Dead Ringer – read the first 12 chapters for free

Get ready to meet the other you.

Just upload your photo to get started. Using the latest facial recognition software, plus your votes, MeetYourDouble will find your doppelganger.

She might be an astronaut or a model. He might live half a world away … or a few miles down the road.

You share the same face. Who knows what else you might have in common?

Start now.

Double Trouble

Roxanna Norris – DAZZL! Magazine

MeetYourDouble is the hottest new app, with 200,000 new downloads in the last month alone. You might think you’re one in a million – but, with seven billion people in the world, there are a fair few of you out there!

We’ve all seen the parade of celeb lookalikes. Some may be total pants, but some are uncanny. Wouldn’t it be cool, then, to be able to meet your very own lookalike?

Users of MeetYourDouble say: yes! The app’s following keeps on growing. It’s become a cult phenomenon among the hipsters and shakers of everywhere from Shoreditch to Sandbanks.

All you have to do is upload some photos of yourself and click ‘Find my doppelmatch!’ A few seconds of digital crunching later and MeetYourDouble presents you with a selection of your closest counterparts. Other app users can then wield their votes to weigh in on which is the most uncanny match.

What if it turns out you share a face with an up-and-coming Hollywood starlet? (Awesome!) What if you share a face with a chavvy bruiser who spends Friday nights getting banned from Wetherspoons? (Criiinge!)

Either way, it’s a glimpse into a different life – a life that might have been yours. With that in mind, who wouldn’t want to meet their alter-ego?

Doppelprofile – MeetYourDouble

Please fill in your details, so that other users can get to know you!

Name: Ella Mosier

Age: 24

Occupation: Still looking for the right thing

Location: Walney Island, Cumbria, UK

Interests: playing guitar, reading, avoiding drama, being ignored by my dog. I’m pretty boring, really.

Hi there, Ella! Based on the results of our doppelmatch software and 1,454 votes from fellow users, your photo has achieved a 98 per cent match with …

Name: Jemima Cootes-Mitchell

Age: 25

Occupation: Actress

Location: London, UK

Interests: theatre, singing, dancing till I die, give me adventure in all forms!

Message Jemima now?

Chapter 1 – Weird Ears


When I first met my double, I was disappointed by how little she looked like me.

‘Ellie!’ she called.

The woman waved her arms above her head, like I might miss her. Not likely. An oversize orange beanie bounced against her head and her mouth stretched in a theatrical ‘O’.


It’s Ella, I tried to say, but my lips were stuck together and nothing came out.

Over the course of the day’s long train ride, I’d wondered if our first meeting might have the feel of a long-lost twins scenario. We’d scan the station’s crowds until, miraculously, our eyes locked. Time would slow down, then speed up. We’d rush towards each other and fall into a hug.

No. Stupid.

That was a daydream borrowed from a bad movie.

In the broadest terms, we looked alike: pale skin and elfin features, with a mop of hair that was either dirty-blonde or dishwater-brown, depending on the light. But Jem, with her ugly beanie, wasn’t my twin. She wore a brash smear of orangey-red lipstick to match the hat, and her hair looked in dire need of a hairbrush. Her appearance was far removed from the girl in the photo, with her sleek hair and minimal makeup.

I probably didn’t look the same as my picture either.

As Jem’s gaze bored into me, I ran a hand through my unwashed hair. I was all too aware of the dark circles under my eyes. The version of me on the app was the good Ella, the one I could just barely remember. The real me was much less impressive.

‘Are you Ellie?’ she asked, bounding over to where I stood.

In spike-heeled boots, my double was four or five inches taller than me. Despite the cold October day, she wore an ultra-short leather skirt with artfully-ripped tights. Her beaded top glittered when it caught the light, and was cut low to reveal the ample swell of her breasts. I wished I could be so courageous. In jeans and a faded green jumper, I felt bundled-up and dowdy.

‘It’s Ella,’ I said in an undertone, but the blare of a train announcement swallowed up my voice.

I shifted my tatty backpack from shoulder to shoulder. It was Saturday afternoon and hordes of passengers streamed past us. The bump of a stray elbow buffeted me half a step backwards. I took a shaky breath and righted myself, but when I tried to speak again, I was interrupted.

‘Who else would it be?’ another voice said. ‘Unless this place in swimming in your doppelgangers. Euston’s turned into your own personal lab for Jemima clones.’

I turned to look at the guy who’d spoken. With black hair that fell past his chin, he looked Asian, maybe Chinese or Japanese. (‘Foreign,’ my mum would say with a sniff, triggered into a rant about immigration, even though our town was white-whiter-whitest.)

He was tall and wiry, and there was an eager, forward lean to his posture. Despite my nervousness, my toes curled inside my trainers. He was very good-looking. Jem elbowed him aside and stepped forward.

Without warning, my double hugged me.

In contrast to my daydream, it wasn’t a tearful, thank-God-we-found-each-other hug. I didn’t even have time to react to it. My arms hung limply at my sides, while Jem squeezed me tight for exactly two seconds. She air-kissed both my cheeks – mwah! mwah! – and then pulled away again. When she spoke, her voice was newsreader-posh and bright with false cheer.

‘It’s so great to meet you!’

‘It’s great … to meet you … too …’ I said.

Another person shouldered past us, shoving me aside. Jem seemed unaffected by the crowd, but I was beginning to feel lightheaded.

I glanced over at my train. It was departing again, going back up north. During the four hours I’d spent on the journey to London, my anticipation had crept higher and higher. Now I was on the downward swoop of the rollercoaster.

This stupid plan of mine to travel halfway across the country to ‘meet my double’ wasn’t just a waste of money. I had a strong feeling I was about to make a fool of myself. In our messages through the MeetYourDouble app, I’d already lied to Jem to make myself sound more interesting. I’m coming to London anyway. (Lie.) I’ve got some friends there. (Lie.) Might have a lead on a job. (Lie.)

In truth, I’d come to London because …

Because …

‘No shit, she really does look like you.’

It was the handsome guy at Jem’s side. Like me and my double, he looked to be in his mid-twenties. When he peered at me, I shrank under his gaze. Jem was eyeing me, as well.

‘Yuh, it’s pretty crazy,’ she said.

‘I mean, she doesn’t have the same mad glint in her eye, Ripper,’ the guy said. ‘But the rest of it … is kind of freaky. You’re sure you don’t have some secret sister out there? Maybe your dad played away one weekend in Blackpool?’

‘My dad’s never been north of Watford,’ Jem said with a laugh.

The two of them spoke in a rapid back-and-forth, which – it couldn’t be more obvious – was not meant to include me.

 ‘Lemme see the ears,’ he said, again examining me. ‘Some people have weird ears.’ He cut his gaze to Jem. ‘Weird ears. Band name. What d’you think?’

‘Weird ears, weird ears,’ Jem said. Then she shook her head. ‘Nah, it strays. Say it too many times and it sounds like We’re Deers. Or Weird Years.’

‘Well, you say that like it’s a bad thing – ’

‘If you’re looking for a band name, how about Psycho Killer Strangers From the Internet?’ I interrupted, the words slipping out in a rush of anger.

The two of them turned to look at me once more. My face burned, anger turning to embarrassment.

Voice faltering, I said, ‘Sorry … but I don’t have weird ears.’

‘Hey, sorry about that.’ The guy’s expression softened. ‘You definitely don’t have weird ears. You have nice ears. Congratulations on your ears.’ He raked his hair out of his face and looked at me intently. ‘I’m Katsuhito. Don’t worry, there won’t be a spelling test. Most people call me Katsu. Like the chicken.’

Like the chicken? I didn’t know what he was talking about, but his gaze was warm. For the first time, I felt like he was seeing me as a person, rather than as a prop.

‘I call him Dicknugget,’ Jem said. ‘Sometimes Nippleface.’

Katsu put his arm around Jem (half loving embrace, half wrestling hold) and, when she tried to break free, he swooped in for a kiss. She leaned in to the kiss – sloppy, TMI – and then swatted him away, laughing. Her laughter came in a quick-fire volley, a fraction too loud.

Like Jem in her fashionably-torn tights, there was a hipster-ish vibe to Katsu. He wore skinny jeans, a yellow T-shirt, and a leather jacket. There was a piercing at his eyebrow and another nestled inside his ear. (Weird ears, indeed.) I didn’t know any blokes in Cumbria who’d wear a T-shirt that read, I’m just here to establish an alibi, but that made me like him more, not less.

‘What are we doing?’ Katsu asked.

Jem shrugged and looked around at the station platform, which was beginning to clear. ‘Coffee?’

‘Addict,’ Katsu said.


She stuck her tongue out at him. He laughed and drew her close. Their casual intimacy made my chest ache. Katsu hooked his finger around a strand of Jem’s hair and pulled on it playfully. For a second, I felt a phantom echo of the sensation. Then all I felt was cold; they were indoors, and I was outside, face pressed against the glass. The two of them ambled away, without bothering to ask my opinion. I stood rooted to the spot.

What am I doing? Why am I here?

‘Um,’ I said.

Jem turned back to look at me. ‘Coming?’

‘Um, I’m not so sure …’

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the train tracks glitter.

I don’t want to be here anymore.

‘Come on, we’ll go get caffeinated and have some fun,’ Jem said.

She shrugged off Katsu’s embrace and advanced on me. I flinched as she squeezed into my personal space. She slipped an arm through the crook of my elbow. The scent of her perfume – oranges, sunshine – banished the grey day for a second. When her voice dropped to almost a whisper, it was as if her words were for me and me alone.

‘I’ve been so excited to meet you,’ she said. ‘Honestly. It blows my mind how much you look like me. We could be sisters, I swear. We’ll get some coffee, get some food, find something to do. It’ll be marvellous.’

Jem’s rapt gaze, the insistence of her words, disarmed me. Up close, I could see the resemblance clearly. Me and Jem, we dressed differently, we spoke differently, we held ourselves differently.

But …

I met Jem’s gaze once more.

… the eyes. They were the same. Same shape, same shade: blue shifting into green shifting into grey; the colour of the Irish Sea on a cloudy day. The pointy nose was alike, too. We had the same wide mouth, the same angular face.

Looking at her was like passing an unexpected mirror and not knowing if it was your reflection you were seeing or another person.

Despite the cold day, despite my jangling nerves, I felt a rush of unexpected warmth. I’d experienced the same feeling when Jem’s profile had loaded on the app. The fact that we looked alike, perhaps it was a fluke, a coincidence, an uncanny roll of the genetic dice. Yet I’d felt an instant connection with the stranger on the screen and I felt it in person, too.

Jem squeezed me into another quick hug and then released me.

‘Come on,’ she said again.

I nodded. In that moment, I recognised how cults recruited people on the basis of one charismatic leader. Katsu was a follower of the Cult of Jem, too. I saw that now. He gave as good as he got from her, but his soft-eyed looks betrayed him. As the three of us walked through the station, Jem was in the lead, hips swaying, and Katsu walked with a hand at her waist. I picked up the rear.

I took a deep breath and fluffed up my hair, trying to make it look less unwashed-dirty and more fashionably-dirty. Lifting my chin, I made an effort to walk tall, pushing through the crowds confidently. This was why I’d come to London: for the noise, the bustle, the sense of life in full colour.

I can do this, I can be this person.

Breaking into a slight trot, I jostled forward until I was level with Jem, not lagging behind. On the way out of Euston, we passed at least three coffee places in the space of 200 metres. There was a coffee cart, a name-brand coffee chain, an arty café with a chalkboard sign outside. We didn’t stop at any of them. Apparently they didn’t sell the right kind of coffee.

‘I want Marco’s dark roast …’ Jem confided in me.

Katsu gave a sigh. ‘The one in Chelsea?’ He twisted his neck, also throwing a glance at me. ‘You don’t want to trek all the way to Chelsea, do you?’

I had no idea. Neither of them waited for a response from me, though.

‘Can’t help my cravings,’ Jem said.

‘You’re a brat,’ Katsu said.

‘It’s why you love me.’

Jem took a turn and Katsu followed. The world rotated according to her whims. I hesitated and then I followed too, down a set of steps and into an Underground station.

Chelsea. We were going to Chelsea. I only had the haziest sense of what might lie in this posh part of London. Money, tiny dogs, designer lives. Back on Walney Island, I knew someone named Chelsea. She was a bright, plainspoken girl who stacked shelves at Tesco, but maybe her parents had once dreamed of bigger things for her. You could give your child the name. but you couldn’t give her the money, not if you were a nobody from a small town.

Inside the Tube station, a mangy-dog smell filled the air. Flickering fluorescents replaced the natural light. Someone pushed past me and their shoulder hit mine hard enough that my bones jumped in their sockets.

I fluffed up my hair again, straightened my spine.

I can do this, I am this person.

It was no good; the panic was creeping back in, prickling across my skin. A tide of people pushed me in the direction of the metal barriers. But I didn’t have a ticket. Where could I buy a ticket? Craning my neck, I tried to locate the machines, but the crowd pushed me mercilessly onward in the opposite direction.

Jem and Katsu pulled ahead of me and passed smoothly through the barriers. I had no way to get through. The metal bar, slick and cold against my palms, stuck firm. A throng of people swelled behind me, impatient at the bottleneck I was causing. There were tuts and sighs.

 I’d never felt more like a dumb hick from the country.

Beyond the barriers, my double’s orange beanie disappeared from view. I had no choice but to turn around and fight my way back through the crowd. Scanning the sea of unfamiliar faces, it hit me in the stomach: I was alone.

Around me, strange accents and foreign languages blended together. Announcements blared over the loudspeaker. The rattle of trains arriving and departing sent shivers down my spine. Back home, I was used to life in miniature. Bus drivers who knew my name. Church services where fifty people was a big crowd. Towns where there were more seagulls than people.

Someone grabbed my arm. I flinched away, thinking: Pickpockets! Muggers! Thugs!

Again, I felt a hand reach for my arm. My vision cleared and I realised it was Katsu. He’d doubled back through the barriers.

‘Come on, Weird Ears,’ he said. ‘Let’s get you an Oyster card.’

Relief flooded my body, followed quickly by embarrassment. Of course. An Oyster card. I fumbled with the ticket machine’s buttons, feeding coins down its metal throat. There were so many stages to the process, so many buttons to press. When I got confused, Katsu had to take over for me, selecting options on the screen with practised ease. It was several minutes before I got my card. Afterwards, my purse felt light – too light – but I pushed the worry aside.

‘I guess the world is yours now,’ Katsu said, as I swiped through the barrier.

I nodded. He’d meant it as a joke, but, plastic card clamped in my fist, I felt the truth of it all the same. For other people, for Jem, the world was a bright shiny pearl. Why not for me, too?

This was why I’d come to meet my double, after all: to see how a different version of my life might look.

I didn’t want to be on the other side of the glass, peering in, anymore. I didn’t want to live inside the last few years of regret. I didn’t want to scroll blankly through other people’s excitement on Facebook.

I wanted to be right there in the excitement. I wanted to become someone new; become the person I’d always imagined I could be.

Chapter 2 – Do Something


‘Wait, you’ve never been to London before?’

We were seated on an Underground train and Jem was looking at me like I was a science experiment. It was a look that was becoming familiar.

I bet you’ve never been to Walney Island, either, I didn’t say.

I shook my head.

‘First time in London?’ my double asked. ‘Seriously?’

I nodded and tried to fake a smile. Once upon a time, I’d planned to live in London, back when I’d still had hopes and ambitions and someone who loved me. I’d dreamed up a London all of my own; it was a room that existed inside my imagination. But I’d never actually set foot in the place.

‘Well,’ Katsu said, arching an eyebrow, ‘there’s a tramp.’ He pointed at a bearded man, who was snoozing a few seats away, then widened his gesture. ‘There’s an arsehole in a business suit.’

‘There’s an ad for a liposuction clinic,’ Jem added, pointing.

At that moment, the train burst out of its tunnel into sunlight. Jem gestured at the skyline, with its scaffolding-clad skyscrapers.

‘There are some million-pound shoeboxes,’ she said. ‘Welcome to London.’

Over the course of our conversation, Katsu revealed that he was studying for a PhD in Chemistry. He spoke of it modestly, with an easy smile, like it was no big deal to be researching enantiomers (whatever they were).

Jem, who cut him off before he finished his explanation, talked like she was performing on stage and people had paid for the privilege of hearing her. My double told me at length about her acting career.

‘I’m up for a big role,’ she said, leaning in close, her eyes glinting. ‘Shit-hot director. Big-name cast. It’ll put me on the A-list.’

‘Cool,’ I said in a low voice and Jem looked like I’d insulted her. Was I supposed to gush? Act like a fan and ask for an autograph?

In Cumbria, if someone got too big for their britches, you slapped them on the back and said, Now, now, simmer down.

I pretended to be interested in the view out of the train windows; graffiti swearwords and tinted-glass office buildings. It was naïve to believe that I could just step off a train and fit in. London was too big for me; I wasn’t bold enough to belong here. Around Jem and Katsu, it was impossible not to feel meek and greyed-out.

‘So what’s your story?’ Jem asked. ‘What kind of things do you do Up North?’

There was a sarcastic note in her voice, or maybe I was imagining it.

‘Um. I don’t know. Normal things. Work and stuff …’

She didn’t need to know that I’d recently lost my job – the last in a long line of minimum-wage gigs. Mine was a life that came without an IMDb entry. A life of church on Sundays and a pub roast if it was a special occasion.

Yet I couldn’t help but feel defensive of my little island. I wanted to explain that, on Walney, rain had a smell to it. It was a smell that went beyond grass and earth and churning waves; a smell that could purify your soul.

I wanted to describe how, on a summer’s evening, when the wind dropped and the last of the sun warmed the sands at Snab Point, it could feel like paradise. I wrote some of my best songs on those nights, melodies zinging through my mind as I scampered across the channel to neighbouring Piel Island, guitar strapped to my back.

Today, I couldn’t give voice to any of it.

‘I like music,’ I said at last.

‘Yeah?’ Jem perked up. ‘I’m starting a band.’

‘Excuse me,’ Katsu said, ‘it’s my band.’ He turned to me, re-emphasising the words. ‘It’s my band.’

‘I’m the star,’ Jem said.

They continued their spat, sparring back and forth, only half serious. I sensed that they’d had the same conversation a million times before. I let them talk, relieved to drift into the background. I was used to it there.

When we emerged from the Underground station in Chelsea, I fell back into the role of a trailing puppy dog behind Jem and Katsu. A miniature pug on a bright pink lead snuffled at my shoes for a moment. Then its Barbie Doll owner yanked it away.

In contrast to where we’d come from, these streets looked scrubbed clean. Trees ornamented the pavements. The storefronts were sleek and polished, selling the dream for an undisclosed price. We passed high street stores, too, including a McDonald’s, but even they retained an otherworldly glow.

Here, even the short people were tall. My eyes followed chic women in crisp colours and big sunglasses to shield against the non-existent October glare. In amongst the petrol sour of exhaust fumes, I caught an unexpected scent of cinnamon, like the whole place might be sugar-spun.

At the fabled Marco’s coffee house, my double got a black coffee to go. I ordered a brew – four pounds for a teabag in hot water – which cleared out the rest of my change. I’d imagined we’d stay at the coffee house, chatting and soaking in the London atmosphere. It would be a salon, of sorts; Gertrude Stein on the Left Bank – another place I’d read about but never been.

Instead, Jem turned to Katsu and said, ‘My place?’

‘Sure,’ he said with a shrug.

My heart drummed in my chest. I waited for them to consult me, but they didn’t.

We were going to Jem’s house?

Objectively speaking, I knew I hadn’t made the best decisions today. I hadn’t told anyone where I was going. It had sounded half-crazy (I’m travelling across the country to meet someone who looks just like me!) and, anyway, it was no one’s business except mine. These days, I didn’t have many secrets left, so I hoarded the ones I did have.

Make good decisions. That was what David always said. It was common sense to stay in a public place – a good decision. That was how you avoided getting murdered by a stranger who shared your face.

Of course, Jem didn’t seem dangerous. A little self-absorbed, maybe, but not dangerous.

Still …

I licked my lips.

No one knew I was in London.

No one.

If anything happened to me …

Jem and Katsu were a few steps ahead of me. I could still turn and leave. Make up an excuse or simply slip into the crowd and lose them. It would be the sensible thing to do. It would be the Ella thing to do.

I tried to remember what Jem had promised me as we’d exchanged messages. What were her exact words? Come to London and we’ll do something. I’d assumed she wanted to take me round the city, go see a show or attend a champagne gala. Do something. I’d imagined myself in a gallery, perhaps ordering a cocktail (even though I didn’t drink). Maybe I’d filled in too many of the blanks. I’d wanted too much from this. Do … something.

‘Wait up!’ I called out, my voice louder than usual.

I broke into a run to catch up with them. Jem turned, reaching out a hand to me.

‘Don’t want to lose you, Twinnie,’ she said.

She looped our arms together in a girlish pose, so that we walked down the road as a pair, with our steps perfectly matched.

I exhaled shakily, and then took a shallow breath in. I smelled cinnamon and oranges. Jem’s perfume.

Do … something.

Minutes later, we turned down a side street and stopped in front of a bleached white building that looked fresh out of the wash. It rose in height to three storeys, with iron railings standing guard outside. Jem dropped my arm and bounded up the steps to the black front door.

Walney didn’t have houses like this.

I’d guessed, based on her accent, that Jem was rich. But there was rich and then there was … this.

We walked into a light and airy entrance hall, with high ceilings and marble underfoot. An elegant staircase, carpeted in crimson, swept up to the first floor, but Jem waltzed over to the lift instead.

I was still processing the grandeur of it all when we arrived on the second floor and Jem moved to unlock the door to her flat. No, not a flat. An apartment. Once you paid a million pounds for a flat, it became an apartment. And a million would probably only buy you the bathroom in this place.

Everything here was rich. Casually, unassumingly rich. From the shabby-chic scuffed wooden floors to the perfectly-restored ceiling rose. The milky-coffee colour scheme and meltingly-soft furnishings reminded me of a hotel – the type of hotel where I could never, ever afford to stay. I caught my reflection in a huge gilt mirror in the hallway; I looked grubby against the surroundings.

I was struck dumb, but the other two were obviously used to it all. Katsu hung up his coat on the rack, but Jem didn’t bother, letting hers fall in a heap on the floor. She kicked off her boots as she walked. The orange beanie whizzed off her head and landed at my feet.

‘What’s the plan?’ Katsu asked.

‘Food, food, food …’ Jem stamped her bare feet in time with the chant. She disappeared in the direction of what I assumed was the kitchen.

‘After that? I’ve got a buddy who’s playing a show tonight. Should be pretty chill. Ella would probably enjoy it.’

He cast me a smile, and some of the tension in my neck eased.

I heard the fridge door open and then close again. Jem reappeared in the doorway, slurping noodles from a bowl.

‘It’s the promo party tonight,’ she said thickly. ‘Seven deadly sins.’ She swallowed her mouthful and spoke more clearly. ‘Only seven. But I could probably come up with a couple more.’

A frown crossed Katsu’s face. He glanced at me and then back at Jem.

‘So Twinnie’s coming to the party, is she?’ he asked.

Jem’s face broke into a knowing smile that stretched her lips and showed too many teeth. Her eyes were lit with mischief.

It was weird to watch Jem’s too-familiar features transform into such a foreign expression. Her face was the same as mine, but I didn’t know how to smile like that.

‘You never mentioned the party …’ Katsu said.

My double pantomimed an oops face. ‘Guess I forgot.’

‘Right, you forgot,’ he mumbled.

‘Now I think of it’ – Jem advanced on me, using her free hand to pull me into a side hug, so our skulls knocked together – ‘wouldn’t the two of us make for a glorious headfuck?’

Chapter 3 – This Bag Contains My Face


God, what a little mouse. Squeak, squeak.

My double stood in the hallway. She was whispering into her phone. I poked my head out of the living room door, earwigging on her conversation.

‘I’m just in … Lancaster,’ she said.

Where the fuck is Lancaster?

‘Staying with a friend …’

‘… Well, it’s a new friend …’

‘… Yes, obviously, it’s a girl …’

Ooh, intrigue.

I’d spent a couple of hours with Twinnie now – we’d eaten leftover phở and then ordered some more food – but I still couldn’t quite get a read on her. Who was checking up on the little mouse? A boyfriend, deranged with jealousy? I wondered what the two of them did together. Played scrabble and drank tea, probably.

‘I’ll do the dinner tomorrow night,’ she said into the phone. ‘Promise.’

Ah, good little wifey. So why was she in London and lying about it?

‘… And the sheep, okay.’


‘I’ve already done their eyes … I just need to do their feet …’

What the fuck? Maybe Twinnie had escaped from a locked ward, not a sleepy little town. Or maybe her boyfriend was a deranged farmer uncle who made her sacrifice sheep to their cloven-hoofed god.

I stifled a laugh, but not well enough, because Ella, or Ellie (which one was it?) looked up and saw me. I smiled big and gave a wave.

‘Would you like some tea?’ I said in a stage whisper.

‘ListenIhavetogo,’ Twinnie said into the phone. ‘Don’tworryI’llbefine. Seeyoutomorrow.’

She ended the call and pocketed her phone. It crossed my mind that she was probably one of those people who didn’t have her phone set up with a passcode. So trusting.

‘Tea?’ I said again.

‘No, thank you.’

She gave a prim little bob of the head, nodding even as she said no. I wanted to fit my knee into the small of her back and – boof! – make her stand up straight.

‘Juice? Gin? … MDMA?’ I said.

It was fun to watch her react, her eyes flicking from side to side. We got ourselves a proper pearl-clutcher here.

‘Um, juice, I s’pose.’

In the kitchen, I sloshed into a glass some of the orange juice that Gabriela had squeezed for me. When Twinnie wasn’t looking, I added a splash of vodka. She needed to relax. Her nerves were putting me on edge. My mouth was dry and my jaw was clenching. I made myself a vodka and orange, too.

‘We should start getting ready,’ I said and gulped at my drink.

Ella only took a tiny sip of hers. ‘What kind of party did you say we’re going to?’

‘Just a party.’

I shrugged, playing it cool – playing it like my whole fucking career didn’t rest on tonight’s party.

‘I get invites all the time.’ I flicked my eyes skywards. ‘It’s a promo event for something, a new brand of drink, maybe. Yeuch. The booze will probably be horrendous, but the vibe should be good.’

The only reason to go was to see and be seen. I’d received a tip on who was on the guest list. I knew exactly who I needed to be seen by. And I planned to make a spectacle.

‘Do you want to invite your friends?’ I asked.

‘My friends?’

‘Yeah, you said you had friends in London.’

‘Um …’ Ella toyed with the hem of her jumper. ‘I just got a message from them. They’re busy.’

Busy or fictional. My double was a terrible liar. We had nothing in common at all. I narrowed my eyes, scrutinising her. That sad little expression on her face. Hunched shoulders, chapped lips, clothes from a bargain bin (or just a bin). What a disaster.

Despite all this, it was amazing how much she looked like me. Well, to be clear, she looked like the ‘before’ in a daytime TV makeover segment. But her features were still eerily like mine.

It was too bad my mum decided she hated my dad approximately five minutes after I was conceived. I would’ve made a marvellous big sister.

I looked again at Ella’s threadbare jumper and un-made-up face.

‘Let’s get ready,’ I said to Little Sis.

An hour later, the two of us were sitting cross-legged on the floor of her bedroom, facing each other. Concentrating hard, I stroked gel liner across Ella’s eyelids.

‘Stop moving!’ I said when she twitched.

I take the art of make-up very seriously. I’m basically Michelangelo. The difference is that the Sistine Chapel had the good grace to stay still while he worked.

‘Sorry,’ she mumbled.

I resumed lining her eyes. Despite a few tremors, the job was going well. A bit of foundation and concealer were all it took to erase the stray freckles and flecked moles that the two of us didn’t share. Twinnie’s eyes were now dark with charcoal and smoke, just like mine. Her cracked lips were a shiny blood-orange colour. Perfect.

‘Open,’ I said, when I’d finished the eyeliner.

Ella blinked open her eyes, struggling against the heaviness of her lashes. I rummaged in my make-up bag – one that bore the legend, this bag contains my face – for the finishing touches.

‘Why do you have knives on your wall?’ Twinnie asked in her small voice.

I glanced up to see her gaze fixed on the far wall of my bedroom. That particular patch of plaster was painted in neon green; a 3 a.m. project sparked by too much speed. Mounted on the wall, there were about twenty ceremonial blades, mainly from Japan.

During the two terms I’d spent at drama school, I’d developed a fascination with fight choreography. My tutor was an intense thirtysomething with tousled red hair and pale eyelashes, who studied historical weaponry in between trying to fuck his students. He gifted me a small, evil-looking dagger and showed me where ‘young gentlewomen’ used to conceal them beneath their skirts. I lost interest in him right around the time I lost interest in drama school, but there was still something seductive about the glinting surface of a finely-crafted blade.

‘They’re mostly daggers and swords,’ I said. ‘I collect them.’

‘Ripper is a psychopath in training,’ Katsu offered from the bed, where he lounged, absorbed by his phone.

‘Okay …’ she said.

I couldn’t help but grin at the way Ella’s eyebrows crept up her forehead. Even with all that make-up, her mousey expression of apprehension remained plain.

My phone whistled loudly. That was enough to wipe the smile off my face. I already knew who it was, but I checked to be sure.



Carlo, for the fifth time. I needed to get a new number. For that matter, I should probably move. Since that wasn’t an option, I switched off the phone with a jab of my thumb. I sent it skidding across the floor. When it disappeared under the bed, I exhaled a sigh. Out of sight, out of mind.

Ella was watching me curiously. I pushed down my fear and pasted on a big smile.

‘Come on,’ I said, hauling Twinnie to her feet. I pushed her over to the mirror. ‘Look at yourself!’

I admired her smoky eyes; her bright lips; the way her dark-blonde hair now held a hint of curl, deliberately mussed, like she’d just crawled out bed with a hot guy.

‘What do you think?’ I said.

Ella examined her reflection in the mirror and … frowned. It ruined the whole look.

Twinnie obviously didn’t get the memo that, when someone gave you a makeover, you were supposed to smile and say, Wow! Oh, my God! Now I can finally live my best life!

‘I look … kind of like a doll? Not quite real, you know?’ she said.

‘You look hot!’ I said, making an irritated noise in the back of my throat.

Ella glanced at me and ironed out her frown.

‘Yeah … I mean … thank you,’ she mumbled.

With her blank expression, I had to admit, she did look a little like a doll.

I turned to Katsu, who was studiously ignoring the whole exchange.

‘What do you think?’ I asked him.

He shrugged and made a noncommittal grunt. Exasperated, I picked up a tube of mascara and threw it at him.

‘Ow!’ he spluttered, rubbing his head. ‘What d’you want me to say? The two of you … you look the same. Congrats, you made her up into your own personal lookalike.’

Katsu’s tone was sarcastic, but I never let sarcasm interfere with a compliment. I relaxed into a smile. Then I swooped down to bestow him with a kiss. God, he was sexy.

I deepened the kiss, sinking onto the bed next to him, but he pulled away after a few seconds. His eyes darted over my shoulder to Ella, then he gave me a long look – an I-know-your-secrets look – and frowned.

‘You really know what you’re doing, Ripper?’ he asked in a low voice.

‘Always.’ I reared up off the bed. ‘I’m having fun. I know you don’t care about fun anymore, but I live on it.’ I shook my shoulders in a jazzy little dance. My limbs were not quite coordinated, due to the fact that I was ever so slightly buzzed. ‘I’m a next-gen sports car fuelled by F-U-N.’

He was laughing when I crashed down against his chest. I took this as a victory.

Making Katz laugh had become harder to do since he’d quit what he called the ‘party drag bullshit’. He only went out on Saturday nights now, even though everyone knew the best parties were the secret Tuesday-night ragers. It was supposed to be Katz and me against the world; now he’d gone all grown-up on me. Traitor.

Ours wasn’t a long and devoted relationship. More like a stuttering moped that crapped out at regular intervals on the road of life. The two years I spent in Los Angeles were our longest break. I was planning to be famous. I had no use for the little people of London.

In reality, I ended up sleeping with a series of psychopathic models-turned-actors who papered the walls of their Hollywood homes with black-and-white photos of their own faces. Meanwhile, on Facebook, I saw that Katsu started seeing some dull little mouse named Hannah, who grew tomatoes on her balcony and sold hemp hand cream from a market stall.

When I came back to London – tanned, tired, a faded version of myself – I fell back into old patterns with Katsu. It wasn’t even very hard to break up him and Hannah. I dropped a few hints and he came running. The Hannahs of this world needed to take lessons in how to avoid getting hit by Hurricane Jem. Step one: get the fuck out of my way.

In my room, laid out on my bed, Katsu still looked entirely too serious. His laughter hadn’t quite made it to his eyes. He disentangled himself from me and climbed off the bed. ‘Going to the bathroom,’ he said in an offhand way.

I groaned inwardly. Case in point: these days, for Katz, ‘going to the bathroom’ actually meant going to the bathroom.

‘Don’t let her bully you while I’m gone,’ Katsu said to Ella on his way out.

‘As if I would!’ I called after him.

When the door closed behind him, my gaze returned to Twinnie.

‘Let’s play a game!’ I said, clapping my hands together.

Chapter 4 – Make Believe


In front of me, Ella blinked. ‘What kind of game?’

‘We’ll get dressed for tonight,’ I said. ‘Then Katz can try and tell us apart.’ I squeezed her shoulder, leaning in close. ‘It will be hysterical.’

Twinnie gave a spasm of a shrug, which I took for assent.

I crossed the room to my walk-in wardrobe. It had seemed big when I’d first moved in to this apartment, but now it was getting cramped. I’d only been back in London for six months, but already everything about the city felt small. I didn’t miss Los Angeles, but I was sick of going to the same places in London, seeing the same people.

Most of all, I was bored of being in this apartment. It was a beige investment pad belonging to my mother, and she was allowing me to live here only because it would look bad if her daughter were out begging on the streets. Mother never quite understood the concept of unconditional love. Living here, having my allowance drop into my bank account every month – there were big fat conditions attached. That was part of the reason I needed to make tonight a success, so I could be rid of her forever.

In the wardrobe, I switched on the light and rifled through the clothes, tossing different dress options over my shoulder and into the bedroom.

‘Short or long?’ I called to Ella.

‘Um,’ she said.

My double was quite the conversationalist.

‘I’m going long,’ I said. ‘Full-on femme fatale.’ I considered and rejected a couple of looks for me. Then I extracted a silver dress from one of my racks and tossed it to Twinnie. ‘This would look cute on you.’

The dress had a metallic bodice and a grey tulle skirt that stuck out like a tutu. A sort of Astro-Ballerina-Barbie look. It was sexy-quirky enough that it would usually appeal to me, but tonight I didn’t want to look quirky; I wanted to look like an A-lister. My hand brushed the cool satin of a red dress. Perfect. I yanked it off the rack and strode back into the bedroom.

Ella was getting changed using every trick she’d learned in P.E. lessons at whatever tragic comprehensive she’d spent her formative years. Her cheeks flushed pink when she saw me looking. I had no idea why. Her body was the only thing Mousey had going for her. She was a skinny bitch. I’d tried 100 diets while I was in LA to lose the extra bulge of flesh around my middle, with yo-yo-ing success.

I stripped off my clothes and stepped into the dress, admiring the way it clung to my boobs. Being skinny wasn’t everything. At my hips, the dress fell in a dramatic curtain to the floor, revealing a slash of skin up to my thigh.

I heard footsteps trailing down the corridor.

‘Katz!’ I hollered through the door. ‘Don’t come in yet!’

The footsteps halted. I glanced over at Twinnie. Even in that knockout silver dress, she stood with rounded shoulders, her arms pressed against her sides like a mannequin. I wanted to grab her and shake her. Be sexy! Own yourself!

I didn’t shake her, but I used my hands to push back her shoulders. Automatically she straightened her spine and lifted her jaw. Better. A smidge better.

‘When he gets in here, don’t say anything,’ I said to her in a low voice. ‘Katz!’ I yelled again.

‘I’m getting another drink, d’you want anything?’ he asked, his voice muffled.

‘No, stay here!’

‘Thought I couldn’t come in?’ Katsu’s tone was exasperated.

‘Wait one second!’

I looked in the mirror a final time, fluffing my hair. Then I turned back to Ella, who wore a blank expression.

‘Remember, just stay quiet’ – should be easy enough for you – ‘and completely still.’ I raised my voice again, for Katsu’s benefit. ‘On the count of three, you can come in. Then you’re going to guess who’s who.’

‘Who’s who?’

‘Who’s Jem and who’s not.’

‘… Can I ask you questions?’

His voice was less muffled now, like he was standing directly on the other side of the door.

‘No! That’s the whole point. It’s all based on how we look.’

‘… Alright. Count of three, yeah?’

‘Yeah!’ I said. ‘One … two … three!’

As Katsu pushed open the door, I tried to turn myself into a mannequin like Twinnie. Arms at my sides, vacant stare. It was tough to stay so still. My skin was prickling, the blood humming in my veins. I had to force myself not to grin.

What a riot. I’d found my very own Jem doll to dress up how I liked. Never mind that all my childhood Barbies had ended up headless after a couple of days of play.

Katsu stepped into the room. He paced its length, before turning and walking back again.

‘Will the real Jem please stand up?’ he said.

My double and I remained silent.

‘I guess you’re both standing, so that’s pointless.’ He paused, rocking back on his heels. ‘First one of you to say “monkey funking” gets chocolate cake.’

My double and I remained silent.

‘I guess you knew that one was a bluff. If I had chocolate cake, I’d eat it myself.’

Out of the corner of my eye, I watched as Katsu began an extravagant mime. He puffed on an imaginary pipe and twirled a moustache that wasn’t there.

Under all his new seriousness, he was still the goofy-sweet kid I’d met as a teenager. He wasn’t meant for the lab coat life; he was meant to be on stage, just like me. Why couldn’t he see that?

I bit my lip to keep from laughing when Katsu pulled out a make-believe magnifying glass and peered through it. He leaned in toward Ella, examining her. Then he switched his focus to me.

‘What have we here, Doctor Watson?’ he murmured, dropping his face so that it was right next to mine.

I didn’t look him in the eye, knowing that to meet his gaze would be to crack. My heart was jumping from adrenaline and a little something else, but I didn’t want to spoil this. I wanted to know the truth …

How much alike did Ella and I really look? Could we actually fool anyone?

Katsu turned to examine my double once more. Then he straightened up. He made a show of pocketing his imaginary magnifying glass, before gesturing to Twinnie:

‘Hey, Ella,’ he said.

He leaned over and ruffled my hair. ‘Hey, Jem.’

‘How did you guess?’ I exploded.

‘I guessed because you’re different people,’ Katsu said, with a smug smile. ‘And I am an amazing detective.’ With one last twirl of his moustache, he gave a bow.

I slugged him on the arm, shooting a death glare. I’d done a flawless job with Twinnie’s make-up. I knew I had.

‘Oh, alright,’ Katsu said. ‘Your perfume smells like oranges, Ripper. Dead giveaway.’

I exhaled a long breath and my frown cleared.

‘So you couldn’t tell us apart.’ A smile returned to my lips.

‘It is pretty weird,’ Katsu said, relenting, ‘how much you look like her.’ He narrowed his eyes, turning to Ella. ‘You sure you’re not related?’

‘My mum and dad both grew up in Cumbria …’ she said softly. ‘I don’t see how we could be.’

I’d had this thought, too. Maybe Twinnie was a cousin I’d never met. Or one of my dad’s sown oats, all grown up. But I couldn’t see Dada having much interest in some small-town Betty from a place I couldn’t locate on a map. A sexy señorita from Barcelona, maybe, but not whatever Bible-basher birthed sad-eyed little Ella.

‘There are some stories online,’ she was saying, ‘about people who were separated at birth. Like, um, one twin adopted in America, one in France. But most of the people on the app, they just look really similar. Just … a genetic fluke.’

‘Yeah, humanity’s little sense of humour,’ I said. ‘Anyway, we don’t look completely alike. She’s a little bit paler, a little bit skinnier. Thinner hair.’ I leaned over and rubbed away a patch of foundation at her jaw. ‘A freckle or two in the wrong places.’

This time, Twinnie flinched at my touch. She dipped her head and took a step backwards, arms still pressed to her sides.

‘D’you have a wrap or something?’ she asked. ‘I’m cold.’

I swatted at the air, dismissive. ‘You don’t wear a dress like that and then cover it up.’

‘Here, take my jacket,’ Katsu said with a shrug.

He swiped his leather jacket from where it lay on the bed and handed it over. On Ella, it was slouchy and oversized, and she sank into it with a tremulous smile. Katsu reached over and squeezed her shoulder. It was only a gesture of comfort – good ol’ Katz, lover of stray dogs and broken birds – but something in her eyes flickered to life when she met his gaze. Funny how she didn’t flinch when he touched her.

Aw, bless, Twinnie had a crush.

‘You should go on the site, Katz,’ I said loudly. ‘Maybe find a smarter version of you.’

‘Nah, no point. All Asians look alike.’ He paused for effect. ‘That’s what I’ve heard, anyway.’

I rolled my eyes and returned my attention to Ella.

‘You’re from Yorkshire or something, right?’ I asked her.

‘Cumbria …’

Moving to the mirror, I uncapped my lipstick and began reapplying. Twinnie loitered behind me, just visible over my shoulder, like a misplaced reflection.

‘Whatever. Say something, y’know, Northern.’


‘Just say something.’ I smacked my lips, evening out the colour. ‘Y’know … My name is Ella and I live Up North.’

She shifted, eyes darting from me to Katsu, but he’d taken out his phone again and disappeared down a Wi-Fi wormhole.

‘Go on,’ I said.

‘My name is Ella,’ she said haltingly. ‘I live in’ – she emphasised the word – ‘Cumbria.’

I nodded and then mimicked the words back, matching her accent:

‘My name is Ella. I live in Cumbria.’

Katsu looked up from his phone. ‘Hey, that was pretty good!’

‘Hah!’ I flicked my hair off my shoulder theatrically. ‘Look for me in the new Stan Lembo movie.’

Katsu laughed, but Ella’s smile was thin. In search of the perfect accessories, I rifled through my jewellery collection, picking up and then discarding a range of necklaces. I held up a silver statement piece studded with a big red ruby in front of Ella.

‘Say something else,’ I said.

‘… What do you want me to say?’ she asked, fingering the heavy necklace.

‘What do you want me to say,’ I mimicked, with a Cumbrian lilt.

‘… Stop it, that’s weird,’ she said.

‘Stop it, that’s weird,’ I said, taking the necklace back.

I was getting the hang of it now. Accents were kind of my thing. Not that I’d had much of a chance to show them off, not in marquee roles like Dead Prostitute #2 and Slutty Party Girl. All that was going to change soon, though.

‘This is really weird, seriously!’ Ella gasped out an exasperated laugh.

‘This is really weird, seriously!’ I parroted back perfectly.

‘Cut it out, Ripper,’ Katsu said. ‘What are you, five years old?’

‘It’s fun!’ I said, reverting to the expensively-educated vowels of my real accent. ‘Ella doesn’t mind. Tell him you don’t mind, Ella.’

‘… I don’t mind,’ she said, looking down.

‘She don’t mind,’ I said, switching to her accent.

I looped a dirty-gold locket over my head and admired the way it hung heavy between my breasts. Katsu rolled his eyes and went back to scrolling through his phone. It was an obvious I’m ignoring you gesture. I tapped my foot, which made my whole leg jiggle.

‘You try,’ I said to Twinnie.

‘Try what?’

‘Say: my name is Jemima and I live in London.’

‘I’m not good at that kind of stuff,’ she said, shaking her head. ‘Acting. Accents.’

‘Come on, let’s play.’ Turning to face her, I swept Twinnie’s hand into mine and tugged on her wrist. ‘Let’s make believe. You’re not Ella anymore, you’re someone else … Come on, say it. My name is Jemima.’

She looked up, meeting my gaze. Her expression was a shade more animated. ‘My name … is Jemima,’ she said slowly.

The game continued for a few minutes more. I flitted around my bedroom, finding shoes for the two of us to wear, considering handbag options. All the while, I drilled Twinnie on her accent. She gave little sighs the whole way through, but it wasn’t like she told me to stop. It really was fun.

No surprise, she was a bad actress, but I was a great coach. Every time she’d speak, I’d find the flaws and correct her, getting her to repeat the same phrases over and over until they were perfect. Finally, she let out a defeated breath and said, for the tenth time:

‘My name is Jemima and I live in London.’

I applauded and pulled her into a hug.

‘What a good little pupil!’ I said, smoothing a hand through her hair.

When I released her, my hand lingering on her arm, she looked dizzy.

‘Thanks …’ she said, biting her lip.

‘We should leave soon.’ I dropped my hand from Twinnie and turned away. ‘Are you going to get ready, Katz?’

Katsu put his phone away at last.

‘Sure, just give me a couple of hours to pick out an outfit, wax my chest, blow-dry my armpit hair …’

He ducked inside my walk-in wardrobe and emerged a moment later, still wearing jeans and a T-shirt, but with a slim-fit black DKNY dinner jacket slung over his shoulder. I knew it was DKNY because I’d bought it for him.

‘Thanks for that single hanger you gifted me in your closet,’ he said. ‘Really makes a guy feel at home.’

He pulled his arms through the jacket and raked a hand through his shoulder-length hair. He raised his eyebrows at me, as if running a mental checklist of things to do. Then he broke into a smile.

‘… Ready.’

‘Men have it so easy,’ I said, pulling him in for a quick kiss. My lipstick left a satisfying smear of red on his mouth.

Ella was watching us, but, when she saw me look, pretended she hadn’t been. Damn right, you should be jealous. I normally took pleasure in chasing away girls who came sniffing around my man, but Twinnie was so unthreatening that there was no point.

Glancing at her familiar face, I felt strangely protective of her, like she was an extra hand of mine that had detached itself and scurried away on fingertip-feet.

I crossed the room and linked an arm through hers, breathing in her scent of wax-soap and gloom.

‘Let’s go indulge our worst sins,’ I said.

Chapter 5 – Sins


A man, ten-feet tall, ambled up and down the stretch of pavement outside the party. He wore a top hat and tails and, when he saw me looking, doffed his hat at me. It was bright blue and emblazoned with the word SYN.

The chill of the October night rose gooseflesh on my bare legs, but excitement stirred beneath my skin, heating me from within. It was Saturday night and I was going to a party. There was something blissfully simple about this fact.

I wanted to stay and watch the stilt-walker, ask how he stayed upright. He looked more solid on his four-foot wooden legs than I felt in the strappy black heels that Jem had lent me to wear.

Before I could open my mouth, my double yanked me along and we kept walking, arm-in-arm, while Katsu trailed behind. Despite Jem’s bulldozer personality, despite her parlour games and her overbright gaze, I felt glad to be cinched in close to her. There was nothing she couldn’t do, and it was inevitable that some of her confidence rubbed off on me.

The party was being held in an imposing Georgian house, somewhere close to the posh part of London where Jem lived. The house had sandstone pillars on either side of a red door, but as we climbed the steps to the door, a bouncer blocked our entry.


I lowered my head when he spoke, but Jem shot back, ‘Ha fucking ha.’

‘Alright, Jemima, how much trouble are you gonna be for me this evening?’ the bouncer asked.

He was big and beefy, with black hair buzzed short and an overhanging brow. Yet, when Jem ran a hand down his arm, an incongruous smile cracked open his fearsome face.

‘Oh, only a smidge,’ she said, with an affected, breathy laugh. ‘A teeny-tiny bit of trouble.’

‘Yeah, yeah, yeah …’ The bouncer angled his gaze over Jem’s shoulder. ‘Katz, you gonna keep her in check?’

‘If only I could, man, if only I could.’

The bouncer chuckled. ‘Go on in.’ He reached to open the door and then hesitated, his gaze finally landing on me. ‘Who’s this?’

Though he was staring straight at me, his question pinged over my head to Jem.

‘She your sister?’ he asked.

My double leaned in close to him, her voice low and conspiratorial.

‘She’s me. You’re wasted and seeing double.’

The bouncer was silent for a moment and then he let out a lusty belly-laugh.

At the kerb, a crowd of ten or twelve people, dressed in suits and silky dresses, arrived in a fleet of taxis. High-heeled shoes tapped against paving slabs as they huffed impatiently at my back.

‘Whatever, Jem. Just try not to wreck the place,’ the bouncer said and hurried us inside.

He cast one final glance in my direction. It was a flirty, knowing look; the same type he’d given my double. I wasn’t used to people looking at me like that.

Giving him a small smile in return, I tossed my hair in what I hoped was a casual yet alluring gesture. Then Jem pulled me through into the house and the door closed behind me.

Inside, it was another world.

Like something from Versailles, the entrance hall was enormous, with a wide spiral staircase winding up to a cavernous ceiling. Two long strips of white fabric hung high above. I watched as a brunette woman climbed to the top, nimble as a monkey. She waved from her god-like vantage point. Then she wrapped herself in the fabric and flipped upside down in an effortless somersault. My stomach turned over in response.

If she fell … what would happen if she fell?

The acrobat righted herself and I pushed the thought away. There was something magical about the way she hung in the air. Much like I could pretend the stilt-walker really was ten-feet tall, I could pretend she really was flying.

Around me, there was a crush of people in elegant evening wear, chattering and laughing. Classical music created an atmosphere that was more sophisticated than I was used to. What was the last party I’d been to? It was probably at my friend Bethany’s house: a summer barbecue on an overcast day; bottles of Peroni and undercooked meat.

‘Take off that jacket, let everyone see you,’ Jem said, tugging at the sleeve of my leather jacket. No, not mine – Katsu’s jacket. If I breathed deeply, I could catch his earthy scent, along with a hint of something sweeter, like an apple plucked right from the tree.

Reluctantly, I shed the leather skin, revealing my silver dress. Jem banished Katsu to the cloakroom with our things and I felt a pang as he disappeared. I pressed my arms to my sides, reminding myself that my scars were faint now, barely visible to anyone but me.

A sandy-haired man nearby caught my eye. What was he looking at? A bubble of paranoia welled up in my throat.

He raised his eyebrows and lifted his glass in my direction.


He wasn’t scrutinising me. He was flirting.

Relief made the blood rush to my face and I gave him a blushing smile.

Before I could say anything to him, before I could contemplate if I wanted to say anything, my double was pulling me along. She passed through the crowd – Moses parting the Red Sea – and I glided in her wake. We ended up directly beneath the acrobats, which didn’t seem to faze Jem at all, but I kept shooting glances heavenwards.

Waiters with blank expressions wandered by, holding trays with champagne flutes. They contained bright blue liquid. Presumably this was SYN. The swirling letters of the drink’s name were on every glass. Jem grabbed one for herself and handed me another.

À votre Santé!’ she said, clinking her glass with mine.

Was that French? What was I supposed to say in return?

I didn’t reply and, to cover my flub, I took a tiny sip, even though I wasn’t supposed to drink. The blue liquor was cherry-sweet with a chemical aftertaste that was almost metallic. I was disappointed. I’d hoped it might be the nectar of the gods.

Jem gulped down her drink and then replaced her empty glass with a full one from another waiter.

‘Last one of these I was at,’ my double said to me with a conspiratorial grin, ‘the drink had tiny pieces of gold in it. What a riot. Idiots will buy anything.’

I tried to share in her smile, but the metallic taste in my mouth persisted. In Jem’s world, whatever you wanted, no matter how ridiculous, there was no need to buy it. People gave it to you for free.

Someone slammed into me, hard. I turned, coming face-to-face with a tiger.

It was only face paint, but when he snarled, the man looked feral. ‘Sloane-y buggers,’ he muttered and was gone.

Part of me wanted to call after him. Not me! I’m not like these people!

Jem was drawing me close again, pointing out people in the crowd – the A-list actor who’d just got out of rehab; the opera singer who was sleeping with a Saudi sheik – and it was so tempting to let her coax me into the illusion. In my dress, in my makeup, in my disguise, I belonged among these people, our shared privilege making us seem ten-feet tall.

All I’d ever wanted was to belong.

‘This way, please!’

The instruction came from somewhere nearby and I craned my neck automatically. A flash blinded me. There was a flurry of sound – chk-chk-chk-chk! – as the camera’s shutter went off several times in a row.

‘Hold up the glass so I can see the branding,’ the photographer said, ‘and make it look like you’re having the time of your life!’

He was a skinny black guy with a bootlace tie and a wispy moustache. His voice had an irritated, nasal quality that I guessed stemmed from saying the same thing over and over and being ignored.

I stared dumbly down his lens, but it didn’t matter, because Jem elbowed me aside. She took up the whole frame. She raised her glass and gave an open-mouthed smile. It made her look like she was about to chomp down on something with her teeth.

The photographer’s hand slackened around his camera. Bored. He snapped a single perfunctory shot and then turned away.

Jem’s smile twisted into a sneer. She punched the photographer on the arm.

‘Hey! You never seen a couple of clones?’ she said and made a bleating sound like a sheep.

This time, she clamped an arm around me, presenting the two of us to the photographer. The guy shrugged and lifted his camera to take one more picture. It probably showed Jem with her mouth open, and me having my soul sucked out through my eyes.

I squirmed free of Jem’s hold and darted out of frame.

‘I don’t like … being photographed,’ I said in an undertone.

‘What, are you on the run?’

Jem’s chummy smile was gone. She let out an exasperated huff, looking around for the photographer, who had now disappeared. ‘This is my career we’re talking about!’

I didn’t know what a few photographs had to do with her career, but it unnerved me to watch Jem’s too-familiar features darken with frustration. Her cloudy-grey eyes were the same shape and shade as mine, but now they narrowed, growing stormy.

‘If I take a picture of you, will you stop your tantrum?’ Katsu said.

I hadn’t realised he’d returned, but he’d apparently witnessed the whole spat with the photographer. With a teasing smile, he slipped in next to my double and pulled her close. He raised his phone ostentatiously and snapped a selfie of the two of them. Now it was Jem’s turn to squirm free.

‘Yuh, because being seen in Tatler is absolutely no different to being seen by all twelve of your followers,’ she said.

‘Chill out,’ he said. ‘You’re embarrassing yourself in front of Ella.’

Jem cast a contemptuous look in my direction and then swatted dismissively at the air, turning away.

‘Going to find a bathroom,’ she called over her shoulder.

As she stalked off, the crowd again parted mystically for her.

The classical music and the murmur of conversation around us wasn’t loud enough to mask the awkward silence that Jem left behind her. I realised I was still holding the blue drink and I sipped at it again.

I shuffled my feet and then regretted it. My ankle went sideways in my too-tall heels. Katsu caught me by the elbow as I stumbled. His hand was warm and solid on my arm and I thought how nice it would be to slide closer to him. Instead, I righted myself and took a step backward. His hand dropped. There was a moment more of silence and then Katsu spoke.

‘Ripper is just a little on edge,’ he said, rubbing at his face. ‘There’s this big role she wants … She’s obsessed with, I don’t know, exposure.’

I wondered how much time Katsu spent apologising for Jem. He seemed well-practised. I nodded, as if it all made sense, and then lowered my gaze.

‘So what d’you fancy?’ he said.

I sneaked a glance at him. His tired expression cleared and he leaned forward, bouncing his soles against the floor.

‘Greed? Gluttony? Wrath?’ he asked, gesturing to the rooms that led off the entrance hall.

‘Oh …’ I gulped down my disappointment.

‘Greed’s Monte Carlo and I’m telling you right now, I am the unluckiest bastard in this joint.’ He whipped his phone from his pocket and scrolled through his messages. ‘I hear they’re doing Fight Club in the Wrath room, but that’s gotta be a rumour. The first rule of Fight Club, y’know …’

I joined in with his easy laughter, my excitement about the party resurfacing. It was easier to relax without Jem’s manic energy.

Through the crowd, I glimpsed a generous space off the entrance hall that contained croupiers in waistcoats. Roulette wheels hurtled in circles. From the Greed room, a brief roar rose up – either a big win or a big loss. I smelled Gluttony, too. The savage smell of sizzling meat mingled in the air with spun-sugar sweetness.

When, in my real life, would I get to inhabit a decadent world like this?

I was determined to enjoy it.

‘Fight Club might be cool,’ I said. ‘You probably already guessed it … back home on Walney, I’m a bit of a brawler.’

Katsu’s laughter redoubled, bright and genuine. He laughed like he was being tickled. Pleasure wriggled through my stomach, releasing some of its knots.

The two of us roamed the ground floor, touring the Seven Deadly Sins that had been packaged up into neat zones for our consumption. At one of the roulette tables, a young man in his twenties – my age, if not younger – pushed a pile of black chips into the centre. Seconds later, he lost it all. He shrugged, like someone who’d dropped a penny and let it roll away. His bet probably could’ve paid off my student debt.

Greed gave way to Gluttony. There was an enormous doughnut in the centre of the room, twice the size of a lorry’s tyre, and guests were invited to take a bite. The result was a pock-marked surface of the moon. A grill sizzled in the corner, producing steaks which people (mostly the men, suited and dribbling grease) ate on sticks made from bone shards, like they were lollipops.

‘You want a cupcake?’ Katsu asked.

I nodded. I was glad to hurry past the steaks, ditching my blue drink on a table along the way. At the far side of the room, a pâtissier (or, more likely, a cater-waiter who’d borrowed a tall white chef’s hat) was icing people’s names on to cupcakes.

The loopy letters drawn by the ‘chef’ looked more like illa than ella, while Katsu’s cupcake read catzoo. We ate them anyway, the sugar high bonding us like little kids at a birthday party as we wandered back to the entrance hall. I giggled when Katsu got chocolate frosting smeared around his mouth and reached up instinctively to wipe it away. He retaliated by dropping a blob of chocolate on my nose.

I was sorry when a well-meaning waiter appeared and handed us napkins – and sorrier still when Katsu brought up Jem.

‘Ripper will’ve calmed down by now,’ he said, scanning the crowd. ‘Probably be looking for us.’

He took out his phone and checked it for messages, but I noticed he didn’t bother to send any. Maybe he too liked it better when Jem wasn’t around?

I squashed the thought. Stupid. He was my double’s boyfriend, after all.

Feigning nonchalance, I glanced around. On a platform nearby, the tiger I’d met earlier juggled fiery batons. Flames streaked upward, ten metres in the air, and, for a second, it made the whole place seem alight. Following the high trajectory of the batons, I noticed the writing on the ceiling for the first time. A phrase had been stencilled above where the acrobats hung upside-down on the silks. Pride comes before a …

‘That’s quite a joke,’ I said in a low voice, but I didn’t think Katsu heard.

‘Hey, tell me your deepest darkest secret!’ he said.

My scalp prickled. Illa … Illa, queen of the sickly and forlorn.

Katsu wasn’t paying attention to me. He gestured to a big wooden box with a slit in the top. On the table beside it, there was a stack of papers and a pen styled like a quill. Confess your sins was emblazoned across the box in blue spray paint. Katsu hummed the dramatic snatch of classical music they always used in cheesy reality TV and then winked at me.

With a flourish, he took the quill and wrote down something on a slip of paper – I caught the words unicorn and naked and kill Hitler – and then dropped it into the box.

‘Your turn,’ he said, his eyes crinkling in amusement.

I gave a little shake of my head, groping for a subject change. Now I almost wished Jem would come back and make everything all about her once more.

‘What are the other rooms?’ I asked, hoping to sound casual. ‘Sloth and … and … Envy?’ (I deliberately didn’t say ‘Lust’.)

‘I think Envy’s in the ballroom downstairs. Wanna check it out?’

‘Sure …’

I was used to poky, damp basements in Cumbria where you stored Christmas decorations. In Chelsea, basements were apparently a different matter altogether.

Katsu and I descended a flight of stairs into darkness and noise. The tasteful classical music of upstairs was gone, replaced by the thrum of electronic dance music. It took my eyes a few moments to adjust to the dim nightclub lighting. I was blind and my hands fumbled for Katsu’s arm.

‘Don’t worry, Weird Ears, I got you.’ His fingers closed around mine.

At the base of the stairs, I blinked rapidly. I’d thought Katsu’s description an exaggeration, but no, this really was a ballroom – underground, cut into the earth, too big to be real. Its ceiling was high and its floor was shiny.

There were no windows, just mirrors. So many mirrors. They reflected knots of people dancing, laughing, embracing. Colours blurred as reflections bounced from one surface to the next.


Look in the mirror. Look around. Look at everything you don’t have.

‘Wanna dance?’ Katsu said in my ear.

I was still holding on to him. I didn’t want to let go.

I also didn’t want to make a fool of myself. Nervousness roared in my ears.

‘Maybe we should go back upstairs …’ I half-shouted to be heard over the swell of noise that accompanied a new song from the DJ.

‘Aw, come on – one song.’

Katsu took a step backwards, still gripping my hand, and pulled me with him, on to the dance floor. I resisted, my shoulders stiff, but he gave me a smile – a lovely smile – and my body relaxed.

‘Okay, just one …’ I said.

I’d never been a club kid as a teenager, preferring to curl up with a book rather than visit one of Barrow-in-Furness’s limited nightlife options. But, when I went away to uni, the girls on my floor took it as a given that, on Saturday nights, we hit the clubs. I wasn’t a natural dancer, but on those fevered nights that sometimes stretched until dawn, I learned an important lesson:

Music and darkness and lust can let you lose yourself.

Chapter 6 – Reflections


In the ballroom, the bassline of the music throbbed at the front of my mind. It was already beginning to blot out my thoughts, my worries, my insecurities, leaving behind just one fact: I was dancing with a hot guy.

Katsu danced unselfconsciously. He was all cheesy moves and gangly limbs, but occasionally it came together with real rhythm. When the frenetic song that was playing reached its climax, he shot me a gurning grin. He grabbed my hand and spun me around, like a ballerina in a music box. My laughter, rendered silent under all the noise, shuddered through my body, right to the tips of my toes.

The song ended and I hoped he wouldn’t remember that I’d only agreed to one dance. He raised his eyebrows and I smiled back.

We carried on dancing, through songs about love and betrayal, sex and revenge. Reflections from the mirrors danced around us, distorting our bodies like a trip through the funhouse.

‘Jem!’ someone yelled from a few feet away, waving an arm.

I waved back on automatic, but then turned away, sheltering myself against Katsu, my back pressed against his chest.

The photographer reappeared, the flash of his camera dazzling in the underground ballroom. I glided out of shot. Unlike Jem, I didn’t want exposure.

I wanted …

What did I want?

My wants were vast and sludgy, like an expanse of quicksand.

Right now, I wanted to dance.

Katsu never strayed from my side. He swatted the photographer’s camera away and put a protective arm around me. He was taking pity on me.

It was easy to pretend otherwise, though.

A slower, sultrier song rolled through the crowd. Instead of drawing away, Katsu pulled me closer, his hands resting lightly on my waist. My hands moved instinctively to his shoulders. He was close enough that I could smell him, his salty-sweetness, and feel the heat of his body.

My eyes drifted shut and I gave in to the intoxicating urge to let the music erase everything about me. Swaying to the rhythm, my hips pushed against him. His grip on my waist tightened. I shifted closer, my fingers twining together at the back his neck.

‘You having fun?’ he whisper-shouted in my ear.

My eyes blinked open, but I didn’t reply. I didn’t want to talk; I wanted to feel.

Our proximity meant it was inevitable that I thought about kissing him. I didn’t know if it was real desire or another part of my carefully-constructed Jem costume. Perhaps it didn’t matter.

I didn’t kiss him, but I did crush myself closer to him. Turning my head to the side, I let it rest in the hollow of his neck. In response, one of his hands skated over the curve of my arse. We were rehearsing what else we could do in the dark.

If I were my old self, I would have been embarrassed by our closeness, the suggestiveness of it. But I existed outside of myself right now. That meant I could press my body against his and it didn’t have to mean anything.

I closed my eyes again and a different face shuddered through my mind’s eye.

Owen, with his too-wide, too-kissable mouth. Owen, with his tufty blond hair and sleek swimmer’s body. I could smell the faint tang of chlorine in the air. I could feel his nimble fingers pulling at my dress. Owen, who’d promised to move with me to London. Owen, who’d promised me the world.

I hadn’t seen him in years – it felt like months, but it was really years; time grinding on and on and on – yet I felt perversely like I was making him jealous. If I dirty-danced with Katsu, it might have a psychic effect on Owen. It might summon him from Berlin or Barcelona or whatever glamorous spot he’d ended up in, with a girl who wasn’t me.

Again, I felt a tug at my dress.

I opened my eyes.

I was still dancing with Katsu, but Jem had grabbed a fistful of my dress, pulling me away from him. She pinched a patch of flesh on my torso in the process.

Using her other hand, my double stroked her fingers down Katsu’s chest with a come-to-bed purr.

Katsu’s eyes darted between the two of us. His girlfriend and the interloper. He wore a dazed expression, his posture slack. I wondered whether, in that moment, in the darkness and the heat, the difference between the two of us had blurred in his mind.

‘Come on,’ Jem said in my ear.

She dragged me through the crowd. The figures around us, reflected in the mirrors, advanced and then retreated, disappearing like ghosts as the mirrors fell away.

Katsu caught up to us at the base of the stairs. He said something to Jem, but it was swallowed up by a swell of music. She shook her head, shrugging off the hand he placed on her shoulder.

‘You stay here,’ she said to him, half-shouting. ‘Only twinnies allowed.’

She yanked me onward, up the stairs. Unlike Katsu’s loose, comforting grip, her fingers were a vice around my wrist.

When we pushed through the double doors into the entrance hall, it was like surfacing into sunlight. I was slammed once more by the casual opulence of it all: the creamy walls and austere oil paintings, the polished squares of the black-and-white floor, the gowns of the women, bright jewels against their suited partners. Jem’s perfume filled my nostrils, sweet as an orange peeled at a summer’s day picnic.

‘Where would Stan go?’

My double looked at me as she asked the question, but it obviously wasn’t meant for me. She barely paused before rambling on. Her speech came out rapid-fire, a shade too loud.

‘Wouldn’t want to mess up his pretty little face,’ she said. ‘Maybe he’d eat, but maybe not. Wasn’t in the casino room. Wasn’t downstairs. Must be upstairs. What’s upstairs?’ She let out a low chuckle. ‘What’s always upstairs?’

Her hold on me had slackened, but now she squeezed tight around my wrist once more. Was she angry at me for dancing with Katsu? Now that I was out of the dark ballroom, embarrassment churned in my stomach. I’d made a play for someone else’s boyfriend; I’d made a fool of myself.

‘Jem … I think I should go home …’ My voice came out too quiet; more of a question than a statement.

My double shot me an icy stare.

‘Don’t be a prig, we’re having fun.’ With her free hand, she grabbed one of the blue drinks from a passing waiter’s tray. She pushed it into my hand. ‘Have a drink.’

Looking at it now, the resemblance to toilet bleach was obvious. Reluctantly, I took a sip.

‘Have a drink.’ She tipped my glass at a sharp angle, forcing it to my lips.

I gulped down one, two, three mouthfuls before I choked. I forced myself to swallow, but a dribble of excess escaped my lips. Jem cleaned it away with a rough swipe of her thumb. She pulled the champagne flute away from me and cast out her arm to dispose of it. I don’t know if she imagined there was a waiter’s tray behind her or if she meant to drop the glass. Either way, it slipped from her fingers and smashed against the polished floor.

To my left, a woman gasped. She pulled up her floor-length skirt and took a step away from the shattered glass.

Jem ignored her and stomped onward through the entrance hall, with me in tow. The heels of my shoes crunched against the broken glass. I imagined the blue bleach leeching down my throat, spreading through my bloodstream.

When we mounted the spiral staircase, we were moving so fast that I bashed my shin against the first step. Pain pulsed up my leg, nausea roiled in my stomach, but there was no stopping Jem. We spiralled upward, past portraits of nobility, who looked down their noses at me from three hundred years dead.

On the first floor, it was less crowded – and quiet enough that I could hear a grunting sound. I wondered if it was me; my pain given sound. Then we passed an open doorway. The man nearest to us wore a bright white shirt with the sleeves rolled up. He had straw-blond hair and a button nose. As I watched, someone took a swing at him, catching him right in the jaw. Jem tugged me onward before I saw him fall. In my imagination, he remained suspended in mid-air, blood blooming at his mouth.

A few steps later and we were on a different planet. The lighting was dim and tinted a dark pink colour. Cinderella gauze hung from the ceiling. There was no fighting or dancing here. Just beds and sofas. It was too dark to see much of what was going on, the gauze rendering figures as silhouettes. But, close by, we passed a couple kissing languorously, their clothes a thin barrier to more. Even as I watched, the man pushed the woman’s skirt up her thighs. I could still hear a faint grunting sound, but I couldn’t tell if it was coming from Wrath next door or here in the Lust room.

‘Like to watch?’ Jem whispered in my ear.

She let out a mocking laugh, loud enough to startle the kissing couple. I cut my eyes away, a blush crawling rash-like across my cheeks. My double leered closer to the couple.

‘Hey, Stan! Fancy seeing you here!’

She plopped on to the oval-shaped bed that they’d claimed, pulling me down next to her. The woman glanced at us, her lips pinched together. She had dark skin that was glossed with sweat and her curls were mussed. The man beside her ran a hand through his corn rows. While his paramour sat up, smoothing down her skirt, he reclined, propped up on one elbow, regarding me and Jem from beneath hooded eyes.

‘I know you, sweetheart?’ he asked, his voice honey-smooth and American.

‘I’m your Delilah,’ my double said.

‘’Zat right?’

‘All the way down to my tippy-toes, I’m her.’

Jem scooted across the bed, close enough to the couple that the woman let out a huff of irritation. My double reached out and lifted Stan’s hand, placing it on her thigh. She guided it over the smooth satin of her dress.

‘All the way down,’ she said.

The rash of colour on my cheeks burned. I wondered if it was visible under the pink lights.

‘You know we’ve already cast that role,’ Stan said, but his hand lingered on Jem’s thigh.

‘So un-cast it. Re-cast it. I can prove it to you. I’m her. I’m everything you want me to be.’

‘Stan, baby …’ the woman said, draping herself against his shoulder.

Glancing at her, he patted Jem’s thigh once and then pulled his hand away.

‘You’re a cute kid,’ he said. ‘I’ll remember you for the next movie.’

It was a rebuff; a nice one. A thanks-but-no-thanks, served with a smile.

Of course my double wouldn’t bow out gracefully. No one said no to her.

Annoyance flickered across her face, contorting my benign features. When she gave a smile, it was malevolent.

‘You want to meet my double?’ She clamped an arm around me. ‘We’re identical.’

‘Twins, huh?’ Stan lifted his eyebrows, unimpressed.

‘Not twins, doub-les. She’s from fucking … fucking … Yorkshuh or something.’ Her voice succumbed to a slur. ‘An’ she’s a perfect reflection of little ol’ me.’

Interest stirred in Stan’s expression, his forehead creasing.

‘Not related?’

He looked at me. I shook my head.

‘Two for the price of one!’ Jem said, too loud. She nudged me. ‘Say, my name is Delilah and I’m a fucking – fucking hurricane.’ Her fingers dug into the flesh of my arm, hard enough to leave bruises. ‘Say it!’

I was mute, paralysed.

‘Say it …’ Her voice dropped to a low rasp.

My double leaned in close, her chin hooking over my shoulder. The smell of oranges that oozed from her skin now seemed rotten-sweet.

‘Isn’t this a trip?’ Jem went on.

Her mouth pressed against the curve of my neck. I tensed, but couldn’t move. She had me locked in place. Then there came the wet drag of her tongue licking up to my earlobe.

Chapter 7 – Pride Comes Before a …


Jem fell away from me, breaking out into gales of laughter.

‘Isn’t that what Delilah would do? Isn’t it?’

Stan was looking at us glassy-eyed. He stifled a small cough and then said:

‘Actually, maybe I like your friend for the role …’

I didn’t have to look at my double to know that she wouldn’t notice Stan’s teasing tone. A surge of anger emanated from her.

It was the push I needed. I wrenched myself free of her grip and stood up.

The sense of nausea – bleach-blue sick creeping up my throat – renewed in a wave, but I forced myself to walk away. My foot went sideways in my shoe and I stumbled, but I kept going.

Jem’s nasty voice followed me.

‘You’re not allowed to leave! You’re me! You’re meee!’

I turned and ran, out of Lust and Wrath, down the stairs and past somersaulting Pride. I needed air. I needed to leave the circus.

I needed to remember who I was.

I was halfway home in my mind. I was on a train, watching the London skyline rewind, replaced with a patchwork of fields. I was ready for sleep and something better in the morning.

It wasn’t until I burst out through the front door that I realised I had no way to get home and nowhere to sleep. Cold air slapped me in the face. I didn’t even have a coat. Katsu had taken the leather jacket, along with a handbag I’d borrowed from Jem, to the cloakroom, but I couldn’t bear to go back in and retrieve them.

On my way out, the bouncer hailed me with a jovial smile.

‘Leaving already?’

I ignored him, stumbling down the path and on to the pavement. Beside me, a sleek black car pulled up to the kerb. When the rear door opened, a trio of women fell out. For a moment, their perfume and laughter enveloped me. Then they were gone – into the party; into the Big Top – and I was alone on the street.

I managed a hundred yards more, walking almost to the end of the road before my feet gave out. My fingers clawed at the brick of a nearby building. I slumped against it. The houses around me slumbered – rows of identical Georgian town houses – and light pollution gave the sky an eerie purple cast.

I had no idea where I was.

I could find someone and borrow their phone, but who would I call for help? I knew no one in London. I had no money, no credit card, no train ticket, nothing.

I looked down at my bruised ankle and scuffed shoes; at my silver dress with its silly tutu skirt. There was a splatter of toilet-bleach blue on the hem. My stomach roiled again.

This was the stupidest idea ever.

My parents were right: my instincts were bad; I needed to be protected.

‘Look who it is …’

My gaze flickered upward to see a man approaching me. His clothes were dark, rendering him a shadow on the dim street. But, when the streetlamp’s light hit him, I saw that he was young, handsome, with olive skin and sleepy soulful eyes. He met my gaze, smiling big – yet there was something wrong about his expression.

‘Hey, hey, hey …’ he said.

My shoulders flinched inward and I angled my body away from him. Maybe if I ignored the man, he would go away. It could have been my life’s motto, even though it had a terrible track record of working out for me.

‘If it isn’t Miss Marilyn Monroe herself …’ He flourished a bow in my direction. ‘What are the chances?’

‘Sorry,’ I mumbled.

It was the sort of general apology I defaulted to in life. Sorry for whatever’s upset you. Sorry I don’t have anything for you. Sorry for existing.

‘What are you sorry for, Jemima?’

Oh, shit.

‘What could you possibly have to apologise for. Jemima.’

Shitshitshit. My mouth was dry, my tongue a dead slug. It took me a few seconds to form a sentence.

‘Sorry, you’ve got the wrong person.’

‘I’ve got the wrong person? Oh, sor-ry.’ His sing-song sarcasm rang out down the dark street. ‘Isn’t that a motherfucker? Got the wrong person.’ He paced back and forth in front of me. ‘Well, lemme tell you – you got the wrong person in me. Chose the wrong person to fuck over.’

He leaned into my personal space and I cringed away.

‘I know it’s all happy pills and Monopoly money to you, but I have to earn a living. And when you don’t pay me, it’s a big fucking problem.’

My heart jumped to my throat. Adrenaline kicked me into gear and I tried to shove past him. He caught my arm and slammed me back against the wall like I was a rag doll. My head cracked against the brick and it dislodged something in my brain.

I laughed.

I couldn’t help it. This was all too absurd.

After everything that had happened, this was how I was going to die. Not as myself, but as someone else.

‘Think this is funny?’

His face twisted into a snarl and it made me think of the face-painted tiger. Streak his cheeks with black and orange and he couldn’t have looked more feral.

‘I want my money, funny girl. Sell some of your jewellery, sell your goddamn cunt, I don’t care. I want it all.’

Each word hit me like a physical blow. I closed my eyes, expecting him to crack my skull against the wall again, wrap his hands around my throat and finish me off. Instead, he pulled back, the press of his body against mine gone. When I heard him speak again, it was fainter. My eyes opened to see him walking away in the direction of the party.

‘I mean it this time, Jem,’ he called over his shoulder, ‘I mean it …’


A figure jogged down the road towards me. The voice was familiar, but it belonged to a different life.

‘Hey, man, what’s going on?’ Katsu asked, as the big-fucking-problem guy brushed past him.

‘Ask your girlfriend …’

The guy squared his shoulders and kept on walking, disappearing up the path to the party’s red front door.

The sight of him leaving sucked the tension out of my body. My head drooped on its neck like a wilting flower. I hunched over, breathing heavily, bracing my hands against my thighs.

‘Ella!’ Katsu said when he finally reached me. ‘Are you okay? What was all that?’

He palmed the joint of my elbow, leaning in close to me; somewhere between a hug and not. I flinched, remembering the way the other man’s words had lashed against my skin.

‘I’m fine, I’m fine …’ I whispered.

It was another default response. Don’t worry about me, I’m fine. Everything’s okay, I’m fine. I won’t bother you with my pain, I’m fine.

‘You’re shivering,’ Katsu said. He took off his dinner jacket and draped it over my shoulders. ‘That looked kind of intense. Did he think you were Jem or something?’

‘Yeah,’ I gasped out. ‘He wanted … money.’

‘Really? Carlo can be a bit of loose cannon.’ Katsu rocked back on his heels. His lips were thin, his face taut with worry. ‘What’s Ripper got herself into now?’

I thought of Jem’s little display with Stan, offering herself up on a platter to him. Now this. There was obviously a lot that my double was keeping secret from Katsu.

I let him guide me back down the street to the party, even though the last thing I wanted was go back in there. His arm hovered at my back, perhaps worried I might faint. When I spoke, my voice had a groggy quality and I wondered if he could be right.

‘I need to go home … get my stuff …’

‘Yeah, we’ll find Ripper and leave,’ he said.

I yanked a hand through my hair, which had turned from tousled to bushy, wishing I had a band to tie it out of my face. It occurred to me that Jem was probably still in the Lust room. Perhaps her feminine wiles had worked on the director guy, after all. I glanced at Katsu. Guilt pinched at my windpipe, even though I didn’t have anything to feel guilty about. I hated the way my double and I were bound together.

Should I tell him?

Or would that be betraying Jem, betraying this new sister of mine?

‘What’s up, Al?’ Katsu said, as we passed the bouncer.

He waved us through the door and into the house. I almost asked to wait outside – the sight of the entrance hall raised beads of sweat on my skin – but I didn’t want to be alone.

The acrobats, at least, were gone, and the crowd in the high-ceilinged room had thinned out. I sagged against the wall. Beside me, Katsu was typing, thumbs skimming across his phone. His jaw was clenched.

‘’Course she’s not replying,’ he said. ‘Her phone’s probably down a toilet somewhere.’

I nodded, but I was barely listening. My attention rested on the two strips of fabric that hung from the ceiling. They glowed eerie-white. Up above was the warning, Pride comes before a …

I let my eyes drift out of focus, reducing the words to a blur. Pride. Maybe that was my problem. My mother would be able to turn tonight into a parable. Her certainty would be unshakeable. If you had a bad day, God was warning you, testing you, or both.

The strips of fabric shivered. Silks, that was what they were called. Someone was climbing the silks. In my dazed state, it took me a moment to realise who it was.

Jem climbed with none of the finesse displayed by the acrobats who’d used the silks earlier. She only made it a few feet off the ground before her long red dress tangled around her feet. Dropping back to the floor, she wavered on the spot and then ripped at the slit in her skirt. It tore open, revealing a slice of skin and a black strip of lacy underwear.

She resumed her ascent. Higher and higher. The only thing she seemed to have going for her was natural agility, combined with unshakeable, drug-fuelled confidence. But that was all she needed to get two metres, five metres, ten metres in the air.

I watched myself climb to the ceiling; an out-of-body experience made real.

I reached out to grasp Katsu’s arm, but he didn’t need me to alert him. Jem was making her presence known.

‘Heyyyy …’ she called from her perch. ‘Look at meee … Nine years of gymnastics … and I’m great in bed, too …’

She paused to wave and almost lost her balance. With a swooning sensation, I watched this woman – this woman who looked so much like me – hang on to life with one careless hand. I felt, once more, like I might vomit.

Katsu lurched into action, sprinting across the entrance hall. But when he grabbed at the bottom of the silks, that only caused Jem to sway dangerously above.

‘Get her down!’ he yelled at the people close by.

‘Calm down, mate,’ someone yelled back.

Above the crowd, Jem climbed even higher.

‘She’s fucked off her head!’ Katsu said.

There was a burst of laughter from nearby partygoers.

‘Aren’t we all?’

‘She’ll fall.’

Katsu’s desperation finally had an effect. It cut through the gawping apathy of the onlookers. The crowd stirred into action. A group of guys, dressed for acrobatics, many of them with smeared animal faces, assembled in the entrance hall. One began to climb the length of fabric, while the others formed a catchers’ circle below.

‘Noooo …’

When her rescuer reached the top of the silks, Jem swatted him away, her voice petulant as a child’s.

‘Katsu, look!’ she called down, waving. ‘I’m fiiiiine.’

Even as she spoke, Jem almost lost her balance, making the fabric sway.

‘Katsuuuuu!’ she said again. ‘Loooook!’

He turned away from the spectacle. I wondered if it was because he didn’t want to give her more attention, or because he couldn’t stand to look at her.

It took a long time to coax Jem down, and the crowd of onlookers kept growing. The attention buoyed her mood higher. At last, though, she consented to let the acrobat help her down, using his shoulders as a makeshift ladder for the descent.

It was several tense minutes more before Jem finally dropped to the floor. Her face was flushed and unrepentant. Her torn skirt still revealed lacy black underwear. She made an extravagant bow. Several people in the crowd were applauding, wolf whistling and laughing.

Katsu was not.

My double’s Chelsea apartment block, which had looked so lavish in creamy sunlight, seemed creepy and over-large at night. In the corridor that led to Jem’s front door, she leaned heavily on Katsu’s shoulder, while I trailed behind. He’d driven us home in Jem’s brand-new yellow VW Bug, while she had dozed on the back seat.

‘Jem, where are your keys?’

Though Katsu’s voice was perfectly level, I noticed that it was maybe the first time since we’d met that he hadn’t called her Ripper. Jem closed her eyes and pressed her face against his T-shirt. She made an indistinct noise in the back of her throat, like a child who didn’t want to get out of bed on a Monday morning.

Katsu shook his head, working a muscle in his jaw. He grabbed the small silk handbag that was looped over Jem’s shoulder and handed it to me.

‘Find her keys, would you?’

I felt like a burglar, digging past used tissues and chewing gum till I found the keys. Fumbling with the lock, it took me a few tries to get the door open.

Inside, Katsu half-carried Jem to her bedroom. He pushed her on to the bed and she scarcely moved from where she fell. I had a paranoid sense that maybe she really was dead or dying. It was now obvious to me that my double wasn’t just high on life. She’d avoided falling to her death on the silks, but what about the drugs churning through her system?

‘I need to get home,’ Katsu said to me. ‘Working tomorrow. Need to get a few hours’ sleep. Can I drop you somewhere? Train station? Hotel?’

I sunk my hands into my jacket – Katsu’s jacket – and avoided his gaze. I’d implied earlier that I had a hotel room for the night. In truth, when I’d looked at prices, even the cheap ones were more than I was able to afford. Back home on Walney, when I’d been planning the trip to London, I’d had some romantic idea that I might wait out the wee hours in an all-night café, sipping hot chocolate and having stray conversations with fascinating strangers.


It would be best to go to the station, bundle myself up warm in a plastic chair and wait. There would be a train going north in four, five hours. Yet the idea of it was so pathetic that the strain must have shown on my face, because Katsu said:

‘You can kip here tonight, if you want. Jem won’t care.’

As if to punctuate the moment, my double let out an almighty snore and rolled over in bed. Her eyelids fluttered open and she murmured, ‘Kaaaatz.’ A smile crossed her slack face and Katsu gave a rueful smile in return.

‘It’s okay,’ he whispered and brushed a lock of hair off her cheek. ‘You’re safe.’ When she settled back into sleep, he pulled back, stepping away from the bed.

‘Get some rest, yeah?’ he said to me. ‘It’s been a crazy night.’

Nodding, I took a dizzy step and almost collided with Jem’s make-up table. I wished the night would end. I wanted to teleport somewhere else. Not home, just … an elsewhere of some kind.

Katsu reached out a hand, and I thought for a moment he was going to hug me. But he just reached past me to open the door.

‘Jem’ll be fine when she wakes up,’ he said. ‘A bit grumpy, but that’s nothing new.’

I nodded again, ready to crawl into bed – any bed – and end it all. I followed Katsu out into the dark corridor. He didn’t ask for his jacket back and when he spoke, his voice was distracted, like he wasn’t talking to me but himself.

‘Don’t hold it against her, yeah? She’s not usually like this.’ He let out a long, sighing breath. ‘Alright, she’s always like this. She’s always so set on being herself; she just goes too far sometimes. That’s what makes her Jem.’ He smiled and, though his voice was still irritated, there was a shine to eyes that was visible even in the half-light. ‘On her best day, she’ll make you feel like you’re the centre of the universe …’

And on her worst day?

Katsu didn’t finish his sentence.

‘She’s a force of nature,’ he said instead.

I nodded as if I understood, but I could feel a tiny sob rising in my throat. I forced myself to swallow it down.

Even after her crazed behaviour, even in spite of his anger, Katsu still loved Jem. Who would ever feel that way about me?

Chapter 8 – Out of Frame


Inside the mirrored funhouse, a clown jammed his fist against a big red button. Bzzzzz. His white face, with an oversize mouth painted orange, stared at me from three sides. Bzzzzz. I twisted away from his many reflections, kicking my feet. Bzzzzz. The mirrors shifted and I wasn’t standing anymore but lying down, my body tensed on the edge.

I opened my eyes. A beam of sunlight made me squint them closed again. I’d slept on the sofa and I was right on the edge, my feet tangled in a blanket. I heard the sound again. Bzzzzz. Rubbing my eyes, I got to my feet.

I drifted through the apartment, the wooden floors warm against my bare soles. The dreamlike feeling wouldn’t let go of me. I wondered if I was still asleep, or if I’d been asleep for years and this was real life.


The intercom screen on the hallway wall showed a dark-haired woman. She tossed her hair and I imagined the sound of her high-heeled shoes tapping against the stone step. On automatic, I picked up the intercom’s phone.

What was I supposed to say?

Hello, this is Jemima, how may I help you?

I slammed the receiver down again. Reality jolted back into place.

The woman pressed the buzzer yet again and its harsh call echoed through Jem’s apartment. Still it wasn’t enough to rouse my double.

I chewed my lip. If I waited, the woman would go away. If I did nothing, it would all go away, right? Even as this thought settled in my mind, a bald black man in a suit bounded into view on the intercom screen. He unlocked the door and held it open for the woman.

Oh, shit.

I scurried through the flat to find Jem, my bare feet slipping against the wooden floor. I almost ended up in the laundry room, before I corrected course and slipped into the bedroom. Inside, it was cave-like, curtains drawn, and smelling of sour breath. My double still slept like the dead, sprawled out across the covers of her bed. I crept over and put my hand on her shoulder.

‘Jem …’ I whispered.

No response.

I shook her shoulder. ‘Jem!’

She took a snorting inhale of breath. Her eyes blinked open and then closed again.

I imagined the dark-haired woman cresting the stairs, flouncing down the corridor to Jem’s apartment. As if on cue, there was a knock on the front door. It wasn’t a polite little tap. This knocking was dull and continual, like angry applause.

‘Jem, you need to wake up!’

I leaned in close, my whisper becoming urgent. She opened her eyes for real this time, meeting my gaze. Her face, slack from sleep, tensed. She jerked back, flinching away from me.

‘Someone’s here, you need to wake up,’ I said.

When she spoke, Jem’s voice was hoarse, edged with fear. ‘… Ella?’

I nodded.

She slumped against the bedcovers, a hand covering her heart.

‘You scared the shit out of me. I thought that coke was cut with something.’

‘There’s someone at the door,’ I said.

‘Ugh, just get rid of them.’ Jem rolled over in bed, pulling the sheet over her head.

I rocked back on my heels. The gloomy bedroom was airless. I couldn’t catch my breath. The sound of the knocking on the door had merged with my headache. Was it just a hangover, or something psychological?

In the bedroom’s full-length mirror, I caught a glimpse of my reflection. The woman had a fright-wig of hair. Her eye make-up was dark and her lips were red-raw. Her silver dress was twisted around at the hips.

It was Jem who looked back at me in the mirror.

‘Hello!’ I said, swinging open the front door.

‘So she lives,’ the dark-haired woman said.

In one movement, she managed to kiss me on the cheek, slide past me (uninvited) into the hallway, and give me a swat on the shoulder. The woman had a dancer’s way of walking, the sway of her hips contrasting with her business-y black dress.

 ‘I’ll be charitable and assume you forgot,’ she said, ‘because the alternative is that you deliberately blew it off.’

She had smooth brown skin and huge reproachful brown eyes. A hint of American surfaced in between the drawling upper-class English accent.

‘Sorry,’ I said, a reflex.

‘It’s been three years of sorry and I’m a little sick of it.’

The woman clattered into the living room and I drifted in her wake.

‘Did I miss the part where you offered me a drink?’ she said, waving a manicured hand. ‘A water, if you have it.’

I was going use the faucet, then thought better of it. I dithered for a moment in the kitchen, but the huge American-style fridge was hard to miss. I grabbed a cloudy-grey glass bottle from inside, scanning the label to check it was water and not vodka.

‘I know it’s just a brunch, but it’s not just a brunch.’ The woman paused to take a sip of her drink. ‘I’ve left Dave near the bottom of his bottomless mimosa. The play hasn’t even opened and he’s a mind to fire you. There’s only so much damage-control I can do, Jemma.’ She fixed me with a hard stare. ‘You need to get your ish together.’

It was so weird, to have this woman – this stranger – look into my eyes and talk to me like we’d known each other for years. At any moment, surely, the façade would crumble. The clock would strike midnight and I’d turn back into Ella.

The woman took my silence for sullenness. She gave a little huff.

‘It was a blow, not to get the Stan Lembo movie, I get it. I know this is’ – her fingers gave a twitch – ‘only theatre. But look at it as a stepping stone. Sometimes you have to spend some time in the trenches and fight for what you want.’

She raised her eyebrows expectantly.

‘Okay,’ I said. Then, catching her irritation at my answer, I added, ‘I’m really sorry, about brunch, my mistake.’ It was precisely the opposite of what Jem would have said. ‘What can I do to fix it?’

‘Get yourself smartened up.’ Her lip curled as she regarded my silver dress, stained with flecks of blue and sitting wrong on my hips. ‘Have a mimosa with Dave, smile pretty, maybe we can salvage this.’

I gave a tiny nod. ‘Okay.’

She discarded her bottle of water on the counter and shot me another stare. It was a look that peeled layers off my skin, yet still she didn’t see anything but Jem. The sensation left me lightheaded.

‘I’m not one for threats, Jemma, but …’ In lieu of finishing her sentence (her threat), she dabbed a kiss on both of my cheeks.

She swept out of the apartment without saying goodbye, leaving behind a breath of spicy cardamom.

It took me ten minutes to finally rouse Jem. My mother always used to threaten to throw water over me if I didn’t get out of bed on time. I considered grabbing another chilled bottle from the fridge and dousing Jem with water, but she did at last return to the land of the living.

When I passed on my halting description of the dark-haired woman and what she’d said, Jem grabbed her phone and scrolled through her messages at speed. ‘Shittingfuckingbollocks,’ she muttered.

I’d expected her to laugh it off, but my double seemed rattled by the situation. Still dressed in last night’s torn red dress, she paced the length of the room, massaging her temples like she was trying to get her brain to work.

‘What did Savannah actually say?’ she asked me. ‘She’s not firing me?’

‘No … I mean, I don’t know. She really wanted you to go to the brunch thing.’

‘Ugh, that director guy is a freak. His play’s completely wacko.’

‘It’s a stepping stone, though, isn’t it?’ I said, echoing the woman’s words.

Jem wasn’t listening to me. She disappeared into her walk-in wardrobe and I heard hangers clanging on the rails.

Left alone, it occurred to me that I should change, too. In a pile of dirty clothes on the floor, my jeans and jumper were jumbled up with a patterned minidress. I wrenched them free. They looked even shabbier than I remembered. I slid the silver dress off my body in a hurry, pulling scritchy wool over my head and pushing numb legs into my jeans.

I was fastening the button on my jeans when Jem stuck her head round the door of the wardrobe.

‘Savannah actually thought you were me?’ she said.

I nodded.

‘God, people are stupid.’ She gave a nasty laugh. ‘You don’t fancy going to brunch, do you? You can eat eggs benedict and flirt with Dave. I’ll pay you.’ Without waiting for an answer from me, she affected an old-timey advertising voice. ‘Jemima’s ver-ray own lookalike service. For all the tedious meetings you can’t be bothered to attend.’

I felt like I’d been hit. I didn’t like my double very much, but for a while last night, the two of us had been allies. This morning, it was obvious I was just a plaything to her.

‘No, thank you,’ I said coldly. I held up the shimmering dress. ‘Where should I put this?’

‘Keep it.’ She shrugged. ‘I can’t be bothered to get it dry-cleaned.’

Jem, who’d changed into a mustard-coloured romper, waltzed back into the room and flopped on to the bed, apparently not in any hurry to go to brunch after all.

Did I even want to keep the dress? I wasn’t sure, but I tucked it under my arm anyway. On the bed, Jem was scrolling through her phone. She let out a sigh that sounded more like a groan.

‘Tell me the truth,’ she said. ‘How much of a tit did I make of myself last night? Was that a hallucination, or did I really climb up that silk rope thing, like some shitfaced monkey doing tricks?’

‘Um …’

The noise Jem made this time was definitely a groan.

‘Alright, that says it all.’

She rolled over, burying her face in the pillows. My cheeks flushed with second-hand embarrassment. I was torn between anger and pity.

‘How pissed off was Katsu?’ she asked, her voice muffled.

‘He’ll forgive you,’ I said.

With cold certainty, I knew he would. I turned away, heading for the door.

‘Hey, are you really leaving?’ she called.

I paused, wondering if she might invite me to stay longer, suggest we do something together after her brunch meeting.

‘Get me a bottle of Lauquen from the fridge on your way out, would you?’

Jem didn’t even look up as she spoke. She’d gone back to her phone. Whatever interest I’d held for her had now vanished; a Christmas toy cast aside on Boxing Day.

‘This is the 13:40 train from London Euston to Manchester Piccadilly, calling at Crewe, Wilmslow, Stockport …’

Seated on the train, I stared out the window at the last-minute passengers who crowded through the doors. There was a lumbering gait to one of the men. My heart stuttered.

I recognised him.

It was the guy who’d threatened me last night, the big-fucking-problem guy. Carlo? Wasn’t that what Katsu had called him?

The man turned, scanning the carriage with a bland expression. The nose was bigger, his brown hair cropped shorter. Of course it wasn’t him.

I sagged back into my seat. The whistle blew and, at last, we began to move.

After the commotion with Jem’s agent, I’d forgotten to talk to my double about him. Should I have told her? Warned her?

My skin crawled. I cast a look over my shoulder, making one last check that the man was nowhere in sight. It was Jem’s big fucking problem. It wasn’t mine. She had to pay him, that was all. Money could solve all problems.

The train chugged onward and London receded, countryside creeping in to replace the city. The miles between me and my double mounted up. It was a relief, yet disappointment swilled in my stomach like bleach-blue liquor.

My phone buzzed in my pocket. Probably more nagging, telling me to come home. I fumbled the phone and opened up the new message:

That was fun! Lets do in again sometime! Heres some pictures from last nite

I read the message twice. It was from Jem. We’d exchanged numbers back when I’d first agreed to meet her in London. Now, I felt an irrational urge to block her number or, at the very least, delete the message. Curiosity won out, though, and I followed her web link to look at the pictures.

These must be the shots taken by the photographer.

Filled with motion and colour, they were fluid and lovely. The party had turned nightmarish in my reality, but captured digitally, it was a wonderland. There were some panoramic shots of the mirrored ballroom and many more close-ups of partygoers.

I almost scrolled past the pictures of me. I appeared in the first shot off to the side, a bright, silver fish, writhing away from the camera, caught up by the stream of people. In the next picture, the camera claimed me, front and centre, dancing. My head was tipped back. I looked up to the heavens, face rapturous, as if the Envy ballroom were a church.

The name of the next station was announced over the loudspeaker, but I was deaf to it. I stared down at my phone, transfixed.

On the face of it, the picture was nothing. One shot among a dozen. A little bit arty, perhaps. One that an average person might choose to save. That’s a cute picture, they’d say, before shrugging and moving on. But for me, it wasn’t just that.

The woman in the picture didn’t look like me. It was hard to pin down why, exactly. The shift of her shoulders, maybe? The gleam in her eyes? The twist of her smile? It was something about the way all those things worked together …

The woman didn’t look like me, but it was me.

 The thought was a simple one on the surface, but the more I turned it over in my mind, the more paradoxical it felt.

The woman in the picture had a life of her own. I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if she cracked her neck and climbed out of the frame.

Later, at home on Walney Island, I lay in bed, listening to the rain, bathed in the glow of my bedside lamp. Archie was curled up at my feet; a makeshift hot water bottle in the cold room.

I couldn’t resist looking at the picture just once more.

The door of the caravan nudged open. I flinched and let my phone fall screen-down on to my chest. I covered it with my hand for good measure.

‘So you’re finally home.’

‘Mmm,’ I said.

‘You’d better get some sleep.’

‘I will.’

‘Thought you’d be tired, after going goodnessknowswhere with goodnessknowswho.’

‘It was just Lancaster.’ I sat up in bed, disturbing the dog, who let out a low whine. I slipped my phone beneath the bed covers. ‘Went to see an old uni friend.’

‘I was worried about you; ask your father, I didn’t sleep a wink last night.’


Mum swiped a stray tendril of grey-blonde hair out of her eyes and took two steps into the room. She brought with her a scent of disinfectant from the bottle she held. A rag dangled from the fingertips of her other hand. In the caravan’s tiny kitchen, she spritzed blue cleaning fluid onto the work surface and rubbed hard at a reddish stain.

‘Don’t mind me,’ she said. ‘There’s a family coming tomorrow, they might get here early.’

‘I thought you said … the season’s over …’

I swung my legs out of bed and Archie scrambled to take my place in the warm spot.

‘Half-termers, we’re lucky to have them,’ Mum said. ‘Don’t worry, I’ve put clean sheets on the bed in your old room.’

I lived near Snab Point, on the sparsely-populated southern tip of Walney Island, where there were three things: a lighthouse, ghostly-white against the grey landscape; a nature reserve, with bad-tempered seals clambering across the rocks; and a caravan park. I might have made a good lighthouse-keeper, creeping up its winding stairs with a guttering candle, but it had been unmanned and automated for years. Instead, the caravan park was my home.

My parents and my younger brother Simon inhabited a three-bedroom mobile home that was generous by caravan standards, but tiny compared to even a modest house. It was cold in summer, frigid in autumn, agonising in February. There was no room for any belongings beyond the essential. But what was unbearable was the lack of privacy. Even a quiet conversation could be heard anywhere in the caravan.

A year ago, after much begging, my dad allowed me the use of one of the rentals on site. It was a one-bed caravan clad in alpine green and decorated with flowery curtains and cushions. Out the window, there was a distant view of the sands stretching to the ruined castle at Piel Island. It wasn’t much, but it was mine – some of the time.

I was turfed out of my ‘home’ anytime my parents were able to get a week’s rent for it. Then it was back to the miniscule room of my childhood in their three-bedder. Most of what I owned (clothes, books and notes from my uni days, the guitar I rarely played) was packed up and stored in one of the site’s sheds. There was no sense in unpacking and repacking it every time I rotated caravans.

We weren’t travelling caravaners – my parents ran Paradise Point as a holiday park – but the result for me was a nomadic feeling, albeit a nomad stuck in the sinking sands of Walney.

‘But …’ I said. ‘What about … ?’

I didn’t finish my sentence, but Mum rounded on me like I’d started an argument.

‘Renting this place out is what puts food on the table, my girl.’ Her voice was shrill, her lips pinched. ‘Don’t you forget it. It’s not your own personal hidey-hole. For that matter, I don’t know why I’m the one cleaning.’ She threw down her rag. ‘It’s your mess, you can clean it up.’

Anger made my jaw tighten and my scalp prickle. Was it so much to ask – to have a place that was mine? A caravan of one’s own, in Virginia Woolf’s parlance?

I had a fleeting image of what Jem would say in this situation: the devastating effect of her brazen laughter, her cutting sarcasm.

I wasn’t Jem, though. And I was too tired to be drawn into the same argument.

‘Okay, I’ll do it,’ I said in a monotone.

I shuffled over to the kitchen. In a normal house, that might have been ten or twenty paces. In my caravan, it was exactly three steps. I picked up the rag and pushed it robotically over the kitchen counter.

My mum let out a sighing breath, as if she were disappointed, even though she’d won. I’d seen pictures of my mum in her youth: big smile, matched by a big blonde 90s bouffant. She’d been a bombshell. Nowadays, Mum seemed literally faded: hair clipped into a bob; smile dimmed into something closer to a grimace. Maybe that was what life on Walney did to a person.

She leaned in close and, for a moment, I thought she was going to kiss me goodnight, like I was a child again. Instead, she swiped her thumb across my orangey-red lips.

‘I don’t like that colour,’ she said. ‘It’s cheap.’

Punch-Ups and Hook-Ups: Double App Sparks Mayhem

Roxanna Norris – DAZZL! Magazine

“It was just a laugh, right?” the sombre young man tells me over coffee. “Everyone I know has played on that app, so I put my photo on there, too. Turns out my double only lives 50 miles away. Crazy, right? I was sceptical, but he really does look like me. Obviously I had to meet him.”

The lad I’ll call Ryan hangs his head, clearly wishing he could go back and change the past. Ryan is now facing charges that could put him in prison for five years. There’s a tag on his ankle and a thousand-yard stare in his blue eyes. All because he “met his double”, Jake (not his real name), through the popular app MeetYourDouble.

“We went out for a pint,” Ryan says. “It was a riot. Everyone stopped to talk to us, telling us we looked exactly like twins, couldn’t believe we weren’t related. The lasses loved it. I got so many numbers that night.”

Before the night was over, things went from fun to frightening.

“I’m not gonna pretend I was stone-cold sober,” Ryan says, “but Jake was wasted. Started ranting and raving, about how he was one of a kind and I was an imposter. He challenged me to an arm wrestle – to prove he’s better, y’know? – and, when I won, he freaked out. I swear he threw the first punch.”

Ryan’s adamant about this, but some bystanders claim it was Ryan who initially attacked Jake. The incident escalated into a brawl. One onlooker captured part of the scene on his phone. The footage – which has racked up more than a million views on YouTube – shows Ryan and Jake rolling around on the floor of a pub, kicking, punching and screaming at one another. It’s just another bar fight, except for the uncanny fact that the lads look identical.

Double vs. double; ding, ding, ding, round one.

What once seemed like an innocent craze has officially taken a sinister turn. Pull up the MeetYourDouble app and you’ll find smiling photos of people posing with their doppelgangers. Now those photos are joined by a sober checklist: safety precautions that users should undertake when meeting their doubles offline. They include: meet in a public place, bring a friend with you, make sure your phone is charged, in case you need to call for help.

And maybe meet for bubble tea instead of tequila slammers, eh?

The so-called “brawling doubles” video, involving Ryan and Jake, might be the most high-profile incident connected to MeetYourDouble, but DAZZL! has dug up more dirt on the app. Think its users simply meet up and go frolicking hand-in-hand? Think again.

Our research reveals scores of doppelgangers behaving badly. For one young woman, her double didn’t turn out to be her best friend – more like her worst enemy. She claims her double stole her boyfriend. She actually walked in on the two of them having sex! (Yes, it still counts as cheating, even if the other girl has the same face as your girlfriend …)

That’s not the only tryst linked to the app, either. One proudly-gay user is even dating his double. Talk about a modern-day Narcissus! “We’re in love. It was all meant to be,” the lad revealed to us in a telephone interview. Crikey! We’re big supporters of same-sex marriage, but isn’t this definition of ‘same’ a bit literal? Maybe, if you’re looking for love, stick with Tinder.

Downloading MeetYourDouble could pierce your heart – or rupture your bank balance. A contact at the Metropolitan Police reveals that fraud cases linked to the doppelganger app are on the rise.

No one likes getting their monthly bills and bank statements, but what if that envelope on your doormat is an overdraft notice for a bank account you never knew about? You might swear blind it’s not your account – your ID was stolen – but what if the bank has video footage of a person who looks like you, opening up the account? This is the legal quandary facing dozens of MeetYourDouble users who allege they’ve been duped by doppelgangers that stole their identity.

MeetYourDouble provided the following statement: “We would like to remind users to stay vigilant when meeting their doubles offline. Negative incidents represent an extremely small proportion of the interactions facilitated by the MeetYourDouble app. Thousands of doppelgangers have had positive experiences using our platform to meet their doubles – and we’d like to continue our mission of bringing people together.”

Bringing people together or bringing people a whole heap of trouble?

These days, it seems, doppelgangers are less doppeldo and more doppeldon’t. Our online poll found that fifty-nine percent of you think that the double trend is on the wane, while thirty-four percent think the MeetYourDouble app should be shut down entirely.

Chapter 9 – The Right Place


‘Checking in?’

The receptionist, a tall blonde with high cheekbones, lifted her eyebrows. Though she was smiling, I caught a hint of sarcasm in her expression. I was dressed smartly, in my best M&S pencil skirt and suit jacket, but still I didn’t belong here. A man in crisp tennis whites elbowed past, apparently without even noticing me.

‘I have an appointment with Mrs Brannan?’ I said.

The receptionist wasn’t even bothering to fake-smile now.

‘Oh, the job interview.’ She waved a manicured hand at the Swedish-looking leather chairs that lined the wall. ‘Take a seat.’

It was a long wait.

Perhaps it was part of the interview process. A psychological test. They were sweating me out.

Or maybe I just wasn’t worth hurrying over.

For its guests, the hotel was an oasis of effortless chic, selling a version of Cumbria I didn’t recognise. Huge photographs on the walls showed the fells, a preternatural light making the grass glow green, the rock faces gold. The Irish sea stretched out in the distance, mist rendering it ethereal. Stylised lettering over the reception desk read, Welcome to Eden!

Classical music, faint and non-threatening, filtered through the hotel lobby, offset by the sound of a burbling water feature. The marble beneath my feet was caramel-coloured and polished to a high shine. It reminded me of Jem’s apartment block.

I grabbed a magazine from the stack on the table. On the cover, a blonde actress gave an open-mouthed smile, like it was the best day of her life. DAZZL! Magazine. Celebrity gossip and lifestyle chatter. A little downmarket for a place like this, but I guessed rich people liked to slum it sometimes.

My eyes skimmed over the pages as I twitched from article to article. Nervous energy. It was the piece about MeetYourDouble that stopped me. I read it breathlessly, hunching over the magazine. Then I glanced up at the receptionist, paranoid that she might be watching me for a reaction. My face flushed, but she either wasn’t looking or was pretending she hadn’t been.

It was only a month ago, but already the weekend with Jem in London seemed more like a hallucination than a memory. I could still recall the tingling sensation of euphoria, of power, as I’d stalked through the party like I owned the place, but the feeling was faint now. It was something that had happened to another person.

Cumbria was my real life. The real me.

I razored a thumbnail along the spine of the article. Glancing again at the receptionist – she wasn’t looking; she was playing with her phone – I tore out the page. Part of me wanted to keep it, tuck it away under my bed for safekeeping; another part of me wanted to shred it into a million pieces.

Instead, I began to fold it. Each careful crease produced a sharp edge. A few minutes of folding and I held in my hand a crane. I puffed up its wings with my finger. Fly away, little bird, fly away.

Owen, my ex, had been mad on origami. Whenever he came over to my house in Durham, he left presents for me: a rabbit in the cereal box, a tortoise in the bathtub. I’d kept a few of them, but the colourful paper had grown faded in the three years since uni. Where was Owen now? Did paper rabbits still peer out of his cereal boxes?

The two of us met in a queue. Five years ago. The line of people snaked all the way around the side of a brick building; so long that it should’ve been a queue for a concert or a rollercoaster ride. It wasn’t. It was just a queue.

Our story wasn’t a meet-cute. Not a tale for the grandkids. Yet fate threw us together, one dreary day as we queued. Owen was damp-haired from his morning swim; I was one step behind, looking for reassurance. ‘This is the right place, right?’

I bit my lip and then stopped myself, remembering my lipstick. It was my first day on campus and I wore a cornflower-blue dress, with lips stained red. Looking around, I realised I’d tried too hard. The other girls were effortless in jeans and T-shirts; I was playing at being grown-up, sexy. Yet Owen smiled at me and something fluttered in my stomach.

‘Need to get your student ID?’ he said. ‘Yeah, you’re in the right place.’

Later that day, Owen kissed away what remained of my lipstick. Later that year, he became the only thing in my life worth living for. But, just then, we queued – impatient, bored, excited – and waited for our lives to begin.

‘Miss Mosier?’ the receptionist called.

My hand closed around the paper crane. I tucked it into my suit jacket pocket and stood up.

‘It says on your application you attended Durham University, but you … didn’t graduate. Is that right?’

‘Um, yes.’

Mrs Brannan was fiftyish, with glasses and greying brown hair that feathered to her shoulders. When I’d introduced myself, she’d given an unfocused smile, like she already knew me. Maybe she did. We were 15 miles from Walney and still everyone knew everyone. That was the way of it in these parts.

Her accent was broad Cumbrian, but she tripped over herself in attempts to emphasise every word. It was an obvious move to sound ‘posh’. It made me think of Jem’s coaching. In my pocket, the crane still wanted to fly away.

‘Academia wasn’t a good fit,’ I said. ‘I’m more … practical.’

I’d practised that answer. To add to the effect, I tried out my new smile.

‘Great, great,’ Mrs Brannan said, her teeth clicking over the end of each word. ‘As I’m sure you’re aware, this is a very important role.’

‘Yes …’

We were seated in her office and the glamour of the reception area was noticeably absent here. It was barely big enough to house a desk and two chairs. The yellow paint gave the impression of an institution. The only thing that persuaded me it wasn’t a converted broom cupboard was the small window that overlooked the hotel’s gardens.

‘A pivotal role.’ She sliced a hand through the air. ‘You know, I started in this role when I was your age.’

‘Wow,’ I said, trying to hold my sarcasm in check, ‘and you’ve really … come a long way.’

‘That’s exactly right.’ She gave an encouraging nod. ‘The sky’s the limit. It really is. There are so many ways you can go in the hotel industry. Small hotels, big hotels. Country estates, boutique hotels. You’re lucky to live here, it’s really a hotspot in the hospitality industry.’

I forced another smile, nodding along with her. Yes, chambermaid in a hotel was my dream job. I was lucky. So lucky.

I didn’t mind cleaning toilets. I was good at scrubbing floors. But the fakeness of the hotel industry bothered me. This was the Lake District for outsiders, packaging up Cumbria as a product. The rich people who swanned through this hotel didn’t know the brittle cold of the winds that blew in from the Arctic in February. They didn’t have sandbags for when the floods came. They didn’t know what it was to look out at the wide open spaces of Cumbria and feel hemmed in by them.

Mrs Brannan scrutinised my application form.

‘You’ve held … various jobs over the last few years.’ She gave me a well-now-young-lady frown. ‘We’re not big fans of churn here.’

‘It’s unfortunate,’ I said. ‘Those jobs weren’t a good fit.’

I was repeating myself, but what else was I supposed to say?

I’d worked in a clothing shop in Barrow-in-Furness, until my voice had taken on a shrill edge every time I said ‘Perfect!’ or ‘Right away!’

‘I’d like to try this on …’


‘Can you get me a bigger size?’

‘Right away!’

‘I need to return this dress, even though I bought it two years ago and there’s a stain on the crotch …’


‘My baby’s crying because she doesn’t like your face, can you change it for me?’

‘Right away!’

I’d worked in a big-box pet shop, until I’d begun to feel I had too much in common with the snuffling animals trapped behind glass. In a call centre, where I’d been a customer care representative for a homewares firm proud not to outsource, I was required to say ‘Yes, of course’ in a reassuring Cumbrian accent, while old ladies yelled at me about their crockery.

My best job had been at an arts venue, run as a non-profit, in the countryside near the southern edge of Lake Windermere, not far from this hotel. It was an asymmetrical, steel-and-glass building; part space-age, part Mondrian. Offbeat theatre companies rolled through every week in the summer and there were revolving exhibits of modern art.

I only worked serving drinks, at the boho-chic café/wine bar attached to the venue, but I liked the atmosphere of the place. It hosted open mic nights sometimes. I was working up the nerve to bring along my guitar and perform. One day.

The venue only represented culture on a small scale, but it was still culture. At least it provided a glimpse of people from outside the Walney bubble. I remembered a performance by a London theatre group of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that somehow involved a lot of hula-hooping. After a Saturday matinee performance, one of the actors – androgynous, his mass of curly blond hair tamed in a manbun – leaned across the bar to speak to me.

‘Must be so inspiring,’ he said.


‘Living here. All this scenery. Eden.’

He cast a glance outside, through the slanted windows. For a moment, I saw it as he did. It was June and sunny. Mountains slumbered in the distance and there were oceans of lush greenery. I tried to hang on to that mindset. Afterwards, I wrote a couple of poems-slash-songs about nature, but when I read them back, they sounded insipid. It was fine for Wordsworth to lose himself in nature, but I wanted to write about –

noise and bustle and dancing in the dark, city streets that changed past midnight, foxes sloping home as we were just getting started

– life.

What was so great about Eden? Eve got so bored she ate the apple.

Mrs Brannan interrupted my spiralling thoughts.

‘I don’t like to judge anyone based on a piece of paper.’

She reached over and patted my arm. I tried my best to return her smile. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of the Cumbrian landscape. It was not the picture of life painted by the photographs in the lobby. On this November day, the icy-grey sky threatened rain; the tree branches were knobbly and bare.

A few weeks after A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the arts venue, before I ever found the courage to sing at an open mic, the non-profit lost its funding and had to close. The building was sold and turned into yet another hotel. The job went away, like so many before. It became more ellipses on my spotty CV.

‘I’m all about work ethic,’ Mrs Brannan was saying. ‘Work hard and you’ll be rewarded.’

‘Mmm,’ I said.

Mrs Brannan finally noticed I wasn’t paying attention. Her lips pursed.

‘Hard work,’ she said, louder. ‘That’s the message that gets lost for young people these days. Want everything handed to ’em.’ Her careful enunciation was going by the wayside as she picked up steam. ‘Like they’ll get a medal just for showing up. That’s not how the world is. You take what you can get and you’re happy with it.’

I gave her a hard stare. Blood drummed in my ears.

Was it so wrong to want more than the bare minimum? Three hundred miles away in London, Jem took what she wanted. She’d never sit here in this cramped office, kowtowing to a frumpy old woman for the chance to scrub toilets.

‘Don’t just sit around and wait for things to be handed to you,’ Mrs Brannan said, her eyes bugging out.

‘I don’t. Just sit around,’ I said through clenched teeth.

Fuck this job.

Fuck this doll’s house of a hotel.

I wanted more. I deserved more.

Chapter 10 – Live, Love, Ugh


‘Now, Ella’ – Mrs Brannan exhaled a long breath through her nose – ‘the staff at this hotel are very close-knit. I worry you won’t be a good fit.’

You’re damn right I wouldn’t be a good fit.

I almost stood up and walked out. I almost did it.

Then I heard my mother’s voice at the back of my mind. You need this job. We need it.

Just because I never got the degree didn’t mean my student debt had been wiped away. I’d maxed out credit cards to pay for food and rent at uni and, even years later, I was still underwater. My parents, too, had gone into debt to help pay for my great shining experience of a university education. Our debt connected us as much as our blood.

The caravan park wasn’t much of an earner and, thanks to a bad back, Dad could no longer pick up casual work as a handyman. My parents, as well as my younger brother, relied on what little I earned from my sporadic employment.

We need this.

‘Sorry, I’m just a bit nervous,’ I said.

In Mrs Brannan’s office, I cleared my throat, concentrating on keeping my voice level. I pushed my anger all the way down into my belly.

‘But I really feel like I could fit in here, do a good job,’ I said. ‘I love a challenge, I’m good at learning new things.’ I could hear my voice becoming a robotic drone. ‘I really like to teach myself things. I’ve learned how to play the guitar and that’s one of those skills that really requires practice and dedication …’

Mrs Brannan’s eyes were glazing over. She didn’t want to know about me. She already had an impression of me fixed in her head. Feckless, don’t-give-a-fuck young person. Millennial slacker.

Who was I to try and change her mind?

My old-banger of a car rattled a warning as I drove away from the hotel. Whenever I went above 50 mph, it felt like the seats might drop out the bottom of the car and hit the road while the wheels kept on going. Today I didn’t care enough to worry about it breaking down. I hit the accelerator and let the rattling settle into my body, my teeth chattering, my skull bouncing on my neck.

A familiar weariness swept over me as I drove through Barrow-in-Furness, following the signs for Walney Island. Light rain had begun to splatter across the windscreen.

‘It’s not even a real island!’ one of the girls I worked with at a clothes shop in Barrow had once said, with narrowed eyes, as if I were lying about my hometown.

My father would have turned purple at the accusation. ‘Of course it’s an island! It has a proud heritage dating back to the Bronze Age!’

In the shop, folding ugly clothes, I’d shrugged and turned away, saying nothing.

Technically, Dad was right. At five square miles, Walney was the largest of a cluster of islands off the Cumbrian coast. However, a hulking concrete road bridge connected it to Barrow on the mainland. It was an open secret that the bridge was decrepit and, with no public funds to repair it, when it finally caved in on itself, it would set our island adrift for real. Until then, we were tethered; the bridge like a baby’s arm flung out, clutching at his mother’s skirts.

My car juddered across the bridge. Tides were low and the channel below had turned into an expanse of pock-marked sands. Instead of veering left toward Snab Point and the caravan park, I headed right, into the maze of identikit brick houses that formed the bulk of Walney. Its settlements might date back to the Bronze Age, but most of the island looked like it had been built wholesale in 1975.

I parked in front of one of the brown houses and got out. The drizzle had turned to rain while I’d been driving.

‘Why didn’t you text me?’ Bethany said when she opened the door. ‘I’m on tender hooks!’

Tender hooks, not tenterhooks. It made me think of fat pink slabs of meat hanging in a butcher’s window. Tender. Hooks.

‘How did it go?’ she asked, her eyes bulging.

I pushed a lock of hair out of my face, blinking away drops of rain.

‘I got it.’

Bethany let out a squeal and flung her arms around me. It was an awkward manoeuvre, since we had to hug around the wailing three-year-old that clung to her neck and the basketball that protruded from her belly. I disentangled myself and edged past her into the dry hallway. She hadn’t actually remembered to invite me inside.

‘We’ll be working together, this is so exciting!’ she said, loud enough to be heard over the clamour of her child. She nudged the front door closed and deposited Talia on the floor. ‘You walk like a big girl now.’

‘Thanks for putting in a good word for me,’ I said, but Bethany was focused on three-year-old Talia.

The little girl shuffled through to the living room and I shuffled after her. Talia had an eerie mini-me look to her: the same flat brown eyes as her mother, the same smattering of freckles, the same red-tinged hair that Bethany swore was chestnut, not ginger. Today, Beth’s chestnut-not-ginger hair clashed with her pink bathrobe. She heaved herself down onto the sofa and Talia clambered up to sit on her lap.

‘So when do you start?’ Bethany asked.

I perched beside her and tentatively placed my leather shoulder bag (it looked like leather if you didn’t get too close) on top of a pile of (clean? dirty?) laundry.

‘Tomorrow,’ I said. ‘I guess they need people desperately.’

She nodded. ‘To be honest, it’s a bit of a crap job, babe. But Mrs B’s not too bad. And last Christmas, they had a big party for us. Champagne and everything.’

Bethany broke into a grin at the memory. She looked fourteen when she smiled. Not like a mum-of-two and a part-time chambermaid. She transformed back into the girl who could conjugate French verbs faster than anyone in our class. The girl who dotted her i’s with tiny hearts and swore that, when she was older, she was going to live in Monte Carlo with a handsome French lover.

The smile dimmed when Talia bonked her on the head with a magic wand. Bethany wrestled it out of her hands. (‘Don’t hit Mummy!’) The wand was plastic. It had a star that lit up in rainbow colours. When you pressed a button, it played a tinny electronic version of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle’.

I glanced around the room. Brightly-coloured cartoons leapt from the TV, their soundtrack held at bay by the mute button. On the mantelpiece, wedding photos of Bethany and Stuart jostled for space alongside tarnished football trophies. A mass-produced sign advised, live, love, laugh. The ‘la’ of the last word was obscured by a smear of what was either Nutella or poo, so it actually read, live, love, ugh.

‘You get that picture I sent you?’ Bethany asked.

‘Which one?’ I said, even though I knew.

‘I want it.’ Between us on the sofa, Talia was grabbing at the wand. ‘Mummy, I waaant it.’

Bethany hesitated, then gave the child an indulgent smile and let her take the wand back. ‘No hitting,’ she said without conviction. To me, she said, ‘C’mon, he’s cute. He’s a mate of Stu’s from work. He has a job and everything.’

He’s cute. He has a job. He has everything. If Prince Charming were on Tinder, that was probably what his bio would say.

‘Hold me, lemme find my phone,’ she said, excitement flooding her cheeks with pink. ‘I’ll show you his Insta.’

She lifted Talia off her lap and plonked her down on my knee. ‘Look after missus here, would you?’ Bethany’s pregnant belly swelled into view as she levered herself up off the sofa. ‘Thanks, babe. I think have to wee again. Every ten minutes, I swear.’

Without waiting for a reply, Bethany waddled out of the room. Talia gave me a long searching look and then bopped me on the head with her magic wand. I grabbed her under her arms and jiggled her, hoping this might distract her. She giggled and bopped me on the head again.

I sighed, my eye caught once more by the wedding photos on the mantel. Stuart, Bethany’s husband, was in our year at school. He used to draw dicks all over the textbooks. His BO was legendary and he once pissed himself during a football match. Now he and Bethany had a house. They had a baby and another one on the way. How had we all got so grown up so quickly?

When Bethany got back, thumbing distractedly up the screen of her phone, Talia was crying and no amount of knee-jiggling from me was making her stop.

‘My waaaan’ … I wan’ my waaaaaan’,’ Talia wailed.

Bethany leaned in and swooped up Talia, patting her on the back.

‘What does she want?’ she asked.

‘I don’t know,’ I said.

‘My waaaaaaaaan’!’

‘Oh, her wand. God, where did that bloody thing go?’

Bethany and I searched the sofa – underneath, in between the cushions – but with no luck. As Talia continued to wail, I fumbled in my suit jacket pocket for the origami crane. I held it up for her to see, using my fingers to flap its wings.

‘You want it?’ I gave an encouraging smile.

Talia’s sobs calmed fractionally. Her chest still heaved, but she gave a tremulous nod. I placed the crane in her sweaty little hand. She stared at it for a long moment. Then she ripped its head off.

‘Bad girl! Very bad girl!’ Bethany swatted at the child. To me, she said, ‘She’s not good with anything breakable, y’know? It’s Stuart’s genes. Destructive bugger.’

‘It’s fine,’ I said. ‘No problem.’

Talia’s crying renewed and Bethany hugged her close, swinging her from side to side. I picked up Bethany’s battered pink phone, which had fallen onto the sofa cushion beside me. From the smudged screen, a skinny guy stood beside a barbecue and gave a gangster scowl.

‘Cute, right?’ Bethany said, as Talia’s wailing reduced to the odd hiccup.

I shrugged.

‘Keep scrolling!’

I did as I was told, finding more photos of the lad looking would-be tough in various other places (in a dingy pub, at a packed football stadium).

‘He’s dying to meet you. Want me to give you his number?’

‘Sure,’ I said, faking a smile, knowing I’d never message him.

This was how it was in Walney. Unless you got out, you settled for the way things were. You carved out a career with the council or the NHS, and hoped public-sector cuts didn’t gut your job. Maybe you ventured into the vast ivory boxes hiding secrets of nuclear submarines. I’d hoped my degree might vault me into a career I could brag about on Facebook. Not a work-a-day job, but something I was passionate about. Of course, I didn’t have the requisite degree (just the debt), and the need for money trumped passion.

As Bethany had done, maybe I should look elsewhere for satisfaction. I should hook myself a Stuart, pop out a kid or three. Maybe that would make me happy.

I kept scrolling through the photos, just for something to do.

My eyes glazed over, the surly blue-eyed lad replaced by a fleeting memory of Katsu wearing a half-smile. His hands rested on my hips, sending shivers through my thighs. In my mind, he licked his lips and leaned toward me.

I shook my head and dropped the phone. Katsu wasn’t mine. He would never be mine.

‘So Miss Moneybags with the new job, what are you up to at the weekend?’ Bethany asked.

‘Not much.’

‘Oh my god, lucky. I need to bloody clone myself, I’m so busy. Did I tell you about Stu’s mum coming to visit? Claims she wants to see her grandbaby then won’t even lift a finger …’

Bethany unmuted the TV for Talia to watch, and a jingle for breakfast cereal fought for dominance over her voice. I nodded sympathetically as she talked about how her midwife was a bitch and pregnancy was making her constipated and Stu was never home and life life life life life.

‘So what do you think?’

I’d zoned out and missed the first part of the question, but I nodded automatically. ‘Yeah …’

‘Babe, you’re a lifesaver.’

‘Ummm …’

‘Talia would looove some time with her Auntie Ella.’

Oh, shit. I’d agreed to babysit again, hadn’t I?

I’d known Bethany since I was 11 and still I could never figure out if my quote, unquote best friend was a master manipulator or if moments like this were accidental. She always seemed to catch me unawares and make me believe I’d agreed to babysit or help her weed the garden or give her a lift to see her other friends.

‘You’re so excited to hang out with Auntie Ella on Saturday, aren’t you, bubs?’ she said to Talia, who was whimpering and beating her fists against Bethany’s chest. Maybe in toddler terms that meant excitement.

My car lurched to a stop in the empty gravel parking area outside Paradise Point. Opening the car door, I had to duck my head against the rain and run toward my caravan. Its green exterior looked grubby in the fading light, but at least it was mine again. No more visitors wanting rentals now that it was November. My heart lifted. For a few months, it was a little slice of home belonging to me.

All I wanted to do was change out of my polyester suit skirt and wash off the layer of stickiness that coated my hands after an hour at Bethany’s house.

I turned my key in the lock, but it was already open.

Paranoia welled up inside me. Hadn’t I locked it? I wasn’t forgetting things again, was I?

When I opened the door, there was a man inside. He cast me a sidelong glance that suggested I was trespassing.

I edged in the door and put down my faux-leather bag.

‘You been fiddling with this again?’ he asked, poking at the heater with a screwdriver.

‘It wasn’t working …’ I said.

‘You’ve been overusing it, that’s why it’s packed up again.’

Dad banged the screwdriver against the metal exterior for emphasis and I flinched. Of course. If there was a way for it to be my fault, it had to be my fault. Why on earth would you actually want a working heater in winter?

‘Sorry,’ I said automatically.

‘Don’t be sorry, just don’t do it again.’

Don’t use the heater? Was that Dad’s solution?

He dropped the screwdriver into his toolbox and slapped it shut.

‘You get the job?’ he asked as an afterthought.

Dad was stocky, with a greying beard and thinning hair. He had a permanent stoop, like something heavy was pressing down on him.

I raked a hand through my wet hair and shrugged out of my itchy blazer.

‘Yeah, I got it.’

‘Well, thank Christ for that.’ He heaved up his toolbox and a twinge of pain showed on his face. ‘Time to get on and do something with your life, young lady.’

No well done, Ella. No I know things are hard for you, but …

Dad was a hardy Northern bloke through and through. It would never occur to him to sugar-coat anything.

I murmured ‘Yes, Dad’ and stepped aside to let him out.

When he was gone, I changed into jeans and a sweatshirt, but I couldn’t get back the feeling of returning home. I saw the caravan as it really was: dusty floral curtains, stained worktops; a bed that sank in the middle. All the cheap plastic kitchenware was borrowed from my parents; the crocheted blankets on the bed had belonged to my nan. Everything was a cast-off. I was a squatter.

‘So you’re, like, a traveller?’

When I was at uni, I scrupulously avoided talking about my home life. Those friends I did eventually tell asked this question in hushed tones. (Those that weren’t woke enough to know that it was a slur asked if I was a gypsy.)

‘No, no,’ I said.

It was tempting to lie. The idea of being Romani at least had a mystique to it: firing up the caravan and trundling onward every few months, recapturing a romantic past of covered wagons and nomadic heritage.

‘It’s just a bunch of static caravans,’ I said. ‘Holidaymakers and stuff. My parents run the place.’

‘Ohhh …’

Disappointment and confusion clouded their eyes. Most had no idea what a static caravan was – if their family had a second home, it was more likely to be a villa in Provence, not a tin box on the Cumbrian coast – and those that did found the idea a bit, well, common. I watched them grope around for a reaction. Usually it was some variation on: ‘Living there must be like being on holiday all the time!’

I gave a tight smile in response. ‘Right.’

On the roof of the little green caravan, rain drummed an insistent rhythm. Inside, a trickle of moisture ran down the wall, betraying a leak. Maybe if the job at the hotel worked out, I could earn enough to get my own flat. One with real walls and real heating and a roof that didn’t leak.

I slumped onto the bed, emptying out the contents of my leather-not-leather handbag. The spark of optimism was already dying. My parents would hate the idea. Their finances were so precarious, they relied on me to contribute. That wasn’t all of it, of course. They liked me close by. They needed to check up on me.

The truth whispered to me: they didn’t trust me to live alone.

Next to me on the bed, I tossed aside the old tissues and the dog-chewed hairbrush that had fallen out of my bag. I picked up the magic wand. When I turned it on, a rainbow of colours flickered over the shadowy walls of the caravan. A tinny rendition of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle’ unsettled the air. I waved the plastic wand and closed my eyes.

When I opened them again, everything had stayed exactly the same.

Chapter 11 – Keep Going


I woke up on a train travelling too fast. I had no idea where I was or where I was going.

The coarse red fabric of the seat back scratched at my cheek as I struggled into an upright position. Out the window, rows of poxy-boxy houses flashed by. The speed of it all made my stomach churn. When I pressed a hand against my middle, it aggravated a different pain. Bruised ribs. Broken ribs?

‘We will shortly be arriving into Rossington,’ a voice announced over the loudspeaker. ‘The next station will be Rossington.’

Rossington? Yeah, still no idea. At least I knew I was in mainland Britain. I hadn’t accidentally woken up in Amsterdam. Although, on second thought, Amsterdam had the distinct advantage of being A Long Fucking Way Away.

I leaned forward, wincing as my brain rattled against my skull.

‘Where’s this train going?’ I asked the man in the seat in front of me.

‘Hull,’ he said.


Amsterdam was definitely feeling like a better bet than my current circumstances.


The man, a middle-aged wanker in a business suit, tapped officiously on his scruffy-looking laptop to show that I was bothering him.

‘Well, you know the old saying’ – I summoned a jovial smile – ‘if you’re going through Hull, keep going.’

Tap, tap. He ignored me. My smile faded and I sank back in my seat.

The smell of last night’s whiskey was oozing out of my pores. My ribs hurt. My head ached. And an unfamiliar sensation twisted in my stomach: fear.

My life was in shambles.

I still owed Carlo ten grand.

I couldn’t go back to London.

At the next station, people shuffled off the train, their seats filled by identikit replacements. A businessman took the place of a businessman. A mother and child slid into seats vacated by a mother and child.

To be on a train was to be nowhere at all. Not a person, just a body packed into a slow-motion form of teleportation. It was a relief.

The train began to move again, onward to the fiery pits of Hull. When I was a teenager, before I passed my driving test, I used to take trains a lot. I figured out a hole in the space-time continuum. This discovery was so ingenious, there should’ve been a Nobel Prize for it. If I told my mum I was spending the weekend at my dad’s house, and I told my dad I was staying with my mum, it basically meant that I disappeared. Poof! Into thin air.

I made it into a game. I’d go to a station in London and get on whichever train was leaving next. To Colchester, Totnes, Newcastle – I didn’t care, as long as it was Elsewhere. Depending on my whims, I’d get a fleabag room above a pub, or a suite at a hotel (paid for with Mother’s credit card). Usually, my dear parents would get their facts straight and figure it all out. But, more than once, I came home on Monday or Tuesday and they hadn’t even missed me.

The train to Hull bore that persistent smell of new plastic and old trainers that I remembered from journeys past. The smell brought up feelings of loneliness and desperation.

I scrabbled under my seat, locating my bag. At least I hadn’t lost it. Ignoring the fact that I’d landed in the quiet carriage, I pulled out my phone and scrolled through my contacts list.

‘Hey, what’s up?’ Katz said.

His voice was muffled by distance and maybe the fact that someone had aimed a kick at my temple. I switched my phone to the other ear.

‘Just having the time of my life here in Rossington,’ I said.

Katsu was silent. On the train, a woman shushed her wailing child. The loudspeaker informed us that the refreshments trolley was now serving snot muffins and pigswill.

‘Seriously, where are you?’ Katsu said.

‘I’m nowhere.’

I stretched, cat-like, in my seat, and then regretted it when my muscles pulled painfully.

‘Okay, cool.’ Katsu’s voice was flat. ‘So you’re either on a train or you’ve invested in a very sophisticated sound effects setup.’

‘Yeah, do you want me to switch to farmyard sounds or French brothel?’

I took a deep breath and launched into my best impression of a courtesan’s orgasm. The man who’d told me we were going to Hull turned around in his seat and gave me a filthy look. Pervert. Probably liked it.

Katsu cut me off as I was getting into the swing of my act.

‘Hilarious,’ he said, without laughing.

‘I’m going to Hull,’ I said. ‘Come meet me?’

When I was 17, on one of my jaunts across the country, I called Katz and said, ‘I’m on a beach in Broadstairs. Come meet me?’

I did it because I was bored and lonely and K was closer to the beginning of the alphabet than M (Matthew) or S (Steven) or the initials of any of the other boys I was stringing along at the time.

An hour later, he texted me from the train. He actually came. All the way to Broadstairs. It was out of season and the only people on the seafront were old timers who’d probably never before seen an Asian kid with purple hair and an eyebrow piercing. He ambled across the wet sand toward me. His face did a cute little frowny thing.

‘I was worried,’ he said. ‘Didn’t think you should be here on your own.’

We walked along the beach (grey skies, pretty in a monochrome sort of way). I dared him to go for a swim (he got knee deep before he ran back inland, bellowing laughter). We ate chips off a missing girl’s faded newsprint face, and I guess it was our first date.

On the train, I listened to the quiet rhythm of Katz’s breathing on the other end of the call.

‘Come meet me,’ I said again.

‘For God’s sake,’ he muttered. ‘You’ve done this so many times.’

If I weren’t hungover, if I weren’t bruised, if I weren’t frightened, his words wouldn’t have stung. I’d have given a nasty laugh and told him to fuck off. But today his cold tone chilled me.

‘Come on, let’s tear it up in Hull together.’ I was trying to sound breezy, but I only sounded pathetic.

Jesus Christ, was I crying? I blinked rapidly to get rid of the tears.

‘Haha,’ he said – not a laugh but a statement. ‘I have to be in the lab all day.’ He paused. ‘See you Sunday, yeah?’

I grunted. Did we have plans for Sunday? I had no idea.

We’d been stuck in an on-again-off-again relationship for eight years now. He was different these days – grown up, no more purple hair, not into the party scene anymore – but he still looked at me the way he did that day in Broadstairs. Soppy and worried and all knotted up inside.

I did stupid stuff and Katsu humoured me. That was how it worked.

‘Where are you going really?’ he prompted, a sigh in his voice.

I imagined him making that frowny little face again, but I didn’t want to find it cute anymore. He was supposed to come when I called. That was how it worked.

My eyes had dried up now. My lips pressed together in a sneer.

‘Nowhere,’ I said.

I ended the call and tossed my phone back into my bag. Seconds later, I felt the dull vibration of an incoming call travel down my leg. I ignored it. I was busy climbing through a hole in the space-time continuum. I didn’t have time for useless boyfriends.

The trolley trundled down the aisle and I grabbed a dishwater cup of coffee. My stomach clenched and a little vomit bubbled at the back of my throat. I forced myself to keep drinking. Caffeine leeched into my bloodstream. My headache eased. Unfortunately, the details of my current predicament came roaring back to me at the same time.

Yesterday, the day from hell, I started my morning at the police station on Earls Court Road. I know what you’re thinking, but I was the victim.

I leaned across the reception desk and banged my fists on its grubby white surface.

‘Someone stole my car!’

‘Take a seat, please, Madam.’ The horse-faced woman stabled behind a computer monitor spoke without looking at me.

‘My’ – I banged my fist – ‘brand’ – bang – ‘new’ – bang – ‘car!’

My brand-new car, with not an insubstantial amount of coke stashed in the glove compartment. I didn’t say that. But withdrawal wasn’t helping my mood.

I wasn’t a princess about my possessions. I didn’t drive a spotless Range Rover around the mean streets of West London. I didn’t drop ten-grand on a handbag. But I loved my cute little VW Bug, its candy-yellow shell like a Smartie. When I’d got up to go to the theatre, it was gone.

Horse-face behind the desk twitched her gaze over to me. Maybe she realised I wasn’t just another scrubber who could be ignored. I stared her down from behind Chanel sunglasses and drummed my fingers against the desk.

‘Name and licence plate?’ she said.

Moments later, she’d dredged up a report from the depths of the computer system.

‘There’s a claim on it,’ she said, tapping the keyboard.

‘What does that mean?’ I asked with a huff.

‘Hasn’t been stolen, it’s been repossessed.’

‘That can’t be possible,’ I said, my voice rising. ‘Check again.’

What followed was what my mother would call ‘a scene’. I hammered my fists on the desk. I shouted loud enough to spook the horse-faced woman. Another pig, a balding bruiser, appeared. He tried to lead me out of the police station and, when he laid a hand on me, I screamed bloody murder.

Of course, it was all for show. I didn’t want to scurry out of there with my tail between my legs. Better to leave with threats of arrest than admit to a bunch of strangers that my car really had been repo’ed – and I knew who was responsible.

It was what my mother would call ‘a lesson’. Mother had never bothered to do much parenting when I was a kid, but now I was an adult, she couldn’t stop meddling in my business. I still got my allowance from her (a measly few thousand a month), but she wouldn’t lend me any money on top of it.

‘You need to learn the value of money. You need to do something with your life.’

She’d sent the bailiffs round to get my car. Soon I’d probably come home to my apartment and find that she’d changed the locks.

After leaving the police station, I walked (walked!) across London to my job, shivering in the pissing drizzle. Not all my credit cards were maxed out, but it was becoming a game of Russian Roulette when I handed one to a cashier or cab driver. Shitting fucking bollocks. I really wished I hadn’t left the last of my coke in the car.

I got into the habit in LA, when I wasn’t skinny enough for casting directors. It was hard to go to the right parties and then get up for cattle call at 6 a.m. without shoving carbs in my face. So I graduated from taking MDMA on Saturdays and smoking weed on Sundays to snorting coke continually.

The drizzle in the air turned to real rain, dripping down the back of my neck, past the edge of my faux-fur gilet. I didn’t even enjoy doing coke anymore. I just wasn’t myself without it. I’d cut down since I’d come home – I’d put the weight back on, too – but I didn’t like the shaky feeling I got when I went without. I’d quit sometime. When I was 30 or something.

‘You look like hell,’ Sam, the lighting tech with a bowl haircut, said when I got to the theatre.

‘I’m hell’s very own bitch queen.’ I shook myself like a puppy and then peeled off my gilet. ‘Would you believe someone stole my car?’ My nipples poked through the material of my orange top and I could see Sam noticed. He lingered in the backstage lobby, even though it was almost showtime. I entertained him with an embroidered version of the day’s events. I was in full flow (police harassment, crime-ridden streets, etc.) when Director Dave bustled up wearing a bitchface.

‘You’re late,’ he said to me. ‘Everyone else is already in place.’

Beside me, Sam dematerialised. I let my head hang down and reached out a clutching hand to Dave.

‘I was robbed! I’ve had a very hard day!’

‘Riiight.’ Dave shrugged off my hand, his greasy topknot quivering at the crown of his head. ‘Just fucking get changed and get in your box.’

My latest artistic venture was a starring role in a play about climate change. Well, ‘starring’. I was listed second in the show’s programme and that was only ’cause I fought for it. Originally, I was listed third. After I didn’t get that Stan Lembo film, my agent Savannah had tried to convince me that real actors did theatre. They soaked in the rich history of being on stage, treading the boards, performing Shakespeare for the unwashed masses.

My play wasn’t quite Shakespeare, though. It was immersive theatre with a storyline that seemed to change day to day. (However much the storyline shifted, it didn’t matter, because I couldn’t follow it, anyway.) It was my job to jump out of a box and scream at the eleven-minute mark and then don a metre-tall mask for the alien abduction scene.

Savannah had been my agent for almost four years, and I could read between the lines with her. Take this role, it’s your last shot. She might as well have said, Don’t take it and I’m done with you.

I sloped off to the dressing room, which was really just a storeroom that led through to the toilets. Posters from previous productions papered the walls, with marker pen messages scrawled over the top. (‘There’s no business like show business!’ ‘Teeth and tits and grit and determination!’ ‘The people who make it are the ones who didn’t quit!’) Everyone else must have already been dressed and ready to go, because the gloomy little room was empty.

I was digging out the purple catsuit I wore for my first scene when I heard footsteps behind me. Probably pervy Sam trying to get a look at my tits. I whipped around, wearing a coy little uh-uh-uh smile.

It wasn’t Sam.

It was Carlo.

Shitting fucking bollocks smothered in cum sauce.

Chapter 12 – Do Not Disturb


Every few steps, the broken wheel on my trolley of cleaning supplies let out a squeak of complaint. I gave it a kick and it kept on spinning. I felt like a homeless old lady pushing a shopping trolley that contained everything she owned.

Each door that lined the hotel corridor was identical apart from the brass plate room number. When I reached the next one, I knocked and called out, ‘Housekeeping!’

In my head, I counted one-two-three-four, waiting for a reply. On ‘four’, I pushed open the door. This was the moment when my world collided with a different one. As I scanned the room, I couldn’t help but tense up. I’d been working at the hotel for less than two weeks, but I’d already stamped most of the items on my bingo card:

Bloke wandering round in the buff.

Couple having sex.

Woman on the toilet with the bathroom door wide open.

These were the classics; the ones every maid encountered. The old-timers among the hotel staff had better stories to tell, of sex workers and kinky bastards. One swore she’d saved a man’s life after he hung himself. She’d found him dangling, half-dead, and cut him down. She told the story proudly; her great humanitarian effort. I didn’t like to tell her that the man probably took his suicide mission on the road, to a different hotel, one with less conscientious chambermaids, where he could kill himself in peace.

Usually what I found when I pushed open a hotel room door was much more banal than sex or death. The guest lounged in the bed or on the sofa, in a bathrobe or sweats, munching on something sweet and watching bad TV. It was the type of behaviour that was normal in private, but in the presence of a stranger, it became intensely embarrassing. Most of the time, they waved me away, but sometimes they beckoned me in and watched, hawk-eyed, as I scrubbed and dusted.

Who needed TV when you could watch The Maid Channel, live and in person?

Needless to say, I preferred it when the rooms were empty. I could go hours at a stretch without having a conversation. The performance repeated itself, over and over. Knock, knock, housekeeping, no answer. Push the door, scan the room, eyes down, oh, sorry. Knock, knock. No answer. Push door. Eyes down. Squeaky wheel. Scrub, scrub. Knock, knock. No answer. Oh, sorry. Eyes down. Eyes down. Eyes down.

I slipped into another empty room and began my cleaning routine. Take rumpled sheets and make them smooth and flat again, with crisp corners and plump pillows. Take grubby, water-flecked porcelain and make it dry and white again. Take a mess and make it pristine.

Twenty minutes of hard work could create the appearance of perfection. The trouble was, I knew it was all for show. My fellow maids and I never changed the sheets unless they were visibly dirty (even when the room was prepared for a new guest). We never hoovered if we could help it. We used the same grubby cloth to wipe down each surface (vanity, basin, toilet). ‘Everything should look perfect,’ Mrs Brannan told me on my first day. Emphasis on the word look.

In the bathroom, I misted the air with cleaning spray, so that it would at least smell like disinfectant. I dried off the remnants of water from the guest’s morning shower and then scrutinised the room. Everything looked perfect. Just one task remained. It was arguably the most important task of all. The task which, if I failed to do it, would earn me a bollocking from Mrs Brannan. I folded the end of the roll of toilet paper into a sharp V. Perfect.

Back in the bedroom, I stripped off my rubber gloves to give my sweaty hands a break.

When I was actually working, I didn’t mind the job. It was when I stopped that the feelings of frustration resurfaced. Two contradictory strands of thought wrapped themselves around each other, squeezing my insides tight.

You should be ashamed – university educated and stuck cleaning toilets.

You should be glad – what makes you think you’re worth anything more?

I let out a half-sigh, my lungs heavy and constricted. I checked my watch. Ahead of schedule.

I felt a reckless urge to launch myself onto the bed, leaving a big, messy, Ella-shaped dent in the bedding. I wanted to grab one of the overpriced chocolate bars from the mini fridge and chow down. Pop off the cap of a teeny-tiny bottle of booze, put my feet up, and watch daytime TV.

I sighed again. No point in creating more work for myself. No point in getting in trouble.

Instead, I allowed myself a few minutes to snoop. It was a harmless way to pass an idle moment. I knew other maids who pranked the guests, lifting dark-coloured clothing from the suitcase and using them to clean the bathroom floor. One confided in me that she had figured out exactly the amount of cash that you could get away with stealing. Clear out their wallet and they’ll notice, but grab a ten pound note and the guest will assume they spent it.

I never did anything like that. I just liked to look.

I uncapped a bottle of perfume from the vanity and sniffed. Apples, with a floral undertone. It smelled like springtime. Not actual springtime, but imagined springtime, which was almost preferable. In the guest’s make-up bag, I found pearlescent lavender eyeshadow. I swirled a finger in the palette and streaked purple across my eyelid. My reflection in the mirror showed raised eyebrows. My cheeks were ruddy from exertion. My hair was falling out of its ponytail. I hadn’t bothered to cover up the dark circles under my eyes. I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d worn make-up. (Yes, I could. I was in London and I wasn’t myself.)

Using the heel of my hand, I rubbed off the eyeshadow, leaving behind a ghostly trail of lavender. I moved to the wardrobe. Inside, ten or twelve garments were draped in a neat row. A lot of guests left their clothes to languish, wadded inside an unzipped suitcase. It said something about a person when they unpacked and hung up their clothes.

Dragging a coat out of the wardrobe, I swung it over my shoulders. It was upholstery fabric, heavy cream embroidered with green-and-brown swirls. The collar smelled like apples. I closed my eyes and breathed in, feeling the weight of the fabric on my shoulders. What was she like, the woman who wore this coat? How did she spend her days? Was she married? Was she happy?

I opened my eyes. It must be pretty easy to be happy if your world smelled like springtime. I hung up the coat, slotting it back into place as if I’d never touched it. I pulled out a deep violet robe, a sheer layer of silk that melted against my fingers. I rubbed the material against my face and smelled apples again, chased by something sour, metallic. Probably my sweaty body.

I hesitated and then drew my arms through the violet robe, wrapping the silk around me, concealing my black maid’s uniform. Another moment’s hesitation and I launched myself onto the bed. Fuck it. I’d make it perfect again later.

Gimme five minutes of escape.

The pillows were soft against my back and springtime filled my nostrils. I pulled my phone from my pocket and dived in. During my induction, Mrs Brannan had given me a long list of rules. She’d emphasised the fact that I wasn’t to take personal phone calls while I was working. I’d nodded and said, ‘No, never.’

In that respect, I was a model employee. No phone calls; just the bottomless expanse of the Internet.

I scrolled through Facebook, slowing down and speeding up; absorbing photos and skimming text. Other people’s lives trickled into my hands.

Beautiful sunset tonight in Geneva. Wouldn’t be anywhere else.

I was challenged to show how much I love my kids by posting three photos of them. Can’t imagine my life without them. #soblessed

“A dream without a plan is just a wish …” Planning for the future, making it happen! Watch out, Seoul, I’m coming for you.

Spending today in the sun. Having fun exploring gorgeous places with this gorgeous man.

Celebrating two years in the best job in the world. Amazing. Hard folk pays off, folks!

All I need in the world is that smile …

BF got me choccies ‘cause I had a bad day #luckiestgirl

Anyone up for bloody marys at 12?

Yes, I’m up for it. Let’s sit in the sun and drink cocktails.

In the airless hotel room, the thrum of rain against the glass was loud. The offer – of brunch, of drinks, of dinner and a show – was always from a friend in Edinburgh or Beijing or San Francisco.

Since graduation – the graduation I didn’t get to go to – my uni friends had scattered across the globe. Their Facebook updates were snapshots of glamorous locations and exciting jobs. Here at home, my school friends from Walney were all having babies. The most important job in the world, an inspirational graphic decorated with pastel hearts might phrase it. Everyone on my Facebook feed was doing something different. But all of them, at least, were doing something.

Out of habit, I clicked on to Owen’s page. When we’d broken up, we’d agreed to ‘stay friends’, although only in the virtual sense. I only checked on him from time to time. (I checked obsessively. Sometimes ten times a day.) His profile pic changed periodically – different travel destinations, posing with different friends – but he didn’t update much. His current location was listed as Berlin and his workplace a charity that helped political prisoners.

His most recent status read:

Hey peeps. Sorry I haven’t been around. Too busy liveing my life!

I wanted to hate the fact that he’d misspelled ‘living’, but it gave a rakish, too-busy-to-worry impression that clawed at my heart. My fingers twitched. Without wanting to, I scrolled all the way down his page, time rewinding. Owen updated infrequently enough that our past together lurked within easy reach.

Totally planning on becoming a gourmet chef. Amazing success with the cheesecake tonight. Ella will tell you all. I’m a cooking genius!

Mine was the first comment:

Owen almost killed me tonight, lmao. Happy anniversary, honey.

I stared at the words long enough that they started to look like gibberish.

For our one-year anniversary, Owen had cooked from scratch a lavish, four-course meal. He even lit candles for the occasion. Although, they turned out to be scented ‘man candles’, borrowed from his housemate, which smelled like burned hair. We blew them out after ten minutes of coughing.

Regardless, the first three dishes Owen cooked (figs in ham, smoked salmon, creamy pasta) actually tasted pretty good. It even added to the ambience that they were served, in true student style, on chipped plates and accompanied by wine in plastic cups. The slight hitch was dessert, a caramel cheesecake rich with sugar. Well, in theory, except Owen mixed up the salt and sugar. I only managed a bite of cheesecake before I gagged.

We passed the wine bottle back and forth, chugging it to try and take the taste away. Then we laughed so hard and for so long that we forgot what we were laughing about. Our folie à deux gigglefit lasted days, annoying the hell out of anyone who wasn’t us. For a while, ‘cheesecake’ was our code word. A banisher of bad days, it never failed to make us laugh.

The word was just another hole in my heart now.

I forced myself to click away from Owen’s profile. I pulled up my Facebook messages instead, unanswered on my part for long enough that my friends had stopped writing. There were invites to come visit (to Lisbon, to Melbourne, to Singapore) and, when I said I had no money, helpful suggestions accompanied by cute emojis. Could your parents lend you some money? Could you start a business? Sell stuff on eBay?

What did I know about business? What stuff did I have to sell? All I had in the world were bad debts. When I was at university, I assumed I’d be able to pay it all back when I got one of those funcoolawesome jobs in the city. Instead, I was stuck in Cumbria, earning £6.70 an hour.

God, I missed uni and how simple everything had seemed. When I’d left for Durham at the age of 19, I’d thought it was paradise. Not everyone’s idea of paradise, perhaps, but it was mine. Paradise that came with cobblestones and Harry Potter spires. To me, it seemed cosmopolitan. My new friends teased me at how I excited I was by the littlest things in Durham. A multiplex with more than six screens! Nightlife that stretched to more than one nightclub!

There were art galleries that hung more than insipid watercolour landscapes. A thriving live music circuit. Sleek shopping parades that sold more than fleeces and thermals. There were festivals in summer and ice skating in winter.

My fellow students were interested in the world and interested in me. They held rollicking 2 a.m. debates about politics. We filled up our lives to the brim with wine and laughter.

And, of course, there was Owen. Tall and athletic, with tufty blond hair and an irrepressible smile, Owen was a mystery to me in so many ways. It was baffling that he leapt out of bed at six every morning to go for a swim. He pinged messages back and forth to his family constantly. There was his doctor mum, architect dad, plus cute-as-a-button younger sister, and he laughingly relayed stories about them as if they were his friends. He talked about his course (ancient history) with the same enthusiasm other blokes reserved for footie results. Most mysterious of all was that he seemed to like me for me. It took some getting used to.

While Owen was on a history course, I’d chosen to study psychology. It was a wobbly decision that I almost took back more than once. A business degree would be more sensible. Law, perhaps. Or something practical, like nursing. Yet psychology enthralled me. It empowered me. At last, I began to get a sense of control over the brain chemistry that had blighted my teenage years. I felt less like a freak. Maybe, in time, I could even train to help other people who suffered the same darkness as I had.

Dreams. Just dreams. They’d drifted away like smoke when I’d failed to graduate.

My reality was earning £6.70 an hour cleaning up rich people’s messes. It was an awkward enough amount of money that totting up my earnings took a long time. I’d become very good at torturing myself with maths games. If I spent twelve minutes cleaning this bathroom, how much would it earn me? How much was a spotless toilet bowl worth? (Precisely £1.34.) If I continued to earn £6.70 an hour, how many years would it take me to pay off my credit card debt? How many grey hairs would I grow?

My mental arithmetic skills had never been sharper. But the answers I came up with made my stomach clench. If I worked hard, I could become a supervisor in a couple of years, maybe even aim for Mrs Brannan’s job. Was that what I wanted? Would that make me happy?

On Facebook, I almost wrote a message to Cait-in-Beijing (my uni friend, who had a mass of curly hair and a smile that showed deep dimples; lover of Bloody Marys and drunken talk of socialism), but the words stuttered in my brain. We’d been close once, but now she seemed far away. Not just in a different country, but on a different plane of existence.

Looking for a distraction, I tapped the search bar on Facebook. Was Katsuhito an uncommon enough name that I’d find him? I scrolled through the list of search results – guys I didn’t recognise, in places I’d never been to – until my heart gave a jolt. Found him. I clicked on his profile.

I was curious. That was all.

I still had Katsu’s DKNY jacket, the one he’d draped over my shaking body outside the Seven Deadly Sins party. It was folded inside my only drawer in the caravan, nestled next to my own clothes. Jem’s silver dress and heels lived in a plastic bag shoved deep under my bed, like a Halloween costume waiting for next year.

Katsu’s profile was a muddle of memes and web comics. To my disappointment, he didn’t post much personal stuff. But he took a lot of pictures. They communicated a life lived at full speed: early-morning runs, sunsets at festivals. I scrolled until I reached a photo of Katsu and Jem. She was looking away, as if unaware of the camera. Her usual baboon grin was absent. No make-up.

She looked like me.

The door to the hotel room didn’t squeak or sigh. It pushed open smoothly, footsteps deadened by the thick carpet. The woman was two metres away from me before I realised what was happening.

‘Excuuuse me …’

A statuesque brunette, she stood with her hands on her hips. She smelled like springtime. And her face was scrunched up into a sneer.