Extract: Hide and Seek by Andrea Mara
The game of hide and seek is over, everyone has gone home, but little Lily Murphy hasn’t been found. Her parents search the woods and tell themselves that the worst hasn’t happened – but deep down they know this peaceful Dublin suburb will never be the same again.
Years later, Joanna moves into a new house. It seems perfect in every way, until she learns that this was once Lily Murphy’s home. From that moment onwards, a sense of dread seems to follow her from room to room. As Joanna unravels the secrets at the heart of this close-knit community, her own dark past begins to resurface. Because she thinks she knows what really happened to Lily – and if the truth gets out, it might be her undoing…
Read on for the first five chapters of Hide and Seek by Andrea Mara!
Hide and Seek
That’s how long it takes for Sophie to disappear.
That’s how long it takes for me to realize that she’s not in our front garden. That she’s not behind the car and she’s not behind the gate and she’s not behind the pillar in the porch. That she’s not in any of her small selection of favourite hiding spots.
That Sophie’s not here at all.
I’m confused. I’m not worried. Not really. She knows not to leave the garden. I’m almost certain she knows not to leave the garden. Our rules for Hide and Seek are simple: I count to ten, she hides somewhere very nearby, and I search. Sometimes I have to pretend I can’t see her, to make the game last longer. Like when she huddles behind the cherry blossom: a tree whose trunk is far narrower than even three-year-old Sophie. And then I walk up and down past it, eyes straight ahead, calling her name, just as I’m calling it now.
Only she’s not behind the cherry blossom.
She’s not anywhere.
‘Sophie! You can come out now – the game’s over!’
This is why I don’t like Hide and Seek. This is why she’s not supposed to hide anywhere other than our own front garden. Could she have gone inside the house? I glance back, but the front door is closed, the key in the pocket of my shorts. The side passage maybe? The back garden? The shed? A lurch of worry takes hold. The shed is full of trouble – rakes and trimmers and hammers and weed killer. Did Mark lock it last night? Could Sophie have—
‘I think I’ve found something of yours.’
The voice comes from the garden next door. I look over to see a woman nodding pointedly at the dividing wall – at something on her side, out of sight from where I’m standing. Something, or someone.
‘Sophie?’ I’m at the waist- high wall in three strides, and there she is, crouched down in this stranger’s hydrangeas. ‘Sophie! Come out of there. You can’t just go into other people’s gardens.’
She looks up at me, all blue eyes and freckled nose and butter-wouldn’t-melt mouth.
‘Did I win Hide and Seek?’
‘No, because you left our garden without telling me, and you shouldn’t do that.’ It sounds sharp and I can feel the woman looking at me. ‘Now, say sorry to…’ I glance up at our neighbour.
‘Frances Burke. Fran.’
‘Say sorry to Fran for going into her garden.’
‘I don’t mind visitors,’ Fran says to Sophie, ‘but you must ask your mum first. OK?’
Sophie nods and walks across Fran’s lawn towards her gate. She doesn’t say sorry, but I’m choosing my battles this evening. I say it instead.
‘Sorry about that – I got a fright when I couldn’t find her.’ I laugh to show her I’m not the kind of mother who panics over losing sight of her child for half a minute. Even if that’s exactly who I am.
Fran nods. She’s in her early fifties, tall and solid, sweating in the evening sun, with wisps of fair hair escaping an untidy ponytail. She’s wearing an olive-green t-shirt and the kind of too-long boot-leg jeans I haven’t seen on anyone since 2008. Her feet are in brown leather sandals with thick buckled straps and she gives off an air of sensible practicality.
‘Of course. I don’t have children but I can imagine. Is it just the one you have?’ She nods towards Sophie, who is making her way slowly along the footpath from Fran’s front gate to ours. ‘No, two older ones as well – Emily is eleven, and Ben is nine. Both inside finishing homework.’ I realize I haven’t introduced myself. ‘Sorry, I’m Joanna, by the way.’
‘Lovely to meet you, and welcome to Rowanbrook.’ She nods towards our house. ‘They’re grand family homes. The previous owners did a nice job smartening up the outside to sell it.’
‘They sure did. It’s the inside that needs work… someone was clearly fond of a dark palette. But nothing we can’t fix over time.’
‘Exactly. And it’s a great neighbourhood, very friendly.’
‘Oh, that’s good to hear – we haven’t really met people yet.’ ‘Well, now you’ve met me. The people on your other side are gone already to their place in Marbella, so you won’t meet them till September.’
‘Are you here long yourself?’
Sophie arrives beside me, slipping her hand into mine. ‘My whole life,’ Fran answers. ‘Apart from a brief escape to a flat in Harold’s Cross.’
‘Wow, that’s a long time!’ I tell her, before realizing how it sounds. Fran doesn’t seem to mind.
‘It is. I came back to look after my mother – just for a few weeks until we figured out a long-term plan. That was twenty- five years ago.’
‘Wow,’ I say again, trying to gauge if this is a sad story or a happy story or most likely an it-is-what-it-is, perfectly fine story.’
When my mother passed away, she left me the house, so here I am, still watering her rose bushes. Just me and him.’ She nods towards a huge black cat who’s watching from the porch. She laughs. ‘That sounds a bit maudlin, doesn’t it? Like I’m a lonely cat woman. I took voluntary redundancy from work a few months ago, so all this’ – she sweeps her hand around the garden – ‘is a relatively new pastime. What do you do yourself?’
‘I’m a psychotherapist. Was. Still am. Sorry, not yet used to my new status.’ Sophie lets go of my hand and wanders back towards the gate. ‘I’m a psychotherapist but my current contract just came to an end, so I’m taking some time out with the kids.’
‘Well, I hope you’ll be very happy here. It’s a grand place for kids.’ ‘It does seem lovely. Speaking of kids, I’d better get Sophie in before she disappears again. Imagine losing your child in a game of Hide and Seek in your own front garden.’
‘It would be ironic, I suppose, after what happened here.’
‘After what happened here?’
‘To the other little girl.’ Fran jerks a thumb at our house.
A funny look crosses her face. ‘Oh, it’s nothing. Forget I said it.’ ‘Something happened to a little girl here?’ I prompt, curious, but suddenly uneasy too.
She purses her lips, then, decision apparently made, moves closer to the wall.
‘I suppose you’ll find out anyway if you google it. It happened back in the eighties – a whole heap of kids playing Hide and Seek one morning, down there on the green.’ She indicates with her hand. ‘Only one poor little thing hid somewhere and was never found.’
‘Wait. I’ve heard that story. Lily… Lily Murphy was the child’s name?’
‘Yep. Awful time. Everyone searched and searched, but she was never found.’ She lowers her voice. ‘Obviously after a point, they were looking for a body.’
Fran nods. ‘Can you imagine? Mary and Robbie, those were her parents, living a perfectly normal happy life, all destroyed by a simple game of Hide and Seek. That’s why what you said about your daughter struck me as ironic. Same game, similar age, and same house too.’
‘The same house?’
‘Yes – the Murphys lived here in the house you’ve just bought.’
‘Oh my God.’
‘I take it the estate agent didn’t mention it…’
‘The estate agent didn’t say a word… That’s… Wow. I don’t know what Mark will think.’
‘Yeah. Actually, you might know him – he grew up here in Rowanbrook. Mark Stedman?’
‘Mark Stedman,’ she repeats, and her expression changes but I can’t read it. Is it nostalgia? Surprise? Irritation? ‘No, I don’t remember the name.’
None of the above, then.
Fran tilts her head. ‘But if he’s from here, surely he must have been aware that you were buying Lily Murphy’s house?’
‘No. He’d have said. I’m sure he wouldn’t have bought it if he’d known.’
‘Right…’ Fran tails off, then smiles. ‘Too late now anyway,’ she says brightly, as though we’re talking about buying the wrong kind of cereal or full-fat milk. ‘So, we should swap numbers – are you in the Rowanbrook WhatsApp group?’
‘No, I didn’t realize there was one.’
‘Did you not – well, you got a mention there already, you know. You’re famous.’
‘Ah, I’m exaggerating. When the house went up for sale, someone in the group shared an old article about Lily’s disappearance. I think people were curious to see who would buy the house. That’s all. I’ll send you an invite link to the group if you like, what’s your number?’
I call out my number and she keys it into her phone.
‘Grand, I’ll get that to you now.’
‘Thank you. I’d better head in to check on Emily and Ben. Actually, we’re having a small housewarming on Friday evening. Come along if you’re free? Around seven?’
A small hesitation. Then a half-smile. ‘Lovely. I’ll be there.’
‘Great! It was nice to meet you.’
‘You too,’ Fran says, turning back to her gardening.
As a general rule, I wait until the weekend to open wine, but when the sun is out that rule gets shapeshifty. You never know how long the heatwave will last. What if it rains for the month of July, and there are no more wine-in-the-garden nights? That’s how I explain it to Mark when I open the bottle of rosé that Wednesday evening, balancing glasses on our slightly rickety garden table. I don’t really need to explain it to him, he doesn’t overthink the way I do, and he’s happy to take the proffered drink without a dissertation on the rights and wrongs.
‘So, I met one of our neighbours tonight and discovered something about this house.’
‘Oh?’ He takes a sip of wine and reaches instinctively for his phone before remembering not to.
‘Do you know the name Lily Murphy?’
‘It’s their house. The Murphys lived here.’
‘Yes. You didn’t know? Even though you used to live in Rowanbrook?’
‘Well sure, but we lived three rows over. And we moved across to Oakbrook a bit before it happened, I think. God. Are you certain?’
‘Yep. The solicitor sent us details of all previous owners, but I hadn’t bothered to read it. I went back and checked after talking to Fran, the neighbour. The names are there in black and white. Mary and Robbie Murphy. You really didn’t know?’
‘No! I’d have said.’
‘You’d heard of Lily Murphy though, right?’
‘Yeah, of course… though it’s hard to remember now which bits I heard in real life and which bits I know from newspapers.’
‘But you’ve never mentioned it, in all our years together?’ I ignore the little voice saying I’m in no place to criticize.
‘I suppose it just never came up.’ He looks across the garden at the back of our new home. ‘It’s a bit weird though, knowing they lived here.’
‘Weird and sad. Three years old, never seen again. Same age as Sophie.’
I pick up my phone and type ‘Lily Murphy Missing Child’ into Google. The first search result is from Wikipedia and the second is a thirty-year-anniversary newspaper feature. Both are accompanied by thumbnail images and I zoom in now on the first photo. Little blonde curls, big blue eyes, snub nose, dimpled cheeks, startled smile.
Something lurches inside me. I blink and my mouth is suddenly dry.
‘God, yeah,’ Mark is saying. ‘Same age as Sophie. When you put it like that…’ He picks up his empty wine glass, stands and stretches. ‘I can’t believe they never found out what happened to her.’
I hardly hear him as I stare at the photo.
I don’t know how it’s possible, but I think I do know what happened to Lily Murphy.
I think I killed her.
My phone burns in my hand, the screen glowing in the unfolding dusk; the photograph sucking me in, freezing me to the spot.
Lily Murphy. Three years old. Hide and Seek. Never seen again.
Sweet wrappers. Books and notebooks. Foil packets. Little vials. The turn of the key. And her age. My mind is whirring with memories I’ve been pushing away for years. I think I’m about to be sick.
‘I’m going to lock up now,’ Mark says. ‘Are you coming?’
Like a sleepwalker, I move across the cool, dark grass, into our new home. Forever home. Last known address of Lily Murphy.
In the living room, Mark puts on the TV and finds a football match as I open my Mac. My hands are shaking but he doesn’t notice. I need to tell him. But not yet. Not now. And it could be nothing.
A coincidence. My guilty conscience. Her ghost.
I google again, and click into Wikipedia:
Lily Murphy (born 5 May 1982) was a three-year-old Irish girl who disappeared in Rowanbrook, Edenvale, Co. Dublin on Monday 1 July 1985. Lily is presumed drowned but her body has never been recovered.
1985. When I was nine. When she was three. Oh God. I swallow and keep reading.
Lily Murphy (fair hair, blue eyes, 95 cm) was last seen at approximately 11.30 a.m. on Monday 1 July 1985, near her home in Dublin. She had been playing with friends on a green near where she lived, in Edenvale, Co. Dublin. The children had started a game of ‘Hide and Seek’, moving from a wooded area at the back of the green into a nearby building site. The building site had been abandoned after the construction company, VB Holdings, went into receivership. The building site was only loosely secured and local children had been playing there for weeks (citation needed). Lily Murphy’s mother, Mary Murphy, was nearby, watching the children, along with some other women from the neighbourhood. At approximately midday, most of the children returned from the woods but Lily Murphy did not. A child who had been with Lily brought the group of adults to where they had been hiding, but Lily had disappeared. A search ensued, but the child wasn’t found. Gardaí (police) were called, and the search continued throughout the day, and on into the days and weeks that followed. Officials and locals believe Lily Murphy to have drowned in a shallow river that runs along the back of the woods, but no body has ever been rec—
‘Mum!’ The shout makes me jump as the living room door bursts open. Emily, red-faced and angry, hands on hips. ‘Mum, can you please tell Ben not to go into my room.’
Ben comes thundering down the stairs behind her. ‘I didn’t! But she went into mine and messed up my Minecraft figurines!’
‘As if I’d go near your Minecraft figurines. Which, by the way, are only for babies.’
‘They are not. What would you know? You can’t even play Minecraft.’
‘I’d rather literally die than play Minecraft. Anyway, I wasn’t in your room. Your room is gross. All spidery and creaky and dark.’
‘This whole house is spidery and creaky and dark,’ Ben says, his voice rising in indignation. ‘It isn’t just my room, you know!’
‘Guys!’ I stand up. ‘You’re far too old for this kind of bickering. Back upstairs and quiet now, Sophie’s asleep.’
Mark doesn’t take his eyes off the match as the kids slope out of the room and up the stairs. I sit back down and top up our glasses.
‘Can I ask you a bit more about Lily Murphy?’
He turns down the volume on the TV. ‘Sure. Why though?’
‘I’m just a bit jittery after hearing about it. Realizing the house has this tragic past, I guess.’ My attempt at nonchalance sounds forced to my own ears, but he just nods.
‘I really don’t remember much of the detail – we had moved across to Oakbrook and I was away in Irish College when it happened. When I came back, I remember everyone’s parents were worried and kept talking in whispers. For me and my mates… I guess it seemed like a bit of excitement at first. That probably sounds bad. But we didn’t really get it. I was sixteen, and fully caught up in myself. Obsessed with rugby and discos and impressing the girls.’ He grins. ‘Though obviously none of my other girlfriends were a patch on you.’
‘Actually, speaking of old girlfriends, Fran next door says she doesn’t remember you, but she had a funny look on her face when she said your name. Any story there? Fran Burke?’
Mark’s mouth drops open. ‘Fran Burke lives next door?’
‘Yep. That’s who told me about Lily. So you knew her?’
‘Yeah, I remember Fran. We even hung out for a while when I… well, when I used to live around here.’
Mark’s cheeks flush and I wonder if he and Fran dated. He has an old-fashioned habit of keeping his past relationships to himself, as though I’ll somehow be jealous of his exes from twenty years earlier. It is as endearing as it is silly.
‘Well, I’ve invited her to the housewarming on Friday, you can reintroduce yourself then.’ I nudge him with my elbow. ‘But anyway, did locals have any thoughts on what happened? Like, Wikipedia’s saying people believed she drowned?’
‘Yeah, I think that’s what the police thought. Actually, I remember Mum and Dad saying everyone except the parents believed she drowned, but in that kind of knowing way. Like they pitied the parents for losing their child, but pitied them for being naive too?’
I nod. I can imagine this very easily. Mark’s parents haven’t changed over the years.
‘Would they remember, do you think? Could I ask them?’
‘If you want. Dad’s getting forgetful… although it’s often about stuff Mum’s asked him to do, and only when it suits him. He’d probably have a good memory for things that happened years ago.’
‘I wonder how they didn’t realize this was the house?’
Mark shrugs. ‘Same as me, I suppose. Rowanbrook’s huge. We lived in a different part. My parents knew the Murphys, but thirty- three years later, I don’t know if they’d remember which house it was.’ He picks up his phone reflexively and puts it down again. ‘And you know what Mum’s like, caught up in her golf and her book club and who wore what when. I doubt she paid much attention when I sent her the link to the house.’ He laughs. ‘Imagine, all these years, desperate for us to climb the property ladder, desperate to have something she can show off about at golf, and when we finally trade up for the “big” house, she’s too busy to click the link. But yeah, you can ask her all that tomorrow night. She might remember more than I think. What about you?’
‘Do you remember it from the news back then? Of course, you were probably still in the womb.’ He nudges me with the remote control. ‘My child bride.’
I force a smile, cycling back through the lies I’ve told him. ‘Very funny. I would have been nine, so still living in London, and it wouldn’t have made the news over there.’
He goes back to the match and I go back to my Mac, clicking into the Images tab on Google. Her face fills my screen – black-and-white photos, colour photos, pictures taken with her parents, pictures on her own. All different but all the same – blonde curls, blue eyes, snub nose, and those dimples. The longer I stare, the more familiar she is. Inside my head, images and memories are skittering like pinballs. Wrappers. Syringes. Books and notebooks. The locked room. The key. And now we’re living in her house. Am I about to be found out? It would be no less than I deserve.
It’s Thursday afternoon and I’m standing in the yard of Edenvale National School, Sophie’s hand in mine. The mundanity of this daily ritual is both calming and surreal. How am I here, smiling and waving at familiar faces, while inside my head, images of Lily Murphy fl ash like a manic home movie? And yet, what else can I do. I’m Joanna Stedman: PA-member, barbecue-holder, advice-giver, gin-drinker. I am my Twitter bio – psychotherapist, mother, wife, reader, runner, coffee-fiend. I’m the go-to person, not the fall- apart person. On the outside, at least.
‘How’s the unpacking going?’ says a voice in my ear.
‘Adana! How are you?’
‘Shattered, this one barely slept last night,’ Adana says, rocking a buggy gently back and forth. ‘I love the new hair, by the way. Did you go darker, as well as shorter?’
‘Yeah, I figured if I’ve finished up in the clinic and moved house, I may as well have new hair too, even if it’s just for the school run.’ That’s when I remember something. ‘Adana, you went to school here in Edenvale, didn’t you?’
‘I sure did.’
‘Do you know anything about the little girl who went missing from here years ago, Lily Murphy?’ I manage to keep my voice surprisingly even. ‘It turns out she used to live in our new house.’
Adana’s eyes widen.
‘Oh God, Joanna. Really? Well, I guess all houses have history…’ She blows air into her cheeks. ‘That poor family. Remember they interviewed the father on TV? Heartbreaking. Oh, you were probably still living in London back then?’
‘Yeah… But you lived here, didn’t you?’
‘Yes, right here in Oakbrook at that point, so everyone knew about it.’
The twin housing estates, Rowanbrook and Oakbrook, were built in the early sixties, one on either side of a broad, tree-lined avenue in Edenvale, in South Dublin. Luxury homes for families who wanted suburban quiet, huge gardens and a choice of golf courses, but without drifting too far from the city centre’s glossy department stores and buzzy restaurants. Edenvale National School was in Oakbrook, and most kids from both estates went there, including Mark and Adana. By the time I met Adana at university, she’d moved from Oakbrook, and now lives just down the road in Dún Laoghaire.
‘What do you remember?’ I ask her now. ‘Bafflingly, Mark hardly remembers anything. And clearly did not know the house we were buying once belonged to Lily Murphy’s parents.’
‘I remember it being a big thing back then, but I’d be blurry on the details now.’ Adana tilts her head. ‘And, in Mark’s defence, I’d have had no idea which road in Rowanbrook they lived on, not to mind which house. Plus, he’d moved by then, hadn’t he? He was living over here in Oakbrook.’
I nod to confirm this as Liz Landry, another mum from the class, arrives and stands beside us. She’s taller than me even in her trainers, which I notice are that vegan brand everyone seems to have these days. Liz is an estate agent, and always gets the school-gate uniform just right – her dark brown hair is impervious to the breeze and she’s wearing giant silver earrings with grey tassels that almost reach her collar bone, and lipstick in a perfect shade of pink. I glance down at my shorts and flip-flops. Four weeks into stay-at-home motherhood; four weeks out of smart work dresses, and I’m still figuring out my own new uniform. As yet, nothing feels quite me.
‘Joanna,’ Liz says, ‘did I hear you’re moving house?’
‘You did – we’re in already, two weeks now.’ ‘Is it Rowanbrook?’
‘That’s where we are too – which cul-de-sac are you on?’
‘Oh, I didn’t realize! We’re on Rowanbrook Drive. Where are you?’
‘We’re Santa Cruz, one of the older bungalows just after you turn in from the main road, on Rowanbrook Grove. Had you much work to do on the house?’
‘It’s got a few quirks and the decor is a bit bleak, but nothing we can’t live with. We’re blessed really.’
‘Well,’ Adana says, lowering her voice, ‘except for the whole disappearing- child thing.’
‘The what now?’ Liz asks. I fill her in, repeating everything I’ve just told Adana. ‘Oh my God, I’d heard the story, but I had no idea they lived in Rowanbrook. Jesus.’
‘Same,’ I tell her. ‘Actually, Liz, you’re an estate agent, right?’
‘Part-time now, but yes,’ Liz says. ‘Shouldn’t our estate agent have told us the house had a history?’
Liz scrunches up her face and nods in a way that says in theory, yes.
‘Legally?’ I ask.
‘No, not legally. Ethically, yes. We would always tell. There’s no point in having a sale fall through at the last minute because someone finds out there’s been, say, a violent death.’
Adana must see the worry in my face. She touches my arm. ‘Look, all houses have a history and often we just don’t know about it. It’ll be fine.’
I nod with a certainty I don’t feel. ‘It’ll have to be! And look, it’s still the perfect house for us, nothing changes that.’ Even as I say it, I know it’s not true. The creeping unease I’ve been feeling since last night is spreading.
Any response Adana has is swallowed up by a bubble of noise bursting across the school yard, as kids pour through the doors. Ben bounces over, leaning his blond head in for a kiss. Emily follows shortly behind, dark ponytail bobbing. No kiss, and I know better than to try.
‘Mum, I’m walking home with the girls, ’K?’ Emily says, turning away before I can answer.
‘See you at home, cross at the lights!’ I call after her.
‘When can I walk home on my own?’ Ben asks.
‘When you’re Emily’s age.’
‘But I know the way, I’d be fine. It’s not like I’m going to get kidnapped or something.’
Adana raises her eyebrows. ‘Try telling that to Lily Murphy’s mother,’ she mutters under her breath. Then, louder: ‘Joanna, am I still calling in later for a cuppa?’
At home, the house is stiflingly hot, with afternoon sun streaming through the narrow kitchen-diner windows. Somehow, despite this, the kitchen still feels bleak and austere and almost forbidding. Maybe it’s the colour on the walls – a deep pine green, so dark it’s almost black. The sooner we brighten this place up, the better, I think, moving towards the kitchen counter, where the kids are arguing over who can use the toaster first.
‘I’ll do the bagels, you guys go out and have a bounce on the trampoline,’ I tell them, wondering if it’s really awful that I want a bit of peace already, when we’re only in the door from school.
As soon as they’re outside, I haul the ancient sliding door shut and switch on the radio to catch the news. The heatwave permeates every headline – a possible hosepipe ban on the way, a drowning in a lake, and a gorse fire that spread to a farmhouse, killing its two occupants. Wincing, I switch off the radio and eye up the six unopened boxes by the kitchen-diner windows. But unpacking is unending, and my heart’s not in it today. Instead, I go back to my Mac.
After a morning googling, I know the Wikipedia page off by heart and her image is branded on my brain. I’ve read the thirty- year- anniversary pieces and the few newspaper reports from 1985 that have been uploaded online. I know all of it. And yet, I keep searching and staring. Wondering if Lily Murphy can really be who I think she is. Was.
A shriek from outside pulls me back to reality. Through the window I can see Emily yanking Sophie away from something – they’re down at the end of the garden, and the trampoline is in the way, so I can’t see what. I shut the Mac and rush outside. Mark’s voice is in my head as I run. Calm down, you’re such a panicker, the kids are fine! But Mark’s not here.
‘What’s going on, what’s all the shouting?’ As I draw near, I realize Sophie’s face and hands are covered in big, black blotches.
Emily stands back, relinquishing her grip on her little sister.
‘What on earth – my God, Sophie!’
‘Coal,’ Emily says. ‘She bit into it. Or tried to.’
‘Coal? Where did you get coal?’
Sophie points to the far corner at the bottom of the garden, a shadowy spot obscured by low-hanging branches and tangled brambles. I make my way there, and the girls follow closely behind. It’s only when I’m almost on top of it that I see it. Nestled into the trees, camouflaged by surrounding foliage, sits an old coal bunker. I move closer, noticing that the somewhat decrepit fence that divides our property from our absent neighbours’ property comes to an abrupt end a few feet from the coal bunker, leaving a gap big enough for the kids to get through. And just beyond the coal bunker, there’s another gap, this time in the fence that borders the back of the garden. It’s quite hidden by dense evergreens, but if anyone can find an escape route, it’s Sophie. Making a mental note to remind her not to leave our garden, I brush loose branches off the top of the coal bunker before lifting the cover to peer inside. It’s still half full of coal. There’s something unsettling about that – as though some long-gone owner left suddenly. Unexpectedly. I shake myself. This is the Lily Murphy story spooking me. Of course people don’t take coal with them when they move house. I lower the cover, noticing that it’s almost as high as my waist, and I wonder how Sophie could have got at it.
‘She opened the hatch at the bottom,’ Emily says, reading my thoughts.
Sure enough, there’s a sliding metal hatch at ground level, currently open.
I turn to my youngest child. ‘Sophie, why would you eat coal?’
‘I didn’t,’ she says, the black dust on her lips belying her words. ‘I just licked it.’
Back inside, after googling ‘Is coal poisonous’ and handing now-cold bagels to the kids, I revert to Wikipedia, as if it’s going to say something new this time. But there’s nothing new. Nothing that answers any of my questions at all. A disappearance. A commonly held belief that she drowned. Devastated parents who wouldn’t give up. And a little girl who, the more I stare, looks just like the one in my nightmares.
‘Mum, Adana’s here,’ Emily calls from her position at the bottom of the stairs, directly opposite the front door.
‘Well, can you let her in?’ I’m in the kitchen, my hands covered in a sticky, doughy scone batter.
Emily obliges, and Adana arrives into the kitchen giving me a sardonic smile.
‘I see you’ve fallen for the “stay-at-home mums are always baking” myth.’
‘Well, I figured I could try once a week – I never did any baking when I was working, and the kids were always saying they wished I was at home so we could bake together.’
‘Mmm. And where are those wannabe bakers now?’ she asks, pushing her fringe out of her eyes.
‘Emily’s on my phone, Ben’s on the trampoline, and Sophie’s trying her best not to lick coal. I see your point. Where are your gang?’
‘Dave’s working from home. I told him it was clock- off time and he was in charge,’ Adana says, lifting a half-unpacked box of cookware from a kitchen chair and sitting down. ‘So, how’s stay at-home mammy- ing going?’
‘Good. Well, you know, fine. It’s a bit quiet when they’re at school and then it’s very loud when they’re at home. It’d be nice if there was some kind of in-between.’
‘I think the in-between you’re seeking is your old job – adult company, not so quiet, not so loud. Fewer sticky handprints. I’d say you’re loving the new house though? All the space?’
‘Kind of… It’s almost eerie here on my own in the mornings. I think if I paint the walls, it’ll feel better. Less creepy.’
‘Hmm. Is this about the decor or what you found out about the missing child?’
I consider my options. Adana is my oldest and closest friend; ever since we sat at the back of Theatre M in UCD, cogging notes off each other just before our Second Year exams. The first person I ever let into my life – though it’s probably more accurate to say she forced her way in, insisting on befriending the studious loner. In theory, I can tell her anything. In practice, this extends to childbirth stories, office gossip, and complaining about how much time Mark spends on his phone. So, no (God, no), I can’t tell Adana that I think I killed Lily Murphy. Jesus. Even thinking those words makes me ill.
‘I suppose it’s a bit about Lily Murphy,’ I say instead. ‘It’s surreal. Like, her mother probably sat here, right in this very spot.’
‘Or not,’ Adana says, matter-of-factly. ‘Isn’t this part an extension?’
‘Well, yeah, but I don’t know when it was built. Anyway, you know what I mean. It’s eerie.’
‘Those poor people.’
‘I know. How would you ever get over that?’ I glance out of the window at Sophie and Ben. ‘Right, I’ll make that coffee.’
‘Can I use your laptop to google her story?’
I slide the Mac across the table and open a new tab for her. By the time I’m back with two coffees, she’s already on to the second page of search results: more anniversary pieces, a cold-case feature, some Reddit threads, a true-crime forum post, and a renewed appeal for information.
‘Sorry,’ she says, ‘I skipped ahead – do you want me to go back to the Wiki page?’
‘No, I read it four hundred times this morning, I know it off by heart.’
Adana nods and clicks ‘next’ at the bottom of the screen.
At the top of the third page, there’s a website called Deep-Dive.ie with an article dated 3 May, entitled ‘What Really Happened to Lily? For the news you can’t get in the news, this is Deep Dive’.
‘Might be some crackpot,’ Adana mutters. ‘Doesn’t even give a name.’ But she clicks in anyway.
It’s almost thirty-three years since Lily Murphy disappeared near her South Dublin home. The media won’t cover it this year (it’s just the ten-year anniversaries now) but is there anything new to say? Did they say everything back then or are there gaps; little gaps like the ones between newly built houses, or bigger gaps, wide as a river?
They said she’s believed to have drowned. Is that because it’s the only explanation or the simplest explanation?
What about the questions nobody ever asked at all? Which neighbour was interviewed multiple times by gardaí but kept hush- hush? Why did local gossip focus on strangers and not on those who lived inside Rowanbrook’s leafy enclaves? What about those whispers – only ever whispers – that some of the people there that day knew more than they disclosed? And worst of all, is there any truth to the story of Lily Murphy and the locked room?
The locked room.
My chest tightens and my breath feels suddenly shallow. Adana glances up.
‘Are you OK? You’re white as a ghost!’
‘I’m fine. Just… just thinking about that poor little girl, and the idea that someone locked her somewhere…’
Adana looks at me quizzically, unconvinced. But in all the time we’ve known each other, I’ve never told, and today is not that day.
‘It sounds like this Deep Dive person might know some more details about the story. We could ask them?’
I nod and click to the comment section at the end of the blog post. It’s just the default comment functionality, but it’s worth a try. I start to type:
Hi, I’ve just read your blog post. I’ve recently moved into the house Lily Murphy used to live in and am curious about her story but also finding it a little unsettling! I would like to find out more and would be interested in emailing you directly if you’d be open to that?
I put my email address in the mandatory field and hit submit.
Adana is already moving on to other things – the heatwave, the plague of homework, and the way the sun makes you want a glass of rosé even though it’s only Thursday and not yet six o’clock. I smile and nod and play my part, just as I always do. But I can’t get the memory out of my head: a little girl, blonde hair, dimpled smile, and a locked room.
It was only when Mark arrived in from work and wondered if he’d have time for a shower ‘before we have to leave’ that I remembered we were due at his parents’ house at seven. Susie and Tom Stedman, matriarch and patriarch of the eight-strong Stedman family, and the last people I want to see tonight.
But now we’re here, sitting on their back patio, drinks in hand, and Susie is giving a running commentary on everything they’ve had done with the garden.
‘You need to hire a gardener for your new house as soon as possible,’ she says to Mark. ‘Shouldn’t they, Tom?’
Tom nods. ‘What you need is a good strong fellow from Eastern Europe. They’re the ones to get for the gardens.’
Mark and I exchange a glance. But there’s no point in saying anything. Tom thinks we’re all far too politically correct these days.
‘Yes,’ Susie says. ‘I have a man you can borrow. I’ll bring his details when we come over for the housewarming tomorrow night.’
I quite like our unruly flower beds and we can’t afford a gardener, but I leave it to Mark to respond. When it comes to Susie’s unsolicited advice, it is always easier to let Mark do the talking. This is why she likes me so much and has no idea what’s going on inside my head.
‘Mum, you can’t really say “I have a man you can borrow” – it sounds a bit… like you own him?’
‘Pah. Don’t be silly. Joanna understands, don’t you, Joanna?’
I nod and smile, and sip my gin.
‘I’m sure you had a whole team of gardeners when you were little,’ she continues, glancing down as she crosses one delicate ankle over the other. Susie is very fond of her delicate ankles. ‘The upkeep on those grounds would have been extraordinary. Am I right?’
Oh God, here we go.
‘Well, I wouldn’t say a whole team…’ Her face drops in disappointment. ‘But yes, we definitely needed a gardener,’ I add, to make her happy.
‘There you go!’ Triumphant. ‘Now, I know this garden isn’t anything like what you were used to as a child, Joanna, but even so, it’s worth making the effort. Did your parents garden much themselves?’
Mark tenses beside me. He rarely brings up my parents. Susie, though, did some kind of psychology course ten years ago and believes in confronting sensitive topics at every opportunity.
‘Not really. They both worked a lot and when they weren’t working, they were travelling or hosting parties. Not much time left for gardening, I’m afraid.’
‘It must have been so glamorous.’ Susie sounds wistful. ‘I can just imagine the parties and London society life.’ She shakes her head. ‘Nothing like that around here. Dublin in the eighties – well, we were a little drab.’
‘I can’t imagine you were ever drab!’ I tell her, because it’s what she wants to hear but also because it’s true. I’ve seen the photos. 1960s Susie with long, dark lashes and Brigitte Bardot hair. 1970s Susie with feathery layers and huge floppy sunhats. 1980s Susie with a smart blonde bob and brood of children. She was a chameleon to each decade, and she was never drab.
‘You are sweet, Joanna. And we had some good times, didn’t we, Tom? Dinners and dances and trips to Marbella. It wasn’t all grey and dismal.’
‘Yeah, those trips to Marbella were amazing,’ Mark says, with exaggerated emphasis. ‘Oh, wait, I wouldn’t know. You never brought us.’
‘Oh, Mark, you had plenty of holidays. Marbella was just for your dad and me. That’s allowed.’
Mark shakes his head at me in mock exasperation. ‘Imagine if we did that: booked a babysitter for a week and headed off to Spain without the kids. Great life they had!’
Susie makes a clicking noise with her tongue. ‘It was different back then. You didn’t have all these creches and car seats and not leaving your child outside the shop. It’s all gone very politically correct.’
Mark and I exchange another hidden eye-roll. This is why we don’t let Susie and Tom mind our kids.
‘Yep,’ says Mark. ‘Back then you could just leave your six kids with a babysitter who hardly knew her left hand from her right, crossing your fingers she didn’t lose any of them. Remember the one with the blonde straggly hair?’
‘She wasn’t that bad,’ Susie says, but her cheeks are pink now.
‘Mum, she literally forgot me at the park one day. One of the neighbours found me and brought me home. Ines O’Brien, wasn’t it, who brought me back? The Spanish lady?’
‘And aren’t you fine? No harm done.’
‘And still you kept using the same babysitter – for years after! I could have been a statistic. A child on a missing poster.’
This is my in. I take a sip of gin to coat my throat. ‘Speaking of missing children, we found out that Lily Murphy, that little girl who disappeared in 1985, used to live in our new house. Did you know the family?’ A beat. And now it’s Susie and Tom exchanging a look. ‘Your house is the Murphys’ old house?’ Susie says. ‘My goodness… gosh, of course… when you said it was Rowanbrook Drive, I should really have made the connection. That’s quite… unsettling.’
‘So you knew them back then?’
‘Well, yes. Everyone knew everyone. And everyone knew Robbie and Mary. They were the golden couple of Rowanbrook. He was very handsome, all big warm grins and dimpled cheeks.’ She smiles fondly at the memory.
‘I guess that’s where the little girl, Lily, got her dimples,’ I say, keeping my tone casual.
Susie tilts her head. ‘Are dimples hereditary? They’re hardly rare. Anyway, yes. They were the golden couple. Mary was beautiful. Stunning. A bit exotic, I suppose.’
‘She was from California. They were like a Hollywood couple, but no airs and graces. Robbie was the friendliest man you could meet, threw the best parties. And Mary – she could come across as shy but it was more that she wasn’t a chatterbox like the rest of us. And a little nervous about fitting in, I think, though she hid it well.’ She sighs. ‘Gosh, we used to have great fun at those parties.’
‘So you were friends?’
‘Yes, we were friends.’ Susie shakes her head. ‘I never realized it was the same house… goodness, Mark, you sent me the link and everything. But it looks quite different?’
‘Yeah, I think the outside used to be grey, back in the eighties. It’s been done up since, the whole lot plastered over and painted white. Not much done to the inside though,’ he adds with a rueful smile, ‘that’s been left to us. Speaking of inside, I’m going to get a beer – anyone like another drink?’
Susie and Tom are both fine. I ask Mark for another gin and tonic, and to check on the kids, who, after a perfunctory ‘how’s school?’ quiz, have retreated to their grandparents’ TV. Getting them up tomorrow morning will be painful – especially Sophie – but Susie insists on inviting us in the evening time, so that her days are free for golf.
I turn to Susie. ‘What do you remember about the disappearance?’
She shakes her head. ‘It was a dreadful time. Police asking questions, locals gossiping, lots of finger-pointing. The poor little thing drowned, no doubt, but it didn’t stop people spreading rumours.’
‘What kind of rumours?’
‘That a local man was involved – questioned by the guards. Victor O’Brien was his name. Poor Victor, God rest him. He and his wife were friends of ours. Tom was great pals with Victor.’ Tom nods, on autopilot it seems, and Susie keeps talking.
‘Victor was married to Ines, our Spanish neighbour who found Mark in the park that time. It was all nonsense, of course, Victor had nothing to do with it.’ She tucks a white- blonde strand behind her ear. ‘There was also an altercation between a neighbour called Eddie something and Robbie Murphy, Lily’s father. Robbie ended up with a broken arm or sprained wrist. I remember he had his arm in a sling that morning, during the search.’ She purses her lips. ‘Dreadful. Luckily for him he was left- handed or he’d have been off work for weeks on top of every – thing else. And he had a very good job. An accountant, but not one of those regular ones – a super-successful one. A high-flyer, that was Robbie.’ She shakes her head. ‘Such awful, uncouth behaviour in a grown man. Eddie I mean, not Robbie,’ she adds quickly. ‘Now, I’m fairly sure the child drowned, but if not, my money would be on Eddie.’ She looks around, checking the kids aren’t in earshot perhaps, before continuing. ‘The most dreadful rumour was that there was something between Robbie Murphy and a local girl.’ The glint in Susie’s eye belies her ‘most dreadful’ claim. ‘I can’t remember her name now. Tom, do you remember?’
Tom frowns in concentration. ‘Small girl, the pretty one?’
Susie nods. ‘Yes, that’s her.’
‘Can’t think of it. Gorgeous little thing, she was.’
‘Yes. Anyway,’ Susie continues, ‘the other rumour was that it had something to do with a young fella called Gavin. He was always hanging around; I mean literally, just hanging around outside the Murphys’ house. There’d been some break-ins too, including one at the Murphys’, so her disappearance was linked with that by some people. Mostly because there was little or no crime back then, so it seemed logical that there must be a connection. The police never confi rmed it though, so…’ She shrugs, a delicate movement in her neat red blazer, as Mark arrives back with a gin and tonic for me.
‘All OK with the kids?’ I ask.
‘Yeah. Emily has a bit of a headache but she’ll be fine.’
Susie starts to get up. ‘Oh, the poor thing. I’ll run in and get her some paracetamol.’
I put my hand up. ‘No, she’s fine, honestly.’
Susie shakes her head. ‘I don’t know why you always want to suffer on – there are no medals for it, you know. And God invented paracetamol so we don’t have to put up with pain. At least let me give her a spoon of Calpol. I have an old bottle somewhere.’
‘Please don’t. She’ll be fine with a glass of water.’ The ‘old bottle of Calpol’ is another reason we don’t let Tom and Susie babysit. Susie has a loose relationship with use-by dates and dosage when it comes to medicine, even with other people’s children.
She hovers above her chair. ‘Sometimes I think you forget that I had six of my own. I know what I’m doing.’ She sits down. ‘Anyway, back to Lily Murphy. What else do you want to know?’
I take a sip of my gin and try to think what to ask next. None of what Susie’s said sounds in any way familiar – I don’t remember anyone called Victor or Eddie or Gavin from my childhood. This puts a few more weights on the I didn’t kill Lily Murphy side of the scale. I’m still guilty of taking a life, nothing changes that. But maybe she wasn’t Lily. The images I’ve been staring at for twenty-four hours are skewing perspectives, that’s all. Distorting memories.
‘I’m not sure what I want to know, really… I’m just morbidly fascinated, I guess. Strange to think of such a tragic story taking place right there in our new house. Those poor parents.’
Susie reaches across and pats my knee. ‘I imagine it’s making you think of your own childhood. It’s like a reversal of your story, isn’t it – they lost their child, you lost your parents.’
Mark stiffens again.
‘I can’t help thinking losing a child must be worse,’ I tell her, and I mean it.
‘Be that as it may, it doesn’t diminish your own experience. There’s always someone who has it worse, but losing your parents at such a young age and in such horrific circumstances…’ Her voice cracks. God, she drives me mad sometimes, but she means well. I put my hand on hers.
Mark clears his throat. ‘I’ll go check the kids again, see if Emily’s feeling OK. And Ben and Sophie were arguing over what to watch so I better make sure they’re not killing each other…’
‘Tell them to mind the couch, won’t you?’ Susie calls after him as he disappears inside. ‘No feet on the furniture.’
She turns to me. ‘Those beautiful kids of yours. You know, spending time with my grandchildren is one of my greatest joys in life.’ She says it without the slightest hint of irony. ‘I’m sure you must be sad that your own mother never got to meet her grandchildren.’
If only you knew. ‘Of course. But you more than make up for it, Susie. The kids are lucky.’
She preens, batting away the compliment. ‘Goodness, I just do what any grandmother would do.’ A pause. ‘Joanna, you look a bit wan tonight. Are you OK?’
‘I’m fine. It’s just this whole Lily Murphy story… it’s unsettling.’
‘I’d say try to forget about it if you can. I push it out of my head any time it pops in – it’s just too sad. And especially when she was their only child.’ She pauses again. ‘That must have made it extra hard for you too, Joanna, when you lost your parents. Being an only child.’
I nod into my gin, unable to speak. I wasn’t always an only child. Not until I killed my sister.
Enjoyed this extract from Hide and Seek by Andrea Mara? Let us know in the comments below!