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In a Dark, Dark Wood / - (by Ruth Ware, 2015) -

In a Dark, Dark Wood /  -  (by Ruth Ware, 2015) -

In a Dark, Dark Wood / - (by Ruth Ware, 2015) -

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In a Dark, Dark Wood / - (by Ruth Ware, 2015) -
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2015
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Ruth Ware
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Imogen Church
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upper-intermediate
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09:34:33
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64 kbps
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mp3, pdf, doc

In a Dark, Dark Wood / - :

.doc (Word) ruth-ware_-_in-a-dark-dark-wood.doc [607 Kb] (c: 21) .
.pdf ruth-ware_-_in-a-dark-dark-wood.pdf [14,08 Mb] (c: 33) .
audiobook (MP3) .


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{include file="engine/modules/cuttext.php?txt=
In a dark, dark wood there was a dark, dark house; And in the dark, dark house there was a dark, dark room; And in the dark, dark room there was a dark, dark cupboard; And in the dark, dark cupboard there was a skeleton. Traditional I AM RUNNING. I am running through moonlit woods, with branches tearing at my clothes and my feet catching in the snow-bowed bracken. Brambles slash at my hands. My breath tears in my throat. It hurts. Everything hurts. But this is what I do. I run. I can do this. Always when I run theres a mantra inside my head. The time I want to get, or the frustrations Im pounding away against the tarmac. But this time one word, one thought, pounds inside me. James. James. James. I must get there. I must get to the road before And then there it is, a black snake of tarmac in the moonlight, and I can hear the roar of an engine coming, and the white lines shine so bright they hurt my eyes, the black tree trunks like slashes against the light. Am I too late? I force myself down the last thirty metres, tripping over fallen logs, my heart like a drum in my breast. James. And Im too late the car is too close, I cant stop it. I fling myself onto the tarmac, my arms outstretched. Stop! 1 IT HURTS. EVERYTHING hurts. The light in my eyes, the pain in my head. Theres a stench of blood in my nostrils, my hands are sticky with it. Leonora? The voice comes dim through a fog of pain. I try to shake my head, my lips wont form the word. Leonora, youre safe, youre at the hospital. Were taking you to have a scan. Its a woman, speaking clearly and loudly. Her voice hurts. Is there anyone we should be calling? I try again to shake my head. Dont move your head, she says. Youve had a head injury. Nora, I whisper. You want us to call Nora? Whos Nora? Me my name. All right, Nora. Just try to relax. This wont hurt. But it does. Everything hurts. What has happened? What have I done? 2 I KNEW, AS soon as I woke up, that it was a day for a park run, for the longest route I do, nearly nine miles in all. The autumn sunlight streamed through the rattan blinds, gilding the bedsheets, and I could smell the rain that had fallen in the night, and see the leaves on the plane tree in the street below, just turning to golden-brown at the tips. I closed my eyes and stretched, listening to the tick and groan of the heating, and the muted roar of the traffic, feeling every muscle, revelling in the day to come. I always start my morning the same way. Maybe its something about living alone youre able to get set in your ways, theres no outside disruptions, no flatmates to hoover up the last of the milk, no cat coughing up a hairball on the rug. You know that what you left in the cupboard the night before will be in the cupboard when you wake up. Youre in control. Or maybe its something about working from home. Outside of a nine to five job, its very easy for the days to get shapeless, meld together. You can find youre still in your dressing gown at 5 p.m., and the only person youve seen all day is the milkman. There are days when I dont hear a single human voice, apart from the radio, and you know what? I quite like that. Its a good existence for a writer, in many ways alone with the voices in your head, the characters youve created. In the silence they become very real. But its not necessarily the healthiest way to live. So having a routine is important. It gives you something to hang on to, something to differentiate the weekdays from the weekends. My day starts like this. At 6.30 exactly the heating goes on, and the roar as the boiler starts always wakes me up. I look at my phone just to check the world hasnt ended in the night and then lie there, listening to the pop and creak of the radiator. At 7 a.m. I turn on my radio already tuned to Radio 4s Today Programme and I reach out and flick the switch of the coffee machine, pre-loaded with coffee and water the night before Carte Noire filter grind, with the filter paper folded just so. There are some advantages to the size of my flat. One of them is the fact that I can reach both the fridge and the coffee machine without getting out of bed. The coffee is usually through by the time theyve finished the headlines, and then I lever myself out of my warm duvet and drink it, with just a splash of milk, and a piece of toast with Bonne Maman raspberry jam (no butter its not a diet thing, I just dont like the two together). What happens after that depends on the weather. If its raining, or I dont feel like going for a run, then I shower, check my emails, and start the days work. Today was a beautiful day though, and I was itching to get out, get wet leaves beneath my trainers and feel the wind in my face. Id shower after my run. I pulled on a T-shirtx, some leggings, and socks, and shoved my feet into my trainers where Id left them near the door. Then I jogged down the three flights of stairs to the street, and out, into the world. When I got back I was hot and sweating and loose-limbed with tiredness and I stood for a long time under the shower, thinking about my to-do list for the day. I needed to do another online shop I was nearly out of food. I had to go through the copy-edits on my book Id promised them back to the editor this week and I hadnt even started them yet. And I should go through the emails that had come through via my website contact form, which I hadnt done for ages because I kept putting it off. Most of it would be spam of course whatever kind of verification you put on it, it doesnt seem to deter the bots. But sometimes its useful stuff, requests for blurbs or review copies. And sometimes sometimes its emails from readers. Generally if people write to you, its because they liked the book, although I have had a few messages telling me what a terrible person I am. But even when theyre nice, its still odd and uncomfortable, someone telling you their reaction to your private thoughts, like reading someones opinion on your diary. Im not sure Ill ever get used to that feeling, however long I write. Maybe thats partly why I have to gear myself up for it. When I was dressed, I fired up my laptop and clicked slowly through the emails, deleting as I went. Viagra. A promise to make me satisfy my woman. Russian cuties. And then To: Melanie Cho; kate.derby.02@DPW.gsi.gov.uk; T Deauxma; Kimayo, Liz; info@LNShaw.co.uk; Maria Tatibouet; Iris P. Westaway; Kate Owens; smurphy@shoutlinemedia.com; Nina da Souza; French, Chris From: Florence Clay Subject: CLARES HEN!!! Clare? I didnt know any Clares except My heart began beating faster. But it couldnt be her. I hadnt seen her for ten years. For a minute my finger hovered irrationally over the delete button. Then I clicked, and opened up the message. HI ALL!!! For those of you who dont know me, my name is Flo, and Im Clares best friend from university. Im also drum roll her maid of honour!! So in time-honoured fashion I will be organising her HEN-DO!!! Ive had a word with Clare and as you can probably guess she doesnt want any rubber penises or pink feather boas. So were going to have something rather more sophisticated a weekend away near her old college stamping ground in Northumberland although I think there may be a few naughty games snuck in under the radar!! The weekend Clare has chosen is 14th16th November. I know this is VERY short notice, but we didnt have a lot of choice between work commitments and Christmas and so on. Please RSVP promptly. Love and kisses and hoping to meet old friends and new very soon!!!! Flo xxx I sat, frowning uneasily at the screen, chewing the side of my nail, trying to figure it out. Then I looked again at the To list. There was one name on there that I recognised: Nina da Souza. Well, that settled it. It must be Clare Cavendish. There was no one else it could be. And I knew or thought I remembered that shed gone to university at Durham, or maybe Newcastle? Which fitted with the Northumberland setting. But why? Why had Clare Cavendish asked me to her hen night? Could it be a mistake? Had this Flo just plundered Clares address book and fired off an email to anyone she could find? But just twelve people that meant my inclusion could hardly be a mistake. Right? I sat, staring at the screen as if the pixels could provide answers to the questions shifting queasily in my gut. I half-wished Id just deleted it without even reading. Suddenly I couldnt sit still any longer. I got up and paced to the door, and then back to my desk, where I stood, staring uneasily at the laptop screen. Clare Cavendish. Why me? Why now? I could hardly ask this Flo person. There was only one person who might know. I sat. Then quickly, before I could change my mind, I tapped out an email. To: Nina da Souza From: Nora Shaw Subject: Hen??? Dearest N, Hope youre well. Must admit I was a bit surprised to see us both on the list to Clares hen night. Are you going? xx And then I waited for a reply. For the next few days, I tried to put it out of my mind. I busied myself with work trying to bury myself in the knotty minutiae of the copy-editors queries but Florences email was a constant distracting presence in the back of my mind, like an ulcer at the tip of your tongue that twinges when you least expect it, the ragged nail that you cant stop picking. The email got pushed further and further down the inbox, but I could feel it there, its unreplied flag like a silent reproach, the un-answered questions it posed a perpetual niggle against the background of my daily routine. Answer, I begged Nina in my head, as I was running in the park, or cooking my supper, or just staring into space. I thought about calling her. But I didnt know what I wanted her to say. And then, a few days later, I was sitting having breakfast and scrolling idly through Twitter on my phone, when the new email icon flashed. It was from Nina. I took a gulp of coffee and a deep breath, and clicked to open it. From: Nina da Souza To: Nora Shaw Subject: Re: Hen??? Dude! Long time no chat. Just got yr email I was on lates at the hospital. Christ, in all honesty its the last thing I want to do. I got the wedding invitation a while back but I was hoping Id escaped the hen. R you going? Shall we make a pact? Ill go if you go? Nx I drank my coffee while I looked at the screen, my finger hovering over Reply but not quite clicking. Id hoped Nina would answer at least some of the questions that had been buzzing and building in my head over the last few days. When was the wedding? Why invite me to the hen, but not the wedding? Who was she marrying? Hey, do you know I started, and then deleted it. No. I couldnt ask outright. It would be tantamount to admitting I hadnt the first clue what was going on. Ive always been too proud to admit to ignorance. I hate being at a disadvantage. I tried to push the question to the bottom of my mind while I dressed and had a shower. But when I opened up my computer there were two more unread emails in my inbox. The first was a regretful no thanks from one of Clares friends, citing a family birthday. The second was another email from Flo. This time shed attached a read-receipt. To: info@LNShaw.co.uk From: Florence Clay Subject: Re: CLARES HEN!!! Dear Lee, Sorry to chase, but just wondering if you got my email the other day! I know it has been a while since you saw Clare, but she was so hoping you might be able to come. She often talks about you, and I know feels bad that you lost touch after school. I dont know what happened, but shed really love for you to be there wont you say yes?! It would really make her weekend complete. Flo xxx The email should have made me feel flattered that Clare was so keen for me to be there, that Flo had gone to such trouble to track me down. But it didnt. Instead I felt a surge of resentment at being nagged, and a sense of invaded privacy at the read-receipt. It felt like being checked up on, spied upon. I shut down the email and opened up the document I was working on, but even as I got down to it, pushing all thoughts of the hen determinedly from my mind, Flos words hung in the air like an echo, niggling at me. I dont know what happened. It sounded like a plaintive child. No, I thought bitterly. You dont. So dont go prying into my past. I had sworn never to go back. Nina was different Nina lived in London now, and she and I ran into each other occasionally around Hackney. She was as much part of my London life as my Reading one now. But Clare Clare was resolutely part of the past and I wanted her to stay there. And yet a small part of me a small nagging part, that pricked at my conscience didnt. Clare had been my friend. My best friend, for a long time. And yet Id run, without looking back, without even leaving a number. What kind of friend did that make me? I got up restlessly and, for want of anything better to do, made another cup of coffee. I stood over the percolator while it hissed and gurgled, worrying at the side of my nail with my teeth and thinking about the ten years since Id last seen her. When at last the machine had finished I poured myself a cup, and carried it back to my desk, but I didnt start work again. Instead I opened up Google and tapped in Clare Cavendish Facebook. There were a lot of Clare Cavendishes, it turned out, and the coffee had gone cold before I found one that I thought might be her. The profile picture was a snap of a couple in Doctor Who fancy dress. It was hard to tell beneath the straggling red wig, but there was something about the way the girl was throwing her head back and laughing that made me stop, as I scrolled down the endless list. The man was dressed as Matt Smith, with floppy hair, horn-rimmed glasses and a bow-tie. I clicked on the picture to enlarge it and stared at the two of them for a long time, trying to make out her features beneath the trailing red hair, and the more I looked the more I thought it was Clare. The man I definitely didnt recognise, I was sure of that. I clicked on the About tab. Under Mutual friends it said Nina da Souza. Definitely Clare. And under the Relationship header, it said In a relationship with William Pilgrim. The name made me do a slight double-take. It seemed familiar in some indefinable way. Someone from school? But the only William in our year had been Will Miles. Pilgrim. I couldnt remember anyone called Pilgrim. I clicked on the profile picture, but it was an anonymous shot of a half-full pint glass. I went back to Clares profile picture, and as I looked at it, trying to work out what to do, Flos email echoed inside my head: She was so hoping you might be able to come. She often talks about you. I felt something squeeze at my heart. A kind of guilt, maybe. I had left without looking back; shell-shocked, reeling, and for a long time Id concentrated on putting one foot in front of another, keeping going, keeping the past firmly behind me. Self-preservation: that was all I could manage. I hadnt allowed myself to think of everything Id left behind. But now Clares eyes met mine, peering out flirtatiously from beneath the red wig, and I thought I saw something pleading in her eyes, something reproachful. I found myself remembering. Remembering the way she could make you feel like a million dollars, just by picking you out of a crowded room. Remembering her low, gurgling laugh, the notes shed pass in class, her wicked sense of humour. I remembered sleeping over on her bedroom floor aged maybe six, my first time away from home, lying there listening to the soft purr of her night-time breath. Id had a nightmare, and wet the bed and Clare Clare had hugged me and given me her own bear to cuddle while she crept into the airing cupboard to get new sheets, and hid the others in the laundry basket. I heard her mothers voice on the landing, low and groggy, asking what was going on, and Clares swift reply: I knocked over my milk, Mummy, it made Lees bed all wet. For a second I was back there, twenty years ago, a small frightened girl. I could smell the scent of her bedroom the fustiness of our night breath, the sweetness of the bath pearls in a glass jar on her windowsill, the fresh laundry smell of the clean sheets. Dont tell anyone I whispered as we tucked the new sheets in, and I hid my wet pyjama bottoms in my case. She shook her head. Of course not. And she never did. I was still sitting there when my computer gave a faint ping, and another email popped up. It was from Nina. Whats the plan then? Flo is chasing. Yes to the pact? Nx I got up and paced to the door, feeling my fingers prickle with the stupidity of what I was about to do. Then I paced back and before I could change my mind, I typed out, Ok. Deal. xx Ninas reply came back an hour later. Wow! Dont take this the wrong way but gotta say, Im surprised. In a good way I mean. Deal it is. Dont even think about letting me down. Remember, Im a doctor. I know at least 3 ways to kill you without leaving a trace. Nx I took a deep breath, pulled up the original email from Flo, and began to type. Dear Florence (Flo?) I would love to come. Please thank Clare for thinking of me. I look forward to meeting up with you all in Northumberland and catching up with Clare. Warm wishes, Nora (but Clare will know me as Lee). PS best to use this email address for any updates. The other one is not checked as regularly. After that the emails came thick and fast. There was a flurry of regretful reply-all nos all citing the short notice. Away that weekend So sorry, Ive got to work Family memorial service (Nina: Itll be a funeral for the next person who abuses the Reply all button.) Im afraid Ill be snorkelling in Cornwall! (Nina: Snorkelling? In November? She couldnt think up a better excuse? Man, if Id known the bar was that low Id have said I was stuck down a mine in Chile or something.) More work. More pre-engagements. And in between, a few acceptances. At last the list was set. Clare, Flo, Melanie, Tom (Ninas reply back to me: ???), Nina, Me. Just six people. It didnt seem many for someone as popular as Clare. At least, as popular as shed been at school. But it was short notice. Was that why shed invited me? To make up numbers, on what she knew would be a barrel-scraping do? But no, that wasnt Clare, or not the Clare I once knew. The Clare I knew would have invited exactly who she wanted and spun it as soooo exclusive that only a handful of people were allowed to come. I pushed the memories aside, burying them under a blanket of routine. But they kept surfacing halfway through a run, in the middle of the night, whenever I was least expecting it. Why, Clare? Why now? 3 NOVEMBER CAME ROUND frighteningly quickly. I did my best to push the whole thing to the back of my mind and concentrate on work, but it became harder and harder as the weekend approached. I ran longer routes, trying to make myself as tired as possible when I went to bed, but as soon as my head hit the pillow, the whispers started. Ten years. After everything that happened. Was this a huge mistake? If it hadnt been for Nina, I would have backed out but somehow, come the 14th, there I was: bag in hand, stepping off the train at Newcastle into a cold, sour morning, with Nina beside me, smoking a roll-up and grumbling for England as I bought coffee from the kiosk on the station platform. This was her third hen of the year (drag on cigarette), shed spent the best part of five hundred quid on the last one (drag), and this one would be more like a grand once you took into account the wedding itself (exhale). Honestly, shed rather write them a cheque for a ton and save herself the annual leave. And please, as she ground the butt out under her narrow heel, remind her again why she couldnt bring Jess? Because its a hen night, I said. I scooped up the coffee and followed Nina towards the car-park sign. Because the whole point is to leave partners at home. Otherwise why not bring the fucking groom and have done with it? I never swear much, except with Nina. She brings it out of me somehow, like this sweary inner me is in there, waiting to be let out. Do you still not drive? Nina asked as we swung our cases into the back of the hired Ford. I shrugged. Its one of the many basic skills of life Ive never mastered. Sorry. Dont apologise to me. She folded her long legs into the drivers seat, slammed the door and stuck the keys in the ignition. I hate being driven. Driving is like karaoke your own is epic, other peoples is just embarrassing or alarming. Well its just, you know living in London, a car seems like a luxury rather than a necessity. Dont you think? I use Zipcar to visit Mum and Dad. Hmmm. I looked out of the window as Nina let in the clutch. We did a brief bunny hop across the station car park before she sorted it out. Australias a bit of a trek in a Volvo. Oh, God, I forgot your mum emigrated. With whats his name? Your stepdad? Philip, I said. Why do I always feel like a sulky teenager when I say his name? Its a perfectly normal name. Nina shot me a sharp look, and then jerked her head at the sat-nav. Stick that on, would you, and put in the postcode Flo gave us. Its our only hope of getting out of Newcastle town centre alive. Westerhope, Throckley, Stanegate, Haltwhistle, Wark the signs flashed past like a sort of poetry, the road unfurling like an iron-grey ribbon flung across the sheep-cropped moors and low hills. The sky overhead was clouded and huge, but the small stone buildings that we passed at intervals sat huddled into the dips in the landscape, as if they were afraid of being seen. I didnt have to navigate, and reading in a car makes me feel sick and strange, so I closed my eyes, shutting out Nina and the sound of the radio, alone in my own head with the questions that were nagging there. Why me, Clare? Why now? Was it just that she was getting married and wanted to rekindle an old friendship? But if so, why hadnt she invited me to the wedding? Shed invited Nina, clearly, so it couldnt be a family-only ceremony or anything like that. She shook her head in my imagination, admonishing me to be patient, to wait. Clare always did like secrets. Her favourite pastime was finding out something about you and then hinting at it. Not spreading it around just veiled references in conversation, references that only you and she understood. References that let you know. We stopped in Hexham for lunch, and a cigarette break for Nina, and then pushed on towards Kielder Forest, out into country lanes, where the sky overhead became huge. But as the roads grew narrower the trees seemed to come closer, edging across the close-cropped peaty turf until they stood sentinel at the roadside, held back only by a thin drystone wall. As we entered the forest itself, the sat-nav coverage dropped off, and then died. Hang on. I scrabbled in my handbag. Ive got a print-out of those directions that Flo emailed. Well, arent you the girl scout of the year, Nina said, but I could hear the relief in her voice. Whats wrong with an iPhone anyway? This is whats wrong with them. I held up my mobile, which was endlessly buffering and failing to load Google Maps. They disappear unpredictably. I looked at the print-outs. The Glass House, the search-header read, Stanebridge Road. OK, theres a right coming up. A bend and then a right, it must be any time The turning whizzed past and I said mildly, I thought That was it. We missed it. Fine bloody navigator you are! What? Youre supposed to tell me about the turning before we get to it, you know. She imitated the robotic voice of the sat-nav: Make a left in fifty metres. Make a left in thirty metres. Turn around when safe to do so, you have missed your turning. Well, turn around when safe to do so, lady. You have missed your turning. Screw safe. Nina stamped on the brakes and did a fast, bad-tempered three-point turn just at another bend in the forest road. I shut my eyes. What was that you were saying about karaoke? Oh its a dead end, no one was coming. Apart from the other half dozen people invited to this hen-do. I opened my eyes cautiously to find we were round and picking up speed in the opposite direction. OK, its here. It looks like a footpath on the map but Flos definitely marked it. It is a footpath! She swung the wheel, we bumped through the opening, and the little car began jolting and bumping up a rutted, muddy track. I believe the technical term is unpaved road, I said rather breathlessly, as Nina skirted a huge mud-filled trench that looked more like a watering hole for hippos, and wound round yet another bend. Is this their drive? There must be half a mile of track here. We were on the last print-out, the one so big it was practically an aerial photograph, and I couldnt see any other houses marked. If its their drive, Nina said jerkily as the car bounced over another rut, they should bloody well maintain it. If I break the chassis on this hire car Im suing someone. I dont care who, but Im buggered if Im paying for it. But as we rounded the next bend, we were suddenly there. Nina drove the car through a narrow gate, parked up and killed the engine, and we both got out, staring up at the house in front of us. I dont know what Id expected, but not this. Some thatched cottage, perhaps, with beams and low ceilings. What actually stood in the forest clearing was an extraordinary collection of glass and steel, looking as if it had been thrown down carelessly by a child tired of playing with some very minimalist bricks. It looked so incredibly out of place that both Nina and I just stood, open-mouthed. As the door opened I saw a flash of bright blonde hair, and I had a moment of complete panic. This was a mistake. I should never have come, but it was too late to turn back. Standing in the doorway was Clare. Only she was different. It was ten years, I tried to remind myself. People change, they put on weight. The people we are at sixteen are not the people we are at twenty-six I should know that, more than anyone. But Clare it was like something had broken, some light inside her had gone out. Then she spoke and the illusion was broken. Her voice was the only thing that bore no resemblance to Clare whatsoever. It was quite deep, where Clares was high and girlish, and it was very, very posh. Hi!!! she said, and somehow her tone gave the word three exclamation marks, and I knew, before she spoke again, who it was. Im Flo! You know when you see the brother or sister of someone famous, and its like looking at them, but in one of those fairground mirrors? Only one that distorts so subtly its hard to put your finger on whats different, only that it is different. Some essence has been lost, a false note in the song. That was the girl at the front door. Oh my God! she said. Its so great to see you! You must be She looked from me to Nina and picked the easy option. Nina is six-foot-one and Brazilian. Well, her dads from Brazil. She was born in Reading and her mums from Dalston. She has the profile of a hawk and the hair of Eva Longoria. Nina, right? Yup. Nina stuck out a hand. And youre Flo, I take it? Yah! Nina shot me a look that dared me to laugh. I never thought people really said Yah, or if they did, they got it punched out of them at school or sniggered out of them at university. Maybe Flo was made of tougher stuff. Flo shook Ninas hand enthusiastically and then turned to me with a beaming smile. In that case youre Lee, right? Nora, I said reflexively. Nora? She frowned, puzzled. My names Leonora, I said. At school I was Lee, but now I prefer Nora. I did mention it in the email. Id always hated being Lee. It was a boys name, a name that lent itself to teasing and rhyme. Lee Lee needs a wee. Lee Lee smells of pee. And then with my surname, Shaw: We saw Lee Shaw on the sea shore. Lee was dead and gone now. At least I hoped so. Oh, right! Ive got a cousin called Leonora! We call her Leo. I tried to hide the flinch. Not Leo. Never Leo. Only one person ever called me that. The silence stretched, until Flo broke it with a slightly brittle laugh. Ha! Right. OK. Well, this is going to be so much fun! Clares not here yet but as maid of honour I felt I should do my duty and get here first! What hideous tortures have you got lined up for us then? Nina asked as she yanked her case across the threshold. Feather boas? Chocolate penises? I warn you, Im allergic to them I have an anaphylactic reaction. Dont make me get my Epipen out. Flo laughed nervously. She looked at me and then back at Nina, trying to gauge whether Nina was joking. Ninas delivery is hard to read if you dont know her. Nina stared back seriously, and I could tell she was wondering whether to dangle the bait a bit closer. Lovely, um house, I said, to try to head her off, although in truth lovely wasnt the word I was thinking of. In spite of the trees to either side, the place looked painfully exposed, baring its great glass facade to the eyes of the whole valley. Isnt it! Flo beamed, looking relieved to be back on safe ground. Its actually my aunts holiday house, but she doesnt come here much in the winter too isolated. Sitting rooms through here She led us through an echoing hallway the full height of the house, and into a long, low room with the entire opposite wall made of glass, facing the forest. There was something strangely naked about it, like we were in a stage set, playing our parts to an audience of eyes out there in the wood. I shivered, and turned my back to the glass, looking round the room. In spite of the long squashy sofas, the place felt oddly bare and after a second I realised why. It wasnt just the lack of clutter and the minimalist decor three pots on the mantelpiece, a single Mark Rothko painting on the wall but the fact that there wasnt a single book in the whole place. It didnt even feel like a holiday cottage every place Ive ever stayed in has had a shelf of curling Dan Browns and Agatha Christies. It felt more like a show home. Landline is in here. Flo pointed to a vintage dial-and-cord phone that looked strangely lost in this modernist environment. Mobile reception is very glitchy so feel free to use it. But I wasnt looking at the phone. Above the stark modern fireplace was something even more out of place: a polished shotgun, perched on wooden pegs drilled into the wall. It looked like it had been transplanted from a country pub. Was it real? I tried to tear my eyes away as I realised Flo was still talking. and upstairs are the bedrooms, she finished. Want a hand with those cases? No, Im fine, I said, at the same time Nina said, Well, if youre offering Flo looked taken aback, but gamely took Ninas huge, wheeled case and began to lug it up the flight of frosted-glass stairs. As I was saying, she panted as we rounded the newel post, theres four bedrooms. I thought wed have me and Clare in one, you guys in another, Tom will have to have his own, obvs. Obvs, said Nina, straight-faced. I was too busy processing the news that Id be sharing a room. Id assumed Id have my own space to retreat to. And that just leaves Mels Melanie, you know as the odd one out. Shes got a six-month-old so I thought out of us girls, she probably deserved a room of her own the most! What? Shes not bringing it, is she? Nina looked genuinely alarmed. Flo gave a honking laugh and then put her hand up to her mouth, smothering the noise self-consciously. No! Just, you know, shell probably need a good nights sleep more than the rest of us. Oh, OK. Nina peered into one of the bedrooms. Which one is ours then? The two back ones are the biggest. You and Lee can have the one on the right if you like, its got twin beds. The other ones got a four-poster double, but I dont mind squishing up with Clare. She stopped, breathing hard, on the landing and gestured to a blond wood door on the right-hand side. There you go. Inside there were two neat white beds and a low dressing table, all as anonymous as a hotel room, and, facing the beds, the creepily obligatory wall of glass, looking north over the pine forest. Here it was harder to understand. The ground sloped up at the back of the house and so there was no spectacular view as there was from the front. Instead the effect was more claustrophobic than anything a wall of dark green, already deepening into shadow with the setting sun. There were heavy cream curtains gathered in each corner, and I had to fight the urge to rip them across the enormous expanse of glass. Behind me Flo let Ninas case fall with a thud to the floor. I turned, and she smiled, a huge beam that made her suddenly look almost as pretty as Clare. Any questions? Yes, Nina said. Mind if I smoke in here? Flos face fell. Im afraid my aunt doesnt like smoking indoors. But youve got a balcony. She wrestled with a folding door in the glass wall for a moment and then flung it open. You can smoke out here if you like. Super, Nina said. Thanks. Flo struggled with the door again, and then swung it shut. She straightened, her face pink with exertion, dusting her hands on her skirt. Right! Well, Ill let you get unpacked. See you downstairs, yah? Yah! Nina said enthusiastically, and I tried to cover it by saying Thanks! unnecessarily loudly, in a way that only managed to make me sound weirdly aggressive. Um, yeah! OK! Flo said, uncertainly, and then she backed out of the doorway and was gone. Nina I said warningly, as she made her way across to gaze out across the forest. What? she said over her shoulder. And then, So Toms definitely of the male persuasion, judging by Flos determination to quarantine his raging Y chromosomes from our delicate lady parts. I couldnt help but snort. Thats the thing about Nina. You forgive her stuff that other people would never get away with. I think hes probably gay dont you? I mean, why would he be on a hen night otherwise? Um, contrary to what you seem to believe, batting for the other team doesnt actually change your gender. I think. No, wait She peered down her top. No, were all good. Double-Ds all present and correct. Thats not what I meant, and you know it. I banged my own case down on the bed, and then remembered my washbag, and unzipped it more gingerly. My trainers were on top, and I set them down neatly by the door, a reassuring little emergency exit sign. Hen nights are partly about an appreciation of the male form. Thats what women have in common with gay men. Christ, now you tell me. Perfect excuse lined up and you never trotted it out until now. Could you Reply-all to my next hen-night invitation saying Sorry, Nina cant come as she doesnt appreciate the male form? Oh for Gods sake. I said partly an appreciation. Its all right. She turned back to the window, peering out into the forest, the tree trunks dark streaks in the green gloaming. There was a tragic crack in her voice. Im used to being excluded from heteronormative society. Fuck off, I said grumpily, and when she turned around she was laughing. Why are we here, anyway? she asked, throwing herself backwards onto one of the twin beds and kicking off her shoes. I dont know about you, but I havent seen Clare in about three years. I said nothing. I didnt know what to say. Why had I come? Why had Clare invited me? Nina, I started. There was a lump in my throat, and I felt my heart quicken. Nina, who? But before I could finish, the sound of pounding filled the room, echoing up through the open hallway. There was someone at the door. Suddenly I wasnt at all sure I was ready to get the answers to my questions. 4 NINA AND I looked at each other. My heart was thudding like a stray echo of the door knocker, but I tried to keep my face calm. Ten years. Had she changed? Had I changed? I swallowed. There was the sound of Flos feet echoing in the high atrium of the hallway, then metal shrieking on metal as she opened the heavy door, followed by the murmur of voices as whoever it was came into the house. I listened carefully. It didnt sound like Clare. In fact beneath Flos laugh I could hear something that sounded distinctly male? Nina rolled over and raised herself up on one elbow. Well, well, well sounds like the fully Y-chromosomed Tom has arrived. Nina What? What are you looking at me like that for? Shall we go downstairs and meet the cock in the hen house? Nina! Dont. Dont what? She swung her feet to the floor and stood up. Dont embarrass us. Him. If were hens, naturally that makes him a cock. Im using the term in its purely zoological sense. Nina! But she was gone, loping down the glass stairs in her stockinged feet, and I heard her voice floating up the stairwell. Hello, dont think weve met Dont think weve met. Well, it definitely wasnt Clare then. I took a deep breath and followed her down into the hallway. I saw the little group from above first. By the front door was a girl with smooth shiny black hair tied in a knot at the base of her skull presumably Melanie. She was smiling and nodding at something Flo was saying, but she had a mobile in her hand and was poking distractedly at the screen even while Flo talked. On the opposite side was a bloke, Burberry case in hand. He had smooth chestnut hair and was immaculately dressed in a white shirt that must have been professionally laundered no normal person could produce creased sleeves like that and a pair of grey wool trousers that screamed Paul Smith. He looked up as he heard my feet on the stairs and smiled. Hi, Im Tom. Hi, Im Nora. I forced myself down the last few steps, and held out my hand. There was something incredibly familiar about his face, and I tried to figure out what it was while we shook, but I couldnt place it. Instead I turned to the dark-haired girl. And you must be Melanie? Um, hi, yeah. She looked up and gave a flustered smile. Sorry, I just I left my six-month-old at home with my partner. First time Ive done it. I really wanted to call home and check in. Isnt there any reception here? Not really, Flo said apologetically. Her face was flushed with nerves or excitement, I wasnt sure which. Sorry. You can sometimes get a bit from the top end of the garden or the balconies, depending on what network youre on. But theres a landline in the living room. Let me show you. She led the way through and I turned back to Tom. I still had an odd feeling Id seen him somewhere before. So, how do you know Clare I asked awkwardly. Oh, you know. Theatre connections. Everyone knows everyone! It was actually through my husband originally hes a director. Nina gave me a theatrical wink behind Toms back. I frowned furiously and then rearranged my face as I saw Tom looking puzzled. Sorry, go on, Nina said seriously. Anyway, I met Clare at a fundraiser for the Royal Theatre Company. Bruce was directing something there, we just got talking shop. Youre an actor? Nina asked. No, playwright. Its always strange meeting another writer. A little feeling of camaraderie, a masonic bond. I wonder if plumbers feel like this meeting other plumbers, or if accountants give each other secret nods. Maybe its because we meet comparatively rarely; writers tend to spend the bulk of their working life alone. Noras a writer, Nina said. She eyed us both as if unleashing two bantam-weights into the ring to scrap it out. Oh really? Tom looked at me as if seeing me for the first time. What do you write? Ugh. The question I hate. Ive never got comfortable talking about my writing never got over that feeling of people riffling through my private thoughts. Um fiction, I said vaguely. Crime fiction was the truth, but if you say that people want to suggest plots and motives for murder. Really? What name do you write under? Nice way of saying Have I heard of you? Most people phrase it less gracefully. L.N. Shaw, I said. The N doesnt stand for anything, I dont have a middle name. I just put that in because L. Shaw sounded odd, whereas L.N. is more pronounceable, if you know what I mean. So you write plays? Yes. Im always rather jealous of novelists the way you get to control everything. You dont have to deal with actors massacring your best lines. He flashed a smile, showing unnaturally perfect white teeth. I wondered if hed had porcelain veneers fitted. But it must be nice working with other people? I ventured. Sharing the responsibility, I mean. A plays a big thing, right? Yes, I suppose so. You have to share the glory but at least when the shit hits the fan its a collective splattering, I guess. I was about to say something else when there was a ching from the living room as Melanie put down the phone. Tom turned to look towards the sound, and something about the angle of his head, or his expression, made me realise where Id seen him before. That picture. Clares profile picture from Facebook. It was him. So the person in her photo wasnt her new partner at all. I was still processing this when Melanie came out smiling. Phew, got through to Bill. All absolutely fine on the home front. Sorry I was a bit distracted Ive never been away for the night before and its a bit of a leap of faith. Not that Bill wont manage, Im sure he will but oh anyway, I should stop rabbiting on. Youre Nora, is that right? Go through into the living room! Flo called from the kitchen. Im making tea. Obediently we trooped through and I watched Tom and Melanie as they took in the huge room, with its long glass wall. That view of the forest is quite something, isnt it? Tom said at last. Yes. I stared out into the woods. It was growing dark and somehow the shadows made it feel as if all the trees had taken a collective step towards the house, leaning in to shut out the sky. It makes you feel a bit exposed somehow, doesnt it? I think its the lack of curtains. Bit like having your skirt tucked into your knickers at the back! Melanie said unexpectedly, and then laughed. I like it, Tom said. It feels like a stage. And were the audience? Melanie asked. This production seems a bit boring. The actors are rather wooden! She pointed out to the trees, in case we hadnt got the pun. Geddit? Trees, wood We got it, Nina said sourly. But I dont think thats what Tim meant, was it? Tom, Tom said. There was a slight edge to his voice. But no, I was thinking of it the other way around. Were the actors. He turned to face the glass wall. The audience the audience is out there. For some reason his words made me shiver. Perhaps it was the tree trunks, like silent watchers in the growing dark. Or perhaps it was the lingering chill that Tom and Melanie had brought with them from the outside. Either way, leaving London the weather had felt like autumn; suddenly, so much further north, it felt like winter had come overnight. It wasnt just the close-growing pines shutting out the light with their dense needles, nor the cold, crisp air with its promise of frost to come. The night was drawing in, and the house felt more and more like a glass cage, blasting its light blindly out into the dusk, like a lantern in the dark. I imagined a thousand moths circling and shivering, drawn inexorably to its glow, only to perish against the cold, inhospitable glass. Im cold, I said to change the subject. Me too. Nina rubbed her arms. Think we can get that stove-thing working? Is it gas? Melanie knelt in front of it. Its wood. She struggled with a handle and then a door in the front popped open. Ive got one a bit similar at home. Flo! she shouted through to the kitchen, Is it OK if we light the stove? Yep! Flo yelled back. Theres firelighters on the mantelpiece. Inside a pot. Ill be through in a tick if you cant work it out. Tom moved across to the mantelpiece and started peering into the handful of minimalist pots but then he stopped, his eyes arrested by the same sight that had stopped me in my tracks earlier. Ker-rist. It was the shotgun, perched on its wooden pegs, just above eye-level. Havent they heard of Chekhov round here? Chekhov? said a voice from the hall. It was Flo, edging through the door with a tray on her hip. The Russian guy? Dont worry, its loaded with blanks. My aunt keeps it for scaring off rabbits. They eat the bulbs and dig up the garden. She shoots at them out of the French windows. Its a bit Texan, isnt it? Tom said. He hurried forward to help Flo with the tray. You know, not that I dont enjoy the red-neck vibe, but having it right there, in your face its a bit disconcerting for those of us who tend to keep morbid thoughts further at bay. I know what you mean, Flo said. She probably should have a gun cabinet or something. But it was my grandfathers so its sort of a family heirloom. And the veg patch is right outside these doors well, in the summer anyway so its just more practical having it to hand. Melanie got the fire going, Flo began to pour tea and dish out biscuits and the conversation moved on to hire-car charges, the cost of rent, whether to put the milk in first. I was silent, thinking. Tea? For a moment I didnt move, didnt answer. Then Flo tapped me on the shoulder, making me jump. Tea, Lee? Nora, I said. I tried to force a smile. Im Im sorry. Do you have coffee? I should have said, Im not that keen on tea. Flos face fell. Im so sorry, I should have No, we dont. Its probably too late to get anything now the nearest village is forty minutes away and the shopll be shut. Im so sorry, I was thinking about Clare when I was doing the food shop, and she does love her tea I never thought Its fine, I cut her off with a smile. Honestly. I took the cup she held out and sipped at it. It was scalding and it tasted utterly, revoltingly like tea hot milk and gravy browning. She should be here soon. Flo looked at her watch. Shall I run through proceedings so we know whats happening? We all nodded and Flo got out a list. I felt, rather than heard, Ninas gusting sigh. So Clare should be here at six, then I thought wed have a little drinky Ive got some champers in the fridge, and I picked up the bits for mojitos and margaritas and stuff and I thought we wouldnt bother with a proper sit-down supper Ninas face fell Ive just got some pizzas and dips and we can stick it all out on the coffee table in here and dig in. And I thought while we did that we could play a few getting-to-know-you games. You all know Clare, obvs, but I dont think many of us know each other is that right? In fact, we should probably do a quick round-the-table introduction before Clare gets here, maybe? We all looked at each other, sizing each other up, wondering who was going to have the chutzpah to begin. For the first time I tried to fit Tom, Melanie and Flo in with the Clare I knew, and it wasnt entirely easy. Tom was obvious with his expensive clothes and theatre background it wasnt hard to see what they had in common. Clare had always loved good-looking people, women as well as men, and she took an uncomplicated, generous pride in the attractiveness of friends. There was nothing snide about her admiration she was beautiful enough herself to be unthreatened by beauty in others and she loved helping people make the best of themselves, even the less promising candidates like me. I remembered being dragged around to shop after shop before a big night out, with Clare holding up dresses against my skinny bust-less frame and pursing her lips in appraisal until she found the one that was perfect for me. She had an eye for what flattered. She was the one who had told me I should get my hair cropped. I had never listened to her back then. Now, ten years later, I wore it short and I knew shed been right. Melanie and Flo were more mysterious. Something Melanie had said during the early emails had made me think she worked as a lawyer, or possibly an accountant, and she did have the faint air of someone who would be more comfortable in a suit. Her handbag and shoes were expensive but the jeans she was wearing were what Clare, ten years ago, would have called mum jeans generic blue, unflatteringly cut to bunch at the top. Flos jeans on the other hand were pure designer, but there was something oddly uncomfortable about the way she wore them. The entire outfit looked like it had been picked wholesale off a display in All Saints with no regard for whether it fitted or flattered her frame, and as I watched she pulled awkwardly at the top, trying to tug it down over the soft chubby bulge where the waist of her jeans cut into her hip. It looked like the kind of outfit Clare might have picked out for herself, but only someone cruel would have suggested it to Flo. Flo and Melanie together made a strange contrast with Tom. It was hard to imagine the Clare Id known with either of them. Was it just that they had been friends at university and had stayed in touch? I knew that kind of friendship, the one you make in Freshers Week and realise as time goes on that youve nothing in common besides staying in the same halls, but somehow you keep sending birthday cards and Facebook likes. But then, it was ten years since I had known Clare. Maybe the Melanie-and-Flo Clare was the real one now. As I looked round the circle, I saw that the others were doing the same thing: sizing up the guests they didnt know, trying to fit the strangers in with their mental image of Clare. I caught Toms eye as he stared at me with a frank curiosity that bordered almost on hostility, and dropped my own gaze to the floor. No one wanted to go first. The silence stretched until it threatened to become awkward. Ill begin, Melanie said. She pushed her hair back off her face and fiddled with something at her neckline. I saw that it was a tiny silver cross on a chain, the kind you get as a christening present. Im Melanie Cho, well Melanie Blaine-Cho now I guess, but its a bit of a mouthful and Ive kept my own name for work. I shared a house at university with Flo and Clare, but I took two years out before uni so Im a bit older than the rest of you guys at least I dont know about you, Tom? Im twenty-eight. Twenty-seven, Tom said. So Im the group granny. Ive just had a baby, well, six months ago. And Im breast-feeding so please excuse me if you see me running out of the room with giant wet patches on my boobs. Are you pumping and dumping? Flo asked sympathetically, and over her shoulder I saw Nina go cross-eyed and mime strangling herself. I looked away, refusing to be drawn in. Yes, I thought about trying to bag it, but I thought, well, Ill probably be drinking and taking it back down will be a right pain. Um what else? I live in Sheffield. Im a lawyer, but Im on maternity leave. My husbands looking after Ben today. Bens our baby. Hes oh well, you dont want to hear me bore on. Hes just lovely. She smiled, her rather worried face lighting up and two deep dimples forming in her cheeks, and I felt a pang at my heart. Not broodiness I didnt want to be pregnant in any way, shape or form but a pang for that complete, uncomplicated happiness. Go on, show us a piccie, Tom said. Melanie dimpled again and pulled out her phone. Well, if you insist. Look, this was when he was born I saw a picture of her, lying back on a hospital bed, her face bleached to clay-colour and her hair in black rats tails around her shoulders, beaming tiredly down at a white bundle in her arms. I had to look away. And this is him smiling it wasnt his first smile, I didnt catch that, but Bill was away in Dubai so I made sure I snapped the next one and texted him. And this is him now you cant see his face very well, hes got his bowl on his head, bless. The baby was unrecognisable from the angry, blue-black stare of the first picture a chubby fat-faced little thing, crowing with laughter. His face was half-obscured by an orange plastic dish, and some kind of green goop was running down his round cheeks. Bless! Flo said. He looks just like Bill, doesnt he? Oh my God! Tom looked half-amused, half-horrified. Welcome to parenthood. Please abandon your dry-clean-only clothes at the door. Melanie tucked her phone away, the smile still on her lips. It is a bit like that. But its amazing how quickly you get used to it. It seems completely normal to me now to check my hair for gobs of porridge before I leave the house. Lets not talk about him anyway, Im already homesick enough, I dont want to make it worse. What about you, Nina? She turned to where Nina was sitting beside the stove, hugging her knees. I remember we met once at Durham, didnt we? Or did I imagine that? No, youre right, I did come up once. I think I was on my way to see a mate at Newcastle. I dont remember meeting Flo, but I definitely remember running into you in the bar was that right? Melanie nodded. For those of you who dont know, Im Nina, I was at school with Clare and Nora. Im a doctor well, Im training to be a surgeon, actually. In fact I just spent three months overseas with M?decins sans Fronti?res where I learned a whole lot more than I ever wanted to about gunshot trauma wounds in spite of what the Maild have you believe we dont see a whole load of those in Hackney. She rubbed at her face and for the first time since wed left London I saw her veneer crack a little. I knew Colombia had affected her, but Id only seen her twice since she came back and both times she hadnt talked about it, except to make some jokes about the food. For a moment I got a glimmer of what it might be like to patch people together for a living and sometimes fail. Anyway, she forced a smile. Tim, Timmy-boy, Timbo: shoot. Yes Tom said, with a wry look, well, I suppose the first thing that you should know about me is that my name is Tom. Tom Deauxma. Im a playwright, as previously advertised. Im not huge, but Ive done a lot of fringe stuff and won a few awards. Im married to the theatre director Bruce Westerly maybe youve heard of him? There was a pause. Nina was shaking her head. Toms eye travelled around the circle looking for recognition until it rested hopefully on me. Reluctantly I gave a little shake. I felt bad, but lying wasnt going to help. He gave a small sigh. Oh well, I guess if youre outside the theatre maybe you dont notice the director as much. Thats how I know Clare via her work for the Royal Theatre Company. Bruce does quite a bit with them and he directed Coriolanus, of course. Of course, Flo said, nodding earnestly. After my previous failure I felt I could at least pretend knowledge of this, so I nodded along with Flo maybe slightly too enthusiastically: I felt my hair tie slip out. Nina yawned and got up to leave the room without a word. We live in Camden We have a dog called Spartacus, Sparky for short. Hes a labradoodle. Two years old. Hes completely adorable but not the ideal dog for a couple of workaholics who travel a lot. Luckily we have a brilliant dog-walker. Im a vegetarian What else? Oh dear, thats a terrible indictment, isnt it? Two minutes and Ive run out of interesting things to say about myself. Oh and I have a tattoo of a heart on my shoulder blade. Thats it. How about you, Nora? For some unfathomable reason, I felt myself flush scarlet and my fingers lost their grip on the teacup, slopping tea onto my knee. I busied myself wiping it up with the corner of my scarf and then looked up to find Nina had slipped back inside. She was holding her tobacco pouch and rolling up with one hand, watching me steadily with her wide dark eyes as she did. I forced myself to speak. Not much to tell. I, um I met Clare at school, like Nina. We We havent spoken for ten years. I dont know why Im here. I dont know why Im here. I swallowed, painfully. We lost touch a bit, I guess. My face felt hot. The stove was really starting to throw out heat. I went to tuck my hair behind my ears, but Id forgotten it had been cut, and my fingers only skimmed the short strands, my skin warm and damp beneath. Um, Im a writer. I went to UCL and I started work at a magazine after university but I was pretty crap at it probably my own fault, I spent all my time scribbling my novel instead of doing research and making contacts. Anyway, I sold my first book when I was twenty-two and Ive been a full-time writer ever since. And you support yourself entirely on your books? Tom raised an eyebrow. Respect. Well, not entirely. I mean I do the odd bit of online teaching here and there editorial reports and stuff. And I was lucky Lucky? I wanted to bite my tongue. Well, maybe not lucky, thats not the right word, but my grandad died when I was in my teens and I got some money, enough for a tiny studio flat in Hackney. Its absolutely minuscule, only room for me and my laptop, but I dont have any rent to pay. I think its really nice that youve all kept in touch, Tom said. You and Clare and Nina, I mean. I dont think Ive kept in contact with any of my friends from school. Ive got nothing in common with most of them. It wasnt the happiest time for me. He looked at me steadily, and I felt myself flush. I went to tuck my hair again, and then dropped my hand. Was it my imagination or was there something slightly malicious in his gaze? Did he know something? I struggled for a moment, wanting to answer, but not sure what I could say that wasnt an outright lie. As I floundered, the silence growing more uncomfortable by the second, the wrongness of this whole situation struck me all over again. What the hell was I doing here? Ten years. Ten years. I think everyone has a shit time at school, Nina said at last, breaking the pause. I certainly did. I looked at her gratefully and she gave me a little wink. Whats the secret, then? Tom asked. To long-lived friendships? How have you managed to keep it up all these years? I looked at him again, sharply this time. Why the hell couldnt he just let it drop? But there was nothing I could say not without looking like a crazy person. I dont know, I said at last, trying to keep my voice pleasant, but I could feel the strain in my smile. I could only pray that my expression wasnt as obviously fake as it felt. Luck, I guess. Significant others? Melanie asked. No. Just me. Not even a labradoodle. It was meant to raise a laugh, and they duly did, but it was a thin, lacklustre chorus with a pitying note. Flo? I said quickly, trying to get the spotlight off myself. Flo beamed. Well, I met Clare at university. We were both studying History of Art and we got allocated to the same halls of residence. I walked into the Common Room and there she was, sitting in front of EastEnders, chewing her hair you know that funny way shes got of twisting a lock around her finger and nibbling on it? So sweet. I tried to remember. Had Clare ever done this? It sounded disgusting. A faint memory came of Clare sitting in the caf? next to the school, twisting her plait around her finger. Maybe she had. She was wearing that blue dress I think shes still got it, cant believe she fits into it! Ive put on at least a stone since uni! Anyway I went up and said hi, and she said Oh, I like your scarf, and weve been BFFs ever since. I just shes just great, you know? Shes been such an inspiration, so supportive. Theres not many people who She gulped, and broke off, struggling, and to my horror I saw she was welling up. Well, anyway, never mind all that. Shes my rock, and Id do anything for her. Anything. I just want her to have the best hen night ever, you know? I want it to be perfect. It means everything to me. Its like its like its the last thing I can do for her, you know? There were tears in her eyes, and she spoke with an intensity so fierce it was almost frightening. Looking around the circle I saw that I wasnt the only one taken aback Tom looked frankly startled, and Ninas eyebrows had disappeared beneath her fringe. Only Melanie looked totally unconcerned, as if this was a normal level of emotion to feel for your best friend. Shes getting married, not going to prison, Nina said drily, but either Flo didnt hear, or she ignored the remark. Instead she coughed, and swiped at her eyes. Sorry. Oh God, Im such a sentimental moo! Look at me. And, er, what do you do now? Tom asked politely. As he said it I realised Flo had told us entirely about Clare and almost nothing about herself. Oh. Flo looked down at the floor. Well, you know. A bit of this. Bit of that. I I took some time out after uni. I wasnt in a good place. Clare was amazing. When I was Well, never mind that. The thing is, shes just just the best friend a girl could have, honestly. God, look at me! She blew her nose and stood up. Whos for more tea? We all shook our heads and she picked up the tray and went through to the kitchen. Melanie took out her phone and checked the signal again. Well, that was weird, Nina said flatly. What? Melanie looked up. Flo and the quote-unquote perfect hen. Nina spelled out. Dont you think shes a little intense? Oh, Melanie said. She glanced out of the door towards the kitchen and then lowered her voice. Look, I dont know if I should be saying this but theres no sense in beating round the bush. Flo had a bit of a breakdown in her third year. Im not sure what happened but she dropped out before her finals she never graduated as far as I know. So thats why shes a bit, you know, sensitive, about that period. She doesnt really like discussing it. Um, OK, Nina said. But I knew what she was thinking. What had been alarming about Flo wasnt her reserve about what happened after uni that was the least odd part of the whole thing. It was everything else that had been unnerving. 5 I WANT TO sleep, but they shine lights in my eyes. They test and scan and print me, and take away my clothes, stiff with blood. Whats happened? What have I done? Im wheeled down long corridors, their lights dimmed for night, past wards of sleeping patients. Some of them wake as I pass, and I can see my state reflected in their shocked expressions, in the way they turn their faces away, as from something pitiable or horrifying. The doctors ask me questions I cant answer, tell me things I cant remember. Then at last I am hooked up to a monitor and left, drugged and bleary and alone. But not quite alone. I turn painfully onto my side, and thats when I see: through the wire-hatched glass of the door is a policewoman sitting patiently on a stool. Im being guarded. But I dont know why. I lie there, staring through the glass at the back of the police officers head. I want so badly to go out there and ask questions, but I dont dare. Partly because Im not sure if my woolly legs will carry me to the door but partly because I am not sure if I can bear the answers. I lie for what feels like a long time, listening to the hum of the equipment, and the click of the morphine syringe driver. The pain in my head and legs dulls, and becomes distant. And then at last I sleep. I dream of blood, spreading and pooling and soaking me. I am kneeling in the blood trying to stop it but I cant. It soaks my pyjamas. It spreads across the bleached wood floor And thats when I wake up. For a second I just lie there with my heart pounding in my chest and my eyes adjusting to the dim night-lights of the room. I have a raging thirst and a pain in my bladder. Theres a plastic cup on the locker, just by my head, and with a huge effort I reach out and hook one trembling finger around the rim, pulling it towards myself. It tastes flat and plasticky, but my God, drinking never felt so good. I drain it dry and then let my head flop back on the pillow with a jar that sets stars dancing in the dim light. For the first time I realise there are leads coming out from under the sheets, connecting me to some kind of monitor, its flickering screen sending dim green shadows across the room. One of the leads is attached to a finger on my left hand and when I lift it up I see to my surprise that my hand is scratched and bloodied, and my already bitten nails are broken. I remember I remember a car I remember stumbling across broken glass one of my shoes had come off Beneath the sheets I rub my feet together, feeling the pain in one, and the swollen bulge of a dressing on the other. And across my shins I can feel the stretch and pull of some kind of surgical tape across one leg. Its only when my hand strays to my shoulder, my right shoulder, that I wince and look down. Theres a vast spreading bruise coming out from beneath the hospital gown, running down my arm. When I shrug my shoulder out of the neckline I can see a mass of purple blooming out from a dark swollen centre, just above my armpit. What could make such an odd, one-sided bruise? I feel like the memory is hovering just beyond my fingertips but it remains stubbornly out of reach. Have I had an accident? A car accident? Was I was I attacked? Painfully, I slide my hand beneath the sheets and run my palm across my belly, my breasts, my side. My arms are slashed with cuts but my body seems OK. I put my hand to my thighs, feel between my legs. Theres some kind of thick nappy-thing, but no pain. No cuts. No bruises on the inside of my thighs. Whatever happened, it wasnt that. I lie back and shut my eyes, tired tired of trying to remember, tired of being afraid and the syringe driver clicks and whirrs and suddenly nothing seems as important any more. It is just as Im drifting off to sleep that an image comes to me: a shotgun, hanging on a wall. And suddenly I know. The bruise is a recoil bruise. At some point in the recent past, I have fired a gun. 6 FLO, I STUCK my head around the kitchen door. Flo was loading the dishwasher with cups. You shouldnt be doing that all by yourself. Can I help? No! Dont be silly. Its done. She slammed the dishwasher shut. What is it? Anything I can help with? Im so sorry about the coffee. What? Oh honestly, its fine. Listen, what time did you say Clare was due to get here? About six I think. She looked up at the kitchen clock. So weve got an hour and a half to kill. OK, well I was just wondering have I got time to go for a quick run? A run? She looked startled. Well, I guess but its getting dark. I wont go far. Its just I shifted awkwardly. I couldnt explain it to her. I have trouble explaining it to myself, but I had to get out, get away. I run almost every day at home. I have about four different routes, variations going through Victoria Park in fine weather or street runs when its wet or dark. I give myself a couple of days off a week they say you should, to let your muscles repair but sooner or later the need builds up and then I have to run. If I dont, I get I dont know what youd call it. Cabin fever, maybe. A kind of claustrophobia. I hadnt run yesterday Id been too busy packing and tying up loose ends and now I felt a powerful itch to get out of this box-like house. Its not about the physical exercise or at least, its not only that. Ive tried running in a gym, on a treadmill, and its not the same. Its about getting out, not having walls around myself, being able to get away. I guess youve got time, Flo said, glancing out the window at the deepening twilight, but youd better be quick. When it gets dark here it gets really, really dark. Ill be quick. Is there a route I should go for? Hmm I think your best bet would be to take the forest path down Hang on, come into the living room. She led me through and pointed out of the huge window-wall to a shadowy gap in the forest. See, thats a footpath. It leads down through the wood to the main road. Itll be firmer and less muddy than the drive much easier to run. You just follow it down until you hit tarmac, but then Id turn right along the main road and come back up the drive itll be too dark by then to run back through the forest, the path isnt fenced and you could end up going in totally the wrong direction. Hang on, she went back to the kitchen, rummaged in a drawer and pulled out something that looked like a set of badly folded suspenders. Take this its a head-torch. I thanked her, and hurried up to my room to pull on my running gear and trainers. Nina was lying on her bed, looking at the ceiling and listening to something on her iPhone. That Flos quite the fruitloop, isnt she? she said conversationally as I came in, pulling out her earphones. Is that a medical term, Dr da Souza? Yes. From the Latin Fruitus Lupus, fruit of the moon, associated with the pagan belief that insanity was connected to bathing in the light of the full moon. I began laughing as I pulled off my jeans and yanked on my thermal running leggings and top. Lupus is Latin for wolf. Youre thinking of luna. Where are my trainers? I left them by the door. I chucked them under the bed. Anyway, werewolves turn crazy at the full moon. Same diff. Speaking of crazy, are you going out? Yes. I bent to look under the bed. There were my trainers, miles underneath. Thanks, Nina. I knelt and began fishing with my arm, my voice muffled by the bedclothes as I asked, Why? Let me see. She began ticking off the reasons on her fingers. Its dark, you dont know the neighbourhood, theres free wine and food downstairs oh, and did I mention its pitch fucking black outside? Its not pitch-black. I looked out of the window as I tied my trainer laces. It was pretty dark, but it wasnt pitch-black. The sun had set but the sky was clear and still illuminated by a diffuse pearly-grey light in the west, and a round white moon rising from the trees in the east. And its going to be a full moon, so it wont be that dark. Oh really, Miss Leonora Ive lived in London for the past eight years and never strayed more than fifty yards from a streetlamp in all that time Shaw? Really. I double-knotted the trainers and stood up straight. Dont give me grief, Nina, Ive got to get out or I really will go crazy, moon or no moon. Huh. Youre finding it that bad? No. But I was. I couldnt explain why. I couldnt tell Nina how it had made me feel, having strangers picking over my past with Clare downstairs, like someone picking at the edges of a half-healed wound. Id made a mistake in coming I knew that now. But I was stuck here, car-less, until Nina chose to go. No, Im fine. I just want to get out. Now. See you in an hour. I set off down the stairs, with her mocking laugh following me as I slammed out the door. You can run but you cant escape! Out in the forest I took a breath of the clean, crisp air and began to warm up. I stretched my limbs against the garage, looking out into the forest. The sense of menace, nearing claustrophobia, that Id had inside had gone. Was it the glass? The feeling that anyone could be out there, looking in, and wed never know it? Or was it the strange anonymity of the rooms that made me think of social experiments, of hospital waiting rooms? Out here, I realised, the sense of being watched had quite gone. I began to run. It was easy. This was easy. No questions, no one prodding and poking, just the sharp, sweet air and the soft thud of my feet on the carpet of pine needles. It had rained a fair bit, but the water could not sit on this soft, loose-draining soil the way it could on the compacted rutted drive, and there were few puddles, or even boggy bits, just miles of clean, springy pathway, the drifted needles of a thousand trees beneath the soles of my shoes. There are no other runners in my family or not that I know of but my grandmother was a walker. She said that when she was a girl and in a rage with a friend, she used to write their name on the soles of her feet in chalk, and walk until the name was gone. She said by the time the chalk had worn away, her resentment would have faded too. I dont do that. But I hold a mantra in my head, and I run until I cant hear it any more above the pounding of my heart and the pounding of my feet. Tonight although I wasnt angry at her, or at least, not any more I could hear my heart beating out her name: Clare, Clare, Clare, Clare. Down, down through the woods I ran, through the gathering dark and the soft night sounds. I saw bats swooping in the gloaming, and the sound of animals breaking from shelter. A fox shot across the path ahead and then stopped, superbly arrogant, his slim-nosed head following my scent as I thumped past in the quiet dusk. This was easy the downhill swoop, like flying through the twilight. And I didnt feel afraid, in spite of the darkness. Out here the trees werent silent watchers behind the glass, but friendly presences, welcoming me into the wood, parting before me as I ran, swift and barely panting, along the forest path. It would be the uphill stretch that tested me, the run back along the rutted, muddy drive, and I knew I must make it to the drive before it got so dark that I could not see the potholes. And so I ran harder, pushing myself. I had no time to keep, no target to make. I didnt even know the distance. But I knew what my legs could do and I kept my stride long and loose. I leapt over a fallen log, and for a minute I shut my eyes crazy in this dim light and I could almost imagine that I was flying, and would never meet the ground. At last I could see the road, a pale grey snake in the deepening shadows. As I broke out from the woods I heard the soft hoot of an owl, and I obeyed Flos instructions, turning right along the tarmac. I hadnt been running for long when I heard the sound of a car behind me and stopped, pressing myself up against the verge. I had no wish to be run down by someone not expecting to find a runner out at this time. The sound of the car came closer, brutally loud in the quiet night, and then it was upon me, the engine roaring like a chainsaw. My eyes were dazzled by the blinding headlights and then it was gone, into the darkness, only the red of its rear lights showing like ruby eyes in the darkness, backing away. Its passing had left me blinking and night-blind and even though I waited, hoping my eyes would readjust, the night seemed infinitely darker than a few moments ago, and I was suddenly afraid of running into the ditch at the side of the road, or tripping on a branch. I felt in my pocket for Flos head-torch and wrestled it on. It felt awkward, tight enough for the clip to dig in, but loose enough for me to worry about it falling off as I started up again. At least now I could see the patch of tarmac in front of me, the white markings at the side of the road glittering back at me in the torch beam. A break on the right showed me that I was at the drive, and I slowed and turned the corner. Now I was grateful for the head-torch, and it was not a matter of running any more, but a sort of slow, cautious jog, picking my way around muddy troughs and avoiding the potholes that might break an unwary ankle. Even so, my trainers were caked and every step felt like I was dragging a brick half a pound of clotted mud on the sole of each shoe. Id have fun cleaning them when I got back. I tried to remember how far it was half a mile? I kind of wished Id gone back through the wood, dark or no dark. But far up ahead I could see the beacon of the house, its blank glass walls shining golden in the night. The mud sucked at my feet, as if trying to keep me here in the dark, and I gritted my teeth and forced my tired legs to go a bit faster. I was maybe halfway when there was a sound from below, back on the main road. A car, slowing down. I didnt have a watch, and Id left my phone back at the house, but surely it couldnt be six yet? I hadnt been running for an hour, nothing like it. But there it was, the sound of an engine idling as the car made the turn, and then a gritting, growling roar as it began to plough up the hill, bouncing from pothole to pothole. I flattened myself against the hedge as it got closer, and stood, shielding my eyes from the glare, and hoping that the car wouldnt splash me with too much mud as it passed, but to my surprise it stopped, its exhaust a cloud of white against the moon, and I heard the whirr of an electric window and a blast of Beyonc?, quickly muffled as someone turned the volume down. I took a step closer, my heart pounding again, as if Id been running much faster than I had. The head-torch had been angled to point at the ground, for walking rather than talking, and I couldnt work out how to adjust it back up. Instead I pulled the apparatus from my head, holding it in my hand, and shone it into the pale face of the girl in the car. But I didnt need to. I knew who it was. Clare. Lee? she said, as if in disbelief. The light was full in her eyes, and she blinked and shielded them from the torch beam. My God, is it really you? I didnt What are you doing here? 7 FOR A MINUTE I didnt understand. Had there been some horrible mistake? Was it possible she hadnt invited me at all, and this was all Flos stupid idea? It Im y-your hen, I stammered. Didnt you? I know that, silly! She laughed, a nervous gust of white breath in the cold air. I meant, what are you doing out here? Are you training for an Arctic expedition or something? Having a run, I said, trying to make it sound like the most normal thing in the world. Its not that c-cold. Just a bit nippy. But I was cold now, standing still, and I ruined the last words by shivering convulsively. Get in, Ill give you a lift up to the house. She leaned across and opened the passenger door. Im my trainers, theyre pretty gross Dont worry. Its a hire car. Get in already, before we both freeze! I squelched round to the passenger side and got in, feeling the heat of the car strike through my cold, sweat-soaked thermals. The mud had penetrated my trainers. My toes were squishing inside the lining in a way that made me shudder. Clare put the car back into gear and hushed Single Ladies with a click of the mute button. The silence was suddenly deafening. So She looked at me sideways. She was just as beautiful as ever. Id been crazy to think ten years could have made a difference to Clare. Her beauty was bone-deep. Even in the dim light of the car, muffled up in an old hoodie and a giant snood-like scarf, she looked startling. Her hair was piled on top of her head in an adorably messy knot that spilled down over her shoulders. Her nails were painted scarlet, but chipped not try-hard, no one could accuse Clare of that. Pitch-perfect, more like. So, I echoed back. I had always felt like the poor relation in comparison to Clare. Ten years had changed nothing, I realised. Long time no see. She was shaking her head, her fingertips tapping on the wheel. But God, I mean its good to see you, Lee, you know? I said nothing. I wanted to tell her I was not that person any more I was Nora now, not Lee. I wanted to tell her it wasnt her fault, the reason I hadnt kept in touch was nothing to do with her that it was me. Only that wasnt completely true. Most of all, I wanted to ask her why I was here. But I didnt. I didnt say anything. I just sat, staring up at the house as we wound closer. Its really good to see you, she said again. So, youre a writer now is that right? Yes, I said. The words seemed strange and false in my mouth, as if I were lying, or telling stories about someone else, a distant relative perhaps. Yes, Im a writer. I write crime fiction. I heard. I saw a piece in the paper. Im so Im really pleased for you. Thats amazing, you know? You should be very proud. I shrugged. Its just a job. The words came out stiff and bitter I didnt mean them like that. I know Im lucky. And I worked hard to get here. I should be proud. I am proud. What about you? I managed. Im in PR. I work for the Royal Theatre Company. PR. That figured, and I smiled, a genuine smile this time. Clare was always amazing at spinning a story, even at twelve. Even at five. Im Im very happy, she said softly. And listen, Im sorry we lost touch seeing you we had some good times, didnt we? She glanced at me in the ghostly green light from the dashboard. Remember having our first fag together? She gave a laugh. First kiss first joint first time sneaking into an eighteen film First time getting chucked out, I retorted, and then wished I hadnt sounded so snide. Why? Why was I being so defensive? But Clare only laughed. Ha, what a humiliation! We thought we were being so clever getting Rick to buy the tickets and sneaking through to the loos. I didnt think theyd check at the screen door as well. Rick! Id forgotten him. Whats he up to these days? God knows! Probably in prison. For underage sex, if theres any justice. Rick had been Clares boyfriend for a year when we were fourteen or fifteen, a greasy long-haired twenty-two-year-old with a motorbike and a gold tooth. Id never liked him even at fourteen Id found it bizarre and disgusting that Clare would want to sleep with a bloke that age, despite the fact that he could get into clubs and buy alcohol. Ugh, he was such a creep, I said, before I thought better of it. I bit my tongue, but Clare only laughed. Totally! I cant believe I couldnt see it at the time. I thought I was so sophisticated having sex with an older guy! Now it seems like like one step away from paedophilia. She gave a snort and then an exclamation as the car bounced off a pothole. Oops! Sorry. There was silence for a while as she negotiated the last and most rutted part of the drive, and then we swung onto the gravelled space at the front of the house, tucking in neatly between Ninas hire car and Flos Landrover. Clare turned off the engine and for a minute we just sat in the dark car, contemplating the house, with the players inside ranged like actors on a stage, just as Tom had said. There was Flo, beavering away in the kitchen, bending over the oven. Melanie was hunched over the phone in the living room, Tom sprawled across a sofa directly opposite the plate-glass window, flicking through a magazine. Nina was nowhere to be seen out having a fag on the balcony, most likely. Why am I here? I thought again, with a kind of agony this time. Why did I come? Then Clare turned to me, her face lit by the golden light streaming from the house. Lee she said, at the same time as I said, Look What? she asked. I shook my head. No, you go first. No you, honestly. It wasnt important. My heart was beating painfully in my chest, and suddenly I couldnt ask it any more, the question on the tip of my tongue. Instead I forced out, Im not Lee any more. Im Nora. What? My name. I dont go by Lee any more. I never liked it. Oh. She was silent, digesting this. OK. So its Nora now, huh? Yes. Well, Ill do my best to remember. Its going to be hard though after, what, twenty-one years of knowing you as Lee. But you never knew me, I thought involuntarily, and then frowned. Of course Clare had known me. Shed known me since I was five. That was exactly the problem she knew me too well. She saw through the thin, adult veneer to the scrawny, frightened child beneath. Why, Clare? I said suddenly, and she looked up, her face blank and pale in the darkness. Why what? Why am I here? Oh God. She looked down at her hands. I knew youd ask that. I suppose you wouldnt believe me if I said auld lang syne and all that? I shook my head. Its not that, is it? You had ten years to make contact if you wanted to. Why now? Because She took a deep breath, and I was astonished to realise that she was nervous. It was hard to process. Id never seen her anything less than totally self-possessed; even aged five, shed had a stare that could make the most hardened teacher melt, or wilt, whichever she chose. It was, I suppose, why wed been friends, in a strange way. She had what I craved: that all-encompassing self-possession. Even standing in her shadow Id felt stronger. But not any more. Because she said again, and I saw her chipped, lacquered nails glint, red as blood, as her fingers twisted together and her nails caught the light from the house and reflected it back into the car. Because I thought you deserved to know. Deserved to be told face to face. I promised I promised myself Id do it to your face. What? I leaned forward. I wasnt frightened, only puzzled. Id forgotten my stained wet shoes, and the stench of sweat on my clothes. Id forgotten everything apart from this: Clares worried face, filled with an edgy vulnerability Id never seen before. Its about the wedding, she said. She looked down at her hands. Its about its about who Im marrying. Who? I said. And then, to make her laugh, to try to break the tension that was filling the car and infecting me, I said, Its not Rick, is it? I always knew No, she broke in, meeting my eyes at last, and there was not a shred of laughter there, only a kind of steely determination, as if she were about to do something unpleasant but utterly necessary. No. Its James. 8 FOR A MOMENT I stared at her, willing myself to have misheard. What? It its James. Im marrying James. I said nothing. I sat, staring out at the sentinel trees, hearing the blood in my ears hiss and pound. Something was building inside me like a scream. But I said nothing. I pushed it back down. James? Clare and James? Thats why I asked you. She was speaking fast now, as though she knew she didnt have much time, that I might get up and bolt from the car. I didnt want I thought I shouldnt invite you to the wedding. I thought it would be too hard. But I couldnt bear for you to hear it from somewhere else. But then who the hell is William Pilgrim? It burst out of me like an accusation. For a second Clare looked at me blankly. Then she realised, and her face changed, and at the same second I knew where Id heard that name before, and realised how stupid Id been. Billy Pilgrim. Slaughterhouse-Five. Jamess favourite book. Its his Facebook name, I said dully. For privacy so fans dont find his personal profile when they search. Thats why he doesnt have a profile picture. Right? Clare nodded wretchedly. I never meant to mislead you, she said pleadingly. She reached her warm hand out towards my numb, mud-spattered one. And James thought you should know before Wait a minute. I pulled my hand away abruptly. You talked to him about this? She nodded and put her hands to her face. Lee Im so She stopped and took a deep breath, and I got the feeling she was marshalling herself, working out what to say next. When she spoke again it was with a trace of defiance, a flicker of the Clare I remembered, who would have attacked, who would have died fighting rather than lie down under an accusation. Look, I wont apologise. Neither of us have done anything wrong. But please, wont you give us your blessing? If you havent done anything wrong, my voice was hard, why do you need it? Because you were my friend! My best friend! Were. We both registered the past tense at the same time, and I saw my own reaction reflected in Clares face. I bit my lip, so hard that it hurt, crushing the soft skin between my teeth. You have my blessing. Say it. Say it! I There was a sound from the house. The door opened, and there was Flo standing in the rectangle of light, shading her eyes as she looked out into the darkness. She was standing on the tips of her toes, almost toppling as she craned to see, and there was an air of suppressed excitement about her, like a child before a birthday party who might tip over into hysteria at any moment. Hellooo? she called, her voice shockingly loud in the still night air. Clare? Is that you? Clare let out a trembling breath, and opened the car door. Flopsie! Her voice shook, but almost imperceptibly. I thought, not for the first time, what an amazing actress she was. It was not surprising shed ended up in theatre. The only surprise was that she wasnt on stage herself. Clare-Bear! Flo shrieked, and catapulted down the steps onto the gravel. Oh my God, it is you! I heard a noise and thought but then no one came. She was stumbling hastily down the path in front of the house, her bunny slippers shushing in the grit. What are you doing out here in the dark all by yourself, you silly moo? I was talking to Lee. I mean, Nora. Clare waved a hand at my side of the car. I ran into her on the way up the drive. Not literally, I hope! Oops! There was a crunch as Flo tripped over something in the dark and fetched up on her knees in front of the car with a rush. She jumped up, brushing herself down. Im fine! Im fine! Calm down! Clare laughed, and hugged Flo. She whispered something into her hair that I didnt hear, and Flo nodded. I pulled at the door handle and got stiffly out of the car. It had been a mistake not to walk those last few yards up to the house going from running to sitting so abruptly, my muscles had seized up. Now it was an effort to straighten. You all right, Lee? Clare said, turning back at the sound of me getting out. You look like youre hobbling a bit. Im fine. I tried to match her in keeping my voice light. James. James. Want a hand with your bags? Thanks, but Ive not got much. She popped the boot and picked up a shoulder bag. Come on then Flops, show us my room. Nina was nowhere to be seen when I climbed the last, painful step up to our room, holding my muddy trainers by the laces. I peeled off my spattered leggings and sweaty top, and crawled under the duvet in my bra and knickers. Then I lay, staring into the pool of light cast by the bedside lamp. This had been a mistake. What had I been thinking of? Id spent ten years trying to forget James, trying to build a chrysalis of assurance and self-sufficiency around myself. And Id thought I was succeeding. I had a good life. No, I had a great life. I had a job I loved, I had my own flat, I had some lovely friends, none of whom knew James or Clare or anyone else from my former life in Reading. I was beholden to no one emotionally, financially or in any other way. And that made me feel fine. Absolutely fucking fine, thanks very much. And now this. The worst of it was, I couldnt blame Clare. She was right: she and James had done nothing wrong. They didnt owe me anything, either of them. James and I had broken up over a decade ago, for Christs sake. No. The only person I could blame was myself. For not moving on. For not being able to move on. I hated James for his hold over me. I hated that every time I met a man, I was comparing them in my head. The last time I slept with someone two years ago he had woken me in the night, his hand on my chest. You were having a dream, hed said. Whos James? And when he saw my stricken face, hed swung his legs out of bed, got up, got dressed and walked out of my life. And I never even bothered to phone him back. I hated James and I hated myself. And yes, I am fully aware that this makes me sound like the biggest loser in existence: the girl who meets a boy aged sixteen and obsesses over him for the next ten bloody years. Believe me, no one is more aware of that than me. If I met myself in a bar and got talking, I would despise myself too. I could hear the others downstairs, talking and laughing, and caught the smell of pizza floating up the stairs. I was going to have to go down there and talk and laugh too. Instead, I curled myself into a ball, my knees to my chest, my eyes tight shut, and I screamed a silent scream inside my head. Then I straightened, feeling my tired muscles protest, got out of bed, and picked up the top-most towel off the pile Flo had stacked carefully on the foot of each bed. The bathroom was on the landing, and I locked the door and let the towel drop to the floor. Over the bath was another uncurtained plate-glass window, looking out over the forest in an incredibly unnerving way. It was angled so that, in practice, you wouldnt be able to see inside the room unless you were perched on top of a fifty-foot pine, but as I took off my bra and knickers I had to fight the urge to cross my hands over my breasts, covering my nakedness from the watchful darkness. For a minute I considered getting straight into my change of clothes, but I was tired and mud-spattered and I knew Id feel better if I had a hot shower, so I climbed carefully into the walk-in enclosure and turned the lever, stretching gratefully as the huge shower head coughed twice, and then flooded me with an enormous, forceful gush of hot water. Standing like this, I could look out of the window, though it was too dark to see much. The bright bathroom light turned the glass into a sort of mirror, and aside from a pale, ghostly moon, all I could see was my own body reflected in the fast-steaming glass as I soaped and shaved my legs. What kind of person was Flos aunt anyway? This was a house for voyeurs. No, that was people who liked to watch. What was the opposite? Exhibitionists. People who liked to be seen. Perhaps it was different in summer, when the light came flooding in until late into the evening. Perhaps then it was a house for looking out of, across the forest. But now, in the dark, it felt like the reverse. It felt like a glass display case, full of curiosities to be peered at. Or a cage in a zoo. A tigers enclosure, with nowhere to hide. I thought of those caged animals pacing slowly backwards and forwards, day after day, week after week, going slowly crazy. When I was finished, I climbed carefully out and peered at myself in the steam-misted mirror, swiping away the condensation with my hand. The face that looked back at me startled me. It looked like someone ready for a fight. It was partly my short hair; after my shower and a rough dry with the towel, it looked aggressively spiky and defiant, like a boxers between rounds. My face was white and stark under the bright lights, my eyes dark and accusing and surrounded by shadows, like Id taken a beating. I sighed and got out my washbag. I dont wear much make-up, but I had lip gloss and mascara; the basics. No blusher, but I rubbed a bit of lip gloss into my cheekbones in an effort to brighten the pallor, then yanked on clean skinny jeans and a grey top. From somewhere far below, music started up. Billy Idol, by the sounds of it: White Wedding. Someones idea of a joke? Le I mean, Nora! Flos voice floated up the stairs, above the sound of Billy Idol telling us to start again. Are you ready for something to eat? Coming! I shouted back, and with a sigh, I bundled my dirty underwear into my towel, picked up my washbag, and opened the door. 9 WHILE I HAD been in the shower, the hen night had started in earnest. In the living room, Tom and Clare had plugged in someones iPhone and were dancing round the coffee table to Billy Idol, while Melanie laughed at them from the sofa. In the kitchen, which was hot as hell from the overworked oven, I could see someone shovelling industrial quantities of pizza onto boards and dumping various tubs of dip into bowls. For a disorienting minute I thought it was Clare they were wearing the same grey jeans and silver vest that Clare had been wearing next door. Then she stood up and wiped the hair off her forehead and I saw it was Flo. She was wearing exactly the same clothes as Clare. Before I could pick that apart any further, my thoughts were interrupted by a strong smell of charring. Is something burning? I asked. Oh my God! The pittas! Flo shrieked. Lee, can you rescue them before they set the alarm off? I ran across the rapidly smoke-filling kitchen and grabbed the pitta breads from the toaster, before dumping them in the sink. Then I set about wrestling with the door at the far end of the kitchen. It was locked, and there was a trick to the handle, but finally I managed to fling it wide open. Freezing air gusted in, and I saw to my surprise that the puddles on the lawn were frosting over. Ive looked in the wine rack and I cant find any tequila. Ninas voice came from the doorway, and then, Bloody hell, its freezing! Shut the door, you mentalist! The pittas were burning, I said mildly, but I swung the door shut. At least the temperature in the room was closer to normal now. Its not in the cellar? Flo straightened up, brushing sweaty hair out of her eyes. Her face was scarlet from the heat. Blast. Where on earth could it be? You tried the fridge? Nina asked. Flo nodded. Freezer? I asked. She clapped a hand to her forehead. Freezer! Of course I remember now, thinking itd be better if we wanted frozen margaritas. Ugh, Im such an idiot. Amen! Nina mouthed at me, as she bent and opened the freezer under the counter. Here it is. Her voice came slightly muffled by the whirr of the freezer fan. She straightened up, a frosted bottle in her hand, and scooped up two limes from the fruit bowl. Nora, grab a board and a knife. Oh, and the salt shaker. Flo, did you say there were shot-glasses through there? Yup, behind that mirrored door at the end of the living room. But do you think we should start with shots? Wouldnt it be more sensible to start with a cooler first like mojitos maybe? Screw sensible, Nina said as she left the kitchen, and then, under her breath to me as we crossed the hall, I need something as strong as possible to get me through this. As we entered the living room, Clare and Tom turned, and Clare gave a whoop and danced over to take the bottle from Ninas hand, and the knife from mine. She shimmied back to the coffee table, her top scattering motes of light around the dimly lit room as she banged them both down on the glass with a crack. Tequila slammers! I havent done these since my twenty-first. I think its taken this long for the hangover to wear off. Nina let the limes bounce onto the table alongside the rest, and then turned to hunt in the cupboard for glasses while Clare knelt on the rug and started slicing. Hen first! Melanie said, and Clare grinned. We all watched as she shook a pinch of salt into the hollow of her wrist, and picked up a chunk of lime. Nina filled a shot-glass to the teetering brim, and pushed it into her hand. Clare licked her wrist, gulped the shot, and bit hard into the lime, her eyes squeezed shut. Then she spat it out onto the rug and slammed the shot glass down on the tabletop, shuddering and laughing at the same time. Jesus! Oh my God, my eyes are watering. My mascarall be halfway down my face if I have any more. Lady, Nina said sternly, we are just getting started. Le I mean, Nora next. You know Tom said, as I knelt at the table, if you want something a bit more upmarket, we could have tequila royales. Tequila royales? I watched as Nina overfilled the tiny glass, liquor splashing down and puddling on the glass tabletop. Whats that? Champagne? Possibly. But not the way I make them. Tom dug in his trouser pocket and held up a little bag of white powder. Something a bit more interesting than salt? Christ. I glanced up at the clock. Not even eight oclock. At this rate wed all be climbing the walls by midnight. Coke? Melanie said. She folded her arms as she looked coolly across at Tom, and there was a note of distaste in her voice. Really? Were not students any more. Some of us are parents. I dont think pumping and dumpings going to sort that one out. So dont do it, Tom said with a shrug, but there was an edge in his voice. Grubs up! The awkward pause was broken by Flo standing in the doorway, her arms trembling beneath the weight of a huge board covered with melting pizza. There was a bottle wedged under her arm. Can someone clear the coffee table before I deposit this little lot all over my aunts rug? Tell you what, Clare said as she watched Nina and me make space on the table, then reached over and gave Tom a salty, citrusy kiss, lets save it for dessert. No problem, Tom said lightly. He pushed the packet back in his pocket. Ive no wish to force my rather expensive drugs on people who dont appreciate them. Melanie gave a slightly thin smile and took the bottle out from Flos arm as she slid the tray onto the table and stood up. Hm. Talking of champagne Well! It is a special occasion, Flo said. She beamed, seemingly oblivious of the undercurrent of tension flowing between Melanie and Tom. Pop the cork, Mels, and Ill get the glasses. As Melanie peeled off the foil, Flo opened the mirrored cupboard and began rooting around. She came up, slightly flushed, clutching half a dozen flutes, just as there was a resounding pop! and the cork flew through the air and bounced off the flat-screen TV. Whoops! Melanie put a hand to her mouth. Sorry, Flo. No worries, Flo said brightly, but she checked the TV screen surreptitiously as Melanie bent to pour out the champagne, rubbing it with her sleeve as she cast a slightly harassed look over her shoulder. We each took a glass and I tried to smile. I dont actually like champagne it gives me a roaring headache and acid indigestion, and I dont like fizzy drinks much full stop but no one had given us the opportunity to refuse. Flo held up her glass and turned to look round the little circle, catching all of our eyes, and then stopping, her gaze on Clare. Heres to a great hen weekend, she said. A perfect hen weekend, for the best friend a girl could ever have. To my rock. To my BFF. To my heroine and my inspiration: Clare! And James, Clare said with a smile. Otherwise I cant drink. Im not egotistical enough to toast myself. Oh, Flo said, after a slight check. Well I mean, I just thought shouldnt this weekend be just about you? I thought the whole point was to forget about the groom for a bit. But of course, if youd prefer. To Clare, and James. To Clare and James! everyone chorused, and drank. I drank too, feeling the bubbles fizzing acidly in my throat, making it hard to swallow. Clare and James. Clare and James. I still couldnt believe it couldnt picture them together. Had he really changed so much in ten years? I was still staring down into my glass when Nina nudged me in the ribs. Come on, are you trying to read your fortune in the dregs of the champagne? I dont think itll work. Just thinking, I said with an attempt at a smile. Nina raised her eyebrows, and I thought for one stomach-churning moment that she was going to say something, one of her infamously blunt remarks that left you grazed and wincing. But before she could speak, Flo clapped her hands and said, Dont hold back guys! Pizza time! Nina took a plate and helped herself to pizza. I did too. The meat pizzas were covered in cheap pepperoni that was leaking a chemical-smelling red oil all over the board, but after my run I was hungry. I took a piece of pepperoni, and a piece of spinach and mushroom, and then loaded up my plate with the charred pitta and houmous. Guys, use napkins if you need to, I dont want to get oil on the rug, Flo said, hovering around as the others began to dig in. Oh, and make sure you leave the veggie slices for Tom, please? Flops, Clare put a hand on her shoulder, Im sure its fine. Theres no way Tom can eat all those slices. Plus theres more in the freezer if we run out. I know, Flo said. Her face was red and she pushed her hair impatiently back into its clip. There was pizza sauce on her silver top. But its a matter of principle. If people want the veggie option they should order it. Ive got no patience with people who hog the veggie meals just because they dont fancy the meat choice. It just means the veggie guests go without! Im sorry, I said. Look, I took a piece of the mushroom. Do you want me to put it back? Well, no, Flo said irritably. Its probably got pepperoni all over it now. For a second I thought about pointing out that there was already pepperoni oil over the whole lot, and that maybe if she was that bothered she should have put them on separate boards, but instead I bit my tongue. Its fine, Tom said. Hed stacked up his plate with three pieces of mushroom pizza and a big dollop of houmous. Thisll do me, honestly. If I eat any more Garyll have me doing pull-ups from here to Christmas. Whos Gary? Flo said. She took a piece of pepperoni and sat on the sofa. I thought your other half was called Bruce? Garys my personal trainer. Tom looked down at his washboard stomach rather complacently. He has an uphill job, poor love. You have a personal trainer? Flo looked deeply impressed. Darling, anyone whos anyone has a personal trainer. I dont, Nina said flatly. She stuffed a slice of pizza into her mouth and spoke around it, her voice muffled. I jus go to the gym and work out. I dont need some tool yelling at me while I do it. Well she did a heroic swallow I do, thats what Ive got my iPod for. But I like to be able to put the tool on shuffle if the refrain gets monotonous. Come on! Tom was laughing. I cant be the only one here, surely! Nora, what about you? You dont look like you suffer from writers arse. Me? I looked up from my pizza, startled at being suddenly in the headlight beam of everyones attention. No! I dont even have a gym membership, I just run. The only tools I have yelling at me are the kids in Victoria Park. Clare, then? Tom pleaded. Melanie? Come on! Someone back me up here. Its a perfectly normal thing! I have a trainer, Clare admitted. But she held up her hand as Tom started to crow only because I needed to lose a few pounds to get into my wedding dress! I never understand why people do that. Nina took another bite of pizza. There was pepperoni oil dribbling down her chin and she caught it with her tongue before continuing. Buy a dress two sizes too small, I mean. After all, presumably the dude proposed to you when you were a lard-arse. Scuse me! Clare had started laughing, but there was something a bit brittle about her tone. I was not a lard-arse! And it wasnt about James, although he has a trainer too, I might add. It was about me wanting to look my best on the day. So only thin people look good? Thats not what I said! Well, you said your best equals you minus two dress sizes Minus a few pounds, Clare put in hotly. You said two dress sizes. Anyway, you can talk! Youre skinny as a rake! By accident, Nina said loftily, not design. Im not size-ist. Ask Jess. Oh for crying out loud. Clare put her plate down on the table. Look, I happen to think that I personally look better nearer a size ten than a size twelve. OK? Its nothing to do with anyone else. Nina, Flo said warningly. But Nina was in full flow, nodding earnestly and playing up to Toms snickered laughter behind his hand, and Melanies half-hidden smirk. Yeah, I get it, she was saying. Its nothing to do with ridiculous Western idealisation of anorexic models and the constant portrayal of stick-thin waifs in the media. In fact Nina! Flo said again, more angrily this time. She stood up, banging her plate down, and Nina looked up, startled, mid-sentence. I beg your pardon? You heard me. I dont know what your problem is, but leave it, OK? This is Clares night, and I will not have you picking a fight. Whos picking fights? Im not the one throwing plates around, Nina said coolly. What a shame, when you were so keen to take care of your aunts things. We all followed the direction of her gaze, and saw the crack across the plate Flo had smacked onto the coffee table. For a second I had the image of a goaded bull, about to charge. Look! Flo said furiously, and the room went quite still, pizza slices suspended in mid-air, glasses half-sipped, waiting for the explosion to happen. Its OK, Clare said into the tense pause. She put her hand out, pulling Flo back to sit beside her and laughing. Honestly. Its just Ninas sense of humour. Youll get used to her. Shes not having a go at me. Much. Yeah, Nina said. She nodded, completely straight-faced. Im sorry. I just think the cripplingly unrealistic body expectations of women are hilarious. Flo looked at Nina for a long moment, and then back at Clare, her face uncertain. Then she gave a short laugh. It was not terribly convincing. Come on, Tom broke into the silence that followed. This party is not nearly drunk and disorderly enough for my liking. Whos up for the next shot? He looked around the group, and his eye fell on me. A wicked grin spread across his tanned face. Nora, youre looking far too sober. You never did have that pre-dinner shot. I groaned. But Nina was nodding vigorously and pushing the full shot-glass at me, and Tom was holding out the lime wedge and salt shaker. There was nothing for it. Best just to get it over with, like medicine. Tom shook the salt into the crook of my wrist, and I licked it off, grabbed the shot from Nina and gulped it back, and then snatched the chunk of lime from Toms hand. The juice exploded between my teeth, even as the tequila ran hot down the inside of my gullet. I waited for a moment, gasping and gritting my teeth against the taste, and then a familiar warmth began to spread through my capillaries, something loosening at the edge of my vision, a certain blunting of reality. Perhaps this weekend would be a whole lot better slightly drunk. I realised they were all looking at me, waiting for something. The shot-glass was still in my hand. Done! I banged it down onto the table, and dropped the lime peel onto my empty plate. Whos next? Make it a royale? Tom enquired, archly. He held up the white bag. Clare nudged me in the ribs. Come on, for old times sake, yeah? Remember our first line? I did, though I was pretty sure it hadnt been coke. Ground-up aspirin more like, and I hadnt really wanted to do it even then. Id just followed Clare, sheep-like, afraid of being left behind. Well do it together, Clare told him. Cut one for Nina too; she partakes, dont you, doctor? You know doctors, Nina said with a dry smile. Notorious self-medicators. Tom knelt at the corner of the glass coffee table with his credit card and the bag of powder, and we all watched as he ceremoniously poured and chopped and separated the powder into four neat lines. Then he looked up and raised his eyebrows enquiringly. Im assuming Mel pump-n-dump Cho, will not be joining us, but what about you, Florence hostess-with-the-mostess Clay? I looked across at Flo. Her face was very pink, as if shed drunk considerably more than the one glass of champagne Id seen in her hand. Guys, she said stiffly, Im Im not very happy with this. I mean, its my aunts house. What if Oh Flops! Clare gave her a kiss and put her hand over her mouth, stopping her protests. Dont be ridiculous. Dont have any if you dont want to, but I really dont think your aunts going to rock up here with her sniffer dogs and start taking names. Flo shook her head, and pulled herself out of Clares arm to start clearing plates. Melanie got up too. Ill help you, she said pointedly. All the more for those who do! Tom said with slightly aggressive cheerfulness. He rolled up a ten-pound note and snorted up his line, wiping his nose and rubbing the grains on his gums. Clare? Clare knelt and did the same with a practised swiftness that made me wonder how often she did this. She stood up, swayed slightly, and then laughed. Christ, I cant be high already. Must be the tequila! Nina? She held out the tenner. Nina made a face. Thanks but no thanks! Palm that snot-rag off on some unsuspecting shop assistant. Ill use my own, thanks. She ripped a strip off the cover of the Vogue Living that was lying on the hearth, and snorted up the third line. I winced, looking at the butchered cover, and hoping Flo wouldnt notice when she came back. Nora? I sighed. It was true that Id done my first line with Clare. It had also been one of my last. Dont get me wrong, I smoked and drank and did various other drugs at college. But I never really enjoyed cocaine. It never did much for me. Now I felt like an absurd caricature as I knelt awkwardly on the rug and let Nina vandalise Vogue Living a bit more. It felt like a scene from a bad horror movie just before the slasher comes in and starts stabbing people. All we needed was a couple of kids making out in the pool-house to be the first victims. I snorted up the line and stood up, feeling the blood rush away from my head, and my nose and the back of my mouth grow numb and strange. I was too old for this. It was never really me, even back at school. Id only gone along with Clare because I was too weak-willed to say no. I remembered, as if through a haze, James holding forth about the hypocrisy of it all: They make me laugh, doing sponsored fasts for Oxfam and protesting about Nestl?, and then funnelling their pocket money off to Colombian drug barons. Tossers. Cant they see the irony? Give me a nice bit of home-grown weed any day. I sank back on the sofa and shut my eyes, feeling the tequila, champagne and coke mixing in my veins. All evening I had been trying to connect the boy Id known with the Clare of today, and this only brought into sharp focus the strangeness of it all. Had he really changed that much? Did they sit in their London flat, snorting up, side by side, and did he think of what hed said when he was sixteen and reflect on the irony of it, the irony that he was now one of those tossers hed laughed at all those years ago? The picture hurt, like an old half-healed wound griping unexpectedly. Lee? I heard Clares voice as if through a haze, and opened my eyes reluctantly. Lee! Come on focus, girl! Youre not drunk already, are you? No, Im not. I sat up, rubbing my face. I had to get through this. There was no way out now, except forwards. Im not nearly drunk enough, in fact. Wheres the tequila? 10 I HAVE NEVER Clare was sprawled across the sofa with her feet on Toms lap and the firelight playing off her hair. She was holding a shot-glass in one hand and a piece of lime in the other, balancing them as if weighing up her options. I have never joined the mile-high club. There was a silence around the circle and a burst of laughter from Flo. Then, very slowly, with a wry expression, Tom raised his shot-glass. Cheers, darling! He downed it in one, then sucked the lime, making a face. Oh you and Bruce! Clare said. Her voice hovered between a sneer and a laugh, but it was fairly good-natured. You probably did it in first class! Business, but point taken. He refilled and looked around the circle. What, seriously? Am I drinking alone? What? Melanie looked up from her phone. Sorry, I had half a bar of reception then so I thought Id try Bill, but its gone. Was it Truth or Dare? Neither, weve moved on, Tom said. His voice was slurred. He had certainly done a lot of weird shit in his time, and he was paying the price in this game. Were playing I Have Never. And I have joined the mile-high club. Oh, sorry. Melanie downed her shot absently and wiped her mouth. There. Listen, Flo, could I use the landline again? No, no, no, no! Clare said, wagging her finger. You dont get off as easily as that. Certainly not! Flo said indignantly. How and where, please, Mrs? On honeymoon with Bill. It was a night flight. I gave him a blowie in the loos. Does that count? Ive drunk now anyway. Well technically hes joined the mile-high club, not you, in that case, Tom said. He gave a slightly slow, leering wink. But since you drank, well count it. Onwards! Right. My turn. I have never fuck, what have I never done? Oh I know, Ive never tried water sports. There was a burst of laughter, and no one drank and Tom groaned. What seriously? Water sports? Flo said uncertainly. Her glass was halfway in the air, but she looked around the circle, trying to work out what was funny. What, like scuba diving and stuff? Ive done sailing, does that count? No, sweetie, Clare said, and she bent over and whispered in Flos ear. As she did, Flos expression changed to one of shock and then disgusted amusement. No way! How revolting! Come on, Tom said pleadingly. Fess up for Uncle Tom, were all girls here, theres nothing to be ashamed of. There was another silence, and Clare laughed. Sorry, thats what you get for coming away with squares like us. Come on, take it like a man. Tom downed his shot, refilled and then lay back on the sofa, his hand over his eyes. Bloody hell, Im paying for a mis-spent youth now. The rooms spinning. Your turn, Lee, Clare said from the sofa. Her face was flushed, and her golden hair straggled across her shoulders. Spill. My stomach turned. This was the moment Id been dreading. Id spent the last round trying to grope my way past the fog of tequila and champagne and rum and think what to say, but every memory seemed to bring me back to James. I thought of all the things Id never done, never said. I shut my eyes and the room seemed to lurch and shift. It was one thing to play this game with a roomful of friends, who already knew pretty much everything there was to say, but not this uneasy mix of strangers and old acquaintances. I have never oh God, what could I say? I never found out why he did it. I never forgave him. I never got over him. Lee Clare said in a sing-song voice. Come on now, dont make me embarrass you in the next round. There was a vile taste of tequila and coke at the back of my mouth. I couldnt afford to drink again. If I did Id be sick. I never really knew him at all. How could he be marrying Clare? I have never had a tattoo, I blurted out. I knew I was on safe ground with that, Tom had already admitted to having one. Crap he groaned and downed his shot. Flo laughed, Come on! You dont get off that easily. Show and tell, please. Tom sighed and unbuttoned his shirt, revealing an expanse of tanned, toned chest. He slid the sleeve down one shoulder and turned to show us. It was a heart, pierced with an arrow and crossed with the flowing letters Not so Dumb in italic script. There. He began buttoning up his shirt. Now come on you others, I cant be the only one. Nina said nothing, but simply pulled up the ankle of her jeans, showing a small bird of some kind on the tendon running up from her ankle. What is it? Flo peered closer. Blackbird? Its a falcon, Nina said. She did not elaborate but simply pulled her jeans back and downed her shot. How about you then? Flo shook her head. Too much of a scaredy-cat! Clare does though! Clare grinned and heaved herself up off the sofa. She turned her back to us and pulled up her silver top. It shimmered like a fish skin. Twining up from the back of her jeans were two black Celtic designs, curving out towards her slim waist. Arse antlers! Nina gave a snort. Youthful folly, Clare said, a touch ruefully. Drunken trip to Brighton when I was twenty-two. Theyre going to look delightful when youre an old lady, Nina said. At least theyll provide a homing path for the young man slated to wipe your arse in the nursing home. Itll give him something to look at, poor sod. Clare pulled down her top, laughing, and flung herself back on the sofa. She drained her shot. Mels? she called out. But Melanie had dragged the phone out into the hall; only the trailing wire and the sound of her low, urgent voice gave away her location. And he took the bottle? we heard from the hallway. How many ounces? Screw that, Nina said decisively. Man overboard. Right. I have never I have never I have never She looked from me to Clare, and there was suddenly a very wicked expression on her face. My stomach flipped. Nina, drunk, is not always a nice person to be around. I have never fucked James Cooper. There was an uncertain laugh round the room. Clare shrugged and drank. Then her cornflower blue eyes, and Ninas coffee brown ones turned on me. There was an absolute silence, broken only by Florence and the Machine telling us that her boy built coffins. Fuck you, Nina. My hand was trembling as I tossed back the drink. Then I got up and walked out into the hallway, my cheeks burning, and suddenly feeling very, very drunk. You can always give him half a banana for breakfast, Melanie was saying. But if you give him grapes, cut them in half first or use that mesh thing. I pushed past her up the stairs, Flos bemused, What? What happened? following me as I fled. On the landing I burst into the bathroom and locked the door behind me. Then I knelt in front of the toilet retching and retching until there was nothing left to throw up. Oh Christ, I was drunk. Drunk enough to go downstairs and smack Nina for the shit-stirring bitch she was. OK, she didnt know the full picture about me and James. But she knew enough to realise that she was putting me in a horrible position and Clare. For a minute I hated them all: Nina for goading me with her horrible needling questions, Flo and Tom for gawping as I drank, Clare for forcing me to come. And most of all I hated James for asking Clare to marry him, for starting this whole chain off. I even hated poor, blameless, oblivious Melanie just for being here. My stomach heaved again, but there was nothing left apart from a vile taste of tequila in my mouth as I stood and spat into the toilet bowl. Then I flushed, and went to the mirror to rinse out my mouth and splash water on my face. I was white, with a blotchy, hectic flush on my cheekbones and my mascara was smudged. Lee? There was a knock at the door. I recognised Clares voice and put my face in my hands. I n-need a minute. Ugh, I was stammering. I hadnt stammered since I left school. Somehow I had shed it, along with the sad, awkward personality of Lee the moment I stepped out of Reading. Nora had never stammered. I was slipping back into Lee. Lee, Im sorry. Nina shouldnt have Oh fuck off, I thought. Please. Just leave me alone. There was the sound of low voices outside the door, and I tried, with shaking fingers, to fix my mascara using toilet paper. God this was pathetic. It was like being back at school bitch fights and sniping and everything. I had sworn never to go back. This had been a mistake. A dreadful, dreadful mistake. Im sorry, Nora. It was Ninas voice, slurred with alcohol but tinged with real concern at least it sounded so. I didnt think please, come out. I need to go to bed, I said. There was a catch in my throat, hoarseness from throwing up. Le Nora, please, Clare begged. Come on, Im sorry. Ninas sorry. I took a deep breath and slid back the lock. They were standing outside, their expressions hangdog in the bright light from the bathroom. Please, Lee, Clare took my hand. Come back down. Its fine, I said. Honestly. But I really am tired, I was up at five to catch the train. All right Clare let go of my hand reluctantly. As long as youre not going off in a snit. I felt my teeth grit in spite of myself. Be calm. Dont make this all about you. No, Im not g-going off in a snit, I said, trying to keep my voice light. Im just tired. Now, Im going to brush my teeth. See you in the morning. I elbowed past them to the bedroom to get my washbag, and when I came back they were still there, Nina tapping her foot on the parquet. So you really mean it? she said. Youre bailing out? Christ, Lee, it was just a joke. If anyones got a right to be offended its Clare, and shes taking it OK. Have you lost your sense of humour since school? For a second I thought of all the replies I could make. It wasnt a joke. She knew full well what that question meant to me, and shed deliberately brought James up in the one place and at the one time I couldnt dodge it, or smooth it over. But what was the point? Like an idiot Id taken the bait, exploded on cue. It was done. Im not bailing out, I said wearily. Its gone midnight. Ive been up since five. Please, I really just want some sleep. I realised, even as I said the words, that I was pleading, offering up excuses, trying to absolve myself of guilt for leaving the party. Somehow the realisation stiffened my nerve. We werent sixteen any more. We didnt have to hang around like there was an invisible umbilical cord tethering us together. Wed gone our separate ways and all survived. Me getting some sleep wasnt going to ruin Clares hen for ever, and I didnt have to justify the decision like a prisoner in the Star Chamber. Im going to bed, I repeated. There was a pause. Clare and Nina looked at each other, and then Clare said, OK. For some irrational reason that single word annoyed me more than anything else I knew she was only agreeing, but the word had a ring of permission granted that made my skin crawl. I am not yours to boss around any more. Night, I said shortly, and pushed past them into the bathroom. Over the running water and the toothbrushs rasp I could hear them whispering outside, and I deliberately stayed in there, wiping off my mascara with unaccustomed care, until their voices disappeared and I heard their footsteps on the parquet trailing away. I let out a breath, releasing tension I hadnt even known I was holding, and felt the muscles in my neck and shoulder unclench. Why? Why did they still have this power over me, Clare in particular? Why did I let them? I sighed, shoved the toothbrush and toothpaste back into my washbag, pushed open the door and padded up the hallway to the bedroom. It was cool and quiet, quite different from the overheated, over-populated living room. I could hear Jarvis Cocker in the background, his voice floating up the open hallway, but the sound muted to just a muffled bassline when I shut the bedroom door and flopped down on the bed. The relief was indescribable. If I shut my eyes I could almost imagine myself back in my little flat in Hackney; only the sound of traffic and honking horns outside was missing. I wished myself back there, so powerfully that I could almost feel the worn softness of my flowered duvet cover beneath my palm, see the rattan blind that flapped softly at the window on summer nights. But then there was a knock at the door, and when I opened my eyes, the blank blackness of the forest reflected back at me from the glass wall. I sighed, gearing myself up to answer it, and then the knock came again. Lee? I got up and opened the door. It was Flo standing outside, her hands on her hips. Lee! I cant believe youre doing this to Clare! What? I felt immensely tired all of a sudden. Doing what? Going to bed? Ive gone to loads of effort to make this a perfect weekend for Clare Ill kill you if you ruin it on the very first night! Im not ruining anything, Flo. Youre the one making this into a big deal, not me. I just want to go to bed. All right? No, its not all right. I wont have you sabotaging everything Ive worked for! I just want to go to bed, I repeated, like a mantra. Well, I think youre being a a selfish bitch, Flo burst out. Her face was red, and she looked as if she was on the verge of tears. Clares Clares the best, OK? And she deserves she deserves Her chin wobbled. Yeah, whatever, I said, and before I could think better of it, I shut the door in her face. For a minute I heard her outside, breathing heavily, and I thought, if she sobs, Im going to have to go out there and apologise. I cant sit here and listen to her breaking down outside my door. But she didnt. By some huge effort, she got herself together, and went downstairs, leaving me very close to crying myself. I dont know when Nina came up, but it was late, very late. I wasnt asleep, but I was pretending to be, huddled under the duvet with my pillow over my head, as she padded heavily around the room, knocking over tubes of lotion and kicking her suitcase. Are you awake? she whispered as she slid into the twin bed next to mine. I considered ignoring her, but then I sighed and turned over. No. Probably because youve knocked over every bottle in the place. Sorry. She huddled down under the sheets, and I saw the glint of her eye as she yawned and blinked tiredly. Look, Im sorry about earlier. I honestly didnt Its all right, I said wearily. Im sorry too. I overreacted. I was just tired, and drunk. Id already made up my mind to apologise to Flo in the morning. Whoever was at fault here, it certainly wasnt her. No, it was me, Nina said. She flung herself onto her back and put her hand over her eyes. I was being my usual shit-stirring self. But, you know, its been ten years. I think I could be forgiven for assuming She trailed off. But I knew what she meant. You could be forgiven for thinking a normal person would have got over whatever happened, moved on. I know, I said wearily. Dyou think I dont? Its pathetic. Nora, what happened? Clearly something did. You dont act like this over a normal break-up. Nothing happened. He dumped me. End of. Thats not what I heard. She rolled onto her side again, and I felt her gaze on my face in the darkness. I heard you dumped him. Well, you heard wrong. He dumped me. By text, if you must know. I got rid of the phone soon after. The cheerfully insouciant cheep-cheep alert never stopped stinging. OK but still. Look, I never asked, but did he She stopped. I could hear the cogs in her brain turning, trying to work out how to phrase something tricky. I kept silent. Whatever it was she was thinking, I wasnt going to help her. Oh fuck it, theres no way to say this without prying, but I have to say it. He didnt he didnt hit you, did he? What? I wasnt expecting that. OK, clearly not, sorry. Nina turned onto her back. Im sorry. But honestly, Lee Nora. Sorry! Sorry, Clares got me doing it. And youre right. It doesnt make any sense. But honestly, though, the way you reacted after you guys split up you cant blame people for wondering People? Look, we were sixteen you leaving town and James falling apart was pretty dramatic. There was talk, all right? Jesus wept. I stared up at the ceiling. There was utter silence but for a strange soft patter outside, like rain, but softer. Is that really what people thought? Yup, Nina said laconically. Id say that was the most popular of the theories. That or gave you an STD. God. Poor James. In spite of what hed done, he didnt deserve that. No, I said at last. No, James Cooper did not beat me up. Or give me an STD. And youre very welcome to tell anyone that who wonders about it in your hearing. Now, good night, Im going to sleep. What then? If it wasnt that? What happened? Good night. I turned on my side, listening to the silence, the sound of Ninas exasperated breathing, and the soft patter outside. And then at last I slept. 11 VOICES. IN THE corridor outside. They filter into my dream, through the morphine haze, and for a moment I think Im back at the Glass House, and Clare and Flo are whispering outside my door, their shaking hands holding the gun. We should have checked the house Then I open my eyes, and I remember where I am. The hospital. The people outside my door are nurses, night orderlies maybe even the police officer I saw earlier. I lie there blinking, and trying to make my tired, drug-addled brain work. What time is it? The hospital lights are dimmed for night, but I have no sense of whether its 9 p.m. or 4 a.m. I twist my head to look for my phone. Always when I wake, I check the time on my phone. Its the first thing I do. But the locker beside my bed is empty. My phone is not there. There are no clothes hanging on the chair by the window, no pockets in the hospital gown Im wearing. My phone is gone. I lie there, looking around the small, dimly lit room. Its a private room, which seems odd but maybe the main ward was full. Or perhaps thats just how they do things up here. There are no other patients to ask, and no clock on the wall. If the softly blinking green monitor by my head has a time display, I cant see it. For a minute I think about calling out, asking the policewoman outside my door what the time is, where I am, whats happened to me. But then I realise; shes talking to someone else, it was their low voices that woke me. I swallow, dry and sticky, and pull my head painfully off the pillow, ready to croak out an appeal. But before I can speak, one sentence filters through the thick glass of the door and glues my dry tongue to the roof of my mouth. Oh Jesus, I hear, so now were looking at murder? 12 I WOKE TO a clear, bright silence, broken only by Ninas soft snoring in the bed next to mine. But as I lay there, stretching my muscles and wishing Id refilled my water glass, I began to disentangle the sounds of the forest: birdsong, a snap of twigs, and a soft flump that I didnt recognise, followed by a flurry of gentle sounds like sheets of paper falling to the floor. I glanced at my phone 6.48, still no reception and then grabbed a cardigan and padded to the window. When I drew back the curtain I almost laughed. It had snowed in the night, not heavily, but enough to transform the landscape into a Victorian picture postcard. That was the strange pattering Id heard the night before. If Id got up and looked outside the window, I would have known. The sky was a blaze of pinks and blues, the clouds peach-coloured and lit from beneath, the ground a soft speckled carpet of white, criss-crossed with bird prints and fallen pine needles. The sight made my feet itch, and I knew immediately and piercingly that I had to go for a run. My trainers on the radiator were crusted with mud from yesterday but they were dry, and so were my leggings. I pulled on a thermal top and a hat, but I didnt think Id need a coat. Even running on a frosty day, I give off enough heat to keep myself warm, provided the wind doesnt get up. The morning outside was still. Not a tree branch waved in the wind, and the only snowfalls were caused by gravity, not wind; tree branches bending beneath the weight of their load. I could hear gentle snores from all the rooms as I padded quietly down the stairs in my socks, pulling on my trainers only when I got to the doormat, to save Flos aunts floors. The front door had an intimidating array of locks and bolts, so I tiptoed through to the kitchen, which was just the kind with a handle and a key. The key turned smoothly, and I lifted the handle. I winced as I pulled open the door, suddenly wondering if there was an alarm I should have deactivated but no screaming siren rang out, and I slipped out into the frosty morning undetected and began my warm-up. It was maybe forty minutes later when I jogged slowly back up the forest path, my cheeks glowing with the cold and the exertion, my breath a cloud of white against the piercing blue of the sky. I felt light and calm, the frustrations and tensions left somewhere back in the forest, but it was with a slightly sinking heart that I saw the combi-boiler was emitting a cloud of steam like an express train. Someone was up, and using the hot water. Id been hoping to have a quiet hour to myself as the others slept, breakfast on my own terms, without awkward small talk. But as I came closer, I saw that not only was someone up, but theyd been outside. There were footsteps leading from a back entrance to the garage, and back. How odd. All the cars were parked out in front of the house, in the open. What reason could anyone have for going into the garage? But my sweaty top was starting to make me feel cold, now that I wasnt powering up the hill, and I wanted coffee. I headed back to the kitchen door. Whoever was awake would have an explanation. Hello? I called quietly as I opened the door, not wanting to wake the others. Only me. Someone was sitting at the counter, bent over a mobile. She lifted her head, and I saw it was Melanie. Hey! She gave a smile, her deep peachy dimples coming and going in her cheek. I didnt think anyone else was up. Have you been out for a run in that snow? You nutter! Its gorgeous. I stamped the snow off my trainers on the outside mat and then pulled them off, holding them by the laces. Whats the time? Seven-thirty. Ive been up for about twenty minutes. Its bloody ironic my one chance to get a lie-in without Ben waking me up, and here I am, I cant sleep! Youve been conditioned, I said, and she sighed. Too bloody right. Want a tea? Id rather have coffee, if theres one going. Too late I remembered. Oh bugger, theres no coffee is there? Nope. Im dying. Im a coffee-girl too, at home. Always used to be tea at university, but Bill converted me. Ive tried to drink enough tea to give me the equivalent caffeine but I think my bladder cant physically take it. Oh well. Tea would be hot and wet, at least. Id love a tea. Dyou mind if I just hop in the shower first and change my clothes? I ran in these yesterday too, I probably stink. No worries. I was making toast as well. Ill have it ready when you come down. When I came downstairs ten minutes later it was to the smell of toast, and the sound of Melanie humming The Wheels on the Bus. Hey, she said as I came into the kitchen, towelling my hair. So theres Marmite, marmalade or strawberry jam. No raspberry? Nope. Marmite then, please. She spread it on and shoved the plate across at me, and then looked surreptitiously down at her phone on the counter top. I took a bite and asked, Still no reception? No. Her polite smile slipped. Its really getting to me. Hes only just six months, and hes been a bit unsettled since we started him on solids. I just I know its lame, but I hate being away from him. I can imagine, I said sympathetically, though I couldnt really. But I could relate to the longing for home, and that must be several times stronger with someone small and helpless waiting for your return. Whats he like? I said, trying to cheer her up. Oh, hes lovely! Her smile came back, a bit more convincing this time, and she picked up her phone and began flicking through gallery shots. Look, heres a photo of him with his first tooth. I saw a blurred shot of a moon-faced child with no discernible teeth at all, but she flipped past it looking for something else. We went past one that looked like an explosion in a Colmans mustard factory and she grimaced. Oh God, sorry about that one. What was it? Ben with a massive poo that went right up to his hair! I took a pic to show Bill at work. Bill and Ben? I know, she gave a sheepish laugh. We started calling him Ben in my tummy, as a joke, and somehow it stuck. I do feel a bit bad, but I figure, hes not going to be paired up with his dad very often in life. Oh, look at this one his first swim! This one was clearer a shocked little face in a bright blue pool, the mouth an outraged red Oh! of furious indignity. He looks lovely, I said, trying not to sound wistful. God knows, I dont want a baby, but theres something about seeing someone elses happy family unit that feels excluding, even when its not meant to be. He is, Melanie said, her face soft. I feel very blessed. She touched the cross at her neck, almost unconsciously, and then sighed. I just wish there were reception here. I honestly thought I was ready to leave him, but now two nights is too much. I keep thinking, what if something goes wrong and Bill cant ring? Hes got the house phone number though, hasnt he? I took a bite of toast and Marmite. Melanie nodded. Yes. In fact, she looked at the time on her phone again, I said Id phone him this morning. He was nervous about ringing early in case he woke everyone up. Dyou mind if I ? Not at all, I said, and she got up, drained her cup, and put it on the counter. Oh, by the way, I suddenly remembered as she headed towards the door, I meant to ask, did you go out to the garage? No? She looked surprised, her voice framing the word as a question. How come? Was it open? I dont know, I didnt try the door. But there were footsteps going out there. How odd. Wasnt me. Bizarre. I took another bite and chewed thoughtfully. The footsteps were crisp, so they must have been made sometime after the snow had finished falling. You dont think I said, then stopped. What? I hadnt thought through what Id been about to say, and now, as I said the words, I felt an odd reluctance to voice them. Well I assumed it was someone coming from the house to the garage and back. But it could have been the other way round. What like someone snooping round? Were there footsteps coming up to the garage? I didnt see any. But the garage is so close to the wood, and I dont think the tracks would show there the snows too patchy and broken up. Plus, although I didnt say it, if thered been any tracks on the forest path my run had probably just effectively obliterated them. Never mind, I said, picking up the tea determinedly. This is silly. It was probably just Flo going out to get something. Yeah, youre right, Melanie said. She gave a shrug and left the room, and I heard the ching of the receiver as she picked up the handset. But instead of the sound of the dial clicking around, I heard ching, ching, ching and then a bang as the receiver was slammed down. For crying out loud, the phone lines down! Honestly, this is the last straw. What if somethings happened to Ben? Hang on. I put my plate in the dishwasher and followed her into the living room. Let me try. Maybe its his number. Its not his number. She handed me the receiver. Its dead. Listen. She was right. There was no dial tone, just an echoing empty line, and a faint sound of clicking. It must be the snow. I thought of the branches in the forest, weighed down by their burden. It must have brought down a tree branch and snapped the line. The engineersll get it back up I imagine, but But when? Melanie said. Her face was pink and upset and there were tears in her eyes. I didnt want to make a big deal about this to Clare, but this was my first trip away and to be honest, Im having a pretty shitty time. I know Im supposed to be all like Woo! Night out with the girls! but I dont want to do this any more all this drinking and stupid pissing about. I dont give a fuck who slept with who. I just want to go home and cuddle Ben. You want to know the real reason I woke up early? Because my tits were rock hard with milk and they were so painful they woke me up leaking all over the fucking bed. She was really crying now, her nose running. I had to g-get up and pump into the sink. And now this is the l-last straw, Ive got n-n-no idea if theyre OK. I dont want to be here any more. I stared at her, biting my lip. Part of me wanted to hug her, the other part of me was recoiling from her tear-stained, snot-dripping face. Hey, I said awkwardly. Hey, look if youre having a shit time But I stopped. She wasnt listening. She was staring not at me, but out of the window at the snow-bound forest, turning something over in her mind, breathing slowly as her sobs subsided. Melanie? I ventured at last. She turned to look at me, and wiped her face on her dressing-gown sleeve. Im going to go, she said. It was so sudden that I didnt know what to say. Flo will kill me, but I dont care. Clare wont mind. I dont think she gave a toss about having a hen in the first place, it was all Flos weird obsession with being the worlds best friend. Do you think I can get my car down the drive? Yes, I said, its only a dusting under the trees, but look, what about Tom? You gave him a lift, didnt you? Only from Newcastle. She wiped her face again. She looked calmer now her mind was made up. Im sure Clare or Nina or someone will take him back. Its not a big deal. I guess. I bit my lip, imagining Flos reaction to all this. Look, are you sure you dont want to give it a bit longer? Theyll get the phone line up soon, Im sure. No. Ive made up my mind, Im going now. I mean, Ill wait until Flo gets up, but Im going up to pack now. Oh! What a relief. She was smiling suddenly, her face from cloud to sunshine in just a few moments, the dimples back in her cheeks. Thanks for listening. Im sorry I lost it a bit, but youve really straightened me out. I mean youre right if youre having a shit time, whats the point of being here? Clare wouldnt want me to hang around feeling miserable. I watched her as she made her way slowly up the stairs, presumably to repack her stuff, and pondered her last words. What was the point of being here? I realised, suddenly, that I hadnt wanted her to go. Not because I liked her, or would miss her I didnt know her well enough for that, though she seemed perfectly nice but because Id had some fantasy of my own of escaping. And being one down would make it that much harder there would be that small amount of extra pressure on the survivors to make up for Melanies absence. And without a car, and without the alibi of a small baby, what reason could I possibly come up with that wouldnt be construed as sour grapes over James, over the fact that the better woman had won and got my ex-boyfriend for herself? I thought I had long since stopped giving a fuck what Clare Cavendish thought of me. I realised, as I walked slowly back to the kitchen, that I was wrong. 13 THIS IS HOW I met Clare. It was the first day at primary school, and I was sitting by myself at a desk and trying not to cry. Everyone else had gone to the school nursery and I hadnt, and I didnt know anyone. I was small and skinny with hard little braids that my mother knotted into the side of my scalp to keep off the nits. I could read, but I didnt want anyone to know. My mother had said that it would make me unpopular to look like Little Miss Know-It-All and that the teachers would tell me how to do it properly, not my made-up way. So I was sitting alone as the other children paired up into tables and chatted away, and then Clare walked in. I had never seen anyone so beautiful. Her hair was long and loose, in defiance of the school rules, and it shone in the sunlight like a Pantene commercial. She looked around the room at the other children, one or two of whom were patting the chair beside them hopefully and saying, Clare! Clare, sit with me! And she chose me. I dont know if you know what its like being chosen by someone like Clare. Its as though a warm searchlight has picked you out and bathed you in its sunshine. You feel at once exposed, and flattered. Everyone looks at you, and you can see them wondering, why her? Clare sat beside me, and I felt myself transforming from a nobody, into a someone. A someone people might actually want to talk to, be friends with. She smiled, and I found myself smiling back. Hello, she said. Im Clare Cavendish and my hair is so long I can sit on it. Im going to be Mary in the school play. Im I tried to answer. Im L-Le Im Leonora, was what I was trying to say. But Clare only smiled. Hi, Lee. Clare Cavendish. It was the class teacher, banging the rubber on the chalk board to get our attention. Why is your hair not tied back? It gives me migraines. Clare turned her angelic, sunlit face towards the teacher. My mum said I wasnt to. Ive got a note from the doctor. And that was Clare all over. Was it really possible that she had a note from the doctor? Would any doctor in their right mind give a five-year-old a note allowing her to have loose hair? But somehow it didnt matter. Clare Cavendish had said it, and so it became true. She did become Mary in the school play. And I became Lee. Mousy, stammering Lee. Her best friend. I never forgot Clares action that first day. She could have chosen anyone. She could have played the popularity card and sat with one of the girls with Barbie clips in their hair and Lelli Kelly shoes. Instead she chose the one girl who was sitting silent, by herself, and she transformed me. As Clares best friend I was always included in games, not condemned to wait, lonely but trying not to look it, at the side of the playground waiting for someone to ask me to play. I was invited to birthday parties because Clare wanted me there, and when it became known that Clare had come to my house for a playdate and had spoken approvingly of my swing and dolls house, other girls began to accept my faltering invitations. Five-year-olds can be incredibly cruel. They say things that no adult ever would cutting comments about your looks, your family, the way you speak and smell, the clothes you wear. If someone spoke to you that way in an office theyd get the sack for workplace bullying, but at school its just the natural order of things. Every class has an unpopular scapegoat, the kid no one wants to sit with, the one blamed for everything and picked last in all the team games. And, perhaps just as inevitably, every class has a queen bee. If there was a queen bee in our class, then Clare was it, and without her friendship I might easily have become the scapegoat, sitting alone at that table for ever. Part of me, the frightened five-year-old inside my adult shell, will always be grateful for that. Dont get me wrong, it wasnt always easy being Clares friend. That searchlight beam of love and warmth could be withdrawn as quickly as it was bestowed. You might find yourself mocked and derided instead of defended. There were plenty of days I came home crying because of something Clare had said, or something Clare had done. But she was funny and generous, and her friendship was a lifeline I couldnt do without, and somehow I always ended up forgiving her. My mother, on the other hand, did not approve of Clare, for reasons I could never quite work out. It made no sense, because in many ways Clare resembled the daughter my mother was always trying to make me be charming, loquacious, popular, not too academic. When secondary school came around my mother did not keep silent about her hopes that I would get into the local grammar and Clare would not. But she did. Clare was not a swot, no one could accuse her of that, but she was clever, and she could pull it out of the bag in exams. Instead my mum went to the teacher and asked that we be put into different classes. So in lessons I found a new friend, a companion just as unlikely: spiky, amusing Nina with her skinny brown legs and large dark eyes. Nina was tall where I was short, she could run the 800 metres in 2 minutes 30, and she was funny, and not afraid of anyone. She was dangerous to be around, her sharp tongue making no distinction between friend and foe you were as likely to be the butt of her wit as laughing at it. But I liked her. And in many ways, I felt safer with her than with Clare. It made no difference, though. Outside lessons, Clare sought me out. We spent lunchtimes together. We bunked off and went to spend our allowance at Woolworths, on the CDs Clare liked and the sparkly nail polish we were forbidden to wear at school. We were caught only once, when we were fifteen. A heavy hand on the shoulder. Mr Banningtons furious face looming over our shoulder. Threats of suspension, of telling our parents, of detention for the rest of our natural lives Clare just looked up at him, her blue eyes limpid with honesty. Im so sorry, Mr Bannington, she said, but its Lees grandads birthday. You know, the one she lived with? She paused and gave him a significant look, inviting him to remember, to join the dots. Lee was upset and couldnt face lessons. Im sorry if we did wrong. For a minute I gaped. Was it Grandads birthday? It was a year since hed died. Had I really forgotten? Then sense returned, and with it anger. No, no of course it wasnt. His birthday was in May. We were only in March. Mr Bannington stood, chewing his moustache and frowning. Then he put his hand on my shoulder. Well, under the circumstances I cannot condone this, girls, if there were a fire alarm then lives could be put at risk looking for you. Do you understand? So please dont make a habit of it. But under the circumstances, we will say no more about it. This once. Im sorry, Mr Bannington. Clares head drooped, chastened, deflated. I was just trying to be a good friend. Its been hard for Lee, you know? And Mr Bannington coughed a choked-up cough, gave one short, sharp nod, turned on his heel and left. I was so angry I couldnt speak on the way back to school. How dare she. How dare she. At the school gate she laid a hand on my shoulder. Lee, look, I hope you dont mind, I just couldnt think what else to say. You know? I was the one that persuaded you to bunk, I thought it was my responsibility to get us out of the mess. My face was stiff. I tried to imagine what my mother would have said if I were suspended, and how Clare had got us both off the hook. I thought about May, and how I was going to have to go through the day the real day of my grandads birthday without mentioning that fact, or referring to it ever again. Thanks, I said, in a hard, unnatural voice that did not stammer, that did not sound like me. Clare only smiled, and I felt her sunshine warmth. Youre welcome. And I felt myself thaw, and smile back, almost in spite of myself. After all, Clare had only been trying to be a good friend. No. Flo Youre not leaving. Melanie stood for a moment in the middle of the kitchen, as if trying to think of something to say. At last she gave a snort of disbelieving laughter. And yet apparently I am. She slung her bag on her shoulder and tried to push past Flo towards the door. No! Flo shouted. There was an edge of hysteria to her voice. I wont let you ruin it! Flo, stop being such a basket case! Melanie snapped back. I know I know this is important to you, but look at yourself! Clare doesnt give a flying fuck whether Im here or not. Youve got this picture in your head of how things should be and you cant force people to go along with it. Get a grip! You Flo stabbed with her finger at Melanie you are a bad friend. And a bad person. Im not a bad friend, Melanie sounded very tired all of a sudden. Im just a parent. My life doesnt revolve around Clare bloody Cavendish. Now please, get out of my way. She pushed past Flos outstretched arms towards the hallway, and looked up. Clare! Youre awake! Whats going on? Clare was coming down the stairs in a crumpled linen wrap. The sun was shining down from the window behind her head, illuminating her hair like a halo. I heard shouting. Whats going on? she repeated. Im going. Melanie walked a few steps up, gave her a brisk kiss, and then hitched her bag further onto her shoulder. Im sorry I shouldnt have come. I wasnt ready to leave Ben, and the situation with the phone is just making it worse What situation with the phone? The landlines down, Melanie said. But its not that. Not really. Im just I want to be back home. I shouldnt have come. You dont mind, do you? Of course not. Clare yawned and brushed hair out of her eyes. Dont be silly. If youre miserable then go. Ill see you at the wedding anyway. Yeah. Melanie gave a nod. Then she leaned forwards, with a quick glance over her shoulder at Flo, and said in a low voice, Look, Clare, help her to get a grip, yeah? Its not its not healthy. For anyone. And then she opened the door, slammed it behind her, and the last we heard was the grate of her car tyres as she bumped down the rutted driveway to the lane. Flo began to cry, heavily and snottily. For a moment I stood, wondering what I should could do. Then Clare came down the rest of the stairs, yawning, took Flos arm, and led her into the kitchen. I heard the bubble of the kettle beneath Flos gulping, retching tears, and Clares soothing voice. You saved my life, Flo gasped between sobs. How am I supposed to forget that? Honey, I heard Clare say. There was a kind of loving exasperation in her voice. How many times I retreated upstairs, backwards, keeping my steps light and silent, and then at the landing I turned and fled. I knew I was being a coward, but I couldnt help it. The door to the bedroom I shared with Nina was closed, and I was just about to turn the handle and barge in, when I heard Ninas voice from inside, filled with an uncharacteristic yearning softness. miss you too. God, I wish I were home with you. Are you in bed? Long pause. Youre breaking up. Yeah, the receptions awful, I tried to phone you last night but there was nothing. Ive only got half a bar now. Another pause. No, just some bloke called Tom. Hes OK. Oh sweetheart, Jess, I love you I coughed. I didnt want to burst in on the middle of her conversation. Nina doesnt let her guard down often and when she does, she doesnt like it to be seen. I know that from experience. wish I were snuggled up with you. Im missing you so much. Its the back of beyond up here nothing but trees and hills. Im half-tempted to leave but I dont think Nora I coughed again, louder, and rattled the handle, and she broke off and called, Hello? I opened the door and she grinned. Oh, Noras just come in. Were sharing a room. What? Its breaking up again. Pause. Ha dont worry, definitely not! Yeah, Ill tell her. OK, Id better go. I can hardly hear you. I love you too. Bye. Love you. She hung up and smiled up at me from the pile of pillows. Jess says hi. Oh, glad you got through to her. Is she all right? I love Jess. She is small and round and comfortable with a smile that lights up a room and no snark about her at all the exact opposite of Nina in fact. Theyre the perfect couple. Yeah, shes fine. Missing me. Natch. Nina stretched until her joints popped, and then sighed. God, I wish she was here. Or I wasnt. One of the two. Well, theres a vacancy. Were one down. What? Melanie, shes gone. The landlines down and it was the last straw. Christ, youre kidding? Its like Agatha Effing Christie and the Ten Little Eskimos. Indians. What? Ten Little Indians. In the book. It was Eskimos. It bloody wasnt. I sat down on the bed. It was the N-word, actually, if youre going for the original, then Indians, then soldiers when they decided that offing ethnic minorities was maybe a bit strange. It was never Eskimos. Well, whatever. Nina dismissed the Eskimos with a wave of her hand. Is there any coffee down there? Nope. Just tea, remember? I reached for a jumper, pulled it over my head and smoothed my hair. Clare doesnt drink coffee, so neither do we. Oh, God, fucking Flo and the satellite of love. Hows she taking Melanies departure? Hmm. Listen, and you might be able to I trailed off, and we both heard the unmistakeable sound of heavy sobs coming up from the kitchen. Nina rolled her eyes. She is unhinged. I really mean that. She was weird when they were at university have you noticed how she copies what Clare wears? She used to do that back then too. But now I dont think shes unhinged. I shifted uncomfortably. Clares a powerful personality if youre not very confident I stopped, struggling to put into words the feeling that Id always had that my own personality was a space, a vacuum that someone like Clare could rush into to fill. It was something that I knew Nina would never understand with all her faults, lack of personality is not one of them. She lay there, eyeing me speculatively from the pillow and then shrugged. Clares perfect, do you know what I mean? I said at last. Its easy to want that for yourself, and feel like imitation is the way to get it. Maybe. Nina sat up, pulling her skimpy vest top straight. I still think Flos a few cherries short of a trifle. But whatever. Look, Ive been meaning to say, I really am sorry about last night. I had no idea it was such a sore spot for you. But seriously, why did you come if you still feel like that about it all? I pulled on my jeans and then stood, chewing my lip, thinking over what I had and hadnt told Nina. Its always my instinct to keep my cards close to my chest, I dont know why. I dislike giving people, even friends, the smallest hold over me. Ive always been a private person, and that tendency has grown since I started to live alone and work alone. But I knew, too, that tendency could send me as crazy as Flo in my own way if I let it. I came because I took a breath, and then forced myself on because I had no idea that Clare was marrying James. What? Nina swung her legs out of bed and looked at me. I gave a tremulous shrug. Put like that, it did sound kind of pathetic. What, are you serious? So Clare, like, lured you here to spring that shit on you? N-not exactly. Shit. Stop stammering. She said she wanted to tell me to my face. That she felt she owed me that. Fuck that! Nina pulled a shirt over her head, and for a moment her voice was muffled, then it cleared as her head popped out, her cheeks pink with indignation. If she wanted to meet you face to face the normal thing to do would be to invite you out for a drink! Not lure you into some God-forsaken forest. What was she thinking? I I dont think she meant it like that. Christ, what was I doing defending her? I think she just didnt think Ugh! Nina stood up and began brushing her hair angrily, the strands crackling as she dragged the brush through them. How does she get away with pulling this crap? And she comes out of it smelling of roses every time! Do you remember when she told everyone in Year Ten that I fancied Debbie Harry? And then claimed it was because she felt bad that I was having to live a lie and everyone acted like she was doing me a fucking favour? I I didnt know what to say. The Debbie Harry incident had been brutal. I still remembered Ninas shocked expression when she came into the classroom and Clare was humming Hanging on the Telephone with that particular smile on her face, and the whole class sniggering. Its all about her. Its about how she looks and feels. Back then she wanted to look like the caring, liberal, accepting friend and so out it comes, sod whether Im ready to tell people, and now she wants to feel like she can swan off into the sunset with James and no guilt so hey presto, force you into a position where youve got pretty much no choice at all over whether you forgive her. I hadnt looked at it like that. But in a way, Nina was right. Im not upset about what Clares done, I said, although I knew in my heart that this was only partly true. Whats really been bothering me What? But suddenly I couldnt say it. The feeling of nakedness was back, and I only shook my head and turned away, pulling on my socks. What I had been about to say, before I lost my nerve, was: how much did James know about it? Had he gone along with this plan? We can go, Nina said conversationally as she buttoned up her jeans and stood up to stretch, all six-foot-one of her. We could drive off into the sunset and leave Clare and Flo to the crazy together. And Tom. Oh, yeah, and Tom. We could, couldnt we It was an enticing picture and I thought about it for a minute as Nina began brushing her hair. But we couldnt. I knew that really. Or rather I couldnt. If Id said no, before I even got here, that would have been one thing. But backing out now, halfway though the hen there was only one interpretation. I could imagine them all speculating about it after I was gone: poor Nora, poor cow, shes so screwed up over James, she ruined Clares hen because she couldnt be happy for her. And worst of all he would know. I could see it now, the two of them in their perfect flat in London, curled up in bed together, Clare sighing with concern over me. Im worried, James, its like shes never got over you. And he and he I found my hands were clenched into fists, and Nina was gazing at me curiously. I had to consciously relax them, and I gave a little, false-sounding laugh. If only right? But we cant. It would be too much of a fuck you in the aftermath of Melanie leaving. Nina looked at me, long and hard, and then shook her head. All right. I think youre kind of masochistic. But all right. Weve only got one more night. I was convincing myself now. I can take one more night. All right. One more night it is. 14 IF ONLY. IF only I had gone then. I wish I could sleep, but I cant, even with the soft click and whirr of the morphine driver. Instead I lie awake, listening to the voices in the corridor, the policeman and woman discussing in low voices what has happened, and that one word reverberates inside my head: Murder. Murder. Murder. Can it be true? Can it possibly be true? Who is dead? Clare? Flo? Nina? My heart stops at that. Not Nina. Not beautiful, brash, vibrant Nina. Please I must remember. I must try to remember what happened next. I know that come daybreak they will be in here asking me questions. Theyre waiting outside for me to wake up, waiting to talk to me. I must have my version of events straight by then. But what did happen next? The events of that day swirl and pound inside my head, mixing themselves up, tangling themselves together, the truth with the lies. Ive only got a few hours left to try to sort it out. Step by step, then. What happened next? My hand goes to my shoulder, to the spreading bruise. 15 WHEN NINA AND I got downstairs Flo had stopped crying and cleaned herself up, and was eating toast and jam, evidently determined to pretend that nothing had happened. Any coffee? Nina asked innocently, but I knew from her tone she was only needling. Flo looked up miserably, and her lip wobbled again. I I forgot, remember? But I promise Ill get some today when we go to the shooting range. What? We both stared at Flo, who gave a watery smile. Yeah, I wanted it to be a surprise. Were going clay-pigeon shooting. I gave a short, shocked laugh. Nina didnt move. Seriously? Of course. Why? Because its just like a hen night? Shooting? I thought it would be fun. My cousin went on his stag. Yes, but Nina trailed off and I could see the thoughts running through her head as clearly as if they were written on her forehead in ticker tape: Why cant we go to a bloody spa and then clubbing like normal people? But then again, she cant possibly make us wear pink feather boas at a shooting range, right? So it could be worse. I wondered, too, if she was thinking of Colombia. Of the gunshot wounds shed treated there not so long ago. Um OK, she said at last. Theyre just like clay plates, Flo was saying earnestly. So you dont need to worry if youre veggie or anti blood sports. Im not veggie. I know. But if you were. Im not veggie. Nina rolled her eyes and made her way over to the bread bin, looking for more bread to toast. I thought wed have a spot of brunch here with some games maybe? Ive done a quiz! Nina winced theatrically. And then we can head out after that. And come back here for drinks and curry. Curry? We all turned to see Tom padding downstairs in his pyjamas and an open dressing gown, rubbing his eyes. His pyjama bottoms were knotted very low, barely above his hipbones, and there was an impressive amount of buff muscle on display. Tim, hate to tell you, you forgot your shirt, Nina said. I think you should put it on. You dont want to tempt poor Nora beyond what she can bear. I threw a toast crust at her. She dodged, and it hit Flo. Oops, sorry Flo. Stop it you two! Flo scolded. Tom only yawned, but he belted up his dressing gown and winked at me. Whats the plan for today then? he asked as he took a piece of toast from the plate Flo shoved at him. Shooting, Nina said, deadpan. Toms eyebrows nearly disappeared beneath his hair. I beg your pardon? Shooting. Apparently thats Flos idea of a jolly. Flo gave Nina a look, not quite sure if she was having the piss taken out of her or not. Clay-pigeon shooting actually, she said defiantly. Its fun! OK. Tom chewed his toast and looked round the table. Am I the last one up? Oh no. Melanies still asleep, I presume? Melanie Flo began indignantly, but at that moment Clare came in from the living room and answered, raising her voice firmly above Flos. Melanie had to go, she said. Family stuff. Dont worry, Tom, either me or Nina will give you a lift back to Newcastle. But the good news is, it means we can all fit in the same car now, so we dont have to worry about navigating Ill drive, and Flo can direct, as she knows where it is. Great, Nina said. Super. We can all sing Ten Green Bottles and fight in the back seat. I can hardly wait. OK, so I think its time for the quiz, Flo said. She craned round in her seat to look at me, Nina and Tom in the back. I was crushed in the middle and feeling car sick already, not helped by Toms headily overpowering aftershave. Or maybe it was Clares perfume. It was hard to tell in the confined space. I wanted to open a window but it was snowing outside, and the heater was on full blast. Its Clare vs you guys, Flo continued. Fingers on buzzers please for round one. Wait, wait, Nina shouted. A quiz on what, and whats the prize? A quiz on James of course, Clare said from the front seat, amused. Right, Flops? Of course! Flo said. She was laughing. I felt more and more like vomiting. Prize I dont know. Glory? Oh, no, Ive got it. The losing team can wear these for the rest of the day! She dug around in her rucksack and brought out a handful of skimpy underwear, emblazoned with the slogan I ? JAMES COOPER on the bum. I felt every muscle in my body go stiff with anger. Nina coughed, and glanced at me sympathetically. Um, Flo she said diffidently, but Flo ploughed on. Dont worry! Over trousers I mean or on your head or something. Right, first question. This is for Team Backseat, with a bonus point to Clare for any that you fail to get that she guesses correctly. What is Jamess middle name? I shut my eyes against the car sickness and listened to Nina and Tom arguing over it. Pretty sure it begins with a C, Tom was saying. So Im thinking, Chris? Karl. With a K. Its not, Nina insisted. Its something to do with Russia. His dad was a professor of Russian politics. Theodor. Or whats Stalins first name? Joseph. But Im sure its not Joseph. Besides, whod name their kid after Stalin? OK not Stalin then. Name another famous Russian. I gritted my teeth. Karl. Dostoevsky? Lenin? Marx? Marx! Nina shouted. Its Karl. Im sure of it. In spite of my growing nausea, I had to crack a smile at her competitiveness. Nina was incapable of losing at anything an argument, a board game she often said it was the reason she didnt do any competitive sport, because she couldnt bear losing to someone, even if that someone was Usain Bolt. Is that your final answer? Flo asked seriously. My eyes were still closed but I felt Nina nodding vigorously beside me. Karl. With a K. Correct! Question two. What is Jamess star sign? Hes old in the year, Nina said straight off. I remember that. Hes definitely September or October. No, I think its August, Tom said. Im sure its August. They bickered amicably back and forth, swapping evidence, until Nina said, Nora, what do you wait, are you OK? Your face is a bit green. Im feeling a bit sick, I said shortly. Oh, God. Nina recoiled almost physically, though there was a limit to how far she could get away from me in the narrow back seat. Someone open a window. Tom. Tom, wind yours down too. She nudged me in the ribs and said, Open your eyes. Looking at the road helps its something to do with giving the brain the information that youre travelling. Reluctantly I opened my eyes. Flo was grinning in the front seat. Clare was driving along calmly, and I could see in the rear-view mirror that she had an amused smile on her face. She caught my eye for a fleeting moment, and the smile twitched. For a moment just a moment I wanted to slap her across her perfect, beautiful cheekbone. Im sure its August, Tom said again. I remember going to the Proms with him and Bruce one year. Oh for crying out loud, I snapped. Its 20th September. Ive no idea what sign that is. Virgo, Tom said instantly. He didnt seem to hold my shortness of temper against me. Are you sure about the date, Nora? I nodded. OK, Virgo. Thats our answer. Two points to Team Backseat Drivers! Flo said delightedly. Clare you will have some catching up to do. Next question: what is Jamess favourite food? I wanted to shut my eyes, but I didnt dare. This was torture. I looked down at my lap, away from Clare, and pushed my nails into my palm, trying to distract myself from the nausea, and the memories that were crowding in unbidden. I had a sharp, flashing picture of James, sprawled on his bed after school eating his way through a bowl of clementines. He loved those things. For a moment the scent was sharp in my nostrils the sweet tang of the oil, the smell of his room of tumbled sheets and him. I used to love clementines love the smell of them on his fingers, finding the peel in his pocket. I never touch them now. Panang curry? Tom said uncertainly, and Flo pulled face. Almost but I can only give you half a point for that. Panang with ? Tofu, Tom said promptly. Flo nodded. Three points! Two more questions to go before Clares round. Question four which play was Jamess West End debut? West End in what sense? Tom asked. I mean are you counting the National as West End? Because personally I wouldnt. There was some muttered discussion between Flo and Clare in the front seat and Flo turned back round. OK, let me rephrase that as London debut. I Googled James once. Only once. Google was spattered with images of him pictures of him in costume, on stage, publicity stills, shots of him smiling at charity functions and opening nights. The ones I couldnt bear were the ones where he was looking directly at the camera, directly out of the screen, at me. When I scrolled down to one where he was naked on stage, in Equus, I had closed the browser with shaking hands, as if Id stumbled on something violent or obscene. Tom and Nina were conferring over the top of my head. We think it was as an understudy in The History Boys, Nina said at last. Flo sucked in her breath. Ooooh! Close. Im sorry that was his second role. Over to Clare? Vincent in Brixton, Clare said. One point to me. Never heard of it, Nina said. Tom leaned across me and punched her. It won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play! And a Tony Award. Never heard of that either. Whos Tony? Jesus! Tom threw up his hands. Im in a car with a bleeding philistine. OK, Flo said loudly, talking over them. Fifth and final question before we hand over to Clare for her round. When and where did James propose to Clare? I shut my eyes again, listening to the chorus of protest from Tom and Nina. Thats not fair! They should at least be things that Clare has a chance of not knowing. He proposed on her birthday, Tom said, I know that. Because they came to lunch with me and Bruce the next day and Clare was flashing that ring. Where is it, Clare? Oh, I I heard Clare shift in the driving seat and fumble the gear change as we took a junction too fast. I left it at home. To tell you the truth Ive not got used to wearing it yet and I keep panicking Im going to lose it. As for where I could hear the frown in Toms voice. Im going to go for a pure punt and say, J. Sheekey? Ooh, so close! Flo sucked in her breath. Birthday was right but it was in the bar at the Southbank. Sorry, half a point there. So thats three and a half points, and a point and a half to Clare. Some of those were fixes, Tom grumbled. But well get our revenge. Right, round two, question one to Clare. What was Jamess first pet called? Blimey. Clare sounded stumped. I think it was a hamster but I honestly dont know. Backseat team? No idea, Nina said. Nora? She had the grace to sound awkward, as if she knew how painful this all was. I did know. But I was damned if I was telling them. I only shook my head. A guinea pig called Mindy. Nul points. Question two. Who is Jamess ideal celebrity woman? Clare burst out laughing. OK, for self-respect Im going to say the person who looks most like me. Which is God, who do I look like? Christ. You always sound delusional whatever you say. OK, he likes strong women, funny women. Im going to say Billie Piper. You dont look anything like Billie Piper! Nina objected. Well, except that youre both blonde. Well its not Billie Piper, Flo said. Its she consulted her piece of paper. Jees, I have no idea who this is: Jean, how do you say that? Morrow? Clare? Never heard of her either. Is she a stage actress, Tom? Right here, Flo interjected and we rounded the corner with a sickening swing. Jeanne Moreau, Tom said. Shes a French actress. She was in that Truffaut film. Jules et Jim, I think it was. But I didnt know she was Jamess favourite actress. Well, Id hardly call her a celebrity, Clare grumbled as we lurched over a humpback bridge and picked up speed. The sick feeling rose again. Next question. What is Jamess favourite designer clothes label? Favourite designer clothes label? The James Id known would have laughed at the very suggestion. I wondered if it was a trick question and Clare was about to say Oxfam. Clare tapped her fingers on the wheel, thinking. Im stuck between Alexander McQueen, she said at last, and Comme des Gar?ons. But Im going to go for McQueen. Mainly because he actually wears McQueen. Jesus wept. Correct! Flo said. Well, it actually says If were talking people I think are cool, then probably Vivienne Westwood, but if you mean designers I wear, then McQueen. So I think that counts. Question four, which body part she began to laugh did James accidentally slice off aged ten in a woodwork lesson? He took a chunk off his knuckle, Clare said instantly. The scars still there. I squeezed my eyes tighter shut. I remembered that scar so well, a white circle on the knuckle of his little finger, and a long silver line tracing up the outside of his wrist, pale against his tan. I remembered kissing my way along that line, up his forearm, to the soft crook of his elbow, and James lying there, stiff and shaking, trying not to laugh as my lips brushed the ticklish soft skin of his inner arm. Correct! Flo said. Youre doing well. Levelled up. Its three and a half all round. So this final one is the decider. If Clare gets this, she wins and you lot wear the pants. So, drum roll please. At what age did James lose his virginity? Nausea rose up in my throat and I opened my eyes. Stop the c-car. What? Clare glanced at me in the rear-view mirror. Jesus, Lee, youre green. Stop the car, I put a hand over my mouth. Im going I couldnt say any more. I pressed my lips together, breathing through my nose as Clare bumped to a hasty halt, and then I scrambled out across Ninas lap and stood on the snowy verge, hands on knees, shivering with the strange aftermath of nausea. Are you OK? I heard Flos anxious voice behind me. Want me to do anything? I couldnt speak. I just shook my head vehemently, wishing shed go away. Wishing theyd all go away. Are you all right, Lee? Clares voice floated out of the window. Nora, I thought, viciously, you stupid bitch. But I said nothing. Just waited for my shuddering breathing to go back to normal, and the sickness to subside. Are you OK, Nora? It was Nina, beside me, her hand on my shoulder. I nodded, and then slowly straightened up, taking a long, shaky breath. The cold air stung the inside of my lungs, but it was a clear, cleansing cold, a relief after the hot stuffiness of the car. Yeah. Sorry. I just went a bit I think it was sitting in the back seat. I think it was Flos fucking nauseating quiz, Nina said. She didnt bother to lower her voice and I winced on Flos behalf and glanced behind me apologetically, but either she didnt hear, or she didnt care. She was chatting away to Clare unconcernedly. Flo, Nina said, turning back to the car, I think Nora should sit in the front, is that OK? Oh yeah! Totally, totally fine. Totally. Nora, you poor thing! You should have said if you were feeling rubbish. Im OK, I said stiffly, but I took the front seat that Flo had vacated and slid in beside Clare. She flashed me a sympathetic look and when Flo said enthusiastically from the back seat, Right! Back to the quiz! Clare interjected. I think well just call it a draw, yeah, Flops? Maybe weve all had enough quiz for the moment. Oh. Flos face fell, and I couldnt help but feel sorry for her. Whoevers fault this whole mess was, it wasnt hers. Her only crime was trying to be a good friend to Clare. 16 LEONORA! THERE IS a hand shaking me, pulling me awake. Leonora, Im going to need you to wake up, duckie. Leonora. I feel fingers pulling at my eyelids and a light, blindingly bright, shining in. Ow! I blink and pull back, and a hand lets go of my chin. Sorry, ducks, are you awake now? The face is disconcertingly close, her eyes staring into mine. I blink again, and then nod. Yes. Yes, Im awake. I dont know when I dozed off. It felt like I was awake half the night, watching the silhouettes of the police through the glass, running through things in my head, trying to remember. The clay-pigeon shoot. That was the recoil bruise. I must remember to tell the police if only I can keep things straight in my head. But the closer things get to to whatever happened, the hazier they get. What did happen? Why am I here? I must have spoken the last words aloud for the nurse gives a kindly smile. You had a bit of a car accident my love. Am I OK? Yes, nothing broken. She has a pleasant Northumberland burr. But youve knocked your poor face something awful. Youve got a couple of beautiful black eyes but no fractures. But thats why I had to wake you. We have to do observations every few hours, just to make sure youve not had a funny turn in the night. I was asleep, I say stupidly, and then rub my face. It hurts as if Ive headbutted a window. Careful now, the nurse says. Youve got a few cuts and bruises. I rub my feet, feeling the grime and grit and blood. I feel disgusting. I need a pee. Can I have a shower? I ask. My head feels bleary. There is an ensuite in the corner of the room, I can see. The nurse looks down at the chart at the foot of the bed. Let me ask the doctor. Im not telling you no, but Id like to just make sure. She turns to go, and I catch sight of the silhouette outside the door, and it comes back to me: the conversation I heard last night. It has a nightmarish quality. Was it really true? Did I really hear what I thought I heard, or did I dream it? Wait, I say. Wait, last night I heard the people outside But shes gone already, the door flapping back behind her with a gust of food smells and sounds from the corridor. As she walks out the policewoman outside catches at her arm and I hear a burst of conversation, and see the nurse shaking her head emphatically. Not yet, I hear, permission from the doctor have to wait. I dont think you appreciate, the policewomans voice is low but her tones are clipped and clear as a newsreaders, and her words filter through the glass much more distinctly than the nurses northern burr. That this is now a homicide investigation. Och, no! The nurse is shocked. The poor love didnt make it, then? No. So its true. I didnt imagine it. It wasnt some product of too much morphine and my battered head. Its true. I struggle up against the pillows, my heart pounding in my throat, and on the monitor to my left I see the little green line leaping with panicked jerks against the flatline. Someone is definitely dead. Someone is dead. But who? 17 WELCOME TO TUCKETTS Wood, the man said in a slightly bored Australian accent. He was tanned and chiselled and reminded me slightly of Tom Cruise and from the way Flo was gazing at him, her green eyes wide and her mouth slightly open, I could tell that I wasnt the only one seeing the resemblance. My names Grig, and Ill be your instructor here today. He stopped, seeming to count heads and then said, Hang about, Ive got six here on my booking. Someone gone AWOL? Yes, Flo said tightly. Someone certainly has. No prizes for guessing who Ill be imagining when I open fire. So were five then today? the instructor said easily, not seeming to notice Flos tense annoyance. Fair dos. Right, first off I have to tell you about our safety precautions He began a long speech about ear defenders, alcohol, the responsibilities of gun ownership and so on. Once wed established that, yes, we were all complete beginners, no, none of us held a shotgun licence, and yes, we were all aged over eighteen and sober, we signed a long waiver form and trooped through into the back half of the outward-bound centre, where the instructor sized us up. All I can say is, thank God youre none of you wearing pink feather boas and all that malarkey. You wouldnt believe the trouble we have with hen parties. You, he pointed at Flo, Flo, was it? Your jackets a bit thin. You probably want something a bit thicker against the recoil. He dug around in a chest behind him and fished out a padded Barbour. Flo made a face but put it on. Sorry, I have to ask, she said as she zipped it up. Is your name really Grig? Is that a nickname? Nah, Grig. Short for Grigory. Oh, Greg, Flo said, and laughed a little too loudly. Greg gave her a slightly odd look. Yeah, Grig. Thats what I said. Now the thing to remember, he continued, getting out a broken shotgun and laying it on a trestle table, is that a gun is a wippon designed to kill. Never forget that. Treat it with respect, and itll treat you with respect. Mess around with it, and like as not, youll be the one that ends up messed up. And most important of all, never, never point a gun at anyone, loaded or unloaded. And if you get a misfire, dont go looking down the barrel to see what happened. All this sounds simple, but youd be amazed how often people dont obey simple safety precautions. Right. Now were gonna run through a few basics about loading, closing and breaking the gun, and then well head out into the wood and try a few clays. Any questions, just shout. Now the first cartridges well be shooting with today We all listened in silence as he talked through the technicalities, the silliness of the car journey quite gone. I was glad to have something to concentrate on, glad to stop thinking about Clare and James, and I got the impression that the others felt the same, or at least most of them. Nina and Clare had both changed the subject when Flo had tried to start discussing the honeymoon plans. Tom had said nothing, and had spent most of the remaining car journey tapping away on his BlackBerry, but I saw his quick glance up at me and Clare, and I knew that he was filing all this away. If you write about this, I thought, I will fucking kill you, but I said nothing, just nodded as Greg said something about automatic traps. At last the talk was done and we all followed Greg and trooped out of the hut into the sparse pine wood, our guns broken and hooked over our arms. Hey, if you enjoy this, maybe you should put a shotgun on the wedding list! Flo said to Clare, and gave her loud braying laugh. Shotgun wedding in the most literal sense, huh? Clare laughed. I think Jamesd kill me if I started messing around with the gift list now. It took the best part of a day in John Lewis to get it whittled down to what weve got now. You wouldnt believe the arguments we had just choosing a coffee maker took about two hours. Is a Heston Blumenthal endorsement a plus or a minus? Do we need a milk frother? Should we get bean-to-cup, or one of those pod machines Oh bean-to-cup, surely? Tom interrupted. George Clooney can say what he likes, but pods are so Noughties. Theyre the SodaStream de nos jours. Catchy, but fundamentally pointless and inconvenient. You sound exactly like James! Clare said. But then bean-to-cup is all very well, but what do you do if the grinder goes? That was my argument. Youre stuck with a useless machine. Whereas if you get a separate grinder True, true, Tom said nodding. So what did you decide? Well, Im a tea gal, as you know. James is the coffee fiend. So I gave him the casting vote and he went for the Sage by Heston Blumenthal bean-to-cup. Bruce looked at one of those last year. Hefty beast. And best part of six hundred quid from what I remember? About that, Clare agreed. Nina caught my eye and went cross-eyed. I tried to keep my face expressionless, but my heart was with her. Six hundred pounds for a coffee machine? I like coffee, but six hundred pounds? And on a gift list too. I knew she meant nothing by it, but there was something unintentionally offensive about Clares casual assumption that people could spend that much on her. Or would want to. Or maybe it was Jamess assumption. The thought left a bad taste in my mouth. Right, Greg called as the trees thinned out into a large grassy clearing. There was a little breeze-block wall over the far side. Everybody hold up here. Now the kind of cartridge that well be using today, Greg said, with the air of someone reciting a well-worn spiel, is 7.5. This is a good mid-range type of shot, suitable for pretty much all types of clay shooting, whether thats sport, skeet or trap. This, he held up a cartridge, is a live 7.5 round, with the shot itself packed into the tip he tapped the rounded end, the wad in the centre, and the gunpowder and primer at this metal end here. Now, before we get going, Im gonna show you the effects of a cartridge full of 7.5 on a human body. Dont be asking for volunteers next! Flo hooted. Greg turned a deadpan face onto her. Very kind of you to step forward, young lady. Flo gave a nervous laugh. She looked taken aback, but at the same time slightly thrilled. It should be the hen, really! she protested, as Greg beckoned, but she went and stood beside him anyway, blushing and covering her face in pantomime fear. Right. So Flo here has kindly volunteered to help demonstrate the effects of a barrel full of shot at close quarters. He paused for a beat and then winked. But dont worry, shes not gonna be on the business end. What I have here, he held up a large sheet of paper with a black outline on it, is a paper target, more usually used for handgun target practice. He fished in his pocket, pulled out some tacks and pinned the target sheet to a nearby tree. The bark was blistered and pock-marked with wounds, and it wasnt hard to guess what was about to happen next. Everybody stand back please. Ear defenders on, Flo. I feel like a DJ! Flo said, grinning as she pulled the neon headphones over her ears. Now, Im loading the cartridge into the gun, he slid it into place, and shutting the barrel as we demonstrated back at the centre. Flo, come up here, stand in front of me. Right, bring the gun up to your shoulder. He held it against her, steadying it in place. Flo gave a slightly hysterical titter. Our Gregs quite dishy, isnt he? Tom whispered into my ear. I wouldnt mind having him correct my stance. Flo certainly looks like shes not about to object. Hold it firm, Greg said. Now, finger on the trigger. He held Flos hand, bracing the stock and barrel against her. And gently squeeeeze the trigger. No sharp movements There was a deafening crack, Flo gave a little squeak and staggered back against Gregs chest, and the paper in front of us exploded into pieces. Jesus! Tom said. Id seen target-shooting on American films nice neat little holes, close to the bulls-eye of the outlined figure. But this was something else. The shot had hit the paper full in the chest, and the whole middle section of the piece was virtually destroyed. As we watched, the legs fluttered free and drifted gently to the leafy ground. Quite. Greg took the gun off Flo and walked across to stand close to us. Flos face, as she trotted beside him, was a mixture of alarm and excitement, her cheeks pink. I wasnt sure if it was the thrill of the explosion or whether, as Tom had suggested, she had enjoyed Gregs one-to-one attention. As you can see, Greg continued, this single shot at close quarters has done quite a bit of damage. If that was a person, its doubtful theyd make it as far as the reception centre, let alone the local hospital. So the moral of this is, ladies and gentlemen, respect your weapon. OK. Any questions? We all shook our heads, mutely. Only Flo was beaming. Nina looked distinctly grim. I remembered the gunshot wounds shed treated with MSF, and wondered what she was thinking. Greg nodded, once, as if satisfied, and we all trooped silently after him to face the trap. 18 THAT WAS SO much fun! Flo collapsed backwards onto the sofa and kicked off her boots. Her socks were pink and fluffy. She shook the snow out of her hair it had started again on the drive back. That was ace! Tom, you were a crack shot! Tom grinned and slumped back into an armchair. I used to do a lot of archery as a teen. I guess the skills are similar. Archery? Nina eyed him disbelievingly. As in, Robin Hood and his Merry Men? Did you have to wear tights? As in, the stuff they do at the Olympics, Tom said. He was obviously well used to teasing and it barely registered. No tights involved. I used to do competitive fencing too. Its very good for you. Very physical. Im out of shape now. He flexed one biceps and looked at it with what was supposed to be a rueful expression, but the undertone of slight self-satisfaction rather showed through. Nina made a sympathetic face. God, yeah, it must be awful having pecs the size of a teen girls boobs and a six-pack to match. I dont know how Bruce puts up with it. Stop it, you two! Flo scolded. Clare watched them from the far sofa, and I found myself watching her, remembering how she loved to observe, how she used to throw a remark out, like a pebble into a pond, and then back quietly away to watch the ripples as people scrapped it out. It was not an endearing habit, but it was one I could not condemn. I understood it too well. I, too, am happier watching than being watched. Clare turned her head and caught me watching her watching Tom and Nina squabbling, and she smiled a small conspiratorial smile that said, I see you. I looked away. What had she hoped to accomplish by inviting me here? Nina saw it as an attempt to salve her conscience at my expense the equivalent of an adulterous husband confessing to his wife. I did not. I dont think Clare lost any sleep over hooking up with James. And in any case she didnt deserve my condemnation. She owed me nothing. James and I broke up long ago. No. I thought that perhaps perhaps she had merely wanted to watch. To see how I took it. Perhaps that was the same reason she outed Nina. Like a child who sees a teeming anthill and simply cant not poke it. And then they step back and watch. How about you, Lee? Flo said suddenly, and I looked away from Clare, jerked out of my thoughts. Sorry, what? Did you enjoy that? Ish. I rubbed my shoulder, where I could feel a bruise already forming. My shoulder hurts though. You got a right jolt from the recoil on that first shot, didnt you? The kick of the gun had surprised me, whacking back against my shoulder bone with a whump that knocked the breath out of me. You have to hold it firm in the first place, Tom said. You were like this, look. He reached up and took down the shotgun over the mantelpiece and braced it against his shoulder, showing me the loose stance that had cost me a bruise. The muzzle of the gun was pointing directly at me. I froze. Hey! Nina said sharply. Tom! Clare struggled up straighter against the sofa cushions, looking from me to Tom and then back again. Put that down! Tom just grinned. I knew he was joking, but in spite of myself I felt every muscle in my body tense. God, I feel like Jason Bourne, he said. I can literally feel the power going to my head as I speak. Hmm lets interrogate a few people. How about this for starters: Nora, why in all the years Ive known Clare has she never mentioned your name? I tried to speak but my throat was suddenly so dry I could barely swallow. Tom! Clare said more sharply. Call me paranoid but should you be waving that thing around after all Grigs wise words about guns fucking you up? Its not loaded, Flo said, and yawned. My aunt uses it for scaring rabbits. Still, Clare said. Just kidding around, Tom said. He gave another wolfish grin, showing those unnaturally white teeth, and then lowered the muzzle and hooked the shotgun back on its pegs. I slumped back against the sofa feeling the wave of adrenaline recede, and my fingers uncurl from their rigid fists. My hands were shaking. Ha fucking ha, Clare said. She was frowning like someone totally failing to see any funny side at all. Next time you want to wave that thing around, can you make sure its not one of my friends on the sharp end? I shot her a grateful look and she rolled her eyes at me as if to say, Dick. Sorry, Tom said mildly. Like I said, just kidding, but I apologise if any offence was caused. He gave a mock bow in my direction. Right, scuse I, Flo said with another yawn. Id better make a start on supper. Want a hand? Clare said, and Flos face lit up. Her smile was extraordinary it transformed her whole face. Really? I feel like you should be acting like the queen of the day. Nah, come on. Ill chop or something. She heaved herself up off the sofa and they left the room, Clares arm slung companionably round Flos shoulders. Tom looked after them, as they left. Funny couple, arent they? he said. What do you mean? I said. I cant quite fit the Clare I know together with Flo. Theyre so different. The remark shouldnt have made sense, given that they were so physically similar, and both dressed in an almost identical uniform of grey stonewash jeans and stripey top. But I knew what he meant. Nina stretched. Theyve got one really important interest in common though. Whats that? They both think Clares the centre of the fucking universe. Tom snorted, and I tried not to laugh. Nina only looked sideways out of her glinting dark eyes, a little wry smile twitching at the corner of her mouth. Then she stretched, and shrugged, all in one fluid movement. Right. I might phone the old trouble and strife. She pulled out her mobile and then made a face. No reception. Hows yours, Lee? Nora. But there were only so many times I could correct people without seeming obsessively controlling. I dont know, I said, and felt in my pockets. Thats odd. Its not here. Im sure I had it at the shooting range I remember checking Twitter. Maybe I left it in the car. I dont think Id have any reception either, though I havent had a bar since I got here. You got a bit of reception from our room earlier, didnt you? Yeah. Nina had picked up the phone receiver and was jiggling the cradle. This ones still out. OK. Im going upstairs to hang off the balcony and try to get a bar or two. Maybe I can send a text. Whats so urgent? Tom asked. Nina shook her head. Nothing. Just you know. I miss her. Fair play. We both watched as she disappeared upstairs, long legs eating up the stairs two at a time. Tom sighed and stretched out on the couch. Are you not phoning Bruce? I asked. He shook his head. To tell the truth we had a bit of a disagreement, lets call it. Before I left. Oh right. I kept my voice neutral. I never know what to say in these situations. I hate people prying into my business, so I assume others will feel the same way. But sometimes they want to spill, it seems, and then you look cold and odd, backing away from their confidences. I try to be completely non-judgemental not pushing for secrets, not repelling confessions. And in truth, although part of me really doesnt want to hear their petty jealousies and weird obsessions, theres another part of me that wants to egg them on. Its that part of me that stands there nodding, taking notes, filing it all away. Its like opening up the back of the machine to see the crude workings grinding away inside. Theres a disappointment in the banality of what makes people tick, but at the same time, theres a kind of fascination at seeing the inner coils and cogs. The trouble is that the next day they almost invariably resent you for having seen them naked and unguarded. So Im deliberately reserved and non-committal, trying not to lead them on. But somehow it doesnt seem to work. All too often I end up pinned to the wall at parties, listening to a long tale of how so-and-so fucked them over, and then he said this, and then she got off with him, and then his ex did that Youd think people would be wary of spilling to a writer. Youd think theyd know that were essentially birds of carrion, picking over the corpses of dead affairs and forgotten arguments to recycle them in our work zombie reincarnations of their former selves, stitched into a macabre new patchwork of our own devising. Tom, if anyone, should have known that. But it didnt stop him. He was speaking now, his voice a bored drawl that didnt disguise the fact that he was clearly still angry with his husband. What youve got to understand is that Bruce gave James his first big chance, he directed him in Black Ties, White Lies back in God, what, we must be talking seven, eight years ago? And maybe I mean, I dont know I never asked what went on, but Bruce wasnt exactly renowned for his professional chastity. We werent together then of course. But naturally Bruce feels that James owes him a certain amount, and maybe equally naturally James feels that he doesnt. I know that Bruce was pretty angry over the business with Coriolanus and the fact that Eamonn sided with James And then when those rumours got round about him and Richard, well, there was only one place those could have come from. Bruce swore he never sent that text to Clive. He carried on, a stream of names and places that meant nothing to me, and plays that had left only the sketchiest impression in my own cultural landscape. The politics flowed over me, but the point was clear: Bruce was angry with James and had a past with him of whatever kind. Bruce had not wanted Tom to come to this hen night. Tom had come. So anyway, fuck him, Tom said at last, dismissively. I wasnt sure if he was talking about Bruce or James. He walked across to the sideboard where a cluster of bottles stood: gin, vodka, the pathetic remnants of last nights tequila. Want a drink? G&T? No thanks. Well, maybe just a tonic water. Tom nodded, went out for ice and limes, and then came back with two glasses. Bottoms up, he said, his face set in lines that made him look a good ten years older. I took a sip and coughed. Tonic there was, but also gin. I could have made a fuss, but Tom raised one eyebrow with such perfect comic timing that I could only laugh, and swallow. So tell me, he said, as he drained his own glass and went back for a refill, what happened with you and James? What was last night about? I didnt answer at first. I took another long sip of my drink, swallowing it slowly, thinking about what to say. My instinct was to shrug it off with a laugh, but he would get it out of Clare or Nina later. Better to be honest. James is was I swirled the drink in my glass, the ice cubes chinking as I tried to think how to phrase it. My ex, I said at last. It was true but so far from the whole truth that it felt almost like a lie. We were together at school. At school? Tom raised both eyebrows this time. Good lord. Dark ages. Childhood sweethearts? Yes, I guess so. But youre friends now? What could I say? No, I havent seen him since the day he texted me. No, Ive never forgiven him for what he said, what he did. No. I not exactly. We sort of lost touch. There was a sudden silence, broken only by the sounds of Clare and Flo chatting next door, and the hiss of a shower upstairs. Nina must have given up on trying to phone Jess. So you met at school? Tom asked. Sort of. We were in a play together I said slowly. It was strange to be talking about this. You dont bring it up much as an adult: how you got your heart broken for the first time. But Tom was the next best thing to an anonymous stranger. I was highly unlikely to meet him again after this weekend, and somehow telling him felt like a release. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I was Maggie and James was Brick. Ironic, really. Why ironic? Tom said, puzzled. But I couldnt answer. I was thinking of Maggies words in the last act of the play, about making the lie true. But I knew that, of all people, Tom would know what that meant if I quoted the line, he would know what Maggie was referring to. Instead I swallowed and said, Just ironic. Come on, he said and smiled, his tanned cheek crinkling. You must have meant something. I sighed. I wasnt going to tell him the truth. Or not the truth Id been thinking of. A different truth then. Well, I was supposed to be the understudy. Clare was cast as Maggie she was the lead in almost every play we ever did, right from primary school onwards. So what happened? She got glandular fever. Missed a whole term of school. And I got pushed on stage. I was always the understudy. I had a good verbal memory and I was conscientious. I felt Tom looking at me, puzzled about where the irony in that lay. Ironic that she should have been the one to get together with him, and now she is? Is that what you mean? No, not exactly Its more just ironic given that I hate being looked at, being watched. And there I was in the main role. Maybe all writers prefer being behind the page to being on stage. What do you think? Tom didnt answer. He only turned to look out of the great glass window, out into the forest, and I knew he was thinking of his remark the night before: of the stage. The audience. The watchers in the night. After a moment I followed his gaze. It looked different to last night: someone had switched on the external security lights, and you could see the blank white lawn stretched out, a perfect unbroken snowy carpet, and the sentinel trees, their trunks bare and prickly beneath the canopy. It should have made me feel better that you could see the blank, unspoilt canvas, visual evidence that we were alone, that whoever had disturbed the snow before had not come back. But somehow it was not reassuring. It made it feel even more stage-like, like the floodlights that illuminate the stage, and cast the audience into a black morass beyond its golden pool, unseen watchers in the darkness. For a moment I made myself shiver, imagining the myriad eyes of the night: foxes with their eyes glowing yellow in the lamplight, white-winged owls, frightened shrews. But the footsteps of this morning had not been animal. They had been very, very human. Its stopped snowing, Tom said unnecessarily. I must admit, Im quite glad. I didnt really fancy being snowed in here for days on end. Snowed in? I said. In November? Do you think that could really happen? Oh, yes. Flos voice came from behind us, making me jump. She was carrying a tray of crisps and nuts, and clamped her tongue rather sweetly between her teeth as she set it carefully down on the table. Happens all the time in January. Its one of the reasons my aunt doesnt really live here in winter. The lane is impassable if you get a big dump. But it never snows as heavily in November, and I dont think itll happen today. Theres no more forecast for tonight. And it looks pretty, doesnt it? She straightened up, rubbing her back and we all stared out of the window at the black lowering trees and the white snow. It didnt look pretty. It looked stark and unforgiving. But I didnt say that. Instead I asked the question that had been nagging at me. Flo, I meant to ask, the footprints going out to the garage this morning was that you? Footprints? Flo looked puzzled. What time? Early. They were there when I got back from my run at about eightish. Maybe before, I didnt look going out. It wasnt me. Where did you say they were? Between the garage and the side door of the house. Flo frowned. No it definitely wasnt me. How odd. She bit her lip for a moment and then said, Look, if you dont mind, I might just lock up now that way we wont forget later. What do you mean? You think it could have been someone else? Someone from outside? Flos cheerful face looked suddenly uncomfortable. Well, my aunt had a lot of trouble when she built this place there were a lot of planning objections, local people didnt like the fact that it was a second home for a start, and there were quite a few complaints about the style of the build and the site. Dont tell me, Tom drawled. Native American ancient burial ground, right? Flo hit him with a paper towel and cracked a smile through her worry. Nothing like that. The only thing buried round here are sheep as far as I know. But this is a protected area Im not sure if its actually in the national park, but its near as makes no odds. It got through because it was extending an existing building an old croft-type place. But people said it wasnt in the spirit of the original Anyway, to cut a long story short it burnt down halfway through construction and I think it was pretty much accepted that it was arson, although nothing was ever proved. Jesus! Tom looked horrified. He glanced out of the window as though expecting to see flaming torches coming up the hill at any moment. I mean it was fine! Flo reassured us. It was mid-build so the place was empty, and actually it worked out really well for my aunt because the insurance was very good, so she ended up with a higher-spec build. And according to the original plans she had to keep a bit of the original croft in place, but that burnt to the ground so it meant she didnt have to bother with that any more. Overall Id say they did her a favour. But, you know, it kind of affected how she feels about the neighbours. Are there any neighbours? Tom wanted to know. Oh yes. Theres a little cluster of houses about a mile through the forest that way. She pointed. And a farm down the valley. You know I was thinking aloud what really creeps me out isnt the footprints or not as such. Its the fact that if it hadnt have been for the snow, wed never have known. We looked out, contemplating the unbroken white carpet across the path to the forest. My own steps from the run that morning had been filled in, and now you would never have known a human foot had passed. For a long moment we all stood in silence, thinking about that fact, thinking about all the times we could have been observed, completely unaware. Flo walked to the window to try the latch. It was firmly locked. Good! she said brightly. Im going to check the back door, and then I think we should stop all this gloomy talk and have another drink. Hear, hear, Tom said soberly. He picked up my empty glass and this time, when he poured me a double, I didnt complain. 19 WHEN I WENT up to change for dinner, I found Nina sitting on the bed, her head in her hands. She looked up as I came in, and her face was grey and pinched, her expression so different from her usual wry sarcasm that I did a double-take. Are you all right? Yeah. She pushed her dark glossy hair back from her face and stood up. Im just ugh, Im so fed up of being here. It feels like were back in school and Im remembering everything I hated about myself back then. Its like weve slipped back ten years, dont you think? I dont know. I sat down on my own bed and pondered her words. Although Id had very similar thoughts last night, in the light of day they felt unfair. The Clare I remembered from school wouldnt have put up with Flo for a second or not unless she had some powerful motive. She would have nodded along with Flos dumber remarks, stringing her along into saying something painfully weird, at which point she would have stood back, pointed and laughed. Id seen none of that cruelty this weekend. Instead Id been impressed by her tolerance. It was clear that Flo was a damaged person in some way and I admired Clares compassion in trying to help her. I didnt know if I could have put up with Flo for ten days, let alone ten years. Clare was obviously a bigger and a better person than Id given her credit for. I think Clares changed a lot, actually, I said. She seems more I stopped, searching for the right word. Maybe there wasnt one. She just seems kinder, I guess. People dont change, Nina said bitterly. They just get more punctilious about hiding their true selves. I chewed my lip while I thought that over. Was it true? I had changed at least, I told myself I had. I was far more confident, more self-sufficient. All through school Id relied on my friends for self-esteem and support, wanting to be one of a pack, wanting to fit in. At last I had learned that wasnt possible and Id been happier albeit more lonely ever since. But perhaps Nina was right. Perhaps it was simply that Id learned to hide the awkward, desperate-to-fit-in child that I had been. Perhaps the me Id become was just a thin veneer, ready to be peeled painfully back. I dont know, Nina said. I just Didnt you think lunch was painful? Lunch had been painful. It had been exclusively wedding talk: where the reception was to be held, what Clare was wearing, what the bridesmaids were wearing, whether smoked salmon was overdone as a starter, and why the vegetarian option always contained goats cheese. It had been made worse by the realisation that Id crossed an invisible line and gone past the point where I could have admitted I wasnt invited. I should have said something straight away, fessed up, made a joke out of it on the first night. Now it had gone too far to look like anything other than deception, and I was trapped in a lie by omission. Clares sympathetic glances hadnt helped. Im not going to say bridezilla, Nina continued, because actually here I think its more like a bridesmaidzilla. But if I have to hear one more time about wedding favours, or leg waxes, or best-man speeches Can you imagine James in the middle of all this? I had been purposely avoiding thinking about James and the wedding, like a sore bit of skin you cant bear to have touched. But now, as I tried, I realised that I couldnt. The James I remembered, with his head shaved at the back and a scraped-up top-knot, his ripped school tie, the James whod got drunk on his dads whisky and climbed on the school war memorial at midnight to shout Wilfred Owen poems to the night sky, the James who wrote Pink Floyd lyrics on the head teachers car in lipstick on the last day of the summer term That James, I couldnt imagine in a dinner jacket, kissing Clares mother and laughing dutifully at the best-man speech. The whole thing had been painful to the point of nausea, made worse by covert looks from Nina. If theres one thing I dislike more than being hurt, its being seen to be hurt. Ive always preferred to creep away and lick my wounds in private. But Nina was right. It wasnt a case of bridezillitis. In fact Clare had been uncharacteristically quiet all through lunch. The conversation had been driven by Flo, egged on by Tom. At one point Clare had even suggested they change the subject. It was not likely that she had lost her love of the limelight since leaving school. More likely, she was thinking of me. If I had more balls, Id have said no, Nina said glumly. To the wedding, I mean. But Jess wouldve killed me. She loves weddings. Its like some obsessive-compulsive disorder with her. Shes already bought a new fascinator for this one. I ask you. A fucking fascinator. Shed have forgiven you, I said lightly. Though you might have had to propose to make it up to her. It may yet come to that. Would you come? Of course. I gave her a punch on the arm. Id even come to your hen. If you had one. Sod that, Nina said. If and I repeat if I ever get married, Im having a night out clubbing and thats that. None of this prancing about in cottages in the arse-end of beyond. She sighed and dragged herself upright. Do you know what Flos got sorted for us tonight? What? Only a fucking ouija board. Im telling you, if shes got one with sexy answers on the board Im pulling that gun down off the mantelpiece and shoving it up somewhere painful blanks or no blanks. OK, this, Flo said, spreading out sheets of paper on the coffee table, should be fun. Magic eight ball says dont count on it, Nina muttered. Clare shot her a look, but either Flo hadnt heard, or chose to ignore the dig. She carried on busily setting up the table, dotting candles among the half-empty wine bottles. Anyone got a lighter? Nina dug in the pocket of her denim mini-skirt and produced a Zippo, and Flo lit the candles with an air of ceremonial reverence. As each candle on the table caught, a corresponding flame kindled in the reflected view in the window. Flo had turned off the outside security lights, and the forest was dark apart from a little light from the moon. The room was dimly lit so that we could see the massing shapes of the trees, the pale snow, and the silhouette of the forest canopy against the slightly luminous sky. Now, it looked as if little will-o-the-wisps were dancing in the trees, fragile ghostly flames, twice reflected in the double glazing. I walked to the window, huffing on the glass and cupping my hands to see out into the night. It was perfectly still. But I thought again of the footprints, and the broken phone line, and I couldnt stop myself from surreptitiously checking the latch of the French windows. It was fastened. Mel would have hated this, Clare said thoughtfully as I rejoined the table and Flo lit the last candle. Im pretty sure shes even more Christian than she was at uni. I really cant see that communing with one imaginary friend is any different to communing with a bunch of them, Nina said spikily. Look, its her faith, all right? Theres no need to be offensive. Im not being offensive. You cannot, by definition, offend someone whos not here. Offence has to be taken, not just given. If a tree falls in an empty forest, does it make a noise? Tom said, with a dry smile. He lay back on the sofa, and took a long gulp of wine. Blimey, its years since Ive done this. My aunt was very into all this communing with the spirits. I used to go round to her house after school and shed make me do the traditional ouija board, you know, the one with the letters on it. I knew what he meant those were the kind of ouija boards Id seen in films. The one Flo was setting up was a bit different, more like a biro on wheels. Its easier this way, Flo said, her tongue between her teeth as she tried to fix the pen in the holder. Ive tried it before and the problem with the pointer is that unless youre very quick, you can miss loads of letters. This way theres a permanent record. Did you get anything? Clare asked. When you tried it before, I mean? Flo nodded seriously. Oh yes. I usually get some kind of message. My mum says Ive got a natural resonance with the beyond. Uh-huh, Nina said. Her face was deadpan, but I could tell some kind of sarcastic remark was building up. What did it say? I put in hastily, trying to head her off at the pass. Last time, I mean? It was about my grandfather, Flo said. He wanted to tell Granny that he was happy and that she should remarry if she wanted. Anyway, there, all set up. Are we ready? As ready as Ill ever be, Clare said. She downed the rest of her wine and set down her glass. Right. What do we do? Flo motioned to us all to come closer. Right put your fingers on the planchette. Just gently youre not trying to guide it, just be the conduit for any impulses you receive from the beyond. Nina rolled her eyes, but put her fingertips on the planchette. Tom and I followed suit. Clare was the last. Ready? Flo asked. Ready, Clare said. Flo took a deep breath and shut her eyes. Her face in the candlelight was glowing, as if lit from within. I saw her eyes move beneath her lids, darting from side to side, seeking something she could not see. Is there a spirit there who wants to speak to us? she intoned. The planchette swirled uneasily in loops and spirals, not forming any shapes that made sense. No one was pushing it, I was pretty sure. Is there a spirit here tonight? Flo repeated seriously. I saw Nina hide a smile. The planchette began to move in a more purposeful way. Y. Oh wow! Flo breathed. She looked up, her face alight. Did you see that? It was like it was being pulled by a magnet. Did everyone feel that? I had felt something. It felt more like it was being pushed by someone else in the circle, but I said nothing. What is the name of the spirit? Flo said eagerly. The planchette began to move again: te qui long pause te qui Qui means who in French, Flo breathed. Maybe weve got a French spirit guide? l Both Tom and Nina began to laugh as the last a trailed out from beneath the planchette. Even Clare gave a smothered snort and the planchette veered off towards the edge of the paper and then clattered to the floor as we all began to giggle. Flo looked at the page for a moment, frowning, not getting the joke. Then she saw it. She knelt back from the table, her arms crossed. Right. She looked from Clare, to Tom, and then to me. I tried to straighten my face. Who did that? This is not a joke! I mean, yes, its a bit of fun, but were never going to find anything out if you keep playing around! Tom? It wasnt me! Tom threw up his hands. Nina was wearing her most innocent expression and I strongly suspected it had been her. Well, whoever it was, Flos face was pink and annoyed, Im not impressed. Ive gone to a lot of trouble and youre ruining Hey, hey, Flops. Clare put out a hand. Chill, OK? It was just a joke. They wont do it again. Will you? She looked sternly round the circle of faces. We all put on our most contrite expressions. All right, Flo said sulkily. But last chance! If you mess around again, Im putting this away and well all play well all play Trivial Pursuit! What a threat, Tom said seriously, though the corner of his mouth was twitching. I promise I for one will behave like an angel. Dont threaten me with the pink Camembert. OK, Flo said. She drew a deep breath and waited as we all rested our fingers on the planchette again. It twitched, and I saw Ninas shoulders were still shaking with suppressed giggles, but she bit her lip and subsided with an effort as Clare stared at her. We are sorry for the levity of some of our circle, Flo said meaningfully. Is there a spirit here who would like to speak to us? This time the planchette moved more slowly, more as if it were drifting of its own accord. But, unmistakeably, it was forming another Y, and then it stopped. Are you a friend of someone here? Flo breathed. ? said the planchette. This time I didnt think anyone else was pushing and I could see the others felt the same way. They had stopped laughing. Clare even looked slightly uneasy. Do you know, Flops, Im not sure she said. Tom patted her hand. Its fine, darling. Its not really spirits just the subconscious of the group making words. Sometimes the results are quite illuminating. Who is here? Flo had shut her eyes. Her fingers rested very lightly on the planchette. If anyone were controlling it, I was sure it wasnt her. The planchette moved again, forming letters in a looping, free-form hand. Tom read them aloud as they appeared. M A, maybe? Or was that N? X W E L L OK, well thats a word. Maxwell. Anyone know a Maxwell? We all shook our heads. Maybe its the spirit of one of the former crofters, Nina said seriously. Come to warn us against trampling on their sacred sheep bones. Maybe, Flo said. She opened her eyes. They were wide and green in the darkness. She looked very pale, her pink crossness of before quite gone. She closed them again and said in a hushed, reverent tone. Is there anyone here you wish to speak to, Maxwell? Y. Do you have a message for one of the group? Y. Who of the group? F fl f Me? Flos eyes flew open. She looked startled to the point of alarm. In fact, she looked like she was regretting this idea already. Do you have a message for me? Y. Flo gulped. I saw that her free hand was gripping the edge of the coffee table so hard her knuckles were white. OK, she said bravely. But the planchette was already moving. B U it traced slowly, and then in a sudden, skittering rush: Y coffee. There was a moments silence, and then Nina broke it with a short, barking laugh. Fuck OFF! Flo shouted. We all jumped, and I realised it was the first time I could remember her swearing. She leapt up and sent the planchette skittering across the table. Wine glasses and candles crashed to the floor, spattering wax on the carpet. Who was that? This isnt a joke, guys! I am fed up. Nina? Tom? It wasnt me! Nina said, but she was laughing so hard there were tears coming from her eyes. Tom was trying harder to hide his mirth, but he was snickering too, behind his hand. Im sorry, he said, trying hopelessly to straighten his expression. Im sorry. Its n-not f-f But he couldnt complete the sentence. Flo swung accusingly round at me. I was dabbing up wine from the rug. Youre very quiet, Lee, sitting there pretending butter wouldnt melt! What? I looked up, genuinely surprised. I beg your p-pardon? You heard me! Im fed up of you sitting there like a malignant little mouse, laughing behind my back. Im not, I said uncomfortably, remembering the way I had succumbed to laughing at Ninas teasing when we first arrived. I mean I didnt mean You all think youre so perfect. Flo was breathing heavily, in huge sobbing gasps. I thought she was about to burst into tears. You all think youre so great, with your degrees and your jobs and your flats in London. Flo Clare said. She put her hand on Flos arm again, but Flo shook it off. Come on, Tom said soothingly. Look, I dont know who did that but I promise its the last time anyone will mess around, right? He looked around the group. Right, everyone? We promise, OK? This time its for real. He was trying to help, but I felt my stomach twist uncomfortably. We should have packed up when Flo blew up the first time pushing on like this was asking for trouble, with Flo in her furious, heightened state. Dont you th-think I said nervously. I th-think you should just shut up, Flo said furiously, imitating my stutter with an uncanny precision. I was so shocked I didnt say anything, just sat with my mouth open, staring at her. It was as if a Teletubby had spat in my face. Hey, come on, now, Clare said. One more chance, OK, Flops? And I promise everyone will take it seriously this time. Theyll have me to answer to if not. Flo downed her glass of wine with a hand that shook. Then she sat heavily down at the table and put her hand on the planchette. Last chance, she said savagely. Everyone nodded and, reluctantly, I put my fingers back on the board. Lets ask it a question this time, Tom said soothingly. Help keep it on track. How about will Clare and James have a long and happy life? No! Clare said loudly. We all turned, shocked by the vehemence of her response. No look, Im just I dont want to start dragging James into this, OK? It feels wrong. This is a bit of fun, but I dont want some pen telling me Ill be divorced before the age of thirty. All right, Tom said mildly, but I felt his surprise. How about me then. What wedding anniversary will Bruce and I celebrate? We all rested our fingertips on the board, and, very slowly, I felt it begin to move. This time it was quite different to before. Not the stuttering push and tug, but a long, languid flowing script that looped in spirals around the page. P a p a Flo spelled out. Papa? What does that mean? Thats not a wedding anniversary. Paper, maybe? Tom was frowning at the sheet. That makes no sense though. Papers like year two or something. We celebrated that last year. Maybe it means opal. That first P could be an O. Maybe its telling us its name, Flo said breathlessly. Her rage of a moment before was gone, and she looked excited almost hyper with it. She refilled and then drained her glass with three reckless gulps and then set it unsteadily back on the floor. I saw that her silvery-grey top, the twin of the one Clare was wearing, had a red-wine stain down one sleeve. They dont always perform to order you know. Lets ask it. What is your name, spirit? The pen started again, looping swiftly over the page in large, quickly formed letters that ate up the space, scribbling over the other writing from before. Pa I saw and then by further across the page. Then it slowed to a halt and Flo craned her head to read out the text. Papa Begby. Wow. Who on earth is that? She looked around the circle of shrugging shoulders and shaking heads. Nora? Flo said suddenly. Do you know who that is? Christ, no! I said, reflexively. To tell the truth, I was more than a little creeped out. The other stuff had been fairly obvious joking around. This felt distinctly odd. The others looked as unnerved as I felt. Clare was chewing the end of a piece of hair. Nina was looking elaborately unconcerned but I could see her fingers playing with her lighter in her pocket, nervously twisting it around beneath the cloth. Tom looked frankly shocked, his face pale even in the dim light. Only Flo looked genuinely thrilled. Wow, she breathed. A real spirit. Papa Begby. Maybe hes the guy who owned this croft? Papa Begby, she spoke respectfully into the space above our heads. Papa Begby, do you have a message for us here tonight? The pen started moving again, more jerkily this time. M I read. For a moment my heart sank. Not more jokes about coffee. M m m The script went faster and faster and then there was a sudden crunch and the planchette grated to a juddering halt. Clare lifted it up and put her hand to her mouth. Oh Flops, Im so sorry. I looked down at the table. The biro had gone clean through the page, and into the polished wood beneath. Your aunt Oh never mind, Flo said impatiently. She pushed the planchette away and lifted up the sheet. What does it say? We all looked, reading over her shoulder as she turned the page slowly this way and that, reading the curving spiral of writing. M m mmmmuurderrrrrrrrrrrrrer Oh my God. Tom put his hand to his mouth. Thats not funny, Nina said. Her face was pale and she took a step back from the group, scanning our faces. Who wrote that? Look, Tom said, hands up, I did the coffee one. But I didnt say that I wouldnt! We all looked at each other, searching for guilt in each others eyes. Maybe youre barking up the wrong tree, Flo said. Her flush was back, but this time I thought it had an edge of triumph rather than anger. Maybe it was a real message. After all, I know some things about you, about you all. What do you mean? Tom said. His voice was wary. Clare, whats she on about? Clare said nothing, just shook her head. Her face was quite white, her lips bloodless beneath the gloss. I found I was breathing hard and fast, almost hyperventilating. Hey, Nina said suddenly. Her voice had an odd, far-away quality. Hey, Nora, are you OK? Im fine, I said, or tried to say. I wasnt sure if the words came out. The room seemed to be closing in even as the great glass window opened out, like a mouthful of pointed piney teeth, waiting to swallow us all. I felt hands grabbing at my arms, pushing me down on the sofa, my head between my knees. Youre all right, I heard Ninas firm voice, and suddenly it was easy to remember that she was a doctor, a professional medic and not just a friend that I went drinking with every few months. Youre all right. Someone get a bag, a paper bag. Drama queen, I heard Flo say in an angry hiss, and she stomped out of the room. Im fine, I said. I tried to sit up, pushing away Ninas hands. I dont need a paper bag. Im OK. You sure? Nina stared into my face, searchingly. I nodded, trying to look convincing. Im absolutely fine. Sorry, I dont know why I came over so funny. Too much wine. But Im all right, I promise. Too much drama, Tom said under his breath, but he said it soberly, and I knew he didnt mean me. I just I think Ill go and get some fresh air. Its too hot in here. It was hot, the stove was pumping out heat like a furnace. Nina nodded. Ill come with you. No! I said, more violently than I meant. And then, more calmly, Honestly, Id rather be by myself. I just want a breather. OK? Outside, I stood with my back against the sliding glass doors of the kitchen. The sky above was deep blue velvet and the moon was astonishingly white, ringed with a pale halo of frost. I felt the cold night air envelop me, the chill cooling my hot face and sweaty palms. I stood, listening to the pounding of my own heart, trying to slow its beats, trying to calm down. It was absurd to be so ridiculously panicked. There was nothing to say the message was about me. Though, what was it Flo had said at the end? I know some things about you What had she meant? Which one of us was she talking to? If it was me, there was only one thing she could have been referring to. And Clare was the only person who knew what had happened. Had she told Flo? I wasnt sure. I wanted to think not. I tried to remember all the secrets Id confided to Clare over the years, secrets shed kept faithfully. But I remembered going back to school to sit my French comprehension exam, and one of the other girls in the queue putting a hand on my arm. Im so sorry, shed said, youre so brave, and there was genuine pity in her face, but also a kind of glee, the sort you see sometimes when teens are interviewed about the tragic death of a friend. The sadness is there, and its real, but theres an underlying thrill at the drama of it all, the realness of it all. I didnt know for sure what she meant she might have been talking about me and James breaking up. But her reaction seemed extreme for that, and I began to wonder if Clare had told someone what had happened. All through the exam I worried, and worried at the question. And by the time the two hours was up, I knew what I had to do. Because I knew that the doubt would send me insane. I never went back. Now, I shut my eyes, feeling the cold on my face, and the snow penetrating my thin socks, and listening to the soft sounds of the night, the crackle and rush of snow-laden branches breaking beneath their weight, the hoot of an owl, the strange haunting shriek of a fox. I had never lived in the country. Id grown up on the outskirts of Reading, and then moved to London as soon as I turned eighteen. Id lived there ever since. But I could imagine living here, in the silence and the solitude, only seeing people when you wanted to. I wouldnt live in a vast glass bell jar, though. Id live somewhere small, inconspicuous, part of the landscape. I thought of the crofters cottage that had once stood here, before it had been burned to the ground. I imagined a long, low building, its silhouette like an animal trying to go to ground, like a hare flattening its form into the grasses. I could have lived there, I thought. When I opened my eyes the light blazing from the house onto the snow hurt my retinas. It was so brash, so wasteful like a golden lighthouse, beaming its presence into the darkness. Only a lighthouse was to tell ships to keep away. This place felt more like a beacon, like a lantern drawing in the moths. I shivered. I must stop being so superstitious. This was a beautiful house. We were lucky to be staying here, even for just a few days. But I did not like it, I didnt trust Flo, and I couldnt wait to be away tomorrow morning. I wondered how early I could decently leave. Nina and I had seats on the 5 p.m. train, but my ticket was flexible. Are you OK? The voice came from behind me, followed by a long exhalation of cigarette smoke, and I turned and saw Nina standing there, fag in one hand, the other arm wrapped around her ribs against the cold. Sorry. I know you said you wanted to be alone. I just I needed a fag. Needed to get away. Ugh, that Flo! She gives me the heebie-jeebies. What was all that weird stuff about knowing secrets about us? I dont know, I said uncomfortably. It was probably just bullshit. Nina dragged on her fag. But I must admit, I was sitting there ticking off all the stuff Ive told Clare over the years and it wasnt a very comfortable feeling, thinking about what she might have passed on to Flo. And Tom looked pretty shaken up, didnt he? Wonder what the skeleton in his closet is? I dont know, I repeated. The cold was starting to strike through to my bones, and I shivered. I think Melanie had it right, Nina said at last. Flos not normal. And her weirdness about Clare not healthy is an understatement. All that copying Clares clothes its a bit Single White Female, isnt it? If you ask me, shes a couple of Xanax away from re-enacting the shower scene in Psycho. Oh for Gods sake, I snapped. Flo was odd, but that was really not fair. Shes not psycho, shes just not very confident. I know what its like, always feeling second best. Clares not always the easiest person to be friends with. No. No, dont try to make excuses for her, Nora. The clothes and stuff I mean, whatever, its weird, but if Clare wants to put up with it, its her call. But that little exhibition tonight was directed squarely at us, and Im not having it. Look, I was thinking, tomorrow I know were booked on the five p.m., but But can we go early? I was thinking the exact same thing. Ive had it up to here, to be honest. If I was sober Id go tonight but Im in no state to drive. What do you reckon straight after breakfast? Flo will flip, I said soberly. There were more activities planned for tomorrow; I wasnt sure what, but the instructions had been clear leave at 2 p.m., not before. I know. I was actually thinking Nina took a long drag. I was thinking we could just slip away. Is that cowardly? Yes, I said definitely. Very. Oh all right. She sighed, exhaling a cloud of smoke, white in the moonlight. Maybe I can invent some sort of hospital crisis. Ill think of an excuse tonight. How would you know? I said. Given theres no mobile reception and no phone? Well thats another fucking thing, isnt it. Supposing the crazed locals do come up the hill, banjos playing, pikes alight, what the hell are we supposed to do? Throw snowballs at them? Dont be so melodramatic. There arent any crazed locals. Flos aunt probably torched the place herself as an insurance job and blamed it on the farmers. I hope youre right. Ive seen Deliverance. Im happy for you, but back to the problem in hand Oh, Ill just pretend a stray text got through overnight. Anyway even if Flo doesnt believe me, what can she say? Plenty, was my guess, but unless she barricaded the door, I didnt think it would work to deflect Nina. There was a long silence, Nina blowing smoke rings with her cigarette into the still night air, me huffing out clouds of white breath. What happened back there? Nina asked at last. That little panic attack, I mean. Was it the message? Sort of. But you didnt think it was about you, did you? She looked at me sideways, curiously, and blew out a smoke ring. I mean, what could you have possibly done to kill someone? I shrugged. No, not really. Anyway, it might not have been murderer. It could have been murder. There were so many repeats Im not sure what the word actually was. What, like a warning you mean? Nina asked. So were back to the crazed locals, are we? I shrugged again. Im not going to lie, she puffed out another ring, I thought maybe it was directed at me. I mean Ive never killed anyone purposely, but theres people whove died because of mistakes I made, for sure. What you thought it was a genuine message? Nah. She took another drag. I dont believe in any of that kind of thing. I just meant, I thought someone was taking a stab in the dark, trying to wind me up. It was definitely Flo, no question. I think she was pissed off because we were messing around at the beginning and decided to punish us. I did that tequila message. She probably knew. Do you think? I looked up at the clear sky. It was not black, but deep, navy blue, a colour so pure it made my eyes hurt. Far up a satellite was travelling towards the moon. I tried to remember back, to Flos face as she read out the word, to her closed eyes and rapturous expression. I dont know. Ive been standing out here trying to think it out, but Im not sure it was her. She looked genuinely shocked. And she was the only person who really believed in the whole thing. I dont think shed have messed with the spirits by pushing it. So now you reckon it was real? There was scepticism in Ninas voice. I shook my head. No, I didnt mean that. I think someone was pushing it. Im just not sure it was her. So what that leaves, Tom and Clare? Nina dropped her cigarette and ground it out in the snow with a hiss. Really? I know. Thats partly what upset me. I think it was I stopped, trying to disentangle my unease at the whole thing. It wasnt the message, it was the spite. Whatever you think, whoever you think did that, human or not, it was a horrible thing to say. Someone in that room wanted to fuck with our heads. And they did. We both turned to look back at the house. Through the window I could see Clare moving around the living room, rounding up glasses and picking nuts out of the carpet. Tom was nowhere to be seen I guessed he had gone up. Flo was loading the dishwasher in the kitchen with a nervous, savage energy, crashing the glasses in so hard I was surprised they didnt break. I didnt want to go back in. For a second, in spite of the snow, in spite of the sub-zero temperatures that were already making me shiver, I was seriously tempted to borrow Ninas keys and sleep in the car. Come on, Nina said at last. We cant stay out here all night. Lets go back in, say good night and head straight up. Then first thing in the morning, were out of here. Right? All right. I followed her back through the kitchen door, and closed it behind us. Lock it, please, Flo said shortly. She looked up from the dishwasher. Her face was bleary, her mascara halfway down her cheeks, her hair straggling across her face. Flo, leave it, Nina said. Please. I promise well help in the morning. Its fine, Flo said tightly. I dont need any help. All right! Nina threw up her hands. You said it. See you at breakfast. She turned and then muttered, Fucking martyr, as she left the room. 20 NINA FELL ASLEEP almost instantly, and lay there, sprawled out like a tanned daddy-long-legs, snoring away. I lay awake, trying to go to sleep, but instead I was thinking about the evening and the strange little group Clare had gathered around her this weekend. I wanted to leave so badly it hurt to be back at home, in my own bed, with my own things, in the blissful peace and quiet. Now I was counting down the hours, and listening to Ninas soft snores and behind that to the silence of the house and the forest. Not quite silence though. As I was drifting off there came a quiet creak and then a bang, not a loud one, just as if a door was banging in the wind. I was almost drowsing when it came again, a long slow ekkkkkkk, and then a staccato clack. The odd thing was, it sounded like it was inside the house. I sat up, holding my breath, trying to hear the noise above Ninas snores. Ekkkkkkkk clack! This time there was no doubt. The sound was certainly not coming from outside the window, but floating up the stairwell. I got up, grabbed my dressing gown, and tiptoed to the door. When I opened it, I almost screamed: a ghost-like figure was standing on the landing, bending over the bannisters. I didnt scream. But I must have made some kind of choked gasp because the figure turned and put her finger to her lips. It was Flo, dressed in a white nightgown with pink flowers, bleached pale in the moonlight. You heard it too? I whispered. She nodded. Yes, I thought it might be a gate in the garden, but its not, its inside the house. There was a creak behind us and we both turned to see Clare coming out of the bedroom, rubbing her eyes. What is it? Shh, Flo whispered. Theres something downstairs. Listen. We all paused. Eeeeekkkkk clack! Its just a door in the wind, Clare said, yawning. Flo shook her head, vehemently. Its inside the house. What wind could there be inside the house? Someone must have left a door open. Impossible, Clare said. I checked them all. Flo put her hands over her throat looking suddenly frightened. Weve got to go down, havent we? Lets wake Tom, Clare said. He looks tall and menacing. She tiptoed into his room and I heard her whispering, Tom! Tom! Theres a noise in the house. He came out, bleary-eyed and pale, and we all crept slowly down the stairs. There was a door open, you could tell it as soon as we reached the ground floor. It was cold as ice and a breeze was blowing through the hallway, coming from the kitchen. Flo turned completely pale. Im getting the gun, she whispered, her voice so slight you could hardly hear. I thought you said, Clare mouthed, that it was loaded with blanks? It is, Flo whispered crossly, but he wont know that, will he? She jerked her head at the living-room door. You first, Tom. Me? Tom said, in a horrified whisper, but he rolled his eyes and edged his head very quietly around the door. Then he beckoned silently, and we all followed him, in a sort of relieved rush. The room was empty, moonlight flooding the pale carpet. Flo reached up above the mantelpiece and took down the gun. Her face was pale but determined. Youre sure about the blanks? Clare asked again. Completely sure. But if someones there itll give them a pretty good scare. If youre holding the gun Im going behind you, Tom hissed, blanks or no blanks. All right. Whatever Id thought of Flo, I couldnt fault her courage. She stood for a moment in the hallway, and I could see her hands shaking. Then she took a deep, shuddering breath, and flung open the kitchen door so hard it crashed back against the tiled wall. There was no one there. But the glass kitchen door was standing open in the moonlight, and a light dusting of snow blew across the tiled floor. Clare was across the room in a moment, her bare feet soft on the cold tiles. Theres footsteps, look. She pointed out across the lawn: big shapeless prints, like those made by wellies or snowboots. Fuck. Toms face was pale. What happened? He turned to me. You were out of that door last. Didnt you lock it? I Im sure I did. I tried to remember. Nina offering to help, Flos angry crashing. I had a clear memory of my hand on the lock. I did. Im certain I locked it. Well, you cant have done it properly! Flo rounded on me. In the moonlit dark she looked like a statue, her face as hard and unyielding as marble. I did. I was beginning to feel angry. Anyway, I thought you said Clare checked? I just rattled each door, Clare said. Her eyes were huge, with shadows like bruises in the sockets. I didnt check every lock. If it didnt open, I assumed it was shut. I locked it, I said stubbornly. Flo made a small furious noise, almost like a growl. Then she tucked the shotgun under her arm and stalked upstairs. I locked it, I repeated, looking from Clare to Tom. Dont you believe me? Look, Clare said, its no ones fault. She walked across to the door and slammed it hard, twisting the key as she did. Its damn well locked now, anyway. Lets get up to bed. We trooped back up the stairs, feeling the spent adrenaline in our systems fading to sour jitters. Nina was at the top of the stairs as I rounded the landing, scrubbing her eyes confusedly. What happened? she asked as I drew level. Why did I just see Flo stamp past holding that fucking shotgun? We had a scare, Tom said shortly, coming up from behind me. Someone, he glanced at me, left the kitchen door unlocked. It wasnt me, I said doggedly. Well, whatever. It was open. We heard it banging. There were footprints outside. Bloody hell. Nina was as wide awake as the rest of us now. She passed a hand over her face again, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes. Had they gone? Was anything missing? Nothing I noticed. Tom looked at me and Clare. Anything you can think of? Telly was there. All the obvious stuff like that. Did anyone leave their wallets lying around? Mines in my room. Mine too, Clare said. She turned and glanced out at the drive. And all the cars are still there. My bags in my room, I think, I said. I put my head round the door to check. Yup. Its there. Well looks like it wasnt robbery they were after, Tom said uneasily. If it wasnt for the footsteps you could almost think it was just a faulty lock. But there were the footsteps. There undeniably were. Think we should call the police? he asked. We cant, can we? Nina said acidly. No landline and no bloody reception. You had a couple of bars yesterday, I reminded her, but she shook her head. Must have been a blip. Ive had nothing since. Well, look on the bright side, theres no smell of petrol so with luck, its not the crazed locals with their jerry cans come back for a second bonfire. There was a silence. Nobody laughed. We should go back to bed, try to get some sleep, Clare said at last. We all nodded. Want to pull your mattress in with us? Nina said unexpectedly to Tom. I wouldnt want to be by myself. Thanks, Tom said. That thats very kind. But Ill be fine. Ill lock my door, just in case anyones after my virtue. Not that Ive got much left. That was nice, I said to Nina after we had said good night to Tom and Clare and were huddled up in our own beds. What you said to Tom, I mean. Nice, schmice. I felt sorry for the poor guy. Plus he looks like hed have a mean right hook if anyone did break in. She sighed, and then rolled over. Want me to leave the light on? No, its OK. That doors locked now thats the main thing. Fair enough. She clicked off the light and I saw the glow of her phone. Gone two. Bloody hell. And still not a single bar of reception. How about you? Got anything? I reached for my phone. It wasnt there. Hang on, I need to put the light on. I cant find it. I flicked the switch and looked around, beneath the bed, beneath the bedside table, then inside my bag. No phone. No phone anywhere, in fact just the unhooked charger trailing across the floor. I tried to remember when Id last had it. In the car maybe? I remembered using it at lunchtime. But after that, I couldnt be sure. Id got out of the habit of checking it here with no reception it seemed pointless. I thought I remembered taking it up here to charge it before supper, but maybe that was Friday. Most likely it had slipped out of my pocket in the car. Its not here, I said. I think I must have left it in the car. Never mind, Nina said. She yawned. Just remember to find it tomorrow before we leave, yeah? All right. Night. Good night. There was a rustle of duvet, as she huddled down. I closed my eyes. I tried to sleep. What happened next ? Oh God. What happened next. Im not sure I can I am still sitting there, trying to put my confused tumble of thoughts in order when the door swings wide and the nurse comes back in pushing a trolley. The doctor wants to have a wee look at your scans but he says very likely you can have a bath after that. And Ive got some breakfast for you here. Listen, I try to sit up against the slipping shifting pillows. Listen, the police outside the door are they here for me? She looks uncomfortable and her gaze slides off to the small square of glass as she sets out Rice Krispies in a little carton, a jug of milk and a single clementine. Theyre investigating the accident, she says at last. Im sure theyll want tae speak to you, but the doctor has to sign you off. Ive told them, theyre not barging into a hospital ward at this hour. Theyll have tae wait. I heard I swallow, hard, my throat hurting as if something is trying to escape a sob or a scream. I heard them say something about a d-death Och! She looks annoyed, banging the locker drawer shut with unnecessary force. They shouldna be worriting you, with your poor head. But its true? Someone died? I cant say about that. I cannae discuss other patients. Is it true? Ill have tae ask you tae calm down, she says, and spreads out her hands in a professionally soothing gesture that makes me want to scream. Its not good for your head to be getting upset like this. Upset? One of my friends is probably dead, and youre telling me I shouldnt be upset? Who? For Gods sake, who? And why cant I remember? Why cant I remember what happened before the accident? Its quite common, she says, her voice still in that soothing cadence, as if shes speaking to a small child, or someone hard of understanding. Following a head injury. Its tae do with the way the brain transfers short-term to long-term memory. If something interrupts the process you can lose a bit of time. Oh God, I must remember. I must remember what happened because someone is dead, and the police are outside, they are going to come and ask me, and how can I know, how can I know what Im saying, what Im revealing, if I dont know what happened? I see myself, running, running through the forest with the blood on my hands and on my face and on my clothes Please, I say, and my voice is close to cracking, close to pleading, and I hate myself for being so weak and needy. Please tell me, please help me, whats happened? Whats happened to my friends? Why was I covered in such a lot of blood? My head wound wasnt that bad. Where did all the blood come from? I dont know, she says softly, and theres real compassion in her voice this time. I dont know, pet. Let me get the doctor and perhaps he can tell you more. In the meantime, I want you to eat some breakfast, youve got to keep your strength up and the doctor will want to see an appetite. And then she backs out of the door with the trolley in front of her, and the door swings shut, and I am alone with my plastic bowl of Rice Krispies popping and clicking away as they soak into sugary mush. I should get up. I should force my weak, woolly limbs to do their duty, and I should swing them out of bed and march into the corridor and demand answers from those police officers outside. But I dont. I just sit there, and tears roll down my face, and drip off my chin into the Rice Krispies, and the smell of the clementine is heady and overripe, reminding me of something I cannot remember, and cannot forget. Please, I think, please. Pull yourself together, you stupid bitch. Get up. Find out what happened. Find out whos dead. But I dont move. And not just because my head hurts, and my legs hurt, and my muscles feel like wet tissue. I dont move because I am afraid. Because I dont want to hear the name the police are going to say. And because I am afraid they are here for me. 21 THE BRAIN DOESNT remember well. It tells stories. It fills in the gaps, and implants those fantasies as memories. I have to try to get the facts. But I dont know if Im remembering what happened, or what I want to have happened. I am a writer. Im a professional liar. Its hard to know when to stop, you know? You see a gap in the narrative, you want to fill it with a reason, a motive, a plausible explanation. And the harder I push, the more the facts dissolve beneath my fingers I know that I woke with a jump. I dont know what time it was, but it was still dark. Beside me Nina was sitting up in bed, her dark eyes wide and glittering. Did you hear that? she whispered. I nodded. Footsteps on the landing. A door opening very softly. My heart was beating in my throat as I pushed back the duvet and grabbed my dressing gown. I remembered the kitchen door swung wide, the footsteps in the snow. We should have checked the rest of the house. At the door I stood listening for a second, and then opened it with infinite caution. Clare and Flo were standing outside, their eyes wide, faces bleached pale with fear. Flo was holding the gun. Did you hear something? I whispered, as low as I could. Clare gave a single, sharp nod, and pointed to the stairs, her finger stabbing downwards. I listened hard, trying to still my shaky breathing and thudding heart. There was a scratching sound, and then a clear, definite thunk, as of a door being softly closed. There was someone down there. Tom? I mouthed. But even as I did, his door opened a crack and his face peered out. Did you that sound? he whispered. Clare gave a grim nod. This time it was no open door. No wind. This time we could all hear it: clear footsteps as someone made their way through the tiled kitchen, across the parquet floor of the hallway, and then the soft, definite creak of a foot on the first of the stairs. Somehow we had drawn together into a little knot. I felt someones hand scrabbling for mine. Flo was at the centre, the gun raised, though its muzzle was shaking badly. I put my free hand out to steady it. There was another creak on the stairs and an indrawn breath from all of us, then a figure rounded the newel post halfway up, silhouetted against the plate-glass window that overlooked the forest. It was a man a tall man. He was dressed in some kind of dark hoodie, and I couldnt see his face. He was looking down at his phone, the screen glowing ghost-white in the darkness. Fuck off and leave us alone! Flo screamed, and the gun went off. There was a deafening, catastrophic bang, and the sound of shattering glass, and the gun kicked like a horse. I remember that and I remember that people fell over. I remember that I looked up to see it didnt make sense the huge plate-glass window shattered the glass spattered outwards onto the snow, clattering onto the wooden stairs. I remember the man on the stairs gave one choking exclamation more of shock than of pain and then he fell all of a heap, thudding slowly down the stairs like a stuntman in a film. I dont know who turned on the lights. But they flooded the tall hallway with a brightness that made me wince and cover my eyes and I saw. I saw the pale frosted stairs splashed with blood, and the shattered window, and the long, slow smear of gore where the mans body had slithered down to the ground floor. Oh my God, Flo whimpered. The gun the gun was loaded! When the nurse comes back, I am crying. What happened? I manage. Someone is dead please tell me, please tell me whos dead! I cant tell you, love. She looks genuinely sorry. I wish I could, but I cant. But Ive brought Dr Miller here to take a look at you. Good morning, Leonora, he says, coming across to the bed. His voice is soft, pitying. I want to punch him and his fucking compassion. Im sorry were a bit tearful today. Someone is dead, I say very clearly, trying to keep my breath even, keep myself from gulping and sobbing. Someone is dead, and no one will tell me who. And the police are sitting outside. Why? Lets not worry about that at the moment I am worried! I shout. Heads in the corridor turn. The doctor puts out a soothing hand, patting my leg beneath the blanket in a way that makes me want to shudder. I am bruised. I am hurt. I am wearing a hospital gown thats open at the back and Ive lost my dignity along with everything else. Do not fucking touch me, you patronising arsehole. I want to go home. Look, he says, I understand that youre upset, and the police will hopefully have some answers for you, but Id like to examine you, ensure that youre up to speaking to them, and I can only do that if youre calm. Do you understand, Leonora? I nod my head, mutely, and then turn my face to the wall while he examines the dressing on my head, checks my pulse and blood pressure against the readings on the machine. I close my eyes, let the indignities fade away. I answer his questions. My name is Leonora Shaw. Im twenty-six. Today is Here I have to be helped, but the nurse prompts me. Its Sunday. I have not even been here twelve hours. In which case, its 16th November. I think this counts as disorientation rather than memory loss. No, I have no nausea. My vision is fine, thanks. Yes, I am having trouble recovering some memories. There are some things that you shouldnt have to remember. Well, you seem to be doing remarkably well, Dr Miller says at last. He hangs his stethoscope round his neck and puts his little torch back in his top pocket. All the observations overnight are fine, and your scan is very reassuring. The memory trouble is concerning me a little bit its quite typical to lose the few minutes before a collision but it sounds like youre having trouble a little bit further back than that, is that right? I nod reluctantly, thinking of the patchy, staccato blasts of images that invaded my head throughout the night: the trees, the blood, the swinging headlights. Well, you may find it starts coming back. Not all causes of memory trouble He avoids the word amnesia, I have noticed are down to physical trauma. Some are more stress-related. For the first time in a little while I look up, meet his eyes directly. What do you mean? Well, this is not my speciality you understand I work with the physical head trauma. But sometimes sometimes the brain suppresses events that were not quite ready to deal with. I suppose its a coping mechanism, if you will. What kind of events? My voice is hard. He smiles. His hand is back on my leg again. I resist the urge to flinch. Youve had a difficult time, Leonora. Now, is there anyone we can call? Anyone you would like to be with you? Your mother has been informed, I understand, but shes in Australia, is that right? Thats right. Any other relations? Boyfriend? Partner? No. Please I swallow, but there is no sense in putting this off any longer. The agony of not knowing is becoming more painful. Please, Id like to see the police now. Hmm. He stands, looks at his chart. Im not convinced youre up to it, Leonora. Weve already told them youre not fit to answer questions. Id like to see the police. They are the only people who will give me answers. I have to see them. I stare at him, while he pretends to study the chart in front of him, making up his mind. At last he lets out a breath, a long, frustrated half-sigh and shoves the chart into the holder at the foot of the bed. Very well. Theyre only to have half an hour at the most, Nurse, and I dont want anything too stressful. If Miss Shaw starts to find the interview difficult Understood, the nurse says briskly. Dr Miller puts out his hand, and I shake it, trying not to look at the scratches and blood on my arm. He turns to go. Oh wait, sorry, I blurt out, as he reaches the door. Can I have a shower first? I want to see the police, but I dont want to face them like this. A bath, Dr Miller says, and gives a short nod. Youve got a dressing on your forehead which Id prefer you not to disturb. If you keep your head above water, yes you can have a bath. And he turns to go. It takes a long time to unhook everything from the machine. There are sensors, needles, and the thick incontinence pad between my legs which makes me hot and cold with shame as I swing my legs to the floor, feeling its bulk. Did I wet myself in the night? Theres no sharp smell of urine but I cant be sure. The nurse gives me her arm as I stand, and although I want to push her away, I find Im pathetically grateful for it, and I lean on her harder than I want to admit as I hobble painfully to the bathroom. Inside the light flickers on automatically and the nurse runs a bath, then helps me with the tapes of my gown. I can do the rest myself, I say, cringing at the thought of undressing in front of even a professional stranger, but she shakes her head. I cant let you get into the tub without a hand, Im sorry. If you slip She doesnt finish, but I know what shes saying: another bang on top of whats already happened to my head. I nod, step out of the hideous adult nappy (the nurse whisks it away before I can worry about whether its soiled or not) and then I let the gown fall to the floor, shivering in my nakedness even though the room is sweatingly hot. I smell, I realise to my shame. I smell of fear and sweat and blood. The nurse holds my hand as I step unsteadily into the bath, catching onto the grab rails as I lower myself into the scalding water. Too hot? the nurse says quickly, as I let out a little gasp, but I shake my head. Its not too hot. Nothing could be too hot. If I could sterilise myself with boiling water, I would. At last Im lying back in the water, shivering with the effort. Can I Id like to be alone, p-please, I say, awkwardly. The nurse sucks in her breath and I can see her about to refuse, and suddenly I cant bear it any more I cant bear their scrutiny, and their kindness, and their constant watch. Please, I say, more roughly than I meant. For Gods sake, I wont drown in six inches of water. All right, she says, though there is reluctance in her tone. But dont even think about trying to get out youre to pull the cord and Ill come in and help you. All right. I dont want to admit defeat, but I know in my heart that I would not be safe getting out of that bath myself. The nurse goes, leaving the door just a crack ajar, and I close my eyes and sink into the steaming water, shutting out her watchful presence outside the door, shutting out the hospital smells and sounds and the buzz of the fluorescent light. As I lie in the bath I run my hands down all the cuts and scrapes and bruises, feeling the small clots and scabs soften and dissolve beneath my palms, and I try to remember what set me running through the woods, with blood on my hands. I try to remember. But Im not sure if I can bear the truth. After the nurse has helped me out, I towel myself gently dry, looking at my familiar body with its unfamiliar tracing of cuts and stitches. There are slashes on my shins. They are deep, ragged scratches across the front of the bone, as if Id run through brambles or barbed wire. There are cuts on my feet and hands, from running barefoot over glass, from shielding my face from flying debris. Finally I walk across to the mirror and swipe away the steam, and I see myself for the first time since the accident. Ive never been the kind to turn peoples heads not like Clare, whose beauty is hard to ignore, or Nina, whos spectacular in a lean, Amazonian kind of way but I was never a freak. Now, as I peer at myself in the steam-bleeding mirror, I realise that if I saw myself on the street I would turn away, out of pity or horror. The dressing at my hairline doesnt help it looks as if my brains are being barely held in place and nor do the smaller cuts and scratches dappled across my cheekbones and forehead, but theyre not the worst. The worst is my eyes two dark, bronze-coloured shiners that blossom out from the bridge of my nose, leaching in blackened circles beneath my lower lids, before they fade to yellow across my cheekbones. The right one is spectacular, the left one less so. I look like Ive been punched in the face, repeatedly. But I am alive, and someone is not. It is that thought that makes me pull on the hospital gown, lace up the ties, and shuffle out to face the world. Admiring your shiners? The nurse gives a comfortable laugh. Dont worry, theyve done all the scans, youve no basilar fracture. You just got a bang to the face. Or two. B-basilar ? Type of skull fracture. It can be very nasty. But theyve ruled it out, so dont fret. Black eyes arent uncommon following a car crash but theyll clear up in a few days. Im ready, I say. For the police. Are you sure youre up to it, hen? You dont have to. Im up to it, I say firmly. Im back in bed, sitting up with a cup of what the nurse claimed was coffee but unless the head trauma has damaged my taste perception is not, when there is a knock on the door. I look up sharply, my heart thudding. Outside, smiling through the wire-hatched glass pane in the door, there is a policewoman. Shes in her forties, maybe, and she is incredibly striking, with the kind of sculpted looks you might see on a catwalk. It feels shockingly incongruous, but I dont know why. Why shouldnt police officers have the face of David Bowies wife? C-come in, I say. Dont stammer. Fuck. Hello. She opens the door and comes into the room, still smiling. She has the slender, greyhound frame of a long-distance runner. Im Detective Constable Lamarr. Her voice is warm and her vowels are plum-coloured. How are you feeling today? Better, thank you. Better? Better than what? Im in hospital, in a gown with no back and two black eyes. Im not sure how much worse it could get. Then I correct myself: Ive been unhooked from the machine and theyve removed the nappy. Apparently I can be trusted to pee by myself. This is, indeed, better. Ive spoken to your doctors, they tell me you may be up to a few questions, but if its too much we can stop, just say. Is that all right? I nod and she says, Last night Can you tell me what you remember? Nothing. I remember nothing. It comes out harder and terser than I meant. To my horror I feel a lump in my throat and I swallow fiercely. I will not cry! Im a grown woman, for fucks sake, not some child whos scraped her knee in the playground, wailing for her daddy. Now, thats not true, she says, but not accusingly. Her voice is the gently encouraging tone of a teacher, or an older sibling. Dr Miller tells me that youre pretty clear about events leading up to the accident. Why dont you start at the beginning? At the beginning? You dont want my childhood traumas and stuff, do you? Maybe. She sits on the foot of the bed, in defiance of hospital regulations. If theyre relevant to what happened. I tell you what, why dont we start with some easy questions, just to warm up? Whats your name, how about that? I manage a laugh, but not for the reasons she thinks. What is my name? I thought I knew who I was, who I had become. Now, after this weekend, Im no longer sure. Leonora Shaw, I say. But I go by Nora. Very well then, Nora. And youre how old? I know she must know all this already. Perhaps its some sort of test, to see how bad my memory really is. Twenty-six. Now tell me, how did you end up here? What, in the hospital? In the hospital, here in Northumberland, generally, really. You havent got a northern accent, I say, irrelevantly. I was born in Surrey, she says. She gives me a small complicit smile to acknowledge that this is not quite procedure, that she should be asking questions, not answering them. But this is a little token of something, I cant quite work out what. An exchange: a piece of her for a piece of me. Except that makes me sound broken. So, she resumes, how did you end up here then? It was I put my hand to my forehead. I want to rub it, but the dressing is in the way and Im afraid to dislodge it. The skin beneath is hot and itchy. We were on a hen weekend, and she went to university here. Clare did, I mean. The hen. Listen, can I ask you something am I a suspect? A suspect? Her beautiful, rich voice makes music of the word, turning the chilly, spiky noun into a sol-fa exercise. Then she shakes her head. Not at this stage of the investigation. Were still gathering information, but we arent ruling anything out. Translation: not a suspect yet. Now, tell me, what do you remember of last night? She returns to the subject like a very beautiful, well-brought-up cat circling a mousehole. I want to go home. The scab beneath the dressing tingles and tickles. I cant concentrate. Suddenly out of the corner of my eye I see the uneaten clementine sitting on the locker, and I have to look away. I remember I blink and, to my horror, I feel my eyes fill with tears. I remember I swallow fiercely, and I dig my nails into my torn and bloody palms, letting the pain drive out the memory of him lying on the honey-coloured parquet, bleeding into my arms. Please, please tell me who I stop. I cant say it. I cant. I try again. Is? The word chokes in my throat. I shut my eyes, count to ten, dig my nails into the cuts on my palm until my whole arm is shaky with pain. I hear an exhalation from DC Lamarr, and when I open my eyes she looks, for the first time, worried. We would like to get your side of the story before we muddy the waters, she says at last, but her face is troubled, and I know, I know what it is she is not allowed to say. Its all right, I manage. Something is coming apart inside me, breaking up. You dont need to tell me. Oh G-god And then I cannot speak. The tears come and come and come. Its what I feared. Its what I knew. Nora I hear from Lamarr, and I shake my head. My eyes are shut tight but I feel the tears running down my nose and stinging the cuts on my face. She gives a small, wordless sound of sympathy, and then she stands. Ill give you a moment, she says. And I hear the door of the room creak open, and then flap shut, swinging on its double hinges. I am alone. And I cry and cry until there are no tears left. 22 I RAN DOWN the stairs as quickly as I could, trying not to cut my feet on the glass, holding onto the bannister so as not to slip in the wetness of the mans blood, and there he was, curled in a small pathetic heap at the bottom of the stairs. He was alive. I could hear his soft whimpers as he struggled to breathe. Nina! I bellowed. Nina, get down here! Hes alive! Someone dial 999! Theres no fucking signal, Nina shouted back as she scrambled down the stairs. Leo, the man whispered, and my heart froze. And then he raised his face from his painful hunch, and I knew. I knew. I knew. I remember that moment with complete, heart-stopping clarity. James? It was Nina who spoke first, not me. She slipped rather than walked down the last few stairs, landing in a heap beside us on the floor, and her voice cracked as she gently felt for his pulse. James? What the fuck are you doing here? Oh my God! She was almost crying, but her hands were doing their automatic work, checking where the blood was coming from, checking his pulse. James, talk to me, she said. Nora, keep him talking. Keep him awake! James I didnt know what to say. We hadnt spoken for ten years and now and now James, oh my God, James Why, how? Te he said, and he coughed, blood flecking his lips. Leo? It sounded like a question, but I didnt know what he meant. Tell? Tell Leo? I only shook my head. There was so much blood. Nina had his hoodie unzipped and she had found scissors from somewhere and was ripping up his T-shirt. I almost shut my eyes at the sight of his body, that skin that I had kissed and touched, every inch, spattered with blood and shot wounds. Oh fuck, Nina moaned, we need an ambulance. Did James was trying to speak, in spite of the blood bubbling at his lips. Did she tell you? About the wedding? Hes got a punctured lung. Hes probably bleeding internally. Press on this. Nina guided my hand to a pad of torn-up T-shirt pressed against Jamess thigh, from where blood was pumping frighteningly fast. What can we do? I was trying not to cry. For the moment? Try to stop him bleeding out. If that artery keeps going like that, hes dead no matter what. Press harder, its still bleeding. Ill try a tourniquet but Oh my God. It was Flo. She looked like a ghost standing there, her hands over her face. Oh my God. Im Im so sorry I cant I cant deal with b blood She gave a little gasping sigh, and collapsed, and I heard Nina swear under her breath, long and low. Tom! she bellowed. Get Flo away from here! Shes fainted. Get her to her room. She pushed the hair back from her face. There was blood on her cheekbone and on her brow. Clare James said. He licked his lips. His eyes were fixed on mine, like there was something he was trying to tell me. I squeezed his hand, trying to hold it together. Shes coming. Where the hell was she? Clare! I shouted. No answer. No James managed. Clare text Did she say? His voice was so faint it was hard to work out what he was trying to say. What? He had closed his eyes. His hand in mine was relaxing. Hes dying, I said to Nina, hearing the hysteria rising in my own voice. Nina, do something. What the fuck do you think I am doing? Playing tea-parties? Get me a towel. No, wait dont let go of that pad on his thigh. Ill get it. Where the fuck is Clare? She got up and ran for the kitchen, and I heard her banging through drawers. James lay very still. James? I said, suddenly panicked. James, stay with me! He opened his eyes, painfully, and lay looking up at me, his eyes bright and dark in the soft light from the hall. His T-shirt was split open like a peeled fruit, and his blood-stained chest and belly were bare to the cold air. I wanted to touch him, to kiss him, to tell him everything was OK. But I could not. Because it was a lie. I gritted my teeth and pressed harder on the pad on his thigh, willing the blood to stop pooling and pooling. Im sorry he said, very faint, so faint that I thought I had misheard. What? I put my head closer, trying to hear. Im sorry His hand squeezed mine, and then, to my astonishment, he reached up, his arm trembling with the effort, and touched my cheek. His breath rattled in his throat, and a thin trickle of blood came from the corner of his mouth. I squeezed my eyes shut, trying not to cry. Dont be silly, I managed. It was a long time ago. Its all over now. Clare Oh fuck, where was she? A tear dripped off my nose onto his chest, and he reached up again and tried to wipe my cheek, but his arm was too weak and he let it fall back. Dont cry Oh James, it was all I could manage, a gulping exhortation that tried to say everything I couldnt. James, dont die, please dont die. Leo he said softly, and he closed his eyes. Only James ever called me that. Only him. Always him. I am still crying when the knock on the door comes, and I struggle up against the pillows, before remembering the electric button that raises the bedhead automatically. The bed grinds me into a sitting position, and I take a deep, shuddering breath and swipe at my eyes. Come in. The door opens, and it is Lamarr. I know my eyes must be red and wet, and my throat croaky, but I cant find it in myself to care. Tell me the truth, I say, before she can say anything else before shes sat down, even. Please. Ill tell you everything I can remember, but I have to know. Is he dead? Im sorry, she says, and I know. I try to speak, but I cant. I sit, shaking my head, and trying to make the words come, but they dont. Lamarr sits in silence while I struggle for control, and then at last, when my breathing eases, she holds out the paper tray shes carrying. Coffee? she asks, gently. I shouldnt care. James is dead. What does coffee matter? I nod, half-reluctantly, and when she hands it to me, I take a long sip. Its hot and strong. It is as unlike the watery hospital gravy as chalk from Gorgonzola and I feel it running into every cell of my body and waking me up. It is impossible to believe that I can be alive and James can be dead. When I put the cup down, my face feels stiff and my head aches. Thank you, I manage, my voice rough. Lamarr leans across the gap between us and squeezes my hand. It was the least I could do. Im sorry. I didnt want you to find out like that, but I was asked She stops and rephrases. It was thought advisable not to tell you more than you knew already. We wanted to get your version. Uninfluenced. I dont say anything. I just bow my head. I have written about this kind of thing, this kind of interview, all my adult life, and I never imagined for one moment I would be here. I know this will be painful, she says at last, as the silence stretches, but please, can you think back to last night? What do you remember? I remember up to the the shooting, I say. I remember running down the stairs, and seeing him seeing him, lying there I grit my teeth and pause for a moment, the breath hissing between my teeth. I will not cry again. Instead I gulp at the coffee, not caring that it scalds as I swallow. You must know about the shooting? I say at last. Did they tell you, the others? Nina and Clare and everyone? We have several different accounts, she says, a hint of evasiveness in her voice. But we need to get all the perspectives. We were scared, I say, trying to think back. It seems like a hundred years ago, swathed in a fog of adrenaline as we all crept round the house, half-hysterical with a mixture of drunken excitement and genuine fear. There was a message on the ouija board about a murderer. The irony, as I say it, is almost unbearable. We didnt believe it most of us, anyway but I suppose it made us edgy. And there were footprints, in the snow outside. And when we woke up, the first time I mean, the kitchen door had come open. How? I dont know. Someone had locked it or said they had. Flo I think. Or was it Clare? Someone had checked, anyway. But it blew open, and it just made us all more crazed and frightened. And so when we heard the footsteps Whose idea was it to get the gun? I dont know. Flo had it from earlier, I think. From when the door blew open. But it wasnt supposed to be loaded. It was supposed to have blanks. And you were holding it, is that right? Me? I look up at her with genuine shock. No! It was Flo, I think. It was definitely her. But your fingerprints are on the barrel. They have fingerprinted the gun? I stare at her. Then I realise shes waiting for an answer. On the b-barrel, yes. Fuck, do not stammer. But not the the other bit. The handle bit. The stock, I mean. Look, she was waving it around like a crazy thing. I was trying to keep it away from us. Why, if you thought it wasnt loaded? The question takes me aback. Suddenly, in spite of the sun, the room feels cold. I want to ask again if Im a suspect, but she has said Im not, and wont it look strange to keep asking? B-because I dont like having a gun pointed at me, no matter what its loaded with. All right? All right, she says mildly, and makes a note on her pad. She flips over a sheet and then turns back. Lets go back a bit. James how did you know him? I shut my eyes. I bite the inside of my cheek to keep from crying. There are so many options open to me: we went to school together. We were friends. He is Clares fianc?. Was, I correct myself silently. It is impossible to believe he is gone. And I realise, suddenly, the selfishness of my grief. I have been thinking about James. But Clare Clare has lost everything. Yesterday she was to be a bride. Today she is what? Theres not even a word for what she is. Not a widow just bereft. He we used to be together, I say at last. Its better to be honest, surely? Or at least as honest as I can be. When did you break up? A long time ago. We were oh sixteen or seventeen. The oh is a little dishonest. It makes it sound like a guesstimate. In fact, I know to the day when we broke up. I was sixteen and two months. James was just a few months away from his seventeenth birthday. Amicably? Not at the time, no. But youve made up since? I mean, you were on Clares hen weekend She trails off, inviting me to jump in with platitudes about how time heals everything, how betrayals at sixteen are the stuff you laugh about at twenty-six. Only I dont. What should I say? The truth? Something cold is stealing around my heart, a chill in spite of the hospital heat and the warmth of the setting sun. I dont like these questions. Jamess death was an accident: a gun that should never have been loaded, going off by mistake. So why is this policewoman here, asking about long-dead break-ups? What relevance does this have to Jamess death? I say abruptly. Too abruptly. Her head comes up from her notepad, her plum-coloured lips forming a silent oh of surprise. Damn. Damn, damn, damn. Were just trying to form a complete picture, she says mildly. I feel cold all up and down my spine. James was shot by a gun that was supposed to be unloaded. So who loaded it? I feel the blood drain from my cheeks. I very, very much want to ask the question I asked before: am I a suspect? But I cant. I cant ask, because to ask would be suspicious. And suddenly I very much want to not be suspicious. It was a long time ago, I say, trying to recover. It hurt a lot at the time, but you get over things, dont you? No you dont. Not things like that. Or at least, I dont. But she doesnt hear the lie in my voice. Instead she smoothly changes tack. What happened after James was shot? she asks. Can you remember what you all did next? I shut my eyes. Try to walk me through it, she says. Her voice is soft, encouraging, almost hypnotic. You were with him in the hallway I was with him in the hallway. There was blood on my hands, on my nightclothes. His blood. Masses of it. His eyes had drifted closed, and after a few minutes I put my face down to his, trying to hear if he was still breathing. He was. I could feel his halting breath on my cheek. How different he was to when we had been together there were lines around his eyes, a five oclock shadow on his jaw, and his face had become leaner and more defined. But he was still James. I knew the contours of his brow, the ridge of his nose, the hollow beneath his lip where the sweat beaded on summer nights. He was still my James. Except he was not. Where in Gods name was Clare? I heard footsteps behind me, but it was Nina, holding a length of white cloth which looked like a sheet. She knelt and began binding Jamess leg very tight. I think our best hope is to stabilise you until we get you to hospital, she said, very loud and clear, talking to James, but to me as well, I knew. James, can you hear me? He didnt respond. His face had gone a strange waxen colour. Nina shook her head and then said to me, Clare had better drive. You direct. Ill go in the back with James and try to keep him going until we get there. Tom had better stay with Flo. I think shes in shock. Wheres Clare? She was trying to get a signal up the far end of the garden apparently you can sometimes get one there. But theres nothing, a voice came from over my shoulder. It was Clare. Her face was the colour of skimmed milk, but she was dressed. Can he talk? He was saying a few words, I said. My throat was cracked and hoarse with tears. But I I think hes unconscious now. Oh fuck. Her face went even whiter, even her lips bloodless pale, and there were tears in her eyes. I should have come down sooner. I just thought Dont be silly, Nina cut her off. It was the right thing to do getting an ambulance was the most important thing, if we could only have got a fucking signal. Right, I think that tourniquet is as good as I can make it Im not going to try to do anything else now, lets get him out of here. Ill drive, Clare said instantly. Nina nodded. Ill come in the back with James. She looked out of the window. Clare, you go and bring the car as close to the front door as you can get it. Clare nodded and left to get her car keys. Nina carried on, talking to me this time, Well need something to lift him on. Itll hurt him too much if we just pick him up. What sort of thing? Something flat ideally, like a stretcher. We both gazed around but there was nothing obvious. We could take a door down. Toms voice came from behind us, making us both jump. He gazed down at James, now fully unconscious on the floor in a spreading pool of his own blood. There was a kind of horror in his expression. Flos out cold in the bedroom. Is he going to be OK? Honestly? Nina said. She glanced at James and I saw her face was weary and, for the first time since she had taken over, showing traces of fear. Honestly, I dont know. Its possible hell make it. Doors a good idea. Can you find a screwdriver? I think there was a box of stuff under the stairs. Tom gave a short nod and disappeared. Nina put her face in her hands. Fuck, she said, into her cupped, muffling palms. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Are you all right? No. Yes. She looked up. Im fine. Just oh my God. What a fucking stupid wasteful way to die. Who the hell fires a gun when they dont know what its loaded with? I thought of Tom, waving it around yesterday as a joke, and I felt suddenly sick. Poor Flo, I said. Did she pull the trigger? Nina asked. I I assume so. I dont know. She was holding it. I thought you were. Me? I felt my jaw drop with surprise and horror. God, no. But it could have been anyone who jolted her we were all standing so close. There was a growl from outside and I heard Clares tyres crunching through the snowy gravel outside the front door. At the same time there was a thud from the living room and Tom appeared, dragging a heavy oak door with the handles still attached. It weighs a ton, he said, but weve only got to get it as far as the car. OK. Nina took charge again, her authority effortless. Tom, you take his shoulders. Ill take his feet. Nora, you support his hips as we lift and shift them onto the door; try not to disturb that dressing on his thigh and be careful not to catch anything on the door handle. Ready? On my count of lift; three, two, one, lift. We all heaved, there was a kind of groaning involuntary whimper from James that brought a fresh spatter of blood to his lips, and then he was onto the makeshift stretcher. I ran to open the huge steel front door thanking God for the first time for the scale of this house, the internal door would fit through easily and then back to help Nina with the foot end of the door. It was immensely heavy but we wrestled it down the hallway and out into the freezing night where Clare was waiting, the engine ticking over, the exhaust a white cloud in the cold air. Is he OK? she asked over her shoulder, reaching to open the rear door. Is he still breathing? Hes still breathing, Nina said, but itll be touch and go. OK, lets get him off this door. Somehow, in a horrible, trembling, blood-spattered rush, we got him into the back seat, where he lay slumped, breathing in a shallow rasping way that frightened me. His leg was hanging out of the car, and, grotesquely, I saw that the seeping blood was steaming in the chilly air. The sight stopped me in my tracks, and I was just standing there, too shocked to think what to do next as Tom folded the leg gently into the footwell and then shut the door. Theres not going to be enough room for both of us, Nina said. For a minute I didnt know what she was talking about, and then I realised: James was taking up all the back seat by himself. There was no way Nina could fit in the back as shed suggested. Ill stay, I said. You should go with them. Nina didnt try to argue. Nora? Lamarrs voice is gentle but insistent. Nora? Are you awake? Can you tell me what you remember? I open my eyes. We got James out to the car. We didnt have anything to carry him so Tom took down a door. Clare was driving Nina was supposed to go in the back seat with James, and I was going to direct. Supposed to? It there was a misunderstanding. Im not sure what happened. We got James into the car and we realised there wasnt going to be room for all of us. I told Nina she should go with him shes a doctor and Id stay. She agreed, and we ran back into the house to get her phone and blankets for the car. But something happened Go on. I shut my eyes, trying to remember. The events are starting to blur together. I remember Clare gunning the engine, and Tom calling something over his shoulder. Why not? Clare shouted back. And then, impatiently, Oh never mind, Ill call when I get there. And then there was the grinding sound of tyres on gravel and I saw the red of her tail-lights as she bumped off down the rutted track to the road. What the fucking fuck? Nina had shouted from upstairs. She skittered down the stairs and bellowed Clare! What are you doing? But Clare was gone. There was a misunderstanding, I say to Lamarr. Tom said that he told Clare we were just coming, but Clare must have thought he said Theyre not coming. She started off without Nina. And what next? What next? But thats what Im not sure of. I remember Clares coat was hanging over the porch rail. She must have intended to take it and forgotten. I remember, I picked it up. I remember I remember I remember Nina crying. I remember standing in the kitchen, with my hands beneath the tap, watching Jamess blood run down the plug hole. And then I dont know if its the shock, or what happened after, but things begin to fragment. And the harder I push, the more Im not sure if Im remembering what happened, or what I think happened. I remember picking up Clares jacket. Or was it Clares? I have a sudden picture of Flo at the clay-pigeon shoot, wearing a similar black leather jacket. Was it Clares? Or was it Flos? I remember picking up the jacket. I remember the jacket. What is it about the jacket I cant remember? And then Im running, running through the woods, desperate to stop them. Something started me running. Something had me shoving my feet into my cold trainers with panicked desperation, and tumbling headlong down the narrow forest track, the torch swinging wild in my hand. But what? I look down. My fingers are cupped as though Im trying to hold onto something small and hard. The truth, perhaps. I cant remember, I say to Lamarr. This is when it starts to get really fuzzy. I can remember running through the trees I stop, trying to piece it all together. I gaze up at the harsh striplight, and then back down at my hands, as if they can give me an inspiration. But my hands are empty. Weve got a statement from Tom, Lamarr says at last. He says that you were holding something, looking down at it in your palm, and then you just took off, without even putting your coat on. What made you set off? I dont know. There is rank desperation in my voice. I wish I did. I cant remember. Please try, its very important. I know its important! It comes out as a shout, shockingly loud in the small room. My fingers are clenched on the thin hospital blanket. D-do you think I dont know that? This is my friend, my my I cant speak. I cant come up with a word for what James is to me was to me. My knees are drawn up to my chest, and I am panting, and I want to hit my head on my knees, and keep on hitting until the memories bleed out, but I cant, I cant remember. Nora Lamarr says, and Im not sure if her voice is trying to soothe or warn me. Perhaps both. I want to remember. My teeth are gritted. M-more than you can believe. I believe you, Lamarr says. There is something sad in her voice. I feel her hand on my shoulder, and then theres a bang at the door and the nurse comes in, pushing a trolley. Whats going on here? She looks from me to Lamarr, taking in my tear-stained face and unconcealed distress, and her pleasant round face puckers in disapproval. You, Missie, Ill not have you upsetting my patients like this! She stabs a finger at Lamarr. Shes not twenty-four hours after nearly killing herself in a car crash. Out! She didnt I try. It wasnt But its only partly true. Lamarr has upset me, and in spite of my protest Im glad to see her go, glad to curl on my side under the sheets as the nurse dishes up cottage pie and limp green beans, muttering under her breath about the high-handedness of the police, and who do they think they are, barging in here without so much as a by-your-leave, upsetting her patients, setting them back days if not weeks A school-dinner smell fills the room as she plops and ladles and sets the tray down beside me. Eat up now, pet, she says, with something close to tenderness. Youre just skin and bone. Rice Krispies are all very well but theyre no food to get well on. You need meat and veg for that. Im not hungry, but I nod. When shes gone though, I dont eat. I just lie on my side, holding my aching ribs, and try to make sense of it. I should have asked how Clare was, where she was. And Nina, where is Nina? Is she OK? Why hasnt she come and seen me? I should have asked all this, but I missed my chance. I lie, staring at the side of the locker, and I think about James and about all we meant to each other, and everything Ive done and lost. Because what I realised, as I held his hand and he bled all over the floor, was that my anger, which I had thought was black and insuperable and would never fade, was already going, bleeding out over the floor along with Jamess life. It has defined me for so long, my bitterness about what happened. And now its gone the bitterness is gone, but so is James, the only other person who knew. There is a lightness about that knowledge, but also a terrible weight. I lie there, and think back to the first time not the first time I met him, for that must have been when we were twelve or thirteen, younger perhaps. But the first time that I noticed him. It was summer term in Year 10, and James was playing Bugsy Malone in the school play. Clare was of course Blousey Brown. It was a toss-up between that and Tallulah but Blousey gets her man at the end and Clare never did like playing the loser. Id seen James before, in lessons, horsing about, flicking paper planes and drawing on his arm. But on stage on stage he somehow lit the room. I had just turned fifteen, James was a few months off sixteen one of the oldest in our year and that year he had shaved a savage undercut into his hair, and twisted the remaining black curls on top into a little knot at the back of his skull. It looked punky and rebellious, but for Bugsy he had smoothed it down with hair oil and somehow, even at rehearsals in his school uniform, that simple thing made him look completely and utterly like a 1930s gangster. He walked like one. He stood like one, an invisible cigar clenched in the corner of his mouth so convincingly that I could smell the smoke though there was nothing there. He spoke with a laconic twang. I wanted to fuck him and I knew that every other girl in the room, and some of the boys, felt the same way. I knew what Clare thought, for shed told me, hanging over the row of chairs behind me, whispering into my ear, her pink Blousey lipstick tickling my hair. Im going to have James Cooper, she told me. Ive made up my mind. I said nothing. Clare usually got what she wanted. Nothing happened over the summer holidays, and I began to wonder if Clare had forgotten her promise. But then we went back to school, and I realised, from a thousand tiny things the way she flicked her hair, the number of buttons undone on her school shirt that Clare had forgotten nothing. She was just biding her time. The autumn term play was Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and, when James got cast as Brick, Clare got the part of Maggie. She gloated to me about the extra rehearsal time it would necessitate, alone in the drama studio after hours, but not even Clare could charm her way out of glandular fever. She was signed off for the rest of the term, and her part was given to the understudy. Me. And so, instead of Clare, I played Maggie, hot, sultry Maggie. I kissed James every night for a week, fought with him, draped myself across him with a sensuality I didnt know I even possessed until he called it out of me. I didnt stammer. I wasnt even Lee any more. Ive never acted like that, before or since. But James was Brick, drunken, angry, confused Brick, and so I became Maggie. We had a cast party on the last night, Coke and sandwiches in what we called the green room, but was in fact an empty classroom up the corridor from the hall. And then, later, Coke and Jack Daniels in the car park, and in the kitchen of Lois Finchs house. And James took my hand, and together we climbed the stairs to Loiss brothers bedroom and we lay on Toby Finchs creaking single bed and did things that still make me shiver when I think about them, even here, in the hospital room, ten years on. That was when James Cooper lost his virginity. Sixteen years old, on a winters night, on a Spiderman duvet cover, with model aeroplanes turning and wheeling over our heads as we kissed and bit and gasped. And then we were together that was simply how it was, with no more discussion than that. My God, I loved him. And now he is gone. It seems impossible. I think of Lamarrs soft, plum-coloured voice saying, And James how did you know him? What should I have said, if I were telling the truth? I knew him so that if I touched his face in the dark, I would know it was him. I knew him so that I could tell you every scar and mark on his body, the appendix slit to the right of his belly, the stitches from where he fell off his bike, the way his hair parted in three separate crowns, each swirling into the other. I knew him by heart. And he is gone. I have not spoken to him for ten years, but I thought of him every single day. He is gone and, just when I need it most, so is the rage I have nursed all this time, even while I told myself I no longer cared, that it was a part of my past shut away and gone and done. He is gone. Perhaps if I say it often enough, I will start to believe it. 23 I SLEEP THE sleep of the dead that night, in spite of the noise and the beep of machines down the corridor and the intrusive lights. The nurses have stopped coming in to check on me every two hours, and I sleep and sleep and sleep. When I wake its with a sense of disorientation where am I? What day is it? I look for my phone automatically. Its not there. Theres a plastic water jug instead. And then the weight of the present comes crashing down on the back of my skull. It is Monday. I am in a hospital. James is dead. Wakey wakey, says a new nurse, coming briskly in and running a professional eye over my charts. Breakfast will be coming round in a few minutes. Im still in the hospital gown, and as she goes to leave, I find myself calling out, Wait! She turns, one eyebrow raised, plainly mid-round and in no mood to stop. Im s-sorry, I stammer, I was just wondering, c-could I, can I get any clothes? Id like my own clothes. And my phone, if possible. We ask relatives to bring them in, she says briskly. Were not a courier service. And then shes gone, the door flapping shut behind her. She doesnt know, then. About me. About what has happened. And it occurs to me, the house is probably a crime scene. Theres no way Nina and Clare and everyone can still be there, tiptoeing around Jamess congealing blood. They must have gone home or been shipped off to a B&B. Ill have to ask Lamarr when she comes in. If she comes in. For the first time I realise how very dependent on the police I am. They are my only line to the outside world. Its around 11 a.m. when there is a knock on the door. I am lying on my side listening to Radio 4. Its the Womans Hour drama, and if I shut my eyes hard enough, and press my headphones to my ears, I can almost imagine myself back home, a cup of coffee proper coffee at my side, the traffic roaring softly outside my window. When the knock comes it takes me a minute to adjust to Lamarrs face in the wire-hatched pane. I pull off the headphones and struggle up against the pillows. Come in. She holds up a paper cup as she enters. Coffee? Oh, thank you. I try not to sound desperate, try not to snatch the cup from her hands, but its amazing how much these small things mean in the goldfish-bowl world of the hospital. I can tell by the feel of the cup that its too hot to drink and I nurse it while I think how to phrase what I want to say, and while Lamarr chats about the unseasonably beautiful winter weather, and how the roads are clearing up from the weekends snow. At last she grinds to a pause and I take my chance. Sergeant Constable. Im sorry. Im annoyed with myself for the mistake and try not to get flustered. Listen, I was wondering, how is Clare? Clare? She leans forward. Have you remembered something? What? Have you started to remember what happened after you left the house? What? We stare at each other and then she shakes her head, ruefully. Im sorry. I thought from what you said What do you mean? Has something happened to Clare? Tell me what you remember, she says, but for a minute I say nothing, trying to read her beautiful, closed face. Her eyes meet mine, but I cant tell anything. There is something shes not telling me. I remember I speak slowly. I remember running through the woods and I remember car headlights and glass and then after the accident, I remember stumbling along, Id lost a shoe, and there were chunks of glass on the road. Its coming back to me as I speak, the lowering tunnel of bare branches, pale in the headlights, and my limping run as I tried to flag down someone anyone to help. There was a van swinging along the road, headlights raking the dark. I stood, waving frantically, the tears streaming down my face, and I thought he wouldnt stop, I thought for a moment hed run me down. But he didnt he skidded to a halt, his face pale as he wound down the window. What the fuck? he said, and then, Have you been ? The rest of the sentence hovered unspoken. But thats it. Between that, its so jumbled its like the images get more and more shaken up and then theres just a blank spot. Listen, has something happened to Clare? Shes not Oh my God. Oh my God. It cannot be. I feel my fingers close on the bedsheet, my bitten nails digging in so hard that my fingers hurt. Is she dead? Shes OK, Lamarr says slowly, carefully. But she was in the accident, the same accident as you. Is she all right? Can I see her? No, Im sorry. Weve not been able to interview her yet. We need to get her version before She trails off. I know what she is saying. She wants my truth, and Clares truth separate, so they can compare our stories. Yet again I have that cold, writhing feeling in the pit of my stomach. Am I a suspect? How can I find out without looking like one? Shes still not really up to being interviewed, Lamarr says at last. Does she know about James? I dont believe so, no. There is compassion in Lamarrs face. Shes not been well enough to be told yet. I dont know why, but it is this that rattles me more than anything else she has said so far today. I cant bear the idea that Clare is lying somewhere in this very hospital and doesnt know that James is gone. Is she wondering why he hasnt come? Or is she too ill even for that? Is she going to be OK? My voice cracks and breaks on the last word, and I take a long, aching gulp of coffee to try to hide my distress. The doctors say yes, but were waiting for her family to come, and then theyll take a view about whether shes stable enough to be told. Im sorry I wish I could tell you more, but its not really my place to be discussing her medical details. Yeah, I know, I say dully. There are tears trapped at the back of my throat, making my head ache and my eyes swim as I blink angrily, trying to clear them. What about Nina? I manage at last. Can I see her? Were still taking statements from everyone else at the house. But as soon as thats concluded, I imagine shell be allowed to visit. Today? Hopefully today, yes. But it would be very, very helpful if you could remember what happened after you left the house. We want to get your version, not anyone elses, and were worried that speaking to other people might confuse things. I cannot tell what she means by this. Is she worried that I am waiting, pretending memory loss so I can get my story straight with someone elses? Or is it simply that shes concerned that in the vacuum of my own memories, I might implant someone elses account unconsciously? I know how easy that is to do for years I remembered a childhood holiday where I rode on a donkey. There was a photo of me doing it on the mantelpiece, I was about three or four, and I was silhouetted against the setting sun, just a dark blur with a halo of sun-lit hair. But I could remember the salt wind in my face, and the glint of the sun off the waves, and the feel of the scratchy blanket between my thighs. It was only when I was fifteen that my mum mentioned that it wasnt me at all, but my cousin Rachel. I was never even there. So what are they saying? Cough up the memories and well let you speak to your friend? Im trying to remember, I say bitterly. Believe me, I want to remember what happened even more than you want me to. You dont have to hold Nina out like a carrot. Thats not it, Lamarr says. We just want to get your account I promise this isnt some kind of penalty. If I cant see Nina, can I at least get some of my own clothes? And my phone? I must be getting better if I have started to worry about my phone. The thought of all those emails and messages building up, and no way of answering them. Its Monday now, a working day. My editor will have been in touch about the new draft. And my mum has she been trying to call? I really need my phone, I say. I could promise not to contact anyone from the house if youre worried about that. Ah, she says, and there is something in her face, a kind of reserve. Well, actually thats one of the things wed like to ask you. Wed like to take a look at your phone, if you dont mind. I dont mind. But can I have it back afterwards? Yes, but we cant locate it. That checks me. If they dont have it, where is it? Did you take it with you when you left the house? Lamarr is saying. I try to think back. I am sure I didnt. In fact, I cant remember having my phone for most of the day. I think it was in Clares car, I say at last. I think I left it there when we went clay-pigeon shooting. Lamarr shakes her head. The car has been completely stripped. Its definitely not there. And weve made quite a thorough search of the house. Maybe the clay-pigeon range? Well try there, she makes a note on her pad, but weve been calling it and no ones picking up. I imagine if it had been left there someone might have heard it ringing. Its ringing? Im surprised the battery is still working. I cant remember when I last charged it. What, you mean youve been calling my number? How did you know what it was? We got it off Dr da Souza, she says briefly. It takes me a second to click that she means Nina. And its definitely ringing? I say slowly. Not just going through to voicemail? I She pauses, and I can see her trying to remember. Ill have to check, but yes, Im fairly sure it was ringing. Well, if its ringing it cant be at the house. Theres no reception. Lamarr frowns, a line between her slender, perfect brows. Then she shakes her head. Well, weve put the tech guys on it now, so no doubt theyll get us an approximate location. Well let you know as soon as its picked up. Thanks, I say. But I dont add the question thats buzzing in my head: why do they want my phone? Here is how I know Im getting better: Im bloody hungry I looked at the lunch that came in a couple of hours ago and thought, Thats it? Its like when you get those toy-sized meals on aeroplanes and you think, who eats a tablespoon of mash and a sausage the size of my little finger? Thats not a meal. Thats a canap? in a pretentiously upmarket bar. I am bored. Christ, Im bored. Now Im no longer sleeping as much I have nothing to do. No phone. No laptop. I could be writing, but without access to my laptop and my current manuscript theres nothing I can do. Im even getting angry with the radio. At home, where its just a background to my routine, I love the constant repetition, the reassuring cycle of the day, the fact that Start the Week follows Today, and Womans Hour follows Start the Week, as surely as Monday gives way to Tuesday and Wednesday. Here, it is starting to drive me a little mad. How many times can I hear the endless loop of news headlines before I go crazy? But most of all, Im frightened. Theres a kind of focusing effect that happens when youre very ill. I saw it with my grandad, when he was slipping away. You stop caring about the big stuff. Your world shrinks down to very small concerns: the way your dressing-gown cord presses uncomfortably against your ribs; the pain in your spine; the feel of a hand in yours. Its that narrowing that enables you to cope, I suppose. The wider world stops mattering. And as you grow more and more ill, your world shrinks further, until the only thing that matters is just to keep on breathing. But I am going the other way. When I was brought in, all I cared about was not dying. Then yesterday I just wanted to be left alone to sleep and lick my wounds. Now, today, I am starting to worry. I am not an official suspect; I know enough from writing crime to know that Lamarr would have had to interview me under caution if that was the case, offer me a solicitor, read me my rights. But they are groping around, searching for something. They dont think Jamess death was an accident. I remember the words floating through the thick glass that first night, Oh Jesus, so now were looking at murder? At the time they seemed shocking but fantastical all part of the drugged-up dream state I was caught in. Now they seem all too real. 24 WHEN THE KNOCK comes again I nearly dont answer. Im lying with my eyes shut listening to Radio 4 on the hospital headphones trying to block out the noise and bustle of the ward next door, imagine myself back home. The nurses dont knock at least they do, but with a perfunctory tap and then they come in anyway. Only Lamarr knocks and waits for an answer. And I cannot face Lamarr, with her kind, calm, curiously dogged questions. I dont remember. I dont remember, all right? Im not hiding anything, I just Dont. Fucking. Remember. I screw my eyes shut, listening over the sound of The Archers to see if shes going away, and then I hear the door shush cautiously open, as if someone is putting a head round. Lee? I hear, very quietly. I mean, sorry, Nora? I sit bolt upright. Its Nina. Nina! I rip off the headphones and try to swing my legs out of bed, but whether its my head, or just low blood pressure, the room goes suddenly hollow and distant and I am overcome with a wave of vertigo. Hey! Her voice is distant, through the hissing in my ears. Hey, take it easy. Theyve only just sewn your brains back in, by all accounts. Im all right, I say, though Im not sure if Im trying to reassure myself, or her. Im all right. Im OK. And then I am OK. The wave of faintness has passed and I can hug Nina, breathing in her particular scent: Jean Paul Gaultier, and cigarettes. Oh Jesus, Im so glad to see you. Im glad to see you. She pulls back, looking at me with critical, worried eyes. I have to say, when they told us youd been in a car accident I well. Seeing one school friend bleed out was enough. I flinch and she drops her eyes. Shit, sorry. I its not that I I know. Its not that Nina doesnt feel stuff. She just deals with it differently to most people. Sarcasm is her defence against life. Lets just say, Im glad youre here. She takes my hand and kisses the back of it, and Im astonished and kind of touched to see her face is crumpled and soft. Although, not looking your best, I have to say. She gives a shaky laugh. Sheesh, I need a fag. Think theyd notice if I had one out the window? Nina, what the hell happened? I ask, still holding onto her hand. The police are here theyre asking all these questions. James is dead, did you know? Yes, I knew, Nina says quietly. They came to the house early on Sunday. They didnt tell us straight away but Well, lets just say you dont expend that kind of man-power on a non-fatal shooting. It was pretty obvious after they started printing us and taking gunshot residue tests. What happened? How could that gun possibly be loaded? As I see it, her voice is grimly steady, theres two possibilities. One, she holds up her forefinger, Flos aunt did not in fact keep that gun loaded with blanks. But from their line of questioning, I dont think they think thats likely. And two? Someone loaded it. Its only what Ive been thinking. But its still a shock, hearing it out loud in the small hermit cell of the hospital room. We both sit there in silence, contemplating this for a long while, thinking about Tom larking around with it the night before, thinking about all the hows and whys and what-ifs. Hows Jess taking it all? I ask at last, more to change the subject than anything else. Nina makes a wry face. As you can imagine, she was her usual measured self. Only forty-five minutes of hysteria down the phone. First she was furious they were keeping me up here to make a statement, and then she wanted to come up, but I told her not to. Why not? Nina gives me a look thats simultaneously sympathetic and disbelieving. Dude, are you kidding me? For whatever fucked-up reason, they think James was murdered. Would you want your nearest and dearest mixed up in that? No. Jess is not part of this, thank Christ, and its staying that way. I want her far, far away. Fair point. I scoot back onto the bed and sit, hugging my knees. Nina takes the chair and picks up my chart, flicking through it with bald-faced curiosity. Do you mind? I say. Im not sure I want you knowing details of my last bowel movement and all that. Sorry, professional nosiness. Hows the head now? Sounds like you had quite a whack. Yeah, it felt like it. Im OK though. Just Ive been having memory trouble. I rub where the dressing sits, as if I can rub the jumbled images back into a semblance of order. Its just the bit after I left the house. Hmm. Post-traumatic amnesia. Its usually only a matter of a few moments though. Yours sounds like I dont know. How long do you think? Its kind of difficult to be sure since, oh, did I mention, I cant remember, I say. I can hear my voice going snappish and my own peevishness annoys me, but Nina ignores it. It cant be long though, right? Look, I know you mean well, I massage my temples, but can we not talk about this? I spent all morning with a police sergeant trying to remember and honestly, Ive had enough. Its not coming. I worry if I try and force it Ill just end up making something up and convincing myself its the truth. OK. Shes quiet for a moment and then says, Look, I told them about you and James. I said you used to go out. I thought you should know. I didnt know what you would have said but Its fine. I dont want anyone to lie. I told Lamarr we were together. Shes the police officer assigned I know, Nina breaks in. Shes been speaking to us too. Does she know how you broke up? What do you mean? You know, the big secret. The STD. Or whatever you want to call it. For the last time, no one gave me an STD. So you keep saying. Did you tell her? No, I didnt say anything. Did you? No. I had nothing to tell. I just said you were together. And then you broke up. Well quite. Theres nothing to tell. I press my lips shut. Really? Hmm, lets see. She begins to tick the points off on her fingers. Breaking up, leaving school, dropping contact with half your friends, not speaking to him for ten years. Nothing to tell? Theres nothing to tell, I repeat doggedly, staring at my fingers laced together over my knee. The cuts are starting to darken and scab over. Soon theyll be healed. Because the fact is, Nina continues, James is dead and theyre looking for a motive. At that I look up. I look her right in the eye. She meets my gaze without flinching. What are you saying? Im saying, Im worried about you. Youre implying I killed James! Fuck off! At that she stands and begins to pace around the room. I am not. Im saying Im trying You know n-nothing about it, I say. Fuck. Stop stammering! But it is true, Nina does know nothing about it. No one knows about that part of my life not even my mum. The only person who knows anything is Clare, and even she doesnt know the full story. And Clare Clare is in hospital. Clare is what? Too ill to be interviewed? In a coma, even? But she will wake up. Have you seen Clare? I say, my voice very low. Nina shakes her head. No. I think shes pretty bad. Whatever happened in that crash She shakes her head again, this time in frustration rather than denial. You know the worst thing; James would probably have lived. He was very badly hurt, but I reckon there was at least a fifty per cent chance hed have survived. What do you mean? It was the crash that killed him. Or else the delay caused by the crash which comes to the same thing. Suddenly Lamarrs insistence on those missing minutes crystallises. What happened in the house was only the first half of the story. The real killing came later, on the road. I have to remember what happened. I should never have come. I knew that. I knew it from the moment the email pinged into my inbox. You should never go back. And yet. I think of James, lying on the floor, his dark eyes looking up into mine as his blood pooled around us both. I think of his hand, slippery with blood, gripping mine as if he were drowning and only I could save him. I think of his voice saying, Leo If I had known then what I know now, would I have deleted the email? Ninas hand reaches out for mine, and I feel her warm, dry grip, and her strong fingers tracing the lattice of scratches and cuts. Itll be OK, she says. But her voice is husky and we both know she is lying lying because whatever happens with me and Lamarr and the rest of the investigation, this has gone far beyond the point where things could ever be OK again. Whether Clare recovers or not, whether they suspect me or not, James is dead. H-hows Flo? I say at last. Nina chews her lip as if considering what to say, and then lets out a gust of breath. Not great. To tell the truth, I think shes having a breakdown. Does she know about Clare? Yes. She wanted to see her, but we were told no visitors. Has anyone seen her? Clare, I mean. Her parents, I think. And I swallow. I wont stammer. I wont. And Jamess parents? Have they been? I think so, yes. I believe they came yesterday and She looks down at my hands, runs her finger gently across the longest scratch, and saw his body. Theyve gone home, as far as I know. We didnt see them. I get a sudden, piercing memory of Jamess mum as she was ten years ago, her long, curly hair caught up in a clip, her bangles chiming as she gesticulated and laughed to someone on the end of the phone, her scarves fluttering in the breeze from an open window. I remember her putting the phone to her shoulder as James introduced me: This is Leo. Shell be coming round a lot. Get used to her face, and Jamess mum laughing and saying, I know what that means. Let me show you where the fridge is, Leo. No one cooks in this house so if you want something to eat, forage. It was so different from my house. No one was ever still. The door was always open, and they always had friends round, or students staying, and everyone was always arguing laughing kissing drinking. There were no meal-times. No curfews. James and I lay on his bed in the flooding sunlight and no one came and knocked on the door and told us to stop whatever we were doing. I remember Jamess dad, with his full beard and his accordion. He lectured on Marxist theory at the local uni and was always on the brink of resigning or being fired. He used to run me home after dark in his battered car, swearing at the temperamental choke and regaling me with his awful puns. James was their only child. The thought of them both stricken down by grief its almost unbearable. Look, Nina gives my hand a final squeeze, Id better go. I only paid for an hours parking and its nearly gone. Thanks. Thanks for coming. I give her an awkward hug. Listen, you didnt happen to grab any of my clothes when you left the house, did you? Nina shakes her head. No, Im sorry. They were really strict about what we could take. Ive only got one change for myself. I could buy you some sweats, if you want? Thanks, thatd be great. I can pay you back. Nina makes a kind of derisory snort, and does a batting-away motion with her hand. Psssh, shut up already. Youre a small, right? Any preferences? No, anythings fine. Just nothing too bright. You know me. OK. Tell you what, Ill leave you this in the meantime. She peels off her cardigan, a navy blue knitted thing with small buttons in the shape of dark blue flowers. Im shaking my head, but she drapes it around my shoulders. There you go. At least you can open the window without freezing. Thanks, I say, huddling it around myself. I cant believe how good it feels to be wearing something thats not hospital-issue. Like Ive got my personality back. Nina shrugs, kisses me, briskly this time, and then heads for the door. Stay sane, Shaw. We cant have two people going off the tracks on top of everything else. Flo? Is she really bad then? Nina just shrugs, but her face is sad. Then she turns to go. I watch her stalking off down the corridor, and something suddenly occurs to me. The police guard outside my door is gone. 25 ITS MAYBE HALF an hour later when there comes another, brisker knock at the door and a nurse bustles in. At first I think its supper and my stomach growls and turns, but then I realise theres no smell of industrial catering floating through the door. Weve got a young man here to see you, she says without preamble. Name of Matt Ridout. Says hed like to come and visit you if youre up to it. I blink. Ive never heard of him. Is he a policeman? I dont know, pet. Hes not in uniform. For a minute I think about sending her back out there to find out more, but shes tapping her foot, plainly impatient and busy, and I realise it would be easier just to see him and get it over with. Send him in, I say at last. He can only have half an hour, she warns. Visiting hours end at four. Thats OK. Good. That will provide an excuse to get rid of him if he proves awkward. I sit up, gathering Ninas cardie around myself and raking my hair off my face. I look like a car crash so I dont really know why Im bothering, but it feels important to my self-respect that I at least make a token effort. I hear steps in the corridor, and theres a hesitant, diffident knock. Come in, I say, and a man walks into the room. Hes about my age maybe a few years older and dressed in jeans and a faded T-shirt. His jacket is slung over his arm and he looks hot and uncomfortable in the hospitals tropical atmosphere. Hes got a scrubby Hoxton-style beard and his hair is cropped close to his skull; not a buzz-cut, but something like a Roman soldier, short curls, flat against his head. But the thing that I really notice is that hes been crying. For a minute I cant think of anything to say, and neither can he. He stands in the doorway, his hands in his pockets, and he looks shocked to see me. Youre not from the police, I say at last, stupidly. He rubs a hand through his hair. I my name is Matt. Im at least He stops, and his lip curls into a grimace, and I know hes fighting back some very strong emotion. He takes a deep breath, and begins again. I was Jamess best man. I say nothing. We stare at each other, me clutching Ninas cardigan to my throat as if its a suit of armour, he rigid and tense in the doorway. And then, unbidden, a single tear runs down the side of his nose and he swipes at it furiously with his sleeve, and I say, simultaneously, Come in. Come and sit down. Do you want a drink? Got whisky? he says, and gives a short, shaky laugh. I try to laugh too, but it doesnt sound like a laugh to me, more like a choke. I wish. Hospital tea or coffee from the vending machine, or water. I point to the plastic jug. On the whole Id recommend the water. Im OK, he says. He comes and sits in the plastic chair next to my bed. But hes hardly sat down when he pushes himself to standing again. Fuck, Im so sorry. I shouldnt have come. No! I grab his wrist, and then look down at my hand holding his arm, astonished at myself. What the hell am I doing? I let go at once, as though his skin burns. I Im sorry. But I just meant I trail off. What did I mean? I have no idea. Only that I dont want him to go. He is a link to James. Please stay, I manage at last. He stays, standing, looking down at me, and then gives a short, curt nod and sits. Im sorry, he says again. I wasnt expecting You look I know what he means. I look like Ive been beaten within an inch of my life and then patched up again. Badly. Its not as bad as it looks, I say, and I surprise myself by managing a smile. Its mainly just scratches and bruising. Its your face, he says, your eyes. I see a fair bit of domestic violence in my line of work, but those shiners I know. Theyre kind of spectacular, arent they? They dont hurt though. We sit in silence for a second and then he says, Actually you know what, second thoughts, I might get a coffee. Want one? No thanks. Im still coasting on the remnants of the coffee Lamarr brought. Im not yet desperate enough for the vending-machine stuff. Matt gets stiffly to his feet and walks out of the room, and I can see the tension in his shoulders as his back disappears down the corridor. I almost wonder if hes going to come back, but he does. Shall we start again? he says as he sits down. Sorry, I feel like I kind of cocked that one up. You must be Leo, right? I almost flinch. Its such a shock hearing it Jamess name for me from his lips. Yes, thats right. So James he told you about me? A bit, yeah. I know you were I dunno. What would you call it? Childhood sweethearts? For some reason the words bring a rush of tears to the back of my throat and I feel my lip wobble as I try to answer. Instead I just nod, silently. Fuck. He puts his head in his hands. Im sorry I just I cant believe it. I was only speaking to him a couple of days ago. I knew there was stuff things going wrong but this Things going wrong? I want to ask more, to probe, but I cant quite get the words out, and Matts still speaking. Im really sorry to barge in like this. If Id known how ill you were I wouldnt have the nurse didnt say. I just asked if I could see you and she said shed find out. But I heard from Jamess mum that you were with him when he He stops, gulps, and forces himself on when he died. And I know how much you meant to him, and I wanted He stops again, and this time he cant carry on. He bends over his cup, and I know hes crying, and trying to hide it. Im sorry, he says at last, his voice croaky, and then he coughs to clear his throat. I only found out last night. Its been I cant get used to it. I kept thinking thered been some mistake but seeing you like this its kind of made it real. How how did you know James? We were at Cambridge together. We were both into theatre acting, you know, plays and stuff. He rubs his face on his sleeve, and then looks up, smiling determinedly. Goes without saying, I was shit, but luckily I realised that in time. Didnt help that I was acting next to James. Nothing like seeing the real thing for showing up the fake. And you kept in touch? Yeah. I used to go and see him in his plays every now and then. Everyone else in our year became bankers and civil servants and stuff. Felt like he was the only one who made it, Im kind of proud of him for that, you know? He never sold out. I nod, slowly. Yes, that was the James I knew. The man hes describing is painfully familiar. He is my James. Completely unlike the unreal, materialistic person Ive been hearing described all weekend. I thought James had changed. But perhaps he hadnt. Or not completely. So what happened? Matt said at last. At at the house? They said a shotgun went off but it just seems why was he even there? I dont know. I shut my eyes, and my hand goes to the hot, sweaty dressing over my forehead. I never asked. When we heard him walking around we thought he was a burglar. I dont go into the rest of it the door swinging wide, our stupid hysteria. It seems like something out of a horror movie, clich?d, ridiculous. I suppose it was a prank, the groom turning up to surprise his future bride in bed. No, Matts shaking his head. I really dont think he wouldnt have gone up there uninvited. Why not? Well first of all, you just dont, do you? You dont crash your girlfriends hen. Its kind of crass. Its her last chance at being single, youd have to be kind of a wanker to take that away from her. I guess. But I dont say anything. Im waiting for the second reason. Matt takes a breath. And second well they werent getting along that great. What? I know as soon as Ive said it that my voice is too loud, too emphatic, too shocked. Matt looks up, startled. Look, I dont want to overstate it but yeah. Did Clare not say? No at least I dont think so. I think back, trying to remember what we talked about. But I know Clare. She would never admit to any kind of problem. The facade always had to be perfect, the mask never slipped. What was going on? I dont know. He looks uncomfortable. I dont We never really talked about it. Im guessing it was just the usual pre-wedding jitters, right? Ive seen enough mates down the aisle to know how it goes perfectly normal girlfriend turns into bridezilla, everyone gets tense, families chip in, friends get involved, small stuff is suddenly blown up into major feuds and everyone takes sides. So why was he there? I say at last. I dont know. I can only guess someone asked him to come. Someone asked him? But but But who? Clare? No. No way. She of all people knew what it would mean if James turned up at the house; there was no way she wanted me and him shut up together in the same place for two hours, let alone twenty-four. It would have resulted in me storming out, or an unholy row, and she knew it. That was why she hadnt invited me to the wedding. One of the others might have done it out of ignorance, or malice. But there was no way Clare would purposely ruin her own hen weekend. Why would she? Flo? Could she have done it as some kind of joke? She knew nothing about my past with James. She could have done it as a jolly jape to crown off her perfect weekend. And, after all, Melanie had gone. There was a spare double room. And then that might explain her abrupt breakdown: not just guilt over waving a loaded gun around, but guilt over having set up the whole prank-gone-wrong in the first place. But then surely she would have known it was probably James coming up the stairs. Why would she have fired the gun even supposing it was unloaded? I had seen her face as that shadowy figure rounded the corner of the stairs. She had looked genuinely frightened. Either shes insane, or the most fantastic actress of all time. Could it have been Tom? Had there been something about that row with Bruce, something that would have made him want to set James up for a fall? Or Nina, with her weird, twisted sense of humour, playing a practical joke? But why? Why would either of them do such a thing? I shake my head. This is sending me crazy. No one in that house invited James. No one. Theres no way the shooting would have played out that way if they had. Youre wrong, I say into the silence. You must be. He must have just decided to come. If he and Clare had argued he might have wanted to patch it up, dont you think? He was always A bit of an idiot? Matt says. He gives a shaky laugh. I guess maybe youre right. Hes not known for his forethought. I mean He stops and I see his fist on his knee is clenched I mean he wasnt. He stops. There is another silence, both of us thinking of the James who lives in our heads, in our thoughts. I remember, he says at last, I remember one time at uni, he climbed the college walls and put Santa hats on all the gargoyles. Idiot. He could have been killed. As the last word drops from his lips I see him realise what hes said, and flinch, and before I can stop myself I put out a hand. Id better go, he says. Im I hope youre better soon. Ill be fine, I say. And then, forcing myself on, because I know if I dont say it Ill regret it, Will you can you come back? Im going back to London in the morning, he says. But itd be nice to keep in touch. Theres a pen on the chart, and he pulls it off and scribbles his number on the only bit of writable surface around the side of his coffee cup. You were right, he says, as he puts the cup carefully on my bedside table. Water would have been preferable. Bye, Leo. Bye. The door swings slowly shut behind him and through the narrow glass hatch I watch his silhouette disappearing down the corridor. And its strange for a person who lives alone, for someone whos been craving solitude since I came here, but suddenly I feel very lonely and its a very foreign, peculiar feeling. 26 IM EATING SUPPER when a knock comes again. Its not visiting hours, so Im surprised when I look up and its Nina sliding round the door with a carrier bag. She puts her fingers to her lips. Shh. I only got in by pulling the old Dont you know who I am? Did you tell them you were Salma Hayeks cousin again? Purlease! Shes not even Brazilian. Or a doctor. Quite. Anyway, I said Id be quick so here you go. She throws down a bag on the bed. Im afraid theyre not exactly haute couture. In fact youre lucky theyre not pastel velour. But I did the best I could. Theyre great, I say thankfully, riffling through the anonymous grey sweats. Honestly. The only thing I care about is that theyre not open at the back and logoed with Hospital Property. Truly, I really, really appreciate it, Nina. I even got you some shoes only flip-flops but I know how grim the hospital showers can be, and I thought at least then if they kick you out at short notice youll have something to walk in. Youre a six, right? Five, actually but dont worry, six is brilliant. Here, I pull off her cardigan and hold it out, take this. Nah, dont worry. Keep it until your own stuff turns up. Do you need money? I shake my head, but she pulls out two tenners anyway and tosses them onto the locker. Cant hurt. At least then if you get sick of hospital food you can grab a panini. OK, Id better go. But she doesnt. She just stands there, looking down at her short, square nails. I can tell she wants to say something and with uncharacteristic nervousness is holding back. Bye then, I say at last, hoping to jolt her into speaking, but she just says, Bye, and turns for the door. Then, with her hand on the push-panel, she stops and turns back. Look, what I said, earlier I didnt mean What you said? About James. About the motive. Look, I didnt really think youd ever Fuck. She thumps her fist gently on the wall. This isnt coming out right. Look, I still think it was an accident, and thats what I told Lamarr. I never thought this had anything to do with you. But I was just worried, OK? For you. Not about you. I let out a breath I didnt know I was holding, and swing my legs out of bed. I walk uncertainly over to her and give her a hug. Its OK. I knew what you meant. Im worried too for all of us. She smooths my hair, and then I drop my arms and she looks at me. They dont think it was an accident though, do they? Why on earth not? Someone loaded that gun, I say. Thats the bottom line. But even so that could have been anyone. Flos aunt could have done it by mistake and been too scared to admit it to the police. The police keep banging on about the clay-pigeon shoot was the ammunition properly secured, could anyone have got unsupervised access to a live round. They obviously think the cartridge came from there, or thats what theyre trying to prove. But if one of us wanted to kill James, why the fuck would we lure him out to the back of beyond to do it? I dont know, I say. My legs feel tired and wobbly from the effort of standing just for this short conversation and I let go of Ninas arm and walk shakily to the bed. All this talk of guns and bullets its giving me a queasy feeling. I really dont know. I just think Nina starts, and then she stops. What? I just think Oh screw it. Look whatever unmentionably awful thing happened with you and James, I just think you should tell them. I know She holds up a hand I know its none of my business and I can fuck right off with my unsolicited advice, but I just think, whatever it is, its probably not as bad as you think, and itll just look a whole lot better if you tell them now. I shut my eyes tiredly, and rub at the bloody bastard itching dressing on my forehead. Then I sigh and open them. Nina is standing there, hands on hips, looking an odd mix of belligerent concern. Ill think about it, I say. OK? I will. I promise. OK, Nina says. Her lower lip is stuck out like a childs, and I know if she still had it she would be clicking the ring she used to have there against her teeth. I remember the sound of it during exams. Thank God she took it out when she qualified. Apparently patients didnt like seeing a surgeon with holes in her face. Ill get going. Take care, Shaw. And if they kick you out at short notice, call me, OK? I will. I lie there after shes gone thinking about her words, and thinking about how shes probably right. My head is hot and itching and words like bullet and spatter and cartridge are clattering around inside, and after a while I cant bear it any longer. I get up, walk slowly across to the bathroom with my old-woman gait, and click on the light. The reflection that greets me inside is, if anything, worse than yesterday. My face feels better much better but the bruises are blazing from purple through to yellow and brown and green all the shades a painter might use to paint the Northumberland landscape, I think with a twisted smile. But its not the bruises Im looking at. Its the dressing. I begin to pick at the corner of the tape, and then, oh the relief, off it peels with a kind of delicious tearing pain as the tape takes off the small hairs at my temples and hairline, and the dressing itself plucks at the wound. Id expected stitches, but there arent any. Instead theres a long, ugly cut, held together by small strips of tape and what looks like Can it really be superglue? Theyve shaved a very small semicircle of hair at the edge of my scalp, where the cut snaked beneath the hairline, and it has started to grow. I touch it with my fingers. It feels spikily soft, like a babys hairbrush. The relief. The relief of the cold air on my forehead and the itch and pull of the dressing gone. I throw the bloodied pad into the bin, and walk slowly back to the bed, still thinking of Nina. And Lamarr. And James. What happened between me and James has nothing to do with any of this. But perhaps Nina is right. Perhaps I should come clean. Maybe it would even be a relief, after all these years of silence. No one knew. No one knew the truth except me, and James. And I spent so long nursing my anger at him. And now its gone. Hes gone. Perhaps I will tell Lamarr when she comes in the morning. Ill tell her the truth not just the truth, for everything Ive said so far has been the truth. But the whole truth. And the truth is this. James dumped me. And yes, he dumped me by text. But what Ive held onto all these years, is the reason why. He left because I was pregnant. I dont know when it happened, which out of all those dozens, maybe hundreds of times, made a baby. We were careful at least we thought we were. I only know that one day I realised I hadnt had a period for a long time, too long. And I did a test. We were in Jamess attic bedroom when I told him, sitting on the bed, and he went quite white, staring at me with wide black eyes that had something of panic in them. Cant he started. Then, Dont you think you could have Made a mistake? I finished. I shook my head. I even managed a bitter little laugh. Believe me, no. I took that test, like, eight times. What about the morning-after pill? he said. I tried to take his hand, but he stood up and began pacing back and forward in the small room. Its much too late for that. But yes, we need There was a lump in my throat. I realised I was trying not to cry. we need to d-decide We? This is your decision. I wanted to talk to you too. I know what I want to do, but this is your b Baby, too, was what Id been going to say. But I never got to finish. He let out a gasp like hed been smacked, and turned his face away. I stood up and moved towards the door. Leo, he said, in a strangled voice. Wait. Look. My foot was already on the stairs, my bag over my shoulder. I know, I sprang this on you. When youre ready to talk Call me, OK? But he never did. Clare rang me when I got home, and she was angry. Where the hell were you? You stood me up! I waited half an hour in the Odeon foyer and you werent answering your calls! Im sorry, I said. I had I had stuff I couldnt finish. What? Whats happened? she asked, but I couldnt answer. Im coming over. He never called. Instead he texted, later that night. Id spent the afternoon with Clare, agonising over what to do, whether to tell my mum, whether James would be charged wed first done it when I was fifteen, although I was sixteen now and had been for a couple of months. The text came through about 8 p.m. Lee. Im sorry but this is your problem, not mine. Deal with it. And dont call me again. J. And so I dealt with it. I never did tell my mum. Clare Actually Clare was kind of amazing. Yes, she could be snappy, and snide, and even manipulative, but in a crisis like this she was like a lion defending her young. Looking back at that time, I remember why we were friends all those years. And it makes me realise again just how selfish I was afterwards. She took me to the clinic on the bus. It was early, early enough to just take the pills, and it was all over surprisingly soon. It wasnt the abortion. I dont blame James for that it was what I wanted myself, I didnt want a child at sixteen, and whatever happened, it was my fault as much as his. And whatever people might think, it wasnt that that fucked me up. I dont feel a crucifying guilt over the loss of a cluster of cells. I refuse to feel guilty. It wasnt any of that. It was I dont know. I dont know how to put it. It was pride, I think. A kind of disbelief at my own stupidity. The thought that Id loved him so much, and had been so mistaken. How could I? How could I have been so incredibly, unbelievably wrong? And if I went back to that school, I would have to live with that knowledge the memory of us both together in everyones eyes. The telling of a hundred people, No, were not together. Yes, he dumped me. No, Im fine. I wasnt fine. I was a fool a fucking stupid little fool. How could I have been so mistaken? Id always thought myself a good judge of character, and I had thought James was brave, and loving, and that he loved me. None of that was true. He was weak, and cowardly, and he couldnt even look me in the eye to end it between us. I would never trust my own judgement again. We were on study-leave when it happened, revising for our GCSEs. I went into school to take the exams, and then I never went back. Not to collect my results, not for the autumn social, not to see any of the teachers whod coached and cheered me through my exams. Instead I changed to a sixth-form college two train rides away, one where I was sure no one could possibly know me. My day was insanely long I left the house at 5.30 and got home at 6 every night. And then my mother moved house anyway, to be with Phil. I should have been angry, because she sold my grandfathers house where I grew up, where wed all lived together for so many years, where all our memories were. And part of me was. But part of me was relieved the last tie with Reading and with James was cut. I would never have to see him again. No one knew what had happened apart from Clare, and even she didnt know about the text. I told her the next day that Id decided I couldnt keep the baby, and that I was breaking up with James. She hugged me and cried and said, Youre so brave. But I wasnt. I was a coward too. I never faced James, I never asked him why. How could he do that? Was it fear? Cowardice? I heard afterwards that he was sleeping his way systematically round Reading, girls and boys. It confirmed what I already knew. The James Cooper I thought I knew never existed. He was a figment of imagination. A false memory, implanted by my own hopes. But now now as I look back across ten years I dont know. Its not that I absolve James for the thoughtless cruelty of that text, but I see myself: furious, righteous, and so hard on both of us. Perhaps I absolve myself, for the mistake I made in loving James. I realise how young we were hardly more than children, with the careless cruelty of childhood and the rigid black and white morality too. There is no grey when youre young. Theres only goodies and baddies, right and wrong. The rules are very clear a playground morality of ethical lines drawn out like a netball pitch, with clear fouls and penalties. James was wrong. I had trusted him. Therefore I was wrong too. But now now I see a frightened child, confronted with an immense moral decision he was not equipped to make. I see my words as he must have seen them an attempt to shift this irrevocable choice onto his shoulders, a responsibility he was not prepared for, and did not want. And I see myself just as frightened, just as ill-prepared. And I feel so very sorry for us both. When Lamarr comes in the morning I will tell her. Ill tell her the whole truth. Unpicked like this, in the dying light of the evening, its not as bad as I feared. Its not a motive for murder, just an old, tired grief. Nina was right. Then, at last, I sleep. But when Lamarr comes in the morning, theres a new kind of grimness in her face. Theres a colleague hovering behind her, a big hulk of a man, with a fleshy face set in a permanent frown. Lamarrs holding something in her hand. Nora, she says without preamble, can you identify this for me? Yes, I say in surprise, its my phone. Where did you find it? But Lamarr doesnt answer. Instead she sits, clicks on her tape recorder and says, in a grave, formal voice, the words Ive been dreading. Leonora Shaw, we would like to question you as a suspect in the death of James Cooper. You do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence. You have a right to ask for a solicitor. Do you understand? 27 IF YOURE INNOCENT, you have nothing to fear. Right? Then why am I so frightened? My previous statements werent taped and I hadnt been cautioned. They wouldnt stand up as evidence in court, so the first few minutes are spent going over stuff I already told Lamarr, re-establishing the facts for the purposes of the tape. I dont want a solicitor. I know its stupid, but I cant get over the feeling that Lamarr is on my side that I trust her. If I can only convince her of my innocence, everything will be OK. What could a solicitor possibly do? Lamarr finishes on the stuff we have already established and then starts on new ground. Can you take a look at this phone, please she holds it out in a sealed plastic bag, and let me know whether you recognise it? Yes, its my phone. I resist the urge to chew my nails. The last few days have ground them down to battered stubs. Youre sure about that? Yes, I recognise the scratch on the casing. And your phone number is She flips through her pad and then reads it out. I nod. Yes, thats c-correct. Im interested in the last few calls and texts you made. Can you run me through what you can remember? I wasnt expecting this. I cant see what relevance it can possibly have to Jamess death. Maybe theyre trying to corroborate our movements or something. I know they can triangulate locations from mobile phone signals. Im struggling to remember. Not many. There wasnt really any reception at the house. I checked my voicemail at the shooting range and Twitter. Oh, and I returned a call from a bike shop in London, theyre servicing my bike. I think thats it. No texts? I I dont think so. Im trying to remember. No, Im pretty sure not. I think the last one I sent was to Nina, telling her I was waiting on the train. That was Friday. She changes tack smoothly. Id like to ask you a bit more about your relationship with James Cooper. I nod, trying to keep my expression even, helpful. But Ive been expecting this. Maybe Clare has woken up. My stomach does a little uneasy shift. You met back at school, is that right? Yes. We were about fifteen, sixteen. We dated, briefly, and then we broke up. How briefly? Four or five months? Thats not quite true. We were together for six months. But Ive already said briefly, and six months doesnt sound that brief. I dont want to look like Im contradicting myself already. Luckily Lamarr doesnt quiz me about the dates. Did you keep in contact after that? she says. No. She waits for me to elaborate. I wait. Lamarr folds her hands in her lap and looks at me. I dont know what shes getting at, but if theres one thing Im good at, its keeping quiet. The pause hangs, heavy in the air. I can hear the tiny percussive tick of her expensive watch, and I wonder briefly where she gets her money from: that skirt wasnt bought on a police officers salary, neither were the chunky gold earrings. They look real. Still, its none of my business. Just something to speculate on as the time ticks past. But Lamarr can wait too. She has a kind of feline patience, that quality of unblinking composure as she waits for the mouse to panic and make a bolt for it. In the end, its her companion who cracks, DC Roberts. Youre telling us youve had no contact with him for ten years, he says brusquely, and yet he invited you to his wedding? Fuck. But theres no point in lying about this. It would take them two minutes to check with Clares mother or whoever handled the guest list. No. Clare invited me to the hen, but not to the wedding. Thats a bit odd, isnt it? Lamarr comes back in. Shes smiling, as if this is girl-talk over a cappuccino. Her cheeks are round and rosy, with high cheekbones that make her look like Nefertiti, and her mouth as she smiles is wide and warm and generous. Not really, I lie. Im Jamess ex. I imagine Clare thought it would be awkward for me as much as her. So why invite you to the hen to celebrate her wedding? Wouldnt that be awkward too? I dont know. Youd have to ask Clare. So youve had no contact with James Cooper at all since you broke up? No. No contact. Texts? Emails? No. None. Im suddenly not sure where this is going. Are they trying to establish that I hated James? That I couldnt bear to have him near me? My stomach does another uneasy shift and a little voice in my head whispers, Its not too late to ask for a lawyer Look, I find myself saying, stress making my voice rise half a tone, its hardly unusual not to keep in touch with your exes. But Lamarr doesnt answer. She switches track again, bewilderingly. Can you run me through your movements at the house? Were there any times you left the property? Well, we went clay-pigeon shooting, I say uncertainly. But you know about that. I mean by yourself. You went for a run, isnt that right? A run? I feel completely out of my depth all of a sudden. I hate not knowing what theyre getting at. Yes, I say. I pick up a pillow and hug it to my chest. And then, feeling that I should look co-operative, Twice. Once when we arrived, on Friday, and once on Saturday. Can you give me the approximate times? I try to think back. I think the Friday one was about four-thirty maybe? Perhaps a bit later. I remember it was fairly dark. I met Clare on the drive on the way back, about six oclock. And the Saturday one it was early. Before eight, I think. I cant pin it down much better than that. Definitely not earlier than six a.m. it was light. Melanie was up she might remember. OK. Lamarr is writing down the times, not trusting to the tape. And you didnt use your phone on the runs? No. What the hell is this about? My fingers dig into the soft kapok of the pillow. What about Saturday night, did you go out then? No. Then I remember something. Did they tell you about the footprints? Footprints? She looks up from her pad, her face puzzled. What footprints? There were footprints, in the snow. When I came back from my run that first morning. They were leading from the garage to the back door. Hm. Ill look into it. Thanks. She makes a note. Then she changes tack again. Have you remembered anything further about the period after you left the house on Saturday night? When you chased after the car? I shake my head. Im sorry. I remember tearing down through the wood I get flashes of cars and broken glass and stuff but no, nothing really concrete. I see. She shuts her notebook and stands up. Thank you, Nora. Any further questions, Roberts? Her companion shakes his head, and then Lamarr gives the time and location for the tape, clicks off the recording and leaves. I am a suspect. I sit there trying to process it after theyve gone. Is it because theyve found my phone? But what could my phone possibly have to do with Jamess murder? And then I realise something, something I should have known before. I was always a suspect. The only reason they werent interviewing me under caution before was because any interview was worthless as evidence. With my memory problems, any lawyer could have shot a hole a mile wide in my statement. They wanted intelligence the information I could provide and they wanted it quick, enough to risk talking to me when I was in no state to be relied on. But now the doctors have confirmed Im lucid, and Im well enough to be interviewed properly. Now they are starting to build a case. I havent been arrested. Thats one thing to hold on to. I havent been charged. Yet. If only I could remember those missing few minutes in the wood. What happened? What did I do? The desperation to remember rises inside me, sticking in my throat like a sob, and I clench my fingers on the soft pillow, and bury my face in its clean whiteness and I ache to remember. Without those missing few minutes, how can I hope to convince Lamarr that what Im saying is true? I close my eyes, and I try to think myself back there, to the quiet clearing in the forest, to the great glowing blocks of the house, shining out through the dark, close-clustered trees. I smell again the scent of fallen pine needles, I feel the cold bite of the snow on my fingers and inside my nose. I remember the sounds of the forest, the soft patter of snow sliding from overladen branches, the hoot of an owl, the sound of an engine disappearing into the darkness. And I see myself tumbling down that long, straight track into the trees, feel the springy softness of the needles beneath my feet. But I cannot remember what comes next. When I try, its like Im trying to snatch at a scene reflected in a pond. Images come, but when I reach for them they break into a thousand ripples and I find that Im holding only water. Something happened in that darkness, to me, Clare and James. Or someone. But who? What? Well, Leonora, Im very pleased with you. Dr Miller puts away his pen. Im a little bit concerned about the time youre still missing, but from what youre saying, those memories are starting to come back and I dont see any reason to keep you here for much longer. Youll need further check-ups but they can all be arranged by your GP. Before I can process what hes saying, hes carrying on. Do you have anyone at home who can give you a hand? What? N-no, I manage. I live alone. Well, could you stay with a friend for a few days? Or have a friend come round to yours? Youve done amazingly well but Im slightly reluctant to let you go home to an empty house. I live in London, I say irrelevantly. What can I tell him? I dont have anyone I could foist myself on for a week, and I cant see myself trekking out to Australia to my mothers waiting arms. I see. Is there anyone who can give you a lift back? I try to think. Nina, maybe. I could ask her to help me get home. But but surely they cant be throwing me out so soon? Suddenly Im not sure Im ready to leave. I dont understand, I say to the nurse, after the doctor has picked up his notes and gone out. No one ever discussed this. Dont worry, she says comfortingly. We wont throw you out with nowhere to go. But we do need the bed and youre no longer at risk, so So, I am no longer wanted here. Its strange what a punch to the gut this news is. I realise that in the few short days Ive been here, Ive become institutionalised, in a way. For all this place feels like a cage, now the door is open, I dont want to leave. Ive come to rely on the doctors and nurses and the routine of this hospital to protect me from the police, from the reality of what happened. What will I do, if Im thrown out? Will Lamarr let me go home? You should speak to the police, I find myself saying. I feel strangely detached. I dont know if theyll want me to leave Northumberland. Och, yes, Id forgotten you were the poor lass who was in the accident. Dont worry, well make sure they know. DC Lamarr, I say. Shes the one whos been coming here. I dont want her to speak to Roberts, with his thick neck and his frown. Ill let her know. And dont worry. It wont be today anyway. After she is gone I try to process what just happened. Im going to be thrown out. Maybe as early as tomorrow. And then what? Either I will be allowed to go back to London or or I wont. And if Im not, that means arrest. I try to remember what I know about my rights. If Im arrested I can be questioned for what is it? Thirty-six hours? I think they can get a warrant to extend it, but I cant completely remember. Fuck. Im a crime writer. How can I not know this stuff? I must phone Nina. But I dont have my phone. I have a bed phone but you need a bank card to buy credit, and my wallet and all my belongings are with the police. I could probably call from the nurses station Im sure theyd lend me a phone if it was for something necessary, like getting a lift out of here but I dont know her number. All my contacts are in my mobile. I try to recall any numbers I know off by heart. I used to know Ninas parents number but theyve moved. I know my own home number, but that wont help, theres no one there. I used to know our home number off by heart, but that was the old house, where I grew up. I dont know Mums number in Australia. I wish I had someone like Jess someone I could turn to in any situation and say, without shame, I need you. But I dont. I always thought that being self-sufficient was a strength, but now I realise its a kind of weakness too. What the hell can I do? I guess I could ask the nurses to google my editor but the thought of facing her like this makes me go cold with shame. The one number I can recall perfectly is Jamess parents number. I must have dialled it a hundred times. He was always losing his mobile. And they still live there, I know they do. But I cant call them. Not like this. When I get back to London I must phone them. I must ask about the funeral. I must I must I shut my eyes. I will not cry, not again. I can cry when Im out of here, but for the moment I have to be practical. I cannot think about James, or his mother and father. And then my gaze alights on the paper cup beside my bed. Matts number. I rip the cup carefully, and fold the scribbled mobile into my pocket. I cant phone him. Hell be on his way back to London. But its an odd comfort to think that I have, at least, one person I could call, in a dire emergency. Two days ago I had no idea he existed. And now, hes my one link to the outside world. It will be OK though. Nina will come back, or Lamarr will. Ill be able to get a message out to them. I just have to wait. I am still sitting, staring into space and biting my battered nails, when a nurse puts her head around the door. Call for you, duckie. Ill put them through on the bed phone. She gestures to the white plastic phone suspended on an arm beside my bed and then slips out. Who can it be? Who knows Im here? Could it be my mum? I look at the clock. No it would be the middle of the night in Australia. Then, like a cold hand on the back of the neck, a thought comes to me. Jamess parents. They must know Im here. The phone starts to ring. For a moment I lose all courage, and I almost dont answer it. But then I grit my teeth and force myself to pick up the receiver. Hello? Theres a pause, and then a voice says, Nora? Is that you? Its Nina. Relief floods through me, and for an irrational second I wonder about telepathy. Nina! Its so good to hear her voice, to know Im not stranded here. Thank God you called. They might be chucking me out and I realised I dont have your number or anything. Is that why youre calling? No, she says shortly. Listen, Im not going to beat around the bush. Flos tried to commit suicide. 28 I CANT SPEAK. Nora? Nina says after a moment. Nora, are you still there? Shit, has this thing cut me off? Yes, I say, dazedly. Yes, yes Im here. Im just Jesus. I didnt want to tell you like this but I didnt want you to hear it from one of the nurses or the police or something. Shes being taken to your hospital. Oh my God. Is she is she going to be OK? I think so, yes. I found her, in the bathroom at the B&B where were staying. Shes been pretty off the wall but I didnt realise I She sounds shaken, and I realise for the first time the strain that she has probably been under. While Clare and I are in hospital, avoiding the brunt of the interrogations, Nina, Flo and Tom have presumably been questioned round the clock. It was pure luck I came back earlier than I said I would. I shouldve noticed. Its been horrible, but I never thought Its not your fault. Im a bloody doctor, Nora. Her voice at the other end of the phone is anguished. OK, its a while since Ive done anything in mental health, but were supposed to remember our basic training. Shit. I should have seen this coming. But shell be OK? I dont know. She took a bunch of sleeping pills, combined with some Valium and a hell of a lot of paracetamol, washed down with whisky. Its the paracetamol thats worrying me its pretty nasty stuff. You can wake up feeling just fine in hospital and then your liver packs up just when youve decided suicide really isnt going to fit in with your spring calendar. Oh my God. Poor Flo. Did she say did she give a reason? She just left a note saying she couldnt cope any longer. Do you think I stop, I cant think how to ask this. What? That shes got a guilty conscience? I almost hear Ninas shrug down the phone. I dont know. But whatever you reckon happened, she was holding the gun. I dont think Lamarr and Roberts went particularly easy on her. How did she get the pills? She got prescribed the diazepam and the sleeping pills. She weve all been under a lot of stress, Nora. She saw a man get shot. Thats PTSD kind of stuff. I shut my eyes. Ive been safe here, wrapped in my cocoon of ignorance, while Flo has been falling apart. She was so obsessed, I say slowly. Do you remember, the way she kept going on about giving Clare the perfect hen. I know, Nina says. Believe me, we heard a lot about that the last couple of days. Shes not done much except for cry and blame herself for what happened. But what did happen, Nina? I realise suddenly that Im gripping the white plastic receiver so hard that my fingers hurt. Lamarr thinks its murder. I know she does. Theyre asking weird questions about my phone. Theyve given me a formal caution. Im a suspect. Were all suspects, Nina says wearily. We were in a house when a man got shot and died. Its not just you. Fuck, I wish this were over. Im missing Jess so much I can barely think. Why the fuck did we agree to this, Nora? She sounds tired. Tired not just of this, but of everything. And I can see her, suddenly, her and Tom alone in their B&B rooms, waiting to be questioned, waiting for answers, waiting for news on Flo and Clare and everything else. Theyve asked her not to leave. Shes just as trapped as me. Trapped by what happened in that house. Look, Ive got to go, Nina says at last. This is a crappy pay-as-you-go mobile and I dont think theres much credit on it. But Ill phone back and leave the number at the desk, yeah? Tell them to call me if you get kicked out. OK, I say at last. Theres a catch in my throat and I cough, trying to hide it. Take care of yourself, you hear me? And dont beat yourself up over Flo. Shell be OK. I really dont know if she will, Nina says. Her voice is bleak. I saw a few paracetamol overdoses when I was a med student and I know how it goes. But thanks for trying. And Nora She stops. Yes? I say. I oh fuck, look, its pointless me saying this. Forget it. What? I was just going to say try to remember what happened after you left the house, yeah? Theres a lot riding on this. No pressure, she says with a slightly shaky laugh. Yeah, I know, I say. Bye, Nina. Bye. She hangs up and I rub my face. No pressure, Nina said. I assume it was her idea of a joke. She knows as well as I do the pressure that were under. All of us. I must remember. I must remember. I shut my eyes and try to remember. Nora. A hand on my shoulder, shaking me awake. Nora. I blink and try to sit up, try to process where I am and whats going on. Its Lamarr. Ive been asleep. What time is it? I say blearily. Its nearly noon, she says. Her voice is crisp. Theres no hint of a smile now. In fact she looks very grave. DC Roberts is behind her, his glower fixed and unmoving. He looks like he was born with a pencil and a sour expression. Its impossible to imagine him cuddling a baby or kissing a lover. Wed like to ask you some more questions, Lamarr says. Do you want a minute? No, no Im OK, I say. I shake my head, trying to wake myself. Lamarr watches. Go ahead, I say. Lamarr nods, clicks on the tape recorder and repeats the caution. Then she gets out a piece of paper. Nora, Id like you to read this. Its a transcript of emails and text messages taken from your and Jamess phones over the last few days. She hands the paper to me and I sit up straighter and rub the sleep from my eyes, trying to focus on the closely typed sheets of paper. Theyre a list of texts, each annotated with the number they were sent from and a date, time and some other information I cant interpret GPS location maybe? The first one is marked with my number, and Friday, 4.52 p.m. LEONORA SHAW: James, its me, Leo. Leo Shaw. JAMES COOPER: Leo?? Christ is that really you? LEONORA SHAW: Yes, its me. I really need to see you. Im at Clares hen weekend. Please can you come up? Its urgent. JAMES COOPER: What, seriously? JAMES COOPER: Has C told you? LEONORA SHAW: Yes. Please come up. I cant say what this is about over the phone but I really need to speak to you. JAMES COOPER: You really need me to come? Cant it wait until youre back in London? LEONORA SHAW: No. Its really urgent. Please. Ive not asked you for anything but you owe me this. Tomorrow? Sundays too late. The next reply from James is not until 11.44 p.m: JAMES COOPER: Ive got a matinee & an evening tomorrow I wont be finished at the theatre till 10/11. I cd drive up but itll take me 5+ hours. Ill be there in the middle of the night. You really want me to do this? Saturday, 7.21 a.m. LEONORA SHAW: Yes Saturday, 2.32 p.m. JAMES COOPER: OK. LEONORA SHAW: THANK YOU. Leave your car in the lane. When you get to the house go round the back. Ill leave the kitchen door unlocked. My room is at the top of the stairs, second door on the right. Ill explain everything when you get here. There is another long pause. Jamess reply is marked 5.54 p.m., and it almost breaks my heart. JAMES COOPER: OK. Im so sorry Leo for everything. Jx And then, at 11.18 p.m., JAMES COOPER: Im on my way. And then thats it. When I look up at Lamarr I know that my eyes are swimming, and my voice is cracked and mute. The interviewee has finished reading the transcript, she says quietly for the benefit of the tape. And then, Well, Nora? Any explanation? Did you think we wouldnt find these? Deleting them was pretty pointless you know, we recovered them off the server. I I I try. I take a deep breath, force myself to speak. I d-didnt send these. Really. Its not a question, just a flat, slightly tired acknowledgement. Really. You have to believe me. I know, even as I begin to gabble, that its hopeless. Someone else could have sent them. Someone could have cloned my sim card. Believe me, were used to that, Nora. These were sent from your phone, and the date-stamps on your replies correspond to your runs in the forest, and the trip to the clay-pigeon range. But I didnt take my phone on my runs! The GPS evidence is pretty conclusive. We know that you went out of the house and up the hill until you got a signal. I didnt send them, I repeat, hopelessly. I want to crawl back into bed and pull the covers over my head. Lamarr is looking down at me from her full height, no cosy sitting on the bed now. Her face is set, like carved ebony. Theres compassion in her face but also a kind of rigour that I never noticed until now. Her face has the sort of unsparing detachment I imagine an angel might show not an angel of mercy, but an angel of judgement. Weve also got the report back on the analysis of the car, Nora. We know what happened. What happened? I am trying not to panic, but I know my voice has got shaky and shrill. They know. They know something that I dont. What happened? Clare picked you up. And when she was safely on the road and travelling at speed, you grabbed the wheel do you remember? You grabbed the wheel and forced the car off the road. No. Your fingerprints are all over the wheel. The scratches on your hands, the broken nails you were fighting Clare. She has defensive wounds on her hands and arms. Your skin was under her nails. No! But even as I say it, I get a flash, like a nightmare breaking into day: Clares terrified face, green-lit by the dashboard glow, my hands grappling with hers. No! I say, but there is a sob in my voice. What have I done? What did Clare tell you, Nora? Did she tell you that she was marrying James? I cant speak. I just shake my head, but its not a denial, I cannot deal with this, I cannot take these questions. The interviewee is shaking her head, Roberts puts in gruffly. Flo told us what happened, Lamarr says relentlessly. Clare asked her to keep it under wraps. She was planning to tell you this weekend, wasnt she? Oh God. Youve never had another relationship since you broke up with him, isnt that right? No. No. No. You were obsessed with him. Clare put off telling you because she was worried about your reaction. She was right to be worried, wasnt she? Please let me wake from this nightmare. And so you lured him up to the house, and then you shot him. No. Oh Jesus. I must speak. I must say something to make Lamarr shut up, to make these smooth, plum-coloured, vicious accusations go away. Its true isnt it, Nora? she says, and her voice is soft and gentle, and finally, at last, she sits on the end of my bed and puts out her hand. Isnt it? I look up. My eyes are swimming, but through it I see Lamarrs face, her sympathetic eyes, her heavy earrings, impossibly heavy for such a slender neck to support. I hear the click and whirr of the tape recorder. I find my voice. I want to see a solicitor. 29 I TRY TO think back to the time-stamp of the first text, the one I supposedly sent to James, the one sent from my phone at 4.52 p.m. I was out on my run. My phone was unprotected, up in my room. So who else had access to it? Clare hadnt arrived yet I know that for sure since I met her in the drive coming up to the house, but it could have been any of the others. But why? Why would they want to destroy me like this destroy James, destroy Clare? I try to think through the possibilities. Melanie seems the least likely. Yes, she was there while I was out on my run, in fact she was one of the few people who was up and about at the time of the second run. But I cant believe that she could possibly care about me or James enough to do this. Why risk everything to incriminate someone shed never even met? And besides, shed gone by the time James arrived, by the time by the time I shut my eyes, trying to shut out the pictures of James lying shattered and bloody on the wooden floor. She could still have swapped the cartridge, a tiny voice whispers in the back of my mind. She could have done that any time. And maybe that would explain why she left in such a hurry ? Its true. She could have swapped the cartridge. But surely she couldnt have predicted the rest the open door, the gun, the struggle Tom, then. He had the means he was there in the house when my phone was, he was there at the shooting. And it suddenly strikes me he was the one who sent Clare driving off into the forest alone. What did make her suddenly leave like that? We only have his word about what he said to her, and now, in the light of whats happened, the fact that she misheard him so radically seems a little convenient. Would she really just go haring off into the night like that, without double-checking? Nina was the doctor, after all. She was Jamess best chance of survival. What if he told her to go? He could have said anything that Nina wasnt coming, that shed said to get going and wait for her at the hospital. As for motive I think back to the drunken conversation we had about his husband and James. If only Id paid attention. If only Id listened! But I was bored bored by the litany of names I didnt recognise, and the bitchy theatre politics. Is it possible that theres something there, some grudge between Bruce and James? Or maybe maybe quite the opposite. It seems unlikely though. And even if he did send Clare off into the night, what would it achieve? He couldnt have predicted what would happen. Most importantly, though, he could not have known about my past with James. Unless unless someone told him. Clare could have told him. I cant get away from that. But the thing is this: this murder has been set up in such a way that it didnt just destroy James, it is destroying me and Clare too. It doesnt just feel like collateral damage; there is something incredibly malicious and personal about the way I have been deliberately dragged in, reminding us both of long-forgotten sores. Who would do that? Why would anyone do that? I try to look at this like one of my books. If I were writing this, I could imagine a reason for Tom to hurt James. And I could probably manufacture a motive for him to hurt Clare in the process. But me? Why go to all these lengths to bring in someone he doesnt even know? The only person who could possibly want to do that would be someone who knows all three of us. Someone who was there at the time it all blew up. Someone like Nina. But my mind shies away from that, flinching from the idea. Nina can be odd; sharp and sarcastic and often thoughtless. But theres no way shed do something like that. Surely? I think of her face, set in stern lines like grief, as she remembered the gunshot wounds shed treated in Colombia. She lives to help people. Surely shed never do this? But something is whispering in my ear, a little voice, reminding me of how callous Nina can be. I remember her saying once, very drunk, Surgeons dont care about people, not in a touchy-feely way. Theyre like mechanics: they just want to cut them up, see how they work, dismantle them. Your average surgeons like a little boy who takes apart his dads watch to see how it works and then cant get it back together. The more skilled you get, the better you get at re-assembling the parts. But we always leave a scar. And I think, too, about her occasional shocking flashes of contempt for Clare. I think about her savagery that night when she talked about how Clare wanted to push and prod and get off on other peoples reactions, her bitterness about the way Clare outed her all those years ago. Is there something there, some reason shes never forgiven Clare? And finally, I think about her actions on the first night we arrived. The I Have Never game. I remember the deliberate malice of her drawling, I have never fucked James Cooper. Suddenly, in the over-heated little sauna of a room, I feel cold. Because that is the kind of cruel, personal spite that lies behind this whole crazy situation. It wasnt just curiosity about me and James. It wasnt thoughtlessness. It was deliberate cruelty to me and to Clare. Who is pushing and prodding and getting off on peoples reactions now? But I push that thought away. I will not think about Nina like this. I will not. This will send me mad if I let it. Flo. Flo is the name I keep coming back to. Flo was there from the beginning. Flo invited the guests. Flo held the gun. Flo was the one who claimed it was loaded with blanks. Flo with her strange obsession with Clare. With her unstable intensity. She could have found out about me and James at any point shes Clares best friend, after all, has been since university. What more likely than Clare confiding in her about James and me? Is that why shes taken an overdose? Has she realised what shes done? I am looking up, looking into space as I think all this out, and then suddenly my eyes focus on something, on a movement outside the door. And I realise what it is. The guard is back the police guard at my door. Only this time I have absolutely zero doubt: they are not there to protect me. They are there to keep me in. Im not going home when they discharge me, Im going to a police station. I will be arrested, and questioned, and most likely charged if they think they can make this stick. Coldly, dispassionately, I try to examine the last person at the hen night: the case against myself. I was there. I could have sent those texts to James. I could have swapped the live round for the blanks. I had my hand on the gun when Flo fired. What could be more easy than nudging the barrel to ensure it was pointing at James as he came up the stairs? And, more importantly, I was there at the second half of Jamess murder. I was in the car when it drove off the road. What the hell happened in that car? Why cant I remember? I think back to what Dr Miller said: Sometimes the brain suppresses events that were not quite ready to deal with. I suppose its a coping mechanism, if you will. What is it that my brain cannot cope with? Is it the truth? I realise Im shivering as if Im cold, even though the heat of the hospital is as stifling as ever, and I pull Ninas cardigan from the foot of the bed and huddle it round myself, breathing in her scent of fags and perfume, trying to steady myself. Its not the thought of being arrested and charged that has shocked me so much I still dont believe that will really happen. Surely, surely if I just explain everything they will believe me? What has really knocked me off balance is this: someone hates me enough to do this. But who? I dont let myself think about the final possibility. Its one too horrible for me to allow it into my mind, except in tiny niggling whispers when Im thinking about other things. But as I huddle down beneath the thin hospital blanket, Ninas cardigan around my shoulders, one of those whispers comes: What if its true? The rest of the day goes slowly, as if Im moving through air made of treacle. It feels like the nightmares I sometimes have where my limbs are too heavy to move. Something is pursuing me, and I have to get away, but Im stuck in mud, my legs are numb and slow, and all I can do is wade painfully through the dream, with the unspecified horror behind me getting closer and closer. My little room feels more and more like a prison cell, with the narrow hatch of reinforced glass, and the guard outside the door. If they release me, I know now what will happen. I will not be going home. I will be arrested, and taken to a police station, and then probably charged. The texts are enough evidence to hold me, along with the fact that I denied having sent them. I remember, a long time ago, when I wrote my first book, speaking to a policeman about interviewing techniques. You listen, he said. You listen for the lie. Lamarr and Roberts have found their lie: I told them I did not send those texts. And yet, there they are. I try to eat, but the food is tasteless and I leave most of it on the tray. I try to do a crossword, but the words fall away from me, they are just typing on a page and my minds eye is being invaded by other pictures. Me, in the dock at court, in a prison cell. Flo, on life-support, somewhere in this very hospital. Clare, flat on a bed, her eyes moving slowly beneath her closed lids. James, in a pool of spreading blood. Suddenly my nostrils are filled with the smell of it the butchers shop smell of his blood on my hands and my pyjamas and leaching into the floor I throw off the covers and stand up. I walk to the bathroom to splash my face with water, trying to wash away the stench of blood and the invading memories. But the memories I want dont come. Is it possible is it possible I did send those texts, and I have just buried it along with whatever happened in the car? Who can I trust, if I cant even trust myself? I put my face in my hands, and when I stand, I look at myself in the mirror, beneath the unforgiving fluorescent light. The bruises around my eyes are still there, but fading. I look jaundiced, hollow-eyed. There are dark patches in the hollows at the bridge of my nose, and beneath my lower lids, but I no longer look like a freak. If I had concealer I could cover the shadows up. But I dont. I never thought to ask Nina for that. I look thin, and old. My face is crumpled where I have been lying on the hard hospital sheets. I think of the me I am inside. In my head I have been sixteen for nearly ten years. My hair is still long. I find myself going to sweep it back in moments of stress, and its not there. In my head James is still alive. I cannot believe that he isnt. Would they let me see his body? I shiver, rake my wet hand through my crumpled hair, and rub my palms on the grey jogging bottoms. Then I turn and leave the bathroom. As I come out of the ensuite it strikes me that something is different. I cant work out what it is: my book is still there on the bed. My flip-flops are beneath. My water jug is half full on the locker and the file of notes is still stuck crookedly into the holder at the foot of the bed. Then I see. The guard is not there. I walk to the door, peering out through the wire-hatched pane. The chair is there. A cup of tea is there, steaming gently. But no guard. A little prickle of adrenaline runs through me, making the hairs on my neck shiver. My body knows what I am about to do, even before my mind has processed it. My fingers are reaching for the flip-flops, easing them on. My hands are buttoning Ninas cardigan. Lastly I reach for the two ten-pound notes, still lying, folded, on the corner of the locker. My heart is thumping as I press gently on the panel of the door, expecting at any moment to hear a shout of Stop! or just a nurse saying Are you all right, dear? But no one says anything. No one does anything. I walk out of the room and down the corridor, past the other bays, with my feet in my flip-flops going plip, plip, plip against the linoleum floor. Past the nursing station there is no one there. A nurse is inside the little office but her back is to the glass, doing paperwork. Plip, plip, plip. Through the double doors and out into the main corridor, where the air smells less of Lysol and more of industrial cooking from the kitchens down the corridor. I walk a little faster. There is a sign saying Way Out, pointing round a corner. As I turn it, my heart almost stops. There is the police officer, standing just outside the mens toilets, muttering into his radio. For a moment I falter. I nearly turn tail and run back to my room before he can discover Im gone. But I dont. I recover myself and I walk on past, plip, plip, plip, with my heart going bang, bang, bang in time with my steps, and he doesnt give me a second glance. Roger, he says as I pass him. Copy that. And then I round the corner and hes gone. I keep walking, not too fast, not too slow. Surely someone will stop me? Surely you cant just walk out of a hospital like this? Theres a sign saying Exit, pointing along the corridor between cubicles of beds. Im almost there. And then, as Im almost at the last door before the lift lobby, I see something, someone, through the narrow pane of glass. Its Lamarr. My breath catches in my throat and, almost without thinking, I duck backwards into a curtained cubicle, praying that the occupant is asleep. I edge the curtains stealthily around myself, my heart banging in my throat, and stand, waiting, listening. Theres the noise of the main ward doors opening and closing, and then I hear her heels going click, clack, click, clack across the linoleum floor. At the nurses station, almost opposite the cubicle where Im hiding, the steps pause, and I stand, hands trembling, waiting for the curtain to be ripped back, waiting for the discovery. But then she says something polite to the matron on duty, and I hear the heels go click, clack, click, clack, down the corridor towards the toilets and my room. Oh thank God, thank God, thank God. My legs are weak and shaking with relief, and for a minute I dont think I can stand. But I have to. I have to get out of here before she gets to my room and realises Im gone. I suddenly wish Id thought to put pillows in the bed or draw the little curtain across the window. I take two or three deep breaths, trying to calm myself, and then I turn, ready to apologise to the occupant of the cubicle behind me. But when I see who is in the bed, my heart almost stops. Its Clare. Clare lying with her eyes closed, her golden hair spread out across the pillow. She is very pale, and her face is even more badly cut up than mine. Theres a monitor clipped on to her finger, and more wires leading under the blankets. Oh my God. Oh, Clare. I know its crazy but I cant stop myself, my hand strays towards her face, and I brush a strand of hair away from her lips. Her eyes flicker beneath her lids, and I hold my breath, but then she relaxes back into whatever state shes in sleep? coma? and I let out a gasping sigh. Clare, I whisper, very soft, so that no one will hear, but perhaps it will filter through into her dreams. Clare, its me, Nora. I swear, Im going to find out the truth. Im going to find out what happened. I promise. She says nothing. Her eyes shift under her lids, and I remember Flo at the seance, blindly searching for something none of us could see. I think my heart might break. But I cant stop. They could be looking for me right now. Carefully, stealthily, I peer out of the cubicle curtains. The corridor is empty the nurses station is unmanned, they are all dealing with patients, and the matron has disappeared. I slip out, closing Clares curtains behind me, and then I almost run for the doors at the end of the ward, and stumble out into the lift lobby. I press the buttons, not once, but five, ten, fifteen times, pressing again and again, as if it will make the lifts come faster. Then theres a sudden grating noise and a ping, and the farthest lift doors open. I half-walk, half-run inside, my heart thudding. A porter is in there pushing a woman in a wheelchair and hissing Lady Gaga through his teeth. Please, please let me make it. The lift bumps to a halt and I stand back to let the porter and the woman out first, and then follow the signs to the main entrance. A bored-looking woman is sitting at the desk flicking through a copy of Hello. As I draw level with her, her phone starts to ring, and I cannot stop myself walking a little faster. Dont pick it up. Dont pick it up. She picks it up. Hello, reception desk? I am walking too fast, I know I am, but I cant stop myself. I must look like a patient. How can she not notice Im wearing flip-flops, for Christs sake? Normal people, visitors, dont wear flip-flops in November. Not with grey jogging bottoms and a blue knitted cardigan. She is going to stop me, I know it. Shes going to say something, ask me if Im OK. The two ten-pound notes clutched in my fist are damp with sweat. Really? the receptionist says sharply as I draw level. She winds the phone cord around one finger. Yes, yes all right. Ill keep an eye out. My heart is in my mouth. She knows. I cant bear it. But she doesnt look up. Shes nodding. Maybe its not me theyre talking about. Im almost at the door. Theres a sign telling people to use the alcohol rub on entry and exit. Should I stop? Will someone notice more if I stop, or more if I dont? I dont stop. At the desk the woman is still talking and shaking her head. I am in the revolving door. For a moment I have a brief, flashing fantasy that it will stop mid-cycle, that I will be trapped in a triangle of air, with maybe just a sliver of a gap to the outside, enough to reach an arm out, but not escape. But of course it doesnt happen. The door continues its smooth revolution. The cold air hits me like a blessing. I am free. I am out of the hospital. I have escaped. 30 THE AIR IS cold in my face and I feel completely lost. This place is totally strange to me and I realise suddenly and piercingly that I was brought here unconscious and have no clue how I got here or how to get away. Im shivering after the heat of the hospital and there are flecks of snow on the breeze. I look up as if searching for a miracle, and one comes, in the form of a sign saying Taxis and an arrow. I walk slowly, shivering, round the corner of the building and there, at the sign saying Taxi queue starts here, is a single cab, light on. A man is inside, at least I think so, its hard to see through the fog on the windows. I limp closer the flip-flops are starting to chafe the inner side of my foot and knock on the window. It rolls down a crack and a cheerful brown face grins at me. What can I do you for, love? he asks. He is a Sikh, his turban a smart black, with a pin in the centre with his taxi companys logo on. His accent is a disconcerting mix of Punjabi and Newcastle that momentarily makes me want to laugh. I I need to get to I have no idea where to go. Back to London? No. I need to get to the Glass House, I say. Its a cottage, a house, just outside Stanebridge. Do you know the village? He nods and puts down his paper. Aye, I know it. Hop in, love. But I dont. In spite of the cold, and the fact that Im shivering hard now, I hesitate, my hand on the door handle. How much will it be, please? Ive only got twenty pounds. Its twenty-five normally, he says, taking in my bruises, but for you Ill say twenty. Thank God. I manage a smile, though my face feels like it is frozen, and might crack with the effort. Th-thank you, I say, not stammering now, but my teeth chattering with cold. Get in, love, he opens the door behind him, or youll freeze. Hop in, now. I get in. The car is like a cocoon of warmth that folds around me. It smells of worn plastic and pine air freshener and old cigarettes, the smell of every taxi everywhere, and I want to curl into the soft warmth of its seats and go to sleep and never wake up. My fingers as I try to buckle my belt are trembling, and I realise how tired I am, how weak my muscles are after my hospital stay. Sorry, I say, as he glances back to make sure Im buckled up. Sorry. Im nearly there. No worries, love. No hurry. And then the buckle closes with a reassuring click and I sit back, feeling my body ache with tiredness. The driver starts the engine. I close my eyes. I am away. Eh, love. Wake up, Miss. I open my eyes, confused and bleary. Where am I? Not at home. Not in the hospital. It takes a minute before I realise that Im in the back seat of the taxi, in my hospital clothes, and the car has stopped. Were here, he says. But I cant get up to the house. The roads blocked. I blink, and wipe the condensation off the window. Hes right. A road block has been put across the lane, two aluminium barriers lashed together with police tape. Its all right. I rub the sleep out of the corners of my eyes and feel in my pocket for the money. Here you go, twenty, was that right? He takes the money, but says, Are you sure youll be all right, love? Looks like the house is shut up. Ill be fine. Will I? I have to be. There must be a way in. I imagine the police will have secured the property but I cant believe they will have turned it into Fort Knox, not out here. Theres no one to come and disturb the scene. The taxi drivers face is unhappy as I get out the car, and he watches me, the engine idling, as I edge round the barrier. I dont want him to. I cant bear him to see me stumbling up the rutted track in my pathetic flip-flops. Instead I stand with my hands on the barrier, trying not to shiver, and wave at him determinedly. He winds down the window, his breath gusting white into the cold air. Are you sure youre all right? I can stay if you like, tek you back to Stanebridge if theres nobody about. I wont charge. Its on me way back anyway. No thanks, I say. I grit my teeth, trying not to let them chatter. Im fine. Thanks. Goodbye, now. He nods, still unhappy, and then revs the engine and I watch as his car disappears into the falling dusk, the red tail-lights illuminating the falling snow. Jesus, this drive is long. I had forgotten how long. I remember the run, when I met Clare coming up, my legs tired and aching and my skin cold. That was nothing to this. What has happened to my muscles in hospital? Im not even halfway up and my legs are trembling with those muscle shakes that come after youve pushed yourself too hard and too fast. My feet in the hard plastic flip-flops are bleeding, but theyre so numb I cant feel any pain, I only know what has happened from the smears of red that mingle with the flecks of snow. The mud, at least, has frozen, so Im not fighting against the cloying lumps sticking to my feet. But when I stumble into a particularly deep rut theres a crack, and my foot goes through the thin crust of ice into the freezing pool of muddy water beneath. I gasp and make a kind of squeaking whimper as I pull my foot painfully out through the sharp ice. It is a thin, pathetic sound, like a mouse being caught by an owl. I am so cold. I am so very, very cold. Have I been very stupid? But I have to carry on. Theres no sense in going back even if I could flag down someone on the road, where would I go? Back to the hospital and the waiting cuffs of Lamarr? Ive run away, absconded. I have to see this through. There is no way back. I force my feet, one in front of the other, my arms wrapped around myself for warmth, thanking God and Nina for the blue cardigan which is the only thing keeping me from hypothermia. The wind blows again, a low moaning howl through the trees, and I hear the snow shake and patter to the ground. One more step. And one more after that. I cannot tell how close I am with the house empty, there are no glowing lights to guide me. I have no sense of how long Ive been walking in this bitter cold. Only that I have to keep going because if I dont I will die. One more step. There are pictures in my head as I get closer. Flo, her face twisted with fear, the gun across her chest. Ninas horrified expression, her blood-stained hands as she tried to staunch the flow. James. James lying in a pool of his own blood, dying. I know now what he was trying to say, when he said te Leo? It wasnt tell it was text. He was asking me why Id brought him here. And why Id let him die like this. He came for me. He came because I asked him. Did I ask him? Im no longer sure. Oh my God, Im cold. Its hard to keep things straight in my head. I remember the texts Lamarr showed me on that printed paper and Im no longer sure if Im remembering them from when she showed me, or before that. Did I ask James to come? I didnt know that Clare was marrying James until she told me in the car. I didnt know. So why would I have texted him? I must cling to that I must cling to what Im sure of. It must have been Flo. She was the only person who could have controlled all this who chose the guests, who picked the house, who knew about the gun. She was in the house when the texts were sent. She knew Id gone for a run. I think again of her strange intensity, of her huge, explosive, terrifying love for Clare. Is it possible that she thought she might lose Clare to James? That she couldnt bear for him to come between them? And what bette