Losing Nicola

Losing Nicola

by Susan Moody

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Overview

A compelling tale of childhood trauma and sinister discoveries - Alice and her brother Orlando lived a quiet life growing up in post WWII Britain; that is until the arrival of the precocious, manipulative and sexually aware Nicola. But on Alice’s 12th birthday, Nicola disappears, only to be found days later, battered, bruised and dead. Twenty years go by until Alice becomes determined to dig up the past and solve the mystery of Nicola’s death. But will the truth be too much to handle when she starts to suspect her own quiet and bookish brother Orlando?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781847513274
Publisher: Severn House Publishers
Publication date: 12/01/2011
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Susan Moody grew up in Oxford and now divides her time between England and France. She is a former Chairman of the Crime Writer's Association, served as World President of the International Association of Crime Writers, and was elected to the prestigious Detection Club. She is the author of numerous crime novels, including the Penny Wanawake and Cassie Swann mystery series.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

When I was four, my mother took me to see Mrs Miniver, because she couldn't find anyone to leave me with. The programme started with a newsreel of current events. A triumphant white cockerel crowed, then tanks moved along a road, men in tin hats with long guns in their hands leapt in and out of ruined windowless houses, there were explosions and smoke and bewildered faces. Although I was too young to understand what it all meant, the images disturbed me. In the film itself, there were more bombs, more ruins, more loss and fear, bravely faced by Greer Garson in a tweed suit which I recognized as the twin of the one hanging in my mother's wardrobe.

For a long time after that afternoon, I suffered from nightmares of soldiers pursuing me through smoke, of guns firing in my direction, the crump of bombs, people weeping.

At four years old, I didn't have the equipment to deal with something as amorphous as terror; that summer, many years later, when Nicola was murdered, I still did not.

Only desperation could have driven Fiona – my mother – to move to the little town of Shale on the coast of south-east Kent. She detested the seaside in general and this one in particular; the thick grey water, the corrosive salt air, the lumps of tar washed ashore from wrecked ships which we tracked in from the beach to ruin her worn carpets, the gales which prowled beneath the roof tiles and nightmared her sleep with the prospect of unpayable repair bills.

The war was over, and my diasporaed family should have reassembled in Oxford to await my father's return from Germany. But affordable housing in Oxford was non-existent, as students and academics crowded back from their various fields of conflict and in the end, frantic for somewhere to live, my mother persuaded my father's great-aunt into giving us temporary house room while she found somewhere more suitable. Aunt lived alone by the sea in a many-roomed house long since emptied of her naval sons and late husband, the Right Reverend Canon Lowe. According to my mother, Aunt, now an aged, humpbacked crone, had been a spy during the First World War and became a pioneering aviatrix after it, until she settled down with the Canon and took up cabinetmaking and occasional journalism.

The two women came to an agreement. Fiona would keep an eye on Aunt, in return for a roof over our heads. And Aunt enjoyed the bargain, too; life in the house again, the sound of young voices on the stairs.

Trains, buses and a Model T Ford brought us to Glenfield House one blustery afternoon. The wind was whipping up the waves, trees groaned in the garden. As we banged at the front door (the knocker had long since vanished), slates fell from the roof. We numbered eight. There was my mother with her indeterminate brood of children, plus Ava Carlton, a runaway wife, and her daughter, Arabella.

I was seven, that first year, Orlando a year older. There were two older brothers – Dougal and Callum – and a younger one, plus Bella. Orlando and I were not twins, though we shared everything except gender, but we might as well have been. Our brains moved along parallel tracks, side by side, anticipating each other's reactions as though they were our own, a single entity. Even when apart, our world consisted of each other. Orlando-and-Alice, Alice-and-Orlando

'We're joined at the hip,' I said once.

He shook his head, touched his chest, grinned his ferocious grin. 'Joined at the heart.'

For Orlando and me, there had only ever been the other. He was everything to me. My God, my companion, my hero. His eyes were the deepest blue and his overlarge head was covered with thick black hair except for the area above his left ear, which was a silky silver. His eyebrows were striped black and white, like a road crossing, giving him a piebald and eccentric look. We all knew he was a genius.

Fiona may have hated our new home. We, on the other hand, loved it. In those years following the war it was an extravagant place in which to spend our holidays, a town full of drama. From the windows of our vast house we had extensive views of the sea, bounded at one end by a chalky headland crowned with a cap of bright grass, on the other by a stretch of coastline curved round a bay. Between the two was a pier broken in two halves, the damage done either by a drunken sea captain or from enemy action, depending on who was telling the story. Beyond the pier wallowed a rusting hulk, perhaps the very ship steered by the drunken sailor.

On the horizon, the spars of ships that had been wrecked on the Goodwin Sands jutted upwards, masts flung up to the heavens like the pleading arms of drowning seamen. When the light was right, you could gaze across the Channel to France, see their War Memorial, the twin of the one on the cliffs above Dover, and the sunlight reflecting on their French windscreens. On weekend mornings, white sails dotted the water, white birds soared above. Along the Esplanade, a red-painted land mine, like the shell of a giant chestnut, solicited alms for wounded servicemen. Although it was never spoken of, the war was still part of our daily lives.

Even on dull days, sea-light poured brilliantly through the windows. We loved the movement of the sea outside, its constantly changing outlook, now grey, now green, now banded into thrilling lines of turquoise and purple blending into blue. We loved too, the presence of the Royal Marines, who marched past the house on their way to Sunday parade, jingling and jangling, the sun bouncing off their brass instruments, their white pith helmets gleaming. At night, bugles from the barracks played the Last Post; every morning we were woken by Reveille.

In winter, the wind was so strong you could spread your arms and lean back on it. There was a lifeboat, too, and sometimes we would startle from sleep to hear the maroons going off, one, two, three, to call in the volunteer life boatmen.

Fiona, raised in the dour house of a college principal in Edinburgh, had grown up being looked after by a string of servants, and had never quite got the grasp of domesticity. Nor of motherhood. Over the years, she had even tried to give one or other of us away, though without much success. Once, a childless couple agreed to adopt Bobby, my youngest brother, then aged two. But by the time Fiona had wheeled him in his pram down an unmade-up road which ended at a cliff-top to their neat seaside villa – 'The Laurels' – and was about to open the gate and abandon him, she realized she couldn't go through with it. Despite the fact that Mrs Childless Couple had already opened the front door and was swooping towards the perambulator with small cries of welcome, Fiona turned and fled back up the road as fast as she could, the heavy black pram, which had been used for us all, bumping and lurching along the road before her.

She told us this story often, her abrupt change of heart apparently emphasizing her maternal instinct, apparently unaware that the original decision to give her youngest child away demonstrated quite the opposite. Nobody had to tell us that Ava Carlton would never have given a child away, never even have thought about it. Although we were originally prepared to treat with hostile caution this intruder into our family circle, we soon learned to value and love her for her steadiness, her stability and her warm heart. Instinctively we knew Ava was vital to the continued well-being of our raffish household. She habitually spoke with her head cocked, listening, listening, in case her abandoned, wife-beating husband finally caught up with her and kicked her to death, before taking Arabella back to live with him and his mother. When we first knew her, she kept a bag ready packed by the door of the room she shared with her daughter. It was, she often said, best to be prepared, because You Never Knew.

Later on, perhaps finally feeling safe, she started wearing a ring on the fourth finger of her left hand. It was a beautiful aquamarine, cold and still as the sea, water-pure and square cut, set in white gold, flanked with tiny diamonds. Peoples' eyes were always drawn to it, and Ava had only to hint at the war years, give a rueful little shrug of the shoulders, for them to get entirely the wrong picture. Instead of an Ava on the run from a brute, they saw a woman still mourning the handsome young pilot lost over the Channel, the brave soldier killed at Dunkirk, the fearless sailor who'd been torpedoed or bombed and gone like a hero to a watery grave. She played the part of a grieving widow, faithful even unto death, so sad, and yet so, I don't know, so marvellous really, with such aplomb, that no one, not even Orlando, was bold enough to enquire as to where the ring came from and what had happened to the wife beater.

Glenfield House was large and many-roomed, on the corner of a road of similar houses which faced the sea across a stretch of grass. There was a shrubbery to one side of it, a carriage house at the back. The house contained any number of pantries, sculleries, laundry-rooms and stone-shelved larders. Extensive cellars spread below, attics flourished above. A back staircase led up from the big kitchen to what had once been thin-walled rooms where maids slept with the tiniest of fireplaces to keep them warm.

There were outbuildings, a tumbledown greenhouse, its glass panes long since smashed and its slatted shelves rotting, a stables with wisps of straw still littering the floor of the stalls, hay in the semicircular iron baskets attached to the wall, and mildewed leather harnesses hanging from heavy iron hooks. Neglected grounds thrived beneath war-neglected roses, sagging bowers of overgrown honeysuckles, rioting clematis and Virginia creeper. Shrubs and bushes drooped heavily to the ground, creating green shelters into which we could creep, and behind a clump of bamboos, a pond green as poison sprouted water-lilies and dragonflies. It was our jungle, our rain forest, our chaparral, the secret garden where we played out every sort of adventure, from the Last of the Mohicans to Dickon and Mary.

There was a great deal of large and shabby furniture, but the house was so big that even with our own pieces added, the place still looked spacious. Aunt's things were different from ours; huge chesterfields, a mirror that was at least twelve feet by twelve in an ornate wooden frame which she had carved herself from fruitwood, and enormous mahogany chests-of-drawers which smelled of mothballs and lavender. There was an elephant's-foot stand in the front hall which held assorted walking sticks, umbrellas, golf clubs, lacrosse and hockey sticks, alpenstocks, even a spear which Aunt and the Canon had brought back after a stint on the Ivory Coast. Hot water in the bathrooms was provided by ancient geysers, both of them corroded with green-stained lime and given to spitting tiny drops of scalding water over anyone within reach. When we moved in, there was still a line painted round the inside of the baths.

'That's all we were allowed, in the Dark Days of The War,' Ada told us dramatically. 'Five inches of hot water and not a drop more.'

'Sounds like the Merchant of Venice,' said Orlando.

'Oh no, dear, nothing to do with Italy. It was because of Mr Churchill. Saving water for Our Brave Boys sort of thing.'

'What did Our Brave Boys do with our bathwater?' Orlando quirked his eyebrow, sucked in his dimple.

'Um ...'

'What happened if you made a mistake and ran a drop too much?' I asked.

'The police would come.' Ava sounded quite positive, always a sign of uncertainty.

'What, while you were sitting naked in the bath?'

'I expect so, dear.'

Because the town was a naval base, there had been many local war casualties. Looking back, I imagine that the widowed mothers had nowhere else to go and so they stayed on, tucked inside their private griefs, bringing up their orphaned children, contriving to send them to the kind of schools their officer husbands would have wanted, making do, drawing only a modicum of comfort from each other.

Our accents were middle class, our poverty genteel. We attended boarding schools, and on returning home for the holidays would join up with an amorphous troop of children like ourselves. We knew each other, but not the local children. Orlando and I spent most of our time with Julian and Charlie Tavistock, Jeremy Pearce and David Gardner. Certain things were taken for granted. We all belonged to the snooty lawn tennis club, though our whites were often considerably less than white. Money for dancing lessons was found because our mothers believed that all gentlemen should be able to steer a lady competently round the dance floor and all ladies should know how to follow. Quicksteps, waltzes, rumbas, foxtrot, we learned them all at the Strand Palais, clasped to the bosom of either Mr Sheridan Fox or his colleague Miss Esmée. Both had false teeth and halitosis. We also learned Scottish reels under the guidance of an ancient Brigadier of some Highland regiment, whose moustache bristled and whose blue eyes constantly watered.

The town was full of men like him. Major This, Lieutenant-Colonel That, Captain Somebody-Else. Every morning, winter and summer alike, they emerged from gates set in the high garden walls along The Beach. In dressing-gowns of striped towelling and beach shoes of faded canvas, they crossed the road onto the green, crunched over the shingle, and slid down the steep shelves of the beach. Off with the robes and into the sea they plunged, wearing baggy black woollen bathing suits which had probably belonged to their fathers, or even their grandfathers. With the war over, perhaps it was the only challenge left to them. Or were they reliving their days at spartan boarding schools, where a cold shower first thing, with Matron barking at their heels, was de rigueur? They had red faces and shiny false teeth. They wore flannel trousers and brass-buttoned blazers with elaborate crests on the breast pocket made of gold wire and green or red felt, with flags and crowns woven into them. If they weren't wearing regimental ties, they had cravats thrust into the necks of their shirts.

In all the years we lived there, I never saw any of them with a wife. Once, Major de Grey spoke to me, clattering his teeth and mumbling through his military moustache. He put a hand on my arm. I used to see him sitting above us on the shelving beach, watching as we changed into our bathing costumes. He had a magnolia tree in his front garden, which was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen.

Occasionally, excursions were arranged for us, and a bus hired. We would sometimes be taken to places of historic interest but much more often to the races. Sometimes the mothers clubbed together and hired the Village Hall for a Hop, paying an older son to act as what we were learning to call a disc jockey.

Every Easter Day, we found a chocolate egg beside our breakfast plates, hollow and patterned like a crazy paving garden path, wrapped in silver foil which could be smoothed out flat and then sculpted into tiny silver fans or goblets. At Christmas, we were taken either to the circus or a pantomime. Orlando and I hated both, especially the clowns with giant lipsticked mouths, eyes surrounded by huge white circles, and baggy checked trousers. We couldn't see why people laughed at them, any more than we understood Widow Twankey or Mother Goose. Pantomimes bewildered us, with their baffling references to vulgarities and catchphrases of which we had no knowledge. I've never understood why they were considered suitable entertainment, since we were not allowed to listen to anything on the radio (we still called it a wireless) except the news, nor read comics, and especially not use what my parents termed 'Americanisms', like kid and okay.

'They're trying to make us more normal,' explained Orlando once, as we sat unwillingly at the circus. 'They don't want us to grow up as misfits.'

'Too late, don't you think?'

'Far, far too late.' Musical Orlando groaned as a clown with tufts of ginger hair sticking out on either side of his chalk-white big-lipped mask did something unfunny with a string of sausages. 'Why can't they take us to the Messiah, or the Christmas Oratorio or something?'

'Trouble is, we're all too well brought up to tell them how much we hate it,' I said. 'Especially Widow Twankey.'

'Especially the bloody clowns.' His hand shook slightly; there was sweat on his forehead. 'There must be a word for hating clowns, some phobia or other. Whatever it is, I've got it.' He grinned his bone-white grin. 'My idea of heaven is never again having to watch Lulubelle and her Flying Ponies shedding sequins like dandruff all over the circus ring.'

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Losing Nicola"
by .
Copyright © 2011 Susan Moody.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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