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Read by Mathew Baynton
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Try it yourself. Go out, pick somebody and watch them. Take your phone and a notebook. Persist. What begins as a confluence of yours and another person’s journeys, on the train maybe or leaving a cinema, gets into an entanglement. You follow, feeling that it’s not really following because you’re going the same way, then when they at last reach their office you feel the clutch of a goodbye. It’s normal. But how many times do you think the person being followed has been you?
Read Me is a seductive, haunting novel that holds a sinister mirror up to the ways in which we observe, judge, and influence people. Benedictus’ prose commands and draws readers into the dark, manipulative mind of a serial stalker as he targets women across London, escalating his efforts until he settles on Frances — a bright young professional whose career is set to take off — whose life he proceeds to unravel from the inside, out.
A chilling rumination on power, manipulation, complicity, and anonymity, Read Me exposes just how vulnerable we are to the whims of others — people we may not even know.
I DO NOT CONSIDER MYSELF a complicated person. I don’t think many people are. I accept that I have lived strangely for the past four years, and for the past month especially, so I suppose I must consider myself strange, but please forgive me if I don’t wear the word with the best grace. I am not so strange that I take pride in it. I have only tried to live by simple principles with doggedness and honesty, and with an open mind.
Now and then I believe we all glimpse the simplicity of ourselves, whether or not we try. For instance I’m sure you’ve heard people who’ve nearly died saying that it reminds you what’s important, by which they mean that the list of things is shorter than they thought. Soon enough most return to worrying about bills and popularity and lateness. In order to forget life, they get on with living. Those who stay reminded are considered traumatized.
Danger forces this grim wisdom on you, but it is by no means the only route. Most children discover at some point that minds can be boiled down pretty easily by playing a game of Why? Just ask Why? of any statement, then ask Why? of the answer, and continue to ask Why? until you get stuck in a loop, or you reach particle physics, or the grown-up gets bored, whichever is the soonest.
Let me give you an example. Why? Because examples are a good way to explain things, and right now I’d rather explain this idea than get on with the story. Why? Because I’m anxious. Why? Various reasons. Among them, because I’m making tea in the dark. Why am I making tea in the dark? Good question. Because I want to bring her something comforting when I go upstairs, but I don’t dare turn on the lights. Why don’t I dare? Because I don’t want to risk waking her. Why? Because I want to wake her later, at the right time. Why? Because I want to make a good impression. Why do I want to make a good impression? Because I want to be loved. Why do I want to be loved? I don’t know. Curiosity I suppose. I want to find out what it’s like. Why do I want to find out? I don’t know.
Actually it is not completely dark in here, if I’m going to be accurate, which I plan to be. The kettle’s power indicator light gives an orange glow to the waiting cups. The point is it’s dark enough to be anxious about tea-making, on top of all the other things.
We are in the hissing stage. You know the hissing stage? The kettle begins silently, then there are clicks, then the clicks give way to a quiet hissing that becomes loud. That’s where we are, in the becoming.
Her cup is white with a blue feather pattern painted on it. She has an especial fondness for the blue feather design. I don’t know why. I only know that whenever one is available, that’s what she chooses, and this must be a matter of policy because she has a varied, even a raucous, cup shelf. There is another feather cup, but I’ve chosen something different for myself because I worry that if I choose the same it will look like I am trying to be neat instead of thoughtful. And I can’t just say to her, Oh, by the way, I’ve given you one of your favorite cups. That’s not subtle. That sounds like bait for praise. I’ll just let her notice that my cup is different, an obscure green and gold one from the back of the shelf that she rarely uses. Hopefully she’ll understand that I intend it as a modest contrast, like the white of a gallery wall or of the page. It may not work, but I believe in doing more than is required. You can’t control what people think, but if you do everything you can, they’ll notice, and understand that the great trouble you’ve taken must mean you care. You must show almost a mild madness.
I am also anxious, as I say, and looking for distractions. I know it is ridiculous to believe that the glow of the kitchen lights might find a way to penetrate her bedroom door upstairs, but I managed it, and left the room dark. My roving torch beam I worried would draw attention to the windows, so I switched it off. I’m left with this orange gloom, which gives a rather forbidding atmosphere. That and the weather. It is a windy night out there. When the gusts come they sound determined to scare me. I shiver sometimes.
Now we’re at the rumbling stage. I lift the kettle. I don’t wait for it to boil. Perhaps you’ve noticed before that kettles often spend a long time on the threshold of a hundred degrees, turning water into steam. It’s pointless, when ninety-five degrees would do just as well. I’m also anxious about the noise. Lifting the kettle disconnects the power and switches off the orange light. I forgot that and it alarms me, being in complete darkness with almost boiling water. I manage to put the kettle back on the counter but I still can’t see anything. At last I find the handle of the fridge and open it, bathing everything in whiteness. I should have done this before. I aim the water at the dark regions of the teabag. I get milk out of the fridge and fetch a spoon. She likes her tea strong and unsweetened, the milk stopped at chestnut, but this is difficult to judge in low light, so I carry her cup closer to the fridge. Clouds of vapor fill the shelves, but I am satisfied. I take the teabag out and drop it in the bin, which smells of onions, remembering to open and close the lid as quietly as I can. They clang like bells, the lids of pedal bins. My tea I make the same.
The rest of my stuff is in a sports bag which I strap to my shoulders, gripping the torch in my mouth, while carrying both cups of tea. Bags of this kind are not designed for shoulders, and my socks are slippery on the floor, so I cross the hall and take the stairs with caution. I go stealthily, scanning each step. I nudge through her door.
She sleeps. Keeping the torch beam off her face, I place the feathered cup on the bedside table, and my own beside my bag on the carpet. I take her phone and unplug the wire, being careful neither to jolt the tea nor dislodge her open book and lose the page.
She lies on her side. Her face is half-hidden by her hair, which is heavy and lustrous. As I watch, her sleeping finger hooks it back behind an ear. She chews the air and exhales, settling. I wonder what she’s dreaming about. Perhaps it’s dreams of her girlhood, of growing up fatherless but in secure circumstances in a small town. Or of spending her young years well enough liked at school and known for brains, mostly a historian, then shaking the reputation off at university. After university I know that she was sharper with herself and found a well-paid job, and it turned out that money suited her. From her stalky adolescence, glamour came. Even so she was very surprised at first by all the men who propositioned her. This was in that tender stage of first employment when, you understand, still wary in the world, she presumed with sadness that being pestered for sex was just the burden that a woman carried until she carried children. Plus she presumed that these were not prime men. Over time, however, and by gathering the remarks of friends, she came to know that she was beautiful. It can’t just be shrugged away, all that beholding, though it gave her the haughty tilt that she had feared. There began to be a distance in her voice. She served rejections briskly. When the job became yet better paid she bought this little house. Friends said it was unlike her to be so spontaneous in a matter of weight, but looking back they agree that there were always glints of firmness. Until recently she was known at work for steady hands. Now they clutch around under the covers. I watch her eyelids wriggling. Her breaths go shallow and disordered. I look at her and I think, You can’t see me, but I am here.
FIRST I SHOULD EXPLAIN how I got rich.
It happened quite suddenly four years ago, on the day of my aunt Kathy’s funeral. Those few of us present met afterward to exchange memories in a smart restaurant closed for the occasion. They were dull memories, but it was a Friday afternoon so we drank freely. We needed to. The place was far too big. There was plainly a wine surplus, and a long table stood against a wall stacked handsomely with sandwiches, pastries and prepared fruit. People like to say there is an unmentionable elephant in the room at such times, but we actually had space for one and could have fed it.
Myself, I was very hungry and ate all I could. I took something from a different serving plate each time, hoping to leave them tousled as if by a crowd. Others nibbled too, and in the end we left what could easily have been the aftermath of thirty or forty mourners with small appetites, which you might expect given the occasion and the time of day. Besides, whoever cleared up afterward would have to be quite paranoid to imagine someone systematically visiting different plates in order to deceive them.
Kathy’s lawyer made his approach while I was eating strawberries, I think. Having established who I was, he gave me his card, said he had some documents that concerned me and suggested we meet afterward to discuss it. I admit I expected something gestural from Kathy. I also admit that I knew that a gesture from her would not be very small. She’d been single and a heavy earner, one of the first women to make a mark in banking, though the career was no crusade. She was as uninterested in the women’s movement as she was in everybody else’s. You only had to be with her twenty minutes to see the stern fixity of a person who expects nothing from their fellows and gives less back. She must have been an anvil to haggle with. It’s mostly visual now, my memory of Kathy. It’s the bright suits and glasses, and the fringe that changed color but never shape. The cancer news she took not happily, of course, but nevertheless in a spirit that was close to vindication, death in your fifties being a Pyrrhic victory over the optimists, you might say. Any talk of battling during a visit and you’d be dismissed. I just liked to ask how it felt, knowing she would die soon, and I think she liked my bluntness. On good days she said she was glad not having to worry about the grief of others. On bad ones she said almost nothing.
I don’t want you to think that Kathy didn’t laugh, however. That last stage saw a flourishing of bitter humor. A couple of times a joke seemed on the point of finishing her off. The best way to go, I suppose, if you can manage it. In particular she developed a running theme about her legacy, as though she were an outgoing chief executive or politician, which made me laugh as well. I thought it indicated that she knew she’d been a pioneer. Later I wondered whether the joke had another layer she’d been keeping to herself, because Kathy left a legacy indeed.
Having been solemn before, the lawyer gave me a lot of grins in the taxi. We made no smalltalk. At his office he ordered coffee and while I drank mine explained that, after a donation to the hospice and a few sideways odds and ends, it was my aunt’s wish that all her wealth should go to me. Once you combined the various accounts and funds with a conservative valuation of her flat, this amounted to just less than eleven million, a sum that has only grown in the years since. I find even the interest difficult to spend.
At the time my main feeling was confusion over how to react.
So I’m rich? I said, or something like it.
The lawyer agreed.
How do people normally react?
This question seemed to surprise the lawyer. He said it was hard to generalize, because cases this dramatic were rare. Indeed when you considered the amount of money involved and the unexpectedness, this was among the most dramatic he had handled in more than thirty years. He did not know what you’d call normal.
But you are smiling, I said. And it seemed you were looking forward to telling me, so you must have expected something good. Did you expect me to be pleased?
He said most people were pleased.
What do they do?
They didn’t exactly celebrate, at least not in his office, but he could see they were excited. Some had problems that would be solved by the bequest, and they often cried. Some cried at feeling so beloved by the deceased. A few times he’d had to convince people he was really a lawyer. It varied.
That night I gave my aunt’s memory a maudlin evening with a bottle of whiskey. Saturday I went a little crazy on the town. Restored and ready for work on Monday, I stopped at my breakfast bowl. We’ll say that the spoon was halfway to my lips, although of course I can’t remember. The radio was definitely on, some squabble about trains. It had been my plan to bide time and let the circumstances sit with me before making any big decisions, yet there was something absurd now about having breakfast just as I always did, my glum life unchanged even by this shock. I had a job that I neither loved nor hated. Why would I give my day to that? It’s hard to explain but it was like I’d stepped off stage to join an audience watching my own acting. Eats breakfast with the radio on. Does nothing hasty. All weekend I’d believed myself set free by Kathy’s money, but that was quite wrong. I’d been free all my life and refusing to know it. If you don’t look closely, biding time and killing it look about the same.
Free then, and rich enough to do anything, what should I do? This was what I had to think about, and it was almost a curse. It was a curse. I got quite upset. I can’t remember making a decision about work or informing my colleagues that I wasn’t coming in. I think there were some emails later in the week. What I remember is going out. Emotionally I was a shaken keg and I hoped that being outside would put in embarrassment as a stopper. I also had a question I couldn’t answer and I’ve often noticed—I don’t know if you’re the same?—that I do my best thinking in the margins, when I’m half-doing something else. Anyway, very distressed, in desperation really, I went for a walk because it was either that or freaking out at home.
It was early, and there were still commuters. The current went toward the city center, so I went the other way. A bus pulled up beside me, so I got on, and stayed on to the depot. I took another, and when that terminated, another. Looking through the windows made me calmer. Calmer but not calm. Like I was shuffling myself, that’s the best way I can describe it. I had a need to behave strangely.
Perhaps as a result I remember feeling terribly conspicuous. I expected to be challenged by one of the other passengers and asked what I was up to, in answer to which I would have wet myself or begun to scream or throw up, and disembarked when the next stop came. However, in time peculiarity became me. I stopped worrying and started seeing things. A middle-aged foreign couple. They had new luggage and were in the advanced stages of getting lost. Where they wanted to be, this far from any sights or big hotels, had me beat too. The man held a page from a notebook and he and his wife (as I presumed) would point to bits of it now and then and there’d be light bickering. Treated reverently at first, the page was increasingly often slapped and snatched around, and in the end became a kind of baton for making accusations. You could see it had mostly been his plan because she did most of the accusing. They were bourgeois, judging by the luggage, which I think was an ingredient in things, public transport being a nuisance that at home they were proudly unfamiliar with. (But taxis here being too expensive.) Other passengers tried to provide help but were soon rebuffed by all the nodding. When in the end they got off it was not triumphantly, not laughing, their destination spied, but grim with the acceptance that they’d come too far. As we pulled away I watched them face each other on the pavement, taking turns to be angry. I got off myself at the next stop and ate lunch.
After lunch I saw Laura D., who was my first. She took a double seat three rows ahead of me and gave one to her bag. She was on the phone, so I heard her too. I’m sure we all did. Perhaps you’ve never noticed how the prettier girls on trains and buses talk more loudly than the others? And they make a proper racket laughing.
Laura was a hairdresser, but queenly in her ways and limbed like a Matisse. She was telling a friend about the foibles of an old woman client, while journeying to the woman’s home. The great size and peculiar furnishings of the place were mentioned, as was the otiose use of her name all the time, like Laura was a maid or something. Worst was the client’s intransigence, now never questioned, over the order in which the different sections of her hair had to be cut and colored. Laura doubted whether the distinguished husband, always absent, was even real. Others I am sure looked sourly on this exposure of the old woman she was about to go and serve so falsely. People don’t like that kind of thing because it makes them look for the false servants in their own lives. I was taken with it however, because something did not ring true. I’d like to be able to say what exactly. Maybe Laura spoke too fluently, or forcefully, but she seemed to want to be overheard. Also her bag seemed small for all the equipment she said she was carrying. Shortly before standing for her stop she sprayed herself from a bottle of perfume. Would she do that before this bothersome old lady? All I can say now is that I quickly developed a kind of belief that there was some secret here, and a need to know if the belief was right. When she got off, I got off with her. That was the beginning.
Was it the beginning? I’m having to write this in snatched moments here and there, which is not convenient. Things generally are difficult right now for reasons that I’ll come to. But the spells between are a chance to think freshly. And I don’t know. I look back and I don’t know when all this started. The thing with Laura, Kathy’s death, the thing now, me writing, me growing up, when you put them in a line they make a kind of sense. More sense than at the time. Did I really find my new life on the first day of looking? Much easier to believe it was already somewhere in me. This is what people call hindsight I suppose. First it’s hard to explain things, then it’s hard not to generate explanations.
Then it’s different. At other times it feels like everything happened to someone else, what’s happened recently especially.
I’m sorry. I’m not explaining myself well. Have I been someone all my life who would do what I’ve done? Or am I just somebody who did? I suppose that’s what I’m asking. Because I’ve thought a lot about how I’ll look when your eyes leave these pages for the final time, perhaps before the final page. I wonder if you’ll see a monster, and if I am one, or if monstrosity is a costume to be tried on.
Why am I so nervous? I am new to storytelling, it is true. A greenhorn at the inkhorn you might say, but I’ve been ready for nerves and am quite pleased with the start I’ve made, though I do do a lot of doubting. I get so wrapped up in the events I’m making an account of that when I pause to look again it’s like the music stops, the lights go on, and I’m surrounded by droops of bunting and lost coats and forgotten inches of wine. I get self-conscious suddenly. I’ve undone dozens of beginnings. Who knows if even this paragraph will stand? Probably that’s how it always is. Probably all beginnings begin with grief for the lost conviction of intending.
You’re being very patient. You want the nitty-gritty, and you’re right. Laura: what went on there? Me: who am I? A complicated question about anyone, I’m sure we can agree. Well I am a rich man, as you have heard, and neither young nor old. You know my name. My occupation is not so easy. The word that many would apply to me is stalker, but applying doesn’t make it so. I’d say instead that I practice people studies. Studying people is what I do so if it needs one that can be its name.
Be assured that I’m not hiding from the facts of things. I do secretly follow strangers on the street. I wait outside their houses and I listen to their conversations, if I can. Look through my notes, which fill a cabinet, and you will find some men named, but on the whole I study women. Which women? I don’t think I can generalize. A subject need only interest me for a moment, as Laura did, and I am on them. When someone more interesting comes along, I switch to them. It’s rare for me to study anybody longer than a month. Most I’m finished with inside a week or so.
Nevertheless you’ll think—and this is obviously a paraphrase, I don’t presume to know your thoughts exactly—that following women around the way I do is an invasion of their privacy, perhaps worse. That’s partly why I’m telling you about it now, having never told anyone before, so I can show that I expect no more privacy for myself than I grant others. My subjects do not choose to be my subjects, it is true, but only because such a choice is impossible. If you volunteer to be studied, you stop being you.
Try it yourself. That’s another thing I’m saying. Go out, pick somebody and watch them. Take your phone and a notebook. Persist. You’ve probably already tried, mildly. What begins as a confluence of yours and another person’s journeys, on the train maybe or leaving a cinema, gets into an entanglement. Maybe you both sense it. Maybe just you do. You follow, feeling that it’s not really following because you’re going the same way, then when they at last reach their office you feel the clutch of a goodbye. It’s normal. How many times do you think the person being followed has been you?
Laura crossed the road. I went with her. She turned into a long avenue lined with characterful brick merchant houses and linden trees. I turned too. I let the space between us lengthen. Soon she was just a dark rhythm and a swinging bag. Then she wasn’t there. Instantly I regretted my coolness and sped up, then ran. I reached a cobbled mews, a beautiful old pub at the end of it. A pub and a few garages and flats. Nothing resembling a grand old lady’s mansion in anyone’s eyes. I stopped to catch my breath, leaning against a panel of doorbells as if about to ring one. Laura took a seat in the pub, by the window. Relief. Joy and relief. The cold brim of a shiver swept across me.
As best I could, I squared things. There was a chance that Laura had received word of a postponement or a cancellation after I’d lost sight of her, and had gone into the pub to wait. Only a small chance though. Seeing her bustle along, it also seemed unlikely she was early. Meeting in the pub might of course be one of the client’s eccentricities, but Laura had not mentioned it on the phone, and she’d seemed set on mentioning everything.
If at first I had been curious, now I was obsessed. I had to move away from the doorbells when an elderly man walked out and gave me a look. This left just the street to wait on. It was odd to loiter outside on a cold day, though I was glad of the excuse to keep my face in my lapels. (Now I always carry cigarettes, which make immaculate pretexts for hanging around on the street. You can also bury yourself in your phone, or pretend to be talking on it, but this calls for more boldness than I had at the time, and can be distracting.)
Presently, a man came to sit with Laura. A well-dressed man, expected by her, but older than I’d guessed. She had white wine. He chose mineral water, and got the conversation going. She said little, but was flirting, you could see. It was in her long stares and in the scale of her laughing. Flirting meant that they were not already lovers. On the table she had a pen and notebook, which she was hardly using. She wanted something from him but he wasn’t giving it, or not giving all of it, that’s what I inferred. I’ve noticed since that you can sometimes see people more plainly without speech to misdirect you. The man stood up, shook Laura’s hand, said Good luck, I think, and left. They’d been together for ten minutes at most.
What had I witnessed? The lying to her friend, the notebook and her flirtatious ways made clear that the occasion was important to Laura, but less to him. He seemed like someone powerful, though light with it, and gracious in the obdurate art of being petitioned. I can’t say why, but to me he also appeared decent. Like someone she should trust. Ducking behind a van, I watched her leave soon afterward. I felt I had no choice but to follow her home.
I’ve been doing a lot of physical work recently, more than I’m used to, and I seem to have wrenched something in my shoulder. There was no one incident, or not one that I noticed. When I woke up a couple of days ago it just went stiff, and since then has been given to spasms. It’s not terrible. I only feel it if I reach for something at the wrong angle, or lift much weight. Then a belt of pain flashes down my neck. The rest of the time I feel nothing. Like at the moment, typing is fine.
The odd thing though, the reason I bring this up, is that I find I can’t help looking for the pain. I wave my arm around trying to find the exact bad angle, or probe the muscles with my left hand. When I succeed it hurts, so I stop. Then I drift into the search again. Versions of this self-torture are quite common, I believe. I’ve often been like this over pulled muscles or mouth ulcers, flicking the pain on and off like you might play with a hair clip. But only with certain kinds of pain. I’d never aggravate a cut on my finger, or a burn. Once I broke a rib. Have you ever broken a rib? In most cases there’s no treatment. The intercostal muscles hold the bones in place and eventually they set. After the first few days they smoothly rise and fall with normal breathing and you don’t feel anything. Then you laugh. Or worse you sneeze, and the pain is terrible. Terrible. When I had that broken rib and I felt a sneeze coming I’d start trying to sneeze, hoping to trick it into fading away, as sneezes like to do.
- "A fascinating, disturbing, and original thriller that erases the boundaries of the genre and draws challenging new ones."—Sophie Hannah, New York Times bestselling author of The Monogram Murders
- "Such a great read, and the product of a highly entertaining and disturbingly dark mind. If I was a friend of Leo Benedictus, I'd be reconsidering my options."—Stephen Mangan
- "Creepily thought-provoking."—Melissa Broder, The New York Times Book Review
- "Beautiful writing and a modest, pensive protagonist contrast grisly violence as we follow a stalker through a maze of streets and shops. Intrigued by those more colorful than he, drawn to the vibrant and vivacious, the narrator is trapped in his irrelevance and we inside his head as he records the movements and the moments of his more ostentatious prey. A brilliant and goosebumpy read!"—Susan Crawford, bestselling author of The Other Widow and The Pocket Wife
- "READ MEoffers a salacious, disturbing, and increasingly focused look into the mind of a stalker."—Booklist
- "Ingeniously nasty...reminiscent of Vladimir Nabokov and Patricia Highsmith...Expect to be provoked by a teasing metafictional game."—The Sunday Times
- "A word of warning: do not pick up this novella late at night. Not if you'd like to sleep any time soon...Darkly addictive."—Hephzibah Anderson, The Mail on Sunday
- "The contrast between the narrator's tone and the unsettling nature of his actions creates a host of tension...[READ ME] suggests a reimagining of John Fowles' The Collector for an age of social media, constant surveillance, and toxic masculinity."—Kirkus
- "A fiendishly clever book, though not for the soft-hearted...You'll find yourself turning pages in the most disturbing kind of grip."—Sydney Morning Herald
- "Another clever, cutting riff on the book-within-a book...this strangely congenial thriller-cum-treatise ends on a note of provocative ambiguity."—The Guardian
- "Claustrophobic intensity...makes it a memorable and rewarding, if far from comfortable, experience."—The Sunday Express
- "By turns whimsical and bone-chillingly explicit, [READ ME] is a gripping reimagining of one of the crime genre's most tired tropes."—The Irish Times
- "[READ ME] is thought-provoking as well as shocking...A compulsive dark comedy that entertains and unnerves in equal measure. Four stars!"—Anthony Cummins, Metro
- "This is a novel that plays with the conventions of the form...great subtlety and wit...unusual and enormously compelling."—The Observer
- On Sale
- Aug 7, 2018
- Hachette Audio