Today, as part of the Damp Pebbles blog tour, I’m sharing an extract from A Mirror Murder by Helen Hollick.
Life After School
Murder, when I was a naïve sixteen-year-old, was very firmly in my uncle and guardian, DCI Toby Christopher’s domain, not mine. But two years after leaving school, in the summer of 1971, a brutal murder was to change my life. For a second time.
It is not the amount of blood pooling over the black and white linoleum, nor its copper-tang smell that clings, these many years later, to my mind or occasionally haunts a restless dream. The other smells are also there – but I’ll not dwell on those for the sake of the victim’s dignity. It is the hollow emptiness of the house that I remember. That stilled quietness, as if the place was suspended on pause, holding its breath – waiting. Waiting for the lonely coldness of death to be discovered, for the stunned silence to be disturbed by those who, by necessity, must intrude…
* * *
As a shy schoolgirl, I knew little of the world, my priority being to not make a fool of myself. Insecurities matter when you are an awkward teenager about to be let loose from the sanctimonious boredom of a girls’ school into the unknown of the grown-up world. My careers talk, in that final term of 1969, did little to boost my fragile confidence:
“What do you want to do when you leave school, January?”
I had sat, staring blankly at the two prim schoolmistresses. No one except those in ‘authority’, or girls who didn’t like me (the feeling was mutual), called me ‘January’. To my family and friends I was Jan. Jan Christopher. I frequently cursed the day I was born because that was why I had been lumbered with such a stupid Christian name. My identical twin and I came several weeks too early, on the last day of January 1953, so we were named for the months we were conceived and born. I got January because I arrived first, my twin got June. I guess it could have been worse: hard to shorten February into a respectable-sounding nickname.
June had died when we were three years old. I can only remember hearing incessant crying in a darkened room. She – we – had been ill. I don’t know what with, we never talked about it. I survived. She didn’t.
So, there I was, a gawky lass who hid behind her curtain of long, non-descript brown hair, trying my best not to be noticed by the girls who had confidence (the bullies), being asked by two teachers what I wanted to do with my life after I finally escaped the long, tortuous, horrid, lonely, hell years at school. (I’m paraphrasing.) I had no idea. My only ambition was to write. I was always writing, but real authors, I thought, were clever, intellectual people who went to university and got degrees and things. I had three minor exam credits: even obtaining those had been a miracle.
Reading was my other passion. Characters in books were more reliable than so-called friends who sashayed arm-in-arm with you around the playground one day, then stabbed you in the back the next. I preferred to retreat into fictional worlds. Even the ‘baddies’ of fiction were better friends than the spiteful two-faced trash of the ‘frilly-knicker brigade’.
As for that unhelpful careers talk: “I want to write,” I had mumbled to the two teachers.
“But you like reading, don’t you, January? I think a library is the best place for you.”
Which is why I found myself shelving books at the Branch Library in South Chingford, a north London suburb on the edge of Essex, where I was born and raised. And two years after leaving school I was still there, shelving books at the same library. (Although I had soon discovered not to be quite so quick about it.)
“Old Mrs Norris is in again, I see.” I said as I gave the empty book trolley a shove with my hip to roll it into its parking bay behind the counter. “I wonder what coupons she’ll cut from the paper today?”
Mrs Norris was a regular. She tottered in on the dot of a quarter past six every evening that we were open, a faded pink beret perched atop her grey hair, a red, string shopping bag always containing a small packet of McVitie’s digestive biscuits in her left hand, and an old black, plastic handbag, that was meant to look like leather, dangling from the crook of her right elbow. She looked about ninety, but from her library registration card, was only in her early seventies. She would heave her way through the wood and glass entrance door – a wretched thing on the inside of a small, square, lobby. Even us younger ones had a job to push that monster open and get through without it snapping at our heels as it swung back.
The old dear would smile at us, wave hello, and shuffle off to the carpeted reading area over in the upper left-hand corner of the single storey library. There, she would settle herself on one of the comfortable armchairs, nibble at her biscuits, (Caretaker Bert always moaned, because they left crumbs everywhere), and peruse the newspapers. She always left again at five minutes to eight, just before closing. The only thing different to when she had arrived, the packet of biscuits would be empty and all the supermarket discount food coupons would be neatly cut from the tabloid papers.
We knew that Mrs Norris was pilfering the coupons, but did it matter? She was obviously poor, and came into the library each evening to eat her biscuits in the warm, using our lighting and heating rather than her own.
Approaching closing time was often a strain, depending on how busy we were. Inevitably, someone rushed in during the last ten minutes, determined to choose the right book to read, and taking ages about it.
I glanced again at the clock. Was it moving? It didn’t look like it!
Seven-forty. I heaved a few more returned books on to the trolley and looked up to see Mrs Norris leaving in a flustered hurry. How odd. She never left early.
“Are you all right?” I called, but I don’t think she heard, because she merely muttered, “Oh dear, oh dear,” as she hauled her way through the equally as obnoxious ‘Out’ door. I noticed that she still had the packet of biscuits in her bag, along with the entire Daily Mirror newspaper, which annoyed me a little as it had an article about one of the ex-Beatles, which I’d wanted to read all day, but hadn’t found the chance.
It was Friday evening, looked like it was about to pour with rain, and I had a twenty-five-minute walk home, or a wait, equally as long, for the bus. But tomorrow was Saturday, my one-in-three weekends off. A whole two days to myself.
Or so I thought.
A Mirror Murder © Helen Hollick