I pay for my ticket with cash stolen from Nathan’s wallet whilst he sprawled unconscious, having had his fill of me. Only then was it safe to sneak past last night’s detritus: plastic cups, beer cans, a streaked hand mirror which someone must have licked clean. The stench of stale alcohol and vomit clung to me, but I couldn’t risk the pulsating roar of the shower. Couldn’t risk waking him.
My footsteps echo on the station’s wide, open platform as the tannoid bing-bongs, announcing the train’s arrival in seven minutes. There is a light shuffling of feet, the rustle of newspaper. It’s too late for commuters and too early for everyone else. An icy wind drags an empty crisp packet across my path and I side-step it, trying not to stumble as my comedown blooms in my gut. I flip my coat lapels up and tilt my hat down to shadow my face. Nausea rolls through me, pressing against my skin from the inside.
Next to the toilets, a family of four huddles around their dandelion-yellow suitcases. The younger child is dozing in a pushchair, cocooned in blankets, whilst the older snuggles into her mother’s side, smiling at some story the dad is telling.
I sit on a metal bench next to an old lady in matching sky-blue mittens and bobble hat. She smiles at me and I nod back.
“Chilly today, isn’t it?” she says.
“Uh huh, yep.”
It’s been almost two hours since I left: Nathan will be awake. If he checks his hidey-hole and discovers my ID missing, he’ll go nuclear. There’s only so many places I would go and sending some scumbag subordinate to check here would definitely occur to him.
I stare ahead, at the other platform, at the poster advertising ballet at the Royal Opera House with ‘FuCk the PoLice’ scrawled over it in crimson spray paint. I did that. To show my worth. Nathan captured the moment with numerous well-lit shots, as was his habit. Sweat glides down my spine.
“Are you alright, dear?”
I realise I’m hunched over, taking short shallow breaths. I straighten and wince. My bones feel like kindling.
“Yeah. Thanks, just tired.” I turn to face her, my voice a breathless husk. “I just need to get on this train.”
“Well,” she says, standing. “Come on then.”
I’m pathetically grateful as it arrives with a trundling clickety-clack and a piston hiss. I sit opposite the lady who I learn is Janet from Wyndham, heading home after visiting her grandchildren for the weekend. She doesn’t ask where I’m going, which is just as well because I’m not entirely sure.
After a few minutes, I slide my phone out of my coat pocket and turn it on. It pings and vibrates, each notification a jab to my hollow, quivering stomach.
Seventeen texts. Each more menacing than the last.
Thirty-seven missed calls.
Eleven voice messages. The first three are garbled, vicious insults interspersed with begrudging apology and admissions of profound, earth-shattering love. Nathan’s voice cracks, wounded.
My resolve wavers, just a little.
Janet is already engrossed in a paperback, leaving me to my personal drama. I scroll through my contacts and as my finger hovers over ‘Mum’, Nathan calls again. I flinch, dropping the phone on the table. Janet looks up, her eyebrows raised.
I answer the call.
“Babe, what is going on?” His voice is like velvet trailing over bare skin. “Are you there? Listen, I don’t know what you think you’re doing, but you can’t just up and leave without even talking to me about it. That’s not fair, is it?”
I swallow and look down at my right hand, at the swollen, bloodied knuckles. What exactly provoked me to lash out eludes me, but it hardly matters. I should have known better.
“At least hear my side of the story,” he says. “You were pretty far gone yourself, you know. What do you think happened? Do you even remember?”
His grip on my elbow, my forearm, his lips snarling at my ear as he slammed my fist into the wall, over and over, until he was satisfied I’d learnt my lesson.
“I know what happened.” As soon as I say it I know I’ve made a mistake. I’ve responded, given him an in, a crack to splinter and grind.
“No you don’t, love. Davey and Jen were there and they have no idea why you’ve hopped on a train out of London. Baffled, they are.”
My insides shrink, squirm.
“I didn’t say I was on a train.”
He sighs. “Look, just come back. I miss you. I promise I won’t make a thing out of it.”
The size of the lie is so big it sucks the air from my lungs. Vivid images flash through my mind of the night I came home twenty minutes later than I should have. I’d texted when I left Jen’s, but I’d dawdled, savouring the crisp midnight air, losing myself in a clear starry sky. I’d opened the front door to find him waiting for me, in the dark. I’d screamed and he’d demanded to know why I was so jumpy, why I looked guilty and, as he shoved me up against the wall, his hand at my throat, why I smelt like sex. It took me three hours to persuade him I wasn’t cheating. That was two weeks ago, and I’m still sore.
“I’m not coming back,” I say.
“Yes you are. You need me. What are you going to do? Hm? You have no job, no money. I gave you a place to live. You’re nothing without me.”
I don’t answer because he’s right. I bought a ticket to Chelmsford, the farthest I could afford. Yes, it’s close to where Mum lives, but not quite there and it’s been such a long time. The shame of calling her…
“Come home.” Nathan swears that he’ll change, and then his voice switches to playful as he tells me how incredible I am, how no one else has ever made him feel this way. He also reminds me of the nude photos that were taken of me when I was passed out. How he alone had stopped ‘the boys’ from putting them online. How, without him, I’d no longer be protected. He pauses for emphasis. “I love you, babe.”
My mouth works but no sound comes out. I recall him on his knees in the snow on New Year’s, hands clasped, asking me to marry him. My thumb brushes against the cold metal of my engagement ring, twisting it.
“N-Nathan, I don’t—”
He ploughs on. There’s no end to his words; the man could talk for England. It’s how he convinced me to give up my job, so he could ‘be the man’ and look after everything, to stop calling my parents — “I don’t know anyone who still talks to their mummy and daddy as often as you”, he’d said. “You need to grow up.” The suspicion that my friends were conspiring against him, that they were jealous of our relationship and wanted me all to themselves. “They’ll tell you to dump me, and you’ll do it,” he’d said. Of course, I proved him wrong.
“Don’t go back to him.”
Startled, I look up, straight into Janet’s piercing gaze. Her face is different, harder, the eyes flinty.
“It’s none of my business, but they never change.” She leans forwards. “Never.”
“Who’s that?” Nathan snaps. “Who the fuck is sticking their nose into my—”
“I’m going now—”
“Don’t you dare hang up on me!”
I flinch, squeeze my eyes shut. That tone. He knows I’ve been in his stash, knows I must have spied to know where it is.
“Babe, the longer you carry on this ridiculous charade, the worse it’ll be. You’ll regret it. Do you really believe—”
I end the call.
My whole body shakes as his voice lingers in my brain, infecting the very air I breathe.
Numb, I delete his voicemails, messages, and finally, with the weight of Janet’s gaze upon me, I block him. I block everyone else too. Anyone that might call me on his behalf. I know how it goes.
Keeping up my momentum, I call Mum. There is a horrible pause after I tell her what I’ve done. A washing machine whirrs in the background.
“Are you… clean?” she asks.
“Well, I left in a hurry. I’ll need a shower.”
That’s not what she meant, but she accepts it.
“I’ll pick you up,” she says. “And I’ll deal with your father.”
I taste the saltiness of my own tears as I imagine burying my face in her neck, breathing in the scent of her sweet vanilla eau de parfum.
Before she hangs up, Mum says, “Just promise you won’t go back to him.”
“I promise,” I say.
And this time, I really mean it.
Zelda C. Thorne is a British author with a love of fantasy and science fiction. Her stories have been published by Secret Attic, CultureCult Press and Wicked Shadow Press as well as being featured on several podcasts including Tall Tale TV. Her book Star Status: A Collection of Short Stories is available on Amazon. Find out more at www.zeldacthorne.com