The Date: An unputdownable psychological thriller with a breathtaking twist (9 page)

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15

The kitchen spins and spins; I am Dorothy, whisked away in a tornado. I take deep, shaky breaths as I stuff the bloodied gloves back in the box and thrust it under the sink with the half empty bottles of lemon cleaner and lavender polish. I slam the door shut on the brown cardboard,
which had seemed so innocuous, but its contents might have irreparably changed my life once more.
What have I done?
I weave my way upstairs, shoulder bumping on the wall as though I’ve had too many gin and tonics, and in my bedroom I fling my pyjamas and toiletries into an overnight bag, before grabbing Branwell and fleeing into the night, not sure if I am trying to escape the box, or myself.
Outside I try to calm myself. Where can I go? Jules and James will let me stay, of course, James would probably give up his bed and sleep on the sofa, but they have already done enough today. Ben is in Edinburgh and, after the way Matt dismissed me earlier, I can’t bring myself to turn to him. Iris. I click my heels three times. There’s no place like home. I bundle Branwell into his crate in the boot
and sling my bag on the back seat.

Throughout the journey panic is thick in my throat, my body tense, as though subconsciously remembering that the last time I drove I hit something.
Or someone
. A police car slides past me. Is it an offence to drive with only one wing mirror? I can’t remember. To my relief they don’t give me a second glance but, still, by the time I pull into the driveway
my shirt is stuck to my back with sweat.

Walking into my childhood home is like seeing it for the very first, or the very last, time. It seems smaller somehow, or perhaps it is only Aunt Iris who has shrunk. Weight has fallen off her. She’s aged, her hands liver spotted and wrinkled like the elderly I care for, and I feel awful I rarely visit but, when I do, a waterfall of memories
torrent, snatching my breath, chilling my flesh, as if I’ve been plunged into an icy river. This isn’t where I spent my formative years, of course – it would be even worse to go back there somehow, to the place we were all happy – we moved here when I was twelve and Ben was six. Everywhere I turn I still see Mum.

‘Ali. This is a lovely surprise.’ Iris proffers her cheek for me to kiss,
and I smell the dusting of face powder that coats her skin. I put my arms around her sparrow-thin frame. Her bones dig into me as sharp as my guilt; it isn’t fair for me to blame Iris for what happened, but I can. I do.

‘Sorry. I should have rung.’

‘Don’t be silly. You don’t need an appointment. It’s lovely to see you. Both of you.’ She bends to pat Branwell who is pressing his nose
against her knees.

She doesn’t ask if I’m okay – I’m obviously not – but then she never could deal with difficult situations. I tell myself I’m being unfair. She became both a mother and father to me and Ben and, although her maternal prowess was questionable, she didn’t have to take us both on. She bustles around the kitchen, boiling the kettle, warming the teapot, standing in the places
Mum once stood, and I feel myself softening towards her.

‘Can I stay here tonight? I’m off work and I thought…’ I thought I’d feel safer here, but I don’t say that out loud.

‘This is still your home.’ She doesn’t meet my eye as she says this and won’t have seen the tears in mine.

She pulls open the fridge door, which is yellowing with age, and I remember Ben’s unidentifiable
drawings being stuck to it with fruit-shaped magnets. I can’t believe she hasn’t had to replace it, and as I look around at Mum’s Portmeirion crockery stacked on the plate rack, at the strip of worktop I’d scorched with an iron, it seems nothing has changed, but of course everything has.

‘Do you want some dinner?’ Iris asks, and I shake my head. I haven’t yet eaten but my stomach is a tight
knot of nerves.

There’s an awkward pause before she asks ‘cake?’ and I find myself nodding, wanting to make an effort. Iris reaches on top of the cupboard for the old-fashioned Quality Street tin from before the days when chocolate-wrapped Christmases, bound in bright, crinkly wrappers, came in plastic tubs.

‘That looks good,’ I lie, peering at the coffee cake, icing hard and crusty,
and I make a mental note to bring an airtight container next time I come. Already I’m thinking about my next visit. The events of the last few days have been so turn-my-world-upside-down frightening I’m suddenly grateful for the constants in my life. Iris being one of them.

‘Ben brought it.’ Iris drives the knife through the rock solid sponge. ‘He’s so good,’ she says. What I take it to
mean is that I’m not, and my face stiffens; though I’m thankful Ben was so young he can barely remember what happened. He’s so sensitive I’m not sure how he’d cope with the weight of the memories I carry. I’m not sure how I cope. Sometimes I’m not sure I do.

We sit at the table and make small talk as I force down cake my churning stomach doesn’t want. As I bring the fork to my mouth once
more my sleeve rides up, and Iris flinches as she notices the bruising on my arms, but she still doesn’t ask what happened to me that night or mention my prosopagnosia at all. It’s as though, if she ignores it, then it won’t be real. She never could handle the truth; instead of seeing this as a fault, which I usually do, this time I try to look upon it as a coping mechanism.

By eight o’clock
my eyelids are heavy, and we’ve exhausted the conversations about the cold snap, the effect it’s had on the garden, who won this year’s
Strictly
, and I tell her I’m going to bed.

‘I’m glad you’re okay,’ she says, squeezing my hand, as if saying I’m okay is enough to make it so; but instead of drawing away I put my hand on top of hers and thank her for being here. And I mean it.

My bedroom is untouched by time. Walls papered in faded turquoise butterflies. I’d never really made this room my own the way I had at my old house, where posters of Avril Lavigne and Christina Aguilera were Blu-Tacked to my wardrobe and the back of my door, but then I suppose I’d had to grow up almost overnight. My dressing table mirror is clean, and I turn it to the wall, avoiding my reflection
as I do so, noticing Iris must still come in here and dust. Branwell stretches across the end of the bed, resting his nose on his front paws.

I sit cross-legged and use my phone to google ‘hit and runs’ but there are no recent reports, and nothing in this area. I start a fresh search for ‘car accidents’ but again there is nothing. Blood on my car. Blood on my gloves.
Blood on my hands.
What have I done? My head is throbbing, and I pop another painkiller and, tonight, I know I’ll welcome the haziness the codeine brings. I shed my clothes, pull on my pyjamas and there’s the familiar creak of the bed frame as I sink deep onto my age-soft mattress, as I slide inside the cold sheets. I shiver, roll onto my side and draw my knees up to my chest, wishing Matt was here, his warm legs thawing
my freezing feet. The mattress dips as Branwell shifts his weight and, longing for comfort, I almost allow myself to believe it’s Mum, perched on the edge of my bed, opening the book of fairy tales I loved so much.

‘Once upon a time’ she would begin, and I would feel excitement fizzle inside. I was captivated by missing shoes and pumpkin carriages; spinning wheels and poisoned apples. I’d
clutch my heart and sigh deeply with satisfaction as the frog morphed into the handsome prince, clasp my palms together in a prayer of thanks when Sleeping Beauty awoke. Clutch Mum’s arm as Snow White fell into a dreamless sleep, as though this might be the time there wasn’t a happy ending. At the end of the story, I’d snuggle, talcum-powder clean, under my duvet.

‘Tell me about when you
met Dad,’ I’d ask.

And instead of saying ‘again?’ Mum’s face would light up.

‘I was at the milkshake parlour with my friends after school, when your dad walked in. I’d never seen him before but he stood next to me at the counter and—’

‘What was the weather like?’ I demanded. I always remembered the small details and I wanted them to stay the same.

‘It was torrential
rain. His hair was dripping wet and his feet had made a puddle on the floor.’

I settled back, comforted by the familiarity.

‘“It’s such a grey day”, he said to me. “It would brighten me up to see a pretty girl smile. Would you smile for me?”’

‘What did you say?’ I asked, although I knew exactly what she had said.

‘I said: “It’ll cost you a banana shake”. I’d never been
so bold before but there was something about him. I couldn’t take my eyes off him.’

‘Did he buy you a drink?’ We both played our parts in this story she told.

‘He did. And then we chatted, and he asked, “Besides being beautiful, Marsha, what do you do for a living?” and I told him I was only sixteen, still doing my exams. “I’m eighteen,” he said. “If you want a full-time job when
you leave school you can always look after me?” I said…’

‘Mum!’

‘Sorry. He wiped an eyelash from my cheek with his thumb and I knew. I just knew he was the one. I said: “What makes you think I’d want to look after you?” And he said: “Sorry, I thought you believed in love at first sight or—”’

‘Should I walk by again?’ Mum and I chorused.

That was what I wanted. That
love. That knowing. That certainty. That’s what I thought I had with Matt. Someone who would look after me the way Dad looked after Mum. In the before, of course. I no longer believe in happily ever after but that never stops me yearning for it.

Almost as though I have conjured him with my thoughts my phone lights up with Matt’s name as the handset skitters across my bedside cabinet, vibrating
his call.

‘Hello.’ I am cautious as I answer.

‘Hey,’ he says and something deep inside of me stirs – hope. His voice is the same, exactly the same, and it forms a photograph in my mind of his face on our wedding day, smiling down at me as a pastel rainbow of confetti arced above our heads. All around us family whooped and cheered.
To have and to hold
.

‘I can’t stop thinking
about earlier. We should have talked properly, but I didn’t know quite what to say. How are you?’

‘Fine.’ I say what I’m expected to say. What I think he wants to hear. But he doesn’t believe it for a second.

‘No, you’re not.’

‘No.’ I sigh. ‘I’m not.’ Part of me longs to tell him about the gloves. About the blood on my bumper. Although I can’t remember anything about Saturday
night, I can’t really believe I have hurt anyone, and neither would he. He used to roll his eyes whenever I chased spiders around the lounge with a glass and a coaster, carefully scooping them inside the tumbler before letting them out into the garden. But there’s another part, a darker part, whispering
what if you did hurt someone
? And I know I can’t drag him into this, whatever
this
is. I’m
on my own.

From this day forward.

‘I found the chocolate orange. Thanks.’

‘It was nothing,’ he says, although both of us know it was something. ‘Have you eaten it yet?’

‘No.’

‘You must still feel ill. I can’t stop wondering what happened to you. Do you remember anything yet?’

In sickness and in health.

‘Nothing,’ I say and there’s a pause. His breath
whispers down the line, in-out-in-out, and I lay my head on the pillow and imagine it’s on his chest. His fingers playing with my hair.

‘Ali.’ One word. Just one word coated with tenderness. ‘I’m sorry.’ It’s the nicest he’s been to me in ages.

‘It’s not your fault,’ I say but I don’t know whether he’s apologising for now or for then.

‘Is there anything I can do?’

There is so much I want him to do. I want him to explain why he stopped trying. Why he let me go. But instead I ask him to talk to me and when he asks ‘about what’ I say ‘anything’. I put Matt on speakerphone and rest my phone on the pillow next to my ear. I close my eyes and listen as he speaks, and we fall into a shared memory of when Branwell was a puppy and we’d first brought him home from the
breeders. His paws had skidded on our laminate floor and he’d shot down the hallway like Bambi on ice skates. The amazement on his face the first time he saw grass. His confusion at patio doors, batting his paw against the glass as a ladybird scurried up the outside of the pane. Eventually I start to drift and the last thing I remember is Matt saying good night.

Sleep claims me but it is
far from restful. I am chased through my nightmares by a faceless man, while my feet squelch through crimson blood flowing a river. He catches me.

With a gasp, I startle awake, my hands springing to my throat to wrench away the fingers I think I feel there, squeezing, squeezing, squeezing.

There’s nobody here.

I snap on my lamp and cross the room, the warmth of the carpet
against the soles of my feet reassuring me I am awake. Swishing open the curtains I am greeted by the moon casting a creamy glow. Threading through the shadows is a figure. I am paralysed with fear as I wait for him to turn, my face a ghostly smudge reflected in the glass, but he doesn’t falter, doesn’t look up at my window as he ambles down the street.

It’s not Ewan. It isn’t.

And yet at the corner of the street he hesitates, and the whispers of my nightmares trail icy fingers down my spine.

16

Bad night, Ali? Wait until you get home. I’ve left a surprise for you.

FRIDAY

17

I bounced between sleep and wakefulness as nightmares attacked and retreated with alarming regularity, until I crept downstairs with Branwell at 6 a.m., yawning, as I spooned coffee into a mug. The ancient heating system gurgled to life, as I sipped my drink and waited for the
caffeine to hit.

‘You’re up early.’ Iris glides into the kitchen; she looks even smaller, swamped in the dressing gown she still calls a housecoat. ‘Are you OK?’

‘Yes.’ I answer without hesitation because that’s what we always do. Avoid the unthinkable, the unimaginable, the unspeakable. ‘I’m going home.’ I rise from my seat, because I won’t find the sense of safety I was seeking
here, among the secrets and lies and the tangled, torturous past. Stupid to ever think that I could.

There’s a dragging sensation in the pit of my stomach as I drive home. That Sunday evening, back-to-school-tomorrow dread, or returning to work after a sunshine summer holiday. My fears are realised as I heft my bag from the back seat and release Branwell from his car-boot prison
and I see it. On the step. A padded brown envelope. I look over my shoulder before scooping up the package.

ALI

Scrawled in the same black marker. The same block handwriting.

Once inside I run my fingers under the seal, bouncing up and down on the balls of my feet like a boxer psyching himself for a fight before I can look inside. There’s
a small rectangular box. Antidepressants. A neon yellow Post-it note stuck to the outside.

In case you can’t live with what you’ve done. Tick Tock, Ali, time is running out

Time for what? I grip the note tightly in my clammy hand until it crumples, all the while shaking my head in denial, but I know I can’t avoid it any longer.

I need to
find out
exactly
what happened that night.

I need to find out what I’ve done.

Mr Henderson answers the phone on the first ring.

‘Can you hypnotise me?’ My words come out in a garbled rush before I have even said hello.

‘Of course, when would?—’

‘Today. Now.’ My voice cracks.

He barely hesitates before he says: ‘I can see you at eleven.’

As I’m shaking biscuits into Branwell’s bowl I call Jules to cancel our coffee and, when I tell her where I’m going, she insists on coming with me and I’m grateful. I’m nervous about what I might uncover but I can’t stick my head in the sand. If whoever is sending me the notes goes to the police, as they’ve insinuated, it’s better I know what happened, to give myself a chance to think. Formulate a
plan.
A lie
says that little voice, and I bat it away.

Mr Henderson’s treatment room is stark white, certificates in gilded frames hang in a perfect line. I can imagine him alternating his tape measure with a spirit level. He’s so meticulous. I’ve never been in this space, which was once his garage. It’s odd to think our garage, next door, is crammed with Matt’s golf clubs, the elliptical
trainer I never used, the Christmas decorations. ‘Everything but a car,’ Matt used to joke. Smoke spirals from an incense stick, jasmine, I think, filling the air and I wonder whether he’s lit one to mask the faint trace of damp. I’ve never known him to burn one in his house. Despite the orange bars of the electric heater blasting out heat, there’s a chill emanating from the bricks.

‘It’s
not too late to run,’ Jules whispers loudly, staring at the treatment table as though it is a medieval torture contraption. I shush her, aware that Mr Henderson can probably hear her from the hallway, where his footsteps echo and the tea tray rattles.

Mr Henderson kicks the door closed behind him. ‘Help yourself.’ He rests the tray on the polished-to-perfection mahogany coffee table. The
room is sparse but spotless. There’s not the thin layer of dust that often coats the photographs in his living area.

He sits on the high-backed chair opposite me, crosses his legs and picks up a clipboard and pen. Today he’s wearing a tie, and this is a formal side to him I’m not used to. The dynamics of our relationship has changed, and I take my time spooning sugar into tea, splashing
in milk, to mask how uncomfortable I am. I’d thought I’d be sitting in his squashy armchair in the lounge I’ve sat in a hundred times before, that it would be almost like a social call.

Jules, on the other hand, has no qualms about saying what she thinks. ‘I don’t believe in all this.’ She sweeps her arm around the room dramatically.

‘You don’t believe in hypnotherapy?’

‘Any
of it,’ she says firmly. ‘It’s like homeopathy. How can it be that you can dilute something with water and it becomes a cure?’ She shakes her head as she stretches for a shortbread. ‘Or that reiki thing. Healing coming out of hands. Please.’ She leans back, her gaze challenging as she crunches her biscuit, but Mr Henderson’s response is calm and measured.

‘I can’t speak for other therapies,
or other therapists, but hypnotherapy is a very powerful tool when used correctly. There are hundreds of research studies demonstrating the effects. I can show you some reports if you’d like?’ He addresses Jules, not me, and I think how patient he is. How kind. It’s not like this is her session.

‘It’s okay. I can see
you
believe it.’ Jules sweeps crumbs from her lap. ‘So you just do what?
A session, and Ali is magically better? She’ll remember what happened and recognise faces again?’

‘Unfortunately, Ali has sustained damage to the temporal lobe of the brain and hypnosis can’t repair that. I can’t help with facial recognition. But for the memory loss there’s no telling at this stage how many sessions Ali might need. Brains are like fingerprints, they’re all unique and everybody
responds differently. Amnesia is a complex psychological condition. In localised amnesia, which is what you are suffering from, Ali, you’re unable to recall the events of that night; although the memories are still in there somewhere, it’s a matter of finding them.’

‘But I will remember?’

‘Possibly. You could remember today, next week, next year or perhaps never. Often, when we experience
something so shocking that our mind cannot process it, we either blank things out entirely or pretend they never happened by doing something completely normal.’

‘This isn’t normal,’ Jules mutters loud enough to be heard.

‘What do you mean, “normal”?’ I’m trying to equate everything he says with my own experiences.

‘For instance, there was a case where a woman, after years
of domestic abuse, killed her husband, and her children, but rather than killing herself she cooked them a meal, as though nothing had happened.’

‘That can’t be true.’ I am horrified. How can you not know you’ve murdered your entire family?

‘Her mum called round and caught her stepping over bodies to lay the table, the walls splattered with blood. She had no conscious recollection
of any of it. You were at a bar?’

‘Yes. Prism.’ I try to push away the image of that woman, her poor children, what she must have gone through to have snapped like that?

‘It’s very possible going back to the bar could trigger your memories, or hearing a song that was playing that night, smelling the same perfume someone was wearing, tasting the same drink. We’re often transported
back to certain events through our senses. The smell of cinnamon, for example, always reminds me of the Christmas cake Jeannie used to make. We’d throw in a five pence piece and make a wish.’

There’s a wistful expression on his face and I wonder whether he is recalling his children, wondering what they wished for, wondering if they came true.

‘Coconut always reminds me of the beach,’
Jules chips in. ‘Suntan cream.’

All at once it’s as if I can hear the shrieking of gulls. The fabric of the picnic blanket against my skin as we’d lain on the clifftops, outside the crumbling cottage, Matt’s hands on my body, firmly massaging lotion into my shoulders, my breastbone which always burns, dipping into my bikini top, brushing my nipples.

‘Ali? Are you okay?’

Jules’s
voice jolts me back to now, my face as blazing hot as the sun I’d imagined I was lying under.

‘Is it dangerous?’ I ask. If one simple trigger can make me recall, so vividly, the feel of Matt’s skin on mine, do I really want to be back in that night? Fingertips bruising my arms, tights torn. My throat raw from screaming.

‘No. There has never been a credible report of anyone being
harmed through hypnosis. You’re the one in control. You won’t do anything you don’t want to do, and you won’t remember anything you can’t cope with.’

‘But what if she does?’ Jules says. ‘I find it all really worrying.’

‘Ali must be imagining all sorts.’ Mr Henderson’s words are slow and patient as he addresses Jules, and I want to point out that I am still in the room and I’m perfectly
capable of making my own decisions, but I know Jules is just worried about me. ‘It’s only natural. And sometimes those imagined fears keep shouting for attention until they are prevalent in the forefront of consciousness all the time, impossible to ignore. The truth will set you free, the saying goes. It’s far easier to deal with the black and white rather than the shades of grey lurking in
the darkest depths of our minds. Know your enemy as it were.’ His eyes meet mine as he says this, and I can’t help the shiver streaking down my spine. ‘Memories can be dangerous and not just for the person affected.’

‘Can we just start?’ I say. ‘The sooner I know, the better.’

‘Unfortunately, I can’t just reach into your head and pluck out the memories you want, so you might not
find anything out today, but I’ll do my best. Jules, if you’d like to wait outside.’ Mr Henderson stands and gestures to the door.

‘Not a chance,’ Jules says. ‘I’m staying here to see what you do to her.’

‘Jules!’ I’m mortified. ‘He’s not going to do anything to me.’

‘You know what I mean. If it’s all above board there’s no harm in me staying, is there?’

‘It’s not usual,’
Mr Henderson says. ‘Having someone else in the room can be a distraction.’

‘I don’t mind,’ I say, as I head towards the therapy table. We’ll be all day at this rate.

‘Right.’ Mr Henderson says and this time there’s a tightness to his voice. I settle down on the cold couch and cover my lower body with a fleecy, bottle green blanket. Music floods the room – pan pipes – I can imagine
Jules rolling her eyes.

‘Are you comfortable, Ali?’ Mr Henderson asks. I tell him I am, even though my muscles are tight, my body as stiff as a stick.

‘Good. First I’m going to guide you through a visualisation, and you’ll go into a trance. This isn’t as scary as it sounds. We go into trance multiple times a day, often referring to it as autopilot. Do you ever drive and find yourself
at your destination, yet you can’t remember your journey?’

‘All the time.’ The blood on my bumper.

‘That’s a form of trance. We’re physically present but our subconscious has taken over. You’ll still be aware of your surroundings, to a degree, and be able to stop me at any time. Ready?’

No.

‘Yes.’

‘Then we’ll begin.’