About the Author
Sabine Durrant is a former assistant editor of The Guardian and a former literary editor at The Sunday Times whose feature writing has appeared in numerous British national newspapers and magazines. She is currently a magazine profile writer for The Sunday Telegraph and a contributor to The Guardian’s family section. She lives in south London with her partner, sportswriter Giles Smith, and their three children.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Under Your Skin FRIDAY
I left the house earlier than usual this morning and, though it isn’t exactly dark, it isn’t yet light. The common is full of ghosts and shadows; the trees still ironclad, unyielding figures to the early gauze of spring; the bushes and brambles along the railway line knotted and clumped: a mugger’s paradise, though I try not to think about that.
I take my usual route—over the bridge and round the soccer fields, pitches, churned into clods like a choppy sea. It’s darkest where the path hits the corner, and there is an uncomfortable moment where you are hemmed in, rail cutting on one side, the adventure playground on the other. A blue anorak, sodden and draped, gives a creepily human form to a post, and my pace quickens until the path channels across the open grass toward the main road. The headlights of cars—commuters who need to be at work earlier than me, if such a thing were possible—rake the pavement. A shape comes toward me almost silently, another runner, a flash of headphone and Lycra, gone in a breath, a whiff of warmth and sweat. You are never alone in London, not in the dead of night, or even in the bone-cold chill of a predawn March morning. There is always the possibility of someone watching, following, seeing what you’re up to. I’m not sure I like it.
It helps to run. The pace, the rhythm, the sensation of regular movement in my limbs help give order to my thoughts. I didn’t sleep well last night. Even in the short snatches of unconsciousness I dreamed I was awake and anxious. In the end, I had to get up. I focus on my breath. In and out. In and out. I will run, try and sort things in my mind, and then once home, I will shower. Steve will be there to drive me to the studio at 7:00 AM. Kiss good-bye to Millie—Marta will give her breakfast. (Try to like Marta more.) Will I see Philip? Probably not. Already now it is—what, 5:15 AM?—he is showering, shaving, shaking off Nobu and the Dorchester (I smelled the cigars when he stumbled in at 3:00 AM), elbowing into all that spandex and peddling off on his brand-new carbon bike for Mayfair, Tokyo, Bloomberg. We used to run together. (Matching running tops, his and hers Asics. Is it pitiable to say I loved that?) But we haven’t since last summer. With the city as it is, he says, he needs serious muscle feedback. He needs powerful resistance. Running, he says, doesn’t come near reducing his stress.
My breath is ragged. I can feel it, hot, in my chest. It’s all wrong; I’m not doing it right. I’m hopeless; I’m a person who can’t even run properly. I turn up the central path, past the heartrending bench where someone ties a wreath (“MUM”) at Christmas. It might help to filter out the facts first. Philip’s parents: want an answer about Sunday lunch. Millie’s pretend birthday: beg Philip not to miss this one. (How could he have not turned up on Tuesday?) The weekend in Brighton . . . Something horrible happens in my stomach when I think about this. He says he’s too busy. “No biggie,” I said, but I didn’t mean it. It’s not even the kind of phrase I use. It was as if I were pretending to be someone younger, sassier: India, that girl at work with the orthodontically perfected smile, Stan Kennedy’s protégée, pretty and clever enough to have her eye on my job. No biggie? Did Philip look at me oddly when I said that? Did I sound as if I was trying to be cool? No biggie. All this little stuff is big; that’s the problem. What’s trivial? What’s serious? Sunday lunch with Philip’s parents, fancy undies in a suite in Brighton, a younger woman’s pearly teeth, an eight-year-old blowing out her candles. It’s what life is made of. It’s all about love in the end.
Up to the bridge and over. It’s busier out here now. I spot two other runners across the grass, a large dog nosing toward the pond. Three geese fly up, flapping, cackling. Somewhere behind lowering gunmetal clouds, a sun is rising, creating blank trickles of light that seem to flatten the common, leach it of contrast and color. By the children’s playground, a toddler’s red shoe is stuck upside down on one of the gray railings. A wet, spotted ladybug hat hangs from a silvery branch. All these abandoned possessions, these bits of people left behind. Once, out running, I saw a pair of men’s pants in the undergrowth. How? It’s not like Clapham Common. It’s Wandsworth. We’re all Labradoodles and Rusty Racquets here, not cabinet ministers in compromising positions.
At the café, I make a split-second decision and turn off, keen on a quick jog round the bowling green. But when I reach the hut by the tennis courts, something draws me into the wilderness of the wooded copse beyond. I don’t usually run there. It’s only a small triangle of denser trees, tall and narrow, that edge the soccer field, but you’re out of sight of the main drag. It feels too dodgy, too risky. Why did I do it? The gathering light? A desire to outrun the day? The manicure of the bowling green, and the sedateness of my pace? My hopeless failure to sort? I don’t know. Afterward, I might say it was a sudden yearning to feel fresh vegetation beneath my feet, to push the pathetic and tame boundaries of the common, to be, for a few seconds, on my own.
I can’t tell you.
I’m not scared—because I’m running quite quickly, maybe—but it’s harder going than I expected. The ground is uneven, shifts to trip you up. Tree limbs poke at eye level; tangles of grass lunge at ankle. And then, through a crisscross of branches, I see it.
At first, I think of blow-up dolls. Or fish. Once, on holiday in the Isle of Wight, we came across a dead porpoise high up on the sands—unsettlingly pale and fleshy, a disturbing incongruity. Then, walking along the canal at Oxford years ago, when I was a student, I stumbled on a dead swan, stretched out across the embankment. It was shocking, not so much because it was dead—though there was a sense of savagery in the wasted beauty, all that whiteness—but because it was just there, because no one had cleared it up, I suppose, before me.
I push a little farther into the undergrowth, pressing back the pale limbs of the silver birch saplings, to a place where someone or something has worn the foliage flat, to where the muddle of object is.
She is lying on her side, her bare white arms outstretched above her head, her back arched. Hair the color of mahogany is away from her face, as though someone had pulled it. Her eyes are open, but they are glazed, as if covered in plastic wrap. She has long, thick eyelashes—I wonder if they might be fake—and a thin face. Her teeth are small and her tongue swollen. It looks to be pushing out of her mouth against her bottom lip. She is wearing tight khaki-colored trousers—Topshop perhaps—with pockets on the thighs and little zips on the ankles. Her feet are bare. Her toenails are polished, almost black. Her fingernails, in contrast, are ragged and torn. A triangle of black thong shows where her pink cap-sleeved T-shirt has ridden up in back. The skin on her face, neck, and some of her chest is bluish white, but there are marks, blood, cuts and scratches, tiny dots and dark horizontal lines, all over. I can hardly bear to look at her neck.
I haven’t screamed. I haven’t made any sound at all. Isn’t that odd? But I’m suddenly aware of my own breathing; it sounds like sobs, or retches. I’m sort of panting. There are lots of things I don’t expect—the Topshop thought, for example. Why do I care where she bought her trousers, or whether her eyelashes are fake? I list the details that I notice in my head. I don’t process them, for now I’m just ordering them. I’m thinking about telling other people. I’m already thinking about later.
My hand is at my mouth and for a moment I think I am going to be sick. Bile has risen at the back of my throat, but I force it down and stagger toward the path. I fumble for my phone, zipped in that thing round my neck, and it takes me several tries to unlock it. I keep pressing the buttons too fast. My hands are shaking so hard I almost drop it even as I get through.
The voice at the other end is calm and quiet, so quiet I find myself repeating, “Can you hear me? Can you hear me?”
She says she can and I stumble out the details. I can’t remember the name of the road—the one that comes closest to this bit of the common, really near where I live, one of the roads parallel to mine, with the same big, solid houses, a road I know well—but I say, “Trinity Road, the prison, the Toast Rack. You know those roads in a grid? The café there. Common Ground. Just beyond. In that triangular bit of woodland.” She must have it up on a satnav screen or something, because she seems to know more than I do. She asks if I am okay, whether I feel in danger. She tells me to wait where I am.
When the connection is cut, I suddenly don’t feel okay, not at all. I don’t know what to do with myself. I run back toward the tennis courts so I can see the police coming, show them where to go. No one is in sight—just the cars moving steadily backward and forward on Trinity Road across the cricket pitch, the distant roofs of Wandsworth Prison, the light changing above the big houses on that road whose name—Dorlcote—I now remember. A creak from the tennis hut; darkness behind the windows of the little cabin on the bowling green where years ago a skanky black and white cat used to live. I’m on the other side of the railway line now. The banks on either side of me are steep but mostly obscured by bushes and trees that drop their wet leaves in autumn and hold up the trains, shadows and dark corners where one could hide. A rustle—it could be a fox, or a squirrel, or just a bird, but for the first time I think I feel fear. I think someone is here. I think I am being watched.
I find myself heading toward the road, then changing my mind and skitting back again. I’m what a rat might look like in laboratory conditions of stress. I’m out of sight of the girl and suddenly I have a feeling that she is gone, that someone has taken her, or that she was never there in the first place, and I’m running back down the path, tripping, stumbling, my arms out to protect my face from the reaching twigs and branches, and I’m pushing through the hawthorn and gorse and silver birch—I don’t care about the scratches—until I reach that awful place. And I know even before I get there that she hasn’t gone, that she is lying there, in that terrible contorted position, and she is still dead.
It’s quiet for a moment. Birdsong, that’s all. A train squeals. It’s daylight now, properly daylight. Green tips blunt the ends of branches near me. They must be buds. I’m going to be late for work—I’ll have to go straight to the studio, put my face on in the car—but I mustn’t think about that now. I crouch down, above the damp grass, and it’s just her and me. She looks so vulnerable. I notice a sharp, stale smell of hospital corridors or swimming-pool changing rooms. I try not to look at her eyes. Tiny pixilated spots freckle her eyelids, up to the thin plucked brows. I touch her hair. It feels dead, but then hair is, isn’t it? Something about her top—cap sleeved, buttons down the front—nags at me. It’s pulled tight under one armpit and her bra is showing. The strap, a loose string of black lace, is dangling out at the front, like it unpinged from its fastening. I don’t know why I do what I do next. I do it without thinking. I take the loose string of black lace and slot its hook into the loop on the cup of the bra. My knuckles graze the fabric. It’s a cold, hard, wet surface. I begin to cry quietly.
· · ·
It feels like forever, but it is only a few minutes before a siren sounds. I knew something was going to happen from the moment I left the house. I had a feeling: a sinking, slightly cloying sensation in the pit of my stomach—an eerie premonition, if you like. Does that sound unconvincing, too far-fetched? Mea culpa if so.
Two of them come. The woman recognizes me; I can tell from the quick flush in her cheeks and the glance she gives her colleague, slightly widening her eyes as if to say, “It’s her—you know, her off the telly.” If the man knows who I am, he’s not going to show it. He’s in street clothes—jeans and a polo shirt—which is a sign of his importance in the police hierarchy. I’ve watched enough Morse to know that. He introduces himself, running the fingers of one hand through slightly greasy, thick dark hair. He’s DI Perivale, and “this here is PC Morrow.”
We’re at the tennis hut. I ran back when the siren stopped, when the blue light spun through the trees. I shake their hands, suddenly overcome with a strong desire for physical contact. I can’t think about crying; I’m not the one who’s dead. PC Morrow, who looks about twelve, holds my arm as we walk. She is small and freckly, with light brown hair pulled back in a ponytail; she is almost pretty, though her eyes are a bit too close together, and one of her front teeth is badly capped. She tells me she was just going off her shift when the call came in. “Already had my mind set on a bacon sarnie. Ketchup. Bit of brown sauce.” She’s putting me at ease. DI Perivale doesn’t care about that. He’s stalking ahead—shoulders hunched, his jeans hung low at the back. He puts each foot in the ground like a skier places a ski pole, determined, as if to give balance.
I don’t have to tell them where she is. It’s obvious. Once we’re close, DI Perivale tells me to wait on the path—or rather he shows me to wait by putting out his arm like a barrier.
“CID. He’s just come on,” PC Morrow whispers apologetically. “We’ve called for the dogs. The soccer team will be along in a sec—eight minutes if they’re on a blue light, that’s my guess.”
“The soccer team?” I ask, thinking of the soccer field only a few feet away.
“SOCO—Scene of Crime Officers. They’ll seal off the area and conduct a fingertip search for evidence.”
I ask her what sort of evidence, and she says, “Anything. Footprints, the weapon, of course, fibers, blood, hair, paint, glass. It’s amazing what they pick up. So we can’t have you contaminating the scene.”
“I hope I haven’t already contaminated it,” I say.
She gazes into the undergrowth and tuts, wonderingly, “You really would think people would pick up after themselves.”
For a bizarre moment, I think she means the body and I half laugh in shock, but then with her chin she gestures to a scrunched-up McDonald’s bag, spilling squashed polystyrene and bits of lettuce.
“Do you think that might be evidence?” I say, studying it.
“More like bloody litter. Not to mention what all that fat and salt does to their arteries. Kids probably.”
“Kids,” I repeat, thinking, Who else has been out here?
DI Perivale is still crouched over the girl. He isn’t touching her; just looking, and then he’s on his phone. He calls something out to PC Morrow—sounds like a stream of numbers—and she makes a call herself. Exhaustion seeps into my neck and head. When she hangs up, I ask if I can go, but she says she has to take down a few details first.
I explain that I am needed at work and she nods. “I. Can. Understand. That,” she says. Drawing out the words, distinguishing between the pace of my life and the priorities of hers. After she confers with DI Perivale, the two of us walk back to the café to find a bench. She says, “You look a bit different. I’m not being funny or anything, but you look younger than you do on the telly.”
I laugh. “It’s the hair. Big hair. Big, red, daytime-telly hair. It’s quite fine naturally, but for the show it’s got so much lacquer in, it’s like a helmet.”
“Do you have a hairdresser to do it?” she says, and wh...
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