Copyright © 2015 Jerry Dunne
When Amanda Marlow, successful psychologist, bestselling author and now a regular guest on a radio show, discovers that her low-achieving husband, Alfie, conspires with his girlfriend, Gabby Sones, to strip her of much of her hard-earned wealth in a divorce settlement, she grabs the initiative to the challenge before her by skilfully and ruthlessly spinning out a Machiavellian web around the two lovers.
But before long, Amanda finds herself fully entangled in an ambiguous and corrosive relationship with the deeply flawed Gabby Sones; a relationship based on a merciless game of manipulation, jealousy, betrayal, blackmail, revenge… and murder.
Here is the opening chapter of the novel:
Although Amanda owned the detached Victorian house in which she held her practice, and had done for several years, except for improvements on the hallway, toilet, tiny kitchen, a front reception room and back consulting room downstairs, she had done nothing with the rest of the five-bedroom building. The consulting room was a large, high-ceilinged reception room, with French windows that opened out onto the back garden. Like all good psychologists, she had thought carefully of how she wanted to present herself to her patients and also how she wanted them to feel in the consulting room. With this in mind, she had created an ambience that she imagined was both a reflection of particular aspects of her personality and also a comfortable physical and emotional setting.
On one side of the room and at a right angle to the French windows was her large, mahogany Georgian desk. A computer sat on it; otherwise, it was empty of the clutter of files and stationery. At this moment, Amanda was sitting behind it on her cream leather-upholstered executive chair. A luxurious, lime-and-white-patterned Turkish rug lay under her feet. A steel cabinet containing paperwork stood in the corner behind her. Also behind her on the wall hung her academic qualifications and professional diplomas protected by simple oak frames and non-reflective glass. The floor was of walnut parquet; the walls and ceiling had been painted a soft green, the ceiling borders and skirting white. Two large, green Yucca plants rose out of big ceramic pots on the floor, one each side of the French windows. Two cream leather-upholstered chairs were positioned the other side of the desk and facing the windows. A new patient was sitting on one of them gazing out at the garden and the blue sky. The garden had a well-manicured lawn, a weeping willow and other trees, shrubs and flowers and a pond with a three-tier stone fountain in the middle of it, which Amanda often turned on in warm weather. The sound of birdsong entered the room.
The patient, Mrs Cully, continued in her clipped, slightly nasal voice, “Oh, he’s such an important person, you see. And he’s quite happy to let anyone and everyone know it. In fact, if someone doesn’t know it, he can get quite upset about it. He’s like a child in that way. Many people think he’s such a good man and I’m so lucky to be his wife. Oh, I have to say it pretty much all the time. I have to keep validating him – that’s the right trendy word, isn’t it? – keep stroking his bloody ego.” Her voice sharpened, “Oh, yes, how lucky I am to be his wife. How incredibly lucky!”
Mrs Cully’s breath hissed through tightened lips. She ran her hand gently over her grey-silvery hair. She pulled impatiently at the shawl collar of her dark blue cardigan, and then, as though in embarrassment, picked some fluff off the dark blue material of her wide ankle-length skirt.
A bookcase full of academic books and journals took up the whole length of the opposite wall and stopped about three feet from the ceiling. A big antique clock hung on the wall above the bookcase. It had a loud mechanical echo in its ticking that Amanda found soothing. The sound destroyed the otherwise cold silence that could have settled over the room at times.
“It’s quite amazing, really. I’ve been married to him for nearly forty years but he doesn’t know who I am. How can you not know the person you’re married to after forty years? He just has an impression of me. Basically, I’m what he wants me to be. I’m a sort of object in his eyes; a sort of working robot. But I know him well enough. He’s a control freak, emotionally cold, very judgemental. He likes to play God with me, you see. He insults me continuously and the most infuriating thing is that he doesn’t even know he’s doing it. I deserve more than this; yet people think I have a good marriage because it appears that way from the outside looking in. Yes, we have a great house, lots of money, but it’s all his.”
Mrs Cully went quiet and closed her eyes, deep in thought.
The mechanical echoes of the antique clock’s ticking grew louder. To one side of the clock were two framed retro posters, one advertising a production of Othello and the other of Macbeth. Amanda had put them up there out of the way where they wouldn’t be spotted easily by a nervous patient’s roaming eye, as they were hardly the sort of thing to inspire those undergoing therapeutic treatment. They were her one indulgent flaw in the presentation of the room.
“Everybody thinks I live a wonderful life,” Mrs Cully went on. “I live in a nice house. I can drive a Mercedes when I like. I am married to a man who looks great on his CV. But my house is only a shell. The car is only a tin can on wheels. I’m just a shell. And he has lots of nasty little habits that drive me crazy. But I won’t tell you about them. I don’t want to bore you.”
Amanda knew that before her third or fourth visit was over, Mrs Cully would have told her about every last one of those nasty little habits and in great detail.
“Only one thing keeps me going.” She touched her hair nervously. “Know what it is?”
Amanda was a psychologist, not a mind reader. She shook her head.
Mrs Cully leaned forward a little, licking the inside of her mouth. Her face was a mixture of twinkling girlish eyes and middle-aged blushes. She whispered, “In my head, I harm him.”
Amanda didn’t move a muscle. Her voice, completely neutral, asked, “Oh?”
“Sometimes… you see… I mean, for example, the dog urinates on the kitchen floor. He’s old, he can’t help it. But he wouldn’t dream of cleaning it up. He’ll mention it, that’s all. And, of course, once his words are out of his mouth then the urine must magically disappear.” She straightened, her chest rising with the intake of air. “There are dozens of little examples like that. And dozens more where I can’t get it right; where his master isn’t ever happy with the results; where I must always be criticized; but where he would never ever himself bother doing it.”
She gazed at Amanda, smiling. A mischievous girly look flooded her face, chasing her wrinkles away and smoothing and softening out her skin.
“Well… every single time… I mean every time that he… that he gives me an order like that… I administer a little electric shock in some part of his body. I don’t do it to be cruel, or heartless, or wicked, or spiteful, or vengeful or for any of those melodramatic reasons,” she explained. “No, I do it for the simple reason that he needs a good lesson. I do it to improve him as a human being, you see. It’s as simple and as reasonable as that.”
She poked the air with her index finger. “I’ve had a lifetime to study his type, and as a consequence, have learnt quite a lot about them. The two big things I’ve discovered are that they never ever listen to anyone but themselves, of course, and they will also never ever change their ways voluntarily. Nothing I could ever say would ever have any effect on this bully whatsoever.” She poked the air two times in quick succession with her finger. “But on the other hand, if I administer an electric shock every time he insults me – the shock has to be painful, of course – then that would be a different matter entirely.”
She tugged her brows together, concentrating hard. “I’ve researched this on the Internet, of course, but I won’t bother you with the technical details of what capacity of electricity to administer and for how long and how often without the subject receiving permanent harm. But it’s been fun looking into it. It’s made me feel empowered in a way you wouldn’t believe. That’s another word they use a lot of nowadays – empowered.” She ran her hand slowly over her silvery-grey hair without actually touching it. “You know, it’s really quite amazing how long it’s taken me to see these inescapable facts. I mean, you go through life believing people are more or less like you. It’s a form of stupidity really. You go through life believing that people are more or else like you when some demonstrate quite conclusively to you month in month out year in year out through their attitude and behaviour that they are not like you at all. So why do you go on believing it? Well, I suppose because the world doesn’t make sense otherwise. You can’t understand why it is so difficult for these people to behave with some common humanity toward you. You just can’t get it, see. But then, one day, you do. After decades of suffering them, of course you realize they are not like you at all. They do not think like you. They do not feel like you. It’s scary at first seeing it that way, but once you do, it liberates you. Once you realize that these people are just not like you in any way that truly matters, even when they are your husband, the world actually starts to make sense. Why on earth aren’t we taught these things in school when they’re of such fundamental importance to our lives?”
She paused for breath and the clock’s loud ticking took control of the room for a little while.
“The beauty of my electrical treatment is that the shock ripples all over his body and he has absolutely no idea where it’s coming from or why it’s coming. I administer it with my mind, you see. So every time he dehumanises me the way he does, he gets a shock. It’s a painful shock but it’s bearable. What I’m fascinated in discovering is how long he will endure this shock before he puts two and two together and realizes that it only comes after insulting me.”
“And how long do you think it will take in your scenario?” Amanda asked.
“Oh, I am absolutely sure he will quickly make the connection. An arrogant and abusive person is very sensitive to their own physical and psychological needs. However, he won’t understand the connection. He won’t understand that he is on a learning curve. Neither will he care to ever understand it. What he will do is brood and sulk and believe that the world has done him wrong because he can no longer bully me without feeling pain as a consequence.”
“But what if you explain to him why he’s receiving the pain?”
“You have not been listening to me. He does not listen; he never listens. He doesn’t care to listen. He doesn’t care. He doesn’t want to learn. He doesn’t think he has anything to learn.”
“Maybe the pain will encourage him to learn.”
She nodded. “Agreed. The pain will encourage him to learn but only because he must learn. He will stop bullying because of the pain and only because of the pain. But the pain will make him see himself as a martyr and nothing else. All his pity will be reserved for himself. Because he does not have the emotional state to sympathize with others, to see what he has been doing to me, to see the effect he has put me under, he will continue to get the electric shock treatment until he gives up his behaviour entirely. Whenever he starts it again, which he will do from time to time as he is still the same person – he will do it to test the layout of the land, so to speak – then the electric shock treatment will also start up again.”
Mrs Cully relaxed her shoulders and gazed out calmly into the garden. “But it won’t end there. I’ll start to ask him to do things around the house. I won’t tell him to do it. I’ll ask him nicely. I’ll be nice to him, see. But he will do it. Or else he’ll get another electric shock. I’m going to be fair to him, and only ask him to do half the work in the house.”
Amanda had to ask, “Let’s assume he gets used to the electric shock and starts to rebel; then what?”
“Every time he walks on me he crushes my spirit that little bit more; and he doesn’t even know he’s doing it and wouldn’t care, anyway, any more than if he walked on an ant and crushed out its life. When I increase the intensity of the electric shock, he only has himself to blame. He will have made his own hell just as he has made life hell for me without me asking for it. I think I’m being more than fair. It would be a wonderful experiment to see just how much punishment he could take before he well and truly got the entire message. But at some point he’ll give in and behave himself. In a way that infuriates me more than anything.”
“Why is that?”
“Because it means he wasn’t possessed by a mental illness after all. The bastard had the choice all along to behave himself, and chose not to.”
Amanda glanced at the clock. The time was nearly up.
Before she left, Mrs Cully said, “I can see from your ring you’re married. Happily?”
Amanda smiled. “Yes.”
The front reception room, usually run by her receptionist, who was at present away on maternity leave, contained a large, mahogany Georgian desk similar to the one in the consulting room. The floor here was also of walnut parquet, though protected with cheaper rugs. The walls and ceiling had also been painted a soft green, with the ceiling borders and skirting white. A cream leather sofa stood against the far side wall so that the waiting patient could comfortably gaze out the window as well as about the room. Now Amanda was standing at the window in this room, watching her patient go out the gate. Mrs Cully cut a small, thin, lonely figure as she climbed into the big, shiny, red Mercedes, and started the engine. ‘The car is only a tin can on wheels. I’m just a shell.’ Amanda had long since stopped being shocked at the personalities on display in the consulting room, yet some of them still managed to affect her in a way she couldn’t explain.
At eleven the following morning, Amanda was standing on a railway platform at York. She had arrived in the city at eight for an early morning conference and was now returning to Harrogate. She preferred travelling here by train as she found the city’s roads and parking quite intolerable. Once she boarded her train and sat down in a seat, she opened up her Barbour leather briefcase, took out her laptop and balanced it on her lap.
For some reason, her mind backtracked to the last thing her patient, Mrs Cully, had said to her the day before. ‘I can see from your ring you’re married. Happily?’
Although she had automatically replied, ‘Yes,’ the question had actually thrown her. She’d never been asked the question before. Her mother, dead now seven years, had never asked her. It wasn’t the sort of question she would have asked. Happily? Amanda had never asked herself the question. She’d never had time to wonder whether she was ever happy. To her, life was a work in progress and marriage was a part of life. So marriage was a work in progress. Well, anyway, the marriage wasn’t progressing. It had stalled.
Before the train left the station, two people entered the carriage and sat close to her. One was a heavy-set man in a business suit with a ponytail and a cocky air (weren’t pony-tails now passé?) and the other an old woman with a walking stick and small travelling bag and a slightly miffed air about her. Amanda could smell the spicy, acidic aftershave of the man and the cloying, sweet scent of the old woman, and felt her space invaded.
What had she expected from the marriage when Alfie had proposed? But wait a moment! Had he proposed? Oh, yeah, he had, but like most things with him, he’d needed a bit of a push. So what had she expected? Why had she got married? She began to tap on the keyboard.
Obviously, as with Mrs Cully, many patients described their marriage to her as very unhappy. But happy and unhappy were such abstract terms. They represented no more than amorphous and fleeting feelings. She had never known why these abstract terms should hold such a grip on people’s imagination. They did not describe anything in any practical or concrete way. People seemed always to be waiting for this happiness to arrive like a letter through the post and were terribly disappointed when it didn’t show up. But unlike the mail, how would you know when you had it? What triggered it? What was its specific feeling? How did that feeling become lasting? What was going to sustain it? She had no idea. She had had a moment of excitement when her first book became an international bestseller but that moment had passed and she had found herself back to square one again, having to write another book in order to reproduce the success and the momentary high the first had induced in her. And, of course, the second hadn’t been as successful as the first, though had still sold very well, and the third hadn’t been as successful as the second. And though she had bought two houses out of her royalties when property had been far cheaper, she had felt less exultation from the sales of the second book and less again from the sales of the third. But at no time did she believe she had ever felt happy, whatever that really meant.
However, she was not one ever to wait around for happiness to come calling. She was not a procrastinator; she was a doer. She worked hard for whatever she wanted, and on condition that she never found happiness, then it was simply because it never existed.
Tapping away on the keyboard, she grew aware of the old woman sitting opposite her fidgeting and tutting away to herself. She guessed what was freaking her out. Ponytail was talking loudly into his mobile. Amanda had trained herself to tune out annoying people on public transport. Now she could feel the old woman’s eyes hot and eager on her as she searched for a fellow campaigner to whine along with her in a demonstration against ponytail. But Amanda kept her eyes averted. Finally, the old woman let out a murderous hiss like an angry snake and slapped the seat hard. Amanda kept tapping away on the keyboard.
Ponytail interrupted his phone call. “Are you all right, love?”
“No, I’m not,” the old woman barked at him.
Like the concept of happiness, the idea of love was also just too vague. Love and happiness were wishy-washy, inadequate terms with which to reference or map the realities and complexities of life. Poor Mrs Cully had no doubt gone into her relationship thinking of happy and love and had ended up without a crumb of respect or affection from her husband over a forty-year period. And yet, did Mrs Cully herself know how to love? What even was her definition of it? Given the chance, would she have been able to apply it? The glamorous but vague concept of love had once pulled the wool over Mrs Cully’s eyes and made her endure for the sake of enduring and dream for the sake of dreaming of something that was never going to arrive for her. Assuming, right from the beginning, that Mrs Cully had held out for respect and affection as the key ingredients for a good marriage, then possibly her married life would have taken another path and she would never have allowed an abuser to hurt her all these years.
Certainly, Amanda had not married for love. She had grown up in a single parent household and her mother had fashioned in her with her usual edge of bitterness an understanding that marriage should be a contract between equals and that the idea of love was no more than a smokescreen at best. Amanda had married Alfie because back in university he had been handsome, confident, smart, funny, charismatic, full of masculine energy and able to talk in an interesting and decisive way on any subject. She had once seen such a man as unattainable to a woman like herself, but that had just made him more desirable. Other female students, including the very attractive ones, had desired him, which had made him even more desirable again. Amanda had always been very driven and competitive and Alfie had been a prize. She liked prizes. She liked rewards. She’d been very flattered when he’d chosen her. Why had he chosen her? What had he seen in the shy, usually quite introverted young woman with very average looks?
But later, after the initial excitement of marriage had died down, she had discovered a whole new Alfie. His interesting and decisive talk of earlier years had grown jaded, out of place, belonging more to the university campus than the older adult world. His lack of career focus and ambition, his lack of focus, commitment and decision making on most matters had slowly begun to irritate her. He had shrugged off the big challenges of professional life and slumped into a mediocre career, one that had at first horrified her with its obvious lack of ambition. After a few years of marriage, she had quickly outgrown her husband in every way, and yet he didn’t even recognize it. It was odd now remembering that he and she had both achieved a first in the same degree in the same top red brick university, though he had been one year ahead of her.
Amanda chanced a glance around her. The old woman was staring out the window, her face long, her lips mumbling silently, while ponytail, having finished his phone conversation, had his head on the backrest, his eyes closed.
Her own phone rang.
“Where are you, Mandy?”
She answered in a whisper, “On my way home.”
“I want to talk to you.”
“How long before you’re back?”
“About forty minutes. But I’m only indoors a few minutes then out again to the practice.”
“Got a patient straightaway?”
She glanced at the old woman, who was staring out the window. “I’ve got a patient at two, Alfie.”
“I won’t be that long. See you there.”
He rang off. It was actually odd because he hardly ever rang her for any reason. So what was up?
She still had a great affection for Alfie, but it was the sort she might have felt toward an old friend or relative. She did not admire him, she did not see him as an equal in marriage, and she had no great urge for him. He never filled her with excitement. He was a companion who helped her stave off moments of loneliness. Not that she had too much time for feeling lonely, and not that he helped her stave off many moments of loneliness any longer, as they slept in separate bedrooms nowadays. Alfie had moved into a spare room months ago, but she was hard set now to remember the reason he gave. It made little difference. Their sex life had died a year or so ago. Amanda wasn’t surprised at how indifferent she felt about it all. At the end of every evening, when her head hit the pillow, she fell fast asleep. She needed her sleep a lot more than she needed him.
She got off the train at Harrogate, and jumped into a cab. “Park Drive, please.”
Her phone rang again. On the screen, Amanda saw it was Becky Valenti, her literary agent, who lived half in London half in New York and half out of her mind, or so Amanda believed. She pressed to take the call.
“Amanda, hi! Hope I’m not interrupting anything?”
Amanda glanced at the cab driver. “Becky, how are you?”
“Right as rain after my second caffeine rush of the day.”
They talked small talk for a few minutes before Becky got down to business. “Naturally this is a social call, but you know why I’m really ringing, Amanda?”
“I’m working on it, Becky. Every night.”
“When can I see the first three chapters?”
“When they’re ready.”
“How long, babes?”
“A month or so.”
A short silence and then, “A month or so? The month bit sounds good. The so bit sounds so so.”
“Six weeks at the outside. It’s only going to be a twelve-chapter book. So that’s a quarter.”
“What shape will it be in, Amanda?”
“I can live with that. Just remember, we want the whole product all polished up by year end.”
“You know I always start off slow and then accelerate with my work.”
“Same with me.”
“You never told me you write?”
“I don’t write in the wine bar, babes. Know what I mean?” Amanda laughed softly. “How’s that beautiful husband of yours?”
“Oh, he’s fine.”
“Any time you’ve had enough of him, Amanda, roll him in bubble wrap to protect his edges, put my name and address clearly on the envelope, and don’t forget the right postage.”
Amanda laughed louder. After the call, she realized she didn’t know whether Becky was in New York or London at that moment.
The cab stopped. She paid the fair, and jumped out. The cab drove away. She stood looking up at her home, which was only a few minutes walk away from her other property where she had her consultancy. This one was a detached, five-bedroom, Georgian-period town house on four floors, including the lower ground floor cellars where Amanda kept her wines and washing facilities. The front was painted lime green with white borders. She opened the wrought-iron garden gate and walked up the paved path. On either side were narrow lawns with shrubs growing against the low garden walls. Early spring flowers added white, red and yellow colours to the green. Attached to the house was a large, double-door garage.
The property had needed work after purchase. She’d completely redecorated every room, but left in place two ornate fireplaces. She’d had them cleaned and polished, along with the wooden floors. She’d had two more marble fireplaces installed in other rooms, replaced ceiling coving, some skirting, panelled doors and sash windows. The kitchen had an Aga cooker and the main bathroom a round sunken bath. She was always looking for ways to improve her house.
Alfie hadn’t contributed a single penny to the buying of the property or the refurbishments, or, for that matter, the furniture in the house. But he would hardly have been able to cough up much, anyway, on his little wage. Though to be fair to him, without the success of the three books she’d written, she wouldn’t be walking through the door of this house and standing on the travertine marble tiles in the reception hall, gazing into the full-length hallway mirror.
She wore a light-grey trouser suit, a white blouse and black, one-inch heel shoes. She stood five nine with the shoes on. Her shoulders were prominent but not muscular or poky. She took off the jacket. Her waist was in, her hips curved nicely out. Regular exercise in the shape of walking and indoor cycling, sits ups, leg raises and other various exercising helped with her figure. Exercising helped make her feel confident in her own flesh. At thirty-seven she saw no signs of her body ageing. Hard work, as in every other aspect of her life, had given her what she had.
She kept her auburn hair neat and glossy, and barely shoulder-length. Her brown eyes matched her hair colour; sharp, wary, often cynical eyes. She wore make-up, but kept it light as it was unprofessional for a patient to sit opposite a woman made up like a teenager. She used it to accentuate her better features and soften her lesser ones, remembering always to look every bit the professional.
Having spent a fortune on buying and redecorating the house, she was in a continual process of spending another fortune on furnishing it with original period pieces. Her favourite were Queen Ann and Georgian, though she never baulked at adding the right piece of Victorian. Obviously, though, modern beds, sofas and executive chairs for maximum comfort in sleeping, relaxing and working were a must.
Exasperated at having failed to push Alfie onto a proper career path years ago, she’d had to settle with seeing him study on a teacher-training course, and be glad of that, too, otherwise he might not have got going at all. He’d once claimed he wanted to write fiction, but any writer has to write and Alfie never got beyond some vague plans and a poorly written first chapter. When she’d set about writing her own first non-fiction book, she had quickly understood how much focus, stamina and determination were necessary to accomplish the task. She knew Alfie lacked such attributes. Alfie would never manage to write a book, she felt certain of that. Even after writing her own first book, she had had to find a publisher. Twenty turned her down on her first attempt. So she’d written articles off the book and got those published in magazines. Then she’d sent the book out again. The only reason Dahlia Press had taken any notice of her was because by this time the publisher had read several articles of hers and remembered her name. Amanda would never have given in. She feared and despised failure.
Alfie was indifferent to the idea of failure, but at least had shown no jealousy or resentment of her success. She supposed it was the big reason why the marriage had lasted so long. Alfie lived in a laid-back bloke’s world that she never understood and that was completely inaccessible to her on both a physical and emotional level. He seemed very contented teaching A-level psychology in a further education college. On the other hand, Amanda was a restless soul who would never be content, she knew. Even her upcoming and regular spot on a new radio show, which she had managed to achieve off her books’ success, she hoped would be a step up to something bigger again.
She thought about changing her clothes, decided against it. She sorted out her papers, drank a glass of water, and got ready to leave the house. Now what was so important that her laid-back husband had felt it necessary to ring up and arrange a meeting for it?
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