The Good Samaritan (Page 42)

I hadn’t been allowed to go back to the charity immediately. Our job takes so much emotional strength that we all need to be at the top of our game to do our callers justice. But I’d persuaded the powers that be that what hadn’t killed me that night had made me stronger. And eventually, like when I’d returned from my cancer treatment, I’d been allowed to sit with Mary and listen in on her calls to help re-acclimatise myself to End of the Line’s environment.

Within a month I was back up to speed, and I began with three shifts a week. My confidence had returned – if Steven wanted me, I was ready for him. I’d brought myself out of hiding and hoped I could lure him out into the open. He had put so much effort into unmasking me, it was my turn to do the same to him.

I was living for his next call.

CHAPTER TWO

RYAN

It felt peculiar not speaking to Laura any more.

The time on the car stereo read 7.40 a.m., and at this time a few months ago I’d be putting together some notes ready for our conversation later in the day. Three times a week, ‘Steven’ had called her and I’d talk about his life in detail like she’d asked me to. There were some elements I’d made up and scribbled inside a notebook or typed into my phone as and when I thought of them. But when I spoke of his feelings of despair and hopelessness, they were more my words than his. I’d spent more time opening up to Laura than I had to my family and friends. It was like Stockholm syndrome, only I’d developed a psychological alliance with someone who wasn’t even holding me captive.

I was her project and she was mine; she wanted me dead and I wanted to stop her from ruining other people’s lives. And while I’d never let myself forget she had an evil streak in her a mile wide, I came close to understanding what my wife had seen in her. Laura was easy to talk to and we’d given each other a purpose of sorts. We’d developed a fucked-up, codependent relationship based on my lies and her sickness. Marriages have been built and survived on less.

But now there was nothing between us but silence. It was as if someone else in my life I’d relied on had died.

I parked in my allocated spot at work, grabbed my bag and an armful of folders from the back of the car, and made my way into the building. One folder slipped through my fingers and fell to the floor. I felt a twinge in my stomach as I went to pick it up. Having spent so long away from my job, and mostly in the company of my family or a handful of friends, I had to get used to being surrounded by a lot of people. But as the months passed, it gradually became easier.

My parents and Johnny were relieved that I’d turned a corner. I’d begun meeting friends for nights out, I was planning on rejoining my Sunday-league football team and I’d started going to the gym again. To them, I was returning to my old self. But they had no idea I’d buried the man they knew alongside Charlotte.

I walked the corridors with a fixed grin and nodded hello to familiar faces as I headed for my pigeonhole. Inside was a note from Bruce Atkinson requesting a catch-up before my working day began.

‘Sit, sit,’ he ushered, and pointed to the empty chair in front of the desk in his office.

‘Is there a problem?’ I asked.

‘No, no, not at all, Ryan,’ he replied. ‘I just wanted to check how things have been since your return. You’re in, what, your third month now?’

‘Fourth, but yes, it’s going well, I think. It’s nice to be back . . . It takes my mind off things.’

‘Yes, um, I’m sure after, um, what . . . happened with . . . your, um . . . wife . . . well, yes, I’m sure it has.’ Ebony in Human Resources must have told him to check up on me, because this conversation was way too awkward for him to have instigated off his own bat. But a little part of me was amused watching him squirm.

‘And how is everyone treating you?’ Bruce continued.

‘Again, good, good.’

He nodded his head, relieved that I wasn’t carrying with me any problems for him to deal with. He blew his nose into a cloth handkerchief. ‘Just so long as you know that if, you know . . . um . . . if you need more time to . . . um . . . or if there’s anything I can do to help, then you only have to ask.’

‘Thank you,’ I replied, and quietly shook my head as he led me out of his office. He’d be the last person I’d ask for help.

I made my way along the corridor knowing he wasn’t alone in not having the first clue what to say to me. If it was cancer or a heart condition that had killed Charlotte, people might have related to me better, because many people have lost someone to one of those illnesses. But when it’s an invisible problem like mental health or suicide, people aren’t sure how to talk about it. They’d rather say nothing than end up saying something insensitive, stupid or becoming tongue-tied. It made for a lonelier life for me, though.

I again felt a pinch in my stomach where the skin was still healing from the knife wound. It wasn’t enough to make me wince, but I was aware of it all the same. I’d delayed my return to school by two weeks by telling them I needed a hernia operation, not the fact I’d been stabbed and left for dead by a pupil’s sociopathic mother. It would explain the scar the blade left if anyone ever noticed it.

I recalled how when Laura had fled the cottage that night, I’d remained bent double on the floor feeling like my whole body was on fire from the burning pain of the open wound.

Soon after I heard her drive away, I knew I needed to seek help. I couldn’t phone for an ambulance and I contemplated calling my parents, but I’d have too much explaining to do. I had no choice but to deal with it myself.

Each step I took, down the stairs, along the path and towards my car, was agonising, and once inside I held a handkerchief to the wound to stem the bleeding. The journey to Northampton General Hospital’s accident and emergency department took fifteen minutes but felt hours longer. And after dumping the car in a disabled space and dragging myself through the entrance and to the reception desk, a nurse saw me clutching my belly and a circle of blood on my shirt and whisked me straight into a cubicle.

The rest of the night was a blur. I was probed by doctors assessing and stabilising me. They checked my circulation, gave me an oxygen mask, an IV and an X-ray, and cleaned me up. While I’d lost blood, it wasn’t enough to require a transfusion, and thankfully the blade hadn’t penetrated any vital organs or the stomach itself, so only stitches were required. When they asked for next of kin, I claimed to be estranged from them.

The following morning, a woman in a white medical jacket and smart suit introduced herself as a psychiatric nurse and quietly questioned me on how I came to be injured. I told her it was the result of a botched attempt at ripping up some rotting floorboards but she didn’t seem convinced.

‘It’s our policy to report wounds that we judge to be suspicious to the police,’ she replied.

‘No, don’t do that,’ I replied, feeling the panic rising inside me. ‘It was an honest mistake. I’m clumsy and wanted to save some money instead of calling professionals in. Seriously, send someone around to my house to see the mess I’ve made of it if you don’t believe me.’

I hoped she wouldn’t call my bluff. She went on to ask me all kinds of questions, to see if I had mental health issues and the wound was self-inflicted. Eventually she left and another nurse said I could be discharged later that day, as long as I had antibiotics and someone to escort me home.