By Janet Olearski
They’re at home, Leah and her father. They’re sitting in the kitchen and they hear someone pushing at the door of the flat. There’s a faint knocking too. They look at each other.
‘What’s that?’ says her father.
‘I don’t know,’ she says.
He gets up and goes to the door to look. She hears him say something like, ‘Who do you want?’ He sounds suspicious, but not alarmed. She follows him to look. There is a boy on the staircase, a teenager. He is already off down the stairs, saying he is sorry, he has made a mistake. He is not sorry. He has not made a mistake.
Looking down the stairs to the bathroom on the landing, Leah sees that the curtains, which are normally closed, are open.
She says to her father: ‘Did you open the curtains?’
‘No.’ He looks bewildered.
‘Well, neither did I.’
The blind is rolled up, the window catch is unlocked, the bathroom cabinet is open. The boy thought he might get into the flat across the roof. No if’s or but’s, or benefits of the doubt.
Leah calls the police.
They send a small efficient policewoman with a blotchy red birthmark on her face to listen to their troubles and to write a report in her black-leather-covered notebook. She wears a white shirt with short sleeves, and a cute little police hat that you would expect to fall off but that stays in place while she scribbles down the details in large curvy writing. The policewoman’s writing is the sort that Leah once produced herself: her writing is grown-up now.
Her father keeps interrupting with irrelevant facts. Leah tries to bring the discussion back to observations that are of significance. The policewoman is business-like, but she’s also compassionate. She listens.
‘It’s only happened once before in thirty-five years,’ Leah tells the policewoman, who writes it all down in her book.
‘We’ve been here thirty-five years,’ says her father. He is being helpful.
Leah looks at her father and thinks, ‘That much she has grasped.’
‘As long as that!’ says the policewoman.
They tell her a story of times past. Who else will they tell it to?
‘A boy – another boy – came up the stairs,’ says Leah. ‘The door was unlocked. It was always unlocked. We live on the top floor. Who would come up here? The boy pushed the door open. My father saw the shadow. But not the light. He had been having himself a slice of bread and butter. My father, not the boy. The carving knife was on the table. My father picked up the knife and went to the door.’ The boy met a man with a carving knife at the top of the staircase. Should she be telling this story to a police officer? ‘The boy said he had made a mistake and flew away down the stairs.’
Leah’s father smiles at the retelling of the tale, but there’s uncertainty in his eyes. He is hearing it for the first time. He knows it must be true, but he cannot remember any of it. Not even the carving knife.
‘He never came back,’ says Leah.
The policewoman says she will send the fingerprint man. Her father will make him welcome, she is sure. A robbery, even just an attempted one, is an opportunity for much brewing of tea.
They’re living at the scene of a crime. Most of the day’s conversation revolves around what should have happened and what could have happened.
Leah goes out later for a walk to clear her head. When she is away on her holiday, she wonders if the flat will be burgled in her absence. Her father might be stolen. What would it be like without him?
She stops by the dry cleaner’s to tell Siobhan the story.
‘And what if your father had been on his own?’ says Siobhan. What if, indeed? Siobhan says she thinks she saw two boys hanging about around midday.
‘A tall one,’ says Siobhan, ‘and a short one. When I saw them, I thought to myself, I wonder what they’re up to?’
Another part of the jigsaw for Inspector Whoever. They’re on the case. They need all the help they can get. Dry cleaner watch.
Every time Leah thinks she should be moving ahead towards something new, covering fresh ground, she finds she is stuck. There are ends to tie up, letters to write, matters of business to be seen to. There is always something else, something to be dealt with, so much to do that she does not know where to start. The days seem short. She is going on holiday. She does not have much time. She will have to leave him alone and there are thieves about. She has to sort out her clothes for the trip, and tell him she is going, and sort out who is going to keep an eye on the car, and who is going to keep an eye on him. And on and on.
People ask him if he is all right. He is the victim of a crime: a break-in, an attempted crime, if nothing else.
‘How are you feeling?’ they say. ‘It hasn’t upset you, has it?’
He looks concerned. Yes, he thinks he is all right. He will manage. But he is amazed at the fellow’s nerve. ‘I mean… coming up the stairs like that, having a story ready…’
Yes, he is all right. But Leah is not. She needs help.
She is eating her pre-packed salad with the Thousand Islands dressing. She has the brochure open in front of her. She says to her father, ‘What do you think about where I’m going for my holiday?’ He looks at her, horrified.
‘You’re not serious, are you?’ he says.
‘Yes. I’m very serious,’ she says. She has been hinting at the holiday for weeks. He never believed for one moment that she was going. He is selfish for not wanting her to go. She is selfish for going. He thinks her selfish. He just wants her there and there and there.
‘All I ever seem to do is fill in forms,’ she says. She needs a holiday. ‘Insurance forms, Pension forms, Tax forms, Reader’s Digest forms.’ She’s a household form filler.
Leah takes her holiday clothes to the dry cleaner’s. She tells Siobhan she has been feeling very low since the ‘flu. Siobhan says she has been a bit low herself.
‘I don’t feel like speaking to anyone,’ says Siobhan.
‘I feel the same,’ Leah says. ‘Maybe I need a change.’
‘Yes, a holiday,’ says Siobhan.
The fingerprint man comes. He looks about eighteen and wears a business suit. He has a ponytail, rich chestnut hair with a tinge of ginger. He wears glasses and has very white skin. He carries a large silver case and the inside of the case is silver too, with little pockets for tubes and tubs and brushes, big silver soft-tufted brushes that he fluffs and twirls across their bathroom window, across the dust of ages that she jokes about.
‘It hasn’t been opened all winter,’ she says. She does not say which winter.
‘The print is fresh,’ he says. He peers at a smudge on a blotchy pane. Leah wonders if he wants to take her father’s prints, and she imagines him looking at her father’s yellow-stained fingertips.
‘No,’ he says, ‘old people lose definition.’
She always knew her father had lost definition. How long before she will too?
He looks at her fingers. Perhaps she is the thief. All will soon be revealed. He has her press her thumb into a soft damp pad of black ink.
‘No, too much,’ he says. ‘Oh, that’s too much,’ he says.
It was nice, she thought, in the black pad, like rolling about in therapeutic mud. She imprints slowly on his clipboard.
‘I should really get you to do this properly,’ he says. He takes her hand in his and he shows her how she must roll her black thumb across the page.
‘That’s better,’ he says and he scrutinises the whirls and twirls. He compares.
‘Is it the same?’ she asks.
‘No, it’s not yours.’ he says.
Leah wonders if it belongs to her dead mother. As if she had left them nothing but her thumb print.
Her mother would know what to do.
‘They didn’t want your prints,’ Leah says to her father when she goes back upstairs. He looks at her nonplussed.
She goes to collect her cleaning.
‘You’ll feel more secure now that you’ve had your prints done,’ says Siobhan.
‘Yes,’ says Leah, ‘I know now that at least one of us is above suspicion.
‘Victim Support’ was first published in 2015 in Jotters United.
Janet Olearski is a London-born author and writing coach, who lives in Central Portugal. Her short fiction has appeared in Constellate, Sleet Magazine, The Commonline Journal, Wasafiri, and elsewhere. A graduate of the Manchester Writing School at MMU, Janet is the author of the story collection A Brief History of Several Boyfriends, and the founder of the Abu Dhabi Writers’ Workshop. Find her at http://www.janetolearski.com Twitter: @JanetOlearski