Kate Atkinson Case Histories: A Novel

ISBN 13: 9780316033480

Case Histories: A Novel

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9780316033480: Case Histories: A Novel

Case one: A little girl goes missing in the night.

Case two: A beautiful young office worker falls victim to a maniac's apparently random attack.

Case three: A new mother finds herself trapped in a hell of her own making - with a very needy baby and a very demanding husband - until a fit of rage creates a grisly, bloody escape.

Thirty years after the first incident, as private investigator Jackson Brodie begins investigating all three cases, startling connections and discoveries emerge . . .

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About the Author:

Kate Atkinson is the author of six novels - Behind the Scenes at the Museum, which won the Whitbread Award for Book of the Year; Human Croquet; Emotionally Weird; CASE HISTORIES; One Good Turn; and When Will There Be Good News? - and a collection of short fiction, Not the End of the World. She lives in Edinburgh.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1
Case History No. 1 1970
Family Plot

 
 
HOW LUCKY WERE THEY? A HEAT WAVE IN THE MIDDLE of the school holidays, exactly where it belonged. Every morning the sun was up long before they were, making a mockery of the flimsy summer curtains that hung limply at their bedroom windows, a sun already hot and sticky with promise before Olivia even opened her eyes. Olivia, as reliable as a rooster, always the first to wake, so that no one in the house had bothered with an alarm clock since she was born three years ago.
 
Olivia, the youngest and therefore the one currently sleeping in the small back bedroom with the nursery-rhyme wallpaper, a room that all of them had occupied and been ousted from in turn. Olivia, as cute as a button, they were all agreed, even Julia who had taken a long time to get over being displaced as the baby of the family, a position she had occupied for five satisfying years before Olivia came along.
 
Rosemary, their mother, said that she wished Olivia could stay at this age for ever because she was so lovable. They had never heard her use that word to describe any of them. They had not even realized that such a word existed in her vocabulary, which was usually restricted to tedious commands – come here, go away, be quiet, and – most frequent of all – stop that. Sometimes she would walk into a room or appear in the garden, glare at them and say, whatever it is you’re doing, don’t, and then simply walk away again, leaving them feeling aggrieved and badly done by, even when caught red-handed in the middle of some piece of mischief – devised by Sylvia usually.
 
Their capacity for wrongdoing, especially under Sylvia’s reckless leader ship, was apparently limitless. The eldest three were (everyone agreed) ‘a handful’, too close together in age to be distinguishable to their mother so that they had evolved into a collective child to which she found it hard to attribute individual details and which she addressed at random – Julia-Sylvia-Amelia-whoever you are – said in an exasperated tone as if it was their fault there were so many of them. Olivia was usually excluded from this weary litany; Rosemary never seemed to get her mixed up with the rest of them.
 
They had supposed Olivia would be the last to occupy the small back bedroom and that one day the nursery-rhyme wallpaper would finally be scraped off (by their harassed mother because their father said hiring a professional decorator was a waste of money) and be replaced by something more grown-up – flowers or perhaps ponies, although anything would be better than the Elastoplast pink adorning the room that Julia and Amelia shared, a colour that had looked so promising to the two of them on the paint chart and proved so alarming on the walls and which their mother said she didn’t have the time or money (or energy) to replace.
 
Now it transpired that Olivia was going to be undertaking the same rite of passage as her older sisters, leaving behind the – rather badly aligned – Humpty-Dumptys and Little Miss Muffets to make way for an afterthought whose advent had been announced, in a rather offhand way, by Rosemary the previous day as she dished out a makeshift lunch of corned-beef sandwiches and orange squash on the lawn.
 
‘Wasn’t Olivia the afterthought?’ Sylvia said to no one in par ticular, and Rosemary frowned at her eldest daughter as if she had just noticed her for the first time. Sylvia, thirteen and until recently an enthusiastic child (many people would have said overenthusiastic), promised to be a mordant cynic in her teenage years. Gawky, be spectacled Sylvia, her teeth recently caged in ugly orthodontic braces, had greasy hair, a hooting laugh and the long, thin fingers and toes of a creature from outer space. Well-meaning people called her an ‘ugly duckling’ (said to her face, as if it was a compliment, which was certainly not how it was taken by Sylvia), imagining a future Sylvia casting off her braces, acquiring contact lenses and a bosom, and blossoming into a swan. Rosemary did not see the swan in Sylvia, especially when she had a shred of corned beef stuck in her braces. Sylvia had recently developed an unhealthy obsession with religion, claiming that God had spoken to her. Rosemary wondered if it was a normal phase that adolescent girls went through, if God was merely an alternative to pop stars or ponies. Rosemary decided it was best to ignore Sylvia’s tête-à-têtes with the Almighty. And at least conversations with God were free, whereas the upkeep on a pony would have cost a fortune.
 
And the peculiar fainting fits that their GP said were on account of Sylvia ‘outgrowing her strength’ – a medically dubious explan ation if ever there was one (in Rosemary’s opinion). Rosemary decided to ignore the fainting fits as well. They were probably just Sylvia’s way of getting attention.
 
Rosemary married their father Victor when she was eighteen years old – only five years older than Sylvia was now. The idea that Sylvia might be grown-up enough in five years’ time to marry anyone struck Rosemary as ridiculous and reinforced her belief that her own parents should have stepped in and stopped her marrying Victor, should have pointed out that she was a mere child and he was a thirty-six-year-old man. She often found herself wanting to remonstrate with her mother and father about their lack of parental care, but her mother had succumbed to stomach cancer not long after Amelia was born and her father had re married and moved to Ipswich, where he spent most of his days in the bookies and all of his evenings in the pub.
 
If, in five years’ time, Sylvia brought home a thirty-six-year-old, cradle-snatching fiancé (particularly if he claimed to be a great mathematician) then Rosemary thought she would probably cut his heart out with the carving knife. This thought was so agreeable that the afterthoughts annunciation was temporarily forgotten and Rosemary allowed them all to run out to the ice-cream van when it declared its own melodic arrival in the street.
 
The Sylvia-Amelia-Julia trio knew that there was no such thing as an afterthought and the ‘foetus’, as Sylvia insisted on calling it (she was keen on science subjects), that was making their mother so irritable and lethargic was probably their father’s last-ditch attempt to acquire a son. He was not a father who doted on daughters, he showed no real fondness for any of them, only Sylvia occasionally winning his respect because she was ‘good at maths’. Victor was a mathematician and lived a rarefied life of the mind where his family were allowed o trespass. This was made easy by the fact that he spent hardly any time with them: he was either in the department or in his rooms in college and when he was home he shut himself in his study, occasionally with his students but usually on his own. Their father had never taken them to the open-air pool on Jesus Green, played rousing games of Snap or Donkey, never tossed them in the air and caught them or pushed them on a swing, had never taken them punting on the river or walking on the Fens or on educational trips to the Fitzwilliam. More like an absence than a presence, everything he was – and was not – was represented by the sacrosanct space of his study.
 
They would have been surprised to know that the study had once been a bright parlour with a view of the back garden, a room where previous occupants of the house had enjoyed pleasant breakfasts, where women had whiled away the afternoons with sewing and romantic novels, and where in the evenings the family had gathered to play cribbage or Scrabble while listening to a radio play. All of these activities had been envisaged by a newly married Rosemary when the house was first bought – in 1956, at a price way beyond their budget – but Victor immediately claimed the room as his own and somehow managed to transform it into a sunless place, crammed with heavy bookshelves and ugly oak filing cabinets, and reeking of the untipped Capstans that he smoked. The loss of the room was as nothing to the loss of the way of life that Rosemary had planned to fill it with.
 
What he actually did in there was a mystery to all of them. Something so important, apparently, that his home life was trifling in comparison. Their mother said he was a great mathematician, at work on a piece of research that would one day make him famous, yet on the rare occasions when the study door was left open and they caught a glimpse of their father at work, all he seemed to be doing was sitting at his desk, scowling into empty space.
 
He was not to be disturbed when he was working, especially not by shrieking, screaming, savage little girls. The complete inability of those same savage little girls to abstain from the shrieking and the screaming (not to mention the yelling, the blubbing, and the strange howling like a pack of wolves that Victor had never managed to fathom) made for a fragile relationship between father and daughters.
 
Rosemary’s chastisements may have washed over them like water but the sight of Victor lumbering out of his study, roused like a bear from hibernation, was strangely terrifying and although they spent their lives challenging all that was outlawed by their mother, they never once thought of exploring the forbidden interiorof the study. The only time they were ushered into the gloomy depths of Victor’s den was for help with their maths homework. This wasn’t so bad for Sylvia, who had a fighting chance of understanding the greasy pencil marks with which an impatient Victor covered endless pages of ruled paper, but as far as Julia and Amelia were concerned Victor’s signs and symbols were as mysterious as ancient hieroglyphs. If they thought of the study at all, which they tried not to, they thought of it as a torture chamber. Victor blamed Rosemary for their innumeracy – it was clearly their mother’s deficient female brain they had inherited.
 
Victor’s own mother, Ellen, had lent a sweet and balmy presence to his early infancy before being taken off to a lunatic asylum in 1924. Victor was only four at the time and it was judged better for him not to visit his mother in such disturbing quarters, with the result that he grew up imagining her as a raving madwoman of the Victorian variety – long white nightdress and wild hair, roaming the corridors of the asylum at night, prattling nonsense like a child – and it was only much later in his life that he discovered that his mother had not ‘gone insane’ (the family’s term for it) but had suffered a severe post-partum depression after giving birth to a stillborn baby and neither raved nor prattled but lived sadly and solitarily in a room decorated with photographs of Victor, until she died of tuberculosis when Victor was ten.
 
Oswald, Victor’s father, had packed his son off to boarding school by then and when Oswald himself died, accidentally falling into the freezing waters of the Southern Ocean, Victor received the news calmly and returned to the particularly difficult mathematical puzzle he had been working on.
 
Before the war, Victor’s father had been that most arcane and useless of English creatures, a polar explorer, and Victor was rather glad that he would no longer have to live up to the heroic image of Oswald Land and could become great in his own, less valiant, field.
 
 
Victor met Rosemary when he had to go to the casualty department at Addenbrooke’s, where she was a student nurse. He had tripped down some steps and fallen awkwardly on his wrist but he told Rosemary that he’d been on his bike when he was ‘cut up’ by a car on the Newmarket Road. ‘Cut up’ sounded good to his ears, it was a phrase from a masculine world he’d never managed to inhabit successfully (the world of his father), and ‘the Newmarket Road’ implied (untruthfully) that he didn’t spend his whole life cloistered in the limited area between St John’s and the maths department.
 
If it hadn’t been for this chance hospital encounter, accidental in all senses, Victor might never have courted a girl. He already felt well on his way to middle age and his social life was still limited to the chess club. Victor didn’t really feel the need for another person in his life, in fact he found the concept of ‘sharing’ a life bizarre. He had mathematics, which filled up his time almost completely, so he wasn’t entirely sure what he wanted with a wife. Women seemed to him to be in possession of all kinds of un desirable properties, chiefly madness, but also a multiplicity of physical drawbacks – blood, sex, children – which were unsettling and other. Yet something in him yearned to be surrounded by the kind of activity and warmth so missing in his own childhood, which was how, before he even knew what had happened, like opening the door to the wrong room, he found himself taking tea in a cottage in rural Norfolk while Rosemary shyly displayed a (rather cheap) diamond-chip engagement ring to her parents.
 
Apart from her father’s whiskery bedtime benedictions, Victor was the first man Rosemary had ever been kissed by (albeit awkwardly, lunging at her like an elephant seal). Rosemary’s father, a railway signalman, and her mother, a housewife, were startled when she brought Victor home to meet them. They were awed by his undoubted intellectual credentials (the black-rimmed spectacles, the shabby sports jacket, the air of permanent distraction), and the possibility that he might even be a bona fide genius (a possibility not exactly refuted by Victor), not to mention the fact that he had chosen their daughter – a quiet and easily influenced girl, hitherto overlooked by almost everyone – to be his helpmeet.
 
The fact that he was twice Rosemary’s age didn’t seem to worry them at all, although later, when the happy couple had departed, Rosemary’s father, a manly type of man, did point out to his wife that Victor was not ‘a great physical specimen’. Rosemary’s mother’s only reservation, however, was that although Victor was a doctor he seemed to have trouble giving her any advice about the stomach pains that she was a martyr to. Cornered at a tea table covered with a Maltese lace cloth and loaded with macaroons, Devon scones and seed cake, Victor finally confirmed, ‘Indigestion, I expect, Mrs Vane,’ a misdiagnosis that she accepted with relief.
 
 
Olivia opened her eyes and stared contentedly at the nursery-rhyme wallpaper. Jack and Jill toiled endlessly up the hill, Jill carrying a wooden bucket for the well she was destined never to reach, while elsewhere on the same hillside Little Bo-Peep was searching for her lost sheep. Olivia wasn’t too worried about the fate of the flock because she could see a pretty lamb with a blue ribbon round its neck, hiding behind a hedge. Olivia didn’t really understand the afterthought but she would have welcomed a baby. She liked babies and animals better than anything. She could feel the weight of Rascal, the family terrier, near her feet. It was absolutely forbidden for Rascal to sleep in the bedrooms but every night one or other of them smuggled him into their room, although by morni...

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