Winter is finally (FINALLY) beginning to morph into spring, and it’s never too early to start piling up your beach reads. And we’ve got a recommendation: Karen Hamilton’s The Perfect Girlfriend (out this week from Graydon House), the story of a young woman willing to go to any lengths – and I do mean any – to make her ex-boyfriend rethink their breakup. A portrait of sociopathy that recalls You, The Woman in the Window, and Gone Girl (with all the page-turning addictiveness that entails), we’re happy to present this exclusive excerpt from early in the book, as our anti-heroine finishes up a day of flight attendant training and heads “home.”
FROM “THE PERFECT GIRLFRIEND” BY KAREN HAMILTON
I apply fuchsia lipstick to complete my transformation. All the best ideas are so brilliantly obvious, once you’ve thought of them. My reflection in the water-splashed mirror is of someone with thick make-up and dark-brown hair, but my own eyes. The polyester necktie scratches my skin and, although it feels alien to wear the uniform, the starchy trouser suit with eighties-style shoulder pads allows me to morph into an anonymous airline employee. My expression is neutral and professional; calm and controlled. A new year, a new me.
Amy, her reflection beside mine, wrinkles her nose. “The stench of these toilets reminds me of school.”
I wrinkle mine back. “The cheap loo roll and miserable sound of dripping water doesn’t help.”
We both pause for a second or two, listening.
She glances at her watch. “We’d better go, we don’t want to make a bad impression.”
I follow her out. Her auburn hair is woven into a bun so neat, it doesn’t look real. Her perfume is floral and understated.
Mine is too strong, the sickly smell has been irritating my nostrils all morning. As we merge with the other eighteen trainees filing back into the classroom, Brian, one of our instructors, raises his hand, palm outwards.
Silence falls. I wonder if anyone else feels like me, suffocating the desire to scream because—seriously—how hard can the work be? I intend to show up, take off, chuck out a tray of food, whip it back, job done. I expect passengers to be capable of entertaining themselves with the in-flight entertainment system once fed and watered. After landing, I imagine I’ll have plenty of time to chill by a hotel pool or explore local markets.
I realize that Brian is still speaking. I force myself to listen.
“There’s no need to sit down as we’ll be heading into the mock-up area for an examination of the training equipment.”
We traipse out and gather in the corridor, before being herded along by Brian’s partner in crime, Dawn. We follow her downstairs and through the main reception area. Dawn jabs a code into a keypad and we enter a small room. The walls are lined with pegs, hanging off which are mounds of dirty-looking overalls.
“Listen, please, everyone. We’d like you to wear an overall over your uniform. Place your shoes on the racks at the bottom and put on the white feet-protectors.”
I freeze. Everyone but me starts lifting overalls off the pegs and checking them for size. God, I can’t do this. They are filthy. They look as though they haven’t been washed since…ever.
“Juliette? Is there a problem?” Brian’s expression is of exaggerated concern.
“No. No problem.” I smile.
He turns away. “Now, ladies, for those wearing skirts, make sure your legs are properly covered. Velcro on some of the equipment wreaks havoc with your tights.”
Crap. I’m going to have to do it. I slide my arms in before doing up the buttons. I don’t know why I bothered to get my suit dry-cleaned. I look ridiculous in the baggy jumpsuit, complete with elasticated material around my ankles. All that’s missing is a face mask and I’d look like I’m about to investigate a crime scene. Even Amy looks less immaculate than usual. “This is going to be fun,” I whisper under my breath to her.
She beams. “I can’t wait to try out the practical drills. I’ve been dreaming of this since I was small.”
Why would anyone dream of becoming a waitress, albeit a flying one, from childhood? When I was young I had plans.
Big ones. Proper ones.
“Any time today, Juliette.” Brian is holding open a door.
He is really getting on my nerves and yet I still have another five weeks of his company to endure. I follow him into a giant warehouse containing sections of various aircraft; some at ground level, some on raised platforms with stair access. We catch up with the others walking alongside the building. The front door of a plane bursts open and several overall-clad people fly out and down the slide. A male, uniformed crew member operates the door, barking instructions above a shrill alarm. “Jump! Jump!”
We whisk past until Dawn and Brian stop beside a blown-up, silvery-grey mass, not unlike a kids’ bouncy castle. “Now, before we board the slide-raft, I’m going to talk you through the survival equipment. A landing on water will, from now on, be referred to as a “ditching”…”
Dawn’s voice fades as I zone out. I know the statistics. They can call it what they like, but the chances of surviving a plane crash on water are not good.
At five on the dot, we are released through the secure gated area and back into the real world; the airport perimeter road. The roar of low-flying aircraft and rush-hour traffic is briefly disorientating. I inhale cold, crisp air. My breath mists as I exhale. The group divides into those going to the car park and the rest of us, heading for Hatton Cross. I only half-listen to their excited chatter. The group splits again; those catching buses head off first and the rest of us, including Amy, enter the tube station. I walk alongside her as we make for the platform.
“Not on the westbound side today?” she says. “I thought the train to Reading leaves from Heathrow?”
I hesitate. “I’m going to visit a friend. In Richmond.”
“You’ve got more energy than me. I’m so tired, I don’t think I could face going out tonight. And I want to go through my notes.”
“It’s Friday night,” I say.
“Yeah, but I want to recap whilst it’s all fresh,” says Amy.
“Fair enough; I’ll know who to sit next to in the exams.” I smile.
I pretend to join in, then stare out the window; the light inside reflects us into the outside darkness.
Amy gets off at Boston Manor. I wave and watch as she walks towards the exit steps, tall and proud in her uniform.
After changing at Hammersmith, I am the only uniformed person among the crowd of passengers. Alighting at Richmond, I cross the road, pulling my coat around me tightly. My bag cuts into my right shoulder. I aim for the familiarity of the alleyway, my heels clicking and echoing with each decisive step. I avoid a broken bottle and head for the outskirts of the Green. Stopping outside a set-back period mansion block, I lean against the railings and pull off my heels,exchanging them for ballet pumps. I pull up my coat hood and let it drop over my forehead before treading along the path. My key slides into the communal door. I enter, checking for sounds. Silence.
Taking the steps to the third and highest floor, I let myself into apartment 3B. Once inside, I stand still and inhale the welcoming scent of home.
I rely on the glow of the fish tank instead of switching on any lights. Sinking down into the sofa, I remove clothes from my bag. I undress, folding my uniform carefully, then change into black jeans and a jumper. Using my phone as a torch, I pad, barefoot, into the kitchen and open the fridge. It is almost empty, as usual, apart from beer, some chillies and a readymade macaroni cheese for one. I smile.
Heading back to the living room, I risk switching on a side lamp. From my bag, I remove a photo and place it on the mantelpiece. In a perfect world, it would be framed, but I like to keep it close so that I can look at it whenever I like. In the picture, I am grinning happily, alongside Nate, the man I am to marry. I fold my uniform over my left arm and make my way to the bedroom. Next, I place the trousers, blouse and jacket on the bed and bend down, burying my face into his pillow. I inhale deeply before lifting my head and shining light around the room. Nothing has changed since I was last here. Good.
As I roll back the mirrored sliding door to the wardrobe, a reflective flash of my beam catches my eyes. I blink, whilst my sight readjusts. Nate’s spare pilot’s uniform, his jackets, shirts and trousers, all hang neatly, but not as neatly as I can hang them. I carefully space them out, each roughly three centimeters apart. I leave a gap as I hang my uniform next to his. The way it should be. I stand back to admire my work. Light catches the gold emblem on his hat. I slide the door closed.
My last stop is always the bathroom. I check the medicine cabinet. He’s had a cold recently; the menthol inhaler and cough medicine are new.
Returning to the living room, I help myself to an apple from the fruit bowl. I press my forehead against the living room window, crunching small bites whilst looking down below. I can’t see anyone. Rush hour is over and, presumably, most people are at home, cosy and settled. Unlike me. I am on the outskirts of my life.
Waiting. That’s what I do, a lot of waiting. And thinking…
I know so many things about Nate: that he loves skiing and always smells fresh; the scent of citrus soap clings to his skin. I know that he wants to be promoted to captain before he reaches his mid-thirties.
I know his background inside out: the childhood holidays in Marbella, Nice, Verbier and Whistler; tennis, horse-riding and cricket lessons; the lack of approval from his father when Nate chose to pursue his dream of becoming a pilot instead of following in his footsteps as an investment banker.
His younger sister admires him, but she doesn’t like me.
From social media photos, I can see that he could do with a haircut; his blond curls almost touch his collar.
But what I know, most of all, is that deep down he still has feelings for me. Nate just suffered a temporary fear of commitment. Although it was crushing at the time, I now understand things a little better. So, when the perfect time comes to disclose that I now work for the airline too—when he appreciates the lengths I’ve gone to, just to save us—everything will fall into place.
Until then, I have to be patient. It’s difficult, though. Whenever I see a fresh image of him, I find it hard to eat for days afterwards.
My phone alarm reminds me that it’s time to leave. I’ve had to train myself to do that, because the thing I’ve realized is that you get away with something once. Then twice. Then, before you know it, you are taking bigger risks. Time passes in a daze and gets cut too fine. I check to see whether Nate’s flight from Chicago has landed. It has—five minutes early. I rush to my bag, and fumble. I wrap my apple core inside a tissue and pull out a packet of mini chocolate muffins. Nate’s favorite. It’s a habit I can’t break—adding his preferences to my own food shopping. I open the freezer door, causing white light to illuminate the wall. I shove the packet towards the back, behind the meat that I know he will never defrost and the peas he never bothers with. I’d love to leave them somewhere more obvious, like by the coffee machine, but I can’t, so this will have to do. When he finds them, hopefully he will take a moment to think of me. My shopping lists were always full of food he loved. I never forgot anything.
I retrace my steps to the bedroom and yank my uniform off the hangers which swing, then clatter, as they hit the back of the wardrobe. Returning to the living room, I take down the photo before reluctantly replacing it in my bag. I put on my ballet pumps and switch off the side lamp. The multicolored fish stare at me as they complete their lengths. One, in particular, watches, mouth gaping. It is ugly. Nate named it Rainbow. I have always hated it.
I swallow hard. I don’t want to go. This place is like quicksand, it sucks me in.
I pick up my bag and leave, closing the door quietly behind me, before returning to the station to catch the train to my shoebox, postage stamp, doll’s house of a flat in Reading. I can’t call it home because being there is like hanging out in the departure lounge of life. Waiting, always waiting, until the gate to my proper life reopens.
From “The Perfect Girlfriend” by Karen Hamilton, out now from Graydon House. All rights reserved.