This story available on Aug 01, 2020
Rosa hadn't intended to eavesdrop, but her employer's voice carried up the stairs.
"Of course she is. I mean, I'm sure she is."
There was a pause: only half the conversation was audible.
"Well, yes, but she doesn't seem the type."
The voice became harder to hear as the kitchen door closed.
"No, I never asked to see her work permit. But, I mean..."
Rosa closed her bedroom door, quietly, and sat down on the bed. She'd been here for over a year, now. She sat with her hands pressed tightly together, and tried not to panic.
For almost two months she'd known that something like this was approaching. It always did, eventually. Someone would catch her out, or demand papers that she couldn’t produce. She looked out of the window, trying to judge how cloudy the night was against the yellowish tinge of the London streetlights. It was clear; away from the city, there would be stars.
Of course. It was clear, and frosty, and terribly cold. It always was.
Footsteps came slowly up the stairs and along the landing. Keep walking, Rosa willed silently. Don't ask me tonight. The footsteps paused briefly outside the door, then carried on to the master bedroom.
As quickly as she could, Rosa changed her pyjamas for thick trousers, a warm jumper, and the expensive walking boots that had been a gift from the family last Christmas. She looked at her day-to-day handbag, then rummaged in the cupboard and pulled out the worn rucksack. It had a broken strap, but it would have to do.
Rosa slipped across the landing, towards the stairs. She looked at the sign on one door, the one that spelled "Chloe" in brightly-coloured stretching cats. She closed her eyes briefly, and thought of the little girl sleeping inside. Goodbye, Chloe. I hope I'll see you again.
She hurried down to the kitchen, relieved to see that it was all in darkness. In the light of the huge fridge cabinet, Rosa stuffed cheese and fruit into her rucksack, then added bread and some blueberry muffins. Beside the fridge was the special temperature-controlled cabinet that stored red wine in optimum conditions. She shrugged, reached into it, pulled out a bottle with a pretty pink and gold label, and wedged it down the side of the bag.
On the back of one of the shabby chic kitchen chairs hung her employer's winter coat, a thick down jacket with a glossy scarlet outer shell. Rosa swung it round her shoulders, pushing her hands through the sleeves and marvelling at how warm it was. She concentrated on the comforting feel of the coat, trying hard not to think about where she was going. Then she let herself out of the back door, and hurried down the lane to the main road.
She looked up and down, towards the tube station then back towards the lights in the shop windows. She had no plans for which way to head, and was standing undecided when the 46 bus pulled up across the road. It was a cheerful splash of colour against the grey buildings, and on a whim she ran towards it.
She sat with her bag on her knee as the bus wound through West London, the calming voice reassuring the passengers at every stop that the destination was still St Bartholomew's hospital. Rosa looked at out of the window. Somewhere, out there. Her own face was reflected on top of the traffic and the houses outside. Don't worry, grandmother, I'm making my way.
She was almost dozing when a sign to Hampstead Heath caught her eye. Perfect! She hit the bell, and walked past the railway station and into the park. The rucksack was uncomfortable with only one strap, so she shrugged out of it and slung it over her arm. It felt familiar, and she started to walk deeper into the trees.
A sudden laugh surprised her and she spun round, peering into the dark wood. Two men in council high-viz jackets were chatting, a little dot of red dancing between them where a lit cigarette ended. The other man held a chainsaw, casually resting it on a fallen tree. They seemed to be staring towards her, so Rosa looked away hurriedly and carried on walking. Tonight was not a good night for questions.
As she headed further into the park, it grew darker and colder. Rosa pulled the hood up over her ears, and looked at the smooth tarmac path in front of her. It curved away to the right, in what felt like the wrong direction, so she stepped off it to walk between the trees. She slowed her pace, trying to avoid the gnarly roots that tangled with the low-growing plants. A gentle crunching sound echoed off to one side - was someone else also walking cautiously through the fallen leaves? Rosa paused, staring into the darkness, but saw no one. The noises stopped, and she carried on.
She tried to walk a little quicker, telling herself that there was nothing to be afraid of. Every so often she froze, sure she had heard footsteps keeping pace with her own. Each time she tried to believe it was just the noises of the forest; trees are never truly quiet.
She shivered, even with the thick coat, and swapped her bag to the other arm. An eye peered at her from behind a low bush. She backed away, then spun round as a twig snapped behind her.
Rosa looked back the way she came. She could no longer see the lights from the road, and the trees behind her were as dark as those in front. Under the coat, her skin felt cold and prickly, and she could hear her own breathing loud in the cold air. She closed her eyes. It’s going to be fine.
A low growl rumbled beside her, and she sucked her breath in swiftly, listening intently. But again there was nothing but the crackling and rustling of the woods. She looked rapidly from side to side, heart pounding, uncertain which way to run. She hurried forward a few steps before stumbling over a branch and almost dropping her bag.
"Hello?" she called.
Her voice was tiny and the sound fell away into the darkness. There was no reply.
Pressing her lips tightly together, trying to breathe calmly, Rosa took a few steps forward. She stopped and listened, then took a few more. She couldn't shake the idea that someone - something - was walking alongside her. She tried to keep moving, expecting all the time to feel a hand on her shoulder.
A tear ran down her frozen face, and she stopped yet again, listening for the phantom footsteps. She heard nothing, but in the distance was a tiny hint of light. It was a warm yellow, the sort of light that issues from a friendly window, and she let out a huge sigh of relief.
"Leave me alone," she said to the forest, to anything that was listening. "I'm walking to that house, leave me alone."
Rosa breathed deeply, and fixed her eyes on the light. The prickly sensation of being followed lessened, and soon she was walking confidently, able to see the outline of the house.
There was no answer when she tapped gently, but she pushed open the door and peered in. A lovely log fire was burning, and someone was lying under a blanket on the sofa. Rosa smiled, and set her bag down on the big, scrubbed table.
"Hello, Grandmother. I've brought you some food."
"Grandmother?" Rosa hurried over to the couch. "Are you feeling worse? Your voice sounds very different."
Grandmother turned her head, the blanket hiding most of her face, and Rosa saw only her eyes. They glinted horribly, like the eyes she thought she'd seen in the forest.
"Grandmother, your eyes..."
"All the better to see you with, my dear."
Grandmother pulled the blanket away from her face, and snarled, opening a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth.
"Grandmother, your teeth!"
The noise was terrible, and Rosa turned her head this way and that trying to get away from it. The light was blinding, too, and she covered her face with her hands. Someone roughly grabbed her arm and dragged her towards them.
The screeching sound stopped, and Rosa peered out from between her fingers. A man, his brilliant yellow jacket streaked with blood, was putting a chainsaw on the floor beside the tattered carcass of the wolf.
An elderly woman straightened her nightcap, and smiled fondly. "Hello, dear."
Rosa rummaged in the kitchen drawer, and found a corkscrew to open the wine. There were already three glasses sitting on the table, and she was relieved to see that her clothes were clean and undamaged.
She poured wine for herself, Grandmother and the Woodcutter. They sat down round the table and helped themselves to the cheese and bread that was now sitting neatly on the plates. The Woodcutter grinned at Rosa and raised his wineglass. "You took your time. I've been expecting you for weeks."
"I kept putting it off. I never know whether you're going to be there, or whether I'll get one of the other... endings. I get so scared, and trying to risk reality for a little longer seems safer."
The Woodcutter downed his wine, and refilled their glasses. "I'm always there."
Rosa shook her head. "I hope so. But there are different versions, you know."
Grandmother reached over and patted her hand. "I know, dear. But we don't live well in this world, and it doesn't do to leave it too long. Bad things happen to people like us."
They finished up the cheese, and the cake, and drained the wine bottle. Eventually Grandmother stood up, and tidied the plates into the sink.
"Come on, you two. It's not that long until morning."
Rosa put her red coat back on, and slung the empty rucksack over her shoulder. Grandmother folded up her shawl, and took a smart camel coat out of the closet. The Woodcutter still carried his chainsaw, but the blade was no longer matted with bloody fur. They strolled through the trees, chatting, and in minutes were back at the railway station.
Elizabeth Guilt reads and writes stories to make her daily commute on the London Underground more enjoyable. She has fiction published, or upcoming, in Luna Station Quarterly, Straylight Literary Magazine, and All Worlds Wayfarer.
Interview available on Aug 03, 2020