Outside: The Complete Story

This is all 35 parts of my recent fiction serial, in one complete story.
It is a long read, at 27,142 words.

Gillian had always felt happy at home. There was something about the familiarity that made her feel safe and content. Everything in the same place, the same dinner to look forward to on each day of the week, and settling down with mum in front of the TV to watch their favourite shows.

She couldn’t remember her dad, and only had the old photos of him to remind her of the man he had been. Many were in his fireman’s uniform, looking smart and proud. Some others showed him holding her as a baby, and one was in a swimming pool on holiday somewhere.

He had been killed at work fighting a fire, along with two of his colleagues. Mum said it was an explosion that collapsed the roof and trapped them.

As Gillian was just eighteen months old at the time, she had grown up only knowing her mum. And mum had been great.

With no grandparents to help, there had been baby-minders at first, then nursery so mum could carry on working. The life insurance had paid off the mortgage, and left a good amount besides, so mum told her. Although they never had a car, as mum couldn’t drive, they had a very comfortable life and were a lot better off than many in the town.

There had never been another man, no chance of a step-dad coming on the scene to change their routine. And friends were few and far between too. They liked to keep their own company, and didn’t feel the need to have anyone else around. Besides, with Gillian tending to be very overweight from a young age, she had never found it easy to make friends at school. Once she was home and changed out of her uniform, she never wanted to go out again anyway.

When it came time to think about a job, mum arranged that too. She worked at the unemployment office, and that was always busy. She got Gillian a start there at the age of seventeen, with a decent salary and a good Civil Service pension scheme. And they could travel into work together on the bus too. Mum wouldn’t take any housekeeping money from her. “You save it carefully, love. Put it away for when you are older”. So the savings grew and grew over the years.

Life couldn’t have been better, as far as she was concerned. Okay, she never had a boyfriend, but that only mattered if you wanted one to start with. And she could talk to mum about anything, so not having friends of the same age didn’t matter either.

Getting used to using computers at work made Gillian interested in them. She used some savings to buy a laptop, and paid for the Internet connection through the house phone. Mum thought it was a lot of nonsense. “Encyclopedias were good enough in my day. How much stuff do you need to know about anyway? It’s not like you’re still studying for exams or anything”. But she would sit watching TV with the laptop next to her, and she soon found she wasn’t really concentrating on the programmes like she used to.

Not long before her twenty-eighth birthday, Gillian got ready to do something nice for her mum’s fiftieth. Mum had scoffed at the idea of going out to a restaurant, but had agreed to a special Chinese takeaway, and a bottle of sweet white wine. Gillian went to H. Samuels jewellers and bought her a gold bracelet with a charm showing the number fifty. Then in Clintons card shop, she found a huge card with the number on it, and it played Happy Birthday when you opened it.

It was a great night, and she laughed at mum getting tipsy on two small glasses of Sauternes.

The next morning, mum was up early. She said she hadn’t been able to sleep because of indigestion. She had taken some Milk of Magnesia, and still felt a bit queasy. “You will have to tell Mister Bell I’m going to be off sick today, love. Say I should be a lot better by tomorrow”. Mum hated going sick from work, and Gillian couldn’t remember the last time she had ever done that.

The traffic was bad on the way home, and it was pouring with rain. Gillian got in soaking wet, hungry, and fed up. She was looking forward to meat pie night, and getting into her dressing gown. But mum was still in bed, feeling no better, and her face was so pale, Gillian was scared.

Despite mum’s protests, she rang the number for the emergency doctor.

The doctor had a serious face. “I think it’s your heart, Rebecca. I am going to call an ambulance to take you into hospital for some tests, but I suspect you have Angina. Don’t get too concerned, there are tablets and other treatments that can help you”. Gillian went and packed a small case for her mum while they waited for the ambulance.

They were at the hospital for hours until all the tests were completed. Eventually, a young doctor came to see her in the waiting area. “We are going to keep your mum in overnight for observation. You can go and say goodbye to her in the cubicle, no point waiting until she goes to the ward, as it is getting very late”. After trying to look cheerful in front of her mum, she went to reception and asked them to phone her a taxi.

It was too late to get anything to eat from the fish and chip shop or Chinese takeaway, so when Gillian got home she ate four slices of cheese on toast and a family-size bag of crisps before going to bed. The house felt strange without her mum there, and it took her ages to get to sleep, despite being exhausted.

When she woke up the next morning, she realised she had overslept. Throwing on some clothes without even bothering to have a proper wash, she grabbed her handbag and keys. At the front door, she hesitated. Why bother to go to work all flustered? Her mum was in hospital and she was worn out. Mister Bell would understand. Giving it fifteen minutes to make sure someone was in the office, she phoned in.

“Can you tell Mister Bell that Rebecca Baxter is in hospital with heart trouble, and wont be in. Also that I can’t come in today. I’m Gillian Baxter”. The clerk read the names back, then she said something nice about hoping mum got better soon.

Hanging up the phone, Gillian got undressed and went back to bed.

Late that afternoon, she was woken up by the phone ringing. It was the hospital, one of the nurses. “Miss Baxter? I wanted to let you know your mum is coming home soon. She has responded well to treatment, and we have given her some tablets to take home. I can order an ambulance for her but she has no keys, so I need to know someone will be home when she gets there”. Gillian assured her that she would be home to let mum in.

Mum looked a lot better, and walked from the ambulance into the house. “I have some tablets to take when I get those pains, love. They have to dissolve under my tongue, and they give me a shocking headache. But they work. They said I should have two weeks away from work, and make an appointment with the doctor to get a certificate. Then I have to wait for a letter to go for an out-patient appointment. Cardiology, they said. meanwhile, I have to avoid over-exerting myself”.

She wasn’t too pleased to hear that Gillian hadn’t gone to work. “Why didn’t you go in? It was me that was in hospital?” To avoid an argument, Gillian went into the kitchen and cooked sausages, eggs, and chips for dinner. She put the telly on for mum, and brought her a cup of tea. During the commercial break in Coronation Street, she turned to her mum.

“I think I shoud stay home and look after you, mum. I’m sure they wil give me some time off to do that. If not, I’ll just take some holiday leave. It’s not as if we are going away anywhere, and they owe me four weeks”. Her mum was too tired to argue. “Okay love, whatever you think is best”.

Mister Bell was very nice about it when she rang in the next morning. “Take a week, Gillian, and give my best wishes to your mum for a speedy recovery. But if you want more than a week, it will have to be holiday time, I’m afraid”. She told him she would ring back in a week, and arrange to take time off using her holiday entitlement.

Being at home and looking after her mum suited Gillian nicely. They could watch telly all day without bothering to get dressed, and she could pop to the corner shop for food, just wearing a raincoat over her pyjamas.

On the Thursday, she had to walk to the doctor’s and collect mum’s certificate, then post it into work from the box on the corner.

Stopping at the corner shop on the way home, she bought two microwave lasagnas. They would be easy to do for dinner.

After two weeks, and no recurrence of her Angina, Rebecca Baxter was looking forward to going back to work on the following Monday. But when Gillian didn’t appear downstairs that morning, she went back upstairs, and into her room.

“Gill, why aren’t you up and about? Come on love, you will be late for work, and make me late too”. Gillian looked sulky. “I don’t fancy going in, mum. Tell them I will use the rest of my holiday, I feel like taking a longer break”.

On any other morning, Rebecca would never have tolerated such nonsense from her daughter. But it was her first day back after being off sick, and she didn’t want to be late. “Okay, I will ask Mister Bell, but I can tell you know he’s not going to like it”. With that, she left in as much of a huff as she could be bothered to display. Then she almost missed the usual bus, and had to run up the hill to catch it just as the doors were closing.

By the time she got to work, Rebecca was feeling rather breathless, and quite stressed. The last thing she needed was to have to apologise to the boss about her daughter’s seemingly pointless absence. He was busy on the phone, but he smiled at her, and pointed at the chair opposite. As his phone call went on, Rebecca could feel the shortness of breath getting worse, and there was a pain along the side of her jaw that felt like toothache. She rubbed at it, but it didn’t go away.

As there was no pain in her chest or arms, it didn’t occur to her to take one of her tablets from the packet in her handbag, and place it under her tongue.

Jim Bell was still trying to explain to a factory manager why he didn’t have anyone suitable to recommend, when Mrs Baxter fell off the chair, face down onto the floor of his office. He hung up on the factory manager and rushed around his desk. She was as white as a sheet, and he could get no response from her. So he went back to his desk, picked up the phone, and dialled 999 for an ambulance.

Gillian was settling down with two toasted teacakes when the phone rang. She suspected it was going to be her mum, ringing to have a moan at her.

“Hello, Gill. It’s Jim Bell from work. You mum has collapsed unconscious, and the ambulance is taking her to the General. I have to tell you that they were doing resuscitation on her before they left, and it doesn’t look good. Maureen has gone in the ambulance with her, but you need to get down to Casualty as soon as you can”. Gillian was determined to finish her teacakes before they got cold, so took them upstairs with her and ate them as she was getting dressed. She could get the 187 bus to the General Hospital, it wasn’t that far away.

It took about forty minutes until Gillian walked into the busy Casualty Department, then waited for a receptionist to become free to talk to her. “My name is Gillian Baxter. I’ve come to see my mum, she was brought in by ambulance”. The woman gave her a knowing look, and a pleasant smile that seemed false. “Please take a seat, I will get someone to come and speak to you. There was a friend from work with her, but she left about five minutes ago”.

A young Indian doctor came into the waiting room. He took her to a room, the same one she had sat in that night over two weeks ago. When she had sat down, he sat next to her, and spoke very quietly. “I am very sorry to tell you that your mother has died, Miss Baxter. Between the ambulance crew and the medical team, we tried hard to save her, but after thirty minutes, there was no point carrying on. Is there someone we can call to be with you? A relative or close friend perhaps?”

Unsure what to say, Gillian looked at him for a long time. “No, there’s nobody, doctor. She was only fifty you know, just fifty”. He nodded sympathetically. “Would you like to come through and see her? She just looks like she’s asleep, nothing horrible I assure you”.

Shaking her head, Gillian sat up straight. “No thank you. I don’t think I would like that”.

Jim Bell more or less took charge of things after her mum’s death. Gillian went with him to register the death, and then they went to the undertaker where mum had already taken out a funeral plan. It was going to be very basic. Just the hearse and one car, followed by a short cremation service. Jim said he would come to the funeral with Maureen from work, surprised to discover they had no family or friends attending.

It was a sad affair to see, with just three mourners and a vicar who Gillian had never met before. There was no wake after, and standing outside with the flowers, Jim Bell told her to take as much time as she needed.

Her mum had always told her that Purdey’s had her will and instructions, so a week after the funeral, Gillian made an appointment to see someone in that firm of Solicitors. She was shown in to the boss himself, Graham Purdey. He said the usual condolences, and then got down to business.

“Your mother has left everything to you, Miss Baxter, as might be expected. As well as the house, I am pleased to inform you that there is a substantial sum of money. Your father’s pension lump sum was paid after his death at work, as well as the life insurance. Then once I get the paperwork sorted for your mother’s pension, I expect that will come to a lot of money too. She worked for the civil service for a long time, and has thirty-four years of pension to be paid to her beneficiary. That’s you. As far as I can estimate at the moment, there should be something close to two hundred thousand, and then there is the value of the house to consider. I will juggle the figures around to save you paying any death duties, and our fee will be most reasonable, I assure you”.

Back at home later, Gillian treated herself to having a pizza delivered, adding garlic bread and a two-litre bottle of Pepsi to the order. She had missed any birthday celebrations because of all the upset, so it seemed to be the least she could do for herself.

The amount of money discussed by the solicitor was well over ten years salary for her, maybe as much as twelve. He didn’t know about her own savings of course. Not having to pay any bills or housekeeping for most of her working life, at the age of twenty eight she had saved up a lot of money. Eight hundred a month since she had turned eighteen amounted to ninety-six thousand pounds.

As she waited for the pizza delivery, she chuckled to herself. She was rich.

Four days later, the solicitor rang to tell her that she would get half of mum’s monthly pension, but all of the lump sum due. “I have opted for you to take the largest lump sum on offer, and the half-pension should be something over three-fifty a month, paid until you die. The lump sum is estimated at the moment, but I suspect it will be something close to sixty thousand. Meanwhile, I have transferred the rest of your mother’s funds and savings into your account. You will have to visit your bank to make any arrangements for the money, but it is substantial sum, almost one hundred and thirty thousand pounds. I will need you to come in and sign some more paperwork soon though”.

Gillian’s accounts were at the same branch of the same bank as her mum’s, so she would pop in there soon and arrange to sort out her finances. Meanwhile, she went online to look at her own pension. She had been paying into it for eleven years, and she filled in an online estimate which returned a figure of a little over three hundred a month, with a lump sum of twenty-seven thousand on top.

In bed that night, she made a decision.

Around ten the next morning, she rang into work and asked to speak to Jim Bell. He was tied up with something, so Maureen said he would ring her back later. As she was enjoying some toasted waffles with raspberry syrup, the phone rang. It was Jim, returning her call. Eager to get him off the phone and finish the waffles, Gillian made it short.

“I have decided to resign. Can you sort out the paperwork and inform the pension people, please? I’m sorry to let you down, but I have inherited some money from mum, and I don’t need to work any longer”.

Once she no longer had a job, and could do anything she liked with her time, Gillian started to think about what was going to happen to her. She missed her mum being around, as she had been ideal company, and liked all the same things. But she had never been an over-emotional person, or demonstrably affectionate, which had left Gillian thinking that was the way to act.

Mum’s ashes had come, delivered in a plastic urn inside a thick cardboard box. Gillian had put that in mum’s bedroom, so she would feel at home.They had never been religious, but mum had often said things like “I will be watching over you’, so being in the house was the best place for her. Not that she had any idea where they could have been scattered.

There was plenty of money to spend, and she decided to spend some of it. Her trip to the bank had been brief, but worthwhile. She had set up direct debits to cover every monthly bill, and transferred a lot of money into her savings account, leaving plenty available in the current account. The man had also showed her about phone banking, and how she could just ring up to make payments and do transfers.

Not that she was reckless with money. She still had clothes that were ten years old, and spent next to nothing on make-up, jewellery, or lingerie, like some women did. The thing she craved was a big computer. The laptop still worked well, but she wanted something bang up to date, with a big screen and a proper keyboard.

On the bus to the retail park, Gillian felt uncomfortable. People were looking at her funny, she was sure of that. And two women behind kept whispering, almost definitely about her. In PC World, she bought the best and most expensive computer they had, with the largest monitor they had in stock. Then she paid extra to have it delivered within two working days. Her trousers were feeling tight after spending so long in pyjamas and jogging bottoms, so on the bus back she popped the top button above the zip to release the pressure.

When she got off at her stop, she made sure not to glance at the driver. He had given her a strange look when she got on.

In the corner shop, she stocked up with enough groceries to last the week. She had seen on TV about online shopping with Tesco, and intended to sign up for that as soon as possible. One less reason to have to go out, and much cheaper than buying everything from the Londis shop.

The men delivered her computer on the Friday morning. She shouted through the letterbox. “Leave it there please. I will be able to bring it in” One of them shouted back. “Sorry, love. You have to sign for it!” Before she opened the door, Gillian put the chain on it. The man passed the form on a clipboard through the gap with a pen, and she signed it and poked it back through. As they walked away, one muttered something to the other one, and they both laughed.

She waited until the big van drove away before opening the door to get the two big parcels.

Set up on the dining table, the new PC looked wonderful. She had it connected to the Internet with a cable, so it was much faster than the laptop too. She was so busy scrolling websites, she forgot to have lunch, and by the time her stomach was grumbling to tell her to eat something for dinner, she had an online account with Tesco, and with Amazon too. Now she could get her groceries delivered, and buy any CD or DVD she wanted.

When she had finished her pie, chips, and beans and done the washing up, she settled down to watch one of the soap operas that came on early. But after a few minutes, she got bored, and went back to the computer. Long before she was tired enough to go to bed, she had signed up for a Sky satellite system to be installed, and ordered one of those flat-screen plasma televisions she had seen for sale in the shops.

And she had ticked the box to pay extra for installation and setup too, even though that meant some man coming in.

With the plasma television and SKY satellite box set up and working, supermarket deliveries arranged, and her excellent computer to enjoy, Gillian was sure she was going to love her new solitary life. There was no need to go out at all, unless she needed the dentist, or had to visit a doctor. She could cut her own hair when it got too long, and everything else she might need or want was available online.

One morning, the doorbell rang as she was halfway through watching a DVD of ‘Cleopatra’. She paused the disc, Elizabeth Taylor’s face filling the screen. Nobody was expected, and there were no orders awaiting delivery. The bell rang again, and she crouched down, speaking through the letterbox. “Who is it?” The voice that replied was familiar.

“It’s Jim Bell, Gill. I was on my way back from a meeting, and thought I would pop round to see how you were”. Naked under her dressing gown, she didn’t feel like entertaining a visitor. She couldn’t remember the last time she had washed her hair or had a bath, and her legs were hairy and unshaved.

“Sorry, Mister Bell. I don’t feel so good today. Got a bit of a temperature. Better not let you in, in case you catch something”. Jim might have been annoyed that she hadn’t even opened the door, but his voice didn’t betray that. “Some other time then. Get well soon, and keep in touch. We all think about you at work you know”.

Before resuming the film, Gillian decided to warm up a Cornish Pasty. Might as well, as she was up and about.

Watching News At Ten that night, there was an appeal for a missing girl, and they showed CCTV footage of her getting on a train at a staion in London. That gave Gillian an idea, and she went to her computer and started searching on Google.

The next day, she rang the numbers of a few home security companies, deliberately choosing some that were not local. Before lunchtime, she had made an appointment for the next morning for someone to come and talk to her about having a camera outside the house. It would mean having to let him in, and getting dressed too, but it was worth that for peace of mind.

The man was quite old, which was good. She reckoned he was at least sixty, and he had a kind voice. He also had a van outside, and said he could fit whatever system she chose there and then. That was a big bonus for Gillian, so she picked one from the catalogue, and made the man a cup of tea as he started working. Late that afternoon, it was all done, and she had paid directly using the phone banking. He showed her how it worked.

“The camera is a wide-angle. As you can see, it looks like an outside light, not a conventional camera. You will be able to see almost all of the front of the house from your gate, right up to the front door. This switch moves the angle, so you can look down, then move it back, and you see wide again. It’s a black and white only, but that makes it more affordable. The recording tape runs on a loop for twenty four hours, then starts again. So if you go out, you can see if anyone was outside your house by playing the tape back. It even shows you the time, and adjusts when the clocks go forward and back. There’s a remote control too, but that’s extra. You can ring the number on the paperwork if you decide you want one, and they will post it to you”.

Gillian nodded. The small control box was like a half-size VHS player, and the monitor screen lifted up from it, much like her laptop. She thought for a moment. “Can you come back tomorrow and fit one of those outside lights that comes on at night if someone comes to the door? It will be winter soon, and dark by four. Oh, and one of those speaker things, so I can talk to the person without opening the door. And you might as well bring that remote control you said about”. He smiled. “Of course I can miss, see you about the same time then”.

She was feeling good. By tomorrow evening, she would always know who was at the front door.

When the man came to fit the intercom and outside light, Gillian made him a cup of tea, and this time added a Penguin biscuit. She liked the elderly man, and wished more people could be like him and her mum. But she knew they weren’t. When he had finished, he showed her how they worked.

“I have removed the old doorbell and put the new entryphone in its place. There is a sticker on it that says ‘Press to speak. Release to listen’. The same thing on the inside for you, so don’t forget to let go of the button to hear the replies. The outside light has this three-way switch on the inside, near the door. Turn it left for off, in the middle for motion-activated, and to the right to leave it on all the time. It is in the middle for now. The bulb should last a long time, but if it goes, just contact the company and I will come and fit a new one. It is fitted higher than the camera, which also looks like a light, as you know. But this one is bigger, and covers the path and front door really well”.

She rang the bank while he was there, and transferred the payment. Then he tidied up his tools, and left.

Next day, Gillian watched the CCTV monitor for the postman, the only person who regularly came to the door. When he showed up just before ten, she was thrilled at how clear the image was. Just a shame he had no reason to ring the new intercom door buzzer, then she could have tried it out. Over lunch, she made a mental list of reasons why she might still have to go outside.

Dentist.
Doctor.
Dustbin day.

She smiled at the fact they all started with D. Dustbin day was an essential, but she could creep out after dark, leave it just outside the gate, and collect it the same way that evening. The dentist might be an essential trip, and she couldn’t imagine she could pay one to treat her at home. As for the doctor, that could wait until she was very ill with something. Then she could offer to pay privately for a visit at home. She was sure that could be arranged.

She had forgotten something. The back lawn. Mum always cut the small patch of grass with an electric mower kept in the little shed by the back gate. Gillian wasn’t about to take that job on, so she would ring around some local companies and get it concreted over. Mister Allen the window cleaner came once a month, but they always left his cash on the upstairs window sill. He would have to take a cheque in future.

Put it in a plastic bag so it didn’t get wet, then place something heavy on it so it wouldn’t blow away if it was windy.

It never occured to her to question why she had suddenly wanted to stop going outside, but the thought of opening the door and walking out onto the path now filled her with dread. When mum had been alive, she had never once thought about it. But she had everything she needed, and was happy at home, so she didn’t think it mattered in the least.

The next time she was due to put the plastic dustbin out, it didn’t go quite as easily as she imagined. After standing at the open door for almost twenty minutes, she closed it again and went back inside for a cup of tea. Then she put the outside light on and sat watching the CCTV to see if anyone was on the street. When it was completely deserted, she went out and dragged the bin to the gate, leaving it there propping the gate open.

Turning to go back inside, the front path seemed to be ten times longer, the house receding into the distance. Breathing fast, and trembling with fright, Gillian closed her eyes and made a run for the door. She tripped up the step going in, but luckily didn’t injure herself.

Sitting with a glass of Pepsi and a packet of salt and vinegar crisps, it took her a good half an hour to calm down.

Dustbin day was going to be something she hated.

Now when the deliveries came, Gillian could see the drivers coming up the path, and would already have the door open. Standing just inside, she would speak to them through the gap. “Just leave it on the doormat, please”. If there was anything to sign, she would take the paper through the gap, sign it, then pass it back. When the young man came with the groceries from the supermarket, he had to unload the bags from the plastic delivery boxes and stack them in the doorway. When he was gone, she would carry them through to the kitchen.

That was a system of sorts, and it was working well for her.

Two men came to estimate the work of concreting the garden. She spoke into her new doorbell intercom. “Can you come around the back please? The gate is open”. They went through the side gate into the garden, and she talked to them through the kitchen window, telling them a lie to excuse the fact that she wouldn’t go outside. “I haven’t been well, and have to stay in the warm. When you come to do the work you will have to use the back gate or side gate, and you won’t be able to come into the house I’m afraid”.

They looked at each other, and the younger one tried not to smile. But work was work, and they accepted the job.

The window cleaner didn’t seem too happy about being paid by cheque. “Gill, if you are going to pay by cheque now, you had best pay me for the full year in advance. I can’t keep going back and forth to the bank to pay in cheques”. She was happy to do that, and passed a new cheque for the full amount through the partly-opened kitchen window.

It had taken the men four days to dig up the garden, lay the hardcore, and then concrete it all over. They were not prepared to be paid by phone banking, and reluctantly took a cheque after grumbling about their quoted price being based on a cash payment.

She had stood her ground. “Well I haven’t been able to get out, so it’s a cheque or nothing. Sorry”.

The following week, a removal lorry stopped outside. The house next door had been empty for almost two years after Mrs Parkinson had died. Mum told her it was because of some problem concerning Doreen not having a will. Now it seemed that it had been sold, and people were moving in. She watched the removal men coming and going on ther CCTV camera, but there was no sign of the new neighbours. Gillian presumed they must be inside the house out of view.

If mum had still been alive, she would have gone next door and offered to make them cups of tea. Perhaps taken them a cake, and introduced herself. But that wasn’t going to happen today. Or any other day.

Keeping an eye on the camera over the next few days, she could soon tell that there were two people living next door. They were both women, and she had heard them talking loudly out in their garden. They looked to be about the same age, so not mother and daughter. One of them wore overalls, and used to go out on a small motorbike that they kept parked in the front garden. She hadn’t seen the second one clearly until almost two weeks later, when someone walked up the path and pressed the intercom buzzer.

She was about forty years old, with short hair like a man, and wearing a denim pinafore dress. Gillian spoke into the box. “Hello. Can I help you?” The woman replied too loudly, as if she had to shout through the door. “I’m Kirsty. I just moved in next door with my friend, and came to say hello”. Gillian watched as the woman walked back a few paces, looking at the windows to see if anyone was looking out. Then she pressed to reply.

“I’m Gill. Sorry I can’t let you in, or come out. I’m not very well, and have to stay inside. I hope you like living on the street”. She saw the woman shrug. “Okay, Gill. See you around”.

As she made herself a fried egg sandwich, Gillian was glad she hadn’t let Kirsty in. The last thing she needed was nosey neighbours.

With her twenty-ninth birthday days away, Gillian wondered what to buy herself as a gift. It wasn’t as if anyone else was going to give her anything. One morning as she brushed her teeth, her face in the bathroom mirror provided the answer. She would buy herself a professional makeover, and get her hair done.

Fifteen minutes on the computer later, she had found a mobile beautician who claimed to be able to do everything she needed, and booked an appointment for four that afternoon. Having it all done at home meant she didn’t have to go outside, and tolerating a stranger in her house for a couple of hours was okay if she did a good job. With that arranged, she went up and had a bath and shaved her legs. The woman had mentioned waxing, but that sounded painful.

Mandy arrived with a lot of gear. A big box of make-up, scissors and brushes for the hair, as well as a portable hairdrier that had a big hood attached. She looked about forty, and had tattoos up both arms. “Shall we do it in the bathroom, darling? Easier to get all the hair up after. I will do your hair first, then sort out your fingernails and toenails. After that, you get a professional make-up job. You haven’t been looking after yourself, have you my darling?”

It seemed to take forever, and Gillian was hungry by the time it was over. But she had to agree with Mandy that the change was remarkable. “You look like a different woman. Get some nice clothes on, and I will take some photos for you on your phone, darling”. When she told the woman she didn’t have a mobile phone, Mandy shook her head in disbelief. “No phone? Oh my days, how do you even cope? I can’t imagine not having one”. Gillian paid her by cheque and thanked her, agreeing to call her in future when she needed any beauty treatments.

She hadn’t mentioned that she couldn’t put any nice clothes on, as the only ones she had didn’t fit her anymore.

With no time left to cook, she ordered a Chinese meal to be delivered. While she waited, she looked up mobile phones on her computer. She could buy a phone with a SIM card that let her add as much credit as she wanted. No need to go to a phone shop, or go out to top up the card. It could all be done by telephone or online.

When she had eaten the Chinese, she got back on the computer and ordered the phone. Then she did some online clothes shopping, buying a few nice bits and more everyday clothes in two sizes larger than those she had in her wardrobe.

At least her shoe size hadn’t changed.

On the late news that night, there was a feature about blogging. It was becoming really popular, a kind of online diary about your life, or about anything that interested you. A way to meet people with the same interests as you without having to actually meet them other than online. And you didn’t have to go out. Gillian decided to sleep in her new make-up. Mandy had said it wouldn’t stain any bedding or clothes, and would last a long time until removed.

As she felt her eyes closing, she was thinking about that blogging thing she had seen on the news.

After breakfast, she looked up how to have a blog, and was surprised to discover it was free. She put her details into the online form which was private, but then they wanted her to have a username and a blog name too. That would take some thinking about. She would decide after lunch.

There was no way she was going to use her real name. For one thing, Gillian was so old fashioned now. She had been named after one of mum’s aunts who had died before she was born, and hadn’t thought much about her name until she went to secondary school and was the only one called Gillian in the whole school. She had liked a girl called Stacey, and wished that had been her name too.

So when it came to the username, she picked ‘Staceydarling’. Then she had to think of a name for the blog. It took a while, but she smiled as the perfect name popped into her mind. She typed it in the box in capital letters.

OUTSIDE.

Staring at the blank screen, Gillian was wondering what to write. She had the blog now, but was yet to publish anything. After reading a few other blogs, she had a rough idea about tags and categories, but her first blog post was supposed to introduce her to other bloggers, and she wasn’t too sure how to go about it. The last time she had written anything was for a school essay. Her fingers started to move over the keyboard, and she typed a title first.

Asking for a friend.

Hello, everyone, I am Staceydarling. I live alone, and don’t like to go outside. Not even in the garden, or out the front to the gate. I don’t understand why that is happening, as I used to do it without thinking. Anyone else feel like that? I would like to say I’m asking for a friend, but it is for me.

She read it again, clicked on ‘Preview Post’, and saw what it would look like as a blog post. It was too short, she was sure about that, but she had no idea what else to add. Taking a deep breath, she clicked on ‘Publish Post’, and there it was. After considering deleting it for almost fifteen minutes, she went and made herself some cheese on toast instead.

That afternoon her new phone was delivered. It took her a while to set it up and register it. Included in the deal, it already had ten pounds credit. As she had nobody to call, she was sure that would last a long time. She tried the camera out by taking a few photos of herself, but only from the neck up. The blog had mentioned a profile photo, but she was undecided about adding one. So she had used an image generated by the company that looked like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle. Placing the phone on charge as it was only showing a quarter of the bar on the indicator, she went back to the computer to check on her blog.

There were no comments, but someone had liked it. They came up as Anonymous though, so that was a disappointment. She looked at her admin page, and saw that the post had been viewed eleven times. So only one out of eleven had bothered to like it, and nobody had commented. Oh well, it was just an experiment, and it hadn’t cost her anything. Then the notification sound kept going off on the mobile phone, so she went to see why.

Three text messages. Who could be texting her? She hadn’t given anyone the number. They were just from the phone company. One was welcoming her as a customer, and the other two were special offers on other phones and phone contracts. Why did they do that? She had only just got the bloody phone, and was hardly likely to buy another one the same day. Thinking that she might have made a mistake getting a phone, she went into the kitchen to prepare dinner.

While the oven was warming up, she checked her blog again. There was a comment, and that made her really excited.

GentlemanZorro
Dearest Staceydarling, I am sorry to hear you feel this way. There is so much to enjoy about life, and it is a tragedy to lock yourself away. And no profile photo? Don’t be afraid to show your face to the world!

Gillian had not ticked the box to approve comments. She hadn’t even noticed it as she had been clicking through the various options. GentlemanZorro had a profile photo. He was wearing a mask, just like Antonio Banderas in the film. But the rest of his face looked very nice. She clicked the like star to let him know she liked his comment, but it was time to put the chicken goujons in the oven, so she would think about replying later.

When she had eaten, she went up to her bedroom and did her make-up. It wasn’t as smart as when Mandy had done it, but she knew how to do it better after watching her. Then she brushed her hair. As she was only wearing a pink dressing gown, she turned the collar down so it wouldn’t show, and took a photo on her phone just showing her head and neck. The first one was too dark, so she took six more, eventually settling on one she quite liked.

It was a fiddly process getting the photo off the phone to her computer using Bluetooth, but the charger cable fitted into one of the ports so she transferred it that way. Then she went into her blog admin page and replaced the random image with the photo of herself. Before she could reply to the first comment, he had commented again.

GentlemanZorro
I have just seen your profile photo. You are lovely! No need to hide away, Staceydarling. XX

As she began to type her reply, she could feel her face blushing.

Deciding to keep her reply short but polite, Gillian typed just one line.

Staceydarling
Thank you for the kind compliment GentlemanZorro

Before he could reply, a new message appeared under her blog post.

happystayingin
Hi Stacey, I’m Janet. I haven’t been outside for twelve years and have no intention of ever going out again. Just don’t worry about it. If you don’t want to go outside, then don’t. And don’t listen to people who say you have to, or let them get psychiatrists to come and see you. They will just mess you up.

Clicking on Janet’s profile showed a blog with no comments or likes, but dozens of posts about not being bullied into going out. It had been nice of her to leave a comment, but as Gillian had nobody bullying her to go out, she felt no connection with her. So she just clicked to like the comment, and didn’t reply.

Then there was a reply from GentlemanZorro.

GentlemanZorro
You are very modest, lovely Staceydarling. You should post many more photos. Perhaps you have some in swimwear, or maybe wearing even less?

No mistaking what he was after, so her reply was less friendly, but still polite.

Staceydarling
That’s not a very nice thing to suggest, and it makes me think you are not a nice person. Please don’t leave comments like that again.

Unsure if blogging was going to be something for her, Gillian clicked off the blog and had a quick look at Amazon instead.

The next morning, there was a new follower, and he had left a nice comment.

Liveyourownlife@gmail.com
There is nothing wrong with feeling the way you do. If you can manage to stay in and be happy, that’s your choice. I feel the same way, but I have to go out to earn money, and all the time I am outside, I feel anxious and sick to my stomach. I have lost jobs because of not being able to go out, and all my doctor could suggest was tablets or meeting a counsellor. I don’t have a blog, but I have followed you and commented through my email address. You can contact me anytime, and I will be happy to help you, or just chat. Matt.

That was more like it. A nice helpful person who wasn’t pushy and didn’t want her to post rude photos. So she replied immediately.

Staceydarling
Thanks for your offer, Matt. I will definitely be in touch by email soon.

Now she had to decide whether to use the email she had created for the blog, or get a new one. A new one would be best, as it wouldn’t have her real name on it. So she picked Staceydarling@hotmail.co.uk It wasn’t taken, so she didn’t have to mess about adding a number or any other letters. After adding Matt as a contact, she thought about what to say to him. Then she thought some more about it while eating a fresh cream choux bun, washed down with a mug of hot chocolate.

One of her favourite breakfasts.

She felt more relaxed using email, as nobody else would see it.

Dear Matt. Thanks very much for your comment, and the invitation to chat on email. I feel the same as you about going out, though it only started recently. Even putting the dustbin by the gate made me feel as if I was going to pass out, and I came over all dizzy. I suppose I am lucky that I don’t have to go to work, because I definitely couldn’t cope with that. I get my shopping delivered and buy everything online. How about you, how do you cope?

Presuming he would reply immediately, she sat waiting, feeling a little deflated when no reply came back straight away. Still staring at the screen, the door buzzer made her jump. On the camera, she could see that Kirsty, the woman next door. She was wearing a leather jacket, and had pink bits dyed into her hair. Her arms were folded, and she was tapping one of the heavy shoes on her feet. There was nothing for it but to go to the door.

It looked like she wasn’t going to go away.

When she opened the door, Kirsty didn’t smile. If anything, she looked grumpy.

“Hi, I’m Kirsty, and I live next door. We are having a housewarming party this weekend, and thought you might like to come. You don’t have to bring anything, there will be food and drink there. It’s going to be in the garden, we have got some canvas pergolas in case it rains. What do you think?” Gillian looked her up and down.

“No, but thanks for asking. I don’t go out, not even next door”. Kirsty looked even more annoyed.

“Well it’s going to be noisy, and go on until late. So don’t complain, you have been invited”.

There was no reply from Matt that evening. Gillian decided to eat both the Chicken Kievs in the packet, as they went out of date the next day. She checked again before bedtime, but her email list hadn’t changed. So she checked the blog, in case he had replied on there.

Amazingly she had four new followers, and sixty-three views of her one post. Only two followers had left comments.

GentlemanZorro
Okay, enjoy your sad lonely life. I didn’t fancy you anyway you fat bitch!

She felt sad about being fooled by him at first, and realised she would have to be more careful. The second comment was much kinder.

carolynsmum
Hello, I am mum to Carolyn, and my name is Audrey. My daughter started to want to stay in when she was only 14. She refused to go out, even to school. Nothing we could do would make her go outside, and she spent every minute in her bedroom. It lasted for years. We got in trouble with the authorities for her not going to school, and eventually my husband left home because he said I was spoiling her and ruining her life. Eventually, she was sectioned into a psychiatric hospital, and she is still there, refusing to see me. That was twelve years ago, and my heart breaks for her every day. So please think about what you are donng to yourself, and don’t go the same way as my daughter. This might help you.
https://www.anxietyuk.org.uk/anxiety-type/agoraphobia/

Clicking on the link, Gillian read some of it, and shook her head. No, this wasn’t her situation. She didn’t feel the same things they were writing about. She was happy at home, and just didn’t need to go out. The dizzy spells would pass in time, she was sure of that.

Next morning, she was pleased to see a reply from Matt.

Hi. I don’t cope that well, to be honest. I have lost all my friends, and never see any of my family now. They used to be okay with coming to see me and me not going out, but they eventually got fed up with that. It would be nice to have a friend like you, someone who understands. In an ideal world, we would all live in rooms in the same house, and never have to go outside. (Except for those dustbins! Haha.) But you have to be careful who you meet online, as there are some nasty people out there. It’s okay if you don’t trust me, I understand that feeling. But I hope you will stay in touch, as people like us have to support each other. Matt. x

This was more like it. No links to read, no judgement, and no asking for dirty photos. He seemed to be very nice, but he was right. She had to be careful.

Dear Matt, thanks for replying. I agree that it would be great if we could all be together without going out. Those dustbin days would have to be on a rota though! How do you cope about going out to work though? I couldn’t imagine doing that again now, feeling like this. I’m happy at home, but I stil hope this feeling goes away some day. Hard to imagine never going out for the rest of my life. Take care, and keep in touch.

Gillian left off any kisses, and didn’t use her real name. It was still early days. Then she went and made herself a bacon sandwich for breakfast, adding plenty of tomato ketchup.

Despite checking back numerous times, he didn’t reply to that. And there was no other activity on the blog. So she watched her DVD of The Blues Brothers. That always cheered her up, and she knew all the lines spoken in the film off by heart.

That evening, after a dinner of chicken pie, chips, and peas, she decided to write another post on her blog.

A bit about me.

I used to work in the Unemployment Office in my town. I am single, and under thirty. I started this blog to meet other people who might feel the same as me, as in not wanting to go outside the house. I like watching films and some television programmes. I don’t drink alcohol that much, as I prefer fizzy drinks like Pepsi. My favourite food is choux buns. I love the soft pastry, and the cream inside them. I don’t think it’s bad to want to stay inside and do the things I enjoy. I know people find it strange, but that’s only because they have never felt the same way. Please don’t send me rude comments or write dirty things to me. I don’t want a boyfriend, and I will not be taking my clothes off and showing photos of that. My mum always said ‘if you can’t say something nice, then say nothing at all’.

It had thirty views in under an hour. She went to bed feeling excited.

On that Saturday morning, Gillian was woken up early by noises from outside. Looking out of her bedroom window, she could see the women next door setting up some kind of open tents in the back garden. There were two people out there with the neighbours, one had long hair and the other one looked like a man, with a shaved head. But when he turned round, it was obvious from the big boobs under the checked shirt that it was a woman.

As she was up early, she thought she might as well check on the emails and blog. So she went down in her dressing gown and made a big mug of tea before turning on the computer. There was no reply from Matt in her emails, so she logged on to the blog instead.

Yesterday’s post had sixteen more views, and a total of twenty-three likes. There were some comments too.

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They puzzled her. She couldn’t see why they had left the comments, as they had no relevance to anything on her post. Not knowing what else to do, she clicked the star to like each comment, then went to make some breakfast. Fried eggs on toast took her fancy, and as she was cooking, she could see the two bags of rubbish she had dropped outside the back door. Last dustbin day, she had been unable to summon up the courage to take the bin to the front gate, and had put her rubbish outside in the garden instead.

But she had only opened the door wide enough to drop the bin bags without actually walking outside.

Before lunchtime, the sudden noise from the garden made her jump. They had started playing music out there already, sounding like a heavy metal disco or something. Gillian switched on her television and cranked up the volume loud enough for her to hear what they were saying on the news, but the music from the party in the garden next door, and the sounds of people shouting and laughing made it seem pointless to try to watch anything. Best to have an early lunch and look on the computer instead.

There was a reply from Matt, sent just a few minutes earlier.

Hi, I’m sorry to say that I don’t think the feeling will ever go away. If anything, it will get worse over time. Ask anyone who feels the same, and they will tell you it’s incurable. But I don’t want to bring you down, so I encourage you to just learn to live with it. Ignore all the advice online, and anyone who tells you they can talk you round. If there was a cure, I wouldn’t still be like I am. On the way home from work yesterday, I was so distressed, I vomited at a bus stop. I think the people in the queue thought I was drunk, though one old lady did ask me if I was alright. When I got home, I was still shaking, and couldn’t face eating anything. So to answer your question in the email, I don’t cope with going to work, not at all. If I could get a doctor to agree to sign me off, I would never go to work again. Matt. X

Gillian was starting to feel really sorry for Matt. He seemed so nice, and she could imagine his upset making him sick at that bus stop. It also made her feel a bit guilty, as she never had to go out. The noise from next door was getting worse, so she decided to reply immediately, to take her mind off the racket.

Dear Matt. If you can go out to get to work, maybe you should go to see your doctor instead. Explain what is happening, and see if he will give you time off. Better still, make you unfit for work, so you can get benefits and not have to go out. I don’t like to think of you being so bad like that, but there’s not much I can do, except be your friend My name is Gillian by the way, but don’t mention that on my blog. You can call me Gill. My mum used to, and so did some of the people I worked with. x

She thought it only fair to tell him her real name. And one small kiss at the end didn’t hurt.

When Matt hadn’t replied by bedtime, Gillian gave up and went upstairs. The noise from the party was as loud as ever, and she peered out of the side of the curtains, looking down into the garden next door. There were some flashing lights inside one of the open tents, and about thirty people crammed into the small garden. The music they were playing sounded terrible, and one song was played over and over again until she had the chorus stuck in her head.

‘Yeah, hallowed be thy name
Yeah, hallowed be thy name
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah’

She wondered what the family on the other side of them at number forty-nine must be thinking. The Singhs were a very quiet couple, and on their own now since the daughter had got married and moved to somewhere near London. Even as she settled down in bed, Gillian knew that she wouldn’t get any proper sleep with that racket yards from her bedroom window.

At a quarter to one, she gave up and went back downstairs. Making a cup of tea, she grabbed the biscuit barrel and walked through to the dining table. If there was to be no sleep, she might as well look at the computer. There was still no reply from Matt, but there was a new comment on her blog when she logged on to that.

NeverGoingOut
Hello, my name is Charlotte, but most people call me Charlie. I know exactly how you feel, as I haven’t been outside for years now. I used to live in this small flat with my sister, but then she got a job at Gatwick Airport and moved down to Surrey. Now I live here alone without her to help me, and she hardly ever visits because she is a stewardess and always away with her job. If it wasn’t for the Internet, I don’t know what I would do, but I have to survive on benefits, and I find it hard to make ends meet. Will you be my friend? Here’s my photo.

The photo was of a woman about thirty, very chubby, with long hair worn in a pony tail. She was sitting on the edge of a single bed, and had taken it with the phone extended in her right hand. She was wearing a dressing gown, and some big fluffy slippers. Except for the long hair, Gillian realised it was uncannily like her, and felt an immediate connection to Charlie. Despite it being so late, she replied straight away.

Staceydarling
Hi Charlie, of course I will be your friend. We actually look quite alike I think, and are about the same age too. If you let me have your email address, I will contact you there, rather than type a long reply.

Surprisingly, the reply came back in seconds.

NeverGoingOut
charlottecalder@gmail.com

As she was thinking about what to say in the email, the music next door suddenly stopped. There was still the noise of people talking and laughing, so Gillian went to the back door and peered out. The lights were no longer flashing in the tent, and there looked to be only about half a dozen people left. As she was looking, she could hear the sound of motorbikes starting up at the front of the house, and car doors slamming. After all the uproar, the night now seemed eerily peaceful.

Back at the computer, there was an email from Matt, sent a few moments earlier.

Dear Gill, thanks so much for your nice email. I honestly don’t think I can cope much longer though. I have been buying Paracetamol tablets in the shops every week, and saving them up. I have over a hundred of them now, and think I will just end it all with an overdose. But I didn’t want to go without thanking you for your kindness. Matt. X

Typing at great speed, she replied as soon as she had finished reading.

No Matt, that’s not the way. Please don’t do that, I have only just got to know you, and anyway, I have thought of something. You could come and live here. I have a nice big spare room that was my mum’s room, and you will never have to go out. I have some money that was left to me, and that will tide us over for a long time to come. Please don’t kill yourself, come and live here, not as a boyfriend, I don’t want that, just as a friend who understands me. You don’t have to come out of your room if you don’t want to. Think about it before you do something harmful, please Matt. Love Gill. xx

The offer had been made without thinking it through, but now she had done that, she decided she would stick to it. At least they wouldn’t ever criticise each other for not going out.

But as the sun came up that morning, there was no reply.

After some much needed sleep that morning, Gillian didn’t rouse until after lunchtime. There was still no reply from Matt, and she was really worried that he had taken that overdose. She thought she should ring the police and tell them, but she didn’t know his full name or his address, so they might think she was crazy. There might be a way for them to track where he lives using his email address, but for all she knew, he could have been sending them from anywhere.

With nothing new happening on her blog, she decided to email Charlotte Calder.

Dear Charlotte, thanks for sending me your email to Staceydarling on my blog Outside. My name is Gill, and when I saw your photo it reminded me a lot of me. I mostly wear a dressing gown or pyjamas, and I have slippers like those too. I’m so sorry to hear about you struggling to cope alone since your sister moved for her new job. I have only just started to feel like this since my mum died, but I don’t like to go out at all now. I had to stop putting the bins out because I couldn’t bear to walk to the front gate. So now I put the bags outside the kitchen door, in my garden. I used to like to watch DVD films and television a lot, but since I got a new computer, I seem to spend a lot of time on that. Let’s be friends, at least on email. Keep in touch. Gill. X

Instead of sitting waiting for a reply, she went into the kitchen and started to make a late lunch of two Cornish Pasties heated in the oven. Waiting for them to cook, she was still worried about Matt, and decided to send him another email when she had eaten. But before she could do anything, the door intercom buzzer sounded.

It was Kirsty from next door. She was wearing denim jeans and a flannel shirt, and her hair was sticking up all over the place. Gillian pressed the button to speak.

“Hello, can I help you?” She looked really angry on the CCTV camera, and sounded it when she replied. “Yeah, I want to know what you are going to do about the bin bags of rubbish you have piled against our fence in your back garden. We don’t need that smell when we want to relax outside, and if the weather gets hot, we are going to get a lot of flies too, maybe even rats”. In her best timid voice, Gillian replied. “Sorry, but I’m not well, and I shouldn’t go outside. I’m not well enough to take the bins to the gate at the moment, but when I feel better I will move the bags”.

Kirsty was shaking her head as she pushed the button to speak, and replied in a raised voice. “That’s absolute bollocks! Your shit is a health hazard, and if you don’t sort it out now, I will!” Not used to such aggression and swearing made Gillian nervous, but she stood her ground. “Please don’t be rude like that. I told you I am not well and will do it when I can. Now please go away and leave me alone”. Kirsty walked off muttering something too quiet to hear.

Back in the kitchen, her pasties were almost burnt. She reckoned if she cut the tops off of them, she could eat the rest. Movement to her left startled her. Kirsty was climbing over the four-foot fence, and was in the garden. She grabbed two of the bags, walked to the back of the garden, and threw them over the back gate into the alley that ran along the back of all the houses. Then she came back again and again until all the bags had been thrown over the gate. Gillian hid below the glass pane of the back door as Kirsty banged her fist on it.

“I know you’re there. You just saw me move your crap. Don’t let it happen again, or I will be in touch with the Health Inspector at the Council. Got it?”

By the time she got back to her pasties, they had gone cold.

Thomas Halloran checked his emails, already convinced she would have replied before he had even logged on. It was predictably easy. The lonely chubby ones always took the bait. They were his favourites anyway, as they had no self-assurance, little or no confidence, and sucked up compliments like a man dying of thirst finding an oasis in the desert.

The trick was to take your time, never rush things. But that was also the hardest part. Thomas had learned patience over the past twenty years. The patience to leave no clues behind, the patience to learn when the moment was just right. The Internet was a dream come true for him. Before that, it had been pen-pal letters, lonely hearts advertisements in local newspapers, replying to box numbers.

The world wide web was his wonderland, as if it had been designed with him in mind.

Easy enough to find a photo of some dull woman wearing a housecoat and sitting on a bed. What were they thinking of, putting photos of themselves like that online? They had no self-respect, so why should he respect them. A fake profile, access to a forum, and there they were. Any number of photos to choose from, ninety-nine percent of them completely uprotected from copying. Click right on the mouse, choose ‘Save As’, and it’s in the folder. One day, it will be useful.

Names were often tricky. They had to sound right, so as not to be suspicious. Charlotte Calder was an actress in a popular drama serial. But she was at least number twenty down the cast list, in her role as a shopkeeper who only appeared in the first couple of episodes. Nobody he was interested in was ever likely to bother with looking at cast lists, something else he was sure about.

Email was a wonderful invention. No handwriting to disguise, no stamps to buy. No need to travel halfway across the country to make sure the postmark had no connection to where you lived. Then no letters to have to find and destroy afterwards. And an even better invention was the software that allowed you to disguise the origin of your computer. Choose a name or make up something silly, be either sex as it suited, any age you choose to claim to be. Nobody would ever know.

Mobile phones helped immensely. You could buy a SIM card that changed the number, pay for service without having to sign up to a contract and give personal details, and send an email from anywhere you happened to be without access to a computer. Sometimes, Thomas would sit quietly with a glass of good Scotch and just marvel at how technology had freed him to continue his interest in life.

Living a public life in his home town as a respected craftsman allowed him flexibility. His bespoke joinery allowed him to pick and choose jobs, and to charge more or less what he wanted for the finished pieces too. It gave him a reason to be away from home, making deliveries in his unmarked white van, or working in the houses of customers, creating wonderful staircases or fitting out libraries in grand mansions. Though not rich, he was very comfortable. He had enough put by to be able to refuse commissions or take time off as it suited. He paid his taxes and his bills, drove carefully, and never came to anyone’s attention unless he was working on a job for them.

Ouside of his business, he was a nonentity. An average-looking unmarried man in his late-forties, average build, and average height. He looked like thousands of other men, someone who nobody would turn to look at, or remember passing on the street. That suited Thomas very nicely.

Smiling at the screen on the laptop, he typed his reply.

Dear Gill. Thank you for letting me know your name, I really appreciate that. Since my sister moved out, I also have issues with putting out the rubbish. Luckily, there is a cupboard on the landing of the block where I live. We put our bags in there, and the caretaker sorts it out for collection. So I just build up my courage and dash from my front door to the cupboard, throw it in, and run back inside again. I have no idea how much longer I can cope though. I often wonder how other people like me manage, as my bills are piling up, and my income from benefits is hardly enough to cover the cost of basic living. That’s why I am dressed like that in the photo, as I can’t afford new clothes.
Thanks for being my friend, it means a lot. Charlie. xx

He pressed ‘Send’, and closed the lid of the laptop.

Without reading the reply from Charlotte, Gillian tried emailing Matt again.

Dear Matt. Please let me know you are alright. I am so worried about you. Love, Gill. x

As she went to put the bones of a chicken in the bin, she realised it was full again. So she pulled the bag out and tied it up. Not wanting to risk more aggravation with the rude women next door, she left it on the floor by the front door. Later that night, she would put it out the front, by the wall. With any luck, the bin men might just take it away. Even if they didn’t, it wouldn’t be anywhere close to that Kirsty’s garden.

Then she ate her chicken sandwich and plain crisps, staring at the screen hoping that Matt would reply.

With no action on her blog, it occured to her to write another post. It also dawned on her that she didn’t really have a clue about blogging, or what to do to get more readers, and to make some additional blogging friends.

Contacts.
Staceydarling
Hello again. I don’t have many contacts on here, and that seems strange. Am I doing something wrong? Let me know if I am. I don’t like going outside, and I think there are lots of others who don’t go out, and are happy to stay inside their houses. If you are one of them, let me know. We can support each other, and be friends.

Gillian had ignored the prompts to add tags, and categories. Her posts were not tagged, and she hadn’t even considered following anyone else, as she had no idea how to search for anyone in the same situation. It seemed to her that her blog name was the most important thing, as it had already attracted a few followers and comments.

When nothing happened in the next twenty minutes, she went and made another chicken sandwich. There was a lot left of that large cooked chicken, and she was already thinking that she might have cold chicken and chips for dinner later, with big dollop of Branston Pickle.

Becoming annoyed with the blogging because nobody seemed to be reading her blog, she watched a film on the television that afternoon. It was Back To The Future, and although she had seen it lots of times, it always made her laugh. In the last advertisement break, there was an ad for a furniture company selling sofas at half price. Looking down at the sofa she was sprawled out on, Gillian thought it might be nice to have a new one. This one had been in the house for as long as she could remember.

Not bothering with the last segment of the film, she was soon scanning the furniture company website, trying to decide whether to order the sofa in leather or cotton canvas.After deciding on leather, she really couldn’t make up her mind on colour. Navy blue looked lovely in the photo, but dark brown would go with the rest of the furniture in the room. Then the thought came to her that nobody else would ever see it to consider any colour-clash, so she went with navy blue. A little window poppped up on the screen, confirming the payment, delivery within four weeks, and telling her that a confirmation email had been sent.

There were three unread emails. The order confirmation, the one from Charlotte that she hadn’t got around to, and a reply from Matt. She clicked on that one immediately.

Dear Gill. I am so sorry to make you worry. I was a coward, I’m afraid. I took forty tablets after drinking almost a full bottle of vodka. But then I got scared, and soon phoned for an ambulance. They took me to hospital and I had to have something to make me sick so I could bring up the pills. Then they did blood tests after, and kept me in overnight. They are sending me an appointment to see a psychiatrist, even though I told them I won’t go. My life is in such a mess at the moment, and though I really do appreciate you being so supportive, it is best that I don’t involve you in my problems. I just wanted to let you know that I was still around, so you would stop worryng. Take care, Matt. x

The jar of Branston Pickle had such a tight lid, she couldn’t open it. Remembering what her mum used to do, she tried holding it firmly in the frame of the half-open kitchen door and twisting it. When that didn’t work, she ran the lid under the hot tap then put on a rubber washing-up glove to get a turn on it. But it wouldn’t shift, no matter what she did.

Cold chicken and chips just didn’t taste the same without Branston.

There didn’t seem to be much point continuing to chat with Matt on the email. He had made his decision, and Gillian was annoyed with him anyway, for worrying her. So she tried the blog instead, and saw a comment on her last post.

oldgrumpybloke
You say you might be doing something wrong, and you are.
No tags.
No categories.
You don’t follow anyone else.
You don’t comment on other blogs.
Seems to me you just want people to feel sorry for you.
My advice to you is to delete your blog, open the door, and go out into the real world.

She couldn’t understand why some people could be so rude, and there was no way she was going to click to like that comment, or bother to reply.

Forgetting she hadn’t read Charlotte’s email, she logged on to the supermarket website, and started to compile her grocery order for delivery later that week. She couldn’t fool herself that her clothes were no longer comfortable, and decided it was about time she changed her diet to eat more healthily.

After almost half an hour scrolling up and down the huge number of selections available, she was pleased with her order. Only two choux buns instead of six, and ordinary plain digestives, instead of those covered in milk chocolate. There was even the substitution of sweeteners, for the granulated sugar that she had two and a half spoons of in every cup of tea.

The biggest sacrifice had been ordering only two bags of frozen chips, instead of four. But that was mainly because the freezer was almost full. And Diet Pepsi. She didn’t really like it that much, but if you gulped it down, it tasted much the same as full-fat Pepsi. Anyway, it was better than Diet Coke. Much sweeter.

Thomas Halloran wasn’t in the least bothered that there was no reply to his last email. He liked the waiting, the heightened anticipation. Knowing full well that someone like her would eventually cave in and reply made it all the more enjoyable. And he had just quoted someone two thousand five hundred pounds for a pair of carved bookcases that would cost him less than three hundred to make. They had confirmed the order without hesitation.

Life was good.

Leaving the rubbish bag out the front had worked well. Gillian had put on the security light, opened the front door, and flung the bag along the wall in the direction of the side gate. It had ripped a little bit as it landed, but it was a long way from next door, so that Kirsty had no cause for complaint.

Unable to sleep, Gillian got up at after one in the morning, and made some hot chocolate. She liked the real stuff, Cadbury’s powder mix, stirred into warm milk. While she sipped the drink that she hoped would settle her down for some sleep soon, she remembered Charlotte’s email, and logged on to read it again. Feeling sorry for her, she composed a long reply.

Dear Charlotte, I am so sorry to hear about you not having enough clothes, and your problems with paying the bill. As I said, I feel a real connection with you, and think we are very similar. I was left some money when my mum died, so I could help you out by sending you some. But that would mean you would have to send me your bank account details for telephone banking, and I’m guessing you wouldn’t want to do that, considering I am a stranger on the Internet.
I have been having trouble with my new neighbours. They had a really noisy party and then complained about my bin bags and threatened to report me to the council. The one who comes round is called Kirsty, and she looks like a man. She is so angry all the time, I feel scared of her. I have to put the bags outside the front now, so they don’t have anything to moan about.
Let me know if you want me to send you some money for your bills. Love from Gill. x

That night, she dropped off on the sofa as she was watching the DVD of Little Women, starring Elizabeth Taylor.

In no rush to reply to the woman, Thomas spent the weekend in his workshop a few miles from his house. He had sourced the wood for the commissioned bookcases from a salvage place he frequented, and it had cost even less than he had anticipated. All the work would be in the carving, something he found theraputic to occupy himself with.

As he carved the requested Art Nouveau design into the sides of the bookcases, it occured to him that it might be nice to find out where she lived. He could perhaps drive by her house on his way back from delivering and installing the bookcases next week. They would be finished by Monday afternoon, but he would wait until later in the week to inform the customer they were ready. Always best to let them think he had spent far more time making them.

Driving past her house when she had no clue who he was would add a nice frisson to the proceedings.

Replying to the last email, he thought carefully about what to say.

Dear Gill, I was touched by your offer to send me money. It brought tears to my eyes, and shows what a lovely person you are, deep inside. My sister came to see me as she had time off from flying. I told her about you, and she wants to send you some flowers to thank you. I cannot accept any money from you, no matter how much I appreciate the offer. I would feel ashamed. My sister paid two bills for me, and bought me some shopping, so things are okay for now. I told her I don’t have your address to send flowers, so she told me to ask you for it, and email her the details. Sorry to hear about that trouble with your neighbours. I wish I could help you, but I will just say that you should ignore them. I bet the Council has enough to worry about, without bothering over a few bin bags. Your friend, Charlie. X

Gillian didn’t see the reply until after she had packed away the grocery delivery that had arrived. She couldn’t decide whether to be pleased or annoyed that Charlotte had turned down her offer of money. Still, it was very nice of her sister to offer to send flowers, even though her and mum had never bothered with them, as they never lasted in their house, for some reason. She read the email again before replying.

Hi, Charlie. Glad to hear your sister was able to help you out with some money, she sounds like a good sister to have. I don’t have any brothers or sisters. In fact I have no family at all since my mum died. Tell her not to send any flowers. They cost too much and don’t last a week. Chocolates are better, and cheaper, but she doesn’t have to send me any. If she does, I really like those Belgian Truffles. Like I said, they are cheaper than flowers.
My address is
Miss Gillian Baxter
53 Longcliffe Road
Grantham
Lincolnshire
Keep in touch, and let me know how you are getting on. Love, Gill. x

It didn’t bother her in the least to send her address. Charlotte never went out, so she was unlikely to ever show up at the house. And she might get a nice box of truffles.

It was no surprise to Thomas that she had readily sent the address. They always did. He knew the country quite well, but checked his big map book anyway. Grantham was a place he had only ever passed on the main A1 road, and it was sixty miles away from his home in a village on the outskirts of Sheffield. Fortunately, it was just twenty three miles north of Stamford, where he had to deliver the bookcases. It would be very easy to divert into the town on his way home.

The customer was very new-money. He had bought the house on the edge of Stamford as a weekend retreat from some northern suburb of London, and discovered it was built in the Art Nouveau style, before the turn of the century. Determined to exploit those origins, he had no doubt spent a great deal of money buying up period pieces in the same style, and furniture that was probably, if not almost certainly, reproduction. Thomas arrived at the house early, and spent much longer assembling the bookcases than it actually needed. Taking time and appearing to be careful only exaggerated his reputation as a craftsman.

By three that afternoon, he had stopped to refuel his van just a mile or so outside Grantham town centre.

Gillian refused to admit it to herself, but she was bored. She found herself wandering around the house, stopping to look out of the windows at the outside world she could not face venturing into. At least the women next door hadn’t complained about the small pile of the bin bags at the front, which had now grown from one to four.

The blog seemed to be a non-starter. No more comments, not even rude or nasty ones. Maybe that grumpy bloke had been right about her not following anyone or commenting, but she felt more comfortable using email.

Charlotte hadn’t replied, and no truffles had shown up. Maybe it took longer to deliver chocolates than the stuff she usually ordered. Or perhaps her sister had to go back to work as an air hostess, and might bring some back from Belgium, then post them once she was in England.

As she was staring out of the window that afternoon, a large white van drove slowly past, then stopped just in view to her left. Gillian was excited. It was like one of the vans that came from Amazon. Perhaps he was going to deliver the truffles after all.

There was something about sitting in sight of the house that made Thomas excited. As he had suspected, it was a run down semi-detached on a boring estate of identical houses probably built in the late sixties. Featureless, practical, and very dull. Her house in particular made the street look shabby. Bags of rubbish accumulated close to the front door, windows not cleaned, and curtains unwashed. The wrought iron front gate had seen better days, and was barely hanging on with its one remaining hinge. Only a couple of long-dead dry plants stuck out from the top of the planters either side of the door, and you could well imagine the person that lived there was closer to ninety years of age, than thirty.

In every respect, it was perfect. As if he had written the script.

Not a good idea to hang around too long though, especially in his own legally registered vehicle. With one last look in the wing-mirror, he started the engine and drove off. The time would come soon enough.

Seeing the van leaving, Gillian felt a twinge of disappointment. It must have been delivering to a house further up the street. To cheer herself up, she made a cup of tea and opened her Mister Kipling Manor House cake. Two thick slices of that would be nice to eat while she was watching a film. While the kettle was boiling, she looked through the new films she had bought since mum died. Selecting Miss Congeniality, she carefully removed the cellophane wrapper.

Soon back out onto the main A1, Thomas kept in the left hand lane, driving sensibly at less than sixty. He was in no rush to get home, and had a lot to think about. Just the one big job to do, renewing the bannisters in a large staircase that dominated the entrance hall of a rather grand house in County Durham. But he had already turned the spindles weeks ago, so it was just a matter of installing them in the house, then adding the balustrades and end posts. To save time and driving, he had booked into a nice bed and breakfast establishment nearby, and would leave tomorrow morning, starting work that afternoon.

All being well, he would be finished in under a week, including staining the wood. Then he could take some time off.

Not too impressed with the film she had just watched, Gillian decided an early dinner was in order, and went to turn the oven on to heat up. On the box of the lasagna, it had writing that said ‘For a family of four’. But her and mum always had one each, and shared a garlic bread with it. No need to break that tradition. During the time that the oven heated, and the cooking time of fifty minutes, she chose another film to watch.

Something scary this time, as it was still early enough not to leave her with nightmares. What Lies Beneath wasn’t the sort of film mum would have been happy to watch, and Gillian smiled to herself as she pressed play.

Talking out loud, she muttered, “Sorry mum”.

When the new clothes were delivered, Gillian went through the usual rigmarole of asking the man to leave the boxes just by the door. Then she half-opened it when he had gone, and pulled the boxes in one by one.

Each outfit was tried on in turn, and she decided the extra comfort from the larger size had been a great idea. That left her having to clear out the wardrobe to make room for the new things, so she stuffed all the old clothes that were now too tight into bin bags, and carried them downstairs. Then she had to flatten out the cardboard boxes they had come in, and tie them into a bundle with some coarse string from a loose bundle in one of the kitchen drawers.

Mum had always kept things like old string. She would say, “You never know when it might come in handy”.

After a nice dinner of cod in breadcrumbs with chips and peas, she checked the camera before opening the door just enough. Standing inside on the step, she flung the bags out along the wall. But piles of clothing were surprising heavy, so they didn’t go very far. Last but not least, she lobbed the bundle of cardboard onto was was left of the front lawn, then scuttled back inside before anyone walked past.

Two days later, the door buzzer made her jump as she was eating some toast spread with some tasty Bonne Maman strawberry jam. Wiping her hands on her new pink tracksuit top, she walked over and looked at the camera. It was that Kirsty again, and this time there was a man with her. He was wearing a suit, and carrying a clipboard. She pressed the button to speak. “Can I help you?” The man leaned forward, as if that helped her to hear what he said.

“My name is David James, and I am from the Council. We are following up a complaint from your neighbour here, Miss Ward. He reached inside his pocket and produced a photo identity card with the name of the local Council printed above his picture. Gillian was annoyed with Kirsty, but unsettled by the smart man doing all the talking.

“So what do you want? I can’t open the door as I am not well. I don’t go outside because I am ill”. Kirsty looked at the man and shook her head, raising her eyebrows and rolling her eyes as she did so. He leaned in again and pressed the button. “You have to do something about your waste, I’m afraid. We can’t have bags thrown in the back alley, or outside the front of your house. It’s unhygienic for one thing, and also unsightly. If you don’t do something about it, you face a heavy fine, perhaps even a court summons”.

Gillian was annnoyed, and her face flushed as she replied. “This is my house, all paid for, and I owe nobody nothing. What I do with my own property is my business, so I would like you both to go away, and leave me alone”. The man and Kirsty started to talk to each other, with Kirsty looking aggressive, and waving her arms around. Gillian couldn’t hear what they were saying, as neither of them had pressed the button to speak.

After a couple of minutes, the man started writing on a form fixed to his clipboard. When he had finished, he pressed to speak again.

“I am going to put this notice of compliance through your letterbox. You have twenty-eight days to clear away this rubbish, and I will check once that has expired. If you fail to do this, I will consider court action to make you do it. Do you understand, miss? That made Gillian bullish. They had to take her to court then. She felt they were unlikely to do that, as it would be expensive. She pressed the button, uncharacteristically raising her voice as she spoke. “Thank you. Now go away!”

Her toast had got cold now, so she put three fresh slices under the grill and got the jam out of the cupboard. She thought she might watch a film, and later on she could see if Charlotte had emailed her.

Sitting in front of the television eating the fresh toast, she ignored the form protruding through her letterbox.

For Thomas, the staircase job was very enjoyable. The owners of the house were holidaying in Antigua, so he was looked after by the housekeeper. The elderly lady kept him well supplied with hot drinks and delicious food throughout the day, and left him alone to do his work. She treated him with great respect, and called him Mister Halloran. He liked that a lot.

His fee for the work had been paid in advance, to include his necessary accommodation nearby, and general living expenses. Once he had finished on Friday, he was looking forward to taking some much needed time off, unencumbered by any financial concerns.

As he was thinking about his forthcoming break from work, Gillian had experienced a light bulb moment, and was looking at a website on her laptop.

Whe she had worked at the Unemployment Office, they had used a waste removal company called Biffa. The amount of rubbish generated by all of the staff in that busy office, added to the bins in the waiting room full of job-seekers, was a lot more than could be accommodated by the conventional bins provided by the local Council. So at the back of the office, in the car park, there was a huge bin on wheels. This was owned by that company called Biffa, and they came to empty it twice a week.

She couldn’t arrange it online, but there was a contact number. So she rang them.

“Hello, I need one of your bins for my house. Do you do private addresses? It would need to be close to my front door, as I am unable to go outside very far. They would also have to wheel it from the door to the street. But I have a good sized path from the side gate that would be suitable.”

The young woman on the other end was very friendly.

“Of course we can arrange that, madam. There will be a deposit to cover the container, and a monthly fee for removal. In your area, that is usually quite early, around six in the morning. If that will be alright for you, we can deliver your bin within three working days, and collect it the following week on the same day. I will just need some card details for payment, and I can process your order”.

Gillian agreed to everything, and gave her card details. When the bin arrived, she would have to try to be brave enough to put all the bags and cardboard into it one night, but at least that would get Kirsty and the Council off her back. As for the bags that Kirsty had thrown over the back gate in the garden, they could stay there, for all she cared.

Not her problem.

Thomas sat in the bed and breakfast, thinking it was high time he contacted her again. So he compiled an email on his phone, and pressed ‘Send’ before going out for dinner.

Dear Gill. I keep thinking about how well you cope. I can’t stand people coming to my door, or neighbours knocking to see how I am, or wanting to borrow a pint of milk. It’s all I can do to open the door even a crack, to be honest. And I have no idea what to do once the groceries my sister bought me run out. As far as I can tell, you are so much braver than me, and coping so much better. I am so pleased you are my friend, and staying in contact with me. Love, Charlie. X

When Gill spotted the new email, she was in a positive mood about the bin, so she replied immediately.

People like us have to stick together, Charlie. I have my CCTV to see who is at the door, and if I don’t want to talk to them, I don’t answer the intercom buzzer. I have just arranged to have a private bin collection, so the Council and my neighbours have nothing to complain about. To be honest, I think you should consider moving in with me. I have a nice big spare room, and enough money to feed us both, and give us a good life. I don’t mean anything funny, like being a couple or anything, but we could have a great time here as friends, as we are so similar. I know that can’t happen though, as you won’t go outside. But maybe if I sent a taxi for you, you could be brave enough to try just once?

When he read that reply, Thomas began to chuckle. Then he laughed out loud.

When the reply came back from Charlotte, Gillian was not best pleased.

Dear Gill. You are very kind to offer me to come and live in your house, but I couldn’t possibly do that. Not only could I not face travelling to where you live, I would be ashamed to let you pay for everything, and just cannot let you do that. But your offer proves that you are a lovely person with a great heart, and I am so happy that we are friends. Love, Charlie. xx

That wasn’t very grateful. After all, she had offered to send a taxi, and she didn’t even know how far away Charlotte lived. Not that it bothered her to live alone. Unless she could have got mum back, she was better off being on her own, with nobody to answer to. For all she knew, Charlotte wouldn’t like the same kind of films, or what she cooked for dinner. Oh well, up to her if she wanted to miss out.

Checking the blog, Gillian was surprised to see a new follower, and a nice message.

StephaniesWorld.

Hi there. I am pleased to have come across your blog. Nobody understands why I don’t want to go out, not even my mum and dad. I tell them I am happy at home, but they say I can’t be, and I should have friends, and be outside enjoying life. They just don’t get it, and my mum says I will have to get a job soon so have to go out. I wish I could run away, but that would mean going outside. Everything seems so big and noisy. Traffic goes by so fast, and people walk around at such speed too. I haven’t been out for almost five years now, and hope I never have to. I am going to follow your blog, so you can call me Steff.

Not really knowing how to reply to that, Gillian clicked ‘Like’ on the comment, then went into the kichen to toast some waffles.

Thomas Halloran was making his preparations. He had arranged a hire car, as using his own van would not do. The choice was a boring two-door hatchback. A basic model in white that was the same as a million others on the road. Informing the company that he might need it for a few months, he had been asked to pay a deposit and leave card details for any additional charges. Essential items like toiletries and some clothes to change into had been packed into a holdall, along with some other items already kept in there. In a car accessory shop, he had bought a yellow hi-vis gilet, the sort worn by road repair workers. Paying in cash of course.

Driving the exceedingly dull small car to a large supermarket on the outskirts of the city, he purchased his favourite brand of tea bags and instant coffee, a packet of real butter, and some granary bread. Then making his first-ever trip along the confectionery aisle, he added a large box of expensive Belgian truffles.

Those waffles had been delicous with some raspberry syrup, and she had to stop herself having more by settling down to watch a film. A quick look through the newer DVD selections had her choosing something a bit different. She liked Tom Hanks in the film Big, so had bought a more recent one, called Forrest Gump.

The drive of sixty miles would only take just over ninety minutes, Thomas estimated. But as he wanted to arrive just before it was getting dark, he decided to drive to a nearby shopping complex and have a long lunch in a chain pub that was popular with families. They were open all day now, so closing times were no longer an issue.

By the time Thomas had eaten, and was driving to the junction where he could join the A1 heading south, Gillian had turned off the film before it finished. She had found it confusing, and rather silly. And she also thought it wasn’t nice to make fun of a young man who was obviously a bit slow in the head. She decided to have a nice long bath instead, and would think about what to cook for dinner while she was soaking herself.

In a side street five minute’s walk from Gillian’s house, Thomas parked the car, making sure it was in nobody’s way, not obstructing a drive or entrance, and legally parked in an area with no lines or restrictions.

It was going to be there for some time.

Some harassed-looking young mums were struggling to get their excited kids home from school. Shouting at them to keep up, or to wait at the kerb ahead in case they got run over by a car. Many were trying to cope with a baby or toddler in a buggy at the same time, and a few had bulging carrier bags full of groceries dangling from the handles. School turn out time was always busy, but a nondescript man walking from a plain car carrying a holdall went unnoticed.

Thomas circled the block until the streets were no longer crowded. Quite soon, the older children would be coming out of senior schools, and he wanted to get a move on before they arrived.

After a nice warm bubble bath, Gillian slipped into a clean pink fluffy dressing gown, one of the new things she had bought. It was so big, it wrapped right around her, and the hood helped to dry her damp hair. Then she went downstairs to see if anything in the freezer caught her fancy for dinner.

She wasn’t looking at the CCTV camera while her head was in the freezer, so didn’t see a man casually throw a holdall over her side gate.

Still trying to decide between some flaky pastry chicken slices or crispy filled pancakes with ham and mushroom, the door buzzer startled her. She closed the freezer door, and walked into the living room to look at the camera monitor. There was a man outside wearing a reflective waistcoat, like the Amazon delivery drivers wore, and he was carrying a box that wasn’t plain cardboard.

Pressing to speak, Gillian kept an eye on the screen. “Yes, what is it please?” He held the box up so she could see it clearly. It was the biggest box of Belgian truffles she had ever seen. “Gillian Baxter? I have a delivery for you”. So Charlotte’s sister had kept her promise after all. Forgetting herself in the excitement, she opened the door all the way.

“I’m Gillian Baxter, yes that’s me”. The man reached into his jacket under the reflective vest, mumbling. “Just something to sign please, Gillian”.

She was still staring at the box of chocolates when the edge of Thomas’s right hand slammed into the bridge of her nose with such force it made her stagger back into the room. It was as if a flashbulb had gone off behind her eyes, and the power of the blow made tears flow immediately. Stumbling over the small armchair that nobody ever sat on, her legs flew into the air as she struck the back of her head on the floor.

It was over in a second. Thomas was in the room, the door closed behind him. The woman was groaning, but not moving. He quickly ran into every room, just in case someone else was in the house. Then he unlocked the back door in the kitchen, and walked around to the side gate to retrieve his holdall. Gillian wasn’t moving, but he could see her chest rising and falling under the dressing gown, so knew she was breathing. He turned her onto her side so she wouldn’t choke, then went over to the CCTV monitor and examined the recording device underneath.

After a few moments checking the controls on the remote, he erased the previous twenty-four hours of the tape, including the moment he had arrived. As the machine whirred, he turned and locked the front door, adding the short security chain that Gillian had omitted to fasten. Content that there would be no intrusion, he opened the holdall and removed what he needed for now, working quickly before she woke up.

The television was on, some inane late afternoon quiz. He found the remote on the sofa and increased the volume slightly. Not enough to disturb any neighbour, but sufficient to cover any sound he was going to make.

Although he had known in advance that she would be heavy, getting her upstairs was more difficult than he had anticipated. After two attempts to drag her up the stairs holding her under the arms, he changed to lifting her over his shoulder, feeling his body complain about carrying such a weight. He made it upstairs in one go, accelerating into the first room on his left before he thought he might drop her, then dumped her unceremoniously onto the top of a double bed.

All that effort had made him hot and thirsty, so he went down and put the kettle on, taking his favourite tea bags from the holdall.

The smell was her mum’s bedroom. She would always know the smell of mum’s room. The only perfume she ever used, and the slightly musty smell that came from never having had a window open, even at the height of summer. Gillian knew she was lying on the bed, and could feel the pillows under her head. Her eyes had been watering and felt sore, and the pain in her nose made her convinced that it was broken.

Her first thought was to scream, but there was something forced into her mouth, and fixed tightly around her head. And she couldn’t see anything, as there was some kind of mask over her eyes. The memory of what had just happened came on suddenly, like a flashback scene in a scary film. So she panicked, trying to turn and get off the bed. But her wrists and ankles were secured with something, and a few seconds of struggle soon made her realise it was hopeless. There was something else too. Her dressing gown had gone.

She was naked.

The sound of the television could be heard upstairs, and that left her wondering if the man was still there, downstairs making himself at home. Maybe he had robbed the place and left, that would be good. But how would she get free if he had? Shaking her head from side to side failed to dislodge the mask, and even the loudest sound she could manage from her mouth sounded like something muffled by a cushion. Nobody outside was ever going to hear her.

And she was starting to feel hungry too.

With his tea, Thomas made himself some toast using the granary bread, spread with real butter. A brief perusal of her larder and fridge had confirmed his worst fears. Cheap margarine, awful white sliced bread, and wall-to wall junk food. That wouldn’t do at all. He took his snack over to her computer on the table, and moved the mouse. Typical. No access code required, and the screen illuminated immediately. Next to the keyboard was a flimsy notebook, like the school exercise books he had used as a child. On the front of it in capital letters were the words, PASSWORD BOOK.

That made him smile, and his smile broadened when he opened it and read the first page.

Blog password. NAILLIGRETXAB

Tesco Deliveries. 53NAILLIGRETXAB

Amazon. RETXABACCEBER

She had used her own name backwards for the first one, and added her door number for the second. Then presumably her mother’s name backwards, for Amazon.

There were some others, including one for a plus size clothing company, but he ignored those and clicked on the Tesco site. Sure enough, she had ticked the box that said ‘Save card details’. He was ready to go, and began to compile an order for delivery later that week. Some much better food, a few bottles of decent wine, and a lot of cleaning products. This awfully dingy house needed a thorough clean, if he was going to be able to tolerate staying in it. Something popped into his mind, and he added two large boxes of condoms.

The last thing he wanted was to get her pregnant.

Before he even considered walking upstairs to see how she was, he had ordered an exercise bike from Amazon, some waterproof sheets too, and a chair-style commode. There was also a digital radio, so he could listen to some decent music, and some proper plates and cutlery. The stuff in her drawers and cupboards was unspeakably average. Then he had a quick rummage in her freezer, choosing to heat up a family-size chicken pie for her dinner. In time, he would educate her palate.

Gillian had been awake for almost two hours before she heard the footsteps on the stairs, followed by the bedroom door opening. She could smell the pie he had cooked, and carried up on a plate for her. It made her mouth water, even with the gag.

When the mask was removed, the man who had delivered the chocolates was standing by the bed. He was holding a plate with the pie on it, and a spoon to eat it with. But he was also holding a horrible-looking knife, like those ones you see hunters with in films. He held the knife against her throat as he removed the ball gag. Speaking quietly, in a friendly tone, he even managed a smile.

“I will release the gag, and one hand so you can eat the food. If you scream, or do anything except eat the pie, I will slit your throat. Understood?

Gillian nodded, and grabbed the spoon as if she had never seen food before.

Watching her gulp down the pie, Thomas realised that her desire for food had overcome any possible embarrassment about being naked in front of a stranger. Gillian worked the spoon around the plate like a competition eater, and devoured the whole thing in less than four minutes. Not knowing what else to say, she looked at the man and mumbled, “Thank you”. As he secured her free hand, she could feel herself trembling. “What if I need the toilet?”.

He smiled. “You get to use the toilet when I come and tell you that you can. Do you need it now?” She shook her head, and watched as he fastened the handcuffs. Plucking up courage, she spoke a little louder. “Are you going to kill me? What do you want from me?” Thomas picked up the plate and spoon, then stroked her head with his right hand. “Kill you? Why on earth would I do that? Besides, why would I make you dinner if I was going to kill you? Surely you would already be dead? Just relax, and let me look after you”.

Thomas took the plate and spoon downstairs, and washed them in the kitchen sink. As he suspected, she hadn’t screamed or called out, even though he had not replaced the ball gag. Turning the television to the BBC, he watched the evening news, while drinking another cup of tea.

Always best to savour the inevitable.

Before the local news that came after the main news started, he heard her calling out. “Hello! Can you come up please? I need the toilet”. She was bound to explore the boundaries. Even someone as inexperienced and inherently weak as her would have watched films and TV dramas, just as he had. He gave it a few minutes, then walked back up to the bedroom.

Showing the hunting knife, he made a short speech.

“For the time being, I will release you to go into the bathroom, and use the toilet. After that, there will be waterproof sheets in case you cannot hold it, and a commode next to the bed for you to use. For tonight, I am going to release you, but you have to have the gag back on, and I will be accompanying you to the toilet. If you try to run away, or fight me, this knife will put an end to you. Understood?” Gillian nodded feverishly.

She really needed to pee.

He was surprisingly gentle as he replaced the gag. Then he freed her from the bed and followed her as she walked to the bathroom. When he walked in behind her, she shook her head vigorously until he removed the gag again. “I don’t think I can go with you watching. It’s bad enough having no clothes on. Nobody has ever seen me like this, not even my mum. Not since I was old enough to know better, anyway”. His expression was like stone.

“You go, or you don’t go. Up to you, but I am staying here. If you don’t really need the toilet, I can take you back to the bedroom”. Gillian sat on the toilet and looked at her feet. After a while, she managed to pee. The man knew that she had finished, and pulled her up by her arm, then flushed the toilet. “Okay, gag back on, and back to bed. You better not think about giving me any trouble, Gillian”.

He had used her name. How did he know that? Her mind was racing as he led her back to the bedroom.

After securing her back onto the bed, Thomas put his mouth close to her ear. “I will be back to see you later, just lie quietly, and don’t worry. I am definitely not going to kill you. I might even be in love with you. Think about that, while I am downstairs”.

When he had gone, Gillian thought about what he had said. She had never so much as kissed a man, but here was a good-looking man telling her he might be in love with her. But where had he come from? And why was he attracted to her when she thought she was fat and ugly?

It took her over an hour to put the pieces together, in her panicked mind. The Belgian truffles. Knowing her address. It could only be one thing.

That man was Charlotte.

Ten minutes more on her computer had seen Thomas delete Gillian’s blog, as well as deleting every email she had sent and received. He then changed the password on her email, just in case. He knew it could all be retrieved of course, but when he eventually left this house, he would take the hard drive with him, destroying it in his workshop.

Picking up the landline house phone, he pulled the cable out of the back, rendering it useless. A few moments in the menu of her mobile phone, and he had set up a password to access that too.

Tipping out her handbag onto the sofa, he found two sets of house keys on different key rings, and put both into his trouser pocket. Then he rummaged through the contents of her purse, removing a bank card which he also put in his pocket. With her card details already saved by the supermarket website, and numerous other online sites including Amazon, he was not going to need it.

To while away some time, he used her computer to log on to some other blogs of women he was messaging. Thomas always liked to have a couple on the go, planning ahead.

Littlesparrow was promising, although he was yet to get her to divulge her real name and address, she had sent him a photo, and he knew that she lived in Derby. In her case, she was a lonely elderly divorcee looking for love, and the photo and details he had been using to woo her had been easy enough to find online.

Leaving her a message explaining that he was away working for a while, he went to cook an omelette for his dinner, using some of the dozen eggs he had found in Gillian’s cupboard.

The bedtime routine would have to be worked out, and she would have to comply. No point messing around, so he thought he might as well sort that out from day one. Walking upstairs holding the knife, and a small glass of water, he made Gillian jump as he entered the room.

“Well, it is time for you to settle down for the night. You can drink some of this water, then I will let you use the bathroom to go to the toilet and brush your teeth. I will release your restraints for that, but I warn you now that of you do anything I don’t like, you will get this. Okay?”

He showed her the knife. Gillian nodded, and watched as he unlocked the cloth-covered handcuffs securing her hands and feet. She felt the need to speak up while she could, before he put that awful gag back in her mouth.

“I don’t think I can go to the toilet with you watching me. I have never done that before, not even in front of my mum. And can I have something to cover me? I feel so embarrassed with you seeing me like this”. Thomas smiled before replying. “You will use the toilet, or wet the bed later, the choice is yours. I will give you your duvet for sleeping, but there is no need to be ashamed, as I think your body is wonderful. Now, up you get, and don’t give me any trouble”.

In the bathroom, Gillian was mortified to be peeing in front of the man. He didn’t even turn away, just stared at her. After that, she brushed her teeth, then followed him back into mum’s bedroom and lay down on the bed while he fastened the restraints and secured the gag. He showed her the mask. “Do you want this?” She shook her head, so he covered her with the duvet and went over to switch off the light. Before he did so, he leaned back into the room.

“Goodnight, sweet Gillian. Sleep tight, and don’t let the bedbugs bite”. As the room was plunged into darkness, she remembered her mum used to say that when she was little.

Back in the living room, Thomas watched the late news, drinking a cup of his favourite tea.

It was all going very well, much better than he had hoped it would. He might even make her breakfast in bed tomorrow.

Before settling down on the sofa, he went to the computer to send a message to Littlesparrow.

I cannot sleep for thinking about you, my only sweetheart. If only I was there, to hold you tenderly, and to take all of your cares away, my love. xx

Thomas quickly established a routine. He would wake Gillian in the morning, freeing her restraints while showing her the hunting knife. Then she was taken into the bathroom to use the toilet, while he ran a bath for her. When she had finished bathing, he would allow her to go downstairs with him and make herself some breakfast. When she had eaten, she was taken back upstairs and secured to the bed again.

On the third morning, she tried to engage him in conversation. “Can I have some clothes please? I feel horrible being naked all the time with you watching me”. His tone was kind, but firm. “The reason you are not allowed clothes is to stop you trying to run away. I haven’t hurt you, and don’t want to. I just want to look after you. So I don’t want you to try to run away, do I?”

A noise outside startled him, and he turned to look at the camera. A man was wheeling a large industrial bin across the front lawn, then leaving it beside the door against the wall. He pressed the buzzer, but when nobody answered immediately, he pushed some paperwork through the letterbox, and left. Gillian looked at the man. “That’s the Biffa Bin I ordered. I got in trouble for leaving bin bags outside, so I phoned up and paid for a private bin”. Thomas nodded.

“Okay, back up to bed for you for now. Anything else you haven’t told me about?” She shook her head.

Later that morning, the Amazon delivery arrived. Various large boxes containing the things he had ordered. Used to Gillian never opening the door, the driver left them all just short of the front step. Checking the CCTV until he could see nobody on the street, Thomas quickly unlocked the door and dragged them in. To make room for the exercise bike he was going to assemble, he dragged the small armchair out through the back door, and dumped it in the garden. Once he had exchanged Gillian’s old plates and utensils for the better items he had ordered, he went back out the front door and dropped all the old things into the large Biffa Bin.

No sooner had he unpacked the heavy box containing the exercise bike, then the door buzzer went again.

It was the supermarket delivery. Rather than have to free Gillian to talk to the young man, Thomas took a chance and spoke briefly into the intercom. “Just leave it outside please, I will get it later”. Once the delivery van was out of sight, he brought all the bags through. To make room in the fridge and freezer, he used the empty bags to clear out most of her food, and dumped them in the big bin on top of her crockery.

He was satisifed. Things were coming together nicely.

That evening, he cooked chicken with chorizo, accompanied by savoury rice. He ate his portion alone, washed down with a nice glass of Burgundy. Then he dished up a portion to carry upstairs, chopping the chicken into small pieces so she could use a spoon.

Gillian had been able to smell the food cooking, and she was very hungry, having not been given any lunch. When the man came uptairs, he was carrying a chair with a seat, not food. “This will be your toilet from now on, to save you having to get up and use the bathroom. I will empty it for you, and you will have one hand and leg free, so you can slide onto it. I am going to get your dinner now, okay?” Gillian nodded, wondering when she had ever been so hungry.

Mum had never used garlic, and they had never tasted chorizo. Rice was only ever for dessert, as a sweet rice pudding. But she lay on the bed spooning it in as if she had never seen food before. When she was finished, she actually thanked him. “That was delicious, is there any more please?”. Thomas shook his head as he removed the plate and spoon. “That was an adequate portion, I assure you. Just relax while I have a bath, and I will be back to see you soon”.

When he returned twenty minutes later, he was naked. Gillian wanted to close her eyes. She had never seen a naked man, except in a film, or on television. And had never had a boyfriend.

But when he opened a condom and sat on the bed next to her, she instinctively knew what was about to happen.

It had been nothing like Gillian imagined. There were no restraints, no gag, just the evil-looking knife placed on the chest of drawers opposite. The man had actually been very gentle. Yes, she had to admit, even loving. Much like she had seen with the romantic leads in the films her and mum used to watch. And it hadn’t been painful, even though his weight on her had felt strange.

She was sure it should have taken longer though. Oh well.

When he had finished, he had even kissed her passionately. Her first kiss. Then he picked up the knife and went downstairs, returning with a bowl of ice cream for her. It was the best she had ever tasted. He smiled as she devoured it. “Haagen Dazs, much nicer than the cheap stuff that was in your freezer”. Then he let her use the bathroom instead of the horrible chair-toilet.

When she had brushed her teeth and had a wash, Thomas escorted her back to bed and secured the restraints again, showing her the ball-gag. “Do I need to put this in your mouth?” Gillian shook her head, and as he left the room, he turned. “Don’t let me hear you make any noise, or it stays in all the time”.

Feeling very pleased with himself, Thomas got on the excercise bike and set the controls for an uphill ride of twenty miles. He was determined to keep fit now he wasn’t out and about working, and this was an easy option that didn’t involve going outside to run. As he got into the rhythm of the pedals, he reflected on the woman upstairs. It had been nice that she hadn’t squirmed, struggled, or resisted. He hated having to fight them, gag them, and hold them down under restraint. He wanted them to want it.

Gillian had been a good choice, one of the best yet.

Over the next few days, that became the pattern. Although sometimes he would stay in the room after lunch, slowly removing his clothes when she had finished eating, leaving her in no doubt what was to happen next. She had to admit to herself that she had started to look forward to it, especially when he whispered compliments to her after, and cuddled her so gently. One evening when he was late coming upstairs, Gillian found herself hoping she would soon hear his footsteps.

And the food was amazing. Meals she had never heard of. Cassoulet that looked like stew, but tasted so much better. Coq-au-Vin with Dauphinoise potatoes, something else she had never heard of. She even tried a home-cooked Chinese meal for the first time ever; Hoisin Duck with noodles and Chinese leaves. He told her the names as she was eating, and she committed them to memory, for the future.

But one lonely night in the dark, she started to think about that future. What would happen to her? Would he decide to be her boyfriend for ever and move in permanently to look after her? Part of her wished that could happen,and she would forgive him for how they had met. But she had watched enough films and television dramas in her time to know that rarely happened.

He would tire of her, then kill her. And she wouldn’t even know his name.

She started to formulate a rudimentary plan in her mind. He had mentioned love that first night, and she would convince him that she loved him. It wouldn’t be too difficult to convince him, as she knew that part of her didn’t want him to ever leave.

The weather was warming up. After ten days at the house, Thomas was still very happy. He could spare some more time with Gillian, especially as she had become a willing and enthusiastic participant in everything he did to her. Very soon, he was sure he could do away with the restraints completely, as he already had no need of the gag. She might even join him downstairs for lunch and dinner, as she was behaving so well.

One morning, he was startled by the appearance of a man with a ladder at the bedroom window. She hadn’t told him about a window cleaner. Did he need paying? Would he create a fuss until someone answered the door and paid him? Thomas was angry, but had to break his anonimity.

“Excuse me, who are you? Do you need paying for this work?” The window cleaner seemed to be surprised to see a man speaking to him from a bedroom window.

“No, it’s okay. I have been paid in advance. Sorry mate, but who might you be?” Thomas smiled, and appeared to be very friendly.

“Oh, I am Gill’s boyfriend. I moved in last week. You don’t need to come anymore, I wil do it, and you can keep the money”.

As the man left, Thomas was raging inside. Now there was someone who might remember him.

Feeling angry about the window cleaner, Thomas decided to punish Gillian for not telling him. Securing one arm to the bed, he pushed the commode nearer. “You didn’t tell me about the window cleaner. That was very naughty, so you have to learn a lesson. No food today, and you have to use the commode. I will bring you up some water later, but that’s it. Give me any backtalk, and the gag is going on. Got that?” Gillian nodded, worried by the change in his mood.

As she settled back down on the bed, already hungry after being told she would get nothing to eat, her main concern was to worry that he wouldn’t want to have sex with her today.

She had started to look forward to it.

To release some of his stress, Thomas cycled thirty miles on the exercise bike. After that, he had a bath, then made some toast with granary bread, topping it with a delicious Ardennes Pâté. Sipping a glass of Saint-Émilion as he watched the news, he started to wonder about whatever else the stupid young woman had failed to mention.

Up in her mum’s bedroom, Gillian had struggled to use the commode, and flopped back into bed feeling exhausted. She could not remember ever going a day without food, and treating her like that because of the window cleaner seemed so unfair. So much had happened, how was she supposed to remember to tell him about a window cleaner? Perhaps he wasn’t as nice as she had started to believe he was.

Her conclusion was that she was going to have to be much more careful.

By the time he had calmed down, it was almost the usual dinnertime. She could survive a day without food to teach her a lesson, he thought. In fact, she could survive a week or more without food, given her size. But by seven that night, he was feeling some familair stirrings, and decided not to deny himself. Selecting a bar of Lindt ninety percent cocoa chocolate, he went upstairs.

When she saw the chocolate bar, her eyes lit up. But she said nothing as he removed the insert from the commode and took it into the bathroom to empty it and wash it. When he came back, he undressed next to the bed, inclining his head in the direction of the chocoalte bar, placed out of her reach on the floor.

“If you are nice to me, if you are loving and affectionate, you will get the chocolate. If I am not convinced, you get nothing”. She nodded. “I will be all of that”.

The chocolate tasted so good, it was just a pity that it wasn’t a much bigger bar. The man had left a two-litre bottle of water by the bed, and she gulped down some of that before relaxing. It was so boring with no television, the hours seemed to drag on relentlessly. But after lying quietly for a while, she drifted off to sleep.

She woke quite early the next morning, then heard the familiar whirring sound from downstairs, wondering what he was doing. That morning, a rejuvenated Thomas managed fifty miles on the exercise bike before he stopped for a shower.

After he had made Eggs Florentine for breakfast, he walked into the bedroom with a smile on his face. “If you promise to behave, you can join me downstairs for a delicious breakfast, then have a bath. Agreed? Gillian nodded enthusiastically. Although she had never seen spinach before, let alone eaten it, it seemed just like overcooked spring greens, and she ate everything in seconds. Thomas decided to try an experiment.

“I’m glad you enjoyed your food. Now go up and have a bath. You can use the toilet in the bathroom today, no commode”. The naked woman ran upstairs, seemingly as excited as a small child, and he was happy. She was beginning to understand how it worked.

Taking her time in the bath, Gillian thought it was high time she shaved her legs and under her arms. But when she looked in the bathroom cabinet for her Venus razor, it was gone. He must have removed it in case she used it to hurt him.

Relishing the taste of his breakfast, Thomas was considering watching the morning news.

Then the door buzzer sounded.

Thomas looked at the monitor, and could see a man aged around fifty standing outside carrying a small bunch of flowers. When the man didn’t leave and pressed the buzzer again, he rushed upstairs to the bathroom. The tone of his voice was menacing as he spoke. “Get your dressing-gown on and get downstairs now. There’s a man at the door. Get rid of him, and make it fast”.

Gillian did as she was told, with Thomas following her down before she got to the door intercom. She could see he was carrying that horrible knife again. He stood on the bottom step as she looked at the CCTV monitor. “That’s Mister Bell, from where I used to work. I didn’t know he was coming, honest”. Jerking the blade of his knife, he snarled at her. “Don’t let him in, and don’t make him suspicious. Or it’s this for both of you”.

She pressed to speak. “Hello, Jim. Sorry, I was in the bath. I’m not feeling well, and thought a warm bath would help”. He sounded disappointed as he replied. “Sorry to hear that, Gill. I was just popping round to see how you were on my way to a meeting. I have half an hour yet, if you want to invite me in for a cup of tea”. Gillian hesitated. It had never once occured to her that Jim might fancy her, but that was before she had met the man standing on her stairs.

Now she could see that Jim might be trying his luck. After all, he had brought flowers.

“Sorry, Jim. I’m not dressed or anything, and I have a thumping headache. You can leave the flowers on the step, and I will get them later. Thanks for thinking of me”. He gently placed the flowers on the front step, then turned away looking suitably dejected. That made her convinced her suspicions were correct.

As she turned around, Thomas slapped her face so hard, the shock and the pain made her start sobbing immediately. The he grabbed the collar of her dressing gown and dragged her back up to mum’s bedroom, pushing her onto the bed. Without speaking, he dragged the dressing gown off of her, and secured restrants to one arm and leg. Pulling the commode over next to the bed, he finally spoke in little more than a whisper.

“So, that’s your lover is it? The best you could do, a sad-looking man like him? No wonder you enjoy it so much with me, he looks pathetic. Well that’s not good enough. Not at all. You can stay in here today, and use the commode if you need it. There is water in that bottle next to the bed, but no more food for you today, young lady. If I hear so much as a murmur, I will be back up to restrain you completely, and you get the gag too”.

Still sobbing, she never heard him leave.

Pausing the recording on the CCTV, Thomas opened the door, picked up the bunch of flowers, and put them into the large Biffa Bin. He sneered at the cheap bouquet as he did so, imagining that the man had bought them from a bucket on a petrol station forecourt. All he needed to get his way with the simple woman upstairs, presumably.

Raging inside, he climbed onto the exercise bike and did twenty miles on a steep gradient setting. The weather was really warming up, and he would have to start opening some windows soon. Once he had completed the cycling task, he got all the cleaning materials he had bought, and began to clean the house from top to bottom. Everywhere except the bedroom of course.

Four hours later, he was feeling calmer, and very hungry. The wine he opened was a delicious Gevrey-Chambertin, and it went well with the selection of charcuterie and cheeses that he ate with some previously part-baked baguettes that he had heated up. Gillian could smell the aroma of warm bread wafting upstairs, and lay there hoping he would bring her up something to eat. He had to believe that she didn’t know about Jim Bell coming round, but it seemed he had thought she was lying.

Two hours passed on the old digital clock next to the bed, and Gillian wondered if she had been dozing. Then she heard him coming up the stairs, and the door was opening onto the dark bedroom. She was delighted. He was bringing her food after all.

But when he walked in, he was naked, and was not carrying any food.

He was rough with her that night. Turning her onto her front and not being very nice at all. Gillian was crying the whole time, and still crying when he left her and went back downstairs. And she was hungry too, with nothing to eat since breakfast.

Thomas sat on the sofa, restless and not at all sleepy. He had been angry at her, and hadn’t enjoyed what had happened. He wanted to give affection, and receive it back. But they didn’t understand, they never did. All they had to do was let him look after them, and everything would be okay. He poured himself a large Remy Martin, and sat contemplating his life.

Mrs Halloran had not been expecting to have a baby so late in life. Her daughter was already grown up, and had moved away when she was eighteen. A long way away. Kathleen Halloran didn’t blame Maggie for leaving though. Brendan was a hard man. Hard on her, and hard on his children too. Having a daughter had turned out to be a disaster, as he controlled Maggie the same way he had always done with her.

Violence followed by affection. Anger followed by laughter and gifts. No nights out, no friends in the house, other family members ignored untl they stopped bothering. A joint bank account so she had no personal control over any money, and Brendan taking her to work and picking her up after. Same with Maggie, doing the school run there and back, making sure she wasn’t talking to any boys and had no friends to walk home with.

He was free to do as he pleased. As a self employed carpenter, he could pick and choose the hours he worked in the large workshop at the end of the garden. Kathleen had become so sick of the smell of wood around him, she didn’t even like to have any wooden furniture. But she had no choice, as he made it all himself.

Once she was old enough by his estimation, Brendan started to go upstairs at night to ‘tuck Maggie in’. She screamed at first, and Kathleen sat with cushions over her ears to drown out the noise. The neighbours probably thought it was some sort of hysterical argument, as they never mentioned it.

But it wasn’t long before she stopped screaming and just accepted the inevitable. The day after her eighteenth birthday she packed a small case, and moved to the other end of the country after finding a live-in job in a hotel. She didn’t tell them where she was, and they never heard from her again. Then Brendan turned his attention back to his wife, and a year later she had Thomas.

Brendan saw his son as a protoge. Another male to be educated in the way of the world according to Brendan Halloran. Kathleen was sidelined as Brendan spent hours with him in the workshop, teaching him everything about crafting wood. And he was teaching him other things too. Awful things.

As she found out one night when Brendan brought him up to the bedroom, and left him alone with her.

After that, she rarely went out. Her employer got tired of her absences and fired her by letter. She started to eat for comfort, and had soon doubled in size. She hoped being so fat would put them off, but if anything it made things worse, especially with Thomas. It turned out he had a thing for fat women.

So Kathleen did the opposite, and began to starve herself. Living on sips of tea and cigarettes, she lost so much weight over the next two years, she no longer had the energy to keep the house tidy, or go shopping.

Then one morning, Thomas found his father dead in the workshop. The post mortem result was a brain haemorrhage. Kathleen was disappointed that he hadn’t suffered more. But it was her chance to escape, so she went to visit her married sister, and never came home. Thomas was alone at the age of nineteen, and about to embark on a series of events that would eventually lead him to Gillian’s house.

His dad had been a good teacher. He had told him exactly what to do, and how best to do it. As far as Thomas was concerned, he had been the best dad in the world.

Gillian was sleeping soundly by the time he went back up to the bedroom. He lay down gently on the bed next to her and stroked her hair as she slept.

It felt very hot in the bedroom. As Gillian’s eyes opened that morning, she discovered why. The man was cuddling her, and on top of the warm weather that was arriving, the heat from his body was making her uncomfortable. But she saw it as a good sign. He must have forgiven her, and she would surely get some food today. She needed to pee though, so gently pushed against him until he woke up.

“I need to pee, sorry. It’s sort-of urgent”. He smiled at her, and got off the bed. Not wanting to risk waiting to get to the bathroom, she managed to slide off the mattress and use the commode. He came back in with the key for the restraints and undid them. “You can go and have a nice bath while I prepare breakfast. Come down and eat when you’re ready”.

While frying some bacon and heating ready-made pancakes, Thomas noticed the grass on the small lawn was almost a foot high. He wasn’t about to cut it though, and he would hopefully be gone soon anyway. He had already stayed longer than intended. Not that he was worried about work, or money. There were no arranged jobs outstanding, and he had enough in the bank to last a long time.

Besides, other than hiring the car, he hadn’t spent anything. All the online shopping had been charged to Gillian’s account.

Despite still being early, it was already very hot. He opened the kitchen door a little, then went into the living room and opened the windows wide to try to get some kind of breeze in the house. After a nice bath, Gillian was already feeling hot and sweaty by the time she finished drying herself. For once she was pleased not to be allowed to wear any clothes, and with the smell of bacon driving her mad with hunger, she scampered downstairs without bothering to dry her hair.

Over breakfast, the man was nice to her. He let her eat four big rashers of bacon with six of the pancakes. He had poured something over them before serving her, and it tasted deliciously sweet. He told her it was maple syrup, the real stuff. She had never even heard of it, but knew she could happily eat much more of it. They hadn’t quite finished when the door buzzer sounded.

Thomas looked over at the monitor and saw a woman standing outside with her arms folded. She was wearing some kind of overall, with a white t-shirt underneath. Gillian was immediately concerned in case he got angry again, but he spoke quietly. “Who’s that then?” Swallowing half a pancake, she inclined her head in the direction of next door. “That’s Kirsty. Her and her woman friend moved in next door not long ago. She complained about my rubbish bags, so I got the Biffa Bin after she came round with a man from the local Council”.

He seemed happy with that. “Go and see what she wants, but don’t open the door, not even a little bit”.

“Hello Kirsty, what do you want. I’ve got that big bin, so no more rubbish bags outside. What is it now?” The woman leaned in to speak. “If you ever went out in the garden, you would smell the stink from those old bags of crap that I threw over your back gate. You have got to get them shifted, or we will have flies and rats now it’s the summer”. Maybe because the man was listening, Gillian was feisty.

“Well you threw them there, not me. So if you want them shifted, you can do it. It’s not my problem, so go away and stop bothering me”. Leaning in even closer, Kirsty used a very nasty tone. “Look, you crazy cow. I’m here to tell you I’m not having this. Your shitty house lets this whole street down, and I will be calling the bloke back from the Council about your crap in the back alley”. With that, she turned and stomped off.

The man was smiling at her, and pretending to clap as if giving her a round of applause. “Well done. That’s my girl. Just the way to deal with an ugly bitch like her. She won’t bother you again, I’m sure”. Gillian sat down to finish her breakfast, and decided not to let the man know how persistent Kirsty was.

Once she had finished the food, and even wiped a finger across the plate to get the last of the syrup, he stood up still smiling. Extending a hand, he spoke softly.

“Shall we go upstairs? I will be gentle this morning, I promise”.

Over the next couple of weeks, nobody came to the door with the exception of the supermarket delivery drivers. The weather stayed hot and humid but inside the house the atmosphere was relaxed. Gillian had noticed that the man didn’t carry the knife around any longer, and if she promised to stay in bed, he didn’t attach the restraints. He had also bought her some lightweight clothing, nice full slips to wear that covered her but were not too hot in the summer weather.

It hadn’t occurred to her that he had ordered them on her Amazon account.

Thomas did all the cooking, as well as showing Gillian how to clean the house properly, and help her by taking on either the upstairs or downstairs as they did it together. They had three meals a day, all well-balanced, and she had tried vegetables that she had never even heard of before. Although not so keen on aubergines, she had really liked courgettes, asparagus, and Chinese leaves. And braised celery had become such a favourite, she actually requested it a few times.

He made sure to keep her well-supplied with buns and cakes though. It wouldn’t do for her to lose too much weight.

The hardest thing for Thomas was trying to put out of his mind that he should be long gone. In many respects, they had become a couple not unlike many others. Gillian was completely compliant now. He had put the commode out in the garden, as she could be trusted in the bathroom. The ball-gag was a memory, and after evenings watching television and cuddling on the sofa, the nights in bed were affectionate and sometimes exciting too.

As far as Gillian was concerned, Thomas was her boyfriend. Though she didn’t know his name was Thomas of course, as he had told her to call him Paul. When he told her that, she had sat on the toilet repeating the names. “Gillian and Paul. Paul and Gillian. Pleased to meet you”, as if she was introducing them to other people as a genuine couple. Then again, as far as she was concerned, they were a genuine couple. As much as she was able to understand the concept, he was her lover.

And she loved him dearly.

If it could have been described as such, this was their honeymoon period. She never once thought about that day when he had forced his way in, almost breaking her nose. And she had dealt with the incident when he had been rough with her by refusing to consider it, and blotting it out of her memory. In her limited experience, she believed that she had found the perfect man. He fed her delicious food, clothed her, cared for her, and cleaned her house.

Then in bed, he made her feel special, whispered such tender things to her, and gave her compliments that made her blush. When she woke in the mornings now, he was sleeping quietly next to her. She would watch him for a good hour, almost unable to believe her luck at finding such a romantic man, a good lover for all she knew, and so affectionate.

In the background, Thomas had deleted all the CCTV, and removed the tape completely. Then he had destroyed it in the oven, adding the sticky plastic mess to the rubbish that went into the Biffa Bin. He had also wiped the hard drive on her computer, by downloading some disc cleaner software. All that was left on it now were the online transactions for shopping, all in Gillian’s name. She had been happy to give him the username, password, and bank card details.

His DNA was everywhere, as were his fingerprints. But that was of no consequence, as he had never once been arrested.

When they started to fall in love with him, and become overly affectionate and lovey-dovey, his interest always waned. There was no longer the thrill of control that his father had told him about so long ago. Yes, the sex was nice, but that wasn’t everything. With no fear, no trepidation, the frisson was diminished. And how could this lump of a woman ever think they were a genuine couple? The poor thing was deluded. But her delusion at least made life easier.

The time would soon come when he would have to tell her he was leaving. His clothes and toiletries could just be stuffed into the holdall, to join the knife, ball-gag, restraints, and the keys to the hire car. The departure would be quick, with no protracted farewells or goodbyes.

He would promise to return soon, and that would calm her down. He would say it was because of work commitments.
She would be sad, but she would understand.
She would believe he would come back, and wait forever if necessary.
She would never complain, or report him to the police.
She would never tell on him to anyone she knew.

Just like all the others.

Gillian found the holdall in the wardrobe in her own room. It was her turn to clean upstairs, and she had been careful to do it properly. He obviously hadn’t expected her to dust the inside of the wardrobe doors. It seemed like he was packed and ready, there was even some dirty washing in a plastic bag, and a set of car keys right at the bottom.

Was he planning to leave today? Her mind was racing, so she sat on the bed for a moment, thinking about what to do.

Make him want to stay. That was her conclusion. Look nice, make an effort, don’t mention the holdall.

Hurrying to finish the cleaning, she then ran a bath. The long hair she now loved was carefully washed and dried after, and she chose a nice satin slip to wear. Time was spent doing her best effort at make-up, trying to remember how that professional woman had done it. Then she painted her fingernails and toenails, sitting nervously on the bed until they dried.

Thomas was downstairs preparing a nice lunch for his last day. Saturday seemed to be a good choice to depart, with the area reasonably crowded, and nobody noticing a very average man walking to a car that looked like so many others. He had already unlocked the back door, planning to leave via the back gate, then up the alley behind the houses until he came to the end of the street. His plan was to suggest she went up to the bedroom after lunch, and wait for him to join her on the bed. He would tell her he was just going to use the bathroom, before retrieving the holdall from the wardrobe and quietly exiting the house.

She looked very nice when she came down. Nice enough to make him think about delaying his departure by thirty minutes.

With everything chopped and prepared, he reached into the cupboard and took out the wok he had bought a couple of weeks ago. Gillian had never seen a wok before, and thought it was a very deep frying pan. “The eggs will get lost in there, Paul”. That had made him smile. But she had really enjoyed the beef strips stir-fried in oyster sauce, with the shiitake mushrooms and baby corn. The thick udon noodles had amused her. “They look like white worms”.

Today he would be serving chicken in a black bean sauce, with beansprouts and pak choi, accompanied by fried rice.

Before starting to cook, he sat opposite her at the table. A compliment wouldn’t hurt. Might soften the blow when she found he had left. “You look very nice, Gillian. Beautiful, in fact”. She blushed poppy red. Nobody had ever said anything like that. She knew enough to be aware that she was far from beautiful, but if he thought so, that meant everything to her.

Stir-frying the meal wouln’t take long, so he heated the oil on a high gas, enjoying the strong aroma of the sesame oil he was using. The smell of the food being prepared was making Gillian feel very hungry, so she laid the table with spoons and forks, adding the thick cotton napkins he had bought last week. He had tried to show her how to use chopsticks, but she had just dropped the food on the table, or in her lap.

No sooner had he dropped the chicken pieces into the oil and grabbed the long chopsticks to stir it, the door buzzer sounded.

Kirsty was outside again. Thomas spoke loudly, his voice raised above the sound of the sizzling in the wok. “Just ignore it, or the food will spoil!” When there was no reply, Kirsty stomped off, shaking her head and glaring at the camera. A few moments later, Thomas brought the bowls of food to the table. “Who was at the door?” Gillian didn’t want to tell him, but didn’t want to lie either. “That Kirsty again, probably wanting to complain about the bin bags”. He smiled, and started eating. Then he stopped and looked serious.

“That woman is a real pain. She really spoils my enjoyment of staying here, truth be told. It’s such a shame that she bought the house next door to you”. Inside, Gillian was fuming. Anger, mixed with panic. It was all that bloody Kirsty’s fault. No wonder he had packed a bag and was thinking of leaving. It made it hard for her to enjoy the meal, and she just shovelled it in without tasting it. Thomas stopped for a sip of his Tsingtao beer, the perfect accompaniment to a Chinese meal. Then the buzzer sounded again.

He wasn’t expecting what happened next.

Jumping up from the table, Gillian headed for the door with a speed that belied her bulk. Then she unclipped the chain, turned the key, and flung the door open. Thomas turned to look at the camera monitor as she launched herself at Kirsty, leaping off the front step and flattening the surprised woman. The door rebounded and closed shut behind her, as she raised her fight arm again and again, striking Kirsty repeatedly.

But the fork was still in her hand.

He moved quickly. Grabbing the holdall from the wardrobe, he was out the back gate at lightning speed. By the time Gillian was sitting panting on the front lawn, and Kirsty was no longer moving, a fork handle protruding from her left eye socket, he was in the street where his car was parked.

Wiping a blood-soaked hand across her face to move the hair from her eyes, Gillian smiled. She wasn’t dizzy or scared. Then something else made her laugh.

She was finally outside.

The End.

11 thoughts on “Outside: The Complete Story

    1. I don’t think that would work, as only those who haven’t read the parts each day generally wait for the whole thing. So for those readers, it wouldn’t be an alternative ending. 🙂
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

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