An extract from Anna Wharton’s debut novel, The Imposter, published by Mantle on 1 April, 2021
Out in the Fens the roads are long and straight. There’s often a camber each side which slopes into a grassy bank and then further still into a dyke, one side or the other, occasionally both. Through the windscreen of the bus, it looks as if the road is a giant grey play mat rolled out for a child to run toy cars up and down. The lumps and bumps in the road make Chloe’s stomach pitch up and down. Or perhaps that’s just nerves.
It’s been a while since the bus left Peterborough, crossing over one anonymous roundabout after another until the buildings faded away into the countryside. From the A47 Chloe had spotted the lonely little Eel Catcher’s Cottage abandoned in the middle of a field, its thatched roof still withstanding the elements. On school trips to the coast, kids had made up stories about a wicked old woman who lived there and ate children for her supper.
The sky is bigger here. The grey clouds hang low, appearing, in the distance, to touch the tops of the trees that provide a windbreak for the crops – the only thing that breaks the Fenland for miles. The bus slows and stops to let people off as it passes through one village after another – Parsons Drove, Murrow – each little more than a string of bungalows with long neat gardens, interrupted only by the occasional empty petrol forecourt.
Chloe shuffles to the edge of her seat as a cluster of houses appears. She wonders each time if this village sign will read Low Drove, yet time and again she is disappointed – or perhaps a little relieved.
When she moves she feels the news-cutting Hollie gave her crinkle inside her coat pocket. She’s brought it with her to make sure she’s got the right place. There it is again, that churning inside. Is today really the day she’s going to see Maureen and Patrick? Because that’s all she wants to do, just look. She’d already decided that before she left home. That’s why she didn’t take the same care when dressing. All she’s going to do is find the house, see where they live and perhaps – if she’s lucky – catch a shadow at the window, or a glimpse of them pottering in their garden.
Time passes looking out the windows. The sky has darkened and black clouds hang heavy, threatening to burst. Her hand reaches for the cutting in her pocket and holds it there, tightly. In her other pocket is her mobile phone; she’d made sure to call Park House from the bus station before she left the city to check on Nan. It didn’t feel right to call from the road. One of the carers told her she was doing a still-life art class this morning. Chloe had never known Nan to paint.
The driver applies the brakes, and she looks up just in time to see the next village sign flash past on the left. Low Drove. She stands up and a couple of the other passengers lift their faces. The bus comes to a halt and the doors open.
‘Are you sure this is the place you want?’ the driver says, looking up the empty road.
‘Low Drove?’ she asks.
He nods, looking her up and down. She thinks of Angie.
‘Right you are.’
She steps off onto a grassy verge. It’s only when the bus pulls away that she sees just how isolated this place is. The road is without markings. On the other side a weeping willow slumps across the tarmac. The back of the road sign is a hundred metres behind her and, in the opposite direction, the back of the bus receding into the distance, its indicator flickering as it turns right out of the village. She stands still and the wind whips around her. She pulls her coat tighter but it doesn’t make much difference. Further up the road she sees a few houses, and – she squints – a red Wall’s ice cream sign swinging in the distance. The only sign of life. She walks towards it, the edge of the road crumbling into earth. Why would Maureen and Patrick want to live here? Why would anyone? It offers nothing more than isolation. Is that what they want? To disappear? But then why do the interview in the newspaper, telling everyone that they’ve moved here? In case Angie comes home, she supposes.
The photograph on the cutting shows them standing outside a yellow-brick detached Victorian house with a short privet hedge, but Chloe doesn’t see many houses at all, let alone this one. As the red sign gets closer she hears it creaking and, in that same moment, a string of four seventies bungalows comes into view. They are the same grey brick she’s seen in other villages, long gardens that run up to the road, windows with net curtains, a sensible car in the drive. She walks past and catches her reflection in the window. Inside, she sees tall armchairs topped with lace doilies. She knows that style. This is a place for the old.
She reaches the red sign – it’s a newsagent’s. She goes to push open the door, but it’s firmly shut. She checks the opening times. Wednesday afternoon: Closed. Who does that anymore? She pulls the cutting from her pocket, careful to hang on to it in the breeze. She studies the photograph of the Kyles, looking for some clue, a tree or a landmark, and then searches the road again. She walks on a bit further, but there’s nothing here. Along a bit, opposite the newsagent’s, is one tall red-bricked house with a nursery alongside it. Through the polythene she spots muted yellows, pinks and reds roses probably. Otherwise, this place is grey. She walks back to the newsagent’s and stands outside, looking up and down the road. They’ve got to be here. Why would they have done an interview letting everyone know where they’d moved to if they weren’t really living here? She puts her head up to the newsagent’s window, just in case anyone is there in the back. The cold of the glass pushes against her nose. She cups her hands either side of her eyes to get a better view. Her breath fogs up the glass. She steps back, wipes it away, and then she sees it. A postcard in the window:
Room for rent in Elm House, Low Drove. Would suit single professional. Preferably female.
There’s a phone number, but it’s the name that makes her gasp out loud.
Contact Mrs Patrick Kyle.
Maureen. She scans the road again. Elm House. So that’s where they are. It’s as if that postcard had been waiting for her. But where is Elm House? She walks again, the length of the village, all the way to the sign reading Low Drove, and then all the way back to the sign she’d seen from the bus on the way in. But there is no Elm House.
She goes back to the bus stop and looks across at the weeping willow, at its branches scraping the ground. That’s when she spots it: the lane the tree is hiding. She crosses, makes her way through the fronds of willow and a lane opens up in front of her. It’s narrow, not much wider than one car, the verges scarred with tyre tracks. And there, in the distance, on the left-hand side, a pale yellow-brick house, a short privet hedge, a blue car in the drive – Elm House.
Just a look, she reminds herself.
She walks until she’s opposite the house. She waits on the other side of the road, staring at the orange keystone above the white double-glazed front door, spreading outwards to the net curtains at the two bottom windows, slightly askew, a sign perhaps of the leftover chaos from moving. She pictures them surrounded by boxes, trying to find a perfect place for everything.
A sheet hangs at a window upstairs. They haven’t had time to find curtains to fit yet, and there, at the other bedroom window, a light shade she’s sure she recognizes. She narrows her eyes, but wind hurries the clouds along; suddenly the changing reflection of the sky in the window obscures her view. Was it a trick of the light, or a beacon welcoming her home?