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Start reading an exclusive extract of Storm Child by Michael Robotham.


1
Evie

I am a story to most people; a picture in a newspaper or on a TV screen of a little girl with filthy, hacked- off hair and dirty cheeks and eyes that looked enormous because I was so malnourished. Dressed in faded jeans with a hole in one knee, and a woollen jumper with a cartoon polar bear woven into the chest, I belonged to nobody but soon belonged to everyone, adopted by a nation of strangers.

In the most famous of these photographs, I’m being carried into a hospital by a female police officer, hugging her like a kitten clinging to a sweater. Special Constable Sacha Hopewell had spent all night waiting for me to crawl from my hiding place within the walls of a house where a man had been tortured to death. That image flashed around the world, and won a major press award, but only added to the mystery.

Who was this silent child? How did I come to be hiding in the walls? Why didn’t I escape when I had the chance? More importantly, what was my name, and where had I come from?

They have some of the answers now. Not the whole story. When is a story ever whole? Many of the details are hidden, even from me. Instead of complete memories, I have only bits and pieces, random thoughts that dangle in front of me like baited hooks. I know what a baited hook can do. It can drag a fish from the deep and leave it flip- flopping on a beach or the deck of a boat, poisoned by the fresh air and the sunlight.

This is what I know to be true. I entered the world upside down with my right hand tucked against my chin, one finger pressed to my cheek, as though contemplating whether to wait for another few weeks before troubling the midwife. That’s why I have a single dimple on my right cheek, although later Mama told me that God had left his thumbprint because I was one of his special creations. That makes her sound religious, but Mama stopped believing in any greater power long before I was born. ‘Religion cannot fill your stomach, or keep you warm in winter,’ she said.

I was snug in my mother’s womb when her waters broke. She was bending to tie my sister’s shoes at the gates of her primary school. Maybe I kicked too hard, or my elbows were too pointy, or Mama put too much strain on her back, because she felt the gush of fluid running down her legs, splashing onto her shoes.

Fearing that I might be born outside the school, she quickly waddled home, hunched over, trying to hold me inside her. Papa was at work and my Aunt Polina was in Italy. Mama went next door to our neighbours, Mr and Mrs Hasani.

Mrs Hasani had been a nurse during the Kosovo War. She boiled water and collected towels and made my mother squat against a wall. It took all of eight minutes for me to arrive. My head popped out like the stopper of a bottle, then my shoulders and the rest of me, slithering onto a hand- woven Persian rug that had once belonged to Marco Polo, according to Mr Hasani.

‘He was the explorer who discovered China,’ Mr Hasani told me when I was old enough to sit on a stool in his workshop and watch him repair radios and VCRs. I told him that China had probably discovered itself, but he accused me of being obtuse, whatever that means.

Mama had wanted a boy. Papa said he wanted a puppy. Instead, they got me. Head- first. Hand on chin. Happy before then. Innocent. Untouched. Unsoiled.

Babies are odd- looking creatures. I am looking at one now – a chubby boy sitting in a sandy hole on Cleethorpes Beach, splashing at the seawater around his thighs. He’s wearing a cotton hat and a nappy that is so fat with water or piss that it hangs around his knees. He doesn’t look like a mini- person, or a smaller version of a grown- up. Instead, he has an enormous forehead and wispy hair and no eyebrows. A baby Buddha with a bulging stomach.

Waving his arms, he splashes water into his eyes, blinks in surprise and then cries. What did he think was going to happen? Idiot!

Out to sea, beyond the small waves, I can see Cyrus in silhouette, balanced on a rented paddleboard. For a long while, he was only a speck in the water, and I worried about losing him, but he’s closer now, returning to shore.

He dives off the board and surfaces, shaking water from his hair. His skin is covered in tattoos of birds that seem to move as he moves. Swallows, finches, hummingbirds and robins, that ruffle and preen and hover. When Cyrus turns to pick up the paddleboard, I glimpse the enormous set of folded wings that are inked from his shoulders, down the length of his back and his thighs. Droplets glisten on the wingtips and make the feathers look bejewelled.

The tattoos give Cyrus a ‘bad boy’ vibe like he’s a cage fighter, or the drummer in a heavy metal band. But I think he’s more like one of those handsome single dads who you see in romcoms, who make women go squishy when they discover that his wife died of cancer and now he’s alone in the world, being a perfect father to a disabled child. Not that Cyrus has ever been married or had kids. He doesn’t even have a girlfriend, but that’s another story.

He reaches for a towel. ‘The water is lovely.’

‘You’re lying. I can see your goosebumps.’

‘It’s bracing.’

‘That’s another word for cold.’

I’m sitting in a deckchair, hiding under a wide- brimmed hat and the sunglasses I bought at Boots this morning. I think they make me look like a movie star. Cyrus says I look like a blowfly.

‘At least put your feet in the water,’ he says.

‘Why?’

‘Because that’s what people do at the beach.’

‘Not me.’

He shakes his head, sending a spray of water over me, beading my sunglasses. I swear at him and a nearby mother gives me the stink- eye because her toddler is within earshot.

‘You can swim, can’t you?’ asks Cyrus.

I don’t answer.

‘I could teach you.’

‘No.’

‘Why not?’

‘People who can’t swim don’t go in the water, which means they’ll never drown.’

‘What if you were on a ferry that sank or a plane that crashed in the ocean?’

‘I’d cling to the wreckage.’

‘You make it sound so easy.’

‘I’ve been doing it all my life.'


Pre-order your copy of Storm Child by Michael Robotham, releasing on 26 June 2024. 

  • Storm Child - Michael Robotham

    SOME MEMORIES ARE BURIED FOR A REASON. . . The compulsively readable new thriller by the #1 bestselling and award-winning master of crime.

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