MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
The blindfold hurts. His inexperience shows in the knot. It’s tight but crude, and has captured a hank of my hair. Every time he takes a corner too fast, I rock to the side, the seatbelt slicing my shoulder and the tiny needlepoint pain in my scalp intensifying. He brakes without warning: I’m thrown forward. A loosening of the purple silk near my right temple lets in a little light but no information.
He has gone for full sensory deprivation. There is no music, only the rhythm of my breath and his, the bassline of the engine, the key changes of the shifting gears. The radio would help. An accumulation of three-minute pop songs would let me measure time. If forced to guess, I would say that we have been traveling for an hour but it could be half an hour or it could be two. I know that we drove out of London, not deeper into it, and that we must be far out of town now. For the first couple of miles I could track our route by the stop-start of traffic lights and speedbumps. It takes ten minutes to escape Islington’s 20-mile-an-hour zone in any direction. I’m sure I smelled the barbecue restaurant on City Road but I think he circled the Old Street roundabout twice to confuse me and after that I was lost.
Once we were out of the city and moving fast, my nose caught a couple of bonfires—it’s that time of year—but they had the woodsy feel of a domestic pile rather than anything agricultural or industrial. Sometimes it feels like we’re in the middle of nowhere, winding through lanes, then he’ll go smooth and fast again, and the rush of passing traffic will tell me we’re back on an A-road. If we were heading for an airport, I would have expected the boom as the jets graze the motorway. I will not get on an airplane.
“Shit,” he mutters and brakes again. The last few strands of caught hair spring loose from their moorings. I can feel him shift in the seat, his breath skimming my cheek as he reverses slowly. I take the opportunity to put my hand up to my head, but he’s watching me as well as the road.
“Marianne! You promised!”
“Sorry,” I say. “It’s really getting on my nerves now. What if I close my eyes while I retie it? Or while you retie it.”
“Nice try,” he says. “Look, it’s not far now.”
How near is not far? Another minute? Another thirty? If I twitch my cheek I can see a little more. What light I can sense starts to flicker rapidly through the violet gauze. Sunlight through a fence? The pattern is liminal, more irregular than that. We’re in a tree tunnel, which means a country lane, which means—
“Sam! Have you booked us into a spa?”
I can hear the smile in his voice. “I think I’ve done better than that.”
My shoulders relax, as though the masseur’s hands are already on them. I can’t think of anything better than two days being pummeled floppy by muscular young women in white tunics. It must be that organic place on the Essex coast I’ve been longing to try. I could relax in Essex. I could get to Mum in an hour and to Honor in two. Maybe, when Sam says he’s done better than that, he’s even arranged for Honor to be here.
The road is uneven now, all potholes and gravel, and I put my hands up, ready to unwind the scarf.
“Two more minutes!” Sam’s voice vaults an octave. “I want to see you see it.” The tires crunch. I wait patiently with my hands in my lap as the parking sensors quicken their beep. “OK, now,” he says, undoing the knot with a flourish. “Welcome to Park Royal Manor.”
The name is familiar from the brochures and so is the image but shock delays its formation.
I see it as a series of architectural features—crenellations and gables, fussy gray stonework, tall forbidding windows—but I can’t take in its breadth.
“I’m too near,” I try to say, but it comes out in a whisper.
Nazareth Hospital, or The East Anglia Pauper Lunatic Asylum as it originally was, wasn’t designed to be viewed up close like this but as a whole, from a distance, whether you were being admitted to it or whether it was one last haunted look over your shoulder as you left or ran away. The last time I saw the place, and the way I still see it in my dreams, was from afar. It seemed to fill the horizon. It is perched on what counts for a hill around here, its width a warning to the flat country around it. Built to serve three counties, it is too big for modest Suffolk, its soaring Victorian dimensions all wrong.
I can drive from London to Nusstead almost on autopilot so how did I not recognize the journey?
Sam rubs his hands together in glee. “How much d’you love me right now? Come on, let’s have a proper look at the place.” He reaches across me and thumbs my seatbelt unlocked. I cannot get out of the car. A scream claws its way up the sides of my throat.
The pictures in the brochure didn’t do the changes justice. The floor-to-ceiling paneled windows have been unbarred, hundreds of uncracked panes in new frames. The ivy and buddleia that sprouted impossibly from tilting chimney pots and rotting lintels has gone, replaced by a Virginia creeper whose remaining deep red leaves are neatly trimmed to expose silver brick. The vast double doors have been replaced by sheets of sliding glass with “Park Royal Manor” etched in opaque curlicue. My eyes refuse to go any higher.
“What…” I begin. “What are we doing here, Sam? What are we doing here?”
He mistakes panic for surprise. “I got you a little pied-à-terre. No more crashing on Colette’s sofa or shelling out for a hotel.”
I look down but that’s even worse. No, I can’t see the renovated clocktower but I can see its shadow, like the cast of a giant sundial, a dark gray finger pointing right at me. For all the fancy ironwork of its clock face the tower was only ever a lookout post in disguise—Nazareth ran on its own time—and I feel watched now. I pull the blindfold clumsily back down over my eyes, the hem of the scarf catching in my mouth.
“Marianne?” says Sam, staring at me. “Marianne, what’s the matter?”
It isn’t a scream after all but its opposite, a dry desperate sucking in of air that contains no oxygen, only dust. “I can’t go in,” I manage. “Please, Sam, don’t make me go back.”
Copyright © 2019 by ES Moylan Ltd