That Woman Next Door will be out on 23 September 2021.
Here’s a preview. Enjoy!
That Woman Next Door
© Harper Bliss
I kill the engine and stare at the house. It looks so desolate in the middle of winter. Maybe depressing is a better way to describe it. After all, there’s a reason we call it a summer house. Why couldn’t my family have bought a place in Provence, I wonder for the umpteenth time since I started the drive down from Brussels this morning. Along grey road after grey road, with no prospect of any new growth, for months to come. But I didn’t come here for fun. I came to cold, wet, rural Brittany on the first day of the new year with the single purpose of punishing myself. Of looking inside myself to find out if I still have it in me to continue doing what I do after what happened.
I suck in a deep breath and get out of the car. As I lift my suitcase out of the boot, a gust of wind whips up my hair, which I had cut a few days ago to look my best for my self-inflicted exile. To what end? There’s no one here to see me. My mother warned me the internet might be too spotty for a successful Skype connection, after she asked me, again, whether I, a purebred city person, was absolutely certain I wanted to sequester myself in Brittany.
I could have escaped to an exotic beach. Or ventured on a coast-to-coast road trip through the United States. Or embarked on a Scottish castle tour. But I chose wintery Brittany because, for the first time in my life, I’m not choosing excitement. I have to say no to anything thrilling. I have to create the time and space I need to evaluate what has occurred. I need to find out how it could have happened and if it will again.
I know myself. Put me anywhere amongst a group of people and I will pick out the most attractive woman and have her in my bed in no time. Or maybe I’ve lost that skill as well.
It doesn’t matter here. There are no people around. Our house is the only one on this road, although, through the barren trees, I can spot another house around the corner, about a hundred metres away. Distant enough to not have to see or hear the people living there, if anyone lives there at all at this time of year.
I unlock the door and am greeted by a cold blast almost as harsh as the temperature outside. I quickly close the door behind me. At least it looks the way I like—renovated to today’s standards, at my insistence.
I think of my warm, gorgeous apartment overlooking the Ixelles Ponds in Brussels. The light that streams in through the large windows even in winter. I shiver. Up until a few years ago, this house’s only means of heating was a fireplace, which may sound romantic, but is anything but when you run out of logs in the middle of the night. Or when you wake up in the morning and your buttocks nearly freeze to the toilet seat.
But I couldn’t do the kind of penance I’m after in Brussels, surrounded by the luxury of my daily life and the convenience of a city. Something had to be stripped away. Something major had to give. The house in Brittany was the first place that came to mind and here I am, trembling inside my coat, on the dreariest winter day. For some reason, I felt like I needed to arrive on the first day of the new year. As though it matters. As though I have to start an actual prison sentence mandated by the courts instead of this self-inflicted punishment I have chosen.
I switch on the thermostat but keep my coat on. It will take a while before it’s warm enough for me to relax. I transfer the rest of my stuff from the car into the house and unload the groceries I brought. I’ll have oceans of time to dedicate to cooking because there are no food delivery services to the middle of nowhere.
After I’ve dragged my suitcase upstairs and unpacked most of my clothes, I stand in front of the bedroom window. When there are no leaves on the trees, the house around the corner is visible from here. Because I’m already starting to feel like the only person left on the planet, even though I’ve only just arrived, I desperately search for a sign of life inside the house. I don’t see any lights glowing behind the windows, but there’s smoke coming from the chimney. Even though I’ve been coming to Brittany on and off for decades, I have no idea who lives in that house.
I’ve always considered my family’s holiday home a house without neighbours. In summer, it kind of is. When the days are long and the nights warm, and you can sit outside in the lush garden until well after dark, neighbours are of no importance. And I’ve never come here on my own. It’s always been with either family or a short-term love interest—the longer-term kind has never interested me until…
I take a moment to remember the last woman I was with. It was the night before the day everything went wrong. I shake off the memory of Véronique—again—although I know I will have to deal with it at some point. After the investigation into what happened in the operating theatre cleared me, the hospital administrator advised me to see someone to help me process the incident. I chose to take a leave of absence instead. I don’t want anyone’s help. I want to solve this crisis of conscience—and confidence—that’s waging a filthy war inside me by myself. It didn’t feel fair to accept any kind of assistance because for the woman who died on my operating table, there is no more help. For her, it’s all over forever. So why should I deserve any kind of help in dealing with what I did?
The lights in the cottage beyond the trees flickers on. For an instant, I consider switching the bedroom lamp on and off to signal my presence. Instead, I think I might take a walk over there tomorrow.
My feet hit the treadmill in such a satisfying way today. This is why I run, I think, while my fists pump the air in a rhythmic motion. To feel like I’m flying. To feel strong. To feel like I can do anything. I increase the speed so I can go a little faster, so I can empty my tank. Even though I’ve already run more than seven kilometres, my feet can still easily keep up.
My treadmill sits in front of a window with a view out over the fields at the back of my house. I only ever see animals. Mostly birds and cows. Or my cats, who like to wait for me to open the door for them instead of squeezing through the cat flap—they’re princesses like that.
What the—? Something much larger than Deneuve and Huppert’s furry bodies darkens the window. My already elevated heart rate shoots up a notch. What the hell is happening? I press the red emergency button on the treadmill to make it stop. Who on earth is this person with the audacity to trespass on my property and walk around my house? I’m not expecting any deliveries today. I prefer to group them as much as I can and have them delivered to the supermarket in town, where I can pick them up at my own convenience instead of having my day disturbed by someone showing up at my door.
A woman wrapped in one of those long puffy coats stares at me through the window. She waves as though I’m supposed to know her. I don’t recognise her from the village and I’m certain I’m not related to her—not that any member of my family would show up at my house in the middle of any given Wednesday afternoon.
I wipe the sweat from my forehead. I feel cornered. My first instinct is to leave the room and hide upstairs. She doesn’t look like she’s in distress, although I guess her car could have broken down, her mobile phone might have died, and my house might have been the first one she came across. Maybe she does need help. I take a deep, shuddering breath to pull myself together.
The woman tilts her head. She’s probably wondering why I haven’t opened the door yet. I suppose I no longer have a choice—as if I ever had one. I drape a towel over my shoulders because I’m dripping with sweat. That’s an excellent run ruined. I’m supposed to be in the delightful throes of runner’s high right about now, but thanks to this intruder, I’ve been robbed of the highlight of my day.
I open the door and greet her with an unwelcoming glare. I’m not the type to give strangers a hearty welcome. A fact that’s been held against me many times, yet I haven’t changed.
“Bonjour,” she says. “I’m so sorry to interrupt your run.” She hardly comes across as very apologetic. She looks Parisian with her expensive haircut and cashmere pashmina, but her accent is different. “I arrived at the house around the corner yesterday and I noticed signs of life here.”
“Yes?” This is not making any sense to me at all. The only other house in a five-kilometre radius is a holiday home owned by some rich Belgians who visit a few times over the summer. I’ve never had any dealings with them and none of them have previously bothered me before.
“I just wanted to introduce myself.” The woman extends her hand. “Marie Dievart. Enchantée.”
“Hello.” I give her hand the quickest shake I can. My palms are still sweaty. My body is cooling off too quickly standing in the door like this. None of this is ideal. Least of all this woman who wants something from me that I’m unable to figure out. “Olivia.” As I wipe my sweaty hand on my leggings, a visible shiver runs up my spine. I pull the towel around my shoulders ostentatiously.
“You’ll catch a cold if you don’t cover up,” Marie Dievart says matter-of-factly.
Duh! All I want is to close the door in her face. Wait? Is she expecting me to invite her inside my house?
“Don’t worry. I’m a doctor,” she says, as if that makes any difference.
“Look, I’m sorry, but I need to shower.”
“Oh, okay.” She studies me with an unnerving intensity. “Would you like to come round to my house later for coffee or a glass of wine?”
“What?” Why would she even think that’s what I want? “Who are you again and what are you doing here?”
“I’m so sorry, Olivia.” She has a very personable manner. She looks like she wants to grab my hand again but has decided against it last-minute—thank goodness. “I’ll be staying at my family’s holiday home for a few months, so I figured that would make us neighbours. I thought it only polite to introduce myself formally.”
“A few months? In the middle of winter?” I shiver again. My sweat-drenched top is ice cold against my skin.
Marie nods. “I need the time away from… my life,” she says.
“Okay, well, have a good stay.” I attempt to close the door hoping she’ll get the hint.
“You don’t want to have that glass of wine? I have an amazing Nuits-Saint-Georges waiting to be uncorked.”
A wine snob on top of an abrasive trespasser. I shake my head. “No, but thanks for asking.”
I’m about to close the door on this woman entirely, but she regards me so intently, it’s as though she wants to undo my wish to shut her out just by looking at me. Her eyes are a peculiar kind of green. Her cheekbones are alpine. Oh, I get it. She’s one of those women who is so attractive they’re used to always getting exactly what they want. She probably can’t fathom that I’m not interested in sharing a posh bottle of wine with her.
“I’d hate to have to drink it alone.” Her voice is sweet as honey.
“Shouldn’t have come here on your own then.” I feel something furry rub against my legs. Huppert slips outside and then just sits there, attracting attention—her favourite activity apart from sleeping.
“What a cutie.” Marie crouches down to make Huppert’s acquaintance.
If only Deneuve had decided to come to my rescue. She wouldn’t have any of this. She probably would have swatted Marie Dievart’s perfectly manicured hand away if she’d tried to pet her. But not Huppert, who can’t get enough of the attention. She’s purring, for heaven’s sake. “What’s your name then?” the woman asks my cat, as though she can reply to that question with anything other than a meow.
I need to cut this short. If I stay exposed much longer, I’ll be out with a cold for days, or even worse, bronchitis. Heaven forbid I need to see a doctor. I wouldn’t want to have to call on my new neighbour, while she was the one who made me sick in the first place. That would be too ironic.
“I’ll leave you to it then,” I say, trying to add a polite smile. I can’t help but, very briefly, wonder what I look like to this stranger, with my sweat-drenched clothes and my hair matted against my head. She must be very lonely to be inviting the likes of me to her place.
“Okay. Sure.” She looks like she’s about to admit defeat. She turns to walk away, but before I can close the door properly, she turns to me, and asks, “Is this how everyone here is? Is it a Breton thing, this unwelcoming attitude? Just so I know what to expect for the rest of my stay.”
“You’re asking the wrong person.” As I say it, I’m aware of how utterly rude I’m sounding—and being.
“Clearly.” She does walk away now.
I guess that, once again, I failed to make a new friend. I couldn’t care less.
<<End of preview>>
That Woman Next Door will be available on Thursday 23 September 2021 from all retailers. (The audio, narrated by Abby Craden, will follow later this year.)