I Had a Miscarriage / Why it’s never okay to ask a woman when she’s having kids

I wasn’t sure when, or even if I would share this very personal story with the world. But last week I felt suddenly courageous and submitted it to the Instagram page @ihadamiscarriage. The response has been phenomenal, and since it was published I’ve felt more sure than ever that sharing it is the right thing to do. Because too many women suffer in silence. And I want to do my small bit to break the taboo around miscarriage.

My Story

We recently announced our happy news – we’re having a baby! This is my fourteenth week, and getting here has felt like the most interminably long journey. Every day I have worried (and do worry) that something is wrong, that this little miracle will be taken away from us. Not because I am an over anxious mother, but because it happened before.

Because in March this year we were also doing a happy dance, staring at the positive test and dreaming of all that lay ahead of us. But it wasn’t to be. At my nine week scan we heard the words no new parent wants to hear: “Your baby has no heartbeat.” As it turned out, s/he hadn’t grown for the previous two weeks, so I had technically been carrying a dead embryo inside me all that time.

I’d had flashes of knowing something was wrong. One night during a barbecue we were hosting, a feeling of cold dread swept over me. It was so bad and so unexpected that I took myself straight off to the bedroom without so much as a good night to our friends. I ran a bath, sat in it and cried, feeling the loss somewhere deep inside without really understanding what it was.

After we found out I cried and cried. That first day was hell, but with each day that passed I felt stronger. I took a week off work to get my head together, booked a D&C operation for the following Friday (because, despite my doctor’s less than reassuring comment that it would happen naturally “at some point”, I didn’t fancy travelling all the way from Brussels to Nashville the following week for my friend’s bachelorette party and wedding, and having it happen in the middle of a packed dance floor. That would have kind of killed the party vibe, you know?).

One day, before the op, I walked to the local park, picked a beautiful old tree straight out of a fairy tale and held a little ceremony in my mind to gift the baby’s spirit to the tree for safe keeping. That ceremony kept me sane, and to this day that tree brings me a deep sense of comfort.

The operation was less traumatic than I had feared. I went alone, because my husband had to work, and had my first general anaesthetic, which to be honest scared me more than the procedure itself. By that point I was just relieved to have it out of me, this tiny nearly-human that was never destined to join us. Afterwards I felt relief; I was myself again. Except you are never really quite the same again after something like that. Not completely.

And so I went to America, had a wonderful time, told almost no one what had happened. Returned to ‘normal’ life. And the days and weeks went by, and at some point we felt strong enough to try again. And for the second time we were blessed to not have to wait too long, something for which I am truly grateful, because I know too many people who have struggled, who are struggling, for myriad reasons.

Which brings me to the point of this post.

When I told my colleagues the news of our second miracle, one said: “That’s weird, we thought you were pregnant a few months ago.” I stood there, silently screaming I was I was I was. “Really? No, I wasn’t.” I hated to deny it, but where could I begin?

Another colleague has been asking the childless women in the office why they don’t have kids yet, challenging us on how we can put our careers before our families, why we would want to.

No matter how well meaning the question, it is never okay to ask a woman why she doesn’t have kids. Behind the smiles and politely brushed off comments, for those who are struggling it hurts like hell. You never know what a woman has gone through, or is going through in order to have children. And unless you are that woman, or her partner, it’s frankly none of your damn business.

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Image credit: Kimothy Joy / #ihadamiscarriage

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Parting Gift

The following post was written in response to the Creative Ink Writing Prompt on 15 Dec:

The present sat, unopened, for weeks. As if preserving its integrity would bring him back, somehow make it all un-happen. But it wouldn’t, obviously, she knew that.  They all did. But nonetheless they had formed a tacit agreement that the gift would not be touched, nor moved from its place on the living room floor, despite the tree and all its fallen needles having long since been cleared out.

And so they carried on with life, or at least some semblance of it; Matt going to school, Abi to her part time job to make some cash for uni. Philippa painted on her face and cooked them dinner each night. But she spent her days wandering the heath with Barney the dog; bare faced and aimless. She kept it together for the children, thanks to the prescription drugs she had tearfully begged her doctor for. They blurred the edges, made the pain a little less acute. But when they started to wear off reality crept back in, and she was faced once more with the abject terror of being alone, in an empty bed. And an empty life.

He had been a healthy man. An active man. And yet. Cancer could be so indiscriminate. Sometimes no amount of spinach smoothies and early morning workouts could stave it off. When it’s your time, it’s your time. That’s what he’d always said. What a tragedy that his time had come so soon. Just past the post of fifty, the milestone Philippa had dreaded for years. But not him. He was ever the optimist. And now he, and all his optimism, had gone.

Today the children were both out; Philippa couldn’t remember where although she knew they would have told her. She made a cup of coffee, her brain on autopilot, and carried it through to the living room. As much as she wanted to avoid looking at the present, her eyes were drawn to it like magnets. He had known, when he bought it, that the time he had left was short. She knew he had made peace with that in a way she couldn’t imagine herself ever doing. After twenty years of marriage, losing him was like losing the use of her limbs. They had so much still to do, so much still to see. How could she do any of it without him?

Their big plan, once both kids had left home, was to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. They had talked about it often, sat at the kitchen table late into the night, drinking Malbec and plotting out the route they would take. Philippa couldn’t imagine herself climbing a mountain, but with him by her side she knew she could do it. With him by her side she could do anything.

She was on the floor now, kneeling with the present on her lap. Hot tears rolled down her cheeks, splashed onto the Christmas wrapping paper. Whatever was inside would, she knew, break her heart. But it was time. For the kids’ sake she had to move past this. It was part of the process. So she steeled herself and started to peel back the layers. Inside was a head torch, a pair of hiking socks and the Dr Seuss book they had read to the kids when they were little. He had marked one of the pages with a yellow sticky note. Philippa opened it on that page and laughed aloud when she read the rhyme:

You’re off to great places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So get on your way!

As sad as she felt, the pain that had held her in its thrall since his parting loosened its grip just a little. She took a deep breath and exhaled. With his parting gift, he had set her free.

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Chasing Sunset

I wrote this for the Creative Ink Writing Prompt, but also for a special friend, my twin soul, who is forever chasing summer, and who turns 30 tomorrow. Happy Birthday, Twin xx

She had always loved sunset; the romanticism of one day coming to a close, with the promise of another soon to follow. Flying at sunset was the best, that feeling of cheating time. But it was all too fleeting. You could never cheat time, not really. And that was why she had to leave.

Liv’s phone vibrated in her pocket. She slipped her hand inside and pressed down on the power button until she was sure she had killed it. She couldn’t risk the onset of unwanted emotion. The only way out of this was cold stoicism. And when she got there, well, then she could deal with things once and for all. It would be over.

She didn’t know how long she had been asleep, but the red-rimmed sky had finally succumbed to the blackness of night. Liv rolled her neck from side to side, wincing as she cricked it back into place. The cabin was dark, save for occasional spotlights beaming down onto insomniac passengers like alien spacecraft.

Something brushed her hand, making her jump. It was the little girl sitting across the aisle. By Liv’s estimation she was four, maybe five. Tight black curls and fresh pink lips. Cherubic. Liv looked across at the girl’s mother. She too was beautiful, or at least she would have been were it not for the trail of dribble descending from her open mouth.

“Hi,” the girl whispered.

“Hi,” Liv whispered back, ignoring the tightness in her chest. Her heart.

“I’m Becky. What’s your name?”

“Liv.”

The girl regarded her with such a look of scrutiny that Liv felt unnerved. Of course she didn’t know her secret, she couldn’t know it. And yet.

“Can we be friends?”

Liv smiled. “Of course.”

Becky’s face shone from the inside out. Her lips parted to reveal a gap-toothed smile. Liv wondered if she was perhaps older than her original estimation. She watched as the girl reached into the pocket of her pinafore dress, screwing her face up in concentration as she tried to retrieve something. Eventually she pulled her hand out with a flourish, extended her arm and unfolded her fingers. In the centre of her palm was a turquoise stone. “Take it,” she said.

Liv picked up the stone and ran her finger along its surface. It was smooth and round, and though it was dark she could make out flecks of glitter in its swirling pattern. “It’s beautiful,” she said.

“It’s yours,” the girl replied.

“Oh no, I couldn’t possibly…” She offered the stone back to the girl, but she shook her head and refused to take it.

The girl’s mother stirred beside her, opened her eyes and looked down at her daughter. She followed her gaze to Liv, and when her eyes alighted on the stone in Liv’s hand her breath caught in her throat. “Becky, darling,” she said, her voice measured but tense. “Why did you give this lady your stone? Don’t you want it?”

The little girl looked up at her mother and shook her head. Her mother smiled as if this meant something momentous, but Liv had no idea what. “Thank you,” she said to the girl. “I will treasure it forever. Truly.” The girl’s mother smiled, and Liv noticed she had tears in her eyes. She blinked and looked away. Nothing more was said.

When they had touched down and were waiting to disembark the plane, Liv found the courage to turn on her phone. It buzzed immediately. She had known it would. Before she looked at the message she went through the motions of passport control and baggage reclaim. As she stood at belt six, there was a tap on her arm. It was the girl’s mother. The little girl was playing with a doll several feet away, lost in her fantasy. “I wanted to explain what happened on the plane,” the woman said. “It must have seemed strange.” Before Liv could reply, the woman spoke again. “You see, Becky lost her twin a year ago. In a car accident.”

Liv felt her lungs deflate. “I’m so sorry. How terrible for you both.”

Despite her brightly coloured and expertly applied makeup, the woman’s grief was obvious. But Liv sensed something else behind the sadness, maybe a spark of hope? “It’s been the hardest year of my life,” she said. “And for Becky, well, it’s hard to imagine how deeply this has affected her. She’s only five, and the two of them were thick as thieves.” She looked over at her daughter. “The thing is, that stone she gave you on the flight. It belonged to her sister.”

Liv pulled the stone out of her pocket. “Please, take it back. I would never have taken it if I’d known.”

The woman smiled. “But that’s the thing. She wanted you to have it. For a year she’s carried it around with her everywhere, desperate not to let it out of her sight. Her therapist said it was part of the grieving process, that she would let go of it when she had turned a corner. And now, well, now it seems she has. I just wanted you to know. Whatever you said or did on that plane, thank you.”

The woman called her daughter and they turned to leave. As they walked away Liv heard the woman ask why she had given the stone to the lady on the plane. The girl replied: “She needs it more than me Mummy. Turquoise is for strength, she has to be strong for her daughter.”

The arrivals hall began to spin. Liv steadied herself on her trolley. She put a hand to her tummy and stroked it. How had the girl known? She couldn’t have known. Remembering the message on her phone, Liv took it out and read it. It was from Mark, of course. Just seeing his name on the screen choked her up.

Seven words.

The best she had ever seen:

I KNOW. I LOVE YOU. COME HOME. X

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Today

Today, I will celebrate life instead of being afraid of its fragility.

I will take time out to breathe deeply, to feel the blood flowing through my veins.

I will give thanks for all my blessings, which are many.

I will pray for those who are suffering, and mourning loved ones.

I will not take things too seriously, or let them overwhelm me.

I will realise that, in the end, the only thing that matters, will ever matter and has ever mattered is love.

And while there is breath in my body I will honour the commitment that I make today: to be a good person, keep an open heart and enquiring mind, and help others whenever and wherever I can.

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In Memoriam

Yesterday I was deeply saddened to learn of the tragic deaths of four children at the Mants’ase Children’s Home in Lesotho, which a friend is involved with. Whilst the loss of a child is always devastating, what makes this story especially heart breaking – besides the fact there were four of them – is that they died trying to rescue a duck from a dam, which they believed to be ill and in need of help. The children were aged between eight and twelve, and a six year old who was with them when the tragedy occurred did not comprehend the seriousness of the situation and did not report it immediately for fear of being told off.

Incidents such as this are a huge test of faith for those of us who have it. If there is a God, it is difficult to understand how He could let four innocent children die in the pursuit of saving another living being. But if there is anything we can learn from such incomprehensible tragedy let it be this: the importance of compassion, of loving for our fellow humans (and non-humans), not just in word but also in deed, and of living every moment as if it was to be our last.

God bless you and keep you Nthabeleng Kibe, Mpho Mafa, Tebello Machona and Reitumetse Mohale. Sleep tight little ones. x

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Should anyone feel moved to make a donation to the children’s home to show support at this difficult time you can do so here. Thank you.

Remembering a Friend

A year ago today someone very special was taken from this world in the worst possible way, leaving a deep chasm of grief in his wake. For his family, his girlfriend and his friends life would never be the same again; there would forever be a Paul-shaped void. Of course life does, inevitably, move on – it has to, for despite its power even grief can’t stop the world from spinning on its axis – but time, though a healer of sorts, can never erase the pain of such a shocking and untimely loss.

I only knew Paul for a short time, but he made a big impact on me, as I know he did on all the many others that he met along the rollercoaster ride that was his life. Yesterday I was so happy to be reunited with his girlfriend Sarah, for whom the past year has been difficult beyond words, but who has shown such admirable strength of spirit in the midst of her grief. Nothing will ever make up for the loss of Paul, but one thing is certain: He may be gone, but his exuberance, charm and joie de vivre will never be forgotten.

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NaNoWriMo: Grief, Exposed – Chapter Two

As it’s almost half past eleven and I’m a mere six hundred words from completing this year’s NaNo novel, I hope you’ll forgive me for not writing a blog post today and, instead, uploading the second chapter of the novel I’m currently trying so damn hard to complete (please do, however, bear in mind this is very much a FIRST draft, hence the fact it’s doubtless littered with typos, repetition and grammatical errors…):

The night had been long. Scarlett had never been so glad to see a sunrise, nor been so desperate to get on a train home to Cornwall. It was a four hour journey to Bodmin Parkway, from where Phil would pick them up – Jake having flatly refused to let Scarlett travel alone after hearing the news. Whilst she was grateful for his support, Scarlett couldn’t help but feel stifled. Would she ever be allowed to stand on her own two feet, or had her childhood illness left an indelible scar on her life that would never be given the chance to fully heal? “Hey, Scar, it’ll be okay you know.” Jake was sitting opposite her, the morning sunlight shining directly onto his face, highlighting the faint pock-marks on his skin from teenage acne and the bags under his eyes from lack of sleep. Most of the time he looked young for his twenty three years, but today he looked much older. Scarlett didn’t dare think what she must look like. She hadn’t washed her hair in three days and was still wearing yesterday’s clothes and makeup. After her mum’s call the only thing she could do was rock gently back and forth for hours, tears streaming down her face as she chanted her sister’s name over and over again. “Ruby, Ruby, Ruby…” Jake could only hold her as she rocked, his comfort failing to hit its mark, until they both fell asleep around four am. Their train left at nine. “How exactly will it be okay, Jake?” Scarlett asked in a tone that was both harsh and unkind. “They said they’d found a body, but that doesn’t mean it’s definitely her. Travellers die abroad all the time. It could be someone else, completely unrelated. Ruby’s probably fine…” His voice trailed off and he swallowed, his adam’s apple dropping down into his throat like a stop cock. “It’s a bit of a coincidence that she’s missing and they’ve found a body though, don’t you think?” Scarlett looked down at her hands in her lap. Musician’s fingers, her mum had always called them, whereas Ruby’s had been shorter and stubbier. Had been. Scarlett’s stomach clenched. Why was she already thinking of her sister in the past tense? Surely Jake was right and there was still hope? There had to be, because the alternative was too much to bear.

They said little else to one another for the remainder of the journey, Jake busying himself in his latest book – a Lord of the Rings-style epic about gremlins and ghouls in far off places – and Scarlett staring out of the window and watching the landscape rush by, thinking as she always did on train journeys that it was like looking at a single giant impressionist painting of the world. When the train pulled into Bodmin Parkway they disembarked and stood on the platform in the grey drizzle, searching the sea of faces for someone familiar. When her eyes alighted on Phil instead of her mum, Scarlett felt a jolt of disappointment. “Hey Scar,” he said, his lanky frame stooping so he could plant a kiss on her cheek. “Alright Jake?” It felt so normal, this greeting with her step dad, like the ones they’d had a hundred times before. But they all knew this was as far from normal as could be. The question was, which one of them would acknowledge it first? “Right then,” said Phil, taking Scarlett’s knapsack and swinging it roughly onto his shoulder. He had always looked older than his years, the early part of his life having involved heavy drug use and homelessness, but today he looked as if he’d added another decade to his actual age of forty seven. His face was unshaven and his greying eyebrows bushier than ever. The skull tattoo on his neck looked as if it had faded in the sun and his ears hung down like spaniels’ – the result of years of ear-stretching jewellery. Looks-wise, Scarlett had never known what her mother had seen in her step father, but he had a kind heart, and she suspected there weren’t many men who would take on a woman’s three young children, especially when one of them was recovering from a life-threatening illness. Phil might be odd-looking but he had been there for them – for her – and for that Scarlett would always be grateful.

They drove in a silence that was punctuated only by the occasional question from Jake in the back seat, enquiring after this neighbour or that, trying in vain to make normal conversation. When, at last, they were on the winding road leading down into Port Isaac Scarlett felt relief flood through her body. She was home. They drove through the narrow lanes until they reached the Church House at the top of the hill leading down towards the beach. There, they parked the car and walked down to the Piskie Shop that Scarlett’s mum, Jane, had run since they’d arrived in Port Isaac when Scarlett was seven, Ruby two and their brother Toby eleven. The outside of the shop had been painted since Scarlett had left and the delicate spines of its bay windows were now gleaming and white. When she pushed the door the familiar tinkle of the bell alerted her mother to their presence. She had been sitting on a high stool behind the counter, fiddling with one of the tiny pixie statues from the main display, but when she saw them she stood and ran towards them with her arms outstretched. Scarlett fell into her mother’s arms and the two embraced for what seemed like an eternity but must, in fact, have been only a minute or two. Phil and Jake stood either side, the tower of strength to the women’s fragile house of cards. When at last they pulled apart their faces were streaked with tears. Jane, too, seemed to have aged considerably since her daughter had last seen her. She seemed so small to Scarlett, dwarfed by her giant knitted cardigan, tracksuit bottoms and Ugg boots. She looked, to Scarlett, like a tiny, multi-coloured bird. Her grey-streaked dark hair was pulled back into a rough bun that revealed the flap of loose skin around her jawline. The skin itself looked dry, her lips cracked and pale. And the dark circles beneath her eyes betrayed her lack of sleep. “Darling,” she said, finding her voice. “I’m so glad you’re here. Shall we go back to the house?”

They shut the Piskie shop and walked down to the bakery where old Mary was putting the freshly baked pies and Cornish pasties in the window display for the passing lunch trade – not that there was much of that, it being November, and a particularly fresh one at that. “Well I never,” said Mary as they walked in. “If it isn’t the prodigal daughter.” Scarlett blanched at the description, as did her mother, but they kept the smiles fixed on their faces with remarkable skill. “Afternoon Mary,” said Jane, “we’re just after some pasties for lunch.” Mary shuffled back behind the counter, her stoop more pronounced than ever, and pulled out some paper bags for the pasties. “How many are you after dear?” she said. “Is the whole brood back for the weekend?” At this Jane made a guttural noise, turned on her heel and ran out of the shop, slamming the door behind her with a bang. “Something I said?” Mary’s cataract-clouded eyes were awash with confusion. “No, not at all,” said Phil, “Jane’s just…had some bad news, that’s all. We’ll take seven pasties please. Meat ones.” Mary began filling up the bags. “Nothing serious, I hope – the news?” Phil smiled and handed over the money. “No, it’s nothing serious.”

Jane and Phil walked back up to the car, leaving Scarlett and Jake – on Scarlett’s request – to walk to the White House. The ten minute journey took them right down to the pebbly beach and up again to the other side of the bay. It was a steep climb but one that both Scarlett and Jake were used to doing. The White House sat on the crest of the hill, tall and proud like a sentry watching over its charges. Scarlett had loved it from the moment she’d laid eyes on it, even though back then its paint was peeling and its walls all damp with mould. She remembered Jane pulling up their battered old Volvo estate outside and the whole family – Jane, Scarlett, Ruby, Toby and their old dog, Clive – tumbling out of it, like a scene from the Waltons. The estate agent seemed dumbfounded by their love of the house but Jane, who had always had the gift of farsightedness, was delighted with it. With three young children and a divorce in the process of being finalised she was desperate to provide her family with a proper home. And, mouldy walls or not, this would be it. Her offer was accepted the very next day, and the five of them had been installed six weeks later, just in time for Christmas, which had always been Scarlett’s favourite time of year. Now the very thought of it filled her with dread. It was less than two months away. What if Ruby…No, she couldn’t think about that, not yet. She needed to get all the facts before she would allow herself to grieve.

Phil and Jane had passed them on the road, and when they arrived were carrying boxes of new stock for the shop into the house. As Scarlett and Jake pushed open the white painted gate into what Scarlett had always affectionately called the Sliding Garden – so named because of the sharp angle with which it sloped down towards the beach some hundred feet or so beneath – there was a clatter and a loud bark, followed by a blur of brown fur running straight at them. “Barney!” Scarlett crouched down to greet the family dog, an eight year old red setter that they’d had ever since Clive passed away when Scarlett was fifteen. Barney jumped and put his muddy paws onto her skirt. She laughed and pushed him gently back down, ruffling the soft fuzz of hair on the top of his head as he drooled happily onto the grass. She stood up and followed the hop scotch of paving slabs that led around the side of the house to the front door, stopping along the way to take in the view of the bay beneath. For now, the tide had been sucked out of it, leaving a string of pebbles and seaweed in its wake, like the aftermath of a party once the guests had all departed. Before long though, she knew, the sea would be back, crashing onto rocks and surging into caves, covering all in its way.

“I got your favourite cake,” said Jane in a faux-cheerful voice as they pushed open the stable-like front door and put their bags down in the hall. Scarlett walked into the kitchen and attempted a feeble smile at the spread her mother had put out on the table – the best china tea set, a Battenburg cake and some scones with jam and what she assumed was freshly whipped cream. “I just wanted it to be nice,” Jane continued. “Although now I look at it everything just feels so…wrong…” Her voice broke and her tiny frame began to quake with sobs. Scarlett crossed the kitchen with a sweep of her long, and now also very muddy, skirt, and wrapped her arms around her mother. When the sobs had subsided she led Jane to the table and gestured for Jake to boil the kettle. “Come on Mum,” she said, “let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We don’t know all the facts yet.” Jane sniffed and pulled a tissue from the pocket of her cardigan. She pressed it to her nose and blew hard. “Is Toby coming?” Phil entered the kitchen, stooping to avoid hitting his head on the wooden beam above the door. “Yes, and Mia and Sam too.” Mia was Toby’s girlfriend, Sam her four year old son. Whilst Scarlett had nothing against either Mia or Sam, she had never felt entirely at ease around them. But then if she was entirely honest with herself, Scarlett never felt entirely at ease around her own brother. Growing up they had never been close and, rather than bringing them together, after her illness Scarlett felt the distance between them even more keenly. Toby had moved away as soon as he could, passing his A Levels with flying colours and securing a place at Warwick university to study law. It was little surprise to the family when passed his degree with first class honours and was made a partner at a law firm in Southampton. What was more surprising was the fact he gave the partnership up soon after meeting Mia on a night out with his lawyer friends, and promptly moved to Brighton to take up a more menial position in a local firm so he could set up home with Mia and her little boy. Jane, who was astounded enough that two of her three children looked set to excel in their careers (Scarlett being forgiven, as she always was, because of her illness), was more astounded still that her only son had fallen in love not only with a woman ten years his senior, but also with the woman’s son (Toby never hitherto having shown the slightest inclination towards women of any age, and certainly not towards children).

The sound of a car outside, followed by the squeal of a child’s laughter and the sound of shoes crunching on gravel alerted them to Toby’s arrival. Barney came bounding through the door into the kitchen with Sam in hot pursuit. “Doggy, doggy,” chanted Sam, chasing Barney around the table until he rolled onto his back and demanded to have his tummy stroked. There was no denying Sam was a beautiful child, as angelic as they came with his unruly mop of blond curly hair and eyes so deep and blue they were like rock pools. His cheeks bore perfect spots of pink, the rest of his skin being almost translucent in colour, as if he had never been exposed to the sun. This, Scarlett thought, was odd, since his mother’s colouring was of an entirely different hue. As if on cue Mia stalked into the kitchen. Dressed in skinny jeans, a mohair jumper and thigh high leather boots, she would have looked more comfortable on Bond Street than in a tumbledown cottage in deepest, darkest Cornwall. Her hair was, as always, coiffured to a standard of perfection that Hollywood film stars would admire. She pulled first Jane and then Phil into exuberant embraces, then stopped and looked across the kitchen at Scarlett. “Scarlett,” she said, “how are you?” Scarlett smiled a tight-lipped smile. “Fine, thank you.” The two women regarded one another, not with rudeness, exactly, but a kind of swarthy respect. Scarlett knew that Mia had once coveted a singing career, but that health issues had scuppered it before it had taken off. The fact that she was treading that same path seemed to make Mia more reverent towards her than she might otherwise have been, or at least that’s how it felt to Scarlett who, on her part, was merely bemused as to why a woman of Mia’s evident beauty and talent had ended up in a two bedroom house in Brighton living with her brother.

Toby brought up the rear of his family group, stepping into the house and bolting the door behind him. Ever since he was a child he had always had a commanding presence. People used to comment on his serious expression, as if he knew something that others didn’t; that a war was about to break out, perhaps, or possibly a plague. It was rare that anyone could make him laugh, a trait that had failed to develop even in later life. Scarlett knew Jane blamed herself for this inherent lack of joy in her son. He had been nine when she had separated from their father, the only one of her three children really old enough to understand what was going on. And, if his subsequent personality development was anything to go by, Toby was also the only one to have been seriously affected by it. Now he walked into the kitchen and shrugged off his heavy lawyer’s overcoat, taking a seat at the table and helping himself to a slice of the Battenburg cake that sat limply on its plate before even acknowledging his mother or his sister. “Mum, Scarlett,” he said as he chewed his first bite of cake. “Phil,” he added almost as an afterthought, turning the cake over in his mouth, observing the reactions of his family around the table. He sat back in his seat, swallowed hard and cracked his knuckles. “So,” he said, “what exactly is going on?”

“Take a seat, everyone,” said Jane, finding her voice and shepherding everyone towards the table. She looked at Mia. “Perhaps Sam would like to take some cake and watch a DVD in the living room?” Mia nodded and Jane cut him a slice of Battenburg and took him next door to settle him in front of the television. When she came back the rest of the family had assembled around the table as instructed, leaving the seat at the head of the table for her, the matriarch. She sat down and pulled her cardigan around her. Phil reached across the table for her hand and nodded. “Right,” she began, “first of all thank you so much for coming. I wasn’t sure what to do when I first heard the news, but now that you’re all here I know this was the right decision.” They all stared at her, waiting. “This all started with a phone call the day before yesterday. It was from a staff member at a beach resort in Goa. A budget place, you know, for travellers. They said that Ruby had been staying with them for a week or so, but that she hadn’t been seen in two days – either entering or leaving the premises.” Her voice began to break again so Phil stepped in. “The man said Ruby hadn’t used her room in two nights or more. They knew because all guests are asked to leave their keys at reception when they leave the premises. Until Wednesday morning Ruby had been doing that, but then she stopped, just like that.” Phil broke off and fixed his gaze on the Battenburg. “And then yesterday they found a body.” Mia gasped. “A body?” Scarlett looked first to her mother and then to Toby. Neither raised their head. “Wait,” said Scarlett, “you didn’t know they’d found a body?” Toby shot a warning look at her across the table. “I wanted to protect her,” he said. “Until we knew for sure.” Scarlett frowned. “But we don’t know for sure, do we? I thought we didn’t know for sure that it was Ruby?” Jane dabbed at her eyes with another tissue from her never ending cardigan supply. “Darling,” she said with a sniff, “they think it’s her. She fits the description and…She was wearing her clothes.” Scarlett wrinkled her nose. “So? She might have lent them to someone. That’s what travellers do. Just because she was wearing her clothes doesn’t mean it’s Ruby. For Christ’s sake, there must be more evidence than that?” Phil shook his head. “That’s all we know for now, Scar, but we’re working on finding the money for one of us to go out there, you know, to identify the body and…bring her home.” Tears sprang into Scarlett’s eyes as if from nowhere, and she felt a surge of emotion so sudden and powerful it might just as well have been a tidal wave. “I want to go,” she said quietly. “Darling,” said Jane, “I don’t think that’s a good idea…” Phil looked first at his wife and then at Scarlett. “Scar,” he said, “I know this is hard for you, it’s hard for everyone. And that’s precisely why we” – at this he looked to Toby and back – “are trying to protect you all.” “We’re going,” Toby said, “me and Phil.” Scarlett looked to her mother for support, but Jane averted her gaze and stared silently out of the kitchen window at the sea beyond. “And that’s the end of it Scar, okay? We leave tomorrow.” Scarlett, who had never once stood up to her brother, nor indeed to any member of her family, before, rose to her feet and pushed back her chair. “No Toby,” she said. “That’s not okay. I’m coming too.”