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Read an extract from If I Let You Go by Charlotte Levin

Read an extract from If I Let You Go by Charlotte Levin

Every morning Janet Brown goes to work cleaning offices. It calms her, cleanliness, neatness. All the things she’s unable to do with her soul can be achieved with a damp cloth and a splash of bleach. However, the guilt she still carries about a devastating loss that happened eleven years ago, cannot be erased.

Then, Janet finds herself involved in a train crash and, recognizing the chance to do what she couldn’t all those years ago, she makes a decision. As news spreads of Janet’s actions, her story inspires everyone around her, and for the first time her life has purpose and the future is filled with hope.

But Janet’s story isn’t quite what it seems, and as events spiral out of control, she soon discovers that coming clean isn’t an option. Because if Janet washes away the lies, what long-buried truths will she finally have to face.


Three sheets of paper lie side by side.

Edges must be neat, lined up. The contrast between their off-white and the black mock-granite of the worktop exposes any misalignments.

She’s owned the stationery for years. A present from yet another drifted friend. Never retrieved from the cupboard, never having noticed the delicate gold finches printed in the right-hand corner. One perched on a branch, the other flying away.

The pen is heavy and cold. Initially nervous about him finding out that she’s used it, her brain catches up. Of course, it doesn’t matter now. These notes need to represent her properly, and nice ink is important. She’d hate to be remembered by the scrawls of a worn-out biro.

Shuffling further back into the tall stool, she blinks, slow, heavy, and proceeds to write. Though all three notes differ in their content, each one opens with the same words.

I am sorry.



A Small Stuffed Scottie Dog

She is invisible.

A living ghost riding the number seventy-three bus through the streets of Salford. Crisp cotton blue top, like scrubs, ironed to perfection, the XL label cut out and not just because it itched. All humanized by the name badge JANET. And, as always, a memorial to lost inner spark, sparkly earrings – half-moons bought by Colin many half-moons ago.

The fierce sun is a welcome break from the days of perpetual rain, and she rests her overheated head against the cool of the window to watch the daily rushes. Summer sky poking between penthouse-topped high-rises and poverty-stricken high-rises and red-brick daisy-chain houses as she nears home. All accented with colourful litter, pecked at by grey hobbled pigeons.

Sitting up straight, she digs into her bag and removes one of the mini Bakewells brought in by Sam for Gemma’s last day. She’d already eaten one with her post-shift tea but couldn’t resist the offer to take another home. Peeling the foil from its base, she presses the short pastry into her mouth.

She likes Sam. Despite being unable to get to know them properly, she likes all the Sam’s Cleaning Angels girls. Especially Nish. And she enjoys the hours, ending her workday not long after the majority of people are about to start theirs. Few jobs offer such instant satisfaction. Except perhaps a chocolatier. But even then, cocoa loses its pleasure after a while; there’s only so many Ferrero Rochers one can eat in a day. And she’s good at it, cleaning. The other girls know not to touch her trolley. Compared to theirs, it is meticulous. Microfibre cloths stacked neatly when not in use, potions lined up, nozzles facing the same direction. The truth is, it calms her. Cleanliness, neatness. Dirt erased; surfaces shined. All the things we can’t do with our souls can be achieved elsewhere with a damp cloth and some Cillit Bang.

The bus slows to standing. Released air pressure from the opening doors, echoes. A lad hugging a rucksack and dressed in an oversized suit takes the seat next to her. A young hoop-earringed mother, barely an adult herself, wearing a season-defying puffer jacket, struggles to board with a buggy and toddler. ‘Fucking hell, Kian, I’ve had enough.’

To avoid looking over, Janet balances the foil tray containing the last bite of the Bakewell on her knee, then searches the back of her head for her hairband. Pulling it free, her dry home-bleached locks protrude in the same position as if glued. After stretching the elastic over her hand, onto her wrist, she places the remaining tart in her mouth.

But she can’t prevent another glance.

The young mother is staring into her phone. The child is distressed, crying.

While chewing, Janet pinches the black-threaded elastic between her thumb and index finger, lifts it taut like a catapult, and snaps it against the blue-threaded skin of her inner wrist. Wincing as it reddens and stings.

Aware that the suited boy has followed the sound and is looking, she drops her head and brushes the crumbs from her trousers, then neatly folds the aluminium tray into a square and returns it to her bag.

But it’s back.

The wave, the feeling. Crawling like ants beneath her top, over her skin, burrowing into her bones.

Willing her mouth free of the frangipane paste, she strokes her throat. Assisting the clagging tart to pass the newly formed lump.

‘Kian . . . Kian . . . for fuck’s sake, you won’t get no sweets now, you cry-baby.’

He is a baby. He is a baby.

The heat has lit Janet’s veins like a wick. Making her feel as if she’s unable to breathe or swallow. Snapping the elastic again helps only momentarily.

The young mother grabs the child from behind and plonks him onto her knee. ‘Jesus Christ, Kian,’ she says, eyes glued to her phone’s screen. But then, she does something equally hard to watch. She kisses his head.

‘Excuse me.’ Janet shuffles past the lad and extends her shaking finger to press the bell. The bus slows to a standstill and she moves unsteadily towards the door, then steps onto the unfamiliar pavement, three stops too early.

Hand on chest, she calms her heart. She’s on Butterstile Lane in front of the small parade of shops that she usually stares into from the discomfort of the bus seat, watching folk go about their business, exhibiting their freedoms.

Central to these shops is OBJÉT. An establishment so out of place among the beauty salon, Chinese takeaway and newsagent’s, it’s as though the owners accidentally signed a lease thinking it was elsewhere.

The window display houses beautiful objects, unsurprisingly. Sumptuous, embroidered velvet cushions. Painted ceramic bowls she’d feel perturbed using for her Special K. A pair of wooden candlesticks which she isn’t quite as keen on. All obscured by the tasteful Closing Down banner. It has only been open for six months. A stark reminder that shops, like people, should know their place.

According to her watch, it’s almost 10 a.m. She needs to start walking to her dad’s but instead she stands still for a moment, mouthing the calculations of how much time she could feasibly spend inside the shop.

Satisfied it’s manageable, she pushes on the heavy glass door. Inside, a woman rolls an ornament into soft pink tissue paper.

Her glossy severe bob falling in front of her face as she lifts her head and forces a Can I help you? smile.

Admiring the woman’s ruby lips, Janet touches her own, wishing she’d dare to attempt such a shade.

‘Everything is fifty per cent off.’

The sound of sticky tape being pulled from a dispenser magnifies in the stillness of the space.

Janet flickers a smile. ‘Thanks.’ Then, remembering she’s still in her uniform, strokes her earrings in an attempt to re-direct the woman’s focus. Her other hand remains on display, gripping the strap of her bag to ensure it’s clear she isn’t shoplifting. Not that she’s stolen anything in her life. Except the time she accidentally bought a nest of small-to-large Tupperware from Debenhams without realizing they were supposed to have been sold separately. And to this day, she suffers twinges of guilt every time she scrapes in leftover Bolognese.

Investigating the shop, she craves its entire contents. ‘Are you looking for anything particular?’

‘No . . . well, a little present for my daughter.’

‘Oh, lovely. Is it for a special occasion?’

Janet pivots. Turns her back on the woman. Suddenly not caring if she’s thought a thief or not. ‘Her birthday.’

‘Oh, lovely, well, if you buy something, I’ll throw in a card for free.’

Looking over her shoulder, to smile and thank the woman, Janet notices in the children’s section a small stuffed Scottie dog, sporting a red collar from which swings a heart-shaped pendant. She’s transported back to the park when Claire was a littlun. Skipping ahead in her tutu and Ariel T-shirt. Waving to every dog in sight, running towards them. Don’t touch, Claire, we have to ask the owners if the doggies like being stroked. The explosion of excitement with each ungainly pat. Shoulders raised, frantic hands waving, feet padding the floor.

‘How much is the dog?’ asks Janet, pointing.

‘You can have him for four pounds . . . He’s cute, isn’t he?’

‘He is, yes.’ She performs the maths in her head. Concluding she could still take the bus home from her dad’s but walk to work onMonday. ‘That’s fine, I’ll take him please.’

The woman glides from behind the counter, clothes not as pristine as expected. Her skirt distinctly creased.

‘Sorry, I could have got it down myself,’ says Janet. ‘It’s all I’m good for at this height . . . I wasn’t sure if I—’

‘Not a bother.’ The woman is reaching up on tiptoes and with summoning fingers captures the toy. Heels dropped, she tucks in her shirt, which had escaped during the stretch.

Back at the till, she pops the Scottie into a thick paper bag, begins padding him in with the pink tissue.

It’s now 10.12 a.m.

‘That’s OK . . . I’m in a bit of a hurry, sorry.’

The tissue, already half inside, is pushed in fully and the bag sealed with a sticker printed with the shop’s emblem. ‘Are you paying cash or card?’


‘Do you want to pick your greeting card?’

‘Oh . . . no, I don’t need one,’ she says. ‘Thank you, though.’

‘Are you sure? You can have any. They’ve got to go.’

To avoid any further verbal ping-pong, Janet walks over to the rack and extracts a white card that simply says, I Love You.

Transaction complete, she turns to leave. Hand on door, she smiles, pleased with both her purchase and rebellion.

‘Bye,’ says the woman. ‘I hope she has a fantastic birthday.’

Janet stops. The words a bullet in her back.

It is as violent as ever. She hadn’t managed to stop it at all. It was merely dormant, ready to explode.

This time she imagines lunging forward. Smashing her face into the glass with such force her ears ring with the crack of her teeth. Then pulling back, slow, calm, she observes the illusory blood-soaked, shattered cobweb.

‘Thank you,’ she says, and leaves.


A Window Overlooking a Car Park

For the remainder of the walk to her dad’s, she takes the scenic route. Otherwise known as the cut-through by the leisure centre. A honeysuckle-scented dust track sandwiched between brambles, clustered with blackberries in bloom, awaiting the birth of their fruits. With the sun so intense, she pretends she’s on holiday in the countryside. Until eventually emerging from the other end, where the sound of speeding traffic snaps her from the fantasy and car fumes tickle her throat. She decides from now on she’ll always get off at that earlier stop. It’s important to have something to look forward to.

‘Hi Helen, it’s Janet.’ She dips to speak into the intercom.

The name Oakland House implies an idyllic country mansion, not a 1980s-built care home slap-bang in the middle of Salford. Her dad has been a resident for almost seven years. Moving in soon after her mother’s death. His deterioration exacerbated, or perhaps more apparent, when mixed with grief. It was a struggle to make the decision alone, her brother Craig, useless and half a world away in New Zealand. The chasm of their relationship greater than the air miles.

Once buzzed in, she follows the colour-coded floral border to his room. She’s always been partial to a border herself. At one point, their whole house was split horizontally by a four-inch burgundy fleur-de-lis. But even she knows there’s no place for them in modern spaces and hasn’t so much as contemplated one since 2012.

It’s bluebells for the ground floor. Her mum’s favourite flowers. However neat her beds of pansies, it was always the wild tufts of bluebells at the bottom of their garden that she loved the most. He’d be living with Janet had it not been vetoed by Colin. Probably for the best. It’s unlikely she’d be able to give him adequate care. But this border, which she cannot help but trace with her fingers as it leads her down the corridor, was the only thing that made his move bearable. A sign of her mother’s approval.

Registering music, she stops walking. ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy’. She’d forgotten about the entertainments now happening on the first Friday of each month. Turning, she follows the swing rhythm, and once at the communal lounge, she hovers outside the open door and observes.

There he is. In the corner, slouched in his favourite bat-winged chair. Even from this distance she can see the distinct white crust on his navy jumper. They don’t seem to grasp how smart he likes to look. But at least he’s smiling.

A skeleton wearing trousers, his legs jig to the music as he watches the performers. The Goldies Choir, according to the ‘What’s On’corkboard.

Roger sits on one side of him, Dorothy on the other. Her mottled hand inching towards his mottled hand. Never daring to touch. It’s clear she believes herself to be his girlfriend, despite his obliviousness to this arrangement. And although Janet knows it doesn’t matter, that he doesn’t love Dorothy in any tangible way, she still feels somewhat aggrieved on behalf of her mother.

Jazz hands in action, the Goldies, dressed in black tracksuits with their logo in gold glitter on the front, bop from side to side as they sing. Most look like they belong in the home themselves. The presumed leader, a Barbara Cartland doppel-gänger, is positioned front and centre, intermittently turning to waft her arms towards the rest of the troupe.

Watching her dad mouth the lyrics, enjoying himself, offers Janet a moment of joy. Especially as she presumes that he’s thinking about her mum. How she’d always be jiving around the house. Putting out her hand for him to join her. ‘Don’t be bloody daft, Eileen,’ he’d say in mock irritation, unable to disguise his pride, looking at her as if she was Rita Hayworth. ‘You had the last dance you’ll ever get out of me.’

They met at the Ritz in town. Dancing in the Dark night. When the lights would go out for the last dance, enabling couples to kiss. She was only twenty, and he was approaching thirty. The story goes that as they took to the floor for the first time, he said,‘Not bad for a wooden leg, eh?’

When she died, Janet didn’t think he’d survive the loss. But that was misguided. Survival is easy. It’s the living that’s hard. The song ends, followed by applause. Thinking it’s all over, she steps inside the room, but Barbara Cartland declares they’re about to start their final number.

Closing her eyes, Janet’s shoulders sink with frustration. Time is trickling away, and she needs to talk to him. Today more than ever.

The intro is immediately recognizable. ‘We’ll Meet Again’. All the old dears come to life. Her dad’s smile widens. Most of them would have only been kids during the war, but somehow Vera Lynn induces instinctual camaraderie.

As her dad closes his eyes, belts out the song, Janet joins in quietly from the shadows. She loves a good singalong. Though Colin insists she sounds like an injured frog. Never knowing what that meant until next door’s tabby caught one in their garden and the screaming . . . anyway, she doesn’t sing much around the house.

It’s funny how she knows the lyrics so well, but it’s the first time she really hears them. That’s what she does. Smiles through it all. And it’s exhausting.

Helen passes with a tray of crumbs, presumably having once contained cakes or scones or some other delight. ‘You all right, Janet,love?’

When she looks up, her vision is blurred, and she realizes she’s crying. ‘Oh yes, just . . . it’s nice, isn’t it? The singing.’ Dropping her head again, she ensures her hair covers her face while rooting in her bag for a tissue. Helen momentarily places a hand on her shoulder, then continues towards the kitchen.

In her dad’s room, she shadows him as he inches towards his chair. Banning her from helping, he’s regressed to a stubborn toddler who can manage by himself. Breathing through her impatience, she glances towards the large wall clock displaying the hastening time.

‘You enjoyed that, didn’t you, Dad?’

‘Enjoyed what?’

‘The singing.’

‘I didn’t like it, no.’ He feels for the well-worn arm, while she presses the button, raising the seat to meet his bony bottom. An act they’ve perfected.

‘Yes, you did, Dad, I watched you,’ she says, lowering the chair with him now ensconced. ‘Is that porridge on your jumper?’ Once he’s reached a sitting position, she licks her finger and rubs at the crust.

‘You can’t sing, you know, Janet. Your mum and I were too nice to tell you when you’d put on your plays for us, but no . . .you’re dreadful.’

She walks over to the window and pulls back the curtains to invite more sun, annoyed that it hasn’t been done already, that the carers are so slapdash. ‘I need to Glowhite these nets, Dad. They look the colour of my bras . . . and we need to brighten it up in here. I can’t bear it.’ He’d always talked about retiring by the sea. To his hometown of Pwllheli. Enjoying the views of the ocean and Snowdonia. And he’s ended up with a window overlooking a car park.

She sits on the chair opposite his, clutching both her handbag and the paper one from the shop.

‘Your mum said she’ll do the net curtains when she gets back.’ He turns on the TV, the Hello Britain theme tune blasting at a million decibels. Gently, she removes the remote from his hand, reduces the volume and activates the subtitles, catching the time on her watch. It’s getting late. She wants to talk to him. Needs to talk to him.

‘It’s Claire’s birthday, Dad. Her eighteenth. I bought this . . . look.’ She peels away the sticker seal and delves into the tissue to remove the dog. ‘It’s cute, isn’t it? Always mad about animals, Claire. From being a littlun.’

He takes it from her. She’s uncomfortable about him touching it, though she smiles and allows him to continue. He presses the fur against his dirty jumper, strokes its head. ‘I have a dog. Bertie. Bertie . . . Bertie,’ he calls out.

‘He’s gone for a walk.’

‘Ah yes, your mum took him out. She should be back by now . . . Do you think she’s OK?’

‘She’s fine, Dad.’

He grins at the toy and kisses it gently on the snout.

‘Sorry, I . . . I don’t want it to get dirty.’ She slides it from his fingers. ‘Sorry, I’ll get you one too if I can.’ She places it back into the bag, reseals it. ‘You remember Claire, don’t you, Dad?’

‘Claire? Of course I do.’

Relief rides through her on a wave of comfort.

‘Let’s talk about her,’ she says.

If I Let You Go is published in paperback by Pan on 14 September 2023

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