Safe and Sound, the gripping new psychological thriller by Philippa East is out next week! To celebrate, we’ve got an exclusive extract for you. In this sneak peak, we meet our protagonist Jennifer as she goes to confront a tenant who has failed to pay their rent…
Outside Munroe House, there are pigeons scuffling around and loose feathers are stuck to the paving slabs leading up to the door. It doesn’t matter how often we get bits repaired and the paintwork redone on this block, it always seems to look more run-down than I want it to. At the main doors to staircase B, I let myself in with the security code, punching it into the brand-new system we got installed at the end of last year. It’s one of the most secure I’ve ever seen. There is a back entrance to the block too which leads out onto a little grassy area, and you can get to it from the street via an alleyway that runs up the side of the block. Flat sixteen, if I remember rightly, faces out towards the back.
It’s 9.29 now. I close my eyes and take a few careful breaths while I wait in the cramped lobby for the bailiffs to arrive. The handful of other times I’ve done this, the bailiffs were always punctual, and when I open my eyes a few seconds later, I see them, pushing through the wind. I open the entrance door for them, from the inside, and let them into the building.
They are both quite a bit bigger than me. The thick-set, bald one I recognize. His partner looks younger and has a plain, kind face. Not for the first time I wonder how they ended up in this job. And how it feels to do this kind of work, day in, day out.
I introduce myself – I’m Jennifer Arden – and shake hands with them both. I’m careful to make good eye contact, use a firm grip, something I’ve perfected, over time.
‘Flat sixteen is right here,’ I say as we head into the building proper. My speech is perfectly articulated, every word pronounced properly. There are three staircases in the whole block: A, B and C, with fifteen flats off each. Except here, in staircase B, there’s a funny extra flat, tucked away on the ground floor, number sixteen. The door to it is sort of hidden under the stairs so you could quite easily miss it.
The bailiff with the kind face takes a deep breath and knocks hard on the door. ‘Ms Jones? Ms Jones, we are here about your unpaid rent.’
Before I started in this job, I used to picture bailiffs bashing in people’s doors and dragging furniture out into the street. Of course, it isn’t like that. We’ve sent this tenant a letter to let her know we’re coming. All we want today is to ensure Ms Jones knows about her debts. That’s why I’m here. Hopefully, I can agree a payment plan with her, something to bring her out of this mess.
The bailiff knocks again, thump thump.
I think I can make out voices coming from inside, but as I lean closer I hear someone saying Capital FM!, and I realize it’s just the radio playing. A song comes on a moment later: ‘Everywhere’ by Fleetwood Mac. If the radio is on though, I can be pretty sure she’s in there. We’ll keep knocking and hope that eventually she will come to the door, even if she doesn’t open it. She has a right not to open it to us, but I really hope we can speak to her today. That way I have a chance to help. We can let things go for a while – the longest I can remember was four months – but we can’t just let it go on for ever. Ms Jones is already three months behind. We’ve sent half a dozen letters, but she didn’t reply to any of them, so now it’s come to this. If we can’t arrange some kind of payment schedule today, the next step is an eviction notice and I would really hate it to come to that.
‘Ms Jones?’ the bailiff calls again.
There are footsteps on the stairs above. I step back and look up to see who’s coming. A neighbour from upstairs, nobody I recognize, a black woman, smartly dressed, probably on her way out to work. There are dozens of people living in this block but now I wonder how many of them speak to each other or even know their neighbours’ names. But she must pass this way at least, most days. ‘Excuse me,’ I call out to her. ‘Do you know the tenant in this flat? Is she usually home at this time?’
The woman comes down the last few stairs.
‘She’s got the radio on,’ I say. ‘We’re assuming she’s in.’
The woman pauses next to us and shrugs. ‘Her radio is always on,’ she says. ‘I hear it every time I go by.’
She loiters for another moment between the staircase and the doors to the outside, sizing us up. But she is busy, she has her own life to be getting on with, and no doubt she’s learned that it’s best in a big city like this not to get involved. ‘Sorry,’ she offers as she hitches her handbag more securely onto her shoulder and makes her way through the heavy door to the lobby.
We turn back to the flat and the other bailiff knocks this time, his fist bigger, his knock that bit louder. I look down at the file of papers I am still holding against my chest. I wasn’t the one who moved this tenant in; in fact, the person who did doesn’t even work for us any more, but I’ve been in the flat before; I checked the last tenant out. I can still picture it. The tiny flat is only a bedsit really, tucked away under the
stairs. The living room and bedroom are one and the same, the sofa tucked behind the front door doubling as a bed, and there is a kitchen, but only an archway divides the two, so you could hardly even call them separate rooms. There’s a tiny toilet, with a shower attachment that hangs, a little bit crooked, above a plastic bath. And that’s it.
The last tenant, I remember, only stayed a few months. They complained about the commercial waste bins that always somehow ended up against the rear wall of this block, even though they belonged to the restaurant twenty yards away. Then the flat was empty for a good while, until this tenant moved in a year ago. Into this flat, now allocated to me.
The song has flipped over and it’s another tune that’s playing now. I recognize this one too: ‘Beautiful Day’ by U2. Out of nowhere I get a sort of roiling feeling in my stomach and a prickling up the base of my spine. I hand my file of papers to the bailiff with the plain, kind face and walk right up to the door. I bend my knees so that my eyes are level with the letterbox and lift up the flap. With my cheek against the flaky wood of the door I look through the slat of a gap that has opened up.
I see all the post, a slithering pile of it silting up the floor on the other side of the door. No doubt the letters we sent are among it. The strangest smell reaches me in thin wisps from inside. I let the flap of the letterbox fall and straighten back up. My chest has gone tight. I can’t seem to speak.
I find myself thinking back to what happened with the spreadsheet I was in charge of last year and the annual inspection
I was responsible for. The bailiffs are looking at me, but I can’t find a way to tell them what seems to be wrong. The older one leans down, copying what I have just done and sees for himself what’s through that narrow space. He puts a palm on the door, as though to steady himself.
He manages to say something and what he says is: ‘Holy shit.’