The Stain

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First thing on Monday morning she had a bath and caught the bus into town. It took a lot of nerve, but she did it. The whole way there her heart was thudding; she was afraid one of the other passengers might recognise her. She’d had a scare when she first got on the bus, and the driver had given her a long look. But he was only flirting.

‘Haven’t seen you on my bus before,’ he said, giving her a wink as he took her money.

‘No,’ she said. She took her ticket and hurried to find a seat.

It was good to sit down. She had been on her feet since Friday, packing away and getting things ready in London, then unpacking again and sorting things out down here. It had taken her the whole weekend to get the house straight enough to feel comfortable in, and that was just the kitchen, the living room and her bedroom. Someone had told her it would take a year before she got the last box unpacked. The dining room was still a mess, full of crates of crockery and ornaments and pictures, and the spare bedroom had become the storage area for everything else. 

Her new neighbours seemed friendly enough, but she’d been warned to stay on her toes. Country folk liked to know more about you than people who lived in London. You couldn’t call it nosiness; it was all part of living out in the country, the community spirit. It was what village life was all about. Nevertheless, she knew she had to be careful.

The house she bought was anonymous and unobtrusive, a plain cottage on the outskirts of the village. It was the start of her new life, she told herself as she unpacked her suitcases and put her clothes away in her new bedroom. No more looking over her shoulder. No more living in fear. She felt safe knowing that nobody here knew her. She could start again. As she unpacked she tossed aside the things that could do with a clean. There was still blood on her jacket…

‘Ann Singleton,’ Ann had said, introducing herself to the old lady from next door when she called soon after the removal men had gone, offering tea and biscuits. ‘But just call me Ann.’

‘You’re on your own then,’ the old lady said.

‘I’m a widow,’ Ann had said, truthfully. ‘I’ve only recently… I thought I’d make a clean break.’

‘From London, are you?’

‘Neasden,’ Ann said, and immediately regretted it. She was already giving too much away. Even though she was just an old lady, Ann knew she had to be more careful. If people found out… 

‘Oh,’ the old lady said, not making the connection. ‘Nice.’

She had to be more careful. ‘Ann Singleton,’ she said to herself as she stepped from the bus. ‘My name is Ann Singleton.’

The town was a faded seaside resort looking out over the cold grey English Channel. And as she walked along the main street, her clothes for the cleaners bundled under her arm in an old carrier bag, the sun came out. The scene was transformed. The Channel came to life, sparkling and twinkling in the sudden light. The shops were no longer dowdy but bright and welcoming. This is a sign, she thought. From now on, everything in my life will be sunny.

The dry cleaner’s shop was hot and stuffy, the air dense and chemical-sweet. Rows of plastic-wrapped clothes hung on rails on either side. Behind the counter was a price list on a partition wall that cut off the shop area from the fume-filled cleaning area at the back. She could hear voices from in there, a man and a woman, arguing. Ann pinged the dome-shaped bell on the counter and waited. The arguing stopped and a middle-aged woman pushed through the plastic bead curtain and smiled.

The woman gave her a timid smile. Ann smiled back. She knew what it was like to be bullied and harassed. The woman took the dresses and skirts, the salmon-pink jacket with the dark stain on the breast, and attached little blue tickets to them.

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