I am delighted to be sharing with you the first chapter of The Winter’s Child by Cassandra Parkin today ~ go grab a brew and settle down because once you’ve read this, you’ll be clicking through to order the book so you can finish it!
First, here’s the blurb …
Five years ago, Susannah Harper’s son Joel went missing without trace. Bereft of her son and then of her husband, Susannah tries to accept that she may never know for certain what has happened to her lost loved ones. She has rebuilt her life around a simple selfless mission: to help others who, like her, must learn to live without hope.
But then, on the last night of Hull Fair, a fortune-teller makes an eerie prediction. She tells her that this Christmas Eve, Joel will finally come back to her.
As her carefully-constructed life begins to unravel, Susannah is drawn into a world of psychics and charlatans, half-truths and hauntings, friendships and betrayals, forcing her to confront the buried truths of her family’s past, where nothing and no one are quite as they seem.
A ghostly winter read with a modern gothic flavour. A tale of twisted love, family secrets and hauntings.
The extract …
Saturday 14th October 2017
In the warm cigarette dimness of the caravan, the Roma woman’s eyes are shrewd and bright.
“You’ve lost someone,” she says.
We gaze watchfully at each other across a table of polished glass, etched with a cornucopia of flowers. Its bevelled edge is sharp to the sight but not to the touch. I’d imagined the inside of a traditional vardo, painted wood and bright patchworks, but instead I’m surrounded by glass and china and crystal, intermittently set ablaze by the lights of the carriages that dip and wheel above our heads. The cabinet behind my opponent is filled with china girls with arms like ballerinas, waists no wider than their necks and frothing, intricate skirts. Do all showmen live in this impossible delicate luxury? How do they take their homes from place to place without breakages?
The fortune-teller is looking right into my eyes, watching and waiting for a tell. I force myself to sit cool and blank, trying not to be distracted by the fragments of my reflection – blonde hair, blue eyes, slim figure – that appear, startlingly distorted and inverted, in the million reflective surfaces of the caravan.
If my sister Melanie finds out what I’ve been doing, she’ll be furious. I’m supposed to have given this game up years ago. I shouldn’t be here.
“A husband, maybe?” The fortune-teller shakes her head. “No, not a husband.”
I keep my breathing slow and quiet, in and then out, refusing to let her see the satisfaction this gives me. In fact, I have lost a husband, or rather my ex-husband and I have lost each other, torn apart by the brutal tragedy that ripped through our life like a tornado. When we first married, I imagined that losing John would break my heart. When it finally happened, we were both too exhausted to summon more than a weary acceptance.
“Boyfriend, then.” I imagine I can feel the caress of her eyes as they flick, flick, flick over my face like the smooth dry kiss of a snake’s tongue, looking for the micro expressions that will tell her if she’s on the right lines. “No, not a boyfriend.”
Next she’ll change track completely. She’ll go for an easy hit so I’ll forget about the misses.
“You’ve come to the Fair since you were a child,” she says. “You’ve loved it all your life. I see you in a hat and coat, holding the hand of a tall man and laughing.”
I try not to snort. She’ll know from my accent that I’m a local girl, and what else does she need to know to guess how deeply Hull Fair is lodged in my heart? Fair Week is the darkest and most beautiful spell our city casts, a residential street and a patch of waste ground suddenly ablaze with the showmen’s last wild gathering before they disperse into a mysterious continental winter, and we all hunker down and wait for the more respectable follow-up of Christmas.
“I see you coming here as an adult, too,” she continues. “There’s a child with you. I see a little boy in a blue coat, riding on a train. When he gets frightened and cries, you buy him a stick of candy floss.”
More easy hits. Not half an hour ago I lifted my nephew Thomas out of the ghost-train and held him tight, trying not to laugh at his wild terror of the man who jumped out at us and rocked the carriage on its tracks. “It’s all right,” I told him over and over. “It was just one of the guys from the ride. See? Look there and you’ll see him do it again… now, shall we get some candy floss?” And three minutes later Thomas’s fright is melting stickily on his tongue among the threads of spun sugar. A scene played out thousands of times each night. Perhaps she even watched me, or had one of her fellow showmen watch me, so she’d have something in her pocket to dazzle me with. Perhaps they watch all of us.
Nonetheless, her words conjure another, more tender memory: washing Joel’s face in the dim light of the bathroom while John put the car back in the garage. I can still hear the high singing in our ears as they rang to the echo of the pounding music. I can still see the tracks of tears on his cheeks, the sweet pink crust around his mouth.
“A child! That’s it. A child. You’ve lost a child.”
Her words come so fast I can’t prepare. Stupid Susannah, stupid stupid stupid, walking into the trap like this. She’s seen the truth in my face. There’s no escape from what’s coming.
“A little boy.” My whole body twitches with the pain, and she nods in satisfaction. “Give me your hand.”
My hands are clenched into fists beneath the table. Perhaps the angle of the glass hides this from her. Perhaps not. I bring them out slowly, forcing my fingers to uncurl. The skin is sticky from the nougat, the chips, the hot dog, the brandy snap, the candy floss for Thomas, which he generously shared with me as we watched Grace twirl solemnly round in a teacup and I held onto the gluey remnants of her toffeeapple. The collective name for these foods is fair junk, as in, Shall we bother with tea or shall we just get fair junk? John’s big scrubbly face and Joel’s little rosy one, side by side on the sofa, already dressed in hats and coats because they’re clever enough to guess my answer. I swallow tears and force myself to meet the Roma woman’s gaze. These memories are sacred. She can’t have them.
“He was your boy,” she says, almost crooning, as if I’m a fretful child she’s lulling to sleep. Her fingers creep over the table and trace out a thin path across my palm. “Your boy. And you lost him. But he hasn’t left you. Not yet.”
“He’s still alive?”
I don’t want to ask this but I can’t stop myself. This is what they do, the charlatan’s terrible gift. They draw you in, they make you believe, and then they cut you open and dabble in your spilled blood with their cold fingers.
“He hasn’t left this world,” she repeats.
“So is he still alive? Is he out there somewhere? Or is he – ?” “He hasn’t left. That’s all I can say.”
This is another trick I recognise. When the facts are uncertain, they’ll leave themselves as much room as possible. I wrote another blog post about this just three weeks ago, prompted by the desperation of a reader and the lies of a medium in Liverpool, titled Open letter to the mother of J.M. I should be back at my computer, dealing with the fall-out, but Thomas begged me as only a ten-year-old can (“Please, please, please come with us, please, Auntie Suze…” and when I looked at him severely, “… annah! I was going to say it! I was!”). His delight at successfully teasing me, and the hopeful trust in Grace’s blue eyes, were too much. I should be with them, not wasting time and money on rediscovering what I already know. I force myself to smile.
“If I pay you more, will you be able to say more? Is that how it works?” She flicks her eyes over my face again, and in spite of myself I wince at the shrewd pitiless light that glitters there. Now she’ll torture me by telling me about the thin veil that separates the living from the not-living, and that because the veil is transparent to her, she cannot always say on which side our loved ones are. I ready myself for the blow.
“I see him,” the woman repeats, and lets go of my hand to light a cigarette. I try not to watch too greedily as she draws in a long rich lungful, holds it, then lets it go again, the frail smoke coiling seductively around my nostrils. I gave up smoking years ago, in the long desperate vitamin-filled alcohol-free desert before Joel. But every now and then, I’ll catch a breath of smoke and something stirs in my brain and whispers, Go on. You know you want to. Just the one. Just one cigarette. What harm can it do now?
“What are you doing here, love?” she asks, and takes another draw on her cigarette. “You don’t believe.”
“If you can really see the future and the… the dead and so on, it shouldn’t matter if I believe or not. Gravity works whether or not people think it’s true.”
She hold the smoke a moment longer, then lets it go. “So you’re one of them. Think you know how it’s done.”
Does she know who I am? I write under my real name, my photo is on my website, and while I’m not what anyone could call famous, Life Without Hope contains enough vitriol, written over a long enough period of time, to get me noticed by people in the business. Perhaps they keep lists, as scammers are said to do, so they can separate the sworn enemies from the gullible believers.
“All I’ve heard so far is misses and guesses,” I say. “Everyone brings kids to the Fair and buys them candy floss. Just about every little boy I know has a blue coat, and if I hadn’t bitten at that one you’d have said No, wait, a green one. You don’t know anything about—”
With a sudden pounce, she grabs my hand again, pressing it hard against the cold glass table. The ash from her cigarette grows long and pale as the coal burns towards the base.
“Now you listen to me, my love,” she hisses. “Here are three things that are true from your past. You were born first and grew up the richest and the prettiest, but your sister was still the lucky one. Your husband loved you and he loves you even now, but he still left you. Your son was all you ever wanted, but he still tore your heart in two.” Her grip hurts, her hands on mine hurt, and the coal of her cigarette is growing close to my skin. I try to take my hand back but she won’t let go.
“Now, three things from your present. You haven’t been here since you lost your boy, but this year you let a child… your niece? No, your nephew… talk you into it. You came with them both, a boy and a girl, and the girl pointed at my caravan and asked if she could go in. You told her no because we’re all thieves and liars – oh yes, you did, my love, that’s what you said – but the spirits spoke to you and told you it was time to listen. You lied to your sister and her children, and said you were afraid to ride the Ferris wheel but they should go without you, so you could come back here and see me. Did you wonder if that meant something? You’re right, my love. It meant everything. You’re meant to be here, in my caravan, talking to me. The world’s a bigger place than you know.”
“You’re hurting me. Let me go.”
“That’s your penance for not believing. Yes, shout if you like, my love, but no one’s going to hear you. Now, here are three things from your future that will come true before the year turns.”
“Please. No more. I don’t want to know. Don’t tell me any more. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have—”
“I see three people waiting for you. I see a woman who’ll hate you on sight because she’s afraid she’ll be just like you, then come to love you like a sister. You’ll let her get close, then you’ll push her away, and the pain will break her heart. I see a man who belongs to someone else, but he’ll come to you anyway. You’ll let him get close, then you’ll push him away, and the pain will break his heart.”
This is nothing, it means nothing, an empty performance from an angry show-woman. Despite this, tears come to my eyes. What if I’ve been wrong all these years? What if she’s right? What if it really does mean something that I was drawn to her caravan? Hot flecks of ash drop onto my skin and I flinch.
“I see your boy,” she says. I forget the prickles of pain in my hands. “I see your boy. He had many who loved him, but he loved you best of all, you were the centre of his world. You let him get close. Then you pushed him away. You turned away from him. You listened to false advice. And the pain broke his heart.”
“Stop it, please, stop it—”
“But he’s coming back to you. For better or worse, your boy’s coming back to you, my love, and this will be the last Christmas Eve you’ll spend without him. The road won’t be easy. But if you’re strong enough to walk it, then when the snow falls on Christmas Eve you’ll see his face again, and you’ll know where he’s been, and why he’s been there.” Her face is so close to mine I can see the tiny millimetres of silver at the roots of her lustrous black hair, scented with grease and hairspray. “And then, my love, you’ll never be apart again.”
She lets go of my hands, but I can’t move. I feel as if she’s stabbed me through my heart with a silver knife, pinning me to the chair.
“That’s all, my love. You’ve had your fifty quid’s worth.” She laughs. “Was it good enough, darling? Good enough to believe in? You going to write me up on your website?”
So she does know who I am. It was all a performance. Everything she said was pieced together from the information that’s available to anyone with an internet connection. She doesn’t know anything about what happened to Joel. I stumble out of the caravan, her mocking words clinging to my back, my head spinning, my knees weak, my hands clumsy, and fall into the crowd, letting the tide carry me down Walton Street. If I was alone, I could simply get lost in the dubious comfort of the company of strangers, but I’m not alone, there’s no time, no time, I’m expected elsewhere and I have to pretend everything is normal. So I stop and catch my breath by the greasy metallic warmth of the chip van, breathing deep draughts of fried food and diesel, wishing I had a cigarette, trying to compose myself enough to return to the Ferris wheel where Grace, Thomas and Melanie will be waiting for me.
I plunge back into the Fair, drowning my heartbreak in lights and screams and fumes and thumping music. A long rotary arm skims over the top of the Hook-a-Duck booth and the pounding Europop is overwhelmed by the shrieks of the riders. I pause to watch the Cyclone, forcing myself not to flinch as the carriage hurtles towards me through space, then shoots away again. For those in pain, the Fair is like an anaesthetic, its insistent assault on the senses wiping out all possibility of focused thought or feeling. My phone vibrates in my back pocket.
We’re off the wheel but can’t see you. You okay?
Sorry, massive queue for the toilets. On my way now.
It’s hard to hurry but I do my best, squeezing between slow-moving families, skittering over metallic walkways. Dotted among the bright faces of the riders, watchful showmen balance effortlessly on whirling, uneven floors, their faces so blank and unaffected they might be statues. One man stands beneath the Octopus as it flings its carriages in a perilous vertical spin, so close it looks as if they’ll take his head off; but he scrolls through his phone without even looking up. Another spins the cars on the Waltzer, indifferent to pleas and shrieks. His face is serene and empty, as if he’s meditating in a green field.
In the puddles beneath the Ferris wheel, Melanie does her best to wrangle Thomas and Grace into standing still and waiting nicely. She’s just about got them within bounds, but they won’t hold out much longer. When she sees me, and before she gets her face under control, I see exasperation, swiftly suppressed. It’s not her fault. I’d feel the same. Grace is telling me something, but the music’s so loud I can’t make it out. I kneel down so I can press my ear closer to her perfect little mouth.
“Auntie Susannah!” Grace can hardly speak for excitement. “I went all the way up there, look! All the way to the top!” As five-year-olds will, she performs each word, arms windmilling wildly. Beside her, Thomas smiles tolerantly. “And I saw you from the top, and I waved!”
“Grace, you do know you didn’t actually see Auntie Susannah,” Thomas tells her. Melanie looks at him sharply, but doesn’t reprimand him. I suspect he’s had to hear this story several times already. Grace looks hurt.
“Did you see me?”
“I think I saw someone,” I say, and kiss her plump cheek. She smells of toffee-apple. “Someone waving right at the top of the wheel?”
“Yes! That’s what I did! I waved!” She beams. “See, Thomas, I told you Auntie Susannah would see me.”
Now it’s Thomas’s turn to look hurt. I pat his shoulder and give him a wink, letting him in on the deception, and he smiles at me. I’d always imagined my life would be filled with moments like this, effortlessly navigating the tricky waterways of parenting multiple children. Instead…
“Are you okay?” Melanie has always been hyper-attuned to my moods. Now she slips one arm through mine and squeezes gently.
“Not too tired yet?”
“Where did you really go?” The question catches me off-guard, and because I don’t have a reply ready, she instantly knows the answer. She looks at me for a long minute.
“Right,” she says wearily, and gathers Grace and Thomas together, corralling them like a sheepdog. “Come on, kids. It’s Auntie Susannah’s turn to pick, and she wants some pictures of you on the galloping horses.” Thomas points hopefully to the Mirror Maze. “No, not the Mirror Maze, you’re not bashing your nose in again. Galloping horses. Go.”
“What happened to your nose?” I ask Thomas, in the brief pool of relative quiet by the dartboard games (“Prize Every Time Free Giant Minion If You Lose Score Over Ten To Win”).
“He walked into a glass wall,” Grace begins.
“Grace, I’m telling this story. I walked into a glass wall—”
“That’s what I said—”
“And it made my nose bleed. And it took me ages to get out.”
“And when he came out he was crying,” adds Grace, with satisfaction.
“Well, if you walked into a wall so hard you made your nose bleed, you’d cry too,” Thomas tells her. “And besides, you’re too little to go in, so you don’t know what it’s like, and anyway, stop trying to tell my—”
“That’s enough,” Melanie tells them both. “No, seriously, that’s enough. Nobody’s come here to listen to you squabble. Do you want to go on the same horse or separate ones?”
“Oh, for God’s sake. Okay, Thomas, if you’ll go on a horse with Grace without complaining, you can go in the Mirror Maze again. Deal?”
“Deal.” Thomas’s face is one huge triumphant grin. The carousel slows, then halts. Grace and Thomas scramble up the steps. Thomas helps Grace heave herself onto their chosen horse, Mickey, and hops up behind her. She leans confidingly back into the comfort of his jacket, and he looks at her for a moment, then drops a brief kiss on the top of her head. Melanie has a five pound note ready but I push her hand away and get to the showman first, hoping to soften her with generosity.
“Okay,” says Melanie as the horses begin to twirl. “What d’you think you were playing at?”
“It was just a laugh,” I say. Grace and Thomas go past, cherub faces turned outwards, starfish hands waving. I smile and wave back. Melanie says nothing. “I just saw the caravan and she didn’t have anyone with her so I thought I’d go for it.”
Melanie says nothing.
Thomas and Grace reappear. I raise my phone and take a photograph.
“It’ll make a good post, that’s all. It was good material.”
Melanie says nothing.
“Look, if I can save just one person from what I went through – if I can reach just one person – save them from believing the shit they spout to get your money—”
My voice cracks. Thomas and Grace reappear. I force myself to smile and wave. The shape of my face isn’t right. The pain’s showing. I hope they’re too little to notice.
“It’s just,” I say, and I know I should keep lying, because these words will take me dangerously close to collapse, “it’s just I saw the caravan. And it… it called to me. I know that’s stupid, but it called to me. And I thought, What if this one’s the real deal? Maybe it means something that I’m being attracted to this one? So I just… I just… I had the money and everything, and I couldn’t help myself.” Thomas and Grace reappear, but blurrily, framed by tears lit up like jewels by the glow of the lights.
Melanie turns to me then, and takes my hands in hers. I can read on her face all the love and all the exasperation, all the despair and all the longing, the complicated mix of emotions that comes when your older sister acts like an idiot for reasons you understand only too well.
“Suze,” Melanie says. She’s the only person in the world who’s allowed to shorten my name, and even she only does it when no one else can hear. “You know they’re all the same. You know that. Better than anyone.”
“She told me Joel would come back to me by Christmas.”
“She what?” Melanie’s hands tighten on mine. “She told you what?”
“She said he’d come back to me by Christmas, and then we’d never be apart again. Why would she say that if she didn’t know something? She might know something—”
“Suze, you have to stop this. It’s not true. Darling Suze, I don’t know where he is, none of us do, but I’m as sure as I can be that some random Fair woman in a painted caravan can’t tell you, all right? Please don’t do this to yourself again, you’ve been doing so well recently. Look, the ride’s stopping, I’ll go and get the kids.”
The watching circle of parents moves around the ride like clockwork, following their children scrambling down from the golden horses, wobbling on dizzy legs, ready to be lifted down while a legion of replacement riders scramble greedily up. John once told me he’d love to film the scene from above, people flowing like blood around the body of the Fair, driven by the beats of the rides as they stop and start and stop again, as lovely as the hearts he repaired on the operating table. He tried to get Joel interested too, to show him the hidden connections that drive the universe, but Joel would grow panicky and anxious and then naughty, frustrated and frightened by his inability to please his father. Thomas and Grace will be back in a moment. They’ll want to see the photos. I turn away and try to get my face in order.
It’s the sight of the discarded milk carton that does it, tossed carelessly into the black rubbish-sack on top of the polystyrene chip trays and the cheery paper cones. I blink just once and then I’m back in before, the very last time our family was together. John and Joel clashing as they so often did, Joel’s face alternating between rage and terror, as John shook the plastic bag in his face, battering down Joel’s Don’t I get any privacy then and It’s not even illegal in lots of places with How dare you bring this crap into our house, how dare you put our family at risk like this? Joel turning away, slamming the front door, yelling something about his friends understanding him and one day he’d live with them and never see either of us again, pausing to drain the milk carton into his mouth and fling it furiously into our front garden. I ran into the front room to watch him go, and our eyes met through the glass and in that moment I saw the little boy he still was, despite being fifteen and taller than I was. Help me, Mum. Help me. I need you.
And I would have gone after him. I would have run down the street and grabbed his hand, told him it was all right, it was all right, I’d call the school and say he was ill, and we’d get the bus into town, go to a café and get some breakfast and talk about it. But then John was there beside me, and when I tried to follow Joel he put his arms around me in what felt almost like a hug, and he said, “Not this time, pet. We’re at the end of our tether here. We need to get tougher with him. Let him go. We’ll talk about it tonight.” And his embrace was so warm and solid and comforting, and I was so tired, and he seemed so sure he was right.
So I stayed in the living room with John. I did not follow Joel down the street. I did not phone the school to say Joel was ill. We did not get the bus or go to a café. Joel went to school, registered for his first and second lesson, went out at lunchtime, saying he was going to meet someone, then vanished. His official status is mysterious. Neither definitely living nor definitely dead, he is simply missing. One of the thousands who vanish and do not return.
The fortune-teller recognised me, that’s all. She knows my story, which is also Joel’s story. She was tormenting me with what she knew, and what she knew I wanted to hear, dabbling her hard nicotine fingers in the pool of my neediness, fishing with her cold clever hooks for the money in my purse and the hope in my heart. She was punishing me for making it my calling to protect others from the spiritualists and the mediums and the spirit-channellers, the cold-readers and frauds and the vultures who scour the newspapers, the deceivers, the liars, the hungry ones, the greedy ones. I know all this. I should write this up as a blog post, another warning in a long chain of warnings, and then I should forget every jaggedy hurting word.
But instead I stand still and silent in the heart of the Fair and stare at the tawdry plush creatures that dangle bright and hopeful from the booths and replay her words, locking them into place in my head. I’m a fool, and a hypocrite, and I so desperately want to believe that what she told me is true. I want this to be the last Christmas I will spend alone, waiting up until midnight in the vain and foolish belief that at last, this year, my lost boy will come home to me.
Life Without Hope:
Five more ways psychics fool us
1. They do their research Some psychics use pre-event registration to harvest personal details. Once they have your name and your age, they can often find out if you’ve lost someone recently. If you, like me, have a loved one who’s missing, know that we’re particularly vulnerable to this because we do everything we can to get ourselves and our stories into the public eye.
2. They exploit large groups and the laws of probability Large events open to the public are popular with psychics, because they can use the law of probability to quickly score lots of easy hits. They’ll take a look at the people in the room and start throwing out some names. I have a message here from someone whose name begins with D, perhaps David or Dave. Someone called Jim or James or Jamie, is anyone hoping to make contact with them? Chances are, someone in the room will pick up on the names they’re offering. They do the same for common diseases of old age. Did she have trouble with her heart? Her heart, or maybe her joints, definitely something that affected her mobility a bit?
3. They know how to exploit contradictions When they describe our lost loved ones, they’ll use sweeping statements and opposing descriptors to sound specific while staying very vague. She enjoyed her own company, but she loved a good get-together when she was in the mood. He worked hard at putting other people first, but he could be a little bit self-centred from time to time. She loved to laugh, but there was more to her than that. Sometimes she was very serious.
4. They get us to fill in the blanks A skilled psychic makes sure their sitters do at least half of the work. I’m seeing a letter, they say, or There’s a piece of jewellery that’s significant. Then they’ll ask, What could that mean, do you think? And before we know it, we’ve done their job for them.
5. They blur the timelines When they make a prediction that turns out to be a miss, they’ll say it’s just because it hasn’t come true yet. Don’t know anyone called Bob? Not yet received that letter? Hold onto that; it will be important in the future. Ultimately, all of this only works because we let it. When all other hope has been taken from us, we want to believe that this might work. It’s hard for us to recognise how much we collaborate in deceiving ourselves. But the truth is, that’s what is happening. They thrive off our belief. We’re what keep their profession alive.
Posted on 24th November 2013
Filed to: Why All Psychics Are Frauds
Tags: psychic fraud, missing people, support for families, Susannah Harper, Joel Harper
Now I am certainly getting this one downloaded!!!! If only I didn’t have to work today I would be finishing it now!! What a belting chapter one! Fantastic!
Thank you so much to the author and to Legend Press for having me on the tour!
Go and get your copy now!
About the author …
Cassandra Parkin grew up in Hull, and now lives in East Yorkshire. Her short story collection, New World Fairy Tales (Salt Publishing, 2011), won the 2011 Scott Prize for Short Stories. Her work has been published in numerous magazines and anthologies.
The Summer We All Ran Away (Legend Press, 2013) was Cassandra’s debut novel and nominated for the Amazon Rising Stars 2014.
The Beach Hut (Legend Press, 2015) is her second novel.
Visit Cassandra at cassandraparkin.wordpress.com or on Twitter @cassandrajaneuk