Authors: A. L. Bird
‘Good morning, Suze.’
There he is, in actual waking land. Face level with mine.
The face, the dream face, made real.
I could lean forward and I could kiss him.
I move fractionally towards him.
‘Tell me,’ I whisper. ‘Tell me how I know you.’
He keeps his head level with mine. He opens his lips, made for words and kisses.
This is it. He will tell me. I poise myself, ready to know.
Then he stands up. He stands up and he grabs the pillow from under my head. I fall back onto the mattress.
‘What the—?’ I start.
Is he going to smother me? Is this it? I asked too many questions? I’m going to die? He’s going to shoot me through the pillow maybe?
‘Laundry day,’ he says, loudly. Too loudly? Too abruptly? Or is my brain still fogged with sleep?
And he starts to take off the pillowcase.
Oh Christ. The letters. All Cara’s letters are in there!
‘Don’t!’ I say, snatching at his hand.
He pulls his hand away. Still too strong for me.
‘Why?’ he asks.
‘I was sleeping, let me sleep!’ I protest.
‘You won’t get back to sleep. You never do.’
There’s a chilling knowledge in his words. But there’s more of a chill in him reading the letters. My private letters from Cara.
‘Pillow fight!’ I say. It’s ridiculous. Of course it is. But it’s the only reason I can think to grab the pillow back.
So I grab it.
But I grab the wrong part.
The pillow itself.
He still has hold of the pillowcase.
The pillow comes out. And, with it, the letters.
All of them, floating to the floor, like paper feathers. Love Cara, Love Cara, Love Cara carpeting the room.
I know what they are, but he doesn’t. Yet.
I lean down and begin scooping them up, holding them tight to my bosom.
‘My diary!’ I exclaim.
He bends down to pick up the paper.
‘Why’ve you torn the pages out of the notebook?’ he asks, casually.
Then he passes an eye over one of the pages. The casual air goes. He looks more closely. I snatch the letter out of his hand. He mustn’t know about the letters. He mustn’t know about my constant communication with Cara.
‘Suze, these are letters, not a diary!’ he exclaims.
‘I write my diary like letters. You know, “Dear diary”.’
I keep the letters clutched to my chest, my eyes lowered, hardly daring to look at him. Please let him have bought it. Silence. I can’t read it without seeing him. I raise my eyes.
He is staring at me and at the papers. There’s a frown on his face.
‘Give them to me, Suze,’ he says quietly.
I shake my head. I won’t let him have them.
‘Suze, the letters, please.’
Again, I shake my head. It’s all I have of Cara. He can’t take them. ‘You’ll have to fight me for them.’
He scrunches his face up. Then he produces the gun. ‘Really?’ he asks. ‘You want to fight?’
No. I don’t want to fight. I want to sink into the floor with these letters, fan them around me, caress each one. I want him to see me do it; I want him to understand how much they mean to me. Why he shouldn’t take them.
‘Please,’ I beg.
He shakes his head slightly and puts out the palm of his hand to receive the letters, gun still trained on me.
Do I let him shoot me?
Do I let Cara hear the sound of her mother dying?
No. No, that can’t be right.
‘Why are you doing this?’ I ask. ‘You know me. We know each other. Why are you making me suffer?’
‘Suze,’ he says. His voice is low, but there’s a hard edge to it. ‘This isn’t suffering. I know what suffering is for you. I could let you have that. But if you’re good, I won’t. I’m saving you. Now, the letters, please.’
My skin creeps.
But I must try one more time.
‘They’re my private papers. My diary. My confessions. My innermost thoughts. You mustn’t read them.’
He keeps his hand outstretched, the gun aloft. But he takes a step closer to me. Again, that breath on me. Again, that tension. It’s as though the force of it draws the letters away from me, magnetising me. With one final wrench, I separate my daughter from my bosom and I hand her to this man.
‘Good girl,’ he says. His eyes stay locked in mine for a moment, then he looks down at the letters.
‘Don’t read them,’ I whisper again.
He takes the letters and leaves the room.
As the door closes, I remember. I remember that the letters aren’t just about being close with Cara. They aren’t just evidence of our communication, which he will now stop. They aren’t just an excuse for him to torture Cara to make her surrender the epistles I’ve sent to her.
They contain the plan. The ceramic plan. The plan to kill him.
Because Cara repeated it to me, didn’t she? She said that the plan to kill him with the mug was a good one. So he’ll know. He’ll read the letters and he’ll know. Suddenly, the past few days since I had the mug seem like pure self-indulgence. All that internal whinging about ‘Oh, I need to find out who he is before I can kill him.’
Idiot. I just needed to get it done. Look, now, what’s happened! I’ve put him on alert. I’ve squandered the only remaining chance to free Cara. He’ll read that letter, come back, take the mug, and that will be it. If I’m lucky. What if he comes back and kills me, then her, before we can kill him? Yet again, I’ve put my own indulgence over Cara’s needs. Yet again, I’ve failed at motherhood.
I pace back and forth around the room. Each time I reach a wall it is too soon; I need a longer walk for my thoughts than this cage will allow. But one thought is clear. I must stop him reading the letter with the ceramic plan. If he hasn’t already.
And then I must do it. I must just get on and do it. The killing. For Cara. Whoever the hell he is.
The other side of the door
So many of them. So many letters. How did I not see this happening? I leaf through them, getting the overall picture before I start in on the detail.
Although there’s one key detail that springs out at me.
To Mum. From Cara.
Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck fuck.
I put the letters down for a moment.
Just when I thought I was maybe making progress, this has been going on. Right under my nose. It wasn’t just the knocking, then. I’m going to have to take action. Bring it to a stop. They’re not dated – obviously, I guess, because how do you know dates if you’re locked in a room with no way of telling days – but they must go back almost to the start. When I first put my Suze and Cara measures in place.
D’you know, I hardly even want to read them.
I sit staring at them.
What do I do next? Do I go into Cara’s room and see if I can find letters from Suze in there?
There’s shouting coming from along the corridor. Somebody wants something then. Maybe a postman – looks like that’s what needed. Well, they can wait a little while, for once.
I suppose I ought to read the letters. Find out what I’ve missed. Arm myself. Then I can figure out how to deal with it.
Are they in any kind of order?
Let’s see. This looks like an early one. So pleased to have established communication, etc. Christ, I feel sick. I never should have given Suze the tools. Diary, my arse.
Some more. The business of living. Memories. What it is to be a girl in the world.
Then—Oh. Revelations. Is this about the blood in the bathroom? Such a chaste explanation, no details. But hints. All those hints. I realise I’m holding the letter so tight in my fist that I’m screwing it up. Screwing everything up.
The shouting down the corridor is getting louder. Suze. I should go. She’s sounding a bit desperate. Just one more letter, perhaps. Let’s see, what does this one … Oh hang on. That’s interesting. That’s very interesting indeed.
Finally, footsteps. I’ve been shouting for weeks, months, years.
Certainly long enough for him to have read all the letters. The letter that matters.
And long enough for me to be prepared. For me to have smashed the mug. To have the fragments ready. Or rather, one fragment. A particularly sharp one. I should warn Cara that now is the time. But how can I? I mustn’t knock. I’ll arouse suspicion.
And then it’s too late to warn Cara. The door opens. He stands there. He’s got the gun in his hand. Of course he has. I inhale. This is going be difficult. Dangerous.
‘Yes?’ he asks. Terse. It’s like me, when I’ve been interrupted mid-bake for something Paul or Cara thinks is important, but just isn’t. How could anything be as important as getting the level of a cake exactly right?
Stupid me. Frittering away marriage and motherhood by staring into ovens.
‘Come in,’ I invite him. After all, this room is my home now. Or rather, dwelling place. It’s missing the love of a home.
He comes in.
Both of us just stand there. Me with my hands behind my back. Perhaps I should have concealed it somewhere better, the murder weapon.
Has he read the letter? Does he know Cara and I want him dead? More than that, that we have a plan?
He’s not giving anything away.
‘I want to touch you,’ I say.
At the same time he says, ‘I’ve been doing some reading.’
I swallow hard. He’s read it then?
He takes a step forward.
‘Quite the correspondence, between you and Cara,’ he says. There’s an odd note to his voice. Mocking?
‘Never mind about the letters,’ I say. Can you tell someone not to mind about their death warrant?
‘Come here,’ I say, gently. Seductively?
He doesn’t move.
‘It must be a relief for you, having communication from Cara,’ he says.
I nod, because it is.
‘Make the days here easier,’ he says.
Again, I nod. I don’t know where he’s going with this. How much he’s seen. But I can’t disagree.
‘And I trust you’ve been replying to all her letters just as attentively?’
‘Of course,’ I say.
‘But look,’ I start. ‘Don’t worry about the letters so much. Just a teenage girl, venting her spleen. You can’t read too much into them.’
He raises an eyebrow. Scrunches up his face again. He doesn’t believe me. I don’t know what he knows. But I have to get him over here.
‘You’ll have read in the letters that we were trying to figure you out,’ I say. I keep my voice light.
‘You know, what you want from us. Who you are.’
He nods again.
I clear my throat. I’m nervous. I mustn’t mess this up. I clutch the ceramic so hard behind my back that I can feel it pierce my skin. Good. It’s sharp enough.
‘Come over here,’ I say again. ‘If I could just touch you, feel your skin, I might know. I’m sick of not knowing.’
He looks hard into my eyes. He’s trying to read me. And I’m trying to read how much he has read. If he takes a step forward, will it be to comply, or to kill?
He moves slowly towards me. He holds chin up slightly. The move exposes more of his neck.
‘Here,’ he says.
What is he inviting? Me to touch him? Or try to kill him, so he can beat me down? Shoot me down.
I move a step closer to him. Tentatively, I raise one hand up to stroke his face, one hand behind my back. I feel stubble. Rough, uneven, attractive. Its traction against my skin makes my fingers tingle.
‘Well?’ he asks.
I shake my head a little. ‘I’m getting something, but not quite …’ I say. I’m not lying.
‘Come closer,’ he whispers. ‘I dare you.’
He knows. He must know. Or doesn’t he?
I step closer. This time I place my cheek against his. I close my eyes momentarily and inhale. What a scent. Wood, cinnamon and manly sweat. My nostrils rejoice. I open my eyes again. None of that.
‘And?’ he asks.
And I bring the other hand out from behind my back, loop it round his neck, and thrust the ceramic shard as hard into his skin as I can.
He pushes back from me, falling away from me.
‘What the … ?’ He has one hand to his throat. He takes it away and examines it. Blood.
‘Suze, bloody hell, what are you doing?’
So he hadn’t read the letter.
I lunge at him again with the ceramic shard, but, as I do, I see something between us. The gun. On the floor. He must have dropped it in surprise. He sees me see it. Both of us reach down to get it. I feel like I’m in a film. We grab at it. I kick it out of his grasp. He dives towards it, over the top of me. It’s like a lethal game of Twister. For once, my size, my comparative litheness helps me; I slide fully under his legs then out the other side. Then I have it. I have the gun. And I dart back from the floor, training the gun on him, finger on the trigger. Ready, one two three, sque—
‘Suze, stop! For fuck’s sake – I’m your husband! It’s me. I’m your husband. I’m Paul!’
The world shifts.
‘What?’ I ask.
‘It’s me, Suze. It’s Paul.’
All I can do is stare. I feel like there’s a seesaw in my head. It’s tipping between infinite glee and complete confusing despair.
How can he be Paul?
I laugh. Or rather, I do a laugh. There’s no merriment in my larynx. Perhaps the noise will drown out the sound of bells ringing deep within my mind.
‘Very funny,’ I say. ‘Pretty desperate attempt to avoid getting shot, isn’t it?’
But the gun is limp in my hand.
‘Paul’ edges towards me. He puts his hand on the gun to take it. I start to let him. Then I seize it back.
‘No! I … I don’t understand. You’re not Paul. Paul is …’
I try to explain what Paul is. That he is what this man isn’t. But the two men slide together, two fuzzy images from disparate parts of my brain suddenly making one clear picture.
‘How can you be Paul?’ I shake my head and I keep shaking it. I don’t believe him. It’s not possible! How would I not recognise my husband? But I do believe him. Which still doesn’t make this possible.
I’m still holding the gun, pointing it at the floor.
This apparent husband moves towards me again. Again, he tries to take the gun but I keep hold of it. It’s so reassuringly solid in my hand. Alleged Paul stops trying to take the gun and instead, very slowly, propels me over to the bed and sits me down.