- Published: 2 March 2021
- ISBN: 9781787633254
- Imprint: Bantam Press
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 304
- RRP: $32.99
She’d created a little altar on the chest of drawers in her bedroom. A solitary white tulip in a fluted glass vase. An illustrated children’s bible and a bowl of water with blood-red rose petals floating on the surface.
She lit first a candle and then a stick of incense. We watched as the thin plume of blue-grey smoke writhed into the air, filling the room with its cloying scent. My nostrils flared.
‘Now we must join hands over the bible,’ she said. My heart thumped. ‘We must swear not to breathe a word of this to a living soul.’ Her eyes flashed wide. ‘Not now. Not ever.’
I didn’t dare tell her what my mother told me once, that Jesus says it’s wrong to swear oaths.
‘Are you ready?’ she said. I nodded so hard my head hurt. She could have asked me to sign my name in our intermingled blood and I’d have agreed.
I took her outstretched hands in mine and together we read the words she had painstakingly written out on a small piece of white card, our voices solemn and tremulous. Then she held the card above the flame of the candle and we watched as it blackened and curled and crumbled into a small pile of grey ash.
‘And now we bury this in the garden,’ she said.
I nodded again and she scooped the ash into the palm of her left hand and closed her fingers around it. I followed her out of the room and down the stairs, then out of the back door and across the yellowing lawn, tucked so closely behind her that our shadows almost merged. And I knew that it would always be like this, that I would always follow her. Wherever she went. Whatever she did.
Thursday, 19 July 2007
There are two reasons to celebrate today. First, it’s not raining. It’s been raining for weeks and though Mum says that rain is God’s blessing and we should be grateful for every single drop, even she’s getting fed up with it now. I heard her tell Dad yesterday that God’s blessed us quite enough lately, thank you very much.
The second reason to celebrate is that it’s the first day of the summer holidays, which means six long weeks of NO SCHOOL.
I open my bedroom window and sniff the air. Alice and I have just got to go on ‘The Walk’. It’s our favourite route and one we’ve done so many times we know each and every landmark: the kissing gate, the gap in the hedge, the little stream with the rickety footbridge, the field with the scarecrow that looks like a dead man on a stick, the line of poplars, the six stiles, and finally, the railway line, where we always wait till we hear the tracks sing, and count the seconds till the train hurtles by.
That’s the best bit, in my opinion. I think it’s Alice’s best bit too, although we’ve never admitted that. We tell each other that it’s our favourite walk because if we don’t dawdle and we don’t rush, it takes us two hours from my front door and back again. Just the right amount of time to discuss everything that needs to be discussed before our legs start to ache and our stomachs to grumble. But deep down, I think we both know that it’s our favourite walk because of the railway line and the thrill of the open crossing.
I go downstairs and dial Alice’s number on the phone in the kitchen. I’ve only got a bit of credit left on my crappy old mobile. Alice’s sister, Catherine, answers. She doesn’t even say hello, just shouts for Alice in that snotty way she has. She’s a whole nine years older than us so she really should know better. Alice says she’s got ‘issues’. She’s got something, that’s for sure. Once, she even slapped Alice round the face in front of me. All Alice had done was spray a tiny bit of her sister’s perfume on to my wrist.
Anyway, I’m not going to let Catherine Dawson’s rudeness affect me today. I’m going to put on my Teflon coat, as Mum calls it, the same one I put on at school when Melissa Davenport and the others start having a go.
‘Shall we go on The Walk?’ Alice says.
‘Dur! Why do you think I’m phoning?’
‘I’ll get the bus to yours,’ she says. ‘See you soon.’
The fifth stile is different from all the others. Higher. My foot slides clumsily on the second step and its sharp edge jabs into my calf muscle. Alice pretends not to notice. She never makes fun of me. Not ever. I’m there for Alice when her mum takes to her bed with depression. I’m there for her when she can’t do her French homework or when she has an argument with her sister. And Alice is there for me when I have a seizure, or when Melissa Davenport and Co. fall about, twitching their limbs and rolling their eyes behind my back.
But just as I’m straightening up out of the clumsy squat in which I’ve landed, I see the flicker of a smile on Alice’s lips. A strange little smile that seems to say, ‘I know something you don’t.’ She’s been doing it on and off ever since we set off this morning. She opens her mouth to say something, then bites her bottom lip and looks all worried.
‘What? What were you going to say?’
‘Oh, nothing really,’ she says. Then, after a long pause: ‘It was just something someone said.’
She blushes, and I can guess straightaway who this someone is. Dave Farley. He must have asked her out. I don’t think I’ll be able to bear it if he has.
‘You can’t not tell me.’
Alice presses her lips together.
My heart drums in my throat and neck. ‘Why are you being so mean? Why won’t you tell me?’
‘Because I can’t. I just can’t.’
Something horrible happens to my insides when she says that. Best friends shouldn’t have secrets. At least, not from each other. Best friends tell each other everything. Like we always have.
Suddenly, I hate Alice Dawson. I hate her because she isn’t telling me something. I hate her because she’s pretty and doesn’t wear glasses or have frizzy red hair or epilepsy. I hate her so much I can barely breathe.
I accuse her of being two-faced – the ultimate insult – and we start screaming at each other. Alice marches off towards the next stile and it’s as much as I can do to keep up with her. We’re arguing the whole time: me hurling insults at Alice’s back, Alice stopping every so often to glare at me over her shoulder and lobbing them straight back. By the time we reach the crossing, we’re running out of horrible things to say to each other.
We’ve had rows before, where one or other of us has stormed off – usually me, to be honest – but we’ve always made up in the end. Even after the really bad one we had last month. This time seems different. More final.
And that’s when everything goes fuzzy. When the clear blue of the sky and the vivid greens of the grass and trees collide in a messy blur and the only sound in my ears is the vibration of the track. The crescendo of that long metallic note filling my head with unbearable noise.
The next thing I know, I’m sitting in a puddle of wee by the side of the track and a train has stopped. But trains never stop here. It’s the middle of a field.
I’m feeling all groggy. Where’s Alice? What’s happened?
Then I see one of the sleeves of her denim jacket, caught up in the branches of a bush. Only . . . only it’s not just a sleeve.
Hot bile rushes out of my mouth and everything goes black.
Wednesday, 13 March 2019
Something in the room has changed. Maybe it’s the news presenter’s tone of voice. That serious one they use when something awful has happened. Or maybe it’s the words themselves that force their way through whatever filters have been working in my head.
My shoulders stiffen. A fatal accident on a level crossing. A young girl.
Her face flashes up in the corner of the screen before I have a chance to look away. A cheeky little smile. Dimples in her cheeks. She was only eleven. Two years younger than Alice. Her name is Elodie. Was Elodie. Such a pretty name.
I grab the remote control and turn the TV off, but the picture is still there, the words echoing in my head. Except it isn’t the picture I’ve just seen on the screen, the one of the cordoned-off level crossing, the police cars, the solemn-faced journalist delivering the news. It’s the picture that’s always there, behind my eyes, waiting to catch me off guard, to materialize in front of me and suck me back in.
Ross looks up, surprised.
‘It’s too much,’ I tell him. ‘All this bad news.’
He scrapes the last of his boiled egg with a teaspoon. ‘She wouldn’t have known a thing about it. I guess that’s the only consolation for her parents. Even at relatively low speeds, a train has so much mass and energy, the body’s usually destroyed pretty much straightaway.’
I take my empty mug to the kitchen and rinse it out. My chest feels tight, as if my lungs are constricted. I want to ask him if he really believes that, if knowing their daughter has been smashed to pieces pretty much straightaway is a consolation for her parents, but I let the comment pass, unchallenged, because I don’t want to have a conversation about it. Not right now. Not ever.
I try not to think, but it’s impossible. Another life wiped out in seconds. Another bereaved family.
Ross follows me out and gives me a sheepish grin. ‘Sorry, it’s just the way my brain works.’
I shake my head at him. ‘Tell me about it.’
What Ross doesn’t realize is that I know exactly what happens to a body when it’s hit by a train. I looked it up once, a long time ago. Couldn’t stop myself. It depends how fast the train is travelling, and whether the body is upright or lying on the ground at the time of impact, but basically all the vital organs are smashed, the major blood vessels broken. Sometimes the body is flung into the air; sometimes it gets rolled up under the wheels and ground into little pieces. Broken bones. Mangled flesh. Severed limbs.
I had to know. I just had to. And then I filed the information away and didn’t access it again. Buried it deep. But it’s always there, ready to infiltrate my conscious mind whenever a train-related tragedy occurs. Especially when children are involved. Especially when it’s a young girl. Like Alice.
I blink to dispel the image that’s just landed in my head and scrutinize Ross as he stands at the kitchen door, gazing out at the garden and the crop of daffodils that have sprung up through the grass. He’s still wearing his tracksuit bottoms and T-shirt, and the early-morning sunlight illuminates his fair skin. There’s a malleable quality about him this morning, as if he could quite easily be a student, a sales assistant, a lad behind a bar. But in less than half an hour he will have transformed himself into a GP, his mind already fixed on the day ahead. He will have solidified into a ‘pillar of the community’, as I jokily call him.
I keep meaning to tell him about Alice – he is my fiancé, after all – but somehow it never seems like the right time. Besides, if I tell him, he might ask me questions I can’t answer.
‘Take your time and tell us exactly what happened.’ That’s what the police said. But it didn’t matter how many times they asked me, my answer was always the same.
‘I don’t know. I can’t remember.’
Various neurologists have tried to explain it to me over the years, how there isn’t always time for what happens immediately before a seizure to be fully incorporated into the memory system. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if all my lost memories came back. Like missing pieces of a jigsaw, slotting into place. Making me whole again.
Other times, I wonder if it’s better I don’t remember.
Ross drains his coffee. ‘By the way, I’ve spoken to our practice manager about that part-time job on reception. She said to give her a ring if you’re interested.’
I clear the rest of our breakfast things away, relieved he’s changed the subject. ‘I’ve been thinking about that,’ I tell him. ‘Maybe I should look for something full-time instead. Something a bit more interesting.’
Ross frowns. ‘Are you sure that’s wise? You don’t want to push yourself.’ ‘
But that’s just it. I do. If I hang about here all day, I’ll go mad.’
If only I’d gone to university and got a degree, I might have had a proper career by now. I missed so much schooling because of my epilepsy, ended up taking my GCSEs and A levels two years later than everyone else. The last thing I wanted to do after all that was more studying. Now, though, I’m beginning to wish I had. The only jobs I’ve had since leaving school have been tedious admin or reception posts. I’m not sure I can bear the thought of another one and yet I have to do something. I think of that advert I saw in the local paper recently, for an open day at Greenwich University. Maybe I ought to go and investigate.
Ross puts his arms round me from behind while I’m washing up and kisses the back of my neck. His hands start creeping up from my waist and I flick soapy water over my shoulder at him with the washing-up brush.
‘Spoilsport!’ he says, wiping bubbles from his eye. ‘Anyway, you wouldn’t be hanging about here all day if you got the job at the surgery. And you’d be able to catch tantalizing glimpses of the gorgeous Dr Ross Murray when he comes into the waiting room.’
I snort with laughter. ‘Is that one of the perks of the job, then?’
‘But seriously,’ I say. ‘The pay’s rubbish. You said so yourself.’
‘It’s not about the pay, though, is it? It’s about your health. We can manage perfectly well on my salary.’
I sigh. Not this again. ‘My health is good now, Ross. It’s the best it’s ever been. I haven’t had a major seizure in almost two years.’
I don’t usually say that out loud because I don’t want to tempt fate, especially now I’m finally getting a life. Not that I believe in fate. Not really. Even so, I tap the wooden countertop just to be on the safe side.
I still get partials from time to time – brief, focal seizures. Fleeting moments of absence that don’t really bother me, to be honest. It’s other people who tend to notice them, not me. My eyelids flutter and I zone out for a few seconds. At least, that’s what I’ve been told.
‘It’s the best it’s ever been because you’re relaxed and looking after yourself properly,’ Ross says. ‘You mustn’t overdo things.’
I scrub the eggy plates with the brush, just a little too hard. He’s right. Of course he is. That last job I did was a mistake. I was still at home with Mum and Dad then and commuting into the city every day. I should have listened to them. It was too much for me – I was exhausted. But now that I’m living in London with Ross it’ll be so much easier. I’m on exactly the right combination of drugs, too, just enough to stop the really big seizures, the ones where I fall down and make a spectacle of myself, but not so much that my brain is continually foggy.
‘I’m just sick of everything always being about my epilepsy. I’m not an invalid!’
Ross spins me round by the shoulders and looks deep into my eyes. ‘Quite true. You are a gorgeous, sexy woman, who’s also as stubborn as a mule.’
We kiss for so long, by the time we’ve finished we’ve forgotten what we were arguing about. Or rather, we’ve pretended to forget.
We met in a café, in the small seaside town of Dovercourt, near Harwich, where my parents and I moved after Alice’s death. He bumped into me and slopped his coffee on my suede boots, apologized about five times and ended up buying me a Coke and a flapjack, which I regretted as soon as I bit into it because crumbs spattered all over the table and made him laugh. I’d thought he was the same age as me, so when he turned out to be in his thirties, and about to become a fully qualified GP, I was gobsmacked.
Right from that very first moment he made me feel special, as if I were the only person he wanted to be with. He was all my daydreams rolled into one. Love at first sight might be a romantic myth – in fact, knowing Ross, he’d probably say it’s just a cocktail of sex hormones and neurotransmitters – but that’s what it felt like, as though meeting each other was all part of some predestined plan. He made my heart beat faster. Still does.
‘What time are your parents due?’ he says now.
I look at my watch. ‘They’re probably getting ready to leave now. Said they’d be here by eleven.’
Ross nods. ‘Why don’t you take them to that new restaurant in Blackheath? Mario’s, I think it’s called. Our new practice nurse said it’s really good.’
I check his face. That’s the second time he’s mentioned her in the past week. An image of a pretty nurse in a navy uniform pops into my mind. I picture her as a petite blonde, hair scraped into a high, tight ponytail, and imagine him bantering with her in between patients. His last girlfriend was a nurse and I’m under no illusion that there haven’t been others, especially when he was at medical school. Going out with nurses is an occupational hazard, he once joked.
But not any more. We’re getting married next year. We’ve agreed on a fairly long engagement to give us plenty of time to think about the sort of wedding we’d both like, and to plan ahead. I know my parents would have preferred us to get married before living together – especially Mum; she’s a bit old-fashioned in that respect – but when I met Ross he was already in the process of buying this place, thanks to a small inheritance from his late aunt, and it seems much more sensible to focus our energies on getting the house sorted out before all the stress of arranging a wedding.
It’s a little two-up two-down in a quiet street, just off the A201 between Woolwich and Charlton. Five minutes in the car to the Plumtree Lodge Surgery, where Ross works, and easy enough for me to walk or get the bus to wherever I need to go. And it’s got a little garden. Okay, so it’s basically a narrow strip of weed-infested grass, bordered on either side by fence panels that have seen better days, but at least we have a garden. Most people my age live in rented accommodation, or with their parents still.
I watch from the living room window as Ross climbs into his car and drives off. Then I turn my attention to the boxes still stacked against the wall. Maybe I’ve got time to unpack a few more before Mum and Dad arrive.
I switch the telly back on, but they’re still talking about the death on the level crossing. Or rather, they’re talking about it again. That’s the trouble with Breakfast TV, everything gets repeated on a loop and, if it’s something tragic, even more so. I turn it over to a different channel, but little Elodie’s face won’t leave my mind. It’s churned everything up again. I hate it when that happens.
Just because you imagine yourself doing something and enjoy the way it makes you feel, doesn’t mean you actually want to do it.
The boy gasped for breath, hair in his mouth, before the next wave slammed him back against the bottom. He tumbled, the fizz of bubbles around him.
“WHY ARE WE HERE AGAIN?” MASTER SERGEANT CARY MARKS SAID, SHIFTING HIS weight for what seemed like the hundredth time.
A board a Night Stalkers Special Operations MH-60M Black Hawk helicopter code-named Spear One, Navy chief Nick Zeppos of SEAL Team Six checks his watch.
They gave him the gun in New York, he was pretty certain, and he thought some money too.