There had never been a way to win with her father. With Mother, it had been easy – a burden and a chore that she’d never asked for, but easy once she had brought her mind around to it.
She’d always been smart. Which was probably a curse. If she’d been stupid, or just play-merrily-with-butterflies naive, maybe her life would have been better. She could have believed that her mother really loved her, and she could have been blissfully ignorant about how much her father hated her.
Her mother had always possessed an image of what a perfect daughter was, and any deviation from that was met with confusion and disappointment. It was awful – her mother had been educated, smart, savvy – and wanted none of those qualities in her perfect Victorian-era-dress-up-doll.
She’d had always had to hide her real reading level from her mother; to the point where it had been worth risking her father’s wrath just to steal a book from his library. Long, complex words brought comfort, when she was expected to be paper thin.
She’d been Stef and Stephanie. Stef who pretended to be Doctor Moreau, and lived out fantasies with Barbie dolls of a Queen who loved her stargazing Princess; and Stephanie who smiled and deliberated carefully on what piece of jewellery went best with her new dress.
Stephanie had been an uncomfortable mask, but an effective one.
The mask of Stephanie had never worked with James. For whatever reason, his hate for her seemed to give him some kind of true sight, an unobscured view of exactly how she was trying to coax situations to be even a little more amenable.
So, for as long as she could remember, up until he’d abandoned her, their relationship had been a dance where she could barely keep up. She had to say the right things, agree to unspoken terms, and defer to every word he said. In return, he would ignore her, the only blessing he’d ever seen fit to grant.
He hadn’t been above bribes, whenever he’d needed a dinner to go well, or for her to behave at a family function. As she’d gotten older – and therefore less cute – she was no longer a needed prop in front of guests, and she was instead commanded to her room – with a polite explanation to the guests that she was studying, or working on a school project.
Stef breathed in, tasting blood and dirt, and wondered if it was too late to trade her life for her mother’s. Death was nothingness, but it had to be better than this.
She slowly sat up and leaned against the wheel. Her blood was already on the car, a little more wouldn’t result in more punishment.
She wiped her right hand on her formerly-white school blouse, then touched her face, trying to asses the damage. Everywhere she touched hurt. Her cheek was bleeding, as were her lip and her chin.
Her cheek burned from the metal – that was the one area she didn’t dare to poke. Hopefully it would be okay; hopefully, it would just need some after-sun cream, some gooshy aloe gel and it would be okay.
She was scarred enough without adding anything to her face.
There was the sound of an engine – another car coming up the lane. She turned her head to look, hoping that maybe it was some lost Bobby, some curious police officer wondering what a car was doing alone on a country lane.
A white van pulled up next to James’ car. ‘Good for transporting bodies in,’ she mumbled, then wiped her bloody lip on the back of her hand.
Timothy jumped down from the driver’s seat and slid open the back of the van. ‘Fresh clothes,’ he explained without looking at her. ‘It will take me five minutes to set up luncheon. You can be assured that Master James will want you presentable by then.’
The valet pulled a picnic set, and some sealed food containers from the van, and walked away.
She wished she was surprised at his lack of reaction. She wished she could cry and expect someone to come to her aid. But she’d have to be worth something, anything, to be worthy of affection.
Her mother had seen a doll, her father saw a monster. Everyone else saw nothing.
Life was inertia, carrying her from one moment to the next. There were no choices, no chances, no chance for agency over her own life. It was the way it had always been, and it wasn’t likely to change any time soon.
She spat a dirty, bloody, glob of spit onto the ground, then painfully got her feet and climbed into the van.
A spunky heroine would crawl into the driver’s seat, hotwire the steering column, and drive off into the sunset. It would be a quiet and lonely life as a street urchin for a while, then the heroine would find friends and new family, before inevitably toppling the government or saving the world.
Escapist fantasies were stupid.
When the world sucked as much as it did, it was dangerous to think about happy endings and parallel worlds where things didn’t suck. Hope led to pain. Happiness was something to be snatched away if it was something you had to begin with.
Stef pulled the door of the van shut, and knelt in the spacious storage compartment. A black bag sat on an inbuilt shelf, labelled with her initials. Inside were a white blouse and a pair of dress trousers – a nice, neutral outfit. The brands were high-end, but pedestrian – a quiet showing of exactly how little she was worth.
She unbuttoned her blouse, then crumpled it in her hands and sat for a long moment with it pressed to her bloody face. The tears had stopped – unsurprising, they’d been brought on by pain and shock, now that the moment was over and only the pain and fear remained, they went back to their regular hiding place.
Stef dropped the blouse, and looked down at herself – there were a couple of light spots of blood on the undershirt she wore in place of a bra, but nothing that would show through the thick cotton of the new blouse.
But the new clothes wouldn’t be safe from blood transfer unless she was able to clean herself up.
She dug into the black bag – Timothy hadn’t been surprised at her state when he’d shown up, so there must have been some plan to deal with the resultant blood and/or gore.
‘Come on.’ She grunted in frustration, then upended the black bag. A small first aid kit fell onto the dress trousers, its green the only colour in the steel-and-grey van.
She unzipped it, found pads and saline, and began to clean her face.
‘God that must have been a hell of a text.’
‘Why even fucking bother?’
‘Hey,’ she said, mocking her father’s accent. ‘I’m going to beat the shit out of my daughter, pick up everything she’ll need to look presentable again.’
At least there’s no makeup.
She snorted, then applied plasters to each of the wounds; then set about cleaning her hands.
Her body as clean of evidence as it could be, she finished changing; then shoved her bloody school uniform into the black bag before stepping out of the van.
Heroine-Stef would have walked away, clean and defiant, unwilling to face the abuse of her father for another second.
Heroine-Stef would get murdered by whatever psycho picked up a teenage girl trying to hitchhike to- To wherever the fuck she could go. Which was nowhere. Back to school, the same destination her father would inevitably take her back to; to London where she could parlay her name into getting her into one of the serviced apartments that were kept for family members travelling on business, or just back to the family estate, where she could – if careful – avoiding being seen by anyone except the staff.
The rebellious princesses who ran away in books always seemed to have someone to go to. A kindly relative; a servant who looked upon their charge as family, rather than just as part of their job, a teacher or wise Jedi who would give her a path in life.
Real life had no such narrative simplicity.
On the driver’s side of the Jaguar there was a perfect, rustic picnic table – one that had been adulterated with…fanciness. Timothy had laid a jacquard tablecloth and a covering on what was clearly James’ seat to prevent the arse of his tailored pants from making direct contact with wood.
Fresh sparkling lemonade sat in a glass pitcher beaded with condensation, and a lavish charcuterie spread sat next to a plate of cucumber sandwiches.
A plate had been laid on James’ side of the table. She blinked and looked at the table again – he had chosen to look back towards the main road, down the rather unimpressive view of the lane, rather than out from the overlook. A weird choice. Or a costly mistake on Timothy’s part.
James sat – apparently happy with the inferior view – and jabbed a finger towards the unprotected seat. ‘I’m glad I accounted for how pathetic you are, else I’d be behind on my schedule.’
‘Take a long walk,’ she muttered.
An echo of the inhuman expression crossed his face as he reached for a crustless sandwich. It was enough. It wouldn’t be too much trouble to send Timothy for another set of clean clothes. Or to dispose of a body if James finally wanted to be rid of her.
She sat quickly, and bowed her head, hoping he would understand the gesture of submission.
All the food looked delicious, even to a stomach that had been far-too-recently swirling with drunken puke. But it was another test. It wouldn’t be proper to take without being invited. It was all for him. She could eat when she got back to school.
‘Ernest wants me to take an active role in your future,’ James said as Timothy poured a perfect measure of lemonade for him. ‘You cannot continue as you are, and thus, I am here to lay your life in front of you.’
She made a small affirmative noise to indicate that she was listening, without being so presumptuous as to speak an actual word.
‘First, I’d like you to cast your eyes on that rather ugly example of brutalist architecture there.’ Instead of taking his hands away from either his drink or his sandwich, Timothy gestured in his stead, and she looked past the table and focussed on the land below the overlook.
There was indeed an ugly building, at first it parsed into her brain as a prison, then-
DO NOT REACT.
Her heart pounded in her throat.
It wasn’t a prison, the fencing was wrong. And prisons didn’t generally have the tiny figures of orderlies in scrubs grabbing a quick smoke outside.
A loony bin. A prison for uncontrolled fucking psychos like her. Somewhere where James could order the doors locked, and there’d be no chance of parole, no escape but a noose made of bedsheets.
James took a perfect bite from the sandwich, then laid the remains on his gold-edged plate. ‘You wouldn’t be the first, you won’t be the last. Problems go away, Stephanie, and you’re a problem.’
He wants you to react. He wants-
She dug the nails of her right hand into her left palm. She’d started to speak. She wasn’t using her inside voice. He hadn’t heard her talk to herself, but the silence had been broken, and now necessitated that she say something.
But there were no words.
The ugly building loomed large in her mind, and she felt tears on her cheeks.
‘I’m fifteen,’ she said, choking on the words.
‘So many more years than you deserve.’
She stared down at the patterns in the thick fabric of the tablecloth. ‘Am I supposed to come quietly? You can’t expect that I will-’ She jumped as Timothy’s hand entered her field of vision, and placed a cool glass of lemonade in front of her.
‘Your grandfather felt this was an option, but perhaps a nuclear one. I mean, looking at you, you’re clearly a diseased mind, but his affection for whatever remains of your mother in you-’ James cut himself off and was silent for a moment. ‘I see nothing of her in you. She was beyond compare, and you are like the lowest quality changeling exchanged in the night. A bastard of dirt and nothing more. Ernest is soft in his old age.’
Timothy placed a paper plate in front of her and began to place small charcuterie selections on it – mostly the cheaper cheeses, and the crackers she hated.
‘This is the consequence,’ James said. ‘Now you need to understand the action.’ She heard the ice cubes in his drink tinkle as he lifted his glass. ‘Stephanie, look at me.’
Lifting her head was the hardest thing she’d ever done.
‘You’re going to go back to school. You’re going to behave. You’re going to stay there until the end of your A-Levels, and then we’re cutting you a cheque and cutting you loose. Whatever you do after you’re eighteen are your mistakes to live. Personally, I wouldn’t mind if it means I get an email that someone found your corpse in a gutter. But we will have saved face, and we can wash our hands of you.’
Stef, lonely and crazy, stared at her father. Stephanie, daughter of James and Charlotte, knew the question to ask. ‘How much?’
James smiled, and for some reason, it felt like she had passed a test. ‘That was something we went back and forth on. Your grandfather, soft as he is, considered doling out your entire entitlement throughout your life. Monthly stipends to keep you satisfied and quiet.’
‘And you want to give me ten quid and an Oyster card.’
‘I initially thought ten thousand, but I’m aware with such a paltry sum, you’d come crying for more. You’re not family, you don’t deserve family money. This is a send-off, so to get you out of my life, it’s worth some expenditure.’ James stacked some cheese onto a cracker. ‘Your cousin Adam turns eighteen about a month before you do. The value of whatever car he chooses will be mirrored in your golden handshake. The boy’s always had an eye on a Maserati so you won’t be eating Cup Noodle your first week out of school.’
She looked past him and stared at the asylum until everything else dropped away.
It was a good offer. It was a way out, a way away from the people related to her by blood. It would mean being on her own, but that was a far better ending than any scenario she’d been able to dream up whilst trying to remember which one of the blurry school skirts was the one she hadn’t vommed on.
Freedom or imprisonment. It was absolutely binary, but-
She looked down at her plate. ‘I can’t change overnight. I like- I- I’d be happy to leave at eighteen. I’ll disappear, and you’ll never see me again. But- I- I need time.’
‘I’m not paying for rehab, Stephanie.’
She took a sip of her lemonade to play for time. ‘It’s- Two weeks until term break. Let me have one of the London flats. Two weeks and term break, and I can do it.’ Her voice was shaking, she didn’t believe her own words, and she was asking for mercy from a man unlikely to grant it.
[b] He’s not kind, but he’s logical.
She crammed a piece of cheese into her mouth to stop herself from responding.
‘Mayfair,’ James said after a few minutes. ‘You can use the place in Mayfair. I won’t ask if it’s acceptable, because I’m not giving you a choice.’
The serviced apartment was much nicer than she had expected – part of her had wondered if he had a shared room on a council estate that he could banish her to. Mayfair was a place where he let people related to his cases stay – experts and such that warranted special treatment, without giving them a full luxury experience. It was – in his eyes, four stars only by plebeian standards.
‘Timothy will take you back to school. You will pack, immediately, and a car service will take you to Mayfair. The concierge will be informed, and give you the keys. You have your cards, you understand the general spending limits. If I check, I expect to see more curry than Harrods.’
A thought occurred, and she clenched her fists. ‘I need a new laptop for school. I was going to when we went to break, but-’
‘Yes. The entire point is to make you behave in school, so of course, take care of your scholastic expenses. Are you so thick that I need to spell out every single point to you?’
She stared back down at her paper plate. ‘Sorry.’
He stood, rounded the table, and laid a hand on her shoulder. It had always been a threat of control, but with her face still swelling and bruises still forming, she braced for more pain. ‘If I see you again, daughter, your life will be over. Do not fuck up again.’
James squeezed her shoulder just a little too hard, then released his grip and walked away without another word.
Even as James was starting his car, Timothy began to clear away the food and clean the table.
She looked down at her paper plate, at the remaining charcuterie, and thought of the rest of the day that she still had to live through. James wasn’t there to monitor her anymore, and Timothy wouldn’t bother to report her actions back to her father unless they were particularly egregious.
With a quick action, she reached out and grabbed one of the jacquard napkins and began to bundle small pieces of hard cheese into it like she was a mouse preparing for a grand adventure. Timothy, to his credit, focussed on clearing the glassware and her father’s side of the table as she continued to construct her little hobbit bundle – all cheese and crackers, food that would be at least okay for a couple of hours without refrigeration.
When she was done, she folded in the corners and knotted it as tightly as the thick fabric would allow.
‘I’ll wait in the van,’ she said mildly.
‘In the back, miss, I’ve got packages in the passenger seat.’
She nodded, grabbed one more cube of cheese from the table, then walked to the van and bundled herself in, taking the uncomfortable passenger seat beside the shelving.
Breathe. A couple of hours, and you’ll have more freedom than you’ve had in months.
She touched her face, fingers skating over her burnt cheek, and wondered where her injuries rated in comparison to the damage James had wanted to inflict. This was the worst he’d ever done, by far, by the biggest margin, but it had still felt like he’d held back from doing even more harm.
Her eyes were wet with tears again.
‘You’re such a weak bitch,’ she muttered to herself. ‘Stop it.’
Timothy loaded the last of the containers back into the van, then slid the door closed, leaving her alone with her thoughts and her misery.