Authors: Claire Seeber
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General
Renee was delivering her final droplets of wisdom and waving her final fickle wave before she left the floor. Kay gave my hand a final squeeze and Charlie stood behind the curtain and sleeked
back his thick and greying hair before giving me an obsequious thumbs-up. Amanda was counting us down, the titles were up on the monitors and the tension that is a live show was zinging in the air, as palpable as the sweat that had started to run down my back. And then Renee was back on the floor, waving, the audience cheering and clapping and whistling until she snapped on the gravitas this subject would take, and hush fell.
And it was then that I noticed the girl for the first time. She was sitting two chairs away from me, on the other side of the eminent trauma psychologist Sally had wheeled on. She was stunning. A cloud of dark hair framed a little heart face and she held her arm, her plaster-casted arm, gingerly in her other hand. As if she felt my stare, she turned and blinked and smiled at me, a smile that filled those big violet eyes, eyes like bottomless buckets of emotion, and I felt very odd. Like – what do they say? Like a ghost had walked over my grave.
Fortunately for the show, Sally’s anti turned up just in time to go on air. Unfortunately for him, though. The poor man never had a hope in hell. He was just fodder, pure gladiatorial bait – thrown to the hungry audience who were ready for a mauling. Simeon Fernandez, his name was. He was some kind of new-age cognitive therapist wanting to expound his theories on post-traumatic stress being purely in the mind. More to the point, he had a new book to promote. And it was he who brought Fay and me together.
Renee gave Fernandez the floor very early. His fleshy face was flushed with self-importance as he waffled on a bit about this theory and that, Renee pacing lightly behind him, her deadly stance disguised in casual lilac batwings. Lilac mohair. I tried to concentrate, staring hard at Fernandez’s chins that wobbled as he spoke. I wondered if Renee’s jumper was as scratchy as it looked. My leg was really aching, and my little toe had just begun to itch inside the cast when my name resounded like a whip-crack round the studio.
My head snapped up; apparently Renee was introducing me. There was really no escape now as ‘
Victim Maggie Warren
’ bounced off the walls to the sympathy of those devils in the audience. I forced a smile (though I knew Charlie would have much preferred a sob) and then Renee was on me. She came right up and took the chair beside me, perching on the very edge
so she could really get to me. I tried not to lean away. Our knees were actually touching and I could smell her cloying scent, so sweet and sickly that my stomach churned – or perhaps that was the booze. I realised too late I couldn’t back up in my seat without my crutch clattering loudly to the ground. I was stranded there; so near that I could count the open pores round her nose. She held my hand, and looked deep into my eyes. Her coloured contact lenses were unnaturally bright in the hideous studio light, and I stifled the urge to laugh hysterically.
‘Mr Fernandez has written a book on stress,’ Renee breathed at me, her Welsh lilt so soft and caring. ‘He thinks it’s in the mind, and we must fight to overcome it,’ – Mr Fernandez nodded smugly, his chins juddering like Sunday custard in a jug – ‘but, Maggie, you’re testament to the fact that a terrible accident
utterly change your life, aren’t you?’
I blinked. The muscle in my cheek twitched with an influx of adrenaline.
Renee frowned. Her pancake cracked a little. Charlie coughed most unsubtly from the sidelines. Utter silence fell; the audience leaned forward as one. They waited. I waited. Renee covered my hand kindly (she hadn’t so much as shaken it in the past two years) with both of hers – and then I pulled it back quickly, suppressing an exclamation. I was sure she’d pinched me; just a tiny pinch, so tiny that no one else would know, but a pinch nevertheless. I absorbed Charlie’s scowl; remembered his words the other night. I breathed deeply. Auto-drive clicked on.
‘Sorry. Yes.’ How alien Renee’s eyes looked. Other-worldly. ‘Of course it did. Has. It’s turned everything on its head. I –’ I paused for what must have seemed like effect, searching desperately for something sensible to say. Anything to say. ‘I don’t think my life will ever be the same again.’
Renee sat up in triumph. I’d come up trumps. I slumped in
my seat. God, it was hot in here. Fernandez immediately weighed in, uninvited, with how I should overcome my trauma. I was still a young woman, I mustn’t give in to my weaknesses. I must believe in positive thought.
‘Come on, Maggie. Stress is all in the mind, I promise you.’ He looked at the audience hopefully. I looked at him mournfully. I tapped my bad leg sadly. And then I wasn’t acting any longer; I was transported briefly into the heart of my own pain.
‘This, though, Mr Fernandez, my damaged leg, I mean, this isn’t in the mind – is it?’ A bubble of misery, like an astronaut’s helmet, sealed snug around my head. I must shake it off. Showing real emotion on live TV was not my intention. ‘I might never walk properly again,’ I murmured. ‘I used to run, you know.’
The audience went wild in their seats. They were sure of Mr Fernandez’s role now. He was the Wolf to my Red Riding Hood, the absolute villain on the floor, and they could rip into him as they’d been primed. I swallowed hard and milked it like I knew I must.
‘I can’t work. I need to have help at home,’ (sort of true) ‘I have nightmares.’ (Painfully true. I couldn’t continue on that tack.) I twisted the tissue that Renee had pressed into my hand; recovered myself just enough to go on. I cleared my throat.
‘I have a bad limp, I’ve had to have my foot put back in plaster again because –’
A little voice chimed in. ‘It’s changed my life utterly too.’
Renee turned to the voice, the epitome of eager concern. ‘Fay Carter, you too were on the coach that crashed that terrible night. Can you tell us exactly what happened? We can see Maggie is struggling to give us the painful facts.’
A matronly woman in the front row actually said ‘Ah.’ I smiled weakly, the last lot of painkillers finally kicking in. But Fay was only too glad to join the fray – like a sleek little greyhound tensed against the starting-gate, she was off. I slumped with relief. Surely I’d done enough?
I thought desperately of the drink tucked beneath my chair. I could see Amanda with her stopwatch. We must be nearing the break now, please God. I could feel myself beginning to sweat again as I flicked in and out of Fay’s words. The truth was – and how Renee would have loved this, should I have cared to share it with her – the truth was, the accident was too agonising to recall.
‘And I was travelling back to London to see my boyfriend, really excited, you know how it is when you haven’t seen them for a while.’ The audience ah-ed again. They loved a love story – though they definitely preferred a fistfight, given the choice.
‘I’d just walked up and down the coach to use the loo, too much tea, you know.’ She smiled up at the audience, the audience smiled fondly back. This girl knew how to work it. ‘I saw Maggie there when I passed, she was asleep.’ She turned her headlamp eyes on me. ‘Sleeping like a baby, you know.’
My skin prickled. I didn’t remember ever having seen this girl before. But I suppose I had been – absorbed. I looked down at my hands.
‘And I kind of knew then that she was my future.’
My head snapped up in horror. What?
‘Call it intuition, if you like. Then I heard this woman scream, and we swerved violently. We – the coach, well, it started to tip, straight away, to go right over, you know. And that – that was it, really.’ There was a tiny catch in her sweet voice. I looked down, my stomach rolling with the memory. My tissue was in tiny bits over my good knee.
‘The coach just, you know, flipped, onto its back, you see, right into the other lane, you know, right into the oncoming traffic. And it wasn’t till – till after that we knew three horses had got out of a field next to the motorway, somehow the fence had come down and they were on the road, poor things.’
The audience clucked with admiration at her benevolence. A little tear escaped from one thick-lashed eye and trickled slowly
down her porcelain skin. ‘The coach-driver didn’t have a chance, poor man.’
Renee asked, very quietly, ‘Did he –’
Fay shook her head mournfully. ‘No. He didn’t make it.’
Renee clasped her hands together across that magnificent bosom. ‘Sadly Fay is quite right, ladies and gentlemen. Tragic Stan Quentin didn’t survive the horrific accident, along with eleven other poor souls that awful night. I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say’, big pause, sad smile, small dip of head, ‘each and every one of them is in our prayers.’
Frantic nodding from the audience. A few loud sniffs. Renee neatly changed angles for her close-up in Camera One.
‘But does every accident have to end in doom and gloom? Well, no, because as we are about to demonstrate, even accidents can bring folk closer together.’ Smooth camera change as One pulled out. ‘As these young ladies will bear testament to.’
I peered into the wings to see who was about to be brought in. ‘That’s right,’ Renee continued. ‘Fay has something to say to someone very special. Daisy!’ If Renee’s smile became any wider, her face would explode.
Daisy flounced on now, gurning at the cameras, holding an enormous bunch of flowers. Lilies. My heart started to beat faster. Slowly Daisy handed them to Fay, milking the time she was on-camera. But Fay would be upstaged by no one; she swept up the bouquet and stepped towards my chair. I glanced behind me again as Daisy finally admitted defeat and slunk off.
‘Maggie, I just want to say – you saved my life.’ I stared at the glistening trail of her tears. ‘I can never thank you enough.’
‘Maggie.’ Renee was beside me now, forcing me to stand. I dragged myself to my feet. ‘What do you want to say to Fay, babes?’
‘I’m really so – sorry,’ I stuttered. ‘But I don’t know what you –’
‘You saved me, Maggie. I was choking on my own blood …’ There was an enormous gasp of horror from the audience. Two
over-made-up teenagers in the front row looked like they were going to be sick. That would be a first on live television.
‘And you reacted so quickly, you saved my life.’
Had I? Charlie had never mentioned this. ‘I’m sorry, I just don’t remember anything –’
Fay thrust the flowers at Renee and enveloped me in a huge hug as best she could with a plaster-casted arm, almost knocking me off my good foot. From behind the bouquet, Renee glowered at me. I’d obviously ruined the big moment. Bored of not being the centre of attention, she walked in front of us now as I tried to gently disentangle myself from a sobbing Fay. I wished fervently they’d take the lilies away. They reminded me of things I only wanted to forget.
‘Isn’t that marvellous, ladies and gents, doesn’t it just warm the heart? And so, while we leave these lovely ladies to reminisce,’ –
about nearly dying?
– ‘coming up in Part Three, the woman who wowed the scientists when she returned from the dead. Not only is she a walking miracle – she’s got a whole new face. Yes, Leonora Herbert is one of the very first successful face-transplant patients ever.’ Gasps all round. ‘But first, right after this break, we’ll meet the lady who says there’s light at the end of the tunnel – she knows because she met her partner through a bereavement group for trauma victims. Don’t go away, folks.’
She shoved the flowers at me; I put them behind my chair. We had exactly one and a half minutes to relax and breathe. I had one and a half minutes to drain my ‘water-bottle’. I did so with gusto, then looked hopefully around for Daisy. Charlie crossed to Renee, dropping his voice. I squinted at them, trying to lip-read. I heard the word ‘flat’ more than once.
Renee tossed her hair as Kay padded up with the powder-puff. Daisy brought Renee a drink that she snatched as rudely as I’d known she would. I tried to attract Daisy’s attention, but she was too busy making eyes at Charlie. I tried to attract his
attention, but he was now being harangued by Renee. I couldn’t believe he’d let Fay do that to me without warning. Actually, no – I could believe it. Fay smiled at me over the eminent psychologist who hadn’t got much of a word in yet (too erudite and sensible, probably). A carrot-haired man who’d arrived in the break was being miked-up. I saw him check his watch and frown. Fay’s eyes were still drilling into me. I smiled back at her, more than a little uncomfortable. Perhaps she did look familiar …
Simeon Fernandez was beginning to bluster to anyone who’d listen. He’d obviously sensed he wasn’t there just to promote his great work. Sally had popped in from the gallery to appease him a bit. She patted my hand quickly as she passed. ‘Nearly there, Maggie. We just need a little more of the personal stuff if you can bear it. Then we’ll bring the copper in.’ She indicated Carrottop. He didn’t look like a policeman, I thought hazily. His suit was too untidy.
Renee smacked her lips together as Kay finished applying the gloss. She headed straight to Fay; she’d sensed she had a real ally sitting right there.
‘You’re fantastic, darling,’ she purred. ‘I’m going to push you a bit on how the accident has affected your relationships, etc. Okay?’ Without waiting for an answer, Renee generously extended her explanation to all now. One happy media family. ‘Then we can hear from Mr Fernandez again, and, of course, the wonderful Doctor Draper.’
Doctor Draper looked slightly mollified. He smoothed his lurid tie down over his portly belly. Did all men of science enjoy their food too much? I wondered vaguely. Fish and micro-chips. I grinned. Finally, Renee crossed to me.
‘And, Maggie,’ she dropped down to my level, dropping her voice accordingly, ‘get your head out of your arse, all right?’
I stopped grinning and flushed, feeling the stain burning my skin. Before I could retaliate, she was back with Kay for a final
tweak. ‘And the set looks bloody drab, Amanda,’ Renee snapped. ‘Put those gorgeous lilies behind Maggie in the vase.’
I winced as Amanda complied wordlessly then rushed out onto the floor again. ‘Okay, guys. Thirty seconds and counting. Settle down, please, though do keep up the great energy. You’re a fantastic audience, aren’t they, Renee?’
Renee was centre-stage again, extending her scarlet talons before her to give the audience a little clap. The lilies stank. I shrank down in my chair.
‘Darlings,’ she dropped her voice subtly, then spread her arms wide to include each and every one of them, ‘I’m going to let you into a little secret, all right?’
Oh yes, it was more than all right. They actually craned forward. Infinitesimal pause. Wait, wait, wait …
‘You’re my best audience of the year so far. And’, they craned a little further, ‘it’s not far off Christmas – so what does that say?!’
They whooped with joy. They had no idea she said this every show. And if they did know, if they were old regulars, why would they care? They were Renee’s special audience, today, here and now – and that was all that mattered.
‘And we’re back in five, four, three, two –’ Amanda finished her count. The title music blared. Renee composed herself, flung on her tragedian robe so grandly.