Extract: The Whispers by Heidi Perks
Anna Robinson hasn’t been seen since she went on a night out with her four closest friends. She has a loving husband and a son she adores; surely she wouldn’t abandon them and her perfect life? But what could have happened to her?
At the school gates, it’s not long before the rumours start. Anna’s oldest friend Grace is beside herself with worry, desperately searching for answers and certain that someone is hiding the truth.
With each day that passes, Anna’s life is under increasing threat. And as the pressure mounts, it won’t be long before something cracks…
Read on for an extract from The Whispers by Heidi Perks!
Wednesday 1 January
The body has been found on the beach. At the bottom of Crayne’s Cliff, a spot that the people of Clearwater know all too well for the victims it has pulled over its perilous edge over the decades.
The detective stands on the stony coastline, not far from where a scattering of fisherman’s huts are wedged into the base of the cliff. They are empty, of course, as is often the case at the height of the winter. He has always found their desolation in the cold months quite haunting, and never more so than today.
He shudders as he pulls himself away, giving the SOCOs space to do their job, and starts to walk back along the beach, to where he has parked his car. It is on the other side of the stone wall, built to form a barrier against the waves that can rise high when the sea is rough. Today the sea is a mill pond. In a few hours’ time there might be some hardy sailors or even a few crazy paddleboarders out for a New Year’s Day jaunt, but right now the beach ahead of him is empty.
He hadn’t been called to the scene, but as soon as he heard about it he had to see for himself. His first case, so many years ago, had found him standing on this very stretch of beach. Though that time it had been the body of a young girl that had gone over the edge. Not a woman: not a mother.
He remembers it like it was yesterday, but then dead bodies are a rare occurrence in Clearwater. Incidents like this are a shock to the community, just like the one all those years ago had been.
As he reaches his car, he pauses and looks back at the cliffs, wondering if anyone else at the station will be asking themselves the question that he is taunting himself with. Could they have known something like this might happen?
Three weeks ago Grace Goodwin had stood in the station and tried to report a crime, but the officers she spoke with had refused to believe she was right to be worried. And yet his first call this morning hadn’t been to wish him a Happy New Year, but to tell him there was a dead body.
September – Four months before
The whispers started on the first day back of the autumn term. As was often the case at drop-off, a group of mothers from across year four had gathered in the playground to chat. Quite often it was the only time they came together, and it had been weeks since they’d last been here at the end of the summer term so there was plenty to catch up on. They weren’t all friends with each other outside of school, but they liked to drop in and out of the gossip, make sure they were kept in the loop of what was happening inside the school gates.
Today they were interested in the fact there was an unfamiliar
face hovering outside their children’s new classroom. She had a honey-toned tan, sleek auburn hair pulled back into a ponytail, and wore white cut-off jeans that made her legs look incredibly long and slim. Even in her gold strappy sandals she was at least five foot eight. A little girl with dark pigtails was standing by her side.
It didn’t take long for someone to approach her and make an introduction. And when she replied that her name was Grace Goodwin, she’d done so in the very soft twang of an Australian accent. This was enough to draw each of them over to her and, intrigued, they fired off questions at the new mum.
They soon learned she had moved back to England only three weeks ago from Sydney and that she had attended this very school as a child, as some of them had, too. There were a few murmurs that her name sounded familiar, had she changed it, they asked, to which Grace confirmed she hadn’t. But then it wasn’t familiar enough that she might have been in their year group and it was too soon to be asking her age just yet.
Grace had lived in Clearwater until she was seventeen, when she and her parents had moved to Australia because of her father’s job. Her parents had returned to England five years ago, apparently because of an aunt’s ailing health. This was three years after her only child, Matilda, was born, and Grace had decided to stay behind in Sydney until this summer.
Matilda was going to be in 4C, the same class as many of their children. One of the mothers was already talking playdates and snapping out her phone to make sure Grace was included on the class WhatsApp group.
‘You need to be on this,’ the mum was saying. ‘Anything you need to know about homework, assemblies, anything school related – just pop on a message and someone will get back to you.’
Grace had smiled in return and obligingly given her number, though her gaze kept drifting around the playground. As if she were looking for someone else.
She was very pretty, in her mid-thirties, and looked effortlessly casual yet chic. It was as if she hadn’t gone overboard to make an effort for her first school run but managed to come out looking good.
‘So do your parents live nearby?’ another mum asked her.
Grace told the group that her parents had relocated to Leicester to be close to her father’s sister. That after first the aunt and then her father died three years ago, her mum had made the surprising decision to stay put.
Someone suggested that maybe she’d move down to Clearwater now Grace was back, but Grace replied that she just didn’t see it happening and they moved on to other questions like, ‘And what does your husband do? Is he local?’
‘Well, actually Graham works in Singapore,’ she said. ‘He’s a project manager for a big pharmaceutical company.’
‘Oh wow, impressive! But that means you moved over here on your own?’
She had, it turned out, and she and Matilda were renting one of the Waterview apartments, the luxury wave-designed complex that took pride of place on the edge of the road to Weymouth, which made it clear that money wasn’t a worry for her. Although the apartments tended to attract young couples, with the building’s gym and bar, and weren’t family orientated, so surely it wouldn’t be a long-term option.
But their attentions quickly returned to Graham, and his job abroad, and the knowledge that funnily enough he’d actually been in Europe until the start of July. Grace told them this with a smile and a shrug, as if it were no big deal that her husband lived and worked so many miles away, but they already understood how hard it must have been for her, being in the throes of moving to England when he had been shipped off in the opposite direction, though it was probably too soon to delve deeper into this particular line of enquiry when they had only known her for five minutes.
Besides, she was professing that it was fine for him to be living abroad, and that Matilda had been very good about the whole thing, and so none of them probed further just yet, though later they would discuss in forensic detail what kind of husband would allow his wife to move across the world all by herself.
‘So why have you moved back to Clearwater?’ one of them asked. Clearwater was a small headland town that jutted into the sea on the south coast, and was connected to nearby Weymouth by a single road. One way in and one way out, unless you went by water. It had a long stretch of shingle beach on one side, and small stony coves cut into the coastline on the other. It was beautiful, they could all give it that, but it was quiet and didn’t attract many tourists, who preferred the buzz of Weymouth. It seemed an odd choice for Grace.
‘I guess it still feels like home,’ she said, continuing to scan the
‘Are you looking for anyone in particular?’ one of the mums asked her.
‘Actually, I am,’ she replied. ‘Anna Robinson.’
‘Oh! Ethan’s mum? Ethan’s in 4C, too. Do you know her, then?’
Grace nodded. ‘We were best friends for years. We met here when we were five.’ She gestured a hand around the playground.
‘Oh wow, that’s amazing,’ another woman exclaimed, although what she suspected they were all thinking was, Well, this is going to put the cat among the pigeons.
In the minutes that followed they gathered some more basics: Grace and Anna had been inseparable until the day Grace left for Australia. They were both only children – more like sisters than friends – and Anna had spent many nights of those many years at Grace’s house.
By that point some of them had already spotted Anna at the gate, huddled, unsurprisingly, with her small circle of friends. They liked Anna. She had always been kind and friendly, and her son Ethan, a popular boy, had never uttered an unkind word to any one of their children.
Anna always turned up to school with a smile, and never bitched about anyone. But she was part of what they all knew to be a very tight clique: four women who had met each other on their children’s first day of school and had been inseparable ever since. Most mornings they were huddled together, arms flung around one another, giggling, whispering. Much younger behaviour than you would expect for women in their late thirties and early forties.
There was Nancy, a head taller than Anna, tightly squeezing Anna into her side as she rocked with laughter. And Rachel, in too-high heels and a black pencil skirt, dressed for her office job in Weymouth, who was also laughing as she was pulled up the path by her two sons. Beside them, Caitlyn had a hand over her mouth as she giggled behind it.
And now Grace was making her way towards the group, and it took a few moments for Anna to spot her. When she did, her mouth opened wide in surprise. Finally her face cracked into a smile and she joined Grace in the middle of the playground, the two women hugging each other as the other mums looked on.
Later they would wonder among themselves how Grace’s arrival might affect Anna’s relationships with her other friends. And as the early autumn term slipped into a biting winter, they would watch with a see-saw of faint amusement and a little pity for Grace.
But it wasn’t until the first week of December, when the children had almost broken up for the holidays, that things really got interesting.
Wednesday 11 December
It’s been nineteen years since Grace Goodwin last sat in the Old Vic. Nearly half her lifetime, and yet it still feels like only yesterday. It’s different now – less of an old fisherman’s pub, with pretensions to be a wine bar – and the crowd it has pulled in on a Wednesday night two weeks before Christmas is mainly young couples.
Scuffed, stained wooden tables have made way for polished oak ones, with purple and grey velvet armchairs tucked beneath them. Chalkboards with menus of cheeses and meats, and pairing wines, hang on the walls, draped with classy strings of Christmas lights.
Grace has to admit the interior looks much better than it did all those years ago. It is airier and brighter, though the evening feels more claustrophobic than it should.
When Anna had asked her if she wanted to join her and the girls for pre-Christmas drinks, she’d been a little surprised. In the three months since Grace had returned to Clearwater there had been no other invites, and she’d jumped at the chance to come. ‘We’re going to the Old Vic,’ Anna had told her, ‘about eight thirty.’
Anna and her three friends were already here when she arrived bang on the dot of 8.30, a bottle of wine opened on the table between them. She’d needed to steal a chair from one of the other tables, pushing herself in between Rachel and Caitlyn.
But Grace is pleased to be back here because the pub holds good memories for her. When they were still at school, she and Anna used to sit in the corner drinking Bacardi and Cokes. Even though they’d been underage, the bar staff had never once waved them away.
‘Do you remember the first night we came here?’ she asks Anna now, when there is a break in the conversation.
Anna turns to her and smiles but her lips are drawn into a thin, flat line. Her eyes are dark and seem to look right through Grace, even though only moments before she’d been laughing at something Nancy had said. Nancy is now playing with Anna’s hair, tugging it, twisting it into a plait at one side, hanging it over Anna’s shoulder and telling her she should wear it like that. Watching them, Grace feels as if she were back in school again.
Only an hour into the evening and she already knows she shouldn’t have come, but then she was keen to spend time with Anna. She has tried over the last three months. At the start there were occasional meet-ups but even they have waned. The other three are always around, like they have booked Anna up weeks in advance, and it isn’t enjoyable being in the presence of these four women, three of whom she still barely knows. Their conversations always veer into in-jokes and shared experiences that she hasn’t been a part of. Their mannerisms mirror each other: the way they curl their fingers over each other’s arms as they speak, twirl strands of hair as they hang off words. As a group they make no effort to include her; in fact, Grace wonders why Anna bothered to invite her in the first place.
Suddenly Anna stands up and announces she’s getting another bottle of wine, though there is at least a third of a bottle still left on the table in front of them. Her legs, tightly squeezed into black jeans, wobble as she makes her way to the bar, her blonde hair still loosely knitted into the plait Nancy made. Her bra is showing through her black chiffon top and she looks glamorous, if a little too thin. There isn’t an ounce of the puppy fat she had when they were teenagers.
While Anna leans over the bar and points to a bottle in the fridge, Grace scans the group of women who are sitting at the table with her.
Nancy Simpson always looks immaculately groomed, and tonight is no exception. Her long, slender legs are pressed into jeans uncannily similar to Anna’s. She looks to be at least five foot eleven, though clearly her height doesn’t stop her from wearing heels. She’s slightly older than the rest of them – in her early forties, Grace guesses. There’s not a grey hair among the blonde curls that hang in perfect waves down her back.
Her daughter Elodie is a precocious child. Over the last four years Elodie has apparently taken all the leading roles in the school plays: Mary in the Nativity, and then Guy Fawkes, Oliver Twist, and finally Simba.
In the three months that Grace’s daughter has attended the school, she has clocked the way Nancy sits in the front row at every assembly, every parents’ meeting, every choir competition. Her coat and bag are always draped across three other seats, for when her comrades arrive. And when they do, she beckons Anna, Rachel and Caitlyn to join her, while Grace sits in the row behind.
The first time this happened Grace had hoped Anna would seek her out and sit with her – she’d expected it, even – but then she’d seen her old friend arrive with Rachel, and glance guiltily at the one seat beside Grace before indicating that there wasn’t enough room for the two of them to sit there. As if she couldn’t possibly part from Rachel. How was it that she couldn’t do that, when Rachel clearly had two other friends to sit with, and Grace had no one?
Tonight Rachel has drunk the lion’s share of the wine and is getting louder as the evening wears on. She is wearing a gold glitter shift dress: too dressy for a night at the Old Vic, Grace thinks, but then clearly the woman is up for a party. She has a dark bob of almost black hair that is neatly tucked behind her ears, and she doesn’t stop twiddling a finger through it as she chats with Nancy. Rachel is possibly the one Grace knows the least. She catches flashes of her on the school run, often late, and so it’s interesting to see her tonight. She is actually more fun than Grace realised at first, as she tells her entertaining stories.
Caitlyn keeps giggling at whatever Rachel is saying. She is by far the quietest of the group, seemingly the most sensible out of them, and yet also the nicest. She doesn’t have Rachel’s coolness at the school gates or Nancy’s control.
Grace can see the appeal of both Caitlyn and Rachel. She could be friends with them too, she thinks, if she is given the chance. It is one of the reasons she was keen to come tonight: to get to know Anna’s friends better. But not Nancy. Their dislike for each other is mutual. Nancy made it clear in the early weeks of term that she had no time for Grace, a hostility that has only flourished as the term progressed.
With Anna at the bar, the other women’s voices have dropped a note and Grace struggles to hear what is being said from the other side of the table. She edges her chair a little closer, if only to remind them she’s still here, and as she does so Caitlyn turns to her with a pitying smile.
It isn’t hard to see which way the evening is heading, with all of them diving into their drinks like they don’t have to get up for a school run in the morning. Anna had told her it was ‘just a few’ before school broke up for Christmas, but for all Grace knows, this is the way their nights always end up.
Now the women are discussing a holiday the four of them had been on back in May. A weekend in Majorca without their families. ‘Do you remember that waiter?’ Nancy is laughing. ‘He couldn’t keep his hands off you, Rach.’ At the bar Anna turns round as she waits for the wine, laughing too.
Grace smiles, though of course it’s one more conversation she can’t join in. She leans back in her chair as her thoughts turn briefly to Matilda and the sitter she’d hurriedly found through the babysitting service she’d signed up to at the start of term but had barely used. She wonders if she should call to check on them. Matilda’s behaviour had been challenging tonight and Grace thinks some of it is because she hasn’t made any noticeable friendships. All Grace wants is for her daughter to have one special friend like she’d had in Anna.
She has so many memories of her own that she wishes she could share tonight with her friend. Grace has tried to remind Anna of them, but in recent weeks Anna has clammed up on her, shut her down. Maybe Grace was also hoping that by joining the group tonight she would have a better chance of talking to her and reliving moments from their past, the way you do when you are out drinking.
She remembers the two of them circling around the monorail at the motor museum when they were young, laughing, refusing to get off it as Grace’s parents waited below, calling them down, horrified when the train started again and they were still on it. They must have completed at least six loops, or at least that is how it felt back then. ‘Can you believe you are eight today?’ Anna had kept giggling.
Grace wants to share this happy memory with Anna when she comes back to the table, but as soon as her friend plonks the bottle of wine down, Rachel stands and links an arm through hers.
‘Where are they going?’ Grace asks when they have walked away.
‘Probably for a cigarette.’ Caitlyn turns up her nose in disgust.
‘A cigarette?’ Grace breaks off before insisting that Anna doesn’t smoke, because clearly she now does, and yet it is something else that Grace didn’t know. Anna’s father’s constant smoking was supposed to have put her off for good. It had been deterrent enough for Grace, and she didn’t have to live in the cloud of smoke that clung to the living-room ceiling day in and day out.
‘You didn’t know she smoked?’ Nancy says to Grace. She isn’t laughing but her eyes are lit up and dancing like they have been all evening. Like she is goading her.
‘I thought she’d given up,’ Grace lies, and reaches for the old bottle of wine, tipping a generous amount into her glass.
‘You may as well finish that,’ Nancy says, raising her eyes at the near-empty bottle. Grace stares back at her and does as she is told, pouring out the rest of the wine, though she isn’t sure how she’ll finish it. Already she’s beginning to get that sharp tang in her mouth, and she knows that all she really wants is to switch to water soon, even though she’ll clearly be on her own. Nancy grins and turns away, and Grace feels the unsettling churn in her stomach. She’d like to say she has no idea what Anna sees in Nancy, but because she knows her friend so well, she can imagine how easily she’d have been drawn into the other woman’s web, unable to see what Grace sees: that Nancy is manipulative and has some hold over her. But then this isn’t the first time Anna has let herself be taken in by a friend.
‘No, she hasn’t given up smoking,’ Caitlyn is saying. ‘In fact, if anything I’d say she’s doing it even more at the moment, wouldn’t you?’
‘What about her husband?’ Grace asks. She isn’t sure why she is so uptight about the idea of Anna smoking.
‘What about him?’ Nancy asks.
Grace hesitates. ‘Does he smoke?’
Nancy laughs. ‘What is this?’ she says. ‘Why the third degree? You sound worried about it.’
‘I’m not worried,’ Grace mutters as Anna and Rachel return to the table. ‘It doesn’t matter.’ Only for some reason it does, it grates on her. Perhaps it is because she can picture the Anna she used to know so clearly and this new, grown-up version is nothing like her. When something taints your past memories, Grace realises, it has a nasty habit of knocking everything off-kilter, making you question things.
She wants Nancy to drop the subject of cigarettes, but instead she pulls out a chair for Anna, who obediently sits, and smiles as she says, ‘Grace doesn’t like the thought of you smoking. Maybe she has a point?’ She places a hand on Anna’s arm and starts rubbing it gently.
‘Yes, she probably does,’ Anna says blankly, and as she takes off her red coat, her cheeks flush with what could be the coldness of the air, or with what Grace suspects could be embarrassment.
Grace draws her gaze away from Nancy’s hand on her old friend’s arm. Nancy has managed to make her feel like an overbearing parent, and all of a sudden she realises that this is exactly how she always feels when she is with them. Like a motherly figure, hovering over these women who act like children, the way they plait each other’s hair and link arms and save seats.
Grace takes another gulp of her wine, ignoring its bitterness, as she considers her options. She could leave now and go home, but she wants to spend time with Anna, and if this is the only way she’s able to see much of her old friend then she mustn’t let the others spoil it.
Nancy is now regaling them with another story from Majorca. Inwardly Grace sighs, grasping the glass of wine between her fingers, tipping it back and forth, just so she has something to do. ‘Sounds like fun,’ Grace says when Nancy finishes the story and the laughter dies down.
‘It was.’ Anna puts her glass down on the table, her smile
slipping. ‘Sorry, Grace, this isn’t fair on you when you weren’t there.’
‘Not at all.’ Grace waves a hand in an attempt to make out she isn’t bothered.
‘We went there together one year, didn’t we?’ Anna says suddenly, and Grace’s mind shoots back to the year they were fourteen when her parents had invited Anna on their week-long holiday to Alcudia in the summer holidays. ‘Do you remember, Grace?’
‘Of course I do.’ Grace smiles. She remembers how Anna’s father had enthusiastically accepted the offer, it was likely the only holiday Anna would have, and how excited Grace was that she wouldn’t be alone that year. That she would have Anna with her in the villa and they could spend their days in the pool and the evenings outside restaurants eying up Spanish waiters, begging her parents to allow them to go out on their own.
If they were on their own she would ask her friend why she has brought up that particular memory because the holiday didn’t pan out as they’d expected. Anna is holding her gaze and in turn Grace finds herself holding her breath, and in that moment she is certain that something is troubling Anna, and she desperately wants her friend to confide in her.
But the moment is gone in a flash when Rachel pipes up, ‘I keep forgetting how far back you two go.’
Grace nods. That is probably because it is rarely brought up, in spite of the many, many stories of their childhood that Grace could talk about for hours. ‘Anna practically lived with my family for twelve years,’ she says.
‘Really?’ Rachel looks surprised. ‘I mean, I knew you were close but . . .’ She trails off.
As close as sisters. Grace’s mum cared as much for Anna as she did for Grace. She can picture as clear as day her and Anna sat on the footstool in the living room when they are about seven, watching intently as her mum showed them how to knit their first scarves. And how one summer, maybe two years later, they built a camp in the garden and insisted on sleeping in it for a week. Sometimes, especially in those earlier years, Grace used to forget that Anna even had a home to go back to, a dad who might have been waiting for her.
‘But you haven’t seen each other since you went to Australia, have you?’ Rachel finishes.
‘No. We haven’t,’ Grace says. Though not for lack of trying when she was first there, but then lives and careers, husbands and families took over, and in the end they never did meet up again.
‘And Anna says you weren’t even in touch for a couple of years before you came back?’
Grace shakes her head. This is also true, bar the odd Facebook comment, but she knows that doesn’t cut it as proper contact.
Then, as if losing interest, Rachel starts chattering on about something else and, as it always does, the conversation continues to wrap around the four friends’ recent past, their plans for the next day, for the weeks ahead.
‘I’m going for shots,’ Anna suddenly announces to whooping from Rachel, and mock groans from Nancy and Caitlyn. Her mood keeps flipping, from sombre and withdrawn to playful, verging on a threat of danger, at times like she is trying to assert some control. Grace can’t quite fathom what is going on. The Anna she knew was always so constant and easy-going, which makes her behaviour seem more worrying than maybe it should.
‘I’ll help you,’ Grace says, and follows her friend to the bar, so that she can tell Anna she won’t join in a round of tequila. ‘Is everything all right?’ Grace asks when they’re alone.
‘Of course.’ Anna turns away swiftly as a barman appears. ‘Four tequilas,’ she orders. Anna doesn’t even try to persuade Grace to join them, which somehow makes her feel even more excluded, and if she didn’t hate the taste of tequila so much she would have changed her mind for the hell of it.
Grace hesitates and then says, ‘It’s just you seem a little . . .’ She pauses, because she doesn’t really know how her friend seems this evening.
‘I seem a little what, Grace?’ Anna says, as she presses her card against the machine.
Her coldness slaps Grace and she finds herself recoiling. Anna had been so excited to see her when she’d first arrived back in August, but now there is a creeping distance between them and Grace isn’t sure why, or how to stop it. She looks at the woman in front of her, and right now it is like looking at a stranger. Anna Robinson isn’t Anna Fallow any more, the girl she once knew better than anyone. But surely there are some friendships that are worth salvaging? How can Anna walk away from the close bond they’d once shared?
‘A little unhappy,’ Grace says at last. She isn’t entirely sure that is the right word for it, but she doesn’t know what is.
‘You don’t have to worry about me any more, Grace,’ Anna replies, and as she smiles her eyebrows peak.
Grace takes in the smile, the way it doesn’t quite ring true. As her eyes scan Anna’s face she wonders what is hiding behind the front that her friend seems to be putting on tonight.
Only, of course, she still worries about her. She always will, because years ago, taking care of Anna was intrinsic to their friendship. She can picture the young Anna who sat in a pair of borrowed pyjamas on a school night once again, waiting for her dad to finish work and come to pick her up from Grace’s parents’. You don’t spend twelve years so closely knitted to someone and stop caring just like that.
Grace changes the subject. ‘I can’t believe we’re back here again.’ She nods at the table in the corner, desperate to open up a conversation about old times and to reach the Anna she was once so close to. ‘How many times did we sit there and drink?’ A memory pops into her head. ‘Do you remember Christopher Smart?’
Anna’s face softens. Christopher Smart was an oddball who had some kind of crush on Anna, and they would always end an evening in tears of laughter whenever he had followed Anna around the pub.
Grace waits for her friend to smile and join in the memory, but instead Anna says, ‘Will you just stop with the reminiscing, Grace? What is it you can’t let go of? Why do you think we need to keep living in the past?’
‘Let go of?’ Grace asks, her mouth agape. ‘It’s memories, our childhood.’
‘It’s our past,’ Anna replies bluntly. ‘What matters now is the present. I’m sorry if you’re not happy with yours, Grace, but I am with mine.’ Anna scoops up two glasses of tequila and returns to the table, where she sits down, leaving Grace staring behind her. Her hands feel numb as they hang loosely by her sides. Tears threaten to prick her eyes, but she doesn’t know what is causing them. Whether it’s that she isn’t happy with her life or that Anna is pointing it out to her so callously. Or maybe it’s that Grace doesn’t believe Anna is happy herself right now.
Anna always did go on the defensive when really she was crying out for help inside. Even on the nights when her dad didn’t turn up at school she would make excuses for him, refuse to accept that his work at the factory was a priority, but Grace always saw the sadness behind her eyes.
Grace picks up the other two glasses and takes them to the table. There is no point in saying anything in front of the others.
Over the next hour or so, the mood within the group seems to change. Nancy and Anna have scuttled off into a corner, their conversation seemingly heated as Anna gestures animatedly with her arms. When they return to the table Nancy’s face is blank, her lips pursed, but soon the chatter is picked up and more wine is drunk and nothing is made of the blip in their evening.
By eleven Grace is ready to go home, but it’s apparent that if she leaves now she’ll be on her own.
Rachel has created her own makeshift dance floor beside the table and the pub has emptied save for a group of three in the far corner, who keep looking in Rachel’s direction as she waves her arms in the air in time to a beat that seems purely in her head. At one point she meanders around the bar and turns up the volume on the music. The nearest barman, young with a shaved head, looks in her direction but doesn’t say anything.
Grace watches Anna retreat further into herself. She sees past Anna’s disguise of loudly spoken words and overly exaggerated laughter, sees the way her eyes flicker towards Grace every so often. There is something she is holding back for sure.
So when Anna slides off her chair and heads for the toilets, Grace follows her.
Anna is swaying in front of the mirror, a lip gloss in one hand that she isn’t applying. ‘Nancy has a hold on you,’ Grace tells her. She hadn’t intended to say as much, but two and a half hours of watching Nancy dominate Anna’s attention have taken its toll. She fears for her friend; she does, because she knows Anna too well. She knows what she can be like, and Grace needs to say something.
‘What?’ Anna splutters, seemingly incredulous. Her reaction leads Grace to believe that she can’t see it.
‘Nancy controls you,’ Grace says a little softer.
‘You’re kidding me, right?’
Grace bites her lip. She can see the conversation going only one way, but now she has said something she can’t take it back. ‘No. I’m not kidding. I just see the way she is with you. With all of you,’ she adds, gesturing back to the bar.
‘It’s been bloody apparent from the start that you don’t like each other,’ Anna spits. ‘Have you ever stopped to think how hard that is for me? Always trying to keep everyone happy?’ She slips to the side and grabs the sink to steady herself.
Despite knowing Nancy doesn’t like her, it still cuts Grace to hear it said.
‘It’s been awful,’ Anna is saying. ‘I shouldn’t have to choose. I want to be with my friends, Grace,’ she says, ‘and yet I always feel like I have to come and talk to you.’
As soon as the words are out Grace notices the way Anna’s eyes widen, her mouth parting. Grace thinks, and hopes, that it is because she wants to grab the words back. But they have been said now, and it is too late. Their punch is almost palpable. She can feel the burn in her chest.
She can almost see the pictures of twelve years of their childhood breaking in the air, tiny pieces scattering like confetti. Memories that have been so precious to Grace suddenly feel as though they mean nothing to Anna, and this is something she can’t get her head around.
Grace should turn away and walk out of the toilets, but she can’t bring herself to because, despite the words Anna has spoken, she is here. Right now Grace has her friend to herself. Besides, Anna has been drinking, and Grace is certain there is something else going on. All these years on she still can’t walk away from her. They might not share the same bloodlines but they were as good as sisters once.
‘I’m worried about you,’ Grace says. ‘And you must know why.’
Anna shakes her head, eyes staring, watching her carefully, surely knowing what she means but probably willing her not to say it.
‘Because I’ve seen it before, haven’t I, Anna? This isn’t the first time I’ve picked up the pieces.’
After that, the evening turns even sourer. Grace’s words have had the opposite of their intended effect on Anna, who sidles up to Nancy, hanging her head on her shoulder as they giggle conspiratorially over something.
But later Grace notices fractures within the group. There are hushed words between two of them about something that happened at Anna’s husband Ben’s, fortieth party a month or so ago, a dinner the four women attended with their husbands. Caitlyn was in tears though none of them mentioned this in front of her. And then, maybe not long before she leaves, Nancy’s attitude shifts and Anna no longer paws at any one of her three friends. She is withdrawing from all of them.
Grace speaks to Anna alone only one more time. Another snatched conversation in before she leaves. It is nearly midnight and she has no choice but to go because she has
told the babysitter she will be back before twelve thirty. She calls a taxi, the behaviour of the others confirming what she already knows, that they aren’t yet ready to leave.
Anna is ordering more drinks. ‘Come with me,’ Grace says. She places a hand on her friend’s arm but it is shaken off. ‘Why don’t you share my cab?’ She wants Anna to come because she doesn’t trust the other three to keep an eye out for her. They don’t even appear to notice there is anything wrong.
But Anna tells her she isn’t going anywhere and so Grace waits at the table, surveying the night as it continues to break down in front of her. In many ways it is a relief to get out of there when the text alert tells her the cab is waiting outside.
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