The author of page-turning thriller Lie With Me, which was a top 10 bestseller, shares this exclusive short story
THE OTHER WOMAN
Adam’s key rattles in the door, his shout fills the hallway. I don’t leave my position by the bedroom window and I don’t reply, though I move my weight and the board beneath my foot creaks. If he senses my presence, he’ll be surprised that I don’t come downstairs to greet him. I always do these days.
I read somewhere how important it is in a marriage to go through the motions. It’s the little things, the article said, that make all the difference. ‘Fake it to make it,’ the writer had written.
I can’t tear my eyes away, that’s the problem. She’s still out there, waiting, at the gate outside her house, in all her usual bohemian glamour – long blonde hair and strappy top and inappropriately tiny shorts.
I watched Adam spot her. He had the decency not to stop, just a confirmatory nod and a raised palm in farewell: a gesture of regret and embarrassment, and a sort of muted respect.
Her bags are piled up next to her. They look like bits of old carpet, a deceptively student-ethnic pile, but they were bought for a fortune in that shop she told me about, ‘one of my old haunts’ in Holland Park. I can almost make out the shape of the contents: her salon-quality hair straighteners, her Jo Malone bath oils, her eight pairs of £250 jeans. ‘Jeans,’ she once said to me, ‘that’s what you need. Enough dowdy slacks. Let’s get you something to wear that doesn’t have an elasticated waist.’
Perhaps I let out a noise. Perhaps I have pressed my forehead too hard against the window. Perhaps when I brought my hand to my mouth the clasp of the friendship bracelet she gave me, a gold feather fashioned like a dagger, tapped against the glass. Or does she simply see the curtain twitch? Whatever the reason, she glances up.
I stand very still. I should pull the drapes back, smooth the lining as if that was what I had been doing all along. But she stares at me and I stare back. Adam is in the kitchen now, helping himself to a glass of wine. I can hear the milk bottles jangle in the fridge door. I have this strange hot sensation. It starts in my toes and it rises.
She has taken a step off the pavement into the gutter. She’s tipping her chin up to me, and she flutters her fingers in the air. She wants me to open the window. She actually wants to talk to me. What a nerve. Still. It’s interesting how little time I give to consideration. My hands scrape across the sill until I find the pointy window key and I screw it into the lock, joggle the casement up. The sash sticks half way and I have to bend to fit my head out of the opening, which puts me at a disadvantage. That was always the problem with our friendship: even when I was the victim of her charm, I’d felt at a disadvantage.
She is smiling, her head cocked to one side, as if to mock my own contortions. ‘Bye then,’ she calls sweetly. ‘I’m off.’
‘I’m sorry it didn’t work out,’ I answer.
‘I don’t really know what went wrong between us. Why you cooled.’
‘We were always a bit dull for you round here, a bit too “suburban”; isn’t that what I heard you say?’
She laughs then, a trill that bounces off the car roofs. ‘I’m not going voluntarily. Didn’t you know? Duncan’s kicking me out.’
‘I had heard.’ What I meant is, I heard. Last weekend when the shit hit the fan, excuse my language, through August’s open windows, the shouting and yelling, the hoarse strain of his accusations, the soar of her denials. I’m amazed the row didn’t wake the twins. Adam and I were sitting next to each other on the sofa, pretending to watch an old episode of
Midsomer Murders. Across the road, a shriek was followed by a clattering thud: something – shoes? – thrown against a hard surface. ‘At least they don’t have children,’ I said. Adam made an assenting noise deep in his throat.
‘Nice man, Duncan,’ I added. ‘He deserves better. Someone who’ll look after him properly. I’m not sure I’ve once seen her cook a proper meal.’ He swallowed and muttered agreement. ‘I’ll take a nice dish round when she’s gone. Delia’s chicken basque. He couldn’t get enough of it when they came to dinner here.’
Adam emitted another strangulated sound. It was all he could manage. He has been too scared to engage in any topic concerning her – tone of voice can be so treacherous – since I caught them together at the Winshaws’ summer party. The bosky glow at the back of the garden, midges whirling in the light thrown from the kitchen. She’d been snagged, apparently, by the Ceanothus; all he was doing was untangling human hair from vegetative frond. So I was wrong. They weren’t kissing, but her throat gleamed; he was drinking her in.
The window key is coiled in my hand, the jagged point digging into my palm. I feel a snag in the fleshy part of my thumb. The pain is almost sweet.
‘Perhaps if you’d kept your hands off other people’s husbands,’ I say, ‘you’d have kept your own.’
She looks up at me with interest, nothing else, nothing worse. ‘I liked you when we met,’ she says. ‘I thought you were trapped. But it turns out you’re as uptight, and yes, suburban, as everyone else around here.’
And it’s her lack of emotion that hurts, the sense of my own insignificance, and I have that hot, frenzied feeling again, but this time it comes with a buzzing in my ears, a desire to show her my true colours, and I twist myself back, bashing my chin in my haste. And I am out of the bedroom, and down the stairs.
The key is clutched in my fist, and I open the front door and in my head I hurl myself on to her, and I am stabbing her in the throat with it, watching the blood burble, her eyes pleading. But when I open the door, she is back on the other side of the street. Her Uber has arrived, and there is a man, a hairy brawn in a cap-sleeved T-shirt, loading her bags into the boot.
When she sees me standing there, breathless on my own doorstep, something catches in her face. ‘Of course,’ she says. ‘I see now.’
I’m curious enough to walk towards her. What does she see? ‘It was you, wasn’t it?’ she says when I reach her. ‘It was you who sent him the photos.’
I don’t answer. Perhaps I smile. It leaks out. I can’t help myself.
Her eyes search mine. She is a good foot taller than me, and she has to bend to do so. She carefully tucks a loose lock of blonde hair, an upside-down question mark, behind her ear. ‘Did you Photoshop them? I wouldn’t have thought you knew how.’ My mouth twists. I think I shrug. ‘He was just a friend.’ She says it as if she thinks I care. ‘It looked like an affair to me.’ ‘People see what they want to see.’ She takes a step back and her mouth turns down at the corners. I’m wearing my comfy Footglove sandals and her eyes seem to linger on them.
And then she turns away, and begins to walk towards the car. Her hand is on the passenger door when she says over her shoulder, ‘I underestimated you.’
The brawn has got into the driver’s seat and is checking his phone. I think she might say more, but she doesn’t.
She climbs into the back seat and pulls the door shut. The engine turns, and in seconds the driver is indicating and pulling out, and I watch as the Prius glides slowly to the end of the street. It pauses for a moment there, until there is a gap in the traffic, and then the wheels spin and it’s gone.
I have a sudden sense of loss, watching the empty road, a feeling that the sky has darkened.
I pull myself together and turn back. Her house looks shuttered up and abandoned. But it’s an illusion. Duncan is due home any minute.
My phone is in the side pocket of my slacks. Adam will be on his second glass of wine. He’ll be nodding off. Errands – that’s what I’ll tell him. I’ve got an hour until the twins are dropped home from tennis. I text quickly: ‘Coast’s clear. She’s gone. X.’ Only a few seconds until his answer pings: ‘Let yourself in. You know where to find the key.’
My breath is coming quickly now. My fingers dart: ‘I’ll be waiting. Basque and all (and no I don’t mean Delia’s) x.’ One word in reply: ‘Groan.’ What was the last thing she said to me? I underestimated you. Well. Funny that. People often do.
‘That was always the problem with our friendship: even when I was the victim of her charm, I’d felt at a disadvantage’