From theNew York Timesbestselling author ofThen She Was GoneandWatching Youcomes another page-turning look inside one family’s past as buried secrets threaten to come to light.
Be careful who you let in.
Soon after her twenty-fifth birthday, Libby Jones returns home from work to find the letter she’s been waiting for her entire life. She rips it open with one driving thought: I am finally going to know who I am.
She soon learns not only the identity of her birth parents, but also that she is the sole inheritor of their abandoned mansion on the banks of the Thames in London’s fashionable Chelsea neighborhood, worth millions. Everything in Libby’s life is about to change. But what she can’t possibly know is that others have been waiting for this day as well—and she is on a collision course to meet them.
Twenty-five years ago, police were called to 16 Cheyne Walk with reports of a baby crying. When they arrived, they found a healthy ten-month-old happily cooing in her crib in the bedroom. Downstairs in the kitchen lay three dead bodies, all dressed in black, next to a hastily scrawled note. And the four other children reported to live at Cheyne Walk were gone.
InThe Family Upstairs, the master of “bone-chilling suspense” (People) brings us the can’t-look-away story of three entangled families living in a house with the darkest of secrets.
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Part I Chapter 1
Part II Chapter 34
Part III Chapter 49
Part IV Chapter 66
About the Author
Lisa Jewell was born in London. Her first novel, Ralph’s Party, was published in 1999. It was the best-selling debut novel of the year. Since then she has published another sixteen novels, most recently a number of dark psychological thrillers, including The Girls and Then She Was Gone (both of which were Richard & Judy Book Club picks). Lisa is a top ten New York Times and number one Sunday Times author who has been published worldwide in over twenty-five languages. She lives in north London with her husband, two daughters, two cats, two guinea pigs and the best dog in the world.
Also available by Lisa Jewell
Vince & Joy
A Friend of the Family
31 Dream Street
The Truth About Melody Browne
After the Party
The Making of Us
Before I Met You
The House We Grew Up In
The Third Wife
I Found You
Then She Was Gone
This book is dedicated to my readers, with love and gratitude
It would be inaccurate to say that my childhood was normal before they came. It was far from normal, but it felt normal because it was all I’d known. It’s only now, with decades of hindsight, that I can see how odd it was.
I was nearly eleven when they came, and my sister was nine.
They lived with us for more than five years and they turned everything very, very dark. My sister and I had to learn how to survive.
And when I was sixteen, and my sister was fourteen, the baby came.
Libby picks the letter up off the doormat. She turns it in her hands. It looks very formal; the envelope is cream in colour, made of high-grade paper, and feels as though it might even be lined with tissue. The postal frank says ‘Smithkin Rudd & Royle Solicitors Chelsea Manor Street SW3’.
She takes the letter into the kitchen and sits it on the table while she fills the kettle and puts a teabag in a mug. Libby is pretty sure she knows what’s in the envelope. She turned twenty-five last month. She’s been subconsciously waiting for this envelope. But now it’s here she’s not sure she can face opening it.
She picks up her phone and calls her mother.
‘Mum,’ she says. ‘It’s here. The letter from the trustees.’
She hears a silence at the other end of the line. She pictures her mum in her own kitchen, a thousand miles away in Dénia: pristine white units, lime-green colour-coordinated kitchen accessories, sliding glass doors on to a small terrace with a distant view to the Mediterranean, her phone held to her ear in the crystal-studded case that she refers to as her bling.
‘Oh,’ she says. ‘Right. Gosh. Have you opened it?’
‘No. Not yet. I’m just having a cup of tea first.’
‘Right,’ she says again. Then she says, ‘Shall I stay on the line? While you do it?’
‘Yes,’ says Libby. ‘Please.’
She feels a little breathless, as she sometimes does when she’s just about to stand up and give a sales presentation at work, like she’s had a strong coffee. She takes the teabag out of the mug and sits down. Her fingers caress the corner of the envelope and she inhales.
‘OK,’ she says to her mother, ‘I’m doing it. I’m doing it right now.’
Her mum knows what’s in here. Or at least she has an idea, though she was never told formally what was in the trust. It might, as she has always said, be a teapot and a ten-pound note.
Libby clears her throat and slides her finger under the flap. She pulls out a sheet of thick cream paper and scans it quickly:
To Miss Libby Louise Jones
As trustee of the Henry and Martina Lamb Trust created on 12 July 1977, I propose to make the distribution from it to you described in the attached schedule …
She puts down the covering letter and pulls out the accompanying paperwork.
‘Well?’ says her mum, breathlessly
‘Still reading,’ she replies.
She skims and her eye is caught by the name of a property. Sixteen Cheyne Walk, SW3. She assumes it is the property her birth parents were living in when they died. She knows it was in Chelsea. She knows it was big. She had assumed it was long gone. Boarded up. Sold. Her breath catches hard at the back of her throat when she realises what she’s just read.
‘Er,’ she says.
‘It looks like … No, that can’t be right.’
‘The house. They’ve left me the house.’
‘The Chelsea house?’
‘Yes,’ she says.
‘The whole house?’
‘I think so.’ There’s a covering letter, something about nobody else named on the trust coming forward in due time. She can’t digest it at all.
‘My God. I mean, that must be worth …’
Libby breathes in sharply and raises her gaze to the ceiling. ‘This must be wrong,’ she says. ‘This must be a mistake.’
‘Go and see the solicitors,’ says her mother. ‘Call them. Make an appointment. Make sure it’s not a mistake.’
‘But what if it’s not a mistake? What if it’s true?’
‘Well then, my angel,’ says her mother – and Libby can hear her smile from all these miles away, ‘you’ll be a very rich woman indeed.’
Libby ends the call and stares around her kitchen. Five minutes ago, this kitchen had been the only kitchen she could afford, this flat the only one she could buy, here in this quiet street of terraced cottages in the backwaters of St Albans. She remembers the flats and houses she’d seen during her online searches, the little intakes of breath as her eye caught upon the perfect place: a suntrap terrace, an eat-in kitchen, a five-minute walk to the station, a bulge of ancient leaded window, the suggestion of cathedral bells from across a green, and then she would see the price and feel herself a fool for ever thinking it might be for her.
She’d compromised on everything in the end to find a place that was close to her job and not too far from the train station. There’d been no gut instinct as she stepped across the threshold; her heart said nothing to her as the estate agent showed her around. But she’d made it a home to be proud of, painstakingly creaming off the best that TK Maxx had to offer, and now her badly converted, slightly awkward one-bedroom flat makes her feel happy. She’d bought it; she’d adorned it. It belonged to her.
But now it appears she is the owner of a house on the finest street in Chelsea and suddenly her flat looks like a ridiculous joke and so does everything else that was important to her five minutes ago – the £1500-a-year rise she’d just been awarded at work, the hen weekend in Barcelona next month that had taken her six months to save for, the Mac eye shadow she’d ‘allowed’ herself to buy last weekend as a treat for getting the pay rise – the soft frisson of abandoning her tightly managed monthly budget for just one glossy, sweet-smelling moment in House of Fraser, the weightlessness of the tiny MAC bag swinging from her hand, the shiver of placing the little black capsule in her make-up bag, of knowing that she owned it, that she might in fact wear it in Barcelona, where she might also wear the dress her mother bought her for Christmas, the one from French Connection with the lace panels she’d wanted for ages. Five minutes ago her joys in life had been small, anticipated, longed-for, hard-earned and saved-up-for, inconsequential little splurges that meant nothing in the scheme of things but gave the flat surface of her life enough sparkles to make it worth getting out of bed every morning to go and do a job which she liked but didn’t love.
Now she owns a house in Chelsea and the proportions of her existence have been blown apart.
She slides the letter back into its expensive envelope and finishes her tea.
There is a storm brewing over the Côte d’Azur; it sits dark as damsons on the horizon, lying heavy on the crown of Lucy’s head. She cups her skull with one hand, grabs her daughter’s empty plate with the other and lowers it to the floor so that the dog can lick off the gravy stains and crumbs of chicken.
‘Marco,’ she says to her son, ‘finish your food.’
‘I’m not hungry,’ he replies.
Lucy feels rage pulse and throb at her temples. The storm is edging closer; she can feel the moisture cooling in the hot air. ‘This is it,’ she says, her voice clipped with the effort of not shouting. ‘This is all there is to eat today. This is the end of the money. No more. No telling me you’re hungry at bedtime. It’ll be too late then. Eat it. Please.’
Marco shakes his head long-sufferingly and cuts into his chicken schnitzel. She stares at the top of his head, the thick chestnut hair swirling from a double-crown. She tries to remember the last time they all washed their hair and she can’t.
Stella says, ‘Mama, can I have a dessert?’
Lucy glances down at her. Stella is five years old and the best mistake Lucy ever made. She should say no; she’s so hard on Marco, she should not be so soft on his sister. But Stella is so good, so yielding and easy. How can she deny her something sweet to eat?
‘If Marco finishes his schnitzel,’ she says evenly, ‘we can get an ice cream to share.’
This is clearly unfair on Stella, who finished her chicken ten minutes ago and shouldn’t have to wait for her brother to finish his. But Stella’s sense of injustice seems still to be unformed and she nods and says, ‘Eat quickly, Marco!’
Lucy takes Marco’s plate from him when he is done and puts it on the pavement for the dog. The ice cream comes. It is three flavours in a glass bowl with hot chocolate sauce, crumbled praline and a pink foil palm tree on a cocktail stick.
Lucy’s head throbs again and she eyes the horizon. They need to find shelter and they need to do it soon. She asks for the bill, places her card on the saucer, taps her number into the card reader, her breath held against the knowledge that now there is no money in that account, that there is no money anywhere.
She waits while Stella licks out the glass bowl, then she unties the dog’s lead from the table leg and collects their bags, handing two to Marco, one to Stella.
‘Where are we going?’ asks Marco.
His brown eyes are serious, his gaze is heavy with anxiety.
She sighs. She looks up the street towards Nice’s old town, down the street towards the ocean. She even looks at the dog, as though he might have a good suggestion to make. He looks at her eagerly as though there might be another plate to lick. There’s only one place to go and it’s the last place she wants to be. But she finds a smile.
‘I know,’ she says, ‘let’s go and see Mémé!’
Marco groans. Stella looks uncertain. They both remember how it was last time they stayed with Stella’s grandmother. Samia was once a film star in Algeria. Now she is seventy years old, blind in one eye and living in a scruffy seventh-floor apartment in a tower block in l’Ariane with her disabled adult daughter. Her husband died when she was just fifty-five and her only son, Stella’s father, disappeared three years ago and hasn’t been in touch since. Samia is angry and raw and rightly so. But she has a roof and a floor; she has pillows and running water. She has everything right now that Lucy can’t offer her children.
‘Just for one night,’ she says. ‘Just tonight and then I’ll sort something out for tomorrow. I promise.’
They reach Samia’s estate just as the rain starts to fall, tiny water bombs exploding on to the hot pavement. In the graffiti-daubed lift on the way to the seventh floor, Lucy can smell them: the humid aroma of unwashed clothes, of greasy hair, of trainers that have been worn too long. The dog, with his coat of dense wiry hair, smells particularly horrible.
‘I can’t,’ says Samia at her front door, blocking their entrance. ‘I just can’t. Mazie is sick. The carer needs to sleep here tonight. There is no room. There is just no room.’
A crack of thunder booms overhead. The sky behind them turns brilliant white. Sheets of rain sluice from the sky. Lucy stares at Samia desperately. ‘We have nowhere else to go,’ she says.
‘I know,’ says Samia. ‘I know that. I can take Stella. But you and the boy and the dog, I’m sorry. You’ll have to find somewhere else.’
Lucy feels Stella push against her leg, a shiver of unease run through her small body. ‘I want to stay with you,’ she whispers to Lucy. ‘I don’t want to stay without you.’
Lucy crouches down and takes Stella’s hands. Stella’s eyes are green, like her father’s, her dark hair is streaked hazel-blond, her face tanned dark brown from the long hot summer. She is a beautiful child; people stop Lucy on the street sometimes to tell her so, with a soft gasp.
‘Baby,’ she says. ‘You’ll be dry here. You can have a shower; Mémé will read you a story …’
Samia nods. ‘I’ll read you the one you like,’ she says, ‘about the moon.’
Stella presses herself tighter against Lucy. Lucy feels her patience ebbing. She would give anything to be allowed to sleep in Mémé’s bed, to be read the book about the moon, to shower and slip into clean pyjamas.
‘Just one night, baby. I’ll be here first thing tomorrow to collect you. OK?’
She feels the flutter of Stella’s head nodding against her shoulder, the intake of her breath against tears. ‘OK, Mama,’ says Stella, and Lucy bundles her into Samia’s flat before either of them can change their mind. Then it is just her and Marco and the dog, yoga mats rolled up on their backs, heading into the heavy rain, into the darkening night, with nowhere to go.
For a while they take shelter beneath the flyover. The constant fizz of car tyres over hot wet tarmac is deafening. The rain keeps falling.
Marco has the dog held in his lap, his face pressed against the dog’s back.
He looks up at Lucy. ‘Why is our life so shit?’ he asks.
‘You know why our life is shit,’ she snaps.
‘But why can’t you do something about it?’
‘I’m trying,’ she says.
‘No you’re not. You’re letting us go under.’
‘I am trying,’ she hisses, fixing him with a furious gaze. ‘Every single minute of every single day.’
He looks at her doubtfully. He is too, too clever and knows her too, too well. She sighs. ‘I’ll get my fiddle back tomorrow. I can start making money again.’
‘How are you going to pay for the repairs?’ He narrows his eyes at her.
‘I’ll find a way.’
‘I don’t know, all right? I don’t know. Something will come up. It always does.’
She turns from her son then and stares into the parallel lines of headlights burning towards her. A huge cannon of thunder explodes overhead, the sky lights up again, the rain becomes, if it is possible, even heavier. She pulls her battered smartphone from the outside pocket of her rucksack, turns it on. She sees that she has 8 per cent battery charge left and is about to switch it off again when she notices her phone has sent her a notification from her calendar. It’s been there for weeks now but she can’t bring herself to cancel it.
It says, simply: The baby is 25.
CHELSEA, LATE 1980s
My name, like my father’s name, is Henry. This duplication was the cause of occasional confusion, but as my mother called my father darling and my sister called him Daddy and pretty much everyone else called him Mr Lamb or sir, we got by.
My father was the sole beneficiary of his own father’s fortune, made from slot machines. I never knew my grandfather, he was very old when my dad was born, but he was from Blackpool and his name was Harry. My father never worked a day in his life, just sat around waiting for Harry to die so that he could be rich in his own right.
He bought our house on Cheyne Walk in Chelsea the very same day he got his hands on the money. He’d been house-hunting during Harry’s dying days, had his eye on the place for a few weeks, was terrified that someone else was going to put an offer in on it before he could claim his inheritance.
The house was empty when he bought it and he spent years and thousands filling it with what he used to call objets: moose heads looming off panelled walls, hunting swords hanging crossed above doorways, mahogany thrones with barley twist backs, a medieval-style banqueting table for sixteen, replete with scars and wormholes, cabinets full of pistols and bullwhips, a twenty-foot tapestry, sinister oil portraits of other people’s ancestors, reams of gold-blocked leather-bound books that no one would ever read and a full-size cannon in the front garden. There were no comfortable chairs in our house, no cosy corners. Everything was wood and leather and metal and glass. Everything was hard. Especially my father.
He lifted weights in our basement and drank Guinness from his own private keg in his own private bar. He wore £800 handmade suits from Mayfair that barely accommodated his muscles and his girth. He had hair the colour of old pennies and raw-looking hands with tight red knuckles. He drove a Jaguar. He played golf although he hated it because he wasn’t designed to swing a golf club; he was too solid, too unyielding. He went on shoots at the weekends: disappeared on Saturday morning wearing a tight-fitting tweed jacket with a boot full of guns and came home on Sunday evening with a brace of wood pigeons in an ice box. Once, when I was about five, he brought home an English Bulldog he’d bought from a man on the street using the mint-fresh fifty-pound notes he kept rolled up in his jacket pocket. He said it reminded him of himself. Then it shat on an antique rug and he got rid of it.
My mother was a rare beauty.
Not my words. My father’s.
Your mother is a rare beauty.
She was half-German, half-Turkish. Her name was Martina. She was twelve years younger than my dad, and back then, before they came, she was a style icon. She would put on a pair of dark sunglasses and take herself off to Sloane Street to spend my father’s money on bright silk scarves and gold-encased lipsticks and intense French perfume and she would be photographed sometimes, her wrists encircled with bag handles, and put in the posh papers. They called her a socialite. She wasn’t really. She went to glamorous parties and wore beautiful clothes but when she was at home she was just our mum. Not the best mum, but not the worst, and certainly a relatively soft spot in our big, masculine, machete-adorned Chelsea mansion.
She’d once had a job, for a year or so, introducing important fashion people to each other. Or at least that was my impression. She had little silver business cards in her purse, printed with the words ‘Martina Lamb Associates’ in hot pink. She had an office on the King’s Road, a bright loft room over a shop, with a glass table and leather chairs and a telex machine, rails of clothes in clear plastic, a vase of white lilies on a plinth. She would take me and my sister into work with her on school holidays and give us crisp piles of tantalisingly white paper from a ream in a box, and a handful of Magic Markers. The phone would ring occasionally, and Mummy would say, ‘Good morning, Martina Lamb Associates.’ Sometimes a visitor would be buzzed in via the intercom – my sister and I fighting over whose turn it was to press the button. The visitors were shrill, very thin women who only wanted to talk about clothes and famous people. There were no ‘associates’, just our mother and the occasional wide-eyed teenage girl on work experience. I don’t know what happened to it all. I just know that the loft office disappeared, and the silver business cards disappeared, and Mummy just carried on being a housewife again.
My sister and I went to school in Knightsbridge – quite possibly the most expensive school in London. Our father was not afraid of spending money then. He loved spending money. The more the better. Our uniform was shit brown and bile yellow with knickerbocker-style trousers for the boys. Thankfully, by the time I was old enough to be humiliated by the attire, my father had no money left to pay for school fees, let alone for corduroy knickerbockers from the Harrods school uniform department.
It all happened so slowly, yet so extraordinarily quickly, the change to our parents, to our home, to our lives after they arrived. But that first night, when Birdie appeared on our front step with two large suitcases and a cat in a wicker box, we could never have guessed the impact she would have, the other people she would bring into our lives, that it would all end the way it did.
We thought she had just come to stay for the weekend.
Libby can hear the whisper of every moment that this room has existed, feel every breath of every person who has ever sat where she is sitting.
‘Seventeen ninety-nine,’ Mr Royle had replied in answer to her earlier question. ‘One of the oldest legal practices in the capital.’
Mr Royle looks at her now across his heavily waxed desk top. A smile flickers across his lips and he says, ‘Well, well, well. This is some birthday present, no?’
Libby smiles nervously. ‘I’m still not convinced it’s really true,’ she says. ‘I keep expecting someone to tell me it’s a big wind-up.’
Her choice of words – big wind-up – feels wrong in this venerable and ancient setting. She wishes she’d used a different turn of phrase. But Mr Royle doesn’t seem concerned. His smile stays in place as he leans forward and passes Libby a thick pile of paperwork. ‘No winding up, I can assure you, Miss Jones.
‘Here,’ he says, pulling something from the pile of paper. ‘I wasn’t sure whether to give this to you now. Or maybe I should have sent it to you. With the letter. I don’t know – it’s all so awkward. It was in the file and I kept it back, just in case it didn’t feel right. But it does seem the right thing to do. So here. I don’t know how much your adoptive parents were able to tell you about your birth family. But you might want to take a minute to read this.’
She unfolds the piece of newsprint and lays it out on the table in front of her.
Socialite and husband dead in suicide pact
Teenage children missing; baby found alive
Police yesterday were called to the Chelsea home of former socialite Martina Lamb and her husband Henry after reports of a possible triple suicide. Police arrived at lunchtime and found the bodies of Mr and Mrs Lamb side by side on the floor of the kitchen. A second man, who has yet to be identified, was also found dead. A baby, believed to be female and ten months old, was found in a room on the first floor. The baby has been taken into care and is said to be in good health. Neighbours have observed that there had been numerous children living in the house in recent years and there are varying reports of other adults living at the property, but no trace was found of any other residents.
The cause of death is still to be ascertained, but early blood samples tested appear to suggest that the trio may have poisoned themselves.
Henry Lamb, 48, was the sole beneficiary of the estate of his father, Mr Harry Lamb, of Blackpool, Lancashire. He had suffered from ill health in recent years and was said to be wheelchair-bound.
Police are now trawling the country for sightings of the couple’s son and daughter who are described as roughly fourteen to sixteen years old. Anyone with any information about the whereabouts of the children is invited to contact the Metropolitan Police at the earliest possible juncture. Anyone who may have spent time living at the property with the family in recent years is also of great interest to the police.
She stares at Mr Royle. ‘Is that …? The baby left behind – is that me?’
He nods. She can see genuine sadness in his eyes. ‘Yes,’ he says. ‘Such a tragic story, isn’t it? And such a mystery. The children, I mean. The house was in trust for them, too, but neither of them ever came forward. I can only assume, well, that they’re … anyway.’ He leans forward, clutches his tie and smiles, painfully. ‘May I offer you a pen?’
He tips a wooden pot of expensive-looking ballpoint pens towards her and she takes one. It has the name of the firm printed on its barrel in gold script.
Libby stares at it blankly for a moment.
A suicide pact.
She shakes her head, very slightly; then she clears her throat and says, ‘Thank you.’
Her fingers clutch the solid pen tightly. She can barely remember what her signature is supposed to look like. There are sticky plastic arrows attached to the edges of the pages she is expected to sign, pointing her in the right direction. The sound of the pen against the paper is almost excruciating. Mr Royle watches benignly; he pushes his teacup across the desk a few inches, then back again.
As she signs, she feels very strongly the import of this moment, this invisible turning in her life taking her from here to there. On one side of this pile of papers is careful trolley trips round Lidl, one week away a year and an eleven-year-old Vauxhall Corsa. On the other is the keys to an eight-bedroom house in Chelsea.
‘Good,’ he says, almost with a sigh of relief, as Libby passes him back the paperwork. ‘Good, good, good.’ He flicks through it, casting his gaze over the spaces next to the plastic arrows and then he looks up at Libby and smiles and says, ‘Right. I think it’s time for you to take ownership of the keys.’ He pulls a small white jiffy bag from a drawer in his desk. The label on the packet says ‘16 Cheyne Walk’.
Libby peers inside. Three sets of keys. One with a metal keyring with the Jaguar logo on it. One with a brass keyring with a cigarette lighter built into it. And one set without a keyring.
He gets to his feet. ‘Shall we go?’ he says. ‘We can walk. It’s only just around the corner.’
It’s a violently hot summer’s day. Libby can feel the heat of the paving stones through the soles of her slip-on canvas shoes, the glare of the midday sun burning through the thin film of cloud. They walk down a street filled with restaurants, all open to the pavement, fully laid-up tables set on special platforms and protected from the sun by vast rectangular parasols. Women in oversized sunglasses sit in twos and threes drinking wine. Some of them are as young as her and she marvels at how they can afford to sit drinking wine in a posh restaurant on a Monday afternoon.
‘So,’ says Mr Royle, ‘this could be your new neighbourhood, I suppose. If you decided to live in the house.’
She shakes her head and issues a small nervous laugh. She can’t form a proper reply. It’s all just too silly.
They pass tiny boutiques and antique shops filled with bronzes of foxes and bears, vast twinkling chandeliers the size of her bathtub. Then they are by the river and Libby can smell it before she sees it, the wet-dog tang of it. Wide boats slip by each other; a smaller boat with more rich people on it bubbles past: champagne in a silver cooler, a windswept golden retriever at the prow squinting against the sun.
‘It’s just down here,’ says Mr Royle. ‘Another minute or two.’
Libby’s thighs are chafing and she wishes she’d worn shorts instead of a skirt. She can feel sweat being absorbed by the fabric of her bra where the cups meet in the middle and she can tell that Mr Royle, in his tight-fitting suit and shirt, is finding the heat unbearable too.
‘Here we are,’ he says, turning to face a terrace of five or six red-brick houses, all of differing heights and widths. Libby guesses immediately which is hers, even before she sees the number sixteen painted on the fanlight in a curly script. The house is three floors high, four windows wide. It is beautiful. But it is, just as she’d imagined it would be, boarded up. The chimney pots and gutters are overgrown with weeds. The house is an eyesore.
But such a beautiful eyesore. Libby inhales sharply. ‘It’s very big,’ she says.
‘Yes,’ says Mr Royle. ‘Twelve rooms in total. Not including the basement.’
The house stands well back from the pavement behind ornate metal railings and an overgrown parterre garden. There is a wrought-iron canopy running towards the front door and to the left is a full-size cannon set on a concrete block.
‘Would you like me to do the honours?’ Mr Royle indicates the padlock securing the board over the front door.
Libby nods and he unlocks it, hefting the hoarding away by looping his fingers around it. It comes away with a terrible groan and behind it is a huge black door. He rubs his fingertips together and then goes through the keys methodically until he finds the one that opens the door.
‘When was the last time anyone was in this house?’ she asks.
‘Gosh, I suppose a few years back now when something flooded. We had to get in with the emergency plumbers. Repair some damage. That sort of thing. Right, here we are.’
They step into the hallway. The heat of outdoors, the hum of traffic, the echo of the river all fades away. It’s cool in here. The floor is a soft dark parquet, scarred and dusty. A staircase ahead has a dark wood barley-twist banister, with an overflowing bowl of fruit carved into the top of the newel post. The doors are carved with linen folds and have ornate bronze handles. The walls are half panelled with more dark wood and papered with tatty wine-red flock wallpaper, which has vast bald patches where the moths have eaten it away. The air is dense and full of dust motes. The only light comes from the fanlights above each doorway.
Libby shudders. There’s too much wood. Not enough light. Not enough air. She feels like she’s in a coffin. ‘Can I?’ She puts her hand to one of the doors.
‘You can do whatever you like. It’s your house.’
The door opens up into a long rectangular room at the back of the house with four windows overlooking a dense tangle of trees and bushes. More wooden panelling. Wooden shutters. More parquet underfoot.
‘Where does that go?’ she asks Mr Royle pointing at a narrow door built into the panelling.
‘That’, he replies, ‘is the door to the staff staircase. It leads directly to the smaller rooms on the attic floor, with another hidden door on the first-floor landing. Very normal in these old houses. Built like hamster cages.’
They explore the house room by room, floor by floor.
‘What happened to all the furniture? All the fittings?’ Libby asks.
‘Long gone. The family sold everything to keep afloat. They all slept on mattresses. Made their own clothes.’
‘So they were poor?’
‘Yes,’ he says. ‘I suppose, in effect, they were poor.’
Libby nods. She hadn’t imagined her birth parents as poor. Of course she had allowed herself to create fantasy birth parents. Even children who aren’t adopted create fantasy birth parents. Her fantasy parents were young and gregarious. Their house by the river had two full walls of plate-glass windows and a wraparound terrace. They had dogs, small ones, both girls, with diamonds on their collars. Her fantasy mother worked in fashion PR, her fantasy father was a graphic designer. When she was their baby they would take her for breakfast and put her in a high chair and break up brioches for her and play footsie with each other under the table where the small dogs lay curled together. They had died driving back from a cocktail party. Most probably in a crash involving a sports car.
‘Was there anything else?’ she says. ‘Apart from the suicide note?’
Mr Royle shakes his head. ‘Well, nothing official. But there was one thing. When you were found. Something in your cot with you. I believe it’s still here. In your nursery. Shall we …?’
She follows Mr Royle into a big room on the first floor. Here there are two large sash windows overlooking the river; the air is stagnant and dense, the high corners of the room filled with thick curtains of cobweb and dust. There is an opening at the other end of the room and they turn the corner into a small room. It’s fitted as a dressing room, three walls of wardrobes and drawers decorated with ornate beading and painted white. In the centre of the room is a cot.
‘Is that …?’
‘Yes. That’s where you were found. Gurgling and chirruping by all accounts, happy as Larry.’
The cot is a rocking design with metal levers for pushing back and forth. It is painted a thick buttermilk cream with a scattering of pale blue roses. There is a small metal badge on the front with the Harrods logo on it.
Mr Royle reaches for a shelf on the back wall and picks up a small box. ‘Here,’ he says, ‘this was tucked away inside your blankets. We assumed, we all assumed, us and the police, that it was meant for you. The police held it as evidence for years then sent it back to us when the case ran dry.’
‘What is it?’
‘Open it and see.’
She takes the little cardboard box from him and pulls the flaps apart. It is filled with shreds of torn newspaper. Her fingers find something solid and silky. She brings it from the box and lets it dangle from between her fingertips. It’s a rabbit’s foot hanging from a gold chain. Libby recoils slightly and the chain slithers from her grasp and on to the wooden floor. She reaches down to pick it up.
Her fingers draw over the rabbit’s foot, feeling the cold deathliness of its sleek fur, the sharp nibs of its claws. She runs the chain through her other hand. Her head, which a week ago had been filled with new sandals, a hen night, her split ends, the houseplants that needed watering, was now filled with people sleeping on mattresses and dead rabbits and a big, scary house, empty but for a large rocking crib from Harrods with strangely sinister pale blue roses painted on the sides. She puts the rabbit’s foot back into the box and holds it, awkwardly. Then slowly she lowers her hand on to the mattress at the base of the crib, feels for the echo of her small, sleeping body, for the ghost of the person who last laid her down there, tucked her in safe with a blanket and a rabbit’s foot. But there is nothing there of course. Just an empty bed, the smell of must.
‘What was my name?’ she says. ‘Did anyone know?’
‘Yes,’ says Mr Royle. ‘Your name was written on the note that your parents left behind. It was Serenity.’
‘Yes,’ he says. ‘Pretty name. I think. If a little … bohemian?’
Suddenly she feels claustrophobic. She wants to run dramatically from the room, but it is not her way to be dramatic.
Instead she says, ‘Can we see the garden now, please? I could do with some fresh air.’
Lucy turns off her phone. She needs to keep the charge in case Samia tries to get in touch. She turns to Marco, who is looking at her curiously.
‘What?’ she says.
‘What was that message? On your phone?’
‘I saw it. Just now. It said The baby is twenty-five. What does that mean?’
‘It doesn’t mean anything.’
‘It must mean something.’
‘It doesn’t. It’s just a friend’s baby. Just a reminder that they turned twenty-five. I must send a card.’
‘A friend in England.’
‘But you haven’t got any friends in England.’
‘Of course I have friends in England. I was brought up in England.’
‘Well, what’s her name?’
Marco roars with frustration. ‘Your friend’s name, of course.’
‘What does it matter?’ she replies sharply.
‘It matters because you’re my mum and I want to know stuff about you. I like, literally, don’t know anything about you.’
‘That’s ridiculous. You know loads about me.’
He gazes at her wide-eyed and stupefied. ‘Like what? I mean, I know your parents died when you were a baby. I know you grew up in London with your aunt and that she brought you to France and taught you to play the fiddle and died when you were eighteen. So I know, like, the story of you. But I don’t know the details. Like where you went to school or who your friends were and what you did at the weekends or funny things that happened or anything normal.’
‘It’s complicated,’ she says.
‘I know it’s complicated,’ he says. ‘But I’m twelve years old now and you can’t treat me like a little baby any more. You have to tell me things.’
Lucy stares at her son. He’s right. He’s twelve and he is not interested in fairy stories any more. He knows there’s more to life than five major events, that life is made up of all the moments in between.
She sighs. ‘I can’t,’ she says. ‘Not yet.’
‘Soon,’ she says. ‘If we ever get to London, I’ll tell you everything.’
‘Are we going?’
She sighs and pulls her hair away from her hairline. ‘I just don’t know. I’ve got no money. You and Stella don’t have passports. The dog. It’s all just …’
‘Dad,’ says Marco, cutting her off. ‘Call Dad.’
‘We can meet somewhere public. He wouldn’t try anything then.’
‘Marco. We don’t even know where your father is.’
There is a strange silence. She can sense her son fidgeting edgily, burying his face into the dog’s fur again.
She turns again, sharply, to look at him.
He closes his eyes, then opens them again. ‘He collected me from school.’
Marco shrugs. ‘A couple of times. Towards the end of term.’
‘And you didn’t tell me?’
‘He told me not to.’
‘Fuck, Marco. Fuck.’ She punches the ground with her fists. ‘What happened? Where did he take you?’
‘Nowhere. Just sort of walked with me.’
‘What did he say? What is he doing?’
‘Nothing. Just on holiday. With his wife.’
‘And where is he now?’
‘Still here. He’s here for the whole summer. In the house.’
‘God, Marco! Why didn’t you tell me before?’
‘Because I knew you’d go mental.’
‘I’m not going mental. Look at me. Totally not mental. Totally just sitting here on the hard, wet ground under a flyover with nowhere to sleep while your father is a mile up the road living in the lap of luxury. Why would I go mental?’
‘Sor-ry.’ He tuts. ‘You said you never wanted to see him again.’
‘That was when I wasn’t sleeping under a motorway.’
‘So you do want to see him again?’
‘I don’t want to see him. But I need a way out of this mess. And he’s the only option. At the very least he can pay to get my fiddle back.’
‘Oh, yeah, cos then we’ll be really rich, won’t we?’
Lucy clenches her hands into fists. Her son always puts the unpalatable bottom line into words, then slaps her round the face with it.
‘It’s the middle of July. All the UK and German schools will be breaking up about now. There’ll be twice as many tourists. It shouldn’t take long to make enough to get to the UK.’
‘Why can’t you ask Dad to pay for us to go? Then we can just go. I really want to go to London. I want to get away from here. Just ask Dad to pay. Why can’t you?’
‘Because I don’t want him to know we’re going. No one can know we’re going. Not even Mémé. OK?’
He nods. ‘OK.’
His chin falls against his chest and she sees the clumps of matted hair that have formed at the back of his head in the week that they’ve been homeless. Her heart aches and she cups her hand around the back of his slender boy neck, squeezes it gently. ‘I’m so sorry, my lovely boy,’ she says, ‘I’m so sorry about everything. Tomorrow we’ll see your father and then everything will start getting better, I swear.’
‘Yes,’ he snaps, ‘but nothing will ever be normal, will it?’
No, she thinks to herself. No. It probably won’t.
Birdie came first. Birdie Dunlop-Evers.
My mother had met her somewhere or other. At a do. Birdie played the fiddle in a pop band called the Original Version and was, I suppose, vaguely famous. There’d been a jangly single that had almost got to number one and they’d been on Top of the Pops twice. Not that I cared much about such things. I never really liked pop music and the deification of celebrities slightly disgusts me.
She was sitting in our kitchen drinking tea out of one of our brown mugs. I jumped slightly when I saw her there. A woman with long thin hair down to her waist, men’s trousers tied round with a belt, a striped shirt and braces, a long grey overcoat and green fingerless gloves. She looked so wrong in our house, I thought. The only people who came to our house wore hand-stitched suits and bias-cut satin; they smelled of Christian Dior aftershave and l’Air du Temps.
Birdie glanced up at me as I walked in, small blue eyes with thin pencil lines of eyebrow above, a hard mouth which didn’t close quite properly over a row of small teeth, a rather weak chin that appeared to have buckled under the joylessness of her face. I thought she might smile, but she didn’t.
‘Henry,’ said my mother, ‘this is Birdie! The lady I was telling you about, from the pop group.’
‘Hello,’ I said.
‘Hello,’ she replied. I couldn’t make sense of her. She sounded like my headmistress but looked like a tramp.
‘Birdie’s group want to use the house to film a pop video!’ said my mother.
I admit, at this point I did have to feign disinterest somewhat. I held my features straight and said nothing, heading silently to the biscuit barrel on the counter for my daily back-from-school snack. I selected two Malted Milks and poured myself a glass of milk. Then and only then did I say, ‘When?’
‘Next week,’ said Birdie. ‘We had a location chosen, but they had a flood or some such disaster. Bouf. Cancelled.’
‘So I said, come and look at our house, see what you think,’ my mother continued.
‘And here I am.’
‘And here she is.’
I nodded casually. I wanted to ask when they were coming and could I take the day off school and could I help but I was not then, and never have been, a person to show enthusiasm for anything. So I dipped my Malted Milk biscuit in my milk, the exact way I always did, just to the T in ‘Malted’, where the end of the standing cow meets the end of the lying down cow, and ate it silently.
‘I think it’s brilliant,’ said Birdie, gesturing around her. ‘Better than the other place in fact. Just perfect. I think there’d be things to sign.’ She rolled her eyes. ‘You know, waivers, etc. In case we set fire to your house. Or one of your moose heads lands on one of us and kills us. That sort of thing.’
‘Yes, yes,’ said my mother as if she had to sign waivers for accidental moose-head fatalities all the time. ‘That makes sense. And obviously I’d need to discuss it with my husband first. But I know he’ll be happy. He loves your music.’
This I suspected was untrue. My father liked rugby songs and bawdy opera. But he did like fuss and attention and he did like his house and anyone who liked his house was always going to go down well with him.
Birdie left a few minutes later. I noticed a small pile of dry skin pickings on the table by her mug and felt a bit sick.
The shoot for the video lasted two days and was much more boring than I’d thought it would be. There was endless time spent finessing light readings and getting the scruffy band members to repeat actions over and over again. They were all dressed alike in brownish clothes that looked like they might smell, but didn’t because a lady with a clothes rail had brought them along in clear plastic bags. By the end of the day the song was embedded inside my head like a trapped fly. It was a terrible song but it went to number one and stayed there for nine long, dreadful weeks. The video was on every TV screen you passed, our house, there, on view to millions.
It was a good video. I’ll give it that. And I got a minor thrill from telling people that it was my house in the video. But the thrill faded as the weeks passed, because long after the film crew had left, long after the single had dropped out of the charts, long after their next single dropped out of the charts, Birdie Dunlop-Evers, with her bead eyes and her tiny teeth, was still in our house.
Libby works for an expensive kitchen design company. She’s head of sales, based in a showroom in the centre of St Albans, near to the cathedral. She has two sales managers and two assistant sales managers beneath her and an assistant sales director, a senior sales director and a managing director above her. She’s halfway up the ladder, the ladder that has been the focus of her existence for the past five years. In her head Libby has been building a bridge towards a life that will begin when she is thirty. When she is thirty she will be the director of sales and if she is not then she will go elsewhere for a promotion. Then she will marry the man whom she is currently trying to find both online and in real life, the man with the smile lines and the dog and/or cat, the man with an interesting surname that she can double-barrel with Jones, the man who earns the same as or more than her, the man who likes hugs more than sex and has nice shoes and beautiful skin and no tattoos and a lovely mum and attractive feet. The man who is at least five feet ten, but preferably five feet eleven or over. The man who has no baggage and a good car and a suggestion of abdominal definition although a flat stomach would suffice.
This man has yet to materialise and Libby is aware that she is possibly a little over proscriptive. But she has five years to find him and marry him and then another five years to have a baby, maybe two if she likes the first one. She’s not in a rush. Not yet. She’ll just keep swiping left, keep looking nice when she goes out, keep accepting invitations to social events, keep positive, keep slim, keep herself together, keep going.
It’s still hot when Libby gets up for work and there’s a kind of pearlescent shimmer in the air even at eight in the morning.
She’d slept all night with the bedroom window open even though she knew women were advised not to. She’d arranged glasses in a row along her windowsill so that if a man did break in at least she would have some warning. But still she’d tossed and turned all night, the sheets twisted and cloying beneath her body.
The sun had woken her up from a brief slumber, laser bright through a tiny gap in her curtains, heating the room up again in minutes. For a moment everything had felt normal. And then it hadn’t. Her thoughts switched violently to yesterday. To the dark house and the linen-fold panels, the secret staircase, the rabbit’s foot, the pale blue roses on the side of the crib. Had that really happened? Was that house still there or had it turned to particles in her wake?
She’s the second to arrive at work that morning. Dido, the head designer, is already behind her desk and has got the air conditioner running. The iced air feels exquisite against her clammy skin, but she knows in half an hour she’ll be freezing and wishing she’d brought a cardigan.
‘Good morning,’ says Dido, not looking up from her keyboard. ‘How did it go?’
She’d told Dido yesterday in confidence that she needed the day off to visit a solicitor about an inheritance. She didn’t tell her about being adopted or the possibility of the inheritance being a house. She’d said it was an elderly relative and suggested that she might be in line for a few hundred pounds. Dido had got very excited about the possibility of a few hundred pounds and at the time Libby wasn’t sure she’d be able to face her reaction if she told her the truth. But now that she’s here, and it’s just the two of them and it’s Tuesday morning and she won’t be seeing her best friend April until the weekend and she hasn’t really got anyone else she can tell, she decides maybe it would be good to share, that maybe Dido, who is twelve years older than her, will have something wise or useful to impart to help her make sense of the whole ridiculous thing.
‘I’ve inherited a house,’ Libby says, running water into the Nespresso machine.
‘Ha ha,’ says Dido, clearly not believing her.
‘No. I have. It’s in Chelsea, by the river.’
‘Chelsea, London?’ says Dido, her mouth hanging open.
‘As in Made In?’
‘Yes,’ Libby says again. ‘By the river. It’s huge.’
‘Are you winding me up?’
She shakes her head. ‘No,’ she says.
‘Oh my God,’ says Dido. ‘So you’re basically a millionaire?’
‘And yet here you are, at Northbone Kitchens on a Tuesday morning, acting like a normal person.’
‘I’m letting it sink in.’
‘God, Libby, if I were you I would be letting it sink in right now drinking champagne in the garden at St Michael’s Manor.’
‘It’s twenty to nine.’
‘Well, tea then. And Eggs Benedict. What on earth are you doing here?’
Libby feels her seams loosen and begin to come apart at the thought that she need not be here, that the sturdy ladder she’s been gripping on to for dear life has just dissolved into a heap of golden coins, that everything has changed.
‘I only found out yesterday! I haven’t sold it yet,’ she says. ‘I might not be able to.’
‘Yeah, right, because nobody wants a house in Chelsea overlooking the Thames.’
Roughly six or seven million pounds. That was the estimate that the solicitor had given her yesterday when she’d finally got up the nerve to ask. Minus, he’d said, expenses and fees owed to the firm. And then there would be inheritance taxes to pay. You’ll end up with about three and half million, he’d said. Or thereabouts.
He’d given her a high five. Confused her with a young person like the ones he read about in the newspapers. It had been quite disconcerting.
‘It’s in a bad state,’ Libby says, now. ‘And it has a history.’
‘Yes. Some people died there. A bit shady. Distant relatives.’ She was about to mention the baby left behind in the cot but stopped.
‘Yeah. All a bit shocking. So for now I’m just going to act like everything’s normal.’
‘You’re going to keep on selling kitchens? In St Albans?’
‘Yes,’ says Libby, feeling her equilibrium start to rebalance itself at the thought of nothing changing. ‘I’m going to keep on selling kitchens in St Albans.’
Marco and Lucy spent the night on the beach in the end. The rain had stopped at about 2 a.m. and they’d gathered their things and walked the twenty minutes across town to the Promenade des Anglais where they’d unrolled their yoga mats on the wet pebbles, tucked themselves under sarongs and watched shreds of spent grey rain clouds chase each other across a big pink moon until the sun started to leak through the line between the sea and the sky.
At eight o’clock Lucy collected together all the cents from the bottom of her rucksack and the bottom of her purse and found she had enough to buy croissants and a coffee. They ate them on a bench, both stultified by lack of sleep and the awfulness of the night before. Then they’d walked back across town to Samia’s flat to collect Stella, and Samia had not invited them in for lunch despite the fact that it was midday and they had clearly not slept in beds. Stella had been bathed and redressed in clean clothes, her soft curls brushed out and pinned back with pink fluffy clips and, as they walked back across town yet again, Lucy pondered that it probably looked like she and Marco had kidnapped her.
‘I can keep her for another night,’ Samia had said, her hand on Stella’s shoulder. Lucy had seen Stella shrug against Samia’s hand, almost imperceptibly, a tiny shake of her head.
‘That’s kind of you, but I’ve found us somewhere to sleep tonight.’ She’d felt Marco’s eyes burning into her shoulder at her lie. ‘But I am so, so grateful to you. Really.’
Samia had tilted her head slightly and narrowed her eyes, processing some silent account of Lucy’s situation. Lucy had held her breath, awaiting some damning pronouncement on her appearance, her parenting, the part she’d played in Samia’s precious son’s moonlight flit. Instead Samia had moved slowly towards the table halfway up the hallway and pulled a small purse from her shoulder bag. She’d peered into the purse and pulled out a twenty-euro note which she passed to Lucy.
‘It’s all I have,’ she’d said. ‘There is no more.’
Lucy had taken it and then leaned into Samia and hugged her. ‘Thank you,’ she’d said. ‘God bless you.’
Now she and the children and the dog are walking along the Promenade des Anglais in the burning afternoon sun with a bag full of clean clothes from the laundromat and bellies full of bread and cheese and Coca-Cola. They head towards one of the many beach clubs that line the beaches here in Nice: le Beach Club Bleu et Blanc.
Lucy has eaten here, in the past. She has sat at these tables with Marco’s dad, worked her way through piles of fruits de mer, a glass of champagne at her elbow or a white wine spritzer, whilst being cooled by intermittent puffs of chilled water squirted from tiny nozzles. They wouldn’t recognise her now, those jaded old waiters in their incongruously trendy blue and white polo shirts. She’d been a sight for sore eyes twelve years ago.
A woman sits on a perch at the entrance to the restaurant. She is blonde in that way that only women in the south of France can be blonde, something to do with the contrast between vanilla hair and darkly toasted skin. She glances at Lucy, indifferently, taking in the state of Lucy and Marco and the dog, before returning her gaze to her computer screen. Lucy pretends that she is waiting for someone to join her from the beach, cupping her eyes with her hand and peering towards the horizon until the woman is distracted by a party of five people arriving for lunch.
‘Now,’ she hisses, ‘now.’
She collects the dog into her arms and pushes Stella ahead of her. Her heart races as she strides as nonchalantly as she can down the wooden platform that runs behind the restaurant towards the shower block. She looks straight ahead. ‘Keep moving,’ she hisses at Stella as she stops, inexplicably, halfway down. Then finally they are there, in the dank, humid gloom of the shower block.
‘Reserved exclusively for the use of patrons of le Beach Club Bleu et Blanc’, say numerous signs nailed to the wooden walls. The concrete floor is sandy and damp underfoot; the air is fusty. Lucy guides Stella to the right. If they can get through the wooden saloon doors to the showers without being spotted, then they will be fine.
And then they are in. The showers are empty. She and Marco strip off their clothes for the first time in nearly eight days. She finds a bin for her knickers. She never wants to wear them again. She pulls shampoo and conditioner from her rucksack, a bar of soap, a towel. She takes the dog in with her, massages shampoo all through his fur, under his tail, under his collar, behind his ears. He stands steady and still, almost as though he knows that this is needed. Then she passes him to Stella who is waiting outside. He shakes himself off and Stella giggles as she is splattered with droplets from his fur. And then Lucy stands under the flow of warm water and lets it run over her head, into her eyes and ears, under her arms, between her legs and toes, feels the hell of the past week start to dissolve along with the dust and the mud and the salt. She shampoos her hair, pulling her fingers through the length of it until it squeaks. Then she passes the bottle under the stall to Marco. She watches their combined suds meeting in the gap between them, the sad, grey tinge of it.
‘Really get into the hair at the back of your neck, Marco,’ she says. ‘It’s all clumpy there. And armpits. Really do your armpits.’
After, they sit side by side on a wooden bench, wrapped in towels. They can see people passing by on the other side through gaps in the wood, see slices of shimmering blue sky, smell sun-warmed wood and fried garlic. Lucy sighs. She feels unburdened, almost, but still not quite ready to do the next thing.
They put on clean clothes and deodorant and Lucy rubs moisturiser into her face and gives the children sun cream for theirs. She has a small bottle of perfume in the bottom of her toiletry bag which she sprays behind her ears and into her cleavage. She twists her damp hair into a roll at the back of her head and clips it with a plastic claw. She looks at herself in the mirror. Nearly forty years old. Homeless. Single. Penniless. Not even who she says she is. Even her name is fake. She is a ghost. A living, breathing ghost.
She puts on some mascara, some lip gloss, adjusts the pendant of her golden necklace so that it sits in her sun-burnished cleavage. She looks at her children: they are beautiful. The dog looks nice. Everyone smells good. They have eaten. This is as good as things have been in days.
‘Right,’ she says to Marco, shoving her dirty clothes back into her rucksack and pulling it closed. ‘Let’s go and see your dad.’
I’d been watching from the stairs, so I already knew. A man with dark curls, a hat with a brim, a donkey jacket, tweed trousers tucked into big lace-up boots. Old suitcases that looked like props from an olden-days movie and a wickerwork cat box held together with a worn leather strap. And Birdie standing by his side, in a dress that looked like a nightie.
‘Darling!’ I heard my mother call out to my father. ‘Come and meet Justin!’
I watched my father appear from the drawing room. He had a cigar clenched between his teeth and was wearing a hairy green jumper.
‘So,’ he said, squeezing the man’s hand too hard, ‘you’re Birdie’s boyfriend?’
‘Partner,’ Birdie interjected. ‘Justin is my partner.’
My father looked at her in that way he had when he thought someone was deliberately making him look a fool, as though he was considering violence. But the look passed quickly and I saw him push through it with a smile. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Of course. That’s the modern way, isn’t it?’
Birdie had told my mother that she and her partner needed somewhere to stay for a few days. Their landlord had kicked them out because they’d got a cat – what sort of idiot gets a cat without checking the terms of their lease? I was not even eleven years old and had never lived in a rental and I knew that much – and Birdie hadn’t known whom else to turn to. As an adult man now of forty-one years old I have often used this refrain to get people to do what I want them to do. I didn’t know who else to turn to. It gives the person you’re trying to manipulate nowhere to go. Their only option is to capitulate. Which is exactly what my mother had done.
‘But we have so many rooms,’ she’d said when I complained about the upcoming arrangement. ‘And it’s only for a few days.’
My mother, in my opinion, just wanted a pop star living in her house.
My sister passed me on the stairs and stopped with a small intake of breath when she saw the cat basket in the hall. ‘What’s it called?’ she said, dropping to her knees to peer through the grille.
‘It’s a girl. She’s called Suki,’ said Birdie.
‘Suki,’ she said, tucking the knuckles of her fingers between the bars. The cat pushed itself against her hand and purred loudly.
The man called Justin picked up his stage prop suitcase and said, ‘Where shall we put our things, Martina?’
‘We’ve got a lovely room for you at the top of the house. Children, show our guests to the yellow room, will you?’
My sister led the way. She was by far the more gregarious of the two of us. I found grown-ups relatively terrifying whereas she seemed to quite like them. She was wearing green pyjamas. I was wearing a tartan dressing gown and blue felt slippers. It was nearly nine and we’d been on a countdown to bedtime.
‘Oh,’ said Birdie as my sister pushed open the hidden door in the wood panelling that led to the stairs to the top floor. ‘Where on earth are you taking us?’
‘It’s the back stairs,’ my sister said. ‘To the yellow room.’
‘You mean the servants’ entrance?’ Birdie replied sniffily.
‘Yes,’ my sister replied brightly because although she was only a year and a half younger than me she was too young to understand that not everyone thought sleeping in secret rooms at the top of secret staircases was an adventure; that some people might think they deserved proper big bedrooms and would be offended.
At the top of the secret staircase there was a wooden door leading to a long thin corridor where the walls were sort of wonky and lumpy and the floorboards warped and bouncy and it felt a bit like walking along a moving train. The yellow room was the nicest of the four up there. It had three windows in the ceiling and a big bed with a yellow duvet cover to match the yellow Laura Ashley wallpaper and modern table lamps with blue glass shades. Our mother had arranged yellow and red tulips in a vase. I watched Birdie’s face as she took it all in, a sort of grudging tilt of her chin as if it to say: I suppose it will do.
We left them there, and I followed behind my sister as she skipped down the stairs, through the drawing room and into the kitchen.
Dad was uncorking wine. Mum was wearing her frilled apron and tossing a salad. ‘How long are those people staying for?’ I couldn’t help blurting out. I saw a shadow pass across my father’s face at the note of impudence I’d failed to mask.
‘Oh. Not for long.’ My mother pushed the cork back into a bottle of red wine vinegar and placed it to one side, smiling benignly.
‘Can we stay up?’ my sister asked, not looking at the bigger picture, not looking beyond the nose on her face.
‘Not tonight,’ my mother replied. ‘Tomorrow maybe, when it’s the weekend.’
‘And then, will they go?’ I asked, very gently nudging the line between me and my father’s patience with me. ‘After the weekend?’
I turned then as I sensed my mother’s gaze drift across my shoulder. Birdie was standing in the doorway with the cat in her arms. It was brown and white with a face like an Egyptian queen. Birdie looked at me and said, ‘We shan’t be staying long, little boy. Just until Justin and I have found a place of our own.’
‘My name is Henry,’ I said, hugely taken aback that a grown-up in my own home had just called me ‘little boy’.
‘Henry,’ repeated Birdie, looking at me sharply. ‘Yes, of course.’
My sister was staring greedily at the cat and Birdie said, ‘Would you like to hold her?’
She nodded and the cat was placed into her arms where it immediately twisted itself round 180 degrees like a piece of unfurled elastic and escaped leaving her with a terrible red scratch on the inside of her arm. I saw her eyes fill with tears and her mouth twist into a brave smile.
‘It’s OK,’ she said, as my mother fussed over her, dabbing at her arm with a wet cloth.
‘Henry, fetch some Germolene, will you, from my bathroom cupboard.’
I threw Birdie a look as I passed, wanting her to see that I knew she hadn’t taken enough care passing the cat to my sister. She looked back at me, her eyes so small I could barely make out their colour.
I was a strange boy. I can see that now. I’ve since met boys like me: slow to smile, intense, guarded and watchful. I suspect that Birdie had probably been a very strange little girl. Maybe she recognised herself in me. But I could tell she hated me, even then. It was obvious. And it was very much mutual.
I passed Justin as I crossed the hallway. He was holding a battered box of Black Magic and looking lost. ‘Your parents that way?’ he asked, pointing in the general direction of the kitchen.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘In the kitchen. Through that arch.’
‘Merci beaucoup,’ he said, and although I was only ten I was old enough to know that he was being pretentious.
We were sent to bed shortly after that, my sister with a plaster on the inside of her arm, me with the beginnings of an upset stomach. I was one of those children: my emotions made themselves felt in my gut.
I could hear them shuffling about upstairs later that night. I put a pillow over my head and went back to sleep.
The Black Magic sat unopened on the kitchen table the next morning, when I came down extra early. I was tempted to unpeel the cellophane and open them. A small act of rebellion that would have made me feel better in the short term but way, way worse in the long. I felt a movement behind me and saw the cat squeezing through the door behind me. I thought about the scratch on my sister’s arm and remembered Birdie’s impatient tut: ‘It was an accident, she wasn’t holding her properly, Suki would never scratch on purpose.’
A bubble of hot red anger passed right through me at the memory and I hissed loudly at the cat and chased it out of the room.
It was almost a relief to go to school that day, to feel normal for a few hours. I’d just started my last term of primary school. I would turn eleven the following month, one of the youngest boys in my year, and then I would be moved on to a bigger school, closer to home, with no knickerbockers. I was very fixated on it at this point. I had very much outgrown the knickerbocker school and all the children I’d grown up with. I could tell I was different. Completely different. There was no one like me there and I had fantasies about going to the big school and finding myself surrounded by people like me. Everything would be better at the big school. I just had ten weeks to get through, then a long boring summer, and then it would all begin.
I had no idea, none whatsoever, how different the landscape of my life would look by the end of that summer and how all the things I’d been waiting for would soon feel like distant dreams.
Libby sits at her kitchen table. Her back door is open on to her courtyard, which is overcast in the late afternoon sun, but still too humid to sit in. She has a Diet Coke poured into a tumbler full of ice to hand and is bare-footed, her sandals cast aside moments after walking into her flat. She flips open the lid of her rose-gold laptop and brings up her Chrome browser. She is almost surprised to see that the last thing she’d browsed, four days ago, before the letter had arrived and upturned everything, was local classes in salsa dancing. She can barely imagine what she’d been thinking. Something to do with meeting men, she supposes.
She opens up a new tab and slowly, nervously, types in the words Martina and Henry Lamb.
She immediately finds a link to an article in the Guardian from 2015. She clicks it. The article is called: ‘The Mysterious Case of Serenity Lamb and the Rabbit’s Foot’.
Serenity Lamb, she thinks, that was me, that is me. I am Serenity Lamb. I am also Libby Jones. Libby Jones sells kitchens in St Albans and wants to go salsa dancing. Serenity Lamb lies in a painted cot in a wood-panelled room in Chelsea with a rabbit’s foot tucked inside her blanket.
She finds it hard to locate the overlap, the point at which one becomes the other. When her adoptive mother first held her in her arms, she imagines. But she wasn’t sentient then. She wasn’t aware of the transition from Serenity to Libby, the silent twisting and untwisting of the filaments of her identity.
She takes a sip of her Coke and starts to read.
The house in Antibes is the colour of dead roses: a dusty, muted red, with shutters painted bright blue. It is the house where Lucy once lived, a lifetime ago, when she was married to Marco’s father. Ten years after their divorce she can still barely bring herself to use his name. The feel of it on her tongue, on her lips, makes her feel nauseous. But here she stands, outside his house, and his name is Michael. Michael Rimmer.
There is a red Maserati parked on the driveway, leased no doubt as Michael is many things but as rich as he thinks he should be is not one of them. She sees Marco’s gaze hover intently on the car. She can see the naked desire written on his features, his held breath, his awe.
‘It’s not his,’ she mutters, ‘he’s just renting it.’
‘How do you know?’
‘I just do, all right?’
She squeezes Stella’s hand reassuringly. Stella has never met Marco’s father before, but she knows full well how Lucy feels about him. They approach the door and Lucy presses the brass bell. A maid comes to the door, wearing white overalls and latex gloves. She smiles. ‘Bonjour, madame,’ she says.
‘Is Mr Rimmer at home?’ asks Lucy, using her best and clearest English accent.
‘Oui,’ says the maid. ‘Yes. He is in the garden. Wait one minute.’ She pulls a small black Nokia from the pocket of her overalls, pulls off one of her latex gloves and dials a number. She glances up at her. ‘Who shall I say is here?’
‘Lucy,’ she says. ‘And Marco.’
‘Sir, Mr Rimmer, there is a lady here called Lucy. And a boy called Marco.’ She nods. ‘OK. Yes. OK. OK.’ She hangs up and slips the phone back into her pocket. ‘Mr Rimmer says to bring you to him. Come.’
Lucy follows the tiny woman through the hallway. She averts her gaze as she walks, away from the spot at the foot of the stone staircase where she’d ended up with a broken arm and a fractured rib when Michael pushed her when she was four months pregnant with Marco. She averts it from the spot on the wall in the corridor where Michael banged her head repeatedly because he’d had a bad day at work – or so he explained an hour later when he was trying to stop her from leaving because he loved her so much, because he couldn’t live without her. Oh, the irony. Because here he is, married to someone else and utterly and entirely alive.
Lucy’s hands shake as they near the back entrance, the one she knows so well, the vast wooden double doors that swing open into the tropical splendour of the garden, where hummingbird moths sip from horn-shaped flowers and banana trees grow in shady corners, where a small waterfall trickles through a flowery rockery and a sparkling rectangle of azure-blue water sits in the southernmost point, basking in the afternoon sun. And there he is. There is Michael Rimmer. Sitting at a table by the pool, a wireless headpiece in one ear, a laptop open in front of him and two phones, a small bottle of beer belying the hectic business-guy act he’s clearly portraying.
‘Lucy!’ he says, beaming, getting to his feet, sucking in his tanned stomach, trying to cover up the fact that at forty-eight he no longer has the gym-sculpted physique of the thirty-eight-year-old man she’d escaped from ten years earlier. He pulls the earpiece from his ear and heads towards her. ‘Lucy!’ he says again, with added warmth, his arms outstretched.
‘Michael,’ she responds circumspectly, moving away from him.
He takes his outstretched arms to Marco instead and gives him a bear hug. ‘So you told her then?’
Michael gives him a mock-withering look.
‘And who is this?’ says Michael, turning his attention to Stella who is clinging to Lucy’s leg.
‘This is Stella,’ says Lucy. ‘My daughter.’
‘Wow,’ says Michael. ‘What a beautiful little girl. Lovely to meet you, Stella.’ He offers his hand for her to shake and Lucy resists the temptation to pull Stella from its path.
‘And this is?’ He peers down at the dog.
‘This is Fitzgerald. Or Fitz for short.’
‘For F. Scott?’
‘Yes, for F. Scott.’ She feels the small shot of adrenaline: the memory of the question-and-answer sessions he’d once subjected her to, to show her that she was stupid and uneducated, unworthy of him, lucky to have him. But there had always been something small and hard and certain at her very core reminding her that he was wrong, reminding her that one day she would find her escape and that once she did she would never ever look back. And now here she is nervously answering his questions, about to ask him for money, almost back where she started.
‘Well, hello, Fitz,’ he says, scruffing the dog under his chin. ‘Aren’t you a cute little guy.’ Then he stands back and appraises Lucy and her little family. It’s the same way he used to appraise Lucy when he was considering the possibility of punishing her. That knife edge of time that could end with a laugh and a hug or could end with a broken finger or a Chinese burn.
‘Well, well, well,’ he says, ‘look at you all. You are all just adorable. Can I get you anything? Some juice?’ He looks at Lucy. ‘Are they allowed juice?’
She nods and Michael looks up at the maid who is hanging behind in the shade of the terrace at the back of the house. ‘Joy! Some juice for the children! Thank you! And you, Lucy? Wine? Beer?’
Lucy hasn’t had a drink for weeks. She would die for a beer. But she can’t. She has to keep all her wits about her for the next half an hour or so. She shakes her head. ‘No, thank you. Juice would be fine for me too.’
‘Three juices, Joy. Thank you. And I’ll have another beer. Oh, and some potato chips. Those, erm what are they called, you know, with the ridges? Great.’
He turns his gaze back to Lucy, still playing it wide-eyed and boyish. ‘Sit down, sit down.’
He rearranges the chairs, they sit. ‘So,’ he says, ‘Lucy Lou, how the hell have you been?’
She shrugs and smiles. ‘You know. Getting on with it. Getting older. Getting wiser.’
‘And you’ve been out here, all this time?’
‘Never went back to the UK?’
‘And your daughter … her father? Are you married?’
‘Nope,’ she says again. ‘We lived together for a couple of years. Then he went back to Algeria to “visit family” about three years ago and we haven’t heard from him since.’
Michael winces as though Stella’s dad’s disappearance was a physical assault upon her. Too ironic to bear. ‘Tough,’ he says. ‘That’s tough. So you’re a single mom?’
‘Yes. I am. Very much so.’
Joy returns with a tray laid with a carafe of chilled orange juice, three glasses on paper coasters, crisps in small silver bowls, tiny paper napkins, straws. Michael pours the juice and passes the glasses to each of them, offers them the ridged crisps. The children pounce on them eagerly.
‘Slow down,’ she hisses.
‘It’s fine,’ says Michael. ‘I have packets and packets of the things. So, where are you living?’
‘Here and there.’
‘And are you still …?’ He mimes playing the fiddle.
She smiles wryly. ‘Well, I was. Yes. Until some drunk English dick on a stag night decided to snatch it off me and then made me chase him and his mates around for half an hour trying to get it back before tossing it over a wall. Now it’s being repaired. Or at least, it has been repaired. But …’ The insides of her mouth are dry with dread. ‘I don’t have the money to pay to collect it.’
He throws her his oh, poor baby look, the one he used to give her after he’d hurt her.
‘How much?’ he says, and he’s already twisting in his seat to locate his wallet in his back pocket.
‘A hundred and ten euros,’ she says, her voice catching slightly.
She watches him peeling off the notes. He folds them in half and passes them to her. ‘There,’ he says. ‘And a little extra. Maybe for a haircut for my boy.’ He scruffs Marco’s hair again. ‘And maybe you too.’ And it’s there, when he glances at her hair, that terrible dark look of disappointment. You’ve let yourself go. You’re not trying hard enough. How can I love you when. You. Don’t. Make. Any. Fucking. Effort.
She takes the folded notes from his hand and feels the almost imperceptible tug as he grips them a little tighter, the hint of a nasty game of control and power. He smiles and loosens his grip. She puts the notes in her shoulder bag and says, ‘Thank you. I’m very grateful. I’ll get it back to you in a couple of weeks. I promise.’
‘No,’ he says, leaning back, spreading his legs a little, smiling darkly. ‘I don’t want it back. But …’
A trickle of coldness runs down Lucy’s spine.
‘Promise me one thing.’
Her smile freezes.
‘I’d love to see you. I mean, more of you. You and Marco. And you too of course.’ He switches his grim gaze to Stella, winking at her. ‘I’m here all summer. Until mid-September. Between jobs. You know.’
‘And your wife, is she …?’
‘Rachel had to go back. She has important business to attend to in the UK.’ He says this in a dismissive tone of voice. Rachel could be a brain surgeon or a politician for all Lucy knows, she might hold the lives of hundreds, thousands in her hands. But as far as Michael is concerned, anything that distracts a woman’s attention away from him for even a moment is some kind of pathetic joke. Including babies.
‘Oh,’ she says. ‘That’s a shame.’
‘Not really,’ he says. ‘I needed some space. Because guess what I’m doing …?’
Lucy shakes her head briskly, and smiles.
‘I am writing a book. Or in fact, a memoir. Or possibly a blend of the two. A semi-autobiographical kind of thing. I don’t know yet.’
God, he looks so pleased with himself, Lucy thinks, like he wants her to say, Oh wow, Michael, that’s amazing, you are so clever. Instead she wants to laugh in his face and say, Ha, you, writing a book? Are you serious?
‘That’s great,’ she says. ‘How exciting.’
‘Should be, yes. Although quite a bit of downtime too, I shouldn’t wonder. So it would be just great to see more of you guys. Hang out a bit. Make some use of the pool.’
Lucy’s gaze follows his, towards the pool. She feels her breath catch hard, her lungs expand then shrink, her heart pound at the memory of her head under that perfect teal water, the pressure of his hands on her crown. Pushing her. Pushing her until her lungs nearly exploded. Then suddenly letting her bob to the top, choking, rasping, while he pulled himself from the pool, snatched a towel from a sun lounger, wrapped it around himself and strode back into the house without a backward glance.
‘I could have killed you,’ he said about it afterwards. ‘If I’d wanted. You know that, don’t you? I could have killed you.’
‘Why didn’t you?’ she’d asked.
‘Because I couldn’t be bothered.’
‘Well,’ she says now, ‘maybe. Though we’re pretty busy ourselves this summer.’
‘Yes,’ he says patronisingly. ‘I’m sure you are.’
‘You know,’ she says, turning to look at the house, ‘I always thought you must have sold this place. I’ve seen other people living here over the years.’
‘Holiday let,’ he says. And she can hear the shame in his voice, the idea of shiny, incredible, successful, wealthy Michael Rimmer having to stoop so low as to rent out his Antibes holiday home to strangers. ‘Seemed a shame’ – he rallies – ‘to have it sitting empty all the time. When other people could be enjoying it.’
She nods. Lets him hold on to his pathetic little lie. He hates ‘other people’. He will have had the place disinfected from top to bottom before he could have faced returning.
‘Well,’ she says, turning to smile at the children, ‘I think it’s probably time for us to hit the road.’
‘No,’ says Michael. ‘Stay a while! Why not? I can open a bottle of something. The kids can splash in the pool. It’ll be fun.’
‘The music shop will be shutting soon,’ she says, trying not to sound nervous. ‘I really need to pick up my fiddle now, so I can work tonight. But thank you. Thank you so much. What do you say, children?’
They say thank you and Michael beams at them. ‘Beautiful kids,’ he says, ‘really beautiful.’
He sees them to the front door. He looks like he wants to hug Lucy and she rapidly drops to her knees to rearrange the dog’s collar. Michael watches them from the doorway, across the bonnet of his ridiculous car, a smile still playing on his lips.
For a moment Lucy thinks she is going to be sick. She stops and breathes in hard. And then, as they are about to turn the corner, the dog suddenly squats and produces a small pile of crap up against the wall of Michael’s house, right in the path of the afternoon sun. Lucy reaches into her bag for a plastic bag to pick it up with. Then she stops. In an hour the shit will be baked and bubbling like a brie. It will be the first thing he sees next time he leaves his house. He might even step in it.
She leaves it there.
Libby was supposed to be going to a friend’s barbecue on Saturday. She’d been looking forward to it. Her friend, April, had told her she was inviting a ‘fit bloke from work. I think you’ll really like him. He’s called Danny.’
But as Saturday dawns, another hot day with a sky full of nothing but blue, the windowpanes already red hot beneath her hand as she pushes them open, Libby has no thoughts of hot Danny or of April’s famous spicy couscous salad or of a glowing orange globe of Aperol Spritz in her hand and her feet in a rubber paddling pool. She has no thoughts of anything other than the mysterious case of Serenity Lamb and the rabbit’s foot.
She texts April.
I’m so so so so sorry. Have an amazing day. Let me know if you’re still going strong this evening and I’ll pop in for a sundowner.
Then she showers and puts on a tropical-print playsuit and open sandals made of gold leather, rubs sun cream into her arms and shoulders, sits her sunglasses on her head, checks her bag for the door keys to the house, and gets the train into London.
Libby puts the key into the padlock on the wooden hoarding and turns it. The padlock slides open and she puts another key into the front door. She half expects a hand on her shoulder, someone to ask her what she’s doing, if she has permission to open this door with these keys.
Then she is in the house. Her house. And she is alone.
She closes the door behind her and the sound of the morning traffic dies away immediately; the burn on her neck cools.
For a moment she stands entirely still.
She pictures the police here, where she stands. They are wearing old-fashioned helmets. She knows what they look like because there were pictures of them in the Guardian article. PCs Ali Shah and John Robbin. They were following up on an anonymous call to the station from a ‘concerned neighbour’. The concerned neighbour had never been traced.
She follows Shah and Robbin’s vanished footsteps into the kitchen. She imagines the smell growing stronger now.
PC Shah recalled the sound of flies. He said he thought someone had left a pair of clippers running, or an electric toothbrush. The bodies, they said, were in the very earliest stages of decay, still recognisable as an attractive, dark-haired, thirty-something woman and an older man with salt and pepper hair. Their hands were linked. Next to them lay the corpse of another man. Fortyish. Tall. Dark hair. They all wore black: the woman a tunic and leggings, the men a kind of robe. The items, it transpired, had been homemade. They’d later found a sewing machine in the back room, remnants of black fabric in a bin.
Apart from the buzzing flies, the house was deathly quiet. The police said they wouldn’t have thought to look for a baby if it hadn’t been for the mention of her on the note left on the dining table. They’d almost missed the dressing room off the master bedroom, but then they’d heard a noise, an ‘ooh’, PC Shah had said.
Libby steps slowly up the staircase and into the bedroom. She peers around the corner of the door into the dressing room.
And there she’d been! Bonny as anything! That’s what PC Robbin had said. Bonny as anything!
Her flesh crawls slightly at the sight of the painted crib. But she breaks through the discomfort and stares at the crib until she is desensitised. After a moment she feels neutral enough to lay a hand upon it. She pictures the two young policemen, peering over the top of the crib. She imagines herself, in her pure white Babygro, her hair already a full helmet of Shirley Temple curls even at only ten months old, her feet kicking up and down with excitement at the sight of the two friendly faces staring down at her.
‘She tried to stand up,’ said Robbin. ‘She was pulling up at the sides of the cot. Desperate to be taken out. We didn’t know what to do. She was evidence. Should we touch her? Should we call for back-up? We were flummoxed.’
Apparently, they’d decided not to pick her up. PC Shah sang songs to her while they waited to hear what they should do. Libby wished she could remember it; what songs had he sung to her, this kind young policeman? Had he enjoyed singing her the songs? Had he felt embarrassed? According to the article, he’d gone on to have five children of his own, but when he found Serenity Lamb in her crib, he’d had no experience of babies.
A crime scene team soon arrived in the house, including a special officer to collect the baby. Her name was Felicity Measures. She was forty-one at the time. Now she is sixty-five and newly retired, living in the Algarve with her third husband. ‘She was the dearest baby,’ the article quoted her. ‘Golden curls, well fed and cared for. Very smiley and cuddly. Incongruous given the setting in which she’d been left. Which was gothic, really. Yes, it was quite, quite gothic.’
Libby pushes the cot and it creaks pathetically, evidencing its great age. Who was it bought for? she wonders. Was it bought for her? Or for generations of babies before her? Because she now knows there are other players in the story of her. Not just Martina and Henry Lamb, and the mystery man. Not just the missing children. Neighbours had spoken of not two, but ‘numerous’ children, of other people ‘coming and going’. The house was filled with untraceable bloodstains and DNA, with fibres and dropped hairs and strange notes and scribbles on walls and secret panels and a garden full of medicinal herbs, some of which had been used in her parents’ apparent suicide pact.
‘We are setting ourselves free from these broken bodies, from this despicable world, from pain and disappointment. Our baby is called Serenity Lamb. She is ten months old. Please make sure she goes to nice people. Peace, always, HL, ML, DT’, the note by their decaying bodies had said.
Libby leaves the room and slowly wanders the house, seeking out some of the strange things found in the aftermath of the deaths. Whoever else had been in the house the night of the suicides had run, the article said, leaving wardrobe doors flung open, food in the fridge, half-read books open on the floor, pieces of paper torn from walls leaving behind their Sellotaped corners.
She finds one of these strips of Sellotape on the wall in the kitchen, yellowed and crisp. She tugs the small shred of paper from it and stares at it for a moment in the palm of her hand. What had been on the piece of paper that the people fleeing this sinking ship had not wanted other eyes to see?
There is a fridge in the country-style kitchen, a huge rusting American-style fridge, cream and beige, probably quite unusual in the UK in the eighties, she imagines. She pulls it open and peers inside. Speckles of mould, a pair of cracked and broken plastic ice trays, nothing more. In the kitchen cupboards she finds empty enamelled tins, a packet of flour so old that it has turned to a brick. There is a set of white teacups, a chrome teapot, ancient pots of herbs and spices, a toast rack, a large tray, painted black. She scratches at the black paint to reveal the silver beneath. She wonders why someone would paint a silver tray black.
And then she stops. She has heard something. Some sort of movement from upstairs. She slides the tray back into the cupboard and stands at the foot of the stairs. She hears the sound again, a sort of dull thump. Her heart quickens. She tiptoes to the landing. There it is again. And again. And then – her heart rate doubles at the sound – someone clears their throat.
Mr Royle, she thinks, it must be Mr Royle, the solicitor. It couldn’t be anyone else. She’d shut the door behind her when she arrived. Definitely.
‘Hello?’ she calls out. ‘Hello. Mr Royle!’
But there is silence. An immediate, deliberate silence.
‘Hello!’ she calls out again.
The silence sits like a still bear at the top of the house. She can almost hear the thump of someone’s pulse.
She thinks of all the other mysteries the magazine article had revealed: the children who fled this house, the person who stayed behind to care for her; she thinks of the scribbles on the walls and the fabric strip hanging from the radiator and the scratches gouged into walls, the awkward note left by her parents, the blue painted roses on the creaking crib, the sheets of paper torn from walls, the bloodstains and the locks on the outsides of the children’s rooms.
Then she thinks again of her friend April’s neat lawn, her spicy couscous, the neon orange of an Aperol Spritz, her sticky feet in an icy paddling pool. She thinks of hot Danny and the potential babies they might have when she is thirty. Or earlier. Yes, why not earlier? Why put it off? She can sell this house with its bleak, dreadful legacy, its mouldy fridge and dead garden, its throat-clearing, thumping person in the attic. She can sell it now and be rich and marry Danny and have his babies. She doesn’t care any more about what happened here. She doesn’t want to know.
She fiddles for the door keys in her handbag and she locks up the big wooden front door and the padlocked hoarding and she emerges with relief on to the hot pavement and pulls her phone from her bag.
Save some couscous for me. I’ll be there in an hour.
Lucy turns her fiddle this way and that in the muted light of the music repair shop.
She places it under her chin and quickly plays a three-octave A major scale and arpeggio, checking for evenness of sound quality and for wolf notes or whistles.
She beams at Monsieur Vincent.
‘It’s amazing,’ she says, in French. ‘It’s better than it was before.’
Her heart softens in her chest. She hadn’t realised, in the dreadfulness of sleeping on beaches and under motorway flyovers, just how hard she’d found it to be parted from her instrument and how much anger she’d been harbouring towards the drunken dickheads who’d broken it. But more than that, she hadn’t realised just how much she’d missed playing it.
She counts out the twenty-euro notes on to the counter and Monsieur Vincent writes her out a receipt, tears it from a pad, hands it to her. Then he pulls two Chupa Chups lollipops from a display on his counter and hands one to each of the children.
‘Look after your mother,’ he says to Marco. ‘And your sister.’
In the just-cooling evening air outside the shop, Lucy untwists the cellophane wrapper from Stella’s lollipop and hands it to her. Then they walk towards the touristic centre, her children sucking their sweets, the dog snuffling at the hot pavement looking for discarded chicken bones or spilt ice creams. Lucy still has no appetite. The meeting with Michael killed it off completely.
The early diners have just arrived: older holidaymakers or ones with small children. This is a tougher crowd than the later one. The later crowd has been drinking; they’re not embarrassed to approach the lady in the floaty voile skirt and strappy vest, with the tanned sinewy arms, the large breasts, the nose stud and ankle bracelet, with the two beautiful, tired-looking children sitting on a yoga mat behind her in the shade, the scruffy Jack Russell with its head on its paws. They’re not distracted by irritable toddlers up past their bedtimes. Or cynically wondering if she’ll spend the money on drugs or booze, if the children and the dog are just for show, if she’ll beat them when they get home if she hasn’t made enough money. She’s heard everything over the years. She’s been accused of it all. She’s grown a very thick skin.
She takes the hat from her rucksack, the one that Marco used to call the ‘money hat’; now he calls it the ‘begging hat’. He hates that hat.
She places it on the ground in front of her and she unclips her fiddle case. She checks behind her that her children are settled. Marco has a book to read. Stella is colouring in. Marco looks up at her wearily. ‘How long are we going to be here?’
So much teenage attitude, so many months yet to go before he turns thirteen.
‘Until I’ve made enough money for a week at the Blue House.’
‘How much is that?’
‘Fifteen euros a night.’
‘I don’t know why you didn’t just ask my dad for some more money. He could have spared it. He could have given you another hundred. So easily.’
‘Marco. You know why. Now please, just let me get on with it.’
Marco tuts and raises his eyebrows; then he lets his gaze drop to his book.
Lucy lifts her fiddle to her chin, points her right foot away from her body, closes her eyes, breathes in deep, and plays.
It is a good night; the passing of the storm last night has calmed the ether, it’s not quite so hot and people are more relaxed. Lots of people stop tonight to stand and watch Lucy play her fiddle. She plays Pogues songs and Dexys Midnight Runners’ songs; during her rendition of ‘Come On Eileen’ alone she calculates roughly fifteen euros being thrown into her hat. People dance and smile; one couple in their thirties give her a ten-euro note because they just got engaged. An older woman gives her five because her father used to play the fiddle and it reminded her of a happy childhood. By nine thirty Lucy has played in three locations and has nearly seventy euros.
She gathers the children, the dog, their bags. Stella can barely keep her eyes open and Lucy feels nostalgic for the days of the buggy when she could just scoop Stella into it at the end of the night and then scoop her out and straight into bed. But now she has to wake her hard, force her to walk, try not to shout when she whines that she’s too tired.
The Blue House is a ten-minute walk away, halfway up the hill to Castle Park. It’s a long thin house, originally painted baby blue, a once elegant townhouse, constructed for its views across the Mediterranean, now peeling and grey and weather-beaten with cracked windowpanes and ivy clinging to drainpipes. A man called Giuseppe bought it in the 1960s, let it go to rack and ruin and then sold it to a landlord who filled it up with itinerants, a family to a room, shared bathrooms, cockroaches, no facilities, cash only. The landlord lets Giuseppe stay on in a studio apartment on the ground floor in return for maintenance and management and a small rent.
Giuseppe loves Lucy. ‘If I had had a daughter,’ he always says, ‘she would have been like you. I swear it.’
For a few weeks after her fiddle was broken Lucy had not paid any rent and had been waiting, waiting for the landlord to kick her out. Then another tenant had told her that Giuseppe had been paying her rent for her. She’d packed a bag that same day and left without saying goodbye.
Lucy feels nervous now as they reach the turning for the Blue House; she starts to panic. What if Giuseppe doesn’t have a room for her? What if he is angry that she left without saying goodbye and slams the door in her face? What if he’s gone? Died? The house has burned down?
But he comes to the door, peers through the gap left by the security chain and he smiles, a wall of brown teeth glimpsed through a bush of salt and pepper beard. He spies her fiddle in its case and smiles wider still. ‘My girl,’ he says, unclipping the chain and opening the door. ‘My children. My dog! Come in!’
The dog goes mad with joy, jumps into Giuseppe’s arms and nearly knocks him backwards. Stella wraps her arms around his legs and Marco pushes himself against Giuseppe and lets him kiss the top of his head.
‘I have seventy euros,’ she says. ‘Enough for a few nights.’
‘You have your fiddle. You stay as long as you like. You look thin. You all look thin. I only have bread. And some ham. It’s not good ham though, but I have good butter, so …’
They follow him into his apartment on the ground floor. The dog immediately jumps on to the sofa and curls himself into a ball, looks at Lucy as if to say, Finally. Giuseppe goes to his tiny kitchenette and returns with bread and ham and three tiny dimpled glass bottles of Orangina. Lucy sits next to the dog and strokes his neck and breathes out, feels her insides untwist and unfurl and settle into place. And then she puts her hand into her rucksack to feel for her phone. The battery died some time during the night. She finds her charger and says to Giovanni, ‘Is it OK if I charge my phone?’
‘Of course, my love. There’s an empty socket here.’
She plugs it in and holds the on button down, waiting for it to spring into life.
The notification is still there.
The baby is 25.
She sits with the children over the coffee table and watches them eat the bread and ham. The humiliations of the last week start to wash away, like footprints on the shore. Her children are safe. There is food. She has her fiddle. She has a bed to sleep in. She has money in her purse.
Giuseppe watches the children eat too. He glances at her and smiles. ‘I was so worried about you all. Where have you been?’
‘Oh,’ she says lightly, ‘staying with a friend.’
‘N—’ Marco begins.
She prods him with her elbow and turns to Giuseppe. ‘A little bird told me what you’d been doing, you naughty man. And I couldn’t have that. I just couldn’t. And I knew if I told you I was going you’d have persuaded me to stay. So I had to sneak off and, honestly, we’ve been fine. We’ve been absolutely fine. I mean, look at us! We’re all fine.’ She pulls the dog on to her lap and squeezes him.
‘And you have your fiddle back?’
‘Yes, I have my fiddle back. So … is there a room? It doesn’t have to be our usual room. It can be any room. Any room at all.’
‘There is a room. It’s at the back though, so no view. And a little dark. And the shower is broken, just a tap. You can have it for twelve euros a night.’
‘Yes,’ Lucy says, ‘yes please!’ She puts the dog down and gets to her feet and hugs Giuseppe. He smells dusty and old, a little dirty, but she doesn’t care. ‘Thank you,’ she says, ‘thank you so much.’
That night the three of them sleep in a tiny double bed in the dark room at the back of the house where the sound of tyres hissing on the hot tarmac outside competes with the creaking of a crappy plastic fan as it oscillates across the room, the television of the people in the room next door and a fly caught somewhere in between the curtains and the window. Stella has her fist in Lucy’s face, Marco is moaning gently in his sleep and the dog is snoring. But Lucy sleeps hard and deep and long for the first time in over a week.
That day, 8 September 1988, should have been my second day at big school, but you’ve probably already guessed by now that I did not get to go to my long-anticipated big school that year, the school where I would meet my soulmates, my lifelong friends, my people. At intervals that summer I would ask my mother, ‘When are we going to Harrods to buy my uniform?’ And she would say, ‘Let’s wait until the end of the holidays, in case you have a growth spurt.’ And then the end of the holidays approached and still we had not been to Harrods.
Neither had we been to Germany. We usually went for a week or two to stay with my grandmother in her big airy house in the Black Forest with its dank above-ground swimming pool and silken pine needles underfoot. But this summer we could not afford it, apparently, and if we couldn’t afford to fly to Germany then how on earth, I wondered, were we going to be able to afford school fees?
By the beginning of September my parents were making applications to local state schools and putting our names on to waiting lists. They never specifically said that we had financial problems, but it was obvious that we did. I had a stomach ache for days, worrying about being bullied at a rough comprehensive.
Oh, such petty, tiny concerns. Such trifling worries. I look back at eleven-year-old me: a slightly odd boy of average height, skinny build, my mother’s blue eyes, my father’s chestnut hair, knees like potatoes wedged on to sticks, a disapproving tightness to my narrow lips, a slightly haughty demeanour, a spoiled boy convinced that the chapters of his life had already been neatly written