The Date: An unputdownable psychological thriller with a breathtaking twist (14 page)

26

Ali. I’ll still call you Ali. It’s almost impossible to think of you as Sarah, and by the look of shock and panic on your face I think that over the years you’ve almost convinced yourself you are not her. You are someone else. Someone good. But that’s a lie you tell yourself
so you can sleep at night. How many things you’ve blocked out. How our minds try to protect us from the things we cannot cope with, but the reality is always there, under the surface of half-truths that are as brittle and easily broken as you.

There was a moment when you pelted into my table, lost your footing and grabbed my arm to stop yourself falling, I thought it was all over. No matter
how much research I’ve done into your condition, it’s unfathomable to me that you could be so close and not recognise me, but you didn’t. You genuinely have no clue who anyone is, and I felt a pang of sympathy for you as I realised just how frightening and uncertain the world looks to you right now. How vulnerable and scared you must feel. That was before you released your grip and sped away
without an apology. Without offering to clear up the mess you had created.

That’s you all over, isn’t it?

I watch as you fling open the door and hare out into the street, frantically looking left and right. Seeking comfort from faces who shift and change every time you look away. I bite the last of my toasted teacake, melted butter oozing down my chin. You turn left. I wipe my greasy
fingers on a napkin. Thanking the lady behind the counter – I still remember my manners – I hurry out into the street and follow you.

27

There’s a sense of hysteria in the last hour before the shops close, wallets, thick with the first payday since Christmas, shoppers desperate to bag that last bargain, or perhaps it is only me who is hysterical as I fight my way through the shifting sea of people.

Sarah.
It’s been so long since I was called by that name I’d almost forgotten who I was, but the two syllables stroke me with their familiar fingers as the past slams into me. My cheeks are stinging with cold and tears and I’m not sure if I’m crying for who I am now or who I was then. The whoosh of traffic sloshing past on the wet road has muted to nothing more than a whisper, while the voice in my head
screams my lost name over and over.
Sarah, Sarah. Sarah
. Except I’m not her, I’m not. I’m Ali. But as I catch sight of my reflection in a shop window I don’t look like Ali. I don’t look like Sarah. I don’t know who I am anymore. The pressure inside my head mounts and a shard of memory drives itself into my consciousness. Shouting. Screaming.
I know. I know what you did.
Crying. Begging.
Please
. Hands on me. Pain. Blackness.
You deserve everything you get.
And the hope that Saturday night was an accident, or even a random attack by a stranger, turns to ashes.
You have blood on your hands
. Oh God, what have I done? What have I done again?

I turn left into the pedestrianised part of town. A busker strums his guitar. At his feet, his rolled-up sleeping bag glistens with rain. A few
bronzed coins in his sodden cap. ‘Will you still love me tomorrow?’ The lyrics stop me in my tracks. My dad loved that song. Crooning it to Mum, his arms wrapped round her waist as she washed-up after Sunday lunch, soapy suds up to her elbows, the kitchen smelling of roast beef. Did she still love him after what he did? It pains me that I’ll never know. All around me shoppers stream, sidestepping
the busker, swinging carrier bags and avoiding eye contact with him. I fumble for my purse and pull out a ten-pound note. Hesitantly, I hold it out, not wanting to place it in the cap, where it will be tossed in the wind along with my memories and my pain. He stretches out his hand. His eyes meet mine.
Will you still love me tomorrow
? Our fingers touch and something passes between us. A question?
An understanding? Automatically I back away. Suddenly aware this could be him. Ewan. The man who hurt me. Who thinks he knows me.

Sarah.

I spin and thrust myself into the centre of the crowd, as though, if I stand shoulder to shoulder with them, I will not be any different. As though I will not be utterly lost and utterly alone. As if I pretend enough, I can be like them and sometimes
pretending is enough. It has to be. I’ve been doing it for years, but it’s all beginning to fall apart. Just like I am falling apart after the almost impossible task of stitching myself back together.

I’m only ten minutes from the bus station when I become aware of them through the hustle and the bustle. The footsteps matching mine step for step. I turn a slow 360. My eyes raking through
the charcoal gloom. Why does everyone cloak themselves in darkness in the winter? Black coats. Black boots. Black trainers. So many black trainers. Pounding the pavement, marching towards me, an army of shoes, and I can’t tell the difference, who’s good. Who’s bad. Who was following me. As I spin, features rearrange. I’m shaking, shaking, shaking, like I shook my Etch A Sketch all those years ago.
Images falling away, to be replaced by something new, something different. Nothing ever looking exactly the same. A tidal wave of panic crashes down on me, adrenaline flowing fast through my veins, chilling me to the bone. Everyone’s a stranger and yet someone isn’t.

Sarah
.

I stop spinning and wait for the pavement to settle beneath my feet. ‘Give it time and you’ll find your sea
legs’ Dad used to say whenever I felt nauseous travelling in the car, but I’ll never get my sea legs. I’m bobbing, endlessly bobbing, in that boat with the owl and the pussy-cat; the honey and plenty of money and time is the one thing I don’t have.

Enjoy the date bitch?

Someone is out to get me. The sky is crushing down. Clouds vacuuming air. A pain stabs my chest, radiates down
my arm and I think I must be having a heart attack. Feet. I turn and scan the feet once more, and there’s a pair directly behind me. Black trainers. Walking away from me but I don’t think that’s the man from the coffee shop. His jeans are black, not blue. I am becoming more observant, the small details. Remember the small details. Except I don’t want to. Not here. Not now.
LET. ME. GO.
My eyes
flit once more and stop. Widen with horror. Black trainers. Blue jeans. Beanie. Standing still, so still. Watching, waiting. Backing away I inadvertently shake my head.
No
.
Please don’t hurt me
; but if it’s him, he already has. His expression is impossible to read.

There’s a sudden, sharp pain to the back of my head. My jaw clamps shut, my teeth slicing into my tongue. Coppery blood fills
my mouth. At first I think I’ve been hit but, as I turn, I see I’ve walked into a lamp post, and I feel a thousand curious eyes on me as I whimper. The pain in my chest comes again. Throwing a glance behind me, he’s gone, but leaning against the wall, waiting for the cashpoint is another man, blue jeans, black trainers but no beanie. Is it him?
Going mad-going mad-going mad
. Is it the same man
but without a hat? He takes a step towards me. I don’t hesitate for a second.

Run
.

My feet sloshing through puddles. My thin jumper damp with the freezing air and sweat. My open coat billowing behind me, my breath rising like steam. I cut through the car park. Here the crowd has thinned along with the bright shop lights and the streetlamp. The gathering dusk shades the sky. My pulse
is drumming in my ears but I daren’t slow. I daren’t risk a look behind me. As I pelt towards the road I see a cab approaching; the warm honeycomb glow of the taxi light signals safety. Waving my arms I step off the kerb. A horn sounds. Brakes squeal. I don’t move. Can’t move. Waiting for the impact. Welcoming it, almost. But there’s the humming of an engine. Warmth on my thighs. The now stationary
car almost touching my legs.

I placate the driver with apologies and an offer of double fare if he takes me where I need to go. There’s only one place I want to be. Need to be. I rest my head back, close my eyes and I don’t open them again until we are there.

28

Once as I child I caught a butterfly in a jam jar and I sat, cross-legged, under the blazing summer sun, and watched the insect frantically beat its delicate wings, driving itself into the glass again, and again, with fear. With confusion. It knew it had been cornered, trapped,
but it had no idea why; yet it retained a desperate belief that there had to be a way to escape the nightmare it found itself in. The frantic fluttering grew slower and slower until it lay, folded in on itself, its spirit broken. Springing to my feet I unscrewed the lid and took it over to the violet buddleia, where I tipped it gently onto the flowers it favoured. I chewed my lip as I waited for
movement. I hadn’t wanted to kill it, or hurt it, even. I only wanted to watch, to see how it would react. When it stretched out its wings and rose into the clear blue sky I felt a rush of relief. See? I’m not a bad person. I’m not.

You remind me of that butterfly as you dart through town. Dazed. Not knowing exactly what is happening or why, only that it is horrible and frightening and
seemingly senseless. And you have a primal, desperate desire to escape. And that’s what I want for you. To see your spirit broken. To see you lying folded in on yourself. Defeated. Only I won’t be showing you the same compassion. You, I want to hurt.

The busker draws your attention and suddenly you are still. From this close range I can see your lips moving along with the words, ‘Will you
still love me tomorrow’, and I don’t think you’re even aware you’re doing it. You pull out a note from your purse and again I feel the same pang I felt at the café. That niggling feeling that perhaps you don’t deserve all of this. And shortly after there’s that split second when you jump in front of the cab – I think it’s going to hit you – and I almost, almost, yank you back onto the path. Afterwards,
as I watch you climb into the back seat and the tail lights disappear, I tell myself I almost saved you so I could be the one to destroy you. Not because I still feel anything for you. Not anymore. But I’m not sure I believe that now.

There’s another cab approaching but I make no move to flag it down. To follow you. After all, it isn’t as though I don’t know where you live, is it? We’ll
meet again soon.

29

If Iris is surprised to see me, she doesn’t show it.

‘Did Ben tell you to come?’ she asks. I shake my head.

‘I need to find something.’ I mount the stairs to my childhood.

‘I’ll put the kettle on,’ she says. ‘Let’s have a chat when you’re ready.’

As soon as I read my real name, Sarah, written on the cup, everything I had fought so hard to become slipped away. I was twelve again – guilty, frightened and ashamed. Filled with an intense longing to feel close to Mum and Dad once more. Now, in my old bedroom I kneel on the floor and pull everything out of my cupboards until I find it: the old Clarks shoebox that once housed sensible lace-up
school shoes but now contains the remnants of one of the worst days of my life. Not the worst day, of course, that came later. The age-brittle elastic band anchoring the lid snaps as I stretch it. Out tumble birthday cards, most of them pink, some embossed with ‘Daughter’, ‘Sister’, ‘Niece’, all of them announcing ‘twelve today’. I don’t know why it had felt so important to keep them, but it
had. Almost as though, if I pretended everything was normal, it may have become that way and I could have displayed my cards, opened my presents. Be a child again. Despite their age the cards are still stiff, unbent by time. We never did stand them on the mantelpiece, like other birthdays, until the balloons deflated and the last of the cake was eaten. I trace my fingers over the largest card. A
panting puppy wishes me a ‘Yappy Birthday’. Inside, the white space is yellowing through time, but the writing is clear and springs out at me.

Happy Birthday to our precious girl, Sarah. Lots of love Mum & Dad

I rock forward, bending at the waist, trying to ease the stabbing pain the words have caused that’s as real and as raw to me as the wound
on my head that throbs and throbs, as the memories of that day become impossible to ignore.

I’m twelve! I can hardly believe it!

Loitering on the landing, I
strain to decipher the fierce whispers drifting from my parents’ bedroom, but I can’t catch more than the odd word. Mum seems furious with Dad for something he had promised to do, and Dad is shushing and reassuring her he will sort everything out. It goes quiet for a bit and I think I can hear Mum crying. Miserably I wonder whether anyone even remembers it was supposed to be my special day. Mindlessly,
I scratch the bannisters with my thumbnail, watching the gloss paint flake and crumble onto the flattened carpet that is rough beneath my bare feet. The sound of
Scooby Doo
floats upstairs, and I can almost picture my little brother, arms folded tightly around Ollie the Owl, enraptured as Fred and the gang predictably unmask the janitor. Until recently I longed to be part of Mystery Inc. Daphne
was my heroine. Mum laughed and called it my ‘purple phase’. Long after I should have been sleeping, I’d lie in bed, twisting my fine blonde hair around my fingers, willing it to fall into soft waves by the morning, longing for the day I could dye it red. It all seems so babyish now. I’ve outgrown cartoons although I do sit and watch them if they’re on, which they often are in this house. Still,
it’s not as if I’d choose to. Melanie Peeks said anything animated is for losers and I’d nodded along. Shaggy still makes me laugh though, he’s such a scaredy cat. Not that I’d admit it to Melanie, of course. ‘I’m more sophisticated now,’ she had said after her birthday, and we had crowded around her desk admiring her nail polish, her black wristbands that were exactly the same as Avril Lavigne’s.
The thick black eyeliner our teacher made her go to the toilets and wash off
immediately young lady
. Her mood ring. Not that she needed one of those, I privately thought. She only had one mood – mardy. But she is so beautiful. We all want to be just like her. I’d begged Mum to buy me a bra and then I stuffed it with toilet tissue and strutted around the playground, giggling, and it worked! Melanie
chose me to be part of her group, and they’ll all be here for my party this afternoon. I can’t wait.

There is a packet of pink balloons on the kitchen table waiting to be inflated and a stack of silver paper plates and napkins. I had told Mum not to embarrass me by making a jelly or anything. I only want cool food. Pizza and fries, not the chunky chips Mum buys at Iceland. The skinny ones
that Melanie says she ate in America. Mum’s made a cake, as usual, I saw the Tupperware on the top of the fridge; I hope she doesn’t expect everyone to sing. Melanie says that’s for babies. At her party she had a pile of cupcakes and no candles. I wish Mum and Dad would hurry up and come out. I’ve finished my cornflakes and got dressed and I still haven’t opened any presents.

I hadn’t wanted
a party at home. I’d had a bit of a strop, actually, and I still feel bad about that now. The way Mum’s face fell. The guilt in Dad’s eyes as he explained they couldn’t quite stretch to hiring out the community centre and a disco. Since he lost his job we’ve had to ‘tighten our belts’, and at first I thought this meant our clothes would become loose because we couldn’t afford to eat, but it
actually meant something worse. There were no trips to the cinema, or swimming or anything. I told Mum I’d rather go without the fruit she makes us eat every day and the vegetables she says are expensive and go to the ice rink instead. She’d said ‘nice try’ and shook her head, but I thought secretly Dad would rather be skating than eating broccoli. We’re not doing half the things we used to together.
He’s out most nights, and he’s never home to read me a story anymore. If I wake him up before I go to school he’s grumpy, and he smells funny too. Mum says he’ll ‘pull himself together’ when he gets another job, as though he has fallen apart like the little wooden horse he’d won for me at the fair. I’d spent hours pressing the button underneath, watching the horse flop to pieces, only held together
by string and hope, springing whole again when I released my thumb. I don’t think Dad’s like that. He just needs a shower and some ‘bleeding luck’.

‘A party at home will be fun. Don’t you trust me?’ he had asked, and I had nodded. I love Mum to bits but I love Dad just that teensy bit more. He’s the one who lets me stay up past nine o’clock and have ‘just one more’ biscuit that always turns
into three.

‘Write a list of what you want,’ he had said. ‘Anything.’ And Mum had shot one of her looks at him he calls ‘her lasers’. Excited, I’d sat at the kitchen table, glass of milk in front of me, and thought long and hard. Make-up was top, of course, the big set from Boots that Melanie has, with twenty-two different coloured eyeshadows. Twenty-two! Glitter. The hairspray that streaks
pink but washes out.

‘Can I have an iPod? Melanie has one and it’s so cool?’

‘If that’s what my girl wants,’ Dad had said.

‘I’m getting an iPod and I’m having a make-over party,’ I’d told Melanie airily, as though it was what I wanted all along, and I actually saw a spark of admiration in her eyes. Everyone else in our year has had a boring disco at the community centre.

I wanted a new dress. It had to be from Top Shop and short and stretchy. ‘We’re rock chicks,’ Melanie had said, her arm jangling with the bangles. Melanie wore shoes with heels, even for school. I’d tried walking in Mum’s when she was in the bath, but I’d turned my ankle. I’ve asked for some of my own, and if I open them soon I’ve time to practice in front of my mirror, swinging my hips
like Melanie. At the bottom of the list I’d added a Bratz doll. It’s not like I’ll play with it or anything, but I think they look really cool. I’ll keep it hidden in my wardrobe until Melanie goes home though, just in case she laughs.

At last my parents’ door creaks open.

‘Happy birthday, princess!’ Dad lifts me up and swings me around as though I am still five, and although I like
it I tell him not to do that later. ‘Afraid I’ll embarrass you, eh?’ He showers kisses on me, and I turn away from his smelly breath.

‘Happy birthday, darling.’ Mum smiles but her red-rimmed eyes don’t crinkle around the edges and she can barely look at me. She won’t look at Dad at all. I wrap my legs around his waist like a monkey and peer over his shoulder into their bedroom, but the
space on top of their wardrobe where they always keep presents is empty.

‘I’m going to pick up your presents once I’ve made you pancakes and maple syrup,’ Dad says, as though reading my mind. Mum fires him one of her lasers, and I think it’s because she doesn’t approve of sugar for breakfast. Dad crouches down and I wrap my arms around his neck as he piggybacks me down the stairs.

The house smells of garlic bread. Mum clatters in the kitchen.
Let Go
spins on the CD player in the lounge. Melanie bought me it; although Izzy whispered to me she had nicked it from HMV. As I’d unwrapped it Melanie had said she’d show me how to put it on iTunes and transfer it onto my iPod, and I’d caught the way the corners of her mouth twitched into a half-smile as I’d told her my present hadn’t
arrived yet, as though I’d been lying.

Melanie brought her make-up kit with her and is being the beautician. I wanted to try but she’d batted my hand away from the brushes and told me she had the most experience, and I suppose she has. Her mum subscribes to
Cosmopolitan
and at breaks we pass it around. Some of the articles make me feel hot and funny but the clothes are way cool. Lauren
hasn’t arrived yet but she’s always late for everything.

‘Clear the table, food’s ready in ten,’ Mum calls, and I start to stand, but Melanie grabs my wrist.

‘I’ve nearly finished.’

Splaying out my fingers again I watch as Melanie slicks blue varnish over my thumbnail. Izzy scrunches up discarded wrapping paper and tosses it into the bin.

‘Where’s Dad?’ I ask Mum for
the umpteenth time. She balances my cake on a rosebud stand on the table covered with violet voile. A silver ‘Happy Birthday’ sign is stuck in the frosted lilac icing. Twelve pink and white spiral candles dotted around the edge.

‘He’ll be here soon,’ she says again, as she bustles back into the kitchen, but I am not reassured. He’s been gone for hours, and my throat feels all tight and
swollen. He has never missed a party of mine before, even when he had a full-time job. Where is he?

‘All done.’ Melanie screws the lid back on the polish. ‘Aren’t you going to blow on them so they dry?’ She raises her eyebrows and, feeling stupid, I huff air onto my nails, until the front door slams.

Dad bursts into the lounge, wild-eyed, his face pale and slick with sweat. He is
empty-handed.

‘About time,’ Mum shouts from the kitchen.

‘Dad? Where are my presents?’ As soon as I ask I wish I could take the question back. I can’t pinpoint why I am scared, but as he meets my eyes, I feel a thousand apologies pass wordlessly between us, and I want to say I don’t care about the presents, I don’t care about anything except the fact that he is here, but before I
can speak there’s a thudding at the front door.

‘Lauren!’ I rush to answer, pleased she’s made it before tea. I don’t think Dad calling my name really registers, and it isn’t until I swung open the door I realise I’ve made a horrible, horrible mistake.

‘Justin Crawford?’ One of the policemen says. He is almost as tall as the freaky substitute teacher we’d had for science last week.
I have to shade my eyes from the sun as I look up at his stern face.

‘He’s in the lounge.’ Shock makes my voice a squeak. The men thunder down the hallway, and I rush after them. As I pass the kitchen, Mum wrenches her hands out of the sink, soapsuds floating to the lino as she grabs a tea towel. Her mouth in an ‘O’. I am not sure why the police want to talk to Dad but my stomach feels
all funny and I know it is bad. Very bad.

‘Justin Crawford,’ the policeman says again, and my guilt at having let him in is nudged aside by relief as my eyes scan the room. Dad isn’there and there’s a split-second moment when I think they’ll leave. That everything will be okay. Mum will bring out the pizza and after we’ve eaten barbecue chicken and pepperoni slices, melted cheese stringy
between our fingers, I can blow out the candles and will wish the police would never come back. But that’s before Melanie opens her pink glossy lips and says, clear and true, ‘he’s hiding behind the sofa’.

The memory plays as though in slow motion.

Furniture upended in the struggle. Dad fighting to break free, shouting his innocence over and over. Mum, fisted hands pushed against
her chest, knees buckling as she screamed ‘No!’. The cake wobbling and crashing to the floor, sponge scattering, the snapping of candles and, seeing this, I began to cry. If I didn’t have twelve candles I couldn’t make a wish and that’s when I knew, with certainty, they were taking Dad away and things would never be the same again.

My brother huddled in the corner, clutching his owl, rocking
backwards and forwards, tears dripping down his chubby cheeks. Avril Lavigne singing ‘Complicated’. The smoke alarm screeching. The smell of burning garlic bread filling the room. But perhaps, more than the hurt, the shame, the humiliation, it was the scathing look in Melanie’s eyes that stayed with me and, inexplicably, despite it being Dad who had done something wrong, it was her I hated.

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