An extract from Lin Le Versha’s MA novel, ‘A’ Level in Murder.
We move apart and lie side-by-side on the rumpled sheets. I turn my pillow over. It cools my neck. The August sun knifes through the gap in the dusty maroon curtains that don’t quite reach the sill – the blade slices the dust on the chest of drawers around her old perfume bottles.
She shifts. The bed springs creak.
‘How about a cup of tea?’ I ask.
‘Or we could…’ She touches me – there. I slide away from her. I sit on the side of the bed. She strokes my shoulder. She pulls me back down.
We lie. Silent. A spider spins a thread from the lampshade in the afternoon sunlight. She reaches for my hand. Pulls me towards her. Her finger traces the path left by a bead of sweat on my chest. She leans over, catches it on the tip of her tongue.
Lying back, she sighs. ‘Yes, tea would be lovely.’
I pull on my boxers, reach for my shirt.
‘I’ll stay here for a while. You should be working.’ She pulls the covers up.
I feel her watching as I tug on my trousers. I turn. She yawns, stretches luxuriously. I pick up her faded yellow silk kimono. I hand it to her.
Sitting up, she takes it, covers her breasts. ‘Changed my mind. I’ll get up and make supper. Spaghetti Bolognese?’
‘Yes, please, Mummy.
The porch door was ajar. Convinced she’d left it closed, Steph switched on her mobile phone torch and swung the light around the front garden, into the bin store at the side of the house. She pushed the sharpest key between her fingers – she had nothing else. She froze and listened. Silence. No warning growls or barks from Derek. The wind must have blown it open. She must fix a lock on the shared entrance door.
She turned the key in her front door lock and pushed. She paused again and listened. All fine. Pleased to be home, Derek bounced over to the dog food cupboard, scampered back and jumped up at her.
‘Down Derek! Get down!’ She pushed him away, relieved he hadn’t snagged her new green skirt. He sat at her feet looking rejected, desperate for her to get his dinner. Leaning against the door, Steph looked around the elegant Edwardian room in the pale light from the street outside the bay window.
She sighed. Relieved to be away from her old life in the police force, excited by her new job in the College, but standing in the gloom, she felt alone. Very alone. Had it come to this? Her life shrunk to one room. She shook herself to change direction. Hang on! According to the estate agent’s blurb, it also boasted a “bedroom giving onto the garden, a well-appointed kitchen, to the highest specification, and a top of the range bathroom”
She flipped the brass toggle switch and cosy islands of light from her Art Deco lamps transformed the room. Her mood lifted. It must have been brilliant to live here when it was one house. Now it made two decent sized flats, and she was thrilled she had the one with the garden. When the upstairs flat sold, she hoped she’d have quiet neighbours.
Steph walked around the room, towards the open-plan kitchen. Her hands stroked the dark mahogany dado rail and reached out to the past where Edwardian maids had dusted. The walls either side painted an inoffensive shade of beige recommended by house-porn TV programmes – Cappuccino Foam? Goose Feather? Steph stopped. What was that smell? Perfume? After-shave? She must be imagining things.
She stretched her spine, took a deep breath, opened the dog food cupboard and served Derek’s dinner. A floorboard creaked. Must sort that. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed a photograph on the bay window seat. It hadn’t been there earlier when she left for work. She walked over, picked it up and gasped. Sam Odawale in blue overalls, standing at a workbench, holding a spanner. Older than when she’d last seen him. Grinning, confident and looking happy in his own skin. How did it get there?
A floorboard creaked again. But she was standing still. It came from upstairs. Must be the estate agent showing someone around the flat. Silence again. She listened. No cocky estate agent chatter, no striding around admiring original features.
Silence. Footsteps on the oak staircase. Footsteps scraped towards her door. She held her breath. The door handle turned, the door opened – she hadn’t locked it! A figure filled the doorway. Steph grabbed a knife from the knife block. She gripped it, ready to act.
‘Hello, Steph, long time no-see, eh?’ He strolled into the room and owned it.
‘Carter! What the fuck are you doing? You scared the shit out of me!’ She slid the knife on the table behind her back, hoping he hadn’t noticed. He had. He smirked.
Derek bounded up to investigate and was rewarded with a handful of dog treats thrown across the floor. He dashed off to hoover them up. Some guard dog! How did Carter know she had a dog?
‘What are you doing here – in my house – how’d you find out where I lived?’
‘It’s my job – remember? Thought I’d bring you a housewarming present.’
‘How’d you get in? It’s right out of order! Get out now!’ Shaken and shocked, she attempted to appear strong and in control.
He ignored her. ‘Nice flat. I was worried when you just disappeared – didn’t get an invite to your leaving do.’
‘What do you want?’
‘Just a chat.’
‘About your mate – Sam.’ He nodded towards the photograph.
‘What about him? Look, I don’t… why don’t you just piss off!’
Carter ignored her. He stooped, picked up the photograph and held it out in front of his chest so it faced her.
‘Young Sammy looks happy, doesn’t he? Doing well in his apprenticeship. He’ll soon be earning shitloads. Tried to get a plumber recently? He’ll be worth a fortune – all because of you.’
‘Leave now or I’ll call it in!’
‘Thought you’d welcome a reminder of your old life, in your new home.’ He put the photo back on the window seat. She looked him in the eye.
‘Thank you, Carter – how thoughtful.’ He didn’t react to her sarcasm. ‘I’m pleased Sam’s making something of himself. Now piss –’
‘Rather than being in the nick, you mean? Smoking spice and enjoying the showers.’
All the usual clichés. But then, Carter only had three brain cells. What was she doing joining in? She wanted him out.
‘If you don’t go – I will – I’ll call it in!’
‘I don’t think you will somehow – when you hear what I know.’
‘Will you get out!’ She moved towards the door and held it open. He stood still, stubborn. She changed tack. ‘Carter – what is it with this tough act? It’s me, remember? What’s wrong with you?’
‘Nothing’s wrong with me. You may have thought you’d covered your tracks, but I’ve got proof. I know exactly why you went off sick.’
‘Everyone knows – after Mike died, I had – well I took a few months to get over it.’
‘That’s your story, but I know what you did for Sam. Now I want you to do a tiny favour for me.’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘Let me remind you. You helped your pet crackhead Sammy get off. Clever move to dump all his gear in his handler’s sports bag, so he was clean. After all, what was another kilo added to his dealer’s stash?’
‘I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.’ How had that bastard found out? She thought she’d made sure no one knew what she’d done to protect Sam. Carter prowled around the room, pushed the door shut and stopped within reach. He grinned. She breathed in his cologne, a musty, woody odour. Steph backed into the bay and caught sight of herself in the mirror over the hearth. Shuttered light from the street outside made bars across her face. Carter leaned in and leered. ‘You thought no one knew. Well, I do, and now you can help me as you helped him.’
She stiffened to meet his eyes. ‘Piss off! You’re not going to blackmail me!’
‘Ooh! Blackmail? What a nasty word. It’s just a favour for an old colleague.’ Carter spoke hypnotically. He moved in closer. A tiny drop of saliva hanging just below the left side of his lip fascinated her. She inhaled his breath – mint chewing gum and a slight tang of whisky. She turned away. He needed to find a dentist.
‘And would this favour be illegal by any chance?’
‘Another black word! Life, as we both know, isn’t black and white but grey. Sometimes as you know, we have to live in that grey. Sam’s free and has a future and you’re no worse off.’
The drop of saliva had disappeared. Carter stood solid, implacable. Without warning he lunged, seized her arm and propelled her onto the sofa. It creaked as he plunged down beside her.
She felt trapped. Violated. Invaded. There was nothing she could do or say without admitting her guilt. Admitting she’d crossed the line. Admitting that saving Sam had led to her breakdown and leaving the Force. Seething with anger, she sat. Controlled. Petrified. Waiting to hear what he wanted.
I read it again. Is the first page too shocking? I want you to be there, alongside me. I’ve polished it as a novelist might, so you can experience every moment with me. Now, at the start of my College life, I have decided to write my memoirs and to share my unique story with you. Home educated, allowed to work on my talent without being distracted by school. Now I’m ready. Ready to step on the stage as a professional cellist. Mother and I have been preparing for this moment since I was four years old.
In the College library I’ve found a book called “A Life Worth Sharing – Write Your Memoir in 60 days”. In it J.M. Rowe suggests opening with “a hook – a piece describing a powerful event at the centre of your life story.” Is my first page the J. M. Rowe hook? I see my memoir on a bookshop table. You walk in out of the rain, in your lunch hour. You pick up my book, my story, and flutter through it. Casually, you read the first page. You reach the last line, you gasp! You’re hooked. Rowe’s right. It stays.
Mother calls our special love “cuddles”. She needs them more now. Now I’m at College. You must wonder about my Father? He’s gone. He left. I’m not sure why. She won’t talk about it and goes quiet if I mention him. I can only remember a gigantic shadow with no features. There are no photographs. Sometimes, I wish I could get to know him. Mother was a concert pianist until she had me and stopped. She married him but didn’t forgive him. After he left, I woke in her bed.
For the last thirteen years we’ve had a rigid routine. It makes me feel safe. We plan our days – English, maths, history, geography, music theory and practice, practice, practice, five hours’ cello practice every day. I breathe my cello. I feel I’m most me when I play it.
I passed all my cello exams with Distinction. We’d wait apart from the other children in music teachers’ dining rooms, which smelled of yesterday’s cabbage. After my performance, their eyes followed me. Mother would smile and say, ‘They think it’s a CD they heard through the closed door!’ She’s always so positive.
I began playing at Music Festivals when I was six. Again, I sat alone with Mother. The other children giggled, chatted and complained about their music teachers. We just waited. No distractions. We often won – actually, that’s not quite true – we always won.
You think I had a lonely childhood? Not at all. I had Mother with me all the time and I had my cello. Now, as I take this next step, I want to share my story with you. This is my “daybook” where, according to Rowe, “I can reflect on the past, record present thoughts and include short conversations to highlight turning points in my life.”
“Edmund Fitzgerald takes the technical demands for granted and has a vibrant abandonment which makes his music passionate and truly individual. At seventeen, he is a genius cellist in the making.” First place – English Young Musicians’ Festival.
I was the youngest competitor, beating some excellent musicians, most of them graduates from Music Conservatoires. As I walked on-stage, I was so nervous, but once I started playing, I lived inside the music. It’s always like that.
I met Harriet Weston, one of the three judges who gave me First Place, when she came down from the stage to congratulate me. ‘You can win BBC Young Musician next year, you know.’ Me? BBC Young Musician? ‘I’ve coached others in the past…’ She reeled off the names of two finalists and one winner.
Mother stood up, brushed down her skirt and steadied her handbag on her left arm, like the Queen. ‘I agree. Edmund’s close, but not ready yet.’
They talked about me. I stood beside them. Taller than both. They made it clear, shoulders turned inward, that I was to be silent. Mother and Harriet negotiated my future while I stood and said nothing. I felt flattered and stupid at the same time.
Harriet – she insisted on Harriet – said I should take “A” Levels at Oakwood Sixth Form College, where she is Director of Music. With my outstanding performance, they would be my passport to The Royal College of Music.
‘Edmund needs to maintain his practice regime.’ Mother lifted her handbag further up her body. Harriet held her ground.
‘All music students have access to practice rooms, so Edmund may do several hours’ practice each day under my supervision and the rest with you.’
Once again Harriet Weston dangled BBC Young Musician – a tasty morsel before the shark, in her blue-grey suit. (Did I really write that? Mother a shark?) ‘Think about it and let me know when you’ve decided.’ She handed a card to Mother. The handbag jaws snapped shut. She nudged me away. I clutched the trophy as we left, not sure what would happen. I had to wait until Mother decided.
That night Mother needed long cuddles.
College was scary. Yes, at last Mother agreed to what she called my ‘incessant pestering’. I asked her for jeans and a top with a hood. I know that’s what they wear, I’ve seen them from my bedroom window. Mother said ‘No’. Said I’m different. Do I want to be different? I suppose I do.
Rowe advises re-creating specific moments in your memoirs. “Reproduce speeches and scenes so the reader can share your life with you.” I had lots of those moments in my first week at College.
I felt very different as I walked into the enormous oak hall for enrolment. It smelled of floor polish. The old floor shone – a wooden mirror. My blazer, chinos, white shirt and proper shoes made me look different too. Very different. Small crowds squealed and hugged each other as they peered at results slips. I don’t have any GCSE results. My head ached. It was much quieter at home. I stood alone. Had I made the most dreadful mistake? I turned around to go back through the door – back home to Mother. I felt sick – my stomach churned. Where was the loo?
They all looked at me. I felt their eyes as they pretended not to look. They’d never seen me before. They all knew each other. The same school, the same football team, the same street corners. They were confident and bouncy and shouty. I am so different.
Harriet smiled as she came towards me across the gleaming hall floor. I enjoyed feeling different then. I felt so special. She had the look of being looked at. She reminded me of Cleopatra with her black hair framing her green cat eyes. Tutors sitting at their desks around the edge of the hall stopped writing, turned away from talking to a student or just stared as she walked, no floated, down the length of the hall. I felt so happy to see her.
Looking at the groups of students, she leaned across and whispered, ‘Don’t be nervous, all the other students feel the same. That’s why they squeal so much, to show they aren’t.’
I must have looked scared or something as she said, ‘Don’t worry. You haven’t got results’ slips. You’ve got an exceptional talent.’
I said the other teachers might not agree with her. She touched my shoulder (my nerves tingle in there now, as I remember her touch) and said she would be with me and not to worry.
Across the hall, a desk with a printed notice dangling from the front of it saying, “All English Courses – David Stoppard”. Behind it sat a well-built man with a black beard which looked as if it had been charcoaled on. He ran all the teachers in English – apparently, they’re called “Departments”. While Harriet explained why I’d taken no exams, what an outstanding cellist I was and how well I would do on his course, he beamed at her, never lowering his eyes. He had that Red Riding Hood wolf’s grin and looked as if he wanted to eat her up.
‘Call me David’ was so helpful. When I told him I enjoyed Dickens, Hardy and Austen, he laughed and said I must be better read than some of his new teachers! I don’t think I can be.
With that, in the beam of David’s gaze, Harriet guided me to a desk at the far end of the hall labelled “Sam Griffiths – Performing Arts”. So different to David, Sam had a tiny pale face and all his clothes were black. The sunlight showed up the gaps in his thin blonde hair and the sweat marks under his arms. Not much older than me, he looked rather scruffy, not what I’d imagined a teacher to be. Harriet recited my history once again. Sam looked terrified of her. He pushed a form at me, which I signed, and gave me a list of plays. I thanked him and we walked to the Music A Level desk.
An old lady with grey helmet hair frowned as we approached. Harriet spoke loudly, ‘Edmund, meet Margaret Durrant, who will teach you music theory.’ Margaret sniffed into a tissue, which she tucked up her sleeve. She turned a list round, so it faced us. I signed in the bottom space.
‘Thanks for standing in for me. I need to get Edmund settled.’
Margaret sniffed. ‘That’s fine, Harriet.’ She didn’t think it was fine at all.
We left quickly. I felt safe – happy in her glow. She steered me towards the Music Centre by touching my shoulder again. I loved her touching me. I didn’t mind people looking at us together.
At home, I told Mother about my day. I shared the enrolling, the Music Centre and the teachers – or tutors they’re called. I didn’t tell her how nervous I felt or how noisy the College was. Or how it felt to be stared at, a fascinating specimen in a bottle. I’ve decided I can cope with College if I go to my lessons, stay in the practice room and never go to the canteen.