The Date – Louise Jensen

Something isn’t right. I know that as soon as I wake from a thick, muddy sleep. I know that even before I am aware of the throbbing at my temples. It’s not the stab of disappointment I get every morning when I realise I’m not in bed with Matt, that I’m no longer living, or welcome, in my own home. It’s something else. My head is pounding, thoughts cloudy, and the whole room feels as though it’s spinning. Something is wrong. There’s a sour smell in the room. A smell I can’t quite identify and, at first, I wonder if there’s someone in bed with me. I’ve a horrible sense of being watched, and not in the loving way Matt used to, when I’d open my eyes and see him propped on one elbow, gazing at me as though I was the only girl in the world. This feels creepy. Goosebumps spring up on my arms. I should never have let Chrissy and Jules persuade me to go on a date. I’m not ready, and besides, I’m still clutching onto a kernel of hope that my marriage isn’t over. It was only last year Matt and I decided to try for a baby.

My imagined future wrapped itself around me like a blanket, cosy and warm. That was before he ripped my dreams away with one sharp yank, leaving me hollow and icy, icy cold. My friends had rallied round, as good ones do, and a few weeks ago we sat drinking wine as they persuaded me to create a profile on a dating app. ‘I’m married!’ I protested. ‘Separated,’ Chrissy said, and she made it sound so final, although neither Matt nor I had mentioned divorce. ‘It would be good for you. You never go out. You don’t have to take it seriously.’ She flashed a grin. ‘It’s just a bit of fun.

The odd dinner or drink. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.’ ‘Like set up a profile?’ I pulled a face as Jules read aloud from the home page of Inside, Out. ‘We don’t post photos until we’ve got to know the person. “We’re all beautiful on the inside”.’ She mimed sticking two fingers down her throat, but then she’s off men too, separated like me. Chrissy is divorced. God knows why I take relationship advice from them. We are all a disaster. ‘God, that’s even worse,’ I said.

‘What if they’ve two heads or something?’ ‘When was the last time you saw someone with two heads?’ Chrissy laughed. ‘Besides, I thought you weren’t interested.’ ‘I’m not,’ I said, and I hadn’t been, but I couldn’t help scrolling through the app. ‘What’s ISO love – answers JBY?’ It was like reading a menu in a foreign country. ‘In search of love. Just be yourself.’ Chrissy ripped open a bag of Doritos as she read over my shoulder. ‘Everyone uses acronyms. Avoid LIPB.’ ‘What’s that?’ ‘Living in parents’ basement.

He’d probably keep you chained in the cellar!’ Chrissy popped off the lid from the jar of salsa. ‘We might never see you again. Can I have your Michael Kors tote?’ Jules asked. ‘It’s wasted on you anyway.’ That much was true. I had feigned excitement during my first Christmas with Matt as I tugged open the bow, pulled at metallic wrapping paper as stiff as my smile, revealing the handbag that probably cost as much as my monthly food bill. I kissed him hard, indulging in the pretence, all the while wondering whether I should share with him why I was so uncomfortable receiving gifts. Of all the secrets I could reveal about myself, it was far from the worst. ‘I can’t go on a date,’ I protested. But what I really meant was, I won’t.

‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ Chrissy asked, and before I could offer a list she spoke again. ‘You might meet someone BABWAHC.’ ‘What’s that mean?’ I loaded a tortilla with chunks of tomato and peppers. ‘Buffed and bronze with a huge…’ ‘You’re making these up!’ Laughing, I topped up our glasses and we spent the next couple of hours glued to our phones, sharing that Andy, 32, liked to meet a variety of new and interesting people: ‘can’t keep it in his pants’, Chrissy said; and Lewis, 35, didn’t want to define himself by his job: ‘unemployed’, Jules declared. Later, I had hesitated a fraction of a second too long over a profile of a guy who loved home-cooked roasts, dogs and fishing. ‘Boring,’ said Chrissy, but I thought he sounded normal. Safe, I suppose. I was finding the thought of meeting a stranger utterly terrifying. ‘He seems…’ I hesitated ‘… kind.’ And that was all it had taken for Jules to snatch the phone and send the reply she’d known I never would, giving concrete shape to my nascent singleton status at the age of 28.

Now I really wish she hadn’t. The duvet compacts as I clutch it tightly, hands balled into fists, keeping as motionless as I can. As quiet as I can, pretending I am still asleep, listening for the sound of movement. Of breathing. But all I can hear is the birdsong outside my window and it sounds so loud. How much did I drink last night? I’ve never had a headache like this before. I was supposed to be driving; I had thought that if I stuck to lemonade I would be calm and in control. Fleetingly, I wonder where I left my car. Is it still outside Prism? It’s all a bit of a blur. I’d chosen Prism, thinking a town-centre bar was about as public as you could get, although it’s not quite my scene.

I much prefer a country pub, but I hadn’t wanted to allude to romance. I swallow hard. My throat is raw, and when I press my neck lightly with my fingers it feels bruised. Despite the softness of the ancient mattress that sags beneath my weight, my shoulder is sore, and I gently touch it, feeling the skin torn and sticky beneath my fingertips. My lashes are clumped together with last night’s mascara and I have to prise my eyelids open. The sun is pushing through the crack in the curtains, and the spare bedroom I have been lodging in at Chrissy’s house since Matt and I separated is full of a soft amber glow. Pain slices through my skull as I sit up. I raise my hand gingerly to the side of my head. A lump. Did I fall over last night? It’s likely.

I’ve always been clumsy, and I never did master the art of walking in heels. Prodding the wound as gently as I can, nausea crashes over me in sickening waves and I have the sensation of falling. Quickly lowering my hands to steady myself, I see it. The blood. Holding my palms in front of my face, I study them as though I’ve never seen them before, slowly turning them over. They are coated red, dried blood encrusted around my fingernails. It must have come from the cut on my head. No wonder I feel so ill. My gaze travels towards my wrists and I am alarmed to notice a smattering of small, circular angry bruises. I trail the fingertips of my left hand over my right forearm.

There are four bruises, for four fingers? They are bigger than my fingertips, and as I turn my arm over I find a larger thumbprint and I know I have been restrained. Fear sweeps through me as my eyes dart around the room, reassuring myself I am alone. Why is there a blank space where my memories should be? I yank back the covers, swinging my legs out of bed as though I can escape. But I’ve moved too fast. It feels as though the mattress is rocking. I close my eyes and wait for the queasiness – almost masked by the jackhammer in my head – to pass, and when it does, I slowly scan the room, searching my scant possessions for anything out of the ordinary. My clothes are scattered. Bra dangling from the wardrobe door handle as though it has been tossed there, tights balled up under the chair which is heaped with laundry I’ve yet to put away. The room is a mess, but that’s not unusual. There’s no sign of anyone else and, as I look at the pillow next to me, there is no tell-tale indent indicating someone has slept here.

I run my hand over the sheet next to me. It’s cool. I fumble around on my bedside table, where – no matter how drunk I am – I always toss my mobile, and there’s the usual array of loose change and tissues, Marie Claire magazine, The Ladybird Book of Dating Chrissy bought me – which should have made me laugh but some pages made me cry – but no phone. Where’s my bag? I can’t see it on the chair. Gingerly I stand but, even with my tortoise movements, the room tilts and sways under my feet and I stumble forward, landing heavily on my knees. Tears spring to my eyes as I rest back on my ankles, rubbing my kneecaps. The skin is pink and grazed. Stretching out my hands I gather the clothes I wore last night. My thick winter coat is filthy and damp – at least that accounts for the smell. The bottle green strapless dress is torn along the seam.

My cream scarf splattered with mud; the matching gloves appear to be missing, along with my black shoes with the pointy heels and silver bows. As I unravel my tights I see they are laddered and torn, and I am crying now. Heaving sobs I can’t contain. What has happened to me? Why can’t I remember anything? The question circles my mind but, even as I ask myself, I think the worst. Have I been raped? By the man I met online? But I really don’t feel as though I’ve had sex, consensual or otherwise, and I’d know, wouldn’t I? Wouldn’t I? The question slams into me. Bile rises, stinging the back of my throat, a deluge of saliva streaming into my mouth. I only just make it to the bathroom before I splatter the toilet bowl with vomit. Every tiny movement hurts my head, my stomach muscles cramping until at last I think the worst is over. Sitting back on my heels I unravel a handful of toilet roll and wipe my mouth. I am shaking all over.

Trembling so violently my teeth clatter together. Bare feet freezing against the bathroom tiles; legs boneless as I heft myself upright. I feel weighted with a sense of dread and I stand stock still, for a moment, trying to recall last night, but beyond the flashing coloured lights and the boom of the bass there’s nothing. My head lolls, too heavy for my neck, and I’m so woozy I need to lie down again, but there’s a horrible taste in my mouth and the urge to clean my teeth drives me towards the sink. As I reach for my toothbrush I pause, momentarily wondering if I am about to spoil evidence. Evidence of what? The question is cold and sharp, and I shove it away, but the caustic voice inside my head won’t shut up. I’m barely holding it together. As though I can wash away my morbid thoughts I twist on the tap and hold my quivering hands underneath the cool water, watching it flow clear, at first, then turning crimson as the caked blood begins to soften, spinning like a tornado before it gurgles down the plughole. There is something else under my fingernails. Dirt? Blood? Instinctively I grab the nailbrush and scrub at my nails until they are pink, but I still feel dirty.

Clean. I long to feel clean. As I shake the excess water from my hands my gaze is drawn upwards to the mirror. The sight of my reflection triggers an overwhelming onslaught of fear and confusion, my breath sticking in my throat, until I force it out as one long scream. I tell myself I must be asleep. This has to be a nightmare. It has to be. But it isn’t. 2 This can’t be real. Swallowing the acid that has risen once more, I close my eyes and take three deep, calming breaths before I dare look in the mirror again.

Nothing has changed. The face reflected back at me is not mine. It’s impossible. My curtain of long, blonde hair swishes as I turn my head from left to right. It’s me. But it isn’t. The features are not mine. I must be asleep. Rationally I know this can’t be happening, but I can’t recall experiencing a dream so vivid. I can hear the thrum of a car passing by outside the window.

Feel the cold drops of water trickling from my fingers. Smell the raspberry liquid soap I’ve just washed my hands with. But I can’t be awake, I just can’t. I long to be back in my cosy bed, to fall into sleep, dark and warm, but I can’t seem to move. Can’t tear my eyes away from the image in the mirror watching tears pour down cheeks that are not mine. Slowly I unclench my fingers and raise a trembling hand towards my reflection, watch as the mirror-me does the same. My bones turn to dust and I sink to the floor. What’s going on? Drawing my knees up to my chest I lower my head, rocking backwards and forwards, as though I can shake away what I have just seen. I can’t. I don’t know how much time passes.

Minutes? Hours? I become aware of the cold, hard ceramic floor tiles beneath me, the way my entire body is aching. Think. There must be an explanation. There has to be. It’s almost with relief I come to the conclusion I must have been drugged last night. Something slipped into my drink. Of course! That’s why I’m hallucinating. Why I can’t remember anything. The floor seems to lurch as I stand, and I walk tight-rope slow, arms splayed for balance. My voluminous lilac dressing gown is hanging from the back of the door and I slip it on, tying the belt around my waist.

It doesn’t bring the snuggly comfort it usually does. Chrissy may be able to fill in the dark spaces in my mind. I pick my way unsteadily down the hallway to her bedroom. Her door is closed and, too impatient to wait for answers, I push it open without knocking. Her room is empty. The box of chocolates she brought home weeks ago still sits on her bedside cabinet. Her Marc Jacobs perfume, the neck of the bottle a daisy, tossed on the bed. Chrissy’s dressing table is covered with more make-up than the Boots N°7 counter, and I have flashes of us getting ready last night, The Human League blaring out ‘Don’t You Want Me’, as Chrissy coaxed me out of my usual jeans. ‘I love this one.’ She’d 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?’ ‘If you won’t let me wear jeans, I’ve not much else to choose from. Most of my dresses are still at the house.’ I met Chrissy only six months ago, at the gym, but she’d been so easy to talk to that we quickly progressed from sharing an after-work-out cake to sharing confidences. Matt had become increasingly hostile at my futile attempts to fix things between us and, weary with our incessant arguing, I had, reluctantly, moved in with Chrissy, to give us both some space. I hadn’t brought much with me, hoping time would heal our rift, but it has driven us further apart. I’d shimmied into the dress and pinned a smile to my face, as I slicked glossy pink over my lips and tried not to think of Matt, while Chrissy coated my nails with look-at-me magenta. Her bed is crumpled and covered with the vast array of clothes she tried on and quickly discarded last night. It might have been my date but she was coming to keep an eye on me. To keep me safe. Except she didn’t, did she? And by the looks of things, she hasn’t been home.

Where is she? I’m seriously worried. As much as I want to pretend nothing happened last night it isn’t working. Already I am falling and breaking apart. Nausea rises again and panic punches me in the guts. I think once more of the blood on my hands when I woke, the cut on my head. Thoughts attack me as the room shifts and tilts. The world lets go of me and I fall onto Chrissy’s bed, curling into a ball as though I can ward off memories that gather and retreat. Voices shouting. Misshapen shadows. The fingers of last night reaching out, dragging me back to a place I don’t want to go.

Despite my stillness, I’m kicking and screaming. Fear, when it returns, is startlingly real. I hug myself tighter. A knocking on the front door cuts through the hazy and indistinct images. Unease shifts in my gut. Branwell barks and I remember I haven’t let him out of the kitchen. He must wonder what’s going on. Usually the first thing I do when I wake is let him into our small garden, watching him through the window as the kettle boils, circling the perimeter, sniffing at the borders as though something may have changed overnight. This time the doorbell. Slowly I stand.

My inability to recall the details of last night has shrouded me with shame. I feel dirty. Sullied. Not wanting to face anyone who might look at me and instantly know what has happened in a way that I don’t. But what if it’s Chrissy? She often forgets her keys and can’t be bothered to walk around the back of the house to reach the key safe. I have to see who it is. Reluctantly, slowly, I inch downstairs, each step magnifying the stabbing in my head. In the hallway, the blind to the small window is closed, but through the safety glass of the front door, I can see a shadowy figure that is far too tall to be Chrissy. Is it him? My date from last night? Ethan? I can’t quite remember his name. No, it was Ewan, I’m sure.

I try to recall his face, but all I see is a blurry mass looming towards me. Sweat pricks my skin. I’m so scared. I wrap my arms around myself, wincing, as I brush against my bruises. There’s no way I’m opening the door. The knocking comes again, furious now. I stand statue still. Scarcely breathing. Go away. Go away.

Go away. A throat clears, deep and loud. It’s definitely a man. And then silence and light as the shadow disappears and, for a second, I think he has gone. Time is long and slow, until there’s a jangling. The sound of a key scraping the lock. I’m frozen with fear as I remember my missing handbag, my keys, my purse with my ID. Has he come to hurt me again? To silence me? The handle begins to twist. Every nerve ending in my body urges me to move, but I can’t wrench my eyes away from the door. It begins to swing open.

A tan shoe steps onto the doormat that says ‘Welcome’. A denim-clad leg. And then he’s in my house. This stranger. Unbidden, a scream is torn from my throat, sharp and loud, and the sound kickstarts my feet. The aching in my body, the pulsing in my head fades to nothing as adrenaline speeds through my system. My bare feet slap against the laminate floor, arms pumping by my sides. I fall into the kitchen, slamming the door behind me. Branwell springs forward, delighted to see me. Standing on his hind legs, his front paws on my knees, his rough tongue laps at my hand as though he hasn’t seen me for a year.

Matt and I always joked if there was ever an intruder, Branwell would lick them to death. Now it’s not funny. Too late I realise I should have run into the bathroom, where I could have locked myself in, or into the lounge, where there’s a landline. Anywhere but this tiny room. There’s nowhere to hide. Footsteps approach, loud and purposeful. My eyes dart wildly between the knife block on the counter and the back door, weighing up which I can reach faster. The door handle squeaks as it begins to twist. Instinctively I dart forward and yank a knife from the block, the stainless steel blade glinting in the weak winter sun that’s threading under the roller blind. The knobs of the oven press into the small of my back as I cower against it; the smell of my fear radiating from my pores.

The man enters the kitchen, and I raise the knife, but my hand is shaking so violently it clatters to the floor. A cry escapes my lips as I drop to my knees. It’s slipped under the breakfast bar and, at first, I’m not sure I can reach it, but I stretch and wrap my fingers tightly around the handle. Bizarrely, despite all that’s going on, I notice a blackened chip under the oven and I wonder when I last cleaned the floor. ‘Ali?’ says a voice. ‘Ben!’ At the sound of my brother, I spring to my feet, thwacking my head on the breakfast bar. Pain pixelates my vision. ‘Ben.’ My voice is small now. Weak.

‘There’s a man…’ I hold the knife loosely at my side. My vision clears. I can’t see my brother at all. Only this stranger who now stands over me, reaching for me. No. His hand grasps mine. Crying now, I try to pull away, but his grip is tight. ‘Ali?’ Utterly perplexed I stare at him. It’s my brother’s voice. Ben’s voice.

And he’s wearing Ben’s silver-framed glasses. But it’s not his face. ‘It’s me, Ali-cat.’ No one else calls me this but him, yet I am not reassured. His face. ‘There’s no one else here, I promise. No one at all.’ He speaks in the soft tone of when he was small and used to curl onto my lap, both of us unable to believe the tragedy that had befallen our family, begging me to read ‘The Owl and the Pussy-Cat’ again and again. Some semblance of normality. Like the poem, this doesn’t make sense.

Branwell is pawing at the stranger, wagging his tail; the soft growl that usually vibrates in his throat when he meets someone new is absent. Could this really be Ben? The kitchen bobs up and down as though I am on that boat with honey and plenty of money, wrapped up in a five-pound note. Nonsense. It’s all nonsense. The Ben I do not recognise speaks again, but this time his words sound as though they are coming from oceans away. Blackness hurtles towards me and I welcome it with open arms.

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