Authors: Claire Seeber
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General
On the Monday after Bel’s wedding I woke early and almost sick with nerves. For a moment I couldn’t think why – then I realised that today I was returning to work, to the nightmare of
. Pulling the duvet over my head didn’t make the fear dissipate. Eventually I clambered out of bed.
For once, the journey into town flashed by, when usually it seemed interminable. Surrounded by a floating sea of free newspapers, we rattled over the arches of Rotherhithe and Bermondsey, the sky a cobweb of intricate cloud above neat tower-blocks that flapped bright washing on plastic lines, and I realised with stomach-clenching clarity that I was actually frightened. Although I’d seen a few of the team while I recuperated at my dad’s, I had no idea how they were going to react to me in the office. I had no idea how much they knew, and that was what scared me most. I could still barely piece it all together myself. And, deeper down, I was frightened I’d lost my touch. Sitting at home alone for months hadn’t been exactly morale-boosting.
Of course, this morning the journey was so smooth that I ended up being early. I felt very tiny as I dawdled across Charing Cross footbridge in the freezing autumn air, the skyline hectic, huge cranes soaring above the spires of centuries past. I stopped at the corner café for coffee so strong it made my heart bump
and they recognised me behind the counter, but I couldn’t manage conversation this morning. Finally I couldn’t drag it out any longer. I was so nervous that I almost couldn’t sign my own name at security.
But when I actually walked into the office, the initial reception I received was so nice, the girls so pleased to see me, the gossip to catch up with so comfortingly familiar, that I felt an enormous wash of relief; compounded by the fact that Charlie was apparently out all day. It’s not so bad, I told myself. Perhaps I can manage, after all.
I was just starting to relax a little, sorting things out in my tiny office, trying not to be overwhelmed by the thousands of emails and piles of paperwork that had accumulated since I’d last been here, when there was a tentative knock at my door.
I looked up from the letter I’d been reading. It was the blond boy from the trauma show. Now that I looked at him again, it was funny – he reminded me of someone. Probably himself.
‘Oh, hi.’ I’d forgotten his bloody name again.
‘I thought you might like a coffee.’
He looked so eager I didn’t dare tell him I was already buzzing with caffeine. Very carefully, like it was a Faberge egg and not a chipped old mug declaring ‘
You’re the best
’ in hot-pink on one side, he placed it down beside the computer. Then he stood and looked at me.
‘So, how’s it going?’ I asked when I realised he wasn’t going to speak. ‘Are you settling in? Sometimes it can –’
‘Oh I love it,’ he interrupted airily. ‘The girls have made me really welcome.’ That’d be a first. They hated anyone who wasn’t their own. ‘They remember me from the summer, of course.’
I wished to God I did. ‘So, what are you working on?’
But he never got to answer because Charlie suddenly stuck his head round the door.
‘Miss Warren. Not before time, some less patient than myself might say.’
‘Everything all right? Excited to be back?’ He sauntered in holding a folder I didn’t much like the look of.
‘Oh yes, very excited.’ My smile was as genuine as Charlie’s signet ring as the blond boy slunk out of the room, obviously irritated that Charlie had ignored him.
‘Strange boy, that one.’ My boss plonked himself on the edge of my desk, crumpling my ‘
’ card in the process.
‘He does seem a bit odd, yes.’ I moved the card.
‘Anyway, darling, we need to discuss the show –’
The phone rang and I snatched it up, glad of the distraction. ‘Maggie Warren.’ No one spoke. ‘Hello? Hello?’ Eventually I hung up.
‘So, look, I’ve been talking to the team about the
show.’ Charlie admired his reflection in the glass partition and adjusted his collar minutely. ‘Everyone’s very excited.’
I seriously doubted that.
‘But we do need to book a celeb couple pronto, for the kudos. Get Donna on it.’
‘Oh Charlie, come on.’ I actually laughed. ‘No one in the public eye is gonna dump their partner live on air, are they. Not even the Z-list.’
‘Really? What about Jade Goody? Or that blond kid from
, the one that’s always fighting in the clubs –’
I fought the urge to sink my head onto the desk. ‘If you say so,’ I murmured.
‘Pull all the stops out, Maggie, yeah? You know you can do it.’
‘I’m not sure I’m quite there yet, Charlie.’ I held his gaze.
‘Well, you’d better be, my darling. Because Sally and Donna are chomping at the bit for your job.’ Charlie flung the folder
onto my desk. A photo fell out of the side. ‘I can’t stave them off for much longer.’
The photo looked horribly like –
‘Is that …?’ I pulled the picture towards me.
‘What? Oh yes, your little friend. She’s dying to appear on
show, apparently. I do love the fame-hungry, don’t you?’
I turned the black and white headshot round to face me. Fay.
Somehow I got through that first day, though I practically willed the clock to strike six. I was hugely relieved to realise I hadn’t forgotten everything I knew, although my memory and my concentration were still tested.
Around five I’d taken a deep breath and made a phone call. She was horribly pleased to hear from me.
‘Don’t worry, Maggie. Charlie’s explained it all. It makes perfect sense – you know you love someone, but you also know you’re doing the right thing by finishing with them.’
How very ingenious of Charlie.
‘I need to talk to Troy first, obviously, sound him out. But Charlie said, well, he said he’d make it worth my while, you know.’
‘I bet he did,’ I muttered. ‘You know, Fay, you should really, really think about this before you do it.’
‘I mean, how will Troy take it if you do something like that live on air, in front of an audience? There’ll be no going back once it’s done.’
I almost couldn’t believe my own ears. Me, who was usually trying desperately to persuade, to coax people into doing things on live telly that I’d never ever countenance myself.
Fay was absolutely blithe. ‘He knows it’s on the cards anyway. I’m sure he’d like to be on TV too, you know.’
‘Yeah, but Fay, this is real life. It’s not play-acting.’
‘Oh, yes, I know.’ I could picture her dreamy smile. I had the
unsettling feeling that she was actually quite mad. ‘He’ll be happy for me. He knows I want to be famous.’
‘I’ve already got recognised in the street since the show. It’s so exciting.’
I cringed inside. ‘Look, Fay, I can arrange for you to be on another show. You don’t have to dump your boyfriend live on air to be famous, really.’ I was so tense my head was starting to ache.
‘It’s not dumping,’ she gabbled on. ‘It’s just telling the truth. And Charlie said he’d take care of me anyway.’
It was too late to save her. She’d been truly brainwashed.
In the end Fay and Troy split up long before the show. Instead she came on an episode that Sally produced called ‘
Anything To Be Famous
’, where Fay showed the crash photo reverently and cried a bit, and then performed a rather innocuous pole-dance live, which resulted in one of the glamour agencies signing her up. I watched the show in the office with half an eye, busy signing contracts to secure a drug-addled celebrity set to reveal her addictions on a show next week for an awful lot of money. Suddenly I thought I heard my name. I took a swig of coffee and turned the volume up.
‘Yes. As I say, I wouldn’t be here now if it wasn’t for my new friend. Good comes out of bad, you know, I think that’s always true. I’m so glad that I got the chance to meet her.’ Fay looked right into the camera, practically caressing the lens with those melting eyes. ‘Maggie, I’d like to thank you – not only for saving me on that coach, but for showing me the way. Here’s to you.’ She raised an imaginary glass to the screen.
The phone on my desk rang as I almost choked on my coffee, but by the time I’d mopped up and answered it, the caller had rung off. On the show, Renee moved swiftly away from Fay’s pseudo-psychology; if she had any idea it was me that Fay was
celebrating, the bitter old bag sure as hell wouldn’t dwell on it. And neither would I.
I had an odd feeling somewhere deep inside. I felt guilty about Fay, about the fact that she made my skin crawl. I hoped this would be the last I saw of her. But I soon forgot her. There were more serious things on my mind by then.
Since I’d split up with Alex, Sundays haunted me. They were long and lonely; they reminded me of far happier times. However much I tried to celebrate my freedom, I just felt sad and empty as I dragged myself around the hills of Greenwich Park with Digby, or played gooseberry at Bel’s.
This Sunday, as my father dropped me at the nursing home on his way to Jenny’s, I was suffused not just with self-pity but with guilt too. I hadn’t visited much since the accident, since I’d utterly lost myself in the summer. I’d kept away while I tried to recover. Now, though, I wanted to be with my grandmother, searching for some calm and serenity. I needed to step out of time for a moment.
The staff were as welcoming as ever when I arrived; relieved to see young blood in these corridors of doom, I always guessed.
‘How’s the wicked Renee?’ joked Susan, her broad face still jolly despite the smell of decay and urine that pervaded the air; the perpetual smell that Susan lived and worked in. They thought I was so glamorous because I worked in the TV industry, and I played along with the lie because it
a nice job when you compared it to what they did: shovelling food and drink into slack old mouths, listening to the same feeble moans, to the hysteria of the senile and the ramblings of the lonely, the interminable wiping and dressing and wiping again. How could I possibly complain? They didn’t know that I hated myself a little more each day.
Angelic in her green dressing-gown, Gar looked as fragile as a powder-puff about to float away. Her soft hair was tied in a bun, silky under the dim light of her room. Someone had tuned her stereo into Radio 3 and she was nodding off to the strains of Strauss, her last cup of tea cold and cloudy before her on the table. I didn’t want to wake her – there was little point. Gar was going gaga, that was the awful truth. She was clamped in Alzheimer’s relentless jaws, and there was no snatching her back.
I held her hand as she slept, her wrinkly old hand that was so light these days, and gazed almost unseeing at the familiar photos on the wall: me as a toothy baby; me as a fat and naked toddler in a pink sunhat on the beach in Cornwall; me aged about five in my mother’s strong, freckled arms – skinny now, just a little curving belly of baby-fat left, our hair as brilliantly red as one another’s, my mother beaming with love and my dad just off to the side looking on proudly, very tall and thin, before his stoop began. Before the sadness started.
Susan popped her head round the door.
‘Fancy a cuppa, lovie?’
‘I’d rather have a whisky,’ I joked.
‘Vera’s got some sherry in her cupboard, I think.’ Susan did a double-take. ‘Ooh, you’ve had all your hair cut off. I didn’t notice with that beret on before. Very nice. You look a bit like Twiggy used to. All eyes.’ She wiped her red nose on a cotton handkerchief. ‘Only she was blonde, of course.’
‘Thank you.’ I rubbed my bare neck self-consciously. ‘I’m still not used to it. I just thought it was time for a change.’
‘A change is as good as a rest, that’s what they say.’ Susan nodded her approval. ‘I’ll get you that tea.’
While I waited, I had a hunt for the sherry.
Gar woke just before I left. ‘Did you have some porridge?’ she asked politely, and I knew she wasn’t sure who I was today, her blue eyes watery and confused – but she let me keep holding
her hand, which was something. I stroked it gently and waffled on about this and that.
‘I’ll fetch that porridge, but don’t let it burn,’ my grandmother mumbled, and then nodded off again. I gave her a long hug, feeling her frame so frail beneath my arms, and headed back to Dad’s.
There was a half-hour wait at the cab office so I attempted a bus, but they were rare at the best of times and it was late on Sunday, so in the end I decided to walk across Blackheath. The physio had said I needed to keep moving as much as possible – but God, I was deathly slow at the moment.
In the middle of the deserted heath it suddenly seemed horribly dark. A breeze sniggered through the trees; there was no sight of the moon, no stars, just clouds scudding across a dark sky. Although I fought it, a knot of apprehension tightened as I walked.
However hard I tried not to, I found myself constantly glancing behind me, disturbed by the notion that someone might be following me. But I was alone each time I turned; of course I was alone. I hummed something jolly, something made up, and wished fervently that Digby was here to bark at my imaginings. I tried to walk a little quicker, but my foot was really hampering me now.
A fox barked in the thicket by the pond, a terrible sound like a baby crying, and I jumped. The leaves rustled and shivered in the wind. Then a car drove by very fast, blinding me with its lights, and I stumbled on the uneven grass. Righting myself, I thought I heard voices but I couldn’t work out from where. I picked up my pace as best I could.
Eventually a couple of kids dragging a fat Pekinese came into sight under the lamppost on the corner by the pond. My sigh of relief was audible. I shuffled along, keeping them in my sights until I finally hit the main road.
* * *
The next day I raced home from work to collect the car I could finally drive again, and was about to head out when my dad called me into the sitting room. He was immersed in
‘Beautiful flowers, love,’ he said, waving his pen vaguely in the direction of the sideboard. ‘I stuck them in a vase. You might need to do something with them.’
‘Lilies,’ I said stupidly, gazing at them. The exact same bunch as last time. ‘Bloody lilies again.’ I crossed the room to see if there was a card with them, but I couldn’t find one. I gazed at the top of my father’s bent and balding head. ‘Do you know who brought them?’
‘Fourteen across. Eight letters. Unwelcome pale beast.’
‘Sorry. No. They were on the doorstep when we got back.’
I pushed the vase back, morbidly transfixed. ‘Flowers of death, you know,’ I muttered. ‘That’s what they say.’
For the first time since I’d walked in, my father looked up at me sharply. ‘Don’t be silly, Maggie.’ He frowned. ‘Do you mean because –’
Jenny trundled in, wearing a vivid orange kaftan creation. She looked like a small plump carrot. ‘Hello, lovie.’ She came over to kiss me. She was very tanned.
‘You look well,’ I said, as brightly as I could. ‘Good holiday?’
‘Wonderful, thanks, Maggie. Amazing place. I’m going to try to drag your father there.’
I smiled. ‘You should.’ Somehow I couldn’t see him on the beaches of Goa. But that was why they worked well together, my solemn, slightly pained father and the gregarious Jenny. When he’d introduced me to her a few months ago – ‘their eyes had met across the crowded staffroom’ – I hadn’t taken much notice. Well, I hadn’t been taking notice of anything, to be honest, and anyway, my father’s relationships usually lasted less time than the seasons in his precious garden, as his heart
never really engaged. But he and Jenny reflected something in one another, and she was still here. She’d seen him through the recent dark days, and she made him smile. That was the important thing.
‘I’ve made a curry in India’s honour. You’ll join us, won’t you?’
The carriage clock on the mantelpiece chimed the hour. ‘I’m sure India will be very honoured, but I’m afraid I’m late already.’ Thank God. Jenny’s cooking was atrocious at the best of times.
‘I’ll save you some.’ She noticed the flowers. ‘New beau, darling? I do love lilies.’
‘Just what you need,’ my father mumbled. We both looked at him. ‘A new beau.’
I blushed. ‘I don’t know
they’re from, that’s the problem.’
‘Perhaps you’ve got a fan since your debut on TV.’ Despite my best efforts, I’d been rumbled when my dad’s head of maths, off sick, had caught the show. ‘How exciting.’ Jenny beamed. ‘You could have a fan club and everything.’
‘I’m going to chuck them out,’ I replied. ‘I don’t want them anyway.’
‘But they’re gorgeous,’ Jenny protested.
‘Take them home, then,’ I said. ‘Honestly. You have them.’
‘Of course!’ My father hit the paper triumphantly. ‘Elephant.’
I patted his head affectionately. ‘I’ll see you later.’
On the way out of the room I managed not to look at the lilies again, and I had such a nice time at Bel’s – making spaghetti bolognese with Hannah while Bel rang round making last-minute arrangements for Friday night, drinking red wine and listening to Johnno playing the guitar badly, serenading us with silly Rolf Harris songs in his broadest Australian accent – that I forgot all about the bloody flowers.
But on the way home to my father’s, the feeling of disquiet began to balloon again. It wasn’t just the fact that some freak had taken to sending me horrible bouquets; it was my sense of utter displacement – knowing it was time to leave my father’s
house, time to leave Greenwich. He and Jenny were beginning to get close, and they deserved a proper chance after everything he’d been through. And I needed my own space again. I needed to finally extricate my life from Alex’s. We were going to have to sell the flat in Borough Market, and that would inevitably mean seeing him.
My mobile rang. ‘Hello?’ I swerved dangerously near the parked car on my left. ‘Hello?’ I repeated irritably. ‘Who’s there?’
No one spoke, but this time I swore I could hear someone breathing. With a howl of frustration, I threw the phone onto the floor, where its fluorescent face winked up at me mercilessly all the way home.