2018 Short Story Winner

An Invisible Hand


Sue Daley
Nancy stared out of the window; she couldn’t see a thing. She was fed up with the ominous yellow-black smog that blanketed everything. If this carried on, they wouldn’t be able to go dancing on Saturday.
The bus was crawling along. A man, with a lantern, was walking in front of the vehicle trying to navigate the streets for the driver. Three days of a right pea-souper – as her mother liked to call it – and not a breath of wind. Even during the Blitz, her mother had said, she couldn’t remember smoke from burning buildings being so dense.
Nancy checked her handbag to make sure her scarf was there. Once she’d got off the bus, she would cover her hair to protect it from the clinging fog. She had to wash it every night to get rid of the miniscule bits of soot that attached themselves to any stray tendrils of hair and when she blew her nose her hanky was covered in disgusting grey specks.
She smiled to herself, remembering her mother’s advice the previous evening. ‘Get yourself one of those masks, love. That Mrs Simpson down the street ‘as got one from the chemist. She showed it to me. Put it over her nose and mouth. I dunno about keeping the smog out but it improved her looks.’
Nancy and her father had burst out laughing, both imagining their extremely haughty neighbour walking around in her best brown coat, feathered hat and a smog mask.
‘An’ that ain’t all. She bought one for the dog.’
Still laughing the Mackays had started to discuss how on earth the spaniel would be able to keep it on. But it was Nancy’s father, sitting at the kitchen table in his uniform trousers and vest, ready for his shift, who had turned the conversation to more sombre matters.
‘You be careful, our Nancy. The word is it’s going to be worse tomorrow. Visibility down to a few yards.’ He’d stubbed out his cigarette and taken a slurp from his tea. ‘There’s a bad ‘un taking advantage of the weather. Been a couple of attacks on young women. Nothing – erm – horrible. Pinching their handbags and snatching scarves and hats off their heads. I want you to be mindful.’ He’d fingered his moustache and stared with steel grey eyes at his daughter, ‘And I don’t think it’s a good idea if you go out tonight.’ He’d spit on his boot and rubbed hard.
Nancy loved her father but sometimes he took his role of local police sergeant too far.
She’d smiled, ‘No fear of that Dad. Peggy and I were going to the pictures, but the cinema’s had to close.’ It had been announced on the radio that the smog was infiltrating some buildings. ‘Apart from sitting and breathing in the horrible stuff, apparently the audience can’t see the screen properly.’
‘Who’d of thought it.’ Her mother had shaken her head, ‘We’ve never had a dose of fog like this before. Can’t even go to the pictures.’
‘And Peggy said the Locarno’s might be shut, so we might not be going out on Saturday night either.’
Nettie Mackay handed her husband his helmet as she started to lay the table. ‘That’s a shame. There’s some lovely young men go dancing.’
‘Not if they’re wearing masks,’ grinned Nancy.
‘Huh – and not if they have urges to steal young ladies’ handbags.’ Her father had mumbled gruffly as he started to brush his helmet.
Nancy was used to her father’s good intentions, trying to protect his only daughter, but she had had to admit to herself that the thought of an assailant out in the impenetrable fog had made her feel nervous. She had continued sewing the hem of her favourite red dress in the hope that she would be able to wear it sometime soon.
There hadn’t been any shift in the weather the following morning. In fact it had seemed gloomier – just as her father had predicted. Nancy carefully negotiated the streets to her bus stop. She longed to see the sun, even if it was the weak sunlight of early December. She tried to cheer herself by recalling her summer holiday in Margate. Ice cream and walks along the pier.
When she had eventually reached the office, she knew immediately there was something wrong. The girls in the typing pool were standing clustered at the back of the room, speaking in hushed voices. Normally they should have been at their desks ready for the appearance of Miss Weston and her heavy folders.
‘What’s wrong?’ Nancy had nudged Mavis.
‘Oh, Nancy, it’s awful. Margaret….’ Mavis’ explanation had been interrupted by the entrance of the Head of the Typing Pool. Miss Weston had clapped her hands, ‘Girls, girls. Please sit. I know that some of you have heard the terrible news. This morning Margaret Pearson was accosted at her bus stop and her handbag stolen. I want you all to know that apart from her scarf being snatched off her head and her bag taken, nothing else happened. She’s in shock, of course, and has gone home. Now we need to do our work. Back to your desks, please ladies.’
For the rest of the day the chattering of typewriters had been the loudest noise. The girls staying sombre and quiet.
Now Nancy was on her way home. Still staring into the murky gloom, she couldn’t help but think about the invisible threats that might lie in wait. The next stop was hers. She’d have to try and walk home as quickly as possible. Nancy tied her scarf over her chestnut hair and adjusted her coat collar; took a deep breath and stepped into the smog.
She gripped her bag tightly. Nobody else had got off – she was on her own.
The streets were a hazardous obstacle course which needed to be navigated with care. Nancy tentatively started forward into the thick darkness. She hoped there were no cracks in the pavement waiting to trip her up. Concentrating on her feet she barely registered the dim shape looming in front of her. With a hand to her mouth, she froze, transfixed, trying hard to swallow a scream that was rising up inside. It didn’t move and with a rush of relief she realised it was a lamp post. Thank goodness she hadn’t hit her shoulder or even her head.
Nancy hunched deeper into her coat and nervously checked that her scarf was covering all her hair. She tucked a wayward wave back into place and strained to listen for any other footsteps but every noise was muffled and everybody appeared to be tucked up indoors. She turned the corner into Lilac Grove. Just a short way to go. But here were large houses with big front gardens. Ideal places to hide.
She tried to block out all thoughts of what had happened to poor Margaret. Nancy concentrated on walking as fast as possible but her heart leapt as she heard a rustling from some dense bushes on her left. A cat sprang out of the shrubbery and skittered away. Nancy stood still, trying to get her breathing under control. Then there was a loud explosion, partially drowned by the smog, but loud enough to make her jump. She quickly realised it was just the detonators on the railway tracks, firing to warn a train that it was approaching the signals.
Her shoulders relaxed but harsh hands suddenly grabbed her from behind and Nancy was rammed hard into the bushes, her knees knocking against a garden wall. Branches grazed her face as her scarf was pulled from her head. But it was stuck – she’d tied is so tight that the knot started to close around her throat as her assailant tugged it backwards.
His heavy breathing was tainted with the smell of beer and his clothes gave off a fusty odour as he pushed his body into hers, pinning her legs against the wall. He let go of the scarf and wrestled with her handbag. Her instinct was to cling on. He muttered ‘Bitch’ into her ear as his efforts intensified.
Nancy knew she had to let go of the bag, but just as she loosened her grip the pressure of the man body’s against hers lessened. Somebody was pulling him away. Gasping for air, she heard bone connecting with flesh. She turned and saw a dark figure trying desperately to hold on to her attacker, but the man wriggled free and fled into the gloom.
‘Thank you,’ Nancy managed to croak, trying to disentangle her scarf from around her throat.
‘No problem, Miss. Are you alright?’
Nancy looked up at the tall young man, made even taller by his policeman’s helmet. She smiled with relief at the familiar silver buttons – just like her father’s – standing in front of her.
‘You’re a policeman.’
‘Yes, Miss. PC Frank James – Jimmy to my friends,’ he grinned sheepishly.
‘Thank you so much. It’s a good job you were nearby.’
PC James considered his shiny boots. ‘Well, as a matter of fact,’ he paused, ‘Sergeant Mackay asked me to look out for you. He assigned me this particular beat and said you’d probably be getting off the number 59…’
Nancy smiled, ‘Good old Dad. He’ll be grateful for you rescuing me.’
‘Well – erm – I might not be in his good books. Letting that bloke slip away.’
‘Oh, don’t worry about that. I recognised his voice and his foul smell. It’s Harry Cooper. Actually lives in the next street to us. Horrible man.’ Nancy suddenly sat down on the wall.
‘Are you sure you’re alright? Please let me escort you home, Miss Mackay, and perhaps after a nice cuppa I can take a short statement.’
Nancy gratefully took his proffered arm and shyly smiled up at him. A slight puff of wind dispersed a few tendrils of smog.
PC James smiled back, ‘Looks like the weather’s turning. Might be clear tomorrow. Don’t suppose you’d be going to the Locarno if it’s open?’
Nancy thought of her best red dress and suppressed a grin, ‘I might.’