|Vast: A Novel
Ch. XX: Discovery
by Nicolas Travers ©
Jane Vast is reasonably content as she drives home on Sunday evening. She has had a long talk with her father, and is fairly confident that she has papered over the last of the row over Sarah's holiday trip money, though she is fairly certain that it will resurface in isolated grumbles for several years to come, and very possibly forever. She has also managed to convince Jack Wise that Colin is now on a roll, with much improved prospects, and that better times ahead can generate a matching improvement in Vast family matters, though she has also promised to keep her father closely posted on developments.
Sarah has also behaved herself pretty well, considering. She has helped her grandmother bake a cake, and set the table for tea all on her own - no mean feat for a teenage girl totally foreign to any kind of domestic chore in her own home - and has been as sweet as apple pie to her grandfather.
And so Jane's world is at peace, and the road home to Windsor is not very busy, and she thinks that she might well cook Colin up something rather interesting for his supper - if he has not already eaten - for she knows very well that he tends to work himself up into a passion of introversion when he has a big feature to write, and could well, as she drives home, be starving himself, and this consciousness of his need for her as a chef, and a home-maker, and a basic support in life, warms her heart.
She briefs Sarah to be equally solicitous as she parks in front of their home. There are no lights on in the house, but it is not significant, for it it is only just a little after nine, and Colin is probably hard at work in his small upstairs study.
"Be careful not to make too much row when you get into the house, darling, he's probably hard at it." She smiles at Sarah to show that she speaks in advice, rather than reproof.
Sarah makes a face. She is fast discovering that men are a pain. But she is also tired: she will get her books ready for Monday school, and then she will sleep.
Jane is locking the Renault when she realises that Sarah, instead of vanishing into the house, is standing waiting for her on the doorstep, holding something in her hand. A coldness, a kind of chill, stabs into her, for something about Sarah's stance, some body language signal, suggests that something has gone dreadfully wrong.
"What's up, darling?"
She can see now that Sarah is holding a sheet of paper, and that her daughter is weeping silently, her face crumpled and red and streaked with tears.
Sarah holds the sheet of paper out to her without speaking, and Jane scans it quickly, and the chill inside her turns to ice. She reads the paper again, and Colin's handwriting is a blur, and she realises that she is crying as well.
A curious pedestrian passing the house stops to stare at them, and Jane manages to pull herself together enough to shepherd Sarah into the house and close the front door behind her.
The light on the telephone answering machine is flashing, and Sarah heads for it instinctively.
Jane's bright message sings out first, but then a babble of voices bursts from the machine. "Sarah? Sarah Vast?" The voices are girl's voices, and muffled, but also plainly malevolent. "Your dad's been having it away with Dotty Sorrow, this afternoon, up on the factory roof, where the hut is. We saw it, Sarah, they were bonking together, with nothing on." A howl of distorted laughter follows, and it is a sound from hell, before the machine cuts out.
Jane and Sarah stand looking at the machine, smug and neat in its technological anonymity, and then mother looks at daughter, and her face is streaked with eyeshow from her tears, and drawn, and haggard.
"Who are they? What are talking about?" Her voice is little more than a whisper.
Sarah crumples into an armchair, now weeping openly, her shoulders heaving and shaking with her feeling.
Jane feels a moment of pity, but she must probe this nightmare, if she is to understand, and make some response. She stares down at Sarah, repeating her questions.
Sarah shakes her head, curling herself into the chair.
Jane's temper snaps. She reaches down into the chair, fastening her hand into her daughter's hair, and pulls hard, forcing Sarah's face up. "Tell me, who they are, what they mean." Her voice fires her words in hard machinegun bursts, rising hysterically.
Sarah stares at her, wild-eyed. "They're girls from school. I don't know who, but they must be. They say they saw Dad with a girl, in the deserted factory next to the convent. There's a hut on the roof, where some of them go to smoke, and do drugs, and have boys."
"Your father?" Jane's voice is tinged with rejection and disbelief. She cannot, she will not, accept this obscenity.
"Yes." Sarah's voice is flat, and adamant.
Jane mops at her eyes. The world of reality has abandoned her, and she is locked into a nightmare zone of hatred and deceit. Her mind spins and spins, like some mad roulette wheel, trying to make sense of what she has heard, but nothing will stop, and stand still, and allow recognition.
"They said they were naked." She must repeat the allegations to deal with them, even though they are repellent.
Sarah nods mutely. She is past understanding. Her father is her father, a father, a man going to work most of the day, and coming home in the evenings, dull, and duly predictable, and generally reliable. But now he is a man chasing a girl of her own age and lying with her in a grubby hideout on a deserted factory roof, and it is all wrong, and she cannot take it in, and she wants so much for it all to be a bad dream.
"They said there was somebody else, and he was having sex with her." Jane forces out her words, seeking to excise an evil now tearing and scratching and burning her mind like a crown of poisoned thorns.
Sarah is silent.
"They mentioned a girl's name." She stares at her daughter, and it is almost an accusation, for she is certain that Sarah is concealing something from her. Sarah does not reply, and she reaches out towards her daughter's hair again.
"It's a girl called Dorothy Sorrow." Sarah's voice is halting. "She lives just up the road from here. She's about fifteen, and she's got a cat."
Jane listens, and hears, and a parade of memories sours her mind as she pictures Angela Scolding sneering at her in this very room, and Colin talking at the church fete to a girl in a white swagger coat, and her whole being is reft by a scream that wells up from somewhere deep, deep inside her, and she stands with her hands by her side, and screams until she has no strength to scream any more, and no more space for pain, and she can only stare blindly in front of her, broken, and silent, and drowning in her despair.
However somehow, later, much later, she manages to regain control of herself. Sarah is now asleep, crumpled up in her chair, and Jane's head has started to throb with the onset of a migraine, but a cold determination is also beginning to suffuse her.
Life will not stop just because Colin has bolted: things must be done, and countermeasures put in place. She must speak with her father, and do something about Sarah's school, she must get away from Windsor, and escape, until she can face calamity more bravely. But each new thought also drives a knifeblade deep into Jane's heart, for she can already picture her father listening to her woes with a touch of smug satisfaction, and hear syrupy sympathy from Sarah's headmistress, though perhaps illness might provide a pretext, and she is certain that she will never, ever, be able to face any of her friends again.
She glances at her watch. It is nearly midnight, and the whole world is asleep. For a moment Colin flashes into her mind, and the girl, and the humiliation of the girl's youthfulness makes her want to scream again. But noise will serve no purpose, and a bitter voice in her mind tells her that humiliation may also provide a vengeance, for the girl's age may be a matter for the police, and she is certain that her father will know how best to exact retribution. For a moment she also thinks of waking Sarah. But waking will only trigger fresh misery, so she climbs to Sarah's room, bundles up her duvet, and returns to the drawingroom to make her daughter as comfortable as she can.
Now the pain in Jane's head is fixed in a steady, driving rhythm. She scouts in the kitchen for a remedy, but the familiar setting conjures up a picture of Colin seated at the table eating a meal, and she has to sit, to regain her composure.
A bottle of whisky standing by the kitchen sink catches her eye, and she pours herself half a wine glass, and swallows most of it in a gulp. The drink burns her throat, making her cough. But it is also a consolation, blurring her misery and pain, and after a moment she drains the glass, refills it, and swallows again, and the pain in her head retreats a little more. The bottle still holds enough to fill a glass, and she fills and drains it quickly, because she is not a drinking woman. But the alcohol does calm her, and finally she is able to unwind a little, and she dozes fitfully, resting her head on her hands.
She sleeps until just before dawn, and wakes uncomfortably, wincing at a pain in her head that now feels as though some satanic musician is using it as a kettledrum. But she can cope, just about, and she fills a kettle to brew a pot of coffee.
It is Monday, and everything must be resolved, and she reviews her plans. She decides to ring her father just after seven, it will be an emergency call, and she can count on sympathy quickly swamping his irritation. He will want to come rushing to her rescue, but he will also have to tell her mother, who will insist on coming as well - and for a moment this certainty of parental support counts as a brief relief - and they will probably take a good hour to an hour and a half to arrive.
The delay will give her a chance to make breakfast, and prepare a form of words for Sarah's headmistress - she will have to plead a virus of some kind, something infectious, glandular fever, or possibly suspected mumps, but definitely something capable of triggering fear, and Sarah will have to leave, and start afresh somewhere else, and the thought makes tears well up in Jane's eyes, for they will both have to start afresh, and build themselves a new life, and she knows with a chilling certainty that it will not be easy for them.
The kettle boils, and she fills a cafetiere, and sips at a mug of coffee, and it is fresh, and hot, and helps to ease the pain in her head. But her heart remains icy. She will have money, of course - Colin's note about signing everything over to her makes that clear, providing he can be kept to his word. Here Jane's progression of certainties stumbles momentarily, for while she knows her husband well, or thought to know him well before this madness, she wonders whether she can now count on anything for the future, as long as he is subject to some teenage tart.
She will also have morality on her side, and will be able to count on her father's skills as a solicitor. But she will be on her own, and will have to manage Sarah on her own, in a world where middle-aged loneliness may very well grow into a very particular hell - for Jane knows a number of middle-aged divorcées - and will have to face the prospect of growing increasingly embittered, and she rests her head on her hands again, and weeps softly, for fear of waking Sarah, and her heart is swollen with a grief fit to make it break, for her whole life is unraveling before her eyes.
A long ringing sound disturbs her misery. Somebody is at the front door, and for a moment Jane's heart leaps within her - she has a vision of Colin, abjectly repentant, standing in the road, perhaps with a bunch of flowers as peace-offering - and she gets to her feet and wipes at her eyes to try and dispel some of her exhaustion.
She hears Sarah's voice, and her daughter calling. A stranger is standing in the doorway, a fairhaired girl of about eighteen, and for another moment Jane wonders if Colin's friend has come to beg her forgiveness. But it is not the girl from the Church Guild fete.
Sarah turns towards her mother, and her face is hard with hostility. "Mum, it's the girl's sister. She says she has to speak to you."
Jane stares at the girl in the doorway.
"I'm sorry, it's important for you to know." The girl is plainly distraught. "It's about my sister."
Jane musters her courage and her dignity. "I know about your sister."
"No, you don't." The girl's contradiction is almost hysterical. "He's strangled Prince, and he'll strangle her as well, if he finds her."
Jane and Sarah are baffled.
"It's the man living with our mum. Dorothy took his case, the one he keeps hidden all the time, he had money in it, and drugs. She nicked it, when she went off with..." Alexandra Sorrow's voice breaks - she cannot bring herself to name Dorothy's companion. But she is afraid of Weiss, and what he might be planning, and it is a warning that she must pass on, even though she is speaking to two faces etched in the most implacable granite. "He says he's going to kill her, and he'll probably try to kill your husband as well, if he gets hold of him."
Jane puts her hand on the door. She has enough to cope with, and more, and she has no room for this apparition in her life. Her face is stern. "Go and tell the police, if you think your sister is at risk."
The two women are face to face, and very close. Suddenly Jane steps back, and slams the door, shutting the girl out of her life, and her action locks an unbreachable wall between them.
Alexandra Sorrow turns away in tears, and it is almost as though she is bidding her sister farewell. For now she must make good her own escape. Weiss is in a murderous mood - first strangling Dorothy's kitten, and dumping its corpse on her bed, within minutes of discovering his loss, and then turning the whole house upside down, cursing and swearing the whole time like a madman - and she fears that, failing Dorothy, he may well seek another target.
She has already left home, and spent an anxious night with Jason's parents. But Weiss is a vicious man, and knows where she works, and she fears that she may have to leave Windsor altogether, and fears even more for her sister. Poor impulsive Dot, piling rashness on rashness, running away with a man she barely knows, married, and old enough to be her father, and then thieving into the bargain - she has crafted a formula for disaster, playing with fire, and now she must face her own consequences, and her own judgement.
Jane leads Sarah back into the kitchen. She is too full of fury, and grief, to speak, and for a moment mother and daughter sit together in silence.
Sarah looks at her watch. It is now time for her to leave the house, and walk to school. But she knows that she cannot face the ordeal, and her eyes plead in their tear-stained puffiness.
"No, you don't have to go." Jane shakes her head wearily in answer to her daughter's unspoken question. "I'll ring up in a minute and say you're ill."
But it is only a postponement, and Sarah knows that mocking voices will be patiently waiting for her to return.
"I can't be ill for ever."
"I know, darling." Jane sighs, for her daughter's problems only mirror her own. "We'll have to sell up, and go and live somewhere else."
The telephone starts to ring. Sarah half rises as though to go and answer it, and then falls back in her chair, her eyes set wide with fear.
Jane gets up wearily. She feels as though she has been on her feet for ever and an age, and she is no mood to speak to anyone at all. She lifts the handset, and it is Moira Saintly, the vicar's wife, and she swears under her breath.
Moira Saintly sounds strained. "I'm sorry to bother you, Jane, dear, but I've had Angela Scolding on the phone, saying dreadful things about your husband."
Jane grits her teeth, and holds the handset in silence for a moment, and then drops it back onto its rest as a small electronic voice calls at her anxiously. It is time to speak to her father: her life is disintegrating around her, and she cannot cope with any more intrusions.
To Be Continued...
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