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       Two-Hundred Steps Home Volume Four, p.1

          Amanda Martin / Humor / Actions & Adventure
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Two-Hundred Steps Home Volume Four


AMANDA MARTIN



TWO-HUNDRED STEPS HOME



VOLUME FOUR





Amanda Martin was born in Hertfordshire in 1976. After graduating with first class honours from Leeds University she wandered around the world trying to find her place in it. She tried various roles, in England and New Zealand, including Bar Manager, Marketing Manager, Consultant and Artist, before deciding that Writer/Mummy best summed her up. She lives in Northamptonshire with her husband, two children and labradoodle Kara and can mostly be found at https://writermummy.wordpress.com or on Twitter or Facebook.





COPYRIGHT





Copyright © Amanda Martin 2013



Amanda Martin asserts the moral right to be

identified as the author of this work



Also by Amanda Martin:

Two-Hundred Steps Home: The Complete Journey

Dragon Wraiths

Baby Blues and Wedding Shoes



This novel is entirely a work of fiction although based loosely on the YHA Hostels of England and Wales. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.



All rights reserved.







https://www.amanda-martin.co.uk

https://writermummy.wordpress.com



TABLE OF CONTENTS





Title

Copyright

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Ten

Eleven

Twelve

Thirteen

Fourteen

Fifteen

Sixteen

Seventeen

Eighteen

Nineteen

Twenty

Twenty-One

Twenty-Two

Twenty-Three

Twenty-Four

Twenty-Five

Twenty-Six

Twenty-Seven

Twenty-Eight

Twenty-Nine

Thirty

About the Author

ONE



“Excuse me, is everything alright?”

Claire looked up at the concerned face trying to peer under her shield of hair. Her eyes met two sapphires sparkling amidst a sea of wrinkles.

“The school is closed today. Were you meant to meet someone?”

The words sank in through the fog in Claire’s mind. Closed? “The school isn’t open? But I was supposed to collect my niece. Ruth – my sister – she clearly said today at 3pm. I thought I was in the wrong place. But it’s definitely here. She’s going to be so cross, and she’s ill and I’m meant to be helping.” The words tumbled out until Claire’s voice broke and she sank her head back into her hands.

A gentle patting on her shoulder reminded Claire that the old lady was still standing in front of her.

“There, there, my dear. Don’t cry. Have you telephoned your sister? I am sure there has been some misunderstanding. I believe there is a training day today and therefore the children finished for the Easter vacation yesterday.”

Relief washed through Claire like a spring breeze, followed by an arctic blast of anger. That’s just like Ruth to scare the hell out of me. She must have Sky home with her: why didn’t she call me?

Claire looked up and smiled ruefully at the helpful passer-by. “I’m sorry; I don’t mean to be a watering pot. It was quite a struggle to get here for 3pm through the snow – I’ve come from the Derby Dales – and now, to find…” She shook her head. No point unburdening herself to a complete stranger.

The lady raised a hand as if to brush away Claire’s apology. “I quite understand. These things happen. Why not come with me to the café? You can settle your nerves before telephoning your sister. Everything will seem better after a cup of tea.”

Pushing herself off the wall, trying to ignore the numbness in her bottom from sitting on the cold stone, Claire smiled gratefully at the woman. “Thank you, I might do that. No need to come with me, I’ll be fine. I haven’t had lunch, that’s all. As you say, I’m sure I’ll feel more the thing after some food and a hot drink.”

The woman hesitated, as if unsure whether to leave Claire alone.

What must she think? I’m a grown woman, I shouldn’t be sat sobbing outside a primary school. Grow up and stop being pathetic, girl.

“I’m fine, really. I appreciate you stopping to tell me about the school. I know where the café is – I’ve been here before – and I don’t want to hold you up any longer.”

“Well, if you are certain?” Claire nodded. “Alright then, my dear. You take care.” The lady gave a little wave and walked away.

Claire filled her lungs with freezing air and brushed the hair back from her face. She knew she should call Ruth, to confirm that her niece was safely at home, but she was still too cross. That’s just like her, to have me race across the country on a wild-goose-chase without so much as a text message. She stomped towards the coffee shop, remembering all the times Ruth had let her down or forgotten to tell her something important. Just because I’m the youngest, doesn’t mean it’s okay to leave me out all the time.

She could almost sense her bottom lip jutting out as it had done twenty-five years ago, when such behaviour was just about acceptable.

It was only when she was tucked into a window seat nursing a cup of Earl Grey that it occurred to Claire there may be another reason for Ruth’s lack of contact.

What if she’s had complications and had to go back into hospital? What if she wasn’t able to call me and Sky’s been left with Dad?

Her empty stomach twisted in fear and the blood drained away from her face until she thought she might faint. Placing the cup down on the saucer, spilling her tea in the process, Claire pulled out her phone and selected her sister’s number. She listened to the endless ringing as she waited for the phone to connect.

Come on, come on, just pick up the phone.





***





TWO



“Good afternoon, Melanie Carleton speaking.”

Claire sighed in relief. “Mum, thank goodness. I was so worried. I'm at the primary school, Ruth asked me to collect Sky but she isn't here. Did she tell me the wrong time?” Now wasn't the time for accusations. Blaming someone with a brain tumour would do nothing but cast her as the evil sister.

“Claire, how nice of you to get in touch. Sky is fine, no thanks to you. I received a telephone call from the school yesterday, querying why my granddaughter had not been collected. I was not amused.”

“And you didn't think to phone and make sure I was okay? I was mugged last week, you know: knocked unconscious.” The hot words were out before Claire could extinguish them.

“No, Claire. Getting bopped on the head for being a silly girl and walking home alone does not compare to having doctors remove part of your brain. Although I am beginning to wonder if someone has done the same to you. How could you let Ruth down so badly?”

Tears swamped Claire's eyes at the unfairness of it all. I didn't do anything wrong. She told me the wrong day. Knowing self-defence was futile against her mother, Claire swallowed and let the rant run its course.

Eventually her parent fell silent. When Claire didn't respond, she spat out, “Well, what have you got to say? Cat got your tongue?”

Inhaling deeply so she wouldn't choke on the words, Claire said softly, “Sorry Mum, I must have misheard Ruth's instructions. I'm sorry you were put out and you've had Sky all day. I'll be there as soon as I can. As long as you're all okay, that’s the main thing.”

“You mean apart from one screaming in disappointment since 4pm last night and the other recovering from brain surgery and thinking her sister doesn’t give a hoot. Yes we are all okay here, as you put it.”

Claire disconnected the phone. She wasn’t sure if her mother had finished but she knew there were limits to how long she could keep her own mouth shut. It’s going to be bad enough going round there now, without antagonising Mother further. Trying to tell her the truth when she thinks she knows what’s what is like trying to find clothes in your size in the sale.

She drained the dregs of her tea and straightened her knife and fork. It was tempting to order another drink, preferably a large gin and tonic, but she thought better of it. Arriving reeking of alcohol when I’m about to be put in charge of a six-year-old for two weeks is probably not a great idea. I can’t even get a latte to go, as Stella doesn’t have cup-holders.

Looking around the calm oasis of the coffee shop, Claire wondered why she had ever found it lonely travelling by herself. With no more reasons to put it off, she squared her shoulders and strode to the door.





***





THREE



“Auntie Claire!”

Claire braced for impact as a whirling dervish of blonde hair and pink net hurtled down the corridor and hugged her knees. Déjà vu. I wonder if she has any other way of greeting visitors? This time Claire didn’t feel the urge to shake off her niece. Instead she dropped to her knees and gave the narrow shoulders a tight hug.

“Hey Sky. I’m so sorry I wasn’t there to collect you yesterday.” She avoided making eye contact with her mother, who had appeared behind Sky in the corridor. “Crossed wires, I’m afraid.” She looked down at the elfin face and saw a wobbling bottom lip. “Don’t cry, Sky. I’ll make it up to you.”

The jutting lip vanished and blue eyes sparkled. “Will you take me shopping? Mummy says you spend an ob... omscene... amount on clothes. I don’t know what that means, but it sounds fun.”

Blood rushed to Claire’s face but any chagrin at her niece’s repeated words vanished when she caught sight of her mother’s face. Ha, forgot your granddaughter can listen did you? I wonder what other titbits I’ll discover? It’s going to be like working with Carl again, but it will be worth it to find out what they really think of me.

“Hush now, Sky.” Madeleine pulled her granddaughter away and sent her down the corridor with a push. “Ruth’s in bed. Sky’s bag is packed so you can leave whenever you want to.”

Looking up into those blank eyes, Claire wondered when her mother had become such a cow. Then the words sank in, and she rose slowly to her feet. “I thought I was spending the night here? The hostel is booked for tomorrow.” The idea of trying to find two beds in a hostel at short notice on Easter weekend made her throat dry. She was about to remonstrate when she sensed the emotion pouring off her mother, filling the close space around them. Claire shivered. The need to grab Sky and walk back out the front door consumed her.

“Fine. We’ll find a hotel.”

She pushed past her mother and went in search of her niece.



Claire waited in the doorway until her eyes adjusted to the gloom, breathing quietly as she listened to see if Ruth was awake. At last her sister’s form materialised out of the dark and she saw the glittering light of open eyes.

“I’m so sorry,” Claire whispered, walking towards the bed. “Did I wake you?”

“No, I rarely sleep. I stay in bed because Sky tends to leave me alone a little bit more. I love her to bits, but she’s a bit overpowering at the moment.”

“And me not collecting her yesterday didn’t help. I really am sorry, I was convinced you said Thursday.”

A dry chuckle turned into a hacking cough. “I probably did. I put the cheese in the breadbin and the butter in the cutlery drawer yesterday. My brain doesn’t seem to be working quite as it did.”

Her words were barely audible but they twisted like a corkscrew into Claire’s ribcage. She wanted to scoop her sister up in a hug and tell her how much she loved her. The words wouldn’t come. Instead she brushed her hand gently across Ruth’s hot forehead.

“I do stuff like that too, and I don’t have your excuse. Don’t worry about Sky. I’ll take good care of her. Hopefully two weeks of peace will allow you to recoup your strength. You’ll be back to yourself in no time.” Her voice sounded fake to her: she hoped her sister was more convinced.

Ruth reached out a hand. As Claire took it she shuddered: her sister’s bones poked through her wasted skin like broken sticks in a silk sack. I’m glad it’s dark.

Her sister squeezed, the action barely registering against Claire’s grip. “Take care of my little girl, Claire. I know she’s in good hands.”

Claire nodded, unable to speak, even though she knew her sister wouldn’t see her response in the dark. She lowered the hand to the bed and turned to go before her emotions overwhelmed her. As she reached the door, she heard Ruth call her name.

“Claire…”

She returned to the bed and bent close to catch the whispered words.

“…Thank you.”





***





FOUR



Claire looked down the list of hotels on her iPad, conscious of eager eyes watching from the passenger seat. Scanning the Laterooms site, her eyes noted the hotel rooms near her budget. A B&B in Peterborough, a Days Inn hotel near the services. She looked over at the angel in pink sitting on a booster seat and kicking her feet. Do I really want our first night to be in some grotty hotel by the motorway? That’s not an adventure.

She examined the list again. Hotel and Spa, that sounds perfect. A quick trip to the sauna might just warm me up after this charming trip to see my mother. In the corner of her eye she could see Sky’s pointed toes trying to reach the glove box. Bugger, I don’t suppose I can take a six-year-old into a Spa. What do parents do when they need to relax?

Then a name stood out – a Country Hotel near Huntingdon. Clicking on the picture, her screen filled with an image of an ivy-encrusted building full of charm and character. That’ll do. She selected a twin room, trying to ignore the £89 price ticket. It does come with breakfast. I’ll just not include this receipt next time I file my expenses. My treat. A quick internet search revealed a zoo nearby. That settles it. We can go to the zoo first thing and then drive to the hostel after lunch.



By the time they reached the country hotel thirty minutes later Claire regretted passing up the Spa. Sneaking down for a dip after her niece was asleep seemed idyllic compared with enduring more hours of endless chatter. How does she manage to talk non-stop for so long? And with such shrill enthusiasm?

Claire’s brain rang with the high-pitched babble and her throat felt parched after answering a stream of random questions. The two-week Easter vacation stretched ahead of her like a desert road: long and relentless and without relief.





***





FIVE



Claire stared at the tiger. The massive white head faced away from her, as if ignoring her scrutiny. Then it swung round and seemed to acknowledge her gaze, before its flat eyes slid away and his attention moved on to the other side of the enclosure.

You poor old brute. What a life, sitting on a platform being watched by things you’d rather eat. Like sitting in a cake shop while the Belgium Buns take photographs. She shivered as the timeless eyes swung round to face her again. The tiger looked down his proud nose at Claire and stood, stretching like a domestic cat, before jumping silently off the platform to walk outside. On the far side of the enclosure Claire could see the orange tiger dozing in the sun. Between them was a giant red football. The sign said they spent hours knocking the ball to each other, but clearly not today. I’d give something to see that. I bet you do it when the zoo is closed right? Why perform for these strangers? You’d like us all to sod off, I bet.

“Auntie Claire?” A hand tugged at her jacket, reminding Claire she wasn’t at the zoo alone. Bugger. That’s going to take some getting used to. What if she’d wandered off, or been snatched, while I was communing with tigers? She turned and squatted down so her face was nearer Sky’s. “Yes poppet?”

“Can we go through the Tiger Tunnel? Can we, please?” She pointed through some pampas grass to a man-made tunnel that looked like it had been constructed from shipping containers.

“Sure, sweetheart. Although the tigers are here, darling.” She gestured to the specks of white and orange; all that could be seen of Blizzard and Lady-Belle.

“The map says there are sheep and goats through there though. And camels.”

Sheep and goats? We could have gone to a farm to see them, instead of this wind-swept, freezing zoo. Not camels, though, don’t remember seeing camels at any farm nearby. Claire stood up, ignoring the protesting creak in her knees and back. The hotel bed had done enough damage; she didn’t want to think about it anymore. Bad enough waking in a different bed to the one she’d gone to sleep in. As far as she could work out, Sky must have crawled in with her in the night and she’d crawled out the other side to sleep in the child’s bed.

I hope Musical Beds isn’t going to be a nightly occurrence. It’s hard enough dealing with all that chatter, without a head full of cotton wool and a broken and bruised body.

Claire let the girl drag her into the tunnel, which had been painted a vile sort of green with pictures to alleviate the metal expanse. They stopped at glass windows to search for Maned Wolves and more tigers but saw only scrubby grass and grey skies.

At the end of the tunnel, wooden gates opened into a small grassed area surrounded by animal enclosures: from reindeer on their right, past rheas, alpacas, sheep and goats, to camels far away to their left. They stood for a moment to get their bearings, when a flash of white and a bleating noise announced the arrival of a mob of miniature sheep, which flocked around their feet.

“Look, Claire, we can feed them. Can we, please?” Sky turned her sweetest smile on Claire and she nodded, pushing through the sheep to reach the food dispenser. As she inserted a twenty-pence piece and turned the dial, another flash of colour alerted her to new arrivals. Four short, fat, black goats came leaping across the grass and, before the food was even cupped in her hand, started jumping and head-butting her legs.
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