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Authors: Nicci French

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Beneath the Skin

BOOK: Beneath the Skin
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Synopsis:

They are three very different women: Zoe, the pretty
blonde schoolteacher; Jenny, the former hand model turned model mother and wife;
and Nadia, the free spirit who entertains at children’s parties. But when they
are targeted by a sexual predator, they become sisters closer than kin. Suddenly
they share the same dread when they approach their doorsteps, fall victim to the
same rising panic as darkness falls. For someone is watching them, learning them
better than they know themselves. And when the gruesome threats begin to
escalate, each woman faces a horrifying truth: No one is coming to the rescue,
not even the police. Stalked by an unknown killer, each can count only on
herself, and do whatever it takes to survive.

 

 

 

 

Beneath The Skin
Nicci French

 

Copyright © 2000 by Nicci French

 

 

In the summer, their bodies catch heat. Heat seeps in through the pores on their bare flesh; hot light enters their darkness; I imagine it rippling round inside them, stirring them up. Dark shining liquid under the skin. They take off their clothes, all the thick, closed layers that they wear in winter, and let the sun touch them: on the arms, on the back of the neck. It pours down between their breasts, and they tip back their heads to catch it on their faces. They close their eyes, open their mouths; painted mouths or naked ones. Heat throbs on the pavement where they walk, with bare legs opening, light skirts fluttering to the rhythm of their stride. Women. In the summer I watch them, I smell them, and I remember them.

They look at their reflections in shop windows, sucking in their stomachs, standing straighter, and I look at them. I watch them watching themselves. I see them when they think they are invisible.

The ginger one in an orange sundress. One of the straps is twisted on her shoulder. She has freckles on her nose; a large freckle on her collarbone. No bra. When she walks, she swings her pale, downy arms, and her nipples show through the tightened cotton of her dress. Shallow breasts. Sharp pelvic bones. She wears flat sandals. Her second toe is longer than the big one. Muddy green eyes, like the bottom of a river. Pale eyelashes; blinking too much. Thin mouth; a trace of lipstick left at the corners. She hunches under the heat; lifts up one arm to wipe the beads of moisture from her forehead, and there is a graze of ginger stubble in the scoop of her armpit, maybe a few days old. Legs prickly too; they would feel like damp sandpaper. Her skin is going blotchy; her hair is sticking to her brow. She hates the heat, this one; is defeated by it.

The one with big breasts, a squashy tummy, and masses of dark hair, you’d think that she’d suffer more—all that
weight, that flesh. But she lets the sun in; she doesn’t fight it. I see her, opening out her big soft body. Circles of sweat under her arms, on her green T-shirt; sweat running down her neck, past the thick, straight braids of her hair. Sweat glistening in the dark hairs on her arms, her strong legs in their high shoes. Her underarm hair is thick; I know the rest of her body when I see it. She has dark hairs on her upper lip, a mouth that is red, wet, like a ripe plum. She eats a roll that is wrapped in brown, waxy paper with grease spots on it, sinking white teeth into the pulp. A tomato pip is caught on her upper lip, grease oozes down her chin and she doesn’t wipe it away. Her skirt catches in the crease between her buttocks; rides up a bit
.

The heat can make women disgusting. Some of them get all dried up, like insects in the desert. Dry lines on their face, stitching their upper lips, crisscrossing under their eyes. The sun has sucked away all their moisture. Especially the older women, who try to hide their crepey arms under long sleeves, their faces under hats. Other women get rank, rotten; their skin can barely contain their disintegration. When they come near, I can smell them: Under the deodorant and soap and the perfume they’ve dabbed on their wrists and behind their ears, I can smell the odor of ripeness and decay.

But some of them open like flowers in the sunlight; clean and fresh and smooth-skinned; hair like silk, pulled back or falling round their faces. I sit on a bench in the park and look at them as they walk past, singly or in groups, pressing their hot feet into the bleached grass. The light glistens on them. The black one in a yellow dress and the sun bouncing off the shining planes of her skin; rich, greasy hair. I hear her laugh as she passes, a gravelly sound that seems to come from a secret place deep inside her strong body. I look at what lies in the shadows; the crease in the armpit, the
hollow behind the knee, the dark place between their breasts. The hidden bits of them. They think no one is looking
.

Sometimes I can see what they are wearing underneath. The woman with a sleeveless white shirt and the bra strap that keeps slipping onto her shoulder. It is gray-colored, stained by wear. She put on a clean shirt but didn’t bother about her bra. She thought no one would notice. I notice these things. The slip under the hem. The chipped nail varnish. The spot they try to cover with makeup. The button that doesn’t match. The smudge of dirt, the grimy rim of the collar. The ring that’s got too tight with years, so the finger swells around it.

They walk past me. I see them through a window, when they think they’re alone. The one that is sleeping, in the afternoon, in her kitchen, in the house down the quiet street I sometimes visit. Her head hangs at an awkward angle—in a minute she will jerk awake, wonder where she is—and her mouth is slack and open. There is a thin line of spittle on her cheek, like a snail’s trail.

Getting in a car, the dress hitched up, a flash of underwear. Dimpled thighs.

The love bite under the carefully arranged scarf.

Pregnant, and I can see the tummy button through the thin material of the dress.

With a baby, and there are milk stains on the blouse, a tiny patch of vomit where the baby’s head lolls on her shoulder.

The smile that shows the swollen, receding gums; the chipped front tooth; the porcelain cap.

The track of brown down the parting in the blond hair, where the dye is growing out.

The thick, yellowing toenails that betray her age.

The first sign of varicose veins on the white leg, like a purple worm under the skin.

In the park, they are lying on the grass while the sun beats down on them. They sit outside pubs, froth from the head of beer on their lips. Sometimes I stand among them in the underground; the press of hot flesh in the stale air. Sometimes I sit beside them, my thigh just touching theirs. Sometimes I open a door for them, and follow them into the cool interior of a library, a gallery, a shop, watching the way they walk, the way they turn their heads or push their hair behind their ears. The way they smile and look away. Sometimes they do not look away.

For a few weeks more, it is summer in the city.

 

 

PART ONE
Zoe

 

ONE

 

I wouldn’t have become famous if it hadn’t been for the watermelon. And I wouldn’t have been in possession of the watermelon if it hadn’t been for the heat. So I’d better start with the heat.

It was hot. But that may give you the wrong impression. It may make you think of the Mediterranean and deserted beaches and long drinks with colorful paper parasols dangling out of them. Nothing like that. The heat was like a big old fat smelly mangy greasy farty dying dog that had settled down on London at the beginning of June and hadn’t moved for three horrible weeks. It had got sweatier and slimier and the sky had changed day by day from blue to a sort of industrial mixture of yellow and gray. Holloway Road now felt like a giant exhaust pipe, the car fumes held down at street level by a weight of even more harmful pollutants somewhere above. We pedestrians would cough at each other like beagles released from a tobacco laboratory. At the beginning of June it had felt good to put on a summer dress and feel it light against my skin. But my dresses were grimy and stained by the end of each day and I had to wash my hair in the sink every morning.

Normally the choice of books that I read to my class is dictated according to fascist totalitarian principles imposed by the government, but this morning I’d rebelled just for once and read them a Brer Rabbit story I’d found in a cardboard box of battered childhood books when I’d cleared out my dad’s flat. I’d lingered over old school reports, letters written before I’d been born, tacky china ornaments that brought with them a flood of sentimental memories. I kept all the books because I thought one day I might have children myself, and then I could read them the books that Mum had read to me before she died and left it to Dad to tuck me into bed each night, and reading aloud became just another of those things that were lost, and so in my memory became something precious and wonderful. Whenever I read aloud to kids, there’s a bit of me that feels as if I’ve turned into a soft, blurred version of my mother; that I’m reading to the child I once was.

I wish I could say that the class was held enthralled by this classic old-fashioned piece of storytelling. Maybe there was just a bit less wailing, nose-picking, staring at the ceiling, or nudging than usual. But what mainly emerged as I asked them about the story afterward was that nobody knew what a watermelon was. I drew one on the blackboard for them with red and green chalk. A watermelon is so like a cartoon anyway that even I can draw them. A complete blank.

So I said that if they were good—and for the last hour of the afternoon they were alarmingly well behaved—I’d bring in a watermelon for them the next day. On the way home I got off the bus a stop later than usual, after it had turned up Seven Sisters Road. I walked back down the road past the greengrocers and stalls. In the very first one I bought a pound of golden nap cherries and ate them greedily. They were tart, juicy, clean; they made me think of being in the countryside where I grew up, of sitting under the green shade as the sun goes down. It was just after five o’clock, so the traffic was already starting to grind to a halt. The fumes were hot against my face, but I was feeling almost cheerful. I was fighting my way through crowds of people as usual, but many of them seemed in good spirits. They were wearing bright colors. My urban claustrophobia meter was down from its usual eleven to a more manageable six or seven or so.

I bought a watermelon the size of a basketball and the weight of a bowling ball. The man needed four carrier bags one inside the other, and there was virtually no practical way of carrying it. Very gingerly I swung the bag over my shoulder, almost spinning myself into the traffic as I did so, and carried the melon like a man with a sack of coal on his back. It was only about three hundred yards to the flat. I’d probably make it.

As I crossed Seven Sisters Road and turned into Holloway Road, people stared at me. God knows what they thought I was up to, a skimpily dressed young blonde hunched over and carrying what must have looked like her own weight in iron ore in a shopping bag.

Then it happened. What did it feel like at the time? It was a moment, an impulse, a blow, and then it was in the past. I only really reconstructed what had taken place through the action replays in my mind, by telling people about it, by what people told
me
about it. A bus was coming toward me on the inside lane of the road. It had almost reached me when a person jumped off the platform at the back. The bus was going as close to full speed as anything ever gets on Holloway Road during rush hour. Normal people don’t jump off buses like that, even Londoners, so at first I thought he may have been recklessly crossing the road behind the bus. It was the speed at which he hit the pavement, almost losing his balance, that showed he must have come off the bus.

Then I saw there were two of them, apparently joined together by straps. The one behind was a woman, older than him. But not really old. She really did lose her footing, horribly, when she hit the ground, and rolled over. I saw her feet crazily high in the air and she crashed against a bin. I saw her head hit the pavement; heard it. The man wrenched himself free. He was holding a bag. Her bag. He held it in two hands, chest high. Somebody shouted. He ran away at full speed. He had a strange, tight smile on his face and his eyes were glassy. He was running straight for me, so I had to step out of the way. But I didn’t just step out of the way. I let the watermelon slip off my shoulder. I leaned back and swung it. I had to lean back or else it would have fallen vertically, taking me down with it. If it had continued on its circular progress around me I would quickly have lost control of it, but its progress was very suddenly halted as it hit the man full in the stomach.

They talk about the sweet spot. When I used to play rounders at primary school and I swung at the ball, mostly it would hit the edge of the bat and dribble off pathetically to the side. But every so often, the ball would hit the right place and with almost no effort, it would just fly. Cricket bats have sweet spots too, except that it’s called the “Meat.” And tennis rackets have sweet spots. So do baseball bats. And this bag-snatcher caught my watermelon right in its sweet spot, right at the perfect point of its arc. There was the most amazing thud as it struck him in the stomach. There was a whoosh of ejecting air and he just went down as drastically as if there were no body inside his clothes and they were attempting to fold themselves up on the pavement. He didn’t go down like a falling tree. He went like a tall building being demolished by explosives around the base. One minute it’s there and then there’s just dust and rubble.

BOOK: Beneath the Skin
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