Leah writes literary fiction, short stories and plays. During her undergraduate degree she self-published Watermarks, a collection of vignettes based on her year studying in Venice. She has co-written a true crime play, Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm, which was performed in London in 2018. She is about to embark on a new adventure in Munich, where she will be working in Foreign Rights and finishing her novel, The Undertow.
Called back to the grey, seaside town she grew up in, Steph has to face what she’s been running from for the past two years, her sister’s apparent suicide. Haunted by memories, Steph begins to unravel her sister’s life and must decide whether or not she really wants to know the truth.
The sky had turned purple. A bruise swollen with rain. Steph watched the first drop pucker the page of her book and closed it. The whole beach had turned grey, and a wind whipped a hat from someone’s head and tumbled it along the shoreline. Gerri was still in the water. Steph called to her, but Gerri didn’t hear, or pretended not to.
By the time Steph was ankle deep the first crack of thunder boomed across the bay and the raindrops were falling heavily. Frenzied ripples on the water’s surface cascaded into one another. Gerri waved. She was wearing their mum’s old bracelet. The one Steph had noticed was missing that morning. The one Gerri had promised not to wear, because it was too big for her. It happened slowly. As Gerri dropped her arm back down to her side, the bracelet was caught by a swell of water, pulled off as if by the fingers of a delicate thief.
‘No.’ Steph ran forwards, but she was too far away, and the water swirled round her legs, weighed them down and pulled her off balance. Gerri turned, unbearably slowly, and stared at the bracelet floating directly in front of her, within reach. She didn’t even stretch out a hand, just watched the band of silver lit up by a flash of lightening, before being taken by the current, pulled under, out of sight.
‘What are you doing?’ Steph shouted, when she finally reached her sister. She plunged her hands deep, desperate to feel the smooth metal, the little chip along one edge where the bracelet had been dropped on the slate kitchen floor. But she felt only icy liquid slipping through her fingers. The water was thick with silt, churned up by the ever-strengthening pull of the tide.
‘It was an accident.’
‘We have to find it.’
But it was gone. The thunder was above them now and the beach had emptied. Their towels, the pile of clothes and their books were all soaked, wet sand scuffed over them by the wind and hurried feet.
‘We have to go,’ Gerri said.
Steph was too angry to look at her. She didn’t speak to her as they struggled into their wet clothes, teeth chattering, or as they walked over the pebble ridge, through the now empty car park and to the bus stop. The rain got heavier. The smell of cooling tarmac rose up from the road.
‘Let’s just walk,’ Gerri said, when they’d waited half an hour and the bus still hadn’t come.
‘We agreed to share that bracelet,’ Steph said, halfway up the first hill. It was easier to talk to Gerri when they were walking side by side, and she didn’t have to look at her.
‘She always let me borrow her things.’
‘And lose them,’ Steph muttered.
‘Maybe she wanted it back.’
Steph clenched her jaw. It was true then, just as she’d thought, Gerri had done it on purpose.
It took Gerri a while to notice that Steph had stopped walking. When she turned around Steph took Gerri’s book, towel and wet swimsuit from the rucksack and threw them into the road. A car honked but didn’t slow down as it ground them into the wet tarmac. They stared at each other and Steph felt another surge of rage as Gerri’s face remained blank, like always. She started walking again and Gerri waited for the road to clear, then picked up her things and bundled them over her arm. The book was wrecked. She stayed a few paces behind all the way home, and Steph didn’t look back at her. She didn’t think she had ever hated her older sister more.
Gerri had been dead for almost two years. Her friends were planning a memorial to mark the date and though Steph had put off replying to the invite for as long as she could, she knew she had to go back. Her train from Paddington was booked for the next morning. She had finally emptied her rucksack from the trip to Rome a few weeks ago and laid it on her bed ready to be packed. But it would have to wait until later; she was late for work, again.
She struggled into her jacket whilst locking the front door and walked straight into the path of a woman and a tiny dog. It was gasping in the morning sun, struggling frantically to keep up. Steph ignored the angry noise the woman directed at her, wondering if there was a story there, about the cruelty of breeding tiny dogs as accessories. She was sure it had been done, but maybe not from a London-centric angle. She pushed the thought from her mind and dialled Moira’s number whilst power walking towards the station.
‘Hi, it’s Steph,’ she said, as soon as Moira picked up. ‘I’m supposed to be meeting Trish this morning for our final interview. Could you let her know I’m running a little late?’ The line was silent and for a moment Steph thought she might have been talking to the voicemail. Then Moira replied.
‘Trish isn’t here, Steph. I’m afraid she hasn’t shown up for her placement all week. I was about to call you myself and tell you not to bother coming down.’
‘Oh.’ Steph stopped just outside the entrance to the tube, said goodbye to Moira and tried to decide what to do. Her feature about the Into Work programme run by the council was almost finished. She had interviewed five participants, first as a group and then individually, about how the programme had helped them find jobs and proper housing. The individual interview with Trish was the last piece she needed to complete the article. If she didn’t get it today, she wouldn’t be able to work on it when she was back home, she’d miss the deadline.
Steph knew she should probably just get to the office. Maybe she could finish the article without the final interview or cut Trish from it altogether. But there was something about her. Steph hadn’t wanted to admit it to herself that first day, but Trish reminded her of Gerri, at least how she was at Trish’s age.
Her phone buzzed and she checked it quickly, thinking it might be Moira, telling her Trish had arrived after all, but it was Matthew:
Sorry about this morning. I’ll make it up to you later, okay? X
She stuffed the phone back in her pocket. She couldn’t think about that right now. It was a warm morning and sweat prickled at her hairline. Her black pencil skirt felt too tight, and she knew the white blouse underneath her jacket would have those awful, see-through sweat patches when she took it off. That was another thing she wanted to pitch, the restrictive nature of women’s work clothes, the cost of decent material, the effect the dress code had on inclusivity in the workplace. But she wasn’t sure her boss Janine, who herself wore 5-inch heels to the office every day and tutted at anyone in flats, would go for it. Especially if Steph didn’t deliver her current article on time.
She made a decision and started walking.
She dodged past other harried office workers running for buses and soon reached the grey tower block Trish had mentioned in the group interview. She could see someone who might be Trish, bundled in the doorway. She hurried towards her then stopped a few feet away. Someone had just exited the building and scuttled away from the person on the floor. Something was wrong. She forced herself to move forward, hand stretched out till she touched the dirty, grey sleeping bag and pulled it back from the face. Her lips were chapped, slightly parted, skin of her closed eyelids purple black as if bruised, the rest of her face tinged blue. She was dead, Steph was sure of it. She was touching a dead body. But then, something almost worse happened. As she pressed Trish’s shoulder a low rattling, sucking noise came from the girl. A shuddering breath and Trish opened her eyes, then leant forward, spluttering up reddish sick.
‘Shit,’ Steph heard herself say, as she jumped back, the acid smell of bile rising up towards her. She thought about just running away, pretending she was never here, but she had stumbled backwards into a man who’d been peering over her shoulder, and knew she couldn’t just leave. He had called an ambulance and was now crouched beside Trish, so Steph leant against a nearby wall and closed her eyes as the sirens came closer. It just brought Trish’s face back into focus. There had been a second of confusion as she’d opened her eyes, before a painful realisation. Steph could tell from that look; this was no accidental overdose. She took a deep breath trying to push the thought away, but then Trish became Gerri the last time Steph had seen her. The coffin open, the paint unable to hide the mottled skin underneath.
She reached for her phone, thinking she should call Moira, or Janine, but it slipped through her fingers and fell into the road. She picked it up, grazing her hand on the remains of a broken bottle, but didn’t feel any pain. The screen was cracked. The photo of her, Matthew, and her best friend Lara now criss-crossed with spiderweb lines.
Janine waited until that afternoon to speak to Steph, who had spent most of the day locked in the bathroom, in the cubicle at the end of the row. After holding it together until she got to the office, she’d found she couldn’t stop crying. And she never cried in front of people. At one point Kate came in and knocked on the door.
‘Janine wants to see you in her office. When you’re ready,’ she said.
Steph waited for her to leave, then got up from the closed toilet seat and forced herself out into the main bathroom. She ran the tap and washed the dried blood from her hand. The water was numbingly cold, and she let it run for as long as she could bear, concentrating on it, the dull throb, and the sound as it swirled down the plughole. She rested both hands on the sink, and tilted her head back, trying to relieve the tension in her shoulders, then caught her own eye in the mirror.
Pull it together.
The bathroom door banged open again and she turned quickly towards the hand dryer, letting the sound fill the room for a few moments before she slipped out, and knocked on Janine’s door.
‘Steph, take a seat.’ Janine directed her to the green upholstered chair opposite her desk. ‘Why have you been hiding all morning?’
Steph’s jaw was quivering, and she could feel fresh tears pricking her already red rimmed eyes, but she held them back and tried hard not to blink. The image of Trish in the doorway seemed burned into her retinas.
‘It was just a shock, seeing her like that.’
Janine raised an eyebrow. ‘But she’s alive, right? Do I need to take you off the story? You seem upset, and Kate has already offered to pick up where you left off.’
‘I’m fine, honestly,’ Steph said. She found herself clenching her fists at the thought of Kate taking the story from her. This one was meant to be different, and maybe even get her her next promotion. Lead feature writer. She had been sure, just that morning, that once the final interview was in place it was going to be perfect. Balanced, but moving, the voices of all the interviewees shining through, the little flourishes in style reminding the reader that the author of the piece, Steph, knew her way around words.
Janine shook her head, apparently disappointed. ‘It’s not just today though is it, Steph? You’ve not been yourself recently. Why were you there in the first place?’ More than a hint of frustration came through Janine’s usually careful tone.
It was true. Steph knew she had been off for weeks. Since she’d got the invitation. She had been doing her best, but she’d snapped at her colleagues more than usual, been late to work, lost track of time during her lunch break so she ended up back at her desk much later than everyone else, particularly as most didn’t even bother to take a lunch break. Just ate Pret salads, or Boots meal deals, at their desks. That’s what she usually did too, but since receiving the invite she hadn’t been able to focus for more than a couple of hours at a time.
‘I just wanted the final interview for the piece,’ Steph said.
‘Speaking of.’ Janine sighed and leant back in her swivel chair. ‘I’ve read what you’ve written so far, and it’s just…’ She looked around the room as if the right word would come to her, then clicked her fingers. ‘Not snappy enough, where’s the usual zing. What’s going on, Steph?’
‘I’m telling you, I’m fine.’ Steph could hear the desperation in her own voice. ‘Please, just let me finish the story.’
‘Well, I suppose this new development will probably help.’
‘Sorry?’ Steph wasn’t sure how a young girl almost dying on a doorstep was a good thing.
‘This is a government led programme Steph, taxpayers’ money goes towards subsidising that girl’s wages. Don’t you think the public will want to know that their well-earned money is fuelling dangerous drug addictions? When you first came to me you would have spotted this angle the moment you set eyes on her.’ She surveyed Steph critically.
She was probably right. Steph remembered when she’d been an intern, making copies, filing paperwork, spending endless hours setting up the online archiving system. Janine hadn’t even seemed to notice she was there, hadn’t so much as said hello when they passed in the kitchen. Until Steph had written that story about home.
She had somehow found the courage to knock on Janine’s door, a printed copy quivering in her hands. Janine had looked bored skimming the first few sentences, but then something changed. She put down her coffee and laid the paper on the desk, leaning over it, a smile cracking her face as her eyes reached the halfway point.
‘This is savage,’ she said gleefully, glancing up at Steph. ‘Brutal stuff. What would you call this?’
‘An opinion piece, I guess.’ Steph felt queasy, she had never expected such a good reaction from Janine. ‘About the hidden undercurrents of a picturesque seaside town.’
Janine nodded, clearly impressed. She straightened the paper and looked Steph in the eye. Her gaze was penetrating, as if she could see everything Steph was feeling as she stood there, waiting.
‘If we print this, everyone you know will read it.’
‘So what?’ Steph shrugged. ‘It’s the truth.’
Janine grinned, getting to her feet. ‘You’ve got guts, that’s for sure. You know, I think a new position has opened up, a permanent one. The pay’s not great, but better than your intern expense allowance.’ She held out her hand and Steph took it without hesitation, unable to believe her luck.
‘I was actually thinking I could run the piece without her,’ Steph said, and Janine’s face darkened. ‘Stick to the original story; a good programme helping those in need.’ For a while now Steph had been trying to move away from her usual articles; overly critical reviews, savage takedowns of social media influencers. She’d thought this piece could be different, serious, something that made readers really think, instead of momentarily shocking them, before they forgot every word she had written.
Janine was shaking her head. ‘What is it you always say you’re going for, Steph?’
‘The truth?’ Steph said uncertainly.
‘Exactly.’ Janine got to her feet. Their time was up. ‘I want that truth, the one where money is being thrown down the drain, the one where young people waste government hand-outs on avocado toast, and lattes, and in this case, hard drugs. Like I said, if you’re not up to the challenge I can always ask Kate to step in.’
Steph shook her head. ‘I just need a little more time, to figure out how to include… what happened.’
‘Fine, a few days and then I want something with spark, with that Steph sassiness I’m used to, alright? And no using your holiday as an excuse.’
Steph cringed at the word. It wasn’t a holiday. Not really.
On the sofa in their one bed flat, Matthew listened without interrupting, glad that the argument from that morning had been forgotten.
Steph drained her glass and went over to the kitchenette behind the sofa, towards the half full bottle. Matthew followed her and they stood in the small space between the oven and the sink.
‘I’m sorry you had such a bad day,’ he said. ‘I can’t imagine.’
She topped up his glass and refilled hers to the brim, then slipped her arms around his waist, breathing in the smell of the white musk shower gel he always used.
‘I don’t get it though,’ he went on, talking into her hair. ‘Gerri wasn’t a junkie.’
She jerked away, reaching for her glass again. ‘Trish isn’t a junkie, she’s alone, and she needs help.’ She took a breath, trying to hold the tears back. Twice in one day, after two years.
‘Maybe now she’ll get it.’ He started to reach for her again, but she shook her head.
‘Not from the Into Work programme, seeing as Janine wants me to take them down in my article.’ Steph took another gulp of wine. ‘And Gerri could have been,’ she added, folding her arms, daring him to argue.
‘You would have known.’
She shrugged. ‘Maybe. There were a lot of things I didn’t know though.’
‘And isn’t Janine right, you love writing those articles, pointing out all the flaws in everything.’
‘It doesn’t feel right this time though. The programme is a good one, this was just a horrible mistake.’
He shook his head. ‘It’s the memorial, isn’t it? Causing all this stress. And what else?’ He stroked her cheek, as if hoping his touch would open her up.
She didn’t know whether or not to tell him. It hadn’t just been Trish, who reminded her of Gerri, there had been another girl on the tube two mornings ago, swinging from the handrail by her neck, skin death-blue, eyes bulging, until Steph had blinked.
And the dream.
They had started the night she got the invite. Steph woke up to find Gerri, soaked and dripping, standing at the foot of their bed. Matthew had been asleep beside her. She couldn’t move, knew she couldn’t wake him if she tried. Gerri had stood there watching her for what felt like hours, trying to communicate something through the look in her eyes.
She had woken the next morning with a coldness in her stomach, a certainty that the nightmares were going to start again, and never stop. But she forced the thought away as the bedroom filled with pale London light, told herself she was different now. It was one nightmare; it didn’t mean anything.
‘Just, not sleeping well.’
Matthew sighed, apparently relieved. ‘Come here.’ He took the glass from her hand and set it down, then pulled her back towards the sofa. ‘You’re obviously tired. Maybe going home to see your gran will actually make you feel better. With a bit of space, you’ll get this article written in no time, and Janine will love it, like she always does.’
She shifted to look at him. In the four years that they had been together he had never suggested going home might make her feel better.
‘I don’t want to go back there,’ she said. ‘Will you come with me?’ It was his turn to look surprised. He had never visited her hometown. She had never asked him to come, not even for Gerri’s funeral. Had, in fact, told him he couldn’t.