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Authors: Anne Brooke

Thorn in the Flesh

 

 

Thorn in the Flesh
by
Anne Brooke

Thorn in the Flesh by Anne Brooke

Chapter One

 

As soon as Kate Harris closed the door behind her, she knew the house wasn’t empty. She dropped the students’ test papers on the hall table and all thoughts of marking them, or having the evening off and spoiling herself with a hot bath and a glass of Chablis, disappeared. It was not that the signs of another person were obvious; on the contrary, the narrow hall revealed no hint of disturbance. The telephone was in its usual place on the half-moon rickety table. Her address book was on top, open at the M slot where she'd left it in her rush to get to work and, underneath, she could see her soft green pumps nestling side by side in regimented innocence.

So she could see no physical clues of any intrusion, or even a surprise visit by her best friend, Nicky, but still she knew. It was a knowledge that tingled its way into her skin. As if an unseen but not unfamiliar presence were beside her, moving back each time she turned her head.

She took three steps along the plain blue carpet. As she passed the hall mirror, she realised that the sudden downpour had turned her hair a darker shade of red.

‘Hello,’ she called out. ‘Nicky? Is that you?’

Then she remembered. Of course it wouldn’t be Nicky. Her friend was, lucky indeed for her, away with her family on holiday in France for her usual spring break. So she took the remaining five steps down the hallway and pushed open the kitchen door.

The first thing she saw was the broken window pane. The second thing was the young man. He was sitting at the table. She couldn’t see his face, which was covered with a black mask, but his hands, long-fingered and elegant in a way she would always remember, were already stroking one of her own kitchen knives.

He looked up.

‘Hello, Kate,’ he said.

Chapter Two

When Kate opened her eyes some eleven hours later, she saw the shadow of horizontal bars cast by the sash window over the wall next to the bed. From where she was lying on the floor, she could see the mahogany wardrobe with its pile of blankets and lone hatbox on top. Next to the wardrobe, one of Nicky’s watercolours was lying, the glass broken and its picture of two women on a bench slashed diagonally across. For a quicksilver second, she couldn't remember what had happened or why she was here. Then she froze, waiting for the verbal abuse or physical punishment she'd come to expect in the course of the last evening, but nothing happened. No harsh breathing or low curses, no sound of someone waiting for her to move or show any sign of life. No-one was here. From her position, bruised face resting on the soft gold of her bedroom carpet and one hand twisted under her side, she could see a dark pool of something – blood? – drifting in and out of focus. She wondered if it was her own.

She blinked twice and the room shook a little before settling into its familiar shape. As it did so, reality crowded back, unwelcome, insistent, and her dry breath caught in her throat. Trying to turn over to free her hand, throbbing now, the movement opened a gate in her head where fire tracked through. She vomited, intense spasms rocking her body, and her eyes burning. When it was over, she shuffled away from the yellowing mess around her and tried to cry out. Her voice was lost in silence.

Now she found she was lying on her stomach, her breathing shallower. Her thighs felt sticky, sore, and each time she moved, even a fraction of movement, a knife pierced upwards inside her. She thought she might vomit again, but after a moment the feeling passed.

Against her will, his face slipped into her mind and she could see him as clearly as if he were still here. She could almost smell his stale flesh, and the stink of salt curdled her mouth. Moaning again, she could see his eyes, ice-blue like stars, and the shape of his fingers holding her down.

No
. She had to clean herself. Now. She had to have a shower or, if not that, if she were too weak for that, then a bath. Yes, she needed a bath. If only she had the strength to lift herself up and do it. If only she could drag her body into the warm refuge of her bathroom, it might even then be as if nothing had ever happened. All she needed to do was blank out the last hours from her memory and start the whole evening again. Somehow. Surely she was strong enough to do that little thing? She would be, she had to be.

What if he came back?

The world around her seemed to stop as she considered this possibility. The universe ceased its constant and quiet activity, and her breath caught in her lungs as she was held for a moment in transition. Between one decision and way of life, and another.

Then, with a small groan, she began the long, slow struggle to reach the telephone on the other side of the bed.

***

After that, a time occurred when all she could recall were a series of impressions. A thin, balding ambulance man who frowned and spoke as if she were a child. A sharp medicinal smell she couldn't name. A red-faced woman in a police uniform. Telephone conversations made over her body, the slick cut and thrust of mobiles, as she lay wrapped in a gleaming sheet that rubbed against the painful areas at her arms and stomach. She wondered if she were dead after all. Then she had the sense of movement, swift and purposeful, the loneliness of sirens, people shouting, barren white corridors rushing along, a grey-haired, silent doctor examining her in a way that made her feel violated again although his hands were gentle, and then … darkness.

Later still, more images crowded in. Together with the sound of voices.

‘Deep abrasions … trauma … cuts … stomach and thighs … too much blood … I think we should …’

The words swam through Kate’s consciousness. Drifted away to a place she couldn’t see. It was still dark. She was being held down by an unknown force, couldn’t move her arms or legs … she had to …

Sparkling lights from somewhere. A groan trapped in the dryness of her throat, the memory of a breath not taken. Then a heavy weight on her eyes, the struggle to open them, followed by a piercing whiteness and unfamiliar faces. And whispering.

‘I think she might be coming round. Perhaps you could …?’

Later, nothing.

She woke from a long sleep in which she'd been walking on a deserted beach, her feet sinking into golden sand. The sky was as blue as forget-me-nots, and nothing around her disturbed the sense of peace that emanated from the sea. It was calling to her and she wanted, more than anything, to feel its cool waves on her skin. Looking down, she realised she was naked. With the sun warming her face, she turned and stepped into the salty shallows that came up to her ankles, then her knees and thighs. She was losing herself in water, giving herself to the pull of the tide. Now her buttocks and waist were submerged in the sea, which was colder than she'd thought. Then her breasts and shoulders and now her neck and mouth. She launched herself out into nothingness and for a moment she was flying. But the water felt so cold, freezing now, and her body was dragging her downwards. She gasped and at once icy sea filled her mouth and lungs. She was drowning, with no escape, hands reaching up to the sky, throat gasping for breath, for air, for …

‘Mrs Harris? Mrs Harris? It’s all right. You’re fine, everything’s fine now.’

The unfamiliar voice, female, jolted through her veins and she struggled into wakefulness. Even at a time like this, the incorrect assumption of her marital status grated on her. The water and the fear vanished away, and in its place when she opened her eyes she could see pale beige walls and light streaming in through a picture window on her right. Where was she now? And where had the beach gone? Had she ever been there at all?

‘Hello, Mrs Harris, it’s good to see you awake. How are you feeling?’

The fair-haired woman bending over her with one hand on her shoulder was young, not much more than twenty, and dressed in a smart white uniform with a fob-watch dangling from her top pocket. She had brown eyes, which smiled with her mouth.

‘What? Where?’ Kate began but the woman was already answering.

‘You’re in the Royal Surrey County Hospital, Mrs Harris. In Guildford. You’ve had an accident, but don’t worry, you’re doing very well. We’re very pleased with your progress.’

Kate was about to ask what she was doing here when the memory twisted. She stared at the nurse who spoke again.

‘Can I get you a cup of tea? It’s about that time of day, isn’t it? Would you like milk? Sugar?’

Kate nodded and shook her head at the appropriate points and the nurse padded her way out of the room in a swish of nylon. For a few minutes she was alone and, blinking, she gazed round at her surroundings. It was the same as a thousand other hospital rooms across the country: light and functional.

Without warning, the door swung open again and Kate almost gasped out loud before realising it was after all only the nurse, carrying a mug of tea and a packet of Bourbons on a tray. She must be assigned to look after me, Kate thought, and the knowledge made her shiver.

‘Here you are,’ she said. ‘I thought you might like something to eat as well.’

‘Thank you.’ Kate waited as the other woman fussed around, tucking in sheets and plumping up pillows. ‘What’s your name?’

‘Nurse Roberts, Mrs Harris. But just call me Amy.’

‘Yes, I will.’

Kate didn’t explain her single status and sipped her tea instead, shaking her head when offered a biscuit. She watched as Amy ate one.

‘How long have I been here?’ she asked when the nurse had swallowed her mouthful.

Amy coughed, patting her chest with an exaggerated gesture. ‘Not long. Just four days. It’s Wednesday now.’

‘I see.’ Kate looked away.
Four days.
He’d taken four days. If only she were strong enough, she’d … She'd what? There was nothing she could do. Not now. Not yet.

Beside her, Amy was waiting in silence, making no enquiries or demands. Where had she learnt that?

‘Could you tell me something else?’ Kate said.

‘Anything. Ask away.’

‘Has anyone been to see me? Enquired after me at all?’

‘Oh yes,’ said Amy. ‘Your colleagues have left some messages and cards. I can let you see those, just as soon as you like. I don’t know if there’s anything from family yet, but I can have a look for you.’

‘No,’ said Kate, interrupting her. ‘My parents are dead now. And I’m single. There’s no other family.’

Her abrupt response must have startled Amy because she stood up and made as if to leave. Then Kate saw her hesitate.

‘Look, I’d better go now,’ she said. ‘I’ll pop in to see you later, I promise. But before I go, I ought to tell you there are some … people … outside who need to ask you a few questions. Not now, but when you’re ready, let me know. And I'll try to help as much as I can.’

Kate shut her eyes.

‘The police?’ she said.

‘Yes.’

She opened her eyes again.

‘Then tell them I’m ready now,’ she said.

Chapter Three

It took a long time. Longer than Kate had imagined. There were two policemen and one policewoman, the men plain-clothes detectives and the woman in uniform. They told her their names but she forgot them almost at once.

One of the men did the talking, the older one with wrinkled eyes and a salt-and-pepper beard. He spoke with a soft Irish accent. She kept having to shut her eyes to try to take herself back, but not too close, to the evening of the attack. All the time she talked, the younger policeman, who never looked at her, wrote down her words. Kate wondered whether he was connecting any of the events he was scribbling down in his large, childlike hand to the woman in the bed in front of him. Why should he? It was hard enough for her to understand it. Why should anyone else? While she spoke, the policewoman held her hand. She gripped it harder whenever Kate stumbled over the story or had to be silent for a while. Kate wished she wouldn’t do that. She didn’t know this woman. She didn’t want to be touched by her.

Towards the end of the interview, the older officer paused and looked down at his hands, and then up briefly at Kate.

‘Ms Harris,’ he said. ‘Did you recognise your assailant? Was he familiar to you at all?’

‘No,’ she said, not looking at him. ‘No.’

A silence followed, which she didn’t fill. But no more questions followed and the wild beating of her heart slowed to a steadier pace. The young man hurried to finish scribbling in his notepad. Kate concentrated on the slight scrape of his pen and the beads of sweat on his forehead. She didn’t respond to the increase of pressure on her hand. At last the writing stopped. The young man glanced once at his colleague. Then he gave a quick and uncertain smile in the direction of Kate and put his notepad down.

The quietness continued. The older man opened his mouth, but Kate spoke first.

‘Is that all then?’ she asked. ‘Have you finished?’

For a brief moment, the salt-and-pepper man’s eyes widened. The kindness she thought she’d seen in them vanished, before returning but this time more reticently. ‘Yes. Thank you. We have, we …’

‘Good,’ Kate cut him off. ‘Then, please, I’m tired now. I need to sleep. I’d like you to go.’

She didn’t wait to see their reaction. Instead she withdrew her trapped hand from the possession of the policewoman and turned over. Closing her eyes, she tried to regulate her breathing.

A few seconds later, she heard the three interrogators get up from her bedside. They replaced their chairs and
at last
there it was: the padding of footsteps away from her. As they went, the young man said something in a whisper. It wasn’t as low as he must have thought and was quickly hushed.

‘Bit of a cold fish, eh?’

It was only when the door had been closed and she was sure they wouldn’t be returning that Kate wiped away the tears she hadn’t wanted them to see.

How dare they say such a thing?
What did they know really about what she’d had to endure? They had no idea what she was like. But was she cold? She didn’t know. More than that, she didn’t care. If being cold helped her to survive, then that was what she would be. What did people other than she understand about what had happened the night that had brought her here?
Really
understand, not merely the facts and the timings, as she’d told the police, but the feelings and responses no-one else but she would ever know. She would never tell anyone what had happened, or what she thought she knew, not even Nicky. She wouldn’t even admit it to herself. Truth couldn’t be found in facts; they were simply a scaffold for what lay elsewhere, a scaffold that she’d staked her life and her future on. She would live by this understanding still.

As the day passed, the four walls of her room seemed to close in around her like a winter trap from which she would never be free. Even though she’d struggled across the floor to open her window, the room remained stuffy and breathing was difficult. More than anything she wished Nicky was with her. With a wave of longing which nearly overwhelmed her, she wanted to see the familiar figure of her best friend walking towards her, smiling and talking as she always did, gesturing patterns in the air with her hands, and making everything good again. Somehow. Though of course she wouldn’t be smiling. Not now, not in these circumstances. Nicky would be shocked, horrified at what had happened, Kate knew that. She wouldn’t know how to react, and Kate wondered whether she would be able to deal with that any better than she’d dealt with the policewoman’s sympathy earlier.

No, maybe it was better that Nicky was away, with her family, in the south of France on her annual camping holiday. At heart, Kate was glad of it. What sort of person was she anyway? Did other women cope with this situation more effectively than she was? She didn’t know and had no way of telling, and besides she didn’t want to be classed as a certain type of woman.
Victim. Survivor. Witness.
Or any other description. She wasn’t any of those; she was Kate Harris, successful lecturer, keen theatre-goer, good friend. That should be enough.

Still, she wished Nicky were here. In spite of it all.

In the evening of that day, when she was least expecting it, her wish was granted.

‘Kate …?’

At the sound of her name being whispered by someone who wasn’t a nurse, Kate opened her eyes and struggled to turn round in the bed. For a moment during which all her past life apart from the last few days seemed to vanish somewhere, she didn’t know who it was. She stared at the small, rounded brunette who had spoken her name, but couldn’t place her and for another moment she was floating in air and falling. Then with a thump of the heart she hoped the other woman wouldn’t hear, her memory slotted back into place.

‘Nicky. You’re here? I thought you were away, I thought …’

‘Hush, darling. It’s all right. We’re back. The police rang us. They must have found my details at your house. They thought we ought to know and I came back at once.’

As she spoke, Nicky lowered herself onto the bed as if she was afraid something might break and put her arms round her friend. Kate found her face pressed against red cotton fabric and the scent of Anais Anais, and blinked back tears.

‘It’s okay,’ Nicky whispered, stroking her hair. ‘It’s okay.’

But it wasn’t. And Kate didn’t know if it ever would be. How could she retrieve her life, bring it back to where it had been a few short days ago? It was as if a knife had suddenly cut her off from her past, or at least her own carefully edited version of it, simply because of that one night and that one man and what had happened there. In her head all was darkness.

‘Thank you,’ she said when she was able to. ‘I’m so glad you’re here, Nicky, so glad. But you didn’t need to come back early, there was nothing you could do then, or now. I’m sorry.’

‘Kate, I wanted to come back. I had to see you. You’re my friend.’

In answer, Kate simply returned the hug. When the silence had said everything that perhaps could never be said, Nicky spoke again.

‘Are you in pain? Did he …?’

‘… hurt me? Yes. But I’m alive, and once he … started, I didn’t think I would be.’

‘I’m so sorry, Kate.’ Nicky was the one crying now. ‘I don’t know what to do, I wish there was a way I could make everything all right, but there isn’t, is there? I just want you to know that I’m your friend, whatever.’

‘I know,’ Kate said, twisting her hand away from Nicky’s and giving it one last squeeze on the way to escape. ‘Please. Don’t cry. It’s not your fault.’

‘Sorry,’ Nicky sniffed and reached for a tissue from the bedside table. ‘But it’s not your fault either, Kate.’

But Kate didn’t want to think about that, even though she knew it was true. None of the attack had been her fault. It never was in these circumstances, was it? At least, that was what all the do-gooders told you. It was the man, and the man alone, who was the instigator, the attacker, the criminal. Her only fault had been to be present. Though it was her house and the man had found his way into it. Through the kitchen window. Hadn’t he? And hadn’t she herself …? What
was
it about him that had made her think …? Later, these thoughts would be for later. She couldn’t deal with them now. With an effort of will she hadn’t known she possessed, she focused on another subject.

‘David,’ she said, trying to control the slight tremor in her voice. ‘How is he? And the children?’

‘Fine. He’s looking after the twins. He … sends his love.’

Kate didn’t want to hear that. She didn’t want to think about David. She didn’t want to think about any man. Not now. Of course, she expressed none of this.

‘I know. I’m grateful. I wish …’

‘Yes?’ Nicky said. ‘Is there anything I can get you? Apart from clothes and your things from home; I can bring them in tomorrow for you.’

All Kate wanted was to be away from here. But not “home”. Not yet.

‘No,’ she said. ‘Thank you. There’s nothing else. A change of clothes and some make-up will be fine. The hospital staff are very good. Of course they are. It’s just …’

‘Yes?’

‘It’s just I don’t want to be here and I don’t want to be at home. I don’t know where to go any more. I don’t know where I belong.’

As she spoke, Kate realised the truth of it. Her house was now no longer a home at all, but a jagged place where pain could be given and received. And knowledge suppressed.

Nicky stayed another hour or so. Kate asked about the France holiday and heard about the new campsite, David’s irritation about the invariably cold showers and how much Charlotte and Louise had enjoyed the Kids’ Club. In her turn, Nicky asked, hesitantly, as if asking something Kate would have no knowledge of, about the university, and Kate told her about the cards and good wishes she’d received, though she’d turned down the one or two offers of visits. She answered as if from a great distance, as if she were describing the decisions of some other woman, and then wondered at the change.

When the talking had come to a natural halt, the two women remained silent and Kate thought she might have dozed off a little. She couldn’t be sure.

Her friend couldn’t stay forever, of course. She had her family to consider. Kate found that now someone had come to see her, a familiar and much-loved face, the thought of parting made her skin feel cold.

‘You’ll come back, won’t you?’ she asked, trying to keep the note of begging out of her voice. ‘Tomorrow? I don’t know how long it will be before they let me go.’

‘Of course I’ll be here.’ Nicky smiled, an action it seemed to Kate that she at once thought better of. ‘Try and keep me away. I’ll be here every day as long as you are. I promise.’

‘Thank you,’ Kate sighed, an overwhelming feeling of tiredness taking her away from the current moment. ‘I … I appreciate that. And listen …’

‘Yes?’

‘It’s all right to smile. It’s good to know things can be normal. Even after this.’

Nicky nodded but said nothing. When her friend was gone and the vacuum left by her absence had eased, Kate prayed a silent prayer that what she had said might one day be true, that things might be normal again.

And that one day soon she could leave the hospital.

It took longer than she’d hoped. The hospital staff were reluctant to let her go and Kate wondered if it was because she had no family who could help her, or not any who could be useful anyway. Both her parents were dead, her father many years ago, her mother more recently. She had no brothers or sisters and no children. Not now.
No
, she had to stop thinking like that. There had never been children, and she was a fool to be thinking that way here, where she needed all of her strength.

So Kate remained in hospital for ten days. She was offered counselling and victim support, but she refused both. She was given information on the different sorts of medical tests they might need to perform in the future, but although she took the leaflets they left for her, she knew she wouldn’t look at them again; he’d used a condom, hadn’t he? Each time. And besides she couldn’t bear the thought of further medical intrusion into her life. No, she would take her chances.

As for the police, in the six days when she was awake but exhausted, they visited her twice more after the initial interview. She was glad that on both those occasions, the younger man did not attend; she didn’t know whether she could have borne to talk to him, not after what he had said, words that she could never share with anyone, not even Nicky. She made sure she told them nothing more than they already knew, and they in turn had nothing to tell her. There had been no arrest, nor any hint of one. Her attacker had vanished from sight as easily as if he had been nothing but mist.

He could not so easily vanish from her memory.

He would have to. She could imagine no other option. She, Kate Harris, had a future and, no matter what, she would never be constrained by her past. She had promised herself that a long time ago and had never seen any reason to change her views.

She had to recover. And the first steps towards that recovery would only begin when she could face the thought of home. Or whatever her home had become.

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