read a few chapters of REBOUND published by The Sunday Times Crime Club
Dusk is settling on the Heath, making trees and grass lose their colour. The shapes become blurred and unreal, all detail suddenly gone. The sky is dimming its brightness and the first stars and planets appear above the horizon. There is a handful of people about, mostly carrying their blankets and baskets in the direction of a few cars still parked in Merton Lane. I run up the hill at full speed and I can hear my heart pounding in my head, my breath quick and shallow. Once I reach the top I slow down. I don’t turn into the woods because it’s too dark there already. I run down across the meadow, which is still getting enough light from the sky, then turn sharply left, making a loop. I reach the main path again and decide to cross it and continue in the direction of the Ladies’ Pond. I hear footsteps behind me, regular and strong, another runner making the best of the twilight hour. I run across the South Meadow at a steady pace. The sound of footsteps is still behind me. There’s no one else left on the Heath now. I try not to panic, thinking that whoever it is will change their direction soon. But the sound of trainers pounding the ground persists, going exactly at my speed, not trying to overtake me and not slowing down. I quickly glance back and see the dark silhouette of a man, about twenty paces behind me. I think of stopping and letting him pass me, but fear is pushing me forward, my muscles locked in the mechanical movement of my limbs. I try to breathe steadily, not to break my rhythm, not to show that I’m afraid. I turn right onto a path and he does the same. I check my pepper spray, still tucked safely in the pocket of my shorts. At least I have something to defend myself with, if he attacks me. But for now my flight or fight response is limited to flight. The Ladies’ Pond, I think, maybe one of the guards is still there. I change direction and run towards the back gate of the pond. I pick up speed, hoping I’ll shake him off, and for a moment I think I’m winning, his footsteps no longer audible behind me. I see the wrought-iron fence, the sign that says women only, men not allowed beyond this point, and for a split second I hope it’ll stop him. I reach the gate and it’s locked, a huge chain and padlock in place. I think I hear the footsteps behind me again and I grab the top of the gate and leap over it, half-climbing, half-vaulting. I’m on the narrow, overgrown path that runs behind the toilets and the guards’ house. I slip in the mud, then keep running, reach the main path and turn left towards the swimmers’ platform. I enter the square of concrete in front of the bathrooms and look hopefully at the guards’ house. The door is locked and it’s dark; there is no one here. I turn to keep running and there he is, standing on the path, blocking my escape route. I take a step back, my heart pounding, my hand on the spray. He moves forward, coming out of the shadow of the building into the moonlight, and I recognize him. My fear gives way to relief, to be instantly replaced by more fear. What is he doing here? Why has he followed me? Is he going to kill me?
Thirty-six Days Earlier
I know it is over as soon as the parcel lands on my desk. Something about the twee wrapping paper, about the pink ribbon, tells me it has to end. I simply can’t let it go on. I pretend it isn’t there, ignoring curious looks from my assistant, Claire. I go out to lunch, although I don’t have time for it, buy myself a wilted sandwich and a cup of latte that tastes of tinned milk, get back to my office. The parcel is still there, sitting in the middle of my desk, looking ridiculously pleased with itself. It has to go. I resist the urge to throw it away, there and then. In my glass cubicle I am under the constant scrutiny of Claire and the girls from the production team, who peek through the see-through walls, pretending they aren’t looking. It is gettingunbearable. My laptop pings. Saved by the meeting. Then another one. By the time I return to my desk the office is almost empty, cleared by the Friday-evening rush to the pub. Claire, the efficient one, left at five on the dot. She comes to work an hour early every morning, so she can leave early and head straight
By the time I return to my desk the office is almost empty, cleared by the Friday-evening rush to the pub. Claire, the efficient one, left at five on the dot. She comes to work an hour early every morning, so she can leave early and head straight for the gym. There is, of course, a gym at our glass and steel office complex, run smoothly by Happy Workplace, the company that takes care of everything: the buildings, the car park, the carp in the pond, the grass we sit on during our lunch breaks, the air we breathe. Claire loves it. Sometimes I wonder if she has a secret vice, a drawer full of unwashed sex toys,
something dysfunctional, dirty. But no, Claire is perfect. She probably spends her evenings ironing her knickers and baking her own good-for-you granola, which she sprinkles on her yoghurt every morning at 10 a.m. precisely. And she is a perfect assistant.
The parcel is still there. I tear off the pink ribbon and rip the wrapping paper open. There is a cardboard box inside, decorated with little pink hearts. At least it is colour-coordinated. I open the box. A brown furry top of the head, two furry ears and, yes, another pink ribbon. A teddy bear. I take it out of its box and sit it in front of me. It’s cute, I have to admit, but that’s exactly what’s wrong with it. As it lands in the wastepaper basket I think of the guy who’s sent it. The guy who prides himself on being my own living cuddly toy. ‘Your cagnolino di peluche’ he signs his emails to me. I found it funny at the beginning, sexy even, his Italian roots and Italian looks inherited from his feisty (but thankfully deceased) Italian mother. The novelty of cagnolino di peluche wore off when I realized that cute and cuddly is not what I need in my life. Although, of course, all the girls in the office, with Claire at the helm, think he’s God’s gift to women. Handsome. Caring. Rich. Well, perhaps not a millionaire, but better off than the average Tom, Dick or Harry you’re likely to bump into at a Soho bar on a Friday night. James, my cagnolino di peluche, is an MD in – as he calls it – a financial information services company. Big office in the city, convertible Audi A5, a river-view loft in St George Wharf with twenty-four-hour concierge and security, underground parking, on-site gym. What more could a girl want from a man? The problem is this particular girl has just realized she doesn’t want the whole package. I don’t want the cute and cuddly James any more.
I log off my laptop, take the bear out of the wastepaper basket and leave the office, the furry toy under my arm. The office lift takes me straight down to the car park in the basement, the only way in and out of the building that avoids the hawk eyes of the receptionists and security staff on the ground floor. What they see on the security cameras is their business, but I can do without their matey comments tonight. My trusted 4×4 is one of the few cars left in the car park. Why save the planet in a politically correct hybrid if you can rule the road in a Chelsea tractor? Except I don’t live in Chelsea. The hilly streets of Highgate almost justify my BMW X5, although I haven’t bought it to do the school run. I bought it for Wispa.
Wispa is a five-year-old chocolate Labrador with serious weight issues. She’s been my best friend and companion since the day I brought her home as an overgrown puppy with fat paws and melancholy eyes. Named after the iconic Cadbury’s chocolate bar, she took their eightie’s slogan, ‘Bite it and believe it’, to heart. It took a lot of persuasion to convince her that not everything in this life has to be bitten to be believed. She came on board two years before James. Wispa and I dreamt of bringing up a litter of bumbling furballs, having the house full of puppy porridge and love, but then Wispa had pyometra and our dream was shattered. After her hysterectomy Wispa’s interest in sex got replaced by an interest in food. Any food. My dog walker Nicole and I fight a losing battle with Wispa’s obesity. She hoovers up her carefully measured doses of the vet-prescribed Satiety Dog Food, supplementing her diet with any old rubbish she can find on the streets of Highgate. She is insatiable. These days, the back of my BMW X5 is the only car space Wispa feels comfortable in.
I throw the bear on the back seat of the car and drive out
of the car park. I briefly consider giving the bear to Wispa, but I know she’d only try to eat it. I’ll walk up to the village and drop it off at a charity shop tomorrow. My iPhone rings and the car’s Bluetooth smoothly intercepts the call, transferring it to the speakers. James. I consider ignoring the call, but I know I’ll have to bite the bullet sooner or later.
‘Hey, babe, how was your day? Anything exciting happen?’
He means the bear.
‘Yes, how sweet of you. What’s the occasion?’
‘Oh, nothing, just thought I’d brighten your day. Make the girls in the office jealous. Make you think of your . . . cagnolino di peluche.’
He actually growls it seductively instead of saying it. And to think I used to enjoy his vocal displays of masculinity. ‘James,
‘James, we need to talk.’
‘Great, I booked us a table at Roka.’
I’ve imagined dumping him on my own turf, at home, but why not do it over a plate of sushi?
‘Sure, I’m on my way.’
It actually went easier than I’d thought. There were some tears. On James’s part. And some lies. On mine. ‘It’s not you, it’s me,’ kind of stuff. And the predictable, ‘I need more space.’ He disagreed, he bargained, he begged, but in the end he gracefully accepted defeat. I was impressed. He almost behaved like a true gentleman. I say almost because he took it out on a waitress, complaining about an imaginary drop of soy sauce she’d spilled on his jacket.
I get home late. Wispa is waiting by the door, pissed off. I know she slept on my bed, she always does it to spite me when I leave her on her own for too long. This time I let her get away with it and pour myself a glass of wine. A nice Rioja to mark the occasion. And then I call Bell.
‘I broke up with James.’
‘The twerp is gone! Great!’
I can hear she’s been drinking. Bell is the only one of my friends who’s never warmed to James. She calls him the twerp, Mr Goody Two-shoes or, in his case, loafers, which in her book is enough to dislike him. ‘Never trust a man who wears loafers. It’s a guy who gives you a hickey on the first date to mark you as his property. They’re all psychopaths, hiding behind the facade of mediocrity,’ she said. She was wrong about the hickey: James has never given me one, has never left any marks on my body. He is a gentle and considerate lover. Perhaps too gentle and considerate. But she is right about the loafers. I’ve never quite got used to the sight of him slipping his feet into the tasselled horrors. Thankfully, he always wears socks with them. Bare feet in loafers would be too much to bear.
‘Promise me one thing.’ Bell pauses and I can hear her taking a gulp of white wine. She only drinks white. ‘You won’t jump into bed with the first guy that comes along.’
‘Since when have you become my mother?’
‘You know what I mean, Anna. I want you to stay single for a while, to give yourself some time to ask questions of an existential nature.’
She is right, of course. I tend to spend as little time as possible being single. It helps that there is always a short queue of candidates lined up, waiting to fill the vacancy. Consequently, the borderline between the end of one relationship and the beginning of the next is often blurred.
‘Existential questions? What: “Who am I? Where am I going to?” How much have you had to drink?’
‘I’m serious, Anna. Slow down. Spend some time with your friends. Your dog.’
‘Wispa’s never complained.’
At the sound of her name Wispa gets up from her bed, stretches and wobbles towards me.
‘Because she loves you unconditionally.’
‘That’s the best kind of love.’
‘There’s no such thing as unconditional love, unless you’re a dog.’
‘Which reminds me . . .’ I put down my half-full glass of Rioja. ‘I need to take her out.’
Wispa reads my body language and is already by the front door.
‘Catch you tomorrow, hon.’
‘Try to stay single till then.’
‘You interested?’ I love teasing her.
‘I told you, you’re not my type. Too high maintenance.’
‘I thought that was exactly the type of girl you went for.’
‘True,’ Bell sighs. ‘Maybe I should try this single thing myself.’
Bell’s list of disastrous flings with psycho girls is as long as a basking viper. And equally venomous.
It’s a mild and humid night. It’s too dark to go on the Heath, so I walk down Swain’s Lane, along the cemetery. I stare at my favourite statue, an angel with big wings, looking radiant and serene in the semi-darkness of the graveyard. My iPhone pings. A message from Peter from Promax, the most effective speed-dating agency of the media world. Just kidding.
I mean the glitzy media event, with the awards night that is a wet dream for all the TV promo-makers and marketing guys in the world. Back to Promax Peter. He is a Creative Director at some sports channel, charming, good-looking and with that air of keen and urgent availability so characteristic of married men with small kids. We talked, we flirted, we exchanged business cards, and here he is, texting me sexy on a Friday night. Tempting, but no. I delete the message. Wispa dashes down the dark street, as if she’s seen someone she knows. She gave up chasing foxes and cats a long time ago and now the only thing that gets her going is the sight of a human friend. But the street is empty, there is no one there, and she trots back to me panting, her pink tongue lolling about happily.
Unconditional love. A feeling I don’t believe in, perhaps with the exception of Wispa.But her love is also conditional: she wants my presence, walkies, her food. Well, it’s as close as it’ll ever get to being unconditional. Am I getting too jaded for a true, overwhelming, spellbinding emotion that would make me do things I wouldn’t normally do, promise things I wouldn’t normally promise? I read somewhere that parental love is unconditional, because parents feel compelled to love their children, no matter what. I probably caught a glimpse of that when, after my dad had dumped us and disappeared with some blonde floozy, my mum stood by me, fighting like a wounded lioness, so I always had everything I wanted as a child, even though money was tight. It all ended when she died of breast cancer at the age of forty, a wounded lioness till the very end, trying to look out for her cub even when she had no energy to look after herself. It was shortly after her death when
I – a spoilt and angry teenager – realized that from then on I would have to earn love; it would never come free again. Bell is right. I have to slow down and spend some quality time with my friends and my dog. Invest a little. I pat Wispa’s head and walk on, hoping my resolution will last at least till Monday.