First chapter of 'The Old Bridewell' by Clare Hughes

 

Chapter One

 

It was early on a Tuesday evening when the knock on the door finally came. It was funny, but Michelle hadn't realised until that moment that she had been waiting for that knock. She had been waiting for it for nearly two years. She had been waiting for it since Tom had first gone missing.  

It must have been six o'clock. Michelle knew this because she'd just got in from work and her coat was still in her hands, woollen and rain-heavy. When the knock came, all she remembered of that moment was the sick feeling. There was a split-second of panic, and Michelle stared at the door that connected to the porch, a no man’s land between the safety of her home and the outside world. Stomach cramping, she considered the possibility that it might be the police. She considered even the possibility that it might have been Richard; that he had finally found her. She’d had that thought before and yes, it was horrible, but as it turned out it wasn't Richard. It wasn't even the police. 

 Bear in mind, all this all took place before anyone knew that Tom was dead. 

 Michelle answered the door with shaking hands.  

She didn’t recognise the man on her doorstep. He was looking across the road when she opened the door, his hands in his pockets; so very casual. He didn't look like CID or Special Branch, or anyone who might have an interest in finding Tom. 

CID didn't carry muddied rucksacks over their shoulders. CID didn’t wear jeans. His hair was scruffy; his eyes wide and blue, making it difficult for her to gauge how old he was. When he turned to greet her, eyebrows raised, it was almost as if he hadn't expected her to answer the door at all.  

He said, “Mrs Bradley?"

Michelle blinked.  She was not Mrs Bradley. She was not Mrs anything, not anymore. "Are you selling something?" 

He smiled at her, his teeth perfect and veneered and white. He had the sort of chiselled jawline and dramatic eyebrows that would normally only be associated with the Hollywood leading men of the 1950s.  Mr Gregory Peck. Mr Clark Gable, standing right there on her doorstep. 

"No, madam.”, and he actually said 'madam'. That was the sort of man this guy was. “I'm sorry to bother you. My name is Daniel and I'm a friend of your husband's. I don't suppose I could come in?" 

Think about the fight-or-flight response. Think about the pure, electric frisson of panic. Just the mention of the word ‘husband’ was enough to churn Michelle's stomach. 

"I’m not Mrs Bradley, I’m afraid.” She said. “You’re looking for my sister, Sarah. She also lives here." And then, "So, when you say you’re a friend of her husband’s, do you mean…?” 

“I’m a friend of Tom’s, yes. Is your sister at home right now? I need to talk to her."

“About Tom?” 

“Yes. I have a message from him.”  

A message from Tom. That had shocked her into silence. She had questions she wanted answering, questions about Tom, but she couldn't seem to remember any of them. One by one, they came back to her. Where was he? Was he alright? Was what the police saying true? She thought all these things, but she didn't ask them.

Remember, this all took place before anyone knew that Tom was dead.  

"She's just finishing work. She won't be home for another hour or so yet.” Michelle said, “She works odd shifts, you see." And from his blank look, she added, "She's a nurse. Well, a HCA really. We call her a nurse. That's how she met Tom, but maybe you already knew that? If you know Tom, I mean?” Michelle was conscious of babbling, but she couldn't stop. She couldn't seem to make sense. The word 'glossolalia' came to mind; what the Christians call “speaking in tongues.” 

A message from Tom. Fucking hell. 

This man, Daniel, he just smiled. He made no other effort to answer her and no effort to move off her doorstep. 

Michelle said, "You said your name was Daniel, didn't you? Well, Daniel, you could tell me what it is Tom has to say, and I will make sure to pass it on to Sarah." 

He didn’t move. Michelle was suddenly very aware that she was alone in the house.

She said. "I would invite you in, but she won't be home for ages. I'm sure you have other things to do.” 

She had meant it as a way to get him off her doorstep. This Daniel, this Humphrey Bogart, he peered over her shoulder to look into the house. It was a cold night, even by October standards, and if the bottom of his jeans were anything to go by, Mr Hollywood Jawline had been standing out in the wet for some time. He was Mr Gene Kelly, Singing in the Rain. He looked almost wistful for a moment, before shaking his head.   

 “Dan.” He said. “You can call me Dan. And you're very kind, but I should probably go. The message was really only meant for Mrs Bradley. It's a 'For Your Eyes Only' sort of thing. But thank you.” He turned to go, smiling at her as he left. Perfect, veneered, white.

 "Wait! Do you want to leave a phone number and I could get her to call you?”

 His smile frozen, he said, “I don't know.” 

 “Please. Or at least tell me if Tom is okay. That can't be too much of a secret, can it?” 

 He nodded. “He's fine. Keeping out of trouble too, for the most part. I'm sorry I can't tell you much more than that.” 

“Why?”

“It's not safe. I’m sorry. I’ll call back later.”

He’d left her with that thought, walking down the street in the direction of the main road. Michelle watched him go, and maybe it was a reaction to news about her missing brother-in-law, or maybe it was the result of so many years of living with Richard, but she felt sick. Her heart beating in seismic waves; tiny aftershocks. This felt like the sort of shit you see on the Discovery Channel. He was an earthquake, she was a displaced fault plane. You can’t just settle yourself after an encounter like that. 

She’d found herself thinking, had she cost her sister the first real break in being able to contact Tom? Michelle watched their first real break walking away, his backpack swinging over the empty arse of his jeans. The darkness where there were no streetlights swallowed him, and he was gone. 

It's a 'For Your Eyes Only' sort of thing. Michelle exhaled. This man, Dan, he seemed to think he was James Bond. 

Before he was even gone, this first real break, she was ready to call him back. She found herself leaning against the doorway, hijacked by the memory of Sarah with her head in her hands, crying. Her baby sister. Those first two weeks had been the worst. The police turning up every other day, searching the house. Taking them in for questioning, never really accepting that they didn’t know what happened to Sarah’s husband. Before she was even aware that she was moving, Michelle had caught up with him. He was hailing a black cab.

 He said, "Mrs-.. uh,?” 

 “It's Miss Grey.” she said, “And please Dan, won't you come inside? Sarah won't be that long. I could put the kettle on while you wait.”

She said, “I know Sarah would be very grateful for any news you might have. We all would." 

This time when he smiled, there was less veneer.

 He said, “Thank you."

And that was how, later, Michelle would reflect that it was her fault. She was the one who had invited this stranger into their home. Despite her misgivings, despite never quite losing that fault plane feeling. She had taken the muddied rucksack off him, and offered him a cup of tea. They sat on opposite couches, wrapping their fingers around warm mugs and not talking. He stared at her, and she said nothing.  They say hindsight is 20/20.

She said, "I’m sorry, what did you say your name was?”

"Dan." 

 But she knew that. She knew his name was ‘Dan’. She was waiting for a surname, thinking it might tell her more about him. She waited, expecting him to elaborate. When he didn’t, she said, "Did you have to travel far?" 

"Quite far." He said. 

There was something unnerving in his reticence. Michelle watched him take a sip of tea. In the light of the living room, she could see his face better than she could before, but that didn’t make him any easier to read. Even under the harsh lighting, he was still a Rudolph Valentino or a Douglas Fairbanks. He did not strike her as a 'Dan'.  

Michelle looked at her tea, focusing on staying very still. She breathed slowly.  She had to work to make her nervousness less obvious.  

She said, "Have you known Tom long?"

"Not long, really. About four months."

"Four months?"  

 He shrugged.

Four months. Four months meant that he had met Tom after Tom went on the run. Four months. Michelle was having a hard time getting her head around it.  Fucking hell. Fucking, fucking hell.

"Where is he?" Michelle asked, "How is he? Does he need anything?"

Of course, Tom was dead; but Michelle had no way of knowing that.

"He's fine.” Said Dan, “But I still can't tell you where he is. That's why he hasn't contacted you. He doesn't want to give the police anything to trace him by."

Michelle opened her mouth to say something and closed it again. Dan moved closer to where she was sitting. It was a small movement, infinitesimal. "That's why he sent me.” He said, “He trusts me. I hope you can trust me too. I realise this must seem weird."  

Weird didn’t even begin to cover it. But the way Michelle saw it, it wasn’t like it was up to her to trust this man anyway. It was Sarah's husband who had gone missing; it was Sarah's life that had been left in tatters. The decision whether or not they were going to trust this man should fall to her. But then, Sarah had always been too trusting.

Michelle thought all these things, but she didn't say them. She looked at the tea in her hands.

 "Well, you realise we haven't heard from Tom for quite some time? He left home months ago." She didn't say 'he went on the run.’ She didn't say 'he was wanted by police.'

 "I know." And those two words were like lead weights.

Michelle said, "You say that I can trust you, but if that’s true than you are going to have to trust me too. What was the message he wanted to give to Sarah?"    

 Dan sighed. After a while, he reached for his rucksack.

"Alright." She expected him to pull out a letter, but he didn't. What he did pull out didn’t look like anything at first, and it took Michelle a moment to realise what she was seeing. There were rolls of banknotes in his hand. They were secured into tight coils with elastic bands.

"Two-thousand pounds." Dan said. "Tom says he came about it legitimately, and I believe him. He said it's for his wife. He also wanted Sarah to know that he loved her, and that he’d come back for her as soon as he could."

 Michelle stared at the money.

 “But…” It didn't seem real. "Didn’t he send a letter?"

 "It's difficult. He was in rather a hurry." Whatever that means.  

 "I'm going to need more to go off than that."  

 He pressed the money into Michelle’s hand, his fingers felt alien to her. Increased heart-rate, the sound of blood rushing in her ears. Michelle weighed one of the rolls in her hand.

 She thought of Richard. Richard had been a rich man. He liked to spend money.  She looked at the money and she looked at Dan. Whatever he saw in her face, it made him laugh – white teeth flashing. Her mouth felt dry.  

"That's all, I'm afraid. Tom wants to give Sarah some money to tide her over for a little while. He'll try to get more to her when he can. That was the message."

 It didn’t seem right somehow, this much money. Too many questions. "How did he come about this money?”

He said, “Working, I think.”

She said, “What sort of work?”

 “I don’t know.”

 “And he told you to tell Sarah that he loved her?"

 "Yes. That too.”

It  made her angry, and Michelle was shocked to realise she could even feel angry anymore. It was a quiet anger, the kind born from too much adrenaline. That this man could claim to be a friend of Tom's. It was almost believable. Tom never had any difficulty making friends. Irish charm, he used to call it.

Yet something about Dan made Michelle think that he and Tom wouldn't have gelled. Perhaps he was too well-spoken for Tom, a little too polite. Tom, from Dublin, who was a self-described proletariat. Tom, who liked footie and whisky. Who liked socialist politics and playing darts.

Dan didn’t look like a darts player.

And then Michelle knew why this man made her so uncomfortable, why her heart was beating in seismic waves. He was lying. The Tom she knew, he wouldn’t have just sent money. He would have sent a letter.

Michelle went to pass the money back to him but Dan didn’t take it. She stayed like that, hand stretched out, whilst he stared dumbly at the roll of notes in her hand, unable or unwilling to comprehend what she was trying to say. Please, she willed him. Just leave. Don’t make a scene. Just leave.

It was the sound of keys that alerted them. Sarah said, "I'm home!"

The slam of the front door, followed by the noise of her sister kicking off her shoes and letting them hit the wall, and then the floor, with a thunk-thud. The rustle as she shimmied out of her coat.  

Sarah said, "You're not cooking? I got some chicken out of the freezer..."

She walked into the living room and saw that Michelle wasn't alone. Her eyes went from Michelle, to the stranger on her couch, and back again. Michelle could already see her misreading the situation. It took a moment for her sister to register the money in Michelle’s hand.  

What’s going on?"  

 “Sarah, this man is Daniel. He's..." Finding the right words was a struggle, "... he was just leaving.”

“I’m a friend of Tom’s." He said.  

 “Oh,” and then because she couldn't seem to think of anything else to say, she said “Oh.” again.

Dan stood up, and offered his hand out to her.

“It's nice to meet you at last. Tom has told me so much about you.”

“He has?”

“Oh yes. Two pints and you're all he talks about.” And he smiled again, that Douglas Fairbanks smile. Sarah sat down.   

There was silence. Michelle looked to Sarah, looked to Dan, and she knew she had done the wrong thing. She was always doing the wrong thing. Whilst Dan and Sarah looked at each other, Michelle felt herself disappear. Just like that, she was reduced to a blip on their peripheral vision. She stood up and brushed imaginary creases out of her skirt.

She said, “I'm going to make a start on dinner. I'm sure you two have much to talk about.”

 She watched Sarah for her reaction, trying to read if her sister was okay with being left alone with this stranger, but Sarah didn't react to her. She didn't take her eyes off Dan.

Michelle said, “Alright. Off I go.”, and disappeared into the kitchen. She just needed a minute, some time to think. Sarah would hear what this man had to say, and then they'd get rid of him. She tried not to think of herself as a coward.

Without having any real idea of what she wanted to cook, Michelle started by dicing the chicken breast. She felt like she needed to do something. She could hear the murmurings in the living room that let her know that Dan and Sarah were talking, although she couldn't make out what they were saying. Through the kitchen door, she saw that Sarah had moved into the seat next to Dan. She wasn’t crying. Or at least, Michelle didn't think she was crying. She kept chopping, focusing on the feeling of pushing a knife through chicken flesh.

Dan was a liar. She left her sister in the living room with a liar. 

When she ran out of chicken, Michelle opened the fridge and selected a bell pepper. After the bell pepper, the onion. Her eyes stinging, she stared at the dissected items on the chopping board and wondered what she was making. Everything in pieces. It made her think about Richard.

 She was still staring at the chopping board when she heard the sound of the front door closing. The relief was sickening. As she stepped into the living room, she found Sarah sitting on the couch, a roll of money in one hand. She was staring at the door, not reacting. 

 Michelle said, “I didn’t know what to do. Are you alright? What did he say?” 

 Sarah opened her mouth to speak, and Michelle watched her throat work for a moment. One second. Two. Three. After that, the tears came easily. The noise that came out of her was inhuman, more of a howl than anything. 

Michelle held her. Her baby sister. She’d never wanted to see her cry like this. Not again. 

“I thought…” Sarah had said, “… I thought he’d left me. I thought he’d done all this and just left me.”   

How could she say, “Don’t trust him”? How could she say, “This man is lying”?  

This was how, later, Michelle would reflect that it was her fault. She was the one who had invited this stranger into their home, despite her misgivings; despite never quite losing that fault plane feeling.  

They say hindsight is 20/20.