THE GREAT ESCAPE
by Jade Bailey
The old woman was smiling. It was easy to see why. True, she was a care home resident, but she was in an immaculately manicured garden on a sunny day, surrounded by her beaming family. A carer, dressed in a pale blue uniform, was carefully positioned nearby; close enough to be in easy reach without quite hovering.
It would have been a perfectly delightful scene but for the fact that it was printed on the glossy cover of the Lake House Retirement Home’s brochure.
'Doesn’t she look happy, Mum?' Lizzie pushed the brochure towards her. 'Go on, take a look. They have a garden and everything. A garden you won’t need to look after.'
Eleanor grunted. Yes, there was a garden, but it was a garden of topiaries and lawns, carefully clipped and relentlessly mowed. Not a proper garden, with a vegetable patch and brambles and gnarly fruit trees and waist-high wildflowers. Not her garden.
'I’m not going.'
'I know it’s a big change, but you’ll love it there, I know you will. Why don’t Rowan and I drive you down there for a visit tomorrow? See it for yourself.'
Lizzie’s face was earnest, sincere. She actually believes what she’s saying. The realisation came as a shock. See it for myself! If she agreed to visit the damned place, they’d never let her leave.
'I told you, Lizzie. I’m not going.'
'Not this again,' Lizzie sighed. 'You have to go somewhere, Mum. The house has been sold. You’ve only got until next week before the buyers want you out.'
'Are you going to listen to me at all, or are you only here for me to sign your ruddy paperwork?'
Lizzie looked hurt. 'I’m worried about you, Mum. You haven’t been right. You can’t say it’s not true. You’ve been . . .' She paused, fumbling for a tactful way of telling her own mother that she was going senile. 'You’ve been making little mistakes. We just want you to be looked after, that’s all.'
She squeezed her husband’s hand. Rowan draped his arm over her shoulders and kissed her forehead. Eleanor flinched. Even now, two years after their wedding, she couldn’t help but feel unsettled when she saw them together.
'I’m perfectly capable of looking after myself, thank you very much.'
'You’re not well, Mum. You’ve been forgetting things. Seeing things. Hearing things. Like that buzzing you were on about last month.'
'That was real.' Eleanor shuddered. The buzzing still came and went, though she’d stopped telling Lizzie about it. Two visits from confused pest control workers had been quite enough.
'Of course it was. And the big black cat in your bed?'
That was several months ago now. Eleanor hated cats, and this one hadn’t been particularly fond of her, either. The wretched thing had scratched her, too, but when she’d tried to show Lizzie and Rowan the scars, she could never find them.
'One of the neighbours’ children must have let it in for a prank,' she scowled.
'The neighbours don’t have any cats, Mum. We asked around, remember? You insisted. It was pretty embarrassing, to be honest.'
'I know what I saw. And I know I’m not ill.'
'How would you know that? You won’t even call your GP.' Lizzie sighed. 'Growing older is nothing to be ashamed of — '
'I may be growing older, Elizabeth, but I am not growing bloody senile.'
'You left your keys in the fridge. on more than one occasion. And you put the telly remote in your handbag. We found your wallet in the vegetable patch. The vegetable patch, Mum. That’s not normal.'
'That wasn’t me!' It sounded ridiculous when she said it out loud, but she had no memory of doing any of those things. She knew herself, and she knew she wasn’t that absent-minded.
'Don’t be silly. Who else could it possibly have been? The fairies?' Lizzie smiled at Rowan.
'She used to tell me stories about them when I was a little girl, you know. Whenever anything went missing, we’d say the fairies had taken it.'
'Well, perhaps some of those stories are true,' said Rowan in his gently lilting Irish accent. 'But I’m sad to say I don’t think there are any fairies involved here, Ma.' He turned to her and smiled. It was a kind smile, but for his eyes. They were spectacular —shimmering green, gold and blue all at once — but they always seemed cold.
She held his gaze for a few moments. He was, undoubtedly, a beautiful man, with his tall frame and delicate features and a voice that seemed to render her daughter a quivering mass of jelly. But there was something not quite right about him. She hated that he called her 'Ma', but she hated even more the fact that her daughter was utterly, unquestionably his in every sense of the word.
He was an estate agent, and he had taken charge of Eleanor’s house sale himself. In fact, the whole thing had been his idea. She couldn’t complain about how he had managed it. The whole process had gone perfectly smoothly — a buyer had been found almost instantly, offering well above her asking price, and they had been quite happy to give her the time she needed. There had been times when she’d had second thoughts — in truth, she’d almost pulled the plug on the whole thing on several occasions — but her wonderful, kind, supportive son-in-law had always been more than happy to come by and personally reassure her that she was doing the right thing. And she’d always agreed with him.
At least, until he’d left. And then she remembered that she was in a house that had been her home for more than forty years— the house she’d raised two children in, the house her Bill had died in, the house with the garden she adored — and suddenly, somehow, there was nothing left but taped-up cardboard boxes and the furniture Rowan hadn’t managed to sell.
It felt like a terrible, terrible mistake. She could barely remember agreeing to any of it. It was almost as if another person had slipped into her skin and signed all those forms.
But none of that mattered now, because it was done.
Rowan smiled at her. It really was a lovely smile. He reached out and took her unresisting hand in his.
'No one’s saying you’re going senile, Ma. There’s no shame in needing a little help later in life. Lizzie and I just want what’s best for you, that’s all.'
No, you don’t, a part of Eleanor wanted to say. You want me out of the way, that’s what you want. You want my little girl all to yourself. But somehow, when she opened her mouth, what came out was, 'I know.'
'You’ve worked so hard, haven’t you? You took care of Lizzie and Sam and Bill. It’s time someone took care of you. You deserve it.'
Don’t listen to him, she told herself. You can’t trust him. But the more he spoke, the more she felt at peace. It made sense, what he was saying. It was all making so much sense. 'Yes,' she said, appalled at herself.
'You deserve to be in the best possible place for someone at your stage of life, and Lake House really is the very best place. I can vouch for that myself. My grandfather lived there for many years. Lizzie and I will come and visit you as often as you’d like. You’ll be so very happy there; I know you will. You’re not really happy here anymore, are you?' He smiled, his eyes sparkling.
This is your house, Eleanor. You love this house. You scattered Bill’s ashes in the garden. 'No, I suppose I’m not.'
'I know you’re worried about leaving the house, Ma,' he said. 'You needn’t be. It’s all being taken care of. I know the new owners personally and they are just the most wonderful people you could ever hope to meet. Your lovely garden will be shown the respect it deserves. Everything will be just fine. I give you my word.'
This is wrong. This is all wrong. 'All right, Rowan. I’ll sign the papers.'
He beamed at her. 'I’m so glad to hear you say that, Ma.'
He pushed a sheaf of paperwork and a pen in front of her. She looked down at it, her eyes glazing over, not quite reading the words. All she managed to read was the title, in bold print: 'Lake House Retirement Home Agreement.' She picked up the pen and signed the form, almost by accident.
'You won’t regret it. I promise.' Rowan gently took the paper and pen from her hands. He leapt to his feet. 'I suppose we’ll leave you to it, then! I know you’ve still so much to do. We’ll be back tomorrow to help you. I’ll send someone to take care of your furniture.'
Eleanor nodded weakly. What have I done?
Lizzie smiled at her mother, noticeably relieved. She wrapped her arms around her and planted a kiss on her cheek. 'Thank you, Mum. You’re doing the right thing.' Maybe this is what she wants, Eleanor thought. Perhaps it won’t be so bad.
The door closed, and Eleanor was alone again, and she understood in that moment that she had just relinquished her entire life to a man she did not know or trust or even like. Bill would have been ashamed of her.
She looked down at the brochure, at the glossy, staged smiles of actors who had been paid to make idiots like her sign their independence away. And then she picked it up and flung it across the room.
No. This couldn’t happen. Her silver-tongued son-in-law might have hoodwinked her into selling her house and signing that agreement, but she would not go gently into that retirement home.
She tried to think. She needed a plan. Most of all, she needed help — but from whom? Lizzie wouldn’t be made to listen to her; Lord knows she’d tried. There was Sam, but he lived hundreds of miles away in London. She barely heard from him. Eleanor had never been as close to her son as she’d been to Lizzie — at least, as she’d been to Lizzie before Rowan came along.
A friend, then. Except she didn’t have very many these days. Reaching one’s eighties meant losing more friends than one made. Most of her surviving friends had already been packed off to retirement homes.
There had to be someone.
She went to her bedroom and fumbled in the drawer of her bedside table for the box in which she kept an assortment of old correspondence: letters, Christmas cards, birthday cards, condolence cards. She scanned the names. Dead. Retirement home. Retirement home, then dead. And one crumpled letter with a name she hadn’t thought of in over a year.
Hal Ferry. With a name like that, he should have been a newsreader or a singer instead of a sheep farmer.
Hal was an old friend, in every sense of the word. They had been sweethearts as teenagers and had stayed in touch for some years afterwards. About five years ago she’d briefly revived their friendship, but she’d put a stop to it out of fear of upsetting Lizzie. He’d still written to her every month, then twice a year, before giving up. The last time was two years ago. She had never replied.
She flipped the paper over. On the back, Hal had scrawled his phone number and his address. It was up in the hills; several hours away, at least.
Eleanor picked up her phone and started dialling. Then she stopped. The buzzing was back. It really did sound like there was a nest of wasps somewhere . . .
She put the phone down. Better not to call him. He’d be outraged if she told him what Lizzie had done and he’d try to come down here and fix it himself, and Rowan would get involved. No. Better if she just went straight to him.
Eleanor peered out of the window. It was six o’clock; almost dusk. She had no particular wish to be out after dark, but she had no choice. Lizzie and Rowan would be back in the morning. If she was going, she had to go now.
She threw some essentials into a bag — keys, a bottle of water, a change of clothes, a map, a torch and, begrudgingly, her mobile phone, just in case. Her gaze rested on the little folding photo frame she kept by her bed. It had three pictures in it: one of her and Bill, one of Sam, and one of Lizzie. Lizzie years ago; beautiful, smiling, confident. Lizzie before Rowan. She folded it up and put it in her bag.
Her car was in the garage. She hadn’t used it in months — Lizzie had tried to make her give it up in favour of her bus pass — but luckily, she’d still managed to hang on to it 'for emergencies.' If this didn’t count as an emergency, Eleanor didn’t know what did.
The car shuddered as she slid the key into the ignition, and the gearbox creaked in protest. She peered at the fuel gauge. Half a tank. No matter. There’d definitely be some kind of petrol station somewhere on the way.
She drove out into the gathering night.
A few minutes later, Rowan appeared in her living room.
He had, indeed, left with his wife, but something had troubled him about his conversation with Eleanor. For a human who had always resisted him, she had been surprisingly easy to persuade. Too easy.
He’d felt the need to return, just to make sure that his dear mother-in-law really was as happy as she said. How very lucky it was that there was a fairy road that connected her house to their own. And it just so happened that Lizzie — bless her heart — had found herself suddenly and unexpectedly tired and had gone to bed the moment they’d got home. She would never even know he had gone.
Sadly, his suspicions proved well-founded. The old woman was nowhere to be found.
It didn’t take long to work out what had happened: the upended box of letters on the bed; the empty garage. Rowan’s beautiful face creased with fury. He’d wanted to get rid of her car, but Lizzie had pleaded with him not to. He should have known better. Eleanor didn’t need it, after all. She would never need it ever again.
He had a lot of respect for Eleanor. A strong will is something his kind always learns to respect in a human. But he could not allow her to endanger everything he had been working so hard to achieve.
He had some idea of where she was going. Lizzie had spoken of an old family friend; a shepherd who lived up in the hills. Rowan really ought to have taken care of him the way he’d taken care of all Eleanor’s other friends, but he’d always been that little bit too remote to bother with. Besides, the man wasn’t nearly so naïve as most humans. He was the kind of human who sowed his fields with primroses and hammered an iron horseshoe over his door.
If Eleanor were to reach him, there would be . . . complications. And Rowan hated complications.
Reaching inside his pinstriped jacket, Rowan pulled out a folded piece of parchment. It was very, very old. Unfolding it revealed what looked rather like a map of Britain, except it was a map with no cities or towns or landmarks of any kind. There were roads, though no motorist would know them. This was a massive, intricate tangle of black lines spanning the length and breadth of the country.
Rowan tapped one of the lines with a long, slender finger. The line shifted.
He smiled as he folded up the map and tucked it back in his pocket. Fairy roads really were so very useful. Eleanor would go to Lake House, one way or another.
Before leaving, he took the opportunity to put a few things away. A couple of wine glasses in the oven. Reading glasses in the garden toolbox. That sort of thing. A good son-in-law should make himself useful, after all.
Eleanor ran out of fuel after two hours.
To the car’s credit, it had done everything it could to prevent this. It had all sorts of red lights and meters and beeping warnings for just such an eventuality. But Eleanor had persisted, certain that there would definitely be a petrol station around the next corner, because surely, surely even in the middle of nowhere, there would be drivers who needed to refuel their cars?
She thumped the steering wheel so hard it made the whole car jolt. Brilliant. Bloody, bloody brilliant.
She got out of the car. It was dark; extremely dark, even for eight o’clock at night. It occurred to her that there were no streetlights of any kind, only her headlights and the cold, silvery light of the moon and the stars.
This really did seem to be the middle of nowhere. She knew it had been several years since she visited Hal, but she didn’t recognise any of this. She’d always remembered the road to Hal’s cutting through open countryside. The road in front of her led into what looked like a thick forest.
There was another car just ahead, pulled over at the side of the road. Its headlights were off.
Eleanor walked towards the car. It was a small car, and an old one; the shape reminded her of a Mitsubishi Colt, with the notable exception that, for some reason, it had been wrapped in . . . metal chains?
She rapped her knuckles on the passenger seat window. 'Hello? Anyone in there?'
She rubbed the glass and peered inside. There was no sign of anyone inside the car, but, to her surprise, a set of keys hung from the ignition.
Pushing aside the chains, she found the door handle. This was probably a terrible idea. She glanced behind her at her own car, sitting abandoned, its headlights still on. If this car had some fuel in its tank, perhaps she could siphon some. Or perhaps…
This really was a terrible idea. She ought to phone Hal. But all her previous concerns would still apply. Besides which, she’d have to tell him where she was, and she didn’t have the faintest idea.
She opened the door and got in.
The door closed behind her. She heard the distinctive little 'click' of the lock. And then the engine started.
'No,' said Eleanor. 'No, please . . . I’m sorry . . . I only wanted to see if I could ask for a lift!'
But there was no one else in the car.
She tried the door. It was locked. 'Help! Let me out!' She knocked on the window again and again, but there was no one to hear her.
The car pulled out and hurtled down the road, into the heart of the forest.
The Great Escape, Chapter 2/9 will be published on Sunday, August 1st.
Next week's author is David Green.