It’s happening again. Don’t ask me how I know. I just do. I see it in the roll of the waves, the way they’re bearing in at a slant. Fast. Relentless. I feel it in the nip of the air on my skin, smell it in the rotting leaves and damp earth, hear it in the silence of the watching crows. You’re coming for me again and there’s nothing I can do to stop you.
This is how it happens. One night I go to bed and everything’s fine. Everything’s under control. The story has ceased to be a story. It’s real. Solid. Unbreakable. Then I wake up and it’s changed. Cracks have appeared overnight and I realize that I’ve been fooling myself all this time, that I’ve only ever been the most fragile of constructions.
I’m the hunted. I’ll always be the hunted.
It starts with a rumour. Whispers at the school gate.
I’m not really listening at first. I promised Dave I’d pick up the keys to the Maple Drive property and meet a client there. I haven’t got time to stand around in a gossipy huddle with this lot.
But then I catch sight of Debbie Barton’s face – the way her jaw’s just dropped – and my curiosity gets the better of me.
‘Say that again,’ she says. ‘I can’t take it in.’
I edge closer, as does little Ketifa’s mum, Fatima. Jake’s mum – is it Cathy? – looks from side to side before she speaks, milking her moment in the spotlight for all it’s worth.
‘There’s a strong possibility that a famous child killer is living right here in Flinstead,’ she says, pausing to let her words take effect. ‘Under a new identity, of course. She murdered a little boy when she was ten, back in the sixties it was. Stabbed him with a kitchen knife, right through his heart.’
There is a collective gasp. Fatima brings her hand to her chest.
‘Sally McGowan,’ Cathy says. ‘Google it when you get home.’
Sally McGowan. The name rings a bell. Probably from one of those Channel Five documentaries I sometimes watch when I’ve nothing better to do. Kids Who Kill or some such.
‘Who told you this?’ I ask.
Cathy takes a deep breath. ‘Let’s just say it’s someone who knows someone whose ex‐husband used to be a copper. Well, this copper’s mate was a handler on a witness‐protection scheme. It might not be true, but you know what they say, there’s no smoke without fire. And my husband says they always put them in small towns like this.’
Debbie sucks her teeth. ‘I think it’s disgusting the way they look after these monsters. I mean, it’s us who has to pay for it, isn’t it?’
‘You’d rather they were mobbed by vigilantes?’
The three women stare at me. I wish I’d kept my mouth shut, but sometimes I can’t help myself. I don’t even know why I’m listening to all this crap. I should have known better.
Cathy sniffs. ‘Actually, Joanna, I would. It’s not fair that someone like that gets special treatment. What about the parents of the little boy who was murdered? They don’t get the luxury of starting a new life, do they?’
‘Oh, well, it probably isn’t true anyway,’ Fatima says. ‘And if it is, there’s nothing we can do about it. It was years ago. I doubt she’s still dangerous.’
Lovely, sensible Fatima. I must suggest she drops round for a coffee and a chat soon. Get to know her a little better. But not today. I’ll be late if I don’t get a move on.
‘Thanks, Jo. I really appreciate you doing this on your day off.’ Dave hands me the keys and the freshly printed property details for 24 Maple Drive, the new Pegton’s logo emblazoned at the top.
‘It’s no problem,’ I say. And it isn’t. There aren’t many employers as flexible as Dave Pegton. It’s been a godsend finding a job that fits in round Alfie’s school times, and so close to home as well.
Home. I’ve got Dave to thank for that too. The tiny two‐bedroom terrace he generously described as ‘in need of some TLC’. You’ve got to love the patter. What it actually needs is intensive care, but seeing as it was the only thing I could afford, I ended up putting in an offer on it. New house. New job. And all because I walked into the right estate agent’s at the right time. Serendipity, isn’t that what it’s called?
Dave walks back to his desk. ‘Good luck with Mrs Marchant, by the way,’ he says over his shoulder.
‘Why? What’s up with her?’
Dave smirks. ‘You’ll find out soon enough,’ and before I can quiz him further, the phone rings and he’s talking to a client.
Maple Drive is a mixture of 1920s and 1930s housing stock. Some of them are detached but most are semis. It’s not the most expensive road in Flinstead – the area known as the Groves is where the seriously moneyed live – but it’s popular, especially the sea end of it, which is where number 24 is situated. Dave has described it on the property details as having a ‘sea view’, and it probably has if you open one of the bedroom windows, lean out and crane your neck to the left. A sea glimpse might be a better description, but it’s a nice‐looking house. Well maintained. Established front garden. And even a glimpse of the sea adds a premium to the value.
Susan Marchant opens the door before I’ve even rung the bell. A curt nod is all I get in response to my cheery ‘good morning’. I’m expecting her to step back and usher me in, but she just stands there as if I’m one of the ‘cold callers’ listed on the sign above the bell. The ones who aren’t welcome.
‘I was hoping to have a quick scoot round on my own first,’ I say. ‘Just so I’m familiar with the layout.’
I always find it helps if you’re prepared for what you’re about to show someone. Not everyone tidies and cleans their house prior to viewings. I’ve come across all manner of strange and unsavoury things before. Dirty knickers strewn over the floor. A large brown turd coiled in a toilet bowl like a sleeping snake. Although from what I can see beyond Susan Marchant’s shoulder, that won’t be the case here. It’s clean to the point of being clinical, the rooms half empty. Looks like she’s shifted most of her stuff into storage already.
‘Why?’ she says, her brows knitted together. ‘Don’t you have the floor plan on your details?’ There’s a coldness in her eyes and voice that throws me.
‘Well, yes, but . . .’
‘Too late anyway,’ she says, peering out at the street. ‘That must be Anne Wilson.’
I turn to see a blue Renault Clio pull up. A woman in a pale green raincoat and with two‐tone hair – dark blonde with coppery ends – climbs out of the passenger seat, raises her hand at me and smiles. Thank God for smiley people. Now the driver has joined her. He’s tall and distinguished‐looking. Silver‐grey hair. I get the feeling he’d like to have opened the door for her if only she’d given him the chance. They’re walking up the drive towards us holding hands, so either they’re one of those rare couples still very much in love after years of marriage, or this is a new relationship. I’d put money on the latter.
It’s one of the things I love about this job – meeting new people all the time. Trying to guess from the snippets they reveal about themselves what they’re really like. And viewing clients’ properties is absolutely the best part of what I do. Tash, who’s one of my oldest friends, says it’s because I’m a nosy parker. But that’s okay, because she’s exactly the same.
Once, she and her boyfriend pretended to be interested in buying an expensive penthouse apartment when they were staying in Brighton for the weekend, just so they could have a look inside. I suppress a smile. They had to park their dilapidated old Volvo a couple of streets away so the estate agent didn’t see them get out of it. I often think of that story when I’m meeting prospective buyers. You never really know if people are genuine.
‘Hi, I’m Joanna Critchley from Pegton’s. Nice to meet you.’ We shake hands. Anne Wilson is an attractive woman but she’s definitely had work done on her face. Her skin has that shiny, taut look and her lips and cheeks are plumped out with filler. I look away in case she thinks I’m staring. ‘And this is Susan Marchant, the owner.’
But Susan Marchant is already walking away from us towards the stairs, her heels clicking on the parquet flooring. What a rude woman. No wonder Dave was so keen for me to pick this one up. And who wears high heels in their own house?
I take a deep breath. ‘Let’s start in the living room, shall we?’
It’s not the best of starts. Buying a new house is stressful enough as it is. A frosty homeowner can be enough to put some people off. Although maybe that’s what Susan Marchant wants to do. Maybe she’s being forced to sell the house by a philandering ex‐husband keen to get his hands on his share of the assets and is determined to put off as many buyers as she can. I can’t honestly say I wouldn’t do the same myself.
When I get home later that morning, I can’t help comparing my cramped two‐up two‐down and its dated decor with the lovely spacious house I’ve just been looking at and, before long, I’m scrolling through paint‐colour schemes online. I promised myself I’d make a start on the decorating once Alfie was settled at school; it’s now October and I haven’t done a thing.
Then I remember what Cathy said about Sally McGowan. It’s bound to be a load of old rubbish, something she’s cooked up to create a bit of drama, but I might as well have a quick look. Anything to distract me from thoughts of decorating.
I type the name in the search bar and up pop 109 million results, plus a grainy black‐and‐white photo of a child’s face. Unsmiling, defiant, but strikingly beautiful nonetheless. I’ve seen it before. I remember it now. The iconic mugshot.
According to Wikipedia, Sally McGowan was born in Broughton, Salford. In 1969, aged ten, she stabbed five‐year‐old Robbie Harris to death. It was a sensational case that divided the nation. Was she a cold‐blooded psychopath, or the victim of abusive parents and a long history of neglect? She said it was a game that went wrong, but no one believed her. Well, the public certainly didn’t. People were incensed when her conviction was for manslaughter, not murder.
I check out more websites. She was released in 1981 with a new identity. Six years later, reporters tracked her down. By then she was working as a seamstress in Coventry and had a child of her own. I scroll through more images. A seventeen‐year‐old Sally playing pool in a remand centre. There’s something provocative about the way she’s draped herself over the table, or maybe it’s just the camera angle, the composition of the shot.
Now I’m looking at a young, svelte woman in her twenties shielding her face from the cameras. I skim a few more sites. Another name change. Another move. Apart from the odd piece in the tabloids about alleged sightings and the ongoing anguish of Robbie Harris’s family, nothing more has been heard of her.
I take a sip of coffee. What if she really is living in Flinstead? I mean, she’s got to be somewhere, so why not here? That ghastly client suddenly enters my head. Susan Marchant. It has to be a coincidence that her initials are the same but, even so, I can’t help superimposing Sally McGowan’s ten‐year‐old face on hers. The features merge.
I toss my iPad on to the other end of the sofa. This is ridiculous. Listening to silly gossip in the playground and letting my imagination run away with me. If Susan Marchant was Sally McGowan, she wouldn’t have a house to sell. She’d be living under government protection somewhere.
Just because she’s a miserable cow, it doesn’t make her a killer.
‘I STILL REMEMBER THE BLOOD,’ SAYS CHILD KILLER SALLY MCGOWAN’S FORMER FRIEND AND NEIGHBOUR MARGARET COLE.
By Geoff Binns
Tuesday, 3 August 1999
Thirty years ago today, Sally McGowan became notorious for stabbing five-year-old Robbie Harris to death in a derelict house in Broughton, Salford. She was ten years old.
Yesterday, her former schoolfriend and neighbour Margaret Cole shared her memories of that time.
‘It was so different back then,’ said Margaret. ‘Another world. All of us kids played out. Our mams didn’t know where we were half the time. Whole rows of houses were pulled down around us. It must have been hell for the mams and dads, but us kids, we loved it. It was one great big adventure playground.’
Many Victorian-era terraced housing estates were demolished in the 1960s to make way for concrete tower blocks. Chronic poverty, deprivation and unemployment – this was the world Sally McGowan grew up in.
‘But that was just the way things were,’ said Margaret. ‘We didn’t know we were deprived. We were just kids. Out playing.
‘Then, one day, everything changed. I still remember the blood. The way it seeped out of him and turned his shirt red. The way it bubbled up round the knife. And his eyes. His little blue eyes. I knew he was dead just from looking at them.’
Asked about her reaction to the lifelong anonymity order recently granted to McGowan, Margaret said: ‘It’s not right, is it, after what she did? I mean, I know she had a hard time of it at home, but plenty of kids suffered just as bad and they didn’t do what she did. My heart goes out to Robbie’s family. This anniversary must be raking it all up again.’
I glance at the clock. Shit. It’s almost quarter past three. Time to get Alfie.
I grab my bag, stuff my feet into my trainers without undoing the laces and open the front door. I can’t believe I’ve wasted all this time messing about on the internet, and now I haven’t made any notes for this evening’s book club.
Alfie is first out of the classroom, his frizzy hair damp with sweat.
‘Why are you so hot?’
‘PE,’ he says. ‘I climbed to the very top of the frame.’
I’m not sure how I feel about him scaling one of those things. When I was a little girl, I was pressurized by some over‐zealous primary‐school teacher into climbing higher than I was comfortable with and ended up falling on to the mats on my back and being winded. I thought I was going to die. But I don’t want to discourage Alfie. He’s clearly not as awkward and uncoordinated as I was – as I still am. Alfie actually likes PE.
‘Wow!’ I say. ‘That was brave.’
‘Liam and Jake said I was a show‐off and Jake told Miss Williams I pushed him, but I didn’t.’
Oh no. This is meant to be a fresh start. New school. New friends. I couldn’t bear it if he was bullied again. It’s one of the reasons I came back here in the first place. That and feeling guilty about working such long hours and having to rely on a childminder.
Alfie kicks at a stone. ‘Jake’s always saying mean things.’
Jake Hunter, Cathy’s son. That figures. I squeeze Alfie’s hot little hand. ‘He’s probably just jealous that you’re a better climber than he is.’
Alfie tugs at my arm. ‘Is Grandma still coming tonight?’
‘Of course. And she’s bringing cupcakes.’
He grins and punches the air. My shoulders relax. This spat with Jake Hunter can’t be that bad, not if he’s forgotten it already. It helps having Mum round the corner, of course. Not to mention the beach. It was definitely the right decision to leave London and move here. Even if I did have to say goodbye to my lovely little at and my well‐paid job and my friends (thank God for Facebook) and . . . well, my whole life basically. Having a child changes everything. And when your child is unhappy, you do whatever you can to make them smile again.
Before Alfie came along, I hadn’t been in a relationship for years and I wasn’t in the least bit broody. I’d worked my way up to becoming a lettings manager for a large estate agency in South London, overseeing their entire rental‐property portfolio. I drove a silver Audi A3, lived in a small but smart first‐floor apartment which was all sharp lines and minimalism, and my cooking skills didn’t extend to much more than popping a Waitrose ready‐meal into the microwave.
Then I hooked up with Michael Lewis, an old friend of mine from university. It was only ever going to be a casual fling. Michael’s an investigative journalist, which isn’t exactly a career that lends itself to a stable family life and, to be honest, I was enjoying my independence too. We became – what’s the expression? – ‘friends with benefits’. What we didn’t realize was that one of those ‘benefits’ would turn out to be Alfie.
I’ll never forget Mum’s face when I told her. I don’t know what was the bigger shock: me being pregnant or Michael being black.
Michael was brilliant. Still is. He didn’t freak out or immediately offer to pay for a termination. He sat me down and told me he’d support me in whatever it was I decided to do. He said that if I went ahead with the pregnancy, he’d play as big or as little a role as I wanted him to. He even offered to marry me.
I can’t pretend I wasn’t tempted, but I knew he was only offering because of Alfie. Besides, if we’d married and it hadn’t worked out – and let’s face it, how many relationships do these days – we might have ended up hating each other’s guts like my parents did, and that wouldn’t have been good for Alfie.
This way, we’re still the best of friends and Alfie gets a proper relationship with his dad, which is more than I ever had.
Alfie waves at someone on the other side of the street. It’s the woman from the bungalow opposite the school. She straightens up from where she’s been bending over her rose bushes and waves back at him, secateurs in hand. A few weeks ago, when Alfie started school, he fell over and grazed his knee on the pavement and she was kind enough to come out with a plaster. Made a real fuss of him.
An unwelcome thought pops into my mind. What if she’s Sally McGowan, with an unencumbered view into the school playground? I’m being daft, I know I am. There’s no reason it should be her any more than this woman walking towards us now with her shopping bag on wheels.
The demographic in Flinstead is older than the national average. People retire here. From London, mostly, drawn to the sea and the gentler pace of life. Apart from the beach and one street of shops, that’s it. For anything more exciting, you have to drive for half an hour, or jump on a bus if you don’t mind waiting for ever. It’s why I was so desperate to get away and live in London the minute I turned eighteen, but it’s different now. I’ve got Alfie to think about.
Back home, in my little galley kitchen that will be utterly transformed when I get round to painting the cupboards, I make Alfie his after‐school snack and listen to the familiar strains of the Star Wars soundtrack blaring out of the living room. I can’t imagine life without Alfie. Nothing could have prepared me for the joy of having a child. Or the fear. I take his sandwich in and try not to dwell on the nightmare that poor Robbie Harris’s mother had to endure, all those years ago. But try as I might, I can’t stop the images spooling out in my mind, imagining that it’s Alfie’s limp, bloodstained body I’m cradling in my arms.
I always do this. Conjure up the worst possible thing that could happen to him. Maybe every parent does. Maybe this morbid imagination is what we need to keep our children safe.
I snuggle up to him on the sofa and kiss the top of his head. What kind of child could stab a five‐year‐old boy through the heart?
‘I’ll be back by ten,’ I tell Mum. ‘Don’t let him have any more cupcakes.’
Mum ruffles Alfie’s freshly washed hair and laughs. ‘It’s a good job you’re always running around, young man, or you’d look like one of those sumo wrestlers.’
Alfie throws back his head and roars with exaggerated laughter.
Outside, I pull my jacket on and set off towards Liz Blackthorne’s house for book club, head bowed against the sudden gust of wind. The nights are getting colder and darker now. The smell of damp earth and wet leaves hangs in the air. I push my hands into my pockets and press on.
Liz lives right on the seafront. The wind is even stronger here, barrelling in off the North Sea. As usual, I evaluate each house I pass. Michael often jokes that, like journalists, estate agents are never off duty. While he’s always on the lookout for newsworthy stories, I’m sizing up properties. Writing sales copy in my head. Guessing the market value.
When I pass the empty house with the boarded‐up windows and the overgrown garden, I can’t help wondering who it belongs to and why they’ve never done anything with it. It could be stunning if it was renovated. Maybe the owner died without a will or didn’t have any heirs. Or maybe they just don’t want it any more. Imagine that. Imagine letting an investment rot away. Although you’d have to spend a packet to bring it up to spec. It’s like a lot of old houses round here – they might look grand on the outside but, inside, they’re falling apart.
Liz’s house is one of those Dutch‐style affairs with a gambrel roof. It reminds me of a face – the sharply pitched roof slopes like straightened hair and the two semicircular upstairs windows like hooded eyes, peeping out across the sea. I love it.
‘Come in,’ Liz says, and we give each other the customary peck on each cheek.
With her three‐quarter‐length harlequin jacket and her long white hair, which this evening she’s wearing in a thick plait coiled round her neck and over the front of her shoulder, she looks even more stylish than usual. If I look half as good as Liz Blackthorne when I’m her age, I’ll be happy.
I follow her into her dining room, where the other four are already sitting round the polished mahogany table, tucking into olives and Kettle crisps and drinking wine. This is just the kind of room I’d like. Floor‐to‐ceiling bookshelves in the alcoves either side of the chimney breast, original artwork on the walls – most of it painted by Liz – and, under the window, a Turkish ottoman draped in vintage fabric and heaped with cushions. Liz has a knack of dressing a room that makes it look like a bohemian salon. A hotchpotch of patterns and colours that miraculously complement each other. It must be the artist in her. If I tried something similar, it’d look a complete mess. Maybe I should ask her to advise me on what to do with my place.
‘You’ve just missed a very interesting conversation about flashers,’ Liz says.
She gives me a pointed look and I smile. I feel a real connection with Liz. I’ve always been drawn to friendships with older women. Women comfortable in their own skin. Women who aren’t afraid to be unapologetically themselves.
One thing’s for sure: Mum was right about me joining a book club. It’s just what I need. Most of my old schoolfriends have long since left the area and, though I occasionally see one or two familiar faces, we’ve little in common now. I still meet up with Tash, of course, and one or two of the others from London, but not as often as I’d like. It might only be four months since I washed back up in Pleasantville, as Tash somewhat disparagingly calls it, but in many respects it feels like a lifetime.
Laughter ripples round the table and glasses are refilled. Liz slides an empty glass towards me and nods at the array of bottles on the sideboard.
‘I started it, I’m afraid,’ Barbara says, her deep, plummy voice loud in my ear. If she drinks any more, she’ll start lapsing into her native Brummie accent.
Barbara is a local councillor. A large woman with an even larger personality whose wardrobe seems to consist chiefly of smart black trousers and sensible shirts. She reminds me of one of my old colleagues: loud and opinionated, but funny with it.
‘Now why does that not surprise me?’ I say. More guffaws. I’ve de nitely got some catching up to do in the wine department. Even Maddie, who usually sticks to tea, is knocking it back tonight.
‘Right then.’ Liz’s voice is only fractionally louder than every‐ one else’s, but something in its tone brings us all to attention. ‘I suppose we’d better make a start,’ she says.
This month’s read – Alain de Botton’s Consolations of Philosophy – was entirely Liz’s choice and is a departure from our normal fare of contemporary fiction with the odd classic thrown in. It’s Barbara’s turn next month and, judging by what I’ve just spotted poking out of her handbag, she’s chosen Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I was hoping for something a little lighter, to be honest. Something feel‐good for a change.
As usual, Barbara isn’t backward in coming forward. This is my fourth meeting and I don’t think she’s liked a single book yet. She tells us she doesn’t care for this populist reading of great minds and, as someone who’s virtually given up all hope of meeting a suitable partner, she isn’t comforted by Schopenhauer’s views on love being merely a vehicle for the propagation of genes.
‘I mean, what does that say about me? That my genes aren’t worthy of being passed on? Not that I could pass them on now,’ she mutters into her wine glass. ‘Not without divine intervention.’
We all chuckle.
‘Well, if you won’t be consoled by Schopenhauer, what about Nietzsche?’ Liz says, fixing Barbara with her large, serious eyes. ‘I love his idea that we’re nourished by all the shitty things that happen to us in life, that we become better people as a result.’
Barbara snorts. ‘I’ve had so much shit thrown at me over the years, I’m surprised I’m not a paragon of virtue by now.’
I tell them how much I enjoy following de Botton’s School of Life posts on Twitter and Facebook. Barbara pulls a face. ‘Thank God I’ve never got involved with social media,’ she says, as if I’ve just admitted to a shameful vice.
Inevitably, as the evening wears on, the focus of our conversation moves away from Socrates and Seneca and the rest, and turns to each other and our respective news. Tonight, it’s poor Jenny under the spotlight. Jenny is our youngest member. A newly qualified nurse, slim, shy and intelligent, with dark blonde hair in a ponytail and a liking for short dresses and opaque black tights. Karen is quizzing her on her love life and Jenny looks distinctly uncomfortable.
I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of one of Karen’s inquisitions. She tried it on me once, and I hated it. I wasn’t in the mood to explain my unusual relationship with Alfie’s dad. I didn’t see why I should and I don’t like being put on the spot like that. Neither does Jenny, by the looks of things.
I’m not sure I could tolerate Karen’s company more than once a month, which is a shame because, on the face of it, we’re quite similar. Both in our mid‐thirties with a school‐age child. Both avid readers. And, like me, she moved here from London, although she’s been here a few years now. She and her husband run a computer‐graphics company and she’s heavily involved with the PTA at Alfie’s school. At my first book‐club meeting, she started giving me the lowdown on life in Flinstead as if she were the old hand and I the newcomer. When I told her I went to school here and that there isn’t a square inch of Flinstead I don’t know about, she looked almost put out, as if I were trying to show off. Maybe I was.
I help myself to more wine. ‘Can I top up anyone’s glass?’ I say, hoping to divert the attention away from Jenny. But only Barbara takes me up on my offer.
‘So how long have you been seeing him?’ Karen says. She leans in towards Jenny, eyes wide behind her geeky glasses, the blunt ends of her straight, dark hair swinging out over the table. ‘Is it serious?’
Jenny blushes. The poor woman’s neck has gone all red and patchy and I feel a sudden need to protect her from Karen’s persistent questioning. Aren’t people allowed to have a love life without the whole town knowing about it?
‘Just out of interest,’ I say, ‘has anyone heard of Sally McGowan?’ It’s the first thing that pops into my head.
Karen looks at me, astonished. Oh dear, why on earth did I say that? Typical me, engaging my mouth before my brain. Liz shoots me a quizzical frown. At least I think it’s quizzical. I get the impression she’d rather steer the conversation back to books. Which is exactly what I should have done.
Karen stares at me from behind her glasses and blinks like an owl. ‘The only Sally McGowan I know of is that child killer from the sixties. I remember my mum telling me about it.’
‘God, yeah,’ Maddie says. ‘You’re not thinking of getting us to read a book about her, are you, Jo? Because I honestly don’t think I’d want to read anything like that.’ She shudders. ‘I’d find it too distressing.’
I don’t know what to make of Maddie yet. She reminds me of a little bird. Bright, beady eyes always darting from one face to another. High‐pitched voice that warbles when she gets excited. Her daughter works in finance. Something high‐powered in the City. I get the feeling she takes advantage of Maddie. It must be a lot cheaper and more convenient than a nanny. I know Mum helps me out a lot with Alfie, but I’d never expect her to do it full‐time.
‘No, nothing like that. I heard her mentioned earlier today, that’s all.’
‘So what was it?’ Liz asks, casually reaching for an olive. ‘Something on the news?’
‘No. Just something I overheard when I was dropping Alfie off at school. A silly piece of gossip. You know what Perrydale Primary’s like. It’s a hotbed of salacious titbits.’
Maddie laughs. ‘You’re not wrong there. Every time I pick my granddaughter up I hear something I wish I hadn’t.’
‘Come on then, Jo,’ Liz says. Her eyes are wide. Inquisitive. ‘Don’t keep us on tenterhooks.’
I clear my throat. It’s too late to wriggle out of it now. Everyone’s waiting for my answer.
‘I’m sure it’s a load of old nonsense, but someone reckoned they’d heard something about her living in Flinstead, under a new identity.’
‘Bloody hell,’ Jenny says.
Barbara puts her glass down on the table and stares at me, open‐mouthed. Her cheeks are flushed from the wine. ‘My parents used to say you could tell she was evil just from looking at her eyes.’
Liz snorts with derision.
‘Actually, it wouldn’t surprise me at all,’ Karen says. ‘Flinstead would be the perfect place to hide someone like that. I mean, who’d ever think to look for her here?’
The question hangs in the air, unanswered. Is it my imagination or has the rumour distorted the ambience of our gentle, bookish gathering?
Michael arrives at ten past eight on Saturday morning, straight from the airport. I open the front door and, for a few seconds, I can’t speak. Whenever I see him after a period of absence, I’m struck by his physical presence. The way he occupies space. The way he owns it. He’s not body‐builder big, but there’s an aura of strength about him. Strength and gentleness – a very sexy combination – and this morning, combined as it is with a couple of days’ stubble and the fact that his crumpled white shirt looks so good against his black trousers and black skin, he looks even sexier than usual, which is infuriating, when I know how jet‐lagged he must be.
He’s been visiting his cousin in Las Vegas and ended up reporting on the concert shooting and staying on to follow it up. It must have been horrendous, although I know there’ll be a small part of him that’s glad he was there when it happened.
He crouches on the doorstep and opens his arms wide. Alfie hurls himself at his dad’s chest and flings his arms around his neck.
‘I’ve missed you, little man,’ Michael says, rubbing his stubbly cheek against Alfie’s face.
Alfie shrieks in delight.
‘Thanks, son, that’s doing my headache a whole lot of good.’ He looks up at me and grins. ‘Any chance of a coffee? I feel like shit.’
Alfie gasps. ‘You said a rude word, Daddy.’
‘Yes, he did. I don’t want you saying that word, Alfie.’
Michael gives me a sheepish look from under his eyebrows and smacks his own hand. Now it’s my turn to be hugged. ‘Sorry, Mummy,’ he whispers in my ear. He looks down at Alfie. ‘Seeing him makes it all worth it, though. I didn’t want to let him down.’
I nod, gratefully. Normally, he takes Alfie to his sister’s place in Woodbridge or back to his flat in Camberwell. Now, I don’t know whether it’s because I feel sorry for him having to get back in the car again when he’s so obviously shattered, or whether I’m worried that he’ll fall asleep at the wheel with Alfie in the back – it’s probably that, to be honest – but all of a sudden I find myself suggesting he chill out here instead, stay over maybe. I’ve got to go to work this morning, but I’ll be back about two.
The relief on his face is instant. It’s as if I’ve waved a magic wand and his tiredness has evaporated. He holds my cheeks in his hands and presses his forehead on mine. I close my eyes. Who am I kidding? I know exactly why I’ve made the offer.
While Michael’s drinking a coffee and trying to rebuild Luke Skywalker’s Lego Landspeeder, I watch the two of them, father and son, absorbed in their task, and guilt settles over me. Michael didn’t want me to leave London. It was so much easier for him to see Alfie when we lived nearby.
But he wasn’t always free when I needed him – always dashing off somewhere for work or writing through the night, meeting deadlines – and it wasn’t Michael who had to witness Alfie’s meltdowns every time I got him up for school in the morning. Having Mum just a few streets away has been wonderful. I never have to worry about babysitters, and it’s lovely for her too, having us so close. Although I must be careful not to rely on her too much. I don’t want to be like Maddie’s daughter and start taking her for granted.
Luke’s Landspeeder is taking shape before my eyes. I tried to have a go at it yesterday, but I’ve never been very good with my hands. My dad was a carpenter and he was always making things, but I never got to learn from him because he ran off with another woman when I was only four and started a new family.
‘Couldn’t keep it in his trousers’ is one of Mum’s favourite expressions. One of the more pithy ones, anyway. He never paid Mum a penny for my upkeep. He sent letters for a while, and made promises about coming to visit, about taking me on holiday, but they never came to anything.
‘You’ve done it!’ Alfie yells, clapping his hands together, eyes shining with pleasure.
I smile. He might not see his dad as often as either of them would like, but at least he still has a dad. Even when Michael’s off God knows where chasing the next big story, he always tries to ring Alfie as often as he can, and sends him funny postcards and presents. It might not be the perfect arrangement but, so far, it’s worked. For Alfie, at least.
When I get home from work Alfie’s having a little nap. Michael’s worn him out on purpose. By the time we reach the bedroom we’ve both stripped down to our underwear. Now that, too, is discarded on the floor. With a six‐year‐old who could wake up at any second, there’s no time for foreplay.
It isn’t until my legs are wrapped around Michael’s lean, muscled back, my ankles pressing into him, urging him deeper and faster, that I remember the resolution I made the last time this happened. That it wouldn’t happen again, no matter how much my body craved it. Alfie’s growing up fast. He notices things he never used to.
Sometimes I wonder whether I should have married Michael when he asked me. Maybe I let what happened with Mum and Dad influence me too much. For all I know, we might have been one of those lucky couples who get to live happily ever after. Not that we’re unhappy now. Far from it. What does Tash say? All the thrills of an affair with none of the rows or the laundry. And, I might add, none of the fear of him leaving me for good. But still, I can’t stop myself from imagining what things might have been like if we’d been together all this time.
Michael sprawls out on his back when we’ve finished, hands clasped behind his head. I lie on my side and drape my leg across his thigh, my flesh the colour of milk against his skin. We talk. About Alfie and his new school. About Michael’s last assignment. The one thing we don’t talk about is our relationship. It’s as if neither of us dares bring it up. And yet lately, ever since I moved away from London, it feels like another conversation is always lurking beneath the one we’re having, just waiting to break through.
Michael looks pointedly at the patch of wall in the corner where I’ve peeled off a small section of the hideous old wallpaper.
‘Is that as far as you’ve got?’
I sigh. ‘You try juggling a job at Pegton’s with looking after Alfie.’
Before I moved in I had all these plans about how I was going to strip the walls and paint everything white till I’d decided on colour schemes. But now that I’m actually living here the reality of redecorating it all by myself seems overwhelming. Michael would probably help – maybe he’s waiting for me to ask – but there’s a part of me that wants to do it all by myself, to prove that I can. My stubborn streak, Tash calls it.
Michael laughs. ‘Maybe your subconscious is telling you not to put down roots here. Flinstead isn’t exactly stimulating.’
‘What do you know?’ I say. ‘There are secrets in this little town you could never imagine.’
Michael snorts. ‘Let me guess: Mrs Beige from the Bungalow Blandlands has confessed to having the undertaker’s love child in 1973?’
I slap the top of his thigh. ‘Idiot!’ He’s always taking the piss out of small‐town life.
‘Or the Flinstead‐in‐Bloom brigade have finally admitted to guerrilla pruning tactics on their nearest competitors’ rose bushes?’
‘Okay, how about this one then?’ I’m determined to prick his balloon. ‘Sally McGowan, the notorious child killer, is living in Flinstead.’
Michael whips round to face me. ‘Where did you hear that?’
‘From some of the mums at school. Why? You don’t seriously believe it?’
‘Of course not. But it’s still a story, isn’t it?’
He reaches for his phone and I tug at one of the curly black hairs on his chest. He’s like a terrier with a rat when it comes to things like this. It’s all those years of writing for the tabloids.
‘There’s no point digging,’ I tell him. ‘There’s an injunction that forbids the press from publishing anything about her.’
‘I know,’ he says, already scrolling away. ‘I’m just interested, that’s all.’
Monday mornings are always difficult. It’s taken Alfie ages to accept the fact that the long summer holiday and all those days on the beach are now over and that, yes, he really does have to go to school, even if it’s a different school now. Without the bullies from before. But Monday mornings after a weekend with his dad are doubly hard.
‘My tummy’s really bad,’ he says, clutching his sides and pulling an expression of such agony I have to suck my cheeks in to stop myself laughing.
‘Hmm. Maybe I should phone Grandma and cancel our tea this evening. What a shame. I think she’s made a trifle.’
Alfie’s forehead puckers. I think I see the exact moment he starts to feel better.
Maddie waves at us as we hurry into the playground, against the tide of parents. She’s wearing a fur‐collared jacket and brown cloche hat pulled down tight over her forehead like a character from an Agatha Christie novel, and she’s clutching a pack of photographs to her chest. Her granddaughter’s face beams at me through the cellophane. Damn. I’ve left my order form at home again. I hope I haven’t left it too late. They’re stupidly overpriced, but I can’t not buy one. It’s come as a bit of a shock how little I’m earning now I’m outside London.
‘You’re late this morning,’ she says, all shiny‐eyed and smiling.
‘Yes, well.’ I slide my eyes towards Alfie. ‘Someone needed a bit of persuasion.’
‘Do you mind if I wait for you at the gates?’ Maddie says. ‘I need to talk to you about something.’
Most of the other parents and carers have dispersed by the time I catch up with her.
She sighs and looks over her shoulder. ‘What you said at book club, about that rumour you heard . . .’
My heart sinks.
‘It’s just a silly piece of gossip, Maddie. I wouldn’t give it another thought.’
‘Well, that’s just it,’ she says, her voice now lowered to an urgent whisper. ‘I don’t think it is just a silly piece of gossip. I think there’s something in it.’
‘What makes you say that?’
She leans in a little closer. ‘I was talking to a friend of mine from Pilates. She’s a former probation officer and she knows all sorts of things.’
I stifle a groan.
‘She said they often house people like that in places like Flinstead. Ordinary little towns that nobody takes much notice of. They let them keep their first names sometimes, or at least the same initials. So that they don’t get confused.’
I look at my watch as discreetly as I can. Maddie’s lovely, she really is, but I’m due at work in ten minutes.
‘Go on,’ I say.
‘She said that sometimes they help them set up their own business. It’s easier for them to stay below the radar if they’re self‐employed.’ There’s a gleam in Maddie’s eye. She’s enjoying this – the excitement of it, the speculation.
‘I’m sure all this is true,’ I say, ‘but it still doesn’t mean Sally McGowan is living in Flinstead. There must be any number of small places like this. She could be anywhere. She might even be abroad.’
Maddie shakes her head. ‘She isn’t. I’ve been on the internet all weekend. Did I tell you my daughter signed me up for one of those Silver Surfer courses?’
‘No, you didn’t.’
‘Well, I’ve learned such a lot about different search engines.’ She leans in again. ‘Sally McGowan is in a small, seaside town and she works in a shop.’
It’s as much as I can do not to laugh out loud. She said it with such conviction as well. I thought Maddie was too sensible to believe everything she reads.
She waits till a middle‐aged couple has passed by before continuing. ‘Have you ever been into Stones and Crones on Flinstead Road?’
‘The New Age shop? Yeah, I buy the odd thing in there. Why?’
Maddie takes a deep breath. ‘I feel bad about saying this because I know Liz is friends with the owner – Liz loves all that hippy‐dippy stuff, doesn’t she?’ She pauses. ‘The thing is, my sister‐in‐law Louise works in the boutique next door and, apparently, Sonia Martins has turned down all her invitations to join the Flinstead Business Group and refuses to get involved in any of the street‐party celebrations.’
She looks at me as if this is incontrovertible evidence.
‘And according to Louise, Sonia once told her she used to live in Dagenham, and then, when Louise brought it up some time later, Sonia said that Louise must be mistaken and that she used to live in Dinnington, South Yorkshire.’
Maddie’s voice is getting higher and faster as she speaks. She’s trilling like a chaffinch.
‘But Louise says there’s no way she misheard her. Sonia definitely said Dagenham because Louise remembers having a conversation with her about the lm Made in Dagenham. So when you add it all up, this is what we know: Sonia Martins looks like Sally McGowan. She’s a shopkeeper in a small, seaside town who keeps herself to herself and she has an inconsistent backstory.’
Now I really can’t help but laugh. ‘Inconsistent backstory? You sound like you’re discussing a crime novel at book club.’
Maddie blushes. ‘I know, and you’re probably right. But it makes you wonder, doesn’t it?’
The door tinkles as I push it open and step into the fragrant interior of Stones and Crones. I need another scented candle. Well, no one needs scented candles but the smell does help me unwind and relax, especially after a stressful day in the office. I also need to pick up some batteries for the smoke alarm, and this place is right next door to the electrical shop. It’s got nothing to do with Maddie’s ludicrous theory. Nothing at all.
As soon as the door closes behind me I know it’s a mistake. I feel awkward, ill at ease. My heart thuds so loudly the noise fills my ears, fills the entire shop. Heat flushes into my neck and face. I might just as well have a sign stuck to my forehead saying, ‘I’ve come to get a closer look at you, to see if you’re Sally McGowan, child killer.’ Who do I think I am? The Witchfinder General? I should be ashamed of myself.
Sonia Martins is sitting behind the counter. Poised and perfectly still, the merest hint of a smile on her heavily lipsticked mouth. Her skin is pale. The sort of pale Mum would describe as ‘Irish white’.
‘Morning,’ she says.
‘Morning.’ My voice sounds high and tinny, not at all like it normally sounds.
There is, I suppose, a certain likeness in the eyes. She has the same colour hair too, only hers is threaded with grey. But really, there must be loads of women with hair and eyes like that. Susan Marchant, for instance. And surely, if you didn’t want to be recognized, your hair colour would be the very first thing you’d change. Whatever was Maddie thinking?
I make my way over to the CD stand and start rotating it slowly, letting my eyes roam over the soothing titles. Zen Mystique Music for a Calm Mind. Angelic Reiki. Music for Crystal Healing.
I sense her watching me, in that subtle way shopkeepers do. The discreet glance in my direction, just to make sure I’m not nicking anything, then eyes down again. I slide a CD from the rack – Journey to the Temple – and turn it over to read the back: ‘Featuring seven chakra tracks blended together with natural sounds of water and birdsong’. My heartbeat slows. I really should find a yoga class. I used to go once a week in London.
The candles are on the display table right in front of the counter. Right in front of the woman called Sonia Martins. The woman who refuses to join the Flinstead Business Group and doesn’t participate in the annual street‐party celebrations. The woman who in all probability has nothing whatsoever to do with Sally McGowan, who doubtless spent a peaceful childhood in Dagenham, or possibly Dinnington, playing with her dolls and reading Puffin Classics, and grew up to be a kind, gentle soul.
I check the price on the candles, but even the smallest is £6.99.
Sonia looks over at me. ‘They smell beautiful, those ones,’ she says.
I smile in response and wrestle with the dilemma of whether to buy an overpriced candle I don’t need or to leave empty‐handed. That’s the trouble with these little shops; once I’m inside, I always feel obliged to buy something, as if it’s a moral duty to support a stranger’s business.
I replace the candle and grab a packet of incense sticks instead, smiling broadly, as if these were what I was really looking for, the reason I came here in the first place.
‘That’ll be £1.75, please,’ Sonia says. Do I detect a subtle tone of disappointment?
I fumble in my purse for the right money. Her voice is quiet, reasonably educated. A bit like mine, I suppose. Estuary English, it’s called. Somewhere in the middle of posh and cockney, which narrows her down to anywhere in the south‐east of England.
Or possibly not. I’ve read that this way of speaking has spread well beyond the Thames Estuary now. And of course, accents can be picked up. Learned. Discarded too. I think of Barbara’s cut‐glass vowels and her occasional drunken lapses into Brummie.
Sonia Martins slips the incense into a brown‐paper gift bag. Our eyes meet when she hands it over. I’m being fanciful, I know I am, but I swear those eyes can see right through me. I smile and turn to leave, aware of her gaze on the back of my neck. The weight of it.
It isn’t till I’m outside on the street again that I realize I’ve been holding my breath. What am I doing? I must stop this nonsense right now. Put it out of my mind once and for all.
Dave waves a Post‐it note at me as soon as I get back to the office.
‘Anne Wilson wants a second viewing of the Maple Drive property,’ he says. ‘I thought, seeing as you’ve already met her, you might like to—’
‘Enjoy the warmth of Mrs Marchant’s smile one more time?’ 31
Dave grins. ‘Something like that. I’d do it myself, but I’ve got two valuations to do this afternoon and I’m behind as it is.’
That’s one of the things I like about Dave Pegton. I’m just a part‐time negotiator now, trying to gain experience in residential sales, and he’s my boss and the owner of the business, but he always makes it seem like we’re on an equal footing.
‘I’ll ring Mum and see if she can pick Alfie up today. Then I can catch up on that pile of admin when I come back.’
Dave sticks his thumb in the air.
I park at the top of Maple Drive, facing the sea. Today, it is a deep violet‐blue and there’s a hazy shimmer on the horizon that shrouds the wind farm so it’s barely visible. I never tire of looking at the sea. It’s part of my soul; it’s etched on my DNA. All those long summer afternoons I used to spend sprawled on the sand with my nose in a book, the sound of the surf rasping on the shore. Then later, as a teenager, huddled around an illicit fire as dusk gave way to night, smoking and swigging from cans, or, if we got lucky, snogging the boys who worked at the funfair on Mistden Pier. I always knew I’d come back one day.
This time, I wait for Anne Wilson to arrive before getting out of my car. The less time I have to spend in Susan Marchant’s company, the better. I switch the radio on and open the window, watch the leaves on the pavement shift and separate in the breeze. With winter only a couple of months away, golden days like this have to be savoured. The last breath of summer.
The bulk of the tourists have left now that the schools have gone back. Flinstead is being returned to its inhabitants. It’s as if the town can finally breathe. If the tourists stopped coming, this place would surely die. But oh how glorious it is when they pack up their deckchairs and windshields and trundle back to their cars and don’t come back, when the promenade isn’t cluttered with their plastic picnic tables and their giant inflatables and their sunburnt legs.
There’s still the odd day‐tripper or dog‐walker parked up on the esplanade, of course. A man and two children are flying a kite on the greensward. A traditional diamond kite – bright yellow with a long red tail. It dips and soars in the sky, its tail streaming after it. Perhaps I should buy Alfie a kite. He’d like that. In fact, I’d much rather buy him a good‐quality kite than those overpriced school photographs. Which reminds me, I must find that order form when I get home.
I check my rear‐view mirror for Anne Wilson’s blue Renault Clio, but she hasn’t arrived yet. The time of the appointment comes and goes and, since there’s no message from her, I carry on waiting. It’s no hardship to be sitting here, with the late‐afternoon sun warming me through the windows, the sound of seagulls squawking overhead. Even so, a small kernel of unease has lodged itself in the pit of my stomach. The dead leaves rattle across the pavement. Maybe it’s the thought of dealing with Susan Marchant again. Or maybe it’s my recent encounter with Sonia Martins, how weird she made me feel.
Susan Marchant. Sonia Martins. Am I going to be suspecting everyone with the initials S.M. from now on?
My eyes slide to the brown‐paper bag on the passenger seat, the one that contains my incense sticks. I must have been in that shop several times since moving to Flinstead, enticed by the gorgeous scents and chilled vibes. If I were someone trying to hide my real identity from the world, someone with demons to suppress, what better place could I choose to spend my days than a peaceful, calming environment like Stones and Crones?
It must be so difficult having to keep all those lies in perpetual motion, like plates spinning on sticks. How could anyone live like that without going mad? I pull my shoulder blades back towards each other and squeeze them tight to release the tension. So much for vowing to put Sally McGowan out of my mind. She’s taken up residence there like an unwelcome guest.
While I’m waiting, I scroll through Facebook. Tash has posted a picture of her ankle, which is massively swollen and badly bruised. She’s put ‘Great excuse to stay at home and watch Netflix’. I press ‘like’ and tap out a comment: ‘Too much vodka last night???’
She responds within seconds. ‘Running to catch bus, tripped on kerb. We need to catch up. Come and stay SOON.’
‘Will do,’ I reply. ‘Miss you.’
‘Shouldn’t have moved then!’ followed by a winking emoji is her speedy response.
I just have time to send her one with a tongue sticking out before I see Anne Wilson’s Clio pull up on the other side of the road. She gets out, pulling a harassed face and mouthing ‘sorry’. The highlights in her hair gleam in the sun as she hurries towards me. There’s no silver‐haired man with her today.
‘I was going to ring to say I’d be late,’ she says. Her voice has an apologetic, breathy quality. ‘But that would have wasted even more time. I thought it best to press on.’
Her skin looks even tighter and shinier than before. It’s impossible to gauge how old she is, but she isn’t young.
‘It’s fine,’ I say. ‘Honestly.’
Like last time, the front door of number 24 opens before I’ve even rung the bell. Susan Marchant’s eyes flick from me to Anne and back to me again. For a minute I have the impression she’s going to tell us off for being late, but then she gestures for us to come in. An imperious wave of her arm.
‘I’ll be in the garden,’ she says, and disappears down the long hallway.
Anne Wilson shakes her head in disbelief. As much as Pegton’s need this sale to go through – things have been a bit slow lately; Dave calls it the ‘Brexit Effect’ – I can’t help hoping she decides not to make an offer, and that nobody else does either, so that Susan Marchant is forced to drop the price. It would serve her right for being such a cold fish.
Mum’s semi‐detached bungalow and the one next to it make me think of those before‐and‐after photos. Both halves are covered in the same sandy‐brown pebbledash, but the windows of the house on the left where her elderly neighbour lives are dirty, with ill‐fitting curtains, whereas Mum’s are clean and have neat, vertical blinds. Likewise, each half of the shared concrete driveway tells its own story, although I notice that, recently, Mum’s taken to pulling next door’s weeds up out of the cracks as well as her own. I’m surprised she hasn’t offered to wash the windows too.
She opens the door, a tea towel slung over her shoulder and her cheeks all pink from the heat of the kitchen. Sol barges past her legs to greet me. He’s a ten‐year‐old Golden Labrador and he’s another reason why Alfie is so pleased to be living here. Alfie is dog‐mad, and now that he gets to see Sol almost whenever he likes, he’s stopped pestering me for one of his own.
Looking after retired guide dogs is something Mum’s been doing ever since I was a little girl. Grandad was blind so she grew up round working dogs. I can still remember all their names: Lulu, Nero, Pepper, and the biggest rascal of all, Quenton, who once ate an entire birthday cake when no one was looking. My birthday cake, as it happens, but I couldn’t be cross with him for long. Especially when he started shaking with sugar overload and we had to rush him to the vet’s.
When her last dog, Oona, a gorgeous German Shepherd, died of cancer, I thought she was going to hang up her leads for good. All her dogs have been special and, as she often says, you can’t afford to get too attached to them because they’re already old when they come to you, but Oona was a particular favourite.
In the end, though, she relented. The house didn’t seem the same without a dog in it.
Alfie comes running out of the living room for a hug. His hands are covered in green felt‐tip and there’s plasticine stuck under his fingernails, but oh, he smells so gorgeous I never want to let him go.
Mum smiles. ‘Alfie, do you want to finish your colouring in while Mummy and I lay the table?’
‘Look at my alien spacecraft first,’ he says, thrusting his handiwork under my nose for inspection. ‘It’s got a special rocket blast‐off. Look, Mummy. Look!’
‘That’s amazing, Alfie. And what’s this little creature here?’
Alfie and Mum exchange a look as if to say, Fancy her not knowing that. ‘It’s a space robot. That’s his antenna and those are his special claws.’
‘Oh yes, of course. Silly me. Aren’t you a clever boy?’
Alfie marches mechanically into the living room, chanting, ‘Affirmative, affirmative.’
‘He loves that book,’ Mum says, laughing. ‘The one you didn’t want me to buy.’
‘It’s just the title that annoyed me. The Boys’ Colouring Book, as if girls don’t want to colour in spaceships and aeroplanes. No wonder there are so few female engineers.’
Mum rolls her eyes and beckons me into the kitchen. She shuts the door behind us. ‘Can we have a quick word?’
I dump my handbag on the floor and perch on one of the stools at the breakfast bar.
‘What’s he done now? He hasn’t been saying “shit” again, has he? I’ve told Michael not to say it in front of him, but you know what he’s like.’
Mum pulls a face that says, yes, she knows exactly what Michael’s like. ‘No, he’s been good as gold. It’s just that . . .’ She pauses. ‘I’m worried about him, Jo. Especially after what he went through before.’ My chest constricts. ‘Has he told you about lunchtimes?’
I stare at her, puzzled. ‘Lunchtimes?’
‘How no one wants to sit next to him?’
The backs of my eyeballs burn as I remember the tummy‐ache excuse this morning. ‘He hasn’t said anything about that to me.’
Mum takes three table mats out of the drawer. ‘This is the second time he’s mentioned it. I didn’t think much of it at first because, well, you know what kids are like at this age – they’re quite fickle when it comes to friendships.’ She hands me the mats. ‘But he’s clearly upset about it. And he says Jake and Liam are always being nasty to him.’
I go through into the conservatory and set the mats on the table. I’m glad he feels able to confide in her, of course I am. I just wish it was me he’d told first. Maybe if I’d asked a few more questions about Jake and Liam the other day he’d have told me what was going on. I can’t let this happen again.
‘He did say something about those two, but I had no idea about the lunch thing. I’ll have a word with Miss Williams tomorrow.’
Poor Alfie. I can’t bear to think of him sitting all on his own.
Mum frowns. ‘And that’s not all I’m worried about.’
Oh God. What else have I missed about my own son?
‘He told me that Michael stayed over at the weekend.’
Hmm. I should have guessed Alfie would say something about that.
‘I’ve never interfered in your life, Joanna, and I’m not about to start now,’ she says. ‘But if I don’t say this, it’s just going to play on my mind.’
‘Go on, then. Say it.’
‘Al e could quite easily get the wrong idea about things. You’ve said yourself how he sometimes wonders why his daddy can’t live in the same house. If Michael starts staying over, it’s bound to confuse him.’
Mum presses her lips together. She’s never really understood about Michael and me. She’s quite old‐fashioned in that respect. Probably feels a bit awkward explaining our ‘situation’, as she calls it, to her friends, although I know deep down she only has my best interests at heart. She told me once that she thinks I’ve settled for second best, but I don’t need to justify my relationship with Michael – it’s my life, not hers.
Even so, I find myself explaining. ‘He was exhausted after his flight. It felt mean sending him off again as soon as he’d arrived.’
‘So he slept on the sofa, then?’
I open my mouth to respond, but there’s nothing to say.
Mum does one of those laughing sighs. ‘He might only be six, Jo, but children are much savvier than we think.’
She turns the gas off under the peas and takes a colander from the cupboard. ‘I hope he uses protection.’
‘Mu–um! For God’s sake! Of course he does. We do.’
Apart from the one, notable exception that led to Alfie, of course, but we don’t need to go over that again.
‘Because he’s probably sleeping with other women besides you,’ she says. ‘You do realize that, don’t you?’
I breathe in through my nose and count to five. ‘We’ve never been exclusive, Mum, I’ve told you that. But one thing I do know about Michael is that he’s honest.’
Too honest, sometimes. On the rare occasions he has gone out with someone else, he’s always made a point of telling me, almost as if he needs my approval. And I know I could too, if I wanted to. Except I don’t. I haven’t. Not since Alfie.
‘He hasn’t been seeing anyone else for a long while now,’ I say. ‘And if he does meet someone he wants to be with, he’ll tell me. I know he will.’
Mum sighs. ‘I’m sorry, darling. I can’t help worrying about you. It’s all part of being a mother, you know, worrying about your children. It never stops, even when they’re all grown up. I just want you to be happy and not have to go through what I went through with your father.’
She puts the usual ironic emphasis on the word. Poor Mum. It’s hardly surprising she has such a dim view of men.
She squeezes my shoulder. ‘Do you remember when you were little and you had that imaginary friend? I was so anxious when you started school. I thought the other children would tease you about it.’
‘Oh yeah, Lucy Locket.’ I smile at the memory.
Mum laughs. ‘I can’t tell you how relieved I was when you stopped nattering away to yourself in your bedroom.’
‘Actually, it’s perfectly normal for young children to have imaginary friends. I read up about it once. It’s a natural part of their development.’
‘I know. I’m only teasing.’ Mum passes me the salt and pepper to put on the table. ‘It sounds like Alfie just needs a bit of help settling in. Maybe it would help if you made friends with some of the other mums, invite their children round for tea or something. I got talking to Hayley’s mum when I picked him up today. Karen, is it? Her mother was there too – nice lady, painfully thin. She’s moved in with her, I think she said. They both seemed really lovely.’
‘Karen goes to my book club,’ I say. ‘I think she’s also the secretary of the PTA. I find her a bit intense, to be honest. And anyway, Alfie’s not too keen on girls.’
Mum laughs. ‘You wait till he’s a teenager.’ She takes three plates from the cupboard and puts them in the bottom of the oven to warm.
Alfie’s head appears round the door. ‘I’m starving.’
Mum rests her hands on her hips. ‘Well, it’s a good job supper’s ready then, isn’t it?’
She’s right. Of course she is. I’ll have to try harder with the other mums. For Alfie’s sake. Get myself invited on to their coffee‐morning circuit if I have to. What did Tash say when I told her I was moving out of London and going part time? That it wouldn’t be long before I became one of those mums who take over a whole coffee shop and talk endlessly about their offspring. I told her, ‘No way.’
But still, if it makes Alfie’s life a little easier . . .