Extract: The Perfect Life by Nuala Ellwood
Vanessa has always found it easy to pretend to be somebody different, somebody better. When things get tough in her real life, all she has to do is throw on some nicer clothes, adopt a new accent and she can escape.
That’s how it started: looking round houses she couldn’t possibly afford. Harmless fun really. Until it wasn’t. Because a man who lived in one of those houses is dead. And everyone thinks Vanessa killed him…
Read on for an extract from The Perfect Life by Nuala Ellwood!
The Perfect Life
Goring-on-Thames – August 2018
‘What a view,’ says the estate agent. ‘I’d imagine you can see right across the county from here.’
Her eyes flash with delight. She’ll be thinking of the possible commission, a hefty sum on a property this expensive.
‘It’s stunning,’ I say as I look out on to the milky-blue river and clear, unpolluted sky. ‘So tranquil.’
‘Yes,’ she says, stepping away from the window. ‘The only noise you’ll hear is the sound of birdsong and the trickle of water. Quite a change from the bustle of London.’
I nod my head, smiling. How surprisingly easy this has all been.
‘The current owners are retiring and want to downsize,’ says the estate agent as she leads me through to the drawing room. ‘As you can see, this has been a wonderful home for them. Now it’s ready to be passed on to another family.’
She gestures to the huge seating area, which is larger than the average London flat. Plush moss-green velvet sofas surround a beautifully crafted bamboo coffee table, which is piled artfully with a spread of books and a vase overflowing with freshly picked hydrangeas.
‘You said you had three children, is that right?’
‘Oh yes,’ I say. ‘Two boys and a girl.’
‘How lovely,’ she says, smiling warmly. ‘I bet they keep you on your toes.’
‘I love them but they’re hard work; the boys are so naughty sometimes. That’s why I thought I’d make this trip alone,’ I say, running my hands over the soft velvet armchair. ‘But my little Lavender is an angel, and I wouldn’t swap any of them for the world.’
‘I bet they’d love the space to run around here,’ the estate agent continues, selling this idyllic place to me even though my heart already knows what it wants.
‘Oh yes, Freddie would go mad with all this space to play football and Barclay would run wild and most likely break an arm like he did on his ninth birthday last year! He’s forever getting into trouble,’ I chuckle.
‘Imagine the birthday parties you could give them here,’ she says, unlocking a side door that leads out to a sweeping stone terrace.
I step outside and breathe in the crisp morning air. As I stand on the terrace the air fills with children’s laughter. I see trestle tables groaning with party food, guests bearing brightly coloured parcels, music filtering out from the kitchen, balloons and bunting and candles on a cake, birthday wishes to be made.
‘It’s perfect,’ I whisper as the estate agent leads me back into the house. ‘Just perfect.’
But as we walk back through the living room and head towards the hallway, a chill ripples through me. What would Connor say if he could see me?
‘Now,’ says the estate agent, consulting her brochure. ‘Let’s show you the first floor, shall we, Imogen?’
I nod my head.
If only you knew, I think to myself as I follow this poor, unsuspecting young woman up the winding staircase. That there are no children, no birthday parties, no prospect of a com mission. That Imogen isn’t even my real name. That all this is a perfect lie.
Wimbledon, South West London
I sit in my sister’s living room, sipping coffee from a cup that says mum, though I have no children to call my own, my eyes transfixed by the laptop screen in front of me. I know I shouldn’t have logged on, know that this addiction will be the ruin of me, but nothing else will help tonight, nothing else will stop the dark thoughts invading or stem the fear that is creeping like poison through my body.
I think back to five days earlier, the momentary happiness I had felt as I walked up the driveway and saw the topiary animals and the griffins, smelt the faint scent of honeysuckle in the air. I think of the look on his face as he answered the door, the smile that didn’t reach his eyes.
Don’t think about it, I tell myself. Not tonight. Tonight, I need to escape it all. So I let the memory fade and, instead, try to focus on the website, wincing as I take a sip from the coffee that has now gone tepid. Nothing new has been added in the last few hours, but simply seeing the familiar listings is reassuring.
I look up and see my sister standing in the doorway. She’s wearing her oversized navy-and-white-striped apron. The smell of roasted vegetables wafts through from the kitchen. Georgie is a great cook, like my mum was. I, on the other hand, can just about rustle up a basic pasta if I have to.
‘Yes, all fine,’ I say, minimizing the window on my screen. ‘Just having a look at some job sites. Seeing what’s out there.’
Georgie gives me that look, the one I’ve become accustomed to these last few weeks: a mixture of sympathy and bewilderment. A look that says How did my ambitious, confident little sister get herself into this state? It ’s a question I’ve been asking myself a lot too.
‘Dinner won’t be long,’ she says, wiping a strand of dark hair from her face. ‘I’m making stuffed peppers.’
‘Thanks, Georgie,’ I say, aware of the fact that she is trying her best to perk me up. ‘They smell delicious.’
She goes to speak but is interrupted by a loud hammering on the door. My heart leaps in my chest as she goes to answer it.
Breathe, I tell myself; try to focus back on the page I’ve been looking at.
I hear muffled voices in the passageway and my throat tightens. I scroll down the page, cast my net a bit wider. Draining the last of the coffee, I try to think of somewhere new, somewhere I’ve never been before. But my brain is muddy, nothing will come, so instead I close my eyes and type a random letter into the search engine. G. I shiver at its meaning, then quickly click on the first suggestion – Gloucestershire – before his face has a chance to appear in my head.
I’ve never been to Gloucestershire but now, through the power of the internet, I can. My skin tingles as I enlarge the picture and step into a golden world. A world where everyone is wealthy and secure, where the floors are polished and gleaming, the gardens manicured and bursting with fragrant plants and flowers. A world of laughter and sunshine and families gathered together at outdoor tables, an abundance of food and drink. It should be making me feel better, but as I wander through this fantasy land, it only reminds me of what I have lost.
Georgie’s voice cuts into my thoughts and I look up. What I see makes the room constrict and my hand, poised over the computer mouse, starts to shake. There are two police officers standing in the doorway, one male, one female. Behind them I see my sister’s face, all colour drained away.
‘Iris Lawson?’ says the male officer, his eyes fixed on me.
The name sinks like a stone in my stomach, but I nod my head all the same.
Georgie pushes past them and comes to stand next to me.
‘There must be some mistake,’ she says, placing her hand on my shoulder, her voice solid and commanding, ever the older sister. ‘Her name is–’
‘Shh,’ I interrupt, shrugging my sister’s hand away. ‘It’s okay, Georgie.’
‘I’d like to ask, Miss Lawson,’ continues the officer, a flabby-faced man who looks to be in his mid-fifties, ‘if you know a man named Geoffrey Rivers?’
I look up at him. His eyes are the colour of damp autumn leaves. I turn from him to my sister. She shakes her head. We both know the significance of the name.
‘Yes,’ I whisper, my hand still hovering on the mouse. ‘Yes, I do.’
The officer nods his head then takes a step forward.
‘Well, in that case, Miss Lawson,’ he says, his voice hardening, ‘I’d like to ask you to accompany me to the police station. We need to ask you a few questions.’
‘Why do you need to do that?’ cries Georgie. ‘What’s happened?’
‘I’m afraid Mr Rivers was found dead at his home in Hampstead,’ he replies, his voice steady.
I hear my sister inhale sharply. In front of me the screen darkens, obliterating Gloucestershire and polished floors and perfect lives, leaving me only with the stark truth of what I have done.
Enjoyed this extract from The Perfect Life by Nuala Ellwood? Let us know in the comments below!