Dublin, Ireland, 2014
On that crisp January afternoon, the park lay silvery and deserted, coated in a thin layer of frost. The grass crunched under Georgina’s feet as she followed shrieks of laughter to a cluster of evergreen bushes and trees.
‘Boys!’ she called towards the bushes. ‘Out where I can see you, please!’
Luke and Patrick, her son’s friends, tumbled out first. They were giggling, faces flushed so pink Georgina doubted they felt the cold at all.
‘Come on, you two, back to the playground.’
They bolted off obediently. But Cody did not emerge.
Georgina waited. Her breath clouded the air.
Of course her child would be the defiant one. Georgina sighed.
‘Cody, don’t make me come in there and get you.’
Still nothing. Luke and Patrick had reached the playground.
Their delighted screams echoed over the otherwise silent fields. A distant dog walker was the only other person in sight.
Just as Georgina was about to push through the branches herself, the leaves shivered, and her son appeared. Her annoyance melted away in the face of that cheeky half- smile.
‘Come on. Your friends are at the playground.’ She ruffled his muss of dark hair as they began to walk.
He was sucking on a lollipop he hadn’t had earlier.
Georgina frowned. ‘Where did you get that?’
Cody took the lollipop out of his mouth. ‘The old lady gave it to me.’
‘What old lady?’
‘The old lady in the bushes.’
He popped it back in his mouth and made to run after his friends. Georgina stopped him.
‘You were talking to an old lady in the bushes? Just now?’
Cody nodded, impatient to be off.
‘Why would she give you a lollipop, Cody?’
He shrugged. ‘She said she was my granny.’
The shiver that travelled down Georgina’s spine had nothing to do with the cold. Each hair on the back of her neck stood up as if brushed by a spiderweb.
‘Cody,’ she said, when she trusted herself to speak, ‘that’s not right. You know Granny is dead.’
‘I know that,’ Cody said scornfully. ‘She said it. Can I go, Mam, please?’
Georgina nodded, too shaken to continue the conversation, and watched him tear off to the playground.
She turned back towards the bushes. They were still. She looked around the park but could see no one. Even the dog walker had disappeared from sight.
‘Patrick, you’re on!’ Cody was screaming gleefully. ‘Catch me if you can, catch me if you can!’
Georgina walked over to the thicket of bushes and trees.
She took a step closer, then another, and tried peering through the leaves. But all she could see were tree trunks and darkness.
Suddenly self- conscious, she backed away and cut a brisk path to the playground.
‘Cody,’ she asked, when she managed to pull him away from his friends, ‘where did the lollipop really come from?’
‘The lady. I told you.’ He wriggled out from under her grasp.
‘Cody, come on. You shouldn’t make up—’
But he was racing back to his friends.
Georgina sat down on a bench.
She said she was my granny.
She wanted to cry. As of last year – 4 July, a date now carved into Georgina’s heart – Cody didn’t have a grandmother. Bren’s parents had passed away before Cody was born, but Georgina’s mother had been a warm, wonderful presence in her grandson’s first seven years of life. Now she wouldn’t see his eighth birthday. Georgina wiped away a tear. She didn’t know what would compel Cody to say such a thing, but it was upsetting, it was wrong.
‘Mam!’ Cody was hanging upside down off the climbing frame. ‘Look at me, look at meee!’
‘I see you, sweetie!’ Georgina forced a cheerful tone. She wished now that she hadn’t agreed to this play date, but it was too late. Luke and Patrick’s respective parents weren’t picking them up until seven. Georgina felt tired at the thought.
As they left the park, she looked back over her shoulder, across the icy fields to that lonely patch of trees – and again felt that soft spiderweb brush against the hairs on the back of her neck.
‘Jesus, that must’ve been upsetting to hear,’ was Bren’s reaction when Georgina recounted the story that evening.
‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘It was.’
They were standing in the amber-lit kitchen of their small, slightly shabby, but beloved house. Cosy, Georgina called it. Cramped, Bren said, but affectionately. Their house was in an area of Dublin that was also slightly shabby, but colourful and central and bustling too. ‘An area on the up and up!’ was how estate agents described it. ‘Affordable and close to work’ was how Bren and Georgina described it.
Cody was watching TV in the front room, his friends finally gone home.
‘I asked Luke and Patrick if they saw anyone in the bushes,’ Georgina continued. ‘They said no.’
‘Well, obviously.’ Bren’s tone was amused, but warm enough that the words didn’t sting. ‘What, you thought she might’ve been real? The ghostly woman in the bushes?’
‘No, of course not,’ said Georgina. ‘I just felt freaked out, I guess. The park was deserted, it was all creepy . . . And the thing I couldn’t understand was – where did Cody get the lollipop?’
Bren was grinning now. ‘Come on, Georgie. You can’t think of anywhere Cody might have stolen a lollipop?’
She could, of course: a jar of lollipops stood on Cody’s teacher’s desk, to be handed out each Friday to the team of seven- year- olds with the most stars for good behaviour that week. Due almost entirely to the fact of Cody and Patrick’s membership, Team Orange never won.
‘If he’d pocketed it in school, he obviously wouldn’t tell you,’ Bren pointed out.
‘I didn’t think of that.’ Georgina wondered why this obvious explanation hadn’t occurred to her. Had it been the factual manner in which Cody had reported the incident? Or the eerie setting, the quiet park?
‘I just felt unsettled,’ she concluded. ‘After he mentioned my mam.’
‘Of course you did.’ Bren put an arm around her. ‘Anyone would be rattled after hearing that.’
She leant against him. Their embrace was reflected in the kitchen window: Bren six foot two and lanky, with loose brown curls and glasses, and Georgina shorter, slender, with cropped blonde hair and soft features. Bren teased her gently about that haircut, said she could never look edgy no matter how hard she tried; her face was too warm, too approachable.
‘It’s probably just a game he finds comforting,’ Bren continued.
‘Just his way of feeling close to Rose.’
A tired, heavy sadness washed over Georgina. ‘Yeah, maybe.’
‘Children have odd ways of dealing with grief. He didn’t know it would upset you.’ Bren kissed her forehead, then moved away to put the kettle on. ‘D’you want a cup of tea?’
When she nodded again, he took down her favourite chipped mug. In that instant she felt so comfortable here in their little house with the crammed bookshelves, the potted plants, the crooked lamp in the corner . . . And the sofa, where Bren had slept when things got really bad between them last year.
‘Fancy going to the cinema this weekend?’ Bren’s voice was a welcome diversion to her train of thought. ‘The Light House is showing Breakfast at Tiffany’s.’
That movie was one of Georgina’s favourites; she knew it would never be Bren’s choice.
‘I can’t,’ she said with real regret, sitting down at the table. ‘I have so much studying to catch up on.’
‘You don’t have to keep your nose to the grindstone all the time. A couple of hours off would do you good.’
‘No, I really can’t.’
‘No worries.’ Bren placed the mug of chamomile tea in front of her. He had been unfailingly supportive, both financially and emotionally, of Georgina’s decision to go back to college. However, since her mother’s death, he’d expressed concern on several occasions that she had too much on her plate. Georgina didn’t disagree, but she didn’t know what he expected her to do about it. She was doing the best she could.
‘Oh, and I have to find time to visit my dad this weekend,’ she remembered. Georgina’s father had not been doing well since her mother’s death.
‘I’ll come with you. And we can bring Cody.’
‘That’d be nice. Seeing Cody always cheers him up.’
She sipped her tea.
‘You know,’ said Bren, ‘studies suggest that having children doesn’t actually make you happier. But people with grandchildren are apparently happier than people without.’
‘No wonder. You get all the good parts, then you get to hand them back at the end of the day.’
‘Exactly.’ He grinned. ‘One day, we’ll be old and grey and Cody will have his own kid and it’ll all have been worth it.’
They sat quietly for a while.
Georgina and Bren had met in their early twenties. She had been immediately impressed by him. He had a master’s in psychology and a job at a well- known tech company, helping them make their websites more user- friendly. ‘I want to work as a psychologist eventually,’ he’d told her at the time. ‘This is just for a couple of years.’ Bren was still in tech.
Georgina, contrastingly, had dropped out of university in her second year (a period of her life she preferred not to think about, even now) and had worked as a retail assistant in a bookshop ever since. When she and Bren met, she had been considering going back to college. But those plans were interrupted by Cody’s arrival.
Neither of them had intended to have a child quite so early, in their lives or the relationship. But they adored each other, and Cody, while unexpected, was very welcome. However, it meant Georgina was turning thirty by the time Cody started school and she could return to her own education.
Now she was one year away from being a fully qualified teacher.
Studying full- time. Working part- time. And raising her son. ‘What are you thinking about?’
She zoned back in to the kitchen.
‘My mam,’ she said. And it was the truth. When she thought about her day- to- day life, she was thinking about how her mother wasn’t there to be a part of it. When she thought about college, she was thinking that her mother wouldn’t be there to see her graduate. Georgina hadn’t stopped thinking about her in the six months since she’d died.
Bren reached out a hand to touch hers.
‘I haven’t gotten used to the thought of Dad in that big house on his own.’ Georgina felt tears fill her eyes. ‘God, here I go again with the waterworks. If Mam could see me, she’d tell me to stop my snivelling and get on with it.’ How she missed her mother’s ability to be warm and no- nonsense at the same time.
‘Well, we’re going to visit him this weekend, aren’t we?’
‘Maybe we should bring him over some dinner.’ That was what her mother would have done. Focused on something practical. ‘I know he’s not eating properly.’
‘I’ll cook something,’ Bren offered. He was far more capable in the kitchen than Georgina.
‘Thanks.’ She smiled at him. He was so good to her, in so many ways. At moments like these, she felt small and petty for being so slow to forgive him that one line he had crossed. After all, he’d only put a toe over it, hadn’t he?
They were here now, she reminded herself. They were trying.
But after teacups had been tidied away, teeth brushed and Cody tucked into bed, Georgina couldn’t bring herself to do the thing she’d been considering all evening: to take Bren by the hand and lead him into the bedroom, to undress and kiss and let go. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to. But she wanted to the same way she wanted to go to the gym: she knew she would feel better afterwards, but it was so hard to start, so much easier to stare at Netflix and eat Kettle crisps.
She knew Bren wanted to as well – knew this affected him, knew he felt rejected – and that made her feel simultaneously guilty and resentful. They wouldn’t be in this situation if not for Bren’s toe- over- the- line incident. They’d been doing all right on the sex front before. Maybe not fireworks – they’d been together too long for that – but they’d shared a gentle, familiar intimacy. Now when Georgina reached for those feelings, they just weren’t there.
The books and articles she’d been furtively reading on reigniting your love life all emphasised the importance of communication. Georgina didn’t feel like communicating with her husband right now. Instead, she spent her evening alternating between studying and scrolling through social media sites.
She and Bren went to bed at the same time, as they did most nights. Georgina was getting changed into her comfortable old nightdress, and Bren was in the bathroom brushing his teeth, when the house phone rang. The momentary pang of worry she felt if the phone rang late at night – was it her father? was something wrong? – had become a familiar one to Georgina since her mother’s passing.
She glanced at the screen. Caller ID hidden.
Silence on the line.
‘Dad? Is that you?’
It was a deliberate silence, somehow. It gave Georgina the odd but definite sense that someone was listening on the other end. She felt a sudden, absolute certainty that it was not her father.
‘Who is this?’
Bren dropped something in the bathroom with a loud clatter, and Georgina jolted. She hung up the phone. You’re being silly, she told herself as she got under the covers. But she couldn’t help wishing Bren would come back into the room.
He did, moments later. Switching off the lights, he settled in the bed beside her, warm and solid and smelling of soap.
‘Who was on the phone?’
‘Prank call, I think. There was someone on the line, but they didn’t say anything.’
‘Kids still do prank calls nowadays? How very nineties.’
He draped an arm around her waist. All the sex they weren’t having couldn’t change this: the familiar shape their bodies made, tucked together like spoons for almost a decade now. Despite the things that had faltered between them in the past year, physical affection remained, and this gave Georgina hope that they could get back to where they’d once been.
‘Spooked you, didn’t it?’ Bren could always read her mood.
‘I just hate calls at night. I always think the worst.’ She relaxed against him. ‘And I was surprised when the house phone rang.’ Neither she nor Bren ever used it, relying on their smartphones for everything.
‘We should get rid of it.’ Bren yawned. ‘The thing’s prehistoric.’
He wasn’t wrong. Their house phone was an ancient block of a thing that did not record the date or time of calls, only the number. Within minutes Bren was snoring, a low, comforting rumble. Georgina lay awake a while longer, listening to the winter wind outside. It gusted and howled, and sent tree branches scratching against windows, like fingers searching for a way in.
by Rachel Ryan
*THE TOP TEN BESTSELLER*
'A tense, unsettling thriller' T. M. LOGAN, author of THE HOLIDAY
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'Packs an emotional punch' IRISH INDEPENDENT
'Eerie and unsettling' CATHERINE RYAN HOWARD, author of 56 DAYS
'Beautifully written, perfectly paced' THE TABLET
What if your child's imaginary friend was real?
All children have imaginary friends. It's perfectly normal.
But when Georgina's young son Cody tells her about his 'New Granny', a mysterious friend from the park, the words send shivers down her spine. Georgina's beloved mother died only months ago.
Her husband Bren is certain the woman is an invention, Cody's way of grieving for his grandmother, but there's something in the way Cody talks about his new friend that feels so real.
Is someone out there, watching Georgina's family from the shadows?
Is Cody's imaginary friend not so imaginary after all?
An absolutely gripping psychological thriller with an emotional punch that will take your breath away. The perfect suspense novel for fans of Lisa Jewell, Clare Mackintosh and Jane Corry.
What readers are saying . . .
***** 'Wow . . . unputdownable'
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