I'm going to tell you a story. Okay – that's what I do, I know. But this one is sort of true. You'll have to guess how much is truth and how much wishful fantasy...
Jack's an older guy, nearing retirement age. He was, when this started, married to Audrey. Now Audrey, sadly, only comes into the story peripherally, but I need to tell you about her so you understand where Jack was coming from. He really loved Audrey. She was lovely; loyal, reliable, caring, honest, sincere ... you'll get the picture, I'm sure. Physically, even at sixty, she was tall and slim with a nicely proportioned figure. Unfortunately, she was one of the forty percent or so of post-menopausal women who suffered from a condition which made intercourse uncomfortable, in her case, much too uncomfortable to be borne. More than that, she appeared to have lost interest in sexual intimacy. At sixty-two, Jack wasn't really ready for celibacy though admittedly his libido wasn't what it was at twenty. As I say, he really loved his wife, but couldn't help wondering if perhaps there was a woman out there who needed some sex as he did but didn't want commitment. Which is where our story begins. Jack didn't want to go to a prostitute; he wanted more than a quick shag; he wanted to give and receive pleasure sexually without destroying his marriage.
Well, he chewed it over and found there were websites that purported to bring together people who wanted no strings sex. Not just dating sites, places where he could look for someone with similar needs to himself. But he kept putting off getting involved until his wife decided she needed to travel overseas to visit relatives in America, one of whom she hadn't seen since she was a girl. Jack had no desire whatsoever to go to America, or to visit her relatives. However, he encouraged her to go and enjoy herself.
You need to know Jack wasn't the selfish sort – he'd give a friend the shirt off his back if he needed it. In a hole? He'd offer you an interest-free loan. Friend (male or female) over did the booze in the pub? He'd get them home and make sure they were okay. And he was a trusting sort. It cost him quite a lot over the years. But he'd just shrug.
"It's only money" (or whatever hadn't come back). Okay, he wasn't a fool, but he preferred to trust until a person showed that they were not to be trusted. Which brings us to his plan.
He rapidly found out that the sites catered to a wide range of age and interest. He was puzzled that quite a few young women seemed to be interested in him. Why? Of what possible interest was a sixty-two year-old married man to a twenty-something, very attractive, young woman.
Well, he found out. Seemed that at least some of them (there were one or two who genuinely had a thing for older men) made a living from nude web-cam sites and were really only interested in getting him to sign up for the sites, to pay to look at them, and vote on their performance. Naïve he may have been, but he was certainly sceptical, though his trusting principle - and the desire to find a friend-with-benefits – meant that he gave them a chance. Two of them basically gave up when he refused to go past a certain point, but one intrigued him. He was eighty percent sure she was stringing him along, but there was that twenty percent.
Her picture on the dating website showed a dark – possibly black – haired young woman with what might be called a Mediterranean complexion and a blinding white smile. Her name seemed to indicate Latin origins. He eventually found out her family were Filipinos. She asked him for money – relatives in Manila had suffered some catastrophe. His immediate thought was 'does she really think I'm going to send money to someone I don't know on the say-so of someone I've never met'?
Their only encounters had been via the site or instant messaging. He knew he had no guarantee that the picture was hers – or, for that matter, that she was even female.
To-ing and fro-ing on the issue, he wanted to meet her and place the money in her hands. (She lived in Birmingham) Not unreasonable, he thought. As I said before, he had no problems with giving money to someone who needed it – he just liked to know who he was giving it to, and why. Besides; the whole object of the exercise was to meet a congenial woman for sex. He wasn't about to bully, coerce or bribe a woman for sex, but he wanted a chance to meet her at least.
In the end – he couldn't have said why – he gave in and made a transfer. It wasn't an enormous sum of money, but probably in the Philippines quite significant. He was unsurprised – disappointed but unsurprised – when days passed and the possibility of a meeting with Carmelita receded and the time she spent instant messaging reduced until he'd gone a day without a single communication from her.
Was he a fool then? Perhaps you think 'serves him right for playing around on his wife'? He didn't give up hope, but as time went on became certain he had, indeed, been taken for a ride.
In due course, his wife was scheduled to be back, and he set off in the small hours of the morning to drive to Heathrow. Traffic, as he hoped, was light and he was there in good time. Of course, that had disadvantages too; the short-term parking at Heathrow is exorbitant, and it meant hanging around Arrivals for over an hour after the aircraft landed.
Eventually, she appeared, well back in a bunch of other passengers from the same flight. She looked weary, wrung out, drawn, and she was limping, but his heart leapt at the sight of her. He took her in his arms, suddenly grateful his attempts to find a 'fuck-buddy' had failed. He took her bag, they collected her case, and she limped with him back to the car.
Jack hated driving around the London area motorways. The traffic – impatient, rude drivers, speeding, congestion, complicated junctions, being in the wrong lane and unable to change; not being sure which junction to take ... he had to really concentrate. But he did manage to get onto the M25 orbital clockwise, then took the M40 towards Oxford. As soon as he was sure he was on the right track and not needing to take a turn, he glanced at his wife. She looked dreadful.
"Are you okay, love?"
"Not really. Leg hurts. But get me home, Chuck, please."
(Chuck, pronounced more like chook, is a common endearment in the North)
He wasn't too happy about that, but there weren't too many choices, either. He speeded up until he was maintaining the same speed as the rest of the traffic in the middle lane. In other words, rather over the official speed limit. He intended to take the A43 to join the M1 at Northampton, but as he approached Oxford, Audrey cried out in pain. She was pale and sweating profusely, tears running down her face, a hand pressed to her chest. They were ten miles short of Oxford. Pushing as hard as he could, he headed off onto the A40 and followed signs, ending up at the John Radcliffe Hospital Accident and Emergency Department.
Audrey was barely conscious, just whimpering a little with pain, as he lifted her out of the car – strength borne of desperation – and carried her in.
At the reception, he was greeted with, "Name?"
"Audrey Sanderson..." he gasped.
"MY WIFE IS DYING," he shouted, "CAN'T WE DEAL WITH THAT LATER?"
The receptionist was most affronted. "Don't..." but before she could say any more, there were uniformed and white-coated staff taking Audrey out of his arms, a flurry of activity, and she was gone.
Jack turned to the receptionist, but before either of them could say anything a nurse – actually the Sister (Charge Nurse, if you're American) as she was in navy blue – spoke quietly in the woman's ear. They left the desk – the receptionist returned several minutes later, subdued.
"I apologise..." she said, just as Jack was saying, "I'm sorry..." They both stopped and Jack gestured for her to continue.
"I am sorry," she said, "I should have seen it was an emergency, or at least potentially so."
"I shouldn't have shouted," he responded, "but I was in a panic. I need to park my car, though, before it causes an obstruction."
"Very well," the woman gave a small, tired smile, "we'll deal with the formalities when you come back."
He got to the car just in time to avoid a ticket...
He was lucky to find a space (about as far from the entrance as it was possible to get) and returned to the desk to complete the formalities, then slumped in an incredibly uncomfortable chair to await news.
He waited a little over an hour, but it seemed like a lifetime. A young woman (a student nurse, though he didn't recognise the uniform) approached him.
He stood. "That's me! How is she?"
"Will you come with me, Mr. Sanderson? Doctor LaCroix would like a word with you."
"I don't know, I'm afraid. I was just asked to take you to see the doctor. I'm sorry. I'm sure he'll be able to tell you more." She turned and moved away, looking over her shoulder to make sure he was following. She showed him into a small interview room, where he edgily moved around until a harassed-looking doctor entered.
"Won't you sit, Mr. Sanderson?"
Jack perched on the edge of a chair and the doctor almost fell into another.
"Mr. Sanderson, I'm very sorry, but your wife has died. We did everything we could, but we were just too late..." he continued talking, quietly, but Jack heard nothing after 'has died'.
The words, meaningless, flowed over him.
"Can I see her?" He interrupted the flow.
The doctor led him into a cubicle. A nurse had been washing Audrey – warned, she put her equipment aside and pulled a sheet over her patient, but stayed there. Jack approached the examination table Audrey was on, reached out and laid the back of his hand against her cheek as he'd done so many times before. She wasn't there. That wasn't his wife; it was some stranger that just looked like her. The spirit, soul, essence ... call it what you will ... that made Audrey, Audrey ... just wasn't there any more. He stepped back, nodded to the nurse and left the cubicle. He saw the doctor. "What happens now?"
"I'm afraid there'll have to be a post-mortem," he replied. "It will be a week or so before before we can issue a death certificate. If I may suggest ... am I right you live in Sheffield?"
"I suggest if you feel able to travel, you return home. Please take great care if you're driving. Contact a funeral director and leave the arrangements to them. Is there anyone you could call to go with you?"
Jack shook his head. "I can't think of anyone. My son is in Australia, my daughter in Romania ... But thank you, doctor. I'd better be going."
It is not a good idea to drive when you've had a shock as profound as that Jack had experienced. It might be thought a miracle that he arrived home intact with his car undamaged, having driven about a hundred and forty miles or so on auto-pilot in heavy, Friday evening, traffic.
He couldn't have said if he slept that night. It seemed that he'd been awake throughout. Breakfast was black coffee. He rang his children; his son was shocked, his daughter was not available and he had to leave a message asking her to call. Sitting numbly in his kitchen, he didn't register the phone ringing the first time. The second time, he didn't quite make it to the hand-set, but it rang again before he could get back to the kitchen.
"Dad? What is it?"
He opened his mouth, but no sound came out.
"Dad?" His daughter's voice was rising, clearly worried.
"Jan..." his voice, when he got it to work, was a croak.
"DAD! What is it? You're frightening me!"
He cleared his throat. "Jan ... your mother's dead."
"What! How? When?"
"I picked her up at Heathrow ... she said her leg hurt. We were on our way home ... we were near Oxford ... and she got really ill. She died, Jan. I took her into Oxford, to hospital. But she died, Jan..."
"I'm on my way home, Dad."
"No need, darling. There's nothing you can do..."
"Yes, there is. I can cry on your shoulder, Dad." The call ended with a click and he hung up.
Thirty-six hours passed in a blur; he couldn't have said what time of day it was, merely responding to his body's demands – the toilet, water, dozing in a chair.
His daughter found him sitting, staring across the room; he might have been staring at a photo of himself with Audrey ... or just staring at nothing. She found it difficult to penetrate his stupor; in the end she sat in his lap, leaned against his chest, pressed her face against his neck and wept. Some time later she realised he was shaking; he wrapped his arms round her and they wept together; healing, cleansing tears.
In due course, the Coroner released Audrey's body, with a diagnosis of 'Pulmonary Embolus'. She'd developed a Deep Vein Thrombosis during the flight and part of it had broken off and lodged in her lung. It hadn't registered with Jack at the time, but the Emergency Room doctor, Doctor LaCroix, had said that they were sure that's what it was.
It was a comfort having Janine there. Individually, they might have neglected themselves, but together they prompted each other to eat, bathe, go to bed. They talked together too, about Audrey. Jack told his daughter little things about their life together before she'd been born ... how they'd met in school, initially disliking each other; how a teacher made them co-operate on a project and an uneasy truce gradually turned into friendship and, almost imperceptibly, into love.
Wanting children, but nothing happening until Audrey was in her late thirties and they'd given up hope. But out of the blue, Charles was born and, a couple of years later, Janine.
So comfortable did they become, Jack nearly told Janine about Audrey's sexual problem, which would have led to a confession of his intended infidelity, but he held his tongue; it was his to bear.
Charles, accompanied by Miu, his wife, arrived from Japan a few days before the funeral. Jack was touched that Miu would want to come, but she informed him that it was expected in Japanese culture to attend family funerals, even if you didn't really know the deceased.
"Still, Miu, I'm touched and pleased you wanted to come."
Of them all, Janine was the only one with any religious conviction at all. Funerals tend to be gloomy occasions; the exceptions being just that – a rarity; and this was no exception. The minister did his best, but the overwhelming sense was of loss and sadness. The service did, at least, represent a closure to that part of Jack's life and that of his family.
Charles and Miu stayed a few days after to give Miu a chance to see something of Britain – she and Charles had met and married in Japan - but a week after the funeral they boarded an aircraft at Heathrow. Janine, very reluctantly, left a week after that to return to her work in Romania after extracting a promise from her father to call or email her frequently.
Jack was left to try to piece together a life without Audrey.
When someone close dies suddenly, there are all sorts of issues that complicate the grieving process. In Jack's case, it was particularly muddled. There was some guilt about his intention to commit adultery mixed with relief that he actually hadn't. But there was also some irritation with himself about being conned out of money; not a lot, as I said before, he took chances with trusting people and lived with the consequences when his trust was betrayed. He was guilty that he felt a little relief that he was now free to perhaps pursue another relationship ... and he was lonely now that he was on his own, missing his partner and companion of so many years. In short, he was thoroughly mixed up and confused.
He was sensible enough, however, not to jump into taking up the one or two offers that came his way; knowing he had to get his mind straight first.
He gradually established a new routine though he still found himself setting the table for two, or starting to talk to Audrey. The latter he decided not to fight; in fact, he consciously made time to sit quietly and talk to her; about his love for her but how upset he'd been when they ceased to be intimate. He told her about the dating sites, about emailing and messaging the women who had responded to his profile; he told her about sending money to the Philippines and about Carmelita. Perhaps strangely, he came to feel that his wife both understood and forgave him and he found that he was at peace with his conscience and the memory of his wife.
That might have been the end of the story, but for an unexpected visitor late one evening. He was having a 'glass of whisky and jazz' evening, listening to a new CD of Jacqui Dankworth, when the door-bell rang. He was tempted to ignore it, but the habit of a lifetime had him on his feet and heading for the door before he had time to really think about it.
On the doorstep was a very dishevelled, shivering, young woman.
"Mr. Sanderson? Jack Sanderson?"
"That's my name."
"Can I come in and talk to you, please? I am Carmelita."
His eyes widened in surprise, but he stepped back to let her in ... the habit of trust overcoming any sensible considerations. He indicated a chair and put the kettle on.
"Cup of tea? Coffee? Cocoa?"
"If it is okay ... a cup of tea, please?"
He made tea for both of them and sat watching her as she sipped at hers.
"I am not here to make trouble," she began, "is your wife here?"
"No," Jack said, swallowing and closing his eyes for a moment. "She ... died, suddenly, when she came back from America."
"Oh." Then, after a pause, "I am very sorry for you."
He inclined his head in acknowledgement, "Thank you."
"Perhaps ... I should leave?"
"Maybe. But first, why have you come here? It could have made things difficult had my wife been here."
"I hoped ... I was going to say we met by accident online ... I am in a little trouble. I have no-one to turn to. I hoped you and your wife would be willing to take me in for a while. I ... understand you must be angry with me and that you have no reason to trust me..."
"If you leave, where will you go?"
She shrugged. "Some time, I must go to the Police. I think they may be looking for me. But I have no-where to go. I suppose a Police cell would be better than under a bridge."
"What have you done?"
"I am alive, that is all."
"I don't understand."
"My family, we are ... they were ... immigrants. They had nothing in Manila, but ... someone ... got them into England. I was born here. But they had to work for ... someone. They tried to protect me. The ... someone ... wanted to use me, but I, well you know what I did, undressing, chatting online. The ... someone ... said I wasn't earning enough. The money you sent, it helped for a while..." She stopped and sipped at her tea, then drank thirstily. "Thanks ... that's really good. Anyway ... they came to our house..." her voice became flat, uninflected and she continued in a monotone..."they tied them up. Gagged them. Then they stripped me and raped me in front of them. Everywhere. Over and over. Then they cut their throats in front of me. Told me to get cleaned up and they'd be back for me later. I ... showered and dressed ... dialled 999 and left the phone off the hook ... left the house. Hitch-hiked. Didn't know what to do. Didn't want to go to friends ... You were the only person," her voice gained some animation, "the only person who wasn't connected to me, whose address I had. I know I cheated you and I can't repay what you gave me, but you are my only hope."
"Are you willing to talk to the Police?"
"I think I must. Or keep running for the rest of my life."
Jack's eyebrows raised. Perhaps this girl had more about her than he thought. "If I ring now?"
"I guess so..."
He picked up the phone and dialled '2,20,20,20' the local non-emergency number. He gave his name, address and number, then "I need to speak to someone about a serious crime in a different city," there was a longish pause, "hello? I need to speak to someone about a serious crime in a different city, but the witness is in Sheffield. Yes. I have a material witness who was also ... yes, okay. I think they would need to be in plain clothes. I think that's important ... Well, I can't guarantee ... I have no right to detain the ... person. A rape kit, as well." He turned to the girl, "When was this?"
"Yesterday afternoon. I've been travelling ever since..."
"Twenty four hours ago, more or less ... I could, but..." he turned to the girl again, holding the secrecy button. "Are you willing for me to take you to the station, or would you prefer to stay here?"
"Take me there, please. But can I come back if they let me?"
Jack shrugged. Why not? "Yes."
It was a very long wait. Jack was glad of the paperback novel he'd taken with him. At length, a man approached him.
"That's me," Jack replied.
"I'm Detective-Sergeant Thurnscoe. I understand you are offering Miss Flores accommodation?"
"I am, Detective-Sergeant. It may not be the most sensible thing I've ever done, but there's a couple of spare rooms in my house and my family are all away now. There's not a great deal of value she can make off with."
"Except your good name, sir."
"Well, officer, those that know me will know the truth, and the others ... don't bother me."
The detective looked at Jack with an 'it's your funeral, sir' expression. "Well, it solves a problem for us, anyway. If you wouldn't mind giving me your contact details? It probably won't be me dealing with this; it seems like a case that will need someone more senior. Anyway, she can go with you. She's free to bathe and so on and I'd suggest a visit to the GU clinic to be screened for STIs."
That hadn't occurred to Jack, who nodded. "I'll do that. Assuming she agrees. If she doesn't, I'm afraid she's on her own. If that happens, I'll let you know?"
"Or bring her back here, preferably, sir. You can reassure her she won't be sent back to Birmingham. If necessary, one of their officers will come here. I'd suggest that your address doesn't get connected with her more than it is at the moment, that interviews take place here."