The Date: An unputdownable psychological thriller with a breathtaking twist (4 page)

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‘Yes. I’m a care
assistant. Oh God. How am I going to tell the residents apart? I won’t… I can’t…’

‘For now you need to rest and recover. I’ll sign you off for two weeks and give you some painkillers to take for your head, and we’ll reassess how you’re coping with… with everything after that. Okay?’ He hands me my papers. I cling to them as though they are a buoy as he opens his office door and I am cast
out onto the choppy waters once more.

On the ward I dress in clothes Ben has brought in, a pink summer skirt and a clashing red and orange floral top. He’s remembered bra and pants but forgotten tights and shoes, and I shiver as I shuffle out into the winter-cold car park in my slippers.

It’s only four o’clock but already dusk is sucking the daylight away. As we drive
I lean forward in my seat as though I can make us go faster, longing to shower away the stench of illness that clings to my skin, to sleep in my own soft bed that smells of summer meadow fabric softener. To be back among my own things, if not my own home, safe and familiar. My mind drifts to Matt. I am incredulous I won’t be able to recognise the face of the man I married although I can still picture
him clearly. Long black lashes framing hazel eyes. The mouth that used to lift into a smile when he saw me but later became a thin, straight line whenever I walked into the room.

Ben cuts the engine and reaches for the door handle.

‘Do you mind if I go in alone?’ As soon as I’ve eaten and showered I want to go to bed.

He hesitates. ‘If that’s what you want.’ He pushes my new
door key into my hand.

‘Is it okay if I whizz up to Edinburgh tomorrow? The site up there is haemorrhaging money. I need to find out why.’

‘Of course,’ I say. ‘I’ve James and Jules next door if I need anything, and I’m sure Chrissy will be back any day.’

There’s a beat.

‘Honestly, Ben. The painkillers have wiped me out. I’ll probably spend all day sleeping.’

‘You will call me if you need anything or if you remember anything?’ Ben asks.

I nod, and he leans to kiss me on the cheek, as is our way, but hesitates as I lean away from him. He squeezes my arm instead. The edges of our relationship have become sharp and jagged. There’s a distance between us that wasn’t there before. I know I’m unfair to treat him differently, when I’m the one who has
changed, but I can’t help it.

My body is leaden, almost sinking into the path as I stumble towards the front door. At the bottom of the driveway, the shadow of my bright yellow Fiat 500. It’s disconcerting to think I might have driven it the state I was in. What if someone had got hurt? It doesn’t bear thinking about.

There’s a bouquet of pink roses on my doorstep. As I pick them
up, leaves scatter like dust.

Inside I kick the door shut with my foot. ‘Chrissy?’ But although the scent of vanilla from our plug-in air freshener is strong, the air is thick, as if no one has been here for days and I know she isn’t home. The house feels empty but I’m too exhausted to collect Branwell today. I scoop the post from the mat and toss it on the work surface, dump the flowers
in the sink. The mail is mostly junk; there are get well cards from work signed by the staff and, touchingly, one from the residents, their handwriting as shaky as their balance. Turning my attention to the flowers, I pull open the drawer and rummage around for the scissors to snip the stems. Among the batteries, the crumpled receipts and freezer bags are my keys. Odd. If they’re not in my handbag
they are always hanging on a hook by the front door. If it weren’t for the flowers I might never have found them. Ben needn’t have changed the locks after all. I lift the roses from the sink. Inexplicably I feel chilled. Almost reluctant to open the small envelope sellotaped to the bouquet, my name handwritten on the front. These haven’t been delivered by a florist. I pull out the stiff white card,
yellow roses decorating the corners. Four words. Just four words scrawled in thick, black pen.

Enjoy the date, bitch?

6

Oh Ali, I wish I could see your face as you open that card. I bet you thought your nightmare was over? It’s only just beginning. We’re going to have some fun. And by that I mean I’m going to have fun. You? You’re going to scream.

7

Someone must have seen who left the flowers. I rush next door to ask Jules, grateful again that Chrissy had rented the house next door to James and now we are all neighbours. It’s been the one good thing, the only good thing, to come out of my separation, being able to get together
with my friends and share a bottle of wine without worrying about driving or taxis.

The doorbell peals. A chilling wind bites at my nose, my ears. Snow is forecast later, clouds covering the stars invisible. Wrapping my arms around my middle I bounce up and down on the balls of my feet, desperate to keep warm.

The door swings open. It’s a man. I tell myself there’s nothing to be
frightened of, it’s only James, but still I keep my eyes fixed firmly on the floor, unable to look him in the eye, wanting to picture his face the way I used to and not see the image my brain will tell me is in front of me. His boots are scuffed at the toe, and I hold the tiny scratches in my gaze as I blurt out: ‘Someone left a bunch of flowers on my step. Did you see who?’

‘Ali!’ he exclaims,
as though I am the one who looks different. ‘Jules is out but come on in.’ James is an accountant, although he told me once over a glass of wine he hates his job, he’s saving to buy a boat. Get away from it all, I suppose.

‘No, thanks,’ I say, feeling a desperate sadness as I realise just how uncomfortable I am around people right now – before this James felt almost like another brother.
We share the same taste in music and he’s offered me tickets to gigs a couple of times, chilled-out folk who would bore Matt senseless.

‘The flowers?’ I prompt.

‘Sorry. I haven’t seen anyone. Wasn’t there a card?’

Tears flood my eyes.

‘Are you okay?’

I shake my head.

‘Of course you’re not.’

There’s little else to say except, ‘Can I have the door
key Ben left with you?’ I’m going to put it in the key safe.

He darts inside his house and seconds later presses the cold metal into my hand. ‘I’m sorry,’ James says. ‘About what happened to you. Do you remember anything yet?’

‘No.’ Cheeks stinging, I turn and walk away. He calls my name, his voice cracking with emotion, and I hesitate but all I hear is the wind battering the trees
and I know he is not going to speak again and, even if he did, there’s nothing he could say to make me feel any better.

Ewan has my address.
I check the front door is locked behind me three times.
He has my address.
My blood is hot, rushing through my veins at lightning speed. I’d been careful not to give out any personal information. We’d met in a public place. Has he tracked me
down or did he come home with me that night? What does he want?

Enjoy the date, bitch?

My eyes scan the message again and again, as though I can morph those four words into something else. Something nice. ‘Get well soon, Ali’ or ‘I love you. Ali’. I can’t remember the last time I’d heard that one. I turn the card over in my hands. There’s no logo
on the back and it could have come from anywhere.
He was here
. My logical mind tells me to call the police, but my cynical mind questions what they can actually do. This anonymous bunch of flowers could have come from a dozen supermarkets, and they’re hardly likely to rush over and offer me twenty-four-hour protection for a bouquet, are they? They didn’t protect us before and the threats then
were real and relentless and utterly terrifying. Briefly, I consider calling Ben but I know he’d insist on coming straight over and he needs a good night’s sleep before his long drive tomorrow. If something else happens, I’ll tell someone. I will.

The scent of the roses is cloying. I snatch them from the sink and step out of the back door, shivering, as I head for the bin. The darkness
is absolute. Our garden leads onto wasteland, one of the reasons Chrissy rented the house – bikini summers, making breakfast in bra and pants. I’d loved our private, sheltered space, but now I’m seeing potential hiding places everywhere. A rustling. It could be the wind. It could be something else. Someone else. Dumping the flowers in the almost overflowing bin – it was Chrissy’s turn to put them
out last week, but she forgot – I scurry back inside. My heart pounding, my hands trembling as I slam the door, turning the key. Checking it’s locked, again and again.

After I’ve showered, I trust in my favourite red-check fleecy pyjamas to relax me, but they don’t. Although I’m sleep-deprived and painkiller hazy I still feel edgy. A quick supper and then I’ll fall into bed. In the
kitchen I ignore the lingering scent of roses and switch on the radio. A blast of the 80s music Chrissy loves fills the kitchen – A-ha’s ‘Take on Me’. Twiddling the knobs I adjust the volume and retune it to Classic FM. Vivaldi’s
Four Seasons
drifts from the speaker. Rummaging through the cupboards, I pull out a tin.

Heinz tomato soup spins in the microwave. Branwell’s wicker basket sits
lonely by the back door, red blanket crumpled and sprinkled with sand from our last beach walk. His favourite monkey chew toy spreadeagled on the floor. The house seems so empty, silent, without his claws clip-clopping against the kitchen tiles, his low growl as foxes sneak into our garden. It’s beetle-black outside. The spotlights in the kitchen have turned the glass to a mirror. A shudder runs
through me as I stare outside into the depths of the wasteland behind our fence, wondering again who delivered the flowers. Cold kisses the back of my neck.

Tugging the cord, the blind drops until it brushes the taps on the sink. The sunflower fabric has never been long enough to cover the glass, but it didn’t seem important before. Chrissy liked the print, ‘a little bit of sunshine no
matter how dull the weather’, she had said but now, with the two-inch gap at the bottom, a gap deep enough for a pair of eyes, I feel horribly exposed. For the umpteenth time I rattle the handle of the back door, before doing the same with the front door and again meticulously check each window is latched.

The ping from the microwave shatters the silence. The bowl is scalding. Quickly,
I lift it with my fingertips onto a tray, and then twist open the loaf of bread, checking the crusts for mould, before taking my supper and hurrying into the lounge, where the curtains are tightly closed.

Despite my sense of disquiet, it’s good to be home, I think, as I sink onto the sofa. The pastel pink wallpaper patterned with dove grey birds automatically soothes me. Chrissy and I are
polar opposites. This is such a contrast to my minimalist home but, tonight, I’m grateful for the shelves crammed with the weird angels without faces, ornaments Chrissy loves, wings spread, protecting an invisible flock. The candles. The books. For once it feels homely rather than oppressive.

Another yawn escapes me. I hadn’t slept much in the hospital. The rattle of trolleys, the hum of
the night lights, the low murmur of nurses was constant, but that wasn’t what kept me awake. As soon as I stepped through the doors, into A & E, and inhaled that hospital smell, it all came rushing back. Hospitals may help, may heal, but even now I equate them with loss, and the nurses’ uniforms, much the same as police uniforms, send my heart spiralling like blackened smoke. Despite the years that
have passed, I have never got over what happened. Not really.

Slurping soup, I aim the remote at the TV, intent on finding something mindless to distract me. I’m behind with the soaps, so I open iPlayer and as the
Eastenders
theme begins I feel my shoulders start to relax. We had a ritual, Mum and I, we’d always be in our pyjamas, snuggled on the sofa, and whatever the weather we’d each
have a mug of hot chocolate, an open packet of custard creams between us. We’d dip our biscuits into the malty liquid. There was a knack to getting the timing right. Too long and the biscuits would turn to mush at the bottom of the mug. Ben would always be in bed. Whatever had happened in the day, whatever abuse had been hurled at us, whatever we’d had to deal with, it was our one constant. Our special
time. I miss that. I miss her.

Trying to remember what happened in the last episode, Phil Mitchell’s growly voice lances me and the bread I have dipped orange and soft sits hard and solid in the pit of my stomach. I don’t recognise him. Suddenly the enormity of the impact prosopagnosia will have on my life crashes into me. Soup sloshes onto my lap as my body shakes with the force of the
howl that rips through me, my tears splattering into the bowl.

As Dr Saunders had explained the condition, I hadn’t fully taken it in, but now, as I kneel in front of the TV as though I am praying, tracing the faces of the characters on screen with my fingertips, it seems horribly, horribly real. These people in Albert Square feel like family to me almost, the family I lost, and I might
never recognise them again. I might never recognise
anyone
again. It was impossible to imagine how life would be with my friends, my family, looking like strangers. I’d never once thought about TV. Movies. Theatre. I jab the screen to darkness with such force the DVDs housed on the shelf below tumble to the floor.

Although we stream most of the things we watch, I always buy my favourites
on disc. The box set of
Friends
. The
Step Up
movies.
Bridesmaids
, our go-to bad day movie, which Chrissy and I have watched far too many times, sliding a box of Maltesers between us, topping up our gin with fizzing tonic, stomach muscles sore with laughter.

There will be no re-watching my favourite films. No watching new ones. The actors’ faces will become unrecognisable to me the second
they leave the screen, morphing into someone else as they return. I feel I haven’t just lost them, the characters in the programmes I love, I’ve lost a piece of myself too and, inexplicably, I feel like I’m losing Mum all over again. My life will never be the same and I fold in on myself, my forehead resting on my knees, and I sob and sob as though my heart is breaking. As though my heart is breaking
again.

A crashing sound from the back garden.

Fear beats its wings. A scraping now. Something rooting around, and I tell myself it’s a fox. If Branwell were here his hackles would be raised, a low growl in his throat, but he is not here, and I am utterly alone and utterly terrified. Out of the kitchen window, there is nothing to see but blackness. I know if I were to fling open the
back door it would scare away the fox – if it is an animal that is skulking around in the dark.

If
.

Rummaging through the junk drawer I find the Maglite buried under tea towels and takeaway menus and, quickly, I stride upstairs. Opening my bedroom window wide I peer out into the garden, arcing the torchlight over the lawn, illuminating the roses scattered over it. I tell myself the
wind must have caught the lid, blown the bouquet to the ground, but even I can see from here the heads of the flowers have been torn violently from their stems.

A fox foraging for his dinner. That’s all.

I shine the torch on the bin. It is upright. The lid firmly closed.

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