Authors: A. L. Bird
I turn back to the pencil and paper.
‘Dearest Cara,’ I write.
Cara. Beloved. I remember choosing that name, with her father.
People asking whether we’re giving her a name, just now. Of course we need a name. Look at her. She’s beautiful.
I wanted to call her all the names that summed up just how glorious she was to me: Cara Joy Aimee Hope Star Rose. In the end, I was persuaded just to go for Cara Joy. A name cannot sum up that much love anyway. The love that came just holding her in that little bundle, staring into her eyes, feeling her little lips at my breast, one finger wrapped up in her tiny hand. A magical day. I wonder if her father still remembers it. Remembers her. Fourteen years is a long time with no contact.
My stomach rumbles again. Love does not conquer hunger apparently.
I look at the breakfast tray. I could just eat half of everything. That way, if it really is drugged, it won’t hit me with its full strength. I might just be caused to flutter my eyelashes a bit, not invite him into my bed. And I would have the strength to give my letter to Cara the full attention it needs. Plus me starving isn’t going to help. I need the strength for a fight, if it comes.
I put down the paper and move to the tray. Cutlery this time, although plastic. Does he trust me a little bit then? To arm me with two (blunt) pencils and a plastic spoon? Or has he just risk assessed the situation – a happy well-nourished kidnappee is less likely to attack than a soul-starved hungry one?
If so, he’s made a miscalculation. Because if my window sign doesn’t get me and Cara safely out of here, then something else will.
The other side of the door
I make two identical lunches, on two identical trays. I add the ground-up powder. Perhaps I should feel guilty. Perhaps I do. But, in the bigger scheme of things, it’s nothing, is it? And it will get us where we need to be. They don’t always realise it, do they, when they most need your help? That your goal is their goal. That they should eat up and await dessert.
My mobile rings in the next room. Should I answer it? I know who it will be. Him. There used to be lots of calls, from other people, but now I always know who it will be. He’s been phoning every day since … Well, obviously. Since then. I knew he’d read about it. I read about it. Maybe I shouldn’t have. Maybe it’s not healthy. But there’s something about seeing the names of people you love in the papers. And more photos. I devour the photos – add them to the ones round the wall. But he couldn’t be satisfied with that, could he? He has to phone. Demanding an audience. But why should I give him one? If Suze had wanted him, she would have asked for him, wouldn’t she? Says it’s about the girl, of course, not about Suze. And not about the money. That the money is just an extra concern. But I know what they’re like, how these negotiations work. He’ll wheedle his way in on the pretext of the girl, and suddenly it will be about Suze. I’ll lose them both. And the money, which I need for our perfect future life. I can’t let that happen.
Maybe just sit here. Don’t answer the phone. Have a drink. Large glass of wine, maybe? Hah. No. I got rid of all that, didn’t I? Tea then. But just sit here, ignoring him? I can. For now. He doesn’t know where I am, where this place is. I think. I pray. I’ve done my best to hide this sanctuary from him. But maybe he’ll find it. He found me, after all, out in the world, tracked me down. For the time being, his resources have failed him. Maybe someone’s advised him against it, tracking down the postcode. More harm than good, perhaps he’s been told. Doesn’t want to put himself in jeopardy, when it comes down to it.
But he’s bound to track us down eventually, if he’s frustrated. Which would never do.
So I answer.
‘Hello?’ comes a voice at the other end. ‘Is that you?’
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘It’s me.’ Because who else would it be?
‘I’ll come over then, shall I?’ says the man.
‘You know I’m not going to agree to that.’
‘I just want to talk,’ he says.
‘We can talk now,’ I retort.
‘Face to face.’
I don’t say anything. If we were face to face, as he wants, I might not be able to conceal fear within hostility. I’m not sure I’m managing it now.
He continues to push.
‘Where can we meet?’
‘So that I leave the house empty? I don’t think so.’ I know his game.
‘You’re not helping yourself,’ he tells me.
I don’t need any help, from myself or anyone else, so I hang up.
Just imagine he found out where I live – he’d turn up on the doorstep immediately. In darkness, I can leave, if I go out the back entrance. Like this morning. No evidence of anyone staking the place out, at least not from the back. Maybe he hasn’t told anyone what he knows. Maybe the big guns aren’t out to get me. I can reach the woods easily from the back, take a shortcut to where I need to be. Because I have to go there, to that spot. That mound of earth so carefully packed into place. Remind myself why I’m doing it all. What’s gone before. What’s still to come. And keep my resolve. Because I’ve got to do this. I’ve got to stay strong. So I move away from the phone, back to the trays. And perfect the feeding time offering.
It’s all very well lying to your mum, but lying to the headmistress takes extra skills, Alice thinks, as she exits the interrogation room aka the headmistress’s study. With your mum, you know all the levers and buttons to pull and press. All the points to cry. And you know that she loves you. The headmistress doesn’t love you. The headmistress pretends to love you, but really she is that very rude word that Daddy uses sometimes. And she can see into your soul.
So how was Alice supposed to resist? It was Mr Wilson’s fault anyway, not hers. He shouldn’t have read her English homework so suspiciously. Just because a few characters in a composition have a conversation about truth and secrets and best friends, it doesn’t mean that she was talking about her own truth, secrets and best friends. Doesn’t he know what fiction is? OK, so, in this case, it wasn’t totally fiction, but it was so out of order for him to report her to the headmistress.
Wilson. That’s what she and Cara would have gigglingly called him if she’d been there, his voice was so high-pitched. But she wasn’t there, was she? That was the whole problem.
So Mrs Cavendish had called Alice into her study and talked in very airy-fairy terms about truth and how helping a friend isn’t always by doing what they ask you to do. Sometimes you have to tell people everything you know about a friend in order to be the best friend you can. Mrs Cavendish’s eyes did not stray from Alice’s for one syllable. By the end of the lecture, Alice was sure that Mrs Cavendish could hear her brain, and that there was little point in keeping the secret because Mrs Cavendish must already know it.
‘OK,’ said Alice, nodding bravely. ‘I’ll tell.’
Then in came Mr Belvoir with his questions. What had she seen? What had she heard, smelled, believed? What had Cara told her? Would she swear on that in court? Did she know where the man could be found?
All these questions, she’d understood. They reminded her of Monsieur Poirot and Mr Holmes, whose stories she’d listened to on Audible.com with her parents in the evening when homework was over. Non-police male detectives asked odd, detailed questions and achieved miraculous results, often changing the world with the results – reappearing the missing, making dead people live. But then there were questions that she didn’t understand at all, even in the Poirot/ Holmes world. Questions that left her a little uneasy. Questions about Cara’s mum. About Cara’s mum’s husband. Personal, private questions, about habits, ways of living, that left her feeling dirty. And perhaps Mrs Cavendish felt dirty too. Because, after a while, she asked Mr Belvoir if he was quite done, as she felt sure Alice must have classes to attend.
And so Alice left. Now, on the way to History, which was hopefully all about Francis Drake and the Armada, and not about best friends and cars and peculiar gentlemen, Alice thinks she might have made the wrong decision. Perhaps she shouldn’t have told. Although she didn’t quite tell, did she? Because she didn’t have the address. Of where to find the man Mr Belvoir seemed to be so keen to find. She just had the mental picture. From when Cara had taken her there. Because that was Cara. She shared everything. So Mr Belvoir can’t really use the information, because he doesn’t have Alice’s mental map. Although she thinks she described it pretty well.
This isn’t all Alice is thinking though. She also thinks something else. She thinks that on a second meeting this man, this Mr Belvoir, is very like the secret man that Cara had described to her. The man Cara used to meet. And who she’d gone to meet that day.
So, so wonderful to be communicating with you. Not in ideal conditions. I know. And I’m sorry. I am so, so sorry. But such a relief, such a comfort, to know you are through there.
Yes, I am hoping Dad will come and rescue us. I’m hoping that even now there is a police sniper outside with the Captor in his sights.
But, in case not, we need a plan B. And I’ve got one. I don’t know about your room, but in mine there’s a small window. Don’t get your hopes up – I didn’t mean we can climb out of it. It’s high, locked, small and unsmashable. BUT there’s a girl who uses the grass outside to skip on. So it is possible that I might be seen. And so I’ve made a sign, telling the world that we’re in here. It’s not much, but it’s a start.
I put the pencil down. It’s so not much that it feels almost futile. I’m counting on a small girl (a) maintaining skipping as a hobby, and not discovering skating or TV or even books (b) keeping up the discipline to practise regularly (c) practising in the same spot (d) looking at her surroundings (e) caring about them (f) seeing the sign (g) distinguishing it enough from her own play world to think it worth telling her parents about it (h) not seeing a small pony or an ice-cream truck on the way home, which makes her forget about the sign entirely and (i) her parents believing and caring about what she said.
So yes. A lot to rely on. Or not. And a lot to ask Cara to put her faith in. So we probably need a plan C as well, at least. I force myself to continue writing.
How about you? Do you have any windows? Could you do a sign too? Or perhaps there is a chance of getting through your windows. If you have them. Tell me. And tell me if you have any other ideas too.
Please let her have ideas. Please let her be able to escape whether she can take me with her or not. But please let her not forget me when she leaves. I won’t be able to manage this without her.
I think he goes out occasionally, the Captor. So we can make use of that, maybe? I don’t know how?
I want to go over again how you got here. Anything we know about the Captor could be useful. You said you remember a car. Try getting your brain back to that place. The model of car even. Who was driving? Was it him?
It means nothing, asking these questions. Why play detective? How will it possibly get us out of here? But at the same time, it means everything. If we have knowledge, we have the tiniest bit of power. Power to analyse our adversary. Manipulate him maybe. Or at least we shake off that horrible ignorance of such a fundamental part of our lives.
But will I damage her? Cause her to revisit something her brain is saying should be firmly cordoned off? She can only be what she is, remember what she can. The pencil doesn’t have an eraser though. I would have to start again, which would waste precious paper, or I would have to cross out in thick strokes what I’d written, which would make me look indecisive. And Cara doesn’t need an indecisive parent right now. She needs someone strong and positive.
Like Paul. We both need Paul. I wonder what he is doing now. Thinking of me, for sure. And of Cara. How he can get us back. I wonder where he is. Outside, in a stake-out? Or on our sofa at home, wrapped under one of the grey fake-cashmere throws, exhausted and emotionally drained by his search, by his anger, by his staved-off grief, catching a compulsive hour of sleep? I shake my head. That would not be like Paul. Paul is strong, emotionally and physically. Strong, proactive and capable. Look at how he helped me bring up Cara. Always there in a crisis – not that there’ve been many – to keep us safe. Even though she’s someone else’s daughter.
Anyway, focus. Must finish the letter. Otherwise Cara might think she has been forsaken. That I don’t have a plan. That she should escape by herself – oh joy – and leave me still trapped – oh horror. I need to say something nice, something that will make her smile.
Remember when we went shopping that time, about a year ago, and for a joke we were trying on matching mother–daughter dresses? When we came out of the changing room to parade and after we’d twirled round in the mirror out front, you came face to face with that guy – Benny wasn’t it? You thought you wanted to hide behind the mirror – I was only too aware how muttony I must look to him compared with your dazzling youth! But we managed to escape back into the changing room. Even if your escape was short-lived and you ended up in a McDonald’s having a milkshake with him. But that ended well, you see, and we managed it together. We’ll manage this together too. You’ll see.
I sign off the letter with love and kisses, a nostalgic smile on my face. Tears in my eyes but not on my face. Because they’re happy tears. Tears of love for my daughter. Who I will see again soon. Please God. Please Paul.
I sit and wait for a response. I wait and I wait and I wait.
Is there something wrong with my letter? Have I missed the mark? Is my treasured memory of our shopping trip an irrelevance for her? Have I over-glossed it? Was I the one who pulled her into the shop, picked out the dresses and dragged her into the changing room? She doesn’t even like high street stores, always customises her own clothes. When she went for that milkshake with that boy, was she just desperate to get away from me, and spent the whole time bitching about how embarrassing I am?
Is she even here, still, the daughter that I know? Is she safe? We haven’t communicated since last night. A lot can happen, overnight, in the dark.