Here’s a sneak preview to the opening of White Silence that will be released on September 21st 2017. A limited edition signed paperback is now available – CLICK HERE to order.
People say, ‘Silence is golden.’
Silence is white. White and deadly.
My name is Elizabeth Cage. I’m a widow. My husband, Ted, died suddenly.
They took me after the funeral. It was quick and it was quiet. No one knew where I was. There wasn’t a soul in the world who knew what was happening to me. There was no one I could call on for help.
I knew what they wanted but they haven’t got it yet and they never will. There’s more to me than meets the eye. I haven’t spent years cultivating the dowdy housewife look for nothing. To look at me – I’m a drab, insignificant, anxious, twenty-something housewife with unfashionable hair and no make-up. Unfortunately, my appearance is the only thing I can tell you about me. Because I don’t know who I am. I don’t know what I am.
Give me ten minutes with a total stranger and I can tell you things about them they don’t even know themselves. I can look at someone and I know. It’s not voices in my head, or visions, or anything like that, but I know. I know when you’re lying. I know when you’re frightened. I know when you’re bluffing. You don’t have to say a word, but you’re telling me, just the same.
Everyone has one. Some people call it an aura. Before I’d ever heard the term, when I was a child, I called it their colour. Everyone has one. A shimmering, shifting web of colours, constantly weaving itself around them, changing from moment to moment as they react to what’s going on around them. They’re all different. Some people’s colour has a defined shape, thick and even. Some colours are rich and strong and vibrant. Others are pale and insubstantial. Sometimes – and I hate this – there’s an ominous dark patch over their head or their heart, and I know that’s never good.
Sometimes, friends or family members have similar colours. Colours that are related in the spectrum. You may have noticed there are those for whom you feel a natural affinity. That will be because your colours are similar. Some people repulse you and you never know why, but it’s usually because your colours won’t merge.
When I was a child, there were three dustmen. One man, the noisy one, was a deep, royal blue; the older one was turquoise, and the young one a soft green. They came every Thursday morning. They ran up and down the street, shedding rubbish and shouting insults in equal measure, and yet their colours reached out towards each other, blending softly. I used to stand at the window, watching their colours swirl about them, a thing of wonder to a small girl. Sometimes, I can see the same thing with a mother and child. That gentle merging of colours as one shades into another.
But with good, comes bad.
I think I was about twelve years old. I was in the High Street in Rushford. The paper boy had missed us again and my father had sent me to pick one up. I stepped out of the newsagents with his paper wedged under one arm while I carefully peeled the wrapper off my ice cream.
The sun went in. That’s the only way I can describe it. The day grew dark and cold. The sounds of people and of traffic became distorted and ugly.
I looked up. Everything looked completely normal. I stared up and down the street. Cars passed backwards and forwards. People scurried about, in and out of the shops. But there was something. I knew there was something.
I stood stock still on the pavement, the stream of pedestrians parting around me.
And there it was. A woman. She strolled serenely towards me. There was nothing unusual in her appearance. On the contrary, she was well-dressed and made up and her white-blonde hair was beautiful. I felt my heart stop with fear and the thing that lives in my head said, ‘Hide.’
People are blind. They never see what’s really there. She walked slowly and I could see that although no one seemed to notice her, no one touched her. No one made eye contact. No one got in her way. They might not know why they were doing it – they might not even be aware they were doing it at all – but everyone was giving her a wide berth.
I stood, rooted to the spot. Terrified. Terrified of what was approaching and doubly so because no one seemed able to see it but me.
Yes, she had a colour, but it was the energy emanating from her that frightened me. Most people’s colours swirl a little bit, especially if they’re emotional at the time, but this one … It was as if she was encased in a thick black grease. I saw oily colours that made me feel sick. But the worst part was the movement. Her colour didn’t swirl – it spiked. Like a conker case. I’d never seen anything like it before. And the spikes moved, stabbing in and out. Fast and vicious. Never stopping. In and out. Some of them extended a good eighteen inches from her body.
I was only twelve. I had no idea if the spikes constituted defence or attack but I do know that as I saw her – she became aware of me.
My ice cream fell to the ground, unheeded. It was suddenly very, very important that she shouldn’t see me. Or even know I was there. I slipped behind an advertising hoarding, easing my way around it as she drew nearer, and when she was level with me, she stopped.
I stopped too and held my breath.
She looked down at the ice cream splattered across the pavement and then she lifted her head, turning from side to side. I knew, I just knew that she was seeking me out.
The two of us both stood motionless while everyone else, for whom this was just a normal day, streamed past us, intent on their Saturday morning business.
I still wasn’t breathing. I knew with certainty that to make even the slightest sound, the smallest movement would be a very, very bad thing. For me, anyway.
My chest and head were pounding and the pavement swam beneath me. And then, finally, she lifted her head on that graceful neck and began to walk away. I edged my way around the hoarding, watching her disappear into the crowd. She was so tall that her blonde head was easily visible. I watched her until I couldn’t see her any longer and then I turned and ran as hard as I could in the opposite direction.
I was only a child. I thought all monsters were ugly. That’s why they were called monsters. That was the day I discovered I was wrong.
I don’t know who she was or what she was. I’m sorry there’s no neat ending to that story, but I never saw her again. It was, however, the first time I realised that as well as beauty, there was ugliness in this world. Evil as well as good. And there were things out there that, for some reason, only I could see.
And they could see me.
All my life I’ve worked really hard at being really average. Exam results – good, but not brilliant. Achievements – respectable but not world-shattering. I used to spend hours carefully plotting how to come fourth at our school Sports’ Day. Not a winner, but the best of the rest. Good, but not quite good enough. I was quiet, well-behaved and – ironically – as colourless as I could make myself. Instinctively, I knew I must never expose myself, or something terrible would happen. Whether to me or to others was never clear.
I’d learned the hard way. I remember a playground quarrel when I told Rowena Platt that if she didn’t stop lying about who took the money from Suzanna Blake’s purse, I’d send the bogeyman to hide under her bed and eat her as soon as she fell asleep. She fled crying and there was a lot of whispering which stopped whenever I turned around.
There was a similar incident when I told another girl (whose name I forget) to lay off Sharon Tucker’s boyfriend. There was a bit of a punch- up after that and we were all dragged into our Year Head’s office.
My dad took me aside that evening and we sat in his little shed at the bottom of the garden.
‘It wasn’t my fault,’ I said, quietly. ‘I was just trying to help.’
‘I know, love.’
‘I can’t help it.’
‘You can’t, no.’
‘Sometimes, I just know things.’
‘You do, pet. Me and your mother, we’ve noticed that. The thing is, though, knowing things is all very well and good, but keeping them to yourself is better.’
‘But she was the one stealing Sharon’s boyfriend,’ I said, the memory of the injustice still fresh within me. ‘Why did I get the blame?’
‘Well, lass, was Sharon any happier when she knew?’
I had a brief memory of two girls rolling across the grass, tearing at each other’s hair as their friends egged them on.
‘No, I don’t think so.’
‘You see, pet, some people think that somehow, saying something makes it come true.’
‘You mean they thought I’d somehow made her steal Sharon’s boyfriend?’
I remembered, in yet another flash, after they’d been hauled to their feet, the way everyone had stared at me …
‘And you, Elizabeth? How did you feel afterwards?’
I remembered Sharon Tucker, sobbing bitterly and declaring her life was over, and how I wished I’d kept my mouth shut.
I hung my head.
‘The thing is, lass, once something has been said, it can never be unsaid. You can’t unsay something any more than you can unhear it, either. You might want to think about that.’
‘What’s wrong with me?’
‘There’s nothing wrong with you, pet. Nothing at all. You just have a set of skills – unusual skills. Some people can sing. Some people can cook. Some people can play an instrument.’
‘And what can I do?’
He looked straight at me.
‘You know things. That’s all. All sorts of things. At the moment, you can’t control it – a bit like falling off a bike when you’re trying to learn – but one day you’ll get it under control. I think it’s important you control it and not the other way around.’
‘How do I control it? I don’t know how?’
‘Well, if you don’t practice the piano then you can’t play the piano, can you? Why not just try ignoring it? You know how it is – ignore something for long enough, and eventually it gives up and goes away. You think about it.’
I nodded. I’d hung around the outside of giggling groups often enough, waiting to be noticed, and it was true. When you find yourself ignored, sooner or later, with as much dignity as you can muster, you go away.
I took his advice. As best I could, I ignored it, and gradually the thing in my head … subsided. Not completely – it was rather like having a TV on in the background. I always knew it was there, but I didn’t have to listen.
And from that moment on, I kept my mouth shut at school and aimed at average. I think my school teachers thought that initially, I’d been attention seeking. Now I stayed apart and my classmates thought I was a snooty cow. But I’d learned my lesson. To keep quiet. And slowly, over time, the thing inside my head relaxed, closed its eyes and went to sleep.
As I grew up, I became better at filtering out the stuff I really didn’t want to know. I couldn’t turn it off completely, but I could relegate it to the back of my mind where it lurked quietly. Waiting.
‘Why me?’ I said to my dad, one day.
We were in his shed again. A magical place that smelled of wood and creosote into which he disappeared whenever, according to Mum, she had something important to say to him. I used to spend hours in there. I always remember it as being warm and golden, even in winter, and full of fascinating odds and ends. When I was small, I was allowed to hold his pencils and the tape measure. Later, I hammered the occasional nail, and even, once or twice, and with a great deal of apprehension on both our parts, my dad allowed me to saw something.
‘Why can’t everyone else do this?’
‘Because me and your mum, we think you’re special. We chose you, you know. Picked you out from all the others. Your mum, soon as she saw you, said you were the prettiest baby in the room.’
He picked up his pencil.
I’m sure I wasn’t, but it was just like him to say so. He’s been gone a long time now, and my mum even longer, but the memories they left behind are full of happiness and kindness and a sense of security.
‘Did you know my parents at all?’
He shook his head. ‘I know what you’re thinking. Could one or both of them do what you can, and the answer is that I don’t know.’
He marked off his piece of wood and tucked his pencil behind his ear.
‘I never knew them or anything about them.’ He looked at me. ‘You could have a go at finding them. The law says you can do that now.’
Silence fell in the dusty little shed. He busied himself looking for screws in one of his many drawers, but I wasn’t deceived. I could see his colour, swirling around his head. My dad was a deep golden colour, rather like the pieces of wood he loved to work with, and when he became anxious or upset, a dark brown stain would begin to superimpose itself. Like ink in water. He was agitated now, although you’d never know it to look at him. Only I could see it.
‘No,’ I said, as casually as I could. ‘I know who my real parents have always been.’
He closed the drawer and gave me a hug. ‘That’s my girl. Now – can you hold this piece of wood for me?’
We worked together quietly for a while. Actually, I mean that he worked and I held things for him. It took a while to pluck up the courage to say it.
‘Daddy, we could be rich.’
‘We already are, lass, but I think I know what you mean.’
‘But perhaps, if I tried, we could win the lottery.’
‘Aye lass, maybe we could, but I reckon you’ve never heard the story of The Monkey’s Paw.’
I shook my head.
‘Well, there was a family – a mother, a father and their child. The man and the woman were very old. Their child came to them late in life.’
‘Just like us.’
‘Well, theirs was a son, but yes, just like us. Anyway, they weren’t very well off and one day, there came into their possession, a monkey’s paw, and the story goes that if you made three wishes, then the monkey’s paw would make them come true.’
‘Really?’ I said, excited.
‘Ah, but – and it’s a pretty big but, lass – the wishes were granted in such a way that you wished you’d never made them in the first place.’
‘But …’ I said.
‘Ah, that’s what the mother said. But …’
‘Well, she reckoned she’d wish for a bit of money. Not a lot. She reckoned no good ever came of being greedy, so she wished for fifty pounds. A respectable sum in them days. She took hold of the paw …’ he clutched his Phillips screwdriver dramatically, ‘… and said, “I wish for fifty pounds.”’
‘Nothing. To begin with. Next day, their son went off to work. He didn’t come home.’
I could see what was coming.
‘A man from the company came around that evening. There’d been an accident at work, he said. Their son had been caught in some machinery. He was dead. He was very sorry. It wasn’t the company’s fault, he said, but here was a sum of money as a gesture of goodwill.’
I whispered, ‘How much?’
‘That’s not the end of the story though. The old lady, she thought she saw a way to make things right. Grabbing the monkey’s paw again, she wished they could have their son back.’
I went cold. ‘What happened?’
‘Nothing. To begin with. And then, faintly, in the far distance, they could hear footsteps. As if something was coming from a long way away.’
I held my breath.
‘And they weren’t normal footsteps, either. These dragged along the ground, as if whoever was approaching couldn’t walk properly. And the old man remembered what had been said about their son being caught in the machinery.’
He paused to rummage for something in a drawer.
I swallowed hard. ‘What … happened?’
‘The old woman was running to the door. To let whatever it was into the house. He tried to stop her but she was too strong for him. I suppose she was a mother and she just wanted to see her son again. She pushed the old man away and he fell to the floor. He saw a dreadful dark shape pass the window. He could only guess at what their son looked like after falling into all that machinery. All the time, the old lady was scrabbling to get the door open and any minute now …’
‘What did he do?’
‘He saw the monkey’s paw, lying on the ground where the old lady had thrown it. He picked it up, and just as she dragged open the door, he made the third and final wish.’
I couldn’t speak.
‘And when she finally got the door open, there was no one there.’
‘He wished their son to go away?’
‘No lass, he wished they’d never had the monkey’s paw in the first place. Now, let’s go see if your mum’s got the tea ready, shall we?’
I tried not to think about it, but I couldn’t leave it alone, so the next day I went to the library and read the story for myself. It frightened me so much I could hardly move. I had a vivid flash of my daddy, lurching through the front door with his limbs hanging off and his innards ripped out and his ribs so shattered that I could see his still beating heart. He was looking at me with a mixture of hatred and despair and love, even as he reached out for me. I slammed the book shut and ran from the library. I had nightmares for weeks afterwards.
And I became very, very careful about what I did and said.
My mum died first. I was about twelve. She went into hospital and never came out. Dad was quiet and sad for a long time afterwards. His colour was almost all brown. Especially around his heart.
Life went on, though, and we learned to do without her. I studied cookery at school, and we always had a special Sunday lunch, followed by watching football in front of the telly. Then I had chess classes after school on Thursday, and on Friday nights Dad went to his working man’s club. On Saturdays, we had fish and chips and got a DVD in.
It wasn’t a bad life. Dad was a retired council worker who was now able to indulge his passion for joinery. He was sweet and plump and grey-haired and I loved him very much.
And then, two days before my twentieth birthday, he died too. Quietly, in his sleep, at home. I was devastated, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Everyone was very kind to me. I thanked everyone politely and just carried on. I would have been lonely if I’d known how.
I had a job in the council records office where they’d known my dad. After a few months, they’d sent me down to the basement to begin digitising the records stored there. It was a lonely little room, miles from the toilets and with no windows. No one else wanted to do it, but it suited me down to the ground. It became my own little kingdom down there. I set myself a daily target, had little races with myself, listened to music and was as happy as I knew how. I honestly thought that would be my life. That I was all set for the uneventful existence of an unmarried woman in a dead-end job in one of the most sedate market towns in the country. But the universe had other plans for me.
One day, about eighteen months after my dad died, I met Ted. Not straight away – I met the flasher and his puppy first, but Ted came along shortly afterwards.
I’d taken my lunch to Archdeacon’s Park, because it’s pretty there. The gardens slope down to the river and there’s a small lake with ducks and a few swans. I chose my usual bench, laid out my lunch beside me, and sat back to enjoy the sunshine. People were strolling around, throwing sticks for their dogs or feeding the ducks. It was all very pleasant and quiet. There were people around, but not too close. Close enough for me to feel as if I belonged, but not close enough to impact on me, which was just the way I liked it.
I ate my egg sandwiches, drank half my drink, nibbled my apple and cheese, and finished the rest of my drink. Just as I always did. I liked the unvarying routine of my life. It made me feel safe. Today was Friday and after lunch, I would return to my basement office, tot up the number of completed records for the week, enter the figures into the file management system, and send them off. I have no idea whatever happened to them after that, but that’s local government. You just keep doing something until someone tells you to stop.
The rest of my afternoon would be spent shelving the old files, pulling out the new ones ready for next week and tidying my desk. Once that was done, I was all set for the weekend. Clean the house on Saturday morning, go shopping in the afternoon, read the papers in the garden on Sunday morning, have a bit of lunch and then watch a film on TV. I like routine. It makes me feel safe. That afternoon, however, my life was about to change forever.
I was just packing up my lunch box when a man plonked himself on the other end of the bench. I hardly noticed him because my attention was all on his puppy – which was exactly as cute as all puppies are. He snuffled around my ankles, not just his tail but his whole bottom wagging with excitement.
I smiled at them both. The man’s colour was a yellowy brown – almost the same colour as his puppy. There was nothing to show he had any hostile intentions of any kind. He smiled back and said, ‘Would you like to stroke my puppy?’
I nodded. He stood up and it was suddenly very clear to me that it wasn’t his puppy he wanted me to stroke.
I remember, I felt no fear. More puzzlement as to what he thought he was playing at. I could see he meant me no harm. I put him down as a bit of an exhibitionist – no more than that, but there were children in the park, so I walloped him around the head with my plastic lunch box and walked briskly away. I didn’t look behind me, so I’ve no idea what he did next, but I called in at the police station to report him. I spoke to a very kind policeman whose colour was almost the same blue as his uniform, signed a statement and went back to work. I was a little late, but no one seemed to notice.
Because of my lateness, I had to bustle about to get everything done, which served to take my mind off what had happened. I did occasionally wonder whether I should be more upset than I actually was, but he’d never meant me any harm, I was sure of it. Mostly, I think, I just felt sorry for the puppy.
Anyway, that evening, there was a knock at the door and there stood Ted, although obviously, I didn’t know that at the time.
I saw a sturdy man of medium height, with a thick head of brown hair, eyes that were almost exactly the same colour, and the world’s most unflattering moustache. His colour was brown too, fitting neatly and tightly around him.
‘Good evening. My name is Cage.’ He held up some ID. ‘I’ve come about the incident in the park this afternoon. May I come in?’
‘Yes, of course.’
I led him into the kitchen and offered him a seat at the table. ‘Would you like some tea?’
‘Very much,’ he said, looking around. ‘It’s been a long day.’
It was only a very long time afterwards that I realised he never once claimed to be a policeman. I just assumed …
‘Well,’ he said, stirring in two neat spoonfuls of sugar, ‘I have some good news for you. We’ve got him.’
‘Really? So soon?’
‘Yes, the silly ass tried something similar about an hour later. In exactly the same place, would you believe? We had a presence in the park at the time – more as a precaution than anything because we never thought he’d be stupid enough to come back again, but he did, complete with his puppy, and we arrested the pair of them. They both came quietly.’
His brown eyes twinkled at me over his cup and I couldn’t help smiling back.
‘The even better news is that you won’t have to testify in court. He’s confessed. Quite willingly. We’re not even sure he knows what’s going on around him most of the time. Quite harmless, but he should be in secure accommodation and from today he will be.’ He twinkled at me again. ‘We’ve even found a home for the puppy.’
‘So it’s true – our policemen are wonderful.’
‘Well, I certainly like to think so. Anyway, the important thing is that you’re quite safe, Miss Ford and you can consider the incident closed.’
‘Well, that’s amazing. Thank you so much. And thank you for taking the trouble to call this evening to tell me.’
‘My pleasure. I have to say, it is nice to be the bearer of good news occasionally.’
‘I don’t suppose that happens very often.’
‘Not as often as I would like, no.’
There was an awkward pause. I watched his colour suddenly stream towards me, as brown and shiny as a new conker.
He cleared his throat.
‘Would you like another cup of tea,’ I asked, almost certain I knew the answer to that one.
He accepted the offer.
An hour later he offered to take me to dinner.
Six months later he offered me his hand in marriage.
Seven months later we were married.
My life changed. Everything changed.
Ted had his own house and so, after a lot of discussion, we sold mine and put the money away.
‘For a rainy day,’ said Ted, which was typical of him. I sometimes think he was born in the wrong century. He would have fitted so neatly into the time between the wars. The 1930s were made for him. Or vice versa. He was a kind, gentle, paternal, family man. He loved to come home to his wife, so I gave up my job and became a housewife. I’m certain they laughed at me at work, but I didn’t care. I loved being a housewife. I loved being Ted’s wife. I would see him off in the morning and welcome him home at night. His house was small and easily kept clean – it wasn’t all vacuuming and dusting. I had time to sit with a coffee in the afternoons and read for a few hours.
In his spare time, he would work in his garden. There was a small lawn outside the back door with flower borders running around three sides. He grew roses and geraniums and dahlias and chrysanthemums – which he would tease me about because I can’t say the word. Behind the lawn, he grew his precious fruit and vegetables. Onions, peas, beans, marrows and raspberry canes. I would take him out a beer on hot afternoons, sitting on the garden roller and watching him work. He would cut the grass with an old-fashioned push mower because he liked the stripes. Every weekend he brought me in a big bunch of cut flowers for the house. He went out occasionally with his friends from work, but most of his spare time was spent quietly at home with me.
I was happy. Not the glorious, head-bursting happiness of a romantic heroine, but deeply, richly, quietly happy. I loved Ted very much and I think – I know – that he loved me.
A little while later, he came home one night to tell me he’d been offered a new job. In the private sector.
‘There’s a place the other side of Rushford,’ he said. ‘The Sorensen clinic. They have some pretty important people staying there sometimes and they’ve offered me a position as head of security. The money’s good. What do you think?’
‘I think it sounds very exciting. Will I see more or less of you?’
‘Hard to say,’ he said, grinning. ‘Which would you prefer?’
He took the job, of course, and as far as I could see, nothing changed at all. His working hours remained the same. He still had the occasional call out in the middle of the night, and he still didn’t talk about his work.
‘I have two worlds,’ he said once. ‘I like to keep them separate. I leave my work behind me when I drive out the gates.’ He smiled down at me. ‘This is my home.’
I snuggled against him on the sofa as he sipped the one beer he allowed himself on weekday nights.
‘Steady on there, lass, I nearly spilled me beer.’
I blew gently down his ear and he suddenly decided he had other things to think about than his beer.
Yes, we were happy. I often wondered if his colleagues sneered at him behind his back. Whether they called him ‘Steady Teddy’ out of contempt or affection, but I wouldn’t have changed a single part of my life.
That summer, the clinic held an Open Day.
‘We’ve never done this before,’ said Ted, pushing a shiny leaflet across the kitchen table.
I picked it up. ‘Why are you doing it now? You surely don’t need the publicity?’
‘It’s more of a PR thing. There are always all sorts of rumours flying around about us.’
‘What sort of rumours?’
‘Well, everything really. From brain washing to baby sacrificing. Apparently, we experiment on human brains. When we’re not eating them, of course, and turning our patients into zombies. Or dancing naked around an old stone altar to raise the devil.’
I poured another cup of tea. ‘So what exactly do you do up there?’
‘Believe it or not, it’s actually quite dull. We’re a small, very discreet private hospital with a high-security clearance. We take in people who, for the good of the country, daren’t let it be known they’re a little …’ he paused.
‘Unstable?’ I suggested.
‘Well, madder than a fish, actually,’ he said. ‘We glue them back together and send them out to rule the world again.’
‘Surely these world rulers won’t want the public peering at them through the bars of their cages.’
He sighed, ‘Bars are very passe these days, Elizabeth. Do try and keep up with current developments in modern mind management.’
‘Anyway, the main building will be closed to the public. Only the gardens are open and there are tents and marquees with examples of staff and patients’ work. We have a great arts and crafts facility. So, do you want to come? It’ll be worth it just for the gardens and cream teas.’
‘And you’ll have to be there anyway.’
‘In my capacity as head of security, yes. I’ll be the one alternately glaring at people or trying to think of a good reason to frisk the pretty girls.’
‘I think I had definitely better come. It strikes me you’re not safe alone.’
‘Good,’ he said. ‘Dr Sorensen says he’s looking forward to meeting you.’
I smiled. ‘It will be fun. I just hope the weather holds.’
It did. We had a glorious June day and it was an excellent excuse to wear a pretty summer frock. Out of respect to the lawns, I put on a pair of ballet flats. I don’t like to carry handbags, so I handed Ted my lipstick to put in his pocket. As I always did. He grumbled, but tucked it away. As he always did.
The Open Day was already in full swing when we arrived.
We pulled in at the main gate and the scanner read the security badge on his windscreen. The barrier came up automatically. The two guards didn’t quite salute but they came very close.
The clinic was housed in a lovely Georgian building, built of cream-coloured stone, complete with ancient lead gutters and pipes. An unreadable crest, weathered by time, was carved over the front door.
The front gardens were very formal, with flower beds in geometric shapes bordered by neat little box hedges. Hanging baskets on stands lined the gravel drive. To the sides and rear, the style was more informal. A beautiful grass walk led down to the river, with terraced beds on either side, backed by tall yew hedges. On either side of that, grass stretched away to almost as far as I could see, with groves of silver birch, oak and beech at nicely picturesque intervals.
There were quite a few people here already, strolling around the gardens pointing at plants, or wandering in and out of various large tents scattered around the lawns. They even had a small brass band on the terrace, playing hits from various musicals.
What do you think?’ said Ted.
‘It’s beautiful,’ I said, gazing around. ‘You’re so lucky to work here.’
His colour wavered for a moment, flickering almost to nothingness at the edges.
‘What? Nothing. Nothing at all. It’s just that I don’t get to see very much of it, that’s all. I’m usually inside.’
‘Down in the dungeons,’ I said.
I knew at once I’d said the wrong thing. Ted’s face never changed, but his colour curdled slightly. Something cold touched my skin. There was the smell of snow. And then it was all gone. Ted was himself and the sun was shining.
I really didn’t like Dr Philip Sorensen.
We found him outside the refreshment tent, talking to a bunch of local dignitaries, who seemed to have turned out in force.
‘Back in a minute,’ said Ted, and went to join them.
I drew back under the shade of a tree and watched.
For all that Sorensen’s head was attentively bent as he listened to what was being said around him, I could see that all his attention was all on me. Even as I watched, his colour, a weak and weedy thing of insipid blue-white, suddenly flared up – like one of those geysers in a national park – and roared out towards me. Like a tidal wave of dirty milk.
I stepped back in alarm, seeking shelter behind the tree. Every instinct warned me to keep my distance because I really didn’t want that thing touching me.
In a flash, he had himself back under control again. His colour reeled itself in and settled about him. I watched him greet Ted, introduce him to those present, and then politely excuse them both. The two of them trod across the grass towards me. I made myself step out from the tree as if I’d just been enjoying the shade, and smile politely.
He didn’t wait for introductions. ‘Mrs Cage. This is such a pleasure. I’ve been wanting to meet you for some time now.’
Yes, he had. I could see he was telling the truth. He had wanted to meet me for some time now. His colour flickered around the edges, and despite his outward polite calm, occasionally a tendril would reach hungrily towards me. I made sure to keep Ted between him and me.
‘Good afternoon, Dr Sorensen. I’ve been enjoying your beautiful gardens.’
‘How kind of you to say so. They are lovely, aren’t they? Now that you’ve finally met us, Mrs Cage, we’d be delighted if you’d visit us more often. Ted can easily arrange a pass for you, and you can enjoy our gardens any time you like.’
‘That’s very kind, thank you,’ I said, deciding never to take him up on his offer.
Pleasantries over, I hoped he would make his excuses – it was his Open Day after all and there had to be loads of people to meet and greet – but he showed no intention of moving away. Ted had stepped back a little and was watching something going on elsewhere. Even as I moved towards him, intending to put a little much needed distance between me and Dr Sorensen, he said suddenly, ‘Would you excuse me a moment please, Elizabeth?’ and strode away, leaving me alone with a man I really didn’t like, and who was showing far too much interest in me. And not in the usual way.
I hadn’t been this frightened since I’d seen that blonde woman, all those years ago. There was something in the way he looked at me. The thought flashed into my head. He knows something. He might not know the specifics, but somehow, he knows about me. How could that be? No one knew. I’d kept it quiet and buried it deep. I’d never spoken of it to anyone. Not even Ted. Sorensen might not know what I was – I didn’t know what I was – but somehow, he knew there was something about me. I felt a little twist of fear, deep inside. Suddenly, the afternoon was not so pleasant after all. I really, really wished Ted would come back.
I stared down at the grass, determined not to meet his eye, and still keeping a good distance between us. We stood in silence, and I knew he was watching me. I should say something. I should start some innocuous conversation about the weather. Anything to prevent him saying what he was obviously gearing himself up to.
I assembled a remark about the lack of rain. From there I intended to move onto Ted’s vegetable garden and his complaints about said lack of rain. I really didn’t care if he thought me the most boring woman in creation – a persona I worked hard at projecting, by the way – I just didn’t want to have any sort of conversation with this man. Sadly, he was Ted’s boss so I couldn’t follow my first instinct which was to turn around and run away.
I was just about to embark on the rain conversation, when, from behind me, Ted said, ‘Look who I’ve found lurking in the shrubbery.’
Dr Sorensen looked past me. ‘Now if you’d said lurking in the beer tent, I would have found that much more believable.’
The words had an edge. It wasn’t quite a joke.
The newcomer clapped him on the shoulder, making him stagger slightly. I warmed to him at once. ‘Sorensen, you old bugger. I can’t believe you’re still alive.’ He saw me. ‘Hello, who are you?’
He wasn’t very drunk, but he’d had a few.
Ted said, ‘Elizabeth, this is a colleague, Michael Jones.’
I said politely, ‘How do you do?’ and drew a little closer to Ted.
Michael Jones was damaged. There’s no other way to put it. I could see it everywhere. His colour was subdued and still. Small patches of a vibrant mix of gold and red still swirled faintly, but there was a nasty dead patch over his heart. I suspected he’d suffered a loss, and very recently, too. I didn’t need any special powers to see he wasn’t handling it well. The rather large drink in his hand was a bit of a giveaway as well. I wondered if he was a patient here. If he was drinking, then that didn’t seem very likely.
Dr Sorensen wasn’t pleased to see him. Not pleased at all. I watched them face each other. Normally, when two people stand together, their colours intermingle for a while. That’s when you get that feeling of attraction. Or not, of course. Sometimes you can really take a dislike to a person without knowing why. You might not know why, but your colour does and stays quiet and close to you. There’s no mingling. I sometimes wonder if it’s to avoid contamination. There are a lot of things in this world you don’t want to touch and you certainly don’t want them touching you.
Attention had moved away from me, enabling me to study the dynamics of what was going on here. There was Dr Sorensen, the smallest man present, but somehow dominating everything around him. His thin grey hair was brushed back from his forehead. His eyes were the colour of a wet pebble. I would never want to be alone with him.
Then there was Ted, medium height, neatly turned out in his second-best suit, his moustache trimmed for the occasion – and no, even though he often swore he’d die for me, getting rid of the moustache was, apparently, a sacrifice too far. His lovely brown colour swirled gently around him.
And finally, the newcomer. This Michael Jones. A big man who had once been even bigger. A man who had regularly worked out and now couldn’t be bothered. Something bad had happened to him and he had withdrawn into himself. His blondish hair was close cropped with just a little fleck of grey at the temples. Tired eyes regarded the world from underneath heavy lids.
Sorensen was talking.
‘You should check into the clinic for a few days, Mr Jones. The rest would do you good.’
Jones shook his head. ‘I want to go back. Someone should keep looking.’
Ted shifted uneasily. ‘Gentlemen, it’s too lovely a day to talk shop.’
There was obviously some sort of security issue here. I seized the excuse.
‘If you’ll excuse me for one moment, I’ll leave you to talk business,’ and turned away before anyone could stop me.
Sorensen’s colour flared towards me again, but I had stepped behind Ted and was moving off towards the grass walk.
‘I’ll come with you,’ said Ted. He too seemed to want to leave and so we walked slowly away. I could feel Sorensen’s eyes burning into my back, but neither he nor Jones followed us.
Just as we were moving out of earshot, I heard Jones say, ‘So that’s her, is it?’ I assumed he was referring to me as Ted’s wife and thought no more about it. I just knew I wanted to go home. To get away from this place and never come back.
I didn’t make the mistake of dramatically demanding to be taken home. Besides, Ted was enjoying himself, so we strolled from group to group, greeting and being greeted. There’s safety in numbers. By now, the lawns were so crowded that everyone’s colours merged into one indeterminate hue, with just the occasional flash as someone somewhere registered a deep emotion. The faint Sorensen-induced nausea faded soon enough.
Of course, Ted had to give me the full tour of the gardens, which was no hardship at all. We strolled across the grass and down shady paths, ending at the gardens’ centrepiece, a large rectangular pool with a rather well-built Atlas, cheerfully shouldering the world as the fountains cascaded around him. The whole thing was surrounded by high yew hedges and the air was soft and warm. I could hear bees zipping past. Ted was walking around the pool, peering into the dark water hoping to spot a fish, when a voice spoke.
‘You shouldn’t be here. Leave and don’t ever come back. And if you want to be really safe, leave your husband behind as well.’
I spun around, which was a stupid thing to do, because, as I’ve said, there was only a tall hedge behind me and whoever had spoken was on the other side, out of sight. I did try to peer through, but yew is thick and impenetrable.
From over the other side, Ted called, ‘Come and look at this one, Elizabeth,’ Not taking my eyes off the hedge, I walked slowly around the pool.
Great. I already saw things no one else could see. Now I’d started hearing them as well.
Five months later I was trying really hard to get out of going to the clinic’s Christmas Party and Ted was trying very hard to get me to go.
‘Why are you so keen for me to go?’
‘Well, I have to go and I’d like to have a beautiful woman on my arm.’
‘But you’re stuck with me.’
‘That wasn’t what I meant,’ he said. ‘As you well know.’
‘It’s too cold, surely,’ I said.
‘It’s inside, silly.’
I definitely didn’t want to be inside that house but I could see he really wanted me to go. And after all, I’d survived the summer Open Day.
‘What about the patients? How do they feel about all this going on?’
‘Most of them go home for Christmas. And sadly, those who are still there have no idea it’s Christmas anyway. It’s a bit of a staff knees-up, really. I’ve already put our names down. Don’t you want to go? They’re getting in outside caterers, and we’ve started decorating the place already. It’s going to look fantastic.’
‘But you won’t be able to drink.’ I can’t drive.
‘They’re sending a car for us.’ His colour deepened with anxiety.
I fell back on the old favourite. ‘I don’t have anything to wear.’
‘Is that all? Go into town and treat yourself.’
‘Is it formal? I don’t like formal.’
‘No, cocktail dresses and lounge suits. Nothing fancy. The whole point is to enjoy ourselves, not stand around looking uncomfortable. Don’t you want to go?’
‘Of course I do,’ I said, praying that something would occur to prevent me. I rather thought I might develop a heavy cold. Nothing too serious. Nothing that would make Ted want to stay with me. I didn’t want to spoil his evening. I just didn’t want to meet Dr Sorensen again. And above all, I didn’t want to enter his house.
I did try the whole ‘too ill to go out, but not ill enough for you to have to stay at home and look after me’ routine and I was wasting my time. Apparently, an evening out was just what I needed to buck me up. And he looked so much happier once I said I’d go. I told myself that so long as I stayed with Ted then everything would be fine. After all, what could Dr Sorensen actually do to me? And in a government establishment of all places? I was being ridiculous. I’d be perfectly safe.
They did send a car for us. Ted ushered me into the back. I put away the thought that we would have no getaway car, gave myself a stiff talking-to for being silly, and tried to relax.
There couldn’t have been a greater contrast to my last visit. Instead of hanging baskets, this time the drive was lit up with fairy lights. White and yellow bulbs glittered and twinkled in the frost. Every window was lit up and the light from the uncurtained windows fell in long rectangles on to the terrace at the front of the building.
Far from being closed and threatening, the front doors stood wide open in welcome, light streaming out across the terrace. Even before our car drew up, we could hear the music and voices coming from within.
‘A bit of busman’s holiday for me, I’m afraid,’ said Ted helping me out of the car. ‘Because the house is open I’m on duty this evening. Not all the time, of course, but I’ll have to nip off every now and then just to make sure everything’s running smoothly.’
He hadn’t mentioned that. I didn’t mean to look anxious, but he must have noticed because he squeezed my hand. ‘Don’t worry, I won’t leave you alone. All the people you met last time will be here, so there’s no need to fret.’
We entered the house together. I paused briefly on the threshold – expecting that familiar chill of something unpleasant, but there was nothing as we walked into one of the most luxurious entrance halls I’d ever seen.
Ted had been right about the large frosted Christmas tree, smothered with twinkling fairy lights at the foot of the stairs. A rather superfluous log burned in a huge stone hearth with the same heraldic crest cut into the wall above the mantel. Two enormous grey sofas sat on either side of the fireplace and there were any number of comfortable looking armchairs scattered around. A currently unmanned very smart reception desk was placed just inside the door.
I was surprised at how many people were there. Little knots of people were standing around chatting and obviously enjoying themselves. No one seemed tense or threatened. I felt encouraged. It should be very easy to avoid Sorensen.
Some doors stood open, signifying the rooms could be explored. I could see a string quartet in what looked like a library. A number of doors were firmly shut, but I had no inclination to explore anyway.
Dr Sorensen bustled towards us, every inch the welcoming host. And there it was again – that little frisson of cold.
‘Mrs Cage, how delightful to see you again.’
‘And Mr Cage,’ murmured Ted, and Dr Sorensen laughed merrily. The effect was rather like broken glass hitting a metal surface.
‘I was so looking forward to seeing you again. I told Ted I wouldn’t accept any excuses. We hardly had the chance for more than a few words back in the summer, did we? I’m rather hoping for an opportunity to show you around later. We’re very proud of our facilities here.’
I smiled politely and decided wild horses wouldn’t drag me from Ted’s side that evening. And if he had to nip off to inspect something then I was heading for the Ladies and not coming out until he returned. We had a taxi booked for midnight, so only another three and a half hours to get through.
I don’t drink much. I don’t like it. And I particularly don’t like getting drunk. Some of the things that prowl around the edges of our subconscious, waiting for that unguarded moment … waiting for a way in … No, I don’t drink. Not very often, anyway, and certainly not tonight.
Ted got me an orange juice. ‘I’ll have a drink later,’ he said. ‘I just have to nip off a minute. I won’t be long,’ and off he went.
I couldn’t see Dr Sorensen nearby, but it occurred to me that the best way of avoiding him was to keep moving so I flitted from one group to another, watching out for him from the corner of my eye, and always keeping him a whole room width away. He was busy greeting his guests though, and never looked my way once.
One reason I avoid large gatherings is that sometimes, it’s like having a hundred TVs on all at once, and all of them on a different channel. I usually manage to tune most of it out, in much the same way that we all tune out street noises when we’re in town, but this evening I had to stay alert, so obviously, I got everyone else as well. Just for the record, there was one couple having a really nasty row – the sort that’s no less spectacular for being conducted in a hissing whisper in the corner by the buffet. One couple – not married, I guessed – was trying to sneak off together without their official partners noticing. That one was actually quite funny. A number of people had drunk too much and were already incurring spousal displeasure.
I was just oozing around a huge bookcase filled with ancient leather volumes when someone spoke in my ear.
‘Hello there. I see you were stupid enough to come back.’
I jumped a mile and stared up at him.
‘Michael Jones,’ he said, helpfully.
‘Yes, I remember. And apparently, I’m not the only one.’
He peered at me. ‘The only one what?’
‘Stupid enough to come back here.’
‘Patient,’ he said, flourishing a glass that I suspected had a lot more in it than orange juice. His colour, like his glass, was all over the place. He was drunk enough and rude enough for me not to feel any social obligations.
He swayed a little. ‘Still with Steady Teddy?’
‘Always,’ I said, stung.
He started to move away.
I blocked his path.
‘And why is that?’
He appeared to have the short attention span of the more than slightly inebriated. ‘What’s all the fuss about you anyway?’
He leaned forwards and I was enveloped in a cloud of alcohol.
‘He wants you for his collection, you know.’
I grew suddenly cold. In vino veritas …
He regarded me owlishly. ‘The one downstairs.’
I tried not to shiver. ‘In the basement?’
He tried to look mysterious and succeeded only in staggering slightly.
I remembered that slight moment of nausea. That slight smell of something cold.
I stepped forwards so he had to move back, and there we were, snugly ensconced in a corner of the library where no one could see or hear us. I remembered to ask open questions.
‘Tell me about his collection.’
‘Well,’ he said, chattily, swaying even more.
‘There you are,’ said Ted.
‘Bugger,’ said Jones. He looked up at a security camera. ‘Ah yes, of course. The all-seeing eye of security. Except, of course, when it isn’t. Eh, Ted? Shame it wasn’t so all-seeing when it needed to be. I said, shame it wasn’t …’
‘Yes, I think we need to get you upstairs. If Dr Sorensen sees the state of you …’
He tailed away, which was unfortunate because I would have liked to have heard what Sorensen would do if he saw him.
Pulling out a bunch of keys, he handed them to me. ‘Elizabeth, would you go first, please. Down to the end of the room. Door in the right-hand corner. The big key.’
I unlocked the door and we got Jones through. He could still walk so it was mainly a case of nudging him in the right direction or intercepting him when he attempted to veer off down the wrong passage.
We staggered up a scruffy flight of backstairs that I was certain the paying patients would never see, along a badly lit corridor, through another door, and out into a large reception area with a nurses’ station. Ted propped Jones against the wall, said, ‘Stay,’ much as you would to a very large and unruly dog, and left me alone with him. A bored-looking nurse was flicking through a magazine. She looked up as he approached. ‘Mr Cage.’
‘Good evening, Cathy,’ he said. ‘Everything all right up here?’
She sighed. ‘Yes, everyone safely in bed and fast asleep.’
Beside me, Jones snorted. I nudged him. ‘Shush.’
He nudged me back. ‘You shush.’
Back at the nurses’ station, Ted was asking to see some sort of rota. She disappeared into a nearby office. As soon as she disappeared, Ted gestured down the corridor. ‘Room Twenty-one.’
I pushed Jones in what I hoped was the right direction, counting doors as I went. Odd on the left, even on the right. Room Twenty-one was at the end. I pushed open the door.
‘Coming in?’ he enquired, pulling me in after him.
‘No,’ I said, wondering why I was so unafraid of this big, slightly unstable, man who was trying to pull me into a dark room, when I was so utterly terrified of the impeccably behaved Dr Sorensen.
I didn’t dare put the light on, but the curtains were open and I could see the dim outline of a bed. I pushed him towards it and he toppled slowly backwards. I yanked off his shoes, avoided his hands and covered him with a blanket. He started to snore almost immediately. I slipped out of the door. Ted was bending over a file with the nurse. Her back was to me. Catching sight of me, he said, ‘That’s fine, Cathy, everything seems to be in order. I’ll send you up some mince pies,’ and signed across the bottom of the page. She turned away with the file, I nipped up the corridor and through the door. A second later, Ted joined me, and we returned to the party, giggling like a pair of idiots.
The rest of the evening passed without excitement. Almost as if he was aware of my anxiety, Ted never left me again. We moved from group to group. People were friendly. The food and drink was good. I enjoyed myself more than I thought I would. On the few occasions I encountered him, Dr Sorensen was charming. His colour kept its distance. I had no alarms of any kind.
On the way home I stared out of the window at the dark shadows flashing past and wondered if I’d allowed my imagination to get the better of me.
It was a day like any other, except that Ted came home looking cross and tired. That wasn’t like him at all, so I served him his dinner on a tray in front of the TV, and went to run him a bath. I was sloshing the water around when I heard the telephone ring, and when I went downstairs, he was pulling on his coat and picking up his car keys.
‘Sorry, love, I have to go back.’
‘Must you? It’s so late.’
‘Only for an hour or so. Don’t wait up.’
‘Are you sure? I can do you some sandwiches.’
‘No. I won’t be long, I promise, but you go on to bed. I’ll try not to wake you when I come in.’
He opened the front door, dropped a kiss on my head and pulled it to behind him.
I never saw him alive again.
There was no clue. No warning of any kind. I spent days afterwards, running over those final moments together, looking for some sort of sign, but there was nothing. I heard the car drive away and then he was gone.
I had a bath myself and decided on an early night. I read for a while, expecting to hear his key in the lock at any moment. Eventually, I switched off the light, turned over, and fell asleep.
I awoke suddenly. The room was cold and dark. A half-moon shone through the window. I knew I was alone. I reached out an arm to switch on the light and the pain in my chest nearly paralysed me. I curled into a ball, fists clenched. I couldn’t catch my breath. The moon swam like a pendulum. I felt an overwhelming sense of fear. Of mortality. Because I was dying. I knew I was dying. I was alone and afraid and I was dying. I tried to call out, forgetting Ted wasn’t here. I tried to call his name and then, suddenly, I realised it wasn’t Ted’s name I was calling – it was my own. I was alone, in the dark, in my car at the side of the road, afraid, in pain, and using my last moments to call for my wife. In that moment, I knew how much Ted had loved me. And how much I loved him.
And then, suddenly – it was gone. The pain. The fear. The moon. Everything, and I was alone in the cold emptiness of death.
And then I was back in my bed again.
I hope you enjoyed this extract – let me know!