About the Author
The book excerpt (part of a story called Woodland Park) is below.
Miss Duff hated finger painting. She appreciated the need for children to try to express themselves – it cut into time they would otherwise have spent doing it verbally. The boffins in charge were of the opinion that what children created were self-portraits, but she wasn't a psychiatrist. She was an educator, and sometimes a warden. She strolled around the art room, glancing with glazed eyes at each abstract masterpiece. All she was able to glean from them was that, at this age, children were about as profoundly expressive as blindfolded orang-utans.
One such orang-utan was Veronica Walsh, although Miss Duff would never have put her in the same category as the rest of them. To Miss Duff, she was polite, helpful, precocious, adored by her large circle of friends. What Miss Duff didn't know was that they were all uniformly terrified of her. Veronica Walsh was what you might call a uniting force; anyone who didn't side with her would soon be forced to.
‘Boys and girls,’ Miss Duff paused to allow the incessant chatter to stop, ‘I am going to see Miss Trilby for a moment. I will be in the very next room. If I hear any nonsense going on, the child who causes it will spend their lunch hour in here with me, is that understood?’
All of the children recited the obligatory pledge of obedience, despite the fact that it was clearly directed at one child in particular.
‘Wonderful,’ Miss Duff smiled. She had been gone approximately thirty seconds before Veronica, who today happened to be sitting next to Samantha Stone, seized her opportunity.
‘You’re a dummy, that’s why you can’t talk. My mummy says you shouldn't be at this school. She says her jacksies are being mishandled,’(this innocent grammatical error went unnoticed by Veronica’s equally ignorant audience, but her words would prove rather prophetic when, at the age of twelve, she would come home early from school to find her mother being bent over the back of the couch by her father’s rather dashing accountant, looking for change).
Veronica poked Samantha in the back, hard.
‘See, she doesn't even feel it. She is a dummy!’ She picked up a pot of black paint and emptied it onto Samantha’s painting, making a sludgy ruin of what had been a depiction of the cluster of trees that lined the street on which she lived. But Veronica’s smarmy smile vanished when Miss Duff’s flaming red hair appeared in the glass above the sliding door.
‘Thank you, children, for being nice and quiet while I was gone…’
A shrill, nasal wail arose from the back of the room.
‘What on Earth is it?’
‘Samantha wrecked my painting!’
Miss Duff marched over to Veronica’s desk, on top of which sat a piece of butcher’s paper so utterly sodden with black paint that it seemed to float on the surface. The fact that the strategically placed pencil jar sitting on the paper in front of Samantha didn't quite cover the artist’s name, leaving the letter V plainly visible, escaped her notice. She took Samantha’s wrist and smacked her hand seven times. If she felt it, her face wasn't giving it away.
Samantha soon found herself adopting this blank expression for much of the school day thanks to her arch nemesis, who was having much more fun manipulating the fortune of her new plaything than those of the hundreds of dolls she shared a room with. Samantha wasn't the custodian of a great toy collection, but one thing she wasn't wanting for was outdoor playtime.
When the mercury had retreated to its lowest ebb, the girl could be seen trudging through the snow, a trail of boot prints advertising to all and sundry that her mummy needed a bit more time alone than others. In the summer, she was lucky to see the inside of the house at all until the moon came out, which was when her father came to fetch her. On those days, the woodland at the end of Samantha’s street became a country estate, and she was a Princess - her cardboard crown said so. The country was at war, and it was her duty to tend the castle grounds and guard the oft-sleeping queen until the king returned from battle.
It was her land and hers alone, but there was no shortage of villains out to steal it from her. The beak-nosed Lady Millthorpe, from the neighbouring castle of number thirty-two, often threatened to send in her guards, the Welfare Brigade, to capture the princess, but the queen silenced her by sending a scroll instructing her to mind her own fucking business, lest Sir Millthorpe be made aware that his dwindling gold supply was being wagered on the steeds at Newmarket.
The estate was also home to a large family of faeries called the Dots. A favourite way to wind down after a hard-days guard duty was to chase the faeries through the shrubbery, race them from flower to flower. One sunny afternoon Princess Samantha, who could usually be seen lumbering along with the grace of a peg-legged drunk, managed to catch one of the Dots just as it was about to light upon a daisy. She bent over to catch a breath, grinning triumphantly as her chest heaved. Then something snapped.
‘Hello, Miss; you’re looking very pleased with yourself.’
The little girl pointed to the creature crawling along the end of her finger.
‘Ooh, you've found a ladybird! They’re lovely aren't they, Miss?’
‘Oh, I do beg your pardon,’ he bowed gravely, ‘Your Highness.’
The princess grinned.
The man returned her smile and indulged her further.
‘I was taking my lady on a drive through the county in my carriage, you see, and I must have taken a wrong turn.’
The Princess’s eyes were locked onto a navy blue sleeved arm that was hanging out of the passenger side window of the carriage. The man grinned.
‘You must allow me to make amends. Tell you what, I’ll give you a lift back to your castle. Evening will be upon us soon and evil creatures roam these woods after dark.’
A horn sounded just as he extended his hand.
‘Oh, I see your carriage is here. Oh well,’ he took the princess’s hand and kissed it, ‘Good day, Your Highness.’
The girl ran in the direction of the honking, loping along. The man watched after her, waiting for the sound of the retreating engine before returning to his coach and his ‘lady.’ The girl hadn't seen much, as far as he could tell, and for all she knew, his date could have been taking a nap. Had she been a normal, chatty girl, he would have had an additional reconnaissance and clearance mission to worry about, but he sensed there was a reason she didn't say anything, and it wasn't because she lacked wit.
For Samantha, the advantage to being disadvantaged was that nobody expected much of her. Her father expected her to coast along being herself, her doctor expected her not to cut people, and her mother expected that the medicine the doctor prescribed would knock Samantha out all night and allow her to get drunk in peace. None of them would have expected Samantha to take a pair of pinking shears to her mattress. None of them would have expected her to stash her pills in the slit.
None of them would have expected her to plan out the quickest and safest route from her house to the woodland, and the stranger in the balaclava certainly didn't expect a person he dwarfed physically and intellectually to have the guile to climb out her bedroom window, shimmy down the drainpipe, run past dozens of houses and steal into the woods in the middle of the night to look for a dead body otherwise, he wouldn't have returned.
Samantha lay with her eyes closed when her father came in to kiss her on the forehead. She watched the crack at the bottom of the door for her parent’s bedroom light to go out. She listened for her mother’s thunderous snoring, the sound that signalled her lapsing into one of her brandy comas. The killer drove down Steeple Street at a virtual crawl, turned down North Wood Road, then let the car roll until he came to the tree with the distinctive lime green slash painted on the trunk. Should anyone stumble upon it, they would probably dismiss it as the product of bored urchins and poorly stored house paint, thanks to the red and yellow slashes he painted on several other trees. As it turned out, the only other people in the woodland that night were a couple of teenagers in a Celica, and they were far too occupied with their own illicit activities to notice.
If anyone else, say for example local law enforcement, should happen along, it would be the naked girl bouncing on her groaning boyfriend’s lap to the muffled musical accompaniment of Pilot who would attract immediate attention, providing a distraction that would allow enough time to give the second girl to die in the woods today a proper burial.
Samantha took off her bunny slippers and crept along the hard ground in her bare feet. She felt perfectly calm. She turned off her father’s torch as she passed the Celica, not feeling the slightest bit inclined to press her nose up to the window – if people wanted to dance in their cars in the middle of the night,that was their business. There was something far more intriguing waiting for her at the end of the tracks that stretched beyond the rocking green car, and the person who made them had also inadvertently signposted directions to his whereabouts along an avenue of trees. She put the torch into the pocket of her shorty pyjamas and allowed the iridescent red and yellow stripes to light her way.
A mound of soft earth lay directly beneath the single green striped tree, but Samantha would have found the spot without the aid of a marker. It was the finish line from her race with the faerie. She had known from attending a couple of funerals with her parents that the woman would be buried, but how to dig her up was something she hadn't considered until now. When she stuck her hand into the dirt as deeply as she could and touched nothing, she resolved to come back the next night with her father’s trowel.
She scrambled behind a tree when another car came along, sure her father had gone into her room to check on her and, finding her missing, knew exactly where to begin the search. She couldn't afford that. Daddy was her only grown-up advocate, the only thing standing between her and the home for naughty girls her mother wanted to send her to. When the car got to within a metre of her hiding spot, she let out a quiet breath from behind her hand. It wasn't Daddy’s bottle green station wagon that momentarily caused pictures of kiddie prison to flash in her mind; it was a black T-bird. Whenever Daddy took his car in for a quick once-over at the garage, he would always stop to admire the gleaming classic that the boss parked out front for all the world to see. But it wasn't the man in the grease-stained blue coveralls Samantha last saw lovingly brandishing a polishing rag who stepped out of the car now. It was his apprentice mechanic, who also happened to be his son.
The reason Samantha didn't recognise him before was that he was driving a plain old sedan that looked almost exactly like every other plain old sedan in her neighbourhood and came in various shades of brown. The thought that The Mechanic had taken his father’s car without permission gave an added sense of danger to the adventure that he and, by extension she, was embarking on, and her pulse juddered with the thrill of it all.
Then the supposedly dead woman The Mechanic had hoisted over his shoulder began to scream, and the excitement was almost too much for the both of them. He was a muscular man, but the woman very nearly brought him to his knees with a barrage of girly kicks and punches. His fear soon gave way to anger, tripling his strength and making his victim feel weightless as he picked her up by the shins and swung her face first into the tree trunk that was her predecessor’s makeshift headstone.
The sickening thud of skull meeting wood, and the consequent thud of the body attached to it hitting the ground wasn't loud enough for anyone not in the immediate vicinity to hear, but The Mechanic still felt a twang of anxiety. He took five paces away from the body in a southerly direction toward the spot his intuition was leading him. After a moment’s pause, he darted behind the unmarked tree, ready to make short work of the dumb bastard who’d probably come out here to consume some imported vegetation in the peace and tranquillity of nature, never dreaming that running into the coppers wouldn't be the worst way for his night to end.
The Mechanic’s vigilance garnered him a cotton ball. The oddity of the find pricked his curiosity and he picked it up, only to discover that it was a dirty, half-mangled rabbit’s tail. He tossed the grim talisman over his shoulder with a smirk and went about his business; rabbits were hardly a rarity in these parts, and even the healthy ones didn't have the deftness of hand required to operate a rotary telephone. He returned to the car and took his father’s tools from the back seat. With the patience of a surgeon, he cut the body into several dozen manageable pieces, matching each part to the appropriate tool so as not to litter the scene with any more gore. Once the job was completed to his exacting standards, he took his father’s shovel from the boot of the car and used it to dig up his first victim, then he went over to the unmarked tree and dug a much deeper hole where both ladies could be deposited while the little white rabbit watched him from under the T-Bird.
‘Does Samantha seem different to you?’
Bill dipped his toast in his tea.
Anne cocked an eyebrow. ‘Was that a “Yes, what did you say dear?” or was it an affirmative response to my query?’
Bill sighed. ‘What did you say, dear?’
‘Does Samantha seem different to you?’
Bill resumed munching on his toast and reading the paper. ‘In what way?’
‘Not that you notice much at all, but she seems more, I don’t know, alive lately.’
Bill looked across the table at his daughter, then attempted to peruse the paper a third time. ‘That’s because her medication’s worn off by the time you wake up.’
‘I walked past her room the other morning, and I could have sworn I...’
‘I saw her talking.’
Bill looked up again. ‘Talking.’
‘She was asleep, or at least she had her eyes closed, and she was lying on her side, facing the wall. It was as if she was reciting some sort of mantra.’
Bill dropped the paper. ‘Perhaps it’s time you got off the Mother’s Ruin.’
‘I only drink to calm my nerves.’
‘Any calmer and I’d have to embalm you.’
Anne bit her lip, and Bill knew he’d gone too far. ‘She hasn't uttered a syllable for six years, Anne.’
Anne ripped his plate out from under him and threw it in the sink.