“Get the bag!”
The boy squeezed back the tears. Needle sharp gravel dug deep into already bleeding knees and bit into stinging cheeks as merciless assailants grabbed hold of hair and twisted his neck to the side. He tasted dirt. A cruel smile spread across the ringleader's podgy face.
Still, the boy did not cry. Not wanting to give them the satisfaction, he did what he always did and shut off from the torment and humiliation. Retreating into a safe, secret world of music, he floated as the soothing notes of Chopin's “Nocturnes” carried him beyond the nightmare. In a few minutes, it would be over. It always was. He would get up, dust himself down, and stoically walk to the next lesson, one packed lunch and a pound coin lighter.
The pummeling fists ceased.
“Come back 'ere, yew little bastards, and pick on someone yer own size! Yew wait 'til I get you in class, Tim Reynolds, yew fat prick!”
The boy looked up in time to see his oppressors run off, hotly pursued by a pair of skinny, blue-mottled legs, their owner swearing as she gave chase.
“Here, up you get. It's all right. They've gone.”
He stared up at this timely “Angel of Mercy,” and his tender heart beat a little faster. The world, which up until that moment had been shrouded in so much misery, turned radiant with happiness.
Rachel Warner glanced in her mirror at the forlorn boy huddled on the backseat. Once again the nagging sense of guilt that too often plagued her reared its ugly head.
She cursed under her breath. It was almost eight thirty.
As usual, they were late. In their household, things never ran smoothly. Alex always misplaced his gym shoes. In fact, this latest battle between her and Alexander was over shoes. Or to be more precise, trainers: a hundred-quid worth of designer footwear she couldn’t afford, unless she chose to ignore the unpaid bill reminders pinned on the kitchen memo board.
Alexander vented frustration by kicking her seat.
“Stop it now, Alex.” She tried to act stern. Her heart wasn't in it. She’d learned from painful experience the effect peer pressure could have on a child's fragile psyche. Explaining to a seven-year-old who shared a classroom with fifteen precocious, designer kids that money and possessions didn't necessarily bring happiness—well, it was like trying to tell a dog that bones weren't good for him.
Alex didn't want to be reminded he was lucky to have good health and food on the table, unlike the starving and dying in Africa, when all he desired in the world was a PlayStation 3 and shoes like David Beckham.
The attack on her seat stopped. Alex slumped against the side of their battered Fiat. He didn't sulk for long. He was a good little boy; he understood she did her best.
He sat up straight and fidgeted with the Spiderman schoolbag straps. A lock of sandy-colored hair flopped across his forehead, reminding Rachel she needed to book him in for a haircut before Richard complained.
“We could ask Dad,” he mumbled.
Rachel snorted, swearing under her breath. She strained for a note of optimism. “I will if you want me to.”
Alexander let out a long sigh; a sigh of resignation Rachel hated hearing.
“It's okay, Mum. You'd only be wasting your time. Besides,” he said with a grin, “Granddad would only make him buy me some girlie sandals or something just as naff.”
Rachel giggled at his astute take on Mr. Thompson senior. Her ex-father-in-law would rather turn Catholic than fork out for sportswear promoted by men he considered overpaid, sports degenerates. She sobered up quickly. “I'm sorry, darling.” Alex’s woebegone expression raised her guilt to level two. “Maybe next month.”
They both understood ‘next month’ would never come. Money, or the lack of it, was a permanent issue in their household. “Sometimes I hate you, Richard bloody Thompson,” she muttered. “Actually, make that all the time.”
They pulled up in front of Wyeston Independent Church School just as the bell rang. Alex’s mouth formed into a sulky pout. He hated this school—the school her ex-father-in-law had chosen. Rachel hadn’t had much say in the matter.
“Cutting it fine this morning, aren't we?”
Lynn, Rachel's best friend of twenty-two years, opened the back door and bustled out a reluctant Alex. “Hurry up. Tanya's waiting and not happy about it.”
He ran off to join his honorary cousin, the one person who made school life bearable. The little girl waited impatiently by the gate, her Barbie bag clutched against her matching T-shirt, the princess mules she insisted on wearing tapping on the asphalt. Lynn totally ignored the headmaster’s threatening letters on the subject of uniform rules. She was adamant. No kid of hers was gonna dress like a lesbo.
Tanya presented a picture of innocence, hair tumbling around her shoulders in a halo of russet-red ringlets—until she opened her mouth. The sound that burst forth from her doll-like frame would have drowned out the Right Hon. Ian Paisley.
“Yer fecking late again.”
Shaking her own amber curls, Lynn sighed. “I don't know where I'm going wrong.” Her jade green eyes narrowed. “Tanya! If you don't get out of that fecking puddle, I'll brain yew!”
Rachel arched an eyebrow. “You were saying?”
Jill Holmes chose that moment to strut by, her over-lifted face trying, but failing, to frown at Lynn. Rachel was perfectly aware Jill and her band of gold-card-carrying friends thought Lynn O'Donnell-Hudson too vulgar for words.
“Tight-arsed bitch.” Lynn lit up a slim menthol cigarette and promptly raised her finger at the back of the retreating Jill in her good morning salute.
“You'd think all those smoothies and wheat germ muffins for breakfast would loosen her up a little, wouldn't you.” Rachel watched Jill step up into her state of the art people carrier. “God, I hate that woman and not only because she is Allison's friend.”
Turning back to Lynn, she studied her with amusement as she held a gold compact at arm's length while she revamped her already blood red lips. “For goodness’ sake, Lynn, is it necessary for you to come to school dressed as if you're about to audition for a ‘50 Cent’ video?”
“These shorts, I'll have you know, emphasize my killer arse and twenty-two-inch waist.” Lynn pouted at her reflection. “Which, apart from driving my daughter's young, rather sexy teacher crazy with lust for me, pisses them off big time.” She jerked her thumb in the direction of the carpool of happy pill parents. “Besides which I have a class at ten. Fat and Over Forty.” She shuddered. “Jeesus, I'd kill myself if I ever got into that state.”
While hubby, John, slaved away over a hot desert, Lynn kept busy (and out of trouble) by running a dance and exercise school. John, putty in her hands, was only too happy to indulge her passion. He'd paid out a small fortune for the refurbishment of a church hall so she could realize her dream. Now Lynn mixed business with pleasure, compensation for ‘sacrificing’ a promising stage career for love.
“Talking of classes, Rach, don’t forget you promised to help me out with the seven o'clock tonight.” Lynn beamed at her.
Rachel groaned. It had completely slipped her mind. She didn't mind taking the occasional class for Lynn. The cash Lynn forced into her hand came in handy. But for once, she could have done without it. The weekend had been a hectic round of swing-parks and sleepovers, and her house still suffered from Monday morning hangover.
“It's the show soon.” Lynn, noting her hesitation, pushed home her point. She could lay guilt trips big time. “Oh, come on, Rach. What's the alternative—an evening of Britain’s got Talent and Deal or No Deal? Alex can wait with Tan, and when we're done, I'll stand us all a double Whopper burger. Give the kid a break. It's got to beat seared chicken breasts and pita bread.”
“You never did fight fair, did you?” Rachel guessed Alex would be in complete agreement with his she's-more-fun-than-you aunt. “Okay.” She slipped behind the wheel before Lynn coerced her into anything else. “I'll do it, although God knows what shape I'll be in by tonight. We've got new arrivals today. Some mega pop star from America, I think. He's here for three days, and he's bound to be a pain in the bloody arse—or should I say 'butt'? Spoilt and demanding as hell. They usually are¼what?”
Lynn turned a peculiar shade of purple. “Not Daniel Haines? Don't tell me that the Daniel Haines is coming to The Country House?”
“Yes, the Daniel. Should I be impressed?”
Lynn’s mouth hung open in goldfish mode. “You've got to be kidding me. Even you must have heard of Daniel Haines. Duh. He's only the biggest thing to hit the scene since Elvis.”
Rachel dripped sarcasm. “And there's me thinking it was Robbie.”
“You are lame. Robbie is so last year.”
“Oh? And does Mr. Williams know?”
Grimacing at her lack of savvy, Lynn leaned against the car door as Rachel tried to close it.
“Daniel is young, dynamic, and American, and so¼so¼well, let's just say that I could do things for him.”
“Which you can't because you're a twenty-seven-year-old married woman with a daughter, a mortgage, and a budgie, so forget it.”
“A girl can dream, can't she?” Lynn pouted.
Rachel sighed. She was used to Lynn's crushes which, although endearing in a twelve-year-old, were rather tedious in a not-too-far-off thirty. She, on the other hand, in her position of assistant to the manager of the exclusive hotel, had met her fair share of celebrities and found them wanting. Actually, not all. To be fair, the Death Metal band, The Rotting Corpses of Salem, had been the epitome of good manners and charm. Which was more than could be said for that hip-hop artist, Mr. Blow (Or was it Blow Me?). Rachel shuddered at the memory. He'd given new meaning to the word vomit.
Lynn rapping on her skull brought her back to the present.
“I said any chance of tickets for one of his gigs? Saturday would work for me.”
“No and no. Besides, you know the hotel policy. The staff is not allowed to harass the guests.”
“Who's talking harassment?” Lynn rotated her hips in a lewd manner. “A quick shag behind the kitchens would do.”
“Oh, grow up.”
“Ooooh, someone's in a bad mood this morning.” Picking up a strand of Rachel's hair between her fingers, Lynn frowned. “Your color needs doing, and as for the cut, well, if that’s your attempt at boho chic, forget it. It's more like boohoo chicken.”
Rachel slapped her hand away. “My color is fine, thank you.” She gathered her honey shoulder-length locks and wound them into a precarious knot at the back of her head. “I have no desire to return to my bimbo past. Some of us have moved on.”
“Don't knock it, sweetie. It bagged me a man in oil, didn't it?” Lynn screwed up her eyes. “Okay, I'll be serious. What's up? Has Rick the Prick been hassling you?”
“No, not yet, although the day is young.” Rachel frowned. “It's Alexander. We had the trainer discussion again. It's his birthday soon and….”
“And you're broke.” Lynn clicked in exasperation. “God, Rach. You can be one stubborn cow. I told you I would lend you the money. What's the point of me having a wealthy husband if I can't let my friend use him from time to time?”
Rachel shook her head. Sometimes Lynn's take on life was a little off the wall. “You know why I can't accept your offer, dear friend. I see no point in introducing Alex to expensive designer goods when I can't afford to buy them for him. It would be unfair to tempt him.”
Lynn folded her arms and regarded her with mild disbelief. “Sometimes you are so righteous it's sickening. It must be all that Sunday School.”
“Hah, you can talk.”
“Ah yes, but we Irish Catholics know how to do decadence and fun. We simply repent afterwards. Three Hail Marys and it's sorted. Now, back to Daniel Haines….”
Rachel turned the key and the engine spluttered to life. “I'm off. My head is killing me, and you are not helping. And I am sooo late!”
Question. We all love the chance to get even with an ex who hurt us. If given that chance, what would you say or do to them as pay back. Best answer wins a copy of Cold, Cold Heart.