Authors: Lesley Pearse
an imprint of
By the same author
To my brother, Dr Michael Sargent, and his lovely wife, Jean.
Thank you, Michael, for all the times I’ve picked your brains about DNA,
poison and goodness knows what else. Even as a small child I suspected you’d
come in useful one day!
I am so proud of you too.
Cheltenham, 29 March 1991
Flora kicked off her shoes, pulled her dress
over her head and tossed it on to the bed. She was about to remove her underwear too,
when a glance in the gilt-framed cheval mirror stopped her.
Dressed, she still looked quite trim for a
woman of forty-eight, but naked she was flabby and her skin pale. She couldn’t
bear the thought of anyone seeing her like that. Not even in death.
She opened a drawer, took out the ivory silk
slip which matched her bra and knickers and put it on. ‘That’s
better,’ she murmured.
Removing the band holding her hair back, she
ran her fingers through it till it tumbled down over her bare shoulders. Her Titian-red
wavy hair had always been her best feature, and even now, as desperate as she felt, she
was proud of it.
The bath was already run in the en-suite
bathroom, she was primed with a couple of sleeping pills and some brandy, and no one was
due home for at least three hours. She was entirely resolved upon what she intended to
do, yet it hadn’t occurred to her until now that it would have been kinder to the
children if she’d checked into a hotel room so that a stranger found her.
It was the bedroom which prompted this
thought. From the expensive red and gold wallpaper that Andrew had raged over to the
French gilded bed and sumptuous carpet and
curtains, it reflected her
true character. It was the only room in the entire house which really did, as Andrew
despised what he called ‘bordello’ style. Everywhere else was muted shades
of cream and taupe, as befitted a Georgian country house.
But she wanted to die here in this room
which she’d fought long and hard to keep as she planned it. He’d driven her
to this point by forcing her to bend to his will about everything else. He claimed he
loved her, that everything he’d done was for her, but in reality he’d
stifled her true personality and creativity to the point where she could barely remember
who she’d once been.
In her early twenties she’d claimed
that suicides were cowards. She’d loved life so much then that she despised anyone
who didn’t embrace it as she did. But she didn’t know then what heartache
could do, or that a bad choice in a weak moment could change the whole course of your
But it was too late for regrets now; she was
feeling woozy, and Andrew would be home first so it would be he who found her. As she
went over to the dressing table to take one last look at the framed pictures of her
children, she was very unsteady.
Sophie and Ben, seventeen and eighteen
respectively, grinned cheerfully back at her. The picture of the two of them had been
taken on Boxing Day, at the pre-lunch drinks party they had every Christmas for
neighbours and friends. They were very alike: tall, slender and dark-haired. They had
inherited Andrew’s looks, but she hoped they would never become mean-spirited
control freaks like him.
In a separate frame was one of Eva. It had
been taken on Boxing Day too, but it was not a very flattering picture. She was smaller
than the other two, curvy and pretty with lovely blue eyes, but the purple dress
overwhelmed her delicate
colouring and made her look plump and closer to
thirty than only twenty. It pricked Flora’s conscience.
‘I should’ve picked a dress out
for you,’ she sighed. ‘Pink or pale blue – that would’ve done you
justice. I also should’ve told you never to try to be what you think other people
want of you. I’m a good example of where that leads. Be true to yourself, and
remember I loved you.’
She kissed each one of their faces, biting
back tears. Time was running out; she could feel her head swirling, and she still had to
write a note for them. She picked up the pen and notepad she’d left by the
bedside, but could no longer remember the words she’d planned to say.
‘Forgive me,’ she began. But
nothing more came to her, and in some strange way that seemed enough.
She left the note on the bedside cabinet and
went into the bathroom. The new sharp craft knife was ready on the side of the bath. She
climbed into the hot water, lay back for a few moments to brace herself and then picked
up the knife.
She hesitated. The steel knife felt cold and
heavy in her hand. Could she really do it? It was the pain she was afraid of, and of not
cutting deep enough to open her veins.
‘No more guilt,’ she murmured.
‘No more pretending. It will all be gone for ever very soon.’
With the knife in her left hand, she quickly
drew the blade sharply across her right wrist, then changed hands and cut the left one
before the pain could stop her. Surprisingly, it didn’t hurt; and the way the
blood began to pump out, she knew she’d cut them deeply enough.
She let her arms sink into the hot water and
watched the water turn red.
It was done.
As Bette Midler’s ‘From A
Distance’ came on, Eva turned up her car radio and sang along with it. It was cold
and raining, but she was feeling happy because Olive, her boss, had let everyone go
early when the heating broke down. As Eva had arranged to go to a make-up party this
evening with some of the girls from work, she would have more time to wash her hair and
She turned into the drive, but had to slam
her brakes on because the wrought-iron gates were unexpectedly shut. She stopped only a
whisker from them. ‘Damn,’ she exclaimed. Not only had she nearly hit the
gates, but now she would get soaked opening them up.
As she could see her mother’s red Polo
parked at the end of the drive by the house, Eva felt irritated. Why had she closed the
gates if she was in?
Despite her pique at having to get out in
the rain and push open the heavy gates, Eva noticed that the borders of daffodils and
other spring flowers around the huge expanse of front lawn looked bright and beautiful.
However inconsistent her mother was in so many ways, she lavished care on the garden –
in fact, had it not been raining quite so hard she would be out there now.
Hopping quickly back into her car, Eva drove
up the drive and parked just behind the Polo, then hurried through the arch which led to
the old stable block. A few years ago her parents had converted the yard into a
courtyard garden, and the stables to an indoor swimming pool. The courtyard was
a real suntrap; the surrounding walls kept off the wind, and at the
start of March it had been so mild they had all sat out here for a couple of hours after
The back door was unlocked. Eva hung up her
coat on a peg, then went into the kitchen, expecting to find her mother there, preparing
the evening meal. But she wasn’t. The kitchen was so polished and neat, with a
carefully arranged bowl of fruit and a vase of daffodils on the black marble worktop,
that it looked like it was about to star in a feature in
This was rather unusual, as her mother
wasn’t tidy by nature. When Dad was away on business for a few days she always let
things slide. Sometimes Eva would get home in the evening to find the breakfast things
still where they’d been that morning. But Dad was fussy, and he liked everything
to be immaculate; mostly when Eva got home first she’d find her mother frantically
rushing around, putting things straight, polishing and tidying before he got in.
Eva thought today’s extreme tidiness
must mean Dad was expected early or they were having visitors, as there wasn’t so
much as a dirty cup or glass anywhere.
‘I’m home, Mum,’ Eva
called out. ‘Where are you?’
Getting no answering call, she glanced into
the sitting room and the conservatory beyond, then into the study and the dining room.
She wasn’t there and, like the kitchen, they were immaculate. It was also
ominously quiet – usually, the radio was on.
Puzzled, Eva stood at the bottom of the
stairs for a moment. Her mother might be unpredictable: some days she made several
different kinds of cakes and cooked meals to stow away in the freezer, and on others she
was barely motivated to use a tin opener. Yet one thing was constant – and that was, she
always welcomed her family home.
Normally just the sound of Eva or Dad’s
car on the drive was enough for her to break off whatever she was doing to come and
Like many Georgian houses the hall was large
and impressive with the oak staircase rising from the middle, then curving gracefully
around to meet a gallery on the first floor. There was a skylight window above, and on a
sunny day the staircase was flooded with natural light. Today the light was murky and
the rain was drumming against the glass.
Eva went halfway up the stairs, and called
out again. When there was still no reply she wondered if her mother had got one of her
migraines and gone for a lie-down, so she decided against calling again for fear of
All the five bedrooms and two bathrooms led
off from the gallery. But as Eva reached the gallery and saw that her parents’
bedroom door was open, she doubted her mother was sleeping. She peeped in; there was a
dress on the bed, which suggested she’d changed, perhaps to go out for a walk. Yet
that seemed unlikely when it was pouring with rain.
Eva was puzzled as she looked in each of the
bedrooms, remembering that the back door hadn’t been locked. Mum wouldn’t
leave that open even to nip quickly to a neighbour’s house.
A door with a plain wooden staircase behind
it led to three tiny attic rooms. Once servants’ quarters, two were now spare
rooms, rarely used except at Christmas or other special occasions when someone came to
stay; the third one was used for storage. Although it was unlikely her mother was up
there, Eva checked anyway. But she wasn’t there.
For the past few weeks her mother had been
somewhat withdrawn and distant. On several occasions Eva had found her just staring into
space, in a world of her own. A couple of days ago Eva had talked about it to Ben, her
brother. He’d been of the opinion it was her age, because
he’d heard that all women got a bit odd in their forties. But now, as Eva began to
feel anxious, she wished she’d risked Dad scoffing at her and told him what
Hoping that her parents’ room might
offer up a clue, Eva went in there. The dress on the bed was the one her mother had been
wearing at breakfast. Dad had been sarcastic, asking if she was going to a tea dance
because it was a vintage dress from the 1940s, emerald-green wool crêpe with a small
corsage of lighter green velvet flowers on the bodice.
Flora liked vintage clothes. She said they
belonged to a gentler period when women looked like women. Her wardrobe was full of old
velvet, chiffon and crêpe. Dad was always sarcastic about the way she dressed. To him
they were just second-hand clothes, and he thought the wife of Head of Sales for one of
the largest paper product companies in Europe should dress the part.
But although Dad got his way about almost
everything, he had given in on this point because absolutely everyone else agreed Flora
suited vintage clothes. Her red curly hair, curvy body and pale skin could be likened to
many of the film stars of the 1940s. Crêpe dresses cut on the cross, beaded boleros and
peplum-waisted jackets went with both her shape and her character. Maybe they
weren’t too practical, but then practicality wasn’t exactly Flora
Patterson’s strong suit.