4

We crashed trolleys in the Italian supermarket two hundred yards from where I live in north London. That’s how we met. It was early one Saturday evening three weeks back, not long before closing. I was turning into the booze aisle, looking for some decent Chianti, and she was coming the other way. Our trolleys hit each other head-on, and she apologized with a wide smile that seemed to light up her whole face. She was very petite and very pretty, with short, spiky, hennaed hair and big brown doe eyes. I had her down for mid-twenties, but there was something almost childishly mischievous in her manner that made me think she might be younger. She was wearing a tight-fitting pink T-shirt which accentuated the curves of her small pointed breasts, and a pair of low-slung blue jeans. The T-shirt said ‘I’m the girl your mother warned you about’ in bold, sky blue lettering. I could believe it.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said in a light Home Counties accent, smiling over at me like a cheeky kid. ‘I think I was speeding.’

I smiled back. ‘And I think I’ve got whiplash. I might have to consider suing.’

Neither of us made any move to reverse our trolleys. Instead we continued looking at each other. It was a moment straight out of a romantic comedy. Quite pathetic really, and totally unexpected. I had no idea what else to say, but she solved the problem for me.

‘My name’s Leah. Who are you?’

‘I’m Tyler,’ I answered, putting out a hand, which she took, giving it a firm shake. ‘Pleased to meet you.’

‘Likewise. Do you live round here, Tyler?’

‘Just round the corner.’

‘Planning a boozy night in, were you?’ she said, looking down at the Chianti in my trolley.

‘Just stocking up. You never know when you’re going to be needing it. And you? Are you local?’

She shook her head. ‘No. South of the river. Richmond. I was on my way home and I thought I’d stock up as well.’

The silence came again and once more I was left racking my brain for something to say that would keep this conversation going. I liked this girl. It might even have been love at first sight. There was a real vivaciousness about her, an energy that had been missing in my life for a while.

‘Well,’ she said, ‘I think I’d better get on. As you can see, I haven’t got very far.’ Which was true. Her trolley was empty.

I knew I was going to have to strike while the iron was hot. After all, I told myself, I had nothing to lose, and I wasn’t going to get too many chances like this one in my life. I’m not a bad-looking guy, but it’s never easy to meet people in the big city.

‘Do you want to go for a drink?’ I asked quickly.

‘What, now?’ She gave me a playfully coy look and I noticed for the first time that she had a cute line of freckles running across the bridge of her nose and on to both cheeks.

I smiled. ‘Sure. Unless you’ve got something else planned.’

Outwardly I was calm, but all the while I was praying she didn’t, because I really didn’t want her walking out of there, and out of my life. I was smitten. It had been that quick.

‘No, I’ve got nothing planned. But you haven’t finished your shopping, have you?’

I shrugged. ‘It can wait.’

I know the supermarket’s owner, a big Italian guy in his fifties. Not by name, but we always have a chat when I’m in there, and I’ve been a regular for a couple of years now, so I got him to put a bag containing my shopping behind the counter, telling him I’d come back and pay for it tomorrow. Seeing me with Leah, he winked and gave me a sly, knowing smile. ‘Have a good evening, eh?’ he called out as we left the shop.

‘So, what brings you to these parts?’ I asked as we walked down the street.

‘I stayed with a friend last night. I was on my way home and she said I should try this shop, that the food’s excellent.’

‘It is. They’ve got the best parma ham outside Parma.’

She grinned. ‘And because of you, I’ve missed out on it.’

‘You can always come back.’

She gave me that playfully coy look again. ‘Maybe I will.’

We went to the local All Bar One just down the road. She drank Bacardi and Cokes (doubles) while I quaffed Peroni. She could really put it away. I was impressed. We got on well, and conversation was easy. After a couple of rounds, I asked her if she wanted to get something to eat. ‘I’d love to,’ she said, and by the way her eyes lit up I could tell that there was something happening here. Sometimes, I think you just know, and I knew then.

We ate at a Thai place further up the street, and carried on our conversation. It turned out that Leah came originally from a village in Dorset, and had come to London about three years ago. She was, she told me, a nanny for the three young daughters of a wealthy professional couple in Richmond. They paid her well: three hundred pounds a week and the use of a Saab convertible. It made me think I was in the wrong job. We talked about her life and her travels. She’d learned to dive as a teenager in the waters off Portland and had spent a year backpacking and diving round South and Central America.

As the waitress cleared the plates away, I asked her if she’d ever got to Belize.

‘Second biggest barrier reef in the world,’ she answered, smiling. ‘How could I miss it?’

‘I know, it’s a beautiful place, isn’t it? I was stationed there for six months once.’

‘Are you a soldier, then?’

‘I was, for my sins. Not any more.’

‘Where did you serve?’

‘I was in the army for fifteen years, I served everywhere. Northern Ireland, Iraq in the first Gulf War, Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan. I’ve seen them all, although some of them I’d prefer not to have seen.’

‘It must have been a really interesting job, though,’ she said, looking right into my eyes as she spoke. They say that some women are very good at making the men they’re talking to feel hugely important. If so, Leah had it down to an art form.

I gazed back at her over my wine glass. ‘It had its moments, no doubt about that.’

‘Why did you leave?’

‘My wife persuaded me. She got sick of me disappearing away for weeks, sometimes months, on end.’

‘Your wife? You’re not still married, are you?’ She glanced over in the direction of my left hand. ‘I don’t see a ring.’

‘That’s because there isn’t one. No, we split up a couple of years back. Not long after I left the army, as it happens.’ I smiled. ‘I guess when it came down to it, she preferred me being away to being home.’

Leah asked me if I missed the military life.

‘Sometimes,’ I answered, thinking about her question, ‘but not enough to want to go back now. The older you get, the less you crave the excitement. I’m happy enough being a civilian.’

‘I don’t believe you,’ she said playfully. ‘You look to me like you love the action.’ As she spoke, she lowered her glass of wine and leaned forward so that her face was only inches from mine. I could feel her breath on my face. It smelled minty. ‘Am I right?’ she whispered breathily, and this time there was an underlying intensity in her tone. Under the table, a hand moved up my thigh.

I’ll be honest, all resistance crumbled, if it had ever been there in the first place, which I have to admit I doubt. We finished our drinks quickly and I paid the bill. ‘Let’s go to my place,’ I said, reluctantly extricating my thigh from her hand.

As we walked back together, I put my hand through hers. It was a warm, balmy night and music drifted through the air from the various open windows we passed. I felt truly happy. I’d been living on my own for several years and I think, even with a reasonably active social life, I’d been getting lonely. And now, suddenly, I’d met a beautiful girl. Just like that. Sometimes Lady Luck can smile on you. That’s what I was thinking at the time. It never occurred to me that she could just as easily take it all away again.

When we got back to my place, I opened the door for Leah, followed her inside and shut the door. As I switched on the hall light, she reached up and pulled me close to her.

The kiss was electric, the intimacy incredible. Our hands ran across each other’s bodies with an urgency that seemed to come out of nowhere, as if we both knew that very soon our time would run out. Clothes were ripped off and strewn across the room as casually as confetti. I kissed her neck, her pert round breasts, kneeling as I moved my lips down across her washboard-flat stomach, breathing in her warmth, revelling in her tight gasps of pleasure.

We finally made it to the bedroom where we made love with a furious intensity that I think surprised us both, and when we were finished, and temporarily sated, we lay there naked in each other’s arms, talking and kissing, before the passion took us once again.

When we were resting a second time, she asked me if I minded if she smoked and I said, no problem, so she rolled a thick, three-Rizla joint, which we shared. It was my first dope since Afghanistan, and although it wasn’t quite as potent as the stuff we got hold of then, it was enough to get me in one of those moods where the whole world’s treating you right, and everything you say and do, and everything the person you’re with says and does, is uproariously funny. We laughed, we made love, and the night went by all too fast, disappearing with the remorseless inevitability of grains of sand through an egg timer.

Some time towards dawn, just before we slipped into the sleep of the satisfied and exhausted, I kissed her forehead and ran a finger along the pale skin of her jawline, and she smiled that beautiful cherubic smile at me. In that instant I knew, with a blissful sense of terror, that I was falling for this girl in a big, big way.

The next day we stayed in bed until midday, and when we finally did rise, Leah made me take her back to the shop where we’d met. She wanted a picnic, so we bought salami, olives, stuffed peppers, ciabatta bread, Taleggio cheese and, of course, parma ham, and took it with us to Hampstead Heath, where we sat and ate it in the sunshine, washed down with a bottle of Chianti, before finally she said it was time to head back to her place in Richmond.

‘I need to freshen up before tomorrow and get an early night,’ she told me.

‘Can I see you again?’ I asked, and I knew that if she said no, I’d be heartbroken.

But she didn’t. Of course she didn’t.

If she had, then she’d still be alive.

Instead, she leaned over and kissed me gently on the lips. ‘I’d love to.’

I drove her back to Richmond, and almost as soon as she’d said goodbye and walked away I felt that hollow emptiness all new lovers experience when they’re forced to part, even if it’s only temporarily. Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait long for our next meeting. I called her the next morning from the BMW showroom I own, and we arranged to go out that evening.

And that was the beginning of a relationship that for the past three weeks had been growing progressively more serious. We might have lived a fair distance apart in travelling time, but we saw each other at least every other night, and in the last few days I’d been thinking that we were going places. I was in love. I wanted her to move in with me. I hadn’t said as much – I was going to leave it another couple of weeks because I didn’t want to scare her away – but I genuinely wanted to commit.

The last time I remember seeing Leah was early Wednesday morning when she left my house to go back to her family in Richmond, having arranged to meet friends that night. But at some point yesterday we must have seen each other, with fatal consequences. Where did we go? What did we do? And how the hell did we end up out here in the middle of the country, at the slaughterhouse where she met her bloody end?

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