I am really pleased to be the latest blog to feature on the Urbane Extravaganza, celebrating the books published by Urbane this year. I have the pleasure of being able to share the opening chapter of Picking Up The Pieces by Jo Worgan which was published on November 8th. The book is about Kate, the mother of a six-year-old autistic son who has fled her abusive partner. Having created a bond with her neighbour, Matt, a man who seems to have his own secrets, Kate soon realises that her ex is determined to get her back at all costs…
Monday, September 9th, 2013
The alarm had long been silenced. Kate Sullivan lay still and listened; she listened for the sound of soft footsteps that would softly pad across the laminate boards of the bedroom floor next to hers. She listened for the inevitable creak that would sound from the opening of the bedroom door. Poking his head around the doorframe would be the sleepy image of her beautiful six-year-old son, a tangled mess of sleep encrusted eyes and messy blonde curls,
as he bounced onto her bed. As usual, he would snuggle up under the covers with his thin arms wrapped around her body. Morning Sam, she would say, her voice thick with sleep. But all was quiet now; he had not yet stirred. She had another fifteen minutes of peace and quiet. She closed her eyes and surrendered to the silence.
The slow creak of his bedroom door alerted her to his presence. A shaft of light appeared on the landing, seen through the slit of her bedroom door that was not quite closed. She never closed the bedroom door; she slept with one eye open, ever alert. The door wobbled slightly on its hinges as it was flung open. Sam jumped onto the bed and over Kate, burrowing himself under the embroidered flowery quilt, bought as a bargain charity shop find, and then pressed himself into the small of her back. He relaxed. Kate inhaled his little boy smell; the shampoo from last night’s shower clung to his skin. She ruffled his soft hair. His leg flung
carelessly over hers. Her chest tightened, filled with the mixture of emotions that were love, fear, guilt and joy for this little boy. This little boy that was hers. She squeezed her eyes shut, savouring the precious moment, fearing it could be taken from her at any moment.
‘Morning Sam,’ she mumbled into the pillow.
Their day had just begun.
The stairs creaked one by one as they descended them, not quite warmed up by the morning sun that streaked through the crack in the hallway curtains. The carpet was blue, faded, marked with muddy patches and years of wear and tear, the edges frayed. Kate led Sam into the living room, and quickly found his iPad. He firmly plonked himself down onto the worn brown leather couch, right at the end, where he could squish himself into the armrest. An
indent showed that this was his favourite seat. The screen flickered to life, fully charged. Kate sat down next to him and wondered what app he would open. The theme tune from his ABC app rang out loudly from the speaker, filling the room with life. Sam stared at the screen, the light illuminating his face, completely immersed.
‘I’ll go and get you your milk, Sam,’ Kate softly told him. Without waiting for a response, she headed into the adjoining kitchen. Coffee, she needed coffee; she could not function without it. She ran the tap to fill the kettle and flicked the switch. Sleepily, she spooned
coffee haphazardly into a chipped red mug, then opened the fridge to find milk and Sam’s soya milk, which she poured into his cow cup. She set the timer for thirty seconds and watched as the cup slowly rotated, the microwave buzzing, the light filling the room. The kettle beeped noisily, steam escaping from the spout, while the microwave pinged. Kate had the timing down to perfection. She took the cup out of the microwave, allowing it to cool while she poured the hot water over her instant coffee. Reaching up to the shelf above the toaster, she grabbed a straw, a blue one, always a blue one, and plonked it in Sam’s cup. She carried both cups into the living room. She looked at Sam; he had not moved.
‘Sit next to me,’ Sam told her, patting the leather seat, his eyes not moving from the screen.
Kate smiled. ‘Move over then, Sam.’
She squeezed in right next to him, replacing his position at the end of the couch and placed her mug onto the lowest wooden shelf at the side of the couch. She passed Sam his milk. There were piles of books on the makeshift bookcase, all crammed together, fighting for survival. Most were crime novels, waiting to be read. Kate made yet another mental note to start reading one tonight, that was if she could keep awake long enough.
Sam drained the milk and passed the empty cup back to Kate, placing both his legs over hers and resting his head on her shoulder. She gently ruffled his hair, once again inhaling the little boy smell that she knew would soon fade.
Sam loved close contact, to be squeezed, the greater the pressure the better. He liked to feel and touch things; he craved touch, he craved textures. He liked to sit incredibly close to Kate, to feel that human contact. But she did not complain; he wouldn’t always be so little. Soon she would miss those tight cuddles.
Kate glanced up at the clock; it was not quite seven and his taxi was not due until eight. They had plenty of time. They would have a leisurely breakfast and then slowly get ready for school. All they needed to do was to shovel down their toast and cereal and get dressed. But of course, all in the same order; they always had to do things in the same order – it’s just the way it was.
The house was so quiet; all Kate could hear were the birds chirping in the trees outside and of course the cartoons that were now playing on repeat on the iPad. Sam was watching the same
clip over and over again, but strangely it didn’t annoy her. As long as Sam was happy, she was happy. She was prepared to do anything for a quiet life. She grabbed her phone and opened up her emails to see if there were any from her editor, who had the habit of sending
emails late at night with regards to the stories that Kate needed to cover the following day. Sadly, he hadn’t sent any. She would pop into the newspaper office once Sam had left for school.
Kate sipped her coffee; it was still far too hot. She blew on it in the hope of cooling it down; it never worked. Stretching her legs out in front of her onto the blue and white patterned rug that had seen better days, she tried to empty her mind of all the crap that she needed to sort through today. The house needed cleaning, but she just didn’t have the energy. The housework could wait another day, or two. She needed to go food shopping and she needed to
write something, anything, so that she could pay the rent at the end of the month. She also needed to call the landlord about the boiler, as it was playing up again, only heating up the water when it decided to do so. Mr. Jenkins should have bought a new boiler years ago, but he was too tight-fisted. So, it would be repaired, yet again. Kate sighed.
The living room was small but cosy. It was sparsely furnished, but that was the way Kate liked it. It was a safe space for her and Sam. The room was crammed full of books, a battered two-seater sofa that was a hand-me-down from the previous tenant, a small recliner shoved into a corner that was barely used and a small table where Kate sat and did her work; this was also where her laptop was permanently plugged in. The walls had been painted a bland magnolia, but they gave a feeling of calm, of space. Bold colours were too draining, too claustrophobic, and besides, they reminded Kate of him.
Kate and Sam usually ate in the kitchen; there was just enough room for a tiny wooden square table and four chairs, two of which were never used. The set had been a charity shop bargain that she had found one rainy Saturday when Sam was a toddler. It was pure
luck that the heavens had opened, meaning that they had taken shelter from the unforgiving rain that had drenched them both. Mr. Jenkins had installed a rather nasty looking plastic table in the kitchen and she couldn’t wait to get rid of it. It wobbled whenever she touched it. Kate did not own a television; she didn’t see the point. She mainly read or streamed movies. It was either that or write. Kate stretched once more and yawned. Sam had been unsettled last night; he kept waking up and had crept into Kate’s room at least three times. She very nearly gave up and let him sleep in her bed, but she found the strength to walk him back into his
room each time he had stumbled in. Kate was pretty sure that his being unsettled was because the new school term had started. This always happened after the holidays. He became anxious and his sleeping pattern erratic. Kate had painstakingly made him a visual timetable, that she had stuck to the fridge with colourful alphabet magnets. It showed Sam pictures of his taxi and school, as well as the children in his class and his new teachers, all smiling into the camera. But Sam showed no interest in it whatsoever over the summer holidays. He just kept ripping the pictures off the fridge; the one that showed the school was scrunched up into a tight ball. So, in the end Kate had hidden the pictures. What was the point? There was no use in upsetting him. Visuals usually helped Sam, those small clues that told him what would be happening next, what would be happening in his life. But for some reason the visual prompts of school did not help him, they just created more anxiety. This was the reason why Kate had not yet mentioned the word school. It would just upset him. What she wanted more than
anything in the world was for him to be happy.
Sam attended a small autism-specific specialist school a few miles away from the sleepy village of Muddletown; he’d been there for over a year. He enjoyed it there; it was just that when there had been a long break away from school, it could take him a little bit more time to adjust back into his old routine, to become settled again. Kate knew that the morning would be a difficult one, for him, and for her. There was nothing that she could do about it.
Sam looked up at her with his big blue eyes. Kate knew what he was going to ask, even before the words had left his mouth.
Kate ruffled his hair. ‘Okay Sam, I’ll get your cornflakes.’
Five minutes to eight. Kate stood in the living room, waiting for the taxi, trying desperately to swallow down her mounting nerves. Sam was finally dressed in his school uniform, plus dressing gown. She was not too sure where this need to wear his dressing gown had come from, but he refused to take it off. Getting him dressed was a struggle, but she resigned herself to the fact that it was not his fault. None of this was his fault. Kate was well aware that she should remove his Bob the Builder dressing gown that was two sizes too small. She could barely fasten it and the sleeves ended at his elbows, but it was only for one day; it really wouldn’t matter. If it meant that she could lure him into the taxi, and that he was
settled on his journey to school, then there was no harm done.
Once Sam was quietly playing with his cars, Kate quickly got dressed. Luckily, she was very low maintenance. She usually wore comfortable, practical clothes, so in other words, boring. This usually meant she ended up wearing jeans and a t-shirt, or a dress and cardigan. Kate never wore heels. It was difficult to chase after a small boy who was sprinting down the road in killer heels. This was the reason why Kate stuck to either her tatty and much-loved Converse or lace up boots. Her long curly brown hair had been combed, and a lick of lipstick applied. She was now ready to face the world. Or rather, the taxi driver, Sam’s taxi escort and her boss. Kate checked her watch; it had just gone eight. She looked out of the living room window and noticed a large removal van pulling into the driveway next door. The house had been empty for around three months and she wondered who her new neighbours would be. Would they be a young couple who hosted loud parties? Or would they be a nice quiet retired couple? Kate secretly hoped that they liked children. It would make a pleasant change from the previous owners. She stood back from the window, aware that if seen she would appear like a prying neighbour. She adjusted the net curtain and turned to Sam. He still looked like the condemned man as he sat on the floor, wheeling his red toy car backwards and forwards on his car mat. He had not spoken to Kate since the whole getting dressed incident. She had not been forgiven for making him go to school. She took another quick peek through the net curtains and saw the familiar blue taxi at the top of the street; the honking horn soon followed. Why did they do that? They knew it upset Sam. She turned towards Sam, his hands
covering his ears. and took a deep breath. ‘Sam, the taxi is here.’
He looked up at her, clutching the red shiny car. ‘Oh, no Mum,’ he muttered.
‘I know Sam, but we need to get shoes on now,’ Kate told him patiently, her heart hammering in her chest, praying silently for no meltdown.
She reached out her hand and he took it. Together they walked into the hallway, so that Kate could put his shoes on for him. Having grabbed his bag, coat, lunchbox and car seat, that was now tucked under her arm, she unlocked and then opened the front door, before heading down the short path towards the awaiting taxi. Sam tightly gripped her hand. Kate looked over at him, seeing what expression he was wearing. But he gave nothing away. Kate was met with silence. She greeted the taxi driver, the same lady who picked him up every single day and asked how she was, while positioning the car seat for him. The words drifted over Kate’s head in a melodic hum. She smiled at his passenger escort who greeted Sam with a beaming smile. ‘Morning Sam.’ But she too was met with silence. Kate handed over all his belongings, kissed him on the top of his head, and slowly closed the car door. She stood on the pavement as they drove away. A huge lump formed in her throat. She looked up at the sky and blinked several times to clear her vision. He’d gone, handed over to others to look after
him, and she suddenly felt redundant. Kate was fiercely protective of her little boy, maybe too protective, but she couldn’t help it. At times, he just seemed so vulnerable. She turned and walked back into the now still and quiet house.
The kitchen was an absolute mess; there was no way that the housework could wait until tomorrow, but it would have to wait until she got back from the office this afternoon. She fleetingly thought about getting a cleaner, but then laughed, as one, she should be able to clean her own home and two, she couldn’t afford one. Kate attempted to lift a stubborn stack of papers from the kitchen table, now all covered in sticky jam, and shoved them into her oversized satchel that was covered in bright blue flowers. Grabbing her pencil case, she shoved that in too, and made sure that her phone was in its designated pocket. She knew though that by the time she arrived at work, it would be buried underneath all the toy cars, pens, bits of paper and other accumulated junk. Draining the dregs from her now cold cup of coffee, she dropped the mug into the overflowing sink, slung her satchel across her shoulder and headed out the front door. She inhaled the fresh air; it was good to get out of the house. She just hoped that her editor had some stories for her to chase up. The Muddletown Muse was hardly a hub of activity, but she enjoyed writing stories about the local area. In truth, she enjoyed chatting to people, even if it was only the local mad cat lady.
As she pulled away from the house in her ancient Mini, she glanced in the rear-view mirror to check that nobody was following her. She did this automatically, subconsciously; it was now part of her morning ritual. The shadow was always there; it had never gone away. It was just a matter of time before it caught up with her.
With thanks to Urbane Publications, Jo Worgan and to Kelly from Love Books Group Tours for organising the tour.