I Know You, page 1
ANNABEL KANTARIA is a British journalist who now lives in Dubai with her husband and children. She has edited and contributed to women’s magazines and publications throughout the Middle East and returns regularly to the UK.
Also by Annabel Kantaria
The One That Got Away
An imprint of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.
1 London Bridge Street
London SE1 9GF
First published in Great Britain by HQ in 2018
Copyright © Annabel Kantaria 2018
Annabel Kantaria asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins.
Ebook Edition © June 2018 ISBN: 9780008238698
Praise for Annabel Kantaria
‘Draws you in and doesn’t let you go. Gripping, chilling and twisted.’
‘Twists and turns abound.’
‘Compelling…fans of Jodi Picoult and Liane Moriarty will enjoy this.’
‘A clever, tense thriller.’
‘A gripping debut. You won’t be able to put this down.’
‘A compelling tale of marriage, deceit and unfinished business.’
About the Author
About the Publisher
I stare at the computer screen, my eyes flicking as they keep up with the feeds rolling down the pages like ticker tape. The only movement in the room comes from my hand clicking on the mouse, and the occasional staccato burst of my fingers on the keyboard ringing out like gunfire in the silence of the house. Everything around me is still, which is exactly how I like it. The curtains are drawn, and just one beam of sunlight escaping through an imperceptible gap illuminates dust motes suspended in the stale air. Not that I notice. My attention is focused entirely on the 24-inch monitor I’ve angled to face me, the iPads on the desk next to me, and the screen of my mobile phone. All show live social-media feeds, internet searches and live chat rooms.
My fingers flick over the keyboards, the key strokes rattling in the silence of the house as I follow the fast-moving feeds. I lean towards the screen, my attention focused 100 per cent as I scroll, click and type, and then the printer whirs into action, spooling out a colour picture. I pick it off the tray and stare at it almost lasciviously: new material. Even though there’s usually something fresh each day, I’m pleased. It’s a good one. I roll my chair over to the filing cabinet and locate the right scrapbook from the top shelf, then I flick through it, smiling to myself as I go through the familiar images. While the other books all show pictures of people, this one has images of things: cars, streets and houses. Some are older now, their corners starting to curl: I didn’t used to laminate.
I run the new image through the laminator, picking it off the machine while it’s still hot, then carefully fix it in the book using corner mounts. Without the images of her blonde hair and his easy smile, this mightn’t be as interesting a scrapbook as the others to a stranger’s eye – but you have to trust me: it’s way more valuable.
I remember well the day this story started. It was the day I joined the walking group: the day I met Simon; the day I met Anna. It was a wintry December day – dry and bitterly cold. People had their Christmas trees up and fairy lights hanging in their windows but it wasn’t close enough to Christmas for the real excitement to have begun; for people to have started realizing just how few days they have left to rampage through department stores, grabbing aftershave and perfume, leather gloves, lingerie and watches.
The day I joined the walking group marked the beginning of a cold snap that lasted well into February. December to February. By March, when tiny green buds were starting to form on the trees, and flowers were beginning to push their cheerful colours through the earth, by then it was all over. Three months of brutal cold before spring started. That’s all we’re talking about here. Three months.
So let me begin. My mother always told me to be choosy. She’s not really in this story, though I feel she should be.
‘Be choosy with your clothes, be choosy with your make-up, be choosy with what you put in your mouth and with whom you share your bed,’ she used to say, leaning back against the kitchen counter, her arms consumed by marigold gloves. ‘But most of all,’ she would say, ‘be choosy with whom you make friends.’
It was good advice, and I was thinking about it as I pulled on my socks that December morning. I tied the laces on my walking boots and hunted around for my gloves, my hat and the warmest jacket I owned – the one stuffed with ultra-light down, like everyone seemed to have in those days. In my head, there was nothing more serious than the need to keep warm and the need to make some friends.
‘All very well, Mum,’ I said out loud. I was talking to myself a lot back then. ‘But beggars can’t always be choosers.’ If only Mum could see me now, two months into married life in London with no friends to call my own, she’d tell me to come straight back home, that’s what she’d do. And maybe I should have gone home: for sure, if I had, things would have turned out differently. That’s easy to say now. But that day, I
I still remember how, despite the jacket, the cold hit me the moment I stepped out of the house, the door slamming shut behind me in a gust of wind that must surely have blown in directly from the Arctic. I paused for a moment, unused to those British winters: unused to those blue-sky days that looked so inviting when you were cosy inside but felt as if they’d strip raw any uncovered flesh the moment you stepped outside. I adjusted my scarf to cover my cheeks, pulled my woollen hat further down onto my head, and took in the bare-limbed trees, the parked cars, the cracked, grey paving slabs, the litter blowing in the gutter, and the cans rattling against the kerb. I took in next-door’s fat tabby cat licking its paws, and the tired-looking, grey-coated people, their faces turned down, hurrying to work. I remember feeling jealous then – of their jobs, their purpose, and of their colleagues; of their silly water-cooler chats, coffee runs and birthday whip-rounds.
‘This is it, babe,’ I said out loud. ‘This is London.’
I set off down the street looking, I hoped, more confident than I felt. I was on a mission to meet people because, as Jake joked at that point, I had exactly three friends: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. It was difficult to believe that I should have no real friends in London and, hand on heart, I was having trouble to adjusting to the fact that I knew no one. I’d laughed at his joke but it had hurt. There were days back then when I’d thought the loneliness would surely drive me insane; when I felt as if the darkness inside me was going to explode out and flood the house, engulfing me like a seabird caught helplessly in a slimy slick of oil. It makes me squirm now, but back then I’d see myself floating down the hall, arms and legs glued to my body, eyes bulging, choking on loneliness, and I’d have to breathe into a paper bag to stop myself hyperventilating. I never told Jake about that. Maybe I should have done – who knows? – but, ultimately, that’s why I decided to join the walking group.
At the end of my street, I turned a smart right, crossed the main road, headed towards the park, and arrived bang on time. And so the story begins.
I see the walking group at once: a mish-mash of people gathered beneath a huge old oak. Some, in sportwear, are stretching hamstrings and quads, others are clutching take-out coffees and, had I been worried about what to wear, I realize right there that there’s no need: there’s a whole range of active wear between the two groups. I turn my back to the group and snap a smiling selfie with them in the background, then upload it to Instagram as I walk towards the group. ‘Hiking, London-style! #lloydpark’, I write for the caption, adding a little heart emoji, full of the knowledge that my friends back home will find the image everything it’s not: cute (Taylor in a hat!), quaint (London parks!), and moody with the dark sky and bleak trees (weather!). Hollywood Hills it isn’t. Already my phone buzzes with Likes.
They say you judge a person in seven seconds, and I’m perhaps even quicker than that. I scan the group as I approach, my eyes sweeping right and left through them, ruling out those standing with friends and those too old. I’ve nothing against the elderly, don’t get me wrong, but I’m looking for a specific type of person – a new best friend – and, for that, there are criteria.
I wonder now what would have happened had I turned up earlier or later in the year; had I gone to a different supermarket, seen an ad for a different walking group; read a flyer for a different kind of hobby. I go over and over how things might have been different. But this is the day I join this walking group, and I spot a potential friend at once. There’s something about her face, her hair, her clothes, and the way she holds herself. She looks like one of my friends – my real friends back in the States. What I feel is familiarity: that woman standing there in the skinny jeans, the brown boots and the olive-green coat looks like she should be in my tribe. I take a deep breath and wend my way through the other walkers, smiling politely, until I get to her.
‘Hi,’ I say. ‘It’s Jen, isn’t it?’
She looks at me and purses her lips. Squints her eyes.
‘You don’t remember, do you?’ I give a little laugh and shake my hair back as I lean in towards her as if we’re sharing a joke. I have the kind of face that’s generic to a lot of people: a symmetrical, pretty face, with a smile so friendly you think you know me. You’ve ‘seen’ me, you’ve seen thousands of me, and this ‘do I know you?’ tactic often works. But not on this day: the woman shakes her head slowly.
‘I’m sorry. Head like a sieve. Remind me,’ she says.
‘I’m Jake’s wife. We met at dinner at Richard and Kate’s the other week…?’ I falter. ‘At least, I think it was you!’ I laugh again, and shrug. ‘Or have I made a huge mistake? I’m rubbish at faces.’
She tuts and shakes her head. ‘Sorry.’
‘Oh god. No, I’m so sorry. I can be such an idiot!’
Now she’s smiling but it doesn’t reach her eyes. ‘No worries. It’s okay.’ She’s already looking past me, towards the gates of the park.
I thrust out my hand. ‘I’m Taylor, by the way.’
‘Polly,’ she says, giving my hand a limp shake, and I picture myself telling Jake that I’d met a real, live person called Polly. It’s such an English name. There’s something so pure and sweet and rosy about it. It’s like I hit the English-names jackpot. In my head, I fast-forward our friendship like a movie: Polly and Taylor. I imagine nights out, holidays together, us telling our other friends how we met at a walking group ‘way back in the day’. I’ve already said that I lived in my head a lot in those days, haven’t I? Loneliness is a bitch.
‘Glad to meet you,’ I say to Polly, changing the subject. ‘So what’s the deal here? It’s my first time.’
‘Oh, it’s fairly relaxed,’ she says. ‘We sign in with Cath over there…’ she points to a woman with a clipboard, ‘and then we all start walking. It’s about an hour’s walk.’
‘Great. And we end up back here?’
‘Yes. Sometimes we go a different route; Cath tries to show us different parts of the town and park but, yes, we end up back here.’
‘Hi!’ We’re interrupted by a fresh-faced woman who approaches behind me.
‘Hey!’ says Polly. The other woman turns out to be called Bex. And this is where it all goes wrong. From the moment Polly and Bex start talking to each other, two things become clear. One, that this is a weekly date for the two of them; and two, that I’m the gooseberry. I make my excuses, turn around and fall into conversation with a tall man who’s standing behind me: that’s how I come to know Simon.
By the time we get back to the starting point of the walk, I feel as if I know the vast majority of Simon’s life history. It’s not his fault, and I’m not complaining – it’s just I’ve been so starved of conversation since the move that I don’t stop asking the poor guy questions. I don’t ask him how old he is but I’d guess from the greys starting to lighten his hair at the temples, from the crow’s feet that line his face, and perhaps from the self-deprecating maturity with which he talks about his situation, that he’s in his late forties, maybe even just gone fifty. He’s divorced but is ‘fine about it’ because it means he can live with his dad – he’s the only child and pretty much his dad’s full-time carer. The dad, whom he curiously refers to as ‘Father’, has a lot wrong with him. Simon uses technical terms with which I’m not familiar but I imagine his dad being housebound, perhaps even confined to his bed. I can picture Simon bending over him, tending to him with never-ending patience – though maybe he’s not like that at all. Maybe he’s impatient, snapping at his father, resenting the fact that his life’s ebbing away as he wipes dribble from his mouth, shampoos his thin, grey hair, and trims his yellowing nails. Some external carer, a volunteer or something, comes occasionally, and that’s when Simon slips out to do things like go to the library, and walk with this group.
‘I come here for the company,’ he says as we trudge, head-down into the wind, so I
‘Oh, no one specific. I just come to be among other people. Not necessarily talking to them.’ He laughs. ‘You’re honoured I’ve put up with you for a whole hour.’
We both laugh then because surely it’s as obvious as day is day that he’s done all the talking.
‘So tell me about you,’ he says. ‘Have you lived here long?’
I open my mouth to reply but am rendered mute by the memory of that evening when Jake had sat me down on Santa Monica beach, the huge, red sun kissing the horizon and the soft air balmy against my skin, and suggested a fresh start in Britain.
‘London!’ he’d said, arcing his hands as if to embrace the entire city, and I’d pictured the lights, the shops, the buzz and the bars of the West End, not exactly Croydon.
‘A smart little townhouse,’ Jake had said, ‘for us and this little one…’ He’d patted my tummy where the baby was then about the size of a lime. ‘What do you think?’ Only it hadn’t been a question, it had been an ultimatum, and we’d both known what he meant: move away and give our marriage a fighting chance, or stay in Santa Monica and let it flounder on the rocks of his infidelity.
I’d plumped for the dream. Jake’s dream. My marriage. But I’m not about to tell Simon that.
‘No, I’m new to the area,’ I say finally.
He asks when the baby’s due, which I think is a brave question given how subtle my bump still is for thirty-two weeks, especially under the Puffa-style jacket that muffles every dip and curve, and he doesn’t even pass comment on my American accent.
I’m just saying bye to him when the walking group finally does cough up the result I was hoping for. Maybe it’s a payment from the universe or something for me for giving so much attention to Simon, but I see a woman I didn’t spot at the start, and she’s exactly what I’m looking for. With blonde hair and wearing a bright blue jacket, she stands out from the crowd and I wonder why I didn’t see her before. I make my way over to where she’s standing alone.
‘Good walk?’ I say, giving her my best cabin-crew beam.