Main The Argument

The Argument

It happens to every mother. One day, the daughter whose whole world you once were, becomes someone you barely know. And you don’t know the secrets she’s hiding… One night, 15-year-old Olivia comes home late from a party she was strictly forbidden from going to, and she and her mother, Hannah, start arguing. Soon Olivia speaks the words that every parent has heard from their teenage child: ‘I hate you. You’ve ruined my life. And I’m never speaking to you again.’ Olivia has never been an easy child, a sharp contrast to her easy-going, happy-go-lucky little sister. But Hannah thinks Olivia’s outburst is the end of a normal family argument. In fact, it’s only the beginning of a nightmare… After one day of silence, Hannah thinks Olivia is taking a teenage sulk too far. After two days, she starts to feel anxious that something more serious could be going on. After a week, when her daughter still hasn’t spoken, Hannah knows that Olivia is hiding a bigger darkness – something that could threaten to tear their precious family apart…
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The Divorce

Language: english
File: EPUB, 354 KB
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Xplorzine cemetery issue 5

Year: 2016
Language: english
File: PDF, 17.81 MB
The Argument



A gripping psychological thriller with an incredible twist





Victoria Jenkins





Contents




Chapter 1



Chapter 2



Chapter 3



Chapter 4



Chapter 5



Chapter 6



Chapter 7



Chapter 8



Chapter 9



Chapter 10



Chapter 11



Chapter 12



Chapter 13



Chapter 14



Chapter 15



Chapter 16



Chapter 17



Chapter 18



Chapter 19



Chapter 20





1





THE ARGUMENT

Victoria Jenkins



* * *



Represented by Anne Williams, KHLA anne@khla.co.uk 0776851889



* * *



Dear Diary, I will die if I don’t get out of here. My mother is suffocating me. I feel like every time I try to do anything she’s there, stopping me from living, trying to control everything I do. I don’t want to hate her, but sometimes I feel like I do, like hating her comes naturally and is the easiest thing in the world. Sometimes I think she doesn’t realise what she’s doing, then other times I think everything she does is intentional. Sometimes I think she’s enjoying making me feel this way, as though making me feel rubbish makes her feel better about herself and her own pathetic life. One of these days I’m going to just walk out of this house. I am going to disappear to a better life, somewhere she won’t be able to find me. I’ll make myself invisible so that nobody knows where I am, and when I’m gone, it’ll all be her fault.





2





One



* * *



Hannah



* * *



Rosie is asleep upstairs, tucked up safely in her bed. She is a good girl, she always has been; quiet, content; gentle. Not like her sister. Olivia is everything her younger sibling isn’t, wayward and unruly, forever wanting more, always questioning everything. Even in a few years from now, when Rosie reaches fifteen - an age Hannah appreciates many parents find a challenging time – she can’t imagine her acting as Olivia does. She can’t see her behaving in this way, leaving her here in ignorance, wondering where she is and who she is with, worrying whether she’s okay.

Despite having been told over a week ago that she couldn’t go to the party, Olivia has snuck from the house like a thief and gone anyway. She mentioned it while they were all eating dinner together – a passing comment that neither Hannah nor Michael paid much attention to at the time - and Hannah didn’t think of it again after that, assuming it had been forgotten about. Michael isn’t home tonight, and Hannah doesn’t drive, and she realises her error in not asking Olivia where this party would be, but she hadn’t thought it necessary when they had made their feelings on the subject so clear. Even if she had access to a car, she has no idea where she might start looking for her daughter. Olivia had been told no. Hannah had naively thought that would be enough.

Is this where it starts, she wonders? She has heard of other parents’ lamentations of the same; she knows that at a certain age, at a certain phase, all teenagers find their feet and start to break away, sometimes gradually, sometimes with one sharp and sudden heave that rips them from their mother and father with a separation that may remain permanent.

It is happening already, Hannah knows that, and yet she has been lying to herself, denying what has been right in front of her all this time. From now on, will she watch her daughter slip away from her, bit by bit no longer her little girl?

She goes into the kitchen and gets herself a glass of water, desperate to rid herself of the headache that pinches at her temples and threatens to swell into a migraine. She wonders if it is normal to feel this old at thirty-four, or if it is simply the effect of having had children at a young age. She knows she looks older than she is; she always has done. When she met Michael, she was seventeen, but he had thought her in her twenties. It was something she had always been quietly smug about back then, this looking older than she was, but now that time is really upon her and has started to move quicker in recent years, she wishes the reverse were true. How nice it would be to stop time, she thinks; not just for herself, but for her daughters too. Given the chance, she would have paused it a few years back, before Olivia became the way she now is.

If Olivia knew the effect her behaviour had on her mother, would she do anything to change it? Hannah wonders. Sadly, she doubts it. She is beginning to think Olivia takes a perverse pleasure in causing her anxiety, and her recent tendency towards defiance suggests this is just the start of it all. Hannah doesn’t like to contemplate how far her older daughter will try to push her, so whenever the thought enters her mind, she tries to chase it away with another. Whatever comes next, Hannah hopes Olivia grows out of this phase quickly.

The clock fixed to the wall above the microwave tells her it is already gone ten forty-five. Refilling her glass with water, she takes it into the living room and returns her attention to the iPad she has borrowed from Michael’s office along the hallway. She knows the names of some of the girls in Olivia’s school year, though she has never known her daughter to bother much with any of them. She rarely mentions their names, but then Olivia is a loner; she always has been. Hannah has no idea whose party it is; in truth, Olivia may have mentioned the name when she brought the subject up last week, but Hannah doesn’t remember what was said. Despite everything, she believed her little girl was still in there somewhere, caught amid the attitude and the defiance, and she had naively thought she would never defy her wishes in this way.

She types the name of one of Olivia’s classmates into Google and waits for the results to load. She finds the girl on the second page, an Instagram account that is open for browsing to anyone who might chance upon it. Hannah isn’t particularly good with social media; it has never been something that interests her. Facebook was still in its infancy when Olivia was born, and by the time Hannah gave birth to Rosie everyone seemed to be using it. Up to her eyes in newborn paraphernalia and the debris that comes with an active five-year-old, the last thing she’d had time for was taking a peep at other people’s lives. She has never understood why anyone would want to document the details of their day-to-day existence for people they barely know and rarely see to follow, but apparently, she is in the minority. She is happy with her own life, content with everything she has. Or at least, she was, until just recently.

She wonders where Olivia is and what she might be getting up to, knowing that if she allows it to, her mind will take her to places she doesn’t wish to go. She has been upstairs into her room; she has riffled through her daughter’s wardrobe to try to work out what she might have been wearing when she left the house this evening. Thankfully, her daughter doesn’t own anything inappropriate for her age. If Olivia was more streetwise, she would understand the dangers the world presents, particularly to a girl as young and as vulnerable as she is, but as she isn’t and she doesn’t, it is Hannah’s job as her mother to protect her. She just wishes that Olivia wouldn’t make that job so difficult sometimes.

Her eyes widen at the sight that is Casey Cartwright’s Instagram profile picture. Hannah doesn’t understand what Instagram is, how it works or what the point of it is, but from what she sees here it appears to offer a platform for its users to flaunt anything that involves excess. It amazes her that the girl’s parents let her parade herself on the internet as she does. This photograph is available for anyone to see, showing Casey posing on a dancefloor, her rear end jutting to the camera in a dress that is so tight it appears to have been painted on. Her head is turned to the person taking the photograph, her mouth parted in a consciously provocative and simultaneously gormless gape. She is just fifteen or sixteen years old, and everyone knows that these social media sites are dangerous places. It is easy for a person to pretend to be someone they’re not. The girl is leaving herself open to any kind of trouble, and no one seems to be there for her to stop it from happening.

Though she knows her own daughter isn’t on Instagram, Hannah types in Olivia’s name, just to be sure. It wouldn’t surprise her to find that she has opened an account somehow, even if only to get at her parents in some way, but she is grateful when she doesn’t find her daughter among the list of other females of the same name. Olivia is showing an ounce of common sense where this is concerned, at least.

At her side, Hannah’s mobile phone bleeps. It is a message from Michael.

Sorry I haven’t called. Long day. Off to bed now – early start. Everything ok back home? x

Michael rarely calls when he’s away with work; Hannah doesn’t expect him to be constantly in touch, not when his workload is so demanding and the trips so stressful for him. Two years ago, he was promoted to Senior Director with the supermarket chain he has worked for since she met him, and the job role has involved extensive travel within the UK. The meetings he attends sound long and tedious, and in the moments when he is in between work she doesn’t blame him for taking some time out for himself. She knows she would do the same if she was ever given the chance.

She envies her husband, sometimes. Wouldn’t it be nice, she thinks, to spend a night alone in a hotel room, no matter how generic the place, with only the television and the click of the kettle to break the silence? She wouldn’t care about location or star rating, only about the opportunity for a night’s peace. Hannah has only begun to feel this way recently, and she realises that her envy has been instigated purely by their older daughter’s recent rebellious streak. It can be difficult to deal with alone, particularly when the conflict between them affects Rosie, and this is exactly what it has started to feel like, a conflict. A war has broken out between mother and daughter, though no one has explicitly announced its commencement.

Hannah looks at the message. She knows she should tell Michael what has happened, she thinks, that Olivia isn’t there and has gone to that party, but it would only worry him. He is in Southampton, hours away from their home in Penarth in South Wales; he is too far to be able to do anything useful to help the situation, so what would be the point in spoiling his evening by causing him unnecessary concern? Instead, she sends him a reply that suggests everything is as normal.

All fine here. Hope you get a good night’s sleep. See you tomorrow x

Putting a kiss at the end of every text message seems to her a strange thing to do at their age, but Michael has always done it and Hannah has always reciprocated. He has his patterns and his routines, things that cement their days with a sense of familiarity and security – he still kisses her every time he leaves the house, as well as every time he returns home – and Hannah knows she should be grateful for these day-to-day things, for the stability they offer. If there is anything their family needs, stability is it.

Hannah turns on the television and stares blankly at the muted screen for a while, but it is unable to keep her distracted from the collision of thoughts that has exploded in her brain. She has tried Olivia’s phone countless times. At first it kept ringing through to the answerphone. She left messages she knew would go ignored, each one becoming more frantic in tone. The last few times she has tried the number, the phone has been switched off. What if something happens and she is unable to get hold of Olivia? What if her daughter is alone and hurt somewhere, and no one knows that something has happened to her?

Stop it, Hannah. She is allowing herself to overthink, letting her brain imagine the worst when she knows that the most likely end to her worry will be the sight of Olivia nonchalantly approaching the house, as though this is just any other evening. She will know that she has done wrong, but she’ll do everything she can to present a couldn’t-care-less attitude designed to irritate Hannah further.

It is while she is considering this precise scenario that exactly this happens. At twenty past eleven the outside sensor lamp at the front door clicks on, illuminating the driveway in a puddle of soft white light. Olivia emerges from the stone pathway like a ghost, her footsteps crunching across the chippings. Her hair is pulled back messily, piled up on her head, and her face looks paler than usual. Hannah can’t avoid how slight how daughter looks, caught like this in the muted lighting. In recent months she has begun to fade away, refusing food and becoming a shadow of her former self. Hannah worries, though she suspects that it is yet another way in which Olivia is seeking rebellion.

Olivia doesn’t raise her head to look at the front window, so she doesn’t catch a glimpse of her mother between the curtains, sitting at the window seat looking out for her, but she waits for her at the front door as though she has sensed Hannah’s presence there. She will know that those past few hours will have been consumed with worry, though Hannah suspects that Olivia won’t have given this a second thought.

Hannah waits to hear the tap tap tap of her daughter’s knuckles on the front door before letting her into the house. Olivia steps past her wordlessly, stumbling to one side, and stoops to take off her shoes. She finds it hard to balance, and when her shoes are off and she is upright again, she refuses to make eye contact.

‘Where have you been?’

Hannah doesn’t know why she asks this when she already knows the answer. She realises now that the previous week’s, ‘Can I go to the party?’ had meant ‘I am going to the party’. Rather than reply with the obvious, Olivia offers her a shrug, and even that is given begrudgingly. She is wearing make-up that has smudged beneath her eyes, casting dark shadows beneath them, and it makes her look older than she is, world-weary in a way that suggests it is possible to be defeated at just fifteen.

‘I came back, didn’t I?’

Her words are slurred and when she moves to head towards the stairs, Hannah stops her, reaching for Olivia’s arm. ‘In there,’ she says, gesturing to the living room.

Olivia sighs loudly, the exhalation enough for her mother to catch the sickly scent of alcohol that lingers on her breath. Has she really been drinking? It seems obvious that she might have been when no doubt everyone her age at the party is likely to have done the same. Hannah feels her frustrations grow.

She closes the living room door behind them, not wanting to disturb Rosie. ‘What’s going on?’

Olivia folds her arms across her chest and turns her head to the darkened television, as though staring at a blank screen is preferable to engaging in an exchange with her mother. The framed photograph on the mantelpiece catches Hannah’s eye. It is a picture of the girls, Olivia aged eight and Rosie then just three years old. Olivia is wearing a school uniform, green cardigan top-buttoned over a grey pinafore dress; beside her, Rosie wears a grey dress of her own, unmatching, not yet graduated from nursery and too young to be wearing the same uniform as her sister. Even before she could speak, Rosie expressed a desire to be just like Olivia, following her around the house and mimicking her gestures. She would pull at her red curls, trying to straighten out her hair so that it would look just like Olivia’s. By the age of five, everything had changed, and Rosie had abandoned her adoration of her sister. Perhaps, even then, she was able to see what was becoming of Olivia.

Hannah wishes she had seen what Rosie might have noticed all those years ago. Back then, perhaps she might have been able to do something about what would follow.

‘You went to that party,’ Hannah says, a statement rather than a question.

Olivia shrugs again, answering her with silence.

‘We told you not to go.’

‘It was no big deal,’ she says, looking at the floor. ‘It was a house party, that’s all.’

‘It doesn’t matter what or where it was. The fact is, we told you that you couldn’t go, and you went anyway.’

‘Why does it matter so much?’ The words are spat in temper and Olivia studies her mother with contempt, holding her mother’s eye with an unspoken challenge.

‘If you have to ask,’ Hannah tells her calmly, ‘then you already know.’

Olivia rolls her eyes. Hannah hates it when she does that. It represents everything she never wanted her daughter to become, petulant and disrespectful, and though Hannah feels sure that so many well-intentioned people might try to reassure her that Olivia’s attitude comes with the territory of a teenager, she doesn’t know how long it is going to be reasonable to use her age as an excuse for her behaviour.

‘Why did going matter so much?’ Hannah asks.

She wants to understand her daughter. She remembers what it is like to be her age; she can appreciate the restlessness and the sense of missing out that seem to so often afflict Olivia. She would never admit it and would hate to hear it, but she and Hannah are more alike than Olivia will let herself believe. The difference between them is that Hannah was given nothing, and Olivia has everything, if only she could just allow herself to realise it. It is the ingratitude that Hannah sometimes finds most difficult to tolerate.

‘Everyone else does it.’

It is Hannah’s turn to roll her eyes as she despairs at her daughter’s childish argument. Olivia notices the look and huffs loudly, clamping her teeth on to her bottom lip as though forcing back something she wants to say.

‘And if everyone does drugs,’ Hannah says, ‘is that also something you want to try? Or what about getting pregnant? Sound appealing if everyone else is doing it?’

The exasperation that floods her daughter’s features is tangible. Hannah knows what it is that Olivia would like to say, but she knows that even despite her recent attitude, she wouldn’t be cheeky enough to come out with it. Hannah knows what Olivia thinks of her, that she is over the top, controlling, but having tried every other way to make her see sense and having failed to get Olivia to so much as acknowledge each attempt, she has little other choice than to deal with her daughter in her own obtuse manner.

‘Maybe it does,’ Olivia says, widening her eyes.

She is goading Hannah, pressing her mother until she gets a reaction. Hannah knows Olivia will be disappointed in the lack of response her challenge receives. She never acts on impulse, not anymore. She learned a long time ago that reacting to anything before thinking it through only leads to trouble. Hannah was once like Olivia, headstrong and single-minded. She did what she wanted without heeding any warnings and gave no thought to the consequences. She too once needed someone to guide her away from a path that would only lead to danger.

‘Did you enjoy it?’ Hannah asks. Olivia eyes her suspiciously, wondering where the question is headed. Her focus flits from one side of Hannah’s face to the other as she tries to formulate an answer, as though trying to settle on the least incriminating response. It really isn’t a trick question; Hannah is curious to know whether it lived up to her expectations.

‘It could have gone better,’ she eventually says.

‘In what way?’

Olivia pauses. Her mother can read her as though the things she doesn’t want to say are tattooed across her forehead, printed in bold lettering for everyone to see regardless. Something has happened, she has done something, something she doesn’t want Hannah to find out about.

‘I’m just different, aren’t I?’ Olivia says, and Hannah suspects the comment is an evasion of a truth she doesn’t want to admit to. ‘People laugh at me. They laugh at how I dress.’

‘What’s wrong with how you dress?’

Hannah looks look her up and down, taking in the jeans and the t-shirt, wondering what anyone might find amusing in the very normal clothes her daughter is wearing. The jeans are too big for her, hanging slightly around her hips, but not in any way that might not be regarded intentional.

Hannah’s attention isn’t away from Olivia’s face for long enough to miss the roll of eyes she is offered in response to the question.

‘You just don’t get it, do you?’ she snaps, studying her mother as though a second head has sprouted from her shoulder and she is unsure to which of them she should direct her anger. ‘God,’ she continues, ‘you’re not even that old.’

‘Meaning?’

‘Urgh,’ she says, throwing her arms in the air, exasperated by her mother’s refusal to rise to her bad mood, because that is what she is looking for. Olivia seemed to enjoy confrontation, actively looking for opportunities to get into an argument with Hannah over something, no matter how trivial the subject. She is the same with her sister at times, moody and cantankerous, always trying to wind Rosie up at any opportunity she sees available.

‘Other parents get it. Other girls my age get to wear nice stuff, they get to go to parties.’

Hannah thinks of Casey Cartwright’s profile picture, the image like a still from an x-rated adult film. Is that what her daughter aspires to? Is that what all her parenting has been for, so Olivia can join the herd and follow everybody else in their mundanity?

‘Nice stuff,’ she repeats. ‘Like Casey Cartwright, you mean? Was she at the party tonight?’

Olivia narrows her eyes questioningly, an expression she seems to wear much of the time. ‘What are you bringing her up for? What do you know about Casey Cartwright?’

‘I’ve seen how she dresses, that’s all. Her Instagram profile picture should come with a parental guidance warning.’

Olivia glances at the iPad on the arm of the sofa, her face contorting as though she’s just received life-changing news.

‘You’ve been looking at her Instagram?’ Her voice rises and her cheeks flush pink. ‘Oh my god, you are so embarrassing.’

‘What’s embarrassing about that? She’s not going to know.’

Hannah knows why Olivia is angry with her. She isn’t interested in fashion; she doesn’t wear make-up; she can’t remember the last time she bought a new pair of shoes. These things just don’t interest her, in the same way she doesn’t expect Olivia to show any interest in maths. It just isn’t her thing, and that’s fine, but what her daughter fails to acknowledge is that not everyone has to like and do the same things. Hannah wonders how Olivia might react if she was to come downstairs one morning with a full face of make-up on and a dress inspired by the pages of a fashion magazine. No doubt, she would probably then find her mother an embarrassment. No matter what she does, Hannah won’t win.

‘Would you have gone tonight if your father was home?’

Olivia says nothing. They both know what her honest answer would be. It isn’t that Michael is stricter than Hannah, but she suspects that Olivia regards her as more malleable. Perhaps she has been guilty of being so, and if she has it will have been done in the hope of a quiet life. Yet Hannah understands now that when something seems easier in the short-term, it is inevitably setting up a long-term hardship, one that often can’t be seen until it is too late.

‘I’m going to tell him, you know that, don’t you?’

Olivia’s dark eyes narrow again, and her top lip thins. She eyes her mother defiantly. ‘Tell him what you like,’ she says, her words stepped with a challenge. ‘I don’t care.’

Hannah raises an eyebrow. She loathes it when her daughter has this attitude. Unfortunately, she is embracing it with increasing regularity. She puts out a hand. ‘Your phone.’

Olivia scrunches her face as though she has just bitten into something sour. ‘You can’t.’

When Hannah raises the eyebrow further, the look alone is enough. Olivia reaches into her pocket to retrieve her mobile phone, before slamming it into her mother’s open palm.

‘I hate you,’ she hisses. ‘You’ve ruined my life.’ She marches to the living room door and yanks it open before turning back to the room, her mouth moving to say something she doesn’t seem capable of articulating, a million and one words that are sitting on her tongue ready to be fired at her mother. Instead, in a voice that is disconcertingly calm, all she says is, ‘I’m never speaking to you again.’

She slams the living room door shut behind her before heading upstairs. Hannah hears her heavy steps tramp across the landing and Olivia’s bedroom door thud shut. There is no thought for Rosie, who is sleeping in the room next door. There is no thought for anyone but herself. If Hannah could put her behaviour down to just being a teenager then she would, but where Olivia is concerned, she fears that there is something more, something they are only now beginning to see the start of.





Two





Olivia



* * *



Her head hurts. She drank nearly three glasses of wine at the party last night, even though she had hated the taste of it. She had tasted wine before – she stole some of her parents’ months earlier, sneaking downstairs during the night and trying it through a frustrating combination of curiosity and boredom – but just a couple of sips had been enough to deter her from bothering again. Last night had felt different though. Last night, for the first time ever, she felt as though she might be able to fit in somewhere, if only she was given a chance. People laughed at her, but Olivia is so used to that now that she was almost able to block out the sniggers and the comments whispered behind the back of raised hands, ignoring them with a determination that does not usually come naturally to her. She knows she will have to change to fit in anywhere, but the idea of changing is one that only seems to her a good thing.

The party was full and loud and was everything her mother would have hated. The girl who lived there had been left home alone with her older sister, their parents entrusting them with the house while they went for a long weekend abroad with friends to celebrate an anniversary. Olivia couldn’t imagine her parents ever doing something similar, not when the closest they came to a celebration of anything was to stay up past ten o’clock. Her mother would have been mortified by the number of people crammed into the noisy living room, by the drinks spilled in sticky puddles on the kitchen worktops and the plants that had been knocked over in the garden, their ceramic pots shattered upon the patio.

Olivia stares through glassy eyes at the artexed ceiling, the swirling white patterns making her headache worse. She has done this so often over the years, during all her time spent in this bedroom, seeing shapes and figures in the twists and turns that play out above her: a dragon with its long tail looped around itself; a bird taking flight from the branch of a tree; a face with blurred features that watches over her as she tries to find sleep amid her thoughts. She pushes the duvet down to her waist and lifts her pyjama top from her chest, allowing the air to circulate and cool her sticky skin. She would love to open a window, to feel a burst of fresh air against her face. For now, she stays where she is, replaying in her head what happened at the party last night and the argument she had with her mother when she got home.

She meant what she said to her, every word. She hates her mother – more than hates her – and she will never speak to her again. No one can make her, and the notion that Olivia can control their communication – or lack of it - feels empowering in a way she couldn’t have anticipated and now wishes she had used sooner. Silence will be her weapon. She wonders just how much suffering she will be able to inflict with it.

Olivia lies beneath her duvet for what feels like forever, her thumping head made worse by the anger that throbs through her like a second beating pulse. She feels so much of it that she thinks she might explode, and she wonders how her mother would feel then, to come upstairs later to find nothing left of her, just a mess of pieces blown apart by the suffocating dictatorship her parents insist on inflicting upon her. It would serve her right.

She stares at the wallpaper and the embossed patterns that can still be made out through the paintwork. A few years back, she had begged her mother to have her room redecorated. Childish fairies and toadstools had still adorned the walls, having been there since Olivia was just a little girl. No matter how much her mother might have wanted to keep her young, Olivia was growing up. She was a young woman now, and young women didn’t have fairy wallpaper in their bedrooms and pink curtains hanging at their windows. She had thought her mother might strip the walls – even better but far less probable, that she might have agreed to let Olivia have a go at doing it herself – but she had instead only painted over the paper, the pale emulsion bubbling at the joins. In places, where the paint was applied too thinly and could have done with another coat, traces of the animations can still be seen, like some relic of the past, her mother still clinging on to a childhood that has gone.

Olivia doesn’t want to be reminded of her childhood. When she sees these patterns through the paint, it is like looking at ghosts from the past, things she doesn’t want to have to be subjected to. She isn’t a little girl anymore. Just months from now, she will be old enough to do so many things she knows her mother is desperate to keep her from, but there will be nothing she can do to stop her, not now that Olivia has decided things need to change around here. Olivia wants to smile at the thought, but despite everything, she can’t bring herself to find any satisfaction in it.

There is a knock at her bedroom door, and the irony of the gesture makes Olivia’s hands curl into small fists at her sides. On any normal day there wouldn’t be a thought for her privacy, but she realises that this is not like any normal day. Nothing is normal, not after what happened last night. Something feels shifted, some power game that has been silently played out between her and her mother for so long now, with Olivia always in a losing position. But not anymore, she thinks. Nothing is normal now, and she knows that things may never be normal again.

Her mother wants her to call out to answer her; this sudden knocking of the door to announce her presence on the other side is nothing more than a trick to get Olivia to speak. She won’t do it. She made a threat, and she intends to carry it out. Ignoring the sound, she turns on to her side and faces the wall.

‘I’m coming in,’ her mother says, when the third knock at the door goes unanswered.

Olivia closes her eyes at the sound of her mother entering the room, bracing herself for the lecture she knows is to come. There have been so many of these ‘talks’ that they have all started to merge into one. The general message is always the same: don’t do anything remotely exciting; don’t break any rules or dare to do anything that might involve having what is commonly known as fun. Olivia wonders not for the first time whether it is possible to die of boredom. If it hasn’t been achieved by anyone yet, she believes she may be monotony’s very first victim.

‘You don’t want to stay in bed all day, do you?’

Her mother stands behind her, trying to taunt her with the question and with the answer she knows Olivia will not give, and Olivia can sense her presence looming there, like some harbinger of doom. They talked about them in an English lesson once at school, these people or things that arrive like a bad omen, and it occurred to her at the time that the description fitted her mother in so many ways. Something bad always happens when she’s around, and this is it, Olivia thinks, she is living it – the bad thing that has followed her mother’s presence is this life that she now finds herself trapped in.

‘I think you should come down and have some breakfast, at least. You haven’t eaten anything since yesterday.’

If she was to bring herself to speak to her, Olivia would tell her mother that she isn’t hungry. There is an empty feeling in the pit of her stomach, that kind of burning hollowness that usually passes once a mouth has been fed, but this particular sensation requires something different, something food alone cannot conquer. If she was to stop eating completely, would anyone notice her disappearing? She wants to be noticed, but only if it is silent and subtle and pain-free, and starvation doesn’t seem to her to be any of those things. She has tried it, and she is doing well so far at limiting what she consumes. They can’t force her to eat, and they can’t make her talk. Olivia has some control over her own life, at least.

When she feels her mother’s hand on her shoulder, Olivia has an urge to hit it away. She won’t give her the satisfaction of seeing a reaction. This is what her mother wants, to goad and test her, to see how far Olivia can be pushed before she will break. Her mother would love to see her lash out because then she could argue that her point has been proven: her daughter is nothing but trouble, out of control. She would become the poor victim, the woman whose wayward daughter assaulted her, with Olivia forever condemned as the evil horror-film-cliché offspring.

‘I only want what’s best for you.’

Her mother’s fingers press against her shoulder, massaging her skin. Olivia grimaces. She holds her breath, not wanting to slip up and say what is stuck at the end of her tongue; not wanting to end so soon what she has only just started. Now that she has made the promise – to her mother and to herself - she needs to see it through.

‘I know you don’t feel it,’ her mother continues, refusing to give up, ‘but you’re still young. You think I don’t get it, but I do. And when you’re older, when you’ve got kids of your own maybe, you might finally understand me too.’

When her mother’s hand leaves her, Olivia draws in breath through clenched teeth. She just wants to be left alone; is that so much to ask? She will never have children; she isn’t sure why anyone would ever want to. Why would she want to be a parent, when all parents seem to do is mess things up? Olivia will be a better person for not bringing any kids into this world and subjecting them to the things she has had to put up with. It seems to her that some people have children just to meet a societal expectation, and what then? They are left to raise people they don’t really like, resenting them for the life that has been lost in return. Then there are the ones who have children too young, who have barely left their own childhoods when they become parents. Olivia cannot think of anything worse.

‘There’s food downstairs for you when you’re ready.’

She waits for her mother to go, relieved at the sound of the bedroom door being pulled closed behind her. Olivia turns on to her back again, refocusing on the patterns on the ceiling. She thinks about what happened at the party the night before and feels a flush that rises to her cheeks. She thinks about that boy, about what they did – what she did - and she imagines telling her mother, watching the reaction on her face when she hears about what really went on at that party. It would be worth whatever trouble she would get into just to see the look on her face.

Olivia needs to get out of here. She needs a plan. Her head hurts more as she thinks too deeply, and she knows that she can’t do this now; she needs more sleep first. She needs to sleep through the ache that tugs at her head and the numbness that pulls at her legs until she finds herself able to get up again and face the world. Lost to a daydream of a different life, somewhere far from this place they call home, Olivia finds her eyes growing heavy and she loses herself to the fantasy of being somewhere else. Of being someone else.

When she sleeps, the dream doesn’t go with her. It never does.

A couple of hours later she is roused from sleep by the sound of more knocking at the bedroom door. Her head remains fogged with the effects of alcohol, and her limbs feel heavy, her ankles still weighted to the bed. There is a second bout of knocking. Her mother is persistent if nothing else, she thinks.

‘Olivia.’

It is her father, home from his work trip. He has been away for three nights, though it feels like longer this time around. She is never too sure which she prefers, her father at home or not, because at least when he is there the tensions between Olivia and her mother have something between them that is able to offer a distraction. When it is just the two of them – or three, counting Rosie, who is mostly there in presence but rarely present in spirit – the awkwardness that settles when they are compelled to be in the same room as one another offers the worst kind of silence that Olivia has ever known. She prefers her father there, she thinks, though there really isn’t much in it.

She hadn’t heard him arrive back at the house, though her sleep that afternoon seems to have been unusually heavy. It often takes Olivia an age to just find sleep, and when she does, she is rarely submerged fully in it. She assumes it must be the alcohol, and the memory of it brings back the awful taste it left in her mouth. She thinks again about what she did, wondering whether the deed will be recognisable somehow, worn in the guilt of her expression. Perhaps it doesn’t need to be visible. Sometimes it feels to Olivia as though her father can read her thoughts, and that nothing is kept secret from either of her parents.

He knocks again, a slow, repetitive beat played out on the bedroom door.

‘I’m going to come in, okay?’

She doesn’t answer him; it isn’t really a question.

‘Is everything all right?’

If he knows she went to the party last night, he isn’t giving anything away, not yet. His calmness makes Olivia suspect that her mother hasn’t told him that she snuck out from the house, though she’s not sure why she wouldn’t. Her mother loves playing tell-tale to Olivia’s father, letting him know just how awful she is. Yet in this case, Olivia thinks, perhaps her mother doesn’t want to admit what happened. Telling him what happened last night will mean confessing to her own ineptitude, and why would her mother want to do that?

The bed sinks to one side as her father sits on the edge of the mattress. Turned to the wall, her back to him, Olivia cringes.

‘Come on, Liv, what’s this all about?’

She hates it when he calls her that. Her parents think she’s stupid, but she’s not ignorant enough to miss the irony of the shortened version of name they chose for her. Liv. Live. Exactly what she’s not doing, not while they keep treating her like a little kid and trying to rule her life.

‘Your mother’s upset you won’t speak to her.’

Olivia doubts that very much. Her mother doesn’t get upset, she’s far too emotionless for that. Olivia can’t remember having ever heard her shout, let alone seen her cry; every reaction is controlled and measured, as though her mother can’t allow herself to respond with her heart and not her head. There have been times when Olivia would have appreciated being shouted at, if only to have felt that her mother cared.

She wonders what her mother has told her father, what explanation she has provided for why Olivia is refusing to talk to her.

‘It’s a beautiful day out there,’ he says, though Olivia is sure that this is also a lie. When she came home the night before, the sky was black with the heavy threat of rain. She could smell it in the air, dank and strangely cleansing.

‘You should get out in the garden.’

She rolls her eyes with the irony of his suggestion. The garden isn’t far enough; if she goes outside, she wants it to be somewhere far away from here. He can stay here for as long as he likes, can talk as much menial chit-chat as he wants, but she won’t speak to him. She has nothing to say to either of them, not now; not ever again.

‘I brought some cake home with me,’ her father continues. ‘I picked it up from the bakery in town, that lemon drizzle they do. I know you love that one. Come on, love, what do you say? Slice of cake and a cup of tea?’

She used to like that cake once, when she was about twelve, when she had hips that were wide enough to balance plates on. Olivia hasn’t eaten cake in over a year, but her father obviously hasn’t noticed that. It seems he only pays attention when he wants to stop her from doing something. One look at a slice of sponge and she seems to pile on five pounds. It was her parents’ fault she was an overweight child, too chubby to ever be involved with the pretty girls’ conversations and too slow to ever be chosen for a team during PE lessons; they were forever trying to tempt her with treats and snacks, always bribing her with food to get her to behave in the way they wanted. They wanted her to be fat and ugly, just like they never want her to have any fun.

‘Your mother loves you,’ he continues, ‘and so do I. We’ve only ever tried to do our best for you.’

Olivia rolls her eyes. She waits for whatever comes next – the ‘after everything I’ve done for you’, or the ‘there are children in the world who’d give their right arm to have your life’ speech. Emotional blackmail seems to be her parents’ default setting; without it, she wonders how many arguments they would believe they win. Because that is how this feels now; not a game, but a battle. It is her against them, and someone will have to lose. At this moment, silence is her most powerful weapon. She wishes she had armed herself with it sooner.

The comment she waits for never comes. Instead, her father goes to the bedroom doorway, where he turns to her. ‘Call if you need anything. You’ll have to speak to us at some point, Liv.’

But he is wrong. He is so wrong. She never has to speak to either of them again.



* * *





Three





Hannah



* * *



The afternoon passes quickly, household chores keeping her occupied enough to stop her mind from lingering too long on Olivia’s persistent silence. Olivia stays in her bedroom for the whole day, refusing to speak to anyone and declining all offers of food. It is a dry day, a little chilly but the sun is struggling to make itself visible in infrequent bursts, so Rosie has taken herself to the end of the garden, the hood of her cardigan pulled up over her head, red curls escaping at her neck and her mind lost in the pages of the book she is reading.

Hannah takes a glass of orange juice out into the garden but stops at the start of the lawn before Rosie notices her there. Legs crossed and hood up, her younger daughter is like a little pixie at the bottom of the garden; she is picture taken from a book of fairy tales, magic spun in the air around her. Hannah smiles. If she could freeze time, keep Rosie in any way, it would be this.

She turns and glances back to the house, looking up to the closed curtains of Olivia’s bedroom. She wishes both daughters were the same, though she knows that two siblings are rarely alike. What trouble will Olivia bring them in the future? She has worked so hard for this family, doing everything she can to make a safe and secure home for them all. How is she to be thanked for everything she has done for them?

Hannah walks down to the bottom of the garden and holds out the glass to Rosie. ‘Can I have a look?’ she says, gesturing to the book.

Rosie takes the glass of juice with one hand and passes her mother the book with the other. Hannah joins her on the grass and sits cross-legged; it takes her back to her school days and assemblies in the small and over-heated hall in which the whole school would gather every morning to listen to the monotone drone of the head teacher’s voice. She studies the cover of the book: A Dog’s Life. A forlorn looking Labrador stands near a wooden gate at the edge of a field peppered with buttercups, glancing out at a distant sunset.

‘Any good?’ she asks.

Rosie shrugs. ‘Okay so far.’

Hannah reads the blurb on the back, which describes the story as a heart-warming tale of one girl’s journey to find her missing puppy. It seems young for Rosie’s reading ability – she was able to read books aimed at teenagers by the time she was eight - but Hannah likes the fact that her younger daughter has retained her childlike innocence. If she was able to, she would bottle Rosie as she is now, delay time from moving on any further; she would keep her daughter at this age, this size, with this same level of sensitivity. She has longed for the same with Olivia in the past, knowing that such hope was futile and would only lead to disappointment. In her heart, she had always known how she would turn out.

She hands the book back to Rosie, who offers her a small smile.

‘Enjoy.’

‘Thank you.’

‘Can I get you anything else?’

‘No, thanks.’

Hannah rubs a hand on Rosie’s arm before standing and returning to the house. Glancing up at the window of Olivia’s bedroom again, at the curtains that remained pulled shut, blocking out daylight, she wonders how long she will stay there. She can’t keep this up forever, Hannah thinks. Not even someone as headstrong and stubborn as Olivia is can maintain this silence for too long. She will get bored or decide she wants something, one of which will prompt her into speaking to either Michael or her. All they need to do is wait out this little temporary drama.

When she returns to the house, Michael is in his office finishing his end-of-week paperwork. He likes to be alone in silence when he works; it allows him to get things done quicker so he can return to spending time with the family. Hannah realises she should probably enjoy these quiet, peaceful moments when her chores are completed and the girls are at home, but she isn’t sure that she does. When the girls are at school and she is home alone during the week, she often plays music, losing herself to old nineties classics while she gets on with whatever needs doing that day. The house is quieter at weekends, as Michael prefers it, but where there is silence there is time to think, and thinking is something that has never ended well for Hannah.

She had planned to bake a cake that afternoon, but Michael brought some home with him, and as Olivia has refused to eat any of it there is some left over. Instead of baking, Hannah finishes the ironing she started the previous day then dusts the house from top to bottom, deciding not to disturb Olivia by entering her room. If it is silence she is after then that’s what Hannah will give her, though it seems to her that solitary confinement should be the last thing Olivia wants to subject herself to. By 9pm Rosie has gone to bed and Michael still hasn’t emerged from his office. She makes him a cup of tea and something to eat before taking it down the hallway, knocking the door and waiting for him to respond before entering.

‘I made you a sandwich.’

‘Thanks, love. Just leave it there,’ he says, not turning to her. ‘I won’t be much longer, just wanted to get this lot finished so I don’t have to do it tomorrow.’

She watches him for a moment, his back to her, wondering when he had started to look different and how she hasn’t noticed until now. His thinning hair is sparse at the top of his crown, and he has filled out around the waist, the onset of middle age catching up with him early.

‘Okay. I’m going to go to bed though,’ she tells him. ‘I could do with an early night.’

‘Okay,’ he replies, his attention still on the screen of his laptop.

She waits a moment longer and sensing her still at the door he swivels around in his chair. She sees the man she fell in love with still there in his face, in the light of his eyes and the tilt of his mouth, and she feels a surge of gratitude for this life that they have built together, that cocoons her in all its comforts. She feels guilt for her recent doubts, doubts that have plagued her sleep and continued to haunt her during her waking hours.

‘See you in a bit.’ He gives her a smile she’s unable to read before turning back to his laptop. Hannah eases the door shut before hearing him call her back.

‘Go to Olivia’s room,’ he tells her.

‘I thought we were leaving her for a while?’

He shakes his head and turns away from her, the conversation over. Hannah goes upstairs and does as he has requested of her. Olivia pretends to be asleep, her body turned to the wall, though Hannah knows when she is faking it; she can tell from the way she is lying. Olivia sleeps on her back; she always has done since she was a baby.

She goes into the room briefly, her movements swift as she adjusts Olivia’s duvet over her feet. She waits for some sort of response or reaction, but Olivia lies inert, continuing in her defiant silent protest, not so much as pulling her legs up to move them away from her.

‘Night, Olivia,’ Hannah says softly, but there is nothing offered in return.

Hannah goes to Rosie’s room. The door is ajar, and she pushes it open gently, poking her head into the room to listen to the sound of her younger daughter’s breathing. She goes to the bathroom to brush her teeth and take off her make-up, just a thinly applied layer of foundation and a flick of mascara on each eye. She tries not to linger on her face for too long in the mirror, on the new lines that crawl from the corner of each eye and the dark circles that rest beneath them, concealed until now beneath the creamy foundation she wears like a shield to protect herself. She has an outbreak of spots on her right cheek, a condition that always afflicts her whenever she suffers any stress.

In the half-light of the bedroom, Hannah changes from her clothes into a nightdress. She slips beneath the duvet and closes her eyes but finds herself unable to sleep. She doesn’t want to read – reading has never relaxed her but seems to have the opposite effect, awakening her mind rather than calming it – and she doesn’t want to disturb the girls by turning on the bedside radio. When it starts to rain, she listens in the darkness to the pattering of the downpour against the windowpane until the sound is broken by Michael at the bedroom door, having finally finished whatever work he was doing.

She listens as he undresses in the dark, wondering whether she might pretend to be asleep. She has always been useless at it.

The bed shifts as he climbs under the duvet beside her.

‘Thought I could do with an early night as well.’

He presses his body against hers, the heat of his skin warming her, and now she knows what that smile in the office was all about. When his hands pass over her thighs and push up her nightdress, she feels herself flinch at his touch. She is being unfair, she knows she is; it’s not him, it’s her. Sex hasn’t been appealing in a long time; in fact, she can’t remember the last time they were intimate. She can’t even explain to herself what causes it but there is something in Hannah that throws up a barrier every time the opportunity for physical closeness arises. He has been patient with her, understanding, but she is sure there is only so long he will wait for her. And yet, he has waited for her before.

His hands run over her waist and reach her breasts. He kisses the nape of her neck and she responds by tilting her head back, trying to block the negative thoughts that have crept into her brain like a mass of tiny spiders. She tries not to focus on her weight as he touches her: the extra flesh around her thighs; the loose skin that sags at her stomach. She loves being a housewife, a stay-at-home mum, but she knows that she has let herself go and is old before her time. Being a grown-up had once felt safer, so much steadier than the uncertainty of her youth, but in recent years she has felt differently towards it.

The sex is functional; she imagines that he enjoys it more than she does. When he is done, Michael turns on to his back and places a hand on her shoulder; Hannah stays where she is, lying on her side, turned away from him, knowing she should feel differently but unable to explain to herself why she doesn’t, and why she can’t. She waits for him to say something, and when he doesn’t speak it comes as a relief to her. She feels his hand on her shoulder, a wordless goodnight gesture, and before long he falls into sleep, his breathing becoming heavier and more laboured. He only snores when he’s had a drink, and as he’s not much of a drinker those occasions are few. In some ways, she wishes that he did snore. It would break the silence, give her something to focus on other than her thoughts.

Hannah drifts in and out of sleep, her mind restless and her dreams vivid. She wakes at around 2am, this time unable to fall back into her slumber. She thinks she might have heard something, but she can’t be sure whether it was the noise of a dream, too real and too loud within her own head. And then she hears something else, a sound like a smash, distorted by the lethargy of her sleepless state. She is a light sleeper, she always has been, and when her thoughts aren’t already responsible for withholding her from slumber it takes little to pull her from her dreams. She pushes herself up on an arm, her eyes adjusting to the darkness of the room. The bedroom door is open slightly – she got up earlier to go to the bathroom and didn’t click it closed for fear of disturbing Michael and waking him – but there are no lights on, just a sliver of a glow from a streetlamp that pushes through the crack in the curtains to help her make out the familiar shapes of the furniture.

There is another noise, a bang. Hannah sits up now, her heart pounding painfully beneath the thin cotton of her nightdress. Sometimes the fridge makes noises that are loud enough to wake her; it has been doing it for a while now, this increasingly noisy clanging and clunking, and she is certain it won’t be long before it needs replacing. Yet this sounded different, not like any noise she has heard in the dead of night before. There is someone downstairs, someone in their home.

‘Michael,’ she says, putting a hand on his bare shoulder and shaking him. ‘Michael.’

He has always been a deep sleeper; she has known him to sleep through storms that have felt to her as though they have shaken the house from its foundations. Hannah has always envied him the deep, restorative sleep she never seems to be able to find.

She waits a moment, listening to make sure she hasn’t imagined it, but she knows that she didn’t. There is silence, but she senses that whoever is down there is trying to be quieter now, having realised his mistake in having made so much noise. Hannah feels her heart continue to thud, a blend of adrenaline and fear sending her pulse into overdrive.

‘Michael,’ she says again, gripping him this time and hissing in his ear. ‘There’s someone downstairs.’

He grunts and puts an arm behind him, groping in the darkness for her. ‘What’s the matter?’ he asks through sleep.

‘There’s someone downstairs,’ she repeats.

He couldn’t have heard her the first time, as this time he sits up and turns to her, putting a reassuring hand on her arm to try to calm her down. ‘Were you dreaming?’

She feels like swearing at him, though she never would. It’s something they have never done, not even during their worst arguments. There seems something so disrespectful about swearing at the person you’re married to or swearing at anyone for that matter. Hannah prides herself on having a greater self-control than most, and she is grateful for the fact that her and Michael’s is a marriage that has never been blighted by raised voices and angry words.

A clattering from downstairs answers his question without Hannah having to speak. Michael clambers from bed and pulls on the trousers he left on the chair in the corner just hours earlier. ‘Wait here,’ he tells her as he goes to bedroom door, but she is already out of bed. She follows him to the landing, ignoring his request to stay where she was. Michael moves slowly along the landing, edging tentatively towards the top of the stairs. It has fallen quiet again downstairs, as though there was never anyone there at all, and Hannah wonders for a moment if whoever was there has heard them and is already gone. She wonders if she really heard anything, or if her mind has played cruel tricks on her, the memories that have plagued her thoughts now infiltrating the present.

‘Olivia,’ she hears her husband say.

Hannah quickens along the landing. Looking past Michael, she sees Olivia standing on the stairs in her pyjamas, her hand clutching the banister.

‘Get back up here,’ Michael tells her.

For once, Olivia does what her father asks of her without argument. She steps on to the landing and passes Hannah wordlessly, avoiding any eye contact. She looks so pale in the half-light, wan and ghostlike, a shadow of the girl she was just this time last year. She goes soundlessly into her room and closes the door behind her.

Hannah follows Michael down the stairs; she has more important things to focus on than her daughter’s silent protest. She watches as Michael picks up an ornament from the hallway table; a tall ceramic vase she has never really liked and can’t remember how she came by. He passes the living room; the door is open, and though the room is bathed in darkness it is possible to see that everything is as it was left the night before. The kitchen is at the back of the house, knocked through into what was once a separate dining room. This part of the house is Hannah’s pride and joy, the kitchen gifted to her by Michael as a ten-year anniversary present.

Michael raises the vase above his shoulder as his free hand moves to the kitchen door handle. He pushes the door open with a firm shove, stepping back and gripping the vase in both hands now, ready to swing it if necessary. They wait, but there is no sound; no intruder comes charging towards them as Hannah feared they might. The room is thick with darkness, and Michael must step forward again to flick the light switch.

There is no one there. Hannah follows Michael into the room, her heart slumping in her chest at the sight of what awaits them. The patio doors have been smashed near the handle; the key that was left in the lock now dropped on to the tiled floor. But it is the row of cupboards that lines the far wall that Hannah can’t take her eyes from. Sprayed across their ivory doors in red paint the colour of fresh blood is the word LIAR. It screams at her from across the room like an accusation.

‘Oh my god.’ Hannah’s hand moves to her mouth involuntarily. She scans the room, looking for anything that might be missing, something that might suggest a robbery. Other than a mug that has been knocked from the draining board and has broken into two pieces – one half sitting at the foot of the cupboards, the other resting at the side of the fridge – everything seems to be in place. Nothing appears to have been taken. ‘We need to call the police.’

Michael picks the key up from the floor and locks the doors before moving to the drawer in which the bin bags are kept.

‘I took the key out of the lock earlier,’ Hannah tells him, hearing her voice falter. ‘I took it out before I went upstairs to bed, and I put it in the box in the hallway.’

Michael looks at her, not needing to speak to make his uncertainty known.

‘Michael, I did, I swear. That key shouldn’t be there.’

‘Well it is.’

She watches as he tears a bin bag from the roll, followed by another two. He splits their sides so that they are open and then searches the drawer for a roll of masking tape.

‘Don’t worry about it now,’ he says. ‘What’s done is done.’

‘Michael,’ Hannah urges, feeling frustrated as she watches him begin to tape the opened bin bags across the hole in the smashed glass. ‘We need to call the police.’

‘I’ll do it,’ he says. ‘I just want to stop this breeze - it’ll be freezing in here in no time.’

The surge of adrenaline racing through Hannah’s body has kept her from feeling the cold until now, but as soon as Michael mentions it, she realises he is right. It is early May and though the weather has been mostly kind to them for the past few weeks, tonight it has been raining on and off and if it starts up again, there is nothing to stop driving rain from entering the kitchen and further damage being done. Night air fills the room, chilling her bare legs. But as her eyes rest again upon the word sprayed across the cupboards, she realises nothing could be as chilling as those four letters that glare at her.

LIAR.

Which of them does it refer to: her, or him?

Her mind takes her back to the key in the lock. She didn’t leave it in the back door; she knows she didn’t. In her head, she acts out of her movements of that evening, repeating them over and over, knowing that she took that key and put it away but watching the memory of it fade until she begins to doubt herself.

‘I feel sick,’ she says, thinking aloud. She goes to the sink and takes a glass from the draining board before finding a packet of painkillers and swallowing two, seeking respite from the headache that has come from nowhere and has filled her head with its immediate insistency. She watches Michael as he finishes taping the bin bags across the door. If the person who was here wishes to return, she thinks, there is little to stop them from doing so.

‘How did they get in?’

Michael stops what he is doing and turns to her, his face suggesting it is a stupid question.

‘I don’t mean the door,’ she says. ‘I mean the garden. How did they get into the garden?’

Their house is a fortress, the garden protected by high walls. They designed it when the girls were young, with safety and security in mind. They love their privacy and they chose this house for its corner plot, away from the neighbours on a quiet cul-de-sac on which break-ins like this never happen. Yet there is a first time for everything, Hannah thinks, and she wonders why the house that was targeted was theirs.

‘Over the wall,’ Michael says, finishing his job of blocking out the night air. ‘Must have been, there’s no other way. Probably teenagers.’

‘Plural?’

‘Or just the one,’ he says, his voice rising. ‘I don’t know, do I?’

He stands back and observes his handiwork, his face giving away his thoughts. He appears to be thinking the same as Hannah, that a bin bag and a bit of masking tape won’t do much to keep out a repeat offender.

‘Whoever it was, they won’t come back,’ Michael says, giving voice to Hannah’s unspoken fears.

‘How do you know that?’

‘I don’t,’ he admits. ‘It’s just very unlikely.’

Hannah stares at the cupboards, the word ‘liar’ staring back. ‘Why would a teenager write that?’ She could comprehend vandalism, just about, but the word seems so specific and deliberate. A teenager would break in and leave a signature or an expletive, surely, not something that seems aimed at someone for a reason. It makes no sense that someone they don’t know would break in at random, take nothing, and leave them with this.

‘Will you call the police now?’ she asks, when Michael doesn’t respond to her question.

Hannah has never made a call to the police in her life and she doesn’t want to start now. They are going to ask what that word on the cupboards might refer to, and what is she supposed to tell them? She has no idea what it means or who it is directed at, yet at the same time it manages to make her feel sick to her stomach. Just knowing that an intruder has been here in her home, in her safe place, is enough to make her scream, which she does inside her own head, silently and where she can control it.

‘If I call them now, they’re going to come over here tonight,’ Michael tells her.

Hannah raises her eyes to the ceiling. That’s exactly what they want, isn’t it, to get someone over here as soon as possible so they can find out who’s responsible. They need to report this – she wants to know who has been here – but she doesn’t want the girls knowing more than they need to. It is only as she thinks this that she remembers Olivia on the stairs; she will still be awake, perhaps having listened to all their conversation from the landing. She saw her go into her room, but neither of them knows whether she has since come back out.

She goes to the kitchen door and closes it. ‘What are we going to tell them?’

‘The police?’

‘The girls. This will terrify Rosie – she’ll have nightmares for weeks.’

‘You think it’s best they don’t know about it?’

‘Olivia already knows though, doesn’t she?’

Hannah watches her husband’s face carefully, studying his features as they shift and change. ‘We don’t know how much she knows. Perhaps she didn’t see anything. Anyway, she won’t tell Rosie, not if we ask her not to.’

She raises an eyebrow. Her husband obviously has greater confidence in their older child than she currently does. She berates herself for the thought, wondering if perhaps she is being unfair on her. Olivia is headstrong and defiant, but she isn’t cruel. She never has been – not until recently, at least - and Hannah can’t see why she might start to be so now. To her, yes, but not to Rosie.

‘Where was Olivia?’ Hannah asks. ‘When you saw her on the stairs, how far down was she? How much would she have seen? The kitchen door was shut, wasn’t it? Perhaps you’re right, maybe she didn’t see anything.’

She can hear herself rambling but can’t help it. Her thoughts are spilling from her with the same confusion in which they are entering her head, sporadic and random, each one catching her off guard.

Michael shakes his head. ‘She was halfway down. Whoever was here was already gone.’

His focus moves to the cupboards; Hannah watches him study the sprayed letters, the paint running in tiny streams from each one, like bloodied tears staining a face.

‘Why is Olivia refusing to talk to you?’ he asks, speaking without looking at her.

Hannah shifts uncomfortably. They already had this conversation. When he got back from his work trip, Hannah had to explain their daughter’s silent and strange behaviour. She couldn’t bring herself to tell him the truth, that Olivia had been to that party they had told her she couldn’t go to, so she had given an altered version of it, that Olivia was angry about missing out and had fallen silent in protest of them having stopped her.

‘She’s just being a teenager. She hasn’t got her own way and she’s letting me know she’s not happy about it.’

Michael looks at her now, his eyes widened with an unspoken suggestion.

Hannah waits for a moment, expecting him to say something, and when he doesn’t speak she reads his silent words, refusing to accept them as a possibility. ‘No,’ she says, with a shake of head. ‘She can’t have.’

‘Why not?’ Michael challenges.

Hannah doesn’t have to consider her answer, not when there are a hundred reasons why what he is suggesting is ludicrous. It couldn’t possibly have been Olivia who did this. ‘She’s angry, but she’s not malicious.’

‘Kids react in temper all the time,’ Michael says. ‘They act on impulse - they don’t think things through.’

Hannah shakes her head again. There is no way that her daughter would do this to her. She knows how much she loves that kitchen, and anyway, what would LIAR even mean, anyway? BITCH she may have been able to believe – Olivia would never dare speak the word aloud to her, but Hannah is sure that’s what she thinks of her – but LIAR has no relevance. It makes no sense.

‘Where would she have got spray paint from?’ she argues weakly, as though this is her only reasoning for Olivia not being responsible. In truth, there is so much more that doesn’t make sense about what Michael is suggesting. The house has been broken into, from the outside. They saw Olivia and she looked calm; she didn’t look like a girl who had just done what Michael obviously thinks her capable of.

Olivia seemed calm, Hannah thinks again, and then the strangeness of the fact occurs to her. If she had heard someone break in and had headed to the staircase at the sound of noise from the kitchen, then why would she seem calm? Why wasn’t she panicking? A normal reaction would have been for her to be scared.

She thinks back to last night and to Olivia arriving home drunk from that party she wasn’t supposed to have gone to. She had been calm then too.

‘She could have got the spray paint during a lunch break,’ Michael suggests, and for a moment Hannah has forgotten what she asked him, her thoughts having led her down a path along which she doesn’t want to be taken.

She shakes her head. ‘She doesn’t leave the school grounds until home time. They’re not allowed.’

He pulls a face. ‘You think she follows every rule like she’s supposed to? Come on, Hannah. We don’t know where she is every minute of the day, do we?’

His words send a burst of guilt pulsing through her. He doesn’t know what really happened last night; she has thought about telling him, but there just hasn’t seemed to be a right time to do it. Michael has been busy in his office for much of the day after arriving home, and by the time evening came Hannah hadn’t wanted to ruin the good mood he seemed to be in. Now she isn’t sure whether she did the right thing in staying quiet.

‘She couldn’t have done it,’ she says, but she hears the doubt in her own voice.

Michael shifts closer to her and puts a hand on her arm. ‘I know you don’t want to believe it, love, but there’s every possibility she might have. She wasn’t in her bed when we got up, was she? I didn’t hear her leave her room, did you?’

She knows he has a point, and the more she allows herself to consider it, the more she realises that there could be a truth in what Michael says. By the time they were woken, Olivia might have already been downstairs. They assumed that she was halfway down the stairs, but what if she was on her way back up? Hannah shakes her head, not wanting to be led any closer to the thoughts her brain is presenting. She doesn’t even want to consider it a possibility, because if what Michael suggests really is true, then just how out of control have they allowed their daughter to become?

‘I don’t want to believe it any more than you do,’ Michael says, reading her thoughts. ‘And perhaps I’m wrong, I hope to God I am. Maybe I’m being unfair to even think it. It could have been anyone, couldn’t it – someone drunk or high on drugs, someone who got the wrong house, even.’

He puts his arm around her and pulls her closer to him, wrapping her in an embrace. Hannah rests her head on his shoulder, inhaling the familiar scent of his aftershave. She feels better already just for being next to him, and now she feels guilty for what happened earlier, for not showing him the enthusiasm she knows he deserves.

‘Let’s not worry about this mess tonight,’ he says. ‘We’ll sort it out in the morning.’

Hannah shakes her head. ‘I don’t want Rosie to see this.’ As soon as she says it, she realises she is already considering Olivia a suspect. She knows she should probably feel ashamed to even think it of her own daughter – after all, if her daughter is capable of this then what does that say about her as a mother? – but she cannot help herself.

‘Why smash the door though?’ she asks, clinging on to a hope that Olivia is innocent.

‘To make it look like a break in. Look,’ he says, holding her by the arms and moving back from her. ‘Do you still want me to call the police? I’ll do it if you really want me to, but if anything points towards Liv then we’re not going to be able to protect her. If she’s involved, they’ll find out, and I hope to God she’s not, love, I really do, but once they pick up on something, we won’t be able to protect her. They’ll want to know what’s been going on here, about this argument and everything. She’ll have a record for life and if they think she’s out of control in some way, we’ll end up with social services involved.’

Hannah exhales loudly, knowing that everything he says is right. This is what she had feared – what she has always feared – and she has always known that Olivia was different. She can’t help it perhaps, but that isn’t the point. Her recent behaviour has been challenging to say the least, and they both know that Olivia is trying to test them, pushing her parents to see how far they will be stretched before they snap. They need to intervene now before this goes too far. Hannah needs to protect her. She needs to protect Rosie.

She moves back into her husband’s arms, easing her chest against the warmth of him as he rubs her back through her nightdress. Whenever anything has gone wrong before, he has always been her first and only support system, the only person who can make her feel as though everything will be okay.

‘I’m so sorry, Han,’ he says gently. ‘I hope I’m wrong, but we need to be sure first, don’t we?’

She nods but says nothing. She knows he is right.

‘There’s some gloss in the garage,’ he says. ‘I’ll paint over it – the girls might not notice. If they do, I’ll think of something.’ He leans down and kisses her forehead. ‘Go and get some sleep.’

She nods again but knows she won’t go back upstairs, not until he goes there with her. She doesn’t want to get back into bed alone; as well as that, she doesn’t want to risk seeing Olivia. The thought that she might be responsible for this lodges itself in her brain, refusing to be budged by any reasoning or doubt. The look on her daughter’s face when they saw her on the staircase has set itself in stone in her mind, the look so distant and yet so filled with something else. Smug, Hannah thinks. She doesn’t want to admit it even to herself, but Olivia looked smug at the sight of her parents’ panic.

‘I’ll be back now,’ Michael says, unlocking the patio doors to go out to the garage.

‘Be careful.’

When he’s gone, Hannah stands in front of the cupboards, the word LIAR screaming at her with a silent accusation that manages to pierce her eardrums with its noise. She studies the red streaks, like blood dripping down the cupboard doors. The choice of colour wasn’t an accident, she knows that, but just what was somebody trying to tell her?

If Olivia has done this, Hannah thinks, then she has never really known her own daughter at all.

And if her daughter thinks she’s a liar, just what does she think she’s lied about?





4





Four

Olivia



* * *



When Olivia goes downstairs the following morning, her father is sitting at the kitchen table. He doesn’t so much as turn his head to acknowledge her as she enters the room. The kitchen smells of paint. Will he mention what happened here last night? she wonders. Will her mother? They must know by now that she isn’t going to speak to either of them, but that doesn’t mean they can’t talk to her and she knows her silence isn’t likely to deter either of them from badgering her, hoping to break her resolve. Her mother will want to know what she saw, what she heard. She won’t tell either of them a thing.

This kitchen is her mother’s pride and joy. She would never admit to it, but Olivia believes that if Hannah was honest with herself, she would confess to loving this room more than she loves any member of their family. She has watched her on so many mornings, bustling from one task to another as though she is a woman with purpose, when really all she is a woman who is ensnared in the trappings of domesticity, a slave to the life she has buried herself in. Olivia cannot think of anything worse than this: this daily grind of repetition and routine. Is this all her mother wanted for her life?

Olivia can just about recall what the house was like years ago, before the extension was built. She has memories of noisy builders and loud music played from a radio that was always crackly and her mother being in a state of constant stress; she was pregnant with Rosie at the time, and the work was completed during a sticky summer in which all Olivia can recollect of her mother is a huge stomach and a red, flustered face.

The kitchen was doubled in size, and the garden - a large corner plot that seemed to Olivia the length of a football pitch when she was little - was still big even after a chunk of it had been taken to expand the house. The kitchen was designed in the style of a traditional country cottage, none of this glossy modern minimalism that her mother can’t stand. In so many ways, her parents are meticulously traditional, in their tastes and in their ways. Hannah has yet to reach her thirty-fifth birthday, yet Olivia believes she could easily pass for a woman fifteen years older. She is the kind of woman who still uses a recipe book to bake cakes.

Olivia goes to the cupboard to get a bowl and glances at the patio doors. She wonders how her parents explained the smashed glass to Rosie, but she imagines that whatever excuse they have come up with, her little sister is guaranteed to have fallen for it. For a kid who prides herself on her intelligence, Rosie can be infuriatingly naive at times. Intelligence should ask questions, but Rosie just seems to accept her lot, blindly swallowing down any piece of crap their parents feed her. Olivia could shake her at times, though she knows that none of this is any of Rosie’s fault. She is too young to see her parents yet for what they really are.

If Olivia wasn’t so hungry, she wouldn’t have come downstairs, but it is Sunday now and she hasn’t eaten anything since before the party on Friday night. She lay in bed listening to her stomach rumble for an hour after waking up, by which time she was forced to admit to herself that she was going to have to go downstairs and face whatever awaited her there. The silence she receives is not at all what she had expected. They are playing her at her own game now, though she isn’t sure what they expect to achieve by it.

She pours herself a bowl of cereal and takes the milk from the fridge. She can feel her father’s eyes on her back as she prepares her breakfast, but she won’t be unnerved by him. After what happened last night, it should be he and her mother feeling unnerved.

Olivia takes her cereal outside and sits on the patio slabs. Rosie is curled in on herself at the foot of the tree that sits at the end of the garden, her willowy frame like that of a woodland fairy. Whenever Rosie can’t be found inside the house, there’s only one other place she is likely to be: sitting beneath this tree, her legs crossed, her head bowed over the pages of the latest book she has borrowed from the school library, her red hair drawing a curtain around her that shuts her off from the world. She seems to think it makes her superior, that she knows more for having spent so many hours of her young life immersed in make-believe, but Olivia thinks the opposite is true. While Rosie is lost in stories, she doesn’t see what’s going on in the real world, what’s happening right in front of her. She feels sorry for her. When the truth of what their parents are hits her, Rosie won’t have been expecting a thing.

Their mother appears from the patio doors carrying a basket of washing that has just been pulled from the machine. She casts Olivia a glance but does not allow the look to linger, instead resting the basket on the table outside while she sets about lowering the washing line. Olivia wonders why she is bothering; the sky is still grey and heavy from last night’s rain and looks as though it is ready to burst open a downpour.

‘Would you like a drink?’ her mother asks, directing the question at the washing line.

It takes Olivia a moment to realise her mother is talking to her. She finds her calmness unnerving. She’s not sure why it should unsettle her so much; her mother has never been prone to verbal outbursts or bouts of anger. Her placidity is ingrained within her, a taught behaviour Olivia suspects may not have come naturally to her. One thing is for sure, Olivia is nothing like her mother, not in looks or in temperament. Her mother is tall and copper-haired like Rosie; Olivia is shorter, heavier, brunette. If she was able to scream and shout – if she could tell her mother in one long frustration-fuelled rant exactly what she thinks of her – then Olivia knows she would revel in doing so, that it would be exactly the kind of outburst her mother avoids. As things are, she must say nothing, bite her tongue; wait for her mother to do something that will shatter the invisible glass that has been placed between them.

Olivia spent the previous day reminding herself that she wasn’t to reply when either of her parents spoke to her. It took a surprising amount of concentration to remember not to speak but already it feels so much easier, to not have to think about staying silent before offering no response. She thinks her mother will leave her alone now, but she doesn’t; instead, she leaves her task of hanging out the washing and goes over to Olivia, squatting on her heels to join her near the ground.

‘I don’t know whether your father has said anything to you,’ she says quietly, her face too close to Olivia’s, ‘but you do not mention anything about last night to Rosie. Understood?’

Her mother waits; she won’t leave her alone without some form of response. She is too close, close enough that Olivia inhales the sickly-sweet perfume that has been sprayed upon her mother’s throat. Her make-up has been applied; she can see the evidence of foundation in the lines at her eyes and around the corners of her mouth. Regardless of everything that has happened, the mask is back in place and the show must go on.

Her mother is going to leave until Olivia has offered an acknowledgement of her words, and so she nods, the most she is going to offer her.

‘Whatever you think of me,’ her mother continues, ‘Rosie hasn’t done anything. I don’t want her being upset or frightened by anything.’

She stands and leaves, and Olivia feels the breath she has been holding since she swallowed a lungful of her mother’s perfume leave her in one long exhalation. It is typical of her mother, she thinks, to worry about Rosie and not give a shit about her. What about all the times she has been upset or frightened? Who cared about all those times?

Olivia would never do or say anything to frighten Rosie unnecessarily, though her mother doesn’t need to know this. Perhaps it is better that she lives with the uncertainty that at any moment Olivia might pull the rug from beneath her feet and tell Rosie everything, exposing their parents for what they really are. She feels powerful when she considers it, just how much control she has; control she never acknowledged before. She doesn’t need to do anything. Sooner or later, when Rosie grows older and wants to start living her own life, she will see for herself what their parents are really like.

When she has finished her cereal, Olivia takes her bowl into the kitchen, washes it, dries it, and replaces it in the cupboard. She feels her father watching her again; she waits for him to speak, yet he says nothing. She goes back outside and heads to the end of the garden to sit with Rosie. As predicted, when she turns back to the house, her mother is at the patio doors watching her, her face as bleak as the skies above them, darkened with a silent warning, the kind that Olivia has seen so many times before. Olivia holds her stare, trying to keep her expression as vacant and as difficult to read as she can.

‘What do you want?’ Rosie asks, not looking up from the pages of her book.

‘Charming,’ Olivia mumbles.

‘Oh…you’re talking to me, then?’

‘Why wouldn’t I be?’

‘Well, you’re not speaking to Mum and Dad, are you? I heard them talking about it earlier.’

‘You shouldn’t eavesdrop. What were they saying?’

Rosie tuts. ‘Well, if I wasn’t supposed to be listening, I shouldn’t really repeat it to you then, should I?’

‘Rosie,’ Olivia hisses through gritted teeth. She sighs and put a hand on her sister’s leg. ‘I’m sorry,’ she says, regretting taking her frustration out on her.

‘It’s fine.’ Rosie stretches a leg in front of her. She is wearing black leggings that manage to make her stick legs look even thinner than they are. ‘They were just saying you were going through a phase, that’s all. That it’ll all blow over soon enough.’

Olivia feels her heart rate quicken as anger pulses through her. Is that what they think of her, she wonders, that this is all some phase; that she’s just some silly girl who will snap out of it when she gets bored of playing her little game? They underestimate her. They don’t realise how much she knows or just how far she is prepared to take this.

‘You’re just like Dorothy,’ Rosie says, ambiguously.

Olivia rolls her eyes and pulls her hand from Rosie’s leg. ‘Who’s Dorothy?’

‘The Wizard of Oz. Mum’s always saying how restless you get. But just remember, Olivia –’ And Rosie raises her hands and makes inverted comma marks with her fingers, the gesture managing to irritate her sister more than she could have anticipated. ‘There’s no place like home.’ She taps her heels together and gives Olivia a look that lingers longer than feels normal, some silent communication passed between them. Olivia knows what she is saying. She knows that Rosie understands. She smiles, but Rosie has already returned her focus to her book.

Olivia glances back at the house, thinking that Rosie’s statement couldn’t be further from the truth. And yet, perhaps in some ways she is right. Maybe there really is no other place like this one?

‘What are you reading, anyway?’ Olivia reaches for Rosie’s book, ignoring her cry of protest. ‘A Dog’s Life,’ she says, looking at the cartoon on the book’s cover. ‘Bit babyish, isn’t it?’

Rosie snatches the book back and gives a smug smile. ‘I’m enjoying it,’ she says, returning to her page. ‘It’s very educational, actually.’

Olivia narrows her eyes. She shifts on the grass and looks over Rosie’s shoulder, her eyes darting to the top of the page. The Boyfriend is typed in the page’s header. Her eyes scan the contents of the page: he was everything she had been dreaming about and more…he threw stones at her window, waking her from her sleep…it didn’t matter that it was dark, when they kissed a million stars lit up the sky above them…

‘Give that here,’ Olivia says, taking the book back and pulling off the dustsheet. She smiles at the cover that lies beneath it, impressed by Rosie’s cunning. Perhaps her sister isn’t so daft, after all.

Rosie smiles, proud of herself and the way she’s managed to fool their mother; she takes the book back again, returning the cover of A Dog’s Life to conceal the book hidden within. ‘How long are you going to keep this up then?’

‘Keep what up?’

‘Mum and Dad. When are you planning on talking to them again, then?’

‘I’m not.’ Olivia stretches her legs out in front of her. She is wearing jeans and a jumper, but she still feels cold. She wishes it was warmer. Rosie shuffles her bum to sit alongside her, copying her position by placing her legs alongside her sister’s.



* * *



‘I’m almost as tall as you,’ Rosie says, tapping her left foot against Olivia’s ankle.

‘No, you’re not. We’re sitting down, it doesn’t work like that.’

‘Why won’t you speak to them then?’ Rosie asked, refusing to let the subject drop.

‘It’s complicated.’

‘You’re complicated, you mean.’

‘You don’t get it,’ Olivia says, moving her sister’s legs away from her so that they are no longer touching. ‘You think you’re smart, but you don’t get anything.’

‘I get that you don’t do what you’re told,’ Rosie says, and there is something so annoyingly smug in her tone that Olivia feels like ripping the book from her hands and tearing up the pages. She wouldn’t. No matter how infuriating her little sister is at times, Olivia hates it when Rosie cries. She is the best friend she has – the only friend she has – and she wishes they were closer in age, that they had more in common they could share with each other.

Olivia pushes herself back along the grass and sits up, crossing her legs beneath her. ‘Neither do you, by the looks of things,’ she says with a smile, gesturing to the book. ‘And is that we’re supposed to do, is it? Just do as we’re told?’

Rosie scrunches her mouth and looks up to the sky as she considers her answer. A mass of black clouds is rolling towards them from the east, chilling the air that circles them. ‘We’re just kids. So, I suppose so, yeah.’

‘No,’ Olivia corrects her. ‘You’re just a kid. I’m fifteen. In a few months I’ll be able to leave home. I could get married if I wanted to.’

‘No, you couldn’t,’ Rosie says, taking obvious pleasure in the opportunity to correct her. ‘You’d have to have mum and dad’s permission. Unless you went to Scotland. I think you could get married there at sixteen. But you don’t even have a boyfriend, so I don’t think you’ll be getting married any time soon, will you? You can borrow this after me, if you like,’ she adds, waving the book in the air. ‘Maybe you’ll pick up some tips.’

Olivia grits her teeth, trying to push back the irritation that her sister so often tries to spark in her. She can be so annoying, always having to prove herself right, taking enjoyment from making her older sister look small and stupid. Everyone in the house does this to her. Olivia feels like an outsider here. She always has, ever since she was just a little girl. Her mother and father would deny it, but they have always loved Rosie more than they love her. Sometimes, Olivia questions whether her mother loves her at all. She can’t put a finger on what she does exactly, but her mother just isn’t the same with her as she is with Rosie. Olivia has always been treated differently.

She is different, she knows that. Olivia just hasn’t worked out why. And no matter what else may happen, she won’t let them turn Rosie against her.

As though sensing the nature of her sister’s thoughts, Rosie reaches for Olivia’s hand. ‘You won’t go anywhere, will you?’

Olivia looks down at their interlocking fingers, wondering why Rosie goes out of her way to annoy her when they so obviously need each other.

‘Of course I won’t.’And despite everything she feels towards this place – despite the fragility that holds their life here together - she knows this is one promise she can make with certainty.



* * *



Dear Diary,

I have met a boy. Well, not a boy, actually – he’s a man. He is handsome and funny and generous. I can’t stop thinking about him. Mum would kill me if she found out I’d been talking to him, but if I do things the right way then she never has to know. It will be like living a double life – how exciting is that?! I wonder how long I can get away with it. I’m glad I can tell you about him – there’s no one else to talk to. I wish I had a friend, a female friend, someone I could share my secrets with, but it doesn’t seem to matter so much now. I’m not alone anymore. He loves me and I love him. He might be able to help me escape this place, but in the meantime, he can stay our secret, just you and me.





5





Five

Hannah



* * *



On Monday morning, Hannah walks the girls to school before returning to an empty house. Michael always leaves by 7.30am on weekdays, and by 9am Hannah is back at home, the rest of the day stretched out in front of her. Some days, these school hours pass as quickly as a weekend, her time filled with household chores and maintenance of the garden. She takes a pride in her home, and there is always something to be done: clothes to be ironed and put away, surfaces to be dusted; windows to be cleaned. Hannah has never been religious, yet she understands the phrase ‘cleanliness is next to Godliness’. She couldn’t live a life of disarray; it would simply cause her too much stress. Hannah likes things to be structured and orderly; she likes to know where things are so that they can be easily located.

Saturday night’s break-in preyed on her mind throughout Sunday and it continues to do so now. She doesn’t want to believe that Olivia may be responsible for what happened here, in their own home, and yet so much of what her husband says makes sense, as unsettling as that sense may be. She feels violated by the attack on her home and has contemplated going to the police, yet the thought of her daughter being involved has stopped her. This is the hardest part, the bitterest pill to swallow, because Hannah realises that if she is holding back for this reason, then deep in her heart she must believe Olivia guilty.

She goes into her daughter’s bedroom and stands in the doorway, surveying the place as though it is unfamiliar territory to her and not a room she has entered for every day of her daughter’s almost-sixteen years of life. As children, both girls were instilled with the practice of tidying up after themselves, but in recent months Olivia seems to have forgotten all that she’s been taught about acceptable behaviour. Yesterday’s clothes have been thrown on the carpet at the foot of the bed, which has been left unmade. Dirty cups litter the bedside table; a tea ring stains the wood. It seems that Olivia is intent on doing everything she can to defy her parents’ wishes.

Swallowing down a lump of frustration at her daughter’s disrespect and ingratitude, Hannah goes to the wardrobe. Inside, Olivia’s clothes are hung up neatly, the items ordered in categories – jeans, t-shirts, jumpers - as though she doesn’t mind being organised in places where it can’t be witnessed by anyone else. Hannah crouches to her heels and pushes aside the shoes that line the bottom of the wardrobe. She knows what she is looking for; it is simply a matter of finding it.

The thought that her daughter may be hiding the can of spray paint used to graffiti the kitchen cupboards makes Hannah feel sick with a combination of anger and disappointment. Of course, she had known that Olivia’s teenage years would present the family with testing times – it would have been naïve to hope for anything less – but searching her bedroom for spray paint was something Hannah has never envisioned herself having to do, and she can’t escape the feeling of failure that has swamped her since Saturday night. It could be worse, she thinks wearily. She realises some of the kids Olivia’s age are up to all sorts, things she is probably unable to imagine. They say that parents can’t be blamed for everything their child does, but Hannah doesn’t really agree. Why don’t these people know where their children are and what they’re doing? It is their responsibility to raise them to be good, decent human beings. It is the parents’ duty to protect them.

Hannah reminds herself that growing up in the twenty-first century is very different to having done so in the 1990s, and she feels a pang of nostalgia for a youth she didn’t even enjoy very much. If she was given an opportunity to go back to her own teenage years, she would never take it. Despite how difficult some days seem to be, her life now is everything that she always wanted, and she wouldn’t change a thing. Except Olivia’s behaviour. She would change that in an instant.

When the wardrobe offers her nothing from its insides, Hannah checks above and below it. She is careful to leave everything as it was when she entered the room, not wanting Olivia to know that she has been in here. It occurs to her that her daughter’s outrage at knowing Hannah has been through her things may be enough to force her into speaking, but it would only lead to another argument and Hannah isn’t ready for that, not yet. If silence means peace for the time being at least, then that is how she will allow things to remain. For now, anyway. She needs time to think, to consider what needs to be done for the best, for the sake of everyone’s happiness and well-being.

The bedside drawers don’t hold very much, and it doesn’t take Hannah long to look through their contents. She removes a couple of school reports, a packet of hair grips and a hairbrush; a small photo album filled with photographs of Olivia and Rosie as younger children, most of them taken outside in the garden. Hannah pauses her search to look through the photographs, lingering on how young the girls look in each image and how different things were back then, when they were all games and innocence. It wasn’t that long ago really – six, seven years, at most – and yet nothing seems as it was, just that short space of time enough to turn everything upside down. Olivia is changed almost beyond recognition. Hannah realises it would have been naïve of her not to expect things to alter, for Olivia not to become different when she reached her teenage years, but the degree to which her older daughter has transformed was something she wasn’t prepared for.

Closing the photograph album, Hannah sits for a moment in silence, bathing in the past that lingers invisible in the air around her. She remembers this room as it once was; the pink bed with a white canopy hanging from the ceiling, flocks of flying fairies circling the walls; sequinned curtains that would shimmer in the soft glow of the bedside lamp. She spent hours in this room with Olivia when she was young, whole afternoons role-playing and creating classrooms with the soft toys they would line against the wall and read to. If she focuses enough, she can see their shadows still playing. Her visits here are now restricted to waking Olivia up when she doesn’t want to scrape herself from beneath her duvet or checking that she hasn’t left the room in a state that may be regarded a health hazard.

Hannah stands from the bed and forces herself from her thoughts. She scans the room, remembering that she is there for a purpose and that she can’t leave until she has found what she’s looking for. Think, Hannah. And so, she does. She remembers what it was to be fifteen, to have secrets she kept from her mother. If she was a teenager, where would she keep her darkest secrets? Hannah kneels on the carpet and gropes under the bed. She lowers her head and puts her ear to the floor, craning her neck to look up at the bed slats. She knows it is unlikely that a can of spray paint could be wedged beneath a mattress, but there it is, something else, waiting here for her. Here is the diary, exactly as she had predicted it might be.

Back on her feet, her heart pounding with adrenaline, she looks at the clock, remembering that it is Monday and that she needs to be somewhere by midday. It is the same routine every week; it has been like this for quite some time now. She leaves the house by 11.40 and makes the twenty-minute walk to the care home, the route now so familiar to her she could find the place with her eyes closed. She spends an hour there with her mother before returning home, back at the house by 1.30pm. It is a part of the shape of her life now, and she has wondered how long it might continue.

Hannah goes into her bedroom and puts the diary on top of the wardrobe. She will need to find a better hiding place for it when she gets back home this afternoon, but she doesn’t have time now and she doesn’t want to be late. No one will be back at the house before she is, so there’s no chance of anyone else getting their hands on it before she gets an opportunity to move it.

Heading back downstairs, she takes her coat from the end of the banister and reaches for the handle of the front door. Her keys aren’t in the lock. She is sure she left them there when she got home earlier; now, the door is locked as she had left it, but the keys are gone. Hannah realises the extent to which the events of the weekend have affected her. She hasn’t felt right since Friday, since Olivia snuck from the house and the argument that followed. The atmosphere has changed, something has shifted and has come undone. Her daughter’s silence has filled the house with more than that, sitting amid them all with the threat of worse to come. There is an unravelling that Hannah fears cannot be tied back up to keep the fabric of their family together.

There is a box screwed to the hallway wall near the front door where she and Michael keep their keys, but when Hannah checks it now, it is empty. She searches through the pockets of her coat before going into the kitchen, thinking maybe she made a mistake and took the keys there earlier. She looks everywhere she can think of, checking inside the microwave and the fridge - not putting past herself the idea that she may have abse