Lesley Pearse’s novels include The Woman in the Wood, Dead to Me, Without a Trace and Survivour. Her latest novel, The House Across the Street, was published by Penguin on 6 September 2018.
Penguin have kindly allowed me to share an extract from The House Across the Street with you.
January 1965, Bexhill-on-Sea
‘Fire! Fire! Get up, get up!’
Katy woke with a start at her mother’s shrill command. She leapt out of bed, grabbed her dressing gown and as she put her feet into her slippers, she heard her father speak.
‘For goodness’ sake, Hilda. The fire is across the street, we aren’t in any danger. Leave the children in peace.’
His plea was one of weariness and Katy’s heart went out to him as he’d been in the office until late for the last few days because his engineering company was having an audit. ‘You wouldn’t think to jump into water even if your feet were on fire,’ Hilda retorted. ‘Lazy oaf!’
Normally such nasty remarks were like a red rag to a bull for Katy, but she just wanted to see the fire.
Rob emerged from his room as Katy passed his door. ‘What on earth is going on?’ he said grumpily, clutching at his pyjama bottoms as if afraid they would fall down. ‘Fire, but Mum’s probably over reacting,’ she replied. ‘Let’s go and see.’
But as they stepped in their parents room they were astounded to see it was as light as day from the blaze across the street.
‘Oh my goodness!’ Katy exclaimed, her mouth dropping open at the scene outside the window. Vivid scarlet and yellow flames were licking up the front of the house and illuminating the whole street. Set against the night sky, it made a terrifying picture. This wasn’t some little kitchen fire, but a real inferno.
‘I can’t believe it,’ Katy burst out, her voice shaking with emotion. ‘Poor Mrs Reynolds, I just hope she isn’t still in there. Did someone call the fire brigade?’
‘Of course I did,’ their father said, pulling his trousers on over his pyjamas. ‘I may be an oaf, but I can manage to dial 999. And now I’m going to check on whether she did get out, and if she has, I’ll be inviting her and the neighbours either side back here.’ Katy heard the steel in his voice and turned back from the window to look at him.
‘Good for you Dad, can I help in any way?’
‘No, you and Rob stay here in the warm with your mother,’ he said, glancing at his wife, who had got back into bed as if nothing unusual had happened. ‘It looks like it’s freezing out there.’
He was right, away from the blaze the pavements sparkled with frost.
‘Please God. Tell me she got out,’ Katy felt faint at the thought of what might have happened. There were a few neighbours out there looking at the blaze, but she couldn’t see Mrs Reynolds amongst them. She turned towards her mother. ‘She’s not out there Mum! Did you spot her when you first saw the fire?’
‘No, but it was already blazing away when I woke, so she probably ran to someone’s house.’
Katy nodded. She hoped that was the case. ‘Usually on a Saturday night she goes to her daughters. Let’s just hope she did this time.’
‘Since when did you get to know that woman well enough to find out her movements?’ Hilda asked, her voice sharp and disapproving.
Katy looked at her brother and rolled her eyes. It was typical of their mother that she would be more concerned with how her daughter knew someone, rather than expressing sympathy for their plight.
‘Seeing as her shop is only two doors away from the office it would be very rude if I never spoke to her,’ Katy said curtly. ‘I like her, she’s very interesting to chat to, and she’s got two daughters, one’s twenty-three like me. But it’s the older one who she goes to on Saturdays. She lives in St Leonards.’ The bell on the fire engine drowned any response from her mother, and Katy turned back to the window to see more people arriving at the burning house. A police car came right behind the second fire engine. Two policemen jumped out to move the crowd further down Collington Avenue.
The blaze was so fierce now Katy could feel the heat even through the windowpane. As the firemen unrolled their hoses, she saw her father talking to old Mr and Mrs Harding. The pensioners lived in the house attached to the burning one. They were looking fearfully at the blaze, huddled together with coats over their night clothes, clearly afraid their house would soon be consumed by it too. She guessed her father was urging them to come over the road and wait in the warm.
Rob came over to stand beside Katy at the window and squeezed her forearm, his silent way of communicating his disapproval that their mother hadn’t gone out there, too, to try and help in some way.
‘I’ll go and put the kettle on,’ Katy said. She needed to do something, as just standing watching a house burning down seemed awful. ‘Dad might bring people back, so maybe I should make some sandwiches too. Would you like something, Mum?’ she asked.
‘Some cocoa would be nice and a slice of that fruit cake I made this afternoon.’
Katy merely nodded confirmation she’d heard and made her way downstairs. She didn’t understand why her mother was taking the fire so calmly. Even if she didn’t approve of Mrs Reynolds, surely she would care whether she was alive or burned to death? As for the Hardings, they’d lived here for about fifteen years before Katy was born, and she and Rob had often gone to their house after school for tea. In fact, they thought of them as almost stand-in grandparents. At their age it must be awful to think their house and all its treasured contents might burn down too.
As she filled the kettle Rob came down. ‘Sometimes I wish I was still five,’ he said sadly, his mouth downturned. ‘Back then I didn’t know that other mothers cared about others, sang, danced, or chased their kids round the garden. I can’t believe she hasn’t gone out there with Dad to see if she can help. What’s up with her Sis? She must have a heart of stone. Was she born that way or did something happen to her?’
About the book
Twenty-three year old Katy Speed is fascinated by the house across the street. The woman who lives there, Gloria, is the most glamorous neighbour on the avenue, owning a fashionable dress shop in Bexhill-on-Sea. But who is the woman who arrives in the black car most Saturdays while Gloria is at work? Sometimes she brings women to the house, other times they have children.
Hilda, Katy’s mother, disapproves of Gloria. She wonders if these mysterious visitors have just been released from prison. Is Gloria secretly bringing criminals, or worse, into the heart of the community?
Then one night, the house burns down. In the wreckage, the bodies of Gloria and her daughter are found. Katy is sure the unexplained visitors must be responsible until her father is arrested and charged with murder. Have the police arrested the correct person? Are the rest of the street safe? Can Katy find the truth before it’s too late?
About the author
Lesley Pearse was told as a child that she had too much imagination for her own good. When she grew up she worked her way through a number of jobs, including nanny, bunny girl, dressmaker and full-time mother, before, at the age of forty-nine, settling upon a career that would allow her gifts to blossom: she became a published writer. Lesley lives in Devon and has three daughters and three grandchildren. Find out more about Lesley and keep up to date with what she’s been doing: Follow her on Twitter @LesleyPearse Follow her on Facebook @LesleyPearseAuthor Sign up for her newsletter http://www.lesleypearse.com