The only Sally McGowan I know of is that child killer from the sixties. I remember my mum telling me about it.
Barbara is a local councillor. A large woman with an even larger personality whose wardrobe seems to consist chiefly of smart black trousers and sensible shirts. She reminds me of one of my old colleagues: loud and opinionated, but funny with it.
‘Now why does that not surprise me?’ I say. More guffaws. I’ve definitely got some catching up to do in the wine department. Even Maddie, who usually sticks to tea, is knocking it back tonight.
‘Right then.’ Liz’s voice is only fractionally louder than everyone else’s, but something in its tone brings us all to attention.
‘I suppose we’d better make a start,’ she says. This month’s read – Alain de Botton’s Consolations of Philosophy – was entirely Liz’s choice and is a departure from our normal fare of contemporary fiction with the odd classic thrown in. It’s Barbara’s turn next month and, judging by what I’ve just spotted poking out of her handbag, she’s chosen Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I was hoping for something a little lighter, to be honest. Something feel-good for a change.
As usual, Barbara isn’t backward in coming forward. This is my fourth meeting and I don’t think she’s liked a single book yet. She tells us she doesn’t care for this populist reading of great minds and, as someone who’s virtually given up all hope of meeting a suitable partner, she isn’t comforted by Schopenhauer’s views on love being merely a vehicle for the propagation of genes.
‘I mean, what does that say about me? That my genes aren’t worthy of being passed on? Not that I could pass them on now,’ she mutters into her wine glass. ‘Not without divine intervention.’
We all chuckle.
‘Well, if you won’t be consoled by Schopenhauer, what about Nietzsche?’ Liz says, fixing Barbara with her large, serious eyes. ‘I love his idea that we’re nourished by all the shitty things that happen to us in life, that we become better people as a result.’
Barbara snorts. ‘I’ve had so much shit thrown at me over the years, I’m surprised I’m not a paragon of virtue by now.’
I tell them how much I enjoy following de Botton’s School of Life posts on Twitter and Facebook. Barbara pulls a face. ‘Thank God I’ve never got involved with social media,’ she says, as if I’ve just admitted to a shameful vice.
Inevitably, as the evening wears on, the focus of our conversation moves away from Socrates and Seneca and the rest, and turns to each other and our respective news. Tonight, it’s poor Jenny under the spotlight. Jenny is our youngest member. A newly qualified nurse, slim, shy and intelligent, with dark blonde hair in a ponytail and a liking for short dresses and opaque black tights. Karen is quizzing her on her love life and Jenny looks distinctly uncomfortable.
I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of one of Karen’s inquisitions. She tried it on me once, and I hated it.
I wasn’t in the mood to explain my unusual relationship with Alfie’s dad. I didn’t see why I should and I don’t like being put on the spot like that. Neither does Jenny, by the looks of things. I’m not sure I could tolerate Karen’s company more than once a month, which is a shame because, on the face of it, we’re quite similar. Both in our mid-thirties with a school-age child.
Both avid readers. And, like me, she moved here from London, although she’s been here a few years now. She and her husband run a computer-graphics company and she’s heavily involved with the PTA at Alfie’s school. At my first book-club meeting, she started giving me the lowdown on life in Flinstead as if she were the old hand and I the newcomer. When I told her I went to school here and that there isn’t a square inch of Flinstead I don’t know about, she looked almost put out, as if I were trying to show off. Maybe I was.
I help myself to more wine. ‘Can I top up anyone’s glass?’ I say, hoping to divert the attention away from Jenny. But only Barbara takes me up on my offer.
‘So how long have you been seeing him?’ Karen says. She leans in towards Jenny, eyes wide behind her geeky glasses, the blunt ends of her straight, dark hair swinging out over the table. ‘Is it serious?’
Jenny blushes. The poor woman’s neck has gone all red and patchy and I feel a sudden need to protect her from Karen’s persistent questioning. Aren’t people allowed to have a love life without the whole town knowing about it?
‘Just out of interest,’ I say, ‘has anyone heard of Sally McGowan?’ It’s the first thing that pops into my head.
Karen looks at me, astonished. Oh dear, why on earth did I say that? Typical me, engaging my mouth before my brain. Liz shoots me a quizzical frown. At least I think it’s quizzical. I get the impression she’d rather steer the conversation back to books. Which is exactly what I should have done.
Karen stares at me from behind her glasses and blinks like an owl. ‘The only Sally McGowan I know of is that child killer from the sixties. I remember my mum telling me about it.’
‘God, yeah,’ Maddie says. ‘You’re not thinking of getting us to read a book about her, are you, Jo? Because I honestly don’t think I’d want to read anything like that.’ She shudders. ‘I’d find it too distressing.’
I don’t know what to make of Maddie yet. She reminds me of a little bird. Bright, beady eyes always darting from one face to another. High-pitched voice that warbles when she gets excited. Her daughter works in finance. Something high-powered in the City. I get the feeling she takes advantage of Maddie. It must be a lot cheaper and more convenient than a nanny. I know Mum helps me out a lot with Alfie, but I’d never expect her to do it full-time.
‘No, nothing like that. I heard her mentioned earlier today, that’s all.’
‘So what was it?’ Liz asks, casually reaching for an olive.
‘Something on the news?’
‘No. Just something I overheard when I was dropping Alfie off at school. A silly piece of gossip. You know what Perrydale Primary’s like. It’s a hotbed of salacious titbits.’
Maddie laughs. ‘You’re not wrong there. Every time I pick my granddaughter up I hear something I wish I hadn’t.’
‘Come on then, Jo,’ Liz says. Her eyes are wide. Inquisitive.
‘Don’t keep us on tenterhooks.’
I clear my throat. It’s too late to wriggle out of it now. Everyone’s waiting for my answer.
‘I’m sure it’s a load of old nonsense, but someone reckoned they’d heard something about her living in Flinstead, under a new identity.’
‘Bloody hell,’ Jenny says. Barbara puts her glass down on the table and stares at me, open-mouthed.
Her cheeks are flushed from the wine. ‘My parents used to say you could tell she was evil just from looking at her eyes.’
Liz snorts with derision.
‘Actually, it wouldn’t surprise me at all,’ Karen says. ‘Flinstead would be the perfect place to hide someone like that. I mean, who’d ever think to look for her here?’
The question hangs in the air, unanswered. Is it my imagination or has the rumour distorted the ambience of our gentle, bookish gathering?