The roar of the water held them silent as they looked out in awe at the sea. Peacocks wheeled above their heads like halos and the waves danced like horses galloping up the sand to kiss their toes. They laughed and the nurse with the strange eyes squeezed her hand. A rainbow burst through the earth behind them, arcing over their heads like an upturned cot. The nurse’s laugh pealed like a choir in the morning damp of spring. But suddenly she realised the ground was shaking beneath her and the nurse’s laugh became hollow and tinny. She tried to pull away but the nurse gripped her tighter and bore down on her, unclipping her jaw so the ringing sound boomed louder, engulfing her skull and threatening to swallow her whole.
She shot up in bed, shivering, to hear her phone ringing loudly from her handbag. Wrestling with the covers, she lurched towards it still half-asleep and wincing at the pain shooting up through the soles of her feet.
‘Hi Mum,’ she wheezed down the phone, her voice crackling like a line with bad reception.
‘Don’t tell me I woke you up.’
‘Nope,’ she lied, still trying to shake the presence of the nightmare.
‘Did you get my email?’ her mother demanded. Goose bumps formed on her arms, and not just from kneeling naked on her cold floor as she looked through her open bedroom door. She dragged the thumb and middle finger of her right hand across her eyelids before pinching the bridge of her nose.
‘I did not,’ she said, trying to sound light.
‘That’s because you’ve slept past noon. Go and read it now.’
‘Right now? Can you not just tell me what it says?’
‘It has a list,’ hissed her mother. She rolled her eyes and told her mother to hang on. Throwing the phone onto the bed, she grabbed a hoodie and leggings from her wardrobe. As she pulled them on, she noticed the afternoon light peaking through her windows was making a commendable effort to battle the smog, and she blinked her bleary eyes with a smile at the fact it wasn’t raining.
‘Hi,’ she said again when she picked up the phone.
‘Have you read it?’
‘Not yet,’ she groaned.
‘Oh for god’s sake,’ her mother snapped.
‘Give me a minute!’ She was through in her living room now and logging onto her computer. She put her mother on speaker and placed the phone on the desk as she read.
‘Are you sure you don’t want to cancel?!’ she exclaimed in mock horror.
‘Don’t be facetious with me - I only just managed to calm your father down.’ Her mother’s strain might be hyperbolic but her father’s certainly wouldn’t be.
‘Where is he?’ she asked carefully.
‘I told him to go and cheer himself up at the shopping centre while I sort this out.’ Her father was the drama queen to her mother’s cool logic and she could clearly picture him now quivering among the electronic goods aisles praying to the gadgets to deliver him from-
‘This “unconquerable mess”, he called it,’ her mother sighed. ‘Bloody fool. That man has a way of winding me up like nothing else.’ Angela Carter claimed to be something of a nihilist before she married. On the good days she thanked him for grounding her. On days like today, however, she was quick to blame him for her rising cortisol levels.
‘He’s bloody aged me two years this morning alone, and if your husband’s a plastic surgeon that’s more trouble than normal in a marriage.’
‘Well, he can spend all his spare time playing with your face now he’s retired,’ she joked, stretching her legs out before hauling herself out of the desk chair and towards the promise of dark roast coffee.
‘Maybe he can do something about your cheek,’ Angela shot back.
‘Which one?’ She didn’t bother stifling a yawn as she flicked the switch on the kettle and clattered in a drawer for a teaspoon. Seeing the spare lighter among the forks she hummed quietly to herself, also placing it on the worktop next to the cafetiere.
‘So?’ her mother asked wearily.
‘So?’ She dumped two heaped spoons of coffee in the glass chamber.
‘Right! Wow, you are in serious control freak mode today.’ She filled the cafetiere with boiling water and grabbed the bread bin, finding her secret cigarette in just a few seconds. ‘Sure, I’ll get it all on my way over but only if you promise to overthrow this evil dictator who has taken control of your person.’
Her mother sighed down the phone. ‘I’m sorry, I know. It’s just I promised your father I would do all this - and you know how much I hate these things - and then the damned waiter says he’s ill and the stockists don’t arrive and-’
‘I know, Mum,’ she said, lighting the cigarette, ‘I read the email.’ There was a tense pause and then:
’Are you smoking?!’ her mother screeched.
‘Do you really want to know today?’ she said slyly, hopping up onto the counter to wait for the coffee to filter.
‘You and your bloody father are going to be the death of me.’
‘Being the child of two doctors was almost the death of me,’ she joked. Her mother paused again, but thoughtfully, it seemed.
‘God,’ she said eventually, ‘when did I become this vacuous, high-octane, shrill-’
‘Mum, I love you, but I’m going to need to finish my first coffee before we do this.’ She picked at the small cuts on the soles of her feet, grimacing at the memories of her rash actions last night. In West London, Angela laughed.
‘Right, darling, thank you. Get here when you can and don’t you dare smell of smoke! And call your father and tell him you’re on your way. Hopefully it’ll stop him throwing himself in the river.’
‘Don’t be silly - he’s more likely to donate his iPad collection to charity than go near that thing.’ They hung up and she allowed herself a few minutes to nurse her coffee and cigarette, watching a strobe of sunlight move across her thighs through the balcony door.
Her parents lived in the middle of a quiet, well-kept Zone Two street in Shepherd’s Bush, in a tall and narrow house. The two-storey home, with added basement level that opened out onto a patio, was hemmed in by houses on either side. Their joined seams had her convinced as a child if you could only find the hidden doors in each cupboard under the stairs you could run through all the houses from one end of the street to the other. Of course, she had only stayed there at weekends once she was streamed for school but even so, she was fond of the house, especially the awning of the porch that had sheltered her from England’s miserable rain when she sat as a little girl watching it collect in pools, imagining she was back by the sea.
The über pulled into Thorpebank Road making the boot of the car clink, and she directed the driver towards the reddish-brown brick house nestled between two white ones. Telling the driver to wait, she leapt out and rang the doorbell before hurrying back to the car to unload the boot full of booze her mother had asked her to bring. The cocktail company wasn’t answering her calls and she had a caterer to track down - and it was hardly as if her daughter couldn’t easily afford to provide alcohol for the forty guests attending.
‘What would I do without you?’ Angela appeared at the front door and rushed down to the car to help her carry the crates in. She was a short, ferocious woman with a thick head of dark hair striped with grey like a badger. It gave her a distinguished and imperious air to forgo the endless hair dye routine most women underwent, no matter their age. But as it was, Angela looked closer to 49 than 69, carrying just enough weight on her Roman-like face to smooth out the lines. That soft, fleshy layer hid a phenomenal strength, betrayed only by her large, muscular calves that curved beneath her knees as her large breasts did below her chin. Angela had been a striking young woman, the kind that was now described as handsome in her older years. Side by side, the women may not seem like mother and daughter, but their movement and speech - even the flash of their eyes as they shared thoughts - betrayed their relation more convincingly than any DNA test.
‘Without me? Live longer, if this morning’s anything to go by.’ She stooped slightly to embrace her mother lovingly on the pavement as the taxi driver eyed up the Zone Two home and then offered to help carry the drink inside.
‘No, thank you - but if you could stand guard that would be marvellous,’ Angela trilled a grateful rejection before bending over to hoist a crate of red wine around her abdomen.
‘Be careful,’ her daughter warned.
‘I’m 69 for Christ’s sake,’ was the retort as she picked her way up the path, ‘and if I can still enjoy that position I can still carry a damn box of wine!’ The driver snorted as Angela slipped through the front door, followed closely by her grinning daughter. Together, they unloaded the car before bidding the driver adieu with a handsome tip.
The house was immaculate. Her mother must have somehow convinced her father to tidy away the cluster of screens that normally sat in the corner of the open-plan living room.
‘Yes,’ Angela nodded, recognising her daughter’s surprise at the empty space, ‘he’s swapped them out for a projector that takes up the entirety of that wall there.’ She was pointing at the blank wall where some family photos had previously hung. ‘Honestly I don’t know how he talks me into these things.’
The house was full of her father’s gadgets; he called them ‘passions’ and Angela called them ‘toys’. Recktall had to have the latest model of everything - be it laptops, toothbrushes or bottle openers. The house was a showroom of his spending - their wealth - but thankfully furnished by her mother whose minimalist taste was not only welcome but necessary to balance out his obsession. The bread bin she stored her cigarettes in had been a gift from her father after Angela had refused to entertain it in her kitchen: ‘We don’t even eat wheat!’
She turned to her mother. ‘Where is he?’
‘Upstairs trying on ties,’ said Angela, filling the freezer with vodka in the expansive kitchen that led on from the lounge. When they had moved in, she demanded most walls be demolished in her bid to find ‘room to breathe’.
‘Did you bring a change of clothes?’ she asked her daughter now.
‘Dress and heels.’ The doorbell rang.
‘That’ll be the caterers.’ Angela strode towards the front door. ‘Go and say hello to your dad.’
‘Want me to put the drink away first?’
‘Absolutely not,’ came the brisk response. ‘They’re late - they can do it.’
Upstairs, she found her father standing at the open door of his wardrobe with his arms crossed, staring at two shirts hanging side by side. She knocked softly on the wall.
‘Mum said you were deciding on your tie.’
‘Don’t be silly,’ he said, crossing to her to plant a kiss on each cheek. ‘I haven’t even decided on my shirt, yet!’ Recktall had been a very attractive man, standing at six foot two and still slimmer now than many men in their thirties. He had haughty, autocratic features, but the surprisingly soft lines on his face falsely portrayed a fabled wisdom. His head was narrow, like his body, and seemed longer still because of the hollows in his cheeks pulled taut over his bones. He had grown a handlebar moustache for the occasion that was perfectly trimmed to match the groomed eyebrows that sat above his inset eyes and sloping forehead. Recktall was always playing with his facial hair, growing a number of beards and goatees over the years that always ended in dramatic shaves exposing his clean chin for the summer.
‘Did you get me a present?’ He was back in front of the wardrobe surveying the shirts. Despite his often hysterical nature he had a deep, mellow voice that made his slow speech seem like the groan of trees.
‘I just supplied your party. The present will have to wait, I’m afraid.’
‘Oh,’ he pouted, casting his eyes to the carpet like a beaten dog. Her shoulders began to knot below her ears.
‘Are you excited?’ she asked in a bid to distract him.
‘Excited?’ He shook his head mournfully. ’As excited as I would be for my own funeral. Heavens, don’t let your mother organise that.’ He stepped back from the shirts. ‘Salmon or navy?’
‘What’s wrong with white?’ she sighed, not bothering to scrutinise the grey and blackish clothing in pretence.
‘White’s rather dull. I can’t be a dull host.’
‘Dad, if you’re looking to steal the show I’d wear the pink.’
‘Salmon,’ he corrected her automatically. She flinched. ‘And the tie?’
‘Pass!’ she said backing out of the room with her hands held up in mock defeat. ‘I need to get changed.’
‘Thank god,’ she heard her father mutter to himself as she closed his bedroom door.
She changed in the bathroom and drew the flicks with her eyeliner that she knew Recktall liked, even though she could never apply them symmetrically. Smacking her lips together to evenly distribute the smear of ‘pink’, she shook her head at her mouth that now appeared ash to her eyes, or like two grey slugs sitting on top of one another. Joining the staff downstairs, she watched them buzz around as she poured herself a large glass of wine in preparation for the first guests arriving.
‘Nice dress,’ Angela remarked, coming down the stairs in a powerful dark suit.
‘Charcoal suits you,’ Recktall added following close behind.
‘It suits everyone,’ she said, taking a swig out of her glass. ‘Believe me.’
The party filled up with friends, colleagues and grateful clients of her father’s, some of whom he had spent years with battling their ageing faces and widening waists. The rest were one-off miracles whose lives had been ‘transformed’ after the shaving of a nose or blowing up of a pair of breasts. There were some faces she recognised, and some she probably couldn’t, and although she played her part dutifully her skin crawled knowing most were people she normally went out of her way to avoid - like the man with the white hair but bushy, black eyebrows pushing her mother for an explanation as to why they were hosting the party in their home; or the skeletal woman weighed down by countless platinum bangles round her wrists shrieking about the holiday chalet they had just bought in Switzerland which was such a dull, grey place if you didn’t know how to ski - not that they had any time to spend there; or the surprisingly short but devastatingly good-looking actor who later got drunk and jumped up and down on the sofa capitulating to her father’s mastery for his big break.
She moved through them like a swan among ducks, seemingly floating gracefully on the surface as her legs pedalled below with mechanic restlessness. As the party continued, her smile became increasingly strained and she felt herself drowning in the idle chatter of the Inner Zones. Her father’s parties always darkened her mood and had carved that singular line between her brows from childhood. The room filled with the muggy heat of their boastful exhalations and she clutched her glass, grateful for the tool of adulthood that made these evenings marginally easier. As the night drew in she tuned out with added success as she committed herself to her role as a living, breathing wine rack.
After being cornered by a pregnant colleague of Recktall’s and interrogated about her DV as a broker, her scores in the Death Value Testing, and where she’d been streamed to (‘I only want the best for my child, too!’) her own mother came to her rescue.
‘Of course you do, dear,’ she said calmly swooping in, ‘we all do. This one was streamed into a Zone One school at six and I missed her terribly! But I’d been warned she was brilliant so what could I expect?’
’Actually, mother, I believe it was ‘exceptional’ they described me as,’ she corrected her with mock outrage before dropping her voice to a dramatic whisper. ‘Mother’s forgetfulness has been something of a running joke from the start. Did you know, she even forgot to attend my birth!’ The pregnant woman looked at Angela with shock. Angela shrugged.
‘I was on call.’
‘She got bored during the labour and left my surrogate to nip down to her own department in the hospital-’
‘It was an emergency,’ Angela insisted.
‘Anyway, she got so distracted she completely forgot to come back up to the maternity ward!’
‘Is that true?’ asked the horrified woman stroking her bulbous belly.
‘Yes,’ sighed Angela, feigning distress. ‘I always was a better doctor than a mother!’
‘And she had the decency to be honest about it!’ cheered her daughter, toasting their glasses and motioning slyly towards the kitchen. The pregnant woman looked at them both warily, unsure how to address the double act. It was an unspoken concession that no jibe was too far, and they had developed their personal strain of banter over the years without ever directly mentioning it. Many people found their subversive closeness alien and unnerving with its riddles and convoluted actions that transcended the normal maternal boundaries - perhaps because she had been carried by a surrogate - but it was the closest either woman got to a truthful exchange each day, and even though the topic had never been broached, she trusted Angela saw the same plot holes and stains in the fabric of this dream-world as she did.
After backing away from the ticking time bomb, she picked a tumbler down from the cupboard next to the fridge and yanked open the freezer door. Angela leaned against the marble island in the middle of the kitchen watching her.
‘Yup,’ she retorted, pulling out a large, unopened bottle and looking up at her
mother. ‘Want one?’
‘Are you kidding?’ She brought down a second tumbler and deposited two ice cubes in each.
‘Keep going,’ urged Angela as she poured a double into each glass.
‘Jesus,’ she laughed. ‘You want a cigarette, too?’
‘We’re not talking about that today.’ Her mother snatched up both glasses and then handed one to her daughter. They toasted each other silently and tilted back their heads in unison. The tumblers didn’t grace the counter for even a second before being refilled.
‘Dr Brown!’ grated a voice from the hallway. ‘Thank you for having us, darling. We brought the boys, hope you don’t mind.’ The background noise of the party seemed to melt away as her ears honed in on that distinctive rumble. She spun round to see Bateman and his family walk into her parents’ front room.
‘Angela!’ called her father, gesturing for her to join him. ‘Mr Bateman, this is my wife, Dr Angela Carter.’
‘Pleasure to meet you,’ she said when she reached them.
‘Pleasure’s all mine,’ purred Bateman. ’And this is my husband, Raoul Duke.’
‘Well, of course we recognise you, Chancellor,’ intoned Recktall happily. The politician pulled the corners of his mouth up.
‘Thank you for extending the invitation to our family. The boys have been warned they’ll be taken home if they’re too raucous.’ Both boys were under ten and surprisingly similar-looking despite having different fathers. Then again, the men looked surprisingly similar themselves, with Raoul matching Bateman’s height and sallow skin. From behind, only Bateman’s shock of dyed blonde hair made them distinguishable. But where he was well built, Raoul had developed a paunch in his three year stint as Chancellor of the Exchequer.
‘I’m sure they’ll be fine,’ her mother said stiffly as one of the boys knocked over a bowl of peanuts.
‘I’ll get them, Patrick,’ Raoul said calmly before striding to his son and forcefully instructing him to clean up the mess. But Patrick Bateman wasn’t paying his family or his hosts any attention having found her eyes across the room.
‘I didn’t realise your daughter would here.’ he said, pointing. ‘Shall we go and say hello?’
The three of them marched through the crowd, her parents the unwitting plasma transporting this virus towards her. Her eyes flitted between his pungent gaze and his husband, easily playing the disciplinarian. She felt a pang of sympathy for their sons. Although politicians were not celebrated for their fidelity she knew, instantly, Raoul was, and always had been, faithful to Bateman. Bateman, who was impaling a female colleague on his desk at night, daring someone to find out and expose him. She met his eyes with defiance in hers. All she could hear was the chink of the ice as she raised the glass to her lips in a long, calculated sip.
‘What a delight.’ The force of Bateman’s enunciated greeting broke through her silent vacuum and the noise of the party rushed back into her ears causing her to sway slightly. He noticed, and exposed his teeth, pointedly resting his eyes first on her glass and then the vodka bottle beside her.
‘Mr Bateman,’ she offered coolly, adding, ‘and co.,’ with a nod towards his husband.
‘I hope you’re happy with her work,’ said Recktall, surveying her with the same expression he had worn when eyeing up his shirts just hours before. Often, she felt like another of her father’s gadgets displayed and toted for guests. Half her smile dropped when it crossed her mind what would happen if he ever found a younger, better, updated model in someone else.
‘As happy as I am with yours,’ Bateman said carefully, smiling at Recktall, continuing to appease him as her mother stood beside them frowning slightly, eyes locked on her daughter who tightened up her thin grin.
Sensing a break in the conversation she threw out, ‘Thank you, Mr Bateman, you’re too kind.’ Bateman’s pupils bore into her like coiled snakes endlessly striking out. She flinched inwardly, feeling the poison pour over her soul with each unsaid bite. In that moment, she wondered how she had ever found such a vile creature attractive. The image of the small girl with a wide smile and full fringe from her dream swam around her skull, and the high-pitched laugh borne on love and trust broke her heart. The value she had assigned herself was, indeed, mutually exclusive from the Death Value they stamped on her records every year - it was worse. Some days it was no value at all. Other days she struggled in a world of constant critique that became her inner world. The swan’s legs stopped kicking for a moment and she hastily excused herself, pushing past Bateman, hating him, to fight her way to the front door.
The hopeful light of day had given way to yet another night of drizzling rain that she blessed for keeping the guests indoors. She leant her head back against the front door and closed her eyes, counting her breaths out loud.
‘Tough crowd, huh.’ Her eyes snapped open and she saw the shadow of a man standing not three feet from her in the semi-dark sharing her awning. An ember glowed near his face as he took a drag from his cigarette.
‘I’m not here to entertain,’ she spouted despite her evening performance.
‘Oh come on, kid, we all are,’ he laughed. He had a clear, soothing tone and ran over his consonants lightly like a pianist’s trills. She squinted at him in the gloom, making out his curly hair and a short beard growing up to under his cheekbones.
‘Got a spare?’ she asked, nodding at the cigarette. He silently took one out and stepped forward to hand it to her, his hand moving into the light from the house before stepping back to lean against the railing of the awning. His hands were smooth and broad, she noticed, with long, deft fingers.
‘Can I use your lighter?’ she asked self-consciously.
‘Want me to smoke it for you, too?’ When he stepped forward to spark the flame she looked past her shame at him. His brown hair was almost auburn, giving his hair, including his eyebrows and his beard, a reddish tinge. He had a strong, broad forehead with a small ridge on his brow above eyebrows that ran straight across. Little hairs trailed down from the ends to meet the corners of his eyes. Large, deep-set crow’s feet sprang out from his big, brown eyes and were met by deep grooves in his cheeks that doubled as bonus smile lines. His wide grin displayed a good set of teeth that sloped slightly down to the right.
The flame waved between them and she moved towards it holding the cigarette in her teeth as he cupped the lighter. When the end glowed she looked up and the flame continued to burn between them. Those brown eyes dug into her stomach, keeping her in place for a moment before she tugged away. The flame disappeared but he stayed standing in front of her.
‘Robert,’ he said, reaching out his hand. ‘Robert Pilgrim.’
‘Hi,’ she said, almost lost in the wide grip of his palms. He waited, squeezing her hand once more despite the shake being over.
‘I give you a cigarette but you won’t give me your name?’
‘I’m not that easy,’ she drawled, looking away but watching him out of the corner of her eye.
‘There’s a word for that,’ he said, moving opposite so he was facing her. ‘High maintenance.’
‘That’s two words,’ she countered. He grinned.
‘Gotcha.’ She kicked herself for having fallen for it, pretending to look past him onto the street as she took in his open-necked shirt and jeans tucked into his leather boots. She saw something glint around his neck and, taking another drag, tilted her head to openly stare at his collarbone. He tugged his lapels closed with one hand.
‘So, Robert, what do you do?’
‘Journalist. And you?’
‘How do you know my father?’
‘Wow,’ he laughed, raising his eyebrows. ‘I don’t. I’m here covering for the BBC’s Political Editor who couldn’t make it. Something of a stand-in.’
‘Cute. Are you his assistant?’
‘He’s my boss, but I’m no assistant,’ he smiled again. ‘Sorry to disappoint.’
‘Deputy Political Editor?’
‘I do the online stuff.’
‘For the BBC. Impressive.’
‘I am.’ His eyes flicked between hers and his smile was still unashamedly proud.
‘We’ll see.’ She cocked her head at him.
‘Everything alright? You rushed out pretty quickly.’ He jerked his chin towards the party indoors. She thought he was probably taking a welcome break, too.
‘Oh, fine,’ she breezed, waving the the cigarette at the lounge window near them. He watched her intently.
‘You’re a broker, right?’
‘Was my father boasting within earshot?’
‘Let the man be proud,’ he said quietly, but something in his voice embarrassed her for her petty indifference. She tried not to let the shame creep onto her face again as he twisted on the end of his finished cigarette, causing the ash and remaining tobacco to fly out into the night. He cast around for a bin.
‘Flick it over the hedge, the neighbours are assholes,’ she said. He shrugged, ever-grinning, and launched the butt as instructed.
‘Want me to flick yours too?’ She held his gaze and moved to stand opposite him, just inches from his chest, matching him in her heels.
‘I can flick my own,’ she said wryly, ‘but you can watch if you like.’ She felt his body tense and his smile lay forgotten, giving way to a tightness around his mouth and eyes.
‘I think I’m going to need your number, kid,’ he murmured, pulling out his phone. ‘For journalistic purposes, of course.’
‘Of course.’ She relayed it to him slowly and deliberately, dripping the digits into his phone with a whisper. Each number felt thrust from her heartbeat, which galloped in her chest when she saw him save her under ‘Kid’. The rain continued to patter around them, drowning out some of the noise of the party they had both forgotten.
‘Shall we go in?’ He motioned with a hand but his gaze travelled from her lips to her eyes and back to her lips. She could have stayed under the awning for the entire night listening to the damp evening and the handsome man’s deep breathing. The thing around his neck flashed and she saw the patterned band of a ring held to his chest on a thin silver chain.
‘Sure,’ she said breathily, thinking she might get a better look at the ring indoors - and she’d like to get a better look at him, noticing the auburn chest hair curling just above the second button of his shirt. She turned towards the front door, feeling the familiar throb between her legs as a small tremor shot up through her stomach to her breasts, making her bite down on her bottom lip.
She opened the door and stepped into the party refusing to look behind her. She immediately caught her mother’s eye and made a beeline for the freezer, tapping her glass with her nails on the opposite hand.
‘Shut the door behind you, darling,’ Angela called across the party. She turned to see the front door swaying in the breeze gently and the empty porch outside. She walked back to the door and shut it quickly, restraining herself from casting her eyes down the empty street. She smiled to herself before turning back into the party.
‘You clever bastard, Robert Pilgrim,’ she muttered under her breath.