The rucksack makes a satisfying weight across his shoulders as he treks through the quiet streets. A mangy alleycat scampers across the road, glaring back at him with narrowed eyes.
He trudges up the stairs, stifling a yawn into his fist. The distant chime of church bells. Morning sunlight streams in through the windows, bathing the hallways in soft golden light.
He hears Suki’s feet approaching even before he knocks.
Esther beams at the sight of him. ‘‘Hello, dear.’’
He eases the door open. ‘‘Hi.’’
Amy toddles forward to wrap her arms around his leg. He crouches down. ‘‘You okay?’’
She nods. Holds her arms up. He smiles and hoists her up to nestle into his shoulder. ‘‘I know, mm? S’okay. Shhh. I’m here.’’
Amy hums and buries her blonde curls into his neck. He cradles her close, rocking gently as Esther continues, ‘‘She really wanted to see you today. Bit of an awful scare last night.’’
He clenches his jaw. ‘‘Sorry I wasn’t here sooner.’’
Esther squeezes his arm. ‘‘I tell you, Craig, no one’s ever stood up to Vince like that. I feel like a new woman today. You don’t know how much we’ve all been worried.’’
Why are his ears warm.
‘‘Glad I could help.’’ He brushes back an errant curl from Amy’s forehead. ‘‘Heyyy. I won’t let anyone hurt you again. Okay? Ever.’’
Amy nods solemnly as she holds out her hand. ‘‘Pinkie promise?’’
Their little fingers intertwine, and Craig smiles. ‘‘Promise.’’ He carries Amy over to the armchair as Suki slinks around his ankles, purring. He scratches leisurely behind her ear, and she makes a high-pitched sound and nuzzles closer. Then she hops up onto his lap and burrows into the crook of his elbow.
She blinks sleepily at him, then kneads her paws against his stomach in blissful content. Esther chuckles. ‘‘She’s really taken a shine to you.’’
The purring tickles. It’s great.
Then Esther’s smile fades. ‘‘Sorry to hear you up and about last night. Bad dreams?’’
‘‘You don’t have to tell me. I’m sorry.’’ Her face is pinched tight with concern.
‘‘Just nightmares,’’ he shrugs.
He leaves out the part when the dream jerked him awake with a knife ready to kill, primal instincts howling fight kill burn destroy fight KILL
‘‘Oh, your poor dear,’’ Esther murmurs, and presses his hand, looking distressed.
‘‘It’s okay,’’ he soothes.
‘‘Well, I mean. Not really,’’ she says.
He shrugs. ‘‘It’s over now. Got some sleep.’’
‘‘Got breakfast with a new friend.’’
Her expression brightens. ‘‘You did? Wonderful!’’
He holds up the rucksack. Glass clinks inside it. ‘‘Got some extra medicine too.’’
Esther’s eyes widen as he pulls out a fat glass bottle stuffed with white pills, then a new brass deadbolt. ‘‘Craig! This is too much! All I got you were cookies!’’
He holds up a hand for dramatic effect. Even Suki perks up. When he pulls the final present out, Amy squeals and flings her arms around his neck. Suki’s ears prick up, and she crouches, ready to leap.
Amy dangles it in front of Suki, who rolls onto her back and bats at it. Esther rolls her eyes. ‘‘Off you go, sweetie.’’
Amy springs off the sofa with a squeal of delight and dashes into the other room, Suki hot on her heels. Skittering claws. A muffled thump. A tinkling giggle.
Not bad for one ball of string.
Esther grins. ‘‘Should keep them entertained for the next eight hours, at least.’’ She pats his arm. ‘‘My, you were busy.’’
He nods. ‘‘Busy’s good.’’ Then his stomach growls. Oops. Esther’s eyes crinkle.
‘‘Hungry work too, apparently.’’
She grins. Leans in. ‘‘Well, I think all this good work deserves a reward.’’
He follows her to the kitchen, where she pulls out butter, flour, sugar, half a lemon and a jar of dried almonds.
‘‘Turnabout’s fair, sonny,’’ she winks. ‘‘Since you kindly did all that work for me, now I’m going to help you make cookies.’’
Mixing batter turns out to be an exact science, requiring fixed proportions and precise measurements. Focus is good. It calms his mind. Smells really good, too.
When he tries to lick the spoon, Esther grins and swats his elbow with the whisk. ‘‘Craig, you beast! No spoiling the recipe!’’
Turns out, making twelve unsightly vomit-coloured splodges on a baking tray merits a pat on the arm. Who knew. Cookies ready, he follows Esther as she shuffles around the flat, lifting a bowl from a high shelf over the sink, and changing two candle stubs from the small iron chandelier.
While the cookies bake, they snack on finger food. It’s nice, sitting on Esther’s sofa eating sharp cheddar on crackers and drinking thimbles of dry sherry. Cat Suki is at his knee, yowling at the cruelty of having to stand on the floor under her own power while they eat snacks. She soon takes her revenge by climbing his leg, pricking holes in his thigh and rooting around until she nudges under his shirt to press her cold nose against his stomach.
Poor mission. He gently lures her out with cheese, and she sniffs warily at his hand before swiping a piece of cheddar straight off the cracker.
‘‘Suki! You spoiled brat!’’ Esther laughs.
‘‘Mrrr,’’ cat Suki says primly, and chews.
He can’t blame her. Good cheese is no joke. He eats the cracker plain, for solidarity, and Suki purrs her approval.
‘‘The room downstairs. It’s empty.’’
Esther nods. ‘‘The big one with the bay window, yes. Old Mr and Mrs Wilkins, and their family.’’ Her eyes crease fondly. ‘‘Moved out three months ago, back up to Manchester. No-one’s claimed their old rooms, on account of the rent prices.’’ She swats his arm. ‘‘Not until a certain someone put paid to Vince.’’
Yeah, yeah. Whatever.
He clears his throat. ‘‘I was thinking.’’
Esther says nothing. She just sits quiet, and waits.
‘‘Lot of old sheets down there. Bed linen, drapes. Musty, but it looks clean enough. Not soiled or anything.’’
Esther nods encouragingly. ‘‘Go on.’’
He swallows. ‘‘Could I, um…boil some of them? On your stove. An’ mine. They’re for, mm. Emergencies.’’
Esther’s eyes twinkle. ‘‘Of course, Craig! Take as many as you need. I’ll get the pots ready.’’
‘‘And, um. Some needle and thread too. If. If that’s okay.’’
Her eyes twinkle. ‘‘No problem at all.’’ She shuffles over to the drawer, pulls out two fat bobbins of thread with a pair of silver needles. ‘‘Take as many as you need. I’ve got plenty to spare.’’
He tramps down to the first floor room, bundles up the two largest sheets, and carries them back upstairs.
‘‘Hello, Craig!’’ Ollie is grinning in the doorway, Esther pottering about in the room beyond. Then he peers into Craig’s face. His brow furrows. ‘‘Dear me, son, you look run off your feet.’’
Craig shakes his head. ‘‘It’s nothing.’’ Then yawns so hard his jaw cracks. Esther chuckles. Ollie grins.
He smiles sheepishly. His ears feel warm. ‘‘Sorry, ‘m just. Tired.’’
Ollie nods. ‘‘It’s okay, son. Get some rest.’’ Then he lets Ollie steer him towards the dumpy mattress and hand him a blanket. ‘‘Pull that over your head and lie as if one dead.’’
Sprawled in the dust beneath Private Murray’s limp corpse, dark blood dripping into the dirt as a hyena tears into Billy’s innards.
He blinks away the memories. Lies down. Can hear Ollie ease back into the soft armchair and open another book. The crackle and rustle of dry paper. The soft whisper of turning pages.
‘‘What’re you reading.’’
Ollie squints. ‘‘Romance. It’s god-awful. The man’s first wife was in the attic the whole time, but the heroine still wants to marry him anyway.’’
Ollie turns the page. ‘‘Get some rest, son.’’
He can do this. Can slump down on a crunchy bed and follow an order and close his eyes and-
‘‘Hey. Hey, Craig, wake up. Suki wants to see you.’’
FIVE MORE MINUTES
Mission, for shit’s sake, don’t be such a sourpuss.
Craig blinks awake, and finds that he is curled up into the right side dip of the mattress, limbs sprawled out, with a crick in his neck and cold knees. The sky through the windows has faded to a pale blue tint. Swirling motes of dust in a shaft of golden sunlight. Birdsong outside.
What time is it.
‘‘Hope you don’t mind that I let you sleep all morning,’’ Ollie pats his shoulder, ‘‘seemed like you needed it.’’
MISSION ASSIST OLLIE
The clock outside chimes once.
Esther greets him in the hallway, steam billowing out of her doorway. ‘‘Glad you got some rest, dear. Got the sheets all boiled, no trouble.’’
Confirm. She’s great.
He leaves the sheets stretched out to dry in the windows, facing the sun. Knocks on Ollie’s door.
‘‘Could I borrow a book.’’
Ollie ushers him inside. ‘‘Of course, Craig! Come on in. Help yourself.’’ His flat is piled high with books: stacks and stacks of them around the apartment, on every surface and the floor. Books in English. French. German. Even Italian. Craig stares.
‘‘You read all of these?’’
Ollie snorts. ‘‘Certainly not. My book collecting’s mostly aspirational.’’
He likes the look of books. The stories in books stay constant. They are quiet and solid. And can be thrown with great force when needed.
‘‘Oh course I’ll happily lend you some, Craig,’’ Ollie grins, ‘‘what language? What do you like?’’
‘‘English. Don’t know.’’
‘‘…You don’t know what you like to read?’’
Ollie’s scowl is not as impressive as Esther’s. Still pretty frowny, though.
‘‘Romance? Drama? Adventure?’’
Unknown. He shrugs. ‘‘Fiction. No preference.’’
Ollie’s eyes twinkle. ‘‘Ah well. Saves me the task of having to sort through ‘em all.’’
Esther kisses him on the cheek when he steps back into the hallway. ‘‘Thank you for everything, Sergeant.’’ He glances at Ollie, who arches an eyebrow and grins.
‘‘I ain’t kissing you, son, don’t even think of getting your hopes up.’’
Thank Mother Mary. Kissing is off limits. Too much touching.
‘‘Happy reading, Craig,’’ Ollie pats him on the arm.
Acceptable. He pats Ollie’s shoulder. ‘‘Thanks, Ollie.’’
All told, Ollie lends him four books, one showing a man standing too close to rough seas, talking to a skull in his hand.
Another features a boy in a graveyard, kneeling before a headstone. Not a comedy, then. The third depicts a mismatched figure with stitches across his face towering over a cowering man in a white coat. The fourth features a guy in a crown holding a sword and what looks like a massive feather duster, looming over a big city and looking rather smug about it. He’s pretty sure Leviathan is not going to be to his taste.
It is really, really not. There are way too many long words. They make his brow furrow and his teeth ache. The author, Hobbes, whoever the hell he was, certainly has a lot to say about society. Damn know-it-all. So pretentious.
He gives up after nine pages. Leaves it on the floor outside Ollie’s door. Even the book with the animals’ wacky tea party was better.
And the Dickens book is pretty strange. Why are they making so much fuss over a pork pie. Also, an old woman seriously cannot deal with her breakup, so refuses to put her cake in the cupboard. For years. What is her problem.
But Frankenstein is…alright. Only a slim hardback, but the story is calming. The monster seeks redemption for his past terrible misdeeds. Craig feels a twinge of sympathy for it.
Light hardback, easy to punch the spine into an attacker’s throat. Stab at the eyes with the corner.
He swallows down his growling instincts, and turns the next page. Then Hamlet is…not bad. Sure, the guy has some serious issues with his uncle, fine, but then the guy does try and have him murdered. Twice. So yeah, big trust issues there.
Plus, a ghost appeared to the hero. They exchanged words. No-one was pleased by the end of the encounter.
You and me both, kid.
Once the sheets are dry, he cuts them into long strips and winds them tight into bandage rolls. The minutes blend together. Trees rustling outside. Birds singing.
He rolls up the last strip of linen, blinks twice, and finds the sun hanging lower in the western sky, painting the rooftops a warm golden-orange.
Twelve thick bandage rolls scattered on the floor around him. Three fat bobbins of thread. Two jars of aspirin. One of Ollie’s spare burlap sacks.
Good to go.
© 2017 Tom Burton