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Authors: Bianca Zander

The Girl Below

BOOK: The Girl Below
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The Girl Below

Bianca Zander


For Matthew and Hector



Title Page


Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three



P. S.: Insights, Interviews & More . . .

About the author

About the book

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About the Author



About the Publisher

Chapter One

London, 2003

t was only May, but the streets flared golden like they do in high summer, and all around me the neighborhood sighed with so much privilege that I felt shut out—a stranger on the block where my childhood took place. In the twenty years since we had moved away, Notting Hill had changed beyond recognition, become a kind of joke suburb—part tourist bauble, part film set—and a ludicrous place to say you were from. Of course I’d changed too in that time, but not so much that I was ready to accept the slight. Instead, for the last ten minutes, I had been glued to the doorstep of our old building, staring at a familiar name on the buzzer, too shy to press it but feeling aggrieved that I couldn’t get in.

On the other side of a spiked black railing, the basement flat was oblivious to my injury, and bore no trace of our having lived there. Fresh paint slicked the iron bars that guarded the front windows, and behind them our homely green and orange curtains had been replaced with stiff white venetian blinds. Shorn long ago of my mother’s pink and red potted geraniums, the patio was bald, and had been industrially water-blasted to remove any residue of dirt or character. Fleetingly, the lemony scent of geranium leaves spiked my nostrils and I saw my mother, hovering over her plants, trimming rogue stems and plucking off blooms that had died.

I had been right, in one way at least, about coming back to London: everything here reminded me of her. She had left behind a trail of crumbs, a dusting of sugar to guide me through the woods.

That day was only my second in London, but already the optimism I had been fizzing with was beginning to seem false. On the long flight over from New Zealand, I had imagined a triumphant homecoming: streamers and banners above a red carpet the length of Kensington Park Road, or at least an easy transition back to my old life. I had been out of the country for ten years, living in Auckland for most of that time, but I had thought that the old life would be waiting for me, that if you were born in a place and had grown up there, you were one of its citizens and it would always take you back.

Other places maybe, but not London. At the Heathrow arrivals gate, no one had been there to meet me. On the way into London on the tube, I had tried smiling at people, projecting a sunny attitude, but I had been met with frowns, and some had turned away. Getting off the tube at Willesden Green, I had gone into a newsagent’s to buy a packet of wine gums, had excitedly told the cashier that you couldn’t buy them in New Zealand, and he had silently—no, scornfully—handed me my change. Still feeling upbeat, I had walked from the tube station to my friend Belinda’s flat only to discover no one was there. Belinda had left a note, and a key, and I had let myself in and sat down on my suitcase—stuffed to the zipper with all I owned—and that’s when deflation began. I had come back to London without any plan besides entitlement, and staring at the two-seater couch in front of me that was about to become my bed, I realized what a fool I had been.

The name that had caught my attention on the buzzer of our old building was Peggy Wright: our former upstairs neighbor, a force of nature, someone to be reckoned with, older than my parents but ageless. I remembered her well—her high, cackling laugh, her lipstick-stained teeth—but wasn’t sure if she’d remember me, at least not in my present incarnation. At the time we left the neighborhood, I was a scrawny eight-year-old waif in glasses so thick that no one—including me—knew what I looked like behind them. Since then, I had grown tall and robust and switched to contact lenses, but along with those things had come caution, and that’s what hindered me now.

From the front stairs, I surveyed the altered street. The most obvious thing missing was Katy’s, the junk shop that had doubled as a grocery store, and the first shop I had been allowed to visit on my own—pound note clutched in sticky hand—to buy bread and milk and liquorice allsorts. There was no signage over the door, just a blank awning, but everyone knew the old lady who owned it and referred to the shop by her name. Katy would have been well into her eighties or even nineties back then, and walked with the aid of a Zimmer frame, but she had the smile of a schoolgirl and ran her shop like she was one. Sliced bread and newspapers were her staples, but she sold these alongside a gargantuan pile of moth-eaten trash: lace doilies, books, curios, plates, petticoats, brooches, hats. How any of it got there, nobody knew, but if you spotted something in the junk pile you wanted to buy, Katy would examine it in her shaking hands as though she had no idea how it got there either. She would mutter that she just had to check with her daughter to see how much it was worth. And that would be the last you saw of it. Katy’s daughter ran a stall in the Portobello Market arcade, and once alerted to the desirability of certain objects in her mother’s junk shop, she whisked them away, polished them up, and rebirthed them as exorbitantly priced antiques. Now in place of Katy’s there was a boutique for “
” with a solitary, art-directed sneaker displayed in its long, gleaming window—nothing else—and I wondered if it was progress or absurdity that Katy’s path of excessive bric-a-brac had culminated, decades later, in a store for one-footed Frenchmen.

In front of me, the buzzer beckoned. What did I have to lose? Even if Peggy didn’t recognize me, surely she’d remember my parents and that would at least get me a cup of tea and a biscuit. We could talk about Peggy’s children, Harold and Pippa, who would be grown, with kids of their own by now. When I was a child, they were teenagers, old enough for Pippa to trip downstairs in her New Romantic get-up and impersonate a babysitter. Her brother, Harold, had been more of a rumor, a floppy-fringed sulker who’d gone away first to boarding school and then to Cambridge University, from where he’d come back arrogant and spoiled (or so my father was fond of saying). Harold did nothing to quash the impression of aloofness, hovering at the edge of Peggy’s soirees, shunning endless games of charades, and never lowering his gaze to the level of grasshoppers such as myself.

Pippa, on the other hand, had been my idol, and being looked after by her had been an event. She always arrived in a cloud of hair spray and kohl, armed with secrets from the teenage frontline, and I’d looked forward to the nights my parents went to parties as much as if I too was going out. She would demonstrate the latest dance moves—mostly jerky, New Wave stuff—and if I hounded her, she tossed me a few scraps of advice about snogging and other unbelievable acts. “Don’t put on too much lippy or it’ll rub off on his face,” and, “Never tell a guy you love him straight after you’ve bonked.” She had magnificent boobs, quite the biggest I’d ever seen, and together we’d raided my mother’s wardrobe and tried on all her clothes. Unlike her brother, she had not been sent to boarding school, but had made do with the local comprehensive and a hairdressing course at a third-rate polytechnic. My mother, who had gone without haircuts (and many other things) to send me to private school, thought Peggy had done her daughter a great disservice, but anyone who had ever met Harold could tell you that was not necessarily the case.

Spurred on by such memories, I pressed Peggy’s buzzer and felt the click of a small electric shock. A brisk voice hissed over the intercom, “Peggy Wright’s residence. Can I help you?” She sounded formal, like a receptionist.

“I’ve come to see Peggy. I’m an old friend.”

The woman didn’t reply but let me in, and I heaved open the front door, which slammed behind me on a spring. Since we’d lived there, the lobby had undergone a makeover. Instead of letters stacked on the radiator and piled haphazardly on the doormat, each apartment now had its own brass-numbered pigeonhole. The smell was different too, no longer boiled cabbage and mildew, but fresh paint and carpet shampoo. And Harold’s bicycle, which had leaned permanently against the bottom staircase, someone had finally moved that too.

I bounded up the first five flights of stairs, eager to see Peggy, but with three still to go I was gasping for breath and had to stop for a rest. Each landing was more or less identical, so it was hard to be absolutely sure, but I thought this floor had belonged to Jimmy, the bogeyman of the building. I had not even known his last name, only feared him, and I’d never stopped on his landing in case he jumped out and threw a sack over my head. When I tried to recall his appearance now, all I could remember was a shadowy, retreating figure, his face a caved-in slab.

Peggy’s front door was already open, sweet disinfectant vapors leaking out into the hall. I crossed the threshold, prepared for renovations, but none had been made: the black-lacquered walls, chessboard floor tiles, and accents of orange were, shockingly, identical to how I’d remembered them. So too was the ornamental birdcage, its perches wired with a colony of faded stuffed canaries. Not so much furniture as props, stage dressing for a farce set in 1970s Bohemia. So unchanged was the interior that when I looked in the hall mirror, I was surprised to see an adult face staring back at me.

The brisk woman appeared from the kitchen in white slacks and a white smock, an efficient spring in her white-plimsolled step. “She’s just had her afternoon dose,” she said. “So I expect she’ll be rather groggy.”

Too late, I noticed the dim lighting, the hushed, churchlike atmosphere, and regretted my impulsive visit. To arrive unannounced was so terribly un-English. After ten years in the colonies, I had forgotten my manners. Not only that, but something was clearly wrong with Peggy, wrong enough that she required the services of a live-in nurse.

“I’ll come back another time,” I said. “I’d hate to disturb her.”

“It’s probably best to see her while you still can,” said the nurse, directing me across the hallway. “She’s quite weak today but it always cheers her up to have visitors.”

Peggy had been moved into Pippa’s old bedroom, close to the kitchen, closer to the front door if she needed to check out. The room was dark and cool, with blinds at half-mast and thick net curtains obscuring the warm summer sun. It took a few seconds to locate Peggy, and much longer to recognize her. She was on a trolley bed, wrapped in a cocoon of crisp hospital sheets, the pillows tilted to cradle her piplike head. From her left arm, a drip trailed, and her skin spread like tracing paper over a map of her bones. Most of her hair had fallen out; what remained was aubergine fluff. But she still had her stenciled eyebrows, arched in permanent surprise, and I realized with an odd sting of pity that they must be tattooed on.

Trying not to wake her, I shuffled toward the bed, but a floorboard creaked under my shifting weight and her eyelids flickered open. She had trouble focusing, and looked blurrily up at the ceiling.

BOOK: The Girl Below
11.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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