The House Swap

The House Swap by Rebecca Fleet

About the Book

When Caroline and Francis receive the offer of a house swap, they jump at the chance to have a week away from home. After the difficulties of the past few years, they’ve worked hard to rebuild their marriage for their son’s sake; now they want to reconnect as a couple.

On arrival, they find a house that is stark and sinister in its emptiness – it’s hard to imagine what kind of person lives here. Then, gradually, Caroline begins to uncover some signs of life – signs of her life. The flowers in the bathroom and the music in the CD player might seem innocent to her husband, but to her they are anything but. It seems the person they have swapped with is someone she used to know; someone she’s desperate to leave in her past.

But that person is now in her home – and wants to make sure she’ll never forget …


Rebecca Fleet

The key slides and turns in the lock, smooth and slippery as a silverfish. Lying in bed last night, staring at the trembling shadows of the branches grazing against the window and thinking of this moment, I thought it would be harder. I imagined scratching metal. Jarring resistance. After everything that has led me here, it feels as if it should be more of an effort. But it’s easy – an anticlimax, even. An eggshell cracked in the hand and tossed aside.

The door swings open and the pinewood boards of the hallway unfurl ahead, gleamingly polished and clean. Just inside, stiff, green branches studded brightly with plastic-looking berries protrude from an ornamental vase. Reflected in the mirror, I can see a row of framed photographs lining the far wall. Stepping inside and closing the door softly shut behind me, I move fast through the hall, keeping my back to the wall. I won’t look at them, not yet. Soon.

The country-style kitchen, oddly out of place in this third-floor city flat – decorated in pale green, artfully hung with saucepans and dried bunches of herbs. On the oak table lies a torn-out piece of paper, darkly scrawled with ink. Welcome! it reads. Instructions for all appliances in the green folder in the kitchen. Bread, milk, etc., in the fridge – help yourself. Do call if you need anything. Enjoy your stay and make yourself at home! Caroline. I stare at her name for a long time. The confident slash of the C, the spatter of ink where the dot of the i has bled across the page. I touch that spatter with the ball of my thumb, half expecting it to rub off on my skin, but of course it has long since dried up.

At last, I get up and make a cup of coffee. I will do as Caroline invites. I will make myself at home. I drink it sitting at the table, imagining the rooms that are still to be explored. The secrets that might be tucked inside them, tightly curled up in her possessions and ready to extract. I remember the fox I saw crouched by the roadside as I drove past this morning, digging into some unidentifiable corpse – the sharp flash of bloodied silver on its claws as it teased out what it wanted. This will be like that. Dirty, unpleasant. That’s the way it has to be. The way I want it. It’s the only way to get under the skin.


Caroline, May 2015

WHEN WE TURN into the street, my first thought is that the houses around here all look the same. Neat, whitewashed rectangles with boxy little windows and flatly sloping roofs. They almost all have window boxes, too – lined up along the lower sills and filled uniformly with white-and-purple pansies, like they’re subject to some sort of dress code. There must be around thirty of these houses, all prettily popped off the production line.

‘Welcome to suburbia,’ Francis says, squinting through the setting sun that strikes the windscreen as he steers the car down the road. ‘I hope you’re happy.’ His voice is deliberately grumpy, self-mocking.

‘It’s not so bad.’ The reply is automatic, made before I have had the chance to consider whether or not I mean it. It happens between us a lot these days, this kind of conversational fast-tracking. Cut and thrust, back and forth. Adversarial, but non-threatening, like two children mildly squabbling in the playground. Francis glances at me out of the corner of his eye, makes a face.

I stare out of the window, taking in the line of houses again as we crawl down the narrow road. Now that I look more carefully, I can see the little touches of individuality that some of the owners have tried to impart. A garishly painted garage door here, a smart gold number plaque there. One of the houses, number 14, is a little less smart than the others, its walls scuffed faintly with dirt, the lawn longer and more overgrown, tangled with weeds.

‘They’re letting the side down,’ I say, gesturing out of the window. ‘Neighbourhood Watch’ll be on to them.’ Francis smiles faintly, not really listening.

‘Twenty-one, right?’ he asks, already swinging the car into the driveway. I scan the house, looking for distinctive features, but there are none. The lawn is precisely clipped, and the windows are framed with little bunches of curtain, white and spotless. The lights inside are off, and for an instant I see the reflection of the car bounced back at us from the downstairs window in the glare of the headlights, our shadows inside darkly outlined side by side. For some reason, the sight gives me a tremor of unease – a slight, irrational pulse that slips away as soon as it comes.

‘Looks all right,’ I say, wriggling out of my seatbelt and pushing open the car door. It’s colder outside than I imagined, the wind prickling the hairs on the back of my neck. Francis is climbing out of the driver’s seat, making a pantomime of his aching legs. The drive down from Leeds has taken a little over four hours – not a bad run, but long enough to breed that fusty, lethargic sense of having been enclosed and motionless for too long. In the old days, we would have shared the drive, but not long after I stopped offering, he stopped asking.

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