He didn’t care where they lived, just that they stopped long enough to settle down. How was he going to tell Maddie? What would he say to her? How could he explain what had gone wrong this time when he didn’t even know himself? This was the second time in as many months. Something had gone wrong somewhere. Somewhere there must be a leak. Someone was talking who shouldn’t be. He just wished it would stop. He just wanted his life back. He just wanted to forget it had ever happened. But he couldn’t.
Why had it happened? Why had it happened to him? Why had it happened to them? If he had just had that second cup of coffee. If he had just stopped to kiss Maddie goodbye one more time. If the dog had not come inside so quickly when she was called. If he had just spent an extra couple of minutes playing peekabo with Tommo. If he had just stopped when Mr Robinson, next door, had said good morning. If the bus had been late the way it had been every other day that week. If he’d just walked a bit quicker, or a bit slower. If he’d just gone a different way. If he hadn’t gone into the corner shop for a paper he probably wouldn’t have even had the time to read.
So many ifs but none of them had happened. As it was he had just been in the right place at the right time. Or, if you looked at it another way, in the wrong place at the wrong time. Whichever it was he had seen what he had seen and he could never unsee it. As a result everything had changed. Everything in his life had changed. Forever. Less than three minutes. Just three short minutes. That’s how long it had taken. Three short minutes.
He’d been meaning to build the new barbeque that weekend but now it would never be built. Well not there anyway. Or not by him. They had being going to have a party for his mother’s sixtieth birthday on the Sunday. The guests had all been invited. The presents had been bought. The food had been in the freezer. All her favourite things. Now he would never see his mother or his father ever again.
There had only been two other customers in the shop, a woman who had looked to be in her mid twenties and a child of no more than six or seven who was pestering her for chocolate. The woman, obviously her mother, had been trying to drag her away from the display but she was having none of it. She was whining and whinging and saying it wasn’t fair. And then there was the newsagent, standing by the till behind the counter waiting resignedly for the woman to give in and let the child have her own way. He’d gone over to the magazine racks, picked up the paper and then gone to pay. The child was not about to be pacified and, after a few minutes delay, her mother did what so many pressurized parents did every day, she succumbed and the child got her chocolate bar. That short delay was all it had taken. But, not knowing what was to come, what fate had in store for him, he had just handed over the price of the paper before he too had left the shop.
Had he not had to wait those extra minutes he could have been in and out quickly, have walked further on down the road and it would never have happened. As it was, as he had hurried out through the door, he had walked straight into a man running out of the post office next door. Even that would have not had been such a disaster if it had not been for the little Jack Russell tied to the railing outside, waiting patiently for it’s owner. As it was, when he had bumped into the man the little dog had decided that was the exact moment it should let off a fusillade of frenzied barking as it shot forward to the fullest extent of its lead. The man, in swerving to avoid the dog, had tripped and fallen. He had stopped to help but the man had waved him away as he had started to rise to his feet. And that was when it had happened. That was the precise moment when it had happened. If he hadn’t have looked at the man when he had done his Good Samaritan act and tried to help he would have not seen what he did see but he had seen and that was the problem.
The man had been wearing a dark scarf, tied tightly around the lower part of his face, so that his nose, mouth and chin were hidden, sunglasses and a closely knitted hat which covered his hair. And because of the fall the scarf had slipped and the hat had come off. Greasy dark hair had become visible and the spotty, stubble covered chin and weak, narrow lipped mouth had been revealed. And in that brief moment both his life and the lives of his wife and child had changed.
It was funny how the smallest thing, the slightest delay, the tiniest departure from the norm could shape the future in such a dramatic way. When the police had attended and witnesses had been questioned, he had been the only person who had actually had a good look at the man who had held the gun whilst his friends had made the cashiers fill the bags and holdalls with the money from the drawers under the counter in the Post Office. He had then spent the next few hours staring at the serried ranks of grainy black and white photographs in the old-fashioned albums the bored looking officer had put on the desk in front of him at the police station. And eventually he had indeed seen someone he recognised. He had been in no doubt and had told the policeman who had been taking his statement that he was certain that this was a picture of the man he had seen. And that had been about the last seemingly normal thing he had done.
He had wanted to go home to his family once he’d finished but the police had kept him at the station. They had given him endless cups of sludge coloured tea and Maddie and Tommo had been brought in from their home in the suburbs to join him. Tommo had been taken away by a kindly young police woman whilst he and Maddie had been shown into the drab office of a middle-aged inspector. They had been asked to sit down and the inspector had calmly told them that the man he had seen and had identified was the son of a gangland boss who was suspected of the much-publicised but hitherto unsolved murder of an undercover police officer the previous year.
This was the first break the police had had in the last twelve months. As the only person to have seen anything that could finally lead to a conviction for anything, he, Maddie and Tommo were to be taken into the witness protection scheme and hidden away. Not just until a trial had taken place but forever. They had wanted to tell their families what had happened and say goodbye but that had not been allowed. Instead they had been taken down to the underground carpark and driven away in an unmarked saloon car with blackened windows. They were to be spirited away. They were to vanish. Their lives had been turned upside down. Their ordinary, hum drum lives had been changed. Forever. And now something had gone wrong and they were to be moved again.
This wasn’t the first time that this had happened either. Only a few weeks beforehand they had been moved from the first house they had been given because there had been a leak and their whereabouts had become known. The police had not wanted to run the risk of their only witness being discouraged’ from testifying so they had been taken to the anonymous flat in the anonymous grey tower block, many miles from his hometown, where he was now standing. And now they were to be moved again. Where to he had no idea. He just knew it would be soon.
He put the handset back into the charger, sighed, then headed back to the living room where Maddie had been relaxing, watching her favourite soap.
“Who was it? Another wrong number?” She looked round.
He said nothing.
“Oh no, not again.” She’d guessed, without him even having to open his mouth she’d guessed.
“Within the hour.”
“Where to this time?”
“Your guess is as good as mine.”
“No idea. There’s been a leak, that’s all I know.”
“Does that mean it will happen again?”
“No idea. I hope not.”
“Should I get Tommo ready now?”
“No. Just leave him till the last minute. He’ll only get cranky if we wake him up now. Go and ram some clothes into the bags whilst I check that we’ve left nothing anywhere that could identify us.”
“Won’t the police do that? After we’ve gone I mean?”
“Probably but I want to make sure.”
“Will everything go back to normal one day? Will we ever be able to stay anywhere for more than five minutes? Will we ever be able to have friends and jobs and do all the stuff that families get to do like have holidays and days out and children’s parties for Tommo? Will this ever be finished?”
“The police say things should settle down once the trial is over. I really hope so.”
“Do you know where we’re going next?”
“Do you think there’ll be somewhere for Tommo to play safely?”
“I don’t know.” He shook his head, “With any luck they will have thought of that but I don’t know. We can ask at any rate.”
“Don’t any of them have kids? Don’t any of them realise how hard this is?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, I’ll be telling them. I’ll tell them we can’t go on with this. I’ll tell them to just find somewhere for us to be safe. I’ll tell them to find somewhere where we can stay for ever. I’ll tell them…”
She was right. How could they go on like this? How much longer? Would it ever be over? Would the police ever find the leak? Would they ever be safe? He sighed. Maddie was right. This couldn’t go on. It wasn’t fair. Where would they be tomorrow? He hadn’t a clue. Would it be far? He had no idea. What did the future hold for him and for Maddie and for Tommo? He didn’t know. He only knew one thing. There were only two things that really mattered. That they were all together and that they were all safe.
It only took them half an hour to be ready. Thirty minutes to put the few personal possessions they had left into a holdall. And only forty minutes before the doorbell rang out, signaling what? Signaling another change. Another end and another beginning. Maddie fetched Tommo from the little room where he had slept. He grizzled and moaned as she lifted him from his cot but they had no choice. No choice but to do as they were told. No chance to do anything else if they wanted to be safe.
Maddie went out first, with Tommo nuzzling against her neck. He stood in the doorway and looked round. Where would they be in the morning? Not here. Not now.
He turned and walked away, closing and locking the door softly behind him.