The Woman Next Door – Sue Watson

I’ll never forget the first time I saw Amber. It was late spring and she was driving down Mulberry Avenue in an open-topped sports car, with sun-burnished red hair, huge dark glasses, a low-cut top and those full, red lips. You had to look twice – she was just different from everyone else on our new estate of young mums and middle-aged emptynesters walking their dogs. Built for families at all stages, Treetops Estate didn’t attract any singles – let alone glamorous women in fancy cars. I was cleaning the windows inside and couldn’t help taking an interest as she parked up outside Greenacres. It was the biggest, most gorgeous house on the estate, and just three doors down from ours. Along with ten other homes, it formed the fringe around a large crescent of grass – a vague nod to a village green on our suburban concrete jungle. As I slowly wiped the windows, I saw her take her phone from her bag while climbing elegantly from the car. A flash of red as shiny black Louboutins hit the ground and crunched up the gravel towards the imposing white pillars framing the doorway. There was something about her that was vaguely familiar. Chatting on her phone, arms waving, she seemed to be having a rather heated conversation, and I was intrigued. Pacing up and down the drive, she eventually ended the call, throwing her phone back into the Prada handbag that probably cost a month’s salary – well, a month of my salary anyway. She then took off the huge sunglasses to gaze around and as her face turned upwards towards my window our eyes met. I continued wiping, now with more enthusiasm, pretending I hadn’t even noticed our new neighbour while feeling rather foolish and exposed. Then I began on the next window, where I carried on watching discreetly.

I couldn’t help it; she was fascinating. Stepping up the two small steps to that big double door, she took out her keys. Tight skirt, short-sleeved blouse open at the neck, teeny-tiny waist. How jealous the women of Treetops Estate would be when the beautiful new neighbour turned up at their barbecues – and how cordially she’d be received by their husbands. I had to smile to myself. Her entrance was certainly a performance enjoyed very much by Dave from number 12. He was fortunate enough to have a bird’s-eye view as he cleaned his gutters, his gaze wandering over to Greenacres as its new owner disappeared into her beautiful house. Dave went back to his gutters and I carried on cleaning my windows like nothing had happened… but it had. TWELVE MONTHS LATER CHAPTER TWO LUCY Amber downs her Prosecco, throwing back her head like a cowboy drinking whisky. In a matter of moments the glass is empty and she slams it down on the table with a smile.

She seems slightly on edge tonight. ‘More. We need more alcohol.’ She laughs, lifting the bottle from a bucket of melting ice and filling our glasses. ‘Lucy, drink up! You’re lagging behind.’ She holds the bottle over my glass, but I shake my head. ‘I can’t keep up. I’ll just watch you,’ I say apologetically, feeling rather boring. It’s a Wednesday evening and I have to be up early for work in the morning. ‘I can’t teach multiplication with a hangover… especially to six-year-olds,’ I add.

‘It’s a dangerous cocktail.’ ‘Oh, you don’t realise how brilliant you are. Look how you worked out my phone bill the other day. I hadn’t a clue.’ ‘It was quite simple really. You just had to work out the—’ ‘Yeah, yeah, but I didn’t understand it,’ she says, unable or unwilling to face anything as boring and mundane as a phone bill. ‘You can do anything, Lucy,’ she continues, throwing an arm around me. She’s quite tipsy, which I always find funny, but I hope she isn’t drowning her sorrows. She seemed quite down when I went to collect her and now she’s all over the place. From experience, I know it will only take one more drink and she’ll be dancing on the tables.

I sip at my Prosecco, and try not to worry, just enjoy her company, her craziness. We’ve been friends now for almost a year, yet it feels like we’ve known each other for ever. ‘Ooh, he’s a bit of all right, and he’s got a friend,’ she suddenly says, looking at me with raised eyebrows. I roll my eyes. ‘What?’ she giggles at me, her hair moving like a shiny red curtain. ‘You’re abstaining, and I’m married, or did you forget those minor details?’ ‘I’m only kidding… or am I? You wouldn’t be tempted to stray, would you, Lucy?’ she asks, screwing up her bronze-flecked eyes, looking directly at me, playful, but knowing. ‘No, I wouldn’t. You’re terrible,’ I say, refusing to even take this on. I pick up our bottle of Prosecco from the ice bucket and share the dregs between us, shaking my head in mock outrage. ‘Anyway, I’m not abstaining now.

That was last week; tonight I’m back on the prowl.’ She growls and makes cat claws with her hands. Amber is so much fun. We see each other or talk on the phone most days, go out all the time – curries, drinks, the cinema – have girls’ nights out, girls’ nights in. I don’t know what I’d do without her. Tonight she’s brought me here to JoJo’s, because I told her I’ve been feeling a bit down lately. It isn’t anything serious, just that at forty-two, I’ve realised after a few bumps in the road that my life isn’t turning out as I’d hoped – but then whose does? It’s so sweet of her to bring me here to cheer me up, but I’d rather have gone to the cinema and eaten my weight in popcorn. I watch her moving to the music in her seat; she’s unable to sit still, looking around. She can never sit still. She’s always scared of missing something.

JoJo’s is considered to be one of the best wine bars in Manchester with its copper walls and on-trend ‘utility’ light bulbs dangling helplessly from the ceiling. Amber’s right at home here. It’s what she calls ‘buzzin’. And Amber loves ‘buzzin’. But I’m not like her, and when she suggested we come here, my heart sank a little. I didn’t want to seem ungrateful, but I said, ‘What about the new romcom at the Odeon?’ But Amber had already made up her mind. She said I’d love it here. I’m trying. I’m enjoying people-watching. This world is so different to mine, it’s filled with over confident TV and advertising types with loud voices and big opinions.

I’m particularly relishing the theatrical performance of the barman mixing bright cocktails, moving the shaker like a musical instrument, pouring effervescent, neon liquid from high into a Martini glass. I find the heavily accessorised, foaming cocktails absolutely fascinating. And against the soundtrack of jarring jazz and juicy conversations, I’m trying to filter nuggets of gossip when I see two women nearby looking over at Amber. ‘That’s her, isn’t it?’ one of them says to the other. ‘Yeah, she looks older than she does on TV.’ I strain to listen to more, but sadly they are drowned out by other conversations about politics and audience figures. Damn. I turn to Amber to see if she heard, but fortunately she’s busy checking something on her phone. ‘Should we order some food?’ I suggest, when she eventually looks up. She nods and I pick up a menu lying on the table.

‘Oh, it’s tapas…’ I say, knowing she won’t want this. We hate tapas. ‘God,’ she sighs absently. ‘I know. Small plates and sharing are two things that should never be associated with food.’ ‘So right.’ She puts her phone down, a look of concern shadowing her face, and I don’t think it’s related to the tapas. ‘You okay?’ I ask. ‘Yeah,’ she says, frowning at the phone, ‘just work.’ She looks slightly uncomfortable but isn’t going to tell me what’s wrong, so I pick up the previous conversation.

‘Shall we go somewhere else to eat – a pizza place or something?’ ‘A pizza place? God, Lucy, what era are you living in? No one eats pizza any more, you’re an unsophisticated heathen!’ ‘And you’re a cheeky cow,’ I say with a smile and we both start to laugh – we always end up laughing. Her eyes are still laughing as her lips purse into a mock pout worthy of any film star, and I take a sip of fizz and purse my own lips slightly, mirroring her, which makes us laugh again. ‘Shall we forget tapas and just get chips on the way home?’ she says, leaning in conspiratorially. ‘Yeah, let’s do that. Good idea.’ She winks and goes back to her phone, while I glance around at the long-legged girls with bright orange cocktails. ‘What are they drinking?’ I ask. After a few seconds she puts down her phone again and joins me, screwing her eyes up to see the drinks. ‘Negronis.’ ‘Negronis?’ I ask, but she’s distracted again; she’s like a magpie.

She sees something glittery and forgets I’m here. I follow her eyes – she’s looking over at some handsome guy with long hair wearing a white linen shirt. He’s gorgeous. ‘He’s cute,’ I say. ‘Yeah, he is, isn’t he? Actually, I know him. Harry’s an old colleague.’ She gives him a cutesy wave with her fingers and he waves back with a warm smile, his eyes staying on her long after the smile has faded. Men like that never smile at me in that way. They’re both still looking at each other like no one else is here and I watch this intimate but very public exchange. It’s quite obvious these two have a history.

There’s a secret in their smiles. I reckon Harry’s perhaps more than just a colleague – after all, Amber has quite a colourful love life. After it ended with her long-term boyfriend last year there have been no end of suitors. She’s whisked away for fabulous weekends, expensive dinners and parties on millionaires’ yachts. I imagine they’re all worldly and rich. Goodlooking too. She doesn’t have a regular boyfriend as such, not since she moved into Mulberry Avenue. Matt, my husband, reckons a lot of her dates must be men she’s met on Tinder, but I said to him, ‘Amber doesn’t need Tinder. You should see her when we’re out. She’s a man magnet, she can have whoever she wants.

’ She’s now tapping her fingers on the table. She still seems slightly distracted, and I ask again if she’s okay, but she dismisses my enquiries with a smile and, ‘I’m fine,’ but I’m not sure I believe her. Watching her, I feel a little shiver run through me, and it isn’t because I’m cold. I’m really quite warm, too warm. Amber says we’re in for another hot summer, and temperatures are unusually high for early June, which the sweat on my upper lip is a testament to – even the prickly chill from my Prosecco isn’t cooling me down. I sip on my fizz and glance through the window. The pavement is packed with summer people, enjoying after-work drinks in the late-evening sunshine, dressed effortlessly in cool, loose linens or long summer dresses. I note with envy that the only perspiration they are showing comes from their cold beer bottles. Meanwhile, I’m sweating profusely in my new Marks and Spencer jumpsuit. Nothing effortless here, just two words – fat and frumpy.

It looked good on the hanger, and not too bad when I tried it on in the shop, but now I feel so out of place among these sophisticated media people. I wonder if I’d feel more ‘in’ if I was eight stone and drifting around in wedges and a maxi dress like Amber? She seems to be able to throw stuff together, brush her hair and, voila, she looks fabulous. Tonight she’s wearing a cotton halterneck dress with her hair down around her slim shoulders. She reminds me of the film actress Julianne Moore, with her dark red hair and pale skin with a smattering of freckles. I have similar colouring to Amber, but where her eyes match her red-brown hair and she has a golden glow, I’m the colour of milk, with blue eyes and ginger frizz. Even my freckles are ugly brown patches, not pretty little sprinkles like hers, and as for a long, halterneck dress, I can’t pull it off. I tried a halterneck dress on during one of our recent shopping trips. Amber and I stood next to each other in the fitting rooms. She looked like a svelte summer goddess and me a short, fat woman with strange, hoisted breasts. Amber can just wear clothes in a way I can’t – she looked so good in her jumpsuit when we went to the cinema last week, and I just had to get one, but this isn’t the venue, and trust me, mine isn’t the body.

Amber is still very much aware of Harry, the guy with long hair, and asks me if he’s looking at her. ‘Yes… and he’s dribbling,’ I add, which makes her laugh, and she throws back her head elegantly, all white teeth and red lipstick. We sip our drinks as she bats her eyelashes, licks her lips at me. We both know this ‘show’ is for Harry – Amber can’t rest until every man in the room has fallen in love with her. And they usually do. ‘What’s he doing now?’ she asks. ‘Oh my God, you’re not going to believe this, but he’s taking his clothes off…’ For a moment she looks surprised, then realises I’m joking. ‘Lucy! I’m shocked! It’s not like you to speak of naked men.’ ‘Oh, you might think you know me, but you really don’t,’ I say. ‘I do.

And the only man you’ve ever seen naked is Matt.’ ‘Yeah, okay, I can’t compete with you.’ I roll my eyes as she twiddles with the stem of her glass. All the time she’s snatching glances at Harry. ‘Look at you, you’re like a rampant lion. Look out, Handsome Harry, Amber’s gonna eat you all up,’ I say in his direction. He can’t hear, he’s too far away, but this tickles Amber and we both start laughing at his new name. ‘I’ll tell him what you called him,’ she says, pretending to beckon him over. ‘No! I would die.’ I laugh.

We’re both giggling now, and I think how glad I am that we found each other. She’s brought so much fun into my life. When Amber moved on to Mulberry Avenue, she was the antidote I needed to the other women on the estate, who talk for hours about different baby food brands and nappy bargains. From my mid-thirties, I’d begun to feel excluded as my friends all became pregnant and each month brought nothing for me. I was pleased for them – who couldn’t be delighted that someone was bringing a new little voice into the world? – but the news was always bittersweet, because I longed for a baby of my own. Now, at forty-two, despite extensive tests and a couple of rounds of fertility treatment, I’ve never experienced so much as a missed period. I’m okay, I deal with it, but an evening of in-depth discussions about the tantrums, fussy eating and toilet training of my friends’ kids is not my idea of a fun night out. Consequently, I welcomed single, childless Amber, who thinks a ‘baby bottle’ is a mini bottle of Prosecco served with a straw. ‘It’s okay for you,’ she always says, ‘you’ve found your soulmate. I’m still looking for mine.

’ And she’s right, I have found what I’m looking for in Matt. We’ve been married for ten years and I love him to bits. Despite her looks, career and her money, I really feel for Amber because all she really wants is what any of us want – someone to love who’ll love her back, and I’ve got that. As for her ex, Ben, he must have been mad to walk away. I mean, how could any man not want to marry my beautiful, funny, accomplished friend? Men are, and always will be, a mystery to me. Now Handsome Harry, who’s been glancing over at Amber all evening, is wandering over, finally making his play. And what a performance. They greet each other like longlost friends; she leaps up and he kisses her on both cheeks, then proceeds to touch her up for the next ten minutes. What happened to #MeToo? I think as, uninvited, his hand moves up and down her lower back. Then he tells her some story, which apparently is hilarious, judging by the way she’s throwing her head back in laughter.

I’m sitting at the table as they both stand engrossed in each other. Amber hasn’t actually introduced us, and as I’m sitting down and at their waist level it’s all rather awkward. She’s touching his arm now as he whispers something in her ear. I love her, but I wish she wouldn’t embark on a full flirting session while I sit here feeling like a voyeur. My Prosecco glass is now empty, as is the bottle, and I’m struggling with the etiquette. It’s not that I’m desperate for a drink, but I must look stupid sitting here all alone with an empty glass. Should I go to the bar and order us both another drink? Or would it be rude if I don’t offer to buy Harry one too? And what happens now about us getting chips on the way home? I was rather looking forward to that. I can’t cope, and decide to head for the ladies’. I can kill a few minutes and Amber won’t even notice I’ve gone. Once in the cubicle, I look at the time on my phone and see it’s already 11 p.

m. and promise myself we’ll leave by midnight at the latest. Amber made me stay really late last week at the Allegra Bar, just because she thought Ben might be in there, and I was working the next day. Tonight hasn’t really gone to plan either; the whole point of the evening was supposed to be about Amber cheering me up, and yet here I am sitting alone in a toilet while she has a great time with Harry. It hasn’t cheered me up at all. I knew I should have insisted on the cinema. I check the time again and leave the toilet cubicle and stand next to a tall slim woman who’s reapplying mascara. I wash my hands as she finishes her eyes and spritzes perfume, filling the air with the scent of chemical blossoms. I glance up at myself in the mirror. My make-up has all but melted off and my fringe is sticking to my forehead.

Not a good look. Patting my face with toilet paper, I then put my head upside down under the hand dryer – a technique Amber uses to get instant hair volume. She always emerges from this looking like a supermodel, but another glance at the mirror tells me I look more like something from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Wild-haired, blotchy-faced. Not pretty. I feel like crap, so text Matt to say Amber’s met a friend, and if they hit it off I might grab a taxi and be back soon. He texts back a laughing face and a heart, which makes me smile; we both know what she’s like. I’m trying not to feel resentful, because Amber means well, but she’s soon distracted, and ignoring me to flirt with a good-looking guy is not exactly my idea of ‘fun’. But I’m being selfish. Whatever her flaws, Amber has a good heart, She’s my number-one supporter and our friendship matters.

So I might have felt a little left out back there, but I should stop feeling sorry for myself. I have a lovely husband to go home to and poor Amber has no one. I can’t hang around the toilets any longer, and in the hope that Harry has gone and Amber and I can resume our girls’ night out, I head back to our table. As I approach, I see she’s sitting back down and seems to be alone, which is good, but as I reach her, I can tell something’s wrong. Her eyes are filled with tears, and she looks really upset. I feel for the chair and sit down, leaning towards her. ‘What’s the matter?’ I ask, putting my arm around her protectively and trying to work out what’s wrong from the expression on her face. ‘Has something happened? Was it Harry, the guy you were talking to?’ I say, looking around for him, remembering his hands all over her, his mouth on her ear. I wonder if, in my absence, he went too far, said or did something inappropriate, but she’s shaking her head vigorously. Then she clicks on her phone and pushes it across the table towards me and, puzzled, I look at her while taking the phone, an irrational fear slowly creeping through my chest.

Still searching her face for clues, I drag my eyes from hers to look at the screen, where a text message sits waiting, throbbing. I can see a collection of words all placed together to create a message that makes the hairs on my neck prickle. Beautiful Amber, I can see you flirting with those other men. If you hurt me I will hurt you. Are you scared? I like it when you’re scared. It excites me

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