It wasn’t yet light when she woke.
There was no delicate in-between time between sleep and waking today. No half-sleepy awareness of the shooshing of the sea to carry her from her slumber gently into wakefulness. No gradual rousing by the clank of oarlocks, the gruff grumble of local fishermen and their accompanying crowd of demanding seagulls, the morning chorus that in the coming hours would rise from the beach below. Today, waking was sudden and without preamble, as though she had never actually fallen asleep at all.
Unsure whether or not she had gasped audibly on waking, she clamped her mouth shut and tried to stifle the sound of her breathing. She lay rigid. There was no need to remember where she was, which was usually the case when her sleep was deeper, less troubled. She knew she was home, but she also knew, more importantly, that she was not alone.
Her open eyes blinked sightlessly, seeing only shadows inside shadows, black and grey shapes of no definition. Not a crack of light probed its way past the blinds. She knew the room as well as she knew her name, so the darkness could be her friend – she was, after all, on her home turf.
Her breathing slowed as she strained to hear. The lack of the usual morning sounds was at once comforting and worrying. Yes, it was early. But that only increased the danger. One foot wrong, one sound, one inadvertent disturbance… Her heart pounded, seemed to beat louder in her chest, as she considered the consequences of her next move.
Bus pass. Clothes. Wallet. Phone. She considered the necessary items one by one.
Bus pass. A quick exit. Transport out of town. Infinite possible destinations if you counted the interchanges at neighbouring towns. Crowds to hide in. Ways to blend in. A bus stop less than fifty metres from the cottage. A schedule that started in the early morning. Lots of pros.
Cons: buses that don’t always run to schedule. The high risk of being caught.
Alternatives? The car. Ha! That rust-bucket had not run reliably since 1978. Housed in the garage in a vain attempt to slow its inevitable corrosion in the salt air, it was a doubly dangerous option, as even getting the garage doors open would make enough noise to wake the dead.
So, the bus.
Next: clothes. She needed to get dressed – that much was certain. She could not risk drawing attention to herself in her nightclothes. But she was lucky, she had access to her clothes; she would just need to dress without turning on a light, and without making a noise. Possible. Difficult, but possible. Ok.
What else? Wallet. She needed money, of course. The interlopers hadn’t come for her money; they seemed more intent on emptying her cupboards than her purse. It was simply a question of whether she could retrieve her wallet from the kitchen counter without drawing attention to herself. Again, the darkness was at once her friend and enemy. She had to trust her knowledge of the layout of the cottage and try to minimise any noise from possibly losing her bearings in the dark.
Now, her phone… would she need her phone? Who would she call? She was better just leaving it behind. It was more likely that she would be the one on the receiving end, and that was going to be one call she really did not want to answer. Better to leave it behind, to the infiltrators.
She felt a sudden twinge – why should she run? Her cottage above the sea – her idyll, her place of repose – was her last bastion. Here, she had peace, and a horizon. She had her habits and routines, her seclusion and happiness, for the foreseeable future.
Clearly, it was not meant to be.
She slowly drew back the covers and sat up on the side of her bed, mindful that any creak or complaint from the bedsprings could cost her dearly. She paused, then set her feet squarely on the floor. She rose to a standing position in the pitch dark. No sound from the boards underneath her feet – the gods were smiling on her. Her clothes from last night were draped on a chair. She pulled a cardigan over her nightdress and hitched her trousers up under it. That would have to do until she got away. She slipped her feet into a pair of shoes and heard a creak. Heart pounding, she held her breath to listen. Inside the cottage… Outside the cottage… A moment more… Nothing. Her breathing returned to normal again.
A few stealthy steps towards the door and she had the handle in her grasp. Her breath stilled again as she turned the door handle, slowly pulled the door towards her and stepped through. The shadows in the kitchen loomed like a meeting of the councillors of Mordor. Her pulse quickened when she saw the distinctive shape of her wallet within easy reach–surely her bus pass was inside?– on the kitchen counter. Next to it, her phone was plugged into the charger in the wall. She stopped, gazing at the phone, and thought of her daughter’s inevitable call…
She looked back at her bedroom, and then at the front door. The door to the street. To freedom. To the bus – going anywhere. In a few moments she could be waiting at that bus stop, in the dark of pre-dawn, checking her watch. In ten minutes she could be on a bus, headed anywhere.
A small hand appeared on her arm. ‘Grandma, I can’t sleep.’
A second, sleepy young voice mumbled, ‘Me either… Gam’ma can I have a hot sshocolate?’
And a third chirped, ‘I’m not sleepy, can I watch cartoons?’
The squatters in her house, her grandchildren, clung to her arms and clothes as she replaced her wallet on the bench, turned on the kitchen light and took the milk out of the fridge.
Of course, there was no escape from children on their school holidays.