One Minute to Midnight - By Amy Silver

Chapter One

Boxing Day 2011

I GET UP in darkness, while the house sleeps, slipping from the warmth of our bed unnoticed. I dress in the bathroom so as not to wake Dom, then pad down the stairs, taking care to walk on the left side of the staircase (less creaky for some reason). The dogs are curled up in their enormous basket in the corner of the utility room; Mick, the hulking great mongrel, an unholy mix of Alsatian, Rottweiler, some Pyrenean mountain dog and a host of unknowns, completely enveloping Marianne, our tiny, delicate golden lurcher. They look up at me sleepily as I open the door.

‘Come on, then,’ I whisper, jamming my feet into my wellies, the sight of which already has them scrambling out of the basket, Mick barking enthusiastically.

‘Shhhhh,’ I hiss at him uselessly, lunging for the back door so that I can let him out before he rouses the entire household. Wake everyone up and they’ll all want to come.

The dogs bound out onto a lawn turned crunchy and white by a thin layer of snow just freezing to ice. I zip up my parka to the very top, tucking my nose under the material, hunkering down against a bitter whip of wind. Fingers of pale winter sunlight are just beginning to creep across the lawn, warming nothing whatsoever.

Tails wagging furiously, the dogs are waiting for me at the back gate, Mick’s nose pushing against the latch. One day he’ll figure out that all he needs to do is flick his head upwards and he’ll be able to open it. Fortunately, he’s not too bright, so that day is probably a long time away. If Marianne could reach the latch she’d have figured it out ages ago.

I glance up at the window of the spare room. Blinds still drawn, in-laws still slumbering. Probably not for long. The three of us slip away, out of the gate and into the lane behind the house, making for Wimbledon Common.

We head north-west-ish, the dogs running ahead, Mick at a gentle canter, Marianne racing out of sight then returning a moment or so later, anxiously bobbing her head up and down like a meerkat, wondering what’s taking us so long. There’s not another soul in sight. Usually by seven-thirty on a weekday there are plenty of runners and dog-walkers around, even in the dead of winter. Not today. Everyone’s still sleeping off the turkey and mince pies. It’s eerily quiet, there’s no traffic noise, no birdsong, not even the faint drone of aeroplanes overhead. I quicken my pace, partly to warm up, but also because, despite myself, this silence is creeping me out a bit.

Dom hates me going out alone at this hour, with the sun barely up.

‘No one’s going to attack me when I’m with Mick,’ I tell him, although we both know that while our beloved dog might look fierce he’d run a mile if there were any real danger. I’ve seen him back down in an argument with next door’s kitten. Marianne would probably provide better protection; she’s got a fierce temper when roused.

(‘Just like you,’ Dom tells me with a wink, although he isn’t really joking.)

We get as far as the windmill and I know I ought to turn back. They’ll all be up by now, early risers my extended family. They’ll be wanting their breakfast. Failure to have it on the table will be regarded by my mother-in-law as a dereliction of my wifely duties. Yet another dereliction: does one more really matter? The dogs have barely been out of the house in two days, they need a proper walk. And I have things to think about, mental lists to write.

On 29 December, in just three days’ time, we’re flying to New York. New York for New Year! Just the thought of it is thrilling: carriage rides through the park, ice skating at the Rockefeller Center, cocktails at the Met. But it’s nerve-racking too. Of the many, many skeletons in my closet, a surprising number of them have, for one reason or another, decamped to Manhattan. They’re waiting for me there. That aside, I’ve just got too much to do before we go: I need to take down all the Christmas decorations (too early, I know, but it’ll depress me to come back to them after our holiday’s finished and Christmas is well and truly over), I need to clean the house (our lovely Albanian cleaner is away until the end of January for some reason);