Excerpt

What We Did

Christobel Kent

The following is an exclusive excerpt from What We Did, Christobel Kent’s new twisty psychological thriller about Bridget, a woman who is driven to extreme measures when her childhood music teacher—her abuser—returns to upend her normal life.

From the turnoff into the cul-de-sac, Bridget saw the lights on downstairs and up: that meant they were both home. As she wheeled her bike up to the back door in the wet dark, anticipating Matt, the past came abruptly up to meet her.

Bridget couldn’t remember her own father, not really. A closed door and music behind it, frowning over his glasses at the dinner table.

In the dark, she paused. That wasn’t true. She could remember his hand stroking her hair when she was very small and had a temperature, and the smell of his ironed shirts. She could remember his face, lost and bewildered, at the door to his private room in the hospital, when he was dying. It was just that, after that, with Mum run ragged looking after her and Carrie, twelve and seven, while working shifts at the surgery as a receptionist, it seemed wisest not to remember him too often.

A light was on in the kitchen, and another one upstairs in the little back bedroom. Finn was up there—it was where he did most of his living, these days. You could hear him laughing loudly, earphones on, or whooping over his computer, talking to whoever it was he gamed with in Arizona or Penang or Stockholm. Matt told her it was fine. They had the usual filters in place, all the kids were doing it—and Matt should know. It was his job, computer officer, at the university. “It’s just a new kind of socializing.”

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There was a girlfriend, too, now, at least. Shyly Finn had mentioned her: Phoebe, six months older. When he was online with her there was more laughing, but softer. A lot of clicking on the keyboard and sometimes they would hear him pad over to his door and close it.

Matt had worked at the university for fourteen years; the computer office had grown to four times its size and he was in charge now. Monitoring usage, sorting out glitches, updating the systems, reprimanding students, when he had to, for exceeding the limits set on traffic, for streaming movies illegally when they should be working. It wasn’t a glamorous place, it wasn’t the sandstone and turrets of the university city in whose shadow Bridget had grown up and from whose shadow they had fled, eventually, she and Carrie and Mum. In search of cheaper accommodation, and a change of air.

It was a practical place, a hardworking place, built on idealism, was how Matt defended it even if the bricks and mortar, or rather concrete and glass, had failed it somewhat; sick building syndrome had been talked about, and in high winds it swayed. You could see the towers from everywhere: at night the red lights gleamed, they’d followed Bridget on her cycle ride home. At the back door she wiped her face, took off her helmet, and turned off her lights.

The university suited Matt down to the ground, but why would someone come here from one of the old places, where dons had rooms and gardens? Matt might have passed him in the corridors. Anthony Carmichael. “They seem to like me,” he had said, across the till to her. Matt might have been summoned to set up his internet connection.

She could see Matt moving behind the glass of the kitchen door, a slight, dark shape: she heard the tap running.

They’d bought this house—a new build, small and neat—when she got pregnant, barely in their twenties and choosing a kitchen on a plan. Four years left on the mortgage and they would be safe: God knows they wouldn’t be able to afford anything if they were starting now; standing on this doorstep always sparked that thought, of how lucky they were. The trees that had been saplings had grown tall, red maples alternating with cherries, bare and dripping now in the yellow streetlight on the gently sloping street, and you could see the estuary from their bedroom window.

The violin had been a lifesaver: she’d heard Mum use those words often enough, anyway. Keeps her out of mischief, and the proximity of the ancient university meant there was a concert hall, seems like she’s got quite a talent for it. There were lessons for underprivileged students. Her dad would be so proud. Dad, sitting in the car all on his own listening to the stereo, waiting in the drive till it had finished, a silhouette with a finger raised to conduct. Bridget remembered that, too, out of the blue, as she stood lost in the blur of the past at her own back door. Where had that memory been? The door opened and there was Matt’s anxious face: she’d been standing there too long in the rain.

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Bridget remembered that, too, out of the blue, as she stood lost in the blur of the past at her own back door. Where had that memory been? The door opened and there was Matt’s anxious face: she’d been standing there too long in the rain.

With a sound—half exasperation, half tenderness—that she knew very well, he reached past her and took the bike, leaning down to trace a squeak to its source. “You’re soaked,” he said, and she stepped inside. He would wheel the bike to the garage, wipe it down, check the squeaking pedal, lock the garage up again after him.

He was cooking puttanesca, everyone’s favorite, and Matt’s signature dish, he always said. Meaning it was what he’d cook if it looked like she was going to be too late or too tired, information he seemed to absorb out of the air before she knew it herself. She stared at the rich red sauce, smelled the tuna and oil and saltiness, and felt sick. In that moment it was as if she had felt sick her whole life: she’d told herself memory was boxes with lids, neatly stacked, but all the time it was like a sea, it was like seething space, a forest at night. It was all around her and it moved, in the dark.

Then Matt was back in the kitchen beside her and planting a kiss on her cheek, a whiff of bike oil and the wet from outside on him. Matt, who had wooed her with stammering persistence when she was nineteen and starting college, thirty pounds underweight, jumpy and frightened and clinging on, for dear life, to normal. Matt, gangly and awkward and obsessed with bikes, pushing his glasses up his nose. Matt, who seemed to have seen everything about her at first glance: he had seen it all and never mentioned any of it.

“All right?” He peered down into the sauce, not looking at her.

And then Finn was on the stairs, jumping, humming under his breath. “Mum?” he called, happy.

“I could do with a cup of tea,” she said to Matt, making her sigh sound just weary, and taking the kettle to the sink.

In the shop Laura hadn’t seen Carmichael’s hand sliding down the girl’s back as they walked out, and the girl jumpy as a foal under his touch, sidestepping. Laura hadn’t seen him turn his head a fraction to catch Bridget’s eye, his face all planes and shadows under the lighting. “Bless,” Laura had said, patting her belly. “Buying the kid a party dress.”

And now, even as Bridget turned on the tap, she was wondering, Could they move? How would she put it to Matt? To Finn, with his first girlfriend? Finn, horrified by his mother, his soft mother whom he stopped to kiss on the cheek every time he passed her.

Something came to her, the bat-squeak of a memory. A man’s fingers on her arm, and Bridget made a sound. Leaning over the sauce, Matt didn’t respond, but he heard. She knew he heard.

Finn was already at the table, knife and fork upright in each hand, impatient, when they came in with the food. His knee under the table was tapping, cheerful but also itching to run, to be back upstairs. He ate like a wolf, forking the pasta in, oblivious.

Bridget ate, because if she didn’t Matt would know, one alarm bell was one thing, more than one—well, she didn’t know what would happen then. How many had to go off before he asked questions? The thought was horrible. Matt had never asked. It was why they were happy. Never asked why there were things she couldn’t do, or listen to, or eat: he treated her like she was normal, and in turn she did the same for him. Mr. and Mrs. Normal: she knew it was why plenty of her customers came in, they could be sure there’d be no hysterics, no loud music, no clothes with bits flapping or unexpected holes. There’d be the magazine perfectly centered on the mirrored cube, and the bright, soft colors. Tomorrow she’d have orders to place, boxes to unpack. She could set it to rights.

Matt poured her a glass of water. He didn’t ask her if she wanted any more to eat, though the serving bowl was still half full. He sighed. “Long day,” she said automatically. “Sorry to be late. There was—we had a couple of customers come in just as we were shutting up shop.”

Matt had never asked. It was why they were happy. Never asked why there were things she couldn’t do, or listen to, or eat: he treated her like she was normal, and in turn she did the same for him.

“Laura must be nearly due, isn’t she?” Pushing his glasses up his nose as he inspected the pasta on his plate. Matt was shy around women, unless there was something that suggested they needed practical help of some kind. Laura needed all sorts: chairs pulling out for her, doors opening. He liked Laura.

“Five weeks to go,” said Bridget, and she saw his focus shift. Bridget remembered Finn being born, the shock of that, and Matt stepping up to help, not needing to ask. A small boy pressed against her, on her knee, arms tight around her. He couldn’t know: could never know. Nor could Matt. The way they would think of her.

There was a sudden scrape, and Finn was up and out of there, throwing a Thanks, Dad, over his shoulder, pounding on the stairs, and they were alone together. Before anything could be said she got up, too, and went to Matt, arms around him as he still sat there in the chair, breathing in his hair, his skin, his healthy smell. “Let’s go up, too,” she said. They had their routines, never made explicit, mysterious. Quiet, intent, kind sex. Early in the mornings, late at night when Finn’s door was closed, Saturdays on the days when he used to go off to football at eight. The first time, she had panicked: she had thought somehow he would know she wasn’t like other girls. But he knew nothing: they had been a pair of virgins, after all. They had lain there quiet afterward in the student bed, and for a moment nothing had been wrong. Nothing at all.

It was like a piece of precious old glass, though. You had to keep it safe, you had to hide it, you had to wrap it up the same way every time, as careful as you could be, or it would break.

Four in the morning was the bad time. In the silence she could hear a hum from somewhere. Finn’s computer, the big one he’d built with Matt, updating some mega-game or other in the dark across the landing. He could sleep through it: it occurred to her briefly that he might not be able to sleep without it, eventually.

It began normally, with Matt turning off the light and touching her. Matt wasn’t a talker, not emotional or demonstrative, this was how he made sure everything was all right. He always put his mouth on her breasts first, one and then the other, certain that she liked it, because she did. But then he shifted in a quick movement and knelt over her, and suddenly there was something else there. With the lights out, Bridget was only aware of the breadth of his shoulders over her in the dark, then of how practiced he was, and she felt the panic bubbling up, she had to control herself. Her breathing was too fast: she was frightened. But then something slipped back into place and she came, too quickly, too suddenly.

Nothing could be different, not even this kind of different. This violent feeling. Matt had responded to her, reliable, instantaneous, and then fallen asleep in the moment after. She must have, too, but an hour later, perhaps two, she had started awake in a surge of fear, sweating.

Why was Anthony Carmichael there? Call me Tony. How could she get away?

They would move. She would say Carrie was ill, Bridget had to be near her. But schools? Jobs? Close the shop? She tried to talk herself down in the dark. It wasn’t that he wanted contact with her, he hadn’t come after her. She could have sworn he had no idea, when he walked into the shop. Why would he? She must have fallen asleep again, and woken again, in the same lather of violent fear.

And then it was four o’clock and she was wide awake. A man had come to the shop with a child. He could be her father or grandfather but he wasn’t. Isabel, Isabel: in the deep dark she remembered the girl’s innocence, her admiration, her glee at being special, it blazed. Bridget had been special once, as she frowned down at her instrument, the instrument burnished and warm from her touch, trying, trying, trying, her heart in her mouth. Him watching her, impatient.

He hasn’t come back for you. He isn’t interested. He will leave. Do nothing. She lay still and waited for dawn.

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From WHAT WE DID. Used with the permission of the publisher, Sarah Crichton Books. Copyright © 2019 by Christobel Kent.




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