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My cousin Danielle was twenty-six when she died. According to the police she jumped from the balcony of her flat
My cousin Danielle was twenty-six when she died. According to the police she jumped from the balcony of her flat, which, in the words of my foster-mother, wasn’t a very nice way to go. What a stupid thing to say. Is death ever ‘nice’?
My best friend Reece and I were the last people to see Dani alive. We’d been staying the weekend in her Bournemouth flat. I say her flat, but it actually belonged to Danielle’s friend Fay, who was backpacking around South America and had said Dani was welcome to use it.
‘Come over! It’ll be brilliant.’ Danielle had sounded so enthusiastic when she rang to invite me. ‘Stay for a week, two weeks – I’m right next to the beach. Loads to do. You’ll love it.’
‘I’ve got school,’ I said. ‘They probably wouldn’t approve of me taking a week out to splash about in the sea.’
‘Oh, yeah, school. Bummer. Well, whatever. Let’s make it a weekend.’
Timewise it wasn’t ideal – it was just after Easter, and GCSE exams were breathing down my neck – but I went anyway. My foster-mum, Julie, was fine with me going – she said I deserved a break. I hadn’t heard from Danielle in ages, even though until recently she’d been working in north London, where I was living.
So after school on Friday afternoon Reece and I got the train from Waterloo and Danielle met us on the platform at the other end, all smiles and carrying an enormous bag of rum-and-raisin fudge. She started chattering about the flat and the beach and her new job, which was a temporary one at an IT consultancy. We had fish and chips in town and then went for a walk along the seafront and tried out the fairground rides on the pier. Danielle knew the people running the air-rifle stand and they let us have a couple of free shots, which they probably regretted when Reece started arguing about the game’s rules. Reece had always liked the sound of his own voice – Danielle and I found the whole thing terribly funny and couldn’t stop laughing. It’s not that remarkable, but I’ll always hold on to that moment: a summer night when the light was starting to fade, a warm breeze ruffling my hair, sharing a joke with my cousin.
On Sunday afternoon Reece and I were getting ready to leave when the flat’s doorbell buzzed. Danielle went to answer. I was in the other room at the time, so I don’t know if she said anything to the caller over the intercom, but the next thing I knew, I could hear footsteps running downstairs.
‘Does she always rush about like that?’ Reece asked.
I shrugged. ‘Pretty much.’
Reece went to the window, pressing his palms to it. ‘She’s talking to some bloke.’
‘He’s probably just selling something,’ I said. ‘Give me a hand with my case, will you? The zip’s stuck.’
Half an hour later Danielle still hadn’t come back. She wasn’t outside the flat or picking up her mobile, so we had no choice but to head to the station. We’d booked two cheap seats on the 4.37 and I couldn’t see Julie being happy about forking out for a later train.
‘Bit off, Danielle not coming to say goodbye,’ Reece said as we left. ‘She’s a bit of a skitz, your cousin.’
I felt a little disappointed that Danielle hadn’t returned, but it wasn’t as though it was the first time she’d let me down. She’d probably ring that evening, full of apologies.
Later Reece and I worked out that Danielle must have jumped from the balcony roughly around the time we were changing trains at Southampton. When I got back Julie told me what had happened.
I didn’t believe it at first. The idea that Danielle could be gone seemed impossible. But when I began to take it all in – well, it was pretty tough. The next few days were terrible ones I’d give anything to forget. Over the years I’d become very good at blanking out feelings, but I couldn’t ignore this. Dani had been the only person in the world who was mine, someone who knew exactly what I’d been through. She never judged me. She understood. That was something I could never replace.
The coroner was satisfied it was suicide. Danielle had never been that stable, I knew. She’d threatened to hurt herself before, and depression and mood swings ran in the family. Maybe it had been one of those freak decisions you’d never make if you could go back in time. In the words of the police officer who’d come to tell me the verdict, it was ‘terribly sad, but it all made sense’.
The whole thing left me reeling, but very slowly I began to accept that there was nothing left for me to do but try to get on with my life – without Dani.
And maybe that’s the way things would have gone if, four months later, I hadn’t found the memory stick.
Summer. Weeks and weeks off school. Sunshine, Cornettos and flip-flops. Holidays abroad for the lucky ones. Muggy days that feel endless, hanging out with friends in the park. Fun. That’s what summer should be, but this year it just wasn’t working for me.
As well as coping with my grief I felt like I was at a crossroads, that everything was in flux. Everyone was waiting for their GCSE results. The exams had gone better than expected in the end, but I still couldn’t see myself doing that well – English in particular had been a nightmare. Half of my year at Broom Hill High were leaving to go to colleges rather than staying on for the sixth form, which didn’t have a great reputation. Lots of the teachers had gone on about how A levels and BTECs were a huge stepping stone and how the subjects we chose now could determine the rest of our lives. I wasn’t sure I bought the idea that we were taking control; everyone still treated us like kids. Especially me – as a foster-kid I wasn’t allowed to make my own decisions. I’d had to sit down with my social worker and come up with a ‘Pathway Plan’, supposedly to help me prepare for independent life when I turned eighteen and left care. Lorraine had strong opinions about what was best for me, and after a frustrated hour of trying to explain I had no idea where I wanted to be in two years, I gave up and let her take over. Biology, geography and law A levels would be as good as anything else.
Apart from helping out in the Save the Animals charity shop, something I’d been doing on-off ever since I’d come to live with Julie almost a year and a half ago, I had very little to do. I’d seen my old classmates down the high street. They’d invited me to join them, but after a couple of long afternoons sunbathing in the park I got restless. I’d rather be doing something. Hanging out is kind of empty when the people aren’t really your friends; nothing gets said that you remember, and time seems to drag. It was easier for them if I wasn’t around, anyway; putting up with someone who’d had a family member die was a real downer. It would have been easier if Dani had been knocked down by a car or had some kind of accident. That it had been suicide seemed to reflect on me somehow – especially as I had a reputation for being a bit crazy myself. The girls were clearly trying to treat me sensitively, but that just smacked home how different I was from them. It made me feel I would never be a normal teenager again.
I kept wondering how the summer break would have been different if Danielle was still here. Maybe we could have spent the summer in Bournemouth, just us – hanging out in town, clothes shopping, watching DVDs, the relaxed kind of stuff we didn’t always fit into the weekends and evenings we spent together. Dani could be very inconsistent, sometimes going into moods that meant I wouldn’t see her for weeks. But the absent patches had been worth it for the good ones, when she would be incredibly sweet, showering me with gifts and affection.
Instead I had my classmates and lots of school gossip I didn’t want to hear. It just reminded me that I’d have to go back to Broom Hill, making me dread the end of the holidays even more than I was already. It was times like these that made me wish Reece hadn’t left halfway through Year 10. Paloma, a girl who’d been in my class, had asked after him when I’d joined her gang in the park recently. Everyone still remembered Reece. His run-ins with teachers were legendary. One particular highlight was the time he calmly walked out of a history lesson and returned with an Internet printout that disproved what the teacher had just said about the causes of World War One. Reece had been excluded for that little stunt.
‘So,’ Paloma said, ‘you still talk? You and Reece used to be totally buddy-buddy.’
‘Yeah, well, that was before he buggered off to posh school,’ I said. I knew I was being a little unfair – Reece had kicked up a huge fuss about being moved to Berkeley School for Boys, threatening his mother with a hunger strike and other ridiculous things. We’d stayed friends for a while, even arranging that Bournemouth trip so we could spend some proper time together. ‘I’m fed up with him and his stupid new friends,’ I added.
‘Didn’t seem like he’d changed last time I saw him, a couple of weeks before my party,’ Paloma said. ‘You were matey enough then.’
I started to make a daisy chain, not meeting her eyes. There was more to our falling-out, but I wasn’t confiding in Paloma. I liked her best out of the girls from school because she stuck up for me – Paloma was sometimes teased about her weight, so she knew a thing or two about fighting back – but she did have a big mouth. Eventually she got the message and changed the subject, but I knew she’d try to get the full story later. When she invited me to the cinema the next day, I passed. Julie would have bugged me about that if she’d known. She was worried I didn’t seem to have many friends. It wasn’t true – there were always people for me to hang out with if I wanted – but I just wasn’t close to anyone. Not like I had been to Dani, or to Reece.
I think maybe the reason I don’t have many friends is that people are always so curious about my life. In the old days kids wanted to know what it was like to be in care, especially as I sometimes exaggerated the less pleasant bits. More recently I guess people just noticed me because I was different. Once I skived off school and went to Hampstead Heath instead, but I didn’t get into trouble. Broom Hill’s head teacher thought I was ‘troubled’, so he just sent me to have a long talk with the school counsellor. The other kids really resented that and said I’d got off easy. I used not to care about gossip, because people said stuff about Reece as well, but it’s not so easy putting on a front on your own. Especially as since Paloma’s party everyone really did have gossip about me. Horrible, embarrassing, true gossip.
Hendon, in north London, was where I lived. Reece used to say that if there was ever a nuclear war, the two things to survive would be Hendon and cockroaches, which tells you quite a bit about Hendon. I didn’t think it was so bad – miles better than Hackney, where I used to live when I was being fostered by Mr and Mrs Ten Paces (whenever they went out she always walked about ten paces behind him. I didn’t blame her – he was a bit weird, very picky about what she cooked for dinner, and he shouted at the telly a lot). Sure, Hendon had its share of fried-chicken shops and launderettes and depressing, poky newsagents, but there was Brent Cross shopping centre nearby, some quite decent parks and a big aeroplane museum.
My latest foster-mum, Julie, lived on an ordinary back road in a terraced house. It was OK – always noisy, as the two other foster-kids were primary-school age, but I could go out if it got too much. I’d miss it when it was time to move on. Julie had been very kind to me, especially since Dani died. When I’d mentioned I felt bad for not realizing how depressed Dani must have been, something Julie said had really stuck with me.
‘You mustn’t blame yourself for this, Sophie. Yes, you two were close – but people can be very good at hiding things. Danielle clearly didn’t want you to know how sad she was feeling. It’s hard to help someone who won’t let you help them.’
Her words made me feel a little less guilty – though later I wondered if that last bit had been partly directed at me.
I was thinking about this the day I turned down Paloma’s cinema offer. I’d decided to get busy to stop myself feeling bad about that, so I began to sew. Sewing, while an ‘uncool’ hobby, was something I really enjoyed. I liked to pick up clothes from the charity shop and customize them with unusual buttons and scraps of fabric.
I hadn’t got anything particular I wanted to work on that morning, so I dug through my wardrobe for inspiration. There were probably loads of old clothes I’d forgotten about at the back. Sure enough, I found some – including stuff that had belonged to Danielle.
‘Jesus Christ,’ I muttered. Lots of her things had been passed on to me, but that didn’t stop me feeling odd about it, now that she’d gone. I pulled out a pair of Dani’s jeans and held them against me. They’d be a good fit. Maybe I could lop a couple of inches off the legs and wear them as cut-offs.
There was a funny bulge in the pocket of the jeans. It was a memory stick. I knew it wasn’t mine – I always used the ones school issued us with. It had to be Danielle’s.
May as well have a look, I thought, booting up Edith, my laptop. She had been Dani’s, and Dani had lent her to me that last weekend to help me with my GCSE revision. I’d called her Edith because she was a bit slow and unsteady, like a little old lady. When Edith finally allowed me to view the USB’s contents, I saw folders of photos pop up. Curious, I clicked on the first and saw a familiar face.
I swear the world stopped moving. It was Danielle, posing with a brightly coloured cocktail. I’d never seen this photo before. I only had a few ancient pictures of her. I opened up more folders – these were Danielle too. God, I must have stumbled upon her entire photo collection.
Almost heady with excitement, I scrolled through, eager to view each new snapshot into my cousin’s life. After a couple of albums though, I had to pause.
It was too much, too much all at once. I felt a little floaty, as though part of me was somewhere else. They captured parts of her life I’d never known existed, and they made me realize how many opportunities I’d missed to get to know her better. And now, I never would.
It felt like someone had punched me hard in the gut, slamming home the emotions I was usually so good at ignoring. Tears spilt down my cheeks, my heart pounding.
I don’t know how long I sat there. Eventually my tears dried and I curled up on my bed, feeling exhausted. I looked across at the picture that was still on the screen. It was from a folder labelled ‘Party’. It showed Danielle standing in a door frame, wearing a floral smock over skinny jeans and at least three different necklaces.
I look a lot like her now, I thought. We both took after our mums, who’d been sisters. The same fair complexion, long necks, strong eyebrows and dark hair, though Dani’s had always been dead straight while mine had a wave to it. We had different builds – Dani was curvier and shorter than I was. Apparently height was something I’d got from my dad – not that I would know. I’d never met him, and what I knew about him barely covered a Post-it note. He probably didn’t know I existed.
After a while I got up and returned to my desk. I didn’t really want to look at the photos any more, but I also didn’t feel like I could do anything else. As I browsed further, I began to realize that Danielle had had a boyfriend. He was in a lot of the party shots and it looked like they’d gone on holiday together too. I half smiled; Danielle had always been obsessed with the sun, even though we both burned rather than tanned. The boyfriend was cute too, if you liked that kind of thing – he looked a bit like he’d stepped out of a boy band, with carefully ruffled blond hair and a photogenic smile, and he seemed to like wearing tight T-shirts that showed off his six-pack. The photos showed the date in the bottom left-hand corner – three months before Danielle had died.
I wondered where he was now and why Dani had never mentioned him to me. He definitely hadn’t been at her funeral – they must have split up. Maybe she’d been really gutted. That could even have been the reason she’d killed herself, and why she’d hidden her depression from me. Though I’d never have said it, I’d always thought Dani was needy around people. She was incredibly quick to trust, something I noticed because I was the opposite, and I suspected part of her generosity sprang from wanting to be liked. It seemed a bit of a contradiction for someone academically smart like Dani to be so naive, but I guess book-smarts don’t necessarily equal being streetwise.
The clock in the hall chimed; I jumped. Twelve o’clock – I’d been looking at photos for well over an hour. Realizing how dry my throat was, I went downstairs and picked up a can of cola. Luckily Julie and the kids were out – I didn’t fancy explaining why my face was so red and blotchy.
Is it good or bad that I found the memory stick? I asked myself as I returned to my room. Bad – because I felt awful, and somehow I knew this sense of loss wasn’t going to ever leave me. But good too – because now I had more to remember my cousin by.
I looked through the photos again, pausing on a shot of Danielle’s boyfriend. I hadn’t paid it much attention the first time – it was poorly composed, perhaps taken by accident – but this time something about it made me look more closely.
I frowned, chewing the top of my straw and blowing bubbles into my cola. He reminded me of someone . . .
I still hadn’t figured it out an hour later when I grabbed lunch – a banana sandwich and a handful of raisins. It was only after I’d finished altering the jeans that I remembered.
The day before Danielle had died we’d been in town, which was teeming with Saturday crowds. It wasn’t the easiest shopping expedition – Dani and I wanted to do the clothes shops, but Reece had made loud noises about being bored, and when I’d poked my head into a New Age place that looked interesting, Dani had said it was a load of rubbish that only nutters believed in. To keep the peace we’d stuck to department stores and gadget and music shops. We were just coming out of HMV when Danielle froze. There was a man further down the street, waving at her.
‘Dani?’ I’d asked. ‘You OK?’
Danielle grabbed my arm. ‘I’m sick of town. Let’s get back to the flat.’
Reece and I exchanged a look but did as she said. A bus was passing and we jumped on. Danielle pressed her nose to the window, looking back towards the street we’d come from. She seemed to relax once the bus turned the corner. When I asked her about the man, she laughed.
‘Oh, that’s just someone from work. Super-annoying – drones on for hours about the most boring things. We’ve had a lucky escape!’
Reece and I had accepted this explanation and forgotten about it. But now I knew otherwise – because the man waving at Dani had been the boyfriend in the photo. Or at least . . . I was fairly certain it was. But had his hair been blond? I remembered it being darker . . .
Suddenly I wasn’t sure. My memory of him was like one of those painting-by-numbers pictures you get given as a kid – outline sketched out, but minus any details until you add the colour.
Maybe it didn’t really matter. Danielle was dead. Whether or not the man in the Bournemouth street was the boyfriend didn’t change that. But heck, I still wanted to know.
If only I could get a second opinion . . .
The last thing I’d been expecting to find in my inbox when I logged in that Wednesday morning was an email from Sophie Hayward, my ex-best friend. But there it was – untitled and out of the blue.
If you haven’t instantly deleted this, I need to talk to you. It’s about Danielle. It won’t take long. Can we meet up? Text me. My number’s still the same.
I read it again, frowning. The bowl of porridge I’d been eating sat in front of me going cold. What an odd coincidence. I’d been thinking about Soph quite a bit this summer, even though we hadn’t talked for months – probably because I’d been spending a fair bit of time on Sticky Wicket, an online cricket forum for teenagers. Like most forums, many of the members were idiots, but they were always fun to pick arguments with.
Back when we were mates, I’d even argued with Sophie on the forum. Soph was the only girl I’d ever met who actually understood the rules of cricket. That was one of the reasons we’d first made friends. I later found out that her initial motivation for getting into cricket was that her mum had once hinted her dad liked it.
It was three months ago that Sophie ditched me, back at the start of May. I was still unclear as to why, and I doubted I’d find out. Nothing was ever simple with Sophie. I used to joke that she thought so much that I was surprised her brain didn’t explode.
As far as our friendship went, the end had come shortly after my stupid school play. I’d been forced into it by the drama teacher. He said it’d be a ‘good use for my big mouth’.
The play was Measure for Measure, which was, predictably, Shakespeare. Mum got irritatingly involved. She wrote my lines down on Post-it notes and stuck them all over the house – on my wardrobe, the fridge, even by the loo roll, something my little sister Neve found hilarious. ‘It’s so you can’t help but learn them,’ Mum explained. ‘This is incredibly important to your future, darling – Berkeley’s produced some really well-known actors. It’s a great honour to be in one of their plays.’
Quite who these actors were I didn’t know, and neither, I suspected, did she.
‘But I don’t want to be an actor,’ I pointed out. ‘Anyway, I know my lines. I told Sophie I’d be online now.’
‘Practice makes perfect, Reece,’ Mum said primly. ‘I’m sure Sophie wouldn’t mind your not talking to her tonight. It’s not like she’s your girlfriend.’
I decided to ignore that last bit. Mum wouldn’t understand that I used to see Sophie every day at school and never ran out of things to say. I was trying hard to keep up with her properly. It wasn’t easy, not being at the same school any more, especially now I had new mates who wanted to see me too. Soph didn’t seem keen on them for some reason.
By the time the day of the performance came, I was kinda looking forward to it. Sophie was coming. We hadn’t seen much of each other that week and there wouldn’t be much of a chance to catch up the night of the play. But there’d be time for that at Paloma Watson’s party, which was on Saturday.
The show went smoothly. As soon as I’d changed out of my costume I made a getaway and met Sophie and Mum in the foyer. Mum had wanted to bring Neve too, but I’d managed to talk her into getting Aunt Meg to babysit. I didn’t think two hours of Jacobean verse was the kind of thing even the most cultured three-year-old would get a kick out of.
darling!’ Before I could stop her, Mum grabbed me and planted a kiss on my
forehead. ‘I heard the parents sitting behind me whispering about how good you
were. I wanted to turn around and say, “That’s
my son!” but I didn’t want to interrupt your big moment—’
‘Mum! Stop it,’ I begged. Embarrassing or what! I looked at Sophie. She had her hands shoved into her pockets and wasn’t meeting my eyes.
‘What’s up?’ I whispered as we walked out. ‘The play wasn’t that bad, surely.’
‘It was fine,’ Sophie muttered. ‘I’d better go now.’
‘It’s only nine. Come over for an hour. Some of my mates are coming. Unofficial after-show party.’
Sophie made a face and instantly I felt annoyed. She never made any effort with my Berkeley mates. They thought she was bad-tempered and moody. I wasn’t sure they believed me when I explained she was a different person when we were alone.
‘See you at Paloma’s at the weekend then,’ I said.
Sophie shrugged. ‘Parties aren’t really my thing. Always feel out of place.’
‘You might feel more comfortable if you looked the part more,’ I said. ‘I mean, you look cool whatever you wear, but if you dressed up a bit sometimes, it might make you fit in better.’
I nodded at two girls my mates were talking to. They were both wearing sleeveless tops and short skirts, maybe a bit overdressed, but it got my point across. Sophie stared at them, then mumbled that she was going home. I began wondering if she was interested in staying friends with me at all. It felt like I bent over backwards to meet up with her, and nine times out of ten I was the one to text or email. From the way she behaved sometimes, maybe I shouldn’t have bothered.
‘She’s probably just moving on,’ Mum said the next afternoon. Neve was nearby watching Postman Pat, nose almost touching the screen. ‘Sad, but it happens. Why don’t you invite some friends from school over next week to take your mind off her?’
‘Things were just dandy until recently,’ I said. ‘I sent her a text today. She never even replied! What’s changed?’
‘Be fair, Reece,’ Mum said. ‘Don’t forget, it’s only been a few months since that dreadful business with her cousin. Bereavement can affect people in strange ways – as you well know.’
Mum actually sticking up for Soph shocked me into silence. She was right. Danielle’s death had unsettled me enough. We’d been eating lunch with her like everything was normal, then a few hours later she was gone. Totally surreal. And how I felt must be nothing next to what Sophie must be feeling.
Maybe I hadn’t been looking out for her enough. But beyond being there for her and keeping in touch, I wasn’t sure how I could help. I didn’t think Sophie would ever really open up to me about Danielle.
‘Anyway,’ Mum continued, ‘Sophie’s a young woman now. She probably wants to hang out with girlfriends and talk girl stuff. It’s quite unusual for a girl and boy to have a friendship like yours at this age.’
‘Mum, you know that’s stereotypical bullshit.’
‘Less of the language!’ Mum snapped, quickly looking at Neve to see if she was listening. She wasn’t. ‘Picked up at Broom Hill, no doubt; it’s a good job you’re out of that place. I never liked your having to mix with those kids from the Raspberry Valley Estate.’
I rolled my eyes. ‘You didn’t mind me going there before we got Dad’s life-insurance money.’
‘Oh, don’t go on, Reece! I was only trying to be helpful.’ She smiled, patting the sofa seat next to her. ‘Why don’t we watch a film together once Neve’s in bed? I could make some popcorn.’
As I yawned my way through Pride and Prejudice with my mother, I hoped Sophie was OK. She could do funny things when she was in a mood. I sent her an email, and several more texts over the next few days. She didn’t reply. So eventually I decided to leave it. That Saturday I went out with my Berkeley mates rather than to Paloma’s party. When the next week went by without any contact from Sophie, I got the message. So I did something I never do and gave up.
And now, months later, Sophie had emailed me. I didn’t need to mull things over. I knew what my response was going to be.
Long time no speak, I typed. How’s this afternoon?
By the time I got off the bus at Muswell Hill, it was a quarter past five. The Broadway was just as I remembered – but then, why would it have changed? It hadn’t been that long since I’d last been to Reece’s. It was one of the nicest days of summer so far – warm but not sweltering – and I was enjoying the feeling of the sun on my legs. I was wearing denim shorts, a long-sleeved polka-dot top I’d made from what had once been an oversize dress, and a sunhat with a wide brim – all charity-shop stuff.
Reece’s house was about ten minutes from the Broadway, but he’d asked me to meet him at the school cricket pitch. The club he played for was an independent one but they used Berkeley’s facilities for their practice sessions. This didn’t fit in with my plans of showing him Dani’s photos, but it was easier to come to his neck of the woods – I could always leave if things got too awkward.
I’d been to Reece’s school several times before. It’s one of those old red-brick buildings with fancy doorway arches and stained-glass windows, and there are statues of former headmasters dotted about the grounds that stare at you disapprovingly. Berkeley is way up the education league tables; you can only go there if you’re loaded.
I started dragging my feet as I got closer. I felt mixed-up – nervous, hesitant and slightly resentful. I never liked going near Berkeley – it reminded me of just how little I had. And what would it be like seeing Reece again after all this time? Everything to do with him – the memories, the in-jokes – I’d closed myself off from them, put them into a little mental box with a sticker that said ‘over’ on it. I wasn’t sure how it would feel to open that box again. Everything that had happened still hurt. I knew Reece probably didn’t see it that way – but he didn’t know the full story.
I saw Reece before he saw me. All the boys on the field were wearing cricket whites and for a moment I wasn’t sure which one he was. It looked like practice had just broken up – half the players were hanging around chatting while the others were clearing up. I stood a little way back, hoping they wouldn’t notice. I knew Reece’s friends looked down on me. But one of them spotted me and said something, sniggering. Reece gave him a withering look and came over, tucking his bat under his arm. For an awkward moment we sort of hovered in front of each other, not quite sure whether there was going to be a hug or not.
‘So . . .’ Reece let the word hang in the air a moment and it became obvious there wasn’t. ‘That was a very random email this morning. What gives?’
He looked quite different from how he had three months ago, mainly because he was wearing his hair in a side parting. It made him look a lot older; I wasn’t sure I liked that – and I definitely didn’t like that his voice had picked up a hint of the clear-cut, posh way his friends spoke. The other change was that he’d grown. One of Reece’s big gripes had always been that I was taller than him – but then I was taller than most people in our year, including the boys. I still had a good inch on him though.
‘I wanted to speak to you,’ I said.
‘Evidently. Must be something fairly seismic. You made it pretty clear after the play you didn’t want anything to do with me.’
Reece’s friends passed us, grinning. One of them wolf-whistled.
‘Shut up, you ignorant tossers!’ Reece called after them.
‘Like I said in the email, it’s about Danielle,’ I said, ignoring Reece’s jibe about us not speaking, and I started explaining what was on the memory stick. Reece arched his eyebrows and I realized how wishy-washy it all sounded. It probably looked like I was making a lame excuse to see him again.
‘I see,’ Reece said. ‘In that case, you’d better come back to mine, hadn’t you?’
Reece’s road was, by anyone’s standards, a lovely place to live, with big, detached and very expensive new-build houses, just a short walk from Berkeley. I was sure that Reece’s mum Effie, arch-snob, had chosen it for that reason. She sang the school’s praises so regularly that I was surprised they hadn’t asked her to write their prospectus.
Reece unlocked the door. The hallway smelt of air freshener and there was a wooden rack for those entering to place their shoes. The walls were lined with precisely arranged photographs in identical frames. At the end was a big picture of Colin, Reece’s dad. I’d always liked that one because, unlike the others, mostly school photos of Reece, it looked natural, with Colin glancing over his shoulder, half amused, half surprised. He had been a nice guy, Colin.
‘I’m going to have a shower,’ Reece announced, dumping his sports kit at the bottom of the stairs. ‘Get yourself a drink and then we’ll check out the memory stick.’
‘Reece?’ It was Effie. It sounded as if her voice was coming from the sitting room. ‘Who are you talking to?’
‘Mum? Weren’t you supposed to be out?’
‘I was waiting for you. Meg says she’s not well and can’t take Neve, so I was hoping you’d stay in with her, else I’ll have to miss my class. Did you leave your phone at home again?’ Effie bustled into the hallway. Her face froze when she saw me and I gave a nervous laugh.
‘Sophie,’ Effie said, her expression fixing into a polite smile. ‘What a surprise. Haven’t seen you for a while.’
‘Be back down in ten,’ Reece said, and headed up the stairs. Oh, great – cheers, Reece, I thought murderously.
‘Put those sweaty cricket clothes in the linen basket this time, not on the floor!’ Effie turned to me. I had to give it to her – Effie was looking good. She’d had a rich auburn colour put on her hair, and while the T-shirt and denim skirt she wore were casual, they were well cut and obviously expensive. I suppose if I had money to splash about like she did, I might give myself a makeover too.
‘Would you like a drink?’ Effie asked, heading to the kitchen. ‘We have juice or lemonade, or I’m sure Reece wouldn’t mind you having one of his disgusting energy drinks.’
‘Lemonade’s fine.’ I followed her through. A small girl was sitting at the breakfast bar, busily scribbling away on coloured sugar paper. She looked up when I entered.
‘Neve, do you remember Sophie?’ Effie said, going to the cupboard and taking out a glass. ‘Reece’s friend.’
Neve gave me a sly look and put the end of a crayon in her mouth. ‘Secret,’ she said.
‘What are you talking about?’ Effie asked, but Neve said she wasn’t telling. I slid on to one of the seats. Neve must have had her third birthday by now – I remembered when she was a tiny ugly-looking thing with squinty eyes, that just cried a lot. She looked quite a lot like Reece now, I thought.
‘Where did you go?’ Neve asked as I accepted the drink Effie poured for me.
‘Nowhere special. Just getting on with things.’ I hoped Reece wasn’t going to take a long shower.
‘Things things,’ I said.
‘Things things things!’ Neve laughed. ‘I’m going to draw you!’
She got out a fresh piece of paper and grabbed the purple crayon, even though I wasn’t wearing anything that colour. Glad that Neve wasn’t going to press the issue of where exactly I’d been, I looked at Effie. She was watching me, lips pursed.
‘So, er, how are you?’ I asked. I had to say something – the heavy silence was making my skin prickle.
‘Very well, thank you for asking,’ Effie said rather primly. ‘And how are you?’
‘Are you enjoying life with your new family?’
She made it sound as though I’d purchased Julie in a shop.
‘They’re not exactly new,’ I said. ‘I’ve been there a year and a half now. But yeah, it’s fine.’
‘How do foster-homes work exactly? Do they have you until you turn eighteen and then they leave you to get on with things?’
What a way with words she had. I avoided the temptation to answer sarcastically and explained about my Pathway Plan, though I didn’t go into details. I knew Effie was only asking so she could turn her nose up. She’d never liked me. According to her, I had ‘problems’ and ‘a bad background’. I’d heard her and Colin talking about it one night when I was about twelve – they hadn’t known Reece and I were in the next room.
Effie switched the conversation to my studies and I filled her in on my A-level choices. We were searching for something else to say when Neve interrupted by waving her masterpiece in my face. The sugar paper showed a stick woman wearing a massive pair of shorts, with dark hair that fell to the ground and some sort of mask on her face.
‘That’s great, Neve! Am I a superhero or a burglar?’ I asked.
‘Ah right, what did I steal?’
‘Cakes,’ Neve said. ‘Cream ones.’
Reece appeared in T-shirt and jeans, rubbing his hair with a towel.
‘Right, let’s go up,’ he said, grabbing a bottle of Lucozade from the fridge and dumping the towel on the counter. ‘See you later, Mum.’
‘Wait a minute,’ Effie said. ‘I’m off in an hour. Are you going to stay in for Neve?’
Reece sighed and huffed, which Effie seemed to take as acceptance. ‘If you and Sophie want dinner later, I’ll leave some cash out. There are takeaway menus in the drawer.’
I followed Reece up to his room. Like the rest of the house, it was neat and tidy, though this was probably down to the cleaner. Books, mainly textbooks and sports autobiographies, were neatly lined up on the shelves. The top one was reserved for the collection of old Beano and Dandy annuals that had belonged to Reece’s dad.
Reece flipped on the flash new computer that sat on the desk. It had been his birthday a few weeks ago – I guessed the computer had been a present. He pulled up a stool next to his swivel chair.
‘Let’s have a look at this USB then. Better do it pronto, before Mum offs and leaves me babysitting the poddling.’
‘Look, Reece . . . you don’t have to be so businesslike about all this. I know you’re pissed off with me, but this passive-aggressive stuff is a pain.’ As soon as the words came out I regretted them.
Reece scowled. ‘Why shouldn’t I be passive-aggressive and businesslike? You’re the one who ditched me for no reason.’
‘Not for no reason. You let me down.’
‘How? I made time for you when I moved schools. I was there!’
‘Not the night of Paloma’s party, you weren’t. You were out with your new friends, having a whale of a time, judging by the Facebook photos.’
‘What’s the big deal? Did something happen at the party? You told me at the play that you weren’t even going.’
‘Look, I didn’t come to talk about that! Stop going on.’
Reece muttered something, then to my surprise shut up. I handed him the USB. A little gruffly I said, ‘Look in the party folder, ninth photo.’
He opened it up. I watched him frown at the screen. He paused, then flicked through a few more pictures. Impatient, I said, ‘Come on, you must know. Is it him, d’you reckon?’
‘Oh, he’s the dude from town all right. But . . .’ Reece hesitated. ‘I’m pretty certain – ninety per cent sure – that this is the same bloke that came by the flat too. The one who rang the bell for Danielle when we were getting ready to leave.’
‘What? How can you tell?’
‘Got a look at him out of the window, didn’t I? OK, so we were four floors up and it was a few months ago, but I’d swear to it. Didn’t connect them at the time. So what’s the deal with this, Soph? D’you think he had something to do with – you know . . . ?’
I hesitated. It was a good question – and I was almost afraid of answering it.
Slowly I said, ‘Maybe . . . I mean, think about it. There was the scene in town, when she was upset to see him. Then the next day she went off with him when he called at the flat. A couple of hours later she jumps off that balcony. That’s no coincidence, right? And it’s not the only thing that bugs me. Remember what the eyewitness said in the inquest report? That old lady? She saw Dani fall – back first. Why backwards?’ I paused. ‘And . . . aside from that, I’ve been thinking. I’m not convinced that Dani was depressed enough to take her own life. I accepted it to begin with, but don’t you remember what she was like that weekend? She was talking about the things she wanted to buy when she got paid, about the future. Would someone suicidal do that? I’m not saying anything sinister went on – but I’m just not convinced it’s so simple. Dani seemed fine.’
‘Might have seemed fine. Doesn’t mean she was. Anyway, aren’t you implying that this guy gave her a reason to do it?’
‘Maybe – I don’t know.’ Suddenly embarrassed, I looked away. Ridiculous – coming here with crazy theories when I hadn’t spoken to Reece in months. I needed to find someone else to dump on – I probably sounded a bit hysterical.
‘I’ll go,’ I said, getting to my feet. ‘Thanks for helping.’
I was almost at the door when Reece said, ‘Sure you’ve been OK?’
His voice almost sounded soft. I looked over my shoulder.
‘I’m fine. What d’you mean?’
‘You know. Just generally.’
Was he saying that he’d been worried about me when we weren’t speaking?
‘I really am fine,’ I said firmly. ‘And I really am going.’
‘You know what I think,’ Reece said. ‘There’s no way your cousin seeing that guy was prearranged. She was definitely shocked to see him in town. Whatever he needed to say to her at the flat, it must have been significant.’
He was juggling an eraser from hand to hand, and now he added a key ring and the memory stick.
‘Don’t throw that about,’ I said, marching over and snatching it, annoyed that I’d almost forgotten it. ‘It’s valuable.’
Reece threw the eraser against the wall. It made a pinging sound and bounced underneath the bed.
‘How long had Dani been living in Bournemouth?’
‘Dunno. A couple of weeks.’
‘Where was she before?’
‘Somewhere in Archway. What are you thinking?’
‘Well, let’s assume the bloke doesn’t live in Bourne-mouth. That they met in London and he made a special trip to see her. You don’t usually do that when people aren’t expecting you, especially as Bournemouth’s hardly just down the road.’
Despite myself I was impressed with his reasoning. ‘Must have been something he couldn’t email or call her about.’
‘Doesn’t mean it was anything suspicious though. We know he was gone by the time Dani fell. The eyewitness said there was no one else on the balcony.’
‘I’m not saying he pushed her,’ I said, aware that I was starting to sound silly again. ‘I’m just saying that we now know this guy is Dani’s ex, and him visiting might be significant in some way.’
Reece turned to the computer and opened Firefox. He went on to Facebook and opened the In Memoriam page that one of Danielle’s friends had created. Lots of people, including me and Reece, had left messages. It had seemed the right thing to do. Julie said it trivialized her death, but in my opinion it was the best way for all the people who knew her to come together. The page showed a posed profile picture of Dani at a friend’s wedding, confetti in her hair and toasting the camera with a wine glass.
Reece was scrolling down the comments. Beginning to realize what he was doing, I sat back on the stool.
‘Stop,’ I said. ‘That’s him, there. Aiden Anderson.’
Aiden Anderson hadn’t written much in his message – just RIP babe, you’ll be missed x. Reece clicked and his profile page popped up, a big photo of him on the left.
‘How’s that for awesome detective work?’ Reece said, looking smug. ‘Sherlock would be proud.’
There wasn’t much on Aiden’s page – he seemed to be an advocate of the ‘I’m so cool I keep my profile practically empty’ school of social networking.
‘What now?’ Reece said. ‘Do we sit on this information, or do something with it?’
‘You mean, go to the police? What do you think?’
He shrugged. ‘Your cousin. You decide.’
I picked at the threads on the bottom of my shorts. It felt very surreal to be sitting here on a nice summer evening, talking about Dani’s death. I’d thought about it constantly, but until now I’d never questioned the verdict. Part of me wished I hadn’t started this. I wondered if Reece was taking it seriously. He was being so matter-of-fact that I suspected he wasn’t. Maybe he thought that I couldn’t deal with Dani killing herself and just wanted someone to blame. And maybe I did. I didn’t know what I thought any more – just that I needed to do something.
‘If I go to the police, will you come with me?’ I asked.
Reece got up. ‘I suddenly hear chow mein calling. Want to order takeaway?’
‘Answer my question. I’m serious.’
‘I’m considering it,’ Reece said. ‘But my brain needs MSG first.’
Rolling my eyes, I followed him downstairs. Effie was by the door, about to head out. After laying down a few house rules, which Reece no doubt already knew and were probably said for my benefit, she disappeared, leaving us with Neve.
Reece picked up the phone and ordered some chow mein, seaweed, sweet and sour pork, black bean beef and prawn crackers.
‘Yum,’ he said. ‘They give massive portions, this place. We’ll be stuffed.’
‘Like turkeys,’ said Neve happily.
‘Hooray,’ I said.
Catching me looking at him, Reece said, ‘Look, I’ll come with you – purely because it’ll be more interesting than what I was planning on doing. Happy?’
I supposed it was too much to hope that he’d agree with me. It was funny – since we’d started talking, the posh note in his voice had gone. He sounded more like the old Reece. Well, better him on my side than no one. I was normally good at doing difficult things by myself, but this was something I’d rather not face alone.
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