It’s been seven years since Else visited her tiny hometown on an isolated island off the coast of Scotland. After years of suffering bullying at the hands of the few other residents, she left to make a new life. But now that her mother has passed, Else has returned. And when her old tormentor Karen Little hands her the very book that sent her running all those years ago, the cruelties of her past have Else seeing red.
The Bibliomysteries are a series of short tales about deadly books, by top mystery authors.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Every Seven Years
By Denise Mina
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 2015 Denise Mina
All rights reserved.
I AM STANDING on a rostrum in my old school library. An audience of thirty or so people is applauding, I am smiling and mouthing "thank you" and I know that they all hate me.
The audience looks like people I used to know seven years ago, but less hopeful and fatter. Actually, they're not fat, they're normal sized, but I'm an actor. We have to stay thin because our bodies are a tool of our trade. A lot of us have eating disorders and that creates an atmosphere of anxiety around food. The applauding audience isn't fat; I'm just London-actress thin, which is almost-too-thin.
I look down. The rostrum is composed of big ply board cubes that fit together. We are standing on five but the corner one is missing; maybe they ran out of cubes, or one is broken. It's like standing on a slide puzzle, where one tile is missing and the picture is jumbled. This seems hugely significant to me while it is happening: we're in a puzzle and a big bit is missing. The whole afternoon feels like a hyper-real dream sequence so far, interspersed with flashes of terror and disbelief. My mum died this morning.
There is no chair on the rostrum, no microphone, no lectern to hide behind. I stand, exposed, on a broken box and justify my career as a minor actress to an audience who doesn't like me.
There are about thirty people in the audience. Not exactly the Albert Hall, but they are appreciative of my time because my mum is ill. She's in the local hospital and that's why I'm back. It has been mentioned several times, in the introductions and during the questioning. So sorry about your mum.
Maybe pity is fueling the applause. Maybe time is moving strangely because I'm in shock. I smile and mouth "thank you" at them for a third time. I want to cry but I'm professional and I swallow the wave of sadness that engulfs me. Never bitter. My mother's words: never bitter, Else. That's not for us. My mum said life is a race against bitterness. She said if you die before bitterness eats you, then you've won. She won.
A fat child is climbing up the side of the rostrum towards me. He can't be more than four or five. He's so round and wobbly he has to swing his legs sideways to walk properly. He comes up to me and — tada! — he shoves a bunch of supermarket flowers at my belly without looking at me. The price is still on them. He must be someone's kid. He's not the kid you would choose to give a visiting celebrity flowers, even a crap celebrity. He turns away and sort of rolls off the side of the platform and runs back to his mum.
He pumps his chunky little arms at his side, leg-swing-run, leg-swing-run, running all the way down the aisle to a big lady sitting at the back. Her face brims with pride. He looks lovely to her. She's just feeding him what she's eating; she doesn't see him as fat. I'm seeing that. I'm probably the only person in the room who is seeing that. Everyone else is seeing a cute wee boy doing a cute wee thing.
It's me. Bitterness comes in many forms. Malevolent gossip, lack of gratitude, even self-damaging diet regimes. Today bitterness is a tsunami coming straight at me. It's a mile-high wall of regret and recrimination. Broken things are carried in the threatening wave: chair legs and dead people and boats. And it is coming for me.
My mum died. This morning. In a hospital nearby. My mum died.
This is going on, this stupid event in a dreary public library on the island where I grew up. At the same time an alternate universe is unfolding, the one where I am a daughter and my mum is no longer alive.
I love cats. On YouTube there's an eight-minute montage of cats crashing into windows and glass doors they thought were open. It went viral; you've probably seen it. Lots of different cats flying gleefully into what they think is empty space, bouncing off glass. It's funny, not because the cats are hurt; they're not hurt. It's funny because of that moment afterward when the cat sits up. They look at the glass, variously astonished or angry or embarrassed. It's funny because it is so recognizably human, that reaction. The WTF reaction.
Hitting the glass is where I am with the fact that my mum has died. I keep forgetting, thinking other things — I need a wee — that woman has got a spot on her neck — I want to sit down — and then BOOM I hit the glass.
But actors are special. We just keep going. If we forget our lines, or the scenery falls, or a colleague has died on stage, we just keep going. So I just keep going.
I'm standing on the rostrum with Karen Little. Karen and I grew up together. She made my life a misery at school and we haven't seen each other for seven years. I can see her eyes narrow when she looks at me. I can see her shoulders rise, her lips tighten. Maybe she hates me even more now. I don't have a system of quantification for hate. I've forgotten what it is to be the recipient of this, so maybe that's why it feels heightened. Life has been kind to me since I left.
My mum died and, frankly, I'm not really giving too much of a shit. I want to tell her that: hey, Karen, d'you know what? The human body renews itself every seven years. Each individual cell and atom is replaced on a seven-year cycle. It's been seven years since we met and I'm different now. You're different now. All that stuff from before? We could just let that go.
But that's not how we do things on the island. Aggression is unspoken here. We're too dependent on one another to have outright fights.
Karen Little, just to fill you in on the background, was in my class. There were thirteen in our year. Eight girls, five boys. Karen was good at everything. Head girl material from the age of twelve, she was bossy, sporty, and academic. She was like all of the Spice Girls in one person. Except Baby Spice. Karen was never soft. Growing up on a farm will do that to you.
She has gray eyes and blond hair, Viking coloring. She looks like a Viking, too. Big, busty, kind of fertile-looking hips. She stands on both feet at the same time, always looks as if she is standing on the prow of a boat.
I'm a sloucher. An academic nothing. A dark-haired incomer. My mother moved here to teach but gave it up before I was born. After the accident, they made it clear they didn't want her. Even the children shunned her.
Karen's a full head taller than me. So it was odd that she had this thing about me. I never understood why she hated me so much. Everyone hated Mum because of the accident, but Karen hated me. It wasn't reciprocated and it was scary.
No one there liked my mother or me but Karen took it to extremes. I saw her looking at me sometimes, as if she'd like to hit me. She didn't do anything. I should emphasis that. But I often saw her staring at me, at parties, across roads, in class. I was scared of her. I think she had a lot going on at home and I became a focus for her ire.
Now, Karen is the librarian in the school library.
My face hits the glass.
There is no one here I can confide in. My. Mum. Died. Three words. I haven't said them to anyone yet. If I don't say it maybe the universe will realize its mistake. It will get sorted out. The governor will call at the last minute and stop her dying of lung cancer. Maybe, if I don't say it.
Or maybe I'm worried that if I say it I will start crying, I'll cry and cry and maybe I will die of it.
No one in the school library knows yet. They will as soon as they leave. Mum is headline news around here. Everyone knows that she isn't well, in the local hospital with lung cancer. Since I got back several people have told me that she will get better because the treatment is better than it was. People tell me happy stories about other people who had cancer but got better and now they run marathons, climb mountains, have second lives. Mention of cancer prompts happy stories, as if people feel jinxed by the word and need to rebalance the narrative. I've learned that you can't make them stop with the positive anecdotes. They need them. No one here can believe that my mother is going to die anymore than I can. My mother is an unfinished song. It's out of character that she will simply die of an illness. My mother has never done a simple thing.
But they know that's why I'm back on the island, in the small town of my birth, standing on a rostrum with Karen Little, listening to interminable clapping.
I mouth "thank you" again and watch the fat kid's mother pull him onto her knee. He looks forward, flush from his run. Behind him the mother shuts her eyes and kisses his hair with a gesture so tender I have to look away.
Karen cornered me in the chemist's. Do come, Else, please. We would be so glad to hear from you, all your exciting experiences! Karen covers her loathing with smiles. They all do. Anywhere else we would have been excluded, picked on. Maybe they would have burnt crosses on our lawn. The hostility would have affected our day-to-day interactions, but the island is small, we are so dependent on each other for survival, that instead, aggression is a background thrum in a superficially pleasant existence.
Tourists fall in love with the white beaches and palm trees. The seeds are washed up here on the Gulf Stream and palm trees grow all over the island. The landscape looks tropical until you step off the coach or out of the hotel or from your rented car. It is bitterly cold here. The vegetation makes it perpetually unexpected. The distillery towns are always dotted with startled tourists from Spain or Japan, all looking for a sweater shop. That's what we're famous for: whisky and sweaters.
Karen is tired of watching me being applauded. It's dying out anyway, so she steps in front of me and blocks my sight lines.
Thank you! Her voice is shrill. Thank you to our local celeb, Miss Else Kennedy!
She has prompted another round of applause. Oh, god. My right knee buckles, as if it knows this will never end and it's decided to go solo and just get the hell out of here.
Karen turns to address me. Her face is too close to mine. She has lipstick on, it is bleeding into a dry patch of skin at the side of her mouth, and I can smell it; she's close. I feel as if she's going to bite my face and it makes me want to cry.
We have a present for you!
She is smiling with her teeth apart looking from me to the audience. Something special is coming, I can see the venom spark in her eye like the flick of a serpent's tail.
Karen's voice continues to trill through my fog of grief and annoyance. Special gift! It will be presented by — Marie! (I wasn't listening to that bit).
— Marie is also a bit scary looking. She has an unusually big face, her hair is greasy. She climbs up onto the platform holding a yellow hardback with both hands. She looks as if she's delivering a sacred pizza.
I know this isn't a surreal dream. It's just work-a-day grim and I'm bristling with shock and sorrow. My mum died. I feel the glass bounce me backwards on the decking.
— Marie takes tiny steps to get to me, the rostrum isn't big enough for three people and I'm making the best of it, a professional smile is nailed to my face.
But then I see what is in her hand.
It's the book. My smile drops.
Karen's voice is loud in my ear.
A lovely book about the famous painter: Roy Lik-Tin-Styne! This is, believe it or not! The very last book Else took out of our library! Isn't that fun? And Anne-Marie is going to present it to her as a memento of this lovely visit!
Karen turns and looks straight at me, giving a loud and hearty laugh. HAHAHA! she says, straight into my face HAHAHA! She is so close her gusty laugh moves my hair.
Anne-Marie drops the big book into one of my hands and shakes the other one. She is smiling vacantly over my shoulder. Then she's gone.
What do you think of that, Else?
I can't speak. I look at it. The flyleaf is ripped but it is the same book. Time-yellowed cover, whitened along the spine from sun exposure. I know then. I will kill Karen Little. And I'll kill her tonight.
Back in the house I sit in my mum's living room with a huge glass of straight vodka in my hand.
I haven't had a drink for seven years and surprise myself by pouring straight Smirnoff into a pint glass. This is what I want. Not a glass of full-bodied red or a relaxing beer. What I want is a sour, bitter drink that will wither my tongue and make me half mad. I want a drink that will make me sick and screw me up.
Before this morning, before the final breath went out of her as I held her hand in the hospital, I thought of Totty as "Mum." Now I find I call her "my mum." In the Scots Gaelic language there is no ownership. It isn't my cup of tea. The cup of tea is with me. Now that Mum is no longer with me she has become my mum. I'm claiming ownership of her.
My mum is all around me in this room, I can smell her. I can see the book she was reading before she went into the hospital, open on the arm of the chair. This house is polluted with books. Her phrase. Polluted. They're everywhere. They're not furniture or mementoes. They're not arranged by spine color on bookcases or anything like that. They're functioning things, on the bathroom floor, in the kitchen by the cooker, on the floor in the hall, as if she had to stop reading that one to pull a coat on and go out. And her tastes were very catholic. Romance, classic, Russian literature, crime fiction. She'd read anything. I've known her to read a book halfway through before realizing that she'd read it before. She didn't read to show off at book groups or for discussion. She never made a show of her erudition. She just liked to be lost.
The book from the school is on the table in front of me. Yellow, accusing. Lichtenstein is on the cover, photographed in black and white. He is standing contraposto in the picture, looking a little fey. The height of the white room behind him implies a studio space.
I can't look at that anymore.
The couch is facing the window. A sloping lawn leads down to an angry sea. America is over there, obscured from view by the curvature of the earth and nothing more. Away is over there.
I sat here often while she was alive, on the couch, planning my exit from this small place. I will get away. The day after my sixteenth birthday, I left the island like a rat on fire. Down to London, sleeping on floors, in beds I didn't particularly want to be in, just to be away. I would have sold my soul. But my mum stayed.
She came to visit me in London once I got a place of my own, when I was doing the TV soap and the money was rolling in. Nothing makes you feel rich as much as having been poor. Totty came down to London "for a visit." Always "for a visit." Coming back was not negotiable. She was always going to come back here, to an island that hated her.
I asked her to stay with me in London. I did it several times. Sobbing, drunk, and begging her to stay. She took my hand and said I love you and you know I can't and they'll win then. Finally she said she wouldn't come and visit anymore if I asked her again. And you should stop drinking, Else. You don't have a problem but you drink for the wrong reasons. Get drunk for fun, she said, and only for fun. Never get drunk to give yourself guts. That's what I'm doing now. Sipping the foul vodka as if it were medicine, trying to swallow it before it touches the sides. I need guts tonight.
I look at the book on the table and I'm back at the event in the small, packed library. Why did they even have a podium, I wonder now. Everyone could see me perfectly well. In hindsight it feels like a freak show tent, with me as the freak everyone wants to peer at. Karen planned it all around the giving of the book. She must have known while she watched me speak about my pathetic career, my reality show appearances, the failed comedy series. She must have known when she cornered me in the chemist's.
I look down at the book.
I'm getting drunk and I try to think of an alternative explanation: is this a custom? Do people give people "the last book they took out of their school library"? No.
I should have asked: did someone else suggest this? But I know in my gut that the answer would be no. No one else suggested this. Karen Little suggested giving you this book. No one else would know which was the last book you took out of the school library. And why would they? Why the hell would they? It means nothing to anyone but Karen and me.
I open it. Tech solutions hadn't reached this little corner of Scotland yet. There were no chips or automatic reminders sent by text to the mobiles of borrowers. They still stamped books out of the library. The book has never been taken out since I had it, seven years ago. Of course it hasn't. Its been sitting in Karen's cupboard.
I start to cry and stroke the torn flyleaf. I realize that I'm glad my mum was already dead when Karen gave me this.
I flick through the book, as if casually, but I know, even before the pages fall open, that the handwritten note will still be there. The pages part like the Red Sea. A ripped corner of foolscap paper, narrow, faint lines. Even the small hairs at the ripped edge are flattened perfectly after seven years.
Excerpted from Every Seven Years by Denise Mina. Copyright © 2015 Denise Mina. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.