I checked the lock on the bathroom door worked, and that it couldn’t be opened from the outside, then I sat on the bed and tried not to think about you.
I slept in my clothes that first night. Silk pyjamas chosen by Saskia remained unworn, touched only to move them from my bed. The material slippery on my skin. I’m able to sleep better now, if only for part of the night. I’ve come a long way since I left you. The staff at the unit told me I didn’t speak for the first three days. I sat on the bed, back against the wall. Stared. Silent. Shock they called it. Something much worse, I wanted to say. Something that came into my room every time I allowed myself to sleep. Moved in a slither, under the door, hissed at me, called itself Mummy. Still does.
When I can’t sleep, it’s not sheep I count, it’s days until the trial. Me against you. Everybody against you. Twelve weeks on Monday. Eighty‑eight days, and counting. I count up, I count down. I count until I cry, and again until I stop, and I know it’s wrong but, somewhere in the numbers, I begin to miss you. I’m going to have to work hard between now and then. There are things I must put right in my head. Things I must get right if I’m called upon to present in court. So much can go wrong when all eyes are looking the same way.
Mike has a big part to play in the work to be done. A treatment plan drawn up between him and the unit staff detailed a weekly therapy session with me in the run‑up to the trial. An opportunity for me to discuss any concerns or worries with him. Yesterday he suggested Wednesdays, midway through each week. I said yes, not because I wanted to. But because he wanted me to, he thinks it will help.
School begins tomorrow, we’re all in the kitchen. Phoebe’s saying thank god, can’t wait to get back, and out of this house. Mike laughs it off, Saskia looks sad. Over the past week I’ve noticed something’s not right between her and Phoebe. They exist almost entirely independently of each other, Mike the translator, the mediator. Some‑ times Phoebe calls her Saskia, not Mum. I expected her to be punished the first time I heard her say it, but no. Not that I’ve seen. I also haven’t seen them touch each other, and I think touch is an indicator of love. Not the kind of touch you experienced though, Milly. There is good touch and bad touch, said the staff at the unit.
Phoebe announces she’s going out to meet someone called Izzy, who just got back from France. Mike suggests she take me too, introduce me. She rolls her eyes and says come on, I haven’t seen Iz all summer, she can meet her tomorrow. It’ll be nice for Milly to meet one of the girls, he persists, take her to some of the places you hang out. Fine, she agrees, but it’s not really my job.
‘It’s nice of you though,’ says Saskia.
She stares her mother down. Stares and stares, until she wins. Saskia looks away, a pink flush imprinting on her cheeks.
‘I was just saying how nice I thought you were being.’
‘Yeah, well, nobody asked you, did they?’
I wait for the backlash, a hand or an object. But nothing.
‘Please don’t speak to your mother like that.’
When we leave the house there’s a girl in a tracksuit sitting on the wall opposite our driveway, she looks at us as we pass. Phoebe says fuck off you little shit, find another wall to sit on. The girl responds by giving her the finger.
‘Who was that?’ I ask.
‘Just some skanky kid from the estate.’
She nods towards the tower blocks on the left‑hand side of our road.
‘Don’t get used to this by the way, I’ll be doing my own thing when school kicks off properly.’
‘The close just there runs right past our garden, there’s nothing much up there, a few garages and stuff, and it’s quicker to get to school this way.’
'What time do you normally leave in the morning?’
‘It depends. I usually meet Iz and we walk together. Sometimes we go to Starbucks and hang out for a bit, but it’s hockey season this term and I’m captain so I’ll be leaving early most mornings doing fitness and stuff.’
‘You must be really good if you’re captain.’
‘Suppose so. So what’s your story then? Where are your folks?’
An invisible hand reaches into the pit of my stomach, squeezes it hard, doesn’t let go. I feel my head fill up again. Relax, I tell myself, I practised these questions with the staff at the unit, over and over again.
‘My mum left when I was young, I lived with my dad but he died recently.’
‘Fuck, that’s pretty shit.’
I nod, leave it at that. Less is more, I was told.
‘Dad probably showed you some of this stuff last week but at the end of our road, just here, there’s a short‑cut to school that way.’
She points to the right.
‘Cross over the road, take the first left and then the sec‑ ond street on the right, it takes about five minutes from there.’
I’m about to thank her but she’s distracted, her face breaking into a smile. I follow her gaze and see a blonde girl crossing the road towards us, blowing exaggerated air kisses. Phoebe laughs and waves, says, that’s Iz. Her legs glow brown against the ripped denim shorts she’s wearing, and like Phoebe, she’s pretty. Very pretty. I watch the way they greet each other, drape round each other, a conversation begins a hundred miles an hour. Questions are flung, returned, they pull their phones out of their pockets, com‑ pare photos. They snigger about boys, and a girl named Jacinta who Izzy says is an absolute fright in her bikini, I swear the whole fucking pool emptied when she went for a swim. This whole interaction takes only minutes, but with the awkwardness of being ignored, it feels like hours.
It’s Izzy who looks at me, then says to Phoebe, ‘Who’s this then, the newest newbie at Mike’s rescue centre?’
Phoebe laughs and replies, ‘She’s called Milly. She’s staying with us for a bit.’
‘Thought your dad wasn’t taking anyone else in?’ ‘Whatever. You know he can’t help himself when it comes to strays.’
‘Are you coming to Wetherbridge?’ Izzy asks me.
‘Are you from London?’
‘Do you have a boyfriend?’
‘Crikey, do you only speak in robot tongue? Yes. No. No.’
She waves her arms around, makes a mechanical noise like the Dalek from the Doctor Who episode I watched in a drama lesson at my old school. They both erupt into laughter, return to their phones. I wish I could tell them I speak like that, slow and purposeful, when I’m nervous and to filter the noise. White noise, punctuated by your voice. Even now, especially now, you’re here, in my head. Nor‑ mal behaviour required little effort for you, but for me, an avalanche. I was always surprised by how much they loved you at your work. No violence or rage, your smile gentle, your voice soothing. In the palm of your hand you kept them, isolated them. Took the women you knew could be persuaded to one side, talked close in their ears. Secure. Loved. That’s how you made them feel, that’s why they trusted you with their children.
‘I might head home, I’m not feeling so good.’
‘Fine,’ Phoebe replies. ‘Just don’t get me in trouble with Dad.’
Izzy looks up, a provocative smile. ‘See you at school,’ she says, and as I walk away I hear her add: ‘This should be fun.’
The girl in the tracksuit is no longer on the wall. I pause to look into the estate, follow the tower blocks up to the sky, my neck craning backwards. There were no tower blocks in Devon, just houses and fields. Acres of privacy.
When I go back into the house, Mike asks me where Phoebe is. I explain about Izzy, he smiles, an apology I think.
‘They’ve been friends for ever,’ he says. ‘A whole summer to catch up on. Do you fancy a quick chat in my study, touch base before school tomorrow?’
I say yes – I seem to be saying it a lot, it’s a good word, one I can hide behind. Mike’s study is large with bay windows overlooking the garden. A mahogany‑coloured desk, a photo frame and a green antique‑style reading lamp, piles of paper. There’s a home library, rows of built‑in shelves full of books, the remaining walls painted a mauve colour. It feels stable. Safe. He sees me looking at the shelves, laughs. I know, I know, he says, far too many, but between you and me, I don’t think you can ever have too many books.
I nod, agree.
‘Did you have a good library at your school?’ he asks.
I don’t like the question. I don’t like thinking about life, the way it was before. But I answer, show willing.
‘Not really, but there was one in the village next to ours, I went there sometimes.’
‘Reading’s very therapeutic, just let me know if you’d like to borrow anything. I’ve plenty, as you can see.’
He winks, but not in a way that makes me feel uncomfortable, gestures to an armchair, take a seat. Relax. I sit down, notice the door to the study is closed, Mike must have done it when I was looking at his books. He refers to the chair I’m sitting in.
‘It’s comfy, isn’t it?’ he says.
I nod, try to look more relaxed, more comfy. I want to get it right. It also reclines, he adds, you just need to flick the lever on the side, if it takes your fancy, go for it. It doesn’t, and I don’t. The thought of being alone with someone in a room on a chair that reclines, me on my back. No. I don’t like that idea.
‘I know we discussed this at the unit before you were discharged but it’s important to go over what we agreed before the next few weeks of school swallow you up.’
One of my feet begins to jiggle. He looks down at it. ‘You look unsure.’
‘A little bit.’
‘All I ask is that you keep an open mind, Milly. View these sessions as moments of respite, somewhere to pause and take a breath. We’ve got just under three months until the court case starts so partly we’ll be working on preparing you for that, but we’ll also continue with the guided relaxation the unit psychologist started with you.’
‘Do we still have to do that?’
‘Yes, it’ll be helpful for you in the long run.’
How can I tell him it won’t, not if things that frighten me find a way out.
‘It’s human nature to want to avoid the things we feel threatened by, Milly, the things that make us feel less in control, but it’s important we go there. Begin the process of putting things to rest. I’d like you to think of a place that feels safe for you, I’m going to ask you to tell me about it next time we meet. Initially it might feel like a difficult thing to do, but I need you to try. It can be any‑ where, a classroom at your old school, a bus journey you used to take.’
She drove me to school. Every day.
‘Or somewhere in the village you lived next to, like a cafe or the library you mentioned, anywhere as long as the feeling you associate with it is a comforting one. Does that make sense?’
‘Good. Now, what about tomorrow, how are you feeling? It’s never easy being the new girl.’
‘I’m looking forward to being busy, it helps.’
‘Well, just make sure and ease yourself in, it can be quite full‑on at Wetherbridge but I’ve no doubt you’ll keep up. Is there anything else you’d like to talk about or ask, any‑ thing you’re feeling unsure about?’
‘No, thank you.’
‘Let’s leave it at that for tonight then but if anything does crop up in between now and our first session, my door’s always open.’
As I go back to my room I can’t help but feel frustrated that Mike wants to continue with the hypnosis. He thinks by calling it ‘guided relaxation’ I won’t recognize it for what it is, but I do. I overheard the psychologist at the unit telling a colleague that the hypnosis technique he’d been using on me would hopefully be a good way to unlock me. Better left locked, I wanted to tell him.
I hear music as I pass Phoebe’s room so she must be back. I work up the courage to knock on her door, I want to ask her what to expect at school tomorrow.
‘Who is it?’ she shouts. ‘Milly,’ I reply.
‘I’m busy getting ready for tomorrow,’ she responds, ‘you should do the same.’
I whisper my reply through the wood – I’m scared – then I go into my room, lay out my new uniform. A blue skirt, white shirt and a stripy tie, two shades of blue. And try as I might not to think of you, it’s all I can do. Our daily drive to and from school, you worked the early shift so I wouldn’t have to get the bus. An opportunity to remind me, the song you sang as you pinched me. How my mouth watered with pain. Our secrets are special, you’d say, when the chorus came on, they’re between me and you.
Just after nine p.m. Saskia comes in to say goodnight.
Try not to worry about tomorrow, she says, Wetherbridge is a really lovely school. After she closes my door I hear her at Phoebe’s. She knocks, then opens it. I hear Phoebe respond – What do you want?
Just checking you’re all set for the morning. Whatever, Phoebe replies, and the door closes again.