I really did see this note: the story is my attempt to explain it.
The one o’clock news had already started when Kathy finally got out of the house, and she ran all the way to the end of Caldicote Lane, about five minutes late. She looked all around, but couldn’t see Helen anywhere. Then a flash of colour caught her eye – bright pink, just at her eye level, on a telegraph pole on the other side of the road: she had to go and see.
It was a piece of art paper, solid colour on one side, white on the other, folded and pinned to the wood. On the face that was showing, beautifully inscribed, there were just a few words in black ink: “No Sign of You.”
There was no name, either of addressee or author, but Kathy knew it was for her, and shivered.
It was just after 8.45 when Kathy and Harry arrived at the school gates that morning and entered the playground. Technically, they were late, but today it didn’t seem to matter as the place was filled with parents and children, no-one entering at all.
Kathy went up to the nearest mum that she knew. “What’s going on, Jenny?” she asked. “Why aren’t they going in?”
“Apparently there’s a problem with the boiler or something, we’ve been asked to wait for five minutes while they decide whether they’ll be able to open the school,” her friend said.
Kathy looked around, and saw a face she thought she recognised: a woman, standing on the grass bank well back from everyone else, small boy by her side, both completely still and silent.
There was something about her that made Kathy want to talk, so she wandered over. The woman was wearing a headscarf and dark glasses, even though it was a dull day, and flinched as Kathy moved alongside.
“Helen, is that you? We’ve not spoken for ages, how are you?” Kathy asked, trying to see through the black lenses to the face behind. “It is Helen, isn’t it?”
The woman nodded, but said nothing. Her boy – Jake? – pushed himself closer to his mother’s side, holding on to her hand with both of his.
“Are you all right?” Kathy asked. “Is something the matter?”
Helen nodded, and then shook her head, not sure which of the questions she was answering. Finally she spoke, her soft voice almost lost among the hubbub from the nearby crowd. “I’m OK, thanks. I just need to get home. Do you know what time it is?”
Kathy looked at her watch. “It’s five to, hopefully we’ll be able to go soon, with or without children. Are you working now?”
“No, it’s just that Joe expects me home, he doesn’t like it if I’m late.”
“Well, I’m sure he’ll understand, and it’s only a few minutes, isn’t it? What’s the problem?” Kathy asked. “Anyway, won’t he be at work himself?”
“He works from home now. So I can look after him. But I can’t be late, I mustn’t be late.” Helen was shaking as she said this, and her son responded by hugging even tighter.
“But what will happen if you’re ten minutes late back from school, for heaven’s sake?”
Helen looked down and said nothing. Kathy leaned forward, so she was just inches from her old friend’s face, and could see the little bit of skin peeping around the side of the glasses. Purple and black flesh, silently accusing.
“Oh, Helen, what has happened to you? Look, why don’t you stay and talk to me, come back to mine for some tea, you can bring Jake if the school is closed – “
There was a silence.
“Look, it’s kind of you to offer,” Helen said, “but you don’t understand. I must get back as soon as they let us go from here, I must.”
“Can we talk later?” Kathy asked. “On the phone? Let me give you my mobile number, you give me yours – “
“I don’t have a mobile, I’m not allowed, and you can’t call me at home,” Helen said, pulling Jake even closer to her side so that he almost disappeared in the folds of her long skirt.
“What do you mean, you’re not allowed? What century does he think this is?” Kathy’s suffragette ancestors were starting to spin in their graves. “Surely there’s some time when he’s out, we can at least talk?”
“Well, he goes to the pub at lunchtime, just for an hour. If the school opens then I suppose we could – “
“All right. Why don’t we meet at the end of Caldicote Lane? What’s a good time – one?” Kathy asked.
Helen just had time to nod before there was a kerfuffle as the school doors were opened: the children were being let in. Jake and Harry set off together. As soon as they were safely inside, Helen turned to go. “OK, one o’clock, but promise you won’t be late? I really can’t be there for long.”
“One o’clock, I promise,” Kathy said. “Shall I walk back with you now?”
“No, he’ll be watching, he won’t like it if he sees me talking to anyone. Just go, I’ll see you later, OK?” And with that, Helen was gone, half walking, half running down the street towards her home.
Kathy looked at her watch again: ten past one. The pink note fluttered in the wind, its author whisked away by an unseen hand.
Unless they’d moved, she knew where Helen and Joe’s house was, Harry had been there enough times when they were smaller. She walked off in that direction, still not sure what she was doing or why. As she turned the last corner, she could see a pickup truck parked at a crazy angle across their driveway and front lawn, the passenger door left wide open.
Kathy drew level with the house: should she intervene? Would it make matters worse? Helen had begged her not to interfere, who was she to pass judgement on another person’s life? The momentum of her steps kept her moving forward, on past the house, all the time looking straight forward, as if afraid of what she might see if she allowed her gaze to wander.
Behind, she thought she heard a scream.
She turned around.