Heels tapped abruptly on the pavement. A young woman, perhaps twenty, twenty-one hurried along, twisting her head back and forth as she went. A squeaking perambulator preceded her, rattling over the uneven stones. The street was empty, dimly lit, silent. When an omnibus roared past out of nowhere she jumped, turning her face into the shadows until it had gone.
A narrow street veered away to the left. Turning again to check the street was clear, she turned down. A wheel on the pram caught a wayward cobble and it tipped slightly. A disgruntled wail came from within the hood and the woman paused briefly to hush it before hastening on.
Finally she came to a grubby looking door. She knocked twice. After a minute’s inactivity, a shuffling approached the door from within and the door was opened on the chain. A man peered through the gap. His face was craggy with age and food clung to the stubble around his mouth. When he saw the woman looking back at him, he nodded and pulled the door to, releasing the chain.
She stepped over the threshold into a stained and dingy hallway. From another room the sound of the wireless drifted out along with the smell of stale fat.
‘Good evening, Mr Harris,’ she said, ‘I trust you are well.’
‘Yes, well enough, thank you.’
‘I have the rest of the money here,’ she continued, pulling her handbag from her shoulder.
Mr Harris shifted. ‘Actually, Mrs George, that’s been taken care of already.’
She felt her stomach drop. ‘Oh?’
‘Yes. Your husband visited to pay the balance and take possession of the key just a couple of hours ago.’
‘Yes. He said that he hadn’t had a chance to let you know that he’d be doing so, so I could expect you to be a little surprised.’
Her hands gripped the handle of the pram. Under the gloves her knuckles were white.
‘Did he… I didn’t…’ She paused, then said, ‘Thank you Mr Harris. I’ll go on up then.’
Mr Harris watched her manoeuvre the pram out of the front door. He had to wipe his palms on his trousers before reached for the handle to close it behind her.
As the door shut, Mrs George lent over the pram as violent breaths heaved themselves from her chest. Her legs were held together by nothing more solid than air. A flicker from further up the street caught her eye, and glancing upwards she could see the curtain in her new home twitching and a shadow lurking to the side. He was waiting.
She stood in the middle of the street for some time, her head bowed. A couple of times, she went to push the pram but then stopped after a few yards. Eventually the bundle within started to twitch and whimper. He was hungry. Her head came up slowly and she regarded her son for a few moments before starting to walk down the street towards the window. Her steps had the same clipped precision but her eyes remained low and her back was stooped.
The shadow moved away from the window.