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The Lies We Told by Camilla Way (1)

London, 2017

Clara woke to the sound of rain, to a distant siren wailing somewhere along Old Street, and the low, steady thump of bass from her neighbour’s speakers. She knew instantly that Luke wasn’t home – not just absent from their bed but from the flat itself – and for a moment she lay staring into the darkness before reaching for her phone: 04:12. No missed calls, no text messages. Through the gaps of her curtains she could see the falling rain caught in a streetlamp’s orange glare. Below her window on Hoxton Square came the sudden sharp peal of female laughter, followed by the clattering stumble of high heels.

Another hour passed before she gave up on sleep. Beyond their bedroom door the first blue light had begun to seep into the flat’s dark corners, the furniture gradually taking shape around her, its colours and edges looming like ships out of the darkness. The square’s bars and clubs were silent now, the last stragglers long gone. Soon the sweep and trundle of the street cleaners’ truck would come to wash the night away, people would emerge from their buildings heading for buses and trains; the day would begin.

Above her, the repetitive beat continued to pound and, sitting on the sofa wrapped in her duvet now, she stared down at her phone, her tired mind flicking through various explanations. They hadn’t had a chance to speak yesterday at work, and she’d left without asking him his plans. Later, she’d met a friend for drinks before going to bed early, assuming he’d be back before too long. Should she call him now? She hesitated. They’d only moved in together six months before, and she didn’t want to be that girlfriend – nagging and needy, issuing demands and curfews – it was not the way things worked between them. He was out having fun. No big deal. It had happened before, after all – a few drinks that had turned into a few more, then sleeping it off on someone’s sofa.

Yet it was strange, wasn’t it? To not even text – to just not come home at all?

It wasn’t until she was in the shower that she remembered the importance of the day’s date. Wednesday the twenty-sixth. Luke’s interview. The realization made her stand stock-still, the shampoo bottle poised in mid-air. Today was the big interview for his promotion at work. He’d been preparing for it for weeks; there was no way he would stay out all night before something so important. Quickly she turned the water off and, wrapping herself in a towel, went back to the living room to find her phone. Clicking on his number she waited impatiently for the ringtone to kick in. And then she heard the buzzing vibration coming from beneath the sofa. Crouching down she saw it, lying on the dusty expanse of floor, forgotten and abandoned: Luke’s mobile. ‘Shit,’ she said out loud, and as though surprised, the pounding music above her head ended in abrupt silence.

She clicked open her emails and sure enough there it was, a message from Luke, sent last night at 18.23 from his work address.

Hey darling, left my phone at home again. I’m going to stay and work on stuff for the interview, probably be here til eight, then coming home – want to have an early night for tomorrow. You’re out with Zoe, aren’t you? See you when I do, Lx

An hour later, as she made her way up Old Street, she told herself to get a grip. He’d changed his mind, that was all. Decided to go for a pint with his team, then ended up carrying the night on. He couldn’t let her know because he was phoneless – nothing else to it. She would see him soon enough at work, hung-over and sheepish, full of apologies. So why was her stomach twisting and turning like this? Beneath the April sky, grey and damp like old chewing gum, she walked the ugly thoroughfare, already gnarled with traffic, the brutal hulking buildings of the roundabout ahead, the wide pavements filled with commuters pressing on and on, clutching coffee, earbuds in, staring down at phones or else inward-looking, unseeing, as they moved as one towards the white tiled station entrance, to be sucked in then hurtled forward, and spat out again the other end.

The magazine publishers where they both worked was in the centre of Soho. Though they were on separate magazines – she a writer on a finance title, he heading the design desk of an architectural quarterly – it’s where they’d met three years ago, shortly before they’d started going out.

It had been her first day at Brindle Press and, eager to make a good impression, she’d offered to make the first round of teas. Anxiously running through everyone’s names as she’d sloshed water on to teabags and stirred in milk and sugar, she’d piled too many mugs on the tray before she’d hurried out of the kitchen. The mess when it slipped from her hands and came crashing to the floor had been spectacular; scattered shards of broken crockery, rivers of brown steaming liquid, her carefully chosen ‘first-day’ dress soaked through.

Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck. It was only then that she’d looked up and seen him, the tall, good-looking man standing in the doorway, watching her with amusement. ‘Oops,’ he’d said, crouching down to help her.

‘Christ, I’m an idiot,’ she’d wailed.

He’d laughed. ‘Don’t worry about it,’ he said, then added, ‘I’m Luke.’

That evening, when her new team had taken her out for welcome drinks she’d spotted him at the bar, her heart quickening as she met his gaze, his dark eyes holding her there, as though he’d reached out his hand and touched her.

Now, as she approached her desk the phone rang, its tone signalling an internal line and she snatched it up eagerly. ‘Luke?’

But it was his deputy, Lauren. ‘Clara? Where the fuck is he?’

She felt herself flush. ‘I don’t know.’

There was a short, surprised silence. ‘Right. What, you don’t … you haven’t seen him this morning?’

‘He didn’t come home last night,’ she admitted.

There was another silence while Lauren digested this. ‘Huh.’ And then she heard her say loudly to whoever was listening nearby, ‘He didn’t come home last night!’ A chorus of male laughter, of leering comments she couldn’t quite catch, though the tone was clear: Naughty Luke. They were joking, she knew, and their laughter was comforting, in a way, signifying their lack of concern. Still, she clutched the receiver tightly until Lauren came back on the line. ‘Well, not to worry. Fucker’s probably dead in a ditch somewhere,’ she said cheerfully. ‘When you do speak to him, tell him Charlie’s raging, he’s missed the cover meeting now. Later, yeah?’ And then she hung up.

Maybe she should go through his contacts list, ring around his friends. But what if he did arrive soon? He’d be mortified she’d made such a fuss. And surely he was bound to turn up sooner or later – people always did, after all.

Suddenly his best friend Joe McKenzie’s face flashed into Clara’s mind and for the first time her spirits lifted. Mac. He’d know what to do. She grabbed her mobile and hurried out into the corridor to call him, feeling immediately comforted when she heard his familiar Glaswegian accent.

‘Clara? How’s it going?’

She pictured Mac’s pale, serious face, the small brown eyes that peered distractedly from beneath a mop of black hair.

‘Have you seen Luke?’ she asked.

‘Hang on.’ The White Stripes blared in the background while she waited impatiently, imagining him fighting his way through the chaos of his photographic studio before the noise was abruptly killed and Mac came back on the line. ‘Luke? No. Why? What’s— haven’t you?’

Quickly she explained, her words spilling out in a rush: Luke’s forgotten mobile, his email, his missed interview. ‘Yeah,’ Mac said when she’d finished. ‘That’s odd, right enough. He’d never miss that interview.’ He thought for a moment. ‘I’ll call around everyone. Ask if they’ve seen him. He’s probably been on a bender and overslept, you know what he’s like.’

But his text half an hour later said, No one’s heard from him. I’ll keep trying though, I’m sure he’ll turn up.

She couldn’t shake the feeling something was very wrong. Despite his colleagues’ laughter, she didn’t really think he’d been with another woman. Even if he had, a one-night stand didn’t take this long, surely? She made herself face the real reason for her anxiety: Luke’s ‘stalker’.

Putting the word in inverted commas, treating it all as a bit of a joke, was something Luke had done ever since it had begun nearly a year ago. He’d even christened whomever it was ‘Barry’ – a comical, harmless name to prove just how unthreatened he was by it all. ‘Barry strikes again!’ he’d say, after yet another vicious Facebook message, or silent phone call, or unwelcome ‘gift’ through the post.

But then things had got weirder. First an envelope stuffed with photographs had been pushed through their door. Each one was of Luke and showed him doing the most mundane of things – queuing at a café, or walking to the Tube, or getting into their car. Whoever had taken them had clearly been following him closely – with a wide-angled lens, Mac had said. It had made Clara’s skin crawl. The photos had been stuffed through their letterbox with arrogant nonchalance, as if to say, This is what I can do: look how easy it is. But though she’d been desperate to call the police, Luke wouldn’t hear of it. It was as if he was determined to pretend it wasn’t happening, that it was merely an annoyance that would soon go away. And no matter how much she begged, he wouldn’t budge.

And then, three months ago, they’d come home late from a party to find the door to their flat forced open. Clara would never forget the creepy chill she’d felt as they silently walked around their home, knowing some stranger had recently been there – going through their things, touching their belongings. But the strange thing was, everything had been left in perfect order: nothing had been stolen; nothing, as far as she could tell, had been moved. Only a handwritten message on a page torn from Clara’s notepad was sitting on the kitchen table: I’ll be seeing you, Luke.

At least Luke had been sufficiently rattled to let Clara report that to the police. Who didn’t even turn up until the next day and discovered precisely nothing – the neighbours hadn’t seen anything, no fingerprints had been found – and as nothing had been taken or damaged, within days the so-called ‘investigation’ had quietly fizzled out.

Stranger still, after that, it was as if whoever it was had lost interest. For weeks now there’d been no new incidents, and Luke had been triumphant. ‘See?’ he’d said. ‘Told you they’d get bored eventually!’ But although Clara had tried hard to put it out of her mind, she hadn’t quite been able to forget the menace of that note – or the idea that the culprit was still out there somewhere, biding their time.

And now Luke had disappeared. What if ‘Barry’ had something to do with it? Even as she allowed the thought to form she could hear Luke’s laugh, see his eyes roll. ‘Jesus, Clara, will you stop being so dramatic?’ But as the morning progressed her sense of foreboding grew and when lunchtime came, instead of going to her usual café, she found herself walking back towards the Tube.

She reached Hoxton Square half an hour later, and when she caught sight of her squat, yellow-bricked building on its furthest corner, she was struck suddenly by the overwhelming certainty that Luke would be there waiting for her, and she ran the final few hundred yards, past the restaurants and bars, the black railings and shadowy lawn of the central garden and, out of breath by the time she reached the front door, she impatiently unlocked it before sprinting up the communal stairs to her flat. But when she got there, it was empty.

She sank into a chair, the flat too silent and still around her. On the coffee table in front of her was a photo she’d had framed when they’d first moved in together and she picked it up now. It was of the two of them on Hampstead Heath three summers before, heads squashed together as they grinned into the camera, a scorching day in June. That first summer, the days seemed to roll out before them hot and limitless, London theirs for the taking. She had fallen in love almost instantly, as effortlessly as breathing, certain she had never met anyone like him before, this handsome, exuberant man so full of energy and sweetness and easy charm and who, (inexplicably it seemed to her) appeared to find her just as irresistible. As she gazed down at the photo now, their happiness trapped and unreachable behind glass, she traced his face with her finger. ‘Where are you,’ she whispered, ‘where the bloody hell are you, Luke?’

At that moment she heard the front door slam two floors below and her heart lurched. She listened, her breath held as the footsteps on the stairs grew louder. When they paused outside her door she sprang to her feet and rushed to open it, but with a jolt of surprise found it was her upstairs neighbour, and not Luke, staring back at her.

She didn’t know the name of the woman who’d lived above them for the past six months. She could, Clara thought, be anything between mid-twenties and mid-thirties, it was impossible to tell. She was very thin with long, lank brown hair, behind which could occasionally be glimpsed a small, finely featured face covered in a thick, mask-like layer of make-up. In all the time Clara and Luke had lived there she’d never once replied to their greetings, merely shuffling past with downcast eyes whenever they met on the stairs. Every time either of them had gone up to ask her to turn her music down, which she played loudly night and day, she refused to answer the door, merely turning the volume up higher until they went away.

‘Can I help y—’ Clara began, but the woman had already begun heading towards the stairs. Clara was watching her go when her worry and stress got the better of her. ‘Excuse me!’ she blurted, and her neighbour froze, one foot poised on the first step, eyes averted. ‘It’s about the music. Could you give it a rest, do you think? It’s all night long, and sometimes most of the day too, can’t you turn it down once in a while?’

At first it seemed the woman wasn’t going to reply, but slowly she turned her face towards Clara. Her eyes, rimmed thickly in black kohl, landed on her own before flitting away again, as she asked softly and with the faintest ghost of a smile, ‘Where’s Luke, Clara?’

Clara could only stare back at her, too surprised to respond. ‘I’m sorry?’

‘Where’s Luke?’

She’d had no idea the woman even knew their names. Perhaps she’d seen them written on their post, but it was the way she said it – so familiar, so knowing, and with such a strange smile on her lips. ‘What do you mean?’ Clara asked but the woman only turned and carried on up the stairs. ‘Excuse me! Why are you asking about Luke?’ but there was still no reply. Clara stood staring after her. It was as if the world was conspiring in some surreal joke against her. The door to the upstairs flat opened and then closed again and at last Clara went back to her own flat. She stood in her narrow hallway, listening, until a few seconds later the familiar thud of bass began to thump against her ceiling once more.

It was past two. She should go back to work; her colleagues would be worried by now. But Clara didn’t move. Should she start phoning around hospitals? Perhaps she should google their numbers – at least that way she would be doing something. She went to the small box room they used as an office and at a touch of the mouse pad Luke’s laptop flickered into life, the browser opening immediately at Google Mail – and Luke’s personal email account.

For a second she stared at the screen, her finger hovering, knowing she shouldn’t pry. But then her gaze fell upon his list of folders. Below the usual ‘Inbox’ ‘Drafts’ and ‘Trash’ was one labelled, simply, ‘Bitch’. She stared at it in shock before clicking on it. And then her jaw dropped – there were at least five hundred messages, sent from several different accounts over the past year, sometimes as often as five times a day. She opened and read them one by one.

Did you see me today, Luke? I saw you. Keep your eyes peeled.

And,

I know you, Luke, I know what you are, what you’ve done. You might have most people fooled, but you don’t fool me. Men like you never fool me.

How are your parents, Luke? How are Oliver and Rose? Do they know the truth about you – your family, your friends, your colleagues? How about that little girlfriend of yours, or is she too stupid to see? She looks really fucking stupid, but she’ll find out soon enough.

And,

Women are nothing to you, are we, Luke? We’re just here for your convenience, to fuck, to step over, to use or to bully. We’re disposable. You think you’re untouchable, you think you’ve got away with it. Think again, Luke.

Then,

What will they say about you at your funeral, Luke? Say your goodbyes, it’s going to be soon.

The very last one had been sent only a few days before.

I’m coming for you, Luke, I’ll be seeing you.

It had been a woman, all this time? And he’d known about it for months, had known but hadn’t told her – had never even mentioned the emails. Did he know who it was? It was clearly someone who knew him very well – knew his parents’ names, where Luke worked; knew his movements intimately. Was it the same person who had broken into their flat, sent the photographs, the letters? Perhaps it was a joke, she thought wildly. An elaborate prank dreamt up by one of his friends. But then, where was he? Where was Luke? I’m coming for you, Luke. I’ll be seeing you.

She was deep in thought when the sound of her intercom sliced through the silence, making her jump violently, her heart shooting to her mouth.