The Runaway Wife
“Do you know what time it is?” An irritated woman’s muffled voice was just about audible from the other side of the door.
“I . . . I know, but this is a B and B, isn’t it?” Rose asked. Her seven-year-old daughter, Maddie, snuggled into her neck, weighing heavily on her hip as she shivered against the cold. Despite it being the height of summer, fine needles of icy rain were driving down into the tops of their heads, and Rose had forgotten to bring Maddie a coat. There hadn’t been time to think about coats; there hadn’t been time to do anything but leave, grabbing a few damp and muddled items from the wash basket in the kitchen, and one oddly wrapped package, bundled up and secreted long ago, perhaps waiting for just this moment.
“Doors are locked at nine p.m. sharp!” the voice called back. “It’s in all the literature. It’s three o’clock in the morning. I’ve got a good mind to call the police.”
Rose gasped in a ragged breath, determined not to cry. She’d made it this far without crying; she wasn’t going to let this disembodied voice break her when nothing else had.
“I know, but, please, I’ve come a long way and I’ve got a
little girl with me. We just need a place to stay. I would have booked ahead, but I didn’t know I was coming.”
There was some more muttering, a man’s voice too, Rose thought, drawing Maddie even nearer into her body, trying to suppress the child’s shivers with her embrace. As she did so, she tightened her arm on her other, less precious package, which was tucked underneath it: a smallish rectangular object that Rose had hurriedly wrapped in a blanket.
“A child?” The woman’s voice came again.
“Yes, she’s only seven.”
With a mixture of fear and trepidation, Rose waited as she heard bolts being drawn back and locks being released. Finally the heavy-looking, thickly painted wooden door drew back to let a slant of yellow light cut through the rain, making the drops dazzle and glitter. A woman of indeterminate age peered through the gap at the sodden pair, and then after a moment took a step back and opened the door wider.
“This is really most irregular,” she told Rose as she hurried into the hallway. “Knocking on the front door at all hours of the day and night. I’ve got my other guests to think of.”
“There are no other guests.” The owner of the male voice, a well-built bearded man in his late fifties, sporting a vest and jogging bottoms, smiled at Rose. “Don’t you fret about it, love. It’s no bother. I’m Brian and this is my wife, Jenny. Jenny, you take them up, give them towels, and I’ll bring you both up a nice warm drink. Hot chocolate do you, little one?”
Maddie drove her face deeper into Rose’s chest, her frozen fingers clinging on for all they were worth. Maddie was not a child who settled easily into strange surroundings, particularly when the circumstances that had brought them here had already been so traumatic.
“That really is so kind,” Rose said gratefully. “We’d love a hot chocolate, wouldn’t we, Maddie?”
“Like I said, no bother.” Brian smiled. “Now, got any luggage you want me to bring in for you?”
“I . . . don’t. No. There’s no luggage.” Rose smiled weakly, lifting one elbow awkwardly to reveal her oddly wrapped package. “Just us and this.”
Jenny raised a skeptical brow, and clearly saw that nothing good could come of her latest and only guest. “I usually ask for cash up front, twenty-five a night. Presumably you’ve got cash?”
“Yes, I . . .” Rose attempted to reach into her pocket while still cradling Maddie and the package.
“For God’s sakes, woman,” Brian said, shaking his head, “let the lass be. We’ll sort the payment in the morning. Right, now . . . ?” He looked at her questioningly.
“Oh, I’m Rose, Rose Pritchard, and this is Maddie.”
“Right then, well, Rose here needs to get little Maddie into bed!”
“For all you know she might be an axe murderer,” Jenny muttered not entirely under her breath.
“Well, if she is, I’ll wager she’s too tired to chop us up tonight. Now stop going on and get up them stairs.”
It was only as Rose followed Jenny’s considerable behind up the narrow stairs that she realized her landlady was wearing a rather risqué pink negligee, which floated above her on the steep incline like a jellyfish, showing flashes of her ample dimpled thighs. Dimly it occurred to Rose that perhaps Jenny and Brian were the axe murderers, but she was so tired, her body exhausted by the hours of driving and her mind reeling from everything that had happened, that if they were, she didn’t think she could be bothered to run away twice in one day. After all, it had taken her most of her life to find the courage to make this first escape. Millthwaite, without any particular renown or importance, lost deep in the heart of the
Lake District, was a village very few people had heard of. Except it was here, in a place that could perhaps most accurately be described as the middle of nowhere, that Rose was hoping against hope to find her second chance.
Jenny opened the door on a room at the top of the house, flicking on the light. It was a neat, clean little room, with narrow twin beds set about a foot apart, covered with pink candlewick bedspreads. The small rose pattern on the wallpaper was repeated on the curtains and on the swags that hung over them, a style that had been fashionable about thirty years earlier.
“I’ve put you in here because it’s got its own loo,” Jenny said as Rose sat down on a bed, still holding Maddie tightly as she laid her package down beside her. “There’s clean towels there, and I’ll put the immersion on, I suppose, if you want a shower.”
“Really, all I want to do is sleep,” Rose said, closing her eyes for a moment.
“And you’ve got no luggage but that thing?” Jenny asked her, standing in the doorway, her nightie floating around her with a life of its own. “Where have you come from again?”
“Broadstairs, in Kent,” Rose said, easing Maddie onto the bed and taking one of the folded towels from the pillow to rub her wet hair. Rolling onto her tummy, Maddie refused to show her face to the strange woman, or even the strange room.
“All that way and not even an overnight bag?” Jenny asked, her curiosity almost as naked as her considerable cleavage.
“No,” Rose said, hoping she was making it clear that she would not be drawn on the subject.
“Well, then, as you’ve ruined my and Brian’s special night, anyway, I’ll go and find you something to wear . . .”
“Oh, please, don’t go to any trouble,” Rose called after
Jenny, but she had already left, leaving the door open so that Rose could get the full effect of her righteous stomp down the stairs.
When she returned, minutes later, she had a few clothes over one arm, and two mugs of hot chocolate in the other hand.
“My youngest one, Haleigh,” she said, dropping a pink nightshirt with the words “Sex Bomb” emblazoned across the front in glitter. “She’s on a gap year in Thailand, although don’t ask me what a gap year is, as if you get time off from having a proper life to mess around in a foreign country. Anyway, she’s only a slip of a thing, so about your size. And these belong to my grandson, my eldest’s boy. They’ve got Spider-Man on but I shouldn’t think she’ll mind.” Jenny set down the mugs of chocolate on the bedside table. “She all right? Very quiet.”
“Very tired,” Rose said, stroking Maddie’s dark hair. “And confused.”
“Right, well, breakfast’s between eight and eight thirty. I don’t take orders, you get what you’re given, and if you want coffee you’ll have to go to the shop and buy it. I don’t hold with the stuff. Unnatural. Oh, and here’s a key for the front door. Do not lose it.”
“Thank you,” Rose said, breathing a sigh of relief as Jenny gave her one more look of disapproval and then closed the door. Leaving Maddie sitting huddled on the bed for a moment, Rose went over and locked it, and then, turning back to her daughter, eased the little girl’s damp top off over her head.
Maddie squealed in protest, resolutely keeping her eyes closed, refusing to acknowledge her radical change in circumstances. Change was the very thing that Maddie hated the most, and yet a few hours ago Rose had decided to rip her out of her home, away from everything she knew, and bring her
here. Had she done the right thing? At the time it had felt like the only thing she could do, but was that ever true?
“Come on, darling, let’s get you changed and we can get some sleep,” Rose said, doing her best to keep the tension and uncertainty out of her voice.
“Where’s Bear?” Maddie asked, opening one eye.
“Bear’s here. We never go anywhere without Bear, do we?” Bear was in fact a very flea-bitten rabbit that Maddie had been given as a baby, but Bear he had always been known as and Bear he would remain.
“Where’s my book?” Maddie was referring to her history book on Ancient Egypt, which she’d begged Rose to buy after a day trip to the British Museum. Maddie had become obsessed by mummies, pyramids, and everything else Egyptian, poring over anything she could find on the subject, until she became almost as expert as any curator at the museum. She had read the book she was referring to literally hundreds of times and knew it by heart, but still Rose knew she would read it hundreds of times more. It was just one of her myriad rituals that she had developed recently that Rose had scarcely had time to dwell on or worry about. Young children were eccentric, that’s what everyone said. This same everyone said that Maddie’s obsessive behavior was nothing to worry about, and Rose chose to believe them, even though her instinct told her otherwise.
“It’s here,” Rose said, pulling the tatty book out of her bag. Thank God it had been in there already, from when she’d taken Maddie to have an asthma checkup that afternoon, otherwise Rose was sure she wouldn’t have remembered to take it with her.
Content for the book to lie unread on the pillow beside her head, Maddie let Rose pull off her crumpled and damp clothes and put on the pajamas. “I don’t like Spider-Man,”
she protested dimly, her lashes dropping with every rise and fall of her chest. Carefully, Rose eased her daughter under the covers, turning off the overhead light that glared from beneath a pink fringed lampshade, and after waiting for a moment to let her eyes adjust to the lack of light, she slipped the package, still wrapped in its ancient blanket—one that had used to grace Rose’s cot when she was a very small child—under Maddie’s bed, took one lukewarm cup of chocolate, and climbed into the other bed, the smooth cool sheets very welcome against her hot, aching skin. Hoping that sleep would come quickly, Rose closed her eyes, yet even though her body shuddered with exhaustion and her eyes screamed to be shut, sleep would not come. Wearily, Rose leant back against the quilted-velour headboard, stared out the window into the dense wet night, and wondered, not for the first time since she’d started the ignition of the car and pulled away from home, what on earth she was doing.
• • •
A persistent knocking at the door finally forced Rose to drag her eyelids apart. She wasn’t sure when she had finally fallen asleep, but it felt like only a few seconds ago as she rubbed her eyes and looked around, her memory of where she was, and why, coming back to her in heavy persistent thuds, in time with the beat of her heart.
“Hello?” she called out, dragging herself up in bed.
“Rose? Love, it’s Brian. It’s gone ten, darling. We didn’t like to wake you before. But Jenny’ll still do you a bit of bacon and toast if you’re hungry?”
“Oh, sorry!” Rose called back, climbing out of bed and looking around for her clothes.
“I’ll tell her ten minutes, then?” Brian checked, having obviously done some expert diplomatic work to secure her and Maddie breakfasts to go along with their beds.
“We’ll be there in five!” Rose called, pulling on her knickers and skirt. Maddie was regarding her from her position partially hidden by the bedspread, her large blue eyes peering out over the top.
“Come on, darling, toast!” Rose said, beaming at her daughter, hoping the promise of her favorite food would lure her out from under the covers.
“It might not be my bread,” Maddie said, pulling the cover below her chin. “What if it’s not my special bread? I like toast at home, not toast . . . here.”
“Well, it might be a different, nicer sort of bread. You won’t know what you are missing unless you try it. Here, shall I help you put your dress on?”
“I don’t want it if it isn’t my bread,” Maddie said, referring to the only brand of sliced bread that she liked to eat.
Rose closed her eyes for a moment and took a breath. Really, when she’d decided to run away from her home and husband, she perhaps should have given more thought to Maddie’s very particular dietary requirements. “Fussy” was how her teacher referred to her at school, but what she didn’t realize was that anything different on her plate caused Maddie real anxiety.
“Just try it, for me. You never know, you might like it.” Rose smiled encouragingly.
“I won’t if it’s not my bread,” Maddie said miserably, adding as she trailed after Rose down the stairs, “When will it be OK to go home again? Before school starts back, after the holidays?”
Rose didn’t have the heart to tell her the answer was never.
• • •
They discovered the dining room after opening a series of doors that led off the main hallway, finding first a guest sitting room dominated by a huge doll’s house encased in glass,
which Rose had to drag Maddie away from, and then an office containing a desk covered in piles of paper, with an ancient, almost historical PC sitting on top of it.
“This isn’t a hotel, you know,” Jenny greeted Rose and Maddie as they finally made it into the small dining room, with about six tables all neatly laid, despite the absence of other guests.
“Well, it sort of is,” Brian said, winking at Rose as he picked up his keys and kissed Jenny goodbye before heading for the door.
“I’ve got too much to do without waiting around for people to deign to get up!”
“We didn’t expect you to wait,” Rose said. “I’d have just taken Maddie out for breakfast.”
“You will not,” Jenny said, pointing at the table next to the window in a clear command to sit. “Can you imagine? No, tea and toast will be through in a minute. And what about you, young lady? Would you like a glass of milk?”
“I don’t like milk,” Maddie said.
“Well, orange juice, then?” Jenny asked her, and Maddie nodded.
“Do you mean yes please?” Jenny chided her. Maddie nodded again.
Rose rubbed her hands over her face, pushing her long hair back as she reached into her skirt pocket and took out the postcard. Pushing Maddie’s book across the table towards the little girl, hoping its contents would distract her from her toast, she let herself read the short message on the back for a moment, following the familiar swirls and loops of the handwriting that she had come to know by heart over the years. And then she turned it over and looked at the picture on the front, which had become just as familiar. A reproduction of an oil painting, Millthwaite from a Distance by John Jacobs.
This small, slight piece of card with a neatly written note inscribed on the back of it was the only reason she had run away to here, which seemed crazy if she even thought it, let alone said it out loud, but it was true.
Frasier McCleod, the person who had written the note, was the reason that she had come to Millthwaite, although she had no idea where he was, or even who he was really. That card, this place, were the only links she had with him and the possibility that had been haunting her since she had met him once, more than seven years ago, for less than an hour: that he might, just might, feel the same way about her as she did about him. That in the one and only meeting of less than an hour, when Rose had been long married and very pregnant, she might just have met the love of her life.
Rose held her breath as Jenny plonked down a plate of toast, and Maddie picked it up, eyeing it suspiciously as she touched it to her lips, licked it, and then nibbled the tiniest crumb off the corner, before taking a full bite.
“Delicious!” Maddie said, nodding at Jenny, who also put down a small glass of juice. “Thank you very much, you are most kind.”
“You are very welcome,” Jenny said, a little put off by Maddie’s sudden burst of good manners, but that was Maddie. It wasn’t that she didn’t know how to behave, it was just that most of the time she didn’t see the point.
“Do you know this postcard?” Rose plucked up the courage to ask Jenny before she bustled back to the kitchen to resentfully fry bacon. “The painting of the village?”
Jenny nodded and then pointed at the wall above Rose’s head, where an exact, but larger, reproduction of the same painting was hanging.
“You’ll find one like that in most houses round here,” Jenny said. “It’s the closest Millthwaite’s ever come to being
famous—well, unless you count that one time we were on Escape to the Country. Still, it’s made Albie Simpson more money than he needs.”
“How do you mean?” Rose asked her, twisting in her chair to get a better look at the print. It was a bold and confident painting, almost as if the artist had been bored when he painted it, restless and eager to be onto the next thing, dashing it off as an afterthought, and yet, for all its carelessness, it was very beautiful.
“The artist, John Jacobs, he was a heavy drinker, a real boozer, never sober. A few years back he turned up at the pub and offered Albie his painting of the village in exchange for a bottle of whiskey. Albie—who’s no better than he should be, if you ask me—took it because he fancied the look of it over his bar. And that’s where it sat, until about four years ago. Then all of a sudden this fancy-looking feller from over the border turned up and offered Albie five thousand for it! Pounds!”
Jenny waited for Rose to be either scandalized or shocked, her face registering clear disappointment when she was neither.
“Well, Albie turned him down, don’t know why—he must have been drunk as a dog. Or not, because the bloke doubled his offer on the spot without blinking an eye. And he said he’d throw in a print of it to replace the original if Albie shook on the deal there and then. So Albie did the deal, the man got the painting, and Albie got his money.” Jenny pressed her lips together, shaking her head.
Rose looked down from the painting, running the tips of her fingers over the writing on the postcard. A well-dressed man with an interest in John Jacobs, willing to pay what it took to secure one. That could be him. That could be Frasier McCleod. All she had to do to be one step nearer to finding out where he was, was to talk to the landlord, who might still
have a number or an address for him, and then . . . And then what?
Rose bit her lip as Jenny talked on over her head, entirely oblivious of whether or not Rose was listening.
And then turn up on Frasier’s doorstep, and say, what? “Hello, remember me? You came to my house once, years ago, looking for some information. I was crying, you were kind to me. We talked for a while, and the only other thing I ever heard from you is written on the back of a postcard. A postcard that I have treasured every single day since. Oh, and by the way, I think I love you. You can take out a restraining order on me now, if you like.”
Rose blinked as the foolishness of what she was doing washed over her with a wave of icy-cold reality. This was madness, a crazy teenage wild-goose chase, in which she’d selfishly involved her daughter. Frasier McCleod hadn’t written her a coded love letter, he’d written her a thank-you note, a polite little formality that somehow she’d turned into some grand forbidden passion. What on earth was she doing here? And yet she couldn’t go home, she couldn’t take Maddie back to the home that she knew, where she could eat her favorite bread, or back to the nice teaching assistant in school who sat next to her and helped her keep up, and played with her at break time when no one else would. There was no way she could go home. A postcard, a painting of Millthwaite, might be why she was here, so far from home and following the thread of a fantasy that was bound to unravel to nothing as soon as it was pulled, but it was not the reason she’d run away.
“Anyway, old Albie was laughing on the other side of his face when the painting sold for four times as much, a year or so later. Turned out that the man who sold it was some arty-farty type from Edinburgh. Made a packet on it, and has
made a ton more besides since he started selling the old git’s other stuff. That bloody John Jacobs, sitting pretty on all that money. You know what I say? I say it’s a shame that he sobered up, otherwise maybe we all would have had a chance of getting hold of one of his paintings. I know I’d have swapped him a hot breakfast for one.”
“What do you mean?” Rose asked her, suddenly hooked back into her stream of words, a cold wash of shock drenching her in sudden shudders.
“Well, he lives up the road, doesn’t he?” Jenny said, her expression mirroring the look of shock on Rose’s face, as she saw the impact that piece of information was having on her guest. “John Jacobs, he’s lived up there for almost ten years now, the last three of them sober, by all accounts. We used to see him a lot in the village, in the pub, but not so much anymore, which is a good job, if you ask me, the miserable old bugger. He’s rolling in cash, he is, but does he ever do anything for his community? This village is dying on its feet and he’s quite content to sit up there like a king in his castle, not caring what other people are thinking.”
“That sounds like him,” Rose said slowly, turning away from Jenny’s hawklike eyes to watch Maddie, her head close over her book, Bear sitting demurely on the table as Rose took the news in, reeling and dizzy. Why it had never occurred to her that the artist might paint the place he lived in, she didn’t know, but it hadn’t. Not until that moment. And now she had no idea how to react.
“Why, do you know him, then? Old Jacobs?” Jenny asked her.
“Do I know him?” Rose said thoughtfully. “No, I don’t suppose I do. Although perhaps I ought to. He is my father, after all.”