I swallow the paracetamols and avoiding all the creaky areas on the stairs tiptoe upstairs. The light is off in my mother’s room, so I quietly open the door to look in on her sleeping form. But my mother is sitting on a chair by the window. She must have seen me come in.
‘What are you doing?’ I ask.
‘I heard you come in,’ she says softly.
‘Could you not sleep?’
‘No. I start my chemo next week. Just enjoying the feeling of well-being I guess.’
I cross the room and kneel beside my mother. She is not wearing a scarf, and her bald head glints in the moonlight. It makes me sad. ‘I’ve got good news for you, Mum. Remember that clinic in America that I was telling you about.’
She frowns. She is only fifty but the worry and pain make her appear haggard. ‘The one we can’t afford.’
‘Well, it’s not a hundred percent yet, but I think I’ve managed to raise the money.’
‘How? How did you do that?’ My mother’s voice is suspicious and frightened.
‘I met a guy. A rich guy who just wants to help.’
‘A rich man who wants to help?’ Her tone is frankly disbelieving.
‘Mum, please don’t be like that. It’s not anything like you are thinking.’
‘Oh no? What is it like then?’
‘He’s just a nice guy who likes me.’
‘I wasn’t born yesterday, girl.’ My mother’s skeletal fingers grip my hands. ‘You haven’t done anything you’ll regret, have you?’
‘I promise I haven’t. I just drank too much champagne,’ I put my fingertips to my temples, ‘and my head’s pounding. I promise, I’ll tell you everything tomorrow when I’ve had some sleep.’
The last time I remember lying to my mother was when I was nine and I had pretended I had brushed my teeth. Guilty and terrified of being discovered I had raced up the stairs to wet my toothbrush.
My mother’s hands move up my arm urgently. She touches the tips of her fingers on the dark bruises on my arm, while her worried eyes burn into mine. ‘Where did these come from?’
‘That’s not him,’ I explain nervously.
‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions,’ she warns darkly.
‘I promise, I’ll tell you everything tomorrow, but it’s not what you think.’ Really it is worse, a little voice says. ‘All will be well, you wait and see,’ I say brightly and smile.
My mother does not return my smile. Instead she gazes at me sadly.
‘Goodnight, Mum. I really love you.’
‘I love you too.’
I stumble down the short corridor to my room, and making it to the edge of my bed, drop the shoes clutched in my hands. Then, like a tree that has been felled I fall onto the top of my bed and am almost instantly inside a deep, dreamless sleep.
The muted but insistent ringing of my mobile phone jars me awake. For a moment I lay crumpled and confused on my bed. My head is banging furiously. Then I pat the duvet around me, locate my purse and pulling my phone out squint at the number. It is the agency.
I sit up, clear my throat, and say, ‘Yes?’
‘Hello, Lana. It’s Jane here.’
‘Well, we’ve received a disturbing and very serious accusation from your current employer. They have also requested a replacement to finish the booking. So please do not go into work today. Mrs. Lipman would also like to see you to sort out this situation. Can you come in later today?’
I remember Blake telling me to keep the day free. ‘Not today but tomorrow.’
‘Oh.’ There is a surprised pause. ‘All right. What about ten thirty tomorrow?’
‘OK, see you then.’
I gently ease my head back on my pillow. Listening carefully I hear my mother moving around the flat, and sigh. I will have to go out soon and face my mother and tell fresh new lies, but I feel so tired I fall back to sleep.
Again it is the phone that wakes me. I lift it up to my face. It is a number I do not recognize.
‘Hello,’ I croak.
‘Miss Bloom?’ a woman’s voice enquires. Her voice is extremely efficient and professional. And wide awake.
‘Laura Arnold, Mr. Barrington’s personal assistant, here. Is this a good time for you to talk?’
‘Yes. Yes, of course.’ I jerk upright and take a gulp of water from a bottle by my bedside.
‘Mr. Barrington has asked me to make some appointments for you today. May I run through them with you now?’
‘What kind of appointments?’
‘Tom Edwards, Mr. Barrington’s driver, will be around your flat at ten forty-five. Your first stop will be your doctor where you have an appointment to see the nurse.’
‘How do you know who my doctor is?’
There is a pause. It is pregnant with possibilities, perhaps even explanations.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ I say quickly.
As if she has not been interrupted, the woman continues, ‘She will discuss various contraceptive options with you if you are not already on some form of birth control. Next, you have a meeting with Mr. Barrington’s lawyer. Once you have concluded your business there, you will be dropped off at our publicist, Fleur Jan’s office. Ms. Jan will take you shopping and then on to your appointment with the hairdresser. After that Tom has instructions to take you to a beauty salon where you are booked for a full body wax, manicure and pedicure. Please bear in mind that Mr. Barrington does not like garish colors. He prefers light colors, but likes French manicures best.
‘When you are done at the salon, Tom will take you to the apartment in St John’s Wood and show you around. Please do settle in. The fridge and cupboards will be fully stocked, but should you require, I can also arrange for a meal of your choice to be delivered to you from one of the local restaurants. It would be advisable to eat lightly as Mr. Barrington gets into London late evening, and he wishes to take you out for supper about nine p.m. He tends to be very punctual so do be ready by eight thirty. Do you have any particular dietary needs or preferences?’
‘Good. Would you like me to order your dinner?’
‘No, I’ll make do.’
‘Fine. Do you have a passport?’
‘You will need one.’
‘Mr. Barrington travels often and I believe you will be required to accompany him on some of those trips.’