An extract from Tell Me How This Ends, the debut novel by Jo Leevers, published by Lake Union in May 2023.
The neat pile of clothes sits by the side of the canal for two whole days before anyone thinks to call the police.
It’s just before Christmas and everyone is busy: presents to buy, places to be.
A few people taking a shortcut along the canal pause, but something about the careful way the clothes have been folded deters them from taking a closer look. The pile looks so deliberate, as if the owner has just stepped away and might return at any moment.
But the owner doesn’t return.
A brown suede jacket lies on the top, its arms folded. A striped scarf has been tucked underneath, as if to protect it from the rain. Beneath that, the edge of a yellow dress is just visible. A pair of leather boots, still shiny and new, stands to attention a little further along the towpath.
On the second day, the rain gets worse. Water collects in the folds of the jacket and its furry collar flattens to an ugly grey pelt. The boots are ruined.
The rain also churns up the usually calm waters of the canal. The jigsaw of green duckweed floating on the surface breaks into smaller pieces, revealing mud swirling up from the silty bed.
Time passes. The mud sinks back down again.
And still, nobody comes.
At night, when the sleeping pill drags her down into its velvety hold, Annie can forget that she’s dying. In many ways, it feels wrong – surely she should be trying to stay awake, watching Oscar-winning films, reading great literature, listening to opera. Well, that would be a first, she thinks.
She knows she doesn’t have long to live and yet she craves sleep, from the moment she wakes until bedtime ticks around. She treasures the hazy half-state that greets her again, telling her she’s about to fall headlong into oblivion.
Her doctor prescribes the pills freely now. Like there’s no tomorrow, ha ha. But these days even her dreams feel tired and worn out. It’s as if her brain is a record player that keeps playing the same old track, its needle skittering over the grooved surface and going back to the start.
Sometimes she’s back at Chaucer Drive, where she and Terry lived once they were married, woodgrain pattern on the kitchen walls, that yellow kettle with scorches up the sides. Or in her parents’ front room in Dynevor Road, with its shaggy rug that you weren’t allowed to walk on. Tiptoe, tiptoe around the edges of that room she and Kath went, in their white Sunday-best socks.
But most often, her dreams are full of water. Bucketloads of the stuff, fast-moving, with weeds trailing under its surface. And beneath that is dark, brackish mud. The memory of all that rushing, dirty water clings to her when she wakes and realises she’s still here.
She often wakes at this time, just before dawn. The air outside is quieter, softer, but these days nobody is here to notice what time she gets up or whether she’s left a wet patch in her bed, her nightie clinging to the backs of her legs. All those watery dreams aren’t helping things, she thinks.
In the kitchen she flicks the switch on the kettle and it roars into life. She puts a teabag in a mug, lines up her pills and waits. Annie likes to take her tea back to bed and has done since Terry died two years ago. Oh the freedom she felt that first night in her brand-new bed when she could spread her arms and legs out, no longer fearing she would collide with his hard, bony shins, his unyielding back.
When she moved to this little flat, the bed, the room, the whole place was hers and hers alone, unsullied by his presence. A shame, then, she won’t be around to enjoy it for much longer, although the nurses were cagey about how much time she has left. All she was asking for was a rough estimate – weeks, months? – not the winning numbers for the lottery.
She holds her mug in both hands and sips carefully. She feels sure today is important, but she might be wrong. She tips her head to one side. Her left ear – her bad one – clears briefly and she hears the bin lorry chuntering up the road. Wednesday, then.
It was easier biding her time in the hospital, when she was having her tests. ‘Not the best cancer,’ the doctor had said, like she’d backed a losing horse. ‘Go home and spend time with those you love. Make your peace.’ He had a stethoscope looped round his neck that he kept touching for reassurance and he seemed close to tears. It would have felt unkind to tell him that there’s no one at home, that she’s the only one left.
Now she’s back in her own flat, she thinks fondly of those clean, starched-white days of waking up on the ward. The rattle of the tea trolley at 7 a.m., then the chatter and the squeak of shoes on the floor as nurses came and went. Mia, the girl who runs the café, brought the teas round. She did a sideline in stationery, too: notebooks and cards, colouring books and felt tips. It was Mia who gave her the leaflet about the Life Stories thing. At first, Annie thought the whole idea was silly, but Mia had kept on at her.
‘Annie, everyone’s got a story to tell,’ she’d said, perching on the side of her bed. ‘It’s social history, isn’t it? Tell us what being young in the seventies in London was really like, eh? Were you a glam rocker or a hippy chick? Women’s libber?’
Oh, I’ve got stories to tell, Annie had thought, but she wasn’t sure they were the sort Mia had in mind. She’d bought a notebook anyway, the smallest Mia had. It has daffodils on the front and it’s here on her kitchen table, still waiting for her words.
The free minibus to the drop-in centre isn’t due until Saturday, but she should probably make a start. She’s kept things inside for so long and she hopes that getting the words out might bring her some relief. It’s time to tell some truths – not everything, perhaps, but enough to lighten her load. Make her peace, like the doctor said.
It’s later that Annie gets out the photo albums, because Mia says they can put pictures in the Life Story books, too. She begins with the old Doyle family album, the one she knows off by heart. It starts with black-and-white shots of her parents’ wedding, everyone lined up like wax dolls, and ends with wonky shots of her and Kath sitting on a beach, the sea’s horizon listing dangerously to the right.
As she turns the last page of the album, a small envelope slips down into her lap. It’s the kind a florist might pin to a bouquet and that’s what Annie thinks it is at first. A special message saved from an anniversary, perhaps. But as soon as she opens the envelope, she realises it’s nothing of the sort.
There is her lovely sister, standing beside her bicycle on the side path to their terraced house at Dynevor Road. Kath had just got her job at the shoe shop and rode her bike there and back to save on bus fares. Tick, tick, tick went her bicycle wheels every morning, as she steered it out on to the pavement. Then she’d be off, standing up on the pedals to get going over the brow of the hill.
Glued to the back of the photograph is an official-looking form. Annie unfolds its creases. The handwriting isn’t familiar, but the words are. In cramped, neat script it reads:
Kathleen Doyle, age 18. Fresh complexion. Dark brown/black hair. Hazel eyes. Wearing brown suede jacket with fur trim, yellow dress, striped scarf and black leather boots. Height 5ft 6in. Last seen 21 December 1974, 5pm.
The police had taken away that tiny photo, she remembers that bit. They needed something for their men, they said, a description to circulate.
Kath’s things had been found by the side of the Grand Union Canal, the clothes folded in a neat pile. Much later, they were returned in a brown paper bag, the jacket’s fluffy collar clogged with mud, crumbling and dry.
As for the photo, Annie doesn’t recall it being returned, but maybe that happened months later, once the search had been called off. Probably handed over to her dad, man to man, when Annie was back at work and her mum was having one of her bad days.
Annie peels off the form, slides the photograph back into the envelope and replaces it between crackly cellophane pages. That time feels like yesterday but also forever ago. When she looks in the mirror these days, Annie is surprised by the face that peers back at her. Her hair is completely grey, her skin is a map of lines, all heading downwards. She supposes, to other people, she looks like an old lady. The kind who has heart-warming anecdotes and smiles at fond, misty memories.
She knows that this is what the people at the Rosendale Drop-In Centre will be expecting: a nice story from a nice old lady. If only I had a happy tale to tell, she thinks, one that’s all sunshine and smiles, with all the ends nicely tied up.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case for Annie Doyle, but next Saturday she will get the free minibus to the centre and she will start telling her story as best she can.