Main Under Lying

Under Lying

Susan has everything she ever wanted. A loving husband, an angelic daughter and the cottage of her dreams in County Cork. Her picture-perfect life seems too good to be true. And it is.


At a housewarming party with their new neighbours, her daughter Amelia goes missing. As friends become suspects, Susan’s life spirals out of control. And when Amelia’s yellow cardigan is dredged from the lake, every parent’s worst nightmare suddenly seems horribly real.


In the aftermath of Amelia’s disappearance Susan and her husband Paul are not themselves. Someone is hiding something. What if Susan and Paul’s entire relationship was built on lies stretching back years?


Some secrets may be best left buried in the past, but uncovering the truth could be the only way to find Amelia – before it’s too late.

Language: english
File: EPUB, 579 KB
Download (epub, 579 KB)
 
You can write a book review and share your experiences. Other readers will always be interested in your opinion of the books you've read. Whether you've loved the book or not, if you give your honest and detailed thoughts then people will find new books that are right for them.
1

The Heart Of Winter

Language: english
File: EPUB, 157 KB
2

Underneath the Sycamore Tree

Language: english
File: EPUB, 313 KB
ALSO BY JANELLE HARRIS

No Kiss Goodbye

See Me Not





This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organisations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Text copyright © 2019 by Janelle Harris All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

Published by Lake Union Publishing, Seattle www.apub.com

Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Lake Union Publishing are trademarks of Amazon.com, Inc., or its affiliates.

ISBN-13: 9781542092630

ISBN-10: 1542092639

Cover design by Heike Schüssler





For Brian

x





CONTENTS


Start Reading

Prologue

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-one

Chapter Twenty-two

Chapter Twenty-three

Chapter Twenty-four

Chapter Twenty-five

Chapter Twenty-six

Chapter Twenty-seven

Chapter Twenty-eight

Chapter Twenty-nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-one

Chapter Thirty-two

Chapter Thirty-three

Chapter Thirty-four

Chapter Thirty-five

Chapter Thirty-six

Chapter Thirty-seven

Chapter Thirty-eight

Chapter Thirty-nine

Chapter Forty

Chapter Forty-one

Chapter Forty-two

Chapter Forty-three

Chapter Forty-four

Chapter Forty-five

Epilogue

ABOUT THE AUTHOR





‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’

– William Shakespeare





Prologue THEN

You died on a Saturday afternoon. The weather was filthy. The kind you loved and I hated. All wet, windy and angry. Sheets of lightning illuminated the whole sky followed almost instantly by the angry rumble of thunder. It was beautifully terrifying. But I wasn’t scared. We were safe, together in our tiny student flat in Dublin. The weather forecast said the conditions were treacherous and people were urged to stay indoors. I suggested a movie marathon and a jammies day. You rolled your eyes, shook your head, and said the media were scaremongering. Scaremongering was your exact word. I remember because I had no idea what it meant, but I guessed it was something fancy you’d learned in your journalism class. You borrowed my umbrella and fetched your camera. You told me you were hoping to get some great shots of the lightning for your portfolio, but I knew you were after a story much darker and more sinister than the storm. You left our flat with a smile and wave. You promised you wouldn’t be long. You never came back.





Chapter One

NOW

The day everything changes doesn’t begin especially differently to any other day. My alarm goes off at 8.30 a.m., like always. With my eyes still closed I stretch my right arm over the edge of the bed and pat my hand around my bedside table until I hit the right spot on my phone to shut the alarm off. I roll into the middle of the bed and flop on to my belly. I expect to find my husband’s body heat clinging to the sheets on his side, but the white cotton under me is cool. I’m disappointed by Paul’s absence, but I’m not surprised. I suspect he got up early to get a run in before Amelia, our soon to be three-year-old daughter, wakes. I sit up, drag my hands around my face and try to wake up fully.

There’s a cup of coffee waiting for me beside my phone. The words World’s Best Mammy wrap around the cream ceramic mug in swirly, purple font. It instantly became my favourite mug when Paul and Amelia gave it to me on my first ever Mother’s Day. But before I dare to enjoy a sip, I tilt my ear towards the bedroom door. The house is blissfully silent. Amelia must still be asleep, I decide. Smiling, I take Paul’s pillow and stuff it between my back and the headboard. I take my coffee in one hand and my phone in the other and slouch back against the mound of pillow to enjoy a lazy Saturday morning in bed.

I sip lukewarm coffee as I scroll through recent photos on my phone, choosing the best ones to share on Facebook. There’s plenty of Amelia and me. At the park, out for a walk, in our garden. Our selfies are hilarious. Or at least I think so. We’re always pulling faces or trying to make each other laugh. Amelia almost always wins, and I giggle first. Unfortunately, I don’t have any shots of my husband. Paul always manages to duck out of shot just before the camera snaps. Which inevitably makes it impossible to get a family photo.

‘Ah Susan, the state of me,’ he says while running his hand through his floppy blond hair, which he’s overly aware is thinning on top. ‘Next time. Yeah? Get me next time. Let me get one of the two of you. My gorgeous girls.’

I’ve no doubt Paul’s phone is awash with photos of Amelia and me, among screenshots of his Fitbit app. His perfect family and his perfect hobby. Everything about Paul is perfect. Or at least to the people who don’t know him as well as I do it would seem to be.

Scrolling on, I find a shot of all of us in the park last week and I upload it as my new profile picture. My nagging wore Paul down and he actually stood for a photo. Unfortunately, my eyes are closed and Paul’s face is obscured by a large tree branch and a cluster of leaves, but Amelia is smiling brightly and there’s the unmistakable sparkle of childhood innocence in her eyes. I love it.

Gentle noise coming from downstairs hints that it’s time to get up. Paul’s voice like a gritty rainstorm and Amelia’s giggles like the rainbow that follows make their way up the stairs to wrap around me like a warm hug.

I set my empty coffee cup and phone down on the bedside table, throw back the duvet and dangle my legs over the edge of the bed. I pause for a moment, trying to get the bubbles of nervous excitement popping in my tummy under control as I think of the day ahead.

I can tell it’s a nice morning outside by the shapes and shadows the sun creates on my bedroom floor as it shines through the hideous floral curtains that came with our new home. I breathe a sigh of relief, confident in the knowledge that today is dry and warm; perfect barbecue weather.

‘Today is so important,’ I tell myself aloud as I slip my arms into the ivory silk dressing gown lying crinkled on the end of my bed. Standing up, I glance in the antique, full-length mirror that stands in the corner of my compact bedroom. My reflection stares back at me, smiling. My shoulder-length, mousy brown hair is messy and knotted but my eyes are sparkling and my skin is bright and fresh. All this sea air has been good for me, I think, my smile growing wider.

It was Paul’s idea to sell our two-bedroomed apartment in Dublin and move to a quaint cottage in West Cork. I protested at first. Not just because I didn’t want to leave the convenience of the capital city behind me. I mean, sure, that was part of it, but I also didn’t want to move to the back arse of nowhere where I didn’t know a single person and start my life all over again at thirty-five. But as soon as I saw our cottage with the little red gate that hangs slightly crooked, and the flower baskets dotted above every windowsill like pots of rainbow-coloured treasure, I fell in love.

Six months later, I’ve adjusted better than my husband to the move. Paul says he loves life in the country, and he swears the change of pace has been good for him, but I see nostalgia and regret in his eyes when we talk about our old lives. There is one thing we agree on, however – life on the Atlantic coast is good for Amelia. She loves the freedom of country lanes where she can run ahead without me shouting at her to get back and hold my hand, the way I did in Dublin. She loves the fresh air, and most of all she loves the ducks that swim in the stream behind our cottage. I’m quite fond of the ducks too. Maybe we can feed the ducks later this morning, I think, picking up the hairbrush from my dresser and dragging it through the stubborn knots on my head. My naturally ebony hair objects to being dyed several shades lighter and tangles like wire.

Today is the first Saturday in July. The weekend is defined clearly on the calendar hanging next to my dresser by messy red circles around all the dates that fall on a Saturday and Sunday this month. Paul took a red pen to my calendar a few weeks ago while we were mid-argument. I was on his case about how little time he spends at home since we moved. Between trying to get his accountancy business off the ground here in Cork and adhering to his strict running schedule, there are some evenings when he barely sees Amelia for ten minutes before she falls asleep. Other nights she just can’t keep her little eyes open any longer and she asks me to give her daddy a goodnight kiss for her. In fairness, when I told Paul what Amelia said he looked broken-hearted and promised to make time for family. The days with red circles are Paul’s attempt at an apology.

‘The weekends are family time from now on,’ he promised. ‘You, me and Millie.’

So far, Paul has been as good as his word. Granted this is only the third weekend in his turned-over leaf but we’ve enjoyed walks in the countryside, picnics in the park and I’ve indulged in some much-needed lie-ins. This morning included.

I toss my hairbrush on to the bed I haven’t bothered to tidy up and make my way to the landing. I curse when I bang my head, for the second time this week, against a solid timber beam holding up the low roof just outside my bedroom door. I rub my head and laugh at my silliness before carefully walking down the steep stairs. The cottage wasn’t built with an upstairs in mind, but the previous owners have done a wonderful job opening up the attic and managing to create two small but comfortable bedrooms in the space. The original master bedroom was downstairs, but neither Paul nor I were comfortable sleeping on a different floor to Amelia, so we’ve made do with the much smaller upstairs space.

The smell of eggs and toast greets me from halfway up the stairs and my tummy rumbles excitedly in response. I pause on the bottom step and savour my view of domestic bliss. Paul is still in his running gear as he works hard in the kitchen. He doesn’t notice me. I watch his slender arm stir eggs in a pan over the old-school stove and I smile at my idea to open up the entire ground floor. It had meant we lost two months in the building process because of complications with load-bearing walls and planning permission, but it was nothing that couldn’t be fixed, much to Paul’s disappointment. The idea of gutting an old cottage until it was unrecognisable didn’t sit well with my conventional husband. But even Paul had to admit that the results of the renovation were spectacular. The stuff of magazines, he admitted recently.

Stepping off the bottom step and making my way across the highly glazed cream floor tiles leading into the kitchen area, I spot my daughter perched on a stool much too high for her, tucked against the kitchen island. Amelia sits with her back straight, her golden curls cascading over her shoulders as she watches her father cook.

‘Good morning, little miss,’ I say, waiting until I’m standing directly behind her before I speak.

‘Mammy,’ Amelia chirps, spinning round on the stool and almost falling off, just as I suspected she would.

I catch her.

‘What are you doing up here?’ I say sternly. ‘You know these stools are way too high for you.’ I’m speaking to my daughter but my eyes are on my husband.

Paul twists his head over his shoulder and looks at me while still stirring the eggs in the pan.

‘You’re a big girl now, aren’t you, Millie?’ he says.

Amelia looks at me, unsure, and I hate that Paul has confused her.

‘You are getting so big, sweetheart,’ I smile, clasping her waist as I swing her down. Her delicate, cheery lips turn downwards as the cold of the floor tiles hits her bare feet. ‘But you’re still not big enough for these high stools, okay? Soon though, I promise.’

‘Okay, Mammy,’ Amelia smiles and scurries over to sit at the table in front of the floor-to-ceiling window that overlooks our pretty little garden and the shallow stream running behind it.

‘You can’t keep her a baby forever,’ Paul says, waiting until Amelia is sitting at the table and out of earshot.

‘She is a baby, Paul. Still a baby. She won’t be three for another couple of months.’ I swallow hard, hoping to avoid another conversation about trying for a new baby. I shake my head and put the thought out of my mind. ‘Breakfast smells good.’

‘Millie is starving. Aren’t you, honey?’ Paul says, raising his voice enough to catch our daughter’s attention.

‘I like eggs.’ Amelia smiles brightly, but her concentration is drawn to a colouring book and some crayons she’s found on the table. ‘I like blue. The sky is blue.’

‘It sure is, sweetheart,’ I say, making my way to stand beside her. ‘And the sky is very blue today, isn’t it?’

She twists on her chair and looks out the window. ‘The duckies are sad, Mammy.’

I pull out the heavy oak chair next to Amelia from under the table, and no matter how much care I take not to scrape the tiles the legs squeak and protest against the floor.

‘Why are the ducks sad?’ I ask softly, sitting down and stroking my hand over Amelia’s curls, but my attention is less on my daughter and more on the floor and the damage I’ve probably caused.

‘Duckies like rain,’ she explains, shaking her head to toss my hand away. She spins round and seeks out a green crayon. She swirls the bright colour around the entire page of her colouring book, ignoring all lines. ‘Today is too sunny.’

‘Ducks do like rain,’ I smile. ‘But they like sunny days too, you know.’

I pick up a pink crayon and begin to colour in the wings of a fairy on the page in front of Amelia, attempting to add some reasoning to the masterpiece.

She switches her green crayon for a yellow one and continues her haphazard style. ‘Lellow is my favourite,’ she explains.

‘Ducks are yellow,’ I say.

‘Eggs are yellow too,’ Paul adds, arriving next to us with a plate of scrambled egg and toast cut into triangles.

He places the yellow plastic plate with steam swirling from it in front of her.

‘It’s hot, Millie. You have to blow on it,’ Paul says, walking back to the kitchen.

‘Hot, hot, hot,’ Amelia says, pressing her lips together as she attempts to blow away the steam.

I try not to laugh as I watch my daughter’s technique for cooling her food, which involves spraying saliva all over her plate.

‘Okay, sweetheart,’ I say, taking the crayon from her hand. ‘I think it’s cool enough. You can eat up now.’

‘We’re fierce lucky with the weather today,’ Paul says, placing a cup of coffee and a plate of eggs in front of me. ‘It’s going to be a scorcher. I was sweating to death on this morning’s run.’

‘Warmest day for five years, or something like that, according to the forecast,’ I say, swapping the crayon in my hand for the cup of coffee. I turn towards the window and inhale the sight of the beautiful babbling stream, which looks as if it’s jumped straight out of a Monet painting and positioned itself at the end of my back garden.

‘It’s global warming, that’s what it is,’ Paul says. ‘We’re not used to this heat.’

‘Well, I’m delighted,’ I say. ‘I had visions of it lashing rain and the whole day being ruined. I couldn’t sleep for ages last night worrying about it.’

‘Ah Susan.’ Paul bends in the middle to kiss the top of my head. ‘You’re working yourself into a tizzy over a silly barbecue.’

‘It’s not silly. Not to me. We’re here six months now and I still don’t really know anyone. Today is important,’ I say, pushing some egg around my plate with the back of my fork. ‘I want them to like me. To like us.’

‘What time is everyone coming?’ he asks, taking a seat opposite me with his eggs and a pint glass full of ice water. He gave up coffee six months ago when he began training for the Dublin marathon. He tried to encourage me to do the same. I wasn’t having any of it.

‘The invites said any time from three, with food around four. I hope no one arrives early,’ I say.

Paul rolls his eyes. ‘It wouldn’t surprise me.’

‘C’mon.’ I shake my head. ‘There’s no point inviting all our neighbours around for a barbecue if you’re going to be like that.’

‘Be like what?’ He shrugs. ‘They’re not my kind of people. That’s all.’

‘Paul, please,’ I sigh, trying to ignore the fact that Amelia is spilling far more egg on the floor than she is getting in her mouth. ‘You promised. You said you’d make an effort. If not for me, then do it for Amelia. I want her to have friends here. Please?’

He shoves a forkful of egg into his mouth. ‘Fine.’





Chapter Two

NOW

Paul’s floppy hair dangles into his eyes and I grin when he tries to subtly blow it out of his way as he stands in our neat garden with his hands folded across his chest. I watch out of my kitchen window as my husband chats to a man and woman we don’t know. I recognise the woman from my walks with Amelia but the man standing next to her is a complete stranger. He’s her husband, obviously, and they’re the couple who live a few houses and a couple of fields down from us, but I really don’t know them. Of the fifteen to twenty people littered around my garden right now, I only know two of them. One is my husband and the other is our daughter. But I plan to get to know them today. All of them. I want them to like me. I need them to.

I hurry around my newly fitted kitchen with its bespoke ash cupboards, a carbon copy of the original layout. It wasn’t easy to keep the feel of the old house once we opened up the ground floor, but I was determined to retain as much character as possible. The only stylistic change I made was swapping the rotten, warped timber worktop for highly polished black granite that sparkles when it catches the light. I take two glasses from the cupboard next to the sink and pour a glass of Chardonnay for Mrs Stranger and a gin and tonic for Mr Stranger. I reach for a third glass, fill it with tap water and fish around in my trouser pocket for a couple of paracetamol. I hope the medication kicks in soon and manages the migraine I’ve felt coming on all day. I was so enthusiastic when I started planning today but I had no idea that in practice it would be quite so stressful.

I glance out the window again. The sky is clear and blue but the leaves on the tall trees that separate our cottage from the farmland next to us rustle gently and I suspect a sudden wind has picked up. I grab Amelia’s yellow cardigan from the shelf and tuck it under my arm. Taking the wine in one hand and the gin in the other, I make my way out of the open double doors into our garden.

‘She’s back with the good stuff,’ Paul jokes breezily as he catches me out of the corner of his eye.

‘Chardonnay, was it, Helen?’ he asks, taking the glass of white wine from me and passing it to our neighbour.

‘I hope it’s cold enough,’ I say, ‘I forgot to put the wine in the fridge.’

‘I’m sure it’s lovely,’ Helen smiles, pressing the glass to her lips.

‘And a G&T, Larry, right?’ Paul offers her husband the second glass.

‘Won’t you have one yourself?’ Larry asks.

‘Paul doesn’t drink,’ I say, and it comes out more snappy than I mean it to.

‘Really?’ Helen giggles, amused by the idea of a pioneer.

‘Alcohol doesn’t agree with me when I’m training,’ Paul explains. ‘It makes me sluggish.’

‘Well, I must say, I admire your dedication, Paul,’ Larry says. ‘Wouldn’t be for me, but to each their own, eh?’

‘He doesn’t drink coffee either,’ I add, although I’m not sure why. I think I’m nervous.

‘Wow,’ Helen says, between sips of wine. ‘My God, Paul. You’re practically a saint. Susan, where did you get him, and are there any more like him?’

We all laugh. But I don’t miss Paul’s narrow eyes as he glares at Helen as if she is something unpleasant that he has scraped off the bottom of his shoe.

‘I love what you’ve done with the place, Susan,’ Larry says. ‘This place was an absolute shambles before you got your hands on it. Helen nearly drove me round the bend, constantly bangin’ on about how she’d love to give it a lick of paint. She loves a good fixer-upper.’

‘Well, I married you, didn’t I?’ Helen laughs.

Paul and I glance at each other, equally uncomfortable by Larry and Helen’s digs at one another. But we laugh too and brush it off as if our neighbours are hilarious.

‘Yes. It was certainly in need of some TLC,’ I say, running my eyes along the cream exterior of my cottage with its newly fitted windows. ‘It was hard work, I can’t lie, but I’m so pleased with the way it turned out.’

‘I must admit, I had no idea the renovation was going to be quite so extensive,’ Paul says, pressing the palm of his hand gently against the small of my back. ‘Susan kept talking about light and space and opening the place up. We had workmen in the house for weeks on end.’

‘But it was all worth it, wasn’t it?’ Helen asks, looking around, noticeably envious.

‘It was expensive. That’s what it was,’ Paul says, and I know he’s still pissed off that I went over budget. ‘But anything for my Susan.’ He dots a gentle kiss on the top of my head.

‘I wish Larry would let me redecorate,’ Helen says. ‘I’ve been staring at the same bloody yellow kitchen for the past twenty-odd years.’

‘What’s wrong with yellow?’ Larry says between large mouthfuls of gin. ‘I like yellow.’

‘I like lellow too,’ Amelia says, appearing at my side.

‘Well, hello there,’ Helen says, bending down to Amelia’s level.

Amelia takes a step back. I reach for her hand and she curls her small, sticky fingers around my palm.

‘This must be your little girl,’ Helen says, beaming.

‘This is Amelia,’ I smile proudly. ‘Say hello, sweetheart.’

‘Hello,’ Amelia echoes, sidestepping so half her body is hidden behind my leg.

‘She is just adorable, Susan,’ Helen says. ‘We have three boys. The youngest started college this year. It’s just me and Larry at home on our own now.’

Helen doesn’t look old enough to have grown-up children. I knew she was older than me, but I didn’t think by much. But I’ve always been a terrible judge of age. I guess she must be closer to fifty than early forties as I’d thought.

‘Amelia is almost three,’ I say, crouching and wobbling on my unforgiving high heels as I attempt to guide her arms into her cardigan.

She wriggles and twists as I try to do up the delicate buttons. ‘Can we feed the ducks now?’ she asks.

‘Not today.’ I shake my head.

‘But they’re hungry.’ Her blue eyes cloud over with disappointment.

‘Amelia,’ I say sternly. ‘I said not today, okay?’

Her bottom lip drops and I know she’s about to cry. ‘We’ll feed them tomorrow, I promise.’

Her frown turns into a bright smile once more and she nods her head enthusiastically.

‘Okay, sweetheart,’ I smile as my fingers fasten the last button on her cardigan. ‘Do you want to play some more?’

Amelia looks up at me, her beautiful eyes sparkling as she nods and then runs off to join a group of slightly older neighbourhood children laughing and playing at the end of the garden.

‘She’s as pretty as a picture,’ Helen smiles, sipping her wine casually. ‘Enjoy every moment of her, before you know it she’ll be old enough to answer back and will want to borrow the car.’

I exaggerate a frown. ‘Something to look forward to,’ I joke.

‘Seriously though,’ Helen says, ‘how are you doing? I remember the early days at home alone with the boys when Larry was working. I thought I’d lose my mind with loneliness. Don’t get me wrong, I love my kids. But sometimes we all need grown-up talk, don’t we? It can’t be easy moving into a new area with a toddler and not knowing a soul. I only live up the road, if you fancy popping in for a coffee anytime. I’d be glad of the company, really.’

‘Amelia and I try to get out for a walk every day,’ I say.

‘Oh yes,’ Helen smiles, ‘I’ve seen you. Down by the lake, feeding ducks.’

I nod. ‘Amelia is mad about the ducks. We feed them most days.’

‘I had no idea we were neighbours,’ Helen says. ‘I should have introduced myself. You must think I’m awful.’

‘Not at all,’ I say, ‘you weren’t to know. And it’s lovely getting to know each other now.’

‘Well, you must let me make it up to you. And Amelia too, of course. You should call in after your walk. How does Monday sound? I’ll bake some scones or something. We can get to know each other better.’

‘Ah thank you, Helen,’ I say. ‘But Amelia usually goes for a nap after our walk. My only chance to get any work done is while she’s sleeping. It’s a long walk there and back, and it tires her out for a good couple of hours.’

‘Oh, you work from home,’ Helen says, thankfully unoffended by my decline of her kind offer. ‘What do you do?’

‘I’m a counsellor. Bereavement mostly.’

‘Oh wow. How interesting,’ Helen says. ‘Like a doctor?’

‘Not quite,’ I blush. ‘More like a good listener.’

‘We’d make a good team, us two,’ Helen says, pointing to me and then tapping her finger against her chest. ‘Larry says I never know when to shut up. But it’s only because I have to repeat myself no end. That man doesn’t listen to a word I say.’

‘Mmm,’ I smile, wide-eyed, and shift my weight from one foot to the other. I try to catch Paul’s eye, hoping he’ll join our conversation. Unsurprisingly, he and Larry are chatting like a pair of old friends. No doubt bonding over sport or cars, Paul’s favourites. He’s a dab hand at making people feel comfortable. Larry is so content he is blissfully unaware that his wife has just belittled him for a second time in as many minutes, in front of a complete stranger. I wonder how often Helen does that. They’re such an odd couple, I decide, and I think it might be harder to make friends around here than I thought.

‘Have you been in the counselling business long?’ Helen asks.

‘I worked full-time when we lived in Dublin.’ I pause, relieved the conversation is moving in a more comfortable direction. ‘It’s been a big change moving here and giving up a permanent position. But I’m enjoying the freedom. I only have a couple of clients at the moment, but I’ve contacted local charities offering to volunteer an hour or two here and there, mostly at the weekends, when Paul can watch Amelia. It’s slow progress getting word out about my services, but I’m embracing the challenge.’

‘And do your clients come to the house?’ Helen probes.

‘Yes. For now,’ I say, feeling somewhat unprofessional. ‘But I’m hoping to take an office in the city when business picks up.’

‘Larry, do you hear this?’ Helen nudges her elbow into her husband’s ribs. ‘Susan is a counsellor.’

Larry turns his head towards me with an awkward smile.

‘She talks to people who have lost someone,’ Helen explains. ‘It’s her job. And you thought she was a photographer.’

‘Really? A photographer.’ I tilt my head to one side, intrigued. ‘What gave you that impression, Larry?’

My eyes are on Larry’s but it’s Helen who answers, unsurprisingly. ‘He noticed the lovely photographs hanging in the hall. The lightning strikes. He thought they didn’t fit well with the rest of the house, so he assumed you’d snapped the shots yourself. I told him to mind his own business. What does a farmer know about interior design, right?’

Larry’s puckered brow tells me Helen is making him uncomfortable. Him and me both, but most likely for very different reasons. Larry Mullin may look like a simple farmer, but I suspect there is nothing simple about this man.

‘I’m not artistic at all, unfortunately,’ I say, my eyes sweeping over Larry. ‘I didn’t take those photographs.’

‘Well, they’re nice pictures,’ Helen says, ‘wherever you got them.’

‘Thank you. I like them,’ I say.

‘Ah c’mon, Susan. You more than like them. Be honest,’ Paul says. ‘She adores those bloody things. I don’t see the appeal, personally, but she has better taste than me, so I take her word for it that they’re fantastic.’

‘I think the photographer was very talented to snap the lightning at the exact moment of the strike. It gives me chills,’ I say.

‘Yes,’ Helen nods. ‘Can you imagine how difficult it must be to click right at the exact moment? Sure, you only have a split second to get it right.’

‘Exactly,’ I smile. Helen has finally said something to help me like her.

‘Women,’ Larry snorts, trying to catch Paul’s eye. ‘Full of romantic notions, aren’t they? Lightning is lethal. Anyone who sees anything other than Mother Nature’s temper needs their head examined, that’s what I say.’

‘Jesus, Larry. You’re a brave man,’ Paul smirks. ‘Susan will have your guts for garters talking like that. She loves those photos. Has for years. She found these old prints in a drawer in my apartment when we first started going out. I’d forgotten I had them, to be honest. She became obsessed with them. So I had them framed for her the following Christmas as a surprise. They’ve become her pride and joy over the years.’

‘So, you don’t see the photographer’s talent, Larry?’ I ask, trying hard to hide my offence, but my cheeks feel hot and I’m guessing my frustration is showing.

‘Clickin’ an aul button on a camera?’ Larry rolls his eyes. ‘Talent me arse.’

‘We’ll have to agree to disagree,’ I grimace.

‘Well, I agree with Susan.’ Helen glares at her husband, warning him to keep his mouth shut. ‘I think they’re fantastic. They must be a great conversation starter when your clients come to visit the house.’

‘Actually,’ I say, pausing to envisage the photos, ‘Larry is the first person to notice them in quite a while.’

‘Do you hear that, Larry?’ Helen asks. ‘Maybe it’s a sign. You should come for one of Susan’s sessions. You could talk about your mother and all your issues.’

An unmissable redness creeps across Larry’s face and I wonder if he’s irritated or embarrassed. Probably both. I avert my eyes, finding myself agreeing with at least one thing Larry says . . . Helen really doesn’t know when to shut up.

‘Larry’s mother passed away two years ago,’ Helen continues. ‘She was eighty-nine, but young at heart. It was sudden. Wasn’t it, Larry?’

‘I’m so sorry,’ Paul says.

Larry shuffles on the spot and I wonder if I’ve been too quick to judge him. He’s obviously dominated by his wife, and I can tell how much he misses his mother. The mere mention of her forces his eyes to the ground and his thumb is curled and stroking the tip of his little finger. It’s a classic fidget. A distraction. Watching out for these traits is an occupational hazard. Larry is hiding something, I decide.

‘Our house is the old family home,’ Helen says. ‘Larry grew up there. I’d love to do it up now that his mother has passed. You know, put our own stamp on it.’ Helen’s eyes sweep over our cottage longingly. ‘I thought we could do something artistic, like you and Paul. But Larry won’t hear of it. He says our house is just fine the way it is. But I think our boys are embarrassed to bring their friends around because of the state of the old place.’

‘Jesus, Helen,’ Larry grunts through gritted teeth.

‘What?’ Helen shrugs. ‘Even you agree it’s lonely in that big old house, just the two of us rattling around.’

Larry’s square shoulders stiffen and he glares at me, as if it’s my fault Helen is oversharing.

‘That’s the trouble with kids,’ Helen sighs. ‘They grow up. I miss the boys. We tried for another baby over the years, but it didn’t happen. I always wished we’d had a girl, but I guess it just wasn’t meant to be. C’est la vie.’

‘We’re hoping for another soon,’ Paul smiles.

‘Oh lovely,’ Helen says, her enthusiasm punctuated by outstretching her arms. The remaining wine splashes over the rim of her glass and on to the grass. She doesn’t seem to notice as she raises the empty glass to her lips, clearly disappointed when all she gets is the last dribble. ‘It’ll be wonderful for little Amelia to have a brother or sister soon.’ Helen’s eyes are on me, studying my reaction. I smile, but my eyes narrow as they shift to my husband.

‘Will you excuse me, please?’ I say. ‘I really should put Amelia down for her nap.’

‘But she’s having such fun, Susan,’ Paul says. ‘Leave her to play for a while longer, yeah?’

My gaze shifts to the spot at the end of the garden where my daughter is playing contentedly with her new friends. Their giggles carry through the air like waves of childhood innocence. Their happiness is contagious, and I find myself grinning, absorbing their fun.

‘Okay,’ I nod.

‘She probably wouldn’t sleep with all this excitement and noise anyway,’ Paul says. ‘Let’s throw routine out the window, just for today, eh?’ He runs his hand up and down my upper arm encouragingly. ‘It is a party after all.’

It’s way past Amelia’s naptime, but her bedroom is at the back of the cottage and the window overlooks the patio area where a group of elderly neighbours are sitting at our picnic table and chatting loudly.

‘I wish I had half her energy,’ Helen says. ‘She’s a little dote.’

‘I’m going to pop inside and check on the appetisers,’ I say, peeling my eyes reluctantly away from my little girl running around so much I know she must be exhausted, but she’s determined to keep up with the bigger kids. ‘I won’t be long.’

‘Okay. Cool,’ Paul says. ‘I’ll keep an eye on Millie.’

‘Make sure she keeps her cardigan on,’ I insist. ‘She keeps trying to take it off, and I don’t want her catching cold.’

Paul looks at Amelia and shakes his head. ‘She doesn’t like that one.’

‘It’s her favourite,’ I correct. ‘It’s yellow.’

‘No.’ Paul shakes his head again. ‘She says it’s scratchy.’

‘Well, it will have to do,’ I say. ‘I don’t know where her other yellow one is and she won’t wear any other colour at the moment. Anyway, can you just make sure she keeps it on?’

‘Ah Susan, do you really need to mollycoddle her so much?’

‘There’s a wind picking up and she’s in the shade. She needs her cardigan. It’s important.’

‘You know best,’ Paul sighs, defeated. ‘If you need any help with the food just gimme a shout, okay?’

‘Yeah. Okay.’

‘I can help,’ Helen suggests.

‘Oh, not at all,’ I say, waving my hand to politely dismiss her offer. ‘You stay out here and enjoy chatting.’

‘It’s no trouble, honestly. I’d like to help,’ she insists. ‘And I’d love an excuse to inspect this new kitchen Paul has been telling us all about.’

‘Great,’ I lie, tucking a flyaway strand of hair behind my ear as I groan inwardly. ‘Thank you.’

I really hope Helen isn’t going to talk about babies and kids some more once we’re inside. I already have to listen to Paul drone on about how lonely Amelia will be growing up as an only child. As if I don’t understand better than anyone exactly what it feels like to be without a sibling.

‘Paul,’ I say, stroking my husband’s arm. ‘When you get a moment will you pop to the corner shop and pick up some cream for dessert? I wasn’t expecting so many people and we don’t have enough.’

‘Sure,’ he smiles, taking the empty wine glass from Helen. ‘I’ll just get Helen a top-up first.’

Helen touches her hands to her lips and blushes. ‘Oh, I really shouldn’t have another so early in the afternoon.’

‘Ah go on, love,’ Larry says. ‘Let your hair down.’

‘You’ll have another too, Larry?’ Paul says, looking at the nearly empty glass in Larry’s hand.

‘I will indeed,’ Larry laughs, slugging back the last couple of mouthfuls of gin.





Chapter Three

NOW

I’m busy in the kitchen, arranging steamed asparagus wrapped in Parma ham on a silver platter, when torrential rain erupts out of nowhere. Huge, heavy drops pound against the kitchen window and angry, dark clouds gather overhead, turning a summer’s afternoon into a wintery evening. I forget the platter of fancy food and hurry outside, waving my arms as I encourage everyone to make a dash for the house. I quench the barbecue and turn round to find Helen behind me. She’s skilfully covering salad bowls with plastic wrap and tosses raw meat into my best Tupperware, pressing the lids down firmly. I wince; the raw steak will stain the plastic and I’ll never be able to wash the horrible brownish-red tinge off the lids. But I press on my best fake smile and thank her for her help.

‘Keeps the air out,’ Helen says, smiling, and despite the rain. ‘You can stick these in the freezer. I do it all the time.’

I watch as the rain turns her pretty lemon sundress to a dreary mustard and I apologise, as if I’m somehow responsible for the weather.

‘I thought Paul would be back ages ago,’ I say awkwardly as I tuck a bowl under each arm and carry a tray of mixed breads towards the house.

‘Ah, that’s men for you,’ Helen says, picking up the Tupperware. ‘I sent Larry home to pick up my sunglasses. That was twenty minutes ago.’ She rolls her eyes and I giggle. ‘He’s probably at home now, distracted by some game on the TV. He’s useless at the weekends. Stick a bit of sport on the telly and I can’t get him out of the house.’

‘Does he play?’ I ask.

Helen snorts. ‘Larry? Jesus no. Running around is not his thing. He used to play football for the local team, but that was more than thirty years ago. He hasn’t kicked a ball in years. And he gets annoyed when I give out to him about his lack of exercise. But I swear, Susan, that man’s cholesterol is out of control.’

‘Gosh,’ I say, trying to sound sympathetic. ‘Paul is the opposite. He’s a fitness fanatic. He’s obsessed with training for the Dublin marathon at the moment. He’s run it a few times before, but this year he’s determined to get his time under three hours. He gets pissed off any time I worry about how hard he’s pushing it.’

‘Men,’ Helen tuts. ‘I’m surrounded by them. You’re so lucky to have little Amelia. She’s gorgeous, Susan. A real treasure.’

‘Thank you,’ I smile.

‘Our boys grew up so fast,’ Helen sighs, her shoulders rounding. ‘I miss when they were little.’

A dull silence hangs between us. I’m not sure what to say.

‘You know . . . I’d be happy to babysit Amelia anytime you need, if you and Paul want to get out for dinner sometime. Or even just take a walk. I’d be happy to have her. I’d love to, actually.’

I take in Helen’s genuine expression and the softness around her eyes that tells me she’s spent years longing for a daughter.

‘Sure,’ I say, raising my eyebrows. ‘Sounds good. Paul and I could use some grown-up time.’

‘Great.’ Helen rubs her hands together and I’m not sure if she’s excited or just trying to warm herself up. ‘Larry will be delighted too. He’ll never admit it, but I know he misses the kids around the house as much as I do.’

Her excitement makes me uncomfortable. I’m trying to like Helen. At least, as much as anyone can like a neighbour they’re slowly becoming acquainted with. But I’m not about to leave my little girl with a stranger, no matter how kindly she offers. I concentrate hard to make sure my apprehension isn’t written all over my face.

The house is now noisy and cramped. Our open-plan living space doesn’t feel as spacious with so many neighbours dotted around. Some stand in corners chatting, some perch on the arms of the couch because there isn’t any more room for them and some buzz like bees hovering from flower to flower as they work their way from person to person, gathering local gossip like nectar. Thankfully, conversation is flowing and there is a lot of laughter. Despite the sudden change in weather and Paul’s prolonged absence, the party seems to be a success.

‘You’re saturated,’ I say, pointing to Helen’s dress. ‘Can I get you something to change into?’

She looks me up and down, flashes a toothy grin and shakes her head. ‘I don’t think I could squeeze my thunder thighs into anything of yours, Susan. You’re so slim, but thank you.’

Helen isn’t overweight, but she’s certainly bigger than me. Most people are, I suppose. I was born three months premature and I’ve always blamed being short and skinny on my early arrival.

‘I’ll dry off in a minute,’ she smiles, trying to ease my concern. ‘I’m used to a little rain, Susan, don’t worry. You should see how wet I get some mornings tending to the cattle.’

‘Okay.’ I blush, suddenly feeling very much a city girl lost in the countryside.

‘You run up and change,’ Helen suggests. ‘I’ll chat to everyone down here.’

‘I’m okay,’ I lie, shivering from the cold seeping into my bones as my shirt and cropped jeans cling to my skin.

‘Nonsense. You’re soaked through to the bone. Don’t worry about everyone down here. I’ll top up their drinks and pass around the plates of finger food while you’re gone.’

‘Would you mind?’ I ask, somewhat uncomfortable with Helen taking over as host.

‘Course not. What are neighbours for? Now go on up and change before you catch a cold. Leave everything to me.’

‘Thanks,’ I say, suspecting that despite her pushy nature she means well.

I hope so.

I hurry to my bedroom, throw on my most respectable tracksuit and make a quick call to Paul’s mobile. As I suspect, he doesn’t answer but I leave a voice message, checking if he’s okay and asking him to hurry.

Larry is back and chatting to Helen in the kitchen when I come downstairs. He’s helped himself to another gin and tonic. His face is red and puffy and beads of perspiration dot around his receding hairline. He looks as if he’s run a marathon instead of walking a couple of hundred metres up the road and back. I understand why Helen laughed earlier when I asked if Larry is sporty. The man is a walking heart attack, I think, and his fondness for gin isn’t doing him any favours.

‘Any sign of Paul?’ I ask, glancing at my watch. ‘He’s been gone ages.’

Helen passes me a glass of white wine. ‘Not yet,’ she says, straining her eyes over my shoulder to glance at our oblivious neighbours, and I can tell she feels sorry for me being left to entertain them by myself.

‘C’mon,’ she says, linking my arm roughly and almost spilling the wine. ‘Let’s mingle. Bring that with you.’ She nods at the glass in my hand. ‘You’ll be glad of that stuff once this lot start talking nonsense to you.’

‘They can’t be that bad,’ I laugh. ‘Everyone around here seems so nice.’

‘Appearances can be deceiving.’ Helen takes on a sudden seriousness that ages her. ‘You’ve a lot to learn about this place, Susan. Ballyown has more skeletons than any graveyard in Dublin, you know.’

‘Really?’ I say, my eyes wide.

‘She’s taking the piss,’ Larry says, slamming his empty gin glass on the countertop. I’m not sure if he’s annoyed with Helen for talking nonsense or with me for being gullible enough to believe it.

Helen shakes her head as she reaches for the half-empty bottle of gin and splashes a generous helping into Larry’s glass.

‘Of course I’m joking,’ she says, placing the bottle back down. ‘Ballyown is lovely, Susan, and you’re going to fit right in. Isn’t she, Larry?’

Larry reaches for the glass and nods. ‘Absolutely.’ And I wonder if he loves Ballyown, or his wife, nearly as much as the clear liquid he’s about to drink.

Untangling my arm from a tipsy Helen, I excuse myself and begin to work the room. I shake hands with almost everyone and express how excited I am to be the newest member of the community. The reaction is mixed. Some of the younger neighbours are excited too. Some of the older ones seem a little put out and the drunk ones don’t seem to care about anything either way, as long as I’m topping up their glasses.

Minutes tick by slowly before Paul finally arrives back at the cottage. His clothes are soaked, and his mood is equally damp.

‘It’s raining cats and dogs out there,’ he says, taking shelter in the porch as he kicks off his saturated shoes on the step. ‘I got this wet just walking from the car to the door. I’ve been waiting in the car for twenty minutes for the rain to ease up enough to come inside, but I think it’s down for the day. So much for our barbecue. I hope you’re not too disappointed.’

I shake my head. ‘It’s been fine. Everyone has plenty to eat and drink. And now that you’re back with the cream I can serve dessert.’

I look around at the picture of the entire community of Ballyown enjoying themselves in our home. ‘They’re all having a good time, Paul,’ I smile, ‘and everyone thinks what we’ve done with the cottage is amazing. I wasn’t expecting the rain but everything else has gone to plan. I’m really glad we did this.’

‘That’s great, Susan.’ Paul kisses my cheek and rain trickles from his hair down my face.

‘God, you’re freezing,’ I say. ‘You need to change your clothes before you get sick.’ I laugh inwardly as I hear Helen’s motherly words echo in my own.

‘Good idea.’ Paul passes me the extra-large tub of cream. ‘Here. I’ll run upstairs and dry off. I won’t be long. I could murder a glass of wine . . .’ He pauses to glance at Helen. ‘If there’s any left, that is.’

‘Really?’ I say, surprised to hear my teetotal husband make the request.

He laughs. ‘For the day that’s in it, Susan. I’d like to raise a toast to my wife – interior designer extraordinaire, wonderful mother and the latest Ballyown socialite.’

‘Stop teasing,’ I giggle, enjoying his silliness.

I crane my neck, trying to see into the back of Paul’s car, which is parked just before our little red gate. It’s taken us a while to get used to roadside parking. Initially we thought about opening the front garden into a driveway, but it’s such a tight space we’d only fit one car anyway and it would be a pity to lose the pretty trees and shrubs that have been growing here for years. Getting rained on the odd time seems a small sacrifice to keep such a pretty landscaped space. I shake my head. The tinted windows in the back of Paul’s car don’t allow me to see inside.

‘Aren’t you going to carry Amelia in before you change?’ I call after Paul as he dashes past me to make his way up the stairs.

He stops midway and turns round.

‘If she’s still asleep we can put her into our bed,’ I suggest. ‘It’s too noisy down here, all the laughing will wake her. I’ll fetch the spare stair gate and put it across our bedroom door, that way she won’t come flying down the stairs if she wakes, the way she nearly did last week.’

I don’t like the look on Paul’s face as he tilts his head to one side. ‘Millie isn’t in the car, Susan.’

‘What?’ I gasp. ‘Where is she, then? You took her with you, didn’t you?’

Paul’s forehead wrinkles. ‘You said you were putting her down for a nap.’

‘You told me not to.’ I set the carton of cream down on the hall table with more force than is needed. ‘You said to leave her to play. Remember? You told me you’d watch her.’

‘But then you asked me to go to the shop . . .’ he mumbles sheepishly.

‘I thought you had her,’ I say, throwing my arms wide in frustration. ‘What the hell, Paul? Where is she?’

‘Here with you, isn’t she?’

‘Oh God. We all came inside when it started to rain. I thought you were watching her. Jesus Christ, Paul, why didn’t you tell me?’

‘Susan, calm down. Someone will hear you.’ He winces as he glances around the open living space heaving with chatting neighbours.

‘I don’t care.’ I shake my head. ‘Amelia. Amelia . . .’ I call, turning my back on my husband to hurry around the house. Sticky, clammy bodies are cumbersome and awkward as I squeeze past them, repeatedly calling my daughter’s name. The house is buzzing with conversation and laughter. The neighbours’ children whip past me as they chase each other; their voices and giggles are too loud for indoors. Amelia isn’t among them.

‘Have you seen Amelia?’ I ask, catching the attention of one of the mothers sitting on the couch.

She looks at me blankly and I’m not sure she realises I’m the host, and she obviously has no idea who Amelia is.

‘My little girl,’ I say. ‘She’s about this high.’ I hover my hand next to my mid-thigh. ‘Cream dress, yellow cardigan. Have you seen her?’

The woman smiles. ‘Oh, that’s your daughter. She’s a lovely little thing. She’s been playing with my five-year-old all afternoon. They’ve had such fun.’

‘Yes. Yes. Have you seen her recently? In the last hour or so?’

‘I thought you put her down for a nap,’ she says, her eyes softening, and I can tell she’s picked up on my panic.

I exhale sharply, making myself light-headed.

‘Sweetheart, have you seen Amelia?’ she says, catching her daughter’s arm as she whizzes by in the group of hyper children.

The girl shakes her head. ‘She’s not playing with us any more.’

‘Well, where is she, then?’ I snap.

The girl’s eyes cloud over with tears as she shuffles closer to her mother. I’ve scared her.

‘Where is she?’ I repeat, finding myself shouting. ‘Where is Amelia?’

‘She doesn’t know,’ the mother answers, pulling her daughter close to her, clearly annoyed that I’ve raised my voice.

‘Amelia?’ I begin to shout. ‘Amelia!’

‘Millie!’ Paul calls from the stairs.

I spin round and catch his eye. Suddenly he doesn’t look worried about raised voices, but he does look worried. My panic is rubbing off on him.

‘Millie, sweetheart.’ His deep voice is so much louder than mine. ‘I’ll check upstairs,’ he says. ‘You check the garden.’

‘Okay!’ I shout back, startling some of our neighbours, who begin to look concerned.

‘Susan.’ Helen catches my arm as I rush towards the double doors at the back of the house. ‘Is everything all right?’

‘Have you seen Amelia?’ I ask, my heart beating fast.

‘No. Not for a while.’ Helen’s speech is slurred from several glasses of wine. ‘Susan, are you okay? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.’

I shake my arm free and reach for the door handle. I jerk it open roughly and run into the garden. Heavy, cold rain pelts me all over and the wind blows strands of my hair across my face, blocking my vision. I rub my eyes and hurry towards the end of the garden.

‘Amelia!’ I shout, spinning round, trying to take in the whole space. ‘Amelia, where are you?’

I feel the heat of Paul’s body suddenly behind me as he presses his hands on my shoulders. ‘She’s not upstairs,’ he says.

My chest tightens. ‘The gate,’ I say, pointing. ‘It’s open. Oh Jesus, the gate is open, Paul.’

‘One of the older kids must have opened it,’ he says, hurrying ahead of me.

‘The ducks,’ I cry. ‘Amelia wanted to feed the ducks. I said no.’

Paul races through the gate. I’m right behind him, even though I can barely breathe.

The stream looks as innocent and unassuming as always. Raindrops dance across the surface, creating ripples between the large rocks protruding in haphazard places. The water is clear and I can see the pebbles at the bottom; it’s not even knee-deep and only waist-high for Amelia. We paddled in it just a couple of days ago, but Amelia didn’t like it when the water splashed her face. If she fell in she’d have been able to pull herself out, and she’d have come into the house crying with the cold and shock.

‘There are no ducks here today.’ I point towards a patch of green scum floating near the bank where the ducks usually feed.

‘She loves those damn ducks,’ Paul says and shakes his head.

Without another word he sprints down the narrow laneway that runs alongside the stream.

‘Millie!’ he calls. ‘Millie!’

I kick off my heels and run after him. I don’t feel the stony pathway beneath my feet. Normally I would struggle to keep up with Paul’s speed and fitness but right now I’m just a couple of steps behind him.

We come to a fork. One path is narrow with tall trees blocking out the light. It scares me, so I know it would be terrifying to a two-year-old. The other path is wider and brighter and sweeps away from the water.

‘This way,’ Paul shouts, veering on to the dark path.

I shake my head. ‘We’ve never been down this way. Amelia and I walk in the other direction.’

‘I ran this way this morning,’ Paul pants. ‘This path leads to the lake.’

‘I know. But it’s dark and scary. Amelia wouldn’t go down there. Not by herself.’

‘She would if she was following the ducks,’ Paul says.

‘The fucking ducks,’ I growl. ‘Why didn’t I just let her feed them? She only wanted to feed them. Oh Christ, Paul, where is she? Where is our baby?’

‘C’mon,’ he says and grabs my hand.

We run again. My hot breath dances across the air in front of my face like a cloud as I puff out, my lungs burning.

‘Millie!’ Paul roars, skidding on wet clay as he reaches the lake edge, almost dragging us both in. ‘Millie, are you here?’

‘Amelia! It’s Mammy and Daddy.’ I shake my hand free from Paul’s and run along the water’s edge, my breath shallow and laboured.

The water is angry. Twisting and turning as if the rain and wind have woken it from slumber.

‘Do you think she’s hiding?’ Paul’s voice breaks and his fear is palpable. ‘Maybe she’s playing. She loves hide and seek, doesn’t she?’

I shake my head. ‘The ducks.’ I point to where several ducklings swim in a straight line behind their mother, not far from us.

‘She can’t swim.’ Paul states what I already know. ‘She wouldn’t get in the water to play with them. She knows the water is dangerous. Haven’t you told her it’s dangerous?’

‘Of course I have,’ I shout. ‘But what if she slipped? Oh Paul. I can’t see her. I can’t see our baby anywhere.’

Paul doesn’t reply. He runs around, retracing his steps up the laneway and back. I don’t move. I’m frozen to the spot, as if the chilly wind has turned me to ice.

‘For fuck’s sake, Susan,’ Paul shouts. ‘Don’t just stand there. Look for her!’

I begin to cry. I wrap my arms around myself and sob loudly.

Some of our neighbours appear behind us. The looks on their faces tell me they’ve guessed what’s going on.

‘She can’t have gone far,’ Helen says, suddenly at my side.

‘She’s been gone for an hour at least,’ I say. ‘She’s alone. She’s all alone.’

I look up to the sound of splashing. Paul and some of the men have begun wading into the water. A succession of loud voices calling my daughter’s name rings in my ears.

The mothers and children stand back. The hyper children are calm now – silent as their mothers hold their hands much too tightly, keeping them safely away from the water as everyone looks on in disbelief.

Helen passes me her phone. ‘Has anyone called the Guards?’

‘Oh God.’ My eyes widen. ‘The cops.’

‘It’s the shock, Susan,’ Helen says, sober as she drapes her arm over my shoulder and holds me close. ‘You didn’t have time to think. Call them now.’

My hands shake as I try to dial. I hear Paul’s voice above all the other men shouting. The sound of my husband screaming our daughter’s name echoes around the trees and bounces back to punch me in the gut. I double over, almost dropping Helen’s phone in some long grass.

‘Here.’ Helen takes her phone back from me. ‘Let me help.’

I watch the activity in the lake as if it’s some horrible film I wish I hadn’t come to see. The water must be freezing, but no one acknowledges the cold as they wade deeper and deeper.

‘Hello. Gardaí please?’ I hear Helen say as a teenage boy emerges from under the water with a yellow, knitted cardigan in his hand.





Chapter Four

THEN

My alarm goes off at 6.30 a.m., like always. Too sleepy to open my eyes, I pat my hand around my bedside table, searching for the button on the alarm clock to shut it up. Triumphant, I flop on to my belly and pray that my flatmate hasn’t used all the hot water again. My flatmate is my twin brother, Adam. He’s recently broken up with his girlfriend of two years, and he spends most mornings in the shower, wanking. I’m cool with him taking the hands-on approach against heartbreak, no pun intended, I’m just not okay with having to have a bloody cold shower every day because of his penis.

I love my brother, but the downside of being a twin is that every milestone you reach in your life your sibling reaches at almost the same time. Learning to walk, for example. Adam was marginally first, two days ahead of me, and he never lets me forget it. He proudly called me Snoozy Susie until last year. First tooth – according to our mother, I won this round by a whole month, but I also started losing my baby teeth before him, which meant Adam looked cute and loveable in our cousin’s wedding photographs when we were seven while I looked gappy and goofy. Academically, our results are usually on a par. We’re both high achievers, although the grades come easily to my brother while I work my arse off, but I’ll never admit that.

Morning showers aren’t technically a milestone. But since Adam and I have a lot of overlapping classes we tend to be heading for the shower at the same time as each other every morning. I’m most definitely not a morning person. Adam is. Which means that for four years of college he has beaten me to the bathroom every day. This morning I’m determined to win the battle.

I flop my legs over the edge of the bed and wince as fluff from the carpet – I badly need to hoover – sticks to my bare feet. I shake one leg at a time, shedding crumbs and bits of I-don’t-even-know-what. I pull on my oversized green hoodie with the college logo printed across the front in giant navy letters and fish around on the end of my bed for the clean towel I know I left there last night. Unsurprisingly, I find it in a ball on the floor. I pick it up, shake it out and throw it over my shoulder. A hot shower is mine. I open my bedroom door and the smell of eggs and bacon distracts me.

‘Why the hell are you up and cooking so early?’ I ask, running a hand through my bed hair as I bypass the bathroom to investigate the delicious smell.

‘We’ve a party to organise.’ Adam flashes a goofy smile as he stands in his boxers in the tiny kitchenette just metres from my bedroom, stirring eggs in a pan. ‘And I was awake anyway. Not all of us sleep all day, you know.’

I pull a face and point towards the poky living room window. The weather is filthy. Strong wind blows rain against the glass with temper. Thunder rumbles in the distance and I laugh inwardly because I’d heard the noise already in my sleep but I thought it was my tummy telling me that I’m hungry. It’s the kind of day that makes you want to stay in bed bingeing on DVD box sets while eating too much chocolate and popcorn. It’s not the kind of day you celebrate your twenty-first birthday.

‘Do you think we should call off the party?’ I say, more of a statement than a question. ‘No one is going to want to come out in this crappy weather, are they?’

‘What?’ Adam scrunches his nose. ‘No. Of course we’re not cancelling. Are you mad? It’s only a little rain, Sue. Anyway, Mam is already on her way.’

‘She’s driving in this weather?’ I say.

Adam’s eyes narrow and he looks at me seriously, seeming so much older than his twenty-one years. ‘Sue, it’s just rain, not bloody Armageddon. What’s up with you? You’re acting all stressed out or something. It’s our birthday. You should be happy.’

I press my hands against my waist and stand nervously with a hip out. ‘It’s just this stupid thunder. It’s giving me the creeps or something.’

‘I think it’s awesome,’ Adam says. ‘Look at that. How can you not love it?’ He points towards the window as a sheet of lightning streaks across the horizon. It’s followed almost instantly by a nerve-rackingly loud clap of thunder.

‘I have a bad feeling.’ I fold my arms across my chest.

‘You’re just nervous about the party,’ Adam says. ‘But you only turn twenty-one once, Sue. And tonight is going to be the best party ever. Just relax and enjoy it. No one is going to give a shit about a little drizzle when the DJ gets going. Trust me.’

I know my brother is right. Our friends won’t care about bad weather, and they certainly won’t miss out on a party because of it. Adam and I have been looking forward to this milestone for months. But I can’t relax. The knot of anxiety in my stomach is not just pre-party nerves. It’s silly, I know, and I can’t quite put my finger on it, but something is making me edgy.

‘Can’t you put some clothes on while you cook?’ I say, trying to distract myself from my concerns with something familiar and comfortable. Teasing my brother is about as comfortable as it gets.

‘Eh? I did,’ Adam laughs, dropping his eyes to his boxers.

‘Ugh. Yuck.’ I pull a face. ‘I didn’t need to know you sleep naked. What the hell, Adam? Overshare much? You’re so gross, you know.’

He shrugs, ignores my disgust and continues cooking.

‘Okay, next question,’ I say as my nostrils widen, savouring the enticing aroma wafting from the kitchenette. ‘Did you think it would be funny to set my alarm for stupid o’clock on a Saturday?’

Adam laughs. ‘I didn’t. You can’t blame me if you were too lazy to reset it, Sue.’

I groan loudly, knowing my morning-person brother is right. I fell into bed last night sometime around 2 a.m., after a Buffy the Vampire Slayer marathon.

‘But, it’s sooooo early,’ I protest, tossing my head back to stare vacantly at the ceiling. ‘We don’t even have class today.’

Adam sighs. ‘It’s 1.30 in the afternoon. And yes! If you’re wondering if your alarm went off as usual this morning—’ He stops stirring the eggs to turn and face me. ‘It did. At 6.30. And want to know how I know that?’

I meet my brother’s stare head-on. I know a lecture is coming no matter what I say.

‘Because you weren’t the one who turned it off, were you?’ Adam says.

I grunt, knowing where this is going.

‘I was,’ Adam continues, turning his attention back to the eggs before they start to burn. ‘It woke me, Sue. From the other bloody room. You were in a fucking coma and didn’t hear it because you stayed up all night watching that vampire crap and drooling over the dude who needs to get a tan.’

‘1.30?’

‘Yup! I reset your alarm for lunchtime. I can’t believe you didn’t notice.’

‘No wonder I’m starving,’ I smile. ‘Is there some for me?’ I ask, yawning as I make my way into the kitchenette, which is barely big enough for two people.

‘Yeah, s’pose,’ Adam says. ‘If I don’t feed you, you won’t feed yourself, will you?’ Adam rolls his eyes, but he can’t keep a straight face as he pulls the pan off the heat. He’s laughing by the time he begins to plate up the eggs.

I’m older than my brother. Three minutes and eleven seconds older to be exact. Although, ironically, timekeeping hasn’t been my strong suit since.

Adam and I were born twelve weeks early, twenty-one years ago today. And our mother loves to tell the story of how she nearly died in the process; how we all nearly died, and how we’re lucky to be here at all.

‘I was barely eighteen. Only a baby myself,’ Mam says, as if Adam and I were very inconsiderate for gatecrashing her party lifestyle. ‘It’s not easy being a single parent. And you were such sickly little things,’ she often reminds us. ‘It’s a miracle. You’re miracles. I spent all my time worried about you.’

She always points to the fine lines around her eyes and tells us we’re responsible. She’s joking, of course. Mam is only thirty-nine, but she looks ten years younger. When she comes to visit Adam and me on campus, our friends often think she’s our older sister, and she rarely tells them otherwise. Actually, people often think my mother and brother are related and I’m just a friend.

Mam and Adam are tall and broad. They both have brown eyes and fair hair. On the other hand, I’m short and too skinny for my own good. I have black hair and my eyes are a greeny-blue, like the Caribbean Sea. Adam sometimes teases me that there must have been a mix-up at the hospital and they brought me home by mistake. But while my brother looks like Mam on the outside, inside he’s very different. He’s quiet and placid – nothing like our mother. Or me. Mam and I are outspoken and opinionated. And not always easy to get along with. We don’t always get along with each other. Thank God for Adam keeping the peace. Funny, that’s probably one of the few things Mam and I have in common – our love of Adam.

Most people never believe we’re twins. He’s more than a head taller than me, ironic considering when we were born he was less than half my birth weight and the doctors warned my mother that he probably wouldn’t make it. Mam hasn’t stopped worrying about him since. While Adam spent the first three months of our lives in hospital on a ventilator, I was home after just five weeks. Those eight weeks are the longest we’ve ever spent apart. Adam is my twin but he’s also my best friend, and I rely on him more than I’ll ever admit out loud to anyone, especially him.

‘Right, make yourself useful and make some toast,’ he says, breaking into my thoughts as he throws a half loaf of bread at me.

‘You’re right beside the toaster,’ I say.

‘You are so lazy,’ Adam says, knocking his shoulder against mine. ‘Mam was right when she warned me if we shared a flat I’d end up taking care of your lazy arse.’

‘I’m not lazy,’ I groan, unfazed by my mother’s dig. ‘I’m just not good with cooking and shit.’

‘Or cleaning,’ Adam says, looking over his shoulder into the messy living area.

I follow his gaze. A bottle of my foundation is on top of the TV, missing its lid. There are several pairs of my shoes scattered around the floor and a small mountain of my clothes at one end of the couch.

‘Whoops,’ I say, spying my favourite black lacy top peeking out from the middle of my clothes monster. I hurry over to the couch to drag it out, knocking half the pile of clothes on to the floor in the process.

Adam groans, unimpressed.

‘What?’ I say, waving my top above my head like a flag. ‘I’ve been looking for this.’

‘Well, you need to clean this place up before tonight,’ he grumbles, adding some delicious crispy bacon on top of the two plates of eggs. ‘A few people will probably call round here for a drink before we head to the party.’

‘Ah Adam,’ I say, annoyed that my brother has obviously invited people to our flat without clearing it with me first.

‘It’s just a couple of the lads,’ he smiles, knowing I’m on to him. ‘I said it to your friends too, of course.’

‘You what?’

‘Well, I knew you wouldn’t so—’

‘Yeah, you’re right, I wouldn’t. We promised Mam we’d keep it simple. And you know if things get out of hand, I’ll be the one she blames,’ I say. Sulking, I tuck my top under my arm and walk back into the kitchenette to fetch my plate of food. ‘I thought we could have a couple of glasses of champagne here, just you, me and Mam, and then head to the party together.’

Adam scrapes his fork against his plate and the shrill squeak hurts my brain. ‘But that was before I was about to break the biggest, juiciest story ever,’ he says.

I groan. Adam is always about to break the biggest, juiciest story – forever following a lead here and a hint there. I’m getting more and more frustrated that he can’t give it a rest for one bloody night.

‘I’m serious this time, Sue,’ he says, reading me. ‘All I need is a couple of incriminating photos and – boom! Exclusive has my name all over it. This story will be career changing. I want to par-TAY.’

‘Career changing?’ I snort. ‘Adam, it’s the college paper, not the national press. You’re still a student, remember?’

‘And Ms Mahon is still university president, but that doesn’t stop her sleeping with students.’

‘Fuck off,’ I say, my hand covering my mouth.

‘You should see your face,’ he chuckles, polishing off his bacon. ‘I told you this was a juicy story, didn’t I?’

I can’t form any words.

‘Apparently she’s been at it for years. The canteen. The library. Her office. She’s a complete nympho. And, of course, her favourite students pass with flying colours.’

‘That’s so gross,’ I say, gagging for dramatic effect. ‘Isn’t she like a hundred and ten or something?’

Adam rolls his eyes at my exaggeration. ‘She’s in her fifties, Sue. But that’s still thirty whatever years older than the students she’s banging. And she’s married and has kids.’

‘Wow. That is pretty fucked up.’

‘I know, right? There’s a couple of us on to her. But I’m determined to break the story first.’

I take a deep breath. ‘Adam, are you sure about this?’

‘Don’t look so worried,’ he grins. ‘I’ve never been more certain of anything in my life. This story is mine.’

‘Okay, okay,’ I say. A sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach puts me off my eggs. ‘But just be careful. She’s the president of our university. If this goes wrong, it will go spectacularly wrong.’

‘I know, but nothing is going to go wrong,’ he says, shovelling a huge forkful of egg into his mouth and swallowing. ‘Trust me.’

‘Oh Adam.’ I shake my head, unsure.

‘Look, I’ll tell everyone the pre-party is off. We’ll meet them at the venue instead. Will that make you feel better?’

‘Okay. Cool. Thanks,’ I say, taken aback. I was certain he’d put up more of a fight.

‘Don’t be too smug about getting your own way, Sue. You can pay for the champagne. I’m broke. Stupid suit hire is costing me a fortune.’

‘You’re hiring a suit?’ My eyes widen. ‘Jesus, isn’t that a bit fancy?’

‘No. It’s our twenty-first. Everyone will be dressed up.’

‘Yeah. Our twenty-first, not our fiftieth. Suits are for old people.’

‘Eh, listen to who’s talking, Miss I want to drink posh champagne with my family instead of chilling with my mates,’ Adam says in a terrible mimic of my voice.

‘Right. Fine. Whatever.’ I shrug, forcing the last of my eggs down. ‘But I’m wearing jeans and this top I just found.’ I pull my top out from under my arm and press the lacy fabric against my nose and sniff to make sure it’s clean enough to wear later.

‘You’re disgusting,’ he says, tossing his empty plate into the sink of soapy water. ‘Right. I cooked, so you can clean. I’m going to pick up my suit now. If you give me some cash I’ll get the champagne while I’m out.’

‘What? Now?’ I protest.

‘Yup,’ Adam nods. ‘The suit hire place closes at four on Saturdays.’

‘But the storm?’ I grumble, pointing to the window.

‘I’ll bring an umbrella, okay?’

I don’t bother to argue. Adam is becoming annoyed, I can tell, and I don’t want to spoil the evening with a pointless argument over the weather.

I stuff a slice of bacon into my mouth to buy myself time while I try to think where I left my wallet.

‘Do you just want one bottle of champagne?’ Adam asks.

‘Eh, yeah,’ I say. ‘That stuff’s expensive. Actually, maybe Prosecco.’

‘Okay. One bottle. Of cheap Prosecco,’ he says, holding in a laugh. ‘I can tell by your face that you’ve no idea where your wallet is, so you can just pay me back when I get home. And clean up, yeah? This place is disgusting.’

‘Hey,’ I moan, tossing my empty plate into the sink where it clinks against Adam’s. ‘Who made you the boss?’

He shrugs cockily. ‘So don’t clean. I won’t be the one who has to listen to Mam’s moaning about the state of the place when she gets here.’

‘Ugh.’ I wrinkle my nose. ‘I hate it when you’re right.’

‘I’m always right,’ Adam laughs, snapping the towel from my shoulder before racing towards the bathroom. ‘And I’m always first in the shower.’

‘Arsehole,’ I shout after him as he locks the door.

Several minutes later Adam is by the front door, wearing the same hoodie as me, except his fits him. He has the strap of his fancy and expensive camera slung over one shoulder and my hot-pink umbrella is tucked under his arm.

‘Before you say anything . . . I left you hot water,’ he smiles.

Lightning flashes and engulfs our entire living area in a purple-blue hue for a split second, followed almost instantly by a loud clap of thunder.

‘Don’t look so worried, Sue,’ Adam says as he opens the door. ‘I won’t be long. This is going to be the best birthday ever. I promise. See you soon.’

The wind slams the door shut behind him with an aggressive thud and I shake my head, wondering how my twin brother and I have grown up to be such different people.

Three hours later I’m hot and clammy from cleaning. My fingers feel flaky and grubby where the inside of the cheap rubber gloves has started to crumble against my skin because I’ve been scrubbing so hard. My efforts have paid off; the kitchenette is spotless. The countertops actually sparkle. I sorted and put away all my clothes. In the process, I found a black cocktail dress I’d forgotten about and decided to wear it tonight. Adam won’t be showing me up in his suit after all, I think. My bedroom is clean and tidy and I even changed the sheets on my bed, realising it’s pretty disgusting that I can’t remember the last time I did that.

Exhausted, I peel off my gloves and throw them in the bin. I thought Adam would be back ages ago. I wonder if he’s lost track of time taking photos of the storm. I hope he got some good shots. I decide I’ll try to get my hands on his camera when he’s not looking and have the best ones printed off and framed. I haven’t had a chance to get him a birthday present yet, so this would be perfect.

I make the most of having the flat to myself. I spend ages in the shower, and when I get out I put Buffy the Vampire Slayer on the telly and plug in my hair straightener in the living room. Adam would go crazy if he caught me. I’ve already burned several holes in the carpet in my room, and he says the landlord will freak and we’ll lose our deposit when we move out. Adam worries about all the wrong things, I think, staring out the window at a tree blowing furiously in the storm. I try to take my mind off my overzealous brother hunting for a great shot. I pull on my little black dress over greyish-blue underwear that used to be white, and flop on to the couch to make a start on my make-up.

I must have fallen asleep, because when I open my eyes again the thunder and lightning have stopped and the rain has reduced to a depressing drizzle. Adam was right not to cancel the party. I was worrying over nothing. The storm has blown over in time. Bubbles of excitement pop in my tummy as I look forward to the night ahead.

When my phone rings I expect to find my brother’s name onscreen, but I’m not surprised to see my mother’s instead – I was expecting her to be here at least an hour ago. The weather must be playing havoc with the traffic, I think. I try to hit answer but I’m sleepy and uncoordinated. The ringing stops and seconds later my phone beeps, informing me that I have a voice message. I listen.

‘Sue, it’s Mam. Please, please call me as soon as you get this. There’s been an accident. A terrible accident.’





Chapter Five

NOW

TEN DAYS LATER

The news comes on the telly and I close my eyes and cover my ears with my hands. ‘Blasted thing,’ Helen says. ‘I’ll turn it off.’

I wait a couple of seconds before I lower my hands and open my eyes. ‘Thank you,’ I say, choking back tears. ‘I just can’t listen to them talk about Amelia any more. It’s too hard.’

‘I know. I know,’ Helen says, placing the remote control on the coffee table next to a freshly made sandwich.

‘Are there reporters still outside?’ I ask.

She walks over to the window and parts the drawn curtain just enough to peek through. ‘Nope. No one. Oh wait, hang on . . . a girl with a fancy camera. I think she’s taking pictures of the house.’

I shake my head.

‘Will I tell her to go away?’ Helen asks.

‘No point,’ I shrug. ‘She’ll just come back later. Or tomorrow. They always do. There’s always someone here, isn’t there? If it’s not the cops, it’s the press, or a curious neighbour. I wasn’t prepared for this. I didn’t know there would be so many people. So many questions. I can’t breathe.’ I tug at the collar of my blouse, loosening it, but it doesn’t help and I still feel choked.

‘Ah Susan,’ Helen says as she lowers herself on to the sitting room couch next to me. ‘How could anyone prepare for this? You’re doing great. And you don’t have to answer anyone’s questions. Not if you’re not up to it.’

I can see her thigh brush against mine and she places her hand on my knee, but I don’t feel her touch. My whole body is numb, everywhere is stiff and without feeling – except for my head. My head hurts. It pulses like it might explode as I replay in my mind the image of my teenage neighbour pulling Amelia’s cardigan out of the water.

‘Susan, won’t you eat something?’ Helen asks, her voice slicing into my thoughts.

I shake my head. Food is the last thing on my mind as I stare at the blank television screen where an image of Amelia shone back at me moments ago. I don’t remember Paul giving a photo of Amelia to the police or the reporters. Did he give them a photo of me too? I know he’d never provide one of himself. Paul can’t abide having his photo taken.

‘Susan.’ Helen says my name in a sing-song voice. ‘You haven’t eaten in days.’

‘What day is it?’ I ask.

‘Tuesday,’ Helen says. ‘It’s Tuesday, today. Can you remember the last time you ate? You must be hungry. Please just try a little bite. I’m worried about you.’

I shake my head as I glance at the ham sandwich and glass of ice water in front of me on the coffee table. The food turns my stomach as if it has sat there for days. I guess Helen must have brought it from her house. I don’t have any fresh bread. Or ham. But my fridge is full of food. Mostly lasagne and quiches.

‘Anything that will hold for a couple of days and keep you going,’ my well-meaning but nosy neighbours say when they arrive at my front door carrying a tray of home-made offerings.

I always accept the food that I know I’ll never eat, and I manage the words ‘thank you’ before I close the door without inviting them in.

The only people who have been inside my house since Amelia disappeared are the team of police and Helen.

Helen is here almost all the time. She arrives early in the morning and leaves late at night, when Larry finally finishes work on the farm and comes to walk her home in the dark. He usually stinks of gin and can barely stand up straight. And I can hear him shouting profanities at her before they reach the gate.

Helen has taken on the role of a mother figure in my house. I’m not sure if she’s trying to help me or herself, and I’m too exhausted to try to figure it out. I have no idea how Paul feels about her constant presence. Paul and I haven’t properly spoken in a while. He’s rarely at home. And when he is here, I barely recognise him and the way he’s acting.

He took down all Amelia’s paintings from the fridge without asking me. I’m not sure exactly when I noticed they were gone. It may have taken me a couple of days. I was furious at first. And hurt. Then I found them under his pillow. But I don’t know why he keeps them there. He doesn’t sleep in our bed any more. He falls asleep on the couch or at the kitchen table, usually in the early morning, after pacing the floor for hours. As soon as he wakes, he pulls on running gear and leaves the house. He never says goodbye. The slam of the front door behind him is the only clue that he’s gone.

Paul can’t seem to be here. And I can’t be anywhere else. It’s as if every piece of furniture reminds us of her. As if the walls whisper her name and torment us. Our little cottage that we’ve grown to love is lonely and enormous without the sound of childhood laughter filling it every day. Last night I watched my husband rock back and forth on a kitchen chair all evening. His hands covered his ears as he said our daughter’s name over and over while tears streamed down his flushed cheeks. I didn’t go to him. I didn’t try to touch him, or hold him or kiss him. I can’t bear to be near him. Paul, with his eyes of glacier blue and hair the colour of desert sand – just like Amelia.

I jump as I feel Helen’s hand press firmly on my shoulder.

‘Jesus, Susan. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.’

‘It’s fine,’ I say, shaking a little.

My heart is beating furiously, and I’m aware of the sound of my blood coursing in my veins as it swishes inside my aching head.

‘Where’s Paul today?’ Helen asks quietly, looking at her watch.

‘Running,’ I reply, hating how defensive I sound. ‘Paul likes to run.’

‘I know. But he’s been gone a long time, even longer than yesterday. Do you want me to send Larry to go look for him?’

I shake my head. I don’t need Larry to look for Paul. I know where my husband is. It’s the same place he’s been every day for the past ten days. He’s down at the lake. And I know what he does there; he stands at the water’s edge and waits for Amelia, as if she’ll float up to him, take his hand and come home.

‘You shouldn’t be alone, Susan,’ Helen says. ‘Paul should be here with you. I know he needs the fresh air and time to clear his head, but I haven’t seen him much since . . . since . . . well—’ She clears her throat. ‘I just think you need each other at a time like this.’

I pull my shoulder away from under Helen’s hand and turn so I can look her in the eye.

‘He thinks she’s dead, you know,’ I say. ‘Paul thinks Amelia drowned. He thinks she fell in looking for those damn ducks.’

Tears prick the corner of Helen’s eyes. She hasn’t cried in front of me. Not once. She’s probably the only person in the whole village who hasn’t broken down and offered me their condolences, as if they’re so damn sure my baby is dead. But I can tell she wants to. I can tell Helen wants to cry her eyes out, because it’s just so bloody wrong that a beautiful little girl was running around the garden on a sunny afternoon and suddenly she’s not here any more.

‘You can say it, you know,’ I sigh. ‘Everyone else has. I’ve heard the rumours. People saying I’m a bad mother. I blow into the village, more concerned with making friends and keeping up appearances than watching my own daughter.’

Helen shakes her head and the tears she’s battled to hold back begin to fall. ‘Listen here to me, Susan Warner. You are not a bad mother. You loved that little girl. It was an accident. A tragic accident. No one is to blame. No one.’

‘You think she’s dead too, don’t you?’ I swallow. ‘You think she drowned, just like everyone else in this miserable village.’

‘Susan, it’s been ten days,’ she whispers, reaching for my hand. ‘I can understand you clinging to hope. Lord knows, I’d do the same myself. But . . .’

‘Someone took her, Helen,’ I snap, pulling my hand away before she touches me. ‘Someone stole my baby.’

‘Who, Susan? Who would take a little girl from her own garden with the whole neighbourhood watching?’

‘A monster.’ I drag my hand through my hair, my fingers catching in the knots. ‘Someone has my daughter, Helen. I’m going to bring my baby home. And I’m going to make the bastard who took her pay. I’m going to make him pay for everything he’s done. He deserves to pay, doesn’t he?’

She nods and tries to smile as she reaches for my hands and lowers them slowly. Her fingers curl around my palm, attempting to be positive, but her wrinkled brow and cloudy eyes tell me how fearful she really is.

A couple of firm knocks sound on the front door. Helen lets go of me, and it’s only then I realise I’ve been holding my breath.

‘I’ll get it, if you like?’ she says as she runs the tips of her fingers under her eyes to catch some tears.

I nod.

‘Hello,’ she says, opening the door of the cottage to a man and woman.

I stand up as soon as the man speaks. I recognise his voice and I make my way to the door.

‘Oh God,’ I say. ‘Have you news? Have the divers found something?’

‘May we come in, Susan?’ Detective Connelly asks, his voice steady as always, offering no clues about what he’s thinking.

I nod and walk back to the couch, pleading with myself to remain calm.

‘Can I get anyone tea or coffee?’ Helen asks, and I guess she’s realised the strangers are the Gardaí assigned to Amelia’s case.

‘No, thank you,’ the young female detective says.

‘Speak for yourself, Langton,’ the older man cuts in. ‘I’d appreciate a coffee, thank you.’ I watch his eyes sweep over the sandwich and water I haven’t touched. ‘Susan, you’ll have a coffee too, won’t you?’ he asks.

There’s a distinctly father-like quality about him, and sometimes I feel as if he wants to wrap his arms around me and tell me everything will be okay. And I think I’d like it if he did. I presume he has children my age. Maybe he has grandchildren too. Grandchildren like Amelia.

‘Yeah, coffee,’ I nod, sitting down. ‘Coffee would be good, Helen – thanks.’

‘Ah good,’ Helen says. ‘And I’ll make some tea for myself. If you change your mind, Miss . . . Miss . . .’

‘Fiona,’ the female Garda says. ‘And, thank you, but I really am okay.’

‘Fiona,’ I repeat silently in my head, thinking how the name suits her. Fiona Langton.

I’m sure the pair of Gardaí standing uncomfortably in my home have told me their first names before. Maybe many times. But I don’t remember. Detective Langton and Detective Connelly refer to each other by their surnames. It’s obviously an occupational habit. I wonder if they do the same outside of work. If they bump into each in the supermarket aisle, do they still assume the same formalities?

Fancy seeing you here, Langton.

Oh, I just popped in for some frozen peas, Connelly.

I like Connelly. He’s considerably older than Langton. Old enough to be her father. He’s overweight, but his suit tells me he wasn’t always that way. It’s a tight fit and his jacket struggles to button up over his a-few-doughnuts-too-many belly. The tailoring is dated, and the pinstripe is wide and out of fashion. I suspect his suits are serving Connelly as long as he’s been serving the force. He wears black. Always. The only splash of colour is his fat tie that looks like it’s escaped from an 80s romantic comedy. But he smiles at me often and his eyes tell me how much his heart breaks every time he’s assigned to the case of a missing child. He squeezes my hand sometimes, and it feels as if he’s promising he’ll find my little girl.

Langton is entirely different. She looks at me with unsure eyes and I wonder if she has children of her own. She’s about my age. At most she’s a year or two older. I think that might be unusually young to be a detective but I’m not well up on that sort of thing. She has a neat, strawberry-blonde bob and fair skin, the kind that burns after just a couple of minutes outdoors in the summer. Freckles sprinkle across her nose like cinnamon on an apple tart and her lips are narrow and dark red – serious, always, like a stern headmistress. Her pencil skirts sit respectably below her knee and her jacket plunges tastefully, revealing a crisp pastel blouse. She oozes perfection. She looks like someone who has never had a bad hair day in her life. A woman who doesn’t make mistakes, and certainly not the type of mother who would ever lose a child. Her clear eyes sweep over my dishevelled appearance, which is a stark contrast against my perfect home. She tries, and fails, to hide her disapproval with professional composure, but I can feel her judging me, wondering how I could possibly be so negligent. Wondering how any mother could be so caught up by sudden bad weather that she neglected her own child. Wondering if this is all my fault. But, mostly, I see her wondering if I’m broken. And the answer is written all over my face.

‘Is Paul here?’ Connelly asks, lowering himself to sit next to me, and the cushion behind him puffs out in protest under his weight.

I shake my head.

‘Okay.’ Connelly sighs. ‘Will he be home soon?’

I shrug. I can feel Langton’s eyes burn into me and I should be embarrassed that my husband appears to have abandoned me when we need each other most, but I don’t have the energy.

‘We were hoping to speak to both of you,’ Langton explains, folding her arms.

‘Paul is out running,’ Helen says, appearing from the kitchen area.

She carries my cherished, hand-painted china tray in her hands and matching cups with steam swirling out the top rattle and clink with each unsure step she takes towards us. There’s a plate of chocolate biscuits too. I don’t know where Helen found them. Maybe one of the neighbours dropped them in.

‘This is beautiful.’ Langton points to the tray that seems to fit effortlessly in my home.

‘Thank you,’ I say, glancing at the blue swallows painted above bright green foliage that work their way across the china set. ‘It was a gift from my mother. A few years ago.’

I neglect to mention that at the time my mother gave it to me I stuffed it under my bed for months on end, horrified by the sight of the kitsch thing.

‘Ah, lovely. Thank you,’ Connelly says as Helen leans over the coffee table, lifts the biscuits and hot cups off the tray and places them on the table.

Helen clears away the untouched sandwich and glass of now lukewarm water and sighs as she looks at me. ‘I made your coffee extra strong, Susan. You need it.’

‘Thank you,’ I say, relieved as she walks back towards the kitchen.

‘Paul goes out running a lot,’ Langton says as soon as Helen is out of earshot.

‘Yes,’ I agree, reaching for the cup of coffee nearest to me. It’s much too hot to drink.

‘Has he always been a keen runner?’ Connelly asks.

I smile. Connelly’s approach is much softer. More likeable. He manages to ask the same questions as Langton but in a more human way.

‘As long as I’ve known him. Yes,’ I say.

‘And how long is that?’ Langton asks.

What a strange question, I think as I stare her down with bloodshot eyes and I’m sure my expression tells her as much.

She elaborates awkwardly. ‘Are you married long?’

‘Four years,’ I say. ‘Five this summer.’

‘And how did you meet?’

‘We bumped into each other in a coffee shop, but it took him a long time to finally work up the courage to ask me out.’

‘A true romance.’ Connelly smiles. ‘Ah, young love. You can’t beat it, can you?’

‘Did you know Paul before that?’ Langton asks.

I shake my head, distressed. ‘I’m sorry, these questions . . .’

Connelly shoots Langton a look that warns her to back off. I’d put money on her next question being about Paul’s past. And I’m certainly not about to discuss that. Not now. Not ever.

‘Are you a runner too?’ Connelly asks, impressively deflecting, and I let on as if I don’t notice him pulling rank.

‘No. Just Paul.’ I answer his question but I keep my eyes on Langton.

I don’t like her and I definitely don’t trust her.

‘Paul is training for the Dublin marathon,’ I explain. ‘He’s run it every year since we’ve been married, and every year he tries to beat his previous time. He’s fast. Top two per cent, or something like that.’

‘And is he going to run it this year?’ Langton says.

It’s not what she says but the way she says it that makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. She doesn’t only think I’m a bad mother. She thinks Paul is a lousy father too. As if we’re self-absorbed parents who deserve to lose a child. Paul busy running. Me busy trying to fit in. Amelia didn’t stand a chance.

‘I don’t know.’ I shrug. ‘Maybe. We haven’t discussed it. Paul was training hard before . . .’ I cough and take a mouthful of coffee. It’s scalding and it stings as it makes its way down my throat like liquid fire.

‘Do you know where he runs? The route?’ Langton says.

‘Not really. Down by the lake sometimes. The road into town isn’t safe. There’s lots of bends and blind spots. I don’t like him running there. I’ve asked him not to.’

‘How far does he run?’ Langton continues. ‘Four, maybe five kilometres?’

‘God no.’ I shake my head. ‘Ten most days. Fifteen sometimes.’

‘But it’s only a couple of kilometres to the lake and back,’ Langton says.

‘Yeah . . . and . . .’ I twitch.

‘And where does he pick up the remaining thirteen kilometres?’

‘I don’t know,’ I say, my eyes seeking out Helen in the kitchen.

She has her back to me as she leans over the sink, washing dishes that have been there for days.

I want to believe Langton is trying to make conversation until Paul comes home. I want to believe she’s simply taking an interest in my husband’s hobby, but there’s something about the determined glint in her eyes that tells me this is more than just an awkward chat. She makes me uneasy and maybe I’m too tired to hide it.

‘Are you married?’ I ask, a single eyebrow raised accusingly.

I glance at her wedding finger and I don’t see a ring. But that doesn’t answer my question. Maybe she doesn’t wear her ring at work.

Her eyes meet mine and she shakes her head. ‘No.’

‘Kids?’ I mumble, the word passing my lips before I have time to think.

Langton remains silent but I don’t miss the twitch of her lips. She’s a mother all right.

‘Susan, I know this isn’t easy for you,’ Connelly interjects. ‘We’re just trying to gather as much information as we can, to paint a picture for ourselves. It helps sometimes.’

‘Does Paul ever go running in the woods?’ Langton asks.

I shift uncomfortably on the couch and turn towards Detective Connelly. He’s helped himself to a cup of coffee and half the plate of biscuits is gone. Telltale crumbs sprinkle his tie.

‘What woods?’ I ask.

‘It’s not really a wood,’ Connelly explains, using the back of his hand to brush the crumbs off his tie and on to my plush cream rug. ‘It’s really just overgrown agricultural land.’

I squint, trying to visualise the area he’s talking about.

‘There are some tall trees on the far side of the lake, they stretch for a couple of miles before they reach the nearest farm,’ he continues.

‘It’s no place for a runner, up there,’ Helen says, once again returning from the kitchen area, this time wearing my rubber gloves, which are much too small for her. ‘It’s mucky and hilly up there. Paul’s hardly going to risk a broken ankle when he’s training for the bloody marathon. Susan, don’t worry, Paul hasn’t run off into the woods. Jesus.’ Helen squeezes my shoulder gently with a soapy, gloved hand before she walks back towards the kitchen sink, shaking her head and muttering under her breath.

‘Why are you asking these questions?’ I say, setting my coffee cup down before my shaking hand spills some.

‘There’s no body, Susan,’ Langton says. ‘Our divers have been over every inch of the water and there’s nothing.’

‘So . . . What are you saying? Have you come here to tell me you’re giving up? You’re just going to stop looking? Is that it?’

‘No. Absolutely not,’ Connelly cuts in, his eyes burning into Langton’s like hot coals. ‘We’d never give up looking for a missing person. Least of all a child.’

‘Susan, we want to find Amelia,’ Langton says, following Connelly’s lead, and I think I can hear her voice breaking. ‘But we do have to tell you that the divers are pulling back. I’m sorry. It will probably be on the news later, when the reporters notice, and we wanted you and Paul to hear it from us first.’

‘Amelia is two.’ I begin to cry. ‘She’s two years old and you’re sitting on my couch eating biscuits and telling me that you’re not going to look for her any more?’

Langton’s face is laced with emotion.

Angry, tearless sobs burst out of me. ‘She’s a baby. Just a baby.’

Helen hurries back. She looks like she might cry too.

‘Susan hasn’t been watching the news,’ she explains, making it obvious she’s been listening to our conversation all along despite busying herself with the washing up.

‘I can understand,’ Connelly says, tilting his head to one side and looking at me with knowing, sad eyes. ‘Reporters can be unintentionally insensitive.’

‘Unintentionally my arse,’ Helen snorts.

Connelly shifts slightly as he switches his attention to Helen. The leather couch squeaks under him and the noise hangs in the air for a moment.

‘They took photos of Amelia from Susan’s Facebook page,’ she says, audibly disgusted. ‘The cheeky bastards. They splashed them in all the papers. How is that unintentional, huh?’

Connelly’s forehead wrinkles and he shakes his head.

‘Some of the locals even gave interviews to the papers about this poor family.’ Helen points a single finger in my direction. ‘People around here barely know Susan and Paul, but that didn’t stop them talking. The papers don’t care. They just want a headline. They’ll print any old nonsense.’

‘Susan, I can assure you everyone wants Amelia found,’ Connelly says. ‘The Gardaí, the press, your neighbours . . .’

He’s speaking to me but looking at Helen. I can see him losing patience as he tries to quench her fire with calm words and a firm tone. But Helen is on a roll.

‘And is any of this going to help find Amelia?’ Helen goes on. ‘No. Of course it’s not. Reporters just want a story. They’re using a missing child to sell bloody papers. It’s disgusting.’

‘I can understand how upsetting that must be, Susan,’ Connelly says. ‘As you know, we issued a statement when the case first broke, asking the media to show discretion and respect your privacy.’

‘Well, the media ignored you,’ Helen grumbles.

‘The press will always print the strongest story,’ Langton says, keeping to the facts and keeping emotion out of her tone. ‘It’s their job at the end of the day. It can be very distressing, for any family. It’s certainly not ideal, but it is all very normal under the circumstances, I’m afraid.’

Helen nods. She opens her mouth ready to speak but the two Gardaí stare her down and she closes it again, obviously thinking better of it.

‘We will of course issue another statement this afternoon, after the divers pull back,’ Langton says. ‘It will most likely dominate the news channels and papers tomorrow. It will be online too, of course. You and Paul need to be prepared for that, Susan.’

‘It said on the news that she drowned,’ I say. ‘One reporter stood on the verge of the lake and pointed into the water as he said, “She went to her watery grave.” Watery grave,’ I snort with disbelief. ‘Those were his exact words.’

‘I’m sorry,’ Connelly sighs, reaching for the last biscuit. ‘The media can be damn right cruel sometimes.’

‘And in the absence of facts they often run with their own, do they?’ Helen says, unable to help herself butting in again.

‘What do you think, detective?’ I tilt my head to one side, watching him eat, my own stomach churning. ‘Do you think my baby drowned?’

Connelly doesn’t answer me. Instead he takes my hand and gives it a gentle squeeze, as if he’s offering me his condolences. I wonder if that’s his answer.

‘When will Paul be home?’ Langton asks suddenly, her eyes small and curious.

‘I don’t know.’ I drag my hand away from Connelly and wrap my arms around myself. ‘I honestly have no idea.’

‘It really would be good if we could speak to you and Paul,’ Connelly says.

‘I know. I know,’ I say.

‘Susan, this is our third visit to the house,’ Langton says. ‘Last time we stayed for almost two hours. Where does Paul go in all that time? Where is he right now?