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A Peculiar Guilt
The woman sits herself down on the old, decrepit bench. She hasn’t come here since last year, but as she sits and takes it all in, everything appears to be almost exactly as she left it. The reservoir is calm and clear, the steep grassy bank covered with daisies and dandelions but for the very edge where all that exists is mud and stones. Trees form an arch around the scene with their branches from which birds sing contentedly. She smiles inwardly – not for the first time – at just how perfect a place for a bench this is.
It is busier than she remembers – her mother always said that it wouldn’t be long before other people would discover this beautiful spot, just as they had done with her father and sister, whilst detouring from the village footpath.
A couple of small children rush down the bank, gathering speed until they splash into the river, agitating the water’s surface as though waking it from a good dream. She feels somewhat bothered by this, and has a sudden desire to leave. She can’t. That would defy the whole point of coming in the first place.
A cool breeze whispers around her. It was here, in that reservoir that she learnt to swim all those years ago, and a few years later, taught Jane to swim too. She slides her hand along the bench’s crooked arm tenderly and sighs, remembering.
As you walk away, you feel as though something is wrong, but how could it? You saw her, didn’t you? She has to be here. But after many painstaking minutes of searching, clearly she isn’t, and so you make your way back and break the news.
Mum’s having none of it, and goes and asks the one in charge. “She got out before us, you know, long brown hair –” She doesn’t finish the sentence because she expects him to know who she’s talking about, and say ‘oh, yes, her, she’s just over there’ and point, and she’ll look over and see Jane waving and smiling, without a single scratch, just like you said.
But the sentence hangs in the air like bread going stale and he just frowns and purses his moustached lips. Finally he speaks. “Um, Mrs Mason, I think you may have misunderstood. We’re doing our best to get her out, and I know it’s difficult but you have to be patient.” He walks away and mutters something to a paramedic, leaving you to process your huge, fatal mistake. For a split second the world stops turning and all is silent.
Then, “Wh…But…I-”, you start to cry, but she is not listening. She breaks into a run towards what remains of the house. You sprint after her, adrenaline ordering you faster and faster. Not fast enough.
“JANE!” She screams repeatedly in between sobs. Suddenly she stops, and falls silent. You don’t understand why at first, but as you’re catching up to her, you see what she’s seeing and you freeze too. A stretcher is being carried by several shouting paramedics out the front door towards an ambulance. On it is a big, black bag.
Inside the bag is the shape of a body.
She tries to speak but no words come out – just a short, high-pitched cry escapes. Her jaw quivers and she falls to her knees, as though she has just been shot while you – the perpetrator, the criminal – stand over her, gun in hand; facing the consequences. Watching her die.
There is a heavy feeling in the air as small drops of moisture begin to fall from the sky, only a few at first, but within moments the heavens have opened. Mothers hastily fold picnic rugs and stuff crockery into hampers while fathers hurry to find temporary shelter for their shrieking youngsters. In a matter of minutes, the place has gone from hectic to deserted, and the only audible sound is of raindrops landing on the grass bank. Even the birds seem to have vanished. She is the only person here.
The sound of an alarm stirs you from your slumber, but as you gain full consciousness, you realise that it isn’t your phone making the noise. You let your eyes adjust to the dim light – it’s before dawn – and the distinct stench of smoke fills your head. You slide out of bed. Your pyjamas feel as if they’re melting off your back. You stand up and panic soaks all your thoughts. Where are Jane and your mother? You call out to them both, but as you wait for a reply, the alarm’s blare is all you can hear.
“Anna?” It’s your mother.
“Mum!” You open your bedroom door instinctively but are hit by the intoxicated air and heat; you have no choice but to close it again. Coughs force their way up your throat. You rush to the bedroom windows and open them, taking in big gulps of air, until something – someone – outside catches your eye. It’s Jane. She’s just standing there in her pyjamas in the middle of the road, smiling at you. Relief floods your body - if she’s alright, that means there’s a way out, you think. “Jane! How did you get out?” She points beneath you, to the front door.
“Anna, I called 999!” It’s your mother again. You turn towards her voice.
“Jane got out! I can see her! She says she got out through the front door! The stairs must be clear!” You turn back to face Jane. She’s gone.
A tear rolls down Anna’s cheek, but it is hidden amongst the raindrops. She bends over and plucks a daisy from the bank, and stands up, placing it on the dry patch where she’s just been sitting. She reads the tiny plaque on the bench that says In Memory of Jane Mason.
“Do you blame me?” she asks, though she knows she will never be answered. And then she leaves, soaked to the skin, and hopes that one day, her mother will see that daisy, and know that Anna put it there, and she hasn’t forgotten.