An extract from Helen Marsden’s psychological thriller, True Things About You.
Naked, she lies on her side. She’s in the foetal position, then on her back. As she moves, her shiny, coral-pink toenails poke out of the pure Egyptian cotton sheets. Her smooth legs are still tanned from Barbados. She sits and stretches her arms before propping herself up on two silk-sheathed goose-down pillows. She takes a sip of water from the glass beside the super-king-sized bed, hops out, and pads to the bathroom.
Click. The curve of her spine. The small of her back. He centres the camera. A full-frontal screenshot. Zoom.
He flicks to the second camera. Her slender waist. The birthmark beside her navel. The faint web of stretch marks. Her narrow hips, the scar from two caesareans. She showers until steam clouds the bathroom, then opens the window to release it. She takes a fluffy, navy towel off the warm rail and uses it to buff her bronzed body. She wraps another thick towel around her head, twisting it twice. He focuses on her breasts as she brushes her teeth, watching as her left hand caresses the row of perfume bottles. She spits. Rinses. Puts the toothbrush back.
He presses pause and captures a still. Click.
He lets the video footage run as she shrugs into a dark-chocolate silk gown from the back of the door, tying it neatly at the waist. She leans into the mirror to tidy her eyebrows with tweezers. Today he notices how clear her skin is, how it’s hardly creased in her forty-one years. She dabs moisturiser on her carefully manicured index finger before using both hands to rub it into her cheeks, her forehead, under her slate-grey eyes.
His breath is hot and heavy in his chest as she takes a sponge to blend foundation in until her skin is dewy. Click.
She tugs a ball of hair from her hairbrush, opens the bin with her toe, and drops it in. She runs the brush through her honey-coloured hair, pulling it into a ponytail. Her ears are pierced — twice in each. She pops tiny pearls in each hole. Her diamond necklace twinkles in the light.
He watches as she sits on the toilet. As she dresses. He’s been watching her for weeks. He likes to know exactly what she’s doing when he’s at work, during the day, the evenings, anytime he’s away. Wherever he goes he can see her. He feels close to her this way.
What she doesn’t know won’t harm her.
Olivia Styles is standing in a fluffy white towelling robe making coffee. The aroma of freshly baked bread fills the kitchen. She hears the front door open and heads into the hall. Through the stained glass of the porch, she can see the shape of her husband, Russell, fully clad in Lycra. She twists the key, releases the lock, pulls the handle, and smiles at him, but only with her mouth.
He’s dripping in sweat and is examining the route on Strava on his Apple watch — the latest version, of course. Behind his lithe, sinewy body she can see the enthusiastic, mud-covered shape of Mabel, her tail beating rhythmically against the bristly mat. The springer spaniel greets Olivia, has a good old shake, and vanishes into the house, leaving the walls splattered with traces of earth.
Russell leans in to kiss her. ‘Morning.’
His stubble prickles her soft skin. She takes the peck.
‘Good run? You’ve been gone ages. How far did you go?’
‘Yes, it was a great one. All round Kingsdale Park. Mabel loved it. Lots of fox scents.’ He runs his hand over his shaven head.
Olivia knows that a run in Kingsdale Park doesn’t usually take Russell more than an hour but today she decides not to question him further, even though he’s been gone for over two. They saunter into the kitchen. Mabel trots behind.
‘Juice? Coffee?’ She pulls sticks of celery off a bulb, ready for the juicer. She likes to have celery juice in the morning and a ginger-and-apple shot. She’s convinced they prevent inflammation in the body.
‘Both please. Bread smells great!’ He stretches out his calf muscles by the patio door, his warm breath pluming in the cool air.
She plugs the juicing machine in.
‘I’m working today, remember?’ she says. ‘I’ve got the charity fundraiser to plan. I need to leave at eleven-thirty latest. The architect is coming in half an hour.’
Russell is supportive of her work — it’s hard not to be, since she’s an unpaid Director of Fundraising for a cancer-research charity — but she suspects he’d really prefer her to be a stay-at-home mum.
He’s obviously forgotten, which annoys her because it was Russell who wanted these ridiculous architect-designed windows, not her.
‘By the way, the sink is blocked again,’ says Olivia.
‘The one Mike repaired the other week. In the bedroom. Our en-suite.’
Mike is Russell’s old school friend. He’s useful for small jobs, but his work isn’t hugely reliable and recently he’s been at the house a lot — supposedly fixing things that keep breaking.
‘Oh right. I’ll ask him to come over again. In fact, he’s popping in at the weekend,’ says Russell, turning away and tapping intently at his phone.
‘What for?’ she says. The buzz of the juicer brings energy into the room. Foamy liquid spits out of the mouth of the machine. She pops some ginger in.
‘We’re planning the marathon. The Marathon des Sables.’
His shoulders hunch as he says this. He’s expecting a reaction. How long has he been planning to drop this into the conversation?
He’d mentioned it months ago, but they’d agreed that he wouldn’t do it.
Olivia’s cheeks redden. She draws her eyebrows together.
‘Are you serious, Russ? The ten-day Morocco trip? You’re actually intending to do that?’ She turns the juicer off and stops picking mushy fruit pulp off the counter.
Russell isn’t making eye contact. He’s staring into his phone. The hum of the faulty fridge-freezer drowns out the uncomfortable silence.
‘So, let me get this straight.’ She presses her right hand into the granite work surface and says, ‘Correct me if I’m misunderstanding anything.’ She starts to talk quickly, counting out the issues on her fingers.
‘You are working in Chicago one week every month.’ She unfolds her index finger. ‘You’ve commissioned a swimming pool and architectural-designed windows, two more things we don’t need.’ Unfolding her middle finger, she continues: ‘You’re working in London Tuesday to Thursday so are only ever here at the weekend, and even on a Monday, today being a prime example, you bugger off for a run for two and a half hours and get your mother to take the kids to school on the understanding that we’re spending quality time together.’ Her heart rate rises as she unfolds her ring finger.
She prods her little finger. ’Then, on top of it all, you are proposing to go away with your mate right in the middle of a major house renovation?’
Her voice starts to crescendo as she runs out of fingers.
‘You get twenty-five days’ leave and you’re going to use half of that leave, time that could be spent with your wife — and, by the way, that’s me — and children, on a family holiday.’ She gesticulates her anger, flinging her right arm, then the left up into the air.
‘We’ve just been to the Caribbean, Liv. You’ve still got the tan,’ he says, not looking up from his phone.
‘Will you stop looking at that fucking thing!’
‘Sorry, I am listening.’
She lets her eyes burn holes in Russell’s pallid face and says, ‘How about being present?’
His phone beeps. She rolls her eyes at him. They’ve not paid for that holiday. She saw the credit card bill. He does this a lot. She knows that if she says anything, he will say, “I’ll clear it when I get my bonus.” Besides, today she doesn’t want to add in any further grievances; this is enough to deal with on a Monday morning.
‘It’s ten days away, Russ. On top of your work commitments. It’s hard being here with the kids. I can’t do everything on my own. I need support.’ She rubs the dishcloth into the counter.
‘I’ll get my mum to help.’
‘That’s not the point. I want my husband here, not Kathleen. The kids want their dad here. You’ve just taken on that new job. You’ve been travelling to Chicago more and more. It’s just not OK. I’m starting to wonder whether you even want to be here at all.’
‘What do you mean?’ He knits his eyebrows together in a frown and pulls his chin back into his neck.
‘Is “Chicago” another woman?’
He turns to face her with full eye contact. ‘Don’t be ridiculous.’
It’s true that the incessant exercising has killed his sex drive. They’ve not had sex for nearly three months, and that isn’t unusual. New Year’s Eve was the last time. Start as you mean to go on, they’d joked, but like most New Year’s resolutions it didn’t last. He doesn’t initiate it. She doesn’t either; she can’t help wondering if he still fancies her. Or if she still fancies him.
‘Ridiculous? Ridiculous is planning a ten-day trip and abandoning your family for your own selfish interests. That’s what ridiculous is!
The kids are too young. You also seem to have forgotten that this marathon falls on my birthday. As if that would even cross your mind.’
He clenches his jaw. ‘I can fly back earlier. I’ve trained for this, Liv. It’s always going to be your birthday whichever year I do it. This is the only year that Mike can do it.’
‘Nothing new, is it? You’re always out. Even when you’re meant to be here.’ She snorts and tosses the cloth into the sink.
‘You’ve no idea the level of pressure I’m under at work. Absolutely no idea. You know I exercise because it helps me manage the stress. I try and keep you and the kids shielded from it, but it’s not easy, Liv. OK? You’re the one who wants this lifestyle as well. It’s not just me,’ he says wearily. He removes his glasses and places them on the counter, rubs his eyes.
‘Really? I don’t get time to work out. You think I want this?’ she says. ‘Well, you’re wrong. Who’s going to manage all these builders you’ve commissioned?’
He flinches, half turns.
‘Don’t walk away from me! I’m talking to you! The custom-made kitchen that “must be installed for the summer.” What about that? They’re starting work next week.’
He pauses and turns back but looks at her without expression. He’s always been hard to argue with. His face is a blank piece of paper.
‘Look, you’re the one who loves cooking, baking, and entertaining, and you said you wanted a big kitchen. This is why we chose this house, remember? You really want to keep this pine kitchen with the brass handles?’ He wrinkles his forehead at her before adding, ‘I need to go and shower. The architect will be here any minute.’
Russell’s phone rings.
‘Sorry, got to take this. It’s Faisal.’
Olivia checks her watch. Faisal is Russell’s boss and he’s based in Chicago. Why the hell would he be calling at this time of day? It’s 4am there.
Olivia sips warm coffee as Russell showers upstairs. She stands for a moment, looks out of the patio doors onto the garden, notices how the breeze rustles the leaves. She feels the warmth of the sun on her face, shields her eyes from the light and she surveys the pony-less paddock, the moss-covered conservatory, the damp lawn. It’s a beautiful place. No question. Huge. She’s glad they moved here. In London they didn’t even have a garden, just an uninterrupted view of the Thames. No place for bringing up kids. But she hates it here when Russell’s away, which is most of the time. Rattling around in this huge house.
She rubs her thumb into Mabel’s fur, lets her out and watches as the spaniel rolls her filthy body on the lawn before following a delicious scent all the way down to the stream at the bottom of the garden. Mabel likes to busy herself outside for hours, rolling in mud and chasing squirrels. This is another of the benefits of living here: being able to have a dog.
Today, Olivia misses the chatter of the kids. She messages Russell’s mother to confirm that they got to school all right. She dismantles the juicer and empties pulp into the bin. Once the machine is in the dishwasher with last night’s dinner plates, she waits to hear the swoosh of it before heading upstairs.
In the bedroom, she notices how Russell has puffed the pillows and pulled the covers back as if they’d never slept there. She applies a full face of make-up: foundation, slate-coloured eyeliner and matching shadow, plenty of mascara, and rouge. She pulls on a pair of grey jeans, teams it with a sequinned cashmere jumper, and heads downstairs in slippered feet.
Olivia takes four free-range organic eggs from the fridge and spoons them into a pan of water, leaving them for a few minutes whilst she slices the fresh sourdough and slots a couple of pieces into the toaster. She pours her celery juice into a glass and downs it; it’s the only way to do it. She sits on a high stool and savours the apple and ginger; it’s sweeter and much more palatable.
The kitchen fills with the stench of burnt toast, and she wafts the smoke away with a tea towel. She opens the patio doors to freshen the air and Mabel charges in. When the eggs start to bob in the water like apples, she takes them out and puts them into egg cups. She butters the toast and cuts it in half, lays out the cutlery and plunges the coffee.
Russell is talking on the phone in his study. She stands at the door with a tray of freshly poured coffee, a juice, toast and eggs. He has his headset on and is sitting right back, as far as his specially made ergonomic chair will go. It snaps as he sits up when Olivia approaches.
He’s now dressed in a pressed shirt and pin-striped tailored trousers. The shirt has a stiff collar and double cuffs, and his initials are sewn into the left-hand breast pocket in navy blue silk thread. He’s always immaculate: his socks match his tie and cufflinks.
He’s looking at a myriad of screens. Eight to be precise. On each screen, there are flashing graphs. He talks into his headset: ‘Can I call you back?’ He turns to face Olivia. ‘Thank you, darling. That’s lovely.’ It’s the closest he ever gets to an apology.
‘Markets look quiet,’ she says, plonking hot coffee on the walnut desk.
‘Nothing’s happened to move the equities market yet,’ he responds in monotone and sits, stirring his coffee and staring into it as if something’s floating in the cup. Russell’s clients are mostly US based. UK mornings are usually pretty dead. He’s not permitted to take work calls on his personal phone. It’s been strictly forbidden by the financial regulator since the insider-trading scandals over a decade ago, but he has a recorded line at home and a team in London who can deal on his behalf if he wishes. However, he usually prefers to manage his own book.
Olivia glances at the paperwork on top of the filing cabinet.
‘What are these?’
‘These.’ She holds them up. ‘School brochures.’
‘I thought we could explore the idea,’ he says.
Olivia flicks one open and studies it. ‘I’ve told you. I don’t want our children to go to a private school. I agreed to move up here because the local state schools are so good.’
The dog is barking from the hallway. Olivia hears footsteps on gravel.
Russell takes a call as the doorbell chimes.
‘Mabel, shhhh!’ Olivia rushes to the front door.
Through the stained glass she can see the shape of a man. He’s shorter than Russell and his body is wider. His dark-chestnut thatch and broad shoulders are visible through the window of the outer door.
Olivia yells, ‘Russ! It’s the architect!’
She pulls the door open.
‘Please do come in.’
‘Lovely to see you again, Mrs Styles,’ he says with aristocratic charm. He gives her a huge grin and offers her his large palm. He’s very well built, like a rugby player — she noticed it the first time they met.
‘Thank you for coming so early, Caspar.’ She flashes her newly bleached teeth at him.
He’s dressed in a pair of brown cords and a navy cashmere jumper with a Ralph Lauren insignia. Under his left arm he has an array of papers. He wipes his feet on the WELCOME mat in the corner of the porch and pauses to abandon his chocolate suede brogues at the door next to the row of the kids’ symmetrically arranged shoes. Olivia directs him into the kitchen and ushers the dog outside.
‘Coffee? Tea? Water?’
‘Oh! Thank you so much. A coffee would be just wonderful. Thank you.’ He smiles warmly at her. He’s clean shaven and she can smell his subtle aftershave.
‘Quite a project you’ve got here, isn’t it?’ he says, following her into the kitchen, his eyes flitting around the room. He pops his papers on the pine table next to the coffee cup rings and extensive crayoning, pulls off his olive-green Barbour jacket and hangs it on the back of the chair.
‘Yes, it really is.’ Olivia gazes at the leaky patch on the ceiling where the bath overflowed, then fixes her eyes on him. As she’s barely over five foot, she has to rise up on tiptoe to reach the best bone-china cups from the kitchen cabinet. They’re part of the set that Russell’s mum bought them as a wedding present. Kathleen’s idea of course. “Important for entertaining,” she’d said. Caspar continues to beam at her and Olivia notices how his hazel eyes twinkle. He’s young. Younger than Russell. Mid-thirties?
Caspar leans in for a closer look at the photograph of Olivia, Russell, eight-year-old Edie, and five-year-old Louis that hangs on the kitchen wall. It was taken last year on holiday in the Bahamas. She flicks the kettle on. Catches his eye.
She smiles and feels the apples of her cheeks appear. She adores her children; they’re her life. She fiddles with her earring as she waits for the kettle to boil.
Russell strides in. He shakes hands with Caspar enthusiastically.
‘Russell Styles. Nice to finally meet you, Caspar. My wife’s been telling me all about you.’ Up until now, they’ve only spoken on the phone.
She suddenly realises that the lilies in the middle of the table make the room smell like a funeral parlour.
Russell sits opposite Olivia and Caspar. Olivia pours their coffee and adds boiling water to her cup of fresh mint leaves.
They huddle round the table and feel the warmth of the sun streaming through the double-glazed patio doors. Mabel is at the window, staring at them hopefully. A tennis ball is strategically placed between her paws. Her tail beats the newly sprouting daffodils.
Caspar opens the folded paper out onto the table to reveal the drawings for the windows. The plans curl up at the side and he runs his hands over the designs to flatten them.
‘I’ve costed out the different options. I’ll just run through each one.’
Russell stares at the drawings. Caspar takes his Mont Blanc pen and goes through them meticulously. She likes the way that he talks to them both. They’ve had a lot of tradespeople round who assume it’s only the husband they need to win over.
‘Upstairs, in the main bedroom with the en-suite, I’d recommend that you have triple glazing for the glass wall. It’s very energy efficient. It’s also great for soundproofing. These frames are British made. See how thin they are? And they still give ultra-air tightness. A range of colours too. For you, they’d be bespoke.’
Russell nods passionately. He presses his right knuckles into the side of his face as he studies the plans. Olivia knows that he wants sound proofing. It’s totally unnecessary of course. With over three acres of grounds, why would they need soundproofed windows?
‘Downstairs, I’d recommend a roof lantern, with frameless windows to maximise the daylight.’ Caspar flicks through a brochure and points to a picture. ‘See this one, this is what I was thinking for here. This is solar glass. It has a special film which filters glare.’
‘Wow,’ says Russell. ‘So much light! Look at that, Liv. Imagine what that will be like on a sunny day.’ Shoving his ankle up onto his knee, he sits back.
Olivia tries to hide her disbelief. She was the one who refused to offer on a Grade II listed house because the windows weren’t big enough and planning didn’t allow for any alterations, so she knows that Russell is pulling her strings. He often does this. The windows do look amazing. No question about it. But really? None of this is needed.
‘My wife is concerned about security, as am I. We need a full system upgrade. Could you run us through the options on that front? Locks and bolts and so on. I’m also keen on sensors and lighting in the garden,’ says Russell.
It’s true that Olivia still worries about this. They were burgled when they lived in London. They’re much more isolated here. She refused to move in until the alarm was installed, and that’s also how she managed to persuade Russell to get a dog.
‘Security is not my field, but I can arrange that too. So, the costs.’ Caspar has an A3 page. He’s holding it up to his olive skin. ‘The triple glazing is standard. The tilt and turn windows are extra. For the upstairs it will be sixty-seven thousand, seven hundred and eighty-nine pounds plus VAT including the Juliet balcony. If you decide not to have the additional sound proofing, solar and privacy glass, it will be fifteen percent less. Downstairs, the costs are forty-three thousand, two hundred and sixty-three pounds plus VAT. If you do both, I can give you a further eight-percent discount.’
All the blood drains from Olivia’s face. She feels sick. More than a little sick. This is a lot of money. She doesn’t think they can afford it. But truth be told she simply doesn’t know enough about their finances. Why should she? Russell is the one with the economics degree, not her. She’s always kept out of the finances, what he gets paid. Besides, they always seem to have enough.
‘What do you think?’ asks Caspar. He looks right at them and flashes his straight, even teeth.
‘I’m keen,’ says Russell.
Now there’s a surprise.
‘I think we need to discuss this, look at the budgets, and let Mr Collinson-Smyth, I mean, Caspar, know,’ says Olivia, sipping on her mint tea. She’s not going to let him sign up to it without discussing it with her first.
Russell stands. It’s clear he’s already decided. He smiles at Caspar, shakes his hand, and says, ‘Thank you so much for all your work on this. You’ve done a fantastic job. I need to be getting back to my desk, I’m afraid. The markets are calling. Thank you, we will be in touch.’ Russell heads off towards his office.
‘Please do finish your coffee,’ says Olivia. ‘Is it warm enough? Would you like another one?’
‘Oh no, thank you. I’d better get going. Very nice to see you again.’
Once she’s seen Caspar out, Olivia peers round the door of Russell’s office. She folds her arms at him. She can see the angst on his face.
‘What about we get the windows done before I go and then you can relax a bit more about the security?’ He swivels the chair around and sits legs akimbo.
‘It’s the worst possible time. And you were away when we had the whole house rewired last year, remember? Bedrooms, bathrooms, everything!’
‘My family’s safety is very important.’
‘Where the hell are we going to get all that money from?’
‘I’ll sort it.’
She feels her eyes widen as her carefully threaded eyebrows shoot up.
‘We still haven’t paid for Barbados, Russ.’
He colours. ‘It’s fine, I have the money coming.’
In the downstairs loo, Olivia has her back to the door. He watches as she gets up, naked from the waist down. She pulls a strip of loo roll and puts her hand in between her legs. As she turns and drops it into the bowl, he gets a full view of her neatly trimmed pubic hair. Everything manicured and perfect.