Authors: A. L. Bird
And, please, let Cara be with you. Let my daughter be safe.
Images of Cara frightened, hunched, bound, dying.
Just focus. Look at the room. How to get out of the room.
Look, a window! High up, narrow, darkness beyond it, but possible maybe?
There’s a kind of ledge. I can pull myself up. Hands over the edge, like that, then come on – jump up, then hang on. Manage to stay there for a moment, before my weak arms fail me. Long enough to judge the window isn’t glass. It’s PCV. Unsmashable. And, of course, there is a window lock. And no key. Locked, I bet, but if I just stretch a hand – but no. I fall.
OK, so I need to put something under the window. That chair. Heavy. I push and pull it to under the window. Placing my hands on the back of the chair, I climb up onto the seat. With my new height, I stretch my arm to the window, then to the window latch.
Still. A window is a window. People can see in, as well as out. When it’s day again, I can wave, mouth a distress signal.
So do I sit and wait in the dark until morning? Until I can see the light again?
Or does this man, this man out there, have night-time plans for me? Because you don’t just kidnap a woman and leave her in a room. You want to look at her, presumably, your toy, your little caged bird. Maybe he’s looking at me even now. A camera, somewhere? I draw my legs up close to me and hug them. I stare at the ceiling, every corner. No. No. No. No. I can’t see one.
Which means he must have another agenda.
Think of Cara. Be strong. What’s your best memory of Cara? Proudest mummy moment?
Apart from every morning when I see that beautiful face. I will have that moment again. I will. Just as I’ve had that moment every day since I first held you.
Little baby girl wrapped in a blanket. So precious. Be safe, be warm, always.
But apart from that.
Yes, the concert.
All the mums and dads and siblings and assorted hangers-on filing into the school hall. The stage set up ready, music stands, empty chairs. Hustle, bustle, glasses of wine. Me chatting to Alice’s mum – Paul working late – about nothing and everything. Then, the gradual hush of anticipation spreads round the room. The lights dim. On comes the orchestra! And there’s Cara. Her beautiful blonde hair hanging loose, masking her face. She’ll tuck it behind her ear in a minute, I think. And she does. Then the whole audience can see that lovely rose tint to her cheeks, the lips so perfectly cherub-bowed to play the flute that she holds. I want to stand up and say, ‘that’s my daughter!’ Instead I just nudge Alice’s mum and we have a grin. Then there’s the customary fuss and flap as the kids take their seats. All trying to look professional, but someone drops their music, and someone else plucks a stray string of a violin. Not Cara, though. She is sitting straight, flicking stray glances out to the crowd, holding the flute tight on her lap. Come on, Cara, I say to her in my head. Just do it like you’ve practised. All those nights at home, performing to me sometimes so that you have an ‘audience’. You’ll be fine.
And she is fine. When the orchestra starts to play, it’s like she has a solo. You can see the musicianship. All nervousness gone. Head bobbing and darting, fingers flying, like a true flautist. No pretention. Just perfection. Then her actual solo. The flute shining out, beautiful, clear. Wonderful phrasing, beautiful passion. Then she’s frowning slightly – was that a wrong note? Just keep on, keep on, no one will notice. And she does, she keeps going, right to the end.
But what makes me proudest, happiest, is, when her solo is over, she has this magnificent pinky-red flush over the whole of her face, and she gives this quick smile of sheer joy at her accomplishment, a brief look into the audience, before she bows her head and gets back to playing with the rest of the orchestra. Oh, my beautiful bold-shy Cara. How I adore you!
The memory is spent.
I’m just here again.
Hoping, praying, that my daughter is safe.
The headmistress of Cara’s school is occupied with a small handful of girls she has brought together in her study. They’re sitting on chairs in a semicircle surrounding her desk, sipping the tea that she’s given them. Patterned china cups usually reserved for the governors are balanced precariously on saucers. The girls are too busy to worry if they are spilling their tea. Their attention is focused on the man next to the headmistress. He’s a rarity in a school that only has two male teachers. And neither of them have beards. Or wear leather jackets and open-necked shirts. It’s clean-shaven and smart suits or the door for Mrs Cavendish’s staff.
‘Who do you think he is?’ whispers one girl, skinny, ginger, to her companion, slightly rounder, brunette.
Her companion shrugs. ‘New teacher? A friend for Mr Adams and Mr Wilson?’
The skinny ginger girl shakes her head. ‘I don’t think so. I think it’s about Cara.’
‘Everything’s about Cara,’ whispers back the brunette, rolling her eyes.
And it is true. The police cordons. The letters home to parents. The visit from a special psychiatrist. The thoughts, the prayers they have been asked to give her and her family in her conspicuous absence. The anxiety they have shared.
The headmistress clears her throat.
‘Girls, thank you for coming,’ she says, as though there is a choice to disobey the headmistress’s edict. ‘As you will have guessed, this is about Cara.’
The brunette shoots a ‘see what I mean?’ glance at her ginger friend.
‘I’ve asked you bunch here in particular because of your friendship with Cara. I know you must be very upset right now. You’re doing really well. I’m proud of you.’
There’s a sniff from a blonde girl at the outer reaches of the semicircle. The headmistress advances to her and puts a hand on her shoulder.
‘I don’t want to upset you by going through the details again. We’ve all heard what the police had to say, and of course it’s been all over the news. But we’ve been asked to help a little more.’
The headmistress resumes her seat at the head of the semicircle.
‘I’d like to introduce you to Mr Belvoir, a private investigator,’ she tells the girls. ‘He wants—well, Mr Belvoir, why don’t you explain?’
‘Thank you,’ the man says. He stands up. Then, perhaps realising he towers over the girls, he sits down again.
‘Sometimes, when the police are looking at these things, their approach can be … limited. Now, I’m not doing them down, it’s a bit delicate, but … well, I explained to your headmistress that I’ve got a private instruction to look at what’s happened. Cara’s family, you know. Got to ask my own questions. Make discreet enquiries, with close friends. I hope that’s OK with you?’
Five heads bob in the room. The ginger head doesn’t bob.
‘Alice?’ prompts the headmistress.
After a moment, Alice, the ginger girl, nods her head.
But she excuses herself almost immediately. He must ask his questions later, she says. She has English homework to do, she says. But, as she runs from the room, ignoring the headmistress’s calls that the homework can wait, it’s not thoughts of poetry composition that are spurring her on. It’s the thought – or maybe the question – about secrets. Namely this: if your friend – your best friend, who’s been your best friend since day one of reception – tells you something and makes you swear in confidence never ever to tell anyone, do you tell a man who is investigating something bad that’s happened to that friend? When that man, after all, isn’t even the police? And if it isn’t even directly relevant? Or is it? Cara told her a secret and then—Oh Cara.
So Alice doesn’t know what she should do. Cara would know what to do. She would just decide and have done with it. Impulsive and bold, that’s Cara. Perhaps that’s the problem. But Cara isn’t here. Another problem. So, for once, Alice has to make up her own mind. The school hasn’t prepared her for this sort of dilemma. Why don’t they teach anything useful once in a while? Everyone knows it’s friendships that count. Not books and sums and facts.
But she’s stuck with those. And she’ll just have to use them. And so she runs to the library, where she hides behind her textbooks. And until she has decided, she will avoid this Mr Belvoir. Even though she knows what she knows.
Biting my nails. Putting my head in my hands. Walking about. Sitting down.
I can’t do this.
I jump to my feet.
I shout. ‘Let me out! Let me out! Let me out!’
Why am I here? Why aren’t you at least in the room with me? He can’t be scared of a woman and a girl uniting, can he? Not with all that muscle.
Do I just fuck him and hope for the best? That he’ll let me out without killing me, and we can all be a happy family again?
Or am I meant to just stay in here and finish that piece of fish? Is he fattening me up? Does he have a fat fetish? Did he think that the proprietor of a cupcake store and studio would be all doughy? That she wouldn’t be a salad-eating Pilates junky who would have to close the store if she put on a pound? Because the yummy mummies of leafy North London don’t want to associate cupcakes with saturated fats and weight gain, do they? That’s not the lifestyle. No. Perhaps they’re bulimic. I don’t care. That’s not my lookout. It’s important to watch what you eat. Of course. But not for their reasons. So, when I see them running round Alexandra Park, I nod and smile and remind them of the ‘how to do deluxe frosting’ session but I don’t follow them when they go to the bathroom.
Which is a good point. Bathroom.
I bang the door of my room from the inside. I have a question. Or at least, a ruse to bring that bastard in here.
I keep banging until I hear footsteps along the corridor.
‘Yes?’ says the Captor from outside.
‘What if I need to pee?’ I ask.
There’s a silence.
‘Do you?’ he says.
I don’t, but I want to know what happens if I do. If it gives me a way out. Some hope of escape. Or at least seeing if Cara is out there.
‘Really badly,’ I say.
There’s a pause, then a key in the lock. I expect to be handed a bucket when the door opens.
But no. He is empty-handed.
‘Turn round,’ he says.
I do as he asks.
Once I’ve turned, he takes hold of both of my arms from behind, clamps them together with one of his paw-like hands. I feel like my wrists will snap if I struggle.
He twists me round and pulls me out of the room.
We’re in a short corridor. Look about, quickly. Nothing I recognise. It’s as blank and beige as the room. Like it’s been deliberately stripped. Or like he has no life at all, apart from ruining other people’s. We pass one closed door next to mine. My stomach jumps closer to my heart. Cara? Is Cara in there?
Baby in one room, mummy in the other. Let me see her, I need to see her!
He pulls me faster along the corridor. We stop in front of an open door. I see a toilet and bath and a shower enclosure in the corner. White tiling. Clean. Probably forensically bleached before and after each visit.
He pushes me into the room.
And follows me.
What have I done?
‘There we go, then,’ he says, nodding at the toilet. He releases me from the arm hold and nudges me towards the toilet. He stands at the door, arms folded, facing into the room. Like he has no intention of leaving.
‘Are you going to give me some privacy?’ I ask.
He shakes his head. Apologetically?
‘The door doesn’t have a lock,’ he says.
‘You’re going to stand here watching me?’
He doesn’t respond.
‘You could at least turn your back,’ I tell him. Then I could at least try to jump you, I think, even if it is with my trousers round my ankles.
He still doesn’t say anything. Just keeps looking at me.
So. I’ll have to carry on. But I’m not going to let him degrade me. I’m not going to let him see how vulnerable I feel as I pull down my pyjama shorts. I’m not going to let him know how my flesh creeps, how my insides clench and my legs tremble. I keep eye contact as I lower myself to the seat. I expect his gaze to drift downwards, to drink me in while I urinate. But he keeps his gaze level with my eyes. I make a show of squatting up fully to wipe myself. Still his gaze stays at my eyes. At first. And then he allows himself a quick flick down, towards my exposed parts. I pull up my shorts in a hurry.
I move to the sink to wash my hands. I struggle with the taps; my hands are shaking. The Captor helps me out.
‘Careful,’ he says. ‘The water is very hot.’
As he leans in, I catch sight of the two of us in the mirror over the sink. I almost gasp. I’m not who I remember myself to be. My eyes have purple patches under them – tiredness beyond black circles. Or maybe he has punched me? My skin is so pale it is almost translucent. My lips are dry and cracked. My hair, unbrushed, but in a ponytail, sticks up wildly. And if I thought he was twice the size of me, I was wrong. He looks at least four times the size of me. And about four times as human – pink skin (neatly stubbled), hair combed, lips moist.
Steam covers the mirror and the comparison is lost.
I notice my hands are burning and I pull them out from under the tap.
Then I present my wrists meekly to the Captor. He takes hold of them and escorts me back to my room.
When he leaves I’m sick on the floor.
I try not to think what will happen when I need to shower.
When Cara needs to shower. If she’s here.
All I want to do is hide in the bed in a foetal position. But I must be strong, for Cara. I must show him that it’s not enough to leave me locked in here. Like I’ve had my bit of outside and now I’m stuck.
So I take a big breath and unleash the banshee. I cry and I scream and I shout. Maybe we are in the middle of a housing estate. Maybe I’ll alert the neighbours.
The door opens before I even hear the key in the lock.
‘What’s wrong now?’ he asks.
I want to shout back.
What’s wrong? You’ve fucking kidnapped me, that’s what’s wrong. And done something, maybe, I don’t know, to my daughter.
But I carry on with the wordless screaming. He moves towards me, closer and closer and closer, until—ow!