Extract: Playdate by Alex Dahl

Published: October 1st, 2020
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Format: Hardcover, Kindle, Audio
Genre: Psychological Thriller, Suspense, Mystery

Today I’m delighted to be sharing an extract from the chilling Playmate. Thank you to Head of Zeus for the invitation to take part and the gifted copy of the book.

Extract:

1.

Elisa
Sandefjord, 19 October 2017

I’ve had the day off, cramming all the things I never normally have time for into the afternoon – highlights and a trim, nails, a half-hearted hour at the gym, and I’m almost late for pick-up. First, I got stuck in bad traffic by the E18 motorway exit, and then Lyder decided to throw a fit when I picked him up from nursery, dropping to the floor like a slab of meat, flopping around in my arms and rolling his eyes back as I shoved his limp limbs into his winter suit.
‘Stop it,’ I hissed, pushing his stockinged feet into his sheepskin boots before grabbing his lunch box, an enormous cardboard artwork and his nursery folder in one hand, my other hand half-dragging my son out the door. ‘Come on!’
In the car, Lyder whines about the fact that I haven’t brought him a snack.
‘Everyone else gets raisins after nursery,’ he wails. ‘Or carrots. Or biscuits. Carl gets biscuits, the kind with chocolate bits in them, it isn’t fair…’ I block out his thin voice droning on and on. It’s been a long week and I feel the beginnings of a headache at the back of my skull. I press my finger to the spot that hurts, staring at a red light taking forever. Three minutes left until pick-up time. Four minutes before Aud, the sour-faced woman running the after-school club, starts stabbing my phone number with her long acrylic nails.
The light turns green and I drive fast down the last few quiet suburban roads to Korsvik School, making Lyder giggle nervously in the back seat at the squeal of the tires. I pull up in front of the school and hand Lyder my iPhone, his face breaking into a surprised smile. It’s 4.29 – I made it.
‘I’ll be right back,’ I say, and hurry across the school yard to the brightly lit red wooden building.
‘Mamma!’ squeals Lucia and runs towards me. She jumps into my arms and I kiss her soft golden hair. ‘You’re late.’
‘No, I’m right on time, actually.’
‘Can I go home with Josephine?’
‘Who’s Josephine?’
‘She’s a new girl in my class. Can I? Please?’
‘Not today, sweetie. You know we have to arrange playdates ahead of time, it’s just easier.’
‘Her mom said it’s fine. They’re waiting, in the cloakroom.’ ‘Sweetheart…’
‘Please, Mamma.’ Lucia points through the open doorway to the changing area shared by first- and second-graders.
I sigh and go through with her. A little girl wearing a beautiful pink quilted Moncler jacket and moon boots sits on the bench in the far corner, next to an equally chiclooking mother.
‘Hi,’ I say, and smile at them both. When the girl smiles back I notice that the left side of her face creases strangely, and then I realize it is a circular, puckered scar cupping her cheek, reaching all the way to her hairline at her temple.
‘Hello, I’m Line, Josephine’s mother,’ says the woman and smiles widely. She is beautiful, the kind of beautiful that has the power to instantly disarm people. Her eyes are wide-set and clear blue, her hair is thick and dark, curling perfectly around her shoulders, and her lips are plump and shiny with nude gloss. She is wearing a khaki version of her daughter’s Moncler jacket – cinched at her tiny waist, a white cashmere polo neck, and elegant, knee-high olivegreen leather boots.
‘Nice to meet you. I’m Elisa. Elisa Blix.’ I turn to Lucia.
‘We need to hurry, sweets, Lyder is waiting alone in the car.’ ‘I want to go to Josephine’s house!’
‘It’s absolutely fine with us,’ says Line. ‘The girls have been asking for a playdate for a while, and we’re not doing anything this afternoon.’
‘Right,’ I say. ‘Well, okay, if you’re sure.’
‘Absolutely sure. Let me give you my number. We live on Asnestoppen, so not far from here.’
‘Okay. I’ll pick her up around six thirty, if that works?’
‘Six thirty is perfect.’
‘When did Josephine start? I don’t think I’ve met you before.’
‘Pretty new. We moved here from Oslo at the beginning of term.’
‘Ah, okay. Liking it so far?’
‘Yeah. Josie has settled really well at school and my older son is happy at his senior school, too.’
‘Oh, great,’ I say, and we smile at each other again. I like her; I could imagine us being friends. There is something calm and centered about her, and I suppose I am quite awestruck by her seemingly effortless elegance. The girls, too, seem to like each other – as Line and I speak, they do an intricate clapping game I can’t remember seeing Lucia do before, then they burst into fits of high-pitched giggles.
‘Do you want to call my phone from yours, that way I have your number too?’ she says.
‘Sorry, I’ve left my phone in the car with my son. Why don’t you just call me, and I’ll drop you a text in a sec?’
‘Sure.’
‘Okay, have fun on your playdate, girls,’ I say and give the faux-fur blob on the top of Lucia’s hat a little tug.
She laughs and walks away with Line and Josephine, holding Josephine’s hand, the two of them skipping in sync, the sound of their squeaky rubber-soled boots reverberating around the empty corridor.

It’s just before six when my phone vibrates. It’s a picture message from Line, of Josephine and Lucia sitting close together on a huge white sofa in matching pink princess dresses, laughing and cradling a shaggy brown cat. Its paws are crusty with dirt as if just came in from outside, and its eyes are bright yellow and mesmerizing. I am still staring at it when the phone begins to ring in my hand.
‘Hello?’
‘Mamma?’ Lucia’s light voice is hiccupy with giggles.
I smile. ‘Hey baby,’ I say, ‘I’m just about to get ready to come get you, okay?’
‘Yeah, but Mamma, we were wondering… could we have a sleepover? Please oh please oh please!’
‘Oh.’ Lucia has never slept at a friend’s house before, though at seven, some of the girls in the class have started sleeping over. I know my daughter isn’t a particularly anxious child, but she doesn’t know Josephine that well, and I’ve never even been to their house.
‘Mamma, please! It’s Friday!’
‘I know. Just… you don’t have any of your stuff with you. And you’ve not been on a sleepover before.’
‘Yeah I have! With Julie!’
‘Yes, but she’s your cousin. I don’t know.’
‘It’s so fun here! Mamma, please! Here, talk to Josephine’s mom.’ The phone goes quiet for a moment, then Line’s voice fills my ear.
‘Hi there, Elisa. What a fun girl you have! The two of them are having such a good time.’
‘Yes,’ I say, ‘Lucia sounded very happy.’
‘So, you gathered the girls have been asking for a sleepover. What do you think? It is totally fine with me. My husband is in New York for work and doesn’t get back until tomorrow and Josephine is generally easier to deal with when she has a buddy around, so I don’t mind in the slightest.’
‘Oh. Okay. Yes, well, it’s just that Lucia hasn’t slept at a friend’s house before.’
‘Right. Well, I mean, we could try, and if she feels like going home, I could just give you guys a call and you could collect her?’
‘Yes. Yes, I suppose that would work. Okay, so I will need to pop round with her stuff. You know, toothbrush, pajamas, teddy, of course.’
‘Sure.’

Fredrik walks through the door so red in the face from the fierce wind it looks like he’s been slapped.
‘Hi,’ he says, pecking me on the cheek. ‘Where are the kids?’
‘Lyder is zonked out in front of The Lego Movie upstairs and Lucia is at a classmate’s house. She’s been asked to sleep over, actually.’
‘Oh, right.’
‘That’s okay, I suppose?’
‘Yeah, I don’t see why not. We can put Lyder to bed early and get some us-time.’ He winks at me and runs a light hand across my bottom before grabbing a bottle of Mexican beer from the fridge, snapping its cap off and taking a long glug from it, his Adam’s apple rising and falling in his throat.
‘Yes, it actually works quite well. My flight tomorrow is at nine, so you could just have a slow morning with Lyder and then go get Lucia sometime before lunch.’
‘Yeah, okay. What time do you think you’ll be back?’
‘I land at five thirty.’
‘Was it Milan?’
‘No, Rome.’
‘Lucky you.’
‘Well, it’s not like I’ll see anything other than the airport, honey.’
‘And blue skies.’
‘True. There is that.’ I smile at my husband and go into the hallway to pull my boots on. I am driving, but I still put on a woolen hat – though it is only October, winter seems to have come fast on icy winds from the east.

‘Hi,’ says Line, ‘come on in.’
I step into a large, immaculately tidy hallway with a vaulted ceiling and expensive-looking spotlights. When I take my boots off, my feet are immediately warmed by underfloor heating. I hear children laughing upstairs, and when we go up into a huge open living space, Lucia and Josephine are doing cartwheels, still in princess dresses, stopping only to heave for breath through peals of laughter.
‘Wow, what a beautiful house you have,’ I say. It’s all sleek modernity, with unbroken white surfaces, quite the contrast to our home, which is full of family photographs, boxes of toys, kids’ drawings tacked onto walls. This is clearly the kind of family who can answer an unexpected house call without worrying about piles of shoes in the hallway, towering dishes in the sink, overflowing laundry bins in the bathroom, half-eaten jam sandwiches abandoned on windowsills. Unlike us.
The house is built at the very top of a rocky hill, above Asnes beach on the Vesterøya peninsula, with no immediate neighbors. One wall is entirely glass, looking out onto the rugged coastline dotted with patches of forest and a moody ocean rolling out far below us, its frothy crests occasionally visible in the sweeping lights from the lighthouse across the bay.
‘Thank you,’ says Line. ‘We’re really happy with it. I think I saw half the houses in Sandefjord before we finally bought this one.’ She laughs and so do I. ‘Do you want a tea? Or a glass of wine?’
‘I have to get back to my son before he goes to bed around seven thirty,’ I say. ‘I promised him a bedtime story.’ Line smiles, and I am struck again by how beautiful she is. ‘Sure. Just a quick one then?’
I nod and she returns after a moment with two glasses of champagne. ‘It is Friday, after all.’ We could definitely be friends. I follow the crawl of a droplet of condensation down the outside of the glass, then raise it towards Line in a little toast.
‘Maman,’ says Josephine, ‘regarde!’
Line claps as Josephine does a wobbly double-cartwheel, then collapses onto the carpet.
‘You speak French?’
‘Yeah, sometimes. Josephine used to go to the French school in Oslo. We figured another language is always an advantage.’
I feel suddenly dull and painfully average next to this glamorous woman and her sophisticated daughter. ‘I see. And, yes, you’re absolutely right, such an advantage.’
‘What about you guys? Are you from around here? It is a really nice place to live, isn’t it?’
‘It is nice. Quiet, I guess, but still central. I’m from Lillehammer originally, and my husband is from Sandefjord, so we chose to live here as he works in Tønsberg and I work out of Torp Airport. It takes me less than twenty minutes to get home from there.’
‘Ah. So what do you do?’
‘I’m a flight attendant. For Nordic Wings.’
Line’s eyes light up. ‘Oh wow. That must be a fun career.
I always had a vision of myself as a flight attendant when I was much younger. Sometimes I wish I’d pursued it.’
‘It can be fun. But it gets less and less glamorous, put it that way. I used to work long-haul, for Qatar, before the kids. That was probably more like the vision most people have of the job.’
Line smiles and takes another sip of her champagne.
‘Then, when we had the kids, I started working for Scandinavian Airlines, but commuting to Oslo Airport got pretty exhausting – two hours’ drive each way was just too much – so I started with Nordic Wings three years ago. It’s been great for this region, to have a new low-cost airline connecting us to lots of European destinations, but it’s hardly glamorous. Anyway. What about you – are you working?’
‘Yes, I am a make-up artist. For TV, but I work freelance.’
‘Now, that sounds like fun. Do you get to meet anyone famous?’
‘Nah. I do mostly newsreaders.’
‘Right.’
‘It’s easy to combine with the kids, though. You know – flexible. I only take jobs when I can see they’ll work around whatever the kids have on, as well as my husband’s schedule. He travels a lot for work.’
‘What does your husband do?’ I try to imagine the husband – he must be quite the guy to attract someone like Line.
‘He, uh… He’s a banker. He works with investment stuff for a… a French bank. Paribas.’
I smile and nod – Line sounds just like me when people ask me what Fredrik does – Uh, something to do with financial law in, umm, a law firm. We speak for another couple of minutes about the girls and how well they get on, and I give Line Fredrik’s phone number so they can make arrangements for pick-up tomorrow.
I stand up and walk over to where Lucia and Josephine are playing the clapping game again.
‘Mamma has to go home now, sweetie,’ I say, but Lucia barely glances up. ‘Sure you want to sleep over?’ She nods, not going to break the chant.
‘My name is funky lady,
Lady funky, what you got?
One, two, three, clap!
One, two, three,
One clap, two clap, triple clap!’
‘If you need to speak to me, just call, okay?’ Lucia nods again.
‘I’ve brought you your stuff. Minky Mouse is in the bag, too.’
She smiles and steps into my arms in a close hug. Her forehead and neck are sweaty from the exertion of the cartwheeling, and I kiss her hot red cheek. ‘I love you.’ ‘Love you, too,’ says Lucia.
‘Let’s play twins again,’ shouts Josephine, grabbing Lucia by the arm.
‘Yeah! Let’s!’
‘Lucia is my twin!’
I smile, first at the girls, then at Line. Looking at them with their arms wrapped around each other, grinning widely, each exposing several missing teeth, they could well be twins, except for Josephine’s thick chestnut hair and Lucia’s fine blonde hair. They have quite similar brown eyes and full lips. ‘Have fun, little twinnies,’ I say and go back downstairs, trailed by Line. She gives me a little wave as I step into the cold darkness outside. I stand a moment outside the house looking up at thin drifts of clouds being pulled across the sky by the brisk wind. Tomorrow will be bumpy.

If you enjoyed this extract, you can buy the book here. You can also read my review here.

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