Authors: Lorna Dounaeva
Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #Suspense, #Psychological, #Romance
I stamp hard on the brakes. She stares back at me, her eyes stricken with terror, but it's too late for me to do anything. We brace ourselves for the impact.
A tomato flies out of the grocery bag on the back seat and splatters brutally against the windscreen. Its juicy pulp oozes down the glass as my car shrieks to a halt, just inches from her porcelain face. She slides down to the ground.
“Oh my god!” I tear off my seat belt, and in my panic, I almost forget to apply the brake. I leap out and rush round to the front of the car. “Are you all right? Do you want me to call an ambulance?”
She looks up at me with strange, unblinking eyes. “Why would I need an ambulance?”
I laugh nervously. “I nearly ran you over.”
Slowly, she sits up. “No…no, it’s alright. I just need a minute.”
I kneel down next to her. “I’m so sorry, I just didn’t see you!”
I shake violently, my heart pounds in my chest. I feel guilt and shock and nausea in equal measure. “I just didn’t see you.”
I don’t understand what happened. Can’t understand it for the life of me. One moment she wasn’t there and the next she was. She was like an apparition, materialising in the middle of my driveway. I shake my head. It's all too much. Maybe I should get my eyes tested.
“Would you like to come in?” The words force themselves from my trembling lips. “I…I’ll make us some tea. If you’re sure you don’t want me to call an ambulance?”
She pauses for a moment, and then nods thoughtfully. “A cup of tea would be lovely.”
I offer her my hand and she pulls herself up off the gravel driveway. I feel a surge of electricity as our fingers connect. She is very small and delicate, a woman in a child’s body. And yet she has an iron grip.
The keys jangle as I unlock my front door. For some reason it brings to mind the image of a jailer, unlocking a cell door. But my cosy, one bedroom home is anything but a prison.
“Fluffy?” I call, but my cat has gone into hiding. “Here, make yourself at home.” I clear a pile of laundry off the sofa so she can sit down. But she follows me into the kitchen, watches closely as I make the tea, as if she’s never seen it done before.
“Do you have any sugar?”
“Here, help yourself.”
She takes a spoonful and dumps it into her cup, then another and another. And another. It must be the shock.
“Come on, let’s go and sit down.” Nodding, she follows me back into the lounge, stopping to straighten a picture hanging on the wall. I couldn’t even tell it was crooked. “I really am sorry about nearly knocking you over. Are you sure you’re OK?”
“I’m fine, though I’m sure I’ll have a bump the size of an egg tomorrow.” She pats the back of her head and giggles.
Why’s that funny? Hell, she’d better not be planning to sue!
“You hit your head?” I ask nervously.
“Only a little.”
“Would you like some ice?”
“Oh no, it’s fine.” She strokes the soft velvet arm of the sofa, as if it was a cat. She’s a bit younger than me, early twenties I’d guess. And waif-like in her long flowing skirt, her hair a tangle of wild black curls.
For a while, neither of us can find anything to say. She stirs her tea vigorously to fill the silence.
“What were you doing outside my house, anyway?” I finally ask.
“I was delivering leaflets.” Her voice is very squeaky. It reminds me of Minnie Mouse.
“What sort of leaflets?”
“These ones are for pizza. It doesn’t pay very well, but I’ve only just moved to Queensbeach and I haven’t found a proper job yet.”
“What kind of work are you looking for?”
“Whatever I can get. There doesn’t seem to be much going at this time of year.”
“Oh, well they need shelf stackers at Robertson’s. That’s where I work.”
“That’s that big supermarket, right?”
“Yeah. Why don’t you pop in tomorrow? I’ll talk to my manager. I’m sure I can get you an interview.”
“Wow, that’s very kind of you, thanks. I’m sorry, I don’t even know your name?”
“And I’m Alicia. Alicia McBride.” I get the feeling she wants me to remember her name.
She looks down into the bottom of her empty cup for what seems like an inordinate amount of time.
“Would you like another cup of tea?”
“Perhaps I should take you home then?” I don’t mean to sound rude, but we don’t seem to have any more to talk about.
“I don’t want to be any trouble…”
“No, really. It’s the least I can do.” I grab my jacket.
“Where shall I drop you?” I ask, wiping the tomato pulp from my windscreen. I'm a little nervous about getting behind the wheel again, but I suppose it's best to get it over with. Alicia fiddles with her seat belt.
“The caravan park, down by the beach.”
“The caravan park?”
“You know it?”
“Yeah, I just hadn’t even realised anyone lived there out of season. I thought they were meant to be doing it up?”
“It’s just temporary, till I find something better.”
I am careful not to catch her eye.
The windscreen wipers screech noisily as I drive down the main Coast Road. It’s raining only lightly, but the wind dumps handfuls of sand over the car, making it difficult to see.
The caravan park is even more dilapidated than I remember.
“Thanks for the lift,” Alicia calls as she climbs out.
“No problem, and seriously – come over to Robertson’s in the morning. I’m sure we can sort something out.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“It’s the least I can do…” my voice trails off as I take in the boarded up doors and smashed windows, not to mention all the rubbish strewn around. What a tip! I watch as she walks up the steps of a guano-splattered caravan. There is no one else about. The place is completely silent, save for the shrill of the gulls and the whistle of the wind. I find it a bit eerie.
Alicia watches me from her broken window as I drive away. I feel guilty leaving her there but what else can I do? I don’t want to invite her to stay with me – I need my own space. Besides, I’ve only got one bedroom.
I’m sure she’ll be fine, I tell myself. She can move somewhere better once she gets a proper job.
I switch on the radio and sing along on the short drive back home, try to get Alicia and that ethereal smile of hers, out of my mind.
“I’ll have a bottle of red please,” I tell the waitress as I sit down at my usual table, a couple of hours later.
“Um, maybe some bread and olives.”
“Coming right up,” she says, scribbling this down on her notepad. “Hey, your necklace is undone. Would you like me to do it up for you?”
I pull my hair up off the nape of my neck and she reaches round to refasten it. Her head is bent over mine as my friends walk in.
“Told you,” says Deacon Frost, plopping down on the couch opposite. “Women, they’re all lesbians.”
“If you say so.” His brother Rhett carefully removes his designer jacket and hangs it on the coat stand.
“What are we having?” Deacon asks. “Red or white?”
“I’ve already ordered a bottle of red,” I tell him.
“Red it is then.”
Mustafa’s serves a hundred different kinds of mezzeraki but only two types of wine, red or white. As for the beer, it’s completely unpalatable to start with, but Deacon reckons it gets better, the more you drink. You’re probably wondering right now why on earth we come here – but it’s one of the few places in Queensbeach that stays open all year round, so we’ve come to get used to it.
“Where’s Kate?” Deacon asks.
“She’s meeting Julio,” I say. “Apparently he called her, completely out of the blue.”
Rhett looks concerned. “What does
I stare up at the ceiling, pretend to be fascinated by the odd collection of hanging lamps. “No idea. Nothing to do with me.”
“Half-brother. Anyway, I haven’t seen him in months, have I?”
The waitress brings the wine and I inhale mine in big, nervous gulps, without much regard for the bar-snacks. Deacon raises an eyebrow, but doesn’t say anything. I don’t mention the incident with Alicia. I’d rather just forget it ever happened.
“So what are we doing this weekend?” Rhett asks.
It’s pelting it down outside, but all anyone can talk about is how this coming weekend is tipped to be one of the hottest of the year. In November. If the predictions turn out to be true, then global warming is even more messed up than I thought.
“We could have a barbecue,” Deacon suggests.
“What if the weather people have got it wrong?”
“It’ll be alright. We’ve got outdoor heaters and we can put up the gazebo if it’s not too windy.”
“I can make a potato salad,” I offer, as this is about the limit of my culinary skills.
“OK, but make sure the potatoes are cooked this time,” Deacon says wryly.
I blush. “That was a simple mistake. Could happen to anyone.”
“I’ll make cocktails!” Rhett cuts in, clapping his hands together. Deacon rolls his eyes at me, but I'm with Rhett. I love cocktails.
“Yeah, and maybe you could invite some of your sexy doctor friends?” I suggest, batting my eyelashes at Deacon. He pulls an expression I can’t quite read. I’m not sure if that’s a yes or a no.
“Cool, a belly dancer,” a man at the next table chirps.
Not cool. Shandy may look exotic, but I happen to know she’s from Lewisham. Loud, jingly music starts to play, but she continues to sit at the bar, applying lipstick with a bored expression. Reluctantly, she climbs up onto a table and starts dancing. I have to admit she looks good, with her tanned skin and toned tummy. But within five minutes, she is bored. She leaps down and starts walking around, flanked on each side by two bartenders who act like her personal bodyguards. She’s looking for a victim.
“Don’t look up,” Rhett hisses. But it’s too late.
Shandy seizes me by the hand and propels me to my feet. Her henchmen surround me, tying a scarf around my waist and shouting words of encouragement. I am helpless but to join in or I’ll look like a party pooper. My friends whoop and cheer as I begin circling my hips to imitate hers. She does things with her tummy muscles that no mortal should be able to do, but I twist and grind as best as I can to keep up.
I’m actually starting to enjoy myself when Deacon yells: “Up on the table!”
To my horror, the henchmen seem to like this suggestion and they hoist me up. Looking down at all those people, my inhibitions return with a thud. Plus, there is the very real danger that I might fall off. I gyrate awkwardly, wondering how much longer this bloody song’s going to go on for. It doesn’t seem to have a middle or an end and all this circling my hips is making me giddy. How does Shandy do it? Actually, where
Shandy? I haven’t seen her since they lifted me up here.
I scan the room. I don’t believe it – she’s back at the bar, having a drink, while I dance on like an idiot. The cheek of it! She’s the paid entertainer; I’m the customer, the entertainee! I give my hips one last wiggle and by some miracle of fate, the music comes to an end. I slink back to my table, to a smattering of applause.
“I’m going to kill you,” I growl at Deacon, reaching for my wine. He leans forward and sticks a tenner into my waistband.
“Hey!” I retrieve it and tuck it into my purse. “Don’t think you’re getting that back.”
“Worth every penny,” he smiles sweetly.
I grab my bag. “Come on Rhett, I need a cigarette.”
* * *
It’s half past eleven by the time we spill out onto the street. I’ve just missed the last bus, and there’s not a cab in sight.
“I’ll call you tomorrow,” I tell Rhett and Deacon, as I turn to go.
“Wait, I’ll walk you,” Deacon says, even though they live on the other side of town.
“You don’t have to do that.”
“Yes, I do.”
I’d argue some more, but Deacon’s old-fashioned like that. So I say good night to Rhett and we trundle up the road, me slightly unsteady in my heels.
Deacon taps his foot with exaggerated impatience as I fumble for my keys outside my house.
“I don’t know how you find anything in there,” he says, in awe of my oversized handbag.
Triumphantly, I locate the keys but my cigarettes fall to the floor. He stoops down and retrieves them for me.
“You’d be better off without these.”
That’s Deacon for you, always ready with a lecture.
“Hmm…” I turn the key in the lock. As I open the door, a black and white fur ball shoots out.
“There you are, Fluffy.”
I scoop him up in my arms and he purrs contentedly.
“Right, well I’d better be off before Mr Krinkle’s curtains start twitching.” Deacon says.
I giggle. Mr Krinkle is my extraordinarily nosey neighbour.
“OK, well thanks for seeing me home.”
I walk into the gloomy house. I forgot to leave the light on in the front room, so I have to fumble around in the darkness, with Fluffy running circles around me. I find the switch, and see that there’s a red light on the answer phone, which means I have a message. I press play.
“Izzy, it’s Mum. I just wanted to let you know that I’ve left you a message on your email.”
I smile to myself. Mum’s only recently got online and she’s still getting the hang of it.
“I bought a lovely new tea cosy from Shopfitter95 on eBay – do you know her? Seems like a very nice woman...” I let her chatter on as I walk into the kitchen and open the window so that I can have one last fag before bed. I’m not really supposed to smoke in the house, but I was planning to give up when I moved in. I pour out a late night snack for Fluffy. I’m not supposed to have a pet either, but try telling him that.
Later, I snuggle down in bed with the latest issue of Marie Claire, but I can’t help sensing that someone, or something, is watching me. Glancing up, I notice a filmy cobweb above my bed, with a big spider parachuting its way down towards me.
I grab an empty glass and trap it before it reaches my pillow. I try to return to my Marie Claire, but it’s impossible. I keep stealing glances at the nightstand, watching with morbid fascination as the spider taps at the sides of the glass with its delicate, spindly legs.
I don’t want to squash it, but I daren’t let it go. I know I should let it out the window but I can’t face it right now. I put down my magazine and switch off the light. I’ll deal with it in the morning.