Sally’s Road – Sample Chapter
Sally’s Road – the paperback – is mere weeks away. So here for you, beloved friends, is a sample to whet your appetite. Hopefully! It is a tale of cancer and the defeat (?) of cancer. From the stifling suburbia of middle England to the beach of Rio, Sally’s Road takes her through kidnapping, murder, rape and theft – and finally ? This is deeply black humour, combining the funny, the silly and the tragic.
Sally’s Road by Jon Elkon
Yesterday was a particularly lovely, clear, crisp early Spring day, quite unnaturally warm, too. The daffs are well out now, and the lawn is starting to look less like an inept hair transplant.
I was waiting for a chicken to cook, flopped out on a lounger wishing the sun was hot enough for me to get a tan, languorously scanning the Sunday Independent, while Graham was new-mannishly chopping vegetables in the kitchen.
Well, when I say I was reading the paper, let’s be honest, my mind was on less wholesome things. Like Tom Meld next-door who had removed his shirt to drag a clackety lawnmower over their weeds. I know he’s no good looker, this Tom, but at least he’s slim. Wiry, muscles sticking out of his pinked flesh. And I was wishing that I had a muscly, young, different man.
It was a sort of ‘ifonly’ thing, not serious, after all I’m still attractive, even at thirty-five. I’m slimmer than I used to be, I look quite good nude. Oh, not quite a firm as once, but still the right shape.
I have always thought of myself as slightly – good old word – plain. At school, and even after that, at the Poly – I always had stunning-looking girlfriends. They were all men-magnets, jolly come-and-go girls. I was the one who’d get the sincere men, the save-the-world men. And, of course, the married men.
Which is exactly why and how I got landed with Graham, I suppose.
He certainly seemed a good idea at the time…my years of passion with Barry – passion on my part, convenience on his – had led to nothing like the permanence he always promised. (Strange how – because I couldn’t have him, perhaps – I actually wanted to spend my life with that man.) The bastard will never leave his wife. He’s far too weak. I believe – even now – that Barry really genuinely loved me. That’s the reason he was so angry with me so much of the time. He resented me for having allowed/made him love me. And the threat to his cosy home and family.
I met Graham through Barry.
They were good friends. Graham was such a trusted friend Barry let him meet me. And when I was really vulnerable one night – old tale, don’t want to write about it – Graham took me to bed…Trusty old Graham!
I have long suspected that Barry introduced me to Graham in the hope that G would free him from me. Paranoia? It could have been subconscious, of course. MAYbe.
I wonder if they ever discussed it, the way men do, ‘Do feel free to take her, good fellow, it won’t be for long and you’d be doing me a tremendous favour…’
No no no! None of that!
I was telling you about yesterday afternoon, wasn’t I?
I was startled out of my reverie by a ‘Psst!’
The Psst was coming from the back fence, from the Lake Walk. I dropped the newspaper on the table and ambled to the fence. I was expecting the psster to be the girl from next-door on another Mission.
It was Joan, half-crouched behind the ill-grown hedge. ‘Quick! Over here!’ she whispered urgently.
I peered through the picket fence and struggling privet. ‘Hello Joan. Going for a walk?’ I asked. ‘It’s a fine morning. Why don’t you come in?’
‘Don’t be silly dear, there’s no time for tea. Where’s the husband?’
‘Uh – inside. Chopping vegetables.’
‘Good. Pretend you’re looking over the fence. Enjoying the view.’
Bemused, I pretended to enjoy the ‘Lake’ – a muddy pool of water which lay dead over what had been a slagheap, the surrounding concrete path, the sickly trees which leaned desperately away from the stagnant water. ‘Why?’ I asked.
‘Never mind why. She’s visited, hasn’t she?’
It sounded a little like an accusation. ‘She? You mean Jean Tweed?’
‘Yes her. What did she have to say?’
I realised that it would be a good idea to humour her. ‘Well, she was talking about her daughter – the funny one, looks a bit like a garden gnome – ‘
‘Yes yes, the one they call Annie. And – ?’
‘That’s right. She tried to tell me, I suppose, that the girl is quite mad and I’m not to believe a thing she says.’
‘It’s disgusting!’ Joan ejaculated, as if her worst suspicions were confirmed.
‘Those weren’t the actual words,’ I said in mitigation.
‘You had better come with me.’ Joan said grimly. ‘Come on, you can climb over the fence easily enough.’
I wasn’t too keen on this undignified operation. ‘What about Graham?’ I asked, ‘I can’t – ‘
‘There are far more important things going on here than your blasted Sunday Roast, girl. Come on, lift yer leg!’
I couldn’t refuse, could I? She’s born to command, I thought, hitching myself carefully over the fence. I wonder if that means I’m born to follow, I thought with a sigh, remembering all the times I’ve trailed after people in the pursuit of things I considered unnecessary or dangerous.
‘Now keep low,’ she whispered hoarsely ‘and follow.’
We slunk like guerrillas along the fence for a few yards, until we were at the back of the Tweed house. ‘Very quiet now,’ she whispered.
We waited in silence for about a minute. The Tweed’s garden was deserted. Birds sang throatily, unconcerned and dispassionate.
‘Morning Joan gel!’ The hearty voice made me jump.
Harry Frost stood on the path grinning down at us, a ragged terrier at his heels.
‘Good heavens Harry you made me jump,’ Joan complained.
‘Sorry and that,’ he said with a bemused grin. ‘On Obbo, are we? Nice morning for it!’
The Major was dressed in ill-fitting blue jeans and a cowboyish plaid shirt, sleeves rolled up over white-haired forearms. His absurd moustache was sprinkled with a decaying portion of his breakfast.
‘Exactly. And we’d appreciate it if you’d buzz off a bit before you ruin everything. There’s a good fellow.’
‘That’s a bit radical,’ Harry said, obviously offended. ‘I want to play too! I’ve had a great deal of experience in these matters. Did a lot of slinking about in Burma. Jungle warfare stuff.’
‘Oh don’t give me all that!’ Joan said with a sniff, ‘You drove trucks and ordered men about at Aldershot.’
‘That as well, madam, that as well. I promise to be good – ‘ He dropped to his haunches beside us and the dog did a round-robin of face licking.
‘We would be better on our own,’ Joan grumbled, although she had evidently accepted defeat.
‘I’ll be quiet as a moose.’
‘A moose?’ I said, beginning to grin. I like the man. He’s clearly quite as mad as Joan, though in a different way.
‘Morning Mrs – uh. Didn’t see you down there. Nice day, eh?’
‘Very nice,’ I said dryly.
‘Hush you two!’ Joan commanded. ‘Something’s happening.’
Something was indeed happening in the Tweed house. There was the sound of a door slamming, and Jean and Allen Tweed emerged onto the patio.
‘It looks as if Spring has finally sprung,’ we heard Jean say. ‘Of course it’s too early to really tell. Last time I decided that the frosts were over we lost half the garden.’
Her husband muttered something inaudible.
‘Get the chairs out dear will you? We can have lunch alfresco.’
He replied half inaudibly, though I caught the words ‘ozone layer’ and ‘skin cancer’. She interrupted with a sharp ‘Get a move on dear, don’t argue.’
‘Down!’ the Major commanded suddenly, as, with an arm around our shoulders, he forced us onto our knees. Privet pricked my cheek.
Whistling laconically, Jean Tweed was making her way down the gnome-strewn path to the fence. ‘Morning,’ she said casually, peering over the fence at the absurd trio, ‘Nice day!’
‘I swear,’ said Joan with dignity as she struggled to stand up against the still-restraining arm of the Major, ‘if I hear that phrase once more I shall spit!’
‘Well it is, isn’t it?’ the Tweed chirped.
I could have exploded with embarrassment. The Major, on the other hand, had determined only to give name, rank and serial number.
Joan was quite unruffled. ‘Very well, I accept your remark,’ she said, as if making a reluctant concession.
‘Looking for mushrooms?’ Jean Tweed asked sardonically, ‘Quite the wrong time of year you know.’
Joan gave a mannered, casual laugh. ‘Really,’ she said.
There was the sound of cast-iron being scraped across patio. ‘Well, you’d better hide again. Here comes the Slug.’ She turned and strolled away toward the house, where her husband was extracting heavy chairs and tables, as if the encounter had been a perfectly ordinary and matter-of fact occurrence.
‘All right, ‘ said Joan, ‘get down!’
‘What?’ I whispered, ‘I think I’d better get home…’
‘Don’t think!’ the countrywoman whispered hoarsely, ‘Just listen!’
‘She’s right you know,’ Harry said, ‘Gel knows best.’
‘I’m getting heartily sick of all this!’ Allen Tweed’s voice floated over the fence. How much longer? I feel like a prisoner in Colditz. Never knowing when the war will end. All my escape attempts fruitless. I tell you – ‘
‘Yes dear. Bono.’
‘You heard me. Isn’t it a lovely day?’
‘Yes dear, it’s a lovely day. But don’t you understand? This is exactly what I mean!’
‘Aren’t the flowers lovely. Look at the dear daffodils coming up. And the crocuses. And listen to the birds singing away. Aren’t we lucky?’
‘Lucky.’ he echoed.
‘Lovely house, lovely family. Really, we have everything we could ever want in life.’
‘Everything’ he echoed again.
Allen Tweed and I were obviously soulmates. But why? WHY was I being forced to listen to the private (and, I have to add, deeply boring) conversation between our neighbours? I began to feel that unless I extricated myself from this knot of spies, I would become truly claustrophobic. So when I heard Graham’s voice calling my name from our garden, I shook myself loose and, muttering, ‘I have to go’, I crawled off toward my own house.
‘She leaves just as it’s getting interesting’ I heard Joan mutter as I climbed over my own home fence.
* * * * * *
‘Oh there you are,’ Graham said cheerily as I entered the garden in my undignified fashion. ‘We’ll have a gate put in for you dear, if you want to walk along the lake…come,’ he said, beckoning conspiratorially, ‘we have a guest.’
‘Guest? Who? Where?’
‘In the sitting room,’ he said, and winked.
And there she was, sitting prettily on our sofa, in a pink, flouncy party-dress. There was a smear of lipstick on her mouth. ‘Annie? Good morning,’ I said.
The contrast between this picture-book child and my visitor of yesterday was almost incredible and I had to say something. ‘Are you off somewhere special?’ I asked smiling with what I hoped wasn’t amusement, ‘Aren’t you looking smart!’
‘You’re talking to me as if I was a child!’, the child complained.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said and sat in an armchair. ‘Well! How about a cold drink of some sort?’ Then I added mischievously, ‘or would you like something stronger?’
Annoyance flashed briefly across the girl’s face. She didn’t like being made fun of. ‘No, not at present,’ she said, keeping her composure. ‘I came to talk.’
‘Well,’ said Graham, leaning against the door jamb, ‘Is this women’s talk or am I allowed to listen?’
‘What do you think?’ Annie turned to me for an opinion.
‘No no,’ I said, ‘it’s up to you.’
‘I don’t mind, as long as we can trust him’, she answered, as if Graham wasn’t in the room.
‘Oh absolutely!’ Graham spoke with indulgent good humour, and just for a moment, you know, I had a pang of doubt. I can’t explain it.
‘All right then, listen.’ The little girl spoke low, with an intensity I have never seen before in seven years of teaching. ‘I suppose I am going to tell you the whole story.
‘My name isn’t Annie, to start. It’s Mary Dyne Fortesque.
‘I was born into a lovely family, eighteen years ago. Oh don’t look so shocked, I know I’m small for my age! But small as I am, I have the heart of a young woman.
‘My parents were wonderful people. Father did something or other in the City and my mother had fabulous bridge parties all the time. We were the toast of Hampshire. Balls, coming-out parties, we had everything. Father was terribly rich, you know. Rich as Croesus. We had a Rolls Royce. Grey with a number plate that said RIC 1 H. Because Father’s name was Richard and he wanted everybody to know how rich he was.
‘Anyway, when I was fifteen, both of them were killed when the Rolls, driven by our drunkard chauffeur Alex, went out of control and fell off one of the Chilterns!’ She paused to check our reactions. I placed a look of horror and concern on my face.
‘It was terrible for me’ she sighed sadly. ‘I’ll never forget the day when Alex came into the house, covered in grease and grime, the steering-wheel of the Roller still clutched in his bleeding hands, to give us the awful news…’ the child wiped a tear away with an impatient sleeve.
‘Terrible for you,’ Graham said. His mouth was pulled down in a parody of sympathy and there was a twinkle in his eye.
‘Yes it was,’ she continued. ‘Anyway, my brother Charles and I were left alone for a while after the funeral, until one day they came.’
‘They?’ I asked stupidly.
‘Yes! The ones who call themselves my mother and father. Mr and Mrs Tweed. He’s my uncle, my father’s brother. She’s his whore!’
‘Well!’ I said, about to reprimand her for the word.
‘Does that shock you?’ she asked, her eyes now full of tears. ‘That’s exactly what she is. He pays her to pretend she’s his wife. She’s just one of those women of the night, contracted. You see, it says in Father’s will that his brother Allen was to look after us if anything happened to them. But only if he’s married, and settled down. And nobody would ever marry him!’ she said contemptuously, ‘He’s such an arsehole! Oh I’m sorry to swear but that’s what he is. An incompetent, a man who’s failed at everything he ever tried. Do you know, once he was offered a partnership in Virgin Airways, right when it was starting. By Ricky Branston himself. And he refused. Fifty quid was just too much of a risk for him. What a worm!’
We shook our heads over what a worm Allen Tweed is.
‘God knows where he found that woman. My detective says she was a Lady of the Night. An upper-class whore. The sort who sleeps with all the members of parliament, all the Lords and things. And now she’s my pretend mother! Oh doesn’t it sicken you?’
Graham and I looked suitably sickened.
‘I shouldn’t be surprised if they weren’t planning to kill me for my money, or rather, mother and father’s money. The generous allowance they’ve been given to look after us isn’t enough for them…’ she was weeping again and I handed her a paper napkin.
‘One thing puzzles me,’ I asked gently, ‘what happened to your brother? What was his name?’
‘Oh, Peveril,’ she said with a snuffle, ‘I have no idea! He said he would run off to America, if he ever got a chance…but maybe they got to him first! Probably dead and thrown away into the Thames…There’s only one thing to do,’ she announced, ‘I’m going to run away.’
This last phrase was said so melodramatically, with such actorish resonance, that I knew the exact territory we were in: Barbara Cartland meets Jean Plaidy.
I must have shown a trace of disbelief then, because the child suddenly stared searchingly into my eyes and said, urgently, ‘You look as if you don’t believe me.’
‘No no,’ I said reassuringly, ‘I was just smiling to myself.’
‘Don’t say you don’t believe me, ‘ the girl pleaded, ‘please don’t say that!’ Her eyes brimmed, overran. ‘I’ve been praying and praying that I’d find somebody to believe me. I need your help. Please…please…’
Her sobs were wracking and consuming, as if she was being washed away by unstoppable waves of long held-in grief. I can’t explain how real her misery was. And I couldn’t help it, I melted. Don’t blame me! I know the whole story is ridiculous, obviously the product of a lonely child with a massive imagination (and too much Mills & Boon!) but at that moment all my cynicism evaporated and I hugged her, comforted her. It felt as if this child had longed for a mother’s affection…and I so needed to give my love to a child. Gates opened… (I have never admitted, in written or spoken words that I might want a child, or children. Never! Though some would say that my decision to become a teacher was a way of dealing with this. It makes me too vulnerable! In the early stages of my relationship with Barry, when he was promising happy-ever-after, I assumed we would eventually end up together and there would simply be two or three children…they would be part of the scenery. But if I mentioned this to Barry he’d go hard and quiet. I suppose now that he was so screwed up by his own miserable childhood that he hated the idea of inflicting the horrible experience of growing up on anybody else.
(He hated his father. He was the only child in a grim booklined house, where ideas were far more important than emotions, and the Boy was treated as an unnecessary appendage. An expensive and importunate and bothersome idiot. I’m rambling. And thinking, Barry could never accept the idea of me and children because it would be Commitment.
(I need to ramble some more. When it became obvious that there was no future for Barry and me I did wish – oh, very secretly – that I had a child…and that was about when my Lymphoma was diagnosed…)
I do like brackets. Parenthesis. Life should have far more brackets. (By the way…)
It was peculiar, that diagnosis, the first invasion of the Body Snatcher, the Stranger. I had gone to the GP because Barry persuaded me that the swelling of the gland on the left side of my jaw had lasted too long. There was never any pain, just a sort of discomfort like knowing that someone else was in the house, an uninvited guest…
The GP sent me to the BRI – the Royal Infirmary. I was now officially infirm! They confirmed. I had some radiation treatment, very clinical, quite painless. The swelling went down. Everybody was happy. It all seemed perfectly mechanical to me, very unthreatening. I went to work as usual, told nobody (except the Head; she needed to know why I needed the odd Wednesday off). The Medics assured me that 90% of patients are easily cured. And I thought I had been. Until a year ago, when the lymph-gland on the right side of my throat swelled up.
Graham knew about my illness when he asked me to marry him. I remember saying, ‘Well you can forget children. If you have any hopes of founding a dynasty you’d better find someone else!’ What I was really saying was, I don’t want to have a child and then have to leave it just as I’m beginning to enjoy being a mother. He didn’t ask me to explain. He just hugged me so warmly, with so much love that I decided then and there to try and love him.
Sally will discover that Annie is a fantasist, her tale absurd and she is much younger than she claims. Nevertheless, they will form a criminal partnership to travel to Omaha Nebraska to steal a new cancer treatment which may or may not work…and along the way there will be murder, rape and hysterical laughter.