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Authors: Nicci French

Tags: #Fiction, #Suspense, #Psychological

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BOOK: Secret Smile
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'Hi, Miranda,' he said. 'How are you
doing?'

He handed me a bottle of beer from the table
next to him.

'I don't see you here very often,' I said
to him.

'Marcia was most insistent.'

I took a sip from the beer and looked up
at the back of my parents' narrow terraced house, which was covered by
scaffolding.

'What do you think?' I said.

'If it wasn't being redone it wouldn't be
standing by next year.'

'That bad?'

'Worse. You can almost see that crack
growing.'

'Miranda,' said my father, appearing
suddenly from the side. 'How are you?'

I ignored the question, especially as
Brendan was hovering at his elbow dressed in new, ironed jeans and a light blue
sweater with the sleeves pulled up to just below the elbow, and gave my father
a little hug. He patted me on the back awkwardly. He's not a great hugger, my
father.

'Hi, Dad,' I said. 'Lovely to see you.'

'I've got to admit that Brendan is a
master with the barbecue,' he said.

'It's all about piling up the coal,'
Brendan said. 'You make the bricquettes into a pyramid and put several fire
lighters underneath and then really get it all burning. You only spread them
out when the flames have died down.'

'Bill and I were talking about the house,'
I said.

'You should pay attention to Brendan,' Dad
said. 'You might learn something.'

'I don't make many barbecues in my flat,'
I said.

'You might need to one day,' said Brendan.

'I've always thought it was something men
liked doing,' I said.

'We never had a barbecue, did we, Mirrie?'

I was tempted to say: 'No, Brendan. We
never had a barbecue because we only went out for about nine days, so we didn't
have time for that or indeed almost anything at all.' I didn't. I made myself
take a deep breath. A silent, metaphorical deep breath.

'No, we didn't,' I said.

'I'm afraid that I've been boring
Brendan,' Dad said. 'He's been letting me talk shop.'

'Boxes,' said Brendan and rubbed his hands
together. 'So simple, and yet imagine life without boxes.'

Bill gaped. Even my father looked a bit
startled by such enthusiasm.

'Yes, well,' he said. 'I don't know about
that. I'm a practical man. I like making things; I've always been interested in
problem solving. Finding solutions. You can do that with the packaging
business.'

'I know exactly what you mean,' said
Brendan. 'On the face of it, packaging sounds obvious. But a few years ago,
this man called Harry Vermont and I set up this dotcom company.'

'What company?' my father asked.

Brendan laughed ruefully.

'One of those that was going to make us
all millionaires,' he said. 'But it's gone now.'

'What did it do?' said Bill.

'The point of it,' said Brendan 'was that
people could order different sorts of consumer goods from the website and we
would deliver them. We would be middlemen. Middlepersons, I should say. When it
started, I thought it was all about technology. But once it started, I realized
it was partly that but, when it came down to it, it was also about packaging
and delivery. You had to get the right packaging at the right place, you had to
source it and do the actual packing, and then you had to deliver it on time. It
was an amazing challenge for us.'

'Who did you source it from?' asked Dad.

'Sorry?'

'Packaging in this country is quite a
small world. I was wondering if you were dealing with someone I know.'

'We were only in the planning stage,' said
Brendan. 'Then the dotcom collapse happened and we lost our funding. Poor old
Harry never quite got over it.'

'If you're interested, Brendan, I'll show
you around some time,' said my father.

'I'd love that,' said Brendan. 'Meanwhile,
I reckon it's time to get the food on the barbecue.'

As it turned out, it wasn't time to put
the food on the barbecue. While we had been talking, the barbecue had gone out.
Brendan said that this sometimes happened when the bricquettes had been left in
the shed for a long time and had become damp. My father looked pleased and said
that he wouldn't have been able to bear it if there were somebody better than
him at lighting barbecues in the family. His position as lord and master would
have been threatened.

I was disconcerted for a while by that
notion of Brendan being 'in the family' and I fell silent. I finished my beer
and opened a second one, and then I started to feel more mellow about it all. I
stood apart and looked at the family and looked at Brendan bustling around. I
thought of this narrow strip of urban garden, one of dozens in the street, one
of millions in London, and suddenly I was touched by the sight of Brendan going
to so much effort, bustling between the barbecue — which had now been lit,
quickly and efficiently by Bill — and my father and my mother. Every so often
he would sidle up to Kerry and touch her or whisper something to her or give
her a look, and she would light up.

He helped my mother with sorting out the
marinade for the chicken and salmon pieces. Somehow he went into the house and
tracked Troy down to whichever hole he'd been hiding in. He chivvied him out
and persuaded him to carry plates to the table, and the different salads that
Troy and my mother had made that morning. It made me think about myself and I
felt a little ashamed. I wondered if I had assumed that the Cotton family
existed entirely for my benefit, like some sort of museum that I could drop
into whenever I felt like it. And I could always rely on other people to
maintain it. My parents were there to do things for me and to blame when things
went wrong. Had I thought enough about doing things for them?

By the time I was on to my third beer, I
was feeling thoroughly forgiving of almost everybody in the world, and
certainly everybody in this garden, though not necessarily in the most coherent
way.

There was Brendan, doing five things at
once, working so hard; and there was my mother bustling in and out with plates
and cutlery; my father fiddling around with the barbecue to stop it tipping
over; Kerry in conversation with Judy; Troy playing some game with Bill's
children, Sasha and Mitch. And I noticed something odd: they all seemed to be
having a good time. Brendan brought me a plate of grilled chicken and salad,
and I ate it eagerly. I needed something to soak up the beer. I was so hungry
that I barely noticed the very slight oddity that he had served me first. I
looked over at Kerry and she sensed my looking at her in that way people do,
and she turned to me and smiled. I smiled back. We were being a happy family.

 

CHAPTER 6

 

I remember, when I was thirteen or
fourteen, going with Bill to a house in Finsbury Park as his unpaid assistant.
It was small, with poky rooms and brown furniture. We stood in the living room
that had sheets over the floor, and he gave me a sledgehammer and told me to
smash it through the internal wall, into the kitchen on the other side. He had
to tell me twice because it seemed impossible to me that I could do this. The
wall looked so solid, the room so unchangeably square and drab, and surely you
couldn't just break through structures like that, so casually? But he nodded
and stood back, so I heaved the hammer, which was almost too heavy for me to
lift, behind my left shoulder and swung it as hard as I could into the centre
of the wall, spinning with the weight of it, wrenching my arm. Plaster crumbled
on to the floor and a crack appeared. I swung again and a hole opened in the
surface, jagged and the size of my fist. Again and the hole widened. I could
see the centre of the kitchen, a draining board and sink with dripping taps,
and beyond that a fractured piece of the small garden, with a bay tree at the
end of it. And I felt all at once tremendously excited — to be opening things
up like this, new vistas with each swing of the hammer, light suddenly flooding
into the dreary room. I think it was what first made me think that I'd like to
do what Bill did, though when years later I tried to say that to him he patted
me on the shoulder and said: 'We're just painters and decorators, Miranda.'

Every so often at work I still had that
feeling of euphoria — like a bubble of air in my chest, like a wind blowing
through me. I got it, for instance, with the roof garden in Clapham, which somehow
took the lid off the whole house. And when we once uncovered a fireplace that
was so vast you could stand inside it and look straight up to see a penny-sized
circle of sky at its top. Knocking walls down always fills me with fresh
energy. And every so often I have the same elation in my personal life too. It
goes along with transition and change, spring, falling in love, travelling to a
new country, even that feeling of newness that comes after an illness.

After that lunch, I came home and I made
two resolutions: I was going to clean up my flat and I was going to start
running. That was all. But I wrote them both down on the back of an envelope,
as if I would forget otherwise, and then I underlined each of them twice. I sat
back in the chair. I'd drunk three cans of beer and eaten two pieces of
marinated chicken, a slab of charred salmon, three slices of garlic bread and a
bowl of ice cream. If I were being really virtuous, I could go for a run right
now, before it got too dark. Or maybe it wasn't healthy to run on a full
stomach. And anyway, I didn't want to jog along the high street in my grey
tracksuit trousers that had lost the elastic at the waist.

So I thought I'd start with the flat. I
changed into some baggy trousers and a sleeveless T-shirt and put on some
music. I rather like tidying my flat, which is on the first floor and very
small — just my bedroom, the living room, with a table up against one wall, a
galley kitchen with windows overlooking a patchwork of narrow gardens, and the
bathroom. Clean surfaces, dishes all put away, a vacuumed carpet, washed floor,
neat piles of paper on my desk, laundry in the basket, clothes back in the
wardrobe, the gleaming bath, the pens in a mug on the mantelpiece, the smell of
bleach, polish, lavatory cleaner, soap. My bare feet were gritty and my arms
and forehead slick with sweat by the time I'd finished, and it was late.
Afternoon had become dark evening and, now that I'd stopped racing around, I
could feel the air had the slicing chill of a cloudless October night.

Some of my friends don't like living
alone. It's what they're doing until they no longer have to. But I do. I like
the feeling I get when I close the door behind me and go upstairs and
everything's quiet and waiting. I don't need anybody's permission to lie in a
bath for two hours or go to bed at half past eight or listen to music late into
the night, or pour myself a glass of wine and watch a trashy quiz show. I even
like eating alone, though I'm not like Troy. I have a very limited and conservative
repertoire. Sometimes I eat the same thing several nights a week — for a bit it
was scrambled eggs on very buttery brown toast. Then it was Greek salad, which
I've perfected: not just tomatoes and cucumber and feta cheese, but avocado,
fennel and sun-dried tomatoes as well. And there were a few weeks when I would
add a tin of octopus chunks to a bowl of tinned chickpeas. I went off that one
quite quickly. When friends come round I either cook chicken breasts with
garlic, rosemary and olive oil — you just have to put it in the oven and wait
for half an hour — or we get a takeaway. Usually it's a takeaway.

Maybe one of the reasons that Brendan had
got on my nerves when we were going out was that he had so quickly made himself
at home in my flat. As if it were his home too. But I told myself not to think
of Brendan any more. Things were going to be different now.

 

 

At a shop called Run Run Run in Camden
High Street, I bought a rather lovely silky blue singlet, a pair of white
shorts, black suede shoes and a book called
Run
for Your Life,
It
was written by a man called Jan who appeared on the back of the book wearing a
headband, like a member of Duran Duran. Then I went to the off-licence and
bought a bottle of white wine, cold from the fridge. Nothing that was so
transparent could possibly contain a significant number of calories. And I
bought a packet of expensive crisps that the packet said had been fried in an
especially healthy kind of sunflower oil. I fastened the chain on the inside of
my door and lay in the bath with a bowl of the crisps and a glass of the wine
and read my running book. It was very comforting. The first chapter seemed to
be aimed at people who were even less fit than I was. It suggested starting
your running schedule with a brisk walk for ten minutes and then running very
gently for a hundred yards, followed by another ten-minute walk. It said that
the training runner should never get seriously out of breath. At the first sign
of any kind of discomfort, just stop. The fatal thing was just to set off and
go for a run. 'Better to start too slowly and build up,' said a piece of text
in italics, 'than start too quickly and give up.' That sounded fine to me. I
flicked through a few pages. It looked like I could skip a few stages and still
avoid breaking into a sweat.

BOOK: Secret Smile
9.25Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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