I’ll never forget the day that my college French teacher handed out the letters about the trip to Calais. The trip cost £399 per student, which included our food and accommodation. I knew I’d never be able to afford it.
I emailed Miss Evans, explaining that I couldn’t go. She was disappointed, but understood. Then, about three weeks later, she forwarded one of her emails to me.
It was from the Wellington Twinning Association. I already knew that Wellington was twinned with a place in the suburbs of Paris, known as Châtenay-Malbery, since it was stated on the signage leading into our town. What I didn’t know was that once a year, the twinning group would go to France, or accommodate the French representatives, in order to maintain links. The head of the group, Barbara, had contacted Miss Evans asking if any French students were interested in joining them. The cost of this trip would be £100.
I was grateful for the opportunity and contacted Barbara to discuss it. I was even more excited when she agreed to further discount my expenses, in exchange for my writing an article for the group about the whole experience.
My parents gave me their blessing, and that was that!
The day of the trip finally rolled around. I would be sitting my French exams upon my return, so I packed some revision materials, along with clothes, books and a wallet full of Euros. I was excited, but also nervous. I didn’t know anybody from the twinning group itself, and they were all fifty years old at least. I also worried about carrying conversations in French for days at a time. Would I be able to handle it?
Those worries seem so silly to me now.
My parents dropped me off at the bus station, where I met Barbara and the others. The driver slung my suitcase into the belly of the coach and waved me onboard.
The way to Châtenay-Malbery was long and unremarkable. At one point during our coach journey, Barbara took up the empty seat beside me, and told me all about her narcolepsy. Shortly after, she nodded off and her head fell on my shoulder. I squirmed uncomfortably for ten minutes until she woke up. Our driver pulled the coach into a large ferry at Dover and we proceeded across the channel. A little bored at this point, I made my way to the top deck and gazed out at the churning green sea. I let the wind blow a parting into the side of my hair.
Eventually, we met with the representatives of the Châtenay-Malbery twinning association, about two hours behind schedule, and I found my host, Elisabeth.
“Hello,” she said, “you have had a good trip?”
“Yes, thanks,” I mumbled.
“The road was not bad?”
“No,” I replied, ashamed to be speaking English. I was here to improve my French, after all.
We huddled inside the building that was our mutual meeting point and I listened to the head of their twinning group give a speech. After that, I followed Elisabeth to her car.
We were joined by an elderly woman named Gwen. She was with us, though God only knows why; she didn’t speak a word of French and wasn’t about to learn. Later on, I thanked Elisabeth for the chicken she’d prepared for us. (It was dry and burnt, but we had been two hours late.)
It took me a while to adjust. Not to our host – she was a lovely woman who couldn’t do too much for us. Most of my problems had to do with my own spoken French. So heavy were the demands upon me to speak French at all times that, when I did go to bed, there was little respite; I lay there for at least an hour hearing a kind of Franglais chattering inside my head.
We were certainly kept busy. The twinning groups packed our days full of sightseeing activities. I learned how to use the Paris Metros with a train ticket scarcely larger than a book of stamps. I held blithe discussions about artwork in the Musée d’Orsay. I took blurry, too-dark photographs inside the Assemblée Nationale. I felt exhausted and often looked forward to returning home.
All of these things I intended to write about in my article. But that never happened.
On my fifth day with Elisabeth, things settled down. She and Gwen and I were totally free until the evening, when our goodbye dinner was being held. I sat on her living room sofa, helping myself to a bowl of chopped radishes, when Elisabeth walked in.
“I am going to a small art, euh, show. Exhibition.” She was already pulling on her coat. “Will you come with me? It’s OK if you do not want.”
I considered the prospect of watching the road from the right-side passenger seat, which always made me queasy, and then having to make artsy conversation in French all over again.
“Puis-je rester ici, s’il vous plait?” I managed to say.
She shrugged. “That’s OK. You make fun with Bijou.”
Her dog’s claws made ticking sounds on the kitchen tiles nearby. I smiled and nodded. This was fantastic. Elisabeth would be gone for a while. Gwen was upstairs, asleep. I could have some rest and respite at long last. The door banged shut and I stretched out, closing my eyes. A bit of peace and quiet.
Naturally, the bell rang moments later.
I didn’t hear any movement upstairs, so I got up and answered the door. There was a man standing there – dark-haired, tall and rather plain.
I decided to be honest. “Bonjour,” I said. “Je suis Anglaise. Ici en vacance.”
He stood there, giving me a look that convinced me he was here to sell me something. I repeated myself just to be sure.
“C’est bon,” he said. “Je suis le cousin d’Elisabeth. Monty. Si?”
Ah, I thought. She has a cousin. I glanced at Bijou, who was curled up contentedly on the kitchen floor. Not barking.
“Come in,” I said, backing away. “Um. Wilk- er… Bienvenue.” Had I really just spoken German in a panic? God, I couldn’t wait to get back to England and my native tongue.
The man, Monty, came inside and dropped a parcel on the kitchen countertop. I glanced at it, but couldn’t discern the contents. He then strolled into the living room, sat on the leather sofa and waited for me to join him. He turned on the TV, but paid it no attention. Instead, he asked me question after question about myself, my studies, favourite music and so on. These were all topics I’d been revising for the exams, so I answered without much trouble.
I asked him his surname, which was Dubois, but he insisted I call him Monty. He was a little strange-looking, with his scraggly beard and sandals on his feet, but I could still believe that he was related to the artsy Elisabeth. Presently, I asked him what he did for a living, and he took a moment to answer.
“Je travaille dans un bar. Faire du cocktails.” He grinned. “Restez ici une minute.”
Monty disappeared into the kitchen, and then I heard the front door gently close as he left the house. While he was gone, I sent a text to Gwen: “Come down when you’re done sleeping”.
He came back a moment later, brandishing a bottle of strawberry syrup which must have come from his car boot. Monty beckoned me into the kitchen so that I could watch him work. He poured syrup into a glass, topped it up with orange juice from the fridge, and even found a bendy straw to finish it off.
“Pour vous,” he said, pushing the drink towards me.
I took it back to the living room with me. As we watched TV together, that cocktail caught my eye. It looked very appealing: condensation forming on the glass, the warm gradient from yellow to red. I picked it up and took a sip. Lovely. We watched the news, and I did my best to find words I could understand from the broadcast. I sucked a mouthful of syrup from the glass, frowned, and stirred it up with my straw. It tasted a lot better this way – a little sickly, but nice – and I finished the whole thing in five minutes.
My closest friends tell me that I made an honest mistake. But I know the truth. I was so stupidly naïve.
I started to feel weak and tired. Monty gazed at me and I gazed back, trying to find the words. It wouldn’t have made a difference anyway. I stood up, stumbled to the kitchen sink with nausea, and retched. Monty came and patted me on the back. He guided me outside to his car, but not before picking up his parcel. That is all I remember.
As I woke, the first thing that hit me was the smell: deep, think and earthy with a sour tang. The next thing that hit me was the chafing under my arms.
I dragged my head up, feeling something in my mouth – something round, with a rubbery taste. Drool escaped from my mouth and dripped down my chest. As I pushed my tongue against the something, I felt thick leather tugging at my cheeks.
I opened my eyes.
The fear hit me before I could even see where I was, and how I had been restrained. I was upright. The chafing was explained as I willed my weak, shaking legs to stand. There were straps secured over each of my shoulders like a rucksack, and they kept me bound to the cold metal cross behind me. My wrists were secured to my thighs. My ankles were tied together with rope, and in my mouth was a rubber b******g that fastened behind my head. Instinctively, I tried to spit it out, but couldn’t do so.
Oh God, where was I? What had happened to me?
I remembered Monty. He’d drugged me. He’d brought me here.
Of course, when you panic, your breath quickens. Doing so made the spit slide down my throat. Immediately, I gagged and made a desperate cry. I couldn’t say the words I wanted to say. Help. Please. No.
My vision started to adjust. At the edges of this darkness, there were three stone walls. There was another one behind me; there had to be. All around me and my cross, plants grew from an earthen floor. That was what the smell was. Peat. I had to get out of here. I pushed that rubber ball against my teeth and bellowed like an injured animal. A rectangle of light appeared from the top right, and below it, a flight of stairs. As the door opened, there was Monty’s silhouette. I felt sick. He’d placed me in his cellar.
His feet came crashing down the creaking steps, and I bellowed again, rocking back and forth, trying to topple the frame. But in this position, I was restricted and weak; the frame barely budged.
Then, Monty advanced and his hands closed around my neck. I felt my whole head flush with heat and my body stiffen. He squeezed, pressing his thumbs into my voice box. I couldn’t kick. I couldn’t claw. I couldn’t get away. My eyes found his and begged him to stop. He grimaced back at me. I thought he was going to kill me, but then he let me go. I fell on the spot, trying to s**k in air, coughing and retching as he watched.
“Be good,” he said in English, and then he left.
I cried for a long time. My tears streamed down my face and hung beneath my chin. My nose ran. My mouth dripped steadily; as much as I tried to hold in the slobber, I couldn’t. All I could do was think over and over again, This can’t be happening. Not to me. It can’t.
When I was done crying, I looked up at the door. Had he locked it behind him? I hadn’t seen. I looked up. Surprisingly, the roof was not made of stone or bricks. It was some corrugated material. Plastic. Like the roof of an observatory. There were the dark shadows of dead leaves scattered upon it. There was another garden above me, then. And here I was, trapped here in his secret garden.
The thought occurred to me that these plants had been planted to produce oxygen to keep me alive. He was going to keep me alive. But for what, and for how long?
That thought kept me awake, and gently sobbing, until the morning light faded in from overhead.
God, I was thirsty.
Through the night, I’d been standing there with that rubber thing between my teeth. The front of my shirt was soaked. If anyone else was there, I might have felt humiliated as well as helpless. Now that it was morning, I was actually drooling a little less, and that too was terrifying. But I didn’t scream, for fear of Monty coming to finish me off.
No sign of him yet. No noise from upstairs.
Again, I wondered what he was going to do with me. What did a grown man want with a helpless, bound and gagged teenage girl?
Hours passed. My shadow moved away from me, and I began to fantasise about a goblet of fresh lemonade with ice cubes tinkling in the glass. Just when I thought I’d fall asleep and dream, the door creaked open again. Monty was there, holding something. He came down at his own pace, and not in anger. All the same, I stood to attention, and waited.
As he neared, I saw what he held in his hand: a glass jug of water. He set it down on the ground and looked at me, studying me. When he approached, I flinched away. He walked around me, and I felt a tug at the back of my head. He undid the leather beltstrap, came back round and carefully took the b******g out. I gasped for air. Then he wiped the spit off my chin with his dirty left hand. It was awful, but I willed myself not to react.
Monty said something in French that my brain could barely comprehend. But I took the sounds and I mouthed them silently to myself. Vous-pou-ssez. Vous-pou-ssez. It was important. It had to be important, the way he looked at me. Be good, I told myself, and vous-pou-ssez.
Then Monty lifted up the jug of water. I stared at it.
“As-tu soif?” he said.
I shrugged as best I could and shook my head. I don’t understand.
“L’eau?” he offered.
This time, I nodded like a sick horse. Yes. “Oui,” I croaked. “S’il-vous-plait.”
Monty smiled. Then he turned and ducked under the staircase. A watering can. He filled it up, brought it to me, and poured the water into the earth at my feet.
This second time he left me alone, I was unable to cry. I glared at the ground, thinking about that stupid cocktail he’d given me a day ago. I’d been a fool to take it, and yet if he offered it to me now, I’d drink it all over again.
I thought about every smoothie and can of Coke and bottle of juice and cup of tea I’d ever gulped down without a second thought. Then I thought about my mum and dad. Then I thought about Elisabeth and the Wellington group. Surely they were looking for me now. The police had to be looking for me. This bright spot of hope was quickly extinguished when I realised there was no way for them to trace me. Nobody knew that Cousin Monty had ever visited. I wasn’t even sure that he was my host’s cousin.
Overhead, the leaves were buffeted across the roof. It was breezy outside. Sunny too.
I gazed at the plants around me. One of them was a rubber plant, like the one in Elisabeth’s bathroom. Another had a handwritten label with a Latin name, Ficus Benjamina.
Something happened around noon, when the sun was directly overhead. I hadn’t realised, but there were wall-mounted speakers on the wall behind me. Fading in from nothing, there came music. It went on for at least an hour, and it was entirely classical. Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Bach, and others I didn’t recognise. I hated it. When the sadder pieces played, like Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’, I hung from my frame feeling all the tears that wouldn’t come. When the orchestra meant to rouse me, I felt like I was being mocked.
The worst part? This music wasn’t even for me. It was for the plants.
When the final piece, Strauss’s ‘Also sprach Zarathustra’ had finished, silence fell again. I tried to occupy myself with singing my own song, in a low whisper.
“Sens au coeur de la nuit
Ardeur de la vie
Sentier de gloire…”
My throat was so parched that I couldn’t continue. It seems ridiculous, but now, when I think back to those dreadful hours in the cellar, I remember feeling strangely comforted by my surroundings. The plants that stood around me could not move, and they couldn’t possibly speak. But I felt them all looking at my helpless body, strung up like a scarecrow, and smiling. They were letting me know that everything would be OK. And if I really test myself, I can recall a host of faint voices, echoing my chosen song back at me.
Darkness came and stole my shadow from me. Monty returned to water the other plants. By this point, I was so uncomfortable, so weak, that I was sagging from the straps that bound me. I could barely look Monty in the face, and if he noticed, he didn’t care. This was what he wanted – to tease me by spraying water at my feet. I was going to die down here.
He left me, alone with the cramping in my stomach, the pounding in my head, and the soreness in my eyes. I hadn’t urinated since he’d brought me here. That was definitely a bad sign. I knew I was dehydrated.
After a while, I drifted into… sleep? Unconsciousness? God knows. But I woke each time with that familiar chafing under my arms. No. I had to stay awake. I had to stay strong. Ficus Benjamina. Vous poussez.
I should have sent my parents a postcard. I should have told them I loved them.
Were my thigh cuffs loosening?
No. That wasn’t possible. I couldn’t have lost weight so quickly.
But something was different. I could rotate my left wrist now – something I was incapable of before. I could even tug slightly against it. A frayed length of thread brushed against my pinky finger, and I realised what it meant. The stitching on my restraints was unravelling.
I twisted and wrung my hand. It was coming apart. It was.
One painful tug, and my left hand was free.
I was so tired. It took all my strength to stand. I rested back against the frame, ready to collapse again. But I had to untie my right hand.
Once this was done, I freed my ankles and stepped out of the shoulder restraints. I fell onto the soil and was wracked by painful, dry sobs. The watering can was still there, under the stairs. I dragged myself over to it and sipped the remaining water clean out of the spout. It was the sweetest thing I’d ever tasted, including that sickly cocktail.
No noise from upstairs. Monty was either asleep, or… he couldn’t be sitting outside the door, waiting for me to emerge? No, why would he be? Even if he was, I had to take that chance. As I lay there in a fetal position, I thought about the best way to get out of here. Monty hadn’t brought any of my possessions with him, as far as I could recall. Could I call the police from this house?
What was the number for French police? I didn’t remember!
Maybe I could run to a neighbour of his and seek sanctuary. In that case, I’d need to creep upstairs, find his house key and get the hell out of here. Could I do it? I hoped so. Of course, I had to pace myself. I was still weak; dizzy, even. It took me a while to pull myself up the stairs, and the slightest creak made my heart beat like a drum.
Unbelievably, the door to the cellar was unlocked. God, he’d never expected me to escape. I looked back at the place which had been my prison and saw a beautiful garden. These plants had flourished despite the poor lighting, and there in the middle was my metal frame. I silently bid my friends goodbye and pushed though the cellar door. It opened into a kitchen area, with a back door with a cat-flap. A collection of cereal cartons and empty tins sat on the countertops.
Where did that b*****d keep his keys?
I didn’t trust myself to stand and walk; instead, I slid along the linoleum on my hands and knees until I came to a carpeted hallway. Two identical coats hung from a hook. I reached up and checked the pockets, holding my breath. Nothing in there but a handheld camera. I wanted to go back and take a picture of that garden, but there was no time to waste. Monty could still wake up and come for me.
The keys were in a bowl in the bureau near the front door. I leaned against it for support as I straightened my legs. The bureau knocked against the wall.
Then, to my horror, a light came on upstairs.
My heart thumped as I sprang into life, getting to my feet. I ran to the door and smacked against it. There were three keys on this chain. One of them was the car key, the other two were sliver and slim. House keys. The first one slammed into the keyhole. It wouldn’t turn. His footsteps on the hallway upstairs. Come on! Where was the second key? I found it, I rammed it in and turned it. His footsteps on the stairs, coming closer, getting louder. The door was heavy but I pulled it towards me and threw myself through the gap, almost losing my balance. He was right behind me.
No neighbouring houses. Nobody around. Nothing except a rusty three-door hatchback.
The fleeting touch of his hand on my shoulder made me scream. I whirled around, my arm reaching up, and I slapped him in the face. He stepped back, more from surprise than anything, and I ran towards his car. The key had a button which I pressed. The car unlocked. I threw myself inside. He was coming for me. I forced down the manual lock at the base of the window-frame, locking him out. Monty glared at me, then dashed for the other side, and I lunged for that one, pressing it down. Now Monty was furious. He cursed at me and beat his fists on the window.
I was almost ready to give in. But there was still a chance. I could drive away, find help from somewhere. My eyes moved rapidly over the dashboard and down at the gearstick. I knew the difference between a manual and an automatic; this was the latter, but I’d never driven before. I’d seen my parents drive. That would have to be enough to help me.
I yanked the seatbelt across me and clicked it in. Monty was kicking the car door now. The key in my hand found the ignition, and as I turned it, the engine came to life. My foot hit the brake, then the accelerator. I cried out as the car shot forward over the dirt path, away from the house.
Monty didn’t give up. He ran after me, even as I wrenched the steering wheel and turned onto a stretch of road. As much as I wanted to check for him in the mirror, I couldn’t afford to lose concentration. It was so dark out here. How did I turn on the lights?
This road was long, but not wholly straight. I could barely see where I was going. Monty was still behind me. He’d get me. This car was going way too fast. Why weren’t there any streetlamps? Where was I?
That little question became unimportant as the road curved to the right. I grappled with the wheel just as light flashed at me from around the corner. Another car, swerving. The wrong side of the road.
No, wait, I was the one on the wrong side of-
The crash was so hard, so sudden. I remember the scream being yanked out of me, the immense impact, the car flipping on its side and the airbag flying in my face. After that, my world went black.
It was a side-on collision. Thankfully, the other driver wasn’t seriously hurt. He called for an ambulance. I remember being helped onto a stretcher and asked question after question… I managed to tell them that I needed water.
They treated me in the hospital for dehydration, cracked ribs, concussion, burns I suffered from the deployment of the airbag, friction burns, bruising around my armpits and one or two other things. For the most part, they let me sleep and recuperate as the IV drip did its magic. Now and then, someone would come and ask me how I was, and also what had happened to me. I lay there in my clean white sheets, still fantasising about lemonade, and thinking about my classmates returning from Calais for their exams.
Naturally the police had a word. Barbara and Elisabeth turned up too. They’d been distraught when they found I’d gone missing. Elisabeth told me that she had no Cousin Monty, but she recognised the name as a friend of her ex-husband’s.
I called my parents and cried down the phone to them about my ordeal. It was heart-breaking, hearing how concerned they were. It was also strange to be able to cry again.
The name of the hospital escapes me now. I know that the British Embassy gave me a translator so I could give a complete statement. That didn’t make giving it any easier; I had to be extremely specific about what Monty had said and done. When I told them his initial command of ‘Vous poussez’, they seemed quite confused.
The translator took me to the side once they were done.
“Are you sure that was what he said?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said. “I remember. Vous poussez.”
She frowned. “I think your captor meant to say, ‘You will grow’, but the verb should have been ‘grandir’.” She looked at me. “Pousser is more like pushing. Sprouting.”
Of course they arrested him. The forename ‘Monty’ turned out to be correct, but ‘Dubois’ was a lie… his own little private joke. The evidence against him was overwhelming once police uncovered his garden. Le Jardin de la Mort, their newspapers called it, and for good reason. Every single plant marked the burial site of his previous victims. There had been human remains below my feet all along. They found the metal cross and the restraints – all things he’d ordered from a B**M site, though they’d never failed him before.
I was told it would be my decision whether or not to go to trial. The Embassy could do a lot of things, but they couldn’t cover the costs of my accommodation for the duration. I couldn’t do it anyway. I couldn’t face that man in court. This process of writing it down is just my sad attempt to put the whole horrible experience behind me.
One thing continues to invade my dreams and my waking thoughts. While I was keeping up with the media coverage, I found a newspaper article about the whole thing. It was something he told the court. He said he saw something in me and knew he ‘had to take the risk’, even knowing that I’d be missed. Monty went on to admit that he’d had a plant in mind for me once I was dead – or rather, a seed.
“I never cut a person’s throat,” he said, “or clubbed them to death. It had to be natural. A natural, spiritual transition. She might have been more comfortable if she’d thought to spread her roots.”