French House, Kent
“Go away.” Ella murmured as she felt someone poking her in the ribs. When the poking continued, she slowly opened her eyes, and looked up to a man standing before her. “Dad? What do you want?”
“You fell asleep at the table again.”
Ella looked around as the mist from having just woken cleared from her eyes. She was slumped over the table, a small pile of books next to her, her pen still in her hand.
“Oh, Christ, what’s the time?” She asked, hastily piling all her papers into her hands.
“Hey, hey, calm down, you’ve got plenty of time. It’s only just gone five.”
Ella sighed deeply as she dropped her work back on to the table and relaxed back into her chair.
“You want some breakfast?”
“Please.” She smiled meekly at her father as he disappeared into the kitchen, wrapped in his dressing gown.
Ella rubbed the sleep out of her eyes. She couldn’t believe she had fallen asleep again, it seemed like weeks since she’d actually slept in her own bed.
Her courses at college were demanding a huge amount of her time, she needed to hand in her Psychology coursework in less than a week, the same date as her first Law exams. Quite why she had decided to take those two courses on top of the English Language class she was in, she didn’t know. She had been warned about the workload when she’d first signed up nearly two years previously, but had insisted that she would be able to cope.
Of course that had been before her father had lost his job at the bank. Since then he’d found it difficult to get another, nobody wanted a fifty three year old with a heart condition for anything excluding shop work. And he wouldn’t do that, he’d explained, after all he still had his pride. So, he had promptly signed on the dole and hadn’t looked for work since.
Ella had increased the number of hours she was doing in her own Saturday job at the local supermarket. She found that if she worked all day Saturday and Sunday, Monday and Tuesday mornings when she was free from college and then skipped the Friday afternoon English lecture, she was almost able to gain a full week’s wages.
Her mother still sent them some money, but she worked away from home, only managing to return to them for two weekends of the month, and even then she would arrive at around midday on Saturday before heading off again after lunch on the Sunday afternoon.
Her father had decided that since he couldn’t get a job, he would fulfil his lifelong ambition of becoming a novelist. When the idea had first struck him he’d gone straight into town and purchased a selection of pens, and notepads and half a dozen books on creative writing.
The first tip in each of the books had suggested he ought to have a writing space, a room of his own, exclusively for him to write in. And, because he wanted to do everything properly, he’d emptied the last of his personal bank account and completely redecorated the spare bedroom.
During that time, Ella had had to sell the television she had in her bedroom in order for them to be able to pay the mortgage. She didn’t mind, she didn’t watch it much these days, anyway, and it would just distract her from her coursework.
Over a year on and Ella still hadn’t seen anything even resembling a novel come out of that small room, but then she could hardly be surprised, he often went weeks at a time where he was ‘depressed’ and would spend all his time in bed watching daytime television.
Whenever she did find him in his writing room, he was staring out into space a blank page in front of him. He would always say that the biggest part of writing was the creating, that putting the words on the page was the last part of a very long process.
Perhaps, she’d told herself, but then the world was created in seven days, surely her father could have created at least a page or two in eighteen months?
Ella pulled herself up from the table and looked in at him in the kitchen, searching through a cupboard for a frying pan.
“Are you alright?” She asked.
“Couldn’t be better.” He replied as he triumphantly pulled out the pan from the cupboard. “Why?”
“No reason.” She shrugged, but they both knew the reason. Her father didn’t cook. He didn’t clean, he didn’t pay the bills, he barely even acknowledged that there were other people in the house, and yet, here he was cracking eggs into a frying pan and whistling along to some pop group on the radio.
“How many sausages do you want?”
“Two, please. Juice?”
“Of course.” He winked at his daughter.
“What is with you this morning?” She asked, mildly amused.
“Nothing,” he laughed back, “seriously. What do you want for dinner tonight?”
“Oh, I’m not going to be here for dinner, you’ll have to get yourself something. There’s a pizza in the freezer, but you’ll have to get it out now if you want it.”
“Where are you going? I was going to cook.”
“You?” Ella laughed. “You were going to cook?”
“Hey, don’t laugh,” he said, with a glint in his eye, “my beans on toast are a wonder to the taste buds.”
“Well, as much as I’d like to,” Ella said, pouring some orange juice into a glass, “I’ve got to work tonight. Steve’s given me an extra shift after college. I’ll probably just grab a sandwich somewhere.”
“Ok, ok, the thing is, I’ve got some important news that I want to tell you. I think I’ve found a way out of this mess we’re in.”
“You’ve found a job?”
“The book?” Ella asked sceptically.
“No. I was tidying up some old paperwork, and I’ve found something that can help you. Us. Just come home for dinner tonight, and I’ll tell you about it.”
“Dad, I can’t, I’ve got to work.”
“No, you don’t. That’s the beauty of it, you see, none of us will have to work again.”
“Well, why can’t you tell me what it is?”
“Because… I need to speak to your mother first.”
Ella stared at her father for a moment and hesitated. “Dad, no offence, but what if it doesn’t work out? Steve’s worked really hard to try and get me some overtime, it’s not going to look right, if I don’t turn up.”
“Fine, fine, have it your way.” He turned away from her and back to the eggs in the pan.
“How much longer is it going to be?”
“Another five, maybe ten minutes.”
“Great, well, keep mine warm, I’m going to quickly dive in the shower. I smell like… well, like I slept in my clothes over the dining room table.”
She stopped as she headed for the door and turned around to face him. “Yes?”
“Don’t think I’m not aware of what you’ve done for this family. I know it’s not been easy, with your mother away and with me… distracted, but you’ve done more than your fair share.”
“Thanks, Dad.” She smiled and hugged him.
“Why don’t you forget about coming home tonight? Ring up some friends, go out for a drink or something.”
“Thanks. Maybe, I’ll do that.” She smiled softly at him and gently walked out of the kitchen.
He watched her go and then broke into a grin. He pulled a folded piece of paper from the pocket on his dressing gown, kissed it and grinned before turning back to the breakfast frying before him.
* * *
Ella pulled her ticket from the machine and slowly trudged up to the back of the bus. She dropped her college bags on the long bench and leant into the corner between the rough back of the seat and the hard plastic of the window. She closed her eyes and for a moment, the silence of the near-empty bus combined with finally getting to sit down and not have to do anything, nearly sent her to sleep.
As the elderly couple that had stood behind Ella at the bus stop carefully lowered themselves into their seats, the driver started up the engine again with a loud clunk that rattled the window she was resting her head on. She raised it slightly, just enough that the vibrations of the window didn’t bounce against her head and stared silently down the length of the bus, out the windscreen at the dark roads ahead of them.
The bus started to move slowly out of the bay, and as the doors whooshed to a close, something hard banged loudly against the window next to Ella’s head, causing her to jump and emit a small squeal of surprise. The elderly woman, a few rows in front, turned around and gave Ella a comforting smile as her husband peered out into the darkness, attempting to see where the banging was coming from as it continued down the side of the slow moving vehicle.
The bus juddered to a halt and from her vantage point at the back of the bus, Ella could see the driver scowling at the doors as they folded open. A figure stepped onto the deck and started to apologise to the driver. He set down two Cromley’s plastic carrier bags and started to search through his wallet as Ella groaned and busied herself with leaning forward and looking through her bag, obscuring her face from anyone who happened to look her way.
Mr Reid had been a regular customer at Cromley’s in the town centre for longer than Ella had worked there. Every member of staff had had dealings with him and his wife, and the more experienced staff were able to spot them coming and quietly find themselves something that they needed to be getting on with. If you were working on the customer services desk, and suddenly found yourself alone, the chances were that the Reids were on their way.
Ella didn’t mind serving them, they were both harmless enough, they simply came in two or three times a week to pick up the magazines that were specially put by for them. The trouble was that Mr Reid liked the sound of his own voice, so much so that you could lose half an hour of your day if were stuck with serving them. She had once spotted him in the town centre talking at a young homeless Iranian woman who Ella knew through experience only knew three words of English; ‘Big’, ‘Issue’, and ‘please’.
The problem was that he expected you to remember each detail of the conversations you had with him and of the magazines that he purchased, when in actual fact you just spend the entire duration wondering just what you could say in order to get rid of them.
A few weeks previously, however, Mr Reid had spotted Ella on the bus and sat down next to her, insisting that they continue their conversation about the different types of military solders that fought in the American Civil war. She had resented the fact that despite no longer being at work, she was obliged to keep up her polite façade and humour this man, when all she really wanted to do was to curl up in a ball, wipe the plastic smile from her face and tell Mr Reid and the rest of the world to just fuck off.
After an age had passed, her stop had finally arrived, and Ella had dashed off the bus, silently regretting that the old man now had some kind of idea where she lived.
As the bus began to move off again, Ella dared to look up and was relieved to find that he had taken a seat halfway down the bus and had started up a conversation with the elderly couple. After a few minutes the bus stopped again and a girl, the same age as Ella stepped onto the bus. Emma Reynolds had been a close friend of Ella’s ever since Emma had first moved to the area almost ten years previously.
They hadn’t seen much of each other since they’d left school, Emma had gone to a different college, and Ella had had to stay in most nights to look after her father, cook his dinner and keep the house tidy. Ella still considered Emma as her closest friend, and she felt small sadness inside her as Emma summoned a brief wave at her ‘best friend’ before sitting on her own on a chair a few rows in front of her.
She felt sadness for the loss of their former friendship, for the loss of the friendship they could have continued to have and for what Ella perceived as a loss of the life she could have had. Emma was now talking on a mobile phone and laughing as she made plans with the person on the other end of the line on just how they were going to spend their weekend.
She also felt a twinge of guilt as she realised just how relieved she was that Emma hadn’t sat down next to her. Now she didn’t have to feel uncomfortable as she struggled to find something to say.
Ella smiled to herself, as she half-listened in on her friend’s conversation, it was almost like catching up with her, learning what Emma had been up to since the last time they’d spoken, what she was like.
The bus powered on down the roads without any more interruptions and Ella’s mind drifted to her coursework, wondering whether she could get away without doing any that night, or if she could simply have a long, much-needed sleep.
Ella pulled herself to her feet and picked up her bags – one filled with college books, the other a change of clothes – pressing the bell for the bus to stop as she did. She moved down the aisle of the bus, determinedly facing Emma and smiling in order to not have to ‘notice’ Mr Reid. Emma gave a little wave and continued on with her phone conversation, a different one now, and judging by the sly giggles and hushed words coming from Emma, a rather intimate one.
She stepped out on to the pavement, heaving one bag onto her shoulder and looked over at a group of about five or six young lads, stood between her and the road she needed to cross, all smoking, a few of them holding dark green bottles, and hesitated a little.
“Ella.” She turned around quickly, causing her bag to fall from her shoulder, to see the man stood behind her, as the bus pulled off out of the lay-by.
“Mr Reid.” She gasped. “What are you doing here? You don’t –“
“Oh, I’m just a few stops up the road,” he smiled at her, before looking past her at the group of lads, “I could use the walk.”
“Oh, ok.” Ella heaved her bag back onto her shoulder.
“Here, I tell you what, let me take one of those, and I’ll walk you home.”
“Really, you don’t have to, it’s not far, I can –“
“I want to, Ella.” He said continuing to look past her. She turned around and followed his gaze over to the group by the bushes. One of them was grabbing the crotch of his jogging bottoms and leering across at her. Ella couldn’t help but think that he must be incredibly blessed if he was actually grabbing himself considering how low slung his trousers were.
“Umm, ok. That’d be good.”
Mr Reid smiled at her, took one of her bags and then began to walk with her towards the road. As they neared the group, Mr Reid slipped his arm around her shoulder and Ella felt extremely uncomfortable as the crotch-grabber shouted out that she ought to leave the old granddad behind and that he could show her a good time.
They both ignored him, and by the time they’d crossed the road, the group had moved off in the other direction. Ella pulled away from the older man’s arm.
“Thanks for that. I’ll… I’ll see you around.”
“Hey, I said I’d walk you home, and that’s what I’m going to do.”
“You don’t have to, really, I don’t live far and they won’t be any trouble, I’m sure.”
“That’s not the point, I just don’t like to see a lady struggle with her bags,” he winked at her, “besides, it’s on the way to my house.”
They walked on in silence for a moment, Ella desperately trying to grapple around in her brain for a topic that wouldn’t turn into one about soldiers. She hated awkward silences.
“Granddad indeed.” Mr Reid muttered. “I’m only fifty-two.”
“Really?” Ella asked, unable to keep the surprise out of her voice. Mr Reid laughed slightly and Ella realised just how she’d sounded. “I just meant that I thought you were retired, I mean… you’re always in during the day and stuff.”
“No, not me. I’m a writer, I keep my own hours.”
“Really? My dad’s a… well, my dad wanted to be a writer.”
“Ah, maybe your dad and I should get together, share some tips.”
Ella frowned, she didn’t know if she liked that idea. “Maybe.”
They walked on a few yards, Ella in silence, not really listening as Mr Reid began to talk about the best way to write a book, until Ella stopped, at the foot of the pathway leading to her front door.
“Oh, is this you?” He asked, handing over her bag.
“Yeah.” She smiled weakly. “Thanks again.”
“Anytime, my dear.”
She stepped through the gate and made her way to the door. She set her bags down and fished through her pocket for the key. She glanced behind her and noticed Mr Reid stood watching her. “Goodnight.”
“Goodnight.” He said back to her, but still didn’t move.
She briefly smiled at him and let herself in, quickly moving through to the front room, where he wouldn’t be able to see her. She dropped her bags on the floor and switched the light on. She moved over to the curtains and pulled them shut, she could see Mr Reid still outside, walking away, but at a snail’s pace.
“Dad?” She shouted. It was unusual for the house to be so dark at this time of night. Her father had never been very good at turning lights off, you could usually tell just where he’d been by following the glare of burning bulbs.
She stepped through the door to the dining room and screamed loudly as she saw her father suspended stiffly over the bottom of the stairs. She backed away in complete surprise and screamed again.
Suddenly she felt herself being moved out of the way, Mr Reid was pulling her away. She stepped back and he moved over to her father, started to lift him down. Ella looked up at her father’s mottled face, a rope tightly framing his features, tied at the top of the banisters.
“Ella, get out of here!”
As the customer laid down her father’s body on the floor, Ella moved back into the living room and sat down on the sofa. One thought was going round in her head, how stupid she’d been to leave the door unlocked. That’s how Mr Reid had gotten in, he could have done anything to her. She should have locked the door.
She could imagine the looks on the faces of her colleagues when they found out that he’d been in her house. They would have a ball, winding her up about being his new girlfriend probably. Through the corner of her eye she could see Mr Reid leaning over her father’s body in a desperate attempt to resuscitate him. She frowned and moved to the other end of the couch, but could still see her father’s curled fingers lying on the floor.
She moved over to an armchair and perched on the edge of it. From her left, she could hear Mr Reid cursing under his breath, from her right came a cold breeze, from the open door to the house. She stood up once again and moved outside, setting herself down on the wall of the garden.
She sat there for what seemed like hours, but could only have been ten minutes. She couldn’t believe her father had killed himself, he’d seemed so excited so happy as he’d cooked breakfast that morning. He had no reason to do it. Did he?
“At least now he has something to write about.” She told herself, and couldn’t help but laugh. A few moments later, Mr Reid left the house and stood in front of her.
“I’ve called an ambulance.” He explained. “He’s… I’m sorry, Ella.”
“I know.” Ella said, though she really wanted to ask why he’d called an ambulance. There was no emergency, not any more, they could be out there saving somebody else’s life, rather than clearing up after her father. That was her job.
“I found this on the side.” He handed over a small envelope, her name written on the front in her father’s unmistakeable handwriting. She carefully opened it and pulled out two pieces of folder paper, one a thick wad of A4, the other a piece of folded notepaper.
Dearest Ella, it read, I’ve been a burden for too long. I wanted us to have dinner tonight, to say goodbye, but I understand you have to work. I understand. That’s my fault. I hope this can make up for it. With love always, Dad.
Ella dropped the letter and unfolded the thick wad of paper. She glanced across at the words and let out a small, sad, laugh.
“What is it?” Mr Reid asked.
“Daddy never was any good with the little details,” she smiled, handing the paper to the man stood next to her, “it’s his life insurance policy.”
Mr Reid frowned as he read through the beginning of the document. “But… it’s lapsed. It’s not worth anything.”
Ella turned her head and smiled softly at the house as sirens blared in the distance. “I know.”
Cromwell Manor, Wiltshire
Ella looked down at the key ring she was fiddling with. “Oh, yes, yes. I’m supposed to be getting to know the place.”
“Well, before you do, I don’t suppose I could borrow them, could I? The last time I was here, I left a book in my grandfather’s study, and I need it back as soon as possible.”
“I don’t see why not,” Ella handed him the keys, “you have more right than I do.”
“Thanks, that’s great. I’ll bring them to you in the kitchen, when I’m done.”
“Oh, ok, then.” She smiled at him, coyly and moved away.
As Ella stepped down the spiral staircase into the kitchen, she found Pat waiting for her, glaring. “I saw that.”
“So? It’s his grandfather’s house.”
“Mr Cromwell is extremely private about his house, there are some places that he doesn’t want his family to go.”
“Fine,” Ella sighed, “I’ll just go and get the keys back off of him.”
“No.” Pat glared again. “I don’t want you going anywhere near him.”
“For Christ’s sake, Mum,” Ella sighed as Pat hastily closed the door, “he’s cute, I find him attractive, but I’m hardly going to jump his bones in the middle of the lobby, am I?”
“Please don’t make jokes about that,” Pat sighed through gritted teeth and closed eyes, “he’s practically family.”
“No, mum, he’s not! Today is the first time I’ve met him. He might be family to you, but to me, he’s not, he’s just some stranger!”
“That boy is like a son to me, that means he is like a brother to you, so you are going to leave him well alone, do you hear me? And how many times do I have to tell you, you are not to call me mum when we are in this house. I am Pat.”
“Which, by the way,” Ella shouted back, “is completely stupid, who cares that you gave a job to your daughter? I can do the job and – “
“Mr Cromwell does not like lies, he won’t like that I manipulated him into hiring you.”
“That’s not it at all, is it?”
Ella narrowed her eyes at her mother accusingly. “They don’t even know I exist do they. They just think you’re some stubborn old spinster born to serve them. They don’t even know you were even married, they all think you’re still Pat Curtis. Well, I’m not going to lie to them just to protect your secret.”
“You will do as you’re told. I brought you here so that you could get to know these people. They’re a brilliant, vibrant family, one that I am proud to have been part of, and that is just want you need right now.”
“So, you want me get on with these people, but you force me to lie to them, and the minute I start getting on with one of them, you tell me not to. What’s that all about?”
“You were getting on with him just a little too well. I know what you’re like, young lady.”
“How? How do you know what I’m like, when dad was alive, you would spend half a day with us every fortnight. Don’t claim that you know what I’m like, you barely even know me. I’m my own woman and if I want to flirt or smile at – or even fuck – that boy out there, then damn it, I will!”
“No! You can’t!”
“Give me one good reason why not!”
“Because he’s your cousin!”
Ella froze with shock, while her mother stood staring at her, the colour draining from her face.
Pat sighed and sat down at the table, resting her head in her hands. “He’s your cousin. Mr Cromwell, he’s… he’s your dad’s father.” Pat took hold of her daughter’s hand and looked her in the eyes. “He’s your grandfather.”
The next chapter will be published on Sunday 29th May.