Authors: Nicci French
Tags: #Fiction, #Suspense, #Psychological
© Joined-Up Writing, 2003
Nicci French is a journalist who lives in Suffolk. She is
the author of six bestselling novels:
The Memory Game, The Safe House,
Killing Me Softly, Beneath the Skin, The Red Room
Land of the
Patrick and Norma
I've had a dream recently, the same dream,
over and over again, and each time I think it's real. I'm back at the ice rink
on the afternoon I first met Brendan. The cold stings my face, I can hear the
scrape of the blades on the ice and then I see him. He's glancing over at me
with that funny look of his, as if he's noticed me and he's got something else
on his mind. I see all over again that he's good-looking in a way that not
everybody would notice. His hair is glossy black like a raven's wing. His face
is oval and his cheekbones and chin are prominent. He has an amused expression
on his face as if he has seen the joke before anybody else, and I like that
about him. He looks at me and then gives me a second look and he's coming over
to say hello. And in my dream I think:
Good. I've been given another chance.
It doesn't have to happen. This time I can stop it now, here, before it's even
But I don't. I smile at what he says to
me, and I say things back to him. I can't hear the words and I don't know what
they are, but they must be funny because Brendan laughs and says something, and
then I laugh. And so it goes, back and forwards. We're like actors in a
long-running show. We can say our lines without thinking, and I know what's
going to happen to this boy and this girl. They have never met before, but he
is a friend of a friend of hers and so they are surprised that this is the
first time they have come across each other. I'm trying to stop myself, in this
dream which I both know and don't know is a dream. An ice rink is a good place
for a boy and a girl to meet, especially when neither of them can skate.
Because they have to lean against each other for support and it's almost
compulsory for the boy to put his steadying arm around the girl and they help
each other up and laugh at their joint predicament. Her laces are frozen
together and he helps her to untie them, her foot in his lap for convenience.
When the group starts to break up, it's only natural that the boy asks the girl
for her phone number.
The girl is surprised by a moment of
reluctance. It's been fun, but does she need something like this at the moment?
She looks at the boy. His eyes are shining from the cold. He is smiling at her
expectantly. It seems easier just to give him the number and so she does, even
though I am shouting for her not to. But the shouting is silent and in any case
she is me and she doesn't know what is going to happen — but I do.
I'm wondering how it is that I know what
is going to happen. I know they are going to meet twice — a drink, a movie —
and then, on her sofa, she'll think, well, why not? And so I'm thinking, if I
know what's going to happen, it must mean that I can't change it. Not a single
detail. I know they'll sleep together twice more, or is it three times? Always
in the girl's flat. After the second time she sees a strange toothbrush in the
mug next to hers. A moment of confusion. She will have to think about that. She
will barely have time. Because the next afternoon, her mind will be made up for
her. It's at about that moment — the girl coming home from work, opening the
door of her flat — that I wake up.
After weeks of greyness and drizzle, it
was a beautiful autumn afternoon. A blue sky just beginning to lose its
electric glare, a sharp wind that was shaking bright leaves from the trees. It
had been a long day, and I'd spent most of it up a ladder painting a ceiling,
so my neck and right arm ached and my whole body felt grimy and sore, and there
were splashes of white emulsion over my knuckles and in my hair. I was thinking
about an evening alone: a hot bath, supper in front of the TV in my dressing
gown. Cheese on toast, I thought. Cold beer.
So I opened the door to my flat and walked
in, letting my bag drop to the floor. And then I saw him. Brendan was sitting
on the sofa or, rather, lying back with his feet up. There was a cup of tea on
the floor beside him, and he was reading something that he closed as I came in.
'Miranda.' He swung his legs off the
cushion and stood up. 'I thought you'd be back later than this.' And he took me
by the shoulders and kissed me on the lips. 'Shall I pour you some tea? There's
some in the pot. You look all in.'
I could hardly think which question to ask
first. He barely knew what job I did. What was he doing, thinking about when I
finished work? But most of all, what was he doing in my flat? He looked as if
he had moved in.
'What do you think you're doing?'
'I let myself in,' he said. 'I used the
keys under the flowerpot. That's all right, isn't it? You've got paint in your
hair, you know.'
I bent down and picked up the book from
the sofa. A worn, hard-backed exercise book, a faded red, the spine split. I
stared at it. It was one of my old diaries.
'That's private,' I said. 'Private!'
'I couldn't resist,' he said with his
roguish smile. He saw my expression and held up his hands. 'Point taken, I'm
sorry, it was wrong. But I want to know all about you. I just wanted to see
what you were like before I met you.' He reached a hand out and gently touched
my hair where the paint was, as if to scratch it away. I pulled away.
'You shouldn't have.'
'I won't do it again then,' he said in a
playfully apologetic tone. 'All right?'
I took a deep breath. No. I didn't think
it was all right.
'It's from when you were seventeen,' he
said. 'I like to think of you at seventeen.'
I looked at Brendan and already he seemed
to be receding into the distance. He was on the platform and I was on the train
which was pulling away and leaving him behind for ever. I was thinking how to say
it, as cleanly and finally as possible. You can say, 'I don't think this is
working any more,' as if the relationship was a machine that has stopped
functioning, some vital bit having gone missing. Or, 'I don't think we should
continue,' as if you were both on a road together and you've looked ahead and
seen that the road forks, or peters out in rocks and brambles. You can say, 'I
don't want to keep on seeing you.' Only of course you don't mean
touch, hold, feel, want. And if they ask why — 'Why is it over?' 'What have I
done wrong?' — then you don't tell them: 'You get on my nerves,' 'Your laugh
suddenly irritates me,' 'I fancy someone else.' No, of course you say, 'You
haven't done anything. It's not you, it's me.' These are the things we all
Almost before I knew what I was about to
do, I said the words. 'I don't think we should go on with this.'
For a moment, his expression didn't alter.
Then he stepped forwards and laid his hand on my shoulder. 'Miranda,' he said.
'I'm sorry, Brendan.' I thought of saying
something else, but I stopped myself.
His hand was still on my shoulder.
'You're probably exhausted,' he said. 'Why
don't you have a bath and put on some clean clothes.'
I stepped away from his hand.
'I mean it.'
'I don't think so.'
'Are you about to get your period?'
'You're due about now, aren't you?'
'I'm not playing games.'
'Miranda.' He had a coaxing tone to his
voice, as if I were a frightened horse and he was approaching me with sugar on
his outstretched palm. 'We've been too happy for you to just end it like this.
All those wonderful days and nights.'
'Eight,' I said.
'Times we met. Is it even that many?'
'Each time special.'
I didn't say, not for me, although it was
the truth. You can't say that it really didn't mean much after all. It was just
one of those things that happened. I shrugged. I didn't want to make a point. I
didn't want to discuss things. I wanted him to leave.
'I've arranged for us to meet some mates
of mine for a drink this evening. I told them you were coming.'
'In half an hour.'
I stared at him.
'Just a quick drink.'
'You really want us to go out and pretend
we're still together?'
'We need to give this time,' he said.
It sounded so ridiculous, so like a
marriage guidance counsellor giving glib advice to a couple who had been
together for years and years and had children and a mortgage that I couldn't
help myself. I started to laugh, then stopped myself and felt cruel. He managed
a smile that wasn't really a smile at all, but rather lips stretched tight over
teeth, a grimace or a snarl.
'You can laugh,' he said at last. 'You can
do this and still laugh.'
'Sorry,' I said. My voice was still shaky.
'It's a nervous kind of laugh.'
'Is that how you behaved with your
'My sister?' The air seemed to cool around
'Yes. Kerry.' He said the name softly,
musing over it. 'I read about it in your diary. I know. Mmm?'
I walked over to the door and yanked it
open. The sky was still blue and the breeze cooled my burning face.
'Get out,' I said.
So he left. I pushed the door shut gently,
so he wouldn't think I was slamming it behind him, and then I suddenly felt
nauseous. I didn't have the meal in front of the TV I'd been looking forward to
so much. I just had a glass of water and went to bed and didn't sleep.
My relationship with Brendan had been so
brief that my closest friend, Laura, had been on holiday while it was going on
and missed it completely. And it was so entirely over and in the past that when
she got back and rang to tell me about what a great time she and Tony had had —
well, after all that, I didn't bother to tell her about Brendan. I just
listened as she talked about the holiday and the weather and the food. Then she
asked me if I were seeing someone and I said no. She said that was funny
because she'd heard something and I said, well, nothing much and anyway it was
over. And she giggled and said she wanted to hear all about it and I said there
was nothing to tell. Nothing at all.
It was two weeks after Brendan had walked
out of my door. It was half past two in the afternoon, and I was up a ladder
and just reaching up with the brush to get into the corner when my mobile went
and I realized it was in my jacket pocket and that I didn't have my jacket on.
We were working on a newly constructed house in Blackheath, all straight lines
and plate glass and pine. I was painting the wood in a special, almost
transparent oil-based white paint that had been imported at great expense from
Sweden. I scrambled down and put the brush on the lid of the tin.
'Miranda, it's Kerry.'
That was unusual enough. We met fairly
regularly, every month or so, usually at my parents. Maybe once a week we would
talk on the phone; I was always the one who rang her. She asked if I were free
that evening. I'd half arranged something, but she said it was really
important. She wouldn't ask if it weren't. So of course I had to say yes. I
started to discuss where we should meet, but Kerry had it all worked out. A very
straightforward French restaurant had just opened in Camden, fairly near where
I lived, and Kerry would book a table for eight. If I didn't hear back from
her, I should assume it was set.
I was completely baffled. She'd never
arranged anything like that before. As I slapped the paint over the huge pine
wall, I tried to think of what she could possibly have to tell me and I
couldn't even come up with a plausible answer to the basic question: was it
likely to be something good or something bad?
Within families, you're stuck with the
character they think you are, whatever you do. You become a war hero and all
that your parents ever talk about is something supposedly funny you used to do
when you were in nursery school. You can end up moving to Australia just to get
away from the person your family thinks you are — or you think they think you
are. It's like a room made out of mirrors, with reflections and reflections of
reflections going on into infinity. They make your head ache.
I hadn't fled to Australia. I lived less
than a mile from the house I grew up in and I worked for my uncle Bill.
Sometimes it's hard to think of him as my uncle because he is so unlike my
father. He has long hair that he sometimes wears in a ponytail, and he hardly
ever shaves. What's more, rich and trendy people queue up to employ him. My
father still calls him a painter and decorator, and when I was a child I
remember him working with a ragtag collection of no-hopers, usually driving a
dodgy van he'd borrowed from someone. But nowadays Uncle Bill — which I never
call him — has a big office, a company, a lucrative agreement with a team of
architects and a waiting list that you can hardly even get on to.