by Sheena Billett
a large cup of strong coffee
Betty anxiously studied the horizon and wondered what might be, tantalisingly, just out of sight. She hoped it would be more of the same: Wednesday, hair dresser; Friday, choir; Sunday, church. She couldn’t imagine anything different any time soon. Everything was flat calm just as it had been for the last three years, since Reg had angrily and resentfully disappeared over his own horizon.
If you asked Betty, she would say that the horizon was probably about two weeks away. She knew there were landmarks beyond, as yet out of sight, such as Christmas and the autumn concert with her choir. She turned the page on her calendar and October was reassuringly blank. Betty didn’t want any storm clouds gathering to disrupt her quiet, ordered life.
The long years with Reg had been turbulent and noisy, but Betty had clung on to the wreckage of her marriage because she couldn’t imagine any alternative life.
Today was Wednesday – hairdresser day. Betty put on her raincoat. It had a hood and she didn’t want her newly done hair to get wet on the way home. It was looking like rain. She decided against an umbrella – too much to carry, and picking up her bag and keys, Betty set off for the bus stop.
Much to her consternation, she spotted a hooded youth already ensconced on the bench seat. Betty slowed her pace, wondering for a moment if she should take a detour past the shops and catch the next bus once the hooded person had gone, but that would make her late for her appointment with Carol and she didn’t want to be fobbed off on one of the other girls. In any case, Betty prided herself on being punctual.
She arrived at the bus stop and stood as far away from the hoodie as possible. They were engrossed on their phone – no doubt looking at a load of rubbish, Betty primly thought to herself.
A crash made her jump, and she turned as the girl swore. Betty turned to see her bend with some difficulty to try and pick the phone up. She could tell it was a girl now, from her voice and delicate features. As she bent forwards her hoodie fell back to reveal a bald head. Embarrassed, Betty looked away.
‘Do you think you could pick my phone up for me? Sorry to bother you.’
Reluctantly, Betty turned and looked at the tears welling in the girl’s eyes. She retrieved the mobile and handed it to its owner.
‘Thank you so much. I know it’s pathetic I can’t even pick up my own phone!’
And much to Betty’s alarm the girl started to cry. She fidgeted uncertainly, wishing the bus would come.
‘It’s this bloody cancer! The chemo has made my fingers numb, so I keep dropping things and it hurts when I bend. I feel like a bloody old woman.
Betty decided not to be offended.
The girl’s hand flew to her mouth – ‘Oh I’m so sorry – I didn’t mean...’
‘It’s okay.’ Betty sat down beside her.
‘Betty,’ said Betty. For some reason she had abandoned the usual ‘Mrs Brown.’
She looked more carefully at Jessie, noting the shadows under her hazel eyes, which were now red from crying. ‘Where are you going?’ asked Betty with genuine curiosity. For some reason she needed to know more about this sad girl.
‘Off to my next round of chemo. I’m not really supposed to go on the bus, especially not on the way home, but there’s no choice, and anyway, I usually get home before the aftereffects kick in. Only a few more sessions after this and then I’m in the clear, hopefully.’
‘Well you’re not going on the bus today, Jessie,’ Betty said firmly, all thoughts of the hair appointment forgotten. ‘Can you use your phone to call a taxi?’
Jessie lifted her head and met Betty’s gaze. ‘Are you for real?’
‘Indeed, I am.’
‘Okay, well I have the Uber app, not that I’ve ever used it much.’
‘Can you call a taxi to pick us up here?’
Jessie worked on her phone, intelligent concentration evident in her focused gaze. ‘Okay, so I need to put some bank details in for the payment – it’s all done online with Uber.
Betty felt a twinge of panic at giving her card details to the internet, but it felt important to help this girl, and she berated herself for her earlier thoughts that all young people in hoodies were bad. Didn’t everyone wear them these days?
Jessie tapped in the details from Betty’s card and sat back. ‘They’ll be here in two minutes. Look, you can see where he is.’
Jessie handed Betty the phone, and she held it gingerly, afraid that the picture would disappear from the screen. She saw the flashing icon a few streets from where they were, moving steadily towards them. ‘Goodness me. Whatever next?’
Jessie looked no further than the end of each day. Today was no different. She got up, drank some strong coffee from the Nespresso machine, checked her head was smoothly shaved, and fixed the now-familiar make-up. Extensive research about chemotherapy and its side effects was paying off.
She usually frequented bus stops as that’s where lonely old people were often to be found. And often, they were not poor. Today, she had hit the jackpot with Betty – actually harvesting her bank details. But who would have thought that the old woman would actually want to come to the hospital with her? Jessie did her best to shake Betty off, but she had been surprisingly tenacious.
When they arrived at the hospital, Betty insisted on booking the driver to take Jessie home after her treatment, and Jessie had to think on her feet to come up with a fake address.
She heaved a sigh of relief as she waved from the door of the oncology department, as Betty at last turned and walked away.
Jessie fished the phone out of her pocket and retrieved Betty’s bank card details with swift efficiency. She probably had about 24 hours before the fraud would be spotted and reported. Old people didn’t usually do online banking, but the bank would alert Betty by phone before the day was out, and Betty was probably the sort of person who still answered calls on her landline.
At the library, Jessie was soon hard at work on the computer. Amazon was her one-stop shop for most things, and today she was shopping for books for her Open University course, and maybe she would treat herself to some new clothes, and a different wig. It was time for a new hairstyle.
The most important and expensive thing she left until last – paying this term’s tuition fees. Jessie held her breath as she typed in the card details – she had made sure to get Betty’s address, saying it was necessary for the Uber account. She was reassured by the confident Thank-you for your Payment message. The bank would certainly be alerted by such a large payment – and Jessie shut down the computer.
Betty never made it to the hairdresser. Having left Jessie at the hospital, she had got a bus home. Now she was sitting in the conservatory with a cup of tea, thinking about Jessie and feeling increasingly anxious. She got out an old A-Z and looked up the address Jessie had given the Uber driver – and as she suspected, it didn’t exist.
A phone call to the bank to cancel the card revealed that Jessie - if that even was her name - had wasted no time in spending Betty’s money.
But it was what she had spent it on that shocked Betty most. Books and a large payment to the Open University of all things! Apart from the annoyance that she had been taken in, the strongest emotion Betty felt was curiosity. What was this girl studying? Why would she go to such lengths to get an education? Somehow this was not the type of young person Betty had imagined would con you out of your money.
Awake until the early hours of Thursday morning, Betty decided to do some detective work, but there were several hours until she could make any enquiries so she drank several cups of tea and made a list of all the ways she could possibly track Jessie down. Suddenly the horizon had become very close – only a few hours away, at 9 o’clock, but, even so, it crept forwards at a snail’s pace as Betty waited.
A few minutes after nine – she should probably give the OU people time to take their coats off – Betty rang the Open University, having got the number from Directory Enquiries. A rather brusque, no-nonsense voice answered the call and Betty was reminded of her old French teacher. Having explained her dilemma and the fact that she wanted to find Jessie to get to know her, rather than get retribution, Betty was faced with the brick wall of identity protection. ‘Even though she stole my money, she still has the right to protection?’ Betty was tapping her foot in irritation.
‘I’m afraid so. Whatever any of our students do outside of the university, does not allow us to divulge such information.’
‘Even though I want to help her?’ Betty found herself saying.
‘I’m afraid so.’
‘Well thank you anyway.’ Polite as ever, Betty huffed and replaced the receiver. This was a serious set back. She consulted her list. The next possibility was to hope to meet Jessie at the bus-stop again, but after a few days of walking up and down the road and loitering around the shelter, Betty felt that this was more than her hip could take.
Back to the list. The next option was to visit other places where she imagined Jessie might go, such as the library, or fast food outlets. At the library Betty was happy to spend hours wiling away the time – she could take out membership and even start reading again, something she used to do voraciously when she was young.
Fast food outlets were another thing altogether, and Betty was out of her comfort zone, having never been inside a MacDonald’s or Burger King. She steeled herself to make a visit, and found herself at the counter in the MacDonald’s on the High Street overwhelmed by the number of options available to her.
‘What would you recommend for someone who has never had MacDonald’s before?’ she asked the server, a young girl with a long ponytail pulled through the hole in her baseball cap.
‘You’ve never eaten McDonalds?’ Anna, said shaking her ponytail in disbelief. ‘Wow! That’s a first for me – a MacDonald’s virgin!’
‘Well, I wouldn’t put it quite like that’ Betty clutched her bag to her chest and frowned.
‘Ok, we–ll, what about a Big Mac and a side of fries? Anna continued blissfully unaware of Betty’s discomfort.
‘Yes, I’ll have that,’ said Betty decisively.
A few minutes later she was at a plastic table with a huge paper cup full to the brim of weak tea and her MacDonald’s. Betty bit into the burger gingerly and was pleasantly surprised. Before she knew it, she’d eaten the whole meal.
After a few weeks of detective work, Betty discovered that each day could be different. She found a whole new world of horizons in the books she read at the library, so much so that Jessie could have come and gone without Betty even noticing. But somehow, it didn’t matter. At the moment, she was working her way through Daphne du Maurier and was even wondering if she might take a little trip to Cornwall.
MacDonald’s became a weekly visit; Anna suggested something new from the menu each time, but Betty’s favourite was still the Big Mac and fries.
Although Betty’s horizons were broadening, a few weeks later she had to admit that the detective work had not been successful. She consulted her list, now tucked behind the clock, and discovered there was only one place left to check – the place she’d last seen Jessie, at the hospital.
At the hospital, Betty followed signs to the oncology department and arriving at the reception desk she hesitated, unsure about her next step.
‘Can I help you?’
‘I’ve just come to meet someone from the chemotherapy suite,’ improvised Betty, noticing the sign from the corner of her eye.
‘Can you give me a name?’ The receptionist looked at Betty over the top of her glasses.
‘Mine, or the person I’m meeting?’ Betty was desperately playing for time. Suddenly this visit seemed very important.
‘Both. If you give me your name, I can give them a message that you’re waiting.’
Betty swallowed. ‘Jessie.’
‘Ohhh Jessie! She shouldn’t be much longer. And you are...?’
‘I’ll let them know,’ she said rising from her seat.
The receptionist bustled back to her desk. ‘Only a few minutes, they’re just getting her meds ready.’
Betty nodded and clutched her bag tightly. The minutes ticked by, the waiting almost too much to bear, but it felt more important than ever now.
The doors opened and there was Jessie, although this time she had hair.
Jessie regarded her with undisguised hostility. ‘What’re you doing here?’
‘Looking for you.’ Betty said calmly.
Jessie eyes darted from side to side as if she was looking for some escape.
‘It’s okay. I just want to talk to you. Are you okay to have a coffee, or do you need to get home? We could call you an Uber.’
‘Are you fuckin’ with me?’ Jessie was holding tightly onto the back of one of the orange plastic waiting chairs.
A few minutes later they were in the hospital cafe. ‘I’ve been trying to find you, because I want to know what you’re studying, whether you really do have cancer, and why you’ve suddenly got hair.’
‘Okay.’ Jessie sighed and folded her arms on the table. ‘Yes, I’ve got cancer, so I thought I might as well make the most of a bad job. I’m studying psychotherapy, and I don’t have hair, this is a wig.’ She leant back.
Betty smiled through widened eyes. You’re training to be a psychotherapist?
‘Why not? Knowing what makes people tick can be a useful skill. To say nothing of learning how to get people to trust you.’
Betty regarded Jessie in silence.
‘What?’ You disapprove of what I’ve spent your money on?’
‘I wouldn’t say that, exactly, but why not train in order to help people rather than take advantage of them? Isn’t that what psychotherapy is supposed to be about?’
‘Maybe, in your world, but not in mine,’ Jessie hissed.
‘Well, anyway, I’ve been looking for you because I want to help. Anyone who is as ingenious as you in funding their university education deserves a leg-up in my book.’
‘Oh and don’t forget the cancer pity card while you’re at it.’
Had Betty detected a hint of something softer behind Jessie’s harsh words?
‘How about we start by continuing with the Uber rides to and fro from your chemotherapy sessions – above-board this time?’
Jessie was exhausted in spite of the Uber ride home. She was nearly at the end of her treatment and the long haul of chemo was taking its toll. Drinking some flavoured water – she couldn’t face coffee any more – Jessie thought about Betty.
She wondered if the shock had registered on her face when Linda from reception told her someone called Betty was waiting for her. Betty? That Betty?
There was only one exit from the suite so Jessie couldn’t avoid her victim. She could have told Linda she didn’t want to see her, but deep inside there was a curiosity to know why Betty was there. How had she known where to find her? And anyway, she couldn’t very well attack Jessie with her handbag, or her tongue, in full view of Linda – after all she was a cancer patient.
The conversation in the hospital café had annoyed and intrigued Jessie in equal measures. Her first instinct was to classify Betty in her Middle-Class Do-Gooder file; but she wasn’t picky, Jessie would take any help she could get to reach her goal of getting a degree. A goal that, even now, still seemed way, way beyond the horizon. Jessie lived one day at a time – she didn’t look far ahead, other than her hospital appointments which peppered the calendar in her phone for weeks to come. Each day was about survival – taking her meds, conning old people into buying her food, and on good days, working on her OU course.
Jessie knew that education was her passport out of the life she found herself in, and she’d always been fascinated by people – why they did what they did, and what they were thinking. She knew she’d lain it on a bit thick with Betty about the whole ‘I’m learning how to con people’ line, but something told her that Betty had seen though the façade of bitterness and callousness.
Betty studied the young woman sitting opposite her in the sea-side café. Jessie was studying the menu with that same look of concentration that she’d worn at the bus stop so long ago. Had it really only been a couple of years?
‘How did the check-up and scans go?’
‘Still all cancer-free, so I’m celebrating!’
‘And the interview?’
‘Are you ever going to stop being my mother?’ Jessie rolled her eyes. ‘Good, I got the job, so double celebration. Just as well the NHS is desperate for psychotherapists at the moment.’
Betty reached across the table and took Jessie’s hand. ‘I’m so glad, Jessie. I knew you could do it!’
‘Thank you for believing in me, Betty.’ Betty revelled in the shared affection and respect of the fleeting moment. ‘And what about you, gallivanting around the world with your new hip?’
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