Dorothy turned off her hearing aid long before her daughter’s infernal kettle began puffing steam out like a locomotive, the whistle slicing through all other sound.
She wasn’t the only one who hated the kettle. The cat, Marmalade, removed himself from the kitchen and curled up on the sofa as soon as the switch was flicked. Why wouldn’t Samantha let her buy a new one? It’s only a sodding kettle, but no. She was ‘fine’.
Dorothy slammed the dishwasher shut. Head in the bloody sand more like. She chose the eco cycle, which took longer but saved on electricity and therefore money. It all added up. She thought her daughter would have started listening to her by now, especially given her situation, but she was a stubborn girl. Always had been.
God knows where she got it from.
It was 2pm. The radio, which Dorothy had brought from her own home for the occasion, chattered away from the windowsill, tuned to Radio Two: Steve Wright in the Afternoon. He was interviewing journalist Fiona Bruce and art dealer Philip Mould about some new program they would be presenting. She missed what program since she’d muted herself just as they were starting, but she’d bet anyone a fiver it was antiques, gardening or crime. She liked Steve Wright, but he was no Terry Wogan.
She didn’t hear the faint snapping sound as she opened the cupboard to get a mug for her tea, nor did she hear the crack that followed.
A smile warmed her face as she paused with her fingertips brushing against the ‘World’s Greatest Mum’ mug; she remembered helping her grandson, Tommy, pick it out a few years back on their trip to Clacton-on-sea. She’d let him eat so much ice cream he’d been sick on the bus on the way home, but that was their little secret.
Then she noticed another with a big red arrow which said ‘This Guy has an Awesome Wife’, and her smile faltered. A yellow mug adorned with blue butterflies looked nice so she took that and quickly shut the cupboard.
Or was he? Dorothy poured the hot water carefully into the mug. She’d discovered some scandalous lingerie in the washing basket in Samantha’s bedroom. All of it looked new. Either she was spending money she didn’t have on black lace and red chiffon or, more likely, someone else was buying it for her. Had they both had an affair? If Samantha had a new boyfriend, it had happened awfully quickly. It wouldn’t look good in a custody battle, if it came to that. Samantha’d always been a terrible liar.
What was really going on?
Moving into the living room, she settled into the armchair, dunked her Lady Grey tea bag and sighed. She loved Mondays. Always got lots done. Kick start the week on a positive, dynamic note and you couldn’t go wrong. Her eyes flicked over the ceiling cobwebs, more visible now that afternoon sunlight filtered through the open window, and she added that to her mental list.
Yawning, she relaxed back into the chair, suddenly feeling very tired. Was she getting that old? Surely not.
At least when Samantha got home after picking Tommy up from school, she’d have a spotless house waiting for her. She’d probably forgotten she’d given her a spare key since she never had cause to use it. Dorothy chuckled, imagining the look on Samantha’s face when she got home.
Dinner would also be cooked by then: spaghetti bolognese with garlic bread. Her daughter’s favourite. Maybe she would cry? A cuddle would definitely be in order, and perhaps—
Marmalade exploded into a flurry of legs and fur before darting out of the window and disappearing from sight. Dorothy cursed, having spilled some of her tea, but didn’t ponder on what might have spooked him. She dabbed her trousers with a tissue that she kept up her sleeve. Cats were bizarre creatures.
After a few sips, her gaze slid over to her handbag. She shrugged, opened it and got out her menthol cigarettes. No one’s perfect. And with the amount of ironing she was about to do, Samantha wouldn’t begrudge her one little smoke… would she?
She lit a cigarette and let her hand dangle over the side of the armchair, the other balancing her mug on her thigh.
A strange heaviness crept over her. She pondered lifting her cigarette to take a drag, but it just seemed like far, far too much effort…
Three days earlier…
The Beehive Café boasted a lovely terrace, homemade cakes and strong Columbian coffee, just the way Samantha liked it. Thursday afternoon was a good time. Not too busy, not too quiet. Plenty of passing trade from the high street kept the atmosphere bustling, but Samantha and her mother found a seat with ease.
She thanked the waitress as her flat white arrived along with her mother’s Lady Grey; she’d never known her to drink anything else. It had once been unavailable and she’d ordered tap water instead, much to the waiter’s horror. That had never happened since - they probably had a year’s supply stashed somewhere just in case Dorothy Berger came in. Samantha smiled to herself in spite of what she knew was coming.
Her mother waited about three seconds.
“There must be something I can do, darling.”
“Mum, please. I’m fine.”
“But working in a nightclub? Paying a babysitter all those evenings? That’s not where you need to be at your age. You must be exhausted!”
“It’s temporary. Just until I get things, you know, organised.”
Dorothy softened her tone, asked, “Have you spoken to Nathan? Does he know you’re working nights?”
“No. And I don’t want him knowing. We didn’t leave things well.” Samantha grimaced. “There was… shouting. It got nasty.”
“He’s got no business being angry when he was the one that—”
“I may have said some things…”
Dorothy waited, her beringed fingers warming against her cup. Would she be relating all of this to her dad? Probably, but Samantha didn’t really mind. As long as she was careful about what she said, everything would be fine. She glanced over her shoulder and leaned forwards.
“I said that it was more my house than his, that I’d take his stuff to the tip… and I might have said something about him never seeing Tommy again,”—Dorothy’s eyes widened— “in the heat of the moment.”
“Oh Sammy, he is still Tommy’s father.”
The last time she’d seen Nathan, he’d spat at her feet and called her worse than muck with that horrible vein in his forehead throbbing. Maybe she should change the locks?
No. He wouldn’t do anything. How did things get so different so quick? Was it her fault? Samantha gritted her teeth, and looked to the sky. Her mother, wisely, changed tack.
“You are keeping up with the mortgage, aren’t you?” she asked. “The bills? We’re alright. I can always—”
“You don’t have to…” Samantha took a deep breath, pushed down her irritation. “I know you want to help, but everything is under control.”
“Are you sure?”
“Well,” she said, leaning back in her chair, “you’re not eating.”
“I know,” —she waved a hand— “stress and whatnot, but you’ve got to keep your strength up, especially when times are tough. For yourself and for Tommy.”
“Mum, I know, I—"
“Bakewell tart?” the waitress asked.
Samantha grinned, pathetically grateful for the interruption. She didn’t want to get annoyed with her mum. If her son was in trouble, she’d do anything to help, but this was different. At least she knew how to lie to her mum, though she hated doing so. It was necessary.
“Lovely cake,” Dorothy said, pushing the extra fork across the table. Samantha relented and dug in.
“Wow,” she said. “It is good.”
“Homemade. You have the cherry. God knows you could do with fattening up.” A mischievous look flickered over Dorothy’s face. “Men like something to hold onto, you know.”
Of course, she said that when Samantha had her mouth full. She chewed malevolently, refusing to smile. This was no time to be making jokes about men. Not when her husband had run off with some twenty-something influencer with fat slug-like eyebrows. She was a living, breathing cliché and the cherry on the sodding Bakewell was not going to make it better.
“I don’t want it.”
Her mother rolled her eyes. “Suit yourself.” She reached over and popped it in her mouth.
“I don’t want another man.”
“They all say that, until the next one comes along.”
“I mean it.”
Dorothy held up her hands in surrender. “Sorry.”
Samantha mimed for the check.
“I’ve got stuff to do.”
“Alright, but let me get this.”
“Samantha Margaret!” Dorothy snapped, “if you say ‘fine’ once more, I’ll take you over my knee. Right here. Tiny, bony bottom wobbling for everyone to see. Is that what you want? Hm?”
Heat rose to Samantha’s face, but she couldn’t stop the laughter. Her mother’s eyes twinkled; she’d won.
“That’s better,” she said. “Been far too long since I heard that laugh.”
The waitress appeared and Dorothy paid, pressing the money into the young girl’s hand. “Keep the change, dear.”
Five days earlier…
Samantha rubbed the back of her neck, stopped, wiped the sweat on her trousers and hoped the other woman hadn’t noticed. The underground car park stank of urine and rotten garbage. A hollow kind of cold emanated from the concrete making her shudder. How many people had been murdered down here? She bet it was a few. Had that been blood she’d seen smeared along the wall in the stairwell?
What the fuck was she doing here?
Her own footsteps had echoed painfully loud upon her descent into this wretched pit and so when the woman known only as ‘Trik’ materialised from behind a concrete column to her left, Samantha almost pissed herself.
This woman, clad in plain black with a grey beanie covering whatever hairstyle she might have, somehow managed to be chic and dangerous all at once. Maybe it was her sharp, pixie-like bone structure and light-grey eyes that did it.
Trik stopped a few paces away, but spoke as if she were much closer. Her voice carried. “You got the cash?”
Samantha handed over the wad of fetid notes, cursing her hand for trembling. A whiff of cloying stripper perfume and cheap vodka accompanied it, or maybe it was just her imagination. She swallowed; a part of her she would never get back was imprinted in those notes. Now they were gone, maybe she could pretend none of it ever happened.
“You’re uh sure this will work?” she asked.
Trik flicked through the notes, fingers rapid as a casino cashier. “Bit late to be having cold feet, love.”
“Oh, I’m not, I just want to make, you know, absolutely sure—”
“I’m a professional.”
Samantha held her tongue as the money vanished and Trik eyed her.
“The fire will start at approximately 2pm on Monday afternoon in the basement. It'll spread fast, because of the gas. Make sure there is no evidence of cigarettes in the house. That could cause problems with your claim—”
“But you said it would look like an electrical fault.”
“It will. It is an electrical fault, but if the fire brigade finds evidence of smoking, the insurance company will try to pin it on that. To wriggle out of paying.”
“Right, well,” —Samantha wrapped her arms around her waist and gripped her sides— “I don’t smoke.”
“Good. Terrible habit,” Trik said. “Any other questions?”
Trik nodded and began to move away. “I hope everything works out the way you want it.”
And with that, she was gone. Samantha fought the urge to call her back and scrub it all out, but it was already too late.
“Yeah,” she spoke instead to the empty space, her voice echoing in the dank gloom, “sometimes, hope is all we’re left with.”