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Exclusive: read the first pages of Exhibit Alexandra, 2018's most gripping psychological thriller

Posted by
Sarah Biddlecombe
Published

Natasha Bell’s debut novel will make you question everything…

There’s nothing we love more than getting lost in a good book.

And 2018 has already been kind to us when it comes to delivering brilliant, absorbing tomes: just browse our picks of new releases for January and February if you need any more convincing.

Now we’re looking ahead to March or, more specifically, 8 March, which sees Natasha Bell’s debut novel, Exhibit Alexandra, hit the shelves. One of the year’s most innovative psychological thrillers, the book explores the mystery of a missing woman who disappears without a trace.

Delving into complex themes of motherhood, marriage, gender and identity, the novel is as smart as it is readable, and will challenge you to decide where you really stand on certain issues of morality. It’s the type of book that leaves a lingering impression long after it’s finished and, with such relatable themes, it’s hard to read without repeatedly asking yourself the question: what would I do?

If you’re intrigued, take a read of the first few chapters of the book, shared exclusively with stylist.co.uk below…

Thursday, 21 February 2013 - The Beginning

Marc sat on the bottom stair and tried not to think the worst. The voice continued: ‘The vast majority of people return safe and well within the first forty-eight hours, Mr Southwood. There’s no need to panic.’ There was a pause. Marc knew he should take comfort from this. Sit tight and wait for his wife to return with a perfectly reasonable explanation.

The officer said goodnight and the line clicked dead. As if that had solved the problem. As if Marc should have felt better.

Six hours down, forty-two to go.

I wish I could put myself there with him. I’d wrap first my arms and then my legs around his body, cling to him until we lost our balance and tumbled to the hallway floor. Tell him with my touch the one thing he needed to know that night: I’m here. Right here.

He stood up and replaced the receiver, severing his fingertip connection to the phone call and his one active plan to do something. The hairs on his arms stood on end as he shivered to a silent beat of something’s wrong, something’s wrong, something’s wrong.

Perhaps he shouldn’t have phoned the police. After all, I was a grown woman. Perhaps it was over the top to report me missing. It’s not as if I had a curfew.

But I was a mother. My children were home and I was not. It’s so unlike her. Marc had said that to the officer a moment ago. It’d felt like a whine; that childish word laughably impotent in the face of explaining the absolute abnormality of a woman who had always come home, day after day, year after year, not walking through our front door that night.

I was meant to have returned by the time he brought the girls back from swimming. We should have ordered a takeaway. We should have sat with our chow mein, chattering about open days and council cuts.

He tried my phone again. Off as usual. ‘My little Luddite,’ he’d called me when he asked if I wanted an iPhone for my birthday and I said I was perfectly happy with the two-year-old handset I had. It made calls and showed me my emails – what more did I want? He should have pestered me more. Another man would have given me one anyway, synced our calendars and address books, downloaded an app to keep tabs on me, made sure I couldn’t get lost.

‘It’s Thursday, for God’s sake,’ Marc said aloud. He paced to the window to peer on to the street again. I wouldn’t miss Thursday Takeaway without a reason.

He raised his hand, scratched his left temple.

He’d tried to explain to the officer. Was Jones his name? Officer Jones thought we’d had a fight. People disappeared all the time.

I didn’t, though.

I’d spent the day at work. Marc had rung my colleague, Paula, to check. She said we’d walked out of the building together. I’d wished her a good weekend because she had Friday off to attend some family wedding. She’d told me she’d try, though she hated the things, and we’d parted with a wave.

Whole hours had elapsed since that exchange. It was now 11 p.m. It was dark.

Such things bothered my husband. It didn’t matter that I’d lived alone in cities before we met. It didn’t matter that I’d spent more than a year wandering the streets of Chicago, an optimistic student wearing an armour of Pabst Best against the gangs and gun crime statistics. It didn’t matter that I’d once parachuted from a plane, that I’d accidentally hit a black slope the first time I strapped skis to my feet, that I’d backpacked around India and spent a month living in a roach-infested squat in Alphabet City. My husband saw me as something fragile. He walked me home and met me from trains. He wanted to protect me.

Should he search the streets? Was that what one was supposed to do? Maybe he could ask a neighbour to watch the girls. But where would he go? Did people normally look in pubs and bars? Marc clung to the idea that we were normal that night. We’d never aspired to be normal before. We’d felt unique. Special. But abnormal things didn’t happen to normal people. So we were normal that night. And, in keeping with normality, where everyday anxieties outweigh even the most horrendous fears, my husband continued to care how others perceived us. Behind his concern for me bubbled a multitude of mundane worries: had Officer Jones thought him daft? Had Paula decided he was overbearing? Had he made a fool of himself?

I wouldn’t be lounging in a bar, of course; I didn’t even drink. Bus shelters? Restaurants? Late-night libraries? This was York in real life, not London in some dramatic episode of Spooks we were watching on a boxset binge. This was a picturesque tourist city where the most the police usually had to deal with was fishing stolen bikes out of polluted rivers. Besides, the races had been on and I abhorred town when the cobbled streets and listed bars filled with stumbling gamblers in their glad rags.

He walked into the kitchen to make a cup of tea. Al would laugh, he thought. If she were here.

I’d have been more likely to roll my eyes, or stick my hands on my hips and give him that ‘seriously?’ look. But maybe that’s me being defensive. Under different circumstances, maybe I would have been amused by my unfailingly British husband. I suppose it’s hard to tell from here.

At least Charlotte and Lizzie slept. He’d told them I had to work late. He hated lying to them, I know, but what could he have told a seven- and a ten-year-old? ‘I don’t know where Mummy is, girls, and I’m trying not to imagine her dead in a ditch, so eat your noodles and we’ll find a bedtime story.’

I wasn’t dead in a ditch.

He couldn’t think like that. Those things didn’t happen. 

Not here. Not to us.

Debut author Natasha Bell

There would be a perfectly rational explanation for my absence and we’d both laugh about it tomorrow. I’d shriek, he thought, when I found out he’d called the police. It’d get pedalled out at dinner parties: the time he lost his head because I fell asleep on a friend’s sofa. Our guests would hoot with laughter and he’d blush good-naturedly, happy as ever to play the bashful fool to my leading lady. I can still picture a future that looks like that.

But he’d rung our friends. Patrick first, of course. They’d known each other since university and Marc always turned to him for advice. His wife Susan picked up, though; Patrick was out. He tried Fran and Ollie, the other staples of our little gang of dinner party couples. Patrick had introduced us all years ago, when he and Fran worked in the same surgery, before Fran ‘sold out’ and accepted a job in a private clinic. We saw these friends every week, went on holidays with them, looked after their kids when they needed help; they were our York family. Mark also tried my old school friend Philippa, then some of the numbers on the PTA phone tree. Nobody had seen me since our Valentine’s party. Fabulous night. Tell Alex I loved her costume.

Of course, Susan, as soon as I determine she has a pulse, that’ll be the first thing out of my mouth.

It wasn’t Susan’s fault. He shouldn’t have snapped. But trust her to play the optimist, to utterly downplay even the most ridiculous of dramas. He made a note to apologise once this was over.

Over.

Despite his panic, he was still thinking in terms of resolution. The very worst things in life, our most fearful nightmares, they don’t happen all at once. They creep up, lodge themselves gradually in our brains, worming their way slowly in so that once they become a reality they are already somewhat familiar. If my husband could have known the extent of the horror still to come he wouldn’t have survived that night. As it was, he held hope like a pebble in his palm.

The kettle finished boiling, but he no longer wanted tea. He wanted his wife to come home and come to bed. He yawned. He’d had to get up early to finish marking. He hadn’t been able to face it last night and the girls had wanted to play board games. I remember I’d sulked because he and Charlotte had formed an alliance, giggling mischievously as they swapped farmers for builders and negotiated defence strategies based on promised hugs and extra marshmallows on hot chocolates. I’d pushed my bottom lip out and batted my eyelashes as if blinking away tears. I remember noticing the new gap in Char’s teeth when she grinned, the scab Lizzie kept scratching on her shin, the hole in the heel of Marc’s sock, the hitch of the curtain where it’d been drawn hastily over the chair, the slight annoying angle of the Paul Nash print on the wall. The girls hadn’t wanted to go to bed, but I’d persuaded them, as I had a thousand times. Then I came back down in Marc’s favourite silk and did the same to him. 

He crept upstairs to check on the girls now. Charlotte was sprawled face-down across her bed, the Pixar cover kicked to the floor and a brown bear – Puddles, lost thrice, replaced once, worn from a thousand cuddles – hovering precariously near the edge, ready to topple. Marc stepped quietly inside the room, picked the duvet from the carpet and laid it over our daughter’s body. He moved Puddles to a safer spot by Char’s pillow and touched her dark tangle of hair before retreating to the landing. He stepped along to Lizzie’s room and cracked open the door. Our tightly balled eldest breathed evenly on the top bunk. Her face was turned to him and he opened the door further so the light fell on her features. He watched her eyelids flicker with sleep, her lips move silently. She looked like me. Even though she has Marc’s fair colouring and everyone always said Char was my double, Lizzie his – as if our genes had been neatly split, offering us one daughter each – I could always see myself in Lizzie too. In the roundness of her face and the line of her lips.

Marc closed the door to Lizzie’s room and descended the stairs. What was he supposed to do? He sat down and stood up. Paced from lamp-lit living room to shoe-cluttered hallway, on to Szechuan-smelling kitchen. Tried my mobile once more. He’d called the hospital an hour ago and I hadn’t been admitted. Was it time to ring again? He switched on the TV, but heard it through a tunnel. The only sound he wanted to hear was my key in the lock.

***

I should come clean about something before I go any further. A lot of what I’m writing almost definitely never happened. I wasn’t there, obviously. I was missing. Gone. So I can’t know Marc put the kettle on, then never poured a cup of tea. I can’t tell what thoughts went through his mind the night I never came home.

But I don’t know how to tell this story without imagining certain details. And I do know my husband. He’s a knowable type of man. Just as I’ve been described as flighty and impulsive, Marc is a good, honest man whom one can rely on to do and think certain things. He’s a man who never deserved to go through everything he has.

So I hope you’ll forgive my indulgence. I don’t wish to deceive. I’m allowed to listen to the tapes. It’s unclear if this is an act of kindness or a form of punishment. But the knowable facts are known to me. I’ve heard the recording of Marc’s phone call to Officer Jones, for instance. And I’ve seen the credit card statement showing his takeaway purchase at Monkey King. I’ve sat them in every chair in our house, imagined every combination of crockery they might have used, seen Charlotte animating her chopsticks and Lizzie picking out the onions until I can bear it no more.

I have little choice, though. I’m asked constant questions, prodded to remember and imagine what has occurred beyond these four walls. His motives are unclear. Perhaps he’s f**king with me, hoping to turn me crazy by forcing me to bear my family’s torture as well as my own. I’m making him do this, he tells me.

‘Everyone has a limit,’ he says and I see his smile. He gets off on this. ‘I’m trying to help you come to terms with your situation,’ he says. The situation he is responsible for.

I resisted at the start, told him to get lost. But there’s nothing else to do and no one else to talk to. I’ve started answering his questions. Whatever his motives, I’m ready to throw myself into this narrative of partial truths and things I wish were fictions. I’ll walk my way through Marc’s life since my disappearance. I have little hope it might save me, but the distraction is a comfort. If I could climb inside this story and stay there, I would.

Some things I know first-hand. That my husband was wearing a creased, lightly striped, off-white shirt with one too many buttons left undone that day. He has two that are similar, but this was the one with brown stripes. I watched him button it that morning, contemplating the stripe of dark hairs trailing from his navel to his belt. I’d tried to keep him in bed, but his mind was already on the day ahead. An ironing board lived between the wardrobe and wall, but as normal Marc failed to notice his crumpled attire and I didn’t offer.

He also wore dark blue jeans and brown loafers, though I imagine he switched those for slippers when he arrived home. I’d never owned slippers before I met Marc, but he’d grown up in a shoes-off-at-the-door, slippers-warmed-by-the-radiator kind of house and a part of me loved turning ours into the same.

His hair was freshly washed that morning, so would have still smelled of raspberry shampoo, but it hung slightly too long after yet another week had passed without his getting around to booking an appointment. If things had continued as normal, I’d have marched him to the barbers on Saturday morning and demanded they buzz it far shorter than he liked, arguing that this way he could leave it the extra weeks without my nagging. It was only half a joke. He would roll his eyes but acquiesce and later I’d run my hand through his stunted locks and kiss him on the mouth, freshly amazed by how attractive I found him after a little grooming.

This story I have to tell is more than a collection of basic facts, though. It’s more than the ‘real-life’ shockers you read in the papers and the tell-all exposés of glossy magazines. I have no reason to paint a better or worse picture than what really happened. I’ve already lost everything. I live within four walls. I’ve been tied up and drugged. I have no hope of salvation. I’ve realised I have only this. So despite my ignorance of events I cannot possibly have witnessed, the story recorded here is more honest than the police reports and newspaper articles. If it is not an actual truth, it is very much a human one.

“The story recorded here is more honest than the police reports and newspaper articles…”

1998 Friday, 28 August

I remember it’d rained, but the sun had come out. There was this freshness in the air, this weird optimism about the empty campus. The students had scurried off home for the summer, leaving the geese and the administrators to run the place. I don’t know why I’d ended up there really – a Viking city, a thirteenth-century cathedral, a river and an historically interesting train station, and I’d wandered all the way to the sixties stain that was the university campus. I had such mixed feelings towards York then; the sense of suffocation of the place I’d grown up in was slowly dissolving into something strangely nostalgic. I’d photographed raindrops hitting the polluted lake, clouds fleeing from the concrete canvas. Now I was crouching, my thighs wobbling with the strain, struggling to keep the lens steady, willing that pigeon to make up its mind, to align its wing with the odd staircase spiral, to catch its reflection in that puddle and balance my frame.

‘Uh, excuse me.’ 

‘Just a minute,’ I said without looking. The voice had been hesitant, unsure, as if apologising for needing me to shift out of its way. I was squatting in the doorway, I suppose, holding the automatics open as I adjusted my aperture.

‘I just need to get by,’ came the voice again, a little peevish this time, no?

‘Hold on.’ I’d taken half a dozen photos already, but I knew none of them were quite right. Then the stupid pigeon finally settled and I pressed my finger down. My camera clicked and the daft bird fluttered off. ‘Got it!’ I straightened up, snapped the cap on to my lens and turned around. ‘Sorry about that. I mean, thanks for waiting.’ He was tall, easily over six foot, sandy hair and blue eyes.

Sort of cute, in a geeky, academic way. I thought he might be a professor, flashed him my little girl smile.

‘No problem,’ he replied, smiling back. ‘I’m Marc by the way.’ Oh. I hadn’t expected that. Before I’d really thought about it, I’d ping-ponged back, ‘Well hello, Marc-By-The-Way,’ and stuck out my tongue. ‘I’m Alex-By-The-Way.’

His cheeks coloured and I felt bad. I glanced around for something to distract us, finally noticed the pile of books he was carting out of the library. ‘Whoops, those look heavy,’ I said. ‘I really am sorry.’

‘It’s nothing,’ he said, but judging by the under-developed biceps poking out from the sleeves of his T-shirt, he was lying.

‘Kant, Rousseau and Hegel,’ I said, reading the first three spines. ‘You really know how to spend your summer.’

‘Um, yes,’ he said, shifting his weight. ‘I guess it’s not the most exciting first impression.’

I laughed and shook my head. ‘No, it’s fine, but careful you don’t get lost in that fog of masculinity. I might need to prescribe some serious feminist theory as an antidote.’

Marc smiled and blushed again. ‘Are you a student?’ he said. ‘Sort of,’ I said with a shrug. ‘Not here. And not in the lugging books out of the library kind of way.’

Marc frowned. His eyes flicked from mine to focus on something in the distance over my right shoulder. There was a pause, but neither of us made as if to move. Whatever he’d been hurrying out of the library for seemed to have been forgotten.

‘Sorry if this is a little odd,’ he said finally, looking back at me. ‘But do you fancy a cup of tea? Maybe you can tell me what I should be reading instead.’ 

I examined him properly now, guessed he wasn’t a professor at all. He was too old to be a regular student, though. Where had this question come from? Was he the sort to try his luck at any opportune moment? Or was he really the geeky library boy he appeared? Did he actually want me to tell him to read de Beauvoir and Arendt, or had he just this second stepped out of his comfort zone and offered himself up to me of all people? His cheeks were turning from red to purple and an image flickered before me of this man-boy as a peg ready to be thwacked back into place by a child’s toy mallet. I, of course, was the mallet-wielding child. This man, I thought, had probably been the type of kid who held out his toys and sweets and pocket money for the bully to take his pick, hoping only for a new best friend. I’m not proud of it, but I was a bitch to kids like that.

I stifled a shame-filled laugh and found myself saying, ‘Why not? I guess I owe you for helping me get a good shot.’

I watched the skin around his blue eyes crinkle as he smiled in relief. I imagined running my tongue along the stubble on his jaw, burying my nose in the creases of his skin. I cleared my throat, glanced back towards the library, then again at his pile of books. ‘Can I take a couple of those?’

Friday - Fourteen Hours Gone

Marc would have worried whether it was the right thing to do, but he took the girls to school.

‘Why isn’t Mummy making breakfast?’ Lizzie must have whined in the morning. ‘You put too much milk in and the cereal goes all soggy.’

‘Mummy had to leave early today, sweetie.’ Another lie. ‘Here, do your own milk.’

‘Where’s my maths book?’ I hear Charlotte holler from upstairs. ‘Where you left it!’ Lizzie would have shouted back.

With half-hearted reprimands he’d have bundled them out the door, Lizzie missing a glove and Charlotte moaning that her teacher was going to kill her. My husband would have winced at that word tumbling from her milk-toothed mouth; an involuntary image of me sliced and diced, bloodied and sullied flashing beneath his lids as he blinked in the grey morning light.

They’d have walked together along the terraced streets towards their school. Lizzie might have chatted about looking forward to netball club starting again. Charlotte may have told him she needed new PE shorts. Marc would have nodded and mumbled replies, worrying about being away from the phone. He’d have peered into every car that passed, driven by an absurd superstitious thought that if he missed one it’d contain me. They’d have stopped to wait for the lights. Charlotte would have seen a classmate on the opposite side and tried to step forward. Marc would have yanked her back, fear bringing his surroundings into focus. He’d have shouted at our daughter, his natural inclination towards overprotection shooting into overdrive on this strange morning. Charlotte’s eyes would have filled with tears.

‘Dad, there wasn’t even anything coming,’ Lizzie would have groaned, as much in embarrassment as defence of her sister.

The lights would finally have changed and they would have crossed the road. Reaching the kerb, our girls would have shrugged him off, run through the wide gateway towards the chattering uniforms at the bottom of the steps. He’d have waited a moment to see them inside, wanting them to turn back and wave, to smile at their dad, remind him he wasn’t alone. A classroom assistant would have closed the door behind the last child and he and the other parents would have turned from the gate, ready to get on with their days. He’d have nodded to a couple of mums he recognised and waited once more for the lights, wishing he could follow them to their meetings and yoga classes, offices and book clubs.

‘You’re through to North Yorkshire Police. How can I help?’ The buzz of an office in the background, phones ringing and instructions being given. The recording is poor, but you can tell my husband feels comforted. They’ll do something, he’s thinking; they’ll help.

‘Um, hello. I, uh, called last night because my wife has, well, she hasn’t come home.’ This must have been the only thought he’d had in 14 hours, but the words still tasted strange on his tongue. You can hear his hesitation in the recording, sense how surreal he finds all this. ‘They said they’d call me this morning, but I just, I thought maybe it might have been forgotten, and I’m really very worried. I can’t get hold of her and –’

‘Okay, sir,’ the well-trained voice responds. ‘Can I take your name?’

He gives it to her and she locates the log of his previous call. She asks if he’s received any news and they go over the nothing he knows once more. He grows frustrated when she asks if this behaviour is ‘out of character’ for me, if we’ve had a fight, if I’ve done this before. You can hear him taking a breath on the line, thinking before he speaks. That second of silence says far more than his words. Of course it’s f**king out of character – I’d hardly be phoning the police if it wasn’t, would I? Eventually she asks for our address and says she’ll dispatch someone to take more information. They’ll be with him at midday. He’s told to stay by the phone and to think of as many details as he can concerning my last movements.

‘Please try not to worry,’ the woman says. ‘We’ll do our best to find your wife.’

The recording ends. I imagine she hung up rather than him. I imagine he sat with the receiver in his hand, the dial tone drowning the chatter in his brain. He couldn’t work out what came next. He was meant to wait by the phone, but he couldn’t just do nothing. The day before he’d been a competent, functioning man: a moderately well-dressed, happily married male rebelling only mildly at middle age; comfortable in his career; delighted with his daughters. Today, he was a weak bundle of tissue and bone unable to achieve the one thing he desired. A man used to instructing students and staff, juggling timetables and negotiating with publishers, he now found himself at the mercy of officials and red tape. His fists clenched as he realised all he could do was hope some boys in blue could accomplish what he couldn’t. He looked down at his shirt and jeans with the disgust of a man who has chosen books over brawn, an intellectual who feels inadequate passing building sites and squealing fire engines. He never trusted that I loved his sensitivity, his lack of clichéd masculinity. I deserved a man, he thought as he sat in our living room, the phone still in his hand, my magazine on the table. A real one who could stride out into the world and return with me beautiful and swooning in his muscular arms.

Exhibit Alexandra by Natasha Bell is available to pre-order on Amazon here

Images: Courtesy of Penguin Random House / iStock / Gbarkz