Read on for an exclusive extract from ‘The Guilty Wife’ by Nina Manning.
The Guilty Wife
I stood at the top of the stairs and held my breath as my anxiety spiked and my heart pounded in my throat. But I could no longer hear the noise that had drawn me there. As I stood, my foot perched ready to take the first step, I wondered if perhaps my mind was playing tricks on me. Maybe the events of the last few days had finally caught up with me. But faces were hovering in front of me. Those people I had trusted. And those who I had hurt.
All those years ago I was trying so hard to make a difference in any way I could. But I was young. And I was foolish. I knew the past would never be able to bury itself, and I had not been able to rest for twenty years because the horrors of that day would stay with me until I took my final breath.
But now it was time to face the past head on. I tightened my grip on my weapon and began the descent to the kitchen. I knew I was now in grave danger. I knew that I had to protect my children and face the person who had found their way into my home.
I slumped in the corner of the pub as the Barenaked Ladies’ ‘One Week’ pounded out of the speaker right above me. I leaned my head against the wall. The landlord had rung for last orders twenty minutes ago and had cruelly put the house lights on. The pub was still rammed full of punters, all soaking up the last precious minutes of the atmosphere, knowing there was nowhere better to be than here, right now.
I looked round at the motley crew of faces that surrounded me; friends I had known for a few years and who were my whole world. We were an odd bunch, brought together by the same sense of humour and the same hopeful outlook on life. The local pub, the Chambers, was where we all began to frequent when the park just didn’t offer the same appeal anymore. The landlord and bouncer turned a blind eye to our age and we became part of the furniture. But we weren’t lager louts. On the whole, we had always behaved ourselves.
I was just sixteen. I was liked by everyone, especially by all the lads – Minty, Dave, and of course my brother, Kiefer, who always had one eye on me, always checking. He was nearly four years older than me, just passed his driving test that summer. His responsibility for me was by choice; the lack of interest our parents paid to us created some innate paternal protection on his part, meaning I was always in the back of his mind. Is Frankie okay? Who’s with Frankie? Is Frankie getting home okay? I always felt an aura of protection around me that I took for granted; my brother, the protector.
I had nudged myself right up against the corner of the booth, ready to fall asleep but too tired to make a move to walk the ten minutes home by myself, knowing Kiefer would be spending the night at Reese’s folks’ place.
‘Alright, Francesca’ came a voice. There was only one person who had taken to calling me by my full name recently. I looked up and suddenly the room, which had been stark and bright, became rosier and hazier round the edges. A smile exploded across my face and I felt every part inside my body light up as well. I sat up and focused on the familiar sight of Todd in front of me. He had been on the other side of the pub most of the night. He was older than me, like most of the crew here. He was even older than Kiefer by a couple of years and I really liked the feeling that a bloke who wasn’t my brother took an interest in me. I knew him as Martha’s older brother, a girl I knew from the pub, and he had always known me as Kiefer’s little sister. But since I had turned sixteen, I had been placed in a different light as the lads had started looking at me with a glint in their eye. As if only now I had something extra to offer.
Todd pulled out a bag of tobacco and rizla papers.
I knew he would roll one for me.
Todd had long messy straw-like hair, and a fuzzy beard. It suited him, and I liked it. He wore green army combat trousers and Timberland boots. His skin was permanently tanned from the snowboarding trips his parents took him on over the winterLast year me and my best mate, Nancy, were really into making friendship bracelets and I noticed how he still wore the three, which were now grubby and frayed, that I had given him, making my heart swell every time I saw them.
I knew that Todd had just got back from Glastonbury, where they had managed to jump the gates. I was quietly envious as I had listened to him at the bar casually boasting about seeing the Chemical Brothers and Blur and how he bumped into Robbie Williams. He had turned to me and quietly said: ‘He was dressed like a chav and was acting like a right wanker.’ And I had smiled, privileged to be the only receiver of that information.
‘You’ll have to come with me next year to a few big festivals, reckon you’re old enough,’ he said now with a small smile as his tongue slipped out under his hairy top lip and licked the top of the rizla paper.
I nodded in agreement, even though I wasn’t sure how I felt about being alone with Todd away from the others. How would he feel if he just saw the rawness of me away from the safety net of our group?
The barmaid came over and collected the empty glasses from the table, clinking four in one hand at once.
‘One more for the road!’ shouted Martha, who had just arrived and had somehow sneaked herself in past last orders and was now chucking money at the juke box. She chose Mousse T., ‘Horny’, and the song blared through the speakers. Martha started dropping some choice moves and I watched with amusement as she moved around the pool table, causing a ripple of interest from the lads. I looked across the pub and saw that the bar staff had started dancing as they cleared and washed glasses. I even noticed Todd’s foot tapping under the table and I felt a wave of affection for him.
I could see Kiefer stood on the corner of the bar with Reese and her friends; every now and then he would shoot me a glance. Dave, Minty, Nancy and a lad I didn’t know were deep into a game of doubles at the pool table. Occasionally I would hear Nancy whoop with joy as she or Minty hit a pocket.
Even with the stark lights of the pub revealing the cracks in the walls and those punters who had had one too many and were looking the worse for wear, it was the only place I wanted to be. Our group was the best. The peak of Cool Britannia, Labour in power, everything felt right and good.
But little did I know that I should have appreciated those times more because in just a few months’ time our lives would be completely altered forever.
I could feel a dull buzz in my head, and my mouth was a little dry. I had been feeling a bit stressed about the interview last night, so at least I had that excuse, this time, for another night of drinking alone. I didn’t let on to Damian in the morning, though. He had gone to bed early, having fallen asleep reading to Pixie.
The last bottle of wine kept creeping into my mind and threatening to ruin the morning. But I wasn’t going to let it. I was made of sterner stuff and I had been through worse.
I had entered the office suite on the fifth floor where Bliss was situated. It was an opulent building in the city centre and I entered with the firm intention of getting the job I was about to be interviewed for. But I had arrived feeling jittery and I was struggling to shake off the sensation. I could have put it down to nervous energy, because I was about to meet Mason Valentine, one of the most renowned businessmen in town. But it felt like more than that. I kept thinking about the corner of Bridgewater Way which I passed to get here. I had tried not to look but I had rubber-necked the whole way and I couldn’t deny I was hoping to see a glimpse of the person from my past. The memories were flooding in fast and I needed to focus on my interview.
* * *
I looked out of the window and saw the sun was already falling low in the sky. It was only just after 3 p.m. and in a few weeks’ time it would be starting to get dark at this time. Then the hardest day of the year would be upon me once more. Only this year it would be even worse, signifying twenty years of loss. He would have been forty this year. I blinked back the tears that seemed to appear from nowhere and distracted myself by wandering over to the water cooler and filling up a plastic cup. I took a long drink and sat back down.
Thoughts of the journey here filtered through my mind and I tried to push them away. I needed to focus on the impending interview. But flashes of a sturdy figure kept entering my mind’s eye. The face of the person I had never been able to truly forget about. He was a part of my past. Yet here he was, in my present, hiding in the shadows; pulling me back to that fateful night. I had known he was residing close to the Bliss offices. I had always avoided the area when I could. Until now. I wanted this job more than anything, but to take the job would mean facing the past. And maybe facing him.
I stole a glance at the receptionist. She was typing at a steady pace and every time the phone rang, with a tone that was set to an almost inaudible level, she answered in a low monotone voice.
I had checked in with her fifteen minutes ago and now I tried to catch her eye to gauge if I might be going in soon. As she finished the last call she looked up and gave me a sympathetic smile. I wondered what she thought of me. Did she see a woman in her late thirties trying hard to hold it together? I played with a stray piece of cotton on the edge of my suit jacket; already I was regretting wearing something that now seemed more fitting for a funeral as I looked at the receptionist in her tiny Zara jumpsuit and gold stage jewellery. She looked every inch the twenty-two year old woman I would love to model myself on for a Saturday night out in town. If I ever went out on a Saturday night. I couldn’t remember the last time I had a good night out, the sort of night where I wanted to cry with happiness because I was purely living in the moment. Instead, I just let the alcohol find its way into the home and I would often find myself drinking alone long after Damian had gone to bed.
There was a time when I loved my life. When I felt untouchable, invincible. I didn’t care about what I did. I would get drunk, pass out somewhere and not care about my safety. Now I was scared of everything; of buses coming too close to the path where I walked with my kids, scared of the amount of unreadable ingredients in a shop-bought loaf of bread, scared of using deodorant for fear of inviting cancer into my pores. But most of all I feared losing touch with who I was. Which was why I was here today and allowing myself to feel judged by a receptionist who was born when I was nursing my first hangover.
* * *
I took a subtle look in my compact mirror. I had tied my dark brown hair back into a severe ponytail, and now, as the time was ticking on, I regretted doing it. I wanted to let it down, to feel the protection of it round my face.
I threw the compact back into my bag and began to play with my wedding ring, a rose gold band with sapphire green stones. It never seemed to sit straight, it always slid off to the left. As I sat, anxiously waiting, I twisted it back to the middle of my finger and wondered if the ring that never did quite fit was a representation of what Damian and I had become. I thought again about the person in the shadows and how they had once fitted so perfectly into my life.
* * *
‘Mrs Keegan, you can go in now. It’s Room Three, just round to the left there,’ the receptionist said and I smoothed down my suit and threw my bag over my shoulder.
‘Thanks.’ I glided past the oversized desk she was cocooned in and where an elaborate display of white and pink lilies was situated just to her right. They were usually my favourite flower but suddenly the scent of them in my nostrils was too overpowering and I felt my gut tighten with nerves.
I walked around the corner, stood outside the boardroom, and gave a firm knock on the heavy wooden door.
And I heard for the first time that deep modulated disembodied voice.
Him. The man who would change everything from that moment on.
* * *
28 October 1998
You didn’t cry out; it was so sudden. That I must be thankful for, they say.
It would have been quick, they say. But all I have thought about, since it happened, is those last moments we spent together. How as I lay trapped, we were so close, close enough that we could have been tiny foetuses encased inside a womb. Safe and warm. Close enough that I could feel your breath on my face as your body emptied itself of oxygen. I lay there. I held your hand as you took your last breath.
I hope you know that I held your hand.
We hope you enjoyed this extract. To read more, purchase the full novel here: https://amzn.to/38Kj9OY