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PART OF THE Festivals ISSUE

‘Puffs of air hang like clouds in front of her face. Out on the street, the sounds of sirens disappear into the distance’

In this opening extract, Polly McAllister has left her husband and returned to Banktoun to make amends. She wants to start afresh but she’s thrown in at the deep end with her job as school counsellor, and it’s not long before she uncovers a multitude of murky secrets surrounding the disappearance of promising student Katie Taylor.

Extract from The Damselfly
By SJI Holliday
Published by Black & White Publishing

Polly

She’d forgotten about the gossip.

The way the slightest small thing was embellished and magnified until what started off as an annoying, buzzing midge turned into a multi-headed monster. Back in the town less than a week and already it feels like she’s never been away. It’d seemed like a good idea, popping out to the post office during the first break, knowing that she wasn’t on playground monitoring duties – not on her first day. What else was she going to do? She’s no sessions lined up. They only passed her the pupil list at 9 a.m. and suggested she’d need at least a couple of days to go through it. Work out who it was she needed to see. Which kids needed her help first. The school had gone a term and a half without a guidance counsellor – a few more days wasn’t going to make any difference. As far as she remembers, Banktoun High is a decent school, and the attached Primary is full of well-behaved kids. She’s already wondering if she’s going to have anything to do at all in this backwater town. Not compared to the Edinburgh estate she’s just come from. Challenging is the only way she could describe that place.

Banktoun will be a breeze.

She shuffles forward a few steps as the queue drops by one. She can hear the woman at the front, loud booming voice asking for First Class, please, the signed-for one, enunciating her words as if she was talking to a child, not the elderly Asian man who Polly recognises as Mr Kahn, the man who used to own the sweet shop on the corner near the school, before the Andrews took it on and started making their infamous home-made chocolate traybakes.

Memories ping at every turn, not all of them good.

She’s tried and failed to tune out the whispering women huddled at the narrow counter at the side of the shop, filling in forms before joining the queue. They’re taking longer than necessary, Polly assumes, using the time to skive off from the supermarket where they’re meant to be now, their crisp blue uniforms giving them away. Polly glances over at them. Various leaflets are scattered across the counter. Broken chains dangle off the edge, the pens they once held nicked long ago.

‘It has to be something bad if the flashers were on, doesn’t it? Those bairns are in trouble so often, they’ve practically got their own policeman.’

Laughter.

‘I heard it was something to do with the oldest one.’

‘Katie? Nah. She’s the only undamaged fruit in that bowl. What’d the police be wanting with her?’

‘I don’t know, Sheila. But mark my words, there’s something going on up at that hoose, and it dusnae sound good.’

Cashier Number Three, Please.

Polly blinks and walks forwards. She’s no idea who they’re talking about, but some family are clearly the focus of the town’s idle chatter today. She wonders about the police car, though. Wonders if that nice policeman is still working here. She’d seen him a few months ago, at her cousin’s funeral. She’d ended up having a terrible argument with Simon at the graveside, just to add to things.

But that didn’t mean he was still around, did it? Some people manage to escape this place. ‘Remind me why it is you’ve come back here?’ she mutters to herself.

‘What can I help you with, please?’

Polly pushes a pile of papers into the tray, and Mr Kahn opens the slot at the other side and pulls them out. He grins at her through the glass.

‘Haven’t seen you for a long time,’ he says.

Polly smiles. ‘I’ve been away for a bit, Mr Kahn,’ she says. ‘But then this new job came up and I wondered if maybe it was time for me to come back. I just need to get these documents witnessed. I wasn’t sure who to ask. I wondered . . .’

Mr Kahn winks. ‘No problem, love. I’ll vouch for you.’ He scans through the documents, flipping them over. ‘Ah, taking over your parents’ house, are you?’

Polly nods. ‘It’s been rented out for years, but, well – there didn’t seem much point in me moving in anywhere else. It’s been empty since the summer. Last tenant left it in a hurry. Needs a bit of work . . .’

She lets her sentence trail off, looks away from Mr Kahn’s sympathetic eyes. ‘If you need any help, you know where I am,’ he says. He signs the forms, then slips the pile into the envelope that Polly has already addressed. ‘Special Delivery?’

Polly feels her hand go to her stomach. She presses gently into the still soft flesh. Blinks away tears.

‘Yes. Thank you.’ She touches her bank card against the contactless reader to pay. Mr Kahn slides the receipt through the drawer and she takes it and walks quickly from the counter before the tears can make an unwelcome appearance.

Not for the first time, she wishes she had someone waiting for her at home, someone to cook her dinner and ask her about her first day. But she burned that bridge when she told Simon she was leaving. She’d felt a bit sorry for him in the end; he clearly thought things could continue as they were forever. But Polly couldn’t stay in that rut any more. Especially not now.

She stands on the steps, fumbling in her pockets for her gloves. Puffs of air hang like clouds in front of her face. Out on the street, the sounds of sirens disappear into the distance. Ambulance, maybe? Not that unusual. But something about the sound makes her feel uneasy. The gossiping old biddies mentioned police too. A lot for this small town on a quiet Monday morning. A prickle of fear runs down her back, like ice sliding down a car windscreen. Something has happened. Something has definitely happened.

Something bad.


SJI Holliday will be appearing at Bute Noir from 4-6th August as well as other festivals later in the year. The Dameselfly by SJI Holliday is out now published by Black & White Publishing priced £.7.99

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