In this series, we invite our Crime Cymru authors to showcase an excerpt from one of their books. This week, Thorne Moore talks about researching the recent past and resurrecting childhood memories when writing The Unravelling.
My crime books are psychological mysteries, exploring the causes and consequences of a traumatic event, and I wouldn’t generally class them as thrillers, but maybe The Unravelling comes close. Writing it, I dredged up my memories of life as a ten-year-old in the mid-1960s, setting it in a slightly fictionalised version of the housing estate in Luton where I grew up; new developments on lost fields, post-war prefabs being torn down, streams and gullies disappearing into culverts, muddy farm tracks winding between new cul-de-sacs and avenues. A place that a child’s imagination could easily paint with mysterious secrets and lurking monsters. It was a time when children played freely in the streets, even though real monsters existed – and some of them were children themselves.
I had no difficulty remembering the early-60s, which were really a hang-over of the 50s, until 1967 and Sgt.Pepper. It was my childhood (not the actual events but the time and place). Children absorb everything around them into their identity, where it remains, no matter what comes after. What I found more challenging, in writing The Unravelling, was remembering how life was a mere 20 years ago – post-world-wide-web but pre-broadband, Google, Facebook and smartphones. A time when people bought books from bookshops, not Amazon.
So, The Unravelling… Karen Rothwell, a middle-aged woman suddenly remembers Serena Whinn, a girl she had adored at school and she becomes obsessed with finding her, because she realises that something terrible happened thirty-five years before – something that she has blocked from her memory. Something or someone. Whatever it was, it has left her damaged for life and when she searches out the circle of friends from that time, she discovers that they are all damaged too. Serena Whinn must be the key to the truth. Will the memory come back? Should it? Will it set Karen free or destroy her?
This is where it begins.
EXCERPT FROM “THE UNRAVELLING”
by THORNE MOORE
Miserable January. The roads and pavements and slate roofs streamed black in a freezing rain, as my windscreen wipers struggled, shrieking and grinding against the deluge. One failed completely as I turned into Hobson Street. The other was juddering on its last legs as I parked up.
Silence, apart from the steady hiss of rain. I sat watching it slanting, scalpel-sharp and mesmerising, through the cold glow of the street lights. An occasional glimmer of lamps behind half-drawn curtains intensified the darkness of the night, small defiant declarations of exclusion.
The Slough of Despond – a miserable month, a miserable day, and a miserable, middle-aged woman, sitting in a miserably decrepit car, trying to summon up the energy to do something, anything.
No good sitting there. I needed to get on. Unpack the shopping, phone the garage to get the windscreen wiper sorted out, finally face up to the electricity bill. Or maybe just curl up in my flat, under the duvet, with a good book, and disappear into some golden, flickering world of fire and foe and escapist fantasy that didn’t have bills and windscreen wipers. Come on.
A mighty heave of will and I emerged into the embrace of the rain. Instantly, it found its spiteful way over my collar and down my neck, while I struggled to pull my shopping from the back seat. Something caught, of course. It always did. The bag tipped and apples escaped. Before I could grab it, one bounced into the gutter and started to roll down the street, hustled by swirling rainwater. I followed, lunging for it, but too late. It slipped from my grasp over the jagged lip of a broken gully cover and plummeted into the gurgling, foetid drain. As I watched, a surge of water enfolded it and pushed it out of my sight into the blackness of the sewers.
Serena Whinn turned, and smiled at me.
My hand was halfway into the gully, groping for the lost apple. How ridiculous. It was lost, destroyed. There was no point trying to get it back. I pulled back, wiping my fingers in disgust on my wet coat, and concentrated on the other apples – one on the pavement, two in the well of the car – squeezing them back into the carrier. They were bruised, already pulping and inedible, but I had to pick them up. I couldn’t just walk away and leave them to rot…
Serena Whinn turned, and smiled at me.
Odd that, remembering a ten-year-old girl I’d known briefly, decades earlier.
I picked up my carriers, locked the car and headed, hunched against the sharp, icing rain, into the passage that led to the rear of No. 114. A narrow alley. For the first time, since moving in, I saw its sinister potential, a darkening lane, full of shadows, where anything might be lurking. I brushed away the cold fingers that were beginning to stroke the back of my neck.
Serena Whinn turned, and smiled at me.
Serena. A lovely girl. Everyone had wanted to be her friend. I used to be her friend once.
I fumbled with my keys, couldn’t find the keyhole, it was so dark. Everything was dark. The fingers were back on my neck. Found it! I threw the door open and lurched inside, stepping by instinct round the piles of books, dark ramparts in the gloom. My hair was dripping rats’ tails, soaking my already damp blouse. One shoe squelched. I pulled it off – the sole was split. My cold foot prickled with pain – a stone must have worked through. I turned my foot up and in the dimmest of light saw the darkness of saturation, the pink bloom of blood spreading around a hole in my sock.
My stomach lurched.
Serena Whinn turned and smiled at me.
I gave up. That was the moment, looking at a hole in my sock, when I stopped the instinctive fight to keep her out and let Serena in. I knew it was going to be one of those bad times, everything splitting, a double helix coming apart, and I knew what I was meant to do, how I was supposed to cope, but I didn’t care. Serena was smiling at me and suddenly, nothing else mattered in the whole world.
Serena has seen me. Me! She’s coming. She doesn’t just wave, she comes to join me, smiling, skipping down the road.
‘Are you going home?’ asks Serena. ‘Can I come with you?’
My heart swells, with nerves and joy. She wants to come with me! ‘Oh yes!’
I curled up on the sofa and pulled the paisley throw over me, so all the lingering light of today’s world – the crimson pinpoint on the phone, the green digital numbers on the clock radio, the glimmer from houses beyond the fence – all were expunged in the darkness of a world that had vanished thirty-five years before. It was too late to turn away, to blink Serena out of existence. I wanted to look at her, nothing but her. I wanted to let her possess me.
I am trying not to shuffle but it’s difficult if you’re wrapped in a sheet, with cardboard wings slipping down your back and a tinsel halo that makes your scalp itch. Me and Jacqueline Winstanley. We’re attendant angels. We get to chant ‘Glory to God in the highest’ when Colin’s finished.
Colin Chivers is Gabriel. He’s really loud. That’s why Miss Hargreaves picked him, only now she keeps having to say ‘Don’t shout, Colin. You’re not broadcasting the good news to Scotland.’
I’m an angel, which is loads better than pretending to be a sheep, but I’d really, really wanted to play one of the big parts where they have real lines to learn. Kings or shepherds or Gabriel. Trouble is there were too many of us squabbling over the good parts, so I didn’t have a chance. I never do.
We never squabbled over Mary, though. It went without saying, there’s only one girl in the whole world who could play her. Serena Whinn was, is, and ever shall be, Mary, Mother of God.
Now I’m standing in the wings, trying not to scratch, with Colin blocking my view and roaring his lines.
‘Fear not! Behold! I bring you great tidings of good joy!’
Miss Hargreaves is hissing, ‘Good tidings, great joy!’ but Colin is roaring on. I can see one of the shepherds, Shirley Wright, finger in her nose, kneeling up to peer into the audience. She wants to see if her parents are watching.
My parents are out there too, but I don’t want to look for them. I just want to rest my eyes on the pool of light at the far side of the stage – at the kneeling vision in blue, Serena Whinn, still and quiet at the heart of a world that spins around her, hands pressed together in prayer as she gazes down with angelic blessing on the plastic doll, wrapped in a nappy, that is our Lord and Saviour. My heart is bursting with love.
I was awash with that remembered love. This was how it had been. All-consuming. Of all the world, when I was ten, before all thoughts of sex and hormonal turmoil, I had eyes only for Serena Whinn, a girl I worshipped with a love so pure I knew I had to find it again. If I could only recover that, surely I could get the world back into balance once more. Until then it would split and keep splitting and splitting, till nothing was left.
Thirty-five years. That was what had passed since I’d last seen her. At the age of ten I’d been living in Lyford, and Serena had been my idol, my lodestar, my all. Then, on the whim of an adult world, my life had turned a page. I was in a new town, new school, new home, in a life that didn’t contain Serena Whinn, and it was as if she’d ceased to be. Until this moment, thirty-five years later, I hadn’t given her another thought.
I was appalled at my own disloyalty. How could I have wiped her out?
Serena turned and smiled at me, a smile of disappointment – oh the pain – but her dark eyes melting with forgiveness.
I scrabbled for the table lamp, for the paper and pencils under the sofa, and began to pour out my memories, scribbling, furiously scribbling. Serena’s face, Serena’s smile, Serena’s hands. I was going to bring her back. That way, I would deserve her forgiveness.
Scribble, scribble. I only had to shut my eyes to see her there in front of me, beckoning me into her circle of light. There was one around her, I’d swear, and everyone had longed to be in it. The teachers and the sour-faced caretaker, the school swots, the giggling girls, the sporty bouncers. Even the hard bully boys. We’d all worshipped from afar and hopelessly dreamed of being chosen as one of Serena’s bosom friends. I knew the exquisite pain of that dream, because I’d shared in its hopelessness. But I had also known the numbing bliss of its fulfilment.
The playing field is chill, the wind is brisk. The rest of the class are stamping, or jumping up and down, eager to be on with the game and running around to get warm.
I don’t stamp or jump, because I know nothing will warm me. Life is cold and miserable and full of despair, as the crowd of fellow pupils around me dwindles, summoned one by one into the growing teams. Their names are shouted and off they bound. The loud and athletic went first. Now it’s the earnest and eager, and I’m left standing there, me and… well, everyone else. The ragbag useless ones that never get called. The tightness and the little misery grows within me.
Then Serena’s voice, clear as a bell, comes to me on the chill wind. ‘Karen Rothwell!’
She’s looking at me. At me! In my joy I rush forward, stumble, trip and fall flat on my face. I feel the fire in my ankle, my knee, my nose, but any physical pain is swamped by the excruciating humiliation. All ten thousand of my cruel schoolmates hoot and roar with laughter as I struggle up and my tears begins to flow. But there is Serena, smiling down on me, her hand reaching out to pull me to my feet, and suddenly nothing else matters.
It was as if she were pulling me up out of reverie into wakefulness.
Loud, rude wakefulness. A crash of bins. The distant grind of a refuse lorry. Where was I? The clatter of the bin men burst like a shrieking klaxon into my consciousness and I flung off the throw, the cushions and the papers that had wrapped themselves round me like swaddling clothes.
An avalanche of sketches and a forest of blunted pencils slid chaotically to the floor. I peered down at them. That was all the movement I could manage for the moment. Every joint had stiffened, every inch of me was aching. I had to roll off the sofa onto my knees before struggling to my feet, my clothes still damp, clinging to me like mermaid hands, dragging me down.
Still pitch dark outside but it was morning, the world was waking, and I had been scribbling and thinking all night, giving form to shards of memory that kept emerging like shattered pots from an archaeological dig. Shards that I couldn’t quite fit together, but I knew that at the centre of all of them was Serena Whinn. The meaning of it all.
I dragged myself to the window. Icy rain had given way to icy fog, seeping into the joints of the world. At the end of the yard, on the narrow alley separating the houses of Hobson Road from those of Leopold Street, luminous jackets were yellow blurs, dragging wheelie bins.
I rubbed my eyes, thinking of the bin men, back in Lyford. The way they used to hoist the bins on their shoulders. Like the coal men, bowling along with their sacks on their backs. Sacks of coal and coke. Their memory overlapped with an image – some medieval depiction of the Last Judgement – of humped devils dragging souls down into the jaws of hell. Demons come to drag us down…
High up through the greying blanket, where I knew a bathroom at the rear of a house on Leopold Road to be, a halo of light appeared. The sound of a distant radio came at me through cotton wool. There was a fog inside my head, mirroring the frozen grey outside, swirling confusion as present reality tried to force itself back into focus. Why did it have to? Who needed reality? Who wanted the tedium of another day? Just like the last, and the one before and the one before. Block it out.
I drew in the condensation on the clammy window pane.
A sun. Around it, encompassing it, a five-pointed star. Five sharp points.
Very sharp. The golden girls. Barbara, Denise, Angela, Ruth and Teresa.
There. A surge of satisfaction. I even remembered their names. They were the seraphim surrounding Serena, armed to the teeth and ready to turn their spears on any trespasser who came too close. Not on her command, let it be understood. Serena smiled on everyone. She would have poured her sunshine out on the whole world. It was her court favourites who were determined to keep the rest of us out. They were jealous, terrified of being usurped. Barbara, Denise, Angela, Ruth and Teresa.
I dropped on my knees and searched through the night’s scribbling. Yes, I’d captured each of them in the night, burly Barbara, petite Ruth with her purse on a strap, gangly Angela and her tartan hair ribbons, rotund Denise, serious Teresa with the glasses. I couldn’t draw Serena and not draw them. They were welded into one. Except that in my last year at Marsh Green Junior, Teresa Scott had left and the ring was snapped. It needed emergency repair and I, Karen Rothwell, the unworthy and yet the most blessed, had been chosen to take her place.
I could remember the joy.
Karen, come and play with us.
And? Nothing more. Just that moment of joy.
The bin men were finished. More lights were on, and louder radios. Doors slammed. Engines started. Daylight was beginning to seep into the fog. How could they do this? How could people just get on with life as if the second coming of Serena Whinn hadn’t happened?
I couldn’t. There was a riddle here. It had arrived on my doorstep and eaten me whole. At ten years old, I had achieved my dream. I had stepped into Serena’s circle of light, and then ‒ what? Something must have followed. Did I acquire mystical enlightenment? Or superhuman powers? Did I conquer the world? If I did, I couldn’t recall any of it.
All I could remember was that first glorious joy of acceptance. Nothing else, except a lurking sense that wasn’t akin to joy at all. I could feel it, fingers on my neck, thudding in my heart, thundering in my ears, threading its way into my veins to reclaim me.
There was my riddle. How was it that this episode, which had begun with a blazing memory of bliss, left me haunted by a sensation of overwhelming dread? Serena Whinn would have the answer. No one else. Just her. I had to have the answer, had to find her.
The problem was, I didn’t have the first idea how.