Welcome to my stop on the blog tour for Louise Jensen’s latest book — The Family. This psychological thriller released on the 3rd of October from HQ Stories!
Today, I’m thrilled to share an extract from the book — take a look below for a taste!
Fears. We all have them. That creeping unease. An aversion to something. For me it’s spiders. It stemmed from a nature documentary years before about the black weaver, a matriphagous breed that switches on her babies’ cannibalistic instinct by encouraging her spiderlings to devour her. Unable to tear myself away, I had watched through splayed fingers as the mother circled her lair, tapping and vibrating the web, stimulating her young’s primal instinct until they attacked her in a frenzied swarm. Hundreds of scuttling legs. Sinking fangs. The sound of the adult being consumed after venom had dissolved her from the inside out had stayed with me. What possessed a mother to sacrifice herself like that? How could her children turn on her? Of course that was long before I was a parent.
The instant I saw Tilly, tiny hands fisted, eyes squinting in the unaccustomed light, I plunged headfirst into a love that was absolute. A fierce desire as her mother to shield her from the world however I could. And she needed shielding. I knew how damaging it could be out there.
I had been damaged.
That morning though I had no idea how I was going to shelter her from the contents of the letter. As I drove towards school, I tightened my grip on the steering wheel as if it might somehow stop the sense of everything spinning out of my control. It didn’t.
What was I going to do?
I slotted my rusting Volvo between two shiny 4x4s. Hordes of kids traipsed past the car, spines curved under the weight of the books they carried, dragging their feet towards the black wrought-iron gates. I rubbed my temples, trying to dispel the pounding behind my eyes.
‘Do I have to go back to school, Mum?’
I heard the sadness in her voice. I heard it in my own as I said, ‘It’s been six weeks, Tilly.’ As though that was long enough to make everything right.
She wasn’t coping well. Neither was I but, for her, I pretended we’d get through it. We’d be okay. Even if I didn’t know how.
‘We talked about this,’ I said, but not unkindly. ‘It was your idea to come back on a Friday. Ease yourself into it. It’s one day, Tilly.’
She tucked her unruly dark hair behind her ears as she looked anxiously out of the window. Her face looked smaller, skin ashen, black bags nestled beneath bloodshot eyes. She’d refused the offer of counselling, spending so much of her time shut away in her room that now, being outside was overwhelming.
‘You’ve already so much to catch up on but if you really can’t face it I won’t make you. You can come and help me in the shop instead. It’s time to try to re-join the world.’ I spoke slowly, deliberately, although each word was rough, grazing my tongue. Our Family Liaison Officer had said it was best to forge a routine, a semblance of normality, but was it? Sometimes being a parent was torturous. Spinning in circles like a bird with a broken wing. But Tilly was studying for A Levels. It was such an important year. Besides, at school she’d be with Rhianon and, although I knew the cousins were no longer inseparable, I hoped that away from the family drama they could begin to heal.
God knows, we all needed to heal.
It was dizzying how quickly she pinballed between sadness and anger, but I knew it was all part of the hard ball of grief that ricocheted inside her.
She flung open the car door. A lengthy sigh escaping the mouth that no longer smiled.
‘Wait,’ I called, snatching her lunch from the backseat. ‘If it becomes too much you can always ring me.’ She snatched the Tupperware from my hands, her expression as hardened as the plastic.
‘Try to have a good—’ The slam of the car door sliced my sentence in two. ‘Day.’ A constriction in my throat prevented me calling her back. What could I have said to make things right? She stalked away without a backwards glance, swamped by her black winter coat, which snapped at her ankles as she walked. Weight had fallen off her. Again, I had found her half-eaten breakfast dumped in the bin. On top of the browning banana skin, a smattering of Rice Krispies ground to dust where she had crushed them with her spoon. She never could stand milk.
She stooped as she crossed the road without waiting for the green man, the weight of both her rucksack and the world on her shoulders. I contemplated calling her back but I knew she couldn’t hide away forever. If she rang me I could be back there within fifteen minutes, no time at all, but I knew sometimes even sixty seconds could feel like an eternity. The desire to protect her, in the way I hadn’t been protected at her age, to whisk her away for a fresh start, was fierce and stabbing, but after that morning’s post, it seemed more out of reach than ever.
Tilly merged with the throng of children crunching over the autumn orange leaves that carpeted the pavement. I was reminded of the times Gavan and I would tramp though the forest searching for gleaming conkers, a wellington-booted Tilly nestled between us, her small gloved hands in ours. The smell of moss and earth. It was still so clear to me, the joy of it.
One, two, three, lift! We’d swing her back and forth as she clung on like a baby monkey, her infectious giggles making Gavan and I laugh. Even when she grew too tall, too heavy, she’d raise her knees to her chest to prevent her feet dragging on the floor, as if she couldn’t quite accept how big she’d grown. I watched her as she stamped up the drab grey steps, finding it hard to equate the carefree, smiling child of seemingly five
minutes ago with this solemn seventeen-year-old. She was a young woman now, lost to me, almost. The days of being able to make everything in her world right again with a mug of hot chocolate and a cuddle were long gone, and I longed to have them back.
The Special Constable with the patchy beard and straggly ponytail, who patrolled the secondary school at 8.45 and 3.15 every day with a ferocity that would put a lioness guarding cubs to shame, half-ran towards me. My rational self knew that he was going to tell me off for parking in the wrong place, but still, my hands were shaking as I released the handbrake. Each time I saw a police uniform it evoked such a physical response, sickness rising like a serpent. I zoomed off the yellow lines before he reached the car, and it wasn’t until he disappeared from sight in my rear-view mirror that my breathing began to slow.
I would always associate the police with bad news.
With endless, endless questions.
Sometimes it all blended into a swirling, solid mass. The past. The present. Impossible to separate.
The fear has never really left me. Recurrently concealing itself in the layer between skin and flesh, waiting patiently for another trigger. The chance to attack.
I can’t remember.
And sometimes, consciously, I couldn’t remember. The lie became my truth. The pressure in my head insufferable.
Then, shadowed by night, the bony fingers of the past would drag me back and I would kick and scream before I’d wake. Duvet crumpled on the floor. Pyjamas drenched in sweat. And alone.
The scar on my forehead throbbed a reminder of my helplessness.
Thoughts of the letter filled my mind once more as I drove towards work.
What was I going to do?