Authors: Lucy Atkins
First published in Great Britain in 2015 by Quercus
This edition first published in 2015 by
Quercus Publishing Ltd
50 Victoria Embankment
London EC4Y 0DZ
Copyright © 2015 by Lucy Atkins
The moral right of Lucy Atkins to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
Ebook ISBN 978 1 78206 988 1
Print ISBN 978 1 78206 987 4
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places and events are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
You can find this and many other great books at:
‘Dark, unsettling, and at times genuinely chilling, this compelling tale will keep you up half the night, racing to get to the end’ Karen Perry, author of
The Boy That Never Was
‘Taut, tense, and beautifully written. I held my breath between chapters and didn’t sleep until I reached the end’ Clare Mackintosh, author of
I Let You Go
‘Tense, involving and clever. I defy you not to get hooked’ Jane Lythell, author of
After the Storm
‘Beautifully plotted with rich, deftly drawn characters.
The Other Child
unfolds in lyric, atmospheric prose’ Priya Parmar, author of
Vanessa and her Sister
magazine inaugural Book Club pick * *
‘A gripping page-turner’
The Sunday Times
‘Creepy and tense, this novel is brilliantly gripping’
‘A pacy psychological thriller’
‘Beautifully written and compelling’ Sabine Durrant, author of
Under Your Skin
‘A satisfyingly creepy thriller’
‘A moving and suspenseful tale of the secrets a family keeps’ Rachel Hore, author of
The Silent Tide
‘Lucy Atkins has written a page-turning and suspenseful tale’ Lucy Clarke, author of
The Sea Sisters
is an award-winning feature journalist and author, as well as a
book critic. She has written for many newspapers, including the
The Sunday Times
, and the
, as well as magazines such as
Woman and Home
. She lives in Oxford.
For my dad, Peter, and for beautiful Izzie –
never the other child, always my first
Tell all the truth but tell it slant –
Emily Dickinson (poem 1263)
Greg had warned her that Boston summers were hot, but he never said it would be like this, sweltering and humid – like Bangkok, like suffocation. Joe will boil if she leaves him for long, even with the car doors open. There is a silvery line of drool trailing from the corner of his mouth, a babyish touch on his nine-year-old face, but she resists the urge to wipe it away. She has to look at the house before he wakes up. She has to prepare herself for whatever lies behind this astonishingly unattractive mock Tudor frontage so that she can convey confidence and optimism, show him that this move is a great adventure, not a reckless mistake.
The house is on a corner plot in a wide, deserted street. Its front garden curves round one side of the property, with a wooden swing set and a drive leading down to a garage under the back of the house. Greg described the street as ‘almost a cul-de-sac’, but it is not a cul-de-sac really, it is a curved residential road that joins two other residential roads that lead to more residential roads. She recognizes it all from Greg’s grainy Skype tour, but in the flesh everything looks broader, taller, heftier.
She had imagined them renting a picturesque New England home with white cladding, a wooden porch – a porch swing perhaps – an apple tree and a mailbox with a little red flag. This house has none of those features. It has a porch, but it is red-brick with a pitched roof that dominates the front. The upper half of the building is stucco, hatched with Tudor-style timbers. There are tall, dense, prickly-looking trees, possibly leylandii, separating it from the house next door. Greg is very clear that this place is ‘a find’. Family-sized rentals, he says, are a rarity in a suburb where people buy and stay.
She touches her belly, resting her fingers on its new slopes. This will be their baby’s first home and when they are old they will look back at photos of them all standing on this porch, frozen forever against these dark-red bricks.
‘It’s perfect,’ he’d said when he called from Boston to tell her that he’d given the realtor a massive deposit without consulting her, without even emailing her a picture. His face blurred in and out of focus on her phone screen. He was in a public place, probably the cafeteria at Children’s Hospital. She could see people in the background carrying trays or coffee cups, many wearing scrubs. ‘You’re going to love it, Tess, I know you will. There’s a great elementary school, a big park, a cute little main street with a couple of cafés, a bar, an artisan bakery, a market, a yoga studio. It’s all very green and pleasant, absolutely no crime and only twenty minutes from downtown on the freeway. It’s the perfect little town.’
‘I thought it was a suburb?’
‘We call suburbs towns.’
She noted the ‘we’. After fifteen years in London, Greg had seemed to feel no affinity with his homeland. His only remaining American traits were his accent, his handwriting and an ongoing despair at British customer service. But now, suddenly, it was ‘we’.
‘You weren’t answering your mobile, but I had to grab it.’ A baby wailed somewhere near him, an abnormal, plaintive sound, disturbingly thin and off-key. ‘There were three other families due after me this morning; it was going to go. But you’ll love it, honey, I promise. It’s not too far from Children’s – maybe a fifteen-, twenty-minute commute max. There’s three beds, three baths, a big yard for Joe. A ton more space than we have now—’
He grimaced, his eyes half shut, and it took her a moment to realize that the connection had failed, leaving his handsome face frozen in a sinister, pixelated rictus, halfway to a smile.
She had always thought Greg liked her tall house on the outskirts of town, with the cornfield behind it and views of the Downs, improbably green in springtime, lightening to biscuit through summer and, as autumn wore on, darkening and thickening into wintery browns. When he moved in he had been charmed by the sloping floors and the wood-burning stove, her own photographs hanging next to her father’s paintings, shelves crammed with books, old Polaroids tucked behind ceramics, Joe’s pictures peeling off the fridge, things balancing on other things and the light pouring in. He had said he did not want to change a thing.
Her chest tightened at the thought of everything she’d be leaving behind.
‘Greg? Are you still there? Greg?’ But he didn’t respond: FaceTime had definitely hung.
She is sweating already as she walks up the path. The effort of moving oxygen into her lungs feels overwhelming, as if a hot hand has closed over her mouth and nose. Close up, the brickwork is haphazard, with some bricks sticking out at angles and some larger than others. She remembers Greg zooming in on this feature in his after-the-fact Skype tour, saying that the technique was fashionable in the 1920s, when the house was built. It looks to her like a structural defect, but he will have read about Massachusetts architecture somewhere, probably when he was at medical school here, and stored this fact away in his massive mental database.
She is going to have to trust him that this house is a find. Perhaps he is picking up cultural nuances that she can’t. The front door looks like something out of a fairy tale: oversized, its dark wood studded with brass. She rifles through her bag for the keys. Somewhere behind her a bird rasps a repetitive
ha-ha . . . ha-ha
. . . and a mower hums. She feels as if she is hovering above herself, bewildered at how she can possibly be standing here, on the brink of this new life.
The speed of it all has been dizzying. In just a few months she has gone from the secure routines of Joe’s school runs, play-dates and Saturday football, and her own photographic assignments and projects, to estate agents and house movers, flight bookings, school places, visa forms, paediatricians, ‘OB/GYNs’, health insurance, American bank accounts, rental agreements. And now it is done. They are here.
Joe’s school place has been taken by a child from Somerset; a Dutch family will move into their house today; her studio in the collective has been taken by a feminist conceptual artist who fills handbags with lard; and her old Ford is now owned by a maths teacher. This is what death must be like: your space in the world simply closing over, like a pool of water when you lift out your hand. A wave of nausea rises through her: morning sickness, heat, jet lag – perhaps all three.
She really can’t find the keys. She straightens, her head spinning, and looks back at the hire car. It squats like a silver insect, wings spread as if it is about to buzz and hum and take off with Joe inside. Behind it, on the other side of the road, a heavy red-brick house sits on a plot hacked out of the hillside. Steps zigzag up a steep rockery to the front door. She imagines it creaking, heaving, sliding off its foundations and cruising over to flatten the car, the fence, the mock Tudor house, before moving inexorably down the slope, through the leafy streets beyond.
She bends back to her bag, digs deeper. Her T-shirt is sticking between her shoulder blades now, and her jeans have shrink-wrapped themselves to her thighs, the waistband already too tight, even worn low like this, under her belly. At eighteen weeks she is already much bigger than she was at this stage with Joe. She should have travelled in something cooler, but it was raining when they left England, the kind of August day that makes British people dream of emigrating.
Nell was there to wave them off in the taxi – they both knew an airport goodbye would be too hard. ‘Look after yourself,’ Nell’s voice wavered, ‘and Joe – and this baby. I can’t believe I’m not going to be there when it’s born.’
‘Just come and visit soon, OK?’
‘I will.’ Nell pulled back, swiping at tears. ‘And if it doesn’t work out, if for any reason it doesn’t work out, just remember you can always come home. Nothing’s irreversible.’ She stopped herself and tried to smile, pushing back her dark curly hair, the dimples on either side of her mouth deepening. ‘But of course, you know, it’s going to work out just fine! It’ll be great!’
It was the first time that Nell had let any doubts show. Over the past few months she had made a phenomenal effort to be a supportive friend. But from the outside, this whole thing must seem reckless and impulsive.
When she agreed to marry Greg she had not even known him a full four seasons.
For a moment this small fact yawns up at her, exposing the lunacy of standing here, alone and keyless, thousands of miles from home, while he is at a conference in San Diego.
She has been waking at dawn every day lately, her head crowded with doubts about the wisdom of moving Joe, leaving all her work contacts, giving birth in a foreign medical system, in a country in which 90 per cent of the population owns a gun. And as Greg slept next to her, she would try to calm herself by going back over the reasons she had chosen to do this – other than loving Greg.
With David posted to New York, it made sense for Joe to be in the same country as his dad. And it was surely good for any child to experience a different culture. She would build up new photography contacts in America, the hospital had world-class obstetricians and Greg was right, this suburb was officially one of the safest places to live in the whole of the United States. But despite this list, in those early hours, there seemed to be so many possible fracture points, so many things that could go wrong.
She shoves objects around the bottom of her bag. She can picture the key envelope on the kitchen counter as she did the final walk-through this morning. Greg is not flying into Boston until tomorrow. She straightens her shoulders. If she has left the keys at home, then she’ll just have to deal with it. She has a credit card. This is civilization. She imagines getting back into the hire car and driving Joe around, looking for a hotel, motel, B & B, trying to make it all seem like fun.
She glances at her watch. It is mid-afternoon in California. Right now, Greg will be in a room full of cardiac surgeons and he will not hear his phone even if it is switched on. She tips her bag upside down. Tissues and cereal bars spill out on the doormat, a Simpsons comic, her paperback, her scarf, receipts, lipstick, hairbrush, hair ties, hand cream. And then there it is, the smooth envelope. It must have been lying flat on the base of her bag.
. Greg’s assertive capitals feel somehow accusatory. Get. A. Grip. Tess.
She scrapes everything back into her bag and fits the biggest of the two keys into the lock. It is stiff and she has to wiggle it around.
She pushes open the front door. The harsh scent of cleaning fluid hits the back of her throat and she is thrown straight back – it is the smell of her childhood, of clinics, of institutions; she can feel her father’s warm hand around hers, hear their shoes squeaking as they walk down too-quiet corridors. For a second she stands very still, waiting for these feelings to subside. It has been a long time since this happened. She shuts her eyes.
Then opens them. The hall is cool and dim with white tiles, white walls, a steep wooden staircase ahead, a vast, parquet-floored room on her right with a wide brass fireplace, another room – a dining room – on her left and a tiled corridor leading past the stairs to the back of the house, presumably to the kitchen. Hot air is seeping in behind her. Joe really will boil in the car. She has to get him out.
She turns and steps back through the porch and out again into the heat, blinking under the white sun. She hurries back down the path away from the silent, waiting house with all the empty, disinfected rooms that she has yet to enter.