An extract from the new revised edition of GIRL NUMBER ONE (August 2016)
I know Mummy’s dead. But I have to check.
Kneeling beside the perfectly still body, I stare up through the trees, watching the flash of white trainers disappear.
I hear a crack of twigs as he makes his way higher up the slope. He’s not really hurrying. There’s no other sound except the nearby stream. Even the birds have stopped singing.
Maybe he’s going to come back.
She does not move when I touch her cheek. Her throat looks red and swollen. I guess that’s where he grabbed her and squeezed. Squeezed until she stopped struggling. Her eyes are wide, staring up into the leafy branches that sway gently above us.
I should never have run away. Perhaps I could have done something. Perhaps I could have stopped him.
But Mummy yelled at me, ‘Run, Ellie! Run and hide!’
Then he grabbed her.
I ran like he was coming after me too. I ran gasping and crying. Brambles scratched my face, tore at my clothes. Then I stopped, lost and defeated in the unfamiliar undergrowth, and loped slowly back towards the stream. Because where could I go without Mummy? What could I do on my own?
I kneel beside her for a long time, leafy twigs pressing painfully into my knees. There’s one bird still singing in the trees above us. Its hoarse repeated cry was like a warning before. Now it sounds like it’s laughing at me. I don’t look up.
I take her limp hand and squeeze it hard, waiting for her to wake up, to start breathing again, to smile at me and tell me everything will be all right. But it doesn’t happen. It will never happen again.
‘Mummy?’ I whisper, bending close to her face. ‘Mummy?’
In a minute, I will drop her hand and run.
I remember what day it is even before the alarm on my phone goes off.
My eyes are still closed, my mind fighting its way back from the suffocating world of my nightmare. I wait for the alarm tone, aware that it’s coming, the way you know a storm’s on the horizon. The tiny hairs have risen on my skin, one arm angled stiffly above the pillow, the other dangling out of bed as though pointing to the floor. I’m frozen in that position, my body still partially asleep at some level. But my brain is alert and suffering.
It’s like waking up on a birthday and immediately thinking, today is going to be wonderful, today is going to be special.
Only it’s the reverse situation. Like a photographic negative. Today is going to be special, all right. But it’s not going to be wonderful. It is going to be bad. Very, very bad.
Something shifts me out of sleep. Memory clicks back into place, as it does every morning, and suddenly I’m properly awake, totally in the moment.
I’ve spent years in therapy, I know what to do when all the colour bleeds from the world. I take a few deep breaths and run through what Dr Quick calls my ‘blessings’. The good things in life. This cottage, my job. My friends, the ones that have stuck with me and not fallen away since university. But I still feel the darkness beckoning. Not much, just a vague sensation of . . .
The alarm sounds.
Rolling over, I fumble for my phone, turn off the alarm, swing myself out of bed.
Deal with it, Eleanor.
Not bothering to look in the mirror, I drag a comb through my shoulder-length hair, then twist it up into a rough ponytail. No shower yet. That can come later, after my run. It’s not like anyone will see me in the woods. Not at this hour.
I pick up my mobile, check it for new messages. A reminder from Jenny about end-of-term festivities. I hesitate over it, then flick past. I resent having to think about work when I’m not actually there, which makes marking books a nightmare.
A late reply from Tris to my text sent just before midnight. By which time I had downed several glasses of rum and coke, and was undressing for bed.
Planning to run through the woods tomorrow. As a salute to my mum.
His reply, sent at 1.45 a.m., is terse. Don’t. Not a good idea.
Chicken, I text back, then press send.
We used to go out for a while, me and Tris. I really thought it was going somewhere. We’ve been close friends since school, so going out was the logical next step when I came back from university. But then he suddenly broke it off, said he’d made a mistake.
I still wish we hadn’t broken up. But since there’s nothing I can do about it, I try not to dwell.
Still nothing from Denzil, which irritates me more than it should. We’ve dated a few times recently, in a non-committal way. It’s not like we have any kind of special arrangement. We were the troublemakers in school. I wonder if he finds me boring now that I’m a teacher and no longer lurching from one adolescent drama to the next. But I did leave him a slightly angst-ridden message last night, hoping for some support, and he has not bothered to reply.
Vaguely disappointed, I toss the mobile back onto the bed. The woods at Eastlyn are a notorious signal blind spot, so a phone is dead weight on a run there.
I wriggle into black Lycra shorts and a white T-shirt with a bold red Nike . Drag on my new pair of Mizuno trainers and lace them up. Open my bedroom door. The house is quiet. Hannah is not home yet from her night shift at the hospital.
Sometimes we meet at this hour and exchange a few words: Hannah stumbling in, exhausted after a hard night’s work, me fresh and ready for my run. But not today.
Today is different.
Out in the lane, the air feels sultry and shut in, the sky drawn tight across the cottage roof. Migraine weather, Hannah calls it. The sun may be shining in our little part of the world but dark clouds from the moors are already on the edge of the valley, promising rain later.
I stretch out my hamstrings, then swing my arms up and down to warm up. Ten times forward, ten times back. Shrug my shoulders a few times, roll my head slowly round to the left, then back to the right.
I head off towards the village at a gentle warm-up pace, pretending not to consider which route to take even though there’s nothing else in my head today.
About half a mile down the lane, the road runs past the gated entrance to what used to be our farm once upon a time, but is now a partial ruin. Renovation work that was started years ago still lies unfinished, the roof flapping with poorly secured plastic. There’s a thin black cat crouched on top of the old piggery, staring malevolently in my direction, ears flattened on its head.
I stride out, beginning to run.
Mist is rising slowly in Tinker’s Field, obscuring the legs of the black-and-white cows grazing there. Crossing the road that leads up to the village, I pause for a noisy diesel van hurtling down the hill at standard Cornish breakneck speed. woods valley garden centre is written on the side in large green lettering.
The driver’s window is open, music blaring out. Dick Laney is at the wheel, owner of the garden centre, bearded, middle-aged and compact. He’s wearing work overalls, so I guess he’s on a delivery.
He raises a hand to me. ‘Morning, Eleanor.’
I nod. ‘Morning.’
His son, Jago, is in the passenger seat. He was at the local school with me too, though we were never close and have not seen each other for ages. He looks at me without smiling.
When the van has passed, I cross into the sunlit meadow and keep running. The grass half obscuring the path to the woods has not been cut this year and is almost knee-high now. But I don’t mind, threading my way through with pleasure, flicking the bright, rustling grasses on either side.
Running is a ritual, and one I’ve grown to love over the years. To be able to shut out everything else in your life for an hour and concentrate solely on your body, your technique, your stamina. That’s the beauty of running. It purges the soul.
That’s why even on a bad day, on the worst day imaginable, even a day like today, I still need to run.
There is someone else in the woods today.
I often get that feeling, to be fair. The sensation of being watched when I run or spied on through windows at the cottage. there’s someone out there, keeping me under observation. It’s just nerves, my therapist used to say; a lively imagination playing tricks on me. That was one thing I hoped to achieve by going back into therapy. Saying goodbye to the shadow man who still haunts my dreams.
Today feels different though. Today my skin is prickling as soon as I vault the stile from the meadow, before I’m even ten feet into the woods. There’s a physical edge to the sensation of being watched. it’s three-dimensional.
At first I try to ignore the feeling, pumping air with my arms, checking that I’m striking the ground toe first not heel first, the way you’re supposed to.
I hear a crack of twigs behind me, and glance round, frowning. But the wooded slopes are empty.
The woods feel unthreatening here, still so close to the meadow and the main road into the village. On sunny days like these, light slips through gaps in the leaves, soft and dappled, to give an almost magical air. I often catch a glimpse of fleeing brown rabbits on these morning runs, or the occasional grey squirrel watching me from halfway up a mossed trunk. Some days, I skirt the edge of the meadow rather than enter the woods, head up towards the moor and enjoy the wide-open vistas there instead. But today is special.
The deeper I move into the wood, the more the air becomes curiously still, maybe even claustrophobic. There is no chukking of alarm from the birds today, no odd rustles in the undergrowth. Even the sound of the stream below seems muffled.
My mother used to love running in these woods. I don’t remember much about her, and can only picture her face from having studied old photographs. But I know she loved running, because my father used to mention it whenever I went out for a jog.
Not surprisingly, he always hated me going anywhere near these woods.
I can understand the pull of this place. The woods nestle secretively beneath the village church, curving round the hill like a dragon’s tail, dark green in the sunlight. The trees stretch for several miles of shady paths, birds clattering among the leaves, and a noisy stream at the bottom. It’s beautiful and peaceful, popular with walkers and runners alike, especially in the summer.
Another tiny cracking sound.
All in your imagination. Don’t look to left or right. Head down and keep running.
My trainers are beginning to squelch in the mud. Last night’s rainfall hasn’t helped the dampness of the woodland paths. But I’m nearly at the dip. The dip is where the way divides, one path descending narrowly to the stream, the other broader and more welcoming, rising into sunlight once it hits the road above.
I push on round the next bend, keeping out of the muddy morass in this shady part of the wood.
And slither to a halt.
There’s a sign blocking the path ahead.
A large metal sign, legs sunk in mud, leaning slightly at an angle, bold yellow lettering on a red background.
PATH AHEAD CLOSED
The white arrow beneath points downhill towards the stream. The path is narrow and very steep, and I can see from here that it’s badly overgrown.
I study the metal sign again, my chest suddenly tight. It takes an effort to persuade my fists to loosen, my breathing to slow down. I look around, gauging the stillness of the woods, the solitude. This sign is unexpected, yes. But not even remotely suspicious. I’m doing it again; I’m over-reacting, letting the past win.
The main path is closed, so I have to take the diversion. I start to run again. Not back the way I’ve come but down towards the stream. Taking the path I haven’t taken in years. The path I still see in my nightmares.
The path that has always been waiting for me.
It’s strange how the years have changed my perspective of the place. In my memory, trees crowded this narrow track, branches dipping overhead, leaning in to block my view, some of the trunks rotten and decayed, roots barely clinging to the soil. But the slopes are not as overgrown as they once were. Perhaps as a terrified six-year-old, the trees seemed closer set, the undergrowth darker and more threatening.
Further along, the track begins to wander and deteriorate. This is more like the dangerous territory I remember, the lost ground where the worst could – and did – happen. Here, the edges of the path blur into undergrowth. The earth banks are mossed, riddled with muddied hollows and the tracks of deer. Some of the trunks on the bank are scarred where deer have rubbed against them on their way down to the stream.
I am light-headed at the risk I am taking. The risk to my sanity. What would Dr Quick say?
Nothing in life is without risk.
I glance up, startled by a rustling above me and to the right. Catch a flash of white between tree trunks.
There’s someone else running on the heavily wooded slope above this path. It’s the merest flicker through shadowy trees: a momentary glimpse into insanity, like a little white rabbit that appears for a second, then vanishes down a rabbit hole.
That’s when I lower my gaze, and realise there is something on the path ahead of me.
‘What the hell?’ My heart is galloping and I can’t seem to catch my breath. Panic swells like a balloon in my chest.
I struggle to clamp it down, to remember my breathing exercises. I know the signs of a panic attack and how to control them. We’ve talked about them during my therapy sessions. I must be calm and logical, go through the drills Dr Quick taught me. But today I can’t seem to reach that state. I’m past logic; I’m locked out of it and into nightmare.
I slow down, staring.
The assailant is described as tall and well built, wearing brown leather gloves, dark tracksuit and white trainers.
That was the only description of my mother’s killer we ever had. Because a six-year-old was the only one to see him.