What Goes Around: A chilling psychological thriller (8 page)

BOOK: What Goes Around: A chilling psychological thriller
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I smooth his T-shirt across his chest and kiss his cheek. ‘Have a shower.’ I kiss his other cheek. ‘We’ll talk later.’ I pat his shoulders and gently push him away from me towards the house. He goes off without a peep, his eyes wide and scared, too shocked to know what to say or do. He hasn’t been brought up like me, after all. I have only hit him three times over his nineteen years and he’s yet to work out how to react.

I rub the back of my hand over my forehead and temples. Shit, shit, shit. ‘That wasn’t me,’ I whisper into the air. ‘I don’t behave that way.’

I’m disappointed with myself. I aim to always parent consciously, but like any mother, I have my triggers. Drug-taking is one of them – in Alex’s case he loses all sense of himself and becomes glassy-eyed and moronic. I’ve been down this road before with him and it’s not happening again.

There’s a sound above me and when I look up, I see Katarina watching from the upstairs window, her body leaning against the pane, palms flat against the glass as if she’s trapped inside the room. I point to the fallen branches on the ground and then to the furthermost end of the garden where we keep the brown bin for garden waste, then I go into the kitchen to prepare dinner.

My heart is racing. The teenage girl inside me wants to punch someone’s lights out. Punch, kick, scratch. Gouge. Dismember.

I take a knife from the block and slice into a red pepper, rhythmically and with more force than required, until the pepper is shredded into too-thin strips that I immediately empty into the bin.

Stop, Leila.

Just stop.

An old trick. I take a mirror from my handbag and stare at my face. I don’t see the lines, the lips pale without lipstick, a small smudge of mascara under my right eye. I stare into my own eyes and wait. I wait for the glimmer of me – the grown-up me, the considered me, the me I’ve cultivated over the last twenty years – and when I see that glimmer I latch onto it and it grows. I reconnect with myself in the colour of my own eyes and the teenage ghost loosens her grip.

The radio fills the kitchen with music, easy-listening tunes, not to relax me but to reassure Alex and Katarina that I’ve calmed down now. I chop another pepper into perfect strips. Reassured, I tackle a third – perfect – and then the green beans.

I’m scrubbing the new potatoes when Katarina arrives at my elbow. ‘Do you want me help?’

‘My help,’ I say, automatically correcting her English.

‘My help,’ she repeats, her smile tentative.

‘Did you clear up the branches?’ I ask her.

‘Yes, and I collect Tom’s suit. I put it in the wardrobe.’

‘Thank you.’

‘I fuckin’ hate fish,’ Alex mumbles, as he edges into the kitchen, his eyes on the tray of salmon waiting to go into the oven. ‘You know I do.’

‘Please don’t swear, Alex.’ I dry my hands and stand beside him. ‘You smell lovely and clean!’ I kiss his cheek and wrap him up in a hug.

‘Too tight!’ He pulls away, frowning.

‘Katarina, why don’t you go through to the living room and watch the news?’ I say, smiling brightly.

She glances at Alex. I can see she’s unsure whether she should leave him alone with me.

‘It’s good for your English.’ I take hold of her shoulders and propel her towards the front of the house. ‘Alex and I will prepare dinner.’

I come back into the kitchen and close the door behind me. Alex is standing with his ankles and arms crossed, his head dipping down onto his chest. I stand in front of him and wait for him to look up. When he does, he peers at me through the flop of hair that curtains his eyes.

‘What is it you’ve taken?’

He sighs and rubs his cheeks. ‘Nothin’. Just what everyone takes.’

‘Dope? Skunk? Pills of some sort? What?’

‘Something I got from Harry.’ He looks sheepish. ‘I won’t take it again. I promise. It makes me feel spaced out.’

‘I was hoping you’d learned your lesson, Alex.’ I pitch my head at an angle so that I can see up into his eyes. ‘After last year.’

‘I’ve said I won’t take it again! Don’t start on me! Fuck!’

He slopes off and I follow him to the kitchen door, catching hold of his arm. ‘I will be keeping an eye on you,’ I say quietly. ‘And you will eat with Tom and me this evening.’

He yanks his arm away and leaves the room. I return to the chopping board and pick up the knife. I press the tip of the blade into the end of my finger, just until the skin yields and a blob of blood settles on the surface like a raindrop on a leaf. Then I lick it.

Katarina has eaten and is in her room when Tom comes home from work. I hand him a single malt in a crystal glass, two ice cubes clinking together in the base. ‘How was your day?’ I ask, leaning in for a kiss, my breasts brushing against his sleeve.

‘Productive. Getting to grips with the brief.’ He lets the whisky roll around in his mouth as he looks me up and down. ‘You’ve been gardening?’ He reaches forward and removes a petal of magnolia flower from my hair, a petal I had deliberately left there so that he could make just such a gesture.

‘Tidying up a little.’ I shrug it off as if it was nothing. ‘Alex helped too.’

‘Did he?’ He nods and has another swig of whisky. ‘That’s good.’

Tom has yet to properly get to know Alex and that makes life, if not exactly difficult, then slightly tiresome; and so, if an opportunity arises, I like to spin the wheel in Alex’s favour.

‘Were you able to collect my suit?’

‘I was.’ I smile into his neck and weave sleepy kisses on the softness around his throat. ‘It was tricky getting parked but I managed it.’

‘What would I do without you?’ he says, sounding genuinely amazed, as if I’d just performed a feat that was well beyond the scope of the average human being. I don’t feel even remotely guilty lying to him. Most relationships are sustained, strengthened even, by tiny, insignificant lies that ensure one party feels loved while the other party gains control. As long as the power see-saws between the couple, always fluid, never stuck, then balance is maintained. (Ideally, of course, a couple should never see-saw. They should walk hand-in-hand, neither competitive nor combative, but since when has life ever been ideal?)

I call Alex downstairs for supper, but just as we sit down, the doorbell sounds. ‘I’ll get it,’ Tom says, dropping his napkin on the table and heading for the front door.

Alex’s eyes snap to mine when we hear the high-pitched voice of Mrs Patterson, our neighbour. I make out the words ‘cat’ and ‘wall’ and ‘soaking wet’. I pass Alex the pepper grinder. ‘Add a squeeze of lemon, too,’ I say. ‘Brings out the flavours.’

I can’t hear what Tom is saying but his tone is polite and friendly and before long he has Mrs Patterson laughing. ‘I’m not sure what all that was about,’ he says when he returns to the table. ‘Apparently her cat arrived home drenched and terrified. Came over our wall.’

‘How strange,’ I say. I catch Alex’s eye and wink. He stifles a smile. Conspiracy makes us friends again.

‘So I hear you helped in the garden today, Alex?’ Tom says, pouring us both a glass of wine.

‘Just a bit,’ Alex mumbles.

‘Now, if you won’t blow your own trumpet, then I will,’ I say. I rest my free hand on Tom’s knee. ‘I wasn’t strong enough to wield the chainsaw so Alex helped me.’ I take a sip of wine – crisp, fruity Sauvignon Blanc that I swirl inside my mouth. ‘And he cleared up afterwards.’

‘Good for you,’ Tom says, smiling at Alex. He begins to tell him about his time as a fruit picker in East Anglia. ‘Paid my way through university. There’s something to be said for hard, physical work. Especially at your age when you have the strength and flexibility.’

Alex manages not to look dismissive and Tom moves on to talking about his day. He’s working on a high-stakes case involving money laundering and multiple murders by the sort of gangsters most people believe exist only on TV dramas. Alex is genuinely gripped by what Tom is telling him. ‘But why don’t the police arrest them?’ he says. ‘If everyone knows they did it.’

‘Insufficient evidence,’ Tom says. ‘Let me tell you how it works.’

It’s good to see my son relaxed and it’s good to see Tom acknowledging Alex’s opinion and chatting to him without the need for me as a mediator. But after a few minutes, I begin to feel uneasy and I steer the conversation onto sport, because Alex is just a bit too interested in the details of the crime and I don’t think it’s healthy. There will always be the spectre of his father lurking at the back of my mind – but, while DNA loads the gun, surely it doesn’t have to fire it. Nurture is key and I am nurturing Alex as best I can.

I sit back with my glass of wine and watch them both getting on at last. Tom is at his best when he is conversing about a subject he’s sure of (in this case, Scotland’s rugby team and their scrum tactics) and his enthusiasm is infectious. I admire successful men. That’s one of the things I know about myself – I couldn’t be with a man who wasn’t successful. Tom is at the top of his profession, a barrister in much demand who can name his price. Many of his cases are tried in London but he is powerful enough to make instructing solicitors and researchers come north of the border until the actual trial date.

I believe romantic love is mostly transactional. We can all pretend otherwise. We can all wax lyrical about soulmates and one-man-for-one-woman and meant-to-be foolishness. We can all be teary-eyed when we hear of serendipity bringing lovers together. But truthfully, when it comes down to it, this belief is a deceit. Time wears away the unconditional aspects of romantic love until it becomes a simple equation of what each partner offers the other – sex, money, companionship, intellectual stimulation, social opportunities, friendship, loyalty, a shared life … and so on. The equation needs to be balanced. I speak as one who knows. I spent five years specialising in couples therapy and so I’ve seen how it pans out for people. There’s nothing worse than feeling consistently short-changed as the long march of year in and year out takes its toll.

Tom offers me money – in the shape of this house, an annexe for me to practise in – and social opportunities. He has a large cast of friends that reads like a
Who’s
Who
of Edinburgh society. We go to events and he shows me off like a prize. He’s proud to have me on his arm and he isn’t threatened by the fact that I am able to hold my own with his, mostly male, friends.

And what do I offer Tom? I offer him exciting sex and a shared life. It’s a cliché, but traditional men like Tom are mostly about their cock and their stomach. All the other good things that a woman might have to offer come as a bonus, not a necessity.

I believe that for women, being sexy is a choice. Women withhold their sexiness because they feel the man doesn’t deserve them and I think that’s short-sighted. Play the long game, encourage him to try harder, tease him and make sure you’ve pre-positioned whatever you want in return, and that it’s ready to tip onto your lap. It’s about management and it’s about preparation. I’ve always used underwear, sex toys, hooker’s tricks – whatever it takes to keep a man’s interest until he has lost mine. My interest usually wanes first: I have never been left – I’ve aimed high but still I’ve never been left.

Tom needs validation. He’s not a man who can ever be allowed to feel as if he’s being taken for granted. His ego is too fragile for that. And, in truth, he’s easy enough to please. His desires sit squarely in the middle of normal: a double shift – morning and evening sex, a willingness to give with enthusiasm, variety thrown in once a week. (No imagination required – sex manuals tell you everything you need to know.)

This evening he’s in the mood to satisfy me, kissing, licking and sucking until he’s made me come, and then he falls asleep next to me, neatly, on his side. He’s always asleep in seconds and I envy him that. He is a man who, untroubled by his past, lives very squarely in the present. Me, on the other hand, I’m struggling to settle. Despite the evening going well, I’m concerned about Alex but I reassure myself that as long as I’m vigilant, he will be fine.

My brother, though, I do worry about because I hate to see him hurt. He’s going through a process of change, and change inevitably brings disruption. He’s never wanted to go to therapy before but now that he’s going, I’m well aware of what that could mean. I went to therapy myself as part of my training. It was a prerequisite for my qualification – seek to know yourself before you seek to guide others, see how it feels to be in therapy. Dig, dig deeper. My therapist was, and still is, Maurice van Burren, a patient, intuitive man who encouraged me to see beyond my own carefully constructed self-deception.

When Maurice and I first met, he was most interested in exploring my childhood, the formative years, not so called for nothing.

‘Tell me about your mother,’ he said.

‘My mother.’ I pictured her lying in her bed, greasy-haired, hunched under multiple blankets like a woman three times her age, believing she was ill, unloved, abandoned. I pictured her shouting at Mal, flecks of spit landing on his cheek; he was a man lacking in ambition but otherwise perfectly adequate. She was the problem, not him.

‘She was weak,’ I told Maurice. ‘She believed her own self-serving delusions. She had no fight. No sense of herself and what she could achieve. She thought she was owed love from those around her. She expected attention and support but she rarely gave anything back. She was one of life’s passengers.’

Silence. My words hang in the air. Harsh-sounding and judgemental. And as an adult I stand by them because it’s not for me to understand my mother.

‘Was that what you saw and felt as a child?’ Maurice said.

‘No. As a child I thought she was …’ I paused to travel back in time and find the little girl. I felt myself shrink as I re-inhabited her body, her small hands dexterous enough to make tea and change nappies. Her legs that could only run so fast – sixty-five seconds to the corner shop, and baby David left alone in his crib while she counted out the change. Then running back home, plastic bag banging against her legs, breathless with anxiety in case baby David had choked to death or somehow found his way out of his cot and ended up in the fire.

BOOK: What Goes Around: A chilling psychological thriller
11.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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