Home > In a Dark, Dark Wood(12)

In a Dark, Dark Wood(12)
Author: Ruth Ware

She nodded and put her hands to her face. ‘Lee – I’m so …’ She stopped and took a deep breath, and I got the feeling she was marshalling herself, working out what to say next. When she spoke again it was with a trace of defiance, a flicker of the Clare I remembered, who would have attacked, who would have died fighting rather than lie down under an accusation. ‘Look, I won’t apologise. Neither of us have done anything wrong. But please, won’t you give us your blessing?’

‘If you haven’t done anything wrong,’ my voice was hard, ‘why do you need it?’

‘Because you were my friend! My best friend!’

Were.

We both registered the past tense at the same time, and I saw my own reaction reflected in Clare’s face.

I bit my lip, so hard that it hurt, crushing the soft skin between my teeth.

You have my blessing. Say it. Say it!

‘I—’

There was a sound from the house. The door opened, and there was Flo standing in the rectangle of light, shading her eyes as she looked out into the darkness. She was standing on the tips of her toes, almost toppling as she craned to see, and there was an air of suppressed excitement about her, like a child before a birthday party who might tip over into hysteria at any moment.

‘Hellooo?’ she called, her voice shockingly loud in the still night air. ‘Clare? Is that you?’

Clare let out a trembling breath, and opened the car door. ‘Flopsie!’ Her voice shook, but almost imperceptibly. I thought, not for the first time, what an amazing actress she was. It was not surprising she’d ended up in theatre. The only surprise was that she wasn’t on stage herself.

‘Clare-Bear!’ Flo shrieked, and catapulted down the steps onto the gravel. ‘Oh my God, it is you! I heard a noise and thought … but then no one came.’ She was stumbling hastily down the path in front of the house, her bunny slippers shushing in the grit. ‘What are you doing out here in the dark all by yourself, you silly moo?’

‘I was talking to Lee. I mean, Nora.’ Clare waved a hand at my side of the car. ‘I ran into her on the way up the drive.’

‘Not literally, I hope! Oops!’ There was a crunch as Flo tripped over something in the dark and fetched up on her knees in front of the car with a rush. She jumped up, brushing herself down. ‘I’m fine! I’m fine!’

‘Calm down!’ Clare laughed, and hugged Flo. She whispered something into her hair that I didn’t hear, and Flo nodded. I pulled at the door handle and got stiffly out of the car. It had been a mistake not to walk those last few yards up to the house – going from running to sitting so abruptly, my muscles had seized up. Now it was an effort to straighten.

‘You all right, Lee?’ Clare said, turning back at the sound of me getting out. ‘You look like you’re hobbling a bit.’

‘I’m fine.’ I tried to match her in keeping my voice light. James. James. ‘Want a hand with your bags?’

‘Thanks, but I’ve not got much.’ She popped the boot and picked up a shoulder bag. ‘Come on then Flops, show us my room.’

Nina was nowhere to be seen when I climbed the last, painful step up to our room, holding my muddy trainers by the laces. I peeled off my spattered leggings and sweaty top, and crawled under the duvet in my bra and knickers. Then I lay, staring into the pool of light cast by the bedside lamp.

This had been a mistake. What had I been thinking of?

I’d spent ten years trying to forget James, trying to build a chrysalis of assurance and self-sufficiency around myself. And I’d thought I was succeeding. I had a good life. No, I had a great life. I had a job I loved, I had my own flat, I had some lovely friends, none of whom knew James or Clare or anyone else from my former life in Reading.

I was beholden to no one – emotionally, financially or in any other way. And that made me feel fine. Absolutely fucking fine, thanks very much.

And now this.

The worst of it was, I couldn’t blame Clare. She was right: she and James had done nothing wrong. They didn’t owe me anything, either of them. James and I had broken up over a decade ago, for Christ’s sake. No. The only person I could blame was myself. For not moving on. For not being able to move on.

I hated James for his hold over me. I hated that every time I met a man, I was comparing them in my head. The last time I slept with someone – two years ago – he had woken me in the night, his hand on my chest. ‘You were having a dream,’ he’d said. ‘Who’s James?’ And when he saw my stricken face, he’d swung his legs out of bed, got up, got dressed and walked out of my life. And I never even bothered to phone him back.

I hated James and I hated myself. And yes, I am fully aware that this makes me sound like the biggest loser in existence: the girl who meets a boy aged sixteen and obsesses over him for the next ten bloody years. Believe me, no one is more aware of that than me. If I met myself in a bar and got talking, I would despise myself too.

I could hear the others downstairs, talking and laughing, and caught the smell of pizza floating up the stairs.

I was going to have go down there and talk and laugh too. Instead, I curled myself into a ball, my knees to my chest, my eyes tight shut, and I screamed a silent scream inside my head.

Then I straightened, feeling my tired muscles protest, got out of bed, and picked up the top-most towel off the pile Flo had stacked carefully on the foot of each bed.

The bathroom was on the landing, and I locked the door and let the towel drop to the floor. Over the bath was another uncurtained plate-glass window, looking out over the forest in an incredibly unnerving way. It was angled so that, in practice, you wouldn’t be able to see inside the room unless you were perched on top of a fifty-foot pine, but as I took off my bra and knickers I had to fight the urge to cross my hands over my breasts, covering my nakedness from the watchful darkness.

For a minute I considered getting straight into my change of clothes, but I was tired and mud-spattered and I knew I’d feel better if I had a hot shower, so I climbed carefully into the walk-in enclosure and turned the lever, stretching gratefully as the huge shower head coughed twice, and then flooded me with an enormous, forceful gush of hot water.

Standing like this, I could look out of the window, though it was too dark to see much. The bright bathroom light turned the glass into a sort of mirror, and aside from a pale, ghostly moon, all I could see was my own body reflected in the fast-steaming glass as I soaped and shaved my legs. What kind of person was Flo’s aunt anyway? This was a house for voyeurs. No, that was people who liked to watch. What was the opposite? Exhibitionists.

People who liked to be seen.

Perhaps it was different in summer, when the light came flooding in until late into the evening. Perhaps then it was a house for looking out of, across the forest. But now, in the dark, it felt like the opposite. It felt like a glass display case, full of curiosities to be peered at. Or a cage in a zoo. A tiger’s enclosure, with nowhere to hide. I thought of those caged animals pacing slowly backwards and forwards, day after day, week after week, going slowly crazy.

When I was finished, I climbed carefully out and peered at myself in the steam-misted mirror, swiping away the condensation with my hand.

The face that looked back at me startled me. It looked like someone ready for a fight. It was partly my short hair; after my shower and a rough dry with the towel, it looked aggressively spiky and defiant, like a boxer’s between rounds. My face was white and stark under the bright lights, my eyes dark and accusing and surrounded by shadows, like I’d taken a beating.

I sighed and got out my washbag. I don’t wear much makeup, but I had lip gloss and mascara; the basics. No blusher, but I rubbed a bit of lip gloss into my cheekbones in an effort to brighten the pallor, then yanked on clean skinny jeans and a grey top.

From somewhere far below, music started up. Billy Idol, by the sounds of it: ‘White Wedding’. Someone’s idea of a joke?

‘Le— I mean, Nora!’ Flo’s voice floated up the stairs, above the sound of Billy Idol telling us to start again. ‘Are you ready for something to eat?’

‘Coming!’ I shouted back, and with a sigh, I bundled my dirty underwear into my towel, picked up my washbag, and opened the door.

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