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  • Published: 1 February 2022
  • ISBN: 9781787634879
  • Imprint: Bantam Press
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 336
  • RRP: $32.99

The Herd

Extract

Farley County Court

December 2019

They arrive in court separately. Bry first, early, perhaps to avoid the worst of the demonstrations outside. She keeps her dark, hollow eyes fixed right ahead of her, her head bowed as if in prayer, Ash’s arm around her, before she crumples into her seat just in front of the judge’s bench.

The last time I saw Bry or Elizabeth was months ago at the now infamous party. I remember watching them and feeling – as I always did when it came to those two – a tug of envy, like a great hook in my abdomen, pulling. It wasn’t what they said or did, quite the opposite in fact; it was the absence of explanation. There was a calmness between them, a knowing, because each was absolutely confident of the other. Their friendship made them seem untouchable somehow. I’ve never had that with anyone.

It’s a few minutes before the doors open again. The whole court shifts, sits more upright, as Elizabeth walks into the large, serious room, Jack a couple of paces behind. Her eyes cast about, scanning to see who is there to support them. She nods at a couple of people. Her gaze lands for just a beat on Bry and Ash. Her expression doesn’t even flicker before she moves on. Her composure is impressive, silently letting us all know she is blameless, unafraid. She takes her place on the other side of the court to Bry. Her solicitor leans forward to whisper something and Elizabeth nods in agreement, careful not to smile.

Next to me, a woman I recognise from the school gates says quietly, ‘It’s so sad, so sad, isn’t it?’

She sighs, then she finishes whatever she was doing on her phone before dropping it into her coat pocket and turning back to me.

‘I always found their friendship a bit weird, to be honest. I mean, they were so different, weren’t they?’

I nod and wonder whether she feels it too. This sense of something lacking – the hook, pulling – that behind all the gossip, all the bullshit chat about school plays and football teams, we are starving for each other, for connection. Is she, like me, desperate to see and truly be seen by another woman?

‘I heard Elizabeth was almost assaulted by one of those anti-vax demonstrators yesterday.’

Her voice is light, bouncy with glee. Her phone buzzes and she snatches it out of her pocket. I turn back to face the court. And I think, ‘No, not her, she doesn’t feel it.’

Now, sitting here, I realise it was stupid of me, stupid to be jealous of Bry and Elizabeth, because if this court case is the cost of true friendship – families devastated, lives destroyed – then it can’t be worth it. Maybe women like us are the lucky ones after all, maybe our distance from each other keeps us safe, helps us to hide our wounds, our fears, so we can’t be injured by others, lone wolves making our own way as best we can.

 

1 July 2019

For once, Bry isn’t late. She is waiting outside the Nettlestone Primary School gates at exactly 3.30 p.m. She’d tiptoed out of her vinyasa flow class a little early, been stern with herself when she was tempted to nip into a shop on the short walk to her goddaughter’s school, Elizabeth’s request in her ears: Please don’t be too late, Clem panics if she thinks she’s been forgotten. Bry has to admit it feels kind of leisurely being early, to be one of the first at the school gates, simply waiting, the afternoon sun warm on her face. It’s a relief not to feel a flood of panic rising in her; not to run. So this is how it feels to be Elizabeth. More parents start to gather, a few faces Bry recognises from around town, parents she knows are friends with Elizabeth, but no one Bry knows well enough to say hello to. They acknowledge her vaguely and turn back to their conversations. Bry can see why Elizabeth fits in perfectly here, leading the chats about school trips and nit treatments.

Suddenly the school doors open and there’s a rush of noise: small, high voices shrieking, laughing; a couple of teachers’ voices lower, louder, warning, ‘Slow down!’ A fast-moving cloud of children fills the little playground, all clamouring towards the gates. Bry sees Clemmie immediately. Her red hair, the same colour as Jack’s, makes her easy to spot. Today it’s plaited, the plait moving side to side like a fox’s tail as Clemmie runs. Her rucksack is too big and full for her small six-year-old frame; it moves awkwardly on her back, out of time with her run, but she’s laughing, her blue eyes and freckled face creased in joy. Clemmie’s not laughing at anything in particular; she’s laughing at the feeling of release, the novelty of Auntie Bry collecting her from school, the chaotic speed of her running. Bry bends, opens her arms, and laughs too. Clemmie runs into her with a gentle thud. Her hair smells of pencil shavings and strawberry lip balm.

‘Auntie Bry!’

Bry holds her and closes her eyes briefly. Clemmie wiggles away before Bry is ready. She wipes a few strands of hair from her face with her palm and says, ‘My class did the song today in assembly, we did.’ Her rucksack starts falling off her shoulders. Bry lifts it on to her own back and reaches for her goddaughter’s hand. Clemmie starts singing a song, presumably the one she sang in assembly, about baking a cake for her friend. She looks up at Bry, dimples showing as she beams. Bry swings their held hands so Clemmie knows she loves her song as they start the short walk through the narrow, hilly old streets of Farley, towards Saint’s Road, where both their families – the Chamberlains and the Kohlis – live. She gives Clemmie a two-pound coin, which she drops into the cap of a man busking on the cobbled bridge.

‘Cheers, girls,’ he says with a wink, and they both wave to a friend who works in the health food shop.

‘Bry! Yoo-hoo! Bry, Clemmie, wait for us!’ Bry turns, slow and reluctant, as her friend Row, still in her yoga leggings, steams up the tree-lined pavement behind them, her daughter Lily tinkling along by her side.

‘Told you you didn’t have to leave yoga early,’ Row says as she catches up with them. Clemmie peels away from Bry and greets Lily enthusiastically, before the two girls run ahead a couple of paces.

‘But I guess Elizabeth would have killed you if you’d been late,’ Row adds, her bangles jingling as she loops her arm through Bry’s. ‘Where is she anyway?’

‘She has a meeting with the council about that petition she got everyone to sign, about reducing the speed limit on Saint’s Road to twenty.’

‘Oh yeah, right. I was wondering what was going on with that,’ Row says, her tone slightly tinted with disdain, as though Elizabeth has been sloppy letting the issue slide when Elizabeth does more for the whole community than anyone else, a fact that people seem to admire yet also pisses them off in equal measure. Bry is used to Elizabeth being divisive. She understands it – sometimes Elizabeth pisses her off too – but she still bristles slightly at Row’s tone. Like a sibling, she feels that she is justified in highlighting Elizabeth’s failings – how uptight and controlling she can be – but she can’t abide anyone else doing so, even her own husband, Ash.

‘Lil, shoelace!’ Row calls to her daughter, and the four of them stop so Lily can retie her lace before Row continues, ‘So, does it feel weird doing school pick-up? Alba will be here in September, won’t she?’

Bry tries to picture her four-year-old daughter not in her usual choice of outfit – yellow wellies and pink tutu, perhaps – but wearing the same blue gingham dress and black shoes as Lily and Clemmie. She imagines Alba shaking her little brown head and saying, ‘Not wearing it, Mumma.’

It makes her heart flood and break simultaneously.

‘God, don’t. It’s such a weird thought.’

‘I know, I know. But everyone feels like that, trust me. I cried and cried after I dropped Lil off the first time. But then, you know, suddenly you have all this time and it’s amazing, so . . .’

Bry nods; she does this a lot when she’s with Row.

Loves giving advice, whether you ask for it or not, doesn’t she? Elizabeth said about her once.

‘Clemmie, what do you think about Alba coming to Nettlestone after the summer holidays?’ Bry asks.

Clemmie’s head shoots up from her hushed conversation with Lily and she says, ‘Baby Alba’s coming to my school?’

Bry nods, smiles, and Clemmie jumps up and down a couple of times. From her kneeling position on the pavement, Lily watches Clemmie, confused.

‘Why do you like her so much?’ she asks.

‘Baby Alba is like my little sister,’ Clemmie explains patiently, still celebrating. ‘Isn’t she, Auntie Bry?’

Bry leans forward, kisses Clemmie on the top of her head, and says, ‘Oh, that’s a lovely thing to say, Clem, so nice for Alba to have a big sister . . . Just make sure she doesn’t hear you call her Baby Alba,’ she adds with a wink, as though it’s their secret how cross Alba gets when people do that.

Clemmie turns to Lily and says seriously, ‘Alba hates being called a baby.’

The girls start to skip on and Row’s about to take Bry’s arm again when Bry notices the corner shop on the other side of the road is open.

‘Actually, Row, I think we’ll leave you here. I’ve got to pick up a few bits.’

‘Oh, OK,’ Row says, pulling her arm away. ‘See you on Saturday then?’

‘Saturday?’

Row laughs at Bry, her eyes widening in genuine surprise as Bry adds quickly, trying to cover up her forgetfulness, ‘Oh yeah, yeah, Elizabeth’s barbecue.’ She lifts her eyebrows, to show that she exasperates herself sometimes, before calling to Clemmie, holding her small hand in her own as they cross the quiet road.

‘Bye, Lily, bye, Row!’ Clemmie waves; Lily waves back and Row blows them a kiss before taking her phone out of her pocket as she shoos Lily on.

In the shop, Bry heads straight to the ice cream fridge.

‘Choose whatever you like.’

‘Anything?’

‘Anything.’

They spend the next five minutes agonising over whether Clemmie would like chocolate with sprinkles or strawberry ice cream more, before she decides to have the same multicoloured ice lolly as Bry.

Bry pays, forgetting the bread and milk Ash said they needed at home, and the two of them leave hand in hand, their ice lollies already melting in the afternoon sun, a medley of red, orange and yellow creeping down their wrists.

 

‘There you are!’

Elizabeth is standing, hands on hips, outside the Chamberlain family home, a Victorian house, the sun casting dappled shadows through the magnolia tree in the small front garden. She looks like a mother from the past in her red striped apron, her dark blonde bob held back from her face by two clips, and she’s wearing proper make-up – eyeliner and lipstick – presumably for her meeting. She’s also holding a bottle of white wine Bry immediately recognises as the Sancerre Ash buys in bulk.

‘Mummy!’ Clemmie skips towards her, presses her lips to Elizabeth’s.

Elizabeth takes her hand and says, ‘Poppet, you’re so sticky!’

‘Auntie Bry and me had lollies,’ she says, sticking out her colourful tongue as evidence.

‘Auntie Bry and I, pops, and yuck, I don’t want to see your tongue, thank you,’ Elizabeth adds in mock horror over Clemmie’s head to Bry, ‘Lollies before supper, Auntie Bry?’

Bry shrugs. ‘Godmother’s privilege,’ she says, showing Elizabeth her own coloured tongue before kissing her friend’s cheek.

‘I’ll remember that when I return the favour,’ Elizabeth replies, picking a bit of leaf out of Bry’s dark hair. ‘I’ve just been over to yours. Ash and Alba are coming over in a bit. The meeting finished earlier than I thought, so I had a few minutes to make a fish pie.’

Bry thinks about the can of baked beans she’d planned for Alba’s supper and the bread she suddenly remembers she didn’t buy, and feels simultaneously grateful to Elizabeth and ashamed of her own forgetfulness. But it doesn’t last long because Clemmie takes Bry’s sticky hand in her own and says, ‘Yay! Baby Alba is coming for supper!’ and Elizabeth and Bry smile at each other and say at the same time, ‘Don’t call her Baby Alba!’ before they head into the familiar warmth of Number 10 Saint’s Road.


The Herd Emily Edwards

A STANDOUT BOOK CLUB NOVEL. Unputdownable and thought-provoking, THE HERD probes the fine line between individual choice and collective responsibility. Perfect for fans of Jodi Picoult, Liane Moriarty and THE SLAP.

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