It was, quite literally, just a little lie. One small word: “No.”
When she thought about it now, all these months later, still unable to take in what had happened, she wondered why it had tripped off her tongue so easily, when it was so far from the truth.
That day had started much like any other. She had hauled herself out of bed, feeling fuzzy-headed with tiredness and, although she was reluctant to admit it, a bit hungover.
It had been the work Christmas party the night before and to help her get through it, she had drunk too much of the cheap white wine that was free-flowing. She had known when she went to bed that she would be suffering the next morning.
She swallowed down two Paracetamol, quickly followed by a glass of Coke and a packet of salt and vinegar crisps. It wasn’t her usual healthy breakfast, but it was her tried and trusted hangover cure.
She clambered onto the train and slumped gratefully into a window seat, already looking forward to resting her head on the steamed up window and sleeping for the entire hour-long journey into London. But there was something about him that alerted her to his presence without him even saying a word. She opened her eyes again and looked up at him curiously. He flashed her a perfect smile that reached his sleepy brown eyes and raised his eyebrows questioningly. “Is this seat taken?”
She shook her head and gestured for him to sit down, returning his smile as she did so. At well over 6ft, she could see that he was lean and toned under the beautifully-cut suit he was wearing. “I’m Dan,” he said, offering her his hand.
Bella hated speaking to other commuters. It became awkward if you saw them every morning and once you had broken the barrier, you had to act as if you were friends from then on. But for some reason, she didn’t hesitate with him: “Bella.”
“Bella,” he repeated. “How appropriate. It means beautiful in Italian, you know.”
Bella rolled her eyes, but softened it with a grin. “And what’s the Italian word for smarmy?”
The way he roared with laughter made her insides flutter in a way that they hadn’t for years and when their eyes connected, her heart began to pound inside her chest.
By the time they reached London, they had talked non-stop for the whole journey. They fell off the train and into the swell of commuters that immediately engulfed them. Bella stumbled slightly in the throng and he grabbed her hand to steady her. “So,” he began, still holding onto her hand and looking into her eyes with a slight air of disbelief. “This is a bit weird.”
Bella looked down at their entwined hands. They seemed to fit together perfectly. “Yes,” she agreed. “It certainly is.”
“Look, I’m not in the habit of doing this…” He bit his lip and for the first time, he looked nervous. “But I would really like to see you again….”
Bella arched her eyebrows coquettishly. “Oh yes?”
“Yes,” he said, confident again now. “Would you consider going out for dinner with me?”
Suddenly, reality pricked the bubble she had been in for the past hour and she pulled her hand away from his. “Uh, there’s something you need to know…” she began, her mouth drying.
“Ah,” he said, nodding slowly. “You’re already taken. Of course you are…” he tapped the heel of his hand against his forehead. “Silly me. You’ve got a boyfriend, haven’t you?”
And there it was, the space when life would have continued smoothly on its happy path if she had told the truth. But she didn’t. For reasons that she would never understand again, she told a lie. “No,” she said, tentative at first but once it was out of her mouth, more confident a second time: “No,” she repeated clearly. “I was just going to say that I have expensive tastes, so you might want to reconsider that offer.”
After that, they met every morning on the 0740 to London and every evening on the 1850 home again. They sat in the same seat every day and maybe the other commuters got the message that it was ‘their’ seat because it was always available. They never did go out for dinner because she told him that she lived with her very sick mother, who didn’t like her being out of the house in the evenings. When he offered to take both of them out, she told him her mother was too ill to go out. And when he offered to bring a takeaway to the house, she told him her mother was too sick to see anyone. Lie mounted upon lie, mounted upon lie. That first tiny lie led to a million others.
But they would meet regularly for lunch and sometimes go to a hotel for the afternoon. It was fun and it was carefree and she thought he felt the same way.
Until he proposed. “Wh…wh…aat?” she managed, as he knelt in front of her by the bed they had just spent the afternoon in.
“I love you,” he said simply. “I want to be with you forever.”
“Oh God,” Bella took a deep breath, trying to calm herself and work out how she was going to get out of this situation.
“You do love me, don’t you?” Dan’s voice was small as he tilted her chin up so that she was looking at him.
Bella swallowed hard. There was only one way out of this and it was the hard way. “No,” she said firmly. “I don’t love you, Dan.”
Something in his eyes changed. They hardened in a way that she had never seen before and it made her want to recoil. She reached for her clothes and began to get dressed as quickly as she could, all the time aware that he was watching her. She reached for her bag and turned back towards him. “I’m sorry. Goodbye, Dan.”
And that was how she came to be standing here, in this courtroom, looking across at Dan in the dock and thinking that if she had just said another small word that first day, If she had just said ‘yes’, instead of ‘no’, her husband would still be alive, her daughter would still have a father and her lover would not be on trial for murder.