Read by Charlotte Worthing
It is evening. Kayleigh is sitting cross-legged on the edge of my sofa. She is watching my television. Her eyes are narrow slits. She is catlike. Kayleigh scoops salsa with nacho chips. I look up from the book that I am not really reading and I watch as a glob of tomato evades her fleshy lips. It explodes, fat and satisfied, onto the cream upholstery. To me, this happens in slow-motion.
Kayleigh is transfixed by her soap opera, unaware of red sinking gently into cream, the stain spreading. She is hypnotised. Her chin juts towards the TV screen. Her jaw grinds slow and lazy. She has pulled her hair back into two coiled balls on the top of her head and, in the pulsating light of the evening television, those coils look like horns.
This is the moment.
That is the moment that I decide.
I have been patient. I have tried to exist alongside her but she has taken over. She has invaded, conquered and spoilt everything.
She used to follow me.
The first time I noticed her there, I was shopping at Boots in my lunch break. I heard sniggering and whispering as browsed the make-up. The sounds perforated my consciousness and slowly I realised those sniggers were directed at me. I tried to ignore them. I slotted the tester lipstick back into the display, looked down at the waxy streak of colour on the back of my hand, a feeling of embarrassment crawling over me. Out of the corner of my eye I could see them - three teenage girls, all inflated jackets, skinny legs and too-big boots. I avoided their looks, walked towards the checkouts. They followed, barged past, headed for the doors. The blond one of the three turned to look at me as they went by. I knew it was her. Instinctively.
They met at school. When Kayleigh was at school. She was wading aimlessly through her A-Levels and David was a trainee teacher on placement. They didn’t do anything against the law. She was 17 years old. He is repentant only because it was inappropriate. No one found out. This was two years before we met. It is a sign of his love that he feels able to tell me.
I trust him unreservedly. David and I are engaged. We are going to get married.
It is good that nobody knows about Kayleigh but me.
David won't give me exact details from their 11 month relationship, so I have filled in the gaps. I am good at this. I now feel like I was there too. The furtive glances across the classroom, the first, dangerous rendezvous a safe distance from school, the frantic heartbeats, the sensation of fingertips touching for the first time, that strange electricity.
Sometimes a piece of information will come unrequested. Something solid for me to keep hold of. David won’t even realise. He’ll mention a film he’s seen. A park he’s been to. A café where he once bought a sandwich. And I’ll imagine it was with her. Each detail drips, puddles and leaves a large, red stain across my understanding of David.
I throw it back at him during arguments. I punish him. He disgusts me. Then I apologise for the way the words came out of my mouth, blistering and spitting. He tells me that he is sorry that he ever got mixed up with Kayleigh Harkness. I push for stronger affirmation of this. He gives it. Every time. But behind his wounded face I see it.
He knows we can’t let the past be just that. He knows the hold that Kayleigh Harkness can have over a person.
When I eventually found the courage to tell David that Kayleigh was following me, he laughed. The subject was changed. I didn’t mention it again.
After a few weeks of her trailing me, Kayleigh’s friends dropped away. She started operating alone. Her appearance became bedraggled and drawn. She would loiter outside my house at weekends, propping her spade-edge hips against the garden wall. During the week she would linger in my office car park, hands driven deep into her coat pockets, circling my car. One day I took a picture of her on my phone. I was going to present this as evidence to David. I would feel triumphant, we would call the police and then…And then everyone would know.
No. We wouldn’t call the police. David would want to speak to her himself. Then they would be back in close proximity, their breath meeting in the space between them. He would ask her, tenderly, why she was doing this, following me, and her milky, freckled face would crack. She would break down and David would offer his embrace. He wouldn’t be able to help himself.
I had to do something myself.
I left work by the revolving reception doors as usual that day and found her sat on the bonnet of my car. Instead of letting her jog clumsily away, as she always did, I yelled for her to stop. I told her to wait, to talk to me. A colleague of mine, Eileen, was leaving work at the same time and she took hold of my elbow. She asked me if everything was alright. I told her I could handle the situation. Eileen didn’t want to leave, her forehead was a concertina of concern. I told her again that she really shouldn’t worry. I nodded at Kayleigh as evidence - she looked pitiful, broken, no competition. Eileen reluctantly left.
When I got close, Kayleigh smelled sour. A layer of cheap body spray lingering over the fact she hadn’t washed. She was very pale. I imagined David's hand on her cheek, brushing aside her white-blonde hair.
So I took on his actions.
I stroked her cheek.
Then I clasped Kayleigh's hand, her cold fingers and stubby nails. I pulled her close. I hugged her. She cried.
“You don’t have anywhere to stay, do you?” I whispered in her ear.
She pulled back, shook her head.
A thrill climbed my neck.
When I broke the news of my new housemate to David he didn’t speak. He stared. We were in the living room of his flat, watching television, eating a meal from trays on our laps. I thought David hadn’t quite understood me so I put my tray aside, got up, turned off his television, told him again.
“What do you want me to do?” He asked in an odd, low voice.
“Nothing,” I said. I tried to take his hand, but he pulled away.
“I can’t go back,” he said, “I can’t change it. So what do you want me to do? I’m sorry. I’ve said it enough times. I wish I’d never even told you.”
“This isn’t anything to do with you,” I said. I laughed. Since talking to Kayleigh, I had felt lighter, happier, in control. “She was following me and …”
“I’ve heard enough,” he said. “No more. You understand me? No more.”
He got up. He turned the TV back on.
I expected Kayleigh to move out of my flat after a few nights, once her curiosity had been sated, once she'd got to know me and found she liked me, once she’d seen for herself how much David and I were in love, once she had understood that I was a more than an adequate replacement for her and no amount of her skulking at the edges of our lives would change that. But she didn't leave. She bedded in. She got settled. She grew attachments to furniture and objects in my flat, laid her scent. She was mute. She lurked and observed. She silently hated me. She dropped salsa.
We have postponed the wedding. I have lost weight. There are dark circles under my eyes. David won’t come to my house anymore. I did try to involve him in our conversations - mine and Kayleigh’s - but he refused to join in. He would just glare at me, this horrible sadness behind his eyes. David and I don’t even talk about Kayleigh anymore. If we pretend she doesn’t exist, maybe our problems will go away.
No. They won’t. Kayleigh is plotting behind those feline eyes of hers. She probably wants to kill me too. I called him this evening and I told him: “Kayleigh has left.”
He rings the doorbell and I am waiting on a chair in the hallway to answer. I open the door, pull him inside, checking the street behind him before closing the door. I take his hand and move us quickly past the living room door which is ajar, the sound of a game-show bubbling over within. We go into the kitchen and I close the door.
David looks lost, an actor playing a part he hasn’t rehearsed for.
“She hasn’t left, I’m sorry, I lied,” I try a smile. It is difficult.
He shakes his head, moves to leave.
“No wait. I’m going to do something about it. About her. I’m going to kill her. And you’re going to help me.”
I go over to the knife block, pull out two blades.
His eyes have a glassiness, a tiredness, to them. He stares at me. At the knives. And then he startles me by laughing, a strange, taut sound.
I join in. I can’t help it. It is infectious. Our backs jerk up and down as we laugh. We laugh! And then, I stop. The fuel for anything joyful suddenly runs out.
“What?” I say to him. “Why did you laugh?”
“I’m not doing this any more,” he says and makes for the door again. I lunge to stop him, but I’m not careful. I cut him and he snatches his injured hand to his mouth. He looks as me like he has only, in that moment, worked out who I am. The revelation is shocking to him, I see.
“She doesn’t live here!” He is yelling.“There’s no one here!”
“You’re right,” I say and I let my arms hang. The knives point to the floor. “You’re right.”
“She’s dead,” he says, drilling the information into me with his voice. I am a child who just won’t do as she’s told. “She killed herself! You know this. You know this.”
I look up. Meet his gaze.
“I ended our relationship and she killed herself,” he says, quieter now. “Stop this.”
I meet his gaze and I see it.
“It’s not your fault,” I say.
I think that he might shout again, but no. He starts crying. I have never seen him cry. The tears drip down his face and paws at them, disgusted with himself. He runs from the room, down the hallway, rips open the front door. Leaves.
I wait for a few moments in the kitchen doorway, listen to the sound of cars passing outside, the tense gameshow music building in the living room. I am waiting for him to come back. He doesn’t come back. He isn’t coming back.
And I am angry. I am angry that I cannot compete. With Kayleigh. I cannot compete with her potent gesture of love. I cannot compete with it.
And I hate her for that. I hate her with every inch of my skin, every hair on my head, every drop of my blood.
I want to be her so badly.
So I stride down the hallway towards the open front door with my hands tense round the handles of the knives. I slam that front door shut with a kick off my foot. I stride back towards the living room door, watch for a moment, that glow escaping from within. Then I scream. I break down that living room door.
I turn that sofa red.
Kayleigh by Julie Mayhew was read by Charlotte Worthing at the Liars’ League Fear & Loathing event on Tuesday 11th October 2011, at the Phoenix, Cavendish Square, London.
Julie Mayhew is an actress turned writer who still acts but mostly writes. Her most recent Afternoon Play for BBC Radio 4, A Shoebox of Snow, was a pick of the day in eleven national newspapers. She is on the 2011 Arvon/Jerwood mentoring scheme completing her second novel. See juliemayhew.co.uk