by J. L. Dawn
Chapter 1 sample
Chapter 1: Shona
Tuesday night May 21 2019
Octopuses are hard to love. They kill almost anything you put in a tank with them, including other octopuses. They’re notorious escape artists, they’re smart and they rip lives apart.
I don’t make them happy.
I think of them as male, perhaps because they remind me of my time with Boy – except that I lived with Boy for over 15 years (octopuses aren’t that long-lived) and he managed not to kill me in all that time. We successfully procreated and then he escaped. See, smart!
I work with a lot of cephalopods: octopuses, cuttlefish and squid make up 30% of the population of our laboratory aquarium. Our lab’s newest resident was already housed when I started my night-shift. He was an algae octopus, Abdopus aculeatus. He came with a reputation for escaping – earning the nickname ‘Gone Puss’ in his previous aquarium – and for being ‘uncooperative’. Our lab hadn’t officially named him, so ‘Gone Puss’ it was.
I tried to make him happy, even feeding him first on my rounds. There were 28 live experiments I had to note and report on, and over 50 of the 130 tanks required me to feed their occupants at night, including most of the cephalopods.
Two hours into my rounds, I caught my left arm on the feeding trolley and yelped. Zebra fish mobbed to the side of a tank to stare, nudging fins. Thumb-sized bob-tailed squids, so cute I refused to devise any experiments to do on them, glowed with concern. My three-day-old bruise was no longer tender but the wounds that had been left on my psyche were another matter – bloody, raw and on the verge of turning gangrenous.
Normally I coped well with the night-shift – four nights a month – that gave me time alone; time to think in the low blue light and watery soundscape of the six long rooms. The routine was cathartic and the specimens fascinating. I was fortunate to do a job that made use of my biology degree and challenged me. Four nights a month were worth that. Time lost with Harry on those four evenings was made up at the weekend when I went full-on super-mom.
A phone stood on an empty desk. I dialled ‘0’.
‘Hey, Shona.’ A yawn. The security guard on reception. The only other person in the building at night. I’d woken him.
‘Was there er… anything…?’
‘A lot of fish.’
‘There’s a new octopus here. I don’t think he’s happy.’
‘Maybe he needs a lady octopussy.’
‘Wouldn’t end well. Chances are he’d tear her into bits and eat her.’
‘Wo-oh, nightmare,’ said Leroy. I could tell he was already losing interest.
‘Most species of octopus die after sex. When they do mate, he ups and leaves. She has to care for the fry on her own. She stops eating. Either way he kills her. Males and females eh? Can’t live with each other, can’t live without.’
‘The issue isn’t that you make each-other miserable; that’s manageable – normal, even. The problem comes when one of you points that out; putting it out there, means you’ve got to deal with it.’
‘Shona? er… you OK?’
Would I be phoning if I was OK?
‘Only normally, you don’t –’
This Tuesday, I craved human conversation – even Leroy’s – rather than be left alone with my own thoughts. They had a disturbing habit of stomping around my head, as though they owned the place.
As I returned to my workstation I checked the 50-gallon tank. Octopus: one, still all too present. Every centimetre of Gone Puss was in motion; every limb crept, spread, twisted and gyrated. His sac of a body heaved against the glass, trying to force a way through. Everything moved apart from his coin-slot eye. As I drew level with his tank, he spat out the pellet of thawed shrimp from the same feeder tube I had pushed it into two hours earlier.
Cephalopods often take time to adjust to the dead shrimp we substitute for the live prey they corner in their reefs, but Gone Puss was a seasoned aquarium inmate. He had no excuses. No, he was determined to register his animosity towards me personally. Gone Puss was setting out the terms of our relationship. The pellet was a flaccid reminder that his ancestors developed in the world’s oceans 230 million years before my mammalian ones pitched up.
His hunting instinct had discerned that my life signs were edging to the wussy side of wimpy – octopuses, inanimate objects and children have an unerring sixth sense about these things. Even from within his tank, he had correctly identified me as something he could prey upon.
‘Missed,’ I snarled back. I let the pellet lie. I couldn’t even retaliate. Octopuses are the only invertebrates given special protection by the Government under the licensing of animal experiments.
Smart? They’ve got a lobby group.
Normally, I didn’t mind the nights. Normally, I didn’t let rejected morsels of un-breaded scampi unhinge me.
I sat and typed with stabbing fingers.
My laptop keyboard beat out a word, but it was nothing to do with the experiment notes I was employed to make.
S U C K E R!!!?!
Three goes to spell it correctly. I stared through it.
A burst of ‘Flower of Scotland’ burbled from my mobile. It was a text. Anonymous, that was rare. It would be marketing; some clever scam; to click or n… I clicked.
‘Recognise this, Sho?’ read the sparse text. The words were followed by assorted emojis and a pared down link. Another click, a video clip opened. The title read: ‘Doll Killer murder victim – police appeal for help’. It was dated 28th February, nearly three months ago.
I twisted the phone and hunted around to increase the volume. The footage was zeroing down onto a map of fields, waterways and scrubland. A presenter’s voice was speaking…
‘Police are appealing for help in identifying the headless woman found dead yesterday morning in a drainage ditch in fenland close to Whittlesey. They believe the murdered woman was in her mid-30s. She had light-brown hair. Her hands were also missing, cut off at the wrist, displaying obvious similarities to The Doll Killer murder. Her only identifying mark is a distinctive bruise on her upper left arm…’
A graphic flashed up on screen. I dropped the phone on the desk. My hand clutched at my left bicep. It was my bruise, similarly faded, horribly familiar, only the one on the screen was rendered on something that bore no resemblance to living flesh.
I recalled the ‘headless handless woman’ case from earlier in the year. ‘Doll Killer’ headlines swirled.
I reviewed the emojis: three yellow Munch heads gaped their fear at me, a cool silver knife cut a fitting end to the trail.
Who sent this? Who even knew I had a bruise? I was too ashamed to have mentioned it, to have done anything but hide it away under long-sleeved tops. Too horrified by the memories it evoked.
Why would any…? I blocked the sender and dialled 0 from my office landline. After four rings I concluded Leroy wasn’t at his post; maybe in the loo, more likely outside snatching a fag. The rush of water refreshing a tank – through the jumble of pipes criss-crossing the ceiling – made me jump. Behind me, things thrummed in the creepy pump room – domain of the sullen maintenance engineers – where I had yet to discover a light-switch.
The two bruises were identical. I knew it because I had studied mine in the mirror for far too long, seething at its origins. Both bruises bore too close a similarity to a Celtic cross to be explained by coincidence. Not just any cross, but St Martin’s Cross on Iona. Both must surely have been inflicted the same way.
Why would I share a bruise with a corpse? And why, on God’s good Earth, was it shaped like an iconic Eighth Century Celtic cross from a sheep-bitten isle.
It had seemed a mad coincidence when I first discovered my bruise. Now, it smacked of sinister cultural branding. It was as if St Columba himself had sailed up the Cam to label me a sinner. No argument here; even a Glaswegian ‘Proddie’ knows better than to quarrel with a Saint.
This was my ‘Madonna in the toast’ moment. It must be a sign. Convert or…
And there it was. A simple sickening logical step: there was only one other person who could tell – who would know – the two bruises were the same. My bruise had been inflicted by the murderer. This text was from the Doll Killer. I must have been alone with him? Which begged the question: shouldn’t I already be dead?
Another thought: I was alone at night in a dark workspace with only a truculent, probably under-nourished octopus to protect me. I looked up. Like Leroy, Gone Puss had vanished.
Calm down. Think, Shona. Could there be any other explanation?
I retraced the steps that led to my bruise; a chain of events from a week ago, events that may have cost me my closest friend, events culminating in the word on my laptop. It had started with ‘Bruise Night.’
And that had started with Harry, last week – a lifetime ago. His dad, Boy, was enjoying a six-month cycling sabbatical leaving me juggling a football starlet and a full-time job. My wounds over Boy peddling away from parental responsibility had hardly healed when Harry ripped them open again with the unthinking callousness 11-year-olds specialise in.
‘Dad’s got Candi with him,’ Harry said.
It was as if a shadowy abomination had wormed from his innocent mouth. It slithered towards me across my kitchen floor-tiles.
‘No. No, I don’t think so. Candi’s at work. Or in her cottage I expect.’ Me shoring up fortifications before they plummeted moat-wards.
‘I just saw her, in the background in Dad’s Skype,’ Harry waggled his new expensive guilt-edged phone at me. ‘I thought he’d gone on his own. Candi’s with Dad in Patagonia.’
It made sense to Harry. It probably made sense to everyone but me. Why wouldn’t Boy take his fresh, so-o much younger, emotionally needy squeeze with him on his triumphant sabbatical? Why wouldn’t he want to share his tent, his (doubtless tandem) bike, his smoked Patagonian boar meat sarnies… with her?
And why wouldn’t Candice jump out of her shapeless sweaters at the chance to park her job for six months for an all-expenses-paid vacation of a lifetime with the only man she’d ever managed to snare?
It even made sense that Boy had decided not to tell Harry or me he intended taking her. It was undoubtedly a kindness. The unwarranted outrage welling up within me now, perfectly vindicated Boy’s decision to keep me in the dark. ‘Oh, it’s nice he’s got some company,’ I said to Harry…
‘He’s bloody gone and taken Madame with him!’ I said to Lotte.
‘Who? Boy? Candi!? What? To Patagonia?’ she replied, suitably shocked before guffawing. ‘You’ve got to hand it to her, Shona.’
‘Believe me I’d like to – backhand!’
I had parked Harry in front of his X-Box and grabbed the phone to dilute my pain by letting it ripple out into a diminishing puddle of close friends. Does this quack remedy reduce anyone’s suffering and trauma? There was no statistical evidence that sharing my latest humiliation around worked as medication. Any chance of even a placebo benefit was doomed; Lotte was undoubtedly the last person in the village you would go to for sympathy. Still, we had shared a lot recently; mainly dating tittle-tattle and bottles of Sauvignon Blanc.
‘She’s got her hooks into him and she’s not letting go,’ Lotte thoughtlessly laughed again. ‘I should have pushed Shouty in her direction after we separated. It would have kept him from creeping back.’
Shouty was Lotte’s former husband. I had often enquired, but never found out, how he came by his nickname. For some reason ‘post-orgasmic triumphalism’ kept suggesting itself as an answer. As far as I was aware, he had no intention of creeping back.
‘I expect you had too much respect for his good taste.’
This drew another deranged peal of mirth from Lotte, ‘Shouty doesn’t have any taste, Sho; at least, not where women are concerned. He married me for god’s sake. The fact is, I barely knew Candi back then and from the handful of times our paths had crossed, I assumed she was asexual.’
‘You’re not making me feel any better,’ I bleated.
‘God, sweetie, no, I’m sorry. Fancy Boy taking her out there with him. I always believed Patagonia existed for people to get away from women like Candi.’
‘It’s not far away enough.’
‘I know what you need…’
Lotte had seen her opportunity. She re-pitched her Saturday night out.
Lotte and I had grown close since I had returned to the village from the ‘Big House’, as Harry had christened it. We were back in the 3-bedroom cottage Boy owned in the heart of the village, across the paddock from the church. It was the same cottage Harry had known as ‘Happy Home’ for the first two years of his life.
Lotte wasn’t formerly in my inner circle. An acquired taste, she would accost strangers as if she had known them all her life and, if she wasn’t in sight, you’d take her laugh for the mating call of an exotic macaw.
We were both single parents with young boys, who played for the same under-12 village footie team, and now formed a two-woman dating-app mutual support group. Lotte was engaged in an ongoing (so far five-year) pursuit of a new man to replace Shouty’s indeterminate (but presumably raucous) role in her life. I had two-and-a-half years of half-hearted scanning, swiping, emoji-ing and infrequent dating behind me.
Lotte was a rare presence at the school gate or footie touchline. As director of sales for some engineering outfit up the A1, she spent her time on other pitches. However, we had been part of some overlapping social circles beforehand, we were of a similar age, we both enjoyed a drink, and were loud and garrulous enough that we would inevitably gravitate together halfway through any evening. Several garden parties and village functions had resounded to the chorus of my manic jackdaw chuckle interspersed by Lotte’s booming hoots. So it was that we latched onto each other while constructively abusing the referees in our sons’ matches.
Our dating and matchmaking objectives were at opposite ends of the spectrum, our online profiles wildly different, but we both ended up dissatisfied. Lotte required constant break-up advice as yet another suitor, who had been bedded and found wanting, needed to be let go. I craved ceaseless reassurance that it wasn’t my fault that the only men ever attracted to me were dull, not remotely in Boy’s class, and impossible to fancy.
‘Shouty’s mate’s Cambridge party is on this Saturday don’t forget, Sho.’ Lotte had been trying to wrangle a ‘yes’ out of me for over a week. ‘It’s guaranteed to dispel all thoughts of Boy plunging through the Patagonian –’ suppressed giggles delayed her sentence until she finally managed to yelp, ‘bush.’
‘I don’t know, Lotte; masked balls don’t really sound my thing. I’ve got Harry to find a sitter for.’
‘All taken care of, sweetie; Harry’s round mine with Ollie. I’ve rustled up a spare aunt for the night. Anyway, it’s a “Masquerade” not a ball, according to the invite Shouty’s mailed through. I hardly imagine people will be judging you on your dancing.’ She let the innuendo dangle indelicately.
‘Sounds like an orgy to me.’
‘Only if that’s where you want it to go. Big house in posh Cambridge; it’s completely respectable…’ she hooted again, ‘…until it’s not. You can wear that clingy red number we bought when you hit nine and a half stone. I’ve booked a cab, darling. Don’t make me go on my own.’
The cab revved into the large drive five minutes early, scattering Lotte’s meagre gravel. I yanked at my scanty hemline, but still earned disapproving looks from both Ollie’s aunt and Harry. I ruffled Harry’s hair at the door. He pulled away in the prescribed 11-year-old manner. It was a text-book pull away; he must have been studying YouTube videos on technique. Ollie broke ranks to run to Lotte and give her a hug around the waist, earning a lingering kiss on his forehead.
Lotte was travelling light. She handed me a slim purse to plop into my large shoulder bag, which contained everything I could think of, snatched-up in a panicky exit from our cottage. The only thing Lotte carried was a stylish black filigree eye mask. It wouldn’t disguise her at all. A red velvet Viennese mask topped by a fountain of scarlet feathers (the better to hide behind) nestled in my bag.
A tall smart-ish man stood by his large silver car, which I vaguely registered as German and expensive. I caught him appreciating the efforts we had put into our outfits. He was momentarily embarrassed to be spotted leering, but had the rare good sense to smile it away. Lotte in full battle dress looked a decade younger than her 39 years. She gave a gravel-scrunching twirl in her heels. I imagined I heard a nauseated harrumph from behind us as Lotte’s front door banged shut.
‘Nothing to stow?’ asked the driver.
‘It’s not a cruise,’ squealed Lotte, walking up to him. ‘We’re your cargo.’ She cupped his chin, ‘And you are?’
‘Brandon,’ he seemed conflicted; calculating how much he’d endanger his tip if he pulled away; how much he’d imperil his morals if he didn’t.
‘Mm-mm and what lottery did we win you in?’ Lotte let him go and whisked a creased invite from beneath one lace sleeve. Had it sprung from her cleavage, I thought, Brandon would have melted away into the warm evening air.
‘The Uber lottery.’
Lotte laughed, ‘Your mission is to ferry us to this address in Cambridge, and ensure that someone from your crew is around to bring us back safely, Bran, no matter how well lubricated we appear.’
Brandon studied the address on the scrap of invite.
‘Do you know it?’ asked Lotte.
‘We have this thing called Sat-Nav.’ He rubbed his chin, imagining goodness knows what, but it awaited us at the address he held between finger and thumb.
Cambridge City centre is 25 to 50 minutes away from our village, depending on traffic. Tonight, it was light and the venue was on our side of the city. We would arrive too early. Lotte enticed Brandon with a drink and a bigger tip if he would detour to a gastro pub in a village on the city outskirts and chaperone us while we indulged in a quick sharpener. The bar was busy, but we didn’t cause as much of a stir as I feared. Lotte fished her purse out of my bag, and packed Brandon off to the bar with a £20 note while we chatted.
‘It’s got to be weird going to this kind of party when your ex-husband’s there.’ I said. I wouldn’t have wanted Boy lurking in disguise, watching me cavorting around a little too desperately in an indecently short red dress.
‘Why?’ returned Lotte, ‘I’m grown-up and Shouty’s getting there. He relayed our invites don’t forget.’
‘Suppose you don’t recognise him in his mask. Ye gods, suppose I end up snogging him.’
Lotte was momentarily thrown by this image. ‘You have spent the last three years complaining that there’s no-one out there for you, Sho,’ she said. ‘Shouty’s quite the catch – MPSD, don’t forget.’
I stared, uncomprehending.
‘If you have to ask, you can’t afford him.’ Lotte’s comeback was polished by use.
I had to ask. It stood for: Minor Public School Darling.
I stopped myself from saying I wasn’t yet sad enough to start picking up Lotte’s cast-offs – there was a goodly selection – and changed the subject to Lotte’s sales team.
‘How’s what’s-her-name doing at work now?’
It was safer territory with Brandon around.
‘The what’s-her-name who can sell, or the one who can’t?’
‘The one you want rid of.’
‘Ah, prudish Penelope’ (Lotte didn’t pronounce the final ‘e’). ‘As useless as ever. We had a set-to this week. She claims her sales are below par because she won’t wear heels, skirts and a come-hither smile.’
‘It’s good that she’s got principles,’ I provoked, as Brandon jinked his way back with a tray of drinks. He’d bought a non-alcoholic beer for himself. I approved.
‘Lenecia and I have principles too,’ insisted Lotte. ‘There’s a line, we draw it, but behind that line we’re well presented, smiling, captivating and utterly professional. Both of us are pulverising our targets too.’
‘What do you reckon, Bran?’ I asked. ‘Should pretty girls smile at customers to get on?’
‘I’m relentlessly charming.’ He held out some change to Lotte who shook her head and tossed her purse back in my bag.
‘It’s all part of the job and I need the tips.’ He pocketed the change.
‘Ever turned a ride into a ride, then?’ Lotte nudged me.
‘Only twice,’ said Brandon, after a telling hesitation, shifting on his bar stool.
‘You do need the tips,’ laughed Lotte.
‘Lotte, you’re embarrassing the laddie,’ I scolded lightly. I could see Brandon hadn’t known how to take her comment. He was older than I’d initially thought; probably late 20s; tall with dark tousled hair and long slender hands ravaged by a ruinous nail-biting habit – as if a Perspex drawing pin had been hammered into the back of each fingertip.
‘I’d put him in my sales team,’ Lotte tapped Brandon’s knee as a peace offering. ‘But the board won’t let me sack Penelop. They go on about the “post-Weinstein climate”. My conscience is clear; I’ve never told her to wear heels or skirts; just get sales. People don’t buy from people with a face like a wet weekend; they buy from people they get on with.’
We rocked up at the large house detailed on the invite two drinks later. A brief negotiation over our leaving time ended with my insistence there was a car outside by midnight. Brandon logged my mobile number and said whoever picked us up would text when they arrived.
‘Three Proseccos at least’, Lotte calculated. She used a variable measure of how many drinks she’d need before she found a man desirable, while crises were measured on The Gin Scale.
‘He’s sweet on you.’ I delicately removed my mask from my bag.
‘I reckon he fancies his chances more with you,’ she said, manoeuvring her mask over her piled-up raven hair. ‘We’d better get another drink in you, in case Bran picks us up.’
‘I don’t need three drinks to realise a man is attractive enough,’ I responded primly.
‘No,’ said Lotte, ‘you need three drinks to realise you are attractive enough.’
She rearranged her modest cleavage to maximum effect and tottered up the steps. She took an exaggerated breath. ‘Tits to the fore! Tonight, Shona, my darling, you are not leaving unless you’ve pulled, but –’ she looked me up and down, adjusted my mask slightly, twisted me from side to side so my clingy dress flared. She nodded approvingly.
‘Hope you’ve got a hammer in that sack thing? You’ll need it. You’ll be fighting them off tonight, girl.’
She was right – in the worse possible way – but there wasn’t enough own-brand gin in Waitrose to measure the crisis that awaited me behind that door.
It opened to reveal a tall man in a crimson high-waisted velvet jacket. His nose, jaw and forehead were concealed by a Phantom of the Opera mask. It didn’t disguise his leer.
‘Lotte and Sho,’ announced Lotte. ‘Primed and ready for anything.’
‘You’ll do wonderfully,’ Phantom drooled, bowing us in.
A companion in a ruffled white shirt and Day of the Dead half-mask manoeuvred two tall glasses in one hand. Fizz arced into them.
I glanced around. People clung to walls, the party was still to take off. Women were in a minority.
The Phantom peeled Lotte away from my side. A pair of revellers corralled me. One hid behind a spiky black bird mask, the other sported an elaborate Venetian affair in black, white and gold. It covered three-quarters of his head and a neatly trimmed brown beard jutted out beneath. Either could have been Shouty.
Soon the house was buzzing. Music blared. My companions were replaced. I barely saw Lotte, except once. She asked for my bag, probably to reclaim her purse. As she handed my bag back, she whispered something in my ear. I couldn’t hear but it sounded salacious. She departed, glass in her hand, a raucous laugh in her throat.
Bolstered by nervous drinking, I chatted to anyone and everyone, little worrying if they were kindred spirits, let alone my next life partner. A short man with foxy headgear and busy hands scuffled close. A horny crimson devil with a generous supply of passable red wine moved him on. A barely disguised academic pinned me by a drinks table determined to wow me with his wit and intellect. I couldn’t hear a word he said.
A tall man appeared at my side, pushing a glass of red at me. A cheap plastic cloak, Zorro hat and full-face plastic mask demonstrated minimal wardrobe effort. Still, his wine plumbed deep hints of rustic peasantry with stirring notes of Spar special shelf. I nick-named him ‘Asda Man’.
Lotte had disappeared with the Phantom host. I was several drinks to the good and not short of wolfish company and then…
… and then I woke up in a strange, barely lit, bedroom. I was alone, apart from a collection of coats, a burgeoning headache, and the vaguest impression that someone had just left my side. There was no memory of how I’d got there.
I groaned, struggling to sit up, likely to throw up? The only light was cast by a retro lava lamp. My hair bunched painfully. Investigating fingers found my mask askew, hoisted up over my forehead. To my horror I found the top of my slinky dress down around my waist, while one red bra strap had escaped its shoulder.
Someone knocked on the door and giggled. I hurriedly tugged my mask back down, frantic not to be recognised in this compromising position. As the bra-strap was swept back over my shoulder, I caught my left bicep and swore – it was unaccountably tender. I hauled the top half of my dress back into place.
A masked male head pushed around the door, ‘Are you going to be long?’ it asked and disappeared before I could muster words. A woman cackled.
Rational thought was impeded by a fog of disorientation. I knew I hadn’t been raped. Checking down below confirmed the assault’s limits: pants, in place; tights, undisturbed. No man living could have got my tights down and back up without me knowing.
That I couldn’t be sure of the level of intimacy I’d been involved in, curdled my mind, that I couldn’t recall my complicity in it, terrified me.
My bag lay sprawled on a coat on the bed. I hauled it up by one strap. More of its contents spilt out, joining others already on the bed. I scrabbled a pack of tissues and a hairbrush back into the bag. A tiny pristine notebook, which went everywhere with me, followed suit. A rubber-banded pack of dog-eared business cards, which I had long since given up using, made a break for the far side of the bed – two had escaped the band. I urgently retrieved a slim torch.
My overloaded make-up bag was further away and slightly open. I panicked and felt inside for its hidden zip. It opened to reveal a credit and debit card still in place. My battered phone was still at the bottom of the bag. I’d been semi-ravished, possibly assaulted but not robbed. My automatic relief at this, evaporated to be replaced with a surety that I’d rather it had been the other way around. Make-up items were hastily re-packed. I felt over the bed and coats to ensure I had everything. The final escapee, a plumy-crimson John Lewis lipstick, was located and bagged.
I stood up, immediately wobbled and slumped back down. One heel was on and the other off. In the half-light I saw it close to the door, but had to sit for a moment while my head lectured me on the impossibility of vertical as a viable state. The vastness between the bed and the door taunted me. I forced balled knuckles into damp eyes but only encountered sequins and feathers.
‘Hurry up,’ urged a male voice from outside. ‘We’re losing the moment here.’
I pushed off from the bed, made the near-irreparable mistake of trying to scoop up my shoe on the way to the door, lost balance and careered into it. A howl came from the other side, followed by an explosion of cackles. I yanked the door hard to dislodge a chair that had half-fallen against it, and rushed, confused and embarrassed, outside. I didn’t glance at the amused couple, lustful and eager to take over the room.
I hunted high and low. No sign of Lotte or Asda Man, although I was far from certain he’d been involved. I did find the man in the Day of the Dead cossie on the stairs, chatting to a woman. She appeared to have dressed as a cross between the blue Teletubby and a highway woman. I seriously doubted she could stand, let alone deliver, but didn’t feel ready to lecture anyone. Her legs resembled Tinkie Winkie’s in his later years, but Day of the Dead was beyond caring.
I asked him if he had seen my friend in the black lace dress. He pointed to a room at the far end of the landing. He just wanted me gone. I went to knock. A couple on the wall told me they had ‘bagsied’ that room next. I knocked again; no answer. I tried the handle; locked. I called Lotte’s name; first quietly, then loudly, finally tearfully. The couple left, their desire trumped by my wretchedness. Still nothing. I tried Lotte’s phone, but she wasn’t picking up. It confirmed my suspicion that she’d left it at home. I slumped down. Party-goers took one look and moved along.
I don’t know how long I had been sitting there before I received the ‘Flower of Scotland’ burble. A text said my car was outside. It couldn’t wait long. I called for Lotte one last time, then left.
A Prius, silver naturally, waited. Its yawning driver gazed laconically towards the house. I negotiated the steps and a carousing couple with exaggerated care and begged to be taken home. The driver woke me at my village outskirts. I credit-carded him with a tip for his flagrant disinterest. I made it safely inside without removing my mask.
‘Bruise Night’ still hadn’t finished with me, though. I groggily put the kettle on, wrenched off the mask, gingerly prodded at my afflicted arm and went upstairs with a plan to shower and be sick, ideally not in that order.
The final shock of a traumatic Saturday night awaited me in my bathroom. As the light flicked on, I caught sight of myself in the mirror. A word had been scrawled in lipstick – my plumy-crimson lipstick it turned out – across my forehead. I didn’t feel any inclination to admire the subtle pigmentation, sheer coverage and glossy finish, and hope John Lewis aren’t anticipating a testimonial, but the letters in the mirror were clear and legible:
‘R. E. K. C. U. S’
I spelt it out: ‘R. E. K. C. U. S’.
REKCUS that I had driven Boy away and into the wantonly youthful arms of Candi.
REKCUS that I had wrapped myself up so tightly in work and parenting that – three years on from that rift – I still had no new relationship to show for my time at the online dating coalface.
REKCUS that the only date to have laid hands on me since Boy, seemed to have found me on ‘Murderous Matches’.
And I’d let him get to second base!