Alison is as close to anonymous as you can get: she has no ties and no home, and her only anchors are her boyfriend and her small backroom job in publishing. Which is exactly how she wants it. Because once, Alison was a teenager named Esme who lived in a remote, dilapidated house by a bleary estuary with her parents and three siblings. One night something terrible happened in the family’s crooked house, leaving Alison the only survivor. In trying to escape its horror, she moves away from the village, changes her name, and cuts herself off from her past.
An invitation to a wedding in her hometown, however, brings her back for the first time since she fled. And soon Alison realizes that the events of that night left their awful mark not just on her but on the entire village, and she begins to suspect that all the residents might somehow be implicated in her family’s murder.
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The Crooked House
By Christobel Kent
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2015 Christobel Kent
All rights reserved.
Alone in the bed Alison sat bolt upright. She had trained herself not to gasp when that happened, long before she woke next to anyone, long before there was anyone to ask her what had scared her. But she couldn't stop the jerk upwards, as if she had to break through the surface, as if water was closing over her. Paul had never asked, though: it was one of the reasons she was still here, eight months on.
Not the only reason. She could hear him in the next room; she leaned down and groped for her glasses – no table on her side of the bed, they were entangled in the bedclothes on the floor – and the bright room swam into focus. Better.
In the small old-fashioned kitchen, Paul was making tea: she could hear the kettle spit and gurgle, coming to the boil. She liked everything about Paul's flat, a modest three rooms in a white-balconied grey-brick tenement above the comforting roar of a main road. A white-painted mantelpiece, bookshelves, two large windows, the kind of desk you found in council offices. There would have been fires in these rooms once, and a maid to lay them, someone to sweep the big chimneys that ran down through the six floors. It would be nice to live here.
It was out of her league. Alison rented a bedsit south of the river, not much more than a useful box; a bed and a foldaway kitchen and students for neighbours, although her room had a view of a tree. She liked it enough: she went back most nights still, on principle. Increasingly though, she didn't know what to do with herself there – it had got untidy, downgraded to storage, a place where she dropped stuff without bothering to put it away. Now she shifted her gaze from Paul's tidy desk – the pile of books, laptop, card index – to the mantelpiece. A couple of Japanese postcards, a pewter bowl, an old mirror framed in dark wood. An envelope leaned against the mirror, his name on it in big cursive script, heavy paper.
He was in the doorway watching her.
From the start there'd been that something about him, some natural reticence or perhaps just his age, that meant that other, secondary panic didn't set in. Over the second meal out, after the first visit to the cinema. The strategies didn't start building themselves in her head, for what to say, when he asked. About her life. About where she came from. About her family.
'What's that?' she said now. She stood up and took the cup he held out to her.
Before Paul they'd been boys, scruffy, well-meaning, lazy. They'd hardly qualified as relationships: more mates, easy to close the door on quietly in the early morning, tiptoeing off to take her place in rush-hour traffic, to breathe a sigh of relief. Paul was more than a head taller than her so she had to look up to see in his face; he set his hand lightly on the small of her back and looked down. She took in all the detail of his face at once, as she'd got used to doing, gazing straight back into his light eyes, seeing him smile, seeing him approve her without thinking.
She had half an hour before she needed to get going. 'What's that, then?' she said again, and pointed. He followed her gaze and, removing his hand from her back, reached for the card on the mantelpiece. He held it out.
Dr Paul Bartlett, it read, handwritten, real ink on vellum. No address, therefore hand-delivered. Something crept in between them.
'Well, open it, if you're so curious,' he said, stepping back. She was aware of his eyes on her back as she took the envelope: it felt substantial. Inside there was an embossed card, gold-edged.
Dr and Mrs ... Request the pleasure ...
'I'm to be a best man,' he said. 'Can you believe that?'
'Morgan Carter,' she said. 'Have I met her? I have.' She stared at the script. At St Peter's on the Wall, Saltleigh. The line before her eyes wavered, the line of a silver-grey horizon, the church on the spit in a freezing midsummer dawn: something jumped in her chest. Her lungs burned as if she'd been running.
'June,' she said, the first thing that came into her head. 'Nice month to get married.' The words sounded strange, mumbled. She handed it back to him.
'Got to get to work,' she said, ducking his gaze. He set the card on the mantel and took her by the wrists. Gently.
'Come with me,' he said.CHAPTER 2
The story was, her parents were dead, she was an only child, she'd grown up in Cornwall.
Paul's parents were safely dead too, she'd checked on that one, slyly, slipping the question in in passing. He'd hardly looked up from his book: heart attack and cancer five years apart. But twenty minutes later he'd put the book down and said, taking her hand, maybe it's my age. But look at what you go through with old parents and ... being an orphan seems easier. The thought seemed to sadden him, but then he picked the book up again and went on while she watched him, surprised by a lingering sense of having been comforted.
It was odd how few people even asked, and if they did, they weren't really that interested in the answer. She'd read somewhere that the key to a successful lie is that it should contain elements of truth. She chose Alison when the police and the psychotherapist appointed by social services talked to her about changing her name, because there'd been five Alisons in her year – anyone could be an Alison. Esme stood out, it said she wanted to be noticed. She didn't want to be Esme. She wanted to be invisible.
* * *
Esme had had a clock in her bedroom, with a loud tick. Joe used to complain about it keeping him awake on the floor below; about the alarm she set for seven every morning. She didn't know if it had gone off that morning because she never went back to the crooked house after the police took her away, but she had watched the clock those long hours from where she crouched behind the door. While she waited, she had listened to the tick, cringing, thinking, Joe.
BOOM: ten forty-two. And then nothing.
She told herself: everyone's gone to bed, even though the silence said otherwise. No pleading for a story or a kiss, no thump of music from Joe's room, just a creaking and settling of the house in the wind. The hot water going off, on its timer. The lights all still on, flooding up the narrow stairs.
The clock says one a.m. when she comes out, on cramped stiff legs, unclenches her fists.
She sees Mads first, sees her from the top of the stairs and scrambles to get down, sliding on the stair carpet. The girl is tangled in the soaked sleeping bag, half through the sitting-room door. On her knees Esme scrabbles to pull her free, her hands slippery with blood, she can smell it, like iron, and she can feel the other weight all the time, Letty still down there inside the wadded nylon. Dead weight. Esme sobs in her throat, her arms grappling around her sisters. Stay. Mads's head lolls back again, her eyes don't see. Don't leave me. Esme stares and stares, she can't let go. She tries to pull them up into her lap on the stairs, the door into the sitting room swings open and there is Joe, looking at her from the sofa.
She says something, she doesn't even know what she's saying. Something like, I can't, I can't. A moan. Joe is dead. He has his headphones still on and his eyes are looking at her but he is dead. Underneath him the green velveteen sofa with fringing that came from her grandmother's house is black with blood. One of his shoes is off.
Her mother is on the floor in the kitchen face down, one bare leg twisted under her, her skirt riding up, her best skirt. A plate is smashed on the floor beside her. She is dead.
Her father is in the hall.CHAPTER 3
She'd met Paul at a small gathering in the neon-lit open-plan offices of the independent publishing house whose accounts she worked on, a launch party for a book about the Second World War in Italy. It was a democratic sort of place, so all members of staff were allowed along, plus the offices were so small it was pretty near impossible to exclude anyone, if they'd wanted to come. The author was a bullying military historian called Roy Saunders: he stood in a corner of the room holding court, booming across the desks. Groups formed circumspectly, drifting away from him.
She'd been in London four years and had spent her share of evenings in wine bars, with trainee doctors, boys in IT, even an artist, or that's what he said he was. None of them had stuck. Alison just found herself discreetly backing off each time, mostly they got the message. One had gone on calling, asking her what was wrong with him though she thought she'd been kind, she'd said nice things about him ... and in the end she'd changed her number.
She hadn't even planned on staying for the launch – the whole point of working in accounts was that it was a backroom position, a below-the-radar position – but Rosa, a new assistant in editorial, had begged her, in solidarity. It didn't take long before Alison worked out the real reason – the girl had screwed up an author payment. Alison was showing her how to get out of trouble, Rosa almost in tears of gratitude. 'I'll write the email for you,' Alison was saying.
She hadn't seen him approach: he was at her shoulder when he spoke and she had to turn to see him. Tall, maybe fifteen years older than her, he asked her name, abrupt but not rude. He was a friend of the author's, he said, and held out his hand. Paul Bartlett. Behind her Rosa was gone. The next morning the girl said, slyly, taking the scribbled note Alison had promised, you looked like you wanted to be alone.
They didn't even go for a meal; he took the glass of warm white wine out of her hand and set it down. 'It'll give you a headache,' he said, 'don't you think?' and gave her that almost-smile she now knew, shy, diffident, determined. He was right: she looked at the glass and the bottles of wine on the reception desk and the others talking between the desks under the strip lighting and she reached for her coat. His arm came around her, light and strong, and she felt the warmth from him.
His flat was five minutes away. Inside his front door, in the dark, he took her breath away by how ready he was, how insistent. As the door closed behind them her bag fell and he put his hands on either side of her thighs, raising her skirt, making a soft sound that frightened and excited her. He took hold of her forearm to keep her in position, brushing her hair aside from her face under his, didn't let go until she'd come. It seemed that nothing so deliberate had ever happened to her before, it was like a white light inside her head, flooding the chambers. For seconds, whole minutes, she was cleaned right out. The rubbish crept back, of course, a muddy tide, but for the interval she gazed on nothing. He watched her, intent in the gloom, for a moment and only then did he release her arm. He put a hand to her cheek and rested it there.
Afterwards he made her a sandwich in his kitchen, ham and mustard and lettuce and butter, meticulous while she sat on his sofa with her bare feet under her and examined the titles on his bookshelves. Paris Under the Occupation. Sartre. Céline. Her heart pounding with panic, knowing that there must be a right thing to say or do to make this continue, not knowing what it was. She shivered suddenly, the knife clattering on the plate, and he sat down beside her. Warm. When she'd eaten the sandwich he asked her if she wanted to stay the night, and the next morning when he gave her a cup of tea he said he'd see her after work, if she wanted. The university building where he worked was in the next street from the publishing house's offices. It was like suddenly inhabiting a village; she only had to walk around the corner and knock on his door. He always said yes.
* * *
'Morgan Carter? She's a cow.'
Kay – five years older, severe dark haircut and boys' trousers with her hands shoved in the pockets – knew everything about everyone, and was as ready with her judgements as if she had them waiting in a card index. She worked selling the company's books abroad: she brought in money, so Alison had dealings with her regularly. She had an abrupt dirty laugh after a couple of drinks and Alison had the feeling she was one of the few Kay hadn't got a card on in her index; for some reason she relaxed her vigilance for Alison. Alison couldn't really afford to relax hers in return, but Kay didn't pry – or at least, she hadn't yet.
They had stopped in the alley, a snaggled row of eighteenth-century houses, outside a shopfront. Without looking Alison knew it was an underwear shop, expensive but pornographic, because they passed it every day on the way to buy lunch. It couldn't have been further, this crowded pocket of central London, from the small village in Cornwall where her aunt Polly still lived and where Alison had done some growing up, if not all of it – that was one of the partial truths she told.
Her aunt had driven across the foot of the country thirteen years ago, rocky west coast to muddy east, in her small battered car with cat hair on the back seat. She'd left Cornwall at seven that morning, not even pausing to pack a bag, and had arrived to find Alison – Esme – in bed at a foster placement, a policeman still in their kitchen. She had fought for Esme: she had wanted to take her out of bed there and then, fought for her angrily. Sometimes – rarely – in the succeeding years Alison found herself forced to think that they were alike, she and Aunt Polly, raging away, refusing to be cast out. That little gap adolescence had set up between Alison and her mother, magnified in Aunt Polly, who hadn't spoken to her sister in years.
Upstairs, befuddled with a sleeping tablet she'd been given by the duty doctor, Esme had heard her aunt's voice raised and knew it, from far off, although she couldn't make sense of what they were saying. She hadn't seen Polly – her mother's sister – in a long time: seven or eight years. Her father would mutter about her record with men, her cats and her spinster humourlessness. They'd fallen out over something, and it was too far to come, from Cornwall to Essex – except in emergencies. A day later, Polly had won the right to have Esme in her care, through the grim determination that would be the hallmark of their years together.
At home now in Alison's top drawer, behind the folded bras and rolled knickers, was a scarf of her mother's printed with scenes of Amalfi, orange trees and tumbling villages, real silk, gold and yellow. Polly had gone in to the house to get some of Alison's things, and when they unpacked in Cornwall there it was, on the top of the pile. I didn't know what to get, Polly had said, fierce. Just something of hers. Her drawer had been all turned out – but the policewoman said it would be all right to take it.
By then the police had gone through everything, she supposed. Alison never knew, never asked, what happened to the rest of it. The pots and pans, the few bits of cheap jewellery, the tatty furniture. The house. As with everything, if she'd asked Polly would have answered her, but nothing was volunteered. And Alison didn't want to know. She wanted to walk away from it, because every time she thought of anything – the china dish her mother would put her earrings in before bed, Joe's posters, the twins' ratty soft toys – she felt a commotion set up in her head, things asking to be seen, to be remembered. But she hung on to the scarf.
Four years, Alison lived with her aunt. When she finished school she left for university in a northern city to study maths – to Polly's bewilderment, Polly who like her mother was flustered by maths, which perhaps had been why Alison chose it although she also had a facility that must have passed down to her by some meandering quirk of genetics – and never came back. It wasn't that she didn't like Polly – she loved her, in her way – but it was just too tragic, the two of them tied together in the damp cottage. Alison had no intention of being tragic.
* * *
Alison had her back to the window display that featured mannequins bent over a table top; Kay had half an eye on it, eyes dancing.
Excerpted from The Crooked House by Christobel Kent. Copyright © 2015 Christobel Kent. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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