In A Dark Dark Wood By Ruth Ware: Book Review
Hen nights. Ugh. Hen weekends, even worse. Second only to the horror of the school reunion.
If, like me, you'd rather pull out your nails with pliers than willingly attend either, then this tense debut from Ruth Ware will push all your buttons.
Nora hasn't seen her old school friend, Clare, for ten years.
So when she receives an email out of the blue inviting her to her hen weekend, logic would tell you she'd hit delete.
Instead, against her better judgement, she's persuaded to attend by a mutual friend, Nina. B
ut an awful lot has changed in the last decade. And an awful lot hasn't...
Ware takes this toxic mix of long-lost, little-missed friends and unsettled differences, adds a liberal dose of drugs and alcohol, tosses in those staples of spooky tales everywhere, a remote house and a long dark night, and gives them a good shake.
Whilst, by the end, you might be able to see the twist coming, the result is still enjoyably intoxicating.
In A Dark Dark Wood By Ruth Ware: Book Extract
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 there’s a mantra inside my head. The time I want to get, or the frustrations I’m 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.
And I’m too late – the car is too close, I can’t stop it.
I fling myself onto the tarmac, my arms outstretched.
It hurts. Everything hurts. The light in my eyes, the pain in my head. There’s a stench of blood in my nostrils, my hands are sticky with it.
The voice comes dim through a fog of pain. I try to shake my head, my lips won’t form the word.
‘Leonora, you’re safe, you’re at the hospital. We’re taking you to have a scan.’
It’s a woman, speaking clearly and loudly. Her voice hurts.
‘Is there anyone we should be calling?’
I try again to shake my head.
‘Don’t move your head,’ she says. ‘You’ve had a head injury.’
‘Nora,’ I whisper.
‘You want us to call Nora? Who’s Nora?’
‘Me… my name.’
‘All right, Nora. Just try to relax. This won’t hurt.’
But it does. Everything hurts.
What has happened?
What have I done?
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 it’s something about living alone – you’re able to get set in your ways, there’s 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. You’re in control.
Or maybe it’s something about working from home. Outside of a nine to five job, it’s very easy for the days to get shapeless, meld together. You can find you’re still in your dressing gown at 5 p.m., and the only person you’ve seen all day is the milkman. There are days when I don’t hear a single human voice, apart from the radio, and you know what? I quite like that. It’s a good existence for a writer, in many ways – alone with the voices in your head, the characters you’ve created. In the silence they become very real. But it’s 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 hasn’t 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 4’s 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 they’ve 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 – it’s not a diet thing, I just don’t like the two together).
What happens after that depends on the weather. If it’s raining, or I don’t feel like going for a run, then I shower, check my emails, and start the day’s 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. I’d shower after my run.
I pulled on a T-shirt, some leggings, and socks, and shoved my feet into my trainers where I’d 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 – I’d promised them back to the editor this week and I hadn’t even started them yet. And I should go through the emails that had come through via my website contact form, which I hadn’t 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 doesn’t seem to deter the bots. But sometimes it’s useful stuff, requests for blurbs or review copies. And sometimes… sometimes it’s emails from readers. Generally if people write to you, it’s because they liked the book, although I have had a few messages telling me what a terrible person I am. But even when they’re nice, it’s still odd and uncomfortable, someone telling you their reaction to your private thoughts, like reading someone’s opinion on your diary. I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to that feeling, however long I write. Maybe that’s 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.
To: Melanie Cho; ; T Deauxma; Kimayo, Liz; info@LNShaw.co.uk; Maria Tatibouet; Iris P. Westaway; Kate Owens; email@example.com; Nina da Souza; French, Chris
From: Florence Clay
Subject: CLARE’S HEN!!!
Clare? I didn’t know any Clares except…
My heart began beating faster. But it couldn’t be her. I hadn’t seen her for ten years.
For a minute my finger hovered irrationally over the delete button. Then I clicked, and opened up the message.
For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Flo, and I’m Clare’s best friend from university. I’m also – drum roll – her maid of honour!! So in time- honoured fashion I will be organising her HEN-DO!!!
I’ve had a word with Clare and – as you can probably guess – she doesn’t want any rubber penises or pink feather boas. So we’re 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 14th–16th November. I know this is VERY short notice, but we didn’t 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!!!!
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 she’d 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 Clare’s 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 I’d just deleted it without even reading.
Suddenly I couldn’t 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
Dearest N, Hope you’re well. Must admit I was a bit surprised to see us both on the list to Clare’s 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-editor’s queries – but Florence’s 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 can’t 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 unanswered 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 didn’t 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 it’s the last thing I want to do. I got the wedding invitation a while back but I was hoping I’d escaped the hen. R you going? Shall we make a pact? I’ll go if you go?
I drank my coffee while I looked at the screen, my finger hovering over ‘Reply’ but not quite clicking. I’d 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 couldn’t ask outright. It would be tantamount to admitting I hadn’t the first clue what was going on. I’ve 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 Clare’s friends, citing a family birthday.
The second was another email from Flo. This time she’d attached a read-receipt.
From: Florence Clay
Subject: Re: CLARE’S HEN!!!
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 don’t know what happened, but she’d really love for you to be there – won’t you say yes?! It would really make her weekend complete.
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 didn’t. 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, Flo’s words hung in the air like an echo, niggling at me. I don’t know what happened. It sounded like a plaintive child. No, I thought bitterly. You don’t. So don’t go prying into my past.
I had sworn never to go back.Next chapter
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 – didn’t.
Clare had been my friend. My best friend, for a long time. And yet I’d 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 I’d last seen her. When at last the machine had finished I poured myself a cup, and carried it back to my desk, but I didn’t 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 didn’t 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 couldn’t 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 Clare’s profile picture, and as I looked at it, trying to work out what to do, Flo’s 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 I’d 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 hadn’t allowed myself to think of everything I’d left behind.
But now Clare’s 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 she’d 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. I’d 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 mother’s voice on the landing, low and groggy, asking what was going on, and Clare’s swift reply: ‘I knocked over my milk, Mummy, it made Lee’s 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.
‘Don’t 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. What’s 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
Nina’s reply came back an hour later. Wow! Don’t take this the wrong way but gotta say, I’m surprised. In a good way I mean. Deal it is. Don’t even think about letting me down. Remember, I’m 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, I’ve got to work… Family memorial service… (Nina: It’ll be a funeral for the next person who abuses the ‘Reply all’ button.) I’m afraid I’ll be snorkelling in Cornwall! (Nina: Snorkelling? In November? She couldn’t think up a better excuse? Man, if I’d known the bar was that low I’d 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 (Nina’s reply back to me: ???), Nina, Me.
Just six people. It didn’t seem many for someone as popular as Clare. At least, as popular as she’d been at school. But it was short notice.
Was that why she’d invited me? To make up numbers, on what she knew would be a barrel-scraping do? But no, that wasn’t 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?
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 hadn’t 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), she’d 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, she’d 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 couldn’t bring Jess?
‘Because it’s 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.
‘It’s one of the many basic skills of life I’ve never mastered. Sorry.’
‘Don’t apologise to me.’ She folded her long legs into the driver’s seat, slammed the door and stuck the keys in the ignition. ‘I hate being driven. Driving is like karaoke – your own is epic, other people’s is just embarrassing or alarming.’
‘Well… it’s just, you know… living in London, a car seems like a luxury rather than a necessity. Don’t 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. ‘Australia’s a bit of a trek in a Volvo.’
‘Oh, God, I forgot your mum emigrated. With… what’s his name? Your stepdad?’
‘Philip,’ I said. Why do I always feel like a sulky teenager when I say his name? It’s 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. It’s 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 didn’t 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 hadn’t she invited me to the wedding? She’d invited Nina, clearly, so it couldn’t 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 refer- ences in conversation, references that only you and she under- stood. 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. ‘I’ve got a print-out of those directions that Flo emailed.’
‘Well, aren’t you the girl scout of the year,’ Nina said, but I could hear the relief in her voice. ‘What’s wrong with an iPhone anyway?’
‘This is what’s 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, there’s 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!’
‘You’re 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 it’s 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, it’s here. It looks like a footpath on the map but Flo’s 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 couldn’t see any other houses marked.
‘If it’s 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 I’m suing someone. I don’t care who, but I’m buggered if I’m 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 don’t know what I’d 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.Next chapter
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 Clare’s 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. ‘I’m Flo!’
You know when you see the brother or sister of someone famous, and it’s like looking at them, but in one of those fairground mirrors? Only one that distorts so subtly it’s hard to put your finger on what’s 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. ‘It’s 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 dad’s from Brazil. She was born in Reading and her mum’s from Dalston. She has the profile of a hawk and the hair of Eva Longoria.
‘Yup.’ Nina stuck out a hand. ‘And you’re Flo, I take it?’
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 Nina’s hand enthusiastically and then turned to me with a beaming smile. ‘In that case you’re… Lee, right?’
‘Nora,’ I said reflexively.
‘Nora?’ She frowned, puzzled.
‘My name’s Leonora,’ I said. ‘At school I was Lee, but now I prefer Nora. I did mention it in the email.’
I’d always hated being Lee. It was a boy’s 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! I’ve 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! Clare’s 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, I’m allergic to them – I have an anaphylactic reaction. Don’t 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. Nina’s delivery is hard to read if you don’t 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 wasn’t 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.
‘Isn’t it!’ Flo beamed, looking relieved to be back on safe ground. ‘It’s actually my aunt’s holiday house, but she doesn’t come here much in the winter – too isolated. Sitting room’s 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 wasn’t 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 wasn’t a single book in the whole place. It didn’t even feel like a holiday cottage – every place I’ve 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 wasn’t 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, I’m fine,’ I said, at the same time Nina said, ‘Well, if you’re offering…’
Flo looked taken aback, but gamely took Nina’s 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, ‘there’s four bedrooms. I thought we’d 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 I’d be sharing a room. I’d assumed I’d have my own space to retreat to.
‘And that just leaves Mels – Melanie, you know – as the odd one out. She’s got a six-month-old so I thought out of us girls, she probably deserved a room of her own the most!’
‘What? She’s 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, she’ll probably need a good night’s 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, it’s got twin beds. The other one’s got a four-poster double, but I don’t 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 Nina’s 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.
‘Yes,’ Nina said. ‘Mind if I smoke in here?’
Flo’s face fell. ‘I’m afraid my aunt doesn’t like smoking indoors. But you’ve 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, I’ll 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 Tom’s definitely of the male persuasion, judging by Flo’s determination to quarantine his raging Y chromosomes from our delicate lady parts.’
I couldn’t help but snort. That’s the thing about Nina. You forgive her stuff that other people would never get away with.
‘I think he’s probably gay – don’t 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 doesn’t actually change your gender. I think. No, wait—’ She peered down her top. ‘No, we’re all good. Double-Ds all present and correct.’
‘That’s 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. That’s 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 can’t come as she doesn’t appreciate the male form?’
‘Oh for God’s sake. I said partly an appreciation.’
‘It’s 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. ‘I’m 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 don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen Clare in about three years.’
I said nothing. I didn’t 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 wasn’t at all sure I was ready to get the answers to my questions. Next chapter
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?
There was the sound of Flo’s 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 didn’t sound like Clare. In fact beneath Flo’s 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.’
‘What? What are you looking at me like that for? Shall we go downstairs and meet the cock in the hen house?’
‘Don’t what?’ She swung her feet to the floor and stood up. ‘Don’t embarrass us. Him.’
‘If we’re hens, naturally that makes him a cock. I’m using the term in its purely zoological sense.’
But she was gone, loping down the glass stairs in her stockinged feet, and I heard her voice floating up the stairwell. ‘Hello, don’t think we’ve met…’
Don’t think we’ve met. Well, it definitely wasn’t 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, I’m Tom.’
‘Hi, I’m 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 couldn’t 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 I’ve done it. I really wanted to call home and check in. Isn’t there any reception here?’
‘Not really,’ Flo said apologetically. Her face was flushed with nerves or excitement, I wasn’t sure which. ‘Sorry. You can sometimes get a bit from the top end of the garden or the balconies, depending on what network you’re on. But there’s 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 I’d 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 – he’s a director.’
Nina gave me a theatrical wink behind Tom’s 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.’
‘You’re an actor?’ Nina asked.
It’s 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 it’s because we meet comparatively rarely; writers tend to spend the bulk of their working life alone.
‘Nora’s 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. I’ve 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 doesn’t stand for anything, I don’t 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. I’m always rather jealous of novelists – the way you get to control everything. You don’t have to deal with actors massacring your best lines.’ He flashed a smile, showing unnaturally perfect white teeth. I wondered if he’d had porcelain veneers fitted.
‘But it must be nice working with other people?’ I ventured. ‘Sharing the responsibility, I mean. A play’s a big thing, right?’
‘Yes, I suppose so. You have to share the glory but at least when the shit hits the fan it’s 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 I’d seen him before.
That picture. Clare’s profile picture from Facebook. It was him. So the person in her photo wasn’t 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 – I’ve never been away for the night before and it’s a bit of a leap of faith. Not that Bill won’t manage, I’m sure he will but… oh anyway, I should stop rabbiting on. You’re Nora, is that right?’
‘Go through into the living room!’ Flo called from the kitchen. ‘I’m 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, isn’t 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, doesn’t it? I think it’s 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 we’re the audience?’ Melanie asked. ‘This production seems a bit boring. The actors are rather wooden!’ She pointed out to the trees, in case we hadn’t got the pun. ‘Geddit? Trees, wood…’
‘We got it,’ Nina said sourly. ‘But I don’t think that’s 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. We’re 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 wasn’t 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.
‘I’m 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. ‘It’s wood.’ She struggled with a handle and then a door in the front popped open. ‘I’ve 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. ‘There’s firelighters on the mantelpiece. Inside a pot. I’ll be through in a tick if you can’t 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. ‘Haven’t 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? Don’t worry, it’s 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.’
‘It’s a bit… Texan, isn’t it?’ Tom said. He hurried forward to help Flo with the tray. ‘You know, not that I don’t enjoy the red-neck vibe, but having it right there, in your fac… it’s 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 grandfather’s so it’s sort of a family heirloom. And the veg patch is right outside these doors – well, in the summer anyway – so it’s 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.
For a moment I didn’t move, didn’t answer. Then Flo tapped me on the shoulder, making me jump.
‘Nora,’ I said. I tried to force a smile. ‘I’m… I’m sorry. Do you have coffee? I should have said, I’m not that keen on tea.’
Flo’s face fell. ‘I’m so sorry, I should have… No, we don’t. It’s probably too late to get anything now – the nearest village is forty minutes away and the shop’ll be shut. I’m so sorry, I was thinking about Clare when I was doing the food shop, and she does love her tea – I never thought—’
‘It’s 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 what’s happening?’
We all nodded and Flo got out a list. I felt, rather than heard, Nina’s gusting sigh.
‘So Clare should be here at six, then I thought we’d have a little drinky – I’ve got some champers in the fridge, and I picked up the bits for mojitos and margaritas and stuff – and I thought we wouldn’t bother with a proper sit-down supper—’ Nina’s face fell ‘—I’ve 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 don’t 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 wasn’t entirely easy.
Tom was obvious – with his expensive clothes and theatre background it wasn’t 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 she’d 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.
Flo’s 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 I’d 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 you’ve 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 didn’t know, trying to fit the strangers in with their mental image of Clare. I caught Tom’s 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. Next chapter
‘I’ll 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. ‘I’m Melanie Cho, well Melanie Blaine-Cho now I guess, but it’s a bit of a mouthful and I’ve 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 I’m a bit older than the rest of you guys… at least I don’t know about you, Tom? I’m twenty-eight.’
‘Twenty-seven,’ Tom said.
‘So I’m the group granny. I’ve just had a baby, well, six months ago. And I’m 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, I’ll probably be drinking and taking it back down will be a right pain. Um… what else? I live in Sheffield. I’m a lawyer, but I’m on maternity leave. My husband’s looking after Ben today. Ben’s our baby. He’s… oh well, you don’t want to hear me bore on. He’s 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 didn’t 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 wasn’t his first smile, I didn’t 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 can’t see his face very well, he’s 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, doesn’t 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 it’s 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. Let’s not talk about him anyway, I’m already homesick enough, I don’t 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, didn’t we? Or did I imagine that?’
‘No, you’re right, I did come up once. I think I was on my way to see a mate at Newcastle. I don’t remember meeting Flo, but I definitely remember running into you in the bar – was that right?’
‘For those of you who don’t know, I’m Nina, I was at school with Clare and Nora. I’m a doctor… well, I’m training to be a surgeon, actually. In fact I just spent three months overseas with Médecins sans Frontières where I learned a whole lot more than I ever wanted to about gunshot trauma wounds… in spite of what the Mail’d have you believe we don’t see a whole load of those in Hackney.’
She rubbed at her face and for the first time since we’d left London I saw her veneer crack a little. I knew Colombia had affected her, but I’d only seen her twice since she came back and both times she hadn’t 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. I’m a playwright, as previously advertised. I’m not huge, but I’ve done a lot of fringe stuff and won a few awards. I’m married to the theatre director Bruce Westerly – maybe you’ve heard of him?’
There was a pause. Nina was shaking her head. Tom’s 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 wasn’t going to help. He gave a small sigh.
‘Oh well, I guess if you’re outside the theatre maybe you don’t notice the director as much. That’s 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. He’s a labradoodle. Two years old. He’s completely adorable but not the ideal dog for a couple of workaholics who travel a lot. Luckily we have a brilliant dog- walker. I’m a vegetarian… What else? Oh dear, that’s a terrible indictment, isn’t it? Two minutes and I’ve run out of interesting things to say about myself. Oh – and I have a tattoo of a heart on my shoulder blade. That’s 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 haven’t spoken for ten years.
I don’t know why I’m here.
I don’t know why I’m 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 I’d forgotten it had been cut, and my fingers only skimmed the short strands, my skin warm and damp beneath. ‘Um, I’m 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 I’ve 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, that’s 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. It’s absolutely minuscule, only room for me and my laptop, but I don’t have any rent to pay.’
‘I think it’s really nice that you’ve all kept in touch,’ Tom said. ‘You and Clare and Nina, I mean. I don’t think I’ve kept in contact with any of my friends from school. I’ve got nothing in common with most of them. It wasn’t 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 wasn’t 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.
‘What’s 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 couldn’t he just let it drop? But there was nothing I could say – not without looking like a crazy person.
‘I don’t 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 wasn’t 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 she’s 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 café next to the school, twisting her plait around her finger. Maybe she had.
‘She was wearing that blue dress – I think she’s still got it, can’t believe she fits into it! I’ve put on at least a stone since uni! Anyway I went up and said hi, and she said “Oh, I like your scarf,” and we’ve been BFFs ever since. I just – she’s just great, you know? She’s been such an inspiration, so supportive. There’s 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. She’s my rock, and I’d 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. It’s like – it’s like it’s 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 wasn’t the only one taken aback – Tom looked frankly startled, and Nina’s 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.
‘She’s getting married, not going to prison,’ Nina said drily, but either Flo didn’t hear, or she ignored the remark. Instead she coughed, and swiped at her eyes.
‘Sorry. Oh God, I’m 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 wasn’t in a good place. Clare was amazing. When I was— Well, never mind that. The thing is, she’s just – just the best friend a girl could have, honestly. God, look at me!’ She blew her nose and stood up. ‘Who’s 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. ‘Don’t you think she’s a little… intense?’
‘Oh,’ Melanie said. She glanced out of the door towards the kitchen and then lowered her voice. ‘Look, I don’t know if I should be saying this but there’s no sense in beating round the bush. Flo had a bit of a breakdown in her third year. I’m not sure what happened but she dropped out before her finals – she never graduated as far as I know. So that’s why she’s a bit, you know, sensitive, about that period. She doesn’t really like discussing it.’
‘Um, OK,’ Nina said. But I knew what she was thinking. What had been alarming about Flo wasn’t 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.
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. What’s happened? What have I done?
I’m 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 can’t answer, tell me things I can’t 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 that’s when I see: through the wire-hatched glass of the door is a policewoman sitting patiently on a stool.
I’m being guarded. But I don’t know why.
I lie there, staring through the glass at the back of the police officer’s head. I want so badly to go out there and ask questions, but I don’t dare. Partly because I’m 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 can’t. It soaks my pyjamas. It spreads across the bleached wood floor…
And that’s 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.
There’s 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.
It’s only when my hand strays to my shoulder, my right shoulder, that I wince and look down.
There’s 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. There’s some kind of thick nappy-thing, but no pain. No cuts. No bruises on the inside of my thighs. Whatever happened, it wasn’t 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 I’m 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.