‘We have no photographs of our early days’ – Read an excerpt from Emma Rous’s gripping debut novel, The Au Pair
More about the book!
Read an excerpt from Emma Rous’s debut novel The Au Pair – one of the most anticipated books of 2019!
The Au Pair is a tautly plotted mystery of dark family secrets.
Click on the link above for more about the book.
Emma Rous grew up in England, Indonesia, Kuwait, Portugal and Fiji, and from a young age she had two ambitions: to write stories, and to look after animals. She studied veterinary medicine and zoology at the University of Cambridge, and worked as a veterinary surgeon for eighteen years before starting to write fiction. The Au Pair is her first novel. It will be published in 10 countries, in nine languages.
Read an excerpt:
We have no photographs of our early days, Danny and I. A six-month gap yawns in the Mayes family album after we were born. No first-day-at-school pictures for Edwin, no means of telling which of us two looked more like him at the beginning. An empty double page marks the overwhelming grief that followed our arrival.
It’s a muggy evening at Summerbourne, and the unopened window in the study muffles the distant rasp of the sea and leaves my skin clammy. I’ve spent the day creating paperwork towers that cluster around the shredder now, their elongated shadows reminding me of the graveyard. If Edwin has finished his packing, he’ll be waiting for me downstairs; he disapproves of me doing this so soon, or perhaps disapproves of me doing it at all.
The swivel chair tilts with me as I grab another photo wallet from the bottom desk drawer – more landscape shots of my father’s, I expect – and I focus on the wall calendar as I straighten, counting red-rimmed squares. Twenty days since my father’s accident. Eight days since his funeral. The packet flaps open and spills glossy black negatives across the carpet, and my jaw tightens. I’ve lost count of how many days since I last slept.
The first photo is of Edwin on the beach as a child, and I check the date on the back: June 1992, just weeks before Danny and I were born. I study this four-year-old version of my big brother for any sign of awareness of the family catastrophe that was looming, but of course there is none: he’s laughing, squinting against the bright sunlight, pointing a plastic spade toward a dark-haired young woman at the edge of the image.
Photos of seagulls and sunsets follow, and I shuffle through them until I reach the final picture: a domestic scene both recognisable and unfamiliar. The hairs at the base of my skull prickle, and I hold my breath, and the air in the room presses closer, as if it too is straining to absorb the details.
We grew up with no photos of our early days, Danny and I. Yet here is our mother, sitting on the patio at Summerbourne, her face tilted down toward a swaddled baby cradled in her arms. Here is our father, standing on one side of her, young Edwin on the other side, both beaming proudly at the camera.
I bend closer over the image: my mother, before she left us. The details of her expression are hazy, the picture poorly focused, yet she radiates a calm composure from the neatness of her hair, the angle of her cheek, the curve of her body around the single infant. She shows none of the wild-eyed distress that has always haunted my imagination in the absence of anyone willing to describe her final hours to me.
I flip the photo over, and my father’s distinctive scrawl confirms it was taken on the day we were born, just over twenty-five years ago. I already know it could be no later, because on the same day Danny and I were born, our mother jumped from the cliffs behind our house and killed herself.
My bare feet make no noise on the stairs.
A duffel bag lurks by the hall table, snagging at my dressing gown as I sweep past. I find Edwin leaning against the wooden countertop in the unlit kitchen, gazing through the wide glass doors toward the shadows in the garden.
‘Look at this.’ I flick on the lights. ‘I’ve never seen this before.’
He takes the picture, blinking.
‘Me neither,’ he says. He studies it. ‘The day you were born. I didn’t know we had this, but … yeah, I think I remember it being taken.’ It’s the first time I’ve seen him smile in days. ‘Dad looks so young. Look at that. Mum looks so …’
‘Happy,’ I say.
‘Yeah.’ His tone is soft; his attention absorbed in the picture.
‘Not like someone who’s about to commit suicide.’
His smile fades.
I twitch the picture from his fingers and scrutinise it. ‘Why’s she only holding one of us? Is it me or Danny?’
‘I’ve no idea. What’s this one?’ Edwin reaches for the other photo I brought down – him laughing on the beach with the dark-haired teenager. ‘Oh, this was Laura. I remember her. She was nice.’
‘Your au pair?’ I ask. Now that he says her name, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen her in the family photo album. The young woman who looked after Edwin in those carefree days before we were born, when he still had a mother and no need of the full-time roster of nannies that Danny and I grew up with.
‘She’s the one who took this,’ Edwin says, reaching again for the photo of our mother holding the single baby, but I keep my grip on it and take it with me to the kitchen table. I drop onto a chair and straighten the picture in front of me, smoothing a curled corner with my thumb.
‘It’s odd,’ I say. ‘It’s staged, like you were marking the occasion. You’d think they’d have made sure both of us were in it.’
Edwin shakes his head. ‘I don’t know. I guess – there was other stuff going on we don’t know about.’
‘But Mum looks so calm here.’ I frown at the picture. ‘I know – I do know why we never had any baby photos. Everyone in shock after Mum died. But I can’t believe – I’ve finally found one – and I don’t even know if it’s me or Danny in it.’
‘Here,’ Edwin says. ‘I’ll take it – I’ll ask Gran about it.’ He reaches for it again, but I press my thumb more firmly onto the corner.
‘Gran never wants to talk about these things,’ I say. ‘No one ever does.’
Edwin sighs. ‘You need to get some sleep, Seph – do you want to try one of Gran’s pills? Maybe get dressed tomorrow, go out for a walk or something.’ He rubs his eyes briefly. ‘Things will get easier, you know.’
‘Do you think we could find Laura?’ I ask him. ‘If she’s the one who took the picture, maybe she could tell us …’ I bend closer over the image, gazing at my mother’s hair, the way she cradles the baby. ‘This was literally a few hours before Mum died, wasn’t it? This was the day everything here changed.’
‘Seraphine,’ Edwin says.
I look up at him. ‘And we don’t know why. And now Dad’s gone, we might never …’ The injustice of our situation – of growing up without a mother and now losing our father in such a senseless accident – comes crashing down on me again.
Edwin’s gaze travels from my unwashed hair to the coffee stain on my dressing gown, and then he squeezes his eyes shut. ‘Okay, I’m going to stay another night. I can’t leave you like this. I’ll ring work first thing and explain.’
‘No.’ I slide the photo away across the table and roll my shoulders, stretching my neck. ‘Don’t be silly. I’m fine, honestly. I guess I was just wondering, really, where Laura went. Afterward.’
Edwin watches me. I concentrate on relaxing my facial muscles, dredging up an expression of unconcerned interest. He sighs again.
‘She left after Mum died. I’ve no idea where she went. And she’d be – what? In her forties by now. Even if you knew where she was, you couldn’t just turn up on her doorstep complaining that one of you got missed out of a photo twenty-five years ago. She’d think you were nuts.’
I nod, and Edwin pushes himself off from the countertop, heading to the hall. The corner of the photo lifts again, and I draw it slowly back toward me.
‘But if she could tell us what happened – ‘
He pauses in the doorway. ‘We know what happened, Seph. Mum was ill. She took her own life. We can’t change that.’
I press my lips together.
‘Do you want me to stay?’ he asks. ‘I can stay another night. Or, look – pack a bag and come back with me? Go out with Danny tomorrow, have lunch with Gran. Take your mind off things.’
I grit my teeth. For almost three weeks I’ve had my brothers and my grandmother staying at Summerbourne with me, handling funeral arrangements and solicitors and condolence visits. I can’t begin to express to Edwin how desperately thirsty I am now for solitude.
‘No, honestly, I’m fine,’ I say. ‘You need to go. It’s late.’ I fold my hands in my lap and try to smile at him. ‘I’ll go to bed now. I might come up at the weekend.’
‘Joel’s staying at Michael’s – I could ask him to look in on you, check you’re okay?’
I can’t suppress a groan. ‘Oh, please don’t.’ I’d found it awkward enough shaking Joel’s hand at Dad’s funeral; I hadn’t realised he was staying with his grandfather, our old gardener, Michael, just down the lane.
‘Well, could you ask someone over tomorrow?’ Edwin asks. ‘A friend … someone from work … ?’
His gaze slides away as I shrug. I’ve never felt much need for friendships, never nurtured them, and this baffles my big brother. I think of the phrase Danny uses about Edwin occasionally – ‘he’s not disappointed in you, Seraphine, he’s disappointed for you’ – Danny’s wry tone softening the thorny truth of it. Not for the first time, I swallow down my frustrated response. I’m fine as I am, Edwin. Leave me alone.
I allow him to hug me at the front door, leaning against him for a moment, inhaling the honeysuckle scent of the fabric conditioner that our grandmother uses on our clothes when she stays here. When I pull back, I keep my gaze lowered to avoid having to look at the tension creases around his eyes.
‘Get some sleep, Seph,’ he says.
Back in the stale air of the study, I switch on the overhead light and eye up the paper towers. An image of a blue company logo niggles in my memory. I start on the documents that I cleared from the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet this morning, and within five minutes, I’m holding the au pair agency form – faded ink on flimsy paper.
Laura Silveira was eighteen years old in 1991, and her home address was in London.
I type her name into my phone, then try the address, but come up with nothing that convincingly fits a woman who worked here as an au pair over twenty-five years ago. I carry the form down to the sitting room and pull out the family photo album that covers 1991 and 1992, gingerly turning the pages that show life at Summerbourne during her eleven months of employment here, up until the blank double page when we were born.
She appears in only half a dozen pictures. The clearest is labeled Edwin with Laura in my mother’s spiky handwriting, and as I tilt the page to peer at it more closely, the ancient adhesive gives up, and the photo slides free of its transparent cover and into my hand.
I gaze at Laura’s image. In the other pictures, she’s on the margins, glancing away, the focus on Edwin and frequently his best friend, Joel. In this one she smiles at the camera as she holds Edwin’s hand in front of the rock pools. She’s tall, athletic, with a mass of dark hair tied back. The agency document says she was taking a year out to repeat her A-level exams following ‘difficult circumstances at home.’ I study her face. Were there complex emotions within her smile? To me, she simply looks happy.
The sun has set, but the heat of the August day lingers. I prop the family photo on my bedside table, and the eyes of my so-much-younger father and brother follow me as I roam restlessly around my room.
It was never a taboo subject exactly, my mother’s suicide, but we were only given a limited amount of information as we were growing up. Seeing her in this picture, gazing calmly down at her indistinct bundle, contradicts everything I’ve ever imagined about that day, and reminds me forcibly that there’s no chance now of ever hearing the full details from my dad. But if Laura was there – if Laura saw what happened between this photo being taken and our mother jumping – perhaps I don’t have to spend the rest of my life not knowing after all.
I shove the previous night’s nest of sheets off the bed and stretch out flat on my back, my fingers splayed, as I wait for a hint of breeze from the open window.
Inside the red-black of my eyelids flicker the faces of children who were a few years above me at the village school-sly-tongued kids who used to call us the sprite twins, and ask me repeatedly why I didn’t look like my brothers. Vera, my grandmother, used to tell me they only taunted me because I reacted with fury, unlike Danny, who could shrug any teasing off with a laugh.
Bird chatter rouses me, creeping through my window with the first rays of sunlight, and I’m not sure whether I was asleep a moment ago or just lost in my thoughts. A plan is already unfurling behind my gritty eyelids. By seven o’clock I am showered and dressed, with more energy and purpose in my limbs than I’ve felt in the three weeks since Dad died. I tap Laura’s old postcode into my GPS and join the flow of traffic from the coast to the capital, a three-hour journey that often swells to four.
Laura’s old address turns out to be a neat terraced house with a semicircle of brightly stained glass in its front door. There’s a small park across the road, surrounded by green painted railings that gleam in the late morning sunshine as if they’ve just been polished. I hesitate on the pavement, imagining suspicious eyes watching me from behind the pristine net curtains. For several heartbeats I consider walking away, but I grit my teeth and knock.
The man who answers is grinning before I even finish my question.
‘I’m looking for a Laura Silveira who lived here twenty-five years ago. Do you happen to know where I might find her?’
He has a large hooked nose and a bald head, and he fills the narrow doorway.
‘You from that posh family she used to live with?’ he asks.
I blink at him. His gaze travels over my linen shift dress down to my cream ballet pumps, and he curls his lip, still grinning.
‘Wait there. I’ll get her mum. She knows where she works.’ He shuts the door in my face.