Ann Troup shares an extract from her new thriller, My Mother the Liar.
Rachel’s mother had been fond of blanket statements that set others indelibly in their places. Proud of her insights into the characters of others, she had set out her children’s traits like a script. As if they were pickles in jars, all three of her daughters had been permanently labelled and preserved by her assertions. Frances was the clever one, Stella was useless, and Rachel was just downright difficult.
Did all parents like to define their offspring, leaving their children floundering and typecast? Rachel felt imperfectly moulded by her family, an inconvenient, bit-part player in the sometimes drama that had been her life. It had made her bitter.
Now her mother was dead. Valerie was no more and Rachel wasn’t feeling much of anything except antipathy.
She would have known about Valerie’s death weeks before, but she’d quietly ignored the first letter from Frances, knowing that it couldn’t contain good news. The Porters didn’t trade in good news. The slanting, deeply etched handwriting on the envelope had said enough: Frances could ooze anger even when writing a simple address. She’d used green ink, which Rachel was inclined to think had been distilled from her sister’s bile.
It had taken a second letter containing the expected diatribe of accusations and sour grapes to make Rachel finally take notice. She had already missed the funeral. Frances had been brutal and unforgiving about that. Rightly so in Rachel’s mind – missing your own mother’s funeral was pretty shabby in anyone’s book. Even if your mother was Valerie Porter.
She might not have gone back at all if she hadn’t been required to assist with the application for probate. Without that she’d have carried on burying her head in the sand and ignored them all for ever. It was Valerie Porter’s final revenge to force her to go back.
When she was sitting on the train, when it was too late to turn back and take refuge again, she allowed herself to think about the consequences of going back. Of what she’d have to face.
Who she’d have to face.
There were people more dreadful than Frances who populated the past.
While the train took her relentlessly towards ‘home’, she pulled out the second letter and reread Frances’s words.
‘I am patently aware that you still harbour resentment about the past; however, the house is a joint responsibility and whatever grudges you still bear, I feel you should put them aside for once and show a little loyalty,’ Frances’s letter baldly stated. ‘Stella is nowhere to be found and I’ve been left to deal with this alone. You have a legal obligation to carry out Mother’s last wishes at least. I will expect to see you at the soonest opportunity. I shan’t say at your convenience because that would mean waiting for ever
Rachel could imagine the gritted teeth and grim expression that had fuelled those words. It had been a sense of stale guilt and obligation that got her to Paddington Station, plus curiosity and a strange, unpleasant yearning for something she couldn’t define, which had made her get on the train. Since when had Frances ever needed anything from her?
With every mile that took her closer to home she felt an increasing sense of apprehension. Given the circumstance of her departure all those years ago, it was bizarre that Frances would contact her at all, let alone request her help – they both knew that there was no love lost between Valerie and Rachel; they hadn’t spoken in years.
The only logical conclusion she could draw was that her physical presence was needed to allow the sale of the house because no connection between sisters, or mothers for that matter, would have driven Frances to write otherwise. Given that for most of Rachel’s life, Frances hadn’t been able to bear being in the same room as her for more than a few minutes, there couldn’t be any other reason.
Frances wanted the money. Nothing else on earth would have forced her to make contact, not even the truth. That was something none of them could bring themselves to face.
By the time Rachel arrived at the house Frances had already sold everything of any remote value that Valerie hadn’t, and had resorted to burning what was left on a large bonfire in the overgrown garden. Things that couldn’t be burned, like the ancient enamelled cooker that their grandmother had bought in 1959, and the six broken vacuum cleaners that had languished in the attic for years along with numerous other aged and dishevelled domestic items, were to be taken to the local tip by Sid, ‘The Man With A Van’ and his monosyllabic sidekick, Steve.
Sid and Steve were cheap, available and discreet. Frances valued discretion and economy above most things – including false sentiment. She showed none of that when greeting her sister, merely offered her a pair of rubber gloves and a black bag and told her to pick a room, any room, and get on with it.
Rachel received a warmer welcome from Sid.
The amiable Sid explained that he and Steve had been at the house for days, repeatedly loading the van and making trips to the local landfill site as Frances steadily forced the large old house to disgorge its contents and bare its mouldering soul.
Rachel arrived with barely enough time to salvage Stella’s meagre belongings from the purge, and only just managed to stop Steve feeding yet another box of books onto Frances’s pyre. They were Stella’s books, children’s classics that Stella had kept from her own childhood and had read to Rachel during hers.
Frances argued that if Stella had wanted the books she would have taken them with her; Rachel shrugged and said that she was keeping them anyway. One of the rare pleasures of her childhood had been listening to Stella read those stories, so even if Stella didn’t want them, she did. Besides, monstrous though Frances could be, what kind of person could burn books?
Frances had been so eager to clear the house that she hadn’t really left much that Rachel could do, except stand by and wonder at her sister’s vigorous enthusiasm for incinerating every last stick the house had ever contained. It felt as if she were only there to witness the destruction. It was Frances’s way of punishing her, she supposed.
‘I’ve spent too many years being oppressed by all this junk!’ Frances yelled above the crackling bonfire, eyes blazing as bright as the fire as she watched the flames consume yet another chunk of their past. ‘It’s liberating, don’t you think?’
Sid, standing next to Rachel, shook his head and said, ‘I dunno, seems a shame really – could have got a few quid for some of that stuff on eBay. Sacrilege,’ he added, bemused. He looked back at the house. ‘Must really have been something in its day. They don’t build them like that any more.’
Rachel followed his gaze and looked back at the mock Tudor sprawl she’d once known as home. ‘Probably,’ she said, her voice dull. Not that she could ever remember it being anything other than dark, damp, cold and gloomy. By the time she’d been born, The Limes was already suffering from serious neglect. Valerie had been too mean to heat the rooms they didn’t use and mildew had taken hold, running riot over the walls. The negligence had been an open invitation for rot and decay to come on in and have a ball. Even in winter it had sometimes been warmer outside than in – a childhood full of blue noses, chilblains and chipping the ice from the taps had left its mark on Rachel. She still couldn’t bear the cold.
The house had eight bedrooms. In Rachel’s memory only four had ever been regularly used. Of the four bathrooms, they had all shared one, and out of the study, drawing room, morning room and reception room, they had only ever used the morning room as it was close to the kitchen and easier to heat. The attics and cellars had been no-go zones for so long that she had almost forgotten they existed other than as repositories for the things Valerie had been too lazy to throw away.
As far as Rachel was concerned, The Limes was a mausoleum that housed a bitter past. If it had ever had a heyday it was so far back in the mists of time she would have to squint to imagine it.
Much in the way that she needed to squint at Frances through the billowing smoke. She was prodding the fire with the end of a garden hoe, her eyes glinting and flickering with reflected flames, making her look like a reject from the legions of hell. The fire had brought out a demonic glee that made Rachel instinctively shudder despite the heat that rolled across the neglected lawn.
‘Right, that’s going nicely,’ Frances called. ‘Stephen, you come with me and we’ll tackle the outbuildings and, Sidney, you can go with Rachel and make sure there’s nothing of value left inside.’
A brief flicker of panic crossed Steve’s face as he looked at Sid. Sid had quietly confided to Rachel that both men had fallen foul of Frances’s imperious temper over the past few days and it was considered the short straw if one of them had to work alongside her. ‘Come on, chop chop!’ she shouted, clapping her hands as if Steve was a refractory Pekingese.
Rachel watched them go. ‘I suppose we’d better follow orders,’ she said to Sid, preparing herself to go back into the near-naked house.
Free of its clutter, the house was even more cavernous than she remembered, all its strident objections to old age and infirmity amplified by the lack of furnishings. With nothing to soak up the sound and attract the eye, it looked bare and ashamed of itself. Rachel almost felt sorry for it. Nobody loved it, and she couldn’t remember anybody ever having been happy there. As a home its heart had been hollowed out by acrimony and now it was being finished off by arch indifference.
She and Sid ascended the stairs, the bare treads creaking in protest now that they had been stripped of carpet. They checked the bedrooms, finding them damp and empty, until they entered Valerie’s room.
Their mother’s room had always been sacrosanct, an oasis of calm and solitude that Valerie had often retreated to – usually complaining of a headache and clutching a medicinal bottle of sherry. Rachel couldn’t recall ever having been allowed inside, and it surprised her that she’d never thought it strange before that moment.
Now only a few black sacks stood against the wall ready for Sid’s next run to the tip. This first and final ingress into her mother’s secret chamber – the room that had been the inner sanctum, the room that had been the container of Valerie’s personal misery – was a frank disappointment for Rachel.
As a child, she had often spied by squinting through the keyhole like a woebegone urchin, imagining that beyond the locked door lay another realm. The wardrobe in the corner might have been the entrance to another dimension, where Valerie existed differently and found the peace she had so often demanded before shutting the door against the needs of her family. Although, in Rachel’s imagination the White Witch had always had much more of a resemblance to Valerie than had been entirely comfortable. Stella’s books had stirred some lonely and uncomfortable memories.
Though Valerie’s presence still echoed in the hollow room, Rachel could not for the life of her imagine what peace of mind her mother had ever found from lying on the bed staring drunkenly at the blowsy roses scrambling across the wallpaper beneath the dust and cobwebs. Those keyhole-shaped memories had suggested something exotically different from the chilly, mildewed reality she now faced.
The only piece of furniture not yet consigned to the tip, or dispatched to be consumed by the flames of Frances’s blaze, was the wardrobe.
Rachel walked over to it and touched its mirrored door, which opened with an ominous creak. She gave it a wry smile, unsurprised that it wasn’t filled with fur coats and melting snow after all.
‘She said I could have that,’ Sid said, apparently afraid that Rachel might condemn it to the fire. ‘I was saving it for when we finished. That way I can put it on the van and take it straight home.’
The faintest aroma of mothballs belched out as she shut the door. ‘I’ll lock it so it’ll be easier to move. You should hang on to the key. They’re always better when they still have their keys.’ The door was a little warped, and she had to shove it hard to make it fit properly, promptly dislodging the prized key in the process. ‘Bugger!’ she said. The key had bounced on the bare floorboards and hidden itself underneath the wardrobe. On hands and knees, Rachel peered into the murky spider graveyard that lay beneath. ‘I can’t see it. We’ll have to pull the bloody thing out.’
Sid obliged, and together they coaxed it into a reluctant slide across the wooden boards. As Rachel bent to retrieve the key, something prodded at the edges of her awareness. ‘I didn’t know that was there,’ she murmured, standing up and looking at a door that had been hidden from view.
‘Built-in cupboard,’ Sid pronounced knowledgably. ‘What d’you need a wardrobe for if there’s a built-in cupboard?’
Rachel shrugged. ‘More junk for you to get rid of I expect,’ she said, prising open the cupboard door and cringing as the hinges squealed in protest.
The cupboard was surprisingly empty given the rubbish that had always cluttered the rest of the house. A faint flurry of fetid air wafted into their faces as they peered into its dark recesses. On the lone shelf, there stood a biscuit tin and on the floor stood a metal box. Rachel took down the biscuit tin and levered off the lid. Various bits of paper and old photographs nestled there – mostly showing Frances as a young child. The papers proved to be old school reports, all describing Frances’s attributes in glowing terms.
Rachel couldn’t recall Valerie keeping a record of either her or Stella’s school records – though Frances probably would have burnt them if she had. As Rachel rifled through, it occurred to her that she had never seen a photograph of herself as a child anywhere in the house. Probably because there weren’t any to see.
Under the photographs was a small red book: the type that had a tiny lock. She took it and the photographs and stuffed them into her back pocket. Maybe Frances would want them, maybe not. The rest she put back in the tin and threw the whole thing into one of the black sacks that flanked the room.
Sid grabbed the metal box. ‘Bloody hell, this is heavy. Hey, perhaps we’ve found the family jewels!’ he quipped.
Rachel responded with a sardonic smile. The box was little bigger than a bread bin but looked like it weighed a ton. Sid placed it at Rachel’s feet, grunting with the effort.
‘Want to do the honours?’ he asked.
She shook her head, watching as Sid attempted to release the lid. Though the metal had been galvanised, some substance had affected it, causing rust to scab the edges and eat into the structure. Sid took out a Swiss Army knife and used the screwdriver bit as a lever, giving a satisfied grunt as the orange crust gave way. He lifted the lid, revealing the contents. ‘It’s full of sand,’ he said, puzzled.
‘Hang on, there’s something poking out of it.’ He tugged, dislodging a torrent of dry, gritty matter as the object shifted.
It was some kind of parcel, wrapped in dirty cloth. Sid unwound the material, causing more sand and grit to fall and litter the floor as each layer of fabric came away and disintegrated in his hands.
‘What is it?’ Rachel asked, peering over his shoulder at what appeared to be some type of shrivelled, leathery doll.
Sid didn’t speak. His skin had turned a ghastly shade of grey and all Rachel could see as she peered at his stricken face was his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down like a fishing float as he fought for the words to describe the thing that was now lying on the floor.
Frances’s scream was so piercing it rattled the glass in the rotten window frames, buffeting Rachel’s eardrums and snapping Sid out of his shocked stupor as effectively as if it had taken tangible form and slapped him in the face.
Once the sound receded, everything became horribly quiet as if there had been a sudden solar eclipse and the birds had stopped singing in deference to the dark. Time became elastic as seconds extended themselves into blurry, suspended pockets of disbelieving minutes.
Sid’s mobile phone began to ring, the tinny, incongruent tones of ‘My Way’ shattering the silence and stirring him into action. When he finally answered the thing after fumbling for it in every pocket, Rachel could hear Steve’s high-pitched voice. With escalating panic, he told Sid about the scene outside. Rachel doubted that Steve had ever uttered so many words in one hit before. Which was probably why he sounded confused.
She could have sworn she heard him say that they’d found a dead body in the shed.
A chilling thriller to read with the lights on this winter. From the author of The Lost Child, and The Forgotten Room.
Every family has a secret…
Two dead bodies. A lifetime of secrets.
When Rachel Porter’s estranged mother dies, she returns to her family home filled with dread about having to face her past, and the people who populated it. Little does she know that there are dead bodies waiting to be discovered, and a lifetime of secrets are about to unravel. Secrets kept by her mother, the liar.
Ann Troup lives in Devon in a small house just a pebble’s throw from the beach. She shares her home with her husband and a small white dog, both occasionally allow her to be inattentive to them so that she can write.