By M S Clements
A tenderhearted hero struggles against oppression and betrayal as the tension steadily builds in this gripping story of love and survival.
Caring teacher and loving husband, Finn tolerates daily humiliation to be with Sophie, the woman he loves. Fragile & naturally compliant he must summon all his courage to survive the system. Despite the injustice, they dream of a normal life, where liberty and identity are not subverted by ever tightening restrictions.
When a powerful politician requests that Finn tutor his daughter, it seems like a change of fortune. Soon Finn’s new found optimism is crushed by manipulative abuse, and a flu-like epidemic that threatens his life. It is left to Sophie to pick up the pieces and save her husband. In New Albany, every opportunity comes at price.
How far must Sophie go to save the man she loves?
For fans of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, ‘VOX’, ‘1984’, and other speculative fiction, ‘The Third Magpie’ takes the reader into a terrifyingly plausible world where a wristband restricts your job, your movement, and even who you can marry. It is a society where propaganda masks extremism that threatens your very existence.
“It’s a page turner with heart and brains and although there is beautiful language and at times real romance, the author does not pull her punches when it comes to the shattering climax. This story stayed with me long after I read it.“
– Joanna Barnard, best selling novelist and inaugural winner of the Bath Novel Award.
” ‘The Third Magpie’ is a brilliant, compelling, amazing dystopian romance about Finn and Sophie, and one of the best books I have read this year!
Is it really the author’s debut novel? It’s so hard to believe because reading this book was like reading a classic! Beautiful style of writing and a compelling plot made me glued to the story.”
– RajivsReviews.com, book blogger
Reviewers on Goodreads are saying:
Read a sample from the opening chapter…
A Shorn Heart
‘The shorn moon trembling indistinct on her path,
Frail as a scar upon the pale blue sky,
Draws towards the downward slope:some sorrow hath
Worn her down to the quick, so she faintly fares
Along her foot-searched way without knowing why
She creeps persistent down the sky’s long stairs’
From ‘Brother and Sister‘
D H Lawrence
Insomnia has a way of opening the void, filling it with illusion and voices from long ago. Even Maya’s soft puffs of righteous sleep cannot distract my brain from flooding with scenes from that summer holiday. My teen-self echoes inside me, ‘Jump, Finn. Jump!’
Even if I could erase that memory, I won’t. I crave it. That chilled water lapping against me as swimmers power through lengths of the pool. Untamed hair escaping the sodden scrunchie, tickling the edge of my mouth as the locks stick to my cheek. I need to be that young woman again. I need to be able to say one more time, ‘Don’t be scared, Finn. I’m right here.’
I lie in bed hankering for my youth, but these flesh and bones must creep forward. With the irritating heat of maturity passing, I curl up once more against my wife’s comforting body.
And now I’m thirsty. Hopeful water will end my restlessness and conscious not to awaken her, I roll on to my side and begin a finger-tip search of the bedside table. I pause. The silver picture frame is cold against the heat of my skin. I spread out my palm, reaching for that young man, a captive of time and place, make-believing I can push through, touch him, and bring him back to safety. It doesn’t work. I find the tumbler and take a sip. And still, I miss him.
I flip over my pillow and lie back down, mentally listing all of the day’s jobs; a new vet starts today, bake some cakes; change these sheets, night sweats create so much washing; is it parents’ evening tonight? I think so. They’ll be teenagers soon. I ought to organise a party. How old would Finn be? No. How old is Finn now? Definitely ‘is’. I should know that. I should. I really should.
I shuffle around, trying to get comfortable. My nightie rucks under me and the straps are cutting. I fling it off. My body relaxes, and Finn waits for me in that in-between world, where dreams and nightmare sit on the horizon. Today he is the seven-year-old boy, frightened and uncertain. There is an angry bruise on his shin, and his feet shift back from the edge. Ball-like fists pound his thighs and those eyes, his vibrant blue eyes, brimming with childhood fear. My memory calls out to him, ‘Come on, darling, jump. You can do it. I’ll catch you; I promise.’
This time will be different. This time he’ll jump, I know he will. He’ll jump and skinny arms will envelope me. I’ll clamp him to my chest. His heartbeat, his panic and joy, they’ll thump against my skin, just like it did before.
Downstairs in the kitchen, Petra whines. Perhaps she misses her sibling too. I squint at the pile of clothes flung onto the bedroom chair, morphing those fabric peaks and valleys into the mountain range that loomed behind the holiday resort. Dad’s optimistic words reverberating off the rocky escarpment to haunt my days.
‘Sometimes, these things happen. He’ll grow out of it in time.’
I slide out of bed, and Maya slips her arm onto the empty space. I am grateful she doesn’t wake. I’d only sink back into her embrace, wallowing in the comforting lies she’d gently whisper into my ear. Lies that bar my desired recollections from gate-crashing my life. And I want those memories. I want them to become real again. I want to hear those children running riot, screeching, laughing and plunging into the pool from every angle. I want the goose bumps that race down my arms with the chattering of my teeth.
Downstairs, the AGA warms me while Petra noses my bare feet, slowing our exit. I step into the pre-dawn air, heavy with the scent of Angel’s Trumpet. With all the ungainliness of a puppy, Petra sits obediently on top of my foot, unsure where to put her legs, her attentive marble-brown eyes watching me. I clip on the leash and banish all self-indulgent thoughts. I must allow heartache to exist inside the mundane.
We emerge from the sombre cover of the woods and wait, catching our breath. Petra chewing her saliva-soaked tennis ball, and me on the wooden stile. Dawn claws away the night sky, splitting its darkness with grey and tangerine scars. In the village, blinking lights announce that the lives of others must also continue.
Velvet pads of infant excitement drum past me, injecting a dose of brief happiness to soothe my life of work, parenthood and loss. I delude myself. I make excuses, replaying the scene expecting a different outcome, but Andy is always there dictating the conclusion regardless of my actions. He’ll ring on Wednesday. He always does. My stomach tightens at the prospect of his call. Insincere enquiries followed by complaints about Mum, her eccentricities and cyber activism. He’ll demand I return to Melborough. As though I’d ever convince her to tone down the protests and letter writing. I can’t change her, no one can. If she refused to listen to me when Finn was little, why change now? No, Andy will have to deal with her himself. What about his friends in Foreign Affairs? All those useful government contacts. God forbid one of them should make inquiries on our behalf. No, Andy won’t push them for an answer, can’t annoy them, that’s bad for business. Andy, the businessman, the firm and steady hand of Finlay Communications. Andy, the bully, the sadistic shit determined to terrify our little brother.
I don’t understand it. Why that pool? Why that day and that incident. There are so many others to decipher, yet my head chooses to repeat Finn struggling under Andy’s tight grip, tears dripping into the pool. Andy is savouring the torture, his hissing threats carrying over poolside noise.
‘Sink or swim, weirdo? I say sink, just like before.’
Dad’s feeble censure drips off his muscular back along with the chlorinated water. I intervene, make my threats, and whisper his sordid little secrets back into his ear. He concedes defeat and releases Finn with foul-mouth insults.
Where’s the mystery? Andy was Andy and I dealt with it. There was nothing to warrant a lifetime of anger and mistrust. Besides, Finn’s difficulties were nobody’s fault, not really. The accident at the brook, his silence, the illness, none of that had anything to do with Andy. We all made mistakes. It’s my mind playing tricks on me again. Just early morning misgivings conjuring conspiracies where none exist. He’s my brother and he loves us. We should go home. We should move on. I’ll tell Andy on Wednesday. We will go back. Christmas, yes, the perfect opportunity. Dad will be thrilled. He hates the December gloom. It’s the rain against the sitting-room window. And it’s the way he goes cold if the mobile rings just after relaxing with his evening drink. Seeing the twins will make all the difference. We’ve never had a Christmas together at home. Yes, we’ll go at Christmas. I’ll tell Maya as soon as I get back. We’ll return to Melborough. Cara and Mikey will enjoy it, decorating the house and opening the abandoned cards, even if Mum hides in her study, re-fuelling her unhappiness with gin.
But what if Mum had listened to me, or to Dad? What if my phone had been charged when Finn tried to call? What if we had got help earlier? What if?
Oh for goodness sake, this isn’t healthy. Everyone else can see it, even me.
Determination marches me across the wheat field, morning light giving it a creamy apricot hue. I am hungry at the thought of it becoming fresh bread. My stomach rumbles in anticipation while I ruminate on holiday plans.
Hot sweat rises within to accompany the revelation. What am I thinking? I must protect them. We can’t go back at Christmas. It’s not the right time. The children will remind them of Finn, and Mikey might ask questions. Mum and Dad are too old to go through that again. No, we’ll go another time, when it’s easier to organise cover vets. Perhaps we’ll go in the Spring. I’ll think about it, there’s no rush.
Petra pants with fulfilled exhaustion, her ears prick up with the tolling church bell ringing out with the precision of a funeral mass. By the verge, a magpie pecks at the remnants of a mouse. I shudder with irrational superstition.
‘Good day, Mr Magpie,’ I say over Petra’s barks. Our way is cleared of the malevolent corvid, and we trot along the path to the backdoor of the bakery where our usual mug of tea and bowl of water awaits us.
If the lives of others must continue, then I suppose, so must mine.
NORMALITY IS HARD WORK
Life is exhausting, but stop for a moment, even for a second, and allow the absurdity of our behaviour to cloud our thoughts, then all will disintegrate. This hard-won illusion of a normal life will disappear, revealing the extent of our own deception.
After sixteen years of marriage, every nuance of Finn’s arrival was imprinted deep within her. The click of the garden gate, that huff when he lifted his bike onto the hooks, and the frustrated jangling of the stubborn door handle.
Sophie was already filling the kettle by the time she heard the anticipated thud of his bag hitting the table. Warm hands caught her waist, followed by an affectionate kiss brushing her cheek. That oft-repeated routine always ending with a request to satisfy his innocent addiction.
‘Any chance of a cup of tea?’
Finn dragged out a chair and emptied his bag of exercise books. Elbows on the table and his shoulders hunched with resigned compliance, he stared forlornly at the pile before him. Another year trapped in a job he did not choose, but for Sophie’s sake, content to fulfil his allocated role.
‘How did the meeting go?’ she asked, mustering as much fake cheer as possible.
‘Austen, again.’ Finn plucked a book from the pile, closing the conversation down with his deliberate flicking through the pages.
Sophie gently patted his shoulder in silent commiseration as she passed him to fetch a couple of mugs from the opposite cupboard. He’d cheer up with a cup of tea, but when she looked back at him, a barely audible expletive escaped her mouth. His fingers were splaying out, filling the screen with the bold headline of the Daily Briefing. He didn’t hear her. Sophie watched him nudge his glasses to the top of his head, all the while her teeth nervously nibbled away the tender flesh of her bottom lip. She should have closed the tab the minute he arrived. Finn squinted, and in Sophie’s shoulders, muscles contracted, developing another knot of pain. She rubbed her neck. At some point he would find out, it was inevitable, but even rational thought could not soothe her angst. Finn’s back rose and fell with his breaths, gaining pace and catching up with her own rising unease.
‘You should get your eyes tested, I’m sure your sight is getting worse. I’ll make an appointment.’ She had used the same tactics countless times. But this time her distraction technique failed. Finn frowned. There was no reply, only the scrape of a chair as he left the table to seek the solitude of the sitting-room. Behind her, the kettle whistled with piercing urgency to warn of the pressures that lurked beneath the surface of normality. She knew how he’d react. And what did she offer him in exchange for her guilt? A hand to hold and a cup of tea.
Sophie followed her husband through to the sitting-room, pushed his legs off the sofa and sank her miniature frame into his warmth. She searched his face for a forgiving smile. It came, then disappeared like a mirage in the desert. His arm had dropped onto her, so she snuggled in closer. With her fingers entwined in his, she lifted his hand to her mouth, placing a delicate kiss on each knuckle.
‘Why do they keep doing this to me? To us?’ said Finn.
All affection dissolved away with his question. Wary of the inevitable argument, she removed his arm from her shoulder. Criticism was counterproductive. The permanence of decisions made by New Albany’s elite must remain unchallenged by dissent. It is the will of the people.
‘It’s not personal, darling. It’s not against you and me.’
‘Not against you. No, you’re right.’
She reached for his arm, trying to recreate ordinary happiness. ‘It’s just the situation. After all, the article said it would only be a temporary measure. That’s something at least.’
Sophie was well aware that there were never temporary measures. New regulations would be adhered to just like all the previous ones; yet one more inconvenience, nothing more. ‘The article said it’s in response to the terrorist attacks in AZ Twelve. Apparently insurgents are hiding in the other Area Zones. It’s only until they are caught. It is for our safety, after all.’ Sophie parroted the official line, hopeful her reassuring smile would diminish his worries and disguise her fear.
Finn tugged his arm from her grasp. ‘Well, if that’s what they say, then of course it must be true. Silly me!’ His sarcastic reply stabbing back at her.
Sophie handed him his tea, shuddering when his heavy metal bangle struck the porcelain, producing a bell-like ring to announce who he was, and what he was, the Digitally Interned Alien, obliged to keep that bangle permanently locked onto his wrist. Finn instinctively slid it back up his arm and pulled down his sleeve. Out of sight, but never far from their consciousness.
‘I’d better start re-reading those wretched books. I just wish there were something else to study for a change. As much as I love Jane’s work, six years is quite enough.’
‘Why don’t you suggest something else?’ asked Sophie, grateful for the new topic of conversation.
‘And what influence can I have over the curriculum? Even if I were allowed to make a recommendation, I can hardly be seen to corrupt the girls. Let’s face it, what’s the point? There’s barely a decent novel left on the approved list.’
With nothing more to add, Finn pushed himself off the sofa and retreated to the kitchen. In the corner of the sitting-room the digital assistant, THEO, bleeped, its green light reverting to red. Sophie glowered, wishing she had the courage to destroy it. Instead, she clutched the fragile china cup and sipped her herbal tea.
Twenty-two, nineteen. Her eyes were watering from the undisturbed vigilance of the oven clock. Twenty-two, twenty, the red digits blinked back at her. Twenty-two, twenty-one, and another minute slipped past. She shut her eyes, willing time to stop. Twenty-two, twenty-two, all the twos, like ducks in a row. She laughed. Was it the caffeine that was sending her to that place of contorted sanity? She rarely drank coffee, yet there she was, supping on that bitter black stimulant. Her hand trembled with the weight of the cup. A reaction to the drink or the fear of uncertainty? She no longer knew nor cared. Finn wasn’t home.
In the hallway the antique clock mocked her further. Its rhythmic tick-tock verbalising, ‘Finn’s gone, Finn’s gone.’ She fought to ignore it, forcing herself to tune into the surrounding silence beyond the kitchen door. Not even the outside world could drown out the pessimism consuming her.
Mini whirlwinds spiralled leaves up into the air, their dry, brittle edges becoming ghostly fingernails scratching against the panes in the door, demanding entry. In the distance came the rattle of car tyres jouncing on pitted lanes. It was so faint, almost imagined. But it wasn’t. Other sounds were hushed. Only the turning wheels existed. They stopped. Then came the silence. Her accelerating heartbeat anticipated the knock at their front door. Deep within her, guts twisted and cowered beneath the rising screams of her inner voice, ‘How will you cope? How will you cope?’ A car door opened and slammed shut and then another. Two of them. They always came in pairs.
She put the cup down and gripped the edge of the table, steadying herself as she rose from the chair. ‘How will you cope without him?’ That was when she heard it; the click of the garden gate. Sophie raced to the back door in time to see the red lights of a departing vehicle and a thin shadow hurling a bicycle onto the ground.
‘Finn! Thank God. Where have you been?’
His hug felt tighter than usual. Pushing him back, she saw his tired and drawn face lit up by the kitchen light. There was so much she wanted to say, but anger and relief could wait. ‘Where were you? I’ve been sick with worry,’ she whispered, avoiding the known trigger words in case THEO might activate.
‘Sorry darling. I got a puncture. I was trying to fix it, but it got late, and I just didn’t realise the time.’
‘Finn, it’s half ten!’ Sophie swallowed back the urge to yell at her husband’s apparent nonchalance. His eyes told her a different story. He was frightened. The heartbeat pounding its drum inside her ears became louder, faster. He was acting, saying it was just one of those things. Except it wasn’t. He was hiding the truth. Just one of those things was not an option for the likes of Finn.
Free of her grip, he squeezed past her and sat down at the kitchen table. He appeared engrossed by the little flowers of the oil-skin tablecloth. This was Finn, he always told her the truth. Neither spoke. Sophie remained in the open doorway, a queasy unease making her cling onto the frame. She put it down to the sickly scent of the Nicotiana instead of all the more likely explanations that were bombarding her brain. At the table, Finn lay his head down onto his arms, his face turned towards her. And there they were, those simple words, uttered in his soft voice. The truth she dreaded. The truth that kept her awake at night.
‘They arrested me.’
THEO’s light illuminated the kitchen, distorting the space with its spectral green. She didn’t give Finn time to say another word, yanking him up by his arm, directing him back outside. By the dim light of the torch, she dragged him down the garden until they reached the steamer chairs, beneath the apple trees.
‘I think you had better tell me everything. Don’t leave anything out in case I need to get Dad involved.’
Finn slumped back into the chair. ‘You won’t need to call your father. I’m pretty certain there won’t be a follow up or any charges.’
Too agitated to sit, Sophie paced about. Above her, the little beam of light vaulted from branch to branch as the torch bounced on his restless leg. He was nervous. He was bending the truth. She stopped moving. ‘No, you can’t be arrested for a puncture, what happened?’
‘Violation of the curfew.’
‘I told you, it got late. I’m subject to the new curfew laws, or have you forgotten?’
‘I…I…, no Finn, there must be more to it. Work finished hours ago.’
‘It was just…well…I don’t know how it happened.’
‘You need to tell me, Finn. I need the details.’
‘There’s nothing to tell. There was a meeting, you know, the usual. Something about curriculum changes, and Frank Harrison just wouldn’t stop rambling on about lack of sports priority. The head was trying to sort stuff out. I remember thinking I had plenty of time to get home despite the over-run but then Carl wanted to chat. He seemed upset and I couldn’t just walk off. There was still time, but I guess fate had other ideas. I did get a puncture on the way home. I’m sorry, darling. I honestly didn’t realise the time.’
Sophie sat in the neighbouring chair shaking her head in disbelief. This was not what Finn had signed up for. Nobody had.
‘I know. It isn’t your fault.’ Her eyes were adjusting to the dark and she watched him wrap his arms around himself. It was mild for September, yet he was shivering. She searched out his hand, vigorously rubbing the back of it to warm him as she spoke, ‘I don’t get it. It can’t have been that late, and even with those delays, the guys in the guardhouse know you. They wouldn’t have arrested you for that. Are you sure there was nothing else?’
‘Temporary security measures to fight the insurgency,’ said Finn mimicking the Daily Briefing newsreader, ‘and I am the unfortunate collateral damage.’
‘New recruit; he spotted the bangle. His chance to shine, I suppose.’
‘What about Sergeant Mason? He’d have sorted it.’
‘He was out, drunks fighting at The Packers’ Inn. The guy was on his own and didn’t have a clue who I was.’ Finn stifled a small chuckle. ‘The lad couldn’t even figure out how to turn on the computer.’
‘Really? How can you not know that?’
‘I blame the teachers.’
‘Yeah, they’re the route of all incompetence.’ She gave his arm an affectionate punch. ‘What else?’
‘He took so flipping long and I just wanted to get the whole thing over and done with, get charged, then go home. I even had to show him how to use the microchip reader. God knows what they do teach them.’
‘Not computer skills,’ muttered Sophie under her breath.
‘Possibly not. Anyway, by the time we got to the charges page on my file, Sergeant Mason walked in. When he saw me, he gave that recruit such a filthy look, I almost felt sorry for the boy. Almost.’
There was mirth underlying his words, the revenge of a powerless man. Sophie smiled too. ‘So, was that Sergeant Mason’s car in the lane?’
‘Yeah, he brought me and the bike back, but not before shutting me in a cell and putting the fear of God into me. I was loudly reminded of my unique privileges and that they can be removed as easily as they are given. I am the model alien, the Alien of Ministerial Importance. That shining example of how well the system works. A credit to New Albany, proving that the DIA programme is a magnificent success. But above all, it’s my duty not to be a disappointment to my father-in-law.’
Sophie bit her lip at his sarcasm. The faint humour that appeared barely seconds earlier had been banished with the cracking pretence of the model alien. Her sticky tape of lies would not be up to holding him together for much longer.
Work demanded that the other night’s inconvenience should be forgotten, just like all the others. Sergeant Mason had poked his head into the surgery to apologise to Sophie. As usual, she was friendly and brushed off the arrest as if it meant nothing to them, wishing the new recruit well and hoped he might find a use for the unexpected bonus in his pay packet.
That day, her life continued much like any other, a monotonous routine of pointless paperwork and complaining teens. She finished late, her list of ladies growing like their expanding wombs. The last bus home was punctual for a change. The driver, a dog-tired man who returned her smile with indifference, gave her bus pass a cursory glance before accelerating away, jolting Sophie into her usual seat. One more day ticked off the calendar.
The ever-recurring scenes of her slow journey home drifted past the window. Colourful displays of hanging baskets distracted shoppers from the disappointing reality behind the shop front. Outside The Packer’s Inn, young guardsmen gathered for an after-work drink, chatting and smoking while vocally rating the flirting schoolgirls. One girl stopped to accept an offered smoke. The medic in Sophie sighed as the girl inhaled the noxious toxins, a sign of her loyalty to the nation’s economy.
On the opposite side of the square, a second group of recruits relaxed on a low wall, joking with each other. In front of them, a middle-aged lady was struggling with her shopping, her metal bangle repeatedly slipping down her upper arm. Not wanting to stop, she tried to nose it back behind her sleeve. Her efforts were fruitless. She shrugged and continued on her way. That was when the recruits jumped off the wall as one, barging past her. Her shopping bag spilt its contents across the pavement, the clattering tins accompanying the young men’s laughter. The recruits sauntered away, pleased with their cruel comedy act. No one helped the woman gather her groceries. Commuters side-stepped neatly out of her way so as not to dirty their shoes with the broken eggs. She was an inconvenience, nothing more.
Forty minutes later, the bus deposited Sophie at the edge of town. The half mile lane up to the cottage was no more than a muddy track these days. Lack of passing traffic had allowed nature to reclaim her stolen territory. Late blackberries dotted the overgrown hedgerow, providing tasty treats for the tired nurse. She licked the juice off her stained finger then groaned with backache when she stooped to pick up the shopping. From the corner of her eye she spied her only neighbour, Mrs Carter, standing guard at her window, watching and waiting. Already fed-up, Sophie put her head down. ‘Please don’t let it be me.’ The persistent thumping against the wooden window frame made her heart sink.
‘Yoo-hoo! Sophia dear, can you spare a minute?’ called the elderly woman from the opened window.
‘Of course, how can I help you?’
She daren’t refuse Mrs Carter. The rumours abounded about her; she was a spy, an informant, an agent of the ASSU. They all laughed about it, but nobody was brave enough to risk her annoyance.
Even before she had time to cross the threshold, Mrs Carter announced her demand, ‘I want to redecorate the bathroom and I need a tiler.’
‘I’m afraid I don’t know any,’ Sophie replied, hoping ignorance would offer her an early escape.
Mrs Carter peered over her old-fashioned glasses, ‘Of course, well you wouldn’t, would you, my dear, they are far too expensive these days. Likewise, I’ve only my pension you see.’
Realisation hit Sophie like a slap in the face. ‘Don’t worry Mrs Carter, we are not going away this half term holiday. I’m sure my husband will be happy to help.’
‘Would he, my dear? Oh, that would be lovely, I’m sorry I can’t pay him that much, I’m only a pensioner you see.’
Dates and peppercorn pay settled; Sophie departed Mrs Carter’s cottage with its all-pervasive stench of impending death. She distracted her anger with thoughts of the coming weekend and the prospect of enjoying every luxurious minute. They would be free to enjoy the Indian Summer, and her parents’ garden would be spectacular. In the herbaceous border, late summer blooms would nod their heads loftily above the annuals below, and on the terrace, they would relax and savour Anna’s freshly made lemon and lavender shortbread.
The welcoming smell of dinner and the velvety tones of Finn singing in the kitchen greeted her on opening the front door. She lingered a while, her earlier complaints chastened by Puccini’s lyrics.
‘Oh, mia patria sì bella e perduta!’.
When she reached the kitchen, she saw him leaning on his arm, his face barely ten centimetres from the tablet screen. His back to her, she crept up unnoticed and deftly pulled his earphones away, ‘What’s for dinner?’
Finn jumped like a startled cat, his arm flicking up to wipe away a stray tear on his cheek. ‘Christ Soph, don’t do that! I’ll have a heart attack one day.’
She laughed, and with his face cupped in her hands, Sophie kissed him loudly on his lips. ‘I’m a nurse, I’ll give you the kiss of life. Honestly, darling, with a voice like yours, the church would kill to have you in the choir.’
Finn waved his manacled wrist at her. ‘Ten years of musical training, but this little bracelet says “No!”. The Church of New Albany will have to look elsewhere for its next sacrificial lamb.’
‘Their loss, my gain.’ Sophie turned to unpack the shopping and Finn replaced the earphones. On the screen she noticed images of exotic blooms, dramatic coastlines and impossibly blue skies. Never one to miss out on programmes about gardening, she poked her husband in the ribs. ‘Whatcha watching?’
‘What are you watching?’ she mouthed slowly.
He took off the earphones. ‘Oh, “The Planet’s most Beautiful Gardens”. They all appear to be in AZ Eight.’
‘Well fancy that! Shame we live in AZ Five. Maybe we’ll have a holiday there one day.’
‘Or maybe we won’t,’ Finn replied, his glasses steaming over as he checked on the dinner.
On the table was yet another night’s collection of neat books and papers waiting to be marked, ready to disappoint or delight their young owners. Sophie gathered them up and dropped the stack unceremoniously onto a chair. Tired, she wanted dinner and bed, but first she had to break the news to Finn about the weekend. Her inner actress was practised when it came to convincing shows.
‘Good news, I have the whole weekend off. Henry said I was due some holiday, so he altered the rota without that miserable old git of an office manager spotting it. He’ll go absolutely ballistic.’ She chortled to herself, delighting at the thought of that vile bully being undermined.
‘But, isn’t Henry in charge?’ asked Finn, while he dished out the casserole.
His innocence made Sophie smile. ‘Technically, he is, but only technically. Anyway, I’ve already rung my parents and Christopher will drive up to collect us on Friday aft—,’ her husband’s expression stopping her mid-flow, ‘Oh, Michael Finlay, don’t you dare give me those puppy-dog eyes.’
Obvious dismay flashed across his face, reflecting his dread of an eternally long weekend with the in-laws.
‘Can’t we spend the time here, just the two of us?’ he pleaded.
Sophie would not be swayed. ‘No, Mum’s promised me a trip to Greenhaugh’s Nursery, there are some plants I’m after before the weather gets too cold. We’ll have use of the car, so I can load up the boot.’
He looked sullen, more like a man facing the gallows than a weekend away. Stretching across the table, she caught hold of his hand. ‘Oh, come on Finn! It’ll be a break for both of us. No restrictions for forty-eight hours.’
He might complain but that scant freedom meant as much to him as it did for her. Forty-eight hours with the security guards locked outside the perimeter wall. Inside, at liberty to talk, laugh and argue. Nobody would be listening. That privilege was worth enduring her mother’s grievances. Forty-eight hours imagining a different life. Forty-eight hours remembering having had a life.
The ‘Bridge Tea Room’ was famous for being a peaceful temple to gossip. It was the place for the well-groomed society ladies of New Albany to share their secrets with occasional shrill laughter denoting tasty morsels of information. Gloved hands waved to passing acquaintances ensuring their presence was noted. A couple of young ladies opposite Sophie were deep in whispers, their wide brimmed hats touching in conspiratorial communion. They leant back in the chairs grinning at the information. Sophie thought they might be talking about her, but she couldn’t be sure. Like most of the women in that tearoom, their eyes were hidden by obligatory, expensive sunglasses. Women shaded from reality, just as Sophie might have been if she had accepted a different role in Albian life.
She looked down at her feet, and the bag sitting next to her leg. It was from one of the smartest shops in Area Zone Five. She only went in on her mother’s insistence. The pearl bead handles stood to attention and its blue velvet ribbon had been tied into a neat bow. An expensive carrier that was destined for the rubbish tip. She undid the ribbon and pulled out the parcel, touching the blue tissue, momentarily lost in thought.
‘Would you like some of my passion fruit gateau? It really is lovely, but the calories!’ said her mother.
Sophie nodded but didn’t stop looking at the tissue parcel. She unfolded the delicate paper. ‘Perhaps I should take it back.’ Her nose wrinkled with indecision as she examined the blouse more closely.
Michelle replaced the teacup on the saucer and bent forward, mimicking her daughter’s expression as she scrutinised the blouse. ‘It’s a lovely colour. Well, I think it suits you to a tee. That shade of green really brings out the colours in your eyes. Hold it up against your face.’
Sophie obliged her mother and unfurled the blouse. The fabric felt as soft as baby’s skin next to her cheek. She instantly lowered it again.
‘Oh yes,’ enthused Michelle, ‘definitely the right shade. No, that one’s a keeper.’
Sophie’s uncertainty sought a reason to return the blouse. ‘A bit dressy though, and far more than I’d ever spend. When on earth would I wear it? We never go out.’
Her mother fiddled with a button on her dress, turning a gaze away from her daughter. If only it were possible to turn back time, rephrase those few words? It had been a surprisingly pleasant shopping trip up to the point when Sophie reminded Michelle of her self-imposed privations. Simple statements that lead to rows and recriminations. Pricked with guilt, she attempted to stave off the descent into argument. ‘It is pretty though.’
‘Yes, and so are you,’ replied Michelle, returning her daughter’s smile.
Sophie sipped her tea, relieved to have saved the situation with such relative ease. Her relief was short lived.
‘A beautiful young woman who should have her pick of successful men. It’s not too late.’ Each of her mother’s words were beautifully enunciated with razor sharp intent. The ‘discussion’ had begun. Her mother was an expert in twisting any situation into finding fault with Sophie’s marriage.
‘Have we started already? We settle this nonsense each time we meet. I am with a successful man whom I love utterly and completely.’
‘He’s a schoolteacher, hardly successful, but I suppose you probably do love him by now. It’s not our place to interfere, we just want the best for you.’
Of course, she wanted to interfere. That was the whole point of the ridiculous discussions. Sophie’s inner resentment rose with her mother’s meddling.
‘I hear Admiral Carter’s son is looking for a wife. You know, he’s a professor and such a clever chap.’
Sophie seethed. ‘Oh, bloody hell, Mum, why don’t you just shut up!’
Michelle, startled by her daughter’s outburst, replaced her floral teacup on the saucer and put a finger to her daughter’s lips. ‘Don’t swear, Sophia.’
Sophie backed off, reaching for her tea, but Michelle hadn’t finished.
‘The law of the land is clear. Foreigners cannot teach our sons.’ She turned her cup on the saucer, then suddenly stopped, pushed it aside and leant across the table. ‘At least Daddy was able to help,’ she whispered.
‘You’ll never get it will you? Finn loved lecturing, but some nut-job in gov—’
‘Sophia! Stop it.’ Her mother looked about the room, concerned Sophie’s comments might be overheard. Her red lips were almost touching the flesh of her daughter. ‘I hear what you are saying, but we can’t, not here. That wasn’t my fault. You must see that, darling. It wasn’t our fault.’
Michelle shifted back into her chair, the volume control on her voice turned up to an acceptable comment level. ‘There were decisions taken by greater men to ensure the well-being of the country. It was a difficult period. We live in dangerous times.’
Sophie saw through her mother. Michelle, the Albian devotee, always suitably loyal to the lawmakers. Deference where deference was due. But that didn’t change anything. As far as Sophie was concerned the blame lay with her parents’ generation, and there would be no forgiveness or forgetting their role in her husband’s polite dismissal. Her mother was as guilty as all the rest of her peers. They gave tacit approval for the injustice. That crime was theirs to own, but the life sentence must be served by others.
Sophie tugged at her hat, her cheeks flushed with anger and her forehead itchy from the hat band.
‘Do you want me to help? It’s much easier to wear correctly with longer hair. You should let it grow.’
‘No, thank you, I can cope perfectly well, even with short hair,’ Sophie snapped back. Her hat straightened, she returned to her tea, studiously avoiding eye-contact with her mother. Sophie flipped over her phone to glance at the screen; it was early. Christopher was not due to collect them until later. Two more dragging hours to search her brain for uncontroversial subjects. She returned the phone to her handbag. It would be a quiet mother and daughter lunch.
To avoid the vacuous inanities of New Albany’s idle elite, Sophie stared out of the window. The late afternoon sun shone brightly but the temperature was dropping. Some passing shoppers had dispensed with their summer hats and were sporting the soft felt ones of winter warmth. Muted colours, almost sombre. Why did fashion dictate that the autumn should be so colourless, so bland? Sophie decided she would wear her scarlet hat and coat to church the following Sunday. And her scarlet gloves too, whatever the temperature.
About to pour herself another cup of tea, Sophie noticed her mother glaring at a young woman’s uncovered knees. ‘Do you want some more, Mum?’ she said, before her mother could make a snide comment.
Michelle rolled her eyes. ‘Thank you, darling. I’m parched. Oh, I have some news about Auntie Emma’s eldest.’
‘Why on earth do you insist on calling her “Auntie Emma”? She’s no relation to us.’
‘I’ve known Auntie Emma all my married life, she is my dearest friend.’
Sophie, her anger still simmering, asked, ‘As dear to you as Anna? Or have you forgotten the woman currently cooking in your house?’
Visibly hurt by Sophie’s comment, Michelle’s lips tightened into a pout before answering, ‘This is not the time and definitely not the place.’
Sophie apologised. Her mother was right. The diners might appear engrossed in trivia, but some ears were always attuned to comments that could harm the innocent. The last thing that Sophie wanted was for Anna to be endangered because of her goddaughter’s antipathy towards her own mother.
‘Emma’s eldest, Jack, is expecting his sixth son. Emma’s eighth grandchild, isn’t that fantastic?’ She paused to allow her daughter to acknowledge the change of subject. Sophie said nothing. ‘Well, once the baby’s born they are all going to be invited to AZ One for a medal ceremony. Six healthy boys. We’re thinking of taking a girls’ trip to the Capital to visit the shops. She wants it to be a special outfit. We’ll probably go next time Daddy’s out of the country. Stay in the flat, get tickets to a concert or two. Why don’t you come? It will give you an excuse to wear that blouse.’
Sophie had already lost interest in her mother’s wittering. Outside the tearoom window, an ancient mulberry tree spread its branches lazily across the green. Its yellowing leaves reflected the sun’s rays. A life span, centuries long, oblivious to the unknown faces in unknown places. Nature, unbending to the whims of fickle politicians and their arbitrary codes of conduct.
‘Sophia, are you listening to me?’
‘Sorry, what did you say?’
‘Honestly darling, away with the fairies again. Would you like to come with us to the Capital, shopping? My treat.’
‘No, Mum. I can’t keep taking time off. Henry will sack me, and we certainly can’t live on Finn’s salary.’
Michelle nodded her head in reluctant acceptance. ‘You know it was funny, Emma and I used to imagine you marrying their younger son, Adam, you remember Adam, don’t you?’
‘Of course, I remember Adam.’ It was Sophie’s turn to roll her eyes as she recalled that annoying child. A bully, just like his brother, he would chase her into the copse at the bottom perimeter of the garden and demand his prize. Her bile rose with the recollection of her long hair being yanked to the ground, then he’d sit astride her chest. His back to her, he would lift her skirt ‘to take a good look’. Later, she wore trousers whenever he was due to visit. He responded by teasing her, telling her to cut her hair short if she wanted to dress like a boy.
‘I would have rather gouged my eyes out with forks than marry that disgusting twerp.’
‘Sophia Elle, what a vile thing to say!’
Vile and true. Draining her tea-cup, she thanked her lucky stars that she had married Finn.