The Surrogate – Louise Jensen

There is a rising sense of panic; horror hanging in the air like smoke. ‘They’re such a lovely couple. Do you think they’re okay?’ says the woman, but the flurry of emergency service vehicles crammed into the quiet cul-de-sac, the blue and white crime scene tape stretched around the perimeter of the property, indicate things are anything but okay. She wraps her arms around herself as though she is cold, despite this being the warmest May on record for years. Cherry blossom twirls around her ankles like confetti, but there will be no happily ever after for the occupants of this house, the sense of tragedy already seeping into its red bricks. Her voice shakes as she speaks into the microphone. It is difficult to hear her over the thrum of an engine, the slamming of van doors as a rival news crew clatters a camera into its tripod. He thrusts the microphone closer to her mouth. She hooks her red hair behind her ears; raises her head. Her eyes are bright with tears. TV gold. ‘You don’t expect anything bad… Not here. This is a nice area.’ Disdain slides across the reporter’s face before he rearranges his features into the perfect blend of sympathy and shock. He hadn’t spent three years having drama lessons for nothing.

He tugs the knot in his tie to loosen it a little as he waits for the woman to finish noisily blowing her nose. The heat is insufferable; shadows long under the blazing sun. Body odour exudes from his armpits, fighting against the sweet scent of the freshly cut grass. The smell is cloying, sticking in the back of his throat. He can’t wait to get home and have an ice-cold lager. Put on his shorts like the postman sitting on the edge of the kerb, his head between his knees. He wonders if he is the one who found them. There will be plenty of angry people waiting for their post today. ‘Late Letter Shock!’ is the sort of inane local story he usually gets to cover, but this… this could go national. His big break.

He couldn’t get here fast enough when his boss called to say what he thought he’d heard on the police scanner. He shields his eyes against the sun with one hand as he scouts the area. Across the road, a woman rests against her doorframe, toddler in her arms. He can’t quite read her expression and wonders why she doesn’t come closer like the rest of them. At the edge of the garden, as close as the police will allow, a small crowd is huddled together: friends and neighbours, he expects. The sight of their shocked faces is such a contrast to the neat borders nursing orange marigolds and lilac pansies. He thinks this juxtaposition would make a great shot. The joy of spring tempered by tragedy. New life highlighting the rawness of loss of life. God, he’s good; he really should be an anchor.

There is movement behind him, and he signals to the cameraman to turn around. The camera pans down the path towards the open front door. It’s flanked by an officer standing to attention in front of a silver pot containing a miniature tree. On the step are specks of what looks like blood. His heart lifts at the sight of it. Whatever has happened here is big. Career defining. Coming out of the house are two sombre paramedics pushing empty trolleys, wheels crunching in the gravel. The woman beside him clutches his arm, her fingertips pressed hard against his suit jacket. Silly cow will wrinkle the fabric.

He fights the urge to shake her free; instead, swallowing down his agitation. He might need to interview her again later. ‘Does this mean they’re okay?’ asks the woman, confusion lining her face. The trolleys are clattered into the back of the waiting ambulance. The doors slam shut, the blue lights stop flashing and slowly it pulls away. From behind the immaculately trimmed hedge, hidden from view, he hears the crackle of a walkie-talkie. A low voice. Words drift lazily towards him, along with the buzz of bumblebees and the stifled sound of sobbing. ‘Two bodies. It’s a murder enquiry.

’ 1 NOW Don’t turn around. Behind me, the laughter rings out again. I tell myself it can’t be her, but I know, even after all this time, it is. The world falls away from me and I grip the counter so hard my knuckles bleach white. Don’t turn around. In front of me, Clare’s mouth forms the question: ‘whipped cream?’, but I can’t hear anything above the thrumming in my ears. I shake my head as though I can dislodge the buzzing that’s growing louder and louder. Clare lowers her arm; the nozzle to the cream had been poised over my mug. I always have the same drink every time I come here, but today the sound of laughter has thrust me back into the past. The smell of the hot chocolate I usually find so tantalising is causing my stomach to roll.

‘Are you okay, Kat?’ I’m hot, tugging at my scarf as though it is choking me. White frost still patterns the pavement outside, but in here it is stifling; the coffee machine hisses and spits and steam rises towards the oak beam ceiling. An impatient cough from the man shuffling his feet behind reminds me I have not yet answered Clare. ‘I’m fine,’ I say but my mouth is dry. My voice a strange croak. Pushing coins over the counter with one hand, I pick up my drink with the other. Hot liquid slithers down the side of the mug, trickling over my fingers, scalding my skin. Reluctantly I turn around. There it is again. Laughter.

Her laughter. My eyes dart around the café, and when I see her, everything else fades into the distance. She has her back towards me but I’d recognise that glossy black bob anywhere. She runs her fingers through her hair as she speaks animatedly to the elderly lady sat opposite her; tilting her head to the side she listens to the response. It seems like I saw her only yesterday, but of course I didn’t. Lisa. My palms feel hot as they start to tingle. I haven’t had a panic attack for such a long time, but underneath the mounting anxiety is an inevitability about it all, a resignation almost. I’m unsure what to do at first; my feet roasting in my UGG boots. My scalp prickling.

The room around me tilts and sways. I move to lean against the wall and it bears my weight while the lunchtime crowd stream in for their bowls of home-made soup and paninis dripping with melted cheese. There’s no way I can leave without her seeing me and I can’t face the confrontation. Already, I am emotionally drained and longing to check my mobile once again for news. Focusing all my attention on placing one foot in front of the other, I inch my way towards the round table in the corner, all the time feeling as though I might faint. Sinking into a tub chair, I plonk my shopping bags on the floor as I try to make myself as small as possible. My drink remains untouched in front of me, a thick skin forming on the top. My throat is tight and I cannot swallow. What is she doing here? We are sixty miles from home, and as I think this, it jars me I still automatically refer to that place as home, and not here, where I have made a new life. Fingering the gold cross hanging around my neck, memories crash and tumble around my mind: our first day at school; Lisa crouching to tie up my shoelaces as I hadn’t yet learned; crosslegged in my garden in the hot summer sun, threading daisies into chains, and later, stuffing toilet tissue in our bras, and practising kissing on the backs of our hands.

I have missed her so much but I don’t know what to say to make amends. What I can possibly do to make it right. I can pretend I don’t need her, but that doesn’t stop the aching inside my chest when I think of the friendship we once had. A loud clearing of the throat draws my gaze sideward. A couple glower at me as they wait for an empty table, their tray laden with steaming coffee and slabs of cake with cream cheese icing. Apologies spill from my lips as I pull on my coat, gather my bags. Taking a deep breath I stand and march towards the exit, head down, eyes fixed firmly on the floor. I have almost reached the door, my fingers brushing the cool metal handle, when a voice calls, ‘Kat.’ I can’t help turning around. ‘Lisa.

’ I study the face of my ex best friend, expecting to see anger, hurt, at the very least, but a smile creeps across her face. Her eyes crinkling at the edges. You would think the blazing row we had the last time we were together never happened. Or what came after. Especially what came after. ‘I thought it was you!’ She looks genuinely pleased to see me. ‘What are you doing here?’ My tone comes out more accusatory than I mean it to, and I soften my words with a tentative smile. ‘I’m on a week’s placement at St Thomas’s Hospital. I’m a nurse now.’ ‘Like your mum?’ I blurt out.

I never usually allow myself to think of her family. Or of my own. The here and now. ‘What about you?’ she asks. ‘I’ve lived here for a few years.’ ‘What a coincidence.’ Is it? I hate the sense of mistrust creeping its way into my being. After all, Lisa is not the one who did anything wrong, is she? Before I can respond she has enveloped me in a huge hug. ‘I’ve missed you so much,’ she says, and despite my misgivings, I find myself hugging her back. ‘You’re not leaving already, are you?’ she asks.

I glance out into the street. At the grey skies laden with swollen clouds. At the people rushing by, heads down, pushing against the biting wind. I know I have hesitated for a moment too long when she asks me if I have eaten lunch and my stomach growls in response. ‘Aren’t you with?…’ I gesture towards the old lady at the table. ‘No. I was just passing the time.’ Lisa always did have the ability to chat to anyone, to fit in anywhere, and I feel the dull weight of the loneliness I always carry. A quick bite to eat. It can’t do any harm, can it? ‘I think we’ve lost your table.

’ Two teenage girls are slipping into the empty seats. ‘I vote we find a pub.’ Lisa grins, and the years fall away. Tears inexplicably spring to my eyes as I find myself pleased she is here. Not a chance to recreate the past; I shudder when I think of the past, but there is comfort in the familiarity: the way she links her arm through mine; the floral perfume she still wears. Icy air gusts into the coffee shop as she shoulders open the door. ‘We can walk to the pub over there.’ I nod towards the building opposite: warm honey lamps glowing in the window, sign creaking in the wind. Nick and I often eat there. A light snow has begun to fall, and as we pick our way across the icy road to The Fox and Hounds, I taste frost and hope on my tongue.

Almost ten years. And just when we are approaching the anniversary, fate has brought us back together. That has to be a good thing, doesn’t it? ‘Here’s the local celebrity.’ Mitch puts down the glass he is polishing and slings the gingham tea towel over his shoulder. ‘The usual?’ He pours a shot and fizzes open a bottle of tonic. I take a sip. The vodka heats me from the inside out, thawing my chilled bones. Leading the way across the pub, I ignore the seats by the open fire that crackles and spits. Instead, we slide into my favourite booth in the corner. ‘This is nice.

’ Lisa looks around. ‘Not exactly The Three Fishes, is it?’ ‘Thank God!’ We spent too much time there as teenagers, perching on bar stools with long chrome legs and faux leather pads. Sipping overpriced wine tasting of vinegar. ‘Do you remember how often we used to slide off those stools?’ ‘Yes! I permanently had one foot ready to break my fall.’ ‘So, how are you?’ I ask. There’s a drawn-out pause. Lisa tucks her hair behind her ears. ‘Fine,’ she says, eventually, with a smile that disappears before it is fully formed, and I get a sense there was something else she wanted to say, but instead, she asks: ‘What was that about? “Local celebrity”?’ ‘It’s nothing.’ I pick at the beer mat on the table, peeling back the cardboard on the corner. ‘It’s hardly nothing.

’ Mitch rests a chalkboard on the corner of our table with the specials scrawled in his spidery handwriting. Today’s soup is carrot and coriander. I wrinkle my nose. I don’t eat carrots unless they’re in a cake. ‘Kat and her husband were in one of those glossy Sunday supplements, at a posh charity dinner, mingling with the rich and famous. Wasn’t as good as the food you get here though, was it, Kat?’ ‘Nothing quite beats your sticky toffee pudding.’ I sense Lisa’s eyes on me as I study the menu, my long hair falling forward, shielding my cheeks. I know they must be flaming. ‘Roast turkey.’ Lisa rubs her hands together.

It’s only the 1 st of December but Mitch has had a ridiculously tall tree in the corner for weeks now. Red and silver tinsel twisted around its plastic branches. Cheesy Christmas songs drift out of discreetly positioned speakers. The Pogues sing ‘Fairytale of New York’. ‘Pasta for me.’ Mitch bustles towards the kitchen. A heavy silence descends, pushing me back into my seat. I could stretch out my fingers and touch Lisa but the gulf between us seems impossible to breach. And for once, she seems nervous, fiddling with her cutlery. ‘Lisa…’ I trail off, sifting through my mind for the words I know I should say.

Trying to put them in some sort of order before they spill from my lips, self-pitying and damaging. ‘Shh. It’s ok.’ ‘I hit you.’ Even now my palm still stings when I think about it. ‘We both made mistakes. Did things we regret, didn’t we?’ ‘Yes, but your mistakes didn’t kill anybody,’ I whisper. There is a pained expression on Lisa’s face, and I feel compelled to carry on. ‘About that night…’ A hard lump lodges in my throat and I drain the dregs in my glass trying to wash it down. ‘Kat.

’ Lisa covers my hand with hers. Her skin soft and familiar. Tears rise and I bite them back, remembering the way we used to link fingers as we’d dash out into the playground, eager to get to the hopscotch before anybody else. ‘You must hate me?’ The hate I have for myself is ever present, smouldering away in the pit of my stomach. It would be a relief, almost, if she slapped me, screamed, at the very least. ‘I did hate you,’ she admits, and although not unexpected, her words still spear me, ‘for a long time, but not so much for what happened – that wasn’t your fault – but because you ran away, I suppose. We could have got through it together, and I have got through it.’ Her voice is strong and determined. ‘I had to leave. It wasn’t my choice…’ My voice cracks.

‘We don’t have to talk about it. Not right now anyway. Let me get some more drinks. Same again?’ ‘Please,’ I say, even though I’m such a lightweight I should have a lemonade. But although the hot flush of panic has cooled, my heart is still racing a little faster. My breath is still coming a little quicker. The warm bloom of alcohol will calm me, I know. Lisa slides out of her seat, and I take the opportunity to check my mobile again. Instead of a text alert, a picture of me and Nick kissing on our wedding day fills the screen. My mood dips when I see there is still no news.

While Lisa is ordering our drinks, I slip into the toilets and splash cold water onto my face. Patting my skin dry with a rough paper towel I catch sight of my reflection in the mirror, my pale face framed by dark poker straight hair, the deep purple bags that shadow my eyes. Back at the table I tip tonic into my glass, watching as tiny bubbles shimmy amongst the ice cubes. ‘I don’t know how you can still drink vodka,’ Lisa says. ‘Do you remember Perry Evans’s party? We must have drunk nearly a whole bottle between us.’ She pulls a face as though it was yesterday. I haven’t partied like that in over ten years. Nick keeps trying to persuade me to have a big celebration for my birthday next year, but I keep putting off thinking about turning thirty. ‘I remember holding your hair back while you were sick all over the washing-up in the sink.’ I laugh at the memory and the sound momentarily startles me.

‘I’ve never touched the stuff since.’ Lisa shudders theatrically. ‘Jake was there that night too, wasn’t he?’ Her question is casual, as if she can’t quite remember, but I know she can. I see my own hurt reflected in her eyes. Before I can answer, Mitch sets down a bowl of steaming carbonara and buttery garlic bread in front of me. As I lean forward to reach the salt, the gold cross around my neck hangs down, and Lisa lightly touches it with two fingers. ‘You still wear this?’ I don’t answer. I don’t need to. I know we are both remembering, and I wonder whether, even after all this time, Lisa thinks she should be the one wearing this cross, but as usual, I’m connecting dots that aren’t there. She’s been nothing but friendly.

We fall silent for a few minutes as I twirl pasta around my fork. Lisa tackles one of Mitch’s legendary roast potatoes which Nick and I always joke should come with a chainsaw. ‘Tell me about this husband of yours then. Nick, isn’t it? He’s the patron of a charity?’ I’ve a mouthful of food so I nod my response, and at first, I am grateful for the change of subject but, just as I begin to swallow, I realise Mitch never referred to Nick by his name and neither did he say Nick was the patron of a charity. The bread sticks in my throat. Is it really a coincidence she is here or has she purposefully tracked me down? And if so, why? Revenge whispers the voice inside my head. I drain my drink to silence it.

.

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