Into the Darkest Corner – Elizabeth Haynes

As far as days to die were concerned, the longest day of the year was as good a day as any. Naomi Bennett lay with her eyes open at the bottom of a ditch while the blood that had kept her alive for all of her twenty-four years pulsed away into the grit and rubble beneath her. As she drifted in and out of awareness, she contemplated the irony of it all: how she was going to die now – having survived so much, and thinking that freedom was so close – at the hands of the only man who had ever really loved her and shown her kindness. He stood at the edge of the ditch above her, his face in shadow as the sun shone through the bright green leaves and cast dappled light over him, his hair halo-bright. Waiting. The blood filled her lungs and she coughed, blowing scarlet bubbles that foamed over her chin. He stood motionless, one hand on the shovel, watching the blood flow out of her and marvelling at its glorious colour, a liquid jewel, and at how even at the moment of death she was still the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. Once the flow slowed to a mere trickle he turned away, casting a glance across the derelict noman’s-land between the back of the industrial estate and the beginnings of farmland. Nobody came here, not even dog-walkers; the ground was rough and scarred with manufacturing rubbish accumulated over decades, weeds growing through empty cable reels, brown fluid leaking out of rusted oil drums, and at the edge, beneath a long row of lime trees, a six-foot ditch that brought dirty water when it rained, draining a mile away into the river. Several minutes passed. She was dead. The wind had started to pick up and he looked up through the canopy of leaves to the clouds chasing each other across the sky. He scrambled carefully down the rough slope into the bottom of the ditch, using the shovel for support, and then without hesitation drove it into her skull, bouncing roughly off the first time, then with a dull crack breaking the bone and splintering it into her flesh. Again and again, gasping with the effort, smashing her face away, breaking teeth, bone and flesh into one ghastly mixture. After that, she wasn’t his Naomi any more.

He used the knife again to slice away at each of her fingers in turn, her palms, until nothing identifiable was left. Finally, he used the bloody shovel to cover her over with the rubble, sand and rubbish that had collected in the ditch. It wasn’t a very good job. The blood was everywhere. But as he finished – wiping away the tears that he’d been shedding from the moment she’d said his name in surprise, just as he’d sliced her throat – the first spots of rain fell from the darkening sky. Wednesday 31 October 2007 Erin had been standing in the doorway for almost a minute; I could see her reflection in the darkened window. I carried on scrolling through the spreadsheet on the screen, wondering how it could be that it was dark when I left for work this morning and now it was dark again already. ‘Cathy?’ I turned my head. ‘Sorry,’ I said, ‘I was miles away. What?’ She leaned against the door, one hand on a hip, her long russet hair wound back into a bun.

‘I said, are you nearly finished?’ ‘Not quite. Why?’ ‘Don’t forget it’s Emily’s leaving do tonight. You are coming, aren’t you?’ I turned back to the screen. ‘I’m not sure, to be honest – I need to get this finished. You go on ahead. I’ll try and get there later if I can.’ ‘Alright,’ she said at last. She made a show of stomping off, although she didn’t make much noise in those pumps. Not tonight, I thought. Especially not tonight.

It was all I could manage to agree to go to the sodding Christmas party, let alone a night out to celebrate someone’s departure, someone I scarcely know. They’d been planning the Christmas do since August; as far as I’m concerned the end of November is too bloody early for a Christmas night out, but it’s the date they all chose. They’re all partying from then on, right up to Christmas. Early or not, I was going to have to go, otherwise I could see comments being made about me not being a ‘team player’, and God knows I need this job. As soon as the last person left the office, I closed down the spreadsheet and turned off the computer. Friday 31 October 2003 Friday night, Hallowe’en, and the bars in town were all full to the cauldron’s brim. In the Cheshire Arms I’d drunk cider and vodka and somehow lost Claire and Louise and Sylvia, and gained a new friend called Kelly. Kelly had been to the same school as me, although I didn’t remember her. That was no matter to either of us; Kelly was dressed as a witch without a broomstick, all stripy orange tights and black nylon wig, me like the bride of Satan, a fitted red satin dress and cherry-red silk shoes that had cost more than the dress. I’d already been groped a few times.

By one, most people were heading for the night bus, or the taxi rank, or staggering away from the town centre into the freezing night. Kelly and I headed for the River bar, since it was the only place likely still to let us in. ‘You are so going to pull wearing that dress, Catherine,’ Kelly said, her teeth chattering. ‘I fucking hope so, it cost me enough.’ ‘Do you think there will be anything decent in there?’ she said, peering hopefully at the bedraggled queue. ‘I doubt it. Anyway, I thought you said that you were off men?’ ‘I said I’ve given up on relationships. Doesn’t mean I’m off sex.’ It was bitterly cold and starting to drizzle, the wind whipping the smells of a Friday night around me, blowing up my skirt. I pulled my jacket tighter around me and crossed my arms over it.

We headed for the VIP entrance. I remember wondering if this was a good idea, whether it might not be better to call it a night, when I realised Kelly had been let in already and I went to follow her. I was blocked by a wall of charcoal-grey suit. I looked up to see a pair of incredible blue eyes, short blond hair. Not someone you’d want to have an argument with. ‘Hold up,’ said the voice, and I looked up at the doorman. He wasn’t massive like the other two, but still taller than me. He had a very appealing smile. ‘Hello,’ I said. ‘Am I allowed to go in with my friend?’ He paused for a moment and looked at me just a fraction longer than was seemly.

‘Yes,’ he said at last. ‘Of course. Just…’ I waited for him to continue. ‘Just what?’ He glanced across to where the other door staff were chatting up some teenagers who were busy trying their hardest to get in. ‘Just couldn’t believe my luck for a moment, that’s all.’ I laughed at his cheek. ‘Not been a good night, then?’ ‘I have a thing for red dresses,’ he said. ‘I don’t think this one would fit you.’ He laughed and held the velvet rope to one side to let me in. I felt him watching me as I handed my jacket in to the cloakroom; chanced a glance back to the door and saw him again, just watching me.

I gave him a smile and went up the steps to the bar. All I could think of that night was dancing until I was numb, smiling and laughing at people with my new best friend, dancing in that red dress until I caught the eye of someone, anyone, and best of all finding some dark corner of the club and being fucked against a wall. Thursday 1 November 2007 It took me a long, long time to get out of the flat this morning. It wasn’t the cold, although the heating in the flat seems to take an age to have any effect. Nor was it the dark. I’m up every day before five; it’s been dark at that time since September. Getting up isn’t my problem, getting out of the house is. Once I’m showered and dressed, have had something to eat, I start the process of checking that the flat is secure before I go to work. It’s like a reverse of the process I go through in the evening, but worse somehow, because I know that time is against me. I can spend all night checking if I want to, but I know I have to get to work, so in the mornings I can only do it so many times.

I have to leave the curtains in the lounge and in the dining room, by the balcony, open to exactly the right width every day or I can’t come back in the flat again. There are sixteen panes in each of the patio doors; the curtains have to be open so that I can see just eight panes of each door if I look up to the flat from the path at the back of the house. If I can see a sliver of the dining room through the other panes, or if the curtains aren’t hanging straight, then I’ll have to go back up to the flat and start again. I’ve got quite good at getting this right, but it still takes a long time. The more thorough I am, the less likely I’ll find myself on the path behind the house cursing my carelessness and checking my watch. The door is particularly bad. At least in the last place, that poky basement in Kilburn, I had my own front door. Here I have to check and re-check the flat door properly six or twelve times, and then the communal front door as well. The flat in Kilburn did have a front door but nothing at all at the back, no back door, no windows. It was like living in a cave.

I didn’t have an escape route, which meant that I never felt really safe in there. Here, things are much better: I have French doors which lead onto a small balcony. Just below that is the roof of the shed which is shared with the other flats, although I don’t know if anyone else uses it. I can get out of the French doors, jump down to the shed roof, and from there down onto the grass. Through the garden and out the gate into the alleyway at the back. I can do it in less than half a minute. Sometimes I have to go back and check the flat door again. If one of the other tenants has left the front door on the latch again I definitely have to check the flat door. Anyone could have been in. This morning, for example, was one of the worst.

Not only was the front door on the latch, it was actually slightly ajar. As I reached for it, a man in a suit pushed it open towards me which made me jump. Behind him, another man, younger, tall, wearing jeans and a hooded top. Dark hair cropped close to his head, unshaven, tired green eyes. He gave me a smile, and mouthed ‘sorry’, which helped. Suits still freak me out. I tried not to look at the suit at all, but I heard it say as it went up the stairs, ‘…this one’s only just become available, you’ll have to move fast if you want it.’ A lettings agent, then. The Chinese students who’d been on the top floor must have finally decided to move on. They weren’t students any more, they graduated in the summer – the party they’d had had gone on all night, while I lay in my bed underneath listening to the sound of feet marching up and down the stairs.

The front door had been on the latch all night. I’d barricaded myself in by pushing the dining table against the flat door, but the noise had kept me awake and anxious. I watched the second man following the suit up the stairs. To my horror the man in jeans turned halfway up the first flight and gave me another smile, a rueful one this time, raising his eyes as if he was already sick of the letting agent’s voice. I felt myself blushing furiously. It’s been a long time since I made eye contact with a stranger. I listened to the footsteps heading up to the top floor, meaning they’d gone past my front door. I checked my watch – a quarter past eight already! I couldn’t just go and leave them inside the house. I shut the front door firmly and unclipped the latch, checking that it had shot home by rattling the door a few times. With my fingertips I traced around the edge of the doorframe, feeling that the door was flush with the frame.

I turned the doorknob six times, to make sure it was properly closed. One, two, three, four, five, six. Then the doorframe again. Then the doorknob, six times. One, two, three, four, five, six. Then the latch. Once, and again. Then the doorframe. Lastly the knob, six times. I felt the relief that comes when I manage to do this properly.

Then I marched back up to the flat, fuming that these two idiots were going to make me late. I sat on the edge of my bed for a while with my eyes lifted to the ceiling, as if I could see them through the plaster and the rafters. All the time I was fighting the urge to start checking the window locks again. I concentrated on my breathing, my eyes closed, trying to calm my racing heart. They won’t be long, I told myself. He’s only looking. They won’t be long. Everything is fine. The flat is safe. I’m safe.

I did it properly before. The front door is shut. Everything is fine. Every so often a small sound made me jump, even though it seemed to come from a long way away. A cupboard door banging? Maybe. What if they’d opened a window up there? I could hear a vague murmur, far too far away to make out words. I wondered what price they were asking for it – it might be nicer to be higher up. But then I wouldn’t have the balcony. As much as I love being out of reach, having an escape route is just as important. I checked my watch – nearly a quarter to nine.

What the fuck were they doing up there? I made the mistake of glancing at the bedroom window, and then of course I had to check it. And that started me off, so I had to start again at the door, and I was on my second round, standing on the lid of the toilet, feeling my way with my fingertips around the edge of the frosted window which doesn’t even open, when I heard the door shutting upstairs and the sound of footsteps on the stairs outside. ‘…nice safe area, at least. Never need to worry about leaving your car outside.’ ‘Yeah, well, I’d probably get the bus. Or I might use my bike.’ ‘I think there’s a communal shed in the garden; I’ll check when we get back to the office.’ ‘Cheers. I’d probably leave it in the hallway.’ Leave it in the hallway? Bloody cheek.

It was untidy enough as it was. But then, maybe someone other than me would make a point of locking the front door. I finished off the check, and then did the flat door. Not too bad. I waited for it, the anxiety, the need to go round and start again, but it was okay. I’d done it right, and only two times. The house was silent, which made things easier. Best of all, this time the front door was firmly fastened, indicating that the man in jeans had shut it properly behind him. Maybe he wouldn’t be a bad tenant after all. It was nearly nine-thirty by the time I finally got to the Tube.

Tuesday 11 November 2003 When I saw him for the second time, the memory had gone completely and I spent several moments looking at him. Tasty-looking, sensual mouth, definitely looked familiar – someone I’d snogged in a bar? ‘You don’t remember,’ he said, disappointment clear in his voice. ‘You had a red dress on. I was on the door at the River.’ ‘Oh, of course! Sorry,’ I said, shaking my head as though that would waggle some sense into it. ‘I just… didn’t recognise you without that suit.’ This gave me a reason to look him up and down appraisingly. He was dressed in shorts, trainers, and a black vest – spot on for the gym, but very different from how I’d last seen him. ‘No, well, not really much good for running in, that one.’ ‘I guess not.

’ Suddenly aware that I was still staring at his thighs, I realised I must look appalling, having just finished an hour’s session in the gym – hair tied back, bits of it sticking to my flushed cheeks, sweaty top. Lovely. ‘Well, it’s good to see you again,’ he said, running his eyes from my chest down to my toes and back up again in a fraction of a second. I wasn’t sure whether he was being cheeky or a little bit out of order. But then he finished it with a slightly lopsided grin that wasn’t lewd at all, just very sexy. ‘Yes, and you. I’m – going to get a shower.’ ‘Sure. I’ll see you soon,’ and with that, he turned and ran up the stairs to the gym, taking them two at a time. As I showered, I found myself wishing I’d met him when I had been heading for the gym too, instead of just coming out.

Then we could have had a proper conversation, and I wouldn’t have been looking like such a train wreck. For a few moments I contemplated hanging around in the coffee shop, waiting for him to finish his workout – would that look too easy? Too desperate? Well, what can I say? It had been a while. The last few men I liked had been one-nighters; sometimes I was verging on being too drunk to recall the details. Nothing wrong with it, of course, I was just enjoying myself while I could. Had enough of relationships for the time being, enjoying being single, all of that rubbish. Maybe it was time to start calming down a little. Maybe it was time to start thinking of the future. As I dried myself off, the changing rooms empty, a sudden thought occurred to me – I can’t have looked that bad, or he wouldn’t have recognised me. The last time he’d seen me, I had been dressed in a scarlet satin dress, my hair loose over my shoulders. Today I was dressed in sweaty gym gear, with no make-up and with my hair tied back – quite different.

And yet he’d recognised me the instant I looked up – I saw it in his eyes. And he’d said, ‘Hello again.’ I hadn’t been back to the River since, although I’d been out several times each week. Last weekend I was visiting friends in Scotland, an exhausting weekend with very little sleep – but that hadn’t stopped me going out for drinks after work. On Friday we ended up in the Roadhouse, a new bar which had opened in the Market Square. It was heaving with people thanks to their opening weekend drinks promotions, and Sam and Claire had both copped off with blokes within the first half-hour of arriving. For a while, I’d danced and drunk, drunk and danced, happy on my own, seeing people I know and chatting with them, shouting into people’s ears to be heard above the noise. There were some pretty tasty men in there, but there weren’t many single ones. The ones that were left were men I knew, either because I’d been out with them before, or they’d been out with one or other of my friends. Now I was already looking forward to next weekend.

Friday night I was planning to go out with Claire, Louise and her sister Emma, and then after that the weekend was mine. Smiling to myself, I sauntered back to the car, thinking that maybe we could find our way to the River. Monday 5 November 2007 By leaving work late I miss the worst of the crush on the Tube. When I first moved here I made the mistake of fighting my way through the rush hour, and every day the panic got worse. There were too many faces to scan, too many bodies pressing in from all sides. There were too many hiding places, and not enough room for me to run. So I leave work late, which makes up for me getting in late. I keep moving, up and down stairs, along the platform, until the last possible moment and the doors are just closing, before I jump on the train. That way I know for sure who I’m travelling with. Tonight I took a while to decide which way to go home.

Every day I take different routes on the Tube, getting off a stop later or a stop earlier, walking a mile or so, then onto a bus, or back onto the Tube. Usually I walk the last mile, taking different roads. It’s been two years since I moved here from Lancaster, and already I know the London Transport system as well as a native. It takes a long time and it wears me out, but it’s not as though I have to rush home. And it’s safer. Once I got off the bus at Steward Gardens my walk home was punctuated by fireworks, the smell of them sour in the cold, damp air. I walked across the High Street, skirting the edge of the park. Doubled back down Lorimer Road. Through the alleyway – I hate the alleyway, but at least it’s well lit – and back behind the garages. I checked over the wall – the light was on in my dining room, the curtains half-closed.

I counted the sixteen panes, eight on each door, which showed up as yellow rectangles, with neat edges where the curtains fell dead straight on either side. No extra bits of light showed through. No one had touched the curtains while I’d been away from the flat. I repeated this over and over again as I carried on walking. The flat is safe, nobody has been in there. At the end of the alleyway, a sharp turn left and I was nearly home – Talbot Street. I resisted the urge to walk to the end of the road at least once before turning back; tonight I managed to get inside at the first attempt. I looked back while turning the key, which had been held ready in my hand since I got off the bus. The front door locked behind me. I felt around the edges of the door, checking it was flush against the doorframe, careful not to miss any bump which might indicate that the door wasn’t properly shut.

I checked it six times, counting each time: one, two, three, four, five, six. I turned the doorknob, six times. Right on cue, Mrs Mackenzie opened the door of the downstairs flat, Flat 1. ‘Coo-ee, Cathy! How are you?’ ‘I’m fine, thanks,’ I said, giving her my best smile. ‘You?’ She nodded and regarded me, her head on one side, for a moment as she usually does and then went back inside. I could hear her television turned up to full volume the way it always is. The evening news. She does this every evening. She’s never once asked me what I’m doing. I went back to the checking, wondering if she does it on purpose, to interrupt me, knowing I’ll have to start again from scratch.

I’m alright as long as I don’t get stuck. Sometimes I do. So – the doorframe, the doorknob – do it properly, Cathy. Don’t fuck it up or we’ll be here all bloody night. At last I finished checking the front door. Then up the stairs. Checked to the top of the staircase. Listened to the stillness in the house, the noise of a siren a few streets away, the television on in the flat downstairs. More fireworks, going off a long way away. A scream from somewhere out in the street made me catch my breath, but then soon after a man’s voice, a female laughing, reproachful.

I unlocked my front door, looked behind me at the staircase again, then took one step inside, closed the door, locked it. Bolt at the bottom, chain in the middle, deadlock at the top. Listened at the door. Nothing at all from the other side. Looked through the peephole. Nobody there; just the stairs, the landing, the light overhead. I ran my fingers around the doorframe, turned the door handle six times one way, six times the other way. One, two, three, four, five, six. The bolts held the door shut. I turned the Yale lock six times.

I slid each bolt six times and back again, each time turning the doorknob six times. When I’d done all that, I could start on the rest of the flat. The first thing I did was to check all the windows, and close the curtains, going round the flat in the same order. First the front window onto the street. All the locks secure. I ran my fingers around the windowframe. Then I could close the curtains tight against the darkness outside. From the street, nobody can see me unless I stand close up against the glass. I checked the edges of the curtains in case I could see part of the window. Then I moved over to the balcony, the double doors.

In the summer I look out over the garden, checking the perimeter wall, but at this time of year there was only darkness outside. I checked the deadbolts on the balcony doors, felt all the way around the edge, turned the handle six times. The lock held true, the handle rattled loosely. Then I closed the heavy lined curtains against the blackness. The kitchen – the windows in here don’t open, but I checked them anyway. The blind came down. I stood in front of the drawer for several minutes, picturing what the contents looked like. When I pulled it open, I looked at the tray – the forks on the left, the knives in the middle, the spoons on the right. I closed the drawer, then I opened it again to make sure. Knives definitely in the middle, forks on the left, spoons on the right.

How did I know? Maybe I did something wrong. I opened the drawer again, to check. This time it was all right. Then the bathroom – the window is high up and frosted, and again this one doesn’t open, but I stood on the toilet lid and checked the edges nevertheless, ensuring it was closed tightly, then I pulled down the blinds. Through to my bedroom. Big windows in here which looked out onto the back garden, but the curtains were closed already as I left them before work this morning. The room was in darkness. I plucked up my courage and opened the curtains, checking the wide sash windows. I had fitted extra locks to this window when I moved in, and I checked each one, turning and re-turning the keys six times so that I knew they were secure. Then I closed the curtains, pulling them right across on each side so that there wasn’t a fragment of dark window showing.

Then I turned on the light beside the bed. For a moment I sat on the edge of the bed, breathing deeply, trying to calm the rising panic. At 7.30pm there was a programme I wanted to watch. The bedside clock said that the time was 7.27pm. I wanted to go and watch television. But the panic was still there, despite reasoning with myself, despite telling myself that I’d done it all, I’d checked everything, there was nothing to worry about, the flat was secure, I was safe, I was home safe for another day. My heart was still pounding. With a sigh, I got up from my bed and crossed to the front door, to start it all over again.

This cannot continue. It’s been more than three years. It has to stop, it has to stop. This time I went through the whole process of checking the door twelve times before I moved on to the front window. Sunday 16 November 2003 In the end, it wasn’t at the River; it was back at the gym. Friday night had been a bit pathetic, really. Too many nights out on the trot with no time to recover. It was all catching up with me and I felt tired, irrationally miserable and not at all inclined to go hunting for sexy doormen. We had three drinks in the Pitcher and Piano, a further two in the Queen’s Head, and by that time I’d had enough. Sam looked at me as though I was joking when I said I was heading for home.

Saturday I spent recovering, watching movies on the sofa. On Sunday morning I woke up at ten, feeling refreshed for the first time in weeks. Outside the sun was shining, the air crisp and still, a great day to go for a run. I’d do that, then go and shop for some healthy food, have an early night. A few steps on the icy pavement put paid to that idea. Instead, I bundled some clean clothes into my bag and drove the five miles to the gym. This time, I recognised him before he saw me. He was standing by the swimming pool, adjusting a pair of goggles. Not bothering to worry about whether he could see through the glass window to where I stood ogling him, I watched him slide into the water and kick off the wall into an easy, gliding front crawl. The water barely moved as he slipped through it.

I watched him do two lengths, hypnotised by his rhythm, until someone almost fell over my gym bag and broke the spell. In the changing rooms, I stowed the bag in a locker and pulled out my MP3 player, strapping it to my arm. As I headed for the gym, I caught sight of myself in one of the mirrors. My cheeks were flushed, and the look in my eyes made me stop short. My God, I thought, unable to wipe the stupid grin off my face, he really is fucking sexy. Monday 12 November 2007 After work this evening something out of the ordinary happened. Out-of-the-ordinary things are never good for me. Sometimes, if I’m having a good day, I can look back on them and smile, but at the time it’s never good. The day the pipes burst and the plumber had to come into my flat caused the biggest panic attack I’ve had. I still don’t know how I survived that one.

I’m wondering about this evening, because at the moment I’m okay. I’m half-expecting a panic attack to hit me later on, just when I’m least prepared for it, but at the moment everything is okay and I feel alright. I had just finished eating, and there was a knock at the door. I froze, my whole body tense. I don’t think I even breathed. My door buzzer hadn’t sounded, so it was either someone in the house, or the door had been left on the latch again. Whatever – even if my life depended on it, my body wasn’t going to let me move an inch. I felt tears sliding down my cheeks. Another knock, slightly louder. Nobody has ever knocked on my flat door before.

I had a clear view to the door from where I was sitting on the sofa, stared at it and at the peephole. The light from the hallway, which normally shone through like a little beacon, was blocked by whoever was on the other side and all I could see was a round dot of darkness. I stared with such fierce concentration, it was almost as though I could make out the bulky shape of him through the solid wood, and I held my breath until my head pounded and my fingers started to tingle. Then I heard footsteps retreating, going up the stairs, not down, and the sound of the door to the top floor flat opening and closing. So, it was him. The man upstairs. I’d seen him come and go a few times, from the living room window. Once he was coming in just as I was about to leave the flat for work. I noticed that the front door was firmly shut, which made me feel a bit better, although I still had to check it, of course. The bike still hadn’t appeared in the hallway, and I hadn’t seen him in the garden, so maybe he was parking his car outside after all.

He seemed to come and go at irregular hours. Mrs Mackenzie was reassuringly predictable since she didn’t go out at all, at least not as far as I’d noticed. She’d appear in the doorway of Flat 1 most evenings when I came home, say hello and go back inside. I heard the sounds of her television coming up through the floorboards. Other people might find that difficult, but not me. I liked it. And now, upstairs, Mr Unpredictable. I wondered what on earth he wanted. It was nearly nine – not a very good time for a social call. Maybe he needed help? After a while, my breathing calm, back to normal, I wondered if I should go upstairs and knock on his door.

I found myself having the conversation in my head: Oh, hello. Did you knock? I was in the shower… No, that wouldn’t do it – how would I have known it was him? Again, I heard my mantra coming unwanted into my mind: This isn’t normal. This isn’t how normal people think. Fuck off, world – what the hell is normal anyway? Sunday 16 November 2003 Even before I saw him, I knew where he’d be. He was in the coffee bar, reading a copy of The Times, looking smart in an open-necked white shirt, freshly showered. I hesitated, wondering whether it would be a good thing to stop and say hi, and at that moment he looked up from his newspaper. He didn’t smile for a second, just met my gaze, and I thought about what might lie behind it. It felt like the beginning; as though this was the turning point. I had had the chance to walk away, and I had stood my ground. Now came the reckoning.

When he smiled, I found myself crossing the foyer of the gym to where he sat. ‘Hello,’ I said, thinking how lame it sounded. ‘I saw you in the pool.’ ‘I know,’ he answered, ‘I saw you too.’ He folded the newspaper and laid it carefully on the table next to his coffee. ‘What are you having?’ Walking away didn’t seem to be an option any more. ‘Tea, please.’ I sat down as he stood, fitting into the seat opposite his, my heart pounding. However long I’d spent in the changing rooms after the shower getting ready, in case he was out here, it wasn’t enough. A few minutes later he came back with a small tray with a teapot, cup and a jug of milk.

‘My name’s Lee,’ he said, offering me his hand. I looked up into a pair of very blue eyes. ‘Catherine,’ I said. His hand was warm, his grip firm, and hours later when I lay in bed I could still smell the scent of him, faint, on the palm of my hand. The fact that I couldn’t decide on anything to say almost made me laugh – normally it was difficult to shut me up. I wanted to ask if he’d enjoyed his swim, but that sounded inane; I wanted to ask if he was single, but that was too direct. I wanted to know if he’d been waiting for me. All of these questions, and, I realised, I already knew the answers. Yes, yes and yes. ‘I’ve been wondering what your name was,’ he said at last.

‘I tried to have a guess, but didn’t get anywhere near it.’ ‘So, if I don’t look like a Catherine, what do I look like?’ He’d not broken eye contact with me for a moment. ‘I can’t remember now. Now I know you’re Catherine, nothing else is good enough.’ His gaze was almost uncomfortable, and I felt myself blushing under the force of it, so I concentrated on pouring my tea and took my time stirring it, mixing a little milk, then a little more, until it was exactly the right shade. ‘So,’ he said, with a deep breath, ‘have you not been back to the River since I last saw you, or have I just been unlucky and missed you?’ ‘No, I haven’t been back. Just been busy doing other things.’ ‘I see. Family things?’ He was fishing to see if I was single. ‘Friend things. I don’t have any family. Both my parents died when I was at university, and I’m an only child.’ He nodded. ‘That’s tough. All my family live in Cornwall.’ ‘Is that where you’re from?’ ‘A village near Penzance. Moved away as soon as I could. Villages are grim places sometimes – everybody knows your business.’ There was another brief pause, until I broke it. ‘So, do you just work at the River?’ He grinned and downed the last of his coffee. ‘Yes, just at the River, three nights a week. Helping a friend out, mainly. Will you have dinner with me later?’ His question came out of the blue; the look in his eyes showed the hint of nerves that his voice hadn’t given away. I smiled at him and drank my tea. ‘Yes, that would be lovely.’ When I got up to leave, the card with his phone number in my jacket pocket, I felt his eyes follow me all the way to the door. When I turned to wave, he was still looking. But he did at least manage a smile.

.

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