I stood under fluorescent lighting in the hallway of the community centre. I knew better than to take a call in the middle of teaching, but it wasn’t every day a detective called to discuss the suspicious circumstances of your mum’s death.
She was killed last week, on the eve of her retirement, and my heart had broken into a thousand pieces.
Stifled chatter came from the other side of the classroom door. My students had obviously decided to abandon the comprehension I’d tasked them with and snoop on me instead. You’d think they were of nursery school age, not adults attending a night class.
My phone burned hot against my ear as I processed the detective’s words. “What do you mean her car had flowers growing out of the metal? Flowers don’t grow out of metal, Detective.”
“It was as if they’d grown to cushion her. And the flowers aren’t the only anomalies we’ve discovered,” said the detective.
I blocked out the sound of the class as my pulse raced. “What kind of anomalies?”
“Your mother was driving at a perfectly respectable speed. There were no other vehicles involved. It could be she saw a fox and made an evasive manoeuvre that went wrong. It wouldn’t have been the first time. But the crime scene report showed an electrical fault. It raised question marks, given your mother’s car had just been serviced.”
They’d found her upside down, still dangling from her seatbelt. What I couldn’t work out was how someone who drove at a snail’s pace could crash on a quiet, lamp-lit road. “That’s odd. I arranged the service myself. I trust the mechanic.”
“Nothing to worry about, I’m sure, but I’d rather cover all angles.” The sound of shuffling papers reached my ears through the phone line. “Was your mother worried about anything? Did her behaviour change prior to her death?”
I frowned, both at his questions and at the ruckus still coming from the classroom. “She’d been working longer hours, I suppose. It’s nothing she couldn’t handle.”
“You know she was reprimanded at work for releasing lab animals?”
“That’s impossible.” I opened the classroom door.
Four eavesdroppers fell out, righted themselves and gave me sheepish grins.
I shooed them back to their seats before retreating into the corridor again.
“In my line of work, you soon learn that nothing is impossible,” said the detective. “Sometimes, we don’t know the people we love best.”
Wasn’t that the truth.
It had only taken me over a decade to accept that my ex, Alex, was a prize jerk.
I didn’t intend to end up in a dead-end marriage, but it just happened. Too many meals in front of the television, too few adventures together, too many differing expectations. The last straw was when the loan sharks came knocking. He’d gambled away our life savings, and I hadn’t even known. I thought he’d said no to our dream house and travelling abroad because he was being sensible.
Turned out he really liked fruit machines. The arsehole.
“Detective Jameson, was it? Can we pick this up another time please? I have to get back to my class.”
“Not a problem, Mrs. Verma. I’m sure we’ll be talking again.” He hung up.
“It’s Ms. Verma, actually,” I muttered, making my way back into the classroom.
Pages fluttered as the ten students in my night class pretended to pore over the text I’d asked them to read.
I plastered on a smile and sneaked a look at the top drawer of my desk, tempted to grab another painkiller. I’d been swallowing them like sweets all day. After the week I’d had, nothing was going to take the edge off my headache, except possibly a rewind button. For now, I pushed aside the discussion with the detective. “Right, you lot. I take it you know the text back to front now. I’ll take eavesdropper number one first. You’re up, Marek. When was the Great Fire of London?”
“1966?” said Marek with a glimmer of hope, although he was almost always wrong.
“No, afraid not. Scan the text and try again using a full sentence.”
I taught English and survival skills to immigrants in godforsaken London, where the streets were mean and job opportunities were scarce. The council paid me a decent wage and didn’t pay much attention to the curriculum. I focussed on a mix of English grammar, vocabulary and deciphering texts. I also included cultural norms, like introducing my students to the pub and sweaty gigs and a sprinkling of literature. The balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet could be a great icebreaker.
Mum had been a big reader too.
I didn’t want to talk about Mum in the past tense. I wanted to hear her voice and watch her pottering in the garden during her retirement. It wasn’t any consolation that she’d lived a full life. I mean, her work as a scientist changed lives, her marriage to Dad was a fairy tale, and her grown children had long flown the nest.
I just wanted her here with us. Were you ever old enough to lose your mother?
Forty-year-old me needed her still, what with my messy divorce and stagnant career.
Instead, I found myself teaching my third night class of the week at a community centre in South London, pretending everything was okay, just like all the other middle-aged, multitasking women I knew.
Smiling on the outside. Screaming on the inside.
Of course, Mum’s death had left me spinning, but I’d been a hot mess long before. Somewhere along the way from radiant fiancée to escapee from a combusting marriage, I’d lost my spark. That’s not even including midlife woes like not being able to go braless and needing afternoon naps just to get through the day.
“Miss, Marek has got his hand up,” said Tomás, one of my Portuguese students.
I grimaced. “Sorry, Marek, I didn’t see you there.”
“He’s right in front of you,” said Nita, my youngest student.
I gave my best encouraging smile and crossed my fingers behind my back. “Go ahead, Marek.”
He scrunched up his brow in concentration. “The Great Fire of London is in 1669.”
The class groaned. By now, most of them had worked out the answer.
“Not quite. The Great Fire of London was in 1666. You’ll get there.”
Fei Yen and Faeza, two middle-aged Chinese women, put their hands up, eerily in sync with each other as always. They spoke perfect English but enjoyed the social side of night class.
“Yes, Fei Yen?”
“I think Marek would do better if we were reading about Princess Diana. Everyone likes to read about her.”
“Or the Black Death,” said Faeza.
“Or Jack the Ripper.” Santiago’s ruddy face betrayed the beer he’d consumed before class.
I shook my head. “Let’s just focus on what we have in front of us. How about you next, Santiago?” I looked down at the page. “Sorry, I’ve lost my train of thought. Just give me a minute.”
“Are you okay, miss?” said Nita.
“Of course she’s not okay. We read it in the cards,” Fei Yen and Faeza said in unison. They ran a tea and occult shop called Shanghai Moon around the corner from my flat and were always spouting nonsense about horoscopes and tarot cards and whatnot.
“I’m fine.” Except, I wasn’t fine. I couldn’t tell my class that, obviously. It was my job to build them up and send them out into the world, not to burden them with my troubles. I could go home and eat chocolate instead. I’d been working out hard in the gym as an up yours to Alex, but one giant bar of Cadburys wouldn’t hurt. Not that my waistline would thank me.
There was no easy way to lose a loved one, but I’d royally messed things up. After forty years of being the good child—the one who accompanied my parents to the doctor, arranged for their car to be serviced and always came home for celebration days—I’d lost it with Mum on the day she died. Worse still, our last conversation had been about my ex-husband. Hell, if I could rewind to that day, I’d replace that conversation with anything but him: the time I had worms as a kid, saggy boobs, the best drain cleaners for unclogging pipes. Anything would have been better than wasting our last conversation on him.
I’d already given Alex twelve years of my life. He didn’t need to hijack my last conversation with Mum too.
Twelve long years stuck in a rented house with his dirty pants and socks piling up on the floor. Like he’d ever lift a finger. Still, I’d thought he loved me. Why else would he insist we keep trying for a baby? I tried to enjoy Fridays and Sundays, I promise, but some days I had to think of Chris Hemsworth or Chris Pine to get through it. Any Chris would have done really. I felt bad, of course.
Even after the divorce, he could have just driven off into the sunset and married the next gullible fool. Instead, he stuck around and tried to win custody of my cat. The beautiful Bengal cat, which had been mine since childhood.
What kind of man did that?
Someone who deserved a kick in the jingle bells, that’s who.
Still, as soon as I hit forty, I’d decided to live my life for me and embrace my weirdness. If you’re still contorting yourself for other people when you hit middle age, when will you learn to embrace your chin hairs and soar to new heights? I drew a line through my sorry relationship with Alex and moved into a new, smaller flat with my cat. Just your friendly neighbourhood cat lady, that’s me. Thank my lucky stars I hadn’t taken his name. I could just pretend he never existed.
Only Mum hadn’t seen it that way.
Now she was gone I couldn’t tell her that it didn’t matter about him. I would take on all the arseholes in the world, if it meant one more day with her.
“Earth to Ms. Verma,” said Nita.
I tuned back into the class. “Right, class, copy down the questions from the board. Reread the text and answer the questions in full sentences. Use a dictionary. You’ve worked so hard tonight that we’re finishing twenty minutes early.”
Okay, so it was a lie. We’d not managed to even hit a third of my lesson plan, but a small lie never hurt anyone. It was the whoppers that floored you.
Nita piped up. “But Ms. Verma, we thought you could teach us the back kick again.”
I shook my head. “Sorry, not tonight.”
Adding kickboxing to my curriculum really helped with student motivation. I taught them a few moves if they impressed me with their learning. London was a city of strays. Its inhabitants needed to know how to be quick with their fists and boots to survive the streets.
“We’ll practice next time, I promise. Don’t forget to do your homework. No excuses.” My body sagged with relief when my students scattered into the moonlit night.
I’d taken a big long hard look at myself when I turned forty and wasn’t sure I liked what I saw. Sure, my body had weathered the years just fine. My long, dark hair was a little wild but as thick as it had been at university. My mixed-race skin had a glow that offset the incoming crow’s feet. I might never have carried a baby in my belly, but I had more flexibility than your average forty-year-old. Still, I’d hardly changed the world. Not even my small corner of it, unless you counted conjugating verbs and teaching cockney rhyming slang to my students.
It was nearing ten o’clock by the time I tucked in the last chairs, switched off the lights and locked up the community centre. I zipped up my coat, pulled my hood up against silver arrows of rain and set off home through the grubby car park, passing high-rise blocks, chimney stacks and asphalt marked with chewing gum and dog mess. Reaching home took a good twenty-minute walk to my flat at the other side of Balham or a ten-minute jog across a couple of grimy estates. The sorts of places that stank of piss in dank corners and A-class drugs swapped hands under the cover of dark.
I kept my eyes open and my keys in my hand as a weapon against any unwanted attention. Every Londoner worth their salt knew to keep their wits about them late at night. It was easy to underestimate a forty-year-old woman, but I could handle myself. Years of yoga and kickboxing had seen to that.
Mum had always insisted I be able look after myself. London was a jungle compared to her native Brittany. The funny thing was, darting shadows and slinking shapes seemed a breath away since her death.
At the top of my road, something brushed my shoulder. Not a branch but a hand.
Without missing a beat, I held the palm in both hands, twisted under the arm and pushed my attacker into a kneeling position. I raised my leg to kick him in the face, but a gust of wind came from nowhere and knocked him off balance. He flew three feet and landed in a heap on the rain-slicked pavement.
Anger, hot and blazing. “Get lost, arsehole.”
I had the upper hand so I backed away, my fists ready to take him on. I hoped I didn’t have to flip him again because my back was sore, but I had no doubt I could handle it. My flat was minutes away, but I didn’t want a random knowing where I lived.
Grey eyes, longish hair, low-slung jeans. In any other setting, I’d have given him a second look, but he had no business creeping up on women late at night.
The man gritted his teeth in pain. He opened the palm of his hand. “You dropped your keys.”
Embarrassment made my cheeks flush hot. My boss would have skinned me if I’d lost the community centre keys. “Oh, sorry about that. Can’t be too careful.”
He sprang to his feet, light-footed despite the rain, and dusted himself off and tossed me the keys.
I caught them, stuffed them into my pocket and made a show of buttoning it shut.
“Quite the reflexes you have there.” The cut of his jaw and the glint in his eyes told me he was dangerous.
I eyed him warily. “Yeah well, thanks again.”
“Don’t mention it.” He definitely had a wet bum, judging by his stiffness as he walked away.
I waited until he disappeared from sight, before pushing on towards my tree-lined road, where headlights flashed over the yellow bricks and mortar of the buildings. I unlocked the door of my building and walked through the Victorian-tiled hallway to my ground-floor flat, half expecting to trip over the cat.
“Echo?” I called once inside, slipping my shoes and coat off.
Still no sign of him.
Usually, he was my shadow. He threaded through my legs when I came in the door and even followed me to bed. He was a mean fighting machine, but he’d been missing since Mum’s funeral and I was starting to get worried. I’d even put out scrambled eggs for him.
If Alex was behind Echo’s disappearance, maybe I’d get a chance to kick him in the nuts after all.
I headed for the back bedroom, where I’d left the window open for him. It wasn’t like I had anything to steal. The landlord didn’t strictly allow pets, but he turned a blind eye as long as the other tenants didn’t complain.
I checked the living room, hoping to find Echo curled on the sofa. In the kitchen, the scrambled eggs had dried into a rubbery mess in his bowl. I scraped them into the bin and put out some kibble instead, not that the fusspot ate that willingly. My empty fridge hummed in the corner.
“Bed it is then.” I downed a glass of water and made myself a hot water bottle. Then I padded to my bedroom and flicked on the light. “What on earth? You’ve got to be kidding me.”
That was not how I’d left my flat that morning. An enormous imprint flattened the centre of bed, as if a rhino had laid there. Patches of dirt marred the white cotton sheets. Even the freshly fluffed pillow had been compressed. I’d only just changed the sheets. The bed should have smelled of lavender, not muck.
Had Echo been back and brought a harem of cats with him? It wouldn’t have been the first time.
“It’s not my day. Actually, scrap that. I need a reset button for the past week.” I dusted off the sheets then burrowed under the duvet as storms swirled outside, wondering why Mum would release animals from her laboratory and how on earth flowers could grow from the chassis of a crushed car.
The next afternoon, I made my way to Balham tube under clouds as dark as iron filaments. I stuck missing cat flyers for Echo on trees, gritting my teeth at the sight of my phone number on display for all to see.
Since the divorce, all sorts of whackos had been calling to ask me out. Meddling Indian grannies at temple had spread the rumour I was a free agent again. I knew because they had been texting me hair-raising pictures of their unattached offspring. I might have been flattered, but it was the swan song of my ovaries they were after, not me.
I rode the escalator down towards the platform.
Alex had claimed the car in the divorce, and I let him think he won that round. Car insurance cost an arm and a leg, and London’s sprawling public transport system meant I could just as easily get around without one. A few minutes later, I was aboard the rattling northern line tube towards Elephant & Castle in a carriage with open windows, enjoying the gusts of underground breeze. My best friend Marina always said the air down here was grim—moist and full of germs—but I liked it. It blew away the cobwebs in my head.
I needed that today if I was going to be in any fit state at Mum’s memorial.
I hopped off the tube and met Dad and my brother outside Mum’s former workplace, a grey concrete high-rise with milky windows a stone’s throw away from the monstrous roundabout at Elephant & Castle. They were dressed in suits. My brother’s gave off distinct Saville Row vibes, which made Dad look even more of a mess in his moth-balled, crumpled offering. A smear of indigo paint sat just beneath Dad’s chin, like he’d missed the canvas with his paintbrush. When he was in the middle of a piece, no one else existed.
“You scrub up well.” I hugged them and wiped the paint off Dad’s face.
Dad’s haunted eyes stared at me. He’d lost his soulmate after all. “What would I do without you?”
“You’d be right as rain,” I said, though I knew Mum had been the strong one.
“Has Echo turned up yet? I can help look for him.”
“Let’s just get through this first, shall we?” said my brother, Sahil. At two years my senior, he was a successful businessman, with a portfolio of rental houses and a penthouse apartment next to St. Paul’s that dripped in luxury.
“It’s not a memorial if there are no prayers, is it?” said Dad. “It’s not like they’ll be praying for Rosalie’s soul here. I should have stayed home and prayed at our own shrine.”
Mum had been Christian, but she hadn’t been a churchgoer. She liked Christmas Eve carols and Norwegian Christmas trees, but that was about it. Dad only went to temple for the social side. I couldn’t remember the last time he knelt at our Ganesha shrine. Hardly anyone prayed nowadays: Christian, Hindu, Muslim, you name it. These days, most people worshipped mobile phones or Netflix instead.
Sahil looked at his watch, his mouth in a grim line. “I have to hurry, sis. I have a meeting I have to get back for.”
“I thought the plan was to go through Mum’s things with Dad?”
He raised a well-groomed eyebrow. “News to me.”
Fair to say, my brother wasn’t my favourite person. He showed up on his terms and rarely softened, unless it was for one of his boob tube-wearing or whiskey-drinking friends. Every time I decided to try to like him for the sake of our parents, he pushed my buttons again.
“Let’s go.” I propelled them towards the revolving door, feeling more like a jailer than a family member.
Inside the lobby, a receptionist in chopstick-thin heels handed out name labels to stick on our chests and ushered us past security. Together, we rode the elevator to the fourth floor and exited past laboratories where centrifuges whirred and employees huddled over microscopes and petri dishes.
I swallowed the lump in my throat. How many times had Mum and Dad debated whether microscopes or telescopes were better? Whether the greater miracles were cells or stars?
“We’ve arranged for finger sandwiches, teas and coffees, and of course the CEO will be here to say a few words.” The receptionist led us into a conference room, where rows of chairs had been set out in front of a lectern.
With only a dozen people in attendance, most of the chairs stood empty.
The receptionist showed us to reserved seats in the front row. “Would you like me to introduce you to everyone?”
Dad and I exchanged looks.
“No, thank you,” he said.
We sat down just as the big boss, Michael, entered the room, his bald head gleaming under the spotlights. A hush descended over those gathered as he strode over to us.
A bald head behind a vast desk, Mum had said.
“Joshi,” he said to Dad. “How awful to see you in such circumstances. Please accept my condolences.”
“Michael, thanks for arranging this.” Dad shook his hand. “You really shouldn’t have.”
He nodded at us all. “What a tragic loss. Shall we get started?” He extricated himself and moved over to the lectern. “Thank you all for coming. We’re here to commemorate the life of Dr. Rosalie Verma, who was taken from us so suddenly last week. As many of you know, Rosalie may have been French, but she was also a Londoner through and through. She loved her city, and she loved EvolveTech. Why else would she have stayed here for almost two decades?”
The crowd murmured politely.
My mind flashed to the graveyard with the mound of fresh soil.
“Rosalie was a diligent, popular employee. She cared deeply about her work. She was also a wife and mother, and she leaves behind a grieving family and friends. Her work on Parkinson’s, MS, dementia and, most recently, on cell regeneration can’t be underestimated.” The boss’s eyes narrowed.
I followed his gaze to the back of the room.
There stood a woman with a cherubic face, though she must have been in her seventies. Her plump frame was wrapped in a green sari. She wore flat, gold sandals despite the rainy forecast, and her thick, black hair was plaited over one shoulder. Rosy cheeks, bright eyes and a soft mouth softened her wrinkly face. She was the most interesting person in the room by far—a spark of colour in a sea of black suits and white lab coats—flanked by two disgruntled security guards.
Michael tore his eyes away from the disruption and smiled at a friend of Mum’s sitting in the congregation. “Melissa, as Rosalie’s closest friend here, perhaps you’d like to say a few words?”
He waited for her to reach him then strode to the back of the room.
I gave Melissa an encouraging smile as she approached the lectern. Behind me, a scuffle erupted that made my sense of injustice prickle. I’d had just about enough of men pushing women around. Yes, I might have been a little sensitive after Alex and the loan sharks, but I wasn’t going to sit back and watch a little old lady be manhandled.
“Where are you going?” whispered Dad, as I slipped out of my seat.
“I’ll be right back.” I grabbed my jacket.
I arrived just as the security guards shoved the old lady back into the elevator, closely followed by Michael.
“We’re not sure how she evaded security, sir,” huffed the ginger security guard. “We caught her on CCTV in Dr. Verma’s lab. By the time we got there, she’d snuck into the memorial service.”
“I’m quicker than you.” The old lady grinned.
“This sounds like a police matter,” said Michael. “Unless you want to tell us why you’re here?”
“I came here to pay my respects,” said the old lady. “It’s not often that someone as old as me finds inspiration in mortals.”
“She’s off her trolley,” said the ginger security guard.
I’d heard enough. I reached out, blocking the doors from shuddering shut and plucking the train of the old lady’s sari from being swallowed by the doors. “No need for the police or to be so rough.” I turned my back on the men. “Are you okay?”
Her eyes glinted. “Quite all right, dear. I’m tougher than I look.”
“You knew my mother?”
“Oh, I knew her very well. She had courage and curiosity in spades. When the night nears, those two qualities are more valuable than a hundred offerings.”
Maybe she was a little weird, but in my experience, the best kind of people were weird. It was the ones who hid all their flaws that I had to worry about. My blouse had ridden up my arm in the mad dash over to her, exposing my scars.
The old lady’s smile widened when she noticed.
I pulled down the sleeve of my blouse, self-conscious. The scars had tingled this past week, as if they were fresh and not decades old. Mum had always encouraged me not to be conscious about scars. They told a story, she said. Thing is, these weren’t any old scars: a circle of nine dots on the soft flesh of my left inner arm, white and raised as if they were braille. They drew attention. I needed them like I needed a bathtub on my head.
The lift doors pinged open on the ground floor.
I turned to Michael. “I need some air. Could you possibly tell my father I’ll see him at his house?”
A cursory nod. “Of course.”
I put my arm around the old lady. “Shall we?”
The old lady chuckled. “Fresh air sounds delightful.”
She was off her rocker. Smog filled the London air, and clouds threatened rain. No surprise there. I was the third generation to live in South London, and I knew better than anyone how often the skies in London darkened. My paternal ancestors arrived from India back when this city was the crown of civilisation and air travel was cheap. What with India booming these days, maybe my father’s family should have stayed there. Only then, we would have had monsoon to contend with.
“I didn’t get your name,” I said, as we ended up in the same segment of the rotating door and shuffled forward.
Cunning eyes assessed me. “I’ve been known by many names through the years. The one I like best is Gaia.”
“How did you know my mother?”
“Rosalie called me when her eyes opened. We had common interests.”
“She called you on the telephone?”
Gaia cackled. “No dear, I don’t need one of those. She did it the old way, with an open heart and an offering.”
I searched her cherubic face and saw no malice there. “What were you doing there today?”
“I was hoping to see how far your mother had reached on her project, but those silly sods had cleared everything away.” Keen eyes on mine. “I don’t suppose she told you anything about it? It was rather marvellous. Of course, it wasn’t strictly an EvolveTech project, but I like a woman who bends the rules. Too often, we are constrained by them.”
I frowned. It wasn’t like Mum to work on personal projects on company time. “Mum and I didn’t often talk about her work. I didn’t always get the complexities.”
Her eyes twinkled. “Never mind. One day your brain might catch up with hers. Genetically, it’s not a sure bet, but you might be lucky. Don’t worry. We’ll find a way through together. Centuries of patience can’t easily be undone.”
She was weird, but I really liked her. After the week I’d had, a batty old woman with a zest for life was exactly the tonic I needed. “Tell me more. There’s a café a few blocks away. Let me buy you a cuppa.”
“This isn’t my first adventure. I wish I could tell you my stories, but your ears may not be ready.”
We’d not even made it halfway up the street. Gaia wasn’t exactly racing-horse fit, and I’d slowed my pace to match hers. I stopped to put on my jacket, struggling to hear her over the boom of traffic.
“Ready for what?” I looked up, turning a full circle on the pavement, my brow furrowed.
There was no hint of her green sari amongst passers-by.
“Charming. She could have at least said goodbye.”
* * *
I took the bus to Dad’s. I’d shown my face at the memorial, but I preferred to grieve privately. Our family home, a three-storey red-bricked house with pretty sash windows and peeling shutters, overlooked Tooting Bec Common. The walls inside had been lined with books and Dad’s paintings. It was miles too big for one person, but I couldn’t bear the thought of Dad selling up.
I walked up their driveway and vaulted over the side gate. The ease of movement surprised even me—up and over, as if I skated the breeze. I landed easily, feeling pretty cool.
Choosing more kickboxing classes over comfort eating post-divorce had paid off.
I located the back door key underneath the geranium planter, where all the woodlice liked to hide, and let myself into the back door. Inside, I turned on the lights and went straight past Dad’s shrine to the living room sofa that Mum had always chosen to sit on.
My soft voice pierced the quiet of the empty house. “I wish you were here. I wish you hadn’t left us so soon.”
How could it have only been a week since we’d been in the back garden, trying to get away from the stink of Dad’s acrylic paint in the house? The sudden urge to look at old photos overwhelmed me. I made a beeline for the dining room to find the stash of family albums in the sideboard, scattered the albums on the floor and knelt down beside them for a trip down memory lane. I picked up my parents’ wedding album first and turned to the first page.
My heartbeat accelerated. I blinked, in case my eyes deceived me, then looked again, turning the pages of the album quicker and quicker.
Mum had faded from every frame, as if the photographs had developed in reverse.
My fingers fumbled as I checked the baby albums, the family holiday albums and the first day of school ones. Mum’s image had vanished from every photograph, leaving a void where she had been. As if she’d never existed.
I sobbed, startling as the key turned in the front door.
“Alisha? I’m home,” said Dad. Footsteps came my way. He hovered in the doorframe, taking in the mess and my stricken face. “What’s all this?”
He sighed. “I know, love.”
I shook my head, my voice sharp. “I mean, she’s gone from all the photographs.”
His eyes clouded over. “Whatever are you talking about, Alisha? Your mother’s right there.”
A sob threatened to turn into more. What the hell was going on?
I composed myself, not wanting to upset him. “I’ll put the kettle on. A cup of tea will see us right.”
He put a heavy hand on my shoulder. “Yes, it will, love. I’ll just head up to change, and then we can have a natter.”
I picked up their wedding album again. The one I’d looked at over and over as a teenager when I’d dreamed of white weddings and a man sweeping me off my feet. The one that made me want to find a relationship like theirs, with their lifetime of secret glances and hand-holding.
Dad was there in all his seventies’ glory.
Mum, with her belted A-line dress and Brigitte Bardot eyeliner, had been erased.
I invited Marina over to my flat for dinner the next day. I didn’t have much in. A perk of the divorce was not having to listen to Alex grumble about an empty fridge. The term hangry had his image next to it in the dictionary. I’d never known a man to be so ruled by his stomach.
Marina and I were like sisters. I didn’t have to cook her an impressive meal. My best friend would have been happy with a bag of crisps, which was great because my cooking skills left a lot to be desired. We settled for cheese on toast and opened a bottle of Rioja between us, though I preferred Merlot, being half French. When the microwave pinged, I grabbed our plates. We ignored the small table in my kitchen and slumped on the living room floor to eat with our legs stretched out and cushions to pad our bums.
“I loved Rosalie.” Marina’s face was puffy like she’d been crying. “Do you remember how, when I first started getting migraines, my mum would tell me just to get on with it? Your mum would let me come over, tuck us into bed together and nurse me with cocoa and hot water bottles. She was the best.”
My throat scratched with unshed tears. “I thought so too, but I didn’t tell her enough. We had a fight about Alex the last time I saw her.”
“It was stupid. She said she missed cooking for Alex. She liked how he always licked his plate clean.”
“Gross. Anyway, it’s way too soon since the divorce to be saying anything nice about Alex. For the record, he’s the absolute worst. You know Rosalie was on your side, right?”
“I know that now, but in the moment, it was like a red rag to a bull. I mean, I wanted her to name his faults to make me feel better, not compliment him. But Mum didn’t let emotions get in the way of facts. Then she said it was a shame that money broke us up and at least he hadn’t slept with anyone else.”
Marina winced. “Ouch. I’m sorry.”
“So I told her Alex could rot in hell. Then I grabbed my bag and left without another word. The crash happened the next day, and we hadn’t even patched it up.”
“I reckon she just wanted you to have what she had with your dad. It just came out wrong. Do you remember how many times she picked me up when I was heartbroken? She believed in love, and she wanted that for you.”
Marina and her parents had fallen out when she’d come out as bisexual as a teen. Her parents thought it was a fad until they caught her smooching both our school’s star netball player and a chess club geek at the bottom of the garden. All hell broke loose, and Marina ended up staying at ours for weeks before the uneasy truce with her parents. Marina didn’t fall in love with a person. She fell in love with personalities. It didn’t matter a jot to her whether the person she loved was male, female or transgender.
She loved without boundaries. It made her formidable as a friend and also as a vet.
“Maybe you’re right,” I said.
“Alisha, I know I’m right. She loved you. A few cross words won’t change that.” She hugged me. “I know what you need. A distraction! Before Rosalie died, I’d been planning to take you out on the pull. Imagine. All that time in a meh marriage and now you’re free to explore. We could be each other’s wing-women. Nothing like some hot stuff to perk up a woman.”
I laughed, in spite of myself.
“Too soon? I mean, you need to break in that new bed of yours.”
“You’re trouble, from your gothic nail varnish all the way up to your chemical hair.”
“Yes, but you love me anyway. Still no sign of Echo?”
I shook my head mournfully. “Not even scrambled eggs tempted him home.”
I was starting to worry in earnest. Usually I couldn’t even go to the toilet without Echo wanting to be with me. He scratched at the door, even if I wanted privacy, and refused to sleep anywhere but my bed. His attachment to me meant Mum and Dad had let him come with me when I moved out. He’d been my family cat for as long as I remembered, which was odd because Bengal cats lived to about fifteen years. He had a penchant for salmon though, and we’d never scrimped on his food and vitamins so he was in good nick.
Another reason why I feared something had happened to him. Usually nothing would keep him away from his food.
“Time to up the ante then. Forget about the kibble,” said Marina. “Try some really strong canned meat. He’ll be able to smell it a mile away. Or put some of his bedding outside the window. Just the thought of another beastie using it will tempt him back.”
She was hands down the best vet south of the Thames. Although, it took a while for her clients to see past her cascades of pink, turquoise and purple hair and the plentiful tattoos on her always bare arms. She was like Jessica Rabbit on acid: an explosion of buxom curves and rainbow colour.
Like I said, Marina Ambrose was a force to be reckoned with.
Almost all my most cherished memories involved her: flour fights in Mum’s kitchen when we were small, skating as teens in the deep of winter, phone calls until the early hours, dancing until our feet hurt. We’d been friends since primary school. We’d mopped each other’s tears, laughed until our sides ached and held back each other’s hair when we vomited. I didn’t trust anyone as much as I trusted her.
I filled her on what the detective had told me and Mum disappearing from the photo albums.
“There’s got to be a sensible explanation. Have you checked the pictures of her in your phone gallery?”
I shook my head. “Why didn’t I think of that?”
“Your mum just died, Alisha. I’m not surprised you’re not fully functional. Did you know animals such as elephants, chimps and dolphins respond to grief? Give me your phone.”
I took a gulp of wine and unlocked my phone. “No, I’ll do it. Here goes.”
I hadn’t taken as many pictures of Mum as I should have. Our moments together had seemed so ordinary I rarely thought to capture them on film. I had to go a way back to find one of her.
But when I did, I sucked in my breath. “Look.”
Mum’s photos appeared as black squares of nothing.
“Give it here.” Marina snatched the phone. Her fingers darted across the keys until she reached the monthly, then yearly overview. “Holy crap.”
I flopped on the floor. “I’m losing my mind.”
“I’m not surprised. That is some freaky shit.”
She lay down too, and we leaned our heads together, just like we did when we stargazed as children.
I breathed out. “I’m glad you’re here.”
“Where else would I be?”
A thud sounded behind us, followed by a clang of fallen dishes. We clutched each other in fright.
“I think that was the kitchen. Stay here,” I whispered, hauling myself up.
“Fat chance,” she said. “I’m coming with you, but I’ll stay behind you in case you go into warrior mode.”
I looked around for a weapon, but pillows weren’t going to cut it and there was no way I was going to throw the cheesy plates as frisbees or ruin a bottle of good Rioja. I put my fists up, and we advanced slowly, rounding the corner in bare feet.
A strange slurping sound met our ears.
“What on earth?” I gripped Marina.
The creature was a metre and a half long, maybe longer, stretched out with its forelegs on my counter and nibbling on the block of Marks and Spencer’s mature cheddar I’d left out. It had strong legs, a powerful body, a long tail and a thick, golden coat of fur covered with exquisite rosettes.
I rubbed my eyes and looked again. “That’s not… That’s a fricking leopard in my kitchen!”
Marina’s blue eyes widened. “That’s not just any leopard. It’s an Indian leopard. Don’t move. Stay very still.”
“You’re the vet,” I said. “Got any tranquilliser darts with you?”
She shook her head.
Of all the places Marina and I had been to rescue animals—up trees, in sewer drains, in rundown theatres—it would be in my kitchen that we were mauled to death. Maybe the neighbours would call the police. I thanked my lucky stars we were both dressed at least. Imagine being rescued when you’re just in your knickers and bra. Or worse, braless. It’s not like we were twenty anymore. At this rate, we’d be lucky to make it to forty-one.
We took an involuntary step back as the leopard swung around, taking in his wide muzzle, foot-long whiskers, jewel-like eyes and teeth that could tear meat from the bone. Even human meat.
Marina sprang to life, shouting, waving her arms and stamping her feet. “Don’t run. It’ll trigger the chase instinct. Make yourself big. Make noise!”
I followed her lead, clapping and jumping up and down, hoping to scare him off.
“How rude, ladies,” the leopard said. “I’ve been away over a week, and you’re acting like buffoons.”
Marina and I looked at each other, aghast. We must have had a glass too many. There was no way the leopard was talking.
“What, all those fantasy movies you watch and you’ve never seen a talking cat?” He shook his magnificent head and padded towards us, sending my kitchen chairs scattering. “Dear me, you’ve not figured it out yet, have you? And judging by your expression, Marina, it looks like you can hear me just as well as Alisha.” He lifted his lip in mirth. “Which means you’re a peculiar too.”
Marina cowered behind me.
The leopard was so close now I could feel hot, cheesy breath on my face.
He tilted his head, licked his paw and raised it to his muzzle to bat away the remnants of cheddar. Green eyes rested on my face, and I discerned both gentleness and ferocity there. At the corner of one eye, a three-inch scar marred his striking head. A scar I’d known all my life.
Either I was going mad, or the world I thought existed was something else entirely.
I took a deep breath, my heartbeat a roar in my ears. “Hello, Echo. How about you start at the beginning and tell me exactly who you are and where you’ve been?”
– End of excerpt –