‘Are you going to tell the police?’ she asks.
‘I think I have to,’ I say. My mouth is dry, my mind is racing to so many different places and thoughts and decisions all at once, I can’t keep up. I can’t hold a single thought in my head for too long because another dashes into its place. Air keeps snagging itself on the way in and out of my lungs so I haven’t taken a proper breath since my daughter started to speak, and my heart is running cold with the knowledge of who it was that killed my husband. And why.
I have to tell the police this, of course I do. ‘Please don’t, Mum.’
‘Please don’t, Mum. Please. Please. Please.’ Her twelve-year-old body, nestled on my lap, shakes with fretful sobs. ‘Please. Please. Please. I’m scared. I’m really scared.’
‘Phoebe, we can’t—’
‘Please, Mum. I’m really sorry, but please, don’t.’
‘Shhh, shhhhh,’ I say, rocking her, trying to hush her. This isn’t fair. None of this is fair.
‘Let’s not talk about it now. It’ll be OK, I’ll make it all OK.’
What’s the difference between folding and stirring?
I’m sure I knew that once upon a time, I’m sure someone told me. Apparently, you can tell whether an ingredient has been folded in or stirred in. I’ve always been a bit dubious about that, have often wondered if it’s one of those things that cooks/chefs add to the instructions to make a recipe sound more interesting or more difficult than it actually is.
Fold or stir. Stir or fold.
‘Ah-he-hem!’ The man sitting across the desk from me, whose body and clothes bear the hallmarks of a man deeply mired in a mid-life crisis, clears his throat in an uncomfortable manner. He’s obviously got something big to say. He needs my attention, even though my attention, my gaze, causes him to squirm a little in his seat every time I direct it at him. Every time. He doesn’t know how to share space with the woman whose husband was murdered. With me.
I know that’s how he refers to me in his head, how he talks about me to other people, because that’s how everyone refers to me – I’ve heard the whispers at the two different playgrounds I drop my children off at, in the toilets at work, in the conversations of people in the local shop and supermarket. It’s not meant nastily, it’s simply an easy, defining shorthand of someone on the edges of their life. Even now, eighteen months later, I am The Woman Whose Husband Was Murdered. Or, to give me my full title: The Woman Whose Husband Was Murdered And His Killer Was Never Caught.
‘Ah-he-hem!’ Another throat clear. Another squirm in his seat when I look at him.
The last time I met this man properly he wasn’t having a mid-life crisis and we were discussing how to reintegrate my daughter back into school after what had happened. He’d avoided eye contact, shuffled papers on his desk, clicked his pen on and off, and fumbled over his words, scared and uncertain of what to say. And here we are again today: same room, same nervous unease but with different clothes and a different form teacher standing beside him.
This form tutor, positioned like a silent bodyguard beside his headmaster, is male. I know him by reputation – he’s The Mr Bromsgrove. ‘The’ having been installed by playground mothers because he is youngish and good-looking, the subject of some scandalously outrageous sexual comments (despite how married they are and him not necessarily teaching their children).
Across the room, on the same side of the desk as me, sitting in a chair that couldn’t technically be further away from me unless it was outside the room, is my daughter. Phoebe Mackleroy. I don’t know, yet, what she’s done, why I’ve been called up here on my first day off in nearly a year.
She’s a good girl, I want to be able to say. This is just a blip; she’s a good girl really. But I’m not going to be able to say that, am I? Things don’t work out like that for people like me.
‘Ah-he-hem!’ Another throat-clear before the headteacher speaks: ‘Mrs Mackleroy. There is no easy way to break this news to you. Phoebe has made a disclosure today to her form tutor Mr Bromsgrove.’ The headmaster’s chubby, pale hand goes up to indicate the man he’s referring to. I want to correct him, remind him that he is in fact The Mr Bromsgrove, but I know that wouldn’t be appropriate so instead I allow myself to briefly glance at him and in return, The Mr Bromsgrove continues to studiously avoid my eye. The headteacher continues to speak: ‘He was unsure what to do, so came to me. We thought it best to contact you as soon as possible. Especially if it looks like we’re going to have to involve social services.’
My heart skips three beats at those magic words. I’d braced myself when the school secretary had called, I’d put down the pile of recipes scrawled on different types of paper I was leafing through and readied myself to hear the worst. But when they’d asked me to come in here and not to a hospital, when I arrived and saw Phoebe sitting in a chair, moving, breathing, living, I’d allowed myself to unclench a little, to almost fully relax.
Stupid woman that I am. I’d let myself to forget that your life can be devastated on the whim of the wind, the change of mind, a friendly push that becomes a deadly shove. Your life can change when you’re looking right at it but don’t notice the tiniest cut in a major artery.
‘There’s no easy way to tell you this, Mrs Mackleroy.’ The headmaster is still talking, as though mentioning social services doesn’t merit allowing me a moment to take that in properly, to steel myself because everything is heading in a direction that has a destination marked: ‘Hell’. ‘I’m sorry you have to hear this from me instead of Phoebe herself. We felt – all three of us – that this was the best way to tell you.’
It took two police officers to tell me an ‘incident’ meant I’d never see my husband again, why shouldn’t it take three people to tell me whatever it is that my daughter has done?
I shift to study her. The way she sits in the tulip-shaped seat – turned away like she is a sunflower and the sun is situated in the opposite direction to me – means I can’t see the top part of her body. Her grey, pleated uniform skirt exposes her knees; her long, grey regulation socks with the turquoise edging hide all the skin below her knees, disappearing into her flat, black shoes. Her hair, which she is presenting to me instead of her face, is split into two equal sections and secured into two perfect afro-puff pigtails by matching black elastic hairbands. She doesn’t look like a troublemaker, but then she never does. She looks like a girl who follows the rules, does as she’s told and is mortified at being sent to headteacher’s office.
I know what you’ve done, I think at her.
‘Ah-he-hem!’ goes the headteacher’s throat again, and I swivel back to him. I should know his name but I don’t. It’s a piece of information that has skipped right out of my head, replaced by the knowledge of what my fourteen-year-old daughter has done. I don’t need him to say it because I know what’s going on.
He says it anyway, because it needs to be uttered out loud, this needs to be confirmed.
‘Mrs Mackleroy, I’m afraid to say, Phoebe is about four weeks pregnant.’
16 years before That Day (June, 1995)
My fingers were curled tight into the edges of the armrests, my body forced back into the seat as the aeroplane, Flight 4867 to Lisbon, lurched sickeningly to the left, then was immediately flung to the right. This was why I hated flying. This was why I’d thought long and hard about whether I really, actually needed to ‘get away from it all’. I hadn’t been sure that my need to escape the anxiety and stress of being at home was worth this. Was worth taking the chance of being trapped in a metal box with only the thought of teetering in the air, waiting for the aeroplane to either glide into calmer skies or to suddenly plummet meaning I’d have to scream or cry or pray my way to impending death.
Go to Portugal, I’d told myself. It’s only two hours on a plane, I’d told myself. It’ll be fine. It’ll only be one hundred and twenty minutes. How much turbulence can be crammed into that short amount of time? Some movies are longer than that. You’ll be fine, Saffron. Absolutely fine.
I was not fine. I was clinging to the armrests of an aeroplane seat, securing my mind firmly to the present, refusing to allow my life to replay itself before my eyes because if I could stop that happening, the rest of it, the screaming/praying/crying to impending death wouldn’t happen, either.
The man seated next to me, whose girlfriend had his left hand in a vice-like grip, turned to me as the plane rollicked sideways and held out his right hand. ‘You can cling onto this hand if you want,’ he said. My gaze went from his large hand with its square, neat nails to his girlfriend. Her green eyes were wide and terrified, her straight red hair ruffled, it seemed, by fear itself, but she still managed a nod to me to communicate: ‘Go on, you idiot, grab on and squeeze tight. We’re all in this together.’
The plane swooped into a dip and his girlfriend and I both closed our eyes after letting out simultaneous ‘Ohhhhhhh’s. I immediately clamped my hand over the one proffered and clung on for sheer life as we rocked and rolled our way into Lisbon.
I’ve fallen through a pothole in time, been to one of the places in my past with Joel, and I have come back to the present with a rising and falling tide of nausea at the pit of my stomach. Usually, the memory pockets that feature Joel and our life before that day give me an unexpected little boost, a little something to allow me to carry on in the present, but not this time.
This time, the cauldron of uncertainty and worry that lives where my stomach should be continues to whisk itself into a frenzy because I’m one of those parents. Those parents. The ones you read about in the papers or magazines and shake your head at; the ones you think Where were the parents? about when you hear of something terrible involving a child. I know I’m one of those parents because here I sit with my hands folded on my lap, my face set in a neutral expression, replaying the secrets a stranger has seconds ago revealed to me about my own life.
I hate feeling sick.
I hate feeling sick even more than I hate being sick because at least once you’ve vomited, have excavated your stomach of its contents, apart from the ache in your ribs or your throat, it’s done with; gone. Nausea, though, sits at the pit of your being, mixing itself slowly and potently, occasionally rising up, threatening to spill out, before it subsides again, folding and stirring, stirring and folding itself a little more intensely as a sensation that won’t be shifting any time soon.
Right now, I feel sick.
My daughter, who still wears a school uniform, who I have to take shopping for shoes, who still has teddy bears on her bed, is pregnant.
‘Are you going to say anything, Phoebe?’ I ask my daughter, revolving in my seat to her.
Her slender, fourteen-year-old body, already twisted away from me, cringes ever so slightly – a tiny reflexive tensing of muscles – at my voice but she does not move or otherwise acknowledge me.
‘Phoebe?’ I say her name gently, carefully.
Nothing. Nothing from my daughter.
I return my line of sight to the men in front of me and focus on the youthful one, the handsome one. The Mr Bromsgrove. Why did she choose to tell him? Of all the people in the world, in this city, in this school, why did she choose to tell him? He is young, but not especially young, probably about my age, actually. Certainly old enough to be her father. He has a grade-one haircut all over, his features are strong – a man who can look like he takes no nonsense very easily, but also able to look soft and understanding an instant later. He’s slender, bordering on skinny, and wearing a form-fitting white shirt, navy suit jacket and tan corduroy trousers. His eyes, from what I can see behind his gold wire-rimmed glasses, are the same dark hazel-brown of his skin and seem kind. This is the first time I’ve regarded him properly, have noticed him, and now I can understand what the others in the playground have been whispering about. Why they have crushes on him. Why I would have had a crush on him if I were a teenager. Does my daughter? Is that why she told him this thing first? Because she thought it might bond them? Or is it more nefarious than that, does he have something to do with her condition?
My gaze goes to the headteacher. How could you allow this to happen? I want to say. When she’s not at home, she’s here, at school, so this thing must have happened on school time.
I contemplate The Mr Bromsgrove again. Has she mentioned him a little too much? Have I seen anything with his name on in her bedroom when I go in to check her computer? I am plundering my memory, trying to see if there is a moment that featured this man, this potential father of my daughter’s child. Nothing. Nothing comes to mind, or pricks my memory. He doesn’t even raise a suspicion of anything untoward happening between them.
It could have happened anywhere, I remind myself. It could have happened with anyone, because I don’t know what Phoebe does in the time between leaving school grounds and walking into our house. At home, she’s always studying, with the good marks to show for it, or she’s sitting in the corner of the sofa in the living room, phone in hand, texting away or on Facebook and Twitter and all those things I haven’t really been paying attention to. She’s home so I’ve always assumed she is safe. All the bad things happen ‘out there’. As long as she’s where I can see her most of the time, she’s safe.
‘Phoebe has declined to tell us who the father is,’ The Mr Bromsgrove says. From the corner of my eye, I see her head turn a little as she looks at him. Is she annoyed and resentful that he’s telling me this, or is she incredulous that he’s saying that when he is somehow involved? I can’t know for certain because her face is hidden from me. ‘Mrs Mackleroy, I’m not sure what you want to do right now . . .’
The headteacher leaves his sentence open and expects me to fill it. ‘Are you going to tell social services?’ I say into the gap he has left for me.
The headteacher glances at The Mr Bromsgrove, and I wonder if either of them hears Phoebe’s almost inaudible gasp. Have they noticed she’s now holding her breath? Do they realise that we’re already on the social services radar and this sort of revelation would start the whole thing up again?
The Mr Bromsgrove stares at the headteacher, then at Phoebe, then back at the headteacher. He doesn’t include me in his assessment of the situation, in fact, he’s avoided looking directly at me since I walked in here. I saw him look me over when I entered, but his visual attention to me has been conspicuous in its absence. It’s OK, I’d love to say, I know I’m a bad mother, you don’t have to avoid looking at me in case your face shows your disgust. I’m disgusted enough with me for the both of us.
The headteacher finally focuses on me again. ‘I think we should play it by ear for now, don’t you? We think it would be best if you had a talk with Phoebe, see what you plan to do and then we’ll have another meeting to discuss our options.’ His face flames a deep crimson. ‘I mean, options in the school and education sense, of course. Ah-he-hem!’ He starts to desperately shuffle papers.
The cauldron of nausea at the centre of my being folds and stirs itself much faster.
16 years before That Day (September, 1995)
‘What would you like me to make you, pretty lady?’ Joel asked me. We’d been dating for two months, not including the time we met on the plane to Lisbon and then not seeing each other again for a month, and this was our first date that didn’t involve some kind of physical activity – bowling, hillwalking (disastrous), rollerblading, rock-climbing, dry-slope skiing, clubbing. Tonight, though, he’d insisted on a slower, more relaxed date with dinner and drinks at his shared flat in Hove.
‘Nothing. I don’t think I could eat a thing.’ I rubbed my stomach to emphasise my point. ‘I’ve been eating all day, I’m stuffed.’
‘Nonsense.’ As always, his rich tones moved deliciously like warmed maple syrup through me. ‘You can have anything you like from the rather extensive selection in my fridge.’
Joel opened the door to his tall white fridge, unlocking the gateway to a world of pleasure: fresh vegetables, fresh pasta, apples, blackberries, strawberries, blueberries, butter, cheese, ham, fresh chicken, salmon were all stacked neatly onto the three shelves with raw meat, poultry and fish together, fresh veg and fruit together, deli foods sitting side by side. No open cans with their lids half on, furring up with every passing second; no putrefying foodstuffs that were going to rot away leaving a slimy pool of decay in their wake; no crusty-lidded jars with stained, faded labels.
The rest of the kitchen was pristine, too. Around the room, quite large for a two-bedroom flat, was evidence of cooking, eating, living.
The wall beside the cooker had two long shelves stacked with many different types of oils, some with suspended chilli peppers, garlic and herbs. The lower shelf had clear jars filled with different types of dried pasta, rice, beans and lentils. Below that stood a rack of dried herbs and spices. On one of the work surfaces there was a wooden knife block with six silver-handled knives – all of different sizes, I’d imagine – protruding from it. Along the sill of the large window that allowed light to pour into the kitchen, small pots of fresh herbs grew – I recognised three of them as lavender, basil and chives.
‘So, you and your mate Fynn live here all on your own?’ I said to him.
‘Yeah, have done since we got proper jobs after uni.’
‘And you’re both into cooking?’
‘No, that’s my thing. Fynn’s more into cars. And women. But mostly cars.’
‘How did two such different people manage to become such good friends?’
‘We’re not that different. Like I told you, we met at an open day for Cambridge. Kind of gravitated towards each other when we realised within ten minutes or so that we were both there to make our parents happy.’
‘Rather be a disappointment, huh?’
‘No, rather have a life. I wasn’t passionate about going there and it wouldn’t have been fair to take a place away from someone whose whole life was about going there. Same with Fynn. We met again at the interviews and exchanged numbers. After A-levels we decided to run away and live by the sea to escape the sound of our parents’ hearts breaking. We literally did nothing but work and party for a year before we both started college in Brighton.’
Closing the fridge door, I took his hand and stood staring at him for a few seconds. Just staring at him. He was easily the best-looking man I’d been ‘involved’ with. Easily. He was six foot or so, solidly built, with long, lean muscles that I kept eyeing up whenever he wore short-sleeved shirts. I hadn’t seen the rest of him in the flesh, as it were, but I was hoping to change that. I was always trying to get lost in his eyes because they were like twin whirlpools of melted mahogany fringed with pitch-black lashes. His face could have been carved from a piece of walnut wood it was so smooth and dark, and begging to have my fingers stroke it. And his mouth – it was always smiling at me. Whenever I caught him looking at me, he was always either grinning or seemed to be on the verge of doing so.
‘Didn’t see anything in the fridge you fancied, no?’ he asked and reached for the silver handle again.
‘Not exactly,’ I said. To distract and get him to focus on me, I led him out of the kitchen and into their spacious living room, where I encouraged him to sit so I could drop onto the sofa beside him. ‘I’d much rather hear more about what you got up to in that year of work and partying.’
‘Really that interested?’ he asked and his smile lit up his twenty-six-year-old face again. I was instantly jelly-like inside. He reached out and slipped his arm around my waist as I’d been longing for him to do, before he leant back onto the sofa and pulled me towards his body.
‘Oh, yes, I’m very, very interested.’
We’re at the bus stop near the school. I’d been too shaky after the call to come to St Allison to even contemplate driving and spent all the spare cash I had on a taxi to get here. I had enough to get home on the bus and Phoebe had her pass.
We are propped two widths of a normal-size person apart on the moulded plastic bench under the shelter. It’s April and I, like everyone else, am still waiting for the faintest hint of spring to join us but the weather is not cooperating. The air around us is cool but not hostile. I wish it was warmer, though, waiting for a bus would be far more pleasant if the cool air wasn’t seeping in under my jacket and playing across my skin.
‘You’re going to have to talk to me at some point,’ I say to Phoebe.
The first thing I’ve said to her since, ‘We’re going to have to get a bus’ as she stood waiting to see which direction I’d go to get to the car.
In response to this, she turns her head even further away from me, not in the direction the bus will be coming from, but towards home and back towards the school.
I stop watching her, she’s not going to look at me. I focus myself instead towards where the bus will come from and I wonder: Is she wishing herself at home, is she wishing herself back in the safety of school, or is she wishing she was anywhere but near me right now?
Excerpted from The Flavours of Love by Dorothy Koomson. Copyright © 2013 by Dorothy Koomson.
First published in Great Britain in 2013 by Quercus, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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