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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The girl stood in front of the television with a can of Pledge. The earrings covered her face like punctuation marks.

"Not the mantelpiece," I said. "Out there. Ronnie Butler. On a bench. Do you see him?"

Sometimes, words just fall out of your mouth. Even as they leave, you know they really shouldn't, but by then it's too late and all you can do is listen to yourself. The girl said, "Who's Ronnie Butler?" and curiosity made all the earrings rearrange themselves on her face.

"Someone from the past. Someone I used to know."

I pulled at the edge of the curtain, even though it was perfectly straight.

The girl began collecting up her cans and cloths and dusters, and arranging them in a little pink basket. "That's good, then, isn't it? You'll be able to have a lovely catch-up."

I looked back at the courtyard. He was standing now, and as I watched, he made his way along the path that led back to the main gates. "No," I said. "It isn't good. It isn't good at all."

"Why ever not?"

I waited before I answered. I waited until the basket had been filled, until I'd heard the click of the front door, and the drag of the girl's feet along the corridor outside. I waited for all of that before I answered her question. And when I did, the words still came out in a whisper.

"Because Ronnie Butler drowned in 1953."

* * *

"Do you ever imagine you see things?"

Elsie had returned from the chiropodist, and she was admiring his craftsmanship through her tights. "Oh, all the time," she said.

"You do?"

"Oh yes." Elsie wriggled her toes and they crackled in their thirty-denier prison. "I imagine it's raining, but when I get outside, I find that it isn't. And I often imagine I've got more milk in the fridge than I actually have."

"No, I mean people. Do you ever imagine people?"

Elsie stopped wriggling and looked up. "What a strange question. I don't think so," she said. "But then again, I wouldn't know, would I?"

I hadn't moved from the window since I saw him. Or thought I saw him. I had watched staff disappear into buildings, and visitors forced to shuffle around the grounds with faded relatives, but I hadn't seen the man again. Number twelve was quiet and dark, and the bench was deserted. Perhaps I'd invented him. Perhaps this was the start of my mind crossing over the bridge between the present and the past, and not bothering to come back.

Elsie was watching me now. "Who do you think you saw?" she said.

No one." I started straightening the ornaments on the sideboard. "I need to visit Boots opticians. I need to get my glasses changed."

"You've only just changed them," she said. "And why do you keep picking things up and putting them back again exactly where they were?"

I let go of Brighton seafront and looked at her. You could fit Elsie's worries into a matchbox. "Did you see anyone?" I said. "On the way over?"

She frowned. "No one in particular," she said. "Why, who have you seen?"

"Miss Bissell," I said. "A man delivering letters."

"The postman?"

I nodded. "And that strange little woman from number four. Round face. Never speaks. Not very good with stairs."

"Mrs. Honeyman?"

"I think so," I said. "And I saw Dora Dunlop as well. She wasn't in her nightdress either. Fully dressed, she was."

Elsie raised her eyebrows. "They're sending her to Greenbank, you know. I overheard."

I felt all the space behind my eyes fill up. "She'll never cope," I whispered.

Elsie didn't reply, but I thought I saw her shoulders give a little shrug.

"You haven't seen anyone interesting, then?" I said.

"No, no one."

I drank some tea.

"I wish you'd just spit it out, Florence."

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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