Today I’m delighted to be sharing an extract from “Running in Circles”, by Claire Grey. It’s available to buy now!
About the book:
You can’t outrun murder…
When Lucy Lewis landed herself a reporting job on an idyllic Thai island, she thought she’d found paradise.
But one day her dream turns into a nightmare…
A bomb goes off outside her hostel and there is more than one fatality.
Although the local paper she works for is mainly a tourist guide, the phone is soon ringing off the hook with people desperate to hear news of their loved ones.
Together with her editor, Steve Boyd, Lucy finds herself drawn into the investigation.
And things become more complicated when the dead body of someone connected to the paper washes up on the shore.
Was the bomb planted by terrorists? Are the two incidents connected?
Lucy finds herself running in circles as she desperately searches for the key to the mystery…
The Green Turtle Hostel, my home of six months, is smashed and dark. When the police arrived and saw people trying to climb in over the rubble, they told us we better find somewhere else to stay. They wouldn’t even let me inside for my things. I haven’t spoken with anyone I know except for Lena, who has gone to stay with her boyfriend. I half recognised some of the faces on the street last night, lit by fires and blue lights. Perhaps some of the people crying amongst the rubble were my friends. I’ll look for them all, but first I need to find Steve.
I know he was planning on staying home all evening, to watch Cary Grant movies and eat a fruit pie his sister had posted to him, and I know his home is nowhere near Main Street, but I’ve been to the office every hour, all night long, and he’s not been there. I haven’t seen him amongst the shifting crowds either. It’s just turned 7 am. He’d be in the office by now, on a day like today.
A maid at the Grand Hotel gave me a spare uniform to wear because when I wandered back there in the early hours I was still in my pig pyjamas and splattered with Lena’s blood. The maid offered me a basket of fruit too, but I didn’t accept it because my stomach was churning. I went up to a room for a while and the bed was comfy but I didn’t sleep. It’s hard to sleep when the hotel you’re staying in has streaks of blood in its lobby.
Steve and I rent space above an internet café, not far from Main Street, where my hostel is. I keep my eyes to the ground as I walk past groups of backpackers, injured and lost, and weave between mounds of bricks and exhausted emergency workers in soiled clothing. The sun is fully up and things seem even worse than they did in the darkness. Some of the fires are still smouldering. There’s a smell of chemicals in the air. My legs are numb; I misjudge kerbs and potholes. I have to grab hold of a dustbin when I trip and nearly fall.
As I pass through the town I write its obituary in my head. I think of the little green parrot who greeted me the very first time I walked into the hostel. He bowed from atop a broken House of the Dead arcade game and said hello in a Thai accent. I mourn my little square room, with its tiled floor, juddering ceiling fan and someone else’s dreamcatcher hanging over the window. After I started working at the newspaper and was earning some money, I could have rented one of those cabins by the beach, but I liked the hostel. I liked the building itself; dim stairways, colourful corridors, and noisy birds both wild and caged. I also liked the people; the backpackers and the elderly owners who always looked angry but then offered sour sweets to me whenever I walked by.
Where are they now?
I climb the fire escape at the back of the building to reach our office, stepping around plants that Steve has put out here and forgotten to water; we never use the front door because it sticks, and spiders nest over it.
The door’s ajar this time. I clatter into our small, grubby newsroom and he’s here. Alive and intact. The first thing I notice is how sweaty his bald head looks as he speaks on the phone. He flaps a hand at me and smiles wildly. I smile back, but my mouth bends into something else. He’s telling someone not to worry. He has a daughter, perhaps he’s talking to her. Sitting down, I catch sight of my dusty reflection in the computer screen. Blonde hair hanging lank around a pinched, white face. Is it strange that I haven’t cried yet?
‘Lucy!’ Steve throws down the phone, gets up, and sends his chair spinning across the office. He comes at me with his arms outstretched. Oh, okay, we’re going to hug. I don’t like people touching me anymore, but I don’t want to upset him. I’ve seen him cry on more than one occasion, most recently at the hatching of a duck, so I know tears come easily for him. Standing up, I let him envelop me in his meaty arms, my face pressed against the floral pattern on his chest. Actually, this is the safest I’ve felt in hours. I love you, Steve, I want to say.
‘I was starting to think maybe you were dead,’ he says into my hair.
‘Same here.’ I slide my hands out of his grip and take a step back. Steve, who I see every day, has changed. He’s like a man from a photograph, a walking scrap of the news, faded and damaged.
Grabbing a tub of biscuits from our lopsided table, Steve knock the blinds with his elbow and they swing loudly against the window. I twitch. When he reaches to stop them he somehow just makes the noise worse. He holds the tub in front of me until I pick out a handful of stale wafers.
‘You look like you could use the sugar,’ he says.
‘Yeah, and I should probably sit down.’
Steve sits too, but leans forward, like he wants to be as close to me as possible. I tear the wafers apart in my lap and listen to him breathing.
‘I can’t believe this has happened,’ he says. ‘I just don’t understand it.’
‘Do you know what caused the explosion?’ I ask quietly, afraid to hear the answer. I want it to have been an accident, not an attack.
‘It was a bomb outside Bar XS,’ Steve says, and although this has been my suspicion ever since I heard that awful noise outside my bedroom, it’s odd to hear him say it out loud and to realise that this is all more than just a nightmare.
‘Oh,’ I say, resting my head in my hands for just a second.
‘I’ll never understand how people can do such things,’ Steve says.
‘People must have died,’ I say, thinking in hard facts for the first time, wondering about numbers. ‘I mean, I’m pretty sure I saw bodies.’
‘I think so. I heard they did. I heard maybe three girls died, who were sat at a table outside the bar. That’s where people think the bomb was; under one of the tables. People keep bags under there all the time, don’t they?’
‘Yes. They wait there and have a drink before going to the bus stop down the road. Oh, it’s just so fucking horrible.’
Steve nods. ‘There are no words. But somehow we’re going to have to find some and write them down.’
He’s in the shadows over there; the electricity is still out. Usually this office is frantic with activity; computer screens, TV, radio, flickering lights and ceiling fan. Today it’s quiet; just his old laptop running off its battery, and the half closed blind still tapping against the glass. The hills are out there, familiar and beautiful, but they seem far away this morning. Too nice to be real. I go to the window, breathe against the glass and watch my breath hang there for a while, shrinking to nothing. Looking over the rooftops I can just about see the billboards that follow the line of the road to the port. Whoever’s behind the bomb probably travelled here that way. And today people will leave that way; survivors fleeing an island that is no longer any sort of paradise.
‘Have you been writing?’ I ask, turning to look at Steve’s laptop. ‘Will the paper go out as usual on Saturday?’
‘Yeah, but I’m discovering that it’s hard to write when you’re part of the story. You know, I’ve been down at the bombsite since around midnight. I was asking people if they’d seen you. I tried to help.’ He grips his legs and holds on tight. His fingers are black. So are the knees of his jeans.
‘I should have been there too. I went to a hotel and I’ve been walking around. I didn’t really know where I was going.’
‘You did the right thing staying away. What if another bomb had gone off at the bar? You can never tell when these things are really over.’ He looks over his shoulder now, like he’s still not quite sure it’s over at all.
‘Are you okay?’ I ask. ‘You don’t really look it.’
‘Sure I am. Don’t worry about me.’ He says this brightly but his face is yellow, and slack around the eyes. He doesn’t look as bad as I know I do, but he looks bad all the same. That’s what no sleep all night will do, a night spent breathing in smoke, fear and the dust from broken buildings. And watching people suffer in the middle of it all.
‘Have you spoken to the police?’ I ask. ‘I haven’t. I saw some that I recognised but I didn’t feel like I’d be able to speak any sense to them. All I could do was walk and look for you. Just backwards and forwards all night. I felt like a ghost.’
Steve frowns at me. ‘Lucy, you should take the day off. Go to my house and rest. I’ve got this. Maybe you ought to see a doctor.’
‘I’m actually fine. Just this ringing in my ears. A few cuts and bruises. I have a headache but it’s no worse than a hangover.’
‘I’d really feel better if you went home and rested. Shit, maybe you should look into going back to England for a while. Your family —’
‘No,’ I say, sharp enough to make him flinch. ‘I’m not going anywhere.’
‘Okay, okay,’ he says, not quite able to meet my eyes. ‘I didn’t see this coming, did you? This is a safe place. I fell asleep on the beach last week. Too many cocktails. And when I woke up my wallet was still poking out of my pocket, with money visible in it, and someone had stuck a parasol into the sand next to me so that I wouldn’t get burned.’
‘I’ve always felt safe too. Since I came here.’ I suddenly can’t remember the last time I blinked, and have to force myself to do it now. My eyelids feel hot and dry.
‘Please go back to mine,’ Steve says, his voice soft. ‘I have a fruit pie in the fridge, and some of that lemonade you like.’
I shake my head. He sighs and tugs on his moustache. I say: ‘I need to stay and help somehow. Going back to an empty house is the worst thing I could do right now. Don’t you think?’
‘I suppose. I’d come back with you, I mean, I should come back with you, but I can’t. There’s this sense of responsibility that I haven’t felt in a long time; like maybe my job really is important, no matter how small the Koh Star is. I’m going back to the bombsite. You don’t really want to come with me? I don’t think you should. You don’t even look like you ought to be walking around.’
I open my mouth to speak but then hesitate. I stand up, get a head-rush, then sit back down again so heavily that the chair bumps back against the desk.
‘How do you feel? Really?’ Steve asks.
‘My hair still smells of smoke even though I’ve showered,’ I say. Steve nods, urging me to go on. ‘And I’m here talking to you, but all I can see is the stuff I saw last night. I saw it all, almost. I didn’t tell my family that on the phone. I had to queue for half an hour in the hotel lobby to call them from behind the desk. I let them think I was far away and barely involved. But I was right there.’
‘You could have used the phone in this office,’ Steve says. ‘It came back on a little while ago.’
‘I left my keys in the hostel. I couldn’t get in here. It’s not safe to go back up to my room. Someone told me there’s structural damage. Or something.’
The phone begins to ring now from its nest of tangled wires.
Steve says: ‘People are starting to find our number online. Parents have been calling, worried about their children. I don’t know what to tell them. And journalists from Britain and Australia, a couple from Europe, who seem to have misunderstood the nature of our newspaper and expect me to be able to give them something useful. I have nothing useful. I’m just a bemused foreigner like everyone else. I’ve been telling everyone they’d be better off speaking to the Thai press who I’m sure are already arriving from the mainland. I’ve heard helicopters flying over.’
‘Let me get it,’ I say, reaching past him for the phone.
The person on the other end is clearing their throat, a dry wheeze that makes me picture a snake shedding its skin.
‘Shuttleworth speaking,’ he says eventually, as I pull the receiver a little further from my ear because I feel like I can smell his breath.
‘Bernard Shuttleworth?’ I say.
‘Yeah,’ he says, clearing his throat again. I look at Steve and grimace. I first went to Shuttleworth’s golf resort about a week after I started at the paper, to cover a story about a partially paralysed man who scored a hole in one. Shuttleworth, an elderly Australian, was dressed in crisp white shorts and a polo shirt, a hat with a tassel on top, and was fairly disinterested in the disabled man’s achievement. I’ve been there a handful of time since and have never warmed to him. A lot of our funding comes from Shuttleworth, who likes us to print full page adverts for his resort. We deal with him reluctantly; rumours circulate about the way he treats his Thai members of staff.
‘When are you coming over here to discuss the new hotel wing? You were going to write a feature on it, remember.’
‘There was a bomb,’ I say. ‘A bomb went off last night.’
‘I know. That’s the other thing. I can’t get through to the police on the phone. It rings and rings and then there’s a recorded message. No English translation. What happened?’
‘I don’t know. It was on Main Street. You know Bar XS?’
‘You know, the bar where those tame mice run around on the shelves above the bottles of vodka?’
‘I’ve not been.’
‘Well, it was there. Outside of there. So that bar, the ice cream place next door to it and the hostel across the road were damaged and lots of people are hurt. People have died, apparently, but I don’t know for sure.’
‘Terrorists,’ Shuttleworth says, and I feel like he’s doing something else while he speaks to me, peering into a fridge or cutting his toenails.
‘I saw people with burns all over their legs and arms,’ I say, not really to him. ‘People younger than me. The same age as my little sister.’ I remember, for some reason, how Hannah used to love birds when she was small, and our house would be full of dirty feathers that she found in the street.
‘My club?’ Shuttleworth is saying. ‘That’s not damaged.’
‘No, that’s fine,’ I say, thinking of the seedy club near the beach that he owns, where the walls are painted black and stray dogs eat people’s vomit from the pavement in the morning.
‘So, no one can come over here today? I have literature. I’m thinking of going away for a while until all of this dies down. It would be good to pass the information on to you before I go.’
‘No, we can’t come over today,’ I say, raising my eyebrows at Steve. ‘We’re going back to the bombsite.’
As I say this, I get a sensation like I’m melting into the seat of my chair. The concrete on the street will still be blackened. The blood won’t yet have dried or been washed down the drains along with grey bubbles of charcoal. Steve is getting up, putting his wallet into his pocket, shutting down his laptop.
‘I’ll come,’ I spit into the phone. ‘I’ll head over now.’
‘Where are you going?’ Steve asks as I hang up.
I explain and he frowns at me as the screen of his laptop goes black and suddenly, without its insides whirring, the office seems deathly quiet.
‘You sure you want to go there?’ he says.
‘I know, I know. I should go the bombsite with you, but Shuttleworth pays for nearly all of our advertising. If we don’t go out there today and he gets pissed off, we won’t have any money coming in and…’ He knows, I think. He sees that I’m a coward.
‘Oh, sure, I get that.’ Steve nods, although his eyes say something different. ‘But do you really want to be alone with that man? He’s not nice. He has a way of looking at his female staff members that, since I picked up on it, I can’t help noticing. There was talk, last year, of a porter being beaten with a golf club.’
‘I’ll be fine.’
‘Yeah, you’re tough,’ he says, and actually sounds like he means it. ‘If you want to work today, if you really won’t go back to mine, then I suppose a golf resort on the other side of the island might be the best place for you.’
About the author:
Claire Gray lives in the South Lakes with her husband and two small children. She studied Creative Writing at the Cumbria Institute of the Arts, which no longer exists, having been absorbed by the University of Cumbria. She graduated in 2006 and then went on to complete a journalism course at Darlington College.
That same year, she won a Northern Promise Award from New Writing North, and her work was featured in their anthology, entitled Ten Years On. Claire now works as a freelance copywriter and continues to write short stories, some of which have been published in magazines and online.
Recently, she has been guest editor for the prose section of SpeakEasy Magazine, which showcases Cumbrian writing. In 2015, she received editing advice from The Literary Consultancy through their Free Read scheme. They felt that her manuscript, Running in Circles, showed potential, and began approaching literary professionals on Claire’s behalf. Sapere Books published Running in Circles in 2019 and Claire is really excited to have published her first novel!