The front door clunked its everyday clunk, my house key cool and familiar between my fingers as I deadlocked Ben inside. I didn’t peer through the glass. I pocketed the keys as if I were popping to the shop, then set off in the direction of the Metrolink, casual as anything. I wasn’t exactly whistling and swinging my arms, but neither did I feel as though I were on the run. My thoughts were pure white noise and my hand steady on the handle of my suitcase.
Ana trailed down the street behind me, complicit in the whole thing, naturally.
‘I didn’t think you had it in you,’ she said, too cheerfully. ‘Honestly. I’m actually impressed. Grace? Are you listening to me? Look, I think you’re in shock. Your face has gone all weird.’
Shock would make sense. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew I wasn’t okay. My breaths came in irregular gasps and there was a high, faint ringing in my ears. I could feel my heartbeat in my teeth. But it was evident some sort of survival instinct had kicked in, stuffing the forefront of my mind with cotton wool and allowing me to float along on a fuzzy cloud. After all, what was the alternative? Intolerable, that’s what.
I caught a dry, painful cough in the crook of my arm and focused my gaze on the road ahead.
‘We’ve got ages,’ Ana said, all business. ‘Let’s find somewhere to sit.’
I blinked, surprised to discover we were standing beneath the departure board at Manchester Piccadilly. My body must have carried me there on muscle memory alone. I couldn’t make sense of the train times on the display. It was as if my head were underwater, the words and numbers peeling from the screen and shimmering past like tiny fish.
Ana stepped into my eyeline and beckoned for me to follow her to a row of grubby seats, where we sat shoulder to shoulder in silence for a while. I felt drunk, my thoughts fluctuating between doubting my own existence and feeling somehow too real, wildly conspicuous here in this busy public space. I wouldn’t have been surprised to feel a firm hand on my shoulder, grabbing me, arresting me, dragging me back home, but none came.
Time passed for a while in this dreamlike, incalculable fashion. Then we were standing on one of the grottier platforms at the rear of the station, and it became apparent the trains were at a complete standstill. The collective vibe of the crowd descended into a hum of acute tension as we waited, and waited. It was much harder, under these circumstances, to keep reality at bay.
I perched on my suitcase, studying my hands. A muscle in one of my fingers had started to spasm. This finger, I thought, has a guilty conscience.
Beside us, a suited and booted man bellowed into his phone. ‘Fucking ridiculous, mate. They’ve got no fucking explanation for it. Absolutely fucking ridiculous.’ He went on and on. ‘I don’t geddit. How hard can it be to just send a fucking train? Heads will roll, d’ya know what I’m saying?’
I pitied the person on the other end of the phone for having to listen to him, and then I pitied myself for having nobody on this earth to whom I could make a similar, obnoxious call.
By the time a rail replacement bus had been organised, I was unravelling at pace. If I’d been grinding my teeth any harder, they would have crumbled away to dust, my whole skull folding in on itself like a fortune cookie.
The word murder appeared from nowhere, flitting like a moth about the edges of my consciousness, but I swatted it away, a cold bead of sweat trickling from between my shoulder blades to the small of my back. I pressed my temple to the cloudy bus window and tried to will myself back into the comfort of an emotional void.
Meanwhile, Ana swayed in the aisle and sighed pissily at intervals. Somewhere near Lancaster she said, ‘I just know you’re going to make this out to be my fault.’
I made an elaborate display of putting in my earphones.
‘He got what he deserved,’ she persisted. ‘If you’d listened to me months ago, we could have avoided all of this. Now is not the time to be such a bleeding heart, Grace. You’ve got to get a grip for once–’
‘Oh, just fuck off!’ I twisted in my seat to scream at her, my eyes filling with hot tears.
The other harried passengers flinched, half of them staring, the rest averting their gaze. The man beside me folded his newspaper supplement, rose slowly and moved to the back of the bus, where he was offered a narrow portion of seat by a sympathetic onlooker.
Ana smirked and took his place.
So much for keeping a low profile, leaving no trail. Everyone on this bus would remember my outburst, my face. I wasn’t going to get away with it, I wasn’t going to be able to hide for long. It was only a matter of time until I was caught.
The plan to abscond to Bluebell Cottage together had been Ana’s idea in the first place.
Our final destination was a tiny, terraced cottage in the bucolic Lake District tourist trap of Halsmere; traditional stone walls, voluptuous swells of ivy, single-glazed windows, the whole gorgeous shebang. We’d looked at it on Airbnb several times, using an incognito browser in the dead of night, speaking in hushed tones so we didn’t wake Ben.
‘I’ve stayed here before,’ she said. ‘It’s perfect.’
‘I’d never be able to afford it, though.’
‘Trust me, I know the landlord, he’s a pushover. You can call him up and be charming…’
She paused here to very deliberately look me up and down. I was in my pyjamas, snotty and puffy from crying, but I knew even in my smartest clothes, on my best day, she’d manage to get in a few digs about my general presentation and personality.
‘I mean, I can tell you what to say,’ she went on. ‘I know just how to push his buttons. You can haggle a good rate for the whole summer. Think about it! It’ll be like disappearing into thin air. Ben will never know to look for you there.’
Having read rather a lot on the subject of emotional manipulation recently, I knew what Ana was doing here was called “negging”. I also knew I was too tired not to be susceptible to it. I sighed. I’d allow myself to be negged one last time. The cottage did look nice.
By the time we arrived - with what should have been a two hour journey eventually taking over six - I’d given up trying to hold myself together. I trudged up the hill into Halsmere Village, crying freely.
Ana was acting bizarrely too, even by her standards. As the row of cottages came into view at the end of the lane, she stopped dead.
‘I’ve changed my mind.’ Her tone was tremulous. ‘I… I can’t do it.’
I didn’t break my stride. It was far too late for either one of us to have second thoughts.
When I reached the garden gate, my suitcase was too large to fit between the unusually narrow-set gate posts. I tried to jam it through with sheer brute force, spatial awareness not exactly being my forte, and when this didn’t work, I tried lifting it up-and-over, but upper body strength has never been my forte either. The only way I could get the case onto the property was to use the low stone wall as a fulcrum, rolling the suitcase on top and then pushing it over into the garden with a grunt.
I braced myself to receive a sarcastic remark about this display of ineptitude from Ana, but when I looked up, she wasn’t there.
Unbidden, the memory of Ben as I’d left him - face down on the floor in the hallway of our home - barged its way to the fore. The enormity of what I’d done was all at once painfully clear.
It was only supposed to have been a break-up. That’s all. I couldn’t begin to understand how I’d let it go so badly wrong.
With desperate hands, I scrabbled to open the stiff little key-box, and entered Bluebell Cottage alone.