Authors: Lesley Thomson
‘Thomson skilfully evokes the era and the slow-moving quality of childhood summers, suggesting the menace lurking just beyond the vision of her young protagonists. A study of memory and guilt with several twists.’
‘A thoughtful, well-observed story about families and relationships and what happens to both when a tragedy occurs. It reminded me of Kate Atkinson. Thomson is particularly good at capturing the minutiae of childhood as well as the secrets, the lies, the make-believe, the jealousies and spitefulness, the confusion and wonder of being nine years old.’
‘Lesley Thomson’s engaging writing style skilfully explores the obsession and the sense of guilt, hope and despair, trust and mistrust that will fill the lives of all the people who once knew the girl who disappeared. A masterful exploration of human feelings that is paired with an equally masterful description of the settings that form the background to this gripping story. Full of unexpected twists, this is a crime story that will leave you wondering until the end whether a crime has, in fact, been committed at all.’
Book After Book
‘Such is the vividness of the descriptions of the location in this well structured and well written novel that I want to get the next train down. Just when one thinks one can guess where it is leading, it switches, and the conclusion is a tense and gripping one. On the edge of my seat? No way – I was cowering under it.’
Amy Myers, Shotsmag
Skilfully lays the foundations in the earlier chapters for what is to come. Each layer of the plot is carefully interwoven with the thoughts, wishes and desires of the main characters. Years pass culminating in the explosion of a shocking truth. If you enjoy a good thriller with more twists and turns than a corkscrew, I recommend it.’
‘Complex, disturbing and surprising... the sort of book where you simply have to completely rethink what you thought was going to happen – before sleeping with the lights on.’
‘The characterisation is particularly excellent. A sensitively written story, evocatively described, this is also an unusual thriller in that it easily bears a second reading.’
‘There is a touch of Susan Hill or Ruth Rendell in her (Barbara Vine) gothic mode here. Very well written.’
Abbey’s Bookshop, Sydney
For my Mum and Dad – May and Bill –
And for LMH for so very much.
Part One: June 1968
Part Two: June 1999
Part Three: August to December 1999
About the Author
‘One… two… three… four… five…’
ater Eleanor would describe to the Scotland Yard detective how it had been her turn to hide and she hadn’t had long. Now that the counting had stopped Alice would come at any moment.
She heard a crack, a twig or the sound of plastic breaking. Someone was there. She squeezed through a gap in the bushes and plunged recklessly into the tangled undergrowth, wincing as thorny tentacles scratched her skin. Finally she nestled into a space, concealed deep in the branches.
Eleanor was glad to have got away from Alice, even for a few minutes. She was not enjoying playing with her. Eleanor usually invited friends down from London where her family lived, but that Whitsun all possible candidates had been quick to say they were doing other things. She wouldn’t have minded being on her own, but her parents were convinced that Eleanor, the youngest Ramsay and officially designated as a ‘problem’, would benefit from calm and mature companionship. The perfect solution had been Alice, the daughter of Steve Howland, the village of Charbury’s new postman. Alice’s family had just moved to Charbury from Newhaven, ten miles away, and she knew no one. She was understood to be sensible and well behaved, the kind of girl who would stop Eleanor being a nuisance or getting into scrapes. In the Ramsay family, Eleanor was the benchmark against which her brother and sister measured their behaviour and took their allotted roles. Gina was the eldest; at nearly thirteen already loftily occupying a different world to her siblings. Lucian was the only boy; he would be a doctor like his father, a self-imposed destiny, for his mother wanted him to be an artist. Then there was Eleanor, who talked too fast, got red and hot after playing, with a foghorn voice that heralded a slipstream of chaos wherever she went.
Eleanor Ramsay would be nine years old in 1968, although that day, Tuesday, the fourth of June, she was eight and counting the days – a vast twenty-four more – until her birthday. Her sister Gina had said Eleanor was too old for hide and seek, which ensured that Alice, who had been nine for three months and who always agreed with Gina, was a grudging, even obstructive participant.
Although Eleanor had hidden, she was upset at Alice’s treachery in stopping counting. Balanced on her haunches, she fulminated at the injustice. Eleanor set huge store in playing fair. She was reluctant to admit something bad in someone else, so it was with dismay that she silently formed the words.
Alice had cheated.
With her chin resting on bony knees, Eleanor crouched low and waited.
Since they’d met, only four and a half days earlier, Alice had tried to keep things ordinary. Eleanor was speechless when Alice said there were no robbers or ghosts, no dragons or kings and insisted they play hopscotch. She watched, dumbfounded, as Alice marked out squares in coloured chalk on the concrete by the swings in completely straight lines. After Alice had won five times in a row, she had made Eleanor watch her skip a hundred skips non-stop. She had put out a hand like a policeman barring the way when Eleanor quickly whispered, for someone might come, about the dangerous mountain ranges waiting to be explored and the child-eating monsters they must fight and vanquish. Alice’s voice came through her nose as she declared Eleanor’s scary jungle was a dirty green sofa and that she had done a project on Sussex and there were no mountains. Eleanor gaped uncomprehending when Alice had screamed ‘yuk!’ at the cat hairs on the cushions and the crumbs underneath. She would only sit on the sofa after Gina had flounced in and flung herself into a corner hugging a cushion, scoffing at her younger sister. Later Alice said she hated dirt and mess, implying Eleanor was to blame. Now as Eleanor stared up through the roof of criss-cross branches, half closing her eyes so that the shapes of light became a fuzzy kaleidoscope, she decided Alice didn’t know anything, whatever she said.
Eleanor had brought Alice to the Tide Mills village the day after they first met. Four and a half days was a lifetime to the nearly-nine-year-old, and now while she lay in wait for Alice to come looking, Eleanor could barely remember her life before she knew her. She pictured the many-levelled stretch of time, packed with evil witches, gnarled branches, and dark hiding places lurking with mythic murderers and strutting Sindy dolls with hairdos like Alice’s mother, with growing despondency. It was only Tuesday; she had at least four more days of Alice before they went back to London. Eleanor didn’t know how she would bear it. Her whole half term had been wasted. The Tide Mills village had been her last resort: a place where the ghosts of children now old and dead might lure Alice away from skipping and talking about dresses and dancing. It had been a big sacrifice for Eleanor to reveal her most secret place.
Eleanor would come to think of this decision as a mistake.
Every time Eleanor visited the deserted village, which was a quarter of a mile from the White House, she found something new: a 1936 sixpence, a perfume bottle, and one Christmas a great triumph, the discovery of the name ‘Herbert’ scratched into a wall in the communal wash and mangle house. The squat building had no roof, and rotting rafters let blocks of light slant across the walls, still lined with chipped and cracked white porcelain tiles. At the far end, in the shadow of a twisted pear tree – evidence of an orchard – were two bent and rusting mangles appearing to grow out of the chalk. Alice had hung back, arms folded, as Eleanor fervently related the tale of Prince Herbert’s four straining stallions. The magnificent beasts were, she informed her hoarsely, even now tethered to a huge ring fixed to the granary wall, eager to canter to far off corners of his kingdom. Alice had retreated out into the sunshine with a shrug as Eleanor paced out the scene, talking rapidly and raising her voice as her audience drifted away. In the end she decided to skip the story and get straight to explaining the rules: each time a hiding place was discovered they lost a life. They each had three lives and after that they were truly dead. The first one to die must give up.
The one thing that Eleanor would never forget was that she had described these rules quite clearly to Alice. When they had first played hide and seek last Sunday afternoon, in the lane near her home, Alice had spied on her while she was still counting to see where Eleanor hid. This had made Eleanor very doubtful that Alice would play properly this time. But that last morning, as they did exploring and excavating, because Eleanor was practising to be an archaeologist, Alice had been quite obliging, at least for the first couple of hours.
Whenever Eleanor talked, Alice ogled the sky with saucer eyes, doing peculiar things with her mouth. After only two days, Eleanor had spotted that when this happened, Alice was being Gina, using the same voice her sister put on to talk to her horse, where words did a kind of swooping. This gave Eleanor an uncomfortable feeling. A phantom Gina was there too. Most people tried to be like Gina. A fact that absolutely baffled Eleanor, who found nothing in her older sister worth imitating.
There was no further sign of Alice coming to find her. Eleanor pushed and patted loose soil into a comfortable hillock, as she considered how there was no point to skipping. Alice would get ready for what was in effect a Skipping Show with the studied care of the famous: tossing her long hair back Gina-fashion and tugging at her skirt to keep her stupid frilly knickers hidden. Eleanor wondered why Alice breathed so noisily: taking huge breaths as if she was suffocating.
‘I like coffee, I like tea…’
The matchstick legs in white socks had blurred, as the rope whirred round and round, slapping the ground. Alice never let Eleanor use her rope for anything except skipping, and certainly not for tying up bandits. It was new and clean and a present from her Dad. As she had dutifully watched Alice perform skipping feats in the village playground, Eleanor waited on the baking asphalt for a rescue party that never came.
Someone watching the two girls as once more they prepared to play hide and seek on that Tuesday might have guessed that apart from their age, they had little in common. One stood stiffly sentinel with reedy arms folded across her budding chest. Her pinafore dress was a primrose-yellow cotton column, while white socks with no wrinkles were strapped to the cut out figure by their paper folds. The other girl was recklessly boyish in a huge grass-stained shirt, with short sleeves that reached to her wrists. An observer might have frowned at the cropped haystack hair which stuck up at one side, imagining a mother’s neglect. It would be hard to make sense of this child’s erratic behaviour. She darted back and forth around the other girl, gesticulating urgently like a director allotting actors their strict space and choreography: leaping, jumping, pointing. An onlooker might have marvelled at the poise of the cleaner, party-dressed child, pale skin rendering her ghostly against the tumbledown buildings, as the goblin creature cavorted indefatigably. The pose of suffering tolerance endowed this child with calm maturity beyond her years.
Then the boy-girl belted away over the hill towards the sea leaving the Angelic One alone. Abruptly, she put hands to her face, an action that was heart rending until she began to count in a cooing voice with quavering tones that lacked conviction.
Eleanor could hear the echo of Alice’s voice in her head, although it must be ages since Alice had stopped. There was still no sign of her. She had pronounced each number with the hesitant chant of an infant class still learning to count. Eleanor pictured Alice’s words as jewels that – like Alice’s three Sindy dolls – she kept stored in a cupboard for special occasions. Eleanor always knew what Alice was going to say because her sentences had belonged to other people first.
‘My favourite colour is pink, what’s yours? My best dinner is roast pork. I hate girls who climb trees. When I grow up I want to be a nurse, who do you want to be?’
Eleanor had not known who she would be. Alice had made it clear she didn’t believe her by tutting and sighing. Eleanor was telling the truth, but to please her she finally lit upon Mickey Dolenz, which had disgusted Alice.
Eleanor never knew the right answers to Alice’s questions. She pondered now, one foot wedged against a tussock. How could Alice hate girls who climbed trees when she didn’t know all of them?
Eleanor stopped breathing and jerked her head up.
There was the unmistakable sound of someone walking on the path, treading quietly so as not to be heard. Eleanor shut her eyes to better hear the click of Alice’s shiny shoes on the flints. She could have seen her if she had lifted the branches, but with her eyes shut, Eleanor was cloaked with invisibility. The footsteps crunched past and faded away.
One, two, one, two.
Eleanor’s ears were pounding and to stop the sound she clapped her hands over them and pummelled away the memory. She slumped against a bush, relaxing into its armchair comfort, shifting until the springy branches stopped poking into her back.
She felt guilty for bringing Alice to the empty village again. They were playing illegally because their parents had forbidden them to go there. It was overgrown with tall weeds and overblown with untold dangers. Eleanor’s father had said the ground was subsiding and that eventually the whole lot would fall into the sea. There were rumours in the village of an attack there after the war, a child’s strangled body found at the bottom of the cliff and no one caught. Eleanor had taken all her friends there.
On the first day Alice’s mother had told them to play nicely on the village green where there were swings, and a lumbering roundabout that was hard to push and hard to stop. Eleanor hated the square of tarmac surrounded by yellowed grass, with no hiding places, dotted with benches for dead people whose names Alice said she knew off by heart. Skipping and hopscotch were the only things to do there, since Alice didn’t play football. Eleanor couldn’t skip, her legs caught up in the snaking rope, but Alice’s mother had said Alice must stay clean and tidy and not crumple her lovely new dress. This meant she refused to move around much. While her Mum was giving instructions, Alice had smoothed the cuffs and stroked her fancy dress with pointy pink fingers and, doing what Eleanor considered a stupid smile, had turned into the ancient Mrs Mahey warbling nursery rhymes with the infants in their school play.
‘…six, seven, eight, nine, ten, then I put it back again…’
Eleanor heard her holiday clang shut.
When she was at home in London, Eleanor would make up stories of perfect afternoons at the White House. Everyone would sit together in the shade of great-uncle Jack’s willow tree, planted after he was gassed in the trenches in the First World War. The sound of her father pouring tea, as she traced jigsaw patches of sunlight on the stained tablecloth – in her fantasies always piled with cakes – made her stomach buzz. Shutting her eyes and lifting her arm slowly, Eleanor could feel the weight of the jug of freezing lemonade, and the smooth curvy handle on her dead grandmother’s bone china teapot that was more like a friendly person than crockery. She knew her Dad felt the same way about it, although he never said. Instead he would tell her Mum they shouldn’t use it because one day they would break it. This would make her mother use the smile she could snap off suddenly like a trick.
‘This is supposed to be a home not a museum stuffed full of your dead relatives.’
Mark Ramsay was right, for one day the teapot did get broken. By that time, a morning over thirty years later as the sun shone brightly on a new century, so much was different that while the Ramsays stared dumbstruck at the smashed china scattered across the kitchen tiles, they felt nothing at all.
As Eleanor lay in bed back home in Hammersmith she would wander around the White House’s large garden, smelling the lawn just mowed by Leonard, the very old man who also did the grass in the churchyard where his wife had been ‘sleeping by the west buttress for forty years’. Tripping between the long rectangular beds, past the caged sweet peas, the nets weighed down by fallen leaves from the oak tree above, she would bury her face in her pillow to muffle the silence from the floors below. She would think of the newly dug soil and the scent of roses that her mother loved and by concentrating, conjure up the clinking of cups with chipped lips and knives with blotches like snowflakes on the blades. The windows were always open wide, tattered curtains ballooning out in the breeze like sails. Her parents would be laughing, her sister snorting like a horse, and her brother sprawled back on his tilting chair in fits at Eleanor’s jokes. By concentrating hard, Eleanor could give these vaporous figures substance.