Laughter rippled below, almost loud enough for Lindsey to feel it through the floorboards. Mark’s voice rumbled on for a minute, and there was another peal of laughter; so many mouths and teeth and thrashing tongues.
If they’d have cared that she ‘wasn’t feeling well’, they’d have kept the noise down. Or maybe even gone home so she and Mark could have the argument they needed. But they stayed, and that laughter would be at her expense. Mark would put his hand on his hip, waggle a finger on the other, and make his voice shrieking to imitate her. And her laughter would be loudest of all.
Sat on the edge of her bed, Lindsay’s fingers twisted the duvet as if she had to hold on or fall. Her hair swayed with each sob, tickling her face. She brushed it back with one hand and lifted her chin. A sniff cleared her nose. She took a deep breath and released it fast. Rubbing her eyes only made the sting worse.
More laughter, rising from the space where Lindsay’s toes curled into the carpet.
Adding insult to injury was the purpose of the party. Not Mark’s birthday, at all, but an exhibit; a parade of Lindsey in all her stupidity.
Inviting people from work was fine, Lindsey looked forward to playing wife and hostess for the evening. But inviting her was a slap in the face. When he talked to her, it was a kick in the guts. When he filled her glass it was a knife blade between the ribs.
Lindsey knew all about it. And everyone downstairs knew too. And Mark, of course, knew it all. He just didn’t care.
Standing, Lindsay’s hand lashed out and grabbed the headboard. Her knees vibrated like tuning forks. Hand trailing the wall, she made her way to the bathroom, first stopping at the bedroom door.
It had gone awfully quiet downstairs.
Maybe they’d finally taken the hint.
The front door creaked, and the sound of quiet chatter drifted upstairs. Mark shouted a goodbye, a car door slammed. This happened a few times, at irregular intervals, volume dependent on the distance of the car.
The front door clicked closed.
He’d be up soon. Lindsey had to clean herself up. If they were going to argue, she couldn’t look like she’d already been crying.
The bathroom light clicked twice before lighting, showing just how bad the damage was. Lindsey looked hideous. An oil pipeline had burst under each reddened eye, sending rivers of ink down her face. Her crows feet, just starting to show at the tender age of thirty-seven were filled with liquid mascara, making them deep and ugly.
Lindsey turned this way and that, flattening her dress, cinching her waist with her hands. At a little over eleven stone, she was disgusting. There was little wonder Mark had strayed with her.
Her face never looked like that. Her arse was like a drum. Her stomach didn’t need special pants to keep it in.
And those breasts.
Mark always said he loved Lindsay’s breasts. He said it the first time they slept together and every time since. She’d been so embarrassed that she’d left her bra on. He’d been tender, asking her to remove it, and he’d kissed her there, telling her she was beautiful all the time. Lindsey melted from his flaming lies like candle wax and solidified at his feet, never to question him again. Until it was too late. And now he wanted breasts like hers. Like supermarket fruit.
The images were the worst. Of course he’d given no specifics Not even when she threw the plate at him and demanded to know. Not even when she hit him and he had to hold her down while she cried herself tired like a child. He just stood and denied everything. But Lindsay’s imagination filled in the blanks.
Sat in front of the mirror, the cool flannel felt sensual on her face. But with her eyes closed, all the imaginings came back again. How his tongue would look, caressing her nipples as he did with Lindsay’s. How his hands spread on the small of her back. How he would tilt his face into her neck and whisper old promises made new.
Lindsey wretched, bringing wine-tinged bile into the bowl. Oh god, now she’d have to clean her teeth too. The wine (white was always a mistake) made her clumsy. The process was taking too long. But not as long as Mark was taking downstairs. He should have been up by now. It didn’t take this long to lock up and turn out the lights. Or maybe he was hoping Lindsey would fall asleep so they didn’t have to argue.
She carried on cleaning and drying, reapplying a little, finger-combing her hair. The dress would have to be changed. There was no way she felt good enough in it. Jeans would be better; the high-waisted ones. She’d had them years, and could still fit into them. They made her feel good. Young again. Rash and powerful, even though she’d never been those things in her younger years.
A simple strappy top went with the jeans. No bra underneath. She wanted him to want her as she kicked him out of the door. Make him feel it in the only place he felt anything. Mark always told her how sexy she looked like this. And she’d caught him giving her that look too many times to think it another lie.
He gave her that look. When she leant over his desk. When the copier wouldn’t work. When she brought him coffee and a come-on.
Just on the edge of hearing, the front door creaked again.
Clicked shut; too quiet to be anything other than caution.
Fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes after everyone else had left. While Lindsay was right upstairs. Waiting for him. Crying over him-
Lindsey stared at the bedroom door, her jaw slack. Her knees finally gave way and the bed caught her. Searching her palms for answers, she shook her head when none were found.
Mark’s footsteps on the stairs.
Lindsey was up, and bolting for the bathroom. Make-up was scraped into the drawer under the sink. The sink itself rinsed clean. There wasn’t time to clear anything else.
When he came in, she was sat in front of the mirror but not looking into it.
Mark stood at the door for a while, watching her. She glanced up at his reflection. The bottom button of his shirt was undone, protruding from the waistband like a flag. There was something wet around the fly of his trousers, a darker patch of black as if he’d spilled his drink.
He stood with hands on hips; stretched his back. Satisfied.
Stepping into the bathroom, Lindsey could see his smirk; a glow in his cheeks.
He stepped up behind her, close enough to touch his crotch between her shoulder blades.
The scent of beer leaked off him. Beer, and a waft of alien perfume.
“What’re you crying for, now?”
The hairdryer contacted Mark’s temple so fast that he didn’t blink. His legs collapsed. A dull crack echoed in the toilet as his forehead hit the lip of the bowl, and bounced off.
Lindsey opened her eyes.
The bathroom was dark.
A wedge of light from the bedroom lit Mark’s twisted legs. The smell of burning came from the socket behind her. Pain in her fingers reminded her of the hair dryer. She let the plastic shell splinter on the tiles and watched as her knuckles turned pink. Her fingers shook, stomach churning like kneaded dough.
Something oozed around her bare foot, but was too far away for her to register.
All she saw was Mark’s sock, worn bare at the heel, and twitching.
Lindsey seemed nice, if not a little quiet. And maybe a little spoilt. But that was only a first impression and Natalie didn’t take as much stock in them as other people. When Lindsey had gone upstairs, Nat couldn’t help noticing the sour look the hostess gave her. But it was neither woman’s fault. Nat would have done the same thing if her husband had spent all night flirting with his assistant.
He spoke to other people, for the look of the thing, but every time Nat glanced his way, he was already looking at her. She tried to talk to Lindsey a few times before she left; thank her for a lovely night and compliment the cheesecake (she had a weakness for it), but Lindsey made some excuse or moved away like a herded sheep. Mostly she disappeared into the kitchen, and Nat wasn’t brave enough to follow.
Poor Lindsey. What must it be like to watch your husband drool over a younger woman? Nat found it happened a lot. She was attractive, from a man’s point of view, she had to admit. There was a wolf-whistle or chat up line waiting for her almost everywhere she went. And it was horrible.
When her friends dressed up, Nat dressed down. She’d spent her university years in baggy jumpers and jogging pants just to hide the figure beneath, hoping that a man would fall in love with her for her conversation or sense of humour. But they never did. Nat got the pricks and the egotists. The ones that thought good breeding was found through breast-shaped binoculars. But the older men were the worst.
It was obvious that Mark liked younger women. Lindsey must have been ten years his junior, and he married her; Nat was almost twenty years younger still, and so he wanted to shag her. Christ, he spent most of the work day drooling and dry-humping her desk. And if it wasn’t for the fact that the job was perfect, and well paid, and that Nat knew her next boss would only be the same, she’d leave.
It was tiring.
Standing in front of the mirror, Nat turned this way and that.
She wished she saw what they did. But she just saw hips that bounced when she walked. Breasts that hurt in the gym despite a sports bra made by the same people who designed the Humber Bridge. And she hated her feet (when she eventually caught sight of them, which wasn‘t often with those god damn breasts in the way). Open toed sandals and flip flops were a no-go.
Lindsay’s figure was perfect. The kind that could wear anything and not look slutty. The dress she’d had on tonight had been beautiful, the low back looking perfect on her petite frame. Nat would have looked like a slut in it. She looked like a slut in most things. And that’s why her dress was high necked and to cut to the knee. But the black material still made her breasts look like an approaching battleship, even with a full bodice strapped tight underneath.
It was no good. It had to come off.
Nat set her wine glass down on the mantelpiece and went upstairs.
It took two seconds to get out of the dress, but almost fifteen minutes to get out of the bodice.
If Mark had his way tonight, this would be the second time she’d removed it. The slimy bastard. While she was in the toilet (desperately trying to wee despite the fact the bodice stopped her sitting down) he called it a night and everyone left. When she came back into the living room, Mark was sat in the chair, looking at her, waiting for her. Wearing that stupid “Birthday Boy” badge.
“Everyone’s gone home,” he said.
Nat panicked. She was acutely aware that Mark was between her and the door. At least Lindsey was upstairs. Surely he wouldn’t try anything now.
“I should be going too. Lots to do tomorrow,” she said, and moved toward the door.
“Am I giving you too much to do?”
“Not at all. It’s good to be kept busy.”
He was at the living room door, hand on the knob as if ready to open it, but not moving.
“I could reduce your work load to doing only one thing for me,” he said, ignoring her response for the sake of a good come-on. He moved toward her, making her legs bump the sofa arm as she retreated. She almost fell.
He caught her. Stinking of that horrible cologne, he pulled her close to him as if catching her.
“Woops. Had a little too much to drink have we?”
His breath was all over her face, stinking of beer and the chilli he’d wolfed down.
She turned away, forcing her hands into his chest.
“Not that much, Mark.”
He stopped for a moment when his enthusiasm wasn’t returned, just long enough for Nat to prize herself away and move back across the room.
“Oh,” he said. His face caved in, leaving only an old man’s leer sipping from his pint glass. He perched on the sofa’s arm, stroking the place where Nat’s bum had contacted it.
She shivered despite the central heating.
“I should really go.” She didn’t move. She’d still have to squeeze past him to get to the door if she tried to leave now.
“Shall I call you a cab?”
“No. Thank you. I can be home by the time it arrives.”
“A woman like you shouldn’t be walking around at night on her own.”
I’m more worried about being in here on my own, she thought. Mugging might be a welcome alternative.
“I’ll be fine. I know how to kick where it hurts.”
“Yes. I’m sure you know exactly where it is.”
And that was it. He was drunk. She would never be drunk enough. What was a stupid man flirting with a young woman had turned into a pathetic old creep sexually harassing.
“Mark,” she said. “I’m leaving. Now. Please move away from the door.”
He humphed like a child and swung his leg over the sofa’s arm, sliding down onto it. He was trying to look cool and nonchalant, but spilt his drink in the meantime.
“Bollocks,” he said as Nat bolted for the door. He grabbed at his shirt, dabbing it against his trousers, only dampening both garments more.
She found the front door unlocked and moved out onto the doorstep.
Mark’s hand wrapped around her wrist. Pain sparkled for a moment, so she didn’t resist when he span her toward him. He was even closer this time. Close enough for her to feel what was barely a bump beneath his trousers. He worked it into her thigh for a moment, expecting her to warm to the idea.
Nat had had enough.
There was pushing it and then too far. This was beyond either.
She jerked her knee enough to startle him, but not do any permanent damage. He let go pretty quick.
As she ran down the path, letting the gate collide with the garden wall, and out into the street. She might have heard the door close.
Finally, she’d worked the bodice loose and took a few deep breaths as it slid off.
The night had been full of discomfort and upset. All she wanted was to crawl into her pyjamas, finish her wine, and go to bed.
A knock at the door.
Hurrying into her pyjamas, and throwing the flannel dressing gown over, Nat wondered who the hell could be knocking.
As she reached the staircase, she thought of Mark. Would he be drunk enough, stupid enough, to follow her home. If it was him, the police would find out which.
Taking all possible care, Nat teased the living room curtain away from the wall and peered through. It was dark, and she could barely see. But it definitely wasn’t Mark. It looked like-
Why would she come here?
What had Mark said to her? What had his stupid pride and throbbing trouser-ego made him say?
Lindsey looked terrible.
She’d been crying. Even with the new make-up, Nat could see the swollen eyes.
“Can I come in?”
“It’s kind of late,” said Nat. “Can it wait?”
Nat moved aside and Lindsey let herself in.
“Lindsey, listen, I don’t know you and you really don’t know me. But I’m just going to say this and have done with it. Because I think your being here is due to a major misunderstanding. Or maybe lies. Either way, I want you to know that your husband is a bastard. He’s a letch and that’s all he is. I wouldn’t touch him with a barge-pole. Not that I’m saying he’s unattractive. You know, he’s your husband and I’m sure you love him, but he’s definitely not my type and definitely not in my age range. He’s flirted with me ever since I started at Harker’s, and apparently he did it with the girl before too. He just can’t keep it to himself. It’s not my fault, and I never gave him any idea that I was interested-”
Lindsey just stood in front of the gas fire, staring at a patch of wall a foot behind Nat’s chest.
“Lindsey? Are you alright? What’s he done? You can tell me.”
“Do you have any more of that?” Lindsey raised a finger to the wineglass on the mantelpiece.
“Yeah. Yes, of course.”
Nat disappeared into the kitchen and poured a glass of wine. She brought the bottle in with her. This was going to be a long night.
Lindsey still stood where Nat had left her.
“Why don’t you sit down?”
Lindsey obeyed and took the wine glass when it was offered.
“Do you want to tell me what he’s done?”
“He’s a bastard,” said Lindsey.
“Yes, he is.”
“He has affairs. He’s done it before.”
“I’m so sorry, Lindsey.”
“I thought he was doing it with you, too.”
“I swear to you, he hasn’t. Not with me.”
“But he’s done it before.”
“Yes, I guess he has.”
“What happened to your wrist?”
She’d been rubbing it without noticing. There were deep purple marks growing through the skin. Four in a row. Four little piggys.
“He grabbed you didn’t he? He likes grabbing. It hurts.” Lindsay’s eyes burnt into the stripes on Nat’s wrist.
“Yes. He did. But it doesn’t hurt much. It’s just a little sore. Nothing a few bangles wont cover up.”
Lindsey hung her head, arms resting on knees, wine glass held in both hands like a sacrificial offering of blood.
“I think I killed him.”
“I’m sure I killed him. His foot…and the blood…”
Nat finally noticed what she should have long before.
“I thought…I thought he’d done it again…”
Lindsay’s feet were stained red with congealed blood.
“I couldn’t stand it…you’re so pretty…he likes you…”
Some had flaked off as she walked into the living room, and again when she moved to the sofa.
“He looks at you…but what you said…and he hurt you…”
Mark’s drying blood was on Nat’s floor.
Ohmygod. Ohmygod. Ohmygod.
Lindsey was looking at her. Her eyebrows were high, a weak smile on her lips. Tears streaked her face.
“I did it for both of us.”
Nat couldn’t look up. Her wine glass hung slack in her fingers.
“Can I use your bathroom?”
“Your bathroom. Can I use it?”
Nat just looked at her; nodded.
Lindsey got up, taking her wine with her, and made for the stairs.
“Natalie,” she said. “I’m sorry. Tell them I’m sorry.”
“Who?” asked Nat.
Lindsey just smiled, and headed for the stairs.
Nat listened to the stranger’s footsteps creak up the narrow stairs, shuffling across the carpet above, and the bathroom door clicked shut. She moved like lightning, setting the wine down on the table, grabbing for the phone, jabbing the number on reflex.
She whispered fast and quiet, eyes fixed on the living room door.
“Police, police…hello? Hello? Hi. My name’s Natalie Brewster. I’m at 1-9-2 Rowan Court. I need a policeman. Now. There’s a woman in my house and she says she killed her husband. I work for her husband, you see, but she’s in my house and she’s covered in his blood. She’s in my bathroom. She wanted to use the bathroom. I need a policeman. Please. Send someone-”
The sound of smashing glass from above.
“Ohmygod,ohmygod. She just broke something up there. Please, send someone. Please.”
Nat stood on the opposite curb, pulses of blue light splashing her face. Someone had given her a blanket. She couldn’t remember who.
Three police cars parked at odd angles to her house. Two more cordoned off either end of the street. Neighbours she’d never seen before crowded any pavement the police would let them. Radios crackled and squeaked.
Paramedics rattled the trolley over the front step, and slid it into the ambulance. Muttering rose from the crowd. The form beneath the cover had been too obvious even to them.
A young policeman was gently probing her for answers.
“Miss Brewster?” his pen wavered over a blank page. “Did she say anything?”
“No,” said Nat. “I mean, yes. She said she’d killed him, and…she was sorry.”
Nat burst into tears. The officer caught her as her knees buckled, and sat with her on the pavement while she shook and sobbed.
The ambulance drew away, not bothering to use the siren.