I fear sleep, just like everyone else. I’ve taken the tablets, tried to meditate. I even joined one of those pointless dream-awareness groups. But it’s all the same – there is no cure. Each night as I lie awake, I try to remember how it was before the troubles began. Back then, dreams could be beautiful, all warmth and light. Sleep would come easily and I’d wake up refreshed. The world seemed a hopeful place.
Now everything has fallen apart. Sleep-deprived addicts wander the streets; whole cities have been abandoned. Burials, when they happen, are hasty affairs. More often, the dead are left to rot. They call it the Panic, as if it were a fleeting emotion. But to me it is something deeper. Something missing from our hearts.
The sun, blood red, rose above the empty streets of Oxford. Karen Newton stared at it directly, transfixed by the brutality of the sun’s light. It left a burned imprint at the back of her eyes.
Lightheaded, she sat down on a bench overlooking the River Cherwell. She had already walked over half the way home, following her night shift at the John Radcliffe Hospital. Only another fifteen minutes’ walk and I’ll be lying next to my husband, she thought. She pictured him turning on his side as she entered the room, mumbling “I love you” before falling back to sleep. A habit stretching back almost twenty years, one that never failed to make her smile.
A bird chirped above her, waiting for an answer in the early morning air. Karen stood up, feeling the familiar aches and pains in her joints, pulled her coat close. As she walked, she found herself thinking of her children, as she often did. Both had been adopted, and both were loved as if they were her own flesh and blood. They were long since grown, twenty-seven and twenty-one now. She was proud of who they had become. Rosa was a brilliant and intense woman, profoundly intuitive, filled with a deep-rooted empathy that touched everyone she knew. Rosa was particularly protective of her brother, Nathan, who was sensitive, thoughtful and adored by his friends. Sometimes Karen thought he was too delicate for this world. But it was Rosa whom she worried about more.
Birdsong filled the air, one call answering another in the calmness of the road. Such moments of serenity before the start of the daily grind made shift work more palatable to her. As she walked, Karen glanced up at the trees lining the street, spotting a chaffinch hopping along a branch. It seemed to be staring directly at her. She stepped closer, lost her footing, and fell to the ground. The bird fluttered its wings and flew away.
Her lower back was sore, but she didn’t seem to be badly hurt. Still, her heart was pounding from the shock. She removed a soggy leaf from the sole of her shoe, then carefully stood up. I’m getting old, she thought, brushing away leaves from her skirt. Her heartbeat felt irregular: it raced, then seemed to stop for too long. She leaned against a tree, breathed in slowly, exhaled, felt a little better.
Karen let go of the tree and continued to walk. Her pounding heart had triggered a memory, one never far from her thoughts. Did we do the right thing? She placed one hand on her chest and felt her heartbeat gradually resume its normal pace. Glancing up at the streaks of red crisscrossing the sky, she was taken by a familiar pang of guilt. We had to do it, she told herself. Better than leaving Rosa’s heart condition untreated. And it all turned out fine. The surgery had been a success, and the subsequent check-ups had never caused any discomfort. Now, Rosa was a healthy young woman, and the scars on her chest were barely visible. She was doing well, with a good job in London, a decent group of friends and a brother who adored her. Perhaps one day soon Rosa would settle down, start a family, and she would become a proud grandmother.
Karen hummed a half-remembered nursery rhyme, imagining herself and her husband by their daughter’s side, picking up their grandson for the first time. It will be so beautiful, the little baby gazing at them in wonder. With this image still fresh in her mind, she turned off Banbury Road and onto Cunliffe Close, where she lived. She gazed at her home – a well-kept terraced house they had lived in for years – with new eyes. They could probably squeeze a single bed and a cot in the second bedroom, she thought. Or even place a cot in the main bedroom. She looked forward to telling her husband about this when he awoke.
Her house key jammed in the lock. That’s strange, she thought, trying to turn it left then right. But soon enough the key slid in and she opened the door. She placed the keys on the sideboard and hung her bag on the bannister. Sitting down on the hard chair kept by the front door, she took off her shoes and socks, scrunching her tired toes on the soft beige carpet. It had been a difficult night at the hospital. The palliative care unit had been understaffed because of an unusual surge in emergency department admissions. Three of her colleagues had been transferred to the emergency department for most of the night.
Worse, the patients under her care seemed to have been in more pain than usual. Potent opioid medications seemed to wear off too quickly. Her gentle kneading and massaging of their knotted limbs offered minimal relief. It all seemed so futile.
Don’t think like that, she scolded herself. That is not how I am. Stay positive; what I do helps, at least in some small way. And now the shift is over; it is time to lie down next to my husband, my soulmate for all these years, and let sleep carry me away.
Climbing the stairs, she could already picture him, probably stirring in his sleep now, his mind subconsciously attuned to her arrival and then her presence as she lay down next to him.
She opened the bedroom door. Rays of sunlight shone through a gap between the curtains. It seemed too quiet.
“Roger?” she called out.
Then she saw him, lying face down by the entrance of their en-suite bathroom.
Slowly, almost trancelike, she crossed the bedroom and bent down next to her unconscious husband. Only then did she notice the pool of blood around his downturned face. Carefully, not wanting to see too much, she felt for a pulse. There was nothing.
The phone rang, pulling Rosa out of a restless sleep. Groggy, she reached for it, her mother’s name blinking on the phone’s screen. She glanced at her watch. It was half six in the morning.
“Mum? Is everything OK?” she asked, though she already sensed something was wrong. Fragments of a recurring dream remained in her mind: a train station, a woman wearing a bright red scarf, an overpowering sense of loss. A dream that had become more intense in recent weeks.
“Your father, it’s…” her mother started, but then she was sobbing uncontrollably.
“Mum, I’ll come right over,” Rosa said, sitting up. “I can get there in an hour and a half if the trains are running OK.”
“My darling, thank you. I’m at the police station. On St Aldates. It’s awful, so awful. I don’t know… Your father, he’s dead, Rosa. The police think he was murdered! Don’t tell Nathan, please, not yet. I’ll call him later.”
Rosa remained silent for a few seconds, even though she desperately wanted to scream. She mustered all her emotional strength to reply calmly.
“OK,” she said. She stared at the wall. She had thought…well, she didn’t know what she’d thought. That her father had suffered a heart attack perhaps, or been injured on the road. But not that he was dead.
“Oh, Mum,” she said, feeling the tears well up but keeping the anguish out of her voice. “I love you so much. Stay at the police station. I’ll be there soon.”
Rosa put the phone down on the bed and gazed blankly at the patterns lining the carpet. Her father murdered? Who could have done such a thing? And why? Whoever it was will pay for it, I’ll make sure of that.
No one did it, the voice told her, a quiet murmur inside her head. He killed himself.
“Ana, shut up!” she said aloud. But she feared the voice was right. The voice was always right.
Rosa’s mind raced with images of her father sitting there in desperation before he committed suicide. Why? She pounded the bed with her fists, picked up a book from her bedside table and threw it across the room. She looked at her hands and started sobbing, gulping for air as the tears ran down her face.
Pull yourself together, she told herself. What matters right now is that Mum is sitting alone in a police station. She needs me.
Rosa stood up. She picked up her mobile phone and ordered a taxi, then scribbled a note for her housemates to let them know she would be out of town for a while. From her wardrobe, she took an overnight bag and packed a few essentials.
Looking at her watch, she noted that she still had a few minutes before the taxi would arrive. She went to the bathroom and splashed cold water over her eyes. She cupped her hands together so that the water pooled, then submerged her face.
It is easy to become complacent, she thought, to expect life to go on happily and without major incident. Easy but naïve. This world is unpredictable. It can be cruel when one least expects it. The sun rises and you wake from sleep, just like any other day. Even when everything has changed. Whether her father was murdered or killed himself doesn’t matter in the end. The fact is, he is dead. Somehow, she, Nathan and her mother would have to deal with it the best they could.
The authorities were treating it as a murder case. There was no obvious sign of a break-in, but Roger Newton’s eyes had been gouged out and his neck slashed. The coroner’s report noted that although in theory this could have been self-inflicted, murder was far more likely. Neighbours reported hearing screaming, which suggested a struggle.
Rosa’s father worked in logistics, a procurement officer in a large warehouse, and the police hypothesised a motive based on a business transaction gone wrong. However, the company made money from the practical and uncontroversial task of transporting pharmaceuticals to retail outlets, and her father was no more than a mid-ranking employee there. He was a dependable worker who fulfilled his duties promptly and without complaint, and colleagues had not noted any unusual recent behaviour. The police were still investigating it as a murder, but the trail was going cold.
Constable Daniels, the police detective leading the investigation of her father’s death, had informed Rosa yesterday that he would have to close the case next week. Unless, that is, they found new evidence before then. When she pressed him on whether they normally closed investigations like this so quickly, he said he had never come across a case like this before.
She had sensed a tension in his manner, in the lack of certainty in his voice and the way in which he avoided her eyes. It worried her, particularly because up to that point the constable had been hard to read. Rosa had not told her mother about this conversation, at least not yet. She feared it would set back her recovery.
Rosa and her mother sat on a bench in the University Parks. It was early on a Thursday morning, a fortnight since her father had died. Neither had been sleeping well. Still, the fresh air and peaceful surroundings helped them feel calm. Mature trees lined the path: hawthorns, cherry trees, a large English oak with gnarled roots. Rosa and her mother held hands, sipping coffee as they gazed at the trees and watched other early risers walking through the park.
The past two weeks had been hard. Her mother spoke very little, was not eating well, and until recently had not ventured out of the house. She spent most of her days sitting on the sofa, leafing through the daily newspaper or flicking listlessly between TV channels.
“Look at that bird,” her mother said, pointing at a crow. It had cocked its head to one side and seemed to be staring directly at them.
“Maybe it wants some coffee,” Rosa replied, happy just to hear her mother’s voice.
Her mother smiled. “You’re a good person, and strong,” she said, squeezing Rosa’s hand.
“And you’re a wonderful mother. I mean it. How you’ve been with me, and with Nathan, too, since all this happened. I really appreciate it.”
The crow cawed, then flew away.
“You know, I think I might be ready to return to work.”
“That’s great, Mum, really it is. But don’t rush it.”
“I won’t. Perhaps I will go back part-time, at least to begin with. Helping patients will help me, I think. And I can’t keep relying on you or Nathan to always be here.”
Rosa looked across at her mother, and then at the trees in front of them. The leaves were just starting to change colour.
“Even if you go back to work,” she said, “I’ll stay with you.”
“What about your job?”
“Don’t worry. My boss is an understanding woman. I can do a lot of the work from home, anyway. As for Nathan, he’s a student, he has loads of free time!” she said light-heartedly. “But seriously, I know he’s happy to come. The train ride from Nottingham is easy enough.”
“I am doing better, Rosa. I know it’s been hard for you, too.”
“It has been, but I’m doing OK. And Nathan’s coping well, considering.” Rosa noted a worried look on her mother’s face. “Don’t worry about us, please,” she continued. “Just concentrate on your own health for now. Promise?”
Rosa glanced again at her mother. Her face looked drawn, with dark bags under her eyes. Still, she was happy that her mother was starting to talk more freely.
It had begun to drizzle. Dark clouds hung heavy in the sky. Rosa’s mother stood up and stretched out her arms. “Let’s go home before we get soaked,” she said. “I’ll make us both something nice, maybe pancakes topped with fresh fruit. How does that sound?”
“It sounds perfect.”
They walked along Banbury Road. Students on their bicycles pedalled past, cars and buses edged forward in the traffic. A woman wearing a smart suit strode by purposefully, clutching a handbag in one hand and umbrella in the other. A jogger, a middle-aged man breathing heavily and with sweat dripping from his face, also overtook them. He wore a headband and running shorts that were too small for him. Five years ago, Rosa had run the London Marathon, but she hadn’t run much since.
They stopped at a pedestrian crossing near the house and waited for the traffic lights to change. An old couple was also waiting there. They were doting over their granddaughter, who was sitting in a pushchair. The young girl was giggling as her grandfather dangled a soft toy in front of her and made funny noises. In the distance, a police siren sounded. The pedestrian light was still red.
“Nee-nor, nee-nor,” the little girl sang, and her grandparents laughed.
The sirens were much louder now. Rosa noticed a subtle but clear change in her mother’s demeanour: the clenching of her jaw, flushed cheeks. She glanced up the road and saw the flashing blue lights. It was an ambulance rather than a police car. Cars moved to the side to let it through. The ambulance turned just before the pedestrian crossing onto Belbroughton Road, which was one street along from their house.
The pedestrian light finally turned green. Rosa’s mother stopped by the intersection of Banbury Road and Belbroughton Road, and stared at the ambulance. It was parked near the corner of the road, outside a redbrick house that was partially concealed by a long hedgerow.
“That’s where Professor Hinton lives,” her mother said. “I hope he’s OK.”
“A friend of yours?”
“Jim and I used to play badminton together, years ago. Maybe I should ask if I could help. I probably know the paramedics.”
“Shouldn’t we just leave them to it?” Rosa asked, but her mother was already walking towards the ambulance. They stopped by the vehicle. No one was inside. The front door to Professor Hinton’s house was ajar. Rosa thought she could hear someone crying.
“Let’s go, Mum.”
“Wait. I think they’re coming out.”
A paramedic appeared. Rosa’s mother recognised him.
“Greg, hi, it’s Karen from the Radcliffe. Is Professor Hinton OK?”
The man looked at Karen, then at Rosa. His face was drained of colour.
“There’s nothing we could do.”
“Yes,” he replied, shaking his head.
“I don’t know. But it ain’t the only case. Overnight there have been others across the city.”
“What do you mean?” Karen asked. Her voice sounded unsteady. “It’s not connected to my Roger, is it?”
“I don’t know. I’m sorry, Karen, we’re not meant to say nothing. I’ve already said more than I should. You best go home.”
“Mum, we should go,” Rosa said, leading her mother away. At the corner, Rosa glanced back. The paramedic was on the phone, his head bowed. She felt a jolt in the pit of her stomach. Somehow, it was connected to her father’s death, she was sure of it. She feared it was the start of something terrible.
“And now back to our main story,” the BBC news presenter said. Rosa and her mother stared at the television.
“Twenty-four people died in Oxford last night, in what appears to be a spate of suicides and attempted suicides. Three more victims are in hospital, in critical condition. Reports coming in suggest today’s tragedy was one in a series of incidents that have struck Oxford in the space of a few weeks. Earlier, we interviewed a local policeman, who had this to say…”
The camera panned to a man in uniform standing outside a coffee shop on Cowley Road. Police had cordoned off an adjoining street. Rosa recognised him as one of Constable Daniels’ team investigating her father’s death.
“Constable Atkin, can you tell us what happened?”
“I can confirm there have been twenty-seven cases overnight, with twenty-four deceased.”
“And can you confirm whether all were suicides?”
The policeman shook his head. “All I can say to you right now is that we are working closely with the hospitals. We will release a statement when we have further details.”
“Thank you. Were the cases in a particular part of the city?”
“But they were all in Oxford?”
“As far as we know, yes.”
“And did –”
“Sorry, I have no further comments at this point.”
“Thank you, Constable Atkin.”
The news channel returned to the studio.
“It is not clear yet how these cases are connected,” the news presenter continued. “But in a further development, two recent deaths in Oxford – until now treated as murder cases – are being linked to last night’s deaths. We hope to have more information soon.”
Rosa’s mother switched off the TV. She leaned forward on the sofa and covered her eyes.
“What is this all about?” she whispered.
Rosa moved closer to her mother. She could see that her face was moist with tears.
“I don’t know,” Rosa said. “But we’ve got to keep strong, all three of us. Dad would’ve wanted us to focus on moving forward.”
Rosa placed an arm gently on her mother’s shoulder. She sensed a growing depression, one that would only spiral downwards. Closing her eyes for a moment, she pictured her mother by a hospital bed, holding a dying man’s hand.
“Think of your patients at the hospital, over the years,” she said, looking at her mother. “After surgery, chemotherapy or some other aggressive treatment. All of them struggling with immense pain. You were the one who helped them through it.”
“It’s a palliative care unit. They all died in the end.”
“Mum, don’t sound like that. The point is,” Rosa said, holding her mother’s arm and gazing at the faded wallpaper in front of her. “The point is this. You made the last days of your patients better, far more bearable. You helped them stay calm despite the pain and all the medications. Enough at peace to keep on, to even laugh once in a while.”
“That helped them, and their families, too, when they came to visit.”
“I suppose so. It’s just hard to take. Sometimes it seems like there is so much wrong with this world. I just don’t understand what’s going on.”
Karen wept and Rosa embraced her. After a minute, she said, “I know you’re right, Rosa. I must try to keep strong. I’ll go back to work, start seeing people again. Get on with things.”
“And right now, I’m going to make us some delicious pancakes, like I said I would!”
Rosa smiled, but she knew her mother’s joviality was forced. “I’ll give you a hand.”
“No, you stay put. Relax a while. You’re looking after me all the time. It’s about time I looked after you.”
“OK, but call me if you need me.”
“I will. Read a newspaper or, better still, something that has nothing to do with all this. There are a couple of new magazines that I bought just yesterday.”
Rosa watched her mother leave the room. Even though it had been only a couple of weeks since her father’s death, her mother had visibly aged in that time. She walked in slow, hesitating steps; sometimes it seemed each step required effort. More of her hair had turned grey, her skin looked drawn, and there were dark bags under her eyes. She knew her mother had not been sleeping well.
Mum will be OK, she told herself, but she wasn’t fully convinced. At least Nathan seemed to be doing a little better. He had stayed with them in Oxford the first week. He hadn’t talked much about how he was feeling, but he’d been great with their mother. He’d wanted to stay longer, but their mum insisted he go back so he wouldn’t miss course registrations. Rosa persuaded him to leave, promising she would stay with their mum until the murder investigation was over.
Rosa picked up a magazine and flicked through the pages. Models staring vacantly, their clothes hanging limp from their anorexic bodies. I Lost Thirty Pounds in Two Weeks read one headline. There were before and after photos of a woman, overweight and glum before, fake smile after. Rosa thought of two friends of hers, one very thin and the other overweight. Both were unhappy with their bodies. She turned to the next page. How I Went from Zero to Hero was this article’s headline. A middle-aged man stood outside his mansion, trophy wife by his side. The article detailed his success as a self-made millionaire.
It’s true, she thought. This world we live in is really messed up. We value the wrong things. Money, appearance, climbing the rungs on society’s ladder. Materialism. For how many years, how many generations, have we been like this? She sensed Ana then, murmuring something. Shush, Rosa whispered, not wanting to hear her voice.
Ana had not spoken to her since the day her father had died. Still, Rosa was more aware of her now than she had been for many years.
Rosa had first heard Ana’s voice when she was fourteen. At least that was the first time she could recall with absolute certainty. Rosa had been old enough to know not to tell anyone, understanding that once people labelled you as insane, that was it. They would lock you up in an asylum, left to bang your head against padded walls.
That first time, it was an early evening in summer. She was walking alone in the woods, a shortcut back home from a friend’s house. Ana’s voice suddenly came into her head, an urgent whisper commanding her to hide. She looked around, disoriented and nervous, expecting to see someone calling to her. A friend maybe or some silly prankster. But there was no one.
Hide, the voice repeated. She ignored it but the voice grew hysterical. Hide! Hide! Hide! the voice screamed, loud enough to make her head hurt. Moments later, she heard real voices, drunken men’s voices not far away, and she knew then she had to obey the voice. Looking around, all the trees seemed too thin to conceal her. The voice guided her towards a large holly bush. She pushed herself in, ignoring the painful sting of the spiny leaves as she crouched there and waited.
Three men staggered by, two much older than the other. One of the older men, gaunt and unshaven, was drinking from a glass bottle. The younger man started singing. He sang falsetto, some crude ditty that the third man found hilarious. They stopped not more than five metres from where Rosa hid, the laughing man holding his large gut as if it was the funniest song he had ever heard. Without warning, the gaunt man who had been drinking swung the bottle, hitting the younger man in the back of the head. This made the fat man laugh harder, even as his companion fell to the ground.
“Don’t you ever sing like a ponce again,” the gaunt man said, furious, standing over the younger man. “Now get up, and let’s find us some fresh skirt.”
A few days later, the local news reported a missing girl, and that police were looking for three men who had been seen hanging around the school. For weeks, Rosa cried herself to sleep. She didn’t say anything, though, not even to her brother or parents.
From that point on, the voice stayed with her, mostly silent but always there. A presence waiting in the back of her mind. She began to call it – or her – Ana. Most of the time she tried to shut her out, tried to forget Ana was there. Rosa wanted to belong; she had an intense fear of being perceived as anything but ordinary. Yet sometimes she couldn’t shut Ana out. Each of these times, Ana had said just a few words. Hide. Stay away from her. Don’t believe what he says. As if she could sense evil. Still, Rosa was wary of her.
Her mother walked into the room carrying two plates of pancakes with sliced fruit on top.
“They look delicious,” Rosa said.
“I burnt them a bit, but hopefully they’re OK. There are more if you want. Have a seat. I’ll bring out the cutlery and some tea for us.”
“It’s my pleasure.”
Rosa sat down. She heard her mother humming in the kitchen. Everything will be all right, she told herself. Things will return to normal soon enough, and Mum will be better, stronger than ever. Yet deep down she knew none of this was true.
The night sky was clear. Rosa lay in bed with the curtains open, unable to sleep. She stared out at the stars. Each one is a sun like ours, she thought. Burning heat, nuclear fireballs that bring life but can so easily take it away. No wonder ancient civilisations used to worship the sun.
The rest of the day passed by without major incident, but still she felt uneasy. Her mother, though trying to remain upbeat, was clearly troubled. She seemed distracted. Once, Rosa caught her mother staring at her own reflection in the hallway mirror, pulling on her cheeks and the tired skin under her eyes.
The phone call from Constable Daniels hadn’t helped. He had been insistent on seeing them that afternoon. He’d only agreed to postpone the meeting once Rosa had promised to contact him immediately if, as he put it, either of them had “dark thoughts.”
Rosa thought again about the conversation with her mother after dinner. It made her uneasy.
“Last night I dreamt about your biological mother,” her mother had said. “In the dream she looked different to how I’ve always imagined her. She had your beautiful grey-green eyes, yes, and the same slight dimples when you smile. But her skin was nothing like yours. It was blotchy and pale. She looked anaemic.”
Rosa glanced down at her hands. She had always assumed one of her parents was of South Asian origin based on the colour of her skin.
“In my dreams, her features are never that clear,” Rosa said eventually. “But she’s always wearing a bright red scarf, waving to me from a distance.” It was the first time she had told her mother about this recurring dream, though she didn’t mention she had seen her biological mother – or whoever this woman was – as a child, at Kings Lynn train station.
“Would you have liked to meet her?”
“Yes. Well, I think so at least. I don’t know anything about her.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“Mum, there’s nothing to apologise for,” Rosa said. “You are all that I need.”
“Rosa, I love you with all my heart. You know that, don’t you?”
“Of course I do.”
“Good. It’s just that…” Karen started, then stopped. She removed her glasses and patted her eyes with a napkin.
“Oh, it’s hard to explain.”
“You can talk to me.”
“I know. The tricky thing is…it’s about you. Your childhood.”
“Go on, Mum. You don’t need to hold back.”
“I know. I’ve always told you the truth; Dad too. Everything we knew. But one thing we’ve never talked about much is the surgery you had as a young child. Do you remember?”
Rosa looked at her mother, noticed her hands were shaking. “A little, but not a lot,” she replied.
“I think about it a lot. I mean, I know it had to be done, and it was a success. You’ve run, what, three marathons already, haven’t you?” She laughed, trying to sound jovial.
“Now you’re doing what you always do, exaggerating my achievements,” Rosa said lightly, trying to put her mother at ease. “Maybe I’ll enter the next one in London.”
“But what about the surgery makes you worry?”
“It’s not the surgery. The follow-up appointments. Do you remember them?”
Rosa glanced again at her mother, noticing the expectation in her face. She shut her eyes for a moment, tried to picture the hospital in her mind.
“I remember certain things, but not very precisely,” she said. “Like these long corridors with high ceilings, the smell of hospital disinfectant. Doctors shining bright lights into my eyes and asking what I could see.”
“Did they ever do anything…that made you feel uncomfortable?”
“No,” Rosa replied, surprised.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. Don’t worry, Mum. You and Dad were always there.”
“Hmm.” Karen paused for a few seconds. “The hospital, well, let’s put it this way: it wasn’t like the John Radcliffe.”
“Mum, why are you worrying about this now? Is there something about the treatment you haven’t told me?”
“No, nothing like that. You needed the surgery, and they did it professionally. I worry only that the whole thing – all those hospital visits – may have been traumatic for you, that’s all.”
“There’s nothing to worry about. The doctors were nice.”
“Yes, but…” her mum said, looking down at her hands. She was fiddling with her wedding ring.
“Oh, I don’t know. Nothing, I guess. I just worry about you. But I know you’re strong.”
Rosa rose from her bed and drew the curtains, then lay back down. She shut her eyes and focused on her breathing, inhaling air through her nose then exhaling in a slow, controlled manner.
She felt each breath, sensed her heart beating hard and then sleep rushing towards her, like a sudden weight pulling her down. For some reason she felt nervous, her heart beat faster. Yet she could not stop sleep from taking her away. She felt herself slipping into the depths of a cavernous hole darker than the night sky, with no stars or moonlight to guide her.
Everything is dull grey and stationary. She is standing still, watching a train approach the station. The train is the only thing moving. Rosa is just a young child, four or five years old maybe. Someone is holding her hand. A young man in military uniform. In the distance, she sees someone: a woman in a bright red scarf, her biological mother. The woman is unable to move, but is waving frantically at Rosa. She is shouting. No, not shouting. Screaming.
Rosa woke up, dripping sweat. Then she heard it again. A pitiful scream, like the sound of a wounded animal.
“Mum,” she gasped.
She leapt out of bed and rushed to her mother’s bedroom. The room was empty. The window was wide open, the curtains billowed in the wind. Terrified, she approached the window and peered out, picturing her mother lying motionless on the floor below. She wasn’t there. Rosa exhaled, muttering to herself to keep calm.
But then she heard a new noise. A faint scratching sound coming from her parents’ en-suite bathroom. Rosa rushed across the room and tried to open the bathroom door. It was locked.
“Mum, open up!”
“Mum, it’s Rosa. Please open the door,” she pleaded.
Still nothing. She put her ear to the door and heard the same scratching sound more clearly. Like paper being ripped.
“Mum,” she shouted, desperate now.
There was no reply. Rosa pushed against the door, shoved her shoulder hard against it to try to break the lock. The door moved a little but still wouldn’t give. She took a few steps back, braced herself, and then ran full pelt at the door. Wood splintered. Rubbing her shoulder, she ran again into the door, and this time the lock broke away from the door.
Her mother was lying on the tiled floor, nail scissors by her hands, her throat slit. Blood dripping from crude cuts around her eyes made it look like tears of blood. Her eyes open, blank, staring at…nothing.
The G-Cafe was a five-minute walk from Kings Cross station. Ambient techno played; graffiti was painted directly over faded wallpaper. The place was packed, as most cafes were these days. As Rosa queued at the counter, she glanced over at her younger brother sitting by the window. Nathan looked jumpy, tapping his hands on the table and fiddling with the sugar container. She wondered if he had also cut down on his sleep, as so many people had started to do. More caffeine was the last thing he needed.
It was early October. Less than a month had passed since their mother died. It was the first time she’d seen him since the funeral. In those few weeks, everything had changed. There had been close to two thousand cases, and the majority had died immediately. It was the most gruesome of maladies. People would wake in the middle of the night gripped by an uncontrollable hysteria. Screaming, they would try to tear out their own eyes with their bare hands. If they weren’t successful, they’d reach for the nearest implement to hand – a knife, a razor blade, anything that was sharp. Some of them slit their own throats, as their parents had.
“Here you go,” she said, handing a coffee to Nathan. “A long black, double strength.”
“Thanks,” he replied, pouring in a few spoons of sugar.
“How have you been?”
“So-so. You know.”
“Yeah. I miss them so much. When Mum died…”
“Rosa, do you mind if we don’t talk about that? Our parents. At least not just yet.”
“OK,” she said. She tried to catch Nathan’s eye, but he was looking down at his hands. For a split moment, he seemed ancient, despite his thick brown hair and wispy stubble. An old man contemplating mortality, rather than the bright-eyed twenty-one-year-old he had been just a few months ago.
She glanced around the room instead. The atmosphere was subdued. Last time she had been in this cafe, it had been humming with life: mainly students talking about music or politics. That was a while ago, though, before the epidemic.
News outlets labelled it “mass hysteria.” Tabloids were full of stories of regular people going mad. Scientists came up with the acronym SED, for sleep-induced encephalopathic delirium. Yet most people simply called it the Panic. Other countries had closed their borders to British residents until the epidemic was brought under control.
“Thanks for coming down to London,” she said. “Especially for such a short visit.”
“Not at all. It must’ve been harder for you.”
“What do you mean?”
“They’re clamping down on travel in and out of Oxford, right?”
“Oh that. There is a lot of paperwork, but they let people come and go. This thing isn’t infectious.”
“Don’t be stupid,” he said in exasperation. “It’s an epidemic, Rosa.”
“Please don’t talk to me like that,” she replied, trying to keep her tone calm. “Look, I know it’s scary.”
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to sound…you know.”
“I know. I’m not trying to argue, but scientists have said this isn’t contagious.”
“But how do they really know?”
She looked at her brother. His hands shook as he sipped his coffee. “Let’s talk about something else,” she said.
“What else is there to talk about?” he said, raising his voice. People stared at them momentarily, before returning to their coffees.
“Nathan,” she said, reaching across the table for his hand. He pulled away. She looked at him with sadness. This was not how her brother normally was.
“Thousands have died,” he muttered. “Probably many more than what the government says.”
“And the few that survive don’t last long. Do you know what they’ve been doing to them?”
“No,” she replied, not liking where the conversation seemed to be heading.
“The government locks them up.”
“Nathan, how do you know this?”
“They force-feed them,” he said, ignoring her question. “Monitored in isolation wards, they’re gibberish wrecks. Most of them die within a few days.”
“I don’t know. There are always conspiracy theories with these kinds of things.”
“It’s the truth; everyone knows it. It’s on the internet if you know where to look. That’s why I’ve got to get out. You should too, Rosa. There are ferries to Northern Ireland. For government workers and people with the right papers. But I’ve heard you can buy tickets on the black market.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Oh, Rosa. Northern Ireland is applying to the UN for temporary secession from the UK. Yes, even with the bipartisan politics there and all the shit with Brexit. You do know about that, don’t you?”
“Yes, but so what?”
“So better to get out while we can. More chance than making it to mainland Europe. They’ve closed the Channel Tunnel. The French and the Dutch won’t let us in.”
“Nathan, stop being so paranoid,” she blurted out. “This thing – the Panic – they’ll get it under control soon enough. Concentrate on the here and now, on your studies and friends.”
“What’s the point?”
“Oh grow up,” she said, her voice rising. People were probably staring at them, but she didn’t care.
The train edged forward then accelerated, leaving the town of Didcot behind. Rosa stared out the window. Boats moored along the River Thames bobbed about in the water.
She thought about her conversation with Nathan earlier that afternoon. His determination to buy a ferry ticket to Northern Ireland seemed foolish. Still, she regretted snapping at him. She was worried about his frenzied and paranoid state. He was clearly upset. Nathan was still the same quiet, sensitive boy of his childhood. Growing up, Rosa had been very much the big sister who eased him through the uncertainties of adolescence. Now, Rosa was acutely aware of how alone he must feel, given everything that had happened. Lecturing him as she had done would have only made him feel worse.
She wished their meeting had gone differently. She should have listened to his views more patiently. Two siblings talking frankly but respectfully, as close friends would. Maybe they could have even been able to talk about their parents.
“We will be arriving in Oxford shortly,” the train conductor announced. “Please have your arrivals card completed and passports ready.”
Rosa glanced around the carriage. There were only a handful of other passengers, and they all looked preoccupied. She took out her passport and stared at her photo, one taken a few years ago. She had cut her hair short back then. She looked so different to her parents. People always knew she’d been adopted – her light brown complexion was darker than her parents’ pale skin, and her hair was darker, too. She had grey-green eyes, whereas her parents’ eyes had been dark brown. She could have passed for Nathan’s biological sibling, though.
The train pulled into Oxford station. People disembarked and queued by the platform exit, where station officials inspected their passports. It was a slow process. Rosa adjusted her bag on her shoulder whilst waiting in line.
“Please step aside,” an official instructed an old man. She held his passport, having scanned it through a handheld reader. “One of my colleagues will need to talk to you.”
“Sir, you’ll need to do as I say. I’m sorry.”
“But my papers are in order,” the man said, his voice quivering. “I live here and I need to get home. My wife will be worried.”
Other passengers in the queue watched without saying anything. A second official came over. Rosa noted he carried a gun.
“Mr Florence,” this official said, looking at the old man’s passport, “I’m Special Constable Wright, from the London Met Office. There is nothing to worry about. We simply have to conduct random medical checks on arrivals. It’s standard government policy.”
“No ifs and buts, sir. Now please do not make a scene. It won’t take long, I promise.”
Rosa watched the old man being led away, his head bowed. She felt uneasy. In her trips between Oxford and London, she had never witnessed police pulling aside passengers for a medical check. The government seemed to becoming more anxious about the epidemic. She looked at her arrivals card. On it, she had ticked the box next to the question ‘Have any of your relatives died from SED?’ She wondered if that meant they would pull her aside, too.
“Madam, your documents please.”
“Oh sorry,” Rosa said, taking her passport and arrivals card out.
The station official ran her passport through the reader. Rosa noticed a slight change in the woman’s expression, the way her jaw clenched and muscles tightened up.
“Ms Newton, you’ll need to step aside,” she said.
Rosa nodded, trying to stay calm. She didn’t want to make a scene.
“Blue-green,” the station official spoke into a handheld transceiver. She tried to say it in a neutral tone, but Rosa could tell that the woman was nervous.
It had already been twenty minutes. She waited in a small room, doing her best to stay calm. Blinds had been drawn over the windows. Other than a few fold-up plastic chairs and a table, there was nothing in the room. It was part of a temporary portable building located in what was once the train station’s car park.
They had taken away her mobile phone. She fiddled with her handbag’s strap, wondering what she could do. Constable Wright, the same official who had earlier led the older passenger away for a medical check, sat opposite her. Early on, he had made it clear he couldn’t answer any questions, only saying that a colleague would soon arrive to explain everything.
She thought she heard a car pull up outside, then car doors opening and closing. Constable Wright’s expression remained inscrutable. She held her breath and listened. People nearby seemed to be conferring in low voices. Then she heard footsteps approaching, and someone climbing the steel stairs.
A man opened the door. He wore military uniform and carried a briefcase. Constable Wright stood up as he entered.
“Thank you for your patience, Rosa,” the man said. “I’m Andrew Shaw.”
“Are my papers not in order?” she asked.
The man looked familiar. Light blue eyes, a nose that was slightly bent, sandy-brown hair. He was probably in his early fifties.
“Your papers are fine,” he replied. “I’m here because of what happened to your parents.” He unfolded a chair and sat down. “Craig, thanks, I’ll take it from here.”
Constable Wright nodded and left the room.
“What’s all this about? Did I do something wrong?”
“I’m sorry. As you know, these are not normal circumstances. However, I can assure you there is nothing to worry about. I work for the government. My job is to help monitor the SED situation. So I have a few routine questions. After that, I’ll be able to tell you more. But first, can you confirm that your full name is Rosa Lilly Newton?”
“And your parents adopted you when you were six months old?”
He opened his briefcase and handed Rosa a photograph. “Who is this with you?”
Rosa looked at the photo. It was an old picture, slightly faded, from when she was about seven or eight years old and Nathan was still a toddler. “How did you get hold of this?”
“Rosa, could you confirm who is in the photo with you?”
“Nathan,” she said quietly, handing the photo back to him. “Whatever this is about, please keep him out of it.”
“Thank you. Don’t worry, this isn’t about Nathan. The photograph is simply a further check to avoid any issues of mistaken identity. Medical records from twenty years ago sometimes have errors. Now let me explain. I know that as a young child you had surgery for a rare condition.”
Shaw paused, closing his briefcase. Rosa waited for him to continue, but he remained silent.
“What’s that got to do with anything?” she asked finally.
“Maybe nothing. We don’t know yet. But it is possible that your illness as a child has some similarities with SED.”
Rosa stared at him, incredulous. “How?” she asked. “I had surgery for an abnormal heart rhythm. How can that have anything to do with the Panic?”
“We’re not sure yet. All I can say at this point is that we think you may have something in common with the few SED survivors we’ve been able to monitor. But it’s hard to know with any certainty. Our scientists’ hypotheses are based on your old medical records.”
“Sounds like you’re clutching at straws.”
Shaw shifted in his chair. “There’s not much else we can do. SED has killed over two thousand people. Many more will die if we fail to act decisively, explore every avenue. That is why we would like to monitor you more closely. You can help us better understand this illness.”
Rosa glanced around the room. Her heart was pounding. What am I getting myself into, she wondered. Not that it’s like I have a choice. Even if she managed to sidestep Shaw, there would be people waiting for her outside.
“What if I say no?”
Shaw shook his head. “These are my orders. Rosa, let me reiterate, there is no need to worry. The monitoring won’t be intrusive, and you’ll be well cared for. I can guarantee you that, as I’ll be the one overseeing it.”
“OK,” Rosa said, doing her best to appear calm despite feeling like her whole body was shaking. But then she pictured herself in a cell, banging her head against a padded wall. Christ, they are going to lock me up! She shuddered. Got to do something fast. But what? Fuck, I don’t know, I’ve got no fucking idea. Ana, Ana! If you can hear me, tell me what to do. Now!
They both stood up. She could tell Shaw was alert, ready to move quickly if needed.
“Thank you, Rosa,” he said as he led her outside. “This is for the greater good.”
She walked slowly down the steps, Shaw by her side. Constable Wright was there, a few feet ahead. She panicked. Without thinking, she broke into a run.
“Rosa, please,” Shaw said, calling after her. “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
She dodged past Constable Wright. But there was another policeman ahead. He grabbed her, held her still. More police officers came over.
“Help!” she managed to scream before they covered her mouth. People were staring at them. They dragged her back and bundled her into the back of a car. One of the police officers entered the car after her.
Shaw was already in the driver’s seat. “Please try not to worry,” he said, turning around. “We’re not going to hurt you. I promise.”