The Date: An unputdownable psychological thriller with a breathtaking twist (6 page)

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10

The shock on your face is priceless as you stare at the blood covering your car, and I wish I knew what was racing through your mind. You really can’t remember anything at all, can you, Ali?

But I know what you’ve done. And I’m watching you. Waiting for the right time.
Waiting to hear you beg.

You will remember everything. I’ll make sure of it. It will all come back to you and when it does…

You’ll really wish it hadn’t.

11

I can’t quell the feeling of panic as I stare at the blood, and although I don’t know where it came from, I am hit with a fierce, sudden desire to wipe it away. I can hear James say goodbye to the postman and close his front door, and I dash inside my house and fill a bowl with
hot, soapy water. As I scrub my car, possible explanations roll around my mind. Under the cover of darkness muntjacs often venture out of the woodland on the cliff road. I could have clipped one. That would be enough to cause the damage, the blood, wouldn’t it? But still, I put my hand on my chest and press against it, trying to slow the frenzied pounding of my heart.

It’s another
forty-five minutes before I reverse my now-gleaming car onto the driveway at Matt’s house. My house. Keeping the damage to the front of the car as hidden as I can. My eyes automatically flicker to the bedroom we shared. The curtains are drawn, and I wonder if Matt is actually up. Usually the first thing he does every morning is sweep them open, scooping them into their tie backs. The first thing
Matt
did
, I remind myself. I don’t know him anymore.

My windscreen has streaked as it dried, and through it now I can see Mr Henderson wheeling his bin through his immaculate front garden. The brown cord trousers he always wears when he’s not working faded at the knees, his white shirt hanging out of his waistband on one side. Already, I am learning to focus on what people are wearing rather
than their features.

He’s lived in this house longer than anyone else on the street. Seen his son and daughter born here, his wife pass of cancer in her late forties. He’s incredibly lonely, I think. He’s only in his fifties but he doesn’t seem interested in meeting someone new. He seems more isolated than some of the residents I look after and they’re all at least twenty years older than
him. He works from home as a therapist, using hypnotherapy, and also lectures at the local university on psychology. When we first moved here, often he’d catch me as I came home on a Friday and we’d pass the time of day, over the fence. Before long I’d pop in for a cup of tea at the weekend. There was nothing specific we had in common, but the conversation always flowed as he poured tea into china
cups, a strainer catching the leaves, and cut large slabs of fruit cake ‘not as light as Jeannie used to make’. He mentioned her infrequently and when he did I could tell it was always painful for him. He’d clam up when I asked about his children whose faded school photos still hung in a gilded frame over the three-bar gas fire, offering nothing more than ‘they live abroad’. It suited me, I suppose.
I didn’t want to talk about my family either, except Ben.

‘Ali. It’s me,’ he calls, as I climb out of my car and I know Matt has told him what has happened.

‘I know.’ I force myself to smile although it’s the last thing I feel like doing.

‘My eleven o’ clock cancelled this morning,’ he says.

‘That must be frustrating,’ I say but I’m edging slowly up the driveway, not
wanting to be caught in conversation.

‘It happens. Not everyone is ready to be honest about how they feel. It can be hard. Expressing yourself. Are you back? I’ve missed our chats.’

‘Just picking up Branwell, I’m afraid.’

‘You should be at home with that husband of yours. It’s not safe out there.’

‘What do you mean?’ I feel my features stiffen.

‘With what happened
to you…’

‘What did happen to me?’ I’m curious. What has Matt been saying?

‘You…’ He’s flustered now. Toeing the kerb. ‘You had an accident.’

‘Sorry, I…’ I’m distracted by happy yapping: Branwell is bouncing at the window. ‘I have to go.’

And I’m glad I haven’t yet got the hang of reading expressions so I can’t see his hurt as I rush towards my warm welcome.

I have my key poised, but Matt opens the front door as though I am nothing more than a visitor. Branwell dances around my ankles, licking my hand, as though he hasn’t seen me in forever, and I suppose, in dog time, he hasn’t. Crouching on the doormat, I bury my face in his neck, scratching his belly as he balances his front two paws on my knees. It’s a comfort. It’s a delaying tactic. Matt’s already
in the kitchen, clattering the dog crate closed, gathering bowls and toys. There’s been no whoosh of the tap or click of the kettle. I’m not welcome. Still not welcome. My head injury has been a huge wake-up call, and although I had lain in hospital daydreaming of a reconciliation, it seems that Matt’s feelings have not changed and being here, remembering how we fell apart, I’m now not sure if it’s
Matt I really want, or I’m just frightened of being alone. It’s all become mixed up in my head.

Our relationship had deteriorated over a period of months. Matt became increasingly distant. The Friday night bouquets and cinema trips petered out. The house became devoid of the Terry’s Chocolate Oranges he’d hide in random places, behind the cushions, in the sleeve of my coat. ‘
Just because
I love you, Ali

.
Our weekends spent with him hunched behind his laptop, eyes bruised with tiredness, snappy and uncommunicative. He found it increasingly hard being self-employed, balancing business and pleasure. If I urged him to take time off he’d accuse me of nagging, the same if I mentioned expanding our family, and that stung. Last year we’d decided the time was right to try for a baby,
but he gradually stopped wanting me. Sometimes my fingers stretched towards him in the still of night, but he’d roll over, breathing deeply as though he was asleep, while rejection flicked its pointed tail and fed off my humiliation.

Our marriage was slowly unravelling but still I tried to bind it back together with threads of patience, love and home-cooked meals. One Friday Jules and her
husband, Craig, had come to dinner, as they often did. Before they arrived Matt had let slip that Craig was having an affair.

‘You’re not seeing anyone, are you?’ That was my instant thought and, as uncomfortable as it was, it would explain a lot.

‘No.’ One lonely, exposed word I wanted wrapped in ‘of course I wouldn’t’ or ‘there’ll never be anyone else for me but you’.

‘How
long have you known about Craig?’

He shrugged. ‘A few months.’

‘You’ve been lying to me?’ It rocked me to my core. It was as if I didn’t know him anymore. Couldn’t trust him.

‘I’ve got to tell her,’ I said. ‘She’s my best friend.’

‘Your loyalty should be with me,’ Matt said. ‘What about the business?’ Craig was his biggest client. Before I could answer the doorbell
chimed.

The whites of Jules’s eyes were streaked pink, and she sniffed as she trailed me into the kitchen. ‘I found condoms in Craig’s coat pocket when I was looking for some change. I haven’t confronted him yet. I wanted to talk to you first. Do you think he’s having an affair?’ I’d hovered on the crossroads of truth and lies but my hesitation told her all she needed to know. She dissolved
into tears and I led her to a chair and held her as her body shook, while the Beef Wellington charred in the oven. Sitting at the kitchen table, she’d drained a large glass of wine, while I falteringly told her what I knew, and shortly after she’d snapped at Craig that they were leaving. The front door slammed a whirlwind of fury; Jules’s scorching anger as black as the pastry I’d lovingly rolled
out.

‘How could you?’ Matt rounded on me. ‘You’d better not have lost me my biggest client.’

‘If you’re more worried about your business than you are my oldest friend, you’re not the man I married,’ I shouted back.

‘Perhaps I don’t want to be,’ he yelled.

‘What? That man or married?’ I stood, hands on hips, smoke still pluming from the oven.

‘Both.’

The
fabric of our relationship hung looser after that night. Gaping holes where loyalty and respect should be. Jules discovered Craig’s affair had been going on for almost a year, and she moved in with James, who uncomplainingly packed away his Star Wars paraphernalia and moved into the smaller bedroom, leaving Jules with the master. She filed for divorce; Craig, furious with me, withdrew his business
and wouldn’t take Matt’s calls. Matt barely spoke to me. It was hard to bite my tongue when he barked another one-word answer to a perfectly reasonable question; yet, incessantly, I soothed, supported, did everything a good wife should, but there was an impenetrable barrier between us. I became more and more miserable, until Chrissy suggested some space would do us both good and offered me her
spare room.

‘I’m moving out for a while,’ I said as I stared intently at Matt, wanting him to read my thoughts, know it was the last thing I wanted, but I’d been at a loss to know what else to do.

‘Perhaps it’s for the best,’ he said, not meeting my eye.

Hearing this made my throat close to a pinprick and I had to force out: ‘I’ll go and pack’ but even to me it had been apparent
that my resolve was weak and ready to crumble if only he’d asked me stay, but he hadn’t. Silently, I had clung on to my pride, slippery in my palm, and trudged upstairs to gather my things.

It’s been four months now. We’ve settled into a fragile status quo, still sharing Branwell, sharing the mortgage, but never sharing our thoughts. Our feelings. I don’t know if it’s too late to fix us.
I don’t know where to even begin.

Branwell’s paws click-click-click against the laminate floor as I follow Matt into the kitchen. I lean against the worktop I once chopped vegetables on for dinner.

‘Are you okay?’ He may not look like Matt anymore, but his voice, with the gravelly edge, still makes my stomach flip. Concern bubbles under every word.

‘Yes,’ I say, but what I
really mean is no, and he knows me well enough to understand this. He takes a step forward, but hesitates, his arms hanging helplessly by his sides.

‘Do I look? Do you?…’ His voice rises, and I know he’s putting himself in my shoes. Trying to imagine how he’d feel if I was the one who looked like a stranger. I shake my head.

‘But…’ He trails off, but I know he wanted to say ‘it’s
me’ and the undertone is there. How can you not recognise me? Frustrated, he rubs his fingers over his chin in that Matt gesture I know so well, although it’s been years since he had a beard. Familiar. He’s still familiar to me. And this is the first positive thing I’ve felt for days. The urge rises to bury my face in his neck. He’d still smell of spice. Not everything is lost.

‘What happened?’
he asks.

‘I’m not sure.’ I touch the lump on my head. ‘I think I fell.’ I tell him what he wants to hear, what I want to believe, because the alternative is too much for either of us to bear. Another man might have put his hands on me. Another man who I shouldn’t have been out with in the first place.

‘I wanted to visit. Ben said you weren’t up to seeing anyone?’

‘No. I was
worn out. Still am. I’ve been signed off work for two weeks but the doctor said he might extend it after that. It depends what the specialist says, I think.’ The yawn I’d been stifling breaks free.

‘Sorry. You look shattered. I’ll load up your car. Let you get off home.’ The word home spears me and I clutch at my stomach as though I’ve been impaled. This is home. I want to say. Here. With
you. But the words are as dry as dust on my tongue and I face the sink and splash water into a glass, and when I turn around again he has gone.

I allow myself a few more moments of self-pity before following him. Standing on the step, I flick through the pile of mail Matt had pushed into my hand before he headed outside to set up the dog crate in my boot. Mr Henderson is resting his forearms
on his wheelie bin as he watches, and I know at least one person will miss me. Matt squeezes past me to collect Branwell’s toys and there’s a moment where our bodies touch. Matt pauses, just for a second, and that pause tells me the emotions that zing between us are not mine to bear alone. I’m suspended in the hoping, the wanting, the bird in the cage of my chest fluttering to be free, but,
instead of speaking, Matt gathers Branwell’s things and heads out to the car once more, and I am left standing in the hallway of this place I once called home.

The slam of the boot tells me it’s time to leave but I take my time climbing into the car, locating my keys, snapping my seatbelt closed. When there’s nothing left to fiddle with I start the engine, and Matt says, ‘Take care of yourself,
Ali,’ as he taps my boot.

Disappointed, I pull away.

As the distance between us grows and grows, it’s as though the elastic binding us is tightening around my neck, and rather than drawing us closer I know it will stretch and stretch until one day it will snap. Really, I don’t know what I’d expected when I came here today, bruised and frightened and desperate for comfort,
but I’d hoped for compassion and understanding. And love. I’d hoped for love. Tears spill and I stretch and pull open my glovebox for a tissue, and it’s there. A Terry’s Chocolate Orange: ‘
Just because I love you, Ali
.’ I tell myself not to read too much into it. The gesture could have been born out of pity, from a place of friendship. It shouldn’t feel like a beacon of hope. But somehow it does.

The journey passes in a flash, and I’m almost home when I hear it, the alert tone on my phone, and it’s a relief – I must have dropped it in the car – I no longer have to replace it. That’s one less thing I have to do today.

Eager to catch up with my messages, my foot squeezes the accelerator, colours blur as cars rush by, until, at last, I screech into my driveway, the car at an
odd angle, but I cut the engine anyway. My hand stretches under the seat, fumbling around for my phone, and I find my clutch bag that I had on Saturday night.

The screen lights up as I press the home button on my mobile. There’s only six per cent of battery left. There’s a string of notifications but it’s the last one that catches my eye and, as I read it, I feel a sharp stab of fear. It’s
from Instagram. A comment on one of my photos, although I know I haven’t uploaded one for ages.

WTF have you been up to, Ali??

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