The police say it was suicide. Anna says it was murder. They're both wrong.
Last year, Tom and Caroline Johnson chose to end their lives, one seemingly unable to live without the other. Their daughter, Anna, is struggling to come to terms with her parents' deaths, unwilling to accept the verdict of suicide.
Now with a baby herself, Anna feels her mother's absence keenly and is determined to find out what really happened to her parents. But as she digs up the past, someone is trying to stop her.
Sometimes it's safer to let things lie....
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
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Death does not suit me. I wear it like a borrowed coat; it slips off my shoulders and trails in the dirt. It is ill fitting. Uncomfortable.
I want to shrug it off; to throw it in the cupboard and take back my well-tailored clothes. I didn't want to leave my old life, but I'm hopeful for my next one-hopeful I can become someone beautiful and vibrant. For now, I am trapped.
They say sudden good-byes are easier. Less painful. They're wrong. Any pain saved from the lingering good-byes of a drawn-out illness is offset by the horror of a life stolen without notice. A life taken violently. On the day of my death I walked the tightrope between two worlds, the safety net in tatters beneath me. This way safety; that way danger.
We used to joke about dying-when we were young enough, still vital enough, for death to be something that happened to other people.
"Who do you think'll go first?" you said, one night when the wine had run dry and we lay by the electric fire in my rented Balham flat. An idle hand, stroking my thigh, softened your words. I was quick to answer.
"You, of course."
You aimed a cushion at my head.
We'd been together a month; enjoying each other's bodies, talking about the future as though it belonged to someone else. No commitment, no promises-just possibilities.
"Women live longer." I grinned. "It's a well-known fact. Genetic. Survival of the fittest. Men can't cope on their own."
You grew serious. Cupped my face in your hand and made me look at you. Your eyes were black in the half-light; the bars of the fire reflected in your pupils. "It's true."
I moved to kiss you but your fingers held me still; pressure on my chin as your thumb pushed against bone.
"If anything happened to you, I don't know what I'd do."
The briefest chill, despite the fierce heat from the fire. Footsteps on my grave.
"I'd die, too," you insisted.
I put a stop to your youthful dramatics then, reaching to push aside your hand and free my chin. Keeping my fingers tangled with yours, so the rejection didn't sting. Kissing you, softly at first, then harder, until you rolled backward, and I was lying on top of you, my hair curtaining our faces.
You would die for me.
Our relationship was young; a spark that could be snuffed out as easily as coaxed into flames. I couldn't have known you'd stop loving me; that I'd stop loving you. I couldn't help but be flattered by the depth of your feeling, the intensity in your eyes.
You would die for me, and in that moment, I thought I might die for you, too.
I just never thought either of us would have to.
Ella is eight weeks old. Her eyes are closed, long dark lashes brushing apple cheeks that move up and down as she feeds. One tiny hand splays across my breast like a starfish. I sit, pinned to the sofa, and think of all the things I could be doing while she feeds. Reading. Watching television. An online food shop.
Today is not a day for the ordinary.
I watch my daughter, and after a while her lashes lift and she fixes navy eyes, solemn and trusting, on me. Her pupils are deep pools of unconditional love, my reflection small but unwavering.
Ella's sucking slows. We gaze at each other, and I think how motherhood is the best-kept secret: how all the books, all the films, all the advice in the world, could never prepare you for the all-consuming feeling of being everything to one tiny person. Of that person being everything to you. I perpetuate the secret, telling no one, because whom would I tell? Less than a decade after leaving school, my friends share their beds with lovers, not babies.
Ella's still gazing at me, but gradually the focus in her eyes blurs, the way morning mist creeps over a view. Her lids drop once, twice, then fall closed. Her sucking-always so ferocious at first, and then rhythmic, relaxed-slows, until several seconds elapse between mouthfuls, and she stops.
I lift my hand and gently press my index finger onto my breast, breaking the seal between my nipple and Ella's lips, then pull my nursing bra back into place. Ella's mouth continues to move for a while; then sleep takes her, her lips frozen into a perfect O.
I should put her down. Make the most of however long she will sleep. Ten minutes? An hour? We are a long way from any kind of routine. Routine. The watchword of the new mother; the single topic of conversation at the postnatal coffee mornings my health visitor bullies me into attending. Is she sleeping through yet? You should try controlled crying. Have you read Gina Ford?
I nod and smile and say, I'll check it out; then I gravitate toward one of the other new mums. Someone different. Someone less rigid. Because I don't care about routine. I don't want to leave Ella crying while I sit downstairs and post on Facebook about my "parenting nightmare!"
It hurts to cry for a mother who isn't coming back. Ella doesn't need to know that yet.
She stirs in her sleep, and the ever-present lump in my throat swells. Awake, Ella is my daughter. When friends point out her similarities to me, or say how like Mark she is, I can never see it. I look at Ella, and I simply see Ella. But asleep . . . when Ella's asleep I see my mother. There is a heart-shaped face hiding beneath those baby-plump cheeks, and the shape of their hairlines is so alike I know that, in years to come, my daughter will spend hours in front of a mirror, attempting to tame the one tiny section that grows differently from the rest.
Do babies dream? What can they dream of, with so little experience of the world? I envy Ella her sleep, not only because I am tired in a way I never experienced before having a baby, but also because when sleep comes, it comes with nightmares. My dreams show me what I can't possibly know. Supposition from police reports and coroner's court. I see my parents, their faces bloated and disfigured from the water. I see fear on their faces as they fall from the cliff. I hear their screams.
Sometimes my subconscious is kind to me. I don't always see my parents fall; sometimes I see them fly. I see them stepping into nothing and spreading their arms and swooping low above a blue sea that sends spray into their laughing faces. I wake gently then, a smile lingering on my face until I open my eyes and realize that everything is just the way it was when I closed them.
Nineteen months ago, my father took a car-the newest and most expensive-from the forecourt of his own business. He drove the ten minutes from Eastbourne to Beachy Head, where he parked in the car park, left the door unlocked, and walked toward the cliff top. Along the way he collected rocks to weigh himself down. Then, when the tide was at its highest, he threw himself off the cliff.
Seven months later, consumed with grief, my mother followed him, with such devastating accuracy the local paper reported it as a "copycat suicide." I know all these facts because on two separate occasions I heard the coroner take us through them, step by step. My parents died seven months apart, but their linked deaths meant their inquests were held the same week. I sat with Uncle Billy as we listened to the gentle but painfully thorough account of two failed coastal rescue missions. I stared at my lap while experts proffered views on tides, survival rates, death statistics. And I closed my eyes while the coroner recorded the verdict of suicide.
I learned lots of things on those two days, but not the only thing that mattered.
Why they did it.
Assuming they did do it.
The facts are inarguable. Except that my parents were not suicidal. They were not depressed, anxious, fearful. They were the last people you would expect to give up on life.
"Mental illness isn't always obvious," Mark says when I raise this point, his voice giving no hint of impatience that the conversation is, once again, circling back to this. "The most capable, the most upbeat, people can have depression."
Over the past year I've learned to keep my theories to myself; not to give voice to the doubts that lie beneath the surface of my grief. No one else has doubts. No one else feels unease.
But then, maybe no one else knew my parents the way I did.
The phone rings. I let the answerphone pick up but the caller doesn't leave a message. Immediately I feel my mobile vibrate in my pocket, and I know even before I look that it's Mark calling.
"Under a sleeping baby, by any chance?"
"However did you guess?"
"How is she?"
"Feeding every half an hour. I keep trying to start dinner and not getting anywhere."
"Leave it-I can do it when I get home. How are you feeling?" There's a subtle change of tone that no one else would notice. A subtext. How are you feeling today, of all days?
"I can come home-"
"I'm fine. Really."
Mark would hate to leave his course halfway through. He collects qualifications the way other people collect beer mats or foreign coins; so many letters they no longer fit after his name. Every few months he prints new business cards, and the least important letters fall off the end into oblivion. Today's course is The Value of Empathy in the Client-Counselor Relationship. He doesn't need it; his empathy was evident the second I walked through his door.
He let me cry. Pushed a box of tissues toward me and told me to take my time. To begin when I was ready, and not before. And when I stopped crying but still couldn't find the words, he told me about the stages of grief-denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance-and I realized I hadn't moved past first base.
We were four sessions in when Mark took a deep breath and told me he couldn't treat me anymore, and I asked if it was me, and he said there was a conflict of interest and this was terribly unprofessional but would I like to have dinner sometime?
He was older than me-closer to my mum's age than my own-with a confidence at odds with the nerves I now saw hovering beneath the surface.
I didn't hesitate. "I'd love to."
Afterward he said he felt guiltier about interrupting my counseling than about the ethics of dating a patient. Former patient, I pointed out.
He still feels uncomfortable about it. People meet in all sorts of places, I remind him. My parents met in a London nightclub; his met in the frozen food section at Marks & Spencer. And he and I met in a seventh-floor apartment in Putney, in a consultation room with leather chairs and soft woolen throws, and a sign on the door that read Mark Hemmings, Counselor. By Appointment Only.
"If you're sure. Give Ella-bella a kiss from me."
"Bye." I hang up first, and I know he has the handset pressed against his lips, the way he does when he's deep in thought. He'll have gone outside to make the call, forgoing coffee, or networking, or whatever thirty counselors do when they're released from the classroom. In a moment he'll rejoin the others, and he'll be lost to me for the next few hours, as he works on his empathy for a made-up problem. Pretend anxiety. A fictional bereavement.
He'd like to work on mine. I don't let him. I stopped seeing a therapist when I realized all the talking in the world wasn't going to bring back my parents. You reach a point where the pain you feel inside is simply sadness. And there's no cure for that.
Grief is complicated. It ebbs and flows and is so multifaceted that unpacking it makes my head hurt. I can go for days without crying, then barely be able to breathe for the sobs that rack my body. One moment I'll be laughing with Uncle Billy about something stupid Dad once did; the next I'll be filled with rage for his selfishness. If Dad hadn't killed himself, Mum wouldn't have done, either.
The anger is the worst part of all of this. The white-hot fury, and the guilt that inevitably follows.
Why did they do it?
I've gone over the days preceding my dad's death a million times; asked myself if we could have done anything to prevent it.
Your dad's missing.
I'd frowned at the text, looking for the punch line. I lived with my parents, but I was away overnight at a conference in Oxford, chatting over morning coffee with a colleague from London. I excused myself to call her.
"What do you mean, missing?"
Mum wasn't making sense. The words came slowly, as though she was dredging them up. They'd had an argument the night before; Dad had stormed off to the pub. So far, so normal. I had long since accepted the storminess of my parents' relationship; the squalls that would pass over as quickly as they blew in. Except this time Dad hadn't come home.
"I thought he might have slept at Bill's," she said, "but I'm at work now and Bill hasn't seen him. I'm out of my mind, Anna!"
I left the conference straightaway. Not because I was worried about Dad, but because I was worried about Mum. They were careful to keep the causes of their arguments from me, but I'd picked up the aftermath too many times. Dad would disappear-off to work, or to the golf course, or to the pub. Mum would hide in the house, pretending to me she hadn't been crying.
It was all over by the time I got home. Police in the kitchen, their hats in their hands. Mum shaking so violently they'd called a paramedic to treat her for shock. Uncle Billy, white with grief. Laura, Mum's goddaughter, making tea and forgetting to add milk. None of us noticing.
I read the text Dad had sent.
I can't do this anymore. The world will be a better place without me in it.
"Your father took a car from work." The policeman was about Dad's age, and I wondered if he had children. If they took him for granted. "The cameras show it heading toward Beachy Head late last night." My mother let out a stifled cry. I saw Laura move to comfort her, but I couldn't do the same. I was frozen. Not wanting to hear but compelled to listen all the same.