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  • Published: 8 January 2019
  • ISBN: 9781784162092
  • Imprint: Black Swan
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 464
  • RRP: $26.00

Where The Light Gets In

The Sunday Times bestseller

Extract

Prologue

Betty Dunlop wasn’t scared of death, but then she hadn’t been scared of the Luftwaffe, the Cold War, the threat of a nuclear winter, salmonella, cholesterol, or any of her three varyingly awful husbands.

Lorna Larkham, though, wasn’t quite so relaxed about it. And the closer death glided towards Betty’s bedside in St Agnes’s Hospice, the faster Lorna’s own heart beat inside her chest, so hard she had to force her legs from twitching, and getting up and running away.

The carriage clock beside her seemed to have stopped; how could it still be just seven o’clock? Lorna had arrived at six to start her volunteer shift, and the ward sister had intercepted her before she’d even got her jacket off, to warn her that Betty – ninety-three the week before and still roller-set and Ellnetted to the nines – had started to decline overnight.

‘We knew something was up when she didn’t ring for her cocoa.’ The nurse put a hand on Lorna’s arm, seeing panic freeze her face. ‘She’s still with us, though. Keep the music going, chat even if she doesn’t reply. Let Betty know she’s not on her own. I’m just down the hall if you need me.’

Discreetly, Lorna lowered her knitting to check Betty’s hooded eyelids. Knitting had been one of Betty’s hobbies too, something they’d chatted about when she’d first dropped in, to offer an hour or so of company. Lorna always brought her wool bag along with her to the hospice; she found the rhythmic clicks and loops helped to fill the moments when the residents she was sitting with were half there, half not. Familiar noises for many of them, a childhood sound of mothers, aunties, darning and knitting, nattering away. As Lorna worked the rows, something of their characters seeped into the pattern: later, scraps of wool stuck between the needles reminded her unexpectedly of June’s knowing eyes or Mabel’s silk flowers. Betty, she already knew, would always be moss stitch: textured and Kelly green, the clean smell of Pears soap. She was about to turn her work round when an invisible nudge made her glance up.

Rudy, Betty’s anxious dachshund, was stirring in his basket. Outside, the fat white moon had slipped out from behind a cloud, and the room felt chillier, as if someone had opened a window.

Lorna’s pulse throbbed in her throat, alive and hot and determined. The music – some bland classical piece chosen by the last nurse – had finished, but Betty hadn’t breathed out.

Panic tightened a notch in her chest with every hum of the self-levelling bed. Was this it? Was this it? She blinked, searching for clues she didn’t want to see. Lorna had had ‘end of life’ training from the nurses, but she’d never been here before, not for real. The seconds in the room hung – then the sheets over Betty’s shrunken frame rose, and the world carried on. For the time being.

Lorna let out a breath, a shuddery echo of Betty’s, and gently touched the liver-spotted hand lying on top of the blanket, feeling the skin move under her fingertips. It was soft, and papery. Until quite recently, Lorna hadn’t believed death would ever catch up with Betty. She was so bright-eyed, firmly engaged with life even in the hospice. But last week, they’d talked about Christmas, just gone. Lorna had told her about her surprisingly funny nights in the homeless shelter (more volunteering to avoid her sister Jessica’s in-laws and their competitive board games) and Betty had confided what she’d been doing with her children, Peter, Susie and Rae. Her face had lit up as she described Rae’s delightful Christmas cake and Peter’s smart wool coat, but when Lorna had asked the nurse on duty when they’d called in, Debra had shaken her head. No visitors. Maybe that had been an early sign that Betty was beginning to slip away, like a sandcastle slowly falling back into the lapping tide.

‘We’re still here, Betty,’ she said more bravely than she felt. It rattled Lorna, the sense of the outward Betty and her inner self invisibly detaching from each other. ‘Me and Rudy. It’s OK.’

Betty herself certainly wasn’t afraid of what was coming. Her stories – and she had hundreds of stories – sparkled with careless courage: not just her nights shivering on West End rooftops, firewatching during the Blitz when she was barely older than Lorna’s niece, but afterwards, when she’d married a soldier, upped sticks to Canada, only to ditch the soldier and his fists for an alcoholic Italian chef; then she’d run a bar and sold Avon make-up, had a ‘surprise’ baby at forty-four with a slick lawyer called Herb, moved back to Hendon with his cash when he died. Betty’s life had been one exuberant leap of faith after another, landing on her small feet each time like a cat.

Lorna watched Betty floating back into the shadows of her memories, and heard that smoky voice in her head. ‘Fear’s good for you, darling,’ she’d laughed, when Lorna blanched at her anecdotes. ‘Shows you where the edges of yourself are.’

‘I don’t want to see my edges, thanks,’ Lorna had said, chicken that she was.

‘Why not?’ Betty’s eyebrows were magnificent, haughty like Joan Crawford’s. ‘Your edges might not be where you think they are.’

Lorna flipped through the CDs by the bed. Betty had her nailed. She didn’t know where her edges were. In fact, she wondered a lot of things about herself, questions that she’d never ask because there was no one left to answer. Mum gone, Dad gone, and, with that, their little world had closed up behind them, leaving her and Jessica more alone than ever. Who was she meant to be? What traits or weaknesses, already brewing in her blood, might emerge as the years passed and she overtook her parents into middle age and beyond? Questions, and the blankness of never knowing, crept up on Lorna while she was sitting up late on nights like these, when the air swarmed with memories, hers and Betty’s mingling in their shared silence.

Rudy circled in his basket and laid his head on his paws. Lorna slid Glenn Miller’s big band orchestra into the player. If Betty’s train was departing the station tonight, she’d want something with a bit of swing to take her on to the next destination. She pressed play and picked up her knitting, bracing herself for the last half-hour. Only thirty minutes. It wouldn’t happen on her watch. Betty was too much of a dame for that.

She knitted and listened, two rows, three rows, four. ‘I can never get moss stitch right,’ Lorna murmured, just so Betty would know she was there. ‘It always goes too lumpy.’ But as the light moved across the room, she looked up and saw immediately something had changed. Betty’s nose and cheekbones were sharpening as her breathing became phlegmy, and a metallic taste began to rise in Lorna’s own throat. She glanced across to the button that would summon the nurse, but then steeled herself. Not yet. She could do this.

The old lady exhaled deeply, loudly, and Lorna wondered if she was seeing someone in her dreams that warranted a sigh. Someone stepping out of the wailing sirens and broken walls and dusty tea of her youth, where terror made everything vivid and fleeting, and ripe for the taking, right now. Holding out a hand, with a smile.

‘Little Brown Jug’ turned into ‘Moonlight Serenade’, Betty’s favourite, and her hand twitched on the sheet. Lorna watched: which of her husbands would come for her? Which would she choose? Were her relatives approaching, her mother and father, a Victorian grandmother? That thought was comforting. That even if you were lying alone somewhere, or in a sterile hospital bed, there’d be familiar faces there, reaching for you with love, wanting to see you again. Yearning for you more than life.

Something hollowed inside her, dank and cold like a sea cave.

She rested the knitting on her knee for a moment, forcing herself to stay with the darkness. Lorna didn’t know what her own mother’s last moments had been like, and it haunted her. Whether they’d been peaceful like Betty’s, whether there’d been pain, a struggle for air, regret and panic. It had been a heart attack: Lorna’s father had found Cathy in her studio, surrounded by a pool of her own spilled ink, not blood. And then he’d died too, a year to the day later. Which was either a tragic coincidence, or – if Lorna and Jess were honest with each other – no coincidence at all.

Rudy lifted his head and whimpered. His ears pulled back, and he turned to her, quivering with fear.

Lorna realised her eyes were full and wet, and her attention snapped back to the responsibility she had here. The parched gaps in between breaths were getting longer.

At the start of the month, Betty had been alive enough to talk about her Agatha Christie-like plans for after her death with glee. ‘I’ve put you in my will!’ she’d confided as Lorna had been coiling her long hair under her winter hat, hurrying to catch the night bus. ‘I’m leaving you something to remind you of me.’

Lorna had protested – there were rules about that and, besides, it wasn’t why she came. But Betty would hear none of it.

‘Nonsense. It’s just a little something, and I want you to have it. I’ve no one else to leave it to. It’s just to remind you to be scared once in a while, Lorna.’ And she’d squeezed her gloved hand with determination. A squeeze that brooked no argument.

Lorna looked down at those fingers now, cold and stiff, all eight rings taken off by doctors, kept safe in a bag by the hospice staff. She’d heard all their tales apart from the ruby one, and she felt a stab of regret that she might never find out why Betty saved it till last. She didn’t want Betty to go, but she’d done all the living she wanted to. It was so quiet, too simple for such a profound moment.

The moon moved behind the curtain, throwing a softer pool of light into the room, and the music changed again. Lorna’s skin prickled; the air seemed to fill with big-band orchestras and invisible dancers, stepping soundlessly through an ethereal spotlight, swirling in a last dance before the blackout. Lorna’s own throat. She glanced across to the button that would summon the nurse, but then steeled herself. Not yet. She could do this.

The old lady exhaled deeply, loudly, and Lorna wondered if she was seeing someone in her dreams that warranted a sigh. Someone stepping out of the wailing sirens and broken walls and dusty tea of her youth, where terror made everything vivid and fleeting, and ripe for the taking, right now. Holding out a hand, with a smile.

‘Little Brown Jug’ turned into ‘Moonlight Serenade’, Betty’s favourite, and her hand twitched on the sheet. Lorna watched: which of her husbands would come for her? Which would she choose? Were her relatives approaching, her mother and father, a Victorian grandmother? That thought was comforting. That even if you were lying alone somewhere, or in a sterile hospital bed, there’d be familiar faces there, reaching for you with love, wanting to see you again. Yearning for you more than life.

Something hollowed inside her, dank and cold like a sea cave.

She rested the knitting on her knee for a moment, forcing herself to stay with the darkness. Lorna didn’t know what her own mother’s last moments had been like, and it haunted her. Whether they’d been peaceful like Betty’s, whether there’d been pain, a struggle for air, regret and panic. It had been a heart attack: Lorna’s father had found Cathy in her studio, surrounded by a pool of her own spilled ink, not blood. And then he’d died too, a year to the day later. Which was either a tragic coincidence, or – if Lorna and Jess were honest with each other – no coincidence at all.

Rudy lifted his head and whimpered. His ears pulled back, and he turned to her, quivering with fear.

Lorna realised her eyes were full and wet, and her attention snapped back to the responsibility she had here. The parched gaps in between breaths were getting longer.

At the start of the month, Betty had been alive enough to talk about her Agatha Christie-like plans for after her death with glee. ‘I’ve put you in my will!’ she’d confided as Lorna had been coiling her long hair under her winter hat, hurrying to catch the night bus. ‘I’m leaving you something to remind you of me.’

Lorna had protested – there were rules about that and, besides, it wasn’t why she came. But Betty would hear none of it.

‘Nonsense. It’s just a little something, and I want you to have it. I’ve no one else to leave it to. It’s just to remind you to be scared once in a while, Lorna.’ And she’d squeezed her gloved hand with determination. A squeeze that brooked no argument.

Lorna looked down at those fingers now, cold and stiff, all eight rings taken off by doctors, kept safe in a bag by the hospice staff. She’d heard all their tales apart from the ruby one, and she felt a stab of regret that she might never find out why Betty saved it till last. She didn’t want Betty to go, but she’d done all the living she wanted to. It was so quiet, too simple for such a profound moment.

The moon moved behind the curtain, throwing a softer pool of light into the room, and the music changed again. Lorna’s skin prickled; the air seemed to fill with big-band orchestras and invisible dancers, stepping soundlessly through an ethereal spotlight, swirling in a last dance before the blackout. ‘I’m still here, Betty,’ she whispered, ‘with Rudy,’ then wondered if it was fair to try to keep Betty with her, if she wanted to go.

She willed herself to be calm, to be a comforting presence, but the fears edged through. What if Betty’s eyes snapped open? What if she tried to speak? What if she needed help that Lorna couldn’t give? Betty, what happened with the Italian chef? Why Montreal? Did loving life more than love make it easier to start again when the romance died, or was there one, one man you never forgot, one man who made every other seem that bit duller?

Rudy whimpered again, and then gave two short barks. And, her heart scuttling with panic, Lorna cracked.

She fumbled for the buzzer that would bring the night nurse into the room, gripped it in one hand to be sure, and pressed it as hard as she could. But as the nurse’s footsteps clicked down the hall, followed by another swifter pair, Rudy lay down with his long nose on his paws and let out a low groan that brought tears to Lorna’s eyes.

Her heart contracted and she longed to throw her arms open to catch the spirits in the room, which she couldn’t see or feel, and beg them to tell her that everything was all right, that everything would be fine, that everyone was still there, just in a different form.

But she couldn’t. And there would be no answer anyway.

As Lorna stumbled into the bright light of the corridor, she heard Betty’s voice in her head, husky and alive.

‘You know, Lorna, those cracks in your heart, where things didn’t work out quite as you hoped, but you patched yourself up and carried on? That’s where the light gets in.’

She turned back, and there was a slim shaft of moonlight slipping through the curtains.


Where The Light Gets In Lucy Dillon

The heart-warming, poignant and evocative new novel from the bestselling author of A Hundred Pieces of Me and All I Ever Wanted.

Buy now
Buy now

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