Fiona Cummins is an award-winning former Daily Mirror showbusiness journalist and a graduate of the Faber Academy Writing a Novel course.
Rattle, her bestselling debut novel, received international critical acclaim when it was published earlier this year. It is also in development as a six-part TV series by the producers of Kick-Ass and Miss Sloane.
Her second novel The Collector will be published in February.
Fiona lives in Essex with her family.
On still nights, when the curve of a winter moon is smudged in the flow of the River Quaggy, the dead clamour for him.
He cocks his head and, through the whispering darkness, picks out the loosely formed sobs of the child.
The boy’s mumbled distress pulls at him across the sweep of the city, and he fights the urge to leave at once. Even the passing of the years cannot quiet the shiver that swells through him as he contemplates a lifetime’s work.
From every generation, a collection of its own. His father, his father’s father, and the men who walked before them.
But now it is his time, his privilege and his duty.
He savours the way the moon seeps through the slats in the blinds at his father’s house, and the wash of light on the bones.
Ribbons and sheets of ossified matter. Stalagmites and bridges. Twisted plates and bony nubs. A plaque engraved with the letter C.
The shadows in the house deepen. He stands alone in the hallway, and drinks in the glory of the skeleton in its glass case, mesmerized by its distortions, the incursion of bone into thoracic cavity, the calcified trimmings decorating his spine.
A young boy trapped in a prison of stone.
For years he has been seeking this rarest of specimens, searching amongst the dead and the living.
Always looking, always hoping.
And now, after all this time, he has found another one.
If Erdman Frith had chosen pizza instead of roast beef, his son might have been spared.
If Jakey Frith had been a little more ordinary, the bogeyman that stalked the shadows of his life would have been nothing more than a childhood memory, to be dusted off and laughed at on family occasions.
If Clara Foyle’s parents had been a little less self-absorbed and a little more focused on their five-year-old daughter, her disappearance might never have happened at all.
As for Detective Sergeant Etta Fitzroy, if she hadn’t been haunted by thoughts of what might have been, of what she might have been, both children would have tumbled from the blaze of newspaper headlines into the darkest reaches of infamy.
But none of them suspected anything of this on that wet November afternoon, just hours before their lives collided and cracked open to reveal the truth of them all.
Especially not Erdman Frith, who was dithering in the chiller section; aisle three for pepperoni and a pension; aisle five and he might as well be as dead as the lump of sirloin he was lifting into his trolley.
No, Erdman Frith wasn’t thinking about death at all. He was more concerned with what Lilith would say when she saw . . . dum . . . dum . . . dummmmm . . . Red Meat.
Erdman pictured her, lips pursed tighter than a gnat’s arse.
‘What about the saturated fat content, Erdman?’
‘Doesn’t red meat contribute to bowel cancer, Erdman?’
The gnat’s arse would pucker.
‘Or Mad Cow Disease, Erdman. They claim they’ve eradicated it, but who’s to say they’re telling the truth?’
Did she honestly expect him to answer that?
Once upon a time he’d have teased the worry lines from her face, firing silly jokes at her until they were both laughing, and she would lean into him, fingers tangling his hair, breathing him in, her fears forgotten.
‘Why do they call it PMS, Lilith?’
‘I don’t know, Erdman, why do they call it PMS?’
‘Because Mad Cow Disease is already taken.’
But these days he couldn’t even raise a smile.
These days, her eyes followed Jakey’s every move, her fears not forgotten, but amplified a thousandfold by a cruel enemy that was reducing their son – and now their marriage – into paper butterflies, fragile and easily broken.
They told their boy, Lilith and Erdman, that he had a little problem with his bones. That was something of an understatement. Jakey’s ‘little problem’ would end up killing him.
The medical team who delivered him had suspected it immediately, thanks to the telltale malformation of his big toes. Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva. Thirty-five letters. A letter, give or take, for each year Jakey was expected to live. The average life expectancy. Any more would be a bonus.
By chance, a nurse in the maternity unit had spent the previous six months working in an Australian hospital where a teenager had reported with strange bony growths and increased loss of movement. They’d injected pain-killing drugs into her muscles, she’d explained, surgically removed the extra ribbons of bone, and all they had done was make it a million times worse. By the time she was diagnosed, she was practically a statue, barely able to move at all, except to speak. She could still speak. The nurse had told them that as if it was some kind of blessing.
Six years on, even the specialists were shocked at the speed of the progression of his illness. That Jakey’s flare-ups were unusually severe for one so young. That his body was following the characteristic path of the disease, but already it had reached his arms much earlier than they’d anticipated. That a fall or bump could trigger a life-threatening episode.
To enjoy their time with their son.
Erdman’s fingers grazed the cool, damp packaging in his trolley. He should put it back. Lilith would kill him and he didn’t want to upset her, not really. He longed for the joyous freedom of their love, before it was tangled up in hospital appointments and medication. But he was weary of always doing what she told him to.
Anyhow, he hadn’t got BSE or CJD, or whatever the hell it was, and he was pushing forty. If that metaphorical cowpat was heading his way it would have dumped on his life by now, which, let’s be honest, was already shitty enough. Even if the worst did happen he wouldn’t notice the transition from middle-aged man to vegetable. A potato had more fun than he did.
Fuck it. Jakey loved roast dinners and he needed building up.
Had Erdman known that he was sealing his son’s fate in that most glamorous of locations, Tesco on Lewisham Road, the whole family would have become vegetarian. But he didn’t, and so he headed home, smug in the knowledge that as he had done the shopping, it was his prerogative to decide what they had for tea.
(C) Fiona Cummins 2016