Copyright © 1994 Martina Cole
The right of Martina Cole to be identified as the Author of
the Work has been asserted by her in accordance with
the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
Apart from any use permitted under UK copyright law,
this publication may only be reproduced, stored, or transmitted,
in any form, or by any means, with prior permission in writing
of the publishers or, in the case of reprographic production,
in accordance with the terms of licences issued by the
Copyright Licensing Agency.
First published as an Ebook by Headline Publishing Group in 2008
All characters in this publication are fictitious
and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead,
is purely coincidental.
eISBN : 978 0 7553 5075 9
This Ebook produced by Jouve Digitalisation des Informations
HEADLINE PUBLISHING GROUP
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Table of Contents
Martina Cole is the No. 1 bestselling author of eleven hugely successful novels. Her most recent novel,
was No. 1 on the
hardback bestseller list for eleven weeks, as well as a
No. 1 bestseller in paperback, and
was selected by Channel 4’s
Richard & Judy
as one of the Top Ten Best Reads of 2003.
both shot straight to No. 1 on the
bestseller lists and total sales of Martina’s novels now exceed four million copies.
have gone on to become hugely popular TV drama series and several of her other novels are in production for TV Martina Cole has a son and daughter, and she lives in Essex.
Praise for Martina Cole’s bestsellers:
‘Martina Cole pulls no punches, writes as she sees it, refuses to patronise or condescend to either her characters or fans ... And meanwhile sells more books than almost any other crime writer in the country’
Independent on Sunday
‘Distinctive and powerfully written fiction’
‘Martina Cole again explores the shady criminal underworld, a setting she is fast making her own’
‘The stuff of legend ... It’s vicious, nasty and utterly compelling’
‘Set to be another winner’
For my sisters, Maura and Loretta. We’ve held each other’s hands, wiped each other’s tears, supported each other, laughed together even when our world had collapsed around us and enjoyed every second of it. We are grown women now, but still at heart, we’re the Whiteside girls.
Remembering Jonathan Peake and Eric Lane, with love always.
Many thanks to Marlene Moore for all her help and information on Berwick Manor.
‘When I was a child, I spake as a child,
I understood as a child,
I thought as a child’
‘The children of perdition are oft’times made instruments even of the greatest work’
Ben Jonson, 1637-1673
The woman in the bed was impossibly old. Her face, still showing subtle traces of a former beauty, was a mass of criss-cross lines. The thick powder she wore had cracked and flaked in the heat of the room. The red slash of her mouth was sunken and bent, emphasising her baggy jowls.
Two things were, however, very much alive: her eyes, still a startling green, despite the yellowing of her whites, and her hair. The thick redness seemed to crackle on the shrunken head, falling across bony shoulders in a shower of electric waves. It was this, and the eyes, which showed a casual observer that here lay a former beauty, a relic of another time, another era. A time when she was a show stopper, a woman of account. Now there was laughter in those eyes as she watched, beneath hooded lids, the two young nurses tidying her room.
She knew she was old and she accepted it. Death would just be another great adventure, she was sure of that. It was one of the prerogatives of great age that you made yourself ready to meet your maker. Well, she had a few things to say to him when the time came.
‘She was lovely in her day wasn’t she?’ The blonde-haired nurse picked up a photograph in a heavy silver frame. It showed a beautiful, doe-eyed woman, wrapped in fox furs, wearing a cloche hat. Her heavily lipsticked mouth formed a perfect cupid’s bow. She could have been a silent screen star.
‘Yes, gorgeous. Look at all that hair coming out from underneath that hat.’
The mousey-haired girl sounded envious. What she wouldn’t give for the old girl’s hair, even as it was now, speckled with grey.
‘Did you read about her? In the
News of the World
the other week? She had a life, she did. All those scandals in the ’sixties! Politicians and that, even Royalty!’ The girl lowered her voice now, as if remembering the old lady was in the room.
‘You don’t have to whisper, dears, I’m not dead yet!’
Both nurses jumped at the sound of her voice, low pitched and surprisingly strong. She looked so tiny, so tiny and vulnerable, until she opened her mouth.
‘I was seventeen when that photo was taken. I was a looker and all. Had all the men after me!’
One of the nurses sat down on the bed.
‘Is it true what they said about you?’
The tiny frame shook with a deep husky laugh that turned into a hacking cough.
‘Let’s just say that there’s an element of truth in there, shall we?’
The two nurses exchanged glances.
‘Is it true that Jonathan La Billière started out in blue films?’
Briony sat up in bed and scowled. ‘He’s got a knighthood, you know, but he always had a soft spot for me, did Jonny. I knew many men, my loves, and I learnt one thing. Never open your mouth about anyone or anything, unless you stand to benefit by it. It’s a rule I’ve lived by for nearly ninety years! There’s things that will go to my grave with me, and there’s people who think the sooner I go and take me knowledge with me, the better off everyone will be!’
She laughed again then, pulling herself up in the bed, she lit a cigarette, drawing the smoke down into the depths of her lungs.
‘Well, Miss Briony, you certainly have led a chequered life!’
‘How about a drop of the hard then, girls? There’s a bottle of brandy over there in the dresser. I’ll have a large one please.’
The blonde nurse went to the dresser and poured out the drink. The old woman sighed. This place was costing over a thousand pounds a week, though it was worth every penny. But a thousand pounds was still a lot of money, even for two of them! A thousand pounds to someone from her beginnings was a small fortune, but money was a necessity in life; without it, you were vulnerable. She sipped the fiery liquid and felt it burn the back of her throat.
‘One of the perks of having money - you can happily drink yourself to death and no one gives a damn.’
The nurses smiled.
‘They’re making a film about me, you know? About me and my sisters. My sister Kerry was the singer. She was the youngest. Five of us, there were, but I’m the only one left. Kerry was the gifted one, and like many gifted people she used her talent to destroy herself.’ Her eyes clouded over, as if she could see her sister once more in front of her.
‘But they won’t mention my poor Rosalee, I made sure of that, nor too much about my Eileen. I brought up Eileen’s children, you know. Then there was my Bernadette. The sweetest child God ever put on this earth, unless you upset her that is! I’m the only one left out of the five of us, and I’m well on me way to the century!’
The face closed again and the old woman became lost in another world. A world that spanned many years and that seemed more real to her with every passing day.
Molly Cavanagh shivered underneath the sacking. It was so very cold. She could feel the earthy dampness beneath the mattress with every movement of her aching back. She shifted position slightly and looked at the children huddled around the dying fire. The eldest, Eileen, turned to face her mother and lifted her eyebrows questioningly. Molly shook her head; the child was a long way from coming. Time enough to get Mrs Briggs when it was well on.
‘Can I get you a drink, Ma?’
Molly held out a dirty hand to Eileen and she came to her mother’s side.
‘Go down to Donnelly’s and get some coal. There’s a few pennies in me skirt pocket.’
The girl turned from her and Molly grabbed at her hand. ‘And keep your eye on that Brendan Donnelly. Make sure he weighs it properly, last time it was all slack.’
As she spoke her breath gleamed like white mist in the dimness.
‘I will, Ma.’ Eileen picked up a shawl and, pocketing the pennies, she left the basement room. The four other little girls watched her go. Kerry, the youngest, got up from her place by the fender and slipped under the covers with her ma.
Molly closed her eyes. When that Paddy got in today she’d cut the legs from under him. It was always the same when he was working: full of good intentions until payday. ‘We’ll pay a bit off the back of the rent. We’ll have a grand dinner of pie and peas and taties. We’ll maybe even send the little ones to school.’ Then when the first week’s wages came it was straight down The Bull for a jar of Watney’s, without a thought for her or his children.
Her mind was jolted back to the present by Briony, her second eldest daughter. Never a child to keep her temper long, the crack as she slapped her younger sister Bernadette across the legs broke the silence of the room.
‘Ma! Ma! She gave me a dig! Did you see that, Ma? Did you see that?’
Kerry sat up in the bed with excitement. ‘Will you be slapping the face off of Briony, Ma? I saw the crack she gave our Bernie ...’
‘Will you all be quiet! And Bernadette, stop that howling and jigging about before I give you
Something in their mother’s voice communicated itself to the children who all became quiet at once.