She sat in the creaky bentwood chair beside the fire which was smokily smouldering in the grate. She wore her track suit over her jumper and jeans. Used, as she was, to the cold the sheer rawness of a damp misty late autumn Lakeland Day had taken her completely unawares. Soon the fire would burn bright she mused and she would feel warm again. She gazed out of the turreted window of her recently rented attic flat. The view down Lake Windermere through the eerie mist and gathering gloom threatened black magic and evil deeds. The screech of gulls added to her sense of foreboding. She had been lucky to get this attic it must be the cheapest rent in Cumbria she thought, mind you with it’s threadbare carpet and rickety furniture she could see why. She had no hot water but the old lady had said she could use the bathroom downstairs so at least she could keep clean in comfort. There was no proper kitchen just a Baby Belling not that that mattered she couldn’t afford proper food to cook anyhow. Not that her cooking had been up to much she had been told many, many times in her life.
Today she had had her best bit of luck since she had taken flight. She had heard about the man who had got a contract to clean, paint, refurbish and repair holiday properties over the winter months and he had taken her on at a rate of pay that wasn’t too bad. A cause for optimism but she didn’t feel optimistic she had been dragged down too many times in the past.
How had she fetched up here? Again and again she had run through her memories of her life wondering where things had gone wrong. Truth was she couldn’t remember when things had gone right. She had heard about life’s victims and she had no doubt she was one of them.
Her mum had died giving birth to her and she had been brought up by a kindly but drunken father. She had had to fend for herself for days and days on end whilst he slept off his latest foray of bars in the small Midland town they called home. He had shown her nothing but kindness when he was sober and nothing but neglect when he was drunk. Perhaps if he had been violent it would have prepared her for the playground bullying and worse violence that was to follow in years to come.
She had been a small child who had grown into a small dumplingy woman. She never thought of herself having a name. For as long as she could remember, certainly ever since her dad had poisoned himself with the alcohol, she had been “she” or “her” or “oi you”.
She had learnt to cope with the schoolyard bullying and managed to avoid the worst of it but as she approached maturity she had become a rotten chooser of partners from the drunk to the idle to the sadist and finally the drug addict which was why she had ended up here as far away as her meagre funds would allow. The self confidence destroying mental cruelty and regular beatings had been a feature of many of her relationships usually followed by sobbing promises that it would never happen again if only she would give which ever him it was one more chance. But what was the final straw was when three weeks ago Jack her junkie partner had brought home three men he had borrowed money from to feed his habit and told her precisely how she was going to work the debt off for him. On the pretence of going to the bathroom she had grabbed her handbag and coat and fled into the night.
She had wandered around for hours until she had been approached by a female police constable who had asked her if there was anything wrong. No you dozy cow she thought it’s perfectly natural to walk the streets in the middle of the night cold, really freezing and crying it’s what I do for laughs. Something of her mood must have registered with the constable because when she had briefly outlined her problems she had been given the constable’s card with the address of a refuge on the back and a fiver to get something warm and nourishing.
She had found the refuge and stayed there for a couple of weeks earning what cash she could cleaning and washing up in cafes for cash in hand and a meal. It had come to an end when she had run into a mate of Jack’s. She just knew she had to get right away and had collected her few things into a supermarket carrier bag and jumped on the first long distance bus that came along.
And that she said to herself is how I come to be in an attic flat in Windermere.
The fire was now burning more brightly and she felt warm enough to take the track suit off. As the room warmed her spirits brightened. She had a job the rent had been paid for the next week by which time she would have been paid. If only she could get some cash in hand kitchen work with a meal chucked in that would be well sorted.
Her problems were nearly 200 miles away in a different grimy industrial world.
A sudden thought popped into her head of a young man who had been kind to her. They had sat together in a cafeteria and she had laughed, a rare occurrence, and described him and his poetry as hopelessly romantic he had grinned and said “No it’s much worse than that you see I am hopefully romantic.”
The next few weeks passed quickly and, for the first time for as long as she could remember, some routine and order had come into her life. She even caught herself singing quietly to herself. That is something I never do she thought to herself. Could be I am even happy and that’s a novelty she had giggled.
Careful buying in charity shops had brought a feeling of homeliness to the small flat and the purchase of a slow cooker had provided her with wholesome, tasty and cheap meals that were very necessary now that autumn was turning to winter.
As winter closed in the tops as the fell walkers called the high peaks in the Lake District donned their raw and threatening winter persona. She wondered who she could trust to contact to send her her clothes especially the thicker warmer ones. It was only when she realised the trusted friend need not be female that she came up with the obvious person. It had to be Simon. Simon who had hidden her when Jack was in a violent mood. Simon who had bought her a week’s groceries when Jack had taken her dole money to feed his habit. Simon who had begged her to get well away from Jack. Simon who had realised the futility of giving her money. Simon who was gay.
She had rung Simon at the book shop where he worked. Simon had listened as she told him her news. Then he had delivered a bombshell. Jack was dead. Apparently a bad drug batch had killed him and several other addicts. Try as she might she could not face going back even to collect the rest of her belongings. She rang Simon again and he agreed to pack the remainder of her stuff and send it on to her.
After the second phone call to Simon she felt free, free, free.
No sunshine, no warmth, November. But still she found she was in good spirits. The job was going well and her boss, Mr Knights, was pleased enough with her efforts to have given her a rise in pay. With warm clothes on her back she thought about the months ahead. Christmas looked like being a lonely time. Her landlady was going away to spend Christmas with friends but had said she could use the kitchen downstairs if she wanted to cook a proper Christmas dinner. She giggled at the thought of still eating turkey risotto at Easter.
But she felt she should mark her first truly independent Christmas in some way. But how she had not met many people, her job did not bring her into contact with people and certainly she had not made any friends. Windermere in the winter was not exactly heaving under the strain of vast crowds. The only people she saw regularly worked in the shops where she bought her scant provisions, the library which she visited once or twice a week and, of course, the charity shops where she sought out bit and pieces to make her attic into a home.
She was also reluctant to seek the company of others. She had been such a lousy chooser of friends and lovers in the past that the thought of making yet another mistake terrified her. However the pleasure of being always on her own, free to do as pleased was beginning to pall and she realised she would have to make an effort soon or being alone and enjoying solitude would become being lonely. An altogether different feeling and one she wanted to avoid.
She sat in the creaky bentwood chair beside the brightly burning fire the silence broken by the wind and quarrelling gulls and vowed to find, if not friends, some acquaintances she could spend some time with. “That, should you accept it, is your mission” she said to herself in a very bad American accent.
The following Saturday the first in December she was up bright and early determined to catch an early bus for Ambleside to see the Christmas decorations.
There was the whiff of snow in the air and as she got off the bus the first flakes started to fall. She giggled as she passes the sign to the park and Aira Force. Her knowledge of a park was somewhere with a couple of tennis courts, some football pitches and a band stand so the first time she had ventured to Aira Force had found her totally unprepared for the rugged trails and steep walking.
Having looked round Ambleside and visited the glass works more for the warmth than the show put on by the glass blowers skilful though they were. She sought out a coffee shop and settled for a Ham sandwich and coffee. She sensed rather than saw through the steamed up windows that the snow was falling thicker and faster.
She became aware of someone approaching her table and looking up saw a youngish man who she had often seen in the library in Windermere. He sat himself at her table having first asked her permission. They chatted away she told Alan for that was his name about her attic flat and her job. Alan told her that he taught English and wrote poetry, romantic poetry he confessed and she had laughed, a rare occurrence, and described him and his poetry as hopelessly romantic he had grinned and said “No it’s much worse than that you see I am hopefully romantic.”
Everything had become unfocussed as if it was being viewed through a distorting mirror. She could hear a voice from the end of a long empty corridor. “Is she awaking? hello, hello.”
Slowly she opened her eyes, trying to move she became aware of the restraints and it all came back to her. The kitchen knife, the blood stained blouse, Jack trying to stop her injecting herself with the needle’s contents. Jack’s body lying in a pool of blood.
Oh god she moaned which is the hallucination, which is my real life, are they both hallucinations.
Sobbing softly to herself she fell back into her trance like slumber hoping to restart her dream.
It was several years before she was considered fit to be released. Now free of the curse of drugs she was advised to forsake her old haunts and so called friends.
Her mind kept returning to her hallucinatory dreams of the attic in Windermere. In her heart of hearts she knew she must relent and return to Windermere to discover either the source of the dream or slay the dragon of her nightmare. Either could release her, either could make her situation and mindset worse. What to do?
Finally after a few weeks she found herself once more at the bus station awaiting the coach for Windermere and Ambleside. It was 2 months since her release in the middle of August. The day was grey and full of foreboding. The sort of day when sleep is the sane man’s choice.
Her nerves jangled as she wondered what the next few days would reveal. At last the coach arrived and she was on her way hoping for a dream, dreading a nightmare.
Her first few days were spent in the cheapest B & B she could find. By day she prowled the small lakeside town always looking at the roofline always searching for her dreamed of attic. As she became more familiar with the town the memory of her dream gradually returned and finally she narrowed her search by remembering the view from the attic window. Then suddenly there it was in front of her. The very house of her dreams. An involuntary shiver raced down her spine.
Slowly she approached the door her body felt too heavy for her legs to support, her heart pounded so loudly that she felt sure others must be able to hear it.. After an eternity she was there on the step. As she stood at the door she was aware of curtains twitching at nearby windows. She had knocked at the door before she spotted the doorbell. For some reason she found this acutely embarrassing and as the door was opened she was still blushing bright scarlet.
The lady who answered the door was much younger than the dreamt of lady. “Can I help you?” She asked in a pleasantly pitched voice. “Have you an attic I could rent?” She blurted out. “Why an attic are you an artist? Do you intend to starve?” Asked the lady of the house. “It’s a long story involving a dream I promise I’ll tell you one day” she replied. “So if I want to hear the story I’d better rent you the attic but I must warn you it’s been years since it was used.
She gazed out of the attic’s turreted window. The view down Lake Windermere through the weak watery late afternoon sun was stunning. The screech of gulls added to her sense of return to better times. She had been lucky to get this attic it must be the cheapest rent in Cumbria she thought, mind you with it’s threadbare carpet and rickety furniture she could see why. She had no hot water but the lady had said she could use the bathroom downstairs so at least she could keep clean in comfort. There was no proper kitchen just a Baby Belling. These thoughts ran through her head, these echoes from the past.
Later she returned to the window a low mist cloaked the lake like the gossamer webs on a dewy autumnal lawn. Above the moon shone bright and cold in a star filled sky.
It’s a night for mystery and magic she thought. The feelings of dread lifted like weights from her shoulders.
The next few days were hectic. She had agreed to a rent-free two months in exchange for giving her new home an early spring clean and a coat of paint. She was also washing up lunch times and evenings in a pretentiously called Bistro. It wasn’t enough but it helped to eke out her dwindling funds.
Diana, her landlady, was impressed with her handiwork and a few days later Diana had arranged for her to meet Diana’s brother in law. She had returned from the meeting frightened but elated. It was all too neat this falling into place. The brother in law had offered her a job for the close season refurbishing holiday cottages. The wages had been more than she expected but she had been warned the work would be hard and tiring. This was too deja vu for comfort but then she remembered the night of mystery and magic and her uplifted feelings.
Six weeks had passed since her arrival in Windermere and the sullen grey autumn had become a cold and biting winter. Funds were much less of a problem as in addition to her day job she had continued to work at the Bistro in the evenings, this, not only brought in extra money, but also an evening meal and a packet of sandwiches for the next day. Not the standard expected by our dear old queen to say nothing of the queer old dean, she chuckled, but quite acceptable. Several visits to Lakeland Plastics and careful choices from the seconds and discontinued lines had helped to give her small but freshly cleaned and painted attic a homely feel. Bob, the brother in law, had given her a small fridge-freezer and an old TV, which she hardly ever watched, from a cottage he was upgrading.
As she sat in front of the spluttering wood fire she pronounced herself well satisfied with her progress, even if it is a dream she muttered, querulously, to herself.
She couldn’t remember exactly how Ryan had come into her life. He had been an occasional visitor to the Bistro but his visits had become more frequent and they had fallen into the habit of chatting. Soon he was calling in almost every night and one very slow night she had had one glass of wine too many and gradually had related her whole story to him When she awoke the next morning she recalled the previous evening and felt sure that her “confession” would have driven Ryan away but that night he was back at the Bistro.
It was inevitable that they would become lovers sure he was very normal looking but as she often said to herself her face would not launch a dozen pedalos let alone a thousand ships.
It was the week before Christmas and as she lay in her bed the moonlight streaming through the not quite closed curtains, the water could be heard lapping at the lake side and in the distance an owl hooted. The same thought reoccurred to her again and again was this still a drug induced dream or was it reality? She twisted and turned in her anxiety caused nightmare. Suddenly she opened her eyes and saw the small fibre optic Christmas Tree glowing in the corner of the room and breathed a sigh of relief. At that moment an armed enfolded her. “Sshh you’re safe your hopeful romantic is here. On hearing the words she jammed her eyes shut not daring to open them.
Dream or reality the conundrum remains