Author Post | Liam McIlvanney on The Quaker

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To someone growing up in the West of Scotland in the 1970s and 80s, the words ‘Bible John’ had a special resonance. You might overhear your parents saying the name in guarded voices, or bigger kids in the playground discussing the murders, how three women got killed in the big bad city on the other side of the Fenwick Moor.

The Bible John murders took place in Glasgow in 1968 and 1969. There were three killings. In each case, the victim was picked up at the Barrowland Ballroom in the East End of the city, and then raped, strangled and dumped within a few hundred yards of her home. The three victims lived in different parts of the city: Battlefield on the South Side; out east in Bridgeton; Scotstoun in the West End.

There was no direct connection between the victims, though they did have much in common. They shared a physical type – petite and dark-haired. They all had young children. Two of them were separated or divorced from their husbands, and the third had a husband with the services in Germany. There was a queasy Presbyterian moralism in some of the commentary around these killings: what were these women doing out gallivanting when they had kiddies at home? As if there was some grim Calvinist karma at work in their deaths.

The killer was never caught, though the police knew a great deal about him, since the sister of the third victim spent an evening in his company. Bible John was tall, with fair or reddish hair worn unfashionably short. Well-spoken, he dressed in a brown, three-button suit with a chalkstripe and incongruous suede boots. He was scrupulously polite. He wore a regimental tie, a wristwatch with a thick leather strap. He had overlapping teeth. He ranted about ‘dens of iniquity’ and ‘women taken in adultery’. His cousin had recently scored a hole in one at golf.

The police blitzed these clues in the biggest investigation in the history of Scottish policing. They got nowhere. The man they sought had vanished, though he lived on as a legend, a bogey man, a ghost. I remember how the pictures of Bible John would surface from time to time in the Daily Record, like the sulky, blonde mugshot of Myra Hindley.

There was the identikit picture of a smart, half-smiling young man with thin lips and nice short hair, like a face on a Panini football sticker. And there was the quarter-profile artist’s impression of a man with kindly eyes and clean-shaven jaw, who looked like one of Mormons who sometimes came to our door in pairs.

Why was the Bible John case so resonant? Partly it was the fact that he was never caught. But it was also the idea that almost anyone could be Bible John. The guy standing next to you at the bar could be Bible John, the man who came to read your meter. This was also the period of large-scale redevelopment in Glasgow, when the slum tenements were coming down and people were being decanted to peripheral estates. In the tenements everyone knew everyone else. In the new schemes you had an indoor toilet and a washing machine but you didn’t know who your neighbor was. Your neighbour could be anyone. Your neighbour could be Bible John.

All this was part of the Bible John mythos, but what I remember most is just the name, how those two innocuous words chimed through my childhood. I was haunted by the name. How could a man with such a name be so bad? How could a name so blandly innocent carry such a charge of darkness?

When I got older and started writing crime novels I always knew I would come back to Bible John. Other people had written books that touched on the murders – notably Andrew O’Hagan in The Missing and Ian Rankin in Black and Blue – but I wanted to write a proper true-crime novel in the style of Gordon Burn or Eoin McNamee or David Peace.

I was conscious, however, that the children of the victims were still alive, and I felt uneasy about using their families’ suffering for a crime novel. My breakthrough came when I was pondering the trio of murders and realized that I could invent a fictional fourth killing and focus my story on that. In this way, I could draw on the cultural resonance of the first three murders without dwelling too pruriently on the details.

Then I thought: why stop there? Why not go further? Why not change the names of the victims, and even that of the killer? And so, Bible John became the Quaker. Anyone familiar with the history would recognise that the novel was based on the Bible John case, but I would be free to invent my own version of the story and solve the case in my own way. So that’s what I did. I also invented a cop, DI Duncan McCormack, whose own background – Highland, Catholic, gay – sets him at a tangent to many of his colleagues.

But there was one other ethical dilemma that confronted me. In my previous two novels, the murder victims were male. In this one, I had the familiar, problematical crime fiction scenario in which the passive, violated female body is avenged by the active agency of the male detective.

To some extent, this was enforced by the nature of the real-life material, but it still made me uncomfortable. So I did what Alice Sebold does in The Lovely Bones, Rosetta Allan in Purgatory, and Scott Blackwood in See How Small: I introduced the perspective of the murdered women. Each of the Quaker’s victims narrates a chapter of the novel.

The Quaker is the story I’ve wanted to write since I was a boy growing up in Ayrshire; I hope you enjoy reading it.

-Liam McIlvanney

 

The Quaker is out now in paperback. 

Extract | The Sting by Kimberley Chambers | Chapter 4

Category: Extract

 

Here’s our fourth and final exclusive sample chapter from Kimberley Chambers’ explosive new novel. Out now!

 

CHAPTER FOUR

Valerie Boyle had been popular within the local community, therefore news of her untimely death, and the circumstances surrounding it, spread like wildfire.

‘Where have all Mum’s sympathy cards gone, Nan?’ Linda made the mistake of asking.

‘In the bin, where they belong. Your father will be home this afternoon and he won’t be wanting to see those, will he? Not after what your mother did.’

Linda burst into tears. Hazel and Tommy had told her last night what lovely comments the neighbours had written and she’d yet to see them with her own eyes.

Tommy marched over to the bin and took the lid off.

‘What do you think you’re doing?’ Nanny Noreen shouted, yanking Tommy away from the bin by his arm and smacking him across the backside.

‘Linda hasn’t seen those cards yet. I’m getting them out
the bin.’

‘No, you’re not. I ripped them up into tiny pieces. Now make yourself useful. There’s a shopping list on the kitchen top. I need items from the butcher’s, the baker’s, the greengrocer’s and Mr Abbot’s. The girls can go with you. You’re getting no fresh air stuck in here.’

Lip quivering, Tommy picked up the shopping list and money. It was two days now since they’d heard the life-changing news and Nanny Noreen had not shown an ounce of compassion. Tommy hated living with her and could not wait until his dad got home. ‘Come on, girls.’

‘I don’t want to go to the shops. We’ll bump into our mates on their way to school and they will all know about Mum,’ Hazel warned.

‘You’ve got to face your friends at some point, love, so best to get that out of the way. It isn’t your fault your mother was a whore,’ hissed Nanny Noreen.

Tears streaming down both their faces, Linda and Hazel reluctantly followed their brother out the door.

It didn’t take the children long to realize the gossip-mongers were out in force. People whispered on street corners, then stopped and looked in pity as they walked past. Some even crossed the road to avoid them. A few of their neighbours were kind. Mrs Young who lived opposite gave them a sixpence each to spend on sweets, and Mr Abbot wouldn’t take the money for the baked beans, sugar or brown sauce. ‘You put that towards some flowers for your lovely mum,’ he said softly.

‘We should have brought Rex with us,’ Tommy said miserably, as they trudged towards the butcher’s. Tommy was worried about his beloved dog. Nanny Noreen wouldn’t allow him inside the house, and he could sense Rex was miserable in the kennel. His eyes were forlorn.

About to reply, Hazel heard a voice from behind her scream, ‘Oi, I want words with you, Tommy Boyle.’ Hazel recognized the voice immediately. It was Billy Fletcher, who was deemed to be the best fighter in her year at school.

His face as angry as hell, Billy ran towards Tommy and pushed him hard in the chest. Tommy stumbled backwards and fell on his arse. ‘What did you do that for?’

Billy towered over Tommy. ‘Your mother was a slag. If it weren’t for her, my dad would still be alive.’

‘Takes two to tango,’ Tommy mumbled bravely. Billy was at least a foot taller than him and a stone heavier.

‘My mum is in bits, thanks to your whore of a mother,’ Billy shrieked. He then proceeded to kick Tommy in the head and stomach as though he were a football.

Linda burst into tears. ‘Stop it! Leave our brother alone,’ she yelled, trying to push Billy away. ‘Do something, Hazel. Do something!’

Not knowing what else to do, Hazel picked up a nearby loose paving stone and cracked Billy over the head with it. He fell to the pavement, and unfortunately for him, smashed his skull against the edge of the kerb.

Cliff the butcher came running out of his shop. ‘What’s going on?’

Seeing copious amounts of blood oozing from Billy’s head, Hazel dropped the paving stone in horror.

News of Billy Fletcher’s untimely death and the circumstances
surrounding it also spread like wildfire. So much so, Nanny Noreen heard about it minutes before the police knocked on the door. She was distraught, Hazel was her favourite grandchild.

Alexander Boyle arrived home during the mayhem. He was shocked to the core and immediately offered to accompany Hazel to the police station. It was said parents shouldn’t have a favourite child, but Hazel was his, by miles. She looked like him and had all his mannerisms. There would never be any doubt over him being her father. None whatsoever.

Stony-faced, Alexander witnessed his daughter being questioned. ‘Tell the policemen the truth, love. You need to tell them everything that happened,’ he urged.

‘I already told you: Billy pushed Tommy over then started to beat him up. Tommy is only small and he’s younger than Billy. Billy is in my year at school and all the boys say he is the best fighter. I didn’t mean to hurt Billy, I swear I didn’t. I just wanted him to stop hurting my brother.’

‘Did Tommy say or do anything to antagonize Billy?’ asked one of the coppers.‘No. Not really,’ Hazel replied truthfully. ‘All Tommy said was “It takes two to tango,” because Billy called our mum a slag. Since our dad started working away, Tommy is the man of the house.’

Alexander pursed his thin lips. Not any more Tommy wasn’t, he thought. Not after all that had happened this week. Things needed to change. Like father, like son.

Tommy and Linda were huddled up together inside Rex’s kennel. Both were scared that Hazel would get into big trouble. They were also discussing their future.

‘I don’t like Nanny Noreen,’ Linda admitted for the first time. ‘She has never been like a real nan to us. It’s only Hazel she buys nice things for.’

Tommy sighed. Their father was the same, but over the years Tommy had got used to that and learned how to deal with it. ‘I think it is because Hazel was the first-born child. I never used to think Dad liked me much, but once I started getting into football things got better. Perhaps we have to find more in common with Nanny Noreen.’

‘Like what?’ Linda asked. ‘All she ever talks about is God. She doesn’t even like the Osmonds. She told me Little Jimmy is spreading bad vibes amongst girls my age. What does that mean, Tommy?’

‘I don’t know. But I really hope Dad and Hazel come home soon. Hazel was only protecting me. It was an accident.’

‘All that blood, Tommy. It was awful,’ Linda mumbled.

Tommy shut his eyes. Witnessing Billy Fletcher die would haunt him for the rest of his life.

When their father arrived home alone later that evening, both Tommy and Linda were gobsmacked.

‘Where’s Hazel?’ Linda panicked.

Alexander pointed at Tommy. ‘Thanks to him, your sister isn’t allowed to come home. Now, go to bed. Both of you. This very minute!’

The next time Tommy and Linda saw Hazel was the day of their mother’s funeral. She was outside the chapel with a woman and man they’d never seen before.

Tommy ran over to her. She looked awful, had lost weight and had dark circles under her eyes. ‘We’ve missed you, Hazel. Where you living? Dad hasn’t told us anything.’

As her brother tried to hug her, Hazel showed little emotion. ‘I’m in a bad girl’s home.’

‘But you’re not a bad girl. You didn’t mean to kill Billy Fletcher,’ Linda replied bluntly.

Hazel shrugged. This time ten days ago, she had a loving mum and family. Now she was living in a horrible place, with horrible children. She hated it there, wished she was dead.

*

The chapel was packed to the rafters. Valerie had been a chatterbox who loved nothing more than a good old chinwag as she scrubbed her doorstep, cleaned her windows or walked to the shops. The rumours of how she’d died and who she had been with meant the nosy parkers were all in attendance. Some had barely known Valerie, but felt compelled to attend her funeral.

Tommy sobbed like a baby as he stared at the coffin. His mum had been so pretty and full of life. How could she now be dead and inside that wooden box?

Alexander leaned towards Tommy. ‘Stop snivelling. You’re showing yourself up,’ he hissed.

Tommy bit his lip and pinched himself in the hope it would stop him from crying. He couldn’t help being so upset. He had loved his mother dearly.

‘I miss her so much, Tommy,’ Linda wept.

Tommy squeezed Linda’s hand and glanced at Hazel. She was showing no emotion, just staring into space. Uncle Ian locked eyes with him and smiled, so Tommy forced a smile back. The woman and man who had accompanied Hazel were standing at the back of the chapel by the door and Tommy wondered if they were staff from the bad girl’s home. He doubted they were Old Bill, as very few women were capable of doing that job. That’s what his dad said anyway.

Secretly pleased Nanny Noreen had refused to come, Tommy glanced at his father. His face was devoid of expression. He had been really nasty to him this past week, but Tommy guessed he was sad because of losing his wife and Hazel having to go away. They didn’t even watch the football together at the weekend; his dad said he was too busy.

The vicar said some nice things about his mum, but not enough, Tommy thought sadly. She had been much more than just a mother of three. She had cooked delicious dinners, knitted him tank tops, run him up flares on her sewing machine, and taken him to the pictures regularly. She wasn’t some average mum, she truly was the best.

When everyone stood up to sing ‘The Lord Is My Shepherd’, Tommy and Linda both heard shouting. They turned around. The door of the chapel was open and two policemen were struggling with some people.

‘Where is she? Where’s the evil child who killed my Billy?’ Tommy heard a woman bellow. Nobody was singing any more, they were all fixated by the commotion. Tommy stood on the pew to get a better view.

‘Murderers! First, my Terry and then Billy. My heart is broken in pieces. May you all rot in hell,’ the woman screamed, before being carted off by the police.

‘Was that Billy Fletcher’s mum?’ Linda asked Tommy. She hadn’t seen the woman.

Tommy was about to reply when his father yanked him off the pew with such force he twisted his ankle.

Tommy woke up next morning with a throbbing ankle and broken heart. He and Linda had thought their mum would have a grave nearby that they could visit and lay flowers on. It had been a huge shock to find out her body had been burned and all that was left of her now was a pile of ashes.

‘You awake, Tommy?’

‘Yeah.’

Linda perched herself on the edge of her brother’s bed. She had been so upset over the awful events of yesterday, she had wanted to stay with Tommy last night, but Nanny Noreen had forbidden her to. ‘You’re not a little girl any more, Linda. Brothers and sisters of a certain age shouldn’t share the same bed,’ she’d snapped.

‘Dad wants to take me out for the day, but I don’t really want to go,’ Linda informed her brother.

‘Is he taking me too?’

‘No. That’s why I don’t want to go. Did you hear him come in drunk around midnight? He knocked the grand-father clock over and it smashed. He scares me when he drinks too much.’

‘I heard him knock something over. Did he say where he’s taking you?’

‘No.’

‘I ain’t staying indoors with that old witch. But I’m too scared to go out in case I bump into any of Billy Fletcher’s mates. They’re bound to want to beat me up after everything that’s happened and I can’t even run properly ’cause my ankle hurts too much.’

‘I wonder when we will see Hazel again? I don’t ’arf miss her, Tom. And Mum.’

Tommy’s eyes filled with tears. ‘Me too.’

As the children clung together like two lost souls, neither had any idea there was far more upset to come.

‘You need to pack a case, Tommy. Your Uncle Ian will be picking you up soon,’ said Nanny Noreen.

Tommy dropped his Shoot magazine in shock. ‘What! Why?’

‘Because you’re going to stay with him. Your dad can’t look after you. He has to go back to work soon.’

‘What about Linda? Is she coming too?’‘No. Linda will stay with me.’Tommy felt his pulse quicken. This didn’t sound short-term. ‘What about Rex? Where will he live?’

‘Rex is going to live on a farm. Be nice for him. He’ll have lots of space there to run around,’ Noreen lied.

Tommy’s face crumpled. ‘No. I’m not leaving Rex, or Linda. I can’t. I won’t.’

‘There’s no alternative, I’m afraid, Tommy. Your dad’s going back to the oil rigs and I can’t look after two of you.’

Stifling a sob, Tommy ran out into the garden and crawled inside Rex’s kennel. He draped his arms around the dog’s neck. ‘I’m being sent away to live with my Uncle Ian. You’re being sent away too, but not with me. You’re going to live on a farm. You’ll like it there. Be better than being stuck out here, boy. And I will visit you, I promise. I’m so gonna miss you, though. I love you, never forget that, Rex.’

Within the hour, Tommy’s anguish had turned to acute anger. He barely knew his Uncle Ian, had only ever met him about four times. What right did his father have to palm him off like some unwanted rubbish? Any decent man wouldn’t go back to the oil rigs. He would stay at home and care for his kids who’d lost their mother, Tommy fumed.

‘I made you a fried-egg sandwich,’ Nanny Noreen said as Tommy came into the kitchen. She didn’t hate the boy, but could never love him either.

‘I ain’t leaving Linda and I ain’t leaving Rex. What time will my dad be home?’

‘Not until late. Now, go pack your case. Uncle Ian will be here soon.’

‘You can’t make me go. I won’t,’ Tommy yelled, knocking the plate and sandwich on to the lino.

Nanny Noreen sighed. ‘You have to. Uncle Ian is your only known blood relative. It’s either that or a children’s home.’

‘What? I don’t understand.’

Nanny Noreen actually felt quite sorry for the child and wished Alexander would have told him. ‘There is no easy way to say this, Tommy, so I shall just be blunt. Your father isn’t your real father; so I’m not your real grandma either. I’m sorry, boy. But you have your mother to thank for that.’

Feeling nauseous and dizzy, Tommy bolted out of the front door.

It was the local bobby, PC Kendall, who found Tommy in a dishevelled state in Barking park. He had only recently joined the police force and Mrs Young had told him, while he was on the beat, that she’d seen young Tommy run from the house in his navy Parka, tartan flares and white trainers, looking extremely distressed.

PC Kendall sat on the bench next to the forlorn figure and ruffled his hair. Valerie Boyle had been a beautiful woman inside and out. A lot of his colleagues had fancied her. They reckoned she was the spitting image of the actress in the Carry On films.

‘Go away. I want to be alone,’ Tommy mumbled.‘I want to help you, Tommy. I’m a policeman and that’s my job. I wasn’t much older than you when I lost my mum, ya know. Fourteen, and it was tough. It’s true what they say, though: time is a healer. I know it doesn’t feel like it at the moment, but one day you’ll be able to think about your lovely mum and smile again. Nobody can ever take the wonderful memories of her away from you. They last for ever.’

‘But it’s not just my mum, is it? It’s everything.’PC Kendall sighed. The Hazel incident had been a major talking point at the police station. It wasn’t every day a fourteen-year-old girl clumped a lad of the same age over the head with a paving block, killing him stone dead.

‘Why don’t we get you home, eh? Your dad will be worried and it’s cold out here. That wind is bitter today.’

‘I ain’t got a dad.’

‘Course you have. Alexander’s your dad.’

Tears streamed down Tommy’s face as he looked the local bobby in the eyes. ‘He ain’t my real dad. My nan told me today. She ain’t my real nan either. That’s why Rex has to go to live on a farm and I gotta live with
Uncle Ian,’ he gabbled.

PC Kendall winced. He knew life could be cruel, but not this cruel. Poor little Tommy had lost everything in less than a fortnight. He hugged the freezing boy close to his chest. ‘I’m so sorry, mate. I truly am. I know how
much you love Rex. So, is Uncle Ian related to your mum?’

‘Yeah. He’s her weird brother.’

‘Weird? What do you mean by that?’

Tommy shrugged. ‘My dad – sorry, I mean Alexander – always called him a weirdo. Not to his face, like.’

Though he hadn’t been a copper long, this triggered alarm bells in PC Kendall’s mind. ‘Is your uncle married?’

‘Yeah. To a woman called Sandra. She’s very fat.’

Kendall relaxed slightly. ‘They got kids?’

‘No. They got cats.’

‘Where do they live?’

‘South London, but I don’t know the road name. It’s a smaller house than ours and not very clean.’

PC Kendall took a notepad out of his pocket and wrote something down. He handed it to Tommy. ‘This is the phone number of the police station I work at. Any problems, you call and ask for me, OK?’

Tommy nodded. ‘Thank you.’‘Right, let’s get you home. I thought we might stop at Mr Abbot’s on the way and buy you some sweets. What’s your favourite?’

‘Sherbet lemons.’

PC Kendall smiled. ‘Sherbet lemons it is then.’

*

So, that’s where it all began. Feels pretty good to get it off my chest, if I’m honest.

It makes me smile to think I once confided in the Old Bill. Having said that, he was all right was PC Kendall. Not like some of the sharks I’ve since met.

So many coppers are on the payroll of villains, you wouldn’t believe it. No integrity or conscience. Always on the take. I know because I’ve dealt with the unscrupulous bastards. They are worse than most of the gangsters I’ve mixed with. Reason being, they couldn’t give a shit who they trample on. Play ball or get nicked, that’s the option for many.

I’m rambling now, so let’s go back to my story. From the day my
mother died, my life wasn’t my own for a while. Saying it had its ups and downs wouldn’t just be an understatement. I’d liken it to a Boeing 747 hitting a hurricane.

I was twelve, naïve, and honestly thought I had hit rock bottom. I hadn’t. There was far worse to come.

You know the name: Tommy Boyle. Now read on and I’ll explain what happened next . . .

*

The Sting is out now. Order your copy here!

Extract | The Sting by Kimberley Chambers | Chapter 3

Category: Extract

Don’t miss the third instalment from our exclusive sample chapters from Kimberley Chambers’ explosive new novel. Out now!

 

CHAPTER THREE

The rest of the festive season went quite quickly with no more major drama. Tommy had heard his parents doing naughties as his bedroom was next to theirs, so he guessed they must have made up.

On 3 January, Alexander hugged his family and said his goodbyes. ‘I meant what I said, Valerie. I am paying someone to watch you,’ he warned before strolling down the path with his case.

‘You OK, Mum?’ Tommy asked, as his father disappeared in the distance.‘I am now. Go and let Rex in, love.’

‘You look nice, Mum. You going out?’ Linda asked, later that afternoon. Her mum was wearing a pretty green flowery frock she hadn’t seen before.

‘Yes. Only popping round Lisa’s. I haven’t seen her all over Christmas and want to give her her present. I won’t be late. Don’t forget to get all your stuff ready for school. I’ll be back before you go to bed.’

‘You not going bingo?’ Hazel asked suspiciously.

‘Not sure. We might.’

Tommy gave his mother a hug. ‘Me and Rex will look after the girls. Have a nice time.’

‘I’m the oldest. So it’s me who looks after you,’ Hazel argued.

Valerie kissed her son on the forehead. ‘Be good. Love you.’

As Tommy waved his mother goodbye at the front door, he had no idea he would never see her again.

Terry Fletcher opened a Babycham for Valerie and a can of bitter for himself. He didn’t have a lot of spare cash, specially at Christmas, but he’d scraped together enough to book himself and Valerie a hotel room today. Usually they would do the deed in the back of his Ford Cortina, but it was bloody freezing and Terry had wanted to treat the woman he loved.

‘So, how was your Christmas?’ Valerie asked. She’d just been telling Terry what a dreadful time she’d had with Alexander.

‘Same old, same old. Susan was her usual miserable self,’ Terry replied, referring to his wife.

‘Your kids enjoy it?’

‘Yeah. Kids always enjoy Christmas, don’t they? Did yours have fun?’

‘No. To be honest, they didn’t. They’re getting older now, sense what is going on more. Which is why I’ve come to a decision.’

Terry was the total opposite to Alexander in every way imaginable. He was blond, had a cheeky grin, sparkling blue eyes and a bubbly personality. He worked as a docker and at thirty was two years younger than Valerie. He’d been married for fourteen years though, had got Susan pregnant when she was sweet sixteen and was forced into a shotgun wedding by her father.  ‘What you decided, my love?’

‘That I’m leaving him, Terry. I hate him with a passion. It’s you I want to be with.’

Terry puffed his cheeks out. He hadn’t been expecting this. ‘I do love you, Val, more than anything, you know that. But where we going to live? And what about the kids? It’s awkward, isn’t it?’

‘There’s stuff you don’t know, Terry. About Alexander.’

Terry knew that Alexander knocked Valerie about and would have done something about it ages ago if he could. But for obvious reasons, he couldn’t. He squeezed his lover’s hand. ‘Tell me.’

Tears streaming down her face, Valerie admitted the one thing she had vowed never to admit to anybody. ‘He gets off on our arguments and fights, Terry. Then afterwards, he rapes me.’

‘You fucking what! I’ll kill the bastard.’

The roads were treacherous, thanks to the snow and freezing conditions. ‘This is a joke, Val. No way are we going to get home in this. We’re going to have to turn around and go back to the hotel,’ Terry said. The hotel he’d booked was in Canvey, miles away from Barking, and it was becoming impossible to steer the car. The roads were like an ice rink.

‘I can’t leave the kids alone, Terry. They’ll be worried sick. I’ve never left them all night before.’

‘Can’t you call them from the hotel? I can’t drive back to Barking in this. It’s too dangerous.’

Imagining her beloved children looking out of the window, wondering where she’d got to, Valerie shook her head. ‘No. I have to get back, Terry. Tonight.’

*

Tommy Boyle stared out of the window. There was a kind of eeriness about the stormy weather; nobody was about and a dog was howling in the distance. He was getting worried now as his mother always came home when she said she would.

Hazel and Linda were sitting next to the blazing coal fire with Rex. ‘Where do you reckon she is, Tom?’ Hazel asked.

‘I told you a hundred times already, I don’t know,’ Tommy snapped. ‘Go look for her address book again, see if you can find Lisa’s number,’ Tommy ordered.

‘I looked everywhere already. Linda reckons she put it in her handbag.’

‘I’m sure I saw her put it in her handbag earlier, Tommy,’ Linda insisted.

‘I’m going to get dressed and walk to Lisa’s house. You two stay here and do not answer the door to anyone,’ Tommy ordered. He was ready for bed, had his pyjamas on.

‘You can’t go out this time of night on your own, Tommy,’ Linda warned. ‘If Mum comes home and you’re not here, she will be furious.’

‘Linda’s right. Besides, you’ll freeze to death. There was ice on the inside of our bedroom window earlier,’ Hazel stated.

‘I’ll be fine. I’ll take Rex with me.’

Hazel and Linda waited anxiously for their brother to return home.

‘He’s back, Haze,’ Linda squealed.

Hazel bolted to the front door and yanked it open. ‘Did you see Lisa? Is Mum with her?’

Teeth chattering, Tommy sat by the fire rubbing his frozen hands together. ‘Mum was with Lisa earlier, then she went to visit another friend. She said the weather must’ve stopped Mum getting home and we’re not to worry. Mum told Lisa if she wasn’t able to get home, we were to go to school as normal tomorrow.’

‘Thank God for that,’ Linda sighed.

 

Tommy and Hazel went to the same school, but usually walked separately with friends. Today, however, Hazel was waiting outside Tommy’s classroom for him and the pair of them ran home together.

Their mum kept a key they all used under the plant pot, and it was Tommy who did the honours. ‘Mum, Mum,’ he shouted.

Hazel ran up the stairs, then reappeared, crying. ‘She ain’t been home, Tommy. Mum’s make-up is still on the dressing table like it were yesterday. No way would she come home, then go out again without putting her make-up on fresh.’

By teatime, all three children were extremely worried and at a loss what to do. Hazel had warmed up the stew their mother had cooked the day before, but nobody was very hungry. Their mum was a good mum, their world, and she never left them for long periods of time. Even when she went to the bingo she was always back by 9.30 p.m. at the latest to tuck them into bed.

‘What we gonna do, Tommy?’ asked Linda.

‘I’m going to ring Nanny Noreen. She will know what to do,’ Hazel replied.

Tommy leapt up. ‘No. Don’t ring her. Nanny Noreen hates Mum. If you call her, it will only cause more trouble between Mum and Dad.’

‘What we meant to do then?’ Hazel shrieked.

When his eldest sister began howling louder than Rex ever did, Tommy went outside to get more coal for the fire. He didn’t know what to do, he was only twelve, but he was the man of the house and he would decide what was best.

By 10 p.m., Tommy was in panic mode himself, but was trying not to show it as he didn’t want to upset his sisters.

‘Shall we all walk round to Lisa’s house? See if she knows where Mum’s other friend lives,’ Hazel suggested.

‘No. Not tonight. But if Mum isn’t back by tomorrow afternoon, then we will,’ Tommy replied.

‘I’m scared. I think we should call the police,’ Linda stated.

‘The weather is still really bad. Hopefully, Mum will be home as soon as the ice and snow has thawed,’ Tommy said. He sounded far more reassuring than he actually felt.

Hazel’s eyes welled up again. ‘I got a bad feeling in my tummy about all this.’

Tommy clapped his hands excitedly. ‘I know what we can do: pray to that man Nanny Noreen always prays to when she loses something. What’s his name? Saint something.’

‘Saint Anthony,’ Hazel sneered.

Her grandmother drove her mad, spouting her religious claptrap. Hazel thought it was rubbish. ‘How’s he meant to find Mum?’

‘I don’t know. But he found Nan’s wedding ring that time, and her back-door key. It’s got to be worth a try, surely?’

‘Tommy’s right, Hazel,’ Linda added. ‘If we pray, Mum might come home tonight.’

Hazel shrugged. ‘OK then. Do we have to kneel and clasp our hands together?’

‘Yes. Let’s do it properly. Shut your eyes too,’ Tommy ordered. He waited until his sisters were in position, then closed his eyes. ‘Please, Saint Anthony, can you find our mum and send her home for us. We will be ever so grateful. Her name is Valerie Boyle. Amen.’

It was the following morning, during history, when Tommy’s headmaster entered the classroom. He whispered something in Mrs Jeffries’ ear, then she looked directly at him. ‘Tommy, do you want to go with Mr Andrews, love.’

‘Why?’ Tommy mumbled. All the boys were scared of Mr Andrews, who often caned them. As far as Tommy was aware, he’d done nothing wrong.

‘Come along, boy,’ the headmaster urged.

Outside the classroom was Tommy’s next-door neighbour, Mrs Talbot. ‘Hello. What you doing here? Have you seen my mum?’ Tommy asked, hoping Saint Anthony had found her.

‘I’ll get Hazel,’ the headmaster said.

‘What’s going on, Mrs Talbot?’ Tommy asked. He had a terrible feeling of unrest in his stomach.

‘Your nan’s at home, love, with Linda. She’ll explain everything to you.’

‘What! Nanny Noreen? She’s at our house?’

‘Yes, Tommy.’

It was at that precise moment Tommy knew something was dreadfully wrong. Nanny Noreen wouldn’t set foot in the house unless his dad was at home.

Mrs Talbot said very little on the short journey, then came inside the house with them. The mood was sombre. Nanny Noreen had a face like thunder and Linda was sobbing.

‘Whassa matter? Where’s Mum?’ Tommy asked, dreading the answer.

Linda flung herself at her brother. ‘Mum’s dead, Tommy. She died.’

Tommy had no idea what being struck by lightning felt like, but he should imagine it was similar to this.

Hazel sank to her knees, screaming blue murder. Even Mrs Talbot was crying and Tommy had never seen her cry before. ‘When? How? What happened?’ Tommy muttered. They had been studying Jack the Ripper in
history and he fleetingly visualized his mum being murdered, like those poor victims had.

‘Sit down, children,’ Nanny Noreen ordered.

Tommy lifted Hazel off the carpet and all three sat on the sofa, holding hands.

‘Your mother was involved in a fatal car crash. She died, along with her fancy man. I’ve managed to get a message to your father and he’s on his way home.’

‘Fancy man! Dead! No. She can’t be. Mum was visiting her friend Margaret,’ Tommy insisted.

‘Your mother was a hussy and a liar, boy. She was having it off with a man called Terry Fletcher. He was driving the car when it crashed. How your father will ever live down the shame, I do not know. May your mother’s soul burn in hell.’

‘Don’t say that. We love our mum,’ Linda cried.

Hazel was shaking uncontrollably. ‘Mum can’t be dead.There must be some mistake.’

‘Mum’s friend Lisa said she was with Margaret,’ Tommy repeated.

‘Well, I’m afraid your mother’s friend is a liar too, Tommy. It’s your poor hard-working father I feel sorry for. His side of the bed wasn’t even cold and that whore was out fornicating. It is not hard to obey when we love the one whom we obey, is it?’ Noreen said, quoting a line from the Bible.

‘That’s enough now, Noreen. The children are clearly distraught. No matter what you thought of Valerie, they loved her. She’s their mother.’

Noreen glared at Mrs Talbot. ‘Was their mother.’

 

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