Friday Night Book Club exclusive: Read the first chapter of The Confession by Jessie Burton, the bestselling author of The Miniaturist and The Muse
More about the book!
The Friday Night Book Club: Exclusive excerpts from Pan Macmillan every weekend!
Staying in this evening? Get comfortable with a glass of wine and this exclusive extract from The Confession – the sensational new novel from Jessie Burton, the bestselling author of The Miniaturist and The Muse!
The Confession is a luminous, powerful and deeply moving novel about secrets and storytelling, motherhood and friendship, and how we lose and find ourselves.
About the book
One winter’s afternoon on Hampstead Heath in 1980, Elise Morceau meets Constance Holden and quickly falls under her spell. Connie is bold and alluring, a successful writer whose novel is being turned into a major Hollywood film. Elise follows Connie to LA, a city of strange dreams and swimming pools and late-night gatherings of glamorous people. But whilst Connie thrives on the heat and electricity of this new world where everyone is reaching for the stars and no one is telling the truth, Elise finds herself floundering.
When she overhears a conversation at a party that turns everything on its head, Elise makes an impulsive decision that will change her life forever.
Three decades later, Rose Simmons is seeking answers about her mother, who disappeared when she was a baby. Having learned that the last person to see her was Constance Holden, a reclusive novelist who withdrew from public life at the peak of her fame, Rose is drawn to the door of Connie’s imposing house in search of a confession …
Read the excerpt:
That Saturday – an early winter’s afternoon on Hampstead Heath – Elise had actually been waiting for someone else. It was a set-up through John, her flatmate and landlord. She wasn’t quite sure why she was there for a man she’d never met, but she often went with other people’s suggestions. In the end the bloke hadn’t shown, and as she came out of a clearing into the last low beam of light, Elise saw a woman standing with a sweep of trees behind her, their leaves the colour of cinnamon on the Turkish-blue sky. The scale of the trees against the woman’s body was immense but correct. They looked part of an exquisite giant headpiece, as if she was a goddess or Nature’s queen. She turned to Elise across the span of land, acknowledging her with a smile, as if Elise was a page in her court, a lucky fellow being given his mistress’ ear.
And maybe a man did come to the Heath for Elise, running late, in a scarf and a padded jacket, pacing through the falling leaves? Elise would never know. She smiled back at the woman, who began to move towards her – and the plan had been disturbed. Elise turned and walked away. She looked once over her shoulder, and the woman was following her. Elise was used to people following her. Aged ten, eavesdropping on the adult conversation in the kitchen, she’d heard her mother’s friend say, That one’s going to be a heartbreaker! and she’d never forgotten it. When you’re a child, people will tell you what you are, how you’re going to be, and often you remember it. Beauty had come to Elise; they told her it had. She never talked about it or did anything about it, although she was asked to model and all that kind of thing; being stopped on the street at thirteen, fourteen. She never did it, never called back. But there it was. Despite the scrutiny, she still felt invisible, until Constance Holden looked at her on Hampstead Heath by the cinnamon trees.
They left the Heath and approached the long wall of railings that bordered a cemetery, and Elise thought about what was going to happen. She’d never been with a woman before. She stopped, not turning round, waiting like she was the wolf in the game of Grandmother’s Footsteps. She imagined hurling a railing like a javelin as far as an Olympian, deep into the graves where skeletons would shatter. It would show this woman that she was strong.
She turned and the woman was still there, arms folded, looking a little sheepish. She was certainly older than Elise, but Elise was twenty and most of the adults in her life were older than her. She was probably in her thirties. Elise took in her clothes: a man’s shirt, long overcoat open to show slim, uncomplicated jeans, a pair of brogues. No obvious make-up, a small silver ball in the lobe of each ear. A delicate wristwatch on a beautiful wrist. Elise placed her hand round the cemetery railing and spoke because she believed she was safe in this public space. This woman couldn’t molest her, nor spear her with her own railing. And after all, Elise’s life-model class had been cancelled so she had nothing else to do.
‘One day I’m going to die. And that’ll be it,’ Elise said, pointing her finger between the railings. She made no comment on the fact that the woman had been following her.
The woman hugged her arms tighter to herself and laughed, and her laugh made her look confident, a vixen upright on her hind legs. Elise looked over the woman’s left shoulder to the gravestones pushing through the earth like crooked teeth. They were on the poor side of the plots here, far from the tombs of splotched marble belonging to dead pioneers of industry, and somewhere near them, their wives, angled in the soil. Beyond was a crematorium brick chimney, tall and erect, thankfully not puffing smoke.
‘You’re not going to die for a very long time,’ said the woman, and her voice ran through Elise like a shot of iron.
They stared at each other. ‘Is there something I can do for you?’ said Elise.
They quickly found an all-hours greasy spoon but didn’t eat anything. The woman said her name was Connie. Elise told her that her name was Elise Morceau. They had mugs of tea, sitting opposite each other, warming their fingers on the cheap china. The woman looked at Elise as if she wasn’t real. ‘I don’t normally do this,’ she said. ‘Do you?’
‘It’s OK,’ said Elise. Then she said, ‘Do what?’
Connie looked up from her mug. ‘This. Just meeting like that. Walking together.’
‘No, I guess not.’ Elise looked at Connie and could see her trying to hide a yearning for answers. ‘I don’t normally do this either,’ she said, and Connie visibly relaxed.
They talked a little about where they lived – Connie, nearby, Elise in Brixton. ‘Have you always been south of the river?’ Connie asked.
‘You were born there?’
Elise looked at her. ‘Yeah.’
‘How old are you?’ ‘Twenty-eight,’ said Elise.
Connie frowned. ‘I don’t believe you. How old are you?’
‘How old are you?’
‘I’m thirty-six. That is my real age. And Connie is my real name.’
‘I’m twenty,’ said Elise. ‘And I’m Elise.’
‘Do you work in London?’
‘I work in a cafe in Pimlico. It’s called Seedling. And as an usher at the National Theatre. And a life model at the RCA.’
‘A diverse portfolio,’ said Connie.
‘Do you work in the centre?’ said Elise, and Connie straightened up a little as if she was being mocked by the strange phrasing.
‘I work at home,’ said Connie. ‘I’m a writer.’
‘What do you write?’
‘What kind of stories?’
‘Fucking good ones,’ said Connie, laughing.
‘You sure about that?’ said Elise. ‘Sometimes.’
‘Would I find you in a library?’
‘You would. And bookshops.’
‘That’s pretty cool,’ said Elise.
Connie stared into her tea again. ‘I guess it is.’ She looked up. ‘Can I take you for dinner?’
The next Friday, before their Saturday dinner, Elise took herself to Brixton Library and found the H in fiction. There was the book: Wax Heart, published the year previously. Elise took it out, noting that lots of people had done so before her. A tagline on the back jacket stated: ‘the book everyone’s talking about.’
When John returned from work that night, she told him that she’d met Constance Holden the novelist, who wrote Wax Heart. She edited the bit about meeting on the Heath, not wanting to give the impression of being the sort of person who got picked up in parks. She met people at refined soirees where novelists went. John acknowledged her experience only mildly, seeing as Constance Holden didn’t write novels about heists, with raised lettering on their covers, the inevitable outline of a man running from a burning building. Nor had he studied her at school. Basically, he had never heard of her.
That evening, Elise read Wax Heart. It was intense, harsh, passionate and full of sentences she wanted to underline. Elise found her allegiance switching from woman to man as she read it; poor Beatrice, the blighted weirdo married to a man who led her a merry dance. But how seductive, how reasonable Frederick could be. Beatrice was in love with a man who would bring her danger. But in love, nevertheless: in love, in love. Would she escape? What would happen to her daughter, Gaby, in the aftermath? It was compelling, propulsive, violent and revelatory, a sort of anti-love story that seemed full of heart.
Elise thought about love that night, with Connie’s book splayed open on her chest, the spine cracked slightly under the library plastic. Love. How might it feel? Elise believed that for her whole life she had been tiptoeing round the edge of a volcanic crater whose depths she could not quantify, but which was full of something powerful, something she had never been shown before. Down in that darkness were many happy souls but many dead bodies.
For their dinner – their first date, really – they had gone to a restaurant on Dean Street in Soho, called Mariposa. Connie had chosen; dark booths, brass lamps and banquettes of worn red velvet whose shade you sensed but could not truly see. Elise descended the staircase into a space that spanned before her underground: busy, smoky, humming. Women with heavy eyeliner, wearing velvet dresses with warrior shoulders, rubbing against tired City boys and men whose long hair flowed from fashionable hats. Denim, leather, nicotine, money – Elise could taste them on her tongue like elementals.
Connie was already there, and had ordered a bottle of wine. She stood out of the shadows to greet her guest, and Elise was surprised to see how much of an effort she’d made. She looked sensational: plain black cocktail dress, gold chain, her red hair tousled to cavalier perfection. Elise felt a surge of envy: she would like to be thirty-six, and own a house, have published books like Wax Heart, to know about these places in Soho where people like this ate.
‘Hello,’ Connie said.
‘Hello,’ said Elise. She looked down at her clothes: black jeans, white T-shirt. ‘If I’d known, I’d have dressed better.’
‘You look wonderful.’ Connie put out her hand and touched Elise’s shoulder. They smiled at each other.
‘I’ve come straight from the cafe,’ said Elise, sliding into the booth.
‘Yeah,’ said Elise, enchanted that Connie had remembered.
Without asking if she wanted any, Connie poured Elise a glass of wine. ‘And when you’re at the theatre, do you get to see the shows?’
‘Do you ever get bored?’
‘All the time.’
Connie laughed as a waiter appeared, a young man with a slender waist and eyes loaded with kohl. Elise tried not to stare at him. Connie opted for pot-au-feu with a side of greens. Elise quickly scanned the menu and chose the steak. ‘Cheers,’ Connie said, lifting her glass. ‘So here’s to waitressing, ushering and life-modelling.’ She took a deep mouthful of the wine. ‘Are there other things you’re keen to try?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Elise.
‘What do your parents think?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Elise, and she stared at Connie as if daring her to ask more. Connie did not. ‘I have ideas for plays,’ Elise went on.
‘Yes. I’d like to write a play.’
‘Then you should.’
Elise didn’t know if it was strictly true that she wanted to write a play, but she thought it sounded impressive. It was true that she would sit in the darkness of the National’s three theatres, her eyes heavenwards as the backdrops descended or revolved, turning blank spaces into Victorian drawing rooms, Greek tragedies transposed to post-apocalyptic worlds, rural English idylls, Japan, Manhattan, India. Sometimes she tried to write a scene, but meaning eluded her, in the end the task was too great and she was content with unwritten plans. She could not commit the world to paper. The swirl within herself, its movement, its abstract nature, made perfect sense. She thought that one day it would make its way out of her. But, she thought, not yet. ‘I love being an artists’ model,’ she said.
‘Why?’ said Connie.
When Elise removed her clothes and walked out in front of those students, her body was called upon, willing and adaptable; her lips, her hands, her breasts, her throat, the insides of her legs. She sat still for hours, listening to the light scratch of pencils on thick paper, and walked through the chambers of her mind. Elise was so good at being still that the art college asked her back, again and again. And sometimes, when the students had left for the day, she would wait in the loo and creep back inside the workshop, circling the easels where the day’s work had been left. She was on the hunt for herself, although she was the one who had provided the map. She would wander the paper forest of her own limbs, waiting for the moment of finding the person who had truly captured her. No one had yet succeeded; the treasure remained buried.
She didn’t say any of this to Connie. ‘Because it’s peaceful.’
‘But you stay in one position?’
‘For hours?’ Elise shrugged and Connie grinned. ‘You like to be looked at,’ Connie said.
‘Is that a bad thing?’
‘No. Though it’s quite unusual to admit it.’ Connie smiled.
‘Will you come here?’ she said.
Elise was momentarily confused. ‘Where?’
‘Here,’ said Connie, patting the seat next to her. Elise obeyed, feeling Connie’s cool fingers upon either side of her face, as if she was trying to press Elise into a new shape. ‘I could frame that face,’ Connie said.
The wine made Elise feel as if she was losing control. ‘It’ll cost you,’ she said. She closed her eyes and wondered if the other woman would understand that was a joke.
Connie cupped Elise’s face more gently. She leaned in. Her breath was sweet and hot. Elise could see the bow of her slight mouth, her eyes attentive in the candlelight. ‘How much will it cost?’ Connie said.
‘Fifty pounds a kiss.’
Connie laughed. ‘I said frame, not kiss.’
Connie’s palms fell away and Elise felt caught out. She picked up Connie’s hands from where they sat in her lap, and placed them once again upon her face. ‘I read your book,’ she said. ‘I read Wax Heart.’
‘You’re very good,’ she said, holding Connie’s hands tight, and Connie laughed.
Elise woke up to discover she was in an unfamiliar bed. She lifted the duvet: she was still wearing her knickers and T-shirt, but her trousers were gone. When had she taken them off? There they were on the floor, like the cut-out of a murder victim. Her boots were at a crooked angle, soles facing each other, kicked off at some point that she could not recall. Where was she? The room was dim, but she could make out walls of green-striped wallpaper, a small wardrobe, a wastepaper basket, everything neat. A large, fluffy tortoiseshell with a big white bib and white paws sat in the middle of the room, surveying her.
‘I hope Ripley isn’t bothering you,’ said a voice at the door.
Elise turned. ‘Ripley?’
‘The cat. Shh, don’t try and sit up.’ Connie came over with a tumbler of water and two aspirin and laid them on the bedside table by Elise’s head.
‘Thanks,’ Elise mumbled.
Connie pulled open the bedroom curtains, and the weak November light made Elise groan. ‘Sorry,’ said Connie, but she did not close the curtains.
‘What happened?’ Elise said, her voice a croak. Connie did not immediately reply. She was looking out at the garden.
‘What happened when?’
‘Don’t you remember?’
Connie walked round and perched herself on the end of the bed, facing Elise. ‘We went to dinner. We drank too much, came back here, and you passed out on the sofa.’
‘I passed out on the sofa?’
‘Yes. And I carried you up here.’
‘You carried me?’
They gazed at each other. Connie smiled.
‘I’m sorry,’ said Elise. ‘I should have gone home.’
Connie reached out and put her hand on Elise’s forehead. ‘I would never have allowed it. Not in the state you were in. Were you comfortable enough?’
‘What time is it?’
Connie looked at her watch. ‘Eleven-twenty.’
Elise closed her eyes. There was something wrong with the fact that eleven-twenty was the time, but she was lying here.
‘Oh, fuck. Fuck. I’ve got work today.’
‘Surely not. What’s open on a Sunday? Don’t go.’
‘I have to. The cafe.’
‘What if I do pay you that fifty pounds?’
‘What fifty pounds?’
‘Ah, you were drunk. Never mind.’ Elise felt uneasy.
‘Forget the cafe,’ Connie said.
All right for you, Elise thought. ‘I have to go,’ she said, struggling upright like a geriatric.
‘Elise, darling, lie down.’
‘You’re in no fit state to do anything. Just lie down.’
Elise lay down. She thought she might weep. ‘I’m going to hypnotise you to not go to work,’ Connie said.
Elise scrunched her eyes. ‘Are you joking?’
‘Yes. I never did get my O-level in hypnotism.’
Elise felt revolting but she laughed anyway. Connie was looking at her gently. ‘Would you like me to make you a bacon sandwich?’ she said.
‘Please,’ Elise whimpered.
Elise watched Connie disappear, and heard her speaking on the telephone. Soon the smell of frying bacon wafted up the stairs, along the corridor, under the door crack, into Elise’s nose. She closed her eyes and wished for a new body. She really wanted a hot bath.
Connie returned with a bacon sandwich and two mugs of tea on a tray. ‘There,’ she said. ‘My finest work.’
Elise had managed to sit up. ‘Thanks,’ she said. ‘How long to Pimlico from here?’
‘You don’t need to worry,’ said Connie. ‘I called them.’
‘Seedling. What a name! Told them I was your flatmate and that you had a virus.’
‘They believed you?’
‘Of course they did.’
‘Was it Gabe?’
‘It was a man. I don’t know if it was Gabe. But he said for you to get well. I said it would take a few days and the doctor said you shouldn’t over-exert yourself.’
Elise stared at the sandwich. It was an alien feeling, to have someone else work your life out for you.
‘Right. Thank you.’
Connie sipped her mug of tea. Elise read the words round it: I ♥ BIRDWORLD. ‘Should I not have done it?’
‘Sometimes I can cross a line—’
‘No. There’s no line. Work would have been nearly impossible. I just – I wasn’t expecting you to call them.’
‘I think I did you a favour.’
Elise wondered if she still had a job. She wondered if she really cared. She reached towards Connie’s mug and their fingers brushed. ‘Did you really go to Birdworld?’
‘With my friend and her son. It was for the boy. But I ended up really enjoying myself. Flamingos, penguins, tits. The works.’
‘I’m trying to imagine you at Birdworld.’
‘I was perfectly at home at Birdworld.’
‘You’re too glamorous.’
‘Elise, no one is more glamorous than a flamingo.’
They laughed. This was flirtation, Elise knew – wired, worried, hungover flirtation. What step to take next, what to do. Did anything happen last night? It didn’t feel like it did. ‘Would you like a bath?’
Connie asked, as if she knew.
‘I would,’ she said, so quickly the two of them laughed again.
‘I just feel so awful,’ she said. ‘I’m so sorry.’
‘Oh, god. You look absolutely fine.’
‘You’re lying. My skin!’
‘You’re beautiful. Don’t worry. I’ll run you one.’
Connie left Elise alone, eating the bacon sandwich. John’s flat didn’t have a bath and the front door to Connie’s house felt so far away. The greasy bread was manna, a restoration of some sense of flesh to Elise’s bones, but she knew the day was unwinding beyond her control.
Suddenly, she thought: Connie’s going to keep me prisoner. The paranoia of her hangover almost fed this quasi-wish to be absolved of any self-dominion, a little girl in the bosom of this powerful, talented person who didn’t let stupid things like de- hydration prevent her ability to impersonate someone else and get Elise off work, to keep her warm in the house on a cold November morning, to run her a bath, to give her a fresh, clean bed.
When the bath was run, Elise slid into it and thought she might cry with the purity of the hot water.
‘Going to clear my head on the Heath!’ Connie called.
Elise was astonished that Connie trusted her enough to just leave her in her house. I could be a thief! she thought. I could have weaselled my way in here to nick some ornaments and her handbag. But then again, look at me. I can’t even string a sentence together.
She thought of Connie like a witch in the wood, going to look for more Gretels to bring back home, luring them with gingerbread and sweets. But an hour later Connie was back, pink-cheeked, the Sunday paper under her arm, saying, ‘If there’s one group I would happily see massacred, it’s the people who let their dogs shit anywhere and never pick it up.’
Connie was fizzing with something that day – she was softer, more open than she’d been in the restaurant in Soho – and she was gentler with Elise. She sat on the sofa with her in the front living room, and as November’s early darkness fell, Elise still didn’t leave the house. They watched an episode of We, the Accused on BBC2, because Connie liked the 1935 novel and wanted to see what they’d done with it. Elise drifted, her head in Connie’s lap, and eventually she fell asleep with Connie’s fingers stroking her temples with a tenderness that she could not, in her adult life, recall.