Read on for an extract from The Stranger, a gripping and deeply moving new book from Richard and Judy bestselling author, Saskia Sarginson.
You were born just before Christmas. After all that hate, there you were. Being you. Staking your claim. I thought I’d see him inside you. But there was no trace of his features in your small face. You were a stranger to me, a terrifying wonder. We cried all the time. You howling in earnest, and me seeping water silently without really knowing why. It was while you slept that I dared to marvel at you: your spiky lashes wet with tears, the way your toes curled in the palm of my hand, and the smell of your flaky scalp under the surprise of your thick, dark hair. As I pressed my lips to your neck, I felt the tug of my womb contracting, a pain that connected us, a reminder that you were still a part of me.
My mother came to the hospital. She sat as far away from you as she could. As if you were a disease. She kept glancing about her, pulling her scarf over her forehead. She said my father had taken it hard. That it would be best for everyone if I made fresh start, away from home. After the adoption, my father would write me a cheque.
I watched a film once about unmarried mothers having their babies stolen from them by stern-faced nuns. And if this was a film, the next scene in our story would show how I’d pleaded to keep you; how I’d refused to sign the papers and fallen to my knees as they ripped you from my arms.
But none of this happened. You see, my darling, I was afraid: not just of my father, but of you. I’d destroyed my future by getting pregnant. That’s what my father said. Except I couldn’t give up on it. That shining future. I was hardly more than a child myself. I wasn’t ready to be a mother. They told me a couple had been found. A nice couple. Good, respectable people. I wanted to believe that it was the best, for both of us. I know better now.
I allowed them to bear you from me with hushed movements and averted eyes. Soft steps across a floor. Inside I was screaming, but I turned my head, not letting myself make a sound.
I prayed then for you to carry the print of my lips on your cheek, the sound of my voice in your ear. To know that you were loved.
My little one.
You smelt of me, of my insides, my blood. I didn’t give you a name.
Can you forgive me?
The small circle of my bicycle light makes the darkness around me deeper. I stop on the deserted road, leaning over my front wheel to click it off. Will’s voice speaks in my head.
Ellie! You know how lethal these lanes are at night!
Oh, stop making a fuss, I tell him.
I’m your husband, he reminds me, resigned and patient as ever, of course I want to keep you safe.
William is a worrier. He’s not a chest-beating male. He’s the sort of man who winces barefoot over pebbles on the beach, who always drives below the speed limit, who goes back to the house to check that he really did switch the bathroom light off. I roll my eyes at the imaginary Will and he grins in his good-natured way, palms up, caught out again. Secretly, I like his fussing. It lets me be the brave one. The daredevil half of our partnership.
There’s nothing to be afraid of out here. I haven’t seen a car since I left the village. It’s a clear night, and with the beam switched off, the world reveals its shadow-self. Strawberry fields stretch towards distant woods, an occasional farm building crouching against a starlit sky.
I’ve left my helmet behind; it’s a relief not to have the strap yanked tight under my chin. Now tall beech hedges rise either side of me, cutting off the view, looming so high that I may as well be cycling through a tunnel. There isn’t another soul on the road. I’m the only human here in the darkness. The back of my neck prickles pleasantly, all my senses snapping into brighter focus.
After I closed up The Old Dairy, turning the sign on the door and waving Kate goodbye, I hooked an apron around my neck and settled into an evening of baking in the tearoom kitchen, making a batch of chocolate cakes and flapjacks for tomorrow.
I like having the place to myself after hours. While I waited for the cakes to rise, I made a cup of tea, peeling an orange and switching from Radio Four to BBC Six Music. Some infectious Latin music came on, and I stood up and experimented with some dance steps, one, two, three, one, two, three, nibbling a flapjack, debating whether to be more generous with the maple syrup next time, perhaps add something tangy like apricots.
As my tyres swish along the tarmac, I can still smell the sugar and cinnamon on my skin, even with a March wind whistling past my ears. All around me, invisible life rustles and hunts and creeps. An owl hoots. I’m listening to my own breathing and the sounds of my bike – metal tinkle and air through spokes. I wonder if William’s out of the study yet. I hope he’s finished with work and is in bed waiting for me, glasses on the bridge of his nose as he tries not to fall asleep over a book, the cat curled at his side. I’ll slip between the sheets, scooting over next to him, my cold feet finding his warm ones, settling my head in the familiar hollow of his shoulder.
I’m humming a bossa nova when a mechanical roar sears the quietness. The urgent sound of a car, shockingly loud. I brake and stop, putting my foot to the ground, listening. It’s coming from behind, and it’s coming too fast. Much too fast.
Instinct kicks in. I’m off the bike in moments and bracing myself at the side of the road, horribly aware of how vulnerable I am, pinned against the darkness behind a bend in the road. The car veers around the corner, wheels squealing, loose stones scattering.
I throw myself into the hedge. The vehicle accelerates past in a flash of metal, the headlights blinding me. Then it’s over, and I’m left in the dark, shaking, caught up in twigs and leaves.
The driver had to be drunk. An idiot with a death wish. I frown as I listen to the revving engine fading away. But the noise turns into a sickening shriek, rubber skidding against tarmac. My insides squirm. An explosion rips the air. Then eerie silence.
I drop the bike and run towards that empty, spinning quiet. As I round the bend, I see the bulk of the car overturned, crum- pled around a tree. A monstrous shape stranded on its back. The moon sheds enough light to show the deep tracks the car has ploughed up the bank, the destroyed fence and furrows of fresh earth leading to crushed metal and splintered wood. I have to force myself to approach, heart jumping at my ribs.
My brain scrambles to understand. I fall to my knees, pushing my way through ripped-up undergrowth and mounds of dirt to look through the upside-down window. The slumped, half-hanging figure has its face turned away.
But I know him, know my husband, even broken and contorted in that dark space.
The stink of petrol is overpowering. Hot metal. Bruised rubber. There’s a steady tick and hiss of something dripping. A small, removed part of me is aware of cool crushed grasses under my folded legs. My fingers are already clawing at the door handle. It’s jammed tight. A wave of earth has risen and settled against the side of the car, half-covering the glass, wedging the door shut. I clench my teeth, slam my fists against the window. ‘Will!’ Sobs open the tightness of my throat. I can’t get at him. The front of the car has buckled, pleating as if it’s made of paper; and although the windscreen’s shattered, my access is blocked by a solid mess of tree and warped metal.
I remember my mobile and run, stumbling back to my abandoned bike. Falling to my knees, I scrabble through my handbag, pushing past objects until I grasp the small, hard shape of my phone. Did I charge it? I hold it up, praying that I have enough signal. With shaking fingers I jab in the emergency numbers.
‘Help . . . I need help,’ I gasp. ‘An ambulance. My husband . . . ’ The woman at the other end is calm. She’s asking me questions. The authority of her voice pulls me into the world of
names, addresses, directions, information.
Back beside the car, I find a stone in the dirt.
‘Help’s coming. Do you hear?’ I hammer the rock against the passenger window, shouting to William. ‘Don’t you dare leave me. It’s going to be OK.’
I smash with all my force, and the glass cracks, shattering into tiny pieces. Plunging my hand through, I feel a shock of pain. But I’m inside, pushing past the buckled steering wheel and dangling fabric to touch flesh. I need to find his breath. A pulse. I move my hands across the shape of Will’s face, press my fingers to his lips. Feel the gap where teeth should be. Touch something sticky. He doesn’t move.
Desolation empties me out, bones and muscles sucked away.
I don’t know how long I crouch on the cold earth, before my grief rises to meet the wail of the ambulance, a police car fol- lowing behind. The nightmare scene around me fractures inside a pulse of blue, dancing circles of torchlight picking out details I don’t want to see.
I let myself be led towards the waiting vehicles. Someone drapes a blanket around my shoulders. I stand while another person dabs at the blood on my wrists, patches up the cuts.
William was supposed to be at home. He said he had marking to do, work on his book. He said he’d be in the study all evening. Why was he driving through the night like a maniac? I drop my head, exhausted. He’ll have an explanation, of course he will.
My husband is predictable and steady, and he loves me.