Breaking Free – A Sign of the Times

The ‘For Sale’ sign outside her house came as a bit of a shock. She didn’t remember putting it up for sale and she didn’t recall her partner Andy saying anything about it. Sarah parked her car outside the house, grabbed her bag and files, locked up and went to inspect the sign again. It looked new.  Had the estate agent made a mistake and hammered it into the garden of the wrong house? She looked at the houses either side of hers and shook her head. Surely one of them would have said something; they were on good terms with all their neighbours and putting your house up for sale was the sort of thing you let other people know about.

Wasn’t it?

Still puzzled, Sarah let herself in and put the files on the hall table, bag on the floor and keys in the designated bowl. Andy bought the bowl for her; partly out of affection and partly exasperation as they were late for yet another of his trainspotter meetings because she couldn’t find her keys. It was a very pretty bowl. White pottery with a pattern of delicate poppies and cornflowers. It was feminine in a way that, try as she could, Sarah could never achieve. She didn’t do little dresses with frills, spend hours over her hair and makeup, nor squeeze her feet into fashionably high and uncomfortable shoes.  She was aware of the fact that she would never be Andy’s ideal woman, but then for the last ten years, he had been anything other than her ideal man.

“Andy? Hello?” She shrugged off her coat and hung it on the neat but characterless coat stand.

“Up here.” Came the reply. His voice sounded odd, and she wondered what she had done this time. Taking extra care to put her boots neatly on the shoe rack, Sarah walked slowly up the stripped pine stairs. He wasn’t in their bedroom. She turned around and went into the guest bedroom, not that they ever had any guests. Andy stood behind the bed, which was covered with clothes, toiletries, and a very large rucksack that still bore the label of the outdoor pursuits shop Andy loved to frequent. He looked up and gave a slightly guilty smile that made him look even more goat-like than he normally did.

She frowned.

“Some idiot’s gone and put a For Sale sign up in our front garden. I was just going to ring the estate agents and ask them to remove it. What’s all this Andy? Are we going somewhere?”

“Erm, WE aren’t. I am. The sign isn’t a mistake. I’m putting the house up for sale.”

“Our house? Why?”

“My house. My mother’s house originally. I’m going away.”

“But – but – we’ve lived here for ten years. Where are you going?”

Sarah sat down on the very edge of the already crowded bed.  She didn’t like the house. She had never tried to remove the remnants of Andy’s childhood, and his mother’s desire for a neat, orderly and feminine environment.  Any attempts on her part had been gently but firmly rebuffed, so she gave up eventually.

“We aren’t going anywhere Sarah. I’m leaving tonight and I’ve put the house sale in the hands of my solicitors. You can stay here until the house is sold of course, but the estate agent thinks that she can get a fairly quick sale.”

Brain whirring as she tried to process Andy’s words, Sarah sat immobile on the bed. Andy continued packing things into the rucksack.  He was an excellent packer; she would say that for him. He folded clothes very precisely, and knew exactly which of the Velcro pockets of the rucksack would be best for the object in his hand.

“Where are you going Andy? Shouldn’t we have talked about this?”

Patiently, he put down the pair of immaculately ironed shorts that he was rolling into a sausage that would prevent any travel creases.

“I’m going to Thailand. I’ve worked my notice already, and my plane leaves at twenty-hundred hours. I have booked a taxi to take me to the airport. I don’t want any scenes; you know how embarrassing I find them.”

“Why Thailand? Why now? Are you going alone? Why are you selling the house? Why didn’t you tell me this a month ago when you handed in your notice?”

“So many questions Sarah. I’ve always wanted to go to Thailand, and whenever I raised the subject, you made some silly comments about ladyboys and kidnapping. Some idea you got from one of those trashy novels you read, I suppose.”

“But – but – but what am I going to do? I won’t have a home anymore, what will our friends think?”

“MY friends already know, and think that I am making the right decision. We’ve gone stale Sarah.  We were never that compatible in the first place, but your untidiness and slapdash ways have been driving me to distraction for years. It was charming at first, but now it’s just self-indulgent. My sister will be coming over to pack away my belongings and put them into storage while I’m away, so I’d be grateful if you could start looking for somewhere else to live so that she has less to go through.”

Sarah hated Andy’s sister Abigail with a passion.  The thought of her rummaging through the house, their house, made her feel incredibly angry.

“Don’t I have any say in this at all?”

She shouted at him, her hands clenched into tight fists that desperately wanted to punch him in the face, to grab hold of that silly ginger goatee beard and tug it till his eyes watered.

“Ah yes. Time for the hysterics. This is why I didn’t tell you before. You really are rather predictable.”

“I hate you, Andy!” she said vehemently.

“Good. That makes it a lot easier for me.”

He picked up a neatly typed list and handed it to her.

“This is an inventory of the contents of the house. Those typed in black belong to me, those in red are yours, or things that we bought together that I don’t wish to keep. Abigail, my solicitor and the estate agent all have copies of this letter too.  Would you mind moving off the bed now please? I have to finish my packing.”

Sarah stood up and walked slowly to the door.  She felt numb, unreal. Her instinct was to go into their bedroom, throw herself on the bed and cry extremely loudly. This would have no effect on Andy whatsoever. Passion of any sort was alien to him.

She went into the bedroom nevertheless and got under the duvet. She rolled over to Andy’s side of the bed and sniffed his pillow hoping that the remaining scent of his hair might break through the wall that was building up around her.


He’d changed the bedding.

Sarah wanted to scream, and shout, and rave. How dare he! How dare he plot and scheme behind her back in this way? She’d seen no change in his manner over the past month, had she? She rewound her memories and found no major arguments.


She found no major moments of happiness either.

Andy would wake her with a cup of coffee, then he would shower and shave round the edges of his beard, eat his horribly healthy breakfast, and be out of the door before she had even made up her mind as to whether she would shower or have a bath. The choice was usually dictated by how long she had lingered over her coffee and the news. They had been embroiled in a cold war over the television in their bedroom almost from the start of their relationship. It was Sarah’s television, and she needed its cheery morning information to wake her up.  Andy had no time for lingering, and lost no opportunity to express his disdain. 

The more she thought about it, the more Sarah had to admit that Andy was right. They were going through the motions of a relationship but there was no laughter left, no fun. Just a distant, healthy, athletic landscape gardener and an untidy, disorganised social worker who found her partner’s style of living both reassuring, and stifling.

It was warm and comforting under the duvet and, as had always been her habit, Sarah fell into a deep sleep that wiped away all that had happened since she had arrived home. It was such a deep sleep that she barely registered the affectionate peck on the cheek and the gentle ‘Goodbye’ as the bedroom door clicked shut.

When she woke, the house was quiet, too quiet.  She reached for the remote and turned on the television in time to catch the end of the ten o’clock news.  It wasn’t until she’d finished watching the weather that she remembered Andy.


She called, half hoping that he would reply but knowing that he had gone. She rolled out of bed and wondered for a moment why she had been in bed fully clothed in her going-to-meetings suit and vaguely pretty blouse that she had allowed Andy to buy her.


She called again and pushed open the guest bedroom door. The bed was bare now, save for another copy of Andy’s inventory list. She pushed it onto the floor in disgust and decided that she was hungry. Making as much noise as her be-socked feet would let her, Sarah stomped down the stairs in a manner guaranteed to annoy Andy, if he was there.

But there was no response.

The curtains in the lounge were drawn and the sidelights on, the kitchen was similarly put into evening mode by Andy before he left.

Thoughtful to the last.


How could it be thoughtful to abandon your partner of ten years and sell the house from under her? Sarah pouted as she opened the fridge door looking for immediate food. The shelf containing Andy’s macrobiotic foodstuff, and bottles of water was empty. Her shelf was always more interesting anyway. It certainly was now; Andy had stocked it with the items that he usually found disgusting. Sarah extracted a can of Diet Coke, some sliced cheese and bread.

She made her sandwich and left the knife and chopping board on the worktop. She didn’t even bother with a plate, as ten years of Andy’s rules flew out of the window. It felt good to be curled up on the sofa, balancing her sandwich and can on the leather arm, whilst flicking through the TV channels for something other than wildlife and gardening.

The phone rang and without thinking, Sarah jumped to her feet knocking over the can and spreading breadcrumbs onto the floor.

She looked at the phone.


No thanks.

Leaving the answerphone to deal with her much-loathed sister-in-law, Sarah dug her mobile out of her bag and went back into the lounge, stepping over the sticky mess on the floor. She could hear Abigail’s annoyingly sweet voice being patronising over the phone as she left a message guaranteed to patronise and infuriate Sarah.

When in doubt, phone a friend.


Sarah could feel her voice cracking already.

“Hello Honey. No need to explain. I got home from work today to find a type-written note from your ex-beloved explaining why he was running away to Thailand without you and selling the house. Little rat!”

“Why didn’t you call me Jude?”

“Your phone was off.”

“He must have done it before he left. Pig!”

“He’s gone then?”

“Yes indeed!”  Sarah tried to inject as much enthusiasm into her response as possible.

“And I bet you are drinking Diet Coke and eating a sandwich in the lounge without a plate or coaster in sight.”

“Right again. I’m not sure what to do now though. I spilt my drink on the floor and there are crumbs everywhere.”

“I’m on my way. Are you still hungry?”

“Yes, this cheese sandwich is disgusting.”

“Good, what we need is red wine and kebabs.”

“Won’t Dan mind?”

“No, my darling husband sends his love and hugs, and asks that you send me home in one piece tomorrow. I’ll be there in half an hour.”

Stepping Back – That Nightshirt and Those Pigtails

Mark tried to open the front door as quietly as possible but Pluto was already on the other side of it, tail wagging furiously.  Rachel wasn’t far behind, and Mark couldn’t help smiling at the sight of her.  Pigtails, old navy cotton nightshirt, and spectacles perched on the end of her nose. 

His Rachel.

He tugged one of her pigtails and pulled her close. “I’ll take Pluto out for a wee now, and then you can get into bed.”

“No way!  I took him out about an hour ago so he can hang on while you tell me what’s happened.”

Rachel pulled Mark into the living room and sat herself down on the sofa while he kicked off his shoes and wriggled his toes.  Not content with having Rachel sat next to him, he pulled her onto his lap and buried his nose into the softness of her neck. “Okay.  The guy, whose name is Jason by the way, had arranged to meet up with Pete with money for the heroin, but Pete didn’t show because he had been beaten up by the smugglers when he couldn’t pay them.  He’d managed to hide the drugs, which is why we found them when he turned up here after being on the run.  Although we have the Portuguese end of the smuggling ring under lock and key, Jason is our link to the people buying and distributing the drugs.  They are not going to be happy about having lost their money as well as the drugs. Jason is absolutely terrified and singing like a bird in exchange for protection.  He’s in a bad state and needs some legal medication to keep him alive. We will provide it, but the tentacles of these organisations spread throughout the penal system, as well as quiet country villages like this one.  We can keep him safe until he testifies but once the court case is over, we can’t guarantee anything.”

“Will you have to go back to work now?” asked Rachel, a little sadly.

“No.” said Mark, pulling her even closer.  “This is a really big case that is already being dealt with by the Met.  They are grateful to us for giving them another piece of the jigsaw but this is their area of speciality, and I for one, am very happy to hand it over.  This won’t be the last time though Rachel.  The job I do isn’t very safe; apparently, with my colouring, I have the knack of blending in rather than looking too obviously like a copper.  It also means that you might have to put up with long hair, designer stubble, a beard, a moustache or even both.  Can you deal with that?”

“I may need to wear my spectacles more often, and buy some new flowing scarves.  Can you cope with me when I have a deadline to meet, and I need to shut myself away?”

“If you can cope, then so will I.  Perhaps you could wear that green scarf that I saw in the wardrobe?”

“Just the green scarf?”

“Rachel, you are most definitely not the shy girl my little sister took under her wing at Uni.  What’s else has been going on in our part of our world?”

“Mrs K and I had a drink after you left; we have put the world to rights one way or another.  She approves of pale peach for our bedroom and will be scrubbing the walls and wardrobes with sugar soap while we are out shopping in the morning.  I had to Google sugar soap so that I’d know what she was talking about.  I have also spent some time looking at the merits of gloss and emulsion, masking tape and whether brushes are better than rollers and paint pads.  It’s complicated.”

“What else did the two of you talk about?”

“The funeral, bright clothes for the girls…”

“And babies.  Don’t tell me that you avoided talking about babies?”

Rachel shook her head. “I tried, but you know what she’s like when she puts her mind to things.”

“And her opinion is?”

“Leave it to fate. If we are meant to have children, then we will, and if we aren’t, we’ll still have Lou and the girls. Oh, and she said you should stick to wearing boxer shorts and avoid tight jeans.  Much better for male fertility apparently.  I Googled that as well, and she may have a point.”

“Time to put Pluto and the laptop to bed.  It sounds as if we might be a bit busy in the morning.  Mrs K is a very light sleeper though, and always knows when I come in late, so with any luck she won’t be tapping at the bedroom door with a pail and some sugar soap.”

“I’ll go and get my dressing gown; better to be prepared. Mrs K doesn’t think that this nightshirt is particularly attractive.”

“That nightshirt and those pigtails are making me feeling wide awake again.”


Rachel ran down the corridor to collect the dressing gown that she had left on the bed that morning. Mrs K had hung it up on the back of the door of course, as well as vacuuming the space where the dressing table used to stand. Mark had settled Pluto down and was waiting for her in the corridor. He smiled and picked her up in his arms; a move reminiscent of the early days of their relationship when he had to carry her to the bathroom and back, every day. This time was different; this time she held on very tightly and kissed him as he pushed open the door with his foot, and then shut it very firmly behind them.

“Talking about babies…” he said, as he laid Rachel very gently down on the bed.

Stepping Back – Wedding Dresses, Walls or Wardrobes

The journey home in the dark from Lou’s house was completely different from Rachel’s first walk with Mark. Pluto took the opportunity to sniff and anoint every tree, bush and lamp post, giving Rachel the opportunity to broach the subject of contraception and babies.  He listened intently, as she knew he would, and when she finally ran out of words, he stopped walking, told Pluto to sit and took her in his arms. “Lou is right; I never wanted children with Sorrel, she was too self-centred and used to get impatient with pregnant friends or those who already had children.  Then I met my nieces, and I don’t need to tell you how much I love them.  You don’t know if you can have children, although I dispute the comment about you being too old.  Life is a lottery and we seem to have won first prize so far; if you get pregnant and all goes well, then that is just another benefit of being together.  If it doesn’t work out, we have each other, Lou and the girls, not to mention the other side of things.”

Rachel looked at him quizzically. “The other side of what?”

“Doh!  Do I really have to explain what happens when two people want to make babies?”

“Oh yes, of course. We do seem to be getting rather good at that side of things.”  Rachel felt thankful that her blushes couldn’t be seen under the streetlight, but even more relieved that yet another concern had been laid to rest.

Just as they were approaching the house, Pluto began to snarl, and then bark in his most ominous stranger-danger manner.  A male emerged from the bushes and held his hands up.  Rachel recognised him immediately; the skinny young man she had seen talking to the Portuguese travellers on the beach months ago.  Even in the darkness, his soiled and bedraggled appearance was obvious,

“Who are you and what do you want?” said Mark.  “Before you say anything, I should warn you that I am a member of the police force, and that this is a police dog.”

The man stood very still and Rachel pulled her rape alarm out of her handbag, just in case.

“Looking for a mate of mine.  Name’s Pete.  I’ve been calling at all these houses to try and track him down.  The woman next door told me to wait here for you because you know Pete.”

Mrs K popped up from behind the fence, and outside the man’s view.  She mimed the telephone again, and Rachel took this to mean that she had already contacted the police. Mark nodded and handed Rachel Pluto’s lead. “Before I let you inside my home, I would like you to turn out your pockets and put them on the bonnet of the car.  Have you got anything that might cause any damage to yourself or anyone else?”

The man pulled out a paltry collection of coins, some keys and a tattered piece of paper.  Mrs K pointed towards a bush where Rachel could see the dark shape of a rucksack; Mark had spotted it too, but not knowing what it contained, he chose not to pick it up. “Do you have anything else?” he asked.

The man shook his head and did his best not to look in the direction of the bag.  Mark was torn; he didn’t habitually carry handcuffs on him when he went out to dinner, but going inside to get them might put Rachel at risk.  Mrs K came to the rescue once again, and threw Mark the handcuffs that she had grabbed from his wardrobe after nipping into the house through the patio doors, when she first set eyes on their visitor. The man seemed a bit surprised at being cuffed and cautioned, but hung his head in defeat when Rachel and Pluto approached the bag in the bushes.  Pluto, the police dog who had proved unsuccessful at sniffing out drugs, ammunition and money, set up a very excited bark, followed by several sneezes.  Rachel made sure that she placed a tissue over the handle to make it more obvious but knew that she shouldn’t touch it otherwise.

“When did you last have something to eat or drink?” Mark asked.

“Can’t remember.  Pete was supposed to meet up with me a couple of days ago but he was a no show, and the usual people I deal with at the cottages were gone too.  The others wouldn’t speak to me.  I didn’t see anyone there that I recognised anyway.”

Further interrogation was halted by the appearance of two of the local bobbies, driving a police van and quite excited by Mrs K’s summons. They loaded the man into the back of the van; Mark let Rachel and Pluto into the house and rummaged in his wardrobe for some gloves and a couple of evidence bags.

“I’m sorry.” he said as he held Rachel very close again.  “Are you sure that you want to get involved with someone who is never really off-duty?  I made the arrest so I need to go back to the station with the lads.”

Rachel kissed him. “What do you mean ‘get involved’?  I am involved and I intend to keep it that way.  At least you’ve had a decent meal; good job we were drinking fruit juice.”

Mark shook his head. “Sometimes I get an instinct about something; I felt that it would be better to wait and have a drink when we got home.  Copper’s nose maybe? I also had visions of Damaris and her trout pout trying to run us down again. Don’t wait up though, you don’t need to.”

“Rubbish!  Pluto and I will watch trashy late-night TV on the sofa until you are back home.”

“I’ll be as quick as I can.  I’m still technically on leave so I can pass a lot of the paperwork to whoever does the interviews.  You say you recognise this bloke?”

“I saw him with the Portuguese people about four days after I arrived.  It was the morning after I dropped the glass of water and broke the light bulb.”

Mark also smiled at the memory of their first meeting. “A night I will never forget.  If we can tie this guy in with the drug smugglers, we’ll have even more evidence.  I’m not telling anyone that Pluto has finally found his paws as far as spotting contraband.  The contents of that rucksack could prove very interesting as well.”

There was a gentle tap on the window and the sight of Mrs K giving a thumbs up. Rachel let her in through the patio door and they waved Mark and the police van off. Mrs K instinctively took the sherry bottle and some glasses out of the cupboard and sat down with Rachel at the kitchen table. She brought Mrs K up to date with regard to the funeral, furniture moving, painting, decorating, and building a flat pack desk once it had been acquired. Pluto settled down at their feet; his head on Rachel’s shoe and a paw extended to rest on Mrs K’s.  Time to bring up the most delicate subject.

“There’s something else Mrs K, and as you are the next best thing to being a Mum that Mark and I’ve got, I want you to know about something that is important to us both.”

“Well, I know you’ve been busy, but you can’t possibly be pregnant yet, or is there some new-fangled way of finding out really early?”

Rachel laughed and blushed at the same time. “I don’t even know if I can have children. I mean, I was on the pill for a long time and the subject never arose with Sam, but with Mark…”

“He’s a smashing uncle to Lou’s girls and if you are lucky enough to fall, then he’ll be a brilliant dad.  How does he feel about it?”

“We’ve agreed to leave it up to fate for now. What with planning Pete’s funeral and sorting out the house a bit first, it’s going to be a busy couple of weeks.  What do you think about a pale peachy colour?”

“Wedding dress, or walls and wardrobes?”

“The latter.  Lou’s girls are already planning their wardrobes for the funeral.”

“Not black though; children shouldn’t wear black.”

“I think we’re all agreed on that.  We’re celebrating the Pete that we all used to know, and he was never a person for darkness and gloom in the old days. Jenny is going through a bit of a Goth phase, but I’m sure she can be tempted to get something more cheerful if Mark and I are paying.”

“You are a good girl, Rachel.  What were you saying about flat pack furniture?”

“We’re going out tomorrow to get decorating stuff, and a desk and chair for my old room. I need to do some research on the Internet about what we need.”

“First things first; once you’ve gone out, I’ll give the wardrobes and walls a good wash down with some sugar soap.  Pale peach will lighten up that room no end, and make the dressing table look less out of place.  I’m going to bed now.  I’ll leave you and Pluto to nod off on the sofa; I know you won’t be happy till he’s back home and safe but you’ll have to get used to it.  He’s no ordinary policeman, and there will always be times when you are home and worrying.  You know where I am though.”

“I do.  We both do.  Goodnight.”