It’s my stop on the blog tour for Imperfect Women by Araminta Hall, and I have an extract to share with you! But first, here’s what the book is all about.
Nancy, Eleanor and Mary met at college and have been friends ever since, through marriages, children and love affairs.
Eleanor is calm and driven, with a deep sense of responsibility, a brilliant career and a love of being single and free – despite her soft spot for her best friend’s husband.
Mary is deeply intelligent with a love of learning, derailed by three children and a mean, demanding husband – she is now unrecognisable to herself and her friends.
Nancy is seemingly perfect: bright, beautiful and rich with an adoring husband and daughter – but beneath the surface her discontent is going to affect them all in terrible ways.
When Nancy is murdered, Eleanor and Mary must align themselves to uncover her killer. And as each of their stories unfold, they realise that there are many different truths to find, and many different ways to bring justice for those we love…
Everyone wants a perfect life. But there is no such thing…
She sat up because she hadn’t even been aware of answering the phone and the night was still black and nothing made sense. Her head spun and she dropped it forward to make it stop, which allowed other things to fall into place.
‘I’m sorry to wake you.’
‘What time is it?’
‘Just after four.’
‘My God, has something happened?’
‘No. Well, I don’t know. Nancy’s not here. I must have fallen asleep when I was reading because I’ve just woken up and she’s not back. And her phone’s going straight to voicemail.’
The streetlights were seeping in through the cracks in Eleanor’s curtains and she tried to focus on the strip of artificial light, as if it meant something.
‘You don’t know where she is, do you? I mean, she didn’t by any chance come back to yours after dinner, did she?’ His voice sounded like overstretched elastic.
‘No, no, she didn’t.’ She swung her legs out of the bed and all the irritation she’d felt for Nancy the night before, for ages really, sloshed around her body. ‘Look, I can be there in fifteen minutes.’
‘Oh, God, you don’t have to . . .’
‘It’s fine, Robert. I’ll throw on some clothes and get in the car.’
The elastic in his voice snapped. ‘Oh God, do you think then . . . I mean, should I call the police?’
‘No, wait for me.’ Eleanor pulled on her jeans as she spoke and her irritation mutated to anger. She wanted to pick up something and hurl it against the wall. She wanted to scream into Nancy’s perfect face. She wouldn’t let her get away with this. She would recount everything, every last painful second, she would spare her nothing.
As she drove the few miles between her small flat and Nancy’s large house, Eleanor calibrated all the words she would say to her friend when she saw her next. How she would demand that Nancy stopped playing these stupid games with them all and just bloody own up to what she’d done so they could get on with their lives. Over the years Eleanor had watched Nancy constantly create little dramas in her life, culminating now in this big one, and she couldn’t help wondering if it was to add interest to a life that wasn’t nearly as full as it could have been. She wondered sometimes what it must be like to occupy Nancy’s brilliant brain, but never put it to any tangible use. Nancy could really have been or done anything, and yet she had so often failed to commit to anything whole-heartedly. It sometimes felt like Nancy had written herself out of the story of her own life, and surely that was an act of sabotage.
She stopped at a red traffic light and three teenagers tripped across the road, their arms interlinked, their faces creased by laughter. And then she just felt sad because they seemed to have appeared like a message from her past, or a rip in the seam of time, because they could have been her, Nancy and Mary from thirty years before.
One of the girls turned as they passed the car and her gaze locked with Eleanor’s so her smile faltered for a moment before she was pulled back into the conversation by her friend. They looked like the students Nancy, Mary and her had been when they’d met, on almost the first day of Freshers’ week, amazed at their luck in finding each other so soon. Eleanor wondered if they were going back to a messy house in which they’d laugh about the night they’d just had, before talking about the people they were going to become, the loves they would experience, the lives waiting for them to step into.
As she started driving again she tried to remember what it was they’d felt so certain they’d accomplish. She supposed she’d not swerved too far from her path, although she’d imagined herself running Oxfam and sitting on committees by now,
Instead of the small aid charity she’d set up. Mary had wanted to stay in the world of Greek gods forever and had her eye on a life of academia. In actuality, Eleanor thought her life more closely resembled the punishment of a Greek god, with her terrible marriage that seemed to have sucked the life out of her, although she did undeniably adore her children, who were now not even children, and where the hell did time go. It was hard even to remember what Nancy had wanted to be. Eleanor thought it had to do with journalism, editing a newspaper she thought had been the ultimate goal, although it all seemed so unlikely now, as the idea of Nancy ever being satisfied enough by anything seemed implausible.
Nancy and Robert’s house was lit up like a Christmas tree. Eleanor could tell from the road that Robert must have been into every room and now it shone out of the dark street as if ready for a party. Robert’s face showed up in the rounded living-room window and he opened the front door as she came up the steps, where they hugged a greeting, him drawing her in as he always did.
‘Shall I make some tea?’ he asked as they went downstairs to the basement kitchen.
‘I’ll do it. Sit down,’ Eleanor said.
He did as he was told, folding his already crumpled body into a chair and rubbing his hands into his eyes, creasing further his already rumpled skin. His blond hair was a mess, sleep ravaged, she thought, and it spiked her familiar tenderness for him.
They sat together and sipped their tea and neither of them said anything because neither of them wanted to be the one to say it, neither wanted to know or tell. For a second, Eleanor thought, they could have just been a couple, an early start at work beckoning, their comfortable house settled around them.
‘Do you know where she is?’ Robert asked finally.
‘Not exactly.’ Eleanor cupped her hands around her mug and tried to imagine how she was going to say what she knew.
‘But there is someone else, isn’t there?’ He looked straight at her with his question.
‘Oh God, Robert, I could kill Nancy.’ She couldn’t be the one to tell Robert, but then again she couldn’t lie to his face.
‘How long has it been going on?’
‘You need to have this conversation with her.’
‘But I can’t, she’s not here.’
Eleanor thought that Nancy had been putting her in impossible situations for most of their lives, but this was perhaps the worst. She might not forgive her this time. ‘Oh, Robert, I’m so sorry.’
‘Did she go to him last night?’
‘After we met, she said she was going to meet him. I didn’t know beforehand, I promise.’
‘It’s not your fault, Eleanor.’ But his voice was harsher than she’d heard before. ‘Do you think that’s it then? Have they run away together?’
‘I really don’t think so. She’s been trying to end things with him, but he hasn’t been taking no for an answer.’ For the first time, Eleanor felt a seam of fear in her belly because Nancy had been wanting to end the affair for a while now and she couldn’t imagine what this other man could have said to make her change her mind like this. Nancy wasn’t mean, she certainly wasn’t the sort of person not to come home to her husband of over twenty years. She spoke again to allay her fears. ‘She’s hardly told me anything about him, beyond the fact of him. She was upset last night. She really has been trying to finish things.’
‘Who is he?’
Eleanor felt nausea rise through her body with the warmth of the tea. ‘Really, I don’t know. All she’s told me is that he’s called David and she met him through a work thing.’
He flinched at the information as if she’d burnt him. ‘But is it serious enough for her to do this, for her to leave?’
Eleanor thought of Nancy’s pale face from the night before, from this same night really, which was an absurd thought. It was true that she’d wanted to end the affair, but she had also been visibly devastated and it was always so hard to tell with Nancy what was real or exaggerated. Eleanor comforted herself with the thought that Nancy was impetuous and daring. She wouldn’t have run away, but it was possible that she could have done something this stupid. Eleanor looked back at Robert and his sharp blue eyes, his solid being, and she couldn’t understand why he hadn’t been enough. She’d gone to bed feeling guilty that she hadn’t been nicer to her friend, but now she thought she hadn’t been harsh enough.
‘I don’t know. It’s been going on for about a year.’ He rocked backwards with her words. ‘But, really, she was in the process of ending it, or at least trying to. She wants to try to make it work with you.’ God, Nancy deserved less than this.
‘So this could just be one last . . .’ His words trailed into the air, their sordidness sullying the perfection of the new kitchen Nancy had just put in.
‘Oh, Robert, this is fucking ghastly. You don’t deserve this. I am so sorry.’ Eleanor thought of the times she’d sat round this table eating Robert’s food and drinking his wine, of the weekends spent at their Sussex house, of the comfy beds and hot baths, of the fireside chats and the long walks. And it seemed shameful that she had betrayed his friendship.
‘Anyone would have done the same in your position. I mean, Nancy’s your friend.’
‘But you’re my friend too.’ She reached over and put her hand over his as she spoke and his skin was surprisingly soft.
The smile he gave her was stretched and tight.
‘If it makes it any better I’ve told her how much I disapprove of it all, since the beginning. I’ve never encouraged her.’
He checked the clock above the door and so Eleanor followed his gaze. ‘I suppose I should be getting ready for work.’
‘But it’s only five-thirty.’
‘We’ve got a big case on.’
‘But, I mean, surely today. Are you really going in?’
‘I can’t sit around here moping. And I’d rather not make any decisions before I’ve spoken to Nancy. It would be better to keep busy.’
‘So you’re going to forgive her?’ Eleanor’s voice sounded shrill to her ears. ‘Without knowing any of the facts?’ The charm of Nancy’s life reverberated around her and for a moment she couldn’t bear it, couldn’t bear that she would get away with this as well. But she pushed that thought away because she needed to stop letting the last year sour her feelings about Nancy. Nancy was also a woman she loved and cherished, who made her laugh, who was always at the other end of the phone, who often took care of her.
‘I didn’t say that.’ Eleanor heard the pureness of the anger in his voice. His hand was gripping the side of the table, the veins standing out of his skin. ‘But we’ve been together for a very long time. And there’s Zara. I mean, you don’t just throw away over twenty years.’
The moment felt unreal, maybe because it was so early and still dark as night outside. Eleanor swallowed down her tears along with her shame – of course she didn’t know what it was like to consider those sorts of things, other people, long-time loving. But then Robert stood and so Eleanor did the same because he clearly wanted her to leave.
‘Thanks for coming,’ Robert said as they made their way back up the stairs.
They stopped at the front door. ‘How did you know she was having an affair?’
Robert shrugged and his eyes refused to rest on hers. ‘Something’s obviously been up for a while. I suppose it’s just one of the things you consider.’
Eleanor rubbed Robert’s arm through his jersey. ‘I think you’ll sort it out. I hope you do.’
He opened the front door and the chill of the early morning was penetrating. ‘If you hear from her today let me know, she might not call me.’
‘Of course I will. And you me.’ She was shivering with the cold, but Robert hadn’t seemed to notice. ‘Anyway.’ She turned to go but as she did a white car pulled up outside the house. She looked back at Robert and his face told her that she wasn’t wrong. They both watched in the silent, thick stillness of the beginning of a day as two policemen got out of the car and turned towards the house.
‘Oh God,’ Robert said behind her.
As they came up the steps, their uniforms blended into the dark.
‘Mr Hennessy?’ one asked.
‘Yes,’ Robert said.
‘Can we come in, please, sir?’
Robert stepped backwards and Eleanor remembered how you had to invite vampires into your house, they couldn’t just walk in.
They went back into the hall and Eleanor wanted to shake them all, to ask the policemen why it wasn’t strange to find them standing on the doorstep before dawn. She didn’t want to be part of their world in which everything and anything was probable.
‘Is there somewhere we can sit down?’ the policeman asked, so Robert opened the door to the drawing room, painted in the bright yellow Nancy had always loved. One room in every house should be sunny, Eleanor heard her say as she sat on the sofa, like they were a group of friends who happened to be meeting before most people were awake.
‘Sorry, and you are?’ the policeman said to her.
‘Oh, sorry, this is Eleanor Meakins. She’s a good friend of my wife’s.’ The statement hung terrifyingly in the air when it should have needed explanation.
‘Please, Mr Hennessy, sit down,’ the policeman said.
‘No,’ replied Robert, ‘I’d rather stand.’
The policeman removed his hat and his colleague copied. ‘I’m very sorry. The body of a woman in her late forties was found just over an hour ago and we have reason to believe it is your wife, Nancy Hennessy.’
Robert sat at that, right next to Eleanor; she felt the sofa compress and his body sink against hers. She concentrated on that for as long as she could as the rest of the world spun around her.
‘What makes you think it’s Nancy?’ Robert asked finally.
‘Her bag was found with her and her driving licence was in her purse.’ The second policeman still hadn’t spoken and Eleanor wondered if he was on some sort of training exercise.
‘Oh my God. What happened to her?’ Eleanor’s mind was filled with the thought of Nancy spending the night out in this freezing cold.
‘At the moment we’re not entirely sure. But it looks like she suffered a head trauma.’
Eleanor tried to make sense of the words that were being said. They had called Nancy a body and now they were talking about a head trauma. Surely someone hadn’t hurt her in some way, surely there was some mistake? She felt a sickening anger at that thought, and a desperate desire to rush to her friend and soothe away her pain.
‘Where is she?’ Eleanor asked. ‘I mean, is she dead?’
Both policemen and Robert turned to look at her as if she was stupid. ‘Yes,’ the speaking policeman said finally. ‘I’m sorry, I thought you understood . . .’ He blushed a deep crimson. ‘She’s in a mortuary now.’
‘Where was she found?’ Robert asked.
‘By the river, near Hammersmith. I’m sorry to ask but have you got a recent photo of your wife?’
Robert didn’t seem like he was going to move so Eleanor stood and fetched a photo from the mantelpiece. She picked a recent one of Nancy with her arm round Zara. Bad photos of Nancy didn’t exist, but this one was particularly luminous because the sun was behind her and accentuating her perfection, almost giving her an outline. She handed it to the policeman and he nodded when he looked at it.
‘We’re going to have to ask you to come and identify the body, Mr Hennessy. Or if there’s someone who can do it for you?’
Robert groaned, a low bear-like sound.
‘I can do it,’ Eleanor said.
‘No,’ Robert said. ‘It should be me.’
Their eyes met as he spoke and Eleanor felt a jolt of terror pass through her as she realised that everything about Nancy’s death was worse than any other death anywhere. They would all suffer and nothing would ever be the same again.
As she waited for Robert on the cold plastic chairs outside the viewing room she couldn’t remember how they’d arrived at the mortuary. She tried to reassemble the journey in her mind, to give it some cohesion, but nothing came. Robert reappeared relatively quickly, but his eyes were unfocused and his body appeared to be trembling.
‘Do you mind if I go in?’ Eleanor surprised herself by saying, but he waved her in, so then she felt like she should.
The room was artificially dark, or at least subdued, with fake flowers dusty in vases and a navy velvet chair in one corner. The outline of a body, which Eleanor supposed to be Nancy, lay on the bed, covered by a sheet. A woman was standing next to the shape and she nodded, so Eleanor nodded back. The woman leant forward and folded the white sheet back, so Eleanor only realised what she was doing when it was too late and she didn’t have any time to prepare herself for what she was going to see. And then there was nothing more to do than step closer and look at her friend. She momentarily felt a pang of relief because they’d clearly got it wrong, it wasn’t really her. It was just a facsimile of Nancy, a waxwork, a cardboard cut-out. Eleanor wanted to reach out and feel her skin, which already looked devoid of anything meaningful. Her beauty, which had been so present in life, had vanished, as if it knew what was to come, as if it couldn’t bear to let itself mush and decay and be eaten by worms. Eleanor gasped at her own thoughts, but the woman holding the sheet averted her gaze and besides, she must have seen everything in this terrible room. What a job. It seemed impossible that anyone would want a job like this.
Eleanor stepped closer because there was something wrong, or missing perhaps, that she couldn’t work out. Nancy’s left cheekbone was swollen and a yellow bruise had crept up under the strange turban-like thing she was wearing. Her jaw looked strange as well, almost as if she’d been to the dentist and left in the wodge of cotton wool they used. She wanted to turn away because it all spoke of something very ugly that had happened to her friend and she couldn’t bear to think of the violence that must have produced those marks. Her last moments had been painful, that much was blindingly clear.
But in fact the strangest thing was that Nancy didn’t have any hair, or at least that her hair had been completely covered by this odd turban. Nancy was always surrounded by her golden hair, long and straight in university, rising upwards, curling, now a flouncy bob that stopped just above her shoulders. That was as far as her hair would go, Eleanor realised with a jolt, Nancy would never have another haircut.
But mixed in with all of that, was the knowledge that Eleanor had known Nancy had been going to meet her lover, and what if he was the person who had done this? What if Eleanor could have said the right words to stop her going and didn’t? She hadn’t even tried, she realised. Sickness rose through her and her anger at this woman she had shared so much of her life with pooled in a mess by her feet, so she was just left with shame at herself. Eleanor had loved this woman and had let this happen to her.
Doesn’t that sound fantastic? Imperfect Women is published by Orion and is available to purchase now. Many thanks to the publisher and to Francesca Pearce for my copy of the book and the opportunity to take part in the blog tour.
And make sure you check out the other fabulous bloggers taking part in the tour: