As soon as Kate Harris closed the door behind her, she knew the house wasn’t empty. She dropped the students’ test papers on the hall table and all thoughts of marking them, or having the evening off and spoiling herself with a hot bath and a glass of Chablis, disappeared. It was not that the signs of another person were obvious; on the contrary, the narrow hall revealed no hint of disturbance. The telephone was in its usual place on the half-moon rickety table. Her address book was on top, open at the M slot where she'd left it in her rush to get to work and, underneath, she could see her soft green pumps nestling side by side in regimented innocence.
So she could see no physical clues of any intrusion, or even a surprise visit by her best friend, Nicky, but still she knew. It was a knowledge that tingled its way into her skin. As if an unseen but not unfamiliar presence were beside her, moving back each time she turned her head.
She took three steps along the plain blue carpet. As she passed the hall mirror, she realised that the sudden downpour had turned her hair a darker shade of red.
‘Hello,’ she called out. ‘Nicky? Is that you?’
Then she remembered. Of course it wouldn’t be Nicky. Her friend was, lucky indeed for her, away with her family on holiday in France for her usual spring break. So she took the remaining five steps down the hallway and pushed open the kitchen door.
The first thing she saw was the broken window pane. The second thing was the young man. He was sitting at the table. She couldn’t see his face, which was covered with a black mask, but his hands, long-fingered and elegant in a way she would always remember, were already stroking one of her own kitchen knives.
He looked up.
‘Hello, Kate,’ he said.
When Kate opened her eyes some eleven hours later, she saw the shadow of horizontal bars cast by the sash window over the wall next to the bed. From where she was lying on the floor, she could see the mahogany wardrobe with its pile of blankets and lone hatbox on top. Next to the wardrobe, one of Nicky’s watercolours was lying, the glass broken and its picture of two women on a bench slashed diagonally across. For a quicksilver second, she couldn't remember what had happened or why she was here. Then she froze, waiting for the verbal abuse or physical punishment she'd come to expect in the course of the last evening, but nothing happened. No harsh breathing or low curses, no sound of someone waiting for her to move or show any sign of life. No-one was here. From her position, bruised face resting on the soft gold of her bedroom carpet and one hand twisted under her side, she could see a dark pool of something – blood? – drifting in and out of focus. She wondered if it was her own.
She blinked twice and the room shook a little before settling into its familiar shape. As it did so, reality crowded back, unwelcome, insistent, and her dry breath caught in her throat. Trying to turn over to free her hand, throbbing now, the movement opened a gate in her head where fire tracked through. She vomited, intense spasms rocking her body, and her eyes burning. When it was over, she shuffled away from the yellowing mess around her and tried to cry out. Her voice was lost in silence.
Now she found she was lying on her stomach, her breathing shallower. Her thighs felt sticky, sore, and each time she moved, even a fraction of movement, a knife pierced upwards inside her. She thought she might vomit again, but after a moment the feeling passed.
Against her will, his face slipped into her mind and she could see him as clearly as if he were still here. She could almost smell his stale flesh, and the stink of salt curdled her mouth. Moaning again, she could see his eyes, ice-blue like stars, and the shape of his fingers holding her down.
No. She had to clean herself. Now. She had to have a shower or, if not that, if she were too weak for that, then a bath. Yes, she needed a bath. If only she had the strength to lift herself up and do it. If only she could drag her body into the warm refuge of her bathroom, it might even then be as if nothing had ever happened. All she needed to do was blank out the last hours from her memory and start the whole evening again. Somehow. Surely she was strong enough to do that little thing? She would be, she had to be.
What if he came back?
The world around her seemed to stop as she considered this possibility. The universe ceased its constant and quiet activity, and her breath caught in her lungs as she was held for a moment in transition. Between one decision and way of life, and another.
Then, with a small groan, she began the long, slow struggle to reach the telephone on the other side of the bed.
After that, a time occurred when all she could recall were a series of impressions. A thin, balding ambulance man who frowned and spoke as if she were a child. A sharp medicinal smell she couldn't name. A red-faced woman in a police uniform. Telephone conversations made over her body, the slick cut and thrust of mobiles, as she lay wrapped in a gleaming sheet that rubbed against the painful areas at her arms and stomach. She wondered if she were dead after all. Then she had the sense of movement, swift and purposeful, the loneliness of sirens, people shouting, barren white corridors rushing along, a grey-haired, silent doctor examining her in a way that made her feel violated again although his hands were gentle, and then … darkness.
Later still, more images crowded in. Together with the sound of voices.
‘Deep abrasions … trauma … cuts … stomach and thighs … too much blood … I think we should …’
The words swam through Kate’s consciousness. Drifted away to a place she couldn’t see. It was still dark. She was being held down by an unknown force, couldn’t move her arms or legs … she had to …
Sparkling lights from somewhere. A groan trapped in the dryness of her throat, the memory of a breath not taken. Then a heavy weight on her eyes, the struggle to open them, followed by a piercing whiteness and unfamiliar faces. And whispering.
‘I think she might be coming round. Perhaps you could …?’
She woke from a long sleep in which she'd been walking on a deserted beach, her feet sinking into golden sand. The sky was as blue as forget-me-nots, and nothing around her disturbed the sense of peace that emanated from the sea. It was calling to her and she wanted, more than anything, to feel its cool waves on her skin. Looking down, she realised she was naked. With the sun warming her face, she turned and stepped into the salty shallows that came up to her ankles, then her knees and thighs. She was losing herself in water, giving herself to the pull of the tide. Now her buttocks and waist were submerged in the sea, which was colder than she'd thought. Then her breasts and shoulders and now her neck and mouth. She launched herself out into nothingness and for a moment she was flying. But the water felt so cold, freezing now, and her body was dragging her downwards. She gasped and at once icy sea filled her mouth and lungs. She was drowning, with no escape, hands reaching up to the sky, throat gasping for breath, for air, for …
‘Mrs Harris? Mrs Harris? It’s all right. You’re fine, everything’s fine now.’
The unfamiliar voice, female, jolted through her veins and she struggled into wakefulness. Even at a time like this, the incorrect assumption of her marital status grated on her. The water and the fear vanished away, and in its place when she opened her eyes she could see pale beige walls and light streaming in through a picture window on her right. Where was she now? And where had the beach gone? Had she ever been there at all?
‘Hello, Mrs Harris, it’s good to see you awake. How are you feeling?’
The fair-haired woman bending over her with one hand on her shoulder was young, not much more than twenty, and dressed in a smart white uniform with a fob-watch dangling from her top pocket. She had brown eyes, which smiled with her mouth.
‘What? Where?’ Kate began but the woman was already answering.
‘You’re in the Royal Surrey County Hospital, Mrs Harris. In Guildford. You’ve had an accident, but don’t worry, you’re doing very well. We’re very pleased with your progress.’
Kate was about to ask what she was doing here when the memory twisted. She stared at the nurse who spoke again.
‘Can I get you a cup of tea? It’s about that time of day, isn’t it? Would you like milk? Sugar?’
Kate nodded and shook her head at the appropriate points and the nurse padded her way out of the room in a swish of nylon. For a few minutes she was alone and, blinking, she gazed round at her surroundings. It was the same as a thousand other hospital rooms across the country: light and functional.
Without warning, the door swung open again and Kate almost gasped out loud before realising it was after all only the nurse, carrying a mug of tea and a packet of Bourbons on a tray. She must be assigned to look after me, Kate thought, and the knowledge made her shiver.
‘Here you are,’ she said. ‘I thought you might like something to eat as well.’
‘Thank you.’ Kate waited as the other woman fussed around, tucking in sheets and plumping up pillows. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Nurse Roberts, Mrs Harris. But just call me Amy.’
‘Yes, I will.’
Kate didn’t explain her single status and sipped her tea instead, shaking her head when offered a biscuit. She watched as Amy ate one.
‘How long have I been here?’ she asked when the nurse had swallowed her mouthful.
Amy coughed, patting her chest with an exaggerated gesture. ‘Not long. Just four days. It’s Wednesday now.’
‘I see.’ Kate looked away. Four days. He’d taken four days. If only she were strong enough, she’d … She'd what? There was nothing she could do. Not now. Not yet.
Beside her, Amy was waiting in silence, making no enquiries or demands. Where had she learnt that?
‘Could you tell me something else?’ Kate said.
‘Anything. Ask away.’
‘Has anyone been to see me? Enquired after me at all?’
‘Oh yes,’ said Amy. ‘Your colleagues have left some messages and cards. I can let you see those, just as soon as you like. I don’t know if there’s anything from family yet, but I can have a look for you.’
‘No,’ said Kate, interrupting her. ‘My parents are dead now. And I’m single. There’s no other family.’
Her abrupt response must have startled Amy because she stood up and made as if to leave. Then Kate saw her hesitate.
‘Look, I’d better go now,’ she said. ‘I’ll pop in to see you later, I promise. But before I go, I ought to tell you there are some … people … outside who need to ask you a few questions. Not now, but when you’re ready, let me know. And I'll try to help as much as I can.’
Kate shut her eyes.
‘The police?’ she said.
She opened her eyes again.
‘Then tell them I’m ready now,’ she said.
It took a long time. Longer than Kate had imagined. There were two policemen and one policewoman, the men plain-clothes detectives and the woman in uniform. They told her their names but she forgot them almost at once.
One of the men did the talking, the older one with wrinkled eyes and a salt-and-pepper beard. He spoke with a soft Irish accent. She kept having to shut her eyes to try to take herself back, but not too close, to the evening of the attack. All the time she talked, the younger policeman, who never looked at her, wrote down her words. Kate wondered whether he was connecting any of the events he was scribbling down in his large, childlike hand to the woman in the bed in front of him. Why should he? It was hard enough for her to understand it. Why should anyone else? While she spoke, the policewoman held her hand. She gripped it harder whenever Kate stumbled over the story or had to be silent for a while. Kate wished she wouldn’t do that. She didn’t know this woman. She didn’t want to be touched by her.
Towards the end of the interview, the older officer paused and looked down at his hands, and then up briefly at Kate.
‘Ms Harris,’ he said. ‘Did you recognise your assailant? Was he familiar to you at all?’
‘No,’ she said, not looking at him. ‘No.’
A silence followed, which she didn’t fill. But no more questions followed and the wild beating of her heart slowed to a steadier pace. The young man hurried to finish scribbling in his notepad. Kate concentrated on the slight scrape of his pen and the beads of sweat on his forehead. She didn’t respond to the increase of pressure on her hand. At last the writing stopped. The young man glanced once at his colleague. Then he gave a quick and uncertain smile in the direction of Kate and put his notepad down.
The quietness continued. The older man opened his mouth, but Kate spoke first.
‘Is that all then?’ she asked. ‘Have you finished?’
For a brief moment, the salt-and-pepper man’s eyes widened. The kindness she thought she’d seen in them vanished, before returning but this time more reticently. ‘Yes. Thank you. We have, we …’
‘Good,’ Kate cut him off. ‘Then, please, I’m tired now. I need to sleep. I’d like you to go.’
She didn’t wait to see their reaction. Instead she withdrew her trapped hand from the possession of the policewoman and turned over. Closing her eyes, she tried to regulate her breathing.
A few seconds later, she heard the three interrogators get up from her bedside. They replaced their chairs and at last there it was: the padding of footsteps away from her. As they went, the young man said something in a whisper. It wasn’t as low as he must have thought and was quickly hushed.
‘Bit of a cold fish, eh?’
It was only when the door had been closed and she was sure they wouldn’t be returning that Kate wiped away the tears she hadn’t wanted them to see.
How dare they say such a thing? What did they know really about what she’d had to endure? They had no idea what she was like. But was she cold? She didn’t know. More than that, she didn’t care. If being cold helped her to survive, then that was what she would be. What did people other than she understand about what had happened the night that had brought her here? Really understand, not merely the facts and the timings, as she’d told the police, but the feelings and responses no-one else but she would ever know. She would never tell anyone what had happened, or what she thought she knew, not even Nicky. She wouldn’t even admit it to herself. Truth couldn’t be found in facts; they were simply a scaffold for what lay elsewhere, a scaffold that she’d staked her life and her future on. She would live by this understanding still.
As the day passed, the four walls of her room seemed to close in around her like a winter trap from which she would never be free. Even though she’d struggled across the floor to open her window, the room remained stuffy and breathing was difficult. More than anything she wished Nicky was with her. With a wave of longing which nearly overwhelmed her, she wanted to see the familiar figure of her best friend walking towards her, smiling and talking as she always did, gesturing patterns in the air with her hands, and making everything good again. Somehow. Though of course she wouldn’t be smiling. Not now, not in these circumstances. Nicky would be shocked, horrified at what had happened, Kate knew that. She wouldn’t know how to react, and Kate wondered whether she would be able to deal with that any better than she’d dealt with the policewoman’s sympathy earlier.
No, maybe it was better that Nicky was away, with her family, in the south of France on her annual camping holiday. At heart, Kate was glad of it. What sort of person was she anyway? Did other women cope with this situation more effectively than she was? She didn’t know and had no way of telling, and besides she didn’t want to be classed as a certain type of woman. Victim. Survivor. Witness. Or any other description. She wasn’t any of those; she was Kate Harris, successful lecturer, keen theatre-goer, good friend. That should be enough.
Still, she wished Nicky were here. In spite of it all.
In the evening of that day, when she was least expecting it, her wish was granted.
At the sound of her name being whispered by someone who wasn’t a nurse, Kate opened her eyes and struggled to turn round in the bed. For a moment during which all her past life apart from the last few days seemed to vanish somewhere, she didn’t know who it was. She stared at the small, rounded brunette who had spoken her name, but couldn’t place her and for another moment she was floating in air and falling. Then with a thump of the heart she hoped the other woman wouldn’t hear, her memory slotted back into place.
‘Nicky. You’re here? I thought you were away, I thought …’
‘Hush, darling. It’s all right. We’re back. The police rang us. They must have found my details at your house. They thought we ought to know and I came back at once.’
As she spoke, Nicky lowered herself onto the bed as if she was afraid something might break and put her arms round her friend. Kate found her face pressed against red cotton fabric and the scent of Anais Anais, and blinked back tears.
‘It’s okay,’ Nicky whispered, stroking her hair. ‘It’s okay.’
But it wasn’t. And Kate didn’t know if it ever would be. How could she retrieve her life, bring it back to where it had been a few short days ago? It was as if a knife had suddenly cut her off from her past, or at least her own carefully edited version of it, simply because of that one night and that one man and what had happened there. In her head all was darkness.
‘Thank you,’ she said when she was able to. ‘I’m so glad you’re here, Nicky, so glad. But you didn’t need to come back early, there was nothing you could do then, or now. I’m sorry.’
‘Kate, I wanted to come back. I had to see you. You’re my friend.’
In answer, Kate simply returned the hug. When the silence had said everything that perhaps could never be said, Nicky spoke again.
‘Are you in pain? Did he …?’
‘… hurt me? Yes. But I’m alive, and once he … started, I didn’t think I would be.’
‘I’m so sorry, Kate.’ Nicky was the one crying now. ‘I don’t know what to do, I wish there was a way I could make everything all right, but there isn’t, is there? I just want you to know that I’m your friend, whatever.’
‘I know,’ Kate said, twisting her hand away from Nicky’s and giving it one last squeeze on the way to escape. ‘Please. Don’t cry. It’s not your fault.’
‘Sorry,’ Nicky sniffed and reached for a tissue from the bedside table. ‘But it’s not your fault either, Kate.’
But Kate didn’t want to think about that, even though she knew it was true. None of the attack had been her fault. It never was in these circumstances, was it? At least, that was what all the do-gooders told you. It was the man, and the man alone, who was the instigator, the attacker, the criminal. Her only fault had been to be present. Though it was her house and the man had found his way into it. Through the kitchen window. Hadn’t he? And hadn’t she herself …? What was it about him that had made her think …? Later, these thoughts would be for later. She couldn’t deal with them now. With an effort of will she hadn’t known she possessed, she focused on another subject.
‘David,’ she said, trying to control the slight tremor in her voice. ‘How is he? And the children?’
‘Fine. He’s looking after the twins. He … sends his love.’
Kate didn’t want to hear that. She didn’t want to think about David. She didn’t want to think about any man. Not now. Of course, she expressed none of this.
‘I know. I’m grateful. I wish …’
‘Yes?’ Nicky said. ‘Is there anything I can get you? Apart from clothes and your things from home; I can bring them in tomorrow for you.’
All Kate wanted was to be away from here. But not “home”. Not yet.
‘No,’ she said. ‘Thank you. There’s nothing else. A change of clothes and some make-up will be fine. The hospital staff are very good. Of course they are. It’s just …’
‘It’s just I don’t want to be here and I don’t want to be at home. I don’t know where to go any more. I don’t know where I belong.’
As she spoke, Kate realised the truth of it. Her house was now no longer a home at all, but a jagged place where pain could be given and received. And knowledge suppressed.
Nicky stayed another hour or so. Kate asked about the France holiday and heard about the new campsite, David’s irritation about the invariably cold showers and how much Charlotte and Louise had enjoyed the Kids’ Club. In her turn, Nicky asked, hesitantly, as if asking something Kate would have no knowledge of, about the university, and Kate told her about the cards and good wishes she’d received, though she’d turned down the one or two offers of visits. She answered as if from a great distance, as if she were describing the decisions of some other woman, and then wondered at the change.
When the talking had come to a natural halt, the two women remained silent and Kate thought she might have dozed off a little. She couldn’t be sure.
Her friend couldn’t stay forever, of course. She had her family to consider. Kate found that now someone had come to see her, a familiar and much-loved face, the thought of parting made her skin feel cold.
‘You’ll come back, won’t you?’ she asked, trying to keep the note of begging out of her voice. ‘Tomorrow? I don’t know how long it will be before they let me go.’
‘Of course I’ll be here.’ Nicky smiled, an action it seemed to Kate that she at once thought better of. ‘Try and keep me away. I’ll be here every day as long as you are. I promise.’
‘Thank you,’ Kate sighed, an overwhelming feeling of tiredness taking her away from the current moment. ‘I … I appreciate that. And listen …’
‘It’s all right to smile. It’s good to know things can be normal. Even after this.’
Nicky nodded but said nothing. When her friend was gone and the vacuum left by her absence had eased, Kate prayed a silent prayer that what she had said might one day be true, that things might be normal again.
And that one day soon she could leave the hospital.
It took longer than she’d hoped. The hospital staff were reluctant to let her go and Kate wondered if it was because she had no family who could help her, or not any who could be useful anyway. Both her parents were dead, her father many years ago, her mother more recently. She had no brothers or sisters and no children. Not now. No, she had to stop thinking like that. There had never been children, and she was a fool to be thinking that way here, where she needed all of her strength.
So Kate remained in hospital for ten days. She was offered counselling and victim support, but she refused both. She was given information on the different sorts of medical tests they might need to perform in the future, but although she took the leaflets they left for her, she knew she wouldn’t look at them again; he’d used a condom, hadn’t he? Each time. And besides she couldn’t bear the thought of further medical intrusion into her life. No, she would take her chances.
As for the police, in the six days when she was awake but exhausted, they visited her twice more after the initial interview. She was glad that on both those occasions, the younger man did not attend; she didn’t know whether she could have borne to talk to him, not after what he had said, words that she could never share with anyone, not even Nicky. She made sure she told them nothing more than they already knew, and they in turn had nothing to tell her. There had been no arrest, nor any hint of one. Her attacker had vanished from sight as easily as if he had been nothing but mist.
He could not so easily vanish from her memory.
He would have to. She could imagine no other option. She, Kate Harris, had a future and, no matter what, she would never be constrained by her past. She had promised herself that a long time ago and had never seen any reason to change her views.
She had to recover. And the first steps towards that recovery would only begin when she could face the thought of home. Or whatever her home had become.
Leaving hospital at last, on a bright Monday afternoon towards the end of April, was more of a physical strain than she had anticipated. Nicky picked her up early in the afternoon, after the consultant had given the go ahead, and the two women walked out down the narrow, antiseptic corridors of the hospital into the sharp light of spring. Kate wanted to leave with dignity but instead found herself scurrying for items she’d borrowed or bought while she was here: soap, toothpaste, a small pink comb she’d never have imagined possessing before now. Somehow it seemed impossible to leave them, even though they were no longer necessary.
Nicky said nothing, but simply watched as Kate stuffed the items strewn round her now vacant bed into the bags her friend had brought. Once, she stretched out to try to help, but Kate hunched away.
‘No, please. I can manage. You’re being kind enough.’
Outside, the afternoon sun hit Kate as if it were an enemy, uncaring, distant. She could hear people talking, the sound of laughter, and it made her shiver, though it wasn’t cold.
‘It’s here, darling. I parked as near as I could.’
Four paces to the left brought Kate to the familiar bright red of Nicky’s Polo. Something she recognised in this unfamiliar place, and she blinked the tears away.
‘Thank you,’ she said again. ‘Thank you.’
In response, Nicky gave Kate a quick hug and then helped her into the car. It felt to Kate as if she were an old lady unable to bring her limbs quite under her control, but at last it was done and Nicky was putting the bags into the boot. Kate gave her friend a quick smile and then leant back on the seat and shut her eyes. She didn’t want to experience the journey between here and Godalming. She simply wanted it to be over.
At this time of day however, such a miracle was beyond both of them. It was a little after 3.30pm and the hospital roundabout was busy with shoppers at the nearby Tesco. They would just have to wait.
As they drove past the supermarket, Nicky spoke, ‘I don’t think you need anything. I’ve got milk, fruit and bread and some ready meals in the back of the car. That will keep us going for a day or two, if that’s okay.’
Kate had never in her life eaten a ready meal; it wasn’t something that had ever occurred to her, though she knew her friend, as a busy working mother, saw them as a frequent lifesaver. However, that wasn’t her main concern.
‘Us?’ she said, opening her eyes and watching the straight, bleak lines of the A3 rushing towards the windscreen before being swallowed up behind them.
‘Yes,’ Nicky said. ‘Us. I thought you might like me to stay with you in the house for a couple of days. I thought it would be best, and David is okay about it. I’ll have my mobile anyway, and it’ll be fine. If it’s okay with you?’
Yes, it was all right with Kate. Far more than that. She didn’t know how to reply or whether she was even capable of doing so, and instead reached over and squeezed her friend’s arm.
‘Yes, please,’ she said. ‘But what about the twins?’
‘Don’t worry about them. I’ve bribed them with toys and it will be a good chance for David to get some father and daughters’ quality time in. Anyway, it’s about time he pulled his weight.’
Kate couldn’t help it. She laughed and the sound of it was like plunging into cold water.
‘Yes, I suppose it is,’ she said.
For the rest of the journey back to the house, Kate stared out of the window and listened to the low murmur of Classic FM from the car radio. Nicky’s choice, not hers, but today that was fine. Today wasn’t a day for stimulation of any kind, musical or otherwise. Outside, the brief stretch of A3 was soon abandoned, and they were turning down the slip road to Godalming, sweeping past the tall crosses marking the walkers’ route and into the country roundabouts on the way to Charterhouse. Kate leant her head against the window where the glass, cooled by the air conditioning, contrasted with the heat of her skin. The road narrowed and the trees and hedges grew denser, skipping past Prior’s Field School, where she and Nicky had grown up, deepened their friendship, made their teenage mistakes and from where they had finally left to part temporarily for their different universities. She had gone to Durham, and Nicky to a year abroad in the Far East and Australia, followed by London.
Here and now, the road widened into the outskirts of the town itself and past the ancient Charterhouse School, with its great playing fields, stately buildings and magnificent chapel. She was glad it was still there and let her eyes drink in the familiar sights she hadn’t really noticed for years; it was something traditional, something that had been here before she was born and would be here after she died. For a moment or two it put everything in perspective, but she knew even then that it wouldn’t last. And as Nicky pulled up in front of Kate’s house and switched the engine off, she found her skin was once again too hot and she couldn’t catch her breath.
Staring straight ahead, she tried to glance to the side, simply to see her house – her home – again, but found she couldn’t look at it. Instead her mind was filled with the memories of twelve years ago, when she’d been searching for somewhere to live.
The building in front of her had been at first glance nothing out of the ordinary. A red-bricked Victorian house in a long line of others similar in age and build, each with their own square of regimented front garden. But something about the gleaming windows and the way the morning light fell on the clusters of yellow and cream roses had made her feel safe. Welcomed. As if the house itself was beckoning her onwards. A too fanciful notion and at the time she’d shaken her head to dispel it.
Crunching her way up the narrow gravel path – it had no gate – she’d brushed past a yew hedge that threatened to spill onto the lawn’s composure. The porch announced its existence by means of two chipped concrete steps that she had mounted with care. Inside it, the remains of three or four plant pots lay strewn across the shelved alcove to her left, their contents long since vanished. Across them, a fierce net of spiders’ webs sparkled and undulated in the breeze. On her right, a half-broken broom leant against the furthest column, waiting for someone to come and mend it. Even before she’d reached for the key the estate agent had given her half an hour earlier, Kate had known that someone would be her.
Now, all those feelings had vanished.
‘Kate? Are you okay?’
Nicky’s voice spun her to the present again.
‘Yes. Yes thank you, of course I’m all right.’ She pushed the door open and stumbled out into the crisp air. Under her shaking hand, the roof of the car felt as if it was burning.
Nicky leapt out of the driver’s side and was next to her in a second.
‘I’ll get the bags,’ she said. ‘We’ll be fine. It’s just the two of us.’
Just the two of us, just the two of us … a simple phrase, but a deadly one, in ways Nicky could never know and, somewhere in Kate’s head, it wasn’t true. It wasn’t just the two of them. Already, a third shape was crystallising in her mind with the sort of power she couldn’t ignore. She tried to tell herself it would be all right; after all, David had repaired the broken window, added a bar across it so nobody could get in that way again, checked the other windows for safety and fitted new locks to the doors, hadn’t he? Even so, here more than anywhere she couldn’t get away. Perhaps the doctors had been right, perhaps she did need someone to talk to, a counsellor, but even if she did they couldn’t help her now. There was so much she couldn’t say.
Nicky was beginning to move away, towards the car boot, and Kate knew it was no good. She wouldn’t be able to do this.
‘No,’ she said.
And as she said it, the sun shivered in the sky and all the trees seemed to sway where no wind existed. The world receded for a few moments and she felt as if she were looking down on a scene over which she had no control, where her friend was reaching for bags and she herself was leaning against a car as if she would fall.
‘No,’ she whispered. And the world righted itself, at least in a physical sense, and she was the possessor of her own body again.
‘Kate?’ Gentle arms were reaching towards her and she could see the concerned frown on Nicky’s face. ‘It’s okay. We don’t have to do anything. We can do whatever you want. Stay. Go. Whatever. I’ll be with you, okay?’
‘Yes. I know.’
‘Good. So what would you like to do?’
Turning, Kate looked straight into her friend’s light brown eyes.
‘Can I stay with you? At your house?’ she said. ‘Just for a while. Please?’
Later, sitting in the large, untidy kitchen of Nicky’s home on the other side of Godalming, Kate felt safe for the first time. This came as a surprise as she hadn’t been aware of any insecurity while she’d been at hospital; although it was true she’d had strange, wild dreams and hadn’t slept well. At the time she’d assumed this was natural, bearing in mind what had happened, and the fact she was in an unfamiliar bed. Not to mention trying to cope with the constant noise and movement of a busy hospital. But here the feeling of comfort came rushing in so powerfully that its former absence couldn’t help but be obvious. What else might be missing from her realisation? She would have to be careful.
When they’d arrived, David had opened the front door ready to greet his wife but, at the sight of Kate too, he’d half-smiled, passed one hand through his receding brown hair, stepped forward and, from an instinct she’d been grateful for, had hugged her. Relaxing into his tall, angular body with its mixed smell of spiced aftershave and orange juice, from the twins she presumed, she’d almost wept. His gesture, more than anything, made Kate feel real again. In less time than it took to boil up the kettle, he’d installed her bags in the spare room and hung up her coat.
Now she was sitting in their bright, yellow kitchen watching Nicky make drinks while David played with the twins near the window onto the garden. Kate wondered briefly why he wasn’t at work, but then realised he must have taken the afternoon off from the Accountancy firm he worked for in Godalming. It was kind of him, and she found her eyes filling with tears. The girls were giggling with their father, scribbling shapes she couldn’t see onto blank sheets of paper. It was amazing how alike they looked in certain lights and then, on the other hand, in others they were both so different.
‘Are they too noisy?’ Nicky raised her voice to be heard over the shrieks and chuckles from the corner. ‘They can play in the other room with David, if you like.’
Kate shook her head. ‘No. They’re fine. It’s nice to be somewhere … normal.’
It wasn’t true of course. Kate had never known how to deal with her friend’s children but had done her best under the circumstances. A maternal instinct had never been granted her, but Nicky hadn’t seemed to mind.
Now her friend simply smiled. ‘You can stay here as long as you like, you know. I should have thought about it before, but I didn’t want to presume. I know how independent you are.’
‘Am I? I’m not sure. Not any more. But I’m grateful. You don’t know how much.’
In the middle of the noise and play going on around the two women, a moment of silence ensued between them. When it looked as if her friend was about to speak, Kate spoke first.
‘So,’ she said, nodding towards the source of the rowdiness. ‘You don’t think they’re identical now, do you? Even though they’re still so alike sometimes.’
Nicky’s face softened further as she turned to consider her daughters. ‘True, I don’t think so. Anyway, the hospital have stopped offering the tests now, so I’m happy just to let them be.’
Kate nodded. When Charlotte and Louise had been born three years ago, one of the major topics of conversation had been are they or aren’t they identical? On the – for Nicky’s sake – much discussed issue, Kate had found herself swaying between the two camps but now the differences were more obvious. Charlotte, the elder, was the bigger of the two, but that was because Louise had been in intensive care for the first six weeks of her life and had more catching up to do. They both had Nicky’s petite bone structure and large brown eyes, but Charlotte’s face was rounder, whereas Louise had delicate, longer features. It was noticeable too that the younger twin had turned out to be the bolder, more sociable one.
As if to prove her point, Louise danced onto her feet now, swayed a little as if uncertain what to do and sprinted towards Kate, holding the paper she’d just been drawing on in her outstretched hand. Pushing down the instinct to turn away, Kate grabbed her before she could do any damage to herself on the table’s edge and pulled her up onto her lap. As she did so, she caught the fresh scent of talcum powder and almost-baby skin.
‘Careful, Louise,’ Nicky said, half-standing, but Kate shook her head.
‘No, it’s fine. Don’t worry. What have you got here then?’
In answer, Louise thrust out the precious drawing for inspection. It appeared, to Kate’s untrained eye, to be a landscape with the grass crayoned in red and the sky in green, with two black stick figures drawn in heavy strokes in the middle. She made a wild guess.
‘Is that your garden, Louise? With Mummy and Daddy?’
Her guess was right. The girl’s face broke into a huge smile.
‘Yes,’ she trilled and hugged Kate breathless before leaping onto the floor again and running back for more art. She left the drawing behind. As she plumped herself down again and reached for more crayons, Charlotte leant round her sister’s bent frame and gave the visitor a brief, shy smile. Knowing Charlotte was unlikely to come to her for attention, Kate felt herself relax.
‘Well done,’ Nicky said. ‘I never seem to get it right when I play guess the picture. And really I should. I don’t know how you did it.’
‘The luck of the non-artist,’ Kate said. ‘At least you can teach them how to paint one day.’
‘Only when they’re older, maybe, and only then if they want to learn. Just because I do something for a living doesn’t mean they have to. We’ll see.’
Kate smiled and took a sip of her rich, dark coffee. For the hundredth time, she wondered how someone as gentle as her friend could have such a heady, exotic taste in hot drinks. It didn’t seem to go together.
A shriek from the corner and Kate turned to see Louise tearing at her sister’s drawing while Charlotte tried to fend her off with crayons. David snatched up his youngest, extricated the now mangled paper from her fist and gave it back to Nicky who was attempting to comfort her sobbing eldest. Seeing as she was the unexpected onlooker to this small family disaster, Kate thought she ought to try to do her part.
Letting the man of the house deal with the culprit, Kate knelt down next to the still inconsolable twin without touching her and reached into the middle of the play-mat for the paper that Nicky had dropped.
‘Now, Charlotte,’ she said to the girl’s shaking back as she wailed into her mother’s dress. ‘Would you like to tell me what your drawing is?’
She smoothed out the crumpled page and gazed down at the regular blocks of coloured squares, lines and stars which Charlotte had been working on. Even to her eye, it was impressive for a three-year-old, better than Louise’s offering; she could see dark shades of green on the left easing through to lighter shades on the right, and the stars had been scattered across the corners, all their outlines in black and their centres filled with glitter.
‘That’s lovely,’ Kate said and was surprised to find she meant it. ‘Have you done all this yourself?’
The sobbing began to cease and over the head of her child, Nicky caught Kate’s eye and smiled.
‘It’s very clever and very beautiful,’ Kate said. ‘I’d love you to tell me about it. Come on, why don’t you show me what you’ve done?’
Charlotte, one thumb thrust into her mouth, wriggled out from her refuge and tripped across the carpet to where Kate was sitting. As she subsided to the floor and snuggled up close, Kate could feel the heat of her warming her side. She didn’t edge away. For once.
‘Look,’ Kate went on. ‘Those stars are beautiful. All dark and lovely, like the night. I think you’re very clever to do this yourself, aren’t you?’
Next to her, Charlotte shuffled closer and sighed.
‘Yes,’ she whispered.
Over her head, the two women shared a secret glance and Nicky mouthed, ‘With Daddy’s help.’
‘There,’ Kate said, ‘I knew it was yours. Now, why don’t you draw another and then you’ll have two?’
‘Me! Me too!’ A voice piped up in her left ear, causing Kate to grimace. It was always a source of surprise how quickly Louise could get over a telling-off. Kate envied her that level of confidence.
‘Louise! I forget how loud you are. Yes, you can do one too, just as long as you don’t steal your sister’s. After all, that’s not right, is it?’
As she said the words, she had to swallow hard and blink away the threat of tears that were making everything in front of her hazy. Some things could never be right, could they? Not now, and some things weren’t the black and white they ought to be either, though such a concept would be beyond a child’s comprehension. As she struggled to her feet, glad to leave the twins immersed in their new pictures, she almost fell but, thank goodness, strong hands supported her back to the kitchen chair.
‘Are you okay?’
Above her, David frowned and she smiled and tried to nod. ‘Yes, thank you. I just … it doesn’t matter, I’m all right now.’
‘More coffee? You’ve hardly touched it. Wasn’t there enough milk?’
These last questions were from Nicky, and Kate couldn’t help but smile, this time for real. ‘It was fine. I’m sorry I didn’t finish it, but really I’m all right at the moment.’
‘Okay,’ Nicky sat down again at the opposite side of the table, reached out and took both Kate’s hands in hers. At the same time, she gestured her husband to go. Kate however would have been happy for David to stay.
‘Nicky, I …’
‘Look,’ Nicky interrupted and squeezed her hand as if in apology. ‘You don’t have to say anything. Whatever you want to do will be fine by David and me. We’re glad you’re here and, as I’ve said, you can stay as long as you like. Whatever you want to do, let’s do it. Sleeping, walking, reading, shopping, staying in or going out. Or all and none of those. You let me know, Kate, and we’ll do it.’
Without immediately answering, Kate extricated her hands from those of her friend and laid them square on the table in front of her. She could feel the cool grain of the wood patterning her skin. Looking up, she said, ‘I think there is one thing.’
‘Please. I’d like to have a bath.’
Fifteen minutes later and the door was locked and the steam rising up over Kate’s skin. It wasn’t the first time she’d had a thorough wash since the attack but now, today, she wanted to start again. Away from the hospital, away from what had happened, and in a place which felt familiar. Leaning back into foaming, rose-scented water, she closed her eyes and tried to think of nothing. From downstairs, she could hear the faint murmur of voices and the occasional high-pitched giggle from the twins, but this didn’t matter. Kate knew she wouldn’t be disturbed for a while. If anyone needed the bathroom, they could use the downstairs toilet. She could stay here as long as she liked, letting the warmth of the water ease the tensions from her body, watching the bubbles sway and burst into milky white clouds on the water’s surface. She was glad of the chance to stretch out and almost to float, drifting with the swell and fall of her own breathing. More than anything she wanted to be clean.
Shaking her head, she opened her eyes again to see the water droplets from her hair shower themselves across her arms. Almost in reverence, she touched the scars she wore there now and with a jerky movement covered them with the foam. It didn’t matter, did it? Whatever she did, what had happened wouldn’t go away, not with all the water or soap in the world. While the warmth and the water lulled her into a blessed emptiness, Kate knew she would still have to find some way to face what had been done. Not that she could name it at the moment. The word floated in her mind like the steam in the bathroom and then skittered away like a frightened animal, one she was herself too scared to pursue.
She stayed in the bath for over an hour, regularly letting the cooling water drain away little by little, and replacing it with hot. Outside the window, the sky darkened during a burst of rain, but a few minutes later, the clouds passed, and she could hear the birds again. Then, at last, when she was ready, she got out, towelled herself quickly without looking down, and dressed herself again. Later, she would have to think about how to get her clothes.
For two more days, Kate spent much of the time sleeping or taking long, hot baths. On the second day, David took her key and collected clothes and toiletries from her home. On his return she hugged him briefly, but asked him nothing of what he’d seen. She wondered if she’d had any post, although of course he would have given it to her, if there’d been any. In any case, she couldn’t bring herself to ask him. The thought of the question made bile rise to her throat, which she swallowed down. Around her, Nicky’s household moved through the routines of its existence, familiar to them but to Kate something new and strange, or known only indirectly.
The twins were up at six, and the whole family washed and breakfasted by eight. Kate watched Nicky help the girls choose their clothes, a subject upon which Louise expressed strong opinions although Charlotte was easier to persuade. She made no attempt to help them herself. In any case, they tended to finish by wearing something pink and glittery, and Kate couldn’t imagine how they managed, Louise especially, not to get what they wore muddied and dusty by the end of the day.
It was only on the third evening that she found herself asking the question she hadn’t known how to frame. It was Wednesday night, the twins in bed at last and the three adults sitting in Nicky’s small blue and cream living room. A stack of CDs rose like a tower from the shelf, dolls and coloured balls were strewn over the dark blue carpet, and a large framed picture of Durham Cathedral, painted by Nicky, was displayed over the mantelpiece. The fire remained unlit. David and Nicky had opened a bottle of Merlot but, after one glass, Kate stuck to water. Outside the rain was starting to fall, a slight patter on the window disturbing the silence in the room. Even though, inside, it wasn’t cold, Kate felt herself shiver.
‘Shall I turn the radiators up?’ David put down his glass and made to get up but Kate shook her head.
‘No. Please, I’m fine. I was thinking, that’s all.’
‘It’s allowed,’ Nicky smiled. ‘In a house full of irritating children, you have to grab moments for thought whenever you can. They don’t happen often.’
‘Louise and Charlotte seem fine to me.’
‘Only in small doses.’
In the silence creeping back from the edges of the room, Kate heard her friend swallow and caught the end moments of a glance shared between husband and wife.
She cleared her throat. ‘It wasn’t a great thought anyway. I was only wondering if I’d had any post. At the house, I mean.’
‘Oh, yes,’ David sprang to his feet with a frown and this time Kate didn’t stop him. ‘Of course, I’m sorry. The letters must have slipped off the seat as I was driving back. Which was why I didn’t bring them in yesterday. Charlotte distracted me. You know what she’s like. Don’t worry. I’ll get them now.’
‘But it’s raining. Leave them till morning.’
‘No trouble.’ He peered round the door. ‘I should have given them to you before. I won’t be long.’
‘But …’ Kate began to protest again, but it was already too late. The front door opened and closed, and then she heard the sound of footsteps running on tarmac. Glancing out of the window, she could see the figure of her best friend’s husband, crouched against the wind, heading down the path and turning right onto the street where he parked his car. She blinked.
‘He didn’t have to,’ she said, almost to herself. ‘It could have waited till morning.’
‘You know David,’ Nicky chipped in. ‘If he doesn’t do it now, he’ll forget and you’ll only have to ask again …’
At the sound of her voice, Kate jumped, spilling her glass of water over the cream-coloured sofa. ‘Oh! I’m sorry.’
‘Don’t worry. Let me.’
Nicky sprang to her feet and, grabbing some tissues, knelt down to help Kate clear up the mess.
‘It’s only water,’ she said. ‘Besides, the twins make so much mess that if you’d spilt a whole bottle of the red, I doubt it would have made much difference. But, Kate …?’
‘While David’s gone, do you mind if I say something?’
‘Please.’ Kate waved her hand, but didn’t look at her friend. Instead, she carried on dabbing at the now all-but-gone water with a crumpled tissue.
‘Look,’ Nicky’s fingers on her arm stilled Kate’s movement and the night seemed to close in a little more. ‘I’m not much good at being subtle, you know that, or finding the best way to say things. You know I love you, Kate. You’re my best friend. What’s happened to you is terrible, and I so much want to help, but I don’t know how. I want you to know you can tell me anything and I’ll listen. I’ll do whatever I can and I want you to know that I’m always here, whenever you need me. And I’m so sorry, so very sorry about it all.’
By the time her friend had finished her speech, she was crying and Kate reached out and hugged her, feeling the slight shake of Nicky’s shoulders. Her own eyes were dry and her skin was cold.
‘I know,’ she whispered over and over again. ‘I don’t know what to do either, how to feel, what to say. If I could find the words, then I’d tell you, but I can’t, Nicky. I can’t.’
Kate never heard David come back in. She didn’t hear him open the living room door and just as quickly click it shut again. Neither did she hear him drop the post he’d collected onto the hall table, or the sound of his quiet footsteps fading upstairs.
It was only when the morning came, a bleak morning promising nothing but clouds and coldness, that she opened the first of her letters.
When Kate woke up, her throat was contracted and she could feel the pulse of blood in her head. She sat up straight in the bed and stared around in confusion for a moment before the collection of Nicky’s early pictures, the white shelves, the art books, even the position of the spare room window all eased themselves into the comfort of familiarity and she unclenched her hands.
It was all right. She was alone. She was safe.
Allowing herself to relax again onto the pillow, she let the previous evening play back in her mind. When she came to the part where David had gone to fetch her post, she blinked and, struggling to her feet, decided to take a shower, if the bathroom was free.
It was. The jet of water drove the ache from her legs and arms and made her head sing. Downstairs, the kitchen was filled with the smell of bacon and fresh coffee, and packed with laughter and movement. When Nicky gestured towards the enormous frying pan with her fork, Kate shook her head, mouthed, ‘No, thank you,’ and backed out of the fray. There’d be time enough for food and company later.
The hall, compared to the kitchen, was a haven of stillness. On the table, under which old copies of The Guardian jostled for position, a small bundle of letters beckoned her. She walked towards them, the pace of her heart increasing with each step. The journey seemed to take a lifetime.
‘Don’t be silly,’ she told herself and reached towards the envelopes.
‘Kate? Would you like coffee?’ The opening of the kitchen door brought David’s question and a further riot of sound.
Snatching her hand away from its destination, Kate whirled round. ‘No! No, thank you. I mean later perhaps, when I’ve …’
She trailed off, not knowing what she might say next, whether she would tell what couldn’t then be untold or whether once again, as in so much of her life, the conclusion would be nothing but silence.
David simply smiled and thrust back the small dark-haired face that had appeared at knee height. From this distance, she couldn’t tell whether it was Charlotte or Louise. ‘Okay. Can’t say I blame you. When you’re ready, we’ll make fresh.’
The door closed on chaos and once again she was alone.
She swallowed. Hard. Two paces more and she was there, hands scrabbling through the six or seven letters David had brought from home. Three bills, one brochure for holiday destinations she had no intention of visiting, one advert for a local pizza restaurant and one white envelope, her name and address typewritten across it in large capitals, the stamp second-class, the postmark London.
Glancing round, she dropped the rest of the post back onto the table, stepped into the corner shadows of the hall and, with shaking fingers, ripped open the envelope.
She read its contents three times.
Then, crumpling up the paper, she stumbled to the kitchen and pushed open the door.
Four pairs of eyes stared across at her and Nicky began to get up. Kate waved her away.
‘I have to go for a walk,’ she said. ‘I won’t be long.’
Her friend caught up with her at the door. ‘What is it, Kate? Are you okay?’
‘Yes, please don’t worry. I’m fine. I’ll be fine. I need some air, that’s all.’
Nicky stared at Kate, a frown wrinkling her forehead. Then she seemed to make her mind up about something and stepped back.
‘You’ll need a coat,’ she said. ‘Take David’s.’
Unable to speak, Kate nodded and took the Barbour, nestling herself inside and catching the faint echo of its owner’s aftershave. At the door she turned back.
‘Thank you,’ she said.
Outside, the air was chill and smelled of rain. The unfamiliar Barbour creaked and rustled as she walked but, by the time she’d reached the end of Nicky’s road and turned left, she no longer heard it.
The walk past Busbridge Lakes and down the hill to Godalming didn’t take long, not that Kate would have been able to mark the time anyway. She hurried along the places on the road where it had no pavement, but didn’t pass many people. It was too early for that. Even the church was dark and still. Those few people she did pass, she turned away from, refusing to make any eye contact at all. It was the first time she’d been out by herself since the attack. It felt as if she’d been branded, as if everyone knew, though it was impossible for that to be true.
The High Street, she decided, was too public so she hurried along until she reached the calmer ambience of Church Street. There, the sandwich shop, the old DIY store, the local newspaper office and the scattering of boutiques were the same as they had always been, and she wondered why she thought they might have changed. It had always been her favourite area of the town and she was glad it was still the gentler side of commerce. She loved the old-style buildings, with their black and white frames, and the shadowed patterns of the semi-paved roadway. It was something from a former age, keeping the sense of elegance and charm it must once have possessed in full. From the sandwich shop, she could smell the welcoming aroma of baking bread and hear the sound of a woman’s voice. The low rumble of her stomach reminded her she hadn’t yet eaten and, on impulse, she turned towards the window, stocked with cakes and assortments of breads. Glancing inside, she could see a young, fair-haired woman behind the counter talking to an older woman clutching a small white box.
No men here then.
Inside, the muggy warmth and a more overpowering wave of fresh bread smells swept over her senses. Two women glanced towards her, gave polite but friendly smiles and turned back to their own transaction. While she waited, Kate took in her surroundings. Long, clean counter, a scattering of brown plastic chairs and Formica tables, with two or three Rembrandt prints adding a splash of sun. It wasn’t somewhere she’d ever been before, although she knew its popularity. Nicky often visited on Friday lunchtimes for a weekend treat for the family. According to her, anything she bought always did the trick.
Kate hoped that would be true now.
A sudden ‘see you later, then’ from the older woman, a quick smile and a punch of fresh air as the door opened and closed, and the girl serving was turning towards Kate.
‘Good morning, madam. Is there anything I can get you?’
She had no idea. Her hunger had brought her here but, when faced with the question, she was unable to think of an appropriate response.
‘Yes, but I’m afraid I don’t know what. The smell brought me inside. There’s so much choice. What do you have?’
Even to herself, Kate thought she sounded afraid. On edge. But the girl simply nodded and Kate felt the muscles in her arms relax. She was unknown then.
‘We-ell,’ the girl said. ‘There are all sorts. Cakes, or sandwiches, with any filling you choose, hot and cold drinks. Do you want to have a look and see if anything takes your fancy?’
As she spoke, the girl waved one stocky arm over the display along the counter.
Kate shook her head. ‘No, something lighter, I think. I haven’t had breakfast yet.’
‘Okay. We do brioches, if you’d like.’
‘Yes. That would be good, thank you.’
‘Coffee as well?’
The girl began a long litany of Italian and American types of coffee, but Kate cut across her. ‘No, please, just a normal white coffee. No sugar. If that’s possible.’
‘Of course, madam.’
She watched as the girl began to wrap the brioche and set the coffee machine to work. After a heartbeat or two, she glanced across at Kate a couple of times. On the second occasion, Kate noticed a flicker of recognition in her eyes.
She inwardly cursed the tabloid that had somehow found a hazy picture of her to print while she was still in hospital. She swallowed and looked away, her body poised to run, her blood beating loud in her ears.
No. She had to stay. If she didn’t stay now, then she’d never be able to. This girl was a stranger. There was no need to run, she’d done nothing wrong. She had nothing to be ashamed of. So why couldn’t she feel that way? All the things she knew in her head which her body couldn’t acknowledge. She hadn’t thought it would be this hard.
The space between the girl’s recognition and paying for her purchases seemed to last a lifetime but it couldn’t have taken more than a few moments.
At last Kate stumbled out onto the cobbled street again, trying to ignore the shake of her legs and the queasy feeling in her stomach. It was over. She’d been out, been recognised – yes, she knew she had, she wasn’t a fool – and she was still here. Where the road joined the end of the High Street, she paused. For the first time she realised how wet the drizzle was making her and shook the hair out of her eyes. In front, she could see the rounded pink oddity of the Pepperpot, the old town hall with its open-plan ground level and archway entrances. Sometimes, Nicky exhibited her work there.
On one of the sheltered benches beneath it, she laid her brioche and coffee next to her and, for a long moment, stared out from her vantage point along the slight curve of the High Street. Next, she picked up the coffee beaker, holding it between her hands and feeling the warmth of it easing the shiver in her skin. She took a cautious sip.
Finally, she retrieved the letter from the depths of her coat pocket and read it for a fourth time.
Are you hurting much? I could do it again if you like, it said.