I stand a moment, emptied of air, as if I’ve been kicked. So she’s dead, and I am safe, after all. She did it before they came. I feel great relief. I feel thankful to her. She has died that I may live. I will mourn later.
Unless this woman is lying. There’s always that.
I breathe in, deeply, breathe out, giving myself oxygen. The space in front of me blackens, then clears. I can see my way.
I turn, open the gate, keeping my hand on it a moment to steady myself, walk in. Nick is there, still washing the car, whistling a little. He seems very far away.
Dear God, I think, I will do anything you like. Now that you’ve let me off, I’ll obliterate myself, if that’s what you really want; I’ll empty myself, truly, become a chalice. I’ll give up Nick, I’ll forget about the others, I’ll stop complaining. I’ll accept my lot. I’ll sacrifice. I’ll repent. I’ll abdicate. I’ll renounce.
I know this can’t be right but I think it anyway. Everything they taught at the Red Centre, everything I’ve resisted, comes flooding in. I don’t want pain. I don’t want to be a dancer, my feet in the air, my head a faceless oblong of white cloth. I don’t want to be a doll hung up on the Wall, I don’t want to be a wingless angel. I want to keep on living, in any form. I resign my body freely, to the uses of others. They can do what they like with me. I am abject.
I feel, for the first time, their true power.
I go along past the flower beds, the willow tree, aiming for the back door. I will go in, I will be safe. I will fall on my knees, in my room, gratefully breathe in lungfuls of the stale air, smelling of furniture polish.
Serena Joy has come out of the front door; she’s standing on the steps. She calls to me. What is it she wants? Does she want me to go in to the sitting room and help her wind grey wool? I won’t be able to hold my hands steady, she’ll notice something. But I walk over to her anyway, since I have no choice.
On the top step she towers above me. Her eyes flare, hot blue against the shrivelled white of her skin. I look away from her face, down at the ground; at her feet, the tip of her cane.
“I trusted you,” she says. “I tried to help you.”
Still I don’t look up at her. Guilt pervades me, I’ve been found out, but for what? For which of my many sins am I accused? The only way to find out is to keep silent. To start excusing myself now, for this or that, would be a blunder. I could give away something she hasn’t even guessed.
It might be nothing. It might be the match hidden in my bed. I hang my head.
“Well?” she asks. “Nothing to say for yourself?”
I look up at her. “About what?” I manage to stammer. As soon as it’s out it sounds impudent.
“Look,” she says. She brings her free hand from behind her back. It’s her cloak she’s holding, the winter one. “There was lipstick on it,” she says. “How could you be so vulgar? I told him…” She drops the cloak, she’s holding something else, her hand all bone. She throws that down as well. The purple sequins fall, slithering down over the step like snakeskin, glittering in the sunlight. “Behind my back,” she says. “You could have left me something.” Does she love him, after all? She raises her cane. I think she is going to hit me, but she doesn’t. “Pick up that disgusting thing and get to your room. Just like the other one. A slut. You’ll end up the same.”
I stoop, gather. Behind my back Nick has stopped whistling.
I want to turn, run to him, throw my arms around him. This would be foolish. There is nothing he can do to help. He too would drown.
I walk to the back door, into the kitchen, set down my basket, go upstairs. I am orderly and calm.
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