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- tonehair– 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 flat 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 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?