Illustration: Hannah Kamugisha

BEDTIME BOOKCLUB

The Woman Who Roared

The Pool kicks off Short Story Week with Cecelia Ahern's The Woman Who Roared

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By Cecelia Ahern on

She lives in a suburban coastal town, an idyllic location, a hub of busy young families and retirees. She has two children, she volunteers to be on the parent-teacher committee, volunteers for every school trip and sporting event, and is a volunteer badminton teacher at the school. She has a vibrant allotment in her garden, and in the summer she sells homemade strawberry jam covered in red-and-white gingham jam-jar cloths with white bows. She remembers everybody’s names, children and parents, and is endlessly offering to host playdates. She is trusted, she is calm, she is organized, she is relaxed. She is the one they go to to ask questions, she always knows the answers. She doesn’t drink alcohol but she is gregarious on evenings out, and holds back the hair of others who vomit at the annual class dinner, without mentioning a word of it later. She has never smoked. She is the epitome of style. When it rains, other mothers strain their eyes to see if she gets wet.

She loves her husband. He loves her.

But she has a secret.

When the children are at school and her husband is at work, when she has finished her errands, she goes to her walk-in closet and removes a shoebox from the shelf that conceals a secret key panel.

Inside the panel she enters a six-digit PIN code on the panel; the date of birth of her twin sister. It is of course her date of birth too, but it is her sister’s date that she keys in. This is followed by a click. The shoe shelves that line the wall of the closet move back, and slide to the right behind her row of dresses, revealing a secret room.

Greeted by blush-pink velvet walls and a soft plush pink carpet, she removes her shoes and steps inside. As the wall of shoes closes automatically behind her, she allows her eyes to adjust to the gentle pink glow of a night-light.

She smiles, at peace.

Then she opens her mouth. And roars.

She is a judge of the High Court who had been called to the bar in 1970. One of the toughest, she’s had a long and prosperous career, overseeing some of the country’s most high-profile and brutal cases. Gruesome, horrifying acts that she promises herself she will never become immune to, in the moments when she feels she is becoming inured. Hour after hour, on a daily basis, the constant stream of the worst aspects of humanity assaults her brain, sprinkled with the rare flickers of human decency and kindness.

She has two children and five grandchildren, a holiday home by the sea that she stays in for the summer, and is an avid football fan with season tickets to every game. She is capable, stable, stoic, and most importantly she is fair. She is celebrated for this attribute, has been honoured with awards, and has even dined with the president.

She terrifies most people she works with, she doesn’t have time for coddling others, or for waffling. Too many people rely on her decisions for justice: innocent incarcerated people who are rotting away, waiting to be vindicated; the murdered whose energies hang around her like dark matter until their murderers are brought to justice. There is no time for small talk.

She loves to walk barefoot in the sand. She wears perfume as her armour. Her first love had been a French ballet dancer. For some reason, she had never been able to tell him and wonders about him often. She doesn’t enjoy eating; fancy restaurant dinners are a chore. Her grandson with his wicked sense of humour is secretly her favourite of all her grandchildren.

She is terribly sensitive, soft, though only her husband and grandchildren know that. She had been too hard on her children.

She has a secret.

While in her chambers on recess from a particularly gruesome case, she hangs her black robe on the coat stand by her library. She removes the largest law books that conceal a secret key panel on the wall. The code that activates the panel is the case file number of a woman who’d been brutally murdered by her husband. The case had cut through her so deeply that it had scarred her heart. She had been prosecuting the husband. She lost the case. It was the case that had defined her, overseen by a judge she told herself she would never become. Using the case number as this code is her way of telling the woman that, though she had been mistreated in life, she won’t be forgotten in death.

Once the code has been entered, the library slides open to reveal a wood-panelled room. Walnut; her favourite. Beneath the walnut panelling, the walls are soundproofed.

The library closes behind her, leaving her in darkness for a moment until the night-light clicks in, glowing red. The colour of her anger.

She opens her mouth.

And roars.

She is a forty-four-year-old landscaper. She loves her fingers being rooted to the earth, toiling in the ground. She likes restructuring areas, finding the light, creating living spaces for people that are tailored to their needs, as much as the practical aspects of horticulture. While gardening, she prefers working in the rain, she feels more connected to the elements that way. She lives with her girlfriend in an eco-friendly home, miles away from anyone, which is exactly what she craves. Work is hectic, she had just completed a complex design of a rooftop garden in a city-centre penthouse apartment with an owner who had at times made her want to jump from the edge.

She loves liquorice, she can eat her own body weight in hummus. She is tone deaf, she can get into a physical altercation during Monopoly. She likes to follow red squirrels. She finds the tones of the national weather service radio announcer soothing and, when her girlfriend is away on overnight trips, the sound of the reports send her to sleep.

After a long day, she returns to her house powered by hydroelectric turbines and geothermal energy. The enormous windows maximize sunlight while showcasing the mountain views around it, and the grass planted on the roof prevents heat loss. It is her oasis, but every oasis is an escape, and every oasis kisses the borders of the place escaped.

She has a secret.

In the potting shed in the garden, behind the shelving unit of potted cannabis plants that she will soon need to transplant outside, is a secret key panel. She moves the cannabis pots aside and punches in the secret code – the date she intends on proposing to her girlfriend, which has changed three times due to her fear of rejection. She hears a click and the shelving unit disappears down into the ground beneath her.

It is a small room; grass covers the soundproofed walls and floor. As soon as she steps inside, the door of potting shelves closes automatically behind her. The green glow of the night-light warms the room.

She falls to her knees. Closes her eyes. Clenches her fists.

And roars.

She is a schoolteacher. She teaches Geography to sixteen-year-olds. She loves her job, she is fond of most of her students. She has a boyfriend who has two children from his previous marriage. His ex-wife is trolling her on Facebook under a pseudonym that makes them both laugh. Her father has Parkinson’s. Her mother has a ceramic bell collection. Her hobby is going to comedy festivals. She loves laughing. She loves surrounding herself with happy people, she loves her students with strong personalities, is grateful for the clowns even when they disturb the class. When she laughs, everyone hears it and knows it is her. It is loud and it is real, it comes from the depths of her belly. She is funny and she knows it. She could easily eat beef lasagne every single day for the rest of her life.

She has a secret.

While everybody is taking a mini break she closes the classroom door. She goes to the enormous map of the world on the wall and peels back Botswana, her grandparents’ birthplace, to reveal a key panel. The secret code – the coordinates of Botswana – is followed by an audible click as the map of the world and the wall pushes forward an inch and slides to the left, revealing a small room inside.

The walls are lined in corkboard with maps pinned to them. The idea that there is more to life than just this room, in just this school, in just this state, in just this country, in just this continent, helps her. Behind the corkboard is soundproofing.

She waits for the wall with the map to close behind her and the room glows with a hot orange.

She takes a deep breath.

And roars.

She works in housekeeping in a five-star luxury hotel. Her supervisor has halitosis. She has a nine-month-old baby girl at home who is being cared for by her grandmother. Her mother relies too much on alcohol to get her through the days. Her mother is also the funniest person she knows and makes her laugh louder than anybody else ever could. Just out of school, she likes the freedom of going to work, doing something for herself. She loves the feeling of returning home, seeing the gummy smile and the chubby hands that reach out to her.

There is a guy who works in the butcher shop opposite her flat that she can’t stop thinking about. She can see him from her bedroom window. She can’t wipe the silly smile off her face every time she thinks of him. Her baby girl is the same when she sees him. A sure sign. She has eaten more meat this month than ever before.

She has three more rooms on the floor to clean and then she is finished. She sometimes takes the hotel chocolates that guests leave behind and places them on her mother’s pillow, turning down her bed covers. Her mother loves it.

She has two secrets. Nobody knows who the father of her baby is. And this.

She steps into the storeroom cupboard and moves a box of hotel shampoo bottles to the side, revealing a secret key panel. She types in the secret code: her school locker combination.

This is followed by an audible click and the shelving containing the white fluffy towels slides open revealing a small room. It smells of fresh linen, a summer breeze, just-washed smell. She takes her shoes off and steps inside. The ground is soft cotton, the walls are draped in it too. Behind the draping is soundproofing.

Once the wall of towels closes behind her, encasing her in a lilac glow and the scent of lavender, she breathes in and out slowly.

She opens her mouth.

And roars.

She is a paediatric nurse. She doesn’t have any children yet but she hopes to. Her desperate night shifts make it difficult for her to meet anyone, let alone synchronize a life schedule with someone. She lives for her job, her babies mean the world to her. She thinks about them all the time, even off the clock. Those who had made it, those who hadn’t. At night, while sleeping, she sometimes hears the cries and giggles of those she has lost, she feels soft marshmallow skin touch against her face and her bedroom smells of baby powder. When she wakes the smell is gone.

She is a beautiful piano player. She is a terrible drinker. For some unknown reason, she has the overwhelming need to flash her underwear at people, which her friends find hilarious. She has an enormous crush on a married man. Out of guilt, she has just followed his wife on Twitter. Every time she finishes reading a book, she gives it to the homeless man who sits on her street. He never says thank you. She doesn’t care. Her favourite scent is the sweet manure on her family farm where she grew up. She finds that she adores the things that most people hate.

She has endless patience at work. The parents of her babies always call her an angel. She feels claustrophobic when standing in line. She loves when her father sings. She is almost 100 per cent sure that her brother is gay. She doesn’t think his wife knows. At least five times a day she wonders if she should talk to him about it.

She has a secret.

In the nurses’ sleeping quarters, once she is certain she is alone, she draws the blue curtain around her bed for privacy. Sitting on the bed, she reaches for the remote that controls the bed and presses the up and down buttons at the same time to release the top drawer of the bedside locker. Inside is a keypad and her secret code is the bracelet ID of the last little baby she lost.

The wall backing the bed slides open, revealing a small dark room. She climbs over the headboard and enters; the room smells of baby powder. The floor and walls are soft and fleece, like a teddy bear. The closing of the wall triggers a baby blue night-light to illuminate the darkness.

She lies on the floor, curled in the foetal position.

And roars.

She is a stay-at-home mother with four children under the age of three. She loves her children. She lives for bedtime, for those two hours she can sit on the couch with a bottle of wine. Her favourite sound is their conversations with one another. Nobody makes her laugh more than her children.

She is excellent at appearing to listen to people when she isn’t. She loves to buy gifts for people all year round; when she sees something suitable for somebody, she is compelled to buy it. She loves driving fast. Sex with her husband is her favourite pastime. She likes watching porn. She has never hated before but is dangerously close to hating her brother’s wife. She loves dancing. She avoids confrontation. She is socially very awkward. She is clumsy. She’s lost five sets of house keys in one year.

Supermarket shopping makes her feel hot and angry. When she jogs she accidentally pees herself. She has given up jogging. She is never late. She is always cheerful. She is an excellent mother. She always burns toast. She doesn’t know how to make poached eggs. She has a beautiful singing voice. Her hair is her best asset.

Everybody always says to her, ‘I don’t know how you do it.’

She has a secret.

When the four children are down for a nap, she goes to their playroom and turns the handle of the Jack-in-the-Box. When Jack springs up, it wirelessly activates the key panel on the wall among the boys’ Transformers.

She keys in the code: 6969, which she knows is immature but it makes her laugh, and the Transformer wall slides open to reveal a small room.

Inside, the walls are padded with red leather. She loves the feel of it.

No night-lights come on when the wall of Transformers closes behind her; she prefers the dark.

After feeling her way along the cool leather of the wall to the corner of the room, she slides to the floor, and stares into the darkness for a moment, settling her mind.

She opens her mouth.

And roars.

The Woman Who Roared appears in Roar, published by Harper Collins

@Cecelia_Ahern

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Illustration: Hannah Kamugisha
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short story
Short Story Week
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BEDTIME BOOKCLUB

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