Her Last Words
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'Opens with a terrific hook' IRISH TIMES
'Absolutely absorbing' SAM BLAKE
'A chilling, magical read' PATRICIA GIBNEY
'Breathtakingly paced' S. A. DUNPHY
'Truly gripping' SINEAD CROWLEY
THE DEAD WON'T STAY SILENT FOREVER...
It's a crisp spring morning when Cass drops her husband, a respected lecturer, to the beach for his medically prescribed swim. While waiting for him, something catches her eye. A young woman runs towards her husband and embraces him - until he holds his hand over her face and she falls down on the stones, dead.
In the backseat of the car, their seven-year-old son sits quietly. When her husband returns, he says nothing. Neither does Cass. Afraid to speak up in the immediate aftermath, Cass embarks on a solitary quest to unravel what has taken place.
Cass is quickly drawn into a web of lies that pulls her back to the previous autumn, when a beautiful Italian postgraduate student finds herself subsumed by an inescapable desire. It's visceral. It's destiny. But sometimes destiny can kill...
Atmospheric, twisty, and propulsive, Her Last Words is an edge-of-your-seat read about obsession and dark secrets coming to light.
Release date: June 9, 2022
Publisher: Quercus Publishing
Print pages: 352
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Her Last Words
Ted climbs into the front seat beside me and he looks out through his yellow binoculars. Ten steps below us and off down at the shore, Jeff prepares for his daily ritual swim, folding his clothes and leaving them on top of his shoes. Red swim shorts today. He hobbles to the water’s edge, crunching through damp cold stones and he keeps going, straight in, as if he doesn’t feel the sting of it. He walks out to his midriff, makes a triangle with his arms and dives under. Jeff’s the only swimmer. It’s too early even for the dog walkers. He emerges, shaking his head to remove the hair from his eyes, droplets spraying in a halo around him. He cuts a strong front crawl and then swivels, stops for a breath and takes off again on his back. On the days that I wait, it’s this bit that I like to watch most of all. His face up to the sky and his arms shooting straight up out of the water, then pivoting back behind him. He stops to float. The relief he must feel. His bad leg buoyant, supported by the sea. Right now he looks just the same as anyone else. What does he think about as he lies back looking up at the clouds? I like to guess. Today I decide that he’s thinking about how we will celebrate the third edition of his Critical Introduction to Film Theory. He’s disappointed not to have found a publisher for his latest book and doesn’t feel like making a fuss about a revised edition of a much older book coming out. I told him we’re doing it anyway. It’s a super achievement to have written this seminal text. Important for Ted too, I argued, to see us celebrating this. Role modelling. A lesson in resilience and not succumbing to disappointment. That’s what turned it for him. Anything for Ted.
A burst of hailstones pummels off the windscreen and for a moment Jeff is obliterated.
‘Can I get out? I want to feel them, Mum.’ Ted has the door open and is out before I can answer. He stands beside the car, arms outstretched like a scarecrow, laughing as the hail hits him, stinging his face. I turn the key in the ignition and set the wipers to work. As they clear the screen, I see Jeff swimming towards the shore. Ted jumps back in behind me. I turn to look at him. His thick, wavy hair is sodden, darkening the blond to a dull brown. His navy puffer jacket glistens with the wet.
‘They were huge,’ he says, his eyes gleaming with delight.
‘You’re very brave. There’s no way I would’ve got out in that.’
I turn back and watch the hail melt away, the sun shining down as if the shower never happened. Jeff hobbles out of the sea to his pile of clothes and his stick. He’s cut the swim short. I watch as he pulls his black towel around him. He stands there, looking out across the bay and as he does, I have that thought again. If it wasn’t for the stick, he’d pass for a fit man, not yet forty. He snaps his head suddenly to the right and turns to look down the beach. He raises his stick up. The windscreen begins to fog. I open my window a little to let it clear.
‘Wrap the picnic rug around you to dry off and warm up,’ I say to Ted, and I turn to look at him putting the red tartan rug around his head first and then wrapping it around the rest of himself.
‘Snug as a bug in a rug,’ I say to him and he giggles. I pick up his binoculars from the seat beside me and use them to look back down at Jeff. He has turned to face the length of the beach, towards Bray Head. He’s dropped his towel and he’s no longer getting dressed. He seems to be shivering. I look to my right to see what has stopped him in his tracks. A girl runs towards him, removing her white shirt, throwing it off. I look back at Jeff. He doesn’t move. He knows her.
‘Can I get in the front again, Mum?’
‘No, sweetheart. Have a little lie down there, you seem tired,’ I say as I watch her speed up, her turquoise skirt flapping in the wind. When she reaches Jeff, she leaps up on him. He doesn’t falter. He lets go of his stick.
‘Please, Mum.’ I flick my head to check. He’s lying down.
‘No. Stay where you are, good boy.’ I put the binoculars back up and look down at the beach. The girl’s legs are wrapped around Jeff’s waist, her arms around his neck, skin to skin. Her head tilts backwards and her long, curly hair dances in the wind. She’s laughing.
‘But I love sitting in the front waiting for Dad.’
‘I know. But today why don’t we surprise him instead. You hide there. Down on the floor would be even better. Then when he gets back you can jump up and give him a big fright.’
Jeff puts his hands on her tiny waist and his head moves from side to side.
‘Yeuch,’ Ted calls out. He must be sitting up now, watching too. My mouth goes dry. There’s nothing I can do.
Jeff’s left hand goes up to greet hers around his neck and his right arm cups her back. Her hold loosens and their hands move down together. They stay for a moment like this, hands grasped just underneath her small right breast, her left arm around his back now.
‘There’s a rotten apple core under your seat, Mum. I’ll throw it out the window.’
He hasn’t seen.
‘No, leave it. Just lie there, very still. Otherwise he won’t get a fright.’
She’s talking a lot, but I can’t hear what she’s saying. I fiddle with the focus knob on the binoculars, turning it until I can see a little more clearly. Both of his hands are back on her waist. He’s lifting her down. She stands on the stones looking up at him, talking still, but then her chatter changes into something else, a groan which accelerates quickly into something louder. Like a caterwaul.
‘What’s that?’ Ted calls out.
‘Just another swimmer screaming about the cold water.’
‘Dad never does that.’
I watch Jeff put his right hand over her face, and his left hand holds her head which is tilted back slightly. Her arms rise up towards his, but then flail down by her side. He’s talking to her. The binoculars begin to cloud with my breath. I wipe them quickly on my top.
‘Dad’s brave like me,’ Ted calls from behind.
I put the binoculars back up and see her fall to her knees and then keel onto her side. I focus in further. She’s completely still. I stare at her chest. It’s not moving. Something glints at me, caught in the sun. I focus again and catch it. Jeff steps backwards. He’s backing away from her.
‘Remember the time he trod on the fish hook, and it was stuck in his foot and he didn’t even cry?’
I turn to check he’s still lying on the floor. I look back down on the beach.
Jeff throws his clothes on and steps into his shoes without bothering with his socks. He doesn’t tie the shoelaces either. He’s coming towards us, more quickly than I’d think he was able to. I put the binoculars under my seat and close the window. Within seconds he’s up the steps and back in the car beside me.
‘Boo,’ Ted shouts out, jumping up from the floor.
‘Quiet now,’ Jeff says. He doesn’t turn to look at Ted and he doesn’t look at me. His head tilts to the left instead, staring out at Sorrento Terrace. I can feel Ted’s disappointment as I hear his seat belt click. I can’t look at him either. I turn the keys in the ignition, press on the clutch, slip the gears into reverse and turn the car around as fast as I can.
I glance in the rear-view mirror. She is still there, a crumpled heap on the stones. Her long, curly hair straggles beside her, blending her in with the russet and black seaweed that surrounds her. The waves crash inches from her and then retreat leaving a frothy residue for a moment before that too disappears. She is alone. Her white shirt which she shed just minutes ago is being buffeted away from her. A seagull circles above her, shrieking into the wind.
In the car nobody says a word.
A steep exit tunnel takes us up and away from the beach. In the darkness the shock of it kicks in and I hold onto my scream. A train clatters overhead. Out of the tunnel, blinking into the sudden strong light I drive straight onto the road. A cyclist swerves to avoid being struck. I slam on the brakes and the cyclist mouths something at me. I wave an apology.
‘Bloody cyclists, what’s he doing out so early anyway?’ Jeff says, looking straight ahead.
‘Bad word, Dad.’
I don’t know if he knows that I saw. He’s not looking at me. Not catching my eye. But that’s pretty normal for him. This is all so normal. We do this every morning. His doctors prescribed swimming to strengthen the nerve damage. He’s no longer supposed to drive himself. Some days we drop him off and collect him when he’s finished. Other days we wait. Next we go home and have breakfast. Then I drive Ted to school and Jeff into college and come back to prepare for my appointments.
What the hell just happened? I want to shout out, but I can’t. Not with Ted in the car.
I squeeze my grip tighter on the wheel.
‘Did you bring the flask of tea?’ Jeff asks as we snake around Vico Road.
This is what I do every day. Give him his tea after the swim. Warm him back up.
‘It was ice cold today,’ he says, clutching the top of his walking stick. His knuckles have a blueish tinge to them. Seawater patches seep through his cream chinos. He hasn’t dried off properly.
I point to the glove compartment. Normally I get the flask out as he comes back up the steps and hand it straight to him when he gets into the car.
He fidgets with the lid and takes a slurp.
‘Ah, lovely,’ he says, as he does each morning, and keeps drinking, as if everything is just the same. If Ted wasn’t with us, would he tell me? Would I want him to tell me? If he says anything, I’ll have to react. Join him in whatever this is. If he says nothing . . .
‘I’m going to drive you straight in to college and then bring Ted to school,’ I say. He screws the lid back onto the flask so tight that it squeaks.
‘Shouldn’t we have some breakfast first, like we usually do?’
He’s telling me to carry on as if nothing just happened.
‘No. I haven’t time this morning. My mother needs a few groceries so I’ll do that before my first appointment.’
He stares out the window. The lush green verge is peppered with pink valerian, catching his eye.
‘The glories of springtime,’ he says, and when I look to search his face for something, some little hint that he’s unsettled, I don’t see it. His bottom lip curls into a smile.
‘Freezing hailstones you mean?’ Ted joins in, laughing. ‘Did they hurt you?’
‘No, little man, not at all. I love getting caught in hailstones as a matter of fact. They wake me up.’
‘They hurt me. Well, just my face and hands really.’
‘What, you were here for them?’ He says this quickly, slightly high pitched.
‘Yep,’ Ted says, sounding proud of himself.
‘And you got out in them? You mad thing,’ Jeff says and he looks behind him, at Ted in his seat.
I keep my eyes on the road. We’re so high up. A little veer could have us plunging into the sea. One of my nightmares. My worst nightmare, until now. What would I do if we were plunged into the sea? Open the door or the window? Who would I try to save first? What the hell would I do?
‘Did you see the waves and the spray today?’ Jeff asks, unravelling his socks. Tiny pebbles fall out of them onto his lap. He bends forwards to pull the socks on. He wants to know if I saw.
‘No, I was sending emails. My caseload is mental at the moment.’
‘Pity,’ he says slowly, tying his laces, pulling them tight. ‘They were spectacular.’
A shiver runs through me.
I saw something spectacular all right, I want to roar.
‘I forgot to learn my six-plus tables for homework,’ Ted says from behind me.
‘Don’t worry about it, pal. All that learn-by-rote stuff. It’s no good for you,’ Jeff says.
‘But there’s a classroom game we play. King of the tables, and I’m always coming last.’
‘You see what it’s doing to him, Cass?’ Jeff whispers to me. ‘How it’s skewing him, turning him into a little automaton. Making him feel inadequate. Is this really what you want for him?’
‘I’m never quick enough,’ Ted says.
‘Six plus four?’ I ask, tired of this argument and not quite believing that he’s doing this right now. How? How could he do this right now?
‘Great boy. Six plus seven?’
Ted counts out loud, using his fingers. I quiz him all the way into the campus. Stops me from having to talk to Jeff. I pull into the admin car park. Jeff opens the door and gets out slowly, stick first, tiny beach pebbles left scattered on the seat behind him.
‘Hang on a minute, what about my briefcase?’ he says, leaning back into the car.
I forgot about that. It’s in the cottage. He gets it each morning after breakfast.
‘You’ll have to do without it for today,’ I say and he presses his lips together in the way that he does when he’s thinking. As if he’s spreading lipstick evenly around them. He hobbles off, his bad foot slapping the paving. When he turns around and waves his stick at us I don’t wave back.
‘Bye, Dad,’ Ted calls after him.
I drop my head onto the steering wheel for a moment. Then I accelerate off, jerking Ted sideways.
‘Go, Mum! Go, Mum! Go, Mum!’ Ted chants, as if it’s a race we’re in. Which is exactly how it feels. The smell of cold sea from Jeff’s togs is nauseating me. I open the window and let the air rush through.
Back along the dual carriageway what I witnessed at the beach flashes before me, as if I’m fast forwarding a film to get to certain bits. Then pausing on them. On one in particular. The image of her left breast in close focus. The dark brown areola ring on a small, firm handful of translucent white flesh. On what’s missing from it. Like an iris without a pupil. To what’s there instead. A barbell piercing, glinting in the cold morning sun.
It’s close to dawn and Nina silences her alarm before it has a chance to get going. She crawls out of bed and makes her way to the kitchenette. Flicking the kettle on, she sends coffee granules tinkling into the bottom of a glass cup and she reaches for the folder in her bag. She feels a dizzying emptiness like she used to on exam mornings. A hunger accompanied by an inability to eat, while knowing that eating is all important to get through it. For now a cup of black coffee will have to do. She sips at it, the sharp bitterness jolting her towards the task ahead.
Running through the copy of her proposal she decides that Professor Hogan will have no time for it. A month and a half of work has gone into it, but it looks mediocre in front of her now. The work of an undergraduate who doesn’t deserve to be enrolled for a PhD. Derivative. Not fresh enough. He’ll see straight through it. Big flaws will wave at him and when he points them out to her today at ten o’clock she will nod and smile and she will accept that she has been punching above her weight. The dream of landing Professor Hogan as a supervisor will be over.
She packs the proposal back in her bag and runs a bath. It’s not about to get any better by staring at it and a bath might just help her carry off a detached look when he tears her work to shreds. She tips lime salts into the bath and climbs in, sinking herself under, immersing her head, even though she has run it too hot. Under here she holds her breath and visualizes the moment when Professor Hogan tells her she’d be better off with another supervisor. Or better off taking time out and travelling for a year. She’ll go for the latter option, she decides now. Spend a year in Positano with her Nonna, work in the café, binge watch Fellini boxsets, hone her topic. Then she’ll resurrect herself and hit him hard with an excellent proposal. Something that will resonate deeply with him. Some angle he has not managed to probe for himself.
She lures herself out of the water and is thankful that the mirrors have steamed up. There is nothing worse than catching sight of her child-like asymmetrical body, reddened. Tipping her head forwards she wraps a towel into a turban around her hair. She slips into her dressing gown and ties the belt tighter than usual, to remind herself. This is the day where she is to remain taut, no matter what is said. This is the day that will decide her future.
Nina plucks a pomegranate from her stash. Early October is her favourite time of the year, when they appear in the shops again. She would like to be able to eat fresh pomegranate all year round. She splices her sharp knife into the tough outer layer, cutting the fruit and releasing its blood-red jewels. Halved, this one looks to her like the four chambers of a heart, and she stares at it for a moment before digging a teaspoon into one chamber and dropping the little gems into her mouth. She bites down on them and sucks hard as they release their juice into her. This will be enough to get her through the meeting. She plucks and picks away at the rest of the beads and puts them into a freezer bag, as she did yesterday. For each half fruit eaten the other half is stored. This is her way of stretching out the pomegranate season.
She has chosen her clothes for the meeting. A black polo neck over faded Diesel jeans and silver Converse runners. The jacket worries her though. The biker’s marine-blue leather or the cream linen one? She tries both. The biker’s gives off a nonchalance that she likes but fears she won’t carry off. The linen is more the thing, more capable-looking somehow. The rumpled material gives off a respectful casualness. Before leaving the flat she tips the freezer bag to her mouth and chomps hard on the half-frozen pomegranate beads. She is ready to face Professor Hogan now.
I dump Jeff’s togs and towel in the washing machine, heap the powder into the drawer and turn on a sixty-degree cycle. For whites, even though they’re not. I think that by washing them extra hot it will help somehow. I watch the water rise up around the red and black items, huddled together, alone. I watch them churn. The foam forms quickly, subsuming them. They disappear into the suds. Good.
The groan that came from the girl. A low-pitched guttural wave at first, building and building. Then the silence. I’ve no way to interpret it. I’ve never heard anything like it. It spins in me and spins in me as I watch the foam swirl round and round. I run to the loo and throw up.
My phone rings in my bag. Jeff’s tone but it sounds different.
I can’t answer it.
I’m not ready to speak to him.
If I speak to him now, without Ted in earshot to buffer us, I’ll just come straight out with it. Who the hell was the girl on the beach? What in god’s name did you do to her? There’s no going back then. No matter what he says. Once I ask him, I am part of it.
‘Do I have to go to school today, Mum?’ Ted is in the kitchen with me now, dressed in his green gym gear. He’s a little pale.
‘Yes. I’ll put some toast on for you.’
‘But I’m so tired.’
‘You had a little rest when we were at the beach.’
‘No? Who was that curled up under the picnic rug, then?’
‘Ah, it must’ve been the dog. But I didn’t think we brought Tuppence with us today.’ Ted giggles. His little world is still the same. I want to keep it just like this.
‘Can we walk this morning and bring her with us?’ Ted asks.
‘I thought you were tired, you scamp.’ His chocolate eyes twinkle with his smile.
‘Yes, of course we can bring her with us.’
Anything that’ll make you happy little man.
We are still at before.
Before everything changes.
Before you know your world has been shattered.
I need to hold onto this.
The toast pops up, the noise of it startling me, and a small gasp escapes.
‘I’m not hungry, Mum. I’ll just have the orange juice.’
He’s unsettled this morning. He’s like that sometimes. Otherwise I’d be worried that he saw something too. He takes a gulp of the orange juice and his eyes widen. He runs to the sink and spits it out.
‘You gave me the one with bits in it.’
I check the bottle. He’s right; I’ve given him Jeff’s one. He can only drink the smooth.
‘That’s okay,’ he says, and he goes to the back door to get the dog’s lead.
We’re on our way and Ted is bristling, proud as punch with Tuppence trotting along beside him. A little bit of colour returns to his cheeks as he walks.
I haven’t thought it through though.
Tuppence is a magnet.
A Shetland sheepdog.
Cute as hell.
As we get close to the school, hordes of little kids and mothers surround us. Forcing me into inane banter.
Yes, she’s lovely.
Four and a half.
A bit neurotic, but hey, who isn’t? I’m over-smiling, like some cheerful American. Acing the banter. Until Susie steps forwards, bends down and starts stroking Tuppence.
‘How are you?’ she says, glancing up at me.
My eyes sting.
‘Good, thanks.’ My cheeks begin to tingle too.
‘Time for a coffee before your first appointment?’ she asks, standing again.
I shake my head. My wide smile gone.
‘Nine-thirty,’ I manage to say.
Her pale blue tranquil eyes lock with mine. Almost calming me. I drop my gaze back down on the dog. Susie Donovan. The most real person I think I’ve ever met. Congruent. That’s the psych term for her. I didn’t need to bump into her today.
‘How about Thursday?’
‘Yes. Yes, Thursday is good,’ I say.
It’s as if she knows already that I’ll be cancelling.
‘Yes.’ I yank the lead to go. Ted walks up the slope towards the main door. He turns to wave. Tuppence lets out a yelp and Ted doubles up. He runs back down to me.
‘Forgot your hug,’ he says, squeezing my waist.
‘See you later, Tups.’ He pats the top of her head.
Walking home I decide what I am to do. For the next hour that is. Before my first appointment. That’s how it is going to be. Dividing this day up into little chunks. Continuing as normal for as long as I can. My phone buzzes in my pocket. I wrench it out. Mum. Oh god.
‘Cass? Jeff’s been on wondering if you’re here. He’s tried your phone but can’t get you. He says you’re coming over to me with some groceries?’
‘I thought I might, yes. What do you need?’ My voice wobbles.
‘Nothing, darling – you brought me everything I need yesterday, remember? Come over anyway. I’d love to see you.’
‘I think I’d better prepare for my ten o’clock, then. It’s a tricky one. A teenage girl, cutting herself. Her mother’s at her wits’ end, poor thing. Maybe tomorrow.’
‘Okay, darling – whatever suits you. I’ll be here.’
The tears are backing up now. I smile to bat them away.
‘Cass? Is everything all right? Jeff rarely phones me and . . .’
‘Everything’s fine.’ I hang up.
Her world too.
The caterwaul rings in me as I open the front door. It’s beginning to remind me of something. The building heave of it. Inside the cottage, alone now, I’m looking around as if it isn’t my place. Our place. It feels different. It looks different. I survey it at a remove. The floorboards that I sanded and varnished myself seem to belong to someone else. The burnt-red leather couch that we were sitting on together last night. Wine glasses with dregs left on the mantelpiece. The smell of an old fire. The spiral staircase up to the dual office where the light floods in. The reason we chose this cottage above the others. A sanctuary for Jeff to work in when not in college. A place for me to see my clients. Now I climb that staircase to search his section.
Who is she?
How does she know you?
What have you been doing with her?
Why . . .
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