Spider in the Corner of the Room (The Project Trilogy)

NIKKI OWEN
is a writer and columnist. As part of her degree, she studied at the acclaimed University of Salamanca—the same city where her protagonist of
The Spider in the Corner of the Room,
Dr Maria Martinez, hails from. Born in Dublin, Nikki now lives in Gloucestershire with her family

www.mirabooks.co.uk

To Dave, Abi and Hattie—my beautiful little family

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

The thing about writing a book is that it’s not just one person who does it. Well, it is, ultimately, but I guess what I’m saying is, it can’t be achieved without the support of some, quite frankly, awesome people. Not to mention strong coffee. And chocolate. Oh and, it turns out, my running shoes.

So thanks to everyone. To my blog buddies who have been with me right from the outset. Made some friends there, learnt a lot—cheers, folks. And to all the bleary-eyed, coffee-mug-clutching gang on Twitter via #the5oclockclub. We’ve almost been asleep at our laptops, but, somehow, we’ve managed to work. Ta, chaps. Gratitude, also, to the 6.30 a.m gang down at the swimming pool. I’d get there, yawning my head off, hammering out the lengths. Thanks, swim gang, for the laughs and chats in the showers (it’s not what it sounds…).

Big up has to go to the Gloucestershire Twitterati. You all know who you are. I doff my hat. And to my Facebook buddies—cheers, you lot, for enduring my posts about the crazy, amazing year that was 2014. Between us all, we keep it real.

When you’re in the first throes of writing a book, you need help. Wine, of course, is handy, but so too are people who you can trust to read your manuscript and feed back their comments without you running to hide under the nearest duvet. So my heartfelt thanks to my mum. She was there to read the very first version of Spider back when it was still really just a germ of an idea. Thanks, too, to Tracy Egan for reading the second version and giving me invaluable feedback. And cheers to Kellie Duke, also. Kellie—book club reader extraordinaire—remember when I called you from the car on the long journey to see you, Al and the kids? We hammered out the last few scenes when we arrived at your house (wine open…). You helped so much, Kels. We may cry on the ski slopes together, but we can rock a book edit.

Next up: neighbours. No, not the Australian TV soap, although, to be fair, that was the defining show of my
generation (Scott and Charlene getting married anyone?). No, I mean my wonderful friends two doors down, Marg and Brian. You are such dear people. We are blessed to live near you, to have you as friends. Marg—thanks for the stout advice, the cinema trips, which we love (even if the film sucks). You are two of life’s truly great people. Huge hugs.

And speaking of friends, over to Jayne and Katrina. Jayne—thank you so much for being my buddy. We’ve known each other since that first time sitting in the postnatal club with our three-week-old newborns, looking like a truck had hit us. We didn’t know how to stop a baby crying, but we did know a good friend when we saw one. Thanks, my wonderful buddy. And Katrina—sweedy darling! I remember that time we first nattered to each other—knew I’d found a kindred spirit, i.e. someone who appreciates the necessity of a good belly laugh and puts her foot in it almost as much as me. Cheesy balls. That’s all I’m going to say…

You need a literary agent to get a book on the go and I have the nicest, sharpest, smartest-dressed agent in town. Adam Gauntlett—thanks. From the first moment I received your e-mail about my MS submission when you were on a flight from Chicago, I knew this was going to be good. You’ve been on my side from the word go. You got what Spider was about straight away, you gave me huge help when I hit a low and you introduced me to the concept of booking a London cab via an app. Who knew? Adam—you are one cool dude. Cheers, A.

Thing is about this literary agency lark, just like this book-writing business, is that it takes teamwork. So thank you to everyone at PFD, my agency. To Marilia, Tim, Jonathan and the entire gang—you have all helped me in so many ways. Buckets of gratitude. Oh, and not forgetting Marlow the PFD dog. He likes a close haircut.

And from agency to publisher. Everything about Spider has been about enthusiastic people. And the gang at Harlequin MIRA are just that. Sally—you are an amazing editor. I mean
really great. The feedback and advice you’ve given me on structuring Spider have been spot on. So thanks, Sally, and cheers, too, to all the HQ MIRA team—it’s an honour to be with you.

I have two children and when you work over the summer hols, you need help. So thank you to Wendy and Barrie, the best parents-in-law ever. Thanks for looking after the girls when Dave and I were working, and being just so lovely.

But the final and biggest thanks has to go to my family. My beautiful, perfect little family. To Dave, my husband, and to my two beautiful girls—Abi and Hattie. This is where I cry. Because I can’t write without them. DJ—you always believed in me even when I didn’t. You kept me going, supplied me with chocolate, looked after the girls while I typed madly for a deadline. You are my best friend, even if you do have a worryingly large Land Rover habit. You and me against the world, babe. And Abi and Hattie, my smart, strong girls—you are the best daughters in the world ever, amen. Thank you for your notes, banners and pictures for the study. Love you to infinity and beyond.

So there you go. It wasn’t just me who wrote Spider, it was all these people too. And now you are reading it, so my gratitude has to go to you. Thank you for buying my book. I truly am honoured. It’s going to be a blast.

#teamSpider

Chapter 1

T
he man sitting opposite me does not move. He keeps his head straight and stifles a cough. The sun bakes the room, but even when I pull at my blouse, the heat still sticks. I watch him. I don’t like it: him, me, here, this room, this…this cage. I feel like pulling out my hair, screaming at him, at them, at the whole world. And yet I do nothing but sit. The clock on the wall ticks.

The man places his Dictaphone on the table, and, without warning, delivers me a wide smile.

‘Remember,’ he says, ‘I am here to help you.’

I open my mouth to speak, but there is a sudden spark in me, a voice in my head that whispers,
Go!
I try to ignore it, instead focus on something, anything, to steady the rising surge inside me. His height. He is too tall for the chair. His back arcs, his stomach dips and his legs cross. At 187.9 centimetres and weight at 74.3 kilograms, he could sprint one kilometre without running out of breath.

The man clears his throat, his eyes on mine. I swallow hard.

‘Maria,’ he starts. ‘Can I…’ He falters, then leaning in a little: ‘Can I call you Maria?’

I answer instinctively in Spanish.

‘In English, please.’

I cough. ‘Yes. My name is Maria.’ There is a tremor in my voice. Did he hear it? I need to slow down. Think: facts. His fingernails. They are clean, scrubbed. The shirt he wears is white, open at the collar. His suit is black. Expensive fabric. Wool? Beyond that, he wears silk socks and leather loafers. There are no scuffs. As if he stepped fresh out of a magazine.

He picks up a pen and I risk reaching forward to take a sip of water. I grip the glass tight, but still tiny droplets betray me, sloshing over the edges. I stop. My hands are shaking.

‘Are you okay?’ the man asks, but I do not reply. Something is not right.

I blink. My sight—it has become milky, a white film over my eyes, a cloak, a mask. My eyelids start to flutter, heart pounds, adrenaline courses through me. Maybe it is being here with him, maybe it is the thought of speaking to a stranger about my feelings, but it ignites something, something deep inside, something frightening.

Something that has happened to me many times before. A memory.

It sways at first, takes its time. Then, in seconds, it rushes, picking up speed until it is fully formed: the image. It is there in front of me like a stage play. The curtains rise and I am in a medical room. White walls, steel, starched bed linen. Strip lights line the ceiling, glaring, exposing me. And then, ahead, like a magician through smoke, the
doctor with black eyes enters by the far door. He is wearing a mask, holding a needle.

‘Hello, Maria.’

Panic thrusts up within me, lava-like, volcanic, so fast that I fear I could explode. He steps closer and I begin to shake, try to escape, but there are straps, leather on my limbs. Black Eyes’ lips are upturned, he is in the room now, bearing down on me, his breath—tobacco, garlic, mint— it is in my face, my nostrils, and I begin to hear myself scream when there is something else. A whisper: ‘He is not real. He is not real.’ The whisper, it hovers in my brain, flaps, lingers, then like a breeze it passes, leaving a trace of goosebumps on my skin. Was it right? I glance round: medicine vials, needles, charts. I look at my hands: young, no lines. I touch my face: teenage spots. It is not me, not me now. Which means none of this exists.

Like a candle extinguishing, the image blows away, the curtains close. My eyes dart down. Each knuckle is white from where they have gripped the glass. When I look up, the man opposite is staring.

‘What happened?’ he says.

I inhale, check my location. The scent of Black Eyes is still in my nose, my mouth as if he had really been here. I try to push the fear to one side and, slowly, set down the glass and wring my hands together once then twice. ‘I remembered something,’ I say after a moment.

‘Something real?’

‘I do not know.’

‘Is this a frequent occurrence?’

I hesitate. Does he already know? I decide to tell him the truth. ‘Yes.’

The man looks at my hands then turns his head and opens some photocopied files.

My eyes scan the pages on his lap. Data. Information. Facts, real facts, all black and white, clear, no grey, no in-betweens or hidden meanings. The thought of it must centre me, because, before I know it, the information in my head is coming out of my mouth.

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