The Crooked House by Christobel Kent is a psychological thriller that sends Alison back to her hometown to try and overcome the trauma of a terrible tragedy that took the lives of her family and left her the only survivor, but for some reason, the whole town seems suspect (Available January 12, 2016).
Much like the unnamed narrator of Rebecca, Alison lives her life under the radar. She has no ties, no home, and she spends her days at a backroom publishing job. Which is how she wants it. Because Alison used to be a teenager named Esme, who lived in a dilapidated house by a bleak estuary with her parents and three siblings. One night, something unspeakable happened in the house, and Alison emerged the only survivor. In order to escape from the horror she witnessed, she moved away from her village, changed her name, and cut herself off from her past.
Only now her boyfriend invites her to a wedding in her old hometown, and she decides that if she's going to have any chance of overcoming the trauma of what happened, she'll have to confront it. But soon Alison realizes that that night's events have left a terrible mark on everyone in the village, and she begins to suspect that they are all somehow implicated in her family's murder.
Thirteen Years Ago
When it starts again she is face down on her bed with her hands over her ears and she feels it more than hears it. A vibration through the mattress, through the flowered duvet, through the damp pillow she’s buried her face in. It comes up from below, through the house’s lower three storeys. BOOM. She feels it in her throat.
Wait, listen: one, two, three. BOOM.
Is this how it begins?
Leaning on the shelf over the desk, wooden letters spelling her name jitter against the wall. They were a present on her seventh birthday, jigsawn by Dad, E.S.M.E. The family’d just moved in, unloading their stuff outside this house they called the crooked house, she and Joe, as the sun went down over the dark marsh inland. Creek House to Crooked House, after the tilt to its roofline, its foundations unsteady in the mud, out on its own in the dusk. Mum was gigantic with the twins, a Zeppelin staggering inside with bags in each hand. We need more space now, is how they told her and Joe they were moving. It was seven years ago, seven plus seven. Now she’s fourteen, nearly. Fourteen next week.
Ah, go on, Gina had said. Just down it. Then, changing tack, You can give it me back, then.
Esme’s been back an hour. She isn’t even sure Joe saw her pass the sitting-room door, jammed back on the sofa and frowning under his headphones: since he hit sixteen he’s stopped looking anyone in the eye. The girls, a two-headed caterpillar in an old sleeping bag on the floor, wriggled back from in front of the TV, twisting to see her. Letty’s lolling head, the pirate gap between Mads’s front teeth as she grins up at her, knowing. She mouths something. Boyfriend. Esme turns her face away and stomps past.
Mum opening the kitchen door a crack, leaning back from the counter to see who it is. Frowning like she can’t place her, she gets like that a lot these days. What are you doing back? Esme doesn’t answer: she is taking the stairs three at a time, raging.
Outside the dark presses on the window, the squat power station stands on the horizon, the church out on the spit that looks no bigger than a shed from here, the village lights distant. Make all the noise you like out here, Dad’s always saying, no one can hear.
Hands over your ears and never tell.
On the bed she lies very still, willing it to go, to leave the house. Whatever it is.
Her hands were already over her ears, before it started. Why? The boom expands in her head and she can’t even remember now. All she knows is, she was standing at the window, now she’s on the bed.
She grapples with detail. She heard a car. There were voices below in the yard and, after, noises downstairs. Something scraping across the floor, a low voice muttering and she didn’t want to deal with it, with his questions; she flung herself down on the bed and the tears began to leak into the pillow. She would have put on her music but she didn’t want him to know she was back.
Now. A sound, a human sound, just barely: a wounded shout, a gasp, trying to climb to a scream that just stops, vanishes. And in the silence after it she hears breathing, heavy and ragged; up through three storeys and a closed door, it is as if the house is breathing. And Esme is off the bed, scrabbling for a place to hide.
* * *
On the marsh behind the house there are the remains of an old hut with a little rotted jetty. The tide is beginning to come up, gurgling in its channels, trickling across the mud that stretches inland, flooding the clumps of samphire and marsh grass and the buried timbers. Behind her the house stands crooked in the wind freshening off the estuary.
The lights of the police cars come slowly, bumping down the long track, an ambulance, the cab lit. It is three in the morning but the inky dark is already leaching to grey behind the church on the spit. One of the coldest June nights on record, and it takes them a while to find her. She doesn’t make a sound.
Alone in the bed Alison sat bolt upright. She had trained herself not to gasp when that happened, long before she woke next to anyone, long before there was anyone to ask her what had scared her. But she couldn’t stop the jerk upwards, as if she had to break through the surface, as if water was closing over her. Paul had never asked, though: it was one of the reasons she was still here, eight months on.
Not the only reason. She could hear him in the next room; she leaned down and groped for her glasses – no table on her side of the bed, they were entangled in the bedclothes on the floor – and the bright room swam into focus. Better.
In the small old-fashioned kitchen, Paul was making tea: she could hear the kettle spit and gurgle, coming to the boil. She liked everything about Paul’s flat, a modest three rooms in a white-balconied grey-brick tenement above the comforting roar of a main road. A white-painted mantelpiece, bookshelves, two large windows, the kind of desk you found in council offices. There would have been fires in these rooms once, and a maid to lay them, someone to sweep the big chimneys that ran down through the six floors. It would be nice to live here.
It was out of her league. Alison rented a bedsit south of the river, not much more than a useful box; a bed and a foldaway kitchen and students for neighbours, although her room had a view of a tree. She liked it enough: she went back most nights still, on principle. Increasingly though, she didn’t know what to do with herself there – it had got untidy, downgraded to storage, a place where she dropped stuff without bothering to put it away. Now she shifted her gaze from Paul’s tidy desk – the pile of books, laptop, card index – to the mantelpiece. A couple of Japanese postcards, a pewter bowl, an old mirror framed in dark wood. An envelope leaned against the mirror, his name on it in big cursive script, heavy paper.
He was in the doorway watching her.
From the start there’d been that something about him, some natural reticence or perhaps just his age, that meant that other, secondary panic didn’t set in. Over the second meal out, after the first visit to the cinema. The strategies didn’t start building themselves in her head, for what to say, when he asked. About her life. About where she came from. About her family.
‘What’s that?’ she said now. She stood up and took the cup he held out to her.
Before Paul they’d been boys, scruffy, well-meaning, lazy. They’d hardly qualified as relationships: more mates, easy to close the door on quietly in the early morning, tiptoeing off to take her place in rush-hour traffic, to breathe a sigh of relief. Paul was more than a head taller than her so she had to look up to see in his face; he set his hand lightly on the small of her back and looked down. She took in all the detail of his face at once, as she’d got used to doing, gazing straight back into his light eyes, seeing him smile, seeing him approve her without thinking.
She had half an hour before she needed to get going. ‘What’s that, then?’ she said again, and pointed. He followed her gaze and, removing his hand from her back, reached for the card on the mantelpiece. He held it out.
Dr Paul Bartlett, it read, handwritten, real ink on vellum. No address, therefore hand-delivered. Something crept in between them.
‘Well, open it, if you’re so curious,’ he said, stepping back. She was aware of his eyes on her back as she took the envelope: it felt substantial. Inside there was an embossed card, gold-edged.
Dr and Mrs … Request the pleasure …
‘I’m to be a best man,’ he said. ‘Can you believe that?’
‘Morgan Carter,’ she said. ‘Have I met her? I have.’ She stared at the script. At St Peter’s on the Wall, Saltleigh. The line before her eyes wavered, the line of a silver-grey horizon, the church on the spit in a freezing midsummer dawn: something jumped in her chest. Her lungs burned as if she’d been running.
‘June,’ she said, the first thing that came into her head. ‘Nice month to get married.’ The words sounded strange, mumbled. She handed it back to him.
‘Got to get to work,’ she said, ducking his gaze. He set the card on the mantel and took her by the wrists. Gently.
‘Come with me,’ he said.
The story was, her parents were dead, she was an only child, she’d grown up in Cornwall.
Paul’s parents were safely dead too, she’d checked on that one, slyly, slipping the question in in passing. He’d hardly looked up from his book: heart attack and cancer five years apart. But twenty minutes later he’d put the book down and said, taking her hand, maybe it’s my age. But look at what you go through with old parents and … being an orphan seems easier. The thought seemed to sadden him, but then he picked the book up again and went on while she watched him, surprised by a lingering sense of having been comforted.
It was odd how few people even asked, and if they did, they weren’t really that interested in the answer. She’d read somewhere that the key to a successful lie is that it should contain elements of truth. She chose Alison when the police and the psychotherapist appointed by social services talked to her about changing her name, because there’d been five Alisons in her year – anyone could be an Alison. Esme stood out, it said she wanted to be noticed. She didn’t want to be Esme. She wanted to be invisible.
* * *
Esme had had a clock in her bedroom, with a loud tick. Joe used to complain about it keeping him awake on the floor below; about the alarm she set for seven every morning. She didn’t know if it had gone off that morning because she never went back to the crooked house after the police took her away, but she had watched the clock those long hours from where she crouched behind the door. While she waited, she had listened to the tick, cringing, thinking, Joe.
BOOM: ten forty-two. And then nothing.
She told herself: everyone’s gone to bed, even though the silence said otherwise. No pleading for a story or a kiss, no thump of music from Joe’s room, just a creaking and settling of the house in the wind. The hot water going off, on its timer. The lights all still on, flooding up the narrow stairs.
The clock says one a.m. when she comes out, on cramped stiff legs, unclenches her fists.
She sees Mads first, sees her from the top of the stairs and scrambles to get down, sliding on the stair carpet. The girl is tangled in the soaked sleeping bag, half through the sitting-room door. On her knees Esme scrabbles to pull her free, her hands slippery with blood, she can smell it, like iron, and she can feel the other weight all the time, Letty still down there inside the wadded nylon. Dead weight. Esme sobs in her throat, her arms grappling around her sisters. Stay. Mads’s head lolls back again, her eyes don’t see. Don’t leave me. Esme stares and stares, she can’t let go. She tries to pull them up into her lap on the stairs, the door into the sitting room swings open and there is Joe, looking at her from the sofa.
She says something, she doesn’t even know what she’s saying. Something like, I can’t, I can’t. A moan. Joe is dead. He has his headphones still on and his eyes are looking at her but he is dead. Underneath him the green velveteen sofa with fringing that came from her grandmother’s house is black with blood. One of his shoes is off.
Her mother is on the floor in the kitchen face down, one bare leg twisted under her, her skirt riding up, her best skirt. A plate is smashed on the floor beside her. She is dead.
Her father is in the hall.
Copyright © 2016 Christobel Kent.
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Christobel Kent was born in London and grew up in London and Essex, including a stint on the Essex coast on a Thames barge with three siblings and four step-siblings, before reading English at Cambridge. She has worked in publishing and TEFL teaching, and has lived in Modena, in northern Italy, and in Florence. She has written several novels set in Italy, including The Drowning Riverand A Murder in Tuscany, and lives in Cambridge with her husband and five children.