What You Did by Claire McGowan
When it stops, she’s lying on the grass with her face crushed into it. She can smell the green sap of it, feel the scratch of weeds against her skin. Her body comes back to her piece by piece. Her throat, wheezing and burning from where he choked her. He choked her. She can’t entirely believe it, the feel of his hands around her neck, the panic of gasping for a breath and not finding it there, the weight of him pushing her into the ground. Her legs are cold and scratched, her feet bare on the damp grass. Her head aches, her mouth is dry. And there are other things wrong too, things she can’t even begin to acknowledge. She opens her mouth and tries to shout but the words are gone, like in those dreams where you scream and scream and nothing comes out. He has taken that from her too. She tries to move, to get up, to show herself she’s still alive, she’s not hurt – oh, but she is – and a rip of pain tears through her.
The house is just metres away, at the other end of the large silent garden, but it may as well be miles, because no one heard this happen, no one saw, no one came to help. He has gone now, but she knows he won’t be far, and despite where she is, despite the absurdity of it, all she can feel is a sudden fear that crushes her lungs and stops up her breath. He’s still here somewhere. She has to get away. She has to get up, on her feet, get moving, get help. It is very dark. She blinks away the tears that have filled her eyes and sees that, in the darkness of the house, one yellow light has just winked on.
These days, now that everything is over, I often find myself thinking of the moment it all changed. The small slice of time when my life went from perfect, or, OK, not perfect but pretty good at least, to utterly ruined. Most of all I think about how my mind tried to pull away from it – please, not now – how I did my best, for a few seconds at least, to pretend it wasn’t real. It was something I didn’t know about myself, this capacity to stop up my ears, close my eyes. I thought I’d be the kind of person who sprang to help, called the police, made hot sweet tea for the shock.
But instead, when Karen came into my kitchen that night – staggering, trembling, her black jersey dress ruched up about her thighs, the bruises on her neck standing out like ink smudges from the newspaper – I wasn’t ready. I stood frozen in horror, wishing we could scroll back time and keep that moment right before this, clean and unshattered.
Karen gave a gulping sob, as if even her voice had been scared out of her. And before my treacherous mind even had time to think, please, don’t tell us – she said it.
‘He raped me. He raped me.’
Jodi was there too, standing with the cafetière in her hand, kettle boiling, and it was her, not me, who had the courage to say: ‘Who, Karen? What do you mean?’
And Karen said the name, and then she fell to her knees, dramatically, as if her legs were giving way. Her hair was bunched up, clumped as if someone had been grabbing it. A trickle of blood ran down her thigh, coming to rest on the slate tiles of my kitchen floor. Later, when the police were done, I would scrub it, but it would never truly shift.
Earlier that day
‘Do I have to, Mum?’
‘Of course you do. What else would you do?’ My to-do list was revolving in my head. Beds, towels, after-dinner chocolates, Benji’s room.
Benji barely looked up from his iPad. Ten years old and he owned an iPad. I marvelled at that, sometimes, as I did with many things in my life. ‘It’ll be so boring. No one’s my age.’
I hated that tinge of whining in his voice, the way his features, still smooth and acne-free, twisted into a frown. No one ever tells you that this is the downside of giving your kids everything you never had – they turn into spoiled little brats. ‘Look, just eat your dinner with us and be polite and then you can do whatever you want. Watch a film or play on your iPad or something. OK?’ Good plates, ice cream from freezer, polish glasses.
‘What are we having?’ His fingers never stopped, swiping, swiping, swiping at the device. I watched his eyes, the irises such a clear blue, jiggle along with it, and worried about screen time, attention deficit disorder, spoiling him.
‘I’m doing tagine. Couscous, salad, that sort of thing.’ Although now I’d planned the menu and ordered the Ocado shop and the lamb and vegetables were sitting in piles on the chopping board in front of me, I worried it was too easy.
Benji groaned. ‘I hate Moroccan.’
I felt the words bubble in my mouth: When I was your age I’d never even heard of Moroccan. I bit them down. ‘Benj. This is important to me, and to Dad. We haven’t all been together, all us friends, since university. It’s a special weekend. So how about you stop the poor little rich boy routine, huh?’
‘Do I really have to share with Cassie?’
‘You know you do. We don’t have space for everyone otherwise.’
‘But Cassie always wakes me up. She’s on her phone all night, the light shines in my eyes.’
The list in my head was unravelling. I glanced at the clock – bugger, I had to leave in less than an hour. Why did I have to meet Vix today of all days? ‘I’ll tell her not to then. Is your room tidy for Auntie Karen?’
‘Yeah.’ He reached for the packet of Kettle Chips and I batted his hand away.
‘You’ve just had lunch. Why don’t you go and play, Benj?’
I was sure at his age I’d been more self-sufficient than this. I had to speak to Mike about taking away his iPad. I added that to the mental list under check loos, light candles, and all the other things I had to do before they arrived. Why did I always run out of time? I offered a sop to my son. ‘Listen. You know Bill, who’s coming? He goes fishing all the time in Sweden. I bet he’ll show you how, if you ask nicely.’
One blue eye cocked at me over the iPad screen. I had him.
‘You’d like that, wouldn’t you?’ Mike had bought Benji a rod for Christmas but still not found time to take him to the small stream that ran past the side of the garden. I didn’t think Mike actually knew how to fish, but Bill would. Even at university I remembered him catching a frightened grey tiddler off the back of a punt, using a prawn sandwich as bait. We threw it back, but I still remembered the thrill of it spasming on the wooden deck, Karen and Jodi and I screeching girlishly. Bill with the joint hanging from his mouth, always so cool but even him smiling a little, proud and surprised.
Benji snapped off the iPad and stood up from the kitchen table. ‘I’ll tidy my room then. I mean, tidy it better.’
I pulled him under my arm in a bear hug; he smelled of biscuits and shampoo. Not yet like a teenager, of feet and resentment, and that reminded me Jake would be here soon, that I had to think of things to talk to him about, a way in to the impenetrable teenager he’d become. Find out what he might like for his eighteenth birthday, fast approaching. At least I still had Benji for a few more years. ‘You’re a good boy.’
‘Urgh, Mum.’ But he hugged back. ‘Where’s Cassie?’
‘Town.’ I’d asked her to buy another candle and she still wasn’t home. Soup, bread, herbs for tagine, wine out to breathe . . .
‘Bet she’s with Aaron.’
‘Well, maybe they had homework . . .’
‘They’re not in the same class, Mum.’ No, because Cassie’s boyfriend was in the Oxbridge stream and she hadn’t made it, and Mike and I were pretending it was totally fine, not an issue at all. A cloud of extra worries burst around my head like flies – how much time Cassie was spending with Aaron, what they got up to in that time, what if something had happened to her to make her late – and then the back door of the house, the one that led into the woods, slammed and she was here.
She sloped into the kitchen, and I noted how short her skirt was, how tight her vest top. ‘What?’
She had a red mark on the side of her neck. Behind her in the hall, I saw someone – her boyfriend, Aaron. So tall already his head almost knocked into the antique chandelier I’d hung in the hallway. ‘Hello, Aaron.’
‘Hello, Mrs Morris.’ He had lovely manners – of course he did. Just like his grades and his sporting ability and his clean, blonde good looks. I worried for Cassie, with a boy like this. A boy who already knew he could have anything he wanted in life.
‘Oh, you know,’ he said. ‘Busy with exams. I’m going home to study now, in fact.’
‘You wouldn’t like to stay for dinner?’ My offer was lukewarm and we both knew it.
‘Oh, that’s really kind, but Mum’s expecting me. She’s made fresh pasta.’ And I was serving tagine, one of the easiest dishes there was. I found myself wondering, ridiculously, if it was too late to start again.
‘Bye then, Cass.’ He reached for her, and I wondered if he’d kiss her in front of me, but he just hugged her. Cassie held on tight, closing her eyes, clinging to him. She looked so frail next to his rugby-playing bulk. She’d lost weight again.
‘Did you get the candle?’ I asked, once Aaron had left through the door to the woods.
She plonked it on the counter, making the plates rattle.
‘Careful. What is it?’
‘Fig and orange. Smells gross.’
‘Can you help me, please? I’m struggling here.’ I pushed a lock of hair back with my forearm. It was boiling in the kitchen, with all four hob rings and the oven going. It was only June and already the summer was being talked of as record-breaking, a scorcher, hottest since records began. I’d looked forward to it – dinner in the garden, how Mediterranean – but now the heat seemed to press down on me like a lid, slowing my steps until I was hopelessly behind.
‘Why can’t Dad help?’
‘He’s in his office.’
‘No he’s not, he’s in the garden reading the paper.’
‘Well, can you ask him to check the table’s clean, and wipe the chairs, oh and find some citronella, there’ll be flies.’
‘Ask him yourself, he’s here.’
‘Pick me some herbs!’ I yelled after her, as she slunk out and Mike came in, holding the door open for her to pass.
‘Smells good!’ He seemed cheerful: a relief. He hadn’t been keen on this weekend. It would be too much work, he said, and we didn’t have space for everyone. A four-bedroom house plus a room over the garage, still not enough.
I took a moment to look at him, critically. If this was the anniversary of us starting university, that made it twenty-five years since I’d first seen Mike, across the cavern-like college bar. The easy stance he’d adopted, chatting, while everyone else squirmed and shouted in their awkward first-year way. Five nine, not tall, but enough for me. Some grey now in his dark hair. Today he was wearing a polo shirt and khaki shorts, a cotton jumper in a flaming scarlet colour, despite the rising heat in the garden. That was new, and looked expensive. Trying to impress, just like I was, in my own way.
‘Karen texted me – apparently, you’re not answering. They’re getting a taxi from town.’
‘Oh God, I’m not ready. Why so early?’ I’d planned to pick them up later, on my way back.
He shrugged, reaching out to squeeze the sourdough in its paper bag. ‘Guess she made good time. On the Megabus.’
I ignored his small jibe – it wasn’t Karen’s fault she couldn’t afford the train fare. Although maybe if she’d done what everyone begged her to, from tutors to parents, and resat her Finals, she might have a degree and a better job than doing admin for the council. ‘But I told her I had this meeting! Are the rooms ready?’ I ran through it again in my head. Callum and Jodi in the spare room, Karen in Benji’s, Bill in Mike’s office over the garage, and Jake was insisting on camping for some weird reason of his own. Would it work, all of us piling in on each other?
Mike came up behind me as I stirred the stew, and squeezed my shoulders. ‘You’re so tense I could bounce ten pees off your back. Relax, will you. It’s just our friends, not Come Dine With Me. Karen won’t care if we’re not immaculate.’
But I would. And Jodi was bound to notice, and say something that sounded innocuous, but which I would brood over for days after. ‘Will they need lunch?’
‘It’s after two, I don’t think they’ll expect it. Cup of tea, bit of cake on the lawn, how about it? I’ll hold the fort while you pop out.’
‘But . . .’
‘Ali.’ Mike spun me around, hands on my shoulders, forcing eye contact. ‘Look, there’s no point in doing this if you don’t enjoy it. Is there? So come on, love, take a chill pill, as Cassie would say.’
‘She’d rather die than say something so naff.’
‘Yes, because “naff” is such cutting-edge slang.’
I felt a small ease of the knot in my stomach as we drew apart, our hands moving to tidy and wipe and organise in a well-practised dance. He was right. They were our friends, they wouldn’t expect perfection. It would all be fine.
Outside, I heard the sound of a car on gravel. She was here.