WHO AM I? by Denny Jace (1st place, Jul21)

My name is Lauren.

I’m from Birmingham.

 I’m married.

 I have a daughter.

I wave my husband Ed off, as he leaves to catch the 8.47 train to work. Please look back, one more time. The final snapshot to be filed away in my brain. Safe. In the days to come I’ll conjure it up. No one will know. No one will take it away.

In the kitchen Tilly’s banging her podgy hands on the tray of her highchair; punctuating the drumming with high pitched squeals. I close my eyes, committing her sound to memory. In a few months she will start to talk, in a voice I will never hear.

At our first scan, the sonographer moved a fetal monitor across my belly, playing out Tilly’s heartbeat. We recorded it and had it stitched inside a cavity of a Build A Bear. Ed chose a blonde teddy wearing a tutu and tiara. ‘Sounds like a girl.’ He said.

I’ve taken the bear from Tilly’s cot, buried it at the bottom of my suitcase. Treasure wrapped in inconsequential jumpers and jeans.

At 10am I take Tilly to nursery. She’s clingy, attached to my hip, head resting on my shoulder, fuzzy hair, Ed’s hair, tickling my cheek. Fresh-faced Sonja with her Busy Bees badge peels my daughter from me; there’s resistance, maternal glue. I realise the reluctance is mine. I don’t want to let her go.

‘How’s Tilly today Mrs Crawley?’ Sonja asks.

I can’t answer, muted by crippling realization that I have just held my daughter for the last time. She bounces Tilly on her hip, touches my arm. ‘She’ll be fine, don’t worry. She loves it here, don’t you Tilly?’ She turns and walks through the security coded door, behind which my daughter will be safe.

I am rooted, a disconnect between my brain and body. Shock. Then I realise I am still clutching Tilly’s bag tightly to my chest. In a panic I lunge towards the receptionist. ‘Please can you make sure Tilly Crawley gets her changing bag. She’ll need her back up clothes, her nappies… Promise she’ll get it.’ Hysteria suffocates me, a jagged lump of panic lodges in my throat.

I hand the bag over. My trembling hands wobbling Peppa Pig’s black plastic eyes inside their transparent sockets. Did I close the zips on all the pockets inside the bag? Compartments within compartments, lots of places for things to slip, to hide, to be found.

I drive on autopilot, programmed for home. Time is sand running through my fingers. In two hours, Ed will eat a chicken and bacon sandwich from Tesco. Tilly will have pureed peas and potato, fed to her by a relative stranger with a sing-song voice. She’ll have a nap after finger painting and Storytime and then Sonja or one of the other jolly carers, will tell her, ‘Mummies coming soon Tilly.’ When I don’t turn up, they will call Ed. Gloss over my tardy timekeeping,

brush aside Ed’s apologies and accept his promise to ‘come right away’.  He will be cross with me. Annoyed that I’m late for Tilly and that he’s been called out of work. Then he’ll fret because he knows that he and Tilly are my world and so something must be wrong.

Soon after he has collected Tilly, he will know that I have gone.

When they told me about the Osman letter, I imagined a dogeared piece of paper, gratitude scrawled in a bic biro. A huge thank you for being a model citizen. For not putting a foot wrong all these years. Then I visualized crisp A4 manila, reassuring me in bold Calibri that I would be safe, protected. I didn’t realise that it would be the death of me. The death of Lauren Crawley. The risk was to me. Not Ed. Not Tilly. They had no idea because I had never told them the truth. What would the police tell Ed? That I had left, that I was in trouble? How would they tell him? Later, when I asked, they said that two female officers broke the news that I had been involved in a car accident. a momentary lapse of concentration, a fire ball churning my body into black ash.

The day before I ‘died’, the police picked me up in an unmarked black estate car. I was home alone with Tilly; Ed was at work. ‘Bring her,’ they said, in the absence of any obvious childcare.

The detectives weighed her up, wondering if she could speak, understand, compromise us.

We drove around, with blacked-out windows. The detective in the front passenger seat twisted around to face me, ‘There’s been a serious threat to your life. Serious enough that the police cannot keep you safe. Your name has been leaked to the media and as a result, we cannot keep your family safe if they remain with you.’

We stopped in a layby on a dual carriageway. Tilly, who had dropped to sleep with the motion of the car, began to stir, the threat of tears imminent. ‘We will take you home and tomorrow, representatives from Regional Protected Persons Unit will come for you. I’m sorry Lauren but you will have to come alone. You cannot contact your friends or your family. No social media.’

The shock drove spears of pain through my bones, the prospect of losing it all. Being stripped of everything I had worked so hard to create. The enormity of the situation pumped the air with dread.

‘The risk is not exclusive to you Lauren. By association your husband and daughter could be in danger.’

A lorry whizzed past, ripples of its bulk rocking us.

‘Do you understand Lauren?’ I realized I hadn’t answered; that I was whispering to my baby. Soft ribbons of sound to comfort us.         

I promised the police my silence; agreed that Ed should go to work as usual the following day and Tilly to nursery, the image of a usual day. By the time my family came home they would know that I was never coming back.

***

The safe house smelt of old tobacco and bleach. Bland and wiped clean like me. At night I cowered in its unfamiliar corners as fear followed me from room to room.  During the day, I roamed around, loneliness and isolation ravaging my flesh. The house was furnished, a full inventory of amenities, but the chairs didn’t fit my body and the bed sheets held the chill of old ghosts.

Off kilter I hobbled into walls that were in the wrong places. The RRPU sent ‘Andy’ every day to counsel me. He reminded me, in a solemn tone, of the profound implications should I deviate from the scheme. We did dummy run phone calls to prospective employers, role play that battered my brain. Firing questions when I wasn’t ready, ‘Where did you grow up? Where’s your family? Why did you move here?’ And when the despair was overwhelming, he offered an awkward hug. And then he pressed a panic alarm into my hand. ‘Just in case.’ He said, ‘keep it close, hidden but accessible. It’s your link to me. To the unit. One press of that button and we will come.’  I knew then that I would never be safe.

Two weeks later, as the navy waves of night filled the bedroom and the ghosts cuddled in my bed, I peeled back the layer of clothes at the bottom of my suitcase. The tutu clad Build A Bear stared back with knowing eyes. I pressed hard on its chest, pumping the cavity for a heartbeat that I knew was no longer there. Tilly’s heartbeat. Gone. The last sacrifice I had made.

The stiches beneath the fur were loose. I delved inside the chest cavity, through to the stomach, pushing away the fibre filling until I found it. The solid lump of a basic Nokia mobile phone. It was programmed with only one number, its corresponding twin, hidden in the depths of zipped up compartments inside Tilly’s nursery bag. Ed will be clearing out the bag, re-stocking it with Tilly’s fresh clothes and nappies in preparation for tomorrow. It’s part of our routine, Ed’s job whilst I settle Tilly to sleep.

I cradle the phone. I could call Ed now. Let him know that I am here. That I love him. That I am alive and would never have left him and Tilly. Fury fills me. Is this Witness protection or punishment?  I have lost my identity. My family and friends. Will Ed still want me if he knows who I am? That I am a liar.

My fingers hover across the keypad of the phone. Just one call. Just to hear Ed’s voice. I bring the phone up and its tiny, tinted screen reflects my face.

My name is Louise.

I’m from Brighton.

I’m single. I miss him….

I don’t have children. I have a daughter. She will forget me.

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