It wasn’t Anna. I knew that. Anna was dead. Anna hadn’t made it past her sixth birthday. But if she’d lived until she was eight, she’d have looked just like the little girl sitting alone at a metal table, lit only by the fluorescent light coming from a caravan, dressed up as food truck, behind her.
The girl’s head was bent as she worked on something in a notebook, her thick dark hair falling forward just the way Anna’s used to, hiding her face, cutting her off from everything except the thing she was concentrating on.
The caravan, a knock-off of an American Airstream, was painted silver, riding the retro-chic image to push up the price of the food. It was pressed up against the trees at the back of a narrow strip of wasteland. The setting gave the impression that the girl was sitting in a forest clearing somewhere.
The girl wasn’t Anna but she was a little girl, alone on he outskirts of town an hour before dawn, so I stopped running and stood watching her for a moment, waiting to see an adult claim her or the food truck guy bring her something. Then I could move on. Since Anna’s death, that’s what people were always telling me I should do.
I’d been running for almost an hour, first through town and then down to the darkness of the river path until, climbing up to the road by the last bridge out of town, I’d seen the girl, sitting in an island of light.
I always run when I can’t sleep. Since Anna, I’ve been running a lot. My sister says that I shouldn’t run at night. That it isn’t safe. She means well, so I don’t snap at her. I just wonder, silently, how she can have failed to learn that none of us is ever safe? To placate her, I tell her I’m running in the very early morning, not at night. That I’m training for the Bath Half Marathon and that the best time to do it is when the town is still asleep. We both know that’s not why I run but my sister has the good sense to let it pass.
The girl looked up. It wasn’t Anna. Of course, it wasn’t. Her face was paler and her eyes darker but she had the same high forehead, the same broad mouth. Close enough to be sisters. If Anna had had a sister.
‘Hello,’ she said, ‘Are you lost?’
Her voice was soft but strong. It was the voice of someone unafraid, someone who expected to be loved, someone who had always been told everything would be all right. A voice like Anna’s.
I stepped towards her, moving into the lighted area so she could see me. Although, of course, she’d already seen me, even in the dark with the light in her eyes.
‘No, I’m not lost,’ I said. ‘I’ve been running.’
‘Is something chasing you?’ she asked with calm seriousness, scanning the dark around us.
I missed it at the time but I should have paid attention to her use of ‘something’ rather than ‘someone’.
‘No,’ I said, keeping my tone light but avoiding laughing at her question. ‘I just like to run.’
She gave me an assessing look and asked, ‘Are you good at it?’
‘Yes, quite good.’
‘Are you fast?
‘When I need to be.’
‘Good,’ she said, nodding her head in approval. ‘My name is Layla. Mummy says it means that I’m dark-haired and was born at night. What’s your name?’
‘My name is Mary which means I was named after my grandmother. Is your mother nearby, Layla?’
‘Oh yes, she’s why we stopped here,’ Layla said, returning to labouring over whatever she was drawing in her notebook. ‘Mummy has Dire Beasties that make her hungry. When that happens, she has to eat.’
I smiled at ‘dire beasties’. Layla was obviously repeating an explanation that her mother had given her but she hadn’t understood the word diabetes. Still, if her mother had stopped for a snack to get her blood sugars balanced, where was she?
I stepped up to the counter of the caravan. The interior was brightly lit. I could smell coffee but the deep fat fryer hadn’t been switched on. It was probably still too early for that. Catering packs of burger buns and cartons of eggs were stacked on the food prep area but it didn’t look as if any food was ready. There was no sign of Layla’s mother or anyone else.
I was starting to get cold and would have loved some coffee. I zipped up my hoodie, pulled up the hood and called out, ‘Anyone there?’
‘He went away with mummy.’
‘The man with the tattoos. The ones that went all the way up his arms. Mummy says that they’re called sleeve tattoos and that they hurt to have done and that the people who have them done are unhappy with themselves.’
Mummy sounded like a judgemental bitch. I knew who she meant. I’d bought coffee from him once. Barely out of his teens but already looking worn. Maybe the son of the owner? He never said anything off to me but I didn’t like the way he’d looked at me, like I was a piece of meat and he was hungry. I hadn’t stopped again. Until today.
I wanted to find Layla’s mother and get gone. I was still a couple of miles from home. I wanted a shower and some hot coffee. I wanted to be home, having breakfast with my sister. I was about to go looking for the missing mother when I heard noises coming from the old Land Rover the airstream was hooked up to. It was rocking slightly on its suspension. It was too dark for me to see inside but I knew what was going on, I just didn’t know who was involved.
Had Layla been left to sit here alone while her mother had sex with sleeve tattoo boy? And if she had, what should I do about it?
Before I could decide, Layla spoke.
‘Would you like to see my drawing of you? Mummy will be done soon but we have time for me to show you, if you like.’
Layla’s tone told me that she knew exactly what her mother was doing and that she wanted to distract me from it. Was she protecting her mother or was she embarrassed by the groans coming from the backseat of the Land Rover?
I reined back my anger at her mother and came to sit next to her, saying, ‘Yes, I’d love to see your drawing’.
I’d expected something simple, maybe one step up from stick men, instead I saw a portrait of me, from the shoulders up, executed in pencil with skill and confidence. My head was facing outwards, at an angle to my shoulders. My ponytail looked as if it was in motion. Puzzlement or perhaps suspicion was written across my face. The accuracy of the likeness took me by surprise but what caught my attention most was the way the drawing seemed to give prominence to the locket around my neck, the one with a lock of Anna’s hair in it.
‘That’s very good,’ I said, trying not to sound too surprised. ‘You draw very quickly. It’s amazing how much detail you took in from looking at me for a few seconds.’ I didn’t add that in those few seconds, before I’d stopped, I’d been outside the light she sat in.
‘Mummy likes me to pay attention to strangers. And you’re pretty. And sad.’
‘I’m not sad.’ I said, denying it even though she was right. Perhaps because she was right.
Layla tilted her head, in a way that suggested disbelief and said, ‘May I see your locket?’
She reached for the locket as she spoke but I was faster and before I’d had time to think I’d put my hand around the locket and said, ‘No.’ more loudly than I’d intended.
Layla let her hand drop but didn’t say anything.
Embarrassed by my over the top reaction I said, ‘I’m sorry. It’s just that it’s special to me.’
‘I thought so.’
‘You’re wearing it but no other jewellery, not even your wedding ring.’
‘I’m not married. Not anymore. The locket belonged to my daughter.’
‘When did she die?’
Her softly spoken question spiked through me, like stepping barefoot on an unseen shard of glass.
‘How did you know she died?’ I asked, trying to keep my shock and pain out of my voice.
‘You said belonged…’
She looked at me and she seemed sad and much much older than eight.
I could think of nothing to say. This girl didn’t remind me of Anna any longer. This girl barely seemed to be a girl at all. She seemed like someone from another time and place altogether.
The silence that had stretched between us was broken by a long clear female cry of ecstasy coming from the Land Rover.
I turned my head towards the sound. Layla put her hand on mine and said, ’I should show you my other drawing, while we have time.’
Layla’s hand was cold. I wondered how long she’d been sitting here, alone in the pre-dawn dark while her mother got her rocks off a few meters away. Suddenly I felt sad for this odd, too-adult-for-her-age little girl who had captured me so quickly and eagerly in her notebook, as if she’d been drinking me in.
‘Thank you,’ I said, ‘I’d like to see more of your drawings.’
‘It’s just one drawing but you need to see it.’
She turned the page in her notebook and showed my a detailed drawing that spread across both pages of the book. It was a scene from a nightmare. A dark river ran across the page and rising from it were hairless, naked, anorexic women with sunken eyes, nails like claws and wide mouths with too many teeth. They filled me with a fear that came straight from my hindbrain, as if I’d realised that a stick I’d just stepped on was really a snake.
Across the top of the drawing, in a neat clear script that felt clinical next to the monsters below, was the title DIRE BEASTIES.
I sat in silence, trying not to understand what I was seeing. Trying even harder not to get up and flee.
Layla pointed to the creatures in her drawing and said, ’They’re the Dire Beasties rising up in mummy’s blood stream, demanding to be fed. She doesn’t want to feed them. That’s why they’re so thin but every few months they rise and she needs to feed.’
Dire Beasties. Not diabetes. Not a metaphor either. This was real. At least to Layla. And it was beginning to feel real to me.
‘Mummy says my blood has Dire Beasties too but I’m too young for them to have woken yet.’
We both heard the door of the Land Rover open and then something heavy hitting the ground followed by a grunt and sounds of something being dragged.
I turned and could just make out a figure standing next to the Land Rover in the darkness. It was tall and thin with long hair. She had her back to me with her arms stretching upwards, spine arching, like a cat enjoying its own flexibility.
Any second now, she would turn her head and I would see her and she would see me.
Suddenly, I didn’t want her to see me.
Layla’s cold hand gripped my wrist.
‘You should go, Mary. You should run. Now!’
And I did. To my shame I did. I didn’t want to see the face of whoever or whatever was stretching in the dark like a sated predator. I left Layla behind. I didn’t try to help her. I just ran and ran and ran. I didn’t look back. I didn’t dare. ‘Was something chasing you?’ Layla had asked. I was certain that something was chasing me now and I didn’t want to find out what.
Dawn broke as I ran up the stone steps of my building. Finally, I turned, with my back to the front door, a couple of meters above the pavement. I looked out over the still-dark trees of Sydney Gardens. They’d been Pleasure Gardens in the eighteenth century, a place for masked lovers to meet at night and do what they needed to do in the shadows. I looked into those shadows and waited for my heart to slow, for the fear to go away, for daylight to banish my crazy nightmare. Then I went inside.
I climbed the stairs to our flat and hesitated before I opened the door. I didn’t want to deal with my sister, Fiona, yet and I didn’t want to think about why that was. I wasn’t surprised by the silence. It was not yet seven on a Saturday morning. My sister would still be asleep.
I let myself in and moved as noiselessly as I could to my bedroom. I closed the door behind me, leant with my back against it and started to tremble. I told myself it was because I’d sat too long in the cold, that I’d built up a sleep debt, that I’d run home too fast and pushed myself too hard. That that was why I was shaking and my limbs felt too heavy to move and not because something I wouldn’t let myself name had terrified me. I no longer had the energy for a shower. I wanted to be warm. I wanted not to be awake. Pausing only to take off my trainers, I buried myself under my duvet.
I don’t remember falling asleep. It was as if I had just shut down. One minute I was awake and trying to make the trembling stop. The next, Fiona was knocking on my door and shouting that there was coffee if I wanted it.
I staggered into the kitchen, still in my running gear and Fiona pushed a mug into my hands. I held it close, glad for the familiar warmth.
‘Are you making breakfast?’ I asked, hoping the answer would be yes. Fiona liked to cook. I liked to eat. That’s how compatible we were.
‘Wow, you are out of it, aren’t you? Breakfast has come and gone. You slept right through it.’
I pulled my phone out of the hoody that I was still wearing and checked the time. Nearly two o’clock. I’d slept for hours.
‘Don’t worry.’ Fiona said, ‘I knew you needed the sleep and I knew you’d wake hungry, so I put some curry aside for you. Give me a few minutes and I’ll reheat it and warm up some naan bread.’
‘Thank you.’ I said. ‘You’re my favourite sister.’
‘I’m your only sister and if you really want to thank me, get a shower while I’m heating your food. You’re so ripe you won’t be able to smell the curry.’
I sniffed my armpits, grimaced, took a last gulp of coffee and hit the shower.
Sitting at the table with clean hair, fresh clothes and with a hot curry in front of me, I finally felt normal. I began to wonder if I’d gotten the whole thing with Layla out of proportion. I mean, what had I really seen? Yes, Layla had an active imagination and knew how to draw really scary stuff. And yes, her mother seemed to be into casual sex with strangers. But was there really anything to be afraid of or had I just had too many sleepless nights?
Fiona was sitting opposite me, browsing on her iPad while watching me eat. I was about to tell her all about my pre-dawn meltdown over nothing when she said.
‘So did you see the fire on your run last night?
‘The one near the Park and Ride out at Newbridge. Don’t you run that way?’
I stopped eating. The food truck was at Newbridge.
‘I didn’t see anything.’ I said.
‘Well, you must have just missed it. The news said it happened about dawn this morning. I’ve got the article here somewhere. Seems like it was a big deal. A man died.’
Fiona handed me her iPad. ‘Bath Live’ had a picture of a burnt-out food truck with two Fire Engines in front of it. The headline read,’Fatal Fire Kills Sleeping Man’. I skimmed the piece and suddenly I no longer felt warm and calm and safe. Not safe at all.
After saying that the investigation into the causes of the fire was ongoing, the article asserted that it was likely that the Food Truck had caught fire due to a malfunctioning fat fryer, and that the fire had spread to the Land Rover, killing a man who was believed to have been sleeping on the backseat. The man had not yet been identified.
I knew who he was and I was suddenly certain that he’d been dead before the fire reached him.
‘Mary, are you alright? You look… Did you know the guy at all?’
I looked up at Fiona.
‘No. No, I didn’t.’
Fiona was looking at me in a way that suggested there were many questions to come. I needed to deflect her attention.
‘It’s just… well I could have been there if it had happened a little earlier and then, that poor guy, all burnt up. It’s a bit gruesome. It’s made me lose my appetite.’
‘Bugger. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have shown you that while you were eating.’ Fiona said.
I stood up. ‘I need to get some air,’ I said. ‘I’m going for a run to clear my head.’
I didn’t change. I didn’t want to give Fiona time to ask more questions. I just slipped on my trainers and ran downstairs.
I’d almost made it to the front door when a familiar voice said, ‘Is that you, Mary dear?’.
‘I’m just on my way out, Mrs Walker.’
I didn’t want to be trapped by the old lady from the ground floor flat but I didn’t want to be rude either. How had she gotten out of her flat fast enough to catch me?
‘I was hoping I’d catch you,’ she said. ‘I have something for you.’
I turned to face her and saw she was holding some folded pieces of paper in her hand.
‘These were on the doormat this morning. Hand-delivered it seems. There’s no stamp and no address, just your first name written on the outside.’
I recognised at once the neat clear script my name was written in. I’d last seen it used to label a picture of monsters I’d hoped were imaginary.
Layla knew where I lived. Where my sister lived. Layla had been here.
Mrs Walker was looking at me expectantly. I desperately wanted to see what was inside the paper packet but I wasn’t going to have Mrs Walker watching me while I did it.
‘Thank you very much, Mrs Walker,’ I said, taking the packet from her and heading out the door as fast as I could. I ran across the road into Sydney Gardens and found a quiet spot, a little off the path and out of sight of the house. Then I leant up against a tree and unfolded the little packet with my name on it.
It contained three folded pages. The first was the portrait of me that Layla had drawn at the food truck. In the daylight, the power of the portrait was even more apparent. She’d caught me on the page after seeing me for a few seconds in the near dark.
The second page was another drawing. This time more like a cartoon or one of those Swiss Heimat designs where all the figures are flat silhouettes drawn in undifferentiated black. On the right of the page was a woman running, knees high, stride wide, arms pumping, looking straight ahead, ponytail streaming out behind her. On the left of the page was a tall, lean, long-haired woman, also running, one long-fingered hand stretched out ahead of her, reaching for the other woman’s ponytail. Her other hand was stretched out behind her, clasping the wrist of a child. A child who wasn’t running. A child who seemed to be being dragged.
I sagged against the tree, sliding into a sitting position, trying to find the courage to unfold the last page.
There was no drawing this time. Just a message in that now-familiar script. It read:
‘I’m glad you run fast’
It was signed ‘Layla’ in a rather florid cursive.
It wasn’t until I read the post scripts that I really understood fear.
‘PS: Once the Dire Beasties sleep, Mummy forgets most of what she did when they were awake.
PPS: Please don’t run in the dark any more.’
I sat under the tree for a long time, unable to move or think. My mind was a jumble of images: Layla looking at me as I stood in the darkness, the silhouette of a woman stretching next to a Land Rover, a burnt-out food truck and a woman running, running as fast as she could and only being fast enough because a little girl, who was more than a little girl, decided not to run.
When the light began to fade, I made myself get up and go back across the street.
‘You were a long time.’ Fiona said. ‘Did you have a good run?’
I slipped off my trainers and dropped them in the kitchen bin.
‘I’m done with running,’ I said.