When Janice Bailey Walked (From London Road Linked Stories)
The day Janice Bailey was released from prison was the hottest Friday on record in England. Even at eight thirty in the morning, heat waves rippled across yellow and brown fields and, as Janice walked away from the metallic clank of the closing door of Chorley Prison, her white pumps stuck to the black top, and birds sat silently in the trees.
She paused, remembering what she had been told: ‘Turn left outside the gate and keep going for twenty minutes until you come to the train station.’ The prison was off the bus route, so if no-one met you, you had to walk to the station in Chorley and catch a train to – where? London, Janice supposed. She hadn’t made any plans. What was the point? She was a fifty seven year old convicted criminal with no family – her parents were both dead and she’d never had children – and no prospect of a job. Who would want to hire her? She’d tried to ignore her release day, creeping nearer, because, if she had a choice, she would rather stay in prison.
Janice swung the Tesco’s carrier bag over her shoulder and started walking. The bag contained everything she brought with her five years ago: three £20 notes, her building society passbook which now held £1,113.23 (interest at 2%), a soft denim purse complete with Shining Red lipstick and a regular tampon plus keys to a flat she no longer rented and a photograph of a man she no longer loved.
A car sped past. Its draft cooled the sweat on the back of her neck, and it occurred to her how the last five years had sped by, how much had changed. Five years ago,in 2001, she had been driven up this very road in a paddy wagon, a week after the sentencing, when there was finally transport available to take her from the little prison cell in South Norwood to Chorley. Sitting there hand-cuffed to a woman police officer, she had resolved to kill herself at the earliest opportunity.
A flock of starlings flew across the road, chattering and calling, and then swooped up in a crazy, swirling pattern and settled on a telegraph wire. The sudden movement unnerved Janice. How could they all stay together like that, in such a tight group? Where would they get water in this hot weather? The fields were parched, and withered corn husks sprouted from the bleached earth like hairs on an old woman’s head. She walked a little faster, feeling suddenly vulnerable. She might be a criminal – technically an ex-convict now that she was free – but she was also a plump, middle-aged woman on a deserted lane in the wilds of Surrey, and it would be good to get to the station quickly.
The station was a single wooden structure, open to the elements like a bus stop, with nowhere to buy a ticket. Janice sat inside, out of the glare of the sun, and breathed in the warm air to see how it tasted. This was free air, but there was nothing special about it. Why would there be? She could go where she wanted, when she wanted, but she was the same person out here that she had been inside, the same arms and legs, the same beating heart, only now she didn’t want to kill herself. Father Tom had helped a lot. She told him about Michael, how he had lost his job at the pub, how the drink had got hold of him, and about that last night when he’d come home drunk and attacked her. She took the photo out of her purse and looked at it. Michael had been good-looking once, Father Tom had agreed with her there. Dark, thick hair like a gypsy, the gold earring, the white teeth. Janice forced herself to remember – Michael jabbing the knife at her, her grabbing it and turning it on him. She remembered her rush of fury, the hard push, the dumb shock in his eyes. Manslaughter in self-defence. And it was true. She had known that night, that if she didn’t stop him first he would kill her, but now her guilt was like a wound that had healed but would never go away.
When the train arrived, she took a seat in an empty carriage by the window. Soon the conductor appeared, striding towards her to pluck the £20 note she held up to pay.
As the fields flew past in a ginger blur, a mother and a boy of about three in a Bob the Builder t-shirt entered from the carriage up ahead and sat down opposite Janice. The boy kneeled up on the seat, palms flat against the glass, and the woman settled beside him with a book. The train jerked and the woman’s hands flew up to the boy’s back, not touching but ready to catch him if he should fall. He turned and grinned at his mother, and a shock went through Janice. She thought she might throw up. He looked like Aiden, Sandy’s son.
Aiden and Sandy had lived in the mother and baby unit at Chorley until Sandy’s time was up, two weeks before. Janice had received a scribbled postcard from Sandy three days after they left, saying they were going north to Scotland with Aiden’s father and that she’d be in touch. Janice didn’t expect to hear from her again. Sandy had a new life now, a fresh start, and a boy to raise, and the last person she needed was Janice.
Victoria Station was loud, the ceiling was high, and echoes slipped in and out of Janice’s head, making her temples thud. She walked along the platform, easily overtaken by the blond mother and son and other passengers, all marching fast, all with somewhere to go. She decided what to do. She would go to one of these fancy London shops, and steal something. She’d be arrested and taken to a police station. They’d probably hold her overnight, charge her with shoplifting, and maybe, with her record, they’d send her back to prison. Back to Chorley, even. There were still two mother-baby couples left in the unit, infants, and Janice could make herself useful there. But if not Chorley, then somewhere similar, a place where barred windows and the reassuring clank of metal doors meant safety with other women like her, people without family, a job, a home.
She turned left out of Victoria Station and walked along the street. People streamed past; on the pavement, crossing the road. She passed shop after shop: a cafe, a dry cleaners, a newsagents, a pizza restaurant. Buses roared, spewing exhaust fumes, taxis honked, motorcyclists zipped in between traffic, and a swerving cyclist yelled at her. Shooting pains flashed through Janice’s temples. She came to a toy store and ducked in through the big double doors, past the security guard who tipped his cap in her direction. The aisles were piled full of boxes; models to build, paints, jigsaws and robots. She picked up a 500 piece Buzz Lightyear jigsaw, slipped it into her carrier bag and, heart beating as loud as a pneumatic drill, approached the exit. Her pumps moved across the floor, one in front of the other, as she stepped closer to the exit. She put her hand up, pushed the heavy door open, and walked out. She kept going, listening for footsteps behind her, waiting for a hand on her shoulder and a voice saying, “Excuse me, madam, may I look in your bag?”
But nothing happened. She kept going, walking beside an image of herself reflected in the massive glass window of the shop, and still no one approached her. Inexplicably, her eyes filled with tears, as if someone had done something kind. What went wrong? Didn’t they have security? She took the plastic-wrapped box out of the bag and examined it. No electronic sticker. No price tag. No nothing.
Half laughing, half crying, Janice ducked into a coffee shop. She calmed down enough to order an orangeade, a jam doughnut, and a sausage roll. When it came, she ate with relish and immediately felt better. She didn’t have many choices. Time was passing, it was almost lunchtime, and she must find a place to sleep tonight. There was a halfway house, she knew, somewhere near Victoria Station. It was supposed to be a decent place, the landlady wasn’t an alcoholic or an absentee landlord, and Janice knew Sandy had planned to go there with Aiden when they first got out. Janice fished around in her bag and found the piece of paper with the address.
Fortified by the snack, she paid the bill, left the waitress a tip, and left the shop. She retraced her steps to the train station, and followed the directions from there. The roads turned from commercial to residential, tall white houses with black iron railings. One or two had round blue plaques with a famous person’s name and a date, and Janice thought of Sandy, who wanted to teach Aiden everything. He must learn about famous people and politics and art and how to earn money so he could make his way in the world. He was going to be a success, her son.
Janice remembered how, the first day Sandy appeared in the TV room at Chorley, a skinny little addict with thin yellow hair, the skin on her arms so transparent, she’d thought the girl near death, until Sandy turned around and Janice saw her great big bump. She was eight months pregnant. Sandy saw her looking and Janice had smiled, patting her own round stomach, and said that at least Sandy had a good reason for a bump, and from then on they were friends. Sandy went to the local hospital to have Aiden five weeks later, and Janice was glad she didn’t have to give birth in prison. Janice had been in Chorley for three years by then, and had a coveted job cleaning in the mother-baby unit. When Sandy came back, Janice took one look at the baby’s face and fell in love.
Janice borrowed books from the prison library to read to Aiden. In the unit’s separate TV room, she’d cradle him in one arm, hold a book in the other, and read until her throat was sore. When he turned eighteen months and started to speak, he’d pull her arm and say, ‘’Ook,” when he wanted a cuddle. Now, she refused to let herself think about the day they’d left, when he came to say good-bye.
She turned a corner and the houses became shabby. She passed a parade of scruffy little shops: Eski’s Sports, Hatton Garden Jeweler’s, Patel’s Grocery and Thelonakis Kebab, and then more houses, counting down by two’s, until finally she came to number 17, London Road. A detached, red brick Victorian house. Janice went up the stairs and rang the bell. Who would think you could be right in town and so far away from the traffic? Behind a wall, she could just see the edge of a patch of green. She’d stay here tonight, if the woman would have her, and tomorrow she’d go out again and steal something else, this time in a shop with better security.
The door opened. A short, stocky woman with gray hair tied back in a ponytail stood there. “Yes?”
“My name is Janice Bailey, I…” What should she say? I’ve just got out of prison? What if this wasn’t the woman who ran the place? She didn’t want to announce her shame to the world.
The door opened wider. “Come on in, love,” she said, with a smile. “I’m Nora. Sandy told me about you.”
“She did?” Joy flared in Janice’s throat. She stepped into the dark, stale hallway and followed Nora, who walked with a limp that made her long ponytail swing from side to side.
“You were with Sandy at Chorley, right? Come on through to the kitchen.”
Tongue-tied, Janice followed Nora through a dining room with five small round tables, and into a large white kitchen. The mention of Sandy, out here in the real world, seemed out of place and made Janice long for Chorley, for her cell, for Aiden.
“Now,” Nora was saying. “Cup of tea? All right then. You sit there.” She pointed to the pine table. “So tell me, have you got a job lined up?”
Janice stared. Who did this woman think would want to employ her?
“Because if you haven’t, you can help me here. My cleaner just left last week. Without a word, upped and went back to France. Sit! Sit!”
“Oh!” Janice sat down.
“Oh, don’t worry,” Nora said, giving her a smile. “Not this whole house by yourself. There’s Mandy on the third floor, a youngster, you can keep an eye on her for me. She’s only been here a week, and I’m not sure about her. Then on the second floor, Bitty and Isobel share a room. Bitty was reading languages at Oxford and dropped out.” Nora tapped her forehead. “Too clever for her own good, if you ask me. Then there’s Isobel. She gets a bit boisterous sometimes, but her heart’s in the right place. And my daughter Anna, when she’s not at boarding school, is on the top floor, in the attic. Everyone’s long term, I don’t do holiday lets anymore so they all clean their own rooms. So it’s just this floor, the kitchen, the dining room, and the common areas. Not too much. I’ll pay you the going rate. What do you say?”
The woman stopped for breath.
Janice thought about the stale smell in the hall. A bit of carpet freshener would soon fix that. She nodded.
“Good!” Nora placed a chipped white plate on the table and emptied a pack of chocolate digestives onto it. “Help yourself, Dear.”
Janice reached out and took one. Was she dreaming or was this woman mad?
Nora sat heavily beside Janice. “Oof! I’m not as young as I was. My knees are going and I just can’t do the bending.” She poured from a pale green teapot. “What about you? Your knees okay?”
“Fine,” Janice said, nodding.
“Good, then tell you what, let’s have our tea, then you can help me sort out Number One. Big room at the top of the stairs. Overlooks the garden at the back. It’s Sandy’s. I let it during the week to a couple of workmen, and they made a right mess. She’ll be back tonight.”
“Sandy?” Janice thought she’d misheard.
Nora leaned forward with an air of confidentiality. “It didn’t work out with the boy’s father. I knew it wouldn’t the minute he stepped in the door. I’m a great judge of character. That man’s got no time for the boy, I’ll tell you that. Her room can be your first job.”
Janice set the teacup down in the saucer with a clatter. “Nora, I don’t know what to say. I’ll work for you for nothing.”
“Whisht!” Nora waved Janice away. “You’ll do no such thing. A fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay.”
“Well!” said Janice. She pushed her chair out and stood up. “You stay here, and I’ll go and clean up for them.”
“Oh!” Nora gave a big sigh and rubbed her knees. “That would be lovely, Dear. You’ll find the cleaning things, everything you need, in the hall cupboard. Here’s the key.”
Janice leaned forward and took the long metal key Nora held out. The metal was warm in her hand. It would be hot work cleaning in this heat, but she didn’t mind. She would open a window.
A note from Tessa
I hope you enjoyed When Janice Bailey Walked! I wrote this story – and others in the London Road series – after moving to the United States with my American husband. I found myself with two children in elementary and middle school, suffering from a bad case of home sickness. I tried to ease my longing for England through writing and, happily, it worked. Every day, I immersed myself in the world of flawed but fascinating characters inspired by people I used to know and, every day, I was transported home. They were an absolute joy to write and edit, and I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed writing them!
What Inspired the Story?
Some years ago, I learned that women often get longer prison sentences than men even when the crime is identical. That struck me as incredibly unfair and made me want to write about one such woman – Janice Bailey. This is her story.
When Janice Bailey Walked is the first story in London Road Linked Stories Volume 1, was first published in the Connecticut Review, and received the CT Press Club award for Best Creative Writing. This story, along with the other six stories in London Road Linked Stories Volume 1, were lucky enough to be an Amazon best-seller in the British Short Stories category, to receive a gold medal in the eLit Awards, and a Kirkus ‘Featured’ Review.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tessa Smith McGovern is an award-winning writer who has taught writing for 22 years and, for the last ten years, at the Writing Institute, Sarah Lawrence College, NY. Her current class there, ‘How to Link Your Short Stories and Memoirs into a Collection’, begins on Wednesday Feb 3, 2021.
Tessa’s award-winning linked short story collection, LONDON ROAD: LINKED STORIES, received a ‘Featured’ review from Kirkus, is an Amazon best-seller, and a gold medal winner in the 2012 eLit Awards. Her non-fiction book, COCKTAILS FOR BOOK LOVERS (Sourcebooks), is also an Amazon best-seller.
Her many publication credits include the Connecticut Review and Equinox, a UK poetry journal archived by the English Arts Council at the Southbank Centre, London. She’s currently writing a contemporary fantasy novel inspired by British mythology and pursuing her MFA in Writing at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
She is founder and editor of eChook Digital Publishing. eChook won a silver medal in the 2012 eLit Awards and its stories have been read by thousands of readers in 100+ countries.
Tessa is also host, writer and producer of BookGirlTV (BGTV), an award-winning digital channel that promotes books and reading. BGTV has 6 million+ minutes viewed on YouTube and 10,000+ likes on Facebook.
BookGirlTV’s YouTube channel features tips for writers and interviews with popular authors such as Dani Shapiro, Jane Green and Pulitzer prize-winner Anna Quindlen.
Tessa was born in England, moved to the United States in 1993, and published her first short story in 1996. She’s currently working on a YA urban fantasy novel with talking animals that’s inspired by British folklore. She lives in CT with her family, a black lab, and a black and white Maine Coon who actually can talk.
For more information, please email info @ tessasmithmcgovern.com