Camilla Macpherson is a writer and lawyer who lives in The Hague in the Netherlands. She recently won the Crime Writer’s Association Margery Allingham Short Mystery Competition. Crime fiction is her favourite genre, and she has a particular interest in writers of the Golden Age.
Her debut novel, Pictures at an Exhibition, was a work of literary fiction revolving around the masterpieces of the National Gallery during the Second World War. It was published by Random House in 2012 and has since been translated into Dutch, German and Polish. She has also been recognized in a number of writing competitions, including: the Promis Prize in the London Writers Competition; the Wundor short fiction prize for her novella The Inaugural Iraq Garden tour; and the Fish Publishing short story competition. She is also a previous finalist in the Daily Mail First Novel Award and quarter-finalist in the Amazon/Penguin Breakthrough Novel Award 2009.
She is currently working on a detective story set in the Netherlands in 1940.
Nuts About You
Carly slipped Hugo’s phone back onto the table and carried on wiping the kitchen surfaces. Maybe it had only ever been a matter of time before he started chasing after the posh girls he knew from the old days. Still, those text messages certainly bore thinking about.
She hung the tea towel back on its hook. It had become a habit, keeping everything squeaky clean. Hugo was particular. He kept a sharp eye on anything she brought home from the shops too, checking the labels and chucking stuff out unopened in a way that horrified Carly’s Mum. Still, Carly understood. He had to be careful.
Carly hadn’t believed Hugo when he told her about his allergies. She figured that maybe he thought always having two epi-pens on him made him more interesting. But then came that picnic in the park. Someone – not Carly, thank the Lord – showed up with a chocolate cake that wasn’t as nut-free as the woman in the fancy bakery claimed. It so happened that when Hugo, taking a bite of the cake, went first red, then white, then keeled over, she was the only one there.
‘My epi-pen,’ he said, struggling to get the words out. ‘In my pocket.’
She still remembered the feeling of power as she raised the epi-pen aloft and plunged it into Hugo’s thigh. A trickle of blood spread across his beige chinos. The sight of the blood made her dizzy – always had – and she fell down to her knees beside him.
When his mates had come back, shrilling like peacocks, Hugo didn’t even notice them.
Until then, she and Hugo were just a summer fling. Exciting for her, because Hugo had looks and threw money around like no one’s business. Exciting for him because Carly, if not quite from the wrong side of the tracks, was definitely from a different station. Now Carly realised that, if she played her cards right – acted like she cared and moved fast – he might actually fall for her. She ran a hand gently through his clean, lemony hair.
‘What’s it feel like, then, when you have an attack?’ she asked.
‘Like I’m going to die. My throat swells up. I can’t breathe. Then, once I use the epi-pen, it’s like I’m having a heart attack. It’s the adrenaline. It makes my heart race. Here, feel.’
He put her hand to his crisp white shirt. His heart was thudding like a pneumatic drill. Carly’s heart wasn’t much slower.
Just as things were getting interesting, a girl with sunglasses pushed up on top of her head came and stood beside them.
‘Do you want a game of footy?’ she said, her long, bare legs blocking out the sun. ‘Girls against boys. Not Hugo of course. He’ll have to sit it out.’
She pulled Carly to her feet and dragged her over to the pitch. Annabelle, her name was. Annabelle Something-Something. Annabelle Something-Something had all sorts of advantages that Carly did not. Her complexion was peachy like a model in a glossy magazine. She said lavatory instead of toilet, and sorry instead of pardon,without even having to think about it. But it was Carly who had saved Hugo’s life. It was hard to compete with that.
Carly wasn’t much of a footballer, never had been. At school her gang used to spend the games lesson smoking around the back of the science labs. But she didn’t have much choice. She floundered helplessly around the pitch. When she did finally get close to goal, she kicked the ball hopelessly wide. Annabelle stuck out her neat little foot just in time and nudged it firmly in the right direction. The ball rolled smoothly into the back of the net. Carly glanced shamefacedly towards Hugo. Unbelievably, he was looking at her – yes, at Carly herself – as if she was the one who had scored. As, in a manner of speaking, she had.
Now, a bare year later and Carly’s wedding ring hardly n her finger long enough to leave a mark when she took it off, it seemed that the game had changed. Not least because it was Annabelle who Hugo was texting.
In the weeks that followed, Carly checked Hugo’s phone whenever he left it lying around. The initial flurry of texts was becoming a flood.
What did I ever see in her?, Hugo wrote. Well, Carly could think of one or two areas in which she could out-perform Annabelle. It wasn’t just smoking she’d got up to while the nice girls were playing netball.
She’s not in your league, Annabelle replied.
I know. She faints if she sees a drop of blood. Pathetic. Can’t believe I actually married her, Hugo tapped out, adding an emoji of a gold ring followed by a sad face.
You know she only wanted your money, said Annabelle.
Carly wasn’t going to argue with that. But Annabelle would have taken Hugo’s cash just as quickly given the chance. That nice Chelsea flat of hers couldn’t come cheap.
Leave her before it’s too late, Annabelle added. Too late presumably meant before Carly got pregnant.
Where would I go?, wailed Hugo in response. What was I thinking, coming to live out here? I hate the coast.
Truth be told, Carly wasn’t dead keen on it either. But moving away from the city was the only way she could think of to keep Hugo away from his old gang.
Come and stay with me if you need a place.
Carly sighed. She couldn’t have Hugo running off, not right now. She had plans, big plans. In fact quite a bit of Hugo’s money was already committed, she’d just neglected to mention it to him. Luckily, she’d had the germ of an idea for a while now. She’d just have to bring forward the execution, so to speak. She kept a closer eye than ever on Hugo’s phone.
It’s over, she read one evening. I’m going to tell her tomorrow evening.
Pinkie promise?, replied Annabelle. Carly rolled her eyes. What was she, ten years’ old?
Promise, he said, adding a string of kisses. She’s going to freak. I’ll need your help. Come to the house and pick me up. Take her by surprise. Then we’ll get right out of there.
OK, replied Annabelle, adding only now for the first time, Love you. She was clever, thought Carly, but not as clever as Carly.
‘Let’s go out,’ said Carly to Hugo late the next afternoon. ‘We could do with a change of scene.’
‘Where?’ he asked doubtfully. Why?, she could read in his face.
‘To the cliffs,’ she said. ‘It’s always nice to watch the sun set. I’ll drive.’
‘OK,’ he replied. Well, knowing he was planning to give her the push he’d do anything to keep her sweet.
On the way, she stopped at the petrol station to fill up and stock up on supplies. Hugo waited in the car, fiddling with his phone. He didn’t bother saying thank you. He was used to people doing things for him. She wondered if Annabelle knew that yet. She had found it got quite irritating quite quickly.
The cliffside car park was deserted by the time they got there. The place Carly was thinking of was a secluded little spot with a bench, only ruined a bit by a bin that the council had dumped there and no one ever remembered to empty. The bench faced out to sea and was otherwise surrounded by gorse bushes. Carly preferred the gorse to the view. They reminded her of her old Nan. She used to have them in her garden. She’d moan about them cutting out the light to her bungalow, but she liked the way their prickliness kept the neighbours away.
When they got to the bench, Hugo slumped down. Carly sat next to him.
‘Why don’t you take your jacket off?’ she said. ‘It’s warm tonight.’
Hugo shrugged it off without a word. Then he cleared his throat as he always did before making what he considered to be an important announcement. He’d obviously decided to make the best of it and give the big speech up here rather than back at the house. She only half-listened. It’s not working out. It’s not your fault. I think we should end it. Blah blah blah. The usual kind of thing. She noticed that he didn’t mention Annabelle. When it seemed like he’d got to the end, he got to his feet, moved away and stared moodily out to sea. Quick as a flash, Carly tossed his jacket as far as she could behind her. She heard it flump gently onto the path on the other side of the gorse. Then she sniffed noisily and turned away as if she couldn’t bear to look at him.
‘It’s OK,’ she said. ‘I knew it couldn’t last. You deserve better.’
As she was speaking, she reached into her pocket and ripped open the foil packet of peanuts she’d picked up at the garage. She stuffed a handful into her mouth. She paused, chewed and swallowed.
‘I’m not going to kick up a fuss,’ she continued, her voice only a little muffled. ‘Go our separate ways, that’s the best thing.’
She glanced around. Hugo was still looking out to sea, but his shoulders seemed more relaxed.
‘Wow, thanks, Carly. That’s very big of you,’ he said.
She shrugged. ‘How about a goodbye kiss,’ she said. ‘For old time’s sake?’
Carly was a great kisser, they both knew it. There was no way Hugo was going to pass that up. He pulled her towards him. Then he pressed his lips against hers. She pushed her agile tongue, and all those little bits of peanut with it, gently into his mouth.
Almost immediately, he pulled away.
‘What – what – what – are you doing?’ he said. A red stain was spreading across his chest. His eyelids were swelling.
‘My epi-pen,’ he said, groping towards the bench and fumbling for his jacket. He couldn’t see it, and he couldn’t reach it.
He fell down onto the bench, fighting for breath.
‘Ann- Ann- Annabelle,’ he wheezed.
‘That posh cow?’ said Carly. ‘Not much help to you now, is she?’
She shoved the empty bag of peanuts deep inside the bin. The she sat down next to him. The sunset tonight was going to be a stunner. Pity Hugo was missing it. She reached for her phone and wondered when to dial for help.
A snapping sound came from behind. Carly jumped to her feet and whipped around. Annabelle was leaping out from behind the bushes. Her face was scratched where the gorse had torn into her. God, the woman was unstoppable. In one clenched hand, she held Hugo’s jacket. She must have picked it up from the path. In the other hand, she had some kind of kind of weapon.
‘What are you doing here, Annabelle?’ asked Carly, crossing her arms. ‘Hugo’s not well. I was just calling an ambulance.’
‘I don’t think so. I saw it all. Every single bit.’ Annabelle looked meaningfully at the rubbish bin.
Carly groaned. So that’s what Hugo had been doing at the petrol station. He’d been texting Annabelle to say that there was a change of plan. He must have told her to follow them here instead of going to the house.
‘What are you going to do about it?’ she said.
Annabelle didn’t reply. She just dropped Hugo’s jacket and launched herself at Carly. Carly fought back, but Annabelle pinned her to the ground. She was stronger than she looked. Now she raised an elegant arm and stabbed down. Carly screamed and jerked away. She looked down in horror. An epi-pen was sticking out of her hand, a bloom of blood around its tip. A fuzz of black and white dots blurred Carly’s vision. Then the adrenaline hit. Her heart began to gallop. Annabelle kicked her in the side with vicious heels.
‘Looks like your plan’s going to work out,’ said Annabelle. ‘For me that is. I get a nice, grateful boyfriend and an even nicer bank balance.’ Then she kicked her again.
‘You bitch,’ Carly screamed. Her vision was still blurred, her heart still pounding. She curled herself up into a ball to protect herself.
‘What, and you’re not?’ Annabelle replied.
Then she pushed Carly with her foot towards the edge of the cliff. Carly scrabbled for something to grab hold of, but there was nothing.
Annabelle gave another nudge, more firmly this time. Just firm enough.
Carly rolled smoothly over the edge of the cliff.
Annabelle straightened her pearls and dabbed at her scratched face with a tissue. Once she could no longer hear Carly’s screams, she reached into Hugo’s jacket, pulled out his spare epi-pen and plunged it into his thigh.
It was probably for the best that he’d missed the excitement. Awful the way Carly had attacked them both like that, then freaked out and tumbled over the cliff. It had been impossible to stop her. Annabelle had always thought Carly was unstable, and she’d been right. To think, she’d actually tried to kill Hugo.
As Hugo’s eyes began to flicker open, Annabelle nestled into him, reached for her phone and dialled for help.