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Thornhill h/c back

Pam Smy

Price: 
14.99

Page 45 Review by Stephen

A Certain Person is back.

Mary thought she might be safe once that Certain Person had been re-homed.

But no, that Certain Person is back.

She always ends up back at Thornhill, and then it begins anew: the targeted laughter, the goading, semi-smile, twitched lips and stares, then the thump, thump, thump on doors as she passes by.

Even Jane, the single carer who seems to care, cannot bring herself to speak her name out loud. Worse, she wants Mary to patch things up with her, as if it's Mary's fault.

"Would you, Mary? If I have a word with her and ask her to be friends, would you try too?"

It's as if nothing had ever happened. Everyone turns a blind eye as far as that Certain Person's concerned. It's as if they're all too frightened: children and adults alike.

***

Mary knew she was back without even looking. She could hear her downstairs, and she locked herself away in her room, the top-most in the Institute, the only one with its own sink and bathroom. To get there you have to go up an extra, dark and narrow set of stairs, through a door off the main landing.

"I am going to go down now and have a chat with her, Mary, and tomorrow you can come down and have breakfast with the rest of us. It'll be much better for everyone here at Thornhill if we can all get along. I'll come and knock for you in the morning so we can go down together. OK, Mary?"

And then all eyes will be upon Mary as she is brought into the dining room. There will be low whispers or - worse still - voices just loud enough so that they know Mary knows that she is being talked about.

"Well, I am glad that is all sorted out."

Mary hadn't said a word.

That was thirty-five years ago...

***

There's an old house opposite Ellia's new bedroom window. More of a small mansion, really, large enough to have four tall chimney stacks; old enough to have sets of simple, deep-carved, stone gothic windows; and neglected enough to have buddleias embedded in its brickwork, some windows boarded up, its gardens overgrown and long gone to seed.

The overgrowth is further tangled up in coils of barbed wire.

At night it stands silent and empty, its ridged roof tiles and ornate flashing lit up by the moon.

It used to be the Thornhill Institute for Children - for girls, as it happens - and it has seen better days.

Better days... and much worse nights.

Did a light just go on in its top bedroom window?

***

Pam Smy has conjured up a chilling Young Adult horror story, shot through with a prickly, cold-sweat tension which will be familiar to anyone who's been bullied and whose bullies have been so very careful to avoid detection and any sort of censure. To anyone who hasn't been believed, perhaps endured it alone or, worse still, could not go home: boarders either at school or a less than charitable institution. The horror here is all too real.

She always makes friends again, no matter what she does. They're all scared of her too.

Set thirty-five years apart, the past is presented to us in the form of unadorned prose diary entries written by Mary, beginning in February 1982 as her pretty tormentor, unnamed throughout the book, returns with a smile and a promise made just loud enough for every other girl to hear: that she wants to be friends and make amends now. And Mary would like a friend. She really would. She finds it difficult. She doesn't speak; the words won't come. She finds it difficult to mix, but she doesn't mind if no one talks to her. There's less pressure. She actually finds it quite nice to start walking to school with everyone else again, hanging at the back and listening to them natter excitedly about pop stars or TV programmes they've enjoyed. Mary doesn't watch TV with them in the communal lounge: she'd rather be upstairs, fashioning more of her beautiful, ornate dolls.

Kathleen is kind. Kathleen is there at meal times, then cleaning up afterwards in the kitchen. Kathleen gives her winks and the odd extra small packet of biscuits. She seems to understand.

One of the carers, Jane, seems to care too. But she doesn't understand.

Where this proves a marked departure from anything else I've stumbled across before is that the present comes to us as comics. Tellingly, they are silent comics: bleak, black and white double-page spreads of further isolation: of Ella alone at home while her Dad works long hours, leaving her notes on the kitchen table that he's left early and will be home late. There's a framed photo of Ella and her mother during happier times, inscribed by hand, "I will always love you, Mum x" There's another one taped besides Ella's window.

It's through that window that Ella thinks she first spies a girl, about her own age, a month after she's moved in. But the girl is little more than a silhouette amongst the barbed wire, the sorry sea of weeds and the jagged ash staves run rampant.

But then she turns round, and I defy you not to be chilled.

I don't have that full image here, but one of this book's most successfully deployed elements is suspense in ambiguity - ambiguity and hope. Hope can be terribly cruel.

Treachery too is a terrible thing, and there are a gutting couple of pages in which Mary overhears Kathleen talking to her carer who cares, Jane, and it transpires that she doesn't.

"I know, but honestly, it's her own fault, if you ask me, Kathleen. It's one thing to have this Selective mutism thing - if it really is a thing and she isn't just choosing not to speak - that makes her odd in the first place, but then she spends all her time on her own making those damn dolls. It is a bit creepy."

The very same dolls which Jane made such a fuss about, praising Mary's craft.

"She doesn't even try to fit in."
"Just because she is a bit different doesn't mean they should pick on her."
"A bit different! Come on, Kathleen, she's weird. You say they are picking on her, but we don't have any proof. She doesn't ever say anything. She had never made a complaint. How can we help her if she doesn't help herself? She just tiptoes about with that tight, pinched, sour face of hers. She never smiles. No wonder no family wants her... if her speech thing isn't problem enough, she is also the least likeable girl we have ever had here..."

Which is nice.

***

Like Britt Fanny in JANE, THE FOX & ME illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault, Pan Smy also understands all the exhausting acting involved in keeping yourself looking busy in a crowd in the hope that you'll be ignored - and that being ignored is sadly sometimes the best you can hope for.

Meanwhile, Ella finds herself increasingly drawn to the fenced up estate and gains access via a plank dropped down over her back yard. "Suffer The Little Children To Come Unto Me" is carved on the pedestal of an ivy strewn statue, and all the while that barbed wire looks as dangerous as the dilapidated house looks unsafe. Creepy doesn't begin to cover it. Then she finds a doll's face, and thinks she'll give it some loving, tender care back home before returning it to the grounds.

And then she finds a whole doll hung by its neck on a noose.

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