Rachel McLean

– Thrillers That Make You Think

Ben and Isobel – a Short Story

This story is set in the world of my forthcoming novel A House Divided, and takes place on the same day as its opening scenes. I’ll be writing more of these in the run-up to publication of the book, so if you haven’t already, join my book club to read them all as they’re released.

Ben watched Isobel sleeping, wondering when he’d get around to the conversation he’d been planning for days now.

He sat on the edge of the bed, watching the rise and fall of her body under the crumpled duvet. Her skin was so pale she almost disappeared beneath it. He loved to put their arms together, flesh touching along their lengths, and compare their skin; hers so pale and his so dark. It made him feel as if they were yin and yang, two parts of a whole.

She shifted in her sleep, throwing an arm out. It hit the wall on the other side of the bed. He glanced at the alarm clock and decided to pour himself another coffee before dragging her out of sleep.

He eased himself up, watching to make sure he didn’t disturb her, and took two strides to get to the coffee machine. Izzy’s flat wasn’t large; the bed would be a sofa again but the time he arrived here form work tonight, with bedclothes stored away beneath it. But it was better than the draughty two bedroom flat he shared with three guys from work. Especially the damp-patched, mouse-dropping strewn room he shared with Ajit.

Coffee in hand, he perched on the arm of the sofa bed and checked his phone. Ten messages overnight and twenty emails. A notice for a gig tomorrow night. Offers for a restaurant a few streets away from Izzy’s flat. An invitation to buy Viagra. He didn’t need that.

He deleted them all and flicked Facebook up, relieved there’d been no email from his boss. He was still on the 7am shift, thank God. It wasn’t uncommon for deliveries to appear overnight; they’d need someone to get out there and scatter them across London, depositing them with night guards and yawning night shift workers. Today, he was pleased to know, was a normal day. He’d be greeted by chirpy receptionists, most of whom knew him by now. There was flirtation on most drops – even in the cycle helmet, those girls were attracted to a guy who made his living on a bike instead of behind a desk – but nothing that would disturb Isobel. He made sure of that.

After answering a couple of invitations to events in Camberwell, where he officially lived, and popping a few Likes onto his friends’ photos of their evenings in the pub, he shoved his phone into his back pocket and leaned over Izzy. He kissed her on the forehead. Her brow creased and her hand twitched. Then she receded into slumber. He smiled and tried again, the unfamiliar box in his front pocket digging into his thigh as he bent further.

After a few more kisses she was awake and he had an erection. She gazed up at him, stretching her arms above her head. She pulled her face into a yawn. Her long blonde hair was tangled around her, like a halo. He drew his hand through it, gently so as not to catch.

“Morning,” she murmured.

“Morning. It’s six thirty.”

Her eyes sprang open. “Shit.” She pushed him to one side, making his erection subside, and hurled herself towards the bathroom.

“Can you bring a coffee in for me?” she called. He shrugged and pulled a mug down from the hook above the sink, thinking of the pile of dirty washing up he’d left at home. Ajit would never do it, because Ajit hadn’t created it.

He pushed the bathroom door open to find her sitting on the toilet, eyes closed.

“Thanks. Put it on the bath.”

He arranged it on the side of the bath and perched next to it, looking at her. “You OK?” he asked. “You were back pretty late last night.”

She opened her eyes and grimaced. “This morning, you mean. Sorry if I woke you. Emily was freaking out over the spreadsheets for a meeting she’s got this morning. We had to go over them all twice, double check everything.” She yawned. “At least she brought a bottle of wine in.”

He nodded, trying to imagine what it was like to have a job where your boss brought in wine. To sit in a warm office instead of battling the streets on a bike, weaving through the London traffic. Dodging pedestrians who stepped into the road, looking the wrong way despite the warnings on the ground in front of them. Giving the finger to cab drivers who yelled at him for cutting them up. When he went back to the depot he would have Sam barking at him, thrusting over parcels that were already late. Everything was already late. He felt his stomach hollow out and checked his watch.

“Sorry, Izz. I’ve got to go. See you later.” He fingered the bulge in his front pocket. Tonight, he promised himself. When she wasn’t so tired.

She grunted something and he left the bathroom, grabbing his fleece and hi-vis jacket. His cycle helmet was on a hook by the door, with his gloves. As he was about to push the door open, her phone buzzed on the table next to him.

He peered down at it, one hand on the door. Thanks 4 last night. Don’t need u in till 1 today. Emily.

“You’ve got a text!” he called. “They don’t need you in till one.”

No response. He thought of her slumped on the toilet, half asleep. He wanted her to be alert tonight, for what they needed to discuss. He shrugged and went back to the bathroom.

“Good news,” he said. “She doesn’t need you in till one.”

Isobel looked up, her eyes wide. “Thank fuck for that.” She stood and flushed the toilet, then stumbled back to bed. As he finally pushed the door to the outside world open, she was hauling the duvet over her head. Lucky Izz, he thought.

The streets were crisp and autumnal today, sun flashing between the buildings as he cycled south towards the depot. It was quicker to get to work from Izzy’s flat, a few streets back from Waterloo station, than from his own place, and he relished the early morning feel of the city. Vans ground their way along the streets with deliveries, and taxis headed towards the stations, laden with businessmen barking into mobile phones. He passed a pub taking in a delivery of beer, a burly man hauling them through a hole in the pavement, and smiled. He’d take Izzy to the pub tonight, to celebrate. She’d been off the booze lately – one of her weird diets, he imagined – but tonight would be different.

At last he was at the depot, arriving at the same time as Sheila. Sheila was an incongruity in this place, a muscular woman in her thirties, at least ten years older than the rest of them. In her youth she’d been a champion cyclist, winning regional tournaments and destined for the Olympics. But an injury had taken her off her bike for six months just at the wrong time in her career, and now here she was delivering parcels on the back of a bike that was worth a tenth of the ones she had flown around stadia across the country. He loved listening to Sheila’s stories, although he knew that for her they were tinged with regret. But she refused to forget her past, and liked entertaining him with sordid tales of cyclists he’d watched in the 2016 Olympics, winning gold after gold for Great Britain in Rio.

“Hey Sheila,” he smiled. “Lovely day, isn’t it?”

He felt as it the weather had been put on especially for him, in preparation for how his day would end, the big news he would present Sheila with tomorrow.

She grinned. “Chilly though.”

He shrugged. “No such thing as the wrong weather—”

“Only the wrong clothes!” she laughed. “Oh Ben, you have such an old head on young shoulders.”

“Maybe that’s why we get along so well.”

She gave him a playful slap. “Oi, cheeky! I’m a lot younger than Sam there.”

He looked at their boss Sam, who was shifting a pair of stepladders so he could rearrange a teetering pile of parcels. He was a short, rotund man in his early fifties, with thinning hair that had greyed around the temples, and a permanent air of distraction. Sam was always behind, always worried that a client would drop his firm because of a missed or tardy delivery, and would sometimes take it out on the cyclists, snapping at them to get a move on, to run more red lights.

Dan did this less and less these days. Meeting Izzy had changed the way he used these streets, and the risks he was prepared to take. Before the night he’d clapped eyes on her in a West End pub he’d been a reckless cyclist, darting through red lights with abandon, behaving as if he had blue lights flashing on his helmet and everyone would get out of his way. It was stupid, he knew, but it meant that his delivery rate was the highest in the team. Sam loved it, beaming when he arrived back at the depot early each afternoon. “My lightning bolt,” he had called him.

But his sluggishness, his carefulness, since meeting Izzy had slung him into Sam’s bad books. Forked lightning, he called him now, deliberately mispronouncing the forked. He was torn between going back to his old ways – there were bonuses for meeting targets and he was going to need the money – and slowing down even further, not wanting to risk his future, their future. Occasionally he would dream about Izzy getting a knock on the door, being told he’d had an accident. Crushed under the wheels of a left-turning lorry, or hit in the side by a car running the same amber light as him. He could picture her face, shredding itself, her beautiful fingers tearing at her wispy hair, her mouth transformed by the agony of grief. He couldn’t do that to her.

“Morning, Sam,” he said as he reached the hatch. Sheila was already off, throwing him a wave as she mounted her bike. It was a Bianchi and he was wildly jealous of it, despite its age and scratches. Since his decline, she’d risen to become the top rider, despite her age. Maybe because of it.

“Morning, lightning boy,” said Sam. He raised an eyebrow. “Going to speed up for me today?”

Dan blushed. “Yes,” he lied. Today, of all days, he was going to be careful.

Sam handed over a pile of parcels and Dan spent a few moments attaching them to his bike, arranging them just so for stability, like one of these three-dimensional jigsaws. It wouldn’t do to drop a delivery.

He stood back from his bike and admired his load. Perfect. He pulled on his helmet and smiled.

The morning disappeared in a flood of deliveries, of laughter with those flirtatious receptionists and of exchanged fuck yous with drivers who resented his very existence. One of them even shouted something about road tax. Arsehole.

At eleven thirty he was back at the depot for the fourth time. He propped his bike against the wall next to Sam’s pokey office under the arches of the train line running out to Brighton, and leaned against the sooty bricks. He had a sandwich in his inside pocket, that he’d picked up at a Pret after the last delivery. He fished it out, pleased it hadn’t become too squashed, and started to eat while flicking through WhatsApp. Ajit asking if he was ever coming back to the flat, or should he sublet his bed – ha, ha, he replied. Maggie saying she’d be back at the depot soon, wait for her and she’d share some cake. His University friend Mal saying he was going to be in London, could they meet up. And one from Izzy: hey sexy.

He grinned and flicked a text back: Hey gorgeous. Want to get a coffee before work? He reckoned he had the time; he was ahead of his workload despite the extra carefulness today, in fact maybe because of it.

Sorry. Don’t have time, came the reply. He sent a sad face emoji back.

She sent him a smiley in return, followed by three hearts. Love you. See you later xxxxx.

He felt his heart do a little somersault at the words. Izzy had taken longer than him to use the ‘L’ word, and every time he saw it in black and white he felt more and more as if he’d found his own little slice of heaven.

Can’t wait xx, he sent back, and plunged his phone into the inside pocket of his hi-vis, anxious to get back to work. He hoped Izzy wouldn’t be working late tonight, that they wouldn’t keep her in to make up for the late start.

It was twelve now, and he needed to get going. He threw the wrapper from his sandwich into a bin and patted his front pocket for the hundredth time that day. He thought for a moment then fished the box out, opening it. The glint from the ring inside made his heart race. He shut it and moved it to the inside pocket of his fleece. It dug into his ribs but it was safe.

As he made his way towards the hatch, his phone buzzed. He hesitated then shook his head. It would have to wait.

He took another pile of parcels and loaded his bike up, calculating the most efficient route in his head before checking it on the satnav. The first stop was near Leicester Square, then he had to go to Oxford Street. He would leave the address near Waterloo till last, maybe take a route past Izzy’s flat, just for the hell of it. If he was fast he might pass her leaving for work.

The first two drops went smoothly. The Leicester Square offices had a new receptionist, a man with a high pitched voice who looked down his nose at Dan. He scowled back at him, hoping that Stacey, who normally gave him a biscuit – you need the energy, riding that bike – was just on holiday.

At twelve twenty he checked his satnav. Waterloo Bridge was snarled up and the quickest route was past the Houses of Parliament. He groaned; dodging tourists looking the wrong way was always a challenge. Izzy would be leaving in about ten minutes; he could hang by her flat on the way to the drop without going too far out of his way. Just the thought of catching a glimpse of her as he sped past make his heart race. He imaged her heading in for work, her heels clipping on the pavement and her head in the clouds like it always was in the mornings.

Westminster was the usual fun and games. He nearly rode straight into an old guy on a Boris bike, narrowly missing him by swerving into the path of a taxi then taking on a burst of speed to avoid being hit. He could hear the muffled shouts of the cabbie and see him waving his fist behind his windscreen. Dan shrugged and pointed at the idiot on the Boris bike, then lifted himself in the saddle and pumped his way over Westminster Bridge. The lights on the other side were green and if he was fast he could get through them before they changed.

Then he heard it. In fact, he felt it before it registered in his ears, buried as they were inside his helmet and the hat he’d shoved beneath it. A rumble, deep and ominous, coming from somewhere beneath his feet.

A car in front of him swerved wildly and he gripped his handlebars, pulling his bike to a screeching halt. The car had mounted the pavement outside a hotel and a doorman was running towards it, screaming blue murder. Dan sniffed and looked around, trying to find the source of the vibrations that were rippling through his body.

The sensation subsided and he shrugged. Maybe the road was worn here, and that car had made the tarmac shift. He lifted his feet onto the pedals and readied himself to speed up, then felt it again.

This time it was louder. A deep, threatening roar accompanied by a higher pitched sound, like glass breaking. More cars were skidding and swerving now, and the traffic had come to a stop. Dan’s legs quivered with the force of the vibrations travelling through them.

He felt a shadow fall over him and turned in the direction of Waterloo station. A cloud was rising above it, filling the space between the buildings. It rose and thickened as he watched, transforming itself from a patch of pale grey wispiness to a turgid mass of dark grey. He felt his chest jolt.

He lifted his bike onto the pavement, not caring if he was caught, and pushed himself off towards Waterloo. Crowds of tourists thronged the narrow streets, everyone turned towards the thickening cloud. Hands were held aloft, recording it all for YouTube. He shouted at people to get out of the way, trying to find a path through, but it was useless. Finally he ground to a halt in the middle of the gathering crowd, staring over heads towards Waterloo. There was a sudden blast of sound and a shockwave that rippled beneath his feet. People clutched at the air or each other, and others fell to the ground.

Izzy. He plunged his hand into his back pocket, fumbling for his phone. Shit. Where was it? Then he remembered and fished inside his hi-vis jacket. The box jerked inside his fleece, scraping against his chest.

He pressed the home button and hit the favourites button. He brought up Izzy’s mobile number and clamped his phone to his ear. His breathing was ragged and heavy, and his heart felt like it would burst out of his ribcage.

“Hi, this is Izzy. Thanks for calling, but I can’t answer right now. Leave me a message or text me.”

“Izzy, it’s me. Where are you? Are you OK? Something’s happened at Waterloo.” He pulled in a deep breath. The smoke was working its way into his nostrils now. Around him people were coughing, hands raised to their faces. The mobile phones they’d been using to record events were now held in front of them as people desperately tried to get hold of loved ones, or to find out what was happening.

“Call me,” he said, then hung up. He stared up at the cloud of smoke, which had filled the sky above his head now. Sirens flashed in the corner of his vision and police were suddenly in front of him, pushing the crowd back.

“My girlfriend,” he croaked, waving to get their attention. Fiancee, he thought. “She could be in there. The station.” He paused to breathe. “What’s happened?”

“Sorry sir, we can’t tell you anything just yet. Please, just take a few steps back. We need to clear the area.”

He stepped back immediately, feeling a crush of bodies behind him. He blinked, his eyes sore. He pulled his phone up again.

“Izzy, call me as soon as you get this. I need to know you’re OK.”

There was a notification on WhatsApp: three new messages. He opened the first: it was from Izzy. Sent ten minutes ago. Just heading out to work. Won’t be too late xx.

He felt his limbs turn to ice. He looked helplessly at his watch, calculating Izzy’s route to Waterloo Station. Six minutes, it normally took her. Then two minutes, maybe three, getting through the barriers and down the platform.

He threw out a hand, catching on the face of a man beside him. She was in there.

He pulled up the next text, his thumb shaking. Twice he missed and accidentally opened Facebook instead. It was already full of worried people speculating, and others proclaiming their safe status.

But finally he had her text open. I need to talk to you tonight. Something important. Something good. I think.

He frowned. Was she planning the same thing as him? Was she going to propose, too? He barked out a laugh, realising that he was crying.

Then he opened the last text, wiping his eyes. Oh hell, I can’t wait till tonight. Have to tell u now. I’m pregnant.

Posted in Stories

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