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The Night Ferry
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Format:ebook (Digital original) $10.99
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around July 14, 2015. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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Determined to uncover the truth, she embarks upon a dangerous journey that will take her from the East End of London to Amsterdam’s murky red light district and into a violent underworld of sex trafficking, slavery and exploitation.
“Vibrant and utterly contemporary . . . An altogether superior thriller.” — Los Angeles Times
When the first baby laughed for the first time, the laugh broke into a thousand pieces and they all went skipping about, and that was the beginning of fairies.
Sir James Barrie (Peter Pan)
It was Graham Greene who said that a story has no beginning or end. The author simply chooses a moment, an arbitrary point, and looks either forward or back. That moment is now—an October morning—when the clang of a metallic letter flap heralds the first post.
There is an envelope on the mat inside my front door. Inside is a small stiff rectangle of paper that says nothing and everything.
I’m in trouble. I must see you. Please come to the reunion.
Sixteen words. Long enough to be a suicide note. Short enough to end an affair. I don’t know why Cate has written to me now. She hates me. She told me so the last time we spoke, eight years ago. The past. Given long enough I could tell you the month, the day and the hour but these details are unimportant.
All you need to know is the year—1998. It should have been the summer we finished university; the summer we went backpacking across Europe; the summer I lost my virginity to Brian Rusconi instead of to Cate’s father. Instead it was the summer she went away and the summer I left home—a summer not big enough for everything that happened.
Now she wants to see me again. Sometimes you know when a story begins…
When the day comes that I am asked to recalibrate the calendar, I am going to lop a week off January and February and add them to October, which deserves to be forty days long, maybe more.
I love this time of year. The tourists have long gone and the kids are back at school. The TV schedules aren’t full of reruns and I can sleep under a duvet again. Mostly I love the sparkle in the air, without the pollen from the plane trees so that I can open my lungs and run freely.
I run every morning—three circuits of Victoria Park in Bethnal Green, each one of them more than a mile. Right now I’m just passing Durward Street in Whitechapel. Jack the Ripper territory. I once took a Ripper walking tour, a pub crawl with ghost stories. The victim I remember best was his last one, Mary Kelly, who died on the same date as my birthday, November the ninth.
People forget how small an area Jack roamed. Spitalfields, Shoreditch and Whitechapel cover less than a square mile, yet in 1888 more than a million people were crammed into the slums, without decent water and sewerage. It is still overcrowded and poor but that’s only compared with places like Hampstead or Chiswick or Holland Park. Poverty is a relative state in a rich country where the wealthiest are the first to cry poor.
It is seven years since I last ran competitively, on a September night in Birmingham, under lights. I wanted to get to the Sydney Olympics but only two of us were going to make it. Four-hundredths of a second separated first from fifth; half a metre, a heartbeat—a broken heart.
I don’t run to win any more. I run because I can and because I’m fast. Fast enough to blur at the edges. That’s why I’m here now, flirting with the ground while perspiration leaks between my breasts, plastering my T-shirt to my stomach.
When I run, my thoughts become clearer or at least more concentrated. I think about work and imagine that today someone will call and offer me my old job back.
A year ago I helped solve a kidnapping and find a missing girl. One of the kidnappers dropped me onto a wall, crushing my spine. After six operations and nine months of physiotherapy I am fit again, with more steel in my spine than England’s back four. Unfortunately, nobody seems to know what to do with me at the Metropolitan Police. They think I am a wonky wheel on the machine.
As I pass the playground, I notice a man sitting on a bench, reading a newspaper. There is no child on the climbing frame behind him and other benches are in sunshine. Why has he chosen the shade?
In his mid-thirties, dressed in a shirt and tie, he doesn’t raise his eyes as I pass. He’s studying a crossword. What sort of man does a crossword in a park at this hour of the morning? A man who can’t sleep. A man who waits.
Up until a year ago I used to watch people for a living. I guarded diplomats and visiting heads of state, ferrying their wives on shopping trips to Harrods and dropping their children at school. It is probably the most boring job in the Metropolitan Police but I was good at it. During five years with the Diplomatic Protection Group I didn’t fire a shot in anger or miss one of the wives’ hair appointments. I was like one of those soldiers who sit in the missile silos, praying the phone never rings.
On my second circuit of the park the man is still there. His suede jacket is lying across his lap. He has freckles and smooth brown hair, cut symmetrically and parted to the left. A leather briefcase is tucked close to his side.
A gust of wind tears the newspaper from his fingers. Three steps and I reach it first. It wraps around my thigh.
For a moment he wants to retreat, as if he’s too close to the edge. His freckles make him look younger. His eyes don’t meet mine. Instead he bunches his shoulders shyly and says ‘Thank you’. The front page is still wrapped around my thigh. For a moment I’m tempted to have some fun. I could make a joke about feeling like tomorrow’s fish and chips.
The breeze feels cool on my neck. ‘Sorry, I’m rather sweaty.’
He touches his nose nervously, nods and touches his nose again.
‘Do you run every day?’ he asks suddenly.
‘I try to.’
It’s an American accent. He doesn’t know what else to say.
‘I have to keep going. I don’t want to cool down.’
‘OK. Sure. Have a nice day.’ It doesn’t sound so trite coming from an American.
On my third circuit of the park the bench is empty. I look for him along the street but there are no silhouettes. Normal service has been resumed.
Further along the street, just visible on the corner, a van is parked at the kerb. As I draw nearer, I notice a white plastic tent over missing paving stones. A metal cage is propped open around the hole. They’ve started work early.
I do this sort of thing—take note of people and vehicles. I look for things that are out of the ordinary: people in the wrong place, or the wrong clothes; cars parked illegally; the same face in different locations. I can’t change what I am.
Unlacing my trainers, I pull a key from beneath the insole and unlock my front door. My neighbour, Mr Mordecai, waves from his window. I once asked him his first name and he said it should be Yo’man.
‘Because that’s what my boys call me: “Yo man, can I have some money?” “Yo man, can I borrow the car?” ’
His laugh sounded like nuts falling on a roof.
In the kitchen I pour myself a large glass of water and drink it greedily. Then I stretch my quads, balancing one leg on the back of a chair.
The mouse living under my fridge chooses that moment to appear. It is a very ambivalent mouse, scarcely bothering to lift its head to acknowledge me. And it doesn’t seem to mind that my youngest brother Hari keeps setting mousetraps. Perhaps it knows that I disarm them, taking off the cheese when Hari isn’t around.
The mouse finally looks up at me, as though about to complain about the lack of crumbs. Then it sniffs the air and scampers away.
Hari appears in the doorway, bare-chested and barefoot. Opening the fridge, he takes out a carton of orange juice and unscrews the plastic lid. He looks at me, considers his options, and gets a glass from the cupboard. Sometimes I think he is prettier than I am. He has longer lashes and thicker hair.
‘Are you going to the reunion tonight?’ I ask.
‘Don’t tell me you’re going! You said you wouldn’t be caught dead.’
‘I changed my mind.’
There is a voice from upstairs. ‘Hey, have you seen my knickers?’
Hari looks at me sheepishly.
‘I know I had a pair. They’re not on the floor.’
Hari whispers, ‘I thought you’d gone out.’
‘I went for a run. Who is she?’
‘An old friend.’
‘So you must know her name?’
‘Cheryl Taylor!’ (She’s a bottle blonde who works behind the bar at the White Horse.) ‘She’s older than I am.’
‘No, she’s not.’
‘What on earth do you see in her?’
‘What difference does that make?’
‘Well, she has assets.’
‘You think so?’
‘What about Phoebe Griggs?’
Cheryl is coming down the stairs. I can hear her rummaging in the sitting room. ‘Found them,’ she shouts.
She arrives in the kitchen still adjusting the elastic beneath her skirt.
‘Oh, hello,’ she squeaks.
‘Cheryl, this is my sister, Alisha.’
‘Nice to see you again,’ she says, not meaning it.
The silence seems to stretch out. I might never talk again. Finally, I excuse myself and go upstairs for a shower. With any luck Cheryl will be gone by the time I come down.
Hari has been living with me for the past two months because it’s closer to university. He is supposed to be safeguarding my virtue and helping pay the mortgage but he’s four weeks behind in his rent and is using my spare room as a knocking shop.
My legs are tingling. I love the feeling of lactic acid leaking away. I look in the mirror and pull back my hair. Yellow flecks spark in my irises like goldfish in a pond. There are no wrinkles. Black don’t crack.
My ‘assets’ aren’t so bad. When I was running competitively I was always pleased they were on the small side and could be tightly bound in a sports bra. Now I wouldn’t mind being a size bigger so I could have a cleavage.
Hari yells up the stairs. ‘Hey, Sis, I’m taking twenty from your purse.’
‘Because when I take it from strangers they get angry.’
Very droll. ‘You still owe me rent.’
‘You said that yesterday.’ And the day before.
The front door closes. The house is quiet.
Downstairs, I pick up Cate’s note again, holding it lightly between my fingertips. Then I prop it on the table against the salt and pepper shakers, staring at it for a while.
Cate Elliot. Her name still makes me smile. One of the strange things about friendship is that time together isn’t cancelled out by time apart. One doesn’t erase the other or balance it on some invisible scale. You can spend a few hours with someone and they will change your life, or you can spend a lifetime with a person and remain unchanged.
We were born at the same hospital and raised in Bethnal Green in London’s East End, although we managed to more or less avoid each other for the first thirteen years. Fate brought us together, if you believe in such things.
We became inseparable. Almost telepathic. We were partners in crime, stealing beer from her father’s fridge, window shopping on the King’s Road, eating chips with vinegar on our way home from school, sneaking out to see bands at the Hammersmith Odeon and movie stars on the red carpet at Leicester Square.
In our gap year we went to France. I crashed a moped, got cautioned for having a fake ID and tried hash for the first time. Cate lost the key to our hostel during a midnight swim and we had to climb a trellis at two a.m.
There is no break-up worse than that of best friends. Broken love affairs are painful. Broken marriages are messy. Broken homes are sometimes an improvement. Our break-up was the worst.
Now, after eight years, she wants to see me. The thrill of compliance spreads across my skin. Then comes a nagging, unshakeable dread. She’s in trouble.
My car keys are in the sitting room. As I pick them up I notice marks on the glass-topped coffee table. Looking closer, I can make out two neat buttock prints and what I imagine to be elbow smudges. I could kill my brother!
Someone has spilled a Bloody Mary mix on my shoes. I wouldn’t mind so much, but they’re not mine. I borrowed them, just like I borrowed this top, which is too big for me. At least my underwear is my own. ‘Never borrow money or underwear,’ my mother always says, in an addendum to her clean-underwear speech which involves graphic descriptions of road accidents and ambulance officers cutting off my tights. No wonder I have nightmares.
Cate isn’t here yet. I’ve been trying to watch the door and avoid talking to anyone.
There should be a law against school reunions. They should come with warning stickers on the invitations. There is never a right time for them. You’re either too young or too old or too fat.
This isn’t even a proper school reunion. Somebody burned down the science classrooms at Oaklands. A vandal with a can of petrol rather than a rogue Bunsen burner. Now they’re opening a brand new block, with a junior Minister of something-or-other doing the honours.
The new building is functional and sturdy, with none of the charm of the Victorian original. The cathedral ceilings and arched windows have been replaced by fibrous cement panels, strip lighting and aluminium frames.
The school hall has been decorated with streamers and balloons hang from the rafters. A school banner is draped across the front of the stage.
There is a queue for the mirror in the girls’ toilets. Lindsay Saunders leans past me over the sink and rubs lipstick from her teeth. Satisfied, she turns and appraises me.
‘Will you stop acting like a Punjabi princess and loosen up. Have fun.’
‘Is that what this is?’
I’m wearing Lindsay’s top, the bronze one with shoestring straps, which I don’t have the bust to carry off. A strap falls off my shoulder. I tug it up again.
‘I know you’re acting like you don’t care. You’re just nervous about Cate. Where is she?’
‘I don’t know.’
Lindsay reapplies her lipstick and adjusts her dress. She’s been looking forward to the reunion for weeks because of Rocco Manspiezer. She fancied him for six years at school but didn’t have the courage to tell him.
‘What makes you so sure you’ll get him this time?’
‘Well, I didn’t spend two hundred quid on this dress and squeeze into these bloody shoes to be ignored by him again.’
Unlike Lindsay, I have no desire to hang around with people I have spent twelve years avoiding. I don’t want to hear how much money they make or how big their house is or see photographs of their children who have names that sound like brands of shampoo.
That’s the thing about school reunions—people only come to measure their life against others and to see the failures. They want to know which of the beauty queens has put on seventy pounds and seen her husband run off with his secretary; and which teacher got caught taking photographs in the changing rooms.
‘Come on, aren’t you curious?’ Lindsay asks.
‘Of course I’m curious. I hate the fact I’m curious. I just wish I was invisible.’
‘Don’t be such a spoilsport.’ She rubs her finger across my eyebrows. ‘Did you see Annabelle Trunzo? My God, that dress! And what about her hair?’
‘Rocco doesn’t even have any hair.’
‘Ah, but he’s still looking fit.’
‘Is he married?’
‘Hush your mouth.’
‘Well, I think you should at least find out before you shag him.’
She gives me a wicked grin. ‘I’ll ask afterwards.’
Lindsay acts like a real man-eater, but I know she’s not really so predatory. I tell myself that all the time, but I still wouldn’t let her date my brothers.
Back in the hall, the lights have been turned down and the music turned up. Spandau Ballet has been replaced by 1980s anthems. The women are wearing a mixture of cocktail dresses and saris. Others are pretending not to care, in leather jackets and designer jeans.
There were always tribes at Oaklands. The whites were a minority. Most of the students were Banglas (Bangladeshis) with a few Pakis and Indians thrown into the mix.
I was a ‘curry’, a ‘yindoo’, an ‘elephant trainer’. Brown Indian in case you’re wondering. As defining details go, nothing else came close at Oaklands—not my black hair, braces or skinny legs; not having glandular fever at seven, or being able to run like the wind. Everything else paled into insignificance alongside my skin colour and Sikh heritage.
It’s not true that all Sikhs are called Singh. And we don’t all carry curved blades strapped to our chests (although in the East End having this sort of rep isn’t such a bad thing).
Even now the Banglas are sticking together. People are sitting next to the same people they sat alongside at school. Despite everything that has happened in the intervening years, the core facets of our personalities are untouched. All our flaws and strengths are the same.
On the far side of the hall I see Cate arriving. She is pale and striking, with a short expensive haircut and cheap sexy shoes. Dressed in a long light khaki skirt and a silk blouse, she looks elegant and, yes, pregnant. Her hands are smoothing her neat, compact bump. It’s more than a bump. A beach ball. She hasn’t long to go.
I don’t want her to see me staring. I turn away.
‘Sure. Who else?’ I turn suddenly and put on a goofy smile.
Cate leans forward and kisses my cheek. I don’t close my eyes. Neither does she. We stare at each other. Surprised. She smells of childhood.
There are fine lines at the corners of her eyes. I wasn’t there to see them drawn. The small scar on her left temple, just beneath her hairline—I remember that one.
We’re the same age, twenty-nine, and the same shape, except for the bump. I have darker skin and hidden depths (like all brunettes) but I can categorically state that I will never look as good as Cate. She has learned—no, that makes it sound too practised—she was born with the ability to make men admire her. I don’t know the secret. A movement of the eye, a cock of the head, a tone of voice or a touch of the arm, creates a moment, an illusion that all men gay or straight, old or young buy in to.
People are watching her now. I doubt if she even realises.
‘How are you?’
‘I’m fine,’ I answer too quickly and start again. ‘I’m all right.’
‘Just all right?’
I try to laugh. ‘But look at you—you’re pregnant.’
‘When are you due?’
‘In four weeks.’
The questions and answers are too abrupt and matter-of-fact. Conversation has never been this hard—not with Cate. She looks nervously over my shoulder, as if worried we might be overheard.
‘Didn’t you marry—?’
‘Felix Beaumont. He’s over there.’
I follow her eyes to a tall, heavy-set figure in casual trousers and a loose white shirt. Felix didn’t go to Oaklands and his real name is Buczkowski and not ‘Beaumont’. His father was a Polish shopkeeper who ran an electronics shop on Tottenham Court Road.
Now he’s deep in conversation with Annabelle Trunzo whose dress is a scrap of material held up by her chest. If she exhales it’s going to be bunched around her ankles.
‘You know what I used to hate most about nights like this?’ says Cate. ‘Having someone who looks immaculate telling me how she spent all day ferrying children to ballet or football or cricket. And then she asks the obvious question: “Do you have any kids?” And I say, “Nope, no children.” And she jokes, “Hey, why don’t you have one of mine?” God, that pisses me off.’
‘Well, it won’t happen any more.’
She takes a glass of wine from a passing tray. Again she glances around, looking distracted.
‘Why did we fall out? It must have been my fault.’
‘I’m sure you remember,’ I say.
‘It doesn’t matter any more. By the way, I want you to be a godparent.’
‘I’m not even a Christian.’
‘Oh, that doesn’t matter.’
Cate is avoiding whatever she really wants to talk about.
‘Tell me what’s wrong.’
She hesitates. ‘I’ve gone too far this time, Ali. I’ve risked everything.’
Taking her arm, I steer her towards a quiet corner. People are starting to dance. The music is too loud. Cate puts her mouth close to my ear. ‘You have to help me. Promise me you’ll help me…’
She holds back a sob, seeming to bite down upon it. ‘They want to take my baby. They can’t. You have to stop them…’
A hand touches her shoulder and she jumps, startled.
‘Hello, gorgeous pregnant lady, who have we here?’
Cate backs away a step. ‘No one. It’s just an old friend.’ Something shifts inside her. She wants to escape.
Felix Beaumont has perfect teeth. My mother has a thing about dental work. It is the first thing she notices about people.
‘I remember you,’ he says. ‘You were behind me.’
‘No, at the bar.’
He laughs and adopts an expression of amused curiosity.
Cate has backed further away. My eyes find hers. The faintest shake of her head tells me to let her go. I feel a rush of tenderness towards her. She motions with her empty glass. ‘I’m just going to get a refill.’
‘Go easy on that stuff, sweetheart. You’re not alone.’ Felix brushes her bump.
He watches her leave with a mixture of sadness and longing. Finally he turns back to me.
‘So is it Miss or Mrs?’
‘Are you married?’
I hear myself say, ‘Ms’, which makes me sound like a lesbian. I change it to ‘Miss’ and then blurt, ‘I’m single,’ which appears desperate.
‘That explains it.’
‘Those with children have photographs. Those without have nicer clothes and fewer lines.’
Is that supposed to be a compliment?
The skin around his eyes crinkles into a smile. He moves like a bear, rocking from foot to foot.
I hold out my hand. ‘My name is Alisha Barba.’
He looks astonished. ‘Well, well, well, you really do exist. Cate has talked about you a lot, but I thought you might be one of those imaginary childhood friends.’
‘She talked about me?’
‘Absolutely. So what do you do, Alisha?’
‘I sit at home all day in my slippers, watching daytime soaps and old movies on Channel 4.’
He doesn’t understand.
‘I’m on medical leave from the Metropolitan Police.’
‘I broke my back. Someone dropped me across a wall.’
He flinches. My gaze drifts past him.
‘She’s coming back,’ he says, reading my mind. ‘She never leaves me talking to a pretty woman for too long.’
‘You must be thrilled—about the baby.’
The smooth hollow beneath his Adam’s apple rolls like a wave as he swallows. ‘It’s our miracle baby. We’ve been trying for so long.’
Someone has started a conga line on the dance floor, which snakes between the tables. Gopal Dhir grabs at my waist, pivoting my hips from side to side. Someone else pulls Felix into another part of the line and we’re moving apart.
Gopal yells into my ear. ‘Well, well, Alisha Barba. Are you still running?’
‘Only for fun.’
‘I always fancied you but you were far too quick for me.’ He yells to someone over his shoulder. ‘Hey, Rao! Look who it is—Alisha Barba. Didn’t I always say she was cute?’
Rao has no hope of hearing him over the music, but nods vigorously and kicks out his heels.
- "Robotham is an absolute master."—Stephen King
- On Sale
- Jul 14, 2015
- Page Count
- 432 pages
- Mulholland Books