The Lost Girls by Kate Hamer – extract

Kate Hamer’s latest novel, The Lost Girls, a follow up to her 2015 debut The Girl in the Red Coat, was published by Faber on 16 February 2023.

Faber have kindly given me an extract to share with you.

No one ever knew what happened to Mercy Roberts.
Although after she left her Appalachian home and had
been gone a good while she still sometimes drifted through
people’s thoughts like a trail of smoke from a bonfire.
Sheila from ‘The Cherry on the Cake’ bakery store would
insert her tongue delicately but precisely in the mauve buttercream of one of her own blueberry cupcakes, making a
perfect triangular groove. She would look out through the
window onto their single main street as the sweet gloop
dissolved in her mouth and remember how Mercy was also
particularly partial to blueberry cupcakes.
Tony, a man now, thought of her as he threaded bait on
his fishing line because he’d shown her how to do the exact
same thing down at the pond. The image of her thin little
arms as she threw the line and it wicking across the surface
of the water was a stamp in his memory. She’d turned to
him, beaming, because she’d done it perfect first time.
Bob, in the grocery store, would occasionally shift on
his feet uncomfortably as he stood behind the counter,
and remember her high five, her funny little eyebrows like
window arches rising up as she performed it. He should’ve
paid closer attention, he rebuked himself. He shouldn’t have
been so worried about interfering. But his wife had been
sick with cancer at the time and although she’d now made
a full recovery, he’d been too distracted to pay much attention. Besides, the town had changed so much. New people
had come, old people had gone, everything shifting into
fresh patterns so the place that Mercy had filled became
smaller and smaller, less significant.
Miss Forbouys, with her rows of little ones in the classroom, would sometimes think of Mercy when she carried
out her customary practice of putting some music on the
old-fashioned record player at the end of each day when she
was tired to the bone. She remembered how Mercy always
did love the devotional music in particular, even though
Miss Forbouys wasn’t sure if she was really allowed to play
it in school. But heck, music was music and her children
should be introduced to all the good things in the world,
wherever they sprang from. How Mercy had loved it, her
little feet in their shoes with cut-off toes tapping away under
her desk in time to the rhythm.
Miss Forbouys would at this point give a shake of her
head. At least she’d had nothing to do with it all, she told
herself. Something had stopped her becoming part of the
whole enterprise and she was glad of it now. That she
couldn’t have lived with.

1999, West Virginia
The day Mercy was saved she stood on the front porch and
hollered in through the broken window of the bedroom.
‘Ma, Father. I’ve been saved!’
Silence. The hole in the glass was pretty much where her
mouth was so she knew her voice must’ve sounded in the
room good and loud.
‘Lazy asses,’ she muttered. They were probably still asleep
even though it was well gone noon. Inside would be shuttered
up and dark, the malfunctioning microwave light blinking on
and off in the kitchen-diner. Either they were asleep, or they
were inside and ignoring the good news, probably because it
highlighted the fact that they were no more likely to be saved
than the spider weaving its fine, tiny web in the corner of the
front door. It occurred to Mercy that perhaps they were even
afraid and sorrowful a mere eight-year-old girl like herself
would fly like a bird into heaven’s kingdom and they would
never get to see the shining gates, not even a gleam of them.
In truth that made her somewhat sorrowful too.
She turned away from the wooden shack with its rickety
porch and set off down the dirt path that led to the river
where she had a hope of meeting Tony, her friend, and telling him the good news. She knew for sure he’d want to hear
all about it.
As she walked along the road the joy she’d felt earlier
returned, only now it had taken on a kind of shimmering
quality that was outside and inside her at the same time –
whereas before it was only contained inside. Now it had
become beautiful to both feel and behold.
The mountain trees either side of the road seemed lit
with a perfect kind of light. She looked down at her yellow
cotton skirt and her skinny legs and the blue shoes, which,
despite the fact they were opened up at the toe with a knife
because they had grown too small, were still comfortable
to walk in and in which she could get along pretty well.
Though if she went too fast the ends of her toes tapped
painfully on the dusty road so that fact gave her a problem
on occasion.
Then she heard the noise of a car engine behind her and
as it came closer she realised it was slowing down. Sure
enough, a red truck came up alongside and the engine idled
down to a steady beat as it stopped. She could only see the
reflections of the trees on the window so it was impossible
to see who was inside. Slowly, the window wound down
and first off, all she could see was a battered suede hat with
a leather thong around the crown, and then it got wound
down further so it was completely open and she could see
the face.
She felt her own face practically splitting in two in a grin.
‘Bob,’ she said, joy in her voice.
He cut off the engine and grinned back.
Bob owned his own store, ‘The Full Cart’, down in the
tiny town on the outskirts of the mountain forest. It was
where Mercy got pretty much everything they needed. She
went with her two big plastic shopping bags with diamond
patterns on the side and writing that shouted, ‘Happy
Shopping!’ She’d used them for so long the handles had got
cracked and crispy. After Bob filled them with groceries, he
always seemed to find a way to put a little something extra
in, a Peanut Butter Cup or more rarely – as Bob said they
were hard to come by – a Whistling Pop that played real
music, both of which Mercy was unsure if they were really
included in the scope of food stamps.
He’d wink at her when he dropped these items in and
she’d grin back and say, ‘Happy Shopping!’
Then he always asked, ‘You wanna wait and let me run
you home?’ as she picked up the bags to leave. ‘Those bags
are near bigger than you.’
But she’d always wave at him no.
‘Don’t you worry about me. My muscles are pretty
strong.’ She didn’t think Ma and Pa would like seeing her
get down from his truck outside the house, bringing people
to their door.
Besides, she always liked the walk back through the quiet
forest way, the dirt path that smelled so sweet, and the birds
that sang their tiny heads off as if she wasn’t there. If she
had to stop and rest every once in a while because the bags
were heavy and her arms were tired, what did it matter?
There was no place she had to be and she could suck on the
Whistling Pop in peace. First off, she made it sing away to
the birds for half an hour until it got filled up with spit and
stopped working. Only then she’d lick on the sweetness for
another hour until just a soggy white stick was left and her
lips and tongue were stained bright red or purple or orange.
Now when she saw Bob’s truck it gave her the chance
to tell someone else about the thing that had just happened
and she knew he’d surely be pleased.
‘Bob,’ she said. ‘I’ve been saved!’
He nodded up and down. ‘Uh huh, is that the case?’
‘It is, Bob. You know, it’s wonderful.’
She felt the need to convince him because he wasn’t seeming happy enough about it.
‘Uh huh,’ he said again. ‘You been down to the tent
revival then?’
‘I sure have. You should go too, Bob. It’s wonderful.’
‘It’s been there for a while now.’
‘Yep, but they’re saving for a real church now, made of
stones that’ll be around forever.’
‘Uh huh.’
This seemed about the only thing he was capable of saying and truth be told she started to get a little restless. She
wanted to get down to the river so she could tell Tony and
she thought he might be a little more enthusiastic than Bob
was being. She felt like she might explode with joy if she
just carried on standing there. She upended her foot and
dragged her toes up and down the gravelly dirt of the road
for the pain to take her mind off exploding.
‘Well,’ he said finally, when she thought she couldn’t wait
in that silence with only the birds singing round them a
minute longer. ‘I guess it don’t do no harm, maybe.’
She was aghast at his statement. ‘No harm? Bob, I told
you, it’s wonderful, like being filled up with honey.’
Something in his face went soft then. ‘Sure. I’m sure it is.
Plus, I like you went to church with that dirty face.’
He started laughing then, a deep chuckling laugh, but
she didn’t think what he’d just said was funny, not funny
at all.
She put her hands up. ‘I have a dirty face?’
He stopped laughing. ‘Oh, come now. It doesn’t matter.
It’s a pretty little face and no amount of dirt can alter that
‘But I went to church with a dirty face?’ She felt like she
might start crying.
‘Now then, no one in the circumstances would worry
about the condition of your face, not one bit. Tell you what,
next time you come by the shop I’ll drop a couple of those
packs of towelettes in the Happy Shopping! bags. How
about that? Then you can clean that pretty little face whenever you like.’
That wasn’t the point. The point was she’d gone to church
looking like a bad and unspeakable person. She felt a tear
come loose out of her eye and run down that dirt on her
cheek. It got stuck at her chin and hung there.
Bob looked distressed. ‘Oh, Lord. There’s no need for
that. Look, I gotta pack of tissues somewhere here.’
He ducked down to look for them in his glove box and
while he wasn’t looking at her something occurred to Mercy that calmed her so quick it was like she’d just floated
back down to earth with a bump.
‘Hey, Bob, it’s OK.’ She dashed the tear off her chin.
He was holding the pack of tissues out through the open
window and she took them anyway ’cos when you refuse
to take something someone is so gladly offering it can be a
mean thing.
‘It is?’ he asked, looking relieved.
‘Sure it is. ’Cos, something has just come to me, and it
feels like the truth right in here.’ She thumped herself lightly
on the chest.
‘What’s that then, Delia?’
She realised then that she hadn’t told him about not being
called Delia anymore but the other thing had to come first.
She’d tell him another time.
‘It’s when you are filled up with God’s love it really don’t
matter about a bit of old dirt. God sees my face as all shiny
and new like it’s just been made. He don’t care one speck
about the dirt.’
She grinned and like God, she really didn’t care about the
dirt either any more.
Bob’s blue eyes went all soft then. For a funny moment
she thought he was going to cry.
‘Bob, you OK?’
‘Sure, sure I am.’
‘You wanna get yourself down that tent sometime, Bob.
I think you’ll like it.’
‘Maybe I even will, Delia.’ He smiled and she was relieved
he was back to being Bob again. ‘The only thing being,’ he
went on slowly, ‘well, you be careful now, won’t you?’
‘Yep, some of those visiting preachers can be real snake
oil salesmen.’
She puzzled over this for a moment. She was familiar
with the local snakes – the black ratsnake, the hognose and
the poisonous copperhead – but as far as she knew none
of them produced oil. Perhaps that’s what happened if you
squeezed them, like the grease coming out of a pork chop if
you pressed the back of your fork into it. Mercy hadn’t had
a pork chop in a long while and just the thought of it made
her mouth water and her stomach growl so she shook her
head so she wouldn’t think of it anymore.
‘Well, gotta go,’ she said, putting the tissues in the pocket
of her skirt.
He started up the engine. ‘OK, bye, Delia. Remember
what I said though.’
She started walking off but lifted her arm up so he could
see her waving from behind. ‘Bye, Bob.’
‘Hey, Delia,’ he called after her.
She turned. ‘Yah?’
‘Don’t forget about those towelettes, will you. You
remind me next time you come to the store. My memory
ain’t what it used to be.’
‘Sure thing, Bob.’
She waved as he drove past, then his truck was gone and
it was just the smoke from it left on the road. She played
with it for a while, walking through it, parting it with her
body till that went too and she remembered about setting
off to the river and looking for Tony.

About the Book

Lost, she narrowly escaped disaster.

Beth is desperate to return to normality. After a years-long ordeal, her daughter is finally home and safe. But Carmel has questions she can’t ignore about the cult that kidnapped her, and about the preacher who gave her another girl’s name.

Found, she must survive a miracle.

Digging into her past, Carmel uncovers secrets which suggest that she wasn’t the only lost girl – and which puts her in danger all over again. While her mother struggles to salvage the safety they’ve only just found, Carmel tries to come to terms with who she has become. One question, a mystery at the heart of her disappearance as a child, haunts her:

What happened to the other lost girls?

You can buy a copy of the book here.

(This is an affiliate link so I may make a small amount should you buy through it. You can also purchase The Lost Girls from your local independent bookshop.

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