This is still a work in progress really, but sometimes it’s just nice to get something…you know…out there. Writing can be such a solitary pursuit otherwise. In which case, here’s what’s been rattling around my head lately, in between my teaching job and all the other necessities of life.

Thanks…Amanda x

The next best thing

As the spade struck the unexpected solid object it sent the quick, sharp vibrations of metal on metal shooting through her forearms. Heart racing with anticipation but also with fear, her initial thought was an unexploded WWII bomb. You heard about people finding them sometimes, buried in back yards or on beaches. But as she scraped carefully at the compacted soil with her short, muddy fingernails she found a faded yet once intricate pattern on the dull, rusty surface, and perhaps some letters too.

The garden was Willow’s escape. No, it was more than that. It had become her life support. Like a direct supply of oxygen to the brain, she breathed in its beauty, its serenity, and afterwards was able to see through the fog a little more clearly. Her moods were still dark and unpredictable sometimes, but thanks, they said, to the many hours spent outdoors, she now had more good days than bad.

Willow was lucky to have bought the old Victorian terrace while she could, and had made use of its typically long, thin plot by landscaping it with irregular winding paths which connected the different sections. Just outside the kitchen window near the herb garden was a small wildlife pond, with a bench made of reclaimed timber, where Willow liked to sit and sketch. A vegetable patch at the end near the shed was in full sun almost all day long. There was even a rectangular and more formal area of lawn and shrubs, and borders brimming with multi-coloured, sweet scented flowers, which she planted to attract the bees. It was here, surrounded by nature, that Willow would experience the deepest, most satisfying kind of contentment.

She no longer liked to dwell on the past, but occasionally her mind still wandered of its own accord. Flashbacks haunted her dreams, though less frequently now, and these long, hot summer days were the happiest Willow had known for some time. She yearned to write a novel one day, but found it hard to focus on her ideas for long enough. They said she just needed more time, which was ironic really, because time was something Willow had plenty of these days.

Patiently she continued digging at the object in the ground. It was firmly embedded, and looked as if it might never move. In some places the metal was so corroded Willow feared it might crumble, and wondered how much longer it would be before the earth completely reclaimed its minerals. But eventually enough was revealed for Willow to see that it was some kind of container, cylindrical in shape, with a screw top lid, like a large metallic jam jar. The lettering was too far gone to read, but the pattern still faintly visible. As it finally came free she laid the container gently on the path beside the vegetable bed and left it to warm in the midday sun while she went inside for lunch.

In Pagan times the sun was worshipped. It was a life force, a deity, and no wonder, because without it the farmers knew their crops would fail. Willow’s south facing Victorian garden was bathed in natural light, and the plants gave thanks in their own way by thriving and bearing their much treasured fruits. Being close to nature brings with it a sense of calm that is often missing in our modern, fast-paced world, Willow thought as she tended her small patch of England’s green and pleasant land. And then, almost as quickly as the thought had formed, it was gone.

After lunch she headed back outside to finish the day’s duties. There were still tomatoes to plant out, bean poles to tie and compost to turn, but Willow’s mind was mostly on the metal container which lay quiet and uncomplaining in the afternoon heat. The clods of moist, dark soil had now dried an earthy grey, making it easier to flake off with her fingers. She could tell now that the metal had once been painted a deep forest green, which would have perfectly enhanced the swirling organic pattern, though the passing of time and the burnt orange of rust was mostly all she could see. Once Willow had finished in the garden for the day she would try to make time to study the container further, but for now there was work to be done.

The youngest sibling of a large Cornish family, Willow had enjoyed an idyllic childhood. Spending hours at a time on the vast sandy beaches, she grew into a wildly independent young woman who didn’t much care for the conventional world. Having avoided a career for as long as she could, Willow conceded eventually by agreeing to train as a journalist for the local newspaper. She knew she could never work in an office, it would feel too restrictive, too stifling, but in this way she was free to travel wherever her work took her, and before long she had moved to London to work on one of the major nationals. She began winning awards for her particular brand of extreme journalism, taking her to the warzones and frontlines of the most dangerous places on the planet. And not long after that, she met Finch.

Finch was just a nickname, apparently. Willow had asked many times where it had come from, but she was always told a different story and never knew which to believe. They had only known each other a few weeks before Finch moved in, and soon their lives were entwined and entangled as lovers’ lives become. To begin with they were happy. Willow’s family were thankful she had finally found someone who might tame her and keep her out of trouble, but Willow didn’t want to be tamed, not yet anyway.

She knew if she was careful she could leave just enough time before dinner to take the container to the potting shed and attempt to prise the corroded lid from its base. The idea of finding something inside was exquisitely enticing, and unusually today the butterflies in her stomach distracted her from the flutter of cabbage whites around the lettuces. She would have to be careful not to be seen with the unusual object, but at that time it would be quiet outside. In any case, it would be well worth the risk.

One particularly savage winter day, when the wind and rain were relentless, Willow decided she had almost had enough. The Victorian sash windows were single glazed and draughty, and she hadn’t got around to much in the way of modernising the house. The fire kept the cold at bay in the kitchen, but the rest of the rooms were icy by comparison. The argument over who should go outside to chop more wood had begun over Sunday lunch. Willow paused and swallowed hard before suggesting that it must surely be Finch’s turn, but Finch just ignored her. This was becoming a standard technique of Finch’s, which Willow was finding increasingly hard to tolerate.

Eventually – or maybe inevitably – the relationship broke down. She tried so hard to make things better, but the violent and profound shift between quiet withdrawal and irrational aggression made it impossible for Willow to be calm and patient any longer. In the final few weeks she feared for her safety on many occasions, and it became habit to wait until Finch was asleep before allowing herself to rest, and then only for a few hours a night. She was exhausted, distressed and deeply hurt by this betrayal of her trust. Sleep deprived and paranoid, Willow knew she couldn’t go on like this. As a child she had believed in happy endings, but right up until their final evening together, Willow had no idea how this story would conclude.

Tragically, the end came quickly for Finch. A single blow to the back of the head was all it took. It was self-defence of course, but after a drawn out and difficult court case the jury agreed that Willow had suffered loss of control and found her guilty of manslaughter. The judge gave her six years. When she unearthed the container in the prison garden she had only served two.

There were ten minutes before the bell would sound and Willow would have to go in for dinner. She had finished her gardening chores for the day and decided to take a chance on getting to the shed unnoticed. By tucking the container under her uniform shirt she could walk relatively normally without raising any curiosity. Closing the door quietly behind her, she set about her next task.

Willow’s nervous state was heightened by her dread of being caught. She worked quickly, already against the clock, using the blunt edge of a trowel to lever the screw top lid from its long ago rusted thread. Eventually it came loose, crumbling and flaking as Willow pulled it from position, revealing its contents at last. But it would be another day before she could examine her find. The bell for dinner rang loud and shrill. This was Willow’s cue to conceal the container safely amongst the terracotta flower pots on the shelves of the shed before leaving to join her fellow inmates inside for what would ultimately become another long and lonely night.

It was only after Finch’s death that the truth came out. There was the troubled childhood, the time spent in care, the long standing drug addiction and the more recent alcohol problem. Like the depth of Finch’s financial worries, none of this had ever been known to Willow and she felt naïve and stupid for not working it out. Finch had been in therapy for some years but had stopped the sessions on meeting Willow, for fear of being found out. It seemed so very sad that Finch had made such a damaging decision, and now it was Willow who found herself in therapy.

The following morning the late summer sun warmed the garden as Willow worked, tending to the produce that would be used in the prison kitchen. Lunch came and went, and the afternoon seemed to stretch out for hours, but finally Willow was able to steal some more time in the shed. As quickly as she could she shut the door behind her and took the container down from its hiding place. This time she was able to remove its contents and spend ten minutes or so inspecting excitedly them before the dinner bell rang.

What was inside the container came as a surprise to Willow, its only contents a rough roll of yellowing paper, tied together with jute garden twine and covered in a black, handwritten scrawl. Willow wasn’t sure what she had expected to find, but this wasn’t it. On closer inspection the manuscript appeared to be a letter. Scanning it quickly Willow discovered it was from an ex-inmate. Dated 1953 it had taken an age to be discovered, like a message in a bottle only just washed ashore. Willow marvelled at the miracle that the letter had survived intact. Sixty-one years was a long time to remain under the ground and not be spoiled at all.

Over the next few days Willow was able to read the lengthy letter in its entirety. It was from a woman called Elsie Fothergill who claimed to have been wrongly imprisoned for her part in a bank robbery. She was framed, she claimed, and wanted the truth to be known. As Willow read on she felt an idea begin to grow in her mind. Like the germinating of a seed it was a slow but satisfying process, and soon it had put down its imaginary roots. Her journalistic career was firmly behind her, but the desire to write a novel grew stronger each day, and Willow wondered if this could be the story she had been yearning to tell. As yet her incarceration had proved wholly mind numbing, but thanks more to Elsie Fothergill than the prison’s woefully inadequate mental health team, Willow came to sense a positive change to her sense of wellbeing.

The coming months saw Willow begin to realise her ambitions. She requested a sabbatical from her duties in the garden and was instead put to work in the library, where she could write when she wasn’t checking books in and out. Elsie’s story soon became Willow’s, and by the time the flashbacks had faded and she was finally released, she was able to find an agent who in turn brokered a lucrative publishing deal for the exciting new author. Willow Fletcher became a world renowned writer of brilliantly crafted crime novels and could have made her home anywhere she wished. But instead she chose a quiet life in the old Victorian terrace, writing her books, tending her garden, and generally relishing the solitude of freedom.

***

At least, that is the version of events that Willow chose to believe. What the author did in reality, and somewhat skilfully, was construct a story within a story. As she wrote her works of fiction, what she actually created was a new life for herself, one she could retreat into, one in which she would soon be freed. The various professionals recognised it as an elaborate form of escapism, a complex and reclusive parallel world where she could just about bear to exist. The truth, they concluded, was just too difficult for Willow.

She lived out the rest of her days in the high security psychiatric hospital. Having murdered her partner Finch in a violent and unprovoked attack, Willow never again knew what it was to be free. Yet in her imagination and through her stories what she achieved was, somehow, the next best thing.

The end

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