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Authors: Mark Edwards

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BOOK: Follow You Home
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Chapter Ten

E
rin and Rob Tranham lived in a house in a leafy back street of Camden, one of the most expensive parts of North London, an area where Laura and I had spent many
weekends
at the start of our relationship. We used to stay out drinking and dancing half the night before crashing at our friends’ place, then wander, hungover and dazed, through the crowds around the market before going home. Erin’s gran had bought the house for the price of a Starbucks venti latte in the sixties, signing it over to her granddaughter when she retired and moved to France.

I rang the doorbell and wondered if I looked as horrible as I felt. I was on my third piece of chewing gum, trying to mask the smell of the Merlot I’d drunk at lunchtime.

Rob opened the door and gestured for me to come in. He would deny it, but he did a double-take when he saw me, giving me time to note how fit and healthy he was, triceps pumped like he’d just been to the gym, and then Erin appeared. Chopsticks held her hair in place and she stood in that pose heavily pregnant women often adopt: one hand on her back. I stared at her enormous bump as Rob put a proud and protective arm around her.

‘Wow,’ I said. ‘It must be due soon.’

‘Yeah, Erin’s eight months gone. And
it
is a
he
,’ she said. ‘We’re having a boy.’

‘A mini Rob. Congrats, mate.’ I shook Rob’s hand. He let go quickly, backing away.

Erin was looking at me with either sympathy or pity. ‘Laura’s in the kitchen,’ she said. ‘Come through.’

I knew where the kitchen was, had cooked dinner there, mixed cocktails and cracked open beers before nights out as a foursome. But Erin was acting like I was, if not a stranger, then merely an acquaintance. Someone she used to know.

Maybe, I thought, that was true. Because she only knew the old me. Not this new version. I was the living embodiment of that expression: a shadow of his former self.

‘Hi, Daniel.’

Laura sat at the solid oak table, clinging to a cup of tea like it was a lifebuoy. Seeing her sent a jolt through me. She was wearing a black jumper and her hair was tied back to expose her face. She
was st
ill Laura, still lovely. But these many weeks apart allowed me to see the changes in her. Like me, she was thinner, her face paler; there was a new translucent quality to her skin. Her cheekbones were visible, her jawline sharper. Her fingernails were bitten like mine, something she never did before, berating me for the bad habit that left my cuticles in a permanent state of ruin.

She had also developed a new habit in the days following our return, a habit of swiping and rubbing at her eyes, like there was something in them that bothered her. There was, she explained to me, a shape that lurked in the periphery of her vision. Like when you stare at a light and see its imprint on your retina after you look away. But this imprint wouldn’t fade.

I sat down opposite her and she asked me if I wanted a tea or coffee. I shook my head and looked over my shoulder. Erin and Rob had gone into the living room, giving us privacy. I wasn’t sure if that was a good sign or a bad one.

‘How’s it going?’ Laura asked. Without waiting for me to reply, she said, ‘You look ill.’

‘Thanks.’

She shrugged with one shoulder. ‘Sorry, but it’s true. I look
ill too.’

‘No, you look . . . nice.’

Once upon a time, she would have laughed at that. ‘I don’t,’ she said in a flat tone. She stared into her tea, groped for more words. I hated this awkwardness between us. It wasn’t fair, wasn’t right. I wanted to grab her and stare into her eyes, say, ‘Laura, it’s me, Daniel. I’m still me. And you’re still you.’

But I didn’t do that. I didn’t say anything.

‘So,’ she said. ‘What’s happening with you? Are you w
orking much?’

‘I’m thinking,’ I said.

She nodded, understanding. She had been struggling with work too.

‘So what did you want to tell me?’ I said.

She took a deep breath.

‘I’m moving,’ she said.

‘Moving? Where?’

She couldn’t meet my eye. ‘Perth.’

For a moment, I wasn’t sure if I’d heard correctly. ‘You’re moving to Scotland?’

She laughed, a flash of the old Laura appearing then vanishing again. ‘No. Perth in Australia.’

I floundered, mouth opening, closing then opening again. ‘
Australia
?

‘You know my aunt lives out there?’

I had a vague memory of her mentioning this once. ‘So you’re going travelling?’

‘No. Emigrating.’

I opened my mouth but she cut me off. ‘I’ve already been to see an independent consultant who’s helping me with the application, and she thinks I’ll get enough points to be able to go, especially with my aunt sponsoring me.’

It was like being punched in the head. ‘But . . . why?’

She looked at me. ‘Do you really need me to explain?’

‘Yes. I do.’

She hunched over the table, pushing her tea away. ‘I need a completely fresh start, far away.’

‘Well, you couldn’t get much further away.’

‘Exactly.’

‘You can’t go,’ I said, standing up.

‘Daniel, I’m only telling you out of . . .’

‘What? Politeness?’

The temperature in the kitchen had dropped several degrees. Laura frowned, her gaze fixed on the tabletop. ‘I just thought you should know.’

I took several deep breaths, counted to ten. ‘How long does it take? The application?’

‘A few months.’


Months?
’ I had been hoping she’d say a year.

‘Please be understanding,’ she said. ‘You know how unhappy I am. I need to do something to change things, and this is the best idea I’ve got. A completely new start. For the first time since . . .’ She trailed off. ‘For the first time in ages, I feel excited about something. I actually
feel
something—something that isn’t dread, or regret, or fear.’

‘But it’s running away, Laura.’

‘No, it’s not.’

‘It is. Just like you ran away from me.’

‘Daniel, I’m not a child.’

An idea grabbed me and I scooted back into the chair opposite her, tried to grab her hand. ‘Let me come with you. I could emigrate too. I’ve always wanted to go to Australia.’

She looked like I’d just suggested we have sex on Erin and Rob’s kitchen table. ‘No. I need to do this alone.’

‘There’s nothing to keep me here.’

‘Yes there is. Your work—’

‘Which I can do anywhere.’

‘And your family. Your mum. And, Daniel, the whole point is that I need a break. A complete break.’

My hand, which had been drumming the tabletop, fell still. ‘So it isn’t the UK that you want to be thousands of miles from.
It’s me.’

She stood up. ‘If I’d known you were going to get aggressive . . .’

‘I’m not being aggressive!’

‘I thought you’d be understanding. You’re the only other person who knows what I went through.’

‘What
we
went through.’

She got up and crossed the kitchen to the sink, filled a glass of water and took a big gulp. ‘Please, I really don’t want to argue about it, Daniel.’

It was my turn to stand up. ‘Instead of running off to Australia, maybe you should do what I’m doing. Go to see a therapist.’

She almost dropped the glass. ‘You’re seeing a therapist?’

‘Yes. A woman called Dr Sauvage.’

‘And is it helping?’

‘I’m not sure yet.’

‘Have you . . . Have you told this woman exactly what
happened
?’

‘Not all of it. No. She wants to hear about how I’m feeling now.’

She looked relieved. ‘I don’t want to see a therapist. I don’t want to talk about any of what happened. I want to forget it, if it’s at all possible for me to do so. That’s why I’m moving to a new country, starting a new life.’

At that moment, Erin came into the kitchen, pausing awkwardly in the doorway. Had she been listening to us? Had we raised our voices? Erin had both hands on her ripe belly, as if she were trying to protect her unborn son from listening to these arguing adults. I had an urge to tell the baby to stay in the womb, where he was safe, sheltered.
It’s fucked up out here
, I wanted to say.
It’s fucked up and there are monsters. Don’t believe people when they tell you there’s no such thing.

‘Sorry, guys,’ Erin said. ‘I’m having a bit of a blood sugar crash and just need to get something to eat.’

Laura moved across the kitchen, pulled out a chair and ushered her friend into it. Seamlessly, she opened the fridge door and started pulling out fruit and cheese and meat wrapped in silver foil. ‘What are you craving?’

Erin sat down and grinned at me. ‘Don’t worry, I’m not about to eat a pineapple and mayonnaise jelly. Just a ham sandwich would be lovely, Laura. Thanks, sweetie.’

I watched as Laura made the sandwich, passing it to Erin. Even in the midst of her blood sugar crash, Erin radiated good health and vitality. Eight months pregnant. That could have been Laura now. But instead of being closer to me than ever, she was moving to the other side of the fucking world.

‘What do you think of Laura moving to Australia?’ I asked.

Erin took a bite of her sandwich and chewed before answering. ‘Of course I don’t want her to go.’ She shook her head. ‘I don’t understand any of this. What happened to you two? You seemed so happy. What did you do, Daniel? Laura won’t tell me.’

‘He didn’t do anything!’

‘But neither of you will tell me what blew you apart. Come on, Dan. You can tell me, can’t you? Did you sleep with someone else?’

Laura shot me a beseeching look.
We will never speak about it
, she had said on the way back from Romania.
Promise me.

I promise.

I didn’t need to promise. I didn’t want to talk about it either. All I wanted was to forget. If I didn’t talk about it, I could pretend it had never happened. Any of it. That was the only way to cope.

‘He didn’t sleep with someone else,’ Laura said.

Erin sighed heavily. ‘All right. But I think the two of you need your heads knocking together.’ She waved her sandwich in Laura’s direction. ‘Have you told him what happened to you yesterday?’

‘No,’ Laura said quickly, eyes darting nervously.

‘What?’ I said.

Erin’s eyes were big and round. Her voice dropped to a whisper. ‘Tell him, Laura.’

She stared at the kitchen table, chewing a thumbnail, unable to meet my eye. ‘I think . . . I thought someone tried to kill me.’

‘Oh my God. Where? How?’

‘At Charing Cross Tube station. I was heading home from
Australia
House, you know, where you go to apply to emigrate, and . . .’ She broke off, still staring at the table surface, then told me what had happened at the station the day before.

Chapter Eleven

L
aura walked down the steps of Australia House, the paperwork neatly folded in her shoulder bag, feeling curiously light. She pictured herself as a helium-filled balloon, set free by a careless child’s hand, alighting from the frosty city streets, up past the windows of the imposing buildings here on the Strand, floating towards the clouds.
Set free.
How wonderful that would feel.

As she walked towards Charing Cross she kept as close to the buildings as possible, feeling reassured by the solid concrete, as if it offered protection. A man emerged from one of the tiny snickets between the buildings and Laura jumped, slapping her hand to her breastbone. She put her head down and scurried on.

The last week or so she’d felt like she was being watched. She kept seeing a figure flickering in her peripheral vision, but every time she looked the figure was gone. She knew she was imagining it, and as if to prove this she saw the figure again, on the other side of the road, a glimpse of black clothes and white skin that vanished i
n th
e crowd. She forced herself to keep walking, eyes straight ahead. She wanted to be home.

She knew she shouldn’t really refer to Erin and Rob’s place as home. It was temporary. A temporary shelter. Which was exactly what she needed at the moment. She felt guilty about imposing on her pregnant friend for so long, but Erin insisted it was fine.

‘You were there for me when Rob and I went through our sticky patch,’ Erin had said, referring to a period a couple of years ago when she had discovered Rob had come close to having an affair. Thankfully, they had worked it out. ‘Besides, it will be handy to have a live-in babysitter when the little one arrives!’

Everybody was being helpful. Her manager, Simone, was letting her work from home. Simone had confided in Laura that she used to suffer from agoraphobia too, believing what Laura had told her, the day she’d found herself crying at her computer while her colleagues gawped at her. ‘Take your time,’ she had said in that soothing voice that made Laura want to cry again, from gratitude.

So, thanks to Erin and Simone, Laura had a place to hole up during this period. Her ‘tarantula period’, as she secretly thought of it.

Last week she had watched a documentary about these spiders.
The tarantula sheds her skin once a year
, the narrator explained,
then seals herself away behind a wall of silk until her new skin has hardened. Only then can she re-emerge and start to feed again.

Laura never thought she would compare herself to a big, scary spider. But that was exactly how she felt. She was waiting for her new skin to grow, to harden.

Since Romania, the shell around her heart, like the spider’s skin, had been ripped away, leaving it exposed. She was in constant pain, unable to bear the sight of others suffering. And she had realised that she was never going to heal here. That was why she
had to
get away.

She was dreading having to tell Daniel about her plans the next day, but knew she had to do it. She hadn’t spoken to him for several weeks. Maybe he had a new girlfriend by now. He had never struggled to attract women. There was a certain type of girl, like her, who was attracted to the sexy geek type, who liked Clark Kent more when he was wearing his glasses than when he transformed into Superman. And Daniel hated being on his own, had barely spent a night alone in his life. There were times when she’d gone away on business and he’d told her he’d spent the week pacing the apartment, talking to himself and going bonkers. So no, she couldn’t see him staying single for long.

It didn’t matter that the thought of him with another woman was like a knife in her gut. She couldn’t keep him trapped, hanging on waiting to see if she came back. That would be cruel. She wanted him to be happy, and the best way for
him
to heal was to find someone new, to throw himself into a new relationship. If she was his doctor, that’s what she would prescribe. By moving to the other side of the world, she would make it easier for him.

She bit down on the urge to cry.

Moments later, she arrived at Charing Cross station. She stopped. All those people. It was even busier now than it had been earlier, when she’d taken the Tube from Camden. She tried not to look at anyone. Maybe she should get a cab. But she needed to hang on to every penny she could at the moment, would need it for her big move. As long as she didn’t look at anybody, she should be OK. Plus it was stupid for her to be scared of crowds. It was the empty places that ought to scare her.

She descended the steps into the station, clinging to the handrail like an elderly lady. The people below her shuffled about like zombies. She had a flash of one of them twisting towards her, vacant eyes rolling, teeth bared, grabbing her and ripping her throat out . . . She shook the image away and counted to five beneath h
er breath.

Come on
, she urged herself.
You can do this.

She followed the signs to the platform, heading towards the far end. The display board showed there was a train due in four minutes. In that four minutes, more and more people entered the platform, many of them heading to where Laura stood. She was surrounded, bodies too close to her, the smell of the McDonalds fries the woman next to her clutched in her fist making Laura want to be sick.

For fuck’s sake
, she muttered, squinting at the board. Then she heard the rumbling of an approaching train, thank God, and looked down at the track. A tiny, malformed mouse darted between the
rails.

She jerked her head up. It wasn’t only the people that scared her about train travel. It was the sight of the track. The rails.

An image appeared in her mind: she and Daniel running along the tracks towards the town, stumbling and tripping but staying upright, the sun rising, her throat raw from screaming. And Daniel had caught hold of her arm and—

She lurched towards the edge of the platform, arms windmilling. She could see the mouse, frozen between the rails, and she was falling, falling, and a roaring noise came from the tunnel, air blasting along the platform, the train rocketing into the light . . .

Someone grabbed her from behind, almost went over with her, but fought them both back from the edge. A tall man, wearing a suit. He held her.

She couldn’t catch her breath. The man held onto her, murmuring in her ear, telling her to calm down, it’s OK, calm down, it’s
all OK . . .

She pulled free of his grip and looked around. Everyone was staring at her, but the Tube train was at the platform now and the doors were opening, so their attention quickly wandered.

‘What happened?’ the man who had caught her asked. ‘Did you trip?’

She couldn’t remember tripping, but said, ‘I must have. I’m always tripping over my own feet.’

She thanked him and tried to give him money from her purse, which made him laugh. He got onto the train and she could feel him watching her as the doors beeped and slid shut.

Had she tripped—or had somebody pushed her? She was sure she could feel the imprint of hands on her spine.

She looked around. More people emerging into the station. If someone had pushed her, they were long gone by now. She closed her eyes and took a long, deep breath. She must have tripped. Lost in her reverie, she had walked into someone, probably stumbled over one of those annoying wheelie suitcases. That was all. It was ridiculous to think that anyone here might want to kill her.

She’d boarded the next train and found a seat, a memory coming back to her. As she’d clung to the man who saved her, she’d seen a figure pushing hurriedly through the crowd away from her. She couldn’t tell if it was a man or woman. She couldn’t . . .

She killed the thought, reminded herself that it was stupid to think like this.

By the time she’d reached her stop, she had convinced herself that she had imagined it.

BOOK: Follow You Home
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