On the Run
She opens her eyes, is immediately fully awake. They’ll come today. She knows by the tingling sensation in her skull. But they won’t get her. She’s made her plans. She’s ready for them. She’ll get away - as long as she can stay calm. Stay calm. That’s the most important thing. Stay calm.
What time is it? She lifts her head from the pillow, her shoulders from the bed, supports herself on her right elbow as she stretches out her hand to the bedside table, gropes till she finds her spectacles. Holding them in front of her eyes like a magnifying glass, she looks at the clock. Only ten past six? There’s still plenty of time. They won’t come till dusk. They never come till dusk.
Max is asleep, snoring rhythmically. Let him sleep. Don’t wake him. Let him sleep for as long as he can. This may be his last night in his own bed, may be his last night alive.
She lowers her feet to the warm pile of the carpet then stands up and goes barefoot to the bathroom to shower - her last shower in her own home. She goes back to the bedroom to get dressed, puts on her brown tweed suit. It’s just right for the May weather and it should see her through the next few months. It’s got the right air of anonymity as well, not too smart, not too shabby, the sort of outfit an elderly woman might wear to visit a friend in hospital or look after her grandchildren while her daughter goes shopping.
She checks her handbag. Has she got her passport? The manila envelope with photographs of Max, her daughter and grandchildren? She gets her shiny plastic shopping bag from the kitchen and her leather money belt from the dressing table in the bedroom, opens the safe, transfers the pouch which holds her jewellery to the shopping bag, transfers money - enough to last her for a couple of months - to the money belt, locks the safe, ties the bulging belt around her waist.
She’ll take a change of underwear, a clean blouse, a spare pair of shoes, an umbrella, a couple of apples and a packet of cream crackers. That’s all. That’s all she can carry. She’s not as strong as she used to be.
Max, her man, her husband, is awake by the time she finishes her preparations. He’s sitting on the bed, one foot resting on the floor, the other raised, shoulders curled forward, arms extended as he draws a sock onto the raised foot with both hands. When they first got married he could get fully dressed - vest, underpants, shirt, cufflinks, tie, tie pin, socks, trousers, shoes, jacket, handkerchief in the top pocket of his jacket - in ninety seconds flat. Even a year ago it took him no longer than three minutes. But during the last year his movements have slowed down. It takes him at least ten minutes to get dressed now.
She makes one last effort to save him.
‘Come with me Max.’
He doesn’t answer, concentrates on tying his shoelace, stubborn as ever. He doesn’t care what happens to him, doesn’t care if he dies. He’d rather be killed by thugs than run away. But she doesn’t want to die, no, they won’t get her.
This isn’t the first time she´s run away. She saved her life once before by running away. This time, like the other time, it’s not her decision, not her choice. The decision to run away has chosen her, invaded her, overcome her, compels her to do its bidding. She can no more stay at home than she can stop her hair from growing or persuade her man, her husband, to go with her.
She’ll miss him, not because they’re close, he’s never liked to be too close to her, physically or emotionally, and during the last year he’s moved out of the real world into a world she can never know because it exists only inside his head. She’ll miss him though, because she’s used to having him around, part of the furniture of her life for almost forty years now. It’ll be hard. She’ll be lonely.
‘Good-bye,’ she says, wanting to say more but restraining herself because he doesn’t like it when she gets sentimental or makes a fuss. She’d like to tell him how much she’ll miss him. And she’d like to tell him to swallow something when they arrive, go by his own hand, rather than theirs.
‘Good-bye,’ he grunts, picking up the second sock.
First she has to get out of London. She’ll go north. She’ll travel slowly, a few miles at a time, staying at out-of-the-way boarding houses and bed and breakfast places. Every evening she’ll read the newspapers, watch the news on television, review the situation, make plans for the following day. She might have to move swiftly, stay where she is, or change direction - go east, west or even south instead of north. She’ll travel however she can - car, bus, bicycle, boat, plane - but not by train. She has a horror of trains, has been scared of them for as long as she can remember.
She has enough money to last for several months. Last time she had no money for food or transport. She ate leaves and slugs for weeks, months maybe. She trudged, plodded, hobbled hundreds of miles, a thousand maybe, through woods, across open spaces, skirting villages, avoiding roads, till she reached the border and crawled under the barbed wire to safety.
Her earliest memories are of that journey. Everything in her life before that journey has been lost. Sometimes she imagines they’re still there, the memories, hiding behind a blind and she only has to raise the blind to find them. But that’s just fantasy, there’s nothing there, everything’s lost.
She leaves the house, closes the front door behind her for the last time. Is anyone watching? No, no one’s watching.
She walks down the street which she’s walked down almost every day for so many years, sometimes several times a day, past the mansion blocks where so many of her friends and acquaintances live or used to live, where some of them have died. She hasn’t said good-bye to anyone. No-one except Max knows that she’s going away. In times like this you don’t know who you can trust, who will betray you. She hasn’t even told Max which direction she’s taking, because under torture even dear Max might break down.
She passes the school where she used to teach until she retired just under three years ago. It’s a well run school with a high academic standard, but she was glad to retire. Teaching is such an exhausting occupation.
There’s a snack bar next to the bus stop. She could do with a cup of tea. She’s not as strong as she used to be, and she left home without breakfast, forgot, clean forgot about breakfast. She sits at a table by the window where she can watch the street for signs of unusual activity, not that she expects anything to happen yet, nothing will happen till dusk. She orders a cup of tea - a cup, not a pot - and a Danish pastry. The tea isn’t as hot as it should be, nor as strong. The pastry isn’t as fresh as it should be either.
She gets on the first bus that comes along - it doesn’t matter which bus she takes as long as it’s going north. A black woman carrying a baby sits down opposite her. The woman is young, placid, capable; the baby plump as an orange. She would like to warn them, poor innocent things. They have no idea what’s in store for them. But what’s the good? The woman will never believe her, and even if she believed her, what could she do? How can a mother with a baby run away, especially if she’s inexperienced, if she’s never run away before?
When the shops close and the streets are almost empty - everyone’s at home having supper - she’s in an unfamiliar area, somewhere outside London, five or six bus rides away from her own home, tired, so tired. But she can’t stop yet, can’t stop till she’s found a room for the night. There must be a boarding house or a bed and breakfast place somewhere nearby. She’d rather not ask, doesn’t want to draw attention to herself.
It’s getting dark. She can’t see too well. Her shopping bag is heavy. She shifts it to the other hand, but it’s still heavy, so she sets it down on the pavement lolling against a shop window. She’s tired, oh so tired, and her feet are swollen and sore. She sits down on the pavement next to the shopping bag and leans back against the shop window.
‘Something the matter, lady?’
‘No.’ she says. ‘I’m all right. I got away in time.’
‘You’d better go home, lady. Want some help?’
It’s dark now. They won’t come now. She can go home now.
‘You’re right. But it’s a long way. I need a taxi.’
Max is waiting at the gate, pays the driver, helps her out of the taxi, carries her shopping bag and holds her as she walks up the path to the house, leads her to the bedroom.
‘Lie down for a while and rest,’ he says.
While she gets undressed he empties the shopping bag, puts the umbrella in the hall stand, the shoes in the closet, the blouse on a hanger in the wardrobe, the underwear in her lingerie drawer, the jewellery pouch in the safe. He picks up the money belt which has fallen on the floor, takes out the money and returns that to the safe too.
‘I’ve made veal cutlets for supper,’ he says.
She doesn’t answer. She’s already asleep. Max strokes her brow.
‘Please, my darling’, he murmurs, ´stay at home tomorrow, just for one day. It’s so long since you spent a day at home, my darling, and I miss you. I feel lonely when you leave me on my own.’