Authors: Claire Seeber
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General
For all my parents
in memory of my beloved Granny.
I’m running towards you (though it might take me a while).
‘If love is judged by most of its effects,
it resembles hate more than friendship.’
François de La Rochefoucauld –
I am running for my life, I know that now.
The moon slips behind the clouds. Perhaps the darkness is a boon, but the shadows that fall beside me seem to mock me as I flee, as I fly down the drive from the house. Desperately my hand closes round the bunch of metal; my little finger catches on a jagged edge, I feel my flesh tear slightly, but I ignore the pain. I slide dangerously in the mud but I will not fall, will not allow it; I right myself, though my leaden legs suck me into the stony ground; they scream with every step that I should stop but I can’t, I daren’t. I push myself on, stumbling on and on, because they are nearer now … closing on me for sure …
I am off the gravel drive and tracking across the great wild lawn towards the wooden bridge; towards the pub where there is life. I have no time to look around; worse, I can’t bear to see how long I’ve got.
Running for my life. I cannot get my breath; I fight for it until it sobs up through my chest like a dead man’s rattle. I was fast once, really fast as a child, running for joy and for gold – but I am out of practice now, I haven’t run properly for years and my bad foot hampers me. Terror drives me, terror that drips down and smothers me.
If I can just reach the pub, slam myself inside, I might be safe.
Saved. But God, why was I mad enough to think I
safe to come here alone?
It is too late. The car is stopping, skidding behind me, and it’s like I am fastened to the house by its beam. I swing round. I have to face my hunter; I cannot stand unseeing, so exposed. The car door opens smoothly as an oily disc of moonshine slides out from behind fingers of cloud. Everything is illuminated so perfectly and I start towards the car in relief – until that smile meets me, and I actually gasp. I reel in shock like I’ve been punched, gut-punched where it most hurts.
‘You?’ I say numbly. ‘It
A small and measured step towards me. ‘But it is, Maggie.’ And that smile, it is a flat smile. A traitor’s smile. ‘Weren’t you expecting me?’
I breathe hard onto the coach window and watch the fug slowly spread before me. Tracing the small cloud with my finger, I write my name across the middle like a schoolgirl. My name slants; a single tear tracks downwards from the M. I make a fist and vigorously rub myself out again. My hand is damp now; I wipe it dry. Cocooned in this muggy warmth, safe for the moment from the damp, dark night, I’m struggling to stay awake. Far off in the drizzle a tiny house twinkles with beguiling light, nestled into the old church beside it like a trusting child. I gaze wistfully after the enticing image, but we are truly hurtling down the motorway now, a sleek capsule slicing the M4’s black, and the house has vanished already.
I hold my breath as the teenage boy beside me bobs his head shyly, uncurls his awkward new height from beside me, scuttling with an odd spider’s gait to talk to his mates up-front. Now he’s gone there is some space here for my sadness, some room to acknowledge the pain of what I’ve just left behind. I feel utterly raw; like I’ve been flayed alive. I bite my lip against the grief. The truth is we’ve gone too far this time, I can’t see a return. We said it all; we let the floodgates down and we got truly drenched.
An abandoned can of Strongbow rolls under my feet. I let the can rattle until it annoys me, hitting my heel over and over. I
retrieve it, stick it firmly into the net on the seat-back in front, fighting the urge to lick my wet fingers, drying them instead on the knobbly cloth on the seat beside me. I wish I’d had the foresight to find something to kill the ache before embarking. I wish I had some wine, my iPod, a cookery book – any means, in fact, of forgetting. I wish I wasn’t travelling alone. I wish I’d known I would be.
My eyelids droop inexorably until my head bangs against the thick, cool glass.
‘Ouch.’ I jerk up, feeling foolish, forcing myself upright again. I don’t want to sleep here, don’t want to surrender to the inevitable nightmares surrounded by these strangers. So I watch the little woman across the aisle, a mousey hobbit who mouths each word of
aloud, scanning each page fervently, her pale lips oddly stiff despite their constant movement. I wish that I’d never read the book myself so that I could have that pleasure again for the first time. The couple in front lean into each other, the tops of their heads touching, their hair almost entwined as he whispers something he wants only her to hear. Right now, I think tragically, it’s unlikely I’ll ever feel any first pleasure again; that anyone will ever want to whisper anything to me again. I almost smile at my self-indulgence. Almost – but not quite.
Eventually I succumb to sleep, rocked by the lullaby of voices that murmur through the dim coach. I don’t notice the dark-haired girl as she passes by to use the poky loo, though later the girl swears blind that she saw me in my seat – she liked my hair, the girl says (God knows, it’s hard to miss). Says she knew I was a kindred spirit. But I do notice the tall man who drops his bag as he stumbles past, jolting me uncomfortably back into wakefulness. I am startled again as I glance up, befuddled. My heart stops; I think it’s Alex. My heart flames with pain; my belly corkscrews.
I won’t catch the man’s eye, although I can sense he wants to speak. I can’t bear to look at him. He might see what I’m trying
so hard to hide, so I turn away again. I find my fists are clenched, nails dug deep into my palms. I twist my hair into a nervous rope, tucking it behind one shoulder. Even in my shadowy reflection I can see the red of it, the flame I can’t escape and –
I see something else, something beyond the window, out there in the dark. I hold my breath in shock.
What I see is fear. Pure and undistilled, the face I gaze into is mad with it, big eyes rolling back into the brain until they are all white; a nightmare vision that is in fact quite real. The nostrils flare in panic, the huge teeth bared in a grin of frothing terror, the mane flying in the wind. For one small second snatched in old time, the time that will soon become the time before – the safe time – I find I’m not scared. I want to stretch my hand through the window and smooth the trembling flank; soothe this rearing beast. But then my own terror crashes in around me and I feel very tiny. The horse’s great flailing hooves will surely pierce the coach’s metal side. Frantic, I press back into my seat, trying to flatten myself against the blow.
The chance to find my voice, to shout a futile warning, has already passed. The lullaby is building to a shriek. The passengers are screaming, have begun to scream as one, because the coach is tilting, tilting on its axis until it cannot right itself again, until finally it topples. It skids across the road in hideous scraping chaos, on its side now – and still the coach keeps moving. I am level with the road; blue sparks fly up from the concrete before me as if a welder were torching the ground. Then I roll, slam hard into a body so all the wind goes out of me.
I cannot see. My hands flail at the blackness. Panting with terror, I am thrown against some metallic edge. A flash of agonising pain fills my left shoulder as I crack it on what must be the ceiling. A child cries piteously. Someone’s foot grinds into my gut, a fist pummels my mouth in fear. I claw at my face as something oddly intimate drapes itself across me, a mouthful of hair that chokes and sickens me. I struggle to breathe, to let some
air in. Any air. I panic that I am blind. We are still moving. Why the hell haven’t we stopped moving?
A huge whump: the central reservation crumples as the coach crashes through, on its back now. It’s slowing, and someone near me is screaming, they won’t stop screaming, on and on –
A terrible metallic crack ends the voice. The coach is jerked by force into the fast lane. My head whips forward, then snaps back again. There’s a crunch as the first van hits us head on, and folds: then the next vehicle, then the next. A hot flash up my left leg. Finally there is silence – almost silence. Just a single horn blaring into the complete darkness, then, soon after, another: a petulant electronic chorus. Closer to me, a whimpering that spreads like wildfire. We have finally stopped moving and now there is nothing. Just darkness. Just the sob of my own breath as I clasp myself and wonder:
Is this death?
A Conversation With Claire Seeber
About the Author
By The Same Author
About the Publisher
I am not ready for this
I was about to change my mind when the girl came to get me.
I smiled. Such a false smile, it nearly cracked my face.
She was a new girl; she must have started after the –
Since I’d been away. She was confident. Supremely so. More confident than I had ever been at her age. At her stage. She was young and blonde and she walked with a swish of paper-straight hair and an empty click of the long leather boots that promised – something, I wasn’t quite sure what. Exactly Charlie’s type.
‘I’m Daisy,’ she threw over an immaculate shoulder as I tried to keep up. I was already unsettled, and her swagger unnerved me more. Did she know something I didn’t? Painfully I followed her down corridors, trying to keep up, banging awkwardly through the doors, my crutches unwieldy beneath my arms. Waiting all the time for her to speak. She didn’t. I searched for something to say. I contemplated myself in her position, remembering all the inanities I’d spouted since I’d started, the yards and yards of crap I’d sparkled with. The punters have earned it, I always thought. In Daisy’s book, though, apparently, I hadn’t. But I was different, perhaps.
I needed to fill the silence – the silence aside from the click of her dominatrix boots. She awarded me a thin smile as she
pulled open the next set of doors, as she waited for me, not quite tapping her toes, with a smile that said, ‘I am leading you like a lamb to your slaughter.’
I said, ‘Have you worked for Double-decker before?’
She shook her sleek head. ‘Came from the Beeb.’
I loathed people who said ‘the Beeb’.
Didn’t like them much either. The graduate trainee who invariably thought they knew it all. She was remarkably flat-chested for one of Charlie’s girls, I noted, as I squeezed past her.
‘Oxford, you know.’ Had she actually sniffed as she said it?
‘Ah, Oxford.’ I nodded sagely. That would explain it. Charlie had a penchant for posh.
Before I could struggle any further to be her ‘friend’, just like all those punters in the past had tried to be mine, we were there.
Pull yourself together, Maggie
, I told myself firmly. But my hands were actually shaking. It was so odd to be here on the other side. The green room was alive with people and light, the buzz and hum of adrenaline and apprehension. The buzz of attention, of being ‘the one’, the vital one. Everyone was bathed in the horrible neon light that yellowed the skin and made the eyes look dead. The banks of croissants and egg-and-cress sandwiches were already dry and curling; the orange juice was spilt in brilliant pools on the white linen. What was I doing here? Would they see inside me; know I’d sold my soul? I looked for Sally, then for the wine – but Charlie found me first.
‘Maggie, darling.’ The emphasis was on
as he kissed me on both cheeks, his face lingering a little too long next to mine, his Ralph Lauren jumper tied in that silly knot over his breast-bone. His aftershave was as noxious as ever.
‘I could murder a drink.’ I was just a little too bright. I contemplated him for a moment. Then I leaned forward and asked, quietly, ‘You
sure about this, Charlie? I’m struggling a bit with my –’
He clasped my hand, a little too hard, his hooded eyes veiled. ‘Not going to back out now, are you,
I winced. It wasn’t a question.
‘Daisy, get Maggie a drink, would you? A wine.’
Kinky-boots smiled at him, tossing her hair becomingly, and fetched me a drink. Begrudgingly. She’d go far.
‘What?’ Now Charlie leaned in to catch my words, his hair-oil glinting in the light. Had I spoken aloud? ‘Don’t freak out on me, Maggie, please.’
‘I’m really nervous. This is very –’
‘Exciting? I knew you’d see it my way in the end.’
Did I have a choice? ‘I was going to say … I’m really not sure that –’
‘Don’t be silly.’ He looked impatient. ‘We’ve been through all this. It’s going to make the show.’
He leaned forward so only I could hear. ‘And, of course, it’s your absolute last chance. Don’t fuck up. Again.’
‘But –’ I began, as Sally peered round the door. I was so glad to see her that I cried her name much too loudly. Her jolly broad face was uncharacteristically tense. She smiled back, but even her dimples were subdued. Stress was definitely winning the day.
‘Babe.’ Her eyes flicked round the room. ‘Daisy,’ she said as she found her target, gesturing frantically, ‘has the anti turned up yet?’
‘What anti?’ I frowned.
‘Oh, don’t worry. They’re not for you.’
I didn’t believe her. My job had lost its allure some time ago, from years of deceiving those we relied on to provide the entertainment. With a nasty lurch, I realised
was the entertainment now. Oh God. I shook my head.
‘Sal, I really don’t need a row on air, Charlie promised. He called it a – a “healing” show’. Who was I kidding?
I lost Sally’s attention as Renee swept into the room, pausing by the door for maximum effect. She knew exactly how to work it. There was a brief lull as heads turned, a visible wave of excitement over by the croissants. Renee didn’t always bother with the guests these days, but this was a big one. A real ratings winner, if it went right: this year’s greatest tragedy – just in time for BAFTA nominations. I shuddered. Sally was off again.
‘Sal,’ I hissed after her, ‘I’m not going to have a row with anyone. Really. Charlie did promise.’
A shadow flitted across Sally’s face. ‘Bear with me, all right, Maggie? Daisy, get the rostrum tape of the headlines into the gallery. Now, please.’ Then she was gone.
I downed my drink in one huge gulp. The headlines. That overwrought outpouring of horrified, voyeuristic – what? Delight? A glut of hysterical sympathy for our terrible misfortune on that coach. Blame, shame and sorrow. I’d managed to avoid most of them the first time. Only occasionally, when a nurse had forgotten to bin –
I skidded the memory to a necessary halt. My head was aching and I wanted a cigarette badly. I wanted to get the hell out of here even more. I must have been mad to agree to this, and right now I couldn’t quite remember why I had. I inched toward the door as surreptitiously as my bad leg would let me; then Daisy was by my side.
‘Okay?’ She smiled that horrible thin smile again.
‘I need a fag,’ I tried to smile back. Someone stopped Daisy to ask where they could change and that was it; I was off down the corridor as fast as my crutches would carry me. But I wasn’t going to make it outside in time so I veered off to the loo. Perhaps they wouldn’t look here (they always looked here – I was hardly the first guest to hide behind a locked door). The end cubicle was free. I stood against the door and fumbled for my cigarettes. My skeletons weren’t so much rattling the closet, they were smashing down the walls. My hands were trembling
so much I dropped my lighter and cursed myself. Two women were discussing Renee over the divide between their cubicles. ‘Such pretty hair,’ one cooed. If only they knew. Normally I would have smiled, but right now I felt more like crying. Everything was out of kilter. Worst of all, I despised myself. I hadn’t realised quite how hard I was going to find this. Oh God. I didn’t know if I was more scared about being on the other side for the first time in my life, or of talking about – it. Digging up the past. Would they manage to mine my depths for secrets long untold? I inhaled deeply, reckoning I’d got about five more puffs before the smoke alarm went off. The women clattered out, tutting about passive smoking. My leg throbbed. Holding my fag between my teeth I searched my bag for yet more pills.
‘Maggie?’ The deep tones of Amanda, the floor manager. ‘You in here?’
Daisy had rallied the whole bloody troupe. I held my breath but then the smoke curled up into my eyes, up my nose, and I coughed.
‘Maggie? Is that you?’ The relief in Amanda’s voice was tangible. I held my breath.
‘Ten minutes, darling.’
It was useless. ‘Just coming,’ I whispered miserably.
‘I’ll wait for you.’
‘Great.’ I took a last deep drag and dropped the fag into the toilet-bowl, where it died with a tiny fizz. Wiping my sweating hands on my jeans, I opened the door, awkwardly leaning round on one crutch to come out.
‘Darling!’ Amanda hugged me, sniffing the air. ‘Smoking, you naughty girl? How are you, you poor old thing?’ I felt like her pet Labrador.
‘Oh, you know.’
‘Look, do you want to come through now? Take the weight off your poor foot. Is it very sore?’ She glanced down at my leg
like it might snap. Like it might fall off. My crutch got caught on the sink, and I stumbled, just a little, wincing as Amanda grabbed my arm.
‘It’s okay,’ I said, and I heard my own voice ringing outside my own ears. ‘It’s just the wine.’
‘I’m not pissed.’ Actually, that wasn’t entirely true. I hadn’t eaten anything apart from painkillers since God knew when. ‘Don’t be silly. True professional, me. But I might just have a quick top-up before –’
Amanda took my arm, gliding me swiftly through the door toward the studio. She was like a little wiry foxhound; I was clenched between her teeth and she was not going to let me get away again. I debated bashing her over the head with a crutch and making a run for it. A stumble for it.
‘No time, darling.’ Her headset cackled. ‘In the break, maybe.’ She assessed me with speed. ‘You should have been to make-up.’
Daisy appeared in the corridor, checking her mobile with overwhelming indolence, and Amanda glared at her.
‘That phone should be off, young lady. You’re very pale, you know, Maggie.’
‘Pale and uninteresting,’ I joked. But nobody laughed. Anxiety set in again.
‘Amanda.’ This was the point of no return. I took a deep breath, pulled her to one side. ‘I’m really not sure – I really don’t think I can do this, actually.’
‘Course you can, darling. Gosh, if I had a pound for everyone who nearly changed their minds before we started, I’d be a millionaire! And they all come off loving it. All wanting more.’
‘This is me, Amanda, remember?’ I muttered. The old platitudes would not wash, of that I was quite sure. Pissed or not.
She had the grace to flush slightly. ‘Look, I’m going to get Kay up here with some blusher for you. And you,’ she poked Daisy with her clipboard, ‘get Maggie another drink for her nerves.
Stick some wine in a water-bottle. Just don’t let any of the other guests see, for Christ’s sake.’
We were at the studio door. We were in the studio. It was so hot in here already. Sally had taken the floor now to do her bit. The audience was laughing at some feeble joke. They loved it, lapped it up. Charlie rushed in, rushed to my side. ‘All right, Mags?’ No one ever called me Mags, least of all Charlie. Unless …
‘Oh, you know,’ I grimaced. ‘Fine and dandy.’ I imagined slapping my thigh like a principal boy.
Charlie smiled, his teeth shining brilliantly white under the bright lights. ‘Just remember, darling, you’re going to get closure now. And that’s what you need.’
‘Closure,’ I repeated like a well-schooled parrot. ‘What I need.’
Headlines from the days after the accident suddenly flashed up on the studio monitors. My heart began to race as I was forced to read them. The
enquired politely ‘
HORSES ON THE
MOTORWAY: WHO IS TO BLAME?
GOVERNMENT’S ROADS CAUSE TRAGEDY
I tore my eyes away just as Daisy arrived with the water-bottle. I took a huge swig. Now Kay was here in a fug of sweet scent and a cloud of powder that always made me think of my mother.
‘You all right, ducks?’ I loved Kay. I wished she
‘Just a bit of blush to brighten you up, a dab of powder to stop the shine, okay? You can manage without mascara, you lucky girl.’
Pete the soundman rolled up to check my mike. He adjusted it slightly with his hairy little hands, taking pantomime care not to delve too deeply down my V-neck. He winked at me. ‘Funny to see you on this side. Break a leg.’ Then he backed into my plaster cast and went puce.
And now Renee arrived. She sauntered onto set like the true diva she was; and the audience went mad. They always did. They had no idea of the blood and sweat we poured out for Renee, of the tears (ours) and the tantrums (hers) and, and –
She held her hands up for quiet. Silence dropped like a blanket across the studio. Now Renee was talking. Oh, I knew exactly why she was so captivating. She drew them in – she was every man’s friend, every woman’s confidante, as she cast her bountiful eye upon them. Like flapping fish on a line she reeled them closer, until they were prone with ecstasy. She dropped her voice, inviting them to lean in, to share her world.
And in this trice, as I listened, as her words washed over me, I began to relax a little. I still felt the surge of adrenaline, but I could play Renee at her own game; I knew exactly how to do it. God knew I’d been in this business long enough. Once I was as naïve as our audience; a true innocent believing everything we revealed on television was for the greater good. Now I was hardened and desperate to escape this trap, so I’d done my deal with Charlie. I’d let Charlie use what he had on me, what happened before the accident, when my world had finally caved in, because I was still too weak to fight when he first came to me. I just didn’t know any more if it was the right decision to have made.
But this morning I did at least know what they wanted from me and I had to give it to them. For me, it was a one-time, only-time thing, to be on this side with my make-up done and my mike tucked down my top, under my blue armchair the drink no one in the audience knew was there. I took a final swig and pushed it back with my good foot. I took a deep breath, and remembered Charlie’s promise. I remembered Charlie’s threats. I just had to ensure I didn’t reveal too much. I thought of being on the running track at school and my dad shouting on the touchline, ‘Keep going, Maggie, keep on’, as I drove myself forward, and I was ready. Whatever Renee threw at me, I was ready.