Georgie woke up gasping for air, her heart racing. She took a deep, shaky breath and anxiously looked around. Shards of orange street light lit the room up like soft lasers as they found thin gaps between the bedroom shutters. Usually when she woke it would be to the twins gurgling and goo-gooing happily to themselves—one on either side of the bed—but this morning they were both on the edge of dramatic tears. Perhaps she wasn’t the only one who had just woken from a bad dream.
She flicked on the side lamp and gently lifted Clio up to begin feeding, glancing at the digital clock on the side of the bed. The large green digital numbers read 04:15. She sighed and wondered how long it would be before the girls would sleep through a whole night without a feed. For that matter, when was the last time she herself slept all night?
One thing Georgie had quickly learnt about parenting was that it was about catching the girls’ complaints early on. If they’re hungry—feed them. Tired? Get them off to sleep by Any Means Possible, short of a dram of whisky. (It was tempting though). It seemed obvious but it was all too easy to allow too much time to pass from the first warning signs, and then it would be impossible to pull them back from the brink of baby-insanity. Over-hunger or over-tiredness meant only one thing: a very long day for Georgie. And right now, the girls were at least one of those. She shook her head and eased herself a little more upright in the bed, groaning as she felt all sorts of Cross-Fit battered muscles in her arms and back screaming at her. She had thought that the daily act of hiking up and down a couple of flights of stairs with two baby girls in her arms would have prepared her for the exercise, but apparently not. Mercifully, after a short feed Clio stopped crying for a while, lying wide-eyed in a satisfied baby coma while Georgie scooped up Wren.
With Wren now feeding happily, she rested her head back against the headboard, enjoying a moment of peace. She listened. It was still and quiet, absent the usual hubbub of Peckham – cars, shouting, music, bins, mopeds, foxes—her mind fell back to the scene with the white tent the day before. What the hell had happened there? And what was that creepy grey policeman doing standing around, making weary mums walk twice the distance home? She pictured the tent entrance, flapping in a stormy wind. Animal carcasses slumped on the ground, red stained fur and skin—perhaps her imagination was getting the better of her. There was ominous distant rumble overhead, low and drawn out, signalling a plane on the flight path from the East towards Heathrow.
She had a One Minute Mother Shower(TM) and, barely clean, attempted to blow dry her long, raven hair. Clio, noticing the lack of attention began to wail. Wren followed suit shortly after—Clio certainly seemed to be the trendsetter when it came to tears. Georgie looked at her tired face in the mirror and, not for the first time, thought fancifully of getting away on some kind of spa trip. She clicked off the drier and as the whine of the motor faded, the silence she’d previously noticed outside felt even more apparent. She stood achingly and pottered across to the bedroom windows, levering the blinds open a little, and peered out.
Georgie and Jack’s place in Peckham was out of the centre of town, in a relatively quiet suburb—for London. People had raised their eyebrows when they had first moved in a decade earlier. ‘Is it safe,’ they had questioned in hushed tones. It was true, they had found it more difficult to get friends to come and visit than when they first lived in Little South Africa, also known as Wimbledon. The trick was to keep the drinks cupboard fully stocked and the barbecue primed to go all year round.
The street they lived on, Potters Close, was a small cul-de-sac, a mini tributary running off the larger Chandler Way. The ‘way’ in Chandler Way was convoluted and confusing to get through by car, which rewarded the locals by reducing the traffic — people tended only to drive around there to get to somewhere else on the estate, not to pass through. However, at this early hour, it was still common to hear the hustle-bustle of activity outside — to her chagrin, one of their neighbours ran a catering business and would often be loading or unloading at ungodly hours. This morning though, not even a distant siren, a regular part of the Peckham dawn chorus, disturbed the scene. The neighbouring gardens were empty in the soft dawn light. A pale blue hue settled on the yards to the back of the house, with a light mist rolling scattered along the ground. The scaffold running up the side of the house opposite was empty, a single bucket at the end of a rope swinging gently to and fro in an unseen breeze.
Georgie’s thoughts drifted to her husband, Jack, away on a production job abroad for a week. The news had started the most significant argument they had had in ages. He’d told her he would be away with work, leaving her to look after the girls herself the whole time. A whole week! Georgie had shouted at him through sleep-deprived tears; she hated that Jack’s work took him abroad regularly. But that was the price for being in the film industry, he’d responded, infuriatingly calmly, with his great big, irritating, lovely, disarming smile. His work showed up like buses; none or all at once. He would be rattling around the house every day barely fending off an existential crisis when suddenly he’d be whisked abroad, too busy to even call his family. After a couple of days of tension between them, Jack had donned his serious face, only used on rare occasions, and offered to quit the industry, again. But she knew better — there was only one thing worse than being on your own looking after twins for a week: living with someone who has had their dream career taken away from them, and it’s All Your Fault. Georgie guiltily realised this was the first time she’d thought about Jack since waking up. It was three days to go until his flight landed, but who was counting?
Craning to see into the party neighbours garden, she couldn’t make out much due to the dark, and their awning blocking her view, but she could just about make out a few chairs on their side strewn haphazardly across the garden. The Campos family had once again left their garden an absolute mess, but Georgie could hardly begrudge them that. Becoming a mother definitely made you judge other peoples untidiness differently. It made you part of a select, messy and overtired sisterhood.
She pulled herself away from the window, shrugged and tried to file away an odd sensation tugging at the back of her mind. She got back to tidying her unruly hair with a brush — as best as she could while holding one crying baby and rocking the other on her knee.
Eventually, Georgie decided to take the girls out for a stroll – they quickly became bored of their surroundings at home and had been antsy ever since waking up this morning, so a walk with the pram would hopefully result in a nap, that golden opportunity to reset and return to their cheery little selves. After the twenty-minute long, practically military operation of getting the girls into their outdoor clothes and into the double pram she found herself at last standing at the front door, flustered. She turned the key in the bottom lock, took the safety catch off, and pushed the handle down with a satisfying crunch of mechanical bolts coming undone. The doorway seemed to breathe a sigh of relief as the chilled early morning air crept in around the crack.
Still over-warm from the job of trekking up and down the stairs with two small sacks of potatoes, she quickly pulled the door open and strode out into a cool, dimly lit August morning. Her trainers squeaked as she paced away rapidly from the house, out of the estate and disappeared around the corner.
For a brief moment, she paused, going through the repetitive ritual of wondering whether she had locked the door. After the numerous return trips in the past — never having once left it unlocked — she had learnt to push through the self-doubt, and kept walking.
Keeping two babies entertained at one time is a super-human feat—one which had, at first, nearly driven Georgie to despair. Nowadays she primarily ran on autopilot. Somehow the girls seemed to be able to wriggle themselves into all sorts of impossible positions as she grabbed a different toy for them to play with — she’d comfort one, and the other would begin to cry as she became aware at this treacherous lack of attention. The absurdity of the facial expressions of pure betrayal they displayed had still not worn off on even the battle-hardened Georgie, who would find herself bursting into an uncontrollable smile. She never was very good at poker—too honest, Jack said. Georgie’s thoughts meandered on as she wound her way around the streets aimlessly.
As she passed a small row of shops something jolted her out of autopilot, and she looked around. There wasn’t a soul in sight. The shutters were firmly closed on the shop fronts. Georgie paused, listening to the gentle rattle of the shop’s metal security shutters in the breeze. Usually, there would be someone unloading a van, even at this early time in the morning. It felt as though time was standing still, an eerie feeling in a city that rarely sleeps. A few small puddles glimmered with artificial light on the road — it must have rained a little in the night. She turned off the road and began to head down the town path. Generally, in the daytime, this route was a pleasant and leafy meandering walkway leading straight into central Peckham, but this morning it felt dark and oppressive. Light fell from sparsely positioned lamp posts that only served to make the dark corners of the path seem all the more dismal. Even in broad daylight, Georgie had seen strange things here including one time she had nearly jumped out of her skin when she realised someone was hiding in the bushes, not a meter away from her. The man had just winked at her and edged his way slightly further back into the hedgerow.
The girls were finally beginning to nod off in the pram as Georgie was crossing the open ground between the Library and the high street. Later in the day, this area would be busy with all sorts of Londoners going about their lives. There would be the old boys hanging out on the bench, students walking in and out of the library, mums popping in to the gym, early morning drunks wandering in and out of Wetherspoons, grumpy commuters cycling through, little street urchins who should be in school — it could be a right old Dickensian melee at times.
She was only fifteen minutes from home, but there was a nagging thought in the back of her mind. Perhaps she had left the door unlocked after all. Trying to think back over the short walk, she realised it drew a blank — she had been walking on autopilot. Thinking hard, Georgie could barely even remember the route she’d taken to get there. She sighed. That wasn’t unusual at the moment, and a fitful night of sleep had left her feeling pretty groggy. She rubbed her eyes and yawned, as her eyes fell on a small bag lying on a bench across the square.
Her first thought was of the homeless guys who often hung out around the area, staking their claim to the territory against no one in particular. But as she got closer to it, she realised it was a pretty smart bag – a leather satchel.
She looked around to see if someone had just left it for a moment. It couldn’t have been there long as a bag left out in Peckham was soon someone else’s bag. Arriving at the bench, she leant on the back of it to peer more closely at the satchel in the dim, dawn light—but withdrew her hand sharply, flinching as she felt the cold, wet surface. She stepped back, bewildered, looking at her hand. Bathed in the warm orange streetlight the actual colour of the dark liquid was ambiguous, but there was no doubt in her mind.
It was blood.