This week Co-Chairperson of Crime Cymru, Louise Mumford gives us a taste of her new thriller – out this month!
The Safe House
As a parent, at what point does being protective become being over-protective?
In my second thriller, The Safe House, out 12th May 2022, the mother in my story (called Hannah) has a rather warped view of how to protect her very asthmatic little girl. What she thinks is a valid and sane reaction to the world around her, one where air pollution is on the rise and her daughter often struggles to breathe, is one many of us would deem wild and rather unhinged.
She decides to build a house for them both, one where her daughter will only breathe filtered air: a sealed, safe space removed from the dangers that the world poses. The extract you are about to read is the point where she escapes to this house with her five-year-old in tow. But sixteen years later, when her daughter Esther is a young woman, Hannah finds that she cannot simply shut the world out. Her daughter wants freedom and Hannah’s dark past literally comes knocking at the door.
Is Hannah keeping her daughter safe, or keeping her prisoner?
Sixteen years earlier
There was a killer prowling around their terraced house, Esther’s mother told her. It pressed itself against their windows, slithered over the bricks and licked at the door-knocker.
The only thing to do was escape.
‘We are going to go far away and live amongst the trees. Would you like that? The trees?’ Mother asked, wrapping a scarf around five-year-old Esther’s mouth and nose so she couldn’t have answered even if she had wanted to.
Esther had no opinion on trees. She had opinions about the best food to eat for dinner, the best colour in the universe and who Mr Wiffles, her toy whale, had fallen out with that day. But trees? She saw a few scraggly ones from her bedroom window. They moved in the wind and shook their branches like they were laughing at her.
Maybe they were.
But, tonight, all Esther could see were the flames.
‘You’re going to have to carry some things. The rest we’ll leave behind.’ Her mother pulled Esther’s arms through the rucksack, which she had picked all by herself. It had whales on it too.
She could have helped hoist the bag onto her own shoulders, but she remained a dead weight. She wanted to stay here, at home. Even with the killer. Home had her bedroom with its deep-sea diver wallpaper and the bit of carpet that pulled up to reveal a hiding space under the floorboards. There was going to be no carpet in the new house; all the floors were going to be smooth, dust-free and easy to clean, so Mother said.
That was Esther’s fault.
‘But, Dad—’ Her father had raced off into the night, Mother had told her, gone to help, straight into the heart of the fiery monster that lay beyond their living room window.
‘Your father will follow us; he promised. Right. We’re going to open the door now. Then it’s straight to the car. But you can’t take the scarf off even when you’re in there. Clear?’
‘The new house is so much safer for you, Pips. I should have done this years ago.’ Because the killer outside, it wanted her particularly. The new house would protect her. It was a fortress, built to keep out the enemy. Except the enemy wasn’t a horde of people with guns and bombs, it wasn’t a nuclear blast, or flood or even the fire outside.
It was the air.
‘Got it?’ her mother asked and Esther’s hand instinctively went to her pocket where she kept her inhaler, even though she didn’t need to check – it was always there.
Her mother handed her the goggles and she put them on. Esther liked them at least: it made her feel like the divers on her wallpaper in the room that she didn’t want to leave.
She wasn’t ready to dive.
But it was over in seconds. Her mother pulled her, and, caught in her current, she bobbed along in her wake. Outside, their world had changed.
There was smoke, of course. But there had always been smoke. Esther felt the grip of that hand that squeezed her chest and she wheezed, reaching for the comforting shape of her inhaler, each breath something that threatened to squeeze out all the air from her body.
The sky was no longer black but a fiery, cloudy orange. Her mother bundled her into the back of the car, belted her into her child seat and started the engine at the same time as clicking her own belt into place. It was hard to turn her head in the scarf, but Esther did her best, trying to look back one last time at the small house that had been theirs.
And then, briefly, she really was under the sea, except the sea was made of faces, hands and fumes and the car swam through it all.
But soon that passed too. Hours sped by until dawn lightened the night sky. Concrete turned to wasteland and then bloomed green. Well, greener. Esther slept through much of the journey.
The roads finally ended. They bumped and jolted over a dirt track. Esther ran a finger around the edge of her scarf, her skin itchy and hot, but she wasn’t brave enough to inch the material back and let in some cool air because the killer was in the car with her.
It kept her company all the way to the House.
As soon as Esther saw it, she knew it needed that capital H. They had to leave the car and walk the last part, her mother scooping her up and running for most of the way. They could leave their home and everything they knew behind but that wouldn’t save them – save her and her weak little lungs that couldn’t even do their one job properly. Things had gone too far, her mother told her. The air was too poisoned, wherever they went. Except for one place, and one place only.
Finally, she stood before it, clutching her mother’s hand. ‘Our hideaway.’ Her mother dragged her closer. Set into the hill with earth making up most of its walls and roof, the front of it was a blank concrete face with two narrow windows.
‘To keep you safe, Pips.’ Her mother pulled her forward, into the shadow of the House. ‘Like you’re a toy, hmm? A special one. All snug in your packaging.’
But Esther had opened lots of those toys, the figure within pressed face first against the plastic and every time she’d almost heard each one gasp in relief as she freed them. Snug was not a new word to Esther, but that day, standing in front of the House, it did not mean cosy and protected.
It meant trapped.
Just her and her mother in the House in the hill. A prayer each day:
‘To what do we give thanks?’
‘What protects the air we breathe?’
‘What gives us plants and water and power and comfort?’
‘What keeps us safe?’
Princesses in their towers always pined for their escape in the fairy tales her mother used to read to her and for a long time she had not understood why. Out There was a smog-filled thicket of thorns waiting to wrap around her throat.
There was nothing for her there, her mother said. The House was her world, and she would never need to leave it again.
And that is how it was for the next sixteen years.
To read more about Louise and her work, please visit www.louisemumfordauthor.com where there is a free short story available for those who sign up to her newsletter.
Link to buy The Safe House: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Safe-House-addictive-psychological-thriller-ebook/dp/B09QW9DD7Y/