The Date: An unputdownable psychological thriller with a breathtaking twist (7 page)

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12

After Branwell has been outside for a wee, he reacquaints himself with the lounge, nose twitching into every nook and cranny. I plug my phone into its charger and open my Instagram account once more, ignoring the messages asking what I’ve been up to, and study the strange photo
uploaded instead. It was posted on my account in the early hours of Sunday morning, presumably by me. It’s dark and grainy, a complete contrast to the Saturday sunshine brunches and shades of autumn dog-walking pictures I used to post, Matt and I crammed into the corner of the shot, grinning at the phone held in his outstretched arm. Scrolling through my account I can’t see anything else I don’t
recognise among the endless photos of the chameleon sea; grey and angry, mutinous clouds bunched overhead; blue and sparkling under a clear blue sky. My favourite photo is perhaps the message Matt carved into the damp sand with a stick Branwell had found:

I Love Ali

I’d had to step backwards to see it clearly, crunching blackened seaweed underfoot,
the wind whipping my hair. Saltwater stinging my eyes. Branwell yapping at the roaring waves, paws damp as he darted forwards and backwards. Matt’s arms around my waist, my head resting back on his shoulder. Feeling utterly loved. Utterly content. The perfect day. I can’t quite bring myself to delete my account but it’s too painful to look at, and that’s why I find it hard to believe I have posted
this photo. I double tap it, frowning as it fills my screen.

There’s not much to see. There are shades of grey at the front of the photo that fade to a choking blackness. There’s a rectangle to the right of the screen that’s a different contrast to the rest of the shot. Something looming ominously towards me. I draw the phone closer to my eyes. I think it’s a building. What could be inside?
Or who? Fear prickles in my stomach along with something else, a hint of recognition. Did I take this photo, and why did I post it with such a cryptic caption?

dark things happen on dark nights

No wonder people are curious. Desperate for answers I call Chrissy. ‘
Sorry, too busy being fabulous. You know what to do.
’ But when I try and leave a voicemail
a mechanical tone tells me her inbox is full. I rattle off a text instead.

I’ve found my phone! Are you having a good time? Where are you?

Frustrated, I open Facebook and, ignoring my notifications, search Chrissy’s name to see if she’s posted anything that might lead me to her. As her page loads I notice she’s changed her header photo. Previously,
it was us at Jules’s birthday barbecue, James flipping burgers in the background, wearing an apron designed to make him look like a woman in suspenders and stockings. Her new image has ‘choose love not hate’ in swirling pink letters. And I roll my eyes, wondering who she’s choosing to love this week but then I see it and there’s a sharp ping in my gut.

Add friend

We’re already friends, aren’t we? Except, according to Facebook, we’re not. I scroll. Most of her posts are set to private, but the latest one, the only one I can see, was posted around the same time as my Instagram photo. It’s an image of a dark and choppy sea with the quote:

There comes a time when you have to stop crossing oceans for someone who wouldn’t
even jump in puddles for you

Feeling winded I sit back as though I have been pushed. Why has she unfriended me? Or had I unfriended her? What
happened
that night? My questions cause a memory to materialise. Shouting, crying. But I can’t tell whether I’m the one shouting or whether I’m being shouted at. As quickly as it appears, it’s gone and I’m left staring once more at
the ‘Add Friend’ icon. I press it with my thumb, watching as it turns to ‘request pending’, and I hurriedly shut the app. ‘A watched pot never boils’, Mum used to say.

Instead, I double tap
Inside, Out
, the dating app I’d used. I open my private messages.

Ewan.

At the sight of his name, a memory. Sipping drinks. Loud music. Overpowering aftershave stinging my throat. He’s
leaning in. Green tweed jacket. Thighs touching. Lights flash-flash-flashing. Rising to my feet
. I’m not ready for this.
An uncomfortable knot in my stomach. The room spinning red, yellow, green. Blurring until it’s gone and I’m back in my lounge, clutching the sofa as though I’d float away if I loosened my grip.

My eyes find one of the photos of Mum dotted around the room. She’s unaware
of the camera, hunched over my birthday cake piping lilac icing. Twelve pink and white spiral candles rest on the work surface beside her. I think that was probably the last time she was truly happy, and it seems so precious now, those ordinary moments we take for granted at the time. That was the last birthday cake I ever had. I never could bear them after that day. Even the smell of a Victoria
sponge rising in an oven brings it all back. The table upended. The silver ‘Happy Birthday’ topper snapped under trampling feet, the screaming, the shock. My life in shreds, like the violet voile that was covering the table until the men burst in and everything came crashing down.

Scanning through my exchanges with Ewan, I can’t see anything that triggers alarm, even with hindsight.

He seems normal. Ordinary.

I don’t usually tell anyone I love fishing. They’d think I was really boring but it’s calming. Peaceful. Gives me space to breathe. To clear my head.

The sensitive type!
I’d replied.

I could pretend to like rugby if that would help you agree to a date…

And I had tucked
my phone into my pocket like a secret, again avoiding his question. I didn’t want to date anyone, of that I was absolutely sure, but a small, stupid part of me was flattered by the attention. The next notification was as though Ewan was sensing my reluctance.

If you want me to leave you alone I will but I like you Ali and I’d love to take you for a drink, as friends. No
pressure. I promise I’m not an axe murderer or anything.

Would you tell me if you were?

But it hadn’t been fear of who he might be that had stopped me, it had been fear of who I am.

I had spun the gold band on my wedding finger. Had Matt and I given up too easily? All at once I had felt lost. Hopelessly, irretrievably lost
and longing for clarity. If there was a smidgen of a chance my marriage could have been salvaged, wasn’t it worth a shot?

Confused, I jumped into my car and drove slowly across town, wheels skidding on black ice. The house was in darkness. Frost patterning the path, snow dusting the fir trees. I rapped sharply on the front door, berating myself for not bringing my key, before crunching
over the lawn to the back door. The kitchen was dim except for the red glow of the clock on the hob. I stamped my freezing feet as I called Matt’s mobile.

‘Hello.’ At least he doesn’t reject my call.

‘I need to talk,’ I blurted out, my breath steaming in the frigid air.

‘It’s not a good time, Ali. I’m just burning dinner.’

‘You’re cooking? At home?’

‘Microwaving,’
he said. Lying. He was still lying. ‘Is it important?’

Yes, it’s important I wanted to say.
I’m
important but, instead, I said nothing. Not even goodbye.

Back at my car Mr Henderson was tipping warm water over my windscreen.

‘It’s icing over already,’ he said. ‘Didn’t think you’d be long. Matt’s not home.’

‘Do you know where he is?’

‘Sorry.’ Mr Henderson hesitated,
as though weighing up whether to speak again. ‘He’s out most nights.’

It was like a punch to the gut. I had no idea where my husband was.
Or who he was with
. ‘Please don’t tell him I’ve been here.’

‘Of course not.’ Mr Henderson wiped his damp hand on his cords. ‘I can keep a secret.’

I kissed him on the cheek before driving away, my house growing smaller and smaller in the
rear-view mirror, and only when it had been swallowed by the darkness, the tears came. Pulling over, I rested my forehead on my steering wheel, letting out my grief, my frustration and, once drained of emotion, I tugged off my wedding ring, the line from the poem I would never be able to forget, ‘The Owl and the Pussy-Cat’, circling:

“Dear Pig, are you willing
to sell for one shilling your ring?” Said the Piggy, “I will.”

Had Matt traded me for something else? Someone else? Tugging open the glovebox I toss my ring inside, and, pulling out my phone, once more I typed one word.

Pig.

But before I could send it, I changed my mind and send something else entirely. To someone
else.

Yes

And I did not know whether I had agreed to go out with Ewan out of anger at Matt, out of the loneliness that pulsed inside my heart, or if I genuinely liked him.

Fabulous.
He quickly replied
.

Did I sway you with my charm?

Sniffing hard I joked:
That and your promise not to be an axe
murderer.

Only now it doesn’t seem so funny. I think about the possibility of him hurting someone else and I click on the ‘compose a new message’ icon. I am informed that Ewan is no longer an active member, and a quick search confirms his profile has been deleted. My heart sinks. There’s no way of tracing him now, but perhaps I should let the police be the best judge of that. My conscience
still nags at me to do the right thing.

There’s a chill in the air. I tug the yellow and pink squared blanket that reminds me of a Battenberg from the back of the sofa and cover my knees. It’s one of the few things I have from childhood. After school one day I had pulled a crumpled letter out of my navy book bag and thrust it into Mum’s hands. It was an invitation to knit squares at home
and hand them in to our teacher, where we’d sew them together in class, making blankets for charity.

‘I’ll dig out my needles and whip a few up,’ Mum had said.

‘Teach me,’ I had begged, and after our dinner of mini sausages buried in mashed potato, a moat of beans spilling over the side of the plate, we’d sat, side by side, on the creaky wicker furniture in the conservatory which
Dad called a lean-to. The wind battering the Perspex sheeting. ‘You’re clearing up, Justin,’ she’d said to Dad, as I’d plucked balls of wool out of Mum’s craft basket picking out the colours of my favourite wine gums: yellow, orange and green.

Mum cast on before passing me the knitting needles, which felt long and awkward in my hands. Patiently she recited ‘in, round, through, off’ over
and over, until a second row followed the first, and then a third. We had sucked sweets as we looped wool around the needles, crochet blankets draped over our knees as the storm howled outside, the apple tree in the garden bent almost in two. The apples had been thudding into next door’s garden like stones, and I had known the next day our neighbour would be lobbing them back onto our lawn, shouting
we should cut the bloody thing down. One had hit Ben in the face once and insults had been tossed over the fence like a tennis rally; Mum and Dad hadn’t spoken to the neighbours after, but despite the feud I’d felt so content, so cosy. Visions dancing through my mind of hand-knitting jumper dresses, scarves so long I could wrap them around my neck three times. Ben had been in bed, small arms clutching
Ollie the Owl to his chest, and from the kitchen ELO’s ‘Sweet Talkin’ Woman’ had drifted from the radio as Dad washed up the tea things. The gentle sloshing of water. The rhythmic click-click-click of Mum’s needles, her fingers moving so fast they blurred. She was already on her third square.

‘Oh.’ I’d swallowed my wine gum along with my disappointment. ‘Look at my square, Mum?’ To call
it a square had been both optimistic and mathematically incorrect. It sloped, narrowing into nothing as the stitches had become tighter and tighter. I’d been so afraid of dropping a stitch I’d pulled the wool tautly to me, almost afraid to let it go, scared it would all unravel.

‘Sometimes you have to relax. Trust. Have faith it will all work out,’ Mum had said, and I had tried again but
still I couldn’t relax. Still couldn’t trust.

And I feel that way now as I clutch my secrets to me as though they are that ball of wool. I’m so, so, scared it’s all going to unravel. And although I long to have faith it will all be okay, I know that faith in myself would be misplaced. I don’t deserve it, not really.

‘Karma,’ our snotty neighbour had sniffed after everything happened
and at that time I was too young to understand what she meant, but now I do.
Dark things happen on dark nights.
Payback. You can never escape the things you’ve done, no matter how hard you try. I’m tangled in each and every lie I’ve told, and somewhere along the way I’ve dropped a stitch. What goes around comes around they say, don’t they? What’s happening now can’t possibly have anything to do
with what happened then, can it?
Enjoy the date, bitch?
However bad this gets I’m frightened it’s divine punishment, of sorts, and I’ve only got myself to blame. And as scared as I am about what’s to come, in some strange way I welcome it, because as much as someone out there seems to hate me, it’s not as much as I hate myself.

It’s still chilly. Stretching my arm over the back of the sofa
I press my palm against the radiator. It’s pumping out heat. There’s definitely a draught coming from somewhere, snaking around my ankles, turning my toes to ice. I peel my weary body from the sofa, every muscle aches and I think I should perhaps run a hot bath. Throw in one of the bath bombs Chrissy loves that fizzes as it hits the water, colouring it yellow, overpowering the house with the zing
of citrus. A bang slices through my thoughts. Branwell’s ears prick up.

‘What was that?’ I ask as though he can answer. Stepping out into the hallway, I am hit by a cold blast of air. The front door is swinging open as though someone has just gone out.