The river was two miles north of town, and curved sharply through a dense wood. I’d never been there, but I’d heard so much about it that it grew large and cool and vivid in my mind, like something from a fairy tale or nightmare.

In 1974 on a warm spring evening just before dusk, two women out walking their dogs on the northern edge of the woods heard shouts coming from the direction of the river. They dismissed the sounds as those of children playing.

That same night just after dark, in Robinson Gardens, a mother hurried to the end of the road and gazed in the direction of the woods in search of her seventeen-year-old daughter. The girl was already an hour late, she was due home to babysit her younger sister so that her mother could go to her evening job, and so the mother stood by the postbox with her arms folded against her chest and one foot impatiently tapping, planning the words she would say to her errant daughter. After ten minutes she gave up, went back to the house to collect her youngest child and arrived at work with only minutes to spare.

*

I don’t remember that specific evening. And I don’t remember when I first realized that my eldest sister was gone, or that she had died, or had more specifically been murdered; her body buried among the bluebells, her sweet face on the cover of every newspaper and in every news report on the TV for days. I knew nothing of this. Nothing.

I was seven years old at the time and only came to understand these things gradually, from whispers and hints and overheard conversations. The fullest account I heard came when I was eleven and had made friends with a girl named Catherine. Catherine’s father was one of the detectives who had worked on the investigation into my sister’s murder.

‘Claire Brennan?’ he’d said when he heard my name, ‘Brennan? You’re not related to that Mary Brennan who was murdered are you?’

I nodded, yes.

Catherine’s father had grown solemn then, ‘Terrible business, of course,’ he said and he sucked air through his teeth as if something had stung him. ‘How’s your mother?’ he asked and gave his head a sideways tilt that suggested sympathy.

‘She’s out of hospital now,’ I said.

‘Oh?’

‘She might be able to start work again next year.’

‘Ah,’

‘She doesn’t like the electric shocks though.’

‘Dear God!’

His expression reduced me to silence. I had said the wrong thing.

He pinched his lower lip between a thumb and index finger, frowned deeply, took a breath then said, ‘these things, they never end, never go away. Not ever’

*

They had found my sister lying in a large patch of bluebells, and she looked as if she was sleeping; like some lost princess from long ago. It was only when they moved her body that the wound at the back of her head was revealed. She was seventeen.

She was dressed in a Victorian nightdress of white cotton trimmed with ribbons and lace. At first the police believed that her attacker had dressed her this way before he killed her. My mother knew better than that – knew that this was the sort of clothing Mary liked to wear.

After the murder, Mum was in and out of hospital for years, and then after I left home it got worse. Each time I saw her she seemed to have faded a little bit more. Until she no longer seemed like my mum. Or anyone’s mum, for that matter.

After my mother’s funeral one of the assistants at the hospital said they had something in the office for me. Something my mother had wanted me to have. I don’t know what I expected. Old clothes I thought, or some of the stuff she’d made in therapy; misshapen pots, and embroidered handkerchiefs, crocheted placemats? Andrew, my boyfriend drove me there to collect it.

I stayed in the car and he went in to get it. It was a small suitcase; the kind that’s made of tan cardboard, but looks like leather. It smelled of stale perfume and one corner looked like mice had chewed it. Brightly coloured strands of wool had been wound around it to keep it shut.

It depressed the hell out me as soon as I saw it. Andrew waited by the open car door, saying nothing.

‘Put it in the boot will you?’ I said, not even wanting to touch it.

He did, then he got back in the car, reached over and touched my cheek.

‘S’okay,’ I said. ‘Let’s just drive.’

The suitcase stayed in the boot of his car, unopened for five or six months. It might have stayed there forever if he hadn’t cheated on me and if we’d stayed together and never sold the car

But Andrew was unfaithful. I found him in bed one day with a history teacher of all people – a jittery, ethereal woman with tumbling black curls and eyes ringed like a panda’s who was far too thin and far too young to be teaching history – though I guess she must have been quite clever, except you’d never know it to look at her.

So that was the end of Andrew and I. He moved his stuff out one night while I was at work. I knew he was about to move out, so it was no big surprise to get home and find the place looking a little like it had been raided by extremely delicate burglars. The TV was gone and the video, and the good stereo and most of the records and tapes. The bookshelves looked very patchy too. But everything that was left was mine, and everything that was missing was his. And there in the middle of the room on the coffee table was the tan-coloured suitcase with its rainbow of wool still wound around it.

Curiously it was seeing the suitcase that made me feel angry with Andrew – nothing else, not even his infidelity. No, I felt angry with him for remembering that this suitcase was mine. It was as if he was reminding me that I had a past, just when I was trying so hard to forget. It felt cruel of him to do that, even though I knew that really it was nothing of the sort. What else was he supposed to do, pack all his stuff around it and drive off with it? Throw it away?

I let the suitcase sit there for two whole days untouched. I thought that if I checked it over briefly on Saturday morning, then by the afternoon I could have got shot of it at the Oxfam shop.

I made myself some coffee, then sat cross-legged on the floor with the suitcase in front of me and hesitated before opening it.

‘Poor Mum’ I thought, but there was a false note to the thought, as if it had been rehearsed. Poor Mum, then I cut the frayed strands of wool that had held the case closed for so long.

I don’t know why I had been so convinced that this inheritance would consist only of the tatters of my mother’s last years; those pathetic rags of supposed self-expression coaxed out of her by some well-meaning art therapist.

The suitcase was full of papers; photographs, news cuttings, and letters. The cuttings were about my sister’s murder, all the news reports from both local and national papers. The photographs were mostly of my sister; colour snapshots, now fading and red-tinged. I couldn’t remember seeing any of them before.

They had been organized to some extent into separate manila envelopes. There was one containing the old snapshots and baby pictures. Another held local news cuttings. One had a number of cuttings from the nationals. On its own was a letter in a purple envelope from a clairvoyant explaining who had killed my sister and why – it was rubbish of course – they knew that her boyfriend Danny had killed her, but he’d never been found.

The last cutting from the local newspaper surprised me – it was very recent, appearing just weeks before my mother’s death. The reason for the renewed interest in the story was the murder’s fifteenth anniversary. There was a re-hash of the original story as well as a few complaints about the inactivity of the local constabulary. There was the same old snapshot of my sister that had accompanied every article about her death. Her hair was parted in the middle and hung flatly on either side of her face. Her eyebrows were plucked to a very thin line over each mascara-ed eye. Despite every attempt by the local paper to re-ignite the investigation and find the killer, there was something plainly historic about the article. They might as well have been crying out for an investigation into the death of Akhenartem, or the Princes in the tower.

As well as the main story there was a side bar about Danny, a précis of his life up to the murder and subsequent disappearance. There was an ordinary photo of him, and also one of those ridiculous artist’s impressions of how he might look now. In other words how he would look if he went bald, grew a moustache, and took to wearing glasses.

Danny Lewis.

Had I met him? I supposed I must have at some time. I looked at the unadulterated image of Danny – he looked very young, and very sweet, and innocent, despite the long hair and the big overcoat; the two fingers raised to make a peace sign – a defiant and hopeful signal back then, an embarrassing joke now. Danny looked a little like Peter Fonda in the Easy Rider days – a long handsome earnest face. Not the face of a murderer.

My sister and Danny Lewis had last been seen on the corner of Prospect Street and a witness had said that, ‘Danny was standing with both his arms around her upper body’ this seemed to infer that he was holding onto her, keeping her there against her will. But they were young lovers; might that not have been an innocent embrace?

The report mentioned his disappearance and took this as absolute proof of his guilt. They also reported how the his family’s home had been daubed with graffiti for months following the murder, how stones had been thrown through the windows, death threats ushered, and how certain unpleasant objects and materials had been posted through their letterbox.

I took another look at Danny’s face. If I had been casting a young man to play a murderer in this drama I would not chose him.

In another envelope there was a seemingly irrelevant news clipping and two letters. The envelopes were addressed to my mother and looked as though they had been opened and re-read many times, the paper was worn and soft and stained. I ignored these and looked at the news clipping.

‘Last Tuesday at around eight am, a holidaying couple from Canada, discovered the body of a young man on Newquay Beach. Police have stated that due to the tidal currents in the area and the recent storms of the last few weeks, the body may have come from elsewhere. They are in the process of identifying the man who was thought to be in his early twenties. Foul play is not suspected.’

I couldn’t figure out why my mother would have kept this cutting from the newspaper, except that ever since my sister had died she had increasingly been drawn to tragedy, especially when the victims were young. It was as if she were searching for a pattern, a clue as to how these tragedies happened, and now she wanted me to join in this search with her, even after she had gone. But somehow I could not; I did not want to dwell in the underworld even though that was where my sister had gone.

Maybe it was easier to decide that none of it mattered anymore; after all I would never discover why my mother had wanted me to have this. I could spend the rest of my life searching and wondering about its meaning. Make it yet another enigma to store in my black casket of unanswered questions.

I was on the point of making a decision. I even imagined myself setting the ladder under the hatch into the attic, lifting the heavy door aside, and balancing the suitcase and its contents on the rafters. Closing the door. Forgetting.

And I was very good at forgetting. I could forget without even trying. I had almost forgotten my sister’s real physical presence, her voice, evaporating first, then her characteristic expressions and gestures, her touch. Last to go was her scent, lingering in her room and on her clothes, patchouli and musk and faintly, tobacco.

I turned the two envelopes that were addressed to my mother over in my hands. White envelopes, soft with age, stained by damp, the ink running and fading where something had been spilled, making a watery splash.

I looked at the postmarks and opened the earliest one first.

‘Dear Mrs. Brennan,’ I read. ‘I know how hard this must be for you, and all I can say is that I am sorry. I am sorry for your loss. I am sorry for my loss. I loved her. You won’t believe it, but I did love her. I didn’t kill her. She fell. We were running, and she just fell. She screamed. She must have knocked her head. I kept running. That was what we did, we messed around, and so I ran to the edge of the woods, and I waited. I was hiding behind a tree, getting my breath back, I was going to jump out and scare her. But then she didn’t come. I headed back into the woods after about ten minutes; I followed the path I thought I’d come down, but I couldn’t find her. I searched and searched and called her name, but she didn’t answer. It was growing dark by the time I saw this white shape up ahead. At first I couldn’t make out what it was, because it looked like something spread out on the ground, and it was very still. And all around there were these bluebells, masses of bluebells, and I thought how Mary would love to see these. But then I got closer and I saw her. And I could see she was dead. She’d been dying all the time I’d been running, dying while I hid behind the tree waiting for her, dying while I searched for her. I knew just by looking at her that she was gone. I didn’t have to check her pulse, or touch her. I just knew. And then I started running again, and I didn’t even know why I was running or where I was running. I just had to run. It was almost like if I could keep running then I’d run back to where I’d been before – to the moment before, to when I’d heard her scream. I don’t know why, but I just kept running. I ran out of the woods and down Abbott road towards the main road, and then I stuck out my thumb and a lorry driver picked me up. I didn’t kill her. No one killed her; she was laughing just before it happened.’

The letter wasn’t signed, but then it didn’t need to be. It was from Danny. Danny who had loved my sister; Danny back from a place like death. As if he had followed Persephone into the underworld; not to save her, but to hide there with her.

*

In 1974 on a warm spring evening just before dusk, two women out walking their dogs on the northern edge of the woods heard shouts coming from the direction of the river. They dismissed the sounds as those of children playing.

The children were playing. Two of them ran through the trees, laughing as they went. The girl screamed and fell. The boy ran on, and then later wandered through the trees calling her name.

I opened the second envelope.

‘Dear Mrs. Brennan, Thank you for your letter and your forgiveness, but I can’t do what you say I should. There would be no point in it. It’s too late. I’m done with running. Danny.’

Paper is so fragile. More fragile than skin, you would think, but it’s not true. Here was paper that had outlived my mother; paper that someone had written a few words upon, folded, and then sealed in an envelope. They’d licked the back of a stamp and stuck it on. Put the letter in a postbox. And from there it had flown through time into my hands.

On a warm spring evening just before dusk, two women out walking their dogs on the northern edge of the woods heard shouts coming from the direction of the river. They thought it was the sound of children playing.

***

Jo Mazelis is the author of short stories, non-fiction and poetry. Her collection of stories, Diving Girls (Parthian, 2002), was short-listed for the Commonwealth ‘Best First Book’ and Wales Book of the Year. Her second book, Circle Games (Parthian, 2005), was long-listed for Wales Book of the Year. Her stories and poetry have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and published in various anthologies and magazines, and translated into Danish. Her novel Significance (Seren, 2014) was the 2015 Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize-winner. Her most recent publication is the collection of short stories titled Ritual, 1969. You can read more about Jo in our interview with her here: The Art of Short Fiction No. 1, Jo Mazelis.


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