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Authors: Mark Edwards

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Chapter Twelve

D
r Claudia Sauvage’s office was on the top floor of her huge red-brick Victorian terrace in Crouch End. Sometimes, on my way up the stairs to the room at the back of the house where we had our weekly sessions, I would catch glimpses of her life outside the therapy room. The smell of soup wafting from the kitchen, photos of Dr Sauvage and her husband framed and hung in the hallway, a couple of pugs poking their squashed faces out of the living room. But I wasn’t allowed to ask Claudia about herself: our sessions were dedicated wholly to talking about me.

The first session had been dedicated to filling Claudia in on my background. I wasn’t sure how pertinent it was but Claudia said it was important to get as much detail as possible so she could understand and help me. So I told her that I grew up in Beckenham, on the outskirts of south London, and was an only child. My parents were divorced and we weren’t particularly close. Claudia wanted to know a lot more about this but I was reluctant to talk about it. I didn’t think it was important. But she scribbled notes as I told her that I only saw them now at Christmas and on the odd special occasion. They had both remarried and thrown themselves into new lives with new partners. They usually wanted to talk about what the other one was up to, as if they were competing to be happier. I didn’t want to get drawn into it.

I spent much of my adolescence in my bedroom playing video games and learning how to code. I was a geek, until I discovered music and met Jake, who showed me that life outside my bedroom was a lot more interesting. From that point I spent a lot of time trying to work out who I was. I was naturally mathematical, scientific, but I yearned to be artistic, bohemian. I studied computer science at university but went out drinking a lot and had a series of short-term girlfriends, all of whom were studying one of the arts. I stopped reading science fiction and read the books these girls pressed on me: Donna Tartt, Douglas Coupland, lots of Penguin Classics. I experimented with soft drugs. I watched a lot of films with subtitles.

After college I moved to North London and worked for an internet start-up for a few years before getting into app development in my spare time. I met Laura, via Jake, and fell in love for the first and only time. Laura was everything I’d ever wanted: well-read, arty, passionate and principled. She encouraged me to embrace my true nature, to do the things I enjoyed without worrying about the image I projected. She helped me figure out who I am. I filled our flat with gadgets and she made it come to life with clutter and candles and bright colours.

‘It’s interesting,’ Dr Sauvage said, ‘how when I ask you to talk about yourself, you quickly start telling me about your girlfriend.’

I shrugged. ‘My life is unremarkable.’

She smiled. ‘No life is unremarkable.’

Dr Sauvage was in her mid-forties, thin and elegant, with slender wrists and legs that I found it hard not to stare at. She wore fashionable glasses and a dark grey jersey dress. During our sessions, she puffed on an electronic cigarette, sending clouds of water vapour into the air. She’d asked me if I minded, which I didn’t at all. ‘I’m more addicted to this than I ever was to real cigarettes,’ she confided.

‘So,’ she said now. ‘How are you feeling, Daniel?’

When I didn’t answer, she said, ‘How about your sleep? Any better?’

I adjusted my position in the armchair. ‘No. I only got two hours last night, maybe three.’

She waited for me to continue.

‘I’ve got something new to worry about,’ I said.

‘Oh?’

‘Laura, my girlfriend, my
ex
-girlfriend . . .’ I sighed. ‘She’s
leaving
the country. Going to Australia. Fucking Australia. Sorry.’

A tiny smile at my apology. ‘You can swear if you need to,
Daniel
. And how do you feel about this?’

‘How do I 
feel
? I’m devastated. I don’t want her to go. I can’t let her go. She’s just trying to run away, after what happened. It’s insane. I really won’t be able to bear it if she goes away.’

She raised a hand, seeing how agitated I was becoming. I took five deep, slow breaths, closed my eyes, tried to visualise
something
pleasant. But all I could see was Laura, and then worse . . . I wrenched my eyelids open.

‘Do you think that Laura would be interested in coming to a session with you? It might be helpful to both of you. When a family experiences a trauma together, it’s common to treat them as a unit. The same with couples.’

‘She won’t do it. I tried to talk to her about it but she’s not interested. She won’t even speak with me about what happened. She certainly won’t talk to you.’

‘And what about you?’ she asked, her voice gentle. ‘Will you speak with me about it?’

So far, all I had managed to talk about was what had happened leading up to the walk along the rail tracks. I had spent the first couple of sessions telling her about the good stuff: our first weeks travelling around Europe, the fun times. I had also told her about our plans, our reasons for going. All the things that had been lost. And last week, I had told her what happened on the train, about finding ourselves at the deserted station with the feral dogs.

Post-traumatic stress disorder. That’s what the NHS psychologist had diagnosed me with, something that I associated with war vets or the firefighters who had tried to save people from the World Trade Center. But when they described the symptoms, I ticked pretty much every box. Intense, intrusive memories of the
traumatic
event. Nightmares. Loss of interest in life. Lack of motivation. Insomnia. A feeling of being on constant red alert. Being easily startled. Substance abuse—alcohol, in my case. The list went on for pages.

Dr Sauvage had told me that she wanted to try what she called ‘trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy’.

‘When you suffer from PTSD,’ she had said during our first session, telling me she agreed with the NHS psychologist’s assessment, ‘you want to block out memories of the trauma. You will do anything to avoid confronting it, or anything that reminds you of it. PTSD is where your brain remains in psychological shock, unable to shake off or move on from what happened to you.’

‘That makes sense.’

‘To get better, to move on, you need to face the memories, deal with them, which will allow you to regain control and feel able to face the future. To do that, we need to carefully expose you to those memories, to peel away the barriers.’

I had shuddered visibly.

‘The key word being “carefully”, Daniel. You have nothing to be frightened of.’

‘You don’t get it. I 
do
.’

She had cocked her head. ‘Do?’

‘Have something to be frightened of.’

Now, I looked over at her, sitting on her designer chair with her notepad on her lap, e-cigarette in her hand, and wondered if I’d ever be able to tell her everything.

‘I can tell you what happened afterwards,’ I said. ‘That’s all part of it, anyway.’

‘All right,’ she responded. ‘That would be good. Take your time, go slowly. And if you start to feel distressed, stop talking, OK?’

‘OK.’

I sat back and closed my eyes.

‘I can’t really remember much of the walk into town. We started off running but our backpacks were so heavy we had to slow down. I know we didn’t talk much. I kept opening my mouth to speak but all I could think of to say were stupid questions like “Are you OK?” When of course I knew she was a very long way from OK. And all I could think about was getting as far away as possible.’ I glanced up at Dr Sauvage. ‘I was in shock. We both were. But I remember the same words looping through my head.
We need to get home
.’

I paused. ‘Actually, I don’t think it was that coherent, if there were fully formed words in my head. It was more like screaming. Like white noise. Also, Laura said afterwards that she remembered screaming as we ran out of the forest, but I don’t remember that. In my memory, she didn’t make a sound.’

It was quiet in the office, like it had been back in the forest. A fly crawled up the window and I thought I could hear its footsteps.

‘The town at the end of the tracks was called Breva. When we got there it was just getting light, but nothing was open yet. Though walking through the town, it didn’t seem like there was much of anything anyway. There was nobody around. We saw a man walking a dog, a huge thing, like a wolf, which made Laura grip my hand so hard I thought she’d break my fingers. We saw a young guy walking along with a baseball cap on, head down. A few cars went past. After everything that had happened, what we wanted to see was a city. Lights, life. Not this. The whole place had this bleak feel, full of boarded-up windows and cars that looked like they should be in a scrapyard. Lots of signs of a place that used to be prosperous and lively but that was now dying. I don’t know . . . It just had this atmosphere. It felt like a ghost town.’

She waited for me to continue.

‘After we’d walked for ten minutes or so we saw an old lady scrubbing the front step of her house. I said to her, “Police?” and she looked us up and down before coming over and giving us directions, pointing this way and that and babbling away like we could understand every word. But we got the gist anyway.’

I pictured the old lady now, her milky eyes, her strong arms clutching the wooden brush she’d been using to clean the step. ‘Just before we walked off, she reached up and touched Laura’s face, whispered something in Romanian. I thought Laura was going to start screaming and I had to pull her away.’

I left out a detail. The woman had also touched Laura’s belly, laying the flat of her hand on my girlfriend’s stomach and nodding to herself. Laura had jerked away like the woman had stabbed her.

‘This is good,’ Dr Sauvage said. ‘How are you feeling?’

‘OK.’

‘Able to go on?’

‘Yes. I . . . I want to get to the end.’

I also wanted a strong drink.

I told the rest of the story.

Chapter Thirteen

L
aura and I found the police station about ten minutes after our encounter with the elderly woman, a little building with
Poliția
written above the door. I took a deep breath before trying the door.

A police officer sat at the desk in the tiny reception area, a smartphone in one hand, a mug in the other. He looked up at us and frowned at me, then smiled at Laura.

‘Do you speak English?’ I asked.

He shrugged apologetically.

I immediately switched into Englishman Abroad mode, speaking slowly and turning up the volume. ‘Anyone here speak
English?’

He eyed me before drifting to the back of the reception area and vanishing through a door. He returned a minute later with a large man with red cheeks and broken veins on his nose. He took in Laura’s messy hair, the dirt and scratches on our skin. I hadn’t looked in a mirror at this point so had no idea how beaten-up I looked, how the dash through the forest had marked me, how wild my eyes were.

‘How can we help?’

I didn’t know where to start. I gabbled, mixing the whole thing together non-sequentially—the train, the forest, Alina, the border guards . . .

The policeman held up two huge hands. ‘OK. Slow, please. I don’t understand.’ He came out past the desk and gestured for us to follow him, saying something in his native tongue to his
colleague
, who gave us a dark look that I didn’t understand.

The large policeman instructed us to leave our backpacks behind the desk then led us down a short corridor, seeing us into what I assumed to be an interview room, where we sat down on a pair of plastic chairs. Laura still hadn’t spoken. She sat there
shivering
and staring into space.

The policeman kept glancing at her suspiciously.

‘What are your names?’ he asked.

I told him and watched him write them down.

‘I am Constantin.’ I wasn’t sure if this was his first or second name. ‘OK, tell me. From the start, OK?’

So I told him about what had happened on the train, that we had fallen asleep in the sleeper carriage, that we had woken up to find that our passports, tickets and money had been stolen. That we had been thrown off.

He looked up from his notes. ‘Why were you . . . thrown off?’

‘Because we had no tickets.’

‘You had no ticket?’

The atmosphere in the room changed. He glanced at Laura again, who was shivering even harder now, her teeth chattering.

‘I think she’s in shock,’ I said. ‘Do you have a blanket? A hot, sweet drink?’

He ignored my request, going back to his previous question. ‘So . . . you were on the train with no ticket.’

‘No! We had tickets, but they were stolen.’

He shook his head, like this made no sense. I didn’t want to tell him that we had been in a private compartment that we hadn’t paid for, or even that Alina had intervened and angered the guards. I felt instinctively that this policeman would side with other men in uniform.

He pointed at Laura with his pencil. ‘Your girlfriend. She is
on drugs?’

‘No! I told you, she’s in shock. She needs medical attention. And I need to tell you about what we saw in the house in the forest.’

The pen he had been tapping on the desk went still. ‘House in the forest?’

‘Yes. That’s what we’re here to tell you about.’

He stared at me. ‘Let me see your passport.’

‘I told you that too. They were stolen.’ Beside me, Laura made a whimpering noise. ‘Listen, she really needs to see a doctor. Or, please, a sweet drink.’

He sighed heavily and made a great show of hefting himself to his feet. He left the room and came back a minute later with a tepid can of Coke, which he set before Laura. I cracked it open and passed it to her. She took a sip and winced.

‘So,’ the policeman said. ‘You have no identity?’

I opened my mouth to reply but no words emerged.

‘Does anybody know you are here?’

‘No. But . . .’ I produced my dead iPhone from my pocket. ‘Can you let me charge my phone so I can call home? Or let me use yours?’

‘Wait.’

He got up and left. Beside me, Laura’s shivering had abated somewhat but she still appeared on the verge of passing out. I put my arm around her shoulders, tried to pull her closer. She could have been made of stone.

This was maddening. Constantin hadn’t yet given us a chance to tell him what had happened in the house in the forest. The vision of it loomed up inside my head and I dug my fists into my eyes, as if I could rub the memory away. I had to tell him.

I paced the room for ten minutes, Laura sitting silently, before Constantin finally returned. He didn’t have a phone with him. He had the demeanour of someone who’d just been asked to make a difficult decision.

Before he could sit down, I blurted, ‘I need to tell you what happened . . . There’s been a crime.’

‘In the house in the forest.’

At that point, the policeman who had been on the front desk appeared in the doorway and said something to Constantin in Romanian. Constantin huffed impatiently.

‘Wait here,’ he said, placing his hands on his thighs and pushing himself to his feet. Before he left the room he turned back and said, ‘You are sure . . . no one knows you are here?’

‘No. I’m sure.’

He left the room and I heard their footsteps recede, their voices growing quieter.

‘We have to go,’ I said to Laura. Her expression was blank. I took hold of her arm and pulled her up. ‘Come on. We need to go now.’

‘But . . .’

‘There’s something not right here,’ I said. ‘Why does he keep asking if anyone knows we’re here? I don’t like it.’ I went to the doorway and looked out. There was no one in sight and I couldn’t hear either of the police officers any more. ‘It’s clear. Let’s go.’

Laura staggered to her feet and I put my arm around her. I took another look down the corridor. I could see nothing but could hear shouting. Maybe Constantin had been called away to deal with a difficult prisoner. Whatever, we had to take our chance to get out of this place.

We hurried to the exit, reaching the reception desk, which was now empty.

‘Our backpacks,’ Laura said in a quiet voice. ‘Where are they?’

‘We’ll have to leave them,’ I said. I was so convinced that
Constantin
was not to be trusted that leaving the backpacks behind seemed like a necessary sacrifice. As we stepped out into what was now a warm, sunny morning, I felt a surge of relief. I took Laura’s hand and pulled her along, asking someone for directions to the train station as we went. We cut across a field towards the station and, to my great relief, I had just enough cash in my pocket to pay for a train out of town.

‘What happened after that?’ Dr Sauvage asked, blowing a stream of water vapour into the air.

In the distance, I could hear cars, a man shouting, a door banging. But above this, I could hear my own heartbeat, the rushing in my ears, like I was underwater.

‘Daniel?’

I turned towards her.

‘Our tickets only took us to another small town, where we found a pawnbroker who was willing to buy my watch. I got just enough for the fare to Bucharest. Once we got there, we found the British Embassy and, after lots of phone calls, they gave us temporary travel documents and found us a flight.’

‘Did you tell anyone else what had happened?’

‘No. We haven’t told anybody.’

‘But—’

‘We couldn’t. We can’t.’

Her voice was soothing. ‘Daniel, I hope you will soon be able to tell me. Like I’ve already told you, only then will you be able to deal with the way you feel.’

There was a thinning patch on my jeans where the denim was almost worn through. I stared at it now, unable to meet Dr
Sauvage’s
eye. ‘You don’t . . . I don’t know if I can. Not yet. Maybe next time.’ We had another appointment later that week.

‘What are you seeing, Daniel? In your mind’s eye.’

‘A Polaroid exhibition of horror.’

‘What?’

I lifted my eyes towards her. ‘Polaroids,’ I repeated.

Flash
. A crouching man, a glint of metal.

Flash
. Numbers scrawled in ink. 13.8.13.

Flash. Flash. Flash
.

I stood up. ‘I have to go.’

‘Daniel . . .’

‘I’m sorry.’

I left Dr Sauvage’s office and headed down the road. I felt queasy, still reeling from telling even just the part of my tale I’d been able to share. I thought about my watch in the pawnbroker’s shop in the little town in Romania, the name of which I couldn’t remember now. That watch had been a present from Laura to celebrate my deal with Skittle. It had cost half a month’s salary, but that wasn’t what mattered. She’d had it engraved with a few simple words:
Till the end of time, Laura xxxx
.

I took the bus back to Angel and visited the supermarket—milk, bread, paracetamol, red wine, white wine—before heading back to my flat.

Even as I headed up the stairs I knew something was wrong. I lived in an old Victorian building that had been divided into f
lats. Lau
ra and I had long been planning to move to somewhere bigger and better but, even with the windfall from the sale of my app, we couldn’t afford it.

I hardly ever saw my neighbours. My main contact with them was when they pinned notices to the wall in the lobby, complaining about each other. Noisy parties, bicycles and buggies left in the hall, somebody failing to put their recycling in the correct bin, another miscreant parking in the wrong spot . . . But today, the atmosphere was quieter and emptier than ever.

I reached the second floor and saw that my door had splintered around the lock. It had been kicked in.

Tentatively, I pushed the door open.

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