Claire Kendal The Book of You Preview

Claire Kendal The Book of You Preview

Monday, 2 February, 7.45 a.m.

It is you. Of course it is you. Always it is you. Someone is catching up to me and I turn and see you. I’d known it would be you, but still I lose my footing on the frozen snow. I stagger up.There are patches of wet on the knees of my stockings. My mittens are soaked through.

Any sensible person would be at home on such an icy morn ing if he had a choice in the matter, but not you. You are out, taking a little stroll. You are reaching to steady me, asking if I’m okay, but I step away, managing not to unbalance myself again.

I know you must have been watching me since I left my house. I can’t stop myself from asking you what you’re doing here, though I know your answer won’t be the true one.

Your eyelids are doing that flickering thing again. It happens when you’re nervous.’I was just walking, Clarissa.’ Never mind that you live in a village five miles away. Your lips blanch. You bite them, as if you guess they’ve lost what little colour they normally have and you’re trying to force blood back into them. ‘You behaved strangely at work on Friday, Clarissa, walking out of that talk. Everyone said so.’

It makes me want to scream, the way you say my name all the time. Yours has become ugly to me. I try to keep it out of my head, as if to do so will somehow keep you out of my life. But still it creeps in. Barges in. Just like you. Again and again.

Second person present.That’s what you are. In every way.

My silence doesn’t deter you. ‘You haven’t answered your phone all weekend. You only replied to one of my texts and it wasn’t friendly. Why are you out on a morning like this, Clarissa?’

The short term is all I can see. I have to get rid of you. I have to stop you trailing me to the station and figuring out where I’m going. Ignoring you won’t get me the outcome I need now; the advice in the leaflets doesn’t work in real life. I doubt anything will work with you.

‘I’m ill.’ This is a lie.’That’s why I left on Friday. I’ve got to be at the doctor’s by eight.’

‘You’re the only woman I’ve ever seen who looks beautiful even when she’s ill.’

I really am beginning to feel sick. ‘I have a fever. I was vomiting all night.’

You lift a hand towards my cheek, as if to check my temper ature, and I flinch away.

‘I’ll come with you.’ Your hand is still in the air, an awkward reminder of your wrong move. ‘You shouldn’t be alone.’ You punctuate this by letting your hand drop heavily to your side.

‘I don’t want to give it to you.’ Despite my words, I don’t think I sound concerned.

‘Let me take care of you, Clarissa. It’s below zero – you shouldn’t be out in this and your hair’s wet – that can’t be good for you.’ You’re taking out your phone. ‘I’m calling us a taxi.’

Again, you’ve cornered me. The black iron railings are behind me so I can’t back away from you any farther; I don’t want to slip and fall through the gap – there’s a three-foot drop to the road below. I step sideways, repositioning myself, but this doesn’t stop you towering over me. You look so huge in your puffy grey jacket.

The hem of your jeans is sopping, from dragging in the snow – you aren’t caring for yourself, either. Your ears and nose are red and raw from the bitter cold. Mine must be too. Your brown hair is lank, though it’s probably freshly washed. Your closed, frowning mouth never relaxes.

Pity for you steals upon me, however much I guard against it and recoil from you. You must be losing sleep, too.To speak meanly, even to you, goes against the kindness my parents taught me. Rudeness won’t make you vanish now, anyway. I know all too well you’ll only follow me, pretending not to hear, and that’s the last thing I want.

You’re punching numbers into your mobile.

‘Don’t. Don’t call.’ Your fingers pause at the sharpness in my voice. I push the point further.’The doctor’s not far from here.’ I make myself more explicit.’I won’t get in a taxi with you.’

You press the red button and pocket your phone. ‘Write down your landline for me, Clarissa. I seem to have lost it.’

We both know I’ve never given it to you. ‘I had it disconnected. I just use my mobile now.’ More lies. I give a silent prayer of thanks that you didn’t somehow find the number and note it down when you were in my flat. I’m amazed you overlooked such a chance. You’re probably kicking yourself for that. But you were busy, then.

I point up the hill. ‘You should try along the top edge for your walk.’ I play on your desire to please me, a callous move, but I’m desperate. ‘It’s one of my favourites, Rafe.’ There’s too long a pause before I manage to get out your name, but I do use it and that’s all you notice; it doesn’t occur to you that I’ve only thrown you this treat in the hope that it will lure you into going away.

‘I’d like that, if it’s special to you, Clarissa. All I want is to make you happy, you know. If you’d just let me.’ You attempt a smile.

‘Goodbye, Rafe.’ I force myself to use your name again, and when your smile becomes deeper and more real I’m amazed and a little guilty that such a crude trick can work.

Hardly daring to believe I’ve got away, I step carefully down the hill, checking periodically that the distance between us is increasing. Each time, you are looking back and raising your hand, so I have to make myself wave half-heartedly in response.

From now on, I’ll take taxis to the station in the mornings and check through the windows to make sure you aren’t following. Next time I’m faced with you, I’ll consider the long term and obey the leaflets. I’ll refuse to speak or I’ll tell you for the zillionth time – in no uncertain terms – to leave me alone. Even my mother would think such circumstances warranted bad manners. Not that I would dream of worrying my parents by telling them about you.

My teeth chatter as I stand on the platform, anxious that you will materialise while I listen to the apologetic announcements about cancellations and delays due to the extreme weather.

I lean against the wall and scribble as quickly as I can in my new notebook. It’s my first entry.The notebook is tiny, so that I can always carry it with me, as the leaflets advise. The pages are lined and wire-bound. The cover is matt black. The people on the helplines say I need a complete record.They say I mustn’t miss out anything and I should try to write as soon as I can after each incident, no matter how small. But your incidents are never small.

I am shivering so violently I regret not drying my hair. I rushed out the door to avoid being late after over-sleeping because of bad dreams – about you, always about you. There would have been time to dry it, though I couldn’t have predicted that as perfectly as I can predict you. My hair feels like a wand of ice, channelling the cold through my skin and into my veins, a spell freezing flesh into stone.

There had to be a world where he wasn’t, and she thought perhaps she’d entered it at last. Portraits of stern-looking judges hung on the wall opposite the marble staircase. Climbing to the first floor, Clarissa felt as if they were watching her; but she couldn’t give up the hope that this could be a place where she wasn’t spied on, a place she could keep him from.

She let the jury officer inspect her passport and pink summons, then sat down on one of the padded blue chairs. The room was wonderfully warm. Her toes thawed. Her hair dried. It seemed a magic place, away from his eyes. Only jurors were allowed in, and they needed to tap a code into a keypad before they could even get through the door.

She jumped at the crackle of the jury officer’s microphone. ‘Will the following people please come and stand by the desk, for a two-week trial that is about to begin in Court 6?’

Two whole weeks in the safe haven of a courtroom. Two whole weeks away from work and away from him. Her heart was beating fast in the hope that she’d hear her name. She sank back in her chair in disappointment when it never came.

At lunchtime, she made herself leave the sanctuary of the court building; she knew she needed fresh air. She hesitated just outside the revolving doors, scanning up and down the street. She worried he might be hiding between two custodial services vans, parked a few metres up the road. She plunged past them quickly, holding her breath. When she saw that he wasn’t crouched by one of the bumpers she exhaled in relief.

She wandered through the outside market, watching local workers buying quick wholefood or ethnic lunches from stalls, glimpsing barristers sitting around a large table in an expensive Italian restaurant.

Checking over her shoulder, she disappeared into the familiar comfort of a sewing shop. As always, she was drawn to the children’s fabrics. Mermaids floated absently as little girls swam after them, under enchantment; she imagined a toddler’s peasant dress, its tiers alternating between plum and fuchsia seas.

Henry would have hated it. Twee, he would have said. Sentimental, he would have said. Too pretty, he would have said. Unoriginal, he would have said. Plain colours are best, he would have said. Perhaps it was just as well that the failure to make a baby had driven them apart.

Henry would have hated it. Twee, he would have said. Sentimental, he would have said. Too pretty, he would have said. Unoriginal, he would have said. Plain colours are best, he would have said. Perhaps it was just as well that the failure to make a baby had driven them apart.

She aimed herself firmly at the thread display, then searched her bag for the scrap of mossy green quilter’s cotton traced with crimson blossoms. She found it, chose the best match for the background colour, and headed for the till with two spools.

‘What will you be sewing?’ the girl asked.

Clarissa saw eyelids vibrating beneath pale brown lashes, a gaze she couldn’t escape, lips dripping cuckoo spit: flashes of Rafe’s one night in her bed.

She would exorcise him. ‘New bedding,’ she said.

It would feel lovely against her skin. And she was surprised by a funny spark of curiosity about who might someday sleep beneath the tiny crimson blossoms with her.

Monday, 2 February, 2.15 p.m.

I am trying to piece it all together. I am trying to fill in the gaps. I am trying to recollect the things you did before this morning, when I started to record it all. I don’t want to miss out a single bit of evidence – I can’t afford to. But doing this forces me to relive it. Doing this keeps you with me, which is exactly where I don’t want you to be.

Monday, 10 November, 8.00 p.m.

(Three Months Ago)

It is the night that I make the very big mistake of sleeping with you and I am in the bookshop. The shop is open just to your invited guests, to celebrate the publication of your new book about fairy tales. Only a couple of your English Department colleagues have turned up. Encouraged by my presence, they are whispering venomously about Henry. I am pretending not to notice by picking up books and acting as though I’m intensely interested in them, though the words are jumbled and about as comprehensible to me as Greek.

I’m still not sure why I’ve come, or what possesses me to mix the red and white wines you press upon me. Probably loneliness and loss: Henry has just moved from Bath to take up the professorship at Cambridge he’s been plotting all his life to get. Compassion also plays a part; you sent me three invitations.

I can’t leave until after your reading. At last, I am seated in the back row, listening to you recite from your chapter on ‘The Test of the True Bride’. You finish and your handful of colleagues asks polite questions. I am not an academic; I say nothing. As soon as the smattering of applause dies out I weave my way towards the door to escape, only to be stopped by your plea that I not leave yet. I sneak up to the art section and sit on the grubby beige carpet with a book about Munch. I turn to The Kiss, the early version where the lovers are naked.

I visibly startle when your shadow falls on the page and your voice cuts through the first floor’s deserted silence. ‘If I hadn’t found you you might have been locked in all night.’ You are standing above me, peering down from what seems to be a very great height and smiling.

I quickly close the Munch and set it aside.’I’m not sure that would have been such a terrible fate, sleeping with the artists.’ I wave your heavy book like an actress overdoing her use of props. It makes my wrist ache.’This is wonderful. It was so kind of you to give me a copy. And you read brilliantly. I loved the passage you chose.’

‘I loved the painting you chose, Clarissa.’ You set down the overstuffed briefcase you’re carrying in one hand and the two glasses of wine you’re balancing in the other.

I laugh.’Have you got a body in that briefcase?’

Your eyes flick to the briefcase’s lockable catch, as if to check it’s properly closed, and it occurs to me that you have secrets you don’t want exposed. But you laugh too.’Just books and papers.’ You stretch out an arm. ‘Come out of hiding. Let me walk you home. It’s a dark night for you to be out on your own.’

I reach up, letting you help me to my feet. You don’t release my hand. Gently, I pull it away. ‘I’ll be fine. Don’t you have a dinner to go to, Professor?’

‘I’m not a professor.’ There is a quiver in your eyelid. It vibrates several times, quickly, in succession, as if a tiny insect is hiding inside.’Henry got it, the year I applied. Not much chance against a prize-winning poet. Being Head of Department didn’t hurt him, either.’

Henry had more than deserved the professorship, but of course I don’t say this. What I say is, ‘I’m sorry.’ After a few embarrassing seconds of silence, I say,’I need to get home.’ You look so crushed I want to comfort you.’It’s a really interesting book, Rafe.’ I try to soften my impending exit. ‘You should be proud.’

You retrieve the wine and offer me a glass.’A toast, Clarissa. Before you go.’

‘To your beautiful book.’ I clink my white to your red and take a sip. You look so pleased by this small thing; it touches and saddens me. I will replay this moment too many times over the next few months, much as I would like to shut it out.

‘Drink up.’ You gulp down your own, as if to demonstrate.

And I follow your example, though it tastes like salty sweet medicine. But I don’t want to dim your already lacklustre celebration.

‘Let me walk with you, Clarissa. I’d rather walk with you than go to some stuffy dinner.’

A minute later we are out in the chill late-autumn air. Evenin my wine-fuelled light-headedness I hesitate before what I say next. ‘Do you ever think about Bluebeard’s first wife? She isn’t specifically mentioned, but she must be one of the dead women hanging in the forbidden chamber.’

You smile tolerantly, as if I am one of your students. You are dressed like a preppy American professor – not your usual look. Tweedy blazer, soft brown corduroy trousers, a finely striped blue-and-white shirt, a sleeveless navy sweater. ‘Explain.’ You shoot out the word peremptorily, the way you must do it in English Literature seminars.

‘Well, if there was a secret room right at the beginning, and he commanded the very first Mrs Bluebeard not to enter it, there wouldn’t have been any murdered wives in there yet. There wouldn’t have been the stream of blood for her to drop the key into, and no stain on it to give her away. So what reason did he think he had for killing the first time? That’s always puzzled me.’

‘Maybe he didn’t invent the room until wife number two. Maybe wife number one did something even more unforgivable than going into the room. The worst form of disobedience: maybe she was unfaithful, like the first wife in the Arabian Nights, and that’s why he killed her. Then he needed to test each of the others, after, to see if she was worthy. Except not a single one was.’ You say all of this lightly, jokingly.

I should have seen, then, that you don’t joke. You are never light. If I hadn’t accepted the third glass of wine I might have seen that and averted everything that followed.

‘You sound like you think she deserved it.’

‘Of course I don’t.’ You speak too quickly, too insistently, a sign that you’re lying.’Of course I don’t think that.’

‘But you used the word disobedience.’ Am I only imagining that I’m beginning to wobble? ‘That’s a horrifying word. And it was never a fair promise. You can’t ask somebody never to enter a room that’s part of her own house.’

‘Men need secret places, Clarissa.’

‘Do they?’ We’ve reached Bath Abbey. The building’s west front is illuminated, but I can’t seem to focus on my favourite fallen angels, sculpted upside down on Jacob’s Ladder. The vertigo I’m beginning to feel must be like theirs, with the world up-ended.

You take my arm.’Clarissa?’ You wave a hand in front of my eyes, smiling.’Wake up, sleepyhead.’

That helps me to remember the point I’m trying to make, though I have to concentrate extra hard to form sentences. ‘There must have been some truly dreadful secrets in that room. It was a place for his fantasies, where he made them real.’

We’re passing the Roman Baths. I imagine the statues of the emperors and governors and military leaders frowning down at me from their high terrace, willing me to drown in the great green pool below them. My mouth tastes of sulphur, like the spa water from the Pump Room’s fountain.

‘You’re better on “Blue Beard” than any critic, Clarissa. You should be the professor. You should have finished that PhD.’

I shake my head to deny this. Even after my head stops moving, the world continues to waver from side to side. I hardly ever tell anyone about the abandoned PhD. I wonder vaguely how you know, but halt abruptly, distracted by a ring in a shop window. It is a twist of platinum twinkling with dia- monds. It is the ring I dreamed Henry would one day surprise me with, but he never did. Moving lights glitter and flash inside the gems like bright sun on blue sea.White and gold fairy bulbs rim the window, dazzling me.

You pull me away from the glass and I blink as if you’ve woken me. By the time we’ve passed the closed shops in their deep gold Georgian buildings, my steps are no longer straight. Your arm is around my waist, aiming me in the right direction.

I hardly remember going through the subway, but already we are climbing the steep hill and I am breathless. You are holding me close, pushing or pulling me, half-carrying me. Flashes from the diamonds and fairy lights come back, tiny dots before my eyes. How is it that we are already at the door of the old house whose upper floor is mine?

I sway gently, like a funny rag doll. Blood rushes into my head. You help me find my keys, help me up the stairs to the second floor, help me to put two more keys into the locks of my own front door. I stand there, dizzily, not knowing what to do next.

‘Aren’t you going to invite me in for a coffee?’

It can’t fail to work, your manipulative little call to my politeness. I think of idiot-eyed Snow White opening the door to the wicked queen and practically grabbing the poisoned apple out of her hands. I think of Jonathan Harker crossing Dracula’s threshold freely and of his own will. I think again of Bluebeard and his bloody chamber. Did he carry each new bride over the threshold and into his castle after she’d leapt happily into his arms? After that came the room of torture she never imagined.

I try to smile but my face seems not to move as it should. ‘Of course. Of course I am. You must come in for a coffee and warm up while I call you a taxi. It was so sweet of you to walk me home on your special night.’ I’m jabbering. I know I’m jabbering.

I stand in front of the sink, letting water run into the kettle. ‘I’m sorry.’ My words sound smudgy, as if spoken in a language I barely know.’My head is feeling funny.’

It is such an effort to stand up. I feel like a spinning top. Or is it the room that is revolving? My body seems to be made of liquid. I float down, my legs folding with such pleasing neatness, until I find myself sitting on the slate tiles of my galley kitchen. The kettle is still in my hands, sloshing water from its spout

It is such an effort to stand up. I feel like a spinning top. Or is it the room that is revolving? My body seems to be made of liquid. I float down, my legs folding with such pleasing neatness, until I find myself sitting on the slate tiles of my galley kitchen. The kettle is still in my hands, sloshing water from its spout. ‘I’m very thirsty.’ Though the water is splashing onto my dress, I can’t imagine how to get any of it into my mouth.

You find a glass and fill it. You kneel beside me, feeding the water to me as if I’m a child drinking from a sippy cup. You wipe a drop from my chin with your index finger and then put it to your lips. My own hands still clutch the kettle.

You rise again to set the glass down and turn off the tap. You lean over to take the kettle from me.’It hurts me to think you don’t trust me.’ I can feel your breath in my hair as you speak.

You pull me to my feet, supporting my weight. My legs are barely working as you move me towards the bedroom. You sit me at the edge of the bed and crouch in front of me, leaning me into you to stop me from falling over. I can’t keep my back straight. I am weeping.

‘Don’t,’ you whisper, smoothing my hair, murmuring that it is so soft, kissing away the tears streaming down my face. ‘Let me put you to bed. I know just what to do with you.’

‘Henry …’ I try to say. Speaking seems too difficult, as if I have forgotten how.

‘Don’t think about him.’ You sound angry. You look deeply into my eyes, so that I must close my own.’The Munch painting, I know you were thinking of us, imagining our being together. We both were.’

I am completely floppy. I feel as though I am made of waves. I am slipping backwards. All I want is to lie down. There is a rushing in my head, like the sea. There is a pounding in my ears like a drum beat, my own heart, growing louder.

Your hands are on my waist, on my stomach, on my hips, on the small of my back, moving over me as you unfasten my wrap dress.

I only ever meant for Henry to touch this dress. I made it for the birthday dinner I had with him seven months ago. Even though we both knew it was all but over, he didn’t want me to turn thirty-eight alone. Our last night together. A goodbye dinner, with goodbye sex.This dress was never meant for you.

I am trying to push you away but I might as well be a child. You are pulling the dress the rest of the way open and sliding it off my shoulders. And then the room tips, and everything that follows is shadowy. Broken images from a nightmare I don’t want to remember.

She was so immersed in writing that the rasp of the jury officer’s microphone startled the pen from her fingers, making it shoot across the quiet area where she was sitting. ‘Will the following people please come and stand by the desk for the trial that is about to begin in Court 12?’ Her name was the first to be called, giving her an electric shock. She shoved the notebook into her bag as if it were a piece of incriminating evidence she didn’t want to be seen with.

Two minutes later she was hurrying after the usher with the others. A heavy door sprang open and they were in the hidden depths of the building, winding their way up several flights of draughty concrete stairs, padding across the linoleum of a small, overly bright waiting room, the stumbling through another door. She blinked several times as she realised that they were in the courtroom. Her name was called again and she filed into the back row.

Henry would have refused the Bible but Clarissa took it from the usher without wavering. She meant every word of the oath, though her voice was faint.

Sitting next to her was a prettily plump, dark-haired woman whose necklace spelled her name in letters of white gold: Annie. As if through a haze, Clarissa glanced farther to the right, where five defendants sat only a few feet away, flanked by police guards. Annie was studying the men with undisguised interest, as if daring them to notice.

The judge addressed the jurors. ‘This trial will last for seven weeks.’

Seven weeks. She’d never dreamed she’d be that lucky.

‘If there are compelling reasons as to why you cannot serve on this jury, please pass a note to the usher before leaving. Tomorrow the Crown will make his opening remarks.’

She groped for her bag, tugged down her skirt as she stood to make sure it hadn’t ridden up, and lurched after the others. As she passed the dock she saw that if she and the nearest defendant were each to stretch out an arm, they would almost be able to touch.

She squirmed off her mittens as she boarded the train, found the last empty seat, and took out her mobile. A sick wave went through her. Four texts. One from her mother. The others from Rafe. It was actually restrained for him, stopping at three.

She didn’t smile, as she normally would, when she read her mother’s – Coffee is not a breakfast food. Nothing could inure her to his little series, however harmless they might seem to somebody else.

Hope you’re sleeping. Hope you’re dreaming of me.

Keep getting your voicemail. Will phone later.

You’ll need juice and fruit and things with vitamins. I’ll come to your flat.

She wanted a friend to turn to, to show the texts to; she wanted a friend to tell her what to do. She used to have friends before Henry and fertility treatments took over her life; before she let a married man leave his wife for her; before other women stopped trusting her; before she found it too hard to look at their disapproving faces and see her own bewilderment at what she’d done mir- rored in them.

Henry and her friends wouldn’t mix, but she still should have found a way to obey that cardinal rule, the one that says you should never let a relationship interfere with your friends. Now Henry was gone, and Clarissa was too abashed to try to get her friends back. She wasn’t even sure she deserved them, or that they’d ever forgive her.

She thought of her oldest friend, Rowena, whom she hadn’t seen for two years. Their mothers had met in the maternity ward, cradling their new babies as they gazed at the sea from the hospital’s top-floor windows. There’d been play dates in infancy and toddlerhood. They’d gone all through school together. But Rowena was another friend who didn’t get along with Henry. She and Rowena had grown so different, though; per- haps Henry only hastened a breach that would have happened anyway.

She tried to shake away the self-pity. She would need to try harder to make new friends. And if she didn’t have friends to consult at the moment, at least she had the help- lines; their information leaflets had arrived in the post on Saturday, just one day after she first spoke to them.

She texted him back. Don’t come. Don’t want to see you. Very contagious.

As soon as she pressed send she regretted it, remem- bering the advice every one of those leaflets repeated in countless ways. Wherever possible, do not talk to him. Do not engage in any kind of conversation. She knew her lost friends would have said that too.

She wished she hadn’t given him her mobile number. Nothing else had worked to get rid of him the morning after his book launch party. Not being audibly sick in the bathroom. Not swallowing three painkillers right before his eyes for her throbbing head. Not even her visible trembling made him see she was so unwell he needed to go. The number had been a last-resort payoff to get him to leave – if only she’d had the foresight to make up a fake number instead of using her real one to fob him off. But she’d been too ill to think clearly.

She dialled Gary. Compelling reasons, the judge had said. What might these be? Pregnancy, perhaps. Or breastfeeding. She had no compelling reasons. A line manager who would be mildly inconvenienced by her absence was not a compelling reason.

Clarissa tried to sound sorrowful and as if something shocking had been done to her. ‘I thought it would only be nine days. Two weeks at most. That’s what all the stuff they sent us says, but I somehow got picked for a seven-week trial. I’m so sorry.’

‘Didn’t they give you a chance to say you couldn’t? You’re vital to this university.’

She couldn’t help but laugh. ‘I’m not. Not like doctors or teachers. Even they don’t get out of it. Even judges don’t. The secretary to the Head of the Graduate School is hardly a key worker – though of course I’m touched by your unique sense of my importance.’

‘But you didn’t answer my question.’ On rare occasions Gary could muster a serious boss tone with her. ‘Didn’t they give you a chance to get out of it?’

She felt no qualms about the lie. ‘No,’ she said. She was home; the train was pulling into Bath. Her skin prickled, usually an unfailing warning that she was being watched, but she knew Rafe wasn’t in the carriage. She couldn’t see him on the platform either. ‘No, they didn’t.’