Everyone else at the “Seaside Centre”, the information and advice hub in the old library building, agreed that Carrie Francis had the knack. She wasn’t very prepossessing; a slightly plump lady on the verge of middle age, with slightly crooked teeth and rather nondescript brown hair that she generally wore pulled into a ponytail with a scrunchy that might or might not match her jumper. Carrie’s jumpers were generally her one splash of colour. She liked pictures and patterns, and cats and hearts. She had once said she was always sorry when the weather was too hot to wear jumpers. She wasn’t a cold person, nor an especially shy one, and was nearly always perfectly friendly and civil (though she was no plaster saint and had her limits) but she still liked to keep herself to herself. She was not the kind of person who believed in housewarming parties or school reunions. No, that would be unfair. She had no objection whatsoever to others enjoying such things, and didn’t think any the less of them for it, but she had no interest in them. Once, when her colleague and friend Toby, the Centre Manager gently teased her about her aversion to school reunions, she did open up a bit and said that her family had moved around, and she went to far more different schools than most people, so she didn’t feel any especial allegiance to any of them, or a rose-tinted nostalgia mingled with curiosity.
Sometimes, though, Carrie did open up completely, and not in that vague, evasively courteous way. If someone had got into debt, or was living through or facing homelessness (and that was an all too frequent thing in the rather rundown little coastal town) though she was not the one to offer them any actual advice, she put them at their ease as they waited, and never tried to hide the fact that she had been in debt, and that she had slept rough. She did not wear her empathy on her sleeve, but as Toby once said, it shone. She knew what it was like to be on a station platform in the small hours as a surprisingly chilly summer storm raged, and desperately thirsty, but not wanting to drink from the large bottle of mineral water the kindly café owner had given her, because the waiting room, where the toilets were, wasn’t open until 8 the next morning. She was not going to criticise anyone for being “silly with money” when she knew all about what she called, “The denial reflex that turns into habit” and how it was both a shock like a sliver of ice sliding down your spine and no surprise whatsoever when the cash points suddenly, in unison, stopped handing out money and displayed the same bleak message on screen. She never interfered in the practical side of things, leaving that to the representative of “Changeover”, the local advice group who occupied one of their desks every Tuesday and sometimes on a Thursday. But every so often, she would catch the eye of one of the people sitting there, being give excellent advice by their earnest, well-meaning representatives, and that look would say that she understood, that she agreed that drawing up one of those incomings and outgoings plans didn’t have much to do with their world, that there didn’t seem to be much point to it, but it was a ritual that had to be gone through. To be fair, even one of the advisors, Kerry, had said quite frankly, “For the most part they’re a waste of trees. And they’re like one of those forms you fill in at the doctors denying you’ve ever drunk more than half a shandy at Christmas.” Still, Changeover did do some good work, and for the most part Carrie was either on pleasant terms with them or let things drift over her head.
Though she kept herself to herself, Carrie was not a cardboard cut out. The others at the Seaside Centre would have said they knew a great deal about her. They knew that she was anything but a picky eater, but she hated gravy and the thoughtless pouring of it without asking if you wanted it, and hated cress and the way it was put on virtually every sandwich. They knew that she had her pet hates apart from food – she had an aversion verging on pedantry to the incorrect use of the apostrophe, and thought fake pockets were the most ridiculous thing known to apparel. They knew about her guilty pleasures. She had a weakness, though she insisted she inclined to the cynical on the matter, for TV programmes about Ancient Aliens and The Unexplained. She was partial to red wine and cheesy snacks. But sometimes, in her absence, the others remarked, not at all unkindly, because she was a valued colleague, and in her way, a good friend, that they didn’t know that much at all, it was all carefully filtered even though she didn’t give the impression, most of the time, of being careful at all. They knew hardly anything about her family. Her parents were both dead, and all they knew about her childhood was that they moved around quite a lot, but her father wasn’t in the forces. Just occasionally, there were rumours and whispers that in fact he had been, and there was something Dark that had happened. They worked with the local branch of the Royal British Legion helping ex-service people, too, and perhaps she thought they had access to all kinds of records. But it seemed unlikely. She had a much older brother who lived in Canada, but they had “drifted out of touch”. They didn’t even know, and this was much more recent, quite how she had turned her fortunes around. She’d certainly had a spell on benefits, which made her very understanding with people who came to see the representative of the Department of Works and Pensions too, but had stopped claiming a while back, and just vaguely said she had “come into a bit of money”. Had someone left it to her? Had she had a Lottery win? At times, her colleagues agreed, there was something a bit irritating about her secrecy which went beyond privacy. But they somehow sensed it was not being perverse or making an issue of it – she probably had her reasons, and it wasn’t worth upsetting her or falling out with her. She lived modestly, it appeared, shopping at the discounters, getting most of her books, if they weren’t from the library, from charity shops, as she did her clothes. “Not underwear, of course,” she said to her colleague Marjorie, who laughed and agreed that that would be going too far, and the men present protested that this was getting into “too much information” territory. But there was still a look on her face that reminded them there’d have been a time when she wouldn’t have despised second hand knickers.
Some things about her were undeniably a little odd. A couple of months back, Larry, the centre manager, had been at a family wedding party in a hotel in Sleaford, a town about 30 miles away. He was a bit backwards about coming forwards himself, and probably hadn’t, as he’d have seen it, bored his colleagues with too many details. Anyway, in reception at the hotel by the railway line and the woods that seemed, but not in a bad way, to come from a bygone era, he suddenly saw Carrie, and it was plain she knew he had seen her. She didn’t exactly look like a rabbit trapped in the headlights, but there was still something furtive and defiant at the same time in her expression. He went over and asked if she was part of the wedding party too, and wasn’t it a small world. It may well have been a small world, but she was not part of the wedding party. In fact, though of course she didn’t say so in so many words to Larry, she seemed very uneasy and unhappy about it and said, “It’s nice here, but I wish I’d chosen another hotel this weekend. I feel like a bit of a gooseberry.” But Larry knew that the last things she wanted was an invitation to join the wedding party. Quite a private person himself, he respected others’ privacy, but was probably thinking it was weird that someone apparently regularly spent weekends away – he couldn’t call them holidays – at hotels within an hour or so’s drive of where she lived. Still, everyone had their quirks, and though neither of them forgot the episode, it retreated into the background backlog of thoughts and recollections.
If her colleagues had been forced to admit to something they found unsettling about her sometimes, though, it wouldn’t have been her extreme privacy. It was the way she seemed to make such an issue about “not doing judgemental”. It wasn’t as if she didn’t do it at all. She sounded off as much as any of them about people coming in two minutes before the official closing time and asking them to photocopy and laminate 100 odd sheets (mind you, they never refused as the photocopying just about kept the charity solvent). She was irritated when the sandwich bar across the road, delivering their lunches, brought her a tuna and sweetcorn bun instead of tuna and mayo – even though she wasn’t a picky eater! But it was not unknown for her to even butt in on others’ conversations if she heard them go into what she termed “hang ‘em, flog ‘em” mode. It seemed to grate on her to the point of obsession. And it made her colleagues a bit nervous at times, not just because picking quarrels with the clients probably wasn’t a good idea. This was the only subject she did it on. They knew that in the “Brexit” debate she was a Remainer, but discussed the matter with Leavers entirely amicably and with a willingness to see their point of view (technically political discussions were discouraged in the Seaside Centre but as long as it didn’t get acrimonious, that was interpreted somewhat flexibly). Anyway, it was one thing showing such understanding and tolerance for people who slept rough or were bad with money. That was entirely to her credit and based on her own experience. But when it came to murderers or abusers, well, that was another matter. None of them (or if they were, they weren’t letting anyone know!) were of a draconian nature, but the fact remained – as Marjorie once said to her, “Carrie, there’s a world of difference between thinking folk should be hung, drawn and quartered and making out there’s no such thing as a total scumbag who deserves to spend the rest of his natural behind bars. If you don’t mind me saying so,” (as Marjorie had a habit of saying before making a remark she knew someone would mind) “It comes over as a bit uncaring about the victim.”
“We all have the potential to be victim or perpetrator,” Carrie said, “And a human is hanged – not hung.”
“Sanctimonious and pedantic in one sentence, that’s going it some!” Marjorie said. Larry, they saw, was eying them with an expression both worried and warning. “Play nicely, girls,” he said, rather too obviously making light of it.
“And the prize for sexism goes to ….” Carrie countered, and all three of them laughed, and there was no lasting rancour. It was also clear, though, that Carrie had no intention of changing her mind, even though she sometimes did hold her tongue. She and Marjorie continued to be friends, but Marjorie once admitted to her husband Dean, who had what he termed a semi-detached relationship to the Seaside Centre, being their quasi-official handyman and quite willing to step in if they were short-staffed for any reason, “I like Carrie, you can’t not like her, but at times she makes me uneasy. I’m not for one minute going to use phrases like moral vacuum,”
“You’ve just used it, love,” he pointed out.
She went on undeterred, “Because I know she’s a good person. But sometimes her perspectives do seem a bit weird. It seems to get to her more that someone forgets she likes milk in her coffee but not in her tea than if a serial killer is on the prowl. Unless he actually gets banged up, then it’s another matter!”
“She has a bee in her bonnet,” Dean said, “Most of us do, in some way shape or form. She probably has her reasons.”
Dean would have denied vehemently that the last sentence was anything but a throwaway remark, the kind that ends a conversation, but does so reasonably politely.
He was right, though. Carrie did have her reasons.
Though she was nervous of leaving the few possessions she did have in her holdall on the station platform, sometimes, if a storm was not raging, or even if it was, she had an overwhelming urge to leave the three-sided platform with the plastic bench that gave the impression of being wrought iron (and felt as hard to her back and behind and shoulders when she tried to sleep, even when she put a coat on it). It was her refuge and her cage. That night her phone, the little no-frills mobile phone she’d had for three years, had died on her. She would have to ask Malcolm in the café if she could charge it there again. She had been wasting the last charge, she supposed, using the radio. But sometimes she felt that without the solace and distraction of BBC world service on the Radio 4 FM channel through the night, she would go quite mad. And now she thought she would go quite mad if she did not have a walk through the small hours streets for at least a few minutes, looking into still-lit shop windows, and other shops with the shutters down. It was easy to imagine you were the only person awake in the world, but of course she knew she was far from being even the only other people who was awake in the town. Another person awake in the small hours was heading towards her now. He’d plainly had a night out on what her mother used to call (oh, she wished she hadn’t suddenly thought of her mother!) the razzle and was weaving drunkenly, singing his own vaguely obscene version of an old standard. She would never know how he realised she was a rough sleeper, and yet she knew exactly how he realised. There was something, and it wasn’t only something practical like the holdall she clutched with her few remaining possessions since she left the guest house because she couldn’t pay the bill. They weren’t going to prosecute her. They were decent people, and Martin the owner had sounded apologetic when he said, “Carrie, we have a business to run, you know.”
Carrie decided that the best thing to do was to ignore him, and head back, making an effort not to run, to the station platform. He had other intentions. He taunted her, asking her if she had no home to go to, and plainly knowing perfectly well she hadn’t. Suddenly walking far more steadily, he moved towards her and said he only wanted to be friendly, and he could make it very worthwhile for her if she was only “nice” to him. He was already pawing her, and as she told herself, over and over, anyone would have understood why she pushed him roughly to one side. He was still, despite the weaving abating, very drunk, and might very well have tripped on the crack in the pavement without her “helping” him.
It was absurdly similar to the futile trek round the cash machines, thought Carrie. Things would be fine in a minute. Things would be okay. This would pass, and she’d make some effort to turn her life around. He would start groaning and swearing, and she’d call an ambulance to help, though she’d have to use his phone – he was bound to have one. He did not start groaning and swearing. A pool of blood was amassing on the pavement. She realised she was not aware of the tinge of sour alcohol on his breath because he was no longer breathing.
It was self-defence, she thought. Surely any witnesses would confirm that, and it will be on CCTV. But there were no witnesses to confirm it, and looking upwards she saw that the little red light on the CCTV camera was not flickering.
His wallet had fallen onto the pavement, and she looked inside it. He was a man who liked to flash the cash. There were wads of it.
And there were no witnesses, and the CCTV camera wasn’t working.
Carrie was sure that one day “they” would catch up on her, all the same. They would come to her little rented house that she had made cluttered and cosy but seemed the emptiest place in the world. They would come to one of the hotel rooms where she spent her stash of cash trying to escape and knowing she never could. They would come to the Seaside Centre where they liked and respected her because she had the knack, but where they didn’t know everything, or even the tiniest fraction of everything about her, and sometimes didn’t understand her.
And they would, suddenly, stop liking and respecting her.
But they would understand.