Read an excerpt from Clare Mackintosh's new thriller, I See You
Read an excerpt from I Let You Go author Clare Mackintosh's new thriller I See You.
Clare Mackintosh shocked readers with the wild twist in 2016’s I Let You Go — and now she’s back to ramp up your pulse once again with her next thriller, I See You, out Feb. 21. There are still a couple months to wait, but fortunately, EW is excited to share a sneak peek at the book’s first three chapters, below.
In the excerpt, you’ll meet Zoe Walker, who is aghast to see her own photo in a classified ad in the newspaper, with a link to a mysterious website. She can’t find any further information, but after a second woman’s picture is shown in a similar ad and that woman ends up assaulted, and the same thing happens with a third, she has to figure out who is tracking these women down before danger strikes her, too.
The man behind me is standing close enough to moisten the skin on my neck with his breath. I move my feet forward an inch and press myself into a gray overcoat that smells of wet dog. It feels as if it hasn’t stopped raining since the start of November, and a light steam rises from the hot bodies jammed against one another. A brief case jabs into my thigh. As the train judders around a corner I’m held upright by the weight of people surrounding me, one unwilling hand against the gray overcoat for temporary support. At Tower Hill the carriage spits out a dozen commuters and swallows two dozen more, all hell-bent on getting home for the weekend.
“Use the whole carriage!” comes the announcement. Nobody moves.
The gray overcoat has gone, and I’ve shuffled into its place, prefer able because I can now reach the handrail, and because I no longer have a stranger’s DNA on my neck. My handbag has swung around behind my body, and I tug it in front of me. Two Japanese tourists are wearing gigantic rucksacks on their chests, taking up the space of an other two people. A woman across the carriage sees me looking at them; she catches my eye and grimaces in solidarity. I accept the eye contact fleetingly, then look down at my feet. The shoes around me vary: the men’s are large and shiny, beneath pin-striped hems; the women’s heeled and colorful, toes crammed into impossible points. Among the legs I see a pair of sleek stockings; opaque black nylon ending in stark white trainers. The owner is hidden, but I imagine her to be in her twenties, a pair of vertiginous office heels stashed in a capacious handbag, or in a drawer at work.
I’ve never worn heels during the day. I was barely out of my Clarks lace-ups when I fell pregnant with Justin, and there was no place for heels on a Tesco checkout, or coaxing a toddler up the main street. Now I’m old enough to know better. An hour on the train on the way into work; another hour on the way home. Tripping up broken escalators. Run over by strollers and bikes. And for what? For eight hours behind a desk. I’ll save my heels for high days and holidays. I wear a self-imposed uniform of black trousers and an array of stretchy tops that don’t need ironing and are just smart enough to pass as office wear; with a cardigan kept in my bottom drawer for busy days when the door’s forever opening and the heat disappears with every prospective client.
The train stops and I push my way onto the platform. I take the Overground from here, and although it’s often as busy, I prefer it. Be ing underground makes me feel uneasy; unable to breathe, even though I know it’s all in my head. I dream of working somewhere close enough to walk to, but it’s never going to happen: the only jobs worth taking are in zone one; the only affordable mortgages in zone four.
I have to wait for my train, and at the rack by the ticket machine, I pick up a copy of the London Gazette, its headlines appropriately grim for today’s date: Friday, 13 November. The police have foiled another terrorism plot: the front three pages are rammed with images of explosives they’ve seized from a flat in North London. I flick through photos of bearded men, and move to find the crack in the tarmac beneath the platform sign, where the carriage door will open. My careful position ing means I can slide into my favorite spot before the carriage fills up: on the end of the row, where I can lean against the glass barrier. The rest of the carriage fills quickly, and I glance at the people still stand ing, guiltily relieved to see no one old, or obviously pregnant. Despite the flat shoes, my feet ache, thanks to standing by the filing cabinets for most of the day. I’m not supposed to do the filing. There’s a girl who comes in to photocopy property details and keep the cabinets in order, but she’s in Mallorca for a fortnight and from what I saw today she can’t have done any filing for weeks. I found residential mixed up with commercial, and rentals muddled up with sales, and I made the mis- take of saying so.
“You’d better sort it out, then, Zoe,” Graham said. So instead of booking viewings I stood in the drafty corridor outside Graham’s office, wishing I hadn’t opened my mouth. Hallow & Reed isn’t a bad place to work. I used to do the books one day a week, then the office manager went on maternity leave and Graham asked me to fill in. I was a bookkeeper, not a PA, but the money was decent and I’d lost a couple of clients, so I jumped at the chance. Three years later, I’m still there.
By the time we reach Canada Water the carriage has thinned out and the only people standing are there by choice. The man sitting next to me has his legs so wide apart I have to angle mine away, and when I look at the row of passengers opposite I see two other men doing the same. Is it a conscious thing? Or some innate need to make themselves bigger than everyone else? The woman immediately in front of me moves her shopping bag and I hear the unmistakable clink of a wine bottle. I hope Simon has thought to put one in the fridge; it’s been a long week and right now all I want to do is curl up on the sofa and watch telly.
A few pages into the London Gazette some former X Factor finalist is complaining about the “pressures of fame,” and there’s a debate on privacy laws that covers the better part of a page. I’m reading without taking in the words: looking at the pictures and scanning the headlines so I don’t feel completely out of the loop. I can’t remember the last time I actually read a whole newspaper, or sat down to watch the news from start to finish.
It’s always snatches of Sky News while I’m eating breakfast, or the headlines read over someone’s shoulder on the way in to work.
The train stops between Sydenham and Crystal Palace. I hear a frustrated sigh from farther up the carriage but don’t bother looking to see who it’s from. It’s already dark and when I glance at the windows all I see is my own face looking back at me; even paler than it is in real life, and distorted by rain. I take off my glasses and rub at the dents they leave on either side of my nose. We hear the crackle of an announcement, but it’s so muffled and heavily accented there’s no telling what it’s about. It could have been anything from signal failure to a body on the line.
I hope it’s not a body. I think of my glass of wine, and Simon rub bing my feet on the sofa, then feel guilty that my first thought is about my own comfort, not the desperation of some poor suicidal soul. I’m sure it’s not a body. Bodies are for Monday mornings, not Friday eve nings, when work is a blissful three days away.
There’s a creaking noise and then silence. Whatever the delay is, it’s going to be a while.
“That’s not a good sign,” the man next to me says.
“Hmm,” I say noncommittally. I carry on turning the pages of my newspaper, but I’m not interested in sports and now it’s mostly adverts and theater reviews. I won’t be home till after seven at this rate; we’ll have to have something easy for tea, rather than the baked chicken I’d planned. Simon cooks during the week, and I do Friday evening and the weekend. He’d do that, too, ifl asked him, but I couldn’t have that.
I couldn’t have him cooking for us-for my children-every night. Maybe I’ll pick up a takeaway.
I skip over the business section and look at the crossword, but I don’t have a pen with me. So I read the adverts, thinking I might see a job for Katie-or me, come to that, although I know I’ll never leave Hallow & Reed. It pays well and I know what I’m doing now, and if it weren’t for my boss it would be perfect. The customers are nice, for the most part. They’re generally start-ups looking for office space, or businesses that have done well, ready for a bigger place. We don’t do much residential, but the flats above the shops work for the first-time buyers and the downsizers. I meet a fair number of recently separateds. Sometimes, if I feel like it, I tell them I know what they’re going through. “Did it all turn out okay?” the women always ask.
“Best thing I ever did,” I say confidently. It’s what they want to hear. I don’t find any jobs for a nineteen-year-old wannabe actress, but I turn down the corner on a page with an advert for an office manager. It doesn’t hurt to know what’s out there. For a second I imagine walk- ing into Graham Hallow’s office and handing in my notice, telling him I won’t put up with being spoken to like I’m dirt on the sole of his shoe. Then I look at the salary printed under the office manager position, and remember how long it’s taken me to claw my way up to some- thing I can actually live on. Better the devil you know, isn’t that what they say?
The final pages of the Gazette are all compensation claims and finances. I studiously avoid the ads for loans—at those interest rates you’d have to be mad or desperate—and glance at the bottom of the page, where the chatlines are advertised.
Married woman looking for discreet casual action. Txt ANGEL to 69998 for pics.
I wrinkle my nose more at the exorbitant price per text than at the services offered. Who am I to judge what other people do? I’m about to turn the page, resigned to reading about last night’s football match, when I see the advert below “Angel’s.”
For a second I think my eyes must be tired; I blink hard but it doesn’t change anything.
I’m so absorbed in what I’m looking at that I don’t notice the train start up again. It sets off suddenly and I jerk to one side, putting my hand out automatically and making contact with my neighbor’s thigh.
“It’s fine—don’t worry.” He smiles and I make myself return it. But my heart is thumping and I stare at the advert. It bears the same warn ing about call charges as the other boxed adverts, and a 0809 number at the top of the ad. A web address reads: www.FindTheOne.com. But it’s the photo I’m looking at. It’s cropped close to the face, but you can clearly see blonde hair and a glimpse of a black strappy top. Older than the other women pimping their wares, but such a grainy photo it would be hard to give a precise age.
Except I know how old she is. I know she’s forty. Because the woman in the advert is me.
Kelly Swift stood in the middle of the Central line carriage, shift- ing to one side to keep her balance as the train took a bend. A couple of kids—no more than fourteen or fifteen years old— jostled onto the train at Bond Street, engaged in competitive swearing that jarred with their middle-class vowels. Too late for after-school clubs, and it was already dark outside; Kelly hoped they were on their way home, not heading out for the evening. Not at their age.
“Fucking mental!” The boy looked up, his swagger giving way to self-consciousness as he saw Kelly standing there. Kelly assumed the sort of expression she remembered her mother sporting on many an occasion, and the teenagers fell silent, blushing furiously and turning away to examine the inside of the closing doors. She probably was old enough to be their mother, she thought ruefully, counting backward from thirty and imagining herself with a fourteen-year-old. Several of her old school friends had children almost that age; Kelly’s Facebook page regularly filled up with proud family photos, and she’d even had a couple of friend requests from the kids themselves. Now, there was a way to make you feel old.
Kelly caught the eye of a woman in a red coat on the opposite side of the carriage, who gave a nod of approval at the effect she’d had on the lads.
Kelly returned her look with a smile. “Good day?”
“Better now it’s over,” the woman said. “Roll on the weekend, eh?” “I’m working. Not off till Tuesday.” And even then only one day off before another six on the trot, she thought, inwardly groaning at the thought. The woman looked aghast. Kelly shrugged. “Someone’s got to, right?”
“I guess so.” As the train slowed down for Oxford Circus, the woman began moving toward the doors. “I hope it’s a quiet one for you.” That’s jinxed it, Kelly thought. She glanced at her watch. Nine stops
to Stratford: ditch her stuff, then head back. Home by eight, maybe eight thirty. In again for seven A.M. She yawned hard, not bothering to cover her mouth, and wondered if there was any food at home. She shared a house near Elephant and Castle with three others, whose full names she knew only from the rent checks pinned neatly to the board in the hall, ready for collection each month. The sitting room had been converted to a bedroom by a landlord keen to maximize his income, leaving the small kitchen the one communal area. There was only room for two chairs, but her housemates’ shift patterns and erratic hours meant Kelly could go days without seeing anyone at all. The woman in the biggest bedroom, Dawn, was a nurse. Younger than Kelly, but far more domesticated, Dawn occasionally left a portion for Kelly on the side by the microwave, with one of her bright pink Post-it notes telling Kelly to help yourself! Her stomach rumbled at the thought of food, and she glanced at her watch. The afternoon had been busier than she’d thought; she was going to have to put in some extra hours next week, or she’d never get through it all.
A handful of businessmen got on at Holborn and Kelly cast a practiced eye over them. At first glance they looked identical, with their short hair, dark suits, and briefcases. The devil was in the detail, Kelly thought. She searched out the faint pinstripe; the title of a book pushed carelessly into a bag; wire-framed glasses with a kink in one arm; a brown leather watch strap beneath a white cotton shirtsleeve. The idiosyncrasies and appearance tics that made them stand out in a lineup of near-identical men. Kelly watched them openly, dispassionately. She was just practicing, she told herself, not caring when one of them looked up and found her cool gaze on him. She thought he might look away, but instead he winked, his mouth moving into a confident smile. Kelly’s eyes flicked to his left hand. Married. White, well-built, around six feet tall, with a shadow around his jaw that probably wasn’t there a few hours ago. The yellow flash of a forgotten dry-cleaning tag on the inside of his overcoat. Standing so straight she’d put money on ex-military. Nondescript in appearance, but Kelly would know him if they met again.
Satisfied, she turned her attention to the latest influx of passengers, getting on at Bank and filtering through the carriage to find the remaining few seats. Almost everyone had a phone in their hand: play- ing games, listening to music, or simply clutching it as though it were grafted to their palm. At the other end of the carriage someone lifted their phone in front of them and Kelly instinctively turned away. Tourists, getting an iconic shot of the London Underground to show back home, but she found the idea of being background scenery in some- one’s holiday snaps too weird to contemplate.
Her shoulder ached where she’d slammed into a wall, taking the corner too tight as she ran down the escalators and onto the platform at Marble Arch. She’d been seconds too late, and it annoyed her that the blooming bruise on her upper arm was in vain. She’d be quicker next time.
The train pulled into Liverpool Street; a throng of people waiting on the platform, impatient for the doors to open.
Kelly’s pulse quickened.
There, in the center of the crowd, half-hidden beneath oversized jeans, a hooded top, and a baseball cap, was Carl. Instantly recognizable and—desperate though Kelly was to get home—impossible to walk away from. It was clear from the way he melted into the crowd that Carl had seen Kelly a split second before she had seen him, and was equally unenthusiastic about the encounter. She was going to have to move fast.
Kelly jumped off the train just as the doors hissed behind her. She thought at first she’d lost him, but then she caught sight of a baseball cap ten or so yards ahead; not running, but weaving swiftly through the throng of passengers leaving the platform.
If Kelly had learned one thing over the past ten years on the Underground, it was that politeness got you nowhere.
“Mind your backs!” she yelled, breaking into a run and shoving her way between two elderly tourists dragging suitcases. “Coming through!” She might have lost him that morning, and copped a bruised shoulder as a result, but she wasn’t about to let him get away again. She thought fleetingly of the supper she had hoped would be waiting for her at home, and calculated this was going to add at least two hours on to her day. But needs must. She could always grab a kebab on the way home.
Carl was legging it up the escalator. Rookie error, Kelly knew, tak ing the steps instead. Fewer tourists to negotiate and easier on the thighs than the jerky, uneven motion of a moving stairway. Even so, Kelly’s muscles were burning as she drew parallel with Carl. He threw a quick look over his left shoulder as they reached the top, then swerved right. For fuck’s sake, Carl, she thought. I should be booking off now.
With a final burst of speed she caught up with him as he was preparing to vault the ticket barrier, grabbing a handful of jacket with her left hand and twisting one arm up behind his back with her right. Carl made a halfhearted attempt to pull away, knocking her off balance and causing her hat to fall to the ground. Kelly was aware of someone picking it up and hoped they weren’t going to run off with it. She was already in the doghouse with Stores for losing her baton in a scrap the other week-she could do without another telling-off
“Warrants have got a Fail to Appear with your name on it, mate,” Kelly said, her words punctuated with breaths that were hard to take within the confines of a stab vest. She reached for her belt and un clipped her cuffs, snapping them deftly onto Carl’s wrists and checking for tightness. “You’re nicked.”
I see you. But you don’t see me. You’re engrossed in your book; a paperback cover with a girl in a red dress. I can’t see the title but it doesn’t matter; they’re all the same. If it isn’t boy meets girl, it’s boy stalks girl. Boy kills girl.
The irony isn’t lost on me.
At the next stop I use the incoming swell of commuters as an excuse to move closer to you. You hang from the strap in the center of the carriage, reading one-handed, turning the page with a well-practiced thumb. We’re so close now that our coats are touching, and I can smell the vanilla base of your perfume; a scent that will have long since faded by the time you leave work. Some women disappear into the loos at lunchtime; touch up their makeup, add a spritz of fragrance. Not you. When I see you after work the dark-gray makeup on your lids will have drifted into tired shadows beneath your eyes; the tint on your lips transferred to countless cups of coffee.
You’re pretty, though, even at the end of a long day. That counts for a lot. Not that it’s always about beauty; sometimes it’s exotic looks, or large breasts, or long legs. Sometimes it’s class and elegance—all tailored navy trousers and tan heels—and sometimes it’s brassy and cheap. Slutty, even. Variety is important. Even the finest steak becomes dull when you eat it all the time.
Your handbag is larger than average. You usually carry it over your shoulder, but when the train is busy— as it is at this stage of your commute—you put it on the floor, between your legs. It has slouched open, allowing me to see inside. A wallet—soft brown calf leather with a gilt clasp. A hairbrush, blonde hairs trailing from its bristles. A reusable shop ping bag, neatly rolled into a ball. A pair of leather gloves. Two or three brown envelopes, torn open then pushed into the bag along with their contents. Post snatched from the doormat after breakfast, opened on the plat form while you waited for your first train. I crane my neck to read what is printed on the uppermost envelope.
So now I know your name.
Not that it matters: you and I aren’t going to have the sort of relation ship that needs names.
I take out my phone and swipe up to reveal the camera. I turn toward you; use my thumb and forefinger to zoom in until only your face is in the frame. If anyone noticed me now, they’d just think I was uploading a record of my commute to Instagram, or Twitter. Hashtag selfie.
A silent diet and you’re mine.
As the train takes a bend you let go of the ceiling strap and lean down for your handbag, still intent on your book If I didn’t know you better I’d think you’d caught me looking and were moving your belongings out of view, but it isn’t that. The bend in the track simply means it’s nearly your stop.
You’re enjoying this book: Usually you’ll stop reading much earlier than this; when you reach the end of a chapter, and you slip between the pages the postcard you use as a bookmark: Today you’re still reading even as the train pulls into the station. Even as you shoulder your way through to the door, saying “Excuse me” and “Sorry” a dozen times. You’re still reading even as you walk toward the exit, your eyes flicking upward to make sure you don’t bump into anyone.
You’re still reading. And I’m still watching.
Crystal Palace is where my train terminates. Had it not been, I might have stayed in my seat, staring at the advert in the hope of making sense of it. As it is, I’m the last to get off.
The rain has slowed to a drizzle, but I’ve barely left the Tube sta- tion before the newspaper in my hands is sodden, leaving traces of ink on my fingers. It’s already dark, but the streetlights are on, and the neon signs above Anerley Road’s myriad takeaways and mobile phone shops mean I can see clearly. Garish lights hang from each lamppost in preparation for this weekend’s Z-list celebrity switch-on, but it’s too mild—and too early—for me to start thinking about Christmas.
I stare at the advert as I walk home, oblivious to the rain plastering my fringe to my forehead. Perhaps it isn’t me at all. Perhaps I have a doppelgänger. I’m hardly the obvious choice to advertise a premium- rate chatline: you’d think they’d go for someone younger, more attrac- tive. Not a middle-aged woman with two grown children and a bit of a spare tire. I almost laugh out loud. I know it takes all sorts, but that’s some niche market.
Between the Polish supermarket and the locksmith is Melissa’s café. One of Melissa’s cafés, I remind myself. The other is on a side street off Covent Garden, where her lunchtime regulars know to phone ahead with their sandwich orders to avoid queuing, and the tourists dither by the door, deciding if the panini will be worth the wait. You’d think Covent Garden would be a license to print money, but the high rates mean that in the five years it’s been open it’s struggled to turn a profit.
This one, on the other hand, with its tatty paintwork and unlikely neighbors, is a gold mine. It’s been here for years, raking in the cash long before Melissa took it over and put her name above the door; one of those hidden secrets that appear occasionally in city guides. The best breakfast in South London, reads the photocopied article taped to the door.
I stay on the opposite side of the road for a while so I can watch without being seen. The insides of the windows are steamed up around the edges, like a soft-focus photo from the 1980s. In the center, behind the counter, a man is wiping the inside of the glass display. He wears an apron folded in half and tied-Parisian-waiter style-around his waist, instead of looped over his head, and with his black T-shirt and dark, just-got-out-of-bed hair he looks far too cool to be working in a cafe. Good-looking? I’m biased, I know, but I think so.
I cross the road, watching out for cycles as a bus driver waves me across in front of him. The bell above the cafe door jingles and Justin looks up.
“All right, Mum.”
“Hi, love.” I look around for Melissa. “You here on your own?” “She’s in Covent Garden. The manager there’s gone off sick so she left me in charge.” His tone is casual, so I try to mirror it in my response, but I feel a swell of pride. I’ve always known Justin was a good boy; he just needed someone to give him a break. “If you give me five minutes,” he says, washing his cloth out in the stainless steel sink, “I’ll come home with you.”
“I was going to pick up a takeaway for tea. I suppose the fryer’s off now?”
“I’ve only just turned it off It won’t take long to do some chips. And there are some sausages that’ll be thrown out if they’re not eaten today. Melissa won’t mind if we take them home.”
“I’ll pay for them,” I say, not wanting Justin to get carried away with his temporary position of responsibility. “She won’t mind.”
“I’ll pay,” I say firmly, getting out my purse. I look up at the blackboard and calculate the price for four sausages and chips. He’s right that Melissa would have given them to us if she were here, but she isn’t here, and in this family we pay our way.
The shops and businesses peter out as we walk farther from the station, giving way to terraced houses in rows of around a dozen. Several are boarded up with the gray metal shutters that mean a repossession, graffiti adding red and orange fireworks to their front doors. Our row is no different—the house three doors down has missing tiles and thick ply nailed across the windows—and you can spot the rented houses by the blocked gutters and stained brickwork. At the end of the row are two privately owned houses: Melissa and Neil’s, in the coveted end-of-terrace spot, and mine, right next door.
Justin’s fiddling in his rucksack for his keys, and I stand for a moment on the pavement by the railings that run around what might generously be called our front garden. Weeds poke up through the wet gravel; the only decoration a solar-powered lamp shaped like an old- fashioned lantern, which gives off a dull yellow glow. Melissa’s garden is graveled, too, but there are no weeds to be seen, and on either side of her front door sit two perfectly manicured box trees, shaped into spirals. Beneath the living room window is a patch of brickwork a shade lighter than the rest, where Neil scrubbed off graffiti left by someone in South London still narrow-minded enough to object to a mixed-race marriage.
No one has bothered to pull the curtains in our own living room, and I can see Katie painting her nails at the dining table. I used to in- sist we all sit at the table for meals, used to love the opportunity to catch up on what they’d done at school. In the early days, when we first moved in, it was the one time of day when I felt we were doing all right without Matt. There we were, a little family unit of three, all sitting down to a meal together at six o’clock.
Through the window-coated with the ever-present layer of grime that comes from living on a busy road I notice that Katie has cleared a space for her nail kit among the magazines, the pile of bills, and the washing basket, which has somehow chosen the table as its natural home. Occasionally I clear the mess so we can eat Sunday lunch together, but it isn’t long before a creeping tide of paperwork and abandoned carrier bags pushes us onto our laps again, in front of the telly.
Justin opens the door and I remember what it was like when the
kids were little and they’d run to greet me when I came home, as though I’d been away for months instead of stacking shelves at Tesco for eight hours. When they were older it would be next door I’d call on, thanking Melissa for the after-school care the kids claimed to be too old for but secretly loved.
“Hello?” I call. Simon comes out of the kitchen with a glass of wine. He hands it to me and kisses me on the lips, his arm sliding around my waist to pull me closer. I hand him the plastic bag from Melissa’s cafe.
“Get a room, you two.” Katie comes out of the living room, her fingers spread out and her hands in the air. “What’s for tea?” Simon releases me and takes the bag into the kitchen.
“Sausage and chips.”
She wrinkles her nose and I cut her off before she can start moaning about calories. “There’s some lettuce in the fridge-you can have yours with salad.”
“It won’t get rid of your cankles,” Justin says. Katie hits him on the arm as he ducks around her and runs up the stairs, two at a time.
“Grow up, you two.” Katie is nineteen and an easy size eight, with not a hint of the puppy fat she still had a few years ago. And there is nothing wrong with her ankles. I move to give her a hug, then remem ber her nails and kiss her cheek instead. “I’m sorry, love, but I’m knack ered. The odd takeaway won’t do you any harm-everything in moderation, right?”
“How was your day, honey?” Simon asks. He follows me into the living room and I sink into the sofa, shutting my eyes for a brief moment and sighing as I feel myself relax.
“It was okay. Apart from Graham making me do the filing.” “That’s not your job,” Katie says.
“Neither is cleaning the loo, but guess what he had me doing yesterday?”
“Ugh. That bloke is such an arsehole.”
“You shouldn’t put up with it.” Simon sits next to me. “You should complain.”
“To who? He owns the place.” Graham Hallow comes from the breed of men who inflate their egos by belittling the people around them. I know this, and so it doesn’t bother me. For the most part.
To change the subject I pick up the London Gazette from where I dumped it on the coffee table. It’s still damp and parts of the print are blurry, but I fold it in half so the chatline and escort ads are showing.
“Mum! What are you doing looking up escort services?” Katie says, laughing. She finishes applying a topcoat to her nails and carefully screws on the lid, returning to the table to push her hands under an ultraviolet lamp to seal the varnish.
“Maybe she’s thinking of trading Simon in for a newer model,” Justin says, walking into the living room. He’s changed out of the black T-shirt and jeans he was wearing for work, into gray sweatpants and a sweatshirt. His feet are bare. In one hand he carries his phone; in the other a plate heaped with sausage and chips.
“That’s not funny,” Simon says. He takes the paper from me. “But seriously, why are you looking at chatlines?” His brow furrows and I see a shadow cross his face. I glare at Justin. Simon is fourteen years older than me, although sometimes I look in the mirror and think I’m catching up to him. There are lines around my eyes I never had in my thirties, and the skin on my neck is beginning to crepe. I’ve never had a problem with the age difference between us, but Simon mentions it often enough for me to know he worries about it. Justin knows that, and takes every opportunity to stick the knife in. Whether he’s getting at Simon or at me, I can never be sure.
“Don’t you think that looks like me?” I point to the bottom advert, beneath Angel’s “mature” services. Justin leans over Simon’s shoulder, and Katie removes her hands from the UV lamp so she can get a proper look. For a second we all stare at the advert in silence.
“No,” Justin says, just as Katie says, “It does a bit.”
“You wear glasses, Mum.”
“Not always,” I point out. “Sometimes I put my contacts in.” Al though I can’t remember the last time I did. Wearing glasses has never bothered me, and I quite like my current pair, with their thick black frames that make me look far more studious than I ever was at school. “Maybe it’s someone playing a joke,” Simon says. “FindTheOne.com—do you think someone’s signed you up to a dating agency as a joke?”
“Who would do something like that?” I look at the kids, wondering if I’ll catch a glance passing between them, but Katie looks as con fused as I am, and Justin has gone back to his chips.
“Have you called the number?” Simon says.
“At £1.50 a minute? You must be joking.”
“Is it you?” Katie says. Her eyes are mischievous. “You know, for a bit of pocket money? Go on, Mum, you can tell us.”
The uneasy feeling I’ve had since I first saw the advert starts to subside, and I laugh. “I’m not sure who would pay £1.50 a minute for me, love. It really does look like me, though, doesn’t it? It gave me quite a start.”
Simon fishes his mobile out of his pocket and shrugs. “It’ll be someone doing something for your birthday, I bet.” He puts his phone on speaker and taps in the number. It feels ridiculous: all of us crowded around the London Gazette, calling a sex line.
“The number you have dialed has not been recognized.” I realize I’ve been holding my breath.
“That’s that, then,” Simon says, handing me the newspaper.
“But what’s my photo doing there?” I say. My birthday isn’t for ages, and I can’t think who would find it funny to sign me up for dat- ing services. It crosses my mind that it’s someone who doesn’t like Simon; someone wanting to cause problems between us. Matt? I dismiss the thought as quickly as it arrives.
Instinctively I squeeze Simon’s shoulder, even though he shows no sign of being bothered by the advert.
“Mum, it looks nothing like you. It’s some old bird with bad roots,” Justin says.
There’s a compliment in there somewhere, I think.
“Jus is right, Mum.” Katie looks at the advert again. “It does look like you, but lots of people look like someone else. There’s a girl at work who’s the spitting image of Adele.”
“I guess so.” I take one last look at the advert. The woman in the photograph isn’t looking directly at the camera, and the resolution on the image is so poor I’m surprised it’s being used as an advert at all. I hand it to Katie. “Stick it in the recycling for me, love, when you go and dish up for the rest of us.”
“My nails!” she cries. “My feet,” I counter.
“I’ll do it,” Justin says. He dumps his own plate on the coffee table and stands up. Simon and I exchange surprised glances and Justin rolls his eyes. “What? You’d think I never helped out around here.”
Simon gives a short laugh. “And your point is?” “Oh, fuck off, Simon. Get your own tea, then.”
“Stop it, the pair of you,” I snap. “God, it’s hard to know who’s the child and who’s the parent sometimes.”
“But that’s my point, he’s not the…” Justin starts, but stops when he sees the look on my face.
We eat on our laps, watching TV and bickering about the remote, and I catch Simon’s eye. He winks at me: a private moment amid the chaos of life with two grown-up kids.
When the plates are empty of all but a sheen of grease, Katie puts on her coat.
“You’re not going out now?” I say. “It’s gone nine o’clock.” She looks at me witheringly. “It’s Friday night, Mum.” “Where are you going?”
“Town.” She sees my face. “I’ll share a cab with Sophia. It’s no different from coming home after a late shift at work.”
I want to say that it is. That the black skirt and white top Katie wears for waitressing is far less provocative than the skintight dress she is currently sporting. That wearing her hair scraped into a ponytail makes her look fresh-faced and innocent, while tonight’s do is tousled and sexy. I want to say that she’s wearing too much makeup; that her heels are too high and her nails too red.
I don’t, of course. Because I was nineteen myself once, and because I’ve been a mum long enough to know when to keep my thoughts to myself.
“Have a good time.” But I can’t help myself “Be careful. Stay together. Keep your hand over your drink.”
Katie kisses me on the forehead, then turns to Simon. “Have a word, will you?” she says, jerking her head toward me. But she’s smiling, and she gives me a wink before she sashays out of the door. “Be good, you two,” she calls. “And if you can’t be good—be careful!”
“I can’t help it,” I say when she’s gone. “I worry about her.”
“I know you do, but she’s got her head screwed on, that one.” Simon squeezes my knee. “Takes after her mother.” He looks at Justin, who is sprawled on the sofa, his phone inches from his face. “Are you not going out?”
“Broke;’ Justin says, without taking his eyes off the tiny screen in front of him. I see the blue and white boxes of a conversation too small to read from where I’m sitting. A strip of red boxer shorts separates his joggers from his sweatshirt, the hood pulled up despite his being indoors.
“Doesn’t Melissa pay you on Fridays?”
“She said she’ll drop it round over the weekend.”
Justin’s been working in the café since the start of the summer, when I had almost given up hope of his getting another job. He had a couple of interviews—one for a record store, and another at Boots—but the second they found out he had a police record for shoplifting, that was it.
“You can understand it,” Simon had said. “No employer wants to risk taking on someone who might have their hand in the till.”
“He was fourteen!” I couldn’t help but be defensive. “His parents had just divorced and he’d moved schools. He’s hardly a career criminal.”
I left it. I didn’t want to argue with Simon. On paper Justin was unemployable, but if you knew him… I went cap in hand to Melissa. “Deliveries,” I suggested. “Handing out flyers. Anything.” Justin was never academic. He didn’t take to reading like the other kids in preschool—didn’t even know the alphabet until he was eight. As he got older it became hard even to get him to school in the first place; the underpass and the shopping mall held more appeal than a classroom. He left school with a GCSE in computer science, and a caution for shoplifting. By then the teachers had worked out he was dyslexic, but it was too late to be of any use.
Melissa looked at me thoughtfully. I wondered if I’d overstepped the boundaries of our friendship; put her in an awkward position.
“He can work in the café.”
I couldn’t find the words. Thank you seemed inadequate. “Minimum wage,” Melissa said briskly, “and on a trial period.
Monday to Friday, on a mix of earlies and lates. Occasional cover at weekends.”
“I owe you one,” I said.
She waved away my gratitude. “What are friends for?”
“Maybe you could start paying your mum some rent, now you’ve got a job,” Simon says. I look at him sharply. Simon never gets involved in parenting. It isn’t a conversation we’ve ever needed to have; the kids were eighteen and fourteen when I met Simon. They were almost adults in their own right, even when they didn’t behave like it. They didn’t need a new dad, and thankfully Simon never tried to be one.
“You don’t ask Katie for rent.”
“She’s younger than you. You’re twenty-two, Justin, you’re old enough to stand on your own two feet.”
Justin swings his legs around and stands up in one fluid movement. “You’ve got a fucking nerve. How about you pay some rent, before you start telling me what to do?”
I hate this. Two people I love, at each other’s throats.
“Justin, don’t talk to Simon like that.” Picking sides isn’t a conscious decision, but as soon as I speak I see the look in Justin’s eyes, like I’ve betrayed him. “He’s only making a suggestion. I’m not asking for rent.” I never would, and I don’t care if people think I’m soft. I won’t budge. I could charge Justin rock-bottom prices for bed and board, and he’d still have next to nothing left over. How can he have a life, let alone put something aside for the future? I was younger than Katie when I left home, with nothing but a suitcase of clothes, a growing belly, and my parents’ disappointment ringing in my ears. I want more than that for my kids.
Simon isn’t letting it lie. “Are you looking for work? The cafe’s fine, but if you want to buy a car, get your own place, you’ll need to earn more than Melissa can pay you.”
I don’t understand what’s gotten into him. We’re not rich, but we do all right. We don’t need to take money from the kids.
“Dad said he’d lend me money for a car once I’ve passed my test.”
I feel Simon bristle beside me, the way he always does when Matt is mentioned. There are times when this reaction is irritating, but more often than not it gives me a warm glow inside. I don’t think it ever oc curred to Matt that someone else might find me attractive; I like that Simon cares enough about me to be jealous.
“That’s nice of Dad,” I say quickly; loyalty toward Justin making me say something—anything—in support. “Maybe you could consider taking the taxi licensing exam one day.”
“I’m not driving a cab for the rest of my life, Mum.”
Justin and I used to be so close when he was younger, but he’s never quite forgiven me for walking out on Matt. He would, I think, if he knew the whole picture, but I never wanted the kids to think badly of their dad; didn’t want them as hurt as I was.
The woman Matt slept with was exactly halfway between Katie’s age and mine. Funny the details you fixate on. I never saw her, but I used to torture myself imagining what she looked like; imagining my husband’s hands running over her twenty-three-year-old stretch-mark- free body.
“Beggars can’t be choosers,” Simon says. “It’s a good job.”
I look at him in surprise. He’s been quick to slag off Matt’s lack of ambition in the past. A piece of me feels annoyed that what I distinctly remember him calling a “dead-end job” is apparently good enough for my son. Matt was at college, studying engineering. That all changed the day I realized my period was so late it could mean only one thing. Matt walked out of college and got a job that same day. It was just la- boring, on a local building site, but it paid well enough. After we got married he did take the taxi licensing exam and as a wedding present his parents gave us the money for his first cab.
“The café’s fine for now,” I say. “The right thing will turn up, I’m sure.”
Justin gives a noncommittal grunt and leaves the room. He goes upstairs and I hear the creak of his bed as he assumes his habitual po- sition, lying down with his head propped just high enough to see the screen on his laptop.
“He’ll still be living here when he’s thirty at this rate.” “I want him to be happy, that’s all.”
“He is happy,” Simon says. “Happy sponging off you.”
I swallow what I want to say. It wouldn’t be fair. I was the one who said I didn’t want Simon paying rent. We even argued about it, but I won’t let him. We split the food and the bills, and he’s forever treating me to meals out and trips away-the kids, too. He’s generous to a fault. We have a joint bank account and we’ve never once worried about who pays for what.
But the house is mine.
Money was tight when I married Matt. He worked nights, and I did eight till four at Tesco, and we managed like that till Justin started school. By the time Katie came along things were easier; Matt had more work than he could handle, and gradually we were able to afford a few extras. The odd meal out; even a summer holiday.
Then Matt and I broke up, and I was back to square one. Neither of us could afford to keep the house on our own, and it was years be fore I was able to save for the deposit on this place. I swore I’d never throw my lot in with a man again.
Mind you, I swore I’d never fall in love again, and look what happened to that.
Simon kisses me, one hand cupping my chin and then sliding around the back of my head. Even now, at the end of a long day, he smells clean: of shaving foam and aftershave. I feel the familiar heat run through my body as he wraps my hair around his hand and tugs it gently, pulling my chin up and exposing my neck to be kissed. “Early night?” he whispers.
“I’ll be right up.”
I pick up the plates along with the London Gazette, carry them into the kitchen, and load the dishwasher. I drop the newspaper into the recycling bin, where the woman in the advert stares up at me. I switch off the kitchen light and shake my head at my foolishness. Of course it isn’t me. What would a photograph of me be doing in a newspaper?
Reprinted from I SEE YOU by Clare Mackintosh, to be published February 21, 2017 by Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Clare Mackintosh.