The doorbell rang, shockingly loud. The brown paper flew out of Alice's hands as her heart banged sickeningly in her chest. She was up before it fluttered to the ground, her chair hitting the wall behind her and tipping over on its side with a crash.
In her rush to get to the window she got tangled in its legs, earning herself bruises to her shins, though she barely felt them.
There was nothing to see.
Whoever was outside was standing hidden inside the porch, and there was only the suggestion of a shadow on the path to tell her anyone stood there at all.
It could be anyone. Could be the man come to read the meter. Anyone.
Could be it's him.
Don't think that, don't think that!
The bell rang again; strident, impatient. It heckled her and tangled her thoughts, echoed and reverberated in her bones.
The voice came like a cold dip on a hot day. Such relief. Only Carol.
"I saw your car," Carol said as Alice opened the door. "I knew you wouldn't be at work." She stopped, her patronizing smile fading into puzzlement, tinged with the nosiness of the inveterate gossip. "Are you alright Alice?"
I once liked that about her, Alice thought. It's fun in a way because you hear all the news. Different when it's you, isn't it? I thought I was the one in control. Oh god, there'll be no getting rid of her now!
"I'm fine," she said, but even to her own ears this sounded feeble. Carol needed no more encouragement. She insinuated herself into the hall, and somehow Alice found herself hurrying helpless in Carol's wake, a toy-boat pulled along by an ocean liner, back to the kitchen.
Carol surveyed the mysteries of the tipped-over chair, the empty box and the crumpled paper with the deductive skills of Sherlock Holmes, her dark eyes darting intelligently and missing nothing.
"I'll put the kettle on," she said suddenly, stepping pointedly over the chair and putting it to rights. "You've obviously had a shock. It's important to not keep these things bottled up, you know. A problem shared..."
In Carol's eagerness to know, to know above all things, any lingering antagonism in her tone was gone; the past forgotten. Alice knew she would now be all smiles; the friendly shoulder, would play the rapt, caring listener with acting skills worthy of an Oscar. It remained to be seen whether this would last.
Tell Carol: Tell the world. I might as well paint it on the roof.
There was a part of her though, that wanted to tell. That wanted to lay out her fears for someone else. To purge herself of them one by one. Empty herself. To let someone else take them over for her. To be free.
Carol, seeing Alice was not quite ready yet to talk, changed tactics. She set down two steaming mugs and took a seat opposite, glancing casually out of the window.
"We've not seen so much of you lately," she said in a chatty tone. "After that silly business. Well, you know. Can't think why I was so upset. So silly." She smiled and rolled her eyes at her own stupidity, inviting Alice to laugh.
"Work," Alice said. Her voice was still hollow and strained; she could hear it. She took a sip of tea. It's sweetness surprised her.
Oh yeah, she thought. Sugar for shock isn't it? But she might have said.
She hadn't wanted Carol to come in, but Carol had brought with her the comfortable atmosphere of normality: Of boredom and dinner-parties, catty comments over the cheese-board, Church Fairs and Good Neighbors meetings. So dull and so safe; like a tatty old blanket. Alice was suddenly grateful for her presence. So grateful she could have hugged her, even though habitually doused in perfume as she was, Alice would have had to hold her breath to do so.
"Yeah," Alice said. "Work. Lots of overtime. And I've been having to bring it home."
"Poor you," Carol said. "But Alice, you should have come on Saturday."
"Yes. The Robson's barbecue. I'm sure you were invited."
"Well, there was someone there who missed you. He was so disappointed you weren't there. What was his name again? Fred, Frank?"