© Stuart Martin
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The second of three short stories with a link.
(The few parts which might seem superfluous are links to the other two stories)
Wanted birthday present (Reworked)
Yvonne Holder absent-mindedly tapped a ‘Rich Roast’ capsule into the palm of her left hand as she surveyed her surroundings. She knew everything was in place, but had to make that final check: four school bags, two lunch boxes, four coats, five pairs of shoes; six pound coins in two piles, and one briefcase. The bread was in the toaster, the bowls and glasses on the table. With a satisfied nod she slid her favourite blue China cup under the spout, slotted the capsule into the coffee machine, and put an all-butter croissant into the already warm oven.
With a wry smile, she pressed the button on a timer. Thirty-five minutes started to count down: thirty-five minutes for herself. This was the sacred time of Yvonne’s day. She had used this early morning period of calm over the last two years to keep her sanity. To remind herself that she was a person, not just a domestic metronome. And, more importantly, despite her husband’s indifference, that she was a woman, a living, breathing, feeling, sensual woman.
With two minutes left on the timer, she closed her magazine, licked the last flakes of croissant off her finger, and took the final sip from her cup. She dabbed her mouth with a tissue as the timer flicked over to one, took a deep breath and prepared herself for the coming tempest.
True to form, as Yvonne made her way upstairs, her husband Jackson was banging around chuntering in their en-suite bathroom. She turned into the first room on the left. "Bryony, time to rise and shine." There was no visible response. She put her hand on the sleeping girl's shoulder and shook gently, raising the volume of her voice markedly, "Bryony. Time to get up."
With a disgruntled sigh and a whole body yawn, Bryony swung herself into a sitting position. "All...Right," adding in a whisper, "for God’s sake."
Yvonne stood in front of her daughter, bending at the knee, forcing her to make eye contact. "Don't be too long in there, and get Kevin up as soon as you're done. Ok?"
"Don't I always?" Yvonne frowned as Bryony mouthed, "nag, nag, nag."
Having sowed the wind Yvonne went down stairs, pressed the lever down on the toaster, and braced herself to reap the whirlwind: she didn't have to wait long. A piercing cry of, “Mum," drew her back to the hallway.
Jackson, oblivious to the sound of a fist hammering on a door fit to smash it, was making his way downstairs. He replied to her chipper, “Good morning,” with a nondescript monotone sound.
Bryony was about to launch another assault on the bathroom door, Yvonne took hold of her wrist. “What’s the problem?”
“That little tomboy has dashed in there before me and won’t come out.”
Yvonne gave a grimace. “Haven’t I told you not to call your sister that?” She gave a tap on the door. “Rachel, what are you doing in there? You know Bryony needs to get ready.”
Rachel, whose arrival into the world was not planned, was the youngest family member by six years. To the frequent irritation of her siblings, that seemed to allow her a degree of latitude they never enjoyed.
Bryony had adopted a posture that demanded action. Yvonne tapped again, louder than the first time. “Rachel, do you hear me?”
“I’m having a poo - it’s stuck halfway out.”
Yvonne took a breath, exhaling without reply, deciding that continuing the conversation wouldn’t help the situation. She turned to Bryony. “Just this once, you use our bathroom. Rachel…You get a wash while you’re in there. As soon as you come out, get Kevin up. Ok?”
There was a hint of glee in the reply, “I’ll get him up, don’t worry.”
Yvonne was well aware that Bryony, Kevin, and Donald, at 17, 16, and 13, should be able to fend for themselves, and made sure that when there were no time constraints they did just that - for breakfast at least. On weekdays however, the whole procedure had to be orchestrated. And the truth was, deep down, she liked being the conductor - feeling needed.
She did a double - double-take as she opened the kitchen door. Jackson was buttering his own toast, and the grey flecks in his hair were suddenly black again. “In a hurry? And what’s with the hair colour? I’m the one who’s forty in three days.”
“Yes I am. And every little helps when you are going for promotion. I told you I’m up against some young graduate types.” Jackson was drawing himself up to his full five-foot-eleven, sucking in and tensing his stomach at the same time.
“Stop worrying, experience counts for something too. And anyway, you look pretty good for forty-five.” Yvonne didn’t try to kid herself, she was shamelessly fishing. She gave him a subtle smile: careful not to emphasise her facial lines. Jackson folded over his toast and took a bite; there was no return compliment.
The sound of a carthorse in hob-nail boots coming down the stairs at a gallop was followed by Rachel bursting through the door. Her mop of curly hair took a couple of seconds to come to rest as she folded her arms on the kitchen counter, grinning up at her father. “Are you going to be on telly again today, Dad?”
Bryony, who had followed in Rachel's wake, rolled her eyes as she flopped down onto a chair. "Duuuuuuhhh. Dad was never on TV. It was some old guy who stole his ticket and used his name. Remember?" She shielded her mouth as she added, "You little brain donor."
Yvonne, who was busily distributing cereal, toast and drinks, shot Bryony a stare. "I heard that, young lady."
Rachel was bouncing on the spot; there was a hint of mischief in her next question. "Will the police come for you again, Dad?"
Jackson cleared his throat, looking a little sheepish as he edged towards the door. "No. It was just about the theft - it’s all cleared up now, finished." He snatched up his briefcase and made a B-line for the front door. "Goodbye, everybody, see you tonight," then looked directly at Yvonne, "might be late." Before she could respond he was gone. She heaved a sigh and went back to her multi-tasking.
Thirty eight minutes of organising, cajoling, peacekeeping, threatening, and skirt length debate followed. After which, Bryony and Kevin launched into their day: Bryony updating her Facebook status on the hoof.
Donald's eyes were almost closed; one elbow on the table supporting his chin on the palm of his hand. The sharp tone in Yvonne's voice brought him round with a start. "Donald, don't forget you are walking Rachel to school today, I have to go and see to your nanna - so you better get a move on."
He grimaced as Rachel gave him a Cheshire cat style grin, showing her braces. "When will she be old enough to go on her own?"
Yvonne held the door to the hallway open. "Stop whinging and get a move on please." She slotted the last few dishes into the dishwasher as Donald and Rachel put on coats and shoes, then joined them in the hallway.
Rachel was ready to go, standing on the second step bouncing slightly. She leaned in close to her mum's ear. "I know what daddy got you for your birthday." The information was almost bursting out of her. "It's red. And you wear it." Her eyes twinkled.
Yvonne held up both hands, palms out. "Don't tell me anymore young lady. I like surprises."
A loud thud was followed by the sound of breaking glass. The strap on Donald's school bag had snapped as he threw it onto his shoulder, toppling a vase on its way to the floor.
Yvonne thought for just over three seconds then clicked into action, looking from Rachel to Donald as she spoke. "Don’t take your shoes off, and don't touch any of this glass." She returned to the kitchen and gestured them to follow. "Donald, empty your bag. I think there's a couple of old ones in the garage, I'll go and get one."
The garage was not a place Yvonne ever went out of choice. She hated spiders, she hated dust, and she hated clutter. The garage had all three in abundance, and hadn’t had room for a car in over three years. She located a suitable bag and was wiping it with a wad of damp kitchen roll, when she noticed one of the suitcases kept in there had been opened recently. She could see fresh finger marks around the clasps in the layer of dust: that was odd.
Back in the house, she swept the broken glass and dried flowers into a pile while Donald loaded the replacement bag.
Rachel skipped along as Donald navigated the garden path without looking up from his mobile. Yvonne shouted after him, “Turn that off before you go into school. If it’s confiscated again you lose it for a month.” It was almost certain the remark fell on deaf ears, but she felt better for trying.
By the time she had finished dealing with the broken vase, curiosity had the better of her; she had to look in that case.
She shuddered, brushing cobwebs from her face as she picked her way through the clutter to the case. The clasps unlatched, she gingerly lifted the lid. Inside was a large white box. It had a red silk bow on the lid and ‘Sophie Istacate’, embossed in gold letters. She took a deep breath, snatched up the box and hurried upstairs.
She exhaled with a gasp as she placed the box on the bed. Istacate’s - she had never dared go in and ask the price, let alone buy a dress from there. With slightly trembling hands she removed the lid, the way an Egyptologist might open a newly found casket.
Her breathing was shallow and there was a strange feeling in her stomach as she picked up the red silk dress from the box. She gazed at it open mouthed for a few seconds before laying it on the bed. In the bottom of the box was a colour co-ordinated, lacy, almost sheer bra and shorts set. And the finishing touch, a pair of natural tone hold-up stockings with a thin red ribbon woven into the tops.
She took a step back, clasping her left hand over her mouth, thinking how strange that time had changed her way of thinking. Fifteen years ago she would have thought a sexy red cocktail dress, with matching ‘fuck me’ underwear, was an act of selfishness on Jackson’s part, more a present for himself. But now, the ensemble laid out before her had breathed life into her belief in their relationship. A tingle rippled through her body; just thinking about wearing it made her feel sexy.
Might have to change it, it was a twelve. She hadn’t been able to find a twelve generous enough to squeeze into for over a year, but Jackson wouldn’t know that. As she stroked the back of her fingers over the material, tracing the line of the mid-thigh length split, she spied the clock in her peripheral vision. “The witch!”
Yvonne was running late, but hadn’t rushed putting the dress back as she found it. She surveyed her cul-de-sac of twelve identical detached houses as she started her little hatchback. It suddenly seemed a less depressing place.
After the short drive to Windmill road, Ealing, she parked a little way past her mother-in-law’s house, having bypassed a few spaces which would have required her to reverse.
As she approached the door she smiled and gave voice to her thoughts, “You won’t get to me today, you old witch.” She turned her key in the latch, pushing the door open. “Doreen. It’s Yvonne. I’ve come to get your washing and things.”
“Who is it?”
“It’s Yvonne. Just come to do a few things for you.” Perhaps it was paranoia, but the frail, benign looking, grey haired old woman, sitting in her high back chair, added a touch of venom to every sentence she uttered.
“Yvonne. You know the home help has been. I don’t need anything.” She grimaced, “Jackson could have taken the washing when he calls tonight.”
“The home helps don’t have time to do much, they are on a tight schedule. And, as I told you on Monday, Jackson won’t be coming tonight.”
“Not coming! Have you told him to stay away?”
Yvonne flitted from room to room, busying herself with various tasks as their conversation took on a familiar pattern. Doreen, being a little deaf, always spoke loud enough to be heard in the next house, and did most of the talking. Yvonne made the odd contribution as she passed, adding a few replies out of earshot. “He’s not coming because he has his promotion interviews this week.”
“Promotion - ‘phuu’. He would have been an executive by now if you hadn’t kept getting pregnant.”
Yvonne forced her face into a smile as she passed. “As I’ve said before it was a joint decision - we were both involved.”
“Both involved! Jackson was soft on you, besotted, couldn’t say no when you were desperate for babies. You think I wasn’t desperate for a child? I waited until I was thirty-three to have Jackson. That was a risk to my own health in those days. But I didn’t want to hold my Arthur back.”
Yvonne scanned the tired décor in the hallway as she pushed clothes into a large plastic bag. “Was it worth it?”
Doreen carried on, oblivious to Yvonne’s last remark. “I did everything I could to push my Arthur as high as he could go.”
Yvonne smiled at the old woman through the open door, whispering through gritted teeth, “Pushed him into an early grave.”
“But I wasn’t selfish - didn’t always put myself first. But, I suppose that’s the way modern women do things.”
Yvonne’s eyes narrowed, her teeth grinding together. A moment later a contented smile was back on her face as she reminded herself, ‘not today you old witch. Not today.’
Percival Lodge looked up at the clock through his thick bifocals, then reproachfully at Jackson Holder, who had just slithered into position at his desk. “You are flying very close to the sun, Jackson. No pun intended, but Sanders will fry you the first chance he gets.”
“Does he know I’m late?”
“No. I covered your arse. Again. But if he hadn’t been distracted by the interviews, he would have noticed by now.” Lodge gave a nod towards the clock, which displayed 10:45.
“Thanks, Percy. How did your first interview go?”
“You had it spot on, waste - of - time. I was in and out. The first graduate has been in there over an hour. You were right not to apply, it’s a fix.” Jackson took some papers from his briefcase, spread them out on his desk and started working on his computer. Lodge shook his head as he gave him a sideways glance. “I’m guessing from the stupid grin on your face it was another early morning visit to HM Natalia - am I right?”
Jackson answered with a smug smile and a nod, then asked, “What do you mean HM? Natalia doesn’t put on any airs.”
“High - maintenance. That girl will bleed you dry, don’t delude yourself about that. And besides, your Von is still a looker. I don’t understand you, I really don’t.”
Jackson slumped back in his chair. “Yvonne lost interest years ago: always tired, never makes an effort. Sometimes I get the feeling she would like separate bedrooms. I tell you, Percy, until Natalia, I thought real sex was over for me.”
“You know, sex with kisses so sensual they give you an instant hard-on. With deliciously soft caresses. With.”
“All-right!” Lodge cut him off, “I get it. That’s too much information. And I still think you’re crazy to risk all you have.”
“You wouldn’t say that if you saw Nat’s tits - they are to-die-for.” Jackson was gently spinning his chair, biting the end of his pen, a salacious grin on his face.
Lodge rolled his eyes. “Jesus, Jackson, has every one of your brain cells migrated to your prick? You know she probably has a pimp telling her to pump you for expensive gifts.” Jackson stopped spinning, turning his attention to his screen. Lodge prodded him in the shoulder with his pen. “Oh yea, I see that touched a nerve.”
“I would nev,” he lowered his voice as heads turned, “never leave Yvonne and the kids. But Natalia! She gives me feelings I can’t give up.”
“Well, that’s even more reason to get your act together because if you lose this job, she will be gone like a snowball in the Sahara. And you’ll be royally shafted.”
Eleventh of November. Yvonne’s fortieth birthday
Jackson had made his usual token effort: getting up first and attempting to organise the morning’s proceedings. Yvonne lay in bed for a while listening to the chaos and watching the clock. Monday was one of the days she helped out with administration at the local hospice. She couldn’t hold back any longer: in one movement she jumped out of bed and pulled on her dressing gown. If she was going to have time to open cards, and more importantly presents, she was going to have to take charge. In just fifteen minutes she had the Holder morning operation back on schedule.
Yvonne managed to look even more pleased than normal with the usual mix of perfume, earrings, and music from her three eldest. Then there was the standard large box of chocolates from Rachel, who was resting her chin on the box making an ‘Mmmmmm,’ sound.
“Go on then, open the box and pass them round.” Rachel had the box open by the ‘p’ of pass. Even the sarcastic, age-related humour of her cards couldn’t dampen Yvonne’s spirits as she waited for Jackson’s gift.
Sticking to the same routine he had used for more years than she could remember, Jackson produced a package and card from behind the sofa, smiling as he said, “Thought I’d forgotten, didn’t you?”
Yvonne smiled back, thinking why take it out of the box and wrap it? Then again, it was Jackson. “Thank you, darling.” She opened the card first - as usual, a little too florid for her taste. “Sweet. Thank you.” She puckered up and gave him a peck on the cheek. Her fingers caressed the package as she gave the clock a deliberate stare. “Bryony, Kevin, Donald, you better get sorted or you’ll all be late. And you, young lady,” she ruffled Rachel’s hair, “better get that chocolate cleaned off your face.”
As soon as she parted the metallic red gift wrap, disappointment formed a solid mass in her chest. By the time she had fully unwrapped the thick, red, chenille round-necked jumper, she could barely breathe. Questions whirled in her mind as she looked at Jackson open-mouthed.
He held up the jumper by the shoulders. “Do you like it? It’s a fourteen. You can change it if it’s too small.”
Repressed rage released adrenalin, giving Yvonne the strength to haul the weight inside her upstairs. “I have to use the bathroom.”
Jackson picked up his coat. “I’ll have to go now. See you tonight, bye.” Yvonne did not reply.
Standing in front of the bathroom mirror, Yvonne struggled to catch her breath through tears and mucus.
The lines on her face and the bags under her eyes suddenly seemed more pronounced. Her shoulder length brown hair had lost its shine, every split end seemingly on display.
Yvonne knew she was no supermodel, she had come to hate her growing stomach, but still thought herself attractive. It was now obvious how Jackson saw her.
Now, surveying the person looking back at her, she could understand why.
Eight days later
Jackson looked anxiously at his dashboard clock. 19:12. frantically he sent another text:- Y r u being like this? U know I can’t leave because of the kids. Sorting a weekend away soon. U know I want to be with u. Just don’t contact Yvonne. Contact me to say u won’t. J. XXX
The clock flicked over to 19:30. There had been no reply.
Jackson opened the front door and called to Kevin, “Tell mum I’ve had to go back to work. Shouldn’t be long.”
Kevin stopped buttering a slice of bread and looked up, pointing in the direction of the drive with the knife. “Note the absence of the banger - mum isn’t back yet.”
Jackson glanced at the empty driveway, “Ok, no need to be clever. Just tell her when she does get back. Ok?”
Kevin started buttering again. “Sure thing, Daddy-o.”
Fifty minutes later, Yvonne struggled into the hallway with three large bags. “I’m home. Decided to do a mini shop, then got stuck in a jam. Three car shunt I think.”
Kevin was putting on a jacket as he came downstairs. He kissed her on the forehead. “Appreciate the effort as always, Mum. Now then, Bryony is out: who knows where? Don has gone to football - he’s having tea at Jake’s. I’ve had one of my special butties, and I am going on a date.” He smiled and raised his eyebrows. “I’ve helped the menace with her homework, but she wanted to wait for you to do her tea. ‘Oh’ and dad had to go back to work. Said he wouldn’t be long.”
Kevin was halfway through the door as she called out, “I love you. You know that don’t, you?”
He screwed up his nose a little. “Mum... Don’t spoil my vibe.”
Rachel flopped down into a chair: arms folded; mouth in an inverted smile. “All my friends stay up later than this. And dad isn’t even back yet.”
There was the hint of a cry in Yvonne’s reply. “I don’t care what time your friends go to bed. And I have no idea when your father will get home.” The emotion in her voice worked better than any chastisement and Rachel plodded upstairs.
As Yvonne watched Rachel into the bathroom the doorbell rang. She took in a sharp breath as the figure on the other side removed a cap.
A police sergeant held out his warrant card as he addressed her. “Mrs Holder? Mrs Yvonne Holder?”
“Yes, what’s wrong? Is it Bryony, is she all right?”
“Please calm yourself, Mrs Holder. There has been an incident involving your husband, Jackson Holder.”
“He’s had an accident! He’s hurt?”
“He is quite safe. But it would be better if you were to accompany us to the station. We can explain everything there.”
“The station. B-b-but?” She looked up at Rachel, who was peering over the bannister.
The sergeant moved aside and two policewomen stepped forward. “Don’t worry about that, Mrs Holder. PC Webb and PC Burrows will stay and take care of things here. It really would be for the best.”
Hounslow Central Police Station
In the visitors’ suite Yvonne sat, hands resting on her lap, gazing into the distance. For forty-five minutes she had refused all offers of drinks, and stifled the attempts of a young PC to engage her in small talk. A sergeant entered the room and stood in front of her in the at-ease position. “Mrs Yvonne Holder?”
Yvonne looked up at him. “Yes.”
“Mrs Holder, I am sorry to inform you that your husband, Jackson Holder, has been charged with murder.”
Yvonne clasped a hand to her chest. “Murder - there must be some mistake.”
“No mistake, Ma’am…If you would follow me, the duty solicitor provided for your husband will give you more details.” He offered a hand to help her stand.
The sergeant held the door of an interview room open. He put his hand on Yvonne’s shoulder as she entered. “You won’t have to face this alone. We will put you in touch with organisations who can help.”
A rotund man who was sitting at a table rose a few inches out of his chair as she entered. He slumped down onto his seat and held out his hand. “Tony Drew, duty solicitor.”
Yvonne touched his hand and lowered herself onto a chair. “Mr Drew.” She rested her hands on her legs and breathed slowly.
Drew checked his watch. “Mrs Holder, your husband intends to engage his own representation. However, he’s asked me to appraise you of the current situation, and there really is no way to sugar coat it.” He broke off to read a message on his phone.
“Please go on, Mr Drew.”
His eyes lingered on the phone as he slowly returned it to his pocket. He cleared his throat before continuing, “Your husband wanted me to tell you one thing above everything else. He insists that he did not kill, or harm anyone…This won’t be easy for you to hear, Mrs Holder. He does admit to having a relationship with the victim, a twenty-four-year-old Romanian woman.” Yvonne remained impassive, controlling her breathing. Drew shook his head. “Mrs Holder, your husband has been placed at the crime scene by an eye witness, he had blood on his hands and clothes. He doesn’t deny that, he says the victim was dead when he found her. The police also found the victim’s mobile in his briefcase - that mobile was used to send him a text threatening to tell you about their affair. He says he doesn’t know how it got there.”
“I know Jackson, he couldn’t kill anyone.”
“You know him, the jury won’t. The truth is, if nothing turns up to support your husband’s version of events, twelve angry conspiracy theorists wouldn’t acquit him. I’ve told him the same thing. He knows that a trial would be traumatic for you and your family, and I think that despite maintaining his innocence he is considering pleading guilty to spare you that.”
“Thinking of others…He’s picked a strange time to try something new.”
Yvonne took an information folder from the sergeant and clasped it to her chest. “Could you arrange for someone to visit Jackson’s mother and tell her what has happened?”
“If you give us her address I’ll send someone tomorrow.”
“Thank you…She is a little deaf, it would be best to tell her everything twice.”
Four months later - Pentonville Prison - visiting day
A prison guard, eyes flitting from left to right, walked up and down between two rows of tables and chairs. Four men, wearing bright orange bibs, were already in conversation with their visitors. Jackson Holder, who was looking down nervously rubbing his left forearm, jerked up with a start as Yvonne took the seat opposite. “Thank god you’ve come.” He tentatively reached out. “I thought you never wanted to see me again.”
Yvonne edged her chair back a little, clasping the lapels of her coat together with her right hand. “You are still the father of our children.”
He slowly withdrew his hand. “Yvonne. You know me. You know I could never kill anyone. I know I pleaded guilty…My brief said anything else would be futile with the evidence they had. And I didn’t want to put you and the kids through a trial. But I didn’t do it.”
Twitching with emotion, Yvonne leaned forward. She gripped the coat so tightly her knuckles were almost white. “You mean murder - that - girl?”
“Yes. I swear she was dead when I got there. They never produced their eyewitness, the one who reported me leaving, did they?”
“But you don’t deny having sex with her on a regular basis.” Jackson was crestfallen. “You don’t deny spending our, mine and the kids’, money, to keep her knickers mobile.” She sat back, her eyes watery. “We were supposed to be a team for life. You threw all that away following your dick.”
“I would never have left you and the kids.”
“So if I’d gone out, got a toy-boy with a dick twice the size of yours, which wouldn’t be difficult, you would be ok with that? As long as I wasn’t going to leave you?”
He looked down shaking his head. “I never stopped loving you.” His voice faded to a whisper as he added, “And I didn’t kill her.”
“I believe you.” Jackson looked up as she continued, “And, after a lot of soul searching, I have decided to wait for you.”
“Thank you. You don’t know what that means to me.” He reached out again.
Yvonne did not respond, continuing to clutch her lapels together. “I’m afraid I have some bad news - for you at least. Your mother took a turn for the worse and died last night. She never got over the shock.” Jackson sunk his head into his hands.
Yvonne released her coat as she stood up. “But every cloud has a silver lining. She left the kids a nice trust fund - made sure I couldn’t touch it.” Jackson looked bemused. “Oh, and on a personal note, I dropped a dress size.” She parted her coat, moved her hands to the split in her red silk dress and adjusted the top of her hold-up stockings. Jackson’s pupils ballooned; a gift tag - To Nat love J - hung from the neck: he stared dumbstruck. “The good thing about this colour is it doesn’t show blood spots.” She flung the coat on the table and hissed, “As I said - I’ll be waiting for you.” Jackson’s throat contracted as she walked out with a confident sway of the hips, drawing the gaze of every man in the room. THE END?