The Date: An unputdownable psychological thriller with a breathtaking twist (20 page)

43

James was my date that night. My head is spinning. Half-formed scraps of truth fluttering past my mind’s eye before I can snatch them, but I know, even if I could catch my splintered memories, lay them out before me, there would still be missing pieces of the puzzle.

‘I don’t believe you,’ I say, but, as I speak, I’m backing away, assessing my option, my escape, knowing it must be true.

‘Ali, please.’ His hand reaches towards me, and I take another step backwards, my heel hitting the skirting board. The door handle of the bathroom digging into my spine. Slowly I inch my hand behind my back, rooting around for the cool metal.

‘I won’t hurt you.’
James inches closer. ‘You don’t need to lock yourself in there.’

‘But you did hurt me.’

He leans in.

‘Don’t. Come. Any. Closer.’ I spin and push open the door, but before I can step into safety, his hands are on my shoulders and I flash back to that night. The hands on my shoulders, shaking me hard. I scream and scream, and this time it is real and loud and deafening. My vision
swimming in and out of focus. All the terror I felt that night comes gushing back, merging with the terror I feel right now. James’s fingertips loosen their grip and are replaced with different hands. Soothing hands. The floral scent of Jules’s perfume. Arms enveloping me. Stroking my hair.

‘Shhh. It’s okay,’ whispers Jules. But it’s not okay. It’s not okay at all.

‘It was him. James.
That night. Not Ewan. James.’ I am babbling.

‘I know,’ Jules says quietly, and I shove her away from me, her betrayal freezing the sweat that had pooled in my armpits, the small of my back. We stand in silence, the three of us who were once friends. My eyes search for something, anything, that will tell me I am not going mad, because – standing in front of James and Jules who not only look
like strangers, but now feel like strangers – it’s almost impossible to believe anything else in the world is as it should be. I settle on the moon, high and round, outside the landing window. The indigo sky peppered with stars. The glow of the orange lamp post.

‘Before you do anything. Say anything. Please hear us out.’

Without looking at her I say ‘Fine’, and it’s not because I
want to hear anything they have to say, but because I know they won’t let me leave until I do.

I am perched on the armchair nearest the front door. Holding a cushion
on my lap as though it is a protective shield. My knees jiggle with nervous energy. I can’t stop shaking. With fear. With shock. With the horrible realisation that I really can’t trust anyone.

James sits furthest away from me, legs pressed together, arms wrapped around his middle, as though he is trying to make himself as small as possible. As though he too wishes he could disappear.

‘You’ve five minutes before I call the police. Talk.’ I mean my tone to sound firm and in control, but my voice cracks.

It is Jules who speaks first. ‘James has been in love with you for such a long time. And when you split up with Matt and moved next door, he thought… Well he hoped eventually you might come to see him as more than a friend, but you never did.’

‘I had no—’

‘He wasn’t brave enough to tell you directly.’ Jules talks quickly. Urgently. Knowing I am judging each and every word. Searching for the lie. ‘That night, with Chrissy, when she signed you up to the dating app, I texted James and told him your username and suggested he sign up too.’

‘You were the one who took my phone.’ I thought back. ‘You sent the reply to him knowing who it was.’

‘You
liked
him. Remember all those other messages that night? The cock shots? The demands for naked photos. You said James seemed kind, and I thought you might get to know a different side of him. Grow to like him. And you did.’

We shouldn’t be out here. I want to go inside. I don’t want to do this. Please don’t make me
.

‘No.’

‘Ali, you were always messaging each other.’

‘I liked someone I thought was called Ewan. What’s
kind
about deceiving me? Letting me think you were someone else?’ I glare at James.

‘He felt terrible. That’s why he suggested a proper date that night. So you could see who you were talking to. You both had feelings for each other.’

‘You were like a brother to me.’

‘That was the problem.’ James speaks for himself now.
‘We’d fallen into the friendship zone. The games of Monopoly. The family Sunday lunches. I’d asked you along to gigs and you’d always said no.’

I had thought it was because James had a spare ticket but that’s not important right now. I take a deep breath and stiffen my spine. Almost detach myself from my body for what I am about to ask.

‘Did you drug and rape me, James?’

‘No!’ He springs to his feet, and I mirror his actions, still holding the cushion, poised to strike out, as though it contains steel and not feathers.

‘But we had sex? I can’t have been in any state to consent…’

‘Ali, I didn’t touch you. I swear. Nothing happened.’

Jules yanks his arm and he half falls back on the sofa, and as he raises his hands to rake them through his hair
I can see them trembling. I sink back down onto the chair and cover my face with my palms. If I didn’t have sex with James, who did I have sex with that night? Closing my eyes I recall the details of the tape. The grainy image. The man staring into the camera. My blonde hair cascading down my back, emerald dress rolled down to the waist.

No
.

Agitation drives me to my feet.

‘Ali?’ Jules tentatively asks but I’m pacing the room, picturing getting ready that night.

‘I love this one.’
Chrissy had held my green dress up under her chin, smoothing the fabric with one hand. ‘If you don’t want to wear it tonight, can I borrow it again?’ She’d worn it the week before when I’d had a night shift at work.

‘Don’t believe everything you see.’ Matt had said when we’d
had breakfast together.

It was
him
in the tape. Him and Chrissy. What sort of a man would send his wife a video of him having sex with another woman?

The man who knew his wife would never recognise him. My fists furl and unfurl. You fucking. Fucking. Bastard.

Fury is keeping my tears at bay as I spin around to face James. ‘Tell me
exactly
what you remember from that night
and don’t leave
anything
out,’ I demand. As he falteringly begins to speak, I close my eyes, letting his words form pictures in my mind. My hazy recollection becoming clearer.

Sitting on one of the high stools near the cocktail sign that winked pink and blue, I shift my weight, trying not to slip off the faux leather seat as I scan the crowd. I’d told my date I would be wearing an emerald green dress but now, under lights that strobe green, it looks as though everyone is wearing the same colour. Nervously I fiddle with my straw, pulling it out of my mocktail
before pushing it back in, sinking the shiny red half cherry bobbing on the surface. I take a sip of the fruit juice, wishing I wasn’t driving: a vodka would calm the butterflies thronging around my belly. I still don’t know how I feel about being on a date. Part of me thinks it’s too soon. My separation with Matt still so raw.

‘You
mus
t meet Ewan.’ Chrissy and Jules had insisted whenever
I had expressed my doubts. It was one of the first things they had ever agreed on. ‘He makes you smile.’

And he did. The messages we exchanged became more and more frequent, my fingertips were flying over the keyboard, often for a whole evening, as our conversations flowed. Until eventually, tentatively, I had agreed we should meet.

Now, as I sit watching the bodies in the corner
that writhe together to the music pulsing like a heartbeat, I wonder whether it is too intimate, almost, to come here. Almost like a proper date.

‘Ali.’ I pull my eyes away from the dance floor. James leans against the bar, trying to look relaxed but appearing stiff and uncomfortable in a green tweed jacket I’ve never seen before, more formal than anything the other men here are wearing.
His aftershave overpowering – obviously out to impress.

‘Hello.’ I peer over his shoulder. ‘I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m waiting for someone.’

‘Ewan,’ he says.

‘Jules told you?’ I try to keep the hint of irritation from my voice, hating the thought I’ve been gossiped about. I really don’t want Matt finding out until I am ready to tell him, if there is anything to tell.

‘No. It’s me. I mean.’ He inhales sharply. ‘I’m Ewan.’ He stretches out his hand for me to shake. Instead I slide off the stool and pick up my clutch bag.

‘I suppose you all think this is funny?’ Humiliation burns hot behind my eyes.

‘Wait.’ He places his hand on my arm. ‘It wasn’t a joke. I… I like you, Ali. I wanted you to get to know me without thinking of me as Jules’s
younger cousin. Please stay.’

I hesitate. All I have to rush back home to is a lonely Saturday night in front of the TV. But this is
James
. It all feels so weird.

‘One drink, Ali. A chance to explain?’

We are being jostled, a hen party coveting our place at the bar. Chrissy is nowhere to be seen.

‘Five minutes.’ I don’t like being lied to. I’m not going to be a pushover.

We have sat side by side before hundreds of times. At his house. At mine. At the pub, where we always come last in the quiz despite Chrissy flirting with the barman for answers. But this time electricity crackles between us as I sit upright and awkward, flinching when our thighs inadvertently touch, our hands brushing together as we lean in to hear each other speak over the throbbing bass,
his hand resting transiently on my knee as he listens. As the DJ seamlessly melds one song into another the conversation begins to flow and the tension between us dissipates. One drink leads to two, to three.

‘I’ve a drinking problem,’ James admits, and I am shocked until he quickly adds, ‘I can’t bend my elbow properly in this jacket’, and feigns struggling to reach his mouth with his
glass.

‘It does look very… new.’ I laugh.

‘I bought it for tonight.’

Confused by the emotions I am feeling I leap to my feet. ‘Another round?’ He follows me to the bar.

‘And I wasn’t drinking alcohol,’ I clarify with James now.

‘No. You were driving.’

‘And nobody spiked my drink?’ What I’m really asking was, did he?

‘No. We were having a really nice time.’

‘Were? What happened?’

He speaks just one word. ‘Chrissy.’

44

After he says Chrissy’s name neither James nor Jules can meet my eye.

‘And then what?’ I strain for some recollection, but I am firmly back in this room with its flat-screen TV, squashy leather sofa and an uncomfortable silence.

‘I don’t know. She was upset. You
were upset. I couldn’t hear above the music but you pushed her before you disappeared off together. You told me you’d see me later, but you never came back.’ His voice is quiet as he says: ‘I’ll never forgive myself for not following you, for assuming you weren’t interested in me after all and had gone home. I am so, so sorry.’

‘But…’ My fingertips flutter to the lump on my head, barely
discernible anymore but there is still a tenderness when I press down. ‘What happened to me?’

‘Honestly, I don’t know. I finished my drink and when you didn’t return I came home. When Ben told us what happened I hated myself for not looking after you properly. Still do.’

‘And you knew all of this?’ I round on Jules not really needing an answer. I thought about the way they had both
been so concerned, always asking if my memories were returning. Self-preservation, that’s all it was, and this realisation brings a bitter taste to my mouth.

‘Yes.’

‘And you sabotaged my hypnotherapy so I didn’t remember it was James that night?’ I remember the way she insisted on staying in the room although Mr Henderson advised against it. How she shook me out of my trance when
my clouded mind began to clear.

‘You were distressed.’ She catches my scornful gaze. ‘And yes. I didn’t want you remembering it was James you met that night. He didn’t hurt you. He wouldn’t. He couldn’t. You know that, Ali, if you really think about it. You must believe he wouldn’t hurt you.’

‘I don’t know what I believe. You’ve lied to me all along. It was James on the CCTV?’

‘Yes.’ Jules swallows hard.

‘And you burned Prism down?’ I’m focusing on her. Somehow I can’t see James breaking the law, no matter what the circumstances, and as I think this I realise that there’s some part of me, a large part, that does believe his story.

‘No. That was nothing to do with us.’

‘But you told me it was Matt on the CCTV? Another lie?’ If we stacked them
all together we could build a wall.

‘It seemed easier to agree with you when you offered his name.’

‘Because you know Chrissy and Matt are having an affair.’ My heart is beating a tattoo.

There is gentleness in her voice when she speaks again.

‘Yes. I’m so sorry. I know you’re far from over him.’

‘How long have you known?’ Revelation after revelation punches
me in the guts. It’s like being part of
The Truman Show
. Everything I thought was real pulled away from me.

‘I heard her on the phone the day before you went out. All sweet nothings and “we can’t tell Ali”.’

‘Why didn’t you tell me? You’re
supposed
to be my friend.’ I didn’t think it was possible to feel any more betrayed by her, but I do. ‘You’ve never really liked Chrissy. I thought
you’d jump at the chance to ruin our friendship.’

‘I was going to…’ She falters. Chews her bottom lip. ‘I don’t know. My first instinct was to tell you, of course. But then.’ She sighs so deeply her shoulders visibly slump. ‘It wasn’t about Chrissy or the way I feel about her, was it? It was about you, and I care about you, Ali. I know it may not feel that way right now, but I do. I remember
what it felt like when you told me about Craig. How much it hurt. And I didn’t know if I could… If I should do that to you. Sometimes, you know, I wish you hadn’t told me. I wish I didn’t know and I was still married.’ Tears spill from her eyes and she wipes at them furiously with the back of her hand.

‘The problem with knowing things, Ali, is that you can’t
unknow
them, and however unfair
it is there’s a small piece of me, and honestly it’s tiny now, but it’s there and it blames you for it all, and I’m trying to get over it. I am getting over it. But I didn’t know whether it was kinder not to tell you. You and Matt aren’t together, and it’s only natural he’ll move on and the fact that it’s with Chrissy… I didn’t know if it was my place to tell you, and I was going to sleep on
it, but then Saturday happened, and you’ve been through so much.’

‘The police think I had something to do with Chrissy’s disappearance. I’ve been questioned again today.’

‘What? God, I’m so sorry.’

‘I’ll come with you to the station,’ James says. ‘Tell them everything. I’m sorry, Ali. I really am.’

‘I need some time to process all of this.’ I stand and to my relief
they both remain seated. They are not going to stop me leaving. ‘I’ll be in touch.’

I am calm and measured as I walk to the front door, and it is only when I step outside and feel the cold biting at my cheeks that I raise my fingers to my skin and realise I am crying.

Although I believe James and Jules I cannot bear to be in such close proximity to them knowing they have deceived
me. Flinging open drawers, I throw things into an overnight case, adding toiletries and stuffing the letter from Chrissy along with the photo of her and Matt into the zipped pocket in the lid, before heaping Branwell’s bowls, food and his forlorn monkey, now missing an ear, into his basket. I text Iris to let her know I am on my way.

Warm honey light filters from the house onto the
driveway, Iris silhouetted in the doorway, speaking on the phone. By the time I have released Branwell from his crate she is by my side.

‘That was Ben.’ She lifts Branwell’s basket out of the boot. ‘Sorry. Did you want to speak to him?’ she adds as an afterthought.

‘I’ll call him tomorrow,’ I say, although I can’t believe I have any words left in me. I’m exhausted. It’s an effort
to move one foot in front of the other. I settle Branwell in the kitchen, where he sits, wagging his tail so hard as he stares up at the biscuit tin on the worktop, he slowly slides backwards on the tiled floor.

‘I’ll dump my stuff in my room,’ I say to Iris knowing there’s no point telling her not to give Branwell human titbits. That by the time I come back down he’ll be licking his lips
and have crumbs embedded in his furry beard.

I trudge upstairs, squeezing my bag past the stairlift, the constant reminder of Mum that none of us could bear to look at but somehow never got removed. It’s almost as though we’ve stopped seeing it over the years.

If I had to pinpoint a time I knew she wasn’t going to get better, it was when two men had arrived in dark blue overalls,
carrying in tools and cardboard boxes, as we were leaving to go to school.

‘What are they here for?’ I asked Iris as I knelt by the front door, scratchy mat grazing my knees, tying Ben’s laces in a double knot.

‘They’re to help your mum,’ Iris said but her smile was slow and forced.

‘To make Mummy better?’ Ben’s eyes were wide. ‘So her legs work properly again and we can play
in the garden.’ He mimed kicking a football. ‘Goal!’ He punched air with his small fist. ‘After school?’

‘No silly.’ Iris ruffled Ben’s hair. ‘She won’t get better that quickly.’

‘But soon?’ Ben asked.

‘Soon,’ she said pulling him into her waist so she didn’t have to look him in the eye. I was silent as the men unpeeled brown tape from the box labelled ‘Stannah’. My heart
sank. I knew, from the Internet, that things were getting very bad indeed.

Ben thought it was all incredibly cool when we got home from school that day and I suppose it must have seemed as though the house had been transformed into an indoor playground. He sat on the stairlift as it whirred, painfully slowly, up and down the stairs but he soon grew bored of that, choosing instead to swing
from the hoists that hung above Mum’s bed.

‘Can I have this above my bed when you’re better, Mum?’

‘You can come and play whenever you want.’ Mum spoke slowly. It was an effort for her to form her words, but she could speak, right up until the end, and not once did she ever say what was happening to her was unfair. Not once did I hear her complain, and as I pass her empty room, I
think that if what is happening to me right now is the tiniest percentage of what she went through, then I don’t really have the right to feel sorry for myself; but I do all the same.

As I settle into my room there’s a part of me that wants to tell the police everything I have learned and inform them I believe Chrissy is hiding out at Matt’s, but a quick Google search tells me that even
if they go to Matt’s tonight he doesn’t have to grant them entry. Without a warrant they wouldn’t be able to search his property, and why would he give them permission if I am right and Chrissy is hiding there? The photo I’ve got of the two of them and the letter won’t count as enough evidence to request a warrant either and then where would I be? Matt and Chrissy would know I’ve uncovered their
sordid secret, Chrissy could disappear again, and I’d be back to trying to clear my name; only this time it would be a million times harder.

I’m longing to confront them myself, but even with the element of surprise it would be two against one. I need her on her own. I need to know what happened to me that night after I left James. ‘Softy, softly, catchee money,’ I used to whisper as I
tiptoed into Ben’s room after covering my eyes and counting to one hundred. Even if Ben’s giggle hadn’t given his hiding place away I knew he’d always be under his bed.

I know where your hiding place is Chrissy and I’m coming for you.

Tomorrow. I can’t wait until tomorrow.

I have a plan
.

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