Authors: Catriona McPherson
Tags: #dandy gilver, #mystery, #mystery fiction, #mystery novel, #soft-boiled, #fiction, #soft boiled, #women sleuth, #amateur sleuth, #British traditional, #British
The Day She Died: A Novel
Â© 2014 by Catriona McPherson.
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For Brian and Bogusia,
with love, thanks, and a crack of the whip.
She could stand up
straight. There was room enough for that. But when she raised her hands above her head, they hit the ceiling. She could reach them out to the sides too. There was room enough for that. But just a step or so either way and her fingertips touched the walls. And all she could see was absolute perfect nothing. Never before in her life had it been so dark. If she kept her eyes wide until they ran with tears, there was nothing. If she closed them, waited, and opened them slowly â¦ nothing. She held her hand in front of her face, but she only knew it was there from her breath hitting her palm.
Quiet too. No sound at all. Blood in her ears, air in her nose. She cleared her gummy throat and spoke. “Hello?” But the sound didn't leave her mouth. Seemed to hang like fog at her lips and settle back into her. “Hey!” she called out. “Is anybody there?”
She waited, listening, and then she must have slept again, because when she woke the second timeâtwitching awakeâthe taste in her mouth was worse than before and she was clear of whatever she'd been under. She scrambled up and put her hands out, feeling her way around the walls for the door, round and round until she was dizzy, finding nothing.
That was when she shouted for the first time. “Help! Help me!” She bellowed it into the dark, only stopping when her throat was raw. Then she quieted again, slowing her breaths, in through the nose and out through the mouth, like yoga.
, she told herself,
trapdoor. Must be. Just got to find it. Find it and open it and leave. Laugh about it later. And don't, whatever you do, think about the memory just starting to uncurl from where it was hiding inside.
, she thought.
. Adventure words.
Incarcerated, detained against her will.
Police words. And don't think about those other words, from stories, not from life. Stupid words.
Bricked up, buried aliâ
Stop. Find the hatch and open it. Climb out and walk away.
She put her hands on the ceiling and felt her way towards the middle. Her leg banged against something on the floor. She crouched. Plastic. And something else. Cardboard. The cardboard thing moved and the plastic thing stayed still. A light box and a heavy â¦ a tray of bottles, shrink-wrapped, full. Twelve of them. And the box? She shook it. Packets of something inside. That's when she noticed her knee was jammed against a third object, there on the floor. Cold and solid, this one. She knew what it was. Even before she touched the china of the bowl and the wood of the seat, she knew what it was, and she started to cry.
Tuesday, 4 October
It was already a hell of a day. That much was clear when I found myself curled in a corner, in a cupboard, feet tucked in, arms wrapped round my shins, head buried between my knees so I could squeeze it hard, hurt it enough on the outside to make the inside hurting go away. My breathing was good and loud, from how your legs make a kind of cup if you sit that way, like an echo chamber, but I still heard Dot's soft knock on the cupboard door.
“Jessie?” she said in that kind way she's got.
It had to happen sometime. So, okay, it had happened today. Now what? (A) I could walk out and never come back. Wouldn't be the first time. (B) I could tell her everything. (C) I could make a joke of it. Wouldn't be the first time I'd done that either. I was an old hand. Had my spiel polished like a double-glazing salesman. And laughing at yourself first before anyone else gets the chance to? That's nearly as good as squeezing your head between your knees. Works every time.
They do laugh too. No one laughs at claustrophobia. Or agoraphobia either. Or blood and needles. But try pteronophobia and see what you get. First it's the lip twitch and then, even if they listen to the story right to the end (of the bit I'm willing to tell), when my granny came and found me, even if they nod and murmur, eventually they get that look and start laughing. Smiling anyway. So I play along.
“Sodom and Gomorrah,” I say. “I know what you mean.”
Because that was just the same.
There was much wickedness, so God sent in the boysâangels actuallyâto sort it out. And they went to stay at the house of Lot, who was a righteous man. And the not-so-righteous got wind of it and came to see what was up. “We know you're in there” kind of thing, “come out here where we can get a look at you.” But Lotâhell of a host he wasâwas all, “don't bug the angels, whatever you do. Here, take my daughters; knock yourselves out.” So then the angels start to get a hustle on, no surprise, asking Lot to gather his family togetherâwife and kids, all thatâand hit the road. And they said, “Don't look back.”
But here's the thing: they didn't say why not. And so Lot's wife looked back (who wouldn't have?) and blammo! Pillar of salt, which, if the angels had mentioned it, might have helped her not do it in the first place, but there you go. And so Lot and his daughters end up camping and they get him plastered and then they sleep with him, and they both get knocked up and then the whole plot goes back to Abraham again, where it started anyway.
“And the moral of the story is,” I said to Dot once I was out of the cupboard and back in the tearoom at work that day, “God hates fags. He doesn't mind dads pimping out their daughters or daughters seducing their dads, but he reckoned the angry mob banging on Lot's door had a twinkle in their eye. And since the mob were men and so were the angels, there it is. God hates fags. Couldn't be clearer, really.”
“Well,” said Dot. “There was Leviticus too.”
“Oh, right! Leviticus!” I said. “Tell the truth, Dot. Who would you rather be stuck in a lift with? That angry mob from Sodom and Gomorrah or creepy Leviticus?”
“Hah! I knew it. âWhat's that blouse made of, little girl? What's in your sandwich today? When's your period due?' Total psycho.”
“Stop it,” Dot said. “How can you sit there and talk about being stuck in a lift after what you've just said to me?”
“That's my whole point,” I told her. “I'm not claustrophobic. It's like Sodom and Gomorrah all over again: the take-home message isn't what you'd think it would be. And I wish I was because tight spaces are pretty easy to avoid. Unless you need a pet scan, and then it's not your biggest worry. But me? Walking down the street, going in people's houses, watching things on telly â¦ it's rough.”
“But you seem fine,” Dot said.
“Yeah,” I answered. “I know I do.”
So when we went back to work again after lunch, she opened the bin bags and poked around to see they were safe before she turned them over to me for checking. I do the checking because I'm the boss. The manager, or maybe just the supervisor. Really, it's because I'm an employee, in all four days a week the Project's open, and the others are volunteers. So strictly speaking, Dot should have opened the bags if I asked her, even
her, without the story at all. But it's not that kind of place.
And while I was busy sorting, checking the labels, checking the pockets, colour-coding the washing loads, writing up the dry-
cleaning (only if they're worth it, even with the discount), I was wondering how long it would take her to come and ask me.
An hour and twenty minutes. She appeared at the door of the wee room by the toilets where the washer and dryer are and leaned against the jamb.
“You came to us from the RSPB,” she said.
“Guilty,” I said. “Shoot me.”
“How could you work in the charity shop of the Royal Society for the Protection of
of all things if you'reâ”
“I couldn't!” I squeaked. “Not in the shop. My God. I was in the office. Totally separate building.”
“But even so â¦ ” Dot said.
“Yeah, even so,” I agreed. “I lasted a year, though.”
“Why?” she asked me. “Why did you put yourself through it?”
Her face was puckered up with concern. Well, she's sixty-three, so her face was puckered anyway, but the way she was looking at me, almost like she would cry in a minute? It floored me. Shouldn't have, really. Dot rakes through manky clothes fifteen hours a week for no pay and deals with our lippy clients too. Dot organised five separate jumble sales for JM Barrie House and didn't even swear when it went tits up in the end. She's got to have a caring streak a mile wide running through her.
“Atonement,” I said. First time I'd said anything like it to anyone.
I'd floored her back. Was I really going to tell her the rest of it? How something doesn't need to be true for you to be sorry it happened? How you can know from a thousand hours of therapy that you didn't do something, and still it's the worst thing you've ever done?
“It's not the birds' fault, you know,” I went for in the end.
“You were atoning to the
?” she said, and the middle of her face unpuckered as the edges creased up. “You're a funny wee bunny, Jessie, you know that?” She shook her head, laughed a soft laugh, and then squeezed past me to fill the kettle for our tea. “Quite entertaining, mind you,” she called over the sound of the tap. I just kept stuffing in my load of dark mixed-fibre easy-care.
So my point is basically this. The day I met Gus, the day she died, the day I grew a family like I'd planted magic beans, was the day I told Dot at work about my pteronophobia and told her quite a lot really, when you get right down to it, about where it came from too.
It was the very same day.
Maybe I ended up where I ended up, did what I did, because I was already down the rabbit hole, through the looking glass. Maybe it's not totally my fault that I tripped and went over the rainbow.