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Friday Morning At Nine O'Clock She Is Far Away

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When she comes down the stairs that last morning, her daughter is in the kitchen. She doesn't realize at first; she only hears the usual creaking groan of the hot-water tap and the soft hiss of the kettle. At the bottom of the staircase, she rubs sleep out of her eyes, and her toes brush something that's not usually there.

Molly opens her eyes properly then, and sees the battered canvas kit bag lying by the door next to her daughter's familiar knapsack and leather coat, and she knows. This is the last morning. She thought she might have more time.

Later in the day, as the sun climbs high and beats in through the windows, the kitchen will be unpleasantly warm. At this hour, though, it's still cool and dim, with the blinds shut and the small table lamp switched on. Molly sits down at the table and waits.

Her daughter pours two cups of tea in silence. She pours milk into the bottom of the red cup, adds the right amount of sugar, and hands it to Molly. The blue cup is only tea, only bitter leaves and water. She has drunk it like that since she was a small child, no sugar or honey for Molly's daughter.

Molly sips her tea slowly. Her daughter downs her cup in half-a-dozen huge swallows--although it must still be terribly hot--and pours another. She is wearing jeans and boots and a green hoodie, heavy clothes on a day that's forecast to fry eggs on the sidewalk.

Finally, "Are you really not going to say anything?"

Molly sighs. "Jackie, love--"

"Jack. It's Jack now."

"All right. Jack, then. What did you think I'd say?"

Jack scowls. "You're going to tell me not to go. It's dangerous." Her lips curl mockingly around the word.

"It is that, love. But would it be any use, if I said not to?" Molly reaches out and takes her daughter's hand. Jack tenses, but doesn't pull away.

"You know it wouldn't, Mum." Jack glances at her other hand, holding the teacup. At the short, ragged nails and the scarred knuckles, and the band of braided silver on her third finger.

Molly squeezes Jack's hand and lets go. "Have you had any word? Any at all?"

"Not for over a year," says Jack, her voice suspiciously even. "The last was a card sent from a motorway services in Somerset, saying they thought they'd found the safest route. After that, nothing."

Molly doesn't say anything. She knows she was right: it would be of no use to tell her daughter not to go. It's one of the oldest stories, told again and again since the world was young. Water and bitterness and the boy who runs and the girl who has to choose to follow or stay behind.

"It's Billy," her daughter adds. Simply. She doesn't have to say more. She doesn't have to say that it's been the two of them, Jackie and Bill, Billy and Jack, the blue-eyed boy and his red-haired girl, since they were too young even to cross the road alone. She doesn't have to say that he'd given her the ring on her seventeenth birthday and it meant nothing they hadn't always known.

Jack doesn't have to say that Billy had gone off with his mates two years ago, and that he hadn't come back, and that nothing on this earth could keep him from coming back to her if he wanted to.

She doesn't have to say what it means that he hasn't come back.

The light in the kitchen has changed, the sun is coming round the corners and beginning to send bits of itself to the windows. Martin will be awake soon, will be coming downstairs looking for his tea and the paper.

As if reading her mother's mind, Jack looks up at the ceiling and pushes back her chair. "I'd best be off, then. He'll stop me if I'm still here when he comes down."

Molly sighs again. "I wish you and he wouldn't..." She stops. "He's a good man, Jack."

"That's as may be." Jack's scowl this time makes her look uncannily like Molly's own mother. "But he'll never let me go. Not after Billy, not anywhere, not like this. You know."

Molly does know. Her husband is a good man, in truth. He doesn't understand, though. Martin likes things he can see and touch and write up afterwards. He didn't understand what Billy and his friends were drawn to find, and he doesn't know what Jack will have to do to get him back.

Molly knows. This story is almost as old as the other. Bitterness, yes, and jealousy, lies and false faces, fire and water and holding on to what you've claimed as your own.

Jack moves to the door and puts on her coat. Molly follows her. Heavy clothes on a hot day, sturdy clothes, armor.

"You're going to Somerset, then?"

"I don't know how else to begin." Jack lifts her knapsack to her shoulder and hefts the canvas bag in the other hand, testing its weight. "There's the train, some of the way, and hitching lifts to fill in."

Molly takes a deep breath. "I've a better plan." She reaches into the pocket of her dressing gown and comes out with what she'd put there this morning before coming downstairs. She had thought she'd have more time, but she's known since Billy went away that every morning might be the last morning, and she's come downstairs prepared every single day.

"I've got no further use for these."

Her daughter automatically puts up her hand, catches what her mother's thrown at her. Stares in wonder at the ring of keys in her hand. "Mum?"

"Go on, then. He stole what wasn't his to buy it. It's only right it should carry you to take back what's yours."

"But it won't run. The engine, they don't...not over the Border..."

"Silly." Molly smiles at her daughter. "Where do you think he bought it from?"

"Ah, Mum." Jack puts down the bag, drops the knapsack, throws her arms around her mother as she hasn't done since she was small. "I'll come back, Mum. I swear. We both will, Bill and me, and we'll be married in church and, and, a white dress and even a veil if you want, and you'll have grandkids to spoil, and..."

Molly kisses the top of her daughter's head and lets her go. "Time enough to talk about that when you're home again. Go on, now, before he hears you."

The clock-radio alarm is playing faintly upstairs as the unmistakable noise of a motorcycle accelerates away down the street. There's no other sound from behind the door of the big bedroom. Molly Rudd McRae tightens the belt on her dressing gown. Jac has left a folded sheet of paper on the floor where anyone opening the bedroom door would see it. Molly picks it up and tucks it into her pocket.

Martin McRae really is, as she told Jack, a good man. Good enough that when he and his team finally took down the last of the modern-day highwaymen, took down her James after chasing him for three years, he called her himself to tell her. Good enough to tell the hospital she was to be allowed access even though she wasn't James' wife, not yet. Good enough to stand by her at the funeral, and after, when her own kin had turned her out after the news broke.

Good enough to offer her his name, to wed her, when he knew she carried a dead man's child.

Molly looks at her wristwatch. Martin won't be awake yet. Soon enough there will be shouting, phone calls, threats to search the roadways. Soon, but not quite yet.

She sits at the top of the staircase to wait.