If she could go back in time and undo her actions, then she would – of course she would. But turning back the clock was not an option
Alice glanced from the brown bespectacled eyes of her boyfriend Richard to the steely pale-blue pair belonging to her mother. They had made the same exclamation of horrified disbelief in unison, as if Sri Lanka was a planet in the far reaches of outer space as opposed to an island in South Asia.
‘What’s wrong with Sri Lanka?’ she asked, regretting the question as soon as she saw the grim expression on her mother’s face. Richard had reached across the kitchen table for his phone, and now looked up at her triumphantly.
‘According to this government website,’ he said, raising his voice so that Alice could hear him over the scraping of her dad and brother’s cutlery against the Brockley family china, ‘the risks associated with Sri Lanka include drowning, drink-spiking and credit card fraud.’
‘So, much the same as here, then?’ she replied. Her attempt at humour caused her boyfriend to frown at her in the same way she imagined he might at one of his students. Richard was a history teacher, and often crossed the line from lover to tutor when he was talking to Alice. She knew that it wasn’t deliberate, more a trait that had developed over the time he had spent in the job, just as her years working for the local council had filled her head with all manner of useless information about tax, rates and how much it cost to replace a cracked paving slab, so she had never resented it. On the contrary, she took a certain amount of comfort from knowing exactly how Richard would react to things.
As he floundered for a reply, Alice heard her mother sigh.
‘Are you trying to give me even more grey hairs?’ she groaned.
Alice appraised her mother’s neat blonde bob and took a deep breath. Marianne Brockley rarely had a hair out of place, grey or otherwise. She was petite and neatly put together, and Alice, who was far more athletic in build, envied her slim ankles and small hands. She had inherited more traits from her father’s side of the family, who were all broad-shouldered and knobbly-kneed, while her non- descript brown hair came courtesy of her paternal grandmother. It didn’t help that her mother would often wring her hands and lament to her husband, ‘Oh Peter – it’s just so unfair that we had a daughter and she looks more like you than me.’
Alice’s father, Peter Brockley – who towered over every- one else in their average-sized family from his formidable six-foot-fi e height – would simply shake his head and chuckle at his wife with affection, before pulling her towards him for a hug and meeting Alice’s eyes over the top of her head. It was the same expression he’d been sending her way since she was a child, one that seemed to say, ‘I know she’s a nightmare, but isn’t she adorable?’ Alice wondered now if Richard ever did the same thing to her, but in his case, it would be Alice’s mum he’d share a knowing glance with – the two of them were as tight as wheel nuts.
‘You’re not remotely grey, Mum,’ Alice told her obediently, and her dad grunted with approval from his seat at the head of the table.
‘There’s nothing wrong with going grey,’ piped up Freddie, who could always be relied upon to wind up their parents just as much as Alice tried her best not to.
‘Look at Helen Mirren, and Jamie Lee Curtis,’ he went on, catching Alice’s eye and grinning. ‘I’m telling you, Mum, silver vixens are all the rage.’
Freddie wasn’t eating as much as he usually did, Alice noted. He was probably hungover after yet another night on the tiles with his City mates. Ever since he had abandoned his childhood plans of working for a charity in favour of a job securing rich and extravagant clients for a hedge fund, Freddie was out more often than in, and Alice was growing weary of getting his voicemail every time she called. Christmas had been over two months ago, but it appeared that the party season never ended for her brother. Freddie had always been the smarter, more capable, more popular and more adored sibling, and Alice used to hope that if she spent enough time with him, then some of her brother’s magic would rub off on her. When they were both still children, they genuinely believed that they could tell what the other was thinking, and would spend hours nestled in the makeshift cave Freddie had carefully constructed from the sofa cushions, testing each other. Alice wondered now if Freddie knew just how excited she was at the prospect of a trip to Sri Lanka, and that she still wanted to go despite Richard and her mum’s disparaging remarks.
‘This poor bloke was killed by a crocodile over there not long ago,’ Richard persisted, holding out his phone so that Alice could see. ‘That definitely wouldn’t happen down the River Stour.’
That’s because nothing ever happens down the River Stour, Alice thought, but knew better than to say. Richard, who was a keen angler, had fallen in love with the waterway running through her hometown of Sudbury the very first time she brought him to Suffolk to visit, and there had never been any question of where they would settle once they had collected their university degrees.
‘I promise not to get eaten by anything, crocodile or otherwise,’ she said, placing a reassuring hand on Richard’s jeans-clad knee. ‘It’s only two weeks – I’ll be back before you’ve even noticed that I’ve gone, and then it’s the Easter holidays.’
Richard made a ‘pfft’ sort of noise that very nearly made Alice grit her teeth. She must remember that he only reacted in this way out of concern for her – just as her mother did. Both had seen the boisterous version of Alice that was once an unstoppable force to be reckoned with, and both had gently shooed her away. She was grateful to them for doing so, too. That Alice had been nothing but trouble – a danger to herself and others. How much easier her life was now, and how secure and loved she felt. The memory of that morning’s dive off the highest board flashed through her mind, the image wagging a metaphorical finger as if to say, ‘But what about me?’ Alice ignored it.
‘I assume this holiday was Maureen’s idea?’ Richard surmised, and Alice dipped her chin. Her boyfriend had never been the biggest fan of her feisty, dark-haired friend, believing her to be a bad influence on Alice.
‘Well, yes – and Steph really wants to go, too,’ she told him. ‘She’s been desperate to go there for years – she wants to see the elephants. The two of them ganged up on me, and you know I can never say no to them.’
The fib slipped so easily off Alice’s tongue that it barely registered. She could not remember when her lies first began, only that they had always been there, protecting not only her, but also those close to her. She could no more stop herself from telling them than she could from breathing, and over time they no longer even felt deceitful, but rather a necessity. She told herself that she would never be dishonest about the big stuff, but what did the odd little yarn matter, really? Wasn’t it better to gloss over the truth than risk hurting someone?
‘Maureen is trouble,’ Freddie said happily, sipping his glass of red wine. Alice chose not to comment. The fact that her brother hankered after one of her closest friends made her feel uncomfortable, but only because she knew how Maureen liked to share intimate details of the men she hooked up with. Alice loved her brother, but there were definitely a few things that she did not need to know about him.
‘She is,’ muttered Richard, Freddie’s playful tone skimming straight over his head like a Frisbee. ‘Can’t you three celebrate all turning thirty together in London or something instead?’
‘Yes!’ Alice’s mother clapped her hands together in delight. ‘Why not see a show?’
It was not worth pointing out that the capital city, with all its traffic, pickpockets and smog, was in all likelihood far more dangerous than Sri Lanka, and Alice pressed her lips together in a smile.
‘All we’re going to be doing is sunbathing and stuff,’ she said vaguely, wincing slightly at her own dishonesty, before adding, ‘You know I would never do anything to put myself at risk.’
Marianne Brockley clasped a hand to her chest.
‘It still feels like it happened yesterday,’ she murmured sadly. ‘I will never forget the scream, all that blood. I thought I’d lost you.’
‘You didn’t, though,’ Alice reminded her gently, as she always did, shifting so her hair fell over the damaged side of her face.
‘I still have nightmares about it,’ her mum confided, looking haunted.
Alice saw Freddie roll his eyes as he drained what was left in his wine glass.
‘Your poor face,’ her mum was saying. ‘I can’t bear to think about it, not even now.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Alice said, feeling helpless. If she could go back in time and undo her actions, then she would – of course she would. But turning back the clock was not an option. All she was able to do was apologise, and be sure never to let anything bad happen to her again – even if it meant nothing exciting happened to her, either.
‘Just promise me,’ her mum insisted. ‘Promise that you won’t do anything silly when you’re over there.’
Alice smiled now with more confidence – here was a vow that she could wholeheartedly make.
‘I promise,’ she said.
It took Richard a matter of days to see through all of it. ‘This isn’t really you at all, is it?'
Alice and Richard met three weeks into their first term at Plymouth University. He was studying history, she had opted for sociology, and both had headed to the Student Union bar that Wednesday evening to watch the infamous initiation ceremony of freshers into the rugby team – a process involving wigs, boys with meaty thighs wearing tight dresses, copious pints of lager and a great deal of chanting.
Richard had stood out to Alice because he was one of the only males in the whole place not jeering along with the crowds, and he later told her that she had stood out to him because of how short her skirt was. This being Richard, however, he didn’t mean it in a sleazy way – he was merely concerned that she might potentially freeze to death on the way home, and wanted to offer her money for a taxi.
Finally turning eighteen and living away from the protective folds of her mother’s apron for the first time in her life had lit a fire underneath Alice, and during her first few weeks at university she had shed her timid Suffolk skin and reinvented herself as a girl who liked to party – much to the delight of her new friends in her halls of residence. The new Alice plastered make-up on over her scar, rolled her hems up and carried a lit cigarette through the quad between lectures. She never actually went so far as to smoke it, using it instead as a prop that declared, ‘I’m normal. I’m cool. I’m just like you.’
It took Richard a matter of days to see through all of it. ‘This isn’t really you at all, is it?’ he had probed quietly, as Alice downed yet another shot which one of her more exuberant friends had thrust into her hand. The girl had offered Richard one, too, but he had declined, confident enough in himself not to worry what anyone thought. For Alice, who had spent the past eight years hiding her scarred face and wishing with all her heart that she could be anything other than who she was, this self-assured trait was enormously attractive. Richard was solid and dependable, mature and sweet-natured, and utterly unfussed by the puckered trail of damaged skin on Alice’s face. She quickly realised that if she was with Richard, then she would be safe and protected from her childhood self which had started to re-emerge. He would remind her of who she wanted to be, and help her not to waver. So, when Richard had asked her rather matter-of-factly a few hours later if she would like to go to the cinema with him that weekend, she had practically leaped into his lap with eagerness, and the two of them had been together ever since.
They had returned from Sunday lunch with her parents a few hours ago, and Richard had retreated to the tiny boxroom that they used as an office to mark some test papers. The landlord had advertised the flat as a two- bedroom, which was the first of his many bad jokes. Other gems included, ‘Those cupboards aren’t meant to have doors – it’s a feng shui kitchen’ and, ‘Of course I’ll have the place professionally cleaned before you move in.’ They put up with it because it was cheap and close to the school, and all the money they saved in rental rates and commuting costs was being put aside for a proper deposit. Within the next year or so, they would finally be able to buy. Alice had enough in her personal account to more than cover the cost of her holiday to Sri Lanka, but she still felt mildly guilty to be splurging quite so much.
‘For God’s sake – you only turn thirty once!’ Maureen had said, frustrated when Alice pointed out what she knew Richard would say as soon as she told him about the trip. Even Steph, who was a lot less feisty than Maureen and knew Alice’s boyfriend far better, nodded her blonde head in agreement. By some strange twist of fate, Alice and her two best friends had been born on three consecutive days in April – the first, second and third – and this year they would all be turning thirty. Marking the occasion with something extra-special made sense, and if Alice was honest, Maureen’s idea was a brilliant one. She had not been away with anyone other than Richard for years, and he preferred to stay closer to home. Sri Lanka sounded so exotic and exciting – a real adventure, and a trip they would never forget.
Alice had agreed with Maureen’s plan, but it had taken her three days to pluck up the courage to tell Richard and her mother about it over the dinner table. Three days that had culminated in such a knot of anxiety that Alice had ended up needing to do something to release it – hence the dive. Now she felt silly. Of course, risk-averse Richard had not been thrilled about the idea, but he hadn’t told her that she couldn’t go. He would never do that.
She heard the office door closing across the landing and picked up the TV remote, pausing The West Wing just as her boyfriend appeared in the bedroom doorway. He looked tired, she thought – adorably so, with his caramel fringe askew and a gravy stain on the front of his grey T-shirt.
‘Nice bath?’ he asked, stifling a yawn.
Alice nodded. Her thick, light-brown hair still felt damp. She must plait it before bed, she thought briefly, her hand going to its silky ends. Once upon a time, Richard would have offered to do it for her, but those days felt like half a lifetime ago. Living together had undoubtedly changed the dynamic of their relationship – which Alice had known it inevitably would – but she reasoned that she had gained more than she had lost. Richard might not be as affectionate towards her as he once was, but sharing a home had made their intimacy feel cosier, somehow. Being with him was easy.
‘I’ve been thinking,’ he said, coming towards her and sitting down on the edge of the bed. ‘I want to do something special for your birthday, too.’
‘Oh?’ Alice sat up straighter and crossed her legs. She was wearing the pyjamas Richard had got her for Christ- mas, which were fleecy and covered in polar bears. Perfect for the below-freezing temperatures that had arrived hand in icy hand with the first few days of February.
‘I know we said that we’d wait until we bought a place, but . . .’ He paused, watching her closely to gauge her reaction.
Alice knew exactly what he was going to say, and her heart began to pound against her chest. It was the same feeling that had sent her up those slippery steps at the pool, the fluttering that she associated with losing control. Alice opened her mouth to speak, but found there were no words. Richard’s hand was on her cheek now, his thumb hooking her hair around her ear, his fingers brushing against her neck. Alice shivered.
‘I think that when you get back from Sri Lanka,’ he said softly, ‘we should set the date.’