Today I am honoured to welcome debut novelist Amy McLellan to my blog. Amy has kindly agreed to allow me to publish the first three chapters of her incredible debut Remember Me for you all to enjoy. Thanks Amy read it now.
Everyone looks the same. That’s the problem with these TV series set in indeterminate olden times. The beards, the straggly hair and the dirty tunics mean it’s hard to tell one earnest plotter from the next. Even the rich ones – easily identifiable because their robes are trimmed with fur and they have morelines – look like they need a good wash. I share this observation and Joanna sighs dramatically. She hates me talking during her shows but I can’t help myself, particularly when it comes to plot holes. When you’ve actually read the books the series is based on, you become very proprietorial. As someone who’s in a book club and describes herself as an avid reader on Match.com, I’m surprised Joanna isn’t more understanding.
I pour myself another glass of wine and Joanna gives me the side-eye. I’m not supposed to drink but sometimes I must, just to feel part of the human race again. Besides, she’s drinking. She can be very insensitive sometimes.Another mud-smeared soldier walks in and whispers in a lady’s ear.
‘I thought you were reading.’
I raise my eyebrows at her but go back to my book and re-read a paragraph. It’s a froth of a love story and isn’t taking. I look back at the screen, waiting for dragons to appear, but it’s still soldier types whispering in darkened rooms. I can’t help myself.
‘Jesus, Sarah. Really?’
It’s not my fault if I can’t keep up with the television. I’m just trying to pay an interest but she gets so irritated, as if I’m butting into real-life conversations. I know she’d prefer it if I went upstairs and left her to watch her shows in peace but that’s not really fair on me, is it? I wonder which of them she’s got a crush on. The warrior? The earnest one? Maybe it’s the woman. It’s hard to tell with Joanna. She’s my sister but sometimes she’s a closed book.
I am just reaching for the last of the Rioja when there’s a crunch of feet on gravel and a shadow slides past the window. Joanna shakes her head with irritation. ‘What’s he doing here?’ she mutters. She blows out a heavy sigh as she extracts herself from the sofa. ‘I suppose I’ll get it, then?’ I shrug. We both know I can’t answer the door, particularly not the back door: that means it’s someone we know. I’m better with strangers but that’s not saying much. I’m not really a people person any more.
She huffs and puffs from the room and I seize my opportunity. Goodbye Westeros, hello Classic FM. Triumphant, I settle back onto the sofa, Debussy washing over me and the last of the Rioja in my glass. I lift my glass in a silent salute to the unexpected visitor. Snooze you lose, sis. But the triumph fades when she doesn’t return to chide and tut at me. I wonder what she’s up to. I strain to catch a voice. They must be whispering. Is it a date? Has she got a secret lover? I wonder if she’s been Internet dating again; she’d sworn off after the humiliation of the philandering pensioner. But she’s always so secretive. Is that why she lets me drink wine, so she can have her secret assignations behind my back? It’s not like I can tell anyone anyway.
I’m about to drain my glass when there’s a sudden crash and Joanna cries out. There’s the low rumble of a man’s voice and the scrape of chair legs against the floor. Then silence. I pause as I run through all the justifications to do nothing, imagining the embarrassment of walking in on my sister in the throes of passion with her mystery man. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve read a situation all wrong.
I stand up carefully and kick off my slippers so I can pad quietly across the carpet in my socks. The radio is still playing, and the bright jangle of the adverts provides cover as I inch open the creaking door and step, silent as a sleuth, into the hall. There, in the sudden bright light, with our gaudy coats hanging on pegs and that awful oil painting Joanna bought at the WI on the wall, my fears seem silly. I get a sudden urge to laugh as a memory bubbles to the surface: a television advert from our childhood, a grown man tiptoeing into the kitchen in his striped pyjamas to steal lemonade. Such an absurd image for my brain to hold on to when so much else has been lost.
I’m about to turn back and leave Joanna and her secret lover when she moans again. This time it’s followed by a violent crash, and she cries out, not in rapture but in fear.
I shove open the door, my temper up and as ready for a fight as I can be. I lose valuable moments surveying the horror before me. There’s broken glass on the floor, wreckage from some kind of violent struggle, and the loser, a woman in a yellow cardigan, is slumped and bound in a kitchen chair. My sister. There is blood oozing from a deep gash on her forehead and her skin is ghostly white, beaded with sweat. She looks at me with wide, terrified eyes and tries to speak but her mouth is gagged with a jay cloth. There’s a sudden footstep behind me and strong arms seize me. I scream but at once there’s an arm clamped round my neck, pressing against my windpipe. I claw uselessly at the arm as I’m propelled across the kitchen floor towards Joanna. I try to resist but he is so strong. Joanna’s eyes are wide with terror and she bucks in her chair, trying to get free.
The pressure on my throat tightens and my world compresses to a vital urgent fight for breath. My eyes swim with tears, my feet thrashing as I try to land a kick, while my hands scrabble desperately to try and loosen the relentless pressure on my neck. The panic starts to swell as it dawns on me that this pathetic scrabbling, this useless flailing, could be how I use my last moments on earth. I try to muster all my strength but the life force is leeching away from me. I am going to die. There’s a momentary release as he adjusts his position, grabbing my right wrist in a vicelike grip. I suck in a whisper of air just before he increases the pressure on my neck and with his other hand lifts my wrist so that my hand scrapes against Joanna’s cheek. My nails scratch her wet skin and her eyes meet mine. She’s trying to tell me something but her mouth is clagged with that awful rag and I can barely see now, through the tears and the darkness fogging the edges of my vision. Everything is distant, like I’m looking up at the world from the bottom of a lake. My whole being shrinks to a focal point, to an arm across my airway, to a crushed centimetre of cartilage and tissue, to a single breath. I see my death mirrored in Joanna’s horror-stricken, dilated pupils.
Just as the blackness closes in, the pressure on my throat is released and I fall to my knees, air rasping into my greedy lungs as tears stream down my face. I am alive. I put my head down, my forehead on the floor, and suck in lungfuls of air before raising my head fearfully to see who has done this to us. A tall man in a black hoody looms over me, the lower part of his face covered with one of those black fleeces that bikers wear. It’s imprinted with a realistic image of a skeleton’s jawbone, like an x-ray image of bones and teeth, adding to his menace. My insides feel like liquid; this man, I know, brings death to our house and I am the only one who can stop him. I grab a shard of broken glass, the only weapon to come to hand, and leap up to lunge at his face. But he’s quick, turning effortlessly to dodge my attack. I lunge again, my hand slick and warm with blood as the shard digs into my palm, and almost connect, dislodging the skull face mask. He laughs, a twisted hollow sound, as he swiftly grabs my wrist and turns my arm painfully behind my back. Every muscle and sinew screams, and my body buckles to try and release the pressure on my contorted arm. He jerks a knee into my gut, knocking the air from my body and I collapse to the floor.
He stands over Joanna now, a knife in his gloved hand. I know that knife: it’s the pink one Joanna ordered from the shopping channel to cut meat. I scrabble desperately across the floor to stop him but I’m too late: his hands are so quick and the knife is so sharp. Joanna makes a low surprised gasp as blood, her blood, drips from the knife, pooling darkly on the kitchen floor. He steps back as if to admire his handiwork and I rush forward to help her. There is so much blood. It pulses through my hands, the air thick with its coppery sweetness, as I desperately try to stem the flood and piece her back together. But hands grab me and pull me backwards, away from my dying sister.
My legs flail, trying to find purchase on the floor but he’s so strong that it takes just seconds to propel me out of the kitchen and into the hall. He pushes me towards the stairs and I stumble, a bloody handprint smearing the paintwork. Joanna will be mad with me, I think, but the thought is fleeting. His boot lands in the small of my back and my legs fold beneath me like a comedy drunk. My head bounces off the bottom stair onto the parquet of the hall. He laughs as my skull lights up with an explosion of pain, then all light and sound is extinguished and I fall into the deepest black.
A hammer, or is it a drill, maybe a vice, ratcheting up the pain,screw by screw. I can’t identify the tool. I can’t see anything yet. There is just pain, blinding, deafening pain. It blocks out the world, like white noise. I wish it would stop. I force open a sticky eyelid, and feel my world tilt. Dizzy and nauseous, I close my eye again. The pain is so intense I can even hear it. Definitely a hammer, it’s like a pile-driver inside my skull. It even hurts to breathe; my throat burns with every inhalation.
I try to move and the pain flares white inside my head, down my spine. The noise has stopped and I open my eyes again and wait for the world to stop spinning. I am on the floor, my body twisted uncomfortably, one arm numb, my hips screaming in protest. I scrape my fingers against the floor. Wood, not carpet. I am on the hall floor by the bottom of the stairs. Did I fall downstairs? Does Joanna know, or has she already left for work? I roll onto my side, releasing the trapped arm, which flops rubbery and useless. What has happened, why am I on the floor? Why hasn’t Joanna come to help me Adrenalin flushes through me, a surge of icy dread floods my veins: have we had another fight? I moan, crumbling into myself with guilt. I know I’ll get the blame again.
I close my eyes and try to breathe through the pain and nausea but the hammer blows start up again, echoing round my skull. I open my eyes, blinking against the light, but the noise is relentless. It’s not just inside my head, it’s outside. Outside. I am suddenly frozen with fear, my heart thundering in my chest. Outside. I remember now, I know why I’m on the floor, I know why everything hurts. Outside is thundering at the door. He’s back.
I push myself into a sitting position, a thunderous headache pounding behind my eyes, my breath burning in my throat. He’s here, pounding at the front door. I desperately crawl towards the kitchen. I have to find Joanna, she was hurt last night. This time it’s my turn to protect her.
There’s a phone on the kitchen wall, I swipe at the long twisty cord and pull down the handset. I need to call the police but my rubbery arm is hot and uncooperative as blood finds its way back to my hand. Hot tears burn my eyes as I fumble the numbers, and then I see Joanna. She’s lying on the floor in a dark puddle, her back to me.
Broken glass cuts my hands and knees as I pick my way across to her, a prayer whispering through my veins. Please, God, please let her be OK, please, God. The puddle is sticky under my knees and she is so very still. I touch her shoulder, then press my fingertips to her face. She is cold. I jab at the telephone again, and hear a dial tone, then a distant voice. I rasp into the handset. ‘Police. Hurry, please.’
The noise outside is louder now, the house under siege. I want to lift Joanna’s head off this sticky hard floor, where her blonde curls are stiffening in the dried blood, but it’s too heavy. My fingers connect with something cold and hard and I instinctively close my fingers around it; I won’t let him hurt us again. I press myself into her, willing my life force into her cold still body, and then the front door crashes open.
Footsteps crunch over broken glass. There are voices, men, a woman too. I hold Joanna close, whimpering with fear. It’s selfish when she is already gone but I don’t want to die, I have barely lived.
‘In here.’ It’s a man’s voice.
I flinch, every sense heightened. Footsteps scuff over the parquet and my fingers tighten on the metal. I won’t let him hurt us again.
Someone gasps. ‘Oh my god.’ A voice I think I know. ‘Get him out of here.’ I don’t recognise this one. More footsteps, the crackle of a radio. ‘Sarah? It is Sarah, isn’t it?’ The voice is gentle. A woman. I lift my head from Joanna’s hair and squint up at the voice. It’s a woman in a police uniform. Oh, thank god.
‘Is there anyone else in the house, Sarah?’ I run my tongue over my cracked lips. ‘A man attacked us.’ It hurts to talk. ‘Last night.’ The woman turns and looks behind her. There’s another police officer, a man, shoulders like a battering ram. He nods, and leaves the kitchen. I can hear him opening and closing doors, his heavy tread on the stairs, the sound of him pulling back the difficult sliding door on Joanna’s wardrobe which you have to jerk and lift off the runners to open fully.
‘Clear,’ comes a voice.
I can hear sirens in the distance. More voices outside. My head pounds and the room swims, and I vomit on the floor by my feet, the retching sending shockwaves of pain through my body.
‘OK, Sarah, we’re going to get you some help,’ says the woman, lifting her radio to her mouth. She’s young, not a line on her face, even with no make-up. She’s blond, with her roots showing through, her figure hidden under her bulky uniform, a small tattoo of angel wings just visible on the inside of her wrist. Someone retrieves the phone handset, finishes the call for me: It’s OK, we got this.
There are footsteps in the room again now. The big policeman is back, surveying the room, before his eyes come to rest on me again. ‘Come on, Sarah,’ he says, his voice gentle and coaxing, his hands spread, as if approaching a cornered animal.
‘Put the knife down.’ The woman takes a step back. She hadn’t noticed the pink knife in my hand, still half hidden by Joanna’s hair. I pull the knife out from under Joanna’s hair and release it, noticing how the wide blade is crusted with black blood. Joanna’s blood. I retch again, but nothing comes up. ‘That’s it, good girl,’ says the man, talking to me as if I’m a small child.
The sirens have stopped. There are more footsteps now, more voices. People in uniforms, some of them police, some of them paramedics, stand in the doorway and look down at me and Joanna. Their faces are impassive but I know what they’re thinking: they think I killed my sister.
We never use the dining room, not since James left home. It’s become a dumping ground: two suitcases in the corner, Joanna’s exercise bike gathering dust and a pile of clothes destined for the charity shop. James used to do his revision in here, books sprawled across the dining table, his laptop glowing blue late into the night. He marked this room as his territory: his compass scored his initials into the table top, cans of Fanta bleaching the wood white. After he left, Joanna and I had stared fondly at the damage, evidence that once this house was a home where we raised a child and how different it was from our own childhoods, when a broken glass or ink-stained skirt prompted slaps, pinches and the silent treatment. I am glad the years didn’t turn us into our mother, at least not in that respect. Perhaps it’s because we have both lost so much over the years that it’s hard to be upset over little things like scratches on a table. And besides, we never used the table: we are kitchen snackers and tray eaters, the radio and television our dining companions. Once James left home, Joanna gave up worthy family dinners, or maybe it was just my company she couldn’t stand?
It’s cold in here now. We probably haven’t had the radiators on since James finished his exams. Already there’s a bloom of damp under the windowsill. I remind myself to tell Joanna, and then reality rushes in like a sucker punch to the gut that leaves me gasping for air.
A hand touches my shoulder and I flinch. It’s another person in a white suit. They are all over the house, grounded astronauts, padding around, murmuring in corners.
‘You OK?’ says the white suit. It’s a woman with shortcropped black hair and elfin face. She looks about twelve. A child playing dress-up: today, Mummy, I shall be a forensic crime scene examiner.
I nod. It’s instinctive. Don’t make a fuss, Sarah, no one wants to know your dramas. Mother’s voice. But of course, I’m not OK. Nothing will ever be OK again. There’s an ambulance parked outside, ready to take Joanna away. No blue lights. They don’t need to rush to where she’s going. There are so many people outside. A lot of police, most of them just standing around. A large white tent has been erected by the front door. It looks like the preparations for a macabre garden party, with police tape for bunting.
I look away and hug myself. It’s so cold in here. I just want to go and lie in my bed with the duvet over my head and never wake up again. An image keeps replaying in mind, my sister’s blood, slick and hot, pulsing through my useless hands, and I think I may never sleep again.
‘Sarah. Is it Sarah?’ I realise the twelve-year-old is talking to me. I nod again but I can’t recall the question. She glances away, over my shoulder and she mouths something. Now, there’s someone else with me, another woman, with blond hair this time. Have I seen her before? I’m usually good at noticing little details but I can’t seem to focus. I can hear people tramping in and out, occasionally saying things I don’t understand or opening big black carry cases with a snap that makes me jump every time.
She starts talking to me but I can’t seem to concentrate on her words: the image of Joanna’s body, her blood on my hands, replays again and again.
‘Your full name?’
‘What? Oh, Sarah Wallis.’
The woman nods at me. ‘And you live here with your sister,
‘Does anyone else live here?’
‘James.’ Then I shake my head. ‘But he left last year.’
‘My nephew. Joanna’s son.’ My voice breaks, a hard ball blocks my throat. What will I tell James? He’s only twenty and this is the second parent to be killed. Hot tears burn my eyes. What can I say? ‘And it was just you and your sister in the house last night?’asks the policewoman again.
I nod. ‘But then the man came to the back door.’
‘What time was that?’
I try to think. Joanna was watching her show. And I was being a bloody cow about it. I always made life so difficult for her. I couldn’t even answer the door so she could watch her show in peace. It should have been me, my blood. And it swims before my eyes again, Joanna’s blood spilling through my fingers, my fumbling hands unable to hold her together or make it stop.
The policewoman is talking again. I raise my eyes to her face and try to concentrate. ‘Is that OK with you, Sarah? We’re going to get you checked out.’ I realise they want to take me somewhere. ‘What?’ I croak, my mouth dry, my throat closing as the familiar panic starts to swell.
‘We need you to see a doctor, to make sure you’re all right.’ A doctor. I know doctors, I can do doctors. I have spent so much time in hospitals they are almost a safe place for me. Almost. My body shivers violently with cold and what I suppose is shock. They let me get a coat and my handbag and then I’m shepherded out through the battered front door, blinking in the white light. The cold air tastes of wet grass and diesel fumes. Cars have churned up the gravel and there are deep tyre treads across our scrap of front lawn.
I shiver in the cold spring air. The ambulance has gone; where have they taken Joanna? But before I can ask, I am guided into the back of a police car which quickly pulls out onto the street. The trees are in bud and there’s a confetti of pink blossom on the grass in front of the church. The rush of colour takes me by surprise: it’s the first time I’ve left the house in six weeks.
About The Author
Amy is a freelance journalist and copywriter. She lives in Shropshire with her husband, fellow author Adam Hamdy, three kids, a cat and a serious caffeine habit. Remember Me is her debut novel. Follow her on Twitter. https://twitter.com/AmyMcLellan2