Perfect Little Children Page 1

Author: Sophie Hannah

Genres: Mystery , Thriller


April 20, 2019

Here we are, in the wrong place: Wyddial Lane. It’s a private road, as the sign unsubtly proclaims in letters larger than those spelling out its name, in a village called Hemingford Abbots. I switch off the engine, stretch my back to release the ache from two hours of driving, and wait for Ben to notice that there’s no football ground in sight.

He’s buried in his phone. I can’t help thinking of it like that—as if he’s stuck inside the machine in his hand, unable to get out. Quite happy about it, too. Zannah’s the same. Most teenagers are, as far as I can tell: they spend all day and half the night in lock-eyed communion with an addictive device. No amount of my children telling me it’s “the way life is these days, so stop being so old and just chill” will ever persuade me to think it’s okay. It’s not. It’s frightening and depressing.

Sometimes it’s also useful, to a parent who doesn’t want to be scrutinized. It’s likely to be a while before Ben notices the intense quiet—almost total silence, apart from the occasional bird chirp or gust of wind rustling the branches of the trees that line Wyddial Lane on both sides—and realizes that there are no teenage boys in football shirts traipsing past our car or anywhere nearby. He’s completely immersed: head down, lips moving as he types with his thumbs. I’ve probably got two minutes at least.

Plenty of time. You can take in a lot in a hundred and twenty seconds, and that’s all I came here to do: have a good look. Many times over the past twelve years, I’ve wondered about Flora’s new house. Technically it ceased to be “new” at least a decade ago, though that’s still how I think of it. I checked last year to see if the “Street View not available in this location” message still came up, and it did. Maybe that’s got something to do with it being a private road. I can’t think what else it would be. Until today, I assumed that Wyddial Lane was very remote, but it isn’t. Despite the peaceful rural vibe, it’s only two minutes from a main road.

I’ve no idea what kind of house I’d buy if, suddenly, money were no object, and I’ve always been curious to see what Flora and Lewis chose—certainly not curious enough to devote half a day to the four-hour round trip, especially when I might be spotted on my spying mission and I’d have no way to explain my presence, but interested enough to recognize a perfect opportunity when one presented itself. As soon as the list of impending football fixtures arrived and I saw “St. Ives, Cambridgeshire,” I knew what I was going to do. It felt like a reward for all those Saturdays spent driving Ben around, all the hours I’ve stood shivering by the sides of muddy fields far from home while he played. Finally a perk had been handed to me and I resolved on the spot to take full advantage of it.

Today, if by any chance Flora or Lewis catches sight of me here, my excuse will be so close to the truth that it might as well be the truth: I’m driving my son to his Regional League match nearby and I took a wrong turn. Ben, sitting beside me in his red and white football gear, would be all the proof I’d need. Only the “wrong turn” part of the story would be false.

For a better view, I’ve parked across the road from number 16, not directly outside it. To the left of the thick wooden gates, there’s a square sign, gray stone, attached to the high brick wall that protects all but the very top of the house from prying eyes like mine. The sign says, “Newnham House.”

I shake my head. Unbelievable, that they chose to call it that. And those gates, a foot higher at their uppermost point than the top of the wall . . . Most of the houses here have high walls surrounding them. Being on a private road doesn’t offer these people enough privacy, apparently.

Of course the home of The New Flora and Lewis Braid looks like this. I should have been able to predict it all: the ugly, sprawling modern mansion, the private road, the gates kidding themselves that they don’t appear superior and unfriendly because they’ve got curly flourishes at the top that look marginally more welcoming than the seven feet of dense wood immediately beneath them.

There’s a silver box with buttons below the “Newnham House” sign—an intercom. I’d need to press those buttons if I wanted to gain access, which I definitely don’t.

Is this what too much money does to people? Or is it only what too much money does to Lewis Braid? There’s no way this house is Flora’s choice—not the Flora I knew. And Lewis had a knack for getting his way whenever they disagreed.

“Where are we? This isn’t the ground.” My son has finally noticed his surroundings.

“I know.”

“Then why’ve we stopped? I thought you knew where we’re going?”

“I do.”

“The warm-up starts in, like, fifteen minutes.”

“And it’ll only take us ten to drive there. Lucky, eh?” I smile brightly, switching on the engine.

Ben turns back to his phone with a sigh. He is considerate enough not to say, “I wish Dad was driving me.” According to our family folklore, Dominic is a good driver who plans well and allows enough time, and I am the opposite. This week was Dom’s turn to do football duty. He couldn’t believe his luck when I said I fancied an outing and offered to go instead. I doubt he remembers that Flora and Lewis moved to very near St. Ives soon after we last saw them. Even if he does, he wouldn’t suspect I had a secret agenda. Dominic would never take a ten-minute detour in order to see the current home of someone he hadn’t seen for twelve years—therefore, in his mind, neither would I.

“Fuck off!” Ben says to his phone.

“Ben. What have we—”

“Sorry.” He makes that sound like a swear word too. “Do you have a list of everything Dad’s ever done wrong?”

“What? No, of course not.”

“So it’s not normal, then? Most people in relationships don’t do it?”

“A written list? Definitely not.”

“Lauren’s got a list on her phone of everything I’ve done wrong since we’ve been a thing.”

Lauren, a model-level-beautiful girl who is excessively polite to me and eats nothing apart from noodles according to both my children, describes herself as Ben’s girlfriend. He objects to this terminology and insists that they are merely “a thing.”

“But you’ve never done anything wrong to Lauren, have you? Or have you?” They’ve only been together—if that’s the right way to put it—for three weeks.

“I put two ‘x’s in my last message instead of three. That’s the latest thing.”

“Did you do it deliberately?”

“No. I didn’t even know I’d done it. Didn’t think about it.”

I indicate to turn onto the main road, wishing I had a choice and could stay a bit longer on Wyddial Lane. Why? I did what I wanted to do, saw what there was to see from the outside. That ought to feel like enough.

“Who the fu— Who counts kisses in a message?” Ben says.

“Girls do. Some girls, anyway. Lauren’s obviously one of them.”

“First the problem was me not doing it—she’d always put a line of ‘x’s at the bottom of her messages and I never would, and she thought that meant I don’t care about her—so I started putting them in, and now she’s counting how many, and thinking it means something if I do one less than in the last message. That’s crazy, right?”

“Ask Zannah if she counts how many kisses Murad puts in each message.” Murad, to my knowledge, has only once done something wrong in the year and a half that he and Zannah have been whatever-they-call-it, and he turned up looking tearful the following morning, clutching a dozen red roses. Zannah was delighted, both by the roses and by the news of the sleepless night he’d suffered after “criticizing me when I’d done fuck all wrong. Mum, I literally don’t care what you think about me swearing right now. Sometimes I need to swear, or I’d throw myself off a bridge.”

I would be very surprised if my daughter did not keep on top of the kisses-per-message statistics.

Ben groans. “And now, because I didn’t instantly reply and say ‘Oh, sorry, sorry,’ and send a long line of ‘x’s, she’s going to accuse me of blanking her.”

“So why not reply and send more kisses?”

“No! Why should I?”

“You’re right. You shouldn’t.” Poor boy. He’s fourteen, for God’s sake—too young to be engaged in fraught relationship negotiations.

“I’ve done nothing wrong. Ask Zannah, Mum. Lauren’s a high-maintenance, needy—”


“Person. I was going to say ‘person.’”

“Yeah. Course you were.” I’m glad his instinct is to stand up for himself, and that he’s not planning to cry all night and take roses around to Lauren’s house tomorrow morning.