Here’s a preview of my latest novel.
Following a traumatic incident that occurred halfway through her university course, quirky Kitty O’Hara has secluded herself in her home town these last two years, finding herself angry and aimless in life. When she gate-crashes the graduation ball of her former friends, she reaches rock bottom and realizes that something has got to change. The dark secret she has been harbouring since university is at last threatening to burst.
St Andrew’s, July 2019
As soon as we approach the floodlit grounds, the pores in my skin swell into panic mode. But there’s no point in regret now.
The taxi pulls to a halt.
My breath quickens. I consider telling the driver to take me right back to the station, but of course I don’t. I just thank him, clamber out, straighten myself up. Having travelled all the way from Pickering – all of seven miserable, sweaty hours – I can hardly give up now. Mum even paid for my train fare and hostel. Anything to get me out of the house, spread my wings, re-connect with the world. Flee the safety net I’ve spun for myself these past two years.
Shoulders back, I raise my head and place one foot in front of the other, stumbling on my stilettos after the third step. I knew it was a mistake to wear them. What idiot was it who invented such a disfiguring apparatus for the female foot?
Regaining my balance, I head across the expansive lawn to a gaggle of wannabe scholars in the distance, clustered around a marquee. There are three marquees in total, the first two intersected by a gravel path that leads to a Victorian mansion at the top of the slope. Laughter tinkles into the fragrant evening air, as do champagne flutes, reflected in the network of fairy lights that illuminate the hotel gardens. Slinky ball dresses ripple under the glow from a crescent moon. It’s a perfect setting. Utterly splendid, as Dianne would say. Or would have said.
But the word ‘perfect’jars on me. For a start, my own attire doesn’t quite fit in. I couldn’t be arsed to go to the shops and buy an appropriate creation, so I just grabbed something from Mum’s vintage wardrobe of tarty outfits from her days as an aspiring model, stashed away in hallowed sanctity these past twenty-plus years. I believe 1990s retro is the correct word for my look.
And then there are the students I’m heading towards. Paradigms of future success. Some I recognise, some I don’t. Their names all sort of mesh into one another, like everything else since the incident. Anyway, who cares about names?
But names are important. They’re what appear on your degree certificate. All those fledgling maestros I’m now approaching – proud Bachelors of this and Masters of that – about to welcome me back into the fields of academic success. Except there’s one little problem.
They graduated. I didn’t.
They were invited. I wasn’t.
They remained friends. I lost touch with everyone.
That should have been me graduating with the others. Legitimately. My name should have been on that scrolled piece of parchment that each of them was presented with. Kitty O’Hara it should have stated in fancy calligraphy: Master of Arts in English Literature from St Andrew’s University.
That should have been me.
* * *
As I draw nearer to the jabbering flock, I have the funny feeling that my ex-peers are trying not to look at me but can’t help themselves glancing my way every now and then. And making comments not intended for my ears. Well, what did I bloody expect? A hero’s welcome?
Two years is a long time.
“Hey,” I manage with a premeditated smile as I step into their midst
There’s a fraction’s hesitation (shock, uncertainty, unease?), but the very next moment one of the girls cries out, “Oh my God, Kitty, is it really you?”
That does the trick. A split-second later I’m bombarded by an avalanche of greetings.
“Wow, Kitty, it’s great to see you!”
“It’s been ages. How are you?”
“What’ve you been doing with yourself all this time?”
I blink at each one of them in turn, smile, try to give the appropriate response. Is this going to be easier than I thought?
“Parties just aren’t the same without you,” a blond girl in pink satin croons. Looks like she’s just stepped out of Cinderella’s pumpkin carriage. I can hardly place any of them any more. Some were in my crowd, some weren’t. At the moment they all blur into one brightly shimmering genus of prosperity.
“Why didn’t you come back to St Andrew’s? We’ve missed you.” Sad face.
“Yeah, karaoke nights have never been the same since you left, that’s for sure!” Splutters of laughter.
“Oh my God, d’you remember that time you stood on the tableand started to sing into your empty beer bottle – and that wasn’t even a karaoke night!”
They’re all laughing now. I try to join in. But standing on tables does not have good associations. I urgently avert my mind from the road it’s steering me along.
“Cool hair,” one of the guys says, flicking a finger of ash from his cigarette. “Blue suits you.”
“Thanks,” I say through compressed lips. How can blue hair suit anyone? That was never my intention. But must try to BE NICE. My promise to Mrs Patterson, before I stopped going to her sessions.
“I didn’t realise you’d graduated,” someone else is saying. “I thought you -”
“I didn’t,” I flatly state.
This is met with a ricochet of edgy looks. Then someone in a ridiculous top hat blithely pipes up: “Hey, remember the night when you put that Davidson cretin in his place? No one else dared, but you just strolled right up to him in your usual -”
“Oh bloody hell, talk of the devil!”
The cretin in question is slowly approaching us – indecently tall, unsteady on his feet, tie askew, stinking of whisky. There’s always got to be someone,right? Someonewho arrives at a party prematurely pissed out of their brains. Not me. I am determined to be the epitome of decorum and sobriety tonight.
“Hey, I rrrecognise you,” the guy mumbles, aiming his whisky tumbler at my face. “Scarlett O’Hara, rrright?” his r’s swivel into each other.
“Kitty O’Hara,” I correct, sick of the joke. “I’m from the wild north, not the deep south.”
“Yeah, s’right,” the guy slurs right on, “you’re the one who was friends with – what was her name, that posh girl?”
“Dianne Lenore?” a belle in shimmering blue offers, darting an anxious glance at her neighbours.
I feel my throat go tight.
“’S’right, Dianne Lenore,” the swaying guy nods, his whisky sloshing in his glass. His mouth breaks into a loose grin. “The only Lenore I care about right now is Le-More-drinks please!”
“Hey c’mon, that’s totally inappropriate,” the blue belle says. “Considering what happened to her.”
The prat’s grin evaporates. Why did they have to mention her name?
At last some guy hanging around the periphery asks in forced cheeriness, “Didn’t her dad write some popular series or other? What was it called?” The molecules in the air spread themselves out in relief.
“What They Don’t Tell You about History,” a red-faced youth fills in, looking like he should still be at school. “My sister was really into it, a few years ago.”
“So was I,” yet another of the gang admits. They all laugh, guilty of admission.
The girl in slinky pink says: “Dianne lived in that huge house by the sea, didn’t she?”
“I don’t know, did she? Have you been stalking her?”
So that’s how easy it is to forget, is it? To move on?
“No seriously, there was this article about her dad a while back – in our first year, I think. Didn’t any of you see it? It had a picture of him sitting next to his wife and Dianne in their massive garden. Fabulous sea views. Scarborough, I think.”
“Oh yeah, I remember that article.”
“Her mother looked beautiful in the photo, didn’t she?”
So did Dianne! I want to cry out, but can’t.
“My mum knows someone who knows Mr Lenore,” another speaker says. Everyone turns their eyes to him, hungry for more. “Sounds like Dianne’s in a really bad way. Never leaves the house, apparently. Some sort of brain complications.”
“Jesus, that’s sad.”
“Yeah, and on top of that, her younger brothers are a right handful. The mother’s had all sorts of problems trying to get help with childcare. My mum feels so sorry for the whole family.”
The shimmering blue girl looks at me. “Didn’t you share a flat with Dianne?” Then they’re all looking at me.
I nod, unable to locate my voice box.
In a really bad way
Never leaves the house
I can’t listen to any more of this. What am I doing here?
At last I find my voice. “I haven’t been in touch with Dianne since the … I mean …” My mouth dries up.
A self-conscious cough fills in the sudden hiatus. After a good five, maybe six seconds, someone gingerly suggests, “Shall we check out the buffet?”
As though a blue fairy had waved her magic wand, everyone disperses. Just like that. In twos and threes, off they strut and stroll, their thoughts abducted by visions of the lavish buffet lying in wait.
And then there was me.
I glance at the trellis table to my left, where a half-full bottle of something pale and fizzy is hovering on a tray, all lonely. I reach for the bottle, pour myself a generous dose into one of the empty flutes, take two or three large gulps without waiting for the fizz to settle down. Wiping my nose and mouth, I take another gulp. Dianne would have ticked me off for that. Now now, Kitty, she would’ve said in that posh, teasing voice of hers, Less of the daring and more of the decorum, if you please. And we’d both have spluttered in laughter.
Oh, God, Dianne … What happened to us? What happened to you?
I shouldn’t be here.
I have to go.
* * *
Once installed in my cheap hostel on the outskirts of town, I check the times of buses and trains. The prospect of the convoluted journey back home does not exactly fill me with glee. And I do mean long. Local bus to Dundee, train from Dundee to York, another train from York to Pickering. What masochistic part of my DNA was it that possessed me to come all the way up here to gate-crash a stupid graduation ball that I knewwould make me miserable?
I find a connection that I can make tomorrow morning, which gives me time to catch up on some sleep for a few precious hours. To sleep, perchance to dream … I think Shakespeare should have said, to wake up, perchance to get a grip.
I can’t keep letting the past stalk me like this. I just can’t. Twenty-three is too young to be buried alive, for fuck’s sake!
Deep breath, count to ten, let the swear words float into oblivion, where they belong.
I need to re-find you, Dianne.
* * *