Fragments of memory pierce her subconsciousness like shards of broken glass. Her body twitches convulsively in her sleep. Fear presses down on her chest, making it heave as she snatches for breath.
Bang. The cellar door is kicked in on its rusting hinges. A sweaty soldier lumbers toward her in the flickering torchlight. Behind him, others leer at her. His uneven teeth smirk beneath a wiry moustache as his left hand unzips his urine-stained trousers. A scream wells in her throat. Before she can utter a sound, his fat fingers, stinking of nicotine, are clamped across her mouth. His other hand drags her by her hair up the stone steps, scuffing her knees on every one.
Bang. Out in the pale moonlight, grubby hands reach for her, rending her clothing as she flails and twists away. A boot slams into her stomach, driving the air from her lungs. All she can smell is sweat, smoke, and semen. Fear gives her strength. Struggling in their grasp, she shouts: "Novinar! Zurnalista!
Journalist!" Their laughter fills the spaces in her head as they manhandle her roughly toward a clearing in the woods. Throwing her facedown in the dirt, they press forward eagerly, one by one.
Bang. She is up on her feet somehow and running hard. Running for her life. Gasping for breath through torn, bleeding lips. Clawing at the red earth with broken fingernails as she slips. Heading for the road in the dark.
Bang. The truck appears from nowhere in the darkness. The roar of its horn stuns her as she whirls to face the sudden brutal glare of its headlights bearing down on her.
Bang. Inconceivable, searing pain. The sensation of flying effortlessly through the clear night sky, before landing on the ground with a sickening thud.
A full fifteen minutes under the shower's stinging hot jets usually dissolved the worst of the night. She'd already endured the first phase, vomiting into the toilet bowl until only yellow bile emerged as her cheek pressed against the cold white porcelain. This morning, purging was taking a lot longer. Charlie stood gripping the showerhead, neck arched, her mouth opening and closing as she allowed the steaming rivulets to cascade down her taut body. Inside her skull, her mind thrashed beyond her control, each involuntary reflex stirring up more mire from the depths of its murky pool.
Leaning into the water, relishing its cleansing power, she fought hard to focus. Happier days
. That's it. Remember what it used to be like, a long time ago. Before. She swallowed hard to prevent the rising in her throat. Angry with herself, she knew she could do it. Remember the times when being with a man felt good. Remember how it could be. How it once was, with Nick. Taking a shower together, his lips everywhere, his knowing, capable hands pulling her head back by her soapy hair. Their self-control almost lost as she dropped to her knees and sought him out with her mouth. Before. Good. That's it.
If she didn't hurry, she was going to be late. She had an important appointment and she'd already slept through the buzzing alarm. But she wasn't ready, not quite yet. Just a few minutes more and she'd be fine. Soap. Water. Heat. The scent of rosemary oil and geranium. Essential oils. Essential to her.
Soon, the stench of nicotine would be gone from the membrane in her nostrils. Soon, she'd be able to face the day.
The silence lay heavy around them as he slid the key in the lock of the large, flat safe-deposit box. The stale air of the room deep within the bank vaults was filled with Alan's unique scent of varnish and linseed oil.
Far above them, the giant exhaust pipe of London belched in the summer heat. Fleets of taxis scuttled through the City like shiny black beetles, carrying their cargo home. Beneath the sizzling pavements, Charlie offered cool contrast in her lilac cotton sleeveless blouse and blue linen trousers.Click
. The key turned with surprising ease. Glancing up beneath a lock of greying hair, Alan invited her to open the box with an elegant gesture of his right hand.
His reverence was contagious. Lifting the lid and closing her eyes in anticipation, Charlie could almost believe that she was about to witness the unveiling of some ancient, mystical relic, in a time long before her own.
She could smell it before she saw it, a distinctive, crisp odour. She opened her eyes. There, partially wrapped in a waterproof covering and interleaved with acid-free tissue, lay the precious last sheets of Alan's beloved paper. Possibly the last of its kind in the world.
"So, this is it," she murmured.
"Yes." He nodded, a smile of pride curving his lips as he reached into the box to peel back the crinkly tissue.
They stared for a moment at the product of what would have amounted to several weeks of intensive labour. Crafted by hand using ancient techniques, this paper would have begun life as a dense pulp of linen matter floating in a vat of water, its mashed fibres interlocking to create its unique texture. Lifted by a fine sieve mould and slid onto damp felt, each sheet would have been draped over waxed horsehair ropes, then lifted high into shuttered lofts to air-dry. Left to cure for a month and glazed with a gelatine solution known as "size", each sheet would have been pressed and meticulously hand-polished with agate before being cut ready for use.
Two hundred years ago, only the finest artists or the wealthiest writers would have been able to afford such a prize. Those who could jealously guarded their meagre supplies. It was not just its rarity that made this paper so sought after. It was highly temperamental, absorbing and giving off moisture even after production. It had to be stored in a place that was not too hot or too cold, too damp or too dry, no more than twenty-five sheets at a time. Contact with certain woods or metals corrupted it.
Alan had originally kept much of his precious cache in specially crafted wooden map chests in his studio but, after a fire, he'd transferred what remained to the safety of the buttressed bowels of his bank. Inspired by its beauty, he considered this paper his talisman. Because of the chemicals used in modern manufacture, nothing like it would ever be produced again. And he believed that it had shaped him into the world-famous artist he had become.
Lifting the top sheet, he whispered, "You'll never understand how unique this is, until you see me working it."
Trembling a little, Charlie watched in silence as his hands peeled off the single sheet, its fragile edges crumbling slightly at his touch. Lifting it up to the light, he exposed the legendary watermark giving its origin, purpose, and manufacture, and the visible grid marks of the mould on its pitted surface.
"It was paper much like this, crafted in the same mill, which the great Turner used as the foundation for some of his finest watercolours," he told her. "He depended on its whiteness and its rich, warm tones to let his colours shine through. Like me, he believed there was nothing to compare. And when I've used up this, my final hoard, it will be time."
"Time for what?" Charlie asked.
"Death, of course," Alan replied, a sad smile twisting the corner of his mouth.
Traveling back along the Embankment in a taxi, Charlie felt suffocated by the stifling heat. The air seemed to be crackling with electricity and her hair felt hot and heavy on her neck. News bulletins from Iraq blared relentlessly from the cabdriver's radio, and she felt unable to catch her breath. Winding down the window, she sucked in oxygen greedily.
An unexpected text message, its sudden chirping breaking into her concentration, felt like a lifeline thrown out to the choppy waters of her mind. But the moment she replied, she felt, as she so often did, cross with herself for grabbing at it so eagerly.
By the time Charlie arrived home, she needed a drink. An ache thumped inside her head and her throat felt scratchy. Something about that final hour with Alan in the airless vault had unbalanced her carefully maintained equilibrium.
Closing her front door against the chaos of the city, she stood for a moment and savoured the cool tranquillity of her hallway, like a novice leaving the vulgar world behind her for the hush of the convent. Ignoring the junk mail on the doormat, she slipped off her sandals and padded softly across the floor of her apartment to throw wide the French windows to a small stone terrace.
Reaching for a glass, she wandered into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator door. All the shelves held were four bottles of wine, three of sparkling mineral water, and an unopened packet of Columbian coffee. Her fingers hovered between a pale Muscadet or an oaky Australian Chardonnay. She chose the Muscadet.
Within minutes, the cork had popped satisfyingly from the neck of the bottle and her glass was filled. Sipping its fresh, clean contents, she waited for the alcohol to soften the edges of her day as she wandered out onto the terrace. Inhaling the warm scent of the late summer roses that overran its raised brick borders, she could hear the hum of bees, deep within their velvety petals, collecting the last of the season's pollen. Looking down, she watched as one small furry insect, drunk on nectar, made his way unsteadily across the paving stones towards her bare feet. Only at the very last minute did it turn away.
Back inside, she glanced at the answering machine blinking on a side table, then reached instead for the stereo. She adjusted the volume until a familiar cello suite filled the air. Closing her eyes, she allowed the melancholy music to carry her, drifting back and forth. For several minutes, she stood like that, wrapped up in her secret self. When the movement ended, her eyelids fluttered open as if she'd just awakened from a long sleep.
Behind her, a mahogany bookcase dominated the room. Its shelves held the familiar companions she'd collected over the years, books on everything from fiction to food, fine art to military history. Garnered from secondhand shops, their battered covers were testament to the frequency with which they'd been read long before she'd bought them. Charlie knew and loved every one. She would often run her fingers across their backs, feeling the worn leather or cloth spines in turn. Sometimes she'd open them and flick through their pages absentmindedly, enjoying a word here or snippet of sentence there, relishing either a story she knew well, or the delicious anticipation of something yet to be enjoyed.
The mere touch of her hand on the paper of an unread book could excite her.
Hidden amongst her collection was Road to Rajak: A Day in the Life of Kosovo
by Charlotte Hudson; a book which had taken her a year to write, one year further away from what had gone before. It had been described by one reviewer as "a moving and intensely humane portrait of one of Europe's most heinous and inhumane conflicts." Its widespread critical acclaim now felt as fragile to her as the cobweb that traced a silvery line along its back.
Pulling her mind back to the present, Charlie sank into the sofa's enveloping softness and pressed the button on her answering machine.
"Hi, it's Nick
," said a voice she knew almost as well as her own. "Just checking in. Sorry I haven't been in touch for a few weeks, but work's been manic. I'd love to catch up if you're free this evening. I'll try your mobile, but if I don't get through, give me a ring before you open your second bottle, okay?
Charlie arched an eyebrow and pressed her cool glass against the warm skin of her throat.
," said the next voice. "Your father and I were wondering if you might be able to squeeze in a visit to us this weekend. You haven't been for nearly three weeks now and you know how much he looks forward to seeing you. Anyway, let me know, dear. Bye.
The final voice was Nick's. "Hi. Ignore my earlier call. You just replied to my text message. Thanks for the invite. Takeout sounds great. I'll pick it up on my way over. Hope Chinese is okay. See you about eight.
Charlie glanced up at the old wooden clock her grandfather had left her and realised she didn't have much time. Gulping her wine, she hurried to the bathroom, scrubbing her face and hands vigorously with a nailbrush and a fresh bar of lemon soap. From the rows of hangers in her wardrobe, on which her clothes hung in precise colour sequence, she selected a plain white shirt and black linen trousers.
Methodically, she brushed out her thick brown hair before twisting it into a smooth French plait at the back of her neck. Examining her face, almost devoid of makeup, she smeared some balm across her lips. Pulling a tissue from the pretty pink papier-mache box on her dressing table, she pressed her mouth carefully over its neatly folded edge.
By the time the doorbell rang a few minutes later, she was ready to face her husband.
It wasn't Nick's fault. He'd only come because she'd invited him. The trouble was Charlie couldn't now remember why she'd suggested it in the first place.
Taking a deep breath and smoothing the creases in her trousers with the palms of her hands, she fixed a smile of welcome onto her face and opened the door. In sharp contrast to her freshness, Nick was decidedly sticky in his grey suit trousers and duck-egg-blue shirt, tie loose, jacket thrown casually over his shoulder. A six o'clock shadow made the skin above his chin look sallow. His fine blond hair was its usual unruly self, defiantly creeping over his collar, but his eyes, exactly the same colour as the shirt, smiled readily, and she relaxed a little.
As usual, he lingered a few seconds longer than necessary as he bent to kiss her cheek. She detected stale sweat, the grime of a London newspaper office and, recoiling slightly, an undertone of cigarette smoke.
"Come on in." Charlie stepped aside as he entered her hallway carrying a briefcase and two brown paper bags bulging with food. "Excuse the mess."
Nick wandered through to the bright kitchen and placed their supper on the spotless work surface. Everything around him appeared hard and white and gleaming. Reaching for plates so shiny he could see his own reflection in them he called over his shoulder, "What mess? You need a tetanus shot before you can eat in my kitchen."
As he lifted his arms, she noticed two circles of sweat staining his shirt and a button missing from his right cuff. He pulled out some chopsticks (for Charlie) and a knife and fork (for him).
Excerpted from The Sense of Paper by Taylor Holden. Copyright © 2006 by Taylor Holden. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.