The Concubine's Secret - By Kate Furnivall Page 0,1
another had lost its plug, probably stolen, but everything was spotless, including the mirror above the basins. In the corner a tall cupboard door stood half open, revealing a damp mop, bucket and disinfectant bottle inside. Obviously a cleaner had been in early.
Brushing back her unruly hair, Lydia headed towards one of the three cubicles and glanced with only casual interest at the figure by the basin. Instantly she froze. The other occupant of the room was a woman in her thirties. Average height, slender, wearing a burgundy woollen dressing gown, her feet in stylish little maroon and gold slippers. On her finger a thick gold wedding band looked too heavy for her delicate hands. But Lydia saw none of that. All she saw was the swirl of dark silky hair that was twisted into a loose knot at the back of her head. A narrow neck, long and fragile.
For one blinding moment Lydia believed it was her mother. Returned from the dead. Valentina, come to join in the search for her missing husband, Jens Friis.
An ice pick of pain under Lydia’s ribs wrenched her back to reality and she turned away abruptly, hurried into the first cubicle, locked the door and sat down. It wasn’t Valentina, of course it wasn’t. Reason told her it couldn’t be. Just someone of similar age with similar hair. And the neck. That same creamy vulnerable neck.
Lydia shook her head and blinked hard. Valentina was dead. Died in China last year, so why was her mind playing such tricks? Her mother had been the victim of a hand grenade meant for someone else; she’d been just a beautiful innocent bystander. Lydia had cradled her shattered and lifeless body in her arms. So why this? This sudden confusion? She placed one hand over her mouth to hold in any screams that rattled around inside her throat.
She had no idea how long she remained like that in the stuffy little cubicle, but it felt like for ever. Eventually she unlocked the door, walked over to one of the spare washbasins, rinsed her hands and splashed cold water over her face. Her cheeks were burning. Beside her, to Lydia’s astonishment, the woman was still washing her hands. Lydia avoided looking in the long mirror above the basins because she didn’t want to see her own face, never mind the other woman’s. But her eyes were drawn to the movements the woman was performing next to her. They were hypnotic.
With firm rhythmic strokes she was dragging a wooden nail brush down her arms from elbow to fingertips, over and over again. Smooth and unhurried, but relentless. Slowly she rotated each arm so that the soapy bristles scraped over the soft underside as well as the upper skin, first one, then the other. Then back to the first one. Strong, stern strokes. Lydia couldn’t make herself look away. The woman was using a bar of lavender soap that scented the air, and the water in the basin foamed with bubbles. Not Russian soap then, that was certain. Bubbles were almost impossible to create with the greasy Soviet utility soap. More likely French, from one of the shops open only to the Communist Party elite. On a smattering of the bubbles gleamed tiny specks of scarlet. Her skin looked raw.
Without looking up from her task, the woman asked, ‘Are you all right?’
The voice was completely calm, totally composed, and took Lydia by surprise.
‘Da,’ Lydia said. ‘Yes.’
‘You were a long time in there.’
‘Have you been crying?’
The woman sank one whole forearm into the basin, let the soapy water swirl over it and murmured a long, drawn out, ‘Aah!’
Lydia wasn’t sure whether it was pain or pleasure. The woman flicked a glance in her direction and for the first time Lydia saw her eyes. They were dark brown, deep-set and not a bit like Valentina’s. She had pale skin, as if she had lived her life indoors.
‘Don’t stare,’ the woman said in a sharp tone.
Lydia blinked, leaning back against the washbasin. ‘We all do things,’ she said, and folded her coat tight across her chest. The room was chill. ‘To make ourselves feel better, I mean.’
‘Like shutting yourself in a lavatory?’
‘No. Not that.’
‘So,’ the speculative eyes slid again to Lydia, ‘what does a young girl like you do to make herself feel better?’
‘I steal.’ Lydia hadn’t meant to say it. She was appalled that the words had crept out. It had something to do with the unreal hour of the morning.