The Hunterian Museum, Royal College of Surgeons, London
Olivia huddled behind Arteries, Heart and Veins. Through the gaps between the tall specimen jars in the cabinet she could see the faces on the ground floor, looking up at Joy on the balcony. It was such a long way down.
The room was packed: all two hundred guests must have come. She couldn’t see their faces properly because the jars of hardened arteries and diseased heart tissue were acting as a screen and she didn’t want to look as if she was peering through them. She watched Joy’s animated profile instead. Joy was saying very kind things. Olivia felt sick.
‘Straight in at number two! That’s what we consider a triumph!’ Joy’s scarlet and gold earrings caught the light as she raised her champagne flute and cried, ‘A bestseller in its very first week. So, how about it? Shall we take it to number one?’ A cheer rang out through the museum; raucous voices lifted, echoed off the high ceilings and shivered through the glass display cabinets and medical oddities – faces torn by bullets and bombs, dissected limbs, diseased and malformed organs suspended in cloudy fluid. Bones, so gigantic that they must surely be from whales or mammoths, were displayed between the ground floor and this, the mezzanine. Under the clever, bleached lights they looked so curved and smooth-lined that they seemed more like sculptures than fragments of anatomy. ‘In case you missed it, there’s a table by the entrance where you can get the book for Olivia to sign,’ Joy said. ‘But that’s enough of a sales pitch from me. Let me hand you over to the woman of the hour, Britain’s favourite history professor, Olivia Sweetman!’ There was nowhere to put her glass so she held on to it as she stepped forwards. Joy squeezed her arm and moved out of the way. Olivia walked up to the Perspex-covered railings and looked down.
It really was too high – ridiculously so. What were the publicists thinking, putting her all the way up here for the speech? She would have been better off standing on the stairs or even on the ground floor with the guests gathered round her. But it was too late, all their faces were turned up, flushed with champagne and the energy of the night and this spectacle – her – standing alone in a yellow dress, glowing and supposedly triumphant. They were all waiting for her to speak.
She took a deep breath. She longed to unfurl wings and soar off this edge, over their heads and away to somewhere remote and hidden where none of them would ever find her, but she forced herself to speak. ‘Thank you so much, Joy, what a kind introduction. And thank you, all of you, for coming tonight to celebrate the launch of my book.’ Her voice came out clear and calm even though the glass in her hand was trembling. She rested that on the barrier too. She was used to public speaking, to facing a crowd and being listened to, but it was different to be looking down at friends, family, colleagues, journalists, TV people, bloggers and critics with this awful, sickening secret pressing in her gut like a tumour.
‘I hope you can all hear me? It’s an awfully long way down and as some of you will know I’m not that good with heights.’ There was a ripple of laughter, voices called up in encouragement. ‘We’ll catch you!’ someone – a man – yelled from the back. She wondered if the people directly below her could see up her full-skirted dress. She crossed her legs.
‘OK! Well, it’s amazing to be here with you tonight in this wonderful Hunterian Museum to celebrate the launch of Annabel.’ She noticed David standing at the front. His face was a mask of neutrality. Jess was at his side, her bobbed hair held back by a hairband. She was holding his hand. There was no sign of the boys. Olivia smiled directly down at her daughter but Jess didn’t react; perhaps she was more interested in the grisly objects in the cabinets that framed the balcony.
‘It seemed fitting to have the launch at the Royal College of Surgeons.’ She gestured at the cabinets. ‘Isn’t this an extraordinary museum?’ She knew she was stalling, unable to bring herself to talk about the book. She scanned the crowd for Dom and Paul but she couldn’t see either of them. She had to control this sick panic inside her – she had to sound relaxed. She’d prepared the speech about Annabel and they were all expecting it. She could, she would, deliver it.
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