For several days, Amy rarely left the room in the tower and she lay mostly on the floor inside the wardrobe. The muscles that she rested on, in her sides and haunches, seemed to cry steadily with soreness. She was awake for most of the time, listening to the peace of the house as it drifted along like clouds. Occasionally sleep came and she blinked and bent her head.
Sometimes she would plunge awake in a cavernous blackness and lie completely transfixed, as though there were insects picking their way all over her. Finally, she would turn her face, lift her terror heavily off its hook, and sleep again.
She would forage, clattering noiselessly down to the kitchen cupboard to seize an apple or a loaf of bed, and then racing back up the stairs again. She was careful to eat every crumb of the bread or, if an apple, the entire core of the apple. One morning she heard for the first time a change in the normal note of the house’s silence. The front door must have been opened for she could hear a new freshness billowing through the rooms. Later, there were voices conferring and then sudden footsteps passing the base of the tower.
Amy would hear anybody coming up the corkscrew stairs. She would have ten or so seconds to slip to the window and open it and decant herself out on to the roof. She would be weak and giddy from her lack of food but there would be no doubt somewhere amongst the pediments for her to hide herself. She could put out her hand and entrust her body to the branches of one of the amiable trees that reached this high.
The next morning, Amy heard the front door crack open loudly and voices issuing out into the street. She rattled softly up the stairs to the third floor of the tower. In the first bedroom that she chose, the windows were arrayed in sheets like glass doors. Amy hovered behind a curtain and tried to look around it and down onto the street. The sharpness of the angle was unnerving – the men were directly below her, detailed as plainly as fish in limpid waters.
There was a wiry old man on crutches, who was stumping along so impatiently that his companion was hurrying discreetly behind him to catch up. This second man looked like a nurse and, as with any nurse, Amy could not tell from his attentiveness whether he was servant or master. The man was Chinese or possibly Korean. Although heavily middle-aged, he was trim and buoyant on his feet; his hair was that lustreless black that is peculiar to that race.
The man on crutches was evidently taking some exercise that had been stipulated by his physicians. He span around irritably and, to Amy’s relief, his eyes did not lift up to look her straight in the face. His companion took his arm to steady him and he appeared to flinch with displeasure.
When they were back inside the house, Amy heard the invalid bawling threats and abuse, casting them around ever more widely as though they were fishing nets. She inched as far as she could down the corkscrew staircase to listen in.
“I know what you’re up to, pal! I know what you’re doing!”
“You are tiptop,” his companion assured him genially. “Your body is very strong, like a man who is thirty.”
“You know I can’t be kept like this… eh, it’s against my rights. Let’s not ignore my rights, eh. I can call in social services and get you…”
Unexpectedly, there was total silence.
With rising panic, Amy had to make an effort to unfreeze her body and flick herself back into life. Down on the ground floor, the second man was moving around almost inaudibly. Amy thought that she heard a clear chuckle.
She crept back to the wardrobe and lay miserably on the floor, as useless as a discarded guitar. She had not been down to the kitchen cupboard to forage since the men had arrived
As soon as the old man had been put to bed, his companion had left the house and locked the front door behind him.
Joyously, Amy realised that she was alone in the house with the invalid.
Her hunger was now carrying her downstairs, towards the cupboard, as though she was being borne weightless in its arms.
Yet she somehow knew which room the invalid was in and she stopped to observe him for a moment from the doorway. He was facing the door with his sleeping head propped up amongst pillows. His face, though frail, was much more youthful than had been previously obvious to her. Beneath the pallor of his illness and the grey beard that appeared to have been cut unfussily, with a nurse’s scissors, the face had, even in sleep, a kind of gaiety to it.
His mouth hung open and he wore that look that people have when they are deeply asleep and seem to be concentrating intently on it. There was, however, no breath issuing from his face – it was so awesomely still that it resembled a prosthetic mask. Uneasily, Amy continued to the kitchen.
On her way back, she was suddenly desperately afraid. The old man’s bedroom door was shut. He must be up and about.
Soundlessly, she fled. Up in her room, she wanted to climb out and sit on the roof until her heart had flapped away all of its panic.
The following morning, Amy was alone again in the house with the old man. The doorbell rang and the noise was so piercing that Amy briefly thought that a phone had sounded in her room. Scrappy, measured noises now indicated that the invalid was making his way towards the front door. Amy crept once more down the corkscrew staircase. She was within earshot just as the old man had managed to haul the door open.
She was listening without comprehension to her boyfriend’s voice. He spoke as normally as if she was back at home, in her old chair, with him just in the next room.
“Mr Corpusty – how are you, mate? I don’t know if you’ve seen me on social media? We’ve set up a campaign to try to find my girlfriend Amy Claverish. She has been missing for several days. You know, she was last seen in this area? You haven’t responded to our Facebook re…”
Amy clenched her fists. He sounded so infuriatingly insincere, like one of those energetic fundraisers with a clipboard who tries to waylay unwary shoppers. Nonetheless her fists had soon sprung open again. Mr Corpusty’s interruption sounded carefree and jocular and it took Amy a second to connect with the scorn that quivered underneath.
“You think she’s holed up here, pal? You think I’ve got her in ma big house? Gimme that…”
She could somehow tell from the silence between the two men that Corpusty was leering at her photograph.
“Nice bonny wee bird. I’d do her if I was your age.” The floor of his voice abruptly fell in and the jocularity was gone. “Maybe you should learn how to fuck your girlfriend, pal. Then, you’ll keep her.”
“Mr Corpusty…” Her boyfriend sounded stern and very alarmed. His voice piped.
“You know I fucked your mother, pal?” Corpusty confided seriously. “You know I didn’t even fuck her – she only gave me a blowjob – it was less than a minute – but it broke her heart and she’s been crying over me ever since.”
He was playing. You could only get Corpusty off this horse if you responded in kind, by answering “well, you know what I did to your mother?” If her boyfriend had done this then Corpusty might have acknowledged him as a co-conspirator. Instead, her boyfriend was gasping about the police and about how serious this was. Corpusty snarled and ripped himself away. “Fuck you, you boring cunt. By the way, I’m keeping this picture.” The door slammed like a cannon firing.
Amy fled back to the bedroom. She should have felt overjoyed at her boyfriend’s humiliation. Once upon a time she would have been tempted to materialise behind Corpusty in the doorway and sing “yes it’s all true – we’re lovers, darling!” over his shoulder and into their astonished faces. But her priority was to get out of this house. Corpusty’s sickness was nothing more than a flimsy curtain and behind it waited a man of obvious violence and unpredictability. Amy knew that, following her boyfriend’s encounter with Corpusty, the police would pay a visit, and that Corpusty would relish behaving just as contemptuously towards them.
Upstairs, she closed the door of the room and walked up to the window.
To her surprise, it wouldn’t open.
She pulled the handle and then hung on it with all the weight of her body.
There was no lock – it should open just like that, as it had done so quite happily several times before.
The windows in the next room also opened on to the roof. She would escape that way.
Now, however, the bedroom door wouldn’t open.
There was no lock – there had never been a lock. She rattled the door angrily and then remembered that she had to be quiet, lest the old man hear. Her hand explored and curled around the door handle without encountering a solution. It was as if the door was being held shut by a magnetic force.
When she turned back to the window she gasped hugely and then she was going to scream and she had to cram her hands over her mouth quickly and force her scream back into her throat.
The scream bolted after she thought she had safely suppressed it. She croaked and, amazingly, vomit appeared and flowed over her fingers.
On the mirror over the dresser were written the words BREAK THE GLASS. They had been written very plainly in fresh blood.
“With what?” She realised to her dismay that she had said this aloud.
The words BREAK THE GLASS stared back at her.
Amy accepted her instructions. She jumped and climbed up on to the dresser, which wobbled beneath her weight, and then turned at an odd angle so that the mirror was half over her shoulder. Next she shrieked and beat weakly against the mirror with the point of her elbow. Shrieking, she beat again and again until the mirror was damaged enough for her to pull it apart in her hands.
Segments of glass crashed behind the dresser, on to the floor. On the acutely bright wallpaper that had been hidden behind the mirror were new words, written once more in fresh blood.
CUT YOUR ARMS.
There was no rebellion left in Amy. She tugged back her sleeves and her left arm was exposed bare and freckled. She selected a jagged piece of glass from the dresser.
Afterwards, the door opened as normal. She tottered down the corkscrew staircase, with the blood from her arms gliding in her hands like muslin and dropping in wet splashes on the floor.
There were movements below in the house and she turned instinctively. There must be places still to hide – a room with a window that would open out into the air and the street. She chose a bedroom at random and tottered inside. There was another walk-in wardrobe and it was identical to the last one.
Behind her, she heard Corpusty burst snarling out of his room. He was coming after her on his crutches, snarling and following the trail of blood spatters.
There was no use in hiding. She stood in the middle of the room, waiting for him to come in.
He swung out right in front of her, a small, bold, impudent figure, filled to the very top with massive fury. His eyes were shining and he was flexed and hissing like an animal in its lair. “Look at me!” he spat. “You thieving bitch, look into my eyes and don’t look away. Look at me! LOOK AT ME!”
Furtively, she was slipping through the streets. She darted quickly past people, worrying that one of them might recognise her and try to stop her with inexplicable conversation.
It was as if she had retreated from her own mind and she was monitoring it helplessly from a remote place. She flitted hither and thither, impulsively, on some quest that she could not begin to understand.
I could just turn and walk away, back to my flat and my boyfriend, she reassured herself.
You can turn around at any time. Keep walking this way for now, her dream-self replied casually.
As she walked on to the forecourt of the Causewayside petrol station, she knew that she had been provided with an important clue about what she was doing. It was too unclear for her to yet interpret but she saw that there was a purpose aligning behind her otherwise arbitrary actions.
Two cars were parked beside the petrol pumps and both drivers were apparently asleep at their steering wheels. The forecourt was as still as a desert at midnight. Amy ran and her hands plucked at a nozzle. Gingerly she shook petrol over her chest and arms and then into her hair. It smarted against her face and she moaned and tried to wriggle away.
I can walk out of this at any time, she reasoned with herself.
You certainly can, her dream-self agreed. But there is no harm in going along with this for a bit longer.
In any case, she laughed, I don’t have a lighter. So all of this is going nowhere.
She looked down into her left hand. Her dream-self was holding the lighter that Corpusty had given to her when she had left his house.
Dr Hwangbo had written to Ellen Stewart in Portugal, where she had spent the winter, and he had told her that it was now safe for her to return to Edinburgh. He promised that she would be unmolested.
Ellen had come straight from the airport, not daring to visit her home in the Pentlands even to look at it. She and Dr Hwangbo had met in a tearoom in Newington. Impetuously, he had ordered a high tea with scones and champagne and she had felt embarrassed. The tearoom did not serve alcohol, but Dr Hwangbo had just glared and repeated the word “champagne” obstinately. Lunchtime had not yet relaxed its grip and the tearoom was bustling with grandparents and small, scampering children. Ellen had to exert rather too much skill to persuade the manager of the tearoom not to interpret Dr Hwangbo’s threats as being in any way meaningful. She coaxed the doctor into accepting some green tea. He allowed the tea to be placed in front of him but he did not stop glaring at the waiters.
Though they had corresponded and spoken together on the phone, Ellen had never seen Dr Hwangbo until today. She had imagined a careworn old gentleman, but the doctor was instead spruce and dressed expensively, in an outlandish combination of pastel colours. He looked like he should be bouncing around on a golf course with flamboyant millionaires. His face might have been kindly – it was a careful face with eyes that watched and watched. Yet as soon as he had begun to set out his proposal, Ellen was shocked by its grossness.
“Lady, I can make you safe. If you come and live in a flat that I have got for you, I will make you safe. You will live with me, lady, and you will be safe. Only I can do this. If not…” he chuckled and shook his head, bemused. “If not, I do not like to think about.”
He was crooning at her obscenely, telling her about how beautiful she was and listing all the evidence of his immense wealth. Ellen needed to say something to break the spell, but in truth she did not know where to start. Behind this absurd spectacle, Dr Hwangbo had genuine power over her. But to go to live in his squalid flat would be like agreeing to be ruled over by a conceited, pompous child. She tried to locate a voice – in the back of her throat or from somewhere within her brain – that did not sound too dry. Merriment was all the time bubbling irrepressibly on her lips.
The scene unfolded in less than twenty seconds. There was a detonation – possibly a breaking of glass or gunshots – and a figure who was robed in flames strode into the café. He made straight for their table. The tearoom turned in one instant, like a single person, to watch as the flaming man waded doggedly towards Ellen. Next, however, there was a collision. A waiter had blundered into the path of the flaming man, not knowing how to intervene. Ellen had the impression of an aloof, young handsome face, with eyebrows raised inquiringly. The flaming man appeared to decide upon the waiter and to then set upon him, wrapping his fiery arms around the waiter’s waist. The waiter yelped, flabbergasted, and then his screams climbed up and up like a church spire.
The two men sank and knelt flaming on the floor together.
Ellen turned to Dr Hwangbo, who was staring around the room disconcerted. His nostrils flared. “This is not me, I did not do this,” he insisted shrilly. His fist found a napkin and he fanned himself with it, bending his neck away from the heat.
The tearoom was emptying; the customers were on their feet, filling the room riotously, and pushing out into the afternoon sunshine. Ellen left Dr Hwangbo behind – she pictured him sitting and munching petulantly on his scones in front of the two smouldering, melted-together figures. She looked back and the windows of the tearoom were so blackened that she could no longer see inside.
Out in the street, one old lady was retching and another had fainted. Several bystanders were trying to get close enough in the heat to film the bodies inside on their phones.
Ellen did not know where she was walking. A bus drew up randomly next to her and she got on board. She got off again at Cameron Toll. She would drift amongst the crowds in its great coolness.
In the doorway a young man intercepted her and tried to affix a flyer to her hand. She waved it away. She was chilled by how his clever face resembled that of the waiter who had just died. Seeing her pause, the man focused and began to deliver his pitch all in one go. He had set up a campaign. She had probably seen him on social media. She nodded noncommittally and kept walking.