Authors: Louise Jensen
It’s all escalating rather quickly now, isn’t it, Ali? What was your overriding emotion when you opened the door to the uniformed officers? Fear, I hope. How quickly did the penny drop, hard and solid? Your friend is missing. You hadn’t cared enough to report it yourself. The
small pieces of evidence that piece together to form something larger and impossible to ignore.
They can’t have uncovered everything yet, but they will.
Tomorrow’s another day.
Enjoy sleeping in your own bed tonight, Ali. It might be the very last time. This can’t go on much longer.
My phone trills an unknown number, and my stomach lurches in response. Is it him? My date? My tormentor? Picking up my handset I am poised to reject the call, when it crosses my mind it might be Chrissy and, hesitantly, I press the green accept button with my thumb, hoping to
hear her voice floating down the line. ‘Ali, you’ll never guess what’s happened.’ And she’ll have a story to tell, an adventure to relay, and I’ll tell her what a fuss she has caused, and one day we’ll laugh about the time we all thought she was missing.
‘Hello?’ There’s a hopeful note to my voice.
‘Mrs Taylor? It’s PC Willis.
Time freezes. Surely if it was good news Chrissy
would be ringing me. I sink heavily onto the stool and rest my elbows on the breakfast bar, bracing myself for what’s to come, imagining Chrissy’s pale, lifeless body twisted in some ditch.
‘You’ve found her.’ It’s a statement, not a question and I don’t know whether to be relieved or concerned when she tells me they haven’t.
‘Our intelligence officers have brought a few things to
our attention, and some other information has been reported. I wondered if you could pop in, for a chat?’
She makes it sound so informal. One friend to another.
‘Now.’ There’s a firmness to her voice I didn’t hear yesterday. I tell her I’ll be along as soon as I can.
Police stations have their own distinctive smell, much the same as primary schools, or
hospitals. The second I push open the smeared glass doors and step inside I am clouded by a lingering scent of vomit, disinfectant and memories.
Sitting on hard, grey plastic chairs, Ben beside me, swinging his chubby legs, feet not reaching the grubby floor, as Mum asked the desk sergeant again where Dad was. What he was supposed to have done. When he was being released. His answer was
always the same: ‘We can’t tell you anything at this time. You’d be better off waiting at home for news.’
Outside the sky had fallen into shades of grey and a crescent moon hung over the leisure centre opposite the station. I watched as a family came tumbling out of the revolving door in a mass of love and laughter, hair damp from swimming, a small boy about Ben’s age carrying a striped
inflatable ball. They were all munching on Mars bars, and my stomach growled in response. From behind his plastic enclosure the desk sergeant scraped back his chair, disappeared from view, reappearing in reception a few minutes later. Disappointment plastered Mum’s face as she realised he didn’t have Dad with him; instead he carried two plastic cups of hot chocolate which he handed to me and Ben.
Powder clumped on the surface and it tasted artificially sweet, not like chocolate at all, but I gulped it down gratefully. That was my birthday tea. That small kindness was soon washed away by the realisation Dad wasn’t coming home, then, or ever and it all got muddled in my twelve-year-old mind until I held the police partly responsible for fracturing my family. It was easier than believing it
was all Dad.
As I wait for PC Willis to come and collect me for our ‘chat’ I pace back and forth like a caged lion, unable to settle and, once I am fetched and shown into a small, windowless room, I wish I hadn’t come. There’s almost a finality in the way the door slams shut behind me.
‘Hello, Alison.’ I don’t recognise PC Hunter from yesterday but his cold, clipped, tone is chillingly
‘Have you tested the gloves?’ I can’t help blurting out. They must have called me in for a specific reason and I can’t think what else it would be.
‘Yes, we sent them to the lab and the results were pinged back immediately, just like you see on TV. No waiting around for the budget to be approved or for the backlog to be cleared. We wrap up every case in an hour, less the
time for ad breaks.’ His sarcasm stings me into silence.
‘We’re going to be recording this interview. Is that all right with you?’ He is already fiddling with buttons.
‘I’m not under arrest, am I?’
‘Not unless there’s anything you want to tell us?’ His eyes meet mine, and I look away quickly, scared he’ll see my panic.
He barks the date and time and introduces himself
and PC Willis before asking me to state my name.
‘And that’s your legal name, is it?’
‘Yes. It’s my married name…’ I trail off. That isn’t what he meant.
He knows about Dad.
Pressure begins to build in my head but instead of questioning me further he asks me to tell him more about my friendship with Chrissy.
‘I met her about six months
ago, in the gym.’ I’d been nearing the end of my workout, swiping my cardio-damp fringe away from my face. Trying to summon up the energy to drag my weary body around one last circuit. Picturing my thighs in denim shorts. Wrapped around Matt. Overriding those images, though, had been the thought of the home-made fruit cake in the café downstairs, kidding myself it was one of my five a day.
‘You look like I feel.’ Chrissy had been sipping from a polystyrene cone filled with water from the cooler.
‘Yes, although some of the sights in here don’t exactly inspire me to keep going.’ Her eyebrows arched as she raised her eyebrows and nodded in the direction of a huge man, dripping with sweat. He’d grunted as he hefted a dumbbell over his head again, his top
had ridden up, displaying a thick carpet of black hair coating his back; in the mirror his stomach hung over the waistband of his shorts.
‘Are you single?’
‘Divorced,’ she had told me. ‘And new to the area. Do you fancy getting a coffee? Is that weird? I don’t know anyone else here.’
‘Throw in a cake and I’m there.’
‘We got on really well.’ I direct my response to PC
Willis, trying to block out the soft whirring of the machine recording my every answer. ‘She’d moved for a fresh start after her marriage broke down.’
‘Because she had an affair?’
‘Yes. I suppose.’ It’s uncomfortable discussing the morality of someone who isn’t here to defend themselves.
‘And you found her a job?’
It’s frustrating they are asking questions they clearly
know the answer to, but I nod all the same.
‘If you could speak out loud for the benefit of the tape.’
I lick my dry lips. ‘Yes. She was working in a pub but didn’t like the late hours, and I knew a vacancy had come up in the shop Jules worked in and I recommended her.’
‘And how did she get on with Jules?’
‘Okay. Chrissy was always more my friend but the three of us
did things together.’
‘Do.’ My throat tightens and I force down cooling water. ‘We
‘There’s a post on Chrissy’s Facebook page, the last post she made, saying “There comes a time when you have to stop crossing oceans for someone who wouldn’t even jump in puddles for you”. Have you seen this?’
‘What does it mean?’
no idea.’ I’m analysing every word I say, my tone, my body language. I cross and uncross my arms trying to appear casual, but two wet patches have formed under my arms and I keep my elbows tucked into my sides so they can’t be seen.
‘You and Chrissy aren’t Facebook friends.’
‘No. Not anymore and I don’t know why,’ I interject before they can ask.
‘She must have posted that
after you left Prism? Did you have an argument there?’
‘No.’ My hands on her shoulders. Pushing. ‘Are you going to check the CCTV?’ I fight to keep my voice level.
‘That would be rather difficult considering Prism burned down last night.’
My head jerks up as though I’ve been kicked in the spine and I make eye contact for the first time.
coincidental, wouldn’t you say? Early reports indicate that it’s arson. Where were you last night, Mrs Taylor, between the hours of midnight and 1 a.m.?’ Again, he’s stopped calling me Alison.
‘And Branwell is?’
‘He can’t exactly provide you with an alibi then, can he?’
I swallow the last of the water
to wash down my humiliation.
‘We just want to find Chrissy, Alison. You must be worried sick. Is there anything you can tell us about that night?’
I grasp gratefully at the sympathy in PC Willis’s voice, but release it quickly remembering every crime drama I’ve watched. No matter how scathing PC Hunter is of TV depictions I’m sure good cop, bad cop is a thing. Stress buzzes in my
ears. Mentally I run through how it would sound if I told them about Ewan, even though there is no proof without the CCTV that he exists other than the messages he sent me from a non-existent dating profile. If I told them about the shoes I left by the seafront, the note with the gloves Branwell ate, the flowers I threw away, would it sound as though I was fabricating the whole thing? And yet, if
there is anything I can do to help find Chrissy, I know I must. I am drawing in a deep breath, ready to tell them everything, when PC Hunter says, casually, as he’s scribbling notes. Too casually.
‘What happened to your car?’
‘My car?’ I can’t help repeating.
‘You had a new bumper fitted recently? Hit something?’
‘Look. Am I being accused of something
here?’ My voice is defensive. Big and brave and everything I am not. ‘Do I need a solicitor?’ I bite down hard on my lip to stop myself from crying. God knows what they’ll find if they come back to the house to do a more thorough search. I flashback to me in my bathroom washing the blood from my hands the morning after the date. There must still be minute traces invisible to the naked eye around
the basin. Whose blood is it?
‘If you want to seek legal advice that is entirely your prerogative. We’re just trying to piece together Chrissy’s last known movements. And you’re the obvious place to start considering your connection.’
‘Just because we live together doesn’t mean I know where she is.’
‘I wasn’t talking about that connection.’
PC Willis and PC Hunter exchange
a look I cannot read but there’s a heaviness hanging over this cheap plastic table, with its wonky leg and coffee stains, that wasn’t here before.
‘You must know.’ I am asked.
I shake my head, at a loss, no longer caring about recording my responses for the tape.
‘Chrissy’s maiden name was Marlow.’
I am being watched. I am being studied. I am hooked up to an electric
chair with a current running through my body as I squirm and sweat and try to deny what is happening to me.
Chrissy Young is Christine Marlow. The daughter of Sharon Marlow. The woman that was killed in the robbery Dad took part in.
Pressure around my neck.
Shouting. Screaming. Chrissy’s furious face.
Fingers squeezing my throat.
The knot pulling tighter and tighter.
Icy tentacles squeeze my stomach as I stumble out of the police station.
‘Stay in the area.’ PC Hunter had snapped off the tape recorder before scraping back his chair, draining the last of his coffee, which must have been as cold as his demeanour.
As I drive home
I constantly release one hand from the steering wheel, brushing at the opposite arm, my skin itching with the sensation of insects scurrying over me. The crawling sensation of suspicion and deceit. I feel tainted, somehow even more than that night. My mind is scrabbling around for answers and I drive fast, too fast, along the curves that hug the clifftops where Mum, Ben and I would picnic. Where
Matt proposed. But the places I don’t want to visit are not only physical. They are buried in a box deep inside my mind, and I need to find the key to unlock them.
Did she know who I was when she approached me at the gym? Years ago, the welfare officer who’d been assigned to support me and Ben told Mum she believed in the Carl Jung theory that there are no such
things as coincidence, aligning everything to synchronicity instead. Now, I think she was trying her best to alleviate us of our burden of guilt, however ham-fistedly, but Mum had raged, a ball of anger and bitterness and regret.
‘So she was meant to die, that poor woman?’ Mum had spat. ‘Leaving two kiddies without a mother.’
‘I didn’t mean…’
‘Get out! You’re not helping,
none of you are helping.’ And that was when she’d pulled us out of school. Decided that no amount of counselling or educating could allow us to blend into our neighbourhood once more, like the newsagents on the corner of the street, or the red postbox beneath the cherry tree. We’d always stand out like the juice and sushi bar that slid in-between the fish and chip shop and the Indian. Awkward and
out of place.
A brother and a sister. Chrissy the sister, but where is the brother? Could he be Ewan? Is he the one following me now? Watching me? Sending me things? Was the whole thing an elaborate form of revenge? They must have burned the bar down so the police wouldn’t identify them on the CCTV. The only proof vanished, literally, in a puff of smoke.
images that pass through my mind are becoming clearer. Louder. Pushing her. The shouting. The crying. Had they revealed who they were? ‘Our mind tries to protect us from the things we cannot cope with,’ Mr Henderson had said. Is that what I am blanking out? The stark, horrible truth, brutally exposed. Two families torn apart. But we weren’t the victims, were we? Not in the eyes of the public
who became our judge and jury. Not in the eyes of Sharon Marlow’s children.
I race through traffic lights on the cusp of red, recalling why I signed up for the dating app. It was Chrissy who instigated it. I remember.
‘It’s just a bit of fun,’ she had said. ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ I swallow hard. Her words have left a sour taste that lingers, even as I remember it was
Jules who sent the reply and briefly I wonder if she was in on it too, but that’s impossible. We’ve been friends for years, and it was Chrissy who downloaded that particular app.
The victim part of me pulses with an inevitability. Telling me it is no more than I deserve. If I hadn’t been desperate for a birthday present, Dad wouldn’t have had to
steal, and Chrissy wouldn’t have lost her mum. Dad wouldn’t have lost his freedom. Iris wouldn’t have lost her independence. Mum wouldn’t have become so stressed, perhaps she’d never have developed MND. My vision blurs with tears and I wipe at them with my sleeve. A chain of events all instigated by my one, small, selfish longing for an iPod and, even now, as an adult, I haven’t learned my lesson.
I lost Matt his business when I betrayed his confidence about Craig’s affair. Julia blamed my honesty on her losing her husband.
I slow as I turn into my road. The adrenaline that had flooded my system at the police station now depleted. Mentally and physically I feel defeated. Almost ready to lie down and take whatever punishment comes my way but, as I trudge up the front path, and unlock
my door, there’s the happy scrambling of paws, a rough tongue licking my hand. Branwell pirouettes his hello and I know I am not yet ready to give up.
Slinging my bag over the bannisters I take the stairs two at a time, flinging open Chrissy’s door.
A hundred times before I’ve walked into Chrissy’s room, flopped onto her bed, as she got changed into her pyjamas – the way she
would the second she got home from work – swapping stories about our days, discussing what to have for dinner. This time me being here feels different. Intrusive. As though I’m invading her privacy. But we have crossed the line of consideration and trust.
You wouldn’t know from looking around that the police have been here. There’s still make-up scattered over her dressing table. The box
of chocolates on her bedside cabinet. Clothes strewn across the floor. It isn’t like the aftermath of a search on TV, with furniture upended and carpets pulled up. ‘Of course we make as much mess as we can.’ I can almost hear PC Hunter’s sarcastic voice but it was what I had been expecting. Instead, it is exactly how she left it. Exactly like a shrine, I think, and the thought makes me shudder.
I think she’s trying to ruin my life, but still, I will for her to be safe. To tumble through the door in a cloud of Daisy perfume and apologies and ‘you’ll-never-guess-whats’.
For her to be oblivious to who I really am, the way I was her. We both had different surnames. We never talked about our pasts. Our families. Except Ben, of course. She always was interested in him, and my stomach
roils as I wonder whether she has anything planned for him too or if it is enough to take me away from him. But why now? It makes no sense that she’d have tracked me down after all this time without some sort of trigger.
His words slide through my mind’s eye.
A month before I was released I wrote to Sharon’s family, the woman who died. Who we murdered,
I suppose. I might not have pulled the trigger, but I’ve got blood on my hands nevertheless. Everyone involved has and we’ve all paid the price. We’re still paying the price. I wasn’t allowed their address but the prison said they’d post it on for me and I had hoped they’d reply before I was released. They didn’t. I told her family how sorry I was. How sorry I am. I told them I was getting out
and promised I’d spend the rest of my life trying to put right all the wrongs I had caused.
Seven months ago, he’d written his weak apologies and empty promises.
Six months ago, Chrissy had introduced herself to me.
I think not.
Where do I start? I have to do something, I feel so helpless. What could I possibly
find that the police haven’t? But then again, they only checked the places large enough for a person, leaving drawers unopened, and that seems as good a place to begin as any.
There’s a thin layer of dust covering her iPod dock on her chest of drawers and I run my index finger over it, jumping as the Human League’s ‘Don’t You Want Me?’ blares. Switching it off I look over my shoulder, as
though I’d see her sitting at her dressing table, coating her lashes with mascara, straightening her hair, but I am alone. Not even Branwell is keeping me company, as though he senses the heaviness in the atmosphere, the presence of the police still detectable, like the smell of garlic suspended in the air. I slide open the drawer of her bedside cabinet and start to rifle through the contents. There’s
receipts, a small packet of tissues, a tube of Polos and, towards the back, under a scarf, I find a hot pink vibrator, and I feel my cheeks turn the same colour as I think what PC Hunter might have uncovered in my room, in the bottom of my wardrobe. I scan the room. If I had a secret and wanted to hide something where would I put it? Dropping to my knees I heft the mattress onto one shoulder
and shuffle across the carpet until I have examined every inch of the base of the bed. There’s nothing.
There’s something here, I’m sure of it. Something’s off and I can’t quite put my finger on it. A search of her wardrobe reveals nothing. It’s tidy. Ordered. The first half of the clothes a size 10, the second a 12. There aren’t as many hangers for the latter half; she preferred to be
smaller, but when her weight crept up – which it inevitably did – that’s when she ended up borrowing my things. I close the doors and turn away from the mirrors.
The chocolates on the bedside cabinet draw my eye. It’s unusual for Chrissy to make a box last so long. I lift off the lid. All her favourites have gone; the ones left, the strawberry cream, the orange crunch, are usually ones
she’d have passed over to me before recycling the box. Why didn’t she do that this time? I lift the plastic insert and draw a sharp breath. Underneath is a piece of paper torn from the notepad we keep in the kitchen. I unfold the note. It’s unmistakably Chrissy’s handwriting, large and blocky – she never did master joined-up writing at school she had said. As I read her heartfelt words my knees turn
to rubber and I sit heavily on her bed.
What have you done