I stare at the newspaper article about a baby snatched from the back of a car thirty years ago, and wonder why someone would post it through my door. Looking closer, my blood freezes. The little girl in the photo has an unusual scar – just like mine. I’ve never met anyone with one like it. Is this stolen child… me?
Trembling with shock, I know I have to confront my mother. My parents got me through a horrific accident, helped me find a job I love teaching art, and even with buying my own house. But was it all built on lies?
She tells me the day I was born was the best day of her life, and I’m flooded with guilt for questioning her – but why do I catch her burning papers in the garden the next day?
Then I come home to find a woman sitting on my doorstep, covered in bruises and claiming she knows who abducted me. I don’t know if I can trust her – or if I’ll be the next to get hurt.
Because all the while, I’ve been hiding my own secret. Does whoever sent the article know what really happened the day of my accident? Desperate for the truth, I break into the house of my supposed kidnapper. Inside, I find a handwritten list of names. A shiver goes down my spine as I realise wasn’t the only child to be stolen.
Then I hear a key in the lock, and I know my life is in terrible danger…
An absolutely addictive read that will have you racing through the pages and questioning everything you thought you knew about your family. Perfect for fans of The Girl on the Train, Lisa Jewell and Shari Lapena.Read what everyone’s saying about Kerry Wilkinson:
‘Wow, wow, wow!!!!! This author never ceases to amaze me… I raced right through this one… I couldn’t believe that ending… so many twists and turns and I loved it. I didn’t know which way was up or down by the time I finished the book. That ending will stick with me for a long time… definitely recommend it.’ Blue Moon Blogger, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘Absolutely the most unique and twisted thriller I have ever read… The reader will not be able to put this book down once it captures you… The twist at the end is amazing and one no-one will see coming… a wonderfully told tale that kept me reading well past my usual bedtime.’ Goodreads reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘Oh my – this kept me guessing all the way through. I was literally gagging to find out the truth… you should have seen my jaw drop… I am so glad I started this book on a day when I had nothing else going on… It hit the ground running, sucked me in, chewed me up and spat me out.’ NetGalley reviewer, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
‘Close the curtains. Turn on all the lights…
Release date: June 14, 2021
Print pages: 350
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The Child in the Photo
Opposable thumbs and the central nervous system is clearly right up there when it comes to usefulness – but I honestly think the next step has to be a third hand. The main argument in favour is that getting a weekly big shop from the car into the house should be easier than it currently is. I don’t think anyone can dispute that Tesco stores are too big nowadays.
As I hobble the few steps along the driveway, I have a bag hooked over each shoulder, two more cutting into one hand – and then a final bag in the other. That leaves me a grand total of zero hands with which to go fishing into my actual bag for the key to get myself inside.
I end up putting all the shopping bags on the ground in order to find the aforementioned key, by which time three apples are making a break for the road.
After I’ve rescued them, unlocked and opened the front door, and then retrieved the shopping, I’m beginning to think that a fourth hand might actually be necessary – because then I’d be able to pick up the mail that’s scattered across the welcome mat, before tapping in the code to the manically beeping burglar alarm.
I dump the shopping in the kitchen, then return to close the front door. After that, I tap the code into the burglar alarm, which makes the brain-frying beeping finally knock it on the head.
In the blissful relative silence, it doesn’t take long to skim through the four letters on the welcome mat. When I was young, any form of letter addressed to me would bring a thrill that would likely be the highlight of my week. My grandma, who lived on the other side of town, and who I saw most days, once mailed me a sixth birthday card. I thought it was the most wondrous thing. I kept the envelope and everything inside for a good dozen years until I had a clear-out.
Now, more or less anything that comes through the door is destined for the recycling box with only a cursory look.
Today’s mail consists of:
a) A letter from Barclays that mentions something about my overdraft rate going up.
b) A pamphlet from the Liberal Democrat party about an upcoming local election that may as well have ‘feed me to the shredder’ written all over it.
c) Something for my ex-boyfriend, which means I will have to text him again.
d) A plain envelope with no stamp and my name written on the front. ‘HOPE TAYLOR’ stands out in black biro on the white background. It’s been written in very neat block capital letters, almost as if it’s come from a printer. It’s thin and feels empty.
I carry everything through to the kitchen and then edge around the floor-dumped shopping bags as I slip a fingernail underneath the envelope’s flap and scratch it open.
At first, I really do think the envelope is bare. There’s nothing immediately visible inside and it’s only when I go digging to the bottom that I find the browning scrap of slightly crusty newspaper.
As soon as I pull it out, there’s a gentle edge of musty-dustiness in the air. Like the back corners of a library where nobody goes.
The newspaper clipping has been sliced neatly along the middle of an advert for Whiskas cat food. There is a stack of small tins plus a cat sitting at the side with its head very tidily chopped off.
Except that isn’t what the clipping is of.
When I flip it over, I realise it’s a short news story.
POLICE are appealing for witnesses after a six-month-old baby was stolen from the back seat of a car in Lower Woolton yesterday.
Penny Craven left her daughter, Jane, in the back of her brown Vauxhall Cavalier, which was parked on Marston Close, near to the junction with Vicarage Hill.
She was in Marston Newsagents for approximately three minutes before returning to find that Jane was no longer in the car.
The article cuts off at a point where it feels like there was likely more to come. From the date at the top, it is thirty-four years old.
There’s a picture of the baby, although I’m not sure how much use it might have been to anyone at the time. The dotted image is slightly fuzzy, with the monochrome bleeding into the background. To my untrained eye, the child looks like any other of a similar age. Jane has almost no hair, a slightly pudgy face and a squat nose. She’s sort of smiling, although it’s more that confused face that kids do as they’re trying to figure out how their mouths work.
I read the story through a second time and then check inside the envelope again, wondering if I’ve missed something.
I look at the front of the envelope, then the back, except the only details are my own name. There’s no return address, or anything to indicate who might have put it through the door.
I’ve never heard of Penny Craven, Jane Craven, or Lower Woolton. It all feels as if this has been delivered to the wrong person. Perhaps a different Hope Taylor, who’d know what any of this meant?
I put the article and the envelope down on the side and then send a reluctant text to Aki, telling him there’s more mail for him if he wants to pick it up. After that, I put away the shopping, before returning to the article.
The third read offers no more clues than I had before. The snip along the bottom of the article isn’t quite straight and there’s a hint of a fourth paragraph that isn’t there.
I put it down and then pick it up. Something about it feels familiar and yet it doesn’t. The photo of the missing baby is grainy and greying. A reminder of how fast things have moved in my lifetime. Newspapers have gone from an inky black and white to colour to an anachronism.
The baby photo is the sort of posed picture that could have been taken in the old days by a professional at a shopping centre. Perhaps they still are? Jane has puffed-out cheeks and wide eyes. The poor thing is probably scared of the giant figure in front of her with a huge camera.
And then I see it.
I find myself touching my ear. The curved bit along the top is called the helix except, for me, there is no arch. It is a straight slice, almost as if someone once cut through it with scissors.
When I was young, I’d hate to look at myself in a mirror because the deformed ear was the only thing I’d ever see. One of my friends once got a pair of piercings through the helix of her ear and I always wondered if it was a subtle dig at me because that part of my ear doesn’t exist. Boys, especially, would notice.
In recent times, that angle of my ear has been the least of my worries when it comes to health. I don’t think about it too often any longer.
I’m thinking about it now, though.
I’ve seen myself in a mirror tens of thousands of times. I know exactly how my ear looks – and yet I hurry through to the hall and stand in front of the full-length mirror to stare at the side of my head, the article still in my hand. I tuck a strand of my short hair behind my ear and turn a little, so that I’m at the same angle as little Jane Craven in the picture.
The article is from thirty-four years ago. I’m thirty-four years old.
I look from Jane to me and back again.
The top part of my ear is missing. The top part of her ear is missing.
Mirror to photo to mirror… to photo. Which leaves me with one simple, yet horrifying, question.
Is this… me?
There are definitely other people on the planet who have an ear like mine. When I was younger and particularly down about things, Mum would comfort me by saying that I wasn’t the only one. She’d point out that almost everyone looked the same ear-wise but that only someone who was special would be different.
I didn’t want to be special or different. I wanted to be like everyone else.
The memory leaves me thinking of Mum. I could call and ask if she’s ever heard of Jane Craven – except that it doesn’t feel like the sort of thing that can be asked in a phone call. It definitely can’t be asked in a text message.
It’s not an in-person world nowadays, except that some things still have to be – and Mum is old-school when it comes to communication.
I return to the kitchen and slip the article back into the envelope, then I go back out the front door and hop the low fence until I’m standing outside my neighbour’s door. There’s no doorbell, so I knock on the glass and wait.
There’s a ritual to the door being answered. First a call of ‘yes’ to acknowledge the knocking has been heard, then the hallway light going on – this happens regardless of time of day – and then a low grumbling until the door is eventually pulled inward.
A curious smile spreads across Mr Bonner’s face, as he uses his walking stick to prop himself up.
‘Hope, love,’ he says.
Mr Bonner turned eighty on New Year’s Day this year. He celebrated by eating roast potatoes with me in my kitchen and then inviting me back to his to get drunk on expensive whisky that he’d been hoarding since he turned seventy. He keeps insisting I call him ‘Jack’, although I was raised to call people older than me ‘Mr’ or ‘Mrs’. It’s been largely impossible to get out of the habit.
‘What’s wrong?’ he adds. He has seemingly seen something in me that I didn’t know was there.
‘Nothing,’ I reply quickly. ‘I was just wondering if you saw anyone at my door during the day?’
Mr Bonner glances sideways towards my driveway. There’s an ankle-high fence separating the two properties and my car is now parked back in its place.
‘Only the postman,’ he says.
‘What time was that?’
‘Around two. Same as always.’
He raises his eyebrows with a hint of expectedness.
I allow myself a smile: ‘I bet you remember when there were two posts a day, don’t you?’
The grin is infectious. ‘Cheek!’ he says. ‘How’s the leg?’
I lift my prosthetic leg, feeling the slight friction as my amputated limb rubs against the cup into which it’s attached.
‘I can still beat you in a race,’ I reply.
He laughs, as he always does. The pensioner versus the amputee sounds like something ITV might commission for primetime. When it comes to me and my neighbour, it might happen one day – though I suspect we’ll need a lot more expensive whisky first.
As I put my foot back onto the ground, I picture the pile of mail from inside my door. The one without the stamp was at the bottom, underneath the regular post.
‘Was there anyone before the postman?’ I ask.
A shake of the head. ‘Not that I saw – but I was out the back for a bit.’ There’s a pause as his wrinkled eyes narrow. ‘Is everything okay?’
I try to sound breezy and unconcerned as I tell him it’s fine. I’m not sure he’s listening because he wafts his free hand in the vague direction of the street.
‘Did you hear about the break-in a week back?’ he asks. ‘Other side of town but makes you think.’
‘Nobody broke in,’ I reply. ‘It’s nothing really – but if you see anyone hanging around the house that you don’t recognise, can you let me know?’
Mr Bonner digs into his trouser pocket and pulls out an old Nokia 3210. He holds it up proudly, as if showing off a trophy he’s won. His daughter bought it for him from eBay two or three years back and he grins every time he shows it to me. He brags that he only has to charge it once a month.
‘I’ve got your number in here,’ he says.
‘I’ve been wondering who keeps calling me and breathing heavily down the line.’
He laughs as he re-pockets the phone.
‘Are you sure everything’s all right?’ he asks again.
‘It’s all fine,’ I reply. ‘You just let me know when you want someone to beat you at Scrabble again and I’ll be right around. Then I’ll race you round the park and beat you at that, too.’
The grin is back. ‘You’re on.’
I sit on a stool in the kitchen and reread the three paragraphs of the article. The paper feels brittle, as if it could crumble if I hold it too hard.
Someone has kept this for three decades. Someone who seemingly thinks I’m the girl in the photo… or someone who knows I am.
I’m not sure what’s worse.
The more I stare at Jane and her ear, the more I see the similarity to myself. It’s not only that the straight slice is on the same ear, it’s that it’s at the same angle. The light catches it in the same way. Everything is the same.
It’s like looking in a curved mirror at the fairground, where everything is the same and yet it isn’t. It has to be a coincidence.
I take my keys from the hook in the hall and then leave the house and get into the car. It’s around a twenty-minute drive from where I live in Macklebury to where I grew up, in Elwood. They’re both small towns that are surrounded by countryside. The sort of places where people either live their entire lives, or leave the moment they finish school. I suppose I’m an oddity in that I left one place but then moved to the other. I got out… but not really.
As I pass the Welcome To Elwood sign, there’s a second banner a little past it with a large ‘Save Our Jobs’ slogan painted across it. A pair of men in bright orange vests wave their fists in a salute as I beep my horn in the customary fashion while I pass.
My home town never makes headlines for positive reasons. Last year, Elwood was in the news because of a hit-and-run where a young boy was left for dead. This year, it’s all about how the large shoe factory in the centre is on the brink of closing for good. It’s the place that employed a large number of men throughout the area, a factory around which the town itself was built. It’s been downsizing for years and nobody seems quite sure what will be left of the town once it’s gone.
I try to think of that instead of the article that came through the door but the picture of Jane with her damaged ear keeps drifting to the front of my thoughts. That and the date of the article. Jane and I would be the same age.
I navigate the streets of Elwood on autopilot. All roads through the town seemingly lead towards the shoe factory and I find myself easing past it, where there’s a second protest happening close to the gates. More men in fluorescent tabards thrust a banner high and cheer as I beep my horn for them, too. I wonder if my support is to make them feel better, or me. We likely all know the truth that the factory is closing and that jobs aren’t coming back. No amount of protests or honked horns are going to change that.
Elwood is not a large place and it’s only a few more minutes until I’m parking outside Mum’s house. I let myself into my childhood home without much thought, using the key I’ve had since I was eight or nine years old. The sort of thing I’ve also done tens of thousands of times before.
‘It’s me, Mum,’ I call, as I close the door behind me.
She shouts back to say she’s in the living room, not that there are many other places she might have been. If it wasn’t there, it would have been the kitchen.
I poke my head around the living room door and she’s in her chair, with the headrest back and her feet up. She motions to stand but doesn’t make a real effort as I wave her back down. Coronation Street is frozen on the television but, from the time of day, it’s either a rerun or a recording. Her relationship with Corrie is perhaps the longest with anything she’s had in her life.
‘I didn’t know you were coming over,’ she says.
‘D’you want a brew?’
I give the universal hand-to-mouth sign while holding an invisible mug and Mum reaches for the empty Little Miss Wise cup that’s already at her side.
‘I’ll do it.’
She doesn’t move to stand as she says this, although we both know the ritual by now. I take her mug and then head through to the kitchen, where I fill the kettle and set it boiling. After that, I rinse out Mum’s mug and then grab a couple of teabags from the cupboard.
Mum has already set her programme playing again in the living room, with the volume approaching sonic boom levels. She insists she doesn’t have a hearing problem, although, if that’s true, then ‘What?’, ‘Pardon?’ and ‘Who?’ must be her three favourite catchphrases.
I stand in the doorway that links the kitchen to the living room, slightly behind Mum where she can’t see me.
In the two years since Dad died, she’s changed almost nothing about this room. The walls are still covered with a succession of family photos that almost all contain the three of us. If not that, then it’s me by myself. There are class photos from primary school, and then the posed photographs of me in school uniform with a discomforting number of bewildering haircuts that makes me think my ear was the least of my worries when I was young.
There are holiday photos from caravan parks and the seaside. Something from when I rode a donkey at Elwood Summer Fete when I was seven or eight. I’m at a wildlife park, then a water park, then Alton Towers. We visited Edinburgh when I was around twelve and there’s a photo of me sitting on one of the cannons near the castle.
My entire childhood is chronicled on these walls.
The kettle clicks off and I move back into the kitchen, where I pour two cups of tea. Mum has a splash of milk and her customary three sugars, and then I carry everything back through to the living room.
Mum thanks me for hers as I put it on the small side-table next to her chair. She won’t be touching it anytime soon as the only way she has hot drinks is when they’re cold. Dad teased her about it for at least the thirty years I remember, and likely another decade before that.
It’s those little thoughts, as simple as putting down a cup of tea, that bring the memories crashing back.
I sit across from her and cradle the mug in my fingers as Mum pauses the television again. The ear-crushing sound is gone in a flash, leaving only the relative silence of the unassuming house on an unassuming road.
‘I didn’t expect you today,’ Mum says.
‘I’ve been thinking about my ear.’
Mum’s eyes narrow as she stares across the room towards me. ‘Oh, love… what has someone been saying…?’
I shake my head. ‘It’s not that. I suppose it’s been on my mind recently.’
‘I’m not sure. I was wondering if you could tell me about it again.’
She wriggles in her seat, confused, which isn’t a surprise. This is the story she used to tell me when I was much younger. She wanted me to understand why I was how I was. It’s not something she’s had to say out loud in anything close to twenty years.
‘Sometimes I need to hear it, Mum.’
She straightens herself and clears her throat. Any eye contact is lost now as she stares off towards some of the photos on the wall. It’s as if she’s aged in front of me. She’s suddenly frail and confused where, moments ago, she was confident and content.
Or perhaps I’m seeing something that isn’t there.
‘It was a complication with the umbilical cord,’ she says with a slight cough. ‘You were already partly out when they realised it was wrapped around your neck. All these people suddenly appeared from nowhere. Doctors, I guess – although I don’t know for sure. It was so long ago. They managed to get you out but, in doing so, the cord ripped across part of your ear. If it wasn’t for that, you probably would’ve choked to death.’
She reaches for her tea, hot or not, and sips from the top. It’s the same thing I was told as a young teenager and, perhaps, as an even younger girl. I didn’t know what an umbilical cord was when she first told me but finding out meant that I was ahead of the class when we first started doing biology.
I’ve never questioned it, because why would I? It feels like something that could have happened. Like something that did happen.
I take the envelope from my bag and then step across the room and hand it to Mum. She asks what it is but I don’t answer as she reaches inside and removes the article. I watch her face but she’s unmoving as she either skims the piece or pretends to.
She doesn’t look up when she next speaks. ‘Where did you get this?’
‘I was given it.’
I don’t know the answer, although that’s not why I remain quiet.
‘Jane would be my age,’ I say, ignoring the question. ‘She’s missing the same part of her ear.’
Mum continues to look at the clipping, perhaps at the photo itself. From nowhere a memory returns of me lying on my bed upstairs. I would have been fifteen or sixteen and obsessed with boys and acting older than I was. It occurred to me suddenly that I didn’t look much like either of my parents. My hair has always been a naturally mucky blonde, while both of theirs was dark. They had brown eyes, while mine were blue. I asked Dad about it once but he said something about getting genes from grandparents. It was the sort of conversation that was forgotten about until all these years later. So distant that I’m not certain it even happened at all.
Mum looks up from the article and blinks. All of a sudden, she’s speaking quickly and decisively, as if telling me to clean my room and that she doesn’t want any backchat.
‘What’s this got to do with anything?’ she asks.
‘I’m not sure.’
She pauses for another moment, her eyes squinting as if trying to figure out how to phrase whatever comes next.
‘I remember giving birth to you,’ she says. There’s the hint of steel in her tone, as if she’s disappointed in me. ‘I don’t know why you’re showing me this.’
There’s a hint of hurt, too, which I guess is understandable. A moment in which it feels like she might rip the article in half. Her fingers grip the two corners and her arms tense.
Instead, s. . .
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