Cross Her Heart: A Novel, p.1Sarah Pinborough
For Irvine. Thank you for having the faith.
Part One 2: Lisa
Part Two 25
Part Three 47: Her
About the Author
Also by Sarah Pinborough
About the Publisher
He grips the edge of the paper so tightly the neat lines of carefully written words twist into odd zigzags that crunch some sentences but highlight others, taunting him.
I can’t cope.
You’re too angry.
You frighten me when you hurt me.
I don’t love you anymore.
The world is shaking and his breath comes heavily as he scans to the end.
Don’t come after me. Don’t try and find me. Don’t try and find us.
He reads the letter three times before it sinks in. She’s gone. They’re gone. He knows it’s true—he can feel the fresh emptiness in the house—but still he rushes through the rooms, pulling open hollow cupboards and drawers. There is no trace of her, however; no passport or driving license, none of those important things that frame her life.
Don’t try and find us.
He returns to the kitchen table and crumples the letter, suffocating her words in his clenched fist. She’s right. He is angry. More than angry. He’s raging. It’s a white heat inside him. He stares out through the window, the battered ball of paper damp in his sweating palm. Vodka. He needs vodka.
As he drinks, a seed of a plan takes hold in the dark soil of his mind and starts to grow.
She has no right to do this to him. Not after everything they’ve been through.
He will destroy her for it.
“Happy birthday, darling,” I say from the doorway. It’s only six thirty and I’m still bleary from sleep, but my kitchen hums with teenage life. It’s like a surging wave hitting me. I don’t remember ever having this much energy. It’s a good feeling. Full of hope and confidence.
“You didn’t have to get up, Mum. We’re just leaving anyway.” She’s smiling as she comes to kiss me on the cheek, a cloud of apple shampoo and pink deodorant, but she looks tired. Maybe she’s doing too much. Her GCSEs are coming up, and between morning and evening swimming training several times a week, spending time with these girls, and going to school, I barely see her anymore. Which is, as I keep telling myself, how it should be. She’s growing up. Growing out from me. I have to learn to let go. But it’s hard. For so long it was us two against the world. Now the world is nearly hers to grasp for herself.
“It’s not every day my little girl turns sixteen,” I say as I fill the kettle and wink at her. She rolls her eyes at Angela and Lizzie, but I know she’s happy I still get up to see her off to school. She’s at once grown up and still my baby. “And anyway,” I add, “I’ve got my big presentation at work today so I need an early start.”
A phone buzzes. All three heads drop to screens and I turn back to the kettle. I know there’s a boy called Courtney in Ava’s life. She hasn’t told me about him yet, but I saw a message come in when she left her phone on the kitchen table last week, a rarity in itself. I used to check her phone occasionally, when I could, but now she uses a passcode, and as much as it pains me to admit it, she deserves her privacy. I have to learn to trust in my bright daughter’s sensible mind to keep her safe.
“Do you want your presents now or tonight at Pizza Express?” I ask.
Ava’s clutching little gift bags with colored tissue poking out the top, but she doesn’t share with me what her friends have bought her. Later perhaps she will. A few years ago she would have run to show me. Not anymore. Time flies. Somehow I’m nearly forty and Ava is sixteen. Soon she’ll be flying my nest.
“Jodie’s outside,” Angela says, glancing up from her iPhone. “We should go.”
“Tonight’s fine,” Ava says. “I haven’t got time now.” She smiles at me and I think that one day, she’ll be quite beautiful. For a moment, I have a sudden pang of loss in my chest, so I focus on stirring my tea and then check my presentation printouts that are still on the kitchen table while the girls gather up their coats, swimming gear, and schoolbags.
“I’ll see you tonight, Mum,” Ava calls over her shoulder as they disappear into the hallway, and I feel a gust of damp air as they flood outside. On a whim, I get my purse and take out twenty pounds and go after them, leaving the front door on the latch.
“Ava, wait!” I’m only in my thin dressing gown but I follow her down the path, waving the banknote at her. “For you and the girls. Go for a nice breakfast before school.”
“Thank you!” Ava’s words are quickly echoed by the others and then they’re tumbling into Jodie’s car, the tiny blond girl at the wheel, and I’m left behind at our open gate. They’re barely all in before Jodie pulls away, and I flinch slightly as I wave after them. She’s going quite fast and she can’t have checked her mirrors. Has Ava got her seat belt on? Worry, worry. That’s me. They don’t realize how precious life is. How precious they are. How can they? So young and with blessed lives.
It’s the cusp of summer, but the sky is heavily gray and threatening more rain, casting a chill in the air. I watch until Jodie’s turned the corner and I’m about to go back to the warmth of the house when I see a car parked on the bend of our quiet road behind me. My skin prickles. It’s unfamiliar. Dark blue. Not one I’ve seen before. I know all the cars on our street. It’s become a habit to note these things. This car is new.
My heart thrums in my chest, a bird tr
The flood of relief makes me almost laugh. Almost.
You’re safe, I tell myself as the taxi drives by, no one inside glancing my way. You’re safe and Ava’s safe. You have to relax.
Of course it’s easier said than done. I’ve learned that over the years. The fear never truly leaves me. I’ve had lulls where I can almost let go of the past, but then a random moment like this triggers a panic and I realize it will always be there, like hot tar glued to the lining of my stomach. And recently I’ve had this feeling, an unsettled disquiet, as if there’s something off-kilter I should see but I don’t. Maybe it’s me. My age. Hormones. Ava growing up. Maybe it’s nothing. But still . . .
“Penny for them?”
I gasp and flinch and then laugh in the way everyone does when goosed, even though the shock isn’t funny. My hand is at my chest as I turn to see Mrs. Goldman standing at her front door.
“Are you all right?” she asks. “I didn’t mean to make you jump.”
“Yes, sorry,” I say. “Lost in the day ahead. You know how it is.” I walk back down toward my own front door. I’m not sure Mrs. Goldman does know how it is. She’s careful as she bends to pick up the single milk bottle from the step and I see her flinch. What does her day hold? Daytime TV? Endless quiz shows? Her sons haven’t visited for a while either.
“I think there’s going to be a thunderstorm later. Do you want me to grab anything for you from the shops? I’ve got to get some more bread and bits anyway. Although I won’t be back until quite late because I’m taking Ava for pizza after work. It’s her birthday.” I don’t need bread but neither do I like the thought of Mrs. Goldman having to go out in the rain. Her hips are bad and the roads can be slippery.
“Oh, if it’s no bother,” she says, and I can hear the relief in her voice. “You are lovely.”
“It’s fine.” I smile, and I feel an awful ache I don’t fully understand. A kind of empathy for someone’s fragility. For everything people hold inside. Something like that anyway. I listen as she gives me her small list of items. Everything just enough for one. I’ll add some Battenberg cake to it. A little gift. I should try to pop in for a cup of tea with her at the weekend too. Her days must be long and it’s so easy not to notice the lonely people in this world. I should know. I was lonely for a long time. In some ways, I still am. I try to be kind to lonely people now. I’ve learned that kindness is important. What else is there, really?
* * *
Since PKR opened a second branch, we’ve been moved to a smaller but more stylish office, and even though it’s a while until Simon Manning is due to come in, when I get there at eight I feel slightly sick with nerves and my hands are twitchy and trembling. I tell myself it’s just about the presentation, but that’s rubbish. It’s also about Simon Manning. Simon has moved into some strange limbo between potential new company client and something other. A flirtation. An attraction. The way he looks at me has changed. I don’t know how to deal with it. It’s a low-voltage hum in my head.
“This is for you.”
I look up from checking through my presentation pages and see Marilyn holding up a pack of three Ferrero Rocher chocolates. “For good luck. And this”—she takes her other hand from behind her back to reveal a single glass bottle of bubbly—“is for when you’ve nailed it.”
I grin at her, flooding with warmth. Thank God for Marilyn. “If I nail it. I know he’s been speaking to other recruiters.”
“Oh, don’t worry, I’ve got vodka in the drawer for if you fuck it up.”
“What are best friends for?”
The great thing about this new open-plan office is that my desk and Marilyn’s are facing each other’s, a little island of two. Marilyn designed the whole layout and it works well. She’s got an eye for spaces. Maybe comes from being married to a builder for so long.
“Look at Toby,” she says, nodding across the room. “He’s like a pig in shit with these new girls.”
She’s right. We lean against her desk and watch as he preens himself. The new women all look under twenty-five, and at thirty Toby probably seems like a sophisticated older man. He’s certainly playing up to it. Breathless nervous giggling wafts over as he says something obviously hugely entertaining while explaining the photocopier.
“They’ll learn,” I say. It’ll be entertainment for us for a while at any rate. It’s good to be at work, under the bright strip lighting and with the uniformity of desks and red office chairs and smart clothing. It makes my momentary unease from this morning fade like the remnants of a bad dream.
At nine, Penny, our glorious leader and the PK in PK Recruitment, calls us all together. We gather in a semicircle around her office door and Marilyn and I hang a little bit back, like sheep herders perhaps, or nannies. I like Penny. She’s brisk and efficient and doesn’t feel the need to be too familiar with her staff. I’ve worked here for over ten years and I don’t think we’ve ever socialized personally, only the two of us. Marilyn finds it odd, but not me. Even though Penny’s about my age, she’s my boss. I don’t want her trying to be my friend. It would make me uncomfortable.
“It’s so lovely to be able to welcome our new team members at last,” she starts. “It’s wonderful to have Emily, Julia, and Stacey joining us and I hope you’ll be very happy working here.”
The three young things, tanned and fully made-up, beam at her and then exchange sideways happy glances. I hope they’ll all stay as friendly with each other as they are today. I met Marilyn on my first day here, and I can’t imagine my life without her. Colleague and best friend rolled into one. She suffocates my loneliness.
“Also, I owe a big debt of thanks to Toby, Marilyn, and Lisa for holding the fort so well in this transition period. Marilyn and Lisa are senior staff here. If you have any problems, don’t hesitate to ask them for advice—they probably know more about the day-to-day running of this agency than I do.”
Marilyn smiles as curious eyes fall on us, whereas I look down at my feet and wish their gaze away. If only I had Marilyn’s poise and confidence. She takes everything in her stride.
“Anyway, there will be cakes in the kitchen later and drinks in the Green Man on the corner after work for those who want to come along—which I hope will be all of you.”
She disappears back into her office and our little cluster fragments. I glance at the clock. Still a while before Simon gets here and the importance of this meeting kicks in, all thoughts of ridiculous attraction evaporating. My stomach churns and I take a couple of deep breaths. I can do this, I tell myself, only half believing it. I have to do this. The commission alone is worth this anxiety and I’m bound to get a better annual bonus on the back of it. Maybe even a pay raise. I need to save for Ava potentially going to university. I don’t want her starting her adult life with baggage and I’m determined to help. I’ll protect her from the world however I can.
I have to. I know how terrible it can be out there.
The cafeteria is like the changing room at the pool, hot and moist, and the windows are misted up as the summer rain pelts at the glass outside. I don’t mind the rain so much. Ange does because her carefully straightened hair starts to frizz as soon as the first drop falls, but unless the sun is properly baking, I prefer spending our lunchtimes indoors. It’s how I always spent them before, when I used to hang out with Caz and Melanie, which feels like a lifetime ago now. It’s the only thing I really miss about them. Angela is more of an ou
“So, what do you reckon?” she says. “For Saturday? Crash at Jodie’s? We could go to the pub first and then make a punch or something. See if anyone else is around?” One thick black eyebrow, filled in with pencil, wriggles like a slug on her olive face as she tries to raise it suggestively. If I did mine like that I’d end up rubbing brown all over my face. Angela is way better with makeup and clothes than me. When she’s all dressed up she looks about twenty. I just look about twenty stone. I’m the ugly duckling of our group, I know it. Please God, let me one day turn into a swan.
“Yeah, sounds good,” I say. “If the others can come.”
Angela’s fingers fly over the keypad of her phone, and I know mine will buzz in a minute once she’s sent out the message to our MyBitches WhatsApp group. Lizzie came up with the name. We are each other’s bitches after all, she’d said, and we’d laughed. She was right. I can’t believe I’ve only been at Larkrise Swimmers for a year. I’ve only known these girls for about ten months. It feels like we’ve been friends forever. Well, I kind of knew Angela before because we’re in the same school, but we’d never been in any of the same groups so she was only a face in a crowd, like I was to her. Now look at us. MyBitches. It still makes me smile. But I think I prefer “The Fabulous Four,” as our coach calls us. We’re his winners. We may compete as solo swimmers but we drive each other to be the best. We clicked right away, from the first morning practice, like jigsaw pieces slotting into place around one another, coming together to make a brilliant picture and put Larkrise on the competitive map.
We’re different ages, and in a lot of ways, it’s better. Gives us more to talk about. Me and Ange are the only ones at King Edward’s Grammar, Lizzie is in sixth form at Harris Academy, “Arse Academy” as it’s known, the shithole school in the middle of town, and Jodie is a first year at Allerton Uni. She’s nearly twenty-two and competes with the adults, but she’s one of us really and she doesn’t seem to care we’re younger than her. She trains with us because her lectures clash with the adult sessions and she says she prefers mornings. She doesn’t stay in the dorms but at her mum’s house here in Elleston and so she hasn’t really got into university life. She helps us with our techniques and she’s pretty cool. She never makes me feel like I’m way younger than her. Not that five years is that much younger, but the sixth formers at KEGS make you feel like they’re thirty or something, constantly looking down at us.
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