Читать онлайн «Her Last Breath: The new gripping summer page-turner from the No 1 bestseller»
A brief flicker of remorse showed in Seb’s eyes. But then his face hardened again. ‘I’m going to the pub,’ he hissed. Then he stormed out.
Estelle took some deep breaths then she forced herself to walk upstairs, making her way to the bedroom and curling up on their bed, going over Seb’s cruel words in her head. Was he right? Could she find herself back to square one again because of all this, despite all her hard work?
But that wasn’t what mattered now, even though the thought terrified her. All that really mattered was Poppy getting home safely.
After a while, she found herself falling asleep. She dreamt she was standing outside a small room. Inside, Poppy was held captive with her hands bound, masking tape pressed over her lips, the walls around her shaking. Estelle banged desperately on the window but Poppy wouldn’t look at her. Then, as she watched, Poppy suddenly grew younger and younger until she was a newborn, her tiny body wrapped in masking tape, desperate eyes turned to look at Estelle, then the walls of the room started to crumble.
Estelle woke to darkness, strangling a scream. She grappled for the light switch, turning it on as she calmed herself. Seb’s side of the bed was untouched. She looked at the time. Five in the morning. She’d slept that long? And was Seb still out? She checked her phone, no calls or messages from him. Then she checked for updates on Poppy, but nothing. She found the photo of the Polaroid she had on her phone, staring into her daughter’s eyes.
Poppy was in danger; Estelle could feel it in her bones.
She got up and grabbed an overnight bag, shoving as many items into it as she could fit, and slung it over her shoulder. Then she stepped out into the darkness of the hallway and walked down the stairs. She saw Seb asleep on the living room sofa. So he was back. She paused, watching him for a few moments. She realised she felt nothing. When she’d left Lillysands, her heart had ached for Aiden. It seemed to her as though that intensity of feeling had been there from the very first moment she’d seen him, the first afternoon she arrived in Lillysands eighteen years ago. He’d been scrunched up in a cave, tears falling down his face, his long blond hair dirty. He’d looked up at her with green eyes that were vivid against his tanned skin, holding her gaze as he continued to cry, and something had gone ‘pow’ in the core of her. She’d felt nothing like it since.
As she watched Seb sleeping, she wondered if he was just another man in a succession of men who weren’t Aiden.
She sighed and scribbled a note for him, sticking it to the fridge.
Going away for a couple of days. Need some space. xx
As she opened the door to step outside, something inside her told her she might be saying goodbye to this place forever. A look in Seb’s eyes the night before. The exasperation in her own voice. The writing had been on the wall for a while: arguments, not as much affection as there used to be. She looked around her. Could this really be goodbye?
She’d learnt to leave places behind, to see them as simple, emotionless roofs over her head as a child in care. But as she thought of her kitchen, the pretty rooftop garden, she felt the grief, just as she had when she left Lillysands all those years before. She’d created that kitchen, that garden. They’d played a role in the making of her these past two years. And now she was turning her back of them, and had no idea what she was heading for.
She stepped outside and closed the door, inhaling the early morning air. Then she strode to Waterloo Station. When she got there, she was quiet for a few moments, aware this was another pivotal moment in her life, another ending. There had been so many, one chapter to the next, another door closing. But she kept moving, kept running, because that’s all she knew.
No more running. It was time she faced her realities.
It was time she returned to Lillysands.
Chapter Seven (#)
Thursday, 4 May
Estelle stared out of the window as a taxi drove her through Lillysands four hours later. She felt tears flood her eyes, her tummy tingling with nerves. She hated this jumble sale of feelings: trepidation and excitement, sadness and giddiness. She hadn’t felt that in such a long time. The past few years had been plain sailing, very clear, no confusing emotions. But now everything seemed to be unravelling … including her relationship with Seb. The fact she’d barely thought of him during the long train journey suggested she’d made the right decision. She’d instead tried to focus on looking through a copy of her book to find quotes to read out at her upcoming launch party. But it was impossible, her mind filled with Poppy, Poppy, Poppy.
She needed to tell him face to face about the child they’d conceived. It felt unimaginably cruel for him to hear it second-hand from the police.
But this trip was more than that. She had a feeling all the answers to Poppy’s disappearance lay in Lillysands. The people who knew about Estelle giving birth all lived in Lillysands. Even her social worker hadn’t found out, she’d kept it so carefully concealed. But the information must have got out somehow and someone was using it against her. But why? And who? She didn’t have any enemies in Lillysands, not that she knew of anyway. But Lillysands was a strange place, close-knit and judgemental. She’d learnt that a long time ago.
The air inside the taxi felt close and stale. She powered down the window.
‘You all right, love?’ the taxi driver asked, a local man with greying dark hair.
‘Fine, thanks, just breathing in the seaside air.’
The air seemed to rush in at her a million miles an hour, bringing with it a montage of memories, like the first time she’d been driven to Lillysands by her social worker that freezing December day eighteen years ago. She hadn’t been delighted at the prospect of staying by the sea. The first seven years of her life had been spent in a grotty seaside town, sand in her sodden nappies, shoulders red raw from sunburn, the echo of screeching seagulls the backdrop to her stoned mother’s snoring. So the seaside just meant neglect and pain for her. But as her social worker’s car had rounded the corner and the whole town came into view, Estelle realised Lillysands was nothing like the rotting town of her childhood. Colourful houses dotted the cliff; sailboats gleamed under steel skies; people strolled by with smiles and expensive winter coats, faces pink from the cold sea breeze.
‘Lots of money here, Estelle,’ her social worker had explained. ‘Don’t mess things up, this place could be good for you.’
Her social worker rolled her eyes. ‘Alright, Stel. But listen, this is the best placement we’ve had for you, even better than the first one. So behave.’
The first one. Her social worker always held that up as the holy grail, better than the care home and the other unsuccessful foster placements. But it hadn’t exactly been wonderful. A run-down house with a huge garden. Three dogs and two sneery teenage girls. And then Julie and Pete, friendly enough faces but clearly in desperate need of money. Even at seven, Estelle noticed the mounting bills and scuffed wallpaper; the overheard arguments between the couple about money, making it even more obvious. She’d been placed in a box room that had obviously been home to other kids like her, scrawled messages on the walls not very effectively hidden by carefully placed cushions. She remembered curling up on the bottom bunk bed that first night, yearning to be back home with her parents despite what they’d done to her. At least her filthy childhood flat was familiar. The new place seemed alien to her, scary with the angry teenagers and barking dogs. She was quickly removed from there a month in after the couple split up, and she ended up at a tiny house with an older couple who kept telling her to ‘talk for god’s sake, child’ when all she wanted to do was sleep and wait until she was back with her parents.
After that followed a succession of foster homes, some stints in care homes. She preferred the care homes at times, bumping into familiar faces, a semblance of independence. Just before she went to live with the Garlands, she fell in with a bad crowd at the care home: skipping school, drinking, kissing boys, the sorts of things a twelve-year-old shouldn’t be doing. Something inside her stopped her going too far though: placing that bottle down when her head swam too much; pushing the boy away when his fingers reached inside her waistband. It was like standing on the precipice and knowing that even though what greeted her at the bottom could be sweet oblivion, it would also mean no coming back. And there was an urge inside her to come back, instilled ironically by her dad’s boasts about what he could have been if he hadn’t injured himself as a young footballer. Every week in care would begin with Estelle wanting – needing – to do better. Head down at school, reading, writing, baking – she particularly liked baking. But then something would happen. A girl shoving her. A boy telling her she was a skank. A woman passing her on the street who looked like her mum. A missed visit by her parents. And she’d be at square one again. Bunking off school, drinking. In the end, the pool of foster parents willing to put up with her narrowed, especially when she accused one of abusing her – a stupid lie to get her placed elsewhere. So the time she spent in care homes in-between being with foster parents began to increase, and started to look like a permanent prospect.
The Garlands were her last chance. But she’d messed that up too in the end, falling pregnant too, giving her child up.
And what of that child? Had Poppy run away to give herself a chance at something; at finding her birth parents and maybe herself in the process? Estelle felt a pinch of guilt. There had been times over the years she’d considered tracking down the newborn she’d given up. But she knew she wouldn’t be allowed to search for her daughter until the girl turned eighteen. She hadn’t even known her name, for Christ’s sake. Autumn and Max had said giving her daughter a name might make Estelle form an attachment to her. She’d agreed numbly, just as she had to everything that day – too weak, too traumatised from what had happened to argue.
How naïve she’d been, to think something as simple as giving a name to a child was what caused attachment. Those first few months after, no matter how hard she’d tried to forget, it was a knowledge, a bond that curdled inside her. But time had made it fade. And while there were days, weeks, when her mind would be dominated by the baby she’d given away, she felt sure, even now, that she’d done the right thing. What sort of life could she have provided for the girl?
Estelle looked out of the window, shielding her eyes from the morning sun as she peered out at a Lillysands that had barely changed. She resisted the impulse to put her arm out of the window, just as she used to when Max would drive her up this very road in his bright red convertible.
The town was dominated by a huge white cliff face, the pastel-coloured houses lining it painted pretty blues and pinks, yellows and greens, perfect postcard fodder. Along the bottom of the cliff was the town’s famous white beach and pretty marina, a plethora of shops and buildings sitting on cobbled stones across from it. And overlooking it all, Lady Lillysands as the locals called it, a huge hourglass shape that curved in from the cliff face, created from years of wind and rain. It looked like the side profile of a woman’s body, hence its name, and folklore had built up around it over the centuries, one of the reasons tourists flocked to Lillysands so regularly.
As they drove further into town, Estelle noticed colourful posters stuck to walls and lamp posts, advertising the upcoming festival. It was an annual event held in May to celebrate the legend of Lady Lillysands. Lots of stalls, games, entertainment and fun.
‘They still hold the festival here?’ Estelle asked the taxi driver.
‘Of course,’ he replied. ‘You’re not new to the place then?’
‘No, I used to live here a long time ago.’
‘In Seaview Terrace?’
The taxi driver’s face darkened. He went quiet and focused on driving further up the cliffs, passing streets of small pastel-coloured houses. The farther up she got, the more people watched the car suspiciously. Tourists rarely ventured up here so it was unusual to see strangers in taxis this far up. The people of Lillysands didn’t take to strangers, unless they were tourists ploughing money into the town. And even they weren’t supposed to venture beyond the centre. That was why it felt so wonderful to have been accepted as Estelle was back then. As cold as Lillysands could be with strangers, it was irresistibly warm to those it knew and trusted.
As the taxi reached the street where the Garlands lived, two terraced cottages came into view: one pretty blue cottage with a well-kept front garden, the other pink and long abandoned with boarded-up windows. The cottages weren’t officially part of Seaview Terrace, that started with the grander houses farther up the street.
Estelle leaned forward as the car approached the cottages, gripping the taxi driver’s headrest. ‘Can you stop here? I can walk from here.’
The driver came to a stop in front of the cottages and helped Estelle with her large bag as she handed him his money. He peered further up the road towards the Garlands’ mansion, a frown puckering his brow. ‘You take care, alright?’ he said.
Estelle looked into his eyes. He seemed wary of Autumn and Max. But then Estelle remembered there had been jealousy in the town, the rich residents sometimes sneered at by the less well off.
As the taxi drove off, Estelle didn’t go straight to the Garlands’ house, instead walking towards the pink cottage, memories accosting her of her foster sister Alice sitting cross-legged on the dusty floorboards, red hair dangling to her knees as she read a book; Aiden sitting on the windowsill, strumming his guitar as he looked out over the sea. And Estelle – or Stel as she was known then – her long brown hair a tangle around her shoulders, lying on the floor next to Alice, drumming her fingers to the music as she watched Aiden. She quickly peered into a window to double check it still wasn’t occupied, finding the same empty rooms and peeling wallpaper. Still empty, just as it had been when she’d been a teenager.
Estelle’s fingertips glanced over the cottage’s bumpy walls as she walked around its side, heading towards the small garden at the back with its large tree, branches trembling in the early summer breeze. She paused. Was it her imagination or did there seem to be barely any garden left now? The tree she was sure used to sit in the middle of the garden was now so close to the cliff edge. Perhaps she’d just remembered it wrong.
She paused as she peered past the tree. At the edge of the cliff was a withering bunch of flowers. Pink roses, edges browning, green stems wilting. A memorial to a life long lost.
‘Oh Alice,’ she whispered to herself.
‘I thought it was you.’
She turned to see a man in his fifties with glasses and greying hair standing behind her. She frowned. ‘Do I know you?’
He smiled sadly. ‘I’ve aged that much, have I?’
She looked at him in shock. ‘Mr Tate?’
He nodded. He had aged. Mr Tate had been the school’s most beloved teacher, one of those hip teachers who let you sit on your table and discuss the interesting anthropological learnings from last night’s Eastenders when you should have been learning about the Treaty of Versailles. And yet he still managed to get top marks for his students.
Estelle had been particularly impressed by him. She’d come to Lillysands being suspicious of teachers, her first experience of them in her old primary school chequered. But soon she grew to adore Mr Tate just as much as everyone else did.
‘I’m surprised you recognise me,’ she said to him with a smile.
‘The famous chef? Of course I do. So, what brings you back to Lillysands? Autumn’s sixtieth?’
Estelle closed her eyes. Oh god, she’d forgotten it was Autumn’s birthday that weekend. This was the woman who’d been like a mother to her for several years. But, then, Estelle hadn’t been in touch with her for even more years.
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