She grabbed her purse and headed out. Thank God the rain had stopped. Head down, sunglasses on, she dodged steaming puddles as she crossed to road to the corner shop opposite the tube station. She would be home again in two minutes. She gathered teabags, milk, bread, eggs and baked beans, paid and turned, banging straight into a cyclist who appeared from nowhere in the shop door, huffing and puffing, radiating heat in fluorescent orange Lycra and smelling of sweat. The food bag fell at her feet.
“Watch where you’re going.” She knelt and tried to scoop the food back into the thin plastic bag.
“Sorry, sorry,” said the man. “My fault, I was thinking about something else. Here, let me help.” He crouched to pick up a tin and Rose noticed he had rather bony ankles. Her head whirled again so she grabbed everything in one sideways sweep and turned towards home again.
Him? How could it be? Not here, not now, especially not now. Run!
She ran across the road. If she didn’t look at him he wouldn’t see her, she would be invisible. Somehow she dodged a taxi, something silver, something red. A motorbike swerved to avoid her. Rose kept going. Almost there, around the corner and safely out of sight, she almost fell into the front porch. She stabbed at the lock with her key, cursing until it opened. All was quiet behind her. She ran up the stairs to her own front door, steadied her hand and opened this lock quicker. She slammed the door behind her, dumped the stuff on the kitchen table, and curled up on the sofa, heart pounding.
She was safe. She sniffed and wiped her nose with her fist. Should have bought tissues. Imagining the look on her mother’s face, Rose felt the beginnings of a smile. She took a deep breath and struggled up into a sitting position. Brad jumped on her lap and purred and Rose stroked him, feeling a little calmer.
The doorbell rang. Clutching Brad to her chest, Rose didn’t move. Whoever it was would go away in a minute.
The doorbell rang and rang.
Keep quiet, quiet as a mouse, she thought. But then, what if it was her father? She tiptoed across the squeaky wooden floor to look at the hazy picture on the entryphone and couldn’t believe her eyes.
Why now? Why tonight? Why me? She wailed silently. Standing on the doorstep was clearly Nick Maddox holding… holding… something she couldn’t make out.
Could she pretend to be out?
“Hello, Rose. Are you okay?” His voice came over the loud speaker. “It was me that bumped into you, just now, in the shop. I wanted to say sorry but you ran away. I was worried, you were a bit… odd… ill. So I followed you.” He shifted from foot to foot in the tiny screen, his face filling every square centimetre of space, his nose looming large at the camera lens. Not complimentary.
“I’ve brought these, you left them behind.” He held up a box. Her teabags. “I got your e-mail on Friday with the questions and I’ve left messages for you. Did you get them? Your office said you were out. I thought you might be working from home, but obviously you’re ill.”
Rose felt as if she would never work again, never be able to string two sentences together.
“Rose? Let me in.” His voice was firm now, it was a command.
She pressed the button to open the downstairs door then immediately regretted it. Why was she doing what he told her? The answer was easy: because she was tired, because she didn’t know what to do anymore, because it was a relief to let someone else take charge.
But somewhere deep inside the journalistic impulse stirred. No way was she going to let him read her article before publication, if that was what he was after. She started to scoop up the debris which surrounded her – dirty dressing gown, OK, Stars and Heat magazines, ice cream carton, damp tissues. The footsteps on the stairs grew louder and her bones transformed to fluid, so she pushed everything on the floor into one heap and kicked it under the dining table.
There was a knock at the door. She opened it a crack, left the chain on, and put her foot in the gap. “How did you know where I live?”
“I followed you. Here.” His hand appeared through the gap, pushing the box towards her. “You look awful.”
She passed a hand over her hair and touched a paper clip. She tried to pull it out without him seeing. “Thanks. For the teabags.”
“Summer flu is nasty, I thought you might need stuff from the pharmacy, so…”
She’d meant to get some herbal sleeping tablets but in her flight from the shop she’d forgotten. She desperately wanted to sleep. “No, thanks. I don’t need anything. I think you should go now.” She pushed her foot more firmly between door and jamb.
From behind his back he produced a plastic carrier bag and showed her a bottle of Lucozade, paracetamols, box of tissues, peppermint teabags, bottle of eucalyptus oil, and herbal sleeping tablets.
She let him in.
He seemed to assess the situation with one glance and told her to get into bed. She did, fully clothed. She pulled the sheet to her chin and lay shivering, listening to him banging around in the kitchen. He was there ages. What was he doing? She remembered the debris of plates, mugs, Brad’s dirty bowls with something close to shame. She never normally left dirty dishes in the sink.
He had in fact been making peppermint tea. “Drink this,” he handed her a steaming mug, and two tablets. “Take these, then go to sleep.” He watched her from six feet away, sitting in the chair beside her wardrobe, his hands in his lap. She tried not to think about the fact he was sitting on Sunday’s abandoned clothes, her skinny jeans, favourite cream bra and knickers, the blue and white striped cotton shirt her father had once told her suited her eyes. All now creased by the weight of his sweaty body. She tried not to look directly at the orange Lycra. It was very bright.
He didn’t ask one question. He didn’t mention the article. He just watched her. She blew on the tea until it was cool enough to drink, then took the paracetamol, trying not to look at his hands, not to wonder how they would feel on her. It was all very disconcerting. She closed her eyes, but her eyelids weren’t heavy anymore. Where had sleep gone? Why didn’t he say something?
“My head, it’s going round in circles, I’ll never sleep.”
“I’m not really ill, I’ve had some bad news and, you see, I don’t…”
“Not now. Sleep.”
He took the mug from her hands, turned out the light, then sat down fully clothed on top of the duvet at the very edge of the bed. He was almost a foot away from her but his weight pulled the duvet tighter around her body and the mattress tipped her every so slightly towards him.
Actually, Rose thought, his sweat smelt quite sweet. She looked at his face and wondered if he had his father’s eyes or his mother’s.
“Ehm, Nick?” It didn’t feel right calling him Nick, he was a client, professional integrity and all that. But then he was sitting on her bed.
“Where do you think your identity comes from?”
“Rose, close your eyes and go to sleep.”
She closed her eyes. His concerned face was the last she saw, no words on the walls, no skulls, no Wanda.
© Sandra Danby
…in IGNORING GRAVITY #27: Rose wakes up, and wonders if she dreamt him …
This is the 26th instalment of ‘Ignoring Gravity’ about identity detective Rose Haldane. To start reading from the beginning, please click on the category ‘My Novel: Ignoring Gravity’ in the right hand menu.