The Date: An unputdownable psychological thriller with a breathtaking twist (5 page)

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8

I can’t settle. The thought of the shredded roses conquers sleep. The hours slide by as I lie on my back, the mattress curving up around my body, sagging and sighing as I roll onto my side. The hour late. Cars thrum past infrequently now, and the pub at the end of the road must
be closed. In the distance, a dog barks. Every sound is amplified, slicing through the silence. My fingers scrunch the top of my duvet. As a child I was scared of monsters and I used to draw the covers over my head. The fingertip-bruises on my arms, the still-throbbing lump on my head remind me that monsters are real. They walk among us, looking like us, talking like us. Unidentifiable. While I
was in hospital I was desperate to be at home, but now I am here I am longing for the sanctity of the ward, where the constant background noises reminded me I was not alone. The pain in my temples pulses. I wish a frazzled nurse would tip painkillers into my hand, handing me a warm plastic cup of water. Stupidly, I’ve left the co-codamol I was prescribed on the coffee table, in the lounge. I sit up.
An engine outside roars and revs, there’s an angry slam of a door. A squeak. Our gate? Chrissy returning early from her break? The front door hasn’t creaked open but then I remember the new lock and I can almost imagine Chrissy chewing her lip in frustration, poking her key again and again, wondering if she’s drunk too much. If she’s got the right house. The right door.

Jamming my feet
into my slippers and shrugging on my dressing gown, I traipse downstairs to the dark, narrow, hallway. Chinks of moonlight push through the gaps in the blind covering the small window to the left of the front door.

I’m holding my breath though I don’t know why, afraid to flick on the lights, wishing now that I’d asked Ben to stay the night, but James and Jules are only next door. I’m okay.
I am.

There’s a shuffling outside. A muttering.

‘Chrissy?’ My voice is barely audible.

The door handle rattles up and down. I step forward. My fingers grip the key but, instead of twisting it, I sidestep and hoist open the blind so I can look out of the window. A face presses against the glass. I stumble backwards in shock. The face stares back at me. It isn’t Chrissy, this
much I know. Automatically I think it’s a man. It’s too dark to see clearly but there is no long hair poking out of his beanie, the type workmen wear. It can only be seconds that we stand, eyes locked together, but it feels like an eternity.

He raises his gloved hand and slams it against the glass. Slowly, methodically, over and over. Thud-thud-thud – until the thumping on the window merges
with the thudding inside my head. I clasp my hands over my ears and screw my eyes closed, praying this is a medication-induced nightmare, but when I open them again the face is still there.

His hands still banging the glass.

It’s like something out of the horror films Matt used to love. He’d wrap his arm tightly around my shoulders, plant kisses on the top of my head as I pressed
my face against his chest every time there was a scary bit. Stuffing toffee popcorn into my mouth, my crunching dulling the sounds of the screaming coming from the screen. But this isn’t fantasy, this man outside my window, fogging the glass with his breath. This is razor-sharp real, and utterly, utterly terrifying. If it were a movie I’d be yelling at the actress to move, to run, to do
something
. My legs feel like paper as I back down the hallway, slow steps, unable to tear my gaze away from the window as though it might shatter if my eyes are not on it. It must be him. Ewan.

He can’t get in
I tell myself but that doesn’t calm my frantic heart. It doesn’t dry the sweat that is running in rivulets between my breasts. Suddenly, I’m desperate to call the police. Fumbling behind me
I twist the door handle to the lounge, and I stumble backwards, righting myself as I switch on the light. The landline we have for the broadband is on the bookcase and I swipe it from its cradle, the shaking fingers of my other hand clicking on the table lamp. I banish the dark but fear has still swallowed me whole. The tomato soup I had for supper rising in my throat as my thumb stabs the call button.
Holding the handset to my ear, I wait for the reassuring whirr, picturing every bad movie I have ever seen. Is it really so easy to snip a phone line? The relief I feel as the dialling tone hums against my ears is immense. I lower the handset and press the first 9.

The thudding stops.

The second 9.

The silence is louder somehow than the banging on the glass.

Hesitating,
I lower the handset, although I still hold it tightly in my hand as I edge back out into the hallway. Has he gone? It’s too dark to properly see. Pressing my spine against the wall I edge towards the front door, pausing after each step.

Waiting.

Listening.

All I can hear is my pulse booming in my ears. I’m close to the window now. The phone reassuringly solid in my hands as
I crouch down and awkwardly shuffle forward thinking I’m invisible in the shadows. Under the windowsill, I take a second to steel myself. I raise my head, almost an inch at a time, until my eyes are peeping out of the misted glass.

A shadow shifts.

There’s a split second where I can’t move. I can’t breathe. I can’t do anything except let terror crash over me, my eyes bewitched by
the movement, but it’s the branches of the tree outside. It’s nothing but the tree. Gingerly, I stand, cup my eyes and press my face against the glass.

There’s nobody there.

But that doesn’t mean he has gone.

THURSDAY

9

The clock chimes midnight, and the sound jars me into action. My need to see if the man has gone overrides everything else. Still clutching the phone I tear around the house, flooding every room with light, scooping back the curtains, lifting the bottoms of the blinds. The back
garden swarms with brooding shadows as the moon casts a soft glow onto the trees that guard our fence. Out the front, lamp posts dot the street. The council have recently turned off every other bulb and the shady space between them seems vast. Most of the other houses are shrouded in darkened sleep. Whoever was banging on my window has vanished, and it seems fruitless to call the police now, but
I don’t want to be alone. From the kitchen I pull a carving knife from the block, it’s blade glinting reassuringly as I stalk to the front door, where I grip the key so tightly my fingertips tinge blue, but I can’t bring myself to turn it. To make the short bolt to Jules’s house. Too afraid to leave until daybreak, I settle on the sofa instead, determined to stay awake.
Just in case.

My head jerks upright, as though I’m a marionette and someone has tugged a string. Squinting at the brightness of the room I wipe the drool from my mouth with the back of my hand. I’d thought I couldn’t possibly sleep, but I must have nodded off for a few hours, and now it feels there is nothing quite as lonely as 5 a.m.It’s quiet. Still. There is no one banging the glass and yet I’m left
again with that jittery feeling. Standing, my knees feel exhaustion-soft and I have to gather my strength before I can move. My heart kicks against my ribs as I peer out of each window, waiting for a face to lunge towards me. It doesn’t. I pad back into the lounge. It’s freezing. I had purposely left the heating off, thinking the chill would keep me alert, but my hands and feet are ice. Kneeling,
I lay kindling and criss-cross wood in the grate of the wood burner, before I strike a match and ignite the firelighter. Vibrant flames happily dance their hello as I heap on wood, and I don’t feel quite so alone.

My heart lifts a little as I calculate I can collect Branwell in a few hours. I’ve missed him so much. For such a small dog he has a huge personality. Every now and then I take
him into work to see the residents – some of them have found it more of a wrench giving up their pets than their homes. The utter joy on Mrs Thomas’s face as Branwell settled on her lap and she stroked him with her arthritic hands was such a pleasure to see.

The plug-in air freshener hisses out vanilla, startling me and, as I turn my head to glare at it, I catch sight of the pink, floral
storage box on top of the bookcase. Like a magnet it pulls me forward and, although I don’t want to, although I know what I am about to do might be torturous, I can’t stop myself from lifting down the box, easing off the lid.

My eyes mist as I stare at what I do not want to see. My history is spread out before me in glossy 6x4s. I’d clung onto the faint possibility that my life might be
split into two almost – a glass divide – and the faces of my memories relating to before all of this might still be intact and it would only be now, and what happens after, that is affected. I was horribly, horribly wrong. I pluck a loose print out of the pile. For years I’ve been meaning to buy albums and stick them in, the way Mum used to. That’s partly what kept me going after she was no longer
here. The hours I’d snuggle up with Ben and we’d flick through the pages of our past. Sharing the things we remembered: roasting beef spitting in the oven on a Sunday lunchtime, Yorkshire puddings golden brown. The things we didn’t want to forget: warm drinks before bed, stirring hot chocolate until the milk frothed and bubbled. And in sharing that way, the colours in my mind hadn’t faded the way
they had in some of these older shots in the box in front of me. My mum would never become a black-and-white version of herself. I’m for ever thankful that in those times photos weren’t stored somewhere on a cloud, password protected and impossible to access. Lost for ever like the person who had lovingly taken them. I think that’s why I print mine out. ‘Old-fashioned’ Matt used to say, as I picked
up another Snapfish delivery from the doormat. ‘Now get your pinny on and get your arse back into the kitchen, woman’ he’d joked as he swatted my bottom. He always made me laugh like no one else.

We’re laughing in the photo I’m holding. Not Matt: Chrissy, Jules and I. It was Jules’s thirtieth birthday and we were wearing bright pink T-shirts, our names emblazoned in chunky black letters.
Chrissy and I have our heads together, our strands of long blonde hair entwining. I wish she was here. Tomorrow I must replace my mobile so it’s easier to keep in touch. Ben has already cancelled my bank cards.

At the thought of Matt, I rifle through the box, the aching in my chest unable to force my fingers to keep still. Most of our wedding photos are still at the house – I call it
the
house as I can’t quite think of it as ours still and I can’t bear to call it his. The images are larger than the ones here, glued into a brown leather album, protected by tissue paper interleaves that turned out to be stronger than my delicate heart. I know I have a couple of spares here. It’s the flowers that catch my eye. The yellow roses in my bouquet hanging by my side as vibrant as the beaming
sun. You can’t see our faces and I’m longing to pretend nothing has changed, but of course, it has, and I am charged with emotion as I study the image. We’re stepping off the pavement carpeted with pastel confetti, into the ribboned car, tin cans tied to the bumper. Matt’s hand is on the small of my back and for a split second I think I still feel it there, warm and reassuring. Later, those fingers
undoing my zip, unhooking my stockings. I lift the box, sniffing hard, and angrily drop it onto the floor as though it is responsible for all that has happened.

The photos jumble and, as I go to slam on the lid, I notice her – Mum – and not only do I notice her, I
recognise
her. The sight of her is like stumbling across a bottle of water in the Sahara. Instant relief, cool and calming.
I drink in her face, her smile, her eyes. She looks exactly the same. Looking away, I snap my eyes back to her face, trying to catch myself out almost, but it’s still her. It’s still Mum. Rummaging through the box I dig out every photo of her I can find, propping them against the TV, on the bookshelves, slotting them into the silver frames Chrissy had hung on the wall housing arty black-and-white
landscapes. Everywhere I turn I see her and, deep inside of me, hope flutters its fragile wings and I wrap my arms around myself as though I can keep it inside. Although Dr Saunders said I might recognise one in a thousand people and not to get my hopes up if I did, there’s a chance, however slim, that I might be getting better. And it is this thought, not fear, nor loneliness nor anything else I
have felt throughout the night, that carries me through until dawn breaks, the sun chasing away the darkness, streaking the sky lavender and pink. Gentle colours that gradually soften the hard edges of my memories of last night, until I question whether anything bad actually happened at all. And as the colours grow stronger as the day gathers strength, somehow I feel stronger too.

Ben rings me from his car on the way to Edinburgh, the crackle and hiss from his hands-free system making him hard to understand. I reassure him I am fine, although we both know I’m not, and I promise to call him if I need him.

‘I worry about you on your own,’ he says, and I tell him I won’t be alone for long. I’ve arranged to pick Branwell up from Matt’s at eleven.

James is
standing in his doorway, feet bare, signing for a parcel, when I swing open my front door.

‘Morning, Ali,’ he says, and I raise my hand in greeting without looking at him as I start to cut across the patchy lawn, car key poised in my hand.

‘Did you hear anything last night?’ he calls, and I stop in my tracks and spin around.

‘Like what?’

‘Some idiot thumped on my door
about midnight. Woke me up.’

‘Probably someone pissed on their way home.’ The postman shakes his head and laughs. ‘We’ve all been there. That’s what comes of having a pub down the road, I suppose.’

As I carry on walking I can’t help but feel relieved. It wasn’t Ewan, and I’m so glad I didn’t call the police. The whole street had probably been disturbed the way James and I had been
and that makes it easier to believe the wind could have lifted the lid on the bin, battered my bouquet. Against the drab grey concrete driveway my feet pound the rhythm to the words,
it’s over-it’s over-it’s over
.

I have almost, almost started to accept this until I squeeze past the line of trees that carpeted my car roof with leaves last autumn. As I near the front of my car I notice my
wing mirror is cracked and hanging dolefully from the driver’s side. Edging forward, my head swims as I know it likely isn’t over at all. It’s only just beginning.

And I know this from the blood thickly streaked across my now-cracked bumper.

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