"I got so pulled into The Couple I read it in one go – great twist!"Harriet Tyce
Author of Blood Orange
Whatever you think you know… you’re wrong.
Following a whirlwind four-month romance, lawyer Claire and hotel entrepreneur Angus are engaged to be married. Happy and successful, and ready to start their new life together, Claire and Angus find what they believe to be the perfect home.
But when Claire meets Mark, the man selling them the house, he looks eerily familiar. He looks exactly like the man she loved five years ago, the man she couldn’t bear to lose.
As Claire finds herself irresistibly drawn to Mark and crosses lines she never thought she’d cross, Angus’ behaviour becomes increasingly suspicious. Soon Claire doesn’t know whether she can trust Mark, Angus… or even herself.
The Couple is a psychological thriller with a stunning twist, perfect for fans of The Girl Before, The Wife Between Us, and The Woman in the Window.
Readers love The Couple :
"A fiendishly smart psychological thriller, and I simply devoured it in a single day." Goodreads Reviewer, 5 stars
"I haven’t read a book with such an awesome “GOTCHA ” moment in a long, long time. Brilliant! " KayCKay Book Reviews, 5 stars
Release date: February 5, 2019
Print pages: 302
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It floats over the shoulder of the woman in front of me, words never intended for my ears. My brother’s girlfriend is speaking to my mother, the milk-soft nape of her neck exposed by the overhead lights as she leans in close. Her tone may be low and confidential but I’m standing just behind them hearing it all, unwatched, unnoticed, until a maternal sixth sense makes my mother spin abruptly on her heel.
‘Claire!’ My mother’s expression encapsulates shock masked by a hasty screen of pretence. I see the momentary panic as she scrabbles around for something to say, the alien lipstick, put on for me, for this, my special celebration, bleeding into the tiny lines around her mouth. ‘Elsa was just saying… we were both telling each other… how wonderful you’re looking tonight.’
This is not, as well she knows, an accurate summary of Elsa’s remarks, and as if to compensate my mother throws her left hand towards me, finds my fingers and squeezes hard. ‘What we really meant to say was how beautiful you’re looking tonight. Just beautiful.’ She smiles, eyes bright with sudden sincerity, although nobody else, not even, it occurs to me, my own, cellophane-packet new fiancé, has called me beautiful this evening. She presses my hand again, gazes first at me and then at Elsa, as if checking there is no trail of explosive between us that is about to ignite in her absence. ‘I’d better go and find your stepfather,’ she says, and is gone.
Elsa won’t meet my eyes. She’s staring into her drink, as if she wishes it were a lake that would swallow us up in a gulp of champagne. Her neck and face are reddened by a mottled flush that has nothing to do with alcohol – neither she nor my mother have dared to touch a drop – from fear, I think, of letting down their guard so far away from home. Around us, the room is thrumming; almost two hours into the evening and the energy levels have notched upwards. Strands of conversation weave a steady tapestry of noise while the army of young waiting staff – shirts, ties and hair all beginning to unravel in the heat – persist with the final few canapés, the cocktail sticks and tiny pink serviettes.
My own hands are empty. As soon as the party started I drank two large glasses of fizz, knocking back one straight after the other like shots, but stopped when Angus caught my eye and very slightly shook his head. Angus rarely touches alcohol. I think he wants to set me an example, as if anxious to quell any of my old student habits that might accentuate the modest age gap between us. I’ve told him more than once that I was the model student, too worried about my debt, which grew like ivy, wild and untrammelled, however much I lived on Co-op vouchers and charity shop clothes, to binge-drink in nightclubs or the student bar, but I’m not sure he believes me. Tonight, I like to think, is an exception; the bubbles are an effective and necessary fix for the knots that are cramping my stomach. After all, doesn’t everyone get a little nervy at their own engagement party?
‘Claire?’ Elsa’s voice is hesitant. ‘I’m sorry… I didn’t mean…’ The words fail on her tongue.
‘It’s OK,’ I say. ‘I’m fine about it. Honestly.’ And since neither of us can think of anything to say next we drop into a conversational hole.
Out of this room of sixty people, Elsa only knows my family. She is not here for me, why would she be? I am a competitor for Rob’s attention, I hear her elfin presence in the disengagement of his voice and the abruptness of his answers whenever – rarely, now – I call him. No, Elsa is here for Rob, and for my mother and stepfather whom she adores for being loving and stable, unlike her own relatives who she left in Poland years ago. We’ve played down, of course, our family history of the errant, absent parent – as far as Elsa is concerned my actual father might never have existed. Now, the fabric of her blue satin dress hangs gracelessly from her slender frame, pulled out of shape by an oversized bow that reminds me of an election candidate’s party rosette. I imagine she bought the outfit especially for the occasion but it looks garish and out of place amongst the understated charcoals and greys of Angus’s friends.
I suspect I look out of place too, though since my presence is central to the occasion nobody would be rude enough to say it, or possibly even to think it. Normally I can make myself attractive, even, to adopt my mother’s acclamation, beautiful. But my beauty is the kind that is painted in thick brushstrokes, the type that can be dialled up or down with the presence or absence of make-up and good clothes, that can let you slink unnoticed through a crowd one day and make an entrance, steal a scene the next. I am not someone who turns heads in an airport terminal at 5 a.m., yet give me red lipstick and a fitted shirt, let me shake loose my hair, undo an extra button and clasp my hands behind my back to inch my chest forwards, and I can wield the power as well as anyone.
Tonight however, my efforts have fallen short. Although my dress is outrageously expensive, it is also black and short and plain and it happens to bear a striking similarity to the uniform of the waiting staff, add a white apron and I could vanish into the background altogether. Not that I would object if I were asked to pick up a plate and hand around some canapés. I have to keep reminding myself that Angus is my fiancé, that this is our party, that these are our friends – because that’s not really the whole picture. It’s true, of course, that Angus is my fiancé; it’s true we sent out cards with gold embossed lettering inviting these people to celebrate our engagement; and it’s also true that some of the guests I, personally, chose to be here. Yet nevertheless, I can’t shake off the sense that something is amiss. I want someone to clap their hands and stop the show – a film director, perhaps, with a black-and-white clapperboard. He could rush through the door that leads to the hallway, and beyond to a West London street, and with a wave of his arms and a shake of his head insist the scene is cut and we must all start again.
Back to Elsa. The colour is subsiding from her cheeks and eventually she stops contemplating her pale pond of un-sipped Moet. ‘Honestly, Claire, I’m so pleased for you and how it has all worked out. After everything you went through with Daniel. That’s all I was trying to say.’ To my astonishment she takes a step towards me and plants the lightest butterfly kiss on my right cheek. She turns away before I can react and all at once I want to pull her back and ask her, beg her, not to leave me on my own, but already she’s melting into the knots and clusters of bodies, in search, I imagine, of my brother. As I watch her silky blue back recede, her voice, the words I overheard her say, are so loud in my head I’m surprised the whole room is not stopping to listen to them.
‘It’s such a relief, isn’t it,’ was what I heard her murmur to my mother, ‘to know that Claire is finally over Daniel? You must have been so worried about her, but now nobody would guess anything like that had ever happened.’
‘Claire! There you are! We’ve only been engaged ten days and I thought you’d run out on me already!’ Angus takes my elbow.
The noises in my head subside; the world gives itself a little shake and settles back into its groove. My husband-to-be is regarding me with his steady, grey-eyed gaze. ‘Come on, Claire. There’s a friend of mine I want to introduce you to.’
As he leads me over, I realise how obvious it is that Angus’s friends are occupying one half of the room, and my friends, the rather less crowded, opposite half. It’s not surprising, I suppose, since this is the only opportunity they’ve had to meet. This is the first party we’ve thrown, the first time that most of the guests here have seen us together, which is the almost-inevitable result of the fact that Angus and I have known each other for less than four months.
We met at a low-budget conference on the future direction of immigration policy. I was with a work colleague who recognised Angus as we arrived together at the registration point. Although it was clear they knew each other, a moment of awkward hesitation ensued before, as if by way of last resort, Angus and I were introduced. After the formalities were over we were each handed a clip-on plastic name badge and a white china cup of coffee that was so strong everyone later joked the caterers must have been tipped off about the quality of the speakers and wanted to ensure we all stayed awake. I suppose Angus made an instant impression because he was tall and attractive, but his good looks were tidy, almost formal – sharply cut, blondish hair, polished shoes and a tailored twill blazer – and the impression was only the fleeting, tangential kind. Then at the midday break, on the way to the side room where a plated cold lunch was being served, he appeared by my side, took hold of my elbow – much as he is doing now – and steered me towards an empty table. It didn’t feel so much like a sexual move, more a proprietary one, as if he was collecting a piece of his luggage he’d left temporarily in the hallway.
‘So Claire,’ he said, when we’d sat down, making a point of reading from my name badge. ‘What do you do?’
I liked the way he spoke. A noticeable northern burr called to mind peat fires and whisky, though later I learned his parents had left Edinburgh when he was just a child. I poked at the rather tired lettuce that accompanied a piece of quiche before I replied, the intensity of his gaze reminding me that I was wearing a well-cut suit and my hair had been brushed into a smooth, thick waterfall over my right shoulder. ‘The Home Office,’ I said eventually. ‘I work for the Immigration Service.’ The description always appears grander than I want it to, or maybe it has been ruined for me by the tone my mother adopts whenever she describes my role to one of her friends – a breathy mix of deference and pride that sabotages her attempts to sound casual about the fact that her daughter, raised in a terraced house in Ipswich, now works at a Government address in SW1. I suppose the job conjures images of heavy wooden desks and leather chairs, of neat shelves of files, and civil servants beavering away within a library-like hush. The truth is rather different: modern, modular furniture whose plastic surfaces overflow with stack upon stack of beige folders stuffed with papers, all of which are months old and required attention yesterday. If things had worked out differently it wouldn’t have been my first choice of career, but at the time it seemed to be a way of being closer to Daniel.
‘Are you a lawyer?’ Angus asked. There was a subtle emphasis on the word lawyer. Distrust or respect? Disdain or interest? I couldn’t tell.
‘Not technically. But I have to know about immigration law and keep up to date with policy changes because I represent the Home Office when their decisions are appealed.’
His fork hung in mid-air, as if struck with awe by my not-so-lofty position, or awaiting further explanation.
‘Think of all the claims that get refused,’ I volunteered. ‘I have to defend the Home Office if an appeal is brought.’
‘Even if you think the decision was wrong?’ His eyebrows lifted as the fork moved towards his mouth.
‘Yeah… well,’ I sighed. Shrugged. Gave the standard answer I’ve learned to give whenever anyone asks that question, which is all the time and always as if they’re the first person ever to think of it. ‘It’s how the system works, but sometimes it’s pretty obvious the decision was wrong and there’s not much I can say.’
‘Well, it sounds like interesting work.’
I wasn’t sure whether he was asking a question, but after a moment he began to eat again. I thought of the waiting rooms full of desperation: fear of being sent home, fear of death, of hunger, fear of being found out; lies in every kind of language and terrible, unspeakable truths from the bleakest corners of the world. And the task of sorting one from the other in the space of a two-hour hearing. Interesting hardly covered it. I decided to assume there was no question.
I studied his serious features, the squarish jut of his chin and I found I wanted to hear the earthy tones of his voice again. Putting my elbow on the table I cupped my chin prettily in my hand and turned up the dial, ‘What do you do?’
‘I run a chain of hotels.’
His mouth broke into a slow smile, as if smiling was an activity only to be undertaken with forethought and deliberation. There was something very attractive about it, that level of self-awareness; it seemed to be a sign of someone truly adult, although as I studied his face I realised he was not as old as I had first assumed. There was probably no more than five years between us.
‘The properties aren’t enormous but we are gradually acquiring a foothold in most of the major towns across the UK.’ Angus told me about the business of hotel management. How his firm identified suitable small buildings in up-and-coming locations with good transport links and developed them into places where someone travelling on business or leisure could spend a night or two without breaking the bank.
‘Boutique hotels?’ I suggested. He nodded, pleased, and gave me his card with the name of the company, MPC, printed in black inter-locking letters. No unnecessary frills, but comfortable places to stay at far less cost than the exorbitant prices charged by other city chains.
He kept eating while he talked, pausing every so often to check I was following. When I asked what he was doing here, learning about the potential effects of Brexit on the immigration rules in a third-rate west London conference centre, he blinked at the dumbness of my question and told me the impact of Brexit on immigration was crucial to the economy, something anyone who was serious about business had to understand to be able to assess the sectors of the market likely to suffer most. Besides, a lot of his employees were from mainland Europe. Then he reached into the top left-hand pocket of his jacket and pulled out an old-fashioned black leather diary.
‘When can I see you again, Claire?’
As I hesitated, he smiled once more in that careful, slow-burn way, and I found myself saying that I was free on Friday; this Friday evening, as it happened.
Was ours a whirlwind romance? That’s the term, they give, don’t they, to a love affair that moves so quickly? But that’s not the phrase I’d use to describe our relationship. Whirlwind suggests gusts and eddies, overnight storms of passion, followed by mornings of sweet, spent calm. If wind strength is the analogy here, I’d say that Angus was an unrelenting force six, a steady press of energy that propelled me ever forward to this, the occasion of our engagement party.
Stepping around several of our guests Angus steers me purposefully towards a man who is standing with his back to us. I have time to clock the lack of jacket and paisley shirt before the sound of a teaspoon on glass slices through the chatter. We look up to see my stepfather standing beside the drinks table, the crowd pulling back to a respectful distance. Somebody must have given him something to stand on because his face is visible over the crowd and it wears a stunned, quite horrified expression as the trickle of murmuring fades and then stills completely. This must be my mother’s doing, I have never in my life heard my stepfather speak in public and I wonder how she can possibly believe it is a good idea for him to start now.
He gulps and after a moment unfolds a piece of paper that he proceeds to hold in front of his eyes as if to block out our presence. For too long there’s a ghastly hush as he teeters like a high-board diver staring down at a postage stamp of water. I count to three… four… five. The tension in the room gathers and dilates, and then, just when I think my grip will snap, any second, the stem of my wine glass, he begins, and everyone in the room breathes out at the same time.
At first it’s fine. He says the usual stuff that people always say at these occasions: the thank yous – to me and Angus for holding the party, to everyone for coming, to the caterers. After that he describes how happy everyone is for us – him and my mother, all our guests, and how happy he knows we are too – and finishes with a weak joke about his impending wedding speech. I’m sure that was supposed to be the end because his hand holding the script drops, he catches my gaze and smiles. I smile back. It was that small moment, I think, that must have given him a gust of confidence, the sudden inspiration to go off-piste.
‘Finally,’ he says, and my heart lurches in panic, anticipating, somehow, that he is about to wreck everything. ‘I just want to add that Brenda and I are tremendously pleased Claire has such a wonderful new start with Angus, how delighted we are she can now put everything that has happened behind her.’ He beams at his audience as if expecting an outburst of cheers and whooping. Instead, the temperature of the room plunges by several degrees. Angus’s friends exchange glances; mine, on the other hand, avoid looking at anyone at all. My cheeks ignite while Angus’s face is bright with questions so stark they could be scrawled across his forehead in black marker pen.
Although it’s obvious my stepfather realises something is wrong, he seems bewildered, as if he doesn’t understand what it is, exactly, that he’s said amiss. Maybe he believes that because my family know about Daniel, all our guests must do as well; maybe he thinks that because of social media we – the young – don’t have secrets from each other any more; maybe he assumes, and this, I suppose, would not be unreasonable, that I must have told Angus – the man I will marry in a few months’ time, the man I surely love – about Daniel. Locked into bringing the thing to its proper end my poor stepfather pushes his spectacles further up the bridge of his nose and swallows so hard I can see the convulsion move his throat. ‘So,’ he says, unhappily, ‘it just remains for me to ask you to raise your glass to toast the happy couple.’ He raises his glass, as does my mother, who has appeared, for the sake of solidarity, at his elbow.
‘Claire and Daniel!’
There is a hesitation before the answering echo, as our confused guests take a moment to adjust to this unexpected detour in the script.
‘Claire and Daniel!’
Angus says it too, tilting his glass in my direction. I copy him, but my own hand stops at shoulder height, paralysed. Although I’ll have to come up with something to tell him later I’m pretty certain I won’t be required to provide an explanation here; Angus couldn’t bear to admit anywhere so visible that he has no idea what my stepfather is talking about.
The instant the toast is over, my stepfather steps off whatever he has been standing on. There is a disjointed pause before, to my relief, Angus starts to clap, and gradually the rest of the room follows his lead until the applause reaches a respectable level, a level that might, if I’m lucky, bury my stepfather’s faux pas under its hail of bullet-like noise.
I am impressed by the self-restraint that prevents Angus demanding answers the second the taxi door slams. We are halfway home before he swivels towards me, allowing the oncoming traffic to illuminate his strong, regular profile. What was it, is the gist of his questioning, spoken with a hand on my knee and an unhurried, almost kindly curiosity, I had put behind me? And who is Daniel?
I have had more than an hour to prepare and I am ready.
‘A boyfriend. An old boyfriend,’ I tell him. ‘He used to get a bit out of hand, that’s all.’ I laugh, but lightly, gossamer-feather light.
‘Out of hand?’
‘Unpredictable. Unreliable.’ I turn away from Angus to look out of the window at an altercation happening on the pavement right beside us in front of a restaurant. A man and a woman are screaming at each other. The woman tries to leave but the man grabs her handbag. It falls from her shoulder and he hauls on the leather strap as she strains against it, shouting into her face.
I could have used another word about Daniel. Angry, I might have said. Daniel sometimes got a bit angry.
‘Look! Look what’s happening over there.’ I point towards the scene that resembles a Crimewatch re-enactment rather than real people arguing. People who will have to contend with each other long after our taxi has left them in its wake; who will have to face each other tomorrow, perhaps even the following week or the following year; perhaps when nobody else is there to see how far they can be pushed.
All the seats in the waiting area of Ellerton House are occupied. There are adults leaning against walls, and children huddled on the nylon carpet at the feet of women dressed in brightly coloured saris, black and brown abayas and blue denim jeans. Conversations swirl in languages and dialects I don’t recognise, the names of which I probably wouldn’t even be able to place on the right continent. Until I started this job I had no idea there were so many different countries in Africa, places you have to escape from rather than leave, where the opportunity to travel across Europe for weeks in the back of a stinking truck is regarded as a life chance and not a life sentence. One man is curled in a corner, with his head against the wall and his feet drawn up: tucked into a foetal position. His skin is a deep, dense black and his hair a scrub of grey; an ancient Manchester United football shirt with Beckham printed across the back hangs loose over his trousers. By the chair sits a Lidl carrier bag, papers spilling out of the top; some of the groups are talking with lawyers, but he seems to be entirely alone.
I wonder if his case is one of mine. I have three today, all listed in front of the same judge. My files bulge with clumps of tattered documents held together by elastic bands: interview notes, payslips, telephone records, and most importantly of all the decision of the immigration service that has stopped somebody coming into the country, or required them to leave. I make my way to the special room that is allocated to people like me, the happy band of brothers that represent the Home Office. There’s scarcely more room in here than in the waiting area. Most of my colleagues are reading, bent over the files spread on their laps, or on their mobiles taking last-minute instructions.
‘No, that can’t be right!’ one of my co-workers sighs, rolling her eyes at nobody in particular. ‘I’m certain it’s not there. Some of the papers are definitely missing, and the judge won’t adjourn the case again. It’s already been adjourned twice before. The decision being appealed was made in 2016.’
I find an empty space, park the enormous black wheelie bag that contains my papers and dig out the folders from the third case. I should have looked at it last night, but I didn’t get allocated my list for today until I was leaving work and by the time I got to this file it was so late that the tedious ink of the paragraphs and subparagraphs of immigration rules had begun to swim into an incomprehensible jumble. To my surprise, when I examine it now the case appears quite straightforward. An Indian man is seeking permission to enter the UK to join his wife. His application was refused because the Home Office official thought his wife didn’t earn enough to support him, but now she has provided payslips, and copies of her bank statements to show the money being paid in. It seems to me they satisfy the income rules quite easily.
Just before ten o’clock I gather my files and head into the court where my cases will be heard. It is exactly the same as all the other nineteen courts in this building; a raised dais at one end for the judge, with a desk that spans the entire width of the room in front of tables and chairs that have designated slots for the person whose appeal is being heard and the home office reps like me. The room is bright and modern with windows high above the thrum of central London. There is no wood panelling, no red-robed judge or wig-adorned barrister, no sense of history – but the present is here in spades, reproachful and urgent, and it presses in on us from every corner of the globe.
The man in the Beckham shirt springs to his feet as I go in but sinks back down when he realises I’m not the judge. All the applicants in court eighteen are huddled against the back wall. Beside Beckham is a family: a mother, a father and four sons with exactly the same molten-brown eyes, all of which are fixed with desperation on their barrister. The final member of the cast is a young woman from India. I guess that she’s the wife in my just-read file. Dressed in skirt, shirt, heels and tights, she might be interviewing for a secretarial post. She seems determined to catch my eye and smiles so brightly when she does that a sudden splinter of doubt makes me wonder if her case is quite so strong after all.
While I’m still trying to recall if there was anything at all suspicious in her paperwork, the door to the court reverberates with a medieval thumping. ‘Court rise!’ The judge’s clerk enters followed by a female judge I haven’t seen before. The judge makes waves to the assembled crowd to sit, the gesture is vague yet there’s an intensity, a watchfulness, to her manner coupled with a tendency for her gaze to stray towards the clerk, as if checking for a prompt. I guess she must be new. She takes a pen from a pencil case, which is the zipped, transparent kind that students take into exams.
The judge wants to take the file with the family first, but is told by the barrister an interpreter may be needed and he is busy in another court.
‘All right,’ she says, ‘I’ll take your case at 11 o’clock and the asylum matter now. Who is representing Mr Nasimi?’
The man in the football shirt lifts his gaze from his knees. The judge looks hopefully at the barrister, but he is shuffling out of court with his family and shakes his head apologetically.
She turns back to Beckham, ‘Do you know where your solicitor is?’ There is no reply. The judge consults the papers. ‘An interpreter is needed in this case too,’ she says, although it’s not clear whom she’s informing of this fact. I can see her wondering what the hell she is supposed to do. ‘I’ll take the third matter first,’ she decides, indicates for the Indian woman to come forward and is rewarded with a beaming smile.
I question the woman. . .
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