Read an extract of What July Knew by Emily Koch

Meet July Hooper, the unforgettable heroine of Emily Koch’s moving mystery about family, community and the secrets we keep from the ones we love.

Emily Koch
Book, What July Knew by Emily Koch

One death. Eighteen facts. Whats the truth?

In What July Knew, novelist Emily Koch introduces us to an irrepressible young heroine intent on uncovering the mystery of her mother’s death.

20 July 1995

As the clock struck twenty-six minutes past two, July turned ten.

If July had known this, she would have said that Miss Glover’s classroom was the perfect place to celebrate. This was her favourite place in the world, other than the reading den in her bedroom wardrobe. Here, she knew what was expected of her. She loved the scratched surfaces of the desks, the smell of the board markers and the huge sheets of sugar paper pinned to the walls: they all featured in her top four favourite things about this haven. The fourth was the faded outlines of rectangles that were revealed on the sugar paper when Miss Glover took down an old class project to replace it with a new one – the opposite of the way July’s freckles came out in the sun, the way her mother’s must have done too. (Number 8 on the List of Mum, via Grandpa Tony: Mum had freckles all over her face and arms. A small cluster next to her left eye formed the shape of the star constellation Cassiopeia.)

As July waited for Miss Glover to finish writing on the whiteboard, she bounced her legs under her desk and fiddled with her badge. It had a big green 10 on it and a little butterfly in the middle of the zero. To July it looked like the butterfly wanted to escape from the confines of its oval-shaped cage, but when she’d made that observation over her bowl of cornflakes this morning, her father had slammed down his coffee and it had spilled a little on to Auntie Shell’s newspaper. ‘Oh, Mick,’ her stepmother had said, blotting the puddle with a tea towel. July thought they were about to have a Level One argument (angry words, no shouting, no broken objects), but then Auntie Shell turned to her instead. ‘A little gratitude would be nice, July.’

Miss Glover cleared her throat, and July looked up. Her teacher was fanning herself with an exercise book. On the board she had written in her lovely, looping script, ‘Summer Project: Who are you?’ Then, underneath, ‘Six pages of A4 about a member of your family.’

‘Settle down,’ Miss Glover said with a huge smile. Miss Glover would be a much better step-mum than Auntie Shell. She wouldn’t have bought July a birthday card with a trapped butterfly on its badge. ‘And Sylvie Rose, for the thousandth time, stop tipping your chair back, you’re going to smash your head open.’

Sylvie giggled from the row of desks behind July.

Miss Glover continued: ‘Your summer project is going to be all about one of your relatives. They can be alive or dead, but the idea is to choose someone you know very little about. Imagine you are asking them the question, “Who are you?”’ She paused. ‘I’d like you to think about whether it’s important to know where you come from, to work out who you are yourself.’

As Miss Glover continued to brief them about the project, July made notes in her exercise book, her hot hand making a damp patch where it rested on the lined paper. She wrote the words ‘Maggie Hooper’ on the page, enclosed them in a heart and then scribbled them out.

‘I’d like you all to come up to see me for a quick chat about it,’ Miss Glover said. She sat behind her desk, still fanning herself, and crossed her legs. She was so elegant, in a beautiful blue dress which matched her eyes. ‘While I do that, the rest of you can read the handout on your desk about researching your family tree.’

July chewed the end of her pencil as Zoe Anderson approached Miss Glover’s desk. There were four more people whose surnames came before July’s in the alphabet – she didn’t have much time to produce a possible subject to impress Miss Glover with. Last year she had come top of the class with her summer project about her favourite hobby (reading), and she wanted to see that look on Miss Glover’s face again, when she had said, ‘Excellent work, July.’ But Mum wasn’t helping: all July could see when she closed her eyes to concentrate was her in a long floaty skirt and her red hair at her shoulders. Someone you know very little about.

No. This month July had made a resolution – to do everything she could to please her father – and besides, there was no way she could find out enough about her mother to fill six pages.

Nobody talked about her. Ever. The last time July had asked one of her Big List questions (did Mum like The Beatles?) Daddy had smacked her so hard across the face that her glasses had flown across the room and landed on top of the shepherd’s pie Auntie Shell had placed on the table. He didn’t Teach Her a Lesson like this every time she asked something, so it was often worth the risk. He never actually replied, but she could occasionally get a sense of the answer from his reaction. Take the time she asked if her mum liked dancing, for instance – he’d nodded without realising, right before he’d sent her to her room.

Who could she use as her subject? Daddy didn’t speak to his parents much these days so he probably wouldn’t be happy if she wanted to know more about them. Could she ask Yaya about her first husband, July’s grandfather? Or what about . . . she didn’t know much about Auntie Shell, but did she count as family? She wasn’t really her aunt at all, or her mother.

‘Darren? Up you come.’ Zoe was returning to her desk and Miss Glover beckoned to Darren Emerson. As the next three people went to speak to her, July fantasised about a prize-winning project all about Maggie Hooper, full of anecdotes and packed with interesting made-up facts, like how her mum spoke seventeen different languages, and how she used to kiss July on each ear every night before she went to sleep because that was their special routine, and how she was a former world champion meringue baker. She imagined Miss Glover’s comments and ticks in the margins, in her favoured bright pink marking pen, and one of her yellow heart-shaped sticky notes on the front page revealing July’s final mark: ‘10/10 plus a bonus point for difficult spellings.’

‘Miss Glover?’ Sylvie shouted over July’s shoulder. ‘Can we shut the window now? The grass is making my nose itchy.’ She sneezed dramatically. It was obviously fake; Sylvie didn’t get hay fever. Only Joni Klein and Toby Miller had hay fever in their class, everyone knew that. But Miss Glover waved her hand without looking up and said, ‘If you must.’

Sylvie wove her way through the desks to the window. After shutting it, she dropped her pen next to Sarah Lewis’s desk, and as she crouched to pick it up, July saw her stretch a hand into Sarah’s bag and pull out some pogs. July’s cheeks burned.

‘July?’ Miss Glover was beaming at her. She should tell Sarah. She should tell Miss Glover. But she couldn’t. She couldn’t tell tales on Sylv. Instead, she picked up her exercise book and made her way to the front of the classroom.

‘Have a seat.’ Miss Glover patted the chair next to her. ‘Any thoughts?’

July screwed up her face and shook her head.

Miss Glover lifted the stapler from her desk and spun it in her hands. ‘What about your mother?’

‘My mother?’ July’s voice went loud and strange. Everyone in the class stopped talking and looked up.

‘I’m sure we would all love to hear what you can find out about her, and it would be a lovely thing for you to do, for yourself.’