The Woman in the Wood by Lesley Pearse

Read an extract of the opening chapter of The Woman in the Wood, the latest novel from Lesley Pearse


West London, 1960

Maisy was woken by a piercing scream. Startled, she sat up in bed, assuming the sound was coming from the street. But then she heard the cry for a second time and realized it was coming from inside the house. It was her mother.

She rushed to her bedroom door and out on to the landing, then paused when she heard her father’s voice travelling up from the floor below.

"Be quiet, Lily. You’ll wake the twins and frighten them. I’m doing this for your own good.”

Maisy’s twin brother Duncan came out of his room and joined her at the top of the stairs. “What’s going on?” he whispered.

Maisy put a finger to her lips to silence him and held his arm so he wouldn’t run down the stairs. Their father, Alastair Mitcham, was a stern man who didn’t take kindly to any interference.

“I don’t want to go there! I’ll get better here in my own home,” Lily Mitcham cried out. “Don’t make me go, Alastair!”

The pitiful pleading brought tears to both Maisy and Duncan’s eyes, but they were only fifteen and a little afraid of their father, and they simply didn’t know what to do.

“How many times have I tried to get professional help for you? Each time you act the same way,” Alastair said, and the children heard the weariness and resignation in his voice and exchanged anxious looks. “You aren’t getting better; year by year you get worse. When did you last agree to go out of the house? I think that was two summers ago. You haven’t even been downstairs for over a year.”

“But my back and legs . . .” she protested.

Alastair cut her short. “There is nothing wrong with your back or legs, and well you know it. You can’t hide behind a riding accident from some twelve years ago any longer. I’m sick of this, Lily. The only way I know to get you to face up to what really ails you is to take you to this place. Now, calm down, or I’ll get the nurse who’s waiting outside in the ambulance to come in and give you a shot of something.”

Maisy had heard enough. Despite her fear of her father and reluctance to drag her brother into trouble with her, she caught hold of his hand and pulled him to the stairs. Encouraged by her bravery, Duncan didn’t try to pull back.

“Why are you sending Mother away?” Maisy asked when she was just a few steps above the first-floor landing.

Her father wheeled round. He was fully dressed in a suit and clearly hadn’t heard them coming on their bare feet.

“This is nothing to do with you,” he snapped. “Get back to bed, both of you.”

“She’s our mother, so it has everything to do with us,” Maisy retorted. “Where are you sending her? And why in the middle of the night? So the neighbours won’t know? Or did you hope we wouldn’t wake and you could make out she’d gone to stay with a relative for a holiday?”

The Woman in the Wood

Their mother tried to escape from her husband’s grip, the expression on her face like a savage animal, teeth bared

It was the first time Maisy had ever stood up to her father. While he wasn’t a violent man, he was so stern and forbidding that she and Duncan always did as he said. Her heart was racing and she was trembling, but even so she was determined to stick up for her mother.

“Don’t let him send me away to an asylum,” their mother whimpered. ‘It’s cruel and horrible. I want to stay here.”

Shocked as she was to hear of her father’s plans, when Maisy looked at her mother she realized why he was resorting to such drastic measures. Since she hadn’t seen her mother’s face clearly for many weeks, she hadn’t been aware how much worse she had become. Her eyes were almost popping out of her head, and she was now so thin that the yellowish skin on her face appeared to be stretched over her cheekbones, with blue veins standing out on her forehead like thick crayon marks. Her brown hair was lank and greasy and her nightgown was very grubby. It was absolutely clear she needed help.

Right from when they were small children the twins had grown used to their mother being in bed most of the time. They had always been taken to school by someone else and she never took them for a day at the seaside, a picnic or even a visit to a park. It was all they knew and so they had accepted her claim that it was due to a riding accident.

“Father, don’t do this,” Duncan said.

Still holding their mother’s arm tightly, he turned to face them. “I have to. She is ill. I never wanted you to know this, but she has been steadily getting worse and I’m afraid of what she will do. Just a few days ago she tried to drink some poison. Thankfully, Betty caught her just as she was about to swallow it and saved her life. But it doesn’t bear thinking about what might have happened.”

Their mother tried to escape from her husband’s grip, the expression on her face like a savage animal, teeth bared. Maisy instinctively took a step back, and Duncan took her hand.

“OK, Father,” he said, looking fearfully at his mother. “But shall I go out and ask the nurse to come in to help?”

“Thank you, son, that would be best. Maisy, will you get your mother’s dressing gown and slippers? She was struggling too much for me to hold them.”

A few minutes later the twins watched as the stout, middle-aged nurse, who had been waiting outside in the private ambulance, injected their mother with a sedative.

The effect was almost instantaneous. Lily stopped struggling and relaxed, and a vacant look came to her face. Alastair helped his wife into her dressing gown and put the slippers on her feet.

“That’s better,” he said, kissing her cheek, a gesture that reassured the twins he really did have their mother’s best interests at heart. “Now, children, why don’t you say goodbye to your mother and go back to bed? Whatever she may have said, she will be looked after properly, I assure you. It’s a private home offering the best care available. Now I’m going to follow the ambulance in my car, and it will probably be a few hours before I get back. But don’t worry, Betty will be in at breakfast time as usual.”

They watched from the sitting room window as the nurse helped their mother into the back of the ambulance. Their father started up his car and waited for the ambulance to move.

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