Jar knows that there’s something wrong the moment he steps out of the lift. The door to his flat is open, a sharp triangle of light slicing the darkness of the landing. His breath shortens.
‘Wait here,’ he says to Yolande, whom he was kissing in the lift seconds earlier. They had met in a pub at the top of Brick Lane, where he often stops off after work. A pattern has emerged in recent months. After a ‘post-bereavement hallucination’, as he now knows he must call this morning’s sighting of Rosa, he seeks the comfort of a stranger. A misguided attempt to move on with his life: strangers somehow making him feel less unfaithful to her memory.
He pushes the door further open, but it catches against something. Forcing it, he steps inside, blood pulsing at his temples. The flat – one big room, a kitchenette at the far end, bed at the other – has been ransacked, the floor littered with books pulled from the bookshelves that line every inch of the walls. Some of the shelves have been wrenched and are leaning limply into the room like storm-torn trees. He closes his eyes, trying to rationalise what’s happened.
He closes his eyes, trying to rationalise what’s happened.
Burglary is not uncommon in his towerblock, the most recent series of break-ins blamed on crackheads north of the Hackney Road. Nic Farah, a photographer one floor down, had his computer lifted last week. And a TV and sound system were stolen from a flat on the sixteenth, four floors below him, a few days earlier. As a half-hearted precaution, Jar has taken to hiding his twelve-string guitar under the bed.
He steps through the snowfall of books on the floor, snatching at his father’s copy of More Than a Game by Con Houlihan. Instinctively, he knows that none are missing. It’s not what they – whoever ‘they’ are – came here for. He bends down beside the bed. His guitar case is still there. He is about to stand up but decides to pull the battered case out. Anything to distract himself, stop the thoughts chasing each other around his head. Reassured by the case’s heaviness, he opens it beside him on the bed. The guitar is safe, undamaged, further confirmation that this isn’t a regulation burglary. Good guitars like his are easy enough to sell for cash.
‘I’m guessing it’s not normally like this,’ Yolande says, standing in the doorway. Her voice is polished. Jar is shocked by how easily he has forgotten her. ‘Shall I call the police?’
He should have made his excuses at the bar and left, not brought her back here. She isn’t even technically a stranger. She had caught his eye the last time he went in to see his publisher, walking past him with a box of books to be signed by an author more in favour than he would ever be. And then there she was in the bar tonight. It would have been rude not to go over and talk to her.
‘No,’ Jar says. He strums an impatient chord on the guitar before putting it away. ‘Nothing’s been taken.’
‘How do you know?’
‘Because there’s nothing to take now.’ Jar snaps the guitar case shut and paces around the room.
‘So many books,’ she says, watching him. And two more coming tomorrow, Jar thinks: Young Skins, by Colin Barrett, to compensate for this week’s Jennifer Lawrence story, and Anne Enright’s The Green Road for a One Direction quiz. Futile attempts to maintain some sort of cultural equilibrium in his life. He’s running out of room.
‘Let me help you clear up,’ Yolande says, at his side now, a hand on his shoulder.
Jar flinches at the contact. She is too good to be involved in his life. As he watches her retrieve a book, something catches his eye in all the mess. It’s a photo of Rosa. And it shouldn’t be here. He doesn’t keep any reminders of her in the flat, no trace at all. It’s a rule of his. Did someone leave it, like a calling card? And then he remembers that he’d used the photo as a bookmark when he was at Cambridge. It must have fallen out of a book.
He bends down to retrieve it, staring at her face. Rosa always did know how to get his attention. He loves her studiousness in this one: at her desk, not looking at the camera, chewing on a pen. He’s seen so many images over the past five years that he worries he can no longer remember what she was really like, his memory of her shaped by photos.
‘I ought to be heading home,’ Yolande says, looking over his shoulder. Her voice startles him. How long has he been staring at the photo?
He knows she is owed an apology, an explanation at least, but he doesn’t know where to begin.
‘OK,’ he says, turning away from Rosa’s accusatory gaze: another one-night stand you’ve treated shabbily.
Jar looks at Yolande for a moment. A different night, another life, they would be making drunken, languid love by now, falling into bed after he had wooed her with an Irish ballad on the guitar, one of the songs that he used to hear so often in his old bedroom, his father’s voice floating up through the floorboards of the family-owned bar in Galway.
If someone walked in on him now, they would mistake him for a stalker.
‘I’m sorry. Will I come down with you, hail a cab?’
‘It’s fine,’ she says. ‘Really.’
But he insists and they descend in the lift together in silence.
‘You loved her very much, didn’t you,’ she says as the lift shakes itself to a halt on the ground floor. ‘She was lucky to have known that.’
Outside on the street, she hails her own cab, but he waits until she is inside and heading into the night – to Mile End, he thinks she said – before walking back to his block of flats with new purpose, or is it fear? What happened in his flat tonight means that someone – who, he is still not sure – is starting to take him seriously. Someone who wants to know how much he’s found out about Rosa. And possibly try to stop him, too. A van door closes in the distance. He presses the button for the twentieth floor and steps back outside the lift as the doors slide shut. Not waiting for the empty lift to rattle up into the night, he heads out the back entrance of the block of flats and cuts across another estate to a row of lock-up garages.
He’s learnt over the years that paranoia is a corrosive disease, eating away like acid at the edges of his rational mind, but he allows himself one certainty this evening: his flat wasn’t visited by burglars. The chaos was too choreographed, too methodical for crackheads. In recent days he has had the feeling of being watched, followed home from work, observed from coffee shops, a sensation that he has so far managed to dismiss. Tonight changes everything.
He unbolts the locked side door of the garage and steps inside, turning on the fluorescent strip light. His actions feel more valid now. He isn’t expecting this place to have been burgled too, but it’s still a relief to find it exactly as he left it yesterday. He sits down at the computer, switching it on as he looks around the small, cold space. Rosa always feels closer here.
Three nautical charts of the north Norfolk coastline, taped together, dominate one breeze-block wall. Red-marker-pen arrows have been drawn on to the charts, indicating the direction of currents; beaches as far west as Burnham Deepdale and Hunstanton have been circled. Next to the charts is an Ordnance Survey map of Cromer. Green-coloured pen lines lead out to photographs and CCTV stills neatly stuck to an adjacent pinboard.
The wall behind the computer table is a patchwork of photographs. On the left-hand side are images of Rosa from university. On the right are unconfirmed sightings since her death, some of them crossed out. He didn’t take a photo at Paddington of the woman he thought was Rosa. Instead, he sticks a photo of the station on the wall, draws a question mark next to it with a red marker pen and adds the date.
He keeps everything to do with her here, in an effort to preserve some sort of normality in the rest of his life. The endless Freedom of Information requests to St Matthew’s (her college), the police, the hospital, as well as his correspondence with the coroner (exempt from FoI). There’s the more personal, too: a Margaret Howell nightshirt (bought by her aunt when she got into Cambridge), her favourite perfume (scent she’d found in the spice market in Istanbul), one of the funny cards she’d slipped under his college door.
When people visit the flat, they think he’s moved on with his life. He likes that, wants people to believe he’s over her. No one need know that it’s here in this draughty lock-up that he feels most alive, surrounded by images of the woman he loved more than he thought it was possible to love another human being. If someone walked in on him now, they would mistake him for a stalker. In some ways that’s what he is, except the woman he is hunting is meant to have died five years ago, jumping to her death on a wild night in Cromer, 130 miles away on the north Norfolk coast.
He checks through his personal emails. His father has sent him a few lines about hurling over the weekend and a link to a match report in the Connacht Tribune. Jar’s cousin was playing. ‘Conor didn’t come within an ass’s roar of scoring. Visit us soon, Da.’ Jar smiles as he moves to flip accounts to his work email, but his eye is caught by another message in among the junk.
It’s from Amy, Rosa’s aunt, a picture restorer who lives in Cromer. Amy and Rosa had always been close, but the bond between them grew even stronger after Rosa’s father died. Rosa often went up to the seaside town for weekends, welcoming the chance to get away from the cauldron of Cambridge life.
Jar was invited along too but it wasn’t always easy. Amy bears a painful physical resemblance to her niece. She has also spent much of her life on medication, rollercoastering in and out of depression. Amy’s spirits seemed to lift, though, whenever Amy was with her. They would sit quietly in the filtered sunlight of the sitting room, where Amy would paint intricate patterns in henna on Rosa’s arms and hands as they chatted about her dad.
Jar doesn’t blame her for what subsequently happened and he has stayed in touch since, their relationship, like Amy and Rosa’s, blossoming in mutual bereavement. Amy is an ally, equally paranoid, the only person Jar knows who doesn’t believe Rosa is dead. She has no explanation or theory, just a ‘sixth sense’, as she puts it, which makes the upbeat tone of her email tonight all the more intriguing:
Jar, I’ve been trying to ring but couldn’t get through. We’ve found something on the computer that you might be interested in. It’s to do with Rosa. I’m around all week if you want to come and visit. Call me.
Jar glances at his watch and considers ringing Amy now – it’s late but he knows she never sleeps well. Then he remembers his phone is on the charger back at the flat. He’ll ring her first thing in the morning – from the train to Norfolk. After tonight’s burglary, he might be running out of time.