She took a mouthful, the chicken was overcooked, texture like rubber. She dropped the fork on the plate, and took another slug of Chardonnay. At least that was going down well.
‘I’m not hungry.’
‘I thought you’d be pleased for me.’
‘I am ... just don’t flaunt it in my face.’
She held back from retaliating, only because she didn’t want to make a scene in the restaurant. She watched him stuff a forkful of chips into his mouth. The change in him was remarkable, it resembled the life cycle of a butterfly. He had morphed from being a toy-boy into a man and now into a self-centred prat – “look at me - I’m terrific”.
She took another slug. Felt the alcohol invade her blood stream.
‘Brains told me to take a break. Have a holiday ... recharge my batteries.’
He stopped chewing, frowned. ‘Brains?’
‘My ...’ she stopped herself, didn’t want him to take the piss. ‘My doctor.’
He grinned. ‘Yeah ... I heard. Shrink, you mean.’
She nearly dropped her glass. ‘Who told you that?’
‘Well it was more ... you know how word gets around.’
Jackie felt cold anger creeping into her bones. ‘Hillock told you?’
Paul shrugged in a “what do you expect” manner. ‘He did make it known that I was taking over your caseload ... you know ... while you were ... getting help ...’
She clenched her teeth, felt the hot lava bubbling up. ‘So you all had a laugh at my expense ... fucking A1.’
He tried to shrug it off, like it was normal behaviour to take the piss. He repeated the word that would guarantee retribution. ‘Touchy.’
She slammed the table with her fist. The plates jumped; the cutlery clattered. Other diners stopped eating and stared. The waiter hovered, a frown on his face.
She waved him away; then hissed. ‘Paul ... I’m warning you ...’
He shrugged it off. ‘Hillock is an arsehole, but you need to watch your temper.’
Red rag. ‘Who the hell gives you the right to tell me what to do? Bloody prima–donna, know-it-all.’
He persisted. ‘It’s your mood swings...’
Big mistake. ‘And I’m having one now ... is that it? You all think I need my head examined ... right?’
‘Jackie ... please ...’ but his expression confirmed it.
She eased her chair back and pointed to the door. ‘I’ve had enough of this shit. Fuck off back to your mother ... and don’t come crawling back.’
He didn’t move; tried to reason. ‘Let’s talk it over.’
‘There’s nothing to talk over ... you think I’ve lost it ... end of story.’
He put down his fork. ‘I didn’t say that.’
‘No, but you think it ... admit it.’
‘I think you should have a break ... that’s all I’m saying.’
‘There ... that proves it.’
He shook his head. ‘I don’t want us to fall out over this. Maybe tonight’s not a good time ...’
She flung one more barb at him. ‘Well don’t hold your breath ...’
He didn’t say a word, but the shake of his head and his expression registered disappointment – then pity.
That was it: she felt abandoned; isolated. She stood up, put on her coat, and stalked out, ignoring the waiter’s pleas and platitudes.
Sod him. Sod Hillock. Sod the lot of them...
Paul sighed as he stumped up for the meal. Embarrassing grins all round and plenty of shrugs from the waiters. Jackie had blown up - again. It seemed like her hormones were all over the place – blowing hot, then cold. It puzzled him how fragile relationships were; one minute, solid as a rock; the next, water down a drain. He didn’t want to admit it, but his mother had been right – sex wouldn’t sustain the relationship. That’s if, there was still a relationship.
Perhaps if he cooled it for a few days...
The picture on the travel agent’s window made her stop. Thai Airways were offering a ten-day December package, flight, hotel by the beach - the works. It wasn’t cheap - but what the heck. It was a break. And hot.
Forget Danny Boy, damn you.
After the bust up with Paul the previous evening, she certainly didn’t want to be out of it at Christmas; no job, no boyfriend, no party colleagues – and no way was she going to spend it with her mother and Rod.
She pushed open the door, and walked in to the sound of the door bell. An agent looked up from her desk: blue uniform with a matching scarf around her neck - just like an air stewardess.
‘I’m Angie. Can I help you?’
Fly me out of here.
Jackie pointed to the window. ‘Thailand package ... is it available?’
‘When do you want to go?’
I have to get away. I have to.
‘As soon as possible ... I want to spend Christmas lapping it up on the beach.’
Angie nodded, motioned her to take a seat, and then typed frantically into her desktop computer - bursts of activity followed by shakes of the head. ‘It’s difficult ...’ She typed some more; frowned, and looked up. ‘Sorry ... everybody wants to escape the British cold ... and this Christmas it’s gone crazy. Many international flights have been cancelled because of ice and snow, it’s chaotic. How about Scotland?’
Somehow it didn’t have the same appeal. ‘I’ll think about it.’
Angie wasn’t about to give up on her commission. ‘A few overseas packages start in January ... do you want ...’
Jackie shook her head. ‘It was just an idea ...’
On her way back to her apartment, with a handful of travel brochures to dream over, she mulled over the possibility of making it up with Paul. They could go on a romantic break – she laughed – to Scotland, if he could get away. And if she could stop thinking about Danny Boy – two big “if’s”. She stopped off at the Co-op to stock up on chocolates and a bottle of plonk; just the ticket for an afternoon of bliss slumped on the sofa - pure indulgence.
“Welcome Home” was blaring through her brain; the bottle of Chardonnay was nearly empty when the phone in Jackie’s pocket rang. She pressed the stop button on Metallica’s track, and removed her headphones.
It was Carol - in a bad way. She only had to say his name, and Jackie was flinging her on her jogging top and lacing her Reeboks.
She ran all the way there, hardly noticing the slush puddles in her haste. Past the brightly lit shops, past the nick, the Albion, Indian take-away restaurant, and along to the graffiti hell hole they called Harmony Estate.
She hardly noticed the litter dumps as she leaped up the stone steps to Carol’s flat. It was an effort; she was out of condition, and the bottle of wine was gurgling around inside her stomach.
She pounded on the door and shouted Carol’s name. The door opened. Carol stood there, her face was streaked with tears and her dress was torn. She flung herself into Jackie’s embrace and sobbed.
Jackie gently led her inside and they sat down on the bed with a box of tissues. She clasped Carol to her and held her tight. ‘What happened?’
Carol sniffled her way through several tissues while she explained. She owed rent, didn’t have the money, Gilbert came to collect. Gilbert demanding sexual favours in exchange for a few days grace.
Only this time it was different.
She had to coax it out of Carol. Gilbert was acting strange, he seemed crazy; a smelly wreck, all skin and bones, with a huge purple vein throbbing on his head above his eyes. He insisted on giving her a birthday present before he died.
‘He pinned me down on the bed, ripped my dress and started to hurt me. Really hurt me ... you know ... inside. I had a knife under my pillow ... protection ... to scare him ... or one of his mates. I stabbed him ... he shuddered ... it was gross ... as though he’d had an electric shock. He went limp, his eyes were staring ... I didn’t know what to do.’
Jackie felt a cold chill envelop her. ‘Where is he?’
Carol pointed to the bathroom door. It was closed. No noise, no sound of running water inside.
She looked at Carol, enquiring glance. Nod in response.
Jackie stood up. ‘Stay there.’
She opened the bathroom door and stared.
What the fuck do I do now?
She should have arrested the bastard - warning him off hadn’t been enough to stop him from carrying out his sadistic threat. That was a huge mistake, and now Carol was in deep shit. Jackie’s head said call the police, maybe Carol would get a reduced sentence, maybe even get off if she could prove it was self-defence.
A lot of maybes – and a lot of trauma for the young girl.
Her heart said otherwise. But whichever way she looked at it, even if she helped Carol abscond, the young girl would be a fugitive. And if she was caught...
She called the police.
It was a long session spread over a couple of days for both of them, although Jackie insisted that Carol had her medical before any formal interview to establish that Gilbert’s DNA was present; evidence of alleged rape. Plus all the precautionary VD tests and provision of immediate AZT drugs, just in case.
It seemed like Carol was a specimen to be pulled and prodded; doctors, a psychologist cum counsellor, and social services all wanting a piece. But the girl was sixteen years old – legally, an adult – and they all accepted Jackie’s offer to provide ongoing support.
The charge was manslaughter; with self-defence cited. With Jackie’s evidence and Gilbert’s previous transgressions recorded, the duty lawyer thought Carol had a good chance of a conditional discharge. Bail was granted with Jackie’s surety; reporting to the court every fortnight until the trial.
In the meantime, Jackie had a new lodger.
She checked that Carol was asleep; exhausted more like, but safe. Hell, the poor kid had suffered enough and Jackie felt so guilt-ridden – it was the least she could do to ease her conscience. It was a tragedy with fatal consequences – at least the pervert wouldn’t be harming Carol again. One outstanding concern, the VD test result was inconclusive. Another sample was provided; back in a couple of days, latest.
She’d handle any backlash from the court – although she didn’t expect they’d be doing much during the Christmas break. Jackie was no fool; the influence of Harmony Estate and the need for ready money had infiltrated; Carol wasn’t a virgin, and Gilbert wasn’t her first.
Despite her vulnerability, she hoped that Carol was street-wise enough to cope with the trial; but what if Gilbert had infected her with AIDS?