Dawn in Piedmont. The sky a washed out rose colour. Mist hanging low over the Langhe valley in ragged wisps like something which had caught on the estate's tall cedar trees. Stood at the full length bay windows, a strong black coffee to hand, Sally Clarke took in the autumn landscape and admired the enormous quiet. It had crossed her mind to make an offer on the villa – one which would prove difficult to turn down – but that felt like a premature reward, far in advance of work which still needed to be done.
Having rented Casa Vitelli for the last six weeks, she'd mostly kept to one wing of the property, its sole occupier. And barring a weekly shopping trip in the rental car it had pleased her to venture no further than its twenty acre grounds. It was, Sally realised, an almost ghostly existence. An impression enhanced by her tendency to tread the centuries old hallways at strange times of the night. Powered by thoughts which continued to detain her. Unable to shake off the curse of them. But there was to be no wailing, moaning, or dragging of chains. What she had in mind was a surgical haunting. A calm, collected revenge.
She turned away from the windows, approached a low table, placed her cup down. Then, lifting the lid on her laptop, Sally brought up iplayer and continued streaming yesterday's lunchtime concert from the Wigmore Hall. Biber's Mystery Sonatas. Now culminating in the last of the series, Passacaglia. Like the preceding pieces, the tone of the violin was both sombre and excited. The mark of a strangely meticulous passion. Harbinger of an emotion which was wild and yet exact. The music also recalled Sally's regular attendance at this same venue during her happiest days in London. When the city had shown every sign of repaying her love for it with a life of which she had long dreamt.
Next to the laptop stood a tarnished candle stick, a box of matches. Lighting three white candles from a single flame, she picked the ornament up by its base and carried it across the floor, scattering the gloom ahead of her. Then she held it before that large ominous installation tacked to the far wall. Names, faces, data points, body scans, bank accounts. Aspects of finance, health, career, social existence. Taken together, it represented the dark cloud hanging over one man's life without his knowledge. A devastating paper trail which she had built from scratch, intent on ensuring his fall from grace.
Now Sally took another step closer to stand mere inches from the wall's surface with the air of an expert preoccupied with brushstrokes, the play of oils. But provenance was not the issue, only whether or not the elaborate design was fit for use. All these burning hoops she would have him jump through. At the moment the man's good fortune was robust, but that would change soon enough. She was in a position to make it so. Sally would have him learn what doom meant. Let him carry the burden about his person as she had once done. It was impossible to know whether this act of vengeance amounted to a moral good, but it was not a question which concerned her any longer. She'd stopped caring about such distinctions. Content to plough these grey areas. Finding them fertile ground for her own renewal.
It was a last chance to consider the plan's outwards appearance before packing up and leaving later in the day. They would all need to come down, these telling documents – fuel for the great stone fireplace in the neighbouring room. Not that they represented a memory aid. Having sunk thousands of hours into its creation, Sally had committed the entire structure to mind already. To the point where she could summon any part of it at will. Now it was time to put the whole into effect. Today, finally, it moved out of the speculative realm and began reaching for its target. Although, if there was a pleasure to this fact then Sally was careful not to embrace it. For her groundwork to flourish she would need to stay self-contained.
Done with the spectacle, she put the candlestick on the floor, returned to the large bay windows and opened them wide as they would go. Letting the morning air in. And, with it, a stark chill. Then, stripping bare, she stepped outside onto the damp morning grass, advancing into the cold almost as a challenge to it. The balls of her feet soaked in an instant. Her ears registering the half-hearted bark of a neighbour's wolfhound, somewhere out of view. Sally's eyes already trained on the swimming pool a short way down and to her right. Its placid, unbroken surface.
Now her wet feet struck the stone flagging, at which point she broke into a run, geared up for the dive, gave herself over to it. Making a blade of her body. Narrowing its point of entry the better to slip clean below. Then, as always, the abrupt shock to the system. Her vital signs alarmed by the plunge. The splash sounding in her ears, somewhere above, a delayed explosion. In answer, she kicked out at these same icy sensations. Her body fighting clear of them with deft practised movements, propelling Sally forwards, methodical as a wave. The whole act symbolic. A way of testifying. A far cry from that moment when she'd consigned herself to another body of water, asking that it swallow her up once and for all.
Mark Chambers steered his mountain bike into the room and leaned it against a large, antique radiator: the only place in his office it could conceivably go. He unstrapped his helmet below the chin, placed it on the edge of the cluttered desk. Then, without taking off his jacket, ducked down
and worked the cast iron valve which turned on the heating. In response, the pipes laboured into action, gurgling drastically, as if the age old plumbing in the building had been struck down with a gastric complaint. But for all of these protests the radiator was efficient once it got going and a warmth would soon flood the space. More welcome than usual now that the weather had turned: a blustery October wind seeping through the windows' loose frames, rattling their flaky wooden edges.
Mark's office belonged to a small suite of them which, together, took up the ground floor of an old building on the edges of Clerkenwell, untouched by regeneration, tucked away down a side street. From out of his window there was nothing to see except a dismal courtyard, a huddle of grimy wheelie bins, and little evidence of any natural light. And yet the view had never disheartened him. Nor the fact that he worked out of a glorified broom cupboard. You could never have too many balances to keep your ego in check. There was now money in the operational budget for bigger, shinier premises if they were deemed necessary, although the twelve core staff had recently chosen to stay put after a vote. That money finding its way instead to the intended beneficiaries of the trust. In total 94% of the organisation's annual income had been spent on charitable activities this last year. A figure they could all rightly be proud of
Mark's role herein was that of Funding Strategist. A position he had created for himself after pitching it to the managing head at his interview, promising fast-acting results. And the fact he'd offered to work on a pro bono basis for the first six months had encouraged her to let him prove it. Any scepticism fading fast as Mark drastically overhauled the charity's fortunes. Here, his prior knowledge had been put to excellent use. All that private sector know-how brought to bear on behalf of the greater good: structuring donations in a bespoke fashion instead of, as formerly, facilitating lucrative deals. The fact Mark had added value to the charity also meant he hadn't taken anybody's place there. Which was also important, because he'd had his fill of a dog-eat-dog environment where the workforce was strongly encouraged to cannibalize each other's roles. Death by backstabbing, in most cases. Here, on the contrary, teamwork was the norm. Selflessness key. And that contrast had also reinvigorated him.
Sitting down at his desk, he heard Liz Wheeler's customary rap at the door – even though it was always open to her – and looked up to see her head sticking around the jamb.
“The meeting with Jake Myers confirmed then?” she asked him.
“Yep. For Wednesday morning.”
“Oh good. And you will try and get an autograph for Tom?”
“It's my first order of business. I'm sure he'll be happy to oblige.”
“That should earn me serious parenting points.”
“You can never have too many of those.”
“No. And yet Martha strikes me as a lot less demanding.”
“She's older. That has a lot to do with it.”
“Anything else on the agenda I can help you with?”
He hesitated to enlist her support, but then pushed on. “There is one thing. The Baroness. She's suddenly dropped off the radar. I can't seem to get an answer from her cellphone.”
“You know what she's like. Nobody could be more pressed for time. It's not so much a social calendar she keeps to as a tour of duty.”
“I know. But usually I get a quick response all the same, and this can't wait much longer.”
“OK. I hear you. Let me see what I can do.”
Liz hesitated for one moment, and Mark guessed what was coming. It was a style of diplomacy he was ever more aware of, and sensitive to, these days. “How's Annette doing?”
“Good. With a bit of luck she'll be back in next month.”
“That's great to hear. Do send her my love.”
“Of course,” he answered. “I will.” Then Mark gave a nod in conclusion, and with a timid wave Liz retreated from view and walked away down the corridor.
Sitting back in his chair, he swivelled on it distractedly for half a minute and then caught himself in the act: wasting time he did not have to waste. Instead Mark leaned forwards and switched on the PC. Liz's mention of Jake Myers reminding him to track down the result of that match the footballer had played in last night. A big premiership clash between two London giants. Important then to learn the scoreline and know whether to commiserate or applaud the nature of it. Make glancing reference to Myer's own involvement if necessary: be it a spectacular clearance or goal he might have scored. Anything to smooth their provisional agreement and turn it into a conclusive deal.
Now Mark googled the names of the clubs and clicked on the first option, belonging to a website called Goal. As he searched that site's table of contents, a banner flashed up at the top of the page, immediately catching his attention. It was for a luxury hotel and accompanied by two further adverts hanging down both margins.
When Loves comes to Barbados, We give it a Home
The Petiole - A Perfect Hideaway
Mark found himself doing a double take at the sight of it. Staring hard at the attached image of the hotel's facade. And then, finally, confirming it was that one he knew well. The same five star complex he'd visited the year before last, although it felt like another century. A wonderful week in itself, but not something he wished to dwell upon now. And so, as was customary, he began bringing down the mental shutters on that period of time.
When Love comes to Barbados...
The advertisement seemed geared towards honeymooners, but whoever it was meant for, Mark did not think much of it finding him: wondering if he'd simply chanced upon it or been targeted in some insidious, high tech way. Probably the latter. God knows what diabolic routes these targeted ads took or what information they were now able to draw upon. All of his spending patterns and viewing habits exhaustively compiled.
Mark tried remembering which card he'd used to pay for the holiday, and whether or not he'd given out his email address to the travel firm. No sooner did you correspond with a vendor than you ended up on their mailing lists, and from there it was a small step to that same information falling into less reputable hands. Without doubt, there were few lengths companies wouldn't go to in order to insert themselves into a person's day-to-day affairs. Anything to come between you and what you really wanted. Normally, none of this would have bothered Mark so much, but the hotel's reappearance had disquieted him: loath, as he was, to have those memories dredged up.
Closing the browser down, he took the decision to restart Windows 10 as if the act of resetting his computer might wash away all of that intrusiveness. Not content with these actions, he went searching for, and then downloaded, the latest adblocking software available. And it was only then Mark returned to the task at hand. Choosing, this time, the second search result relating to the football game. Courtesy of another sporting portal, this one called Spot Kick.
Clicking on the home page's front headline, he was led directly to the relevant match report. But just as he started studying the first line of the piece, the same insistent message as before reared up again.
When Loves comes to Barbados, We give it a Home
The Petiole - A Perfect Hideaway
Only this time, on both flanks of the page, a vertical animation began flashing at him. Heart shaped confetti drifting down the screen and collecting in two deep, lurid piles. The spectacle so irritating that Mark cursed its reappearance under his breath and closed the window with a violent prod of his left mouse button. Telling the advert, in parting, to "fuck off".
It felt apt that they should meet here again, in Georgia Strauss' handsome office. The same place where the two of them had come to an arrangement all those months ago. Now, after no little time or effort, they were finally executing on the big idea that had brought them together.
The room itself remained spartan but not unwelcoming, largely thanks to the recessed lighting and the wallpaper's warm earthen tones. At the centre of the wooden floor, between the two chairs, lay a desk made of walnut without a single scrap of paper on it. An oasis of discretion. Nothing to see here was the message. One which had resonated with Sally first time around. The only change from before – a vibrant painting hanging on the wall away to her left. Something modern by an artist she was distantly aware of and whose name she now tried to recall. “That's new?” Sally said, referring to it.
“It is. You like it? Not too florid?” Georgia answered.
“Not at all. Beatriz Milhazes?”
“That's right. Her prices recently went down to the point where I could afford one of the smaller works. With a little help from you.”
Sally shook her head, dismissing the idea. “It's your money. You've certainly earned it.”
Georgia smiled, put her hands flat on the table as if summoning all of her acumen. “Shall we?”
“Get down to it? Yes, of course.”
“On Monday I put our case to Rothwell.”
“And she's onside now?”
“Yes she is.”
“Which gives us a majority on the board?”
“And as for the investigation itself?”
“They're just about done compiling the evidence, about to go gangbusters. I don't know the exact day yet – I thought it better not to press him – but Millington will let me know within the week.”
“With our man deeply implicated?”
“Oh yes. Very much of interest to them. Really the timing is advantageous. After the flak they've been getting recently for colluding with big business, it's the perfect moment to serve somebody's head on a plate.”
“And the small matter of his phone?”
“Totally compromised. Janacek has confirmed it. It's simply a case of pressing send.”
“Good,” Sally nodded. “I think that puts us on schedule, unless there's anything else we need to consider?”
Georgia gave the question thought, as she deliberated over everything relating to the plan. “I'm the last person to encourage complacency, but I'd say we're covered for now. Although there's no reason for you to spend any more time in the capital than necessary until the fateful day arrives.”
“I know. I'm leaving tomorrow. Don't worry.”
“Anything else arises you'll be the first to know, as always.”
“Thanks. For everything.”
Now it was Georgia's turn to waive the gratitude away. “Thank me if this all plays out to your satisfaction.”
Sally nodded at the comment. “OK.”
To begin with, they'd met at the end of a long and tiring search she had made. Trying to find somebody exceptionally competent that Sally could also trust to an unusual degree. A tall order, under any circumstances, but especially so given what she had in mind.
At first she'd flirted with the dark web to find what she was looking for. But all of the smoke and mirrors and anonymity she found online unnerved her. As it meant you couldn't take anybody at their word without resorting to a leap of faith. The kind of leap which could quite easily result in blackmail. No, what Sally needed instead was an organisation with premises, a reputation, discretion assured. Although the possibility remained that any such firm would baulk at the assignment. Or, worse still, feel moved to refer it onwards to the appropriate authorities. Probably it depended to what extent her plan struck them as an act of sadism rather than a fair settling of scores.
To narrow the search, Sally concerned herself with two main criteria. Looking at those firms whose client base included large multinationals (demonstrating the right level of moral ambivalence), and those with past or present ties to the security services (suggesting a string of high end contacts who might come into play). And yet still she had taken eight meetings before the one with Georgia brought the process to a close. Something discordant about all those earlier encounters. Meaning that, when pressed on her reasons for visiting them, Sally made up a story which had nothing to do with her.
Clearly it had troubled these other companies that she was a private individual of no illustrious parentage, notable professional standing, or discernible wealth. A concern they were all far too anxious to address. As if the first thing that needed investigating was what Sally thought she was doing there in their office space. In the majority of instances, they had started quoting high six figure prices at her within the first couple of minutes – the “absolute minimum” their services would cost – confident this would act as a deterrence. But instead of setting them straight, Sally only played up to their misreading of the situation, made her terse excuses and walked out the door. Even when this failed to happen, there was not a moment when she felt comfortable sharing the truth of the matter, or even tempted to do so. Something, on each occasion, put her off. To the point where Sally started to fear it was a paralysis she would never move beyond. That her provisional plan would remain a pipe dream for all of her immense wealth.
Georgia Strauss – Security Analyst
The website had not been there the last time she'd entered the search terms, a fortnight earlier. In fact it looked entirely new – which would explain the prior absence – and there was not much to go on in the way of information as yet. Still, there was something about this same economy of detail which had appealed to Sally. A certain style to the layout and a laconic quality about the text. It was hard to put her finger on, but it spoke of a self-confidence that was unrepentant but not smug. Definitely a plus point. And so she sent on an email to the analyst in question and they agreed to meet two days hence at her premises in Mayfair.
Unlike her peers, Georgia did not greet Sally with scepticism. Instead they talked for the first five minutes about the fact this office had been newly acquired. The paint barely dry in it. Just as the stationery was fresh from the printers and the masthead only affixed to the door a grand total of three days. And this same degree of informality put her sufficiently at ease for Sally to volunteer her reservations shortly afterwards. “Probably this is something you've heard before, but I'm not sure how to begin exactly. Or even whether I should.”
Georgia nodded. “It's a difficult decision, I know. Without an introduction from somebody you trust in turn, we start at a real disadvantage. So maybe I should begin by telling you a little more about me?”
“I would appreciate that.”
“OK. Well as I alluded to on my website, until recently I was employed by her majesty's government. There I cut exactly those corners which enabled me to do my job, at a time when such corner-cutting was strongly encouraged. And then, thanks to the magic of politics, that same conduct suddenly became highly frowned upon, and one fine day I learned that I was to be made an example of, as if I was the exception and not the rule.” Georgia picked up her espresso cup, drained half of the double shot before returning it to its saucer. “And so an unflattering assessment of me would conclude that I'm a disgraced intelligence officer, although, for my own sanity, if nothing else, I continue to think of myself as one who was unfairly treated.”
“I'm sorry to hear that,” Sally remarked.
“And so I could tell you I made this move to the private sector because it was “an exciting challenge” or represented “a wonderful opportunity”, but really, neither of those things are true.”
“But you still have friends in high places I take it?”
Georgia paused thoughtfully. “People in high places aren't looking for friendships generally, so much as highly advantageous trade-offs. But I have access to one or two figures, yes.”
She had heard enough to start making a tentative disclosure of her own, and this Sally now did. Lowering herself into the story. Setting the scene with enormous care. Straining to do it justice. Striving neither to sensationalize the events nor downplay their impact on her. In all of this she was greatly encouraged by the quality of silence that Georgia conveyed. A silence somehow vouched for by the look on her face as well. As if every syllable Sally uttered was being picked clean of meaning. And so she chose to share everything. The whole sorry tale. Until this moment, nobody had heard a word of it. It had been the sole province of her beleaguered mind, replayed endlessly, echoing down the nights, stretching these hours out in the process. But now it moved beyond her own private understanding. And even in the confines of this softly lit room, with its appealing air of confidence, she had the impression that she'd released her suffering into the wilds.
At the end of Sally's account, Georgia Strauss allowed herself an appropriately long pause. Then she provoked her prospective client. “We've all been in bad relationships,” she said.
Sally shook her head vehemently, stung by the remark. “That's not what this was.” For a couple of moments she was on the verge of getting up and walking away. Then she brought her emotions to heel, reconsidered the tone of Georgia's voice and realised that she was playing devil's advocate. Pushing her buttons to gauge Sally's response. In other words, this woman was vetting Sally just as much as Sally was vetting her. Which was exactly what she needed, Sally realised. Not an adversary, but somebody who would challenge every aspect of her wishful thinking and shoot down every last trace of her hubris.
Now Georgia nodded solemnly. At Sally's protest. And at the way she had wrestled herself under control. “No. I do believe you. And so now you would have it that he suffers a great deal?”
“Yes. That's the idea.”
“So what would your undivided attention cost me?”
Georgia finished drinking her coffee, put the cup down again. “For me to work for you exclusively? 65,000 pounds sterling every calendar month.”
“And you're absolutely sure you want to do this?”
“That's a lot of money to talk yourself out of.”
“Don't get me wrong, I'm firmly interested, but I think you deserve to be challenged once at the outset. Be assured, after this I'll never raise the subject again.”
Sally nodded. “And I do appreciate that, but I'm all of one mind, believe me.”
“OK. Good. I'll clear the decks then. We can get started right away.”
It was a rare night out for the two of them, reserved weeks in advance, and keenly anticipated that same length of time. Mark, in particular, had wanted to ensure that everything be just so. For Annette's benefit. His partner of one year exactly. An anniversary that they were celebrating now.
The restaurant they'd chosen had opened this summer and was still basking in a first round of glowing reviews; the food a contemporary take on traditional Catalan fare. Tonight it was packed accordingly, the two dozen tables all spoken for, and there was, in addition, something theatrical about the venue. A certain richness to the décor achieved through signature tones of crimson, chocolate, plum. Across the floorspace a team of waiters was kept in constant motion. Brisk, purposeful, well drilled. And as Mark looked around the dining room at the other guests, it struck him that they too were more animated than usual, stirred by the vivid ambience. To his great relief, the setting was all that he had wished it to be and the evening felt like an event.
Now a waiter approached the table and put a loosely bound menu in their hands. Mark opened his up and studied the contents. Even though he'd familiarised himself with the prices beforehand, it took an effort of will not to flinch as he looked across the line at the cost of each item. His and Annette's combined salaries were not negligible on paper until you took into account London itself and how it never tired of making new financial demands. Demands which brought the finer things in life into question. Demands Mark had once met with great ease, brandishing his six figure salary, and rounding up bills such as this one with practised largesse. His sense of calculation reserved for work; trading. But now he was in thrall to that petty accountancy which comes with having to make ends meet, and even this single blowout had required planning. Dependent on those small savings he had managed to find elsewhere. And yet, over and above the fine dining experience, it felt important to push the boat out further than strictly advisable for once.
“What happened to the belt-tightening?”
He looked up from the menu and smiled at the remark. “I think we can unbuckle it for one night.”
Annette raised her left eyebrow, but she was smiling also.
“This is a very special occasion,” he asserted, a heartfelt note entering his voice.
“Yes. You're right. It is.” And with that Annette stretched her hand across the linen tablecloth for Mark to take hold of. Staring at her with undimmed pleasure, deeply appreciative of their shared life. She looked radiant in spite of everything. Annette's dark hair styled afresh this morning, tight ringlets falling down by her earlobes, set off by her grandmother's studded pearls. And then those extraordinary pale green eyes. Eyes you could easily get lost in. Although for Mark, they had always provided the opposite of distraction: being the place where he had finally found himself after the longest time. If he had somehow managed to turn his life around then she had been the one to allow for it. To sanction the transformation and grant him every reason to be reborn.
A couple of minutes later, after a final review of the menu, Mark made his choice. “Think I'll begin with the cod brandada.”
“You know, I'm going to skip the starter.”
“Honestly. We can afford this.”
“It's not that.”
“The nausea again?”
“Not really. It's more that I want to reserve space for a chocolatey dessert.”
He looked at her doubtfully, but tried not to press home the concern. Knowing how that sometimes exasperated Annette. Wanting to spare her his worries this evening.
“So, Jake Myers tomorrow morning,” she said, changing tack.
“We're going to talk shop, tonight of all nights?”
Annette grinned at his mock dismay. “You love talking shop. Don't fight it. Just tell me exactly what you plan to do?”
“Act like a regular fanboy. Butter him up something rotten. Throw in a few terrace chants.”
“It's a good deal for him. It would be hard to reason otherwise. I'd expect his advisor to tell him as much.”
“And then hopefully other high profile figures take us up on the offer?”
“Should be the first of many, all being well.”
The workplace was where they'd met, fifteen months before, and there'd been no question of one of them leaving it as a result; even after Mark had moved in with Annette and her daughter, Martha, nine months down the line. It was still a blessing that they should spend so much time in each other's company, around the clock. The kind of arrangement that people warned against on principle – as overkill, too much of a good thing – but which they'd nonetheless taken in their stride. Their love for one another equal to it. And yet it was this same love that petrified Mark now, and even as the conversation flowed, his mind stayed with the question of Annette's failing appetite. Wondering to what extend her medication had impinged on it; the treatment as a whole to blame.
Sometimes Mark caught himself doing exactly this: hanging back with the worst case scenario. Not just fearing it, but imagining its evil triumph in advance of any such day. It amounted to a kind of betrayal, he knew, because it took the shine off the present moment and meant that he was hardly inside of it. And being present was the least that he owed her. Christ, he owed Annette so much more. And so the onus was on Mark to cherish their time together and blast any foreshadowing away. To enjoy these experiences for what they were and not what they might come to represent.
Annette, for her part, had proven able to regard the illness philosophically. We never know how long we have. That's no truer now than it was before. Not a declaration of surrender, thankfully. But rather proof that she accepted the situation, knew herself to have a fighting chance, and thought it wise to acknowledge the rules of engagement. As such it betokened courage. A frame of mind Mark knew he'd do well to emulate. And often times he succeeded. But still there were moments, such as this, when he speculated on the cellular warfare taking place inside her body this very minute. Annette's breached defences. The carnage this promised in turn.
The waiter came and took their orders and wine arrived on the table, five minutes later. Then, fifteen minutes after that, the keenly anticipated food. Mark took a fork to his codfish, placed it in his mouth, looked over at Annette as she sampled her first helping of blistered Gernika peppers with sea salt. Eyes closing as if the food had transported her elsewhere. Delight spreading across her face.
“It's that good?” he asked.
Annette's eyes flashed open. “Really, it is. This is wonderful.”
Which was what he wanted to hear. Maybe why she'd said it. Although Mark hated the idea that Annette would put on a show for him. And he only hoped she was savouring the meal every bit as much as her response suggested. Not feeling the need to boost his own rocky morale.
Suddenly, from directly behind him, Mark heard a deeply sarcastic laugh. Until then he'd been dimly aware of the next table being occupied: a few murmurs, maybe the odd difference of opinion distantly registered. But now the volume of the conversation had increased again, leaving no room for doubt as to the nature of it. An argument was underway.
“That's really not what I'm saying...” A female voice, protesting mildly. But it was only met with the same laugh as before. Short, sharp, offensive. And then he launched into his condemnation, this man. “Listen to yourself. It's taxing, your company. Seriously. That's what it is. You make even the best restaurant on The South Bank seem like a fucking ordeal.” He was settling into his topic. Sticking it to his companion. The barbs raining down on her now. All of them easily within reach, a well honed arsenal. And even as the man launched his stinging attack, an outrageous defence of it was incorporated into the mix. “You're really not making this easy for me, you know. You're not making any of this easy if truth be told. All you do is drag me down, time and again, a drain on my wellbeing. A fucking dead weight. Anyone would think it's your life's mission to make me as miserable as you.”
Mark could hear every word of it distinctly as the attack rolled on. Worse than that, he knew from the look on Annette's face that she was watching and listening also. Her own response so vivid, it was as if she was holding a mirror up to the ugly spectacle he could not see. First, expressing her distaste. Then, her outrage. Finally a look of horror beginning to emerge. And it was this last that made Mark sick to the core. Suddenly he put his fork down, done with the starter. And, as he now realised, the meal. Wanting out of there at all costs. Leaning forward slightly, he whispered with conviction, already nodding at his own impulse. “Let's go.”
Annette considered the suggestion, not entirely convinced by it, but then she looked at him again. Factored in the look upon his face. The ghost white pallor she must have found there. In response she nodded firmly. “OK.” Knife and fork discarded with a tinkle. Hands flat against the armrests, lifting herself up out of the chair.
As Mark rose from his own seat, and turned, he found himself half facing the guilty individual, although he made a point of looking away. Nonetheless, the man had quietened down. Causing Mark to sense, and fear, that his own abrupt departure was the trigger for this same lull.