A LOVE STORY. A GHOST STORY. A MURDER MYSTERY.
Chris Katiwa, a Harley Street psychotherapist, finds himself trapped in his office by heavy snow. When a beautiful, enigmatic woman asks to take shelter with him, he finds himself drawn to her charisma. Discovering tapes concerning a murder trial from the 1980s, Chris and his mysterious guest listen to voices from the past as the night draws in and darkness falls.
Chris begins to wonder if the woman he once tried to defend is as innocent as he had thought. Was she involved in the Pisa killings, or were they work of the savage serial killer that became known as the Wolfman?
The Eleventh Letter is a ghostly, Lynchian tale that explores love and lies, murder and madness.
At six I realised how late it was, that it had grown dark outside, and threw on my coat and hat in a rush. I tied my scarf, clattered down the stairs, opened the door to go home – and saw the snow: knee-deep and still piling up quietly. There was no wind. No noise. Cars stood abandoned, run into each other, skidded over the curb and silently being smothered the whole length of Harley Street. I listened, my breath steaming in front of me.
I moved onto the step, not quite into the snow but onto a tiny strip of marble that remained uncovered and glanced towards Cavendish Square as the traffic lights turned green. Something was moving down there – a person? The lights turned amber, and then red. I kept looking. What was that? More movement, slowly this time, inching out of the shadows around the railings. A fox. The animal looked briefly at me, stood very still, before heading into Wigmore Street. By the time the lights reached green again my face was numb. I was jumpy – stupidly so. Something about all that packing had unsettled me.
I went back inside, closed the door and stood by the reception desk, peering into the stairwell. I felt alone, disconnected. I switched on the lamp on the receptionist’s desk. A newspaper lay next to a tiny Christmas tree and I read the headline, warning of the snow. I felt less lonely, but haunted, as if I’d done something wrong, and I stood there for a moment, thinking about that feeling. Had I done anything wrong? My attention returned to the model and then, I couldn’t stop myself, to Pisa.
Another thought came to me, something I had never seen, but which had still left its mark. Something someone had described to me. A painting lying on the floor in an empty room; a picture of a villa in the Tuscan countryside, some of it scored away, the paint scraped off, right down to the canvas. I pressed my palms over my eyes. I didn’t want those memories creeping in. Seeping in like a gas, memories, insidious and all around me.
I caught sight of the orange light from the street reaching under the door and hurried back upstairs.
Nicola’s office felt like a haven. I sat on her chair and drank a coffee, glad that the door to my room was closed – that the tower was shut away. I smelled the air: Nicola, something softer than me, for sure. She must have put on some perfume before she’d left – I recognised it: Rive Gauche. You don’t sit in rooms with hundreds of men and women over the years and not get to know their perfumes. Rive Gauche. I wore something called La Myrrh, also from Paris, and the two somehow came together easily. Perhaps I should have spoken to Nicola more.
She’d asked me once, was I married, and I told her I wasn’t. Perhaps she expected a story or maybe she expected more than that. Maybe she had; but I hadn’t offered anything.
I drank my coffee, contemplating the night ahead, still wearing my overcoat because the heating appeared to have turned itself off. I glanced around at the Christmas cards on the window ledges; at the silver and gold tinsel framing the photographs on the wall beside the door. There was an electric heater. I switched it on and listened to it whir for a couple of minutes.
Behind Nicola’s desk there was an old wooden cupboard.
I opened it.
The top shelf was full of stationery: large Manila envelopes, packets of record cards and letter-headed paper. The next had a scattering of personal things – all Nicola’s. A bottle of Rive Gauche, like I thought. Nothing much on the third one down, or the one below. Odds and ends. But the bottom shelf ...
I hesitated. I knew very well what was on the bottom shelf, at the back, behind some junk, because I had put it there years before, buried it, and I bent down and reached for for it. An old envelope. I touched it. It wasn’t sealed. I pulled it out, rehearsing in my mind the three words I knew would be written on it – not in my handwriting, but in Simon’s: The Eleventh Letter. I sat cross-legged on the floor, and emptied the contents in front of me. Two old C-120 cassette tapes fell onto the carpet, one with a typed label: ‘Louise: Pisa’, and the other with the label handwritten: ‘Louise: Pisa, second time’. The writing was faded on both.
I got up and walked to the window. No writing on that one. The glass felt cold even before I put my cheek on it, trying to soothe myself, and I stared into the sky above the street lights: closed, dark, inaccessible; still snowing. I looked down onto the street – perhaps a movement caught my eye, like the one I had noticed earlier, in the shadows towards Cavendish Square – and I noticed a woman in a fur coat standing there, waiting on the steps of the building opposite, staring straight up at me.
I wanted to hide, but she’d seen me. I looked at her. She must have been freezing: the coat was short and her legs bare, as if she was wearing a party dress underneath. Her calves disappeared into the snow like a bird’s legs, a wader just offshore. I knocked on the glass.
She stared at me, confused – dazed, as though she’d just woken up. She smiled nervously and nodded in a way that somehow felt expected. There was something about her smile; something inevitable, in the way you might see someone walking towards you, in the distance, down a long straight path, and know well before your paths crossed that you would eventually have to acknowledge each other with a nod, a smile, or a polite word. But I’d never seen her before. I was sure of it.
I tapped again and waved, pointing towards the front door beneath me. Her head shifted, something like a nod, and she began to cross the road, picking her way awkwardly through the snow. I hurried from the room, made my way down the stairs again, and threw the door open. She was standing on the step, blinking.
I didn’t know what to say. What I was about to say, I wanted to swallow back. Not just now, I wanted to say – not now. ‘Come in,’ she heard me say. And she glanced into the hall – not quite aware of me, I thought. Perhaps she wasn’t well. What kind of a person would go out in the snow dressed like that? Her face looked bluish, which I took to be from the cold, although there weren’t any other signs: no trembling; no shivering even though her long red hair was full of snow. She seemed rather relaxed. Dazed, I told myself.
‘Please,’ I said. ‘Come in.’
Bowing her head, she pushed past me. She had to. I might have invited her inside but I was blocking her path as surely as the snow outside had blocked mine. She looked around and raised her head, as if she was aware of something.
‘You’re very kind,’ she said, her voice soft, like a bird’s feather. Down.
‘Not at all.’
She brushed her hand through her hair, so clumps of snow fell on the floor, onto the rug, melting.
‘Don’t worry,’ I told her.
‘The rug,’ I said.
‘Oh, the rug.’
She was slim and very slight. The bird I’d imagined, the wader as I saw her standing in the snow, was close to the mark. She slipped her coat off. Underneath she wore a short, expensive-looking, black dress. It was as if she had been to a party.
‘You must have been cold out there.’
She removed her gloves slowly, as if she was thinking about something, and put them in her coat pocket. There was a grey silk scarf around her neck that she didn’t touch.
Eventually she acknowledged my presence again, as though she’d been lost in her thoughts. ‘Sorry?’
‘Not much of an evening for a walk,’ I said.
‘No. Actually I wasn’t walking anywhere.’
‘I kind of found myself here – there,’ she waved her hand back towards the road and peered at me, as if she was doing her best to remember something. ‘Do I know you?’
I told her she didn’t.
‘It’s kind of you to invite me in.’ She took a breath and rubbed her eyes. ‘But kind of odd? Sorry, it’s very kind of you to invite me in.’
‘I expect it’s the cold.’
‘The cold?’ It was as if she hadn’t noticed the snow. Maybe she was in shock.
‘Well, wherever I am, I'm here. Where am I?’
‘Harley Street. In London?’
She might as well have stepped out of a time machine. I needed to get her inside, take her up to my room and see how I could help.
‘My consulting rooms on the third floor are reasonably comfortable. They’re warm, at least – better than being out there.’
Something suddenly seemed to shift, as if she were more awake. ‘Yes. I see what you mean: of course, the snow.’ It had dawned on her why I was talking about the cold. ‘It’s awful,’ she said. ‘You wouldn’t get a car down the street. The third floor?’ She studied my name and qualifications on the brass plate behind the reception desk. ‘Christopher Katiwa. You’re a psychiatrist?’
I nodded, starting towards the stairs. ‘Yes, qualified as. But I practice as a psychotherapist, mostly.’
‘Shall we go up?’ she was already moving towards the stairs.
I nodded uncertainly, following her as she began to climb them.
‘I'm on the third floor,’ I said.
‘Yes. You said.’
She hurried up them. I started to grow breathless and found myself several steps behind her by the time we reached the top.
‘Here?’ She pointed to the door with my name on it.
‘Yes –’ I managed to step in front of her and caught hold of the door handle. That was better. This was my place. I steadied myself and caught my breath.
When I turned the handle I was struck by how warm it already was inside. I was pleased to see the door to my office closed, as if it was like that through foresight, and I lead her into Nicola’s room instead.
She went to the window and looked straight down onto the street. ‘Is this the window you saw me from?’ Her hands were clasped, as if she was expecting something to happen.
‘Yes, it is.’ I waited a moment, wondering if she would say any more. She didn’t. I told her to take a seat and went to make some tea. When I got back she had settled on one of the two comfortable chairs facing each other. The ones which I occasionally sat in when I assessed a patient in there. I took my coat off, closed the door, sat in the other and reintroduced myself.
‘My name’s Kay,’ she said. ‘It’s very nice up here.’ She sipped her tea.
I told her something about what usually went on in the rooms around us and asked what she did.
She hesitated. ‘I travel.’ A lie, I thought.
She grinned as though she’d read my mind and corrected herself. ‘That’s almost what I
‘You almost travel?’
‘I’d rather not say exactly what I do.’ She spoke easily, unembarrassed. ‘To say I travel is true ...’ she looked at me, summing something up. ‘It’s true enough.’ She looked down into her tea, then back at me. ‘You’re a psychiatrist and a psychotherapist?’
She kicked off her shoes and adjusted the scarf around her neck. ‘They’re wet,’ she sighed. ‘What a peculiar situation.’
‘Are you okay?’ I asked.
‘It was a shock finding myself out there.’
She noticed the tapes I had emptied onto the floor and looked at me.
‘I'm packing up.’
‘Packing?’ She noticed some crates standing against the wall. ‘Moving?’
‘Why on earth would you want to move from here?’
I couldn't think what to say. ‘There isn’t any single reason.’
Something about her insistence worried me. I blushed. Her silence: her gaze between me and the tapes.
‘I'm restless,’ I said. ‘I’m getting older.’
‘Where are you moving to?’
‘Isn't this large enough?’
‘It doesn't feel that way.’
‘Oh.’ I couldn't work out what she meant by that.
‘I'm rather tired,’ I said. ‘Something about all this packing.’ I didn’t want her there.
‘And I'm an unwanted visitor.’
Again, it was as if she had read my mind. ‘Unexpected, but not unwanted.’
‘Unwanted, I think.’
I was about to correct her again but stopped myself, got up and went to the window instead. ‘All of this snow,’ I said. The snow was falling as heavily as ever, covering any signs of life as quickly as they appeared. There was no trace of Kay, of where she had been standing, or her steps across the street to my front door.
She was at the window beside me.
‘What were you doing out there?’ I asked.
She shrugged. I studied her as she gazed onto the street, as she blinked. There was something on her mind. When, eventually, she spoke her voice was softer: ‘It’s unexpected, don’t you think, being stranded like this in the middle of London?’
‘Unexpected? Yes, I suppose it is.’
‘We won’t be going anywhere for a while.’
We faced each other. Maybe she was older than I’d thought; close up, like that, I realised she might almost have been the same age as me – young-looking but still there were faint lines, creases like you’d find on the pages of a book, smoothed out even if they had once been folded; lines reaching from the corners of her eyes, around her mouth, and across her forehead.
At the same moment, in perfect synchronicity, we returned to our chairs.
She pointed to the cassette tapes. ‘Can I ask what they are?’
I didn't say anything.
‘Something you found while you were packing?’
Why had I left them on the floor like that? ‘Sorry.’ I leaned forward to pick them up. ‘I should have put them away.’
‘You assumed you’d be on your own.’
I did, but what was I doing, getting them out in the first place?
‘Can we listen to them?’ she asked.
I was shocked. ‘We can’t do that.’
‘They look very old.’
I stared at them, transparent plastic, the little sliver of tape visible along the base. ‘It’s my work.’ I touched one of the cassettes: just for a moment, the one with the handwriting on it. My handwriting.
‘You want to respect somebody’s privacy.’
I thought about the last time I’d listened to the tapes, years before, and something inside me contracted, like a hand closing. What were we doing? I felt guilty and ashamed. My chest burned.
‘Even now?’ she asked.
Even now? It really was as if she could hear me thinking.
‘It’s so long ago. Do you have a tape player?’ she asked.
‘Shall I look in the cupboard?’
‘Shall you what? No -’ I was insistent, ‘it really wouldn’t be right.’ It felt like an attack.
‘Let’s look for something to play them on.’ She went to the cupboard, ignoring me.
‘You can’t go in there.’
‘Your hand,’ she said, pointing at me.
My hand was open, shaking, above the tapes. I drew it back, pushing it into my pocket.
‘What are you doing?’ I felt crushed.
‘We can listen to the tapes.’
‘No.’ Things were moving too fast. Of course I did. I absolutely, madly wanted to listen to them. But I knew that, on my own, the chances were I almost certainly wouldn’t. Perhaps I would even destroy them. So what she was doing, of course it was what I wanted. But we couldn’t.
‘You want to listen to them on your own.’
She found the tape recorder without really having to look for it, as if she knew exactly where it was, brought it back, and plugged it in. It was a plain little black machine about the size of a hardback novel. The kind you found in most offices thirty years ago: portable, durable, effective, with a built in microphone. It was the same one I’d taken with me when -
‘Shall I? she asked. ‘You need some help with this.’
‘What?’ My thoughts telescoped. I was far away, watching Louise swim in the pool on the terrace, in the sun. I started to climb the stone steps.
In Harley Street Kay and I were a little dot of consciousness, a speck I was barely aware of. She was kneeling on the floor, holding the cassette with the type-written label.
‘I'm assuming this is the right order?’ she asked again. ‘This one first? The one with the typed label?’ What a tiny voice.
I think I said yes. I heard the compartment on top open and close. A hiss filled the air like the noise of heavy rain, then two sharp clicks, and a sound like material tearing. Kay stood listening, her eyes fixed on something far away. She said: ‘Somebody’s touching the microphone.’
She returned to her seat.
I tried to get up, to end the whole thing, but Louise started speaking.