Imogen’s husband is a bad man. His ex-wife and his new mistress might have different perspectives but Imogen thinks she knows the truth. And now he’s given her an ultimatum: get out of the family home in the next fortnight or I’ll fight you for custody of our son.
In a moment of madness, Imogen does something unthinkable. Something that puts her in control. But how far will she go to protect her son and punish her husband? And what will happen when his ex and his girlfriend get tangled up in her plans?
Read on for the first chapter of Sticks and Stones!
Sticks and Stones
The day of Phillip’s funeral
I expected to feel free, unburdened, but when the curtains closed around Phillip Rochester’s satin-lined coffin all I felt was indigestion.
Naomi perches on the front row, shifting uncomfortably as the congregation whispers at her back. There are creases under her eyes where cried-out mascara threads its way through the cracked veneer. I wonder what she’s crying for because, after all he’s done, I am certain that it is not for him.
The vicar talked of a man who bore so little resemblance to the Phillip that I knew, that I almost shed a tear. It was a time for lies and cover-ups, not truthful observations.
I twist my wedding band with my left thumb. No engagement ring. ‘Too flashy, Immie. You’re not that kind of girl.’ Five hundred and forty eight days have passed since Phillip left me. I know I should take the ring off, but no amount of soap can free me from the snare. Years of marital misuse have thickened my hands, my waist and my heart.
I am sitting five rows back, in the seat closest to the wall, as befits the ex-wife. Though, in reality, am I his widow? We never did finalise the divorce. Fancy that. Me. A widow. Some might say I shouldn’t be here at all. Friends from my old life try not to stare at me but they can’t help themselves. When our eyes bump into each other there is a timid acknowledgement, an apology of sorts, before a gosh-look-at-the time glance at wrists and a scurrying for the chapel door. Nobody called when Phillip traded me in. They went with him into his new life along with the Bruce Springsteen CDs and the coffee machine.
Mother sits by my side alternately tutting and sighing, unsure whether to be angry or sad. She promised not to speak during the service and, though the effort is nearly crippling her, she has kept her word. Her eyes burn holes into my temples. I know that her nostrils will be flaring like they always do when she is displeased. Mother tends to convey more through her eyes than her mouth, and I regret not telling her to keep those shut too.
We disagreed on whether Alistair should attend his father’s funeral. She says that, at six years old, he is too young. I say that he should be here to say goodbye, to pretend Phillip will be missed. Mother won. Some battles aren’t worth fighting. We wrote notes attached to helium balloons instead. Up, up and away. Bye-bye Daddy. Rot in hell, Phillip.
There are simple flowers at the front of the crematorium and Pachelbel’s Canon is piped in from an invisible source. Everything has been carefully orchestrated to white-wash the darkness of death and disinfect the walls against the smell of decay. A palate cleanser, if you like, between death and the wake. Naomi has booked the function room at the Old Bell but I won’t go in case the sherry loosens my lips and I smile a smile that shouldn’t be seen at a funeral.
As the mournful parade passes us by, we file out of our rows with the order of service in hand. Phillip’s photograph on the front is a grotesque smiling spectre. Mother stands in line to pay her respects to Naomi. It will be a brief conversation as high opinion is in short supply.
Rachel is talking to DC Chris Miller although, as far as I can tell, they haven’t met before today. She refused to wear black. As she rightly points out, black is a sign of respect. Both she and Chris held Phillip in the same regard.
I am aware of Ruby, though I am careful not to make eye contact with her. She is wearing a diaphanous frock of fresh-bruise purple, the most sombre outfit she owns. Today she’s wearing shoes though it’s anyone’s guess whether this is a nod to conformity or all-the-better to dance on Phillip’s grave. She sits on the back row, as far away from the coffin as she can get, and commensurate with her ex-ex-wife status. The first Mrs Rochester, the woman that Naomi and I have been measured against, holds an icy-white tissue under her nose, a pomander against the contagion of grief.
I stand and edge my way past the eye-dabbers and the head-shakers until I feel the weak sun on my face. I squint against the sudden sunlight over the Garden of Remembrance and a treacherous tear escapes my eye. A stranger touches his cold hand to my elbow in a shared moment of I-know-how-it-feels, but how could he? There are only three of us here – Naomi, Ruby and I – who know how satisfying it felt to watch Phillip Rochester die and know that he got the death he deserved.