[SNEAK PEEK] LAST SEEN ALIVE

Last Seen Alive by Claire Douglas

 

There is a ringing in my ear. It’s deafening, grating and monotone like a pneumatic drill, familiar—a fire alarm. Panic consumes me, pinning me down, crushing my chest. Fire! I need to escape. A cold sweat breaks out all over my body. I’m in the hostel. It’s too hot. The darkness closing in, trapping me. I can hear the sound of running feet, shouts in a language I can’t understand. Screaming. Smoke filling my nostrils and my lungs so that I can’t breathe. I can feel arms around me, I try to shake them away. ‘Get off! Get off!’

‘Libby. It’s OK . . . shh, wake up.’

My eyes snap open to see Jamie staring down at me, his face crumpled with concern, his hands on my shoulders. I’m on the sofa. In the Hideaway. I’m safe . . . I’m safe. I must have fallen asleep . . . but the noise, I can still hear it.

‘It’s just the smoke alarm,’ says Jamie as if reading my mind. ‘It’s gone off in the kitchen. I was making some toast.’ He smiles apologetically. ‘I wanted some of their fancy pâté. But the alarm’s too bloody sensitive. It will stop in a minute. I’ve pressed the button . . .’ I pull away from his grasp and he steps back as though I’ve bitten him. ‘You were having a nightmare. I was trying to wake you up.’

I shift my weight so that I’m sitting upright. ‘I thought . . .’ The noise stops and immediately my heart rate slows even though I can still hear a faint ringing in my ears.

Jamie comes to sit next to me but doesn’t touch me. I can see two overdone pieces of toast on a plate on the coffee table, the edges black.

‘Libs, you’re trembling . . .’

I have a nasty taste in my mouth and my top is clinging to me underneath my dressing gown, damp with sweat. ‘I thought I was at the hostel,’ I say, disorientated. I scan the room just to make sure I really am at the Hideaway and not in Thailand. Tara smiles down at me from the black-and-white canvas on the opposite wall, above the TV. Seeing her photo roots me in the present.

My chin quivers. I don’t want to cry.

Jamie notices and pulls me into his arms. ‘Oh, babe.’ Babe. He hasn’t called me that in years.

‘It felt so real,’ I whisper into his shoulder, my throat sore as if smoke really has been suffocating me. I pull away from him and get up, fumbling at my neckline. I can’t breathe properly.

I walk shakily over to the French doors, turning the key to open one side and stand under the starless sky, cradling my broken arm. I’ve taken the sling off but the cast feels heavy. I flex my fingers. I can’t wait to get the bloody thing off.

It’s so dark outside, the kind of night sky you only really see in the countryside, deep and thick and never-ending, untainted by pollution and street lamps. I take deep gasps of fresh air. I can taste the salt on my tongue, hear the roar of the waves from the sea below. Standing here like this, in almost total darkness, makes me realise afresh how remote we are. How far from civilisation. I suddenly yearn for our busy Bath street with all the people noisily going about their daily lives. It’s too silent out here. Too still.

‘You never talk about it. What happened in Thailand.’ Jamie’s voice makes me jump. I turn to see him standing in the doorway, backlit from the muted living-room lights. Jamie had spent ages messing with the remote to get the ambience just right.

‘It’s not something I want to relive,’ I say.

He doesn’t step into the garden. ‘But you do. Relive it, I mean. You relived it just now. And you probably did when the school caught fire.’

‘I just want to forget about it. To bury it. It’s my way of coping.’

I’ve never really told him about what happened. To me. To Karen. He knows my friend died. He knows I was lucky to escape. It makes me worry, sometimes, the things I haven’t told him. Because we shouldn’t keep secrets from each other. Yet we do. I know that he’s keeping things from me too. The way he felt about Hannah, for example. The loan he got from his mother that he assumes I don’t know about. And that’s fine. I understand. Because we love each other and we have to trust one another. I don’t go in for all this therapy malarkey. I will never sit on a couch in a psychiatrist’s office unloading myself when they ask, ‘And how does that make you feel?’ That just isn’t me. As far as I’m concerned the past is the past. And it should stay there.

*  *  *

When I awake the next morning after a restless sleep, Jamie announces we should go out for the day. He doesn’t have to say it but I know he wants to get me out of the house. Me freaking out over the smoke alarm last night was probably the last straw.

‘We could go to St Mawes and see the castle? It was built by Henry VIII. Meant to be worth seeing,’ he says over breakfast. ‘Or do you fancy the lighthouse at Lizard Point?’ He has a map spread out on the kitchen island and he’s perusing it intently as he spoons Shreddies into his mouth. It always makes me smile how much he loves what I call kids’ cereal. Frosties are a firm favourite of his too. He never goes anywhere without bringing his own.

‘How far away is the lighthouse?’

‘Should be an hour, max.’

I don’t relish the thought of being cooped up in the car for that long. I can’t shake the nausea I’ve been experiencing since last night, but I’d hate to burst his bubble. I’d rather visit the lighthouse instead of traipsing around a damp, crumbling castle. And it would be good for me to get out of the house, however much I love it.

We debate whether to take Ziggy but decide against it, although I feel a pang of guilt as he observes us with his big brown eyes as we’re leaving. ‘We won’t be long, Zigs,’ says Jamie. I blow the dog a kiss before Jamie closes the door. His expression is unsure as he faces me. ‘Do you think he’ll be OK? What if he shits on the furniture or something?’

‘He is house-trained,’ I laugh.

Jamie hovers by the door. ‘I don’t feel comfortable leaving him, Libs.’ He returns the key to the lock and the door swings open again. Ziggy bounds towards us.

I roll my eyes in mock exasperation. ‘Fine, but he’ll have to stay in the car while we visit the lighthouse. Then we can take him for a long walk after.’ Jamie darts back into the house to get the dog lead. ‘And don’t forget his water bowl,’ I call after him as I bend down to stop Ziggy bolting.

It’s colder than it was the day we arrived, with a slate-grey sky and an icy wind coming off the sea. I wrap my scarf further around my neck as Jamie lets Ziggy into the back seat. ‘Don’t put the roof down,’ I say in a warning tone as I get into the passenger side. ‘I’m freezing and I can’t even put my coat on properly with this sling.’

‘I wasn’t going to put the roof down,’ he says mildly, but darts a sideways look at me, as though assessing my mood. I want to scream at him: Stop walking on fucking eggshells around me! But I can’t because I know it’s coming from a place of love. I just hate being treated like some damsel in distress. I know I’m not helping myself with my fears that something terrible is about to happen, and I vow, as the car lumbers along the narrow lanes, to make an effort to pull myself together. To get a hold on these paranoid thoughts. I want Jamie to see me as the strong, independent woman he fell in love with. The woman who didn’t take any shit. The woman who his mother once described, disparagingly, as ‘quite feisty’ after a heated discussion with Katie about the education system.

We don’t speak. I stare out of the window as the country lanes rush by in flashes of green and grey. Over in the distant fields I spot sheep, their cotton-wool coats against the lush grass reminding me of a child’s drawing. Jamie turns the radio up but he doesn’t sing along.

Eventually he takes a right turn and I spot the lighthouse adjoined to an array of squat white buildings, their windowsills painted a fresh green. The car lurches over the bumpy tarmac, making me feel even more nauseous, and Jamie reverses into a space. ‘Right,’ he says, turning off the engine. ‘Lighthouse first?’

‘I’m dying for a Starbucks,’ I admit.

He grins. ‘No Starbucks here, I don’t think. But we can try the café afterwards.’

‘Yes, but will they do a caramel macchiato? I can’t drink coffee unless it’s syruped up, you know that.’

He squeezes my thigh. ‘I’ll do my best,’ he promises, the tension between us forgotten. He swivels in his seat to address Ziggy. ‘And when we come back we’ll take you for a long walk, I promise.’

We amble around the lighthouse with the tour guide, a young, pretty girl with red corkscrew curls called Ruth. I feel claustrophobic in the small, circular room with nineteen other people. The car sickness still hasn’t left me, and the man standing next to me smells unclean. Jamie is fascinated as Ruth explains the history of the lighthouse, showing us to the top via a rickety staircase to see the panoramic sea views. I try to appear enthusiastic but I feel like I’m at work and this is one of our many school trips.

Eventually we are released back outside and I take deep lungfuls of the fresh sea air, trying to cleanse my system of the smell of unwashed bodies and old dusty memorabilia. My sense of smell is more acute than normal: the damp grass, the sea air, the coffee from the nearby café, the fruity shampoo of a passing woman. The only other time my sense of smell was this good was when I was pregnant. Could I be again? I rub my stomach instinctively, deep down knowing it would be unlikely. Before Cornwall, Jamie and I had had sex just once. I know it only takes once for it to happen but I can’t be that lucky.

I wander onto the grass, deep in thought, before realising that Jamie isn’t with me. I turn to see him hanging about in the arched doorway of the lighthouse, in deep conversation with Ruth. He’s listening closely as she talks, his eyebrows knitted together and a look of intense concentration on his face. He must say something funny because she throws back her head in laughter and touches his arm, running her fingers down his wool coat for longer than is strictly necessary. She has to be nearly ten years his junior but it’s obvious she fancies him—the studious types always do. He’s got that foppish, geeky look about him that some women—including me—find sexy, like a blonder, younger Jarvis Cocker. He’s wearing a long coat over his scruffy jeans and a red scarf. He looks like a professor. Or a mature student.

I tear my eyes from them and begin to walk slowly towards the café, knowing that Jamie will eventually catch up with me. When he does he’s breathless and his cheeks are flushed.

‘Do you know,’ he says, talking quickly in his excitement, taking my good arm and linking it through his, ‘before they switched over to the computer system the lighthouse had to be manned by three men.’

‘No, I didn’t know that.’ Jamie is always spouting random, often useless, facts.

‘Years ago it was only two. But that changed. And why?’

I shrug.

‘Come on, Libs. Humour me.’

I sigh. ‘OK, why?’

I can see him mentally rubbing his hands with glee. ‘Well, according to Ruth, a long time ago on a remote island off Wales, one of the two men on duty died of a heart attack or something. Anyway the other was left with the dead body, on his own. For months.’

By now we’ve bypassed the café, much to my dismay, reaching the cliff’s edge, and I stop to ferret in my bag for my phone so that I can take a photograph of the bay below. The sky is overcast and the wind ruffles our hair and tugs the hems of our coats as though trying to take our attention away from the breathtaking views. The water is an angry-looking navy blue and the white frothy spray leaps off the rocks and smashes against the ragged shoreline. The noise of the wind mixed with the roar of the sea is deafening and we almost have to shout to make ourselves heard.

‘He was worried the police would think he killed the man, so he kept his body as evidence and hung it out the window,’ Jamie continues.

‘Urgh, Jamie! Why would he have to hang his friend’s dead body out of the window?’

‘Because there was no room in the lighthouse. It was too small. And the bloke was dead, Libs. He’d started to decay, to smell. Here, let me do that,’ he says, taking the phone from my hand when he sees I’m having trouble.

I shudder. ‘Thanks.’ I wrinkle up my nose. The smell in the air is pungent: sea salt and fish. ‘How did he hang him outside?’ I ask. I can’t help but feel curious even though I should know better than to encourage Jamie.

He beams, clearly enjoying himself as he imparts this piece of historical gossip. ‘Well, he made a makeshift coffin, put his dead friend inside and hung it from the lighthouse.’ He’s always had a morbid fascination with the weird and wonderful. He’s a regular subscriber to the Fortean Times. ‘But the weather conditions broke the coffin apart, so eventually the man was left hanging there, decaying, banging against the window as though beckoning to his friend. Can you imagine that? Seeing your friend slowly rotting away . . .’

My stomach turns. ‘All right, Jay. I get the picture. Why didn’t the man get help?’

He rolls his eyes as if it’s obvious. ‘Because he couldn’t leave the lighthouse unmanned, could he? He sent distress signals but nobody could come for months. The sight of his dead friend hanging there sent him quite mad, apparently.’

‘Not surprised. Can we change the subject now?’ I ask.

He grins at me, his eyes twinkling. ‘Sure.’

‘Is that what Ruth was talking to you about? While she was laughing at your jokes and generally being a flirt?’ It slips out and I notice the ripple of surprise on Jamie’s face.

He shrugs, good-naturedly. ‘I’ve still got it,’ he winks at me. ‘What can I say?’

I push his arm playfully. ‘Oh, you love it,’ I laugh. ‘As long as you remember you’re mine.’

‘How could I forget?’

We walk to the top of the grassy incline to get a better view of the sea and the jagged rocks below. The land juts out beneath us in a zigzag shape. ‘Is that a seal?’ I say, nudging Jamie and pointing to a dark patch of sea where something sticks up from the water.

‘Nah, just a rock,’ says Jamie, squinting. He holds up my phone to take a few more shots. I’m aware of a surge of tourists chatting in French behind me. Over Jamie’s shoulder I notice a man, perhaps in his late thirties, wearing an oversized grey fleece with a high collar that obscures his chin and a black beanie pushed down over his head. It reminds me of the tea cosy Mum used when I was a child. He has a camera with a zoom lens swinging from his neck, and a face as stormy as the sea below. There is something familiar about him. Now he has his camera angled in Jamie’s direction, and keeps lifting it to his eyes, as if he’s paparazzi. Every time Jamie moves, so does the man—and his camera. Jamie’s oblivious, filling me in on a documentary on seals that he’d seen last night after I went to bed. Something about the man is bothering me. Is he trying to take a photo of me? Of Jamie? I have a fleeting, paranoid thought that he’s police, or a private detective, and my palms sweat. I gently steer Jamie further up the hill in an effort to make us inconspicuous among the throng of tourists.

I glance back at the café longingly. I’m desperate for caffeine but we can’t stop now. I scan the faces behind me for the man and his camera. I can just about see his beanie hat over the shoulder of a tall woman. Is his focus no longer on us? Maybe he wasn’t aiming his camera at us after all. I turn back to Jamie, relieved. Of course he’s not some private detective. Who would even think about hiring one? And why?

I’m just about to ask Jamie if we can go back and grab a coffee when I hear him cry out and he stumbles into my side, knocking me forwards. It happens so quickly, I lose my footing on the uneven ground and trip. I’m so intent on trying to protect my broken arm that I find myself careering down the hill towards the cliff’s edge. Blood pounds in my ears as I imagine plummeting onto the rocks below but I can’t stop myself; it’s like I’m on a treadmill and I can’t get off. I hear somebody scream and I’m not sure if it’s me. Then the next thing I know I’m being pulled backwards by the scarf around my neck and I feel familiar hands grabbing my waist.

‘It’s OK, Libs, I’ve got you,’ says Jamie, his voice breathless with fear. ‘I’ve got you.’

We’re on the lip of ground before the land falls away; if I’d gone any further it would have been too late. My legs are weak and my throat hurts where Jamie has pulled the scarf. I let him lead me back up the hill so that we are safely on the pavement, then we sink to the ground together like we are conjoined. I’m trembling all over. Horrified tourists gather around us, asking if I’m OK. An older man returns from the nearby café and thrusts a cup of tea wordlessly into my hands. I take it gratefully, my teeth chattering as I stammer out a thank-you. His kindness, along with the shock, makes my eyes fill up.

‘My God, Libs, you nearly went over the edge,’ Jamie says, a tremor in his voice. ‘I’m so sorry. I felt a shove in my back, pushing me into you.’ He looks distraught.

‘Don’t worry, I don’t think you were trying to kill me.’ I try to smile as I sip my tea, warming my hands against the cup.

‘Not funny,’ he says, but he gives me a watered-down grin. ‘Shit, that was scary.’

The tourists begin to disperse now they can see we’re unharmed.

‘Did you see who pushed you?’ I say, feeling sick.

He frowns. ‘Not really. A guy was standing by me. Big fella, broad, tall. But not sure if it was him.’

‘Was he wearing a beanie?’

Jamie frowns. ‘I’m not sure. Why?’

‘Before you fell into me I noticed a guy. He had a camera around his neck and he was taking photos.’

‘So?’

‘Of you. He had his camera trained on you, Jay.’

He shuffles and looks uncomfortable, his eyes sliding away from mine. ‘Why would he be doing that?’ he mumbles.

I let a beat or two pass before saying, ‘I don’t know.’ I sigh and hand him my cup. He stands up and helps me to my feet.

‘Look, Libs, it was an accident. There were too many of us standing together. You’re not telling me you think this bloke did it on purpose, are you?’

I stare at the ground, my mind racing. ‘I’m not sure. No, I don’t think so. It’s just . . . this guy was interested in you.’

Jamie smirks. ‘Maybe he fancied me. Like Ruth, huh?’

I can’t help but laugh. ‘Don’t be an idiot.’

He wraps his arms around me. ‘You feel freezing. Come on, let’s go and get something to eat to warm you up. Then we better get back to Ziggy.’

I nod and allow him to guide me towards the café. But I feel uneasy as I scan the crowds and the stragglers who are making their way towards the lighthouse and the car park. It doesn’t matter what Jamie says. I know I’m not being paranoid. There was something strange about that man and the interest he’d taken in my husband.

 

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