It’s no secret how much we adore our novel from debut author Marianne Holmes, A Little Bird Told Me. Like gossips in a small town, we just can’t stop talking about it. But this week, we’re feeling especially chirpy because A Little Bird Told Me is on offer in the UK, Canada and Australia for a limited time.
If you haven’t yet bought yourself a copy, now’s the perfect time to make sure you don’t miss out on the mystery that’s receiving rave reviews. Get an early start while you wait for your order to come or make sure it’s as page-turning as all the reviews say before buying with this extract of the first chapter from A Little Bird Told Me by Marianne Holmes.
They say I’ll never find her.
Kit says it doesn’t matter because we still have each other but not a day goes by when I don’t long for the truth.
I feel her absence aching and flowing through the gaps in our story where the pieces don’t mesh. I see her presence in the spatter of freckles on Kit’s nose and the straight curtain of hair I can’t keep out of my eyes.
They say no one knows where she is.
What they really mean is, they couldn’t find her. I know that’s true because I’ve read the news reports. But there is one person who knows where she is.
‘Family is blood and pain,’ he said, ‘and, one day, I will hunt you down and teach you the meaning of that.’
His breath was bitter with the smell of cigarettes, his eyes spilling sparks of fury and the scar on his cheek stretched and twisted as he spoke. Or it might have. I read about that too, long after Matthew took us far away from here.
‘I will hunt you down,’ he said, and I know he will.
If I’m ever going to find her, this is my last chance. But if I start looking, he’ll come looking for us. I can’t help that – there’s something I need to put right.
Besides, if you were one half evil, wouldn’t you want to know about the other half?
Chapter One: 1976
Yuk! A curled plaster moves stodgily through the shafts of sunlight that bend in the water towards the blue tiles at the bottom of the pool. I pull my right hand out from under my hip and put it into the water, waggling my fingers through the beams in front of Mum’s diving mask. They look like pink fish. My other hand is holding the strap bunched up at the back of my head because really and truly it is far too big, like Mum said it would be. I might get one the right size for my tenth birthday, but that’s ages away. I just have to hold the snorkel against my ear with my shoulder. It works, but it’s hard to remember to breathe through my mouth without gagging on the plastic flavour of the mouthpiece.
As I concentrate, I can still feel the dry grass scratchy under my hips where the tiled path around the pool ends. The little hairs on the back of my legs tickle as they dry out and spring upright again. Suddenly, all the breath is squeezed out of me as the soggy weight of Kit lands on my back.
‘My turn, Squirt!’ he shouts. I bring my feet up hard to try and kick him off, but he laughs and whips off the mask as he rolls me over.
‘That’s not fair!’ I say, but he has already gone, running around to the far side of the pool before jumping, pulling up his legs as he goes, and bombing into the water so that he showers all his friends. I have bits of grass and mud all over me now, so I keep rolling around until I drop into the pool. I manage to keep one hand on the side and land in the water on my back, my face still dry. At home, Mum has a postcard with a lady in a long dress lying in a river. Her hands and face are out of the water, and I wonder how she can hold that position unless her elbows and bottom are actually resting on the mud of the riverbed. I give up trying to copy her and flip over when I see something round and shiny rolling towards the lip of the pool. As I go to catch it, a brown foot slaps down hard and its owner shouts,
‘That’s my money!’
When I have pulled myself out, I can see that the boy is smaller than me. I take a step forward to show him that I’m not scared anyway, because now that Kit is at the senior school I have to stand up for myself a bit more. I immediately feel guilty when the kid cringes straight backwards.
He jerks his thumb over his shoulder and says, ‘That man gave it to me. He wants you to go over and talk to him.’
‘What for?’ I say, but the kid just shrugs and walks off. I look across to where there is a man alone in the shade of the trees that fringe the pool area. He stands out because he is fully dressed. I can’t make out his face at all. It’s hidden under the brim of his hat which is pulled right down like a cowboy’s.
I look around for Kit. There is no point shouting to him because all that is visible is the yellow snorkel and the slick wet back of his head. I tug my swimming costume down over my behind where it clings too much and pull my hair over one shoulder to squeeze some of the water out so that I am respectable.
Instead of walking directly to the man, I first go past where we have set up camp with our towels. Kit’s is in a heap, then mine pulled straight, and then Debbie’s held in place with her gonks. Debbie is in my class, but sometimes, like now, she likes to hang around with some of her sister’s friends. She waves as I look over, and I just have time to wave back before she turns away again. I make sure that my sketch pad is not sticking out too much from under my towel in case those girls, the WendyCarols, the ones who found it last time, are here.
When I get to the man, my hair is still dripping, and the shade feels chilly.
‘My friends are watching,’ I point back towards the pool. He laughs, and I can see into the soft bit at the back of his mouth as he drops down to my height. I wait until he stops laughing.
‘I’ve brought you something,’ he says, and holds out a closed fist, knuckles towards me, ‘for both of you.’ He looks towards the pool where Kit is still splashing. When I look down into my hand there are two small smooth pieces of wood. I flip them over with my thumb and see that they have been carved and polished into the shape of babies wrapped up tight, just like Jesus in the manger.
‘What are they?’ I ask.
‘Magic,’ he says. ‘For protection.’
‘My Mum says I shouldn’t take gifts from strangers.’ I say, still holding the babies out on my palm.
‘Your mum?’ He makes a snorting noise. ‘Well, she’s probably right.’ He grins and stands up again. ‘But matter of fact these are yours already.’
He must have started walking away while I looked back down because when I lift my head again there is just the dun leather of his hat visible behind the kids queuing at the ice cream booth.
I hand one of the wooden babies to Kit while we are waiting to pick up our things from the locker room. Debbie is very excited. She loves mysteries and already thinks we’re a little bit magic because we appeared from nowhere and our house is always full of people.
‘Jinkies,’ she says in her Velma voice. ‘But who was he?’
‘Maybe it’s a secret message from our dad,’ I whisper, and, in my chest, my heart does a little skip. Kit rolls his eyes.
‘Just some loony,’ he says, tossing his baby up and down into the air and frowning a little. He throws it back to me and I drop it into my bag where it nestles next to mine. We collect our baskets and carry them with difficulty. Even sitting the basket part on the floor, the hanger part of it is nearly as tall as I am. They remind me of the cages for the children in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and I am always glad to give them back.
Debbie walks home with us because she wants to know what Mum will say about the wooden babies, but, when we get there, we can see she’s having one of her Friday night parties. There’s no way we’re going to be able to ask her anything.
‘Stay and have some burgers, Debbie!’ Mum says when she notices us, but she’s gone again before she hears that Debbie has to go home. Debbie’s mum doesn’t like her being on the other side of town too late even though it’s light well after bedtime now.
‘Come straight round to mine in the morning,’ Debbie says to me before she goes. ‘I’m bursting to know what they are.’
I must have fallen asleep on the window seat because when Mum comes in, she lifts me up and sets me down on my bed. She gives me a light kiss on the head, but I cling on to her hand because I don’t want her to go, and I especially don’t want her to turn out the light.
‘Are you still having those nasty dreams, Little Bird?’ I nod. ‘Which one then?’ she says. She is wearing lots of strings of beads, the ends of which are pooled in her lap. It takes me a few minutes to pick through them all. I choose one that has blue beads with tiny painted flowers, and she takes it off and hangs it over the corner of my headboard.
‘Would you like a story?’
The wooden babies are somewhere in the cushions on the window seat, and I know I should ask Mum about the man in the hat but I’m so sleepy. I just want Mum to stay with me and keep talking until I’m properly asleep.
‘The one about coming here!’ It’s my favourite.
‘Okay, then.’ Mum pulls her feet up on to the bed and lies down beside me. ‘Well, we were blown into town on a storm, and it was dark and wet when we stepped through the teeth of it and on to the pavement outside the station. The wind howled, and the rain flew sideways up into our faces and blew Christopher’s pyjamas in gusts around his little red wellies. And it tried to pull my coat up and away from where you were bundled underneath in your Babygro. We were hungry and tired, and I didn’t know where we were going to end up and …’
‘… all you had in your pocket was a ten-bob note.’
‘So, I wrapped my coat around you a bit tighter and pulled Christopher a bit closer and started to cross the road when …’
‘Wham, bam, splash!’ I shout.
‘We were hit by a car and thrown into the water that was gushing along the curb and curdled with yellow from the car’s headlights. You carried right on sleeping, so I don’t think you really noticed.’ Mum tips her head back, shuts her eyes and makes little snorting, snoring noises, ‘But Christopher screamed and screamed sitting up to his waist next to me in freezing water, his face grazed where he’d fallen but his hand still firmly held in mine.
Well, the driver, who was as pale as milk, got out of the car and ran round kicking up even more water over us so that I had to shout at him to stop, and all he could say was …’
‘Oh, God! Oh, God! Oh, God!’ I hold my hands up in mock horror.
Mum laughs. ‘Yes, and then when he saw we weren’t badly hurt he picked up Christopher and wrapped him in his own coat and placed him carefully on the back seat of his car and he pulled me up and put us in beside Christopher. He still didn’t know you were there, not until we arrived at his house.’
‘This house!’ I say.
‘And when we got inside, I took off the coat, and he saw you and ran over to fetch Mrs Cadogan, who used to be a nurse, and she came over and sent him out again for food and nappies while she ran a bath, and all of the time tutting and huffing at the state of the towels and the dirt in the bathroom,’ Mum is shaking a finger in the air, ‘and running back to her own house for spare clothes for us all. And when Matthew came back …’
‘He made you and Kit fish fingers and baked beans.’
‘And he warmed up the bottle of formula I’d brought for you, and then he cleared out a drawer, and we filled it with towels for you to sleep in. And all the time, Mrs Cadogan was asking where we came from.’
‘From the teeth of the storm,’ I say.
‘And saying that we couldn’t stay here – that it wouldn’t be right.’
‘But we did!’
‘And it is alright, isn’t it?’ she said and kissed me on the top of my head before rolling off the bed.
Matthew must have been listening in the doorway because he came in and gave me a kiss too and said, ‘Goodnight, my little foundling. Sweet dreams.’
There’s another woman in the kitchen when I go down for breakfast. I don’t know if she’s one of the ones who’s been here before because she has her head in her hands and her elbows on the table. Kit is sitting on the other side with a piece of toast in one hand and a comic open in front of him. I take a bottle of milk from the fridge and empty it into a glass. It is so cold that fat drops of water run down the outside. I shake some flakes from the box on the table into a bowl and go back for some more milk. There is none.
‘You took all the milk!’ I say to Kit. He waves his toast towards the woman opposite. Between her elbows is an untouched bowl of cereal, soggy with milk.
She looks up, ‘Sorry, I –’
‘And you’re in my place!’
She quickly shifts over keeping her head down. As she moves, I see that there is a small child on her lap. I can’t tell if it’s a boy or a girl because its face is burrowed into the woman’s chest.
‘Don’t be cheeky, young lady, apologise to Mrs Mace.’ Mum walks into the kitchen holding a bottle of milk. ‘Mrs Cadogan said we could have one of hers.’ She puts the bottle down in front of me and turns back to the woman as I mutter an apology.
‘Why is this one here?’ I whisper to Kit.
He gives me a look that means ‘Shut up’ and puts his unfinished toast on the table.
‘Has he had anything to eat?’ Mum asks Mrs Mace, and her hair swings slightly as she shakes her head. I sit down to eat my breakfast and watch the little boy through the strands of hanging hair. I look carefully and see that he’s older than I thought, not a baby, and he’s looking right back out at me. His left hand is clenched around a bunch of the material of his mother’s shirt, and his right arm is around the knees that are drawn tightly up to his chest.
I push the piece of toast under Mrs Mace’s hair and wait to see if the boy will take it. Sometimes they’re more hungry than frightened, and it works. I wait. Mum is going on about taking them to see someone later, and Kit is pouring some more milk into his glass when I notice that Matthew is standing at the door. He is holding the newspaper he’s been reading in the front room. He always says it’s one thing for Mum to collect waifs and strays and quite another for a chap to have to entertain them over breakfast.
‘You’re up early,’ he says to us. ‘Isn’t it the school holidays now?’
‘Cockerel,’ says Kit.
‘Oh, for goodness sake,’ Matthew groans. ‘Can no one do anything about that ruddy bird?’ We’re not expected to reply to this, so we don’t. ‘I mean, why anyone needs to keep chickens in town when you can buy perfectly good eggs from a shop.’ He stops and considers Mrs Mace for a moment. Her head is still bowed.
‘Well, I’m off now,’ he says looking around the table and then at Mum until she notices. They go out of the room together and I can just hear him asking Mum how on earth she thinks she can help Mrs Mace.
I can’t hear Mum’s reply, but I do hear Matthew saying, ‘This isn’t right, Jemima; it’s not good for the children. Can’t you send them to Eva, isn’t it her job to deal with these things?’ As he leaves, the door closes with a snap. He says that sort of thing a lot, but Mum always just smiles and wishes him a nice day. She says he’s always grumpy before he goes to work.
Today, she walks back into the kitchen and says, ‘So what are you two going to do with yourselves? Shall I make you a picnic while you get ready?’
That means Out you go, and don’t hang around here. Kit and I look at each other and smile. There isn’t any school, the sun is out, and it looks like we’re not expected home until late. Mum is already pulling out bits and pieces from the cupboard, so we don’t even have to answer. As we leave the room to get dressed, I look back and see that the toast has gone.
We are still arguing about where to go when we come back downstairs. Mum has put out two little canvas bags both of which contain an apple, a packet of crisps, some foil wrapped cheese triangles, and a Penguin biscuit. There are also two bottles of fizzy orange.
‘Where are you going?’ she asks, but when we both speak at once she holds up her hands laughing, and her bangles slide down her arm in a jangle. ‘Okay, you work it out, but I want you to promise me that you’ll stay together. And look after each other!’
I can see Kit has his fingers crossed behind his back like mine, and I can’t help giggling a bit. Suddenly, Mum’s face is very serious and right down in front of us as though she knows we’re cheating.
‘I mean it! As long as you stick together nothing bad can happen.’ She looks at me, and I nod. ‘And what else, Christopher?’ she turns to Kit. He makes those strangled mewing noises like Charley, the cat in the Stranger Danger films. It makes me think of the cowboy.
‘Oh, Mum –’ I start, pulling out the wooden babies from the pocket of my shorts, but before I can open my hand, there is a loud banging on the front door. Mrs Mace runs out from the kitchen clutching the boy, his legs wrapped around her waist.
‘Oh God, it’s him!’ She sounds really scared.
‘Upstairs,’ Mum takes her by the arm and almost pushes her across the hall. ‘You too,’ she says to us and turns to open the door as we go.
Mrs Mace and the child are sobbing so we shove them into my room. As we hear the front door open, Kit and I creep back across the landing to the top of the stairs and sit behind the laundry basket so we can see what happens.
‘Come home, Sharon. I said I’m sorry.’ The man’s voice is whiny, like a dog begging for food. I can’t see him very well because Mum has only opened the door a little bit, and she has put her foot behind it.
‘Sorry, but you’ve got the wrong house. There’s no Sharon here.’ Mum starts to shut the door, but it’s pushed back hard. She nearly loses her balance and has to put a hand on the meter cupboard to steady herself.
‘How dare you!’ she says.
The door is open a little wider, and the man now has one foot inside the house. He’s leaning through the gap looking around, and he is really shouting. I look back to my room and see Mrs Mace standing in front of the bed, the child held tightly to her chest. One of them is shaking because the tips of her hair are jerking around. I grab hold of Kit’s hand. Kit’s eyes are fixed on the man downstairs whose face is red and bulgy above his white T-shirt.
‘Sharon, get fucking down here.’ His voice changes pitch. ‘I’m not going ’til you do –’
We don’t hear what he says because Mum rights herself and shouts out the door. ‘Morning, Emily. Is Derek around?’ I can’t see Mrs Cadogan, but she must have heard the shouting. Derek Cadogan’s a Sergeant at the local police station, but Mum says it’s Mrs Cadogan who likes to do all the detecting.
‘For shitting fuck’s sake!’ The man gives one last push. Then he’s inside and coming head first down the hall. Kit stands up at the top of the stairs, and I stand beside him. Mum looks angry now, but she leaves the door wide open so that anybody outside can see in.
‘Out the way, bitch! This is none of your business.’
‘You can’t bully me,’ says Mum quietly, and then, more loudly, ‘Stop! Ow, you’re hurting me!’ Kit starts to move down the stairs, but I hold on to him.
‘He’s not touching her,’ I whisper. The man looks up and sees us both, my hand in Kit’s.
‘Best get out my way, kids!’ Then he’s at the bottom of the stairs and yelling. ‘Sharon, get down here!’ He yells it over and over, and Kit is shouting back now in that high low voice he has when he gets angry. Then Sergeant C’s right behind the man, and he puts a hand on his shoulder. Sergeant C is still doing up his tunic with the other hand.
‘Alright, mate, out you come. Are you okay, Jemima?’ He waits for Mum to nod. ‘I’ll just have a chat with Mr Mace here, and then I’ll pop back in.’
He puts an arm around the man’s shoulders and steers him out.
‘She won’t me let me talk to my wife, Derek. I know she’s bloody well in there.’
‘I should sober up first, Bill,’ I hear as the front door closes.
Behind me, there is a thud as Mrs Mace collapses on to her knees and starts to cry out in loud, rasping breaths. Kit and I fly down the stairs to Mum. She hugs us and tells us it’s all fine, but her body is taut through the layers of her loose top and the beads of her long necklace hurt my cheek as she holds us tight. Then she sits down on the bottom stair with us for a moment.
‘Why was he shouting at you?’ I ask when she lets us go.
‘He just lost his temper.’ Mum takes a deep breath. ‘That’s all.’
‘What’s it got to do with us anyway?’ I say. ‘Why can’t they go somewhere else?’ Kit glances to the top of the stairs.
‘Because, little ones, sometimes people don’t have anywhere else to go, do they?’ She looks at Kit for the longest time as if she is waiting for an answer. Then she gives us both a quick kiss on the top of our heads.
‘One for you and one for you,’ she says.
As always, thank you for reading, and be sure to tweet us @AgoraBooksLDN to let us know your thoughts on Marianne Holmes’ debut novel A Little Bird Told Me, which is on offer for a limited time only HERE.