Extract: Blood Sisters by Jane Corry
Three little girls set off to school one sunny May morning. Within an hour, one of them is dead.
Fifteen years later, Alison and Kitty are living separate lives. Kitty lives in a care home. She can’t speak, and she has no memory of the accident that put her here, or her life before it. Art teacher Alison looks fine on the surface. But the surface is a lie. When a job in a prison comes up she decides to take it – this is her chance to finally make things right.
But someone is watching Kitty and Alison. Someone who wants revenge for what happened that day. And only another life will do…
Read on for an extract from Blood Sisters!
News just in. A murder is reported to have taken place at an open prison on the outskirts of London. No further details are available at present but we will be bringing you an update as soon as possible. Meanwhile on Radio 2, here is the new song from Great Cynics . . .
Careful. It’s not the size that counts. It’s the sharpness. And the angle. The blade must sing. Not scratch.
I hold the piece of blue glass up to the window light. It’s the same colour as the type you occasionally see in bottles lining the shelves of old-fashioned pharmacies. A nice clean cut. No sharp bits that need trimming, which is always tricky. So easy to get splinters of glass in your skin or on your clothes.
Or in your mind.
Now for the acid test. Does the glass fit the lead outline? My heart always starts to beat wildly at this stage, as though it’s a matter of life or death. Silly, really, but that’s how it feels. After getting this far, you don’t want to get it wrong. It’s not just the waste of glass. It’s the waste of time.
Each second of life is precious. As I know all too well.
‘Would you mind helping me with this, Mrs Baker?’
‘Actually, it’s miss,’ I say, looking up from my demo piece. ‘And please call me Alison. Everyone else does.’
Most of my students are older than this new one standing before me. Shorter too. He’s substantial without being chunky. Six foot one and a half, at a guess. Three inches or so more than me.
As a child I was teased mercilessly for being the tallest in class. I did my best to shrink but it didn’t work. ‘Stand up straight,’ my mother would plead. She meant well, but all I wanted to do was blend in; not to be noticed. To hide my slightly overlarge nose (‘classical’, my mother called it kindly), my thick-framed mud-brown glasses and my train-track braces. Whereas my perfectly put-together sister had that gift of innate confidence that made her naturally poised.
Nowadays I’ve learned there are some advantages to my height. You can carry off clothes that others can’t. Put on a pound or two without showing. Yet, every time I pass my reflection in a mirror or shop window, I am reminded to push back those offending shoulders. ‘Droopy angel-wings’, my sister used to call them.
The man asking the question is neither young nor old. Something else we have in common. The more the years go by, the less I want to put a figure on my age. It makes me panic about the things I thought I’d have done by now and which somehow haven’t happened.
In fact, this is the one place where age doesn’t matter. It’s the steadiness of the hand that counts. Making stained-glass windows might seem like an innocuous craft. But accidents happen.
How true that is.
‘I can’t quite remember, Alison, what you said about stretching the lead.’
The man’s voice is deep as it slices through my thoughts. Well spoken, suggesting an expensive education. Keen. Not many men sign up for these weekly courses I run at the local college. When this particular student arrived at the first session last week, I felt an instant fluttering of unease. And I still do.
It’s not just the way he keeps staring. Or his intelligent questions. Or the confident manner in which he scores his glass, even though it’s a beginner’s class. Or his name – Clive Black, which has an authoritative symmetry, suggesting a certain amount of thought on his parents’ part. Nor is it even the way he said ‘Alison’ just now, as though he found it intriguing rather than everyday.
It’s all of these things. And something else too that I can’t put a finger on. Over the years, I’ve learned to trust my instinct. And it’s telling me, right now, to watch out.
Wearing my protective gloves (mandatory for everyone in class, along with an apron), I pick up a thin, slightly twisted piece of lead, about a foot long. It always reminds me of a strand of silver liquorice: the type my sister and I used to buy from the corner shop on the way back from school.
Block it out. Distract.
Swiftly, I hand Clive a pair of pliers. ‘Take one piece – the flat edge of the pliers needs to be on top – and pull. I’ll do the same at the other end. Lean forward. That’s right.’
‘Amazing how it doubles in length!’ he says in the kind of tone which I’ve sometimes heard children use.
‘Incredible, isn’t it?’ breathes someone else as the class gathers round. I love this bit. Excitement is catching.
I pick up a different trimming knife. The funny thing is that I’ve been clumsy ever since childhood. Yet this is the one area where I never falter.
‘Wiggle the blade from side to side and then push down,’ I say. ‘Anyone want to try?’
I address my question deliberately to a horsey-faced woman who has been on several of my courses. Once she even offered to make positive comments on my Facebook page and was distinctly disappointed when I confessed to not having one. ‘Don’t you need it to publicize your work?’ she’d asked incredulously.
I’d shrugged casually in an attempt to hide the real reason. ‘I manage without it.’
Class is ending now (‘Ta‑ra!’ waves Beryl who ‘loves coming here’) but the man with the well-spoken voice is still lurking. I have renamed him Lead Man in my head, and I suppress a smile because it works on both levels. Tall. Thin. Clean-shaven. Strong jawline. Smooth. Possibly unpredictable. Just like the material we’re working with.
In my experience, there’s always a ‘May I ask a final question?’ student who doesn’t want to go. But this one is unnerving me.
‘I was just wondering,’ he says. Then he stops for a minute, his eyes darting to the blank space on my wedding-ring finger. (I’ve noticed that his is bare too.) ‘Are you hungry, by any chance?’
He laughs casually, as if aware he is being slightly too forward on the strength of a short acquaintance in which I am the teacher and he is the pupil. ‘I don’t know about you,’ he adds, ‘but I didn’t have time to eat anything after work before coming here.’
His hand reaches into his pocket as he talks. Sweat breaks out round my neck. I eye the door. Then he brings out a watch and glances at it. The face appears to have a Disney cartoon on it. I’m both relieved and intrigued. But not enough to accept his invitation.
‘Thanks,’ I say lightly. ‘But I’m expected back at home.’
He looks disappointed. Rebuffed. ‘OK. I understand.’
How can he? I don’t even understand myself. Turning round, I tidy up the spare glass offcuts.
On paper, this student seems like someone my mother would approve of. Nice manners. Suitable age. A man of means, judging from his well-cut jacket. A good head of light-brown hair, flicked back off a wide forehead.
‘Maybe you’re being too choosy,’ my mother is always saying, albeit kindly. ‘Sometimes you have to take a risk in life, darling. Mister Right can come in all shapes and forms.
Was this how she’d felt about marrying my father? I’m stung by that familiar pang of loss. If only he was still here.
Lead Man has gone now. All I want to do is go back to my flat in Elephant & Castle, put on some Ella Fitzgerald, knock up a tinned tuna salad (my sister had hated fish), take a hot shower to wash out the day, then curl up on the sofa with a good book, and try to forget that the rent is due next week along with all the other bills.
Peeling off my rubber gloves, I wash my hands carefully in the corner sink. Then, slipping on my fluffy blue mohair charity-shop cardigan, I make my way downstairs, pausing at reception to hand in the classroom key. ‘How’s it going?’ asks the woman at the desk.
I put on my cheerful face. ‘Great, thanks. You?’
She shrugs. ‘I’ve got to rearrange the noticeboard. Someone’s just dropped this off. Not sure that anyone will be interested. What do you think?’
I read the poster. It’s on A4 paper and has a picture of an artist’s palette next to a cell with bars across it.
ARTIST IN RESIDENCE FOR HMP ARCHVILLE
(A MEN’S OPEN PRISON).
ONE HOUR FROM CENTRAL LONDON.
THREE DAYS A WEEK.
TRAVEL EXPENSES PAID.
APPLICATIONS TO [email protected]
My skin breaks out into little goosebumps.
A scream. Silence. Blood.
‘You wouldn’t catch me in one of those places,’ sniffs the receptionist. Her words bring me back to myself and I fumble for a pen.
‘You’re not really interested, are you, Alison?’
I continue writing down the email address. ‘Maybe.’
‘Rather you than me.’
The pros and cons whirl round in my head as I make my way out into the street. Steady income. Travel costs. Enough to stop me worrying over my bank balance every month. But I’ve never been inside a prison before. The very thought terrifies me. My mouth is dry. My heart is thumping. I wish I’d never seen the ad. It’s as though fate is telling me something. But do I really want to listen?
I pass a park with teenagers smoking on the swings. One is laughing; head tossed back. A happy, carefree laugh. Just like my sister’s. For her, life was a ball. Me? I was the serious one. Earnest. Even before the accident, I remember a certain mysterious heaviness in my chest. I always wanted to make things right. To do the best I could in life. The word ‘conscientious’ featured on every one of my school reports.
But there are some things you can’t make right.
‘It wasn’t your fault,’ my mother had said, time and time again. Yet when I replay it in my mind, I keep thinking of things I could have done. And now it’s too late.
I’m walking briskly through an evening market. Silk scarves flutter in the breeze. Turquoise. Pink. Primrose yellow. On the next stall, overripe tomatoes are going for 50p a bag. ‘You won’t get cheaper, love,’ says the stallholder, who is wearing black fingerless gloves. I ignore him. Take a left. And a right. Quickly. I need to get home. Now. Down a road of identical Victorian terraces with overflowing wheelie bins and beer bottles in the streets. Some have curtains hanging off the rails. Others have boarded‑up windows. Mine has shutters. Easy to close. It was one of the attractions.
There are three name stickers by three bells. My landlord’s. The other tenant’s. And a blank. Mine. I reach for my key. Into the main hall where the post is left. Nothing for me. The second key lets me into my ground-floor, one-bedroom apartment. I’d have liked a room on the first floor (it would have felt safer) but I couldn’t find one at the time and I was desperate. Now I am used to it, although I always make sure the windows are locked before I leave the house.
Shutting the door, I kick off my shoes and chuck my bag on to the second-hand beige Ikea sofa.
The yearning has become more intense. It’s been building up inside me all day but now it’s reached its crescendo. Hurry. Fast. My hands dive down for the sliver of blue in my jacket pocket like an alcoholic might reach for the bottle. To think that something so small can do such damage!
Today it’s the turn of my right wrist. Far enough from the artery. But deeper than yesterday’s. I gasp as the jagged edge scores my skin: a dark thrill flashes through me followed by the pain. I need both.
But it’s no good. It doesn’t hurt enough. Never does.
For it’s the cuts we hide inside that really do the damage. They rub and they niggle and they bruise and they bleed. And as the pain and anxiety grow in your head, they become far more dangerous than a visible open wound. Until eventually you have to do something.
And now that time has come.