls he’d dated. They’d bumped into one of them once when they went to see a band at the youth centre in town – a tall, loud girl called Kaya whose arms were so heavily tattooed that at first glance Hayley thought she was wearing a long-sleeved top. Compared to her Hayley looked like a trainee accountant come to audit the venue’s books. She’d caught sight of her again later that night dancing near the front of the stage in a sort of wild frenzy. Hayley could never have danced like that, she could never have let herself go so completely. She didn’t know why it was but she always felt slightly stiff and self–conscious, even when she was on her own; her arms had a tendency to straighten by her sides like a soldier on parade, her hands to ball up into fists. It was hard to believe that she was as ‘good’ in bed as a girl like Kaya no matter what Caleb said and she was suddenly gripped by the fear that he’d throw her over for someone prettier, someone hotter. Hayley had to give her head a violent shake to derail that hideous train of thought.
She changed into a sweat shirt and jeans and went back downstairs to the kitchen. There was some lasagne left over from the day before which she warmed up in the microwave and ate in the lounge watching a travel programme about Vietnam. When she’d finished she found the TV guide and flicked through it. There was a rom-com at nine o’clock called Break a Leg that she’d seen before about a couple who always ended up injuring each other when they went out on a date. It was a pretty dumb movie but she quite fancied watching it again.
It was fully dark outside now and Hayley drew the curtains and put on the electric fire. She gave Spike a kong stuffed with bacon and wrote up her diary for that day. When she’d finished she methodically crossed out Monday 16th March at the top of the page and counted. Three more days. Three more days…
Hayley really wanted to spoil Caleb when he came out; she’d bought him Nickleback’s new album but that didn’t seem like anywhere near enough, and switching on her laptop, she went on Amazon to look for more presents. She ordered the new series of Vikings and a Kings of Leon live album she was pretty sure he didn’t have, but it still didn’t seem enough; she remembered that he’d said he needed new motorcycling gloves and searched the net until she found a pair made by the Italian company he liked. As she entered her credit card details Hayley felt an anticipatory thrill when she the thought how happy the gifts would make him.
It was eight-thirty when she finally turned off her computer, and deciding to read until the movie came on, she stretched out on the sofa with her novel. She was exhausted by her long day and struggled to stay awake in the warm room, and, after a little more than three pages, her eyelids closed and the book slipped from her fingers. She found herself back at her Tesco’s check-out servicing a queue which stretched all the way to the rear of the store. A bloated, ogreish Zoe appeared with a trolley full of little baby dolls in romper suits. ‘You’re young yet, you’ve still got a lot to learn,’ she said, and began dumping armfuls of the seated plastic figures on the conveyor belt. As Hayley went to pick one up, a whining circular saw flashed out of the doll’s romper suit and cut her hand. She gave a cry and stared at the gash across her palm in disbelief. She reached for another doll but the same thing happened. A river of plastic dolls was now flowing past her and clattering onto the lino floor and Hayley knew that if she didn’t quickly start to scan them she’d lose her job. Again and again she tried to seize one but every time a vicious rotating blade sliced into her flesh and her hand was criss-crossed with deep lacerations and the conveyor belt spattered with blood…
Hayley woke with a start. She sat up and blinked at her wrist-watch. The movie had already started and she decided to give it a miss and go to bed. Spike, familiar with the night-time routine, left his kong and trotted after Hayley into the kitchen. She let him outside and sat on the back step while the Staffy stared into space, rolled in the grass and sniffed at the fence posts – in short, did everything apart from the wee she wanted. Hayley could see an orange glow behind Audrey’s bedroom curtains and imagined her tucked up in bed with the latest Danielle Steel.
Spike finally relieved himself against the side of his kennel and, looking inordinately pleased with himself, followed her back inside. Spike was still prone to have accidents in the night so he had to be confined to the kitchen and, as he settled himself into his bed with a sigh, Hayley switched off the light and pulled the sliding door across.
Maybe it was the dream but she felt strangely on edge and, before she got into bed, she did something she hadn’t done in a long time. She went to a low shelf in the corner and picked up a battered-looking soft toy. This was Monkey Pocket – ‘Pocket’ because that was how she used to pronounce ‘Beckett’ when she was a little girl. Her dad had bought the button-eyed chimpanzee on the day Hayley was born and he was propped up next to her in the hospital cot in the first photograph ever taken of her. Hayley climbed into bed and lay cradling Monkey Pocket tightly in her arms.
Three more days, she told herself. Three more days and Caleb would be free again and their life together would start in earnest.
And thinking this, she fell asleep with the faintest trace of a smile on her lips.
The night before Caleb’s release Hayley was so excited she couldn’t sleep and her eyes were bleary the next morning. She had to be at the prison at nine and it was still dark when she left the house. Her car sounded so loud when she turned on the ignition she was sure it would wake Audrey, and she glanced anxiously up at her window as she crawled up the drive in first gear. Her landlady’s Santa Fe was partly blocking her exit but luckily the neighbour’s Prius wasn’t there and she was able to negotiate her way around it without any problem.
She drove the now familiar route along the M25 to the London borough where the infamous Victorian prison was located. She parked in the visitors’ car park and walked to the main gate watched by security cameras whose rectangular heads panned as they followed her. It was unusually cold for March and her breath formed pale clouds as she paced back and forth, but she dared not wait in the car in case she missed him. At twenty past nine a door in the wooden gate opened and Caleb stepped out. He broke into a wide grin when he saw her and she ran to him and threw herself into his arms. Lifting her off her feet, he swung her around in a circle, then holding her head in both his hands, covered her face in kisses.
‘I’ve missed you so much!’ she groaned.
‘I missed you too, babe. I should have been out twenty minutes ago but the bloody morons lost my mobile. It took them ages to find it.’
‘I was starting to think they’d changed their minds!’
‘Well, let’s get out of here before they do, shall we?’
Hayley couldn’t stop smiling as she drove; she kept glancing over at Caleb as if she couldn’t believe he was really sitting next to her in the car, and, laughing, he cried out, ‘Watch the road or we’ll both end up in the cemetery!’
They got back to Hanbury Close at midday. Audrey’s Santa Fe had gone and Hayley knew she’d be at work at the local council offices, impatiently waiting for lunch-time to come around so she could dash out to the gym. Spike went crazy when he saw who was back and Caleb rolled around on the floor with him like a ten-year-old. When the Staffy was calm again Hayley asked if Caleb wanted to see the rest of the flat (‘it’ll be the quickest tour in history,’ she quipped), but he folded her in his arms and whispered, ‘All I want to see is the bedroom.’ She led him up the spiral staircase, gently shooing away Spike who tried to follow, and they fell giggling onto her unmade bed. They’d just begun kissing when Caleb suddenly sat up and said, ‘Hey, I want to show you something,’ and hurriedly unbuttoned his shirt. On his chest was a tattoo of a blood-red love heart and, in the banner which wrapped itself around it, ‘HAYLEY’ was written in bold, Gothic script.
‘Do you like it?’
Hayley was so moved she couldn’t speak. She gently touched it with her fingertips.
‘Some category ‘A’ prisoners were learning to be tattoo artists. They were asking for volunteers so I put my hand up. Pretty professional job don’t you think?’
‘It’s – beautiful,’ she whispered.
They stayed in bed all afternoon, and, when they weren’t making love or sleeping, they talked and talked as if they hadn’t seen each other for years.
Caleb’s time in prison had clearly had a profound effect on him and he was anxious to make her understand what he’d been through. It was the claustrophobia of his confinement that had traumatized him more than anything else.
‘Those first few weeks,’ he said, ‘when they lock you in your cell at night – it’s like drowning or something – you feel like you can’t breathe, like you’re suffocating. I’d get these panic attacks in the middle of the night like someone was putting a pillow over my face…I really thought I was going to go mad. I’m never going through that again I tell you. I’ll do whatever it takes – I’ll commit murder if I have to – but I’m never going back inside again. Never.’
He showed her the tag on his left ankle and she studied it with horrified fascination.
‘It’s like something from a sci-fi film, isn’t it?’ he laughed. ‘If I’m not at home between ten at night and eight in the morning an alarm goes off in the place where I’m being monitored.’
‘It’s disgusting,’ Hayley said. ‘They’d say it was cruel if they put that on an animal.’
She contemplated it in silence then said, ‘You’re finished with Curtis now, aren’t you, Caleb? You’ll never work for him again, will you?’
‘No. No way. I’ve learnt my lesson, babe. Straight as an arrow from now on.’
Caleb was starting back at the garage the next day and Hayley wondered if it wasn’t too soon.
‘Don’t you think you should have had some time at home to get your head together?’
‘I can’t get back there soon enough,’ he said. ‘I want to start earning again, get our plans back on track.’
She had to pluck up courage before she asked her next question.
‘Do you – do you still want to start a family? Do you still want that?’
‘Yeah, of course.’
She pressed her face against his shoulder and felt happiness suffuse her body like the heat of a warm bath.
‘I can’t spend much time at home anyway,’ he laughed. ‘My dad and step-mum will drive me up the wall. My dad going on about how he could have played for Chelsea if he hadn’t buggered his knee, my step-mum chain smoking and watching soaps all day. A few weeks of them and I’ll be wishing I was back in prison.’
They didn’t get up till gone four. They were both starving and Hayley made Caleb his favourite dinner – crispy pancakes, egg and beans – followed by his favourite dessert – chocolate brownies and ice cream. For once Hayley didn’t worry about her weight and joined him. When they’d finished, she watched like a doting mother as he opened his presents, thrilled that he liked them all so much. He wanted to watch the Vikings DVD straightaway and they went into the lounge and put it on, and, although Spike wasn’t allowed on the sofa, Hayley made an exception as it was a special occasion.
At nine-thirty Caleb had to go to beat his curfew. Hayley drove him across town to Gormley and pulled up outside one of the four grey, concrete tower blocks that made up the estate. It was dark and a light rain was just visible in the yellow halos of the street lamps. In the bus shelter across the road a group of youths in hoodies kept a wary, territorial eye on them.
‘Shall I come in?’ Hayley asked.
‘No, spare yourself. It’s a nut house in there.’
He began to get out of the car, but she suddenly seized his hand and pressed it to her face. She knew she was being childish and needy but she couldn’t bear to let him go.
‘C’mon, babe,’ he whispered, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow. Okay?’
She nodded and, reluctantly letting go of his hand, watched him walk away, shoulders hunched against the drizzle. One of the hooded figures called his name and he ducked his head in acknowledgement, then vanished into the walkway.
Hayley had an early start the next morning cleaning an office block behind Oakfield railway station. She was so happy to have Caleb back that she was immune to the other women’s pettiness and, when Zoe made tea in the office kitchen and ‘forgot’ to make her one, she just smiled and said, ‘That’s all right, I’m good.’ With Caleb in her life again she felt fireproof. She felt as though she could endure anything.
At lunch-time Hayley made her way to the garage in the industrial estate behind the high street. Roy Tanner came out of his office when he saw her, a pencil tucked behind his ear. They’d got to know each other quite well over the time she’d been dating Caleb, and Hayley appreciated the paternal interest he took in him. He told her Caleb was just finishing up a job but wouldn’t be much longer. ‘It’s good to have him back,’ he said. ‘He’ll be senior mechanic in no time.’
Caleb appeared wearing his leather jacket over his greasy overalls and they went to the Subway in the high street for lunch like they used to. They sat at the same table they always sat at if it was free and it all felt so familiar it was almost as if the last six months had never happened. After lunch Caleb went back to work and Hayley began her afternoon shift at Tesco’s. When she finished at five she walked home and waited impatiently for Caleb to arrive. Although she tried to busy herself in the flat she could think of nothing else but Caleb and, all the time she was preparing dinner or trying to read, she listened out for the sound of his car. When she finally heard him pull up she ran to the door and, jumping into his arms, clung to him like a koala. ‘Now that’s what I call a welcome home,’ Caleb grinned, and kicking the door shut behind him, he carried her up the spiral staircase to the bedroom. Distraught at finding himself suddenly alone, Spike sat at the bottom of the stairs and howled for them to come back down. They made it up to the Staffy a little later, taking him for a long walk in the nearby recreation ground. When they got back they had dinner then stretched out on the sofa together and watched TV until it was time for Caleb to go back to his dad’s.
Except for days when Hayley worked the lunch-time shift at Caffe Nero’s this became their new routine. Although she was still anxious to work as many hours as she could, she always kept evenings and Sundays free, as this was sacrosanct Caleb time. It frustrated her that he couldn’t stay the night; she missed falling asleep with her body pressed close against his and she always felt desolate when it was time for him to go; but she told herself to be patient, it was only for six more months and then the tag would come off.
One evening when they were leaving the flat to take Spike for a walk Audrey happened to step out into her back garden and Hayley introduced her to Caleb. ‘Oh, I’ve heard all about you,’ she beamed. ‘Hayley doesn’t talk about anything else.’ They chatted for a little while and when Audrey suggested going out for a drink one night they readily agreed. The only awkward moment came when Audrey asked Caleb about working on the oil rigs. He stared at her blankly and Hayley had to subtly prompt him until he remembered.
‘What made you give it up?’ Audrey asked. ‘They say the money’s really good.’
Caleb was silent for so long Hayley thought he’d never answer her, but he finally mumbled, ‘I – I was seasick.’
When Audrey had gone back inside and they were sure she was out of earshot they’d both collapsed in hysterics. ‘Seasick? Seasick!’’ Hayley cried, doubled up with laughter, tears streaming down her cheeks. ‘Seasick on an oil rig?’ After that ‘I was seasick’ became a sort of catchphrase between them and whenever one of them used it – ‘Why didn’t you do the washing up?’ ‘Sorry, I was seasick’ – it would trigger another fit of giggles.
Two weeks after Caleb’s release the temperature plummeted and there was an unseasonable dump of snow. It was April the first and the newspapers made the most of the coincidence with punning headlines like Snow Joke and April Cools Day. It was so bitter outside that for three days Spike missed out on his regular walk. When, on the Sunday, an apologetic sun reappeared and began to melt the berms of snow banked up on the pavements, Hayley and Caleb decided to take him on an especially long walk to make up for it. ‘I know, I know,’ Caleb said as he tried to put the lead on the excited dog, ‘I know what it’s like to be kept locked up, Spikey.’
They walked to Oakfield park and did the long circuit which took them through a forest of oaks so muddy in places it was almost impassable. Caleb brought along the plastic tennis ball launcher that Spike loved so much and whipped the ball into the fields for him to chase down, a game the Staffy never seemed to tire of. They were out for nearly two hours and, when they turned around for home, their cheeks were red and their noses running.
It was starting to get dark as they walked up the main road towards Hanbury Close. The worst of the rush-hour traffic was over but the road was still busy and the articulated lorries’ air brakes made Spike skitter in fear. They were in sight of the parade of shops when Hayley became aware of a Transit van crawling slowly along beside them. Thinking it was someone wanting directions she looked over and her blood ran cold. Marlon was staring fixedly at her out of the passenger window.
The glass slid down with an electric whine and Marlon leaned out. ‘So they let you out early, Caleb?’
Caleb flashed a stony stare at him and kept walking. ‘What does it look like?’
‘You know, Curtis isn’t very happy with you.’
Caleb kept looking ahead as if he hadn’t heard.
‘He wants to have a little chat.’
‘Yeah, well, he knows where I work.’
The Transit van was causing traffic behind it to slow and go into the other lane to overtake. The driver, a heavily bearded man with ear hoops, had his hand out of the window nonchalantly waving the cars around him. A Subaru gave an angry blast on its horn as it overtook and Hayley glimpsed the driver gesticulating angrily.
‘Why don’t you just jump in the van, mate? We can go and see the boss and you two can try and work things out.’
Caleb ignored him.
A police car now appeared behind the Transit van and gave a warning whoop whoop of its siren and flashed its lights. Marlon and the driver exchanged glances.
‘We’ll catch you later, Caleb,’ Marlon said. ‘You can count on it.’ He drew his tattooed arm back inside the cab and the Transit sped away.
Hayley turned to Caleb who was looking thoughtfully after the van.
‘What is it, Caleb? What’s that all about?’
‘It’s nothing,’ he shrugged. ‘It’s just Marlon being a jerk that’s all. I’m cool with Curtis. I just did six months in prison for him for Christ’s sake.’
He put his arm around her. ‘You’re shaking.’
But Hayley knew it wasn’t the cold that was making her tremble.