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Authors: Mark Edwards

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BOOK: Follow You Home
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Chapter Fourteen

I
n the living room, the bookshelves had been emptied, paperbacks scattered across the floor like bricks from a bombed building. Paperwork from the desk lay among the mess, the drawers half-open. In the bedroom, the chest of drawers had suffered the same fate; there were clothes everywhere, along with pills and condoms and random items from the bedside table. Boxes had been pulled from beneath the bed and emptied, and photographs tossed aside, Laura’s face smiling up at me from the floor.

In the bathroom, the sink was full of pill bottles and a tube of toothpaste lay squashed on the lino, its contents squirted across the floor where someone had trodden on it. I went back into the living room and looked around, mouth dry, heart thudding.

My laptop, which had been charging on the desk, was gone.

My recent work—what there was of it—had been saved to the cloud, but there were other files, including most of my photos, that I hadn’t backed up yet. Log-ins to my bank account, social media accounts, e-commerce sites, every website I used—it was all saved on there too, my computer set to automatically log in to nearly all of them. With that laptop, anyone could run riot through my life.

I looked around to see what else was missing. The
PlayStation 4
. My iPad. The Bluetooth speaker that I listened to music on. So they had only taken gadgets, as far as I could tell. Had they made a mess just for the hell of it? Or had they been looking for hidden jewellery and cash?

I called the police, then phoned my bank and asked them if they could temporarily freeze my account.

I needed to get to another computer so I could change all my passwords. And I didn’t want to be alone here, among this mess, the rotten ambience of my violated home.

I went back into the bedroom, treading gingerly through the debris. I sat on the bed and picked up a photo of Laura. She was so beautiful. And soon she would be six thousand miles away.

Erin answered the door, looking even more pregnant than she had the day before.

‘Hello again,’ she said, kissing my cheek. ‘Laura’s not here.’

‘Oh.’

‘But you can come in and wait if you like. To be honest, I’m going completely out of my mind with boredom. Maternity leave is great at first, but there’s only so much daytime TV a woman can take. Now I just want this little bugger to arrive.’

We sat at the kitchen table where I’d sat the day before. There was a giant cardboard box on the side, full of nappies and bottles and baby wipes.

‘Laura’s popped out to the shop, but I’m glad I’ve got a chance to talk to you on your own.’ She laid her hand on mine. Hers was warm. ‘She would kill me if she knew I was talking about her to you, but . . . well, I know how much you still care about her.’

‘Is it to do with the thing at the Tube station?’

‘Not really. I mean, she insists now that she tripped, that she can’t have been pushed, and I believe her. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think that when she initially told me she’d been pushed, she was doing it to get a reaction, like she wanted sympathy.’ She met my eye. ‘But I think Laura’s starting to imagine things. Really weird things.’

‘Like what?’

‘Well . . . I often have to get up in the night because this baby’s pressing on my bladder. About three times every night, actually. I’m sure it’s nature’s way of prepping me for all the sleepless nights ahead. Anyway, the other night I got up and heard a noise do
wn here.’

‘In the kitchen?’

‘Yep. I came down and Laura was standing by the window. She was just wearing a pair of knickers, nothing else. Rob would’ve been delighted. And she was staring into the garden. I said her name and she didn’t respond, and I thought, shit, she’s sleepwalking.’

The fridge emitted a clunking noise that made me jump.

‘I said her name again and she turned round. Her whole body was covered in goosebumps. I mean, like she was freezing, even though the heating was on in the house. I didn’t know what to do. You’re not supposed to wake sleepwalkers, are you?’

‘I don’t think so.’

‘Anyway, that’s when she spoke. She said, “Out there. In the trees.” And she pointed towards the garden, down where the sh
ed is.’

‘Jesus.’

I looked past Erin into the garden, which appeared neglected, as if Erin and Rob had decided not to touch it till spring. There was a little copse of apple trees at the end of the lawn, their branches bare, surrounded by damp, mulchy leaves. I could imagine how they looked at night, creepy silhouettes reaching towards the house. I shivered.

‘Then she walked past me, went up the stairs and back into her room. I woke Rob up to tell him and he was mainly pissed off that he’d missed the nude show.’

‘Did you go out and take a look?’

‘Yeah, Rob did. But there was nothing there. We didn’t expect there to be.’ She frowned. ‘I’m really worried about her. Add to that the whole thing with her almost falling under a train . . . And now saying she’s going to move to the other side of the world. I can’t work out if that’s the best thing for her, or the worst. Can you talk to her? Try to persuade her to see someone? She won’t listen to me.’

‘She won’t listen to me either, Erin.’

She stood up, running a hand over her belly. The baby inside had no idea how lucky he was to have this capable, caring woman as his mother. ‘Well, try again.’

Erin went to the loo and when she came back I told her about my break-in. She was shocked and asked why I hadn’t told her straight away, and she let me use her laptop to go onto all the sites I use so I could change the passwords.

Two hours later, when I was about to give up waiting for Laura and go back to my flat, to begin the painful task of clearing up, the front door slammed and she came in to the kitchen. It was six o’clock.

‘Oh,’ she said when she saw me.

‘Hiya.’

‘What are you doing here?’ She was carrying a couple of shopping bags, one of which, I was pleased to see, contained two bottles of red wine. She seemed a little spaced-out, distracted. I noticed that she was wearing her poppy hair scrunchie, which I thought of as her signature item. The number of times she’d lost it and we’d spent half an hour crawling around the flat searching for it.

‘I’ve had a break-in at home. I came here to use the computer.’

‘A break-in?’

I explained what had happened and she looked suitably
horrified
.

‘It’s as if we’re cursed,’ she said.

‘Laura, don’t be silly. You don’t believe that, do you?’

‘I guess not.’ She unpacked the wine from the bag and immediately unscrewed one of the bottles, pouring herself a large glass.

‘Aren’t you going to offer me one?’

‘Why, are you staying?’

‘I want to talk to you, Laura.’

‘Not about Australia. Please.’

‘No. I just want to chat. We’re still friends, aren’t we? And I don’t want to go back to the flat yet. I don’t have the energy.’

She poured me a glass of wine and sat down at the big solid table and asked me more about the burglary, and for the next hour or so we talked. As the wine slipped down, she relaxed, her moodiness vanishing, and I made sure to stick to innocuous subjects. No reminiscing, no mention of our trip, nothing about our relationship or her plan to move abroad. We talked about mutual friends, and TV shows that we used to watch together, and music that we both liked. Erin and Rob came in and told us they were going to order an Indian takeaway if we wanted some, and the food came and we ate, opening and drinking our way through the second bottle of wine.

It was lovely. For two hours, I forgot about all the shit, all the stuff that I had to deal with. I felt like my old self. It was like we were a couple again, the couple we were before. The only negative was this niggle at the back of my head, that I needed to ask her about the sleepwalking incident. But I didn’t want to spoil the mood. For the first time in three months, I felt happy.

‘The wine’s all gone,’ Laura said with surprise.

‘How did that happen?’

She laughed tipsily. ‘I think we drank it.’

‘Shall I pop out to get more?’

She looked up at me through her fringe, a look in her eye that made me tingle. For a while her leg had been pressed against mine beneath the table. I knew she must be aware of the contact, was thrilled that she hadn’t pulled away. ‘Actually, I’ve got a bottle of Jack Daniels in my room.’

‘Do you want me to go and fetch it?’

‘No, let’s stop hogging Erin and Rob’s kitchen. We can drink it up there.’

I tried my best not to look excited when she said this.

‘Come on,’ she said.

She led me up to the room where she was staying. I had slept here before, when Laura and I had stayed over together, and it was weird to think that Laura was living here now, her clothes filling
the wardro
be, her essential possessions piled up against the
walls. Th
e room wasn’t much bigger than the double bed that filled it and there was nowhere else to sit, so I perched awkwardly on the end of the bed while Laura sat cross-legged in the centre and opened the bottle of JD.

She only had one tumbler, so she poured in some whiskey, took a couple of sips, then passed it to me, jumping up to put some music on. She staggered and half-fell onto the bed, giggling and saying, ‘Whoops.’ She was wearing jeans and a jumper but I could see the shape of her body through the fabric and longed to touch her.

‘It’s a bit like being a student again, isn’t it?’ I said, passing the tumbler back to her.

‘Yeah. Except I was a very boring student. I spent all my time in the library. Little Miss Boring.’

‘You were never boring.’

‘Oh, I was at uni. And I had a very boring boyfriend.’

‘The chairman of the debating society?’

‘Julian. He was never happier than when he was mass debating.’

She smiled, then giggled, then laughed, and I joined in, and soon there were tears pouring down Laura’s cheeks and I was clutching my stomach. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t stop laughing. The joke wasn’t even funny, but it was a release of tension, or possibly a sign of how close we both were to hysteria.

Finally, we got control of ourselves and Laura wiped her face with the sleeve of her jumper.

‘Oh God,’ she said. ‘My stomach hurts.’

I held up the bottle, said in a ridiculous attempt at an American accent, ‘Rock and fucking roll, baby.’

‘Please, don’t set me off again.’

I remembered what Erin had asked me to. ‘Laura, you know I’m seeing a therapist. I think it’s helping. Erin told me—’

She held up a hand. ‘I don’t want to talk about it. Please.’ She giggled. ‘I’ve managed to drink myself into a state of not giving a fuck, OK?’

We were sitting very close together on the bed now. Laura still cross-legged, me with my legs stretched out before me. My head was woozy, my ribs sore; I was intoxicated and happy. I wanted to say something profound, something that would make Laura fall in love with me all over again, that would fix all our problems, make her change her mind about running away. But I couldn’t think of anything sensible, let alone profound. As I groped through the fog in my head, a song came on that we both loved, a piano intro, a softly plucked guitar, a deep male voice, and Laura turned her eyes towards me and whispered, ‘This song always reminds me of you, you know.’

And then we were kissing.

Shortly afterwards, when we were both naked, and I was inside her, I made a groaning noise and Laura shushed me, whispering, ‘Erin and Rob,’ and I was surprised to remember that they existed, that anyone else existed. Her skin against mine, her tongue on my lips, her fingers on my back, the heaviness of her breathing . . . these were the only things in the world. I’m sure I cried out when I came, and she did too, and then I was slipping into unconsciousness, her limbs wrapped around me, her sweat drying on my skin, and as sleep claimed me I felt happy, cured, alive.

Until I woke up.

Chapter Fifteen

I
t was still dark outside, and the bed was cold and smelled stale, the scent of sex and whiskey heavy in the air. I found my jeans on the floor beside the bed and checked my phone.
Seven-thirty a.m
. I waited for a minute in case Laura had got up to go to the loo, and when she didn’t appear I got out of bed, retrieved my clothes, which were crumpled in a pile on the floor, and went downstairs.

There were a couple of coffee mugs on the side in the kitchen but no sign of Laura. I assumed Rob must have gone to work and that Erin was still in bed.

Where was Laura?

I left the house. I felt wretched. My head throbbed and the rest of my body ached. I felt about ninety years old. Before leaving the house I had found a little box of painkillers in the bathroom cabinet and swallowed a couple.

Camden was waking up, early birds heading to work, people queuing at bus stops. A couple of runners jogged by as I walked down towards the market. I had an idea of where Laura might have gone. I knew her favourite spot in this part of the city.

As I walked, I thought about the previous night. Though it had only been a few hours ago I could only remember glimpses of skin against skin, a sense memory. I so wanted it to mean something and for Laura to feel the same way. But what were the chances of that? She had been drunk, emotional. We both had been. Sex with your ex. It was textbook.

If my male friends could see inside my head, I thought, they would want to slap some sense into me, tell me to give up and move on. What they wouldn’t understand, though, was that I felt like I was drowning and Laura was dry land. I didn’t know how to get through this, through everything, without her. Why had we reacted to the aftermath of Romania in such different ways? One of us wanting to cling, the other needing to get away. A mutually impossible situation. Deep down I knew the answer.

And I didn’t know what to do about it.

I was right about Laura’s whereabouts.

Camden Lock was one of her favourite spots, but only when it was quiet, when the crowds—who flocked to the market, the bars and noodle stalls, the goth boutiques and remaining record shops—had gone home or not descended on the borough yet. Down by the still water of the canal it was quiet, especially at this hour, in this weather. A few degrees colder and the water would freeze over.

Laura was sitting on a low wall beside the narrow towpath, wrapped in her green parka. She stared at the water, not moving. I watched her from the market courtyard above, hesitant and unsure if I would be welcome. Perhaps, now I knew she was safe, I should sneak away, go back home and call her later. Or would I be better going down and talking to her now, telling her how I felt? I wrestled with the question. But before I could make a decision I saw something that overrode my dilemma.

Somebody was watching her.

I could see him standing beneath the bridge, half concealed by shadows. For a fleeting moment he came out into the dim morning light but he was wearing a hood so I couldn’t see his face. He was slim, with an athletic build. He stared at Laura, who was oblivious to his presence.

‘Hey!’ I shouted.

Laura looked towards me, while the man retreated beneath the bridge into the darkness. I ran down the steps, ignoring Laura’s cry of ‘Daniel?’ and accelerated along the towpath and under the bridge.

When I emerged on the other side, he was ascending the steps onto the main road. As if he’d hailed it, a bus glided to a stop and he jumped aboard. I ran as fast as I could, but as I reached the bus stop, panting and sweating, the bus set off. There was no sign of the man through the window.

Cursing, I jogged back down the steps and walked along the path to Laura.

‘What the hell are you doing?’ she said, her words harsh, breath pluming the frigid air.

‘That guy was spying on you.’

‘What are you talking about?
You
were spying on me.’

I stepped towards her, tried to put my hand on her arm, but she jerked away. ‘Laura. I woke up and you were gone. I was worried about you.’

‘Why?’

‘I still care about you, Laura.’

Her long strawberry-blonde hair stirred in the breeze. Her nose was pink from the cold and two more spots of colour burned in her cheeks.

She exhaled another cloud of ice. ‘Daniel. You need to stop this. Last night, we were drunk.’ She looked directly at me. ‘It didn’t mean anything.’

‘You don’t mean that.’

She wouldn’t meet my eye. ‘I do.’

Before I could respond she turned away and marched up t
he steps.

I ran after her. ‘Laura, for God’s sake. This isn’t you.’

‘Please, Daniel. Don’t beg. It’s not you.’

‘I wasn’t going to beg! For fuck’s sake, why are you being so cold?
That
isn’t
you
.’

‘Maybe this is what I’m like now. This is the new me.’

I shook my head. ‘I refuse to believe that.’

I could sense the market traders, who were setting up their stalls, watching us. I reached out to her and she shrank away. ‘You need to forget me. We shouldn’t have slept together last night. It was a mistake. I know you must’ve seen it as a sign that we were going to get back together. But we can’t be together anymore, Daniel. Ever. Nothing will change that. I’m moving away and you’ll never see me again.’ She put her hand on my forearm. ‘You need to forget about me and move on.’

I opened my mouth to argue but thought better of it. She was right. I was coming close to begging, or at least verging on
harassment
. Her words hurt me but made me frustrated and angry too. The best thing I could do now was retreat, go home and give her the space she wanted. But before I went there was one more thing I needed to say.

‘Laura, that man
was
watching you.’

She looked down at the bridge and shook her head. ‘No. He was just some random guy. You probably frightened the life out
of him.’

I hesitated. Was she right? ‘No . . . He was watching you.
Specifically
you.’

Doubt crossed her face but then she shook her head again. ‘No. He wasn’t.’ She strode away again and I hurried to keep up.

‘Where are you going?’ I asked.

‘Back to Erin’s.’

She broke contact with me and walked away quickly, out of the courtyard and onto the High Street, which was teeming with people now. I stood there, frozen to the spot, for what felt like a long time. It wasn’t just the crushing realisation that she really meant it, that our relationship was actually over. It was more than that.
Worse
than that. I was certain the man under the bridge had been there specifically to watch Laura. And now I had to go back to my ransacked flat. As I trudged back to the main road, I felt a prickle on the back of my neck like I, too, was being watched.

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