Don’t Ever Tell – Lucy Dawson

As I open the front door, the birds are chattering, the shrubs and trees in my parents’ garden are glowing honey-gold in the sunrise, but while the air smells invitingly fresh and crisp, I scan The Close anxiously. The neighbours’ curtains are still shut, everything looks normal, dewdrops are sparkling on my father’s neatly cut lawn – it’s all calm, but… there. I stop suddenly. I can feel it. They’re already coming for me. A shiver of panic whispers over my skin and small hairs lift on my arms. I take a barefoot step over the threshold and glance across at the parked-up cars; windscreens covered in condensation, the little boy’s bike left out on its side in the drive next door – wheels motionless in the air, handlebar bell silent. My glance shifts through the gap between the houses down towards the distant sea and the silver slice of water glinting brightly. I’d never make it there in time. They are already on their way. This quiet corner of town will soon be swarming. There will be nowhere to hide, no shadow to creep into – the light is going to reach everywhere. They WILL find me. Breath leaves my body in a short exclamation of fear and I begin desperately to pick my way over the sharp gravel path to my father’s car, ignoring the dig of stones in the soft soles of my feet. I have to try and escape.

I have to do something, however futile it seems. I reach the bonnet and extend a hand to pull off the cover Dad has carefully placed across the windscreen to prevent frost forming. But as I lift the shiny corner of the foil-like material, it buzzes and comes to life in my hands; the wing of a fly. The car is completely covered in a dense layer of bluebottles that I have now disturbed. They rise into the air and start to swarm about me. Within seconds, I can feel them crawling over my legs, in my hair, on my ears – I scream, but quickly close my mouth when I sense one on my lips. I flap about wildly and move backwards, but it makes no difference. They follow. I fold my hands in over my head to protect myself and drop to the ground, huddling into a little ball. The noise of a thousand beating wings grows louder and louder still.

It will not stop… I gasp and jolt awake, scratching at my skin and raking my hands through my hair – but there are no flies. For a brief second the relief is enormous. I put my hand out and feel something spiky beneath my palm. I realise it’s the doormat and I’m lying on the floor. What am I doing out in the hall? Sitting up stiffly I look around me in confusion. It’s freezing, barely light and my mouth is dry. I blink and my head throbs in response. Oh God… the contents of my stomach begin to churn and a bubble of gas pops at the back of my throat as I haul myself to the wall and lean heavily on it. I drank so much last night, too fast. Why do I do this to myself? I close my eyes to get the energy together and wobble to a stand, but yelp aloud as the buzzer goes off right above my head again.

Someone is leaning on the bell, demanding to be let in. Who can that be, at… whatever time it is right now? I reach my hands out, patting the ground for my phone. Thankfully, I find it – there have been plenty of nights when I haven’t been so lucky – and pressing the home button it lights up and informs me it’s half past eight in the morning. Saturday, the tenth of November. The buzzing starts again and I groan, covering my ears and closing my eyes. I lay my cheek against the wall but the vibration of the bell goes right through me. I put my hands on my head to stop it throbbing. Just go away, whoever you are. I’m cold and I’m going to be sick. I cover my mouth with my hand instead – but urgh, what is that smell? It’s like someone has spilt a jar of pennies.

The air is full of metal. I blink again and look down the dark hallway through into the sitting room. There is a large lump on the floor. Everything else falls away as I stare at the lifeless body. I lift my head slowly and as it comes into sharper focus, I cover my hand with my mouth and gag again. That smell is blood. ONE CHARLOTTE The first time I met her was at the Edinburgh book festival last year, in August 2017. I’d been asked to fill a spot on a panel as someone else had dropped out at the last minute. I’d not wanted to go, but Tris persuaded me that it was the sort of opportunity I ought to be grabbing with both hands. ‘You don’t network enough.

’ He didn’t look up, frowning at his laptop as he worked at the kitchen table while I cooked supper. ‘You need to be doing more of this stuff, treating your books like a business – getting yourself out there and meeting other writers, editors, influencers. You’re never going to raise your profile until you start being proactive.’ ‘It’s all right for you, you’re good at it. You like presentations and public speaking.’ I opened a jar of pasta sauce and slung it in the saucepan. ‘The entire wedding party told me on Saturday that yours was the funniest best-man speech they’d ever heard.’ Tris looked delighted. ‘It was good. But I didn’t just wing it.

I prepared – and we’ll prepare you too. You’ll be great.’ ‘No, I won’t. I’ll say something accidentally inappropriate or offensive that will get plastered all over Twitter – or I’ll just be dull. No one ever wants the understudy.’ I sighed, put my head back in despair, and then reached for my glass of wine. ‘I hate this. I wish they’d just not asked me.’ ‘No, you don’t,’ Tris said. ‘I’ll come too, it’ll be fun, we’ll go and see some of the other festival stuff while we’re there.

When was the last time we had a weekend away just the two of us?’ He looked up pointedly. ‘It’ll be a load of book people.’ He shrugged. ‘So? I like books. It’ll be fine. Don’t worry, I won’t trail you around everywhere like a sad act. I’ll amuse myself and just be there in the background if you need someone to talk to. I’ll ask Mum and Dad to come and stay a couple of nights with the kids. They’ll be thrilled. They’ve offered enough—’ ‘Two nights?’ I said anxiously.

‘It’ll be fine,’ he replied. ‘Fly late on Friday, come back Sunday. I’m not going all that way for one morning. I’ll book the flights now.’ He’d not taken no for an answer. In the end, the panel itself went OK. I remember the room laughing at something I said – and I sat up tall and smiled like I did this sort of thing all the time, when rather humiliatingly it was only the second time in ten years that I’d been asked to speak at an event. Afterwards though, the three other authors I’d shared a stage with, and I, were ushered into a side room to take a seat at a table stacked with three neat piles of hardbacks and one of paperbacks; copies of each of our latest book, in case any of the audience wanted to buy a signed edition. My heart sank as I took my place at the far end, the door opened and everyone began to file in and drift towards the others. I kept a fascinated smile on my face, silently begging someone, anyone, to come to me.

A sweet little old lady wandered over, picked up one of my paperbacks and asked me what it was about. I gave her my best one-line pitch, she frowned, fixed me with a stern eye and demanded to be told if it contained profanities. I confessed it did. She placed it back on the pile with a firm ‘thank you’, and moved immediately to the author on my left. I swallowed and turned back to find a very blonde girl, dressed in a floaty cream gypsy dress, looking down at me, smiling and clutching my book. I actually jolted and my mouth fell unattractively open because she looked like… me. Me twenty years ago and a couple of dress sizes smaller but nonetheless I saw the similarities instantly; the shape of our eyes, mouth and colouring. I was so astonished, I even blurted ‘you look—’ but before I could finish, she bit her lip, lowered her gaze shyly and said ‘familiar? I’m an actress’. She spoke very proudly. ‘I was in something on BBC Two last week.

That might be where you’ve seen me.’ ‘That’ll be it,’ I said generously, not wanting to prick her balloon and admit that wasn’t it at all, but still I stared. ‘I loved what you said in the talk about how we need to stop describing female leads as “strong”. I totally agree. It happens way too much.’ She offered me her hand. ‘I’m Mia Justice.’ Then she held out the book she was clasping. ‘Would you sign this for my sister? I think she’d like it. If you could put, “to Kirsty”? Thank you so much!’ ‘You’re very welcome.

’ I signed with a flourish. ‘Is Charlotte Graves a pen name? It’s a very good one for a thriller writer.’ ‘No. It’s my actual name, funnily enough!’ I laughed. There was no one stood behind her, so I continued. ‘Are you acting in something at the festival? Is that what brings you… here?’ I was a little confused at how she’d wound up at an author’s talk. She rubbed her nose, and I sat back in shock, again seeing myself in the mannerism. It was starting to feel a little unnerving. ‘I’m in a show my boyfriend, Hugo, is directing, but my best friend, Ava, is also a children’s author. Ava Timney? She wrote A Dragon’s Wish? No?’ I shook my head apologetically.

‘Well anyway,’ Mia laughed. ‘She’s here today doing a masterclass thingy on illustration techniques, which isn’t really my bag. They’ve gone to that, and I saw this talk on the programme and fancied it – so here I am!’ ‘Well I’m glad you enjoyed it and thank you for taking a book. I hope your sister likes it.’ ‘I’m sure she will!’ She smiled and gave me a little wave before spinning on the spot and drifting off towards the door. Someone else wandered up at that point and I had to talk to them instead, but while they fumbled for their reading glasses and their own pen at the bottom of their bag, I peered back through the small throng – still distracted – searching for another glimpse of her. She was about to walk through the door, just as Tris came in. She stood back to let him pass and, as he turned to thank her, I saw him do a double-take too. I just about heard her laugh carry across the busy noise in the rest of the room as he said something, but by then, my last signing had found their pen and I realised they’d been talking to me and I’d not heard a word. I forced myself to concentrate on what I was being asked to write and when I looked up again Mia had gone.

Tris was sitting on a chair over by the window, waiting patiently for me while checking his phone and tapping away on the small screen, but I knew he’d seen the resemblance too. Despite it being a warm August day, even for Edinburgh, I shivered and reached down into my bag for my new and carefully chosen cardigan, slipping it around my bare shoulders. Tris looked up and mouthed ‘ready?’ I nodded, and once we were back outside among the tables and milling crowds, I looked for Mia again, but she had disappeared. I was still thinking about her on the plane home as the twist of the Thames came back into view and we snaked down it, towards London City. ‘What’s up?’ Tris removed his headphones and shut his laptop, before checking his watch. ‘You look anxious. We’ll be back by three. The kids will be fine. Don’t worry.’ I didn’t answer and watched Canary Wharf loom closer.

Both the plane and my mood had begun a descent. I was already irritated with myself for wasting some good opportunities during the weekend. Tris had taken himself off to watch a play after we’d had lunch the day before, leaving me with strict instructions to mingle and network, but although I hadn’t admitted it to him, I’d lasted five minutes before slinking back to the hotel, smoking an illicit cigarette en route. I’d been unable to find the jollity required to go up to people I only vaguely knew and join their conversations. Mia had spoken to me with such a natural ease and confidence, but then perhaps I would be that relaxed if I still looked like her. How old would she be? No more than twenty, surely? I wasn’t even aware I’d placed my hand on my stomach until Tris poked my arm, nodded at it and said: ‘Tummy ache? You’re not the only one by the smell of it.’ He grimaced. ‘The door to this plane is going to fly open with the noise of a giant whoopee cushion; it’ll probably blow the landing crew off their feet.’ I stared at him. ‘Tris!’ He grinned and zipped his laptop into its protective cover before sliding the whole thing into the backpack at his feet.

‘Everyone farts, Charlotte. Even you. You think you don’t, but when you turn over at night…’ Embarrassed, I glanced at the man to my left who, thankfully, still had his headphones in. ‘Can you shut up, please?’ ‘Sorry.’ He picked up my hand and kissed it. ‘Ignore me. I had a lovely weekend with you.’ He rubbed my thumb with his, ‘a very lovely weekend indeed.’ He raised an eyebrow suggestively. ‘Tris!’ I felt myself flush scarlet which made him laugh.

‘There might be people I know on this plane listening to everything you’re saying,’ I added unnecessarily, sounding prissy when I hadn’t intended to. Tris sighed and let go of me. ‘I was only trying to be nice.’ ‘I know, but—’ He held his hands up. ‘It’s fine. I don’t want to ruin what was genuinely a good weekend with you. Let’s pretend I didn’t just mess up, as usual.’ ‘It wasn’t that you—’ ‘Honestly – I don’t want to talk about it anymore.’ He got his phone out. ‘And before you say anything, it’s still in flight mode.

I’m just checking an email. That’s all.’ The closer to home we got, the faster the novelty of having stepped out of our normal routine began to fall away. As the train pulled past Lidl on the approach to the station, I started to think about tea for the children and clean school uniforms. By the time we were in the back of the taxi, it had dawned on me that Clara needed full PE kit for the morning – which I’d meant to put on to wash on Thursday night, and hadn’t – when Tris said loudly: ‘CHARLOTTE!’ I jumped and turned to face him. ‘What?’ He smiled briefly. ‘It’s OK. Don’t worry. I’ve already lost you, haven’t I? Back into the cogs of the machine.’ That cheerful thought rendered us both silent, although as we pulled up outside the house, I felt my heart lift at the thought of the two happy little faces waiting for us on the other side of the front door.

Unfortunately, when I opened it I found a note saying they’d all gone to the park – which I just about managed to read through watering eyes while being nasally assaulted by the smell of bleach. My mother-in-law had not only made the downstairs loo and upstairs bathroom smell like a municipal swimming pool, she’d ironed Tris’s shirts, all of the bedclothes and every single item belonging to the kids, dusted and hoovered everywhere and lovingly left clean, folded pyjamas on my husband’s pillow. Had I been in the right mood, I would have found it funny. As it was, I stared at them in disbelief, deliberately messed them up and stalked off back downstairs to find the PE kit smugly drying on the airing rack. When they finally returned from the park, breathless, huggy and hungry, I put the kettle on, while Moira reached for a Tupperware box on the table. ‘The children baked shortbread,’ she said, as I opened the cupboard to get some mugs out, only to find it full of gleaming glasses instead, ‘and I swapped a few things over while I was giving the shelves a wipe through. It makes so much more sense to have cups and teabags right above the kettle, I think. Would you pass me a plate for these? They’re in the bottom left now. I hope you don’t mind?’ ‘Not at all.’ I gave her a tight smile as I turned round, and she looked away, quietly satisfied.

‘Mummy, when can we do more cooking?’ asked Clara disloyally, grabbing a biscuit. ‘It was really fun!’ ‘Wow! They’re so good, guys!’ said Tris through a mouthful, pulling Teddy onto his lap for a cuddle as he gazed around him in amazement. ‘Thanks a million, Mum. The house looks incredible.’ Moira beamed pinkly and patted his knee. ‘It was an absolute pleasure. You work so hard, it’s nice to be able to help. I made some casserole and a chicken pie for the freezer too. It’s always good to have something fresh you can take out in a rush.’ It was such a thinly veiled dig at me – my not adequately caring for or supporting her best boy – I had to leave the room, feigning to need the loo.

Standing in front of the mirror in our bedroom – which had been polished, I couldn’t help noticing – I lifted the skin above my eyebrows, watching as they arched and my eyes became more feline. Then I pulled up my top and looked at the spare skin spilling over my trouser waistband. I tucked it back in, sat heavily on the edge of the bed and thought again about Mia. Reaching into my back pocket, I googled her and found a couple of images. She didn’t look quite so much like me in the photographs after all and I began to wonder if I’d imagined it, felt a connection or seen something there that simply – wasn’t. Just a pretty girl who had asked me to sign a book. Nothing more, nothing less. I think I was called back downstairs after that. Donald and Moira were ready to go; their car neatly packed, a blanket carefully spread over the back seat for their Border Terrier, Pip, to recline on. I forgot about Mia and gave her no further thought whatsoever.

Almost exactly a year passed until she reappeared. I wouldn’t have chosen the middle of August to go to Mallorca – the heat was blisteringly intense – but it was either that or nothing since term-time holidays had been officially outlawed. On the plus side, one end of the villa pool was shaded and the kids were more than happy to spend hours simply jumping in and out. ‘Quick, Aunty Flo!’ Clara wrapped her arms round her tiny shoulders, shivering on the white paving stones. ‘Pass me my towel! I’m freezing!’ ‘Please!’ laughed my younger sister, grabbing for one from the pile on the sun lounger and making a tent with it so that Clara could shimmy out of her wet costume under cover. ‘And you can’t possibly be cold. It’s 29 degrees!’


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