The rain beat down in stair rods, bouncing from the roadway and pavement, filling the potholes and overflowing the drains. It coursed down the windscreen of the Astra with such force, it rendered the wipers redundant.
David Green squinted through the early evening deluge, looking for the street sign – Belmont Street. It had to be around here somewhere. What sort of town council didn’t put signs on the streets.
‘Where the hell is it? Show yourself.’
A flash of lightning slashed the sky above the city, followed almost at once by a clap of thunder so sonorous it made him start in his seat. The subsequent persistent rumble churned unpleasantly deep in his stomach. The roar of the rain on the car’s roof increased as if the tear in the sky had ripped open a fresh reservoir of water and released it all in one fell swoop.
‘Jeeezus Christ!’ he exclaimed, before sucking in a deep breath in an attempt to shake off the deep-seated fear of thunderstorms he had had since childhood, and refocus on his driving. Not only had he to find a non-existent street sign whilst almost blinded by a veil of water, he also had to avoid hitting anything or anyone in his way.
‘Jennneeee,’ he called out, as if his friend, somewhere out there, would hear the frustration in his voice and guide him to her.
She had moved recently, out of her parents’ house to take a short lease on a top floor flat in a converted house, although why she had chosen this none-too-salubrious part of town he did not know. She had given him a set of directions – west along Fairview Street, right into Dock Road and then right again at the fifth set of lights would bring him onto her street, but he didn’t know this part of town and didn’t even know if he was on the right road. By now he had lost count of how many sets of traffic lights he had passed. Three possibly, maybe four.
This would be the first and last time he would visit her here. In the past, as they worked in the same office, they met in the car park or at the pub across the road, and had either gone back to his place or a nearby hotel to have sex and to talk and plan their futures. From now on, they would be together all the time…if he could find her.
A delay getting away from work meant he was already twenty minutes late but he could not go any faster. The traffic light ahead turned red and he slowed to a stop. In the two minute pause, a lessening of the waterfall down his windscreen allowed the wipers to do their job, and across the junction he spotted the sign he had been looking for, barely legible under years of town grime.
He prepared to change lanes, and at the green light, made the turn. If he was on the correct street, he would find the red door to her house halfway down it on the left hand side.
They had arranged for him to draw up on the opposite side of the street, and to hoot the horn as a signal to let her know he was there…two short, one long…beep, beep, beeeeeeeep. Her upstairs flat at the front of the house overlooked the road, so she would be able to hear him.
He waited. The rain once more beat a tattoo on the roof of the car, so loud he could hardly hear himself think. He glanced up at the dark window upstairs, but Jennie did not appear. Maybe she was running twenty minutes late too, and they would no doubt make a joke about their mutually poor timekeeping. He gave it a full five minutes more before sounding the horn again.
A hand pushed aside the net curtain at a bottom floor window, and the tight pasty face of a middle aged woman peered out. Moments later, the front door opened. The woman popped up her umbrella and sloshed her way across the road toward him. Was she coming to complain about the noise of the horn? Nosey, curtain twitching biddies like her needed only the flimsiest excuse to voice their opinions.
He pretended he hadn’t seen her, but when she rapped a bony knuckle on his window, he reluctantly had to roll it down.
‘You David?’ she asked, the query carried on breath reeking of cigarettes, stale beer and last night’s garlic bread.
‘Yes,’ he said, cautiously.
‘I’ve got summat for ya. Girl in’t upstairs flat left it. She said ya’d be along to collect it. If ya want it, come an’ get it, ‘cos I’m not carrying it out in this rain.’ Before he could ask any questions, she turned on her slippered heel, marched back indoors, let down her umbrella and watched him from the shelter of the vestibule.
He hesitated for a moment before letting himself out of the car and dashing through the rain after her. She led him through the dark and dismal communal hallway, with its peeling paint and all pervading stench of left over takeaway mingled with cat, possibly human, urine, to her own ajar door.
She bade him wait outside while she fetched the mysterious ‘summat’.
‘Here it is,’ she said, dragging a battered suitcase by its handle. ‘It’s too ‘eavy to lift. Whatcha got in there, lead weights?’
He took the suitcase from her; it wasn’t so heavy, not for a well built man like himself. ‘No, just some…books. Where is Jennie? Why did she leave this with you?’
The woman shrugged. ‘Dunno. She brought this down ‘ere this afternoon and said ya’d be comin’ to collect it. She left this too…’ She handed him an envelope. ‘I don’t know where she’s gone. She didn’t say, but she were in a tearin’ ‘urry. Strange girl. Quiet sort. Your girlfriend is she?’
He didn’t answer…the envelope in his hand demanded all his attention.
Suitcase in one hand, letter in the other, he stood at the kerb, waiting for an approaching vehicle to pass and allow him to cross the street. It made no attempt to avoid the puddle forming in the gutter, and when it drove through it, David found both himself and his possessions soaked.
He threw a strident curse at the errant motorist, in vain.
He tossed the water darkened suitcase into the back of his car and climbed into the driver’s seat. The envelope felt wet in his hand. He opened it and pulled out a carefully folded sheet of baby pink paper covered in neat handwriting. The splashed rainwater had already begun to soften the paper and smudge the ink, in some places already rendering it almost illegible:
My darling David,
As the song says:
No matter who you are,
No matter where you go in your life,
At some point you’re going need somebody,
To stand by you…
…but I’m afraid, my darling, it’s not going to be me.
I thought I could do this, I thought it would be an adventure, but it’s not. I thought I would be strong enough, but I’m not. I’m scared, David. I can’t spend the rest of my life on the run, always looking over my shoulder and scared to death by my own shadow…so I’m giving you a choice – me or the money.
Everything’s in the suitcase, every last penny. I kept it safe and didn’t touch any of it. You can use it, spend it, have a great life, but without me, or…
I’m booked on the 20:45 train to London. Be an honest man again, come to the station and get me, but just you, not the money.
I love you.
Jennie x x x
He stared down at the note, reading and re-reading her ultimatum, as rain dripping from his hair disintegrated it in his hand, his tears of dismay now adding to its ruination.
He screwed the sodden paper into a small wet ball and clutched it tight in his fist as he glanced round at the suitcase on the back seat. The catch had released letting the lid pop open, giving him a tantalising glimpse of the contents – over a million pounds in cold hard cash. It staring accusingly back at him – his ill gotten gains, the proceeds of more than a year of careful planning and the ultimately successful execution of the perfect, undetectable crime…and the reason for the dreadful ache growing in his chest.
‘Choose…’ it demanded cruelly. ‘Choose, David. Choose what you can live without. Choose who you really love more…me or her?’
He considered his options. Choose between a life in exile, somewhere in the sun with enough money to live in the lap of luxury for the rest of his life – alone, or choose to be an ordinary man who worked hard and lived quietly and respectfully, sharing a pokey one bedroomed flat with the woman he loved.
He sat staring at his clenched hand. Slowly he opened his fingers to see the mass of pink pulp crushed within, now spoiled beyond recognition. Her words, her declaration of love for him, her test of his love for her, her challenge of his commitment – destroyed, gone for ever, irretrievable.
Me or the money….choose wisely.
As if there really was a choice. He knew what he had to do.
Next morning, on the fire escape of his office block, a worker sneaking outside for a crafty cigarette would stumble over a sodden battered suitcase stuffed with easily spendable, low denomination banknotes, and think all his birthdays had come at once.
In the meantime, David’s watch told him he had twenty minutes in which to get to the station.
JILLIAN BROOKES-WARD hails originally from the North of England but is now comfortably resident in beautiful Royal Deeside in Scotland where she is currently a full-time writer taking inspiration from her dramatic but romantic locale and the people around her.
When she is not taking care of her family or writing, Jillian’s interests include walking her dog in the woods near her home, listening to good music and occasionally, a spot of fly-fishing.
Jillian has a bachelor’s degree in Natural Science and is an AMSPAR qualified Medical Secretary