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  • Published: 3 December 2018
  • ISBN: 9781784163440
  • Imprint: Black Swan
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 352
  • RRP: $19.99

The House Swap

Extract

Amber brings the coffees over and sets them down with a flourish, gesturing at the intricately piped pattern of white foam that spirals out geometrically. ‘Pretty, eh,’ she comments. ‘It’s the little things, right?’ Her left eye flickers in what might be a wink, but it’s over so fast I don’t have time to react. ‘So,’ she continues, settling down opposite me, ‘what brings you to these parts, then? Seems like a funny choice for a holiday.’

‘Well…’ I hesitate, unsure of how much to say, or even of what the answer is. I choose my words carefully, weighing them up. ‘I suppose it is funny, in a way,’ I say. ‘But we wanted a week away, and didn’t want the hassle and the expense of going abroad. I don’t particularly know this area, but it’s pretty close to central London, and, well… the opportunity came up.’

‘Sure,’ Amber agrees, shrugging. ‘Why not. And actually, it is nice round here, of course. I’m just too used to it to notice, most of the time.’

‘Have you lived here long?’ I ask.

She glances up and to the left in the way people do when trying to access a long-buried memory. ‘About… ten months. So, not really, no,’ she adds, grinning. ‘Seems longer.’ She leans forward in her seat, lowering her voice to an intimate murmur, excluding the people around us. ‘Kind of like a prison sentence,’ she says.

I know I should laugh, but the words set something off in me and I just nod, not trusting myself to speak. ‘It’s not that bad, surely,’ I say eventually.

She shakes her head, leaning in further so that her elbows are resting on the table. ‘No, of course not,’ she says. ‘I like it, mostly. It’s just – a little stifling at times. A little bizarre, when you think about it. Living here, you get to know everyone by sight really fast. I see the same people around all the time, and we smile and say hi, and you end up wondering what they’re thinking about you. Because, of course, you don’t really know them, and they don’t really know you. You only know what you can see. Little pockets of the same things. You know – mums on the school run, old ladies digging up weeds in their front garden, husbands washing the car on a Sunday. Bits of people’s lives. And sometimes I wonder what bits of mine they see and what they think about them. That’s all.’ She settles back in her seat and blows carefully on her coffee. The foam spreads and scurries, sinking down into the cup.

‘I see,’ I say, to fill the silence. For some reason, the hairs on my arms are prickling, sending a shudder down my spine. ‘So you don’t generally invite the people you see out for coffee?’ I ask, trying to lighten the mood.

She smiles, a little awkwardly. ‘No. Not usually. Maybe I’m getting desperate.’

‘What about the people who live in the house I’m staying in – number 21? Do you know them?’ I ask. All of a sudden, it seems crazy that I am staying in this S. Kennedy’s house, when I know so little about them.

Amber looks quickly at me, a frown creasing her perfect forehead. ‘Well, don’t you?’ she counters.

Too late, I remember I have told her I am housesitting, implicitly painting it as a favour to a friend. ‘Not exactly,’ I hedge. ‘We’re more friends of friends, I suppose.’ As I speak, I am aware that she has not answered the question, and so this time I deliberately let the silence stretch.

‘Oh,’ Amber says flatly, at last. ‘Well, no. Not really. Like I say, you see people around. But that’s about it.’ She folds her arms across her chest and stares out of the window, watching the cars patrolling slowly past with an intentness that seems disproportionate. There’s something about the way she bites the words off, as if she’s stopping herself from saying more. I look across at her, eyebrows slightly raised, a smile on my lips. She looks back at me levelly, but she says nothing.

It strikes me that she is unusually self-composed, clearly feeling none of the twitchy compulsion to fill the silence that is currently spreading through me. Perhaps I should admire this, but I can’t help finding it strange. It’s only a few more seconds before I break. ‘OK,’ I say brightly, ‘sure…’ and I steer us back into safer waters.

We chat for a while about the best things to do in the neighbourhood, discuss the church fundraising event she has been unwillingly drawn into, and after a few more minutes I feel justified in glancing at my watch and saying I should get back to my husband. Amber greets the news with equanimity, draining her coffee cup and getting to her feet before I have even had a chance to pull on my jacket. She bestows another of her smiles on me as we emerge back into the sunshine. ‘Thanks for coming,’ she says. ‘Breaks the day up. Maybe see you around again before you go?’

For a moment, I feel childishly disappointed; her words are vague and non-committal, delivered with no real impetus behind them. ‘Yes,’ I say. ‘That would be nice.’

‘OK.’ She backs away from me, gesturing up the high street. ‘I’m going to carry on and pick up a few things. See you!’ She raises her hand in a little wave, waggling her fingers, and then she turns and hurries up the street, her blonde hair swinging jauntily in the breeze. I watch her go: the easy seductiveness of her walk, the chain reaction of men’s heads turning. A little catch of recognition snags on me.

I walk slowly back to Everdene Avenue, thinking about who it is she reminds me of. I am almost back at the house before I hit on it, and when it comes to me I give a little snort of surprise. It’s myself. Our colouring and our hairstyles are similar, though I don’t think I ever looked so glamorous and put- together, even when I was her age. But it’s something deeper than appearance; there’s an energy in the way she moves, the fluid confidence of it, that makes me remember the way I was when I was full of the electricity of being with you and it spilled out of me everywhere I went. It’s a light that got switched off almost two years ago, but I can remember clearly how it felt. If I could slip inside her body, I could bring that Caroline back to life.

The thought is tantalizing and sad. The past twenty-two months have been ones of regrouping, restabilizing, but they have also been ones of suppression. I lost the old me – that woman with the inbuilt confidence, the conviction that life was going to be OK – the night I last saw you. After that, I didn’t deserve her any more.

 

Francis is there as soon as I open the door, fully dressed and clearly agitated, brandishing my mobile like a weapon. My heart drops, and I feel that sickening, scattergun sense of impending discovery. It takes me a few seconds to remember that I have nothing to hide.

‘Where were you?’ he asks immediately. ‘You left your phone, and you’ve been ages. I was really worried.’

‘I’m sorry,’ I say, slipping inside and shrugging off my coat. ‘I bumped into the woman up the road I told you about yesterday. We went for a quick coffee. I know it sounds a bit weird, but…’ I trail off, aware that there is really nothing more to say.

My eyes meet his, and I see the unspoken question in them – the one he can’t seem to stop asking, even after all this time. A great sense of weariness sweeps over me, sucking my energy with it. Maybe it’s unreasonable, but I can’t help feeling exasperated. Angry, even. It’s as if it has been accepted that, at any given moment, every few minutes we spend apart, I might well be filling the time fucking someone else. In the early days, I would try and fight this with denial. It’s over. It’s over. I said it again and again, and it sounded more unconvincing every time, although it couldn’t have been more true. At times, I had wanted to explain – to say the words that would make him believe me – but whenever I opened my mouth to try, I thought of how his face would change, the way he would look at me and realize what I was. And those words wouldn’t come.

Now, I face him head on and speak clearly and quietly. ‘There is nothing to worry about,’ I say. ‘I bumped into this woman. We went for a coffee. That is it.’ I let the space collect around my words, careful not to overjustify.

Francis nods, his face hardening with the effort it costs him to believe me. ‘I know,’ he says.

‘Well, thanks for the vote of confidence.’ It comes out without my wanting it to – a petty, ill-judged thought pushed into reality by that small, defiant part of me that can’t seem to stop fighting. As soon as I hear the unpleasant ring to my voice, I want to take it back.

‘Caroline, why are you being like this?’ he asks, his expression wounded and uncomprehending. ‘I didn’t accuse you of anything. I was just worried. I’ve come here to have a good time with you. To have fun. Is that too much to ask?’

‘Of course not,’ I say, trying to soften my tone.

We are standing very close together in the hallway, our faces almost touching. I put my arms around his neck and dip my face into the hollow, breathing in, talking myself down. It’s understandable that he is still suspicious, and that it can make him anxious and needy. Even if what I did was explainable, it wasn’t excusable. I can’t expect its impact to disappear overnight.

‘It’s OK,’ he says. ‘I’m sorry,’ and he draws back a little and smiles with the familiar mouth that I have kissed for fifteen years. It isn’t easy, now, to remember the sullen lines in which it is still sometimes set. That mouth belongs to someone else.

‘I’m sorry, too,’ I murmur, trying to fight the irrational, unreasonable burning in my chest. Sometimes, the better he is, the more enraged I feel.

We stay there in each other’s arms for another full minute, loosely clasped, feeling the rhythm of our breathing. His heartbeat against mine is quick and strong. The closeness slowly does its work and calms me. I lean my head on to his shoulder, staring emptily at the wall opposite me.

There’s a little alcove that dips just past the front door. It looks designed for a coat rack that isn’t there. Now there is just a small, framed picture, hanging in the middle of the whitewashed wall. A stylized photograph of a park, a river curling diagonally along the edge of the frame and the edge of an ornamental garden beyond. I stare at it for what feels like hours before I realize what I am looking at, and when I do the shock grips me. It’s Hyde Park, the bank of the Serpentine where it runs close to Kensington Gardens, the stretch I once visited with you. It’s impossible not to imagine us there, lying next to that riverbank in the photograph. I can feel the grass brushing my bare arms. The heat of the sun beating down on my closed eyelids, and the knowledge of your shadow above, altering the quality of the light.

My stomach lurches with nausea, and I’m thinking of the flowers in the bathroom, and of the music that Francis was playing yesterday when I came back here. For months, I have sidestepped these kinds of reminders, these unassuming little tripwires that would have meaning only for me and you. Now they are crowding me so much I can hardly think. I don’t understand how they fit together, and why they’re coming at me now, in this unfamiliar place. This house was meant to be an escape – a step out of my life. But this feels less like a step out than a step back in, into a place I don’t want to remember.

I don’t want to be here. The thought hits without warning, irrational but strong.

‘Caro?’ Francis is pulling back from my arms, alert to some change in my breathing. ‘Are you all right?’

I stare at him, and I can’t work out if his expression is knowing or naïve. At the corner of my vision, the picture hangs. I can’t understand how I haven’t noticed it before. ‘Yes,’ I say slowly, fighting past the tightness in my throat. ‘Yes, I’m fine.’


The House Swap Rebecca Fleet

What if the stranger you'd just let into your life was anything but a stranger? An unputdownable domestic thriller; 'Dark, smart, sexy, gripping' Erin Kelly

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