Publisher: Legend Press
Available in Ebook, Audio and Paperback (1 July 2020)
ABOUT THE BOOK
Veronica and her wealthy husband George are unpacking boxes, hoping a fresh start in their newly refurbished Victorian terrace will help them heal from a recent trauma.
Next door, Simone returns to her neglected council flat. Miserable and trapped, she struggles to take care of her children under the watch of her controlling husband Terry.
When childhood friend Sarah re-enters Veronica’s life, things are thrown even further off balance. As tensions in their own lives rise, the painful memory that binds them threatens to spill into their present.
Three lives collide in this story of family, inequality and revenge.
Praise for Jemma Wayne
LONGLISTED FOR THE BAILEYS WOMEN’S PRIZE FOR FICTION
SHORTLISTED FOR THE WAVERTON GOOD READ AWARD
LONGLISTED FOR THE GUARDIAN NOT THE BOOKER PRIZE
My thanks to Lucy of Legend Press for the tour invitation and for providing the extract. This is another that I would have liked to have reviewed for the tour but just couldn’t fit in.
They are so quiet.
Others might not notice that.
Others might see his flash BMW, and her perfect, unscratched arms struggling under the weight of boxes, nails cut sensibly, not plastered with gelled glamour. They might see the easy way they touch each other around the waist, the sharp contours of his rugby-chiselled frame, and the way that her eyes look outwards as though she intrinsically knows she is allowed to do this, entitled to see everything. Except, of course, they are both blind. They haven’t even noticed Simone, standing, watching, from the other side of the tree- lined street. If she wanted, she could already have swiped one or two of the smaller boxes without anybody blinking. The ones right at the opening of the removal van would be easy, or a couple from the pile balanced by the front door. But she doesn’t want their boxes. It is their quiet she is absorbing.
Simone stubs out her cigarette and starts another. It’s not that she minds noise. When she was a teenager, lack of noise was one of the things she despised – the silences over dinner, the closed door to her father’s small study behind which there came only the scratching of pencil on paper, the muted moments when she let herself in after school and there was no music, no laughter, nothing to pull her back. But Terry’s noise is so robustly noisy. It swirls around him like a cyclone, sweeping away everything not chained to the ground. He won’t be pleased that she’s got herself a job. It’s only part-time, just a little bit-work on reception at the gym down Camden High Street. She’s opening barriers and arranging leaflets on counters. There’s no glitz to it. But it’s money. It’s legal. And it’s doing. Doing something.
Terry will tell her she’s a mug. What’s the point of slaving away for less than she gets on social, he’ll say, less than he can give her for pocket money, another hamster on the big wheel. Why belittle herself? Or, he’ll think she’s trying to be like them: the quiet people moving in next door. Or not them specifically, but the girl two doors down who leaves for work every morning at five-thirty in Manolo Blahnik heels, and a taxi. Or any one of their other neighbours who are out all day, doing, and from their well-kept houses look at them, her and Terry – not doing – as if they’re scum to be picked off their polished railings.
Attached to the new neighbours’ balustrade, there is already a beautiful pale blue bicycle. It has one of those old- fashioned baskets into which you need to balance things like French baguettes or fresh flowers. The slim woman and her rugby husband stand behind it on their new doorstep and wave goodbye to the removal van driver. The woman is white blonde, her hair long and loose, dancing around her elbows. She has that sharp, petite nose you see on the BBC, and the kind of skin tone that suggests it’s regularly deepened by trips to sunny mountaintops and sprawling beaches. Simone sees her visibly breathe in, as if inhaling an imagined future. And the man breathes out, as though unburdened of his charge to provide it. Then together they turn and go inside where Simone can still see them in the front room, standing close together, encircled by boxes, and, she imagines, brightly coloured dreams.
Terry is not dreaming. He’s not sleeping much at all. He’d had no idea how difficult the move from the estate was going to be, and Simone wasn’t going to be the one to tell him.
Looking up, there is a movement of curtain from the bedroom window of their flat. It’s possible that Terry has seen her standing there across the street. It’s possible that he has been watching her for a while. Watching her watching.
She’ll go in in a minute. She’ll just finish her cig.
By then the new neighbours might be done with their boxes and their quiet.
Simone takes one final inhalation of smoke. The nicotine should steady her, but as soon as she throws the stub to the ground her hands feel empty. Looking up at the flat, her stomach tightens. She crosses over slowly. The road is devoid of further distraction. On the corner, there’s a gastro pub where at lunchtime there are trendy mums with stylish buggies, or artsy professionals, not in suits; but it is now too late for lunch and too early for the school kids and not even a floaty- skirted cyclist to delay her passage home. As she reaches her doorstep, however, searching inside her bag for the key, the door to the new neighbours’ house flies open, and the woman she has been watching appears – blondeness and shininess and a gentle scent of coconut. Up close, an audaciousness Simone hadn’t noticed before dances across the woman’s lips, like the edges of laughter. She’s holding a wrapped box. Remaining on her doorstep, the woman lifts a hand in greeting, then leans boldly over the dividing iron boundary.
“Hello.” Her tone is cheery and confident, her skin smooth and perfect, her smile alluring. Simone doesn’t answer. “Sorry, I’m your new neighbour,” the woman clarifies, laughing and withdrawing her body slightly. “We’re finally in. So sorry about all the building work, it must have been absolutely irritating. I hope it wasn’t too awful.” The woman has a plummy, boarding school, house-in-the-country voice.
“That’s alright,” says Simone. She speaks flatly, but in more clipped tones than she would normally employ. The fact that she has done this is immediately irritating to her and she winces internally. Terry never does that, never puts on a pretence. Why should she? She doesn’t care what this woman thinks of her. But there is an unfamiliar scrabbling inside her, an uncalled-for desire to make a good impression. Finding her key, she forces that feeling away and turns without further comment towards the door.
“Oh, they’re for you!” the woman declares, laughing again and thrusting the box forwards. “Just some chocs. A little thank you for your patience. But we’re in now.” She glances up at her house and inhales again. “I’m Veronica.” She puts the chocolates into Simone’s hands.
“That’s alright, you keep them,” says Simone. “Don’t be silly. Please.”
Silly? Who does this woman think she is? Simone glances up at Veronica who is still smiling, sillily. She could put this condescending woman in her place in a second if she wanted to. She could wipe that smile right off her face. But, something she can’t quite discern holds her back. She finds herself noticing Veronica’s assured, easy poise. She finds herself admiring it. An image flashes through her mind and all at once she sees herself, or a different version of herself, in a different life, leaning with Veronica against the railing, both laughing with equal ease. Then on the other side of the door, Simone hears movement on the stairs.
Terry is waiting for her. He isn’t a large man. There was a time when he used to box, flyweight, and then there was a certain width to him, but too much coke has sucked the muscle away. Both of them are rakes these days, Dominic too. Only Jasmine is rounded with flesh. She is growing taller finally, but her legs still fold into dimpled layers. Simone hears her daughter cry out from upstairs.
“Hi, Tel,” she says breezily, smiling at him as she climbs a few steps of the stairwell to where he stands, and touching him gently on the arm. “Everything alright?”
“Where the fuck have you been?”
He isn’t a large man. But he has a way of dominating space. “Shall we go in?”
Terry allows Simone to pass him and together they enter the flat where the quiet of the street dissolves into the blaring of the TV, and the bawls of their daughter, Jasmine, sat screaming in her high chair. Jasmine’s hair is matted together with something sticky and there are remnants of the cheesy puff crisps she loves dried onto her skin. Her nappy is full and smelling.
“Jesus, Terry, how long’s she been sat there?” Simone asks, lifting Jasmine into her arms and having a go at the dried crisps with a wet wipe.
“Well you wouldn’t know, would you? You’ve been off fannying around, haven’t you?” Decisively, Terry takes Jasmine back from her. “Your mum just left you all day, didn’t she Jas? What’s that?”
Terry has spotted the box sticking out of Simone’s bag. “I dunno. Chocolates apparently. That new woman next door gave them to us.” “What for?”
“To say sorry for the builders’ noise, she reckons.”
Terry takes the box out of Simone’s bag and opens it, Jasmine tugging at the wrapping. “Truffles!” he exclaims, dumping them on the floor, and Jasmine next to them. Jasmine promptly opens the box and helps herself. “Well la-di-da.”
Simone says nothing. She lets Jasmine take a handful of the chocolates and then scoops up the rest from the floor. There’s a bowl on the table and she fills this with what’s left of the sweets to save for Dominic.
“You’ve taken a bit of a shine to them, haven’t you?” Terry asks. “That couple? I saw you watching them.”
“I was just having a cig,” Simone answers.
“Yeah I saw. Having a cig while I’m up here with this.” He points at Jasmine. “What do you think I am? A mug?”
Simone says nothing. She knows he doesn’t mean it. Terry’s not perfect, but he’s wonderful with Jasmine, with both the kids. She notices other parents smiling admiringly when he’s kicking a ball with Dominic, or carrying Jasmine on his shoulders. If he’s not going anywhere, he doesn’t normally mind an hour or two at home with Jas. It’s the street that has rattled him.
“I see the way you look at all these rich idiots,” Terry continues. “Are you in love with them?”
“Course not,” Simone says.
It’s the street. With the move, he’d done something at last that she’d never seen before – he’d stepped outside. Not only of the estate, but of his comfort zone, his world that though minimal, was reliable. Predictable. You can make that kind of thing work for you if you have to. This was one of the first things Terry had impressed upon her when he was sorting her out. There’s a certain vibe you need, he’d explained, a don’t- mess-with-me aura. You have to live in a state of readiness. But once you’ve learned that, a kind of security emerges, because yes you’re living on the edge, but you know you are, and so you navigate it with that knowledge, like a goat on a cliff top, or a fish in shark-infested water. He’d used these metaphors. He’s been poetic and enchanting. What you don’t do though, he’d told her, what you mustn’t do, is attempt to shift course, or change things. You could fail that way, slip, fall, be knocked down by something you were unprepared for. You don’t risk that. You don’t try to make things different. You don’t try to be or do anything.
Except now they had.
From the floor, Simone picks up Jasmine who has a mouthful of chocolate. “Come on. Let’s sort that nappy.”
Terry stays in the kitchen looking with partial interest at a documentary on TV he has saved, while Simone takes Jasmine off to the bedroom. Unlike their flat on the estate, there are three bedrooms here, so Jasmine has a room of her own. She hasn’t gotten used to it yet. She screams like hell at bedtime, but at least they can shut the door, and at least Terry’s paraphernalia is no longer scattered about a few inches from the cot. Even to herself, Simone calls these items Terry’s, but she’ll still have a hit sometimes. Jasmine laughs as Simone undoes her nappy. It should have been changed ages ago.
“You need to start going potty,” Simone tells Jasmine, poking her gently in the stomach.
Jasmine laughs again, but doesn’t say anything. Simone’s sure Dominic was talking more by age two. Jasmine used to babble a lot as a baby, but these days she’s usually either crying, or quiet.
“When are you gonna start answering Mummy?” Simone says, poking her again.
Jasmine still says nothing. Nappy changed, Simone lets her play with the box of plastic princesses in her room. The carpet’s old and worn, a dark beige colour that she can’t imagine was ever fashionable but hides the dirt. Simone sits on the edge of the windowsill. The room is small, but the whole house is festooned with sweeping great windows and high ceilings, so it feels airy. Luxurious even. The style is very much akin to the flat in Kentish Town where she grew up, and she finds herself spending time looking at it, although she is not so stupid as to entertain illusions of grandeur. She’s aware that the flat isn’t even theirs. They’ve only been in it a couple of months, and the lease still names Milly – one of Terry’s ex-girlfriends who moved down South with a new man. Simone has all sorts of questions as to why Milly felt so indebted to Terry as to gift him the key – not strictly allowed, but who was going to tell – but she has resisted asking. Because Milly’s flat is not in a tower block or a sprawling concrete rabbit warren. Instead, it occupies the top two floors of a white-fronted Victorian terrace a short walk from Regent’s Park and slap bang in the middle of exclusive Primrose Hill. It is one of a spattering of council properties on the street – easily discernible in their lack of fancy doorstep tiles – so the flat isn’t even Milly’s, really. And Simone knows that the geography she happens to find herself in doesn’t manifest itself under her skin. But it almost feels as though it does. Almost. Like the walls in the estate. For the first time in years, instead of feeling trapped in, she’s looking out.
An abrupt noise of something smashing suspends Simone’s brooding. It has come from the kitchen, and, “Clever place to put a bowl!” Terry shouts.
Simone stays where she is. She shakes her head at Jasmine as if to say ‘Silly Daddy’, and takes out a cigarette.
Dominic hates her smoking. He’s eleven now and says less about it, but she can picture him aged seven or eight, eyes frightened like a rabbit, pleading with her to stop, thrusting a flyer he’d found in the doctor’s office into her yellowed hands. Back then she’d thought that his panic was hilarious. Terry did too. They’d both been high on something and had laughed on that for hours.
Simone flaps her hand now as though this might drive the memory away, but all it does is make her drop ash over herself. With the cigarette she is still smoking. Despite her son.
It wasn’t for Dominic that Terry gave in to the idea of moving. It wasn’t even for her. In the end it seemed only that he was trying to spite something. But Simone took it running. “What’s the point of my giving you a proper kitchen?” his voice comes again. “Can’t cook, and now you can’t even find the intellect to put a bowl away right. You are a dense one,
Simone, aren’t you? Jesus. Look at this.”
Again, Simone shakes her head at her daughter, and notices that Jasmine has stopped playing with her princesses. Not as in she has put them away or moved onto something else, but as in she has frozen, one doll still grasped by the hair in her left hand. She did this a few days ago too when she cracked her head on the kitchen table. Simone noticed it then because it was eerie to look at. The child had entirely stopped moving, stopped blinking even – from shock, she’d reasoned.
But this time there is no head injury. Simone looks at her daughter intently. “What’s up Jassy?” she says. The girl still doesn’t move. Balancing her cigarette on an ashtray, Simone kneels right next to her and clicks her fingers in front of her face. Jasmine barely blinks. A little roughly, Simone takes the princess out of Jasmine’s hand, but there is still no movement. She is about to pick Jasmine up when Terry appears at the bedroom door.
“Well? You coming to clean this up then?”
“Can’t you see to it, Tel?” Simone protests, still watching her unmoving child, but she gets up.
“Brainless place to put a bowl.”
Simone follows Terry down the corridor and enters the kitchen. She sees the bowl that has smashed, and instinctually, she laughs. “That wasn’t me, Tel. Must be one of your ex’s. I haven’t touched that shelf.”
As soon as she utters the words, she realises that Terry is looking at her with a foreboding intensity. This alone wouldn’t be unsettling – Terry’s always been intense, it was one of the things that first drew her to him and it shoots often through his eyes: that penetrating blueness, dotted unpredictably with mischief and passion. She’d felt so special at the start – she the only one to see the softness in the blue. But today Terry’s eyes have a hue of red about them. The skin underneath is dark and puffy. His sometimes soft, wispy hair is thin and flat against his head. He hasn’t showered. A few days ago he went on a binge and hasn’t scored since. She should have noticed all this sooner.
Softly, Terry takes her wrists, one in each hand, and pulls them slightly downwards. It is not hard, yet her body feels weighted. Leaning forward he sticks his face an inch before her own. She can smell beer and something stale on his breath. He is waiting for her to look at him. Slowly, she meets his eye. For a second, he holds her gaze. Two seconds. Three.
Until suddenly, he snickers. “Well, Milly’s a dense cow also!” Now there is an explosion of laughter, first from Terry, then from Jasmine who has finally unfrozen and followed them into the kitchen, and eventually from Simone who smiles and tentatively joins in. Terry thinks he has been hilarious. He releases Simone’s wrists with a flourish and lifts Jasmine high into the air. She seems fine now, Simone notices. Unbothered by the tension that has preceded this moment and perhaps was only ever in Simone’s head. As her father starts throwing her up and down, she giggles profusely, louder with every flight.
“Jassy,” Terry shouts as he launches her. “Jassy!”
Simone feels her own chest relax. Everything’s fine. She was being paranoid again, typically, seeing problems that aren’t there. Terry’s always telling her she’s doing that. And he’s always had a dark sense of humour. Given his childhood, he does well really to be as balanced as he is. She should be more understanding of that, more mindful. Especially when he’s on a comedown. Especially with the move. Jasmine shrieks again and now Simone laughs a little louder, with careful pleasure. Noticing her mother, Jasmine giggles even more generously, gesticulating for her to join in. But as Simone moves closer, reaching for her daughter’s outstretched hands, Terry stops still. Face instantly devoid of lightness, he spins around and stares at her again, as though her presence is a rude, unwelcome intrusion, and they haven’t moments ago been laughing together. She feels she should back away or disappear into the floorboards.
“Go on then,” he says.
This time, the curtness to his tone is unmistakeable, not imagined, and the relief of the previous moment is replaced with a shooting panic. What does ‘go on then’ mean? What does he want her to do? Back away? Could he hear her thinking? The TV is still blaring, politicians arguing about something irrelevant, and the room feels unbearably loud. Confusion creeps. They were just playing, weren’t they? Laughing? Go on then. She’s worried she hasn’t heard him properly, or that she’s missed something, and if she asks for clarification he’ll think she wasn’t listening, that she’s making him look like a mug. She hesitates for a second. Two seconds. Three. But her anxiety is still misplaced. Again, she’s read things wrong.
“Go on then,” he repeats, and this time he says it in a coaxing, sing-song voice, as if it’s a great joke, or as though he’s talking to Jasmine, as though Simone is a child herself. She is still unsure of the instruction, but he helps her now with a wave of his hand. Tentatively she picks up the dustpan and brush to which he is indicating. “Stupid Mummy,” Terry tells Jasmine, shaking his head as he hurls her into the air again.
It is not the right time to tell Terry about the job. Maybe later, once he’s had a line or two. Or when their friends are round. Or once Dominic is home from school and has eaten the chocolates from the silly blonde woman next door.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jemma Wayne is the author of the novels: After Before (2014), Chains of Sand (2016) and To Dare (2020). She has been longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and shortlisted for both The Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize and the Waverton Good Read Award.
Jemma’s journalism has appeared in The Spectator, National Geographic, The Huffington Post, The Evening Standard, The Independent on Sunday, Red Magazine, The Jewish Chronicle and The Jewish News, among others.
Born to an American musician father and English mother, Jemma grew up in Hertfordshire and lives in North London.