Read Close Your Pretty Eyes Online

Authors: Sally Nicholls

Close Your Pretty Eyes (5 page)

Hayley didn't say anything. She looked like she was about to cry. I felt mean. Hayley was the one person who always loved me.

“You're probably OK,” I said. “They always liked you better than me. Would you really like to live with me?”

“Of course I would!” said Hayley. I wondered if she meant it. “I cried and cried when you left. Ask my dad if you don't believe me.”

I put my arm around her shoulders and gave her a squeeze.

“Sisters for ever,” I said. “
For ever.
” And she nodded her head up and down, just like I do.

“I
promise
,” she said, dead serious.

But I haven't seen her since.

OLD AMELIA

“Who's the woman in the photo?” I asked Jim, that evening. “The really old one, on the landing?”

Jim was in his study, working on his laptop. He didn't look cross at me for interrupting, though.

“Ah. . .” he said. “That's Amelia Dyer. Our celebrity.”

“She's famous?” She didn't look famous. She looked too old-fashioned and ugly.

“Well. . .” Jim smiled, “a Victorian celebrity. She was a terribly wicked old lady. She used to live in this house.”

“She used to live here? Who was she? What did she do?”

“Slow down,” said Jim. “Olivia. Calm down.”

“But
who was she
?” I shouted.

“Olivia.” Jim looked at me. I wanted to kick him, but I wanted to know about Amelia more. So I just glowered at him, sending bolts of
I hate you
boring into his head and turning his brain to green mush. Jim went on calmly typing. I waited, but he didn't say anything more.

“Who's Amelia Dyer?” I said again. Jim didn't look up. “
Please
.”

Jim beamed at me. “She was a baby farmer,” he said. Do you know what a baby farmer is?”


No
,” I said. But Jim carried on like he couldn't see my fury.

“Baby farmers were lots of different things,” he said. “In Victorian England, if you were a lady who wasn't married, it was very difficult to bring up a child. People wouldn't give you a job, and there weren't enough orphanages for all the babies. So there were all these mothers who had babies, and didn't know what to do with them.”

“What happened to them?” I said.

“Well,” said Jim, “that's where the baby farmers came in. The best sort of baby farmer was . . . well, sort of like a foster mother – you could leave your baby with her and pay her to look after it while you were at work. Except you'd have to pretend you didn't have a baby, so you couldn't visit it. Some poor women only saw their children every couple of months, and some baby farms were terrible places for a child. Babies lying in cots all day with no one talking to them, or feeding them, or changing their clothes. Lots of babies died in places like that.”

I scratched the tabletop with my fingernail. Babies crying and no one looking after them. I hated the way Jim's words made me feel. I said, “Is that what your woman did to her babies?” quickly, so I didn't have to think about it.

“Well, yes,” said Jim. “But that wasn't the worst of it. You see, some ladies didn't like the thought of their sons and daughters growing up in places like that. What those ladies wanted was someone nice to adopt their baby and bring it up as their own.”

“So why didn't they do that, then?” I asked.

“Well, because there were a lot more babies who needed homes than there were homes for babies. Women had to pay a lot of money to have their child adopted. So women like Amelia Dyer would pretend to be looking for a baby to adopt. They'd take the money and the child and then they'd quietly get rid of it.”

“Get rid of it? How? Kill it?”

“That's right. Suffocate it or just let it starve to death.”

I went cold. I could just imagine Amelia Dyer. Women on their own are always the worst. I knew it. Amelia Dyer, Violet, my mum. Violet would've killed her foster kids, I bet, if she thought she could get away with it.

“Or sometimes,” said Jim, “ladies would come to this house to have their babies. Sometimes Amelia would deliver the baby alive, and sometimes the lady would ask her to deliver it dead. They'd tell the coroner it was a stillbirth and no one would be any the wiser.”

“How many babies did she kill?” I whispered.

“Nobody knows,” said Jim. “The ladies who used her services didn't exactly shout about it. But she was a baby farmer for most of her life. They think she killed about four hundred children.”

“What happened to her?” I asked.

“She was caught,” said Jim. “They found the body of a little dead baby floating in the river and they traced it to her. Her trial was very famous. She was found guilty of murder and hanged to death.”

“Here?”

“Oh, no. In Reading. She only lived here for a couple of years. She moved around a lot. Much easier to hide when you're moving around.”

“But she killed babies here?”

“Well, we don't know for sure,” said Jim. “She didn't exactly advertise her murders, either. But, yes, she probably did.”

I shivered.

A SENSE OF SMELL

After Jim told me about Amelia Dyer, I decided I didn't care how stupid it looked, I wasn't going to go down the servants' stairs again. But I soon found out that Amelia – or whoever it was – wasn't so easy to avoid.

Smells were the next thing I noticed. There were all these smells in Jim's house which didn't make sense. It took me a while to realize, because in a new house there were
so many
new smells anyway. Mud, and straw, and cat, and chicken poo, and goat, and cut grass, and all the new flowers in the garden – so many different smells all on top of each other, it was a bit overwhelming at first. And then there were the people smells. Jim smelled of Maisy a bit, and coffee, and garlic if he'd been cooking, and farm smells if he'd been feeding the pigs and the goats. Daniel smelled of pencil shavings, and chewing gum, and Zig-Zag. Harriet smelled of strawberry lipgloss, and bubble bath, and the dusty, musty, pencil-y smell from the bottom of the dressing-up box. Grace smelled of Maisy, and foundation, and perfume, and roll-on deodorant.

The first couple of weeks, my nose was too busy learning all this new information, but after a while, I started to notice the other smells. The smells which didn't make any sense.

The fire was one. Jim had a real, actual fire in the living room. It had this thick, woody, ashy smell, which I loved. Mostly, it burned logs. There was a bag of coal too, but nobody used it. One night, though, about a month after I started living there, we ran out of wood and Jim poured some coal on to the fire. The coal smoke definitely smelled different – all metally-enginey-sooty. I didn't like it. Partly because it reminded me of going on steam trains with Grumpy Annabel and Dopey Graham. But partly because I realized that I'd smelled it before in Jim's house when the wood fire was burning.

After that, I often smelled coal smoke. Sometimes I could smell coal, but the fire was only burning wood. Sometimes the fire wasn't even lit. I told Jim, but he didn't seem that surprised.

“It's probably Linda and Dave, or one of the cottages,” he said. Linda and Dave lived about five fields away, and the cottages were even further, and over a
hill
. I'd never smelled anything from them before.

There were other smells too. One day, I ran into the living room after school and smelled tobacco. It really scared me. Cigarettes were part of my mum's smell. I had this memory of her, quick and clear. She used to hold out her arms and say, “Come and have a hug then, pet.” And I'd think,
Maybe she likes me after all
, and come running over to be hugged, and she'd stub out her cigarette on my arm and laugh like a madwoman. You'd think after this had happened a couple of times I'd learn, but I never did. Every time she said it, I'd think,
Maybe this time she loves me
and go running back.

I was a stupid kid.

Anyway, so when I smelled cigarettes in Jim's living room, it was like I was five again. I could smell the burnt, roast-meat smell of my arm, and I could hear her laughing. I could even feel my arm starting to burn, and I put my hand on the old scar quickly to stop it hurting. I knew it was just a memory. I knew it wasn't real.

But it
felt
real.

So then Harriet and Daniel came running in after me, and Harriet said, “Do you want to play Batman?” She flung her arms around me, and I jumped about a mile in the air and screamed, “What d'you do that for? Leave me alone!” I pushed her away, hard, so that she fell against the couch with a surprised squeal, and I ran into the kitchen. Jim was unloading the shopping.

“Who's been smoking in the living room?” I said.

Because part of me was worried about my mum. My head knew she probably wasn't there, but my body didn't, and it panicked. And, anyway, it
could
have been her. She could have broken into Social Services and found my file and looked up where I lived. And if it wasn't my mum, that meant it was someone else, someone I didn't know coming into the house without me knowing about it, and maybe being here when I was here, and. . .

“What do you mean?” said Jim, and then Daniel and Harriet were there, and it was all, “Olivia pushed me!” and I couldn't deal with it, so I shoved the shopping off the table, and the bag of tomatoes landed with a wet
thump,
and the apples fell out of their bag and went rolling all over the floor and the
bottle of olive oil smashed and oil went everywhere, and I got sent to my room to Think About My Actions Alone. But what I thought was,
Good
, because I got Daniel and Harriet to shut up, and that was even worth having to clean the kitchen up afterwards.

When I came downstairs again, I couldn't smell anything, which was weird. Usually smells stick around for hours and hours. So then I wondered if maybe the smell was in my head, the way the pain in my burnt arm was. I sometimes get memories so strong they come with smells. I tried to ask Jim about it, but he was more interested in talking about me pushing Harriet.

“Olivia,” he said, “what just happened? Did you have a flashback?”

But I wouldn't answer.

A flashback was what a jumping-out memory was called. My stupid therapist Helen blahed on about them for ages, but I didn't like thinking about them, so I didn't listen. Something about survival tactics and trauma and blah blah blah blah blah.

After that, I started noticing the tobacco smell more and more. I started worrying that maybe someone was breaking into the house when Jim was away, sitting around smoking fags and watching telly, and then hiding somewhere when he got back. That
really
freaked me out. Jim's house was totally the sort of place you could hide in – there were loads of cupboards and wardrobes and even whole bedrooms that were never used. Someone could have been hiding in my wardrobe or under my bed, waiting to leap out and kidnap me when everyone was asleep. Once I'd thought that, I was even more determined not to let Jim leave me on my own, ever. I wasn't just worried about being forgotten – I was worried about something coming to get me. I didn't know if the person making those smells was someone real, or dead old Amelia haunting me from beyond the grave. Both sounded terrible.

Jim kept trying to send me to my room when I'd done something bad, and I
hated
it. I kept trying to get out of it.

“Olivia, this is important,” he said, after I'd come downstairs for about the fourteenth time. “I understand that you get angry sometimes. But you can't throw a screaming fit in the living room when you live with other children. You
have
to find somewhere safe to do it.”

And if you don't, I'll chuck you out.
The words hung there, unsaid.

 

The Saturday after Jim said that, Liz took me to watch Bristol City play. Liz was a massive City fan. So was I. I didn't used to be. I used to say all sorts of rude things about them, just to annoy Liz. It didn't work. But then she took me to a couple of games and I changed my mind. Football matches are brilliant. They're loud and shouty and full of grown-up people swearing at the other team, and calling the players all sorts of rude names. Liz does it too. Normally Liz is very calm, but at football matches she turns into angry, sweary Liz and we have a great time jumping up and down and screaming. Football matches are the only place I've ever been where lots of grown-ups all sing, “You're too fat to referee, you're too fat to refereeeee.” It's
fantastic
.

Anyway, after the football we went and got pie and chips and sat in the café talking about the match. Liz said, “What's this about you not going to your room, Olivia? You were so good at that with me.”

I was good at that with Liz because I felt safe at Liz's house. If someone had ever tried to kidnap me, she'd have karate-chopped them before they could say “free lollipops”.

I said, “I dunno. Can I have a football scarf? All the other kids have one.”

Liz didn't even bother to answer me. “Come on, Olivia. You're not stupid. You know how this one is going to end.”

I wriggled. Parents shouldn't chuck you out because you won't go to your room. But they do.

“I don't. . .” I said. Then I stopped. Liz waited. “I don't like being on my own,” I said. “There are all these
rooms
in Jim's house, and weird smells, and I think there are
people
hiding, and I don't want them to kidnap me. And there's this weird Victorian dead lady, Amelia Dyer, and if it's not people then it's her haunting the house, and I don't want her to catch me on my own. I don't know what she might do to me.”

“Olivia,” said Liz, “you know there's no such thing as ghosts, right? And you know people can't just walk into Jim's house. He's very careful. He keeps both doors locked all the time.”

“But there's
noises
!” I said. “And smells! They can't just come from
nowhere
!”

“OK,” said Liz. “So what can we do about it?”

After that, instead of sending me to my room, Jim started sending me to the dining room. The dining room was across the corridor from the kitchen, and it had this door with glass in it, so I could see Jim and Jim could see me, but no one ever used it except at mealtimes, because it was big and cold and didn't have a telly.

I still didn't much like being on my own in the dining room. When I first came to live with the Iveys, I don't think I would have done it. But I could see that Jim was trying. I got why he didn't want me kicking off around Harriet, and I liked that he'd stopped making me go to my room. So even though I didn't like it much, I stayed.

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