Get an exclusive first glimpse at bestselling author Alex Lake’s pacy new psychological thriller, The Last Lie. Out on 27th December!
The woman driving the car knew better than to stop for hitchhikers. Maybe, decades ago, she would have considered it. Things were different then. People had good intentions. Kids were polite, and respectful to adults. They didn’t hang around the streets wearing hoodies and intimidating passers-by. A hitchhiker would, more than likely, be in search of nothing other than a lift to their destination. So yes, she might have picked one up years ago.
But only in the right circumstances. If she was with someone. And it was daylight. And the hitchhiker looked respectable.
Even back then she would never have picked someone up alone, at night, on a quiet road through deserted countryside, a road lined by half-bent trees and high hedges.
And she wasn’t about to start now.
It was still awkward, though. You didn’t want to acknowledge the person as you passed them because that meant acknowledging you were not generous enough to help them out. It was like passing a beggar on the street; you didn’t want to look at them, didn’t want to have the embarrassment of saying ‘no’ when they asked for money. So you marched on, eyes forward, as though they weren’t even there.
It was easy on a busy street with other people around, other things to look at, but on a country road at night? It was much harder. There was nothing to pretend you’d been distracted by. It was obvious you would have noticed the hitchhiker. You couldn’t not.
Who was, she saw as she approached, a young woman. At least she thought so, from a distance. Long hair, slight build. For a moment her resolve wavered – maybe she would pick her up, she shouldn’t be out here alone – but then she stiffened. She’d heard of this kind of trick: put an innocent, unthreatening woman out there and then, when the driver stopped, a thug – or gang of thugs – would jump out, steal the car and leave her there, alone.
Or worse. Raped. Dead.
She got ready to swerve in case the young woman jumped or stumbled into the road. That was another trick she’d heard about. Or maybe she was drunk. It wouldn’t be a surprise. Nowadays young women got drunk all the time, out in town centres that were no-go areas at night, vomit-streaked war zones populated by feral youths intent on fighting and drinking and having sex with each other.
The hitchhiker’s head turned towards the sound of the car. She raised her hand. It was a curiously weak movement. Hesitant. Tentative. Fearful, almost. The woman driving the car shook her head. She was definitely not stopping. The girl was probably on drugs, as well as drunk.
And then the beam of the headlights lit her up and the woman driving the car let out a sharp gasp.
The hitchhiker was a young woman, in her late twenties, or maybe early thirties.
She was also completely naked.
But that wasn’t the most shocking thing about her.
The most shocking thing was that the woman driving the car recognized her.
It took her a few moments to realize where from, and then she gasped again.
She wasn’t a hitchhiker – although there was no doubt she needed a lift – she was something completely different.
She braked, coming to a halt a few metres past the young woman, then opened her door.
The young woman stared at her, her eyes wide and unseeing. Her hair was matted, and she was streaked with dirt. She took a step towards the car, and the driver flinched, glancing around to see if there was anyone hiding in the shadows.
There was nothing. Just the hedges and the moon and the silence of the night.
She looked back at the young woman.
‘Are you—’ she said, then paused. ‘Are you her?’
Claire Daniels stood on the tiled floor of the bathroom and stared into the mirror. She studied the face that looked back at her. She recognized every feature and freckle and contour. She had seen them a thousand times. More. Many thousands. The face belonged to her. It was utterly familiar.
And yet, in a few minutes, she might be a totally new person.
From time to time a person could change in an instant into someone new. It had happened to her twice: the day her mum died and the day she met Alfie. Once for bad, once for good. And today – this morning – it might be about to happen a third time.
That first time was awful. Beyond awful. She was fourteen and had just walked in from Lacrosse practice after school. Her best friend Jodie’s mum had brought her home and on the way back she had asked if they wanted to go to a Coldplay concert, on their own. Jodie’s mum said she would drop them off and pick them up but they could watch the concert without any adults present.
Thank you, Mrs Pierce, Claire said. That would be amazing.
Call me Angie, Jodie’s mum said. But you need to clear it with your parents.
Which was what Claire had been planning to do when she ran into the house. Her dad would be at work, but she could hear the television in the living room, which was where her mum would be.
She was there, all right, slumped on the cream leather sofa in the living room. At first Claire had thought she was sleeping, but then she noticed the trickle of blood coming from her nostril and the vomit on her jeans and the glassy-eyed stare into nowhere.
She was dead. Claire knew it as soon as she saw her, but that didn’t stop her slapping then hugging then slapping her to wake her up. What followed was a whirl she had never been able to put in order however many times she had thought about it. She’d called her dad and then it was sirens, medics, police officers. A doctor had given her something and she’d gone to bed, only to wake up the next day to the same horror.
Her mother never gave permission for Claire to go to the Coldplay concert. She never gave permission for anything else ever again.
Heroin, her dad told her a few days later. Her mum had overdosed, an addiction from her twenties that she’d managed to beat down had come roaring back in her forties and burned her out.
It snuffed out Claire, too. Left her hollow. When she looked at herself in the mirror she saw someone else. Someone lost, unsmiling, changed. There was a gap at the centre of her, a gap that was only filled when she met Alfie. She remembered getting home after their first date, a date that had begun as an afternoon coffee and grown into dinner and drinks and a night-time walk through central London. She’d glimpsed herself in the mirror. Something about her reflection had caught her eye and she’d paused, and looked again, and seen a new woman. Seen herself again.
And she knew she had changed in the space of that night, had started to emerge from the hole her mum’s death had left her in.
Started. Even after three years of marriage – three happy years – there was still something missing. And hopefully that final piece of the puzzle would be in place any minute. If it went as she hoped, she’d look in the mirror and see, once again, a new person.
At least, a mother-to-be.
A mother who would not overdose on heroin and leave her daughter alone. A mother who would love and cherish her child, her children. A mother who would heal her own wounds by making sure she didn’t inflict them on her children.
And then she’d go and wake up her husband, the man who had made her feel warm and safe and whole from the moment they’d met and every moment since, and tell him that she was pregnant. After all these months trying, finally, they were going to be parents, going to have new titles, new roles.
Claire and Alfie, daughter and son, wife and husband.
Mum and dad.
She blinked, and opened the bathroom cabinet. She took out a pregnancy test. It was the first of a packet of two. She’d bought them nine months earlier in anticipation of needing them sooner, but her period had come, on time, month after month. She and Alfie did everything right: they had sex constantly when she was ovulating, and plenty besides, but it didn’t matter. Inevitably at the appointed time she started to feel bloated and lethargic and then her period arrived.
But not this month. This month she was two days late. Two whole days. She knew there could be many reasons why, but she didn’t care.
She was pregnant. She felt it.
And it was her birthday this weekend. She had drinks planned after work – it was a Friday – and then a party at her dad’s house on Saturday. It was the perfect present. It all hung together. It was too right not to be true.
She took the test from the cardboard and sat on the toilet. She positioned it between her legs and a few seconds later a stream of warm urine ran over the white plastic. She left it there until the stream stopped and then placed it by the sink. She didn’t look at it; the line she craved could take a minute or so to show up and she wanted to give it every opportunity.
She washed her hands, her heart racing and her stomach tight. She pictured herself walking into their bedroom and shaking Alfie awake. Telling him the news. Watching him smile. No – she stopped herself. She shouldn’t get carried away. Her dad called it the commentators’ curse: just when a commentator was saying how some football team was about to score or some player was playing well, something bad would happen.
But this was it; she was sure of it. There’d be a line and she’d be pregnant and even if it didn’t work out, if there was a problem of some sort, she’d know she could get pregnant, and even that would be enough, would be better than the doubt and worry and anguish of wondering if it would ever happen.
She picked up the pregnancy test. Turned it around. Let her eyes travel to the end where the little window contained—
No line. Not the faintest imprint of a line.
She shook it. She put it down next to the sink and waited a minute or two. Then she picked it up again.
She pressed the pedal at the base of the bin and flipped the lid open. She looked one last time – to be sure – and then threw the test, the negative test, into the trash. She’d ask Alfie to take it out later. She didn’t want to. She didn’t want any reminder of her failure.
Alfie Daniels lay in bed listening to his wife move around in the bathroom. He knew what she was doing, despite the fact she’d said nothing. He knew when her period was due and he knew it hadn’t come because Claire had not walked into the living room with tears in her eyes or sent him a text message with sad emojis saying she had her period.
For nine months he had hugged her each time and promised her it would happen eventually, only to watch her hope build through the month and be dashed again.
And now she was late and he could tell she was convinced that this was it. For the last two days he had watched her move from a state of quiet introspection to nervous excitement. She thought she was pregnant.
If she’d told him, he would have suggested not getting her hopes up, but it was too late for that now. Her hopes were flying high and turning into dreams of the future and there was only one thing that would bring them down.
Which, from the sound of things, had just happened. There was no cry of excitement or rush of steps to come and tell him the good news. Only the thud of the bathroom door closing and a slow, heavy tread towards the bedroom.
The door opened and she came in. She stood by their bed, her face set and unsmiling.
‘Hey,’ he said. ‘What’s the matter?’
‘My period was late. I took a test.’
Alfie sat up on his elbows. ‘And?’
Tears formed in her eyes and rolled down her cheeks. She shook her head.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said, and held out his arms. ‘Come here.’
‘No,’ she said. ‘I want to be alone. I’m going to have a shower.’
‘I don’t think so. Not before a hug.’
‘It’s not for you. It’s for me. I’m disappointed too.’
It was clearly the wrong thing to say. Her lips quivered and tears welled in her eyes. She let out a loud, wracking sob then slumped on the edge of the bed and buried her face in his neck.
‘I tried not to hope,’ she said. ‘I told myself not to get my hopes up, but it’s impossible. I want this so much.’
‘Me too,’ he said. ‘And it’ll happen. It takes time for lots of people.’
I know,’ she replied. ‘But what if we’re the ones who it never happens for? What then?’
‘We’re a long way from that,’ Alfie said. ‘A long way.’
‘But what if?’ Claire said. ‘What if we can’t have kids?’
‘Don’t think like that.’
She nodded. ‘I won’t. I’m going to have a shower.’
When she came back her eyes were red.
‘You not feeling too good?’ Alfie said.
‘I was sure I was pregnant this time,’ she said. ‘I felt different, somehow. And I’ve been so regular. I don’t know why my period would suddenly be late.’
‘Stress can do that,’ Alfie said. ‘This is a difficult time for you. For us.’
She wiped a tear from her eyes. ‘I can’t stop crying. It’s the sense of loss. Even though I wasn’t pregnant – so there was nothing to lose – I’d let myself think I was, and I was already imagining a future with us as parents. And now it’s gone.’
‘Only for now,’ Alfie said. ‘We’ll get there in the end, I know it.’
He held her tight, then sat up.
‘I have to get ready for work,’ he said. ‘I’ve got an early meeting.’
In the bathroom, Alfie stripped off. He looked in the full-length mirror. He flexed his pectoral muscles, then turned sideways and admired his flat abdominals. His chest and back were waxed and smooth, unlike the thick, brown hair on his scalp. He kept himself in shape; the only thing he couldn’t do anything about were the pock-marks on his face, the scars left by the acne he’d suffered from as a teenager.
He turned on the shower and stepped in. He let the hot water run over him. He washed his hair, massaging the shampoo into his scalp. The shampoo he used cost over thirty pounds a bottle, but it was worth it. According to his hair stylist, he had the kind of hair that movie stars had. He could be a hair model, she said, and it was worth paying the extra for good shampoo. So he treated himself.
And besides, they could afford it. Claire’s dad was both rich and generous.
When he was finished, he wrapped a towel around his waist and grabbed his razor. As he started to shave the bathroom door opened.
‘Would you take out the bin?’ Claire said. ‘The test is in there. I don’t want to go near it.’
Alfie nodded. ‘OK.’
‘And thanks,’ she said. ‘For being so supportive. I’m lucky to have you. And we’ll be pregnant, one day.’
He smiled. ‘We will. I know we will.’
She closed the door and the smile fell from his face. He looked at himself in the mirror and shook his head.
She wanted him to take out the bin. Of course she did. She was too infantile to deal with a negative pregnancy test so she needed him to deal with it for her, like it was a fucking python or something. It was pathetic.
It was typical of her.
As was the way she used ‘we’ instead of ‘I’. ‘We’ll be pregnant, one day.’ He hated that ‘we’. Hated the cloying, saccharine refusal to accept the biological truth of the situation: it was her who would be pregnant, not him.
The irony – and he took great pleasure in it – was that, whatever words she used, she was wrong. They – she – wouldn’t be pregnant any time soon. Ever, in fact.
Because what she didn’t know was that her husband had no intention of having children. They were the last thing he wanted. There were many reasons why, but the main one was because the arrival of kids would render all his careful plans redundant.
They would tie him to the simpering bitch forever, and there was no way he was letting that happen.
But she couldn’t find out he didn’t want them. Not yet, at any rate. He still needed her for a while, which was why he had never mentioned – and did not plan to – the reason why she would not be getting pregnant any time soon.
Her husband had had a vasectomy.
He’d had it done a year after they married – almost exactly two years earlier, now – when she had started talking about having kids in earnest. He’d gone to see the doctor, told him what he wanted – the doctor was surprised given how young he was and had tried to talk him out of it, but he had referred him nonetheless – and then, one morning, Alfie had gone to the hospital and had the operation.
He’d been back at his desk the same afternoon. He was a bit sore, but it was OK.
And it would remain his little secret.
He glanced at the bin. The negative pregnancy test lay there, pointing at him, accusing him.
‘Fuck you,’ he said, then wiped the shaving cream from his face.