The Date: An unputdownable psychological thriller with a breathtaking twist (8 page)

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Or someone has just come in.

‘Chrissy?’ I call cautiously, although there’s no handbag looped around the bannisters, no shoes
kicked off on the mat. No ‘Honey, I’m home!’ as is her way.

I bend to restrain Branwell, but, before I can grab him, he races outside, and I fly after him, frantically calling his name, as I replay coming home in my mind’s eye. There’s no way I’d have left the front door open, let alone unlocked. I see myself dashing towards the house, Branwell’s lead in one hand, mobile clutched in the
other. I remember how desperate I had been to study my phone properly and have to admit there is a possibility that perhaps in my haste I didn’t lock the door. Didn’t even close it properly and it has swung open in the wind.

Branwell hasn’t got far. He’s a few metres away being fussed over by a man. Paws trip-trapping over black trainers, tail wagging.

‘Thanks,’ I mutter as I grab
Branwell’s collar and lead him back towards the house.

Kicking the front door closed behind me, I release my hold on Branwell and lock us in.

I am almost back in the lounge when I hear it.

The noise coming from my kitchen.

13

I’m poised in the hallway, scarcely breathing, as the noise comes again. It’s a man’s voice, closely followed by the screeching of a guitar – nails scraping down a blackboard – a wailing vocal. Joan Jett’s ‘I Love Rock n Roll’. A strangled laugh escapes my lips. The radio. It’s
nothing but the radio. But my relief is fleeting. Who switched it on?

Somebody is here.

Branwell speeds ahead of me and slips through the small space where the kitchen door is ajar.

‘Branwell.’ I stage whisper his name, desperate to leave the house, but there is no happy clack of claws on tiles. Instead, barely discernible over the music is a knocking sound and instantly I
am transported back to last night. The insistent thudding on my window. The expressionless face staring in. My legs are shaking now. ‘Branwell.’ I try again but my voice is a croak, my mouth desert dry.

Slowly, cautiously, I inch towards the kitchen door. The knocking is methodical, and I can’t work out if it’s footsteps. If someone is pacing the small room. I swallow a whimper and my throat
aches. For a split second I can feel hot hands squeezing my neck, my lungs are fire and then the feeling is gone. My fingertips push the door and I have to steel myself to step inside. My eyes scan the room. Branwell is devouring his breakfast, his nose repeatedly clanking his metal bowl against the kick board of the sink. On the windowsill is the digital radio. Despite its pretty Orla Kiely
print it feels menacing.

‘Shut up!’ I yank the plug from the wall. Branwell studies me, his head cocked to one side, gravy dripping from his white chin.

I didn’t feed him.

Going mad-going mad-going mad
cackles that acerbic voice but I am convinced someone has been here. Even if the radio had somehow switched itself on accidentally, it wouldn’t have played the 80s station;
last night I distinctly remember retuning it to Classic FM.
Whoever is toying with me could still be here.
I scoop up Branwell and run.

My heart is in my mouth as I race towards the front door, fearful someone will spring out from the lounge, the coat cupboard, Branwell leaden in my arms. I shift his weight as I reach the front door, my pins-and-needles hand fumbling for the key. It slips
from the lock.
Fuck
. Crouching, I swipe for the key. Branwell is still now, muscles tensed, ears pricked. Has he heard something?
Someone
? I’m staring up the hallway as my shaking hand jabs the key in the lock. Did the lounge door just move? My vision is hazing. Adrenaline making my head spin. Branwell whimpers and I’m not sure if it’s his fear he’s feeling or mine. At last, I manage to unlock
the door and fling it open, rushing towards the daylight like I’ve spent a thousand nights in the dark. Branwell’s nose nuzzles the dip between my neck and collarbone as I keep my finger pressed against Jules’s doorbell as though my life depends on her answering and, in this moment, it feels like it does.

‘There’s definitely no one in your house.’ James clatters my keys onto the
coffee table.

I don’t reach for them, keeping my hands wrapped around the mug Jules gave me, but, despite the heat from the tea, the blanket I’ve pulled over my knees, I can’t stop shaking.

‘Your back door was unlocked though. You should be more careful.’

‘It wasn’t…’ I begin, but was it? I’d let Branwell out in the garden as soon as we arrived home, and in my rush to plug
my phone in and read my messages there’s a chance I could have left it open. I might not remember feeding Branwell but often I do that on autopilot, like unplugging my hair straighteners or switching the dishwasher on.

‘But the radio.’ I lean my exhaustion-heavy head back against the sofa.

‘It can happen,’ James says. ‘Do you normally switch it off at the plug or leave it on standby?’

‘Standby.’

‘There you go then. It was just a power surge. Nothing to worry about.’

‘Would that change the station?’ I’m doubtful.

‘It could have reverted back to the last station it remembered before the surge.’

‘You’ve checked every room?’

‘Even under the beds. Unless it’s a ghost.’

‘James!’ Jules lobs a cushion at him.

‘Sorry, that was a
joke. Look, I’m smiling.’ He points at his unfamiliar mouth.

‘I can’t read expressions that well yet. Sorry,’ I say, although I’ve nothing really to apologise for.

‘I can’t imagine how you’re managing,’ Jules says.

‘I don’t think I am,’ I say, truthfully. ‘I’m avoiding going out unless I really have to but it’s a nightmare when I do. Men are the hardest to differentiate because
so many have similar short hairstyles and often dress the same. Jeans. T-shirt. Trainers.’

‘But you can tell I’m me because of my long hair?’ Jules asks and, although she’s formed it as a question, there’s a certainty to her tone that, of course, I’ll know her. It’s almost impossible to explain; I’m still making sense of it myself.

When I was about five I had woken up one Christmas
morning and pulled a Mr Fuzzy from my crimson stocking, embroidered with my name, hanging from the foot of my bed. Although I got bigger, more expensive gifts, it was Mr Fuzzy that enthralled me for hours. I’d press the magnetic pen against the plastic covering his face and manipulate iron filings into place, creating hair, a moustache, lips that arced into a smile, or a sad face with a lined forehead
and straight mouth. Whenever I’d finished I’d hold my masterpiece carefully between two hands, taking long, slow strides to show Mum or Dad. No matter how hard I had tried to keep it still, the slivers of metal still shifted and the faces always looked different by the time I reached my parents. The features never remained the same.

‘I know it’s you because I’m seeing you in context but
put you somewhere outside these four walls and I’d have no idea. Millions of women have long dark hair. Take away someone’s eyes, nose, mouth and leave the hair and it’s almost impossible to identify who it belongs to. Have you heard from Chrissy?’ I change the subject.

‘Yes,’ Jules says, a little sharper than needed. She passes me her phone.

Are you okay?
She had texted.
We’re worried
about you.

I’m fine. Catch up with you at work next week x

It is just me she is ignoring then. I feel sick. I’d been telling myself she hadn’t accepted my FB friends request because her battery was flat, she’d forgotten her charger. Anything, apart from the fact she didn’t want to reply.

‘Lucky cow. I wish I’d gone away while the shop’s closed
for refurbishment. Not that I could afford a week away.’ Jules and Chrissy work together in the swankiest boutique. It’s where the green dress I was wearing on my date came from. Despite Chrissy’s staff discount it still cost a fortune, and yet I know I’ll never wear it again.

I hand her back her phone, straining to recall whether Chrissy said anything about taking a break, but there are
so many things I can’t remember. Things I’m not sure I want to remember.

‘Your memory…’ Jules tails off, and I sense rather than see her exchanging a look with James. ‘Ben said you think your date hurt you? But you haven’t reported him?’

‘Not yet. I can’t give them anything to go on other than he’s called Ewan and he’s deleted his profile. I wish I could remember what he looked like.
The doctor said my memory might never come back.’ A thought occurs to me. ‘Perhaps I should speak to Mr Henderson.’

‘Your old neighbour?’

‘Yes, he’s a hypnotherapist.’

‘It’s dangerous to let some amateur delve about in your mind. I was reading this article on a girl who had hypnotherapy and suffered from False Memory Syndrome afterwards. She believed…’

As Jules talks
I allow myself to drift. My energy is still low and the painkillers make me sleepy. I must doze because when I open my eyes again Jules and James are tiptoeing around the kitchen and the lounge has fallen into darkness. Yawning, I peel myself from the sofa and pad towards the sound of their hushed whispers. I catch Chrissy’s name, and a spark of paranoia ignites. Do they know something I don’t?

‘Stay for dinner?’ James asks.

I’m tempted for a minute. He’s a really good cook; we often share a Sunday lunch before digging out the Monopoly board, where Jules will buy everything she lands on, I’ll wait for the colours I like, and James will let me off paying rent whenever I’m running low on money. But I can’t stay here for ever because I’m too scared to go home, and I know this
constant feeling of fear won’t go away until I’ve reported Ewan to the police. I’d never forgive myself if he hurt somebody else.

‘Sorry, I can’t.’

‘Coffee tomorrow morning?’ asks Jules.

I nod as I slip my feet back into my shoes and head towards the front door. Branwell at my heels, scared of being left behind.

Jules and James close the door behind me; I hear
the soft click of the Yale latching as I carry Branwell back down the path, not wanting him to dart on the road. He’s hard to spot at night, his white markings barely visible against his shaggy black fur. My breath billows in front of me, my fingertips tingling as I push against the freezing iron of the garden gate. Although it’s not yet teatime, the sky is popping with stars against a darkened
backdrop. Midnight blue, I think you’d call it, and the ELO song fills my head as their albums once filled my childhood home before shock and shame crept into the places happiness once sat. It’s odd, I think, that sometimes I can’t remember what I’ve done the day before and yet I can still remember lyrics I haven’t heard for twenty years and now, as the track replays in my mind, I feel a connection
with it which I haven’t before. The loneliness. The longing. I picture Mum, spinning around the kitchen in her apron, whisking batter for Yorkshire puddings, singing. Always singing. In those days she wanted to. In those days she could. And as I head towards my empty house I so wish she was here so I could talk to her. She, more than anyone, would understand how it feels to suddenly be without a
husband. To suddenly feel alone.

Deep in thought, I don’t notice the box on the step until my toe kicks against it. Instantly anxiety wells. I throw a glance over my shoulder before snatching up the parcel. It’s so light I wonder whether it contains anything but air.

The hallway is black as I step inside, my hand running across the smooth plastered wall until I locate the switch
and flick the light on. I talk in a loud voice to Branwell; what I fancy for dinner; I’m dying for a cup of tea.
I am not alone – I am not alone – I am not alone.
The kitchen is exactly as I left it. I toss the parcel on the worktop. I can’t bring myself to look at it. I may have felt calmer when I was with Jules and James but now I’m here again my nerves are jangling. Before I call the police,
I roll down the blind and busy myself while I wait for the kettle to boil, pulling the tea caddy from the cupboard, rinsing clean my breakfast mug. I’m avoiding looking at the parcel the way I do that religious group who always hands out leaflets in front of the shopping centre, but the box may as well be banging a tambourine and chanting. No matter how hard I try, it’s impossible to ignore. I study
the three letters scrawled in thick black marker:

ALI

And before I can stop myself, I have grabbed a knife from the block and am slicing off the thick brown tape. Inside nestle the gloves I was wearing that night. The cream wool stained crimson. And a note written in uneven letters.

You don’t want to go to the police, Ali.
You’ve got blood on your hands. Perhaps the police will be coming for YOU

I drop the note as though it is as scalding as the water bubbling for my tea and watch it flutter to the floor, almost in slow motion. Branwell paws it before drawing it into his mouth and chewing as though it is a treat. Prising his reluctant jaws apart I fish out the soggy remnants of paper and
drop them into the bin, slamming the lid as though I can lock the words away, but they creep out nevertheless.
You’ve got blood on your hands.
It’s a slow dawning when it comes, bringing with it a flood of saliva into my mouth, and I lean over the sink, thinking I might vomit, as though I have taken a bite of that poisoned apple in the fairy stories Mum read me so many years ago. I can’t report
what happened Saturday night now. I just can’t. I’d assumed the blood on my hands, caked under my nails, had come from the cut on my head, but now my thoughts are veering wildly in a direction I hadn’t considered.

What if the blood I was covered in wasn’t all mine?

14

Switching the radio on was quite subtle, I thought, easily explained away after the initial shock wore off. The same with feeding the dog. One of those mindless tasks it’s easy to forget but it will nag at the back of your mind, I know. Did you fill his bowl?

I almost
left the gloves on your breakfast bar. Almost. It wouldn’t do for you to know I can get into your house though. Not yet. We’ll save that surprise for later.

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