Sleep Sister: A page-turning novel of psychological suspense

Sleep Sister

A page-turning novel of psychological suspense

Laura Elliot

Contents

To my husband Sean

With love

Thank you for your support through the rough and the smooth, for the cups of coffee that always arrive at the right time, and for listening to my convoluted plots that are sharpened by your words of advice, caution and wisdom.

Prologue

H
is wife collects mirrors
. So many shapes and sizes on the walls: oval, round, square, star-shaped, bevelled, one studded with red stones and a tiny mirror sunk in crystal. The cold glitter of glass traps him when he enters her bedroom. Candles have guttered and gone cold. The uneven stalactites hanging from the holders suggest that they burned late into the night and the faint smell of wax still lingers in the air.

Voices chant softly from the CD player on her bedside locker. An obscure Russian recording of male choral singers she picked up on one of her trips abroad. The tenor’s voice soars, as if lifted high on the stanchions of bass and baritone. He has always disliked the recording, too dirge-like, yet, in a chilling jolt of awareness, he understands why Sara listens to it with an almost trance-like rapture. These voices, unaccompanied by music, have the power to elevate the listener, each chant one step closer to heaven. He shivers, knowing that this harmonious chorus is playing on repeat but she can no longer hear their sacred song. The mosaic of mirrors glints as he drags his gaze away from his reflection and he is conscious of a shift in the air, as if something terrifying but as yet undefined is rushing towards him.

He approaches the bed where she rests. She appears to be sleeping, yet her stillness tells him everything he needs to know. Her slender fingers are bruised to a purple hue. Her skin is alabaster, frozen.

Sara… Sara. Does he call out her name? Or breathe it as a soft accusation? He has no memory of doing either as he lifts her in his arms and shudders into her hair.

She did not leave a note. No explanation. As in life, the death of Sara Wallace will remain a private business.

Part 1

Chapter 1

Anaskeagh – the early years

H
er father was a magical musician
. Mr Music Man.

‘Dance, Beth, dance!’ he shouted. ‘Dance, my pretty girl.’ He played for Beth, tapping his big black boots on the kitchen floor. It was dark outside and Beth wanted to keep dancing on her toes… on and on and on… until the sun came up again and chased the monster away.

The monster lived upstairs in the wardrobe with the mothball smell and the old clothes Mammy didn’t wear any more, hiding small and mean until the light went out and Beth was left alone. He hid behind the red dress with the velvet buttons and made noise when he touched it, soft as trees whispering in her room. She knew he would carry her away in his arms as soon as she fell asleep.

‘Your mother was the talk of the town when she wore that dress to the Emerald Ballroom.’ Her father winked when he told her the story of the red dress. His words made pictures in Beth’s mind. The spotlight spinning rainbow colours across the ballroom and the feet of the dancers crashing thunder as they spun up and down, in and out, round and round to his music. Her mother was a bright flame and the dancers whirled her away from the stage where Mr Music Man stood tall and handsome, playing magical tunes only for her.

‘All the boys whistled at her, Beth. But I was the only one she heard.’ He moved his fingers up and down the keyboard and the accordion sang sweet and high. ‘I danced my pretty lady the whole way home and changed her name to Tyrell.’

‘A pity I bothered listening.’ Beth’s mother tossed her hair and frowned. ‘Will you stop filling the child’s head with nonsense, Barry Tyrell? It’s way past her bedtime.’ She took out her knitting and clicked the needles. She wrapped pale pink wool around her fingers. Beside the fire Sara lay in her Moses basket, tiny under the pink blanket. She had little fingers and a bump where her belly button should be. Her mother powdered it and shouted if Beth touched the soft place on top of her head.

‘Bold,
bold
girl! I told you to leave the baby alone. You’ll hurt her.’

Beth’s father put his accordion in the cubbyhole under the stairs and she felt herself growing smaller, curled up tight inside, when he lifted her onto his shoulders and carried her up the stairs. He blew kisses with his fingers and turned out the light. The darkness sighed around her.

In the Emerald Ballroom the dancers were waiting for Mr Music Man. The van with ‘Anaskeagh Ceili Band’ written on the side and shamrocks for dots above each ‘I’ stopped outside the house and off he went. Her mother climbed the stairs, making shushing noises when Sara cried. Their bedroom door closed and Beth could no longer hear the love noises. She wanted to be with them, snuggled warm and cosy under the eiderdown with only the clock ticking in the dark and the baby smells.

On the road outside she heard a van. Maybe her father was coming home to chase the monster away. He would chop the wardrobe into matchsticks. She waited for the squeaky sound he made when he whistled but the van went by the house… away… away… and the light went chasing along the wall and along the wardrobe and the monster was free.

She could see his devil face. His breath tickled her cheeks. Her hair lifted when he put his claws on her head. Even when she hid under the pillow she could see his bold eyes watching.

She cried, quietly at first. But the sound kept coming up her throat and bursting right out of her mouth. Her mother was sleepy-cross when she came into the room. She wore a nightdress to her toes and her hair hung over her face. ‘How often must I tell you? There’s no monster. Stop being such a silly girl. If I hear any more of your nonsense I’ll have to bring up Charlie.’ She pulled down Beth’s pyjama bottoms and slapped her bummy. Stingy pains down her legs and the door closed hard.

Charlie hung on a hook behind the kitchen door. A bamboo cane that her father called ‘an instrument of torture’. He threatened to break it in half. He never did. Nor did he chop the wardrobe into matchsticks. Charlie hurt more than her mother’s hand so Beth did not make a sound when the monster sighed and growled and crept to the wall, watching her, ready to carry her away if she fell asleep.

Chapter 2

T
he doorbell
never stopped ringing throughout the week before Christmas. Beth, who was responsible for answering the door, wondered if it was possible for anyone in Anaskeagh to buy a coat, dress, trousers or skirt that would fit without being altered. Marjory Tyrell was a genius with a needle and pins, the women said as they marched down the hall to her sewing room. She knew where to place a tuck, release a seam, rest a hemline on the most flattering part of the knee. They crowded her small sewing room with their ill-fitting clothes until Beth wanted to scream with annoyance.

Her Christmas dress was still not ready. The sleeves had to be inserted and it lay forgotten on the shelf, alongside the material for her new coat. If she asked when it would be ready her mother got cross and said Christmas was not just about new dresses or presents from Santa Claus. It was the birthday of the baby Jesus and Beth should remember that
He
was born in a manger and wrapped only in swaddling clothes. He didn’t go on and on about green velvet dresses or demand expensive presents because he understood the meaning of money and how difficult it was to earn it.

Sara’s dress was finished. So was her navy coat with the silver buttons down the front and across the shoulders. At the children’s Mass on Christmas Day, she would carry the baby Jesus in her arms up the aisle of the church. Beth fell into a sulk every time she thought about it. Usually the girl chosen to carry the baby Jesus was older than Sara, who was only four. Uncle Albi said she was a natural born angel and Father Breen agreed.

‘That brother of yours is a right fixer,’ Beth’s father said when he heard the news. Beth could see he was really pleased but her mother’s mouth tightened as if he had said something mean. Marjory told him he should be proud of his youngest daughter instead of making his usual smart remarks about Albert Grant, who was the most successful businessman in Anaskeagh. Sometimes she called him Albert Harrison-Grant in a posh voice but her father always called him a ‘chancer’.

He winked at Beth. ‘He may be able to pull the wool over the eyes of the world but Barry Tyrell can spot a chancer a mile away. Isn’t that a fact, Beth?’ He winked again, but she was afraid to smile at him in case her mother saw and took down Charlie.

On Christmas Eve Marjory was still snipping, hemming and speaking to her customers with her mouth full of pins. Barry carried the turkey from the garden shed into the kitchen. It had been hanging there since Uncle Albi had given it to them the previous Saturday. He won it playing golf. His third turkey since the competition began, he said, smiling at Beth with his big, strong teeth. What else would he do with it except give it to his favourite sweetheart?

‘Right you are then, my fine girls,’ her father said. ‘We’ve got a turkey to pluck.’

He cut off the feet and pulled the sinews so that the turkey’s claws wiggled. When it seemed as if they were dancing, he chased the girls around the kitchen. Beth didn’t want to make any noise in case it disturbed their mother but Sara shrieked. She ran round the table with her father chasing her, pretending he couldn’t catch her. Beth’s heart thumped. She knew her mother would hear and say it was her fault for not setting a good example. She imagined Charlie on her legs, the pain running hot to her toes. When Marjory came out of the sewing room she was as angry as Beth expected, but she used her hand instead of Charlie.

Afterwards, she said: ‘Let that be a warning to you, young madam. Next time I have to come out you’ll feel the full weight of my cane on your fat backside.’

‘Don’t be so hard on her,’ Barry shouted. ‘It’s Christmas, for Christ’s sake. All we’re doing is having a bit of fun.’

‘I wish I had time for fun,’ she shouted and slammed the sewing-room door behind her.

He put cold water on Beth’s legs and said the magic chant that made pain go away. Only the pain wouldn’t go away. She wanted him to go into the sewing room and tell her mother she had been quiet, as good as gold. Even when the horrible sharp claws scraped her cheek she had hugged the shout into herself. Sara was too excited about the baby Jesus to care, showing off with her doll in her arms and marching up and down the stairs, not helping to make the breadcrumbs for the stuffing or putting the feathers into the sack.

It was dark when Beth was called into the sewing room. The floor was covered with pieces of material and empty thread spools. Marjory pulled the dress over her head and stood behind her, staring into the long mirror. The dress was green and had a lace collar that could be taken off and washed separately. The dress was identical to the one she had made for Sara but it looked different on Beth, too tight at her waist where the wide white sash tied in a bow. Her ankles looked as thin as sticks peering from beneath the hem.

‘That will do fine.’ Marjory snipped a loose thread.

She sounded so relieved that Beth was afraid to say anything about her new coat. The material was still on the shelf. Her mother followed her gaze and frowned.

‘You’ll have to manage with your old coat, Beth. It’ll be fine after a good brushing.’ She grabbed Beth’s hand and swung her arm up in the air. ‘I’ve escaped from prison!’ she said and laughed out loud, forgetting all about Charlie and the turkey claws until she entered the kitchen and saw the feathers and breadcrumbs all over the floor and the giblets leaking blood on the draining board, and Beth’s father sitting in front of the fire with a glass of stout in his hand.

‘You lazy, good-for-nothing slob,’ she shouted and burst into tears.

‘Oh for Christ’s sake, you’re not the only one who’s tired around here,’ he cried and banged the glass of stout on the arm of the chair so hard that foam shot out over his hand. ‘Can’t you get it through your head, woman, that I have to work at night?’

Beth wanted to hide from their anger and the sight of her mother’s crumpled face. Her father noticed Beth and ordered her up to her bedroom. She ran upstairs, followed by Sara, running as fast as they could but still they could hear the voices rising and a chair crashing on the kitchen floor.

Sara kept talking about Santa. She put her hands over her ears and asked if Beth had ever heard sleigh bells or saw him flying with his reindeer across the sky. They peered out the window. At first, all they could see were the street lights on Fatima Parade and Christmas trees winking in windows. Then Beth saw a light streaking across the sky. It could have been a shooting star and stars always shone bright on Christmas Eve to guide the three wise men to the stable. The only other possible explanation was that a sleigh, guided by Santa and his reindeer, was on its way to Fatima Parade to bring joy and peace to everyone.

A
t the children’s
Mass on Christmas Day the choir sang ‘Away in a Manger’ as Sara walked up the aisle carrying the baby Jesus. Beth knew the baby was only a doll but it seemed so real when her sister walked past, her face not laughing or pulled into funny shapes but serious, as if she was doing the most important thing ever. She laid the baby in the centre of the crib with the snow and the straw and the silver star shining overhead, and Marjory sighed, as if she had been holding her breath all the time her daughter had been walking up the aisle.

When Christmas dinner was over and Barry had had a snooze, they visited Cherry Vale. Uncle Albi’s house had big bay windows and steps up to the front door. The angel on the Christmas tree had golden wings and blonde hair like Sara, so small and dainty, her tiny feet in poms, ready for dancing.

‘Don’t you dare touch anything, Beth.’ Marjory started fidgeting as soon as they entered the drawing room where all the precious ornaments were made of glass and china, and would break if Beth stood too close to them.

‘Guess what Santa Claus put into my stocking?’ Aunty May giggled and flashed her arm, showing off a charm bracelet. Tiny figures glinted every time they caught the light. Her lips looked bigger than they really were because she had drawn a bright red line over the top one. Uncle Albi had a pet name for May. She was his ‘Blossom’, he said, as fair as the fields of May. He kissed her on the lips when people were looking, which, Marjory said, puckering up her mouth as if she had seen something bold, was a very rude thing to do. A bad example to set in front of the children.

‘And how’s the accordion business, Mr Music Man?’ Uncle Albi poured whiskey into a glass and handed it to Beth’s father.

‘Excellent!’ Barry smacked his lips and stared into the sparkling glass as if he could see pictures swirling inside it.

‘Wait until the new year is over and then there’ll be a different story to tell,’ said Marjory.

Beth’s heart gave a little hurting kick. That was the sort of remark that made her father angry and she would hear them shouting in the night, even when she pulled the blankets over her head.

Her cousins sat beneath the Christmas tree, playing with a train set laid out on tracks. Conor was ten, big for his age. Kieran was eight, Beth’s age but smaller, which he hated. He looked up as she approached and brought the engine to a halt.

‘What did you get from Santa?’ Kieran asked.

‘A book and a tennis racquet,’ she replied.

‘You’ll be able to make a racket then,’ said Conor. He waited for everyone to laugh. When the adults did not turn around he repeated his remark in a louder voice. Beth stuck her tongue out at him, hating him because he was always making fun of her and doing Chinese burns on her arm worse than anyone she knew.

The previous summer, the back garden of Cherry Vale had been as smooth as a carpet, marked with white lines, with a net stretched across the centre.

‘Lady Muck, showing off as usual,’ said Marjory, sounding cross when Aunty May invited them over to see the new tennis court and have tea on the lawn. Her cousins, dressed in white shorts and tops, were hitting balls at each other across the net.

‘You could play with Kieran and Conor if you had your own racquet,’ Aunty May said.

Beth told her she was not allowed to make a racket and everyone except her mother laughed.

‘Really, Marjory, does the poor child know anything?’ Her aunt’s thin brown eyebrows disappeared under her fringe and Uncle Albi lifted Beth high up in the air. He said she was a great one for making a racket wherever she went but she was still his favourite sweetheart.

When Christmas tea was over, Barry played his accordion. Sara danced a reel, her hair bobbing around her face, light on her toes, and when she bowed, everyone clapped as if they were never going to stop. She would have danced again only her father said it was Beth’s turn. He squeezed the accordion and the notes seemed to dance with her. In her head she could hear his voice saying, ‘Listen to the beat, Beth.’ She felt herself rising, moving into the rhythm, her legs swinging high, her arms stiff beside her green velvet dress. Her mother frowned, saying something with her hand over her mouth to Aunty May. They laughed together, a silent sound buried under the music. The accordion raced away in front of Beth, her feet no longer able to find the notes. Her father slowed down and stopped. He told her to start again and not to be nervous – she was a terrific dancer. She felt hot and cross, her cheeks heavy as if she was going to cry.

‘I’ve got the very thing to cheer her up,’ said Uncle Albi. ‘Come with me, Beth.’

The back garden was cold and dark. Beth could hardly see Anaskeagh Head, the big mountain behind Cherry Vale. Her father said it was higher than Mount Everest. Fairies lived under the rocks where they spun the magic gorse blossom and covered the mountain in a coat of gold. Uncle Albi switched on a torch. It shone on the tennis court and the high bushes that bent like crouching animals, reminding her of monsters in wardrobes, silly things she had imagined when she was only a kid.

He opened the door of the garden shed. ‘Look at what we have here,’ he said, shining the torch over Sadie. His voice made goosebumps on Beth’s skin. The dog lifted her head and growled but did not move.

‘Don’t go too close,’ he warned Beth. ‘She’ll snap if you touch her babies.’

The pups had golden coats and floppy ears. They tugged at Sadie’s belly, making thin yelping noises and swiping at each other with their paws.

‘We’re not supposed to go near the puppies.’ Uncle Albi looked cross, as if it was Beth’s fault they were in the shed where it was cold and smelly from the dogs.

‘Blossom will murder us if she finds out. So we must keep this our secret. Do you understand me, Beth?’ He crouched down in front of her, trapping her between his knees. ‘If you don’t tell anyone I showed you the puppies I’ll give you one when it’s weaned from its mammy. What do you say, Beth? Our big secret, huh? Say it now. Come on now, our big secret.’

‘Our big secret.’ Her throat felt sore, as if it was closing over and she would never again be able to swallow. She wanted to go back to the drawing room with the log fire and the Christmas tree and Sara, sitting between her cousins, watching the train running fast and far away along the tracks. She made herself think about Jess O’Donovan, her very best friend in school, and she sang the song Sister Maria had taught them, singing it so loudly inside her head that she couldn’t hear anything else except the words of ‘Over the Sea to Skye’.
Speed bonnie boat like a bird on the wing… Carry me safe to Skye
.

He ran his finger inside the collar of her green Christmas dress, the material rustling soft as the crepe paper they used in school for the Christmas decorations. He untied the white sash at the back and she heard the silvery clink of the zip opening.

‘I didn’t think little girls wore woolly vests any more.’ He was laughing softly, as if he had said something very funny. He pushed down the shoulders of her dress, lifting out her arms – first one and then the other. The vest her mother had knitted hurt her face when he pulled it over her head because he didn’t know he was supposed to open the buttons at the top. But she was afraid to cry in case he told her mother, who would sigh and say, ‘Honest to God, Beth, I can’t take you anywhere.’

Sadie’s eyes were closing. The pups were quiet, sleepy quiet. Their names were Goldie, Banjo, Lily and Pete. Uncle Albi asked her if he was her favourite uncle. She nodded her head and he said, ‘Then give me a kiss to prove it.’

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