Some people just seem to let life pass them by. Juliet is one of those people. She needs to break out and forge a life for herself, but it’s just not happening. She’s scared of her father, and too attached to her mother to leave her. Thirty-nine years old, never been kissed, still living with her parents… Will the end of everything and everyone she knows be the end of Juliet’s life too, or the beginning?
‘So what time will you be home tonight?’ asked Mrs Appleby, frustrated. She stared at her daughter across the breakfast table. Sometimes trying to get information out of Juliet was like trying to get blood out of a stone. She’d always been the same.
‘I don’t know,’ she answered in a quiet, mumbling voice that her mother had to strain to hear.
‘You know how your father gets if you’re not back when he’s expecting you.’
‘I know, but I can’t help it if I have to stop back after school . . .’
‘He has to have his meal before half-six otherwise it keeps him awake all night. And you know how he likes us all to eat together. It’s an important part of family life.’
‘If you say so.’
‘Dad says so. He likes his routine, that’s all. And he likes to know where you are. He likes to know you’re safe.’
‘I know that, Mom, but . . .’
‘But what, love?’
‘I’m thirty-nine, for crying out loud.’
Juliet closed the front door and walked to her car. She could feel them both watching her, though they always pretended not to. She brushed her long, wind-swept hair out of her eyes and looked back. There they were, both of them hiding behind the net curtains, Mom in front and Dad standing just behind. He spent most of his life hiding behind Mom. Inside the house, he was king, and he’d make sure they both understood that in no uncertain terms. Stick him outside and force him to face the rest of the world, though, and he crumbled. The accident twelve years ago (which was still a taboo subject) had devastated his confidence and unbalanced his temperament. He struggled to interact properly with anyone outside the immediate family. Outside the house, Dad would always get angry or confrontational with some poor unsuspecting soul and it would inevitably be left to Mom or Juliet to smooth things over and sort things out.
Juliet sat down in the car and started the engine. Poor Mom, she thought, looking back at her again. She’d dedicated her life to Dad. She’d put up with years of his moaning and mood swings and tempers. In some ways, though, she was just as bad as him; as Dad relied on Mom, so Mom relied on Juliet. And who was there for her? No one. On the few occasions she’d been brave enough to start talking about leaving home and setting up on her own, it was usually Mom who came up with a list of reasons why she couldn’t leave and why she had to stay and why they needed her around. It was emotional blackmail, and more fool Juliet for believing it. Her friends at the nursery told her she should just pack her bags and leave, but it was easy for them. She’d left it too late and now she was trapped in a career looking after other people’s children when she should have been raising her own. Fat chance of that happening now. She hadn’t ever had a ‘proper’ relationship. She often thought about the cruel irony of her life: there she was, a thirty-nine year old virgin, surrounded by the fruits of other people’s sexual encounters.
A quick wave to Mom and Dad (even though they thought she couldn’t see them) and she was off. A ten minute drive into the centre of Rowley and she’d be there.
Juliet was always the first to get to work. She arrived ages before anyone else. At this time there were only ever a couple of people around, usually just Jackson the caretaker and Ken Andrews, the head of the infant school to which the nursery was attached.
‘Morning, Joanne,’ Andrews shouted, waving to her across the playground. Bloody man, she thought. All the years she’d been working at the school and he’d never once got her name right. Occasionally she thought he did it on purpose to wind her up, other times she decided he was just plain ignorant. But the fact was he continually got her name wrong because he rarely had reason to speak to her about anything of importance, and because she’d left it too long to correct him without embarrassment. To say that Juliet melted into the background was an understatement. She preferred it when no one noticed her.
The prefabricated hut used for the nursery class had been opened up as usual. It was always cold first thing, even in summer, and this September morning was no exception. She glanced up at the clock on the wall: half an hour until the children were due. Probably twenty-five minutes before any of the other staff would grace her with their presence. As low, depressed and dejected as she could ever remember feeling, she prepared the room for the morning’s activities.
Bloody hell, what was that?
Juliet stopped what she was doing and looked up. Fifteen minutes now to the start of class and she’d just heard an almighty crash outside. It sounded like kids messing around on the concrete steps which led up to the classroom door. Juliet didn’t like confrontation, even with the children, so she kept her head down and hoped that whoever it was would go away as quickly as they’d arrived. Maybe they’d just miss-kicked a football?
Suddenly another sound, this one very different to the first. It sounded like someone choking. Juliet crept towards the window and peered outside. The playground was empty, the birds flying between the roof of the school building and the rubbish bins the only movement she could see. She was about to go back to what she’d been doing when she noticed a foot hanging over the edge of the steps. So there were kids messing around after all . . . She pressed her ear against the classroom door. When she couldn’t hear anything outside, she very slowly pushed the it open and there, lying on the steps in front of her, she saw the lifeless body of Sam Peters, one of the boys who’d been in the nursery class last year. Panicking, Juliet slammed the door shut again and leant against it.
What do I do?
Shall I just pretend I didn’t hear anything and let someone else find him? Will they believe me? Will they think it’s got something to do with me?
Overcome with nerves, she slid down to the floor and held her head in her hands. She screwed her eyes tightly shut but she could still see Sam. She’d only been looking at him for a second or two, but there was no question he was dead. His face was contorted with pain and there were glistening dribbles of dark blood down the front of his yellow school sweatshirt.
No one’s coming. Christ, no one’s coming.
Twenty minutes later and still no one else had arrived at the school. Where were the other children and the rest of the staff? Juliet remained where she was, frozen in position with fear. If she waited long enough, surely someone else will come and find the body. She’d just plead ignorance: pretend she hadn’t heard anything.
The longer she waited, the more her conscience competed with her fear. She stood up and crept towards the window again and peered outside, immediately hiding again when she saw Sam’s foot.
But she had to do something. She couldn’t just sit here all day knowing that poor boy was out on the step.
The main school office was directly across the playground from the nursery hut. Juliet decided she’d make a run for it. She’d open the door, run down the steps, sprint to the other building then find the head or anyone else, and tell them what had happened, despite the fact she didn’t know herself.
She had to do it right now.
Juliet put on her coat and, taking a deep breath, opened the classroom door and burst out into the open. Forcing herself to look anywhere but down at the body on the steps, she half-jumped, half-tripped over the boy’s corpse, landing awkwardly, twisting her ankle and almost falling over. Managing to just about keep her balance she ran across the playground with the all-consuming silence ringing loud in her ears.
Ken Andrews was dead. She found him in the corner of his office, buried under a pile of papers he’d knocked off his desk in his death throes. She also found the school secretary dead in the short corridor which ran between the office and the staff room, and in the staff room she found three more dead teachers.
In a vacant, disorientated daze, Juliet roamed the school, struggling to function, barely even aware what she was doing. She then walked the surrounding streets for more than an hour, knocking on doors, looking for someone who could explain what had happened. But all she found were more bodies. Children and parents that she recognised, others she didn’t, all of them dead.
A quarter past five.
After what had happened at school, Juliet returned home before midday and found both of her elderly parents dead. Mom was in the bathroom, sprawled across the floor with her knickers around her ankles, neck twisted, and Dad, as always, was in his armchair. She’d wept for them both of course (especially Mom), and had felt a real sense of devastation and loss, but after a while the hurt had, unexpectedly, begun to fade. In a strange, perverse kind of way, she almost began to enjoy the freedom that this dark day had given her. She’d never had the house to herself for any length of time like this before. She hadn’t had to eat at any particular time of day (not that she felt like eating anything anyway) and she hadn’t had to sit through Dad’s choice of television programmes (not that the television was working). She hadn’t had to explain her movements every time she got up out of her chair, or tell her parents about her day at work in excruciating detail, or listen to Mom telling her what all her friends were doing and how their kids had all flown the nest and made their own lives . . .
For the first time in a very long time, Juliet felt free.
Her quiet, insignificant world had been turned upside down. She’d seen hundreds of bodies and hadn’t known why any of them had died. As day turned into night she tried to make contact with her few friends, her neighbours, the local police and pretty much everyone else she could think of in the local vicinity, but she hadn’t been reached anyone. Her telephone went unanswered. No one came to any of the doors she knocked on.
Frightened and bewildered, but also feeling strangely empowered, Juliet sat alone in her bedroom on her teddy-bear strewn single bed. She gave up trying to make sense of what had happened, and so buried herself in another trashy chick-lit novel instead.
At the end of the first day she moved Mom and Dad into the back room. When she woke up on the second day she dug two deep holes in the garden and buried them both. Dad had always said he wanted them to be buried in the same plot, but she knew Mom wouldn’t have liked that. She’d loved Dad right ‘til their unexpected end, but like Juliet, Mom had had enough of him too.