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Chapter 16

WHEN I TURN UP at my parents’ house that afternoon without warning, saying I want to stay for a few days, I can’t say they seem shocked.

In fact, so unsurprised do they seem that I begin to wonder if they’ve been expecting this eventuality all along, ever since I moved to London. Have they been waiting every week for me to arrive on the doorsteps with no luggage and red eyes? They’re certainly behaving as calmly as a hospital casualty team operating an emergency procedure.

Except that surely the casualty team wouldn’t keep arguing about the best way to resuscitate the patient? After a few minutes, I feel like going outside, letting them decide on their plan of action, and ringing the bell again.

“You go upstairs and have a nice hot bath,” says Mum, as soon as I’ve put down my handbag. “I expect you’re exhausted!”

“She doesn’t have to have a bath if she doesn’t want to!” retorts Dad. “She might want a drink! D’you want a drink, darling?”

“Is that wise?” says Mum, shooting him a meaningful what-if-she’s-an-alkie? look, which presumably I’m not supposed to notice.

“I don’t want a drink, thanks,” I say. “But I’d love a cup of tea.”

“Of course you would!” says Mum. “Graham, go and put the kettle on.” And she gives him another meaningful look. As soon as he’s disappeared into the kitchen, she comes close to me and says, in a lowered voice, “Are you feeling all right, darling? Is any-thing . . . wrong?”

Oh God, there’s nothing like your mother’s sympathetic voice to make you want to burst into tears.

“Well,” I say, in a slightly uncertain voice. “Things have been better. I’m just . . . in a bit of a difficult situation at the moment. But it’ll be all right in the end.” I give a small shrug and look away.

“Because . . .” She lowers her voice even more. “Your father isn’t as old-fashioned as he seems. And I know that if it were a case of us looking after a . . . a little one, while you pursued your career . . .”


“Mum, don’t worry!” I exclaim sharply. “I’m not pregnant!”

“I never said you were,” she says, and flushes a little. “I just wanted to offer you our support.”

My parents watch too many soap operas, that’s their trouble. In fact, they were probablyhoping I was pregnant. By my wicked married lover whom they could then murder and bury under the patio.

And what’s this “offer you our support” business, anyway? My mum would never have said that before she started watching Ricki Lake.

“Well, come on,” she says. “Let’s sit you down with a nice cup of tea.”

And so I follow her into the kitchen, and we all sit down with a cup of tea. And I have to say, it is very nice. Hot strong tea and a chocolate bourbon biscuit. Perfect. I close my eyes and take a few sips, and then open them again, to see both my parents gazing atme with naked curiosity all over their faces. Immediately my mother changes her expression to a smile, and my father gives a little cough—but I can tell, they aregagging to know what’s wrong.

“So,” I say cautiously, and both their heads jerk up. “You’re both well, are you?”

“Oh yes,” says my mother. “Yes, we’re fine.”

There’s another silence.

“Becky?” says my father gravely, and both Mum and I swivel to face him. “Are you in some kind of trouble we should know about? Only tell us if you want to,” he adds hastily. “And I want you to know—we’re there for you.”

That’s another bloody Ricki Lake-ism, too. My parents should really get out more.

“Are you all right, darling?” says Mum gently—and she sounds so kind and understanding that, in spite of myself, I find myself putting down my cup with a bit of a clatter and saying “To tell you the truth, I am in a spot of bother. I didn’t want to worry you, so I haven’t said anything before now . . .” I can feel tears gathering in my eyes.

“What is it?” says Mum in a panicky voice. “You’re on drugs, aren’t you?”

“No, I’m not on drugs!” I exclaim. “I’m just . . . It’s just that I . . . I’m . . .” I take a deep gulp of tea. This is even harder than I thought it would be. Come on, Rebecca, justsay it.

I close my eyes and clench my hand tightly around my mug.

“The truth is . . .” I say slowly.

“Yes?” says Mum.

“The truth is . . .” I open my eyes. “I’m being stalked. By a man called . . . called Derek Smeath.”

There’s silence apart from a long hiss as my father sucks in breath.

“I knew it!” says my mother in a sharp, brittle voice. “I knew it! I knew there was something wrong!”

“We all knew there was something wrong!” says my father, and rests his elbows heavily on the table. “How long has this been going on, Becky?”

“Oh, ahm . . . months now,” I say, staring into my tea. “It’s just . . . pestering, really. It’s not serious or anything. But I just couldn’t deal with it anymore.”

“And who is this Derek Smeath?” says Dad. “Do we know him?”

“I don’t think so. I came across him . . . I came across him through work.”

“Of course you did!” says Mum. “A young, pretty girl like you, with a high-profile career . . . I knew this was going to happen!”

“Is he another journalist?” says Dad, and I shake my head.

“He works for Endwich Bank. He does things like . . . like phone up and pretend he’s in charge of my bank account. He’s really convincing.”

There’s silence while my parents digest this and I eat another chocolate bourbon.

“Well,” says Mum at last. “I think we’ll have to phone the police.”

“No!” I exclaim, spluttering crumbs all over the table. “I don’t want the police! He’s never threatened me or anything. In fact, he’s not really a stalker at all. He’s just a pain. I thought if I disap-peared for a while . . .”

“I see,” says Dad, and glances at Mum. “Well, that makes sense.”

“So what I suggest,” I say, meshing my hands tightly in my lap, “is that if he rings, you say I’ve gone abroad and you don’t have a number for me. And . . . if anyone else rings, say the same thing. Even Suze. I’ve left her a message saying I’m OK—but I don’t want anyone to know where I am.”

“Are you sure?” says Mum, wrinkling her brow. “Wouldn’t it be better to go to the police?”

“No!” I say quickly. “That would only make him feel impor-tant. I just want to vanish for a bit.”“Fine,” says Dad. “As far as we’re concerned, you’re not here.” He reaches across the table and clasps my hand. And as I see the worry on his face, I hate myself for what I’m doing.

But I simply can’t tell my kind, loving parents that their so-called successful daughter with her so-called top job is in fact a disorganized, deceitful mess, up to her eyeballs in debt.



And so we have supper (Waitrose Cumberland Pie) and watch an Agatha Christie adaption together, and then I go upstairs to my old bedroom, put on an old nightie, and go to bed. And when I wake up the next morning, I feel more happy and rested than I have for weeks.

Above all, staring at my old bedroom ceiling, I feel safe. Cocooned from the world; wrapped up in cotton wool. No one can get me here. No one evenknows I’m here. I won’t get any nasty letters and I won’t get any nasty phone calls and I won’t get any nasty visitors. It’s like a sanctuary. I feel as if I’m fifteen again, with nothing to worry about but my homework. (And I haven’t even got any of that.)

It’s at least nine o’clock before I rouse myself and get out of bed, and as I do so, it occurs to me that miles away in London, Derek Smeath is expecting me to arrive for a meeting in half an hour. A slight twinge passes through my stomach and for a moment I consider phoning up the bank and giving some excuse. But even as I’m considering it, I know I’m not going to do it. I don’t even want to acknowledge the bank’s existence. I want to forget all about it.

None of it exists anymore. Not the bank, not VISA, not Octagon. All eliminated from my life, just like that.

The only call I make is to the office, because I don’t want them sacking me in my absence. I phone at nine-twenty—before Philip gets in—and get Mavis on reception.

“Hello, Mavis?” I croak. “It’s Rebecca Bloomwood here. Can you tell Philip I’m ill?”

“You poor thing!” says Mavis. “Is it bronchitis?”

“I’m not sure,” I croak. “I’ve got a doctor’s appointment later. I must go. Bye.”

And that’s it. One phone call, and I’m free. No one suspects anything—why should they? I feel light with relief. It’s so easy to escape. I should have done this long ago.

At the back of my mind, like a nasty little gremlin, is the knowledge that I won’t be able to stay here forever. That sooner or later things will start to catch up with me. But the point is—not yet. And in the meantime, I’m not even going to think about it. I’m just going to have a nice cup of tea and watchMorning Coffee and blank my mind out completely.

As I go into the kitchen, Dad’s sitting at the table, reading the paper. There’s the smell of toast in the air, and Radio Four in the background. Just like when I was younger and lived at home. Life was simple then. No bills, no demands, no threatening letters. An enormous wave of nostalgia overcomes me, and I turn away to fill the kettle, blinking slightly.

“Interesting news,” says Dad, jabbing atThe Daily Telegraph.

“Oh yes?” I say, putting a tea bag in a mug. “What’s that?”

“Scottish Prime has taken over Flagstaff Life.”

“Oh right,” I say vaguely. “Right. Yes, I think I’d heard that was going to happen.”

“All the Flagstaff Life investors are going to receive huge windfall payments. The biggest ever, apparently.”

“Gosh,” I say, trying to sound interested. I reach for a copy ofGood Housekeeping, flick it open, and begin to read my horoscope.

But something’s niggling at my mind. Flagstaff Life. Why does that sound familiar? Who was I talking to about. . .

“Martin and Janice next door!” I exclaim suddenly. “They’re with Flagstaff Life! Have been for fifteen years.”

“Then they’ll do very well,” says Dad. “The longer you’ve been with them, the more you get, apparently.”

He turns the page with a rustle, and I sit down at the table with my cup of tea and aGood Housekeeping article on makingEaster cakes. It’s not fair, I find myself thinking resentfully. Why can’t I get a windfall payment? Why doesn’t Endwich Bank get taken over? Then they could pay me a windfall big enough to wipe out my overdraft.

“Any plans for the day?” says Dad, looking up.

“Not really,” I say, and take a sip of tea.

Any plans for the rest of my life? Not really.



In the end, I spend a pleasant, unchallenging morning help-ing Mum sort out a pile of clothes for a jumble sale, and at twelve-thirty we go into the kitchen to make a sandwich. As I look at the clock, the fact that I was supposed to be at Endwich Bank three hours ago flickers through my mind—but very far off, like a distant clock chiming. My whole London life seems remote and unreal now. This is where I belong. Away from the madding crowd; at home with Mum and Dad, having a nice relaxed uncomplicated time.

After lunch I wander out into the garden with one of Mum’s mail-order catalogues, and go and sit on the bench by the apple tree. A moment later, I hear a voice from over the garden fence, and look up. It’s Martin from next door. Hmm. I’m not feeling very well disposed toward Martin at the moment.

“Hello, Becky,” he says softly. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine, thanks,” I say shortly.And I don’t fancy your son, I feel like adding.

“Becky,” says Janice, appearing beside Martin, holding a garden trowel. She gives me an awestricken look. “We heard about your . . .stalker” she whispers.

“It’s criminal,” says Martin fiercely. “These people should be locked up.”

“If there’s anything we can do,” says Janice. “Anything at all. You just let us know.”

“I’m fine, really,” I say, softening. “I just want to stay here for a while. Get away from it all.”

“Of course you do,” says Martin. “Wise girl.”

“I was saying to Martin this morning,” says Janice, “you should hire a bodyguard.”

“Can’t be too careful,” says Martin. “Not these days.”

“The price of fame,” says Janice, sorrowfully shaking her head. “The price of fame.”

“Well, anyway,” I say, trying to get off the subject of my stalker. “How are you?”

“Oh, we’re both well,” says Martin. “I suppose.” To my sur-prise there’s a forced cheerfulness to his voice. He glances at Janice, who frowns and shakes her head slightly.

“Anyway, you must be pleased with the news,” I say brightly. “About Flagstaff Life.”

There’s silence.

“Well,” says Martin. “We would have been.”

“No one could have known,” says Janice, giving a little shrug. “It’s just one of those things. Just the luck of the draw.”


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