The Date: An unputdownable psychological thriller with a breathtaking twist (10 page)

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18

At first I am self-conscious as Mr Henderson talks me through his visualisation. My eyes are screwed tightly closed but I feel a flush to my cheeks as I imagine him and Jules watching me. Waiting. In truth I’m both scared this won’t work, and scared it will, in equal measure.
What would Mr Henderson do if I confessed to hurting someone? Would he be duty-bound to report me to the police, morally bound? I’d wanted to ask but I didn’t know how. My mind buzzes while in the background I am guided through a garden, down some stone steps, deeper and deeper. Mr Henderson’s voice is a soft and soothing balm on my raw and jagged nerves. In spite of my reservations, little by little
I feel my body getting heavier, seemingly sinking into the hard surface I am lying on, even though I know it can’t be.

‘You’re walking over to the flower beds now, Ali. Picture the colours. The smell.’

Yellow roses on my wedding day.

The sky is clear and bright.

The warmth of the sun on my skin.

‘Feel the ground beneath your feet.’

Grass tickling my bare
toes.

It’s a gorgeous summer day.

Birdsong.

I drift. Indecipherable words dance around my ears. I feel content. Relaxed. Half-a-bottle-of-wine hazy.

‘We’re going back to last Saturday. Back to Prism.’

I want to shake my head, but I can’t summon the energy. I want to stay in the garden, where it is safe. I want to say no but thirst has dried my lips. Slowly the
garden slips away, and it’s like the sun passing behind a cloud. I shiver and feel goosebumps spring up on my arms, but my body is heavy and I can’t will my hands to pull the blanket up around my chin.

‘No. No. No.’

I think the words are in my head, but Mr Henderson gently asks why I’m saying no, and I don’t know whether I’m saying no to now, or no to then. Music blasts in my eardrums.
A thudding bass. Flashing lights. All I know is that fear has slid into the places where relaxation had nestled moments before. The images keep coming. Dancing. Laughing. Drinking. A sense of wanting to run. Run from what? My date? This session? Back to the garden. Pick a daisy. Pluck away the petals. Let them flutter in the wind like confetti. Will you take this man? He loves me, he loves
me not. Not. Matt doesn’t love me, even though he slipped a ring onto my finger.

Pussy said to the Owl, “You elegant fowl! How charmingly sweet you sing! O let us be married! too long we have tarried: But what shall we do for a ring?”


Where are you, Ali?’

Bedroom. Ben’s bedroom.
Reading to him. Lying on his racing car bed
but it’s shaking. Shaking. Someone is shaking me. Gripping my arms hard. Too hard.

‘Go back to the bar, Ali.’

The garden. I want to go back to the garden, but instead the cold, bony fingers of the past are dragging me back. Dragging me back to where I don’t want to go. But I have to.
Tick Tock
, the note had said. I have no idea what the time limit is or what might happen when it
runs out. Sand running through the egg timer in Chrissy’s kitchen. Sand running through my fingers as I pop the lid off the Tupperware and offer Matt an egg mayo sandwich, sprawled on the picnic blanket outside the crumbling cottage on the clifftop. Focus. Tick Tock, Ali. I can’t think! Talking. So much talking – Mr Henderson – I want him to shut up. Shut up. SHUT UP. I’m screaming it in the bar,
my voice barely discernible over the pulsing base.

‘Ali, who are you with?’

Cold, it’s so cold. I’m outside. Rain is hammering down but, even so, the booming music is still audible. The smell of rotting food from the industrial bins is overpowering but it’s not that causing my stomach to churn with sickness. The alley is black except for a soft green glow emanating from a fire exit
sign and a rectangle of light framed by an open door.

‘We shouldn’t be out here. I want to go inside.’ I turn, but fingers digging tightly into my elbow drag me back and I slip on my heel, my shoulder scraping against the slimy bricks.

‘I don’t want…’ I begin but the light begins to disappear as the brick is kicked away and I am left with nowhere to go as the fire door crashes shut.

I. Don’t. Want. To. I am shouting now. Shouting then. Shouting now. Panic gripping me tightly. I. Don’t. Want. To.

‘Who are you with, Ali. Look.’

‘Stop!’ A hand on my shoulder. Jules’s voice. ‘That’s enough. Ali, you’re okay. You’re safe.’

‘You shouldn’t have woken her,’ Mr Henderson says. ‘We were on the cusp.’

‘Just look at her,’ Jules snaps.

I’m blinking.
Blinking and crying. Crying and blinking. Back in the room. Back where it’s safe. Except it isn’t, is it? Now more than ever I know someone hurt me. But I still don’t know who.

The engine hums as we wait for the traffic lights to change. I rest my cheek against the window, feeling the tiny vibrations all the way to my toes. Jules taps on her phone. A car pulls up beside us and the
driver turns to look at me.
It could be him
.
It could be anyone
. As we’d left Mr Henderson’s he suggested I come back next week to try again. Alone, he’d stressed, and I knew he was annoyed that Jules had interrupted our session, and somehow, I feel I’ve let him down. Let everyone down. I’m shaken by the indeterminate flashes that had come back to me, but I can’t piece them together. The shouting.
The anger. Someone must know who I was with.

‘Where do you think Chrissy is?’ I ask Jules, as I release the handbrake and accelerate, the wheels of the car turning as fast as my thoughts.

‘Probably off with some man or other,’ Jules says. Since Chrissy revealed one of the men she had dated once was married, Jules has taken the moral high ground.

‘It’s women like her who break
up marriages,’ she had said, draining her glass of wine, after Chrissy went to the loo.

Now I wonder if she’s glad Chrissy is away so that she gets to be the one supporting me, but that’s unfair. No one is enjoying this, least of all me.

I indicate left and pull cautiously out of the junction. ‘She’s not replying to my texts.’

‘Stop worrying.’

‘I need to find out who
my date was, and she was the only one, other than me, who saw him.’

‘Christ!’ Jules shouts, and automatically I screech on the brakes. ‘Sorry, I thought that dog was going to run into the road. Let it go, Ali.’ She touches my arm. ‘Move on.’

But I can’t. I can’t move on. I thought pushing everything to the back of my mind, the way I had before, would help me forget. But not being
able to properly remember, somehow that’s worse.

‘You coming in?’ Jules asks, as I slot the car into my driveway. ‘James is working from home. He’s eager to hear all about it.’

‘No. I’m going to have a hot shower.’ I’m still shaking with cold. With shock.

After I’ve eaten and rinsed my plate and cutlery I can’t ignore the pleading looks that Branwell is giving me any
longer, his eyes pinballing between me and the door. A soft whine escaping his lips. Sometimes I’m convinced he can tell the time. I only work five minutes away and always come home in my lunch break. After I’ve eaten my sandwich and put my plate in the dishwasher, Branwell tears down the hallway, ears flapping, tongue lolling, turning happy circles, and I have to wait for him to calm before I can
snap his lead onto his collar. Although I’m signed off sick I want to stick to the same routine. It seems important somehow, pretending everything is normal even though it so obviously isn’t.

Rain is splattering against the window, so I shrug on my waterproof and pat my pockets, checking for poo bags.

I’m ready to go but I’m hesitant. Reluctant to unlock the front door. A cold, sharp
fear rooting me to the spot. The hypnotherapy treatment has made me feel worse, not better. The flashes it revealed. Unease has burrowed deep under my skin, tiny creatures hatching eggs.

Branwell cocks his head to one side, hope written all over his furry face, and I know a walk will do us both good, but still I have to take a deep breath before I can step outside.

The wind is bracing.
The naked branches of the trees are shadows against an iron sky. Drizzle flings itself in my face and I bow my head, pushing forward as the weather pushes me back. Branwell tugs the lead, racing to the end of the path, turning left and stopping at the patch of turf he always sniffs before having his first wee. Traffic passes slowly. Tyres sloshing through puddles. Headlights slicing through
the dreariness. A jogger passes huddled in a hoodie, catching my eye and nodding as he passes. Black trainers slapping against the concrete and as I see those trainers something stirs in my subconscious. I concentrate until I remember the man outside my house, fussing over Branwell when he escaped through my open front door, and I watch him until he rounds a corner. I’m soaked to the skin, paranoia
and rain clinging to my clothes. Branwell lurches forward, dragging me over to the bright red postbox, as though it is an old friend, nose twitching, before he cocks his leg once more.

My nose and fingertips are numb with cold. The lead grows slack and I realise we are at the crossing. Branwell is sitting patiently on the kerb, waiting for me to press the button, standing as the beep-beep-beep
sounds, his paws click-clacking over the sodden tarmac.

The seafront is deserted. In the summer there’s always a throng of tourists, ice-cream smeared children carrying crabbing nets and buckets, dads with lobster pink shoulders, mums fishing coins from purses for the penny arcade that flashes like a beacon, drawing families inside when the sky clouds and showers fall. I rarely come here
then. Locals know about the nooks and crannies that visitors don’t. The cove that’s only accessible on foot; the clifftop walk accessed through a rutted track that doesn’t appear on any map. That’s where I used to walk Branwell, ignoring the sign that spelled danger, picking my way through the crumbling ruins of the cottage that once stood tall and proud until that stretch of coastline eroded. Mum,
Ben and I used to picnic at the cottage, high above the crowded beach. Later I’d taken Matt there and shared my memories, told him what a special place it was, and that was where he proposed. We’d made love inside the old building, up against the bare brick wall. As I think of it, I remember something from the hypnosis. A picnic with Matt at our special place. I feel a pang of something I can’t
identify deep in my belly, but I push it away. Perhaps when spring approaches and the town bustles once more I’ll go back there, but today I stick to the seafront. It’s bleak, waves roaring in a pebble grey ocean, the wind numbing cheeks and ears, but I like the solitude. No one takes a holiday at this time of year. I unclip Branwell’s lead and watch as he races off on our usual route, ears flapping
in the wind. It isn’t until I’ve straightened up, salt spray dampening my face, that I notice someone sitting on the bench, staring out at the sea. It strikes me as odd that someone would sit in this foul weather. Immediately I check out his shoes. Black trainers.

‘Branwell!’ I call his name as my pace quickens. My black-and-white dog is a speck in the distance as he hares towards the deserted
Pitch and Putt and the steps we usually take down to the beach.

‘Branwell.’ I shout again. His name is snatched away by the wind but, to my relief, he is hovering next to the bench where, in the sweltering summer months, the same elderly couple sit with a flask and a Tupperware of sandwiches, tossing crusts to the seagulls who shriek out their hunger. Initially I can’t see why he’s stopped
but, as I draw closer, I see he’s munching on a hotdog someone has dropped.

I look over my shoulder. The figure on the bench has gone. But still, I think, as the bushes sheltering the golf course rustle in the wind, the trees creak, there are plenty of places to hide. I shiver as I crouch down.

‘Haven’t you heard of the five-second rule?’ I mutter as I clip Branwell’s lead back onto
his collar. There’s no way I’m walking along the empty beach. I straighten up, notice what’s been left on the bench and everything around me recedes. The roaring of the waves, the rain hurling itself at my face, the pier – it all slides away.

A pair of shoes. My missing shoes. Black pointy heels with a silver bow. The shoes I was wearing that night. Taped to the slats of the bench is a
note, a sandwich bag keeping it dry.

Two words.

Run, Ali.

Without hesitation, I scoop up the shoes and sprint towards home.

19

I feel a smidgen of pity for you as you stare at your shoes in horror, your mouth opening and closing like a goldfish, and I quickly push it away. Have you ever felt pity for anyone other than yourself, Ali? Have you?

You run, faster than I ever thought you could. Does
it drive you harder when you have no idea who you are frightened of? Who you are running from? Is adrenaline coursing through your veins? Your heart racing in your chest?

It’s almost comical the way you race across the empty golf course, towards the main road, the dog as confused as you are, your arms windmilling to keep your balance as your feet lose traction on the wet grass, the heels
you were carrying tumbling to the floor. You fall heavily on your hands and knees, the dog springing forward, licking your face. You look around as though someone might be watching, and I am, Ali. I am. I wouldn’t miss your terrified expression for anything. I can’t resist rustling the bush I’m crouching in and your wide eyes seem to stare directly into my hiding place, but you don’t spot me. Even
if you could, you wouldn’t be able to identify me, would you? From this close range I can see your cheeks are wet and I hope it’s with tears, as well as the rain.

You scramble to your feet and, without picking up the shoes, set off again, but this time, despite your hurry, your gait is slower, awkward. You’re reluctant to put weight on your left foot and I’m glad you’re hurt, Ali. Glad.
But you haven’t started to suffer nearly enough. I’m only just getting warmed up.

Out on the main road a car backfires and you actually duck, covering your head with your arms, as though someone is shooting at you. As if I’d do that, Ali. Shooting is too quick for you. Too painless.

But still, as I watch you hobble away I can’t deny there’s a stirring deep inside of me, but you’ve
brought this on yourself, Ali. You really have.

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