A tiny island community is stunned by the discovery of a long-buried body. For Stella Harvey the news is doubly shocking. The body has been found in the garden of her childhood home – the home her family fled without explanation twenty-five years ago.
Now, questioning her past and desperate to unearth the truth, Stella returns to the isolated island. But she quickly finds that the community she left isn’t as welcoming as she remembers – and that people in it will go to any length to protect their secrets. One thing rings true: you can’t bury the truth forever.
Read on for an extract from Come Back For Me by Heidi Perks!
Come Back For Me
9 September 1993
We left in a storm. The sea was rising in sharp clumps of angry waves, rain hitting my feet like bullets. Dad must have known we shouldn’t be making the crossing to the mainland, yet he stood on the boat, one hand frantically flapping for one of us to reach out and take it. The hood of his red mac had whipped off his head, the rain plastering his hair to his scalp. He yelled over the wind for us to get in, but we wouldn’t move from the end of the jetty.
The boat rocked violently as it tugged at the rope that kept it tethered to the dock, and I noticed Dad’s other hand gripping tighter to the steel railing of the steps. ‘Get in, Stella,’ he shouted.
Thunder cracked overhead and the sky lit up with magnificent streaks of light. Behind me our house flashed bright between the silhouettes of our tall pines, making it look like something from a horror film. I pushed my hands deeper inside my raincoat, clutching Grey Bear harder to my chest. I didn’t want to leave the only home I had ever known, but I had never seen my dad so determined. His jaw was set, his teeth bared. It wasn’t like him to be so persistent, so unrelenting, and I found myself shrinking further back.
‘I’m not going anywhere,’ Bonnie screamed from beside me. ‘We’ll all die if we do.’ My sister held her hood tightly against her head but I could just make out the paleness of her face in the moonlight. Bonnie had yearned to leave the island for years, but this wasn’t the way she wanted to go.
‘We will not die and we need to go,’ Dad yelled back. He turned to me and added more softly, ‘I promise you. It’s fine. We’ll be safe.’ Dad owned the small ferry that he was demanding we board, and he’d run the thirty-minute crossing between Evergreen and Poole Harbour every day for the last sixteen years. If anyone could take us to the mainland safely, it was him, but we’d never dared attempting a crossing in weather like this before. Mum wouldn’t usually let us out of the house when it was this bad.
‘Why can’t we wait till morning?’ Bonnie was begging.
I stared at the water, its white foam bubbling and spitting in rage. ‘Because—’ Dad shouted. ‘God, will you both just get in?’ He flapped his hand again, his gaze drifting over my shoulder to where Mum was coming down the jetty. Her head was low, arms tucked inside a plastic poncho as she trailed a suitcase behind her.
‘Where’s Danny?’ Dad yelled as another flash of lightning lit up the sky, making both Bonnie and me jump. I counted, too quickly, only reaching two before thunder roared overhead. The storm was creeping closer.
My brother trailed behind Mum, shrouded in a shapeless black coat that hung over his bulky body, reaching the ground.
Bonnie started shouting again, gesturing at the sea as it rose and dipped, higher and lower than I’d ever seen it go. Another loud crack filled the air and I yelped as a branch from one of the pines fell to the ground beside me. I jumped out of its way as the wind carelessly tossed it along the jetty.
For a brief moment, Dad stopped yelling and stared at the branch. My tears were already bleeding into the rainwater that soaked my face, but my heart twisted every time I thought of leaving my beloved island. All I wished was for Dad to realise that whatever we were doing, it wasn’t worth it.
‘I do think we should wait, David.’ Mum’s voice was high-pitched, her eyes wide as she looked from him to the water. ‘It wouldn’t hurt to stay another night. We could leave first thing…’
We held a collective breath as Dad took his eyes off the broken tree and glared back at her. ‘No, Maria. We go now.’
‘I don’t understand,’ I cried. Dad was the easy-going parent. The one who allowed another half-hour of play or a chocolate digestive even if we’d just brushed our teeth.
‘Mum?’ I cried, turning to face her. Why wasn’t she doing more to stop him? Mum understood more than anyone how much this island was a part of me, that I wouldn’t be able to survive without it. She loved Evergreen as much as I did.
She stared back at me, the fear I’d seen only moments ago replaced by a blankness. ‘Mum—’ My voice trembled as I waited for her to demand we go back to the house, but instead she placed a hand on my back and started moving me towards the steps of the boat. I hesitated but she pushed harder until I had no choice but to get on, ignoring Dad’s outstretched hand as I scurried to one of the few benches that sat undercover.
Danny silently followed, sitting behind me, turning to stare out of the window. He wouldn’t look at any of us, though there was nothing unusual in that.
‘I don’t want to go,’ I cried, searching each of their faces in turn. Only Bonnie looked at me as she settled beside me. Her leg shook against mine and I couldn’t remember a time when we had been so close.
Removing my hood, I looked back at the island through the scratched glass of the boat where the rain still lashed against it. I could have drawn a line right through my heart where it was splitting in two.
Tears continued to trickle down my cheeks as the wind rocked the boat heavily to one side, making Bonnie yelp. I reached out my hands to steady myself, letting go of Grey Bear. Maybe Bonnie was right and we wouldn’t make it to the mainland, but for some reason Dad was determined to try. Maybe I no longer particularly cared if the sea swallowed me up.
At eleven, I wasn’t prepared to accept our parents’ hurried reasons for leaving the island. I couldn’t believe that this was for good and I couldn’t understand one bit why they were dragging us away in the middle of a storm. ‘Will we come back?’ I whispered to my sister.
Bonnie’s hand shook as it reached for mine under my mac. ‘No,’ she said, ‘I don’t think we ever will.’
My clients sit on the sofa opposite me. Her arms are crossed tightly in front of her chest; he is leaning forward, his hands clasped between his widely stretched legs. I could easily fit in the gap between this couple, and in each of their sessions they are moving further apart.
Her jaw is so tense I can almost see it pulsing as she stares at me. I’m surprised she hasn’t cried today – she has in every other session. Her husband keeps glancing over at her, but she won’t look at him. Each time he does, his eyebrows twitch as if he’s either wondering where it all went so wrong or what he should do about it.
‘I don’t know what more to say,’ he mumbles, and she laughs and shakes her head, mouthing something so quietly I can’t work out what it is. ‘I’m sorry,’ he continues.
‘God!’ she cries and looks up to the ceiling. Her determination is so resolute I can see her willing the tears not to fall.
I hate this time of the session, but already the minute hand has ticked past six. Tanya will be waiting for me to leave so she can close up behind me. Looking after reception means she is always the last one out of the door.
‘I’m afraid—’ I start, but my client interrupts me as she pulls herself off the couch and grabs the cardigan that hangs limply on the arm.
‘I know,’ she says. ‘Our time is up.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I say. I would take them both to the pub and let them carry on talking if it wasn’t so unprofessional. ‘Before you go, is there anything else you want to mention?’
‘I think he’s said enough today, don’t you?’
Her husband chews on the corner of his lip but doesn’t look up as he stands and reaches for his jacket.
‘Do you ever wish you’d never asked a question in the first place?’ she says quietly as she follows me to the door.
‘Do you?’ I ask her.
She moves her head, but it is so slight I can’t tell if it is a nod. ‘I can’t not know it now, can I?’
I shake my head. No, she has to face the fact her husband once slept with someone else. I consider telling her to come and see me on her own but already she is talking to Tanya, fixing a date for them both the following week.
When they’ve left, I lock up my room and wander over to the desk where Tanya is pushing her thick glasses higher up her nose and tapping furiously on her keyboard. She doesn’t look up until I’m almost on top of her. ‘I’m off then,’ I say. ‘Sorry I was a little late.’
The phone rings and she checks the line before answering, ‘Stella Harvey’s office.’ I still feel a tingle of pleasure every time I hear her say those words. As she explains the pricing structure of my family counselling sessions I consider, not for the first time, how much money I could save if I didn’t have to pay a share of Tanya’s salary. I’d had little choice, though, when I’d rented the room with the others in the building. Next to me is a physiotherapist and further down the corridor a chiropodist and a reiki healer, but none of us work full-time and I don’t believe we really need a receptionist.
Tanya hangs up and turns back to her keyboard to close down the computer. ‘Prospective clients,’ she tells me. ‘A young couple having problems with their daughter. They’re going to call back next week.’
‘Thanks,’ I say. ‘Are you up to anything nice this weekend?’
‘Mike and I are visiting his parents. What about you?’
‘I’m having lunch at my sister’s tomorrow,’ I tell her.
‘And how is Bonnie?’ Tanya raises her eyebrows.
I laugh. ‘She’s fine. Her husband’s away this weekend,’ I say, though I’m not sure why I mentioned it. I don’t even know whether this means Bonnie will be happier or more pissed off.
Tanya nods, her lips pursed, and I imagine her thinking back to the one and only time she met my sister. I know she wasn’t impressed, but I stopped bothering to defend Bonnie long ago. At some point I got past caring what anyone else thought or feeling the need to explain that, with so little family left, I can’t be blamed for wanting to cling to her.
Besides, no one has ever been able to understand our relationship. Not even I could explain all the intricacies that tie us together. In most ways we are polar opposites. But I’d made an unspoken promise eighteen years ago, soon after Danny left, that I would always be there for my sister. That was when I began to wonder if it wasn’t all Bonnie’s fault she was the way she was.
Mum used to whisper to me at night sometimes. When she thought I was sleeping she’d creep into my room, pulling the duvet back over me where I’d kicked it off. I’d liked her kneeling on the floor beside me, her warm breath on my face, the smell of Chanel washing over me, lingering long after she’d left the room.
‘My everything, Stella,’ she would whisper as she gently stroked my hair. ‘You’re all the babies I ever need.’
Maybe that left no room for Bonnie.
Tanya and I leave the office together. She turns left as I cross over towards the park, a cut-through on my twenty-minute walk home, past the cathedral and to my flat that sits just on the outskirts of Winchester.
I like the walk, even in January when the only light is from the street lamps and the cold air bites at my skin. It gives me a chance to mull over my client list for the following week and, as I always do on a Friday, vow to invest more time in building up my business.
Making a decision to set up on my own as a family counsellor hadn’t been done on a whim. I was never one of those children who’d decided early on what job they would do. Even after A levels, I still had no idea and it took twelve unhappy years in recruitment and a satisfying redundancy package for me to make the break.
Four years ago I’d signed up for the training and obligatory counselling I had to undertake myself before I could counsel others. My supervisor had underlined the importance of the latter early on. Carrying childhood scars or unresolved issues from previous relationships could make my advice biased.
I’d tried declining the opportunity but it was clear this wasn’t something I could get out of, and I knew if I pushed much harder I would raise suspicion about my own family dynamics. But I had filed away most parts of my life into neat little boxes and hidden them deep. We were very good at that as a family. I had learned from the best, even if it did go against everything I expected from my clients.
‘So why are you interested in family counselling?’ was the first question I’d been asked in my introductory session.
I told the counsellor how lucky I’d been growing up. That I’d had very loving parents and my upbringing on the island of Evergreen had been idyllic. I said I was interested in familial relationships and always thought I’d had an ability to listen and help. I told her the truth up to a point. The point where we left the island. Or maybe just before that.
My counsellor had been eager to know more about Evergreen, as most people are. ‘And only one hundred people lived there?’ she’d asked me, stunned.
I nodded. ‘Just over. I knew all of them and they all knew me.’
I told her how wonderful it was as she gaped back at me. ‘I honestly loved it,’ I laughed. I knew some people thought it was claustrophobic, but there was nowhere else on earth I had wanted to be.
‘And you didn’t find it too remote?’ Another popular question, because even though the ferry only took thirty minutes, you couldn’t see Evergreen from the Dorset coast.
‘I didn’t,’ I told her. My sister, however, had hated the fact that in the winter months my dad’s ferry only ran once a day. But then my sister had hated all the things that had made me love it.
‘You say you were eleven when you left,’ she went on. ‘How old were your siblings?’
‘I was the baby of the family. Danny was fifteen,’ I told her, ‘and Bonnie was seventeen.’
She nodded, though I didn’t know what she had gleaned from that, and all the time I carried on smiling, careful not to let cracks show. I knew she would soon be prying deeper into the end of our last summer on the island and the years after we’d left. She would want to know what triggered my family to break down, and I wouldn’t be able to tell her. Every one of us had secrets we’d held too close and because we’d never spoken about them, they’d torn us apart in the end.
I wanted to help other families talk because that’s where we went wrong, only I wasn’t going to tell her that. Instead I breezed through what happened after we left, highlighting only the bare facts.
Now I try to banish the memories of the sessions I’d endured, as a drop of rain splats on my head. Soon I need to dive under cover of the nearest shop before I’m drenched. I must have left my umbrella at work, I realise, as I meander towards the wine shelves of a convenience store, choosing a seven-pound bottle of Sauvignon Blanc while waiting for the worst of the rain to pass.
Back at my flat I pour a glass and sit by the window in the kitchen watching the rain that is now steadily drumming against the pane. Despite having little to do this weekend and regardless of the fact I don’t work a usual five-day week, I still get that Friday feeling and have fallen into a comfortable routine: once I have finished this glass I’ll make a curry, then have another drink with Marco in his flat above mine while ignoring his pleas to join him clubbing.
As it is, I don’t get back to my own flat until just before ten, but I’m not ready to go to bed just yet. Instead I snuggle down on the sofa with a blanket, flick on the TV, then grab a magazine from the coffee table and idly thumb through it.
The news comes on and I glance up. A reporter is standing outside a house, holding a large umbrella while the wind whips her ponytail from side to side. My eyes drift to the ticker tape along the bottom of the TV screen and then back again to her. I don’t recognise any of the details behind her at first and am about to turn back to the magazine when something catches my eye.
They’ve caught it at a funny angle, but there’s a distinctive window in the top corner of the picture, circular with obscured glass. I inch forward on the sofa and grab the remote again, turning up the volume so I can hear what the reporter is saying over the hammering that’s beginning to beat in my ears.
It’s funny I didn’t recognise it immediately when every detail is etched on the inside of my eyelids. When all I need to do is call up my memory and I can paint a picture of a thousand pixels in intricate detail. But then it doesn’t look the same. Not entirely.
The windowsills have been painted a deep teal and now the camera is panning out so I can see more of the house. There are colonial-style white fascia boards and a conservatory at the front. It doesn’t look like my home any longer. Yet unmistakably it is. The white picket fence that runs along the left-hand side is still there. Dad had put that up one summer to separate our garden from the path that runs alongside it. On the right, tall pines still drape the length of the garden.
I feel my pulse racing quicker and I try to ignore it to focus on the reporter’s words. ‘Clearly the whole island is in shock,’ she says.
I look back at the ticker tape reeling its breaking news; the words ‘…Island last night’ roll out of sight to the left and a new headline about Syria follows.
‘And the police aren’t able to release any more details as yet?’ This comes from a woman in the studio, but the screen is still filled with the view of my house and garden, panning out further still and exposing a white police tent that is flanked by officers. It has been erected on the right at the rear of the property, tucked neatly in between the house and the trees that separate the garden from the woods beyond.
‘Not yet, but the forensics teams have been working here all day,’ the reporter says.
I look back at the tape. ‘Body found on Evergreen Island last night,’ it now reads in full. I scrunch my hands up tightly, willing the blood to rush through them and stop the numbness from spreading up my arms.
A body has been found on the island. And even though no one has said it outright, it’s clear it’s been buried in the garden of my old house.
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