The Last Thing She Told Me
Linda Green’s stunning novel chronicles the cost of keeping secrets; the longer deeds go unrevealed, the more toxic they become, until the past threatens to overwhelm the present and poison the future. Then the question becomes how to bequeath the secret so the heirs might feel obligated to keep it.
“Look after my babies for me.”
Those are the last words Nicola’s grandmother Betty says as she dies. Nicola is confused. Surely Grandmother Betty meant the little stone fairies at the bottom of her garden, but Grandmother Betty denies Nicola’s assumption. “Not fairies, babies.”
Nicola repeats the words to her mother Irene, who tells her it was all nonsense. Betty was confusing fairies with angels. “She always believed in angels.”
But Irene’s reaction is at odds with her words. Long estranged from Grandma Betty for some reason Nicola dosen’t know, her mum looks shocked and deeply disturbed. When Nicola leaves she hears Irene begin to cry, and wonders if there is something her mum knows but is unable to talk about.
Nicola’s oldest daughter, Ruby, cries at learning her great-grandma is dead. At eight years old, Nicola’s younger daughter, Maisie, doesn’t grieve as much as she doesn’t quite understand exactly what death is.
There is some irony in the fact that the person who least understands death is the person who finds the tiny bone under one the stone fairy statues in Betty’s garden.
Nicola realizes that Grandma Betty’s last words may have been the literal truth. She takes her girls home, returns to her grandmother’s garden, and begins to dig under the stone fairy. When she unearths a tiny skeleton, she knows she must report it to the police.
Irene violently opposes calling the police. “Because it’s not anyone else’s business, is it? It’s our family it affects.”
She wants Nicola to rebury the bones and pretend she never found the remains. “Leave it alone, Nicola. You don’t know what you’re dealing with.”
She is furious that her mother wants her to forget about the bones, which would be a crime as well as a secret that would eat away at her. “Far better to get to the bottom of it now than to let it fester away and leave Ruby to deal with it one day when I was gone.”
The police find two sets of human remains in the back garden. When Nicola informs her mother, Irene is furious and tells her that “I want nothing more to do with this, or with you, do you understand?”
Along with both Ruby and Maisie, Nicola has now been cast out of Irene’s life. She cannot understand why her own mum, her girls’ grandmother, now wants nothing to do with her own grandchildren. What does Irene know about the dead babies in the garden, and why won’t she tell?
The press learns of the grisly discovery, and word quickly circulates around the village and the country. Now everyone wonders if Grandma Betty was a murderer.
Nicola discovers a box of photos in Betty’s house and finds pictures of her grandmother’s sister, Olive, and her son, John. Sometime during her mother’s teenage years, Olive and John suddenly disappear from the photos. A search of the internet turns up information of Olive Armitage, who at 100 years old, lives at a local nursing home.
Afflicted with dementia, Olive is unable to tell Nicola anything, but her son John arrives. Thrilled at finding a family member when she thought Irene was her only remaining living relative, Nicola impulsively invites him for tea and to meet her family. Besides, John may know something in her family’s history that explains the babies in the garden.
Then Nicola begins to find unsigned threatening notes warning to stop asking questions about the past. Then her car is vandalized. She has disturbed someone, and it might be someone dangerous. To round out a very bad week, the police call with DNA results. Both the babies were her grandmother’s, but the father was not Nicola’s grandfather.
What horrible scandal has Nicola unearthed, and is it more dangerous than she ever anticipated? “They weren’t Grandad’s babies. Did she kill them because of that? Was that the great family secret? Or did he kill them because he’d found out? I needed answers, and if the police weren’t going to provide them, I’d have to find them myself.”
Nicola learns that sometimes when you get what you ask for, you wish you hadn’t asked in the first place. Another set of human remains are discovered under another fairy statue in the garden of Grandma Betty’s neighbor. Ruby tells Nicola that “There must be something wrong with this family . . . No one else has stuff like this going on.”
Letters from a Canadian airman named William appear intermittently with contrasting stories from Betty. Nicola finds and reads the letters and feels sorry for her grandmother. William had been killed before they had a chance to marry. While Nicola feels she knows the truth, she does not, because she has no way of knowing Betty’s side of the story.
Linda Green has written a true page-turner that draws one into the lives of the characters. Nicola is a character to admire: strong and determined to do the right thing even if her life is thrown into turmoil as a result.
Irene holds her secret until it is almost too late. Although her silence frustrates, her behavior is consistent with her time and circumstances. Nicola understands, as she has a secret of her own.
There is a sense of incompleteness about the story that some might find uncomfortable, but this story is not wrapped up in pink ribbons. The ending glosses over Betty’s secrets, which she has taken to her grave. Sometimes that is where secrets belong.