SECOND PRIZE
The Girl Who Came to Stay
by Richard Bleksley

'Well, Becky,' Elena says, 'How's it feel, now you're going to see DI Andrea Nicholson on the screen?'

I do not enjoy London. After ten years away from it, the place is an alien environment, dwarfing and oppressing me with its vastness and bustle. Normally nothing would possess me to travel two hundred miles and more here just to have lunch, but when your agent summons you to discuss a proposal to dramatise one of your novels for television, how can you refuse?

'Bit like an expectant mother,' I say. As if I'd know. 'Excited, and apprehensive. Wondering how she'll turn out. If she'll be anything like the way I see her.'

'They're offering full participation and consultation,' Elena says. 'It's a good deal, Becky. I'm so pleased for you. I love Andrea. She's something special. The caring face of police procedurals. The thinking woman's detective.'

Lifting another forkful to my mouth, I smile across the table. 'Thank you. That's good to hear.' Especially because I was hoping, back when I started on the first Andrea Nicholson novel, there'd be room in the market for a different slant on the detective story, a more humane angle. Seems I was right. Six novels now and still going strong. Getting yourself involved in a crime series, a schedule of a novel a year, can be a bit of a treadmill, but at least the income's about as steady as it gets for a novelist, and moments like this make it worthwhile. The wine, a nice fruity Côtes du Rhone, hasn't done my mood any harm either. Nor does the sort of money Elena's talking about. Just when I might be needing it.

Outside in the street the air is heavy with exhaust fumes. A convoy of buses rumbles past, and pedestrians hurry along the pavement in an endless flow, faces closed and intent. They don't look like they're taking much joy in life. Where are they all going, and what's the rush? They remind me of ants. All that scurrying about when you disturb a nest of the little buggers.

Just after we've hugged goodbye, Elena turns back. 'Oh, nearly forgot. Been thinking of you. This Susannah Everett business. Just the sort of case Andrea might get involved in, I thought.'

'Susannah Everett? Who's she?'

'Don't you follow the news at all?'

'I try to ignore it as much as I can.' What's the point of finding a place to live where you can get away from all the shit that goes on in the world, if you're going to let it in?

Elena rolls her eyes. 'Honestly. You're a right hermit, aren't you? Hiding yourself away out there in the sticks, it beats me where you get your ideas from.'

Elena and I have a rather off-beat relationship. She can't understand why anyone would choose to live in a place where nothing ever happens, thinks I'm a little touched, and tends to treat me as if I were an errant but lovable child. Maybe ten years older than her and quite happy to be who I am, knowing I really would go round the twist if I tried to live her high-power urban lifestyle, I find her attitude quietly amusing. But she loves my writing, and if she thinks I need a bit of looking after in the world of contracts and royalties she's probably right. And I have nothing but respect and gratitude for the work she's put in over the years to nurture my writing and further my career. We are, actually, quite fond of each other.

I smile. 'Call me odd-ball. I like it that way. And I have a vivid imagination.'

'Oh hell,' she says, glancing at her watch, 'is that the time? Must rush. Acquisition meeting at three. Look her up,' she calls over her shoulder as she hurries away. 'See what you think.'

I watch her go, and turn away rather more slowly. One more challenge to meet before I can relax. That bloody Tube.

I sigh and settle back in my seat as the train pulls out of Paddington. I'm out of the cage and the tension's beginning to drain out of me, fading into a glow somewhere between the comfort of a warm blanket and the uplifting joy of returning to a loved one. Ever since I found my hideaway, my hidden house in the secret valley, I get this whenever I'm on my way back after a trip away. Isn’t that what coming home’s supposed to be about?

Only this time I really do have a loved one to return to.

I can see it now. How Jennie will demand to know all about it. How she'll hang on to my every word as I tell her. How her face will light up. I turn to face the suburbs slipping past the window. I don't want people staring at the soppy smile on my face.

 

I was absolutely not ready for Jennie. Settled into my contented groove, the long flow of quiet days of writing, walking in the valley, tending my vegetable garden and my chickens, I thought I had all I needed.

But choosing to live a solitary life doesn't excuse you from membership of the human race. When you're walking home on a wet evening along a lane that hardly anybody else ever uses, and you find a girl huddled beside the road, lost, distressed and soaked through, you don't leave her there. Not if you've got any humanity left. I took her home, sat her by my fire, fed her, and gave her a bed for the night. She'd been hitching, she told me, and the driver had attacked her. She'd run away, into the woods, over the hill and into my valley.

As if having someone with me after all those years on my own wasn't unsettling enough, something turned over inside me the first time I saw her smile. And that sort of complication was the last thing I needed. I thought I'd left all that behind me. Had sworn I'd never go there again.

I knew I was in trouble when I took some old clothes of mine into the spare room the next morning. I only meant to tip-toe in and tip-toe straight out again, but as I was straightening up from putting the clothes down I glanced up to the head of the bed, and was caught.

There Jennie lay on her side, her legs curled up under the duvet, her chestnut hair glowing against the pillow. And there was that beautiful face, smoothed and blanked by sleep, the long lashes dark on her cheeks, the lips slightly parted. Whatever troubles had sent her fleeing across the country with only a small backpack, she was at peace now.

She looked so young, so innocent and vulnerable, that my eyes began to well. I must have stood transfixed by that bed for at least two minutes.

When attraction and desire are joined by that sort of emotion you know you're getting in deep. And where was it going to get me, with this barely adult girl who was young enough to be my daughter, who was by all the odds almost bound to be straight, who was going to pass through my life like a leaf in the wind?

Except that she didn't. After it became plain that she was adrift I couldn't deny her another night's stay. That evening, sitting by the fire after dinner, she told me how she'd come to be on the road.

'My boyfriend tried to cut my hair.'

 Jennie's hair, a gleaming river of thick silk all the way to her bum, is the first thing you notice about her.

'Forcibly, you mean?'

She nodded.

'Jesus, Jennie, that's assault. Abuse. And vandalism, you ask me.'

'He was pissed, said I loved it more than him. All the time I spent looking after it.'

'Instead of devoting yourself to him?'

'Something like that, yeah.'

'Hah! Bloody men and their bloody egos. How pathetic can you get?'

'I fought him off, but I knew I could never sleep easy again now the idea was in his head. So I waited until he was asleep and I left. I reckon I'm well out of it.'

As we said goodnight she told me I was lovely, that she wished she had a mum like me. I thought that put me on safer ground, but I was wrong.

I'd told her I'm a lesbian – I am what I am, and I've had it with living lies –  but it didn't seem to put her off. Rather the reverse. The next day it got physical. Afterwards I looked down into her face, into a smile of such radiance I could have warmed my hands in its glow, and knew I was lost. Helplessly, hopelessly, fearfully, joyfully in love.

She's been with me two weeks now, and it's been a joy to watch her leave behind the cowed huddle of despair I found in the lane and blossom. Feeding the chickens, learning to make bread, even helping me weed the vegetables, she goes at it all with an open, childlike enthusiasm. She loves my little valley as much as I do, and when she comes with me on my walks her delight is so infectious that it's as if I too am seeing the place with the freshness of her eyes. She brings me alive, she makes me laugh – and, my God, how she makes me come.

 

As the train whispers along the line westwards I take advantage of the comparative peace and quiet to read slowly and carefully through all the papers Elena's given me about the project, bringing myself up to speed on the details that passed me by in that noisy restaurant. We're in the depths of the Severn Tunnel before I remember her parting shot. The sort of case Andrea might get involved in. What did she mean by that? What was the name? Susannah, Susannah... ah, Susannah Everett.

I'm not going to get a signal down here, so I wait until we've emerged into the Welsh sunlight before pulling my phone out of my bag. I haven't even finished entering the first word before the name I'm looking for pops up. Big news, then.

And then time stops. My skin crawls, my heart pumps. A face I know very well is staring at me out of the screen. Jennie's face.

It appears that Susannah Everett, whom the police are very anxious to interview in connection with the murder of her partner, one Craig MacDonald, is still missing. MacDonald's body was found with multiple stab wounds in the flat they were sharing in Putney a week ago, but time of death has been estimated as a week previous. The day neither of them turned up for work. The day I found Jennie in the lane.

I think I'm going to lose my lunch. I have to close my eyes and take deep breaths until the churning in my stomach recedes.

'You all right, my lovely?' the woman opposite me asks, in a broad Valleys accent.

Oh Christ. I do believe I must have groaned aloud. 'Yes, thanks. Touch of indigestion.'

'You sure? Nasty thing it is, indigestion.'

'Yes. I'll be fine in a minute, thanks.'

She returns to her phone screen, and I heave a discreet sigh of relief. She was only being kind, but I really can't handle that sort of thing at the moment. Or anything else, much.

Newport, Cardiff, Neath, Swansea come and go, but I hardly notice them. My mind is still racing.

How can it be that the sweet, bright girl who has lit up my life can have killed someone? Can't there be another explanation? That it was someone else, and she was only a witness? Or even not in the flat at all at the time?

Then why did she run away? This isn't one of your DI Nicholson stories, Rebecca. This is real life, and Occam's Razor applies.

Or can it simply be a ghastly coincidence, and Jennie is Susannah's double?

Oh, come on, Rebecca. You know you're clutching at straws. Think about it. Really, how likely is it for a girl to run away from her whole life over a fight about a haircut? This makes much more sense.

But Jennie, a murderer. I can't see it.

Don't want to see it, you mean.

Well, you can hardly blame me. Because if Jennie really is Susannah Everett, if she really did kill Craig MacDonald, then she's lied to me. So how can I trust anything she's said? Does she even love me at all, or did she seduce me only to make sure I'd keep giving her free board and lodging?

We're near Llanelli when this hits me, and it comes like a blow to the stomach, a sick lurch that makes me thankful that the lady from the Valleys got off at Neath and the carriage is nearly empty.

Ah, Rebecca, she found a soft touch there, didn't she? There's no fool like an old fool. This is a beautiful young woman with her life before her. How could you ever have kidded yourself that you've got what it takes to make her want to turn her back on the world and all its possibilities to shut herself away with you, without an ulterior motive?

No. I will not, cannot believe that of her. Whatevcr Jennie may be, an actor she is not. And I've lived with her for two weeks in close intimacy, waking and sleeping, working and loving, this child-woman whose emotions pass across her face like the wind in the grass, without seeing the slightest hint of a false note.

I try to hold on to this, but doubt is a stubborn bastard and it's still at it, gnawing away at me, as the train pulls into Carmarthen station.

But hope is a stubborn bastard too. When you have a pain that won't go away, when someone you love is dying, reality's full grim weight doesn't settle on you until the moment the doctor tells you that you have terminal cancer, the moment they switch off the life support. I will not let myself give up on Jennie before I hear what she has to say for herself.

There's a place on the drive back from Carmarthen where the lane crests the hill to show the valley spread out below, and then plunges under the trees as if into a hidden submarine world. Usually it's a magic moment, telling me I'm nearly home, but tonight it means that I'm only minutes away from the confrontation that'll make or break my life. The woods are afire with golden evening light, but the beauty is wasted on me. Butterflies aren't in it. The tension is like a boulder in my belly.

And now here's the bridge over the stream, and beside it the house standing back from the lane behind the silver birches. How strange it is, this dread of coming back to a place I love so much. My feet are like lead as I walk from the garage to the front gate.

Jennie is silhouetted in the open doorway before I've even reached it, the light behind her making a halo of her hair. 'Well, how'd it go?' she asks.

For a moment my mind blanks. I haven't given that a moment's thought since her face on my phone screen drove everything else from my mind.

'It went fine,' I say. And then, 'Susannah.'

The smile vanishes from her face as if she's been slapped.

'Suze,' she murmurs faintly, automatically. As if that matters. 'How did you...'

Her voice tails off. If she's realised she's giving herself away she's already too late. That childlike openness and spontaneity are working against her now. The answer to the first question I need to ask is written on her face, plain beyond any possibility of denial.

'I think we'd better go in and sit down, don't you?'

The kitchen is filled with a savoury aroma, and something is bubbling gently in a covered pot on the hob. Beside it on the worktop lies a sheet of A4. A recipe printed out from the Internet. A surprise supper for me to come home to. The sort of thoughtful gesture that would have struck me as so typical of the girl I believed I knew. My eyes prickle, and I have to swallow before I can speak.

'Sit there.'

She slumps in the chair, her face pale and rigid with tension, her eyes downcast. She looks like a kid waiting for a good telling-off. I sit facing her across the kitchen table. This is not the time for a cosy fireside chat.

'Answer me one question,' I say. 'Did you, or did you not, kill Craig MacDonald?'

The slightest hesitation will be the answer I fear, anything but instant, confident denial an admission of guilt. And she says nothing at all. She sits still and silent as a stone, her only reaction the slow flush that suffuses her face.

The terminal diagnosis has been given, the life support switched off.

As the weight settles on me, as the knowledge seeps through me like a slow paralysing poison, I feel as if I'm turning to stone myself, all feeling leaching away to leave behind a cold numbness. My eyes are closed, my breath ragged, the tears tickling and trickling on my cheeks. At last I hear my own voice, though I hardly recognise it: low, unsteady, bitter as gall.

'I always knew there was a chance this might end in pain. That disenchantment might set in, that you'd meet someone else, that you'd get bored living in the middle of nowhere with a woman twice your age. I knew that risk, and I took it. But this, this I never dreamed of. That our whole relationship was built on a lie. That I was surrendering my heart to a murderer.'

From across the table comes a rising siren-like wail, and Jennie – Suze – begins to weep, in gulping, hiccuping sobs. The sound is quite heart-rending, and any time up to now nothing would have kept me from pulling her into the comfort of my arms, but I can't even look at her. I keep my eyes fixed on the ancient table.

Her chair clatters on the flags. 'I'd better... go... and get... my things.'

The words cut through the trance of my grief. I can't send her packing just like that. We don't pass sentence until we've heard the case for the defence.

I look up. 'Not until you've told me how it happened. Sit down.'

She stands frozen, staring down at me, her eyes red and swimming, strands of hair stuck to her wet cheeks. Another hiccup shakes her.

'Sit. Down.'

She drops into the chair as if she's a puppet and someone has cut her strings.

'Now talk to me. And I want the truth, so you just make damn sure that's what it is.'

She sits looking down at her hands for maybe half a minute before she begins to speak, in a low toneless murmur.

'It's like I said. Sort of. He tried to cut my hair. Only I didn't fight him off. He's much stronger–'

She breaks off, choking back a sob. She swipes at her eyes with her hands and takes a deep breath. When she speaks again the words come rushing, tumbling out, as if she's made up her mind to get it over with as quickly as she can.

'Was much stronger than me. He had the scissors in one hand and my hair in the other and I couldn't push him away. So I bit him, bit his hand to make him drop the scissors. And he lost it, totally. Had me down on my back, banging my head on the floor and his hands round my throat. I couldn't get him off me, couldn't breathe, I thought I was going to die. Saw the scissors on the floor, grabbed them, stabbed his back. Only part I could reach. He still didn't let go, so I kept on doing it until he did.'

She drops her face into her hands and begins to weep again. 'I didn't... mean to...'

'I know.'

'I never... wanted...'

'I know.'

'It was... horrible. I'm so, so frightened.'

I'll bet it was. The splatter and stench of blood, the appalled realisation of what she'd done. No wonder she panicked and fled. Poor bloody kid.

And I'll bet she is. It'll be poor bloody kid if the police ever get their hands on her. Self-defence or no self-defence, it's still murder, and the law is implacable. No matter how sympathetic the judge or the jury, she'll still go inside long enough to lose the best years of her life. And the thought of that sweet nature soured and coarsened by prison life is simply insupportable.

I realise I've come to a decision. Or rather, the decision has come to me.

'Listen,' I say. 'That guy who tried to rape you. Was that true, or was it an excuse for the bruises on your neck?'

'Oh, it was true enough,' she says with a shudder.

'Now, I gather at least one person who gave you a lift has come forward, but he's not going to, is he? Where did he pick you up?'

'Cardiff.'

'That's quite a way from here. And no one, except me, has seen you since, right?' Today's outing is the first time I've left the valley since she's been here except for a couple of food shopping trips, and she never wants to come. Now I know why. 'Long as you lie low here there's every chance they'll never trace you.'

She raises her head, shaking the heavy hair from her face. I see the dawn breaking, the swollen eyes widening, the mouth falling open. 'You... you're... not going to throw me out?'

Will I ever be able to sleep easy again? Can I live with the knowledge that I, a crime writer, have put myself on the wrong side of the law, with the lurch of fear that'll come every time I hear a car in the lane, with the ever-present possibility that my world may come crashing about my ears with the slightest slip – or even without it?

I'll have to. I can't bear it any other way.

'Jennie,' I say, 'Come here.' I can't bring myself to call her Suze. Suze is a murderer. Suze has vanished from the face of the earth.

But Jennie is very much here, warm and solid, nearly knocking me off my feet as I rise from my chair, throwing her arms around me, burying her face in my shoulder.

'Seeing you so... so hurt,' she sobs. 'And... and knowing... it was... my fault...'

'Hush, my angel,' I murmur, stroking her hair. 'It's all right now.'

Well, here, now, just between the two of us, maybe...

I could stay in this valley for ever, she said, the first time she came for a walk with me. Just as well. We both know that every step she takes outside it is a step into danger. For better or for worse, the secret we share binds us tighter than any ceremony, any vow, ever could.

Well, Rebecca, isn't that what you wanted?

'Something smells good,' I say, 'What have you got in that pot?'