Lasting Damage

I’m going to be killed because of a family called the Gilpatricks.

There are four of them: mother, father, son and daughter. Elise, Donal, Riordan and Tilly. Kit tells me their first names, as if I’m keen to dispense with the formalities and get to know them better, when all I want is to run screaming from the room. Riordan’s seven, he says. Tilly’s five.

Shut up, I want to yell in his face, but I’m too scared to open my mouth. It’s as if someone’s clamped and locked it; no more words will come out, not ever.

This is it. This is where and how and when and why I’m going to die. At least I understand the why, finally.

Kit’s as frightened as I am. More. That’s why he’s talking, because he knows, as all those who wait in terror know, that when silence and fear combine, they form a compound a thousand times more horrifying than the sum of its parts.

The Gilpatricks, he says, tears streaking his face.

I watch the door in the mirror above the fireplace. It looks smaller and further away than it would if I turned and looked at it directly. The mirror is shaped like a fat gravestone: three straight sides and an arch at the top.

I didn’t believe in them. The name sounded made up. Kit laughs, chokes on a sob. All of him is shaking, even his voice. Gilpatrick’s the sort of name you’d make up if you were inventing a person. Mr Gilpatrick. If only I’d believed in him, none of this would have happened. We’d have been safe. If I’d only…

He stops, backs away from the locked door. He hears the same footsteps I hear – rushing, a stampede. They’re here.

Three weeks earlier

1

Saturday 17 July 2010

I lie on my back with my eyes closed, waiting for Kit’s breathing to change. I fake the deep, slow sleep-breaths I need to hear from him before I can get out of bed – in and hold, out and hold – and try to convince myself that it’s a harmless deception. Am I the only woman who has ever done this, or does it happen all the time in houses all over the world? If it does, then it must be for different reasons, more common ones than mine: a cheating wife or girlfriend wanting to text a lover undetected, or sneak one last guilty glass of wine on top of the five she’s had already. Normal things. Ordinary urgencies.

No woman on earth has ever been in the situation I’m in now.

You’re being ridiculous. You’re not ‘in a situation’, apart from the one you’ve brewed in your imagination. Ingredients: coincidence and paranoia.

Nothing I tell myself works. That’s why I need to check, to put my mind at rest. Checking isn’t crazy; missing the opportunity to check would be crazy. And once I’ve looked and found nothing, I’ll be able to forget about it and accept that it’s all in my head.

Will you?

It shouldn’t be too long before I can move. Kit’s usually dead to the world within seconds of the light going out. If I count to a hundred….but I can’t. Can’t make myself focus on something that doesn’t interest me. If I could, I’d be able to do the reverse: banish 11 Bentley Grove from my mind. Will I ever be able to do that?

While I wait, I practise. What would this bedroom tell me about Kit and me, if I didn’t know us? Huge bed, bigger than a king-size. That could mean we don’t want to touch each other, I suppose, though it doesn’t. Kit moves a lot in his sleep, often flinging his arms around like someone at a rock concert. I insisted we buy a bed that’s wider than it is long after he’d whacked me in the face once too often. We joked about sleep-wife-beating, whether it would stand up as a valid defence in court.

A cast-iron fireplace, with identical alcoves on either side of the chimney breast where our two identical wardrobes stand. Kit likes symmetry. One of his reservations, when I proposed buying the biggest bed we could find to replace our ordinary double, was that it might not leave room for our matching bedside cabinets. When I said I’d be happy to lose mine, Kit looked at me as if I was an anarchist agitator plotting to demolish his well-ordered world. ‘You can’t have a cabinet on one side and not the other,’ he said. Both ended up going in the end; having first made me promise not to tell anyone, Kit admitted that, however inconvenient it was to have to lean down and put his book, watch, glasses and mobile phone under the bed, he’d find it more irritating to have a bedroom that didn’t ‘look right’.

‘Are you sure you’re a genuine, bona fide heterosexual?’ I teased him.

He grinned. ‘Either I am, or else I’m pretending to be in order to get my Christmas cards written and posted for me every year. I guess you’ll never know which is the truth.’

Floor-length cream silk curtains, covering not only the window but also the only radiator in the room. What would that say about us, to a stranger looking in? That we care more about beauty than warmth? Guilty as charged. Kit wanted a Roman blind, which he said would look neater, but I overruled him. Silk curtains were something I’d wanted since childhood, one of those ‘as soon as I have a home of my own’ pledges I’d made to myself. And curtains in a bedroom have to pool on the floor – that’s my look-right rule. I suppose everybody has at least one, and we all think our own are sensible and other people’s completely ridiculous.

Above the fireplace, there’s a framed tapestry of a red house with a green rectangle around it that’s supposed to be the garden. Instead of flowers, the solid colour of the grass is broken up by stitched words: ‘Melrose Cottage, Little Holling, Silsford’ in orange, and then, in smaller yellow letters beneath, ‘Connie and Kit, 13th July 2004’. What would an impartial observer make of that? Would they think Kit and I were so stupid that we were in danger of forgetting our names, or the date we bought our house, and so we’d decided to hang a reminder on the wall? Would they guess that the tapestry was a house-warming present from Connie’s mother, and that Connie thought it was twee and crass, and had fought hard to have it exiled to the loft? That Kit had insisted it go up, pretending he didn’t want to upset his mother-in-law, then later admitted that he actually liked it because, however ugly and sentimental it was, it was a picture of his home?

‘But Melrose isn’t red,’ I used to protest, before I gave up. Kit and I called our house ‘Melrose’ for short when we first bought it. Now that we’ve lived here for years and know it like we know our own faces, we call it ‘Mellers’. ‘It’s made of clunch stone,’ I said. ‘It’s chalky-white. Do you think she was picturing it drenched in blood, or did she just run out of white cotton, or wool, or whatever it’s made of?’

Kit gave me a look. ‘Whatever issues you’ve got with your mum, don’t take it out on a tapestry,’ he said.

Someone peering into our bedroom would see none of this – none of the wrangles, none of the compromises. They wouldn’t see Kit’s missing bedside table, the painting I’d have liked to put above the fireplace if only the hideous red house picture wasn’t there.

Which proves that looking at a room in someone else’s house doesn’t tell you anything. No one paints the words ‘Everything you suspect is true’ on their skirting board. Therefore there’s no point in my doing what I’m about to do, now that I’m sure Kit’s sound asleep. Therefore I ought to go to sleep too.

As quietly as I can, I fold back my side of the duvet, climb out of bed and tiptoe to the spare room, which we’ve turned into a home office. It’s actually our company headquarters, which is a little absurd given that it has the feel of a child’s bedroom, which is what whoever built Melrose Cottage must have intended it to be. It’s about 11 feet long by 10 feet wide. Like Kit’s and my bedroom, it has a cast iron fireplace. We’ve managed to cram two large desks in here, a chair for each of us, three filing cabinets. When our Certificate of Incorporation arrived from Companies House, Kit bought a frame for it and hung it on the wall opposite the door, so that it’s the first thing that catches your eye when you walk into the room. ‘It’s a legal requirement,’ he told me when I complained that it looked uninspiring and bureaucratic. ‘Has to be displayed at the company headquarters – that’s the rule. Do you want Nulli to start life as an outlaw?’

Nulli Secundus Ltd. It means ‘second to none’, and was Kit’s choice. ‘Talk about tempting fate and dooming us to failure,’ I said when we were discussing what to call ourselves, imagining how much worse bankruptcy and liquidation would feel with such a conceited name. I suggested ‘C & K Bowskill Ltd’. ‘Those are our names,’ Kit said scathingly, as if this fact might have passed me by. ‘Have a bit of imagination, for God’s sake. Confidence would help, too. Are we launching this company in order to go bankrupt? I don’t know about you, but I’m planning to make a success of it.’

What else have you made a success of, Kit? What else that I don’t know about?

You’re being ridiculous, Connie. Your ridiculousness is second to none.

I press my computer’s ‘on’ button and it springs to life. I never log off or shut it down; I can’t see the point. I’m not a great sleeper, even now that I’ve got a huge bed and don’t get walloped awake by my husband quite so often, and I regularly catch up on admin in the middle of the night.

This, what I’m about to do, is a kind of admin: getting something straight in my mind once and for all.

I type ‘houses for sale’ into the Google search box, press enter, and wait. The first result that comes up is Rightmove.co.uk, which declares itself the UK’s number one property website. I click on it, thinking that obviously the Rightmove people subscribe to Kit’s way of thinking rather than mine: they have no worries about bankruptcy-induced humiliation.

The home page loads: exterior shots of houses for sale beneath a dark blue border filled in with lots of pictures of disembodied eyes, all different colours. Together, they look eerie, alien, and make me think of people hiding in the darkness, spying on one another.

Isn’t that exactly what you’re doing?

I type ‘Cambridge’ into the location box, and click on the ‘For Sale’ button. Another screen comes up, offering me more choices. I work my way through them impatiently – search radius: this area only; property type: houses; number of bedrooms: no min, no max; price range: no min, no max; added to site… When would 11 Bentley Grove have been added? I click on ‘last 7 days’. The ‘For Sale’ board I saw in the front garden today – or yesterday, since it’s now quarter past one in the morning – wasn’t there a week ago. Though, since people are generally not that efficient, there might have been some delay in getting the board delivered…

I go back to the ‘added to site’ box and substitute ‘anytime’ for ‘last 7 days’. Then I click on ‘Find properties’, tapping my bare feet on the floor, and close my eyes, afraid I’ll be caught unawares by houses appearing on the screen in front of me. I don’t want to be ambushed by them; I want to see them when I choose to see them.

What the hell are you so nervous about? What is it you’re so frightened of seeing?

A page of results fills the screen: a house on Chaucer Road for 4 million pounds, one on Newton Road for 2.3 million. I know both those roads – they’re near Bentley Grove, both off Trumpington Road. I’ve seen them, on my many trips to Cambridge that nobody knows about.

11 Bentley Grove is the third house on the list. It’s on for 1.2 million pounds. Automatically, I feel affronted. It has no right to be so expensive. It’s big, but not palatial. Obviously that part of Cambridge is regarded as a choice area, though it’s always looked fairly ordinary to me, and the traffic on the Trumpington Road is often terrible. There’s a Waitrose nearby, an Indian restaurant, a specialist wine shop, a couple of estate agents. And lots of enormous expensive mansions. If the asking price for 11 Bentley Grove is 1.2 million, that means there must be people who can afford to pay that much for a house. Who are they? Sir Cliff Richard springs to mind; I’ve no idea why. Who else? People who own football clubs, or have oil wells in their back gardens? Certainly not me and Kit, and yet we’re doing about as well, professionally, as we could ever hope to do…

I shake these thoughts from my mind. You could be asleep now, you lunatic. Instead, you’re sitting hunched over a computer in the dark, feeling inferior to Cliff Richard. Get a grip.

To bring up the full details, I click on the picture of this house I know so well, and yet not at all. I don’t believe anyone in the world has spent as much time staring at the outside of 11 Bentley Grove as I have; I know its facade brick by brick. It’s strange, almost shocking, to see a photograph of it on my computer, in my house, where it doesn’t belong.

Inviting the enemy into your home…

There is no enemy, I tell myself firmly. Be practical, get this over with, and go back to bed. Kit has started to snore. Good. I’ve no idea what I’d say if he caught me doing this, how I’d defend my sanity.

The page has loaded. I’m not interested in the big photograph on the left, the one taken from across the road. It’s the inside of the house I need to see. One by one, I click on the little pictures on the right hand side of the screen to enlarge them. First, a kitchen with wooden worktops, a double Belfast sink, blue-painted unit-fronts, a blue-sided wooden-topped island at the centre of the room, a dresser against one wall…

Kit hates kitchen islands. He thinks they’re ugly and pretentious – an affectation imported from America. The avocado bathroom suites of the future, he calls them. He’d got rid of the one in our kitchen within a fortnight of our moving in, and commissioned a local joiner to make us a big round solid oak table to take its place.

This kitchen I’m looking at can’t be Kit’s, not with that island in it.

Of course it’s not Kit’s. Kit’s kitchen is downstairs – it also happens to be your kitchen.

I click on a picture of a lounge. I’ve seen 11 Bentley Grove’s lounge before, though only briefly. On one of my visits, I was brave enough – or stupid enough, depending on your point of view – to open the gate, walk up the long path that’s bordered by lavender bushes on both sides and divides the square front lawn into two triangles, and peer in through the front window. I was afraid I’d be caught trespassing and couldn’t really concentrate. A few seconds later an elderly man with the thickest glasses I’ve ever seen emerged from the house next door and turned his excessively magnified eyes in my direction. I hurried back to my car before he could ask me what I was doing, and, afterwards, remembered little about the room I’d seen apart from that it had white walls and a grey L-shaped sofa with some kind of intricate red embroidery on it.

I’m looking at that same sofa now, on my computer screen. To call it grey is downplaying it somewhat – it’s more a sort of cloudy silver. It looks expensive, unique. I can’t imagine there’s another sofa like it.

Kit loves unique. He avoids mass-produced as far as is possible. All the mugs in our kitchen were made and painted individually by a potter in Spilling.

Every piece of furniture in the lounge at 11 Bentley Grove looks like a one-off: a chair with enormous curved wooden arms like the bottoms of rowing boats; an unusual coffee table with a glass surface, and, beneath the glass, a structure resembling a display cabinet with sixteen compartments, lying on its back. Each compartment contains a small flower with a red circle at its centre and blue petals pointing up towards the glass. Am I looking at a coffee table or a work of art? Both, perhaps.

Kit would like all of these things. I swallow, tell myself this proves nothing.

There’s a tiled fireplace with a map above it in a frame, a chimney breast, matching alcoves on either side. I didn’t notice that when I looked through the window. Maybe I didn’t allow myself to notice. A symmetrical room, a Kit sort of room. I feel a little nauseous.

Christ, this is insane. How many living rooms, up and down the country, follow this basic format: fireplace, a chimney breast, alcoves left and right? It’s a classic design, replicated all over the world. It appeals to Kit, and to about a trillion other people.

It’s not as if you’ve seen one of Kit’s jackets draped over the banister, his stripy scarf over the back of a chair…

Quickly, wanting to be finished with this task I’ve set myself – aware that it’s making me feel worse, not better – I work my way through the other rooms, enlarging their pictures. Hall and stairs, carpeted in beige, solid dark wood banister. A utility room with sky-blue unit fronts, similar to those in the kitchen. The large house bathroom is honey-coloured marble and contains a loo and two rough-finished stone sculptures that I assume are the bath and basin.

I click on a picture of what must be the back garden. It’s a lot bigger than I’d have imagined, having only seen the house from the front. I scroll down to the text beneath the photographs and see that it’s described as being just over an acre. It’s the sort of garden I’d love to have: decking for a table and chairs, two-seater garden swing with a canopy, vast lawn, trees at the bottom, lush yellow fields beyond. An idyllic countryside view, ten minutes’ walk from the centre of Cambridge. Now I’m starting to understand the 1.2-million-pound price tag. I try not to compare what I’m looking at to Melrose Cottage’s garden, which is roughly the size of half a single garage. It’s big enough to accommodate a wrought iron table, four chairs, a few plants in terracotta pots, and not a lot else.

That’s it. I’ve looked at all the pictures, seen all there is to see.

And found nothing. Satisfied now?

I yawn and rub my eyes. I don’t know if I’m satisfied; I’m certainly exhausted. I’m about to close down the Rightmove website and go back to bed when I notice a row

of buttons beneath the picture of the back garden: ‘Street View’, ‘Floorplan’, ‘Virtual Tour’. I don’t need a view of Bentley Grove – I’ve seen more than enough of it in the past six months – but I might as well have a look at number 11’s floorplan, since I’ve got this far. I click on the button, then hit the ‘x’ to shut down the screen within seconds of it opening. It isn’t going to help me to know which room is where; I’d be better off taking the virtual tour. Will it make me feel as if I’m walking around the house myself, looking into every room? That’s what I’d like to do.

Then I’d be satisfied.

I hit the ‘Virtual Tour’ button and wait for it to load. Another button pops up: ‘Play Tour’. I click on it. The kitchen appears first, and I see what I’ve already seen in the photograph, then a bit more as the camera does a 360-degree turn to reveal the rest of the room. Then another turn, then another. The kitchen looks concave; it’s the same optical effect you get when you see your face reflected in the back of a spoon. It didn’t look like that in the photograph; it looked normal. If I were an estate agent and this was the best virtual tour I could offer, I don’t think I’d bother. The spinning effect makes me feel dizzy, as if I’m on a roundabout that won’t stop. If I were looking round 11 Bentley Grove in person, I would turn, then stand still for a bit, then turn again when I was ready; I wouldn’t keep whirling round. Hasn’t this occurred to the fools responsible? I close my eyes, needing a break. I’m so tired; driving to Cambridge and back in a day, most Fridays, is doing me no good. I have to move on, let it go.

I open my eyes and see a mass of red. At first I don’t know what I’m looking at, and then…Oh, God. It can’t be. Oh, fuck, oh, God. Blood. A woman lying face down in the middle of the room, and blood, a lake of it, all over the beige carpet. For a second, in my panic, I mistake the blood for my own. I look down at myself. No blood. Of course no blood – it’s not my carpet, not my house. It’s 11 Bentley Grove. The lounge: spinning, concave. The fireplace, the framed map above it, the door open to the hall…

The dead woman, face down in a pool of blood twice the size of her body. As if all the blood inside her has been squeezed out, every drop of it…

I make a noise that might be a scream. I try to call Kit’s name, but it doesn’t work. Where’s the phone? Not on its base. Where’s my BlackBerry? Should I ring 999? Panting, I reach out for something, I’m not sure what. I can’t take my eyes off the screen. The blood is still slowly turning, the dead woman slowly turning. She must be dead; it must be her blood. Red around the outside, almost black in the middle. Black-red, thick as tar. Make it stop spinning.

I stand up, knock my chair over. It falls to the floor with a thud. I back away from my desk, wanting only to escape from the rotating horror on the screen. Out, out! a voice in my head screams. I’m stumbling in the wrong direction, nowhere near the door. Don’t look. Stop looking. I can’t help it. My back hits the wall; something hard presses into my skin. I hear a crash, step on something that crunches. Pain pricks the soles of my feet. I look down and see broken glass. Blood. Mine, this time.

Somehow, I get myself out of the room and close the door. Better; now there’s a barrier between it and me. Kit. I need Kit. I walk into our bedroom, switch on the light and burst into tears. How dare he be asleep? ‘Kit!’

He groans, blinks. ‘Light off,’ he mumbles, groggy with sleep. ‘Fuck’s going on? Time is it?’

I stand there crying, my feet bleeding onto the white rug.

‘Con?’ Kit hauls himself up into a sitting position and rubs his eyes. ‘What’s wrong? What’s happened?’

‘She’s dead,’ I tell him.

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