Friday, 2 March – Late Evening
Adam Brannon looked like he was going to explode. He slapped the steering wheel with the palm of his hand and, taking his eyes off the road, stared at his wife in the passenger seat, arms folded tightly across her chest. ‘Oh, for fuck’s sake! Give it a rest, Charlotte.’
Charlotte’s bottom lip, crimson from the Chanel lipstick she’d put on in the restaurant toilet, jutted out. ‘Don’t tell me to shut up. I’m not the one who behaved like a complete prick tonight.’
Adam’s nostrils flared. ‘If I were you, I’d shut it before you say anything else you might regret. You should have laid off that fucking red wine. It’s gone to your head. You’re coming out with all sorts of crap.’
Charlotte twisted her upper body towards him, the seat belt pulling tight against her ample chest, revealing milk-white flesh that spilled over the low neckline of her cashmere sweater. ‘Pull over, you dick. I’ll walk home!’
‘You most certainly won’t. You’ll sit there and shut the fuck up.’ His last words were hissed slowly, voice dripping with menace. A car drew up close behind the Bentley Bentayga, its headlights on full beam, dazzling him and making him squint. ‘Twat!’ he muttered as he dipped his mirror to lessen the glare.
‘Who are you calling a twat?’ She was off again. That was the trouble with Charlotte. She was a lightweight when it came to drinking, and her parents – who could politely be called sociable – were hardened to it. They’d all spent the last three hours at a pretentious restaurant, chosen by Kevin Hill, his father-in-law, supposedly celebrating her parents’ thirtieth wedding anniversary. They’d started with champagne and swiftly moved on to a full-bodied Shiraz. Kevin favoured red wine, especially with the venison he and his wife had chosen as a main course. As designated driver for the night, Adam had stuck to water and Coca-Cola.
‘I wasn’t talking to you. There’s some tosser right on our tail and he’s blinding me with his headlights.’
A silence ensued, during which Adam glowered darkly into the rear-view mirror. The bloody car hadn’t dropped back. If he’d been alone he’d have come to a screeching halt, forced the vehicle to pull over and then taken the driver to task, probably with the heavy spanner he kept in the side pocket in case of such incidents. Charlotte was staring at him, her eyes two narrowed slits. Between her and the numbskull behind him, he could hardly concentrate on his driving.
‘Look, I know it didn’t go well tonight…’ he began.
‘Then you should have made more effort.’
‘For crying out loud, I did make an effort. Your mother kept freezing me out of the conversation. You know she doesn’t like me.’
She threw back her head, chin high, and sighed dramatically. ‘She does like you. You make it so difficult. Every time she asks you something, you behave like a sulky schoolboy who doesn’t know the answer to a question.’
‘That’s ridiculous and you know it. You should try sticking up for me now and again. Your upbringing was worlds apart from mine, and I don’t know the first thing about fucking point-to-point, or sodding golf, or which glass to drink port out of. You know that and so do your parents. They deliberately try to make me feel like an outsider. And tonight it was all, “What was the name of that delightful young man we bumped into at the casino in Monte Carlo, Charlotte? The one who invited us for cocktails on his yacht,” and, “Shares in Tarquin Dunn-Hamilton’s company soared on the stock market last week, darling.”’ He adopted the same plummy voice his mother-in-law, Sheila, had used to drive home his argument.
Charlotte stared ahead into the darkness.
‘Like I give a shit about people I’ve never heard of. Your folks were bang out of order. They deliberately excluded me and you encouraged them. You didn’t once change the subject to something that included me. Know how that makes me feel?’
‘You’re being ridiculous.’
‘Am I? I’m not the one picking this fight. You are. Look at you sitting there all hostile, arms crossed and a fucking great sneer on your mouth. There was a time when you’d have supported me, not given up and let them walk all over me.’
She released a humourless laugh. ‘Yeah, cos loads of people walk over you, big man, don’t they?’
‘Do you have to do that?’
‘The jerk behind me is getting on my nerves.’
‘Pull over and let him overtake, then.’
‘Hell, no. He’s in the wrong. He should drop back.’
‘Adam. Pull over.’ Her eyes flashed.
‘Whatever,’ he said, and, slowing the car, he manoeuvred closer to the roadside to allow the guy behind to pass. The car pulled out and accelerated away at speed, exhaust popping. Adam stuck up his middle finger as it overtook but didn’t glance at the driver or the vehicle, his attention on Charlotte, who was giving him the evil eye again.
‘Feel better now? You’re pathetic sometimes,’ she said.
Adam lapsed into silence. Charlotte reclined her seat. The alcohol was having an effect on her. Her father always made sure her glass was topped up, and tonight, thanks to Adam, she’d kept knocking it back. All she knew was she was really, really pissed off with Adam. He’d been so rude to her folks on their anniversary. It was always awkward when they all got together but tonight had been harder than all the other times put together because, for once, Charlotte hadn’t stood up for her man. She’d let him flounder. He’d deserved to. She was sick of his swaggering macho performances. She was tired of the chip that was permanently on his shoulder and the arguments they had day after day. It didn’t matter that he didn’t earn a fortune. She’d never cared about the money. She had stacks of bloody money in her trust fund. Adam was a hypocrite. He moaned about her folks being wealthy and making him feel undervalued, and yet he lived in a house her parents had financed, and he loved driving her Bentley that her father had bought, so what was his problem? The answer was he was jealous of his wife’s financial independence, and the support she got from her family.
They pulled onto the driveway of their home, built in the style of a modern log cabin but with two enormous downstairs windows, both the size of garage double doors. Adam looked at her, eyebrows high on his forehead, dark eyes fringed with lengthy eyelashes, full of remorse, and let out a sigh. ‘I’m sorry, babe,’ he said.
‘Fuck you,’ came the reply. ‘I’m going to bed. You’d better run Inge home. I’ll send her out.’
She fumbled for the seat belt but couldn’t release it. He leant across and unclipped it for her. Without a word of thanks, Charlotte threw open the car door and clattered out, skyscraper heels kicking the scuff plate. She weaved towards the house. Adam remained in the car.
‘Inge,’ Charlotte called, kicking off her shoes in the entrance and lurching towards the sitting room. The television was on low volume. On the screen, several well-wrapped-up figures in coats and hats were huddled beside an open lake. Judging by the subtitles that flashed up on the bottom half of the set, Inge was watching some foreign drama. The flat-screen set was one of the largest available and had been bought for Adam so he could watch sport in high definition on a wide screen. Charlotte didn’t care for many of the programmes on television unless it was reality TV. She’d rather check her social media any day, or update her fashion blog.
Inge, in jeans and a baggy sweater, looked up and smiled. The girl was quite plain but had a wide, sweet smile. ‘Did you have a good time?’ she asked, picking up the remote and flicking the off button.
‘It was fine, thanks. How was Alfie?’
‘No trouble. He slept the whole time you were out. I thought he was going to wake up earlier. There were a few mumbles and I checked on him but he was fast asleep on his back. I left Ewan the Dream Sheep turned on.’
The sheep was six-month-old Alfie’s favourite toy. He couldn’t sleep without it and preferred the heartbeat out of all the sound options that could be set. Charlotte had tried putting Alfie down without it but he wouldn’t settle. In the end, she’d decided to let him have his way. He’d grow out of it one day. The baby monitor crackled slightly. The noise of a steady heartbeat from Ewan, replicating what Alfie would have heard when he was growing inside Charlotte, was audible.
Inge picked up a notebook and biology book lying open on the wide, coffee-coloured leather settee.
A nod was the response. Inge was very studious: she wanted to be a midwife or maybe even a doctor like her mother, Sabine, who was one of Charlotte’s friends. She may have only been seventeen but she acted far more like an adult than many girls her age, and Charlotte had been glad to have her watch over Alfie on the occasional nights she and Adam went out. Inge only lived a couple of miles away in the village of Brompton and was, thanks to her bookish nature, nearly always available at a moment’s notice.
‘Adam’s outside. He’ll run you home as usual. Thanks again.’ Charlotte slurred the last words and held onto the door frame for support. She needed to get to bed.
Inge eased out of the door, books in hand, and disappeared from view.
Charlotte headed straight to the kitchen end of the open-plan lounge – contemporary and sleek in white – with an unusual, curved worktop under which sat white stools, designed and built by a top firm in London. The silver range cooker had been her idea, but given she wasn’t much of a cook, it was more to create an impression than for preparing meals. She opened the steel-grey American fridge-freezer, inset into the units, and pulled out a water filter jug, then zigzagged towards the cupboards opposite to fetch a glass. She chugged cold water that barely touched the sides of her throat then poured another to take upstairs with her. That was the solution to a hangover – drink as much water as possible before going to sleep.
She collected the baby monitor and with a glass in the other hand, bounced off the walls and somehow managed to propel herself up the wooden staircase to the bedroom. She set the monitor down beside the bed, alongside the glass, and tiptoed into the adjacent room.
Bo-boom, bo-boom, bo-boom. The noise was calming and the purple glow from the sheep instantly relaxing, like the sounds and dim lighting used in spas. She wondered if her own heart had beat that quickly and if Alfie really believed he was still cocooned inside his mother. She bent over the cot and took in the little figure, flat on his back, arms wide open, his face the picture of perfection with pale downy hair sticking up, a slightly upturned nose and chubby cheeks. His fists were tightly clenched. Charlotte wanted to uncurl them and hold them in her own hands but she knew she was too drunk. Sense had finally kicked in.
‘Night, my handsome little prince,’ she whispered and tiptoed out of the nursery she had so carefully prepared for the birth of her baby, with soft toys all lined up at the head of the cot and a large white toy box in the corner, Alfie’s name spelt out in large letters on it. The heartbeat continued, strong and comforting – a protective force like a mother’s love.
On the landing, her stomach lurched. The wine soured in her throat and she hastened to the bathroom. She’d drunk way more than she ought to have. You know why. She hadn’t been celebrating her parents’ wedding anniversary at all. She’d been building up courage. Too much wine. She turned on the shower, and while the water ran warm, she peeled off her clothes, leaving them in an untidy heap on top of the laundry basket. She rested her head against the cool tiles for a moment before stepping into the wide cubicle and allowing the hot spray to sprinkle onto her back and head. She soaped her hands with the gift her mother had given her for Christmas, an opulent oil that ran smoothly over her flat stomach and thighs as she tried to rub herself sober, further massaging the oil into her shoulders and arms and over her chest as the water cascaded onto her, cleansing her.
She twisted the perfectly shined chrome tap to the off position and, allowing the fat drips to tumble from her body into the shower tray, rested her open palms against the screen. She stared out at the double his and hers oyster-shaped sinks with their waterfall taps: neat rows of perfume bottles above hers and aftershaves over Adam’s. The perfect couple. She grimaced at the irony of this. She clambered out onto the bath mat to dry herself off with one of the towels and then, naked, moved into the bedroom where she threw back the heavy duvet and slid under it. She sank into the fluffy, white pillow and began to drift effortlessly away from reality – far away from Adam.
Charlotte couldn’t work out what had woken her. Was it Adam shifting about in bed or had Alfie come to? All she knew was her tongue had glued itself to the roof of her mouth and she had the mother of all headaches. Reaching her hand out tentatively to the left, she established the sheet was cool. Adam had not yet come to bed. She opened an eye, her lids heavy with sleep, and rolled onto her side. The digital display on the bedside clock read 23.03. She blinked hard.
A crackling from the baby monitor caused her senses to kick in. Alfie was awake. That must have been what had disturbed her. Even in the deepest slumber, one cry from her baby would rouse her in an instant. She listened hard but there was nothing. Alfie wasn’t grumbling or crying. Where’s Adam? She recalled the row they’d had in the car. That wouldn’t have been enough to cause him to spend the night away. That wasn’t how he played it. He was bullish and argumentative. He wouldn’t back off or disappear with his tail between his legs because Charlotte had suddenly verbally attacked him. So where is he? Is he in Alfie’s room? The monitor crackled again, making her jump. She strained her ears and held her breath. Then it hit her. The toy sheep’s regular heartbeat had ceased.
She pushed herself up onto her elbows and pressed her ear closer to the monitor, listening for Adam’s voice. Alfie stirred and gurgled. The sound lifted her spirits momentarily. Her baby was a smiler. He never woke up in a bad mood.
A cough. And not Adam’s.
The urge to scream was great. She fought it back. Thoughts bounced and collided and veered in all directions like beads falling from a broken necklace onto a tiled floor.
She had to get help. She had to save her baby. With the flat of her hand she searched for her mobile in vain, patting the bedside table in desperation, before the horrific recollection that her phone was downstairs in her handbag.
A gentle whimper came from the monitor: a helpless cry that froze her blood, and paralysed with fear, her mind whirred. There was somebody in the house and her baby was in danger.
A new thought spurred her into action. Adam kept a baseball bat under his side of the bed in case of intruders. She’d grab it, rescue Alfie then run like crazy and scream and yell outside until she’d woken all the neighbours in the street.
Every cell of her body vibrated with fear but she placed her bare feet onto the carpet and shuffled around the bed in the darkness, spurred on by the knowledge someone wished her child harm. One step. I’m coming, Alfie. Two steps. Mummy’s coming, baby. Three steps. She dropped down on all fours, knees grazing the carpet, and fumbled for the bat, fingers fully outstretched, locating nothing. It wasn’t there. She patted the area. It had to be there. Adam was paranoid about somebody breaking in or trying to steal one of the cars from the drive. It was what he called his insurance. He wouldn’t have removed it. Finally, her fingers alighted on the object, and as she withdrew it a sound halted her – a click. She lifted her head. The bedroom door was opening inch by inch. A scream stuck in her throat. Rooted to the spot, she stared with ever-widening eyes as the door flew wide open and a figure burst into the room.