On the Run by Sally Cronin
Jenny Smith packed the last of the frozen food orders into the cooler boxes filled with ice in the back of her van, and, having waved goodbye to her boss Alex, climbed into the driving seat and checked her list of delivery addresses.
It was going to be a busy morning, but that was just how she liked it. The frozen food centre she worked in was popular and she enjoyed working on the tills, or stacking the freezers each day, as well as chatting to the customers. She was thankful to have been offered this job three years ago, in 1977, as it came with a flat above the shop, with all services included and a heavily discounted food shopping bill.
The live-in arrangement meant that, apart from the tax office, no-one could trace her through rental offices or utility companies, and it meant she could use a fictitious name when meeting strangers. Alex was the only person in this busy town in the Lake District who knew her real name and the reasons for making sure that it would remain a secret.
The local hotels were busy with the summer trade, and traffic could be quite slow on the narrow roads winding through the hills and lakes, especially if you got behind a few caravans in convoy. Jenny made good time however, as most tourists were still enjoying their substantial breakfasts in the bed & breakfasts and the hotels around the town. She was always welcomed into the kitchens with an offer of a tea or coffee or something more substantial, but with a heavy schedule she always declined. Jenny was also reticent about talking about herself, as she knew that more than a few of the customers she saw on a regular basis enjoyed a good gossip.
By lunchtime she was back at the freezer centre and took the signed delivery notes to the back of the shop to leave on Alex’s desk. He was out for the day, with plans to visit some suppliers in Carlisle, and was not expected back until after closing time this evening. There were two part-timers, Jacquie and Mary, serving customers and after checking they didn’t need any help, she headed up to her flat to grab a quick sandwich and cup of tea before they left to pick up their young children from the local primary school mid-afternoon.
Alex lived in a house further down the lake from the town, a family home he had inherited from his parents, and as Jenny lived above the shop, one of her duties, along with serving customers, was locking up at night and opening in the morning for deliveries. Because of this she had a telephone on a table in the hall of her flat, so she could be contacted if there were problems or a lorry driver needed to confirm times of arrival outside of the freezer centre’s opening hours.
She rarely used the telephone for outgoing calls except once a week to her parents, who were the only people, apart from her brother, Tommy, that she kept in contact with. They didn’t know the number and since there was no way to trace the call, they believed she was living and working in a bed and breakfast in Wales. It was something they never questioned, and it was a fact they could disclose comfortably to anyone who might ask.
Only her older brother Tommy knew where she was really living and working because he was the one who had driven her up from Brighton in his van with her few belongings to this town, where his best friend from his army days was running a freezer centre. Jenny was absolutely sure this knowledge was safe with him. She kept in touch with regular letters which he responded to with an occasional Sunday night phone call to her flat, keeping her updated on his growing family.
Jenny made herself a cheese and tomato sandwich and carried the plate and her cup of tea through to the bright sunny living room, with windows looking out over the lake. With a sigh she kicked off her shoes and switched on the radio for company as she ate her solitary lunch.
Sandwich finished, she was about to pick up her cup of cooling tea, when the loud insistent ring of the telephone in the hall interrupted her. She assumed there was a delay to one of the deliveries due in this afternoon, and Jacquie and Mary were too busy with customers to get to the office to answer the call. She padded across the carpet and picked up the receiver.
‘Hello, Alex’s Freezer Centre, how may I help you?’
‘Did you really think you could hide from me forever Maggie?’
Hearing her real name spoken with such venom, by a voice she had hoped never to hear again, caused her to drop the receiver and slide to the floor, shivering as she cowered against the wall.
‘Maggie, Maggie, can you hear me?’
Laughter spilled down the telephone line and into the hall making her skin crawl and she reached out with trembling hands to replace the receiver in the cradle.
As she did so she heard her husband’s final words.
‘Don’t think your friend Alex will help you… his car is in a ditch far away from here.’
For what seemed like an hour, but in reality was only a few minutes, Maggie’s mind was blank with fear. All she could focus on was the controlling threat of violence that had paralysed her for three long years before she had finally taken her brother into her confidence. The threats had escalated into actual physical assaults on a more frequent basis. Blamed on her clumsiness, backed up by the charm offensive her husband unleashed on those close to them, including hospital staff who might question her frequent visits to the emergency department.
Maggie hadn’t wanted to involve her parents ,who had retired to live in Spain, but had to convince them that she was leaving the marriage because she was no longer in love with James and it was her decision to divorce him. She knew they were very disappointed in her, but she suspected Tommy might have dropped some hints about the real situation and that they respected her decision.
Despite her brother’s insistence on going to the police to report James for domestic violence, she begged him to help her get as far away as possible. She knew her husband might telephone and charm her parents in to disclosing where she was, convincing them that he could repair the rift in their relationship, so it was decided to create the story about working in the remote fictional bed & breakfast in Wales.
It was an insistent knocking on the flat door which made her scramble to her feet, casting desperately around for some kind of weapon to protect herself.
‘Jennie, it’s me Alex, open up please.’
With a gasp of relief she opened the door to find her boss holding a bloody cloth to his forehead and a determined look on his face.
‘The police are on the way, I recognised the bastard who drove me off the road from a photograph that Tommy gave me when you arrived here, just in case he appeared in the area.’ He reached out and pulled her in close to his body desperately concerned about her pallor and trembling.
‘I’ve sent the girls home, locked up the shop, pulled down the shutters and the alarm is set.’ He smiled at her reassuringly. ‘I thumbed a lift from a family with a caravan and I thought we would never get here. I got them to drop me off in the square and I rang Sergeant Thompson from a call box and gave him the details of the hit and run and the risk of your husband coming here to hurt you.’
He could feel that the woman in his arms was calmer, and he relaxed his hold so he could look down into her ashen face. Finally after three years he could revert to using her real name. They had been so careful to create the new identity that he had made sure never to let it slip unintentionally.
‘Maggie, don’t you know I would never let anyone hurt you again?’ He gently stroked her hair back from her face and placed a gentle kiss on her forehead. Maggie felt suddenly stronger as she looked up into his craggy face. She had never even considered having another relationship, but over the last three years she had become to rely on this man and the safety he provided; only now appreciating how much he felt for her.
Content to be in his arms, the minutes passed and sirens announced the arrival of a number of police cars, summoned no doubt from Carlisle to back up the local officers. They heard sounds of a loud altercation going on in the street below the flat windows and Alex led her across the lounge. He sat her in an armchair and went across to open one of the sash windows leaning out to get a better view.
A man was lying in the road with his hands cuffed behind his back. He was shouting obscenities and one of the six policemen in attendance was sitting in the front seat of a police car nursing a bloody nose.
‘Maggie, come over and take a look please; it’s okay, you’re safe now.’
She stood up shakily and went to stand beside him. He pointed over to the man on the ground.
‘Is that your husband Maggie?’ Tears rolled down her cheeks but she nodded in response.
‘With my evidence about his forcing me off the road this morning and his assault on that police officer, he is going away for a very long time.’
They stood and watched as James was loaded into a van and the vehicles drive off to the station.
‘How did he find me Alex, only Tommy knows where I am and he would never tell anyone?’
‘He rang me after you left on your deliveries, he thought it was not likely to be a problem, but they had a break-in a couple of days ago. He assumed because of the selection of items taken, it was likely to be kids looking for pieces to sell. However, he got the impression that someone had been through his desk drawers, especially as your letters had been disturbed and his address book was missing… and it had the freezer centre’s telephone number. He had thrown away the envelopes with their postmark, but he said you sometimes mentioned hotels you delivered to in the letters, and other landmarks that could give away your whereabouts.’
Pulling Maggie back into his arms he carried on with the events of the morning.
‘I rang round the first hotels on your delivery route to get an idea of where you had reached in your round. I was hoping to intercept you the other side of the lake when you got to The Glassblower pub, but I was overtaken on a bend by this maniac who then cut across me forcing me off the road and into a ditch, but not before I got a good look at his face as he was driving beside me.’
Maggie’s heart had stopped thudding in her chest but she was still shaking badly in reaction to both the threat and the danger Alex had faced because of their closeness. She didn’t want to ever leave the safety of his strong arms again.
‘I promised Sergeant Thompson that we would go the station and make our statements, and with his attempted murder of me, he wanted to know if you would reconsider your decision not to bring charges against him for his assaults when you were together.’
The colour had returned to Maggie’s face and she had stopped shaking, but she stiffened as she contemplated Alex’s suggestion.
She had refused to bring charges when questioned by police the last time she had been admitted to hospital following a severe beating. James had warned her that however long it took he would find her and kill her if she said a word to implicate him.
‘I am so scared Alex, I had almost managed to stop looking over my shoulder, to believe that he would never find me, but if I give evidence and even if he goes away for several years, he will still come after me wherever I am.’
He pulled her closer, wrapping his arms tightly around her.
After a minute she pulled back and looked into the face of this gentle man and there was no way she could pull him into her turmoil. She couldn’t bear it if anything more happened to him.’
‘Alex I am very sorry to have brought so much trouble to your doorstep, but I don’t want to put you in any more danger, as it would devastate me. I will make a statement, but then leave as soon as I can pack my things.’
‘I don’t want you to go anywhere Maggie, ever.’ He smiled down at her upturned face. ‘I know what you went through, and I didn’t want to make you feel uncomfortable, but if you will give me time, I would like to prove to you that not all men are the same.’
She smiled shyly at him and gathered up her coat and bag, and slipped back into her shoes. She placed her hand into his, holding on tightly and absorbing the strength she needed to put her past behind her for good.
‘I would like that very much.’
© Sally Cronin 2022
One of the latest reviews for What’s in a Name?
I really enjoyed this short story collection. it’s different from others taking a person’s name as the starting point for creating a story. There is a wide range of variety in this collection but all share one thing in common: these are about life, love and humanity. The range of topics in the stories will appeal to all from amusing, sad, emotional to happy stories. There is even a story about a nun, Celia, leaving her calling which remained with me a long time after reading. The twists at the end of the stories were entertaining too, especially loved the one in ‘George!’ and ‘Isobel.’
Another favourite of mine was ‘Clive,’ about a boy taking a walk in the tropics and walking into a whole lot of trouble – the little ‘un meets a cobra! But, the moment when the boy and cobra look into each others’ eyes is just priceless. Loved it. Cobras are not that uncommon a sight in the tropics, my mum’s step mum came face-to-face with one too! And, in ‘Eric,’ you’ll smile at the tale of a widower who learns to live again through his cat, Doris. in ‘Grace,’ the moving yarn of a young girl in an orphanage ticked all the boxes for me. And the tale of the drunk driver and ‘Hannah,’ was fantastic.
Highly recommended to short story enthusiasts and to all who enjoy well written tales.
You can find my other books and their recent reviews: Sally’s books and reviews 2022