Don’t You Know There’s A War On by Janet Todd – extract

Don’t You Know There’s A War On by Janet Todd was published by Fentum Press on 9 March 2020.

Today I have an extract to share.

A telephone rings in the dark waking Phyllis Payne. She picks up the receiver in the kitchen, hears nothing. Moments pass, then a dull wailing too dry for sobs.

‘Maud,’ she says. ‘Maudie, is that you?’

Choking words: ‘I can’t, Phylly . . . I can’t . . .’

A thud. The receiver’s fallen. Phyllis hears fingers dragging round a twirled lead.

‘Maudie, what on earth? Tell me.’ Cold rises from the floor into her bare feet. ‘What is it?’

Heavy, hitched breathing. ‘Come, I can’t . . .’

‘Shhh, calm yourself. Nothing can be so bad.’

A whimpering, then silence.

‘Dearest, you’re ill. Of course, I’ll come. As quick as ever. But it’ll take best part of an hour. Sit down, make a hot drink.’ She refrains from the obvious: ‘Wake your mother!’

Good reason: the mother’s a monster.

Renewed wailing, no kind way to interrupt. Phyllis drops the receiver on to its cradle. The abrupt sound risks alarming Maud, but no help for it. She pads upstairs, curling her chilled toes against the lumpy carpet. She dresses in the bathroom to avoid waking Ray, then scribbles a note: ‘Gone to Maud’s. Emergency. Px.’ She won’t telephone again – the mother might answer in her ice-cold voice.

She starts her red Anglia, disturbing the night. Behind floral curtains, a bulb flashes on. Old Mrs Hennegan sleeps lightly beside her cold cocoa.

The streets are nearly empty – it’s not yet 4.30 – but Phyllis adjusts her speed; she likes rules. By the time she reaches the outskirts of Norton, she feels a prickle of satisfaction that her friend has wanted her so urgently. Now, at last.

Next to 14 Ackroyd Close, the yellow mini she’d persuaded Maud to buy is tucked in like a mothballed ship. It couldn’t be more rooted if draped in ivy. In the sitting room, facing the cul-de-sac, curtains are open, the central light on. Maud’s not in the window frame.

Once parked, Phyllis is aware she’s been blanking out possibilities. She jerks her keys from the ignition, jumps out, and dashes up the path past the neglected garden.

The front door gives way. Strange since Joan – Mrs Kite as Phyllis is obliged to call her to her face, even after so many years – is particular about locking up at night. She steps quickly into the sitting room.

In the cruel light a skeleton rocks back and forth on the sofa, eyes wide in sunken sockets. Phyllis blinks against the glare, then stares.

Maud was always slim, but this figure is Belsen-like; bones push against taut skin. Horrified, Phyllis sees the mouth is stretched in a grin.

‘Maud, love, Maudie, dearest,’ she cries, ‘what’s happening? You’re starving!’

The rocking figure is unresponsive. Breath scarcely moves the chest.

‘My God, Maudie, what is it?’

Phyllis bends down to touch the blank, swaying face. As expected in early morning, air is chilly, but the thin cheek is colder.

The room smells musty: Mrs Kite’s standards have slipped. Phyllis glances at the grandfather clock, surprised by its silence.

She sits on the sofa, one arm hugging the bony shoulders. The rocking body carries her with it, then shudders. Still the open eyes seek no contact.

‘Maudie,’ she urges, ‘what is it?’ No answer. ‘Let me fetch you some water, then we’ll find a doctor.’

A hand springs out to clutch her arm. The grasp pinches.

‘All right, all right. I won’t leave you. But we must get you to hospital. My car’s outside. Just a few steps.’

The wailing resumes, more muted and throaty than down the telephone. ‘I can’t . . .’

Moving with the jerks, Phyllis notes the strangeness of Maud’s being fully dressed in skirt, blouse and grey cardigan in the dark early morning.

‘We must take you to hospital,’ she says again.

Understanding flickers on Maud’s face. ‘No, no,’ she moans, adding something indistinct.

Phyllis has no time for this. If Maud – as close to death as Phyllis has seen a person outside a geriatric bed – thinks she shouldn’t leave her mother, there’s more than one lunatic here. ‘We’re going now,’ she says firmly. ‘You need help, dearest, at once. You must see a doctor.’

With surprising strength, Maud recoils. She clutches Phyllis’s arm, preventing her getting a proper grip, then jerks her shoulders away.

Phyllis gulps, bewildered. She’s cold and suddenly very thirsty. She’s missing the morning tea Ray brings her in bed.

What sort of private hell have the two women created in this house?

About the Book

Joan is a widow, an outsider in a diminished England, where she lives with her only daughter, Maud, angrily conforming to a culture she feels has left her behind.

When Maud is threatened, Joan begins a diary to make sense of her alienated past, before and during the War. Giving rein to a loathing for the society that has thwarted her aspirations, she is merciless, her writing often sublimely funny; but Joan has a secret, never confided, which binds Maud to her. As Joan chronicles her life, her observations reveal psychological dramas, which, once uncovered, lead to a shocking conclusion.

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