The Stranger Upstairs by Melanie Raabe (Imogen Taylor, Translator)
Published by Mantle/Pan
Ebook, Paperback and Audio Book (6 September 2018)
My thanks to Ellis Keene of Macmillan for the blog tour invite and for providing the extract and a copy of the book. Although my September schedule was pretty full, I was hoping to be able to squeeze in a read and review as well but sadly it hasn’t worked out so that will follow later.
| About the Book |
Several years ago, your husband, and the father of your young son, disappeared. Since then, you’ve dreamed of his return; railed against him for leaving you alone; grieved for your marriage; and, finally, vowed to move on.
One morning, the phone rings. When you answer, a voice at the other end tells you your husband’s on a plane bound for home, and that you’ll see him tomorrow.
You’ve imagined this reunion countless times. Of course you have. But nothing has prepared you for the reality. For you realize you don’t know this man.
Because he isn’t your husband, he’s a complete stranger – and he’s coming home with you.
Even worse, he seems to know about something very bad you once did, something no one else could possibly know about . . . Could they
That roller-coaster feeling you get in your stomach when you’ve done something you can’t undo—deliberately smashed up a priceless family heirloom, finally spoken a terrible truth, broken with the past—that feeling is still with me when I get home. I can’t put it any better—I’m not good with words. But there’s a warm heaving and churning in the pit of my stomach, as if I’d been drinking homemade liquor. My footsteps echo off the walls. This house, rather a grand one, left to me, if you like, by Philip, has been my home for many years, and yet I still feel out of place here. Its cool elegance suits me as little as the long, straight hair I’ve had hanging down my back all my life, like a fairy princess in a storybook. Maybe it’s time to move out, I think—find a place that suits me better. For Leo and me.
I push the thought aside. One thing at a time.
I go into the bathroom, wash the dust and dirt of the outside world off my hands and look at myself in the mirror over the basin. Since carrying this secret around with me, I have the feeling that everyone must see it in my face, but it’s nonsense. My face looks the same as ever. I hazard a smile at the woman with the short brown hair who suddenly looks boy-like rather than fairy-like, and she smiles back. I leave the bathroom, take my shopping bags into the kitchen and am about to start getting dinner ready when I remember something: the plastic bag the hairdresser gave me.
I find my handbag in the hall, open it and take out the bag of hair. I have no idea what to do with it, but I’m certainly not going to hang on to it like a sentimental idiot. There are enough ghosts in this place as it is, and they don’t need hair to play with. Without stopping to think, I go out the back door to the covered area where we keep the bins. It feels strange carrying my hair in my hand, holding something that was once part of me.
Telling myself to be strong and get on with it, I undo the loose knot tied in the bag and slide my hair into the compost bin. I close my eyes for a second. There it is again—Philip’s hand in my hair, in the small hollow at the base of my skull. My chest suddenly tightens and my cheeks flush warm. For a moment I can’t get my breath, but I soon chase away the thoughts I must have brought back from the clearing with me—taunting woodland sprites who go off reluctantly, murmuring and giggling—and then I can breathe again. The lid of the compost bin is still in my hand, and when I look down I can see my hair, lying there among the wilted flowers, coffee filters, potato scrapings, orange peel and eggshells. I look away, clap on the lid and go back inside.
I had been dreading today—the day of the eclipse. For so much of my life I have been steering towards it, and I often wondered what I would feel when it arrived. On that day, I was convinced, all the hurt I had buried, the questions I had forced down, would be washed to the surface as if by a ravaging flood. And now that day has come and almost gone, like so many other days. It hasn’t swept me away. I am still here, and the pain and bitterness have subsided. Since leaving the hairdresser’s, I feel as if I’d done something thrilling and forbidden, like a teenager who’s just smoked her first cigarette on the sly: a little queasy, a little dizzy—but free.
I sort out my shopping, packing everything for Mrs Theis next door into a big paper bag and putting it to one side. I’ll get Leo to take it round later. Our old neighbour isn’t as steady on her feet as she was and doesn’t have a car—I’ve been doing her shopping for about a year now. Usually I like to have a chat with her when I drop it off, even if she is a funny old stick, but today I don’t feel like getting caught up in a conversation.
I have a lot to do. Have to get everything ready for the dinner party and then pick Leo up from Miriam’s. I’m hoping to catch my best friend on her own—I need to tell somebody what I’ve done. Or rather, what I haven’t done.
Better hurry then. I take the chicken I bought earlier— free-range, organic—and lay it on the kitchen counter, almost dropping it on the floor. I’m ridiculously nervous. I tell myself it’s no big deal. Just a few friends to dinner. No big deal. At least, it shouldn’t be. Unless, of course, it’s years since you last had any friends round to the house.
Things change, I tell myself. I turn on the oven and take out the olive oil, salt and pepper, the bunch of fresh thyme I went specially to the market for, a few stalks of parsley, a bulb of garlic, a tin of fennel seeds and two lemons, setting everything out on the bench as if preparing for some elaborate game. I examine the chicken, wrapped tight in its plastic packaging. It’s years since I cooked a chicken. Leo doesn’t like eating meat of any kind. He takes after his father in that respect—Philip turned vegetarian when he was still a teenager, and I followed suit when we moved in together. My guilty conscience pricks me for a second, but I shake it off. Doesn’t matter now. I’ve got guests coming and they’re not vegetarian, so we’re having chicken—chicken with salad and potatoes.
I take a deep breath, smooth a non-existent strand of hair behind my ear and unpack the chicken. It looks sad and somehow ridiculous, its flesh exposed, with no head and no feathers. At first it’s hard even to touch its dead skin—I feel nothing but coldness, the coldness of a corpse. The life that once inhabited this strange little body has long since flown from it, who knows where. It seems bizarre that I am standing here, planning to cook something that once ran about, pecking grain, but I pull myself together and push the thought aside. It’s time I stopped thinking Philip’s thoughts, it really is.
I take the chicken in both hands, give it a quick rinse under running water and pat it dry with kitchen paper. I cast an eye over the recipe I found in one of my old cookbooks and make sure I haven’t forgotten anything.
Then I strip the thyme leaves from the stems, put them in the mortar with a little salt and plenty of olive oil and begin to crush them. When I’ve finished, and the kitchen has begun to smell of herbs, I dip my hands in the marinade and begin to rub it into the chicken’s skin. It feels strange to be doing this, like some archaic, occult ritual: herbs, oils and dead animals. Witchcraft. I watch myself performing these rites as if I were an actor in a film.
When I’ve rubbed oil all over the chicken, I cut the lemons, crush the garlic and chop the parsley for the stuffing. Once, many years ago, when roast chicken was my favourite food, I could stuff a bird without thinking about it. Now I hesitate, but eventually I grit my teeth and push the lemon, herbs and garlic into the cavity until no more will fit. The chicken is cold on the inside, too, cold and dead, and it couldn’t care less what I’m doing to it. What’s dead is dead. What is dead feels no pain. What is dead doesn’t suffer. What is dead is invulnerable.
I have so often wondered whether Philip is dead, but I could never really imagine it. Sometimes, on particularly dark nights, I have almost wished he was dead. So I could be sure—so I’d know it for a fact. To have it over with.
I put the chicken in the hot oven and begin to peel potatoes.
Then a word comes to me.
A word for this feeling of newness coursing through my body.
| Author Bio |
Melanie Raabe grew up in Thuringia, Germany. After graduating from university, she moved to Cologne where she worked as a journalist by day while secretly writing books at night. The Trap, her debut novel, was a bestseller in Germany and sold all around the world. The Stranger Upstairs was also a bestseller in Germany, where it was published as The Truth.