Blurb; Grace has returned to London after 20 years abroad to manage her dying mother’s affairs. When she receives a blank Mother’s Day card in the mail, she is confused and unsettled. Who could have sent it to her and why? She isn’t a mother. Another Mother’s Day card arrives. Then come the silent phone calls. Haunted by disturbing flashbacks, Grace starts to unravel. Someone is out to get her. Someone who knows what she has done. Someone who will make her face the past she has run from for so long. Emerson creates an intricate web in this intense psychological thriller whose high energy and fast-pace will have you racing towards the climactic conclusion.
Before writing fiction, Tracey worked in theatre and community arts. As well as acting, she ran drama workshops in hospitals, focusing on adults with mental health issues. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from The University of Edinburgh and works as a literary consultant and writing tutor. She is also the Creative Director of The Bridge Awards, a philanthropic organisation that provides micro-funding for the arts.
EXCLUSIVE! HERE’S A SNEAK PEAK OF THE FIRST CHAPTERS…
Friday, 15 September 1995
Royal Edinburgh Hospital
What would she say if she were with me? I imagine it sometimes—the two of us together. A reckless delusion, but I can’t help myself. My image of her is never a clear one. How could it be? Sometimes she has my dark hair and brown eyes, sometimes she is a stranger.
In this fantasy, we are sitting together at a kitchen table. The heart of any home. In this fantasy, she is calm and willing to listen. I try to explain why I did what I did to her. I describe the circumstances, give her my reasons.
After a while, she holds up her hand. Her reproachful silence is a demand for truth. No more excuses.
I confess. I tell her that I had to survive. I say that in the end it was either her or me.
I chose me.
Wednesday, 2 September 2015
I am abandoning her. Leaving her to the care of strangers. Leaving her here in this tiny room, the last space she will ever inhabit.
I have no choice. I have no choice and this is the best place for her. These are the facts, but the facts don’t stop me feeling guilty.
She is sitting upright in the narrow single bed, held captive by the television fixed to the wall opposite. News 24 is on mute, white headlines tacking along the screen as soldiers in green uniforms dodge the smoking entrails of burnt-out cars.
‘You’ve got a perfect view of the TV there,’ I say. She glances at me, bewildered. ‘We’re at Birch Grove Care Home,’ I explain. ‘You moved here from the hospital this morning.’
‘I know, Grace. I know where I am.’ Her wavering voice suggests otherwise. The effort of birthing the words leaves her wheezing, her tired lungs struggling to do what she once took for granted.
This woman is my mother, but sometimes I hardly recognise her. She no longer looks like an older version of herself; she just looks old. White wispy curls have replaced her black hair. Withered breasts hang defeated beneath her yellow nightgown. Only her dark brown eyes have remained unchanged. We still have those in common.
‘I hope you like what I’ve done with the room,’ I say. ‘I wanted it to feel homely.’ Mum’s gaze doesn’t budge from the screen. ‘It’s very cosy in here,’ I add.
The ground-floor room is stifling. An overheated pharaoh’s tomb, a stopgap between worlds, crammed with treasured possessions—family photographs, a collection of Neil Diamond CDs, a wooden crucifix hanging above the bed.
I rearrange the framed photographs on the sideboard. Mum and Dad’s wedding portrait, my graduation picture, an assortment of holiday snaps of the three of us. I hardly recognise myself in my graduation picture. My face was much fuller then, and my hair reached down to my waist. A year later, I had it shorn into a pixie cut, a style I have kept ever since.
‘Why aren’t you at school?’ Mum says. Is she in the present, asking why I’m not teaching, or does she think I’m a child again? She keeps travelling in time, random leaps that make me anxious. No telling where she might end up.
The TV claims her. I cross to the window and press my palms against the cool glass. Outside, the sky is a grey lid, sealed shut. Not long until the last of the evening light disappears. What time should I leave? A fast train from Brentham station will get me into London in half an hour. All I want to do is get back to the flat, pour myself a glass of red wine and drink it while soaking in a hot bath. All I want to do is climb into bed beside Mum, wrap her arms around me and beg her to never let me go.
Half an hour later, I’m sitting in the green armchair beside the bed. My head is muzzy, my legs leaden—Mum’s energy taking hold of me. The room is slipping into darkness, but I cannot motivate myself to reach over and switch on the bedside lamp. Bored and petulant, I feel thirteen not forty-two, but the time for such childishness has passed. Mum is my responsibility now; I’ve signed legal documents that say so.
I twist the silver puzzle ring on my right ring finger back and forth. An old habit. ‘They’ve got loads of activities here, Mum,’ I say, ‘plenty for you to get involved in.’
‘Don’t think so, dear,’ she replies, the dim light of the TV flickering across her face. She isn’t stupid. She knows as well as I do that she has come here to die, and that it won’t be long. A couple of bad chest infections could finish her. The consultant at the hospital told me she probably wouldn’t last the winter.
Screams erupt in the corridor, high-pitched and piercing. Panic flares beneath my ribcage. Outside the door, a few members of staff arrive and pacify the offending resident. There, there, Mrs Palethorpe, let’s get you back to your room.
My pulse thrums in my ears. I wait for it to settle before standing up and leaning over the bed. ‘Bye for now.’ Mum’s cheek is warm against my lips. ‘See you soon.’
A rap on the door.
‘Come in,’ I say, as it swings open. The slight figure of a girl hovers in the corridor, her pale face luminous in the gloom. For a split second, I wonder if she is even real.
‘Hiya, Mrs Walker.’ The girl steps into the room and flicks on the overhead light, flooding us with brightness and life. ‘I’m Emma. One of the care assistants here.’
Emma’s dark, cropped hair frames a friendly, heart-shaped face. She wears a short-sleeved lilac tunic over black leggings. Lilac slouch socks spill over the top of her white trainers. Behind her in the corridor stands a trolley laden with large steel flasks and cartons of fruit juice. ‘Lovely to meet you,’ she says, pushing her fringe to one side.
‘You too,’ I reply, but she is looking at Mum.
‘Anything to drink, Mrs Walker?’ she asks.
Mum ignores her.
‘Sorry,’ I say. I can’t help apologising for Mum. I want people to know she wasn’t always this rude. That manners once mattered to her.
Emma smiles. ‘That’s all right. It’s been a long day, hasn’t it, Mrs Walker?’
‘Please, call her Polly,’ I say, ‘and I’m Grace.’ Emma asks me what Mum likes to drink, and I advise strong tea with half a sugar. ‘She’s fussy about her tea, I’m afraid.’
‘She’s allowed to be fussy, aren’t you, sweetheart?’ Emma has the local Essex accent, the one my parents never let me acquire, even though my dad spoke with it. Her high, girlish voice suggests she isn’t long out of school. Hard to say how old she is.
‘So, Polly,’ Emma says, ‘strong tea with half a sugar?’
Mum remains silent. A protest perhaps at how small her world has become. A world in which the topic of tea can sustain a lengthy conversation.
‘What about you, Grace?’ Emma asks. ‘Bet you could do with a drink?’
Her concerned tone undoes me. My throat is hot and tight, an omen of tears to come. Emma must sense them too because she pulls a tissue from her tunic pocket and hands it to me. I shove it in the back pocket of my jeans, determined not to need it.
‘Moving day is well tough for the relatives,’ she says, ‘but remember you can come and see her as much as you like.’
‘I’ll only be coming on Saturdays for a while.’ Why am I telling this to a stranger? ‘The past few months… There’s been all the hospital visits and social services to deal with, and I recently started a new job so—’
‘You need a break, course you do. That’s why I’m here, isn’t it, Polly?’
Mum tears her gaze from the TV and looks at Emma for the first time. She watches as the girl hurries out to the tea trolley and returns with a white beaker.
‘Let’s try you without a straw first,’ Emma says.
She places the beaker on the bedside table and rearranges Mum’s sitting position. She is stronger than her petite frame suggests and has no trouble easing Mum forward as she rearranges the pillows. ‘Right,’ she says, picking up the beaker, ‘let’s see if my tea is up to your standards.’
Mum’s expression is curious, thoughtful. ‘Call me Grandma,’ she says.
My stomach knots. Emma freezes, the beaker clutched in her hand. Poor girl looks lost for words, but just as I’m about to speak she giggles.
‘I’m sure you’d be an awesome gran, but I’m going to call you Polly. Shame not to use such a lovely name.’
‘Grandma.’ Mum’s face darkens.
‘Mum, this is Emma.’ My harsh delivery startles me. Mum, full of fury, jabs a finger in my direction.
‘No,’ she says. ‘No.’
‘How about a drink?’ Emma says, but Mum’s hand shoots out and knocks the beaker away. Tea cascades down the front of Emma’s tunic. She gasps as Mum forms a fist and drives it against her chest.
‘Mum. Stop it.’ I step forward just as Emma backs away from the bed and stumbles over the chair. I catch her as she falls, her body light in my arms. ‘I’m so sorry,’ I say, helping her upright. ‘Are you okay?’
I keep hold of her arm, even though she is out of danger now. Her wide brown eyes gaze up at me. I sense a pull deep inside, a fish hook tugging at my guts. Without thinking, I reach out and brush her fringe away from her forehead.
‘Sorry,’ Mum gasps, ‘I’m sorry.’
Emma breaks away from me and rushes over to the bed. ‘It’s all right, darlin’. I know, I know.’
‘She didn’t mean it,’ I say. ‘She’d never hurt anyone. Not physically.’
‘It’s not your fault, Polly,’ Emma says. ‘You’ve had a difficult day.’
Mum emits a pitiful sob, and I struggle to hold back my own tears.
‘This is so hard,’ I say.
‘Bless your hearts,’ Emma murmurs. ‘The two of you must be very close?’
I hesitate, wondering if Mum might speak, but she is lost in her loud, ruinous tears.
‘Yes,’ I say, ‘we are.’
We were close, many years ago, so this is not a total lie.