Authors: A. L. Bird
Downstairs, her mum is sitting on the sofa holding a piece of paper.
‘What’s all this about you helping a detective?’ Alice’s mum asks her.
Alice stands next to her mother and peers at the piece of paper.
Oh. Stupid school. Of course they’ve sent a letter about Mr Belvoir. They send letters about everything. And if they don’t send them, they hand them out, and Alice is supposed to give them to her mum. All such boring letters. And so much to remember. Cara always said she never told her mum about the boring stuff. But then, Cara never told her mum about the interesting stuff either. That, she kept for Alice. That was the blessing and curse of having a best friend.
Alice stands back from the piece of paper again. ‘Oh, that.’ She feigns nonchalance. She puts her hands on the arm of the sofa and does little stretches of her legs to either side. ‘Just some man trying to find stuff out about Cara. No big deal.’ Alice hopes her mum can’t hear her heart beating. Or even see it beating. Great big red bangs out of her chest – boom, boom, boom.
Her mum puts the letter down and regards Alice.
‘How can you say that, Alice? Don’t be so fickle. If it’s about Cara, it’s important. You must tell him anything you know. Quite what he thinks he’s going to add, I’m not sure. But you must help, do you hear me?’
Alice stares at the floor and nods.
‘Otherwise I don’t know how you can call yourself Cara’s best friend.’
Alice keeps nodding. A single tear falls down her cheek. Her mum rises from the sofa.
‘Oh, come here, love. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you cry.’ Alice finds herself enveloped in a big perfumey hug. ‘I know it’s difficult for you. You’re being so brave.’
Alice sniffs. ‘I just keep thinking about how much I want to see her. Why did it have to be Cara? It’s so unfair.’
‘I know, love. I know.’
‘And I just keep thinking about the last time I saw her, when—’
She stops herself. She’s said too much. The secret risks slipping out without her choosing it to.
‘When what, love?’
Alice shakes her head. ‘When I try to go to sleep. I just keep thinking about that last time, when I go to sleep.’
Alice feels her hair being ruffled by her mum. Usually, she’d say she’s too old for that, but today it feels nice.
‘It’s natural to feel like that, love. But if you talk to this man, who knows – you might make it all a lot better. You know I can’t tell you that you’ll see Cara again but, well, you never know, it might help.’
Alice nods. She knows all this. She is practically a grown-up – her birthday is coming up soon and then she’ll be even older.
‘Can I go and do my homework now, Mum?’
Another head ruffle.
‘Of course you can, love.’
Alice leaves the room and strides up the stairs, almost managing two at a time. That was a close-run thing. It was bad having to lie to Mum. Because it wasn’t so much thinking about the last time she saw Cara that was bothering her. It was the fact that she knew where Cara was going.
Maybe there’s a ransom. Maybe that’s what this is about. Maybe the Captor wants money for our lives. Or our body parts. Maybe I’ll lose lock by lock of my hair, or finger by finger of my hand. He can take every limb from my body before he touches one strand of Cara’s hair.
Will Paul pay? We’ve had the debate while watching late-night hostage thrillers. Me and Paul curled up on the sofa, Cara sitting on the floor between us (if we’ve quietly ‘forgotten’ it’s a school night for the pleasure of her company). Is it ever right to pay a ransom? To give money to criminals? We’ve agreed that whether it’s right depends on the circumstances. Do they have a wife and family? Because it’s always the men, in these films, that go adventuring. All I did was stay safe at home. I even based the studio there. I hardly ever went out, not really, apart from to ferry Cara around – orchestra practice, concerts, parties, design classes, fashion shows … We deserve the safety we thought that gave us. I want to shout to him: ‘Paul, it’s always right to pay the ransom, if it’s you and me and Cara. However much money you have to raise’
How much money could he raise, and how soon? Sell the house. The loft must have added a bit. Mine and Paul’s domain. Had there been a sibling it could have been her room. But no. So anyway, with the loft, with our Crouch End postcode – no Tube but lots of North London leafiness – we could be looking at £800,000? But the Captor might think it’s more. This might be a rented place I’m held in. He might not be a Londoner. He might believe the press, think we all live in garages worth two million pounds. And he might think that Paul being an ‘IT consultant’ means something, something lucrative. A desk in a corner office in a City building, rather than a desk in the corner of our living room and, whenever his mobile rings, a jump in the car to some industrial estate company that’s too broke to have a permanent IT team. The Captor might also think that because cupcakes are so popular, my company has been raking it in. That I’m doing corporate events or something. That millionaires come to my training sessions, not clever mums bored out of their wits by their decision to stay at home. He won’t realise it’s part inheritance, part being remortaged up to the hilt that keeps us there.
So, all in all, I bet the Captor is asking for a million.
A lot of money.
It’s nice he thinks we’re worth it, Cara and me.
But why take both of us? Cara is the more valuable one and with both me and Paul outside we could raise much more money.
A thought strikes me.
Would Paul be willing to pay for Cara? Considering?
But yes. He must be. He can’t negotiate over her. He can’t say ‘Nah, one million pounds? You don’t know who you’re talking to, mate. I’ll just take the one. Five hundred thousand plus another twenty for your trouble.’ Because he must know that if he gets me back, but not her, he won’t have me at all.
Why isn’t it light yet? Where is the sun when you need it?
The police might tell him not to pay of course. Friends and remaining family might benevolently but wrongly advise that I would not want all our hard-won money given up without a fight. But what’s money? I would live in a caravan, overlooking the ocean. All I need is family and freedom.
So pay it, Paul. Release what equity we have. Scrabble round beneath proverbial sofas to find the funds. Call in old favours. Phone your sister. Crowd-fund. Or find us, and shoot the place out (not us) with the police.
I get out of bed, clasping the duvet to me, and go over to the wall. Cara’s wall. I nestle down there, close to her. The separation of the wall is not enough to break the bond. I tap-tap my goodnight kiss onto the wall. The tap-tap comes back. I can breathe again.
My baby so close I can almost hear her breathe. Almost. Not quite.
I awake to beams of sunlight coming through the window.
I jump up.
There’s the chair, waiting for me. I clamber onto it, peering over the ledge. It looks so beautiful outside, so crisp. Unlike the air in here, already turning stale. Fully oxygenated out there – look at all those trees!
And not many people to clutter the atmosphere up with exhaled carbon dioxide, unfortunately.
I can see just one person. A girl. About eight. Scrawny, her brown hair in uneven bunches. Takes me back to when Cara was little. Except Cara’s hair was always blonde. And her bunches were never uneven. The girl is skipping. Quite well. She must be concentrating hard, no risk of tripping on the rope. No risk of her seeing me, the Captor must think. I wave. I wave again. I try banging on the glass. Nothing. Just one-two-three-jump-two-three and the bunches bobbing up and down.
See me! I will her. See me, understand me, and run back to your parents’ house – whether that’s the other side of those trees or just round the corner, slightly outside my view – and bring them, so they can rescue Cara and me.
But she moves on to a more complicated skip, turning herself and the rope round in a circle while she jumps. I never taught Cara that one. Would never want Cara to have her back to her mother. Like the girl now has her back to me.
I come down from the window and slump in the chair. The window is not a solution yet. But I can make it one. If I just had a pen and paper, I could write up a big sign. ‘Mother and daughter kidnapped – rescue us!’ Or just ‘Trapped – help!’ Although whoever saw that would probably just think it was the wry joke of an angsty teenager, smile slightly and walk on by. If anyone were to see it. If the girl is observant when the rope is down. If anyone comes through the trees.
And if I had a pen and paper, I could do something else too – I could write to Cara! I go back over to the grate and examine it. Yes, a letter would go through there, easily! I want to call through my plan, but I daren’t, after last night. He will separate us, I know he will, or punish us. Punish her. Which I can’t allow. And, anyway, I can call out to him, tell him I want paper. Cara will hear, and she’ll know I have some kind of plan. She’ll be on the lookout for something new, something different, and she’ll see it through the grate.
He told me, didn’t he, that I was to call if I wanted anything? Well, I’ll tell him I want to write a diary. That he’ll be torturing me if he doesn’t let me. That I’ll scream again (although I won’t).
So I bang on the door of my new prison.
‘Hey!’ I shout.
‘You!’ I shout. ‘Come here!’
Still silence. What’s this? Is he sleeping? Has he topped himself? Will Cara and I starve? Has he left us alone?
Is he out collecting the ransom?
Is he just torturing me with denial?
Why doesn’t he understand I must have my paper!
I search the room. I need the paper and pen now, now I have thought of it, this plan. I need to communicate with my Cara. I need to put up a sign to the outside world. I need the pen and paper.
I open the drawers. Nothing. No drawer-liner that I could write on with potpourri. What kind of uncivilised place is this? I open the wardrobe, hoping for those tissue paper covers the dry cleaner puts on coat hangers. No. None. No clothes either. Just a lavender clothes freshener. What does this guy have against natural smells? Am I in some kind of abattoir? Is this the killing room, recently cleansed?
And the walls, of course, are paint, not wallpaper. So I can’t rip them down, write on them with the scent of flowers. No.
Somewhere outside the room there is a sound of slamming.
‘Hello!’ I shout again. ‘Are you there?’
Footsteps now. He is coming. The key in the lock.
He is wearing a coat. So. I was right. He has been out. If I had a watch, some way of telling the time, I could record whether it’s a habitual outing. Whether it gives me time to speak to Cara. Whether we can use it to break the doors down. Or if it’s just a one-off, to collect ransom money. But perhaps he would have come back in something nicer than an anorak if he’d just got one million pounds.
I want to say a bitchy ‘Nice day out?’ but I don’t. Better to pretend I haven’t noticed the coat. In case I need to exploit it later.
Instead, I say, ‘You told me to ask you if I wanted something.’
His eyes become more alive. ‘Well?’
‘I’d like a pen and some paper, please. To write a diary.’
‘A diary?’ His tone is curious.
‘Of my captivity. Not,’ I add, ‘that I expect it to go on for long.’
He nods his head. He seems to approve of my request. I don’t want your approval, I want to scream, I want you to let me and my daughter out.
But. short of that, give me a fucking pen and paper.
‘Anything else?’ he asks. There seems to be hope in his voice, encouragement. Like I’m suddenly going to ask for him, himself.
Something to keep in mind for an escape.
But I’m not ready to go down that route yet.
For now, I just want to communicate with Cara, and the girl outside.
I shake my head. ‘Just the pen and paper.’
The door closes, the lock turns. A few minutes later, he comes back with a notebook and a couple of pencils. The pencils are blunt, I notice. Maybe he thinks I would stab him with a sharp one. Maybe I would. But these will at least do for my first letter to Cara. I wait until he is out of the door again and the lock seals me in. Then I begin to write.
The other side of the door
Well, you have to give them what they want, don’t you? Builds up trust, for when you need it. Means they no longer want to escape. Bit of tit for tat – I give you a pencil, you give me … Well. What I want. But slowly does it. I’m playing the long game here. Not that I won’t take drastic measures if I need to. Haven’t I already been drastic enough?
But can anyone blame me? I look at the photos again, lining the walls. So beautiful. That golden hair. Like mother, like daughter. Suze and Cara. Inseparable. What it would be like to touch it, for real. I sit back in my chair and let my fantasies run wild. I’m at the threshold of Suze’s room. She stands there, hips jutting at a provocative angle, twirling one strand of hair in her finger. Slowly, she starts undoing her blouse (or, OK, that pyjama top I’ve got her in – the best fantasies are based on reality). Then just when the buttons have got tantalisingly low, she stops, leans forward, and grabs my belt. She pulls me towards her. Then she kisses me. It’s a kiss that means I’m yours, I surrender, you can stop trying. It’s a kiss that ends up with me on top of her, on the bed. Loving her, hard. As hard as she’ll let me. Maybe harder.
I take a couple of deep breaths. Come on, cool it down. I know some men in my position would just go now and burst through the door, take what they want, and sod the emotional side. But that’s not enough for me. I want her to want me. I will use what tools I have available. Perhaps Cara will be one of them, when it’s appropriate. The diary is a good sign. It’s like an acceptance that she’s staying here. That’s what I need. Acceptance is what I’m after. A step closer to recognition, forgiveness, to moving on to what should be our lives together.
Oh, that life together. It’s like I can see it in a mirror but someone has steamed it over. Little by little, that steam will evaporate and there we’ll be, clear as day. I’ve just got to keep everything fixed in front of the mirror until that moment. Help that steam on its way. And no, everything will not end up back to front, inverted in its mirrored image. It will be perfect. Well, one imperfection. But I can’t do anything about that. Not now.