Author Interview | Claire Kendal on I Spy

Category: Interview

I Spy cleverly mixes elements of the psychological thriller with elements of the spy novel. What made you want to join those two genres together, and how difficult was it?

The novel’s shout line is You don’t see me, but I see you. I think this really plays up the natural affinities between domestic noir and the spy thriller. These days, we all have the capacity to be spies, and we are all spied upon. There are so many levels of spying. Domestic, national, international. These levels are more fluid than we imagine. We are more involved in these processes and exchanges than we realise.

Where did the story come from?

So many things go into making a novel. But one of the key things that caught my attention happened while I was working on my previous book, The Second Sister. I became very interested in the male undercover detectives who became ‘deep swimmers’. That’s the term for people who go so profoundly undercover they stay for long periods in their fake lives to spy on people. These men infiltrated activist groups, some of them forming long-term relationships with female members and even having children with them.

I wondered what the story would look like if the agent were a woman, and if it were the agent herself who became pregnant, rather than the target. And I kept replaying that question would-be spies are always asked. How far would you go to save your country, to save someone you love, to save your own life? Holly, my heroine, is faced with this question.


How much of I Spy is grounded in reality?

First off, with I Spy I wanted to explore that very intimate kind of spying. Most of us can easily get hold of the tools of a spy. We walk around with phones, with location sharing, with portable devices that can photograph and record. So there is this very domestic, very personal spying that lovers have the capability of doing to each other (and parents to their children – or the reverse!).

I Spy also deals with coercive control, a very domestic problem, and there seems to me to be a confluence between coercive control and spying. Holly is increasingly certain her partner, Zac, is spying on her. His response is to gaslight her, to tell her she is imagining it. Plus, there is an additional element that increases her vulnerability – pregnancy. This intensifies the situation she is in, her susceptibility to having her sanity questioned. Zac exploits that cliché about how it must be your hormones making you crazy. There are so many ways that being pregnant makes everything more dangerous for Holly.

Second, there is the more general sense in which all of us are spied on, given the explosion of intrusive technologies that monitor millions of people and can be used not just by government agencies but by private companies. So far, these technologies are not adequately regulated and safeguarded, and the balance between public protection and privacy has not been properly debated. CCTV is everywhere, and we now have facial recognition too. Every phone call we make is logged. Every document we download, every ‘Buy Now’ button we hit, every email we send – all of these are scanned for key words, so that our movements can be tracked in real time, without our permission. Think Edward Snowden. Think WikiLeaks. Many of our employers are at it too.

Third and finally, there is the real espionage sanctioned by our governments and enacted by our intelligence services.

I Spy weaves these different levels of surveillance together, so that they all become extra-potent. Out of this blend came an ending that I hope readers will find powerful and thought-provoking. I think it may be the best one I’ve ever done in a novel. In any case, it’s a twist that punched me in the stomach when I realised it had to happen.

Did you do a lot of research in order to write this novel, particularly for the spy elements?

MI5 and GCHQ tend to be a little shy of sharing their secrets! In all seriousness, though, you just have to make stuff up, which thankfully is what novelists are supposed to do. But you try everything you can to research what information is available, read first-hand accounts by agents, watch documentaries about the history of the intelligences services, read spy novels, sit in the public gallery of criminal trials, engage with the testimonies of victims, talk to professionals, visit the locations you are writing about…

One of my favourite research tools was the quizzes you can find on our intelligence services’ websites. I took them all, and some American ones too. To my astonishment, I discovered that I am ‘MI5-Ready’. Of course, I was super-proud, so I told my husband and he said, ‘That’s the result everybody gets when they take those tests’. He is MI5-ready too, so perhaps he is right. Here are some of their quizzes, so go ahead and see for yourself…

In some ways, though, my job was made easier because my real interest was in what an ordinary person might do if they were approached to act as an agent, or what the Americans call a ‘human asset’. In Holly’s case, she is asked to spy on her partner. It’s not an unheard-of event. What tools and strategies would a civilian use to do this? I think that is the consistent thing in my novels – the idea of someone like you or me in an extraordinary situation, and in extremity. Holly isn’t in a James Bond film with an endless supply of bespoke gadgets.

And, as I said, she is pregnant. I spent a lot of time thinking about what that would look like, because I haven’t come across many pregnant spies in novels. I did a lot of research into some of the medical conditions that affect her. As a novelist, I try very seriously to be accurate about all the physical, social and psychological factors that shape my characters. I went to a symposium at the Royal College of Medicine that was informative, moving and inspiring. Because Holly works in a hospital as a ward clerk, I needed also to find out lots of details about that job.

I Spy has two timelines that gradually converge. How difficult was it to keep all of the timings straight when you were writing?

During the early drafts, I made elaborate notes. I had to know Holly’s age, to the day, in every chapter, as well as the ages of the other characters. I needed to be mindful of the seasons, the kind of clothes characters would be wearing, the weather, what flowers were growing, what birds were around, the political and social and cultural events that were current at any given moment. In the ‘Then’ timeline Holly is pregnant, so I was thinking all the time about exactly how many weeks into the pregnancy she was, and what would be happening to her body.

Working on these two timelines, ‘Then’ and ‘Now’, was exciting and hugely involving. I wanted each plotline to accelerate, gaining intensity as it went forward. My hope was that twisting them together would give them still more force. One thing I had to do was edit the ‘Then’ timeline completely in sequence, then do the same with ‘Now’. I needed to double check the coherence and escalation of each on its own to ensure they worked in unison. It’s a complex and gripping thing to do as a novelist.

Over the course of your novels you have created many memorable characters – do you have a favourite among them?

The truth is that I love them all. Except Rafe in The Book of You. I don’t love him.

I wonder if I should confess something about my first heroine, Clarissa? I feel protective of her, because some readers have been enraged that she isn’t stronger. A few went so far as to say they wanted to slap her. Clarissa is in no way equipped to deal with the man who stalks her. Few of us would be. She isn’t a superhero and that is why she is special to me. I feel defiant about Clarissa’s sense of helplessness, because I was determined in the novel to be as true as I could to the reality of what happens to victims of stalking. The victim-blaming that is central to the book’s plot has been replicated in some responses from readers. Even now, this upsets and disturbs me.

But perhaps it’s true to say that your most recent heroine is always your favourite. So right now I’m all about Holly and I Spy. I seriously adore her.


In all of your novels, has there ever been a scene that you found particularly difficult to write, and if so, why?

Yes, but I can’t say exactly what the scene was in I Spy without providing a huge spoiler. Readers will probably guess when they come to it. I was sobbing as I wrote that scene. My husband came into my study as I was typing. Some serious ugly-crying.  He was aghast, thinking that something terrible had happened in real life.

It’s odd, because I dealt with some incendiary material in The Book of You, but I had this strange detachment while writing it – the distress and shock at what I’d done didn’t come until after I finished. The Second Sister made me weep, but those tears were gentle. Nothing has ever hit me like I Spy. You might ask, Then why do it? The answer is that the events of a novel have an inevitable force and trajectory. You can’t evade them. You can’t run away from what you are doing, or distort it to make things easier. Novels are not literally ‘true’ but they have their own truth, I hope.

What is the best thing about being a writer?

Writing a novel is like falling in love. When I’m immersed in one, it’s all I can think about, the only place I want to be, the only thing I want to be doing, and anything that tears me away from it is hard. Plus, it’s a kind of superpower. You’re making a world. You get to name the characters, to decide everything.

When you are not writing, how do you like to switch off and relax?

Not surprisingly, I read a lot. I sew when I have time, which these days is not often. I like country walks. I love Spain and the Spanish language, so I’m working to get to a level where I can properly speak and read and write it fluently. This is my current passion. I have a long way to go before I’m anywhere near doing these things, but I find the language endlessly fascinating and beautiful. It’s also an expression of my love for Europe, and my sense of my own European identity.

If you were being exiled to a desert island and could only take three books, what would they be?

Clarissa by Samuel Richardson, one of the longest novels in the English language and still my favourite. Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems, the fantasy edition we need that contains everything and with no transcription errors. His Dark Materials and The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman (I think it is fair to count them as one – because the volumes together tell the full story, but I will put them back if Desert Island Discs tells me to).

I Spy is out now in paperback. 

Extract | The Sting by Kimberley Chambers

Category: Extract

The Sting book on beach

Enjoy an exclusive peek at Chapters 1-4 from the explosive latest thriller from Kimberley Chambers.

The Sting is out now in hardback and ebook, and coming soon in paperback. Order your copy here!


New Year’s Eve 1972

‘Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind.
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne.
For auld lang syne, my jo,
For auld land syne,
We’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.’

I’m in the middle of the circle holding hands with my sisters Hazel and Linda. My mum, dad and Nanny Noreen are all singing at the top of their voices. My mum looks happy, even though she still has the remainder of a black eye that my dad gave her on Christmas Eve.

‘Open the front door, Tommy,’ orders my dad. He calls New Year’s Eve
Hogmanay after an oatcake.

I do as I’m told. Old Mr Cleaver across the road is banging two dustbin lids together. I feel something brush past my leg and then I scream when I realize what it is. It’s a black cat and it’s obviously been run over. It collapses in the hallway right in front of me.

Nanny Noreen goes ballistic and blames me. She’s very religious and believes in Scottish folklore. ‘You stupid boy,’ she bellows. ‘You know the first to step through the door after midnight affects the fortunes of everyone who lives in the house. I’ve told you that enough times, so what do you invite in, a dying black cat. Now we’re going to have bad luck all year. You wait and see.’

I stare at the cat as it takes its last breath. Little did I know at that point Nanny Noreen was speaking the truth.

In a few days’ time, my life as I’d known it would no longer be. Everything was about to change for the worse.

My name is Tommy Boyle and this is my story. . .


Christmas 1972

Tommy Boyle pressed his nose against the cold glass of his bedroom window. The weather had taken a turn for the worse this week. It was literally freezing, but Tommy didn’t care about the cold. All he was bothered about was his father coming home from the oil rigs. He was so excited; he’d barely slept last night.

Hearing his sisters squabbling over the record player, Tommy sighed. Three months at a time his father worked away for, and it was difficult being surrounded by females. He missed the simple things: such as watching The Big Match or Match of the Day and discussing the games. Girls knew nothing about football. Nor Cowboys and Indians, or Battleship.

‘Not this rubbish again. Turn it off,’ shouted twelve-year-old Tommy. His younger sister had obviously got her way. Linda was obsessed with little Jimmy Osmond, reckoned she would marry him one day. ‘Long-Haired Lover from Liverpool’ was one of only two songs Linda ever played. Benny Hill’s ‘Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West)’ was the other and Tommy hated both. He thought they were silly songs.

‘Breakfast’s ready, kids.’

Tommy ran down the stairs, but slipped, landing in a heap at the bottom.

Valerie Boyle picked her son up. ‘What did you do? You silly sausage. Have you hurt yourself?’

Tommy had hurt himself. His knee was throbbing, but he was determined not to cry. ‘Boys don’t cry,’ his dad had always told him. ‘I’m all right. My pyjamas are too long. I fell over the bottoms of ’em.’

Valerie had only bought her son the fleecy pyjamas the previous day. They were meant to fit a twelve-year-old, but Tommy was small for his age. ‘I’ll get the machine out in a bit, alter them for you. You’ll live, eh?’ Valerie smiled, ruffling her son’s mousy blond hair.

‘Where’s Rex?’ Tommy enquired. Rex was the Alsatian his father had purchased to protect the family in his absence. Tommy loved Rex and the feeling was mutual. He would often take the dog out with him. Rex was too strong on his lead for Tommy, but he would walk happily by his side and never went into the road.

‘Rex is having his breakfast in his kennel, love. You know your dad doesn’t allow Rex indoors while he’s here, and he’ll be home soon, won’t he?’

‘Yeah, but it’s cold. Rex can’t sleep in his kennel this time of year. He’ll freeze.’

‘I’ve put some blankets in there, Tommy. He’ll only be out there for ten days, until your dad goes back to work. Then he can come inside again,’ Valerie replied, wishing her husband wasn’t coming home for Christmas at all. She didn’t love Alexander any more, hadn’t for a long time. But the children did, so she put their happiness first. For all Alexander’s faults, he was a hard worker and good provider. They lived in a nice three-bedroom house: private, not council. Working on those oil rigs paid extremely well.

A deafening scream filled the air, followed by ten-year-old Linda holding two halves of a seven-inch single in her hands. ‘Hazel snapped Jimmy in half,’ she cried.

‘No, I never. It was an accident,’ lied fourteen-year-old Hazel. ‘I wanted to play Alice Cooper and she—’

‘Enough.’ Valerie Boyle held her hands in the air while eyeing her eldest daughter with suspicion. Hazel had a nasty streak at times, just like her father. ‘Go eat your breakfast, now!’

‘I loved that record, Mummy,’ Linda whimpered.

Valerie held her youngest child close to her chest. ‘I
know you did, darling. Don’t worry. Mummy will go to
the record shop after breakfast and buy you another one.’

Tommy Boyle stared out of the front-room window nervously chewing at his fingernails. His father had been due home at lunchtime and it was now teatime.

‘Sausage rolls are ready. Who wants one?’ Valerie yelled, trying to keep her voice sounding jovial. Alexander had promised her faithfully he would come straight home, what with it being Christmas Eve. Him stopping off at a pub for this length of time would only lead to one thing. Arguments. Alexander was a horrible drunk, would always drag up the past.

‘Will Dad bring us presents too? Or is Father Christmas
bringing them all?’ enquired Linda.

Hazel sniggered. ‘Father Christmas doesn’t exist, divvy.’

‘Yes, he does. He eats the mince pies we leave outside
and his reindeers drink the milk.’

‘No, he doesn’t. Rex does.’

‘Stop it, Hazel. Christmas is meant to be a time of joy, not disagreements. And if I catch you breaking your sister’s records again, you’ll get no pocket money for a month,’ warned Valerie.

His stomach churning like it always did when he feared his dad might come home drunk, Tommy continued to stare forlornly out of the window.

It was gone midnight when Tommy was awoken by shouting and what sounded like glass smashing. He immediately started to shake. His mum was only five foot two, his dad a whole foot taller, and he knew who would end up with the cuts and bruises.

Linda appeared in his bedroom, tears streaming down her face. ‘They’re fighting, Tommy.’

‘Get in my bed and put the quilt over your head.’

‘Dad won’t hurt Mum, will he?’ Linda asked fearfully.

‘No. I’ll sort it. You stay here,’ Tommy replied bravely.

Sitting on the top of the stairs rocking to and fro was Hazel. Tommy sat next to his sister and put a comforting arm around her shoulders. The argument was loud, but muffled in parts.

‘You lying whore. I know you’ve been with Terry Fletcher because you were seen in the fucking pub with him,’ bellowed Alexander Boyle.

Tommy winced as he heard something else smash. It sounded like china. ‘I’m gonna make sure Mum is OK.’

‘No, Tommy. Don’t go down there,’ Hazel pleaded, grabbing her brother’s arm. ‘He’ll only hit you again, like he did last time. Don’t get involved.’

Remembering the time he’d got a clump for intervening, Tommy sat down. For as long as he could remember, his parents had argued. His dad was a tall broad-shouldered man with black hair and blue eyes. He was from Glasgow originally and spoke with a deep Scottish accent. So much so, some of Tommy’s friends struggled to understand what he was saying. At forty-five, he was thirteen years older than Tommy’s mum.

‘Who is Terry Fletcher?’ Hazel asked. ‘Is he Billy Fletcher’s dad?’

Tommy shrugged. Billy Fletcher was older than him and in Hazel’s year at school. Tommy thought he was a flash git and steered well clear of him. Whoever this Terry Fletcher was, it was clear he was the cause of the argument. From what he could gather, his dad was accusing his mother of fornicating with Terry while he’d been away.

Tommy didn’t know too much about his parents’ past. They never really spoke about it. The snippets he had learned mostly came via his dad’s mum, Nanny Noreen. She reckoned his father was happily married to a good Catholic girl before he’d been forced to travel to London to find work. According to Nanny Noreen, his mother was working as a barmaid back then and she’d trapped his father by falling pregnant with Hazel.

‘A laughing stock you’ve made me, you no-good slut. Parading around with another man while I’m working my balls off to provide for you. Have you any idea how that makes me feel? You’re a prostitute, same as your mother was,’ bellowed Alexander.

‘Do you think our dead nan really was a prostitute?’
asked Linda.

Not realizing Linda had snuck out of his bedroom, Tommy leapt up and held her in his arms. ‘Nah, take no notice. Mum says when Dad is drunk he doesn’t know what he’s saying.’ Tommy had actually heard Nanny Noreen say that his other nan had been a brass and had died while having an illegal abortion, but he liked to protect his sisters from such horrible gossip.

‘Mum has been going out lots of an evening lately and she has been wearing her best frocks and shoes. Do you think Dad could be telling the truth? Perhaps she hasn’t been going to the bingo?’ Hazel suggested.

Once again, Tommy shrugged. The boys at school were all infatuated with his mother. She was short, very pretty and blonde. The boys insisted she was a ringer for the actress Barbara Windsor, but Tommy reckoned that was because of the size of her boobies. She did look a bit like Barbara, he supposed, but to him she was plain old ‘Mum’. He had heard a few rumours though, that she was a ‘Good Time Girl’. Tommy hadn’t really understood what that meant at the time, but he was kind of getting the gist now.

Hearing more shouting, then a loud scream, Tommy decided enough was enough and bolted down the stairs.

‘No, Tommy. No,’ Hazel shrieked, running after her brother. Linda followed suit. As siblings, they often had disagreements. But whenever their parents fought, the three of them stuck together like glue.

‘What you doing? Leave Mum alone,’ Tommy ordered. His mother was lying on the kitchen floor and his father was crouched over her with his hands around her throat.

‘Go back to bed, you,’ Alexander hissed, without even looking around.

‘None of us are going back to bed. Not until you leave Mum alone,’ Hazel bravely defied him.

The sound of his first-born’s voice was enough to jolt Alexander Boyle back to reality. He loosened his grip around his wife’s throat and gingerly stood up. He grinned at Hazel. A stupid, drunken grin. ‘You going to give your dad a hug then?’
Knowing it would be better for her mother if she did, Hazel walked towards him and put her arms around his waist.

‘Daddy’s home. Come on you two. Give your old man a hug.’

Linda was hiding behind her brother’s back, but when Tommy squeezed her hand and led her over to their father, she also guessed playing normal was the right thing to do.

Valerie stood up. Her left eye socket was throbbing where the bastard had given her a right-hander. Alexander had his back towards her, so she brushed herself down and locked eyes with her beloved son. ‘Thank you,’ she mouthed.

Unable to sleep, Tommy thought about his family. They were happy most of the time and all parents argued, he supposed.

His mum was from Poplar originally. She was bubbly and laughed a lot. She had sea-blue eyes and her smile could light up a room. There’d been rows in the past caused by other men chatting to his mum. His father had hit a man at Old Mother Flynn’s daughter’s wedding because he said the man was taking liberties with his mother.

Since his dad had gone to work on the oil rigs things had got better. His last few visits home had been such good fun and there hadn’t been a cross word. Tommy wasn’t sure why Nanny Noreen wasn’t a fan of his mum. Hazel reckoned that was because their mother wasn’t Catholic and she had liked their dad’s first wife. She was very religious, Nanny Noreen, and his mum didn’t believe in religion. His dad did though, especially when it came to football. He was a big Celtic fan and hated Glasgow Rangers with a passion. He called them ‘Protestant scum’ and had been raging when they’d won the UEFA Cup Winners Cup at the Nou Camp earlier this year. His dad’s sorrow had turned to joy when Rangers had got banned from defending the trophy thanks to a pitch invasion from their fans. ‘Serves the Protestant scum right, lad,’ he’d chuckled, doing a jig of unbridled joy.

Unlike most of his friends, Tommy had no cousins. His dad had a brother who lived in Scotland, but they didn’t speak. Tommy had no idea why they’d fallen out because nobody ever wanted to talk about such things. His mum also had a brother, but he had no children and they rarely saw him anyway. Uncle Ian lived in South London and Tommy’s dad said he was a ‘weirdo’. Even his mum didn’t seem to like Uncle Ian very much.

Tommy liked the house he lived in. It was ever so modern with brown and orange patterned wallpaper. Apparently, when he was little they’d lived in a house in Seven Kings. Tommy didn’t remember that, the one they lived in now in Barking was all he could recall. Unlike most of his pals, Tommy had his own bedroom that he’d decorated with posters of his favourite footballers. He was a Celtic fan like his father, but Tottenham Hotspur was his English team. He had decided to become a Spurs fan after watching them win the UEFA Cup Final in May. Martin Chivers and Alan Mullery had scored the goals. Chivers was Tommy’s favourite player.

Hearing Rex howling outside, Tommy prayed that he wouldn’t wake his dad. He had heard his father come up to bed about an hour ago, but not his mum.

Linda stirred as her brother got out of bed. She could never sleep alone if her parents had been fighting. ‘Where you going, Tommy? Has Father Christmas arrived?’

‘No. You go back to sleep. I’m going to check on Rex. I won’t be long.’

Aware his father was snoring like a pig, Tommy tiptoed down the stairs. It wasn’t just Rex he wanted to check on. Sleep would not come unless he was sure his mother was all right.

Valerie Boyle was sitting by the lit-up Christmas tree wrapping the last of the children’s presents. She could barely see out of her left eye now, the socket was so swollen.

Tommy crouched next to her. ‘Are you OK, Mum?’ he asked softly.

Willing herself not to cry, Valerie forced a smile. ‘Of course I am. Tough as old boots, me.’

‘Is Dad still angry?’

‘No. I don’t think so.’

‘Who is Terry Fletcher, Mum?’

No way could Valerie tell her son the truth. Not only would it break his heart, she would hate him to think badly of her. She shrugged. ‘I have no  idea, Tom. You know what your father is like when he gets a bee in his bonnet, especially if he’s been drinking.’

Satisfied his mother would never lie to him, Tommy nodded. ‘Rex is howling. I think he must be cold. Can I bring him in the kitchen? I will sleep with him and I promise I’ll put him outside before Dad gets up in the morning.’

Valerie reached her arm out and stroked her son’s cheek. Tommy was a good boy with a big heart. ‘Go on then. I’m going to sleep on the sofa tonight anyway, so I’ll hear your dad getting up.’

Valerie finished wrapping the presents, then went to check on Tommy. He was fast asleep on the lino and so was Rex. She covered them both with a blanket, then glanced at her face in the bathroom mirror. She looked a mess and she would have to endure her bastard of a husband’s sanctimonious mother tomorrow. ‘You’re an animal, Alexander Boyle,’ she mumbled. ‘Merry bloody Christmas.’


Christmas morning started out like any other. The kids opened their presents, then watched Clapperboard’s Christmas Cracker and Play School while munching on home-made sausage rolls. Considering the events of the previous evening, the atmosphere was relatively normal. The only telling sign of the drama was their mother’s swollen eye.

Alexander poked his head around the lounge door. Hazel was engrossed in her Jackie annual, Tommy in his Roy of the Rovers and Linda’s head was in a St Trinian’s book. ‘Look what I found in the dining room,’ Alexander

Realizing they had more presents, all three children jumped up excitedly.

‘Wow! A real Celtic kit, like the actual players wear. Look, Mum,’ Tommy gabbled, taking his tank top and shirt off and putting the top on. ‘Can I wear it today? Please can I, Dad?’

Alexander chuckled. ‘I don’t see why not – do you, Mum?’

Valerie forced a smile. She loved Christmas as a rule, always decorated the house with a huge tree, paper chains, tinsel, and put all the cards up on the wall either side of the fireplace. She even blew up an enormous inflatable snowman; he stood in the corner next to the glass cabinet she kept her collection of china dolls in. This year, however, apart from enjoying the children’s excitement when opening their gifts, Valerie was only going through the motions. She was counting down the days until her husband went back to work and she could spend time with the man she truly loved.

‘Oh my God! It’s those yellow dungarees we saw in Rathbone market,’ Hazel exclaimed. ‘I love them. Can I put them on now?’

‘Go on then,’ Alexander laughed.

‘Barbie and Ken! And they’re wearing cords like you made me, Tommy and Hazel, Mum.’ Linda was over the moon.

Valerie smiled. She was a dab hand with a sewing machine. Not only did she make lots of pretty frocks for herself, whenever the kids spotted one of their idols on Top of the Pops or in a magazine wearing something they desired, Valerie would find a pattern and make them an identical version. ‘Your father and I wrote to Father Christmas ourselves because we knew how much you wanted Barbie and Ken, didn’t we, Alex?’

‘We sure did. And this is for you,’ Alexander replied, handing Valerie a gift. He hadn’t forgiven her. Would never forgive her for the past. But he only had Irish Tony’s word on seeing her out with Terry Fletcher and, to be fair, Irish Tony was always pissed and rarely knew what day it was. Valerie had sworn to him last night that the only times she had been out of an evening while he was working away was to the bingo with her mate Lisa, so for the  children’s sake Alexander had chosen to believe that. For now, at least.

‘Thank you, Alex. They’re beautiful,’ Valerie said, darting off to the bathroom mirror to secure the knotted gold hoops to her ears. She didn’t like them much, preferred dangly earrings, but she was determined to play
the dutiful wife for the sake of her kids. She had quite liked the perfume Alex had given her earlier, which was a bonus. Aliage by Estée Lauder. She’d been amazed he’d got that right. Every year he bought her scent and he usually got it so very wrong. She liked musky perfumes and no matter how many times she told Alexander that, she always ended up with something with a sickly sweet aroma.

Having already received numerous presents from his wife and children, Alexander was surprised when Tommy ran out of the room then returned with another. ‘I chose this and bought it out of my pocket money, Dad.’

Alexander ripped off the wrapping paper. It was a small framed photo of the victorious Celtic side who had won the league last season.

‘I thought you could take it to the oil rig with you,’ Tommy suggested.

Alexander stood up and ruffled the boy’s head. Tommy was a lovable kid, but Alexander could never love him, not properly anyway. He glared at Valerie. ‘I’m off to the pub now. I’ll pick my mum up on the way home.’

‘What pub you going to?’ Valerie asked, her heart in her mouth.

Alexander liked to drink back in his old stamping ground Seven Kings, rather than Barking. ‘The Joker,’ he replied. ‘Why?’

Valerie breathed a sigh of relief and smiled. Terry Fletcher wouldn’t be in there. ‘No reason. Have fun. Dinner will be ready at half three.’

‘Why isn’t David on here? He’s so much better than Chuck Berry. “My Ding-A-Ling” is a stupid song,’ Hazel complained.

Tommy rolled his eyes. What was it with girls? His eldest sister was in love with David Cassidy. ‘Because David’s a poofta.’

Hazel punched her brother in the arm. ‘No, he is not.’

Watching Top of the Pops was a ritual in the Boyle household. Tommy liked David Bowie, but he would never admit that to the lads at school because David wore make-up and he would get ribbed for it.

‘Yes! Jimmy’s on,’ Linda squealed, jumping up and down with excitement.

‘They didn’t even have the Shangri-Las on there,’ Hazel moaned. ‘Leader of the Pack’ was her current favourite record. It reminded her of Jimmy Young, who lived across the road. He was a bad boy who rode a motorbike. He was also very handsome.

Valerie was singing along, merrily basting the potatoes when she heard Alexander arrive home. Her heart beat rapidly and she said a silent prayer he wasn’t half-cut. She would hate him to spoil the kids’ Christmas by kicking off again. ‘Did you have a nice time?’ she shouted out. She could hear the nervousness in her own voice.

‘So-so. Come and say hello to Mum then,’ Alexander bellowed. Irish Tony had wound him up again. ‘I’m more than ninety-nine per cent sure it was your Valerie with Terry Fletcher, Alex. I’m a hundred per cent. I saw ’em holding hands.’

‘Hello, Noreen. Merry Christmas,’ Valerie said, wiping her hands on her apron before kissing the old cow on the cheek. She could tell Alexander had heard more gossip due to the sneer on his face.

‘Oh dear! Looks nasty, that eye. Walk into another door, did you?’ Noreen knew full well her son clumped Valerie at times and she didn’t have an ounce of sympathy for the woman. Valerie was a born flirt and, unfortunately for Alexander, she couldn’t keep her knickers on. Noreen
would never forgive her for how she’d treated her son and she rued the day Alexander ever met the whore. His first wife Mary had been a lovely lady.

‘Dad’s still got the hump with Mum. You don’t think they’ll fight again, do you?’ Hazel whispered in her brother’s ear.

Tommy shrugged. He’d been doing a lot of shrugging

Valerie Boyle was a good cook and had gone to town as per usual with the Christmas dinner. The turkey was succulent, the stuffing crispy, the parsnips just on the right side of burnt and the vegetables not too soft.

‘Bit soggy, these roast potatoes,’ Noreen complained, pushing the spuds to one side of her plate.

Tommy glared at his grandmother. She wasn’t a loving woman and he could tell Hazel was her favourite. ‘I like the potatoes. It’s a nice dinner, Mum.’

‘You would say that, wouldn’t you? You’re your mother’s
son all right,’ Noreen spat.

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ Tommy asked.

‘Don’t answer your grandma back, eat your dinner, boy,’
Alexander ordered.

‘You never answered my question, Valerie. What happened to your face?’ Noreen pried. Her son hadn’t mentioned anything was amiss on the journey.

Aware of her children’s eyes on her, Valerie cleared her throat. ‘I tripped and fell down the stairs.’

Noreen pursed her lips. She knew Valerie was lying, guessed she’d been hawking her mutton again. ‘Best you be more careful in future then, eh?’

‘Hello, Rex. Look what I got for you, boy. You’ll like this. It’s turkey,’ Tommy said, stroking his best mate. Rex looked so forlorn living in his kennel, it broke Tommy’s heart. But his dad wouldn’t budge, not even when he’d begged to let Rex inside for Christmas Day. ‘It’s a dog, Tommy. Dogs live in kennels and humans live in houses. Fact.’

Rex nuzzled his head inside Tommy’s navy blue Parka. He hated being out in the cold, alone.

Alexander dropped his mother home early evening, then drove back towards Barking with a face like thunder. Irish Tony’s words had been on his mind all day and it had been an effort playing happy families. He was far too embarrassed to admit the truth to his mother. She’d warned him not to leave Mary for Valerie in the first place, and he felt like a bloody fool.

‘How could you do this to me, you bitch?’ Alex mumbled under his breath. He loved Valerie with a burning passion. She was an absolute stunner and the thought of another man even touching her filled him with rage. He’d always been insanely jealous, couldn’t help himself. Perhaps he should hand in his notice? Quit the oil rigs and stay at home where he could keep a watchful eye on her. Trouble with that idea was, local jobs paid nowhere near what he earned on the rigs and they had a very expensive mortgage. Only other option was to pay this Terry Fletcher a visit and warn him off. Alexander didn’t know the bloke personally but had heard through the grapevine he was married and lived in Barking with his wife and two kids.
Alexander didn’t want to turn up at Terry’s door in case the wife chucked him out. That would only push him and Valerie closer together.

Alexander punched his steering wheel in frustration. ‘Slag.’

Valerie Boyle put the Party Susan on the dining table. ‘Supper’s ready, kids. Would you like me to bring a plate of sandwiches in the lounge to you, Alex?’ she shouted out. Her husband was sitting in his favourite armchair, knocking back the Scotch like it was going out of style.

‘I’m not hungry,’ Alexander replied.

‘Whassa matter with Dad, Mum?’ Linda asked. It was clear to all three children that after dropping their nan off their father had arrived home in a foul mood.

‘He’s probably just tired and winding down from work. Why don’t you three take your sandwiches and pickles upstairs, eat them in your bedrooms. You don’t have to go to sleep yet. You can play with your toys upstairs too.’ Valerie was a protective mother, would hate her children
to witness any more violence. She had always tried to hide that from them.

‘No. I’m staying downstairs with you,’ Tommy replied. He was determined not to leave his mother alone with his father. That thought scared him.

The girls went to their bedroom and Tommy sat next to his mother on the sofa. His dad had a film on, but Tommy could tell he wasn’t really watching it. His mood was tense and you could cut the atmosphere with a knife.
‘What’s this film about, Dad?’ Tommy asked.

‘It’s about a slag, son. A slag who has affairs while her old man is working away.’

Valerie felt her heart lurch. ‘Please don’t say such things to Tommy, Alex. I have done nothing wrong. I told you that last night.’

‘That isn’t what Irish Tony says. He’s seen you out with your fancy man, holding hands. How often does your mother go out of a night, Tommy?’

‘Not much. Once a week usually, to the bingo,’ Tommy lied.

‘Hazel, Linda, get down here a minute,’ Alexander bellowed.

‘For goodness’ sake, Alex. Please don’t do this, not on Christmas Day. If you want to argue with me, then fine. But leave the children out of it,’ Valerie urged.

Hazel precariously poked her head around the lounge door. ‘What’s up?’

‘Come in the room properly,’ Alexander ordered. ‘Stand in front of me and look me in the eyes, love.’

‘Why?’‘Because I want to ask you something.’

‘Me too?’ Linda enquired, looking at Tommy, who stared at her, willing her not to put her foot in anything.

Alexander held his eldest daughter’s hand. ‘Don’t you dare lie to me, Hazel, this is important. I want to know how often your mother goes out of a night?’

Hazel didn’t know how to respond. She didn’t want to get her mum into trouble but neither did she want to lie to her dad. ‘Sometimes she goes out,’ Hazel mumbled.

‘Yes, but how many times? Think back to, say, last week. You can remember that clearly, can’t you?’

Hazel nodded.

‘How many times did your mother go out of an evening last week? Mind, I will check with the neighbours and if I find out you’ve fibbed to me, you’ll get no pocket money for a whole year. Do you understand?’

Valerie squeezed Tommy’s trembling hand. ‘Please stop this nonsense, Alex. The children don’t deserve it.’

Hazel chewed nervously on her lower lip. She got far more pocket money than any of her friends and she would hate not to be able to buy her records, favourite magazines and sweets. ‘Five times, Dad. Mum went out five times last week in the evening.’

‘Thank you, Hazel. You and Linda can go back upstairs

Alexander waited until the front-room door was shut, then leapt up and whacked Tommy hard around the head. ‘That’s for fucking lying to me. Now get your arse up them stairs and I won’t be taking you to football tomorrow either.’

Tommy burst into tears and ran from the room. He had been so excited about attending his first ever proper football match, had been bragging about it at school before he broke up. What was he meant to say to his pals

Valerie winced as Alexander moved closer to her. She knew what was coming next and had little choice but to take it.

Alexander punched his wife in the side of the head, then pinned her to the carpet. His breath smelled of Scotch, his face etched in a sneer. ‘You’re my woman. Nobody else’s. You belong to me,’ he spat as he ripped her knickers off. Seconds later he raped her, brutally.


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.’


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?’


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?’


‘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 in hardback and ebook, and coming soon in paperback. Order your copy here!


Category: Competitions

We want to hear from you!

HarperFiction is proud to launch Killing It: The Killer Reads Competition for undiscovered writers. All you need is a good idea, a passion for the dark side and a dollop of determination!

Launching at the start of 2021 on January  7th, this is a competition to help push open doors to crime writers who need a way into the publishing industry. All you need to do to enter is send us the first 10,000 words of your crime, thriller or suspense novel, a short synopsis, and a short paragraph about yourself, too. We want to get to know you!

We encourage submissions from Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic writers in particular.

If you are looking for a place to start, here’s a sentence to start you off: ‘The body was lying in the snow, covered in a smattering of dead leaves.’ You do not have to use this prompt but it’s there if you need it!

Three winners will be chosen to receive:

Editorial reports from HarperFiction crime editors on their full manuscripts, covering pace, characterisation, pitch, and more.

Editorial mentoring (up to three one-hour sessions) with a HarperFiction crime editor. 

The competition will be judged by HarperFiction Editorial Director Phoebe Morgan, Commissioning Editor Kathryn Cheshire, Assistant Editor Sophie Churcher, and Ayo Onatade, a crime critic and the former chair of the Crime Writers Association Short Story Dagger.

To enter please send the following to:

The first 10,000 words of your crime, thriller or suspense novel (your book needs to be complete or near-complete to enter)

A short synopsis (max. 500 words)

A short paragraph about yourself

Please read our full terms and conditions before sending your entry, here.

NB: Winning the competition does not guarantee publication by HarperCollins UK.

Author Post | Liam McIlvanney on The Quaker

Category: Uncategorized

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.