I’m delighted you’re interested in sampling my work. Here is a synopsis and the first three chapters of ‘In Servitude.’
When Grace McBride’s beloved sister Glory dies in a car crash, her carefully considered life spirals out of control. She discovers Glory had been drawn into illegal activities at odds with her seemingly charmed existence. What’s worse, Grace finds herself an unwitting accomplice now forced to take over her sister’s shady dealings.
Determined to keep her fingers clean and redeem her sister’s reputation, Grace plots to extricate herself—and all those Glory held dear—from the clutches of Glasgow’s criminal underworld. But her moral certitude is challenged when familial pressure mounts and Glory’s past intentions remain unclear. Grace grows convinced Glory’s death was no accident, even if no-one will listen…
Seeking justice, she finds betrayal
Glory was dead. It had to be her in the burnt-out carcass of that stupid, silly car of hers … but it couldn’t be. Not my sister. Not you.
Dave caught me as I collapsed, the phone falling from my hand, and held me like only a strong boyfriend could as I screamed and raged, fists banging on his shoulders. First at the injustice. Then for release.
I had to go.
He stayed on his knees, panting and bruised, knowing he wasn’t welcome at her house. Knowing he couldn’t help. ‘I’ll be wherever you need me to be,’ he said, as I raced out the door, my tears and snot merging into the damp Glasgow air.
With the rain gone, the clouds dissipated in furtive wisps as if clearing the stage for the moon’s headline act. I hurried across the railway tracks into leafy Pollokshields, still trying to make sense of the news. The roads and houses widened in affluent unison while I wove through them to Sutherglen Drive. A journey I’d made a hundred times. For her. What now?
Sobbing and shaken, I replayed Stephen’s call in my mind. ‘She’s dead, Grace … Glory’s dead. What do I do? The boys … The car … banks … police … She’s dead … fire.’
I’d never heard my brother-in-law so distressed. Stephen, the stable one. The always-steady counterweight to his —to our— glorious butterfly. Never much of a sharer: why speak when a raised eyebrow would do? But on the phone he’d sounded bereft, words and cries shooting out of him in almost random order as though held inside for years, under pressure, waiting for that one emotion so strong that he would succumb and let them free. Then crumble.
I’d pieced together this much: they had found Glory’s VW Beetle mangled against a tree in the sloped bank of the road up to Drymen. She had died instantly, her ancient car’s safety features no match for the impact. An accident.
‘Stephen … Stephen. Stop! Are they sure it’s her?’
‘Yes. It’s her. There was nobody else. No other car. She crashed alone. Oh my God, she was alone when she died … my love … never forgive myself …’ His sobs drowned out his words, but I needed to know why she died. I needed to know everything.
‘What did the police say? They must have said something?’
‘Nothing. They have no idea … What will I do? They can’t tell me what happened. All they’re saying is this stretch of road is a death trap.’ The line went quiet for a while. ‘And they’re running tests. Tonight. I don’t know… I don’t know anything else … Grace, she’s dead.’
What happened, Gi? What the hell happened to you?
As I ran, flushes of adrenaline funnelled up my spine, coursed sideways and up through my shoulders, and gathered, pounding, at the base of my skull. I tried to regain control, forcing myself to breathe and exhale rhythmically to avert an attack—like when I was little. But the sadness kept hitting me in the guts at a boxer’s tempo, making me feel sick and allowing in only intermittent gulps of air.
But what if she—?
I focused on the force of my feet hitting the ground. I had to get a grip. I had to take charge. Glory would need me to. Stephen was a mess. So I made a list, and unconsciously synchronised my steps with the tasks at hand.
One. Help Stephen with the boys. Do the school run. Buy food, cook, clean. You loved taking care of them so much. Would he even know where to start? Christ, did I?
Two. Learn how to take care of the café. Your other baby.
Three. Move some of my personal training clients to evenings to fit this all in. Thank God I was self-employed.
I kept my attention on the practical issues because I couldn’t let other thoughts snake their way to my brain, to my heart, to the pain. To the boys. My parents. Oh God, our parents. Would they already know? A rush of saliva flooded my mouth, pressing against my clenched teeth as I battled nausea again.
Keep it together.
My knees wobbled as her Victorian sandstone house came into view, its tall windows reflecting the light of the distant sun. I paused to steady myself and leaned against the tall hedge as I was tormented by visions of my beautiful sister. I breathed through it. Tried to blow it all away. I had to clear my mind, to create a free space for the upheaval to come. The aftermath of a death that still did not ring true. Couldn’t be true.
Not you. Anyone but you.
It took two attempts to punch in the gate code with my trembling hand. I darted up the long drive, golden gravel crunching under my feet. Immobile silhouettes appeared in the window and while I tried to make them out, Blue barked.
Shit. The dog. I would have to walk that damned dog.
‘Be strong,’ I repeated mantra-like, as I reached the side door to the kitchen. Was it right to still use my key?
Blue met me at the door. I struggled to remain upright as the velvet grey Weimaraner circled my legs, battering my calves with his enthusiastic tail-wagging. He still hadn’t figured out he liked me more than I liked him. Jumping towards his bowl, he gave me an expectant look, turning plaintive when I didn’t follow.
‘Not now, buddy. I’m sorry.’
Unfamiliar voices sounded from the front of the house. Four, maybe five people murmured in hushed tones. News travels fast. Police cars were uncommon in this sleepy part of town and blue lights flashing outside must have attracted the neighbours like moths to a candle.
Whoever it was hadn’t bothered to make themselves useful. Three plates of half-eaten chicken nuggets covered the kitchen counter, ketchup still smeared on the stools, casting off an acrid smell. God knows how they would cope without her. A pile of tea bags languished in the sink. The tell-tale sign of adults assembled.
I peered across the open-plan dining area, through the glazed doors into the living room, curious but not quite ready for people. I saw the neighbour, Jean, and a handful of people I may or may not have met before, congregated in a small circle. Sipping their cups of tea and feasting on the misery of others under the banner of ‘community’.
Their chattering stopped as I entered.
‘Upstairs, with the boys.’ Jean launched her short frame off the sofa to meet me. ‘I’m so sorry for your loss,’ she said, with what must have been her best expression of pity. She stretched out her arms and leaned in for a hug, hands hovering above my shoulders. When I recoiled, she used them instead to smoothe her dress, and give a little cough.
‘How are they holding up?’ I asked.
‘He hasn’t told them yet. Stephen had parked them in front of the TV in the attic after dinner, right before the police came. They didn’t hear a thing. As far as they’re concerned, their mum’s at the spa for the weekend. And Stephen wanted to keep it that way, so we’re being quiet. I can see why. Poor boys need to sleep before they can take it all in.’
I frowned, disapproving of the deceit, the giant omission. Then again, this would buy Stephen and me time to gather ourselves before having to crush their little souls. I closed my eyes to stop the tears from escaping. I couldn’t lose it. Not now. There was too much to do.
‘Can you get everybody out please, Jean? I’ll update you later.’
‘Wouldn’t you like me to stay and—’
‘Are you sure?’
‘I’m not sure of much right now, but I know none of you are needed here.’ It had come out more unkind than intended, but I didn’t have the energy for pleasantries. Thankfully, she seemed to understand, and with a gentle squeeze of my arm, she returned to the lounge, herding the others towards the door.
I braced for the next encounter and turned towards the stairs, the visitors’ indignant whispers fading behind me.
Stephen reversed onto the landing and closed the door to Adam’s room as I reached the top. In jeans and a light blue jumper, he looked like he would any other Saturday night.
He jumped. ‘Grace! That was quick.’
‘Yes, I came straight away. I got rid of everybody else.’
‘Oh God. Yes. I didn’t know how to. Not without causing offence. Thank you.’
Our embrace lasted longer than it ever had. We weren’t close—not helped by what he’d done to Dave—but in this moment we were shipwrecked, clinging to each other’s debris.
He let go and nodded towards the door. ‘I haven’t told them yet.’
‘I know. I understand. Was she going to a spa?’
‘Yes, for an overnight pampering. They’ll be expecting her again tomorrow night.’ He rubbed his temples with the palms of his hands, dropped his eyes and swayed slightly as he rambled on in a daze. ‘Will you stay? Take the guest room. Noah’s in with Adam. I had parked them in front of Nickelodeon in the attic after dinner and then the officers came. I panicked. Didn’t know what to do. The police want to come again at ten tomorrow morning. They said they could help me with telling the boys. Can you stay?’
‘Yes, of course.’ I reached for his arm. ‘Don’t worry. We’ll take care of everything in the morning. You need to rest.’
‘I’ll try. Yes. I’m just in shock, I guess. I can’t believe she’s gone.’
‘I know. Me too.’
As his hiccups carried him towards his bedroom, he turned. ‘You’re the only one I called.’
The meaning of this didn’t escape me. He was leaving it to me to tell my parents their daughter was dead. It filled me with terror. I wasn’t ready for this.
I slid downstairs and found some relief in tidying up, bringing order where I still could. Postponing the inevitable.
The kitchen was silent. The rubber-neckers had gone, no doubt planning their casserole-shaped excuse to return to where the action was. Blue dozed on the mat by the door, unperturbed.
When I scraped the leftover nuggets into the bin, I noticed a box of medicine buried among the rubbish and fished it out. Zolpidem. Sleeping pills. I flipped the package both ways but there was no prescription sticker. There were still tablets in the blister pack.
Were they yours?
The phone buzzed in my pocket as I threw the box away again. It was a text from Dave. ‘RU OK? Here 4U.’
I typed back, ‘Coping. I’ll be fine xxx.’ But I wasn’t fine. I wondered if I’d ever be fine again.
The text had sucked me back into the dark reality of the situation and, with the phone already out, I shuddered. I couldn’t hold off any longer. ‘God help me,’ I said to myself as I pressed the speed-dial for home.
As the line rang and rang, part of me hoped I’d never need to tell them. That somehow I could hide it forever. But Dad’s voice came through just as I was about to give up.
‘Sorry darling. I was in the shed clearing out some—’
‘Dad. Something terrible has happened.’
‘What is it? Are you okay?’
‘It’s not me. It’s Glory. She’s been in a car crash … She died. At the scene. Instantly.’
I heard him gasp. Then nothing. I strained to listen for a response, a suppressed moan perhaps; but the insistent tone of a dead line took over and said enough. Why would today be any different?
I put the phone down and covered my face with my hands. Seconds later, my heart jumped at the sound of buzzing.
‘Dad? Did we get cut off? I thought you’d—’
‘Are the boys alive?’
‘Yes. She was driving alone to a spa.’
‘Thank God,’ he said. I held on for more, but he merely sighed.
‘Dad? … Dad! Speak to me. Please please speak to me … Dad? … I need you to talk to me.’
‘I know it’s hard but could you pl—’
‘You need to grab her papers.’
My ears tingled. This made no sense. ‘What?’
‘Don’t let Stephen find her papers.’
‘Her bank statements. Legal documents. That sort of thing.’
‘Dad, what’s going on?’
‘I don’t want to tell you over the phone. She opened some accounts and Stephen mustn’t find out. It’s money she wanted to keep for the kids.’
‘Come round tomorrow and I will explain everything. But right now, your mother needs me. Goodbye, Grace.’
I stared at the handset, wondering if he would call back again. Or did he really have to go? I pictured him, crushed but calm, kneeling by my mother, brushing a hair from her face while her slanted mouth requested the thousandth small bit of assistance since the stroke last year. How would she take Glory’s death?
A little later, I made my way upstairs for an early night, knowing full well my racing mind wouldn’t allow much sleep. I struggled to decide what had shocked me more: that Glory had been scheming behind her husband’s back or that she’d confided in our father, and not me.
The silver-framed photograph weighed in my hands with a newfound heaviness. I gazed at the two preteen girls sharing a casual embrace we could never again recreate. Close in age and with the same wavy red hair and high cheekbones, it was no surprise people had often mistaken us for twins. The difference lay in the eyes: similar in shape but not in colour. Or in spirit, I thought. Her blue pair stared straight at the camera, with a playful twinkle inviting adventure, whereas mine—a muddy brown—struggled to project my heart in the same way, always creating an impression of aloofness.
With a deep sigh, I placed the frame back onto the sewing table by the window of the guest room, where it beamed among other childhood snaps. Glory smiling with a gap-toothed mouth surrounded by melted ice cream. Mum and Dad sitting barefoot by a tent. A Polaroid of her first dance recital, protected against fading inside an acrylic cube. Simple pleasures captured for future smiles.
Resting my hand on the white plastic sewing machine, I twisted a spool of thread between my fingers.
This was your spot. Are you still here?
I sat down at the untidy crafting corner. It had been nibbled away from a room otherwise designed to convey polished, suburban success. Around me, deftly placed accessories broke the furniture’s clean lines, and the walls showcased the fruits of the family’s annual pilgrimage to the photography studio. Played out against a permanent white background, guests witnessed the journey from chubby cherubs to boisterous boys, posing alongside their parents who grew only in loving devotion.
A tailor’s dummy stood beside me, draped with colourful scarves that reflected the sunset in shimmering patterns, as if calling for my attention. I ran both hands through the soft fibres, creating dancing shadows on the wall and releasing a smell that punched me in the lungs, calling up a memory so vivid that I became light-headed.
Glory’s young voice.
‘Look at me! I’m Scheherazade!’
Loose strands of long red hair enveloped her face as she twirled around, her hands waving multi-coloured strips of fabric in fluid, hypnotising motions along her eleven-year-old body. She bounced towards me, covering her nose and mouth, batting her eyelashes in cartoon-style seduction. ‘Oh Aladdin, my hero! Shall I dance the dance of the seven veils for you?’
‘Stop it, Glory.’ I grabbed the so-called veils she’d been dangling in front of my face, too close. ‘Plus, that wasn’t Scheherazade. I’m fairly sure the dance of the seven veils was Salome.’
Glory shrugged and kept the choreography going. ‘I don’t care. It’s exotic! And foreign! And marvellous!’ Each phrase was punctuated by a defiant jiggle of the hips.
‘And a little blasphemous,’ I said, failing to suppress a large grin.
‘Okay, miss party-pooper. Your turn to do something with this.’
She heaped the mix of polyester, silk and cotton we’d rescued from our parent’s store onto my head and sat on the ground. Bright blues beaming in anticipation.
‘Fine, Salome. You think you’re so sexy. Well, you’ve got another think coming.’ I wrapped layer upon layer over my shoulders and across my waist, waiting for the inspiration that came so easily to her.
Once I could move no more for the bulk, I plonked my elbows on my side and stood legs apart like a superhero, bellowing, ‘For I am … Heidi!’ My heart leapt as her unrestrained laughter filled the room. ‘And I am on my way to meet my own man …’ I paused, basking in my sister’s approval, while I searched for that goatherd boy’s name—or any goatherd name. She roared as I broke into song instead. ‘High on the hill lived a lonely goatherd, yodelay-hee yodelay-hee yodelay-hee hoo!’
‘Oh Grace, you’re so funny,’ she said, then launched into yodels that merged into mine. And I wished it would last forever.
But the memory faded.
At the dummy’s side, I kept my eyes shut and stroked my cheeks with the fabric, hoping to hold onto the image a while longer. I yearned for the closeness of years gone by, when every afternoon, we downloaded the day’s events in our shared bedroom and analysed each conversation, each smile, each wink. When we exploded into whoops and laughter at our wild and cruel strategies for coping with the mean girls.
Admiring desirable qualities in each other, we joked that if they put us in a mixer, we would make one fabulous person. We even gave her a name—GiGi—a rich and sophisticated-sounding combination of our initials and so, in private, we called each other ‘Gi’. I smiled as I remembered how this splendid creature had been destined for great things—far removed from dreary old Perth—and how we took turns making up her adventures, indirectly exposing our dreams for the future.
Well, we made it to Glasgow, didn’t we, Gi? That’s something.
I folded my jeans and socks and wriggled my bra from underneath my T-shirt, which I kept on to sleep. The sheets were cold, accentuating my loneliness, and I hugged my legs to stay warm. The floorboards on the landing creaked as Stephen wandered about, probably unable to sleep, possibly checking in on his kids, certainly feeling lost. I remained still as I heard him scuffle by my door, not sure what to say if he knocked.
What was it about him, Gi? Did he make you feel safe?
Lord knows we both needed security after moving to the city for college. She’d found it in straight-laced Stephen. Stephen with the steady job at the council. Stephen with the side parting able to withstand a hurricane. We’d thought Glasgow would give us a ‘GiGi-esque’ cosmopolitan lifestyle, but we hadn’t been prepared for the grime and crime of the metropolis. Two naïve girls from the provinces.
Remember our tiny flat in the West End? We had so much fun.
She’d left after four months to be with her man. I’d had to fill the second bedroom with messy strangers, who touched my stuff. Made noise. Invaded my space. But forgiving her had been easy: she was happy.
When you’re happy, I’m happy.
That was our thing.
Yet while an unending stream of tears cascaded onto my pillow, I reflected on what my father had just told me, and realised that maybe, somehow, she no longer believed I was the other half of us.