Three sisters. Three childhoods ruined. One chance to heal the scars of the past. After the death of their cruel and abusive mother, estranged sisters Alex, Catherine and Beth reunite once again. Alex, the youngest, is a bitter, unhappy woman who refuses to face the horrors of her childhood. Finding solace in a bottle, her life is spiralling dangerously out of control. Eldest child, Catherine, has strived for success, despite her difficult upbringing. But behind the carefully constructed façade lies a secret that could shatter her world forever. Beth, the middle child, bore the greatest burden. But having blocked out the cruelty they suffered, she remained with their mother until her death. Now she must confront the devastating reality of the past. Brought together as strangers, the sisters embark on a painful journey to heal themselves and each other. Can they finally put their terrible childhoods to rest and start over? An emotional, heart-breaking and compelling novel for readers of Diane Chamberlain, Amanda Prowse and Kelly Rimmer. Previously Published as The Middle Child
Release date: February 1, 2014
Print pages: 268
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These days she didn’t need to force herself upright to fight off sleep in order to be ready for the evil across the hall. Or to squint at the bunk beds opposite to watch over her younger sisters. She didn’t need to make sure Alex’s limbs jerked occasionally expelling her boundless energy or that Beth’s intermittent sighs spoke of ice cream and candyfloss. She no longer had to fight off the growing warmth of the bed covers to keep her sisters safe.
Those long, anxious nights were long gone but she still enjoyed the unspoilt canvas of a fresh day. As the day dawned anything was possible, everything could be reversed, changed, started, finished. The day could be anything that you wanted it to be. Right up until the moment it became infected with people, thoughts and memories.
Her daily ritual always began on the patio of the three-bedroom cottage on the outskirts of Bridgnorth, a small market town south-east of Shrewsbury. The property was picture perfect from the front, complete with white picket fence and mature cottage garden plants. The rear of the house faced west to the Shropshire hills.
This was Catherine’s piece of paradise and she had fallen in love with it at first sight. That had been almost eight years ago, before the girls had been born, and if she was honest with herself, the last time she’d experienced true happiness.
She glanced at her watch. Could she fit in another cigarette and coffee before Tim rose? At six fifteen she was cutting it fine but decided to chance it anyway.
There was a strangeness about the day that she couldn’t fathom. She had woken with a sharp intake of anxiety. There weren’t butterflies in her stomach but elephants wearing hobnail boots. Even the peace of the bright, fresh morning had done little to eradicate the trepidation and sense that today something was going to change. It was a feeling in her gut that was a middle ground between her head and her heart and she trusted it implicitly.
She poured the last cup of coffee from the percolator and immediately prepared a fresh pot. Tim had berated her many times for breaking percolators due to not waiting for the thermostat to cool down. Catherine shrugged. She needed coffee and they could easily afford it.
As she reached for the cigarettes peeping out from the top of her handbag she heard the sound of footsteps above. Her window of opportunity had firmly closed and all too soon she would be thrust against the first obstacle that obscured the promise of a new day full of hope.
Tim wrinkled his nose in distaste the second he entered the kitchen. ‘For goodness’ sake, Catherine.’
She didn’t need to question the source of his disapproval. He expressed it most mornings. ‘I was outside,’ she snapped back. ‘I can’t control the bloody breeze.’
‘Shut the door, then.’
‘I am not shutting myself out of my own home to have a damn cigarette.’
‘It’s a filthy habit anyway. The smell gets on your clothes, in your hair… ’
‘Okay, Tim. Enough.’
He shrugged and relaxed his features. ‘I’m only thinking of the girls.’
Of course he was, Catherine mused. Wasn’t he always?
‘It’s not healthy for them to inhale—’
‘For Christ’s sake, Tim, leave it alone. I had a couple of cigarettes in the back garden in the early hours of the morning. I hardly think that’ll have any lasting effects on their long-term health.’
Tim’s face tensed up again. ‘It’s a proven fact that children from parents that smoke have a higher percentage—’
‘Don’t quote figures at me and don’t speak to me as though I’m in your classroom. You don’t smoke and I smoke a couple of cigarettes a day away from the girls so I’d say the odds are reduced to roughly six and a half per cent. You should be more concerned about drugs, alcohol and teenage pregnancy.’
His studious expression told Catherine that he was trying to dig more quotable facts from his mind with which to continue the argument. She turned away and began preparing breakfast. He sighed heavily behind her.
‘Not the best way to start the day, is it?’ he asked, gently.
Although in physical terms they were less than ten feet apart, the words travelled the real distance between them.
‘Seems to be the only way these days,’ she replied, dropping the knife and heading for the bathroom.
She jumped under the shower, the lukewarm needles waking every inch of her skin to alertness. She’d already showered after her first coffee, but it was an extra few minutes of peace. Tim wouldn’t disturb her in the shower. Maybe once he would have done but not any more. The girls might come in.
She stepped out feeling calmer and more relaxed. She focused on the tasks that needed completing before she could get off to work, and padded back into the kitchen to prepare scrambled eggs for herself and Tim and cereal bowls for the girls.
She worked quietly while Tim read through the national dailies. She stole the occasional glance at his fair head bowed in concentration on a page he hadn’t turned in minutes. She served up eggs with a scorched brown underbelly. Oh yeah, life was perfect.
‘Breakfast is ready,’ Catherine offered. Her daily signal to Tim to wake the twins.
‘You wake them,’ he said, folding the newspaper.
She threw the spatula into the sink, clattering against the stainless steel edge. ‘Is everything going to be a battle today?’
‘You never wake them,’ he observed with a glint of challenge in his eyes.
She turned away and began wiping the surface. ‘They respond better to seeing you first thing in the morning.’
He opened his mouth to speak but just stared at her for a long minute. Was he going to push it?
He shook his head and went for the stairs. Catherine breathed a sigh of relief.
Within seconds Lucy was at the table, clad in teddy-bear pyjamas, her feet dangling in mid-air. Lucy was always the first, Catherine realised. First out of the womb, first to crawl, first to walk, first down to breakfast every morning.
The sound of rice popping in milk filled the kitchen. Catherine smiled fleetingly at her eldest daughter, older by about ten minutes. The silences between her and Lucy were easy, companionable. This child demanded nothing.
Within a few moments Jess flew into the kitchen, as always trying to catch up.
Catherine viewed her daughters from the corner of her eye as she buttered toast for Tim. As twins the girls had similarities but weren’t identical. Lucy’s hair was slightly fairer than Jess’s, her face more angular. Lucy’s serene demeanour reminded Catherine of her sister, Beth, who had cried little as a child. Jess reminded her of Alex, full of rebellion and fire. She saw nothing of herself in her children.
‘I want Coco Pops,’ Jess moaned, eyeing the Rice Crispies with distaste.
‘You ate the last ones yesterday,’ Catherine explained without turning. She’d meant to get some on the way home from work but it had slipped her mind.
‘Want Coco Pops.’
Catherine turned to face her. ‘Eat your breakfast, Jessica.’
Jess picked up a handful of Rice Crispies and threw them on to the floor.
Catherine’s temper flared but she held it in check. ‘Jess, clean that mess up right now.’
Jess eyed her coldly and with one swift movement used her forearm to send the bowl crashing to the floor.
‘Jess, I’m warning you. Pick that mess up or I’ll… ’ Her words trailed off as Jess pushed the milk carton over the edge of the table.
Catherine advanced on her youngest daughter, blinding red rage clouding her vision. Jess, it was always Jess who had to test her, challenge her, demand something from her.
Within seconds she was beside her youngest child. She felt her right arm begin to rise.
‘Catherine, what the hell are you doing?’ Tim cried, his hand grabbing at her wrist that was suspended in the air. ‘Jesus, you were going to hit her?’ he asked, stunned disbelief in his voice.
Catherine pulled her hand out of his grasp and turned. She saw the expression of fear on Jess’s face and she felt sick. Lucy stared down into her breakfast and hummed softly.
‘Go and get ready for school, girls,’ Tim instructed. Forced cheerfulness dripped from his words.
Once she heard the sound of their small feet pattering out of the kitchen, Catherine began to clean up the mess.
‘What the hell is wrong with you?’ Tim asked as soon as the girls were out of earshot.
‘She just won’t listen.’
‘She’s six years old. She’s not supposed to listen.’
‘Lucy’s the exception and you know it. She’s too damn scared of you to do anything else. Jess is a little braver, that’s all.’
‘Defend her as always,’ Catherine accused, wiping the last of the milk away. ‘You take her side against me every time.’
‘This is not a damn competition. They’re our daughters. Jess spilt some milk, that’s all.’
‘She didn’t spill the milk. She deliberately threw it on the floor because she couldn’t get her own way.’
‘And that’s a reason to hit her?’
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ she spat. ‘I wasn’t going to hit her.’
‘Your hand was in the air about to strike her. I caught your wrist just in time.’
‘Don’t be so dramatic,’ Catherine snapped, unable to meet his gaze.
Tim sat back on the chair, deflated. When he spoke his voice was low and weary. ‘You know, Catherine, there are many things I can put up with in the hope that they’ll change. I put up with your disinterest in what your children do at school. I accept your lack of physical contact with them. I ignore the fact that you’ve barely entered their bedroom since they were born except to clean. I ignore the fact that, despite me telling you a dozen times, you still don’t know the name of their teacher. I even accept that your work is probably your highest priority, above myself and also above the girls.’ He paused and looked at her sadly. ‘I accept all of this and try to compensate for your distance, but not physical violence, Catherine. I can’t accept that.’
The words brought tears to her eyes. She moved towards Tim, anxious to feel his arms around her, eager for his soothing words of comfort that would erase the deadened feeling in her stomach.
As she reached him, Tim stood and turned away. ‘I’ll drop them off at school.’
Catherine nodded at his back as he turned away, not waiting for a response, and then fell down into a chair, deflated and scared. She heard the front door open and close behind muted goodbyes.
A collared dove landed on the bird box to the side of the house.
‘You lied to me again,’ she murmured, as the tears rolled over her cheeks. The day was not filled with promise, after all.
The phone began to ring.
‘Get the fuck out of my bed, now,’ Alex growled. The water in the kettle was beginning to jump with heat and would be boiled in less than a minute. And one thing she couldn’t stand was peering at the face of a one-night stand over her first shot of caffeine.
‘You weren’t saying that last night,’ said the coy female voice from the bed.
The words and tone irritated Alex as she wondered if Yolanda, Ulanda or whoever the hell she was had the hide of a rhinoceros.
‘Do I look like I’m fucking joking?’ Alex snarled, turning a cold gaze on the smiling figure in the bed. The girl’s expression became puzzled.
‘You were nothing like this last night.’ The girl was unsure whether Alex was serious. Alex decided to clarify.
‘Last night I wanted someone to fuck and you were available. End of story.’
Alex turned her attention back to the boiling kettle. She listened keenly and smiled at the sound of the covers moving. Finally, the stupid tart was getting the message.
She held her breath, hoping the girl wouldn’t ask to take a shower. Alex just wanted her gone.
She decided she would need to hone her selection process in future. She had known that the girl was inexperienced the moment she offered to buy her a drink. With seasoned ‘hunters’ one drink was enough to convey the message before leaving for the nearest bed. This girl had cost her three brandy and Cokes and an hour of pointless conversation.
She smiled ruefully. It had been worth it, though. The girl’s fair hair and milky complexion had belied her voracious sexual appetite and Alex had been lulled to sleep by the sound of the refuse collection, truly exhausted.
But once she’d woken the bed had closed in. It was a space she struggled to share. Like mother, like daughter, said a small betraying voice in her head. Fuck off, she replied, but the memory had already formed…
She’d been five, maybe six, when a nightmare had propelled her from her bed. She had instinctively aimed for the door across the hall. Catherine had blocked her path.
‘Where are you going?’
‘To tell Mummy about my dream,’ she said, trying to hold back the tears.
‘No… ’ Catherine protested but Alex didn’t hear any more as she marched across the hallway.
She pushed the door open and touched the bare arm protruding from the yellow sheet.
‘Mummy, I had a nightmare,’ she murmured, her voice still weak with fear. There was no response. She tapped harder. ‘Mummy… Mummy… wake up… ’
The form stirred and peered at her in the dark.
‘I had a nightmare,’ she repeated.
‘So fucking what?’ her mother said, gruffly.
‘There was a monster with claw hands and big teeth and he was chasing me down the street. He was running after me and he wanted to eat me and his claws were sharp and they were going to rip into—’
‘Get out, Alex.’
Alex knew that she had made her mum angry, but she tried to climb into bed beside her to feel safe from the monster.
‘I said, fuck off,’ her mum growled, pushing her harshly to the floor.
Alex began to cry, the residual fear of the nightmare finally spilling over her cheeks.
‘This is my bed, not yours, now get out before I call the monster back. I control his claws and teeth and they’ll rip you apart if you don’t piss off.’
Alex screamed once and darted back into the opposite bedroom. She threw herself beneath the covers and hoped they would protect her.
She tried bravely to stem the tears and the sobbing. The monster might hear her and come back. If she could just be quiet then she’d be safe.
‘It’s all right, I’m here,’ Catherine said, kneeling beside her.
Alex popped her head out from beneath the covers. The monster wouldn’t come if Catherine was with her.
‘Come on,’ Catherine said, taking her hand. Her sister led her to the single bed in the corner of the room and drew back the covers. ‘Get in.’ Catherine settled herself and placed a protective arm around her. The tears stopped and her breathing returned to normal. The body heat of Catherine and fatigue pulled at her eyelids.
‘Mum pushed me out of the bed,’ she said, moving closer into Catherine.
‘Don’t think about it. She just hates sharing the bed.’
‘She said that the monster—’
‘Shhh,’ Catherine soothed, stroking her hair. ‘Go back to sleep and I promise the monster won’t get you tonight. I’ll look after you.’
And her sister had kept the first part of her promise. But not the second.
Alex growled out loud and pushed away any thoughts of her blood ties. Her mind would not accept the word family.
Alex appreciated the reprieve of the girl being in the bathroom. She could feel that her facial muscles had slackened under the pressure of the memory but she needed them firm and harsh.
She readied herself for the inevitable questions before the girl finally took her leave.
‘Can I take your number?’ ‘Will I see you again?’
Alex shook her head. Why did it have to be this way? Why couldn’t people just accept a casual fuck for what it was? She resented being put in the position of having to say no and appearing heartless but inevitably it ended that way with the inexperienced type.
Her normal type was rough, energetic and gone by sunrise. On the rare occasions that she found herself in someone else’s flat she made her excuses by five a.m. It was only polite.
Alex stiffened slightly as the bathroom door opened. For a few moments she had relaxed back into her own company. Her favourite place to be.
‘So, can I see you tonight?’
‘At the weekend?’
‘For fuck’s sake, just piss off, will you?’ Alex roared. The studio flat was tiny enough. Two people in it made her claustrophobic.
A pang of regret bit at her as the girl padded to the door carrying her shoes, but it wasn’t strong enough to prompt her to change her mind. She felt bad but not that bad.
The door closed and with her domain her own again, Alex breathed a sigh of relief, wondering if it was worth it. So often, these days, the chicks wanted breakfast in bed and a lifetime commitment. She’d already been there, done that, bought the T-shirt and burned it.
‘Fucking commitment,’ Alex growled as she lit her first cigarette of the day. She drew in and exhaled deeply. Her first fag and coffee was something that she shared with no one, not even Nikki. Even then Alex had risen half an hour before her lover.
As she swallowed her first mouthful of coffee a gentle knock sounded on the door. ‘For fuck’s sake,’ Alex shouted. Didn’t the stupid cow have enough taxi fare? She threw the door open, her face a mask of anger. It quickly dissolved into a smile when she saw Jay, her best friend, lounging against the door frame.
‘There’d better be a muffin to go with that good coffee you’re carrying or you can piss off,’ she said walking away from the open door.
‘As if I’d grace your doorstep at this time in the morning without gifts,’ he said, kicking the door shut behind him. He placed the cardboard cups on the kitchen counter and delved into his jacket pocket. ‘Blueberry,’ he offered.
She nodded approvingly, taking the muffin from him. The aroma of warm dough and fruit made her mouth water.
Jay retrieved a similar bag from his other pocket. ‘Oh, how civilised,’ he chuckled as he removed the lids from the coffee. Alex sniffed at the fresh aroma and threw her home-made instant down the sink.
Jay sniffed the air, dramatically. ‘Is that the scent of a cheap tart I smell?’
‘Yeah, but she’s gone now.’
‘I was talking about you, darling.’
Alex gave him the finger and bit into the muffin. Small crumbs broke off and tickled her chin. Suddenly, all was right with the world and if it lasted for the duration of the muffin, that was fine with her.
‘Nikki came into the club after you left.’
Alex rolled her eyes. Of course it couldn’t last. ‘So?’
‘Just thought I’d let you know, that’s all. You were a gnat’s bollock away from bumping into her.’
‘Why should I care?’ she cried at him, her voice rising.
‘I just thought I’d mention it in case you were interested,’ he said, flicking his non-existent hair. He’d gone for the shaved look a month earlier.
‘You’re so gay,’ she said, laughing at his campness.
‘You’re right. I am a truly happy person.’
Alex chuckled as Jay tried to press a beauty spot formed of muffin crumb above his upper lip.
Thank God for her friend, she thought as she viewed his crestfallen expression when the fruity beauty spot landed on the plate. He’d been the first friend she’d made when she moved to Birmingham seven years earlier.
They’d met during her first venture into a gay bar. He was one of three males amongst a throng of females dancing and gyrating in a small airless space. Intrigued, she had asked him why he was there. He’d admitted that when he wanted a quiet drink he frequented bars full of butch lesbians who’d leave him the hell alone.
Any thoughts of meeting someone that night had been put aside as the two of them spent the whole evening chatting and laughing together. And little had changed since, she thought, as she chewed the last mouthful of dough. They both still worked part-time in different bars. He was still trying to make it as an actor and she was still content not trying to make it as anything.
‘So, how did she look?’ Alex asked, offhandedly.
‘Gorgeous, as ever. She’s put on a couple of pounds and she’s got a nice tan. To be honest, if I was a lesbian I’d be all over her.’
‘You’re biased and you know it, so be objective for a minute.’
Jay put his finger beneath his chin and pursed his full, feminine lips in a dramatic thinking pose. ‘Okay, objectively she looks fucking gorgeous.’
‘Thanks for the impartiality.’
Jay shrugged. ‘It’s not my fault if you’re too stupid to realise that she was the best thing that ever happened to you.’
Alex buried her head in her hands. ‘Jay, leave it alone. You don’t know anything about us or what happened in our relationship.’
‘I know enough to understand that you were the happiest you’ve ever been when you were with Nikki. She was something special and you let her get away,’ he said, accusingly.
‘Back off,’ she warned.
‘You don’t frighten me, missy. I’ll say what I. . .
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