***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2017 Mary Torjussen
I was singing as I walked up the path to my house that day. Actually singing. I feel sick at the thought of that now.
I’d been on a training course in Oxford, leaving Liverpool as the sun rose at six, returning at sunset. I work as a senior manager for a large firm of accountants and when I got to the reception of our head office and signed myself in, I scanned the list of attendees from other branches and recognized several names, though they weren’t people I’d met. I’d read about them in our company’s newsletters and knew they were highflyers, and for the first time I realized that must have been what the company thought of me, too.
My skin had prickled with excitement at the thought, but I’d tried not to let my feelings show, relaxing my face into that calm mask I’d practiced so assiduously over the years. When I went into the conference room, I saw the others standing around chatting as though they were old friends. They looked polished and professional, as though they were used to this sort of event, and I was glad I’d spent a fortune on my clothes and hair and nails. One of the other women had the same Hobbs suit as mine, though luckily in a different color; another gave a covetous look at the chocolate Mulberry bag Matt had bought me for Christmas. I took a deep breath; I looked like one of them. I smiled at the nearest person, asked which branch she worked for and that was it, I was part of the group and soon my nerves were forgotten.
In the afternoon we were set a task to complete in a team and at the end I was chosen to present our findings to the whole group. I was terrified and spent the break time in a corner feverishly memorizing my speech while the others sat around chatting, but it seemed to go well. Once I’d made the presentation I could relax and was able to answer everyone’s questions in full, anticipating follow-up questions, too. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed Alex Hughes, one of our partners, nodding as I spoke, and at one point he made a note about something I said. When everyone was packing up to leave, he took me to one side.
“Hannah, I have to say you performed very well there,” he said. “We’ve been looking at your work for a while now and have been absolutely delighted with your progress.”
Just then Oliver Sutton, the firm’s managing partner, came to join us. “Well done, Hannah. You were excellent today. When Colin Jamison leaves in September I think you’ll be on track for promotion to director. Wouldn’t that make you the youngest in your branch?”
I don’t know what I replied. I was so surprised to hear him say that; it was like one of my dreams had come to life. Of course I knew exactly when each director had been promoted; I’d pored over their bios on the company’s website. I’m thirty-two and I knew the youngest had been appointed at thirty-three. That had helped give a certain edge to my work lately.
The organizer of the event came up to speak to them then and they smiled and shook hands with me before turning to her. I walked as calmly as I could to the cloakrooms and locked myself into a cubicle where I nearly screamed with pleasure. This was what I’d been working toward for years, since leaving university and starting with the firm as an assistant. I’ve never worked as hard as I have this last year or two, and now it looked as though it was going to pay off. When I came out of the cubicle I saw in the mirror that my face was pink, as though I’d been out in the sun all day. I took out my makeup bag and tried to repair the damage, but my cheeks still glowed with pride.
Everything was going to be all right.
I reached into my bag for my phone to send a message to my boyfriend, Matt, but then the Human Resources director came into the cloakrooms and smiled at me, so I smiled back and nodded at her and took out my hairbrush instead to smooth my hair. I didn’t want her to think I was excited about anything, to suspect that maybe I thought I didn’t deserve promotion.
There was also no way I wanted to hang around while she was in the loo, so I went back to the conference room to say good-bye to the others. I decided I’d tell Matt face to face and couldn’t wait to see his excitement. He knew how much I wanted this. Of course it was too early to celebrate—I hadn’t actually been promoted yet, after all—but I was sure that Oliver Sutton wouldn’t have said that lightly. Each time I thought of his words, I felt a swell of pride.
And then in the car before I set off I thought of my dad and how delighted he would be. I knew he’d hear about it from my boss, George, as they played golf together, but I wanted to be the first to tell him. I sent him a text:
Dad, I’m at a training day and the managing partner says they’re considering promoting me to director in a few months! xx
Within seconds I got a reply:
That’s my girl! Well done!
I flushed with pleasure. My father has his own business and he’s always said that the one thing he wants is for me to be successful. As far as my career was concerned, he was my biggest supporter, though it could be stressful if he thought I wasn’t promoted quickly enough. Another text beeped through:
I’ll put a treat in your account—have a celebration!
I winced. That wasn’t the point of telling him. I typed back quickly:
It’s OK, Dad, no need to do that. Just wanted to tell you how I got on. Tell Mum, will you? xx
Another message beeped:
Nonsense! Money’s always good.
Yes, money’s nice but a phone call would be better, I thought, then I shook some sense into myself and started the car.
It was a two-hundred-mile drive home and I did it without a break. I live on the Wirral peninsula in the northwest of England, just across the River Mersey from Liverpool. Despite the evening traffic, it was an easy drive with motorways all the way and it seemed as though the journey passed in a flash. I was so excited I couldn’t stop myself wriggling on my seat as I practiced what I would tell Matt and how I would say it. I wanted to stay calm and to just mention it casually when he asked me how my day had gone, but I knew I’d just burst out with it as soon as I saw him. When I reached Ellesmere Port, about fifteen miles from home, I saw the Sainsbury’s sign shining brightly in the distance and at the last minute I indicated to take the exit. This was a night for champagne. In the shop I picked up a bottle of Moët, then hesitated and picked up another. One isn’t enough when you have news like that, and besides, it was Friday; no work the next day.
Back on the motorway I pictured Matt’s reaction as I told him the news. It wasn’t as though I’d have to exaggerate. Just repeating what Alex Hughes and Oliver Sutton had said would be enough. Matt worked as an architect and had done well for himself; he’d understand how important it was for my career. And financially, too, I’d be level with him, if I was promoted. I thought of the salary scale for directors and felt a shiver of excitement—maybe I’d earn more than Matt soon!
I stroked my soft leather bag. “There’ll be more of you soon, sweetheart,” I said. “You’ll have to learn to share.”
It wasn’t just the money, though. I’d take a pay cut to have that kind of status.
I opened the windows and let the warm breeze run through my hair. The sun was setting and the sky ahead was filled with brilliant red and gold streaks. My iPod was on shuffle and I sang song after song at the top of my lungs. When Elbow played “One Day Like This,” I pressed Repeat over and over until I reached my home. By the time I arrived, I was almost in a state of fever and my throat was throbbing and sore.
The streetlights on my road popped on to celebrate my arrival. My heart pounded with the excitement of the day and the fervor of the music. The champagne bottles clinked in their bag and I pulled them out so that I could present Matt with them in a ta-da! kind of moment.
I parked on the driveway and jumped out. The house was in darkness. I looked at my watch. It was 7:20 p.m. Matt had told me last night that he’d be late, but I’d thought he’d be back by now.
Still. There’d be time to put the bottles in the freezer and get them really chilled. I put them back in the bag, picked up my handbag and opened the front door.
I reached inside for the hall light, clicked it on and stopped still. The hair on the back of my neck stood up.
Was someone in our house?
For the last four years I’ve had pictures on the hallway walls that Matt brought with him when he moved in. They’re huge photos of jazz musicians in heavy black frames. Ella Fitzgerald usually faced the front door, her eyes half-closed in a shy, ecstatic smile. Now there was nothing but the smooth cream paint we’d used when we painted the hallway last summer.
I dropped my coat and bags on the polished oak floor and on automatic pilot stooped to steady the bottles as they tilted to the ground. I stepped forward and stared again. There was nothing on the wall. I turned and looked at the wall alongside the staircase. Charlie Parker was usually there. He was bathed in a golden light and faced Miles Davis. It had always looked as though they were playing together. Both were gone.
I looked around in disbelief. Had we been burgled? But why had they taken the pictures? The walnut cabinet I’d bought from Heal’s was worth a lot and that was still there. On it, alongside the landline and a lamp, sat the silver and enamel Tiffany bowl that my parents had bought me when I graduated. Surely a burglar would have taken that?
I put my hand on the door to the living room, then hesitated.
What if someone’s still here? What if they’ve only just got here?
Quietly I took my handbag and backed out of the front door. On the path, safely away from the house, I took out my phone, uncertain whether to call the police or to wait for Matt. I stared at the house. Apart from the hallway, it was in darkness. The house attached to mine was dark, too; Sheila and Ray, our neighbors, had told me they’d be away until Sunday. The house on the other side had sold a month or two ago and its owners had long gone. A new couple would be moving in soon, but it didn’t look as though anyone was there yet; the rooms were empty and there were no curtains at the windows. Opposite us was the wide entrance to another road; the houses there were bigger, set well back with high hedges to stop them having to view the rest of the estate.
There didn’t seem to be any movement in our house. Slowly I walked across the lawn to the living room window and looked through into the darkened room.
At first I thought the television had gone. That would definitely be burglars. Then I froze. The television had gone; that was true. Matt had bought a massive flat-screen when he moved in. It had surround sound and a huge fancy black glass table and, to be honest, it took up half the room. All of it had gone.
Now in its place was the old coffee table I’d had for years, which I’d brought with me from my parents’ house when I left home. On it was my old television, a great big useless thing that used to shine blue and flicker if there was a storm. It had been in the spare room all this time, waiting until we had the energy to chuck it out. I’d hardly noticed it in all the time it had been up there.
My face was so close to the living room window that I could see the mist of my breath on it.
A car braked sharply in the distance and I jumped and turned, thinking it was Matt. I don’t know why I thought that.
My skin suddenly felt very cold, though the evening was warm and still. I took a deep breath and pulled my jacket tightly around me. I went back into the house, shutting the door quietly behind me. In the living room, I put the overhead light on, then quickly went to the window to draw the curtains, even though it was still light outside. I didn’t want an audience. I stood with my back to the window and looked at the room. Above the mantelpiece was a huge silver mirror and I could see my face, pale and shocked, reflected in it. I moved away so that I didn’t have to look at myself.
On either side of the fireplace, white-painted shelves filled the alcoves. Our DVDs and books and CDs had been on them. On the big, lower shelves Matt had kept his vinyl, hundreds of albums, all in alphabetical order by band, the more obscure the better. I remembered the day he moved in, how I’d taken dozens of my books from the shelves and put them in boxes in the spare room so he had space for his records.
Those books were now back there, looking as though they’d never been away. Most of the DVDs and CDs had gone. All of the vinyl was gone.
I turned to the other corner. His record player was no longer there, neither was his iPod dock. My old stereo was back; his had gone. Gone, too, were the headphones he’d bought when I’d complained I couldn’t watch television because of his music.
I felt as though my legs were about to give way. I sat down on the sofa and looked at the room. My stomach was clenched so tightly I almost doubled over.
I didn’t dare go into the rest of the house.
I took my mobile from my bag. I knew I shouldn’t call Matt—what was the point? He’d sent me the clearest message he could. At that moment, though, I had no pride. I wanted to talk to him, to ask him what was happening. I knew, though. I knew exactly what had happened. What he’d done.
There were no missed calls, no new messages, no new emails. Suddenly furious—he might at least have had the decency to let me know—I clicked on Recent Calls and scrolled down to find his name so that I could call him. I frowned. I knew I’d called him a few nights ago; I’d been in the car, just about to leave work; my friend, Katie, had sent a message saying that she and her boyfriend, James, might come round and I’d phoned Matt to check we had some drinks in. There was no record of that call on my phone. I scrolled down further. Months of calls flashed by. None of them was to him or from him.
I closed my eyes for a second and tried to take a deep breath, but I couldn’t. I felt as though I was going to faint and had to put my head down on my knees. After a few minutes, I looked back at the screen, clicked on Contacts and typed M for Matt, but nothing came up. Panicking I typed S for his surname, Stone. His name wasn’t there.
My fingers were suddenly hot and damp, slipping on the screen as I scrolled down the list of text conversations. Again, there were none to him and none from him, though we had sent a few each week. We tended to do that rather than call lately. There were still messages to friends and to my parents and to Sam at work, but nothing to Matt. I’d bought that phone at Christmas with my bonus. I sent him a message then, though he was only in the kitchen, asking him to bring a bottle of prosecco into the living room. I could hear him laugh when he read the message and he brought it in with some more chocolate mousse. I was lying comatose; the agreement had been that I’d cook Christmas lunch for his mother and us, but wouldn’t have to do anything else for the rest of the day.
I double-checked now and looked at my texts to Katie. It took a while to scroll through them as we sent several a week—several a day at times—but eventually I found the first one, wishing her a happy Christmas and telling her that Matt had bought me a Mulberry bag. She’d acted amazed, but I knew he’d asked her advice on it. I don’t know how she’d kept it a secret.
My mind whirled. What had happened to Matt’s texts and calls?
I switched the phone off and on again, hoping that might do something. There were text messages from Katie, sent yesterday afternoon, asking me about my trip to Oxford today. She’d phoned me just before the training started this morning, too, to wish me luck, knowing how much the day meant to me. I’d spent a few minutes talking to her in the car park before I had to go in. There were texts to and from Sam, my friend at work, and Lucy, my assistant, as well as some from my mum and a few from my dad, including those exchanged in Oxford just hours ago. There were also messages from Fran and Jenny, old friends who I run with sometimes, and some from university friends that I still saw occasionally. There wasn’t anything from Matt at all.
Of course I knew what was going to happen when I opened my emails. No new messages, but that wasn’t a surprise. I tried to think of the last time Matt had emailed me; usually he’d text. Back when we first met we’d email several times a day; we both used to have our private emails open on our computers while we were working, so we could chat to each other throughout the day. You’d think that would have made us less productive but the opposite happened and we found we were firing on all cylinders, working fast and furious and making great decisions. We were so fired up we both got promotions and it was only when Matt’s company started logging network accounts after some idiot was found to be looking at porn all day that we had to stop. My heart sank now as I looked at the folders; the one with all his emails in it was missing. I opened a new message and entered “Matt” into the address bar. Nothing came up, not even his email address.
I could hear myself breathing, short, shallow breaths. There was the beginning of a red mist around my eyes and I could feel myself starting to hyperventilate.
I had no way of contacting him.
For a while I couldn’t move. I sat on the edge of the sofa, holding my stomach as though I was in labor. My mind raced and my palms were tingling. When the lights of a car came to our end of the street and shone through a gap in the curtains, I jumped up and before I knew it I was flat against the wall next to the window, pulling the curtains slightly to one side.
If it was Matt, I wanted to be ready for him.
Someone had come to the empty house next door. Car doors opened and slammed; I heard a man say something and a woman laugh in response. I looked through the gap in the curtains and saw a young couple standing at the boot of their car. I watched unnoticed as they unloaded suitcases and boxes and took them into the house. They must have just left them in the hall as within a minute they were back in their car and driving off down the road. My new neighbors, I assumed. I looked at my watch. It was after eight o’clock. It seemed an odd time to move in, but then I remembered my other neighbor, Sheila, saying that it was a local couple who had bought the house; maybe they were moving their things themselves.
I gathered up my courage and made my way through to the kitchen. I pushed the door open and pressed the light switch. When the light blazed on, I saw a flash of the room and closed my eyes.
He’d done the same thing here.
Gone was the maroon Rothko picture, which had glowed above the oak fireplace. Gone, too, was the white metal candelabra that Matt had brought with him and lit on the night he’d moved in. I remembered him blowing out the candles before taking my hand and leading me upstairs to our bedroom. He’d smiled at me, that easy grin that had always made me smile back, and pulled me toward him in the darkened room, whispering in my ear, “Let’s go to bed.” My heart had melted and I’d hugged him, right where I was standing now.
The back of the house was one room, with a large marble island dividing the kitchen and dining areas. French doors led out onto the patio and large windows sat either side, with potted plants and photos on their deep sills. Of course, the photos of Matt had vanished. There were still photos of Katie and me with our arms around each other at parties and one of us that I loved where we were wearing Santa hats and holding hands, aged five. There was one of my mum and dad that I’d taken on their wedding anniversary and another of them with me at my graduation, their faces full of pride and relief. Photos of my friends from university, shiny faced and bright eyed in bars and clubs, were still there and one of me finishing my first half marathon, holding hands with Jenny and Fran as we crossed the finish line, but all the photos of Matt had gone. It was impossible now to see where they’d been.
I sat at the island with my head in my hands and looked out at the room. A square glass vase of purple tulips sat on the dining table, just where I’d put it a few days before. I’d stopped at Tesco for some milk and had seen them by the entrance, their tight buds and dewy leaves a reminder that summer was on its way. The room was clean and tidy, just as it usually was, but it seemed tarnished now, somehow, like a nightclub in daylight.
There were fewer glasses on the cabinet shelves by the door. When Matt had moved in he’d brought with him some heavy crystal wineglasses his grandmother had given him and had placed them in the cabinet. I hadn’t liked them, had thought they were old-fashioned and doubted they were nice even when they were in fashion, so their disappearance now was no great loss. My Vera Wang glasses were still there, lined up and ready to party. Ready to party in an empty room.
My stomach rumbled and I went over to the fridge, though I couldn’t face eating. The contents of the fridge seemed the same as they’d been at six that morning, when I’d left for Oxford. A supermarket delivery had arrived last night, ready for the weekend ahead and everything was still there. There was twice as much as I’d need now. I’d ordered the food while I was at work and Matt had unpacked it with me, without a word to suggest he wouldn’t be there to eat it. I slammed the fridge door shut and stood with my back to it, breathing heavily, my eyes squeezed tight. When my breathing slowed I opened my eyes and saw the gaps on the magnetic strip above the hob where he’d lovingly placed his Sabatier knives. Below was a space where his French press had stood.
I steeled myself and opened the cupboards.
His packets of coffee beans were gone, the grinder, too. If I leaned forward I could smell the faint aroma of coffee and wondered how long it would last. That was one thing he couldn’t erase. I slammed the cabinet door shut. My head throbbed as I opened the lower cupboard and saw the space where his juicer usually stood. In another cupboard I saw his mugs had gone, the huge, ugly ones with logos. He’d carried them with him from university to bedsit and on to his London house and then to our home—my home—and I wished he’d left them so that I could smash them now.
I opened the fridge again and checked the compartments in the door this time. The bottle of ketchup that I never touched—gone. His jar of Marmite—gone. No great loss, as I disliked both of them, but why take them? I checked the kitchen bin and they weren’t there. All my bottles and jars had been redistributed along the shelves, so it looked as though nothing was missing.
I pulled a chilled bottle of white wine from the fridge and one of my glasses from the cabinet and sat back at the island. I poured a full glass and drank it down, almost in one gulp, then poured another. I kept looking at my phone to check that his number had actually gone. My mind whirred. He’d been fine the night before; in fact, he’d been in a great mood. I’d got up early that morning to shower and get ready for my trip to Oxford. I’d left at dawn, terrified of getting caught up in the morning traffic. I’d panicked the whole journey in case I was late.
I’d leaned over before I left and kissed him softly on his cheek. His eyes were closed and his breathing steady. His face had been warm and still against my mouth. He was asleep, or at least I’d thought he was. Maybe he was awake, waiting for me to go? Maybe his eyes had snapped open the moment he heard my car drive off and he’d jumped up to start packing.
I started to cry, then, at the thought of that. We’d been together for four years—how could he just walk out without an explanation? And to put all my things back in their old places; it was as though he’d never been here!
I drank most of the next glass down, too, and that made me cry again. I loved Matt. I’d always loved him, right from the start. He knew how much he meant to me; I’d told him so many times. We spent all our time together and the thought of being without him made my stomach gallop with panic. I reached out for my phone, wanting to talk to someone but put it down again. I was filled with shame at being left, humiliated at the way he’d gone. How could I tell anyone what he’d done?
I took the bottle and my glass upstairs with me. I needed oblivion tonight and this was the quickest way there.
When I got to my bedroom door I knew what to expect, but still, the sight of the quilt cover, fresh and clean, upset me again. I’d changed the bed linen the Sunday before and just by chance had put on the burgundy cover he’d brought with him when he moved in. That was gone now; the quilt cover and pillowcases on our bed were embroidered white cotton, mine from long before I’d met him.
I steeled myself and opened his wardrobe doors. Of course, it was empty. Wire hangers hung on the rail and there wasn’t even the faintest smell of his cologne. There didn’t seem much point in checking the drawers, but I did anyway. I opened each one and they were as empty as the day I bought them.
I took off my clothes and dropped them in the empty laundry basket in the bathroom, found my oldest and softest cotton pajamas and put them on, all the while avoiding my reflection in the mirror over my chest of drawers. I was too mortified to see my own face.
In bed as the night grew dark, with just the light from the landing coming through to the room, I poured glass after glass of wine and drank it without tasting it. I reached into the bottom drawer of my bedside dresser and found my headphones. They were the kind that canceled noise, just what I needed tonight, when I didn’t want to hear anything, not even my own thoughts. In the darkness of the room, I could feel my head buzzing and my cheeks tightening as the alcohol entered my bloodstream. I took the pillow from Matt’s side of the bed and curled into it. It smelled clean and fresh; there was no trace of him there. Tears ran down my face and no matter how many times I dried it, within seconds it was drenched again. When I thought of him packing up everything and leaving me without a word, without a hint that he was going, I felt like a fist was clenching my heart, squeezing it tight. I could hardly breathe.
Where was he?