Authors: A. L. Bird
And yes, it’s him.
‘You will have got my message, then?’ he says. He sounds pleased with himself.
‘So you know what the place looks like. Well done.’ I’m not going to give him the satisfaction of my fear. Not yet, anyway.
He doesn’t care. He knows he’s winning. ‘A little bird told me,’ he says, playfully. ‘A little bird named Alice. Familiar?’
I grunt. It’s as much acknowledgement as I want to share. It’s enough – he continues.
‘Not as difficult to get inside a school as you’d think, when they’re in a bit of a flap – flash a badge, forge a letter of instruction when you know the people who’ve “instructed” you won’t answer the phone to deny it.’
‘What do you want?’ I ask him. Because I’m sick of hearing about how smart he thinks he is. And there’s no point playing his silly games. I can’t hide, now, can I? Literally or figuratively. Unless I move them. All the stuff that goes with them. Cara and Suze. But no. That would be too much. It’s only him that knows. I think. Only him I have to deal with.
I can hear the smile in his voice. ‘You know what I want to discuss. I thought I could pop over, see you all …’
‘You’re not coming here!’ I say. Because he’s not. He cannot come in. He cannot disturb this delicate ecosystem.
‘Let’s be quite clear. I can do what I like. Knowing what I know. Unless, of course, we’re going to agree on the ins and outs of that little incentive arrangement.’
‘Fine,’ I tell him. My teeth are less gritted, more hewn in solid granite. ‘We can meet. But I want to be in view of the house at all times.’
‘You don’t fancy letting me in then?’
‘No,’ I say, because I don’t. He knows that, but it won’t stop him pushing.
‘Good. Eleven a.m. tomorrow, I’ll be in the Toyota Auris across the street.’
I repeat the arrangements out loud, more in horror than wanting to confirm. I feel like I’m in a bad cop movie. Without the good cop to help me.
‘You won’t regret this. It will be good for us both,’ he tells me.
It won’t be though, will it? It won’t be good for me. Which means it won’t be good for anyone in this house. No good at all.
Did you hear him?
OK, I’m sorry. Backtrack.
My darling. You mustn’t blame yourself about the non-escape. I was so desperately sad for you – how dreadful it must have been for you to have that opportunity and not feel able to take it.
But, sweetie, it’s totally understandable. It wasn’t a real opportunity. As you said, we didn’t have a plan.
This next bit, I don’t want to say it, I don’t want to push her. But I’ve got to, haven’t I? After what I heard this morning. I know I’ve got to be sensitive, but I’d be a worse mother if I didn’t have her well-being at heart. And her well-being means the two of us being together again, out of here. So I carry on.
Cara, that wasn’t a plan. It was a moment, you could have seized it, but it didn’t feel right. And it wasn’t right – as you say, you had no idea whether he would have been waiting for you at the end of the corridor. But listen. I think we now have something to base an actual plan on. The two of us, together.
Did you hear him this morning? My God, he must think sound doesn’t carry in this place. In case you didn’t hear, the Captor is meeting someone opposite the house at 11 a.m. tomorrow. Which means two things. At 11a.m. tomorrow there will be a witness. And that the Captor will be flustered trying to get ready to meet someone.
So if one of us runs along that corridor, we know that at the end of it there won’t be a captor. Because he won’t be here. Do you see? You don’t need to worry about the end of the corridor because it will be sorted.
I bite my lip. Am I pushing too far? No. I’ve got to go on. Cara has to see. She has to get out, whatever state she’s in. I’ve got to push.
Cara, I think you should be the one who runs out onto the street. I know you’ll be frightened. Believe me, I’m frightened. But I can’t bear the idea that I would run and you would still be trapped inside. And you’ll have someone to run to, out on the street. Because it must be a good guy, mustn’t it? Whoever the Captor is meeting. If it was a bad guy, someone the Captor was in cahoots with, they would just come into the house. It might even be your dad turning up.
By which, of course, I mean Paul. Because, God help me, the truth is not something Paul and I feel she needs to know. One day maybe. But when she’s sixteen. Or eighteen. Or when she graduates, when her exams are all over. Or maybe when her actual father is dead. So she never has to meet him. And I never have to see him again. Now is not the time.
Your dad might be there to pay the ransom. Pretty strange for the Captor to let on where he’s based. But maybe he’s just stupid. A stupid sicko, who doesn’t know how to run a kidnap.
Anyway, look, the point is this: you can do this. I know you can. I know you’re strong enough. Just take that courage inside of you and break out. You’ll get outside, you’ll raise the alarm, and someone will come back for me.
I know you can do it. But if you don’t know it, and you’re too scared, tell me. I’ll understand. Tell me and I’ll go out instead. But I hate the idea of you being alone in the house with him. I hate the idea of you staying in here and never getting out.
Here’s what I think we should do. When he comes in to give me the next meal, I’ll ask him the time. And then I can count. I can count the hours until 10.30 tomorrow morning. Then I can waggle the grate, and you’ll know it’s time to demand a shower. Just bang on the door; he’ll hear you. The genius is the 10.30 a.m., you see. He’ll think he has long enough to shower you before he goes out. But then I’ll start screaming, screaming so loud he’ll think I’m dying or that someone will hear, and he’ll come running to me, so that you can escape. Just grab the towel round you, and run. Don’t think of me until you’re out of the house. I need you to be safe, you see.
That’s OK, isn’t it?
And then, when we’re both free, we can find out who this man is. We’ll find out and they’ll string him up. You’re sure you don’t know anything, anything, about who he is? I know they happen, these random snatchings – that it’s not random to the captor, they’ve obsessed over the people they kidnap for years – but you’d think we’d have some clue. That one of us would know something.
Anyway, never mind. It plays on your mind, doesn’t it, what got you into this position. Sorry. Darling – is that plan OK? Write back as soon as you can, so I know. There’s no pressure. We’ll think of something else if you’re not happy with it. But we have a plan now, sweetheart. A real actual plan. And just think, by tomorrow we could be free!
Your loving mother always always always xxx
We can do it. The big escape. She’ll be OK. I feel like a general on the eve of a battle, rallying the troops – but troops that aren’t just a number or a name in history if the going gets bloody. Like a general who knows the battle must be fought, but if it’s lost he’ll lose himself.
If I understand my daughter at all, that letter will have been just enough to convince her. Years of persuading – put on your coat, do your homework, switch out your light – gives you the knack. Right from the first moments you pay attention to every detail, get acquainted with all their characteristics, their ups and downs, understand how to use those to be the best mother you can.
Get to know her. Stroke every contour. Drink in all of that little person. Then keep her locked away in your heart for ever.
We’ll get out of here. It just needs a little bit more strength.
And then we’ll always be together.
Downstairs in Alice’s house there are whispered conversations.
‘She seems a bit withdrawn, don’t you think?’ Alice’s mum asks Alice’s dad.
He shrugs. ‘I don’t know. Maybe.’
Alice’s mum nods emphatically. ‘She is. I know my daughter. She’s just … off, somehow. Ever since all this Cara stuff. I thought she was doing OK, but …’ Alice’s mum gets teary.
Alice’s dad supresses a sigh then leans forward and strokes his wife’s hand. ‘I’m sure she’s OK, sweetheart.’
Alice’s mum clearly isn’t so sure. ‘It just makes me think, you know, there but for the grace of God, with Cara, and Alice.’
‘Shhh, darling. Come on.’ Alice’s dad gathers Alice’s mum to him. She cries quietly on his chest.
‘I just want her to be safe,’ she manages, in between the weeping.
‘Me too, sweetheart. Me too. Do you want me to talk to her?’
Alice’s mum looks up, smiling tentatively. ‘Would you?’
Alice’s dad nods. ‘Of course.’
Upstairs, Alice lies tummy-down on her bed, absently picking at the bedspread. The room is silent, but she’d be surprised if you told her that; her thoughts feel loud enough to fill the whole house. She replays all those final conversations with Cara, before Cara went off to meet the man.
‘What will you do if your mum starts asking questions?’ Alice had asked, wide-eyed.
Cara shrugged. ‘Lie,’ she said. ‘Say I’m with someone else. Or say I didn’t know who he was, any of the history, I just thought he was some guy. She’ll believe me. She’d freak out, but not as much as if I told her what was really going on. It’s fine. I’ll make something up.’
But Alice noticed her friend’s fingernails were bitten all the way down. She wondered if that was the worry of already having deceived her mum, or the thought of more lies to come. Of keeping her mum in the dark always, of letting her mum think she knew the truth, but never really knowing anything.
‘Do you want me to come with you?’ Alice had asked, on another occasion, more out of curiosity than concern.
And she’d wanted Cara to say no. Expected her to. That she’d give her a look and say, ‘Don’t be silly, Alice. What would he want with both of us?’
But then Cara had surprised her by saying yes, sort of. ‘Could you come round, after? You know the way.’
If only she hadn’t waited until ‘after’. If only she’d gone with Cara every step of the way. Maybe it would have made a difference somehow.
Or maybe she would just be with Cara now. So better perhaps to have stayed behind. Although perhaps she now wouldn’t miss Cara quite so much if they were together.
Alice puts her face into the bedcover and draws small arcs with her arms. What wouldn’t she give to be sitting on this bed with Cara now, like all the happy times before. Plaiting each other’s hair, putting on eyeshadow, sharing secrets and jokes. Why couldn’t they just be laughing until their tummies ached, rather than Alice feeling her tummy ache with quite different feelings? Or maybe not quite aching. Kind of an empty gnaw, like hunger. Hunger to see Cara again. For Cara to say ‘Don’t worry, you haven’t betrayed me. You needed to tell Mr Belvoir. You did what you thought was right.’
A knock on the door disturbs Alice’s thoughts.
It’s coupled with the words ‘Knock, knock,’ as if it’s the start of a joke. But it won’t be. It will be serious. It always seems to be these days. She rolls off her tummy and sits up on the bed facing the door, waiting to face her dad.
He puts his head round the door. ‘Hi, sweetheart. How are you?’
She shrugs, à la Cara. ‘Fine.’
Alice’s dad shifts from foot to foot, like he needs the loo. He should have gone before, she thinks.
‘Can I sit down?’ he asks, indicating to the edge of the bed.
She shrugs again. Maybe if she acts like Cara, Cara will somehow be in the room with them.
He sits down. He doesn’t seem to quite know how to sit. He tries with both feet on the floor at first then he swivels round so that he’s facing her and puts his legs sideways on the bed. It feels like the facts of life talk all over again. Except they both came in for that. Embarrassing.
‘Your mum and I are a bit worried about you, sweetheart. About how you’re dealing with the Cara situation.’
‘I’m fine,’ she says. Because how do you explain to someone like him what it’s like not to have your best friend with you? She bets he’s never had a best friend. Or even a friend. Not like her and Cara.
‘Are you? Really? Sweetheart?’ he gives her a long hard look in the eyes and puts one hand on her knee.
She flinches and pulls away. Because she remembers what Cara said about that initial conversation in the car. That Cara knew from then on that knee-touching meant things were going to get bad.
‘Sweetheart?’ he asks again.
‘Dad, I’m fine. Honestly.’
He gives her another long look. Maybe he needs glasses, if he can’t see her properly without. All old people have glasses, right?
‘OK, sweetheart. But if you ever need to talk, you know where we are, right?’
She nods. Of course she knows. And of course, night after night, when she has her pyjamas on, she longs to go and curl up on the sofa with them, or on their bed, like when she was little, and tell them everything. But she can’t. Because they’ll tell Cara’s mum. If anyone ever sees her again. It was different telling Mr Belvoir; he won’t tell anyone. He said so. If Alice’s mum told Cara’s mum, she’d be sad and angry at Cara for always. And Alice will have betrayed Cara yet again. ‘Cara, why did you have to be so secretive?’ she asks her absent friend. ‘Why couldn’t you just have gone to your mum? Why did you have to put me in this position?’
Just before he leaves, Alice’s dad turns to face her. ‘You know you couldn’t have stopped it, right?’
Alice stares at him a moment. Then she nods because it is expected.
But when her dad goes back downstairs, Alice curls up on her bed, legs drawn up to her chest. Only her sobs break the silence of the room.
The supper tray, that’s what this will be, this turn in the lock. The door’s opening now. Our first encounter since he closed the door on Cara. Since he knew I knew she was here. And our first real exchange since I kissed him then pushed him away.
His eyes. I look at them first. There’s nothing in them for me. I can’t read them. I could say angry, I could say pleading. But they’re just eyes. Staring at mine as intently as I stare at his.
‘I got you a cupcake,’ he says.
I look at the tray.
And yes, there it is. The cupcake.