The Lost Sister: A gripping emotional page turner with a breathtaking twist
I leaned in close to her ear. ‘Maybe when Daddy goes,’ I whispered.
Mike shot me a disapproving glance. ‘Fruit or nothing,’ he said, grabbing his car keys. He gave Becky a kiss on the head then waved at me before letting himself out. There was once a time when he’d kiss me before leaving for work. Not now though. Should that have made me feel sad? Well I didn’t. I felt nothing.
When I was sure he was gone, I went to the cupboard and got some chocolate-flavoured cereal out, winking at a giggling Becky. ‘You have to be quick though, we have to leave for school soon.’
Five minutes later, we walked to Becky’s school. It was a breezy day, still warm though, the skies blue, the sun bright, the sea glimmering in the distance. People were either walking to work or coming back from dropping kids off, dressed in shorts and T-shirts, sandals and flip-flops.
The school lay at the bottom of a hill, five minutes’ walk from our new-build house. As I passed the newsagent, I noticed the headline: UK’s Economy at Historic Low. I peered towards where Mike worked with Greg at a large financial advice firm in town. There had been rumours of redundancies the year before but nothing had come of it. What if Mike was made redundant now? Would I have to go back to working full-time again?
The thought sent a dart of fear through me.
Better if they made me redundant from my senior copywriter job. It wasn’t like I was pulling in much on my three-day salary anyway.
I put my sunglasses on, pulling up the straps of my silky red vest top to cover my bra straps, my black skirt skimming the back of my knees. Everyone else around me was wearing pastel colours, but I liked to be bold: blood reds and stark blacks, azure blues and emerald greens. I had earrings to match, necklaces sometimes too.
As I approached the small primary school, which was housed in a Victorian building, I noticed some of the parents already crowded around the gates nattering. I hated the whole school-gate drama, especially recently with all the talk of recession. Most mornings, I made up excuses to leave: lunch in London with my editor; a book signing in Canterbury; some media interview or another. I liked to make it vague, so they couldn’t check whether I was telling the truth or not. Sometimes, if I was having a bad writing day or had received yet another royalty statement with minus signs on it from my agent, I’d hang around, basking in the inevitable glory of being the only published novelist in town. I suppose sometimes I needed the questions that at other times irritated me, the stories of success I weaved wiping away the disappointment.
‘There she is!’ a woman declared, a slim brunette called Haley. She was one of the few mums I could tolerate, plus she worked in the town library which was always a good thing as she let me take out more books then the standard eight. ‘You saw it from a front row seat, didn’t you?’ she asked me when I got to the group.
‘Saw what?’ I asked. I knew perfectly well what she meant, of course. But I enjoyed this, the tease.
‘The man who saved that boy last night,’ one of the other mums said, a timid woman called Donna. She was wearing an oversized beige blouse and black leggings. Her shoulders were slightly slumped and she had her arms wrapped around her midriff.
‘Oh, that,’ I said with a bored sigh. I almost resented other people having seen it all happen. If only I’d been alone on that beach with Monica and her son so I could add embellishments to the story: a mouth-to-mouth resuscitation after, maybe?
‘I hear he’s a homeless man,’ one of the other mothers drawled. It was Cynthia, or Gym Bunny as I referred to her. She had her blonde hair up in a high ponytail, her hip bones jutting out from the top of her Lycra leggings.
‘He didn’t look very homeless to me,’ Haley said with a raised eyebrow. ‘You have to admit it was rather exciting?’
‘I suppose so. For this town, anyway,’ I said as I gave Becky a kiss on the head, aware of everyone’s eyes on me. As Becky ran off towards one of her little friends, I paused a moment, looking towards the sea, adding another bored sigh for effect. Then I turned back to the group of mums, shrugging. ‘He’s just a man who helped a kid. I think people are getting a bit carried away.’
A couple of the mums gave each other a look. But Donna looked out to the water, a wistful expression on her face as her short dark bob lifted in the breeze. She always seemed so overwhelmed by the other mums, which was surprising considering she was a midwife. Or maybe she was just used to hysterical women and had learnt to be calm and stoic in the face of dramatics.
There were times when she really should have said something though, like when Cynthia gave her some free passes to the gym to ‘knock off those extra pounds’. Donna had just stood there in shock, eyes filling with tears. I had to do something so I’d linked my arm through Donna’s and arched an eyebrow. ‘Gym? With these?’ I’d said, pointing to both our ample chests. ‘Absolutely not! Can’t risk ruining our best assets.’ Cynthia, as flat-chested as her own son, just looked at me dumbfounded, Donna sneaking me a quick and grateful smile.
‘Anyway, must get back,’ I said now, peering at my watch. ‘My book won’t write itself.’
‘How’s it going?’ Donna asked softly.
‘Good,’ I said, smiling at her. ‘Should be finished soon.’
‘And the cake preparations for next Saturday?’ Haley asked. ‘I hope it’s still okay to do one?’
I tried to keep the smile on my face. I’d completely forgot I’d volunteered to bake a cake for Haley’s son’s birthday party. It had happened after Cynthia made a throwaway comment about me ‘not being the domestic type’, no doubt revenge for the gym pass slight the week before.
‘You’d be surprised,’ I’d retorted.
‘Really?’ Cynthia had asked, eyebrow arched.
‘Yes, really.’ I’d turned my best icy glare to Cynthia then. ‘I’m a dab hand at baking actually.’
‘You are?’ Haley had said. ‘We were going to find someone to make Beau’s cake but if you can, wonderful! I’d pay you of course.’
‘No need to pay,’ I’d replied, waving my hand about as I watched Cynthia’s expression out of the corner of my eye. ‘It’s no problem at all.’
‘Can you do it in the shape of a monkey?’ Haley had then asked. ‘It’s just that Beau’s obsessed with them after our latest trip to the zoo.’
I’d nodded, trying to hide my horror. Sure, I’d made the odd chocolate cake or two. It hadn’t given Mike and Becky food poisoning so that was a bonus. But that was the extent of my baking skills.
I smiled at Haley now. ‘All sorted, darling. See you all next week!’ Then I walked up the hill towards my house, muttering ‘Bloody monkey cake’ under my breath.
Before I opened my front door, I paused. I really couldn’t bear the thought of returning to the house to write. I’d had to drag the words out lately. I tried to tell myself it was the house. But the fact is, I used to be able to write anywhere: on the bus in the dreary rain, sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, even in my car when I was stuck in standstill traffic once. No, there was more to it than that. The past couple of years, a numbness had descended. Stopped me from wanting to be touched and touch. Stopped me from wanting to write.
Maybe I’d grown weary. It was all so far from the dreams I’d had of writing from the hotel above the cliffs all those years ago, a glass of gin by my side as Mike took up some exciting watersport. Instead, the only house we could afford when we finally decided to move from London when I was pregnant nine years ago was a good fifteen-minute walk from the sea. It wasn’t much to look at either, a plain brown new-build house sitting across from a petrol station. The only bonus was it looked out to fields at the back. I’d set up an office in the spare room at the back in the hope I’d write from there, looking out over those fields, a tiny glimpse of sea in the distance.
But as soon as Becky was born, my days had mostly been filled with baby sensory classes and weigh-ins, toddler tantrums and coffees in overfilled cafés. It was only when Becky went to school I was able to really focus on writing. But then the days went so damn fast before it was time to pick Becky up again at three. If I could only get that second book published, I could give up the job and write full-time instead of just two days a week.
That was the dream, wasn’t it? It had always been the dream, from the moment I used to sneak glances of the novels my mother would bring back from her countless trips to local charity shops, their battered spines smelling of earth and dust. Authors became my rock stars and I’d escape into their words for hours, a place to pretend I was something other than the little girl nobody noticed.
While studying English at university, I’d been determined to come away with a novel ready to send to editors. Of course, I didn’t know then how unrealistic that was. But I was so idealistic then, so full of romantic notions, attaching myself to fellow dreamers. Before I met Mike, I’d dated a beautiful Polish man with graceful hands and the softest of lips. He’d write poetry on my naked curves, inspiring me to spill words out into a notepad he’d bought me. But even then, each time I started something, I just couldn’t finish it.
When I graduated, I fell into various copywriting jobs to pay the rent on the tiny flat I rented with Mike in Battersea, writing in the evenings. Then one gloomy October day, feigning an illness to stay at home, I found myself writing pages and pages of a novel that seemed to have come out of nowhere about a woman who runs a small hotel in the woods with her mother. Unable to deal with the loss when her mother passes away, she tells guests she’s just resting after an illness. Sounds depressing, doesn’t it? But there was a love story thrown in. Lady Chatterley’s Lover meets Hotel du Lac was how my agent described it.
A year later, it was ready to submit. It had countless rejections and I nearly lost hope, but then a small publishing house took it on. I’d been so proud, I’d even called my mother to tell her, despite the fact that we rarely saw each other apart from a brief, awkward visit to her little flat in Margate over the Christmas period each year.
‘I’ll be able to find it in WHSmith, will I?’ my mother had asked me. I’d imagined her sitting on her battered sofa with a glass of wine in her hand, her dark dyed hair in rollers.
‘Yes,’ I’d replied, knowing it was a lie – my editor had told me only a few independent bookshops were taking it. But I wanted so much for my mother to be proud. Needed so much.
A week after it was published, she’d treated me to a rare phone call. I thought it was to congratulate me on the launch of my debut. But instead, it was to berate me for ‘embarrassing’ her in front of her friends who thought she’d lied about her ‘author daughter’ seeing as they couldn’t find her books in WHSmith.
‘You’re just one of those crappy authors, aren’t you?’ my mother had said. ‘The ones whose books you find in the bargain bucket.’
I had slammed the phone down, resolving never to take a call from her again. That was two years ago. Two long years with only a few thousand words written of my next novel, despite having two days a week dedicated to it.
Why wouldn’t the words come?
I looked up at my house, then at the petrol station across from it. It had to be the house. It was just so uninspiring! I impulsively turned back and headed towards the beach.
The tide was low, the sea hazy in the distance, seaweed and shells clogging the wet morning sand as people walked out of the café nearby with takeaway teas in polystyrene cups. It wasn’t a built-up beach – even now it isn’t – just a plain and simple sandy cove, no trendy eateries or boutique shops. Its natural beauties were enough to draw people in, the chalk stacks adorning most of the postcards in town. The bay beyond the chalk stacks with its five caves wasn’t as much of a draw then; people were put off by the stories of tourists being caught out there during high tide.
I walked onto the sand that morning, taking my gold sandals off and strolling along the edge of the seaweeded area, picking up shells for Becky. I liked to do that sometimes when my mind was blocked or sad memories crowded. Breathe in the salty air, feel the sand beneath my toes and the smooth curve of shells in my palms.
After a while, I spotted a washed-up starfish, orange with black dots, its legs tangled and broken. I crouched down, staring at it, tears irrationally pricking at my eyelashes.
What the hell was wrong with me?