Home > In a Dark, Dark Wood(6)

In a Dark, Dark Wood(6)
Author: Ruth Ware

‘Nora’s a writer,’ Nina said. She eyed us both as if unleashing two bantam-weights into the ring to scrap it out.

‘Oh really?’ Tom looked at me as if seeing me for the first time. ‘What do you write?’

Ugh. The question I hate. I’ve never got comfortable talking about my writing – never got over that feeling of people riffling through my private thoughts.

‘Um … fiction,’ I said vaguely. Crime fiction was the truth, but if you say that people want to suggest plots and motives for murder.

‘Really? What name do you write under?’

Nice way of saying ‘Have I heard of you?’ Most people phrase it less gracefully.

‘L.N. Shaw,’ I said. ‘The N doesn’t stand for anything, I don’t have a middle name. I just put that in because L. Shaw sounded odd, whereas L.N. is more pronounceable, if you know what I mean. So you write plays?’

‘Yes. I’m always rather jealous of novelists – the way you get to control everything. You don’t have to deal with actors massacring your best lines.’ He flashed a smile, showing unnaturally perfect white teeth. I wondered if he’d had porcelain veneers fitted.

‘But it must be nice working with other people?’ I ventured. ‘Sharing the responsibility, I mean. A play’s a big thing, right?’

‘Yes, I suppose so. You have to share the glory but at least when the shit hits the fan it’s a collective splattering, I guess.’

I was about to say something else when there was a ‘ching’ from the living room as Melanie put down the phone. Tom turned to look towards the sound, and something about the angle of his head, or his expression, made me suddenly realise where I’d seen him before.

That picture. Clare’s profile picture from Facebook. It was him. So the person in her photo wasn’t her new partner at all.

I was still processing this when Melanie came out smiling. ‘Phew, got through to Bill. All absolutely fine on the home front. Sorry I was a bit distracted – I’ve never been away for the night before and it’s a bit of a leap of faith. Not that Bill won’t manage, I’m sure he will but … oh anyway, I should stop rabbiting on. You’re Nora, is that right?’

‘Go through into the living room!’ Flo called from the kitchen. ‘I’m making tea.’

Obediently we trooped through and I watched Tom and Melanie as they took in the huge room, with its long glass wall.

‘That view of the forest is quite something, isn’t it?’ Tom said at last.

‘Yes.’ I stared out into the woods. It was growing dark and somehow the shadows made it feel as if all the trees had taken a collective step towards the house, edging in to shut out the sky. ‘It makes you feel a bit exposed somehow, doesn’t it? I think it’s the lack of curtains.’

‘Bit like having your skirt tucked into your knickers at the back!’ Melanie said unexpectedly, and then laughed.

‘I like it,’ Tom said. ‘It feels like a stage.’

‘And we’re the audience?’ Melanie asked. ‘This production seems a bit boring. The actors are rather wooden!’ She pointed out to the trees, in case we hadn’t got the pun. ‘Geddit? Trees, wood …’

‘We got it,’ Nina said sourly. ‘But I don’t think that’s what Tim meant, was it?’

‘Tom,’ Tom said. There was a slight edge to his voice. ‘But no, I was thinking of it the other way around. We’re the actors.’ He turned to face the glass wall. ‘The audience … the audience is out there.’

For some reason his words made me shiver. Perhaps it was the tree trunks, like silent watchers in the growing dark. Or perhaps it was the lingering chill that Tom and Melanie had brought with them from the outside. Either way, leaving London the weather had felt like autumn; suddenly, so much further north, it felt like winter had come overnight. It wasn’t just the close-growing pines shutting out the light with their dense needles, nor the cold, crisp air with its promise of frost to come. The night was drawing in, and the house felt more and more like a glass cage, blasting its light blindly out into the dusk, like a lantern in the dark. I imagined a thousand moths circling and shivering, drawn inexorably to its glow, only to perish against the cold, inhospitable glass.

‘I’m cold,’ I said to change the subject.

‘Me too.’ Nina rubbed her arms. ‘Think we can get that stove-thing working? Is it gas?’

Melanie knelt in front of it. ‘It’s wood.’ She struggled with a handle and then a door in the front popped open. ‘I’ve got one a bit similar at home. Flo!’ she shouted through to the kitchen, ‘Is it OK if we light the stove?’

‘Yep!’ Flo yelled back. ‘There’s firelighters on the mantelpiece. Inside a pot. I’ll be through in a tick if you can’t work it out.’

Tom moved across to the mantelpiece and started peering into the handful of minimalist pots but then he stopped, his eyes arrested by the same sight that had stopped me in my tracks earlier.

‘Ker-rist.’ It was the shotgun, perched on its wooden pegs, just above eye-level. ‘Haven’t they heard of Chekhov round here?’

‘Chekhov?’ said a voice from the hall. It was Flo, edging through the door with a tray on her hip. ‘The Russian guy? Don’t worry, it’s loaded with blanks. My aunt keeps it for scaring off rabbits. They eat the bulbs and dig up the garden. She shoots at them out of the French windows.’

‘It’s a bit … Texan, isn’t it?’ Tom said. He hurried forward to help Flo with the tray. ‘You know, not that I don’t enjoy the red-neck vibe, but having it right there, in your face … it’s a bit disconcerting for those of us who tend to keep morbid thoughts further at bay.’

‘I know what you mean,’ Flo said. ‘She probably should have a gun cabinet or something. But it was my grandfather’s so it’s sort of a family heirloom. And the veg patch is right outside these doors – well, in the summer anyway – so it’s just more practical having it to hand.’

Melanie got the fire going, Flo began to pour out tea and dish out biscuits and the conversation moved on – to hire-car charges, the cost of rent, whether to put the milk in first. I was silent, thinking.

‘Tea?’

For a moment I didn’t move, didn’t answer. Then Flo tapped me on the shoulder, making me jump.

‘Tea, Lee?’

‘Nora,’ I said. I tried to force a smile. ‘I’m … I’m sorry. Do you have coffee? I should have said, I’m not that keen on tea.’

Flo’s face fell. ‘I’m so sorry, I should have … No, we don’t. It’s probably too late to get anything now – the nearest village is forty minutes away and the shop’ll be shut. I’m so sorry, I was thinking about Clare when I was doing the food shop, and she does love her tea – I never thought—’

‘It’s fine,’ I cut her off with a smile. ‘Honestly.’ I took the cup she held out and sipped at it. It was scalding and it tasted utterly, revoltingly like tea – hot milk and gravy browning.

‘She should be here soon.’ Flo looked at her watch. ‘Shall I run through proceedings so we all know what’s happening?’

We all nodded and Flo got out a list. I felt, rather than heard, Nina’s gusting sigh.

‘So Clare should be here at six, then I thought we’d have a little drinky – I’ve got some champers in the fridge, and I picked up the bits for mojitos and margaritas and stuff – and I thought we wouldn’t bother with a proper sit-down supper—’ Nina’s face fell ‘—I’ve just got some pizzas and dips and stuff and we can stick it all out on the coffee table in here and dig in. And I thought while we did that we could play a few getting-to-know-you games. You all know Clare, obvs, but I don’t think many of us know each other … is that right? In fact, we should probably do a quick round-the-table introduction before Clare gets here, maybe?’

We all looked at each other, sizing each other up, wondering who was going to have the chutzpah to begin. For the first time I tried to fit Tom, Melanie and Flo in with the Clare I knew, and it wasn’t entirely easy.

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