The safe house

One

The door was the first thing. The door was open. The front door was never open, even in the wonderful heat of the previous summer that had been so like home, but there it was, teetering inwards, on a morning so cold that the moisture hanging in the air stung Mrs Ferrer’s pocked cheeks. She pushed her gloved hand against the white painted surface, testing the evidence of her eyes.

‘Mrs Mackenzie?’

Silence. Mrs Ferrer raised her voice and called for her employer once more and felt embarrassed as the words echoed, high and wavering, in the large hallway. She stepped inside and wiped her feet on the mat too many times, as she always did. She removed her gloves and clutched them in her left hand. There was a smell, now. It was heavy and sweet. It reminded her of something. The smell of a barnyard. No, inside. A barn maybe.

Each morning at eight-thirty precisely Mrs Ferrer would nod a good-morning at Mrs Mackenzie, click past her across the polished wood of the Mackenzies’ hallway, turn right down the stairs into the basement, remove her coat, collect her vacuum cleaner from the utility room and spend an hour in an anaesthetized fog of noise. Up the large staircase at the front of the house, along the passageways on the first floor, the passageways on the second floor, then down the small back staircase. But where was Mrs Mackenzie? Mrs Ferrer stood uncertainly by the door in her tightly buttoned porridge-meal-tweed coat, shifting her weight from one foot to another. She could hear a television. The television was never on. She carefully rubbed the sole of each shoe on the mat. She looked down. She had already done that, hadn’t she?

‘Mrs Mackenzie?’

She stepped off the mat on to the hard wood – beeswax, vinegar and paraffin. She walked across to the front room, which was never used for anything and hardly ever needed vacuuming, though she did it anyway. There was nobody, of course. The curtains were all closed, the light on. She walked across to the foot of the staircase to the other front room. She rested her hand on the newel, which was topped by an ornate carving like a beaked pineapple of dark wood. Afrormosia – linseed oil, it needed, boiled, not raw. There was nobody. She knew that the television was in the sitting room. She took a step forward, her hand brushing the wall as if for safety. A bookcase. Leather bindings, which required lanolin and neat’s-foot in equal quantities. It was possible, she reflected, that whoever was watching television had not heard her call. And as for the door, perhaps something was being delivered, or the window cleaner may have left it open on his way in. Thus fortified she walked to the rear of the house and into the main sitting room. Very quickly, within a few seconds of entering the room, she had vomited profusely on to the carpet that she had vacuumed every weekday for eighteen months.

She leaned towards the ground, bent double, gasping. She felt in her coat pocket, found a tissue and wiped her mouth. She was surprised at herself, embarrassed almost. When she was a child, her uncle had led her through a slaughterhouse outside Fuenteobejuna and had smiled down at her as she refused to faint in the face of the blood and dismemberment and above all the steam rising from the cold stone floor. That was the smell she had remembered. It wasn’t a barn at all.

There were splashes of blood across such a wide area, even on the