Safe As Houses Part 1

Chain Border

Sleep was a long time coming, but Nick was certain that it would come. How could it not, with Cara's warm, soft body so close and comforting under the homely, fresh-laundry-scented sheets? This was home. Hell, this was domestic bliss. People killed for this. There was neither reason to be tense, nor to be awake. He glanced at the luminous hands of the bedside clock - 21:15 - there was plenty of time. In fact, as he closed his eyes again, he was sure that he could feel the swimmy velvet edges of the sinking place somewhere just behind the middle of his forehead, that would, if he let it, gently blossom into the dark iris of sleep. Nick let it.

It had all started with one strange, mad decision over a year ago, which was odd because Nick was not in the habit of making strange, mad decisions, especially ones that would change his life. You didn't get as high up in home security as Nick had, by being anything other than predictable.

He had one of the best homes on the estate. Not the best, because the Belgravia, with its two en-suites, breakfast nook and double garage had just been a few thousand more than he and Valerie could afford at the time. But the Chelsea served them well enough thankyou, and it did actually have a slightly larger utility room than the Belgravia, so in some ways it was better. He had almost the prettiest wife in the cul-de-sac. Almost, because Tonia Redshaw at number 37 wore shorter shorts in summer and had nicer tits all year round, but Valerie was undoubtedly second. What he did have, without question, was the most secure home on the estate. He had movement sensitive lights mounted on the front, back and on the side (the side that wasn't joined by their garages to number 42). He had motion detectors in every single room, including the garage, and contact pads on every window and every external door. Thousands of pounds-worth of alarm, and he'd done all the work himself. He was proud of what he had, he'd worked hard for it and, well, it was worth protecting, wasn't it?

Funny how within a few minutes one day last April, everything - everything - had changed. He didn't often get involved with alarm installations anymore - except for the one on his own home, but when they landed a job installing at a house up in Juniper Lane, he decided to go along himself. After all, there was serious money in Juniper Lane, and he'd make a better impression than any of the oiks he employed. He believed that a good reputation was the best way to drum up new business, and if there was new business to be had in the swankiest street in town, he wanted to know about it. He would be charm itself for the - he glanced in his diary before ringing the doorbell - the Faulkners. The doorbell rang, and it was one of those doorbells that rings somewhere deep within the house, almost as if to prove how big the house is, even before the door is open. There was nowhere in the Chelsea, or even the Belgravia that you could position a doorchime to make it sound that far away. Nick was quietly impressed.

The door opened, and Mr Faulkner introduced himself, then briefly explained a few details of the job. Nick shamelessly admired the house. Here was class. Not for this house any cheap TV-Interior-Designer gimmicks, just taste, quality and space. So much space.

'Ah' said Mr Faulkner, as they entered a room off the kitchen - in fact, the Breakfast Room (even the Belgravia only provided a nook for this) - 'here's my wife, she'll be in and out all day. I'm sure she'll keep you supplied with coffee and biscuits as you work.' There followed a silence, and Nick realised he was being dismissed, shooed out to get on with his work. He felt a moment of anger. He'd arrived as a businessman - a business owner - visiting personally because this was an important client, and here five minutes later, he was being treated like the paperboy. He withdrew from the room though, and did so gladly, because if he hadn't he would have made a fool of himself. He would have crossed over to Mrs Faulkner, and given in to the urge to stroke her dove-grey angora sweater, to feel whether it was as soft as it looked. He would have torn a corner from the buttered croissant in front of her, and popped it into her mouth, allowing his middle finger to rest on her crimson lower lip for a couple of seconds. He would have lifted the curtain of straight raven-black hair to reveal the back of her neck, and planted a kiss there. And he had a feeling Mr Faulkner wouldn't have liked any of those things.

He tried to put Mrs Faulkner out of his mind and began the work of the installation. This naturally took him all round the house, both inside and out. It was simply a beautiful house, and the Faulkners were right to want to protect it. It was on the edge of a dense forest - the back garden ending where the trees began, with a picket fence denoting the perimeter. Burglars on motorbikes could cross the forest in a flash and make off with small valuables, all in the space of a few minutes. The front garden was secluded by a dense laurel hedge, and huge beech trees. You could conceal a transit van in there if you had to, when you came back for the telly and the laptop and the silver.

As he was easing up the carpet in the hallway, to conceal the wiring, he heard Mrs Faulkner call to him, then saw her coming down the curved staircase.

'Ah, there you are. Can I get you a coffee? Tea?'

'Tea would be lovely, thanks Mrs Faulkner.'

'Please, call me Cara.'

And that was the moment that changed everything, though Nick couldn't have said precisely why. On the face of it, Cara Faulkner wasn't even that special. She was a good five years younger than her husband, making her about thirty-five. She was slightly plump, though in a pleasant way - in a curvy, womanly way - and whilst she was undoubtedly pretty, she wasn't as pretty, as say Tonia Redshaw at number 37. But the soft curves and the gentle smile did something to Nick. They did something quite fundamental. They caused a positively tectonic shift in the foundations of his life. He realised there and then, and without question, that he didn't love Valerie, and he never had. He realised that he had to see Cara again, on a different footing, and he realised that he was prepared to do whatever was necessary to achieve that.

Suddenly, Valerie seemed giddyingly beneath him, or rather, giddyingly beneath Cara. Cara with her obvious good taste, and incredible presence. Everything about Cara appeared so effortless whereas Valerie always tried so hard, was always endeavouring to impress. She'd put dado borders everywhere when that was the thing, then ripped them off and done paint-effects and stencilling, then painted over that with solid colours. She'd learned how to make a coulis, a timbale, and now she pan-fried things instead of just frying them. Of course she worked too, she worked hard in software training. All this, to maintain some sort of position in the hierarchy of their poxy little estate, she tried so hard to juggle it all, and just - just - failed to pull it off. And they didn't even have kids yet.

Why did Cara Faulkner have this effect on him? He had no idea; he was simply a slave to this overwhelming feeling that he had to get to know this woman's life. Know her likes and dislikes, and her routine. He had to become somehow in her life. To say that he became obsessed with her that day would be to overstate the situation. It took him a few months to become obsessed. So Nick himself wasn't entirely sure of his intentions later in the day when he made an odd decision. After installing the alarm contact-point on the window of a little study on the ground floor, he snipped through the wire at the point where it disappeared into the floorboards, rendering that one window mute.

The windows themselves were pretty leaded-lights. Not double glazed, not heat-efficient, and to anyone who had a loop of heat-sealed plastic, such as newspapers are bundled up in when delivered to newsagents, no barrier at all.

After the job was finished, he tried to forget. He tried to forget the Promised Land of Juniper Lane, he tried to forget the womanly curves of Cara Faulkner, and above all he tried to forget the little snipped wire that would allow him to enter the house silently, any time he wanted. For a week, perhaps two, he managed it. Briefly it seemed that he could put it behind him. But thoughts and feelings won't be crushed forever and, like so many things, it started at night.

During the day he kept himself busy. A thriving business didn't run itself! Anyway, spending days at the office fitted in with his slowly forming fantasy of living in Juniper Lane with Cara. It was only when he got home and saw Valerie, that the swelling tide of his imagination was dashed against the bleak, familiar rocks of reality. Valerie, with her highlighted hair; Valerie with her quick-but-nutritious-pasta; Valerie with her blond-wood laminate flooring. She was so patently not Cara, and this was so patently the Chelsea, on a vulgar new estate, not Juniper Lane. Still he tried to appreciate her and his home; he would sit through the food-shows, the sitcoms, and the documentaries that she liked, keeping a lid on his newfound dissatisfaction. But his imagination wouldn't be held back for long. When the distractions were eliminated and it was time to sleep, all the suppressed images surged forward, jockeying for attention, and Nick joined the silent global army of insomniacs. For him like so many others, night became an infinite black canvass and the mind an impish, hyperactive artist. Endless pictures of 'What if?' played across his minds-eye while Valerie slept. Images of himself pulling onto the driveway of the house on Juniper Lane in a sleek new Jaguar, Cara opening the door and smiling, the sunlight dancing through the beech trees onto her. What if he lived there? What if Cara loved him? What if there were no Mr. Faulkner? What if he were Mr. Faulkner? What if he did stroke her angora sweater as he had wanted to? How would she respond? Would she turn away or turn to him so that his hand would gently brush the swell of her breast...?

Sleep had never been a problem for Nick before, but then he'd never tried to deny a sea-change in his own psyche before. Now it seemed he was rarely asleep before 4am, and with the alarm piercing his dreams at 7am, he was running on empty.

Nobody can live like this for long. It's not possible to take your eye off the ball so completely. It's too hard to go on living a life that you just don't care about anymore. Something has got to give, and the first fissure to appear in Nick's little corner of suburbia concerned Valerie, his wife. It was all very mundane and predictable; she simply embarked on an affair. Her home life had become so drained of warmth, and so unfulfilling, that she simply took the path of least resistance and compensated, with Gary from accounts, for what her husband had ceased to provide. Nick rumbled fairly early on, but said nothing. He just read the headlines of the situation as far as it affected him, and it meant that he had a little more time on his hands, and a little less to feel guilty about.

One day, almost eight months since he had installed the Faulkners' alarm, Nick found that he had finished work a little early. On a whim, he decided to drive along Juniper Lane. He slowed only slightly when he passed the house, enough to glimpse through the gap in the laurels where the drive started, and to see lights on in the house. It gave a strangely comforting feeling, a feeling that at least a part of him could relax. Nothing drastic had happened to the house. That night he slept rather better, so the next day he drove past again. Within a fortnight his insomnia improved for a few blessed nights, and then lapsed again. His fantasy life a hungry, yet lazy beast that demanded more and more information with which to construct itself, or it wouldn't let him sleep. Soon, it wasn't enough just to drive past.

Feeling by now that this was wrong, but unable to do anything about it, Nick parked his car on the South side of the woods, on the East side of which lay Juniper Drive. It was early October, and dusk was falling a little earlier every night. He crossed the woods quickly - they weren't big - and found himself facing the laurel hedge that screened the front of the Faulkner's house. He felt a little silly, and a little excited, but he wasn't sure what to do next. It was a thrill to be this close, especially in this magical half light, but to come this far and just look at the hedge seemed a tremendous let down. Did he dare go up the drive? Knock at the door? Somewhere to his right he became aware of a distant car-engine, getting closer. What if it were one or both of the Faulkners? He could hardly be found staring at their hedge. Without giving himself time to think about it, he found a spot where the hedge was slightly less dense, and picked his way into it. The car sped past; it was a Range Rover and nothing to do with the Faulkners. He was about to clamber out again when a light went on in the house and caught his attention. His view was rather obscured by leaves and twigs, but it was a view none-the-less. He could see, in the living room, Cara Faulkner. He felt a lurching sensation and had to catch his breath. She was simply standing, with a glass of wine in one hand, and a TV remote-control in the other, she changed channels four times, he could tell because the blue-green glow of the TV disappeared for a second each time, then leaned down and came up again without the remote. She took a sip of her wine then moved over to the window and pulled the curtains across. It wasn't much, but it provided another image for his mental library. He slept like a baby that night.

The winter months provided so much forgiving darkness, that Nick found it easy to sneak up to Juniper Lane several times a week. Nick and Valerie, Mr & Mrs Suburbia, could frequently be found in the hours after work pursuing their own separate interests. Nick crouching in a shrub or behind a fence, silently watching the early-evening routine of a woman he knew both intimately and not at all. Valerie, on the other hand, was often found in a car park on the other side of the woods, in the back of a steamed up Saab with Gary from accounts.

Nick had abandoned the front hedge as a hiding place after a passer by's dog had shown undue interest, and then peed on him. He had, however, found numerous other places to conceal himself. The important thing was to know the range of each of the movement sensitive lights, and keep away from them. Of course he did know their ranges, he installed them, and a little bit of trial and error, one night when the Faulkners were out, had established exactly where he could and couldn't go. He was building up a very comprehensive picture of the Faulkners' life. He knew their movements and their habits. He knew that Mr Faulkner was never home before 8pm; knew that their cleaning lady came on Tuesdays and Fridays (making these risky days to be there); knew that they had satellite TV, and Cara liked to watch The Simpsons on Sky, often laughing to herself. Recently, Cara had started playing badminton on a Thursday, and didn't get back until about 6:30, when she would have a bath immediately. Actually, Thursday was his favourite day to watch the Faulkners - it was like he was home before Cara, and was 'waiting for her' when she got back. It was a nice feeling. He slept best on Thursdays, but was often still awake to witness the dawn.

One Monday in March Nick got home at around 8pm to find that his wife had left him. There was a simple note, with no emotion, just baldly stating the facts. Evidently the lure of Gary from accounts had proved too strong, or the ties to home too weak. Nick wasn't surprised, or sorry. He was too far down his own road to care. The departure of Valerie from his life simply meant that he had more free time. He didn't plead with Valerie, he didn't even call her. He simply wrote to her, and by letter they agreed to deal with each other through solicitors.

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