A short post today, to a. share an extract of my latest book and b. let you know, if you don’t already (why not, where have you been?) that there’s a Rafflecopter giveaway of THE GIRL IN HIS EYES currently running on My Reading Corner. Three winners will be picked at random on Halloween! (To enter, you need to visit my author Facebook page or follow me on Twitter/follow this blog/subscribe to my newsletter. All the info is on the My Reading Corner blog post). Open worldwide.
A recent review on Amazon
I was blown away by this review I spotted yesterday, so hope you’ll forgive me if I sneak it in here:
Extract from THE GIRL IN HIS EYES
This is taken from the start of chapter one.
29 December 2010
The face in the window stared back at her. Hers, yet not hers, it blurred into a jelly of reflected faces and the shifting darkness beyond.
She would be there, soon. With her mother – with him. She would have to say the right things, laugh in the right places. Pretend everything was alright.
Laura picked up her overnight bag, left the station and began the slog up Wimbledon Hill. Lorries shuddered past, splashing her jeans. She forced her umbrella into the wind. Her body felt flimsy, like one of those skeleton leaves clinging to the trees along the road.
At the top of the hill she turned into a side road then left into Elgin Drive. Slower now, past the line of stern 1930s houses. Number 31 loomed behind its ten-foot, ruler-flat hedge. The Porsche wasn’t in the driveway.
She opened the gate, hesitating. She didn’t want to go into this house again – not now, not ever. What if she turned around and went home, said she wasn’t feeling well? It wasn’t far from the truth. The warning signs were back: a thudding heart, a prickling beneath the skin. But she drew in her breath and made herself walk up the path and press the doorbell.
The hall light came on behind the frosted glass panels. She waited. Then her mother appeared, a little out of breath. Her hair, now highlighted blonde, bore the signs of her favourite Toni & Guy stylist.
‘Hello, Mum. I thought you weren’t in.’
‘The radio was on, I didn’t hear you.’ She was enveloped by arms, bosom and a cloud of floral perfume. ‘You’re soaked! You should have called, darling, I would have picked you up at the station.’
‘It’s only ten minutes. I don’t mind the walk.’
Laura followed her mother into the kitchen. The cactus on the windowsill had sprouted a third lobe, a spooky shade of orange. On the worktop, plastic containers competed for space with her mother’s collection of herbal and homeopathic remedies for everything from insomnia to swollen ankles.
‘Dad isn’t back from work yet?’
‘He shouldn’t be long. How was your trip?’
‘It was just what I needed, I didn’t want to come back. How was Christmas?’
‘Oh, you know. Your father wasn’t in the best of moods.’
A thick paperback lay beside the toaster – one of those self-help books with instructions for how to transform one’s life. She opened it and read the underlined sentence:
Picture affirmations as seeds that you are planting in the garden of your mind.
Laura put down the book. Her mother was a sucker for all that New Age stuff.
‘Did Stephen miss you while you were away?’
‘I doubt it. We’re not seeing each other anymore.’
‘Oh, Laura.’ Her mother’s brightness vanished. ‘What happened?’
‘He was seeing other girls,’ she explained. ‘He said he didn’t think our relationship had a future. He said I didn’t trust him. Stuff like that.’
His words were stuck inside her head. I don’t know who you are, Laura. You never let me see the real you.
Their parting had been brief, though not painless. Evidence of his betrayal had been left for her to find: an unfamiliar hair slide on his dressing table, a blonde hair on a pillow. She’d yelled, hurled things. He’d told her she was being hysterical.
‘I’m so sorry, darling.’ Her mother approached, arms opening. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
Laura bit her lip. The tears were banked up behind her lids, ready to flow. But she stiffened and pulled away. She didn’t want to cry here, with her father liable to walk in any moment. In any case, she had cried quite enough lately.
‘I just needed time to sort things out in my head.’ It wasn’t only that. She couldn’t talk to her mother about lots of things. Explaining herself to her mother was just too difficult. Keeping things inside was easier, was what she was used to doing.
‘How about a cup of tea?’ Her mother was already removing a bottle of milk from the fridge, which was crammed with cling-filmed bowls. A damp ginger cat squeezed with difficulty through the flap and padded towards her. Laura glanced into the hall. She had to be on her own for a few minutes.
The downstairs toilet was fragrant with air freshener. On the shelf, dried flowers sprayed prettily from a vase. The basin, spotless, boasted a pristine block of Royal Jelly soap. Her reflection startled her: ghost-white face framed by a damp tangle of nearly black hair, eyes smudged with kohl. They stared back at her, as sad and shiny as a spaniel’s.
She turned the tap on full, wondering if the sound of pouring water would hide the howl that might erupt from her. No, almost certainly not. She neatened her hair and splashed cold water on her face.
‘Don’t take this too much to heart, love,’ her mother said as they sat at the kitchen table. ‘You never know who might be round the corner.’
No one, hopefully. She’d had enough of love, enough of men who wanted too much or too little. Enough of men full stop. Her mother meant well but she just didn’t get it. They were too different, they would never understand each other. They were never going to be the best buddies that she wanted them to be. How could that happen when her mother still loved Dad, thought he was as white as snow? In all this time she’d never guessed the truth.
‘Daniel’s bringing Karen with him tomorrow, did he tell you?’
Laura shook her head. Her brother, two years older than her, was a project manager at a high-tech company in Bristol. She envied his focus, the way his life appeared to go wherever he willed it. Her own life was waiting in vain for some direction. Engrossed by her history course at Durham University, she had graduated with an upper second, better than she’d expected given her erratic performance in exams. But now, eighteen months later, she was starting to wilt. Try as she might to latch on to some sort of career, something vital to success always eluded her.
‘He said it was about time we met her,’ her mother said with a knowing look.
It was serious then – Daniel never brought girlfriends to the house. Although she was glad Daniel would be around tomorrow for their father’s birthday, she wished she’d been able to think of a good enough excuse to not be a part of it.
Her father arrived shortly after 7.30pm. When her mother went to greet him, Laura didn’t get up. His footsteps smacked the wooden floor as he strode along the hall. She saw, as he entered the kitchen, that his face and neck were still tanned from the summer. No sign yet of a beer belly. He was a tall, athletic man, quite decent looking. A man she ought to be proud to have as her father.
‘Hey, sweetie, how’re you doing? Good to see you again.’
He put down his briefcase and momentarily stood before her, arms at his sides as if hoping she might hug him, before leaning over and offering her his cheek. She barely touched the stubble with her lips. Faint, woody notes of his scent, peppermint mouthwash on his breath. He lifted his briefcase onto the worktop, pulled off his tie and took a beer from the fridge, as any other man might do.
Over dinner, her father’s mood worsened. He grumbled about a scratch he’d discovered on the passenger door of his car, which he suspected wasn’t accidental.
‘It’s that kid down the road, I bet. The one who rings on people’s doors for the hell of it – his parents let him roam the streets at all hours. I’ve a good mind to call the police.’
Her mother nodded, looking worried. ‘How was work today?’
‘Not so good.’ He scowled, picking at a patch of candle wax on the dining table. ‘Orders are down, profits are down, and bonuses will be too, most likely. It’s the worst it’s been in nine years. This recession is …’ As he went into detail about the problems the company was facing, Laura drifted away from the conversation. Instead, she found herself contemplating the large bruise-like mark on the wall beside the display cabinet, and the gaudy flowers spreading over the heavy curtains. The smell of geraniums hovered behind everything, and that web of small familiar sounds – the murmur of a radiator, the plaintive mews of the cat, the occasional rhythmic clack-clack of a distant train. The house seemed to be drawing her in, as if she’d never left.
‘You’re very quiet, Laura,’ her father remarked suddenly in a loud voice, startling her. ‘How’s the job going?’
‘I spent all day typing out captions again,’ she replied. ‘If I stay there any longer, my brain will turn to mush.’
It had sounded like an interesting, possibly exciting job – trainee production assistant in a TV production company. But they didn’t make documentaries anymore, only film trailers with booming voiceovers, and adverts for DIY stores and dog food. Worse, a large part of every day was taken up with whatever tedious tasks no one else wanted to do, which, by 5.30pm, made her want to scream.
‘You’ll keep on with it, won’t you?’ Her father’s tone fell somewhere between sharp and resigned. ‘All you’ve done since leaving college is float from one job to the next. If you don’t get stuck into this one, you’re going to be unemployable.’
She said nothing. Her father was probably right. Three months into this job, her third since leaving university, she had no idea what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. Her first job, in the V&A museum shop, had gone well until they’d made her redundant after four months. After temping in various offices she’d finally found another ‘permanent’ job, in the customer service section of a telecoms company. But she’d walked out after a month, sick of the constant supply of disgruntled callers.
The problem was, she didn’t know what she wanted to do. She wasn’t interested in politics, journalism, or the civil service. She couldn’t imagine being a teacher – in any case, there was no need for history teachers at the moment. Research, maybe. But there were no jobs for researchers without experience. It wasn’t the right attitude, she knew, but lately she’d had less and less expectation for her future.
After dinner, Laura sat with her parents in the living room. When the BBC Ten O’Clock News was over she told them she was tired and she’d see them in the morning.
Across the landing from her parents’ room, her old bedroom waited, its door ajar. These days she hardly ever slept in it, apart from a night or so over Christmas. The room smelled of the lavender pouches her mother used to ward off moths. Its walls were still covered in the lilac shade of paint she’d chosen, aged eleven. On the shelf, her battered straw hat lay atop a row of the hunky volumes on archaeology and ancient history collected over her teenage years. Her overnight bag had been placed on the single bed and her battered childhood slippers lay side by side beneath the dressing table, which had been carefully arranged with her left-behind jewellery and hair accessories.
Everything looked homely and welcoming. She pushed away a sudden sense of confinement and loneliness, of boundaries slipping, of time slipping. She was her twelve-year-old self again, waiting for something awful to happen.
Laura undressed, pulled on a long, stretchy top, and lay in bed with the bedside lamp on. A hundred sounds percolated into her brain, each demanding attention. The drone of a plane heading towards Heathrow. A soft scraping from downstairs that she couldn’t identify, followed by a hollow clatter – her mother cleaning the cat’s bowl, maybe. Footsteps on the stairs. A series of creaks from the landing. Subdued voices from her parents’ bedroom then the click of their door closing. Finally, she switched off the lamp.
There’s nothing to be afraid of, she told herself.
The garden seemed smaller and neater than she remembered. Its grass verges were trimmed, the rose bushes pruned. The earwig-infested tree stumps had been taken away. No fallen leaves cluttered the lawn. It was hard to recognise the sprawling garden she’d known as a child, with its endless places to play and hide.
Laura looked up at the featureless layer of thick cloud obscuring the sky. It was nearly midday. She had woken late after another bad night’s sleep and taken a cup of tea up to her room before getting up. Then she’d done her best to help her mother, who’d been trying to peel carrots, look for fluted glasses, and season the guinea fowl. Her father was in good spirits, popping in and out of the kitchen to make sauces and help himself to nuts and wine when he wasn’t occupied with his latest stereo, a birthday present to himself. She was thinking she ought to go back inside and offer to lay the table when her mother appeared in the doorway of the conservatory.
‘Laura! Daniel and Karen are here!’
After the greetings were over they were corralled into the living room, where her father opened his presents. Flurries of conversation were helped along by a bottle of Prosecco and her father’s well-honed charm. Despite this, the occasion felt awkward. Her mother kept rushing out to tend to something in the kitchen, and said little. Her brother seemed less relaxed than usual, and Karen smiled nervously, from time to time glancing at Daniel for reassurance. He had no doubt warned Karen about Dad’s uncertain moods. And maybe she sensed something else besides a bad temper lurking beneath his jovial surface.
They all sat around the dining table eyeing the pot of stew her mother was ladling onto plates. Pintard something or other.
Daniel raised his glass. ‘Happy birthday, Dad. Roll on sixty!’
Laura wished her father a happy birthday with the others.
‘Start, everyone,’ her mother urged, before turning to Karen with a smile of encouragement. ‘So, what made you want to be a vet?’
Laura shifted in her chair. She was uneasy again. She watched her father as he discussed the latest Test match with her brother. As usual he was nicely turned out, in a dark-green silk shirt, open at the neck, black trousers and polished leather shoes. He sounded more than ever like an Englishman, only occasional traces of his Canadian accent coming through. He was on his best behaviour, she could tell. Her brother, with his shirt pressed and hair combed, looked oddly well-groomed for a weekend. Karen had made an effort too, with a smart velvet dress and carefully applied make-up. Her own make-up was minimal and her outfit simple – a blouse and short cardigan over narrow black jeans.
Karen and her mother were on to facials and their favoured remedies for open pores. Her mother laughed suddenly, and reached across to touch Karen’s arm. Already there was a warmth and ease between the two women. Laura looked away. She felt the echo of some long-ago emotion, one she’d almost forgotten. That ache of being left out, of wanting to join in but not knowing how.
Daniel caught her eye and winked at her. ‘Alright, sis?’
‘I’m fine.’ She turned her attention back to her plate, her serving mostly uneaten.
As their plates emptied, there was a hiatus in the conversation.
‘Does anyone want to hear a joke?’ Daniel looked around expectantly.
‘Go on then,’ said her mother.
Daniel waited until he had everyone’s attention. ‘What do you say to a black man in a suit?’
‘Who’s your tailor?’ offered her father.
‘Will the defendant please rise.’
‘That’s really bad,’ her father said.
‘Daniel,’ her mother began in a weary tone. ‘Don’t you know any jokes that aren’t racist?’
Her brother scratched his head, mischief on his face. ‘Okay, how about this one. What are Belgium’s most famous inventions?’
Around the table, vacant looks.
‘Tell us, for God’s sake,’ she urged her brother.
‘Chocolate and paedophilia – and they only invented chocolate for the paedophiles.’
Her mother frowned. Karen plucked up her glass, her cheeks flushed.
‘Daniel,’ her father snapped, ‘I think we’ve had enough jokes for now.’ He looked straight at her. ‘Has anyone been watching that awful show on TV? What’s it called …?’
Laura pushed aside the remains of her food. She wanted to get away from this room, away from this house. It was a reminder of everything she wished she could forget. Around her, familiar objects – hanging on the wall, her childhood sketch of a vase of tulips, now confined by a conspicuous frame. In the display cabinet, above her father’s coin collection and gleaming swimming trophies, a row of school photographs of herself and her brother. The house was pulling her back, stripping away the years. She’d sat at this table ten years ago, on her twelfth birthday.
Mum is bringing in a huge cake studded with pink and yellow candles. Around the table, friends are cheering and clapping.
‘Blow them out!’
‘Go on, all in one go!’
One, two, three puffs. The last flame wavers and goes out.
Mum is smiling at her. ‘Make a wish, darling.’
Straight away, it comes – please, make him leave me alone.
After lunch, Laura helped her mother to clear up in the kitchen while the others sat in the living room. Every so often she could hear her father’s robust laugh from down the hall.
‘Jane heard from Neil yesterday,’ her mother said, feeding a plate to the dishwasher.
Jane? Oh yes, Jane was a friend of her mother’s. Neil, Jane’s husband, had left her for a woman of twenty-eight he’d met in an Argentine tango class.
‘Is he still with that girl? What was her name?’
‘Yes, they’re living in a flat in Luxembourg. Neil rang Jane to wish them all a happy Christmas and she told him to get stuffed.’ Her mother’s voice got louder. ‘She’s not going to forgive him for running off like that. It’s been a huge struggle for her, working full-time and coping with the kids – and now Emma’s playing up.’
‘Answering back, refusing to do anything round the house. Jane’s really worried about her.’ Her mother slammed the dishwasher door. ‘Did your father tell you he’s going to take Emma swimming?’
‘No – how come?’
‘Jane asked him if he’d mind taking Emma to the pool with him on Saturdays. To give her a break, partly – the kids are such a handful. But it’ll be good for Emma too. Jane says she’s always stuck in her room playing computer games and messing about on her iPhone.’
‘Dad doesn’t mind?’
‘No, he’s happy to help out. He likes the idea of teaching again, he misses working with kids. I think it’ll be good for him, a chance for him to feel valued outside the office.’
It sounded sensible, on the surface. Her father had been a hotshot swimmer. He’d coached children at his swimming club in Canada, she remembered him saying – they all looked up to him because he’d won a big swimming competition, the state 100m freestyle title, or something. But a fuzzy sense of unease filled her.
‘Suzanne, are you two still in there?’ Her father’s head appeared around the door. ‘I thought we were going to have coffee?’
‘We’re just finishing, Paul. Give me a minute, will you?’
Her mother reached up into a cupboard then shrieked as a cup hurtled out and broke into small pieces that scattered across the floor.
‘Jesus.’ The veins bulged in her father’s forehead. ‘I’ve never in my life known anyone as clumsy as you!’
‘For God’s sake, Paul, I didn’t do it on purpose.’ Despite its attempted firmness, a tremor caught her mother’s voice. ‘Leave us alone, won’t you?’
His footsteps thumped away down the hall.
‘Are you okay, Mum?’
The colour had gone from her mother’s cheeks. As she stared down at the floor in dismay, she looked as if she might break too.
‘Sit down, let me clean up.’ She went to the cupboard and took out a dustpan and brush. I’ll make us more coffee.’
It had happened again, as it had so many times in her childhood. She had always been in a constant state of waiting for her father to let rip over some inconsequential thing. She or her brother hadn’t tidied their bedrooms properly, or her mother had burnt the toast – any thing would set him off. His rages would end with her mother dosing herself with pills and retreating to a darkened bedroom.
Daniel and Karen appeared in the kitchen and announced they were leaving – they were worried about driving on dark roads.
‘Bye, sis.’ Daniel gave her a quick squeeze. ‘Look after Mum.’
‘See you, Dan. Give me a call if you’re ever in London.’ Even as she said this, she knew he wouldn’t. He was always busy with something. They got on well enough but their lives were mostly separate now.
Her mother put her hand on her arm.
‘You’ll stay on for a bit, won’t you, dear? I’m going upstairs to lie down for half an hour.’
Laura made the coffee as slowly as she could then took the two cups into the living room. The thought of being alone with her father made her skin prickle, as though she were a child again. But she told herself she ought to make an effort. She was an adult now – trying to avoid him the whole time was ridiculous. Anyway, she wasn’t going to let him get the better of her. Not anymore.
Her father was slumped in his armchair, his eyes shut and his legs, crossed at the ankles, stretched out in front of him. She put his cup quietly on the coffee table, which was temporarily unburdened of her mother’s Healthy Living magazines.
‘It’s all right, I’m not asleep.’ His tone was friendly. He pushed himself upright. ‘It’s good to see you again, Laura.’
She backed away. ‘I know I haven’t been over much lately. I’m sorry.’
He nodded, picking up his cup. ‘I expect you’re busy, these days.’
Reluctantly, she lowered herself onto the sofa. It would be rude to leave the room now. But what to say to him? A minefield lay between them, un-crossable. How could he talk like this, as if everything was perfectly alright? As if the past had never happened?
‘Mum says you’re going to take Emma to the pool with you.’
‘That’s the plan.’ Carefully, he replaced the cup in the saucer. ‘I’ll help her with her swimming.’
‘What about your own swimming? Won’t Emma get in the way?’
He smiled, a generous smile that showed off his perfectly crowned teeth. ‘I won’t mind. It’ll be fun.’
His tone was light, anodyne. But something was out of alignment. The door would not quite fit the jamb.
Paperback (£8.99) available on Amazon, Waterstones.com (click and collect at your local Waterstones) and other online bookstores – or ask at your local bookshop.
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