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Authors: Nicci French

Tags: #Fiction, #Suspense, #Psychological

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BOOK: Secret Smile
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'I don't know,' said Nick.

'You've never been attracted to someone
and then once you've got over the attraction found that there was nothing
left?'

'I'm just wondering what you'll think when
you get to know
me,'
said Nick.

'I think I know,' I said. 'That's why I'm
going to such trouble to explain it to you.'

'You don't need to explain anything to
me.'

'But...'

'Let's go home.'

 

 

Afterwards we lay side by side, the room
dark except for the glow of the street lights around the curtain edges. I lay
with my head on Nick's chest, stroking his stomach softly down to the edge of
his soft pubic hair. His breathing was slow and regular, and I thought he might
be asleep, but then he spoke.

'What did he say?'

'What?' I said.

'Brendan,' Nick said. 'What was it he
said? I mean, what did he
really
say?'

I raised myself on an elbow and looked
down at his face.

'You can ask me anything, you know,' I
said.

'That's why I'm asking.'

'I was going on to say that some things
aren't good to know. Sometimes you can feel contaminated by knowing something.'

'But once you mentioned it, I had to know.
It's hard not to think about it. It can't be so bad.'

I felt a chilliness on my skin, like I'd
once felt cold while suffering from a fever.

'He said...' I drew a deep breath and said
it in a rush. 'He said he was thinking how he had come in my mouth. I felt — well,
I left the room and threw up. So now you know. Now you know the truth.'

'Jesus,' he said. There was a silence, and
I waited. 'Did you tell anybody?'

'I'm telling you.'

'I mean, why didn't you tell someone?
They'd have thrown him straight out.'

'Would they? I don't know. He might have
denied it. He might have said I'd misheard. He'd have thought of something. In
any case, I couldn't think clearly. I felt like I'd been punched in the face
and the stomach simultaneously. So was that worse than anything you'd
imagined?'

'I don't know,' he said, and then we
didn't speak. I didn't fall asleep straight away, though, and I'm not sure if
he did. I murmured something to him, but he didn't reply and there was just the
sound of regular breathing. So I just lay there beside him looking at the
lights outside, the car headlights sweeping across the ceiling.

 

 

When my mother walked into the bar, I
suddenly realized that it wasn't just Kerry who had changed. She looked lovely
and somehow younger than I was used to thinking of her. Her hair was brushed up
on to the top of her head and she was wearing a belted mac that swished as she
walked, dangling earrings, dark red lipstick. She smiled, raised a gloved hand
as she crossed the room. When she bent to kiss me, I smelt perfume, face
powder. Out of the blue, I remembered an episode from my childhood. We had gone
for a bike ride and I had struggled along way behind the others. I had tried as
hard as I possibly could, but they drew further and further away from me. They
would wait and I would catch up slowly, and then they would leave me behind
again as I pedalled stolidly through tears of rage and exhaustion. At the end
of the ride, my father finally took a look at my bike and saw that there was a
problem with the brake and it had been jammed down against one of the wheels
for the entire journey. Maybe it's too convenient a metaphor for times when
things just seem too hard: pedalling 'with the brake on. Now I wondered if my
mother had spent years with the brakes on and that now, with Kerry in love, she
was released and pedalling free.

'I've got a bottle of white for us,' I
said.

'I really shouldn't,' she said, which in
mother-speak meant thank you very much.

'Don't worry,' I said. 'There's a special
deal here. You order two glasses and they give you the bottle. You know that I
can never resist a bargain like that.'

I filled her glass and she clinked it
against mine, inevitably toasting Kerry and Brendan. I tried not to mind; tried
to banish inside me the five-year-old Miranda who wanted to be toasted and made
a fuss of.

'Kerry's told me about your help with the
flat-hunting and letting them stay and everything,' she said. 'I know she's not
good at expressing her gratitude. She's probably embarrassed. But it means so
much to her. And to me as well.'

'It was really nothing,' I said.

'I feel so happy about Kerry that I can
hardly bear it. I keep my fingers crossed all the time. And I wake at night and
just pray and pray that it will be all right.'

'Why shouldn't it?' I asked.

'It seems too good to be true,' my mother
said. 'As if someone's waved a wand over her life.'

'It's not a fairy tale. He's not a knight
in shining armour,' I said.

'I know, I know. But I have always thought
with Kerry that all she needed was self-confidence and then she could do
whatever she wanted. That's what Brendan's given her.'

'It's scary, isn't it,' I said, swirling
my amber wine around in its glass. 'All the different things happiness depends
on. You want it to be less fragile than that.'

'Well, I never thought that way about
you,' said my mother. 'Whatever the ups and downs, I knew you'd be all right.'

'Oh,' I said dully. Somehow that didn't
make me feel cheerful.

'It's just Troy now,' said my mother. 'But
I can't help feeling it's going to be OK now. Like we're getting into a
virtuous circle.' She tipped the last of her wine down her throat and I poured
her another glass. She waited until I was done, then took a breath and said:
'Talking of Kerry and Troy, it seemed like a good moment to talk about things
that your father and I have never discussed properly with you.'

'What things?' I asked as I was suddenly
filled with a creepy, ominous feeling.

She took one of the little paper napkins
that came with the wine and started twisting it and folding it as if she were
going to make a paper aeroplane.

'Obviously, we all know that Troy is
wonderful, but he's always going to need financial help. You know that we have
been paying money into a trust fund for him.'

'He may get a job,' I said dubiously.
'It's a matter of finding the right area.'

'I hope so, Miranda, I hope so. But that's
not our immediate problem. Now Kerry and Brendan will be getting married in two
months' time, and it's going to be a very modest ceremony. But the two of them
will be as poor as church mice for a while. Derek has talked with Brendan and
he's very impressed with him. He has a large number of plans. All sorts of
plans. But for the moment they will need help with their flat and other things.
We have our own property problems, as you know, but still, we want to help them
as much as we can. We are going to help them with buying the flat, in a small
way.'

'I'm glad,' I said. 'But why are you
telling me?'

'You're doing so well,' said my mother,
squeezing my hand. 'You always have done. I sometimes think it's hard for you
to realize how difficult it has been for Troy and Kerry.'

'I'm a jobbing decorator,' I said. 'I'm
not a stockbroker.'

My mother shook her head.

'You're doing wonderfully. I've been
talking with Bill. He thinks the world of you.'

'I wish he'd pay me more, then.'

'That will come, Miranda. The sky's the
limit for you.'

'So what are you saying?'

'You're so generous, Miranda, and I know
you won't give this a second thought, the way some people would. It just seems
clear to your father and me that Troy and Kerry need, will
always
need,
help in a way that you won't.'

'So what are you saying?' I repeated. I
knew what she was saying.

'All I'm saying is that we're allocating
special resources to Troy and Kerry, and I hope that you agree with us about
the need for that.'

What she meant — of course — is that she
was taking money from the slice of the family pie that was notionally in some
sort of way allocated to me and giving it to Troy and Kerry. What could I say?
No? Don't help my brother and sister? There was a little dormouse-sized Miranda
in a corner of my brain giving a howl of rage and misery, but I put a
metaphorical gag in her mouth.

I wanted to cry. It wasn't the money, or I
don't think it was. It was the emotions behind the money. We never grow up enough
not to need our parents looking after us, taking care of us. I smiled broadly.
'Sure,' I said.

'I knew you would,' my mother said
fervently.

'I guess I'll need to find a rich
husband,' I said, still smiling.

'You'll find whatever you want,' said my
mother.

 

CHAPTER 10

 

They arrived before I was expecting them,
so I was still in my dressing gown, drinking coffee and eating a custard pie
that I'd bought a few days ago on my way back from work. It wasn't a very
healthy breakfast, but the crust was already a bit stale and if I didn't eat it
now I would have to throw it away. Anyway, I'd been running. I'd puffed my way
through five miles on the Heath on a glorious late October morning, sharply
cold, but bright too, with soggy brown leaves underfoot. The run, all that
pain, balanced out the custard pie. I had planned to paint my toenails, clear
the living room a bit and ring up Nick to arrange to meet him for lunch. That
way, I could welcome them and then have an excuse to rush off.

But then the bell rang, in three assertive
bursts. Before I could answer it, I heard the scrape of a key in the lock. I'd
given Kerry a spare key already, but I felt a twinge of resentment. I felt they
ought to have let me admit them like guests on their arrival. The scraping went
on, and I heard muffled swearing and then some giggles. I stuffed the last
morsel of custard pie into my mouth, stood up, tightened the belt on my
dressing gown and opened the door, pulling Brendan in with it, holding on to
the key that was still in the lock. We were about three inches apart. He was
wearing a thick coat that belonged to my father, a long, speckled scarf that
looked like one I'd given Troy last Christmas. In his left hand he carried a
large nylon bag. I could see pyjamas, a dressing gown, bath foam. His eyes were
bright, his dark hair glossy. His mouth looked redder than usual.

'Hi,' I said curtly, standing back to let
him in, but he simply took a step towards me, as if he were a partner in some
dance, and stood looking down at me. The upturned collar of his coat brushed
against my jaw. I felt his breath on my cheek.

'Hey there, Mirrie,' he said. He lifted a
thumb and before I could stop him had tenderly wiped a crumb from my upper lip.
Then his head bent down, his red lips were on my cheek. I smelt mint, and
underneath it something sour.

I turned away and wiped the spot where his
lips had been, then retreated further into the hall. Brendan followed. Behind
him, Kerry stood, in a bright red duffle coat. Her cheeks were flushed, her
fair hair was tied in a little girl's pigtails. She carried a box: bran, herbal
tea, vitamin tablets, alfalfa beans, organic elderflower cordial. She had to
put the box on the floor before she hugged me.

'Don't close the door,' she said. 'We've
got loads more to get out of the car. And Mum and Dad and Troy are bringing the
rest over.'

'Don't worry,' said Brendan. 'Just
essentials.'

'I'll put some clothes on and then I'll
help you with them.'

'Why don't you make us some coffee
instead?' said Brendan. 'And we haven't had breakfast yet, have we, Kerry? We
were in such a rush.'

'You
were in such a rush. I don't
know where you get your energy from.'

He smirked, then said, 'Just some toast
and jam would be fine. Or do you have tahini?'

'What?'

'Kerry and I are trying to eat healthily.'
He put out his large hand and caressed the top of Kerry's head. 'We want to
have a long life together, don't we, sweetie?'

'We did this questionnaire on the
Internet,' said Kerry. 'You had to say how much you exercised and what you ate,
and then it told you when you'd die. I'm going to live until I'm ninety-two.
Brendan's going to live to ninety-six.'

'I've only got jam,' I said.

I took my time getting dressed. I sat on
my bed for a few moments, breathing deeply, practising being calm. I dressed, brushed
my hair unnecessarily, made my bed. The phone rang, but someone picked it up in
the other room before I could get to it.

The outside door was still open when I
came out of my bedroom, and now my parents and Troy were there as well. There
was a small television on one of the chairs. On the kitchen table were a
computer with its printer, a portable CD player and a pile of CDs beside it, a
bedside lamp with its cord trailing on to the floor. Three large and bulging
hold-alls stood by the door. For me, the detail that I found almost horribly
intimate was the heap of shoes, his and hers, mixed together. Tennis rackets
stood against the wall. An exercise bike blocked the entrance to the bathroom.
There was a clutter on the kitchen surfaces: two electric toothbrushes,
contact-lens cleansing fluid — did Brendan wear contact lenses, and how had I
failed to notice that while I was going out with him? — anti-dandruff shampoo,
a make-up bag, another toaster, an electric iron, a framed photograph of
Brendan and Kerry sitting on a wooden bench with their arms round each other,
piles of holiday brochures, a tangled wind chime that Kerry had had since she was
a teenager. How had they managed to accumulate so much so quickly?

BOOK: Secret Smile
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