Layla shoved her hands deep into her duffle coat pockets, as far away from the biting cold of the February wind as she could get them. The doughnut stand’s enticing waft of frying sugar could not overpower the burning embers that haunted her nostrils, nor could the music in her earphones drown out the crackle of the flames as they consumed each beloved possession. She could still see the empty ashtray of a room that had once been her pride and joy. Shaking her head, she glanced at her surroundings, the ones around her and not in her head, and continued to walk briskly down the road. She knew that her destination was not one which would avenge the cause of this travesty, but, she hoped, it would provide the solution.
She rattled the doorknocker three times: no more and no less. There was no doorbell to be found on this picturesque, detached townhouse, so she hoped that her knocking would suffice. After all, people of her unwitting hostess’s generation were not known for their impeccable hearing.
After a minute or so had passed, just as Layla was wondering whether she should try knocking again, movement could be heard from inside. A floorboard creaked. Footsteps padded down the hallway. A lock clicked, and the door opened.
If the woman who stood before her were an animal, Layla figured she would be a mouse. She was short – Layla wondered if she had always been this way, or if she had shrunk with time akin to how a child grows – and this wasn’t helped by her hunched posture. Her bulky cardigan was not flattering to her petite stature, and her bobbed grey hair clung to the back of her head, making her ears seem to stick out ever so slightly more than they should.
“Hello?” She asked, looking confusedly up at Layla through thick varifocal lenses.
“Good morning, Ms. Fielding. It’s Layla, I’m from the GP surgery.” She spoke with a friendly confidence, suppressing any nerves by repeating to herself the conviction that hiding in plain sight was the best plan of action. “May I come in?”
“Dianne.” She said, standing aside to let her in, before turning back towards the room from which she had come. “Surnames are ever so formal.”
Layla followed her down the corridor, into a living room that must have been last decorated when Margaret Thatcher was still Prime Minister, where Dianne Fielding was already sitting herself down in an armchair.
“Did your doctor phone? To tell you I was coming?”
“No,” she replied, annoyed, although more at herself than Layla. “Not that I can recall anyway. My memory is not what it used to be, I’m afraid”.
“That’s okay,” Layla smiled reassuringly. “I’ve just got to do some tests, is that alright?”
“I suppose,” Dianne replied, nodding disappointedly. “Seems you can’t get to my age without being prodded and poked.”
Layla smiled tightly in reply, as she headed across the room. “I need to do some obs, and a blood test. Then how about I make you a cup of tea and we can talk some things through, okay?”
Dianne nodded, and sat quietly while Layla listened to her heart, a ticking time bomb, and measured her blood pressure, which was far lower than it should be. To her relief, Dianne turned to look out of the window while Layla lifted the rest of her equipment out of her bag. She took an empty syringe and pulled some air into the cavity. Then, upon finding a vein in the crook of her left elbow, she reassured her that it’d be just a scratch. Dianne would already have known this, given the number of recent marks that were there, but it was a force of habit. Then, before she could reconsider, she plunged the needle into her flesh.
“All done,” she said, in an attempt at an upbeat tone, as she stood back up and brushed imaginary dirt from her thighs, keeping her eyes diverted, looking anywhere but at Dianne. “I’ll go and put the kettle on.”
Having left Dianne alone in these fateful few moments, Layla stood in the kitchen watching the kettle boil through the clear strip down the side, as bubbles grew, and steam streamed out of the spout. She listened to its whistle until the final click sounded, and the chorus was brought to a sudden halt. Silence.
With each step heavier than the last, she forced herself to return to the living room. Placing her fingers to Dianne’s neck she confirmed that her plan had worked, before scuttling back into the kitchen, as if the outcome would be different if she couldn’t see it.
Leaning over the sink, the contents of her stomach emptied themselves violently, leaving Layla feeling empty and numb. She turned on the tap and let the water swirl down the plughole, watching it trickle and flow. For some naïve reason, she had assumed that targeting a dying woman who had no one left to miss her would not feel as wrong as if she’d attacked someone else. But we are all dying - our days are numbered, regardless of how many have already passed us by – and all alone, despite what we might trick ourselves into believing about those around us. Layla retched again, although her breakfast had already left her system and she wasn’t sure what else she had to lose.
She forced herself to take several deep breaths, slowly in, holding, and slowly out. How many patients with anxiety must she have taught this technique to? And now she was the one who needed calming.
She washed her hands with Dianne’s pink ‘berry burst’ soap for twenty seconds, and then another twenty, before drying them with the tea towel that was sat on the draining board. Then she washed them again, and dried them again, as if she were trying to wash the sin itself from her skin. It was only after this third ritual washing that she returned to the living room, whereupon she picked up her bag before heading to the glass display cabinet, determinedly keeping her eyes away from Dianne’s corpse that was resting in the armchair as if asleep. She had come this far in her plan, now came the easy part.
Layla was unsure exactly how many pieces were on these shelves, but it was far more than she had gained in her twelve years of collecting. She began scooping up those on the lower shelves and dropping them into her bag. She remembered overhearing Dianne tell another of the nurses at the GP surgery about her collection: “I keep them all on display,” she had said proudly. “The ones on the bottom shelves are pretty ones, but on the top shelf,” she had smiled and whispered conspiratorially, “That’s where the real beauty lies...”
She shook her head to remove the whisperings of the ghost, as she took some more from the shelf. No one would ever understand what she was doing, which was precisely why no one could ever know. She could just imagine what a jury would make of her story: 'Your thimble collection was burned in a house fire. So, you murdered Ms. Fielding, a vulnerable woman in your care, and stole hers.' No, this had to remain her secret, and hers alone.
Layla had often felt disappointed that so few people in her generation appreciated the splendour of the humble thimble, most considering it as merely an outdated piece of sewing equipment. There was so much more to it than that! Layla had adored her China thimbles that bore miniature paintings of flowers or animals or people, all smaller than the nail on your thumb. Such miniscule masterpieces, unlike any other artform she had seen! And then there were those made of silver with tiny engravings and small silver figures that seemed to have been attached by elves, not humans. For who could attain such precise detail on a microscopic scale?
Having cleared the lower shelves, she took stock of the top shelf. Dianne had been correct: here was the real beauty. Five exquisite masterpieces. She carefully took each piece off the shelf and tucked one of them into each of her duffle pockets, two on the inside and two on the front. Then she held up the final thimble before her eyes, and gulped back a flood of emotions that she didn’t want to be reliving. But how could she not?
This was it. The one that had started it all.
An Antique 1889 Charles Horner Hallmarked Silver Thimble with Agate Top. As soon as she’d heard Ms. Fielding say those words to her colleague, she knew that this was not an opportunity that she could pass up. For when would she find another of the exact same rare thimble that her grandmother had given her to start her collection? No, she’d had to take this opportunity to restart her grandmother’s legacy, however underwhelming an excuse a hypothetical jury would find it. One may have wondered, if they were sitting in that imaginary courtroom, why Layla had felt the compulsion to steal Ms. Fielding's life as well as her thimbles, but when a collection becomes an obsession, reason and morality are powerless to resist its vice-like grip.
She smiled as she shut the cabinet door, for she knew, with a conviction she couldn’t understand, that her secret would not leave this room. For who was there to report or question it?
A week had passed when Layla’s manager pulled her aside during her lunch break at work. She had been waiting for the kettle to boil, although the sound now turned her stomach.
“Layla,” she began softly, “the lady you visited last week, Ms. Fielding, was found by her housekeeper this morning. It seems her heart finally gave out. I just thought you’d want to know.”
Layla nodded sincerely. “Thank you, I’m so sorry to hear that,” were the words that left her lips. But she wasn’t sorry. Not at all.