Every Monday, 49-year-old Ellie looks after her grandson Josh. She loves him more than anyone else in the world. The only thing that can mar her happiness is her husband’s affair. But he swears it’s over now, and Ellie has decided to be thankful for what she’s got.
One day while she’s looking after Josh, her husband gets a call from that woman. For a brief moment, Ellie takes her eyes off her grandson. The accident that happens will change her life forever. Because Ellie is hiding something in her past. And what looks like an accident could start to look like murder…
Read on for an extract from I Looked Away by Jane Corry!
I Looked Away
CHILD DIES IN ‘TRAGIC ACCIDENT’
A young boy has died in what police are describing as a ‘tragic accident’. No further details have been released.
Saturday 17 August 2019. A date that will forever be engraved on my heart, although I don’t know that at this precise minute in time. Right now, it’s simply a scorching summer day, just as the forecasters predicted. Roger and I have the rest of our lives before us. It’s what the marriage counsellor said when she signed us off. You’ve agreed to give him a new start. It’s a clean slate. Don’t look back.
But although I’m trying to take her advice, I can’t quite ignore the invisible scar that I carry around with me. A constant nagging pain inside.
‘Doing something’ helps. That’s why I’m walking into town in my new turquoise sandals with gold trimming – which I’m rather pleased with – to replace my favourite ‘miracle’ moisturizer. I’d never win a Glamorous Granny competition but I do get a real kick when people say, ‘What? You’ve got a grandson of four? You don’t look old enough.’ At forty-nine, I’ve finally settled into my skin in a way I never did as a gauche teenager. I have my family and my own interests now, as well as my voluntary work at the prison. It keeps me busy. Helps to distract me from the past.
‘Big Issue,’ pipes up the woman squatting on the pavement outside Boots. She speaks in the same hopeful voice, but without the accent of some of the other homeless people I’ve seen around here. I’ve regularly bought magazines from her and she can seem rather abrupt, though she’s pleasant enough.
She arrived on our high street around eighteen months ago in her purple ‘hippy trousers’ (the type that balloon at the sides and then taper to the ankles), along with those silver and gold tattoo stars down her neck, a baggy navy-blue windcheater, plug earrings, shaved head and a weather-worn face that could make her age anything from forty upwards. After seeing her a few times, I started to give her a little extra for something to eat, which she promptly stuffed into one of her voluminous pockets. ‘Ta,’ she always said. Then she’d brush her hands together as if washing off some unseen dirt from the money. Another of her habits, I noticed, was to hum quietly, although it was hard to make out a proper tune.
One day, I found myself asking how long she’d been homeless for. ‘On and off,’ she said vaguely. It was the beginning of a series of short conversations each time I bought a magazine. She even told me her name was Jo (although the way she said it made me suspect it wasn’t the one she was born with), and how she ‘couldn’t be bothered with school’ as a child. (‘Mind you, I used to read a lot in prison,’ she declared.) I wondered what she’d been in for but didn’t like to ask. One time we had a fascinating discussion about whether the new government homelessness guidelines were actually going to help people on the streets.
When the weather got bitter, I was so worried about her that I even tried to find her accommodation – although that didn’t work out. Maybe I got too involved, but it’s my nature to help. It seems so wrong that in this day and age we still have people without homes and food. But a few months ago, when the old suspicions about Roger began to loom again, I saw Jo staggering out of the pub, blind drunk. It wasn’t exactly the waste of my money and everyone else’s that upset me. It was more the thought that I had been taken for a ride. Of course, I don’t care for alcohol myself. Not with my history.
Since then, I confess I’ve tried to avoid her, sometimes crossing the street and pretending I haven’t seen her. But on this particular scorching August morning, for some reason I feel the need to stop.
‘Thanks,’ she says, looking down at the palm of her grimy hand. It’s the correct change for the magazine. Her disappointment makes me feel bad. There’s something about this square-jawed, skinny, shaven-headed woman that gives her both a vulnerable and tough air at the same time. I find myself reaching into my bag for some extra money.
And then I see her. Carole.
For a minute, I stand riveted to the spot as I take in the sight of this woman who so nearly destroyed my family. I’m not the kind of person who swears much, but I could happily curse to hell those shapely twenty-denier sun-kissed legs, flaunted shamelessly in those strappy creamy stilettos. Her nipped-in dress (so much more stylish than my summer jeans) show off that slim waist in such a way that I wonder if the woman ever eats. I can put on four pounds just by looking at a chocolate bar.
Carole’s arms are bare, I notice – she’s younger than me and has no need of sleeves to hide the loose flab that sneaked up on me a few years ago, in my mid-forties. My rival has long brunette hair (not dead straight and mousy like mine), which pretends to nestle naturally below her shoulders, but I know for a fact is blow-dried every Thursday. I’m aware of this because one of my friends goes to the same hairdresser. This is the sort of medium-sized, honey-stoned Oxfordshire town – just twenty minutes from the city itself – where everyone knows everyone else’s business.
I wish to God that we’d never set eyes on this place. Or her.
Carole is now walking along the high street straight towards me with that confident stride, navy handbag swinging from her shoulder. Her tinted sunglasses are artfully perched on top of her head as if to show off the designer brand rather than be of practical use. She is wearing bright coral-orange lipstick. The same shade that I’d found on Roger’s shirt just after Christmas. ‘Mine!’ it had screamed out at me.
I choose safe shades myself. Either translucent lip gloss or – for special occasions – Pale Peach. But where has ‘safe’ ever got me?
The very sight of the woman makes my knees judder. I put out my hands to steady myself but in so doing drop my purse. Coins clatter on the pavement. What is she doing here? The last time I’d driven past Carole’s pretty brick-and-flint cottage with honeysuckle around the door, it had a SOLD sign outside. Roger had sworn she’d moved back to London. Yet here she is, heading
straight for me.
‘It’s Carole’s,’ my husband finally admitted at Christmas when I confronted him about the lipstick. ‘I’m sorry, Ellie. This is the real thing. We’ve put down a deposit on a place in Clapham.’ Then he groaned as if he was in pain. ‘The thing is, I love her.’
No. He couldn’t. I wouldn’t allow it. Of course, Roger had had his liaisons before but he’d never mentioned the word ‘love’. That belonged to us. His family.
I had tugged his lapels, pulling him towards me. My husband still wore brown tweed jackets indoors, just as he had during his lecturing days.
‘How can you throw away twenty-eight years of marriage?’ I had sobbed. ‘I thought we’d grow old together. And what about the children?’
‘For pity’s sake, Ellie,’ he said, pushing me away as if he couldn’t bear my touch. ‘The kids are grown up.’
But children need their parents, however old they are. Don’t I know that all too well?
Fear then turned to anger. ‘What about Josh, then?’ I spat. ‘Do you really want us to tell him that his granddad has left us for another woman? What will he think of you when he grows up?’
Roger shrugged. ‘I’ll be there for him. Carole likes kids. She’s always wanted them. She won’t mind if he comes to stay at weekends.’
‘You can’t do this! I won’t let you!’
He took another step away, eyeing me as though I was a stranger. ‘Let’s face it, Ellie. Ever since I found out what you did, I just can’t see you in the same light. We’re not too old to start again. So…’ He seemed to hesitate. ‘I want a divorce.’
There was only one thing to do. Years ago, I’d promised to give it up. But old habits die hard. Luckily, kitchen scissors were at hand.
‘For God’s sake, Ellie!’ he screamed, grabbing a tea towel to press to my bleeding wrist. ‘What’s wrong with you?’
I have a sudden flashback of my stepmother’s voice. ‘What’s wrong with you, Ellie?’
It chills my bones to think of it.
After they had sewed me up at the Radcliffe, Roger told me (with a sad look on his face), that maybe, on reflection, I was right. He couldn’t break up the family. He was going to stay. And yes, he would finally agree to counselling if I absolutely promised not to hurt myself again. He said that he’d told Carole and she’d ‘accepted it’.
‘Here you are, love.’
The Big Issue seller’s voice breaks into my thoughts, bringing me back to the present. At my feet, she is scooping up my scattered coins on the pavement. ‘They’re all here. Honest.’
Embarrassed, I reach down to accept them. As I do so, I glimpse the cream stilettos. Smell an overpowering sickly scent. Then I hear Carole above me. Loud enough so only I can hear. She has one of those little-girl voices that are so irritating in women of a certain age – yet which some men fall for, every time. ‘I thought you should know, we’re still seeing each other,’ she hisses.
I peer up at her, my heart thumping.
‘Roger wants me to be part of the family. Is your grandson enjoying his new playhouse, by the way?’
How did she know about that? Roger had bought it for our garden as a present for Josh. He must have seen Carole without telling me and mentioned it in conversation. My mouth goes dry. Or was it even possible that she had been there when Roger chose it?
I feel sick at the thought. Maybe the shop staff assumed that she was his real flesh-and-blood grandmother…
‘Leave me alone! You’re a liar,’ I say shakily.
She puts her head on one side, as if questioning me. ‘Really? From what I’ve heard, you’re the one who’s been doing that all your life. Some might say that you’re not fit to look after children…’
Had Roger betrayed me? Or had she found out from someone else? Maybe she’d looked up my name. There would be a record somewhere. What would I do if it came out?
‘How dare you,’ I try to say, but the words are strangled in my mouth. Before I can get them out, Carole has disappeared, swallowed up by high-street shoppers with their smart carrier bags.
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