She may not know exactly who is in her house. But she knows why they are there. Be careful who you let in…
A house swap becomes the eerie backdrop to a crumbling marriage, a long-buried affair, and the fatal consequences that unfold
When Caroline and Francis receive an offer to house swap--from their city apartment to a house in a leafy, upscale London suburb--they jump at the chance for a week away from home, their son, and the tensions that have pushed their marriage to the brink.
As the couple settles in, the old problems that permeate their marriage--his unhealthy behaviors, her indiscretions--start bubbling to the surface. But while they attempt to mend their relationship, their neighbor, an intense young woman, is showing a little too much interest in their activities.
Meanwhile, Caroline slowly begins to uncover some signs of life in the stark house--signs of her life. The flowers in the bathroom or the music might seem innocent to anyone else--but to her they are clues. It seems the person they have swapped with is someone who knows her, someone who knows the secrets she's desperate to forget. . . .
Be careful who you let in. . .
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)|
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Copyright © 2018 Rebecca Fleet
Caroline, December 2012
I wake up alone again. In my sleep my limbs have uncurled and stretched, sprawling across onto his side of the bed. The sheets are smoothly cold. I can’t remember if we started the night sleeping together or apart.
The bedside clock reads quarter to seven and the room is filled with dull gray light, seeping through the curtains. I lie there for five or ten minutes, listening for sounds inside the silence. Nothing. Slowly, I clamber out of bed and pull on my dressing gown. An ache is already spreading across my temples and I reach for the glass of water I keep on the bedside table, but it’s empty. I fumble for the little packet of painkillers anyway. Swallow two down, wincing at the scrape of chalk against the back of my throat. The sight of my own face, briefly caught in the tilted mirror by the door, brings a strange throb of vertigo. Pale skin, eyes stained with rubbed mascara. I seldom bother to take it off before bed these days. Like so many things, the point of it seems lost, sucked up into the effort of existing.
I step quietly into the hall. Now I can hear the tinny relentless waves of sound ebbing from the living room: dramatic music, the staccato murmuring of voices. I push open the door and peer inside. Light buzzes from the computer, faintly illuminating the darkness. He’s sitting there, head propped on one hand, elbow resting on the arm of the sofa. Staring at the screen. Some kind of Scandinavian cop show: cream and beige furnishings, haggard men in uniform speaking a foreign language in clipped miserable tones.
“Francis,” I say, but he doesn’t react.
I’m shivering as I perch on the edge of the sofa. “You didn’t come to bed,” I say. It’s a guess but he doesn’t challenge it, his shoulders moving almost imperceptibly in a shrug.
“Fell asleep here,” he says at last. “Then woke up.” His eyes are flat and glazed, still focused on the screen. These days he seems to do little but sleep, and yet to look at him I am reminded of nothing so much as the black and white photos I have seen of torture victims, kept awake for days on end by their captors.
“That’s a shame,” I say uselessly. If anything is shaking him awake in the middle of the night, I have no idea what it is. His head is no longer the open cave it once was. I used to be able to climb inside it as easily as breathing, read and touch the quality of his thoughts as if they were my own. Now it’s a fortress. I spend my time fumbling in the dark for a key that isn’t there.
The episode on the computer ends. Credits roll, small and blurred against a gray ‑washed background. A wall of sound unfurls bleakly behind them; the kind of sinister, relentless music that makes me feel as if I am suffocating. I realize that my skin is hot. For a moment I think I might faint. Blinking hard, I press the tips of my fingernails into my palms. “Are you working today?” I ask. “Any appointments?” As I ask, I realize that I can’t remember the last time he definitely went to the clinic. I try to imagine the man next to me sitting in his therapist’s chair, listening to his patients. It’s worryingly hard to do.
Francis looks vaguely jaded, as if I have reminded him of something unpleasant. “No.”
“OK.” I hesitate, knowing I shouldn’t continue. It’s too late; the words are rising to the surface and pushing themselves out of my mouth. “So what are you going to do, then? Any plans?”
He slams the laptop shut, and with it the light snaps out of the room, plunging us into near darkness. “No,” he says again after a while. I watch his profile for a few minutes, willing him to turn his head and look at me, but he doesn’t move, and in the end I just get up and leave.
In the bathroom I wipe clean last night’s makeup and put the new day’s on. I focus on my face in fragments, minutely scrubbing and rebuilding one small area after another. I smear foundation thickly over my skin, trace shadow carefully over my eyelids, run black liner to the corner of my eyes. Last, I choose a dark pink lipstick and apply it slowly across the width of my mouth, pressing my lips together to set the color. Only then do I step back and stare at my reflection. I look good. Better than I should. Even so, I don’t like looking myself in the eye these days. I’m afraid of seeing something there that I don’t want to transmit. Disappointment, maybe, or sadness. Anything at all.
“Mummy, Mummy.” Eddie’s voice drifts from down the hallway, amicably querulous. I glance at my watch. Already half past seven, and I only have an hour to get us both ready and out of the house. Then the hurried journey to nursery, the bus back into town to the office, eight hours of sitting at my desk turning over the mental picture of Francis on his own in the house and wondering what he is doing, what he is thinking. The thought of it all is exhausting.
I could go back to bed. The idea falls into my head, clear and sweet as water, as I walk down the hall and push open Eddie’s bedroom door. Call in sick, pull the covers over my head, and sleep for another eight or nine hours. But I won’t.
“Good morning!” I sing, opening the curtains. I bend down by his bed and pull him into a hug, feeling his hot little fingers closing around the back of my neck.
I start the routine. Clothes, breakfast, teeth brushing. First one thing, then the next. This is how you get through life. This is how it goes.
“Nursery today,” I tell Eddie. “What do you think you’ll be doing?”
He cocks his head to one side, an exaggerated parody of thoughtfulness. “Don’t know,” he says slowly. “Playing, I think.”
“That sounds about right.” I smile and he beams at me, aware he’s somehow made a joke. “Well, make sure you have fun,” I add.
At half past eight I brush his blonde hair carefully twenty times, counting each stroke in my head. He is murmuring quietly to himself, moving two plastic animals across his lap in some complicated game. “What are they doing?” I ask, but he doesn’t reply, swiveling his gray eyes up to mine and narrowing them in what looks like amused mistrust. Sometimes, his expressions strike me as oddly mature, brewed for far more than the two and a half years they have had to arrange themselves on his face.
I finish the brushing and straighten his T‑shirt. “Go and say goodbye to Daddy,” I say, and he trots eagerly off to the living room. I hear Francis’s voice, complimenting him on his smartness, advising him to be good and have a nice day. He sounds pleasant, doting even. Completely normal. The thought lifts me for a moment, and I hurry down the hall to join them. Sure enough, he’s smiling, stroking the top of Eddie’s head with the flat of his hand.
“We’ll be off then,” I say. Eddie slips out of the room, knowing the drill, clattering down the hallway toward the front door to wait for me. The instant he is gone, the atmosphere drops and folds in on itself. Francis sits down again, wrenching the lid of the computer up and intently focusing on the screen.
“Yeah,” he says.
“You won’t forget to pick Eddie up? I’ve got that work party tonight, remember?” I ask.
He glances up, irritation flashing across his face. “I know,” he snaps. “You told me already. Three or four times.”
I bite back the retort that springs to my lips—the accusation that what he remembers these days seems to be entirely arbitrary, filtered through some invisible system that can hang on to the slightest perceived misdemeanor or thoughtless word for years, but let dates, times, and appointments drift through it like clouds of finely spun sugar. “Fine,” I say, knowing my voice is harsh and unkind. “Well, don’t wait up.” The petty cliché falls uselessly between us.
Francis leans back in his seat and sighs, a short defeated exhalation that raises the hairs on the back of my neck. “See you,” he says flatly, and all at once I’m thinking about touching him, wondering how it would change things if I walked over and knelt in front of him and pressed my hands to his forehead, smoothing his hair and kissing his lips. The idea is strangely compelling, but I don’t move.
I tell him goodbye, and search my head for something else to say. But there’s nothing.
The bar is hot and dark, its walls prickled with flashing Christmas lights. Glancing at my watch, I realize it is already almost ten o’clock. I’ve been dreading this party for days, unable to imagine getting into any kind of festive spirit, but now that it is here, I am flooded with relief. Lately it seems that I have shuttled between the house and the office like a rat on a wheel, the cycle broken only by the odd half‑hearted dinner with a friend filled with platitudes and lies that ends by 9 p.m. It has been a long time since I have been out with a group, and dressed in the short sparkly dress that I brought to change into.
Glancing down, I smooth it over my thighs, watching it shimmer, and for some reason I find myself giggling. It strikes me that I am already quite drunk. My head feels pleasantly fuzzy, anesthetized. Across the table, Steven is raising his voice in some vague attempt at managerial authority, rambling out a toast. “We’ve all worked hard . . .” I catch. “Time to celebrate and look forward to another year of . . .”
Whatever it is we have to look forward to is drowned in a general chorus of agreement and clinking glasses. It doesn’t much matter what it is in any case; in the world of media sales there’s only so good it’s going to get. I snatch my own glass up and join the toast, not caring that the liquid sloshes over my hand. I tip the rest down, wincing as the alcohol burns the back of my throat. I don’t drink much these days. My head spins, and I decide to go to the bathroom. I nudge Julie next to me, indicating that I want to get out, and she shifts across the bench, half falling into the lap of one of the junior salesmen, who looks none too displeased. “No need to hurry back,” she calls, winking at me. I roll my eyes good‑naturedly, but I can’t help feeling a brief prick of something like envy.
I make my way across the bar. The music throbs loudly around me, but I can hear the smooth click of my high heeled shoes on the polished floor inside my head, neat and rhythmical, each click vibrating through my body. Spotlights glimmer above me, reflecting and blurring on to the smooth metallic bar. As I draw closer I see that Carl is waiting there, jostling in the throng. He’s checking his phone, head bent, squinting at the lit‑up screen.
“You’ll never get served like that,” I say as I pass, and he looks up and laughs, tucking the phone away into his pocket and glancing back toward the bar.
“Yeah,” he answers, “got distracted. It’s taking fucking ages. I can’t even remember what anyone wants.”
“Just get a few lemonades,” I shrug, grinning.
“Right,” he says. “They’re all so pissed they wouldn’t notice anyway.”
“Not like you,” I fire back.
“Or you. We’re the sensible ones,” he says.
“You got it.” It’s easy to fall into this kind of banter with Carl, as easy as breathing. Eighteen months of walking around on the same bit of carpet for five days a week has created a friendship between us that I have grown to value. He’s almost a decade younger than I am, but we have the same attitude toward the job we’re in—the same mix of bored familiarity, frustration with our colleagues, and occasional flashes of excitement and interest.
“Having a good night?” he asks, angling himself away from the bar and toward me, the attempt to attract the barman’s attention forgotten.
“ Yeah—it’s great,” I say, leaning forward earnestly for emphasis, and as I do so the heel of my shoe twists under me and I trip slightly, lurching against him, the sleeve of his blazer brushing against my bare skin.
“Steady on.” He rights me, his dark eyes amused, flashing in the beams of light glittering across the bar.
“Sorry,” I say, laughing. “I didn’t, um, I didn’t mean to throw myself at you like that.” It’s meant to be a joke, the kind of lightly flirtatious banter that we’re well used to making in the office, but somehow in this setting—the dark perfume‑scented air, the red‑tinted spotlights and the crush of people around us—it sounds different. Loaded. Frozen by sudden embarrassment, I find myself staring into his eyes, and I have just a second or two to register that there is something strange in this mutual silence before he shrugs and smiles.
“No worries,” he says. “Must be all those lemonades.” He twists away from me suddenly, motions toward the barman and reels off a long list of drinks, seemingly at random. I take a few deep breaths, composing myself. “So,” he says when he has finished,
“how are you doing?”
“Er. I’m all right.” The question is too vague to be worth replying to in any detail. “On the edge of mental collapse,” I elaborate lightly. “That was a joke,” I add a moment later, though it wasn’t really.
Carl leans back against the bar, his arms folded. “Things still bad at home?” he asks.
I shrug. The implicit reference to Francis stabs me unpleasantly, and I realize I have barely thought of him all evening. The picture slides into my head— his body slumped apathetically on the sofa, lost in sleep or oblivion, the lamp burning in the corner of the cold gray room—and out again. “Not great,” I admit. I think about saying more, but I can’t quite find the words. Carl knows more than most about the way things are, and we’ve always been good at striking a balance between friendly intimacy and respectful distance, but tonight I can’t trust that I can find that balance. I have the vague, worrying sense that if I started talking, I might not stop.
He’s watching me closely, but when he speaks his tone is light. “Well,” he says, “if you need a shoulder to cry on you know I’m around.”
I nod. I know I should say something, but my mind is suddenly blank. “Better get to the bathroom,” I say, and turn abruptly away, realizing that my legs are shaking.
In the bathroom I splash cold water onto my face and watch my reflection in the mirror as the drops trickle down my skin. My eyes look wide and intense, sparkling in the glowing red light. I turn my head slightly, monitoring my profile, evaluating myself from this angle and that. The room lurches around me, and I blink hard, trying to drag myself back down to earth. One more drink, and then I’ll go home.
For the next hour I sit in the tight little circle of my workmates, listening to the conversations flowing around me, barely in the room. When I get to my feet and say my goodbyes, Carl comes ’round to wish me a happy Christmas.
“See you in the New Year,” he says, “have fun.” His hug is friendly, vaguely affectionate. It lasts about two seconds, and yet it sends something unfamiliar ricocheting through me, something I can’t quite pin down and examine before it’s gone.
“You too,” I say, “bye then,” and then I’m ducking out of the bar, my heart beating fast again, and my bones rattling under my thin jacket as I step into the icy cold air.
All the way home those few minutes at the bar replay senselessly through my mind. I lean my head against the steamed‑up window of the bus. I’ve never thought about Carl this way before—not really, not seriously—but right now I can’t drag my mind away. A harmless little fantasy, I tell myself. No one could begrudge me that. And suddenly the gates swing open and I’m wondering what it would be like to kiss him—to kiss anyone, after all this time. The thought is strange and violent. I press my fingertips against my forehead, which is already aching. I’m going to be in no state to be the perfect wife and mother tomorrow.
When I reach home I unlock the door quietly and as soon as I do so I can hear Francis snoring. I tiptoe to the half‑open door of the lounge and see him sprawled on the sofa, fully clothed, dead to the world. Silently, I turn away and go into the bedroom, closing the door behind me. I pull off my short silver dress, feeling the sequins scratch against my bare skin; peel off my underwear so that I’m standing naked in front of the window. The curtains are open, and I hesitate for a few seconds before pulling them shut, a half‑formed thought lurking darkly in the back of my head: a sudden wanton desire to be watched, to be seen.
Throwing myself down on the bed, I reach for my handbag and pull out my phone, seeing at once that it is flashing to signal a new message. I bristle with instinctive knowledge, and sure enough it’s Carl’s name that flashes on the screen.
Good to see you, the message reads. You’ll be glad to know I decided to go home soon after you left. Got to stay sensible, right?
I try and think of something to reply, but my thoughts slip through me and I can’t hold on to what I want to say. I throw the phone on to the bedside table, roll over to turn off the lamp, then lie back and close my eyes, feeling my head swim. It’s not unusual for us to text each other, but it’s rarely so late at night. In light of my fantasies on the way home, it feels significant.
Excerpted from "The House Swap"
Copyright © 2018 Rebecca Fleet.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Good quick read, lots ofvtwists and suspense.
Great read. Kept me at my toes and wanted more. Loved the characters and just a fun summer read
When I signed up for this book I immediately thought of the movie "the Holiday" well this book was not a typical holiday but a thriller of one. While I found it hard to get into this book once i did it was good and kind of cat & mouse like. I like a book when I can't figure out the ending and this was one. A pretty good read overall.
3.5 I've stayed in numerous B and B's while travelling, but have never actually swapped houses with someone. And honestly, I don't think I would want to. My penchant for suspense and thriller reads provides too much fuel for an abundance of imagined scenarios..... The House Swap by Rebecca Fleet gives rise to those imaginings. Francis and Caroline's marriage has been rocky for the last few years. They are trying to pick up the pieces and get past what has happened. A week away will give them some together time, away from their day to day life. And they could save money by house swapping with someone. Uh huh. They do swap, but the house they land in is oddly sterile, with not many personal touches. But there are a few and they seem to be oddly familiar to Caroline. The neighbour a few houses down also seems strangely interested in Caroline as well. Caroline is indeed keeping secrets - and it seems like someone else wants them revealed. What happened in the past is only slowly revealed in entries from 'then'. As details are added, what's going on in the present becomes clearer. That slow reveal makes for addictive reading. The 'who' and 'why' ended up not being what I had imagined. Fleet adroitly manipulates the reader's expectations and assumptions along the way. The unknown other person is given italicized entries - and they will keep you guessing. Fleet's depiction of a marriage in trouble is believable, harsh and sharp in its presentation. Francis is also given a voice, providing an alternate look at Caroline's depiction of their marriage. I must admit, I didn't like either Caroline or Francis at all. I felt sorry for their young son as he doesn't seem to be the priority in either parent's life. The House Swap is a combination of domestic drama and suspense. It's a bit of a slow burn, but does pick up speed midway. I didn't love the ending, but enjoyed the journey there. A good debut and I would pick up Fleet's next book. I do have to say that The House Swap has cemented my decision to not house swap!
House Swap is a superb slow-burn thriller that kept me glued to the pages and on the edge of my seat the whole way through. Caroline and Francis decide to do a house swap for a quick vacation getaway, where they hope to continue to rebuild their marriage after years of ups and downs. It isn't long before Caroline realizes something is very, very wrong - the house which is otherwise oddly impersonal, is littered with reminders that seem to be aimed at her directly - dragging her back to a memory she has worked so hard to bury. This book ended up being a one-sitting read for me, as I was deeply intrigued with finding out Caroline's secret. I absolutely loved how Rebecca Fleet peeled back layers of the story with tantalizing slowness, moving from past to present, and sharing perspectives from different characters, only revealing small glimpses of the twists at a time. It hooked me in completely, as I continued to lodge my guesses as to what was coming next - and I was always wrong. I also adored the characters, as I have been drawn to books with deeply flawed characters lately, and this story scratches that itch perfectly. Every character in this book is multi-faceted with their own complex issues and secrets, and they all resonated as very human. I found myself simultaneously rooting for them and loathing them, which is a mark of an excellently crafted story for me. Overall I enjoyed this book immensely - the twists just kept coming. I look forward to sharing this book with my book club, as this will be a terrific book for discussion!
After the hard time they have gone through in their relationship, Caroline and Francis need a vacation, best without their son Eddie. A house swap seems to be a good idea so they leave Leeds for a week in the suburbs of London. Somehow the house is strange, it looks like nobody actually lives in there, it is absolutely impersonal, almost clinical. But the woman seemed to be nice enough to let her into their own apartment. When Caroline receives a strange message on her cell phone, she is alarmed: did something awake the ghosts of the past? Did her ex affair Carl get in contact again? And who is this strange neighbour Amber who seems to observe them and behaves in a very strange way when she comes to visit them late in the evening. Caroline can sense the danger but she doesn’t know where it is really coming from... The novel starts at quite some low pace and admittedly I was a bit annoyed because I couldn’t make sense of a lot of things at the beginning. It was obvious that Francis and Caroline had some problems in the past, she had an affair with a colleague, he was addicted to pills, but since this had happened obviously two years before, I didn’t quite understand the relevance of all this for the house swap. And there was this voice talking to Caroline, but it was not clear where it was coming from. I do not really like to be in the dark and not understanding anything. However, the further you get in the novel and the more you understand, the more thrill you feel and the better the plot gets. Of course you are supposed to run in the completely wrong direction with the assumptions of what is behind all this – eagerly I did – just to learn then that it is not only much more complicated, very cleverly constructed, and also a lot more dangerous for the characters than you would have assumed. “The House Swap” is a fantastic thriller as soon as you get over the first few pages. It can surprise and offers an especially interesting psychological aspect which is only revealed towards the end.