Excerpt from Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Three Things About Elsie

by Joanna Cannon

Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon X
Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon
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  • Published:
    Aug 2018, 384 pages

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Sarah Tomp

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"How very strange," I whispered.

"I know." Elsie smoothed tea cake crumbs from the tablecloth. "It only seems like yesterday."

The man paced the room. There was something about the way he lifted his collar, the shrug of his shoulders, and it made the world turn in my stomach. "It does. But it can't be."

"It is. Ninety-eight. I've counted them whilst you've been wasting your time staring out of that window."

I frowned at Elsie. "Ninety-eight what?"

"Days until Christmas."

"I didn't mean—" I looked back, but the lightbulb had given up, and the man with the collar and the shrug of the shoulders had vanished. "I thought I recognized someone."

Elsie peered into the darkness. "Perhaps it was one of the gardeners?"

"No, at number twelve." I looked at her. I changed my mind and turned back. "I must be wrong."

"It's dark, Florence. It's easy to make a mistake."

"Yes, that's what's happened," I said. "I made a mistake."

Elsie went back to sweeping crumbs, and I pulled the sleeves down on my cardigan.

"Shall we have another bar on the fire?" I said. "It's gone a bit cold, hasn't it?"

"Florence, it's like an oven in here."

I stared into the shadows, and the window of number twelve stared back at me. "I feel as though someone just walked over my grave."

"Your grave?"

I definitely must have made a mistake.

Because anything else was impossible.

"It's just a figure of speech," I said. "That's all."

* * *

We were halfway through Tuesday before I saw him again.

Elsie was having her toenails seen to, and it always takes a while, because she's difficult to clip. One of the uniforms was dusting the flat, and I was keeping my eye on her, because I've found people do a much more thorough job if they're supervised. They seem to appreciate it when I point out something they've missed.

"How would we manage without you, Miss Claybourne," they say.

This particular one was especially slapdash. Flat feet. Small wrists. Earrings in her nose, her lips, her eyebrows—everywhere except her ears.

There was a mist. The kind of mist that hammers the sky to the horizon to stop any of the daylight getting in, but I saw him straightaway, as soon as I turned to the window. He sat on one of the benches in the middle of the courtyard, staring up at number twelve. He was wearing the same hat and the same gray overcoat, but that wasn't why I recognized him. It was because of the way he pulled at his collar. The way he wore his trilby. The very look of him. You can spot someone you know, even in a strange place or a crowd of people. There's something about a person that fits into your eyes.

I wanted to point him out to the girl with the earrings. I wanted to make sure she could see him as well. You hear about it, don't you? Old people's minds conjuring things up from nowhere and inventing all sorts of nonsense to fill the empty space, but the girl was in the middle of having a conversation with herself, and pushing a duster around the mantelpiece. And I was on probation. Miss Ambrose hadn't gone into detail, but I was fairly certain hallucinations wouldn't go down particularly well.

When I looked again, the man was still sitting there, but his elbows were resting on the back of the seat, just like they always used to. As I watched, I felt the color leave my face. I wanted to knock on the glass, make him turn around, but I couldn't.

"Miss Claybourne?"

Because if I did, I might never be able to look away.

"Miss Claybourne? Is everything all right?"

I didn't move from the window. "No it isn't," I said. "It's about as far from all right as it can get."

"But I've been over the mantelpiece twice. If I dust it again, it'll make me late for the next one."

Excerpted from Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon. Copyright © 2018 by Joanna Cannon. Excerpted by permission of Scribner. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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