The Babysitter – Phoebe Morgan

The day my husband is arrested on suspicion of murder is the hottest of the year. Sweat is clinging to the underside of my arms; my top, hastily thrown on at the sound of the bell echoing through the house, is unflatteringly tight around my stomach, dark lines of perspiration beginning to appear on the clingy white material. The bell is an old-fashioned one, pulled by a thin piece of rope hanging by the door of the villa, and the noise of it wakes all of us up – me, Callum, our daughter Emma and my sister Maria. My eyes alight on the digital clock – it is 09.03 and we have all slept late. We are on holiday. France is in the grip of a heatwave; already, it is 33 degrees. We came to France two days ago, to stay at Maria’s holiday house in a tiny village on the baking north-west coast: Saint Juillet, overlooked by a rocky peak that shades part of the garden. There is no police station in the village – just a tiny church that seats forty, a fancy restaurant overlooking the hills, a Saturday fish stall, and a boulangerie, the opening hours of which are random and confusing. The police must have risen early this morning, made the drive over from Rouen or Dieppe, navigated the treacherous, steep hill down to the holiday villa. No cars come down here unless they absolutely have to. Unless it’s an emergency. There are two officers, a man and a woman, both French, with heavy accents that my sleep-addled brain is slow to understand. My husband is in a faded T-shirt and boxers, his feet bare, dark hairs covering his legs. At first, I think that something must have happened at home – my mind goes to my mother, elderly now, a frail 86-year-old living stubbornly on in a care home on the outskirts of Norwich, alone apart from the nurses.

Her grasp of reality has diminished severely of late; it has been a few weeks since I’ve made the dutiful trip to see her and guilt squeezes my insides, fast and unpleasant. Callum’s cousin has just given birth, and I worry that something has gone wrong, picturing Rosa on blood-stained sheets in a hospital room. But of course, it is neither of those things. Behind me, I feel Emma’s presence, the pad of her socked feet. She’s in her pyjamas, blonde hair tied back in a bun. At 16, this morning she is childlike and innocent. A second later, Maria appears, a blue silk kimono wrapped around her tanned limbs. Our eyes meet; her gaze as familiar to me as my own. She is a mirror of me, a more beautiful version. Our mother often gets the two of us confused now.

Callum is saying something, protesting, his pidgin French failing to convey the anger and shock that his hand gestures show perfectly. My heart is beginning to beat faster, a tiny drum in my chest. The police are stern, their faces set and unmoveable. Too late, I realise that Emma shouldn’t be here. Quickly, I turn from the door and take my daughter’s arm, trying to pull her back towards the stairs. ‘What’s happening?’ she asks, her voice still smudged with sleep, and Callum whips round, trying to reassure her, using the calming voice he always does when she’s anxious. He can be so kind to her when he wants to be, but his voice is still tinged with an edge of uncertainty that only I can hear. ‘It’s nothing, sweetheart, this is some sort of mistake – Siobhan, will you tell them? This is all a mistake, darling. Maria, you speak to them, will you? Please?’ He smiles at my sister, but it’s strained, the muscles in his cheeks tight and false. My French is no better than his – my mind flits back to my O Level teacher droning on, a bluebottle buzzing against the window in a hot, dry classroom, the spill of blue ink of my fingers – but we are both able to pick up the word the taller of the police officers is saying.

Meurtre. Meurtre. Vous êtes suspecté du meurtre. I am frozen, I cannot move. We suspect you. Murder. Maria, whose command of the language is much better than ours, steps forward and begins to speak in rapid, urgent French. It is too fast for me; I don’t understand. And then they say the name of the victim, clear as a bell, and I feel my vision begin to blur, panic grip my throat. It’s her.

Caroline Harvey. One of them steps forward, and in that second, our nightmare begins. Chapter One France 11th August: Two days before the arrest Siobhan There’s barely any signal in this house. We’re all eating dinner out on the terrace, red-flagged stones underneath our feet. It’s our first night in France, where the air is hot and still and the sound of the crickets is constant and deafening. Behind us, the swimming pool glistens, bright blue because of the little robot hoover Maria drops into it every day. It’s a clever little thing that zooms through the water, up and down like one of those uber-mothers at the local leisure centre back home. But Ipswich seems a world away today; Suffolk has nothing in common with the stifling heat of the French coast. The uber-mothers can’t get to me here. ‘Emma, aren’t you going to eat the rest of that mozzarella?’ Callum asks, and I flick my eyes over to my daughter’s plate, surprised to see it virtually untouched.

Her appetite usually outstrips mine – oh for the metabolism of a 16-year-old. But she ignores me; she’s playing with her iPhone, shifting it around on the table, trying to pick up 4G. ‘The signal’s crap here, Emma,’ Maria says, ‘that’s why I installed the landline. Before I bought this place, there was nothing, can you believe it?’ She laughs, spears a piece of tuna onto her fork. I cooked it myself, followed an English recipe to the letter. A thank you for having us gesture, I suppose. I don’t like feeling in debt to her, or to anyone. ‘I know you want WiFi, Ems, I’ll sort it for next summer,’ Maria continues. ‘Mmm. This is delicious, S.

’ I feel a flicker of pleasure that she, at least, likes the meal. My sister has high standards, which is why, according to our mother, she’s still alone at forty-six. Nobody’s good enough. I don’t broach the subject with Maria any more. I don’t think she likes it. She’s always made me feel as though I am the boring one, choosing marriage and kids over freedom and fun. Never getting my own way. I’m the mistress of my own life, Siobhan, she always tells me. I haven’t met anyone she’s been dating for years, although I don’t doubt there’s at least someone keeping her sheets warm. Emma shifts in her seat, barely acknowledging Maria, a strand of hair falling slightly over her face.

My daughter is wearing a loose, emerald green dress, the kind of thing I could never pull off any more. She and Maria usually get on so well, but tonight nobody is in my daughter’s good books, it seems. My husband’s gaze falls on me, and I can almost feel him willing me to step in, to snap at her, to cajole her into coming out of whatever latest strop she is in and eat the food on her plate. In this scenario, i.e. an Emma mood, I’m usually the bad cop. But tonight, I’m not going to be. After all, I’m on holiday. And I’ve already cooked the meal, done my bit. Instead, I take a long sip of my wine, sourced from the nearest vineyard, bought for us as a welcome gift by Maria.

My sister has owned the villa for two years, and is still in the process of perfecting it. She’s an interior designer with her own business, forever carting expensive rugs and must-have lamps to and fro across the Channel. As a result, the house is an enviable mish-mash of English antiques mixed with French chic. It was her idea for us all to come out here this summer and make use of it; partly an excuse to show the place off, I’m sure, but hard to say no to all the same. You need a break, she said, and for a moment I wondered if she knew more than she’d let on about Callum and I. But it’s doubtful. I haven’t told anyone about the latest development, not yet. I’m still deciding what to do. Callum booked the flights for us a few months ago, and the three of us flew out here from Southend whilst Maria drove a carful of antiques sourced from a Suffolk auction house through the Channel Tunnel, arriving just in time to let us in and see the envy flit across our faces. I was anxious on the way to the airport, worried about how the holiday would pan out.

This might be the sticking plaster that keeps our family together. Either that or it’s the tear that pulls us apart. In this second, though, I’m glad that we’re here. The wine is delicious, and for a moment, I let myself believe that this is all mine – this sprawling, escapist luxury – but then Emma pushes back her chair and the moment breaks. ‘I’m not hungry,’ she says, and I watch the hem of her silky dress fall to her ankles as she stands up and leaves the table, disappearing behind the sliding glass doors of the villa. After a few seconds, music starts – she’s turned on the Sonos system in the downstairs basement, blasting angry, loud music that sets my teeth on edge. The house is two storeys, with the basement in reality forming two bedrooms and another bathroom. Emma and Maria are sleeping down there, while Callum and I are on the ground floor, level with the swimming pool. There’s an en suite leading off from our room, a power shower and fluffy white towels. Expensive soap and hand moisturiser that smells of geranium.

Callum sighs, the sound familiar. Maria blows out her breath, the worry evident on her face. She’s had the same facial expressions since we were teenagers, all those years ago now. More years than I’d like to count, to be honest. I turned forty-four in the spring. Still, I’ll always be her younger sibling. That’s something, I suppose. I take an olive from the little black pot on the table, feel the oil slick on my fingertips. ‘Change of scenery hasn’t helped with the mood swings, then,’ Callum says wryly, raising his wine glass to his lips, and I shrug my shoulders, swallow the olive. He smiles at me, his teeth white and his eyes crinkling.

That handsome look that I know so well. ‘We’ve been here less than twenty-four hours. Let’s give her a chance.’ My voice sounds calm, measured. It isn’t how I feel inside. But then, I’ve got good at keeping my feelings to myself lately. I’ve had to, after all. Secrets are becoming my forte. We finish the meal, and then with still no reappearance from Emma, move onto the comfy chairs on the veranda and open another bottle of wine – red this time, five euros in the local supermarket on our way over here. Callum’s mood has perked up; he is becoming more jovial, his arm around my waist, his voice loud in my ear.

I try to relax into his touch, but it’s hard. ‘I was thinking I’d take you to see Rouen in the morning. I can unload the car of all the junk I brought over so that we can all fit,’ Maria is saying, a cardigan wrapped around her shoulders now as the temperature cools. I roll my eyes; ‘junk’ – the contents of her car are probably worth thousands judging by the rest of the house. Not for Maria the delights of IKEA – the pieces she brings over are each carefully selected, the best she can afford. We took a taxi from Caen Airport, but Maria in her own car is by far the best driver, able to navigate the narrow French roads with much more ease than either of us. Although she lives in England, just down the road from us in Woodbridge, she comes out to the villa all the time, and every summer she spends a few weeks here alone. By car, the journey is less than six hours. The locals in the village recognise her, at least. ‘They always ask me why I haven’t got a man,’ she told us earlier tonight, laughing, tossing her hair back over her shoulder.

‘They ask me when I’m going to bring un petit chou to visit them all.’ ‘They obviously don’t know you that well then,’ Callum had said, grinning at her, and she’d laughed again, the sound echoing over the hot red tiles, but the tone of it didn’t quite ring true. I wonder if she could be more lonely than we think. I’ve tried to discuss it with Callum, once or twice, but he’s never very interested. I think she was seeing someone more seriously for a while, a man from her work, but she was always very cagey about it and I never got very far in my questioning. ‘Rouen in the morning would be lovely,’ I say now, waiting for Callum to agree. Since we’ve been out here, there has been something off about his mood, but I can’t work out if I’m just imagining it. There is a nervous energy, a pulse of unease that began on the flight earlier today. He has never been an anxious flyer, but this time he was on edge for the whole hour, his eyes darting around the plane, his fingers tapping on his phone until an air hostess told him to stop. I smiled at her after that, and ordered a glass of wine.

Emma stared out of the window the entire time; I could hear the tinny beat of the music coming through her headphones. Callum bought her expensive ones – he’s never been able to say no to her. Well, he’s never been able to say no to anyone except me. That’s why people love him. The ultimate yes-man. ‘Callum,’ I say, ‘wouldn’t that be great? Maria’s offering to take us to Rouen. I’ve always wanted to go, actually. See the cathedral, the churches.’ He glances at her quickly, but it’s too dark for me to see the expression on his face. ‘Yeah,’ he says at last, predictably, ‘I’d love that.

I’m sure Ems would too. Thanks, Maria.’ She inclines her head, then stands. ‘More wine, S?’ She’s always called me S, ever since we were small, as though saying my full name is a little too much for her. My glass is almost empty; I hadn’t realised. ‘Yes please,’ I say, and she moves away, back into the light of the house, her shadow tall and willowy in the darkness. Her hair is a dark brown waterfall, whilst my own is beginning to be tinged with the odd grey. I wonder if it’s time for me to start dyeing it, if Maria would admit to doing hers. I know she does, I’ve seen the packets in her bathroom cabinet. ‘Isn’t it great to get away from it all?’ Callum says to me when she’s gone, throwing his head back against the cushioned headrest, staring up at the stars.

It’s dark now, the only light the glow from the house and the shimmer of a couple of antimosquito candles. His body language has become more relaxed as the evening has gone on; either that or it’s the alcohol working its magic. ‘Mmm,’ I say non-committally, smiling at him as he points out Orion’s Belt, the saucepan, the North Star. He pulls me closer, lightly kissing me on the forehead, and lets out a sigh of contentment. ‘I feel free here,’ he says suddenly, ‘really free’. The kiss feels like a stamp; I’m his property, after all. To have and to hold. His phone, jammed against my hip, buzzes with a message. ‘God, this must be the only spot in the whole place with a reception!’ he says, and I turn away as he looks at it, fix my gaze on the bright lights in the distance, wondering how long we’re going to carry on pretending. One more night? One more week? One more year? I don’t know how much more I can take.

.

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