Two Weeks Later,
About the Author,
My story starts on a Monday morning in January because it's the obvious place to begin. I used to think, Oh, that was the day when everything changed, but of course it's never that simple. The seeds of what happened then were planted years before.
In my box of memories from January the twenty-second, 2007, these are the things you'll see: a single sunflower in a garden, the waves, the huge yawning jaws of them thrashing under ripe clouds. And the violet of the sky, the way it looked electric, like it had been plugged into a vast source of negative energy.
But the mind plays tricks. So does the memory. What we see is not necessarily how things are. I do believe, though, that the sky and the waves were as I have described them. But the sunflower, in winter? I can see it as clearly now as I can see my hand in front of me. But it doesn't mean it was there. Maybe I see it because the flower has always reminded me of you, of us. Of the beginning of the end.
* * *
It was a one-way conversation, the kind that often marked the start of my working day. Robbie, my news editor, barking his orders down the phone. "Some woman has disappeared in Brighton, police are holding a press conference. I'll e-mail you the rest," he said before hanging up. That was as much as I knew.
I left London in the freezing rain and by the time I reached the outskirts of Brighton the snow had begun to fall, giant fuzzy felts of it on my windscreen. In the city a film of slush coated the roads. I drove up Southover Street, weaving in and out of the rows of squashed terraces to John Street and the police station, a boxy construction in white and beige with dirty brown windows, not far from the sea.
I was late so I pulled up on the curb — a parking ticket always preferable to a bollocking from the news desk for missing a story. A blast of icy air hit me as I got out and reminded me why I hated Robbie. The flimsy mac, the heels, the skirt, the air-stewardess chic. It was my attempt to appease him after being told to make more of an effort. Not that the viewers gave a damn if I wore the same coat three days in a row, but he did.
Outside the police station the TV vans were lined up, satellites pointing to the sky and humming. Our own with its National News Network logo, a mangle of Ns, was next to the Global Broadcasting Corp truck. Through the half-open door I caught a glimpse of the monitor feeding pictures from inside the press conference. Relief: no sound yet, no one had started talking. I reached for my BlackBerry to read Robbie's e-mail and fill in the blanks of the story, winging it as usual, when Eddie the engineer emerged from the sat van, barely recognizable in the bulk of his North Face jacket.
"They've just given us a two-minute warning. Should have worn your running shoes, Rachel."
* * *
The smell hits you first in police stations. It's the stench of lives unraveling, of drink- and drug-fueled chaos, of people crossing the line. It's the same in hospitals and old people's homes, the way it clings to you. The one in Brighton was no different. I could feel it catch my throat as soon as I went through the automatic doors.
There was a man in front of me at reception in a gray shell suit that was a shade or two darker than his skin. Gunmetal next to putty. His dark hair shone with grease and he was chewing fingernails that were thick with dirt.
"What the fuck you looking at, eh?" he snarled. "You got nothing better to do?"
"Pipe down, Wayne," said the woman on reception. Her name badge said she was Lesley. She had big gold ovals hanging from her ears, stretching her ear lobes, dark circles around her eyes.
I flashed my press card.
"They're just about to start, darling. Fill this in." She tapped the visitors' book with her right hand so I could see that she wore gold rings on three fingers, excluding her thumb and pinkie. One said MUM, as if she needed to be reminded, and the other spelled out LOVE.
"You," she pointed a finger at shell-suit man, "you sit down and someone will see you in a minute. You, come with me, I need to buzz you through."
We walked through a double door into a long corridor to the conference room. Inside was the usual smattering of local newspaper journalists, huddled together in their cheap suits, a wall of chatter surrounding them, cameras set up ready to go live the moment the police started talking. A clutch of microphones was propped on the table and sitting behind it were four people: two police officers, the press officer Hilary Benson, and a young woman. Jake Roberts was there too. But I didn't see him until later. I wouldn't see any of this until later. Instead, as soon as Lesley opened the doors, my eyes locked on to a poster, about two foot by two foot, hanging next to the table. It was a photograph of a woman. A photograph of you.
Those blue eyes of yours, they sucked me in, deep deep down where it was cold and dark. My lungs inflated, my whole body screamed for air. I was drowning, Clara, and all the time I could hear the sloshing and swirling of water in my ears and the muffled sounds of the media circus gearing up for a performance. No one saw what happened to me in that moment, no one noticed that I had been sucked from the outside of the story right down into its murky depths. No one could have guessed that the story was part of me.
I felt like I had hit the bottom. Everything stopped.
Then I heard a voice louder than the rest, reaching above the chatter. And finally I came back to the surface, greedy for air.
"We're just about ready to start, folks," the voice said. It was DCI Gunn, announcing the start of the press conference like he was about to introduce an act in a show.
* * *
"Thanks for coming," DCI Gunn said in his West Country twang. I noticed he was looking straight down the barrel of one of the camera lenses. "We want your help in finding the young woman you can see here." He nodded to the poster of you. That smile, so beguiling. "Her name is Clara O'Connor. She's twenty-eight years of age and her disappearance is completely out of character."
I should explain that DCI Gunn and I had what you would call a professional relationship. He was a contact I had cultivated three years before when I first landed the job of crime correspondent at National News Network. We'd have lunches, drinks-on-me and after a while the information began to flow. Tip-offs on stories on his patch, a few leaks here and there. And an unspoken pact: he'd make me look good if I returned the favor. It's the kind of cozy relationship journalists rely on and this was the moment ours began to unravel. He had never met you and yet suddenly he was an expert on your character. I felt the blood rush to my head, my teeth sunk deep into my lips.
"She was reported missing by her friend and flatmate Amber Corrigan. Amber was staying at a friend's on Friday night but had planned to meet Clara the next day for lunch." He paused, looked over at the girl sitting two people down from him at the table. I had heard you mention her before but this was the first time I had seen her — she was a tiny, fragile little thing. The seat almost swallowed her up. I thought if she took a step outside she'd be blown away by the gathering storm. But she was pretty, and TV cameramen and photographers love a pretty girl crying. Your story would get more coverage that way.
DCI Gunn cleared his throat. "Clara was supposed to spend an evening with friends last Friday, January the eighteenth, in Brighton city center. They had arranged to meet but she was late and from what we can gather she only turned up briefly. She was seen leaving Cantina Latina on Marine Drive around eleven thirty p.m. and told her friends she was going back to her flat. Unfortunately she has not been seen since." He paused and looked around the room for effect. I tried to grab the information he was giving and process it in my head. It was like trying to catch water in my hands.
Looking back it's hard to explain my behavior that day, Clara. In truth I still don't understand it myself. I can still hear the voice in my head that screamed at me to stand up and shout as loud as I could that this account of Friday night was all wrong. I wanted to holler to DCI Gunn that I was your friend, your oldest friend, and if anyone knew you it was me. I wanted to reach out and press pause, to bring everything to a standstill for a moment and allow myself to think. Every muscle in my body was straining, willing me to do something, say something. But nothing. I was anchored to the spot, pinned down by a force greater than me. I had no voice, my body was paralyzed. So I just sat watching events run away from me until it was too late to catch up with them.
* * *
"I'm grateful that Amber Corrigan has come today," said DCI Gunn. "You can appreciate that this is a very traumatic time for her, but she wanted to do everything she could to help us in our search for Clara."
My eyes turned to focus on Amber. She was your flatmate but I doubted she knew you very well. And yet here she was, face mottled, eyes emotional, red. Later, I would wish I could cry like her but my tears would be slow to come.
"I just want to say to Clara ..." She paused and gulped. Her voice was quiet but she enunciated every syllable of each word, like she'd practiced her lines. "Clara, if you're listening, please get in touch, we're worried sick. I know this isn't like you and we're all scared something awful has happened." She began to sob and used the back of her hand to rub away the tears that fell down her cheeks. The sound of the cameras zooming was inaudible but I heard it all the same. "Please, Clara, let us know where you are."
I wished she had said something more original, something more fitting of you.
DCI Gunn stepped in. "I'd like to thank Amber for coming along today and I'd ask that you all give her some privacy." Everyone nodded in agreement, knowing that the first thing they'd do would be approach her for an exclusive.
He talked about how they had already begun to contact your friends and colleagues (would I be the last because I was under W in the address book?). About you being a promising artist, which made me raise my eyebrows a little.
Then finally he asked: "Does anyone have any questions?"
My head was full of questions, each one screaming and shouting and taunting me. But still I had no voice and the ground around me was crumbling away. If I moved I would surely have slipped into the dark hole that was forming beneath me. So I sat there, rigid, as others raised their hands and their questions floated in the air above my head.
I wonder now if there was something else at play that day; if I realized even on a subconscious level that DCI Gunn couldn't help me. If somehow I already knew that I had all the answers, I just needed to search for them.CHAPTER 2
THREE DAYS BEFORE
Even through the phone I can hear it in your voice. The spark I had forgotten existed. And your laugh, loud and contagious, ricochets through me like a charge. This is how we used to be, I think. I've missed you, Clara. I've missed us.
"Honestly, Rachel," you say, "I haven't had so much fun in ages. We went to this club that was so tacky but hilarious. I even had a snog at the end of the night, although God knows what he thought of me."
"I wish I'd been there," I say, not mentioning the fact that you didn't invite me because I don't mind, not really. I understand. You need to broaden your circle of friends and that means doing things without each other; after all my life has moved on too. The career, the boyfriend. And Jonny isn't just any boyfriend, he's everything I thought I couldn't have. His dark eyes twinkle when he laughs, which he does a lot. When he kisses my neck it sends tingles all the way through my body. He understands me, totally, just being around him makes me feel calm. Sorry if that all sounds a bit corny but I love him. Now we just need to work on finding you someone too.
"Are you seeing him again?" I ask. I'm five leaps ahead already. I'm turning into one of those smug people who want everyone else to couple-up and share the happiness.
"I very much doubt that very much." You are giggling so much you can't get your words out. "I had to break off mid-kiss to puke in my handbag."
"You are not serious?" I ask in my big-sister voice. "I'm protective, Clara. It used to be the other way round, I know, but for a long time it's been me looking out for you."
"Well, what was I supposed to do? I wouldn't have made it to the loo, and I didn't want to do it on the floor, so the bag was the next best place. He didn't see me either. Though the bag was in a terrible state and the keys ..."
"Stop! I don't want to hear anymore," I say, but I am laughing too. "So who are the new friends, do I get to find out?"
Your laughter is replaced by a cough. I imagine the smile slipping from your face.
"Just some people from school," you say finally.
"Really? Who? Do I get to meet them?"
"I didn't realize I needed your approval on everything?" Your mood has changed, lightning-quick. And your words hit me like a slap.
"Jesus, Clara, I'm only asking. I'm curious, that's all ..." I let my sentence trail off. Don't bite, don't rise to the bait.
"Well since you ask, Sarah Pitts and Debbie Morton." You sound out the names slowly, for effect I think.
Those names carry with them bucketloads of memories. In an instant I'm transported back to school, I can feel their hockey sticks on my shins, their elbows sharp in my ribs during netball. But that's nothing compared with the time Lucy Redfern pushed me in the water on the PGL school trip in Shropshire. I see myself emerging from the lake; the whole class is laughing at me but Sarah's cackle is the loudest. Lucy jokes that I needed a wash anyway, and her twin, James, leads the boys in a round of applause. You were there, Clara, you saw my face turn beetroot with the shame of it all.
Then again it was a long time ago. Maybe they've changed, I think.
"Does Debbie still smell of chips?" I say. I don't even ask about Sarah.
"Fuck off, Rachel. You're so up your own arse."
"Jesus, Clara, I'm just joking. You know they ruined my last year at school but you know me, move on, never hold a grudge." You give something that sounds like a snort. "Though now I can see why you didn't invite me," I add.
For a moment neither of us speaks and the elation I felt at the beginning of our conversation is sucked out of me by the silence. I find myself wondering if it will ever be right between us again.
And then you say something that surprises me.
"We're going out again on Friday." Your voice is softer. You pause as if considering your words. "You could always come. Stay at mine afterward. You might even change your mind about them."
I am about to say no and then I think about it for a moment. The first thing that occurs to me is that Jonny will be away, traveling out to Afghanistan to film a documentary, and I will be alone. The second thing I think of is this: Sarah Pitts was my high-school nemesis but who's laughing now? I have the job, the boyfriend. She can't touch me.
"Why not," I tell you. "I might even enjoy myself."
* * *
On the roads there is an edge to the traffic, a hint of menace. Corporate boys bloated on expense accounts are tailgating in their Audis and BMWs, shining their lights too close to my Mini. I blink to clear my vision but the rain falling on the windscreen blurs it again just as quickly. Occasionally I question the wisdom of agreeing to meet you and Sarah and Debbie. Given the choice I would be at home, snuggling up with Jonny on the sofa, with a Thai takeaway and a bottle of wine. I think you've guessed I'm having second thoughts. You've called three times this week to check if I'm still coming, which is unusual to say the least. Lately you've rarely called or returned my calls.
Anyway Jonny is staying at Gatwick tonight to catch an early flight so I'm not going to cry off. Our flat is cold and empty without him. It feels like we are two halves of the same person these days. With every other guy before him it was like they were from one planet and I was from another. And then he spoke to me and we just clicked and I thought hello my man from earth. Before I knew it I was doing all the things I used to frown upon, like peeing in front of someone one minute and then fucking them the next with such an urgency, such a need that makes you want to laugh and cry at the same time. We fill each other's spaces, end each other's sentences and sometimes we just sit in silence because we don't have to hide behind words and gestures. We can just be ourselves. What I'm trying to say is when he's not at home I feel like I've lost part of myself and I'd rather be anywhere than face the flat without him. So here I am on the M23 with the Arctic Monkeys playing on my CD, a Diet Coke and a bag of Haribo, heading toward you and the high-school bitch girls.
I'm a few miles past Gatwick when I get that familiar sinking feeling. The traffic is slowing, the red brake lights are all bunched up on the road ahead. The Haribos are gone, my teeth are aching from the sugar and my bladder is full of Coke. I start flicking between radio stations to get the traffic update and catch snippets of news. The woman on Radio Four says that eleven people died in yesterday's storms in the Midlands and the North. On Radio One there's a breathless girl reading too fast and stressing words in all kinds of weird places. She says that Prime Minister Gordon Brown is in India talking about a racism row on Big Brother. Is this what the world has come to?
Excerpted from Precious Thing by Colette McBeth. Copyright © 2013 Colette McBeth. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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