The creepiest debut thriller you will read this year!
One little girl.
Mirabelle’s mother loves her. She’s her ‘little doll’. Mother dresses her, paints her face, and plaits her hair. But as Mirabelle grows, the dresses no longer fit quite as well, the face paint no longer looks quite so pretty. And Mother isn’t happy.
Two little girls.
On Mirabelle’s 13th birthday, Mother arrives home with a present – a new sister, 5-year-old Clarabelle, who Mother has rescued from the outside world.
But Mother only needs one.
As it dawns on Mirabelle that there is a new ‘little doll’ in her house, she also realizes that her life isn’t what she thought it was. And that dolls often end up on the scrap heap…
Extract from the book
Mother had painted my face every morning for as long as I could remember and today was no exception. But today was different in one way. It was Friday, 23 April 1976. My thirteenth birthday. Today I was another year older. This fact clung to me like the plague, oozing and pulsating inside my mind. Beside this terrible fact hovered my big question. A question that made my tummy screw itself up into a hard knot. If Mother sensed my mood, she did not show it. We sat at the dining room table and Mother placed her make-up bag on her lap. Humming softly, she unzipped the shiny red purse. I wrinkled my nose. The dead roses in the centre of the orange table smelled like urine. They had been dead at least a week, but Mother seemed not to notice.
The first part of me that Mother painted was my forehead. With her tongue pinched between her small, yellow teeth, she smoothed white powder over my skin, working up and along my hairline, down and around my eyebrows then down the bridge of my nose and around my nostrils. She applied powder to each cheek and my upper lip, finishing with my chin and jaw. Eyebrows were next. With a black pencil she coloured in the fair hairs above my eyes. When the pencil was due for sharpening, the lead scratched, but Mother grew angry if I complained or fidgeted, so I counted the freckles on her face to distract myself. I was up to twenty when she moved on to my eyes.
‘So big and blue,’ she murmured, as she often did when she reached this part. Her warm breath touched my nose and I smelled coffee and buttered toast. I looked at her small, brown eyes, tried to focus on them, focus on anything except the fact that I was another year older. I thought about how unalike our eyes were. I didn’t have freckles, but I did have blonde hair like Mother, whose hair bobbed around her chin. Mine reached my knees. It was ratty at the ends because Mother never cut it. She said she would trim the ends when it reached my ankles. She loved my long yellow hair. Always complained that hers would not grow past her shoulders. Sometimes as she walked by she ran her fingers down my hair, admiring its glossy feel.
My question trembled on my tongue, but I pushed the words away. Mother didn’t like me to talk when she painted me and I had to get the timing absolutely right. For months I had been building up to asking this question. For months I had tested the words on my reflection, watched my eyes widen with anticipation and fear and something else I couldn’t name. Mother patted and smoothed blue powder onto my eyelids, careful to be gentle, then blew the excess away and picked up the mascara wand. When I was little I’d feared this part, but I was used to it now. I kept my eyes open and looked down at the fuzzy tip of my nose, making myself go cross-eyed. A headache started like it always did, but I didn’t complain.
I held my breath and sat extra still when Mother curled my eyelashes, remembering the time five years ago when an itch had made me move and she had ripped out a clump of lashes. The pain had been so intense that I hadn’t been able to hold in the tears that had rolled down my cheeks and ruined Mother’s careful work. I had been sent to my room for the rest of the day and she had not spoken to me for three days.
I pushed out my lips, keeping them open a sliver, while Mother lined my mouth with a scarlet pencil and filled in each lip with scarlet lipstick. She slipped a folded tissue between my lips and I closed my mouth on it and silently counted to three. I opened my mouth and Mother withdrew the tissue and dropped it in the wicker bin beside her chair.
Her eyes scanned my face. I waited, breath held, hoping she would not wipe it off and start again. A moment passed. She gave a nod and smiled. ‘You’re such a beautiful little doll, Mirabelle,’ she said, picking up the hairbrush. She moved to stand behind me and began to brush my hair with long, slow strokes. This was my favourite part. My shoulders dropped an inch and I concentrated on the wonderful sensation of bristles lightly scraping my scalp, but I could not relax. My question hovered at the front of my mind, on the tip of my tongue, in the jolting beat of my heart. ‘Mother?’ I said. ‘Yes, Mirabelle?’
I hesitated. A hot, dizzy feeling swept across my face. Mother’s rhythmic brushing continued, falling in time with every other click of the huge grandfather clock. A few months ago, Mother had painted the walls with brown and orange circles, filling in the patches between each circle with mustard-yellow paint so that no white remained. With the heavy burnt-orange curtains pulled shut over the wooden boards that were nailed over the windows, the room was a pit of gloom. Not a shred of natural light penetrated the darkness, though a little light came from a ceramic mushroom lamp in the corner. The roses reeked. Roses needed light and air to grow. It was no wonder they were dead.
I swallowed and licked my lips. I had never been outside. I wasn’t allowed outside.
My question simmered in my throat. I tried to swallow it back down, but it forced its way up like sick. ‘Mother, I’ve been thinking and, well, as it’s my thirteenth birthday, I was wondering if, maybe, at dusk, just before dark, I could go out into the back garden – just for a few minutes or so. Surely that wouldn’t be too—’
Mother’s hand froze halfway down my back. My head throbbed. For a terrifying second I thought she was going to hit me with the hard plastic side of the hairbrush. I waited, unable to breathe, my eyes fixed on the curtains. Tension made my back rigid. ‘No,’ she said quietly.
Her brushing resumed but this time the brush did not lightly scrape my scalp; bristles dug in so forcefully that they scraped through the surface of my skin. I winced and tried to breathe deeply, choking back tears of frustration, disappointment, gritting my teeth with anger – angry at myself for asking when I knew what the answer would be – frustrated with Mother for not even considering what I believed to be a great idea, and all the while trembling with fear. ‘How many times do I have to tell you?’ she hissed. ‘It’s for your own safety.’ She dragged the brush over my grazed scalp a second time. ‘I know. I’m so sorry, Mother,’ I whispered quickly, dropping my head.
She placed the brush on the table and walked around to face me. Her eyes were sad as she crouched down in front of my knees and gently pushed my hair behind my ears. ‘You know that I love you – that all I want is to protect you, don’t you, Little Doll?’ I nodded and looked at her glistening eyes. She sighed and stood up. Her eyeballs glinted, the wetness gone in an instant. ‘I have a special surprise planned for your birthday.’ I tried to smile up at her and blinked back tears. ‘Gosh. Thank you, Mother!’ ‘That’s all right. You’re to study mathematics this morning. Off you go. I’ll be in to check your answers in one hour.’
In my bedroom, I sat on the tiny chair at the small white desk and studied hard. Harder than ever. I wanted to show Mother I was sorry for asking my question. I wanted to impress her with my speed, show her how many questions I could answer in an hour. She’d stopped teaching me last year when she said I’d reached a good level, saying that knowing more than that was useless anyway. A shudder rocked my body. Black thoughts returned, leaking into my mind like bloody puddles. My hand froze above the textbook and I stared at the mustard and cream paisley wallpaper. Sometimes the print made me feel sick, but I could never work out why.
I pushed myself up from the desk and wandered to the oval mirror. In my beautiful scarlet dress embroidered with its intricate green and yellow flowers, and with my face painted with such precision and care – my hair as glossy as satin in the weak lamplight – I looked healthy. I sort of glowed. Twinkled. Twinkled like stars I’d never seen, and would never see. Tears prickled my eyes. I held them back and took a step closer to the mirror. I stared into my own eyes until my vision blurred black. Mother loves me, I told myself. My fingers went to my hair, my soft, shiny hair that Mother brushed so tenderly every morning and every night. I touched the sore grazes on my scalp. She had not drawn blood. Mother never drew blood. That would destroy my flawlessness, I thought, surprised by the bitter edge to the words.
‘Mother loves me,’ I said into the silence, to my reflection, to my little white bed, to the frilly pink curtains that hid the boarded window, to the gloom that for ever surrounded me. A sound outside my room made me dash back to the desk. ‘Mirabelle?’ ‘Yes, Mother?’ ‘Why weren’t you sitting at your desk?’ She moved to stand behind me, placing her hands on my shoulders. Her hands were cold. She was a whole head taller than me, her body long and thin. I craned my neck to peer up at her. She tilted her head to the side and frowned.
‘I was admiring my dress in the mirror,’ I said quickly, feeling a stab of guilt at the lie. She held my gaze until I looked away. Picking up a red pen from the desk, she bent over me and marked my work. ‘One hundred per cent, like always. Good little doll,’ she said, patting my shoulder. She placed an apple on my desk. ‘I’m going out. As it’s your birthday, you may read for the rest of the day in here or in the living room, whichever you would prefer.’ I gasped and stood up. ‘Oh, thank you, Mother! Thank you so much. Is this the surprise you mentioned?’
Mother shook her head. A secretive glint lit up her small eyes. She smiled broadly. She seemed excited. ‘I’m going out to get your surprise now,’ she said, then she left the room.
Mother Loves Me was published on 6 Aug. 2020 in ebook and today – 17 Sep 2020 in paperback. Grab yourself a copy now to continue reading this not to be missed psychological thriller of the year.