Authors: Claire Seeber
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General
Fernandez and Draper had a row. Charlie looked a little happier. Fay talked about how terrified her parents had been when they turned on the news and saw the accident before they’d heard from her. The plant in the audience tried to stir things up even more by asking me whether I thought trauma was to be expected if we all led such adventurous lives and didn’t just stay at home and mind the kids. I pointed out as coolly as I could that I didn’t have kids and travelling down the motorway to get home in a National Express coach because my car had broken down outside Bristol (they didn’t need to know the truth) hardly constituted adventure.
Then Renee started on the relationships. I licked my dry lips anxiously, but the wine was going a little way in protecting my poor aching heart. Only a little way, though. Fay, on the other hand, was basking in it all. Warhol’s ‘fifteen-minute fame game’ had truly taken hold; the fluffy rabbit of celebrity was tantalising the quivering greyhound.
‘You know,’ she blinked up at Renee, her voice all small and wounded again, ‘I’ve found it very hard with Troy since the accident.’
‘Darling.’ Renee crossed the floor in a grand swirling gesture, the batwings flapping. Fay looked tiny beside her. ‘Can you share, babes? Can you tell us why?’
My good toes curled. Fay breathed deeply. Renee took her hand. ‘Just take a minute, please, Fay. There’s no rush.’
Charlie’s frantic checking of his watch belied her words. Fay breathed again.
‘Okay? Come on, then, tell Auntie Renee.’ Gently, she coaxed it out of her.
‘It’s just – well, he’s become incredibly – over-protective. He hardly wants to let me out of his sight, he’s so worried something else might happen.’
I shifted slightly in my seat. Renee’s radar picked up the minuscule movement. She dashed to the middle of the floor; was on me again before I knew it.
‘Maggie, have you got something to say? What about your partner? How has
dealt with your accident?’ Renee looked directly at me. She knew damn well about my partner; she must do. It would have been all around the office immediately. I met her eye.
‘I’m single at the moment, Renee.’ I forced a smile. ‘Like you.’
She smiled right back, her face a mask. Venom seeped out of the tiny lines round her eyes, out of her glossed mouth, down through the hair extensions bought for hundreds from her
celebrity stylist, which had been traded for pennies by skinny East Europeans, and originated from starving Asian street-kids. But she kept right on smiling.
‘Do you have some advice for Fay, Maggie?’ Renee clamped her hand down on my shoulder.
‘Not really,’ I muttered.
Charlie coughed again, loudly this time. Renee’s acrylic nails indented my flesh. I sighed.
‘Right. Well, Fay, how do –’ I swivelled round in my seat to look directly at the girl, who smiled back in encouragement. ‘– how do you feel about Troy’s protectiveness?’
She considered the question gravely for a moment. ‘I don’t know really, Maggie.’
This was starting to feel like a bad edition of
. I prayed fervently that no one I knew was watching.
‘But we are considering getting some counselling to get us through the bad patch.’
I was sure Troy would be overjoyed to hear her admitting this on national television.
‘I mean, I’ve read some stuff, you know, like from Relate or marriage guidance people, you know, and they say the best thing is not necessarily to stay together. I mean, if you have counselling, they won’t always advise that. If, you know, things aren’t right.’
‘No, well, I don’t mean to be rude, but I’d say that was pretty obvious. Any counsellor worth their salt would tell you that.’
She looked at me. ‘Would they?’ There was something incredibly intense about her expression. ‘Do you really think they would?’
‘I mean, like I said, I don’t want to offend you. But if you find him – stifling – why would you want to stay?’
‘I guess you’re right,’ she said, very slowly. ‘I just hadn’t thought about it like that. I thought he was just being, you know – nice.’
‘Well, I’m sure he is nice. But that doesn’t mean he’s doing the right thing, being over-protective. Some men are just like that, aren’t they? They like control.’ For the first time today I felt almost impassioned. Almost. ‘They want to know where
women are at every moment, whether –’
Renee was bearing down on me. She had absolutely no time for what she’d term ‘feminist claptrap’ on her show: too worthy, not enough blood and guts.
‘So, Maggie –’
I recognised that tone.
‘You’ve had to have some help yourself, eh, sweetheart?’
I couldn’t field it in time. The air crackled around me and my face froze. She knew. I stared at the floor in front of me as she paced before my chair. But what exactly did she know? Her leather boots were very high, as pointed as a cartoon witch’s.
‘You shouldn’t be ashamed, babes.’
Charlie had betrayed me: he must have done.
‘Are you all right?’ she asked, so terribly caring, they thought. ‘You look a little tearful.’
‘Oh no,’ I blurted. ‘Sorry. It’s just the flowers.’ I waved vaguely behind me. ‘Lilies. I – I don’t like – I get a weird reaction, you know.’ I would never tell the truth here. ‘Hayfever.’
‘Share your feelings with us, Maggie. Come on, don’t be shy.’ Her voice dropped to a singsong lilt; its cruelty wrapped up carefully in coruscating kindness. ‘Perhaps we can help you, eh, Maggie?’ She raised her eyes to the audience. Her audience.
The air felt electric now; it sizzled round my head. Everybody waited. I could sense Charlie on his haunches, as expectant as a gundog waiting to collect its kill. Panic began to build in me.
Fernandez was sick of being overlooked. He pulled his lip over yellow teeth and unwittingly dispelled the tension.
‘So this is exactly what I mean in my latest book,
a Modern World
. Often we ignore situations that we are –’
Renee held up an imperious hand. He’d blown it. ‘Thank you, Mr Fernandez –’
Fernandez,’ she spat each syllable out like a small piece of dirt, ‘but I think we really need to know a little more about how tragedy affects the everyday life of our guests. How exactly do you drag yourself out of bed in the morning if you’ve lost the love of your life? Please give a huge round of applause to someone who can tell us – let’s welcome Lesley Quentin, widow of Stan, the brave driver who gave his life so heroically that night.’
I didn’t think poor old Stan had had much of a chance to prove his heroism that night actually. Fay was staring at me with a beatific expression on her gorgeous little face. And it was starting to seriously unnerve me.
In the final break they walked the face-transplant lady on, and the freak-show finally finished me off. Heart pounding, I gestured frantically at Charlie. He was busy eyeing up Transplant Lady’s glamorous sister on the sidelines.
‘I’m really not feeling that great,’ I muttered. ‘It’s all been a bit of a shock.’ I tried to sound reproachful, but he was impervious. ‘Do you still need me?’
‘For God’s sake, Maggie. There’s only another fifteen minutes to go. You need to pull the bloody stops out, okay? The reunion was fantastic, don’t let it go flat.’
‘Please, Charlie. I – I really do feel a little bit – queasy.’
He frowned, stepped back quickly in his Gucci loafers, just in case… Then Fay beamed at him and I saw him drowning blissfully in her violet eyes. She wasn’t even his type.
‘Okay, Maggie. Go and take five in the green room.’ Baring his perfect teeth at Fay, he straightened his tie. ‘We’ll talk later.’
I grabbed my crutches and hauled myself out of there before
he could change his mind. Funnily enough, Renee didn’t bother with a goodbye.
In the deserted green room I sloshed some more wine into a glass and downed it with a not-quite-steady hand. Then I poured myself a strong coffee and sat down to wait for Charlie. I wished I was anywhere but here. I thought desperately of Pendarlin, of the soft yellow light and the space and the clear, clean Cornish air. It calmed me a little.
After interminable adverts about loo freshener and nappies, a multi-coloured Renee tripped girlishly through her titles and the show was back on air. She was at her best now with poor faceless Leonora. When Fay reached over and held the poor woman’s hand, the audience actually moaned with joy.
‘Abso-bloody-lutely sickening.’ I snapped the television off with the remote.
‘I have to say I agree, mate.’
My coffee went hurtling across the horrible beige appliqué sofa.
‘Sorry.’ An East-End accent: the policeman. He was disentangling himself from the mike, fishing the lead out of his scruffy white shirt. ‘What a complete waste of time that was.’
I delved around for a napkin. ‘Didn’t you get your chance to shine?’
He grinned. ‘Got turfed off before I could make my mark. They ran out of time for me apparently. I’m relieved, to be honest.’
‘Oh?’ I made a pathetic attempt to wipe up the coffee with a soggy serviette.
‘Drummed in to do a bit of police PR, you know. Not really my cup of char. Give me a con over a celebrity any day. What shall I do with this, d’you think?’
‘Just shove it on the side.’ I gestured vaguely at the table of stale croissants.
‘You done this before then?’
His direct gaze never left me.
‘I – I work for them, normally. When I’m not, you know –’ I tapped my leg again. ‘Not injured.’
Did his grin fade just a little? ‘Oh right. I see.’
I wasn’t sure I did. Since I’d been off sick I felt more out of place here than I ever had before.
The policeman was switching his phone on, checking the time. ‘I’d better do one. Nice to meet you.’
I smiled a half-hearted smile. ‘Likewise.’
‘Hope your foot’s better soon.’
‘Thanks. And you go get ’em, tiger,’ I said, a little groggily.
This time he definitely did grin. Painkillers and booze were perhaps not the most sensible of partners, I reminded myself, as he dropped the mike onto a plate of egg and cress. And it was only as the door clattered behind him that I noticed the blond boy skulking in the shadows.
‘God! You frightened me,’ I said shakily as he stepped towards me, extending a long white hand from the sleeve of a tweed jacket. How long had he been there? My mind scrabbled like rodent claws on wood as I tried to remember what I’d just said. What I shouldn’t have said.
‘Sorry. I thought you’d seen me.’
Tentatively I took the proffered hand. It was curiously limp, the rather dirty nails over-long.
‘Maggie Warren? Don’t you remember me? We met in the summer.’
There were still quite a few things I didn’t remember about the summer, and more that I didn’t want to. It was a necessary blank that I’d apparently blocked as best I could.
Last summer I had teetered on a precipice, following my wrung-out heart, and I almost didn’t make it back. It scared me now to be confronted with someone I had no memory of.
I looked closer at him. He had a smooth, rather feminine face, a choirboy’s pallor, blond hair that fell over his eyes like a child’s, although he was dressed like he was fifty. He was swaying slightly. In fact, the whole room appeared to be swaying slightly. I really needed to go home now. I certainly didn’t need to be any more unsteady on my feet than I already was: I’d be rendered ‘
in charge of a crutch
’. I stifled a rather hysterical giggle. It was definitely time to leave.
The boy looked a little nonplussed. ‘Don’t you remember me? Joseph Blake. I did some research for you in May. There was a couple of us. University placement.’
‘Oh God, yes, of course.’ I clapped a dramatic hand to my clammy brow. ‘How stupid of me.’ I had absolutely no memory of him whatsoever – and it frightened me. ‘Joseph – Joe, is it?’
‘No. Just Joseph.’ He was scowling now. ‘You
remember, do you?’
‘I do, Joseph, honestly. I’ve just had a bit of a morning of it. An early start, you know, and this –’ I wobbled my crutch around,
‘this doesn’t help my brainpower. How …’ I tried to focus on him properly, ‘how are you?’
He relented, his smile lighting up his smooth round face. I relaxed a little.
‘I’m well, thanks. Oh, and thank you for the reference.’
What was he on about now? ‘You’re welcome,’ I murmured.
‘So, I’m back for a bit. Charlie gave me a job. Well, I’m on a trial anyway. A three-month trial.’
‘Great,’ I smiled back, trying to mask my insincerity.
God, get me out of here
The door swung open and Charlie swaggered in, his arm round a crowing Renee. I was stuck between a rock and a hard bitch. Oh dear.
‘Fantastic, darling. Fantastic bloody show. Leonora was absolutely worth her weight in the proverbial, and Fay’s tears. God!’ Charlie caught sight of me attempting to dissolve into the sofa. ‘All right, Maggie, darling. Feeling better? I told you this show would help heal the wounds for good.’
By the time I remembered him again, the boy had gone.
An apologetic Sally wanted me to go for a quick drink with her, but by now I’d realised that if I didn’t sober up I’d be throwing up. I needed to eat and lie down; more importantly, I wanted to get away from Charlie – fast. I’d see them all soon, I promised Sally. I’d be back at work in a week or two (or more like four, if I could help it).
Out on the busy street, I breathed a sigh of relief and lit a cigarette. The lunchtime rush had begun on Grays Inn Road, and I perched on top of the imposing studio stairs to wait for my cab. November’s chill was truly in the air, and I huddled down into my coat, shivering despite its warmth. The skeletal leaves from the ornamental trees in the studio’s planters skittered round my feet. Chip wrappers cartwheeled in the gutter. A Number 45 crawled past, spewing noxious fumes out below
an advert for Renee’s memoirs, her smug face resplendent on its bright red rear, as big as a potting shed. I shuddered. I watched a very old man pull his tartan shopping-trolley up the road, his head wrinkled and jutting like an ancient tortoise’s. With a great lurch, I thought of Gar. I’d neglected her since the accident.
My cab pulled up and beeped. Hauling myself to my feet at the top of the stairs, an arm snaked through mine suddenly, sending me off balance. Panic coursed through my veins as the concrete rushed up towards me. Just in time I righted myself.
‘I’m so glad I caught you.’
I looked round at the voice, struggling to regain my equilibrium. Fay Carter was gazing up at me. ‘Does your foot really hurt? I’ve had loads of problems with my arm. They have to keep re-setting it.’
‘Oh dear.’ I tried to disengage myself without causing offence. ‘No, I’m fine, really.’ But I moved too fast; my crutch went crashing down the bloody stairs. I bit my lip, swallowing my pain and irritation.
‘I’ll get it.’ She pattered after the crutch. ‘It’s nice to help each other, don’t you think?’
‘Yes, of course,’ I replied uneasily.
‘After all,’ Fay returned the crutch to my freezing hand, ‘I’m only returning the favour.’ Her huge eyes were so serious, too serious, as she looked up at me. ‘I’m sorry I didn’t get the chance to thank you before today for saving me.’
‘Look, I’m sorry, but I really don’t think I did.’ I heard the screaming metal on the motorway again and blanched. ‘You must have me confused with –’
‘No, Maggie.’ She just kept staring. ‘It was you, it was definitely you. They told me after, the rescue-workers. They pointed you out. And now you’ve just helped me again, in there.’ She indicated the television studio. ‘So I
owe you now.’
‘You don’t, honestly.’ I hopped down the steps as fast as my
leg would carry me. ‘I’d better – you know. The cab’s waiting. I’ll see you –’
A metallic car with darkened windows pulled up opposite the studios, sounding its imperious horn.
‘That’s me,’ Fay smiled dreamily. ‘I was going to say’, she tapped lightly down the stairs beside me, ‘we should get together sometime, don’t you think? Give me your number, yeah?’
My heart sank, but she rattled on, not seeming to notice my reticence. ‘A few of us were thinking of starting a survivors’ group. I’d love you to be part of it, Maggie. You’d be great. Really helpful.’
Fay was too near me now, right in my space, peering up into my face. Was the girl always this upbeat? I felt truly exhausted. How could I explain that the idea of being in any sort of group right now filled me full of dread, least of all one that would reminisce endlessly about that hideous night? The silver car hooted again. Fay waved a little pearl-tipped hand.
‘Coming!’ She turned back to me. ‘Look, here’s my number, yeah?’ Fishing around in the sequinned handbag that dangled from her own plaster-cast, she handed me a small shiny pink card.
Fay Carter, Entertainer Extraordinaire
, it announced in black flowing script. A tiny big-bosomed figure high-kicked beneath the words.
‘I had them made up when I knew I was coming on the show. Good, aren’t they? Give me a call. Don’t be shy. You know,’ she clasped my freezing hand in her little one, the diamond on her ring finger biting into my flesh, ‘I’ve got the feeling this is the start of something. Something huge.’ Leaning up, she kissed me on both cheeks. ‘Do you know what I mean? And by the way, I’m so sorry about your boyfriend. Charlie told me.’
I just stood there and stared, speechless, as the small figure drifted across Grays Inn Road, weaving through taxis, beneath the admiring builders ant-like on Café Buena’s new scaffolding, earning a beep from an appreciative white-van man.
Across the road, Fay paused at the car door, turning to wave. I saw a spiky peroxide head lean across to help her with the door. ‘See you soon,’ she mouthed, before a removal van blocked my view. When I looked again, she was gone.
As my driver settled me into the back of his car, chattering about the traffic and the ever-expanding congestion zone, I tried to concentrate politely, but all the time he prattled I felt a gnawing sense of unease, a sense that grew and grew. Deep down I knew I hadn’t seen the last of my new friend.