Hostage - Clare Mackintosh Page 0,1

Sophia. Every police car we see is Daddy’s car, every uniformed cop Daddy’s friend.

“Up the hill next.”

She’d remembered it all. The next day, she had added more detail—things I hadn’t seen, hadn’t noticed. A cat on a windowsill, a phone box, a rubbish bin. The commentary became a fixed part of her day, as essential to Sophia as putting on her school uniform in the correct order (top to bottom) or standing flamingo-like as she brushes her teeth, swapping legs as she switches sides. Depending on the day, these rituals either charm me or make me want to scream. That’s parenting in a nutshell.

Starting school had marked the end of one chapter and the beginning of another, and we’d prepared for the transition by putting Sophia into preschool last year for three days a week. The rest of the time, she’d been with me or Adam, or with Katya, the quietly beautiful au pair who arrived with matching luggage and no English. She spent Wednesday afternoons at language college and topped up her wages stacking shelves on weekends. After six months, she declared us the nicest family in the world and asked to stay on for another year. I wondered aloud if there was a boyfriend, and Katya’s blushes suggested I was right, although she was coy about whom.

I was delighted—and relieved. Adam’s and my working hours made it impossible to rely on a nursery for childcare, and we could never have afforded the nannies that many of my colleagues employed. I had worried it would be intrusive, having a stranger living in, but Katya spent most of her time in her room, Skyping her friends back home. She preferred to eat alone too, despite continued invitations to join us, and she made herself useful around the house, mopping the floor or sorting the laundry, despite my telling her she didn’t have to. “You’re here to help with Sophia and to learn English.”

“I don’t mind,” she’d reply. “I like to help.”

I came home one day to find several pairs of Adam’s socks on our bed, a neat darn hiding the holes that wear through on the heel of every sock Adam puts on.

“Where did you learn to do that?” I could just about sew on a button and take up a hem—albeit wonkily—but darning was proper housewife territory, and Katya wasn’t yet twenty-five.

She shrugged as if it was nothing. “My mother learn me.”

“I honestly don’t know what we’d do without you.”

I’d been able to commit to extra shifts at work, knowing Katya would be here to do the school runs, and Sophia adored her, which was by no means a given. Katya had the patience for endless games of hide-and-seek, Sophia finding more and more elaborate hiding places as time went by.

“Coming, if you are ready or if you are not!” Katya would shout, each newly acquired word carefully enunciated, before stalking around the house, looking for her charge. “Inside of the shoe cupboard? No… How about behind of the bathroom door?”

“That doesn’t sound very safe,” I said when Sophia came charging downstairs to tell me triumphantly that Katya had failed to find her curled up on a shelf in the airing cupboard. “I don’t want you hiding somewhere you might get stuck.” Sophia had scowled at me before running off for a rematch with Katya. I let it go. My father chided Adam and me for overcautious parenting as frequently as I begged him not to be so laissez-faire.

“She’ll fall,” I’d say, hardly able to watch as he coaxed Sophia up trees or across stepping-stones, wobbling their way across a stream.

“That’s how you learn to fly.”

I knew he was right, and I fought my instincts to treat Sophia like a baby. Besides, I could see that she thrived on adventure and loved the feeling of being treated like a “big girl.” Katya had understood that instantly, and the bond between the two of them had grown swiftly. Sophia’s ability to handle change—of people, in particular—continues to be a work in progress, hence my relief when Katya chose to stay on. I had dreaded the fallout from her departure.

It came abruptly in June, just weeks after Katya had asked to stay, weeks after I’d begun to relax. The au pair’s face was blotchy and tearstained, and she’d packed in a hurry, stuffing her suitcase with clothes still damp from the dryer. Was it the boyfriend? She wouldn’t look at me. Something I’d done?

“I go now,” was all she’d say.

“Please, Katya,