Extract: Safe House by Jo Jakeman
The morning after a great storm, a woman arrives in a remote Cornish village. Charlie, as she now calls herself, steers clear of the locals and keeps a low profile – because she has a terrible secret.
Recently released from prison after providing a false alibi for the man she loved, Charlie wants to move on and start afresh. But someone, somewhere, is watching her, determined that she will never get that second chance…
Friday, 5 October 2018
Charlie’s new life began today. Luckily, she never much cared for the old one.
With one hand on the steering wheel and an eye on the road, she checked her reflection in the rear-view mirror and barely recognised herself. The darker hair still took her by surprise. The tips were almost ginger where ‘chocolate brown’ supermarket dye had fought the blonde, and lost.
She looked back to the empty lane that was narrower than it had any right to be and still dark with overnight rain. Puddles captured sections of blue sky, as if it had fallen from the heavens. She had missed the tangy smell of a world washed clean by rain. It was the scent of new beginnings.
Fear and excitement battled it out for supremacy in her stomach. The cautious part of her – which was both sizeable and used to getting its own way – thought about turning the car around, going back the way she’d come, but there was nothing waiting for her there. Her old life didn’t exist any more.
Charlie’s new life could be so… well, it could be so safe.
Her mum used to accuse her of ‘playing it safe’, as if safe was something to be avoided. She could never understand why Charlie didn’t apply for a better job – but who would want the extra responsibility and the paperwork? And, of course, she never took risks. What kind of fool would willingly expose themselves to danger? Her mum said that Charlie was stuck in her ways and Charlie supposed she had a point – until the day before yesterday she had the same hairstyle she’d had since she was twelve.
Safe. Yes, Charlie played it safe on a semi-professional level. And until two years ago she thought she was doing a fine job of it.
The road ran parallel to a river that dipped towards the glimmering sea in the distance. She thought back to family holidays where they’d spend what felt like an eternity in the car before she’d shout from behind Mother’s headrest, ‘I can see the sea!’, as if being the first to spot it deserved a prize. She didn’t have a family any more and no one to share a car journey with. Funny how much could change in such a short space of time.
The Buttery was waiting for Charlie on the other side of the river. The name made her think of thick stone walls and homely fires. Old-world charm and heavy wooden doors. If she couldn’t get a moat and a drawbridge, a cottage at the crumbling edge of Cornwall was the next best thing to keep the world at bay.
The automated female voice coming from her phone told her, Take the first turning on the left, but it was only a twist in the road that dipped beneath a few inches of water and popped up again on the other side. She half expected to be washed downstream in an elaborate game of Poohsticks. As she inched towards the sign for Penderrion the phone told her she was, Arriving at destination.
The houses here were trim and expensive. Set back from the lane, they had lawns that would be perfect for warm-evening G&Ts and a game of croquet. They represented a life that Charlie would never be part of.
She slowed the car as the road began to peter out. The neat lawns melted away, replaced by a bank of trees and unruly hedges. She glanced in her rear-view mirror. Had she missed the house? Gone too far? But then she saw the Sold at Auction sign poking from beneath a huddle of trees that bowed and bobbed in the breeze. Beyond it, she turned down an overgrown track that was dense with wizened brambles – nature’s barbed wire – telling her to Keep Out. As she pushed the car forwards, a rabbit lurched from the undergrowth and kicked its heels at her to lead the way.
Charlie brought the car to a halt behind the cottage. She turned off the engine and pulled herself out of the car. Hands on the base of her back, she stretched and groaned. Though she’d seen pictures, this was the first time she’d seen The Buttery with her own eyes. Phrases like ‘investment opportunity’ and ‘in need of modernisation’ were euphemisms that should have told her everything she needed to know, but still she’d set her expectations too high.
‘You’ve got to be joking,’ she said, though her words were tugged from her mouth and blown to the top of the trees like discarded litter before they could reach her ears.
The roof bowed like a washing line of bedsheets, and the kitchen window was missing its glass. A lot of work would be needed to turn this house into a home, but Charlie had come prepared.
She looked at the upstairs window where a limp curtain fluttered and fell. Did she see, or just imagine, a figure in the shadows? She took a slow step backwards.
The curtains swayed again but there was no one there. They were curled by the tender caress of the wind. Nothing else. She unclenched her hands that she didn’t realise were in tight fists by her side.
‘Idiot,’ she muttered.
There’s no danger here. There couldn’t be, because no one knew where she was. This was her fresh start.
She could be anyone in the world – anyone she wanted – except Steffi.
If she wanted to stay safe, she needed to make sure everyone forgot that Steffi Finn had ever existed.
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