The Lying Game
The Reach is wide and quiet this morning, the pale blue sky streaked with pink mackerel-belly clouds, the shallow sea barely rippling in the slight breeze, and so the sound of the dog barking breaks into the calm like gunshots, setting flocks of gulls crying and wheeling in the air.
Plovers and terns explode up as the dog bounds joyously down the river bank, scampering down the runnelled side, where the earth turns from spiky grassy dunes to reed-specked mud, where the water wavers between salt and fresh.
In the distance the Tide Mill stands sentinel, black and battered against the cool calm of the morning sky, the only man-made structure in a landscape slowly crumbling back into the sea.
“Bob!” The woman’s voice rings out above the volley of barks as she pants to catch up. “Bob, you rascal. Drop it. Drop it, I say. What’ve you found?”
As she draws closer, the dog tugs again at the object protruding from the mud, trying to pull it free.
“Bob, you filthy brute, you’re covered. Let it go. Oh God, it’s not another dead sheep, is it?”
It’s the last heroic yank that sends the dog staggering back along the shore, something in its jaw. Triumphant, he scrambles up the bank to lay the object at the feet of his owner.
And as she stands, looking dumbstruck, the dog panting at her feet, the silence returns to the bay like a tide coming in.
The Lying Game
The sound is just an ordinary text alert, a quiet beep beep in the night that does not wake Owen, and would not have woken me except that I was already awake, lying there, staring into the darkness, the baby at my breast snuffling, not quite feeding, not quite unlatching.
I lie there for a moment thinking about the text, wondering who it could be. Who’d be texting at this hour? None of my friends would be awake . . . unless it’s Milly gone into labor already . . . God, it can’t be Milly, can it? I’d promised to take Noah if Milly’s parents couldn’t get up from Devon in time to look after him, but I never really thought . . .
I can’t quite reach the phone from where I’m lying, and at last I unlatch Freya with a finger in the corner of her mouth, and rock her gently onto her back, milk-sated, her eyes rolling back in her head like someone stoned. I watch her for a moment, my palm resting lightly on her firm little body, feeling the thrum of her heart in the birdcage of her chest as she settles, and then I turn to check my phone, my own heart quickening slightly like a faint echo of my daughter’s.
As I tap in my PIN, squinting slightly at the brightness of the screen, I tell myself to stop being silly—it’s four weeks until Milly’s due, it’s probably just a spam text, Have you considered claiming a refund for your payment protection insurance?
But, when I get the phone unlocked, it’s not Milly. And the text is only three words.
I need you.
• • •
IT IS 3:30 A.M., AND I am very, very awake, pacing the cold kitchen floor, biting at my fingernails to try to quell the longing for a cigarette. I haven’t touched one for nearly ten years, but the need for one ambushes me at odd moments of stress and fear.
I need you.
I don’t need to ask what it means—because I know, just as I know who sent it, even though it’s from a number I don’t recognize.
Just the sound of her name brings her back to me, like a vivid rush—the smell of her soap, the freckles across the bridge of her nose, cinnamon against olive. Kate. Fatima. Thea. And me.
I close my eyes and picture them all, the phone still warm in my pocket, waiting for the texts to come through.
Fatima will be lying asleep beside Ali, curled into his spine. Her reply will come around 6:00 a.m., when she gets up to make breakfast for Nadia and Samir and get them ready for school.
Thea—Thea is harder to picture. If she’s working nights she’ll be in the casino, where phones are forbidden to staff and shut up in lockers until their shifts are finished. She’ll roll off shift at eight in the morning, perhaps? Then she’ll have a drink with the other girls, and then she’ll reply, wired up with a successful night dealing with punters, collating chips, watching for cardsharps and professional gamblers.
And Kate. Kate must be awake—she sent the text, after all. She’ll be sitting at her dad’s worktable—hers now, I suppose—in the window overlooking the Reach, with the waters turning pale gray in the predawn light, reflecting the clouds and the dark hulk of the Tide Mill. She will be smoking, as she always did. Her eyes will be on the tides, the endlessly shifting, eddying tides, on the view that never changes and yet is never the same from one moment to the next—just like Kate herself.
Her long hair will be drawn back from her face, showing her fine bones, and the lines that thirty-two years of wind and sea have etched at the corners of her eyes. Her fingers will be stained with oil paint, ground into the cuticles, deep beneath the nails, and her eyes will be at their darkest slate blue, deep and unfathomable. She will be waiting for our replies. But she knows what we’ll say—what we’ve always said, whenever we got that text, those three words.
The Lying Game
I’m coming!” I shout it up the stairs, as Owen calls something down above Freya’s sleepy squawking cries.
When I get up to the bedroom he’s holding her, pacing back and forth, his face still pink and crumpled from the pillow.
“Sorry,” he says, stifling a yawn. “I tried to calm her down but she wasn’t having any of it. You know what she’s like when she’s hungry.”
I crawl onto the bed and scoot backwards into the pillows until I’m sitting against the headboard, and Owen hands me a red-faced, indignant Freya who takes one affronted look up at me and then lunges for my breast with a little grunt of satisfaction.
All is quiet, except for her greedy suckling. Owen yawns again, ruffles his hair, and looks at the clock, and then begins pulling on his underwear.
“Are you getting up?” I ask in surprise. He nods.
“I might as well. No point in going back to sleep when I’ve got to get up at seven anyway. Bloody Mondays.”
I look at the clock. Six a.m. It’s later than I thought. I must have been pacing the kitchen for longer than I realized.
“What were you doing up, anyway?” he asks. “Did the bin lorry wake you?”
I shake my head.
“No, I just couldn’t sleep.”
A lie. I’d almost forgotten how they feel on my tongue, slick and sickening. I feel the hard, warm bump of my phone in my dressing gown pocket. I’m waiting for it to vibrate.
“Fair enough.” He suppresses another yawn and buttons up his shirt. “Want a coffee, if I put one on?”
“Yeah, sure,” I say. Then, just as he’s leaving the room, “Owen—”
But he’s already gone and he doesn’t hear me.
Ten minutes later he comes back with the coffee, and this time I’ve had time to practice my lines, work out what I’m going to say, and the semi-casual way I’m going to say it. Still I swallow and lick my lips, dry-mouthed with nerves.
“Owen, I got a text from Kate yesterday.”
“Kate from work?” He puts the coffee down with a little bump, it slops slightly, and I use the sleeve of my dressing gown to mop the puddle, protecting my book, giving me time to reply.
“No, Kate Atagon. You know, I went to school with her?”
“Oh, that Kate. The one who brought her dog to that wedding we went to?”
“That’s right. Shadow.”
I think of him. Shadow—a white German shepherd with a black muzzle and soot-speckled back. I think of the way he stands in the doorway, growls at strangers, rolls his snowy belly up to those he loves.
“So . . . ?” Owen prods, and I realize I’ve stopped talking, lost my thread.
“Oh, right. So she’s invited me to come and stay, and I thought I might go.”
“Sounds like a nice idea. When would you go?”
“Like . . . now. She’s invited me now.”
“I’d take her.”
Of course, I nearly add, but I don’t. Freya has never taken a bottle, in spite of a lot of trying on my part, and Owen’s. The one night I went out for a party, she screamed solidly from 7:30 p.m. to 11:58, when I burst through the doors of the flat to snatch her out of Owen’s limp, exhausted arms.
There’s another silence. Freya leans her head back, watching me with a small frown, and then gives a quiet belch and returns to
the serious business of getting fed. I can see thoughts flitting across Owen’s face . . . That he’ll miss us . . . That he’ll have the bed all to himself . . . Lie-ins . . .
“I could get on with decorating the nursery,” he says at last. I nod, although this is the continuation of a long discussion between the two of us—Owen would like the bedroom, and me, back to himself and thinks that Freya will be going into her own room imminently, when she turns six months. I . . . don’t. Which is partly why I’ve not found the time to clear the guest room of all our clutter and repaint it in baby-friendly colors.
“Sure,” I say.
“Well, go for it, I reckon,” Owen says at last. He turns away and begins sorting through his ties. “Do you want the car?” he asks over his shoulder.
“No, it’s fine. I’ll take the train. Kate will pick me up from the station.”
“Are you sure? You won’t want to be lugging all Freya’s stuff on the train, will you? Is this straight?”
“What?” For a minute I’m not sure what he’s on about, and then I realize—the tie. “Oh, yes, it’s straight. No, honestly, I’m happy to take the train. It’ll be easier; I can feed Freya if she wakes up. I’ll just put all her stuff in the bottom of the pram.” He doesn’t respond, and I realize he’s already running through the day ahead, ticking things off a mental checklist just as I used to do a few months ago—only it feels like a different life. “Okay, well, look, I might leave today if that’s all right with you.”
“Today?” He scoops his change off the chest of drawers and puts it in his pocket, and then comes over to kiss me good-bye on the top of my head. “What’s the hurry?”
“No hurry,” I lie. I feel my cheeks flush. I hate lying. It used to be fun—until I didn’t have a choice. I don’t think about it much now, perhaps because I’ve been doing it for so long, but it’s always there, in the background, like a tooth that always aches and suddenly twinges with pain.
Most of all, though, I hate lying to Owen. Somehow I always managed to keep him out of the web, and now he’s being drawn in. I think of Kate’s text, sitting there on my phone, and it feels as if poison is leaching out of it, into the room—threatening to spoil everything.
“It’s just Kate’s between projects, so it’s a good time for her and . . . well, I’ll be back at work in a few months, so it just feels like now’s as good a time as any.”
“Okay,” he says, bemused but not suspicious. “Well, I guess I’d better give you a proper good-bye kiss, then.”
He kisses me, properly, deeply, making me remember why I love him, why I hate deceiving him. Then he pulls away and kisses Freya. She swivels her eyes sideways to regard him suspiciously, pausing in her feed for a moment, and then she resumes sucking with the single-minded determination that I love about her.
“Love you, too, little vampire,” Owen says affectionately. Then, to me, “How long is the journey?”
“Four hours, maybe? Depends how the connections go.”
“Okay, well, have a great time, and text me when you get there. How long do you think you’ll stay?”
“A few days?” I hazard. “I’ll be back before the weekend.” Another lie. I don’t know. I have no idea. As long as Kate needs me. “I’ll see when I get there.”
“Okay,” he says again. “Love you.”
“I love you, too.” And at last, that’s something I can tell the truth about.