We're delighted to present an extract from Hidden Lies, the debut novel by Rachel Ryan, published by Piatkus.
All children have imaginary friends. It's perfectly normal. But when Georgina's young son Cody tells her about his 'New Granny', a mysterious friend from the park, the words send shivers down her spine. Georgina's beloved mother died only months ago. Her husband Bren is certain the woman is an invention, Cody's way of grieving for his grandmother, but there's something in the way Cody talks about his new friend that feels so real. Is someone out there, watching Georgina's family from the shadows? Is Cody's imaginary friend not so imaginary after all?
Dublin, Ireland, 2014
On that crisp January afternoon, the park lay silvery and deserted, coated in a thin layer of frost. The grass crunched under Georgina's feet as she followed shrieks of laughter to a cluster of evergreen bushes and trees.
'Boys!’ she called towards the bushes. ‘Out where I can see you, please!’
Luke and Patrick, her son’s friends, tumbled out first. They were giggling, faces flushed so pink Georgina doubted they felt the cold at all.
‘Come on, you two, back to the playground.’
They bolted off obediently. But Cody did not emerge.
Georgina waited. Her breath clouded the air.
Of course her child would be the defiant one. Georgina sighed.
‘Cody, don’t make me come in there and get you.’
Still nothing. Luke and Patrick had reached the playground. Their delighted screams echoed over the otherwise silent fields. A distant dog walker was the only other person in sight.
Just as Georgina was about to push through the branches herself, the leaves shivered, and her son appeared.
Her annoyance melted away in the face of that cheeky half-smile.
‘Come on. Your friends are at the playground.’ She ruffled his muss of dark hair as they began to walk.
He was sucking on a lollipop he hadn’t had earlier.
Georgina frowned. ‘Where did you get that?’
Cody took the lollipop out of his mouth. ‘The old lady gave it to me.’
‘What old lady?’
‘The old lady in the bushes.’
He popped it back in his mouth and made to run after his friends. Georgina stopped him.
‘You were talking to an old lady in the bushes? Just now?’
Cody nodded, impatient to be off.
‘Why would she give you a lollipop, Cody?’
He shrugged. ‘She said she was my granny.’
The shiver that travelled down Georgina’s spine had nothing to do with the cold. Each hair on the back of her neck stood up as if brushed by a spiderweb.
‘Cody,’ she said, when she trusted herself to speak, ‘that’s not right. You know Granny is dead.’
‘I know that,’ Cody said scornfully. ‘She said it. Can I go, Mam, please?’
Georgina nodded, too shaken to continue the conversation, and watched him tear off to the playground.
She turned back towards the bushes. They were still. She looked around the park but could see no one. Even the dog walker had disappeared from sight.
‘Patrick, you’re on!’ Cody was screaming gleefully. ‘Catch me if you can, catch me if you can!’
Georgina walked over to the thicket of bushes and trees.
She took a step closer, then another, and tried peering through the leaves. But all she could see were tree trunks and darkness.
Suddenly self-conscious, she backed away and cut a brisk path to the playground.
‘Cody,’ she asked, when she managed to pull him away from his friends, ‘where did the lollipop really come from?’
‘The lady. I told you.’ He wriggled out from under her grasp.
‘Cody, come on. You shouldn’t make up—’
But he was racing back to his friends.
Georgina sat down on a bench.
She said she was my granny.
She wanted to cry. As of last year – 4 July, a date now carved into Georgina’s heart – Cody didn’t have a grandmother. Bren’s parents had passed away before Cody was born, but Georgina’s mother had been a warm, wonderful presence in her grandson’s first seven years of life. Now she wouldn’t see his eighth birthday.
Georgina wiped away a tear. She didn’t know what would compel Cody to say such a thing, but it was upsetting, it was wrong.
‘Mam!’ Cody was hanging upside down off the climbing frame. ‘Look at me, look at meee!’
‘I see you, sweetie!’ Georgina forced a cheerful tone. She wished now that she hadn’t agreed to this play date, but it was too late. Luke and Patrick’s respective parents weren’t picking them up until seven. Georgina felt tired at the thought.
As they left the park, she looked back over her shoulder, across the icy fields to that lonely patch of trees – and again felt that soft spiderweb brush against the hairs on the back of her neck.
‘Jesus, that must’ve been upsetting to hear,’ was Bren’s reaction when Georgina recounted the story that evening.
‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘It was.’
They were standing in the amber-lit kitchen of their small, slightly shabby, but beloved house. Cosy, Georgina called it. Cramped, Bren said, but affectionately. Their house was in an area of Dublin that was also slightly shabby, but colourful and central and bustling too. ‘An area on the up and up!’ was how estate agents described it. ‘Affordable and close to work’ was how Bren and Georgina described it.
Cody was watching TV in the front room, his friends finally gone home.
‘I asked Luke and Patrick if they saw anyone in the bushes,’ Georgina continued. ‘They said no.’
‘Well, obviously.’ Bren’s tone was amused, but warm enough that the words didn’t sting. ‘What, you thought she might’ve been real? The ghostly woman in the bushes?’
‘No, of course not,’ said Georgina. ‘I just felt freaked out, I guess. The park was deserted, it was all creepy … And the thing I couldn’t understand was – where did Cody get the lollipop?’
Bren was grinning now. ‘Come on, Georgie. You can’t think of anywhere Cody might have stolen a lollipop?’
She could, of course: a jar of lollipops stood on Cody’s teacher’s desk, to be handed out each Friday to the team of seven-year-olds with the most stars for good behaviour that week. Due almost entirely to the fact of Cody and Patrick’s membership, Team Orange never won.
‘If he’d pocketed it in school, he obviously wouldn’t tell you,’ Bren pointed out.
‘I didn’t think of that.’ Georgina wondered why this obvious explanation hadn’t occurred to her. Had it been the factual manner in which Cody had reported the incident? Or the eerie setting, the quiet park?
‘I just felt unsettled,’ she concluded. ‘After he mentioned my mam.’
Hidden Lies by Rachel Ryan (published by Piatkus) is out now.