Saturday, 3 August 2013
I DREAMED LAST night that I was in the woods, walking by myself. It was dusk, or dawn, I'm not quite sure, but there was someone else there with me. I couldn't see them, I just knew they were there, gaining on me. I didn't want to be seen, I wanted to run away, but I couldn't, my limbs were too heavy, and when I tried to cry out I made no sound at all.
When I wake, white light slips through the slats on the blind. The rain is finally gone, its work done. The room is warm; it smells terrible, rank and sour – I've barely left it since Thursday. Outside, I can hear the vacuum purr and whine. Cathy is cleaning. She'll be going out later; when she does I can venture out. I'm not sure what I will do, I can't seem to right myself. One more day of drinking, perhaps, and then I'll get myself straight tomorrow.
My phone buzzes briefly, telling me its battery is dying. I pick it up to plug it into the charger and I notice that I have two missed calls from last night. I dial into voicemail. I have one message.
'Rachel, hi. It's Mum. Listen, I'm coming down to London tomorrow. Saturday. I've got a spot of shopping to do. Could we meet up for a coffee or something? Darling, it's not a good time for you to come and stay now. There's ... well, I've got a new friend, and you know how it is in the early stages.' She titters. 'Anyway, I'm very happy to give you a loan to tide you over for a couple of weeks. We'll talk about it tomorrow. OK, darling. Bye.'
I'm going to have to be straight with her, tell her exactly how bad things are. That is not a conversation I want to have stone-cold sober. I haul myself out of bed: I can go down to the shops now and just have a couple of glasses before I go out. Take the edge off. I look at my phone again, check the missed calls. Only one is from my mother – the other is from Scott. At quarter to one in the morning. I sit there, with the phone in my hand, debating whether to call him back. Not now, too early. Perhaps later? After one glass, though, not two.
I plug the phone in to charge, pull the blind up and open the window, then go to the bathroom and run a cold shower. I scrub my skin and wash my hair and try to quieten the voice in my head which tells me it's an odd thing to do, less than forty-eight hours after your wife's body has been discovered, to ring another woman in the middle of the night.
The earth is still drying out, but the sun is almost breaking through thick white cloud. I bought myself one of those little bottles of wine – just one. I shouldn't, but lunch with my mother would test the willpower of a lifelong teetotaller. Still, she's promised to transfer £300 into my bank account, so it wasn't a complete waste of time.
I didn't admit how bad things were. I didn't tell her I've been out of work for months, or that I was fired (she thinks her money is tiding me over until my redundancy payment arrives). I didn't tell her how bad things had got on the drinking front, and she didn't notice. Cathy did. When I saw her on my way out this morning, she gave me a look and said, 'Oh for God's sake. Already?' I have no idea how she does that, but she always knows. Even if I've only had half a glass, she takes one look at me and she knows.
'I can tell from your eyes,' she says, but when I check myself in the mirror I look exactly the same. Her patience is running out, her sympathy too. I have to stop. Only not today. I can't today. It's too hard today.
I should have been prepared for it, should have expected it, but somehow I didn't. I got on to the train and she was everywhere, her face beaming from every newspaper: beautiful, blonde, happy Megan, looking right into the camera, right at me.
Someone has left behind their copy of The Times, so I read their report. The formal identification came last night, the post-mortem is today. A police spokesman is quoted saying that 'Mrs Hipwell's cause of death may be difficult to establish because her body has been outside for some time, and has been submerged for several days, at least.' It's horrible to think about, with her picture right in front of me. What she looked like then, what she looks like now.
There's a brief mention of Kamal, his arrest and release, and a statement from DI Gaskill, saying that they are 'pursuing a number of leads', which I imagine means they are clueless. I close the newspaper and put it on the floor at my feet. I can't bear to look at her any longer. I don't want to read those hopeless, empty words.
I lean my head against the window. Soon we'll pass number twenty-three. I glance over, just for a moment, but we're too far away on this side of the track to really see anything. I keep thinking about the day I saw Kamal, about the way he kissed her, about how angry I was and how I wanted to confront her. What would have happened if I had done? What would have happened if I'd gone round then, banged on the door and asked her what the hell she thought she was up to? Would she still be out there, on her terrace?
I close my eyes. At Northcote, someone gets on and sits down in the seat next to me. I don't open my eyes to look, but it strikes me as odd, because the train is half empty. The hairs are standing up on the back of my neck. I can smell aftershave under cigarette smoke and I know that I've smelled that scent before.
I look round and recognize the man with the red hair, the one from the station, from that Saturday. He's smiling at me, offering his hand to shake. I'm so surprised that I take it. His palm feels hard and calloused.
'You remember me?'
'Yes,' I say, shaking my head as I'm saying it. 'Yes, a few weeks ago, at the station.'
He's nodding and smiling. 'I was a bit wasted,' he says, then laughs. 'Think you were, too, weren't you, love?'
He's younger than I'd realized, maybe late twenties. He has a nice face, not good looking, just nice. Open, a wide smile. His accent's cockney, or Estuary, something like that. He's looking at me as though he knows something about me, as though he's teasing me, as though we have an in joke. We don't. I look away from him. I ought to say something, ask him, What did you see?
'You doing OK?' he asks.
'Yes, I'm fine.' I'm looking out of the window again, but I can feel his eyes on me and I have the oddest urge to turn towards him, to smell the smoke on his clothes and his breath. I like the smell of cigarette smoke. Tom smoked when we first met. I used to have the odd one with him, when we were out drinking or after sex. It's erotic to me, that smell; it reminds me of being happy. I graze my teeth over my lower lip, wondering for a moment what he would do if I turned to face him and kissed his mouth. I feel his body move. He's leaning forward, bending down, he picks up the newspaper at my feet.
'Awful, innit? Poor girl. It's weird, 'cos we were there that night. It was that night, wasn't it? That she went missing.'
It's like he's read my mind, and it stuns me. I whip round to look at him. I want to see the expression in his eyes. 'I'm sorry?'
'That night when I met you on the train. That was the night that girl went missing, the one they just found. And they're saying the last time anyone saw her was outside the station. I keep thinking, you know, that I might've seen her. Don't remember, though. I was wasted.' He shrugs. 'You don't remember anything, do you?'
It's strange, the way I feel when he says this. I can't remember ever feeling like this before. I can't reply because my mind has gone somewhere else entirely, and it's not the words he's saying, it's the aftershave. Under the smoke, that scent – fresh, lemony, aromatic – evokes a memory of sitting on the train next to him, just like I am now, only we're going the other way and someone is laughing really loudly. He's got his hand on my arm, he's asking if I want to go for a drink, but suddenly something is wrong. I feel frightened, confused. Someone is trying to hit me. I can see the fist coming and I duck down, my hands up to protect my head. I'm not on the train any longer, I'm in the street. I can hear laughter again, or shouting. I'm on the steps, I'm on the pavement, it's so confusing, my heart is racing. I don't want to be anywhere near this man. I want to get away from him.
I scramble to my feet, saying 'Excuse me' loudly so the other people in the carriage will hear, but there's hardly anyone in here and no one looks around. The man looks up at me, surprised, and moves his legs to one side to let me past.
'Sorry, love,' he says. 'Didn't mean to upset you.'
I walk away from him as fast as I can, but the train jolts and sways and I almost lose my balance. I grab on to a seat back to stop myself from falling. People are staring at me. I hurry through to the next carriage and all the way through to the one after that; I just keep going until I get to the end of the train. I feel breathless and afraid. I can't explain it, I can't remember what happened, but I can feel it, the fear and confusion. I sit down, facing in the direction I have just come from so that I'll be able to see him if he comes after me.
Pressing my palms into my eye sockets, I concentrate. I'm trying to get it back, to see what I just saw. I curse myself for drinking. If only my head was straight ... but there it is. It's dark, and there's a man walking away from me. A woman walking away from me? A woman, wearing a blue dress. It's Anna.
Blood is throbbing in my head, my heart pounding. I don't know whether what I'm seeing, feeling, is real or not, imagination or memory. I squeeze my eyes tightly shut and try to feel it again, to see it again, but it's gone.