MONDAY, 24 AUGUST 2009My counsellor says I should keep a journal of my dreams.
What does she know?
I need far more help than she can give me.
Blood bubbled through the scored skin, swelling and dripping.
Swelling and dripping. Slipping into a languid crawl before diluting
across the damp enamel, and finally plunging into the water. Each
droplet billowed and unfurled in delicate ribbons before vanishing,
dispersing in the bath where she lay. She watched her wrists bleed.Strange how peaceful it is
, she thought, and sank deeper beneath the
The drifting steam swirled above her, entwining the scents of
jasmine foam and rose soap. She slid her head below the water, her
hair floating around her shoulders, shining in the wetness. She no
longer felt like hacking it off. Glad that she hadn’t.
She closed her eyes, content to hear the muffled music from the
radio in the hall, and the muted rain against the window. Thoughts
drifted in and out, along with her breathing.
She looked down along the plane of her outstretched body.Imagine being beautiful. Imagine being the centre of the world
wished she were someone else.
She sighed and closed her eyes again.
He groped for the handle of the back door, located it and held it
tight to stop it rattling.
He peeked into the house. No sign of her; if she was there at all,
she hadn’t heard him.
He turned it slowly, holding it tight keep it quiet. It was unlocked,
providing an open invite for anyone.
No surprise there, though.
He stepped inside and paused, listening. Music trickled down to him.
He flicked the light switch and the fluorescent tube jolted into life,
reflecting a bright strip of light from the stainless-steel draining
board and glinting from the chrome-edged cupboards.
The surfaces lay bare, apart from the bunch of keys and a
screwed-up, tear-sodden tissue marooned together on top of the low
He walked the length of the hall.He stopped at the foot of the stairs.
She stirred just enough to twist the hot tap with her foot. The fresh
water rippled into the old, and warmed her.
She shut off the tap again and dozed.
And, floating away, she saw someone else with fair hair and blue
eyes. Tired, scared, bewildered blue eyes. Who was it? She couldn’t
see. A girl? A boy?
Someone in the woods with fair hair, fair skin and blue eyes.
She saw more: a pretty girl with a dirty face, tied against a tree.Like me, but pretty
, she thought.
He heard the running water and drew a deep breath, as if to smell her.
He grabbed the handrail, propelling himself towards the bathroom.
Step by step. Quick and quiet.
He tilted his head close to the door, resting his temple against the
Was she alone?
He waited and listened. No voices, but that didn’t mean anything.
He stroked the satin paint along the doorframe. No whispers or
giggles. Perhaps she really was alone.
Alone with her precious fucking radio.
He grabbed the door handle and tried to open the door. Locked.
Her eyes flashed open at the first crack. The wood ripped apart and
the door splintered open.
Her hands shot under the water, hiding her damaged wrists.
Dark, clotted blood trails streaked in their wake.
He lunged forward, shouting words she couldn’t understand.
‘Don’t hurt me,’ she gasped, as she cowered naked and defenceless
in the tepid bath.
‘What the fuck is going on in your head?’
She couldn’t reply. She stared at him, wide-eyed and shaking, and
began to cry.
Between her sobs she caught the words, ‘Mad bitch’.
‘Answer me,’ he roared.
She shook her head, unable to speak.
She wanted him to stop shouting. To stop hating her.
She began screaming.
The flat of his hand hit her full across the left cheek and the skin
reddened into hot, stinging blotches. Her hysteria subsided.
‘I-can’t-stand-you-any-more.’ He spoke each syllable with cold
deliberation. ‘You’re like a leech, clinging and sucking me dry. Just
being near you revolts me.’
Somehow his words mesmerized her. He hated her; she could see
it clearly in those narrowed eyes and the way his mouth twisted as
he spat out the words.
‘Why do you bang on and on until I lose my temper? Until you
make me snap? And now look at you.’ He gestured as if waving her
away in disgust.
He turned and reached out beyond the broken door, grabbing the
radio from the hall table. He shook it at her ‘If you were so fucking
suicidal, you wouldn’t be lying there listening to this.’
Her brain reacted slowly. She only realized how the radio was
attached to a cable, the cable to a plug, the plug to an electric socket,
as he tossed the whole lot towards the water.
And then it tumbled in the air.
In slow motion, according to her addled mind.
And then she woke.
SATURDAY, 26 MARCH 2011
Margaret Whiting wanted to cry: anger and frustration had bitten
into her, and it clawed at the back of her neck. She wanted the tears
to come, she’d wanted to sob out loud and hear her own voice,
without having it shouted down by her husband or her son.
She’d stood in her kitchen, sorting washing and tossing each item
on to the correct colour pile with an angry flick of her wrist. She
separated her clothes from theirs, thinking theirs weren’t fit to share
the same wash. She knew she couldn’t cry, so she had shouted, and
Mike had then said she was hysterical and was the cause of all the
upset in the family.Oh, yes
, she’d thought, our gloriously happy family!
Her son was
a liar and her husband a hypocrite, and yet she was supposed to be
Just this morning had been the start of it.
The day had begun the same as always, a four hour shift at Histon
Road service station watching the very same people fill the same cars
with petrol, or buy their cigarettes and bread and milk – that had
been the start of it. Each time the till had rolled open, Margaret
looked down at the twenty-pound notes and the Queen looked back.
And each time Margaret felt the Queen was looking a little more
smug. Everyone had money except her, it seemed.
The clock on the cigarette counter had been nudging five past eleven
as Lindsay arrived. Late again. ‘Morning, Margaret. How are you?’
‘Fine. How are the kids?’ Margaret had replied, because that was
And so it had gone on. ‘Another day the same as every other
bloody day,’ she’d eventually complained. ‘Do you know what,
Lindsay? Every single day of my bloody life is spent worrying about
pennies and watching everyone else spend money like there’s no
tomorrow. I could never spend what they spend on fuel without
feeling bad about it.’ Margaret had felt a surge of bravado even as
she said it. If only she could talk like this to her husband Mike.
‘Lindsay, do you ever feel nosey?’ she’d asked.
‘Oh, yes.’ The other woman had grinned. ‘All the time!’
‘What, with Craig?’
you mean?’ Lindsay then shrugged. ‘Not really.
Just the odd minute of winding myself up, but that’s about all.
You’re not worried, are you? About Mike, I mean.’
Margaret had lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper,
determined now to spice up her day. ‘Well . . .’ She’d paused, and
added to the drama with a wary glance around the empty shop. ‘The
other day I was putting his socks away and I suddenly had the urge
to check his pockets.’ Margaret lowered her voice further. ‘I didn’t
do that, of course, but then I even thought about checking the
numbers he’d called recently on his mobile phone.’
‘What, you mean you didn’t find anything or you didn’t check?’
‘Of course I didn’t check.’
Lindsay had shaken her head. ‘That’s not because of suspicion.
‘Oh, I thought it was intuition.’
‘Intuition, my arse. You’re obviously spending too much time
putting his socks straight, but don’t let your imagination get the
better of you. My mum says the devil makes work for idle brain
cells. You need to spend some money on yourself. Be reckless,
Mags, and buy a whole new outfit for your mum’s party. That’ll
make him sit up and think.’
‘Damn.’ Margaret winced, then. ‘I should’ve cancelled the
‘Oh, no, it’s not off, is it? I’m here all afternoon just so you can go.’
‘No, no, it’s fine.’ Margaret had frowned. ‘I mean it’s not really a
waste, but there’s so much to do for dinner tonight, I need the
afternoon to prepare.’
‘I thought you said you’d done it all – and frozen it?’
Margaret then nodded, realizing she wasn’t good at lies, even little
white ones. ‘There’s still some more to do but, to be honest, Mike
and I had a row about money. And it’s true, we do need to be a bit
Lindsay had bent to pick up a Penguin wrapper, straightened it
out and dropped it into the bin before she spoke. ‘Mags, it’s not my
business but it is just a tint you’re getting, not major cosmetic
surgery, and it’ll cost you less then most people spend on fags in a
week. On top of that, you’ve been looking forward to your mum’s
birthday for ages, and you’ve done all the hard work for it, too.
Don’t you think you deserve to treat yourself?’
‘Obviously not,’ muttered Margaret. She gripped the Daz Ultra
bottle too tightly, as she tried to fill the dosing ball, so some of the
liquid slopped on to the lino. She picked Mike’s favourite shirt out
of his washing pile and began to scrub the spillage with exaggerated
vigour. ‘But people don’t get what they deserve, do they?’ she
continued to grumble mainly to herself.
She’d later gone to her hairdresser’s appointment in a surge of
rebellion, only to be told that her girl, Nicky, had rung in sick. ‘I’m
sorry, Mrs Whiting. I’m sorry, Mrs Whiting,’ she’d mimicked their
whining excuses to herself, surprisingly disappointed at missing an
appointment that she’d planned to cancel anyway.
So she’d instead splashed the twenty-five pounds on a discounted
polycotton blouse that she didn’t like much. She then decided not
to tell Mike because as far as he was concerned, she would have
missed her haircut and he deserved to think that she’d ended up with
in return was more housework.
Housework instead of a haircut?
Margaret had seethed with resentment all the way home on the
bus. Mike himself would never catch a bus. She felt her anger surge
again, reflecting that there had been a distinct pecking order since
their girls had left home. Mike being number one, Steve as the heir
apparent, and then Margaret herself coming last.
She always came last.
The bus stopped two hundred yards from her house and, as she
walked towards the empty driveway, she started on a mental list of
jobs to do before Mike’s return from work. Ironing, she decided;
check the food for the dinner party, load the washing machine and
change the sheets.’
Steve’s motorbike stood beside the garage, which meant he hadn’t
spent the day out job-hunting then. I’ll get my hair done as soon as
he gets a job
, she promised herself.
She knew school leavers now had to wait for the right opening.
Mike and Steve had explained that often enough. Almost as many
times as she’d stood in front of the mirror and practised saying
‘Steve, I’d like you to help with some housework’.
Margaret let herself in through the back door and stepped directly
into the kitchen. ‘Hello,’ she called as she held the jug kettle under
the tap, filling it for some tea.
There was no reply, though she could hear the television. He’d
probably heard her, but that’s the way it was with him sometimes.
‘Kids!’ she tutted and opened the hatch to speak.
Shock choked her at the sight, and she tried to draw a breath,
willing herself to unsee it. She recoiled, folding closed the hatch
doors and sealing herself away from the scene. She kept retreating,
out of the back door, then away from the house.
She ducked into the bus shelter and perched on one of its plastic
seats. She shivered and tried to tell herself that she’d made a
But she’d seen him, Steve her son, lying flaked out on the settee,
dead to the world, with his outstretched hand resting on top of an
empty bottle of Thunderbird, which stood on the carpet beside him.
She looked back towards her house and her top lip began to
twitch as disgust dug deeper. ‘In our home!’
Steve had fallen asleep watching a video. He often watched
videos. But now she knew what.
Steve hadn’t even stirred, and for a few seconds Margaret had
The screen was filled with a woman’s face, her head tilted back,
gleaming with sweat, as her tongue ran slowly along the line of her
upper teeth, moistening her cherry-red lips. The camera then slid
down her body, following her fingers as they traced her skin down
to her breasts. Her nipples, pinched erect by small gold clamps
connected by a chunkier chain, were already being massaged. As the
camera panned back, a second naked girl guzzled greedily between
the splayed legs of the first . . .
That’s when Margaret’s reflexes had sent her cannoning out of the
She now realized that her breath was coming in short bursts, and
forced herself to slow her inhalations. After a few moments the hot
flush of embarrassment also faded from her cheeks.
Mike would deal with it. He was a good man who hated vice and
sloth and wasted money. She turned to watch the far end of the
road, where it joined the main street and where she would spot him
coming home. Every minute seemed like an hour, and she began to
worry that Steve would awaken and hide the video before Mike
But Steve was oblivious to most things, certainly to the pasing of
time, and so Steve didn’t hear his dad come home. It was only when
his father’s weight beside him made the settee groan that Steve knew
he wasn’t alone.
Then he remembered the video.
In the second between checking the screen and his father’s face,
he snatched for an excuse – something his father would understand.
But in an instant he knew his father did understand. More than
that he seemed to be looking at Steve with a kind of respect. Steve
tentatively tried a laddish smirk. Afterwards he realized that he had
the Thunderbird to thank for such bravado, but still felt more of a
‘I’m getting to be a bit of a film buff actually, Dad’. He laughed
and knew his voice sounded tight with nervousness.
He needn’t have worried, because his dad was suddenly a teenager
again, ‘I’m a film buff too, son. Don’t you worry, nothing wrong
with it at all.’ He then winked, and held the Thunderbird bottle up
to the light, hoping for some leftovers. ‘Better in the flesh, of course,
especially with the ones your age.’
‘Don’t worry, Dad. I have done it before.’
‘Yeah, but don’t tell your mother!’ And they both laughed then
as though it was a long-standing joke instead of a newly shared
Margaret witnessed all of this from her position behind the hatch.
With a restraint that seemed to make her move in slow motion, she
pushed open further the hatch doors.
‘Tea anyone?’ Her voice shook slightly as she spoke. And that’s
the picture that became frozen in her memory: Mike and Steve
looking at her stunned in front of a video of two stunning blondes
in patent leather boots, mauling one another on a leather couch.
Margaret finally finished with the laundry pile just as her rage
reached its peak. She was alone in the house, so no one heard her.
‘Why today?’ she yelled. She had looked forward to today: her
mother’s birthday; a family gathering; a social event shared with
‘Bastards,’ she screamed, ‘how could you?’ She threw the lid of
the Aladdin’s basket at the wall, then kicked the basket itself on to
its side. ‘Bastards!’ she screamed again and again, until at last the
tears came and burnt hot trails down her cheeks. She collapsed on
to the washing piles, sobbing and cursing herself.Count your blessings, Margaret
, she reproached herself. Her
mother still loved her – and Michelle and Kaye would never let her
down like this. Why had she bothered to have three kids when the
two girls would have been enough? She’d have been better with
those two: they didn’t humiliate her like this. She drew a shuddering
breath, aware she wanted to ring them, pour out her pain to them.
She clambered to her feet.
They probably weren’t at home, anyway, and she’d be seeing
them later, at her mother’s.
She re-boiled the kettle, and eventually did what she always did:
she acted as though nothing had happened.
The sheets were clean and Michelle Whiting had even ironed them.
She’d changed the bed to fresh linen especially for this. She could
feel the smoothness of stretched brushed cotton under her hands
It was weird doing it this way, as she couldn’t see Carl’s face; they
couldn’t even kiss. His hands gripped her hips and he kept digging
his fingers into her flesh, so she could feel little bruises forming
against her bones. Her hair dangled over her eyes, so the ends of it
swayed just above the pillow. She wondered whether she should
have a trim soon, since they looked a bit straggly.
‘Don’t sag,’ he grunted. But her arms were aching from
supporting her own weight and Carl’s, too, as he leant heavily upon
‘Sorry’ she mumbled and arched her back, pushing herself up
against him. Her mind kept wandering. This is meant to be a turn-on
she reminded herself. But it just wasn’t as sexy as she’d thought it
would be. Tedious was the word that sprang to mind. The first time
they’d tried it this way had been on the carpet, and the grazes on her
knees had only just healed. At least this wasn’t quite so uncomfortable.
‘This is so good,’ she gasped.
‘I’ve never known it so good, Carl. Have you?’
‘No, no,’ he panted. I can’t get enough.’
Michelle smiled, knowing Carl was totally devoted to her, and if
keeping him happy meant some of this discomfort, well, that was
fine. She loved having his total attention.
His fingers suddenly released her hips and he leant forward,
pushing himself more deeply into her. The palm of his left hand
slapped against the wall as he used it to support his weight.
His thrusting became urgent and the fingers of his right hand
grasped her long hair, twisting it tightly close to the scalp. His
knuckles ground against the top of her head and her neck ached as
it was twisted at an awkward angle.
But she didn’t complain, instead waiting for the moment when
they collapsed in a heap and would cuddle up. She hoped it wouldn’t
take long now.
Carl wasn’t thinking about Michelle’s discomfort.
He wasn’t even thinking about Michelle at all.
He’d started out with one of his usual fantasies: how he wasn’t a
lowly van driver but a powerful tycoon, and that she was his
secretary paid to do whatever he chose.
But everything felt different today, and those thoughts weren’t
enough to stemhis frustration. So this time he had turned her over and
hauled her up on to her hands and knees.Because he didn’t want to see
her face. He didn’t want to be reminded that she was Kaye’s sister.
Kaye, the elder and more serious sister. The more everything in
Kaye, the one he really wanted.
But, before he could stop it, she was there in his head. She pulled
off her T-shirt and shimmered in front of him, pale and inviting. She
drew him towards her but, even in his fantasy, he knew that she’d
never let him touch her.
Because of his association with Michelle? Or because he wasn’t
good enough? Or both?
The word bitch
filled his head and, as he tugged at Michelle’s hair
and became more frenzied, it pounded like a chant in rhythm with
his body. Bitch, bitch, bitch
For Carl, climax and satisfaction were not the same. Suddenly he
didn’t want to touch either of the sisters.
So Michelle now waited for a token of affection that Carl didn’t
feel like giving. He didn’t even kiss her, just pulled his sweatshirt and
jeans back on and said he wanted a coffee.
Michelle straightened her bed as the kettle boiled. He hadn’t even
noticed the fresh sheets.
Excerpted from The Calling by Alison Bruce. Copyright © 2011 by Alison Bruce. Excerpted by permission of Soho Constable, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.