Today I’m bringing you an extract from CJ Skuse’s latest thriller The Abili Girl but first a little about the book:
Title: The Alibi Girl by C.J. Skuse
Publication Date: 6th February 2020
Joanne Haynes has a secret: that is not her real name.
And there’s more. Her flat’s not hers. Her cats aren’t hers. Even her hair isn’t really hers.
Nor is she any of the other women she pretends to be. Not the bestselling romance novelist who gets her morning snack from the doughnut van on the seafront. Nor the pregnant woman in the dental surgery. Nor the chemo patient in the supermarket for whom the cashier feels ever so sorry. They’re all just alibis.
In fact, the only thing that’s real about Joanne is that nobody can know who she really is.
But someone has got too close. It looks like her alibis have begun to run out….
Monday, 21st October
I can’t read this Hello! magazine again. There’s only so many times I can admire Brooklyn Beckham’s left armpit. It’s not as though there’s anything else to read either. There’s a Vogue with dried snot on the contents page. And Charlize Theron is on the cover of Cosmo so I can’t even touch that one. I’ve been afraid of her since Snow White. Keep thinking she’ll come out of the page and bite me.
So, in the absence of reading material, I’m squinting at a cockroach scuttling across the floor with a clump of shorn hair on its back like some tiny game show host. My own hair sits lankly around my ears – it can’t wait another day. I’ll give it another five minutes before I go back to the flat and dye it myself over the bath with a kit.
And now the baby’s grizzling. I’ve tried sticking my knuckle in her mouth but she’s hungry. I’m not feeding her here. How can you talk to a perfect stranger quite politely one moment and then flop your boob out the next? How do women do that? And what is the stranger supposed to do? Not look at it? A boob is my third most private part after my feet and my noo-noo. I’d look. Not for long, but I would look.
After fifteen-and-a-half full minutes, a short Roseanne Barr-ish woman scuffs through the beaded curtain. She has Hobbit feet wedged into mint-green flip flops and tattoos up and down both forearms – Tom Hiddlething as Loki all up her right, Chris HemWhatNot as Thor all up her left.
‘Hiya I’m Steffie. Is it Mary?’ Her eyes don’t smile.
‘Yes. Mary Brokenshire.’
Steffi’s in a washed-out Gryffindor t-shirt and her hair is spare rib coloured, parted and shaved severely up the side.
‘If you’d like to come this way …’
Steffi leads me through the beads, across the glittery black floor tiles and through a grubby woodchip archway towards the sinks but not quite at them. We swerve over to a side chair with a mirror in front of it and she sits me down and places her hot hands on my shoulders. She gives me an unnecessary chat about what I want done even though she already knows because I came in last week for a patch test and we went through it all then.
‘Right, black it is then. Have you been offered a tea or coffee?’
‘No.’ I don’t like tea or coffee. I’d prefer a juice but they don’t have juice, only some value squash which I only have to look at to feel my teeth rotting at the roots. Even I know asking for a milk would be too childish in this environment so, for appearances sake, I say ‘I’d love a tea, thanks.’
Steffi disappears and returns with a cape but no tea. She waits for me to take Emily out of the papoose and transfer her to the pushchair, hoping to catch a glimpse. I get it: people love babies. I tuck her into the buggy and drape a muslin over the opening. I don’t like people looking at her, or me, for too long. Just in case.
Steffi sweeps the cape around my body, rendering everything but my head invisible. I used to like wearing a cape. Or an oversized bath towel. There’s nothing quite like that feeling of getting out of a hot bath, wrapping the big bath towel around you and pretending to fly up the corridor with the towel flapping along behind. Me and my cousin Foy used to do that all the time after our baths. Or was it only once?
‘How are you coping with the little one?’ Steffi asks.
‘Fine thanks. She’s our fifth so we’re used to being tired all the time, you know what it’s like I’m sure!’
‘Oh yeah,’ she says, face brightening. ‘We’ve got four and it’s chaos. We love it though. Love the chaos!’ We share the laugh only parents can share as she begins pasting on my colour. ‘Have you got anything planned for the rest of the day?’ I get the impression she’s asked this question 11,000 times. There’s no inflection. No real note of interest. I still answer.
‘Not really. A bit of shopping. Pick the kids up. I’m still on maternity leave from my practice so it’s nice not to have such a rigid timetable.’
‘What sort of practice?’
‘I’m a doctor. A GP.’
‘Oh right. Where are they all today then? At a friend’s house?’
I’m momentarily confused. ‘My children? They’re all at school.’
‘They not on half term?’
‘They’re all at private school,’ I say. ‘Their half term was last week.’
‘Oh,’ she says, with more than a hint of lemon juice about it. ‘You’ve got four of them at private school?’
‘Yeah,’ I tell her proudly, rocking the buggy. ‘Apples of their daddy’s eye. We’re stopping at five though. I’m having my tubes tied in January, I’ve told him already. He’d have a football team, given half the chance.’
‘Yeah, I think mine would!’
‘It’s our anniversary today so my mum and dad are going to have the kids tonight so we can go out for a meal.’
‘Ooh, where are you going? Anywhere nice?’
What a stupid question that is. No, we’re off to a complete dive with a one star hygiene rating and a chef who wipes his bum on the lettuce. ‘The China Garden. The one with the gold dragon hanging from the ceiling? His treat.’
‘What does he do then, your bloke?’
I ignite when she says ‘Your bloke.’ It’s lovely to have a bloke who belongs to me. ‘He’s a personal trainer.’
‘Nice. I wish my old man would take me out. Do you know I don’t think we’ve had a night out since our Livvy was born. And she’s starting Reception next month.’
‘Yeah. We can’t afford it anyway. Rich’s been laid off from the airport.’
‘Oh right,’ I say, with the hint of gloom she seems to expect. ‘What did he —’
‘—baggage handler at John Lennon. Twenty years he gave them. Went in on his days off when they were striking and everything. And he caught a terrorist.’
‘Oh gosh.’ Cockroach Game Show Host scuttles back along the skirting board. I pretend to have a coughing fit and Steffi asks if I’d like some water, which is when she’s reminded about the tea she hasn’t made me yet and scurries off to see “where it’s got to” like tea has a mind of its own.
I’m finally brought my tea and two Custard Creams – one with a corner snapped off. I remove the top of one biscuit and scrape out the cream with my bottom teeth. I put the two sides back together and munch it until it makes a neat circle of spitty biscuit between my thumbs, then I put it in my mouth til it dissolves. I don’t realise until I swallow that Steffi has been watching me. My cheeks flame as red as my roots.
But then, my phone pings in my handbag and I riffle around to find it. ‘Probably Daddy, checking in on his girls.’
‘Ahhh,’ says Steffi, all misty-eyed.
It isn’t Daddy. It’s an email from eBay, letting me know about their half term sale on personalised school stationery.
‘Was it him?’ says Steffi, combing my colour through.
‘Yeah. He’s asking if I want anything brought in. Bless him.’
‘He sounds like a keeper.’ I hold up my iPhone screen to show her his photo. She takes it off me and squints. ‘Blimey, he’s gorgeous.’
I know what she’s thinking – that a woman like me couldn’t have possibly ‘got’ a guy like him. ‘I’m very lucky.’ She returns me the phone and I put him away safely in my bag. ‘We were childhood sweethearts.’
‘You started early then. I thought you looked young to have five kids.’
‘I had the first one at fourteen.’
‘Then the twins, then Harry. Wasn’t easy with the medical degree, but we managed. Then this little surprise came along.’
‘I met my Rich on a hen weekend.’
I hadn’t asked and it’s not interesting to me but I pretend it’s the most interesting thing because for some reason I’m happy in her company. Two married mums together. ‘I love a good knees up.’
‘Yeah it did get a bit rowdy,’ she laughs. ‘He did karaoke to Once, Twice, Three Times a Lady and pointed at me when he was singing. I knew then he was The One.’
I smile at the mirror. ‘The One. It’s a nice feeling, isn’t it?’
‘Oh don’t get me wrong, we have our moments. He woke up yesterday with a cold, right? And his breathing has become all like that Darth Wossit. And I said to him “Rich I swear to God, if you breathe like that anymore, I’m gonna ram your head in the bacon slicer.” He was winding me up that much.’
I don’t get that. Why stay with a person whose breathing makes you want to commit actual murder on their head? So I ask her.
‘So you don’t love him anymore?’
‘Oh course I do,’ she laughs, ‘I were only joking. Just wish he worked on an oil rig or summut so he’d leave the bloody house once in a while, you know?’
I don’t get that either but, before I can ask, she hands me the same magazine I read six times in the waiting room and I’m treated to another glimpse of hairy Brooklyn and interviews with Liam Payne’s mother and the Britain’s Got Talent failure who’s had twenty facelifts and still hates himself.
About The Author:
C.J. SKUSE is the author of SweetPea, In Bloom, Pretty Bad Things, Rockaholic, Dead Romantic, Monster and Deviants. She was born in Weston-super-Mare. She has first-class degrees in creative writing and, aside from writing novels, works as a freelance fiction consultant and lectures at Bath Spa University. CJ Skuse’s Rhiannon Lewis series (SWEETPEA and IN BLOOM) has sold over 20,000 copies in PB and been optioned for television by See-Saw, the company behind the Oscar nominated film Lion.