When Tess Clarke wakes up in the hospital the day after her son Jamie's eighth birthday, she's sure of these things: She's been stabbed, her son is missing, her brother-in-law and her grief counselor are involved. But no one is listening to her.
After her husband, Mark, died suddenly in a terrible accident a few months earlier, the only thing keeping Tess together is Jamie. As they struggle to make sense of their new life without Mark, they find joy in brief moments of normalcy like walking to school and watching television together. Life is hard without Mark, but Tess has Jamie, and that's what matters.
But there in the hospital, confused and surrounded by people who won't listen, Tess’s world falls apart. To save her son, she must piece together what happened between Mark's death and Jamie's birthday, but the truth might just be too much for her to bear.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)|
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2019 Lauren North
Monday 9th April - 1 day after Jamie’s birthday
There is a snippet of time, oh so short, when the morphine in my system begins to fade, but the pain is still fuzzy. Fuzzy enough for me to be certain of four things:
ONE - I’m in hospital
TWO - I’ve been stabbed
THREE - You’re alive
FOUR - Jamie is missing
Five minutes, is my guess. Five minutes where my heart is pounding with a force that makes my entire body jolt along with it. Five minutes where I know I have to do something. Our son is missing and I’m not sure anyone realises this, I’m not sure anyone is looking for him. Five minutes before I become a prisoner to the pain that tears through my stomach like I’m being carved up from the inside out, and I have to clamp my mouth shut not to scream out for you and the drugs.
It is in these five minutes that I realise Shelley is beside me. Her hand is clammy on my skin and I wonder how long she’s been sitting in the plastic chair by my bed. I pull my hand away as my eyes shoot open and lock with hers.
‘Tess. How are you?’ She leans forward an inch and I catch the scent of her Chanel perfume. The smell triggers a memory of the last time I saw her, standing in our kitchen beside Ian, the knife from Jamie’s birthday cake gripped in her hand. The only sound the split splat of blood dripping from the knife to floor.
The inside of my mouth feels furry. Cotton wool in my cheeks. I can’t find my voice.
‘Do you want some water?’ she asks, reading my thoughts in the way she always does, in the same way you do. There’s a jug beside her and she pours water into a plastic glass and holds it up to me, but I shake my head, causing the pale blue walls of the hospital ward to spin before my eyes.
‘Where’s Jamie?’ The words are shards of glass in my throat but I force them out.
Shelley’s head jerks around, a furtive glance to the three nurses at the desk by the far wall. ‘I’m sorry, Tess. Please, just concentrate on getting yourself better. You’re safe here.’
I’m safe? Safe from what? From who? Where’s Jamie?
A bead of sweat forms on my forehead and tickles my skin as it rolls into my tangle of curls. The pain is waking up in the pit of my belly. My breath is shallow - in and out, in and out - as the searing hurt rises up to my chest.
‘You did this,’ I whisper. ‘You and Ian.’
Shelley shakes her head, swishing her smooth blonde hair from side to side. ‘I only wanted to help you.’
‘Mark has been here. He’ll fix this.’
‘Mark?’ Something in her face changes. A split-second shift where her pupils dilate then shrink again. I’ve scared her.
‘Mark is dead,’ she says, slowing down her words. ‘He died in January.’
That’s not true. Mark has been here. He’s sat where you are sitting. His fingers have stroked the back of my hand, I’m sure of it.
She doesn’t reply and it takes me a moment to realise I’ve not actually spoken.
‘Mark is ... he’s -’ The pain is growing like a beast inside me, and all of a sudden I can’t find the words or the certainty. You’ve been here, haven’t you Mark?
‘Get some rest.’ She reaches out and squeezes my hand. ‘You’ll feel better once you’ve had some rest and seen the doctor.’
‘I want to see Jamie.’ I try to move my hand away but I can’t. ‘Bring him to me, please.’ My voice is pleading and desperate but I don’t care.
‘I can’t do that,’ she says with another swish of hair. She smiles but I see the fear lurking in her pretty green eyes. What are you afraid of?
‘He’s my son. You can’t keep him from me.’
Shelley squeezes my hand a final time before stepping away from the bed. ‘This was a bad idea. I shouldn’t have come. I’m sorry, Tess.’
I watch her talk to the nurse with the cherry red dyed hair at the end of the ward. They both turn to stare and then Shelley is gone. Don’t let her go, I want to scream. Jamie isn’t missing. Shelley has him. I’m not sure which is worse.
Where are you, Mark? Jamie needs us.
The nurse bustles towards me. A voice from another bed calls out and she tells them, ‘just a minute,’ before reaching me and unhooking my chart from the end of the bed. She makes a note. About what? What did Shelley tell her? What is she writing down? I want to ask but the pain is crippling me and I can feel the scream building.
A machine is beeping somewhere. Each piercing screech of noise is a screwdriver jamming into my skull.
‘That’s a good friend you’ve got there,’ she says in a strong Dublin accent.
She isn’t my friend. She never was.
‘My son -’ I can’t speak the final words.
‘I’ll get your next dose of pain medication,’ the nurse says, slotting my chart back into place. I desperately want to snatch it up and read her comments, but I don’t. I can’t. Everything hurts.
Only after the next dose has been pumped into my body and I’m sliding down down down into the murky depths of unconsciousness do I hear Shelley’s voice.
‘You’re safe here.’
Am I? Safe from whom? Where’s Jamie?
My thoughts, like the pain now, are fuzzy and I cling to what I know.
ONE - I’m in hospital.
I try to remember the rest, but it’s gone.
How did I get here?
How did it come to this?
Transcript BETWEEN ELLIOT SADLER (ES) AND TERESA CLARKE (TC) (INPATIENT AT OAKLANDS HOSPITAL, HARTFIELD WARD), TUESDAY 10TH APRIL, 16.45. SESSION 1
ES: Good afternoon, Tess. How are you feeling?
TC: Me? I’m fine, it’s Jamie you need to worry about. I keep telling you he’s missing and no one is listening to me. I told the other one - the policeman - the young one with the red hair who came to speak to me on the ward this morning. I think Shelley has him, or Ian. She knows something anyway. No one is taking this seriously. Please, Detective Sadler, tell me what exactly are you doing? I have to know what’s happened to Jamie.
ES: The police are doing everything they can, Tess.
TC: They just have to find Shelley. She was here at the hospital yesterday for God’s sake. She knows where Jamie is. If I could just get out of here then I could find her.
ES: If you want to help, can you tell me what happened two nights ago? It was a Sunday. You were at home.
TC: Sunday was two days ago? Jamie has been missing for two days? Oh my God.
ES: What happened?
TC: It was Jamie’s birthday. He turned eight. We were celebrating.
ES: Who was there with you? Who stabbed you?
TC: I (pause) I don’t remember.
ES: What do you remember?
TC: I remember Shelley was there. I thought she was our friend. I thought she was trying to help us. She got on so well with Jamie. This is all my fault. Jamie is my whole world. If anything happens to him (cries).
NOTES: Session suspended due to patient distress.
Monday 12th February - 55 days to Jamie’s birthday
On the day you died I lit a bonfire in the garden.
Yes really. Your born and bred city wife finally adapting to village life. It was that pile of bloody sticks smack bang in the middle of the lawn that made me do it. How long ago had you trimmed the hedges along the road and left the debris in a forgotten pile (another job half finished)?
It was before Christmas, I know that much.
Of course I didn’t know you were dead. Maybe if I’d stayed in the kitchen, scrubbing the grime from the insides of the cupboards, and chatting along to Ken Bruce on Radio 2, then I’d have known before the police knocked on the door. But I didn’t because in that moment, on that morning, the sticks annoyed me more than the grime, and the day was dry - the sky a crystal clear blue - so I marched outside in my slippers with the matches and lighter fuel and the Sunday paper, and whoosh, up it went.
There was a moment of raw thrill. A moment when the crackling of branches and the smell unlocked memories of hot dogs and wobbly-headed Guy Fawkes dummies. A moment where I wished I’d waited for Jamie so he could see it. I had half a mind to dance around it I was so blinking chuffed with myself.
Then the flames started licking the top of the stack, and grey smoke billowed out in dragon-like puffs. All of a sudden the smell was no longer nostalgic but scratching the back of my throat, and I was standing in soggy slippers in a snowstorm of ash. I dashed back into the house, shaking the ash out of my curls, laughing at myself and the stupidity of my devil-may-care moment, scanning the worktops for my phone so I could send you a photo.
I never did get round to texting you. Not that you’d have seen it. You were dead.
I try to remember what it felt like to laugh like I did that day, but I can’t. The memory is of someone else now. Four Mondays is all it’s been. Four weeks is a lifetime it turns out. I wonder if you’d recognise me if we passed on the street. The life-of-its-own mass of strawberry blonde curls is now limp and hang scraggily down my back. I finally lost the extra baby weight too. It only took seven years and your death to do it.
Four Mondays. Four weeks without you.
A stream of sunlight finds its way through the lattice pattern of the window, illuminating diamond shapes on the kitchen table and the small box in front of me. I watch the diamonds hit the dark wood of the cupboard doors that hang wonky on their hinges.
I hate this kitchen.
How can a house this big have a kitchen so minuscule and gloomy? I miss the old kitchen. It’s not the same tearing longing I feel when I think about our life, but it’s there all the same - a quick tug, a flash of the gleaming white cupboards, smooth floors, and space.
My eyes fall to the box on the table, sitting beside a bowl of two soggy Weetabix I couldn’t eat. The box is small and duck egg blue. Fluoxetine is printed in clear black letters above the rectangular label with my name on it: Mrs Teresa Clarke. 1 x 20mg tablet per day.
The doctor made it seem so simple. ‘It’s not uncommon for grief to lead to depression, Mrs Clarke. From the symptoms you’ve described, I would recommend a course of antidepressants. We’ll start with three months’ worth and then I’d like you to come back and see me. I would also like you to see a bereavement counsellor.’
I wanted something to help me sleep, a drug that could pull me into nothingness without the nightmares, but he said I was depressed. I don’t feel depressed. There are a lot of times when all I feel is cold.
You don’t need them, Tessie.
Hearing your voice softens the ache in my chest, but like the Playdough Jamie used to love, the ache is putty and stretches across my body. I know you’re dead. I know the voice inside my head isn’t real. It’s just me saying what I know you’d say to me if you were here, but it helps.
You don’t need them.
You said that last time when I could barely get out of bed in the morning to take Jamie to pre-school. You told me I could power through it, mind over matter - push the sadness and the emptiness away.
It worked, didn’t it? You did get better.
The space behind my eyes throbs with the threat of tears. My thoughts are running away with me. I focus on the sounds of the house, on what is real. There are plenty of sounds to hear. The hot water pipes creak and bang, the wind in the fireplaces howls ghost-like into the rooms, the window panes rattle in the rotting wood. But these sounds are drowned out now by the noises of our son. Thud thud thud - his footsteps heavy with sleep make their way to the bathroom.
I imagine Jamie brushing his teeth, skipping over the gap in the middle where his bottom baby teeth used to be. Pushing his tongue against the tooth at the top, testing its wobbliness, and wondering if today is the day it will fall out. I’m sure he’s grown too since you died. Me, I’ve shrunk. I feel so lost, so small, without your arm around me, but nothing can stop our boy from growing up.
Quieter steps now as Jamie moves back to his bedroom to finish getting dressed.
A minute or two ticks by before Jamie appears in the kitchen.
A rush hits me. Our baby boy is here. The relief laps in tiny waves over the pain squeezing my heart. Jamie is here. You are gone and my world has stopped, but Jamie is here. I still have a world.
‘Morning, baby,’ I say.
Jamie slides into the chair across from me where a bowl and a spoon are waiting for him.
I glance at the clock on the microwave. 8.35 already. Where did the morning go? ‘We’re going to be late for school again. Sorry. I lost track of time.’
A crease forms on his face. Jamie hates being late for school. He never used to mind. He never used to frown like that either. It’s too adult on his seven-year old features, but he’s been doing it more and more when he looks at me, taking in the sallow colour of my face and the dark smudges under my eyes.
His gaze falls to the box in my hand - the medicine I should take, but don’t. I stand too quickly, dragging the chair legs against the ugly reddish brown floor tiles, and dropping the box on top of the post pile beside the microwave. The stack of letters wobbles under the pressure of the new addition.
When I turn back, the concern is gone and he is a boy again, picking up the box of Rice Krispies and tipping too many grains into an empty bowl.
He needs a haircut, Tessie.
You always say that.
The blonde curls, so like mine, are a tad unruly, but he scoops them away from his face so that the strands don’t get in the way of those piercing blue eyes of his. Do you remember the midwife on the day he was born? She tutted at us cooing over his eyes. ‘They’ll never stay that blue,’ she sing-songed. But they have.
I’m putting off the haircut, but it’s not for the same reason that I haven’t opened the post or checked the messages on the answerphone. It’s because the rest of him - the long legs, the square jaw, and the straight nose that ends in a point - is all you, Mark. And if his hair is shorter, then he’ll look so much more like you. Besides, Jamie likes it longer. It’s something to hide behind when his shyness gets the better of him.
‘Have you got everything?’ I ask. ‘Where’s your jumper?’
Jamie shrugs, unable to speak with his mouth full of Rice Krispies.
‘I’m not sure where it is either. Where did you leave it on Friday?’
‘Don’t know,’ he replies.
Frustration sweeps through my body. Anger is riding like a cowboy on its back, and the words fire out of me before I can stop them: ‘Jamie, for Christ’s sake. Where is your bloody school jumper?’
He shrinks back, cowering at the anger in my tone and now I feel shitty. Really shitty.
He hangs his head, slumping over his bowl and a single tear rolls down his cheek. ‘Don’t swear. It’s rude,’ he whispers.
‘I’m sorry,’ I blurt out, crouching beside his chair. ‘Mummy shouldn’t have snapped, and I definitely shouldn’t have sworn. You haven’t done anything wrong. I’m just not feeling very well this morning, but it’s not your fault.
‘I’m sorry.’ I pull myself up, gnawing at my bottom lip. ‘I did some washing over the weekend. I’m sure I saw your jumper hanging up,’ I lie. ‘Eat your breakfast and I’ll look for it.’
Jamie nods and I know we’re all right. As all right as we can be without you.
My slippers slap on the wood floors as I dash out of the kitchen and into the hall with the huge oak front door. I move from room to room, searching for the missing jumper. The dining room is first - the dark shiny wood of your mother’s furniture sitting beside the whopping great fireplace, black with decades of soot. The furniture is the same colouring as the Tudor oak beams that stretch across the ceiling and down the walls.
I don’t remember if I washed it. I don’t remember if I hung it out to dry. It’s another memory lost to the fog I’m living in.
Across the hall to the living room that overlooks the garden and another fireplace; the oriental rug with scorch marks dotted at the edges from years of spitting fires. I wanted to bin the rug but you wouldn’t let me.
It suits the room, Tessie.
Maybe it does. I can’t say I care much now. The black corner sofa from our old living room doesn’t look right in here though, does it? It’s too small, too modern, like the flat screen TV on the glass stand. Perfect for the square living room in our Chelmsford semi-detached, but not for here.
I expect to find Jamie’s jumper in a discarded heap by the PlayStation, but it’s not and I carry on going. Along the hall and around the main staircase, to the rooms beyond: the library crammed with old copies of Reader’s Digest; the other living room, or parlour - whatever it is - stacked with boxes. Half of them filled with the things we haven’t unpacked, and the other half full of your mother’s stuff.
Up the narrow stairs at the back of the house, I peer into the bedrooms. All but ours and Jamie’s are filled with seventy-two years of your mother’s life, and the dirt and grime of a woman who thought herself above cleaning.
She did go a bit doolally in the end.
An understatement if ever I heard one, but who am I to comment on mental health? According to the doctor I’m depressed.
I check the bathroom. Gold taps, a cream suite and aubergine tiles that stretch floor to ceiling, but no jumper.
I find it in Jamie’s room. His bedroom is a mix of colours - red and blue Spiderman bedcovers, green Ninja Turtle figures on the book shelf, black and yellow Batman curtains, and the car rug he’s had since forever that I can’t bear to part with.
The jumper is hanging in Jamie’s wardrobe. It smells of lavender fabric conditioner. I must have washed it and forgotten; hung it up on autopilot when I was thinking of you, of us.
‘I found it,’ I pant, dashing back into the kitchen.
Jamie pulls the jumper over his head without a word.
‘Ready to go?’ I ask, looping my hair into a bun as I shuffle around the kitchen table to the nook by the side door where we keep the coats and shoes. Don’t roll your eyes, but I’m still wearing a pair of your red tartan pyjama bottoms.
Oh, Tessie. Really?
With the wellies and the long winter coat, it’s not that obvious. It’s only the school drop off.
I know if I drive the few minutes down the lane to the village and the school, then I can stay in the car and wave Jamie in, and no one will see the pj bottoms, but I also know that I’m in no fit state to drive this morning. I’m in no fit state to walk either. My feet feel as though they are filled with lead, my legs with jelly.
The sun is a pale yellow but bright - a spotlight - and I squint, dipping my head and focusing my gaze on the road.
As the engine of a car roars by I have that split second flash again, that heart stopping what-if moment where I think about diving in front of the engine so we can be together. The feeling is gone so fast I can almost pretend it was never there. Almost.
I tuck my body nearer to Jamie, moving us both closer to the prickly hedgerows bordering both sides of the lane. The days of scooting ahead with his friends on the estate and waiting at every third lamppost are long gone.
I wish there were pavements.
‘Stop, Tessie. Stop worrying,’ you said on Jamie’s first day at his new school, and anytime in fact that I worried about all things that might happen and all the things I had no control over, like pavements and plane crashes.
You took the day off and we all walked together, remember? ‘It’s the countryside,’ you said, nudging Jamie so that both of you were laughing at me. It was a laugh to say: silly Mummy doesn’t like walking in the road next to the cars. Silly Mummy would like pavements instead of bushes. Silly Mummy wants housing estates instead of rolling farmland thick with dark mud.
‘Today, Clarke Tours will be taking you on a tour of the village on your journey to school,’ you said, making Jamie and I laugh with your silly tour guide voice. ‘There is approximately a mile between our house and the Church, Hall Farm and the old school building at the other end of the village, where I went to school before they built the new one on the estate. The old building is still there but it’s an accountancy firm now, I think. The village also boasts a post office, a vets, a playground, and a new housing estate.’
‘New?’ I scoffed. ‘Our Chelmsford house was new.’
‘OK, so it’s not new new, but new for the village. It was built in the seventies. The not-so-new estate runs parallel to the old road where the Tudor houses like ours are.’
‘And the cottages with hay for roofs,’ Jamie piped in.
‘It’s called thatch,’ I said, giving his hand a gentle squeeze.
‘And if you’re very lucky then I’ll take you for a packet of overpriced crisps and a hot chocolate in one of the three pubs after school.’
I rolled my eyes at Jamie’s cheer and your boyish grin.
‘Try an overpriced glass of wine,’ I said.
‘I like your thinking, Mrs Clarke. And if you’re very good,’ you added, leaning so close to my ear that the heat of your breath tickled my skin. ‘I’ll let you kiss me behind the bus stop in the exact spot where I had my very first kiss. It was with a rather buxom girl by the name of Kerry Longston.’
‘Oh Mark,’ I laughed. You always made me laugh.
I catch the distant smell of a bonfire drifting in the wind. It’s just a whiff, a trick of the mind perhaps, but it still tickles my lungs, and before I can stop myself I see the TV footage, I see the plane in the clear blue sky, I see the fireball. I scrunch my eyes shut as tears prick the skin beneath them. My breath comes heavy and fast.
A few more steps and we’re around the bend and the smell is gone, replaced by the dewy cold morning.
‘Mum?’ Jamie’s voice floats in my periphery, distant and soft.
‘I’m fine, baby,’ I whisper the umpteenth lie of the day.
‘Where’s my book bag?’
‘Oh.’ I stare at my hands as if I don’t already know that they’re empty. Where is Jamie’s book bag and water bottle? I look at the empty hands of our son and just like that the anger is back.
‘We’ve forgotten it,’ I hiss through gritted teeth. It’s your sodding book bag, Jamie. Yours. When are you going to grow up and take some sodding responsibility? I shout in my mind, struggling to keep it inside, but it’s still there in my loud sigh and I sense Jamie’s shoulders sag.
‘Sorry Mummy,’ he says in a voice so quiet I almost don’t hear. The hurt inside threatens to pull me in two.
‘I love you to the moon and back,’ I used to tell Jamie every day.
Jamie’s reply was always the same. ‘I love you to the sun and back a hundred times.’
It was never ever angry words and silence that we shared.
We turn around, back in the direction of the big white house with its black beams that sit a little wonky on the outsides of the house. Back to the L shaped maze of rooms and cold and gloom. Back to the smell of the bonfire, and the memories it unleashes.
By the time we make it to school the playground is empty. The children have already filed inside. Jamie turns and disappears into the building and just like that the anger from this morning is gone and all I feel now is the emptiness of the day dragging out before me.
When I look back at that first month without you, I wonder if I should’ve seen her coming. Like a siren, bright and blue, flashing in the night. If I hadn’t been so wrapped up in you and the grief, would I have seen the path my life was about to take? The old Tess, the person I was before, screams YES, but the new one is not so sure.
Reading Group Guide
The Perfect Son
1. Tess and Shelley are two very different women, and yet a strong friendship develops quickly between the pair. Why do you think Tess was so drawn to Shelley, and Shelley to Tess?
2. Tess’s devastation over the loss of her husband seeps into every aspect of her life. Discuss the role of grief in the novel and how Shelley and Tess’s different experiences of grief are displayed.
3. Throughout the novel, Tess speaks to her dead husband, Mark. She asks him questions and hears his answers in her head. Why do you think the author chose to write the novel in this way? What kind of marriage do you think Tess and Mark had?
4. Discuss the role of isolation in the novel. What do you think Tess’s experience of grief would’ve been like if they had never moved house?
5. Tess and her brother-in-law, Ian, have a fraught relationship. Why do you think Ian didn’t trust Tess when Mark first introduced them? Why do you think Ian chose to lie to Tess?
6. When Shelley learns the truth she is reluctant to confront Tess. Why do you think that is? Shelley admits to being jealous of Tess. Did you understand why?
7. At what point did you discover or figure out the truth? How did you feel about Tess, as well as the other characters, when you found out? Had you guessed at any point, or were you shocked?