Extract: Everything Is Lies by Helen Callaghan
Sophia’s parents have lead quiet, unremarkable lives. At least that is what she’s always believed – until the day she arrives at her childhood home to find her mother hanging from a tree in the garden. Her father lying in a pool of his own blood, near to death.
The police are convinced it is an attempted murder-suicide. But Sophia is sure that the woman who brought her up isn’t a killer. To clear her mother’s name Sophia needs to delve deep into her family’s past – a past full of dark secrets she never suspected were there…
Read on for an extract from Everything Is Lies!
Everything Is Lies
No-one is who they say they are.
I slumped into the rumbling backseat of the N159 as it roared and puttered towards Brixton and my little flat. The top two buttons were missing from my shirt and the younger guy in a SuperDry jacket three seats up kept turning to stare at me, as if to say, go on, you can hit on me any time, it’s really not a problem.
I continued to decline this unspoken invitation, instead preferring to sink back into a fug of self-pity, all against the background of a nascent headache that had first started to pry its way into my brain somewhere around Trafalgar Square. In the window, my reflection blinked back at me, my smeared mascara making me look like a moody panda who’s made poor life choices.
Around me the bus was full of the usual late night detritus of London – drunk girls in tiny clothes, tight-trousered hipsters, weary workers on unsociable hours making their way home, nodding asleep in their seats. The unsympathetic lighting played over us all, making our skin look like meat in a butcher’s shop window.
I felt sober and exhausted and oddly hollow.
* * *
Hours earlier, Tai-Pan had been heaving, the air redolent of clean sweat and perfume and yeast and aftershave – that Friday night smell, the smell of excitement, arousal and adventure. The bar was abuzz with good-natured bellowing and delighted shrieks, and somewhere in the background music played, only the beats audible above the din.
I was out with work. James Cooper, enfant terrible of corporate architecture and our managing director, had been put forward for another design award and accordingly “impromptu drinks” had been booked for that evening.
I hadn’t wanted to come.
I’d only been working at Amity for twelve weeks, but it was already clear that there was an overwhelming culture in place of being “visible” to James, a relentlessly driven New York sociopath now on his third wife – a culture of working hard and playing hard. Personally, I could have done with working hard and then playing hard somewhere else, with different people.
It had started slowly at first, an insidious creep, but I found I was beginning to cancel my plans more and more often; first the tap class I did with Audrey, an old flatmate, faded away and then my Thursday movie nights at the Ritzy in Brixton with Veronika and Paul stuttered to a halt.
Tonight, I’d decided, would begin the fightback, no matter how many eyebrows it raised. I’d stay for an hour or so, then head off. It was still my weekend, after all.
But one cocktail became two, and then (with very little encouragement) three, and before I realised it, I was unexpectedly enjoying myself.
A large part of this was because I found myself pleasantly trapped against a wall, my back pressed against a giant reproduction of Hokusai’s The Great Wave. Benjamin Velasquez, one of the senior architects at Amity, stood in front of me, his hand braced above my head as his arm created a private, intimate space, inviting me closer to where his formal business shirt hung warm and intriguingly damp next to his skin.
I’d never really spoken with him before, but I’d noticed him in his corner office with its glass walls, and every so often I’d noticed him noticing me.
He was telling me about his recent tour of the world’s volcanoes, which his friends had booked for his thirtieth birthday.
‘I’ve never seen a volcano,’ I murmured, filled with a low wonder. I had dreamed of seeing them, but like so many things, I’d hung on for someone, some lover to see them with, and it had never quite come off.
‘There aren’t many in London, thankfully.’
‘Weren’t you scared?’ I asked. I gestured for emphasis, aware that my speech was wobbling slightly. ‘They’re unpredictable. They could do anything.’
‘Yeah,’ he replied, leaning in with a conspiratorial grin. ‘But usually they don’t. It’s quite safe. My… friend, Ellie, was terrified at first, but she soon got over it.’
‘Ellie? Who’s Ellie?’
I was drunk, I realised, and my gaze danced across his chest, up to his face with his generous lips and grey eyes and perhaps, if one were to carp, his slightly weak chin.
‘A friend. A load of us went together.’ He glanced away, as though this line of questioning bored or pained him, and I dropped it, prepared to steer the conversation back on to cooler ground.
He offered to buy me a drink, and I seized the opportunity to nip to the toilets. As I pushed the gilded door open, I saw my new friend Cleo stood before the faux baroque mirror, the careful up-do she wore for work starting to come down over her shoulders in orange-gold ringlets. She was pinning it back in place, squinting at her reflection.
‘Hello there, gorgeous,’ I remarked.
‘Ah, Sophia,’ she threw me a glance over her shoulder before resuming her work. ‘How is Benjamin Velasquez?’ She grinned, but there was something slightly tight in it. Perhaps it was simply the hairpins she was gripping in the corner of her mouth. She took them out for a second. ‘You two look like you’re getting on.’
‘We’re just chatting,’ I said, though I could feel a blush rising in my cheeks. ‘He’s telling me about volcanoes…’
I suddenly became aware of a dull buzzing in my back pocket, like a fluttering heart. A second later the ringtone started – a series of rising chimes, and digging the phone out I could see my mum’s name and picture on the tiny screen.
I regarded it carefully for a moment, as though it might explode, before answering.
I love my mum dearly, I really do, but when she phones at this time of night it usually means only one thing.
‘Hi, Mum,’ I said. The clock on the phone read 21:50.
‘Sophia, where are you?’
There was always this tiny shiver of alarm in her voice as she asked this, as though I was still a little girl and she had just looked up from one of her tasks in the gardens and noticed I was missing. ‘I tried your flat.’
‘I’m in a bar,’ I supplied, though surely she must have been able to hear the background music thumping. ‘I’m out with work.’
‘Yeah,’ I scratched my temple. ‘I know. They do this a lot.’
‘Oh, right. I see.’
A long pause followed. Every time she called me like this there was a kind of bewildered impatience wafting down the line, as though I have called her instead of the other way around, and for some reason I am dancing around some deep and dangerous issue that I am refusing to share with her.
When I was a spiky, cruel teenager I used to bark, ‘Mum, what do you actually want?’ at this juncture, but it was completely pointless and always made me feel terrible. She’d tell me all in good time, whenever that was, but I didn’t have good time to spend. I had Benjamin waiting and I could hear the DJ start to spin out the first few chords of the throbbing drum and bass hit that had been the soundtrack to my and Cleo’s summer so far.
Cleo, having slid the last pin in, turned and raised an eyebrow and flashed a cheeky grin at me in farewell.
I waved her off as she left.
‘How are you, Mum? Is everything okay?’
More silence. I tried not to sigh, to be patient. I worried about my fragile, gossamer mother a lot, and lived in terror that this would be the one night she genuinely needed me.
‘I want you to come home. We have to talk.’ Her voice, as always, sounded thin and small, like something heard from the other side of an expanse of clear, still water.
‘Mum, this is not a good time.’ I sighed, tried to calm my voice. What was the point of getting upset? My mum’s my mum and it’s just the way things are.
But disappointment cut me.
I’d been sure she was getting better, and these calls, always late at night, had started to tail off over the last few months. I’d begun to let myself believe that she was finally coming to terms with the fact that I wouldn’t be moving back home to Suffolk; that this constant anxiety about my whereabouts was slackening its hold on her.
Some hidden murmuring then on her end, and the old-fashioned receiver being pressed to her breast, muffling all sound for a few seconds.
‘This is different, Sophia. This is important.’
‘You always say that. Always. And then I’ll get there and it won’t be.’
‘Jared and I need to talk to you.’
That was strange. Why’s she calling my dad Jared to me? It’s an off note, a troubling ripple. ‘Mum, is something wrong? Are you two okay?’
‘Yes, we’re both fine.’
‘Then why can’t it wait until morning? We can talk then.’ I glanced at my watch. ‘There’s no way I can get out to Pulverton tonight anyway. I’m over the limit and even if I started running now, I’d never make the last train.’
Silence, then: ‘Sophia, sweetheart…’
She was always doing this. Always, always. The devil by my left ear whispered, hang up.
I glanced over my shoulder, as though someone was watching me.
‘I’m sorry, Mum, I just can’t get out there tonight. I’ll call you tomorrow and we’ll have a good long chat.’
Silence, then: ‘If you feel that way, Sophia.’
‘It’s not about what I feel.’ I am trapped again, wracked with guilt for something I just can’t fix for her: her luminous, melting unhappiness, always understated and yet somehow always there, and seemingly without cure. I push the feeling down, bolt it tight. ‘I’m sorry. I’ll be in touch first thing, I promise. Goodnight.’
And I tap the screen, and like that, she is gone.
* * *
By the time the taxi rounded Millennium Way his hands were already in my bra and I was plastered to the door while he kissed me as though it was the end of the world. Both of us had neglected to put our seatbelts on and the driver was probably too mortified to remind us.
It was a terrible way to behave really, but I expect that’s why I found it so erotic.
‘Carnarvon Mill, mate,’ said the cab driver, a balding middle-aged man, who very carefully kept staring straight ahead.
Benjamin released me, and I gasped in some air, straightened my shirt while he cheerfully extracted a couple of tenners from his wallet. ‘Thanks mate, keep the change,’ he said, before drawing me out after him into the sultry night air.
We were outside one of those po-faced riverside developments that line the banks of the Isle of Dogs. Behind us the Thames lapped against the pebbles, in the wake of a party barge full of fairy lights and dancing people, speeding towards Woolwich. The thin sound of Michael Jackson’s “Gotta Be Starting Something” wavered in its wake. The air smelled of rotting wood and the brackish blood of the river.
‘Come on,’ he said, pulling me towards the lobby with its muted walls and spartan but expensive-looking pewter fittings.
There had been a lift without music, or there might have been music it was just that I was too caught up in his searching kisses to notice it, then a sense of pale corridors and dark wood doors, and I was being thrust through the one at the end into an impossibly compact open-plan penthouse flat, one large wall entirely taken up with plate glass. About two hundred feet below, the river glittered in the streetlights.
He pushed and manoeuvred me up the hardwood steps to the mezzanine.
‘Nice flat,’ I remarked, falling backwards on to the massive oak sleigh bed, pulling him down with me. ‘Lovely view.’
‘Yeah,’ he gasped, yanking my stripy work shirt over my head with a breathless inefficiency that made us both giggle. ‘I bought it through Amity.’
‘Very nice,’ I repeated, while he unbuttoned my printed trousers, tugging them down with a single swift stroke. My shoes were already gone. I had no idea when that had happened.
We were kissing again, my hands were in his shirt, scrabbling against his chest as I tried to unfasten the buttons, and then I realised:
‘Sorry, I need the loo,’ I said. ‘Where is it?’
‘You don’t want me to ask later, believe me.’
He laughed then and pointed to the only other closed door in the flat, slapping my buttocks as I hurried over to it. ‘Don’t be long!’
* * *
I stood barefoot on the cream rug, the mirror reflecting me in my pink knickers and bra. I grinned as I sat down on the toilet, my eyes sparkling, my chest and face flushed – I had chosen one of my only two matching sets for tonight. Usually when I got lucky I was wearing embarrassing mongrel underwear. Fate was smiling on me.
As I sat down, I noticed that one of the cupboard doors under the sink was hanging slightly open. I’m an architect by trade and am well aware of how these new-build riverside developments go – location is everything, but the apartments themselves are frequently poorly designed and badly fitted.
I shook my head, smiling at myself. We were not at work now.
But I couldn’t help noticing that within the cupboard glinted glass and gold. My bathroom cupboard had very similar contents.
Don’t look, Sophia.
But it was too late. I had seen.
I sorted myself out and flushed the toilet. Then I bent down, carefully opening the door. A crowd of colourful bottles, a make-up bag bursting with jars and lipsticks – all higgledypiggledy, as though they had been scooped off the counter and hidden. Next to all this was a plain white paper box.
I turned the tap above, quickly rinsing my hands, then left it running, hoping its rushing sound covered any others. Aware that this was very, very naughty of me, I picked up the box.
I already knew what it was.
The white pharmacist label read Mrs ELIZABETH VELASQUEZ, 127 Carnavon Mill, Millenium Way. I wondered if this was Ellie, the “friend” he had climbed the volcano with. The date was two weeks ago. Microgynon 30 – to be taken once daily with water.
It was the same contraceptive pill that I took.
I peeped inside the box. The blister pack for the first month was missing. She must have gone away for a few days, taken it with her.
I closed the cupboard doors and shut off the tap. In the mirror, my sparkly flush was gone, replaced by a cold, humiliated pallor.
She could have just left him.
No, I thought to myself with a dull disappointment, she’d have taken all her pills. And her makeup. She’s gone somewhere on business, most likely – wherever it is these high-flying Canary Wharf types go – and couldn’t get the bigger bottles through hand luggage so left them here.
And while the cat’s away…
You’re not the one married to her. Just pretend you didn’t see. You shouldn’t have seen. You wouldn’t have seen if you hadn’t been prying where you didn’t belong. Oh come on, it’s just a bit of fun.
If it wasn’t you it would be somebody else…
I gazed down at the marble counter. I could see the shadows left by her things now I looked for them, in little circles of water-staining.
It was hopeless, I realised. Another fucking married man, another liar by omission, his ring probably jammed somewhere in his trouser pocket. I’d turn up to work on Monday and everyone would be darting looks at me, quietly sniggering amongst themselves.
They’d seen me leave with him, after all.
Why hadn’t Cleo said something? Did she not know?
At any rate, the evening was over.
‘Hey, hurry up in there,’ he shouted through. ‘Do you want a drink?’
‘No,’ I replied, coming out, my mind made up.
He peered at me, catching on quickly. He was practically sober, I realised, or at least a good deal more sober than me.
‘Sorry, I have to go.’ I snatched my trousers up from the floor and pulled them on while he stared. Outside, the faint sound of buoy bells ringing interlaced with the splash of the river.
‘What’s wrong?’ he asked, but that slightly weak chin looked a little weaker right now, and his eyes were small and hard.
‘Had a change of heart.’ I plucked up my shirt, jerking it over my head.
‘What? You can’t… you can’t just wind me up like that and then walk out.’ His voice was rising.
‘Oh, I so can.’ My shoes were lying by the dresser, and I wormed my feet into them, gathering up my jacket and my bag from where they lay on the floor.
He was out of the bed, impressively naked. I felt a fleeting sense of regret for what might have been. ‘What do you think you’re playing at, you fucking mental cocktease?’
Instantly he was in front of me, too close, towering over me. His shoulders were hunched, the muscles tense, fists balled at his sides, and I understood in a whiplash moment that what he really wanted to do was hit me.
I’d realised that he was no Prince Charming while I was in the bathroom, but his sudden viciousness, his sense of entitlement, still managed to be an unpleasant surprise.
Shit, I thought, this guy is practically my boss. What have I done?
Still, he didn’t get to speak to me like that.
‘How sweet. Do you kiss your wife with that mouth?’
‘What are you talking about, you crazy bitch?’ But his anger was now laced with panic, and he sat back down on the bed.
I’d made an enemy tonight, so much was clear. And I had no idea what the fallout from that would be.
I should have been more careful.
‘Night, Benjamin,’ I said, blowing him a kiss. ‘Don’t wait up.’
* * *
As the bus roared and jolted along, I let my head rest against the dirty window and closed my eyes.
Another married man. Bloody hell.
As I looked down at my phone, my mother’s call stood proud in the log. I had brushed her off for some chancer, a married chancer no less, and felt a humid sense of shame.
We were coming up to my stop, and I pressed the button and swung to my feet, feeling unpleasantly sober and clearheaded. She might have been summoning me home for no good reason, but she was still my mum. I didn’t need to hang up on her like that.
That, at least, was something I could fix.
I trudged down the steps, pushing myself out past the steamy, booze-smelling crush at the doors and into the night.
It was morning, and I was speeding towards the coast in my little purple Ford KA, which I’d driven for over ten years now. It was held together almost entirely by rust and willpower.
If I’d been less hungover and cranky, I would have enjoyed the rolling Suffolk landscape, the winding tree-shadowed roads, the orange burst of the nascent sun streaming through the thin barred sea-clouds. It was going to be a beautiful day.
I had barely slept, tossing and turning until I could bear it no more. In the end I’d given up and staggered upright. The pale haze of dawn was just beginning to cast a weird pall through the bedroom curtains. In the kitchen, I tinkered and negotiated with the expensive coffee machine the salesman had talked me into buying instead of the one I wanted and after ten minutes I finally managed to extract three syrupy thimblefuls of espresso.
I sipped this mournfully at my kitchen table. In front of me, the plans from my latest project – a new visitor’s centre for Scottish Heritage, which was going to be built on a tiny, rocky islet in Orkney and would need to be a) eco-friendly, and b) impressively stormproof – were up on the laptop.
For a while, I sat there, pretending that I was achieving something and likely to do some work, before coming to my senses and grabbing the keys to the car.
It was roughly three hours of driving, and I had tried to support my caffeine hit by switching on the radio, but within ten minutes my pounding temples had vetoed this idea. Instead I drove along to the soundtrack of this irritating tapping that had started somewhere in the back of the car about a month ago, and which a friend had assured me was probably due to shot wheel bearings.
I was nearly twenty-seven years old. It was time I stopped wasting money on expensive coffee machines and upgraded the car – high time I stopped living like a student.
Stopped living like my parents.
I crushed this thought down with a hot flash of guilt.
You shouldn’t have hung up on her.
I didn’t know why this was bothering me so much. Mum used to call me two or three times a month, usually between seven and ten at night, overcoming her horror of the telephone to breathlessly urge me to return to the fold, to leave London in general and Brixton in particular and come home to her.
And do what? I would ask, exasperated.
Her eyes would roll doubtfully sideways – I couldn’t see this of course, but I knew she was doing it. You could help me and your dad in the gardens. You’re always saying you want to update the cafe.
I know I am. And you are always saying it would cost too much. Look, why don’t you come down to Brixton and visit for a weekend? We could go do clichéd London things together, like afternoon tea and the London Eye and a show…
Oh no. No, I don’t think so. No thank you.
I turned off the A12 onto Moncton Lane, noting that the weathered sign stuck into the grass that read Eden Gardens and Cafe 300 yards was now broken and pointing skew-whiff out of the ground – someone must have clipped it with their wing-mirror when they turned the corner.
I pulled up just past the sign, switched off the ignition, let myself out into the cool morning.
Birds sang all around me, as though they had been waiting for my arrival. The sea, though still a few miles away, was a salty tang mixed in with the grassy scent of hay. Breathing it in, I could feel something within me relax, settle.
I walked over to the broken sign, my blue pumps sinking into the soft, dewy mulch. It lay in two pieces, one sporting a wide tyre track, dissecting Gardens and from Cafe. It had happened recently, and with a sigh I uprooted the post out of the ground and carried both pieces to the boot of my car.
I was vaguely surprised that my dad, perennial early riser, hadn’t been out this way on his daily visit to the north field and done it already. I shaded my eyes and peered off towards the gates of the gardens, just a few hundred yards down the road.
They appeared to be still locked.
* * *
At the gates, painted a cheerful apple green but now starting to show rusty patches, I drew out the keys and undid both locks, the metal still chill despite the warming morning sun. They swung open with a creak.
I glanced at my watch – it was 8:37. I already felt as though I’d been awake forever. The gates were normally open earlier, in order, as my dad would say, to capture any passing custom. Though, of course, any passing custom that did actually stop and approach, looking for herbs or plants or even a cure for their chronic insomnia, would then be treated with the utmost surly suspicion; as my dad would have to interrupt his early morning routine of maintenance and watering to serve them. It was Mum that supplied Eden Gardens’ human touch, and she never left bed before nine.
And yet somehow the place remained in business, despite my plaintive urgings to add a new tea room instead of the corrugated, spider-haunted shed that currently did this duty, with its mismatched chairs and draughty windows, or to consider diversifying into more mainstream gifts and houseplants as opposed to their weird collection of dusty bric-a-brac and yellowing greeting-cards.
I let the gate clang shut behind me and moved off along the gravelled path with its pots of marigolds and ceramic fairies to the shop itself, rimmed with a little circle of white stones like tiny megaliths. Two mouldering picnic tables sheltered under the cheap awning at the front, as though cold or embarrassed.
‘Dad?’ I shouted out, though he was clearly not around – the stable door to the shop was bolted shut, the padlocks in place. I frowned at the blue painted wood, turned up the path, my footsteps crunching beneath me, and headed for the house beyond.
* * *
The house was accessible through another blue painted door set in a wooden fence that had long since been given over to trellising. Heavy apricot roses, just past their best, nodded their scented heads above my own as I let myself into our private garden.
The house was suddenly visible, like a magician’s trick – the perspective from the gardens and the frowsy thatch of thorns and blown roses shielding it from public view until you opened that final blue door with its rotting wooden sign marked PRIVATE.
This was not only a description but a personal injunction. When I was a little girl, it seemed to me that the world of the house and my parents was a kind of fantasy kingdom, separating us from the milling visitors in the nurseries outside. It was an enchanted place small enough to be hidden in a glass bottle, a realm only accessible to those who knew the right words or where the secret key was kept. Visitors who accidentally
wandered out of the grounds and ended up here were given very short shrift by my dad.
I was under strict instructions at all times and places to keep the garden door locked, the key tied around my neck so I wouldn’t lose or give it away. Even as I grew older, this feeling that we lived in our own tiny private universe never left me, though by the time I was a surly teenager with a brow full of storm clouds, the downsides of inhabiting a magical pocket island were already starting to become clear.
‘Hello!’ I sang out across the small square of lawn, the one patch that my mother had saved from my father’s all-consuming lust to plant more practical species, either for eating or for selling.
The house had been beautiful once, a handsome Georgian building constructed for a prosperous miller – the millstream still wended through the public part of the gardens, bridged by chicken wire and wood paths my dad built over the top of it. But perhaps that beauty was simply a projection of my memory. All I knew was that in my visits as an adult it seemed ever more ramshackle – the white portico of my childhood was now damp-stained and rotting, and as I climbed the steps I could smell its decay.
As I drew near, I saw that one of the little stained glass panels in the door had been smashed and boarded over with plywood, which was neatly nailed into the window frame. I ran my hand along it – the wood was still pale and new. This could only have happened since my last visit here, a fortnight ago.
How strange that Dad hadn’t fixed it already. Mum wouldn’t be pleased.
They were an odd couple, my parents, unlikely in their way and yet somehow well-matched and they had muddled along together for all my life. They had met, my dad told me, in a café in Cambridge. My Mum had been heading East. My dad was heading North. He’d liked the look of her, asked her to come with him. She’d said yes. She must have been a bolder creature in those days.
I had followed them, nine months later.
They’d never married – the pair of them had a horror of paperwork and viewed all government services with suspicion and dread. I bore my Mum’s last name, as my dad wouldn’t set foot in the registry office. At one point Mum had seriously considered home-schooling me, but in the end common sense had prevailed. I’ve lost count of the times this intractable paranoia has made me want to tear my hair out by the roots.
The key was no longer around my neck – I had long ago slipped that shackle – but now attached to my keyring with the lucky rabbit’s foot, a gift from my dad. I let this assemblage rattle in the lock, hoping to give my perpetually late-sleeping, perpetually nervous mother sufficient warning that someone was coming in, especially since my dad would be out in the grounds and fields for hours and wouldn’t return to the house until lunchtime. I also knew that when I got in and shouted up to her, she’d still reply in a startled gasp, as though I was the last person in the world she’d expect to appear.
‘Mum, it’s me,’ I called out into the pale hallway.
Silence greeted me. And now I was inside, I noted with disapproval that the patches of damp above the dark wooden stairs had grown exponentially, indeed they now met, two little branches reaching out now, as though holding hands. The house smelled of dust and curry powder and the ghost of sandalwood incense. An untidy row of shoes littered the foot of the staircase, and I spotted my Mum’s workboots, caked in mud; one lying on its side, as though it had given up.
I clumped up the stairs, the carpet dusty and littered with garden mud shook loose from the cuffs of jeans and hand knitted socks. On the way up, I stopped and wrestled the window overlooking the staircase open, letting the fresh air in.
‘Mum? Are you up there?’ I glanced at my watch. At this time of the morning, it would be hard to imagine her anywhere else.
Still no answer. I sighed, and mounted the remaining stairs, heading for the master bedroom at the end of the corridor.
But as I drew near I saw that the door to her room was open. Sunlight streamed through it illuminating the piles of books and curios and ugly sideboards in gold.
The bed was made – well, pulled together – and as I poked my head in, I saw that this room, which like the rest of the house was usually in a state of dishevelled shiftlessness, had been tidied. No, not only tidied, but cleaned, and thoroughly, since my last visit. The dresser had been dusted, the bottles of perfume and make-up, some so old they might have predated my birth, had acquired a shiny order I had never seen them possess before. The wardrobe was shut, the piles of books and papers stacked beneath the big bay window were now in neat piles.
I gazed about myself in confusion. The rest of the house was as scruffy as ever – why was this room so tidy now? The unkempt disorder of this strictly maternal space was something I always associated with my mum – its condition mirroring that of her mind. To see it neat and clean, while the rest of the house continued to moulder, was like happening upon her dressed in a safari suit, as though she had become a different person, or rather, that a different person had been lurking beneath, ready to spring out.
The tiny hairs on my arms stood up. Where was she?
‘Mum?’ I called out, with more urgency.
The soft creaks of the boards beneath my feet as I moved to the big bay window were the only reply.
I looked out over the lawn, past the rows of bean poles and netting tents and sprouting green shrubs that grew the food I had been raised on. My gaze tracked down to the shed at the bottom where my father spent ninety per cent of his spare time, then to the weather-stained trestle table where we ate family meals, all overshadowed by thick-boled trees of all kinds, as though we dined in a sacred grove.
The branches of these trees were festooned with small fairy lights all year round, and I noticed uneasily that they were still lit.
‘Mum?’ I shouted again, though I knew the house was empty, and once more I heard that note of alarm in my voice.
Something was wrong in the grove at the back. Something was there that should not be there.
I leant against the window, peering hard through the grass. There was a shape amongst the trees – a human shape, barely visible through the leafy branches.
A shape with extended, dangling feet.
It becomes harder to remember now, because everything in the world was suddenly replaced by this sick, sinking panic. I breathed it in as I ran through the corridor, stepped on it as I tumbled down the stairs, it buoyed me up as I fell through the door, raced down the garden, crushing sprouting carrots and squash and turned earth beneath my stumbling feet.
And as I drew nearer, my mouth dry, my heart hammering, there was no mistaking it; that hideous, obscene bundle I had seen from the window, in my mother’s floral yellow blouse and grey-blue jeans.
My mum hung suspended from the branches of the big sweet chestnut, the stepladder sprawled on its side, discarded.
I let out some noise – a kind of elongated animal wail.
I snatched up the stepladder, righted it and clambered to the top.
I couldn’t see her face and she made no sound, there was nothing but the rustling leaves and the faraway rattle of a magpie. From the branch above, the thin electrical wire we used to hang the lights on was wrapped twice, three times around the tree limb, biting into the bark, and she swayed slightly from it, the cord descending and hidden at her neck by her long dark hair.
I dragged her into my arms, trying to take her weight off this spiteful cord, and that was when my heart knew what my mind had instantly understood. She was cool and stiff and incontrovertibly dead. As her hair fell away the sight of her wine-dark face was like a punch in the gut.
I toppled from the stepladder, landing hard on my back on the mulch below, incapable of feeling it. Above me, my mother’s purpling feet dangled, swinging now that I had disturbed her, accompanied by an eerie, horror-movie creaking as the branch took her weight again. I lay below her, transfixed with disbelieving terror. I think I was waiting for this to be revealed as a nightmare, something I had dreamed, the price of being a terrible daughter who would awake, like Scrooge, with a chance to make amends.
But waking did not come; just one leaden, sickening second after another. My mouth was open and nothing was coming out, not even breath.
Then a noise – a kind of choking. I grasped, helplessly, at the idea it might be her, that against all I had seen and felt and experienced, she might yet live, because she could not be dead. That was unthinkable, impossible. But instead it had come from the mulch, somewhere to my side.
I turned my head, wondering what new nightmare this could be.
My father was lying in a small huddle behind another of the trees, curled up into a ball, and his arms and chest were stained with crimson.
He was absolutely white, as though he had been carved from marble. But he made the noise again, and his bloodstained shirt moved, just a fraction, and I realised that he was still alive.