On The Run
She couldn't believe they had caught up with her. Here, in this dusty little town in the middle of nowhere, with veld and farmland stretching to the horizon in every direction, thousands of miles away from where it all began.
Still, she had worried. With the Internet and satellite TV, news travelled as fast around the world as gossip through a village. She was sure that there was a computer or a satellite dish in some of the cottages on what was optimistically called Main Street - the only tarred road in town. All it would take was a few inquisitive taps on a keyboard, or the wrong choice of channel at the wrong time, and they would know. She had hoped that nobody would be curious enough to make the effort. She had hoped that in this remote part of South Africa, people perceived the UK as boring and far away, much too English to worry about.
Which is why she was appalled to see five copies of the Sunday Telegraph, the Union Jack logo proudly displayed, in the newsstand of the little general store.
"You get the Telegraph here?" she asked the assistant, trying to sound casual as she glanced at the headlines, scanning the words for the story she knew would be there.
"Ja, of course." The teenager straightened up from his comic book under the counter and adjusted his glasses. Nothing to fear from him at least, she thought. "We got a few okes here who love the English papers so they come special delivery. It takes a week or so, but nobody minds. I think the crosswords is what they're really interested in." His glasses slipped sideways on his spotty nose again and he pushed them straight. "You want one?"
"Actually," she said, "I'll take all of them."
"Lady, are you sure? You need them all? They're nearly fifty rands each. And Meneer van Wyk will be in later for his copy. He'll be upset if it's gone."
She shook her head firmly. "Tell Meneer," the unfamiliar word was awkward to pronounce, "it's too bad. I need all of these."
The bulky shopping bag strained at its handles, cutting into her palm as she walked back to her rented house, past the cottages that lined the road. Behind the net curtains, she imagined people watching her and whispering. Suddenly, the town didn't feel like a friendly haven any more. It felt the same as all the other places she had been during her headlong flight.
First, she had escaped to a small village in the north of England. It hadn't worked. The girl behind the counter at the off-license glanced at her, and then looked again more closely in fascinated horror. By the next day, the word was out. People literally crossed the street to avoid her. One old lady had nearly been run over by a bus.
London had been worse. So much for anonymity in a big city. She took a room under a false name, but a crowd of journalists was waiting when she stepped out onto the pavement. Their shouted questions and camera flashes felt like a physical attack, more invasive than anything she had experienced. Borrowing a passport from her sister, she fled to Europe, hoping to wait it out there. But in Italy, in France, the story was big news. She wore dark glasses, she dressed differently, she changed her hair colour. It didn't help. It was as if she had been branded.
Four countries in less than a fortnight. Kon Tiki tourists hardly moved as fast. Every time she was recognised, she had to run before the paparazzi descended, and the authorities realised she was travelling under a passport that wasn't her own. But with her own passport, her name would be recognised even faster than her face. There was no end to the cycle. All she wanted was to get away from the exhausting business of trying to hide. She needed some time alone. She needed to come to terms with what had happened to her husband. It might have been her fault, but she was human, too. She had feelings, too. She had hurt and cried with guilt and bitter regret while the rest of the world were pointing their outraged fingers at her.
She was almost home when the bag's handle snapped. The plastic ripped apart in an instant and the newspapers thudded down the stairs. Caught by the wind, the wads of paper blew apart, separating in a hundred different directions, taking on a life of their own as they flapped and tumbled down the street.
"Shit." She set off in pursuit, grabbing the sheets as they crumpled and tore in her hands. The headlines of one page flashed tauntingly at her as it became airborne. As she made a desperate leap for it, her shoe's heel caught in the hem of her skirt and she sprawled onto the grassy verge.
In despair, she lay where she had fallen and buried her face in her hands. How could this happen?
"Are you all right?"
She looked up, and her heart sank. It was David, the owner of the house she was renting. She'd met him a few times and flirted with him behind her dark glasses. Now, he held out a hand and helped her up. His other arm, she saw, was wrapped firmly round a wadded mass of newspaper.
"I see you had some problems with your papers." He smiled. "I think they're all here now."
She stared at him. How could she explain the great pile of pages that he was now hefting up the steps?
"It seems we share a liking for the same Sunday news," he said, carefully removing a piece of grass from her sleeve. "I bought mine earlier this morning."
Her stomach knotted, and she took a deep, shaky breath. Her stay here was over. She knew what was coming next. Turning away from him, she unlocked the front door. It was time to start packing. But where would she run now?
His voice behind her was surprisingly gentle. "Can I come in for a moment?"
She walked through the hallway into the living room. He followed, putting the papers on the coffee table.
"Jackie, if your name really is Jackie -" He paused, and frowned as if thinking what to say. "This won't go any further, I might not even have mentioned it if I hadn't seen that you've bought the shop's entire stock."
"Carry on." Her voice was hoarse. Get to the point, she thought, and let me get out of here.
He glanced down at the front page. "Well, we don't get many overseas visitors here, especially not beautiful women on their own . I thought maybe you needed to get away from something. And I couldn't help being curious when I saw this."
He pointed to the picture. The woman in the dock. Her hair covered by a large hat. Her head bowed, desperate not to expose her face to the voracious reading public.
"I just wondered whether, maybe, it had anything to do with you."
The headlines jumped out at her. "I Did It in Self-Defence, Screams Abused Wife."
He continued. "I have very strong feelings about the way women should be treated. And it's nothing like the - the atrocities - that were reported here. Anyone who hurts another person that way, deserves to die. I believe that with all my heart, and I'll tell you right now, so does every other person in this town."
She looked up, to see if he was serious. Was it possible that she had a reprieve at last?
"Thank you, David. Thanks for telling me this."
He stood up. "I'll come around tomorrow, if that's OK with you. Just to see how you are."
He closed the door behind him while she sat, looking at the papers. Slowly, as if she had never seen it before, she read the front page story. What he had said was unbelievable, impossible. Her shoulders shook as she began to laugh, and then to cry with relief.
As she took the papers into her garden to burn them on the barbecue, she couldn't resist a glance at page three. "Sordid Saga Continues", the headline announced. "Messages of sympathy are still pouring in after the shock suicide of deputy prime minister Lewis Thomas, following the exposure of his wife's secret career as a blue-movie star. The party has not yet named his successor, although according to an official source, 'an announcement will be made shortly'. Meanwhile, 'Porno Pammie' as the media has dubbed her, whose releases include 'Sex-Crazed Slappers' and 'Bum Love', remains unavailable for comment..."
Watching the pages crisp in the flames, she smiled. "So long, baby," she whispered to the peroxide blonde pouting at her from the newsprint. "So long!"
© Jassy Mackenzie 2007