Our celebration of the US publication of Michael Robotham’s BLEED FOR ME continues with an excerpt from the acclaimed novel. Don’t miss the psychological thriller that had Linwood Barclay raving: “Michael Robotham doesn’t just make me scared for his characters; he makes my heart ache for them.”
‘She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four-feet-ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.’
Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita)
‘Everybody lies – every day; every hour; awake; asleep; in his dreams; in his joy; in his mourning; if he keeps his tongue still, his hands, his toes, his eyes, his attitude, will convey deception.’
Mark Twain (1835-1910)
i should start by telling you my name, although it’s not really important. names are just labels that we grow into. we might hate them, we might want to change them, but eventually we suit them.
when i was very young i used to hide in the dirty laundry basket because i liked the smell of my father’s work clothes and it made me feel closer to him. he used to call me his ‘little red riding hood’ and would chase me around my bedroom growling like a wolf until i collapsed into giggles. i loved him then.
when i was eleven or twelve i took a stanley knife from my father’s shed and pinched a roll of flesh on my inner arm before slicing it open. it wasn’t very deep, but enough to bleed for a while. i don’t know where the idea came from, but somehow it gave me something i needed. a pain on the outside to match the inside.
i don’t cut often. sometimes once a week, once a month, once i went for six months. in the winter i cut my wrists and forearms because my school blazer will cover the marks. in the summer i cut my stomach because a one-piece swimsuit will hide the evidence.
once or twice i’ve cut too deeply but each time i managed to fix myself, using a needle and thread. i bet that makes you shudder but it didn’t hurt so much and i boiled the needle first.
when i bleed i feel calm and clear-headed. it’s like the poison inside me is dripping out. even when i’ve stopped bleeding, i finger the cuts lovingly. i kiss them goodnight.
some are new cuts on virgin skin. others are old wounds reopened. razor blades and stanley knives are best. they’re clean and quick. knives are clumsy and needles don’t produce enough blood.
you want to know the reason? you want to know why someone would bleed in secret? it’s because i deserve it. i deserve to be punished. to punish myself. love is pain and pain is love and they will never leave me alone in the world.
every drop of blood that flows from my veins is proof that i’m alive. every drop is proof that i’m dying. every drop removes the poison inside me, running down my arms, dripping off my fingers.
you think i’m a masochist.
you think i’m suicidal.
you think you know me.
you think you remember what it’s like to be fourteen.
you think you understand me.
i bleed for you.
If I could tell you one thing about Liam Baker’s life it would be this: when he was eighteen years old he beat a girl half to death and left her paralysed from the waist down because she tipped a bucket of popcorn over his head.
As defining events go, nothing else comes close for Liam, not the death of his mother or his faith in God or the three years he has spent in a secure psychiatric hospital – all of which can be attributed, in one way or another, to that moment of madness in a cinema queue.
‘That moment of madness’ is the term his psychiatrist just used. Her name is Dr Victoria Naparstek and she’s giving evidence before a Mental Health Review Tribunal, listing Liam’s achievements as though he’s about to graduate from university.
Dr Naparstek is a good-looking woman, younger than I expected; mid-thirties with honey-blonde hair, brushed back and gathered in a tortoiseshell clasp. Strands have pulled loose and now frame her features, which otherwise would look quite elfin and sharp. Despite her surname, her accent is Glaswegian but not harsh or guttural, more a Scottish lilt, which makes her sound gay and carefree, even when a man’s freedom is being argued. I wonder if she’s aware that her eyes devour rather than register a person. Perhaps I’m being unfair.
Liam is sitting on a chair beside her. It has been four years since I saw him last, but the change is remarkable. No longer awkward and uncoordinated, Liam has put on weight and his glasses have gone, replaced by contact lenses that make his normally pale blue eyes appear darker.
Dressed in a long-sleeved cotton shirt and jeans, his shoes have pointed toes, which are fashionable and he has gelled his hair so that it pokes towards the ceiling. I can picture him getting ready for this hearing, taking extra care with his appearance because he knows how important it is to look his best.
Out the window I can see a walled courtyard, dotted with potted plants and small trees. A dozen patients are exercising, each inhabiting a different space, without acknowledging the others’ existence. Some take a few strides in one direction and then stop, as though lost, and start in a different direction. Others are swinging their arms and marching around the perimeter as though it is a parade ground. One young man seems to be addressing an audience while another has crawled beneath a bench as if sheltering from an imaginary storm.
Dr Naparstek is still talking.
‘In my months working with Liam, I have discovered a troubled young man, who has worked very hard to better himself. His anger issues are under control and his social skills are greatly improved. For the past four months he has been part of our shared-house programme, living co-operatively with other patients, cooking, cleaning and washing, making their own rules. Liam has been a calming influence – a team leader. Recently, we had a critical incident when a male resident took a hostage at knifepoint and barricaded a door. It took five minutes for security to gain access to the shared house, by which time Liam had defused the situation. It was amazing to watch.’
I glance at the three members of the review tribunal – a judge, a medical specialist and a lay person with mental health experience. Do they look ‘amazed’, I wonder. Perhaps they’re just not showing it.
The tribunal must decide if Liam should be released. That’s how the system works. If an offender is thought to be cured, or approaching being cured, they are considered for rehabilitation and release. From a high-security hospital they’re transferred to a regional secure unit for further treatment. If that goes well, they are given increasing amounts of leave, first in the grounds of the unit and later in the local streets with an escort, and then alone.
I am not here in any official capacity. This should be one of my half-days at Bath University, where I’ve taught psychology for the past three years. That’s how long it’s been since I quit my clinical practice. Do I miss it? No. It lives with me still. I remember every patient – the cutters, the groomers, the addicts, the narcissists, the sociopaths and the sexual predators; those who were too frightened to step out into the world and the few who wanted to burn it down.
Liam was one of them. I guess you could say I put him here because I recommended he be sectioned and given treatment rather than sent to a regular prison.
Dr Naparstek has finished. She smiles and leans down to whisper something in Liam’s ear, squeezing his shoulder. Liam’s eyes swim but aren’t focused on her face. He is looking down the front of her blouse. Resuming her seat, she crosses her legs beneath her charcoal-grey skirt.
The judge looks up. ‘Is there anyone else who would like to address the tribunal?’
It takes me a moment to get to my feet. Sometimes my legs don’t do as they’re told. My brain sends the messages but they fail to arrive or like London buses they come all at once causing my limbs to either lock up or take me backwards, sideways and occasionally forwards, so that I look like I’m being operated via remote control by a demented toddler.
The condition is known as Parkinson’s – a progressive, degenerative, chronic but not contagious disease that means I’m losing my brain without losing my mind. I will not say incurable. They will find a cure one day.
I have found my feet now. ‘My name is Professor Joseph O’Loughlin. I was hoping I could ask Liam a few questions.’
The judge tilts his chin to his chest. ‘What’s your interest in this case, Professor?’
‘I’m a clinical psychologist. Liam and I are acquainted. I provided his pre-sentencing assessment.’
‘Have you treated Liam since then?’
‘No. I’m just hoping to understand the context.’
Dr Naparstek has turned to stare at me. She doesn’t seem very impressed. I make my way to the front of the room. The linoleum floor is shining as daylight slants through barred windows, leaving geometric patterns.
‘Hello, Liam, do you remember me?’
‘Come and sit up here.’
I place two chairs facing each other. Liam looks at Dr Naparstek, who nods. He moves forward, taller than I remember, less confident than a few minutes ago. We sit opposite, our knees almost touching.
‘It’s good to see you again. How have you been?’
‘Do you know why we’re here today?’
‘Dr Naparstek and the people here think you’re better and it’s time you moved on. Is that what you want?’
Again he nods.
‘If you are released, where would you go?’
‘I’d find somewhere to live. G-g-get a job.’
Liam’s stutter is less pronounced than I remember. It gets worse when he’s anxious or angry.
‘You have no family?’
‘Most of your friends are in here.’
‘I’ll m-m-make new friends.’
‘It’s been a while since I saw you last, Liam. Remind me again why you’re here.’
‘I did a bad thing, but I’m better now.’
There it is: an admission and an excuse in the same breath.
‘So why are you here?’
‘You sent me here.’
‘I must have had a reason.’
‘I had a per-per-personality disorder.’
‘What do you think that means?’
‘I hurt someone, but it weren’t my fault. I couldn’t help it.’ He leans forward, elbows on his knees, eyes on the floor.
‘You beat a girl up. You punched and kicked her. You crushed her spine. You broke her jaw. You fractured her skull. Her name was Zoe Hegarty. She was sixteen.’
Each fact resonates as though I’m clashing cymbals next to his ear, but nothing changes in his eyes.
‘What are you sorry for?’
‘For what I d-d-did.’
‘And now you’ve changed?
‘What have you done to change?’
He looks perplexed.
‘Hostility like that has to come from somewhere, Liam. What have you done to change?’
He begins talking about the therapy sessions and workshops that he’s done, the anger-management courses and social skills training. Occasionally, he looks over his shoulder towards Dr Naparstek, but I ask him to concentrate on me.
‘Tell me about Zoe.’
‘What about her?’
‘What was she like?’
He shakes his head. ‘I don’t remember.’
‘Did you fancy her?’
Liam flinches. ‘It w-w-weren’t like that.’
‘You followed her home from the cinema. You dragged her off the street. You kicked her unconscious.’
‘I didn’t rape her.’
‘I didn’t say anything about raping her. Is that what you intended to do?’
Liam shakes his head, tugging at the sleeves of his shirt. His eyes are focused on the far wall, as if watching some invisible drama being played out on a screen that nobody else can see.
‘You once told me that Zoe wore a mask. You said a lot of people wore masks and weren’t genuine. Do I wear a mask?’
‘What about Dr Naparstek?’
The mention of her name makes his skin flush.
‘How old are you now, Liam?’
‘Tell me about your dreams.’
He blinks at me.
‘What do you dream about?’
‘Getting out of here. Starting a n-n-new life.’
‘Do you masturbate?’
‘I don’t believe that’s true, Liam.’
He shakes his head.
‘You shouldn’t talk about stuff like that.’
‘It’s very natural for a young man. When you masturbate who do you think about?’
‘There aren’t many girls around here. Most of the staff are men.’
‘G-g-girls in magazines.’
‘Dr Naparstek is a woman. How often do you get to see Dr Naparstek? Twice a week? Three times? Do you look forward to your sessions?’
‘She’s been good to me.’
‘How has she been good to you?’
‘She doesn’t judge me.’
‘Oh, come on, Liam, of course she judges you. That’s why she’s here. Do you ever have sexual fantasies about her?’
He bristles. Edgy. Uncomfortable.
‘You shouldn’t say things like that.’
‘She’s a very attractive woman, Liam. I’m just admiring her.’
I look over his shoulder. Dr Naparstek doesn’t seem to appreciate the compliment. Her lips are pinched tightly and she’s toying with a pendant around her neck.
‘What do you prefer, Liam, winter or summer?’
‘Day or night?’
‘Apples or oranges?’
‘Coffee or tea?’
‘Women or men?’
‘In skirts or trousers?’
‘Long or short?’
‘Stockings or tights?’
‘What colour lipstick?’
‘What colour eyes does she have?’
‘What is she wearing today?’
‘What colour is her bra?’
‘I didn’t mention a name, Liam. Who are you talking about?’
He stiffens, embarrassed, his face a beacon. I notice his left knee bouncing up and down in a reflex action.
‘Do you think Dr Naparstek is married?’ I ask.
‘I d-d-don’t know.’
‘Does she wear a wedding ring?’
‘Maybe she has a boyfriend at home. Do you think about what she does when she leaves this place? Where she goes? What her house looks like? What she wears to bed? Maybe she sleeps naked.’
Flecks of white spit are gathered in the corners of Liam’s mouth.
Dr Naparstek wants to stop the questioning, but the judge tells her to sit down.
Liam tries to turn but I lean forward and put my hands on his shoulders, my mouth close to his ear. I can see the sweat wetting the roots of his hair and a fleck of shaving foam beneath his ear.
In a whisper, ‘You think about her all the time, don’t you, Liam? The smell of her skin, her shampoo, the delicate shell of her ear, the shadow in the hollow between her breasts . . . every time you see her, you collect more details so that you can fantasise about what you want to do to her.’
Liam’s skin has flushed and his breathing has gone ragged.
‘You fantasise about following her home – just like you followed Zoe Hegarty. Dragging her off the street. Making her beg you to stop.’
The judge suddenly interrupts. ‘We can’t hear your questions, Professor. Please speak up.’
The spell is broken. Liam remembers to breathe.
‘My apologies,’ I say, glancing at the review panel. ‘I was just telling Liam that I might ask Dr Naparstek out to dinner.’
‘B-b-but y-y-you’re married.’
He noticed my wedding ring.
‘I’m separated. Maybe she’s available.’
Again, I lean forward, putting my cheek next to his.
‘I’ll take her to dinner and then I’ll take her home. I bet she’s a dynamite fuck, what do you think? The prim and proper ones, all cool and distant, they go off like chainsaws. Maybe you want to fantasise about that.’
Liam has forgotten to breathe again. His brain is sizzling in an angry-frantic way, screaming like a guitar solo.
‘Does that upset you, Liam? Why? Let’s face it, she’s not really your type. She’s pretty. She’s educated. She’s successful. What would she want with a sad, sadistic fuck like you?’
Liam’s eyes jitter back and forth like a shot of adrenalin has punched straight into his brain. He launches himself out of his seat, taking me with him across the room. The world is flying backwards for a moment and his thumbs are in my eye-sockets and his hands squeezing my skull. I can barely hear a thing above my own heartbeat until the sound of heavy boots on the linoleum.
Liam is dragged off me, panting, ranting. Hospital guards have secured his arms, lifting him bodily, but he’s still lashing out at me and screaming, telling me what he’s going to do.
The tribunal members have been evacuated or sought refuge in another room. I can still hear Liam being wrestled down a distant corridor, kicking at the walls and doors. Victoria Naparstek has gone with him, trying to calm him down.
My eyes are streaming and through closed lids I can see a kaleidoscope of coloured stars merging and exploding. Dragging myself to a chair, I pull out a handkerchief to wipe my cheeks. After a few minutes I can see clearly again.
Dusting off my jacket, I pick up my battered briefcase and make my way through the security stations and locked doors until I reach the parking area where my old Volvo estate looks embarrassingly drab. I’m about to unlock the door when Victoria Naparstek appears, moving unsteadily in high heels over the uneven tarmac.
‘What the hell was that? It was totally unprofessional. How dare you talk about what I wear to bed! How dare you talk about my underwear!’
‘I’m sorry if I offended you.’
‘You’re sorry! I could have you charged with misconduct. I should report you to the British Psychological Society.’
Her brown irises are on fire and her nostrils pinched.
‘I’m sorry if you feel that way. I simply wanted to see how Liam would react.’
‘No, you wanted to prove me wrong. Do you have something against Liam or against me?’
‘I don’t even know you.’
‘So it’s Liam you don’t like?’
The accusation clatters around my head and my left leg spasms. I feel as though it’s going to betray me and I’ll do something embarrassing like kick her in the shins.
‘I don’t like or dislike Liam. I just wanted to make sure he’d changed.’
‘So you tricked him. You belittled him. You bullied him.’ She narrows her eyes. ‘I’ve heard people talk about you, Professor O’Loughlin. They always use hushed tones. I had even hoped I might learn something from you today. Instead you bullied my patient, insulted me and revealed yourself to be an arrogant, condescending, misogynistic prick.’
Not even her Scottish lilt can make this sound gay or carefree. Up close she is indeed a beautiful woman. I can see why a man might fixate upon her and ponder what she wears in bed and what sounds she makes in the throes of passion.
‘He’s devastated. Distraught. You’ve set back his rehabilitation by months.’
‘I make no apologies for that. Liam Baker has learned to mimic helpfulness and co-operation, to pretend to be better. He’s not ready to be released.’
‘With all due respect, Professor . . .’
Whenever anyone begins a sentence like this I brace myself for what’s coming.
‘. . . I’ve spent the past eighteen months working with Liam. You saw him half a dozen times before he was sentenced. I think I’m in a far better position to judge his progress than you are. I don’t know what you whispered to Liam, but it was completely unfair.’
‘Unfair to whom?’
‘To Liam and to me.’
‘I’m trying to be fair to Zoe Hegarty. You might not agree with me, Doctor, but I think I just did you an enormous favour.’
She scoffs. ‘I’ve been doing this job for ten years, Professor. I know when someone poses a danger to society.’
I interrupt her. ‘It’s not society I’m worried out. It’s far more personal than that.’
Dr Naparstek hesitates for a moment. I can almost picture her mind at work – her prefrontal cortex making the connections between Liam’s words, his stolen glances and his knowledge of her underwear and where she lives. Her eyes widen as the realisation reaches her amygdala, the fear centre.
The Volvo starts first time, which makes it more reliable than my own body. As the boom gate rises, I catch a glimpse of the doctor still standing in the car park staring after me.