Authors: Julie Corbin
Julie Corbin was born and brought up in Scotland. She now lives in Sussex with her husband, with whom she has three children, and works as a nurse in a nearby school.
Tell Me No Secrets
Where the Truth Lies
Do Me No Harm
Now That You’re Gone
First published in Great Britain in 2016 by Hodder & Stoughton
An Hachette UK company
Copyright © Julie Corbin 2016
The right of Julie Corbin to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library
ISBN 978 1 444 75403 2
Hodder & Stoughton Ltd
50 Victoria Embankment
London EC4Y 0DZ
For Helen Lewis, great friend and fellow reader
It was her son who found her body. Something she would never have wanted. If she’d been given the choice she would have said, ‘Let me die in my bed, aged eighty-five with those I love beside me. Let us linger over memories that make us smile, practise our goodbyes, give and take last hugs.’
But that wasn’t how it was.
He opened the front door with a shove and tipped into the hallway, kicking a shoe onto the bottom stair. He took an apple from his bag, then dropped the bag onto the floor and shuffled one-handed through the letters on the hall table, wasting precious time (he realised afterwards). He even held up a letter to the light, for no reason except that he didn’t recognise the writing and the envelope looked like it might be see-through. It wasn’t.
He chewed another bite of apple, juice bursting into the corners of his mouth. His eyes roamed until he spotted a flyer with gold and orange writing proclaiming that the Indian restaurant in the high street was under new management. ‘Twenty per cent off in the first week!’ he called out. ‘We should get a carry-out tonight.’ He paused, cocking his head at the silence. ‘Mum?’
The house had a quietness to it that didn’t feel right. He took a few steps along the hallway and held his breath, listening. He knew his mum was in because he’d texted her just an hour ago.
‘Mum!’ he called out again. She could be asleep on her bed of course, except that she never slept in the daytime. ‘It’s me!’
He moved around on his tiptoes, just in case she was asleep. He checked the living room first. There was a half-empty mug on the mantelpiece. He picked it up; the coffee was stone cold. He put it down again and left the apple beside it. He sat down on the sofa and switched on the TV (more time-wasting for him to curse himself with later). He scrolled through the channels, spending less than a second on each.
Kitchen next. And there she was, lying on the floor in front of the window. A deep cut sliced across her forehead, the blood meandering towards the wall and pooling against the skirting board. Her right arm was twisted underneath her, bendy as a pipe cleaner. Her eyes stared straight ahead but were unseeing; her mouth hung open.
He absorbed all this in a fractured second as he ran towards her, crashing down onto the floor beside her. ‘Jesus! Fuck! Mum! Help!
’ he bawled, fear hoarsening his voice. ‘Help! Help us!’
Thursday evening, quarter to eight, and I’m standing outside on the meeting room steps. A dull light filters through the opaque windowpanes and the murmur of voices is just audible beyond the closed doors. I’m in two minds whether to go inside or make a run for it. Last week’s group left me feeling like I spent far too much time talking about myself and I have no clear recollection of what I said. For over an hour I seemed to do most of the talking –
My name is Ellen and I was mugged
– then I spent a further half an hour huddling round with the other people there, drinking cups of tea and munching on custard creams. I woke up the next morning feeling uneasy about what I might have said and the feeling has stuck with me all week, like the half-recollection of a drunken mistake.
It occurs to me that I don’t want to risk it happening again, so I turn my back on the meeting room and hurry across the road towards a cafe. It’s been raining since mid-afternoon. The gutters stream with fast-flowing water and my umbrella is useless against the wind that blows me sideways, spraying me with monster drops of rainwater; I’m drenched in seconds.
Inside the cafe is warm, steam rising off people’s bodies and off the deep fat fryers. The room smells of fish and chips and the pungent tang of vinegar. I climb up onto a free stool in front of a long, narrow table that faces the window. Waterlogged pavements, goose-grey sky, streetlights illuminating brave pedestrians struggling against the wind and the rain – it feels good to be indoors.
‘Changed your mind?’
I swivel round towards a group of three people sitting along from me – two women and one man. Fish supper leftovers congeal in front of them: tomato ketchup smeared across the dinner plates, crispy ends of chips and silver fish skin dotted through the sauce.
‘We saw you standing over the road.’ It’s one of the women who’s talking. ‘You looked like you were deciding whether or not to go inside.’ She holds out her hand. ‘You’re Ellen?’ I nod, recognising them from last week’s meeting. ‘I’m Trish.’ She gestures to her right and left. ‘This is Pam and Francis.’
I shake her hand and try to smile at the three faces staring at me but this is the last thing I need. I would have kept on walking but for the rain. Bloody Edinburgh weather. Now I’m stuck talking to them.
‘We’re heading across to the hall,’ Trish says, standing up. ‘You going to join us?’
‘Not tonight.’ I smile properly this time, relieved that they’re leaving. ‘But thank you for the offer.’
‘Are you sure? We could walk in together.’ Trish gives a knowing laugh. ‘Makes it much easier.’
I start rummaging in my bag, hoping they’ll see I’m busy and get the message to leave me alone. I know they’re only trying to help but their interest feels intrusive.
‘Pam and I will help put out the chairs,’ I hear Trish say to Francis. ‘Maybe you could …’
I don’t catch the end of her sentence because she lowers her voice. I’m feeling hot suddenly. Hot and anxious. I find my mobile and begin to scroll through the photographs. I took two dozen of them this morning. I always start in the kitchen before working my way through the rest of the rooms in the house. The hob: all six switches are in the off position. The oven: the same. I photographed every socket in each of the rooms, all of them plug-free. I—
‘Ellen.’ Francis reaches across and touches my arm just above the elbow. It makes me jump. ‘I’m not meaning to be pushy.’ He’s looking towards the door and I can tell he feels he’s drawn the short straw being left with me. ‘I’m going across now.’ He pulls his wallet out of his trouser pocket and signals to the waitress at the other end of the counter, her order pad and pencil slack in her hand as she chats to a customer. He glances back at me. ‘See you there?’
I drag my attention away from the photos to give him an explanation. ‘Thing is Francis, I’m a bit of a fraud. It wasn’t even a bad mugging. It was a couple of kids. They couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen. They grabbed my bag but I hung on tight, and then they ran off.’
I’m telling the truth. There was no great drama. It was a fairly half-hearted mugging but nevertheless it was enough to push an already anxious me deeper into a free-floating anxiety that never quite leaves me. It’s a cliché, isn’t it? But as soon as a couple of things go wrong, you get the overwhelming feeling that life is slipping out of your control, that fate’s cruel hand has you in its grasp and it’s only a matter of time before the hand tosses you carelessly towards the drain.
‘You said last week that the mugging was the final straw,’ Francis tells me.
‘You talked about your husband.’ He pauses before saying, ‘And about how anxious you’ve become recently.’
That makes me wince. ‘I have a horrible feeling I said far too much at last week’s meeting.’ Air pushes into my lungs and I stand up, feel the pulse in my neck pick up pace. ‘You probably know more about me than my close family do.’ I search his face to see whether I’m right but he’s not giving anything more away. (What did I say? Did I rant and rave about the bitch who stole my life? Did I mention that Tom had left me to seek, in his words, ‘greater intimacy and friendship’? That I spent weeks oscillating between shock and tears, and that now I am a basket case of checking and checking and yet more checking, over and over like a stuck record?)
The waitress comes across and Francis settles his bill, then gathers up his coat and umbrella. ‘Can I get you anything?’ the waitress says to me, her pen poised above her pad.
‘No, thank you.’ I reach for my bag just as Francis is heading outside, follow him out onto the street and shout after him, ‘Wait! I’m going to come to the meeting. It’s the lesser of the evils. I’ll only sit here chewing my nails, worrying about what I said last week.’
‘You shouldn’t worry.’ He raises an umbrella that’s large enough and sturdy enough to shelter us both and not be overwhelmed by the strength of the wind and rain. ‘We’re all in the same boat. That’s the whole point of the group.’
We fall into step and jog across the road, hopping over the rush of water in the gutters. We’re through the doors and into the meeting hall before I can catch my breath. Trish and Pam have arranged the chairs in a circle and almost half of them are already taken. Several people look up at us as we come into the room and Sharon, the police liaison officer who runs the group, calls out, ‘Welcome! Glad you’ve both made it.’
I walk to the far side of the circle and sit beside a young woman, a girl really, with pale skin, huge grey eyes and curly, faded-red hair piled up on her head. On my other side is a man of about sixty wearing a thick woollen jumper of the sort I associate with hardy fishermen. The girl I don’t remember having seen before but the man has been here every Thursday evening for the last five weeks and I have yet to hear him speak.