Extract – Mrs. Walker

Mantle hardback (2016) Picador paperback (2017)

Synopsis

In a desolate Edinburgh flat an old woman takes her last breath surrounded by the few objects she has accrued over a lifetime: a photograph, an emerald dress and a brazil nut with the Ten Commandments etched in its shell.

Meanwhile, guided by the flip of a coin, Margaret Penny escapes the disaster of her life in London and returns reluctantly to her childhood home. Faced with relying on a resentful mother she has never really known, Margaret lands a job finding families for dead people: the disreputable, the neglected, the abandoned, the lost.

Margaret’ instructions are to uncover paperwork, but the truth about her client, Mrs Walker, lies in the objects she has left behind. Objects that reveal a story of sisters and their betrayals, of thievery and misplaced mothers and the destruction of a family by a single childhood act. Stories that move from the grime of London in the 1930’s to the present day, in which the extraordinary circular nature of life glitters from the page.

PROLOGUE – Christmas in Edinburgh 2010

She died like this – with her shoes on and nylons wrinkling at the knee. The glass she was holding fell to the floor, the last of its contents trickling out with the last of her breath. The liquid glinted in the moonlight, winking a last goodnight before seeping away too – down through the fibres of the carpet, down through the rough and dusty floorboards, down to the ceiling of the flat below. It evaporated as it went, leaving nothing but a stain. And that smell. Whisky. The water of life. But not for her. Not any more.

In a drawer she left a Brazil nut with the Ten Commandments etched in its shell. On a mantelpiece a ridge of dust where once a photograph had stood. In a wardrobe she left an emerald dress, sequins scattered along the hem. On a blue plate an orange, full of holes now like her bones and her brain.

Everything was faded. Tea towels in drawers. Nets at the windows. The newspaper wrapped around her middle underneath her clothes. In the bathroom ice grew on the wrong side of the glass. In the crockery cupboard none of the plates matched any of the bowls. Outside, the street was faded too and the faces of the passers-by all gone to ash in the unrelenting cold. Inside, her fridge contained a single tin of peas.

CHAPTER ONE – New Year in Edinburgh 2011

Margaret Penny came home on the spin of a coin. Heads to the north, tails to somewhere else – over the hills and far away, perhaps. Or a place much further than that. Six twenty-five a.m. on the second day of the New Year, and she arrived back in the Athens of the North to grey skies, grey buildings, grey pavements all encased in ice. And the people too.

She woke as the engine of the overnight bus juddered to a halt, hair all this way and that, head sticky with lurid, panicked dreaming. She gathered up all she had left – a small holdall and a red, stolen coat – and stumbled from the warm confines of the bus as though from a womb. The exit steps were narrow. She stumbled as she went down, stepping as though into air, straight into a gutter full of slurry.

‘Shit!’

But cold and viscous. Ruining the only pair of shoes she had left.

It was a rebirth of sorts.