Sleepless by Romy Hausmann: New Excerpt
By Crime HQSeptember 30, 2021
I’ve written you dozens of letters and, now more than ever, regret never having sent a single one of them. I ought to have done. Definitely. You’ve every right to find out what really happened back then. To find out from me, in my own words, words I always believed to be inadequate. I don’t know what you remember, or if hidden somewhere at the back of your mind there’s still a fragment of our last meeting. I promised to catch the evil man. I tempted you with the sea, and you must have thought you could rely on me. That everything would turn out fine and that I would be the one to make sure it did.
All words are irrelevant now and I can only write this, perhaps my final letter, in my thoughts.
It’s over, my angel.
Today I’m going to die.
Just like her.
* * * * *
A panic attack is like standing on the cliff edge. Don’t look down, I tell myself as I put my head back and try to breathe. Above me, slate-grey clouds drift across the sky that’s still the colour of lavender, but only just. I hear noises. It sounds like the staccato of rain drumming against a windowpane.
It’s not rain, I realise. It’s rocks crumbling beneath my feet. I try to take a step backwards but can’t. I teeter, lose my balance and thrash about with my arms because I refuse to believe it’s happening. Because every time I believe I’ve got a chance.
I fall and let out a silent scream.
The water . . .
I blink. Shelves of sweets wash towards me, a freezer glides closer as if carried on the waves. My body lies twisted on a stone floor. It’s swaying. I feel seasick and gag on some bile. In the distance I hear voices and a flurry of activity. What happened? I want to ask – how stupid is that? I know exactly what happened. I fell from the cliffs, for the fourth time this month. It’s Saturday, July 20. Four falls within twenty days. I ought to be thankful – I’ve had it worse. When I touch the area on my forehead that’s throbbing I feel a slight bump and a dampness. Blood. I must have hit my head. My circulation. My eyelids are fluttering like insect wings. Unconsciousness is trying to steal me away. I would cry for help if I hadn’t already drowned. In the red water.
Don’t worry, she’s only sleeping.
I wake up.
The ground beneath me is firm again. I must have drifted ashore. Somebody pulls me up to a seated position and asks, ‘Are you okay?’
I think I nod. Try to get my bearings. The shelves of sweets, the freezer. The shop of a small, slightly run-down petrol station on the A13. Unleaded at 1.51 euro per litre, diesel at 1.43. I had parked the Land Rover by one of the two pumps, got out and looked around shiftily, like a fugitive.
Nobody. No other vehicle that had followed me into the petrol station and none already there waiting for me. Relief. Through the shop window I had seen the cashier inquisitively craning his neck. So I did something normal, inconspicuous. I filled up the car, locked the doors and went to pay.
‘I bet it’s just her circulation,’ I hear a man say. His face is merely a blur at first, but I suspect he’s the cashier. I remember a red-and-blue checked, short-sleeved shirt and the barked laughter coming from beneath his nicotine-stained moustache when he made a joke as he handed me my change. ‘An old girl like that is a real guzzler, eh?’ He meant the Land Rover.
‘Not surprising, it’s sweltering today,’ he now says, this time referring to me. The woman who just collapsed by his counter. Another barking laugh, then he says, ‘Annelies, go and get a bottle of water!’
My vision slowly starts to clear. I try to get to my feet, but it’s a very clumsy attempt. ‘Don’t rush it!’ Moustache man grabs my arm to support me. My right knee is shaking as if the joint had been removed and the void filled with jelly. ‘Oh, you poor thing,’ he says, fixing his eyes on my bleeding forehead. I open my mouth to tell him I’m okay. That I’m just a very sensitive, nervous individual, that apart from yesterday evening I haven’t been behind the wheel of a car since I took my test, and that the drive here was sheer hell – every time the road narrowed spelled an accident, every car behind me meant I was being followed, and that it was probably just a matter of time before my anxiety peaked in a full-blown panic attack. Toppling over the cliff edge and plummeting straight into the red water.
* * * * *
From: Letter #9
The new therapist has recommended I should write down my dreams. I don’t know what good that will do, especially as I keep on having the same one. It’s always the salt marshes of Aigues-Mortes, again and again . . . Do you remember it at all, this image? Aigues-Mortes as it appeared on the June page of the calendar. Everything in the photo looked fake, as if it had been recoloured in the most disturbing way possible. An intensely white salt mound rising above blood-red water beneath a lavender sky. You asked me how water could be red. ‘Looks like blood,’ you thought. ‘An entire lake full of blood.’
‘No, no,’ I said, and explained to you that this strange colour was the result of certain halophile bacteria, and that ‘halophile’ came from the Greek word for salt: ‘halos’. What I didn’t tell you was that ‘Aigues-Mortes’ in French means something like ‘dead water’. I didn’t want you to be afraid.
* * * * *
I shut my mouth without having said anything. I want to allay moustache man’s concerns with a smile. Of course it was just the – as he called it – sweltering heat that triggered my collapse. There’s no reason to suspect me of anything.
My smile falters when, at that very moment, fear shoots through my body like an electric shock. On the floor in front of me is my handbag that I’d dropped and beside it, fanned out like the frayed ends of an old mop, is the blonde wig. I instinctively throw my hands up, touch my head and feel tightly bound hair – my own. Attentive moustache man bends down, hands me the wig and turns away politely when I put it on with trembling fingers. In the past I often imagined myself as a blonde and thus a completely different person. Now that the precisely trimmed, light-blonde fringe is hanging diagonally over my right eye I just feel incredibly stupid.
‘Water!’ A woman in a colourful flowery apron comes scuttling over from the fridge with a bottle. Her fat body shakes with her excited, rapid footsteps. I could weep. Instead of taking the bottle I ask for my handbag. I open it and rummage inside. Wallet, house keys, car keys, the piece of paper with the directions, mobile phone and chewing gum. Finally I find what I am looking for: the foil pack with my pills. The cashier is watching me. Under his inquisitive gaze I scrap the idea of taking my medicine. I don’t want him to think I’m ill, and in any case it wouldn’t be a good idea to take something now. I need to be able to drive; I haven’t got to my destination yet.
‘Come on, have a sip at least!’ the woman in the apron insists. She’s still holding the bottle of water in one hand, while the other is stroking my cheek. When she moves her arms I can smell sweat and frying oil. ‘She’s deathly white, Herbert,’ she says to the man.
‘Maybe we ought to ring for an ambulance,’ he replies.
‘No, please don’t,’ I beg them.
Herbert and his wife Annelies. She reminds me of Aunt Evelyn, who I only ever remember in one of her various housecoats. With her hands perched on her wide hips and that expression on her otherwise cheerful, squashy face: My God, child, what have you done this time? Abandoning the water, they decide that I could do with a schnapps instead. Plum schnapps, home-made. Much better, apparently, than the industrial swill that Herbert sells in little bottles from his counter.
‘I don’t need an ambulance, I’m feeling better,’ I assert, which must sound odd to the couple that run the petrol station as neither has mentioned the ambulance again.
All the same, Herbert says, ‘Okay, as you like.’
They escort me into a room at the back of the shop, which smells of stale smoke. It’s barely large enough to fit us all in, especially as almost half of the room is taken up by a desk. Behind it, sitting on a swivel chair, is a young boy. I reckon he’s about six or seven. Thin, red-blond hair, narrow, pale face, pointed chin. A delicate little creature struggling to thrive in the haze of nicotine. In front of the boy are drawing things: a pad of paper and a box of coloured pencils. He’s completely absorbed in what he’s doing and doesn’t pay any attention to us until Annelies says, ‘Up you get, Timmy. We need the chair for this poor woman.’ The boy stands up without saying anything. He stares with his large, piercingly blue eyes. I sheepishly fiddle with my wig, then my T-shirt. I feel like a clown. Herbert wheels the chair around the desk and gestures to me to sit: ‘Please.’
I sit down and turn to avoid Timmy’s gaze. Which I fail to do. Now he steps forward, his eyes still staring at me. Her grandson, Annelies says, patting his head. They look after him while their daughter, Timmy’s mother, completes her training at a plasticine factory in Zossen. I nod eagerly, even though I don’t want to hear anything about their family. And I certainly don’t want the boy to look at me as he’s doing now. In his eyes I can see hundreds of broken promises. As well as death.
Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch.
Excerpted from SLEEPLESS by Romy Hausmann. Copyright © 2021 by Romy Hausmann. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher
About Sleepless by Romy Hausmann:
It’s been years since Nadja Kulka was convicted of a cruel crime. After being released from prison, she’s wanted nothing more than to live a normal life: nice flat, steady job, even a few friends. But when one of those friends, Laura von Hoven–free-spirited beauty and wife of Nadja’s boss–kills her lover and begs Nadja for her help, Nadja can’t seem to refuse.
The two women make for a remote house in the woods, the perfect place to bury a body. But their plan quickly falls apart and Nadja finds herself outplayed, a pawn in a bizarre game in which she is both the perfect victim and the perfect murderer…