When a house explodes in a quiet Oxford suburb and a girl disappears in the aftermath, Sarah Tucker—a young married woman, bored and unhappy with domestic life—becomes obsessed with finding her. Accustomed to dull chores in a childless household and hosting her husband’s wearisome business clients for dinner, Sarah suddenly finds herself questioning everything she thought she knew as her investigation reveals that people long believed dead are still among the living, while the living are fast joining the dead. What begins in a peaceful neighborhood reaches its climax on a remote, unwelcoming Scottish island as the search puts Sarah in league with a man being hunted down by murderous official forces.
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When he opened his eyes he expected to find all the light squeezed from the world, but no: he was alive still, strapped to a bed in a sterile room, angry red claws of pain scratching channels in his flesh. They have tied me down to keep me from shredding myself, he managed, in a moment of clarity. To prevent me ripping the skin from my bones, and not stopping until I’m dead. This was a good thought: it pretended they had his welfare in mind. But the pain remained, like being chewed by fire-ants, and even when he slept he felt it working in his dreams. In his dreams, he was back in the desert. His companions were dead soldiers, their meat dropping off their bones.
The loudest thing in life was a helicopter. All around, the boy soldiers disintegrated; made puddles in the sand.
Here, when he was awake, there were other noises to occupy him. Outside his room, he imagined a long corridor of swept tiles and white light; an echoey tunnel that carried sounds past his door, some of which lingered to mock his boredom. A dropped fork rattled in his mind for hours. He heard voices, too, a low mumble that never separated into language, and once he thought he heard Tommy; thought he recognized a man he knew in a noise mostly animal: a rising scream, cut off by a slammed door. Footsteps clattered into distance. Something on wheels might have been a trolley. He tried to shout a response, but his voice got lost in the deep red caverns of his pain, and all he could do was weep silent tears that scorched his cheeks.
A doctor came once a day. He had to be a doctor: he wore a white coat. The nurse with him carried a tray; on it, a precise array of tools—different-sized needles, small bottles of coloured liquids. Both nurse and doctor wore gloves and surgical masks, and both had olive skin and hazel eyes. Only the doctor spoke. His sentences were short and to the point: Breathe in. Breathe out. I take blood now. Even without the mask, he’d hardly have been fluent. It was another clue to his whereabouts . . . Not all the needles were for him, so he knew he wasn’t alone here; there were other rooms, other patients, though patients wasn’t the word he meant. Prisoners, his mind supplied. He was a prisoner here, though where here was, he couldn’t be sure.
The doctor said, “Sleep now.” As if it were a magic instruction, and he was a rabbit being put back into a hat.
The nurse, though, was beautiful, as nurses have to be. The nurse came more often and fed him, wiped him, saw to his bowel movements. Nothing he did made her speak. Even an erection, to him little short of a miracle, left her unmoved. For the rest, all he had were a few schoolboy phrases—Parley voo? Spreckledy Doitch?—which it wouldn’t have helped him if she’d answered. And anyway he knew, was certain, that if she spoke it would be in a sand language, whose vast syllables would leave him adrift and uncomprehending, like a traveller caught between settlements. Soon, he forgot she was human. When he didn’t want to see her, he turned his face to the wall.
Days passed. There was no way of knowing how many.
His body was healing, but slowly: red weals marred all his flesh he could see, and a small detached part of his mind—his black box—told him he’d always be like this now; that his body was scarred and monstrous for ever, but at least the pain was dimming. He was no longer kept strapped down. An ankle-chain secured him to the bed. In time, he might do something about that.
Once, he stole a spoon during a careless moment; filched it from the tray when the nurse looked round at a noise from the corridor. He hid it under the mattress, but within the hour they’d come to fetch it—three of them: male, silent, dark-featured. Two held him against the wall while the third retrieved his prize, though not roughly. He didn’t struggle. But the effort exhausted him anyway, and he crashed as soon as they’d left. His dream took him back to the desert and the boy soldiers. Sand crunched as he fell from the truck, and the chopper’s whine was the loudest noise in the world. And the boys were melting again, their faces turning runny while his black box recorded it calmly, noting that it’s like watching a very wet painting hung in the wind—but he was sweating when he woke, and sure he’d been screaming. There was nobody to tell him if that were true. Just as there was nobody to tell him if it were night or day.
He’d have sold his soul for a window. For natural light.
And then one day—he had an idea it might be the winter; there was a cold bite to the air—they took him out of the room. The same three men came to secure him to the bed. He was blindfolded and taken through the door, down the corridor he’d only imagined; wheeled past—he was sure of this—windows, from which light fell on to his face in a gentle strobe. He racked his body against the bed, but remained locked in place. When they removed the blindfold, he was in what looked like an operating theatre. The doctor was there, masked, suited up, and had the three interns—guards—untie him and fasten him in what resembled an open coffin. Because he thought they were going to kill him at last, he didn’t struggle. But instead he was loaded into a large mechanical device, of a kind he might have seen in hospital films. Some kind of scanning machine. He was kept there for twenty minutes or so. The noise was constant but not too loud, like knowing there were bees nearby. He almost fell asleep.
Afterwards the doctor said, “Good.” He was strapped down again, eyes covered, and wheeled back to his room. Again he felt the windows pass, and his one wish in the world was not even escape, but just to be able to stand in the light, and imagine the wind pulsing against his damaged skin.
After that, it became regular. Once every three days, as far as his body could tell . . . There were no other clocks available. That was one of the discoveries he’d made: that the body was a kind of clock. It couldn’t be rewound, and couldn’t be replaced. When it finished telling the time, its job was done . . . Once every three days they took him to the theatre, and scanned him with their device. He never asked a question. This was his plan: for them to forget he was there, and turn their backs for one moment. Even without a spoon, he thought he might win an eye or a tongue.
. . . He never knew this, but it was on a Wednesday that it all changed; that he caught his glimpse of the outside world, and found it upside down.
He was asleep when the nurse came. Genuinely asleep. The pills did this, along with the blood they took: he never did anything, but often felt weak and sleepy. By the ankle-chain, he was tethered to the bed. She must have thought this enough. Perhaps the others, the men, were having a day off. He never knew. It didn’t matter. She wheeled him from the room like that, just the ankle-chain holding him down.
It was the movement woke him. He’d been dreaming again—the dream never left him, or perhaps he never left the dream—his head full of boiling faces when he forced his eyes open, the way he always woke. For a moment he thought it hadn’t started yet, that he was back in the truck, and instinct tipped him over the side where he hit the floor with a crash of spilled metal. The bed jerked to a halt. And with his gown flapping open, bare-arsed to the world, he lay with a window just two feet above him, its blinds pulled tight against the light, and both his hands untethered.
Even then, the nurse didn’t speak. She pressed something on her belt instead, though he heard no alarm, and as he reached a hand for the blind, came round to arrest him. He thought she’d be soft. She punched the back of his head. It had been a while since he’d been hurt quite like that, and he collapsed back to the floor, taking the blind with him. It sounded loud as a helicopter. And then there were feet coming, and a pricking in his arm to send him back into the desert, where he really didn’t want to go, not now he’d seen the light—not now he’d seen the sky, and the treetops, and the arch of the building opposite, with its grey stone scrolls and pigeon shit and everything about it screaming England—but then the needle opened the window in his head, and he flew back to the desert. The light was just the morning sun, building its killing heat. The boy soldiers were dying again, but nobody heard their screams.
On discovering a fire, the instructions began, shout Fire and try to put it out. It was useful, heart-of-the-matter advice, and could be extended almost indefinitely in any direction. On discovering your husband’s guests are arseholes, shout Arseholes and try to put them out. This was a good starting point. Sarah was one glass of wine away from putting it in motion.
But the instructions had been pinned to the wall in her office when she’d had a job, and did not apply in the kitchen. Here, Mark would expect that all emergencies be met with predetermined orderliness—crisis management was his Latest Big Thing—and graded instantly by size, type and career-damaging potential: earthquake, conflagration, shortage of pasta. His guests would not figure on the chart, since they came under Acts of God, and were to be borne as such. Of course they’re arseholes, Sare, he’d say, when they were gone and he could afford to be ironic. He’s rich and she’s dumb: what did you expect, they’d be nice? But if Sarah asked when rich got important, he’d lose a little of the irony. Since rich got on my client list, he’d say. Since rich started buying lunch. Self-promotion was his other Latest Big Thing. He had these in pairs now, so as to be sure of not missing anything.
And now he came into the kitchen, to make sure she missed nothing either. “Coffee done?”
“Anything I can do?”
“You could try asking that first in future.”
“In future? You think I want to go through this again?”
She banged a cupboard, just quietly enough to sound accidental next door, but loudly enough to leave Mark in no doubt.
“I mean,” he went on—hissing—“Wigwam? Rufus?”
“You said,” she said, through gritted teeth, “another couple. You wanted company.”
“I wanted Stephen and Rebecca.”
“Or Tom and Annie. Or—”
“Busy.” She took a breath. From the living room came that awful dead sound you probably got on battlefields before the buzzards swooped. “And you said, when I said it was awful short notice, you said just get anybody. Anybody who could make it.”
“I didn’t mean—”
“Well, you should have said so at the time. Because it’s a bit late now, isn’t it?”
Mark gave a short laugh, which might easily have been aimed at himself. It was one of his characteristic declarations of surrender, though she had no doubt this would be temporary. And his next words, anyway, were “You did get some of those mints, didn’t you?”
So he changed tack, put his arms round her: “Come on. It’s not been that bad, has it?”
He really didn’t get it. Two hours he’d sat watching war being declared in slow motion, and he still thought it hadn’t been that bad. “Did you just arrive?”
“He has firm opinions, that’s all. Gerard does.”
“Well, I didn’t think you meant Rufus.”
“He’s used to playing rough. Cut and thrust sort of—”
“He’s a vampire.” She pulled free and checked the kettle-flex, for something to do. It was plugged in okay. It just hadn’t boiled yet. “Get back in there and stop him biting my friends.”
“It won’t hurt them to have their Greenpeace sensibilities challenged once in a while.”
“Challenged is fine. But he wants a pissing contest, and that’s not.”
“Just go away. Go and smooth his ego. Use the bloody iron if you think it’ll help.”
“He’s nearly a client,” Mark hissed on his way out. “I’m that close.” And you were staring at her legs, she added. The Trophy Wife’s. You shit. But Mark had gone. She poured the water, found a tray, emptied the mints into a bowl. They were foil-wrapped, chocolate-covered mints, and she ate one while waiting for the coffee to draw and another while hunting spoons. The cups did not match. One comment from Mark and it was a separation issue. Then she counted the mints: two each and one over. She ate it, and carried the tray through.
“Guns,” Gerard was saying, with the air of a conjuror producing a toad when the kiddies had been expecting a bunny.
“You collect guns?” Wigwam asked. You molest babies? Wigwam apologized when people trod on her foot. Gun collectors were out of her range.
“What did you imagine, stamps?”
“Well, I don’t . . .”
“Gerard has some awfully expensive guns.”
“Cheap guns,” Gerard said, “being better avoided.”
“I thought,” said Rufus bravely, “that sort of interest was, you know, compensating . . .”
“That’s easy for you to say. I don’t suffer penis envy myself.” Sarah put the tray on the low table around which they sat: Gerard in an armchair; Wigwam on the floor; the others sharing the sofa. Gerard needed a whole armchair, but did not act like he did, and this Sarah found irritating. The overweight should own up, and be made to suffer. But Gerard moved like a man half his size. She had read of the peculiar grace to be found in heavy men and had assumed it propaganda, but his gestures were small and controlled, as if part of his overactive mind were engaged in choreography. He made dainty movements now with his unlit cigar, punctuating sentences with careful darts and jabs. He had asked permission to smoke and seemed hardly put out at all by her refusal. Now it wagged like a totem in his long but chubby fingers, as if he were warding off evil. She’d have felt happier with a crucifix herself. Gerard Inchon was a total bastard.
“What do you suffer, then?” she asked.
“I beg your pardon?”
Mark sprang forward and began rattling cups. “Who’s for sugar?”
“I said, what do you suffer? We’ve heard a lot about your perfect life, there must be something goes wrong occasionally. The Porsche’s ashtrays fill up? Your tailor sleeps in?”
“Gerard gets all his suits—”
“Sarah’s making a joke, dear.”
“Or is this as good as it gets? Flaunting your wealth in front of the help?”
“I’m hardly the help,” said Mark. “I wasn’t talking to you.”
Gerard Inchon smiled. “I suppose you get a lot of this,” he said. He was talking to Sarah. “Dinner guests at short notice. Strangers you’re supposed to be polite to.”
“Not a lot, no. Mark’s not that important yet.”
“Well, he will be. So you’ll have to get used to it. Because a lot of them’ll be worse than me.”
She found that hard to believe.
“And they’ll find your perfunctory small talk and poorly hidden contempt rather more unpleasant than I do. And then your husband’s career will suffer. And then what will you do?”
“Hire a band,” she told him. “Throw a real party.”
Wigwam said, “Gosh, I’m dying for a coffee. Are those mints?”
“So it’s not me you’re objecting to, it’s your husband’s job?”
Mark said, “Look, I’m really sorry about this—”
“Don’t you dare apologize for me!”
“No apology is called for. But I am interested to know what Sarah proposes to adopt. As a matter of policy, I mean.” Gerard Inchon surveyed the company as if awaiting suggestions, then turned back to her. “You don’t work, do you?”
The switch threw her. “I—no. Not at the moment.”
“Publishing, was it?”
She gave Mark a hostile look. “If you know, why ask?”
“I didn’t. I was guessing. Let’s see, not one of the big ones. Something worthy. Third World? The Environment?”
“Is this meant to be funny?”
“Alternative Medicine? All of the above?”
“Green Dolphin Press,” said Sarah. “If it makes you happy.”
“With print runs of three hundred, and selling less than half.”
It sounded like he’d seen the books. “Lots of businesses fail.”
“And lots don’t. So what happened then, charity work?”
“Christ, what a phrase. But then, you’d like that, wouldn’t you? Soup kitchens. Workhouses.”
“Don’t get me started. What was it, one of these homeless shelter places? That’s the guilt-trip of choice, isn’t it?”
Wigwam said, “Oh, there are so many—”
“Let me guess,” said Gerard.
“They couldn’t use you.” Sarah was shaking her head in disbelief. “What is this?”
“Oh, I see a lot of it. Hubby brings home the bacon, and the little woman has nothing to do. The ones that don’t have affairs, shop. The ones that don’t shop get charity jobs.”
“You really are disgusting, aren’t you?”
“So these jobs are oversubscribed. The interesting ones, anyway. What was it, you didn’t have the experience?”
She’d failed the screening.
“Which leaves the dull end of the market. The retail bit. I can’t see you sticking that, though.”
The Oxfam shop had let her go.
Gerard Inchon leaned back into the armchair. “What I like to call it, I call it BHS.”
Nobody ask him, Sarah prayed.
“Bored Housewife Syndrome. Most women enjoy being bored, of course, but you still get some who—”
“You insufferable bastard.”
“—end up throwing wobblies at dinner parties. You’re enjoying it now though, aren’t you?”
“Little bit of aggro, little bit of rough.” He made his cigar pass from one hand to the other, like an amateur conjuror. “I bet you haven’t had a scrap in ages. What you need is more excitement.”
That was when the house blew up.