Cross Her Heart

Cross Her Heart

Sarah Pinborough



Dedication

For Irvine, thank you for having the faith!





1


AFTER


HIM

Bitch.

He grips the edge of the paper so tightly the neat lines of carefully written words twist into odd zigzags that crunch some sentences but highlight others, taunting him.

I can’t cope.

You’re too angry.

You frighten me when you hurt me.

I don’t love you any more.

The world is shaking and his breath comes heavily as he scans to the end.

Don’t come after me. Don’t try and find me. Don’t try and find us.

He reads the letter three times before it sinks in. She’s gone. They’re gone. He knows it’s true – he can feel the fresh emptiness in the house – but still he rushes through the rooms, pulling open hollow cupboards and drawers. There is no trace of her, however; no passport or driving licence, none of those important things that frame her life.

Don’t try and find us.

He returns to the kitchen table and crumples the letter, suffocating her words in his clenched fist. She’s right. He is angry. More than angry. He’s raging. It’s a white heat inside him. He stares out through the window, the battered ball of paper damp in his sweating palm. Vodka. He needs vodka.

As he drinks, a seed of a plan takes hold in the dark soil of his mind and starts to grow.

She has no right to do this to him. Not after everything they’ve been through.

He will destroy her for it.





PART ONE





2


NOW


LISA

‘Happy birthday, darling,’ I say, from the doorway. It’s only six thirty and I’m still bleary from sleep, but my kitchen hums with teenage life. It’s like a surging wave hitting me. I don’t remember ever having this much energy. It’s a good feeling. Full of hope and confidence.

‘You didn’t have to get up, Mum. We’re just leaving anyway.’ She’s smiling as she comes to kiss me on the cheek, a cloud of apple shampoo and pink deodorant, but she looks tired. Maybe she’s doing too much. Her GCSEs are coming up and between morning and evening swimming training several times a week, spending time with these girls, and going to school, I barely see her any more. Which is, as I keep telling myself, how it should be. She’s growing up. Growing out from me. I have to learn to let go. But it’s hard. For so long it was us two against the world. Now the world is nearly hers to grasp for herself.

‘It’s not every day my little girl turns sixteen,’ I say as I fill the kettle and wink at her. She rolls her eyes at Angela and Lizzie, but I know she’s happy I still get up to see her off to school. She’s at once grown up and still my baby. ‘And anyway,’ I add. ‘I’ve got my big presentation at work today so I need an early start.’

A phone buzzes. All three heads drop to screens and I turn back to the kettle. I know there’s a boy called Courtney in Ava’s life. She hasn’t told me about him yet, but I saw a message come in when she left her phone on the kitchen table last week, a rarity in itself. I used to check her phone occasionally, when I could, but now she uses a passcode, and as much as it pains me to admit it, she deserves her privacy. I have to learn to trust in my bright daughter’s sensible mind to keep her safe.

‘Do you want your presents now or tonight at Pizza Express?’ I ask.

Ava’s clutching little gift bags with coloured tissue poking out the top, but she doesn’t share with me what her friends have bought her. Later, perhaps she will. A few years ago she would have run to show me. Not any more. Time flies. Somehow I’m nearly forty and Ava is sixteen. Soon she’ll be flying my nest.

‘Jodie’s outside,’ Angela says, glancing up from her iPhone. ‘We should go.’

‘Tonight’s fine,’ Ava says. ‘I haven’t got time now.’ She smiles at me and I think that one day, she’ll be quite beautiful. For a moment, I have a sudden pang of loss in my chest, so I focus on stirring my tea and then check my presentation printouts are still on the kitchen table while the girls gather up their coats, swimming kits, and school and college bags.

‘I’ll see you tonight, Mum,’ Ava calls over her shoulder as they disappear into the hallway and I feel a gust of damp air as they flood outside. On a whim, I get my purse and take out twenty pounds and go after them, leaving the front door on the latch.

‘Ava, wait!’ I’m only in my thin dressing gown but I follow her down the path, waving the banknote at her. ‘For you and the girls. Go for a nice breakfast before school.’

‘Thank you!’ Ava’s words are quickly echoed by the others and then they’re tumbling into Jodie’s car, the tiny blonde girl at the wheel, and I’m left behind at our open gate. They’re barely all in before Jodie pulls away, and I flinch slightly as I wave after them. She’s going quite fast and she can’t have checked her mirrors. Has Ava got her seatbelt on? Worry worry. That’s me. They don’t realise how precious life is. How precious they are. How can they? So young and with blessed lives.

It’s the cusp of summer, but the sky is heavily grey and threatening more rain, casting a chill in the air. I watch until Jodie’s turned the corner and I’m about to go back to the warmth of the house when I see a car parked on the bend of our quiet road behind me. My skin prickles. It’s unfamiliar. Dark blue. Not one I’ve seen before. I know all the cars in our street. It’s become a habit to note these things. This car is new.

My heart thrums in my chest, a bird trapped against glass. I don’t move an inch; this isn’t fight or flight, but a cold dread. The car’s engine is turned off and there is someone behind the wheel. Thickset. It’s too far away to see his face. Is he looking at me? There’s a sound like buzzing flies in my head and I try to catch my breath. As my panic threatens to overwhelm me, a man, still pulling on a suit jacket while trying to wave at the driver, comes down his front path. The engine starts. Only as it moves do I see the small strip down one side. EezyCabs.

The flood of relief makes me almost laugh. Almost.

You’re safe, I tell myself as the taxi drives by, no one inside glancing my way. You’re safe and Ava’s safe. You have to relax.

Of course it’s easier said than done. I’ve learned that over the years. The fear never truly leaves me. I’ve had lulls where I can almost let go of the past, but then a random moment like this triggers a panic and I realise it will always be there, like hot tar glued to the lining of my stomach. And recently, I’ve had this feeling, an unsettled disquiet, as if there’s something off-kilter I should see but I don’t. Maybe it’s me. My age. Hormones. Ava growing up. Maybe it’s nothing. But still …

‘Penny for them?’

I gasp and flinch and then laugh in the way everyone does when goosed, even though the shock isn’t funny. My hand is at my chest as I turn to see Mrs Goldman standing at her front door.

‘Are you all right?’ she asks. ‘I didn’t mean to make you jump.’

‘Yes, sorry,’ I say. ‘Lost in the day ahead. You know how it is.’ I walk back down towards my own front door. I’m not sure Mrs Goldman does know how it is. She’s careful as she bends to pick up the single milk bottle from the step and I see her flinch. What does her day hold? Daytime TV? Countdown? Pointless? Her sons haven’t visited for a while either.

‘I think there’s going to be a thunderstorm later. Do you want me to grab anything for you from the shops? I’ve got to get some more bread and bits anyway. Although I won’t be back until quite late because I’m taking Ava for pizza after work. It’s her birthday.’ I don’t need bread but neither do I like the thought of Mrs Goldman having to go out in the rain. Her hips are bad and the roads can be slippery.

‘Oh, if it’s no bother,’ she says, and I can hear the relief in her voice. ‘You are lovely.’

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