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The Perfect Friend: A gripping psychological thriller by Barbara Copperthwaite (1)

One

Now

From my first breath, I was destined to be a freak. The signs were there in my childhood, concerns as I grew up, narrowing down to a vanishing point of the here and now, where everyone in the room is staring, waiting for me to speak. An awkward cough here, the clearing of a throat there, a chair leg scraping over the wooden floor as someone shifts, all absorbed by the expectant silence of the small community hall.

The circle of twenty or so plastic chairs cups me as I prepare to talk. Once, that would have made me too self-conscious to speak, but instead it comforts. I know the deepest, darkest secrets of all the people looking at me, leaning forward to catch every word. They know mine, too – or a sanitised version, anyway. This is a safe space created for confession. Still, I’m trying to decide how much truth to tell. This started as little white lies. Then the white turned to a black blight that blotted out everything, running out of control.

My name is Alex Appleby. I’m 44. I’m a dressmaker… The words are so clichéd I can’t help silently sounding them in my head before I take the plunge. A deep preparatory breath assaults my nose with the smell of Pledge and Windolene. I suppress a sneeze, then speak.

‘I’m a liar. Well, a recovering anorexic, and all I did during my illness was lie to cover my tracks and keep my addiction alive.

‘“I ate earlier, and I’m still stuffed.”

‘“I’m saving myself for my big meal tonight.”

‘“That was so tasty, I’ve scoffed the lot” – this one, incidentally, is the best: I always had the food hidden in a napkin, or my pockets, or my handbag.

‘It’s only just occurred to me, now I’m recovering, how many lies have been told to everyone who cares about me. I’m ashamed. I always thought of myself as an honest person. Of course, that could be a lie, too.’

My laugh is self-deprecating, and my audience take their cue, faces breaking into smiles.

The support group started out when the leader, Jackie, had been in a car accident and found it hard to cope. She’d wanted to talk to others who’d suffered a similar trauma but hadn’t been able to find a group locally. Being a bustling force-of-nature type who, once she makes up her mind about something, won’t let go of the idea, she started this one herself. Her second member had been Lainey, who had joined because she’d been mown down while on a pedestrian crossing and suffered flashbacks; but she was also grateful because as a result of the accident, doctors had diagnosed her pancreatic cancer early enough to save her life easily. Eventually, Lainey left, but not before recruiting first me – after we got chatting one day in the hospital café, over in Newcastle – and then Carrie, a fellow cancer sufferer, although hers was breast.

There were other members, too, who had been through all sorts, from rape to bereavement to the shock of being burgled. Jackie didn’t mind that her group had morphed into support for people who had been through all manner of trauma, rather than only for accident victims. It was nice for all of us to share in the group, getting to know each other. Even though our experiences were so different, at the root of our issues were similar emotions: fear, anger, difficulty in coping, the urge to pretend to be strong as we fell apart. Dealing with the change in the way people reacted to us. The sense that our lives were split into Before and After.

In the circle, I seek out Carrie’s reaction to my words. She grins, gives me a double thumbs up of encouragement, still unaware that I, her new best friend, have other lies that involve her. There’s an ulterior motive in taking her under my wing.

My words are for her more than anything, warning her I’m not all that I seem.

‘I haven’t just fibbed to others, I’ve failed to be honest with myself – some of the biggest lies people tell are to themselves,’ I add. ‘At my lowest, even my own body tricked me. My starving carcass released endorphins, chemicals designed to make me feel good, to mask the pain it was in and help keep me going. Giving up that rush is hard, and now I’m no longer in the grip of my eating disorder it’s a struggle without those endorphins. I need to find something else that can fill that hole and make me feel good about myself, but what, and how?

‘At my worst, I hallucinated, my eyes literally deceiving me. After three days without food or sleep, I thought I was caged in a red and white circus tent, like something from a freak show, while an audience trailed past me, pointing and laughing. It felt so real. See how easily we can deceive ourselves into accepting an altered reality? The doctors told me it was most likely caused by an electrolyte disturbance, probably due to inadequate nutrition. Whatever it was, I was so delirious that two nurses had to hold me down. That was when I was at rock bottom.’

The memory makes me feel shame at how low I’d reached, but also pride at how far I’ve come. Everyone is silent, intent as priests at confession. Carrie nods at me.

‘At one point, my twins appeared at my bedside to say they could no longer cope with seeing me kill myself. “Why aren’t we enough for you to live for?” my son, Edward, asked. God, he looked so hurt and angry. How could I find the words to explain that he was enough for me to live for? That when he’d left, I’d lost my reason to live. That by trying to find my own identity again I stumbled down this rabbit hole and fell into some kind of weird other world where the only thing that mattered to me was food. I had something I could control again. Something that no one else could mess with.

‘There is good news, though: I’m finally starting to climb out of this hole and see that there is more to life. I’m seeing the damage done and trying to repair it. I’m determined to get better. This week I put on another two pounds, and am feeling really proud.’

A ripple of clapping spreads and grows as I sit down. After several beats, Jackie speaks, her Belfast accent softened after years of living here in Tynemouth.

‘Members, thank you so much for taking part tonight. Some of us have had a tough week.’ She nods at Pat, who is dreading her birthday in a fortnight, the first since her husband, James, died. ‘Others have had a more positive one. Some have spoken, some have had the strength only to listen. Together, we support and celebrate every step. Long may it continue. Have a good week, everyone.’

With murmured thanks, people stand, break into groups, drift away. Outgoing and chatty, Carrie normally stays behind after the meeting has finished. Actually, she usually persuades us all to go to the pub for a ‘liquid debrief’, despite it being a Monday night. She’s the type of person who, at a party, dances on tables, whooping and doing shots. I’m the type who sits in the corner, watching and worrying someone will fall off the furniture and hurt themselves.

Tonight, though, Carrie’s slim body slips quickly through the crowd of fellow confessors, and through the door that says ‘emergency exit only’ but is permanently propped open. I see her expression reflected in the glass before she passes through the opening into the car park. She is biting her lip, frowning. I’m sure she catches my eye for a moment and sees me behind her, but doesn’t slow, even as I hurry to catch up.

‘Carrie, fancy some company?’

She stops, turns, but as I approach it’s clear to see her shoulders have risen, even if she doesn’t realise it. She doesn’t want to stop, but can’t think of a polite way of ignoring me, obviously. I’m pushing myself in where I’ve no place, I know, and consider making my excuses and leaving her alone, as she so obviously wants. But I also know from bitter experience that sometimes it’s when we need people that we’re most likely to isolate ourselves. It can be dangerous for someone like me, an anorexic, who hides everything all the time. So many skeletons in my closet. Carrie isn’t a recovering anorexic, though, I remind myself. Still, I can’t help sticking my nose in and hoping it won’t get bitten off.

Just in case she needs me.

My skeletons won’t let me do anything else.

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