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Read an extract from The Secretary by Zoe Lea

The Secretary

ONE

HMP WESTMORLAND PRISON, CUMBRIA

24 APRIL

You’re getting these letters, aren’t you?
I thought the prison was stopping them, they confiscate stuff in here for no reason sometimes and I thought that might be it. But it’s been six months and I’ve been writing every few weeks since I began my sentence. That’s seventeen letters and not one reply. Not one. That’s cruel. I knew you could be bitter, but this is a bit much, even for you.
You want me to beg? OK, I’m begging. Please, for Christ’s sake, please write me a bloody letter. Anything. A postcard, a scrawl on the back of an envelope, even you can do that. Before I came in here, you promised to visit, to write. I’m not asking for a visit, I know you won’t come and see me, but I need a letter.
I need to be able to write to someone who was there when it happened. I only had the light from my mobile phone, I didn’t have a torch. I could only see shadows and it happened so fast. I can still see the expression of that woman police officer. She was so young; do you remember her? You said you wouldn’t trust her to write out a parking ticket, never mind sort out what happened that night. And her face! It went white when she saw and she put her hand over her mouth. Was she sick? I remember
the screams, or am I imagining the screams? That’s why I need you to write, because it’s blurring around the edges. I’ve thought about it too much. I’m not certain how it happened any more and I feel like I’m going mad.
I keep thinking of the Border Reivers, those raiders who invaded the border and were put in the castle as a prison. We went there on a day trip, about six years ago. You were wearing those sunglasses, the ones you thought made you look like you were in an eighties movie and you lost them in the café. We went to Queen Mary’s Tower, she was held captive there for a while. You didn’t like the prisoner’s carvings on the second floor of the keep because some were so detailed, so finely engraved and labour intensive, you thought it was depressing, but that’s exactly how I feel.
Like I want to carve the memory of that night into stone, solidify it. I want to spend hours going over and over the same line, just to get it out of my head and somewhere else. Did you know that Kinmont Willie was one of the prisoners in there? He was a notorious raider and a large group of his friends broke into the castle to free him. I keep thinking that you’ ll free me.
Write me a letter. Anything. Tell me you were there when it happened. It’s been long enough, and I’m so very, very sorry. Please, I can’t stand the company of my own mind any longer.

 

TWO

 

Seven months earlier

 

I’ve often thought there’s a secret pact between mothers. A pact so unspoken and private, most don’t realise they’re in it. You don’t realise you’re in it until you hear yourself telling someone who isn’t a medical professional just how unreliable your pelvic floor muscles are. A person who, under regular circumstance, you would never speak to, never mind tell them that you can no longer go on a trampoline without peeing a little, and yet here you are.
You listen to their confessions about how they lost their child in the park for a minute, or how they ate three chocolate bars in the car without taking breath, and you can’t stop yourself. You join in, admit your faults and enter into the pact that makes it all right to have these conversations with virtual strangers.
You give unwanted advice, make judgements, discuss intimate details with people you have nothing in common with, other than you are both mothers, and it’s fine. It’s all fine. And then the kids stop playing, the soft play shuts, the party ends and it’s time to go home and everyone goes back to their normal lives, forgetting that they’ve shared something private, showed their underbelly.
But again, it’s fine. And that’s because of the other thing that ties parents together in this secret pact: the unspoken understanding of love.
The love we have for our kids: it cuts through all the bullshit and allows this kind of behaviour to take place. We are all agreed that we’d do anything for our kids, and this understanding is a great leveller. It’s also what led me to be waiting in an empty car park at six- thirty in the morning that September.
It was the third week of a new term, a fresh school year. The leaves had not yet turned, jackets were not yet needed and the sky was as clear and bright as if it were still late July. I wound down the window, breathed in the hot air and looked at the tarmac as it sparkled in the sunlight.
‘Thanks, Mum.’ Sam, my eight- year- old son, was in the passenger seat beside me. I turned to him, his face still puffy from sleep, the curve of his cheek particularly round and full, his hands clenched in a tight ball on his lap, and felt a rush of love, a familiar clench.
We were waiting for Gary, the school caretaker. I reached over and smoothed down the back of Sam’s hair. It was sticking up from where he’d been sleeping.
‘You don’t need to thank me.’ I gave his hand a squeeze. ‘I’ll speak to Miss Gleason this morning, before school starts. Promise.’

He nodded, keeping his eyes on the building in front of us.
It was a squat thing, late seventies in style, and the interior,
although covered by children’s artwork, was much the same as the exterior, badly in need of refurbishment. It was a relatively small school but it had a great Ofsted report and a reputation for being very nurturing. It was why we were here and why I was overjoyed when Sam got a place.
‘Miss Hooden was good,’ Sam said quietly. ‘Why couldn’t I stay with Miss Hooden? I liked Miss Hooden.’
‘Because Miss Hooden teaches year three and you’re in year four now.’ I smiled, but his eyes were fixed on the empty car park. ‘Miss Gleason teaches year four.’
He nodded. ‘I liked Miss Hooden,’ he said. ‘She isn’t nasty like Miss Gleason.’
‘Miss Gleason isn’t nasty,’ I told him. ‘She’s just trying to get you to do your best work.’
I followed his gaze. I’d been working at the school for nine months; three more and I’d be made permanent. It’d been such a triumph to get the job of school secretary. I hardly dared believe it when I got the call, but they were desperate as the last secretary had left abruptly and it helped that I knew one of the teachers, Becca, and that Sam was a pupil there so I knew some of the staff, but still, it was a surprise.
And it had been wonderful, it meant I was there for Sam and that I could talk to his teachers about how best to handle his needs. It meant I could tell Sam confidently that I could sort this little episode he’d had, that I’d see his class teacher, Miss Gleason, and would be able to talk to her as a colleague as well as a parent. She’d been supportive so far, but there was more she could do. She was new, I didn’t know her as well as the others, but I would, I’d make a friend of her.

‘Will I have to live with my dad now?’ he suddenly asked, and I felt myself contract.
‘What? No, of course not, where did that come from?’
He paused. ‘Last time I was with Dad he said that if I got into trouble again, he’d make me live with him.’
I did my best to contain the shot of anger that swooped up inside of me.
‘And now I’ve done this –’ his bottom lip stuck out, trembling ‘– so does this mean that I’ll have to go live with him?’
‘Listen to me.’ I leaned over so I was close to his face and took both of his hands in mine. Warm little things, chubby fingers. ‘You are never going to live with anyone else other than me, understand?’
He gave a small nod, but his eyes told me he was unsure.
‘No matter what your dad says, you are with me for ever. I won’t let anyone take you away, not even your dad. OK?’
A fat tear plopped down his cheek, and not for the first time I wanted to strangle Will, my ex- husband. I leaned over and wrapped my arms around Sam and swallowed down the anger. It was something I was used to, pushing down the rage at my ex- husband. I know most divorced women will tell you that their ex is a wanker and an idiot but mine really was. First rate. And with each passing day and new stupid thing he did, he grew into his wanker persona even more. But threatening to make Sam live with him? This was new. He’d made noises about visitation rights and custody before, but saying it outright to Sam was new. It seemed we were on another level of
prize wanker- dom. Oh joy.
‘Here we go,’ I said, as a familiar Renault swung into the car park. ‘You OK, sweetie?’
He nodded, wiping his face, hands scraping over his soft cheek, trying to get it together. ‘Thanks, Mum,’ he said, but it was barely above a whisper and there was that inner clench again, the grasping of my love for him tugging at my heart. I’d deal with Will later.
‘Stop thanking me,’ I told him. ‘I’m your mum, this is what I do.’ I kissed him, smiled and waited for him to smile back at me before we got out of the car.