NINE

“You all right, Nadia?”

“What?”

I looked round, startled, hardly knowing where I was. I was sitting next to Lynne in her car. She was leaning across to me with the concerned look of a friend.

“You look pale,” she said.

“I’ve suddenly got a blinding headache,” I said. “Is it all right if we don’t talk for a while?”

“Can I get you anything?”

I shook my head and lay back in the seat with my eyes closed. I didn’t want to look at her. I couldn’t trust myself to speak. Lynne started the car and began the drive home. I felt as if my skull were full of boiling liquid and I had to hold it tight in my hands to stop it bursting apart. I suddenly remembered I’d forgotten to say good-bye to Zach. I’d left him there in the wreckage of the party. Well fuck it.

I’d been dropped into a new world, a horrible dark world, and I needed to work out where I was, but before that I would have to wait for the boiling buzzing in my head to die down. Most of all, on the short car journey home, I had to concentrate on not throwing up all over Lynne’s nice new metropolitan police-issue vehicle. I thought of the moment when you spill boiling water on your hand. There is no pain but you know that in about one second you are going to have to deal with a current of scouring agony tearing up through your hand and arm. I knew that I was going to have to settle down and properly experience what it was that I had heard. For the moment there was just a voice, somewhere far away, deep in my mind, telling me over and over again that another woman had received letters like mine, that she was dead, murdered. A woman had gone through what I’d gone through, and at the end of it she’d been killed. And just a couple of weeks ago. When I’d last been squabbling with Max she had been alive and worried about the threat and wondering when it would end and now there were children who didn’t have a mother.

The car stopped. I was taking deep breaths now.

“We’re home,” a voice said in my ear. “Do you want some help?”

“I think I’ll just go and lie down for a while.”

“Would you rather I stayed outside in the car?”

Abruptly, I felt as if my face had been plunged into ice-cold water. My mind was clear now. From now on I would just be pretending to be ill.

“No, no, definitely not. I want you inside where you can do some good.”

“If you’re sure?”

“It’s just that I won’t be very sociable. I think I may have a migraine.”

“Do you need to take anything?”

“I just need to lie down in a darkened room.”

We went inside and I left her and retreated to my bedroom. I shut the door. And I checked that the window was firmly closed. And I pulled the blind down. Like Cameron. Like fucking Detective Inspector Cameron Stadler. I lay on the bed, facedown. I felt like I was five years old. I wanted to climb into the bed, to pull the covers over my head, so that I would be safe, so nobody could find me. Except that I wouldn’t be safe. He could find me. For the first time in my life, lying in the bed I didn’t feel safe. I needed to be able to see. I pulled the pillow up against the headboard so I could lean back on it. I could see every part of the room. But what good was that? Maybe it was just better to be killed and not see it.

I tried to go over the conversation I’d had with Lena. I had difficulty reconstructing it. For a feverish few minutes I tried to construct an optimistic version of it. Maybe she was mad. But even in my feverish state, I wasn’t able to convince myself of that. She had named Links, Grace Schilling, Cameron. She’d lived nearby, hadn’t she? That was a thought.

A strange free local paper is pushed through my door every Friday. I never even look at it. I’m not interested in new one-way streets, inquiries in the social services department of the local council, and I put it straight into a cupboard under the sink ready to be used for things like screwing up and shoving into wet shoes. My shoes hadn’t got wet for some time, so the last couple of months of them would still be in the pile. I walked out of my bedroom and told Lynne I was feeling a bit better. I’d go and make some tea for us both. I filled the kettle and switched it on. That would give me the couple of minutes I needed.

I started five issues earlier. Nothing there and nothing in the following issue either. Just a drugs raid in the market, a fire in a warehouse, and articles marked “Advertising Feature.” But in the following issue, which was just over two weeks ago, there it was, small and on an inside page, and my hands started to shake so much that I thought Lynne’s attention would be attracted by the rustling.

The headline was PRIMROSE HILL MURDER. I quickly tore out the page of the newspaper. The kettle had boiled. I poured water over the tea bags.

“Biscuit, Lynne?”

“Not for me, thanks.”

I had another couple of minutes. I smoothed out the article on the work surface: “A mother of three was found murdered in her ?800,000 Primrose Hill home last week. Police announced that Jennifer Hintlesham, 38, was found dead on August 3rd. Police suspect that she stumbled on an intruder in the late afternoon. ‘It’s a tragedy,’ said Detective Chief Inspector Stuart Links as he announced the setting up of a murder inquiry this week. ‘If anybody has any information I would urge them to contact us at Stretton Green Police Station.’ ”

That was it. I read it and reread it, as if I could suck out some more information through sheer desperation. No mention of any letters. Again I tried to cobble together a version in which the nanny and I had been talking at cross purposes. But then the truth forced itself on me with a bleakness that I could almost taste-dry, metallic. Lena had volunteered the information. I had told her nothing. The policemen were the same.

I picked up the two mugs of tea, but my left hand was compulsively shaking. Scalding tea splashed on my hand. I had to put them down and fill the mug again. I carried one mug through to Lynne and then returned with another for myself, and a shortbread biscuit as well. I sat down near Lynne and looked at her. Had they brought her in to look after me because she hadn’t known the previous woman or because she had? Had she sat like this with Jennifer Hintlesham, drinking tea, pretending to be her friend, saying that everything would be fine, that she was safe? I took a sip of my tea. It was too hot and I burned my tongue and started to cough. When I had recovered I dipped the biscuit in the tea and bit off the warm soft edge. When I spoke, I tried to imitate a woman making conversation.

“It still seems strange to me,” I said. “I get one letter and a policewoman stays with me for days and days. Do you do this every time anybody gets a threatening letter?”

Lynne looked uncomfortable. Or it may have been that, to me, now, Lynne’s imperturbable expression seemed a camouflage.

“I’m just following routine,” she said.

“And if somebody came into the house to attack me, you’d protect me?” I said with a smile. “That’s the idea, is it?”

“Nothing like that will happen,” she said, and for a moment I hated Lynne in a way I’ve never hated anybody in my life. I wanted to fly at her like a madwoman and claw bloody furrows into her face. Whose feelings was she trying to protect here? But the hatred subsided into nothing more than a dull ache. I gulped down the hot tea as quickly as I could. I needed time to go over things in my mind. The phone rang and it was Zach. I told him I had a migraine.

“A migraine?” he said. “How do you know?”

“Because it feels like one. I’ve got to go and lie down.”

I did go and lie down again. I tried to remember everything I could from the previous few days, which I had taken so lightly. Every memory was like an object in a house that I was wandering around. I picked up the object and examined it and it looked different. Above all, I thought of Cameron. Cameron sitting in the corner looking at me, almost hungrily. Cameron taking my clothes off as if I were a precious beautiful object that might break. Cameron stroking me tenderly with infinite care and precision. Cameron with his head between my breasts. What was it he had said? I have to be honest with you, that was it. Honest.

In the evening I wandered out with Lynne and we bought fish and chips. I picked at them, drank a bottle of beer, and hardly spoke a word. Lynne kept darting glances at me. Did she suspect I suspected? Then I went to bed, although it was still early; not yet getting dark. I lay there listening to the noises of the street, of Saturday night in Camden Town. I thought and thought and the more I thought the more I became afraid, like damp rising in a house, weakening and undermining it. Finally I slept and had fragmented dreams.

When I woke I forgot my dreams instantly, as I always do. I forget them utterly, but I was also grateful to have forgotten them, as if a part of me knew what they had been and wanted them gone. The phone was ringing. I crawled out of bed and answered it. It was Cameron. He was whispering.

“I just grabbed a moment,” he said. “I miss you so much.”

“Good,” I said.

“I’m desperate to see you,” he hissed. “I can’t not be with you. I’ve arranged that I can get away in the late afternoon. Can I come and see you around four?”

“Oh, yes,” I said.

I spent the day in a sullen fog. Lynne and I went out for a couple of hours, walking around the market at Camden Lock, but that was just because it made it easier not to speak, or at least not to speak about anything important, and not to listen to any more lies. Cameron arrived at exactly four o’clock. He was wearing jeans and a loose blue shirt. He hadn’t shaved. He looked more rumpled than usual. I could see that he was even more handsome than ever, less buttoned up. He told Lynne he’d take over for a couple of hours. There were some matters about the upcoming week he wanted to discuss with me. Lynne hung around as she always did. Did she guess what was going on? How could she not? But on this occasion I found the delay almost unbearable. I felt I could hardly restrain myself, that I would damage myself. Finally her feet clattered up the steps to the pavement and disappeared. Cameron gently closed the front door behind her and turned to me.

“Oh Nadia,” he said.

I walked toward him. I had prepared myself for this moment for the whole day since I had talked to him on the phone. He reached his arms out toward me. I clenched my fist as hard as I could. When I was a foot away I looked him in the eyes and then, with all my strength, I punched him in the face.

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