Authors: Louise Stone
worked as a teacher before turning her hand to fiction. She was brought up in Africa and the Middle East and then ‘as an adult’ travelled extensively before moving to London and finally settling in the Cotswolds with her partner, and now baby. When she’s not writing, you will find her scouring interior design magazines and shops, striving toward the distant dream of being a domestic goddess or having a glass of wine with country music turned up loud. As a child, she always had her nose in a book and, in particular, Nancy Drew.
S is for Stranger
is her first psychological suspense thriller and it was shortlisted for the Harry Bowling Prize. She also writes women’s fiction under the pseudonym Lottie Phillips. Readers can find Louise Stone, otherwise known as Charlotte Phillips, on Twitter
S is for Stranger
To my wonderful parents.
Fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.
As he has injured the other, so he is to be injured.
chapter 24: verse 20
TABLE OF CONTENTS
I tapped the rim of the table with my right forefinger: one, two, three. Bad things didn’t happen when I counted to three.
‘Don’t you like strawberry?’ I asked, twiddling my straw with my other hand. ‘You can have mine.’ I pushed the chocolate milkshake in her direction and she shook her head. I gave in and took it back. ‘So, how’s school?’
We had been playing this game for over an hour now: I asked the questions and she offered one-word answers. Licking my lips, I went in for another drag of the sweet, sickly chocolate drink. I turned to look out the window and pulled a face. Milkshakes were not my thing. I had thought it was what all eight-year-old girls liked doing – eating junk food and visiting Claire’s jewellery shop.
‘You don’t like it, do you, Mummy?’ Amy asked me and nodded toward the milkshake.
I smiled – caught out. ‘Not really. What about you?’
Amy revealed the first small smile of the day. ‘No.’ She looked down at her lap. ‘I don’t like milkshakes. Daddy knows I don’t like milkshakes.’
‘I just thought –’
Amy looked up. ‘It’s OK, Mummy. You don’t live with me so only Daddy knows.’
I felt the familiar stab of guilt. ‘Right, yes.’ I picked up the menu. ‘What would you prefer?’ I needed to face it; I was out of touch.
‘I’m not hungry. Daddy made me pancakes for breakfast.’ She slid down further in her seat. ‘When did Daddy say we should go home? To Daddy’s home.’
My face fell. ‘Um, he said four o’clock.’ I looked at my watch, tapped its face three times. I hoped Amy hadn’t noticed. ‘It’s only two-thirty. Do you want to head back?’ I said cheerily; too cheerily. I mean, was the day going so badly that my daughter wanted to return home to her father already?
‘No …’ She fought tears. ‘I wish we were a family again, like my friends at school have.’
‘I know, but you’re no different to anyone else. You know that, right?’
She gave a small nod. ‘I guess. My bestest friend said she wanted her parents to split up.’
‘Really?’ I said, raising my eyebrows.
‘Yeah, because she thinks it’s nice to get two of everything.’ She paused. ‘I told her it’s not nice.’
I frowned and, desperate to keep her happy, I offered, ‘Shall we play I-spy?’
She pulled a face. ‘Mummy, you’re not very good at this game.’
‘Shame.’ I shrugged my shoulders and looked away. ‘Because I’ve already come up with one.’
She rolled her eyes. ‘Okkaaay.’
I grinned. ‘I spy something beginning with B.’
Amy looked behind her, swivelling in her seat. ‘Burger?’
I shook my head.
She furrowed her brows. ‘Book?’
I shook my head again.
‘Are you playing it right?’
She scanned the restaurant another time, spotting a young girl playing with a doll. ‘Barbie!’
She giggled. ‘Mummy, are you sure you’re playing properly?’
‘Uh-huh.’ I smiled. ‘Shall I tell you?’
‘Mummy!’ She squealed with laughter. ‘That’s silly.’
‘Oh, really?’ I played innocent. ‘Your turn.’
She giggled. ‘OK.’ Her eyes flicked around the room and she twisted in her seat, looked behind her, and then she said, ‘S.’
‘Yup.’ She nodded happily. ‘Go quicker. It moves.’
‘Uh-oh.’ I looked around the restaurant, my eyes skimming the counter. ‘Sugar?’
‘Sugar!’ She shook her head firmly. ‘No.’
‘It’s not moving!’
‘It does if the person who’s wearing it moves.’
‘Hmm.’ I shrugged. ‘Give in.’
She pointed outside. ‘Stranger. That lady’s been staring at us for ages.’
‘You never told me we could name things
Amy dropped her head into her arms on the table, in fits of giggles. ‘My rules.’ She looked up, laughing. ‘The lady’s gone now.’
I shook my head. ‘Stranger, huh?’ I smiled. ‘That was too good.’
‘Yeah,’ Amy nodded, ‘she was looking at you.’
‘Really?’ I turned my head and looked up and down the high street. ‘She was probably just waiting for someone, or thought I was somebody else.’
I sat forward again, tapped the edge of the table three times, as Amy started scrabbling around in her Peppa Pig canvas bag. ‘I made something for you.’ She drew out a piece of A4 card folded in two and handed it to me. The front was covered in glitter and beads.
I opened it, my hands trembling slightly. Inside it read:
I love you, Mummy.
My vision blurred over with tears and I brushed them away with the back of my hand. ‘Ames, it’s beautiful. Thank you so much.’ I pushed down the lump in my throat. ‘Did you make it at school?’
She shook her head. ‘No, last Tuesday. With Daddy.’
‘Really? With Daddy?’
‘I felt sad and Daddy said we could play art time.’ She stumbled over her next words. ‘S-so, I made you a card.’
I sighed and put my hand out across the table. ‘Ames.’
She didn’t give me hers and instead traced the outline of Peppa Pig with her forefinger.
‘Well,’ I said, changing the subject and withdrawing my hand, ‘are you looking forward to October? Going to the fair? For my birthday?’ I smiled. ‘That’s only a month away.’
She nodded glumly. ‘I want to go to Claire’s now.’
I put my hand up and signalled to the waitress for the cheque. ‘Do you know what you want?’
Amy smiled. ‘A pink bracelet with a star on it. Frannie from school says it makes dreams come true.’
‘That does sound good.’ I leant in and put my card on the table. ‘Are you allowed to tell me your dreams? I know I’m not meant to ask.’
‘That you and Daddy aren’t cross at each other,’ she said simply.
I took the card machine from the hovering waitress and typed in my number, grateful for an excuse to busy myself with something else. I could have seen that one coming and I walked right in – now I was stuck for words. One thing I knew was that there were some things in life that a charm bracelet or any amount of dreaming couldn’t make happen.
I’d have loved to tell her my own dream: I wanted to take her home with me. Run away, if necessary. I knew that Amy might never understand how her father had controlled everything in my life: how I felt trapped and how one glass of wine in the evening quickly led to a bottle, and how I eventually yearned for the bitter hit of vodka in the mornings too.
Amy stood up and shrugged on her pink duffel coat.
‘That’s nice. Is it new?’ I pointed at the coat.
‘Did Daddy buy it for you?’
‘Yeah. Well, it came from Sarah.’ She looked at the ground. ‘I still like the one you bought me, though.’
Sarah. I knew very little about her but I did know that Amy appeared to adore Paul’s new woman. Once, and only once, I had sat outside the school gates in my car waiting for Sarah to appear and pick up Amy. She was disappointingly slim and good-looking, maybe a bit obviously so, and my guts twisted when I saw how Amy bounded up to her and hugged her with the kind of affection I hadn’t seen or felt from Amy in a long time.
‘I’m sure you’ve grown out of that one by now. Besides,’ I smiled, ‘it’s very nice. Pink is much better.’
She walked in front of me and I thought: I could do it now. Take her away from here. We could set up a new life elsewhere. I knew that I could find a job – my career was the one thing I had focused on over the last few years – and Amy would soon adapt to a new school, new friends.
Once outside, she turned, took my hand and, as if reading my mind, said, ‘You know that thing where I have to tell the people who I want to live with?’ She scuffed the toe of her black patent shoe on the ground. ‘I don’t really want to choose between you and Daddy.’
‘I know, sweetheart. No one’s really asking you to do that.’ I straightened her coat collar. ‘Anyway, they’ll be really nice and easy to talk to, I’m sure.’
‘I think I want to live with you, Mummy.’
My heart skipped a beat. ‘Really?’ I asked as evenly as I could. ‘Well, you know how much I’d love that but it’s always your choice. Remember that.’ I drew her into me and kissed the top of her head. ‘Ames, you mean the world to me. It’s all going to be OK. I’ll make sure of it. I cross my heart.’
‘Hmm?’ I mumbled into her full head of auburn curls, inhaling the glorious smell of Timotei shampoo.
‘The stranger’s there.’
My head shot up and I followed Amy’s gaze.
‘What’s she wearing, Ames?’
‘A blue jacket.’ She pointed.
My eyes moved fast over the pedestrians opposite: shoppers, a young couple stopping briefly to kiss, an old man with his head bent in concentration, a street seller flogging pashminas. Of all the roads in London, Oxford Street was a minefield when it came to spotting a person you recognise, let alone a stranger. I focused on the scene again, my eyes filtering the fast flow of pedestrians. That’s when I saw her, but I didn’t recognise her.
She stood up against a wall, stock-still. The woman did appear to be staring our way. I grabbed Amy’s hand and moved toward her, my eyes never leaving her. A taxi honked his horn as we made our way across the street.
‘Careful, love,’ the driver shouted out the window.
‘Mummy? Slow down.’ Amy clung onto my hand more tightly.
Just as we reached the other side of the road, the woman turned and walked fast past Boots and headed down Stratford Place. I started after her, my hand firm around Amy’s.
‘Mummy?’ Amy’s voice quivered ever so slightly with fear. ‘Mummy, you’re holding me too tight.’
I had come to a halt – she was moving too fast – and Amy buried her head in my jumper.