The Date: An unputdownable psychological thriller with a breathtaking twist (11 page)

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20

My ankle shrieks with pain as I do an odd half-run, half-limp all the way home, yanking on poor Branwell’s lead whenever he lingers. Constantly looking over my shoulder slows me down, but I can’t help it. I know someone was watching me at the golf course; my skin feels grubby
with the weight of their eyes, but the streets are almost deserted, the rain keeping everyone indoors. I swing open the gate, and it crashes shut behind me as I splash up the front path, my trembling fingers fumbling for the right key, terrified someone will snatch them from my hands, but there are no footsteps, no squeaking of the hinges on the gate, nothing to be heard except the rain bouncing
off the porch roof and my racing heart pounding in my ears.

Once inside, I lock the door before kicking off my muddy boots and shrugging off my sodden coat. Branwell shakes splashes of water from his fur, peppering the white walls with tiny, dark dots. He trots after me as I automatically head for the kitchen. I can’t stop shaking. Desperate for comfort I rattle off a text to Matt:

I can’t walk Branwell

And while I wait for his reply I limp into the bathroom and put the plug in the bath, twist on the tap and slosh coconut bubble bath into the steamy water. While I’m waiting for my bath to fill Matt asks, Why?

I hesitate. I don’t know what to say, who to trust.

I’ve sprained my ankle

I tell Matt. It’s not a lie.

Sorry.

I shed tears of self-pity, along with my clothes, before sinking into the bath, placing a rolled-up hand towel under my neck, lying back. The warm water heating my flesh until the hot throbbing of my ankle is barely discernible. On lazy Sunday mornings we’d sit in the bath, Matt stretched out and me
sitting between his legs as though in a rowing boat, my back against his chest. He’d lather shampoo and massage my scalp, until I felt I was melting into him, his soapy hands running over my shoulders, dipping down to my breasts. Now, I scrub at my skin until it is pig-pink and raw, as though I can wash away the loneliness I feel. And as the memory of Matt fades, another takes its place, of the
other time I lost my shoes. I must have been about eight. Dad had taken me to a theme park for the day. I’d felt special as we’d zoomed down the road, me sitting in the passenger seat feeling all grown up, watching Mum shrink in the wing mirror. Ben on her hip waving his pudgy arms goodbye. The countryside had flashed past, rolling fields and grazing sheep, as we sucked sherbet lemons and sang along
to ‘Blowing in the Wind’, until we bumped down a potholed lane into the already crammed car park.

At the entrance I held out my arm for the purple ‘all rides’ band to be clipped onto my wrist, as Dad poured over the shiny trifold map he’d been given with his change.

‘C’mon.’ He grinned, knowing exactly where he wanted to go, and laughing we’d weaved through the hordes of visitors,
eating vinegary chips, aiming telescopic lenses at candyfloss-sticky children, until we reached a rainbow-coloured inflatable, larger than our house.

‘It’s so high.’ I squinted at the inflatable that seemed to stretch all the way up to the sun. Dad stepped forward but my feet were rooted to the glistening tarmac beneath my bright green jelly shoes.

He stretched his fingers towards
me. ‘You trust me, don’t you?’ he said, and I nodded. I did. I had. Slipping my small hand into his we clambered up the squishy plastic, sometimes sliding backwards, sometimes stopping to catch our breath, but always, always, laughing. At the top, Dad balanced on the edge. ‘Cross your arms over your chest,’ he told me. ‘And let yourself fall backwards.’

‘I can’t.’ A hard ball of anxiety
was ping-ponging around my stomach as I watched the girl in front of us shriek to the ground.

‘It’s safe. You’ll be okay,’ he said but I felt anything but okay as I stood on legs that felt too weak to support me, the breeze ruffling my hair like fingers, ready to push. Eventually, reluctantly, I closed my eyes and tipped my centre off balance until I was screaming, falling into nothingness,
scrunched fingers clinging onto my T-shirt and blind faith I’d be okay. It seemed to last for eternity – my jellies flying off my flailing feet, the wind whistling in my ears, cheeks wobbling, Dad shouting over and over it would be okay, even though I’ve never felt so scared – but, in reality, it must only have been a few seconds. I thudded onto the chunky blue crash mat, once more surrounded
by the smell of hot dogs, Destiny’s Child urging ‘Say My Name’ from tinny speakers on tall poles. But I hadn’t been able to speak. Or think. Even when I stood I still felt as though I was falling, and I linked my fingers through Dad’s, wanting reassurance I was safe.

I lost my shoes that day but that fear, that sense of plummeting uncontrollably into nothing, has stayed with me. That’s
the way I felt when I lost Dad. Lost Mum. It’s the way I feel right now but, this time, there’s nobody’s hand to link my fingers through. No one to tell me it’s going to be okay.

My mobile phone rouses me. I’m snoozing on the sofa, Branwell nestled in the curve of my knees, my book has tumbled to the floor. I stretch out for my handset thrumming across the coffee table. It’s Ben.

‘Hello,’ I croak.

‘You okay?’

‘Shattered. I must have dozed off.’ I sit up and yawn. Click on the lamp before checking my watch. It’s almost five. Already I’m in fleecy pyjamas, my hair still bath-damp. The co-codamol I’m taking is knocking me out.

‘How was Edinburgh? Are you back?’

‘About twenty minutes away. Thought I’d call in and see you? I could pick us up
a takeaway? Chinese okay?’

‘Perfect. See you soon.’ We finished the call without discussing what we’ll eat. It will be lemon chicken, it always is. It was Mum’s favourite and, after what happened, she started to make her own version rather than buying in from a takeaway. Thick yellow sauce. Tender white meat. I gather cutlery, put plates to warm in the bottom of the oven and feed Branwell
so he’ll be full when our food arrives, although that won’t stop him hoping for a prawn cracker to crunch. As I bustle around the kitchen I wonder whether Mum stopped ordering from the Chinese because we could no longer afford it or whether she felt she didn’t deserve a treat. I think it was probably the shame of everything that kept her bound to the house at first, and I think, if she knew the
worst was yet to come, would she have done things differently? Ran through fields of sunflowers, the sun on her skin, the wind in her hair. Walked head high, shoulders back, through the streets, at the very least. It’s one of those things I’ll never know. So many things I’ll never know. And I’m not sure whether it’s the extra time on my hands while I’m not working, or what happened to me last Saturday
reinforcing how fleeting life can be, how much we take for granted, that has the past creeping more and more to the forefront of my mind, and I’m trying to hold it back, but like water seeping through a dam, it’s filtering through all the same. Maybe my subconscious is trying to tell me I should be running through fields of sunflowers, the sun on my skin, the wind in my hair. Walk head high,
shoulders back, through the streets, but how can I? Not when Ewan could be out there. Watching. Waiting.

Forty minutes later there’s a rap at the door. I know it must be Ben, yet my heart rate grows faster.

Run, Ali
.

I peer out into the murky evening. Although I can tell the man standing on the step is holding a carrier bag with the name of our local Chinese on it and
is wearing wire-rimmed glasses just like Ben, I’m still hesitant to unlock the door.

‘Hurry up, Ali-cat.’ Ben spots me at the window. ‘It’s freezing out here.’

And, reassured by his voice, I let him in.

In the kitchen I serve up lemon chicken, the citrus tang catching at the back of my throat, fluffy rice speckled with yellow egg, bright green peas.

‘Glad you dressed up.’ Ben’s eyes flick over my pyjamas as he shrugs off his suit jacket, loosens his tie, pulling it over his head and stuffing it into his pocket, the way he always did the second he got
home from school. And although I can’t recognise his features it doesn’t seem quite so important anymore. However old he grows I still see the small boy who zoomed plastic cars around the lounge floor, melted chocolate buttons smeared around his mouth.

‘My lack of effort proves how much I love you,’ I say. ‘It’s a compliment really. Was your trip successful?’ I dump the plastic containers
in the sink to rinse and recycle.

‘Very.’ His voice is flat.

‘You must be pleased?’ He’d been worried about the losses they’d been making for ages.

‘Yes, just knackered.’ He pushes his glasses back up onto the bridge of his nose. ‘It’s such a long drive. I think I’ll see if I can get the train next time, run it through expenses. I feel I could sleep for a week.’ He pops the
cork out of a bottle of wine he’s bought, and I start to say I can’t drink on my painkillers, but then I think one can’t hurt and I reach for two glasses.

We eat our food at the breakfast bar, the kitchen warmed by the oven.

‘Remember when Aunt Iris tried to make this for the first time?’ Ben asks.

‘God, yes. She didn’t peel the lemon and you nearly choked. She held you upside
down by your ankles while I slapped you between your shoulder blades.’ We laugh now but it wasn’t funny at the time, Ben’s small face beet purple, the helplessness I felt.

‘She was useless in the kitchen, wasn’t she?’

‘It must have been hard for her,’ I say, as I dip a prawn cracker into the sauce. ‘To be suddenly landed with two children when you’ve already decided you don’t want
any.’
I’ve lost the life I could have had
, I heard her say once, on the phone, shortly after she’d moved in, when she thought I wasn’t listening. I had covered my guilt with a thick layer of resentment. ‘She did her best.’

‘You’re sticking up for Iris? That’s usually my job. That bang on the head must really have done something to your brain.’

‘Ha ha. I went to stay with her last
night actually.’

‘Why?’ Ben puts his cutlery down and studies me.

‘I don’t know,’ I say, although I do.

‘Why, Ali?’ Ben covers my hand so I can’t raise my fork.

‘I was scared.’

‘Of what? Of who?’

He’s not going to let this go, so, falteringly, I tell him, picking out the things I want him to know, keeping hidden the things I don’t. He doesn’t speak as
I tell him about the note on the flowers, the man banging on the window.

‘Someone was following me along the seafront today, I’m sure of it.’ I don’t share the gloves, the blood on my car, my shoes. I don’t want to worry him anymore than I have to, and there’s a part of me that wants to figure out exactly what I’m supposed to have done without speculation or dismissal from those around
me.

‘Bastard. And this was the man you had the blind date with? Ewan?’

‘It must be.’

‘You should have told me. I’d never have gone to Edinburgh.’ Ben pushes his plate away, fury radiating from him.

‘That’s precisely why I didn’t tell you. Look, please. Let’s change the subject. You make the coffee. Let’s sit in the lounge. We can both put our feet up.’ I slide off my
stool.

The lounge is cooler than the kitchen was with its oven warmth. I click on lamps and press my hand against a radiator. It’s barely warm.

The thermostat for the heating is in the hallway, and after I’ve tweaked it up I walk towards the front door to roll down the blind that covers the small window. The evenings draw in so quickly, sucking away the fading light. The cord is
in my hand, the blind lowering, when I notice a shadow move outside. Someone is in my front garden.

‘Ben.’ My voice urgent.

Instinctively, I flick off the light to stop the window reflecting my own image back at me. As the hallway is plunged into darkness the shape freezes, a face staring directly at me.

‘Ben.’ I shout louder now.

‘You okay?’ Ben hurries towards me.

‘He’s outside.’

Emotions flicker across Ben’s face. I think I see shock and something else. Perhaps fear. I can’t read his features well enough, but nevertheless, I berate myself for dragging my younger brother into the mess I’ve made.

Ben darts for the door handle, his mouth a thin, straight line.

‘What are you doing?’ My voice is high and scared.

‘I’m putting
an end to this once and for all.’ Ben flings open the door. ‘Leave my sister alone,’ he shouts as he tears outside.

The man runs, Ben at his heels.

I swipe at Branwell’s collar to stop him giving chase and usher him safely into the kitchen. Outside, I look left and right but the street stretches long and empty. Fog swirling around the orange glow of the street lights.

Deep
inside the darkness, a man screams.

21

The scream came from the direction of the pub, and I pelt towards it, adrenaline dulling the pain in my ankle as my slipper socks pound against the pavement. Frost is forming on the windscreens of the parked cars – later a thick layer of ice will form – but the cold doesn’t register
as my arms pump by my sides, my thigh muscles fire.

Ben.

Cigarette smoke mingles with the cold air I am heaving in. The path lighter now. Spotlights outside the pub illuminate hanging baskets, which in the summer trail pink and purple plants that are now brown and decaying. The wind creaks the sign back and forth. Self-conscious, I slow. The pub is Friday-night busy. Smokers leaning
against the wall. A woman with a glossy black bob wearing a too-short skirt, legs mottled with cold, shuffles from side to side on impossibly high heels as she smokes. A cluster of men discuss tomorrow’s match, clad in denim, T-shirts – despite the temperature – trainers.

‘Oi. Oi.’ Shouts a voice. ‘You come ready for bed, darlin’?’

Conscious of my thin pyjamas I cross my arms over
my breasts, keep my head down and, as I stalk past, it occurs to me: one of the men could be
him
, Ewan. I start to shake.

‘Leave her alone,’ says a different male voice, and I’m grateful, until they continue: ‘You look great in those pyjamas but they’d look even better on my bedroom floor.’ There’s nothing funny about the sound of their pealing laughter. ‘I’d show you a good time.’

‘She’d need a microscope to see your “good time”,’ the girl shouts, dropping her cigarette butt into an almost-empty bottle of cider. It sizzles as the red tip turns dark. ‘Leave her alone, knobhead. You okay?’

‘I’m looking for a man…’

‘Look no further!’ A guy leaps in front of me, grabbing his crotch.

‘Fuck off.’ The girl pushes him away.

‘My brother,’ I say. ‘He
was chasing someone.’

‘Yeah, they shot down the alley.’ The girl nods to the right of the pub. I hope she’ll offer to come with me, but she totters inside on her spindly heels, the men following like sheep.

In daylight the alley streams with kids using it as a cut through to the local secondary school. At night it gapes like a mouth, ready to swallow me up. At first I can’t see anything;
I can’t hear anything. I take a step forward towards the chip of light at the other end. Another step.

Bang.

I spin around, my heart pounding, but voices drift and I realise it was the pub door swinging shut. The slamming of a car door. The revving of an engine.

A third step.

An unidentifiable sound.

A fourth step.

A movement about halfway down. I narrow
my eyes, but I can’t quite make it out.

‘Ben?’

A groan.

‘Ben!’ This time I can hear it’s him. I rush forward. He’s lying on the ground in the foetal position. I crouch beside him, fumble for his hand, my fingertips seeking out his pulse. ‘Are you hurt?’ It’s a rhetorical question, born out of helplessness. It’s an effort for him to speak, but when he does he slowly says ‘not
as much as the other guy,’ and my panic begins to abate.

Ben pulls himself to sitting, and then stands, wobbling as he does, slinging his arm around my neck for balance.

‘Can you walk?’

‘I’m okay,’ he says, although he obviously isn’t.

We make our way home slowly. Ben leaning heavily against me. My knees buckling as I try and support his weight, trying not to think
of all those years ago when I could swing him effortlessly into my arms, his legs wrapped around my waist. Pain shoots from my shoulder into my neck. My ankle throbbing once more – adrenaline has ebbed away. There’s no one smoking outside of the pub now; but: two people are heading for the entrance. ‘I’ll have what he’s been on.’ Sarcasm sits on my tongue, but I grit my teeth and don’t let it out.
We’ve had enough trouble for one night.

Once inside the house I settle Ben on the sofa. Branwell lets out a happy yap as I open the kitchen door to fetch a bowl of
warm water. From upstairs I lift a bottle of TCP and cotton wool from the bathroom cabinet.

Ben is chalk white. Glasses skewed. Blood staining his white work shirt. A criss-cross graze covering his swollen cheek, a bruise already forming on his forehead.

‘I’m so sorry.’ I kneel beside him and dampen a cotton wool ball. Dab it against his broken skin.

‘It’s not your fault.
I’m sorry I let him get away.’

‘What happened?’ I gently press my fingertips against the wound, feeling for gravel, but I think it’s clean.

‘He took me by surprise. I rounded into the alley and he grabbed me and threw me against the wall. Must have hit my head because I don’t remember anything else until you appeared.’

‘We should probably take you to the hospital and get you
checked over.’ I unscrew the lid from the TCP; the smell stings my nostrils.

‘I’ll live,’ Ben says. He winces as the disinfectant seeps into his wound. ‘I remember you doing this to my knees when I was small.’

‘You were forever falling over.’ Emotions rise. ‘I don’t know what I’d do if anything happened to you.’

‘Nothing’s going to happen to me. It’s you I’m worried about,
Ali-cat. I think we should call the police.’

I sit back on my heels, dropping the cotton wool onto the floor, pushing Branwell’s nose away as he sniffs at it.

‘Did you get a good look at him?’ I ask.

‘No, I didn’t see his face at all. But we should have reported what happened to you last Saturday. Even if you couldn’t remember anything, something would have been on record.’

‘You know why I didn’t want to go to the police.’

‘It wouldn’t be the same this time. It’s not the same situation. Please, Ali. What if he comes back and I’m not here?’

I chew my lower lip, weighing up the options. What about the gloves? The blood?
In case you can’t live with what you’ve done
. I’m so scared. Afraid of what they might find out if they start digging around. Afraid
of what I might find out. But as I look at my brother, pale and shaken, his cheek glistening red, I know he’ll be worried sick about me if I don’t make a statement and it feels selfish somehow to put myself first.

‘I’ll fetch my phone,’ I say.

My mobile is charging in the kitchen. I unplug it from the wall and, as I unlock it, a text alert flashes from an unknown number.

If you want to keep your brother safe don’t go to the police, Ali. Imagine how he’d feel if he knew what you’d done, let alone if he sees this.

At first I’m confused.
Sees what
? But then my phone pings with another message, a video this time. There’s a sick feeling in my stomach as I press play. The footage is dark, grainy, but there’s no mistaking it’s
been filmed in the lounge, flickering tea lights appear to be the only lighting. From the angle, I’m guessing it was filmed on a phone placed next to the TV somewhere. There’s the pastel pink wallpaper patterned with dove grey birds, the faceless angels, the bookcase with my pink floral box on top but I barely register the details, all I can focus on is me. I’ve my back to the camera, blonde hair
spilling down my naked back; the green strapless dress I was wearing that night bunched around my waist. You can see the sides of my breasts bouncing up and down. A man’s bare legs are visible beneath me, his trousers around his ankles, his hands gripping my waist as he drives himself deeper inside me as I thrust my hips backwards and forwards. He’s looking directly into the camera, his face in shadows,
and even if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be able to identify him. I can’t show this to anyone else. It must have been taken last Saturday but I don’t remember, and although I don’t look like I’m protesting, I know I wouldn’t have consented to sex with a virtual stranger, I just wouldn’t. I feel dirty. Violated. Instantly ashamed. There’s another alert. Again, those four words:

Enjoy the date bitch?

Bile, hot and sour, floods my mouth and I hunch over the sink, the lemon chicken rising in my throat. Sex. I’ve been filmed having sex. What if Ben sees it? Matt? What if it ends up on the internet? I vomit again and again until my stomach is empty of food, filled instead with rage.

How dare he threaten me. Blackmail me. Bring Ben into this.
How fucking dare he.

Another alert.

Who knows what else I filmed that night, Ali?

I can’t go to the police now, I can’t, but tomorrow I’m going to find out exactly who Ewan is and what he wants, even if it kills me.

I think once more of the video.

Even if I end up killing him.

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