Mr and Mrs Winters
"I hope you like it," Mr Winters said as he opened the creaky door to the attic. As if noticing for the first time the unpleasant musty smell, he shrugged apologetically at the girl silently standing next to him. "I'm sorry we didn't get time to do much with it. But you'll find it's relatively clean and cool at night."
As she continued to stand there, he coughed politely and she looked at him with her soft, brown eyes.
"It's fine," she said quietly. "Thank you for all the trouble you've gone to."
"No trouble at all," he replied, only stating the truth and suddenly ashamed that he didn't do more with the room.
As if reading his thoughts, she smiled reassuringly at him and walked towards the single bed cramped in the corner. The room was a typical attic, with suitcases and broken furniture dumped in one corner. There was a simple cupboard, desk and chair, barely avoiding the sloping ceiling and a brand new mat trying to hide the thin, fragile floorboards.
"I'll just put your bag here, shall I?" Mr Winters said awkwardly, squeezing his large frame through the door, and ducking to avoid getting hit by the single bulb hanging from the ceiling in the middle of the irregular-shaped attic. "The bathroom is just downstairs. Why don't you freshen up? My wife just went out to do some shopping, but she's on her way back so dinner will be ready in about an hour." He paused, trying to remember if there was anything else he needed to tell her.
"Do you have any children?" she asked him in the pause that ensued.
Startled, he replied, "Yes. I forgot to tell you about him. He doesn't know anything about your… circumstances. We thought it would be easier for you. Jacob doesn't usually…" he hesitated. "Well, let's just say you're quite unlikely to come across him much. He's usually studying with his friends at the library most of the time. He's our only child."
The girl rose an eyebrow at this but did not comment otherwise.
"Well, I think that's it. If there's anything you need, please let us know. We'll have a proper chat in the evening, I think. But meanwhile," he smiled, "make yourself at home Pamela."
She returned his smile with a small one of her own before surveying her new accommodation for the coming year as he left the room. It's not so bad, she thought to herself, sitting on the creaky bed cautiously. I'll get used to it. But even as she thought this, claustrophobia enveloped her and she put her head between her knees, taking calm, even breaths and counting in her head.
After a while, she stood up and unpacked her measly bag of belongings containing only two pairs of jeans and a few tops, along with her toiletries and folded them neatly before placing them on the floor of the cupboard. Returning to the bed, she shrugged her denim jacket and shoes off, before curling into a ball on the mattress, trying to hold back the flood of tears of self-pity she knew were long overdue. But the harder she tried, the harder it seemed and eventually, she let go, muffling her sobs into the soft duvet.
Pull it together Pamela, her head told her sternly and after what seemed like a long time, she squeezed her eyes shut and lay still, trying to empty her mind of everything.
She didn't need to try for long though, because the next thing she heard was Mr Winters calling her downstairs.
"Coming," she called back and hurriedly rubbed her eyes before slipping into her shoes once again.
As she walked into the small kitchen, a plump, red-faced woman turned towards her.
"You must be Pamela," she said, wiping a hand on her apron and extending it, a hint of a smile on her weary face. "I'm Emily."
"Nice to meet you," Pamela said awkwardly.
Mrs Winters nodded distractedly, before handing her a few plates. "Why don't you set the table while I sort the food out?"
Surprised but glad to be of some use, Pamela hurried to set the table in the adjoining dining room. Mr Winters was already sitting in one of the chairs, talking to someone on his mobile.
Glancing at the room curiously, she noted the plasma screen hanging on the wall and a huge mirror hanging above the expensive looking fireplace. There were no photographs anywhere but one end of the dining table was cluttered with papers and car keys, as well as several files.
Returning to the kitchen, Pamela carried the rest of the food into the dining room and five minutes later, Mrs Winters joined them.
As they started to eat, the silence felt odd to Pamela, but not completely awkward. She made little attempt at conversation herself, concentrating only on the food in front of her. Mr and Mrs Winters seemed to be at ease, rarely talking themselves.
After a few minutes, Pamela asked them cautiously, "Won't Jacob be eating with us?"
"No. I think he's getting something to eat with his friends," Mrs Winters replied, smiling quickly, but the frown in her face was quite noticeable at the mention of her son.
After dinner, Pamela helped put the dishes back into the kitchen and joined Mr and Mrs Winters in the living room near the front of the house. Similar to the dining room, this also had a beautiful fireplace and a plasma screen, but the difference was the white, plush carpet and the four vases in each corner. As well as this, three leather sofas aligned the walls, making the small room slightly crowded, but cosy.
"You must be very tired," Mrs Winters commented, as Pamela curled up on one of the sofas.
"Slightly," she agreed glancing at the clock. It was barely nine in the evening.
"How did you find your room?"
"It's fine. Thank you," she added sincerely, knowing she should sound more enthusiastic about her free accommodation.
"I'm sorry we didn't clean it out properly, but it was all very sudden, as you know. We didn't expect you would come so soon. Your father…" Mrs Winters hesitated, noticing the flicker of pain in Pamela's eyes. "Your father didn't give us much notice."
"Regardless, he was busy with other things," Mr Winters murmured and Pamela nodded, looking down at the floor bitterly. Yes, her father had been busy all right, locked up in jail.
"Don't worry though. We can liven it up a bit, you and I," Mrs Winters said, startling Pamela by placing a hand on her knee. "As soon as you've settled in a bit, we can go and get a bit more furniture and paint for the walls. You'll certainly need clothes too, won't you? And with school starting in a few days, it might be worth getting a bit of paper and stationary…" she continued to plan their coming shopping spree and Pamela could only nod, weighed down with the gratefulness and guilt she felt for this family. Why did she have to burden them so? She wished she could leave them in peace, only carrying the effects of her father's mistakes on her own shoulders.
"I'm really sorry about my father, Mr and Mrs Winters," she interrupted, knowing she had to make her feelings clear. "He doesn't deserve friends like you and you have no idea how grateful I am to you."
"Oh, hush Pamela," Mrs Winters said impatiently, but gently. "You are welcome to stay as long as you wish and besides, you are not responsible for your father."
"He was a good friend to us once upon a time, believe it or not, and we are only repaying the favour," Mr Winters added. "But yes, as Emily said, you are most certainly welcome here. Do not think otherwise."
"Anyway, tell us about yourself Pamela," Mrs Winters said. "It has been such a long time since I've talked to a girl of your age. What do you like to do in your free time? Do you like reading?"
And so the evening passed fairly well, with Pamela answering their questions, but barely asking any of her own. Eventually, around midnight, she bid them goodbye and climbed the stairs to the bathroom where she brushed her teeth and got changed into a pair of soft pyjamas, before climbing the next set of stairs to her bedroom.
As she switched the light off and got into the cold bed, Pamela heard a car's tyres screech as it accelerated away and the sound of drunken, barely disguised laughter.
"Jacob, is that you?" Mrs Winters said downstairs, sounding shocked.
"No Mum, it's superman," a sarcastic voice replied. "Of course it's me. Don't you recognise your son?"
Mr Winters then said something in a quieter, muffled voice.
"What? She's here? Well, why didn't you tell me so?" Jacob laughed loudly to himself. "Don't you think I should go and introduce myself?"
"Jacob, please be quiet. The girl's had a hard day as it is," Mrs Winters pleaded.
He didn't seem to hear her at all. Pamela could hear his shuffled steps though, as they climbed the first flight of steps to the landing below.
Quick as anything, she darted across the room and locked the door, suddenly afraid. This reminded her too much of her own Dad, returning in the middle of the night with a different woman every time.
The footsteps paused however, and as she strained her ears, Pamela heard Mr Winters steering his son away. Eventually, there was silence.
All of a sudden, Pamela shut her eyes tight and willed herself to sleep, the sound of Jacob's laughter echoing in her ears.