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Of black widows and dead spiders. by Nick Day.

Chapter one.

It had been a long time since Amber had been out on the heath at such an early
hour. The forecast had been for sunshine and clear skies , accompanied by
temperatures of around 27 , anxiety, paranoia and mild agoraphobia, though
thankfully the feelings she’d anticipated had thus far failed to materialise.
She allowed herself a deep breath, intoxicated by the cool of early
summer. The sun seemed to exist only to soothe the weary, the disheartened, the
broken. The birds appeared to sing only to the melancholy.
Her headache and stiffness had faded, ghosts of a sleepless night,
leaving, in the wake of their haunting, a numbing drowsy fatigue, like a warm
blanket around her.
What the weatherman had failed to convey and what she’d forgotten, was
that mornings such as these were so much greater than the sum of their parts. He’d
been predictably eager, however, to remind her that she ‘needn’t wrap up warm
today’ (like so much baby talk), that it would be ‘colder in the north’ and that
we ‘shouldn’t expect this good weather to last more than a few days’, (these last
two, from his ten commandments)
At 28, although she wore the pallor of self-exile, still she was pretty,
even if she didn’t feel it. Former boyfriends had (to their cost!) described her
as ‘pixie-like’, (barely acceptable) or as having ‘girl-next-door’ looks . The
latter phrase really jarred, an old fashioned expression, misappropriated by the
tabloids and lads’ mags and now residing among phrases such as ‘love rat’, ‘busty
blonde’ , ‘spit roast’ and ‘camel-toe’. She was generally astonished by their
honesty, given a little encouragement .It had been different with Stan. He’d
simply told her ‘you’re beautiful’ and made her believe it.
Her nose-stud remained, though Stan would not have recognised her by her
hair, now ‘deep chestnut,’ if she remembered correctly. She’d not bothered with
make-up, but there were, as expected, few passers-by. Though small in number, they
helped her feel a little safer. She was amused by the recalcitrance of dog or
owner, by the joggers; the older ones trying to run off a mid-life crisis, the
younger ones just running in a new Ipod.

She stopped for a moment, the path stretching before her, snaking away
to the right far in the distance. She adjusted her hair clip, wondering if Stan
would have recognised it as the one she’d worn the last time she’d seen him.
Between then and now, the protracted misery of 103 long days.
She couldn‘t ever remember so much rain falling in one day. There had
been no ‘baby talk’ that day. Mr. Ten commandments had gone all old testament. It
had felt like the end of the world. It was only the eve of it.
More often, towards the end, she’d sense his twitchy discomfort and know
exactly what it preceded. Stan needed to get away for a few days, clear his head.
He had cousins in Bournemouth, he’d murmur, stammering over his words, avoiding
her gaze.
That Wednesday, he’d returned mid-morning from Reg’s, having been coaxed
out for a beer and finding himself too shit-faced to order a taxi home.
The key in the door, the trigger for her tears. She’d endured a wretched
night.
He stood in the doorway in his very own puddle. It was as if it was
actually raining in the hallway. As if the black cloud that had followed him
around for so long had finally burst, shedding its contents on the laminate. His
parka, jeans, loafers a far darker shade than when he’d left. His scruffy
shoulder- length hair had curled in the rain like the coat of a stray dog.
“Is this what it’ll be like when you’re not here any more?” barely
coherent, her words punctuated here and there by deep heaving sobs. .
This is the part she remembers most: His usual reserve gone, throwing
his wet self around her, as if she’d saved him from drowning. She felt his tears,
warm against her cheek. He sobbed quietly at first. Water everywhere. As if a dam
had burst inside him.
They showered, made love and slept for a couple of hours. On awakening,
Amber sensed that the atmosphere in the flat, like the weather, had worsened, they
spent much of the afternoon like characters in a Bergman movie. Staring out
despairingly as the wind howled spitefully, the rain continued its vicious and
relentless assault on the windows and the sky darkened like Stan’s mood.
She returned from the hairdressers on Thursday afternoon hoping to
surprise him. He’d had the same idea. He’d left no note, taken no clothes and as
it soon became clear, there were no such cousins in Bournemouth.
In the days following the assault, they’d lost their home, former lives,
selves and finally each other. A year had passed. She wondered how Stan would mark
this day. Men were hardwired to forget significant annual events, but this would
be different.
Should people send cards with tacky badges on the front? ‘Best victim in
the world!’, or that maggot-ridden chestnut, ‘lucky to be alive!’ Because, of
course, she should be grateful that her life had been spared. A life which, by
implication, she didn’t have the same God-given right as everyone else to own. No.
She’d worn that badge for long enough. She was a survivor and it was that very
thought that had propelled her from her bed at four o’ clock this morning.
Another deep breath. She could smell the wild ramson, hear the birdsong
above the faintest whisper of traffic . She didn’t glimpse beyond the long grass,
the bluebells, the brawny oaks, didn’t see the man stood, twitching in their lea,
his eyes never leaving her.

To her left, lay dense woodland, providing effective cover, she


gathered, for no small amount of dogging, cottaging and general, non-specific
buggery that went largely unpunished. She’d also heard that they still snared
rabbits around here
During a different season, or at a different hour of the day, the woods
could be dark and uninviting, anything but benevolent. Yet today it would yield a
gift. She made a connection, the thought more organic than conscious: wild flowers
-- the savage beauty of life. Bluebells. Her favourite.
She considered it a brave move, walking into the woodland alone.
Especially since she had left the flat in the preceding few weeks only for
essentials (semi-skimmed, Silk cut and chocolate) and yet she wasn’t
congratulating herself. Already she’d wandered further into the woods than she’d
intended, drawn in by a now unconvincing stillness. Every step, taken with a
little more apprehension than the last.
She came to a stop. A childlike irrationality gripped her. That
illogical sense that to go back could do her more harm than good. That whatever
lurked; hiding, watching, that’s how it got its kicks: It didn’t just snatch you
off the path when you least expected it (grown-ups knew otherwise). It fed off
your fear. It wanted only to take you at the peak of your terror. The same
scenario, the same primeval fear, read quite differently from an adult standpoint:
The moment you turned, in blind panic, to flee, whatever, whoever stalked you,
would have to take it’s chance. You were at a massive disadvantage
She’d followed this line of thought for longer than was good for her.
The noise tore through her senses. She stumbled, choking in air. She
recognized immediately the early signs of an anxiety attack and acknowledged its
cruel inevitability.
As she pulled the from her bag, fumbling she felt it tumble from her
grip. Then she realised: it wasn’t her phone that was ringing.
Movement behind her. Flushed, dizzy with fright, she scooped up the
phone. One thought: Run!
Shades of green spun around her, a carousel of twisting, spindly limbs
stretching out to her. Blindly she ran on, staggering, swerving, falling heavily.
Something had snagged on her ankle. The image of a rabbit caught in a snare, too
fresh in her mind. She checked behind. A tree root. Relief. But only momentary.
Pulling herself up onto all fours, she tasted bile, felt the convulsions and knew
she would vomit.
Spittle hung from her chin, her stomach had begun to cramp again, her
muscles began to tighten. She pushed off on a surge of adrenaline which lasted
until she reached the path, crashing headlong into the giant airbag.

The jogger removed his earphones. A pudgy, stocky man in pristine white
shorts and t-shirt with a matching headband. He’d been oblivious to her approach
and she hadn’t seen him until it was too late. He looked as surprised as she did.
Still, luckily, he’d caught her as she bounced off him. After she’d calmed a
little, she told him she’d been startled, spooked and that she felt a bit silly.
She’d dropped her phone (a white lie). Re-assuring her, he said he’d try and find
it. “Glad of a little breather, actually,” he puffed.
She sat for a while, her back against a tree-trunk. This time, it was
her own phone that startled her.
JANE T. (D.I. Turner). She didn’t remember reading in any of those
leaflets from Victim support that receiving news about a potentially dead loved
one was usually a good way out of a panic-attack. Nevertheless, shaking
feverishly, she pushed the green button.

“Hello.” Her voice lower than she’d intended, chest still heaving.
“Hi. Amber?”
“Yes.”
“It’s Jane. D.I. Turner. Listen, are you okay?”
“Fine.”
She continued, clearly unconvinced. “I called round to see you.
Whereabouts are you?”
“The heath.”
“I’m five minutes away. Did you get on at Purliss road end? Do you want
to sit tight?”
A sense of foreboding curled a figure of eight in her stomach. The
conversation, not a minute old had already taken a dire turn. Certain that even in
her present state, she’d not imagined in the subtleties of D.I. Turner’s tone,
professional detachment, calm insistence and a little too much eagerness.
She’d liked Jane from the very start. Although maybe four or five years
older than Amber, she didn’t do the big-sister act like some of the W.P.Cs had.
Not that she’d minded. She’d always wanted a big sister.
It wasn’t that she doubted Jane’s personal integrity But there must come
a point, as a D.I when you needed to pull back a little. To protect yourself.
How well she remembered previous calls. By contrast: “Amber, don’t
panic. Look, if it was bad news, I’d call round in person.” But plan-A had been
badly flawed, placing too great a reliance on Amber’s recent reclusive tendencies.
This was clearly more than a social call. She needed time to compose
herself, regain some dignity. The one-syllable answers weren’t helping to ease
D.I. Turner’s concern.
She took a deep breath. “Can I meet you back at the flat?” It would take
her half an hour “In an hour?”
She was relieved when her friend returned from his search, wearing the
same friendly expression. She hadn’t, it seemed, sent him to an unwitting death
and he had clearly found no-one. He’d probably heard her talking. She’d just
apologise and say she’d found it on the path. But before she could speak, he
raised a flabby arm in triumph and handed her a black phone. Waving briefly he
continued with his run.
A gentle breeze began to stir. Patches of woodland floor grew light,
then dark, the woodland canopy swayed softly, creating patterns that danced over a
shadow in the shape of a man.
His eyes narrowed as the form of Amber receded, the sun at her back, no
longer soothing, but hunched behind sparse cloud, brooding. Threatening to scorch
and sear if she stayed out here for too long.
She’d never been sure how this would all end. She thought she’d imagined
every possible outcome, in the small hours. Until this thought occurred: What if
he’d met someone else? She hoped it would be a nice girl. Someone who wouldn’t
bully him into cutting his hair, who’d be kind and take care of him. Not quite as
pretty as her, of course.
She tried to reconcile the thought with that earlier last cherished
memory of him, in the doorway of their flat. A memory that she’d hoped would help
to nurse her home.
This time the tears were her own, warm on her cheeks.

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