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  • Published: 8 January 2019
  • ISBN: 9781405918657
  • Imprint: Michael Joseph
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 384
  • RRP: $22.99

Day of the Dead

A Frieda Klein Novel (8)

Extract

One

It was a Monday morning, it was bright, it was warm, too warm for late autumn, and Charlotte Beck was about to experience the one really dramatic thing that would happen to her in her entire life. She wasn’t ready for it. She didn’t feel ready for anything.

She was manoeuvring a chaotic little group up Heath Street, as she did every weekday. She was steering a buggy containing ten-month-old Lulu. On her left side two-and-a-half-year-old Oscar was pushing himself on a little scooter. Round her right wrist was one end of a dog lead and the other end was attached to a black Labrador puppy called Suki. Everything looked like it was in fog, but it wasn’t real fog. It was the fog of tiredness that had hung stolidly over Charlotte’s world for the previous six months. Lulu didn’t sleep at night. She shouted and she screamed and nothing helped, nothing that Charlotte tried, nothing that the experts recommended.

Instead Lulu slept during the day. She was asleep now, contentedly under a blanket in her buggy, a dummy lodged in her mouth. Every so often, Charlotte leaned over to peer at her. She looked peaceful and angelic. It was difficult to believe that that smooth little face with its long eyelashes and pink cheeks could do so much damage to a grown woman. Charlotte felt so tired that it hurt. Her eyes were stinging with it, her skin felt stretched, her joints were aching. She was only thirty-one. It couldn’t be arthritis, could it? Could lack of sleep damage your bones? It felt like it. 

As her little caravan of chaos made its way up the hill, Charlotte was aware of so much that could go wrong. Suki wasn’t properly trained yet. Charlotte had meant to teach her to sit and to beg and just generally do what she was told but she hadn’t had the time. There’d been so much else to do. She might suddenly bolt towards another dog, or away from another dog, and drag them all into the traffic. Admittedly she was only a small puppy but she was more than a match for her owner. And Oscar on his scooter was a permanent danger to himself and to others. For the hundredth time Charlotte told herself that she really ought to buy him a helmet. What would happen if he came off it and landed on his head? What kind of a mother was she anyway? She wearily imagined the potential news headlines: ‘Family Dragged Into Traffic by Dog’; ‘Tot Dies in Scooter Crash. Mother Arrested’.

This morning the shops felt like a series of rebukes. She passed coffee shops with pairs of young mothers sitting and talking, as if motherhood was an easy and enjoyable lifestyle choice. The thought of even trying to sit in a café with Oscar and Lulu and Suki gave Charlotte the beginnings of a migraine. She passed a toddlers’ clothes shop called Mamma Mia. Oscar stopped his scooter by ramming into the glass window.

‘Is that a robot?’ he asked, staring at the silvery, dead-eyed, child-sized dummy, wearing a jacket that cost £87.50.

‘No,’ said Charlotte. ‘It’s a  . . .’ She hesitated. How to explain? ‘It’s a sort of doll for wearing clothes.’ Behind the shop dummies, Charlotte saw a woman wearing a pink Puffa jacket with two children, a boy who looked the same size as Oscar and a girl a few years older. The girl had blonde hair tied in a ponytail. Charlotte felt as if she was looking at a performance by people who knew how to be a family and had the money to get it right.

They proceeded up the street. They were heading for the top of the hill, the Whitestone Pond, Hampstead Heath. It always felt to Charlotte like it was breaking out into the light, escaping the murk below, the traffic and fumes of the four-wheel-drives taking children to one of the dozens of little private prep schools dotted around Hampstead. She paused again outside a dentist’s surgery. When did children first need to go to the dentist? She looked at the glass sign outside, with a list of the services they offered. ‘Celebrity Smile Portfolio’. That sounded like something she could use. ‘Turn Back Time Treatments’. Even better. She thought of herself ten years ago – was it really that long? – at university. Those Friday and Saturday nights, the late mornings. Nobody to feed. Nobody to worry about except herself and the occasional flatmate taking the last of the milk. She caught sight of herself in the mirror. What would twenty-one-year-old Charlotte Beck make of thirty-one-year-old Charlotte Beck, sleep-deprived, hair unwashed and – she suddenly noticed – with a stain on the front of her shirt? She pulled up the zip of her jacket so that it couldn’t be seen.

They continued up the hill.

‘Where are we going?’ said Oscar.

‘Where we always go. To the pond. Maybe one day we’ll get a boat.’

‘What sort of boat?’

‘A little sailing boat.’ It sounded a bad idea as soon as the words were out of her mouth. And then it happened. A flash of silver as the car passed her, heading down the hill.

Too fast, she thought, and turned to Oscar and the buggy and Suki. She wasn’t looking in the right direction, but she heard screams and then a scraping sound and then the sound of bumping and metal and then shattering glass. She stared back down the hill. She had difficulty in making sense of what she was seeing because everything was suddenly different. Nobody was moving and the world had gone silent, except that a bell was ringing somewhere, a burglar alarm or a fire alarm. Improbably, as if in a dream, the silver car that had passed her was now wedged into a shop window. It was almost the whole way in. A white van coming up the hill had stopped in the middle of the road and the driver had got out but he wasn’t doing anything, just standing and watching.

Charlotte felt as if normal life had cracked and she had stepped through the crack and everything was different and nothing made sense. She started walking slowly towards the devastation and then stopped. She had Suki; the lead was fastened to her wrist. But she had forgotten her children. She stepped back and took hold of the buggy. Lulu was still fast asleep. Oscar was gazing at the crashed car, his mouth open, like a caricature of surprise in a storybook.

‘Come,’ Charlotte said to him, then awkwardly took his right hand in her left and steered the buggy with her other, which was also attached to Suki’s lead. As she got closer, she could see that some people were just standing and staring. Two women had come out of the café. There was a postman. No. Charlotte mentally corrected herself: it was a postwoman. She had her funny red trailer and she was holding a package in her hand. Next, Charlotte saw figures lying on the ground. Why was nobody helping them? Who was in charge? She looked around. What she wanted was people in uniform to appear and take over and put up tape and tell everyone to keep on the other side of it. But there was nobody. Just ordinary people who didn’t know what to do.

Two young women were standing next to her. One had a leather bag over her shoulder.

‘Have you got a phone?’

The women looked puzzled and Charlotte repeated the question. One woman raised her hand to show the phone she was holding.

‘Ambulance,’ said Charlotte. ‘Nine nine nine. Call it now.’

She looked at the other woman, then gestured at her children. ‘Take care of them,’ she said. ‘One minute. I’ll be back.’

Charlotte took Suki’s lead off her wrist and gave it to the still open-mouthed Oscar. ‘Look after Suki for one minute. Can you do that?’

He nodded solemnly. Charlotte turned round and walked towards the car. A person was lying half on the pavement, half on the road, splayed out. One leg was bent in a way that seemed wrong. Charlotte knelt down beside the woman and gazed into her eyes. Her mind was a blank about what you were meant to do. Were you meant to move them or not to move them?

‘How are you?’ she asked.

‘My leg,’ said the woman. At least she could talk.

‘Anything else?’

‘My husband. Where’s my husband?’

‘The ambulance is coming,’ said Charlotte, hoping it was true. She walked round to the other side of the car. An old man was lying on his back. He was staring up at the sky without blinking and without seeing. It was the first dead person Charlotte had ever seen.

She stepped towards the car. She could see a slumped figure inside. She couldn’t make out whether it was male or female. She was going to open the car door when she heard a sobbing sound. She turned her head: it was coming from inside the shop. She stepped in through what had been the shop window. She heard the crunch of the glass under her feet, looked down and realized this was Mamma Mia, the children’s clothes shop.

She walked further in and saw a figure lying on the floor half under the front wheels of the car. As she bent down towards it, the figure groaned and moved, and suddenly she felt a warm splash on her and saw that it was a woman and there was blood gushing from her shoulder or near her shoulder. It came in spurts, as if someone was blowing it out, then breathing in and blowing it out again. The woman was staring up at her, looking directly into Charlotte’s eyes. Charlotte had an impulse to run away and let someone else deal with this.

She had a dim memory of what one should do. Press on something. That was it. But where? She pushed her fingers over the wound but the blood bubbled through them. It wasn’t working. Then she moved her hand slightly down from the wound and pressed again, really hard. The flow of blood stopped, as if she had stepped on a garden hose. She pressed even harder and the woman gave a gasp.

‘Am I going to die?’ she said, her eyes flickering.

‘There’s an ambulance coming,’ said Charlotte.

‘Joey,’ said the woman. ‘And Cass.’

Suddenly Charlotte realized that this was the woman she had been looking at through the window, and then she wondered where the woman’s children were.

‘I’m sure they’re safe,’ said Charlotte.

She glanced around, almost frightened of what she might see. There to one side were the two children, slumped on the floor, glassy-eyed with shock. Charlotte felt she should do something but was scared to move her hand. Suddenly there was a bustle around her, uniforms, young men and women in a blur. Someone shouted questions at her but she couldn’t think. She was pulled away from the woman, who disappeared under a scrum of paramedics. Charlotte stepped back, the glass still crunching under her feet. She looked at the two children still slumped on the floor and held out her hands helplessly.

She remembered her own children and made her way gingerly through the wrecked shop. People in uniform were everywhere. Some of them looked at her curiously. She stepped outside and felt the sunshine on her and heard sounds of gasping. She was puzzled and wondered what it was about, and then she looked down at herself, soaked with red, and understood it was about her.


Day of the Dead Nicci French

At long last, a reckoning is coming: the final novel in the internationally bestselling Frieda Klein series

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