I’m busy minding my own business, clearing up litter in a field on the outskirts of Hartington when what can only be described as a crazy woman appears, seemingly from nowhere. She’s all wild-eyed, and her blonde hair looks damp. Her outfit is unremarkable, except for the fact she’s got nothing on her feet. Bright red toenails seem massively out of place in this rural village. She seems out of place. I’m not sure why I think this, but somehow, she just doesn’t appear to belong. So what the hell is she doing here?
Normally, I steer clear of other folk unless it’s absolutely necessary, but this woman looks like she needs help. Serious help. If she’s crossed the road with her feet like that, then they’re going to be scratched to buggery, maybe even cut.
Taking a deep breath, I chuck the empty crisp packet I’ve been holding into my rubbish bag. Then I place it next to the tree I’m standing beside and step out into the woman’s path. I’m used to people not seeing me—or behaving like they haven’t seen me, anyway—so I’m not surprised when she lets out a shriek that could wake the dead and freezes in front of me.
“Hey, hey,” I say gently, holding my hands up placatingly. “It’s okay. I’m not going to hurt you. I just wanted to come and see if you were all right. I can’t help but notice you’re not wearing any shoes. You’re not hurt, are you?” The concern in my voice confuses me, but then my brain catches up. If this chick is so desperate to get away that she’s gone without shoes, then something’s wrong. Seriously wrong.
I look around, half-expecting to see an angry husband chasing after her, or maybe even a shopkeeper. She could be a thief. Glancing at her again, I realize that can’t possibly be the case, unless she’s stolen something invisible. All she has are the clothes on her back.
She still hasn’t spoken, so I try again, attempting to make myself appear friendly, welcoming. Not an easy thing when you’re over six feet tall and pretty wide, too. Also, the fact I haven’t had a change of clothes, shave, or a haircut for a while won’t help. I wouldn’t blame her if she ran away, to be honest. I must look a fright, but I haven’t peered into a mirror—or even a window—for a good few days, so I can’t be sure.
“Sweetheart, please answer me. Are you hurt? Is there someone after you?”
She looks around, then back at me. Shakes her head. I’m confused—if there’s no one after her, why did she look behind her?
I crouch down. “Are your feet okay? Cut?”
Finally, I get a verbal reply. “N-no. I mean, yes. They’re okay. Not cut. At least … I don’t think so.”
She lifts each foot in turn, checking the soles. They’re fine. Now she’s answered another of my questions, too. Her accent doesn’t sound local. More like southern England. London, perhaps.
I suppress an involuntary shudder. The thought of London, the big, dirty, smoky city, does not impress me. Horrible bloody place. But at least it explains why the blonde doesn’t appear to fit in. She’s not from around here.
Naturally, I still have a million and one questions, but I don’t know how to ask them without bombarding or intimidating her. Not to mention that really, I have no right to know the answers. I’m a total stranger. But there’s something about her, about her appearance—and I don’t just mean the lack of footwear—that makes me want to help her. Or at least get her back where she came from, which is clearly somewhere in the village. She certainly hasn’t come far, as otherwise her feet would be filthy and bleeding.
What the hell is she doing here?
“What’s your name, love?” I give her what I hope is a friendly smile, though there’s a chance she can’t see it through all my facial hair. God, I really need to get hold of a razor. Or even a sharp knife.
“Caroline. Caroline Rogers.”
I hold out my hand. “Flynn Gifford.”
She takes it, and we shake. That tells me another thing about her, about Caroline. Her grasp, grip, and the way she pumps our joined digits up and down, then lets go at an appropriate time that’s not too quick, or too long, indicates she shakes a lot of hands. She’s a businesswoman.
“You here on holiday?” I speak the words that have just popped into my head. Why else would a city girl be in the depths of Derbyshire? There’s no business here. Or at least, not big business.
She frowns, and cute little wrinkles appear either side of her nose, and a tiny line appears between her eyebrows. “No. Why, are you?” Taking in my appearance, seemingly for the first time, she then gapes, realizing her mistake.
“S-sorry. I didn’t mean anything by that. I wasn’t taking the piss. I mean—” She trails off, clearly having no idea what to say next. I seem to have that effect on a lot of people. After all, I have all the appearance of a tramp, minus the starved-and-smelling-of-alcohol bit. I don’t have a dog on a string, either.
“It’s all right, don’t worry. People have said much worse about me. Now, are you going to tell me what’s going on, or have I got to keep questioning you? Only I’m really busy.”
She looks confused for a moment. Then I tip her a wink.
Cupping her hands over her mouth, she giggles.
I feel a sense of achievement—I’ve made her laugh, broken the ice, for want of a less clichéd description.
“Well? Want to help me pick up litter while you talk?”
Her eyes widen for a second, but then a determined expression crosses her face. “Yes, actually, I’d love to.”
I figure not much harm can come to her feet on the soft grass, so I grab the bag I’ve been using to hold the litter—not that there’s much, the ramblers that come through here are a respectful lot, on the whole—and hand it to her. Turning away, I begin looking for more rubbish, hoping she’ll follow me, and, more importantly, start talking.
Fortunately, she does.
“Well, uh, as I already said, I’m not here on holiday. It’s nowhere near as fun as that. I’m here … for a rehab, of sorts.”
As I have my back to her, I allow the surprise I feel to show on my face. I had not been expecting that.
“Oh?” I say, trying to sound casual.
“Yeah.” She pauses. “I had a bit of a meltdown at work.”
“Ah. Your boss a bit of an arsehole is he? Or she?” I add, not wanting to sound sexist.
Caroline snorts. “Not exactly. I am the boss.”
Once more, she’s confused me. “So what have you got to be stressed about? Can’t you like, just delegate and stuff?” I stop and turn to face her. I’m dying to know the answer to this one.
Raising one pale eyebrow—she’s a natural blonde, it seems—and putting her hands on her hips, she gives me a look that would turn a lesser man to stone. “Well,” she says, “it’s not quite as simple as that. I own a multi-million pound company, a luxury hotel chain, which I’ve built from the ground up. I’m not going to hand over the reins to someone else so they can fuck it up.”
“So you’re a control freak,” I reply, earning myself a glare. “And you’ve worked yourself into the ground and been forced to take some time out. Who’s looking after things for you now? I assume things haven’t ground to a halt?”
“No,” she insists, coolly, “I’m not a control freak. I just want to make sure my business is run right. Though you’re kinda right about the second bit. I did some things I’m not proud of.” She drops her gaze to her feet. “And as for who’s looking after things now, I don’t know. I’ve been cut off.” She laughs, the sound high and bordering on hysterical. “God, that makes me sound like I’ve got a drug or alcohol problem. Basically, my mother and my doctors have insisted that I take some time out. Completely. No phone calls, no checking in, no emails, no nothing. They’ve assured me that things are okay with the business, and that’s all I know.”
“Wow. The control freak in you must be going crazy.”
“I am not a control freak.” High spots of color appear on her cheeks, and I know I’ve really hit a nerve. I ignore her and carry on talking.
“So your mum and your doctors staged an intervention, eh?”
“Something like that.”
“It must have been bad. So does any of this explain the lack of shoes?”
She aims her annoyed gaze at me once more. Then her face softens, and she looks down at her feet. “Yeah. I suppose it does. I just flipped out at my mum. She’d been to church to polish the brass for some reason, and she came back and kept getting on at me. I shouted at her and swore at her, then kicked off my shoes—I was wearing heels—and climbed over the garden wall and buggered off. Then I ended up here.”
A smirk takes over my face before I can stop it. “So what you’re saying is, you had a childish tantrum and took it out on your mother? And you reckon you’re not a control freak. You don’t like being told what to do and you don’t like being looked after. I’m gonna hazard a guess that you’re single, too.”
“What the fuck has that got to do with it? And who the fuck are you to give me advice? You’re fucking homeless, aren’t you?”
My smirk grows into a beaming smile. “That’s a lot of fucks. And when did I give you advice? I was simply making an observation about your life. Obviously, you didn’t like it. Clearly, I don’t run a multi-million pound posh hotel chain, but you know what? I’m happy, and I’m not stressed. Granted, I could do with a shave and a shower, but no one tells me what to do. It’s not the norm, but it works for me.”
The fire inside Caroline seems to burn itself out. Her body visibly slumps for a second or two, but then she straightens. “Christ, I’ve really fucked up, haven’t I?”
“Were you a sailor in a previous life?”
“Never mind.” She’s obviously in no mood for jokes. “Hey, come on, let’s sit down. Talk to me some more, if it helps. Or I can walk you back to your mum’s. Or I can just go away and leave you alone. Whatever you want.”
Caroline shakes her head. “I can’t go back there, not yet. I was really horrible to my mum just then. She didn’t deserve it. God, I was such a bitch.” She covers her face with her hands and begins to cry. Not dainty little squeaks, either, but big wracking sobs that make her body jerk. A lot of men would run a mile at the sight of a woman behaving like this, but not me. I can handle this. I’ve definitely handled worse.
Slipping my arm around her shoulders, I send up a silent prayer to anyone that might be listening that she won’t slap my face or knee me in the bollocks.
She does neither of those things, instead allowing me to lead her back up the field and to a bench. “Come on, sit down.” I guide her onto the wooden seat, keeping my arm around her. Somehow, I sense that she needs my comfort right now.
I feel a little guilty, actually, for bringing this on. I deliberately goaded her, pointed out her faults, and now she’s a blubbering wreck. Perhaps I’ve done her a favor, though. She’s definitely the sort of woman that builds walls around herself—several, I figure, after getting to know her a little bit. Now I’ve gone and broken them down and released a flood. She’ll be just fine when she’s let out all her tears. They say it’s cathartic, or something, don’t they?
Bloody hope so, anyway. I may not be a high-powered sort, but if I don’t work, I don’t earn any cash. I’m being paid to clean up litter, and that’s what I need to do if I’m going to eat for the next couple of days. Maybe if I do a good enough job, I’ll get some extra wages to buy some razors and shaving foam. Otherwise the good folk of Derbyshire will start reporting Yeti sightings left, right, and center.
After a few more minutes, Caroline’s sobs have subsided, and she looks up at me with a watery grin. “Sorry.” She sniffles. “Guess I needed that.”
A “told you so” isn’t the order of the day, and may get me that slap, so I simply grin back. “Guess so. What’s the plan now, then, love? Want me to walk you back? Reckon we should go to the front door, though, rather than back over the garden wall. People don’t take kindly to men like me climbing into their gardens.”
Her smile widens. So does mine. Who would have thought it? Nomadic nobody Flynn Gifford cheers up a high-flying rich bird. My old mates from the unit would never have believed it.
Caroline’s voice is tiny, almost childlike. “Can I stay here with you a bit longer? I’ll help you finish clearing up. It’s the least I can do, since you’ve been so nice to me. I’ve probably put you behind, too. I’ll go back to Mum’s a bit later. Hopefully she won’t be quite so mad at me then.”
“Of course you can stay. It’s a free country, in any case. You needn’t help me, though, I can manage. You’re here to recuperate.”
“I’d like to help. It’s quite nice to do something like this, actually. Something to give back. Kind of. I dunno … something selfless. Do you know what I mean?”
“I know exactly what you mean, sweetheart. Well then, as long as you’re careful of your feet, help away. There shouldn’t be anything nasty here, but just keep your eyes peeled for glass or cans. Or snakes.”
She looks at me, alarmed. I manage to keep my face perfectly straight for a few seconds, then fail. I smile. “Sorry, I’m just kidding. Well, sort of. There could be grass snakes, I suppose, but they won’t hurt you. The only poisonous snakes in this country—unless they’ve escaped from tanks—are adders. And I don’t think there have been any sightings of those around here. You’ll be all right.”
Sticking her tongue out at me, Caroline turns and wanders across the field, looking for more litter. I’m pleased—both that she stuck her tongue out at me, and that she’s helping. It shows she’s regained her spirits and sense of humor—she has to have one, surely—and that she’s not an utterly self-centered human being. Apparently, she’s just having a hard time of it lately and needs a little help getting back on her feet.
The thought gives me an idea. Perhaps Caroline can introduce me to her mother? I’m always a little wary of approaching people in villages, especially if they’re single women—she didn’t mention a father—because I don’t want to scare them. It’s why I stick to farms, and businesses. I get by, but I quite like it round here—especially since I’ve found a great place to get my head down—and if I can get a bit of work from the villagers, gardening, chopping trees down and the like, I can stay a bit longer. Maybe call it home for a few weeks, maybe even a month.
I continue with my task, but it seems I’ve exhausted this part of the field. So I move closer to Caroline, and we go over the area together. I see she’s got a couple of things in her hands, so I walk over and hold open the rubbish bag, so she can drop them in.
“There’s not much here,” she says, shrugging.
“Yeah, I know. It’s a lovely village, is this, and it seems people like to look after it.”
“Do you live here?” she asks.
“Sort of. No, not really.”
Her lovely face morphs into another frown. “Now who’s not talking?”
She’s right, of course. “Sorry. It’s a long story. But the very short version is no, I don’t. I’m living nearby at the moment, over in Newhaven. Not exactly legally, either, so I’d appreciate it if you’d keep it to yourself.”
A look of understanding crosses her features. “Ah, I see. You’re squatting. But don’t worry, your secret is safe with me. As long as you’re not hurting anything, why should I care?”
I shake my head. “Nope, not hurting a thing. Didn’t even break in. The place is going derelict. It’s a bloody shame, really, it’s a gorgeous building. Or it was, anyway. Huge place, but now it’s a crumbling mess. So I’m calling it home while I’m here.”
“How long are you staying?”
I shrug. “Depends on work. I’ve been in Derbyshire for a few years now, but I can only stay in one place as long as there’s work. There are a few villages and farms around here that might be able to give me jobs to do, but once I’ve exhausted them all, I have to move on. Got no choice.”
“Oh. Okay. That makes sense. Can I ask you something?”
I incline my head.
“God, I hope you don’t mind. I’m just wondering … why don’t you have a proper job? Or, you know, go on the dole or whatever if you can’t get anything? Why don’t you live in your own house or flat?” Chewing on her bottom lip, she looks genuinely worried at my potential response.
“Like I said, it’s a long story. I’ve chosen to live this way, though, love. Off the grid, as they say. Footloose and fancy free.” I pause. “Actually, scratch that last. It’s bullshit. I’m dying for a shower and a shave. Clean clothes. A proper meal.”
“Hmm. Maybe I can help you with that. With all of those things.”