In a Dark, Dark Wood Page 2

Could it be a mistake? Had this Flo just plundered Clare’s address book and fired off an email to anyone she could find?

But just twelve people … that meant my inclusion could hardly be a mistake. Right?

I sat, staring at the screen as if the pixels could provide answers to the questions shifting queasily in my gut. I half wished I’d just deleted it without even reading.

Suddenly I couldn’t sit still any longer. I got up and paced to the door, and then back to my desk, where I stood, staring uneasily at the laptop screen.

Clare Cavendish. Why me? Why now?

I could hardly ask this Flo person.

There was only one person who might know.

I sat. Then quickly, before I could change my mind, I tapped out an email.

To: Nina da Souza
From: Nora Shaw
Subject: Hen???
Dearest N, Hope you’re well. Must admit I was a bit surprised to see us both on the list to Clare’s hen night. Are you going? xx
And then I waited for a reply.

For next few days, I tried to put it out of my mind. I busied myself with work – trying to bury myself in the knotty minutiae of the copy editor’s queries – but Florence’s email was a constant distracting presence in the back of my mind, like an ulcer at the tip of your tongue that twinges when you least expect it, the ragged nail that you can’t stop picking. The email got pushed further and further down the inbox, but I could feel it there, its ‘unreplied’ flag like a silent reproach, the unanswered questions it posed a constant niggle against the background of my daily routine.

Answer, I begged Nina in my head, as I was running in the park, or cooking my supper, or just staring into space. I thought about calling her. But I didn’t know what I wanted her to say.

And then, a few days later, I was sitting having breakfast and scrolling idly through twitter on my phone, when the ‘new email’ icon flashed.

It was from Nina.

I took a gulp of coffee and a deep breath, and clicked to open it.

From: Nina da Souza
To: Nora Shaw
Subject: Re: Hen???
Dude! Long time no chat. Just got yr email – I was on lates at the hospital. Christ, in all honesty it’s the last thing I want to do. I got the wedding invitation a while back but I was hoping I’d escaped the hen. R you going? Shall we make a pact? I’ll go if you go?
I drank my coffee while I looked at the screen, my finger hovering over ‘Reply’ but not quite clicking. I’d hoped Nina would answer at least some of the questions that had been buzzing and building in my head over the last few days. When was the wedding? Why invite me to the hen, but not the wedding? Who was she marrying?

Hey, do you know … I started, and then deleted it. No. I couldn’t ask outright. It would be tantamount to admitting I hadn’t the first clue what was going on. I’ve always been too proud to admit to ignorance. I hate being at a disadvantage.

I tried to push the question to the bottom of my mind while I dressed and had a shower. But when I opened up my computer there were two more unread emails in my inbox.

The first was a regretful ‘no thanks’ from one of Clare’s friends, citing a family birthday.

The second was another email from Flo. This time she’d attached a read receipt.

To: [email protected]
From: Florence Clay
Subject: Re: CLARE’S HEN!!!
Dear Lee,
Sorry to chase, but just wondering if you got my email the other day! I know it has been a while since you saw Clare, but she was so hoping you might be able to come. She often talks about you, and I know feels bad that you lost touch after school. I don’t know what happened, but she’d really love for you to be there – won’t you say yes?! It would really make her weekend complete.
Flo xxx
The email should have made me feel flattered – that Clare was so keen for me to be there, that Flo had gone to such trouble to track me down. But it didn’t. Instead I felt a surge of resentment at being nagged, and a sense of invaded privacy at the read receipt. It felt like being checked up on, spied upon.

I shut down the email and opened up the document I was working on, but even as I got down to it, pushing all thoughts of the hen determinedly from my mind, Flo’s words hung in the air like an echo, niggling at me. I don’t know what happened. It sounded like a plaintive child. No, I thought bitterly. You don’t. So don’t go prying into my past.

I had sworn never to go back.

Nina was different – Nina lived in London now, and she and I ran into each other occasionally around Hackney. She was as much part of my London life as my Reading one now.

But Clare – Clare was resolutely part of the past – and I wanted her to stay there.

And yet small part of me – a small nagging part, that pricked at my conscience – didn’t.

Clare had been my friend. My best friend, for a long time. And yet I’d run, without looking back, without even leaving a number. What kind of friend did that make me?

I got up restlessly and, for want of anything better to do, made another cup of coffee. I stood over the percolator while it hissed and gurgled, worrying at the side of my nail with my teeth and thinking about the ten years since I’d last seen her. When at last the machine had finished I poured myself a cup, and carried it back to my desk, but I didn’t start work again. Instead I opened up google and tapped in ‘Clare Cavendish facebook’.

There were a lot of Clare Cavendishes, it turned out, and the coffee had gone cold before I found one that I thought might be her. The profile picture was a snap of a couple in Doctor Who fancy dress. It was hard to tell beneath the straggling red wig, but there was something about the way the girl was throwing her head back and laughing that made me stop, as I scrolled down the endless list. The man was dressed as Matt Smith, with floppy hair, horn-rimmed glasses and a bow tie. I clicked on the picture to enlarge it and stared at the two of them for a long time, trying to make out her features beneath the trailing red hair, and the more I looked the more I thought it was Clare. The man I definitely didn’t recognise, I was sure of that.

I clicked on the ‘about’ tab. Under ‘Mutual friends’ it said ‘Nina da Souza’. Definitely Clare. And under the ‘relationship’ header, it said ‘in a relationship with William Pilgrim.’ The name made me do a slight double take. It seemed familiar in some indefinable way. Someone from school? But the only William in our year had been Will Miles. Pilgrim. I couldn’t remember anyone called Pilgrim. I clicked on the profile picture, but it was an anonymous shot of a half-full pint glass.

I went back to Clare’s profile picture, and as I looked at it, trying to work out what to do, Flo’s email echoed inside my head: she’d so love for you to be there. She often talks about you.

I felt something squeeze at my heart. A kind of guilt, maybe.

I had left without looking back; shell-shocked, reeling, and for a long time I’d concentrated on putting one foot in front of another, keeping going, keeping the past firmly behind me.

Self-preservation: that was all I could manage. I hadn’t allowed myself to think of everything I’d left behind.

But now Clare’s eyes met mine, peering out flirtatiously from beneath the red wig, and I thought I saw something pleading in her eyes, something reproachful.

I found myself remembering. Remembering the way she could make you feel like a million dollars, just by picking you out of a crowded room. Remembering her low, gurgling laugh, the notes she’d pass in class, her wicked sense of humour.

I remembered sleeping over on her bedroom floor aged maybe six, my first time away from home, lying there listening to the soft purr of her night-time breath. I’d had a nightmare, and wet the bed and Clare – Clare had hugged me and given me her own bear to cuddle while she crept into the airing cupboard to get new sheets, and hid the others in the laundry basket.

I heard her mother’s voice on the landing, low and groggy, asking what was going on, and Clare’s swift reply: ‘I knocked over my milk mummy, it made Lee’s bed all wet.’

For a second I was back there, twenty years ago, a small frightened girl. I could smell the scent of her bedroom – the fustiness of our night breath, the sweetness of the bath pearls in a glass jar on her window sill, the fresh laundry smell of the clean sheets.

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