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Juliet Appleby

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.

THE AUTUMN SERIES