Anybody Out There - Extract


Prologue


There was no return address on the envelope, which was a little weird. Already I was slightly uneasy. Even more so when I saw my name and address…
The sensible woman would not open this. The sensible women would throw it in the bin and walk away. But, apart from a short period between the ages of twenty nine and thirty, when had I ever been sensible? So I opened it.
It was a card, a watercolour of a bowl of droopy-looking flowers. And flimsy enough that I could feel something inside. Money, I thought? A cheque? But I was just being sarcastic, even though there was no-one there to hear me and, anyway, I was only saying it in my own head. And indeed, there was something inside: a photograph. Why was I being sent this? I already had loads. Then I saw that I was wrong. It wasn’t him at all. And suddenly I understood everything.
Chapter One

Mum flung open the sitting-room door and announced, “Morning, Anna, time for your tablets.”
She tried to march briskly, like nurses she’d seen on hospital dramas but there was so much furniture in the room that instead she had to wrestle her way towards me.
When I’d arrived in Ireland eight weeks earlier, I couldn’t climb the stairs, because of my dislocated kneecap, so my parents had moved a bed downstairs into the Good Front Room.
Make no mistake, this was a huge honour: under normal circumstances we were only let into this room at Christmas time. The rest of the year, all familial leisure activities - television-watching, chocolate-eating, bickering - took place in the cramped converted garage, which went by the grand title of Television Room.

But when my bed was installed in the GFR there was nowhere for the other fixtures – tasselled couches, tasselled armchairs – to go. The room now looked like a discount furniture store, where millions of couches are squashed in together, so that you almost have to clamber over them like boulders along the seafront.

“Right, Missy.” Mum consulted a sheet of paper, an hour-by-hour schedule of all my medication - antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, anti-depressants, sleeping pills, high-impact vitamins, painkillers which induced a very pleasant floaty feeling, and a member of the valium family which she had ferried away to a secret location.

All the different packets and jars stood on a small elaborately-carved table  - several china dogs of unparallelled hideousness had been shifted to make way for them and now sat on the floor looking reproachfully at me – and Mum began sorting through them, popping out capsules and shaking pills from bottles.

My bed had been thoughtfully placed in the window bay so that I could look out at passing life. Except that I couldn’t: there was a net curtain in place that was as immovable as a metal wall. Not physically immovable, you understand, but socially immovable: in Dublin suburbia brazenly lifting your nets to have a good look at ‘passing life’ is a social gaffe akin to painting the front of your house Schiaperelli pink.

Besides, there was no passing life. Except… actually, through the gauzy barrier, I’d begun to notice that most days an elderly woman stopped to let her dog wee at our gatepost – sometimes I thought the dog, a cute black and white terrier, didn’t even want to wee, but it was looking as if the woman was insisting.

“Okay, Missy.” Mum had never called me ‘Missy’ before all of this. “Take these.” She tipped a handful of pills into my mouth and passed me a glass of water. She was very kind really, even if I suspected she was acting out a part.

“Dear Jesus,” a voice said. It was my sister Helen, just home from a night’s work. She stood in the doorway of the sitting room, looked around at all the tassles and asked, “How can you stand it?”

Helen is the youngest of the five of us and still lives in the parental home, even though she’s twenty-nine. But why would she move out, she often asks, when she’s got a rent-free gig, cable telly and a built-in chauffeur (Dad). The food, of course, she admits, is a problem, but there are ways around everything.

“Hi Honey, you’re home,” Mum said. “How was work?”

After several career changes, Helen – and I’m not making this up, I wish I was – is a private investigator. Mind you, it sounds far more dangerous and exciting than it is, she mostly does white collar crime and ‘domestics’ - where she has to get proof of men having affairs. I would find it terribly depressing but she says it doesn’t bother her because she’s always known that men were total scumbags.

She spends a lot of time sitting in wet hedges with a long-range lens, trying to get photographic evidence of the adulterers leaving their lovenest. She could stay in her nice, warm, dry car but then she tends to fall asleep and miss her mark.
“Mum, I’m very stressed,” she said, “Any chance of a valium?”
“No.”
“My throat is killing me. Warcrime sore. I’m going to bed.”
Helen, on account of all the time she spends in damp hedges, gets a lot of sore throats.
“I’ll bring you up some ice-cream in a minute, pet,” Mum said. “Tell me, I’m dying to know, did you get your mark?”

Mum loves Helen’s job, nearly more than she loves mine and that’s saying a lot. (Apparently, I have The Best Job In The World TM.) Occasionally, when Helen is very bored or scared, Mum even goes to work with her; the Case of the Missing Woman comes to mind. Helen had to go to the woman’s apartment, looking for clues (air tickets to Rio etc, as if…) and Mum went along because she loves seeing inside other people’s houses. She says it’s amazing how dirty people’s homes are when they’re not expecting visitors. This gives her great relief, making it easier to live in her own less-than-pristine crib. However, because her life had begun to resemble, however briefly, a crime drama, Mum got carried away and tried to break down the locked apartment door by running at it with her shoulder – even though, and I can’t stress this enough, Helen had a key. And Mum knew she had it. It had been given to her by the missing woman’s sister and all Mum got for her trouble was a badly mashed shoulder.

“It’s not like on the telly,” She complained afterwards, kneading the top of her arm.
Then, earlier this year, someone tried to kill Helen. The general consusus was not so much shock that such a dreadful thing would happen, as amazement that it hadn’t come to pass much sooner. Of course, it wasn’t really an attempt on her life. Someone threw a stone through the television-room window during an episode of Eastenders - probably just one of the local teenagers expressing his feelings of youthful alienation, but the next thing Mum was on the phone to everyone, saying that someone was trying to ‘put the frighteners’ on Helen, that they ‘wanted her off the case’. As ‘the case’ was a small, office fraud inquiry where an employer had Helen install hidden camera to see if his employees were nicking printer cartridges, this seemed a little unlikely. But who was I to rain on their parade – and that’s what I would have been doing: they’re such drama queens they actually thought this was exciting. Except for Dad and only because he was the one who had to sweep up all the broken glass and sellotape a plastic bag over the hole until the glazier arrived, approximately six months later. (I suspect Mum and Helen live in a fantasy world, where they think someone’s going to come along and turn their lives into a massively successful tv series. In which, they will, it goes without saying, play themselves.)
“Yes, I got him. Ding-dong! Right, I’m off to bed.” Instead she stretched out on one of the many couches. “The man spotted me in the hedge, taking his picture.”
Mum’s hand went to her mouth, the way a person would on telly, if they wanted to indicate anxiety.

“Nothing to worry about,” Helen said. “We had a little chat. He asked for my phone-number. Cack-head,” she added with blistering scorn.

That’s the thing about Helen: she’s very beautiful. Men, even those she’s spying on for their wives, fall for her. Despite me being three years older than her, she and I look extremely similar: we’re short with long dark hair and almost identical faces. Mum sometimes confuses us with each other, especially when she’s not wearing her glasses. But, unlike me, Helen’s got some magic pull. She operates on an entirely unique frequency, which mesmerises men; perhaps on the same principle of the whistle that only dogs can hear. When men meet the two of us, you can see their confusion. You can actually see them thinking, They look the same, but this Helen has bewitched me like a drug, whereas that Anna is just so-what…
Not that it does the men in question any good. Helen boasts that she’s never been in love and I believe her. She’s unbothered by sentimentality and has contempt for everyone and everything.

Even, Luke, Rachel’s boyfriend - well fiance now. Luke is so dark and sexy and testosteroney that I dread being alone with him. I mean, he’s a lovely person, really really lovely, but just, you know… all man. I both fancy him and am repelled by him, if that makes any sense and everyone – even Mum – I’d say even Dad – is sexually attracted to him. Not Helen though.
All of a sudden Mum seized my arm – luckily, my unbroken one – and hissed, in a voice throbbing with excitement. “Look! It’s Jolly Girl, Angela Kilfeather. With her Jolly Girl girlfriend! She must be home visiting!”

Angela Kilfeather was the most exotic creature that ever came out of our road. Well, that’s not really true, my family is far more dramatic what with broken marriages and suicide attempts and drug addiction and Helen, but Mum uses Angela Kilfeather as the gold standard: bad and all as her daughers are, at least they’re not lesbians who french-kiss their girlfriends beside suburban leylandii.

(Helen once worked with an Indian man who mistranslated ‘gays’ as ‘Jolly Boys.’ It caught on so much that, nearly everyone I knew – including all my gay friends – now referred to gay men as ‘Jolly Boys.’ And always said in an Indian accent. The logical conclusion was that lesbians were ‘Jolly Girls’, also said in an Indian accent.)
Mum placed one eye up against the gap between the wall and the net curtain. “I can’t see, give me your binoculars,” she ordered Helen, who produced them from her rucksack with alacrity – but only for her own personal use. A small but fierce stuggle ensued. “She’ll be GONE,” Mum begged. “Let me see.”
“Promise you’ll give me a valium and the gift of long vision is yours.”
It was a dilemma for Mum but she did the right thing.
“You know I can’t do that,” she said primly. “I’m your mother and it would be irresponsible.”
“Please yourself,” Helen said, then gazed through the binoculars and murmured, “Good Christ, would you look at that!” Then, “Buh-loody hell! Ding-dong! What are they trying to do? A Jolly Girl tonsilectomy?”

Then Mum had sprung off the couch and was trying to grab the binoculars from Helen and they wrestled like children, only stopping when they bumped against my hand, the one with the missing fingernails and my shriek of pain restored them to decorum.