Excerpt

Part of the Family

Charlotte Philby

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Part of the Family, by Charlotte Philby. Anna Witherall has a dream job, a wonderful husband, and two lovely twin daughters, who are cared for by a Nanny named Maria, who is almost part of the family. But she has a secret. And so does Anna.

There is no going back now. The taxi glides away from the house, down the street towards South End Green, retreating effortlessly from my family home, away from the expensive brickwork and tended gardens I will never see again.

The sound of the indicator clicks out a steady rhythm. My body quietly shaking, I turn my head so that my driver will not look at   me and see what I have done, I watch my life streak past through  the window, the bumping motion of the car, the low hum of conver- sation from the radio.

The girls hadn’t lifted an eye as the horn beeped from the road. Why should they? To them, today is just another day. How long will it be until they learn the truth? How long until the illusion of our lives together comes crashing down, destroying everything I have created, everything that I hold dear?

‘Why couldn’t he get out and ring the bloody doorbell?’ These were David’s parting words.

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I have called a different cab service from my usual. My face is automatically drawn to the locks on the car door as the motor flicks silently to life, the wheels rolling between the parade of five-storey terrace houses, into the unknown.

Moving through South End Green, I am bemused by the familiar bustle of London life – the sound of discarded cans rattling against the gutter, the boys in bloomers and long socks stuffed into the back of shiny 4x4s, an old woman with an empty buggy pushing uphill against the wind – the world still rolling on as if nothing has changed. The traffic is heavy. When the car turns off, unexpectedly, at

Finchley Road, my hand grips the door handle. ‘Short cut.’

The voice in the front seat senses my fear but it does little to allay my nerves.

As the car turns, my eyes are distracted by the sudden movements of the trees, the light sweeping over the rear-view mirror. When it levels out again, I see the driver’s eyes trained on mine for a fraction of a second, in the reflection, the rest of his face obscured.

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It is an effort to keep my legs steady as I step out of the car at the airport, every stride pressing against the desire to break into a run.

The terminal is a wash of blurred faces and television screens. Slumped bodies, caps tilted over eyes, neon signs, metal archways. My body endlessly moves against the tide, my eyes flicking left and right beneath my sunglasses. There is a sudden pressure on my shoulder and I spin around but it is just a rucksack, protruding from a stranger’s back.

There is something satisfying about flying, I find: the routine of  it, the rhythm; answering questions, nodding in the right place, yes, shaking your head, no. I am grateful for it now – for the process, a welcome distraction from what will come.

Nevertheless, my mind won’t settle. All I can do is run through  the plan once more. There will be hours of waiting at the airport before my flight to Skiathos. My time there will be brief, a night at the most, and from there I will travel on using the ticket I will buy  in person at the airport, a day later, in my new name – the one emblazoned in the pages of the passport Harry had couriered to the office days earlier.

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By the time I reach security, the urge to get to the other side is almost as strong as the desire to stay.

The queues this morning are sprawling. Breathing in through the nose, out through the mouth, as the doctors taught me, I remain composed, even when confronted by an abnormally cheerful security officer.

‘Going somewhere nice?’

For a moment, my mind flips back to this morning. From this vantage point, I watch what happens as if I am a witness – soldered to the sidelines, my tongue cut out. Unable to intervene, I watch myself leaning forward to kiss my daughters on their foreheads, lingering a second longer than usual. Neither had moved, barely raising their eyes from the iPad, which David had propped up against a box of cereal, a cartoon dog tap-dancing on the screen.

I watch the corners of their mouths twitch in unison, their spoons suspended in front of their faces, engrossed in their own private world. Behind them, the glass doors leading out to the garden that     I would never see again.

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‘I love you.’ Had I said it aloud? I had tried to catch my daugh- ters’ eyes for a final time, my fingers curled tightly around the edge of the breakfast table. But they were lost in their own arguments by then, oblivious to what was happening before them.

Startled, I blink, lifting my eyes once again so that I am now focusing on her face.

‘Sorry, I . . .’ Breathing in, I remind myself to stay calm. There is no reason for her to question any of this.

‘Thessaloniki. It’s for work, I’m a writer. There’s an art fair, I’m interviewing one of the curators.’ It is an unnecessary detail and for  a moment I curse myself, but the security officer has moved on, no longer interested.

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It is a balance; truth versus lie. The tiny details are the ones that guide me through. Things can be processed in small parts, after all. But too much truth and the whole thing comes unstuck.

It is true that the magazine is intending to cover the Thessaloniki event, and I am lined up to write the piece. That way, if on the unlikely off-chance David had ever bumped into one of my colleagues and mentioned it, I would be covered. What David does not know   is that the show is not due to start for another three days, and by then, I will be long gone.

Once I am on the other side, I quickly check for my original pass- port, which I will dispose of once I reach Greece. I head to WHSmith to buy a paper. I can’t concentrate but I need something that will help me blend in, distract my eyes.

Scanning the neatly compartmentalised shelves, my attention is drawn to the luxury interiors title of which I am editor. Was.

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I remember how the office building seemed to swell up from the pavement, the first time I saw it. Entering the revolving doors off Goswell Road, turning left as instructed, the palm of my hand nervously pressing at the sides of my coat. Acutely aware of how young and unsophisticated I must have seemed, I had forced my spine to straighten, my consonants to harden.

The office, a wash of soft grey carpet and low-hanging pendant lights, a wall of magazine covers, was a picture of good taste, framed on either side by views of the city.

At first I had felt like an intruder, following the immaculately presented editorial assistant through the warren of desks scattered with leather notepads and colour-coded books. But then there was    a wave of pride, too, that I might finally feel part of something.

It had been a struggle not to fall apart when Meg told me, with     a blush of shame, that she had been offered the chance to stay on     at the paper, while I was thanked for my time and moved along.    We  had been having drinks with David at the pub near her flat   when she announced it, before brushing it off as if it were no big deal.

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I managed to hold it together just long enough to hug her before slipping away to the bathroom and weeping hot, angry tears into my sleeve. It would have been impossible for the two of them not to notice the red stains around my eyes when I emerged five minutes later, claiming to have had an allergic reaction to my make-up.

By the time I reached the Tube platform, later that evening, I was numb, unable to feel the tears dropping from my eyes. Would Meg have asked me to move in if she had not been feeling guilty about the job? I would question it later, just as I would question everything else. Back then, though, I was in no doubt – she was as committed  to me as I was to her.

When David rang the day after Meg’s announcement about her new job on the news desk, I ignored his call before turning my phone     to silent. It was a Saturday and the only noise from the street outside my parents’ house came from the neighbours herding their children, laughing, into the back of a black hearse-like car. Aside from the occasional movement on the stairs, inside the house stung with silence.

When he rang again, an hour or so later, his name flashing on the screen like a hand reaching in from another world, I pressed decline, too bereft to speak, and just like that he was gone. I was halfway to the bakery, to ask for my old job back, when I heard a ping alerting me to a new message.

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Pulling out the phone, annoyed that he wouldn’t leave me alone with my misery, I read his words and stopped in my tracks.

‘She’s an old family friend.’ His voice rose above the swish of traffic when I called back a few minutes later, moving slowly along the grey paving slabs of Guildford town centre. ‘I hadn’t  seen her   in years but she is married to one of the bosses at my firm and we bumped into one another. I told her you had done a degree  in English and about your internship at the paper, and . .  . She wants  to meet you.’

David’s voice was soft, listening intently at the end of the phone for my reply.

The interview had been arranged for the following week. Clarissa, I discovered, was exactly the kind of woman one would imagine to run a high-end magazine, exuding money and confidence and an overpowering smell of petunia. But she was kind, too, and generous. ‘Any friend of David’s . . .’ she had beamed, radiating warmth.

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The memory of her words sends a pang of sadness through me. Picking up a magazine at random, I use the self-service checkout before making my way to the boarding gate.

I find my seat in Business Class, store my neat black suitcase overhead, and wait for the comforting purr of the engine. As the rest of the passengers fiddle with their seats, I draw out the phone from my bag and compose a message to Harry.

On my way. 

‘Cabin crew, prepare for take-off.’

I raise my drink to my lips, the clatter of the ice vibrating against my glass. Gratefully, I absorb the captain’s words, their familiarity grounding me in my seat, creating a rhythm against which my breath rises and falls, in desperate chunks.

They are the same words I have heard on countless flights with David and the girls over the years. Maldives. Bali. The South of France. Of all the places we have been together, it is Provence that I think of now. Maria steadily marching the girls up and down the plane, her monotonous hush-hush enveloping me in a blanket of calm.

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I close my eyes but the memory follows me. The girls’ faces trailing the cloudless sky through the car window during the drive from the airport to yet another of David’s father’s houses. This one is cushioned by lavender fields, the smell clinging to the air. The gravel crunched underfoot as we made our way from the cool air of the Mercedes towards the chateau, through a web of heat. My father-in-law was waiting under the arch of the doorway.

I watched him, my skin prickling as he swaggered out to meet us, the underarms of his crisp white shirt drenched in sweat. ‘My dear Anna!’

‘Clive.’ Had his name stumbled on my lips?

The panama tipped forward on his head, jarring against my cheek as he leaned in to kiss me.

‘Two times, darling, we like to play native around here . . .’ His voice was booming. ‘And where are my girls? Oh, let me have a good look at them.’

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Clive blew an ostentatious kiss to Maria, and I worked hard to repress my jealousy at the thread that ran between them, the years their families had been connected in a way that would somehow always trump what David and I had. Maria, carrying one of my girls in the car seat, moving so comfortably alongside my husband, our other daughter asleep in his arms.

Clive took his son by the wrist, and as if reading my need for inclusion, said, ‘Well, I’m glad to see they still have their mother’s looks . . .’

Steadily, I let myself picture my daughters. Stella, all cheekbones and arch features, strident from the inside out. Her fall to earth padded by the arrival of her sister, a minute earlier.

Stella would be fine. Stella was always fine, always the one to take the best from a situation, and make it hers. But Rose. My eyes prickled.

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There was something about Rose that demanded you take care of her, from that first day at the hospital. Even when it was Stella who had needed me. Even though it was Stella who had been the one to give everyone the fright, it was Rose whose cries, when they came, small and unsure, unnerved me. Everything about her was milder, from the delicate features to the way she hung back, always letting her sister wade in ahead, gung-ho. The truth is, I see more than just my own face in Rose, and that is what scares me most.

‘Can I interest you in any duty free?’ The flight attendant flashes a fuchsia smile, beside the trolley.

I am grateful for the interruption.

‘Thank you, I’ll take a packet of Marlboro.’

My fingers are shaking as I hand my card to the outstretched hand before me. Taking the cigarettes, I feel the weight of them in my hands.

SMOKING SERIOUSLY HARMS YOU AND THOSE AROUND YOU.

The warning on the cigarette carton goads me. Toxic. Just like you.

I hesitate. Not me, I remind myself. This is not my doing.

I imagine Clive, the outline of his face filling my mind as a jet of stale air seeps through the vents above my head, the thought of him powering me on. A few moments later, I lean my head back, allowing my thoughts, once more, to drift to the girls. It is like that story Maria used to read to them when they couldn’t sleep.

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We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it . . . We’ve got to go through it. I think of the three of them, she and the girls, perched on their bed along the hallway from mine. Sometimes, in those early days when I could still hardly bear to look at my daughters, I would lower myself into the nook of the doorway, listening to her sing or read to them. Closing my eyes, I would imagine their little faces staring up at me instead of her, their tiny fingers resting on mine.

‘Anything else?’ The flight attendant’s eyes are fixed on me. Briefly, I imagine myself lurching forward to grab her by the starched collar of her shirt, my voice curdling in my throat as I scream so close to the woman’s face that she can smell the fear on my breath. I can almost hear the words I might say: Turn back, I’ve left my children and I don’t know whether they’re safe.

But my voice, when it comes, is clipped and courteous, the strains of Queen’s English I’ve assimilated over years of working under Clarissa providing the perfect camouflage for the cracks in my confidence.

‘That’s all, thank you.’

As she turns, I feel tears prick behind the folds of my eyelids, and this time I let them come.

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Closing my eyes, I picture the girls seated next to me on this very flight as they have been so many times before. Their ears immediately clamped shut with padded headphones. The sound of cartoons seeping out from the side. David, as ever, oblivious to the sound.

I feel my throat close. Letting the tears roll, I turn my face to the window of the plane, giving myself a minute before I wipe my cheeks with the sleeves of my shirt, pushing my back straight upright and forcing the tears to stop.

Open the box, place the thought into the box. Close the box. Just in time.

I open my eyes again just as the roar of the engines kicks in. ‘Madam, would you mind putting your seat forward for landing?’ I manage a congenial smile, and swallow.

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‘Of course.’

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From Part of the Family by Charlotte Philby. Used with the permission of the publisher, Borough Press. Copyright © 2020 by Charlotte Philby.




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