The Date: An unputdownable psychological thriller with a breathtaking twist (2 page)

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2

This can’t be real.

Swallowing the acid that has risen once more, I close my eyes and take three deep, calming breaths before I dare look in the mirror again.

Nothing has changed.

The face reflected back at me is not mine.

It’s impossible.

My
curtain of long, blonde hair swishes as I turn my head from left to right. It’s me. But it isn’t. The features are not mine.

I must be asleep. Rationally I know this can’t be happening, but I can’t recall experiencing a dream so vivid. I can hear the thrum of a car passing by outside the window. Feel the cold drops of water trickling from my fingers. Smell the raspberry liquid soap I’ve
just washed my hands with. But I can’t be awake, I just can’t.

I long to be back in my cosy bed, to fall into sleep, dark and warm, but I can’t seem to move. Can’t tear my eyes away from the image in the mirror watching tears pour down cheeks that are not mine. Slowly I unclench my fingers and raise a trembling hand towards my reflection, watch as the mirror-me does the same. My bones turn
to dust and I sink to the floor.

What’s going on? Drawing my knees up to my chest I lower my head, rocking backwards and forwards, as though I can shake away what I have just seen. I can’t. I don’t know how much time passes. Minutes? Hours? I become aware of the cold, hard ceramic floor tiles beneath me, the way my entire body is aching.
Think
. There must be an explanation. There has to
be. It’s almost with relief I come to the conclusion I must have been drugged last night. Something slipped into my drink. Of course! That’s why I’m hallucinating. Why I can’t remember anything. The floor seems to lurch as I stand, and I walk tight-rope slow, arms splayed for balance. My voluminous lilac dressing gown is hanging from the back of the door and I slip it on, tying the belt around my
waist. It doesn’t bring the snuggly comfort it usually does.

Chrissy may be able to fill in the dark spaces in my mind. I pick my way unsteadily down the hallway to her bedroom. Her door is closed and, too impatient to wait for answers, I push it open without knocking.

Her room is empty. The box of chocolates she brought home weeks ago still sits on her bedside cabinet. Her Marc
Jacobs perfume, the neck of the bottle a daisy, tossed on the bed. Chrissy’s dressing table is covered with more make-up than the Boots N°7 counter, and I have flashes of us getting ready last night, The Human League blaring out ‘Don’t You Want Me’, as Chrissy coaxed me out of my usual jeans.

‘I love this one.’ She’d held my green dress up under her chin, smoothing the fabric with one hand.
‘If you don’t want to wear it tonight, can I borrow it again?’

‘If you won’t let me wear jeans, I’ve not much else to choose from. Most of my dresses are still at the house.’

I met Chrissy only six months ago, at the gym, but she’d been so easy to talk to that we quickly progressed from sharing an after-work-out cake to sharing confidences. Matt had become increasingly hostile at
my futile attempts to fix things between us and, weary with our incessant arguing, I had, reluctantly, moved in with Chrissy, to give us both some space. I hadn’t brought much with me, hoping time would heal our rift, but it has driven us further apart.

I’d shimmied into the dress and pinned a smile to my face, as I slicked glossy pink over my lips and tried not to think of Matt, while
Chrissy coated my nails with look-at-me magenta.

Her bed is crumpled and covered with the vast array of clothes she tried on and quickly discarded last night. It might have been my date but she was coming to keep an eye on me. To keep me safe. Except she didn’t, did she? And by the looks of things, she hasn’t been home.

Where is she? I’m seriously worried. As much as I want to pretend
nothing happened last night it isn’t working. Already I am falling and breaking apart.

Nausea rises again and panic punches me in the guts. I think once more of the blood on my hands when I woke, the cut on my head. Thoughts attack me as the room shifts and tilts. The world lets go of me and I fall onto Chrissy’s bed, curling into a ball as though I can ward off memories that gather and
retreat. Voices shouting. Misshapen shadows. The fingers of last night reaching out, dragging me back to a place I don’t want to go. Despite my stillness, I’m kicking and screaming. Fear, when it returns, is startlingly real. I hug myself tighter.

A knocking on the front door cuts through the hazy and indistinct images. Unease shifts in my gut. Branwell barks and I remember I haven’t let
him out of the kitchen. He must wonder what’s going on. Usually the first thing I do when I wake is let him into our small garden, watching him through the window as the kettle boils, circling the perimeter, sniffing at the borders as though something may have changed overnight.

This time the doorbell.

Slowly I stand. My inability to recall the details of last night has shrouded
me with shame. I feel dirty. Sullied. Not wanting to face anyone who might look at me and instantly know what has happened in a way that I don’t. But what if it’s Chrissy? She often forgets her keys and can’t be bothered to walk around the back of the house to reach the key safe. I have to see who it is.

Reluctantly, slowly, I inch downstairs, each step magnifying the stabbing in
my head. In the hallway, the blind to the small window is closed, but through the safety glass of the front door, I can see a shadowy figure that is far too tall to be Chrissy. Is it him? My date from last night? Ethan? I can’t quite remember his name. No, it was Ewan, I’m sure. I try to recall his face, but all I see is a blurry mass looming towards me.

Sweat pricks my skin. I’m so scared.
I wrap my arms around myself, wincing, as I brush against my bruises. There’s no way I’m opening the door. The knocking comes again, furious now. I stand statue still. Scarcely breathing.
Go away. Go away. Go away.
A throat clears, deep and loud. It’s definitely a man. And then silence and light as the shadow disappears and, for a second, I think he has gone. Time is long and slow, until there’s
a jangling. The sound of a key scraping the lock. I’m frozen with fear as I remember my missing handbag, my keys, my purse with my ID. Has he come to hurt me again? To silence me?

The handle begins to twist. Every nerve ending in my body urges me to move, but I can’t wrench my eyes away from the door. It begins to swing open. A tan shoe steps onto the doormat that says ‘Welcome’. A denim-clad
leg. And then he’s in my house. This stranger. Unbidden, a scream is torn from my throat, sharp and loud, and the sound kick-starts my feet.

The aching in my body, the pulsing in my head fades to nothing as adrenaline speeds through my system. My bare feet slap against the laminate floor, arms pumping by my sides. I fall into the kitchen, slamming the door behind me. Branwell springs forward,
delighted to see me. Standing on his hind legs, his front paws on my knees, his rough tongue laps at my hand as though he hasn’t seen me for a year. Matt and I always joked if there was ever an intruder, Branwell would lick them to death. Now it’s not funny. Too late I realise I should have run into the bathroom, where I could have locked myself in, or into the lounge, where there’s a landline.
Anywhere but this tiny room.

There’s nowhere to hide.

Footsteps approach, loud and purposeful. My eyes dart wildly between the knife block on the counter and the back door, weighing up which I can reach faster. The door handle squeaks as it begins to twist. Instinctively I dart forward and yank a knife from the block, the stainless steel blade glinting in the weak winter sun that’s
threading under the roller blind.

The knobs of the oven press into the small of my back as I cower against it; the smell of my fear radiating from my pores. The man enters the kitchen, and I raise the knife, but my hand is shaking so violently it clatters to the floor. A cry escapes my lips as I drop to my knees. It’s slipped under the breakfast bar and, at first, I’m not sure I can reach
it, but I stretch and wrap my fingers tightly around the handle. Bizarrely, despite all that’s going on, I notice a blackened chip under the oven and I wonder when I last cleaned the floor.

‘Ali?’ says a voice.

‘Ben!’ At the sound of my brother, I spring to my feet, thwacking my head on the breakfast bar. Pain pixelates my vision.

‘Ben.’ My voice is small now. Weak. ‘There’s
a man…’ I hold the knife loosely at my side. My vision clears. I can’t see my brother at all. Only this stranger who now stands over me, reaching for me.

No.

His hand grasps mine. Crying now, I try to pull away, but his grip is tight. ‘Ali?’

Utterly perplexed I stare at him. It’s my brother’s voice. Ben’s voice. And he’s wearing Ben’s silver-framed glasses. But it’s
not
his
face.

‘It’s me, Ali-cat.’

No one else calls me this but him, yet I am not reassured.

His face.

‘There’s no one else here, I promise. No one at all.’ He speaks in the soft tone of when he was small and used to curl onto my lap, both of us unable to believe the tragedy that had befallen our family, begging me to read ‘The Owl and the Pussy-Cat’ again and again. Some semblance
of normality.

Like the poem, this doesn’t make sense. Branwell is pawing at the stranger, wagging his tail; the soft growl that usually vibrates in his throat when he meets someone new is absent. Could this really be Ben? The kitchen bobs up and down as though I am on that boat with honey and plenty of money, wrapped up in a five-pound note. Nonsense. It’s all nonsense.

The Ben I
do not recognise speaks again, but this time his words sound as though they are coming from oceans away. Blackness hurtles towards me and I welcome it with open arms.

3

I have a sense of seasickness. An ocean of misery and confusion ebbing and flowing as I float on a cold, steel trolley. The faded blue curtains pulled around this tiny cubicle do little to cancel out the chatter of nurses, the slamming of doors, but the noise is nothing compared
to the acerbic voice inside my head cackling
going mad-going mad-going mad
and I don’t only listen, I believe it to be true. I have sent Ben to grab some lunch. We’ve already been here for hours and there is no sign of me being discharged. Besides, if I’m being honest, I can’t bear to look at him.

My eyes are gritty with sorrow. I cried all the way to the hospital, huddled in Ben’s passenger
seat, pressing my body against the door as I clung to the handle, trying to create space between me and the man who sounded like my brother, who acted like my brother, and yet somehow, with the exception of his glasses, didn’t look like him at all. On previous journeys we’d sing along to the Brit pop he was obsessed with, ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’, and the lyrics seemed to impart a message
just for us. We’d chat about our days, laughing together, occasionally falling into a painful silence when I knew we were both thinking about our childhood. Often, we drew comfort in the space between the words; the lack of conversation sometimes saying more than we ever could. It was difficult to talk about what happened, still; perhaps it always would be. But it made us closer than most siblings
I know.

But, this morning, as we sped towards Accident and Emergency, the atmosphere was tight with tension. To placate my sobs, Ben placed his hand on my arm, and I slapped it away, as though it was burning hot, unable to stand being touched by this face I did not know, and I could feel the hurt radiating from him, my baby brother who I have always strived to protect.

There was
a roaring in my ears, waves rushing inside a shell, as I stared out of the window, trying to focus on the ordinary. Candy-coloured buckets and spades piled up outside the newsagents. Circling seagulls screeching as they swooped for food. The brown sign for the ‘fun’ pier; although the rickety wooden boards with sea snapping beneath clattering feet, the meagre array of slot machines with flashing lights
and tumbling two pence pieces, the one solitary kiosk serving minute scoops of ice cream in often stale cones, was anything but fun. Still, better to look anywhere but at Ben’s face. Each time I thought of it, thought of my own reflection, pressure formed in my chest, my heart in a vice.

‘You must remember
something
, Ali?’

I heard the scepticism that poured from his lips as we waited
at the junction. In the far distance are the cliffs where we had played as children in the crumbling ruined cottage we pretended was ours. Those memories seemed sharper to me than the indistinct fog from last night. But I couldn’t tell him what I didn’t know. The engine hummed, my cheek vibrating as it pressed against the window. I sensed rather than saw Ben’s gaze boring into me but I didn’t
turn around.

‘I’ve already told you, I
can’t
.’

Ben had fired question after question at me in my kitchen after I’d come round, and I could sense his fury bubbling just below the surface. Had someone hurt me? He demanded answers over and over. Who was it? Should we call the police?

‘No!’ We’d exchanged a look. I had not been able to read the expression on his unfamiliar face.
Ben was young when the police turned up, though he must still remember the way things were never the same afterwards. The way our world had fractured. Even now, my stomach still clenches like a fist whenever I see a police uniform.

‘I think I just fell at the bar.’ I’d been sketchy and vague as I’d shown him the lump on my head. My hair clumped together with dried blood. Tried to explain
I couldn’t recognise his face, that I didn’t recognise mine. I hadn’t told him my suspicions that I had been drugged and attacked. Shame washed over me whenever I thought about it. The scenarios my mind conjured became darker, more twisted with every passing second. How could I tell my brother my fears? Too often in the past, I’d had people gazing at me with sympathy in their eyes. Or disgust. I
couldn’t bear it from him too.

In the car, the questions kept coming and my agitation built. I glared at the red traffic light holding us up and there’d been a sudden spark. A memory from a few days before. Chrissy glugging red wine into my glass despite me shaking my head; pressing it into my reluctant hand until I submitted, curling my fingers around the stem.

‘I’m having second
thoughts about this date,’ I said to her. ‘I’m still married. I still want to be married.’


You
do,’ she said, pointedly, before pausing as though filtering her words. ‘Come on, Ali. It’s just a bit of fun. You’ve dealt with a lot. And not just with Matt.’ She looked at me with such sorrow that, not for the first time, I wished I hadn’t told her what I’d been through; but my birthday is
always such a difficult time for me, and her presenting me with a cake had been my undoing. The wine loosened my tongue. At the time, I’d felt such relief at finally telling someone; it was only afterwards I wondered if I could trust her to keep my secret.

‘It’ll do you good to let your hair down.’ She patted my hand. ‘What could possibly go wrong?’ She dazzled me with her smile, her freckle-spotted
nose crinkling. I’d taken a too-large sip of Shiraz, hoping it would quash the butterflies thronging in my stomach.

‘Everything,’ I sighed. And I hadn’t known what I’d been more afraid of: that I wouldn’t find my date attractive, or that I would. But she’d been right. Matt and I are over, and one of us will eventually meet someone new. Move on. Perhaps it would be easier if it were me first.

The fears I had then seem paper thin now. Inconsequential. Never had I envisaged this.

I tugged my sleeves down, covering the bruises that were already tinged purple.

The wheels of the car turned faster and faster, propelling us forward, and my heart galloped along keeping pace. By the time we turned into the car park I had convinced myself I was having a heart attack. Soaked
in sweat, I clawed at the neck of my jumper, tugging it away from my throat, lungs burning, trying to suck in air. Ben circled the car park trying to find a space as I heaved in short, sharp, painful breaths.
I can’t breathe
. Something jolted deep inside me when I realised I had felt this way before and, as though remembering, my hands circled my throat.

‘Fuck it!’ Ben screeched to a halt
in a disabled bay and flung open his door, racing to help me out. My weight sagged against him as he supported me, and as the automatic doors of the Accident and Emergency department swooshed open, the sickly smell of disinfectant hit the back of my throat.

‘Help,’ Ben called, and heads of waiting patients swivelled like owls but nobody moved. Ben half carried, half dragged me to the desk,
and the nurse rose from her seat.

‘Bring her straight through to triage,’ she said. She took my pulse and checked my blood pressure as I gasped and wheezed.

She rustled open a paper bag. ‘Breathe nice and slow.’ The fingers squeezing my rib cage loosened their grip. ‘A panic attack. Have you had one before?’

I shook my head, instantly regretted it as stars exploded behind
my eyes.

‘What’s your name, love?’

‘It’s Alison Taylor.’ Ben had answered for me as he pushed his glasses up onto the bridge of his nose in the nervous way of his.

‘Back in a sec.’

A welcome breeze had wafted in as the door to the room opened and shut. Minutes later it opened again.

‘Let’s fill out some details.’ A different nurse stood in front of me, clipboard
in hand.

‘My name is Alison Taylor.’

‘I know that bit. You just told me.’

Not her too
. I stared at her in horror.
She doesn’t look anything like the nurse that looked after me when I came in
. And the fingers squeezed and squeezed my ribs again as the bag was held to my mouth once more.

Please
.
I don’t want to
.

Fingers around my throat, vision tunnelling. I can’t
breathe. A voice cold and angry.

Bitch.

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