Annie’s New Life

(Annie McHugh PI Series: Book 1)
Maureen Martella

Reviews:

“A hilarious romantic comedy” – Best

 “Quirkily and humorously told” – The Times

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After thirty years of being Annie McHugh, Annie discovers that she is, in fact, someone else. Her beloved and hugely respectable parents forged her birth certificate.

She hires Gerry, a private detective with a strong look of George Clooney, to trace down her real mother. But how is it that when Annie goes to confront her mother in her large mansion in the smart end of Dublin, she ends up working for her instead? Will Annie reveal the truth to her frosty new employer? Is this the beginning of Annie’s new life? And has Annie completely finished with Gerry’s services? Annie has some decisions to make…

 

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(Published by Arrow, Random House)

(ebook published by Cornerstone Digital, 2011)

Get your ebook or paperback at  Amazon.co.uk or Random House

 

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International editions

 

     
          

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Read the first chapter

Annie’s New Life

 

Chapter 1


 

Young free and single.

Or then again . . . ?

I stepped out of the big law building and on to windswept Fitzwilliam Square, just in time to catch the cloudburst that had been threatening all day. It poured out of the heavens, lashing against my head like hilty nails. Turning my best suit into a sopping wet mess in two minutes flat.

So what? It had taken my family solicitor less time than that to destroy my whole life.

Two giggling girls pushed past me, making for the shelter of a doorway. They almost knocked me to the pavement in their eagerness to escape the downpour.

‘Sorry, Missus,’ one of them called over her shoulder, in the sort of tones usually reserved for the seriously elderly. Or the genuinely infirm. Bloody cheek! They couldn’t have been more than a couple of years younger than me. Both of them were well into their twenties, if I was any judge. I wasn’t yet thirty. Well, I was, but only barely.

Young, free and single was how I had described myself in a marketing survey my friend Fiona and I had filled in only last Christmas. I had almost added the word swinger. Just for the craic. But for once it was Fiona who urged caution.

‘You could be leaving yourself open to all kinds of propositions with a claim like that. Even if it is only a joke,’ she had warned, tossing back her long, platinum-streaked hair. My hair is short and mid-brown. The kind that stops growing as soon as it hits your shoulders no matter how many high-protein conditioners you invest in.

‘Anyway, having an affair with your married boss hardly constitutes swinging, you thicko,’ she had dismissed me with her usual blunt affection.

I wished she were here now. Insulting me. This was one of those times when I really missed Fiona. She always cut straight to the chase. Didn’t believe in mincing words. Ever. She would have known exactly how to deal with a smug-faced solicitor. She’d have had him reeling back against his flock wallpaper before he had finished breaking the news that not only was I a bastard, but I was also on the brink of being homeless.

‘I am sorry to be the one who had to tell you this,’ he had lisped through his gap teeth as I sat frozen with shock, ‘but I’m afraid I had no choice.’

Of course you had a choice you po-faced old git, I said. But not out loud.

Out loud, I said meekly, ‘I understand.’

He seemed surprised by my docile reaction. What had he expected? That I would leap across his desk and crack him on the skull with his Connemara marble penholder? The thought never entered my head. Much.

He leaned forward, his mean little forehead crinkling like a freshly ploughed field. ‘I’m afraid there is no doubt. It is beyond question. You do accept that?’

I nodded, not trusting myself to speak.

His forehead went smooth with relief. ‘Then let me reiterate. The matter of the authenticity of your birth certificate arose because Deedy, Dumphy and Biggs have always believed in attention to detail. The moment we were alerted to the possibility of an illegality, we began to investigate. Left no stone unturned in our efforts to discover the truth.’ Translation: his lickspittle of a secretary rang the head registrar’s office in Joyce House to check the validity of a birth certificate that had lain undisturbed, among my father’s papers, for almost thirty years. Only to be told that it was a forgery.

‘We were as shocked as you are, to discover that the original certificate had an altogether different name in place of your . . . em . . . mother’s. And no name at all in the section reserved for father. I am afraid it left no room for doubt. Bernie and Frank McHugh were not your parents.’

He waited for my response. But what was I supposed to say to that? He had now told me at least three times, and in as many ways, that my gentle parents who wouldn’t use a pedestrian crossing against a red light, who wouldn’t keep a dog without a valid licence, had callously forged my birth certificate.

My parents? It had to be a joke. My parents had been the most law-abiding people on the planet. Always first to obey any rule, no matter how petty or pernickety it might appear to the rest of us. My God, they paid their television licence by direct debit.

‘But they weren’t the sort of people who would . . .’

‘The evidence speaks for itself,’ he interrupted sharply.

I took a deep breath, mustering as much dignity as I could, given that I knew my skin probably had a pallor not normally associated with the living. ‘Go on, Mr Diddy.’ I swallowed.

‘Deedy!’ he corrected me sharply, for the second time that afternoon.

‘Dee . . . dy.’ I pronounced his name with great care.

‘I have no idea why your parents did such a thing, Ms McHugh. No idea. But it behoves me to say that it was an extremely reprehensible act, the repercussions of which may very well affect many areas of your life.’

I chewed my lip until it felt like rubber.

‘For a start you will have to vacate 59 Fernhill Crescent. The rental agreement only held as long as your . . . em . . . parents were living. Given your . . . em . . . present circumstances you will now be required to hand back the key.’

‘No. You’re wrong!’ At last I had him on something. ‘I have already been told that as the daughter of long-term tenants I am fully entitled to continue with the tenancy . . .’ The look on his face was enough to silence me.

Determined not to cry, I raised my chin defiantly. ‘Is there no possibility that it could all be a . . . a clerical error?’

He shook his head, his face expressionless.

‘Why not?’ I burst out. ‘Are the people in the registrar’s office infallible? Everything is computerised nowadays; all it would take is–’

‘Your birth was not registered to the McHughs,’ he interrupted calmly.

‘But I have a birth certificate with both their names on it!’ I gave it one last shot.

‘You have a copy of a forged document. I think you realise that by now, Ms McHugh.’

‘Oh I can still use the name McHugh?’ I snapped, but being a solicitor, Mr Deedy wasn’t programmed for sarcasm.

‘Of course. We can find no trace of a legal adoption having taken place, nonetheless you are still perfectly entitled to use the name you have always been known as.’ He made it sound as if McHugh was some kind of shady alias I had been using to dupe law-abiding citizens like himself.

My eyes kept turning to a silver letter opener lying by his hand. Glistening under the desk lamp, it looked sharp enough to pierce flesh.

Something in my expression caused him to shift uneasily. He moved the letter opener to one side, sliding it out of sight beneath a bulky manila envelope, then quickly buzzed for the secretary he shares with Dumphy and Biggs.

She arrived with a beaming smile and a thick yellow notepad, to complement her thick yellow make-up. He raised a finger in the air, like one of those impatient types you sometimes encounter in the slow queue at McDonald’s. ‘Two coffees, please.’

I half expected Miss Yellow Pad to ask jauntily, ‘Regular or Large, sir?’ She didn’t. Instead, she produced two coffees with such quiet efficiency and smiling goodwill that I felt sorry for wishing her dead earlier on, when she had escorted me to the bathroom, after Mr Deedy first broke the terrible news.

‘Thank you,’ I said to her now, with good grace. Well, with as much good grace as I could spare, given that it was apparently her curiosity that had uncovered the truth about my birth certificate in the first place.

A bored secretary in a small law firm had noticed a tiny discrepancy on a legal document and decided, whether out of Monday morning ennui or burgeoning ambition, to investigate further. A flurry of phone calls and faxes and, I have to admit, some astute paperwork led to the discovery that I was not who I thought I was.

My birth had been registered to a Mrs Clare Beecham. Mrs Clare Beecham? I had never even heard that name before. It meant absolutely nothing to me. And yet the mere fact of its existence on a piece of paper could apparently prove that the parents I had buried, not four months ago, were not my parents after all. The loving couple, whom I was still mourning after a tragic car crash took them to their heavenly reward, hadn’t even been my legal guardians.

They had forged my birth certificate like two petty criminals on the make. Filled in their own names in direct defiance of all the rules. And I had suddenly gone from being a beloved bereaved daughter to a nameless bastard with no identity and no home in a city where a one-bedroom flat can cost upwards of the national debt of Paraguay.

The coffee served by Miss Yellow Pad was far too strong. And stomach-churningly sweet. Still I forced it down my throat. It was either that or the letter opener.

I couldn’t get past the idea of my parents lying to me. And for all those years. Never once giving even the smallest hint of our true relationship. Whatever that was. Everything I had known and believed in had been a lie. Every benchmark in my life was fraudulent.

I had always been pretty secure. Well, close enough. I had certainly known who I was. And where I came from.

‘You’re so feckin’ grounded, you make me sick, Annie!’ was a favourite accusation of Fiona’s. ‘It’s probably because you’re an only child. You never had to fight for your parents’ attention, or share a skip of a bedroom with three slutty sisters. Or a smelly bathroom with a poncey brother who was twenty-two before he could aim properly.’

But was I an only child? Even that was now open to question.

If I wasn’t Annie McHugh, daughter of Bernie and Frank, then who was I? I could be anyone’s child. Any man’s seed. A bishop? A baker? A candlestick maker? I could be the result of a grubby one-night stand. Date rape? Carnal incest? Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the possibilities were endless.

‘Annie, Annie, Annie.’ My father used to shake his head gently in protest when I did something unexpectedly creative as a child. Like cutting a massive hole in the expensive new sitting-room curtains, because I wanted my Wonder Woman doll to have a cloak that matched the dŽcor. ‘Where did we get you from, Annie?’

Didn’t he know?

Why hadn’t they told me I wasn’t their natural child? Why go to such crazy lengths to hide the truth? Whom would it have hurt? Not them. I wouldn’t have loved them any less. They were always worth loving, my decent, hard-working parents. And they were, without a doubt, as loving as any parents could possibly be. For a pair of unmitigated liars.

*

I was attempting to cross the street when a car horn blared a warning, forcing me back on to the rain-drenched pavement. Then, as if for spite, every traffic light in sight turned green, encouraging the traffic into even more desperate speeds. Now I’d have to stand here in the rain, waiting for God only knows how long, before I could cross to catch my bus.

Last time I’d been trapped at this corner was after a shopping trip with Fiona. But, being Fiona, she had ignored the signals, grabbing my hand to pull me behind her as she zigzagged her way through the rush-hour madness. ‘Ah, feck them! What do they think they have brakes for?’ She laughed at my protests, as we ran the gauntlet of furious drivers.

But Fiona was a long way from Dublin now. She was in Cuba. Sunning herself on Varadero beach. It was thirty-two degrees centigrade in Varadero, according to her last postcard. In Dublin it was a freezing six degrees. And the rain was running down my face, plastering my fringe to my forehead. I raced into the nearest pub.

This was totally out of character for me. When you’ve been raised in a nearly teetotal home, pubs are not places you normally frequent during daylight hours. A bit of a Nosferatu in that respect, I tended to wait until the sun was well and truly below the yardarm before venturing into a drinking establishment.

Besides, pubs were places where you went to meet people and have the craic. A good laugh. Not for slipping into in the middle of the afternoon because you felt like shit. But maybe there was something in my dark, unknown genes leading me to seek solace in drink? I had always liked the taste. Maybe I came from a long line of drinkers? Alcoholics even? Dipsos?

I had always considered myself to be a pretty sober person. But that was when I was Annie McHugh. Maybe Annie the no-name bastard was a drunk waiting to happen.

I ordered a straight whiskey instead of my usual wine spritzer. ‘May as well start as you mean to go on,’ my father, who wasn’t really my father, used to say.

There was a blazing fire in the corner of the wood-panelled lounge bar. I got as close to the heat as I could, without actually straddling one of the flaming logs, and kicked off my dripping-wet shoes.

The lone barman threw me a filthy look. What did I care? Annie McHugh might have been embarrassed into putting her shoes back on. Annie the bastard glared back at him. When he brought my drink I feigned sophisticated nonchalance, ignoring the way he kept staring at my big toe, which had burst through the foot of my new tights.

‘Keep the change and bring me another,’ I said coolly.

He shot me a withering look from beneath his heavy Oasis eyebrows and we duelled a bit with our eyes. But he finally pocketed the ten pence and marched off.

By the time I had finished my second whiskey I could appreciate its appeal. I might still be homeless. And a bastard. But my suit was beginning to dry out and there was a warm, comforting glow coming to life somewhere in the vicinity of my protruding toe.

Maybe my world wasn’t completely shot to bits after all. Perhaps I could deal with the terrible blows I had just been dealt without falling to pieces. Possibility all it required was some kind of positive thinking on my part.

Fiona was a firm believer in positive thinking. She was forever extolling its merits to anyone who would listen. All right for her, lying on Varadero beach with the sun turning her an enviable shade of walnut. The mildest exposure to ultraviolet and I metamorphosed into scarlet woman, my skin taking on a startling shade of beetroot, instead of a gloriously sexy tan.

Besides having skin that tanned without a glitch, Fiona also had the perfect husband. Right now he was probably basting her with Factor 4. Or maybe he was ordering up Cuba Libres by the crate.

Not that I was jealous. The last thing I wanted in my life was a man. I had sworn off all that kind of stuff after Noel, who turned out to be the lover from hell. I had spent most of this winter cosying up to the fire with only Jane Austen for company.

Or some nights when I was feeling particularly low, I’d rent a couple of Merchant Ivory videos and allow them to transport me to another, gentler world. A world where swollen ankles could be hidden under long sweeping skirts, and cellulite hadn’t yet been invented. I would turn down the lights and comfort myself with a Chinese takeaway.

Then Mr Deedy contacted me and even the hottest Ming Wah special curry lost its ability to comfort.

I sipped my whiskey and tried not to feel too sorry for myself. Think positive, Annie, I commanded myself firmly. And to my absolute astonishment it started to work. The warm glow at my feet began to spread slowly upwards, approaching my calves and getting hotter by the second.

It wasn’t until the barman shouted a warning that I realised a burning log had rolled off the fire and my tights were melting.

 

‘Can I get you something, Miss? On the house,’ he said quickly, when I came creeping back from the ladies, the remains of my Pretty Pollys hanging from my bag.

‘Another whiskey. Make it a double,’ I snapped.

He started to say something, but one look at my face and he reconsidered, choosing instead to go back behind the bar and face the slop tray.

Some time later he was back again, reluctantly placing yet another whiskey in front of me. ‘We serve coffee, you know,’ he said.

‘Coffee?’ I laughed. ‘What kind of joint are you running here?’ I asked, doing my best Mae West imitation. He stared blankly at me, then disappeared behind the bar again, leaving me alone in the corner, to contemplate the ruins of my life.

 

‘We’re closing, love.’ The barman was shaking my shoulder.

‘What?’

He pointed to the big clock behind the now packed bar. ‘It’s eleven o’clock. Closing time. Come on now, ladies and gentlemen. Have yiz no homes to go to?’ he quoted from the barman’s manual of wry and witty sayings.

A few feet away a big bearded man slapped his neighbour on the back, almost propelling him through the mock-Georgian window. ‘You’re a gas man, Mick!’

The little man steadied himself with some difficulty, his face glowing either with sweat or a surfeit of alcohol. ‘I’m Seamus!’ he protested.

‘Ah, you’re a gas man, Mick.’ Big beard enveloped him in a sweaty embrace.

This was the one thing I always hated about pubs. Not the sweaty embraces – I was never the recipient of too many of those – but the fact that by closing time everyone was your best friend. It was something I was never comfortable with, all this drunken bonding between total strangers. Being expected to spill out your most personal details to someone whose name you probably wouldn’t even recall the next morning. It was a trap I had never allowed myself to fall into.

‘Good luck, Annie! Hope you find your real parents, love!’ a voice shouted above the din.

”Night, Annie, keep the heart up!’ another drinker called, before dashing out into the rain.

‘Time to go home, Annie. You’re flat-hunting tomorrow, remember?’ The barman was back, his white apron a mock world atlas of beer stains. ‘Come on. I’ll call you a cab,’ he insisted.

‘OK.’ I heard myself giggling. ‘But what should I call you?’ I said, slapping South Africa.

When the cab arrived he practically lifted me into it. ‘See she doesn’t come to any harm, Tommy,’ he ordered the bored cabby. ‘She’s had a bad day.’

‘She’s goin’ to have a worse one tomorrow, by the look of her,’ the cabby prophesied gloomily.

I heard someone laugh in derision. It might have been me.

I was woken by a dull, persistent pounding. It took me two full minutes to realise that it was coming from inside my skull. And that this was Saturday. My designated day to go flat-hunting.

I managed to get one whole leg into my jeans before the room began to spin. Clutching the bedpost for support, I swore that if I got through this hellish day I would never again allow alcohol to pass my lips. Or at least I’d drink occasionally, like my father had done.

Only he wasn’t my father.

It had all been a lie.

I turned my face into the pillow and cried until I had no tears left.

 

 

©  Maureen Martella

 

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