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Extract: The Silence Project

05 Feb 2023 6 minute read
The Silence Project by Carole Hailey

**CONTENT WARNING: This extract includes a description of suicide**

Cardiff-based novelist Carole Hailey’s newly published, debut novel has just been chosen as a Radio 2 Book Club choice and is already generating enormous excitement. We are delighted to be able to publish this extract.

Carole Hailey

In a fire, you die long before your bones ignite. Skin burns at 40°C. Above 760°C, skin turns to ash. Bones are less flammable because they need to be exposed to 1200°C to burn, although long before that the layer of fat which you carry under your skin will boil. Your internal organs will explode. You will be dead even though your skeleton remains intact.

On 31 October 2011 I watched my mother burn to death. It wasn’t an accident. She built her own pyre. She doused it in petrol. She climbed up and stood with her legs apart, bracing herself. I didn’t know what she was planning. I assumed it was another publicity stunt, which of course it was, just not in the way that I was expecting.

Mum was wearing a green dress with diagonally cut pockets. From one of them she produced a lighter and briefly held it above her head as if it was a trophy. Even then, I was convinced she would walk away. I’m sure the press thought so, too. In those later years, Rachel of Chalkham’s protests always attracted television crews, but nobody could have anticipated that they were about to witness the scoop of their careers.

I am surprised by the details I remember from that day. I can feel the pressure of Tom’s arm around my shoulders as we watched my mother. I remember the smell of his fingers as he stroked my cheek. I remember the sky was cloudless, which was unusual for an October day in Hampshire. I remember my mother didn’t look at me. Not once. Not as she crouched down, wobbling slightly. Not as she ran her thumb along the top of the lighter, cupping her left hand around it. Not even as she lowered the flame towards the petrol-soaked branches.

What I remember most clearly about that day is that my mother died as she had lived: in complete silence. The pain of melting skin and boiling fat must have been excruciating in the seconds before her nerves stopped carrying signals to her brain, yet my mother did not cry out. Rachel of Chalkham. Silent to the end.

It has been eleven years since my mother’s death, but the questions never stop. Everyone remains just as fascinated by her as they have always been and believes this gives them the right to ask me anything. What was Rachel of Chalkham like when she was plain Rachel Morris? How do I feel having the architect of the Event as my mother? Am I proud of her? Ashamed of her? Do I feel any guilt about what she did? Question after question, year after year, until I have had to accept that the questions aren’t going away. On the contrary, my silence seems to fuel their obsession ( just like her silence fuelled everything that happened).

Rachel’s story has been told multiple times; at least that is what the authors of all the biographies on my desk would have you believe. They are unofficial because I have never let anyone have access to my mother’s notebooks, and my father and I have never given interviews, except in those terrible hours immediately after the Event. Every so-called biography of Rachel is cobbled together from the internet and all of them contain information ranging from the downright false to the wildest conspiracy theories.

For years, I did my best to ignore the existence of the notebooks. They were in a box which was first stored in an attic, then beneath the stairs, then under a bed. I didn’t want to read them, and I didn’t want anyone else to read them either. Sometimes, I would even hope that I might be burgled and the box stolen. Wasn’t there already enough obsession with my mother without publishing her notebooks? But I’ve come to realise that the demand will not go away. The Community has made sure of that.

It has been widely reported that my father disagrees with my decision to allow publication of my mother’s notebooks and I want to take this opportunity to state that this is not correct. The decision was a difficult one, and we both have mixed feelings about it. My father is apprehensive about the consequences of making my mother’s words public; however, on balance, we both believe that publication is essential in light of what the Community has become.

The day Rachel stopped speaking she turned away from our family and towards the publicity that she and her Community courted. The Community may be my mother’s legacy, but the twenty-nine notebooks chart her life between 24 May 2003 when she left our home and 31 October 2011 when she lit those branches and changed the world for ever. The notebooks are legally mine, but in every other way I accept that they belong to everyone. They belong to all those people whose lives have been shaped by what Rachel did and all the actions taken in her name since her death.

Countless people who never met her claim to understand who Rachel was. She was a demon. A heroine. The most important person to have lived. A saint. A devil.

Rachel was none of these. She was neither saint nor demon. No matter what she did, Rachel was very human. She was deeply flawed and deeply courageous. She was a bad person and a good one. She was also my mother.

Carole Hailey’s novel ‘The Silence Project’ is published by Atlantic Books and is available from all good bookshops.

Carole will be appearing at events in Penarth, organised by Griffin Books on the 16th Feb and Waterstones, Cardiff on the 22nd February.

You can also read her article ‘On Being a Writer in Wales’ here.

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