You can read an extract from my debut novel, The A to Z of Normal, below and also a selection of reviews here.
This is available worldwide on Amazon, as an ebook and paperback - in the UK here and the US here.
You can buy the paperback online from BookDepository.com - with free delivery worldwide - and wordery.com. It can also be ordered from all good bookshops and directly from the publishers, SilverWood Books.
You can buy the paperback online from BookDepository.com - with free delivery worldwide - and wordery.com. It can also be ordered from all good bookshops and directly from the publishers, SilverWood Books.
Paperback: ISBN 978-1-78132-381-6
Ebook: ISBN 978-1-78132-382-3
Yet she has always managed to hide the compulsions dominating her world. Until now.
When long-distance boyfriend Tom proposes, her secret life begins to unravel. How can she share a future with the man she loves, if she can’t even share her space?
And when the only way forward brings a threat greater than any compulsive behaviour, do they have a future together at all?
A poignant and humorous story of love, family, secrets…and military precision.
We arrive home before our guests. I stop on the doormat inside and bend down to take off my shiny, black shoes.
‘Leave them on, please,’ says Fiona.
I twist to look up at her standing on the step outside. ‘But Mummy didn’t―’
‘Please, Clare. You can hardly wear your slippers. Not today.’
Mummy didn’t let us wear shoes in the house; we always wore slippers. She said it was so that we didn’t tramp dirt in.
I stand up straight and look at my feet. I don’t want to tread on the carpet.
‘Clare, hurry up. They’ll be here any minute.’ She gives me a little push and I jump sideways off the mat, out of her way. ‘Go and help Daddy in the kitchen, while I open the windows. It’s roasting.’ My sister is even bossier, now that Mummy isn’t here.
She closes the front door and disappears into the living room, her long, red hair flying out behind her, like Mummy’s did when she was angry or in a hurry.
I’m standing on the floor between the mat and the wall, which is almost the same as being on the mat, so I don’t mind too much. Fiona will be cross if I stay here, though, so I tiptoe over to the kitchen door.
Daddy is leaning against the sink, looking out of the window. I don’t think he needs help; he doesn’t seem to be doing anything.
Still on tiptoe, I hang onto the doorframe. ‘Daddy?’ I whisper.
He doesn’t move.
The doorbell rings. Daddy turns around. ‘Clare! I didn’t know you were there.’
‘Fiona said I had to help. I―’
‘Good girl.’ Daddy pats me on the head as he walks past into the hall.
I undo my shoes and take them off. Daddy opens the front door and Fiona comes out of the living room to stand next to him. Holding my shoes tightly by the straps, I climb halfway up the stairs behind them to watch.
As the people in black clothes squash in, the house gets darker and darker. Even without Mummy, it was bright and sunny – as if she hadn’t really gone. Now they’re spoiling everything. I want to make them go away, all the people, their noise and their darkness.
There’s only one thing I can do to put things right.
Before everyone is inside, I run upstairs and into my bedroom. I push the door shut and lay my shoes down next to it, on their sides, with the soles touching. Mummy would be pleased with me for doing that.
I go over to the dressing table. The nail varnish bottles are lined up exactly as I left them. There’s a tall, skinny one in the middle, with fatter, squarer ones either side. Then the round bottles, then, at the very ends, little sample bottles. The same number of every shape and size on each side.
I sit down on the stool in front of the table. The seat is velvet and my fingers push backward and forward over its softness. I stare at the bottles. There are seventeen, filled with swirly varnish that sparkles in the sun, from a purple one on the left, to a bright red one on the right. I have more, but they don’t fit the pattern; they’re hidden in the drawer underneath.
Mummy gave me most of them, but only to play with. She said I wasn’t to use nail varnish until I was eleven. The rest are from Fiona. She only lets me have one if she gets bored with the colour. There’s a light blue, a green with glitter, and a squidgy brown. I like the brown best: it’s like melted chocolate.
I push the stool back, so that I can see them all in one go. So that I can stare and stare until I feel better. Until the muddle in my head goes away. I push my fingers faster and faster over the velvet seat. Rub, rub, rub.
It isn’t working; I still don’t feel right. Something is wrong with the bottles.
I close my eyes, wait a few seconds, look again. Of course! They’re not exactly in the middle of the table. What a silly mistake. I have to move them all a bit to the left.
I pick up the purple one. A clump of hair slips out of the band around my head and falls across my eyes. I stick out my bottom lip and blow upwards. The hair floats up and back down again. I put the purple bottle in the right place, half an inch along, and pick up the next, a cherry red.
‘Clare? Clare, are you upstairs?’ Fiona’s voice startles me. The bottle I’m holding bumps the one beside it. I hold my breath as it wobbles.
‘Clare, will you please come down!’
I can’t leave the line all broken up, so I carry on arranging the bottles, but more quickly now.
Someone is stomping up the stairs. Across the landing. Towards my room.
I organise the bottles faster and faster. My heart is thumping so hard I can hear it in my ears.
Fiona throws open the door and it crashes against the wall. The dressing table shakes, the bottles rattle. A funny noise comes out of my mouth; it sounds like a puppy whimpering.
‘What on earth are you doing? You’re supposed to be downstairs.’ She reaches out her hand. ‘Come on, Clare, please.’
The bottles pull me the other way. My fingers are shaking, as I move another one.
‘Clare, will you stop messing about and come with me.’ Fiona drags me to my feet. My legs knock against the dressing table and most of the bottles fall over. The line is ruined. My head droops, my eyes fill with tears.
‘Clare, I’m sorry. Did you hurt yourself?’ Her voice is gentle. She squats down in front of me.
‘No, it’s not that.’
‘Oh, sweetie.’ Fiona sighs. ‘It’s all right to cry, you know? I miss her too.’ She strokes my cheek.
‘I know.’ I’m not crying for Mummy, though.
‘You’ve been very brave. You just have to be brave for a bit longer.’ She glances down at my feet. ‘Where are your shoes?’
I point towards the door, still sniffing.
‘I told you to leave them on.’ She stretches to pick them up and then kneels in front of me and plonks them flat on the carpet. I pull a face, but she doesn’t see.
She lifts my feet, one at a time, and pushes my shoes back on, yanking at the straps as she does them up. There’s a dusty mark on the shoulder of her black dress; I wonder if I should tell her.
‘There you are, all smart again,’ says Fiona. ‘Don’t your shoes look lovely with your white ankle socks?’
She stands up and takes my hand, and I let her lead me out of the room. I walk on tiptoe, until she notices.
‘Clare, why are you walking like that? You’re not a baby. Walk properly or you’ll fall down the stairs.’
I don’t want to make her more angry, so I do as she says, though Mummy would be cross.
In the living room, people turn to look at us. I only know a few of them. I try to hide behind Fiona, to become invisible. They lean down to hug me and whisper in my ear, but I can’t hear what they’re saying. All I can hear is my heart pounding. All I can see are the fallen bottles.
Fiona leaves me after a while. She has to walk around with the food: trays of sausage rolls and cheese on sticks and two kinds of quiche. Like Mummy did for Christmas parties. Fiona looks just like Mummy, except that Fiona’s smile is sad.
Daddy is wandering around the room as well. He looks sleepy, confused. He comes to talk to a lady who is fussing over me. Although he looks down, he doesn’t seem to realise I’m there.
I creep away to sit on the arm of the sofa, near the door. From here, I can see the stairs.
Everything feels so wrong. I have to sort out my bottles to make it right again. Only that will stop the itch in my head. I know it will start again, though. It always does. Maybe a hundred bottles would stop it, or a thousand, or a million?
There’s no time to take off my shoes or to tiptoe; I run for the door. I have to get back upstairs. Back to my bottles. Back to normal.
Champagne froths into my glass. As the bubbles subside, so does my euphoria, displaced by rising panic. The waiter tops up the flute. I wish he’d stop. He should divert the flow of celebration to someone more deserving.
He serves Tom, bowing his head and offering a Mona Lisa smile. ‘Congratulations, sir, madam.’
Tom beams. ‘Thanks.’
The consequences of accepting Tom’s proposal are suddenly obvious. The realisation of what I’ve done overwhelms me. Adrenaline floods my body; my heart races.
The waiter turns away. I wish I could go with him. His stiff, black-jacketed back disappears through the kitchen doors. I don’t want to be alone with Tom; I don’t know what to do. What should I do? Oh-my-God-what-should-I-do? The desperate mantra ticker-tapes around my head.
‘Clare?’ Tom’s hand touches mine. ‘Hey, beautiful. You’re miles away.’
I force a smile.
He lifts his glass. ‘To us,’ he says. ‘I love you so much, Clare.’
‘I love you, too,’ I say. If I didn’t, this would never have happened. My unthinking yes was a product of that love. A love that overruled logic at the instant Tom proposed.
We clink glasses.
As he talks of our future, I think I can’t marry you; I can never marry anyone. Why not is something I’m ashamed to admit.
I should have seen this coming. Tom asking me to dress up and refusing to explain why. The exclusive restaurant, instead of the usual Saturday night takeaway. The way he picked at his food.
He’s wearing an ill-fitting suit; the sleeves are too short, like a child’s hand-me-down blazer. As he talks, he tugs at the cuffs that won’t cover his wrists. Between tugs, he jiggles the knot in his tie, lifting his chin and stretching his neck, as if he’s being strangled. He’s more used to tee shirts. I feel sorry for him, struggling to contain his bulky frame in the unfamiliar clothes. He’s handsome in a suit, though.
‘What d’you reckon, Clare?’ he says.
I have no idea what he’s talking about. ‘Whatever you think is best.’
‘You’re happy to move into my place, till we get somewhere of our own? You’ve mentioned selling up and getting out of the city.’
I shiver. The air conditioning is set too cold for the end of March. ‘Of course.’
‘It’ll be great living together, not just seeing each other at weekends.’
I shiver again. ‘Yes, great.’
I grasp the stem of my flute and turn it, around and around. I have to say something; I have to explain. Words whirl in my head, but won’t settle in the right order.
‘You don’t mind about the ring?’ Tom reaches across the table and takes my left hand in his. ‘Not getting one, I mean. I thought you’d prefer to choose?’ The skin around his blue eyes crinkles with worry. ‘Would you rather have had one?’
‘No, you’re right. It’s nicer to choose.’
He smiles. ‘Better than being stuck with something you don’t like?’
‘Absolutely.’ I can’t work out what to say with him in front of me. ‘Excuse me, I have to go to the bathroom.’
Pulling my hand free of his, I stand up. I retrieve my handbag from the back of my chair and peer around the restaurant. The lighting is more murky than romantic. The waiter catches my eye and tilts his head at a door behind him.
It opens onto a long corridor; the Ladies is at the end. Inside the cubicle, I lean against the wall. Think. Think. I shut my eyes and try to focus. The cistern drips. Think, think, think.
I open my eyes. It’s no good, I can’t backtrack with a lie: tell Tom he’s not the one, or it’s too soon, or I don’t feel the same. I can’t hurt him – or myself – that way. Nor can I tell him the truth, not here: in the restaurant hush there is nowhere to hide awkward words.
For tonight, I will have to continue my deception by omission; a deception I’ve maintained since we met. A different kind of untruth, which I’d convinced myself would do no harm. Yet I’d always known it would catch up with me if we stayed together. And I do want us to be together; I do want to marry Tom. I just don’t know how to.
I abandon the cubicle and go to the mirror to put on fresh lipstick. The red is stark against my pale skin. I take a tissue from the box next to the basin, to dab at my lips. Beside the tissues is an orchid in a pot: nine flowers on a couple of long stems. Their creamy petals bleed pink. The plant looks artificial, although there’s soil at its base. I finger one of the petals.
My mobile jangles with the arrival of a text. The sound makes me jump and my hand catches the plant and tips it over, spilling soil across the marble surface.
I stand the plant up, brush the scattered soil into my hand and lean over to drop it into the bin. Straightening up, I notice that some of the plant’s petals are now bent. I lift the edge of one of them, concealing the split, but the wound reopens as soon as I take my finger away. I turn the damaged flowers to the wall. Tears sting my eyes.
I pull out my phone and, through blurred vision, read a message from Tom, U OK in there? He hardly ever texts; he must be worried.
Out in a min, I reply.
Message sent, I put the phone and my small make-up bag back in their usual places in my handbag. I glance inside to ensure everything is where it should be and close the zip. The glance wasn’t enough. I unzip the bag and touch each item as I mentally check it off. The moment the bag is closed, I want to check again. I clench my fists. Once more won’t do any harm. I open, check, close. But can’t let go of the zip. Maybe just once more.
The door swings open. I lift my hand from the zip and lean towards the mirror to pat down an imaginary stray hair. A woman walks in behind me and stands to my right, smiling as our eyes meet in the glass. I can’t continue with an audience. I don’t want to leave, but I have to.
Tom looks up and smiles as I reach the table. ‘I thought you’d run out on me!’
I return his smile and sit down. ‘Sorry, there was a queue.’
‘So, what do you think about dates?’
‘For the wedding. How about autumn?’
‘This autumn?’ I take a sip of champagne. Red lipstick tarnishes the rim of the glass. ‘There’s no hurry.’
‘Is that too soon?’
‘No…’ I fiddle with my glass. ‘I mean, there’s no hurry to decide tonight.’
‘Sorry, I’m getting carried away.’ He laughs. ‘Funny to think we met at a wedding and suddenly here we are, planning our own!’
In the taxi home, he puts his hand on my thigh, as he so often does when we sit together. Wherever we are, the gesture makes me feel loved, secure. I wonder now whether I deserve that love. Whether, if he really knew me, Tom would love me at all.
At Tom’s cottage, his old golden retriever, Charlie, struggles out of his basket and hobbles up to us on arthritic joints. Tom pulls a balled-up tissue out of his trouser pocket, unwraps it and picks out a couple of cubes of steak. Charlie wolfs them straight from his hand.
‘Good boy.’ Tom pats the dog’s blond head, which matches his own.
‘I didn’t see you sneak those off your plate.’
He winks. ‘Years of practice. Got to look after my boy, haven’t I?’ He tugs gently at Charlie’s ear.
Charlie shambles over to me, claws clicking on the flags, and sniffs around the hem of my dress. ‘Sorry, Charlie. Nothing from me.’
He limps back to his basket.
The cottage is freezing: there’s no central heating, only portable heaters. In spite of that, Tom has already flung off his jacket. He works as a gardener and appears immune to the cold. I don’t share that immunity. I hug my coat to me, reluctant to give up its warmth. The stone floor’s chill seems to seep through my shoes and up my body.
He goes into the kitchen. ‘Do you want coffee?’
‘Please. Can I put the heater on?’
‘No need to ask. This’ll be your home soon.’
That thought only makes me colder.
I flick the switch on the heater and follow him. ‘Won’t your sister mind if I move in? I mean, it’s her home as well.’ Tom bought the cottage with Liz, the middle of his three younger sisters, who lives and works in Hong Kong.
‘No, it’s never been a home to her.’ He turns on the kettle. ‘She only ever viewed it as an investment. Now she’s with Paul, and they have Hannah and Joseph, she doesn’t plan to come back here. We can buy her out when we’re ready to move on.’
I can’t even imagine moving in, let alone moving on.
In bed later, Tom slides his hand underneath my fleecy nightshirt. ‘Sexy outfit!’
He gently pinches my left nipple. ‘So I see.’ He circles his palm over it.
A twinge of desire stirs in my groin. My heart isn’t really in it, but I move closer and mechanically mirror his caresses.
I baulk at faking an orgasm, though.
Tom’s fingers falter. He lifts his hand to cup my cheek. ‘You okay, beautiful?’
‘Yes.’ I stroke his face, trying to erase the look of concern. ‘Come here.’ I pull him towards me.
As I wrap myself around him, he moves inside me. He comes quickly, watching me, watching him.
Still panting, he says, ‘Are you sure you’re okay? Would you like me to―’
‘No, no…thanks. I’m fine. Just tired.’
He hesitates. ‘So long as there’s nothing wrong?’
‘Of course not.’
‘Okay, then.’ He lies down and drapes his arm over me, already drifting off.
As soon as he’s asleep, I ease his arm off me and slide out of bed. I put his dressing gown on and tiptoe downstairs, floorboards creaking underfoot. Charlie looks up hopefully and whines as I pass. Never mind Tom, a dog is an even more inconceivable housemate.
I go into the kitchen to make a cup of tea. Maybe in the peace and quiet, I can figure out what to do.
While I wait for the kettle to boil, I look around. Clothes hang askew on an airer at the other end of the room. A pair of muddy wellies lies next to the back door. The remnants of a DIY project litter the worktop: a hammer, a piece of wood, sandpaper and nails. I wonder if I could impose, and maintain, order if I lived here? Make Tom’s home my own. Perhaps the solution to an apparently insurmountable problem is that simple?
Bending down, I stand the wellies up and position them so that the toes are level. A lump of mud on the end of one undermines the symmetry. I pick it off and throw it into the bin – which draws my attention to the fact that the bin isn’t straight. I nudge it with my foot until it’s parallel to the edge of the flag it sits on. Except, that must be wonky, because the bin is now at an angle to the wall. Floor or wall? I can’t have both. The wall, a more obvious mismatch, wins. The recalcitrant flag still grates.
The tools and materials on the counter prove a challenge. I arrange the hammer, wood and sandpaper in descending order of size, from left to right, and then the problems begin. Tiny flaws in the work surface tip the heads of the nails this way and that, as I try to line them up next to the sandpaper, making it impossible to keep them parallel. I have to devise a different pattern, alternating head up and head down and pressing the nails against each other, to prohibit movement.
The kettle has long since boiled. I pour the water and leave the tea to brew. My feet are freezing, so I grab a pair of socks from the airer. Its crooked display of clothes is a blight, but too big a project to tackle.
I turn my attention, instead, to one of the wall cupboards. Inside I discover a motley collection of tins, labels facing every direction but front. One by one, I turn them around and sort them, first by content, then size: savoury separated from sweet, large tins on the left and small ones on the right. Finally, I vertically align the labels in each stack. The effort of creating order out of chaos absorbs me.
‘Clare, what on earth are you doing?’
I drop the tin I’m holding. It bounces off the counter onto the floor, denting the rim. Tom is in the doorway, in his boxer shorts. His eyes are bleary, his hair tousled.
‘I couldn’t sleep. I’m just making some tea,’ I say.
Tom bends to pick up the tin. ‘With ravioli?’ He reaches past me to put it back on the shelf – next to the rice pudding. I wince.
‘Er, I was…looking for biscuits.’
His eyebrows arch. ‘Still hungry?’ He opens the adjoining cupboard and takes out some Jammie Dodgers. ‘Here you are.’ He puts the packet down on top of the hammer and wood, knocking them out of position.
I wince again. ‘Thanks. I’ll be up soon.’
‘Okay, beautiful, but I know your secret now.’
‘My secret?’ My heart beats a little faster.
‘Yeah. Midnight feasts!’ Tom grins and walks out of the kitchen.
I look down at the counter, at the muddle of DIY materials. I look at the ravioli next to the rice pudding. And I realise that I will never make this place my own. This is how it would be if I lived here: a constant battle between my order and Tom’s mess.
The battle would have to remain a secret one, though. I could never share with Tom the unwritten rules that govern my life. Rules that make no sense, yet are the only way to subdue my constant anxiety. I’ve never told any of my family or friends: they wouldn’t understand.
Until now, it has been easy to hide those rules from Tom, too. We met six months ago at the wedding of a former colleague of mine and a not-very-close friend of his. Stranded next to each other on a table of disparate guests, we discovered a shared taste in films. Clinging to that, and each other, we navigated through an afternoon and evening amongst strangers. We went our separate, and distant, ways armed with phone numbers and promises to call. Hours of conversation and a couple of dates later, we were an item, albeit a long-distance one.
Our homes are far enough apart that we only see each other at weekends. Tom suggested alternating visits between the cottage and my flat. I insisted, as he works Saturdays, that I make the hour or so’s drive north from London. A selfless and selfish offer he was happy to accept. So he has no clue what I’m like, because staying with someone else isn’t an issue. My unbending, irrational need for order is confined to my home, my car, my desk. But one day this will be my home and the reality is, I can’t wage a lifelong, private war against someone else’s mess. If I don’t fix myself, we can’t get married.
Whatever it takes to do that, Tom can never find out how I am.
© Helen Barbour